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Resurrecting Our Intellectual Past

As many may know, I have spent most of the last decade or more producing a content-archiving website [1] that provides convenient, readable access to over 500,000 print articles from the 19th and 20th centuries, together with hundreds of thousands of books.

Most of these articles are drawn from what were once America’s leading journals of intellectual thought and influence, but which eventually vanished so completely that their very names have long been forgotten.  Studying our history of the last century or two without giving full consideration to these periodicals would be similar to analyzing the domestic politics of the Vietnam War while ignoring CBS, NBC, ABC, and The New York Times.

Resurrecting long dead publications is nearly as difficult as resurrecting people, and merely putting those millions of scanned pages on the Internet does not necessarily mean that anyone will notice or read them.  Therefore, as a means of promoting awareness of this valuable intellectual resource, I announced last year a historical research competition, offering prizes to the best original project produced from this material, with the requirement that Wikipedia accept the work for publication.

The winning entry, submitted by Scott Lahti, was a detailed history of Encounter Magazine [2], a leading intellectual journal of the Cold War Era, based in London.  For decades, Encounter had been a premier venue for both mainstream anti-Communist liberals and the early neoconservatives, with numerous prominent intellectuals appearing in its pages. As of last year, the magazine’s Wikipedia entry had been a tiny stub, providing almost no useful information; but Lahti’s winning entry had expanded it in length and detail to rival that of any other publication, extent or not.

The obvious value of providing such detailed background information on one of the many important periodicals provided by our website persuaded me to announce a second research competition [3], this time restricted to producing or enhancing the Wikipedia entries for any of the many dozens of our magazines.  This new competition also proved very successful, with a number of excellent entries.

The winning submission [4], produced by Ernest Steiner, was for Century Magazine, which had spent years as America’s most influential publication, and continued to play a crucial role in our society during the 1920s, before finally falling victim to the Great Depression.  Our Century Magazine archives include almost 20,000 articles drawn from a sixty year period, and the detailed history in the Wikipedia entry now allows individuals to place that wealth of material in proper context.

A runner-up award goes to Scott Lahti, who had won the previous competition with his Encounter entry.  This time he produced a detailed history of Politics [5], a small but very highly regarded magazine personally created during 1944-1949 by Dwight MacDonald, one of America’s foremost intellectuals of that era.  The 2006 centenary of MacDonald’s birth was marked by considerable coverage in our elite print media, including many mentions of the brilliant small journal he had once edited.  At that point, the publication was totally inaccessible to anyone distant from our largest research libraries; but it is now just a click away on the Internet.

Finally, the other runner-up prize goes to Christopher Olewicz, for his entry on The Forum [6], a discussion journal published during 1890-1950, which for decades often carried the work of America’s most distinguished writers and thinkers.

Other notable entries included:

Work along these lines may gradually restore the proper balance between the ideas of the vanished past and those of the present, and allow us to discover that the former are often far more correct and enlightening than we realize.

 

On an entirely different matter, the Sunday New York Times carried a column [11] critical of President Obama’s proposed minimum wage increase, written by Berkeley economist Christina Romer, former Chair of his own Council of Economic Advisors.  Obviously, Prof. Romer must rank as one of America’s leading economics experts, while I’ve never so much as opened a textbook in that subject, but I wonder a little about her analysis.

First, she argues that no rise in the minimum wage is necessary because employer competition will automatically raise workers’ wages to their proper level, and prevent individual businesses from “misbehaving.”  As she points out, if one store offers $8 per hour while its competitors pay $9, the former will be unable to attract any suitable workers and will necessarily be forced to raise its offer, all without any need for government intervention.

But wouldn’t exactly that same reasoning demonstrate that existing minimum wage laws imposed by government are also completely unnecessary and should be abolished, together with laws imposing an 8-hour work day, a 40-hour week, extra pay for overtime, not to mention all our health and safety workplace requirements?  After all, if one big corporation were just paying $3.10 per hour for a 60-hour week, wouldn’t it lose all its good workers to a competitor that offered $3.20?

Perhaps Romer had indeed spent her years as Obama’s top economic advisor urging him to eliminate all these archaic nineteenth century restrictions on private contract and labor freedom, but his cynical political consultants feared that doing so might imperil his 2012 reelection support among America’s ignorant voters.

On another issue, she models the overall financial impact of his $9.00 per hour proposal by assuming that all the 13 million workers today paid below that level earn exactly the minimum wage of $7.25, and would therefore get raises of $3,500 per year.

I wonder why she or her grad students didn’t bother looking at the actual raw distribution of wages available in the Current Population Survey (CPS) data, used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to generate its official numbers.  Based on those figures, I find a mean annual gain of closer to $1,700 per year, which is far smaller than Romer’s figure.  Furthermore, since she elsewhere focuses on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), surely she must realize that for these lowest-wage workers a substantial fraction of any such wage increase would be cancelled out by a corresponding drop in their EITC checks or other government subsidies, meaning that their actual gain in spending power would be considerably smaller. Thus, although she correctly points out that the fiscal stimulus from a $9.00 minimum wage would be insignificant, she probably still overestimates it by a factor of three or more.

She also argues that if businesses were to pass along a large portion of their greater minimum wage costs in the form of higher prices, the result might actually harm exactly the working-poor whom the policy is intended to help.  But does this make sense?  Suppose a $12.00 minimum wage permanently raised the mean income of lower-end workers by 30%, but also forced McDonalds and Walmart to raise their prices by a one-time 3 percent.  Wouldn’t the working-poor still come out far ahead since 30 is much larger than 3, and not all their consumer dollars are spent at those sort of labor-intensive establishments?

I’ll have to admit I just don’t understand the “Science of Economics”.

 

Finally, a landslide 68% majority of Swiss voters yesterday passed a public referendum [12] imposing some of the world’s most severe restrictions on all executive compensation.  This is hardly surprising given that Switzerland has the strongest ultra-leftwing tradition in Europe and throughout the twentieth century served as the world center of International Communism.

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Comments Disabled To "Resurrecting Our Intellectual Past"

#1 Comment By Jonathan On March 4, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

Mr. Unz,

I think this is a worthwhile article to consider, but there are many others – [13];.

Sincerely,

Jonathan W.

#2 Comment By Wesley On March 4, 2013 @ 4:36 pm

I think that it would be a good idea for shareholder votes on executive pay to be binding as executives have a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders, but I’m not sure about governments passing legislation to require shareholder votes on executive pay to be binding. Also, I’m definitely opposed to laws restricting bonuses unless a company was bailed out by a government.

#3 Comment By Adam On March 4, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

It isn’t the “science of economics” but whatever monied interest is funding the research. Say what you will about conflicts between Demand side and Supply side and Deficit scolds and others, the real issue with economic papers is not knowing who is paying the bills to come up with the analysis. We like to think of economists as intellectually neutral, but that isn’t the case in the pay for play model.

#4 Comment By Russell Seitz On March 4, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

Might Ron be prevailed upon to add the first five years of The National Interest quarterly to his online Archive?

The early years under Owen Harries editorship languish unscanned.

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 4, 2013 @ 6:34 pm

Essentially all lobbying businesses have received the equivalent of bailouts. That is why they buy advantageous legislation from their politicians by financing campaigns or offering revolving-door job perks.

The most compelling argument I have heard for raising the minimum wage to a living one is that corporations themselves hate a minimum wage but love welfare, since it means they do not have to provide benefits or living wages themselves. Their sole interest in a limitation on welfare, then, is only to make sure that they themselves don’t have to pay the taxes that support their subsidy.

Once again, they are privatizing profit, while socializing costs.

#6 Comment By Geoff Guth On March 4, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

Economists do generally dislike the minimum wage because, by setting a price floor on labor you either won’t have an effect on wages (in a full employment situation, wages will rise on their own as employers seek out workers) or you’ll have the effect of depressing employment (with less than full employment, employers can get by without hiring everyone who’s on the market.

There are things that the government could do as far as labor law is concerned that would more directly attack the problem of unemployment. For instance, reducing the number of work hours per week from forty would encourage businesses to hire more.

On a related note, many jobs have been increasingly reclassified as salaried that were formerly hourly, which allows employers to demand more work time without paying for it. That also undercuts overtime pay, which historically has been an important source of extra income for many working class people.

#7 Comment By William Dalton On March 4, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

I think the folly of assigning to the government the task of setting prices for labor or any other commodity in a free marketplace should be evident to anyone who lived through the Twentieth Century.

The countervailing problem, and the reason for wage and hour legislation earlier in that century, is that there was rarely a free market for human labor, but rather the condition of most mankind was to live as slaves, in fact if not in law, unable to move and market their skills to potential higher bidders. The greater mobility of goods and services, and particularly the open access to information about markets for them throughout the world may have rendered such laws an anachronism, continuing to battle a problem which is receding from existence.

#8 Comment By Jack On March 4, 2013 @ 8:27 pm

With regards to resurrecting past writings, I’ve been reading a fascinating book once owned by my father entitled “A Nation of Sheep.” It was written by one of the authors of “The Ugly American,” and came out in 1961. It is long since out of print, but it lays out in frustrating detail how we were being systematically dragged into conflicts in Southeast Asia on the basis of faulty information and in some cases outright lies.

It would have come in handy a few years later, but apparently nobody at the White House had picked up a copy. It would have come in really handy about 10 years ago.

With regards to past intellectualism, I’ve felt for a long time now that conservatives generally, and the current GOP leadership in particular, have abandoned intellectualism in favor of cheap political hackery. What was once the party of reason and rational discourse has been reduced to pundits shouting at each other on cable and radio.

As far as the minimum wage goes, I am again reminded of my father. He ran a small factory back in the 70s and 80s, when manufacturing jobs were much more heavily unionized. Being a staunch conservative, he disliked unions intensely, but he adopted a creative way to keep them out of his shop:

He paid his people well. He paid them better than most union workers in similar shops, and he treated them with respect. This resulted in better productivity, less turnover, and more money for the business. And when the union managed to get in the door and try to organize the place, it was the employees – not my dad – who kicked them out.

The sad thing is, he’d never make it as an executive nowadays. Paying a premium for hourly employees in order to attract and retain premium employees seems like a no-brainer, but in today’s bottom line driven world just doesn’t fly.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 4, 2013 @ 8:34 pm

Sounds like a valuable research nest and monumental undertaking.

#10 Comment By Filler Crowley On March 4, 2013 @ 8:47 pm

I have something embarrassing to admit: for years I thought that unz.org was somehow associated with the University of New Zealand (an institution, I’ve just discovered, that ceased to exist in 1961).

#11 Comment By Robert On March 4, 2013 @ 11:26 pm

Thank you, Mr. Unz, for your work on making Encounter and other important publications of the past available to us in their original formatting.

#12 Comment By cka2nd On March 5, 2013 @ 10:23 am

Tom Hartman on the cable news station RT (I assume RT stands for Russia Today) said last night that the old high marginal tax rates of 70, 80 and 90% acted as an unofficial maximum wage, so that the average executive was paid somewhere between 30 and 40 times the average employee AND profits tended to be plowed back into the company for research and development and capital expenses.

He went on to say that as marginal tax rates have declined, and the tax rates on forms of income that the wealthy are more likely to earn, such as capital gains, are reduced to rates lower than the taxes on the types of income that the working and middle classes rely on, e.g., wages, executive compensation has skyrocketed into being hundreds of times that of the average employee while compensation for the rest of us has been stagnant or falling. In addition, corporate boards and executives are re-directing profits away from R&D and capital expenses towards themselves to further juice their own compensation.

I’m not sure how much of a grain of salt I should take with Mr. Hartman, but honestly, his explanation of the last 60-70 years of the American economy sounds much more plausible than one that Mr. Dalton’s earlier comment.

#13 Comment By Thomas Sm On March 8, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

Switzerland is one of the most right-wing countries in Europe, so I cannot understand the last comment. The fact that Lenin hid out there is not really relevant. After all, the Germans snuck him back into Russia and wanted him to gain power (if briefly) – is that because the Kaiser was a Commie?

Political power in Switzerland is mostly shared between patriotic right-wingers, free-marketeers, and Christian Democrats.