The Joys of Yiddish and Economics
By David Henderson
George Mason University economist Dan Klein has a fun paper, about to be published in the Independent Review, titled “The Joys of Yiddish and Economics.”
In The Joys of Yiddish, Rosten’s method is to introduce each Yiddish term, define it, and provide a story to illustrate it. Many of the stories occur in a setting of work and trade, and many illustrate economic ideas. Besides illustrating ideas of textbook economics, they often illustrate the rich vitality of economic life beyond the textbook.
I had known, from reading Two Lucky People, that Leo Rosten was a friend of Milton and Rose Friedman. I hadn’t known that in the 1930s, he had attended a class taught by Friedrich Hayek at the London School of Economics.
The whole thing, which is short, is worth reading. My favorite is this one, my own version of which I’ve used countless times when discussing price controls but hadn’t known it was from Rosten:
Pronounced bee-OLL-lee, to rhyme with “fee dolly.”
A flat breakfast roll, shaped like a round wading pool, sometimes sprinkled with onion.
“Forty cents a dozen for bialies?” protested Mrs. Becker. “The baker across the street is asking only twenty!”
“So buy them across the street.”
“Today, he happens to be sold out.”
“When I’m out of bialies, I charge only twenty cents a dozen, too.”
Here’s my version (and the point I made with it), from my Mercatus study titled The U.S. Postwar Miracle:
Prices, which had been repressed by these controls, shot up. Between mid-June and mid- July, food prices rose by 12.9 percent and meat prices rose by 29.6 percent. Of course, these do not represent real price increases because price controls on meat and other foods had caused shortages. Indeed, a butcher joke makes the point that it’s small comfort to have “cheap” meat (or indeed any other good) when the very fact that it’s cheap is what makes it unavailable:
Customer: What do you charge for filet mignon?
Butcher: $8.99 a pound.
Customer (outraged): $8.99 a pound? Why, I can get filet mignon from the butcher across the street for $7.00 a pound.
Butcher: Then why don’t you buy it across the street?
Customer: Because he doesn’t have any filet mignon left.
Butcher: Well, when I don’t have any filet mignon left, I sell it at $6.00 a pound.