The quality of not thinking

When people do not stop and think through certain issues, it does not matter whether those people are geniuses or morons, because the quality of the thinking that they would have done is a moot point.

—Thomas Sowell, Basic Economics (4th ed.)

McStudge’s guide to capitalism

Reposted from a comment on The Passive Voice, in response to a discussion on Amazon, and why consumers hate and fear it so. (This remark may possibly have been made with the tongue somewhere in the vicinity of the cheek.)

Well, that’s capitalism for you.

You see, my poppets, under the capitalist system, the Wicked Capitalist (who always wears a top hat and a waxed moustache, like Snidely Whiplash; that is how you recognize him) gets his money by forcibly abducting Sweet Cathy Consumer and tying her to the railroad tracks in front of an onrushing locomotive: on which, for reasons not yet fully understood, is mounted a furiously whirling buzz saw. Nobody ever buys anything voluntarily, you see; it is all done by force and fraud. And of course Snidely twirls his moustache whilst he is doing it. That bit is Very Important.

All genuinely cultured and caring persons, including (it goes without saying) Great Authors and the Great Publishers who graciously permit them to live on leftover dog kibble, and occasionally on even richer and more Lucullan repasts than this, believe that there is a far more enlightened system, under which Sweet Cathy Consumer gives all her money to a Wise and Benevolent Bureaucracy, which then spends it for her on the Things That Really Matter (such as dog kibble for the right kind of Great Authors, and Mercedes-Benzes for the bureaucrats). Of course, if Sweet Cathy is insufficiently public-spirited (as, for some perverse reason, she almost always is), the Wise and Benevolent Bureaucrats will themselves have to resort to the locomotive and buzz saw to get her money out of her. But this is totally different from when a Wicked Capitalist does it, because, you see, it is All For Her Own Good and the Good of Society. Also the Benevolent Bureaucrats are clean-shaven, so they do not twirl their moustaches.

Just remember, nobody ever bought anything voluntarily from Evil Amazon. Then, my poppets, you will be properly educated so as to swallow the rest of the stories we require you to believe.

   H. Smiggy McStudge


A comment I left at The Passive Voice, reproduced here for possible discussion:

Look at any dysfunctional corporate culture (and I use ‘corporate’ in the broadest sense; this applies to governments, churches, and armies as well), and there are at least two things you are certain to find:

1. Systems that are inadequate because they are autonomous. Nobody can design a set of rules to cover every possible contingency, and if they ever did, someone would immediately come up with a new contingency that the rules did not cover. (Call it Gödel’s Law of Bureaucracy.) But when the system and its rules are allowed to make the decisions, when people say to sensible proposals, ‘We can’t do that because it’s against policy,’ the whole organization becomes frozen in the way of doing things that was enshrined at the time the rules were written.

2. Systems that are autonomous because people are lazy and afraid. Rocking the boat requires effort and courage; doing anything new requires effort, courage, and creativity. It’s easier and safer to just show up, put in your hours, do your job as defined by the existing rules, and collect your pay. So people hire out bits of themselves – their employable skills, narrowly defined – and leave the rest at home: not only their courage and creativity, but their enthusiasm, their best efforts, and in too many cases, their conscience as well. How many people do things at work that they know are stupid, because they are going along to get along? How many people acquiesce in doing things that are downright wrong? If they brought their whole selves to their work, they would not do these things; but they leave behind whatever part of themselves might conflict with the system and the rules, and — we see the results.

‘When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.’ —Charles Williams.

The myth of autarky

Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life.

—George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’

Fantasyland, as the late Diana Wynne Jones showed in her seminal Tough Guide thereto, is an irksome place. It irks me, at any rate, because it is not a world but something more like a film-set; it does not have the working parts to do what it pretends to do. Tolkien was confessedly ignorant of economics, but he at least tried to make sure (for instance) that the Shire was in a naturally fertile clime that could support a large population of hungry hobbits, and that the ‘townlands’ surrounding Minas Tirith were adequate to feed the people of the city. He even threw in a sentence or two about slave plantations in the South of Mordor, around the Sea of Núrnen, to show how Sauron supplied his horde of evil minions. Many fantasy writers don’t even take that much trouble.

Whenever I read about a Glorious Imperial City of Gold™ on top of a high mountain, or a Decadent Palace of the Evil Sultan™ in the midst of a trackless desert, I always find myself asking: ‘But what do these people live on?’ A writer could, by mere fiat, say that they get their food by magic; yet the magic is never there. Not only do we not see it onstage, we also do not see any of the probable consequences and (as fools and mortals say) ‘side-effects’ that such magic would have on all other areas of life. One day I shall probably write a snarky and contumacious tract on the economics of Faërie, but for now I want to leave most of that subject on one side and tackle one particular issue. That is the attitude of almost religious awe that fantasy writers have for societies based on subsistence agriculture — an attitude that, in my wide experience, only occurs among people who know nothing about agriculture and precious little about subsistence.

This attitude is not only prevalent in fantasy; some people hold it in real life as well. Among these we must number the ‘locavores’, the well-meaning fools who think it somehow unethical to eat any food grown more than, say, 100 miles away. This is nonense, and easily proved to be nonsense; but a hundred proofs are not worth as much as one plausible story. That is why it is so dangerous that so many of our storytellers don’t know the facts of the case and do not seem interested in learning them. People, consciously or not, are forming their views of life from stories that are not based on life at all.

I hope you will bear with me, then, while I tell a little story, and if it is not a hundred-proof story, I hope it may be strong enough drink for the occasion. And if it is drink that we want, I had better put wine in the story, since wine is the drink of the storyteller, except in those far Northern climes where the skalds sing in mead-halls. I have simplified the details, but everything I say about the simple diet of Eucharia applies to our own more complex society as well. [Read more…]

A reply to S. Dorman

In my recent essai, ‘Why are dragons afraid of Americans?’, I made one or two passing references to Utopian Socialism. S. Dorman (cinda-cite on LiveJournal) writes the following comment:

it feels ungrateful of me not to mention…for many the misery–gone! but it’s back now. so unions?–flawed but needed again. there is no utopia, but people tend to work toward it personally, for familial reasons–when they are working.

I don’t normally write about explicitly political matters here, but when I attempted to reply on LiveJournal, I found that I had run over the limit for comments; so I beg indulgence of you all, and ask those not interested not to click on the link below, and not to bother with the remainder of this post. [Read more…]

Adam Smith: Men vs. chessmen

The man of system . . . seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board; he does not consider that the pieces put upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

—Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

In for a penny, in for a pound

It comes to my notice that silver bullion, after trading a bit lower for several months, has just rallied above $32 per troy ounce (London fix), or £20 per ounce in sterling. This figure has a sad historical significance.

In the Middle Ages, the values of English coins were legally defined in terms of Tower weight. This system of measures was nearly identical to the modern troy units: the ounce and pound were the same, but the size of the grain, and the number of grains per ounce, were different. (Tower grains are sometimes called ‘wheat grains’, and troy grains are called ‘barleycorns’, to reflect this difference.) The same units, with one annoying variation, were used to denominate and to weigh silver coin.

The pound sterling — £1 — originally equalled one Tower pound of sterling silver; it was divided into 20 shillings of 12 pence each, making 240 pence to the pound. Just to make things difficult (for what would English measures be, if they were rational?) the Tower pound was divided into 12 ounces of 20 pennyweight each. Therefore one penny contained exactly one pennyweight of sterling silver, but a shilling was only three-fifths of an ounce.

Let us ignore the difference between sterling silver (92.5% silver by weight) and fine silver (99.9%). Pure silver is too soft to use in coinage or much of anything else. Alloying it with 7.5% copper made it hard enough to withstand daily wear and tear, and also provided a small profit to pay the expenses of minting. We can consider a mediaeval English penny, including the cost of coining it, of effectively equal value to a pennyweight of pure silver. It is, as they say (in this case literally), ‘close enough for government’.

Today, as I have said, the price of silver crossed above £20 per troy ounce, or £1 per pennyweight. A so-called pound sterling today buys you as much silver as went into a single penny in the Middle Ages. It then follows that the pound has been devalued by a factor of 240 to 1, compared with its original valuation. And it also follows — and this is the sad historical significance — that the old saying, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ has become a tautology — for a pound and a penny are now the same. (I do not speak of the decimalized ‘New Penny’, which is not a coin but a joke.) ‘Dollars to doughnuts’ is also beginning to express an equality, rather than long odds in the dollar’s favour. We shall have to invent some new idioms. And for that we can thank the rascally debasers of silver coin, and the mad printers of fiat money — that is, all our politicians for the last 500 years. I hope they would at least say, ‘You’re welcome.’

Russ Nelson on economics

The difference between an economist and a politician is that the economist is sure that he doesn’t understand economics, and a politician is sure that he does.

Russ Nelson