David R. Henderson  

Mr. Sumner Goes to Washington

Reviewing Mark Zandi's Newest ... Popcorn Pork...

Scott Sumner has posted an interesting story about his trip to Washington last week. Some highlights along with my comments in square brackets:

6. During the day I attended a bunch of foreign policy panels. It was interesting to see what these are like, although I can't really process foreign policy discussion very well. It seems like lots of words, without clear meaning. I couldn't tell you why we [sic] intervened in Libya and not Syria, except I gather that it's complicated. There doesn't seem to be a model, but then maybe there can't be a model-I certainly don't have any suggestions. [I do, by the way, as people who have read some of my www.antiwar.com columns know. It has to do with using the same kinds of analyses of dispersed information and unintended consequences that many of us economists use to analyze domestic economic policy. For more on why I put [sic] after Scott's "we," read this and this.]

7. My favorite speaker was Google's Sebastian Thune, who remarked that California was wasting a fortune on a train that would connect two obscure Central Valley towns in 2020, by which time self-driving cars would be more energy efficient (and convenient) than high speed rail. His friend remarked that in-vitro meat could cut agricultural greenhouse emissions by 95%. (I doubt it.) Both seemed to think policymakers in Washington were clueless about technology.

8. Hillary Clinton is an impressive speaker, but not likable. I have nothing to say about her views on foreign policy. But in response to a final question on drugs (from a Latin American reporter), she said drug legalization would do no good because drug dealers are really bad people, and they would simply do other crimes. No discussion of how America's murder rate fell in half after alcohol was legalized in 1933. I think she'd be even worse (from a libertarian perspective) than Obama-and that's an already low bar for a Democrat.

9. Before she entered the room there was a hushed feeling, like the President was about to appear. People in Washington seem to worship power.

I noticed this last, worshipping power, my first day as a White House intern when I was 22. Here's an excerpt from "A Tour of Washington," a chapter in my book, The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey:
During the summer of 1973, I had been hired as a summer intern by the Council of Economic Advisers. The president at the time was Richard Nixon. I had applied a few months earlier, and although my professors had supported me with reference letters, two of them had made snide comments about my timing--I would be going to the White House at the peak of the Watergate scandal. One professor pointed out that most rats try to get off a sinking ship, but I was like a rat trying to get on. Their lack of support made me feel very lonely. Later I understood that their attitude wasn't about me, but about their contempt toward Nixon.
I was feeling vulnerable at the time, with no support from my professors and with very little money in the bank. With my last few hundred dollars, I purchased an airline ticket to Washington, D.C. and off I went. After a long red-eye flight, I finally arrived in downtown D.C. As I exited the cab and turned around to look at the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB), I was shocked to see a huge red flag with a hammer and sickle above the OEOB. Maybe it was jet lag, or maybe it was the fact that I had slept less than an hour on the plane, but I felt a second of absolute terror, thinking that the Soviets had taken over Washington in the middle of the night. I saw people around me walking normally as if nothing unusual had happened, dismissed my immediate paranoid thought about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and realized that the Soviets hadn't invaded. While I waited in the front waiting room of the OEOB to be let past the Secret Service agents, I asked one of them what the Soviet flag was there for. He answered, in an officious, self-important tone that I was to hear lots of--in every possible accent, from people at every possible level, on every day I was to be in Washington--that Soviet leader Brezhnev was visiting and that this was done to welcome him. Some welcome, I thought. I wondered which of the world's other tyrants would get such a welcome. I found out later that summer. When the Shah of Iran visited, sure enough, a huge green Iranian flag flew over the Old Executive Office Building. I learned, talking to the various secretaries and economists I met that day,that no one found it odd. Here was Brezhnev, who represented a government that had murdered tens of millions of people, more than Hitler's government had, and had never openly admitted it, let alone apologized for it, and people were matter-of-factly accepting that government's flag. Maybe there was something to my thought of the body snatchers after all. I knew literally from day one of my time in Washington that this was a strange place.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

Part of me thinks formalities like flying the flag don't matter so much as what we actually do. If running a piece of fabric up a flag pole puts the guy at ease, who cares? Get the policy towards them right.

But I also think symbols are powerful. Making them feel unwelcome is a cheap ("cheap" as in "not putting the flag up wouldn't start a war or anything") way of making it clear he is not in friendly territory. Very interesting story.

That point was what most caught my eye from Sumner's list because I actually have the opposite feeling. Sometimes I feel like people not from around here worship power more than we residents do. When it's tourist season the tourists often seem more like pilgrims than anything else. For residents of the area federal political news is in many ways local news. We have no illusions about these guys. They serve a purpose, but they're nothing to be worshiped. And some of the worst are those guys who are career politicians but who style themselves as Washington outsiders or mavericks fighting for the common man (I'm thinking of Ron Paul, John McCain, Ted Kennedy). Most people inside the beltway know that's BS they use to get elected. Most people outside the beltway consider it sincere.

Bruce Cleaver writes:

"People in Washington seem to worship power."


C'mon, Scott.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

The Old Executive Office Building is a very handsome building, btw. If all federal buildings looked like that I think it would look strange... too ornate. Not republican enough (little r). But having one like that is nice. I always like having the opportunity to walk by there.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Daniel Kuehn,
Part of me thinks formalities like flying the flag don't matter so much as what we actually do. If running a piece of fabric up a flag pole puts the guy at ease, who cares?
So here's a question for that part of you: If Hitler had visited D.C. in, say, 1939, would you have had no problem with flying the swastika?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I think I'd have a problem flying the hammer and sickle for the exact same reason I'd have a problem with flying the swastika. See my next paragraph.

I just think there are some formalities that matter less. I'd make sure the doorman opened the door for Hitler and I'd offer him a drink. I don't think I'd fly the flag. Same with Brezhnev.

I just think what really matters is what those guys actually did and what we actually do about what they did. The formalities around what is really important ought to be tailored to what what's really important.

Tom West writes:

If Hitler had visited D.C. in, say, 1939, would you have had no problem with flying the swastika?

Depends - if I though by doing so I might have a serious shot at avoiding World War II and the 20 millions lives it cost, damn right I'd be willing to.

But then I've always been an outcomes over principles sort of guy.

(Of course, that includes the times when sticking to one's principles produces the best long term outcomes...)

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
Depends - if I though by doing so I might have a serious shot at avoiding World War II and the 20 millions lives it cost, damn right I'd be willing to.
Good point. In that case, I would too. BTW, the actual number of lives lost was > 50 million. Heck, the Soviets alone lost over 20 million, most of whom were civilians.

Andrew writes:

Just to pick nits, but the year is wrong on the German analogy.

To apply to your Soviet example, the question should be "what would you do if there was a NAZI/Japanese flag flying over Washington DC in 1946 welcoming their representatives?"

Flying the flag in 1939 is MUCH different than flying it in 1946.

Michael Hubbard writes:

Interesting. I wish I could buy that book for my Kindle. :(

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Ah I see - "that part" of me. Andrew makes a good point. Another difference is that I think for the Soviets a lot of the carnage was a means to an end (or even an unintended consequence of planning), whereas what disturbs people about the Nazis is that it was an end in itself. Nazism was a death cult whereas Stalinism was more of an extremely bloody personality cult. Neither were acceptable, of course, but I think people go overboard in thinking that some people are easier on the USSR. If Hitler had stuck to killing millions for power and territory for the sake of fascism I think he'd be viewed much the same as Stalin. But he had a much broader program than that.

A good test case is the Japanese. They were "right wing" in the sense that Hitler was "right wing" and even though they actually hit us initially we don't see them as being as bad as Hitler. Hitler isn't the principle monster because we have a soft spot for leftists, IMO. He was fundamentally different.

And of course, just as Stalinism was not Nazism, Brezhnev was no Stalin.

David R. Henderson writes:

Why is 1939 a less apt year than 1946?

Rebecca Baker writes:

I have never been to our countries capital, but some of the things Scott said made me feel like I had been. I do think that people in D.C. love their power. They know they have control over the country. As for the story of "A Tour of Washington" I thought your insight to our countries politics was very interesting. Our country always tries to make visitors feel like they are welcome no matter what is going on around the world. This article was very insightful to what our country is like from the inside.

Tom West writes:

I think because in 1939, Hitler was not yet renowned for killing millions of people, yet Brezhnev was being honored for leading a nation that was already known for having killed millions of its own citizens.

(Actually, I'm not certain when Stalin's history in the Ukraine became generally accepted as fact, but certainly the bloodshed in the early years was known.)

Tom West writes:

Is love of power really a DC thing?

A 'great' man attracts respect and awe wherever he goes, whether he be 'great' by political power, sports accomplishment, wealth, being a movie star, etc., and more particularly, regardless of his character.

I think we're simply talking basic human reactions here, not Washington-specific behavior.

Ken B writes:

Symbols do matter. Ask anyone from Eastern Europe what they think of James Earl Carter III embracing Brezhnev. (If you ask me, stand back.)

One KGB general (I forget which) said he thought the USSR collapsed after Reagan called it an 'evil empire'. Because it was, and so it was hard to fight for when it began to disintegrate.

As for 1946 ... after 1946 a lot of people thought freedom for eastern Europe was a lost cause. Sometimes lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for ...

David R. Henderson writes:

@Michael Hubbard,
Interesting. I wish I could buy that book for my Kindle. :(
Thanks, Michael. Quick question: if I have all the Word files, which I do, how difficult is it to make it into a Kindle book? Hours? Days? Weeks?

Michael Hubbard writes:

@David R. Henderson,
I don't have any experience with that. I'm interested but limited to a cell phone. I have read something about having to do it through HTML. I also have heard of a group called eBook Architechs. They seem to offer quotes if you are interested.

Back to the Soviet flag thing, that is still flooring me.

Andrew writes:


Unless in 1973*, the Soviet Union was about to kill off millions of people, then 1946 is a much more apt year to compare.

In 1973, Soviet attrocities were already known. In 1939, Hitler had only begun his nightmare. If Amity Shlaes is to be believed, a NAZI flag flying from a US Government building isn't that far of a reach in 1939. By 1946, that view had changed.

*Unless you are referring to SouthEast Asia (and not WWII Stalin) then I withdraw my nitpick.

Hana writes:

RE: DRH@Michael Hubbard,

As you might know, doc files can be easily converted to txt which are readable by Kindle(Lauren could tell you how). If you are interested in publishing, the conversion depending on editing and formating is in the hours to days range.

Ken B writes:

Here is an example of flying a flag as a symbol.

Aside from Amazon and the Kindle, there is also Lulu.com which accepts Word documents etc and is a print-on-demand service. Why not both!

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks so much. That's very good news.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Beautiful story. I recommend that others click on the link.
Re Lulu.com, thanks.

Tom West writes:

Unfortunately, if you want to do a reasonable job on making an e-book, even through Smashwords, expect a decent sized learning curve.

It's not that it's all that complicated, but it's just unsmooth enough that the first book can easily take a day or two (often spread over a week or two) by the time *every* kink is ironed out.

After that, it's much faster. (At least this has been my wife's experience.)

(On the other hand, going out to dinner once a month on the strength of a few short stories is kind of neat...)

Thomas Sewell writes:


Having recently published a kindle book and being in the middle of finishing up the cover for an eBook novella, I can tell you that while it isn't hard if you are a little technically inclined and html doesn't scare you, there are some gotchas and a learning curves you'll have to cross.

One basic process you can follow:
1. Take word doc, save as clean html. A utility like this helps a lot.
2. Take the clean .html file, load it into Sigil, make any html fixes you want/need using the code view (highly recommended to clean-up styles for things like leading space on the first line of paragraphs, etc...) and create a table of contents. Save it all as an EPUB, which is used on several eBook platforms.
3. Take your EPUB file and load it into Calibre. Export it as a .mobi.
4. Register at kdp.amazon.com, follow their prompts, loading your .mobi and previewing it with their tools to make sure it looks how you want it. Also have your cover art ready to upload. You could use a high resolution version of the existing print cover. Make sure the title is the same as the print edition, if possible.
5. After your ebook is live, after a few more days, if they haven't linked your ebook to the print version, go to their KDP FAQ and follow the instructions there for sending them a message.

If you want to email me directly, I can assist you. Might want to promote my latest book to you for a review, anyway. :)

Ann S writes:

I'm glad that someone made that point about high speed rail versus driverless cars. It's almost as if we shouldn't be letting lawyer/politicians use taxpayer money to fund whatever they've designated the 'technology of the future'!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West and Thomas Sewell,
Thanks. Learning that it's days, not weeks, is valuable in itself.

Ken B writes:

Not to depress demand but ... I got David's book from my public library through inter-library loan. They retrieved it from the remote maximum security unit where such dangerous materials are sequestered, and, carefully wrapped in plastic, it was pushed towards me over the counter by public employees with 10 foot poles.

It's an excellent book, and David's cunning is shown in his omission of most foreign policy discussion. If only more authors left out the stuff they were wrong about ! :)

There is one fewer used copy available on Alibris now too. I gave it to my son.

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