Fri, 09 May 2003

Going Loco

Honestly, folks, some economists write books just so they can show their parents how successful they've become. They know their parents are never going to read the book, so it doesn't matter if the book is complete balderdash. Michael H. Shuman's book, Going Local, is one of them. Here's a quote from the local newspaper: "St. Lawrence County must think about the holes in its economy and become self reliant." Quite obviously this means not importing self-impressed pundits.

Okay, so Shuman goes on a book tour (want to bet you could buy his book in the lobby? And that he would graciously sign it after his sales pitchtalk?) and misleads innocents. Is this forgivable? I don't think so. If you call yourself an economist, and he surely does, then you've got to be aware of the principle of comparative advantage. It's not new. If it was a new idea and he was an old guy, he might be forgiven. There are a fair number of things which an economist trained fifty years ago might not have learned. Michael isn't 75. He has no excuse, even if comparative advantage was a new idea, which it isn't.

Adam Smith was a popularizer of ideas, not necessarily an innovator. Still, it's fair to give credit to the person who got the idea to you, not just the person who came up with it. Adam Smith taught us (at least, those of us who are listening) that it's always in your best interest to do the thing you're best at, and trade that for what you're not. I can hear Homer Simpson now: D'Oh! There are a lot of things that science has discovered which isn't obvious. Comparative advantage is not one of them.

Shuman is quoted as saying "When you are import dependent you are doing an enormous disservice to your economy." No man is an island. Everybody -- all of us -- even you -- are dependent on imports. You can see how confused Shuman is by thinking, not about "economies" (too abstract), but about yourself. Are you dependent upon imports? Not just yes, but heck yes, darn it! You need to import food into your body. How do you get this food? By spending effort. Why do plants and animals feed us? Because we protect and nourish them.

Shuman's suggestion that communities should be self-reliant makes about as much sense as suggesting that people keep chlorophyll pods underneath their skin and stay out in the sunshine all day. I've got better things to do than that. Rather than calling his book "Going Local", he should have called it "Going Loco", because that's what his ideas are: just plain crazy.

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