Sunday, September 03, 2006

September's Lost Legacy Prize Already Won!

What an apposite essay from Virginia Postrel in Forbes (3 September) on the whining ethos of commentators on prosperity in the richest country on Earth!

Yesterday I commented on the real wages conundrum now being debated in US Blogs and MSM by the nation’s top economists, and this morning Virginia Postrel quotes Adam Smith to devastating effect, without any sign of the whining, the wringing of hands and the latter-day ‘Emperor’s clothes’ myopia swamping the Blogosphere this month. Add the 'debate' on ‘happiness’ and ‘wealth’ to the new angst in favour of high taxation to make everybody poorer and we have a profession in seriously trivial crisis.

Virginia Postrel did a similar exercise on economists, who only look at official statistics and never outside their windows, in the New York Times on February 22 2004: ‘A Prettier Jobs Picture?’ She is the author of ‘
The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness’ (HarperCollins).

I have to ask: how is that Virginia Postrel gets it right on so fundamental an issue as the measurement of prosperity and professional economists cannot see what is right in front of them?

Let her speak:

'The American Standard of Whining' (Forbes) by Virginia Postrel

Adam Smith was a remarkably insightful guy. He not only figured out how expanding trade allows the division of labor, thereby creating wealth and raising living standards, he also realized how hard it is to get people to believe they're better off than their ancestors. He discovered declinism way back in 1776.

"The annual produce of the land and labour of England … is certainly much greater than it was, a little more than a century ago, at the restoration of Charles II," Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations. "Though, at present, few people, I believe, doubt of this, yet during this period, five years have seldom passed away in which some book or pamphlet has not been published … pretending to demonstrate that the wealth of the nation was fast declining, that the country was depopulated, agriculture neglected, manufactures decaying, and trade undone. Nor have these publications been all party pamphlets. … Many of them have been written by very candid and very intelligent people, who wrote nothing but what they believed, and for no other reason but because they believed it."

"A continued Series of Prosperity," he taught his rhetoric students, "would not give us near so much pleasure in the recital as an epic poem or a tragedy which make but one continued Series of unhappy Events." In the rhetorical marketplace nothing succeeds like failure.

The first quotation is from Book II, chapter iii. 33 on page 344 of Wealth of Nations; the second is from Lectures in Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (ii.10: p 88).
I would add the next sentence to her excellent quotation from LRBL:

For this reason also it is not surprising that a man of an excellent heart might incline to dwell most on the dismal side of the story.’

Read her short essay in Forbes (;
it is a great pleasure to read in contrast to the moaning minnies, presently populating Blog land.

Virginia Postrel is the outright winner of September's Lost Legacy Prize (with Oak Leave Clusters and bar)


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