Adventures in Ideas: Conversation With Al Norman, Author of Occupy Walmart

Perhaps some of you have been following the debates in various cities (e.g., New York, Chicago) over big retail stores that land in their backyard. I enjoy reading about attempts to regulate economic activity because I believe it raises a central contradiction of American society: phrased as a question, how much regulation is necessary to maintain the free market? Maybe this is not a contradiction, but a perennial challenge. Two areas seem ripe for inquiry: The need to monitor big financial institutions and the limitations that some want to impose on mega-retailers who crowd out the little mom & pop establishments.

Regarding the second issue, I came across a book I thought might interest you. Al Norman has been writing critically about the retail chain Walmart for some time. He brings his insights and passion together in a book called Occupy Walmart. Below is a brief Q&A.

An Alcohol Tradeoff

Fifteen years ago, on a visit to Peru, I drank many pisco sours and decided I had to buy a duty-free bottle of pisco. It has sat unopened in our liquor cabinet since then. A colleague mentioned he had bought a number of bottles of a South African liqueur, Amarula Cream, that tastes a lot like Baileys Irish Cream, which we love. Chatting, we suggested a trade, since he’s a pisco sour fancier, as is his wife.

The trade is now consummated, and both we and our wives are happier for it. No monetary transaction, but I am convinced that everybody is better off—this is a real Pareto improvement.

(HT to LL)

A Secondary Market for Graduate Degrees?

I recently finished the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship at Columbia. It's a one-year program that lets business journalists take classes across the university to "enhance their understanding and knowledge of business, economics and finance." One of the program's perks, and there are many (including dinners with the likes of Paul Volcker, Jamie Dimon, and Joseph Stiglitz), is that you can get an M.S. degree from Columbia's journalism school by taking just six additional credits. Considering it usually takes 30 credits, and about $53,000, to get one of those, it's a pretty good deal.

Back in 2006 I got my M.S. from the J-school, the old-fashioned way. So during my Bagehot tenure, I didn't take a single additional class there. And yet, come graduation day, they gave me a second diploma. Expecting just the certificate in economics and business journalism that comes with the fellowship, I was too stunned to say anything as they handed it to me up on stage, and I certainly wasn't going to give it back. But what the heck am I going to do with two degrees from the same school?

An Economist at the Museum

An Economist at the Museum: how do curators trade? The transactions of exhibiting paintings.

Matt Ridley at TED

The rational optimist's TED talk.

The Weirdest Cookbook You Will Ever Need

Shopsin’s is a New York institution, a restaurant that began as a grocery store whose owner, Kenny Shopsin, is colorful, irascible, and talented. It is famous for breakfast but also for its vast, unusual, common-sense menu. From Shopsin has just written a book that is half cookbook and half memoir, entirely fascinating. I had […]

Hurricane Ike and Cohibas

Hurricane Ike has been a disaster for Texas (although thankfully Austin escaped essentially unscathed), and it has had an interesting side effect on me. One of the treats of being in Europe is the ability to buy Cuban cigars, particularly Cohibas, which are, in my view, the best cigars in the world. Ike hit Cuba […]

Our Toilets Speak for Themselves

Photo: gromgull When I first toured Europe in 1958, I was struck by how foreign the toilets were. They didn’t look at all like ours. (Erica Jong in her book Fear of Flying (1973) has a wonderful discussion of international differences.) My recent travels through Germany and France in particular suggest that there is much […]

Mayor to Ugly Women: I Was Just Trying to Up Your Market Value

The mayor of Mount Isa — an isolated town in Queensland, Australia — was vilified for making the following statement: “May I suggest that if there are five blokes to every girl, we should find out where there are beauty-disadvantaged women and ask them to proceed to Mount Isa.” He is simply recognizing that in […]

Amazing New Trade Data

Wow. We really do live in the midst of a tidal wave of more detailed and interesting data. The latest:, the brainchild of brothers Ryan and David Petersen, with Michael Kanko. They exploit customs reporting obligations and Freedom of Information requests to organize and publish — in real-time — the contents of every shipping […]