F Menton.jpg

Francis Menton


. . . blogs from the West Village neighborhood in Manhattan.

The West Village is one of the most attractive and interesting urban neighborhoods in the United States.  It has beautifully-maintained homes and buildings including many that pre-date the Civil War, great restaurants, interesting stores, and lots of night life including live music and theater.  When I moved to this neighborhood in the 1970s the old buildings were here, but there were public safety issues and overall a slight air of seediness.  The subsequent years have seen renovation of older buildings, an influx of wealthier residents, and great improvement in the quality of the stores and restaurants.  Public safety has improved dramatically.  All in all, it has been a great place to live and raise a family.

With one exception:  we suffer from a stifling political and ideological orthodoxy.  The central tenet of that orthodoxy is that all personal problems of the people in society can be solved by government taxing and spending.  The obvious corollary is that since all problems can be solved by taxing and spending, therefore they must be solved by taxing and spending, and anyone who stands in the way of those solutions is immoral.  A few subsidiary tenets of the orthodoxy (there are way too many for me to name all of them) include:  the government has infinite capacity to tax and spend and does not need to make any choices about spending priorities; the government has an infinite ability to borrow; an appropriate function of government is to take on all down-side risk of life so that no individual ever needs to worry about loss of anything; the government can achieve a perfect society by ordering the people to behave in appropriate ways, in which case they will do so without any attempts at evasion or any unintended consequences; the current built environment is optimal and all attempts to change it in any way must be opposed at all costs;  usage of energy is a human right, but all actual known methods of producing energy are environmentally unacceptable; new, fancier, and higher-priced stores and restaurants are ruining the neighborhood; and labor unions improve the lives of workers with no adverse consequences.  It is not clear to me why these and other tenets of the orthodoxy must always go together in a package, but somehow they do.  Anyway, I have long realized that not only do I not subscribe to the orthodoxy, but I disagree with it in more or less every respect.   Thus the name of this blog:  Manhattan Contrarian.

One of my intellectual heroes is Milton Friedman.  In 1964 he spent a year as a visiting professor at Columbia University in Manhattan.  In 1974 Friedman wrote an essay titled "Schools at Chicago" that includes the following passage:


In 1964--to the disgust and dismay of most of my academic friends--I served as an economic adviser to Barry Goldwater during his quest for the Presidency. That year also, I was a Visiting Professor at Columbia University. The two together gave me a rare entree into the New York intellectual community. I talked to and argued with groups from academia, from the media, from the financial community, from the foundation world, from you name it. I was appalled at what I found. There was an unbelievable degree of intellectual homogeneity, of acceptance of a standard set of views complete with cliche answers to every objection, of smug self-satisfaction at belonging to an in-group. The closest similar experience I have ever had was at Cambridge, England, and even that was a distant second.
The homogeneity and provincialism of the New York intellectual community made them pushovers in discussions about Goldwater's views. They had cliche answers but only to their self-created straw-men. To exaggerate only slightly, they had never talked to anyone who really believed, and had thought deeply about, views drastically different from their own. As a result, when they heard real arguments instead of caricatures, they had no answers, only amazement that such views could be expressed by someone who had the external characteristics of being a member of the intellectual community, and that such views could be defended with apparent cogency. Never have I been more impressed with the advice I once received: "You cannot be sure that you are right unless you understand the arguments against your views better than your opponents do.

H/t EconLog. 

Believe me, not much has changed in the intervening 50 years.  But since the launch of this blog in 2012, we have begun to chip away at it little by little!

As of December 31, 2015, I retired after 40+ years (31 as a partner) with the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.  Now I have lots more time to devote to the blog.  Watch out world!

You can follow me on Twitter by clicking this link.

The artwork for the banner headline is by Joe Forte.  You can find more of his drawings of the Greenwich Village area at his website here.