Friday, November 17, 2017

Is There Economic And Political Meaning In "The Wizard of Oz?"

We covered international trade in my micro class recently and the text book has something about this in that chapter.

To get a handle on this, you can read Money and Politics in the Land of Oz By Quentin P. Taylor. Also, for my students, there is an article in chapter 15 of the micro book by Tucker and in chapter 18 in the macro book.Below is an excerpt from the Taylor paper:


"Dorothy, the protagonist of the story, represents an individualized ideal of the American people. She is each of us at our best-kind but self-respecting, guileless but levelheaded, wholesome but plucky. She is akin to Everyman, or, in modern parlance, “the girl next door.” Dorothy lives in Kansas, where virtually everything-the treeless prairie, the sun-beaten grass, the paint-stripped house, even Aunt Em and Uncle Henry-is a dull, drab, lifeless gray. This grim depiction reflects the forlorn condition of Kansas in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when a combination of scorching droughts, severe winters, and an invasion of grasshoppers reduced the prairie to an uninhabitable wasteland. The result for farmers and all who depended on agriculture for their livelihood was devastating. Many ascribed their misfortune to the natural elements, called it quits, and moved on. Others blamed the hard times on bankers, the railroads, and various middlemen who seemed to profit at the farmers’ expense. Angry victims of the Kansas calamity also took aim at the politicians, who often appeared indifferent to their plight. Around these economic and political grievances, the Populist movement coalesced.

In the late 1880s and early 1890s, Populism spread rapidly throughout the Midwest and into the South, but Kansas was always the site of its most popular and radical elements. In 1890, Populist candidates began winning seats in state legislatures and Congress, and two years later Populists in Kansas gained control of the lower house of the state assembly, elected a Populist governor, and sent a Populist to the U.S. Senate. The twister that carries Dorothy to Oz symbolizes the Populist cyclone that swept across Kansas in the early 1890s. Baum was not the first to use the metaphor. Mary E. Lease, a fire-breathing Populist orator, was often referred to as the “Kansas Cyclone,” and the free-silver movement was often likened to a political whirlwind that had taken the nation by storm. Although Dorothy does not stand for Lease, Baum did give her (in the stage version) the last name “Gale”-a further pun on the cyclone metaphor.

The name of Dorothy’s canine companion, Toto, is also a pun, a play on teetotaler. Prohibitionists were among the Populists’ most faithful allies, and the Populist hope William Jennings Bryan was himself a “dry.” As Dorothy embarks on the Yellow Brick Road, Toto trots “soberly” behind her, just as the Prohibitionists soberly followed the Populists.

When Dorothy’s twister-tossed house comes to rest in Oz, it lands squarely on the wicked Witch of the East, killing her instantly. The startled girl emerges from the abode to find herself in a strange land of remarkable beauty, whose inhabitants, the diminutive Munchkins, rejoice at the death of the Witch. The Witch represents eastern financial-industrial interests and their gold-standard political allies, the main targets of Populist venom. Midwestern farmers often blamed their woes on the nefarious practices of Wall Street bankers and the captains of industry, whom they believed were engaged in a conspiracy to “enslave” the “little people,” just as the Witch of the East had enslaved the Munchkins. Populists viewed establishment politicians, including presidents, as helpless pawns or willing accomplices. Had not President Cleveland bowed to eastern bankers by repealing the Silver Purchase Act in 1893, thus further restricting much-needed credit? Had not McKinley (prompted by the wealthy industrialist Mark Hanna) made the gold standard the centerpiece of his campaign against Bryan and free silver?"
Now an excerpt from Tucker:
"Gold is always a fascinating story: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and this children's tale has been interpreted as an allegory for political and economic events of the 1890s. For example, the Yellow Brick Road represents the gold standard, Oz in the title is an abbreviation for ounce, Dorothy is the naive public, Emerald City symbolizes Washington, D.C., the Tin Woodman represents the industrial worker, the Scarecrow is the farmer, and the Cyclone is a metaphor for a political revolution. In the end, Dorothy discovers magical powers in her silver shoes (changed to ruby in the 1939 film) to find her way home and not the fallacy of the Yellow Brick Road. Although the author of the story, L. Frank Baum, never stated it was his intention, it can be argued that the issue of the story concerns the election of 1896. Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan (the Cowardly Lion) supported fixing the value of the dollar to both gold and silver (bimetallism), but Republican William McKinley (the Wicked Witch) advocated using only the gold standard. Since McKinley won, the United States remained on the Yellow Brick Road."
But not everyone agrees with this. Economist Bradley Hansen wrote an article titled The Fable of the Allegory: The Wizard of Oz in Economics in the Journal of Economic Education in 2002. Here is his conclusion:
"Rockoff noted that the empirical evidence that Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory was slim, but he compared an allegorical interpretation to a model and suggested that “economists should not have any difficulty accepting, at least provisionally, an elegant but controversial model” (Rockoff 1990, 757). He was right—we did not have any difficulty accepting it. Despite Rockoff’s warning, we appear to have accepted the story wholeheartedly rather than provisionally, simply because of its elegance. It is as difficult to prove that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was not a monetary allegory as it is to prove that it was. In the end, we will never know for certain what Baum was thinking when he wrote the book. I suggest that the vast majority of the evidence weighs heavily against the allegorical interpretation. It should be remembered that no record exists that Baum ever acknowledged any political meanings in the story and that no one even suggested such an interpretation until the 1960s. There certainly does not seem to be sufficient evidence to overwhelm Baum’s explicit statement in the introduction of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that his sole purpose was to entertain children and not to impress upon them some moral. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a great story. Telling students that the Populist movement was like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does seem to catch their attention. It may be a useful pedagogical tool to illuminate the debate on bimetallism, but we should stop telling our students that it was written for that purpose."
I found a review of the book in the NY Times from 1900 and it does not mention anything about OZ having political or economic meaning. The book was also made into a musical a few years later and none of the reviews of the musical mention any political or economic meaning.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The Deficit Trials 2017 A. D.

This was a commercial back in 1986. It paints a bleak picture of America in the future, presumably caused by the growing national debt ($2 trillion then, about $20.5 trillion now-adjusted for inflation the 1986 figure would be about $4.4-4.5 trillion now, so we have still risen quite a bit). I think this thing is way over the top but there may be some real dangers from the debt that I mention below. You might have to watch a brief commercial for some product first. We have been covering the deficit and debt this week in my macro classes. If the embedded video does not appear, use the link below it.

Ridley Scott - W. R. Grace Deficit Trials

Real problems the national debt might cause
 

1. About 31% of the debt is owed to foreign citizens. When they get paid back, they come and buy American goods. That leaves fewer goods for Americans (who can't afford to buy as much due to higher taxes that were needed to pay back the debt). BUT THIS MIGHT NOT BE A CONCERN IF WE ORIGINALLY BORROWED THE MONEY FOR A GOOD PURPOSE.

People borrow money all the time to buy houses and cars. Then they pay it back to a person outside of their family or household. We don’t consider this a burden since the money was put to good use. Right after World War II, the national debt was 120% of the GDP. This was much higher than it is now and we survived. No one complains that we borrowed to win the war. The national debt is about 105% of the GDP now. In 1986, the year the video was made, it was about 50% of GDP.

2. Raising taxes might hurt economic incentives. At higher tax rates, people might want to work and invest less. Fewer businesses might expand and fewer news ones created since you will get to keep less profit. But again, THIS MIGHT NOT BE A CONCERN IF WE ORIGINALLY BORROWED THE MONEY FOR A GOOD PURPOSE. Also, if taxes only go up a little, and the debt is slowly paid off each year (like after WW II), it may not hurt too much.

3. We may have fewer government services in the future if we pay back the debt by lowering government spending. But this means that we are trading more government services today for fewer in the future. THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY A BAD THING IF THE MONEY IS SPENT WISELY (which everyone not might not agree on).

If taxes and interest rates are higher in the future due to the debt, that will lower our future economic growth rate. We will still probably grow, but not as much.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Today Is Day Of The Deadweight Loss

On this day, economists mourn all the social welfare that has been lost in the last year. That social welfare is lost and we will never get it back. 

Deadweight loss is the loss of social welfare caused by that dreaded demon, inefficiency. Examples are monopoly and externalities. To learn more, go the following link:

Deadweight_loss

One good way to commemorate this day would be to cut out the deadweight loss triangle from a monopoly graph (like the one shown below) and burn it, to symbolize all of the lost social welfare. Doing so is both a life-changing and life-affirming ritual.