Resurrecting Our Intellectual Past

As many may know, I have spent most of the last decade or more producing a content-archiving website that provides convenient, readable access to over 500,000 print articles from the 19th and 20th centuries, together with hundreds of thousands of books.

Most of these articles are drawn from what were once America’s leading journals of intellectual thought and influence, but which eventually vanished so completely that their very names have long been forgotten.  Studying our history of the last century or two without giving full consideration to these periodicals would be similar to analyzing the domestic politics of the Vietnam War while ignoring CBS, NBC, ABC, and The New York Times.

Resurrecting long dead publications is nearly as difficult as resurrecting people, and merely putting those millions of scanned pages on the Internet does not necessarily mean that anyone will notice or read them.  Therefore, as a means of promoting awareness of this valuable intellectual resource, I announced last year a historical research competition, offering prizes to the best original project produced from this material, with the requirement that Wikipedia accept the work for publication.

The winning entry, submitted by Scott Lahti, was a detailed history of Encounter Magazine, a leading intellectual journal of the Cold War Era, based in London.  For decades, Encounter had been a premier venue for both mainstream anti-Communist liberals and the early neoconservatives, with numerous prominent intellectuals appearing in its pages. As of last year, the magazine’s Wikipedia entry had been a tiny stub, providing almost no useful information; but Lahti’s winning entry had expanded it in length and detail to rival that of any other publication, extent or not.

The obvious value of providing such detailed background information on one of the many important periodicals provided by our website persuaded me to announce a second research competition, this time restricted to producing or enhancing the Wikipedia entries for any of the many dozens of our magazines.  This new competition also proved very successful, with a number of excellent entries.

The winning submission, produced by Ernest Steiner, was for Century Magazine, which had spent years as America’s most influential publication, and continued to play a crucial role in our society during the 1920s, before finally falling victim to the Great Depression.  Our Century Magazine archives include almost 20,000 articles drawn from a sixty year period, and the detailed history in the Wikipedia entry now allows individuals to place that wealth of material in proper context.

A runner-up award goes to Scott Lahti, who had won the previous competition with his Encounter entry.  This time he produced a detailed history of Politics, a small but very highly regarded magazine personally created during 1944-1949 by Dwight MacDonald, one of America’s foremost intellectuals of that era.  The 2006 centenary of MacDonald’s birth was marked by considerable coverage in our elite print media, including many mentions of the brilliant small journal he had once edited.  At that point, the publication was totally inaccessible to anyone distant from our largest research libraries; but it is now just a click away on the Internet.

Finally, the other runner-up prize goes to Christopher Olewicz, for his entry on The Forum, a discussion journal published during 1890-1950, which for decades often carried the work of America’s most distinguished writers and thinkers.

Other notable entries included:

Work along these lines may gradually restore the proper balance between the ideas of the vanished past and those of the present, and allow us to discover that the former are often far more correct and enlightening than we realize.


On an entirely different matter, the Sunday New York Times carried a column critical of President Obama’s proposed minimum wage increase, written by Berkeley economist Christina Romer, former Chair of his own Council of Economic Advisors.  Obviously, Prof. Romer must rank as one of America’s leading economics experts, while I’ve never so much as opened a textbook in that subject, but I wonder a little about her analysis.

First, she argues that no rise in the minimum wage is necessary because employer competition will automatically raise workers’ wages to their proper level, and prevent individual businesses from “misbehaving.”  As she points out, if one store offers $8 per hour while its competitors pay $9, the former will be unable to attract any suitable workers and will necessarily be forced to raise its offer, all without any need for government intervention.

But wouldn’t exactly that same reasoning demonstrate that existing minimum wage laws imposed by government are also completely unnecessary and should be abolished, together with laws imposing an 8-hour work day, a 40-hour week, extra pay for overtime, not to mention all our health and safety workplace requirements?  After all, if one big corporation were just paying $3.10 per hour for a 60-hour week, wouldn’t it lose all its good workers to a competitor that offered $3.20?

Perhaps Romer had indeed spent her years as Obama’s top economic advisor urging him to eliminate all these archaic nineteenth century restrictions on private contract and labor freedom, but his cynical political consultants feared that doing so might imperil his 2012 reelection support among America’s ignorant voters.

On another issue, she models the overall financial impact of his $9.00 per hour proposal by assuming that all the 13 million workers today paid below that level earn exactly the minimum wage of $7.25, and would therefore get raises of $3,500 per year.

I wonder why she or her grad students didn’t bother looking at the actual raw distribution of wages available in the Current Population Survey (CPS) data, used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to generate its official numbers.  Based on those figures, I find a mean annual gain of closer to $1,700 per year, which is far smaller than Romer’s figure.  Furthermore, since she elsewhere focuses on the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), surely she must realize that for these lowest-wage workers a substantial fraction of any such wage increase would be cancelled out by a corresponding drop in their EITC checks or other government subsidies, meaning that their actual gain in spending power would be considerably smaller. Thus, although she correctly points out that the fiscal stimulus from a $9.00 minimum wage would be insignificant, she probably still overestimates it by a factor of three or more.

She also argues that if businesses were to pass along a large portion of their greater minimum wage costs in the form of higher prices, the result might actually harm exactly the working-poor whom the policy is intended to help.  But does this make sense?  Suppose a $12.00 minimum wage permanently raised the mean income of lower-end workers by 30%, but also forced McDonalds and Walmart to raise their prices by a one-time 3 percent.  Wouldn’t the working-poor still come out far ahead since 30 is much larger than 3, and not all their consumer dollars are spent at those sort of labor-intensive establishments?

I’ll have to admit I just don’t understand the “Science of Economics”.


Finally, a landslide 68% majority of Swiss voters yesterday passed a public referendum imposing some of the world’s most severe restrictions on all executive compensation.  This is hardly surprising given that Switzerland has the strongest ultra-leftwing tradition in Europe and throughout the twentieth century served as the world center of International Communism.



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