Capitalist Tools

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I started reading Forbes magazine in college. It was a good break from the more esoteric stuff that I spent most of my time studying. Malcolm Forbes ran the magazine then and gave the serious financial coverage a patina of libertine joy. (You might remember that he called his private jet “Capitalist Tool.”) I wouldn’t have guessed, then, that my life would follow a path closer to how I spent those breaks than to the rhetorical analysis of Seneca’s plays that occupied most of my waking hours.

I’ve kept reading financial publications since. Even worked on a couple. This explains, in part, how I came to be a sub- scriber – evidently, one of the few – to Conde Nast’s short- lived business magazine, Portfolio.

This disaster (said to have incinerated $100 million of its parent company’s development money) was launched at the beginning of a severe recession by a publishing company best known for fluffy fashion magazines. Still, I read each issue; they started out quirky and quickly turned bizarre. The cover of the final one featured the careerist mendicant Timothy Geithner staring nervously back at the reader. The cover copy- reflecting some thematic twaddle about “leadership” – implored “Lead Us. Please”; the would-be leader looked, as he often does, like he was about to cry.

Portfolio had many problems. The most fundamental was that it was a business magazine directed at bureaucratic middle-level managers. The people who look for leadership from Treasury Secretaries aren’t the kind of people that business- magazine advertisers pay to reach.

But even Forbes has lost some of its brightness in these perplexing times. One recent issue included a column by Robert H. Frank (an econ prof at Cornell and, dubiously, a regurgitater of conventional wisdom for The New York Times). Frank examined the tax preferences of these strange animals, “libertarians,” for Forbes readers. His sociological tone might work with impressionable undergraduates and the peasants who read the Times; but Forbes readership likely contains many people who know what the term “classical liberal” means. They probably don’t like being condescended to by some guy who doesn’t even teach at Yale or Harvard.

And Frank’s analysis didn’t match the pretentious photo portrait that accompanied his words. He called John Stuart Mill “Libertarianism’s patron saint.” Er, no, Herr Doktor. Even if we limit consideration to dead British guys, I can think of two (Adam Smith and John Locke) who come closer to patron sainthood. The rest of the column was some elementary stuff about consumption taxes being less bad than other taxes. Yeah, okay, so what? It must have been a slow week in Ithaca when they hired this guy.

The fact that journalists of this kind are trying to figure out libertarianism is a hopeful sign about the direction of conventional wisdom on economic policy. But I sort of miss Malcolm Forbes’ reign at his family’s magazine.

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