Friday, November 25, 2011


It's Thanksgiving again, and I find that my reflections on this holiday are mixed.

As I write this, I sit with my family watching Ken Burns' "Prohibition"... which, thusfar, has been a perfect example of the way "good intentions" destroy other people's lives (frequently the lives of the most vulnerable) when backed by the state.

But still... I am thankful, for example, that I just enjoyed an amazing meal cooked by my father which included not only a wonderful local Columbia Valley Semillon, but an Ice Wine for dessert as well - and no government thug prevented us from doing so.

Great book!
I am also immensely thankful that yesterday I read virtually the entirety of Matt Ridley's powerful book, "The Rational Optimist". As disheartening as much of the world appears to me to be these days, Ridley reminds us how good we all have it today, and how much prosperity has exploded for human beings all across the planet. He also provides an amazing amount supporting evidence for what good economists would have surmised - that human cultural and economic development, and our amazingly sharp increase in wealth bringing literally billions of people steadily out of the "natural" living conditions that reflect absolute poverty by modern standards, is a result of freedom & trade. I will likely write more about this later.

Today, in the spirit of Ridley's book, I want to take a minute to express my thanks for the people and events that are usually, incorrectly, vilified.
I want to thank the "robber barons", for bringing prices of everything they touched down and thus bringing products & services previously only available to kings within reach of the poor. Specifically I want to thank Andrew Carnegie for making transportation and steel accessible to most, and I want to thank Rockefeller and oil for saving the Whales from certain extinction by introducing a vastly superior alternative to the prevaling energy source of his day.

This cute "energy source" still exists today
because their blubber was outmoded through
creative destruction.
I want to thank oil and other "fossil fuels"... for being amazingly efficient and indeed, one of the most sustainable and even clean fuel sources the world has ever seen. I want to especially thank it for providing a cost-effective alternative to mechanical work which would otherwise be done by (mostly enslaved) human hands or animal hoofs. The reliable abundance of energy has not only made humans incalculably better off, it has spared untold millions from crushing, miserable lives of slavery and poverty as well as spared horses, oxen and other fine creatures broken bones, cruel owners and painful deaths. At some point, perhaps a new fuel will be employed that does even more to alleviate world-poverty, but without oil, coal, natural gas and the like, you can be assured that everything I have done in the last 24 hours - not to mention the computer I am writing all this on - simply wouldn't exist. Instead, we would be as poor as anyone in the Dark Ages.

Earned his Nobel Prize by saving a billion people from starvation.
I also want to thank genetically modified foods. Without the vastly superior crop yields generated by these innovations, most of the world would be starving to death instead of continually becoming better fed with each passing year. In addition, without these advancements, the land would be environmentally devastated... to feed a growing human population without increasing output per acre as we have would require more and more area of land given over to agriculture, and that would wreak havok across the world. We would have more erosion, more deforestation, more disease. Disaster. Norman Borlaug and his colleagues prevented this.

I want to thank Walmart, Target and other typically hated "big box" retailers, and in fact I must thank every innovator of business systems to bringing down the price of goods and services through advancements in supply and distribution networks, and throughout the production process. These advancements have brought higher productivity (and incomes, regardless of the common myths to the contrary) to American workers while dramatically falling prices benefit consumers everywhere - especially the poorest among us.

Villain? Hardly.
On this note, I also want to thank Target - I'm spite of their recent bad press - for opening early on Thanksgiving and today, "Black Friday". It is true that some whiny middle class kids who don't want to work are probably missing some family time... of course, if they valued their family time more, they could certainly quit and seek (or create) employment elsewhere. But... I suppose this would all be very sad if it weren't for the other side of the story. Target and their other competitors opening in the middle of the night for Black Friday sales means that truly poor people who work there and who don't have the luxury of complaining about getting up early have an opportunity for earning more this month - even getting a seasonal job that woukd not otherwise exist - as a result. It would also be an injustice to fail to mention that Black Friday sales not only keep retailers afloat and provide jobs and hours to people who may need them the most, they also allow many, many people the opportunity to save a lot of money - particularly on gifts for their friends and family.

It is unwise to undererestimated either the cumulative effect of lower prices (allowing people to get more value from each minute of their working lives thus obtaining higher standards of living and/or more free time) or the importance of social traditions like gift-giving at Christmas time.

If a handful of rich people who would rather complain than work succeeded in restricting the hours of operation of stores like Target - purely on the aesthetic view that "it sucks to work on a holiday" - it would be the poor worker and the poor consumer hurt by far the mostm via the loss of work opportunity (or even the decline in seasonal jobs overall) and a rise in prices. Don't be fooled by comparatively wealthy people imposing their luxury values on everyone, regardless of how noble their cause may seem. The net result is inevitably terrible for anyone who is actually poor.

And lastly, I want to thank... Freedom, mutually respected property rights & trade. Without them, everything else I have thanked above doesn't exist.

So to borrow directly from Ridley himself... I want to thank "ideas having sex" for making the truly fantastic living conditions enjoyed by continually more & more modern humans throughout the world possible - by any comparison to the conditions available to us at any time previously in our history. In spite of how dispirited I can become watching the same terrible arguments crop up over & over - ready at a moment's notice to destroy, impede or prevent prosperity - I find that taking the long view today keeps me optimistic.

There is still much to be thankful for.

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