Quotulatiousness

February 6, 2016

The most likely explanation for politicians doing what they do

Filed under: Economics, Government, Politics — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

In his weekly column for USA Today, Glenn Reynolds distills down the essence of public choice theory:

The explanation for why politicians don’t do all sorts of reasonable-sounding things usually boils down to “insufficient opportunities for graft.” And, conversely, the reason why politicians choose to do many of the things that they do is … you guessed it, sufficient opportunities for graft.

That graft may come in the form of bags of cash, or shady real-estate deals, or “consulting” gigs for a brother-in-law or child, but it may also come in broader terms of political support and even in opportunities for politicians to feel superior or to humiliate their enemies. What all these things have in common, though, is that they’re not about making life better for voters. They’re about making life better for politicians.

This doesn’t sound much like the traditional view of politics, as embodied in, say, the Schoolhouse RockI’m Just A Bill” video. But it’s a view of politics that explains an awful lot.

And there’s a whole field of economics based on this view, called “Public Choice Economics.” Nobel prize winning economist James Buchanan referred to public choice economics as “politics without romance.” Instead of being selfless civil servants motivated solely by the public good, public choice economics assumes that politicians are, like other human beings, heavily influenced by self-interest.

Public choice economists say that groups don’t make decisions, individuals do. And individuals mostly do what they think will be best for them, not for the “public.” Public choices, thus, are like private choices. You pick a car because it’s the best car for you that you can afford. Politicians pick policies because they’re the best policies — for them — that they can achieve.

How do they get away with this? First, most voters are “rationally ignorant.” That is, they realize that their vote isn’t likely to make much of a difference, so it’s not rational to learn all the ins and outs of policy or of what political leaders are doing. Second, the entire system is designed — by politicians, naturally — to make it harder for voters to keep track of what politicians are doing. The people who have a bigger stake in things — the real estate developers or construction unions — have an incentive to keep track of things, and to influence them, that ordinary voters don’t.

Can we eliminate this problem? Nope. But we can make it worse, or better. The more the government does and the more decisions that are relegated to bureaucrats, “guidance” and other forms of decisionmaking that are far from the public eye, the more freedom politicians have to pursue their own interest at the expense of the public — all while, of course, claiming to do just the opposite. Meanwhile, if we do the opposite — give the government less power and demand more accountability — politicians can get away with less. But they’ll always get away with as much as they can.

QotD: The addict’s political worldview

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Writing about those rioters who in the summer of 2011 smashed, burned and looted shops across Britain, [Russell] Brand writes that their actions were no worse than the consumerism which he describes as having been “imposed” upon them. And this, I cannot help thinking, is an especially revealing phrase — entirely at one with a popular world view. That view sees “us” as poor victims of forces and temptations which are not only pushed upon us, but to which, when they are pushed upon us long enough, we will inevitably and necessarily succumb. If you are in a “consumerist” society long enough how could you be expected to just not buy crap you can’t afford when you don’t need it? No — the answer must be that of course you will succumb. And from there any bad behaviour — even looting and burning — will be excused because it will be someone else’s fault.

This is the world view of an addict. And the answer to all our society’s problems of the addict Brand is one answer which some addicts seek for their addiction — which is that everyone is to be blamed for their failings except themselves. Grand conspiracy theories and establishment plots offer great promise and comfort to such people. They suggest that when we fail or when we fall we do so never because of any conceivable failing or inability of our own, but because some bastard — any bastard — made us do it, has been planning to do it and perhaps always intended to do so. Of course the one thing missing in all this — the one thing that doesn’t appear in either of these books or in any of their conspiratorial and confused demagogic world view — is the only thing which has saved anyone in the past and the only thing which will save anybody in the future: not perfect societies, perfectly engineered economies and perfectly equal, flattened-out collective-based societies, but human agency alone.

Douglas Murray, “Don’t Listen to Britain’s Designer Demagogues”, Standpoint, 2015-01.

February 3, 2016

QotD: The wealthy and their status-signalling spending habits

Filed under: Economics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

If you want an illuminating example of the fact that there is more to the way that prices work in a free market than can be captured by the pragmatic calculations of cold-eyed util-traders, consider the luxury-goods market and its enthusiastic following among people who do not themselves consume many or any of those goods. One of the oddball aspects of rich societies such as ours is the fact that when people pile up a little bit more disposable income than they might have expected to, they develop a taste for measurably inferior goods and outdated technologies: If you have money that is a little bit obscene, you might get into classic cars, i.e., an outmoded form of transportation; if your money is super-dirty obscene, you get into horses, an even more outmoded form of transportation.

Or consider the case of fine watches: Though he — and it’s a “he” in the overwhelming majority of cases — may not be eager to admit it, a serious watch enthusiast knows that even the finest mechanical timepiece put together by magical elves on the shores of Lake Geneva is, as a timekeeping instrument, dramatically inferior to the cheapest quartz-movement watch coming out of a Chinese sweatshop and available for a few bucks at, among other outlets, Wal-Mart. (To say nothing of the cheap digital watches sold under blister-pack at downscale retailers everywhere, or the clock on your cellphone.) But even as our celebrity social-justice warriors covet those high-margin items — and get paid vast sums of money to help sell them, too — they denounce the people who deal in less rarefied goods sold at much lower profit margins.

If economic “exploitation” means making “obscene profits” — an empty cliché if ever there were one — then Wal-Mart and the oil companies ought to be the good guys; not only do they have relatively low profit margins, but they also support millions of union workers and retirees through stock profits and the payment of dividends into pension funds. By way of comparison, consider that Hermès, the luxury-goods label that is a favorite of well-heeled social-justice warriors of all sorts, makes a profit margin that is typically seven or eight times what Wal-Mart makes, even though, as rapper Lloyd Banks discovered, its $1,300 sneakers may not always be up to the task. If Wal-Mart is the epitome of evil for selling you a Timex at a 3 percent markup, then shouldn’t Rolex be extra-super evil?

Kevin D. Williamson, “Who Boycotts Wal-Mart? Social-justice warriors who are too enlightened to let their poor neighbors pay lower prices”, National Review, 2014-11-30.

January 30, 2016

QotD: Government funding for the arts

Filed under: Economics, Government, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

People who oppose Soviet-style collective farms, government subsidies to agriculture, or public ownership of grocery stores because they want the provision of food to be a private matter in the marketplace are generally not dismissed as uncivilized or uncaring. Hardly anyone would claim that one who holds such views is opposed to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But people who oppose government funding of the arts are frequently accused of being heartless or uncultured. What follows is an adaptation of a letter I once wrote to a noted arts administrator who accused me of those very things. It articulates the case that art, like food, should rely on private, voluntary provision.
Thanks for sending me your thoughts lamenting cuts in arts funding by state and federal governments. In my mind, however, the fact that the arts are wildly buffeted by political winds is actually a powerful case against government funding. I’ve always believed that art is too important to depend on politics, too critical to be undermined by politicization. Furthermore, expecting government to pay the bill for it is a cop-out, a serious erosion of personal responsibility and respect for private property.

Those “studies” that purport to show X return on Y amount of government investment in the arts are generally a laughingstock among economists. The numbers are often cooked and are almost never put alongside competing uses of public money for comparison. Moreover, a purely dollars-and-cents return — even if accurate — is a small part of the total picture.

The fact is, virtually every interest group with a claim on the treasury argues that spending for its projects produces some magical “multiplier” effect. Routing other people’s money through the government alchemy machine is supposed to somehow magnify national wealth and income, while leaving it in the pockets of those who earned it is somehow a drag. Assuming for a moment that such preposterous claims are correct, wouldn’t it make sense from a purely material perspective to calculate the “average” multiplier and then route all income through the government? Don’t they do something like that in Cuba and North Korea? What happened to the multiplier in those places? It looks to me that somewhere along the way it became a divisor.

Lawrence W. Reed, “#34 – ‘Government Must Subsidize the Arts'”, The Freeman, 2014-12-05.

January 29, 2016

QotD: Summing up the Wal-Mart fortunes

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the obvious points being made, as is now traditional, concerning the great wealth of the Walton family, those inheritors of Sam Walton’s cash and stock. It’s not actually all that difficult to get people riled up about a store paying an average of $8.80 an hour (for non-supervisory staff) when the people who own the company have some $150 billion in wealth. However, that’s not actually the correct response. And insisting upon a change in public policy so that some of that wealth is paid to those workers, or that it should be taxed away in some manner, would be very much the wrong answer. For, you see, those Waltons actually deserve that $150 billion: we should be absolutely overjoyed that they have it in fact.

[…]

So, we get $250 billion a year and the Waltons, the inheritors of the man who started it all off, get $150 billion. We get more than they do: that sounds like a pretty good deal really. Except that is of course to grossly overstate what they are getting. That mountain of cash they’ve got is not an annual figure: that’s the capital value, their wealth, not the income from one year. Our benefit is what we save in one year. That value of WalMart stock is the net present value of everything that WalMart is expected to make in profits from now until eternity (although obviously we use a discount rate so that something 40 years out is given less importance than something next year). So we need to adjust our $250 billion figure in the same manner to make the two numbers comparable.

The easiest way to do that is simply to ignore discounting and to also impose a 20 year time limit. Neither assumption is correct but it’ll give us a nice rough and ready guess at the capital value to us all of those annual savings. And the answer if we do it that way is that the current value of WalMart’s existence to the rest of us is $5 trillion. That’s the number that is comparable to that $150 billion family fortune. They’re both the net present values of future income streams which does indeed make them comparable even if that value to us is calculated in a much simpler manner than the way the stock market values WalMart.

At which point it looks like we’re getting a massive bargain. We get $5 trillion and the people who made it happen only get $150 billion? Why aren’t we cheering in the streets over this rather than demonstrating in them about how awful it all is?

Tim Worstall, “The Waltons Deserve Their Hundred Fifty Billion; The Rest Of Us Gain $5 Trillion From Walmart’s Existence”, Forbes, 2014-11-29.

January 24, 2016

QotD: There are no Veblen goods at Wal-Mart

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

People buy Rolex watches for reasons other than their timekeeping excellence, just as people buy Ferraris and horses for reasons other than going to the store to pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread. Economists talk about “Veblen goods,” which are more valued because of their high prices rather than in spite of them, coveted not for their conventional utility but for their exclusivity. Owning a Rolls-Royce isn’t about the car — it’s about you. Which is why you see magazines such as The Robb Report — one of those glossies full of “bland advertisements for being wealthy,” as the novelist William Gibson put it — for sale in places such as Wal-Mart, where the typical customer is not actually in the market for a yacht or Kiton overcoat. If you’ve ever seen the heartbreaking sight of a young woman stopping a Wal-Mart checker three-fourths of the way through ringing up her purchases — because she does not have enough money to pay for what’s left in her cart — then you can be pretty sure that what’s going in her sack is more or less the opposite of Veblen goods.

Ironically, the anti-Wal-Mart crusaders want to make life worse for people who are literally counting pennies as they shop for necessities. Study after study has shown that Wal-Mart has meaningfully reduced prices: 3.1 percent overall, by one estimate — with a whopping 9.1 percent cut to the price of groceries. That comes to about $2,300 a year per household, savings that accrue overwhelmingly to people of modest incomes, not to celebrity activists and Ivy League social-justice crusaders.

Ultimately, these campaigns are exercises in tribal affiliation. The Rolex tribe, and those who aspire to be aligned with it, signal their status by sneering at the Timex tribe — or by condescending to it as they purport to act on its behalf, as though poor people were too stupid to know where to find the best deal on a can of beans. Or call it the Trader Joe’s tribe vs. the Wal-Mart tribe, the Prius tribe vs. the F-150 tribe.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Who Boycotts Wal-Mart? Social-justice warriors who are too enlightened to let their poor neighbors pay lower prices”, National Review, 2014-11-30.

January 22, 2016

QotD: Non-monetary incentives

Filed under: Business, Economics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… the free market flourishes when everyone, most of the time, refrains from taking advantage of each other’s vulnerability.

Many people, especially college professors, are surprised by how much honesty, reciprocity, and trust exist among those who engage in business. The biggest, most successful corporations in the world, such as Google and Apple, are renown[ed] for how much they trust their employees and how much independence they give them. (There are much smaller companies that do so, too.) A very successful entrepreneur I know told me recently that the key to running a large, profitable business is to treat your employees, suppliers, and customers with respect and like responsible people. It’s just not possible always to be looking over someone’s shoulder.

When you trust people to reciprocate that trust, you’re taking a chance that they may take advantage of you. Such pessimism, however, means your relationships with other people — your suppliers, employees, and customers — will never have a chance to flourish. That’s why it goes against your long-term interests to hunker down and never leave yourself vulnerable to opportunistic behavior.

The incentive to treat people right by following norms of honesty and fair play is non-monetary, but it can make your business prosper. It seems that the best business owners aren’t driven primarily by profit-seeking, although they probably wouldn’t do what they’re doing without earning that profit. No, the incentives they follow often have more to do with knowing that they’ve done things the right way and so deserve all that they’ve earned. (Which is why they can get very upset when a politician says, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”) That knowledge is something all the money in the world can’t buy.

Sandy Ikeda, “Incentives 101: Why good intentions fail and passing a law still won’t get it done”, The Freeman, 2014-11-13.

January 19, 2016

Non-conspicuous consumption of quality

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Don Boudreaux on the amazingly thin line that now separates many of the quality consumption goods of the ultra-rich from the nearly as high quality goods of ordinary North American consumers:

This list includes also non-prescription pain relievers, most other first-aid medicines and devices such as Band-Aids, and personal-hygiene products such as toothpaste, dental floss, and toilet paper. (I once saw a billionaire take two Bayer aspirin – the identical pain reliever that I use.) This list includes also gasoline and diesel. Probably also contact lenses.

A slightly different list is one drawn up in response to this question: When can median-income consumers afford products that, while not as high-quality as those versions that are bought by the super-rich, are nevertheless virtually indistinguishable – because they are quite close in quality – to the naked eye from those versions bought by the super-rich? On this list would be most clothing. For example, an ordinary American man can today afford a suit that, while it’s neither tailor-made nor of a fabric as fine as are suits that I suspect are worn by most billionaires, is nevertheless close enough in fit and fabric quality to be indistinguishable by the naked eye from expensive suits worn by billionaires. (I suspect that the same it true for women’s clothing, but I’m less expert on that topic.)

Ditto for shoes, underwear, haircuts, corrective eye-wear, collars for dogs and cats, pet food, household bath towels and ‘linens,’ tableware and cutlery, automobile tires, hand tools, most household furniture, and wristwatches. (You’d have to get physically very close to someone wearing a Patek Philippe – and you’d have to know what a Patek Philippe is – in order to determine that that person’s wristwatch is one that you, an ordinary American, can’t afford. And you could stare at that Patek Philippe for months without detecting any superiority that it might have over your quartz-powered Timex at keeping time.) Coffee. Tea. Beer. Wine. (There is available today a large selection of very good wines at affordable prices. These wines almost never rise to the quality of Chateau Petrus, d’yquem, or the best Montrachets, but the differences are often quite small and barely distinguishable save by true connoisseurs.)

I’ve made this point about the wines before (I’ve tasted each of those wines, but don’t believe the price difference justifies buying them over nearly-as-good equivalents that lack the prestige factor), but Don is talking a much wider range of goods and services where there’s barely any real quality difference between “ordinary” and what the very richest among us can obtain.

January 16, 2016

Introduction to Price Discrimination

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 7 Apr 2015

Price discrimination is common: movie theaters charge seniors less money than they charge young adults. Computer software companies sell to businesses and students at different rates, often offering discounts to students. These price differences reflect variations in the elasticity of demand for these different groups. When demand curves are different, it is more profitable to set different prices in different markets. We’ll also cover arbitrage and take a look at some examples of price discrimination in the airline industry

January 15, 2016

The Costs and Benefits of Monopoly

Filed under: Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we explore the costs and benefits of monopolies. We cover how monopolies and patents breed deadweight loss, market inefficiencies, and corruption. But we also look at what would happen if we eliminated patents for industries with high R&D costs, such as the pharmaceutical industry. Eliminating patents in this case may result in less innovation and, specifically, fewer new drugs being created. We also consider some of the tradeoffs of patents and look at alternative ways to reward research and development such as patent buyouts and using prizes to foster innovation.

January 8, 2016

QotD: Thinking like an economist – incentives matter

Filed under: Economics, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

A lot of what constitutes “thinking like an economist” involves asking the right questions. Those questions typically involve looking for the incentives people face in a particular situation.

For instance, one response to inflation — a sustained increase in an economy’s general price level — is to think that making it illegal to charge more a fixed amount for any given product would solve the problem. That is, you see an outcome you don’t like, and without understanding why it is the way it is, you try to impose what you think is a better outcome. In the case of price ceilings, the consequence is chronic shortages.

Similarly, a common response to rising residential rents in some cities is to declare, “the rent is too damn high!” (In fact, there’s a political party in New York that actually calls itself The Rent Is Too Damn High Party.) This declaration is usually followed by a demand for regulations that would make it illegal to charge more rent than someone in authority thinks is necessary.

On the other hand, if an economist determines that rents are indeed too high in a district, she will then ask how they got that way. (The all-too-common answer — greed — doesn’t go far, because self-interest is no more a cause of high rents than air is a cause of fire.) In many cases, it’s because the supply of residential property has been artificially restricted — perhaps by building codes, minimum parking requirements, and landlords “warehousing” livable buildings in order to escape existing rent-control policies. Armed with some basic economic principles, she would try to figure out what choices people made that caused rents to rise and why they made those choices.

This is another way of saying that incentives matter.

Sandy Ikeda, “Incentives 101: Why good intentions fail and passing a law still won’t get it done”, The Freeman, 2014-11-13.

January 2, 2016

QotD: Where did all those helicopter parents come from?

Filed under: Economics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the things you might notice about novels from the 1950s and 1960s is how many of the affluent people in them are engaged in trades like selling insurance, manufacturing some dull but necessary article, or running a car lot. These people are rarely the heroes of the novel (even then, writers found it much easier to imagine themselves as doctors or lawyers or, for that matter, as rough-hewn working-class types than as regional office-supplies distributors). But it is telling that those novelists took for granted that the writers and professionals would be intermingled with the makers and sellers, something that comes across as distinctly odd to the residents of the modern coastal corridors. Few of my friends even run a budget outside their own households, much less a profit and loss statement, and very few indeed have ever gone on a sales call.

The change in our novels reflects a change in our economy: the decline of manufacturing; the rise in the number and remuneration of professional jobs; the increase in the size of service firms; and the resulting shift toward salaried positions rather than partnerships or sole proprietorships. As a result of these changes, the upper middle class has found itself in a curious bind. In some ways, its economic fortunes are better than ever: They make more money, more reliably, than they used to. But because they are employees rather than business owners, they have a very limited ability to pass their good fortune onto their children.

A parent who had built a good insurance business in 1950 had a valuable asset that he could hand over to his sons. As long as they put a full day in at the office, they too would be able to take home a good living. That calculation applies across a broad range of manufacturing, retail and service businesses that used to form the economic bulwark of the prosperous middle class.

An MBA, however, is not heritable. Neither is a law degree, a medical degree, or any of the other educational credentials that form the barriers to entry into today’s upper middle class. Those have to be earned by the child, from strangers — and with inequality rising, the competition for those credentials just keeps getting fiercer.

Of course, parents have always worried about their kids making it; small family firms were often riven by worries about Uncle Rob’s ability to settle down to the business. But those were worries about adults, at an age when people really do settle down and become less wild. These days, we’re trying to force that kind of responsibility onto teenagers in their freshman year of high school. Of course, we don’t tell them that they need to earn a living; we tell them they need to get into a good college. But the professionalization of the American economy means that these are effectively the same thing for large swathes of the middle class.

Many teenagers — and I include myself at that age — do not quite have the emotional maturity and long-term planning skills for the high-stakes economic competition they find themselves engaged in. So their parents intervene, managing their lives so intensely that their child doesn’t have much opportunity to, well, act like a child instead of a miniature middle-aged accountant. Since the professional class can’t pass down its credentials, it passes down its ability to navigate the educational system that produces the credentials. The more inequality widens, the more obsessively they will manage their kids through school — and the more economic mobility will stagnate, since parents outside the professional class will have grave difficulty replicating this feat.

Megan McArdle, “What Really Scares Helicopter Parents”, Bloomberg View, 2015-11-30.

December 28, 2015

Alberta’s carbon tax scheme

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Some thoughts from Dave’s Insight on Alberta’s attempt to signal their new-found carbon virtues:

First, let me set the premise. When giving seminars on Tax and/or Profits, I like to ask the question. What is a word for a Company that does not pass all its expenses, including its taxes on to its customers? The answer of course is bankrupt. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Something I always ask when dealing with businesses, non-profits and governments when they are talking about spending is: Where is the money going to come from? Well, where is the money going to come from?

The NDP government may claim that it will only be three or four hundred dollars per person, sorry, per family. But let’s cut to the chase. In almost the same breath they claim it will raise 3-4 billion dollars per year revenue for the provincial government. Possibly double that in a few years. So where is this coming from? At the end of the day, one way or another it has to come from our pockets. While at first you might think that we export so we can export the tax. However, our exports have to compete with all the other available sources of supply, so we cannot export the tax. If we could, we would still be charging over $100 per barrel for oil, but we cannot. That leads me back to: Where is this 3 to 4 Billion dollars per year (more later) to come from?

Well, there is really only one answer; it might be somewhat invisible, but we Albertan’s will have to pay it, and that my friend works out to about $1,000 per person per year, or $4,000 per family of four. And if it brings in $8 billion in a few years, that is over $8,000 per family of four per year. We will pay it in the form of higher transportation costs (both public and private); higher heating costs and to a lesser extend in the cost of everything we buy from groceries to toys. Of course some will pay more and some less, but to be clear, this will hurt the poorest the most.

H/T to Small Dead Animals for the link.

December 25, 2015

Repost – The market failure of Christmas

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Not to encourage miserliness and general miserability at Christmastime, but here’s a realistic take on the deadweight loss of Christmas gift-giving:

In strict economic terms, the most efficient gift is cold, hard cash, but exchanging equivalent sums of money lacks festive spirit and so people take their chance on the high street. This is where the market fails. Buyers have sub-optimal information about your wants and less incentive than you to maximise utility. They cannot always be sure that you do not already have the gift they have in mind, nor do they know if someone else is planning to give you the same thing. And since the joy is in the giving, they might be more interested in eliciting a fleeting sense of amusement when the present is opened than in providing lasting satisfaction. This is where Billy Bass comes in.

But note the reason for this inefficient spending. Resources are misallocated because one person has to decide what someone else wants without having the knowledge or incentive to spend as carefully as they would if buying for themselves. The market failure of Christmas is therefore an example of what happens when other people spend money on our behalf. The best person to buy things for you is you. Your friends and family might make a decent stab at it. Distant bureaucrats who have never met us — and who are spending other people’s money — perhaps can’t.

So when you open your presents next week and find yourself with another garish tie or an awful bottle of perfume, consider this: If your loved ones don’t know you well enough to make spending choices for you, what chance does the government have?

December 24, 2015

QotD: Ayn Rand’s view of the commercialization of Christmas

Filed under: Business, Economics, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Ayn Rand, the poet-theorist of capitalism, had a clever Lucy-like line about the “commercialization of Christmas”: she said it was the best thing about Christmas. “The gift-buying … stimulates an enormous outpouring of ingenuity in the creation of products devoted to a single purpose: to give men pleasure,” she said in 1976. “And the street decorations put up by department stores … provide the city with a spectacular display which only ‘commercial greed’ could afford to give us.”

Rand saw exchange as the ideal model for all human relationships. Sometimes the free-marketeers who have borrowed her style and her ideas are accused of heartlessness for this attitude. Things like holidays and families, they say, should be shielded from the supposedly brutalizing effects of mere trade. What one notices about these arguments is that they smuggle in the notions of exchange and mutual advantage by the back door: everyone benefits selfishly from having havens from selfishness.

What one notices about the people who make these arguments, on the other hand, is that they have an excuse for not being attuned to giving as much as they get in personal relationships or social environments. If you’re exchange- or trade-minded, you will usually be asking yourself whether you’re paying your parents back well for raising you, doing right by your friends, being a good guest when hospitality is extended, observing implied social contracts correctly.

As Rand said, there is a Christmas ideal of “goodwill toward men” that is connected with all these things, and not exclusive to Christianity. The gift-giving part of Christmas, the part where silly mammals rummage in the marketplace trying to please and surprise one another by selecting shiny material objects, has swallowed the part in which we celebrate rescue from hell. It’s a good thing, Charlie Brown. Or a very entertaining sort of racket, at any rate.

Colby Cosh, “Good grief! The commercialism of Christmas isn’t so bad”, Maclean’s, 2014-12-25.

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