Great Moments in Ronald Reagan’s Life

The routine on the plant tour could be physically and mentally taxing. As occasional traveling aide Ed Langley reported, however, “There is [a] way that Ron stays fresh on these trips. He makes them an adventure. There has to be a set pattern to the talks, but he always seems to find a way to vary the routine. Consider what happened today.” At a reception for middle-management employees, one of the wives asked Reagan what she could do about her young son. The boy was depressed. He thought he might want to be an actor, but that was about the only bright spot on an otherwise bleak horizon. Nothing she tried seemed to lift the boy out of the dumps. The company spokesman thought about it for a moment and then said he would call on Saturday morning but that the boy should not be told.

Saturday was supposed to be Reagan’s day off. He had finished a full schedule on Friday, with another reception that night. He had every right just to stay in bed, but he kept his promise to the boy’s mother. He wanted the meeting to seem spontaneous, so aides George Dalen (who had replaced Earl Dunckel) and Langley were enlisted in a scheme to poll every other house on the boy’s street. Reagan would ring a doorbell and say, “I’m Ronald Reagan and I’m conducting a survey on the General Electric Theater.”

The report continued: “At the target house, we bounded into a cramped living room and confronted an incredulous mother and her sullen, furtive, indeed loutish son. Reagan’s performance was astounding. Laughing, rumpling the brat’s hair, spieling his cleaned-up dirty jokes, Reagan said he’d show the two of them how movie fights were staged. 

George Dalen and I had been through this routine lots of times before audiences of GE workers. Coats off, George and I attacked Ronnie with fake punches, but the White Knight, supposedly wiping blood from his lips, laid into us, and George and I took our falls over the furniture and skidded across the rugless floor.”

“The boy was so captivated,” Langley continued, “he wanted to try a pulled punch on Reagan, and did. Reagan went back on his heels, disbelief on his face, staggered and fell on the sofa. Bouncing up immediately, he hugged the boy and told him he’d make a great film actor. Then he sat down, and became a father and a father confessor. He had the kid and his mother crying and begging him not to go, to stay for supper, to keep in touch. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will.”

This is from Thomas W. Evans, The Education of Ronald Reagan: The General Electric Years and the Untold Story of His Conversion to Conservatism, Columbia University Press, 2006.

I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

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Bob Murphy on How Identity Politics Hurts Everyone

I rarely find time to listen to podcasts that are longer than 10 minutes. But I found the following description intriguing:

Pointing to a recent Twitter thread from a progressive detailing his white male cisness, Bob shows how narrow the focus is on only particular “privileges” and not others. More generally, the effort to demonize white men is causing young people great harm, whether white or otherwise. The movement is based on power politics and relies on economic ignorance.

Bob Murphy is a friend but that’s not typically enough to get me listening. In this case I was glad I did.

The podcast is titled “Identity Politics Is Hurting Young People–Of all Colors,” July 9, 2020.

If you’re in a hurry, start at about 1:30 and go to about 15:00. You’ll get his most important message. But also I thought that the material in the last 5 or 6 minutes, where he discusses the U.S. women’s soccer team, was very good also.

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Even More Valuable than Her Coffee Cake Recipe

I suppose there are people who might be surprised to find themselves getting solid economic analysis from a food blogger. I am not one of them. I’ve actually been waiting for this moment since March.

 

Deb Perelman is one of my favorite food bloggers. Her blog, Smitten Kitchen, details her adventures cooking for her growing family in an impossibly tiny kitchen in New York City. She has a great reputation for funny writing, great photos, and reliable and delicious recipes. (I am NOT kidding about the coffee cake.)

 

But last week, she did something a little different. In the business section of today’s New York Times, Perelman has a great piece titled, “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” The article is a testament from a working mom with two young children and a husband who has been laid off, who is trying to hold everything together through the pandemic. And she’s just been told that the coming school year–the promise of which has been a beacon of sanity for parents everywhere–will, in her area, have her children attending physical school one week out of every three.

 

Perelman’s article, which you should read immediately, is not the kind of anguished, inchoate cry we have been led to expect by articles that focus on parental burnout, exhaustion, and stress. Certainly, that frustration is in her article as well. But the article is about the economic costs of her school district’s choice, analyzed by someone who is in the middle of experiencing them. She writes:

my family, as a social and economic unit, cannot operate forever in the framework authorities envision for the fall. There are so many ways that the situation we’ve been thrust into, in which businesses are planning to reopen without any conversation about the repercussions on families with school-age children, is even more untenable for others.

 

As I said, I’ve been waiting for this moment. I have a history of fascination with economic thinking as expressed in non economic works–and particularly with the economic thinking of people who are in the daily grit of working blue collar jobs and doing household work. I think their diaries and letters and interviews and books of advice tell us at least as much about the economic circumstances under which they were written as do articles by economists–probably more. 

 

This is why I spend a lot of time with books like Round About a Pound a Week, All Our Kin, Working, and How to Run Your Home Without Help. All of these works give us direct access to the lived experience of people managing daunting economic circumstances. They let us SEE people thinking economically, rather than leaving us to surmise from a distance.

 

I think Perelman is right about the unsustainable nature of the burdens–financial, educational, social, and psychological–that working parents are being asked to carry right now. I think she is right that New York City’s plan for schoolchildren to have one week on/two weeks off is an absolute disaster. More important than that, though, I think her voice, and the voices of countless other bloggers, diarists, and letter writers like her, are vital economic data that can help us think more clearly about policy now, and will help us have a better understanding of the tribulations of 2020 when it is a matter of economic history. 

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The Mob Lost and the System Won

 

On June 12, I posted briefly about the efforts of Justin Wolfers and other economists to get Harald Uhlig fired from his position as editor of the Journal of Political Economy.

Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t know if he should be fired. I don’t know enough about how good an editor he is, which, in my view, is the only thing that should matter. Justin hasn’t made a case that he’s a bad editor. Rather, Justin doesn’t like what the editor, Harald Uhlig, said about Black Lives Matter(ing).

That same day the University of Chicago placed Uhlig on leave as editor of the journal while it investigated the case. On June 22, the University announced that it had “completed a review of claims that a faculty member engaged in discriminatory conduct on the basis of race in a University classroom.  The review concluded that at this time there is not a basis for a further investigation or disciplinary proceeding.” It presumably investigated the more serious charge made  by a former student that Uhlig had engaged in inappropriate behavior in a class the student attended. The student, Bocar A. Ba, tweeted:

I sat in your class in Winter 2014: (1) You talked about scheduling a class on MLK Day (2) You made fun of Dr. King and people honoring him (3) You sarcastically asked me in front of everyone whether I was offended Here is the receipt.

That was presumably what the University investigated.

I wrote Dr. Ba on June 13 to find out more about his allegation. He did not reply.

On June 23, Alice Yin, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, wrote a news story about the investigation’s outcome. She writes:

Ba, who previously told the Tribune he wants to focus on his work, declined an interview, as did other academics who tweeted that they witnessed the apparent incident.

So this time the mob lost and the system won. By “system won,” I mean that the University seems to have investigated the serious charge and ignored the tweets that led to the original upset of Justin Wolfers and others, and, presumably finding not a clearcut case against Professor Uhlig, returned him to his job as editor.

I emphasize that I hold no brief for Professor Uhlig. I don’t know him and I don’t even know if I would like him if I did know him. I probably would because I like most people. But that’s not the point. People should not be axed from such jobs without good reasons for doing so. Highly inappropriate comments in class might be such a reason; sarcastic tweets are not.

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Happy Birthday, Thomas Sowell

The one constant on display through all these topics is an irrepressible mind digging through the data in order to understand the complex reality underneath. His intellectual process, plus his ability to write quickly, have resulted in dozens of books and hundreds upon hundreds of newspaper columns that have helped many of us learn. When I handed out my biography to students the first day of the class I taught at the Naval Postgraduate School (from 1984 to 2017)—with my Hoover Institution affiliation on it—a question I got from many was, “Do you know Thomas Sowell?” They mispronounced his last name, evidence that they knew about him from reading him rather than hearing about him.

This is from David R. Henderson, “Thomas Sowell, An Intellectual Giant,” Defining Ideas, July 1, my encomium to Tom, published on the day after his 90th birthday. The editor chose the title and it’s better than the one I gave it. Just choosing great punchy quotes from his work could easily made the piece 50% longer.

Another excerpt:

In The Economics and Politics of Race: An International Perspective, published in 1983, Sowell took the next step, looking at race, ethnicity, and culture across the world. He wasted no time in getting to the issues. On the first page of the first chapter, titled “The Role of Race,” he wrote, “The most ghastly example of racial fanaticism in history was the Nazi extermination of millions of defenseless men, women, and children who were so similar to themselves in appearance that insignia, tattoos, or documents had to be used to tell the victims from their murderers.” In that one sentence can be seen the passion, power, and clarity of Sowell’s writing.

And one of the important economic geography insights I learned while researching for the article:

“Geography is not egalitarian,” he wrote and then went on to show how true that is. The Sahara, the largest desert in the world, has isolated black people in sub-Saharan Africa. That makes economic growth harder to achieve than otherwise. He also pointed out that Africa, with twice the area of Europe, has a shorter coastline than Europe. It lacks the nooks and crannies that make for good harbors. Incidentally, that’s probably why my uncle and aunt, on their way to the Belgian Congo in 1941 to be medical missionaries, had to travel to to Cape Town first, rather than directly to the Congo. (They were captured by the German Navy, but that’s another story.)

Read the whole thing.

 

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AEA Hides Its Racist Past

 

I posted on Thursday about the fact that the officers and governance committees of the American Economic Association don’t know much about the literature on the economics and discrimination. In their statement, they wrote:

We recognize that we have only begun to understand racism and its impact on our profession and our discipline.

I had thought at the time that they were simply ignorant of the literature. But it may be worse.

Commenter Richard Ebeling pointed out something I had missed: the AEA’s statement linked to literature on the “History of race and racism.” Take a look. Some of the items are excellent. The Richard Rothstein book, The Color of Law, is an example. I reviewed it positively here. Also, they recommend the movie Just Mercy, which my wife and I saw last month, and which is excellent. But the fact that they came up with a list would suggest that they did some kind of search. Where is the mention of work by Gary Becker or Thomas Sowell? Or how about work by Kenneth Arrow or Thomas Schelling?

And, most important, given that the list is presented by the AEA, where is the literature on Richard Ely, one of the founders, and the first secretary, of the American Economic Association, and a renowned racist? It’s not as if he hasn’t been studied. Princeton University economist Thomas C. Leonard wrote an excellent book, Illiberal Reformers, in which he documents the views of Ely and other Progressives. Ely called blacks people who “are for the most part grownup children, and should be treated as such.”

The straightforward way to deal with the AEA’s racist past would be to acknowledge it. There’s lots to choose from. How about, for example, the time (1888) when the AEA “offered a prize for the best essay on the evils of unrestricted immigration?” (The quote is from Leonard’s book on p. 143.) A lot of the anti-immigrant sentiment at the time, Leonard notes, was based on race.

Or how about Ely’s hostility to Chinese immigrants? He wrote:

[T]he fullest unfolding of our national faculties requires the exclusion of discordant elements—like, for example, the Chinese. (1894, “Thoughts on Immigration, No. I”) [quoted in Clifford F. This and Ryan Daza, “Richard T. Ely: The Confederate Flag of the AEA?Econ Journal Watch, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 2011, pp: 147-156.]

Or how about the fact that from 1962 to 2020, a prestigious lecture held every year at the annual AEA meetings was the Richard T. Ely lecture? To its credit, the AEA has suddenly deleted Ely’s name in the last few days. To its discredit, it says nothing about why.

Are we to believe that the AEA officers are ignorant of all this? One tell is that, as noted, they deleted the “Richard T. Ely” identifier from the annual lecture. Why do that suddenly if not for the fact that they do know something about the AEA’s racist past?

Of course, it’s possible that some of the AEA officers are ignorant. If so, I would recommend that they start with Thomas C. Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. And if are unwilling to take the time to read it, at least they should put in on their own reading list.

Here’s Russ Roberts’ interview of Leonard.

Here’s Arnold Kling’s review of Leonard’s book.

 

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Why Don’t People Speak Up?

I posted on Facebook a few days ago about the bullying that Justin Wolfers and other economists are doing to try to get an editor of the Journal of Political Economy fired. I start by saying that I don’t know if he should be fired. I don’t know enough about how good an editor he is, which, in my view, is the only thing that should matter. Justin hasn’t made a case that he’s a bad editor. Rather, Justin doesn’t like what the editor, Harald Uhlig, said about Black Lives Matter(ing). (Disclosure: I had a very civil debate with Justin about lockdowns. He seemed to be a nice guy. He is not nice on Twitter.)

At Cornell University Law School, a number of people are trying to bully the Dean into firing law professor William Jacobson over 2 of his criticisms of Black Lives Matter. (Disclosure: I read Professor Jacobson’s posts at least once a week because I find them informative.) The Dean, to his credit, defended Jacobson’s academic freedom, but to his discredit, made a nasty attack on Jacobson’s posts, managing to badly misstate the posts in the process. It’s interesting how easy it is to win an argument when you badly misstate what the person you’re arguing against says. Dean Eduardo M. Peñalver will not soon be winning any ideological Turing test awards.

Professor Jacobson appears to have received little public support from his colleagues. He writes:

None of the 21 signatories [of a public letter denouncing him], some of whom I’d worked closely with for over a decade and who I considered friends, had the common decency to approach me with any concerns. Instead they ran to the Cornell Sun while virtue signaling to students behind the scenes that this was a denunciation of me. Such is the political environment we live in now at CLS.

I’m not surprised. The reason has to do with an “aha” moment I had in the summer of 1979. I was leaving the University of Rochester’s Graduate School of Management even before my tenure clock was up. I had become friends with W. Allen Wallis, the Chancellor of the university, and he invited me to lunch in the nicer section (the part that served booze) of the faculty club, housed in the Frederick Douglass building. Early in the lunch, I realized that this wasn’t just a warm good-bye, although it was that too, but also an exit interview. So I ordered a whisky sour and loosened my tongue.

Allen wanted to know what I thought of the management school. I said that it had a lot going for it. The Dean, William H. Meckling, was great and there were a lot of strong faculty, especially in finance. But, I said, it could be so much better, even with existing faculty if there were a more open discussion and not so much kowtowing to Michael Jensen, the most prominent member of the faculty. Everyone had figured out that Michael was Bill’s buddy and so the majority were hesitant to challenge him in workshops or faculty discussions about policy issues. I said that I was one of the few willing to do this. (I didn’t name Richard Thaler, who was also one of the few, because he had left and it looked as if he wasn’t returning.)

Then I said, “My view is that in a faculty of 40 people, you should have 40 independent minds.”

Allen started laughing and I felt hurt. “Why are you laughing at me?” he asked.

He answered, “My view is that if in a faculty of 40 people you have 2 or 3 independent minds, you’re doing well.”

His insight has served me well.

So my answer to the question that’s the title of this post, “Why Don’t People Speak Up?”, is because they don’t have the courage to do so.

By the way, Wallis was a major figure in the move to abolish the draft. We had become friendly early in my time there and the friendship had strengthened after I called him up in December 1976. Incoming president Jimmy Carter had said he would grant amnesty to draft dodgers. Because Allen was the highest-ranking Republican I knew, I called him to make a pitch to his buddies in the Ford administration to steal a march on Carter by granting amnesty first. Allen didn’t agree with me but we had an interesting discussion.

In case you’re wondering about the pic at the top, it wasn’t so much to advertising co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s book, excellent as it was, as to show a picture of sheep.

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Why We Need to Keep Talking About George Floyd

I must begin by pointing out that this is really not what I wanted to be writing about. This is EconLog, for crying out loud; a virtual property of Econlib.  They don’t just let anyone natter on here, and for that reason, I would rather my introduction to the readers here be a message of freedom and hope. It was a mere few days ago that NASA launched a rocket built by SpaceX into space, ferrying humans to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time since 2011, signaling the successful culmination of a public-private partnership (sort of) that may one day see mankind colonize the stars.  But…I can’t engage you in a whimsical fantasy of our descendants enjoying Andorian ale in a bar on the joint colony at Titan.

Those of us tethered to the ground have been subject to pandemics, government overreach, massive loss of employment…and then there’s George Floyd. Those of us possessed of the masochism inherent in formal training in the social sciences have an obligation to review the world as it is, making data-driven observations, providing deep analysis of proximate causes, and generating recommendations aimed at making improvements and finding solutions. This last is the most difficult, because in matters involving race, I don’t necessarily know that here are any solutions outside of “we all need to be better.” Nor, in truth, am I an indifferent observer. As an African American myself, I have known too many George Floyds to remain indifferent.

It must be noted that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers, and the resultant riots raging across the American landscape aren’t entirely about race. As Reason’s Christian Britschgi has so ably observed, a combination of coronavirus lockdowns, joblessness, and other related factors combined to form a perfect soup that boiled over the day Derek Chauvin and his cohorts essentially strangled Floyd to death. This, however, is an outcome, not a cause. While this matter isn’t entirely about race, it’s still about racial relations in America. As ostensible thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, those of us dedicated to the natural rights of all men often shrink from in-depth discussion of such matters, when we may be the only parties left with any shred of moral authority to lead the charge.

So, we’re going to have that discussion, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. We’re going to discuss public choice and path dependencies. The ruinous War on Drugs and its unholy offspring, the carceral state, are also on the docket.  Institutional bias, uneven enforcement of laws that, by all right, shouldn’t even be laws…they’re on the table as well. The first step to solving a problem is admission that the problem exists, and we’re going to get to the root of it.  We’re going to analyze through the filters of economics, sociology, political science, history…because we must. To channel Acemoglu, history happens when critical junctures mate with institutional drift, giving birth to persistent paradigms.  We are, as the fires attest, at a critical juncture. To create new paradigms, we must facilitate changes within our institutions.

I will, of course, talk about other things. It is an honor for me to be here, and this isn’t the only issue that needs discussion. Nevertheless, this will be an ongoing conversation, and it is my hope that both author and readers benefit from it. The American apartheid system known as Jim Crow was relegated to the dustbins of history because men and women of good conscience did not bury their heads in the sand at a critical juncture in time, but the work is not yet done. It is up to us to find its completion, so that we can truly fulfill the obligations inherent in our credo “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

 

 


Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.

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