The first digital watch in 1972 cost $2,100…

"Casio 3157" by Reg Natarajan, CC BY 2.0
Casio 3157” by Reg Natarajan, CC BY 2.0
Something to consider:

[In April 1972,] Hamilton introduced the world’s first commercial electronic digital wristwatch. It retailed for the pricey sum of $2,100.(It would go for about $11,400 today.) By the end of the 1970s, however, the price of the average digital watch dropped drastically; they would regularly retail for under $10 a piece. And in the 1980s, they became a novelty. You could even find them in cereal boxes as cheap giveaways.

That’s how the free market works. A new gadget comes out, people like and want it, and inside of eight years the price point drops to less than 0.5% of the initial price.

Think that if somebody in the government had decided what digital watches “should” cost, that would have happened? If you believe that, you probably still think you can keep your doctor if you like your doctor.

Free Library for the #UmbrellaRevolution

The Law frontispiece

The law perverted! The law—and, in its wake, all the collective forces of the nation—the law, I say, not only diverted from its proper direction, but made to pursue one entirely contrary! The law become the tool of every kind of avarice, instead of being its check! The law guilty of that very iniquity which it was its mission to punish! Truly, this is a serious fact, if it exists, and one to which I feel bound to call the attention of my fellow citizens.

— Frederic Bastiat, The Law

One of the many, many inspiring details of the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, now powering into its fourth week, is the spontaneous creation of protest libraries, shelves of books right on the street for any and all protesters to borrow and read.

In that same spirit, I offer the following ebooks, free for download around the world, for those brave freedom protesters.

Possibly the most important is the short work by Bastiat, quoted above, The Law. I don’t know of a Chinese-language edition, but this English translation is very clear and easy to follow. You can get it from the Mises Institute or, if that’s blocked, from Project Gutenberg.

The next work, also in English but not Chinese (unfortunately) is economist Ludwig von Mises’s brilliant Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth, which you can also get from the Mises Institute, or from the Internet Archive.

Why is it brilliant? Mises demonstrated, barely three years after the founding of the Soviet Union, when the entire world seemed to believe that socialism was the way of reason, and the destination for the entire world in the future, that socialism is, in fact, impossible. A world without the mechanism of prices is one in which no individual can determine where to best spend his time, or to what ends to put his resources.

And as the Soviet Union was falling apart in the late 1980s, members of the Politburo admitted, among each other and behind closed doors, that they should put up a statue to Mises, because they came to realize that he had been exactly right. Don’t Just take my word for it, listen to what Gorbachev’s ex-economic adviser Yuri Maltsev says. (Warning, thick Russian accent and slight echo in the recording.)

The Mises Institute has also had a number of works translated into Chinese for free download. They are:

(Of course, there are also English-language versions of all of these to download, if you prefer.)

All the books are in the open ePub format.

Murray Rothbard was an anarchist, and I am not, but he was also very smart, and his thought is worth exploring even if you end up disagreeing with him on some things. Ludwig von Mises, despite the institute named after him, was not an anarchist.

Ayn Rand — Marxist?

I am presently reading Literature and the Economics of Liberty, edited by Paul Cantor, and an observation in the first essay floored me — not for what it said, but for a connection I made the moment I read it.

Cantor writes:

Marxism, by contrast, typically approaches economics from the perspective of the producer not the consumer. Indeed, it views the economy as production-driven, not (as in the Austrian view) consumption-driven.

Now I already knew that Marx had invented the word “capitalism” as a derogation of the system described by Adam Smith (and others), that the system had, in fact, no name prior to Marx. Which means I knew well that Rand’s embrace of that term was beautifully ironic, and characteristically American, in the same way that “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, initially an insult devised by redcoats for the colonial rebels, was embraced proudly by those same rebels and became a rallying cry.

But I’ve not read Marx since slogging through The Communist Manifesto in university, so it simply hadn’t occurred to me that he’d influenced Rand in other, and overt, ways.

Rhetorically, Rand certainly emphasized the producer, and sometimes derided the consumer, or at least could be argued to have done so. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark famously gives no thought to his customers. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged are all producers, not a middle man among them. And Atlas is certainly intended as a full-throated defense of the producer.

So it would seem, superficially at least, that Rand bought into Marx’s paradigm, while disputing his conclusions.

But, of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Roark prefigures Steve Jobs. He knows or intuits what a customer really wants before the customer knows it consciously himself. In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden in particular aims to provide consumers what they need and will want, better and cheaper than they got it before. (That the culture is so polluted that nobody but Dagny Taggart is willing to take a risk on it first is neither here nor there.)

Rand’s appreciation for Mises’s Human Action (to the point of recommending it outright in Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal — I can’t think of another contemporary whose works Rand openly advocated), and some of the subtler nuances in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead show that she did appreciate the importance of the consumer (and the middle man) in the free market, and her apparent hostility was probably a reaction to the culture’s elevation of consumption to a place of primacy in the economic process.

“The Business Part”

I recently watched (part of) one episode of Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz — Part 5: Swing — and it was pretty good, had interviews with people who knew what they were talking about (Wynton Marsalis, Artie Shaw), lots of great stock footage and period photographs that were unfamiliar to me.


Well, two buts, really, but right now I’ll only deal with one.1

This time… good god could the doc have been any more clichéd in how it dealt with “The Business Part”?

About halfway through, the screen goes black, the opening strains of Artie Shaw’s recording of Gershwin’s “Summertime” play, and the title “The Business Part” comes up. Despite the rather trepidatious mood of those opening notes, I think “Oh, good! Documentaries on artists never do justice to the business side of their business!”

Alas, they still don’t.

Do we get an examination of the economics of big bands, how they balanced recording and playing dates on the road?


A study, however shallow, of how the musicians’ union affected their lives, for good and ill?

Hell no.2

A comparison of how affordable live music was to regular joes then to how unaffordable it is now, and informed speculation on how this came to pass?

Yeah, not so much.

“The Business Part”, in its entirety, was about how Artie Shaw didn’t like playing the same songs over and over again, how audiences were too stupid to understand that, and how he quit because “the business part” had nothing to do with music. (He also apparently was irritated with having to make payroll every week.)

That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing. At. All.

I stopped watching the moment that segment ended, because I didn’t want to break anything.

Look, I like Artie Shaw. Respect the hell out of him (albeit less now than before). Once he’d made his pile, he quit music to make himself an autodidact, studying western history simply because it interested him. Given my own introversion and tendency to read history for no better reason than because it’s interesting, I get that.

But this was a documentary, and it should have documented its subject, dammit. And the subject was not Artie Shaw’s antipathy toward the process by which he got rich and never had to deal with that process again. (Hell, if it had even done the minimal work to show that much, it would have been something.)

Once upon a time, dozens of big bands roamed the nation, playing one and two-night dates everywhere. Not just the coasts, not just New York and San Francisco, but Fargo, North Dakota and other non-metropoolitan locales, everywhere.

People came not just to listen to them play, but to dance to them. In numbers large enough to make this activity not only economically viable, but lucrative. It supported not only the bands, but the aforementioned musicians’ union, managers, booking agents, the ballroom venues where the performing and dancing was done, and so forth. This in the days before the interstate freeway system, reliable long distance telephone service, and so many other things we take for granted now.

Take a moment and try to wrap your head around how that could have worked. During the Great Depression, of all times!

The documentarians find all of this boring, unworthy of documenting, except insofar as it incidentally impacts upon the magical artists and their magical talents, who supported themselves through magic (and a little bit of dirty commerce, but that’s not their fault).

This is a contemporary problem. Our culture used to give a damn about how things worked. Process was important, even if it remained in the background. Business was important, not dirty or disreputable. (It could be run in dirty or disreputable ways, of course — any fool can see that — but it wasn’t inherently that way.)

In case you think I’m joking or exaggerating, go back and watch The Glenn Miller Story.3 The movie’s main thread is how Miller tried to find his sound, the thing that would make his work unique. But an important secondary thread is the business aspect, and it’s not treated like poison or cooties, the way it would be today. It’s there, it’s got to be dealt with, and it’s a point of honor for the most part.

There’s a scene where his wife (the very under-rated June Allyson) reveals she’s been secretly saving money to help him get a band started. Another where his first go at having a travelling band has fallen apart so disastrously that one of his friends had to sell his car to help make the final payroll — the friend, Chumley, is played by Harry Morgan, and he does it without any recrimination or manipulation, or emotional blackmail of any kind. The payroll has to be met, and he does what must be done. Miller feels awful about it, but accepts it as necessary. Then, again, after the band’s success, Miller explains the economics of a single recording to his father, which also explains the rather palatial house they’re having the conversation in.

“The Business Part” in The Glenn Miller Story is integral (though not central), and not dirty or regrettable in the slightest. It’s just part of the life of the musician. Important. Necessary. And in no way a moral failure for being such.

Contrast this with a more recent film dealing with artists, Rent. This is typical of today’s culture. Rent presents Real Artists, who don’t care about money or business at all, and prove it by sponging off of their friend who owns the building they live in, refusing to pay rent. Their friend, whom they are using and abusing egregiously, is the bad guy, because he has to make money, and insists they stop sponging and start paying their way. This is presented without (intentional) irony.

What a difference fifty years makes, eh?

But back to the Jazz documentary. I’ve only watched half of one episode, but it’s easy to surmise that the business aspects of jazz’s rise and fall as popular music are neglected, overlooked, or grossly distorted. That’s not just a pity, it destroys the value of the documentary as a document.

Because it does not give the viewer even the most cursory understanding of how jazz functioned commercially, it presents jazz as what Ayn Rand called a “floating abstraction” — you get the music itself, and are told it was popular, and then not, but you get no understanding of the understructure supporting it, enabling its rise and facilitating its fall.

I am sure that the process of recording, pressing, and selling records gets at least lip-service. The marketing and charting of them probably gets passing mention, without any explanation (or, perhaps, even understanding) of how it worked. How did radio play support marketing efforts of big bands? How were live shows promoted? What did a typical ticket cost, in Fargo versus New York? Did this variance in prices affect bookings? Who owned the tour buses, and how did travel costs affect things?

I’m guessing that if any of this gets mentioned, it is done in a non-integrated fashion, leaving the viewer no more aware of the interconnection of these things with the music than he was at the beginning. In fact, given “The Business Part” section, he’s likely to think that all of the above hurt the purity of the music or somesuch.

If jazz had not been commercially successful, if it hadn’t been good business, it wouldn’t be getting laudatory documentaries lamenting its passing by anti-business academics today.

The business part shouldn’t be the entirety of the documentary, nor half, perhaps not even a tenth. But it should be a part, and it should give the viewer the grounding he needs to understand jazz’s rise and fall in context of the larger culture. Leaving it out, or spitting on it, does no one any favors in understanding jazz as a cultural phenomenon.

  1. The undealt with ‘but’ has to do with how the documentary approached racism. Another time, because it’s not the fault of the documentarians per se, it’s a wider cultural problem. 
  2. The musicians’ union is mentioned once, in purely positive fashion. Typical thoughtless leftism. 
  3. Burns also chose to demean Miller, but that’s also a rant for another time. Glenn Miller isn’t cool, and was way too popular with the white kids ever to become so, I get that. Nevertheless, I’m a fan, and Burns did him injustice.