Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Sorrow And The Pity

It is time for my blogging hiatus to come to an end; I can ignore war, bombings, and economic malfeasance but Matthew Yglesias blogging about pizza must not pass by unnoticed.

It seems someone told Mr. Yglesias that it is possible to create good pizza at home with some special equipment, and Mr. Yglesias is all astonishment in response. Why should anyone want to make pizza at home when he can buy excellent pizza anywhere?

You might have noticed a slight switching of pronouns right there; "we" became "he" because our Thought Leaders feel free to speak for the less educated and therefore less wise masses. Fortunately we have Mr. Matthew Yglesias to think for us all and tell us what to do, and even more fortunately it seems that the entire world wants exactly the same thing as Mr. Yglesias, at least when it comes to pizza. So we can safely assume that if Mr. Yglesias does not want or need to make pizza at home, nobody else should either. QED.

The issue is that while great pizza is fairly simple to make, cooking it properly requires an expensive piece of capital equipment. Your oven can't get nearly hot enough to cook a pizza correctly. To do it, you need a pizza oven. To install a good pizza oven in your house would be a waste of both money and space. It just doesn't make sense to construct one unless it's going to cook a lot of pizza. And while pizza is delicious, for the sake of your health you should probably try to avoid subsisting on an all-pizza diet. The superior strategy is to let someone else install a pizza oven in his commercial establishment. Then you show up occasionally, and in exchange for money he'll give you pizza. Then with all the money that his pizza oven helps him collect, he and the members of his staff can purchase adequate nonpizza sustenance to stay alive and well. It's a triumph of the division of labor and good old fashioned commerce. For the roughly $200 that Alt wants you to spend on equipment to turn your grill into an ersatz pizza oven, you could just buy 16 margherita pizzas at my favorite D.C. pizza establishment. And, again, for reasonable adults the financial cost of purchasing excellent pizza at a restaurant is not the operative factor in limiting pizza consumption. In the scheme of things, pizza is pretty cheap.

Now of course, to each his own. If what you want is some home-cooked pizza, I'm sure this is a great way to do it. But it's a bit nuts. And excessive focus on the issue obscures one of the great economic triumphs of our time—the enormous increase in the availability of quality pizza all around America.
Ah, the wonder of the American economic system, the greatest in this or any other world. Mr. Yglesias has money--lots of money--and other people have pizza--lots of pizza. One demands, the other supplies, and through the miracle of economic progress a brand new baby financial transaction is born.

But there's a tiny little glitch in this system. When "we" open up our wallets to pay for that pizza, we are forced to use our own money, not Mr. Yglesias's money. Mr. Yglesias's bank account has a lot more money than our bank account and despite the fact that he has told us to just buy pizza instead of making pizza, we usually choose a less expensive option, such as making pizza at home or not having pizza at all. Despite our desire for and the availability of pizza, "one of the great economic triumphs of our time," we are not, actually, Mr. Matthew Yglesias, and therefor his advice and wisdom is inapplicable to our wants and needs.

We suspect that we are not the only people in the world who are not Mr. Yglesias, and would perhaps not benefit from his economic wisdom. Perhaps we live in the Hinterlands of the US, not Dupont Circle, and a good pizza is hard to find. Perhaps we enjoy making pizza; it is fun to be self-sufficient, gustatorally speaking, and we can make a very decent pizza with a pizza stone, a long resting time, and filtered water. The possibilities are endless. But it does not seem to occur to Mr. Yglesias that the rest of the world is not just like him, only with less money and maybe a bit more hair, depending on the region.

Most of the rest of the world did not come from a wealthy family of writers, and by happenstance become a writer themselves. They do not live in million dollar homes or go to Harvard or prep school. Most people do not have very many options in life due to circumstances out of their control. The fortunate few who are relatively wealthy are still nowhere near as wealthy as Mr. Yglesias.  Most people are forced to think about bodily harm and poverty because they are one workplace accident or job loss or illness away from such dire economic circumstances. Mr. Yglesias is not and cannot imagine what it would be like to be one of these anxious masses.

Which is odd because we don't have to be poor to have empathy for the less fortunate. We just have to have a little imagination, a little curiosity, and a little emotional development. Our parents teach us to think about others, to consider others' needs and wants and pains as well as our own.  Or perhaps our parents and the rest of our society teach us that there are different rules for the valuable and the, uh, less valuable.

And that is the how and why of Matthew Yglesias's latest oopsie, his statements that showed a callous disregard for the consequences of his policies and philosophies. If people don't want to work in an unsafe factory in Bangladesh they can just find some other job. After all, unsafe American jobs are available and highly paid (he says), so surely unsafe Bangladeshi jobs must simply be another option in the marketplace that one can take or leave. Just as Mr. Yglesias's wallet is Everyman's wallet, his economic options are Everyman's options.

Safety rules that are appropriate for the United States would be unnecessarily immiserating in much poorer Bangladesh. Rules that are appropriate in Bangladesh would be far too flimsy for the richer and more risk-averse United States. Split the difference and you'll get rules that are appropriate for nobody. The current system of letting different countries have different rules is working fine. American jobs have gotten much safer over the past 20 years, and Bangladesh has gotten a lot richer.
Because they are poor, Bangladeshis must accept unsafe working conditions. A risky job is better than no job, right? There are rules for the rich and there are rules for the poor. It's just the way it is.

Megan McArdle agrees. After all, nobody can do anything ever. Why should we invade other countries with our safety standards when they make our goods? We invaded Iraq, and look how that turned out.

You can argue that the workers shouldn't face those terrible tradeoffs, but absent an immediate revolution, they do. Should we shut down a factory that provides jobs, and great danger, or should we let it continue to operate, even though it may harm future workers who may not really grasp the risks? I don't know the answer to that in my own country. How can I answer it for Bangladesh? 
Even if we allow that the Bangladeshi government is thouroughly captured by the garment interests, it doesn't therefore follow that our intervention will be an improvement . . . just as you can think that Saddam Hussein was a horrible dictator who was dreadful for his country, and still think that the Iraq War was a bad idea.

What Erik Loomis is proposing is left-wing economic imperialism. It's not as bad as the version where you invade a country and take their stuff, but it has many of the same deep problems. We are susbstituting our choices about the safety and employment tradeoff for the judgement of people who are closer to the situation, and far more invested in the country. Maybe they're terrible people, but even so, this is just inherently problematic--something that the left understands quite well when Westerners start questioning the choice of economic systems, or left-wing strongmen, in the developing world.

Watch out liberals, safety regulations lead directly to Pinochet.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Most of the rest of the world did not come from a wealthy family of writers, and by happenstance become a writer themselves. They do not live in million dollar homes or go to Harvard or prep school.

And MattY does not give a crap about them.

It is time for my blogging hiatus to come to an end...

That reminds me, I haven't thrown crap at Fred Hiatt lately. He sure deserves it.

Anonymous said...

I once read a book about the history of pizza. It used to be pretty exclusively a poor person's food. Back in the day, the poor had no access to kitchens nor did they even have any eating utensils. If they could scrape together some very small amount, they could buy a piece of pizza from a street vendor and stave off starvation for one more day.


PS--Hurray that Susan is back!

Anonymous said...

Susan is back! yay!

Downpuppy said...


I had a good reason to stop blogging : A crappy blog.

But you? Not even close.

About time, missy.

Anyhow, homemade pizza is a lot of fun. Particularly when you're trying to explain yeast to a kid. And want to mess around with vegetables.

Again, welcome back. And store pizza is nothing like making something yourself.

Yastreblyansky said...

It is time for my blogging hiatus to come to an end...
It was worth the wait. Now I'll never have to read anything by Yglesias again, or if I do I will be in much better touch with my feelings about him. Which have been kind of childish. And will remain so, but I'll just let myself enjoy it.

Lurking Canadian said...

First, welcome back Susan! I was afraid the troll bots had scared you away forever.

Second, bullshit you can't make good pizza with a regular oven. I mean, I'll grant that Megs probably can't. That doesn't prove a whole lot.

Third...ah, third...the comments of Megs and Matt about the incident in Bangladesh are as predictable as they are horrifying. If there were justice in the world, the two of them would be working in unsafe conditions for pennies a day while some Bangladeshi pundit explains how lucky they are.

Anonymous said...

A detailed rebuttal to Yglesias is offered up at seriouseats:

Ufotofu9 said...

Welcome back. NEVER go away again!

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks, everyone! I feel much saner now.

psychohistorian said...

I didn't know you were gone but I do appreciate your perspective on the pompous elitist ass that Matt Y is.

I know it continues to be hard to speak truth to power but the world needs folks that do and do it as well as you. Thanks for what you do.

Daniel Becker said...

So, what happens when I want pizza again after I bought those initial 16 for $200?

It's like say selling a turnpike so that you get the money to build some new stuff. How do you then pay to repair the new stuff in say 10 years?

Or, say invest in railroads via land grants etc to the tune of $5 trillion in today's money only to let them go to crap because a highway system looks more posh. Only oil's getting pricey and your competitor kept their rails and updated to greater efficiency.

Had he used boats instead of pizza, then I would agree. The only smart way to own a boat is to let your friend own it.

Susan of Texas said...

Right--and this shows us that Yglesias is not making an economic decision, he is making a personal choice. He chooses to go out for pizza because he does not want to cook for whatever reason.

He might be too tired or busy, he might hate to cook but not want to admit it, or maybe he just enjoys the entertainment value of getting out of the house.

Perhaps he is like many people and gets a little power thrill out of having cooks, bartenders and servers at his bidding, even if it is just for two or three hours. We can see this thrill very clearly with McArdle; consumerism entertains and gratifies her enormously.

It's no sin to enjoy going out and spending money. Yglesias' problem is that he refuses to acknowledge that the system is set up to his advantage, and others are paying for his privliges. He doesn't suggest raising the price of clothing a few cents per garment to pay for better conditions, an obvious and moral solution. No, the factory owners must pay the lowest wages they can command while spending as little on safety as they can. Otherwise their profits will suffer.

Perhaps someone like McArdle would say that we would be depriving the poor of cheap clothing if we did so, but the poor can't afford retail anyway. Goodwill does a very brisk business in my neighborhood, a mixture of the poor and rich.

Anonymous said...

Howard Dean said that a long time ago: I would rather pay a few more cents at wal-mart if that means a life is saved somewhere.

btw: if she can't spell 'thoroughly' and is an English major, she should not be writing at all.

ps: welcome back. I missed you. A lot.

Weird Dave said...

So does this mean you'll finish Atlas Shrugged?

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks, everyone.

Yes, I'll get back to work on Atlas Shrugged. Only 901 pages left to go!

Weird Dave said...

Once (and only once) long, long ago I read that silly novel.

There are two scenes I remember.
One is the part where Dagny and Hank find the abandoned perpetual motion machine.
The other is when Dagny, after the little people have wrecked what is apparently the only diesel-electric locomotive in all of North America, going, "The diesel! THE DIESEL!!" (or some such.)

That is probably all I really need to remember, but since some people seem to take that book seriously, I have been waiting patiently 35 years for your deconstruction.

I can wait a little longer.