Mar 092019
 

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, usually simply called The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith was first published on this date in 1776, while the Agricultural Revolution was in full swing and the Industrial Revolution was cranking up. Smith concerned himself with the question of why some nations had more wealth than others, the division of labor, free markets, the law of supply and demand, competition, profit, and productivity, and the book is considered a founding work of classical economics. It influenced governments and organizations, setting the terms for economic debate and discussion for the next century and a half.

The Wealth of Nations was the product of 17 years of notes and earlier works, as well as conversations among economists of the time concerning economic and societal conditions during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Smith sought to offer a practical application for reformed economic theory to replace the mercantilist and physiocratic economic theories that were becoming less relevant in a time of industrial innovation. The book influenced economists, politicians, mathematicians, biologists, and scholars in a wide variety of fields. The Wealth of Nations was as foundational in the field of economics, as Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica for physics, Antoine Lavoisier’s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie for chemistry, or Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species for biology.

Smith’s main tenet is that some nations are wealthier than other nations, not because some countries work harder or have better resources, but because of the judicious exploitation of free trade. Smith argues that free trade allows countries to import goods that are expensive to produce within their borders and export goods that are cheap to produce. Opening borders is better in the long term because the long-term cost of production is lower. One of the central ideas of Smith’s economics is what he calls “the invisible hand of the market place.”  The “invisible hand” in some ways foreshadows the concept of culture in anthropology: that is, there are natural forces at work that regulate communities (and markets) regardless of conscious involvement. People who create products will always work to make the biggest profit. This spells success all around, because when business owners have the long view in mind, they will put out their best work. He gives the example of a butcher. If a butcher sells bad cuts of meat, his customers will not come back. He might make a profit in the short term, but in the long term, it is better to sell a good product for a price people are willing to pay. The invisible hand of the market ensures a prosperous system that works for the good of the majority. Smith acknowledges that some will become super rich, and some will stay poor, but for him, this is a logical price to pay for a thriving economic system. In order for freedom to prevail, and for the majority to pursue their happiness and goals, the system must allow for some measure of inequality.

Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in response to the prevailing economic theory of the time, mercantilism. Mercantilism stated that international trade results in a collection of winners and losers. For one country to get rich, it is necessary that another country be poor. Because resources are limited a country will have to put in measures to ensure its prosperity at the expense of another. This theory meant that countries tried hard to bring money and resources within their borders, but blocked free exchange so that money stayed inside. Countries would levy tariffs on goods coming from outside countries, sometimes at the expense of their own long-term good. If another country produces something more cheaply than your country can, you can place tariffs on imports, so that the product made inside the country is competitive. The problem is that this action raises prices.

We could argue about the merits of Smith’s advocacy of free trade and laissez-faire economics for a long time. In the nineteenth century in Britain, unregulated capitalism without social safety nets led to catastrophic urban poverty, with political economists such as Karl Marx providing a very different analysis running counter to Smith’s. Smith, himself, also put limits on completely unregulated production. He believed that some taxation was needed to provide for services, such as roads, that benefitted everyone, and he was also strongly opposed to monopolies that circumvented the natural processes of free market competition and artificially forced up prices. Thus, economic systems always needed some regulation. How much regulation and taxation is a continuing debate.  Smith’s basic premise that all people are self-interested and striving for the best for themselves and this fact drives markets and individuals to maximize benefits for all concerned, is deeply contested to this day.

Here is a frugal Scots recipe for apples and oats that I make once in a while when I want a quick dessert.

Apples and Oats

Ingredients:

1½ oz butter
2 oz brown sugar
4 oz rolled oats
4 cooking apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 tbsp lemon juice

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Melt the butter in a pan and add the oats and sugar. Mix well. Spread out in a shallow tin and toast in the oven until they are golden brown. Keep an eagle eye on them, and shake periodically. They will brown quickly and unevenly if not shaken.

Toss the apples in the lemon juice and put them in a casserole with a tight-fitting lid. Bake in the oven until the apples are soft and fluffy (about 30 minutes). Beat in the sugar to taste and allow to cool.

In a loaf pan, arrange a layer of oats, then apples and repeat until all are used up, with a layer of oats on top. Let rest for at least an hour. Serve with whipped cream.

Dec 232017
 

Today is the birthday (1812) of Samuel Smiles, was a Scottish author and government reformer who campaigned on a Chartist platform, but who became an almost overnight celebrity for his book Self-Help (1859), which promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits, while also attacking materialism and laissez-faire government. In some ways it was a testament to Victorian morality.

Born in Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland, Smiles was the son of Janet Wilson of Dalkeith and Samuel Smiles of Haddington. He was one of eleven surviving children. While his family members were strict Reformed Presbyterians, he was not religious. He studied at a local school, leaving at the age of 14. He apprenticed to be a doctor under Dr. Robert Lewins. This arrangement enabled Smiles to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1829. There he also developed an interest in politics, and became a strong supporter of Joseph Hume (a strict fiscal conservative in Parliament). During this time, he contracted a lung disease, and his father was advised to send him on a long sea voyage.

His father died in the cholera epidemic of 1832, but Smiles was enabled to continue with his studies because he was supported by his mother. She ran the small family general store firm in the belief that the “Lord will provide.” Her example of working ceaselessly to support herself and his nine younger siblings strongly influenced Smiles’s future life.

In 1837, he wrote articles for the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and the Leeds Times, campaigning for parliamentary reform. In November 1838, Smiles was invited to become the editor of the Leeds Times, a position he filled until 1842. In May 1840, Smiles became secretary to the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association, an organization that held to the six objectives of Chartism: universal suffrage for all men over the age of 21; equal-sized electoral districts; voting by secret ballot; an end to the need of MPs to qualify for Parliament, other than by winning an election; pay for MPs; and annual Parliaments.

As editor of the Leeds Times, he advocated radical causes ranging from women’s suffrage to free trade and parliamentary reform. By the late 1840s, however, Smiles became concerned about the recommendation of physical force by Chartists Feargus O’Connor and George Julian Harney, although he seems to have agreed with them that the movement’s current tactics were not effective, saying that “mere political reform will not cure the manifold evils which now afflict society.” In 1845, he left the Leeds Times and became a secretary for the newly formed Leeds & Thirsk Railway. After nine years, he worked for the South Eastern Railway.

In the 1850s, Smiles abandoned his interest in parliament and decided that self-help was the most important avenue to reform in society. In 1859, he published Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct. The origins of Self-Help lay in a speech he gave in March 1845 in response to a request by a Mutual Improvement Society, published as, The Education of the Working Classes. In it Smiles said:

I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy. Knowledge is of itself one of the highest enjoyments. The ignorant man passes through the world dead to all pleasures, save those of the senses … Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature.

The newly founded Routledge publishing house rejected publishing Self-Help in 1855. Twenty years later Smiles was seated next to George Routledge at a dinner, and he said to him, “And when, Dr. Smiles, are we to have the honour of publishing one of your books?” Smiles replied that Mr. Routledge already had the honor of rejecting Self-Help. Although John Murray was willing to publish Self-Help on a half-profits system, but Smiles rejected the offer. In 1859, he self-published the book, retaining the copyright, while he paid John Murray a ten percent commission, for distribution, I presume. It sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication. By the time of Smiles’s death in 1904 it had sold over a quarter of a million copies. Self-Help brought almost instant celebrity status and he became a much-consulted pundit. He was also deluged with requests to lay foundation stones, sit for his portrait, present prizes to orphan children, make speeches, and so forth, but he declined them all.

Smiles wrote articles for the Quarterly. In an article on railways, he argued that the railways should be nationalized and that third-class passengers should be encouraged. In 1861 Smiles published an article from the Quarterly, renamed Workers Earnings, Savings, and Strikes. He claimed poverty in many instances was caused by habitual imprudence:

Times of great prosperity, in which wages are highest and mills running full time are not times in which Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools flourish, but times in which publicans and beer sellers prosper and grow rich … A workman earning 50s. to 60s. a week (above the average pay of bankers’ clerks) was content to inhabit a miserable one-roomed dwelling in a bad neighbourhood, the one room serving as parlour, kitchen, and sleeping-room for the whole family, which consisted of husband, wife, four sons, two cats, and a dog. The witness was asked: Do you think this family was unable to get better lodgings, or were they careless? They were careless, was the reply.

In 1866, Smiles became president of the National Provident Institution, but left in 1871, after suffering a debilitating stroke. He recovered from the stroke, eventually having to learn to read and write again. In 1875, his book Thrift was published. In it, he said that “riches do not constitute any claim to distinction. It is only the vulgar who admire riches as riches.” He claimed that the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 was “one of the most valuable that has been placed on the statute-book in modern times.” He also criticized Victorian laissez-faire:

When typhus or cholera breaks out, they tell us that Nobody is to blame. That terrible Nobody! How much he has to answer for. More mischief is done by Nobody than by all the world besides. Nobody adulterates our food. Nobody poisons us with bad drink. Nobody supplies us with foul water. Nobody spreads fever in blind alleys and unswept lanes. Nobody leaves towns undrained. Nobody fills gaols, penitentiaries, and convict stations. Nobody makes poachers, thieves, and drunkards. Nobody has a theory too—a dreadful theory. It is embodied in two words—Laissez faire—Let alone. When people are poisoned by plaster of Paris mixed with flour, “Let alone” is the remedy. When Cocculus indicus is used instead of hops, and men die prematurely, it is easy to say, “Nobody did it.” Let those who can, find out when they are cheated: Caveat emptor. When people live in foul dwellings, let them alone. Let wretchedness do its work; do not interfere with death.

In 1877, the letters young Smiles wrote home during his teenage sea voyage and the log he kept of his journey to Australia and America between February 1869 and March 1871 were published in London in book form, under the title A Boy’s Voyage Round the World.

In 1881 he claimed that,

Labour is toilsome and its gains are slow. Some people determine to live by the labour of others, and from the moment they arrive at that decision, become the enemies of society. It is not often that distress drives men to crime. In nine cases out of ten, it is choice not necessity. Moral cowardice is exhibited as much in public as in private life. Snobbism is not confined to toadying of the rich, but is quite as often displayed in the toadying of the poor… Now that the “masses” exercise political power, there is a growing tendency to fawn upon them, flatter them, speak nothing but smooth words to them. They are credited with virtues they themselves know they do not possess. To win their favour sympathy is often pretended for views, the carrying out of which is known to be hopeless. The popular agitator must please whom he addresses, and it is always highly gratifying to our self-love to be told that someone else is to blame for what we suffer. So it rarely occurs to these orators to suggest that those whom they address are themselves to blame for what they suffer, or that they misuse the means of happiness which are within their reach … The capitalist is merely a man who does not spend all that is earned by work.

Karl Marx he was not. The late 19th century and early 20th century saw the rise of New Liberalism, Keynesian economics, and socialism, all of which viewed thrift unfavorably. The New Liberal economists, J. A. Hobson and A. F. Mummery in their Physiology of Industry (1889), claimed that saving resulted in the underemployment of capital and labor during trade depressions. Over time Smiles fell out of vogue and now he is mostly seen as a Victorian curiosity although some of his ideals are still valuable. Certainly the self-help movement is alive and well.

On 16 April 1904, Samuel Smiles died in Kensington in London and was buried in Brompton Cemetery. Shortly before his death, he was reportedly offered a knighthood, which he declined to accept.

Mrs Beeton sounds almost like Smiles in the following passage, down to vaunting the Scots over the English for their legendary thrift.  If you are not a Brit you probably don’t know that the English make fun of the Scots for their frugality.

  1. IT HAS BEEN ASSERTED, that English cookery is, nationally speaking, far from being the best in the world. More than this, we have been frequently told by brilliant foreign writers, half philosophers, half chefs, that we are the worst cooks on the face of the earth, and that the proverb which alludes to the divine origin of food, and the precisely opposite origin of its preparers, is peculiarly applicable to us islanders. Not, however, to the inhabitants of the whole island; for, it is stated in a work which treats of culinary operations, north of the Tweed, that the “broth” of Scotland claims, for excellence and wholesomeness, a very close second place to the bouillon, or common soup of France. “Three hot meals of broth and meat, for about the price of ONE roasting joint,” our Scottish brothers and sisters get, they say; and we hasten to assent to what we think is now a very well-ascertained fact. We are glad to note, however, that soups of vegetables, fish, meat, and game, are now very frequently found in the homes of the English middle classes, as well as in the mansions of the wealthier and more aristocratic; and we take this to be one evidence, that we are on the right road to an improvement in our system of cookery. One great cause of many of the spoilt dishes and badly-cooked meats which are brought to our tables, arises, we think, and most will agree with us, from a non-acquaintance with “common, every-day things.” Entertaining this view, we intend to preface the chapters of this work with a simple scientific résumé of all those causes and circumstances which relate to the food we have to prepare, and the theory and chemistry of the various culinary operations. Accordingly, this is the proper place to treat of the quality of the flesh of animals, and describe some of the circumstances which influence it for good or bad. We will, therefore, commence with the circumstance of age, and examine how far this affects the quality of meat.

I’ve picked rumbledethumps as the dish to honor Smiles, partly because it’s Scottish, partly because it is a thrifty dish, and partly because I love the name. Rumbledethumps is a traditional dish from the Scottish Borders. The main ingredients are potato, cabbage and onion. It is similar to Irish colcannon, and English bubble and squeak, either served as an accompaniment to a main dish or as a main dish itself. I’ll also follow Smiles in recommending that you employ a little ingenuity in working out how to make rumbledethumps. You don’t need a recipe, just the idea (and I’ll give you a photo too).

Begin by shredding some cabbage and slicing an onion. Also boil some potatoes.  Fry the onions and cabbage in butter until they are soft. Mash the potatoes with a little butter plus salt and pepper to taste.  Combine all three well and place in a baking dish. Covered with shredded melting cheese of your choice, and bake in a hot oven until the top is golden and bubbly.

Apr 212016
 

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Today is the birthday (1864) of Karl Emil Maximilian “Max” Weber, Prussian-German social theorist who was a major figure in the development of social research. Weber is sometimes grouped with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx as the founders of sociology. I could quibble about how sociology got created, but I won’t argue about Weber being a towering figure.  His work has had a lasting influence on mine. It’s impossible for me to summarize his work adequately in a short post, but I’ll try to keep it simple – which means, inevitably, simplistic.

Weber was a key proponent of methodological antipositivism, that is, he believed that social action cannot be understood empirically (scientifically) but must be delved through interpretive means (what he called Verstehen), based on understanding the purpose and meaning that individuals attach to their own actions. Unlike Durkheim, he did not believe in monocausality but proposed that for any outcome there can be multiple causes.

Weber is best known for his thesis combining economic sociology and the sociology of religion, as exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he proposes that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major “elective affinities” associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state. He argues that it was the basic beliefs of Protestantism that led to capitalism, and that, in fact, the spirit of capitalism is spawned by, and identical with Protestant religious values.

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Weber was born in Erfurt, Province of Saxony, Prussia. He was the oldest of the seven children of Max Weber Sr., a wealthy and prominent civil servant and member of the National Liberal Party, and his wife Helene (Fallenstein), who partly descended from French Huguenot immigrants and held strong moral absolutist ideas. Weber Sr.’s involvement in public life immersed his home in both politics and academia, as his salon welcomed many prominent scholars and public figures. The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Weber’s 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled “About the course of German history, with special reference to the positions of the Emperor and the Pope”, and “About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations.” I just love it.

In class, bored and unimpressed with the teachers – who in turn resented what they perceived as a disrespectful attitude – he secretly read all forty volumes of Goethe, a major influence on his later thought and methodology. Before entering university, he devoured classical works. Over time, Weber was also significantly affected by the marital tension between his father, “a man who enjoyed earthly pleasures,” and his mother, a devout Calvinist “who sought to lead an ascetic life.” How many great thinkers were moved to greatness by the dysfunction of their parents? Freud for starters !!!

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Weber’s main intellectual concern was understanding the processes of rationalization, secularization, and “disenchantment” that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity, and which he saw as the result of a new way of thinking about the world. Continuing my journey into mind-numbingly simplistic analysis, Weber and Marx can be seen as polar opposites: Marx saw evolving intellectual developments in society as the product of changing material circumstances historically, whereas Weber saw the evolution of intellectual processes as primary and material circumstances as secondary. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg affair, I’m afraid. Was Protestantism the outgrowth of the development of capitalism, or the other way around? I’m not going to take sides; I see them as co-evolving processes.

But then we come to a more intriguing question: was the rise of rational science in the 17th century a good thing or a bad thing? From a strictly technological point of view, it had numerous benefits: improved medicine, efficient transport, computers, iPhones . . . etc. etc. etc. But what was the cost? Well, we can start with pollution and move on from there. But for Weber the cost was catastrophic intellectually and, hence, socially. The monolithic faith in science as the answer to ALL problems led to the “disenchantment” of the West. The word “disenchantment” does not do justice to the original German word “Entzauberung” which we can translate literally as “un-magic-ing” or “despiritualizing.” In this case we should think of “enchantment” as equivalent to “full of magic” – where “magic” is the opposite of “natural.” The modern, secular, scientific mind dismisses prayer, God, elves, fairies, spirituality, and all the rest of it, and, according to Weber, we are the poorer for it. I agree.

Western science can do many great things, but it goes too far when it claims to be the sole guardian of THE TRUTH, and that in time science will solve all of our problems. There are vast realms of human experience that cannot be understood by the scientific method – love, art, beauty . . . what have you. The general public in the West tends to be torn in this area. Some reject the rational completely, some the spiritual. But most sit somewhere in the middle. People happily use laptops and go to the doctor if they feel sick, but they also love Harry Potter, use tarot cards, and visit ashrams.

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The problem, as Weber sees it, is that rational science has overplayed its hand, so that the rational has crept into the fundamental fabric of society – and we don’t like it. Efficiency has become our god. From an industrial point of view, if we can turn out billions of identical, cheap, affordable smartphones we all benefit because we can chat to friends all over the world, look up arcane information whenever we want, listen to endless stores of music, play games . . . and so forth. But in the process we are increasingly dehumanized. The phones themselves are mass produced in factories by workers who have no identity or individuality, and who work for slave wages. Furthermore the phones themselves suck us into a world where individuality is also lost. OK – being simplistic once more, but you get the point.

So let’s turn to cooking. In a recent post I gave this recipe for eierstich, an egg custard from Weber’s native Saxony, that is often cut into fancy shapes as a garnish for soups:

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You can make the eierstich, egg custard, in several ways. Beat together 1 cup of milk or cream, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, plus a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and salt. Don’t be so vigorous that a froth forms. Pour the mix into sealable plastic pouches, close them tightly, and place in boiling water for 10 minutes, or until the custard is firm. Unseal the pouches and cut the custard into small pieces. I have little decorative cutters for this job. Keep warm.

I call this kind of recipe “heuristic” as opposed to “scientific.” “Scientific” recipes are what you find in standard cookbooks, where each begins with a list of ingredients with precise measurements (often in Imperial and metric), given in the order in which they are used, followed by careful, step-by-step instructions. Such recipes can be useful, but they do not replicate real, human, flesh-and-blood process. This example of mine doesn’t either but it’s a bit closer.

Several years ago my son decided to roast a goose for Christmas dinner.  I had moved to Argentina and he was alone in our house in New York. I had roasted a goose every single Christmas up to that point, and he did not want to miss out just because I was away. So he asked me for the “recipe.” How do you explain how to roast a goose when you’ve got 35 years of experience behind you? I tried to write down the instructions for him and wrote 3 pages (single spaced), and still felt my description was inadequate.  It was.  He followed my instructions, but then called me three times on Christmas Day with additional questions as the goose was cooking.

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A recipe assumes a wealth of knowledge that is not captured by the mere wording. We also know that two people can follow the same recipe with identical ingredients and equipment, and come up with vastly different products. Over and over again I showed my girlfriend (now my ex) how to make an Argentine tortilla, and supervised her many times as she made them herself. I also made instructional videos for her – all to no avail. She can make something edible, but her tortillas are nothing like mine – same ingredients from the same store, same kitchen – different spirits.