By Ray Sawhill
One of the more transfixing ongoing spectacles the Web offers is Steven E. Landsburg’s “Everyday Economics” column in Slate. Economists writing for general audiences are largely a gentlemanly, helpful lot, channeling ego into explaining ideas and concepts. Landsburg is the great exception, a breast-beating showoff as exhibitionistic and domineering as a bad actor. I read him with horror and exasperation. He’s the Gary Oldman of popular-economics writers.
Landsburg has now filled a book — his second volume for the general reader — by expanding some of his Slate columns into essay-length chapters, and framing the package with accounts of conversations he has had with his young daughter, Cayley. Even longtime Landsburg watchers will find a wealth of new delights in “Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life” (Free Press). He moves back and forth between his trademark outrageous stands on touchy issues — he ridicules concerns about the environment, for instance, as well as worries about the national debt — and the passages about Cayley. We’re supposed to find her child’s sense of fair play a trustworthy guide to economics, specifically Landsburg’s own brand. But, as always with this writer, what’s really on display is Landsburg.
And a puffed-up dynamo he is, running from issue to issue as though every question in the world were demanding a piece of his brilliance, right now. His serious work on economics may be immaculate, for all I know (he’s a professor at the University of Rochester), but as an explicator and provocateur for the interested nonspecialist, he’s uniquely unconvincing. At one loony moment, he compares the progressive income tax (an outrage, in his view) to rape, on this basis: that the fruits of our labor belong to us, much as our bodies do. You don’t have to be the swiftest bird in the flock to find yourself objecting that your body, unlike your paycheck, doesn’t exactly “belong” to you, in many respects it is you.
At another moment, he argues that there is no essential difference between a landlord and a would-be tenant. In his view, they’re equals engaged in potentially profitable trade, so the law shouldn’t distinguish between them. How then does he explain our intuitive sense that there is a difference? Alas, exploring life as it’s lived just isn’t part of this economist’s portfolio. We’re wrong, we’re irrational, he has told us what we need to do and he’s off to make his next dazzling point. Landsburg’s views are generally hard-line free market, and he prides himself on his puckish sense of humor, but he’s as drawn to bossy, arm-twisting language as the most self-righteous Marxist. Occasionally he does slow down, but only to give a dramatic shake of the head over how unreasonable lay people are, and how resistant to conclusive proof (his, of course).
Landsburg appears to be completely unconscious of how eagerly he pushes himself to the fore. His book’s subtitle — “What Your Child Can Teach You About Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life” — promises an account of what Landsburg has learned from his kid. Yet by the book’s final pages, Landsburg has claimed the camera for himself, spending the entire last chapter giving advice to Cayley. And what sensational points he makes! What a great dad! This know-it-all can’t resist upstaging his own daughter.
The book climaxes in a terrifying dance of triumph where Landsburg demonstrates why the Slate readers who objected to one of his columns are stupid. Make that really, really stupid. One gent’s argument isn’t just wrong, “It’s so fundamentally wrong that it can succeed only when people mouth the words without ever stopping to think about what they mean.” Landsburg tells us that he wrote this reader a letter and — lest you doubted — “my correspondent got the point, and said he never thought of it that way before. Now he saw the issue in a whole new light.” On reading this review, will Landsburg write me, rip my thinking to shreds and leave me cuckoo with awe? I can wait.
- Here’s Steven Landsburg’s personal site.
- Here’s an enthusiastic review of “Fair Play.”
- Here are Landsburg’s columns for Slate.
©1997 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.