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July 22nd, 2004

I managed to prove Milton Friedman[1] right in fine style today. First I gave a talk on the FTA to about 700 high school students, which was supposed to sell them on the idea of studying economics at UQ. In return (and in addition to a small gift from the Queensland Economics Teachers Association) I got an invitation to lunch which I declined so I could lunch with the seminar speaker in my other department, Political Science and International Relations (it was Joe Camilleri, talking on Islam and the West). Arriving early, I ordered straight away to beat the rush, only to discover that, had I waited I would have had my lunch paid for out of some fund or another.

So, if there are any free lunches about, I wasn’t getting them today. Instead, I paid three times (giving the talk, turning up at the seminar and handing over the cash) and only got fed once. Fortunately, I love giving talks and (given a good speaker) like attending seminars.

fn1. Although Friedman and Robert Heinlein usually share the credit for this acronym, Tyler Cowen points out that it should actually go to Alvin Hansen, America’s most prominent early advocate of Keynesianism, and someone whom the average person with a TANSTAAFL bumper sticker might be surprised to find they agreed.

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  1. Dave Ricardo
    July 22nd, 2004 at 18:58 | #1

    What does the first A stand for?

  2. Bob H
    July 22nd, 2004 at 20:56 | #2


  3. James Farrell
    July 23rd, 2004 at 18:14 | #3

    Tyler Cowen points to a post by someone called Michael Stastny, who says: Shapiro, a linguistic cyber-sleuth, historical lexicographer,lecturer in legal research at Yale University, and editor of the forthcoming YaleDictionary of Quotations figured out that a 1952 article in the journal Ethics about nationalizing industries, attributes the saying to "Professor Alvin Hansen in his famous TINSTAAFL formula – ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch.’"

    This actually seems to contradict various things Sastny says his in his earlier paragraph. But if the saying came from Hansen, I guess we’ll have to wait until the Dictionary comes out to find out where he said it.

    Meanwhile, ‘The Jargon File’ says here that ‘the variant TINSTAAFL (“There is No Such Thing…”)is apparently more common, and can be traced back to 1952 in the writings of ethicist Alvin Hansen.’ Is Hansen an ethicist on the basis that he was referred to in an article in Ethics?

    In any case, one thing we know for sure is that Hansen believed that, in a slump, governments can boost economic activity by means of demand management. That sounds like a free lunch to me.

  4. July 23rd, 2004 at 21:22 | #4

    In his mail page of 20 – 26 May, 2002, Jerry Pournelle writes: “TANSTAAFL was my father’s, transmitted from me to Robert Heinlein and used by him, as acknowledged in letters both to me and to reviewers.”

  5. July 25th, 2004 at 12:26 | #5

    You can get TANSTAAFL bumper stickers? :\

  6. Colin Madere
    September 12th, 2004 at 02:59 | #6

    In response to Mr. Farrell:

    The government boosting an economy by controlling demand isn’t free. Someone always pays for government intervention. Depending on how demand is “managed”, those getting the lunch for free may actually have already paid for it. Can you say “taxes”?

  7. John Quiggin
    September 12th, 2004 at 07:51 | #7

    Colin, I think James was aware that this kind of response could be made, and was pointing out the associated irony.

  8. James Farrell
    September 12th, 2004 at 17:10 | #8

    I just meant that a substantial part of economic enquiry is a search for potential efficiency gains, and that these gains are, in effect, free lunches. Macroeconomics is no different. Hansen believed that a market economy is prone to a particular kind of coordination failure, namely, a vicious circle of deficient demand and unemployment. Kick-starting the economy would produce a windfall at the aggregate level.

    The standard fiscal stimulus of Hansen’s era involved higher infrastructure spending and/or reduced tax, so I’m not sure what Colin is getting at. If it were deemed undesirable to increase the public debt, more tax would need to be raised to match the spending, but the society as a whole would still enjoy a rise in income. It’s always open to someone to argue that fiscal stimulus has this or that hidden cost. Hansen would have acknowledged some of these costs but would not have been convinced that they offset the benefits.

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