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Virginia Postrel

I’ve just added a new section to the left indicating what books I am currently reading. Rather than write a formal review of each, I will from time to time comment on my favorite bits from each. The first concerns Virginia Postrel’s first wonderful book which takes a very Hayekian look at modern economic life. The book is basically a celebration of unmanaged progress and the entrepreneurial spirit of whom she calls “dynamists” and the glorious messiness that results from this progress – as contrasted with the disasterous effects of the social engneering and utopian ideals of whom she calls “stasists.” Below is a lengthy passage that I found particularly illuminating – and it goes to show you that there is no substitute for tacit knowledge:

“At a West Los Angeles supermarket, for instance, I catalogued fifteen varieties of Proctor & Gamble’s Always sanitary napkins, examples of ever-intensifying progress. Disposable sanitary napkins date only to 1920. The self-sticking technology that liberated women from uncomfortable and barely functional belts (and that helped to create all those niches) was developed only in the early 1970s. Those intensive improvements, and rarely acknowledged products, make a tremendous difference in women’s lives. Stifling, mundane, intensive progress can even have political consequences. Interviewed shortly before the 1996 Russaian Presidential elections, Muscovite Olga Vladimirov explained her intended vote to the Los Angeles Times: “How could any woman who remembers the indignity of scrounging around the city and standing in endless lines for cotton wool even think about going back to life under the Communists? I didn’t even know what a tampon was before the democrats came to power.” (mjr – emphasis added)

In fact, Soviet planners emphasized extensive progress – heavy industry and the military – and deprived consumers of the subtle advantages of tampons, McDonald’s, and shoes that fit. American observers, counting up the tons of steel (often inaccurately) but disregarding their quality, overestimated the strength of the Soviet economy. By the glasnost era in 1990, Soviet economist Victor Belkin was telling Americans that the Soviet gross national product was at best 28% of U.S. GNP, about half the Central Intelligence Agency’s estimate. Once you factored in waste and extremely low-quality goods, he said, the Soviet standard of living was about that of China, much lower than the U.S. analysts had believed.”

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