Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mr Smith goes to Scotland

It is the last day of the Liberty Fund’s week-long Adam Smith Extravaganza.  I can now safely say I know a lot about Adam Smith.  And, I am tired.  Great conference.  (As an aside, Liberty Fund really knows how to organize a productive conference.   The general format is to send out a lot of reading, which everyone is supposed to do, and then the participants simply have long conversations about it.  I have been trying to figure out what the key is to having that format work so well.  (Sign that the format works well: there is a constant discussion among the participants of Liberty Fund conferences about how to makes sure you get invited back to another one—and there is a persistent worry about the Liberty Fund Blacklist (by the way, everyone affiliated with Liberty Fund denies the existence of the Blacklist, but everyone not affiliated with Liberty Fund seems certain that the Blacklist does in fact exist.))  My conclusion about why these conferences work so well: 1) they pick books worth reading, 2) they get participants who have a range of ideas but are not dogmatic missionaries, and 3) (and I think this is the real key) they don’t micromanage the conversation.  The last one takes a lot of faith that even if the conversation meanders, people will still be learning a lot (about Liberty in this case).  And that format works amazingly well.)  The conversations this week have spilled out long after the formal sessions ended.  We have been arguing at the bar until after 11 pm every night about Smith and a zillion other topics nobody would have ever known were related until this week.  (Things I can confidently say now: 1) The Magic Mountain is not that good. 2) Martin is not that much better than Kingsley (indeed, I am not entirely convinced he is better at all).  3) Mahler is not a top ten composer.  4) Intermediate Hegelians are as mythical as Left Hegelians and Right Hegelians; they are all just Hegelians.  5) Private Lighthouses are a silly idea.  6) Pride and Prejudice is the best novel ever.  7) The Watchmen and V for Vendetta are both deeply interesting arguments about Liberty (and both movies are relatively bad).)

By the way:  I have now realized one of the most amazing things about a blog; you win every bar debate by getting the last word.

As for Smith, I started the week thinking that The Wealth of Nations was arguably one of the 25 best books in the History of the West (and it is easily in the Top 50).  My opinion of Smith has gone up this week.  That’s high praise for a conference.  As for the books—listed in order of quality:

1. The Wealth of Nations.  It’s a book you simply stare at in wonder.  The first part is still the best overall explanation of the basics of economics there is.  Think about that—over 200 years later, nobody has written a better introduction to Economics than that of the first person to ever figure out how markets actually work.  And then the book wanders everywhere into all sorts of interesting and surprising terrain.  To top it all off, Smith is a fantastic prose stylist.

2. The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  I read this for the first time.  And, after reading it, I was seriously underwhelmed.  I am pretty sure my problem was that I was expecting Wealth of Nations level and it isn’t that good.  The conversations this week has convinced me it is better than I originally thought.  And, I am now convinced that the book can easily be thought of as simply part of The Wealth of Nations.

3. Lectures on Jurisprudence.  This is two lectures Smith gave on the topic; I’ve only read the second one, and someone told me the first one is the same content, but some different details and so on.  I wasn’t impressed by the lecture, though I enjoyed reading it.   One of the other participants noted that the most interesting thing about the lectures is that they are like a short version of The Wealth of Nations.  That made me realize that the only downside of these lectures is that those who like the ridiculous length of The Wealth of Nations will find the lectures missing something.  It does present an strange problem: While I would still tell someone who had never read Smith to simply read the magnum opus, a case could be made that this is also a good starting point.

4. Essays on Philosophical Subjects.  A random set of essays, some of which have some interesting tidbits, but none of which are particularly great in isolation.  The book is good if you are trying to figure out Smith’s thought in a comprehensive discussion of him, and if there was a topic one was studying, then some of these essays could be of interest, but there isn’t much here for the general reader.  The book does have the virtue of including the essay that is the answer to a Persistent Question:  What is the single worst essay ever written in the English Language?  Answer: “Of the External Senses” by Adam Smith.

5. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.  Move along, son, nothing to see here.  I cannot imagine this book would have any interest at all in any forum other than a week-long discussion of Smith.  As part of a comprehensive Smith discussion, it is interesting, but I am not sure in what other situation it would be worth reading.

6. The Correspondence of Adam Smith.  We read just one letter from this book, so I actually have no evaluation of it, but I decided to list it for completeness.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Book Proposal

A few weeks back, while reading Adam Smith, I wandered over to the Stimson Room in the Mount Holyoke library.  It’s a nice place to read in the summer—comfortable chairs and quiet.  It’s also the room where they house a large selection of books of poetry.  Looking up from Smith, I noticed on the shelf a small volume of poetry with the title coffee coffee.  Not surprisingly, I was deeply intrigued, and so I picked it up to look at it.  I then proceeded to read the whole volume.  It took less than 2 minutes.  Really.

The first poem:


That’s not the title of the poem, by the way.  That’s the whole poem.  Other poems:


That’s not one poem; that’s three different poems.  Not all the poems were one word long; there was, for example:


Each poem is printed roughly centered on the right hand page (what would be the odd page in a book with page numbers).  The font resembles that of an old manual typewriter. 

I cleverly realized that this volume of poetry was different from the sort of thing which Milton used to do.  I figured it was some new statement about something or other, then got to wondering why Mount Holyoke had bought the volume, so I looked it up.  Much to my surprise, the volume is a reprint of an old 1960s volume of poetry.  Curiouser and curiouser.  Then I found out that the author, Aram Saroyan, once received an NEA award for the masterpiece:


Your tax dollars at work.

Now many people might grouse about this sort of poetry, but it inspired me.  So, I herewith offer up the following manuscript of poetry for any publisher who would like to publish the Next Big Thing.

The volume is entitled


It is a series of 100 poems, broken into three sections.  The first section has 34 poems, the following 2 have 33 poems each.  The poems are printed on the left hand page (what would be the even page, though this volume has no page numbers).  The first poem in each section is printed one-third of the way from the top of the page; the following poem is printed one third of the way from the bottom of the page, and the placement then goes back and forth for the remainder of the section.  The poems printed in the top third are in the font Cambria; the poems printed on the bottom third are in Perpetua.  The exceptions are the last poem in each section, which is printed in Old English Text MT and in all three sections is located one-sixth of the way from the bottom on the right hand page.  The poems in the first and third sections are in 18 point font; the poems in the second section are in 16 point font.  The first twelve poems in the volume are as follows (each line is the complete poem):


The volume ends with the poem


Also of interest to a prospective publisher is that the volume of poetry clearly will market itself.  Indeed, a large initial print run will be desirable due to the truly innovative and avant-garde nature of the work.  I am also happy to pass along one of the initial reviews of this volume:

A breathtaking new work of poetry, cancoffeetos, by James E. Hartley, has recently been published.  In what is clearly a bold update of the tired work of Aram Saroyan, Hartley has taken Saroyan’s idea and inverted it, showing us how the world around us envelops us even as we seek to master it.  The human effort in this technological age to make sense of our surroundings through the ever increasing drive into the microcosm, epitomized by the ubiquitous cell phone and Saroyan’s single word poems, is called into question on every page of this volume as simple concepts are wrapped up in often surprising ways, invariably smothering our original notions on how to make sense of the world, problematizing the very question of our existence.  The very location of the poems on the left hand side, alternating between top and bottom of the page, point out the conventional nature of Saroyan’s work, demonstrating that what we used to think of as bold innovation was really just sterile adaptation of the sterile modernist era.  The locations change and the fonts change, leaving us with the realization that here we have no firm ground on which to stand.
            The poems are puzzles in themselves, refusing to reveal their secrets until the reader has worked at it.  For example, the poem
stares out from the page at the reader, asking for interpretation, but offering no immediate clue.  Gradually, the reader begins to notice that the poems all consist of one word thrust violently into the heart of another word.  The outer word encompasses the inner word, revealing a juxtaposition of the attempt to understand the irrefragable nature of the conventional definition with the hermeneutical epistemology of the broken outer word (or should that be broken outer world?).  In the poem reprinted above, for example, the realization that punt (which could be either a boat or a term from American football) loses its solidity of (dual?) meaning in the substance of butter, which has no solidity.  Why is the butter being divided by the punt (verb or noun?)?  Are our lives simply being transported (by boat or kick, notice) from a state of solidity (hardened butter in the cooler) into a state of dispersal (spread over bread).  The poem tantalizes with possibility, never quite revealing its full secret.
            The very title of the book offers up this exploration of the duality in which we live.  Coffee is clearly a reference to the work of the epigone Saroyan, and it is surrounded by cantos.  Thus, the title of coffee inside cantos conjures up the image of Bach Coffee Cantatas, a secular work by a religious composer.  The cantos (or songs) make up a Bachian (or should that be Bacchanalian) opera, while the coffee provides stimulus to the brain.
            In short, this work is a masterpiece, and its reception will undoubtedly rival that of The Rite of Spring or The Wasteland.

            I should also add that while that review does capture many intriguing things about this proposed volume, the reviewer did miss some things which should have been obvious.  Note that the structure of the volume, divided into 3 sections of 34/33/33, is the same as the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, each section of which is, of course, called a canto.  Furthermore, the embedded word at the end of all three sections is stars, again echoing Dante.  Moreover, the reviewer also completely missed the change in font size and its obvious significance to the work as a whole.  These and the other such hidden clues (e.g., the connection between the 14th poem and the 41st poem, the relationship between half of the prime numbered poems (and since there are 25 primes, it is uncertain if that is 11 or 13 poems which are related), the importance of the missing secondary color and the sole tertiary color in the series) scattered throughout the work, mean that literary scholars will inevitably favorably compare it to Finnegans Wake. 

            The author, who can be contacted via e-mail at, is happy to entertain proposals for publication.  Serious proposals from established publishers only, please, as a work of this magnitude will require an advanced distribution network.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Just So

1.  Right now I am in Holland, Michigan for a Liberty Fund conference on Adam Smith.  Last week, I was camping, or at least pretending to be camping.  Going on vacation the week before leaving for a week-long conference is not good planning.  Yet, come to think of it, it wasn’t actually planned that way; it was more the emergence of a spontaneous order—and undesirable spontaneous order, to be sure.  That last sentence is the result of spending the last three days talking about Smith and Hayek.  Let us all hope the rest of this post can avoid such jargon.

2.  The NFL has returned from the dead.  I cannot even begin to express my joy.  The strike weighed on my very soul, depressing my spirits.  I haven’t even played Madden for months because thinking about football was too depressing.  And now we are about to have one of the craziest weeks in the history of football.  I am glad that ESPN exists; the hotel here provides only a pathetic little local paper.  But they do have free internet access, so ESPN will fill that void.

3.  This hotel is nuts, by the way.  It is the City Flats hotel.  The rooms are crazy—every room in the place is different—and I mean different not just from one another but from every other hotel room on the planet.  Mine has this odd diagonal wall spitting the room into two trianglish (“trianglish: something not quite similar to a triangle”) shaped areas.  And the hotel is Green—not the color, the religion—seriously Green.  They pride themselves on their Greenness.  There are at least a half dozen locations in the room trumpeting their Greenness.  There is no Gideon’s Bible in the room; there is the National Geographic book, true green: 100 everyday ways you can contribute to a healthier planet in the room.  (Why the title has no capital letters in it is presumably one of those things Green people would know—perhaps upper case letters waste precious resources or something.)  I haven’t read the book—but I may flip through it this week so I can mock it.  The lights in this room fail to do their job of, you know, providing light.  So, it is a bit cavelike at times.  There is a window, so during the day, one of the two trianglish areas gets light.  Don’t get me wrong—it’s a nice hotel.  Really.  I’d stay here again.  It’s just a weird hotel.

4. I have read a lot of Adam Smith in the last month for this conference.  A lot of Adam Smith.  I’ll review the books soon, but for today, I’ll review a book that reading Adam Smith made me want to read.  Kipling’s Just-So Stories.  It is a little known fact (indeed, until now, I was the only person on the planet who knew it, and I just learned it a few weeks ago) that Kipling’s Just-So Stories are more entertaining versions of Adam Smith’s essays on the development of language.  Kipling changed the topic and argument—and he writes better than Smith—but in terms of persuasiveness of argument, “How the Camel got its Hump” and Smith’s work on the origin of language are identical.  It was fun to read Kipling again; I haven’t read those stories for years.  Kipling is a seriously underrated author.

5.  I was introduced to Kipling’s Just-So Stories at school when I was very young via Film Strip.  Do film strips still exist?  I'll bet my kids have never seen a film strip.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Cause of America is the Cause of All Mankind

When I was 9 and 10 years old (4th and 5th grade), I was fascinated by the Revolutionary War.  I loved reading about it.  I have a vivid memory of finding a book with the complete list of battles in the Revolutionary War, and thinking that such information was unbelievably invaluable, the sort of thing that simply needed to be preserved for easy reference, I sat down and copied the whole list onto several sheets of paper (it’s a long list when you have the oversized handwriting of a 9 year old).  (Note for youngsters: this was in the pre-internet era, so Google was not yet your friend.)  I also, for reasons I cannot explain, was particularly excited when copying over said list to discover that there were two battles of Saratoga, the second one duly named “The Second Battle of Saratoga.”  (I suppose being unbelievably excited about finding this list was a pretty good indication of the type of career toward which I was heading—though interestingly enough, never once in my life—and I mean never—did someone say to me, “You should be a college professor.”)  I also have a vivid memory of excitedly discovering in the library a whole book devoted to Spies in the Revolutionary War.  This Revolutionary War thing you may have heard about was a Big Deal.

In the course of my reading about this War, I kept seeing references to a book by Thomas Paine entitled Common Sense.  It seems at this most exciting time of history, when people were saying really exciting things like “Give me liberty or give me death!” and “I regret I have but one life to give for my country!” that this book by Paine was electrifying.  In an era of exciting rhetoric, this seemed to be the most exciting book of all.  So, I decided that since reading about the Revolutionary War was about the most exciting type of reading there was, then reading the most exciting book from this most exciting time period would be the sort of thing that would send Young Jimmy Hartley into Paroxysms of Joy.

So, on my next voyage to the Public Library, I boldly marched up to the Front Desk, looked keenly into the eye of the librarian, an elderly woman (well, she seemed elderly to me, so that means she must have been somewhere between 40 and 100), and said in my most reverent, excited and undoubtedly slightly hesitant (after all, I was about to talk to The Librarian) voice, “Do you have a copy of Common Sense by Thomas Paine?”

The Librarian….scowled.  “Yes,” she said in a vaguely disapproving voice.  “It would be in the Adult section,” she added.  And right then I knew the “Adult” section was not the place Young Jimmy Hartley belonged.  The Adult section was obviously the place for books which young people like me really shouldn’t be reading.  The Librarian then told me to follow her and we went to the Adult section.  She found the book and gave it to me with that look that said, “Kid, you are never going to read this book.”  I checked it out, took it home.  It sat on my dresser for a bit.  I finally got up the courage to open it to the first page, looked at that page, but knowing I probably shouldn’t be reading this book, I never quite managed to convince myself to start it.  Two weeks later the book went back to the library.  Unread.

(I never again entered the adult section of that library.  Never.  We moved when I was 14, and (fear not) I have been to the adult sections of other libraries.  I also checked out adult paperbacks from that library because, you see, the paperbacks were in a rack that was near the checkout desk, so I didn’t actually have to enter the Adult section.)

For three and a half decades now, I have had this nagging feeling that I should read Common Sense.  But, I have never read it.  Was I really old enough yet?  Am I sure it would be a book I would like?  Maybe it was really boring.  Maybe that librarian was right that the book just wasn’t for me.

I finally read it—35 years after I first checked it out. 

It’s good.  It begins with an interesting distinction between “society” and “government,” a distinction about which many people still seem unaware.  It has a curious passage in which Paine seems to suggest that democracy, and not despotism, was the original form of government.  It has an early version of the argument that democracies do not go to war with one another.    It has some fun invective—those who oppose Paine’s preferred scheme of government “would have joined Lucifer in his revolt.”   Or this:  “Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men who cannot see; prejudiced men who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent than all the other three.”  By the end I was ready to throw off the despotism of the English Crown.  And it did all seem like so much common sense. 

And I am greatly relieved to have read it.

(Speaking of Common Sense, Janet always accuses me of having none.  Well, at least she thinks of it as an accusation.  I have never been able to figure out why it isn’t praising someone  say they lack common sense.  Doesn’t that mean they have uncommon sense?  And surely uncommon sense is better than common sense, isn’t it?)

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