The Value of Everything

by Jonah Goldberg
Prices as storehouses of knowledge.​
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (all 7.1 million of you),

I’d like to say it’s great to be back from vacation, but frankly it’s not. A lot of people think the biggest problem with being a pundit is all the blood sacrifice and unlicensed steel-cage shovel fighting. That’s true. But there’s obviously nothing to be done about that. Another problem is that when you usually write several thousand words a week — at least — you build up muscle memory. It’s like exercise — I’m told. When you train yourself to run every day, taking a week off doesn’t make running easier, but harder. Since I’ve been back, I haven’t been able to find my groove (this isn’t it). I had to delete the first 700 words of this “news”letter because it turned into a lengthy poem in Esperanto about chinchillas. Frankly, I nailed the iambic pentameter. Maybe someday I will publish “Kiam la Chinchilla vekas el sia dormado en la pantalono de mia koro” (Loosely: “When the chinchilla awakes from his slumber in the trousers of my heart”), but today is not that day.

Your Diary Style Is Good, But Mine Is Better

In order to turn a grind into a groove, I’m going to kick it diarist style. “What is diarist style?” you ask. I’m reminded of a line from a Simpsons episode. Marge is being seduced by Jacques, a French lothario bowling instructor (as if there’s any other kind).      

Marge: You didn’t have to drop me off. 
Jacques: But I wanted to. [grasps her hand] Marge, do you know how beautiful you look in the moonlight? 
Marge: Errrr, Jacques! I’m a married woman!
Jacques: I know, I know. My mind says stop, but my heart, and my hips, cry proceed. . . . Marge darling, I–I want to see you tomorrow. Not at Barney’s Bowlorama, [but] away from the thunderous folly of clattering pins. Meet me tomorrow for brunch. 
Marge: What’s brunch? 
Jacques: You’d love it. It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don’t get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal!
Marge: I don’t think so.
Jacques: Marge, darling. There are ten pins in my heart; you’ve knocked over eight. Won’t you please pick up that spare? 
Marge: [hesitantly] Mmmm, mmmmm . . . All right!

Well, diarist style isn’t quite a column and it’s not quite a “news”letter, but you just might get a slice of cantaloupe at the end, if by cantaloupe you mean something that only in the vaguest sense could be compared to a cantaloupe. A loose inspiration for my technique is the old “Diarist” feature in The New Republic of the 1980s; a bunch of unrelated observations very loosely hung together by a topic sentence that masquerades as an unbelievably forced segue. (Oh and if you think I’m old for remembering The New Republic from back then, maybe you’ll turn it down a notch when you realize that that Simpsons episode is 24 years old!)

Use the Force

Speaking of forced segues, they’ve apparently come out with a manual Segway that costs $900 and doesn’t really work on hills. But the financial cost is nothing compared to the convenience of not having to work at celibacy anymore. Show up to a date riding this thing and you’ll never have to worry that there isn’t room for two.

My Disability

You may find such homophonic legerdemain to be cheating (Segue vs. Segway), but I think that’s unfair. Ewe May knot no ITT butt eye halve eh [Canadian/Fonzie pronunciation] reel tuff thyme righting sum whirreds bee caws aye rite bye EER. Homophones are telecommunication devices that are attracted to other telecommunications devices, and just because they share the same equipment doesn’t mean we should treat their relationships any differently. They shouldn’t have to live like Unix (“Just stop.” — The Couch).

More to the point, one of the things that drives me crazy about angry pedants (great band name) is the insistence that I don’t know the difference between different words just because I typed them wrong. The arrival of Twitter has ushered in a new Golden Age for people who think they can rebut any point if you accidentally type “you’re” instead of “your” or “it’s” instead of “its.” Joe Biden telling a guy in a wheelchair to stand up and take a bow isn’t any less idiotic if I misplace an apostrophe when I point it out. Yes, typos are bad and embarrassing (though often very funny!), but catching them doesn’t make you a genius or the person who committed the faux pas an idiot. You try to tweet in the middle of a bloody shovel fight some time and not mess up the grammar.

The Value of Everything

One person whose grammar is impeccable except on the rare occasions when it isn’t is Kevin Williamson. He had a great piece the other day on the mystery of prices. I loved his opening sentence: “Prices are a mystery, and why that is is a mystery.”

This reminded me of a great line from this wonderful video essay on Hayek’s “On the Use of Knowledge in Society” over at the Marginal Revolution University. It’s arguably Hayek’s most important contribution — which is saying a lot. It’s like saying Michael Jordan’s best slam dunk or Bill Cosby’s funniest joke or “Obama’s lamest joke.” Unfortunately Hayek’s native tongue is German, which means he’s not always pithy. (“Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence,” Mark Twain observed, “that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth.”)

So here’s Hayek:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

And here’s the useful summary of the idea from the folks at MRU: “A price is a signal wrapped in an incentive.”

Hail, Ants

Let’s say that Argentine ants in Brazil have had enough with their human overlords and go on the attack causing aluminum mines (I know, I know, bauxite mines) to shut down. The increased scarcity causes the price of aluminum to go up. But the new price also includes the expected costs to South American miners as they launch an all-out war against the satanic pests. But wait, the new price also includes the increased shipping costs from Australia, given the unseasonably windy summer down under, the expected outcomes of union negotiations in Canada, the price of various substitutes of aluminum (your next Macbook might be made with Naugahyde if the U.N. ever lifts the worldwide ban on Nauga-slaughter) and all of the taxes and tariffs that apply to them, the energy costs anywhere aluminum is manufactured, and the desire of a certain aluminum tycoon in Shanghai to exploit the shortage by raising prices to make enough money to finally finish his lifelong project of building the world’s largest recreation of the Boxer Rebellion with life-size Pez dispensers. And that’s just off the top of my head. And that’s just on the supply side. (On the demand side, there are another billion variables having to do with everything from the weather to the troubling evolution of a new breed of vampires that are allergic to aluminum instead of silver.) And that’s just for this minute; the variables change constantly, and so does the price.

In short, nobody can ever, ever, ever, ever, ever-to-the-32nd-power ever know all of the factors that go into the price of anything. And yet, we get a price. And the price is a vast storehouse of knowledge no one person could ever possess (re-read the Hayek quote above). This is why Hayek thought economic planning was so incandescently stoooooopid. The idea that one shmuck in his office in Washington or Moscow could set prices for, variously, wheat, iron, pork, cars, steel, movie tickets, fertilizer, Nauga meat, and a thousand other things, better than the market, not just for a moment, but for years in advance, is so amazingly hubristic and ridiculous it makes you want to go find Henry Wallace and slap him about the head and neck with a pork belly.

Contra Kevin

So in a sense, Kevin is wrong. Why prices are a mystery isn’t a mystery. The why of prices — or at least all the whys of prices — are simply unknowable. Sure, you might be able to know why person X wants $28.99 for his vintage Batman talking alarm clock while another person wants $80.99 for the same masterpiece, but you can’t know all the reasons why it originally sold for $9.99. Once you make your peace with that fact, the mystery ceases being mysterious.

What I think is fascinating — and something I’ve been noodling for a book idea that’s been bouncing around my head like something that bounces inside something else that is conducive to lots of bouncing — is that prices aren’t unique. We think they are a category unto themselves. A price isn’t like anything else, right? Well, wrong — maybe. If prices are simply the agglomeration of disparate and complex information boiled down to a number, can’t other things be agglomerations of disparate and complex information boiled down to something else? Lord knows I’ve written a lot about embedded knowledge and intangible capital in this space (I’m referring to Jimmy Lord, a really attentive G-File reader, by the way. He remembers everything I write). The whole point of “I, Pencil” (Now a major Internet movie!) is that the pencil itself is a huge storehouse of knowledge and information not possessed by any single person. That the price of the pencil puts a monetary value on all that doesn’t for a moment detract from the wonder of the pencil itself.

But here’s the thing: concepts, traditions, customs, and habits are also huge storehouses of knowledge. For instance, we don’t know all the reasons we do all of the things that fall under the rubric of “good manners.” We just do them because we should. Handshakes probably originated in the need to demonstrate that you weren’t holding a weapon. That rationale has vanished, but the handshake still has great value — but it has no price. There have certainly been times in my life when failure to shake someone’s hand could have cost me dearly in financial terms (remember the Seinfeld where Elaine’s boss refuses to shake hands with the Japanese investors because he sneezed in his hand, thus losing Pendant Publishing? Well, YouTube doesn’t. Though this is actually an ancient plot device).

Remember the scene in Good Will Hunting where Minnie Driver asks Matt Damon out for coffee? Well YouTube doesn’t remember that either. (But it does have this poorly acted re-enactment of it for some reason). Damon says something like “Sure, or we could just go somewhere and eat a bunch of caramels” because “when you think about it, it’s just as arbitrary as drinking coffee.” It’s fitting that this scene comes on the heels of Damon singing the praises of Howard Zinn. The two statements are from the same cloth of smug poseur left-wing D-baggery. The brief against Howard Zinn is old and obvious. But the caramel line is one of those things that sounds smart but is in fact a perfect example of the arrogance of the Now, that characterizes so much left-wing thinking. Just because Will Hunting Math Genius can’t glean the reasons why the global and ancient custom of coffee-drinking is less arbitrary than the non-existent custom of caramel-eating doesn’t mean there are none. (“You’re not going to talk about Chesterton’s fence again, are you?” — The Couch).

Anyway, the point I’m getting at is that there’s nothing — nothing — that we say, do, own, make, or believe that isn’t brimming with all of the sorts of information that go into a price. The fact that we can’t put a price on some of them, doesn’t mean that they have less information in them. In fact, it probably means that they have more information in them. And that makes not just prices mysterious, but life itself. And that should fill us with awe and humility.

Just like a really amazing slice of cantaloupe.

Various & Sundry

Thanks for all the birthday wishes!

Zoë Update: So Zoë is doing great healthwise. She’s about 40 pounds now. When we got her she was 12 pounds and at her worst in the hospital she was well south of that. Now she loves to wrestle (humans and dogs) and chase all of the animals that the Tasmanian Devil eats. But she is a real handful. Yesterday morning I came downstairs to find that she hand chewed up several pencils (she has no respect for embedded knowledge!), leaving only the erasers encased in their tin nibs. She is proving very hard to train, even for my lovely wife who is both patient and persistent. The war to keep the dog off the furniture is lost. Every line is a Maginot line. But she is also very sweet and very funny. And we’re going on a road trip!

Today, I need to drive to Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference where I will be speaking tonight. Then tomorrow I drive back, pack and drive the dog to Hillsdale, Michigan. I’m going to be a Pulliam Fellow at Hillsdale College for the next two weeks, and Zoë is coming with me. I’ll be teaching a class Dead Poet’s Society Style! And I’ll be giving a speech this coming Thursday (8 p.m. Phillips Auditorium). Given the late start and the canine sidekick I’ll be stopping halfway somewhere in Ohio for the night. Probably around Cleveland or Akron. I’ll be too exhausted for a meet-up, but if anyone can recommend a good dog hotel near some good open terrain for dog-exercise that’d be great (and yes, I already know about Petfinder and BringFido).

In other news: Here’s my little course on Social Justice for Prager University. 

Here’s the latest GLoP Culture podcast (which I had to bail on for the middle two thirds!).

On April 24, I’ll be speaking at Williams College. Details TK.

And on April 28 I won’t be able to say I’m not in Kansas anymore because I’ll be at the Kansas Policy Institute.

Thanks to everyone who came out to my debate with Eugene Robinson at Miami University. I actually meant to write about that in the G-File and just plain forgot until this moment. It went very well I think. Robinson is personally a nice guy. But I think he’s wrong on a lot of issues and I think I had the better of the argument. I’ll leave it there. As for Miami University, I was extremely impressed with the place and the people.

Oh and a point of personal privilege. The other night I was on Special Report and I conceded that the 7 million number was flawed, but this still amounted to a good political moment for Obama. I got an enormous amount of flak from folks for it. One longtime very friendly reader, after a lengthy e-mail, signed off with “You’re dead to me.” I went back and watched the offending comments, which I almost never do (I hate watching myself on TV). Sure I could have said it better, but that’s always true. I see nothing to apologize for. Sometimes people get upset when I offer analysis rather than play some role they assigned me. That’s too bad. One of my only rules in this business is to only say things I actually believe.

Speaking of which, here’s my column on Obama, funny guy. I couldn’t squeeze this in. But Obama’s stinkburger and meanwich “zingers” reminded me of one of my favorite — actually funny — lines from Barry Goldwater. He said “Hubert Humphrey talks so fast that listening to him is like trying to read Playboy magazine with your wife turning the pages.”

Here’s Jimmy Fallon on Obama, funny guy.

Here’s why all your maps are wrong.

Think your computer hasn’t improved?

I’m not going to lie, I am giddy — giddy! — like Joe Biden when the new pills come in, about the return of Game of Thrones. In order to get yourself in the right frame of mind: Here’s how Game of Thrones would be covered by the mediaAnd here’s a site dedicated to Bringing down King Joffrey. And of course, the Wines of Westeros!

Here are — allegedly — the 43 most overused movie tropes.

Muad’Dib! What might have been!

Did you now that ducks — all of them! — are wearing dog masks?

Book in Harvard library reportedly bound in human flesh might not actually be bound in human flesh.

“Do it for Denmark” ad urges Danes to have more sex on vacation.

Finally, Wonkblog delivers news I can use.  

Love that Florida man. Florida man mistakes woman’s corpse for April Fool’s joke.

Best and worst places to survive the zombie apocalypse. Mississippi weeps.

Corbin the dog runs away in Texas and is found in Ohio a few days later.

<sarcasm> If we just legalize drugs this will be a thing of the past! </sarcasm>

Match the arrestee with the crime!

Is there nothing bacon can’t do?

Underwater egg video!

Wait, did Fonzie drown?

The prophecies are true! Massive corndog spill shuts down Louisiana interstate.

Adventures in the Uncanny Valley.

Burning question: How much pee in the pool is too much?

Thirty-three Shocking Facts (or “Facts”) that will change how you view history.

Disturbing implications of movie scenes!

Goodbye. I’ll write you from Michigan!