The New Yorker and the Beatles

by Don Boudreaux on March 10, 2006

in Competition, Standard of Living, Trade

Each week, the final page of the New Yorker is devoted to that magazine’s "Cartoon Caption Contest."  The contest is this: a single-frame cartoon is presented with no caption.  Readers are invited to submit their own captions.

In the next-week’s issue, that cartoon appears again, but beneath it are three "finalists" captions — the captions that the editors choose as being the three best submitted for that cartoon.

Readers are then invited to vote (online, of course) on which of the three captions is the best.  Then, two weeks after the uncaptioned cartoon first appeared in the magazine, it appears for a third time — this third time featuring the winning caption.

The first thing that struck me about this "caption contest" is the difficulty I have trying to think up clever captions.  With rare exceptions, each new uncaptioned cartoon is one that sparks in me no clever ideas.  I try and try, but almost always come up empty-minded.

So when each cartoon appears for its second time, with the three "finalists" captions printed beneath it, I’m consistently and considerably impressed by how imaginative, witty, and clever people are.

I’m looking now at the March 13th issue of the New Yorker.  This week’s uncaptioned cartoon shows a 60-ish couple walking into a  church filled with a well-stocked bar and two unshaven bar bums gazing disinterestedly at this couple’s entrance.  The man entering the church has his wife on one arm, a bible in the other, and his mouth is open, saying something.

But what’s he saying?  I’ll be darned if I can think of a clever caption to put in his mouth.

Now I look just above this cartoon to the one first printed in last-week’s issue.  Each of the three "finalists" captions that accompany last-week’s cartoon are very, very good — indeed, one is rip-roaringly funny.

One of these "finalists" captions was submitted by a Mr. Mako from Connecticut; another by a Mr. Cassidy from California; and the third by a Mr. Flores from Florida.

Now suppose the New Yorker starts a policy of not accepting captions submitted by anyone living west of the Mississippi.  What would happen to the quality of the captions?  It would fall.  Mr. Cassidy’s caption wouldn’t have been considered simply because he lives in Los Angeles.

But even if this week’s three best "finalists" captions were all submitted by people living east of the Mississippi, the quality of the captions will inevitably fall over time — perhaps not next week or even two weeks from now.  It’s quite possible that the best captions during the next few weeks all will be submitted by people living east of the Mississippi.

But how will we know?  With Californians, Minnesotans, Texans and other westerners prevented from contributing their creative ideas to the cartoons — prevented from competing with easterners in the Cartoon Caption Contest — we can’t possibly know that any caption that actually wins the magazine’s contest in any week is truly the best that is humanly possible.

And so it is with investors and products.  By preventing certain people from investing in your country because they aren’t citizens of your country, or by preventing certain people from selling goods and services in your country because they are produced by people who aren’t citizens of your country, you diminish the size of the pool of creative ideas available to help you.

I’m reminded here of one of Paul McCartney’s lines in his lyrics for the Beatles’ song "We Can Work It Out":

Think of what you’re saying.  You can get it wrong and still you think that it’s alright.

Think of what I’m saying: creative human insights are the driving force of our prosperity.  By allowing xenophobia and protectionist rent-seekers to restrict the number of people who contribute their ideas to the market process, we inevitably reduce — and perhaps even reverse — the rate of economic growth. Our prosperity will be lower and lower than it would otherwise be.

And this lower rate of economic growth and the correspondingly lower standard of living might well never be revealed by the data.

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Annie March 10, 2006 at 3:50 pm

If you did not see it yet…

their Oscar coverage was great

liberty March 10, 2006 at 4:25 pm

same is true of welfare programs etc. You might think you are helping the poor but you do not see how they would have been before the program if the program didn't exist.

In other words, if you only look at how the poor are doing *right before* and *right after* they get help from the government, you miss how they would have been doing *if there was no government help*. So you miss the endogenous effects of the government program, including the drag on growth – jobs, wages, etc caused by higher taxes and fewer productive workers.

John Dewey March 10, 2006 at 5:41 pm

As women and minorities joined the U.S. management and professional workforce the past 35 years, did decision making and quality of work increase? I would guess so. I'm not sure productivity measures tell the whole story. Work of housewives is not included in labor statistics but the daycare and housecleaning workers who replaced them are.

P:atrick March 11, 2006 at 7:51 am

That was long, but illustrative way, of saying that changing the DPW deal was counter to our economic interests. But still, well said.

gary March 11, 2006 at 12:57 pm

Hence all the talk of the Chinese "threat" is so misguided. Given the policies of socialists/liberals, the *entire* world has been harmed by these dangerous policies restricting human freedom, creativity and hence growth. Had it not been for Karl Marx et al, we'd all be much better off economically today, not just those in China, Russia etc.

Meredith March 12, 2006 at 1:35 pm

You must check out Dan Radosh's anti-caption contest.

p.s. HTML-enabled comments would also be nice…

Paul N March 12, 2006 at 11:00 pm

Don's reasoning can be used to illustrate the advantages of increasing population as well. Some argue that the world is no different to them whether there are 6 billion people or 12 billion people, but if 12 billion people means two Radioheads instead of one, it makes it a lot harder to be anti-growth.

gary March 13, 2006 at 1:34 am

Contrariwise, isnt there an argument that more population growth leads to more bad ideas. Like, look at the damage ideologues like Marx have caused. Im not 100% sure this is so clear-cut.

diana March 13, 2006 at 7:35 am

hey nice blog

Half Sigma March 13, 2006 at 11:02 pm

"That was long, but illustrative way, of saying that changing the DPW deal was counter to our economic interests."

Yes it was. And it occurs to me that we were told that the employees of the ports would be the same Americans no matter who owns them, so what does it really matter? It seems to me that the only interest hurt here is the foreign company that is unable to sell the ports, because that company will have to sell to a lower bidder.

So that's tough luck for them, but it doesn't hurt America.

Scott March 14, 2006 at 12:41 pm

Half Sigma,

One could argue that the racism involved in rejecting the DPW deal, as opposed to sound economic or national security reasoning, is harmful to America.

One could argue that any future deals involving the sale of American property to foreigners (in particular to Arab firms) will result in lower resale values because of concern over buyer nationality.

Also, I just read a news article that mentions that Arab nations are now exchanging U.S. dollars for Euros causing the value of the dollar to be lower. Now, wether that's a harmful effect on the U.S. is another discussion, but there are effects.

Half Sigma March 15, 2006 at 10:17 am

"One could argue that the racism involved in rejecting the DPW deal, as opposed to sound economic or national security reasoning, is harmful to America."

I don't now why people would use the term "racism." This has nothing to do with race, it has to do with the religion of Dubai which is Islam and from which springs all the terrorists.

The reasoning is that a Dubai company is far more likely to be infiltrated by people who are sympathetic to terrorists and will pass information or port access to terrorists.

Whether an al-Qaeda operative working for DPW could actually do anything to hurt America given our port security procedures is a topic of a different debate, the but reason for discriminating against a Dubai company is pretty sound.

CalgaryGuy76 March 15, 2006 at 11:12 am

"The lesson here, for those Arabs who hope to continue to spread their humongous oil revenue around the globe in the next few years, is that you cannot do business in a global economy under banana republic rules."
- USA Today, Editorial/Opinion, March 14, 2006

Arab is an ethnicity not a religion, so there are at least some people out there discriminating based on ethnicity. Besides the UAE is widely recognized as one of the most religiously tolerant countries in the Middle East. If your best rebuttal to my argument is that I was wrong to use the term "racism" because it's in fact discrimination based on religion rather than on race that killed the deal, you're still admitting that it's discrimination. As well, to claim that all terrorists follow Islam ("religion of Dubai which is Islam and from which springs all the terrorists") is neither true nor a valid reason to reject the deal. Unless I'm mistaken Timothy McVeigh was not a Muslim and of the close to 1 billion Muslim's in the world you're saying it's OK to discriminate based on the actions of a relative few?

Half Sigma March 15, 2006 at 4:27 pm

Yes, it's OK to discriminate against Muslim countries. If you don't understand why then you have a complete lack of common sense.

Steven M. Warshawsky March 16, 2006 at 12:25 pm

As happens frequently on this blog, the pro-free market folks think that economics is the be-all and end-all of human existence. They conveniently ignore that lots of people are motivated by decidedly non-rational interests — including killing infidels and spreading the influence of one ideology or another.

Deny it as much as you want, we still exist in a world where we have enemies who want to do us grievous harm. To attempt to analogize the economic relations between the Eastern and Western parts of the United States to the relations between the United States and other countries is ridiculous.

Query: Should the United States freely allow countries like Russia, China, and Iran to buy the latest military technology from American companies? How about buying the companies themselves? If not, why not? Obviously, because this would present a national security risk that outweighs whatever "creativity" or "efficiency" gains might be achieved in a more "open" marketplace. It is just won't do to throw out some economic platitudes in analyzing this type of problem.

Scott March 16, 2006 at 1:25 pm

I don't think it's a matter of economics being the be-all and end-all but it helps to understand what are the underlying fundamentals for making a decision.

In the DPW case it's clear that economic freedom is being traded off for another reason. I'm curious to know if it's simply bigotry or is there a solid case to be made regarding U.S. national security. I mean first of all these ports were already operated by a foreign country the issue is that now the "wrong" foreign country wants to operate them. Secondly, from the literature I've read, the U.S. always has and always will be responsible for the security at the ports it's just who owns and operates them.

If I'm missing something, by all means, point me in the right direction. But from what I've read the DPW issue is most likely a simple discrimination issue not based on solid U.S. national security concerns.

Half Sigma March 16, 2006 at 3:46 pm

"But from what I've read the DPW issue is most likely a simple discrimination issue"

Yes, it's discrimination against a country where all the citizens are Islamic, and therefore a much higher percentage of its citizens are going to be al-Qaeda operatives.

Steven M. Warshawsky March 16, 2006 at 5:33 pm

Scott, what I do not understand is the knee-jerk reaction that leads you to put ironic quotation marks around the word "wrong" when comparing Dubai and Great Britain (the other foreign country you are referring to).

Do you truly believe there are no relevant differences between these two countries? That we should approach our dealings with them from the exact same perspective? Do you really believe that we can trust all countries and all peoples equally? Surely not.

Yet, this seem to be where faith in the free market leads so many folks on this blog. How is this any different from the blinders worn by the Left, which believes that all humanity shares a common interest in socialism? I don't understand this impulse, shared by socialists and libertarians alike, to ignore or downplay unpleasant geopolitical realities that do not conform with their utopian models.

In the real world, we trade off economic freedom for other values and interests all the time. Sometimes these trade offs make sense; sometimes they don't. But the fact that a trade-off is being made, by itself, is not an argument against it.

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