Naomi Who?

When ever I’m in a book store, I spend most of my time in the social science section. Amidst history and current politics, I’ve stumbled across some fantastic authors who I never would have found without thumbing the shelves: Studs Terkel, John McPhee, and many others. But there’s always that abrasive Naomi Klein. Her book No Logo looks so radical and akin to the anarchist cookbook, that I just can’t picking it up and taking a look. Over the years I must have picked it up a dozen times, read a sentence or two, found its contents appalling, and slammed it back onto the shelf. Time goes by and the next time I’m in a book store I repeat the vicious cycle.
Klein has a new book out, Shock Doctrine, which I admit to have not read. But it seems to be getting a lot of attention (Here’s Tyler Cowen’s book review and comments from Pete Boettke 1 and 2).

My first reaction is, why do we (the economics profession) even give this woman the time of day. Here’s how my ideal conversation concerning her work would go. An interested person strikes up a conversation, “Oh you’re an economist, have you read Naomi Klein’s new book?”
The economist responds, “Who?”
“You know it’s like a best seller.”
“Where does she teach, where’s her degree from, what school of thought does she subscribe to?”
“I don’t know but she gives a devastating critique of Capitalism.”
“I guess I should look for a new line of work.”
If there’s no real theory behind the work, it must be riding to success on some alternative content: it’s plea to the public’s bias against capitalism, Klein’s emotional appeals, or her own form of shock doctrine.
Take the interview that I posted above. Klein tells the audience that free-market think tanks actually had a “meeting” after Katrina, to formulate a response plan. Oh no! you mean that the people who consider themselves experts on capitalism, business, production, distribution, development, and growth actually held themselves accountable to be relevant to the problems of the real world. Heaven forbid.
In this interview she spins the story of Katrina to sound like some conspiratorial effort is behind the growth of market institutions in the wake of Katrina. She doesn’t even entertain the fact that the alternative institutions failed at their very intended tasks. The schools, the transportation, the health care, all publicly provided, were bumbling nightmares after the storm, while Wal-Mart, Lowes, and Home Depot had trucks on the move with real productive materials and equipment ready to rebuild. The story is not one where capitalists exploit catastrophic opportunity at the expense of civic society. Instead the story is one where capitalism provides individuals with the durability, strength, and control to rebound and rebuild in ways that central planned institutions could never hope to keep up.
Why does the public like her book? Why are society’s biases aligned in her favor? She makes it sound like the half government, half market hybrid is the natural order, the way things have always and always should be. Nothing can be farther from the truth, the growth and dominance of central-planning and government control over infrastructure institutions like transportation, criminal justice, education, health care, etc., is a very new phenomenon. The alternative arrangements of these institutions evolved over thousands of years, but in the last 75 years or so the hubris of planning has run away with itself and Klein gets to be a best seller.

Police flight in New Orleans

As part of the Social Change Workshop at the Mercatus Center, a group of GMU econ students have been meeting with Pete Boettke this semester to discuss the economics of New Orleans and disaster recovery in general. We’ve been reading The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley to spark discussion.
The topic of conversation that I’ve found most interesting is in regards to the following piece of historical fact. After Katrina hit why did so many officers quit or abandon their posts (an article from the New York Times). This didn’t seem to happen in other cities and especially not in New York after September 11th (a catastrophe of at least similar perceived proportion). I think two simple economic concepts hep explain the majority of this phenomenon; purposivity and sympathy. In either case it is both rational and possibly reasonable (depending opon your opinions of moral obligations) for cops to have quit the force when they did. Let me clarify, I’m not trying to justify a cop quitting his job or doing any other sort of behavior, all I’m saying is that what we observed, cops quitting their posts isn’t all that surprising.

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New Orleans bias in criminal statistics

I would like to comment on a recent Popular Mechanics article: Debunking the Myths of Katrina. This article is a must read for anyone interested in the topic of New Orleans reconstruction. While the amount of raw facts is impressive, the general tone of the article is more concerning. The argument of the article is set up so as to use raw empirics as refutation against alleged myths concerning the government’s inadequate response, meteorological reality, and environmental engineering. Factual data concerning Katrina needs to be presented and understood, this leads me to say that this article is a good one. My reservation is only in regards to the language of the argument to assert magnitudes of appropriateness to issues of economic rather than technological efficiency.

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New Orleans or bust!

An exciting piece of news; I have recently been contracted as a graduate research fellow for the Mercatus Center. I’ll be going to New Orleans from April 1st through 8th to work directly with Emily Chamlee-Wright on gathering field research. The project is investigating questions surrounding pre-Katrina civic organization, organizational resilience during Katrina, and post-Katrina reconstruction (see Pete Boettke’s introductions to the project 1 and 2).

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New Orleans chaos and order.

I want to say a few words in regards to the recent pandemonium happening in my old romping ground; the big easy. There’s obviously been a lot of news coverage simply informing the masses of the horrendous situation. These images are fueling a theoretical debate as is typical of most disaster situations. It seems that every time something catastrophic happens, the planners and the economists come out of the woodwork to offer completely opposing sides of a relatively straight forward situation. Is the catastrophe going to help or hurt the economy? Should we allow price gouging of necessary emergency materials? These are important questions and have been paid due attention, but I don’t want to talk about either one. What I do want to draw attention to is the notion of spontaneous order and the implications which can be inferred out of such an event as the current New Orleans crisis.

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