John Kay on Mariana Mazzucato’s Capitalism

In the Financial Times John Kay reviews the new book by Mariana Mazzucato. The book is called Mission Economy. A Moonshot Guide to Change Capitalism.

Mazzucato, like she did before, argues for governments “creating market” and “steering” capitalism in one direction or another. Ambitious goals should fuel mission-oriented capitalism, with government at the helm.

Kay has many excellent points but I particularly commend these:

But Apollo was a success because the objective was specific and limited; the basic science was well understood, even if many subsidiary technological developments were needed to make the mission feasible; and the political commitment to the project was sufficiently strong to make budget overruns almost irrelevant. Centrally directed missions have sometimes succeeded when these conditions are in place; Apollo was a response to the Soviet Union’s pioneering launch of a human into space, and the greatest achievement of the USSR was the mobilisation of resources to defeat Nazi Germany. Nixon’s war on cancer, explicitly modelled on the Apollo programme, was a failure because cancer is not a single illness and too little was then — or now — understood about the science of cell mutation. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a vain bid to create an industrial society within five years, proved to be one of the greatest economic and humanitarian disasters in human history. At least 30m people died. The ‘new frontier’ of the late 1960s turned out to be, not space, but IT — characterised by a striking absence of centralised vision and direction Democratic societies have more checks and balances to protect them from visionary leaders driven by missions and enthused by moonshots, but the characteristics which made the Great Leap Forward a catastrophe are nevertheless still evident in attenuated version. With political direction of innovation we regularly encounter grandiosity of ambition and scale; the belief that strength of commitment overcomes practical problems; an absence of honest feedback; the suppression of sceptical comment and marginalisation of sceptical commentators.

Read the whole thing.

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“Shakespeare in Love” and the Humanity of Business.

I’m reading Tom Stoppard’s biography by Hermione Lee. I never thought I could read 900 pages on a subject previously  unimportant to me with such delight. It is a marvelous book. Stoppard’s life is interesting and eventful, it provides a good glimpse into the world of culture and entertainment in the last quarter of the 20th century. Plus, Lee’s analyses of Stoppard’s plays are masterful.

One thing that comes out of Lee’s biography of Stoppard is how independent-minded he was, and how—as opposed to many of his colleagues—he never conceived of himself as a guru, nor a “joiner” of good causes. For example, when some of his fellow playwrights signed a letter to endorse a ban on all performances to segregated audiences, so as to signal their support for the anti-apartheid fight, he chose not to. “His instinct was against ‘isolationism’. He preferred to give his royalties to an anti-apartheid organization” but allow people to see his work.

Lee reports this comment from Stoppard to the campaigner who wanted him to join: “Of course the idea of a segregated audience is abhorrent. So too is the idea of a playwright being imprisoned or otherwise victimized for his work—but did any of your signatories, I wonder, ban productions of their plays in this time last year in Czechoslovakia, or in Poland?”. Stoppard was shocked at the hypocrisy at the invasion of Prague in 1968 and was critical of the simultaneous disdain for Western institutions and total blindness to what was happening behind the Iron curtain so common in those years among intellectuals in the “free world”.

Stoppard is hardly an “unphilosophical” writer. His work is filled with profound philosophical riddles. I never saw a performance of “Jumpers”, perhaps his most philosophical play, but after reading Lee’s book I know that, as soon as theaters come to life again, I’ll search for it. Nor did Stoppard stay away from political engagement. Quite the opposite. But his politics were quite different than many others’. See this intriguing piece by the late Norman Barry. On politics, he had a great line, used more than once in his plays: political opinions are often, and perhaps entirely, a function of temperament.

Moreover, Stoppard was not convinced that good theatre is only an occasion for a writer to show off as a good person – or an erudite one. He maintained that “a theatre’s job is to prevent people from leaving their seats before the entertainment is over”.

My acquaintance with Stoppard’s work is limited (I am not much of a theatre-goer), but the book leaves you thirsty for more. So I ended up watching and re-watching a few films to which he contributed his writing (though he preferred theatre to the cinema). I was struck by Shakespeare in Love, which I watched as a kid and found amusing, and found amusing again today. It is a constant stream of wit and jokes and deals lightly with some very important subjects, beginning with: can theatre, and art more generally, show us the nature of love?

Lee points out that “the most joyous parts of the film are the challenges of getting a play funded, cast, written into rehearsal and onto the stage. It’s a loving, comic tribute to the theatre”. There is an element in the plot that I think can be considered as subtly McCloskeyan. It hasn’t to do with Shakespeare per se, but rather with “the challenges of getting a play funded”. Most of the works of the bard “sing of honorable aristocrats or comical peasants or sweet shepherds” in spite of the fact “his audience included a big promotion of the merchants and apprentices of businesslike London” (McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity).

In “Shakespeare in Love”, impresario Philip Henslowe is in debt to the ruthless moneylender Fennyman. At the beginning of the movie, the latter is hardly a commendable person. But he is struck by the magic of theatre. He profoundly connects with the beauty of Romeo and Juliet, perhaps more than Henslowe, for whom the theatre is routine. Fennyman becomes a committed investor, a friend of actors, and, for a brief and hardly memorable moment, an actor himself. I suppose some people may consider his story a sort of redemption via art. I consider it quite differently. I think it is great for Shakespeare in Love to show us that business people are not blind to art and can actually grasp it better than others. It emphasizes their humanity. On the contrary, the most dislikable character in Shakespeare in Love is Lord Wessex, who marries for money, is both aristocratic and quite dishonorable in his actions, and is totally oblivious to artistic expression. In the movie, Stoppard of course celebrates those who understand art and beauty whatever class they belong to, as if they were members of a fraternity that includes usurers, apprentices, nurses, and Queen Elizabeth herself. A great celebration for art but also an indirect appreciation of the profound humanity of those who work with money and yet can be sensitive souls too.

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Casey Mulligan on Donald Trump versus Jeb Bush

I found so many things memorable in Casey B. Mulligan’s recent book,  You’re Hired: Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President. I noted many of them in my Hoover article 2 months ago but didn’t have space for the following story. Here’s Casey:

The conventional wisdom is that @realdonaldtrump is a window into the “presidential id.” In other words, the person and the Twitter persona are in essence the same. That’s a nice theory, but how well does it fit the evidence? Let’s compare personal interactions between two 2016 Presidential candidates and look at President Trump’s use of nicknames for his staff.

Stanford’s Hoover Institution got involved with the 2016 Presidential campaign. The senior economists there invited me to join a small roundtable to discuss economic policy ideas with the leading candidate at the time. Eagerly introducing me, they asked that I tell the candidate a bit about my findings related to President Obama’s economic policies as reported in my 2012 and 2015 books. Explaining how the Obama Administration, with the intention of helping the poor and unemployed, had created and expanded more than a dozen programs that subsidized them, I said, “When you subsidize something, you get more of it.”

The candidate had little to bring to the conversation, so he mocked me instead. Why would anyone write two books to say something so obvious? The candidate was wrong: the Obama Administration was full of smart people who had yet to realize these “obvious” points. More important, the candidate was bullying the youngest person in the room in front of more senior economists. (In my profession, gatherings like that have real money at stake because someday the senior economists would decide whether and how I could be affiliated with Hoover.)

If all we had were representations of the candidates provided by the major news outlets, we would conclude that this arrogant and egotistical candidate was named Trump. Instead, the July 2015 Hoover roundtable was for John Ellis “Jeb” Bush. It was said by the New York Times, and Jeb Bush himself, that he was suffering a regrettable campaign handicap. In contrast to a purported[ly] mean-spirited Mr. Trump, Mr. Bush was brought up to be polite and kind. Why then was I slinking down in my chair, desperately wishing for the roundtable to end?

I’ve actually read this passage a few times. Part of the reason is that I like to prepare myself if I’m in similar situations. The main reason to be a Monday morning quarterback is to prepare for next Sunday.

I think I would have answered to Jeb’s face the way Casey answered in his book, something like the following:

There are two main reasons to point out what you claim is obvious. First, it’s not obvious to a bunch of smart people in the Obama administration, in the media, and even in academic economics.

Second, I was summarizing it for you. But I put empirical meat on the bones, showing, for example, that at least half, and probably more, of the drop in aggregate hours worked since 2007 would not have occurred, or at worst would have been short-lived, if the safety net had been constant. I’m guessing you didn’t know that, Governor.

I adapted the second last sentence above from his 2012 book, The Redistribution Recession, which I reviewed here. I’m not sure if I really would have used the last sentence. It would have been awfully tempting though.

 

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Jim Crow: More Racist than the Railroads

It is not always understood how governments and the public sector more inclined to bow to popular discriminatory bigotry than private businesses, because of the incentives of their respective actors. As Gary Becker argued, private businesses have to pay the cost of their discrimination. Only if their owners, or perhaps a large number of their customers, have a “taste for discrimination” will they engage in it—but competitors will then rush in, with higher prices if necessary, to satisfy the unfulfilled demand of the victims of discrimination.

Starting around 1880 Jim Crow laws prevented this discrimination in the South. Historian Leon Litwack writes:

Although blacks had previously experienced segregation in various forms, the thoroughness of Jim Crow laws made it strikingly different. What the white South did was to segregate the races by law and enforced custom in practically every conceivable situation in which whites and blacks might come into social contact. (Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998, p. 233)

Jim Crow laws established apartheid, that is, legally enforced segregation. Railroad companies provide an interesting historical example of business incentives. These private companies were often willing, against the political correctness of the times, to sell tickets to both blacks and whites and to not segregate their customers in different cars or compartments. Poor whites and poor blacks purchased second-class tickets, while rich whites and occasionally rich blacks rode in first-class cars. The situation was far from perfect, and violence sometimes erupted, but it was better than the segregationist state-enforced laws that followed.

A historian of populism observes:

More than any other institution, train cars and railroad stations exemplified the modern dilemma of the racial order. They were places where mobile, unsupervised, anonymous travelers met in close quarters. Making the situation more explosive, those whites, including most farmers, who could not afford a first-class ticket met blacks on equal terms. In contrast to the workplace where blacks served white employers, or in the supply store where blacks owed debts to white merchants, in a railroad car blacks and whites paid the same fare for the same right to a seat. Accordingly, whites made the railroads a primary target of the new segregation laws. Reform-minded southerners considered these laws a mark of modern and progressive race relations. (Charles Postel, The Populist Vision, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 178)

The railroad companies resisted proposals for laws mandating segregation between or within cars, as explained by another historian:

The railroad companies did not want to be bothered with policing Southern race relations and considered the division of coaches into black and white compartments an irksome and unnecessary expense. Despite the railroad companies’ resistance, though, growing tensions about race and gender, anger at the railroads, and political maneuvering pushed toward the separation of the races. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, the railroads became the scenes of the first state-wide segregation laws throughout the South. (Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 17-18)

In the South, there was much “taste for discrimination” and thus private discrimination, but as businesses had to pay the cost of their discrimination in terms of lost customers and higher expenses, they were often reluctant to discriminate. It is virtually certain that laissez-faire would have gradually extinguished racism or at least much attenuated it. But the atmosphere was not one of laissez-faire and railroad companies were blamed for putting their profits ahead of the community values—“putting profits before people,” as we would confusedly say today. Ayers writes:

It was clear that white Southerners could not count on the railroads to take matters in hand. Some whites came to blame the railroads for the problem, for it seemed to them that the corporations as usual were putting profits ahead of the welfare of the region. (Ayers, p. 143)

Postel explains that ordinary white people, notably members of the populist Farmers’ Alliance, used the non-discriminatory or not-sufficiently-discriminatory behavior of the railroads as another argument for public control or even nationalization:

“When it comes to making a separate car for negroes to ride in,” explained a young Texas woman and member of the Farmers’ Alliance, the demand for public control of the railroads would ensure that white farmers “would have our own way” in segregating them. Starting in 1980, white farm reformers would have their way as Alliance-backed “farmers’ legislatures” in Georgia, Louisiana, and other states initiated “separate accommodation” laws on the railroads. (Postel, p. 178)

These railroads acted as if they had no social responsibility, as socialists and most intellectuals, as well as confused capitalists, would say today. (See my Econlog post on “The Political Firm.”)

Contrary to private businesses, public institutions had no restraints against discrimination because they did not to have to pay a price in reduced profits. The taxpayer would pay, often unknowingly. Litwack writes:

It was not uncommon to find a sign at the entrance to a public park reading “Negroes and Dogs Not Allowed.” …
With few exceptions, municipal libraries were reserved for the exclusive use of whites. …
While some communities limited access of black motorists to the public streets, others placed restrictions on where they might park. …
In the town and cities, segregated residential patterns were now legally sanctioned, making it difficult for blacks of any class to move into a white block and accelerating the appearance or growth of a distinct district designated as “darktown” or “niggertown.” …
New Orleans went so far as to adopt an ordinance segregating black and white prostitutes. (pp. 234-236)

What is surprising is how many people still want government to impose by force whatever value or emotion is in vogue—whether populism, wokeness, or corporate social responsibility, for example—not thinking that the mob will not always be on their side; and how many people think that economic freedom is bad because it often allows an escape from the tyranny of the majority. I suspect that many of today’s Social Justice Warriors would have been on the side of the mob at the time of Jim Crow.

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Open Borders: Pegg’s Essay Questions

IUPUI‘s Scott Pegg assigned Open Borders this semester, and kindly gave me permission to post the following essay questions on the book.  Enjoy!


Please answer one of the following four questions. Because this is an open book, open time assignment, I expect to see some detail and specificity in your answers. References to Caplan and Weinersmith’s book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration should be made whichever question you choose. Your answers should be somewhere in the vicinity of 3-5 pages double-spaced typed in Times New Roman 12 point font. Take as much time as you need to answer the question. This is not a timed exam.

1) Explain why Caplan and Weinersmith believe that “open borders has jaw-dropping potential to enrich migrants and natives alike” and “is a shortcut to global prosperity.” Upon what causal logic or what empirical findings do they base these claims? How does open borders compare in this regard to other potentially enriching policy changes like freer trade or greater global financial integration that we could pursue? Indicate whether you find Caplan and Weinersmith’s arguments that open borders potentially offers the prospect of “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” convincing or not.

2) In 2016, Americans elected Donald Trump as their president. One of his central campaign promises was to restrict immigration into the United States and build a wall to keep immigrants out. In 2020, President Trump faces a tough re-election battle but will likely carry the state of Indiana where we live easily. Given that, it’s probably not unreasonable to assume that give or take a majority of students in this class share views on immigration that are closer to President Trump’s than they are to the views expressed by Caplan and Weinersmith in Open Borders. Highlight which arguments put forward in Open Borders you most disagree with or find the most problematic and explain why. Make, develop, and support the best critique of the ideas put forward in this book that you can.

3) In attempting to make their case for a more open and less restrictive system of immigration, Caplan and Weinersmith consider several objections to open borders including immigrants threats to low-wage workers, freedom, our government’s fiscal position, our culture or way of life and even lowering our average national intelligence (IQ) score. Give specific examples of how Caplan and Weinersmith undermine these critiques or sources of opposition to their ideas or what they suggest as solutions to overcome these fears. Indicate which criticisms, if any, you think they effectively address and which criticisms, if any, are still strong or effective arguments against open borders.

4) Open Borders is premised upon the idea that “we live in a world of global apartheid. An apartheid based not on the race of your parents but on the nation of your parents.” Caplan and Weinersmith go on to argue that “It’s wrong to tell people where they can live or work because they are black… or women… or Jews. Why isn’t it equally wrong to tell people where they can live or work because they were born in Mexico, Haiti or India?” While these sentiments appeal to our better angels, they are completely unrealistic at a time when the US doesn’t even have open borders with Canada. Explain why Caplan and Weinersmith believe that “even if open borders never wins, the ideal can still serve as our moral compass.” What kind of progress can we or should we make short of fully opening borders?

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Similarity Between Socialism and Fascism: An Illustration

Fortunately, socialism and fascism are not the only two political alternatives, for neither is attractive. Moreover, a well-kept secret is how similar the two ideologies are. Substituting socialism for fascism in many statements from fascists would bring instant approval from socialists. Many antifa agitators would be surprised to realize that they are doing fascism unknowingly, just as Mr. Jourdain was doing prose without being aware of it.

The following quotes come from The Coming American Fascism (Harper & Brothers, 1936) by Lawrence Dennis, a well-know American fascist of the time:

Fascism does not accept the liberal dogmas as to sovereignty of the consumer or trader in the free market. It does not admit that the market ever can or should be entirely free. (p. 299)

Social planning is the outstanding imperative of public order and material abundance in the present day and in the near future. (104)

Fascism assumes that individual welfare and protection is mainly secured by the strength, efficiency, and success of the State in the realization of the national plan. (p. 160)

Under fascism, private property, private enterprise, and private choice in the market, have no rights as ends in themselves. They have different measures of social usefulness subject to proper public control. (p. 180)

Light and power, transportation, and basic foods and textiles in given but limited quantities, can be assumed necessary at an arbitrarily fixed price, and State intervention can insure the production of an adequate supply of these goods within an arbitrarily fixed price range for the common good. (p. 180)

The source of the similarity between the two ideologies is that both want to impose politically-chosen ends on everybody. The main source of difference is that each system coercively favors and harms different groups of individuals in society.

Comparing moderate fascism to communism (which is extreme socialism), Dennis chooses the former. Somewhat surprisingly, he refers to Ludwig von Mises’s and F.A. Hayek’s arguments about the impossibility of calculation under communism:

In so far as property rights and private enterprise are concerned, however, the strongest argument for fascism instead of communism may be found in the regulatory functions of an open market. The strongest criticism of any socialism of complete expropriation is that it leaves no free market, no pricing mechanism and no valid basis for economic calculation. Pure socialism is collective ownership and unified central direction of material instruments of production which, sooner or later, must leave little or no freedom of choice for the individual as to consumption or occupation. These criticisms may be brought up to date and made relevant to communism in operation in Russia in the symposium of Professors Hayek, Pierson, Barone, Halm and von Mises entitled Collectivist Economic Planning, and the work of Professor Boris Brutzkus entitled Economic Planning in Soviet Russia. (pp. 177-178)

Dennis exaggerates the place of markets—of free markets—under fascism. In “Why Hayek Was Right about Nazis Being Socialists” (AIER, December 8, 2020), Richard Ebeling mentions many similarities between socialism and the Nazi brand of fascism. He is responding to Ronald Granieri who, in a Washington Post article, objected to the argument that the National Socialists were indeed socialists “The Right Needs to Stop Falsely Claiming that the Nazis Were Socialists,” February 5, 2020).

Given the logic of state power, fascism is likely to steamroll obstacles in the path of the state and thus economic freedom. Moreover, fascism’s heightened nationalism is likely to lead to war against foreign or internal scapegoats. Fascists hate different minorities (the Jews, for example) than socialists hate (the merchants and the rich). Dennis naïvely dismisses these dangers:

It is easy to draw alarming pictures of a powerful State against which the individual would have the resource of no judicial veto on government acts. Conceivable, of course, a State and government might fall under the hands of a few individuals whose every act would be an abuse. But such an eventuality seems most improbable in any modern State, least of all in the United States. (P. 160)

The other alternative besides the different forms of socialism and the different forms of fascism lies, of course, on the continuum of classical liberalism and libertarianism.

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Pope Francis ♥ Mariana Mazzucato

Pope Francis is an amazingly productive author. On October 3 he released a new encyclical letter (All Brothers), now he published a new book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.

We learn from UCL that the Pope commends in the book Mariana Mazzucato’s work and that in the book:

The Pope … states that Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything “provoked a lot of reflection” within him as the book issues a direct challenge to the wealth creators of our world, urging them to reprioritise ‘value’ over ‘price’. In other words, ‘taking’ wealth is not the same as ‘making’ wealth, and the world has lost sight of what value really means.

That a Pope praises an economist is always a news item, though this is not a first. If I’m right, John Paul II mentioned in public several times his friend and advisor Michael Novak, who, though not an economist, provided him with help in crafting the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus. In that letter, however, the then-Pope did not quote economists, but reasoned on the compatibility between Catholic social thinking and the market economy. Francis, on the other hand, as in his last encyclical, prefers quoting himself and is quite parsimonious with references to the Catholic tradition, including the Scriptures.

In a book that deals largely with Mazzucato, The Myth of the Entrepreneurial State, Deirdre McCloskey and I have a chapter in which we sort of anticipated Pope Francis was to fall in love with Mazzucato’s work. Here’s a dash of our argument:

We disagree on the matter with the priest and with Zamagni and with Mazzucato and other good-hearted folk. We note that the independence of the individual in a liberal economy lets people exchange as they wish with free will—and it results in the great and good interdependence of modern life. Catholic social teaching of the sort Zamagni retails doesn’t get the point. One-to-one cooperation is splendid, and certainly subject to “intentionality.” You give virtuously to the worthy beggar, intentionally, consciously, in full knowledge of who is benefited. But one-to-many cooperation is by far more significant in life beyond the Desert Fathers in their hermitages. Your shoes, TVs, books, and whatever come of course from the voluntary paid work of thousands of people worldwide. They and you are cooperating every day, for producing a baguette out of self-interest and pride of craft. Interdependence gives everyone a mutually voluntary access to the talents and resources of everyone else. People do not know personally their benefactors, who grind the flour for their baguette or drive the truck to deliver it to the baker. As Hayek explained, in his somewhat Germanic English, “in an order taking advantage of the higher productivity of extensive division of labour, the individual can no longer know whose needs his efforts do or ought to serve, or what will be the effects of his actions on those unknown persons who do consume his products or products to which he has contributed.” Nonetheless the buyer receives the correct signal from its price, learning the cost to other people that is to be compared with the gain to the very buyer. Benefit minus cost is gain to the person and to society. It is, to use the business jargon, “value creating.” The economist’s word is simply “profit.”

For the rest, read the book. If you like it and you’re Catholic, please consider buying an extra copy and sending it to Pope Francis in Vatican City. You know, the way of providence.

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Tocqueville’s Hope

After his visit to America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville returned to France and published the first volume of Democracy in America in 1835, and the second in 1840. The work is remarkably timely. Here I have selected a few words from the final pages. The work is full of warning, especially toward the end of the second volume. In what follows, one sees how he inspired Friedrich Hayek’s title The Road to Serfdom. But the final words also sustain a note of hope. When Tocqueville speaks of certain “more enlightened” people, it is with irony:

 

Among our contemporaries, I see two contrary but equally fatal ideas.

Some perceive in equality only the anarchic tendencies to which it gives birth. They dread their free will; they are afraid of themselves.

Others, fewer in number, but more enlightened, have another view. Next to the route that, departing from equality, leads to anarchy, they have finally discovered the path that seems to lead men invincibly toward servitude. They bend their souls in advance to this necessary servitude; and despairing of remaining free, at the bottom of their hearts they already adore the master who will soon come.

The first abandon freedom because they deem it dangerous; the second because they judge it impossible.

If I had had this latter belief, I would not have written the work you have just read…

Let us therefore have that salutary fear of the future that makes one watchful and combative, and not that sort of soft and idle terror that wears hearts down and enervates them…

As for myself, having come to the final stage of my course,…I feel full of fears and full of hopes. I see great perils that it is possible to ward off; great evils that one can avoid or restrain, and I become more and more firm in the belief that to be honest and prosperous, it is still enough for democratic nations to wish it.

 


Dan Klein is professor of economics and JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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Counting the Cost

A review of Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, William Morrow Press, 399 pages.

 

As much as I have enjoyed watching The Boys on Amazon Prime, I confess that I am somewhat worn out with dark revisionings of superheroes. Radical and genre-bending when they first began to appear, much of this work has become as predictable and formulaic as the worst versions of the material it seeks to overturn. I sometimes amuse myself by wondering when genre writers will decide it’s time to do something really radical and write non-dystopian, non-apocalyptic works with contented characters and happy endings. 

 

That said, Natalie Zina Walschots’s novel Hench does explore some new territory. While we have seen novels that focused on sidekicks before (Lexie Dunne’s “Superheroes Anonymous” series, for example) and while we have seen novels that have focused on villains (V.E. Schwab’s Vicious and Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible come to mind), I don’t think we have seen a novel (with the possible exception of The Henchmen’s Book Club by Danny King) that clearly imagines the world of the henchmen who support supervillains. 

 

Our hero, Anna Tromedlov, works data entry temp jobs for supervillains. She is, as the novel opens, a completely insignificant individual in a world occupied by heroes and villains, and preoccupied with their interactions. When a temp job goes wrong, Anna is horribly injured by the biggest hero of her world–a Superman analogue named Supercollider. As a result, her supervillain boss fires her. (In what may be the most villainous moment of the book he does so by sending a fruit basket to her bedside in the hospital…with a pink slip attachedl.)

 

Anna’s combination of devastating injuries and unemployment sends her on a quest that Econlog readers should find particularly interesting. She begins to calculate the cost of superheroes in lifeyears, using the work of real life economist Ilan Noy as her inspiration. Superhero costs are a common topic for discussion on Reddit, and the website Law and the Multiverse gives the question a good deal of attention as well, but it’s fun to see it brought into a fictional setting.

 

It’s even more fun when Anna decides to weaponize her blog that counts these costs as a way to take down the superhero who ruined her life. Her carefully calculated, gradual attacks on Supercollider, her growing alliance with the supervillain Leviathan, and her slow transformation from a temporary data-entry clerk to a henchman, and then to a supervillain in her own right provide much of the interest of the novel. Considerable horror (or gross-out humor, depending on the reader’s tastes) is provided by her increased reliance on body modifications to ramp up her power, and by the various ways she finds to deal with the invulnerable flesh of her nemesis Supercollider. The book’s final scenes, where Supercollider is turned into a weapon against himself, are not for the squeamish.

 

I’m not sure that anything in Hench is really new. The more familiar you are with the genre of superheroes and particularly with the genre of dark superhero reimaginings, the more it will remind you of other things you’ve read before. But Hench is a good read, with a fun economic twist. It’s a comment on modern office culture, the struggles of temp work, and an increasing sense of powerlessness that demands “decisive evidence that once the pieces are assembled, a hero can fall. A king can fall. No matter how absolute the stranglehold of power might seem, I can take them down. The data is there.”

 


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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Other Civil Liberties

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is the 6th and final part. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here. Part 5 is here.

 

M*A*S*H’s respect for civil liberties goes beyond people’s right to property and exchange. Freedom of speech and the press are lionized for protecting against government abuse (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “Are You Now, Margaret,” “Tell It to the Marines” [s. 9]); censorship is condemned and lampooned (“For the Good of the Outfit,” “The Moon Is Not Blue” [s. 11]); and religious freedom is revered (“Ping Pong” [s. 5], “A Holy Mess” [s. 10]).

Throughout the show’s run, bigotry is condemned. Racism is ridiculed (“L.I.P.” [s. 2],” “The General Flipped at Dawn,” “Yessir, That’s Our Baby,” “Bottle Fatigue” [s. 8], “The Tooth Shall Set You Free” [ s. 10]) and immigration is championed (“L.I.P.,” “Tell It to the Marines”). In “Dear Dad … Three” (s. 2), a wounded white soldier, Sgt. Condon (Mills Watson), warns the doctors to make sure he gets the “right color” blood. Hawkeye and Trapper decide to teach him a lesson, sneaking into the recovery room at night to dab the sleeping soldier’s skin with tincture of iodine. Worried that his darkening complexion indicates he has indeed been given the wrong blood, Condon confronts the doctors:

CONDON

What are you guys tryin’ to do to me? Did you give me the wrong color blood?

TRAPPER

All blood is the same.

HAWKEYE

You ever hear of Dr. Charles Drew?

CONDON

Who’s that?

HAWKEYE

Dr. Drew invented the process of separating blood so it can be stored.

TRAPPER

Plasma.

HAWKEYE

He died last April in a car accident.

TRAPPER

He bled to death. The hospital wouldn’t let him in.

HAWKEYE

It was for whites only.

TRAPPER

See ya, fella.

 

At the end of the episode, a wiser Condon thanks the surgeons “for giving me a lot to think about” and respectfully salutes nurse Ginger Bayliss (Odessa Cleveland), an African-American.

Sexism and sexual harassment are likewise treated with derision (“What’s Up, Doc?” “Hot Lips Is Back in Town” [s. 7], “Nurse Doctor” [s. 8]). In “Inga” (s. 7), Hawkeye —a notorious womanizer in the series’ early seasons — is agog over a visiting woman surgeon (Mariette Hartley) — until she shows him up in the operating room. Later, Margaret takes him to task for having a limited view of women:

MARGARET

You think a woman is dead until she lives for you. Well, let me tell you something, Benjamin Franklin: We actually survive without you.

We live, we breathe, we dream, we do our work, we earn our pay. Sometimes we even have our little failures, and then we pull ourselves together, all without benefit of your fabulous electric lips!

And let me tell you something else, buster! I can walk into that kitchen any time I want and replace those fabulous lips of yours with a soggy piece of liver!

M*A*S*H also respects the rights of homosexuals (“George,” s. 2) and the disabled (“Dear Uncle Abdul” [s. 8], “Run for the Money” [s. 11]). In “Morale Victory” (s. 8), Charles — a lover of chamber music — tries to help an injured soldier, David Sheridan (James Stephens), accept a permanent loss of dexterity in one hand even though Sheridan is a concert pianist. Charles introduces him to compositions written for one hand, explaining that the injury does not diminish who he is or his talent (and illustrates comparative advantage):

CHARLES

Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.

SHERIDAN

Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift.

I had a gift, and I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?

CHARLES

Wrong. Because the gift does not lie in your hands.

I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing.

More than anything in my life, I wanted to play, but I do not have the gift.

I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music.

You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin.

Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live.

Because the true gift is in your head, and in your heart, and in your soul.

Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world — through the baton, the classroom, the pen.

As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.

 

Classical liberals respect civil liberties because they appreciate the value — and even marvel at the wonder — of the individual. (In contrast, the non–classical liberal Frank Burns believes that “individuality’s fine, as long as we all do it together” [“George”].) This wonder is expressed in “Hawkeye” (s. 4), in which Hawkeye suffers a concussion while away from the unit and seeks help from a Korean family. Despite the language barrier, he keeps talking to stay awake, often falling into philosophizing:

HAWKEYE

Don’t you sometimes wonder about babies? I mean, how do they know what to do in there? They start out looking like little hairless mice, and they wind up looking like us.

How’s it all work?

I’ve held a beating heart in my hand. I’ve poked into kidneys and crocheted them together again. I’ve pushed air into collapsed lungs like beat-up old pump organs. I’ve squeezed and probed and prodded my way through hundreds of miles of gut and goo, and I don’t know what makes us live.

I mean, what keeps us in motion? What keeps the heart beating without anybody rewinding it? Why do the cells reproduce and re-re-reproduce with such gay abandon?

Did you ever see Ann Corio or Margie Hart? Strippers. … I remember Polly O’Day. She worked with a parrot. He didn’t help her strip or anything; while she got undressed, he stood on the side and talked dirty. It was an exciting act. What a body. She was built great, too.

But what I don’t understand is how she got that way, any more than how we did.

Look at your hand. It’s one of the most incredible instruments in the universe. Of all the bones in the body, one fourth are in the hand.

Forget the hand; look at your thumb, that wondrous mechanism that separates us from the other animals. The world-famous opposable thumb, that amazing device that has transported more students to college than the Boston Post Road. Ideal for sucking, especially as a baby. And lauded in song and story as the perfect instrument for pulling out a plum. Or, in the case of the Caesars, for holding it down for the gladiator to die, or holding it up, which means, “See you later at the orgy.”

My friends, for getting up and down the pike, in your pie, in your eye, I give you the thumb.

Have you any idea, Farmer Brown, of the incredible complexity of this piece of human apparatus?

You have no idea of the balletic interplay of parts that make up the human thumb. The flexor ossis metacarpi pollicis flexes the metacarpal bone. That is, draws it inward over the palm, thus producing the movement of opposition — and the Boy Scout salute.

Because of this magical engineering, we can do this. [Grasping a utensil.] And this. [Grasping a cup.] And this. [Making a fist.]

But our greatest triumph comes not from flexing the metacarpal bone and making a fist, which always seems to be thirsting to be clenched. No, no, no, no, no.

Our greatest moment is when we open our hand: cradling a glass of wine, cupping a loved one’s chin. And the best, the most expert of all, keeping all the objects of our life in the air at the same time. [Picking up three pieces of fruit.]

My friends, for your amusement and bemusement, I give you the human person. [Begins juggling the fruit.] Thumb and fingers flexing madly, straining to keep aloft the leaden realities of life: ignorance, death, and madness. Thus, we create for ourselves the illusion that we have power, that we are in control, that we are loved.

 

Weary Determination

Sadly, M*A*S*H seems out of step with today’s politics. In the America of the 1970s and ’80s and on through the end of the century, both the Democratic and Republican parties were liberal in the classical sense, believing in the value of the individual, the importance of civil liberties, and the benefits of the market. The parties did differ — vigorously — on where to draw certain lines: how big should the welfare state be and what should be required of beneficiaries, how muscular should foreign policy be, what tax rates should be. But those differences fit within a classical liberal philosophy. It’s no wonder that M*A*S*H found plenty of fans on both sides of that era’s red–blue divide.

Today, the show might not find a similar audience. Both ends of the American political spectrum have embraced illiberalism, demanding that speech and the press be constrained, denigrating religious differences, reanimating old bigotries, obstructing immigration, and clamping down on markets and private exchange.

For classical liberals, today’s politics are disturbing and exhausting. We feel a bit like the members of the 4077, who were tired of war, troubled by the horrors they witnessed, and desired the peaceful lives they led before Korea. But they rallied when they needed to. When the choppers and ambulances arrived laden with casualties, the 4077 determinedly carried out their medical duties. And when morale sagged, they found ways to boost it, often with a gag at the expense of some hypocrite, fool, or sadist who sorely deserved it.

And so, maybe classical liberals in the 21st century can rally in the face of today’s grim times — and at the expense of illiberals who deserve it. And, concerning this so-far-illiberal century, maybe we can be reassured by Colonel Potter’s words to an orphan boy in “Old Soldiers”: “You’re off to a kind of a rough start, but I bet you’ve got some glorious times ahead of you.”

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