I spent the past weekend in Chicago for a seminar about public choice economics sponsored by Liberty Fund and the Institute for Humane Studies. Somehow I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to this intellectually stimulating event even though it seems I only write about coffee and frisbees these days. The seminar was composed of about a dozen legitimate academics (with, like, .edu email addresses and everything) and ably moderated by Duke University professor Michael Munger.
For the unfamiliar, public choice theory is the application of economic methods to the study of how political decisions are made. Rather than assuming a single entity called “government” that can act with a single purpose, it analyzes the politics through the actions of politicians, bureaucrats, voters, lobbyists, etc. Asymmetric information, self-interest, and poorly structured incentives can all subvert the process, leading to government failures akin to the market failures predicted by welfare economics. Public choice theory predicts when these failures are likely to occur, informing us about how government should be structured and how we should reasonably expect it to perform.
While technically a positive theory, it shouldn’t be surprising that its normative implications mesh well with libertarianism. After all, it provides a rigorous counterbalance to that naive form of analysis that supposes a government corrective to every economic ill. For this reason James Buchanan, one of the theory’s founders, aptly sums it up as “politics without romance.” Public choice doesn’t reveal that government never produces efficient outcomes, but it does have a way of increasing skepticism by applying stricter scrutiny to the political process than is usually done.
The conversation at the Liberty Fund seminar was slightly more constrained by theory than the previous one I attended, which was about whether the libertarian-conservative alliance still makes sense in a post-Cold War America. Nonetheless, our sessions were marked free-flowing and intelligent conversation about the readings and I walked away with a deeper understanding of the theory than I had prior to the conference. Government Failure: A Primer in Public Choice made for a good overview of the subject, while specific readings from Buchanan, Hayek, Madison, and others provided more specific insights and jumping off points. I’d also recommend Charlotte Twight’s Dependent on D.C. as a pessimistic but informative selection of case studies on how concealed transaction costs have led to an undesirable growth of government.
Like all Liberty Fund events, this one was a great way to spend a weekend: smart and interesting people, excellent accomodations, high-level conversation, and enjoyable free time between sessions. An invitation to one of these seminars is not to be turned down. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that the opportunity to attend them is incentive enough all by itself to keep me writing about more than just coffee and frisbees. And soon I will, I promise! But a trip to Chicago wouldn’t have been complete without visits to a few key coffee shops, so let’s talk about those first.
The big one, of course, was Intelligentsia. They’re famous as one of the best shops and roasters in the country and their baristas took three of the top six places in the National Barista Championship. I’ve been a fan of their Black Cat espresso blend since sampling it at Fowler’s in Durham and at the recent Murky espresso tasting, so I was determined that if I did nothing else in Chicago I would finally make it out to their Broadway store and try it on its home turf. What can I say? It was everything I hoped it would be: a perfect double shot with full body and lots of tiger-flecked crema. This was followed by a few amazingly sweet sips of a friend’s Yemen Samani and a small latte to accompany the breezy walk back along Lake Michigan. If you’re ever in Chicago, you should definitely check them out.
That was Saturday. On Sunday I ended up finding a Peet’s coffee shop. Peet’s is the place that Californians who are too cool for Starbucks like to go. I didn’t know they had locations this far east, so when I found out they did I decided to see what they’re like. To once again use the words of Caesar (from History of the World Part I), “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling . . . but nice.” Their shots had a decent flavor but were poured way to big. They seem like a pretty good chain alternative to Starbucks though.
Monday was my last day in the city and there was one more shop I wanted to visit, Metropolis Coffee. Their Red Line espresso blend was a hit with my group at the espresso tasting last month so I was eager to check them out. I’d spent the night in the south side at Chinatown; Metropolis is located on the north side of Chicago in Granville. Not knowing what the parking situation would be like up there, I opted to take the coffee’s namesake train line instead of driving. Compared to D.C., this was sloooow. Not including time spent waiting at the stations, it was about a forty minute ride each way, all to visit a shop where I’d have less than half an hour to hang out. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for a good espresso.
Fortunately, it was worth it. I had a great double shot and a nice conversation with the friendly barista on duty, who also talked me into an extra half-pound of Ethiopian Harrar to take home. I like this shop a lot. It’s got a comfortable and stylish layout and though I was only there a short time it was clear that they really know and relate to their customers. They even devote an entire page on their website to their regulars. If there were a Platonic ideal of the neighborhood coffee shop, Metropolis might be it.
From there it was back to the train, into my car, and on to St. Louis, where I’ve spent the last couple of days exploring the local coffee scene. Now on to Nashville for what looks to be a wet and rainy Rites of Spring.