Our terminology is insufficient

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the insufficiency of our current language or terminology to describe what is happening in the economy and in the government lately. As I described in my previous post, I have been reading a lot about economics lately and have started to formulate my own thoughts better, so I thought I would write down some of the things I was thinking about confusing terminology.

Consider the term market. What does that term mean? I’ll cheat and ask Wikipedia, which describes a market as:

any one of a variety of different systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby persons trade, and goods and services are exchanged, forming part of the economy.

That’s quite a mouthful, so does it help us understand what is meant by “market-based solutions” or “market failures” in current discussion about the economy? (For that matter, what is meant by “the economy”?) As I’ve been reading and listening to more of authors/economists like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Russ Roberts and Arnold Kling, I’ve come to believe we need some better terms to cover what is meant by the “market” or “free markets”. There is the popular fable that Eskimos have multiple words for snow (though that turns out to be a significant simplification of the real story), so why do we only have one word for a complex concept like markets? And do markets have goals or are they simply a mechanism (or system, institution, procedure, etc. as described above) for buyers and sellers to exchange goods or services without any higher purpose? More thoughts on this later and I will try to provide some links to other blogs or quotations from books that have covered this topic far better than I can.

Now on the other end of the economic or political spectrum, consider the term socialism. This term has come up a lot recently in regard to the health care reform debate in particular, with accusations or insinuations that Barack Obama is a socialist. Socialism traditionally defined means the public or state ownership and operation of the means of production. It seems clear that no matter how harmful the current proposals for health care reform may be, they are not equivalent to socialism as traditionally defined. Obama’s overall policies also can not really be called socialist, but they are clearly much closer to socialism than they are to a laissez faire approach that has been traditionally favored since the founding of the United States (or at least was largely favored until the New Deal). Still, if it is not fair to call Obama’s policies socialist, what are they? Perhaps statist is a better description. Again, let’s ask Wikipedia about statism:

A major state, including government policy, role in the direction of the economy, both directly through state-owned enterprises or other machinery of government and indirectly through the state-directed economic planning of the overall economy.

That certainly seems closer to what we are experiencing right now, with government takeover of automobile companies, government ownership of financial institutions, government regulation of compensation at firms “receiving large sums of government aid”, government ownership and operation of industries such as passenger rail transport, etc. But statism as a term is often closely associated with fascism. But how can that be when fascism is a right wing phenomenon? Actually, fascism has been used as an insult or epithet on both sides of the political spectrum, including against various left wing groups. And what do left wing and right wing really mean anyway? They are used as shorthand for a wide variety of pre-conceived notions about one’s political views but more often used to describe one’s political opponents. I think this sloppy use of terminology is not very helpful in promoting reasonable and thoughtful intellectual discourse. The question is what can we do about it, in particular can we come up with some better terminology that will become widely accepted?

What I’ve been reading lately

I love reading, but perhaps due to a short attention span or perhaps just as a sign of the times, I am bad at finishing books and am usually in the middle of about ten to twenty different books at any given time.  There are books on my nightstand, on the coffee table next to the couch, on my kitchen table, on my desk and of course several hundred in waiting on my bookshelves.  (Note to self: update your Delicious Library catalog and post updated version to MobileMe).

I have been getting better lately at finishing books, and here are a few I’ve read recently that I enjoyed:

  • The Price of Everything by Russ Roberts. I’ve enjoyed reading Russ and his colleague Don Bordreaux’s posts on Cafe Hayek recently and also have found Russ’s podcast EconTalk very intellectually stimulating. Highly recommend this book for anyone interested in basic economic principles as told through fiction.
  • Free to Choose by Rose and Milton Friedman. Milton Friedman is one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century and I have been reading a lot more of his work recently along with other works concerning economics. This work is less about economics in a strict sense and more about personal freedom and how the preservation of personal freedom affects economics and public policy. Every once in a while I read a book and think “everyone needs to read this” and this is one of them.
  • Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. In some ways a predecessor to Free to Choose, but slightly more theoretical. Still a great work about personal freedom and how capitalism is the best way to ensure continued freedom and prosperity.
  • Real Education by Charles Murray. This is a very interesting book, and I am about halfway through now. The basic premise is that we shouldn’t pretend that all children have the same ability to succeed in academics, just as we don’t pretend that all children can be gifted athletes or musicians. He thinks the push for everyone to go to college is harmful because most students do not have the ability or intelligence to learn true college-level material. Very interesting and will see how the rest of the book goes and what he recommends be done with our education system.

Is it time to get a Kindle?

I’ve been wondering whether or not to get a Kindle lately. I know no one else besides me who is reading this right now really cares about whether I get a Kindle or not, but as I told you in my introductory post, this blog isn’t really for you anyway so why are you here? Just kidding, at any rate I have just seen that the price has been reduced to $259. Seems like a good deal, but I am still a bit worried that when the Apple Tablet comes out, I will be forced to abandon the Kindle and more importantly any books I have purchased for the Kindle if they’re not compatible with my beautiful new Steve Jobs-designed book-reader-and-more. Then again, I have already tried out the Kindle for iPhone app and bought a few books to try out on it, so maybe there will be a way to bridge the content from one device to the other.

Full Disclosure: I am not receiving any free stuff from advertisers… yet

Could not resist posting this link to a New York Times article on new regulations on blogging.

The F.T.C. said that beginning on Dec. 1, bloggers who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently.

I had no idea that my random thoughts posted on a (still mostly obscure) website would be monitored by the Federal Trade Commission. Well, Messrs. Commissars, let me assure you that in the two hours since I started this blog I have not received any free products or been paid by any advertisers yet. I would also like to note to any advertisers out there that I am gladly willing to receive any free products you would like to send me, and I will immediately disclose the receipt of such products (in compliance with the latest regulations) while I write glowing reviews of said products. I am also willing to accept any payments you might want to send me at any time. Please contact me for wire transfer or PayPal information at your convenience.

It Finally Happened

Hello fellow Interwebs surfers. Well, it’s finally happened. Yes, I’m slightly mad. That is to say I’ve finally decided to start my own blog, or, as I like to call it, a personal website containing self-generated content and links to other websites that gets updated on a periodic basis where the most recent content appears at the top. I don’t care much for the word blog but as a sobriquet I have to admit it rolls off the tongue more easily than my description. At any rate, I’m not sure who or what this website will be intended for other than myself. I find myself constantly having thoughts that I feel should be written down somewhere. So instead of just putting them in a diary as people might have back in the days of discretion (and before the advent of packet-switched networks), I will follow the emerging (prevailing?) social custom and put those thoughts on the Internet for all to see and laugh at. Enjoy.