Thursday, January 24, 2008

The People In Your Neighborhood

Because I was awfully busy last week, I missed reading The New York Times, and so I missed being enraged by the opinion piece, "What to Expect When You're Free Trading." Now that the archives are online, though, it was easy to get all enraged about it this afternoon. So, as the kids say, "No problem!"

In arguing against compensation for workers laid off in the wake of job-loss from global free trade, Steven Landsburg asks us to consider that in relevantly similar cases, compensation would not be morally required. In the irritating passage, he says,

Suppose, after years of buying shampoo at your local pharmacy, you discover you can order the same shampoo for less money on the Web. Do you have an obligation to compensate your pharmacist? If you move to a cheaper apartment, should you compensate your landlord? When you eat at McDonald’s, should you compensate the owners of the diner next door? Public policy should not be designed to advance moral instincts that we all reject every day of our lives.

Well, now that you mention it, um,. . . maybe? One letter writer to The Times made a good point (letters are here):

In fact, if I care about having a neighborhood with things like a local pharmacy (and I do, for what it’s worth), then I will continue to buy my shampoo there even if I have to pay a bit more.

And I would be getting a great bargain — not only shampoo, but also a community.

It was this letter that alerted me to having missed the original story. Obviously the author's point is logical: if you spend at Walmart, you'll be surrounded by Walmarts. If you spend at the mall instead of downtown, downtown will go away. I frequently spend extra money to buy at places I like; this is simple means-end rationality.

How well does the point extend to the analogy? Well, Mr. Landsburg might say that this is apples and oranges. By hypothesis he's considering cases in which one is indifferent to the differences and comparing on cost. Indeed, if a book is cheaper at Amazon and more expensive at, I'll buy from Amazon. I don't feel morally obliged to send money to

But in a way I think it's actually apples and apples. Having the people in my town, my state, and my country happily employed is not unlike having a pharmacy around the corner: it's a nice way to live. This is well-captured by the final remark: you get a community. Goods like this are so vague they're hard to reason about, but they're also of the utmost importance.

Incidentally, the next letter on the page accuses free trade opponents of willfully overlooking the benefits of free trade: what if you had to grow your own food, fer Chrissake! Um, you don't have to be against trade to think that there should be limits to it. Just because free trade is good doesn't mean some other things, that don't fit easily with it, aren't good either. Why does everything have to be all or nothing? Sheesh!

This letter about community was much on my mind last Monday. Heading from Toronto to Ann Arbor, I had a three-hour layover in Detroit, and figured I'd spend some time walking around the city. It was MLK day so it wasn't a normal Monday in the city. But I got kind of emotional looking at how cool and interesting the city looked and how its poverty was just wearing everything down.

Here's some pictures.

A cool pretty building with art or graffitti in the windows. I really go for this sort of thing.

A giant Solstice ad! It's like they knew I was coming!

The view across the river from the Renaissance Center.

I tried to support the local economy by buying a guide book to Detroit in the Borders in the middle of the city. Alas, there are no guide books to Detroit. If you want to go to Vegas, though, you are in zee business.

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