Solzhenitsyn Endures: The Return of “The First Circle”

    Source of book image:

I remember Ben Rogge recommending The First Circle, decades ago when it first appeared in English. It is a powerful, courageous, wise work, bearing many lessons. As you read the book, you keep hoping you can find someone to blame for the evil that is happening. But as Solzhenitsyn works his way up the bureaucracy, each bureaucrat has a plausible motive for his part in evil; one motive, for example, is the protection of the bureaucrat’s family. Only when you reach Stalin, do you find someone who you can really despise. But he seems borderline crazy, so even he is not a totally satisfying villian.

The book can be seen as illustrating a point that Rogge often made: socialism is not bad because it is run by bad people; it is bad because it provides ordinary people incentives to do bad things. (These are not his words, but I believe they capture his point.)

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) MOSCOW, Feb. 8 — A grandfatherly figure, his bearded face wrinkled into a smile, peers down from billboards around town.

It is surprise enough that the man is Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, the once-exiled writer, Nobel Prize winner and, of late, octogenarian scold. It is even more so that the billboards advertise his adaptation — broadcast on state television, no less — of one of his fiercely anti-Soviet novels, “The First Circle.”

Solzhenitsyn has been called the conscience of the nation, but his reputation has risen and fallen as tumultuously as Russia itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “First Circle” has once again placed him on the national stage, reaching an audience that would have been inconceivable to him four decades ago, when he smuggled the book out of the Soviet Union.

For the full article, see:

STEVEN LEE MYERS “Toast of the TV in Russian Eyes: It’s Solzhenitsyn.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 9, 2006): A1 & A3.

A scene from the Russian mini-series version of The First Circle. Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

“Better Coffee Rockefeller’s Money Can’t Buy”

(p. 263) In the middle of this fierce competition, with its low quality standards and apparent market saturation, a New York nut vendor and restaurateur proved that a new brand stressing quality could triumph.

 . . .

Black understood the power of advertising.  In radio spots, which blanketed the New York metropolitan airwaves,  Black’s second wife, Jean Martin, sang a hummable jingle:

Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee,

Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee.

(p. 264) Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee-

Better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy.

By August 1954, less than a year after its debut, Chock full o’ Nuts had grabbed third place among vacuum-packed coffees in New York City.



Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)


Using a T-shirt to Tell the Story of Progress

Source of image:

The protests occurred on ”a cold day in February 1999.” Ms. Rivoli was watching as students gathered at the gothic centerpiece of Georgetown to demonstrate against the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and other putative villains of international trade. The crowd, Ms. Rivoli noticed with characteristic acuity, had ”a moral certainty, a unity of purpose” that permitted it to distinguish black from white and good from evil ”with perfect clarity.” One woman seized the microphone and asked: ”Who made your T-shirt? Was it a child in Vietnam? Or a young girl from India earning 18 cents per hour? Did you know that she lives 12 to a room? That she shares her bed and has only gruel to eat?”
Ms. Rivoli did not know these things, and she wondered how the woman at the microphone knew. But she decided to find out. In the rest of her narrative, the author tells the story of ”her” T-shirt, which she purchased for $5.99 by the exit of a Walgreen’s in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. ”It was white and printed with a flamboyantly colored parrot, with the word ‘Florida’ scripted beneath.” A company in Miami had engraved the front, after buying the shirt from a factory in China. The Chinese manufacturer had purchased the cotton used to make the shirt from Texas. Eventually it will end up as part of a large but little-known market for used clothing destined for resale in East African ports.
. . .
By looking across history to the shifting center of textile manufacturing from Manchester, England, to Lowell, Mass., to South Carolina to Japan and, finally, the developing nations of Asia, Ms. Rivoli discovers a universal truth. Without making light of the horrors experienced by workers, she asserts that their jobs were a little better than other available options (usually farm work) and, what’s more, that textile factories led to advances in industrialization and, just as dependably, in living standards. It is not too much to say that she uses the T-shirt to tell the story of progress.

For the full commentary on Rivoli’s book, see:
ROGER LOWENSTEIN. “OFF THE SHELF; Travels With My Florida Parrot T-Shirt.” The New York Times, Section 3 (Sun., August 21, 2005): 7.
The book is:
Pietra Rivoli. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. John Wiley & Sons, 2005. ISBN: 0471648493

The Good Old Days, When Coffee Smelled Like Wet Dogs

We tend to romanticize the country store, and to deride chain stores and name brands. But maybe coffee lovers should think twice.


(p. 116, footnote 1) "The air was thick with an all-embracing odor," wrote Gerald Carson in The Old Country Store, "an aroma composed of dry herbs and wet dogs, [of] strong tobacco, green hides and raw humanity."  Bulk roasted coffee absorbed all such smells.



Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 2000.


(Note: the “of” in brackets in the Carson quote is the word Carson used in his book; Pendergrast mistakenly substitutes the word “or”; I have corrected Pendergrast’s mistake.)

Leading Clinton Economist Advocates a Schumpeterian “Dynamism”

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Today’s review of the new Gene Sperling economic policy book in the New York Times Book Review, begins by emphasizing Sperling’s importance in the Clinton administration:

(p. 16) If you were inclined to identify Clintonism with a single person other than the big man himself, that person might well be Gene Sperling – a top campaign adviser in 1992; a tireless advocate of fiscal discipline during the first term; an inveterate policy wonk throughout all eight years of the administration.  So it’s little surprise that this book-length vision for a Democratic economic strategy can best be described as Clintonism 2.0.

NOAM SCHEIBER. “Clintonism 2.0.” The New York Times Book Review, Section 7 (Sun., January 22, 2006): 16.

Here is the opening paragraph of Sperling’s chapter one, which is entitled ” Growing Together in the Dynamism Economy.”

In the 1990s, a new economic era was created when a period of intense globalization collided with an information technology revolution.  Yet precisely defining a "new" economy is less important than understanding the nature of the change.  I believe a more descriptive label is the “dynamism” economy.  Of course, dynamic change in market economies is hardly new.  The mid-twentieth-century economist Joseph Schumpeter identified the process of “creative destruction,” positing that a healthy market economy is continually moving forward, replacing old capital, old industries — and existing jobs — with more productive alternatives.  Yet, what feels most “new” for average citizens is the breakneck speed at which the increased globalization, rapid technological advance, and the explosion of the Internet are putting fierce competitive pressures on the economy and accelerating change not only in products and services, but also in entire job categories and industries.

Part of the first chapter is viewable at The book citation is: Sperling, Gene. The Pro-Growth Progressive: An Economic Strategy for Shared Prosperity. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

“Dynamism” as a descriptor for the good society also appeals to libertarian economics columnist Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies and webmaster of

Thomas Sowell on Ben Rogge as Teacher

The classic small liberal arts college is more than a pleasant place where other people know you, though that is not a small consideration for a student living away from home for the first time—especially a shy student.  Academically, the learning process can be far more manageable where professors are teachers first and foremost.  One of the best taught introductory economics classes I ever saw was taught by the late Ben Rogge at Wabash College in Indiana.  Few students at Harvard would ever get such a good foundation in the subject.  Ben, rest his soul, had obviously thought through all the pitfalls of the subject and led the student safely around them.

Source: online version of Thomas Sowell. Choosing a College: A Guide for Students & Parents. 1989.

Do-Nothing Leaders Are Not Always Wrong

The source of the above image is:&nbsp

Edward Tufte says that the graph/map above is the best graphic ever drawn.   His criterion is how much information is communicated per unit of ink.  (Sort of a signal to noise ratio?)
The tan line that starts thick on the left, and gets thinner toward the right, represents Napoleon’s army as it enters and crosses Russia.  The width of the line is scaled to the remaining size of the army.   On the right hand side, the tan line ends in Moscow, where the army disastrously wintered.   The black line moving left shows the diminishing size of the army as Napoleon retreated.
When I was a student at Wabash College, I was a determined and vocal advocate of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.   My economics professor Ben Rogge, was not so enthused.  He thought there were better Russian novels to read, and on several occasions, suggested:&nbsp ‘Diamond, you should read War and Peace.’
I often did not take Rogge’s advice quickly, but usually I took it eventually.&nbsp After leaving Wabash, I read War and Peace.   Parts of it, I found too much like a soap opera for my taste.  But I did find a part that resonated.
Part of Tolstoy’s story is about the Russian general facing Napoleon, who would not fight, but who continued to retreat into the heart of Russia.  He was widely castigated as a do-nothing leader.   But as a result of the Russian general doing nothing, Napoleon ordered his army further and further into Russia.
It is very hard for leaders in government to do nothing.  They will be castigated.  But sometimes nothing is exactly the right thing for them to do.

Edward Tufte’s wonderful book is:
Tufte, Edward R. &nbsp The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. 2nd ed. &nbsp Cheshire, CT: &nbsp Graphics Press, 2001.