20 Dec 2010

Steve Landsburg: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

Economics 3 Comments

I have been so busy that I forgot to name-drop that during my recent trip to Rochester, I had a candlelit dinner (not of our request) with Steve Landsburg in the hotel restaurant. One of the most interesting points of discussion (which he gave me permission to mention) was that he had gone through not one, but two phone interviews with the people from the Colbert Report when one of his books came out. (I’m assuming More Sex Is Safer Sex, but Steve can correct me in the comments.)

Apparently, Steve didn’t give them what they wanted, since he was never on the show. But holy cow, it never occurred to me that they have an extensive screening process to get on such coveted shows. And if you did get on the show (or the Daily Show), you would be torn because on the one hand, you’d want to show them you could be funny too, but on the other hand, when most people go on such shows trying to be funny, it bombs.

Anyway, if you are interested in free-market economics and have never read Landsburg’s older stuff, I highly recommend it. It’s not even that I necessarily agree with it all–in fact, most of my internet writings on Landsburg have been critiques–but that he takes very clear positions and so if you think he’s wrong, you can go through and convince yourself what step in his argument is at fault. You walk away knowing your own position better.

For those who think Landsburg is a softie, check out how radical some of these quotes are from one of his books. I’ll simply reproduce a blog post I did in 2008 on Crash Landing:

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In the past, I have been known to criticize University of Rochester economist Steven Landsburg (one, two, and three). We can only speculate as to the source of my criticism; jealousy over Landsburg’s column in Slate is surely a factor.

I am happy to report that all is forgiven, because Landsburg’s Fair Play is a remarkably radical book. The subtitle is “What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life.” The format of the book is Landsburg relaying anecdotes involving his daughter, and how these lessons/conversations relate to economic principles.

In terms of fun analyses that will make an econ geek think, this book isn’t as fruitful as his earlier book, The Armchair Economist. However, extreme libertarians will be pleasantly surprised at some of the positions Landsburg takes in FP.

Rather than giving an official review, I’ll just reproduce some of the better quotations below:

[My daughter Cayley's] teachers have pronounced from on high that because water is valuable to others, we should be exceptionally frugal with it…[Yet] teachers rarely argue that “because building supplies are valuable to others, we ought to build fewer schools”; even more rarely do they argue that “because skilled workers are valuable in industry, we ought to have fewer teachers.” (p. 26)

…The extent to which adults defer to authority is an extraordinary and mysterious thing: 535 members of the United States Congress vote to pass a measure, and, for the most part, 260 million Americans choose to obey it. Why does that happen? What strange force do these guys exert? (p. 32)

[W]hen the Justice Department prosecutes an organized crime family, I’m not sure which side to root for. Violent urban gangs are scary things. So are police forces who face no competition in the market for extortion. I don’t know which is worse….The best argument I’ve ever seen against gun control was on a bumper sticker that said “When guns are outlawed, only the police will have guns.” (p. 34)

I can understand welcoming people no matter how they get [into this country]. I can understand–though with greater difficulty–wanting to turn people away no matter how they get here. But to turn to the government for advice on who to welcome and who to reject–that is a position that is not consistent with any principle whatsoever. It is consistent only with blind exaltation of government, and the fact that Kemp was taken seriously [when he said we should lock the back door on illegal immigration in order to open the front door to legal immigration--BM] illustrates how widespread that blind exaltation must be. (p. 38)

The battle against progressive taxation will never be won by timorous politicians who argue–no matter how correctly–that high marginal tax rates retard economic growth…It will be won, if at all, as the long-run battle against slavery was won–by men and women with the insight and the courage to declare in public that progressive taxation is wrong. If people can learn to feel squeamish about stealing from a liquor store, they can learn to feel squeamish about taxing “the rich.” (pp. 60-61)

Cayley has been taught that all endangered species should be preserved, but she’s also been taught that the AIDS virus should be eradicated. (p. 62)

There must be some reason why schools teach safe sex but not safe crime. Perhaps they think that students are more likely to be sexually active than criminally active. Or perhaps they really believe–despite what they tell the students–that unlike crime, sex isn’t always such a bad idea. If that’s what they believe, I wish they’d be honest about it instead of trying to scare my daughter half to death. (p. 63)

I have frequently heard it said that those who oppose legalized abortion thereby become obligated to adopt and support unwanted children. I have never heard it said that those who oppose capital punishment thereby become obligated to house convicted murderers for the duration of their life sentence. (p. 64)

When Bob Dole resigned from the U.S. Senate, he combined a clarion call for smaller government with a list of his proudest legislative accomplishments, every one of which had increased both the size and the scope of the government. (p. 65)

So when somebody tells you that the government should spend more on welfare (or AIDS research, or student loans, or strategic missile defenses), there’s one litmus test question that will determine whether he’s fallen prey to the Grandfather Fallacy: Ask him how much the government currently does spend in that area. If he doesn’t know the current level, how can he possibly know whether it’s too low or too high? (p. 82)

Jim Crow was (among other things) a barrier to trade between the races. And economists know that barriers to trade are generally detrimental to both populations. Whites who were discouraged from serving black customers, or patronizing black businesses, or hiring black workers, or working for black employers, were victims of Jim Crow, just as their black counterparts were. To argue otherwise would be bad economics. It would also be racist. Jim Crow prevented blacks from dealing with whites, and it also prevented whites from dealing with blacks. Who would want to argue that being denied the right to trade with white people is a form of oppression, but being denied the right to trade with black people is no big deal? (pp. 131-132).

3 Responses to “Steve Landsburg: The Man, the Myth, the Legend”

  1. crossofcrimson says:

    Um…I think I’m going to pick up one of his books now. How can I not?

  2. Ricardo Cruz says:

    I remember his books being deliciously provocative, but not to that extent. Are you sure those are real quotes? ;-)

    By the way, I recently found a cheap copy of Landsburg’s book “Macroeconomics” in a bookstore, and as self-taught in economics, I’m finding it explains the subject much more clearly than a couple of previous books I’ve gone through, and it’s also much more captivating. Highly recommended!

    • Ricardo Cruz says:

      Oh, just realized your quotes are from Fair Play. Haven’t read that one yet: will put an amazon order in a sec. ;-)

      I occasionally read a couple of his Slate archived articles. Great stuff for a bargain: http://www.slate.com/id/2025/year/1996/landing/1/