Tag Archives: Sarah Skwire

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Remembering the Man Who Turned Numbers Into Hope – Article by Steven Horwitz and Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Economics, Education, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSteven Horwitz and Sarah Skwire
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After the spate of celebrities who died in 2016, the death of a Swedish professor of international health might not seem very newsworthy. However, Hans Rosling, who died of pancreatic cancer on February 7th, was no ordinary or obscure professor.

The story of his life and career can be found both at Wikipedia and in this marvelous Nature profile. What those sources cannot quite convey is Rosling’s importance as a role model for intellectual honesty, personal warmth and charisma, and a willingness to go where the facts took him, regardless of whether those facts adhered to any simplistic political narrative of humanity’s past and future. Both Rosling’s intellectual fearlessness and the substance of his work have importance for those who care about human freedom and progress.

Intellect and Humanity

But it isn’t just the content of Rosling’s work that matters. He was an amazing rhetorician. He had a unique ability to use and present data in easy to understand and visually appealing ways that were very effective at conveying an argument. He also was able to think creatively about the linkages among the various causes of wealth and the improvements they made in human well-being. His natural storytelling ability gave him the capacity to put those complex historical factors into narratives that not only got the history right, but did so in a way that appealed to our shared humanity.

All of these skills are on display in his two most famous videos, both of which impart lessons in presenting ideas and interpretations of data that classical liberals will find very useful.

Underlying much of Rosling’s work as a public intellectual was a concern with how we enable all of humanity to share in the health and wealth that has come to characterize the Western world.

With his background in health and demographics, Rosling was interested in the factors that led to the rising health and longevity of the West. First, of course, he had to document just how much better things had become in the West, then he had to explore the causes.

Presenting the raw data about the improvement of the West was the centerpiece of his BBC video “200 Years, 200 Countries, 4 Minutes.” Using real-time data visualization techniques, he shows how every country in the world was poor and sick 200 years ago and then showed the path by which so many countries became wealthy and healthy. There is no better visualization of the progress of humanity than this one.

For those of us who work with students, this video gives us the opportunity to talk about the factors that made that growth happen, including the role of liberal institutions and the rising moral status of the individual in that process. It is a great complement to the work of Deirdre McCloskey.

The video also provides a way to talk about global inequality. What is clear from the visualization of the data is that 200 years ago, countries were far more equal than now, but they were equally poor.

It’s true that the gap between rich and poor countries is greater now than back then, but everyone has improved their absolute position. And two of the countries that have improved the most are two of the most populous: China and India. Rosling’s presentation opens up countless useful discussions of the importance of economic growth for increases in life expectancy, as well as what exactly concerns us about growing inequality.

As he concludes, the task before us now is to figure out how to bring the rest of the world up to where the West is. Though he does not discuss it, the economic evidence is clear that those countries that have experienced the most growth, and therefore the biggest increases in longevity and other demographic measures of well-being, are those that have the freest economies. By giving us the data, Rosling enables classical liberals to engage the conversation about the “why” and “how” of human betterment.

Inspirational ‘Edutainer’

But our favorite video of Rosling’s is definitely “The Magic Washing Machine.” Here Rosling uses the example of the washing machine to talk about economic growth and its ability to transform human lives for the better.

Rosling’s focus is on the way the washing machine is an indicator of a population that has grown wealthy enough not only to buy such machines, but also to provide the electricity to power them. The washing machine is a particularly valuable machine since it relieves most of the physical burden of one of the most onerous tasks of the household, and one that has historically fallen entirely to women.

No one who has seen the video can forget the story of Rosling’s grandmother pulling up a chair in front of the new washing machine for the sheer joy of sitting and watching while the clothes spin. Her excitement becomes even more poignant when one considers that this must have been the first time in her life when she was able to sit while laundry was done, instead of standing over a tub of hot water and soap.

Rosling points out, in a moment of calling his fellow progressives to task, that while many of his students are proud of biking to class instead of driving, none of them do their wash by hand. That chore, though green, is simply too onerous for most moderns to take on. He then goes on to discuss how we have to find ways to create the energy needed as billions of people cross the “wash line” and start to demand washing machines.

The video ends with him reaching into the washing machine and pulling out the thing that the machine really made possible:  books. The washing machine gave his mother time to read and to develop herself, as well as to read to young Hans and boost his education as well.

The visual image of putting clothes into a washing machine and pulling out books in exchange captures all that is good about economic growth in a succinct and unforgettable way. Rosling concludes the video with a heart-felt roll call of gratitude to industrialization and development that has been known to reduce free market economists to tears.

What Rosling does in that video is to effectively communicate what classical liberals see as the real story of economic growth. He gets us to see how economic growth, driven by markets, has enabled women to live more liberated lives. Classical liberals can talk endlessly about the data, but until we talk effectively about the way in which industrialization and markets have made it possible for women (and others) to be freed from drudgery that was literally back-breaking, we cannot win the war on the market.

Thank You

Bastiat said that “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Hans Rosling’s work is the best possible example of the best kind of defense of a good cause. He was a model and an inspiration.

Rosling ends “The Magic Washing Machine” by saying “Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. And thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”

We say, “Thank you, Dr. Rosling. Thank you, data visualization. Thank you TED talks. And thank you, Mrs. Rosling, for buying a washing machine and reading to your son.” We are richer for the work he did. We are poorer for his loss.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. He is spending the 2016-17 academic year as a Visiting Scholar at the John H. Schnatter Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise at Ball State University.

He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

Sarah Skwire is the Literary Editor of FEE.org and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network. Email

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.

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George Washington’s Letter to the Jews – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: History, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
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In August of 1790, George Washington wrote a brief letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. If anything, it is more timely than ever as we continue to struggle with questions of toleration and bigotry, and of the joys and dangers of insisting on freedom of conscience in our nation and in our lives.

Gentlemen:

While I received with much satisfaction your address replete with expressions of esteem, I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you that I shall always retain grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced on my visit to Newport from all classes of citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security.

If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good government, to become a great and happy people.

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my administration and fervent wishes for my felicity.

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. ~ G. Washington

Washington came to Newport for a visit on August 17th, 1790  and was addressed by Moses Seixas, one of the officials of the long-established Jewish congregation of Newport. Seixas noted that, given the grim history of the Jews, America was a particularly important place, for:

Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now (with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events) behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine…

While I suspect many reader will find, as I do, the notion of being a part of the “great governmental machine” far less appealing than Seixas did, his main point remains a vital one. For a people who had been chased from their homes by persecution, forced conversions, violence, and governmental theft of their property, the American promise of toleration was an almost incomprehensible blessing.

Toleration in Rhode Island

When I visited the Touro synagogue—home of the Jewish congregation Washington addressed—last week, my tour guide reminded me that Rhode Island’s version of religious toleration was particularly impressive, even within the wider American context.

Founded by the famously ornery Roger Williams, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “new and dangerous opinions,” and established by a charter from King Charles II,  Rhode Island was based on principles of complete religious toleration from its very beginning. The 1663 founding charter notes that Rhode Island is meant to be:

a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained…with a full liberty in religious concernments… our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land hereafter mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly, and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others, any law, statute, or clause therein contained, or to be contained, usage or custom of this realm, to the contrary hereof, in any wise notwithstanding.

Even the structure of Newport echoes the words of its royal charter. The city’s churches are not next to the statehouse, but clustered behind it, emphasizing their equality with one another and the separation between church and state.

It is hard for a modern reader to understand exactly how astonishing this promise of complete freedom of religious conscience was for the time. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that, when this royal charter was drawn up, Europe had suffered through more than 120 years of near-constant religious warfare. The death toll from that religiously motivated violence totaled somewhere between 5.6 and 18.5 million, depending on which historians you read and whether or not you count deaths caused by diseases and famine resulting from warfare.

Rhode Island must have seemed like a miracle to any 17th-century citizen. And for the Jews of Spain and Portugal, making their way to Newport via Amsterdam, the promise of such freedom must have been tantalizing and a little terrifying. Could they really trust that non-Christian religions would be included in these promises? Would they really be safe?

They would.

And the letter that Seixas read to George Washington makes that sense of security perfectly clear. Seixas did not speak of toleration and freedom as promises made in hopes of some much-desired future. He spoke of them as established truths that were in place then and there, as he was writing. “We now …behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Freedom Works

Washington’s response to Seixas and the other Jews of Newport is similarly focused on the success of the American experiment in toleration. He writes:

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.

The Revolution is over. The Constitution is in place. The Republic has not fallen apart in its first years. There is reason to be proud, says Washington.

More importantly, he argues that toleration is not a question of an elite extending a favor to a lower and less worthy class. Toleration is about the equal treatment of all. The Jews of Newport are not “tolerated” the way that one learns to live with a leaky faucet or a small ding on your car bumper. Their differences are tolerated because their persons are equal.

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Repeating Seixas’s phrasing back to him, in words that have become a crucial part of American thinking, Washington reassures him, and all the Jews of Newport, that he and they are of one mind on the subject of toleration.

We should think, today, about that phrase that Seixas originated and Washington repeated. It makes a fine model for how we should behave in the increasingly fraught religious tensions of the 21st century.

A civil society should give to bigotry no sanction, and to persecution no assistance. That means that those of us who are already here may not use our position to persecute newcomers, nor may we use their differences as an excuse for hatred and ill-treatment. But this is a covenant that must work in both directions. To enter into a civil society, one must make those promises as well.

Old hatreds, old prejudices, and old patterns of persecution must be left on the doormat of a civil society—discarded, like a pair of muddy boots, before you come in.

Only then can we regain the pride that Seixas and Washington had in a toleration that they felt was secured. Only then can we close our letters as Washington closed his, with the conviction that now, “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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One Bad Reason to Hate Trump – Article by Sarah Skwire

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The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
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99 Reasons, But the Name Ain’t One

I have 99 (thousand) reasons to hate Donald Trump and to find his campaign stomach turning. I won’t list them here. The Google graph showing the rising use of the word “bloviate” in American political discourse should stand in place of any detailed accounting.

bloviategraph

But what’s grabbed most of the attention since John Oliver mentioned it recently on his show, Last Week Tonight, is Trump’s name. As Oliver notes, “Trump sounds like money.” But, he continues in tones of shock and dismay, “It turns out the name Trump was not always his family name.… An ancestor had changed it to Trump from Drumpf.”

My family name wasn’t originally Skwire. It was Skwirsky. My grandfather and his brothers changed it — right around when Trump’s ancestor changed the family name — because back in those days, it was hard to get jobs in the United States with an obviously foreign name. Trump’s ancestors, I’m sure, did the same thing.

There’s no shame in being from places that aren’t America. There’s no shame in having a last name that’s unusual. And I am bothered by the pleasure we are taking in mocking a name that sounds a little bit funny and a whole lot foreign. It sounds like the kind of rhetoric Trump uses. So I’m not going to indulge.

However.

(And this is a very big “however.”)

I do think there’s something to talk about here, and I don’t think it’s funny at all.

The focus on Trump’s original family name is not analogous to the focus on former Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie’s ample girth. Governor Christie’s poundage was immaterial to his campaign. He has not publically bloviated about the need for the obese to stop being lazy, to start exercising, and to start eating right. He has not signed on to regulatory agendas like former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to control what and how much people eat and drink. He hasn’t, in other words, turned his weight into a centerpiece of his campaign.

Trump, however, has made immigration one of his central issues. Even those of us who have tried desperately to avoid the whole political season have heard that he wants a bigger wall along the border with Mexico, that he wants Mexico to pay for it, and that he would deport 11 million illegal immigrants in short order. A little research turns up Trump’s repeated references to immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. Birthright citizenship is dumb, he opines. And the barriers to immigration should be towering, because, Trump says over and over, the people born here should be our first concern.

It’s not funny that Trump’s family name used to be Drumpf. That’s just a standard American story that most of us probably share. To be an American, for most of us, means we’re not really from around here.

But the idea that we might have an American president who thinks it’s fine for the Drumpf family to come to America and achieve unimagined success in a few generations, but who will do everything possible to keep the Rodriguez family or the Habib family from doing the same?

That’s a tragedy.

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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The Good Old Days of Poverty and Filth – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Economics, History, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
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A Cultural Historian Decries Profit and Progress

Standing in a luxury hotel, cultural historian Luc Sante daydreams about the good old days of homeless alcoholics lighting trash fires in the streets of Manhattan’s Skid Row.

“Over there, next to the flophouse hotel,” Sante reminisced to the Guardian, “is where Nan Goldin lived and worked. Forty years ago there were still lots of vacant lofts here that had been burlesque and vaudeville theatres during the era when storefronts were saloons. There were bars solely inhabited by bums, their heads down on the counter. At night they’d be lined up outside the missions and Salvation Army hostels — veterans from World War Two, from the Korean War, from the Vietnam War. At night, trash fires would be lit in oil drums.”

The French have an elegant phrase for what Sante is doing. They call it nostalgie de la boue, “longing for the mud,” which means a romantic yearning for a primitive or degraded behavior or condition.

The phrase, which was coined by a French dramatist in 1855, has been around for a while and usefully describes the very real way in which the wealthier and healthier inhabitants of modernity look back at the past through a misty, romantic haze.

While it annoys historians when we put a soft-focus filter on history, it doesn’t generally do a lot of damage. We don’t need every medieval romance novel to remind us that the heroine’s breath didn’t smell like cool mint Listerine. It’s probably for the best that the historical re-enactors at Colonial Williamsburg don’t actually use authentic colonial medical remedies for their health problems, and visiting tourists are certainly grateful for modern plumbing and street sanitation. Even the BBC’s determinedly authentic 1900 House had a phone and modern fire protection in case of emergencies.

Any lover of history will occasionally find him or herself dreaming about attending a performance in the pit at Shakespeare’s Globe, or roughing it in the saloons and shacks of a gold rush town. Some of us may even have recently spent an entranced hour or two playing with the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “Design-a-Wig” website. But a good student of history will acknowledge that the Globe was undoubtedly loud, smelly, crowded, and occasionally even dangerous for playgoers. And the rugged romance of the gold rush town is offset by the knowledge that you were probably far more likely to die of gangrene or cholera than you were to strike it even moderately rich. And those glorious 18th-century wigs? Heavy, hot, smelly, and prone to harboring bugs.

But a real case of nostalgie de la boue goes further than the soft-focus filter that ignores the unpleasantness of the past. Rather than ignoring the historical “mud,” nostalgie de la boue actively longs for that kind of unpleasantness and insists that without it, life is less authentic, less meaningful, and altogether worse.

And that is where Luc Sante seems to be. While he is quite correct to note that the ribaldry of Paris has long been a desirable antidote to the humorless Puritanism of American cities, Sante goes entirely off the rails when he insists that his praise for the “materially poor but … imaginatively free and creatively rich” inhabitants of Paris is not a romantic vision.

According to Sante, people ask him, “How can you be promoting the life of the poor in the 19th century when so many of them didn’t eat every day?”

Sante concedes, “Well yeah, it’s bad, but is it really any worse than the situation today when everybody’s fed but you have an incredible percentage of New Yorkers who live in the shelter system – including people who have regular jobs?”

The horrors of the shelter system aside, there’s a great deal to be said for a world where more and more people are fed better every year, and my guess is that a great number of the imaginatively free Parisians that Sante dreams of would have enjoyed the occasional extra baguette. It is possible to value historical creativity and intellectual independence without also having to praise historical dietary deficits. (And it is worth noting, should Sante happen to read this, that the feeding of all those extra people is not due entirely, or even primarily, to “the shelter system.” It’s the market economy and all that goes with it that is making the world better fed every year.)

Sante continues his nostalgia for the mud when he argues, “In the Paris I write about, people ran businesses to make a living, not to make a profit. Cafes, bars: they’re no longer public institutions or part of a community. There’s no possibility for eccentric self-determination amongst the shopkeepers.”

The distinction Sante draws between “making a living” and “making a profit” is not particularly clear to me. It suggests, perhaps, an unstated assumption that there is such a thing as an agreed-upon “correct” amount of profit for a business or businessperson to make — beyond which all profit becomes filthy lucre. Possibly he is making an equally indefensible assumption that businesspeople in the past weren’t interested in being as successful as they could be and that it is only our postmodern cynicism that has unleashed the drive for profit.

Maybe Sante means to say that unlike today’s businesses, the businesses of years ago “made a living” by helping to create a community among their customers rather than just “making a profit” by selling stuff. I think that thousands of today’s small business owners and their Facebook pages, Etsy stores, and farmer’s market stands would beg to differ with his assessment of their importance to their communities.

There’s not necessarily always a problem with nostalgie de la boue. It’s how we got Peaky Blinders, the renewed interest in home canning, restaurants that serve bone marrow, and the great revival of folk music spurred by O Brother Where Art Thou?, after all.

Sante, though, has so much mud in his eyes that he is blind to the tangible and important progress that has been made in human wealth and welfare. His mucky nostalgia leads him to claim that our increasing wealth — which has given us more health, more discretionary income, more food, and more free time — is a danger more pernicious than terrorism. “Money, for me, may not immediately kill people in the way terrorism does, but it does certainly change the fabric of daily life in much deeper and more insidious ways.”

That is a statement of such offensive ignorance that it could only be made by a man standing high above the former Skid Row, looking down through glass, with room service and maid service only a phone call away. I wonder if the men and women in the photographs that Sante treasures would have said the same?

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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The Islamic State by Any Other Name – Article by Sarah Skwire

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The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
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Terrorists Don’t Deserve to Choose What They’re Called

ISIS does not want to be called Daesh. The group considers the acronym insulting and dismissive. An increasing number of its opponents do not want it to be called the “Islamic State.” They fear that this shorthand reifies the terrorist group’s claims to be a legitimate government.

The debate reminds us that names have power.

Avid readers of fairy tales have always known this. Calling Rumpelstiltskin by his real name banishes him and foils his baby-stealing plans. Speaking your name to a witch or wizard can give them power over you. Patrick Rothfuss’s wildly popular Kingkiller Chronicles contains a magic system where learning the name of an element — like the wind — gives a person magical control over it. And everyone knows what happens when you say Beetlejuice’s name three times.

Converts to new religions often take new names to honor the transformation. We mark significant passages in our lives — birth, marriage, death — with new names. Miss Smith becomes Mrs. Jones. Junior becomes Senior when Senior dies. There’s even an old Jewish tradition that says that, in times of serious illness, one should take a new name in order to fool the Angel of Death.

Whether we believe in magic or religion or not, we feel the power of names throughout our lives. Who didn’t go through a childhood phase of wanting a different name? I was wildly jealous of Catholic friends who got to choose confirmation names. A college friend declared that her first day in college was “time to get a nickname” and had us all brainstorm until she found one she liked. It stuck for the whole four years, and long after. Other college friends made legal name changes to more accurately reflect their cultures or their lives. As an adult, I declined to change my name when I got married because I wanted to hold onto myself. I thought for months about choosing my daughters’ names.

I’m a strong advocate of calling people what they like to be called. My kids try on nicknames like I try on jewelry — experimenting with their identities from day to day and solemnly explaining that from now on, they shall answer to nothing other than “Pumpernickel,” or that “Abby” is now verboten and “Abigail” is in favor. I happily acquiesce in all the changes as they figure out who they are. And I love the new nicknames they create for me. (The latest is “Bob,” because that’s what it sounds like when you say “Mom” with a head cold.)

I think, too, that it is important to use the names that transgendered individuals have chosen for themselves, and the pronouns that reflect their gender — even if it’s an awkward or hard-to-remember change for me. The same goes for other communities based on culture, race, religion, or other common identity. At a bare minimum, as we go through the world, we should have the liberty to say peacefully who we are. And it is a small thing for us to do, generally, to give the respect and the acknowledgement that comes with using someone’s requested name.

But ISIS, or Daesh, is another matter entirely.

It is too late to treat Daesh as Yoko Ono requested that John Lennon’s assassin be treated — by denying it the dignity of a name we deign to speak aloud. We have done nothing but name it and talk about it and publicize its actions. It is probably inappropriate for a family publication to suggest that we might take the Wonderella approach to express our contempt. But we certainly can use an accurate translation of the name they have chosen and turn it into a mildly insulting acronym.

Apparently, it bugs them.

Good.

Sarah Skwire is the poetry editor of the Freeman and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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The Science Fiction of Scarcity – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Fiction, Science, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
October 6, 2015
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We Have Such Abundance That We Fantasize about Having Less.

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We all know the scene. The urbane starship captain steps up to the console and requests, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” He waits a second or two until a steaming, perfectly brewed cup shimmers into existence.

From medieval dreams of the Land of Cockaigne, where roofs are shingled with pastries and roasted chickens fly into our waiting mouths, to the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs,” to Star Trek’s replicator, we have imagined the bright futures and the glorious new worlds that would give us instant abundance.

The “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” type of scene is such a standby it even has its own parodies, where instant preference satisfaction is not exactly … satisfying.

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism, and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (Douglas Adams, Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

If we didn’t know what was supposed to happen, and if we didn’t fully expect the future to fulfill our fantasies, and if we didn’t have a certain amount of frustrated experience with modern machines that promise wonders but deliver things that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike them, the scene wouldn’t be funny.

But I find science fiction most compelling when it goes in the other direction — when instead of imagining the end of scarcity, it imagines the end of abundance. The movie Total Recall imagines life on Mars, where even the air is rationed. The gritty reboot of the television series Battlestar Galactica puts us in world where fewer than 50,000 humans have survived and escaped from an enemy attack. The survivors spend much of their time trying to subsist in space amid constant and growing shortages of food, water, fuel, ammunition, and pretty much everything else.

In works like these — and yes, I know their imaginings are as romantic as the imaginings of Star Trek — we get to watch human beings pushed to their limits, using every bit of their ingenuity in order to survive. It was no accident, after all, that Gene Roddenberry called space “the final frontier.”

The latest iteration of this kind of scarcity science fiction is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, the movie version of which premiered October 2. I first learned about The Martian through the XKCD webcomic strip describing the plot as made out of “the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘we have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table of parts or the astronauts will all die.’”

I was sold.

And it’s no spoiler to say that this is precisely the plot of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first people to visit Mars. When the mission goes awry, his crew has to evacuate, and Mark is left behind. Everyone thinks he’s dead.

He’s not, though, and the remainder of the book is caught up in the details of the scarcities he faces, his creative attempts to overcome them, and our nail-biting suspense over whether he can survive one more hour, one more day, and maybe long enough to be rescued. Mark describes his situation like this:

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab [the atmosphere-controlled habitat in which astronauts from his mission could live without wearing spacesuits] designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

Mark’s assessment of his situation, which ends with, “I’m f—ed,” appears on page 7 of the novel. We spend 360 more pages following his solitary attempts to science his way out of the problem. And if you’re at all like me, you won’t be able to put the book down until you find out what happens. Done well, the movie should convey that same nail-biting suspense.

The Martian, and scarcity science fiction in general, is a good reminder to all of us that the real miracle of the market is not the great individual with the great idea, bringing it to fruition and selling it to all of us. The real miracle of the market is that it reliably supplies us, every day, with all the necessities that Mark Watney has to work for so desperately. And it does that by allowing us to cooperate, and to broaden that cooperation beyond our immediate context, to the extended and anonymous world. That long-distance cooperation allows us to access so many different human skills, strengths, and abilities.

With only himself to rely on, Mark (who is primarily a botanist) is painfully aware of the skills he lacks, skills he relied on in his crewmembers who specialize in chemistry, or engineering, or other sciences. While it becomes clear that his botany skills will be a crucial part of his survival, so are all these others, and without any possibility of cooperating, he has to go it alone. He’s in the position of the folks who try to build a toaster entirely from scratch, or make a sandwich all on their own.

I loved reading The Martian, and I can’t wait to see the movie. Stories like this, and like Battlestar Galactica and others, allow me to explore the limits of the human ability to survive. I’m happy to visit those worlds and to entertain myself with their emotional and suspenseful visions of life on the narrowest of possible margins.

But the world I want to live in is the one where cooperation, through the mechanisms of the market, brings us movies about scarcity and survival, while outside the movie theater we enjoy real-life abundance. And also, maybe one day, a replicator that will allow my own cup of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” to shimmer miraculously into being.

Sarah Skwire is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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The War on Air Conditioning Heats Up – Is Climate Control Immoral? – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Economics, Science, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSarah Skwire
August 13, 2015
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It started with the Pope. In his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, he singled out air conditioning as a particularly good example of wasteful habits and excessive consumption that overcome our better natures:

People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning.

Now, it seems to be open season on air conditioning. From a raging Facebook debate over an article that claims that air conditioning is an oppressive tool of the patriarchy to an article in the Washington Post that calls the American use of air conditioning an “addiction” and compares it unfavorably to the European willingness to sweat through the heat of summer, air conditioning is under attack. So I want to defend it.

Understand that when I defend air conditioning, I do so as something of a reluctant proponent. I grew up in the Midwest, and I have always loved sitting on the screened-in porch, rocking on the porch swing, drinking a glass of something cold. I worked in Key West during the summer after my sophomore year of college, lived in an apartment with no air conditioning, and discovered the enormous value of ceiling fans. A lazy, hot summer day can be a real pleasure.

However, let’s not kid ourselves. There were frequent nights in my childhood when it was just too hot to sleep, and the entire family would hunker down in the one air-conditioned room of the house — my father’s attic study — to cool off at night. When we moved from that house to a place that had central air, none of us complained.

And after my recent article on home canning, my friend Kathryn wrote to say,

When I was growing up in the Deep South, everybody I knew had a garden, shelled beans and peas, and canned. It could have been an Olympic event. What I remember most — besides how good the food was — is how hot it was, all those hours spent over huge pots of boiling something or other on the stove in a house with no air conditioning.

There’s a lot to be said for being able to cook in comfort and to enjoy the screened-in porch by choice rather than necessity. Making your family more comfortable is one of the great advantages of an increasingly wealthy society, after all.

So when I read that the US Department of Energy says that you can save about 11 percent on your electric bill by raising the thermostat from 72 to 77 degrees, mostly I want to invite the Department of Energy to come over to my 1929 bungalow and see if they can get any sleep in my refinished attic bedroom when the thermostat is set to 77 degrees, but the room temperature is a cozy 80-something.

And when I read Petula Dvorak arguing that air conditioning is a tool of sexism because “all these women [are freezing] who actually dress for the season — linens, sundresses, flowy silk shirts, short-sleeve tops — changing their wardrobes to fit the sweltering temperatures around them. … And then there are the men, stalwart in their business armor, manipulating their environment for their own comfort, heaven forbid they make any adjustments in what they wear,” mostly I want to ask her if she’s read the dress codes for most professional offices. In my office, women can wear sleeveless tops and open-toed shoes in the summer. Men have to wear a jacket and tie. Air conditioning isn’t sexist. Modern dress codes very well might be.

But arguments based on nostalgia or gender are mostly easily dismissed. Moral arguments, like those made by Pope Francis or by those who are concerned about the environmental and energy impact of air conditioning, are more serious and require real attention.

Is it immoral to use air conditioning?

Pope Francis certainly suggests it is. And the article in the Washington Post that compares US and European air conditioning use agrees, suggesting that the United States prefers the short-term benefits of air conditioning over the long-term dangers of potential global warming — and that our air conditioning use “will make it harder for the US to ask other countries to continue to abstain from using it to save energy.” We are meant to be deeply concerned about the global environmental impact as countries like India, Indonesia, and Brazil become wealthy enough to afford widespread air conditioning. We are meant to set a good example.

But two months before the Washington Post worried that the United States has made it difficult to persuade India not to use air conditioning, 2,500 Indians died in one of the worst heat waves in the country’s history. This June, 780 people died in a four-day heat wave in Karachi, Pakistan. And in 2003, a heat wave that spanned Europe killed 70,000. Meanwhile, in the United States, heat causes an average of only 618 deaths per year, and the more than 5,000 North American deaths in the un-air-conditioned days of 1936 remain a grim outlier.

Air conditioning is not immoral. Possessing a technology that can prevent mortality numbers like these and not using it? That’s immoral.

Air conditioning is, for most of us, a small summertime luxury. For others, it is a life-saving necessity. I am sure that it has environmental effects. Benefits always have costs, and there’s no such thing as a free climate-controlled lunch. But rather than addressing those costs by trying to limit the use of air conditioning and by insisting that developing nations not use the technologies that rocketed the developed world to success, perhaps we should be focusing on innovating new kinds of air conditioning that can keep us cool at a lesser cost.

I bet the kids who will invent that technology have already been born. I pray that they do not die in a heat wave before they can share it with us.

Sarah Skwire is a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Little Free Libraries: A Love Letter – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Culture, Education, Self-Improvement, Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Sarah Skwire
February 14, 2015
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Still falling for the written word, despite America’s killjoys

The Little Free Library movement began in 2009 when Todd Bol built a miniature model schoolhouse, put it on a post in his front yard, filled it with books, and put up a sign stating, “Free Books.” It was a way to honor his mom — a former school teacher — and to share his love of reading with his neighborhood. The idea took off, and now there are thousands of Little Free Libraries.

The idea is simple. You put a small book box up on a post in your front yard, stock it with books, and people who are passing by on the way to the park, or the mailbox, or the ice cream store, or the coffee shop grab a book, read it, and return it later. Or maybe they keep it and replace it with one of their own. It’s a quiet way of building community and of sharing the pleasure of books with your neighbors. It’s simple. It’s something one person can do to make a difference.

So, naturally, people want to shut it down.

Shreveport, Louisiana, recently declared Little Free Libraries to be “commercial enterprises,” which cannot operate in residential zones. Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, told citizens that Little Free Libraries could only be put in backyards — which completely destroys the whole idea of offering books to casual passers-by. Leawood, Kansas, made a nine-year-old take down his Little Free Library until the town council managed to pass an emergency moratorium that allowed him to return it to his yard. As soon as the Little Free Libraries go up, it seems, some killjoy finds them annoying and wants them taken down.

I know a lot of words. I’m not sure I have any that are harsh enough for people who want to stop others from making it easy and pleasant and fun and free to bring a book into your life.

Maybe that’s because I remember almost nothing that happened before the day I learned to read. But I do remember the day I learned. I was 3 1/2. My brother had just started kindergarten and was learning how to read. In the grand tradition of annoying little sisters everywhere, I immediately insisted on doing the same. So my earliest clear memories are of sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor while Mom loaded the dishwasher and listened to me sound out Arnold Lobel’s Small Pig one slow and painstaking phoneme at a time.

Vacuum.

Cement.

The words were difficult. But I was stubborn, and Mom was patient.

Over the course of two weeks or so, I read the whole book. By myself.

Having figured out the general principle, I assumed I could read anything and everything. And so I did. I stayed up past midnight to finish the Wizard of Oz because I had to make sure that Dorothy got home okay. I sat on the sidelines at recess, reading. I walked into more than a few walls, reading. And the local library should probably have named a wing after me because I racked up so many late fees on books I just couldn’t bear to give back.

Miserable and lonely middle school years were leavened by friends in books and by fantasy novels about escapes to other worlds. Heartbreaks in high school were softened by Jane Austen’s wit and by the greater tragedies in Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Well-thumbed, borrowed paperbacks of Interview with the Vampire and Forever Amber provided another kind of education. And college? And graduate school? Orgies of the written word.

I loved all of it. I still love all of it. From the most erudite and complex poetry to comic books and genre fiction to (when I’m really stuck) the text on the back of the cereal box, my first and best and longest-lasting romance has been with the written word.

It started with Small Pig. It started on the kitchen floor. I fell in love, and I have never stopped falling.

And because I am so smitten, I want everyone else to be. I write this column and post on Facebook and annoy my friends by evangelizing about my latest book obsessions because I want a world of people whose minds and lives and hearts are changed by reading. I want a world of people who have the chance to have the experience that Quilliam founder Maajid Nawaz had when he read Orwell. Reading, he realized that if the jihadis with whom he was allied ever achieved their goals, “they would be the Islamist equivalent of Animal Farm.” I want a world of people who find books that overturn everything they think is true and that challenge them to become better.

I want a world of people who do what Yeon-mi Park did. After escaping North Korea, she “read and read and read, even when I didn’t know what I was reading.” She read Orwell, too, and found that “it made complete sense to me. I was still so angry and hateful at this time because of the way I’d been treated.” Reading Gandhi and Mandela, she says, taught her compassion to balance that anger.

And because I want that world — a world where we exchange books and ideas peacefully and productively — the people who began and spread the Little Free Library movement are some of my heroes.

So I thought I’d write them a love letter.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Sarah Skwire is a fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

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Mockingjay: Are You Uncomfortable? – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Culture, Fiction, Politics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Sarah Skwire
December 4, 2014
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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One, directed by Francis Lawrence, 2014.

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay, Scholastic Press, 2010.

Mockingjay – Part One is an uncomfortable movie. I suspect this is why it has not been greeted with the praise that was heaped on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. But I’m glad this first part of Mockingjay isn’t comfortable. It’s not supposed to be.

As Mockingjay opens, Katniss Everdeen has been rescued from her second appearance in the vicious Hunger Games — where the children of formerly rebellious districts battle to the death to entertain the pampered citizens of the tyrannical Capitol — and is being sheltered by the residents of District 13. Formerly an area that specialized in nuclear technology and military weaponry, District 13 is the only district in Katniss’s country of Panem that can hope to have the wherewithal to overthrow the Capitol’s control.

Katniss, as the winner of one Hunger Games and the destroyer of the arena where the even more vicious “Quarter Quell” Hunger Games took place, is a potent symbol of survival and resistance. Peeta Mellark — her friend and co-competitor — is another.

Much of the plot of this first of two Mockingjay movies focuses on the machinations the two sides in the battle for Panem engage in to use Katniss and Peeta as symbols for their sides. Katniss, who had been forced to do endless public appearances as part of the publicity for the Hunger Games, is blunt about her lack of enthusiasm for this role.

What they want is for me to truly take on the role they designed for me. The symbol of the revolution. The Mockingjay. It isn’t enough, what I’ve done in the past, defying the Capitol in the Games, providing a rallying point. I must now become the actual leader, the fact, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution.…They have a whole team of people to make me over, dress me, write my speeches, orchestrate my appearances — as if that doesn’t sound horribly familiar — and all I have to do is play my part.

Katniss is, quite simply, tired of being used.

That exhaustion runs through the novel and was, for me, convincingly portrayed in the film. Watching Katniss be primped and dressed, yet again, to appear before the public and mouth unconvincing sentiments written for her by others; watching Katniss, yet again, realize that the survival of her family and her friends turns on her ability to persuade the people in charge of her that she is really trying her best to sell herself — we’re exhausted just watching.

But I think Mockingjay should make us more than just worn out. I think that if we’re watching carefully, it should make us very, very nervous as well.

I want to avoid potentially spoiling the second Mockingjay movie for those who haven’t read all the novels. So I shall just mention a few things that struck me, watching the film this week.

Did you notice how the leader of District 13, President Coin, first appeared as an administrator, reluctant to “use up all the air in the room” by giving long and flashy speeches? Did you notice that by the end of the film, she appeared to thoroughly enjoy her time on the balcony, to extend it, and to lengthen and elaborate her speeches? Did you notice her insistence on bringing Katniss out onto the balcony with her? Did you think, then, about Lord Acton’s warnings about the inevitable corruption that comes with power?

Did you notice that during the air raid, Plutarch Heavensbee — former game designer of the Hunger Games — sat beside President Coin while she ordered the oxygen in the District 13 bunkers to be cut to 14  percent? Did you remember, then, the way that Heavensbee ordered various torments added to the Hunger Games — poison gases, dangerous predators, fires, and floods — in order to produce a more interesting spectacle?

Did you notice how awkward it was, knowing Katniss’s whole history, to applaud and cheer for what should be a very sympathetic Hollywood-style band of brave rebels as they held up Katniss and her fellow shell-shocked competitors as little more than battle flags?

Did Mockingjay make you a little uncomfortable?

It should have.

And if the second film follows the plot of the novel, things are only going to get more uncomfortable from here on out.

When the lives of individuals are used as symbols for the purposes of politics, no one wins but the politicians. For those waiting to see the second half of Mockingjay, the question is whether everything that is human in Katniss — her love for her sister, her confused affections for Peeta and Gale Hawthorne, her complex friendships with people like Effie Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy — will be subsumed into the contested symbol of the Mockingjay. Or will Katniss be able to find a way, for one last time, to thwart those who want to use her as part of a bloody spectacle?

Sarah Skwire is a fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.

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This Isn’t the Way To Do Business: Review of John O’Hara’s “From the Terrace” – Article by Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Business, Economics, Education, Fiction, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance Hat
Sarah Skwire
October 6, 2013
Recommend this page.
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John O’Hara. From the Terrace. New York: Carroll and Graff, [1959] 1999. 897 pages.

John O’Hara’s From the Terrace, a sprawling novel of business and politics, traces the career of Alfred Eaton from his boyhood in small-town Pennsylvania to his work in business, banking, D.C. politics, and, finally, to his retirement in California. As Howard Thompson observed in his New York Times review of the 1960 film adaptation, its director “logically . . . settled for about fifteen years” of the story. And I’d like to focus in even more closely—on a single conversation.

After college and World War I, Alfred and his friend Lex Porter decide to start an aviation company. Lex and his family will contribute the funding, Alfred will serve as the business manager, and they will hire an outside designer. Their goal is to do for airplanes what Ford, Dodge, and others have done for cars. As Alfred explains in a conversation with his father:

“We’re not deceiving ourselves. All we know is that aviation is the coming industry in this country. In ten years everybody’s going to want aeroplanes.”

“Personally, I’d rather have some Dodge Brothers, common or preferred.”

“Who wouldn’t? That’s a sure thing, for those who like sure things, and I like sure things, too. But we’re hoping to be Dodges.”

With the perfect hindsight the 21st century offers, we know the enterprise is doomed from the moment we hear about it. Personal planes still haven’t replaced the car and aren’t likely to. But from the standpoint of an entrepreneur in 1920, it’s a pretty good idea.

It’s a pretty good idea, that is, until Alfred, Lex, and their designer Von Elm try to get down to business. While they begin with a fairly clear plan to “build a small aeroplane of up-to-the-minute design and highest quality workmanship, built to sell to men who could afford Rolls-Royce automobiles,” they rapidly move away from this plan into a deadlock between the demands of practicality and the desire for perfect design. Lex, who wants to experiment and constantly change designs, argues, “If we sell an aeroplane in, say, November 1921, and another one in December 1921, the December one may be so different that you wouldn’t recognize it as coming from the same maker.”

Alfred quite rightly protests that this is no way to do business:

Let’s not think we’re going to build custom-made aeroplanes. I don’t care how much we charge for the aeroplane, we’re not going to start making money until we can produce it in some quantity. We ought to build next November’s aeroplane and manufacture it, produce it, till we have, say, fifty sold. And a year later we manufacture the new model, with all those refinements you speak of. We don’t sit around waiting for some guy to come and ask us to build a special ship for him. We make fifty and sell them.

As he later points out, all this chopping and changing requires only one thing—and that isn’t entrepreneurship or business acumen. It’s an “inexhaustible bank account.” Lex’s response to such critiques is telling: “Jesus H. Christ! Are we going to build Dodges? I thought we were going to build a fine aeroplane.”

This criticism of the very company that Alfred calls a “sure thing” and that he takes as his model, along with the conflict the criticism suggests, are at the very center of their business. It leads to Lex and Von Elm buying expensive engines without Alfred’s approval. It leads to a rift in their perceptions of the business and their plans for its future, and it leads to the company’s eventual collapse.

In my last column I praised the entrepreneurial spirit. And I am an enormous fan of the guts and drive, the expertise and steadfastness necessary in order to start and run one’s own company. But not everyone should do it. Lex shouldn’t do it. He wants to build planes. He wants to design planes. He doesn’t care if he sells them.

We’ve heard a lot lately in the media about how everyone doesn’t need to go to college, and how the ever-growing burden of student loan debt sometimes turns out to have been a bad risk for students, particularly in our sluggish economy. But while I am deeply concerned about that, I am equally concerned about glossing over the rigors of starting, running, and maintaining a business. It would be irresponsible, no matter how much we love entrepreneurship, to let students think that it is somehow a sure road to success, or a straight line to the top, or easier and more certain than a college education. And not only is it irresponsible, it’s insulting to the entrepreneurs who know exactly how much work it takes to get to the top—or even the middle—of an industry.

Expertise in entrepreneurship, like expertise in metaphysical poetry or string theory, is hard to come by. You have to study it, work at it, fail at it, and then do it some more until you get it right. It is a great road for those who are drawn to it. But like metaphysical poetry or string theory, it’s not a road for everyone.

Sarah Skwire is a fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.
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