Maximilian I, Emperor of the Mailbag
More thoughts about Napoleon III than you'd expect
We’re going up to Maine next week for a big family vacation — we’ll keep producing content, but for the sake of traditional values, we are going to take a rare day off and not run a new post on Wednesday, August 23.
In terms of good news, I think it’s cool that Inflation Reduction Act investments are primarily flowing to poorer and less educated communities. This looks like a potential breakthrough in the supply of organs for transplant. The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow model is currently projecting incredibly strong real growth this quarter. There’s a new song out from Metric, my favorite band. Last but not least, can’t head to Maine without checking out the local news, where it seems like a new space company is going to start launching rockets from a former military base in low-income rural Aroostook County.
Zirkafett: How do you think about “greed” in the discourse (i.e., “the corporations were greedy so we got inflation”, or “Bernie Madoff got away with his ponzi for so long because his victims were greedy”, or “we could all have health care if the rich and corporations stopped being greedy”)? Whenever I hear an invocation of “greed” I tend to lose the plot because “greed” seems an imprecise (and perhaps obfuscatory) stand-in for something else, though I’m not sure what.
Perhaps a different question: Do you think greed qua greed is the proper object of politics? Of policy? Of moral concern?
As I’ve written a bunch of times, I don’t think it makes sense to broadly condemn corporations as “greedy” for charging market-clearing prices during a time of high aggregate demand. There are certainly times when companies make what at least feel like unethical decisions. And while there’s probably not enough room in the Mailbag to really dig into the differences, I do think taking advantage of short-term emergencies (like a hardware store that jacks up prices of flashlights during a blackout) is bad.
But at the end of the day, a business is going to respond to incentives and so to some extent there’s no sense in getting outraged when that’s what they do. On another level, though, precisely because businesses respond to incentives you might thing it’s vital to get outraged. If managers think “well, if we price gouge during this blackout that will generate tons of bad publicity for us and not be worth it,” then their incentive is to ration flashlights rather than charging market-clearing prices, and that’s probably a better outcome for everyone. So it’s important to actually do the moralistic condemnation precisely in order to shift the incentives.
The place where I think greed is a really vital concept, though, comes in bigger-picture decision making.
Kate and I like money, and we are running a business here. But we also have integrity. We’re not going to start publishing articles that we think are wrong or harmful just to make more money. That would be greedy. We want to make smart decisions about our headlines, about where the paywalls are located, about when we do discounts, about how we do promotions, and about other things that are related to maximizing revenue. And of course business considerations are relevant to the larger editorial strategy. But first and foremost, the editorial strategy needs to have integrity. We are making a good living here, and I think it would be really wrong (greedy) for us to compromise that for the sake of money.
And I think it would be good for society to promulgate more of an ethic of anti-greed in that sense.
If you go back and look at Donald Trump before he was a politician, a lot of what he did was avaricious. He wasn’t just making money by doing good real estate development projects. He was ripping people off with things like Trump University or by stiffing his subcontractors. He briefly ran a publicly traded company, the whole purpose of which was for him to fleece his own shareholders for personal profit. I think it is a big problem with contemporary American society that in an era dominated by Milton Friedman’s dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” the distinction between a guy who gets rich selling a quality product at a price people are happy to pay and a guy who gets rich running scams has completely collapsed. And to me, greed is a relevant concept there. Making a product people like is good. Charging the price at which supply and demand balance can be extremely lucrative, but it’s also in most circumstances a pretty sensible way to allocate who gets the product. And that’s actually pretty different from behaving like a greedy person with no integrity.
Thomas: Is there a stupider Twitter Discourse than the shoplifting discourse that comes up every now and then? It sure seems like “retail theft is fine, actually” is a very dumb look for the left and one that will turn off voters, and that shoplifting and vehicle burglaries are how the median voter experiences “crime” which makes it a dangerous thing to downplay.
It’s definitely dumb. At the same time, I would urge everyone to draw a distinction between “dumb Twitter discourse promulgated by real actors in the political system” and “dumb shit said by total randos.”