Alain Bertaud and the Future of Cities

Recently, our parent organization, Liberty Fund, embarked on a series of programs aimed at our local (Indianapolis, Indiana) community. The first topic we endeavored to explore was the future of cities.

One of the programs we hosted was a virtual “town hall,” in which I was privileged to interview former EconTalk guest and urban planner Alain Bertaud.

I asked Bertaud what a city like Indianapolis, whose goal is to attract and retain talented young professionals, ought to focus on, as well as why we might not want our city planners to have a “vision” for the future.

Here’s the video of our conversation:



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Five Books for Shakespeare Lovers, or Those Who Want to Be: Doorways In

If you’re enjoying this week’s EconTalk episode with Scott Newstok, you might be ready to jump in and read more about The Bard. There is an almost unlimited supply of books on Shakespeare. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with the onslaught of critical literature, popular treatments, retellings, revisionings, and performances. It’s glorious.

It also makes creating a list of five recommended books about Shakespeare an almost impossible task. Do we recommend the classic works? The newest? The most popular? The most fun? Do we focus on the writer or the writing? How do we find a way into the grand edifice we have made of the poet, the playwright, the glove-maker’s son? 

I’ve decided to suggest 5 books (and a few extra) that I think provide a variety of useful and interesting doorways into Shakespeare. They’re older works, not cutting edge scholarship, primarily because older works tend to be written for a more general audience. And there are no biographies, primarily because my own personal interest is much more focused on Shakespeare’s work rather than on his life.

Think of each of these suggestions as a different doorway through which you can walk. They all take you into the same building, but through slightly different paths. Pick the doorway you think sounds the most interesting. 


Holinshed’s Chronicles: This is the great chronicle history of England that Shakespeare used as source material for his history plays as well as for plays like King Lear and Macbeth. There’s something really wonderful about reading what Shakespeare was reading while he was writing. If you’re so inclined, it’s also a fine way to think about the artistic changes he made to the accepted history of his day as he turned it into theater.  I have an ancient copy of the Everyman Library collection of excerpts from Holinshed titled Holinshed’s Chronicles as Used in Shakespeare’s Plays. It’s out of print, but you can find it used fairly easily, and at a wide range of prices. You can also get the full text of Holinshed online at The Holinshed Project


Shakespeare’s Bawdy: Shakespeare never met a pun he didn’t like, and he never met a raunchy pun he didn’t like even better. Slang has changed so much since he wrote, however, that his best bits of blue humor often slip right past the modern reader. Eric Partridge’s classic study, Shakespeare’s Bawdy, is the key to uncoding Shakespeare’s naughtiest, and often funniest jokes. You won’t believe what you missed in high school. (This book may also be the key to getting your own reluctant high school Shakespeare student to do the assigned reading.)


Theater History: The Elizabethan theatrical world was vibrant, rapidly changing, and politically and economically fascinating. Andrew Gurr’s Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London and Bart Van Es’s Shakespeare in Company usher you into Shakespeare’s theater as a physical space and as a company of actors and community of playwrights. Combine them with a virtual tour of London’s reconstruction of the Globe theater for a fuller understanding of what it would have been like to be in Shakespeare’s audience, or in his cast. 


Lectures on Shakespeare: There are few things more glorious than the experience of reading a great writer writing about another great writer. W.H. Auden’s set of essays titled “The Shakespearean City” from his book The Dyer’s Hand is a stunning literary project in its own right, but it is also good, deep, and thoughtful writing on Shakespeare’s plays. Paired with Lectures on Shakespeare, the series of lectures Auden delivered at the New School in the 1940s, you’ll have a private course on Shakespeare taught by one of the great modern poets. What could be better? 


Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Before Shakespeare was a wildly popular playwright, he was a wildly popular writer of sonnets. Sir Patrick Stewart read one a day for 154 days at the beginning of the Covid quarantines, bringing new life and new attention to these often sadly neglected works. Those recordings, and Helen Vendler’s unequalled The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which analyzes each sonnet in its own tight 3-4 page essay, will give any reader a deeper appreciation for the rich and varied poetic technique that undergirds the beauty and power of Shakespeare’s language. 


P.S. You can read the complete works of Shakespeare for free online at our sister site, the OLL.


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Time, Technology, and Textiles

A Review of The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World, by Virginia Postrel, Basic Books, 2020


In 1998, Virginia Postrel closed her now classic book The Future and its Enemies with the observation that “We live in an enchanted world, a world suffused with intelligence, a world of our making. In such plenitude, too, lies an adventurous future.” Though I suppose some might see her books written since then–The Substance of Style and The Power of Glamouras somehow “artsy” and disconnected from the more traditional political and economic arguments of The Future and its Enemies, they seem to me to be deeper explorations into that enchanted world and the intelligence that suffuses it.


Postrel’s newest book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World (out this month from Basic Books) applies this same sense of wonder and wealth to the subject of textiles. The book is an ideal example of the value added to a subject by Postrel’s wonder-filled approach. As an avid knitter and embroiderer, an occasional crocheter, quilter, and constructor of clothing, I know a good bit about textiles. Nearly everything that I hoped would be mentioned in the book was in there–a discussion about the sea snails that provide the blue dye for tallit fringes? An exploration of the coal-tar dyes that provided D.H. Lawrence with one of his best images for beauty coming from unexpected places? The complex sexual politics of women and spinning? They’re all in there. (I did hope for a discussion of green arsenic dye, but that is a story that has been widely covered in other discussions of tragedies of the Industrial Revolution.) 


And there is so much else I didn’t know. The radical nature of the first published weaving patterns. The sumptuary battle over–of all things–calico, which we moderns think of as a hopelessly out of date and “countrified” fabric.The complex interplay among weavers, dyers, and traders of different nations that resulted in kente cloth. Readers will pause throughout the book to examine the clothing they are wearing and the textiles that fill their home as Postrel points out what makes each of them remarkable.


And each of Postrel’s detailed explanations is fascinating. I was particularly entranced by her chapter on the gross and beautiful explorations of dying. The long history of revolting ingredients and smells that produce objects of great beauty sums up, for me, something central to the human condition–our endless hunger for the sublime, and our inability to achieve it without lowly tools and methods. But it also, in Postrel’s hands, becomes a reminder of that “world suffused with intelligence” that is so central to her understanding of how humans operate.


The best example I can give of this is her observation that: “Nowadays we call [indigo] that plant-derived coloring ‘natural’ to distinguish it from dyes formulated in chemical labs, including chemically identical synthetic indigo. But producing indigo takes far more artifice and effort than the word natural implies. Its source may grow in the wild, but turning leaves into dyestuffs for making blue cloth requires considerable technological prowess.” We have had that prowess for at least 6000 years, and in five concise and enormously readable pages, Postrel takes us through the development of that technology in ancient times, the later refinement of it into a portable technology that could be traded, and her own attempts to replicate the techniques for dying with indigo at home. Never once do we lose her sense that each step in the process of this technique is a leap for human intellect and a step into the future.


The political and economic are not absent in The Fabric of Civilization, either. Regular readers of Econlog and economic historians will find much to think about here, and textile historians will find new economic and political insights into their subject. 


Though Postrel is happy to tell readers all about the different looms used to weave different kinds of fabrics, she is equally detailed in her discussion of the reasons behind different rates of pay for different kinds of textile workers in different times and places. She also reminds us that the history of textiles is the history of trade–not just in the existence of the Silk Road, or in the birth of banking from the textile merchants of the early Renaissance, but also in the use of different textiles as money, the development of arithmetic and double-entry bookkeeping as offshoots of textile trading, and on and on. She reminds us, as well, that in contrast to the too-frequent reliance on a narrative that focuses on colonialist oppressors appropriating the culture and art of the colonies, that artistic trade went both ways. Artists and consumers on both sides of these exchanges influenced and were influenced by trading partners. That’s a more complicated, more interesting, and richer story than the one we think we know.


It would be easy for a book on textiles to focus exclusively on the pleasures of home crafting, small producers, and vintage, even antique, technologies. But Postrel, a dynamist since before she coined the term, is as fascinated by the engineer and the chemistry lab as she is by the dye pot and the loom. Her discussion of the Swisstex company’s work on “creating colorful textile with minimal side effects” is a fitting close to her chapter on dying. Their chemistry experiments and engineering innovations lead the way to a modern dye process that allows us to leave behind the stench and the dangerous by-products of ancient methods and early industrial improvements to them. You don’t get those, notes Postrel, “by thinking like a nature child. You get it by thinking like a Swiss engineer.” 


Her final chapter, “Innovation” explores the already existing improvements in textiles made by companies like Under Armour, and the technologies that soon might overturn everything we think we know about fabric. Smart fabric that charges your phone when you put it in your pocket? Fabric that only needs to be brushed clean, not washed? Clothes that make us cooler instead of warmer? Friends of the future may want to start the book here, and then travel backward to see how far we have come.


There are plenty of books about textiles for those of us who are interested in them. But there is only one by Virginia Postrel. You should read it.


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EconTalk with Bob Chitester

The latest EconTalk interview is with one of my favorite people, Bob Chitester. It’s well worth listening to, especially his story about how he, a manager of a small-city PBS station, decided to make the series that made him famous and made Milton Friedman even more famous than he was: Free to Choose.

He talks briefly, by the way, about the students who spend a week at Capitaf at Vermont working through Milton’s Capitalism and Freedom. I was the discussion leader the first time they did this, and afterwards I recommended that the next time, we drop a few chapters of Capitalism and Freedom and add a few chapters of Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose. We did that the next summer. Each book is special in its own way, something that Russ Roberts and Bob agree with each other on.

Both Russ and Bob talk about the importance of Friedman’s smile. I agree. The word I would use to explain it is “warmth.” Milton Friedman was a warm man and thus the smile.

Near the end Bob talks about the power of poetry and then recites a poem. I agree about its power. Here’s one of my favorites, which I read aloud at an event on war at California State University, Monterey Bay about 10 years ago.

by James Stephens

My enemy came nigh,
And I
Stared fiercely in his face.
My lips went writhing back in a grimace,
And stern I watched him with a narrow eye.
Then, as I turned away, my enemy,
That bitter heart and savage, said to me:
“Some day, when this is past,
When all the arrows that we have are cast,
We may ask one another why we hate,
And fail to find a story to relate.
It may seem then to us a mystery
That we should hate each other.”

Thus said he,
And did not turn away,
Waiting to hear what I might have to say,
But I fled quickly, fearing had I stayed
I might have kissed him as I would a maid.


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The start of a new month means new articles at Econlib!

Gina Miller Johnson warns of the Danger of Benevolent Paternalism. Concerned by the increase in calls from her students and from the population as a whole for “The government to do something” almost regardless of what the “something” might be, Miller Johnson observes that this rapidly leads to government overreach. 

In a crisis like a pandemic, these dangers are heightened. “Whatever one’s view of the proper role of government as it relates to public health, another question must be posed: when, if ever, does public health provision as a public good supersede the protection of civil liberties as a fundamental role of the state? The initial wake of the pandemic saw disturbing support for sacrificing civil liberties in the name of public health.’


Michael L. Davis asks How Can Economists Help? The question of whether economists help people has been on my mind a lot lately. This is an extraordinary time. People need help and, as Russ [Roberts] likes to remind us, one of Adam Smith’s most important insights is that “man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely.” Most of us genuinely want to help. But we don’t know how to hook up a ventilator, we don’t have the local knowledge necessary to deliver fresh milk to the store and most of us wouldn’t even be very good at stocking the cooler once the milk arrives. Do economists have anything to offer?”

Don’t worry! Davis has nine suggestions for economists who want to use their skills to help out right now.


Arnold Kling reviews Mending America’s Political Divide by René H. Levy. The book offers “a neuroscientist’s perspective on the phenomenon of political polarization. Our politics is stimulating our tribal instincts, which lead us to lose empathy with the other side. This lack of empathy has dangerous consequences.” While Kling feels that the book “offers a sound diagnosis of our political ills. It offers a prescription that I wish more people would take to heart” he has some concerns about a lack of balance in Levy’s arguments.


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