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Socialism Is War and War Is Socialism – Both Forms of Central Planning Are Reactionary, Not Progressive – Article by Steven Horwitz

Socialism Is War and War Is Socialism – Both Forms of Central Planning Are Reactionary, Not Progressive – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
June 10, 2015
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“[Economic] planning does not accidentally deteriorate into the militarization of the economy; it is the militarization of the economy.… When the story of the Left is seen in this light, the idea of economic planning begins to appear not only accidentally but inherently reactionary. The theory of planning was, from its inception, modeled after feudal and militaristic organizations. Elements of the Left tried to transform it into a radical program, to fit into a progressive revolutionary vision. But it doesn’t fit. Attempts to implement this theory invariably reveal its true nature. The practice of planning is nothing but the militarization of the economy.”

—Don Lavoie, National Economic Planning: What Is Left?

Libertarians have long confounded our liberal and conservative friends by being both strongly in favor of free markets and strongly opposed to militarism and foreign intervention. In the conventional world of “right” and “left,” this combination makes no sense. Libertarians are often quick to point out the ways in which free trade, both within and across national borders, creates cooperative interdependencies among those who trade, thereby reducing the likelihood of war. The long classical liberal tradition is full of those who saw the connection between free trade and peace.

But there’s another side to the story, which is that socialism and economic planning have a long and close connection with war and militarization.

As Don Lavoie argues at length in his wonderful and underappreciated 1985 book National Economic Planning: What Is Left?, any attempt to substitute economic planning (whether comprehensive and central or piecemeal and decentralized) for markets inevitably ends up militarizing and regimenting the society. Lavoie points out that this outcome was not an accident. Much of the literature defending economic planning worked from a militaristic model. The “success” of economic planning associated with World War I provided early 20th century planners with a specific historical model from which to operate.

This connection should not surprise those who understand the idea of the market as a spontaneous order. As good economists from Adam Smith to F.A. Hayek and beyond have appreciated, markets are the products of human action but not human design. No one can consciously direct an economy. In fact, Hayek in particular argued that this is true not just of the economy, but of society in general: advanced commercial societies are spontaneous orders along many dimensions.

Market economies have no purpose of their own, or as Hayek put it, they are “ends-independent.” Markets are simply means by which people come together to pursue the various ends that each person or group has. You and I don’t have to agree on which goals are more or less important in order to participate in the market.

The same is true of other spontaneous orders. Consider language. We can both use English to construct sentences even if we wish to communicate different, or contradictory, things with the language.

One implication of seeing the economy as a spontaneous order is that it lacks a “collective purpose.” There is no single scale of values that guides us as a whole, and there is no process by which resources, including human resources, can be marshaled toward those collective purposes.

The absence of such a collective purpose or common scale of values is one factor that explains the connection between war and socialism. They share a desire to remake the spontaneous order of society into an organization with a single scale of values, or a specific purpose. In a war, the overarching goal of defeating the enemy obliterates the ends-independence of the market and requires that hierarchical control be exercised in order to direct resources toward the collective purpose of winning the war.

In socialism, the same holds true. To substitute economic planning for the market is to reorganize the economy to have a single set of ends that guides the planners as they allocate resources. Rather than being connected with each other by a shared set of means, as in private property, contracts, and market exchange, planning connects people by a shared set of ends. Inevitably, this will lead to hierarchy and militarization, because those ends require trying to force people to behave in ways that contribute to the ends’ realization. And as Hayek noted in The Road to Serfdom, it will also lead to government using propaganda to convince the public to share a set of values associated with some ends. We see this tactic in both war and socialism.

As Hayek also pointed out, this is an atavistic desire. It is a way for us to try to recapture the world of our evolutionary past, where we existed in small, homogeneous groups in which hierarchical organization with a common purpose was possible. Deep in our moral instincts is a desire to have the solidarity of a common purpose and to organize resources in a way that enables us to achieve it.

Socialism and war appeal to so many because they tap into an evolved desire to be part of a social order that looks like an extended family: the clan or tribe. Soldiers are not called “bands of brothers” and socialists don’t speak of “a brotherhood of man” by accident. Both groups use the same metaphor because it works. We are susceptible to it because most of our history as human beings was in bands of kin that were largely organized in this way.

Our desire for solidarity is also why calls for central planning on a smaller scale have often tried to claim their cause as the moral equivalent of war. This is true on both the left and right. We have had the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, and the War on Terror, among others. And we are “fighting,” “combating,” and otherwise at war with our supposedly changing climate — not to mention those thought to be responsible for that change. The war metaphor is the siren song of those who would substitute hierarchy and militarism for decentralized power and peaceful interaction.

Both socialism and war are reactionary, not progressive. They are longings for an evolutionary past long gone, and one in which humans lived lives that were far worse than those we live today. Truly progressive thinking recognizes the limits of humanity’s ability to consciously construct and control the social world. It is humble in seeing how social norms, rules, and institutions that we did not consciously construct enable us to coordinate the actions of billions of anonymous actors in ways that enable them to create incredible complexity, prosperity, and peace.

The right and left do not realize that they are both making the same error. Libertarians understand that the shared processes of spontaneous orders like language and the market can enable all of us to achieve many of our individual desires without any of us dictating those values for others. By contrast, the right and left share a desire to impose their own sets of values on all of us and thereby fashion the world in their own images.

No wonder they don’t understand us.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

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.

Microaggressions and Microwonders – Are Mountains Out of Molehills Proof the World’s Getting Better? – Article by Steven Horwitz

Microaggressions and Microwonders – Are Mountains Out of Molehills Proof the World’s Getting Better? – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
May 27, 2015
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A recurring theme of recent human history is that the less of something bad we see in the world around us, the more outrage we generate about the remaining bits.

For example, in the 19th century, outrage about child labor grew as the frequency of child labor was shrinking. Economic forces, not legislation, had raised adult wages to a level at which more and more families did not need additional income from children to survive, and children gradually withdrew from the labor force. As more families enjoyed having their children at home or in school longer, they became less tolerant of those families whose situations did not allow them that luxury, and the result was the various moral crusades, and then laws, against child labor.

We have seen the same process at work with cigarette smoking in the United States. As smoking has declined over the last generation or two, we have become ever less tolerant of those who continue to smoke. Today, that outrage continues in the form of new laws against vaping and e-cigarettes.

The ongoing debate over “rape culture” is another manifestation of this phenomenon. During the time that reasonably reliable statistics on rape in the United States have been collected, rape has never been less frequent than it is now, and it is certainly not as institutionalized as a practice in the Western world as it was in the past. Yet despite this decline — or in fact because of it — our outrage at the rape that remains has never been higher.

The talk of the problem of “microaggressions” seems to follow this same pattern. The term refers to the variety of verbal and nonverbal forms of communication that are said to constitute disrespect for particular groups, especially those who have been historically marginalized. So, for example, the use of exclusively masculine pronouns might be construed as a “microaggression” against women, or saying “ladies and gentlemen” might be seen as a microaggression against transsexuals. The way men take up more physical space on a train or bus, or the use of the phrase “walk-only zones” (which might offend the wheelchair-bound) to describe pedestrian crossways, are other examples.

Those who see themselves as the targets of microaggressions have often become very effective entrepreneurs of outrage in trying to parlay these perceived slights into indications of much more pervasive problems of sexism or racism and the like. Though each microaggression individually might not seem like much, they add up. So goes the argument.

I don’t want to totally dismiss the underlying point here, as it is certainly true that people say and do things (often unintentionally) that others will find demeaning, but I do want to note how this cultural phenomenon fits the pattern identified above. We live in a society in which the races and genders (and classes!) have never been more equal. Really profound racism and sexism is far less prominent today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. In a country where the president is a man of color and where one of our richest entertainers is a woman of color, it’s hard to argue that there hasn’t been significant progress.

But it is exactly that progress that leads to the outrage over microaggressions. Having steadily pushed back the more overt and damaging forms of inequality, and having stigmatized them as morally offensive, we have less tolerance for the smaller bits that remain. As a result, we take small behaviors that are often completely unintended as offenses and attempt to magnify them into the moral equivalent of past racism or sexism. Even the co-opting of the word “aggression” to describe what is, in almost all cases, behavior that is completely lacking in actual aggression is an attempt to magnify the moral significance of those behaviors.

Even if we admit that some of such behaviors may well reflect various forms of animus, there are two problems with the focus on microaggressions.

First, where do we draw the line? Once these sorts of behaviors are seen as slights with the moral weight of racism or sexism, we can expect to see anyone and everyone who feels slighted about anything someone else said or did declare it a “microaggression” and thereby try to capture the same moral high ground.

We are seeing this already, especially on college campuses, where even the mere discussion of controversial ideas that might make some groups uncomfortable is being declared to be a microaggression. In some cases this situation is leading faculty to stop teaching anything beyond the bland.

Second, moral equivalence arguments can easily backfire. For example, if we, as some feminists were trying to do in the 1980s, treat pornography as the equivalent of rape, hoping to make porn look worse, we might end up causing people to treat real physical rape less seriously given that they think porn is largely harmless.

So it goes with microaggressions: if we try to raise men taking up too much room on a bus seat into a serious example of sexism, then we risk people reacting by saying, “Well, if that’s what sexism is, then why should I really worry too much about sexism?” The danger is that when far more troubling examples of sexism or racism appear (for example, the incarceration rates of African-American men), we might be inclined to treat them less seriously.

It is tempting to want to flip the script on the entrepreneurs of microaggression outrages and start to celebrate their outrages as evidence of how far we’ve come. If men who take the middle armrest on airplanes (as obnoxious as that might be) are a major example of gender inequality, we have come far indeed. But as real examples of sexism and racism and the like do still exist, I’d prefer another strategy to respond to the talk of microaggressions.

Let’s spend more time celebrating the “microwonders” of the modern world. Just as microaggression talk magnifies the small pockets of inequality left and seems to forget the larger story of social progress, so does our focus on large social and economic problems in general cause us to forget the larger story of progress that is often manifested in tiny ways.

We live in the future that prior generations only imagined. We have the libraries of the world in our pockets. We have ways of easily connecting with friends and strangers across the world. We can have goods and even services of higher quality and lower cost, often tailored to our particular desires, delivered to our door with a few clicks of a button. We have medical advances that make our lives better in all kinds of small ways. We have access to a variety of food year-round that no king in history had. The Internet brings us happiness every day through the ability to watch numerous moments of humor, human triumph, and joy.

Even as we recognize that the focus on microaggressions means we have not yet eliminated every last trace of inequality, we should also recognize that it means we’ve come very far. And we should not hesitate to celebrate the microwonders of progress that often get overlooked in our laudable desire to continue to repair an imperfect world.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

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.

Fooled by GDP: Economic Activity versus Economic Growth – Article by Steven Horwitz

Fooled by GDP: Economic Activity versus Economic Growth – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
May 4, 2015
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Even the smartest of economists can make the simplest of mistakes. Two recent books, Violence and Social Orders by Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast and Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson both suffer from misunderstanding the concept of economic growth. Both books speak of the high growth rates in the Soviet economy in the mid-20th century. Even if the authors rightly note that such rates could not be sustained, they are still assuming that the aggregate measures they rely on as evidence of growth, such as GDP, really did reflect improvements in the lives of Soviet citizens. It is not clear that such aggregates are good indicators of genuine economic growth.

These misunderstandings of economic growth take two forms. One form is to assume that the traditional measurements we use to track economic activity also describe economic growth, and the other form is to mistake the production of material things for economic growth.

Often at the core of this confusion is the concept of gross domestic product (GDP). Although it is the most frequently used indicator of economic growth, what it really measures is economic activity. GDP is calculated by attempting to measure the market value of final goods and services produced in a particular geographic area over a specific period. By “final” goods and services, we mean the goods and services purchased by the end consumer, and that means excluding the various exchanges of inputs that went into making them. We count the loaf of bread you buy for sandwiches, but not the purchase of flour by the firm that produced the bread.

What GDP does not distinguish, however, is whether the exchanges that are taking place — even the total quantity of final goods — actually improve human lives.

That improvement is what we should be counting as economic growth. Two quick examples can illustrate this point.

First, nations that devote a great deal of resources to building enormous monuments to their leaders will see their GDP rise as a result. The purchase of the final goods and labor services to make such monuments will add to GDP, but whether they improve human lives and should genuinely constitute “economic growth” is much less obvious. GDP tells us nothing about whether the uses of the final goods and services that it measures are better than their alternative uses.

Second, consider how often people point to the supposed silver lining of natural disasters: all the jobs that will be created in the recovery process. I am writing this column at the airport in New Orleans, where, after Katrina, unemployment was very low and GDP measures were high. All of that cleanup activity counted as part of GDP, but I don’t think we want to say that rebuilding a devastated city is “economic growth” — or even that it’s any kind of silver lining. At best, such activity just returns us to where we were before the disaster, having used up in the process resources that could have been devoted to improving lives.

GDP measures economic activity, which may or may not constitute economic growth. In this way, it is like body weight. We can imagine two men who both weigh 250 pounds. One could be a muscular, fit professional athlete with very low body fat, and the other might be on the all-Cheetos diet. Knowing what someone weighs doesn’t tell us if it’s fat or muscle. GDP tells us that people are producing things but says nothing about whether those things are genuinely improving people’s lives.

The Soviet Union could indeed produce “stuff,” but when you look at the actual lives of the typical citizen, the stuff being produced did not translate into meaningful improvements in those lives.

Improving lives is what we really care about when we talk about economic growth.

The second confusion is a particular version of the first one. Too often, we think that economic growth is all about the production of material goods. We see this in discussions of the US economy, where the (supposed) decline of manufacturing is pointed to as a symptom of a poorly growing economy. But if economic growth is really about the accumulation of wealth — which is, in turn, about people acquiring things they value more — then material goods alone aren’t the issue. More physical stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff is improving lives.

More important, though, is that what really matters is subjective value. The purchase of a service is no less able to improve our lives, and thereby be a source of economic growth, than are the production and purchase of material goods. In fact, what we really care about when we purchase a material good is not the thing itself, but the stream of services it can provide us. The laptop I’m working on is valuable because it provides me with a whole bunch of services (word processing, games, Internet access, etc.) that I value highly. It is the subjective satisfaction of wants that we really care about, and whether that comes from a physical good or from human labor does not matter.

This point is particularly obvious in the digital and sharing economies, where so much value is created not through the production of stuff, but by using the things we have more efficiently and precisely. Uber doesn’t require the production of more cars, and Airbnb doesn’t require the production of more dwellings. But by using existing resources better, we create value — and that is what we mean by economic growth.

So what should we look at instead of GDP as we try to ascertain whether we are experiencing economic growth? Look at living standards: of average people, and especially of poor people. How easily can they obtain the basics of life? How many hours do they have to work to do so? Look at the division of labor. How fine is it? Are people able to specialize in narrow areas and still find demand for their products and services?

Economic growth is not the same as economic activity. It’s not about just making more exchanges or producing more stuff. It’s ultimately about getting people the things they want at progressively lower cost, and thereby improving their well-being. That’s what markets have done for the last two centuries. For those of us who understand this point, it’s important not to assume that higher rates of GDP growth or the increased production of physical stuff automatically means we are seeing growth.

Real economic growth is about improving people’s subjective well-being, and that is sometimes harder to see even as the evidence for it is all around us.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

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.

Droughts, Famines, and Markets – Article by Steven Horwitz

Droughts, Famines, and Markets – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
August 28, 2012
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As I write, many high school students all over the United States, my daughter included, are reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with its portrayal of the 1930s Dust Bowl, in preparation for literature courses in the fall.  Steinbeck’s fictional account vividly captures the suffering endured by many Americans due to the severe drought, poor farming techniques, and ensuing dust storms in Texas, Oklahoma, and other states.

With the U.S. Midwest stricken by drought this summer, it’s worth considering why the crop failures there have not led to food shortages and other serious problems.

It’s also worth considering why famines, which occurred with regularity for most of human history, have all but disappeared in the last 100 years or so.

The answer is: the market and globalization.  This combination, for reasons I explore below, enables humanity to be far less at the mercy of the weather and provides us with ways to ensure that food gets to where it needs to go.

Markets help us avoid famines in two ways.  First, the innovation made possible by the search for profit and the relative freedom of markets in the western world have increased agricultural productivity by an order of magnitude.  We feed a planet of almost 7 billion reasonably well–although not as well as we might like–and we do it with a decreasing number of people and acres of land.  The United States can feed its own population and still export grain to the rest of the world–even as farmers are forced to divert corn to boondoggles like ethanol.  We are at less risk for famines simply because we can produce more food with fewer resources, and even if one large crop fails, we have more large crops elsewhere to make up the loss.

Signals

The second way markets help is that price and profit signals inform producers where foodstuffs are in short supply and simultaneously provide incentives to get the food there.  Prices are an incentive wrapped in knowledge, enabling them to serve as traffic signals to ensure that no one goes without. True, food may be more expensive during a drought, but that is far better than no food at all, as was often the case in human history.

We see these processes at work right now.  The drought in the middle of America destroyed a good deal of the corn crop in Indiana and Iowa.  Meanwhile, farmers in places like Washington state and Virginia have largely escaped unscathed.  The short supply in the Midwest drives up prices and signals to producers elsewhere that profit opportunities exist in those places; the incentive associated with that signal leads farmers to get their crops to where the demand is.  Yes, the higher prices mean that folks will be a little worse off, but corn is in fact more scarce, so those higher prices are not the result of farmers exploiting the drought, but rather a reflection of genuinely shorter supply.

The price signals might also cause corn producers to divert some corn from other uses to food for humans. Such substitution is only possible because market prices provide the needed knowledge and incentives. In a world without markets, producers could not get information so easily and effectively; nor would they have the incentive to respond appropriately. More famines would result.

Globalization

Finally, globalization has nearly eradicated famines.  All the market processes I have identified are even more effective when the area of trade expands.  When commodity markets are global, countries facing droughts and bad harvests have a whole world from which they can attract new supplies.  The United States is not limited to tapping farmers in Washington and Virginia. It can attract corn from around the world.  In fact, Canadian farmers have had a much better year and are already seeing higher prices for their exports to the United States.  Canadians will pay a bit more for their grains as a result, but prices in the United States will be significantly lower than they would be without the Canadian imports.

As Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu point out in their wonderful new book, The Locavore’s Dilemma, the belief that making food production and distribution more local and less global will increase “food security” has it exactly backward.  The most important thing we can do to ensure a secure food supply in the face of droughts and other threats to the harvest is to allow markets to work freely and extend that freedom globally.

We cannot control the weather, so the threat of drought is always present. But we can unleash the market and further globalize food production to avoid the human disaster of famines when harvests go bad.  The conquering of famine is one of the great human accomplishments of the last century.  That no one is starving because of the drought this summer is evidence of that victory.  Let’s not let the forces of locavorism reverse those gains.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

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.

Sunk Costs: There’s No Crying Over Spilled Milk – Article by Steven Horwitz

Sunk Costs: There’s No Crying Over Spilled Milk – Article by Steven Horwitz

The New Renaissance Hat
Steven Horwitz
July 29, 2012
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Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan is fond of saying, “It takes varied reiterations to force alien concepts on unwilling minds.” That aphorism is surely true. Many basic ideas in economics require repeated attempts at explanation, and a variety of applications, before people fully grasp them and their importance. The one I want to focus on today is the concept of sunk costs and the related sunk-cost fallacy.

Understanding the concept of sunk costs first requires that one understand that, for economists, what matters for decision-making is what we call “action on the margin.” By “the margin” we simply mean the action we will take with respect to the concrete choice before us. When deciding whether a particular choice is worth making, the economic way of thinking tells us to compare the additional benefits that will come from that choice to the additional costs it will entail. This type of thinking then counsels: “Choose the option that delivers the greatest net additional benefits.”

Focusing on the additional benefits and costs that come from that specific action is what economists mean by acting on the margin. To forestall one objection, I will point out that what counts as a benefit or cost is of course subjective to the chooser. You and I could be in the identical situations but appraise the costs and benefits differently, and thereby end up making different choices. Economics says nothing about what should count as a benefit or cost, only that, whatever one chooses to count as benefits and costs, one should focus on the additional, or marginal, benefits and costs of a particular option and go with the one delivering the greatest net marginal benefits.

Irrelevant for Next Decision

An implication of this point is that costs that have already been incurred and that will not change with any of the specific choices now at the margin should be irrelevant to one’s decision. These are what we call sunk costs: The resources cannot be recovered, hence the costs are sunk. Such sunk costs should not matter for one’s next decision; only the costs now at the margin of choice count. No matter what we choose next, we can’t change the fact that we spent those resources in the past.

The idea of the irrelevance of sunk costs is all around us in folk wisdom and other places. For example, good poker players understand the idea when they say, “Don’t throw good money after bad.” Sometimes novice players will think, “Well, I’ve already bet five dollars on this hand, so I might as well see it through.” Good poker players know this is bad thinking: What matters is whether your hand is worth making the next bet. That you’ve bet five dollars already is beside the point. Bygones are bygones. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. There’s no crying over spilled milk.

People who understand the sunk-cost fallacy know to beware when they hear people use phrases like, “You should get your money’s worth” or “You should finish what you started.” For example, suppose you pay a hundred dollars for a gym membership and never use it. Someone says to you, “You really should go to the gym and get something for your hundred dollars.” The problem, however, is that the money is gone whether you go to the gym or not. The relevant question is whether on any given day the benefits of exercising are worth the costs of going to the gym (or giving up your next best alternative). That’s action on the margin. The money spent is irrelevant.

Additional Costs Worth It?

The same is true of the argument that we should “finish what we started,” say, in Afghanistan or Iraq. We can’t change the past and undo the deaths and financial costs of those wars. The real question is whether the benefits of continued intervention are worth additional costs, regardless of what happened in the past. Are billions more spent and many more dead Americans and their victims worth it for the supposed additional gains of continuing those wars?

Sunk costs are sunk. Eventually, of course, in facing new decisions, we can rethink the old decision that sunk those costs in the first place (such as, should we renew the gym membership, or should we enter a new war?). But until then, the past is irrelevant because whatever we choose, we can’t change it. What matters for the economic way of thinking is decision-making on the margin: the additional benefits and costs of the options in front of us right now.

Understanding that choice is always on the margin and that sunk costs are sunk can help you make better decisions in your personal life and spot fallacious reasoning by politicians. This is just another illustration that good economics is the key to critical thinking and good citizenship.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

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.