FINALLY! A free wi-fi network. I assumed a nice hotel like the Westin Peachtree Plaza would have an open network,… not so. I had to come down the street to the Mall food court.
Anyway, here I am, broadcasting from Atlanta, Georgia. I’m here as one of about 50 students from around the U.S. (and 12 other nations) who have been selected to participate in a week-long economic seminar. It’s being put on by the Foundation for Economic Education, and some very generous donor out there paid for me to attend, including the hotel and a couple of meals a day. Sweet deal, I know.
Considering the difficulty involved in finding a network, I doubt I’ll be updating as often as I had hoped. I will attempt to add a few pictures tomorrow, especially since they’re letting us out early so we can check out the city. I haven’t seen much of it—just whatever was viewable from the monorail window between the airport and downtown. I’m on the 55th floor of the “tallest hotel in the western hemisphere,” which I must say is pretty cool. The building is cylindrical, so all of the rooms have a window facing outward and a door facing the inside, and an elevator shaft straight down the center.
As of an hour ago (Tuesday, 4:30 pm) we’ve sat through 6 lectures, all of which have been interesting. Here’s the week’s schedule for inquiring minds. The real focus of these lectures is Austrian Economics, which looks at human motives—the stuff I like. I won’t bore you with details other than to say that I’m gaining a much better understanding of the why behind the what. For example, government subsidies in a particular industry that are supposed to help can actually hurt that industry by sending artificial market signals that, in turn, affect judgment and ultimately lead to the wasteful allocation of resources (investment). The whole point of economics is to increase the standard of living by increasing wealth, so it’s important that resources (time, capital, people, creativity) are used in such a way that they add to the net production.
It was brought to my attention that my interest in politics and economics is heavily driven by my desire to understand, test, explore and promote a very meaningful set of “truths” upon which the world was dramatically changed. We’ve heard them so many times they’ve nearly lost meaning: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I realized that this is not merely a political statement, but an economic one as well. I believe this statement is true, and I believe it has been the key to prosperity in the United States, and by extension, the world. But every generation is at risk of forgetting these truths, or at least forgetting how to retain those rights. That’s why I’m here, far away from my home and the woman I love. The world needs people who will spend time and energy trying to understand where freedom and prosperity come from. Otherwise, how can we expect to keep them?
Day 4 (Thursday, June 3) – The awkwardness of being in close and consistent proximity with a bunch of strangers started wearing off after a couple of days. The lectures are good, and the late-night discussions at the pub or pizza joint next door are even better. It’s hard to really soak up information in crash-course sessions like this, but at least it familiarizes me with these issues and opens my mind to ideas about how the market can solve problems much more efficiently. The professors who are speaking at this seminar are pretty hardcore dudes, I think a couple are Anarchists, or darn near it. But if you really want to explore a school of thought you need to talk to the people who are most passionate about it. It’s not that I disagree on any major arguments, but I think there’s a point at which “the market” is glorified in idealistic impracticality, and government is villianized beyond reality. If you know me, you know I’m a pretty strong free-market, limited-government guy. But we do need government to perform basic freedom-preserving functions. It’s when government is no longer freedom-preserving that we have problems. I will attempt to wrap up the things we discussed this week after it’s all over.
We got out early yesterday so we could “see Atlanta.” I took a tour through the CNN headquarters, which is viewable from my floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window… yes, it’s cool. I tried to visit Grant Park , where a Civil War battle was fought—and there’s apparently some other things there relating top the era—but it’s pretty much impossible to navigate this city without someone who knows what they’re doing. Instead I walked around downtown, grabbed a Gyro from a tiny shop on the street, and headed back to the hotel for some treadmill and a few laps in the pool. I’ll probably try Grant Park again Saturday.
In general, Atlanta’s not the prettiest place I’ve ever visited, nor are the people very nice. However, I must be fair… I’ve spent nearly my entire time downtown. Perhaps the rest of the city is different. Last night as I sat in the pizza joint across the street reading Economics in One Lesson—an introductory-level book on how regulation influences the market—and I got to see just what happens in downtown Atlanta after dark. The pizza parlor had an employee out front who looked like he was on a smoke break, but there was no cigarette, and he remained there for far to long. After watching him chase off several panhandlers who were attempting to beg money off of the customers, realized what his job was. There are some strange folk ’round here.
I have a few photos to share from the Marta train, my room and other places.
UPDATE: June 6
It seems a bit late to be adding on to this 3 days after coming back to Houston, but the post can’t be left incomplete.
On Friday the FEE group was treated to a couple of lectures by the President of the Von Mises Institute Jeffrey Tucker, then a closing lecture by FEE President Larry Reed. As I said in the previous update, these guys are pretty hardcore free-market guys, I have a hard time distilling exactly what role they think the governmentshould play. I’ve heard at least one mention the importance of the justice system and military protection.
My decision not to post my notes on every lecture was part intentional and part logistic. On one hand I didn’t want to say too much until I had the whole picture in view, and on the other hand I could only get online a few times the whole week. Not to mention that it would’ve made this most extremely long. However, most of my posts for the next few weeks will likely deal with economics, so much of what I learned will be applied in those posts.
To make a general statement, I think that the lessons I learned through the FEE seminar have pushed me somewhat more toward the free market—dare I say, libertarian—view. I’ve always been a free-market guy, but I had many doubts about its limits. I still think there are limits, but I’m increasingly confident in the creativity and motivations of individuals to solve problems, and increasingly distrustful of governments and special interests who use force to do so. The market allows all to choose, while the latter allows only some to choose.
I want to point out a sign that was posted outside of the building we were in. It says “if we don’t know know how many people they are, how will we know how many buses we need?” Hmmm… how would we know? Well, in the private market a company would simply keep adding buses until the demand for them slows down. The strange thing about the idea that mere population numbers tell you how many you need is that these numbers tell you nothing about where people want to go and when. The market, however, will figure that out because it responds directly to the need.
On Saturday I got up, had breakfast, and began to stroll around the city of Atlanta. I walked through some pretty rough neighborhoods on my way to the church, birth home and burial site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which are all on the same street, spanning about 3 blocks. I also visited his memorial museum, which inspiring, but slightly frustrating. I’m a huge fan of Dr. King, though I believe much of his message has been miscommunicated and misunderstood. People have made him a martyr for economic equality, when what he really preached was the end of race-based hatred. It’s like me saying I wish for all war to end, and people thinking I mean an end to military action. The differences are subtle, but important.
I then walked south about half a mile and ended up in what the locals call Cabbagetown—a neighborhood that meshes Houston’s Montrose, Midtown and Heights areas, including boutiques shops and restaurants, newly renovated urban condos, and victorian-style homes. A few hipsters on bicycles were thrown in for good measure.
From Cabbagetown I entered the Grant Park area. The park itself was recently renovated and looks quite nice. The park includes a zoo and the Cyclorama, which contains the largest oil painting in the world. The painting is of the Civil War battle in Atlanta, which was considered the beginning of the end of the war. I then walked through some more rough neighborhoods, before reaching the capital of Georgia. After a few photos went back to the hotel and got ready to head to the airport.
My general observation about Atlanta can only be based on the areas I visited (downtown, the east/southeast side, and along the south rail line). There were more panhandlers than I’ve ever seen in a city. It would not be an exaggeration to say I was asked for money over 25 times, and the range of creativity employed in doing so was impressive. It’s my personal policy that I don’t hand money to someone just because they walked up and asked for it. I did, however, buy a bottle of water from a dude with a cooler, and threw some change to a guy who was playing some good guitar music to passers by. At least they are being rewarded for providing something, whereas panhandlers are just further encouraged to get paid for doing nothing.
But Atlanta has some good things going for it as well. They have a lot of big businesses, which supports a strong economy. They also have a huge indoor aquarium, the “world of coke” and other interesting tourist attractions. The most disappointing aspect of the city was its lack of its old-south identity. Though the city was established long before the Civil War, it was evacuated and set on fire by evacuees before the Union took the city over. Thus, today’s Atlanta is began its rebirth relatively late—in the 1870s. That makes it even younger than Houston in terms of architecture and historical landmarks. In fact, as northerners moved into Atlanta in the late 19th century they advertised the city as the start of the “new south”, with the intention of erasing the past and embracing the industrial future. Like Rome, Atlanta built its new city atop the old, leaving historic lands buried beneath stone and steel.