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July 22, 2007

The Economics of Magic

Megan McArdle goes all Tyler Cowen on the Harry Potter books in The Guardian. And I, dear reader, have just written the most nerdy sentence I will ever write.

July 22, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Is she that joyless and self-unaware in person?

Posted by: Meh | Jul 22, 2007 7:50:48 AM

Bottom dollar says within the new year, you write a nerdy single-sentence post that ALSO manages to work in an XKCD link. And that truly will be your Ragnarok.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 22, 2007 8:32:56 AM

Meh: "Is she that joyless and self-unaware in person?"

I dearly hope I never find out for sure, but I would have to think yes.

Very nice example of missing the point, there, Megan.

Posted by: Santos L. Halper | Jul 22, 2007 8:49:33 AM

I don't think she misses the point at all. I share a lot of those criticisms, especially the Hermoine/Harry bit. She spends novels and chapters hammering home that these kids require a very strict education to learn how to be good at this sort of thing, and even more hammering home that Hermoine is far and away the best student in the school. Yet Harry, due to what appears to be pluck and spunk, does all this crazy stuff that no-one else can do, plus teaches it to others.

Why are they all at school, then? Why not just sit around at someone's house and have Potter teach them everything? The academic aspect, as the series goes on, becomes more and more a sham put in place to make easy plots.

Posted by: Fnor | Jul 22, 2007 9:33:17 AM

Some times its best to avoid thinking too much while engaging in certain kinds of entertainment. This applies to Potter books and any movie with a roman numeral after its title. Lighten up Megan.

Posted by: klein's tiny left nut | Jul 22, 2007 10:31:08 AM

1. I think the point of the Harry/ Hermione plot device is that while magical ability can be trained in general, in this specific case Harry is quite unusual. Harry's ability to do stuff that takes other wizards much time to learn comes from the magic created by his mother's self-sacrifice as well as from Voldemort's attempt on his life. More simply, Harry acquired skills from adult wizard's actions. Hermione has amazing talent and an even stronger ability to learn to use that talent, but she still didn't get the "benefit" of her mother's sacrifice and Voldemort's arrogance.

2. As for the magical economy, the books indicate that wizards have to have certain magical objects to perform spells adequately -- wands are the preeminent example here -- and better equipment means better magic. The equipment is what's bought and sold. (Spoiler alert: she introduces something called the "File Laws" as an aside that's never explained at all in this book. Maybe those laws explain this problem. And no, the Five Laws have no bearing on the plot whatsover.)

Posted by: Kitty | Jul 22, 2007 10:31:47 AM

I, dear reader, have just written the most nerdy sentence I will ever write.
Don't sell yourself short, bro.

Posted by: biff3000 | Jul 22, 2007 11:07:25 AM

why must writers who create elaborate imaginings from their own magical interior worlds have to be held accountable to anyone?
....if your choose to read the book and glimpse through the keyhole to her secret garden, whatever you find there is hers.
....if you choose to share that world, enjoy it or briefly call it your own, the vision still belongs to the author, who owes no accountability, no matter how many people plunk down their dollars to fall through the magic keyhole.
.....there are all sorts of magical worlds that hold no accountability, have no order....alice at the teaparty, dorothy in emerald city, the little prince and the baobob tree, pinochio and the blue fairy...
the amazingly magical art of michael parkes...and all the other magicians who have the courage to share their waking dreams.
.......we mustnt forget, the real magician here is ms. dowling, not harry potter.
...and there are no rules...magic happens!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 22, 2007 11:09:17 AM

Yeah, the Five Laws seem to me to be some way to mitigate against pointless criticism of "why would any wizard be poor" variety. Most criticism of this type comes not from any real inconsistency on Rowling's part, but from Rowling's insistence upon not anticipating the critic's idiosyncrasies and addressing them.

Wizards can't conjure food, shelter and money out of nothing because they can't. Wizarding needs academic study because it does. As Kitty points out, Harry is one of a very few who have an innate talent for magic; Dumbledore was another, but he combined it with vast knowledge.

What's funny about McArdle's article, though, is how she tries to marshal the inherent qualities of children on her behalf: children are great systemisers, she says, so Rowling's work is deeply flawed and - what, doomed to poor sales? Unable to appeal to children?

If you don't get Harry Potter, just say so. Or, just don't say so, if all you can do to criticize the books is make up your own version of Friedman's cabdrivers in order to project your own personal quibbles onto the rest of the world.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 22, 2007 11:13:03 AM

I strongly disagree. Your least nerdy health care wonkery is far nerdier than that.

Posted by: Joseph | Jul 22, 2007 11:14:29 AM

Also, why doesn't Meghan appreciate the fact that Harry Potter is far more magical realism than anything resembling fantasy?

Posted by: Joseph | Jul 22, 2007 11:16:03 AM

Recycling some stuff I wrote at Unfogged...

All fiction relies on evocation, using clues in the text and the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. No book can ever be as detailed as reality, after all. Stories click or don't for particular readers depending (among other things) on how well what's evoked for that reader matches up with what's spelled out clearly in the text. A mismatch doesn't mean either the book or the reader has failed, just that they're not right for each other.

I know of two very different sorts of folks who enjoy Rowling's books - this isn't an exhaustive list, just some points to mark out a little territory. A lot of her readers are, as Rowling herself seems to be, basically comfortable in the modern world, but interested in seeing it enchanted up a bit. And I've learned from several folks who work with them that many abused children like the series as well, and that for them even the mundane stuff seems pretty magical and wonderful.

Megan McArdle, on the other hand, isn't an abused child and isn't comfortable with modern reality. As a libertarian of the toadying-to-capital flavor, she's committed to a social vision that would make almost everyone both actually worse off and unhappier and less hopeful for the sake of a general good as she conceives it. Naturally she's not going to do very well with a work that takes the existing liberal state and society as a starting point - she doesn't think that's how human beings should work. But none of the rest of us have to be impressed with her concerns, with regard to fiction any more than we are with regard to health care, relations between social classes, or anything else.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Jul 22, 2007 12:05:45 PM

nice, bruce....

libertarians live in their own world of magical things that one must just accept as they are delivered by the awesome power of libertarian thinking - so noone should wonder why Megan can't see the log in her eye.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 22, 2007 12:56:29 PM

All fiction relies on evocation, using clues in the text and the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. No book can ever be as detailed as reality, after all.

And notice that when writers become too ambitious and agressive about filling in the gaps, they end up screwing it up (eg, the Star Wars prequels).

Posted by: Tyro | Jul 22, 2007 2:10:09 PM

Surely there are far worse sci fi/fantasy novels for economics than Harry Potter. In Rowling's world, the magical world is a vague reflection of the real world, period. It really doesn't require much thought beyond that. But think about all those sci fi novels and video games involving interplanetary and even interstellar trading routes. Assuming FTL travel wouldn't actually decrease the amount of energy required to travel from one star to another (letting you build MC Escher like perpetual motion machines of the first kind with a turbine constantly falling into a gravity well), what kind of products would be so valuable that they'd be worth carrying out of the gravity well of a solar system into another?

Anyone ever see Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends? All imaginary friends invented by children suddenly become real. Although this is not recursive (imaginary friends cannot imagine new friends), the economics still seem extremely unworkable.

Normally McArdle really irritates the hell out of me, but I do kind of sympathize with a compulsion to look at the economics even when you're not "supposed" to.

Posted by: Consumatopia | Jul 22, 2007 3:48:27 PM

Actually, Consumatopia, I have a lot of that impulse myself. I have to rein it in some, because left to itself it'll destroy most fiction (and a lot of history, come to that); the trick is to let it and my engagement with stories run along parallel tracks.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Jul 22, 2007 3:54:22 PM

Megan McArdle, on the other hand, isn't an abused child and isn't comfortable with modern reality. As a libertarian of the toadying-to-capital flavor, she's committed to a social vision that would make almost everyone both actually worse off and unhappier and less hopeful for the sake of a general good as she conceives it. Naturally she's not going to do very well with a work that takes the existing liberal state and society as a starting point - she doesn't think that's how human beings should work. But none of the rest of us have to be impressed with her concerns, with regard to fiction any more than we are with regard to health care, relations between social classes, or anything else.

Whoa! I'm no revolutionary pomo Marxist or anything, but have we really moved so far towards centrism that anyone questioning "the existing liberal state and society" is anathema? That's one thing I do kind of find disturbing about HP--the talk about how muggles don't "look" or "listen" properly, yet wizards seem to take the metaphysics, economics and sociology of their world as given, rarely wondering if things could be some other way (it would be amusing if that were actually a requirement for being able to do magic, which would explain the wizarding world's discomfort with analytical muggle technology.) Yeah, we've all gotta live in the real world, but is it really so terrible to regard modern reality with guarded suspicion rather than comfort? Is it really so sick to have dreams that go beyond a slightly enchanted version of the present? Is trading in Kafka for Potter now a requirement of social democracy?

Posted by: Consumatopia | Jul 22, 2007 4:06:18 PM

re what to take out of gravity wells to a neighboring solar system...

how about canaries or star of india rubies, wow...i could think of hundreds of things to take out of a gravity well to another solar system....just like marco polo on the silk road!
....as one who has sat through many shows of "foster's home for imaginary friends" with two sophisticated elfkins eating fruit roll-ups, i can say that neither they, nor i, ever doubted or questioned the laws in foster's universe.
....we just naturally assumed that the invented friends became real and receded away at the end of the show.
....just as we watch with wide eyes, as spongebob serves up crab patties in his underwater restaurant...
the trick is to keep that door of wonder open for them.
if we take away all of the stardust, they just grow into grumpy adults with callouses on their hearts.
in fact, they and i have less problem accepting the "reality" of that world...but a whole lot more problem if the channel happens to accidentally click onto the news shows.
..we all wince and bristle til we rapidly find the channel changer, so we dont have to hear about soldiers being killed in iraq....or pictures of fires ravaging nearby forests.
they have a much harder time with that reality.
....having a host of interesting and whimsical, imaginary friends come to life seems a lot more credible to them than the savage stories in the parallel universe on the next "channel".

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 22, 2007 4:26:04 PM

so this must be what happens when the world of wonkery (not willie), meets the world of fairy tales....

(clap for flora, fauna, merryweather, tink and other winged and charming friends.their light is growing dimmer...and in the ether, how can that be?)

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 22, 2007 4:38:34 PM

Come on y'all. You could have this conversation without attacking Megan McArdle personally. The comments that focus on Harry Potter and magic and economics are way better.

Not that Megan

Posted by: Megan | Jul 22, 2007 5:04:20 PM

a brief summary for megan...

once upon a time, there was a girl named megan mc~heartfull.
although she enjoyed pottering around the house, one day, she set out early in the morning on her bike, and rode it as far as she could, to the edge of the rainbow....

that should clear things up!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jul 22, 2007 5:16:54 PM

Consumatopia: By no means. McArdle is an extreme case, as it happens - she combines the worst of libertarian callousness (that is, a temptation to which many libertarians are prone, not a necessary feature of libertarian outlook) with a vigorous toadying to the most corrupt, venal, and destructive manifestations of corporate capitalism. And she has a history of weird misreadings of stuff she's trying to critique. If someone like Arthur Silber or Jim Henley or Neel Krishnaswami were to want to talk about weaknesses in Rowling's world building, that'd be different; ditto with, I dunno, Max Sawicky or John Emerson or someone else vigorously leftist. It's that McArdle gives us every reason to distrust both her perception and her reasoning, day in and day out.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Jul 22, 2007 5:29:03 PM

*sigh* I wrote a no-personal-critiques version at Megan's request and it got blocked as potential comment spam. I wish I could figure out why.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Jul 22, 2007 5:43:46 PM

Megan is a charming human being in person - and people who take their fictional universes so seriously that they can't handle a little criticism of the conception of said universe are - um - oh, why am I bothering?

Posted by: Michael Tinkler | Jul 22, 2007 6:10:40 PM

people who take their fictional universes so seriously that they can't handle a little criticism of the conception of said universe are - um -

As opposed to people who make astonishingly tendentious criticisms of the economic underpinnings of a set of children's fantasy books?

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jul 22, 2007 6:19:53 PM

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