Category: Business and Society

Cash RegistersThere’s an intriguing piece in the NYT from last month by Hiroko Tabuchi that explores some of the challenges facing traditional retailers (HT: Sarah Pulliam Bailey), “Stores Suffer From a Shift of Behavior in Buyers.”

Department stores like Macy’s and Kohl’s seem to be losing out on the rebound in consumer spending. “Department stores made up one of just two categories tracked by the Commerce Department where spending declined, the latest in a choppy performance from them this year. Spending at electronics and appliance stores also fell 1.2 percent in July,” writes Tabuchi.

One major explanation offered by Tabuchi’s sources is that this part of a larger paradigm shift in American consumer attitude. “The religion of consumption has proven to be unfulfilling,” says Richard E. Jaffe, a retailing analyst, “The ‘pile it high and watch it fly’ mentality at department stores no longer works.”

Blog author: dpahman
Thursday, September 24, 2015

Today at the Library of Law and Liberty, I take a cue from probablist Nassim Nicholas Taleb and call for the commemoration of a National Entrepreneurs Day:

One has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, and probabilist Nassim Taleb has given us a fully developed argument as to why we should have one. I second the motion. In Antifragile, his 2012 book, Taleb confesses that he is “an ingrate toward the man whose overconfidence caused him to open a restaurant and fail, enjoying my nice meal while he is probably eating canned tuna.”

This lack of gratitude is a moral failing of all of us in modern society, says Taleb. Hence his idea:

In order to progress, modern society should be treating ruined entrepreneurs in the same way we honor dead soldiers, perhaps not with as much honor, but using the exact same logic. . . . For there is no such thing as a failed soldier, dead or alive (unless he acted in a cowardly manner)—likewise, there is no such thing as a failed entrepreneur or failed scientific researcher.


If you want to see what happens when a government fails its basic responsibilities of maintaining law and order, read this fine and saddening piece by Detroit Free Press columnist John Carlisle, “The last days of Detroit’s Chaldean Town.” In it you’ll encounter the fraying of the town’s social architecture built around faith, family, work, and government.

At a conference a few weeks ago I was involved in a discussion about the ‘worst’ jobs we had ever had. Mine was cleaning the meat room at a grocery store run by four Chaldean brothers in an area just a bit further east of Chaldean Town. I worked at a “training wage” for the better part of a year, I think, while in high school. I didn’t mind transferring out to make a bit less bagging groceries.

Joseph Sunde has written a fair bit on how “hard work cultivates character.” Earlier today I was reading through a classic speech by the famed American pastor Russell Conwell, which includes this bit of wisdom: “There is no class of people to be pitied so much as the inexperienced sons and daughters of the rich of our generation.” Conwell’s point was that the rich most often attained wealth by working smarter and harder. But “as a rule the rich men will not let their sons do the very thing that made them great,” thereby depriving them of the very same experiences that enabled the creation of wealth in the first place. This is actually as true for the moderately rich as it is for the extremely wealthy. As Michael Novak has put it, “Parents brought up under poverty do not know how to bring up children under affluence.”

So even though I hated that job cleaning the meat room at the Chaldean market, which closed some years later, I was sad to see it go and I’ll always carry those experiences with me and try to pass their lessons along to my own children. The rise and fall of Chaldean Town also has some things to teach us about flourishing at the community level.

calvin-coolidgeThis weekend marks the 143rd birthday of the best president you (probably) don’t know: Calvin Coolidge.

Most presidents are judged by what they do in office. For instance, they are expected to “do something” about the economy even if their actions are counterproductive and detrimental. Coolidge took a different approach: he preferred to do “nothing”—to take as much inaction as possible.

The liberal journalist Walter Lippman once wrote, “There has never been Mr. Coolidge’s equal in the art of deflating interest [in government]” and “the skill with which Mr. Coolidge can apply a wet blanket to an enthusiast is technically marvelous.” (We need a politician like Coolidge today who can lead a new Wet Blanket movement.)

Coolidge did take one notable action, though. He shrunk the government—and the American economy boomed. Is there a lesson to be learned? Award-winning author, historian, and biographer Amity Shlaes thinks so.

Bridge-building-w-cranesThe state of Michigan is in the midst of something of an infrastructure crisis. We’re consistently ranked as among the states with the worst roads in the nation, something of an embarrassment for what used to be the automotive capital of the US. This infrastructure challenge is also no doubt part of a legacy of a state with one of the more troubled economies in the nation over the previous decade. (In spite of all this, Michigan remains a beautiful state with wonderful people, something Thrillist noted in recently ranking the Mitten state as the best state in America!)

To President Obama’s quip about infrastructure to business leaders, “You didn’t build that,” one might be tempted to retort that, in Michigan at least, that’s also increasingly true for the government. The roads aren’t being maintained in anything like a responsible fashion.

The voters of Michigan recently defeated Proposal 1, which was put forth by the state’s politicians as the only feasible solution. The voters actually saw it for what it was: a game of brinkmanship and blame-shifting. The defeat of Prop 1 put the onus back on the elected politicians to actually do their job and undertake the tough work of governing.

There have been a number of other ideas floated after the end of Prop 1, and part of that overhaul of our state’s approach to infrastructure investment and maintenance includes debate over so-called “prevailing” wage laws that require “union-scale wages and benefits on public construction contracts.”

Human-Male-White-Newborn-Baby-CryingBirthrates across the globe are going down even as life expectancy increases. The former trend is marked particularly in developed nations.

There are lots of reasons for people to have kids or not have kids. Some of these reasons are economic. As I’ve argued previously, “One of the common concerns that drives prospective parents to put off having children is economic, specifically that they won’t have the financial resources to support a growing family. This is a worry that’s been around as long as there have been families.”

Perhaps it really is more difficult in America today to make the economic sacrifice (or perhaps better understood as investment) required for having kids.

But often these kinds of economic reasons end up being used as rationalizations. More honest, at least, is this characterization of a ‘rational’ approach to procreation:

Not having children isn’t selfish. Not having children is a perfectly rational and reasonable response given that humans are essentially parasites on the face of a perfectly lovely and well-balanced planet, ploughing through its natural resources, eradicating its endangered species, and ruining its most wonderful landscapes. This might sound misanthropic, and it is, but it is also true.


Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, April 29, 2015

DSC_0700This is a post about that time that President Obama quoted Luther (Martin, the reformer, not the anger translator). Okay, maybe the President didn’t quote the monk with a mallet, but suspend your disbelief for a few more paragraphs at least.

Remember the kerfuffle when President Obama uttered those infamous words, “You didn’t build that”? It was, granted, a long time ago (3 years, in fact). But as I argued at the time, there was some truth in the basic sentiment, even if there was some ambiguity about the President’s intended antecedent.

Lately I ran across this striking passage from one of Martin Luther’s sermons, where he raises the stakes, so to speak, regarding the necessity of civil government for social flourishing. In a 1528 sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, Luther has this to say about the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread”:

When you pray this petition turn your eyes to everything that can prevent our bread from coming and the crops from prospering. Therefore extend your thoughts to all the fields and do not see only the baker’s oven. You pray, therefore, against the devil and the world, who can hinder the grain by tempest and war. We pray also for temporal peace against war, because in times of war we cannot have bread. Likewise, you pray for government, for sustenance and peace, without which you cannot eat: Grant, Lord, that the grain may prosper, that the princes may keep the peace, that war may not break out, that we may give thanks to thee in peace. Therefore it would be proper to stamp the emperor’s or the princes’ coat-of-arms upon bread as well as upon money or coins. Few know that this is included in the Lord’s Prayer. Though the Lord gives bread in sufficient abundance even to the wicked and godless, it is nevertheless fitting that we Christians should know and acknowledge that it comes from God, that we realize that bread, hunger, and war are in God’s hands. If he opens his hand, we have bread and all things in abundance; if he closes it, then it is the opposite. Therefore, do not think that peace is an accidental thing; it is the gift of God. (LW 51:176-177)