The Essential Question of Originalism

The Gist: Precedent versus original public meaning.

A partial review of Pieces of Eight, Constitutional Money, and Money, Free and Unfree.

Part four of my series on Constitutional Money. Click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.


The essential question of originalism is this: when confronted with a choice between returning to the Constitution’s original public meaning or upholding deviant precedent, what should a Supreme Court justice do? The answers are where we conclude our series about the Constitution and money.

For the most stout-hearted originalists, Edwin Viera presents a simple case. The Founders voted 9 states to 2 at the constitutional convention to not give the federal government the power to print money and, in accordance, for more than seven decades thereafter the federal government did not print money. If the history is clear, the decision is compelled.

James Madison

Figure 1. The power of Madison compels you! The power of Madison compels you! The power…


At the 2013 Federalist Society national lawyers convention, Judge Diane Sykes interviewed “the most consistent originalist” on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, and remarked “Stare decisis [the doctrine that precedents should stand] doesn’t hold much force for you.” “Sure it does,” Thomas replied in his deep baritone. “But not enough to keep me from going to the Constitution.” (A response that prompted an uproarious standing ovation) No wonder I’ve heard that inquiring about the Legal Tender Cases is a common question for potential Thomas clerks. As the economist Richard Timberlake writes, free of the legal guild’s acculturation otherwise: 

“The Framers wrote the Constitution for the ages, and they provided for changes by means of simple amendment procedures. Since the Constitution arranges for its own correction, it has no reason to be interpreted differently for different ages, social conditions, or other human circumstances. Judicial decisions that change the original meaning to fit some current social norm are illicit; they violate the substance of the document and destroy its reason for being.”


Figure 2. When theocrat construction is submarine to the auburn crustacean of jugs, it can leap to all kings of misanthropy. Jesuit Chile! When the* Constitution* is subject* to the auto-correct* of judges*, it can lead* to all kinds* of misinterpretation*


And yet Antonin Scalia, the godfather of originalism, called himself merely a “faint-hearted originalist.” Or more colloquially, Scalia said he was an originalist, “not a nut.” In Scalia’s own excellent book, which invited critics to comment within its pages, Lawrence Tribe reports that, 

“During his confirmation hearings, Justice Scalia revealed that his decision whether to overrule precedent he viewed as wrong would be based in part on how woven the ‘mistake’ was into the fabric of the law. A key factor in making this determination would be how long the precedent has existed. For example, he noted that almost no revelation could induce him to overrule Marbury v. Madison, but he would be more willing to overrule a less established case, such as Roe v. Wade.”

Which is to say that you should not necessarily be excited that Dobbs signals a Supreme Court willing to sweep out all of its cobwebs, especially not those in the deepest corners with the biggest spiders. Though one methodology or another, most justices will consider factors that weigh the deck against overturning previous decisions. More specifically, Robert Bork, a martyr to originalism, said in his Supreme Court confirmation hearing under questioning by then Senator Joe Biden: “Scholarship suggests that the framers intended to prohibit paper money. Any judge who today thought he would go back to the original intent really ought to be accompanied by a guardian rather than be sitting on a bench.” Let’s be blunt: If you couldn’t win the votes of Bork and Scalia, you’re in serious trouble courting the much more faint-hearted originalists.

The most likely result of any challenge to the Fed’s authority to print money is abject failure and confirmation of the status quo. Lower courts bound by precedent would rule against you at every turn. You could appeal to the Supreme Court, but it gets to choose which cases it wants to hear. Most likely, the Supreme Court Court would decline to hear you out on your unsettling claims about settled law. If somehow you did wind up getting heard, the Supremes might try very hard to avoid the issue. There are tricky questions, for example, of who exactly would have the standing to bring such a case (my nomination would be an insurer required by law to hold U.S. bonds). If the Court did engage, even self-identified originalists would be tempted, with varying degrees of reluctance, to uphold the Legal Tender Cases as mistakes woven deeply into the fabric of the law and cite the extreme reliance interests at stake: the global economy sits atop the U.S. government’s paper dollar.

But calculators on the Court should take into account both sides of the ledger. If we accept Scalia’s premise asking about how woven into the law a mistake is, we also should ask how dramatic the consequences of that mistake are. Or as Bork put it when describing when he might overturn precedent, whether a wrong decision “is a dynamic force so that it continues to produce wrong and unfortunate decisions.” What I have tried to demonstrate in this series of emails is just how important the nature of money is in constraining or accommodating the growth of government – and how significantly that factored into the Founders’ overall vision of checks and balances. For those who simply want to uphold and ignore the issue, is there any practical limitation on what the government can do with respect to money? Alternatively, is there something to say for capturing the spirit of what the Founders’ wanted in sound money – and if there were, is it remotely legally enforceable?

Stick House

Figure 3. A reminder of the economics: Imagine you apply for a mortgage from a bank. The bank would normally try to assess your creditworthiness amidst general interest rate expectations. But imagine that your wife offers not only to buy a large percentage of the mortgage but also to lend an unlimited amount to the bank at a lower rate than the bank can get anywhere else. Even better, your wife signals a willingness to bail out the bank if it runs into existential trouble for its bad loans. You are going to get some pretty fabulous terms on that mortgage. The problem, of course, is that you’re not an actually super rich family that can afford this. You’re just running a counterfeiting operation out of your garage. Eventually, that leads to inflation and your family being generally distrusted, but you can live large for a long time (all the easier if you have guns to back you up.)


The inevitable complications of answering such questions tends to make the stout-hearted originalist perspective much more attractive simply for its simplicity – as the motto of the Tennessee Supreme Court goes, let justice be done though the heavens fall. The stout-hearted further insist that prediction of effects is extremely difficult and that they are judges, not economists (nor meteorologists) and so, as the Federalist Society insists, “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.” But even to the degree this appeals to you, you should realize that if an originalist court did find our current monetary arrangements unconstitutional, Congress might instantly conjure a constitutional amendment to make everything “okay” – which would be perfectly originalist yet inherently not an improvement.

hundred dollar bill

Figure 4. You might assume that a central bank closing overnight would be a disaster for the value of the currency, but what we’ve seen in some real examples is that it immediately stops the creation of new money – and therefore can, amusingly, increase the purchasing power of the money that remains in circulation.


And the reality is that the weakest branch of government will always have institutional players sensitive to their credibility and power. Yes, we should make the most compelling case we can on the philosophy of originalism – but we also need to simultaneously build out the political and intellectual support for those propositions with the general public. When the court thinks about reliance interests in areas where the judges have no expertise, originalists need to be prepared to challenge the substance of the claims. So when it comes to alleging government paper money is essential to modern commerce, we should take another look. Viera, writing in the early 1980s, insisted “The present monetary arrangements of the country are unconstitutional, even anti-constitutional, root and branch, and augur economic catastrophe in the not distant future.” Plenty of conservatives believe our fiscal policies are unsustainable, even if they can’t predict exactly when. As Richard Nixon’s economist Herb Stein once pithily observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it won’t.” Timberlake, himself an economist, takes the Supremes to task for routinely deferring to the self-interested political branches (most notably their insistence on the “necessity” of paying for the Civil War with paper money). But there’s also a fundamental issue of economics: is government paper money (and the government’s related interventions into the economy) the source of stability or fragility in commerce? As long as the conventional wisdom is that it is a source of stability, it is unlikely that five justices – even five professed originalists – will be stout-hearted enough to declare it unconstitutional.

Perhaps we might offer other options to conflicted originalists more in keeping with the current trend of the Court. In particular, the Federal Reserve has a number of constitutional problems: it’s an independent agency resistant to presidential control exercising powers specifically delegated to Congress. (And I report this information with the trepidation that almost no one thinks that direct political control over the monetary process would lead to policy improvement.) Further, more than a third of the members of the Federal Open Market Committee, which exercises perhaps the most significant powers the Fed has, are not nominated by the President nor confirmed by the Senate as the Constitution’s Appointments Clause would seemingly demand. 

Early days, but the Supreme Court seems increasingly sympathetic to more clearly outlining the constitutional separation of powers and reining in an unaccountable administrative state where bureaucrats overregulate our economy with historic deference from judges and minimal interference from elected officials. In the originalist ideal, we would move toward a government in which elected legislators actually had to vote on laws that would govern our people and bureaucrats would merely be able to enforce such laws, subject to the president’s direction. Or in a word, a republic. 

Interestingly, would-be reformers have sometimes been warned off the fourth double-secret branch of government due to the impact this would have on the Fed – but they instead should welcome the opportunity for a full embrace of constitutional (and therefore limited) government. Because going after the Fed’s shaky legal foundation could be economically disruptive, a significant question is whether the court would actively dictate the terms of a new monetary arrangement or take a cue from Brown v. Board of Education, its society-shaking desegregation decision, to encourage the other branches to constitutionalize money “with all deliberate speed,” and track progress over time.

If the court was in a dictating mood, the justices might be inspired by the first two national banks. While there was plenty of contemporaneous debate about their constitutionality, the fact that they existed in close succession to the founding suggests they are on much firmer ground than the present Federal Reserve. The modern solution would thus be to privatize the Fed, cutting its ties to the federal government, possibly but for a lingering 20% stake akin to the national banks. The new private Fed would have complete and exclusive responsibility for the dollar, which would no longer be printed or conjured by the US government. 

While this would probably solve most constitutional issues, there would be some lingering questions. Although the original national banks promised redeemability for their paper in precious metals (and liability for their directors if they failed to comply), it’s not clear that that is a constitutional requirement – and, of course, would not be constitutionally required at all were the Fed completely private. Modern consumers, familiar with the paper dollar and basically stuck worldwide with paper alternatives, might very well just keep on using it. More notably, the U.S. government could encourage continued use by accepting the Fed’s money in taxation (though whether it could require the Fed’s money might be a different legal question.) Alternatively, the U.S. government might be able to offer to buy the Fed’s dollar with its hard assets. The more interesting constitutional question is whether this new entity would be banned from buying U.S. federal government debt, as the original banks were. Such a move would certainly be consistent with the Founders’ vision of limited government but would also dramatically alter the modern practice of monetary policy (some would say for the better.) Relatedly, from a stout-hearted originalist perspective: the government may not be able to repay the interest on its debt in the Fed’s money, which would certainly complicate operations (but, again, restrain government.)

Robber Baron

Figure 5. Fun fact: A privatized Fed would immediately be the prime target for antitrust. 


A simpler but perhaps incomplete originalist approach would be simply to find that the federal government lacks the power to declare anything legal tender – something that is mandated to be accepted for payment of debts and goods and services. In that scenario, the dollar would still circulate but no one would be required to accept it – and that might very well prove a decent check on the government’s mismanagement of money. Such a decision might be more practically possible because the reliance interest would be much less while also continuing to narrow the government’s power to that which is explicitly granted (and specifically enumerated!) in the Constitution.


Figure 6. Kids could finally demand the Tooth Fairy pay up in a currency that better held its value, like pre-1965 quarters made of real silver.


Finally, though this seems to be the least likely to succeed with anyone currently in power, there might be a claim based on the little loved and little litigated rights guaranteed by the 9th Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Timberlake argues that:

Barter of goods and services preceded money. Manifestly, any barter-medium that “the people” might use before a general money-medium appears is already “acceptable.” Anyone can swap eggs for butter, or labor services for land; no authority in a free society can prohibit barter in any form. Recognizing this principle, the Framers dealt only with the creation of money at the two levels of government – federal and state. The “people,” however, could deal with each other on any terms mutually agreeable. That was a significant element of Freedom of Contract. 

In other words, because Americans in 1787 had an understood (and uncontested) right to choose their currency from different goods and private providers, the fact that the Constitution didn’t think to specify that right doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Therefore, modern Americans should be entitled to demand payment in a variety of currencies not the dollar, whether they be the newest crypto or a return of bank notes backed by precious metals. Precisely because governments around the globe have so jealously guarded their currency monopoly, a legal right to alternatives would prove useful in both constraining government and providing Americans property protection. But this particular theory of unenumerated rights, while popular in some libertarian academic circles, has not even been embraced by most stout-hearted originalists, much less the faint-hearted.

These are just some ideas about where the Court might go and I welcome anything you have to offer to this important debate. The point, however, is to make it a debate. Because even if the court does not go stout-hearted originalist, a vigorous public discussion of the Constitution and money causes the Federal Reserve to behave better and gives the court’s calculators more to consider. And ultimately we want to convince citizens and political players alike of the Founders’ wisdom that an accommodating monetary policy leads to tyranny and a constrained monetary policy leads to liberty.

Constitutional money

Figure 7. Click here to acquire Richard Timberlake’s Constitutional Money. Timberlake has his own plan for getting back to original meaning and it involves privatizing the Fed and giving certificates to all taxpayers to redeem the government’s gold through private banks. He also offers a notable quote from the economist Joseph Schumpeter that reinforces the relevant economics: 

“An “automatic” gold currency is part and parcel of a laissez-faire and free trade economy…. It is extremely sensitive to government expenditure and even to attitudes or policies that do not involve expenditure directly, for example, to foreign policy, to certain policies of taxation, and, in general, to precisely all those policies that violate the principles of [classical] economic liberalism. This [sensitivity] is the reason gold is so unpopular now [1948] and also why it was so popular in a bourgeois era. It imposes restrictions upon governments or bureaucracies that are much more powerful than is parliamentary criticism. It is both the badge and the guarantee of bourgeois freedom – of freedom not simply of the bourgeois interest, but of the bourgeois sense. From this standpoint a man may quite rationally fight for it, even if fully convinced of the validity of all that has ever been urged against it on economic grounds. From the standpoint of etatisme and planning, a man may not less rationally condemn it, even if fully convinced of the validity of all that has ever been urged for it on economic grounds.”

Money free and unfree

Figure 8. Click here to acquire Antonin Scalia’s A Matter of Interpretation, which I’ve reviewed separately at this link. The book is very good, all the more so for engaging prominent critics, but the one criticism it does not address is a hardcore originalist that rejects precedent. An excerpt from my review: 

If we’re looking for predictability, why isn’t the rule that everyone just stick to the original meaning of the Constitution? If you choose to be extremely faithful to precedent, then you are obligated to respect every time the other side, in a majority vote, betrays the original meaning (and, incidentally, often stare decisis itself). What is this extreme fidelity but a slow bleed to pirates who don’t respect the system at all but are happy to take advantage of you?  This is a pretty sensible attempt by Scalia to reconcile his philosophy with the operation of the court – but Tribe understandably attacks him for an ambiguous set of rules for when to overturn precedent, totally untied to anything actually present in the text of the Constitution which is supposed to be Scalia’s lodestar… Scalia says following originalism totally would be “so disruptive of the established state of things that it will be useful only as an academic exercise and not as a workable prescription for judicial governance.” Ultimately, Scalia admits “stare decisis is not part of [his] originalist philosophy; it is a pragmatic exception to it.” To which Yale law professor Akhil Amar responds, “If pragmatism ultimately determines when we do originalism, this is in the end pragmatism not originalism.”

Pieces of eight

Figure 9. Click here to acquire the unabridged version of Pieces of Eight: the Monetary Powers and Disabilities of the United States Constitution (9/10), a learned and deep textual analysis that I’ve attempted to summarize as best as possible. You can also check out the related original document collection at the University of Chicago for the coinage power and the borrowing power.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: Know anyone who is interested constitutional originalism? How about anyone desiring limited government? Or anyone who has ever used money?

For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of Scalia’s A Matter of Interpretation: Check Your Texts.

I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

    Paper Trail

    The Gist: Constitutional money was “temporarily” abandoned during the Civil War and has yet to return.

    A partial review of Pieces of Eight, Constitutional Money, and Money, Free and Unfree.

    Part three of my series on Constitutional Money. Click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part four.

    The Civil War was not the epitome of constitutional fidelity – northern newspaper editors were jailed for criticizing the war, even a Congressman was exiled by military tribunal. But while it may have been very unpleasant to be criminally punished for exercising your constitutional rights, that danger has passed. The question of unconstitutional money continues to this day.

    Very soon into the Civil War, Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase asked for the ability to print money – partly to ease the payment of troops, partly as a scheme to pay for the war through inflation. The chair of the Senate Finance Committee said the proposal “shocks all my notions of political, moral, and national honor.” Congressman Roscoe Conkling, a man destined to dominate postwar politics, insisted that making such paper money legal tender would inspire “a saturnalia of fraud; a carnival of rogues. Every agent, attorney, treasurer, trustee, every debtor of a fiduciary character, who has received for others money—hard money…will forever release himself [with] the spurious currency we put afloat.” Elbridge Spaulding, the Ways and Means chairman who ultimately introduced the legislation, insisted that of course this was unconstitutional if it occurred in peace – but there was a national emergency and that paper money was a temporary necessity to save the republic.

    Diamond ring

    Figure 1. “Of course adultery is not permissible in normal conditions, but in the extraordinary circumstance where I find myself working long hours far from home…”


    The greenbacks then introduced were controversial on multiple fronts, each a viable and separate objection: (1) that they were issued at all, despite a longstanding understanding of constitutional prohibition; (2) that they did not bear interest, which would have made them akin to the bonds used in the War of 1812; (3) that they were made legal tender, required by the state to be used to satisfy private debts, despite the murkiness on whether the federal government possessed such a never-before-used power; (4) that they could not be redeemed for precious metals (5) that they were oversupplied – they lost over 70% of their purchasing power over the course of the war; and (6) that, simultaneously, the federal government punitively taxed and suppressed state-licensed private currencies to establish a greenback monopoly.

    What the Founders had tried to thwart instead came to pass – and the irony is that the “war necessity” of paper money might not have even been necessary for the war. As the Founder Benjamin Rush had argued, “where wars are just & necessary–Supplies may always be obtained by annual taxes from a free people.” John Steele Gordon estimates that the greenback helped pay for about 12% of the war – and Timberlake argues there was more than enough demand for certificates of deposit to cover that entire cost and then some. The Union’s finances prevailed because it had a more robust, more diverse economy that it could effectively tax and borrow against – though there’s a fair separate constitutional objection to the variety of new taxes imposed, including America’s first national income tax. Winning battles also happens to win the confidence of creditors.

    I should also briefly report on the financing of the Confederacy, whose constitution kept its predecessor’s language about monetary policy. Incredibly, in the first half of 1861, more than a third of its revenue came from voluntary donations enthusiastic to support secession – but that quickly wasn’t enough. The Confederates cleverly tried to package much of their debt by backing it with their staple crop (cotton) but they also miscalculated by intentionally depriving European cotton mills of their product with the dashed hopes of support from across the pond. Ultimately, with a more constrained government and a smaller economy, the Confederates ignored their aspiration to coin and mostly paid for the war through continuously printing paper money, such that they underwent 3,000% inflation (9,000% if you count the last six months of the war when the end looked near to everyone.) Significantly, the Confederates never made their paper currency legal tender.


    Figure 2. And yet despite all that inflation, Confederate dollars (as collectors’ items) have held their value better than the US dollar since 1865.


    After the war, an incredible legal story unfolded. Salmon Chase, the Treasury Secretary who asked for the power to print money, became the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court and had a change of heart about what was legally permissible. First, in Bronson v. Rodes (1868), an 1857 mortgage, concerned about local banks’ viability, explicitly called for repayment “in gold and silver coin.” The debtor complied until 1865, when he instead repaid the entire loan in the much depreciated greenbacks which the federal government had said must be accepted to satisfy any debts. Chase found that the “the intent of the parties… is clear” and that the debt could not be satisfied with uncontemplated greenbacks worth a fraction of the value at stake. For decades thereafter, this case inspired “gold clauses” in contracts, a practice we will revisit. But this case also was a shot across the bow of all paper money: every contract before 1861 was contemplated in terms of precious metals because that was the definition of a dollar for more than the preceding seventy years. What would that mean for those who had simply assumed that commerce would continue as usual?

    In Hepburn v. Griswold (1870), Chase reasonably extended the logic and ruled that prewar contracts could not be forcibly satisfied in greenbacks. Making paper legal tender was an alteration of contracts and an assault on property rights. But Chase also started questioning the whole idea of greenbacks, noting that the power to print “is certainly not the same power as the power to coin money.” He reflected that “It is not surprising… that amid the tumult of the late civil war… different views, never before entertained by American statesmen or jurists, were adopted by many. The time was not favorable to considerate reflection upon the constitutional limits of legislative or executive authority.” As for what was necessary and proper to conduct a war, such a notion “carries the doctrine of implied powers very far beyond any extent hitherto given it.” The man who had asked for the power now found that “we are unable to persuade ourselves that an expedient of this sort is an appropriate and plainly adapted means for the execution of the power to declare and carry on war.” The dissent, meanwhile, generously read into Congress’ constitutional power to regulate its coin an ability to make rules about legal tender – and was otherwise persuaded that the war provided any cover necessary for the action. But how would the Court rule if given an opportunity to look at the constitutionality of the greenback itself, especially now that the war was over?


    Figure 3. True to his name, Salmon Chase found himself swimming upstream.


    The answer came down to partisanship. Between 1863 and 1870, greenback constitutionality had come before state courts sixteen times: “of the seventy state court justices who ruled on the cases, all but one Republican judge upheld the legal tender clause as constitutional, while all save two Democratic judges pronounced it unconstitutional.” Greenbacks were Republican policy and GOP President Ulysses Grant quickly nominated two justices with defined records who shifted the majority on the court. In an extremely unusual move, never mind stare decisis, the very year after Hepburn was decided the Court reversed itself and the new precedents gave an expansive view of the government’s powers. Ignoring the constitutional convention’s vote against giving the federal government the power to print, the Court found that the power to coin was a “general power over the currency which has always been an acknowledged attribute of sovereignty” – and indeed was necessary to not only save the republic in the recent war but compete internationally. A concurrence remarkably made a policy argument in favor of inflation: “If relief were not afforded [to debtors], universal bankruptcy would ensue, and industry would be stopped and government would be paralyzed in the paralysis of the people… But the creditor interest will lose some of its gold! Is gold the one thing needful? Is it worse for the creditor to lose a little by depreciation than everything by the bankruptcy of his debtor?” 

    Chase offered up a dissent but he was outvoted. The new minority on the court “reject[ed] wholly the doctrine, advanced for the first time, we believe, in this court by the present majority, that the legislature has any ‘powers under the Constitution which grow out of the aggregate of powers conferred upon the government or out of the sovereignty instituted by it.” Indeed, in the United States, the general idea was that the people, not the government, were sovereign. Another dissenter, Stephen Field, insisted “The doctrine that where a power is not expressly forbidden, it may be exercised would change the whole character of our government.” He was suspicious that advocates of the greenbacks could not agree on what exactly in the Constitution permitted them. For the specific power to make paper money legal tender, Field would later observe about the antebellum period that “there is no recorded word of even one [person] in favor of [the government] possessing the power. All conceded, as an axiom of constitutional law, that the power did not exist.”

    The most remarkable aspect of the reaction to this legal kerfuffle is that there was no commercial revolt. Although there was considerable frustration with the depreciating greenback during the war itself, the government had actually bravely embraced deflation in order to restore the purchasing power of the dollar to its prewar rate. By the time that the courts had fully worked out the legal issues, a greenback could be exchanged for a stated amount of gold and America was on a governmental gold standard. From a commercial perspective, federal paper was as good as gold. Though it was not what the Founders intended, the Supreme Court leaned in on the redeemability to further bolster the legality of the regime, finding that the power to print emerged out of the government’s borrowing power in that the paper could be overissued with the promise to pay gold. But of course the states were allowed to borrow and yet forbidden to emit bills of credit, suggesting they were different powers. And that location of constitutional authority worked only if the paper was indeed redeemable.

    Supreme Court

    Figure 4. George Bancroft, Polk’s Secretary of the Navy and a prominent historian, emerged from retirement at 84 years old to author one of the best titled American legal books ever: “A Plea for the Constitution of the United States Wounded in the House of Its Guardians.” 


    Still, it was one thing to issue greenbacks; it was another to destroy the currencies that had circulated before the war. In Veazie Bank v. Fenno (1869), the Supreme Court upheld the federal government’s ability to punitively tax currency issued by state-chartered banks out of existence. A local Maine bank had refused to pay and tried to argue that the tax was not apportioned properly according to the Constitution. The majority, including Chase, disagreed and further insisted that the government had “undisputed constitutional power to provide a currency for the whole country … by appropriate legislation, and to that end may restrain, by suitable enactments, the circulation of any notes not issued under its own authority.” Timberlake expands upon the dissent’s defense of the 10th Amendment to suggest that if McCullough established that the states couldn’t tax a federal bank out of existence, the federal government shouldn’t be able to tax state banks out of existence. 

    But never fear! The government was totally prepared to redeem its money for gold. Treasury Secretary John Sherman called irredeemable paper money a “mild form of lunacy” and said that “depreciated paper money” was “one of the greatest evils that can befall a people.” Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch said that to regard greenbacks as money was a “delusion… They are not money, but merely promises to pay it, and the government must be prepared to redeem all that may be presented, or forfeit its character for solvency.” 

    And yet, as it turns out with pretty much every example, central planners were not up to the task. National regulation required its banks to hold U.S. debt as reserves even as the U.S. government was trying to actively retire such debt, leaving bankers with a lack of flexibility. Despite chartering “national” banks, the U.S. government still did not allow interstate banking or many locations for banks to diversify their business. And there were continuous problems leading to recessions surrounding the seasonal money needs of an agricultural sector that still comprised a large part of the economy. 

    Naturally, the politicians decided that the solution was to centralize power over money even further, this time into a central bank with the smartest people around who could really figure out the central planning. And yet they also insisted they weren’t designing a central bank – that would be too controversial. One Senator insisted that the new Federal Reserve would have “no power to initiate, to compel or to consummate any inflation whatsoever” – after all, it was on the gold standard, right? Congress tried to make the institution a public-private partnership that represented different regional interests across the country.


    Figure 5. Naturally, those “regional interests” represented the economic and political power of different places in 1913 – and they have not been redrawn! So Missouri alone gets to have two of the twelve regional headquarters for the whole United States. 


    The new central bank was not exactly a neutral manager of money. World War I would inspire fresh monetary arrangements to pay for the conflict (prompting nearly 60% inflation). In the 1920s, the Fed agreed to prop up the British pound for not especially economic reasons and then decided to punish stock speculators, resulting in Black Monday and the kick off of the Great Depression. Milton Friedman famously blamed the Fed for the whole affair – and while Friedman had advice for what the Fed should have done, he also noted that if the Fed had not existed and America had been on its classical gold standard, there would not have been a Great Depression. Timberlake notes that the Fed had enough gold to safely double the money supply without redeemability problems. (And, as ever, overregulation played a role: Canada, which allowed banks more than one location across its regions, had zero bank failures.)

    The final important legal decision regarding monetary policy came during the Roosevelt administration. Through executive order and Congressional ratification, FDR made the private ownership of gold coin and bullion illegal, demanding citizens exchange their metal for paper dollars at a fixed price or risk up to ten years in prison and serious fines. After the gold had been seized, FDR convinced Congress to give him discretion to debase the currency by 59% – this was probably a problem for Congress to delegate this power and was also the most aggressive interpretation of “regulate the value thereof” that had ever been used. But what about those Americans who had learned their lesson from the Civil War and explicitly contracted, including with the US government, for payment in gold? 

    A bipartisan Supreme Court majority, Democrats favoring their president, Republicans favoring their precedent, found that the seizure of gold prevented the contracts from being fulfilled and, indeed, the contracts were interfering with Congress’ power to regulate the value of its currency. Rather than ambition clashing against ambition, the Supreme Court now handed over practically unlimited power over monetary policy to Congress and the President. The dissent was not happy:

    “we cannot believe the farseeing framers, who labored with hope of establishing justice and securing the blessings of liberty, intended that the expected government should have authority to annihilate its own obligations and destroy the very rights which they were endeavoring to protect. Not only is there no permission for such actions; they are inhibited. And no plentitude of words can conform them to our charter.”

    That’s the state of monetary constitutional law today. Altogether the Civil War prompted the U.S. government to centralize control over currency and it has expanded its power while jealously guarding it ever since.  Result? Exploding government. As Hayek noted, “There can be little doubt that the spectacular increase in government expenditure [-] with governments in some Western countries claiming up to half or more of the national income for collective purposes [-] was made possible by government control of the issue of money.”

    In our final email in this series, we will explore what it might look like to get our constitutional house in order.

    Pieces of eight

    Figure 6. Click here to acquire the unabridged version of Pieces of Eight: the Monetary Powers and Disabilities of the United States Constitution (9/10), a learned and deep textual analysis that I’ve attempted to summarize as best as possible. You can also check out the related original document collection at the University of Chicago for the coinage power and the borrowing power.

    Constitutional money

    Figure 7. Click here to acquire Constitutional Money by Richard Timberlake (8/10), in which an economist reviews the U.S. case law around money and offers both economic commentary and a layman’s legal analysis of original public meaning uncluttered by the typical law school penumbras and gobbledygook. Timberlake insists: “The money clauses in the U.S. Constitution are brief, simple, and explicit; the humblest mind can understand them without elaborate interpretation.”

    Money free and unfree

    Figure 8. Click here to acquire Money Free and Unfree by George Selgin (9/10), a collection of essays by one of the leading free banking economists in the United States, opening with a thought experiment about what kind of monetary system a dictator would create to increase his power but also including a history of 19th century U.S. money and an evaluation of how the Federal Reserve has performed according to its own preferred standards in its first 100 years. Also check out his book explaining the theory and practice of free banking.


    Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: Know anyone who is interested constitutional originalism? How about anyone desiring limited government? Or anyone who has ever used money?

    For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of Literally Making Money.

    I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

      The Bank Is Trying To Kill Me, But I Shall Kill It!

      The Gist: In the republic’s early years, cash was provided not by the government but by banks.

      A partial review of Pieces of Eight, Constitutional Money, and Money, Free and Unfree.

      Part two of four of my series on Constitutional Money. Click here for part one, here for part three, and here for part four.

      The Founders voted by 9 states to 2 at the Constitutional Convention not to give the federal government the power to print money. For more than seventy years, the government only coined metal money. What happened?

      Not a constitutional amendment, as is legally required. No, the government abandoned its constitutional constraint in a national emergency (the Civil War) as its officials remorsefully insisted that paper money was a merely temporary necessity. Whether paper money was necessary to win the war is debatable – the vast majority of the Union’s revenue needs were met by debt and taxes – but it has proven quite permanent, never mind its constitutional problems. The result has been exactly what the Founders feared: a government that has grown bigger and bigger, free of golden handcuffs.


      Figure 1.  You might think that the government also required a golden restraining gizmo akin to Hannibal Lecter’s – but the handcuffs weren’t broken, they were just unlocked. 


      But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as we left off our story at the close of the constitutional convention. Within two years, the Washington administration chartered a national bank and – my gosh – it started printing money! At this point you may be thinking that all that detail about coinage in our last correspondence was smoke and mirrors or the legal equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Is the Federal Reserve basically what the Founders had in mind from the very beginning?

      Far from it! The U.S. government wound up chartering two national banks at different times in the early years of the republic and they had very particular features to protect the Founders’ intent of a limited government. Both national banks were 80% owned by private individuals, were categorically prohibited from buying federal government debt, and backed their paper with physical precious metal in their vaults redeemable upon demand. Further, both banks’ directors were personally liable for excessive debts and bad loans to local or foreign governments.

      The Fed

      Figure 2. By contrast, the Fed today is a government institution categorically encouraged to buy federal government debt with paper backed by nothing and led by directors who, regardless of the wisdom of their actions, leave for lucrative consulting gigs.


      Yes, the national government freely accepted the national banks’ notes as taxes – but no American was required to accept them to satisfy debts or purchases (they were not “legal tender”). The government further limited itself by not paying the interest it owed on its debt in the banks’ notes. Edwin Viera concludes that in designing the first national bank, Alexander Hamilton “followed very closely Adam Smith’s description of the Bank of England… It was not at that time a modern-day central bank; it had no statutory or implied authority to control the community’s stock of money.”

      Even this was super-controversial, certainly one of the top five ongoing issues dividing the country in our early years. One significant objection was to crony capitalism: the federal government was dramatically empowering a single gigantic institution, giving it a significant edge against its local banking competitors. The national banks stored the government’s money and were able to use it to support their normal loan operations. Worse, they had a role in regulating the banking industry. And the second national bank’s popularity among populists was not helped by the facts that it was mostly owned by only a few hundred American families and 3/4 of its investors were European.


      Figure 3. Following the introduction of the Kronies, it’s now time for a Big G origin story comic!


      The other objection was legal: what part of the Constitution authorized the federal government to charter a national bank? McCullough v. Maryland (1819) is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case which is conventionally understood to establish the supremacy of the federal government over the states. Maryland had tried to impose a tax on the second national bank and Chief Justice John Marshall ruled against the state, famously articulating that “the power to tax is the power to destroy” and that states couldn’t interfere with the federal government’s performance of constitutional duties. But was that what was happening here? If Maryland had been trying to impose a property tax on a military base, everyone would agree that would be unconstitutional. But here Maryland was trying to tax a corporation that was 80% private and engaged in competition with its local banks.

      John Marshall was a reliable Federalist who was not about to dismantle a revival of one of Alexander Hamilton’s big ideas – so he found that the chartering of a national bank was “necessary and proper” to carry out the government’s constitutional duties, in particular that the bank aided in the collection of taxes and the spending of revenue. Unfortunately, Marshall applied the loosest meaning to the word “necessary,” adopting the Hamiltonian argument that the word only meant “convenient” or “useful.”  Marshall’s interpretation was a gift to Congress that would keep on giving.  The natural and public meaning of the word “necessary” would have killed the bank because, as the economist Richard Timberlake asks, how could the national bank have been “necessary” to carry out the government’s constitutional duties if the government had managed to do so without one? Shouldn’t the courts be skeptical of the federal government’s claims that they need new big powers to fulfill their old enumerated ones?

      College kid

      Figure 4. Think of government as the junior high schooler who insists: But I need the latest smartphone so we can stay in touch! But I need designer clothes to look my best! But I need to have a Playstation to have any friends! But I need clean needles to avoid dire consequences!


      Andrew Jackson would thunder: Extremely skeptical! As President, Jackson would succeed in destroying the national bank as an institution, but he also attempted to lay down a constitutional marker for the future. Jackson believed that the President was a co-equal interpreter of the Constitution and insisted that “Mere precedent is a dangerous source of authority, and should not be regarded as deciding questions of constitutional power except where the acquiescence of the people and the States can be considered as well settled.” Jackson’s unfulfilled hope was that future courts would take his veto message as seriously as Marshall’s opinion in McCullough. As a practical matter, Jackson initially transferred the government’s money to politically aligned local private banks – which proved not to be a great idea, given how overregulated and partisan they were. James Knox Polk better executed the Jacksonian vision by establishing the separation of bank and state, which worked well until the Civil War.

      andrew jackson

      Figure 5. “The Bank, Mr. Van Buren, is trying to kill me but I shall kill it!” – Andrew Jackson, no stranger to duels, pleading self-defense.


      Before we get to the Civil War, I should briefly touch on three additional items of relevance for the legal eagles: first, during the War of 1812, the U.S. government sold paper bonds that it also accepted for tax purposes, which feels a bit like paper money. But the bonds were in such large denominations that they were practically used mostly by banks for their reserves; unlike modern currency, they paid 5-7% annual interest; and the vote to make them legal tender failed. Timberlake describes the total number of such bonds before the Civil War as “nominal” in amount. In 1844, an inspired Treasury Secretary suggested circulating paper bonds that yielded 0.001% interest but Congress rejected the idea as unconstitutional. 

      Second, in 1834, Congress exercised its authority to “regulate the value” of its coinage by redefining the ratio at which it would exchange gold and silver. This incident is often treated by historians as a debasement of the dollar and an indication of Congress’ substantial powers over money. In fact, the ratio set by Hamilton had been overcome by market forces, such that gold was leaving the country for better value abroad. Viera argues that Congress reset the value to the then-market rate but was not especially good about keeping up with it. Timberlake argues the whole point of the provision was to ensure that gold and silver were in regular use in the U.S. Regardless, the practical effect was that gold started to be overvalued compared to silver and the U.S. shifted from a silver standard to a gold standard. 

      Third, there was legal wrangling regarding the constitution’s explicit prohibition on the states printing money. When the government of Missouri tried to print money for loans to indebted farmers, the Supreme Court correctly found that to be unconstitutional. When the government of Kentucky started a bank that it owned 100% of and that bank started printing money, the Supreme Court found – incorrectly, in my view – that to be constitutional. By the latter case, Jacksonians had taken over the court and their enthusiasm for federalism had gotten the better of their constitutional interpretation. That being said, Kentucky did suspend sovereign immunity when it came to the bank – so the bank could be sued for problems, including failure to redeem in precious metals – and the notes did not circulate as legal tender. Most banks, however, were privately owned but chartered by the states. Some hard money advocates objected to any paper money at all on the basis that if the state itself could not print, neither could it authorize private institutions to do so. In my view the courts correctly disagreed: the limit was designed to restrain government, not private enterprise.

      Recall that in our last email we dug deep into the historical context and actual text of the Constitution to see what the Founders thought about monetary policy. In this email, you can see how that played out over the first seventy years – yes, the Founders disagreed on certain things from the start, especially a national bank, but even the most generous contemporaneous interpretation of the Constitution was very different from what we practice today. In our next email, we will follow the paper trail that begins with the Civil War.

      Pieces of eight

      Figure 6. Click here to acquire the unabridged version of Pieces of Eight: the Monetary Powers and Disabilities of the United States Constitution (9/10), a learned and deep textual analysis that I’ve attempted to summarize as best as possible. You can also check out the related original document collection at the University of Chicago for the coinage power and the borrowing power.

      Constitutional money

      Figure 7. Click here to acquire Constitutional Money by Richard Timberlake (8/10), in which an economist reviews the U.S. case law around money and offers both economic commentary and a layman’s legal analysis of original public meaning uncluttered by the typical law school penumbras and gobbledygook. Timberlake insists: “The money clauses in the U.S. Constitution are brief, simple, and explicit; the humblest mind can understand them without elaborate interpretation.”

      Money free and unfree

      Figure 8. Click here to acquire Money Free and Unfree by George Selgin (9/10), a collection of essays by one of the leading free banking economists in the United States, opening with a thought experiment about what kind of monetary system a dictator would create to increase his power but also including a history of 19th century U.S. money and an evaluation of how the Federal Reserve has performed according to its own preferred standards in its first 100 years. Also check out his book explaining the theory and practice of free banking.


      Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: Know anyone who is interested constitutional originalism? How about anyone desiring limited government? Or anyone who has ever used money?

      For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of Literally Making Money.

      I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

        How The Dollar Limited Government

        The Gist: Why the Founders thought of money itself as a vital check and balance against the abuse of power.

        A partial review of Pieces of Eight, Constitutional Money, and Money, Free and Unfree.

        Part one of four of my series on Constitutional Money. Click here for part two, here for part three, and here for part four.


        In 2020, the U.S. government printed and digitally conjured $3.38 trillion, a number almost impossible to fathom. That single year’s total is more than double what the government printed in the Federal Reserve’s first 95 years of existence (1913-2008), when we had to pay for two world wars (among other things). That dollar amount was more than 150% of  the combined total net worth of half of Americans – over 160 million people who typically have to actually work for extra cash. And it increased the total amount of dollars in circulation by over 20%.


        Figure 1. If you somehow spent $4 million every single day since Jesus Christ was born, you still would not have spent $3.38 trillion. The average American spends less than $4 million in her entire lifetime.


        But of course you didn’t become 20% richer – your money actually has been losing value through inflation. Instead, the government bought its own debt, the burden of which was lightening by the day through that same inflation, as well as the debt of mismanaged local governments and the junk debt of mismanaged companies.

        In contrast, in the first seventy years of our republic, the total amount of dollars that the U.S. government printed was… Zero. The common understanding was that the Constitution forbade the federal government from doing so. How is that possible and why was that the case?


        Figure 2. They had not yet discovered the Sims cheat “rosebud”.


        The key is that money used to be precious metal. The Founders were not unaware of paper money – they just thought it was a super-controversial threat to the commercial republic they were laying the foundation for. And, notably, the paper money they feared was not the kind of mere paper or bits we use today but was instead more or less a receipt for gold and silver that was supposed to be eventually demandable in return. The Founders understood, based on both recent experience and historical study, that the trust involved in paper currency could be abused by the government.

        George Washington

        Figure 3. As the old joke goes: They say George Washington was able to throw a dollar clear across the Potomac. I am not surprised. The dollar went a lot further then. 


        The British common law that the Founders grew up with tended to treat “money” as gold and silver itself but there was often a shortage of the actual metals in the colonies which, combined with political agitation, attracted some colonial legislatures to overprint beyond their capacity to redeem. At one point, Parliament responded by forbidding colonial governors from consenting to the printing of paper money on the penalty of immediate dismissal, a permanent ban from public office, and a personal fine of 1,000 pounds (the rough equivalent of $200,000 today).

        During the American Revolution, as authorized by the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress resorted to the printing press to try to pay for the war. We won, but the economic results were ugly. Prices doubled in 1776 and doubled again in both 1777 and 1778. By 1781, prices were up 80-fold relative to the continental.” In other words, the amount of butter (or any other good) you could have for one continental in 1776 required 8,000 continentals in 1781. Combined with the war’s other negative externalities, we suffered a “sharp decline in real per capita income, nearly as severe as the reduction during the Great Depression of the early 1930s.” And yet although it asked states to do so, the Continental Congress declined to make its currency “legal tender,” which would have required the paper be accepted by all parties to satisfy debts. The Founders weren’t sure that they had the legal power to do so and they feared forcing a rapidly depreciating currency on the commercial sphere would undermine support for the Revolution.

        The Articles of Confederation soon proved unworkable, perhaps most vividly in the federal government’s impotence in helping put down Shays’ Rebellion. While this is most often cited as an example of the need for a federal government of sufficient power to suppress domestic insurrection, the demands of Shays’ Rebellion are also relevant: they were a violent precursor of Bernie bros, shutting down courts of law and taking merchants hostage, and their principal objective was that the government print more money so they could easily satisfy their debts. The Founders, though radical in their love for commercial freedom, wanted an ordered liberty that did not sacrifice the value of a contract to the mob.


        Figure 4. The mob was making an offer the Founders could refuse.


        So by the time that the Founders arrived at the Constitutional convention, they were, according to one participant, “smitten with the paper money dread.” After 8,000%+ inflation and a failed insurrection, one report of the Continental Congress had declared paper money a “fallacious medium.” And the Father of the Constitution, James Madison, insisted paper money was an “epidemic malady.” A debate occurred and the states voted 9-2 to deny the federal government the power to print paper money.

        That vote might be enough to convince some that we’ve become unmoored from the Founders’ vision but we’ve sailed so far away that judges have wrung a meaning out of the text consistent with our practices (rather than their job to comply our practices with the text). I’ve included a deeper textual analysis at the end of this email for those who want to dive in – but for now, consider how the Founders were trying to enshrine ordered liberty: How would it make sense to give government unlimited power to debase currency but forbid it from seizing property without just compensation? Today, the federal government can’t legally seize a blade of grass on your property without paying you its fair market value – but it can induce catastrophic hyperinflation without risk of violating the courts’ view of the Constitution.

        Justice Antonin Scalia routinely observed that what really protects Americans’ liberty is not the promise of a bill of rights – plenty of dictatorships wax poetic about those – but the very architecture of checks and balances within the government. The question of money was a much more important part of the Founders’ vision for those checks and balances than we commonly realize. Certain money can place real limits on government’s ability to expand. Many have wondered why the Founders didn’t have a balanced budget provision – this is an important explanation.

        Certainly some Founders wanted to legally constrain borrowing but the very nature of contemporary lending was enough constraint for most. If the government is forced to go to the marketplace and ask for physical gold and silver, there is only so much precious metal available. Private actors are going to demand sufficient interest rates in return to make the proposition attractive versus other possible investments. In contrast, “since [2010], Fed purchases of Treasury debt have funded as much as 60% to 80% of the entire government borrowing requirement,” such that we have a wild accounting scheme wherein the government owes money to itself at very generous interest rates, leaving the market helpless to discipline. As a result, politicians can propose new multi-trillion dollar spending schemes without being laughed out of the room. If you want to reverse engineer how government got so big, there are really two answers: The first is the general abdication of the government to follow the original meaning of the Constitution. And the second – and it turns out very related – is that the government rearranged its own financing.

        Eventually, such mismanagement leads to inflation, a hidden tax and an especially clever one because you might think you have more when you in fact have less. Democracies especially have an incentive to flood the market with money before an election (which is always), but that behavior eventually catches up to the economy, which is trying to rely on money as an honest measuring stick of profit and loss. If inflation gets too bad, responsible savers who want to hold on to value instead are incentivized to spend as much as they can before their money loses all of its worth – and that creates a whole host of other problems.

        All of which is to say that the government has different incentives for money than you and I do. The Founders understood this and tried to preemptively reign in government’s abuse: sound money protects private property while limiting government’s ability to borrow, spend, and grow.  

        Very importantly, just because the government did not print money does not mean that no paper money existed. Private banks could and did provide the convenience of paper money backed up by the gold in their vaults – and commercial actors were free to evaluate the strength of such paper on the reputation of the issuing bankers. This turns out to be rather good economics. As Friedrich Hayek observed, government’s exclusive control over currency “has the defects of all monopolies: one must use their product even if it is unsatisfactory, and, above all, it prevents the discovery of better methods of satisfying a need for which a monopolist has no incentive.” Free banking, the term for the system Hayek preferred, allows money to be chosen by consumers – you and me – not imposed by the nation’s largest debtor. Politicians can afford to be irresponsible with a monopoly state currency everyone is required to accept. Bankers have to be responsible with any currency they issue or else no one would use it and they would go out of business. Hayek concluded, “Blessed indeed will be the day when it will no longer be from the benevolence of the government that we expect good money but from the regard of the banks for their own interest.”

        Unfortunately, while free banking thrived in places like Canada and Scotland, in the United States it wasn’t so free. States wound up over-regulating these currency providers – requiring licensure from legislatures that encouraged cronyism, limiting banks to one single location which hurt diversification, and mandating banks hold uncreditworthy state debt as collateral. While such over-regulation was well within the states’ power, there was a separate question of whether the states could properly charter banks to print money when the state governments were not permitted to do so themselves. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld most such practices, even when it probably shouldn’t have (in one case, the state owned 100% of the relevant bank). The republic then as now had plenty of disagreement: the losers at the constitutional convention had wanted a government paper money, another minority wanted an economic system built exclusively on precious metals, most seemed to want the federal government to provide the core precious metal currency but were willing to see it as the base for private enterprise.


        Figure 5. Imagine having to wine and dine state legislators to secure the right to start (and keep) your bank but they only give you the opportunity to open one location in a small town – and you have to keep all of your reserves in their junk Illinois government bonds rather than precious metals or viable securities. That was the sorry state of much American banking and led to routine waves of failure.


        However you may have noticed in your day to day life that modern commerce operates rather differently than as described here. You denominate your wealth in paper and digital dollars provided and mandated by a government that gets ever larger. How we got from the Founding to now and how to reconcile the two will be explored in my next email.

        …But for the legal nerds who really want to understand the full textual argument, see below for analysis mostly derived from the work of Edwin Viera, a Harvard JD/PhD who has written thousands of pages on the legal evolution of money in the United States.

        The only way that the Constitution authorizes the government to bring money into existence is to “coin.” I’ll admit that when I first read this in law school, I thought, based on present practice, that “coin” might extend to the printing press in the same way that the First Amendment protects free speech on the internet and not just on parchment. Naturally, no class ever actually discussed the provision. As it turns out, the Founders meant “coin” quite literally (literally in the literal sense of the word.) And it was understood as such – remember, the U.S. government only coined money for its first 70 years.

        And the coinage power might have been rather limited. In England, the power to coin money did not mean the power to control the money supply by deciding how much money to convert to coin. Anyone could show up at the mint with metal, and the mint would be obligated to convert it. The Founders seemed to have in mind the same idea.

        Viera notes that the power to coin is right next to that mighty power to fix the standards of weights and measures – he suggests that Congress was encouraged to establish that a foot represented a certain length, a year a certain time, and a dollar a certain amount of silver. Insofar as people well-understood feet and years, it turns out they understood “dollars,” too – it was a trusted standard silver coin from Spain that circulated freely in the colonies. That it had a fixed meaning is suggested in the fact that the Constitution elsewhere describes specific dollar amounts, including around the extremely controversial slavery compromise (taxing imported slaves “not exceeding ten dollars”) as well as within the Bill of Rights (which protects the right of a trial by jury – but only in cases “where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars”). If the government had infinite ability to redefine the value of dollars, then these sections of the Constitution would lack precise meaning and be rather pointless to write down. Viera advises:

        Congress may, with constitutional propriety, appoint astronomers, physicists, and other qualified experts to determine with scientific precision what the ‘Year’ actually is. It has no authority, however, to decide for itself what the ‘Year’ ought to be. Analogously, Congress may, with constitutional propriety, appoint economists, monetary historians, and other experts to determine with cliometric accuracy what the ‘dollar’ actually was in the late 1700’s. In fact, this is what Congress did do, under both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Congress has no authority, however, to decide for itself what the ‘dollar’ ought to be.” [underlining in the original]


        Figure 6. Shhhhhh! Once Congress discovers that their power over measurement is the same as their power over money, they will redefine a “year” to mean ten million revolutions around the Sun and never have to run for re-election.


        Still, the Constitution does give Congress power to “Regulate the value [of the money it coins], and of foreign coin.” My brackets replace “thereof” and the antecedent is extremely important: Congress has the power of regulation only over coins, not over securities. Further, “regulate” does not now nor did it then mean to “bring into existence” but instead to deal with something that already exists. In other words, a reading of the original public meaning of this clause does not permit the government unlimited power to create new currency and determine its value.

        So what does “regulate” mean textually? Viera argues that historical context reveals this power to be more specific than Congress’ power to “regulate Commerce.” Viera’s best approximation to give us a sense of the original meaning is “specify.” The early U.S. government published a table of rates so that merchants could understand the metal content of various coins then in circulation and how the government would treat them as tax payments. Viera argues that “the power to ‘regulate the Value of Money’ is distinct from the power to debase its value. For example, to ‘regulate the Value of a silver coin means to compare the weight of pure silver that it contains to the weight of pure silver in the monetary standard, and to declare the coin’s value in terms of that standard.”

        19th century Supreme Court Justice and legendary constitutional commentator Joseph Story suggests that “The object of the power is to produce uniformity of value throughout the Union, and thus to preclude us from the embarrassments of a perpetually fluctuating and variable currency.” And indeed Viera argues that in the first seventy years of the republic, “regulation” consisted exclusively of the government trying in good faith to publicize the actual fair market value of the precious metal in circulating coinage – though that did not mean it succeeded. The market constantly outpaced the government’s ability to define it and the biggest impact this clause would have was in whether the U.S. effectively operated on a gold or silver standard (until it abandoned precious metal standards altogether).

        The Founders did make one rather large assumption. The Constitution gives Congress the power to coin money, rather than the executive, because as the Virginia judge and legal commentator St. George Tucker noted in 1803,

        “The history of England affords numberless instances, where this prerogative [over money] has been exercised to the great oppression of the subject. The power of debasing the value of the coin, at pleasure, has in fact been frequently used as an expedient for raising a revenue, and is accordingly reckoned as one of the indirect modes of taxation. According to the principles of our constitution, therefore, such a tax can not be imposed but by the representatives of the people.”

        Story says something very similar:

        “In England, this prerogative belongs to the crown; and, in former ages, it was greatly abused; for base coin was often coined and circulated by its authority, at a value far above its intrinsic worth; and thus taxes of a burthensome nature were laid indirectly upon the people. There is great propriety, therefore, in confiding it to the legislature, not only as the more immediate representatives of the public interests, but as the more safe depositaries of the power.”

        These analyses are notable both because they get at the Founders’ fears over the government abuse of money – but also because they suggest that part of their “solution” was faulty: just transferring the power from one branch to another. But, again, this has to be read within the greater context of the Constitution and in particular the fact that Congress could only coin, not print. Gold and silver coins inherently cannot experience hyperinflation. And if the federal government had circulated coins as the King had, with a stated value above their real value, there would have been public outcry and market resistance. Further, Viera argues that “under English common law, the King exercised all power to coin and regulate the value of money. By the late 1700’s, Parliament had defined this royal prerogative as not including the authority to debase the coinage.” The U.S. Constitution “removed from legislative control the monetary standard itself,” by explicitly making it a known silver dollar.

        Separately, the Constitution explicitly forbids states from exercising certain monetary powers: they can’t “coin money, emit Bills of Credit, make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts.” To emit bills of credit was the contemporary term of art for printing money. The fact that coining money and emitting bills of credit are listed separately strongly reinforces the idea that they are different powers – otherwise, the text is redundant – and therefore makes further questionable any attempt to smuggle printing money into the federal government’s coinage power. John Marshall subsequently noted in a court case that the Constitution specified “that the real dollar may represent property, and not the shadow of it.” Viera argues that the legal tender provision gave states the opportunity to make metal legal tender if the government failed to coin but prevented them from altering key creditor relationships.

        Nathaniel Gortham was one of the dissenters at the Constitutional Convention who lost the vote on giving the federal government the power to print – but he was nevertheless satisfied with the ambiguity of not explicitly preventing it from doing so. Viera responds with fairly conventional originalist analysis:

        “One of the fundamental principles of our society is that the very existence of the Constitution necessarily implies the definite and limited nature of the power of the government of the United States. Indeed, by legal hypothesis, the Constitution contains no ‘independent and unmentioned power[s]’; for the contrary assumption would fatally ‘conflict with the doctrine that this is a government of enumerated powers.’ There are no undefined and general powers that some ‘theoretical government’ might possess.…This exact, literal coincidence of prohibition and empowerment, in conjunction with the Tenth Amendment, proves conclusively that Congress received only what the States lost.”

        In other words, unless the federal government is explicitly given a power, it doesn’t have it. And, while we’re on the subject, there is no explicit federal government power to make any currency “legal tender.” Only the states can make only gold and silver a currency that people must accept to satisfy debts.


        Figure 7. Sorry, Bitcoin


        Another contemporary dissenter, Luther Martin, explicitly brought up the prospect of a war in the constitutional debate: shouldn’t the federal government be allowed to print, as it had during the Revolution, to be able to defend the country? Whatever the merits of the argument, he lost 9-2. Benjamin Rush was not present at the convention but provides an answer in a letter to James Madison: “where wars are just & necessary–Supplies may always be obtained by annual taxes from a free people.”

        The final provision we’ll mention here is that the Constitution gives the government the power to “borrow money on the credit of the United States.” In that this power was listed separately from the power to print money in the Articles of Confederation and in that the Constitution permits states to borrow money but not to print money, this again suggests that the borrowing power is different from printing. Indeed, there’s a straightforward argument that the original public meaning of this clause meant that the “money” that had to be borrowed is gold and silver. If you’ve gotten this far, congratulations! Hopefully you’re convinced of the Founders’ intent. We’ll explore how we deviated and what it means for today in my next email.

        Pieces of eight

        Figure 8. Click here to acquire the unabridged version of Pieces of Eight: the Monetary Powers and Disabilities of the United States Constitution (9/10), a learned and deep textual analysis that I’ve attempted to summarize as best as possible. You can also check out the related original document collection at the University of Chicago for the coinage power and the borrowing power.

        Constitutional money

        Figure 9. Click here to acquire Constitutional Money by Richard Timberlake (8/10), in which an economist reviews the U.S. case law around money and offers both economic commentary and a layman’s legal analysis of original public meaning uncluttered by the typical law school penumbras and gobbledygook. Timberlake insists: “The money clauses in the U.S. Constitution are brief, simple, and explicit; the humblest mind can understand them without elaborate interpretation.”

        Money free and unfree

        Figure 10. Click here to acquire Money Free and Unfree by George Selgin (9/10), a collection of essays by one of the leading free banking economists in the United States, opening with a thought experiment about what kind of monetary system a dictator would create to increase his power but also including a history of 19th century U.S. money and an evaluation of how the Federal Reserve has performed according to its own preferred standards in its first 100 years. Also check out his book explaining the theory and practice of free banking.


        Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: Know anyone who is interested constitutional originalism? How about anyone desiring limited government? Or anyone who has ever used money?

        For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of Literally Making Money.

        I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

          Two Weddings, One Marriage

          The Gist: As you plan your wedding, elevate the higher purpose and your particular priorities. Relax about everything else.

          A recounting of my own experience and a review of A Practical Wedding and Man Nup.

          We probably should celebrate 10 year anniversaries rather than weddings – they’re rarer. 

          But until that sensible change, I can report on my own unusual experience of two very different weddings in my single marriage to one woman – the first, thanks to covid restrictions, was a sublime, deeply intimate interaction with just my wife, our pairs of parents, and our pastor and his wife. I read about monetary policy as Ashley got ready, we went to the church and underwent a divine arrangement, then all had dinner at our favorite restaurant. I had been looking forward to a big wedding and found myself thoroughly enjoying a small one.

          Wedding church exit

          Figure 1. I will no doubt remind any future daughter that her mother got married in a dress acquired for under $100. 


          A year later (alas, not 10!), we invited lots of friends and family to a considerably larger celebration that was a whirlwind of reconnections and fun, beginning with an outdoor welcome reception at a Nashville hotel the evening before. The day of I got to joke around and play a favorite game with my groomsmen while Ashley brunched and got ready with her bridesmaids, our pastor came back for a sermon of celebration, and then we spent the rest of the evening catching up with as many people as we could. I had thoroughly enjoyed a small wedding and found myself loving a big one. 

          Along the way, I read two helpful books – the first, delightfully titled Man Nup by Rick Webb, contains the sound advice that “wedding planning is not rocket science. It’s event planning.” The second, practically titled A Practical Wedding by Meg Keene, contains the best advice of all: Figure out the small number of things you really want to go right and relax about pretty much everything else. 

          For us, the three things we wanted to go right were the dress, the photography, and the spoken word. While leggings and a comfy sweatshirt are a great daily go-to, Ashley, a former pageant finalist, felt rather strongly about getting the right look. Photography would serve as our enduring memory aid to the joy of these days and also as decor in our shared future home. And I, a former congressional primary finalist, felt rather strongly about the power of good speeches.

          Wedding dress

          Figure 2. Here you can easily see that 2/3 priorities went well!


          For everything else, we created a spreadsheet with every possible line item and then ranked them in order of importance, with next immediate actions identified, both ideal and latest dates to complete them by, any links, whether it was delegable or had to be done by the bride or groom, and, finally, a specific argument for why each thing needed to be kept. It’s helpful to throw everything you might possibly want onto a list and then evaluate whether you really do in fact want it. The ultimate question: What is going to bring us joy and laughter on the day of our wedding?

          Keene well illustrates that a great many wedding “traditions” we think of are actually just a few decades old and often the result of the wedding industry trying to grab every possible dollar. We skipped such necessities as party favors, unity candles, even wedding cake. Indeed, “For hundreds of years, weddings in the United States took place in people’s homes. During World War II, a huge number of weddings took place at the courthouse with the bride in her best clothes, always with flowers.” We did embrace certain things we liked – but with full knowledge of their recent vintage: “the bridal bouquet (emerged around the turn of the twentieth century; before that women held prayer books or handkerchiefs), the once-worn formal white dress (became popular in the early to mid-twentieth century thanks to a serious marketing effort), the catered reception (came into vogue in the 1950s).” Perhaps the most famous creation of a tradition was the mass marketing campaign in the early twentieth century by the diamond monopoly De Beers to convince the world that serious engagements require their product – and you should keep said diamonds forever so that you never discover that their value on the secondary market is rather less than precious.

          Wedding proposal

          Figure 3. In some cases, though, the value in the secondary market is not visible in pure price. For our engagement in the Smokies, I got a hold of Ashley’s grandmother’s wedding ring – a symbol of a great love that preceded ours! As for myself, I succumbed to the cool marketing of a wedding ring made out of meteorite.


          Quite related to the general list of things you might consider or reject is your budget. As with any major decision or expense, you should attempt to look at the base rate of how these things typically go. Specifically, you should look at the regional averages for how much money (and what percentage of an average total wedding budget) is spent on each line item to get a sense of reality-testing what your expectations are. At the same time, Webb warns that “The wedding industry is designed from the ground up to make you feel insecure about your decisions, and to invoke fear in order to get you to throw more money at a particular aspect of the production… Most vendors have a whole sales approach, and it invariably revolves around preying on the bride’s insecurities, hopes, dreams and childhood fantasies.”

          The best way to steel yourself against such salesmanship is the most important line in your budget: Savings. The money you do NOT spend on your wedding can instead be used for future vacations, or a down payment on a house, or invested in the S&P 500 for a compounded return. Resources are finite! By all means, splurge on the three things that are most important to you (fun fact: speeches are cheap.) But also feel liberated to NOT spend the average cost or percentage on things you don’t really care about. As ever, remember price is what you pay and value is what you get. For my best friend, this analysis translated into an elopement – and he and his wife are still filled with joy thinking back on it. For another friend who wanted a bigger party, he got married at the courthouse and invited all of his friends to a bar. 

          Of course, not everyone can enjoy the benefits of an old line Baptist wedding where savings can be achieved in alcohol and dancing. No, for a great many Americans alcohol is an addictive substance that they’ve become accustomed to acquiring on demand and are less than enthused about a cash bar (never mind my idea to try to turn a profit on the wedding). And anthropologists have concluded that rhythmic noises have long had a role in human culture and appear to boost collective mood (though the nice thing about hosting something in Music City is that even the third string options are great – though a DJ could save even more). 

          Amazingly enough, there have been significant technological advancements in communications that allow for you to invite people to your wedding – for free – through the interwebs. A variety of rentals are generally expected because guests may not be excited about standing at length, in rain, struggling to hear shouting speakers – but you do not require handcrafted antiques. Hair, facial, and nails might require budget items because the dead and dying parts of the body require maintenance, at least for the female of the species. And although my wife is renowned for her ability to get dolled up in the car (even, alarmingly, while driving), a dedicated professional is necessary to achieve that “bride of Frankenstein” look.

          Wedding flowers

          Figure 4. Dead and dying plants are also apparently romantic, fragrant, and beautiful.


          I joke about these things to try to get you to take everything less seriously – and to encourage you to get creative in freeing up cash for what you really want to do (either your priorities within the wedding itself or generally in life.) As Keene advises, “when you leave a great party, you’re normally raving about how fantastic the people were, not about how the favors perfectly matched the tablecloths.” And, “when you look back at your wedding… you won’t care too much about how the details looked; you’ll care about how you felt.” We never especially liked the idea of a formal (and finite) rehearsal dinner, so we just threw an open, casual welcome party. Until offered a ride the day of, I was just planning to UberX to my wedding. And we simultaneously embraced our own personalities as well as saved a bunch by insisting on serving a favorite food since our very first date: pizza.  

          All that being said, before you immediately seize a bargain (or otherwise hire on reputation), you should actually meet and get along easily with your vendors as well as review their work-product – taste-test the pizza (we even got to make our very own flavor of ice cream!), listen to the band (live if possible), sit in the chairs. As we examined venues, there was one promising historical home that looked good online – but when we arrived, we discovered it was next to a highway and railroad tracks. “ARE THE TRAINS ALWAYS RUNNING?” I asked our hostess. “OH, YOU GET USED TO THEM!” she confidently replied. We wound up getting married at Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage – which had indeed topped our separate scoring of various venues but what really clinched it for my wife was my observation that the top alternatives were just private property that could be the site of a McDonald’s in 15 years. 

          Naturally, a lot of these questions revolve around one number: how many people you invite to your wedding. In our last correspondence, I mentioned the amusing but puzzling statistic that if you have a BIG wedding with lots of people, you are less likely to get divorced — but if you have an expensive wedding, you are MORE likely to get divorced. But I figured out how it works when attending the wedding reception of a Mormon friend: they had gotten married for free at the temple and then hosted a really big party at the groom’s parents’ home, most everyone standing closely together grabbing finger foods (but, obviously, no alcohol) all for a fraction of the average wedding cost – and, you know what? It was a blast!

          Webb suggests that you should start out with the assumption that you shouldn’t invite anyone you haven’t seen or talked to in a year (all the more true if you’re picking a bridal party – my best man has known me the longest of anyone: my dad.) To the degree that family is demanding people be invited, compel them to rank-order their list so that you can have a conversation with full knowledge about where their priorities are. Apparently, the base rate of rejection is something like 10%+ for locals and 30% for out-of-towners – though if you are getting married in a cool city, expect more people to make the trip. There are also the non-responders. Tracking down my college roommate on the day after the RSVP deadline, he told me “Move me from a maybe to a probably.” 

          But my biggest recommendation – to my wife, now to you – is to try to figure out how to absolutely minimize the stress and work that goes into guest sorting (and, indeed, the whole wedding planning). What that practically meant for us: no seating chart. I did not want my wife agonizing over where to place who.

          Wedding walk out

          Figure 5. We had an additional wrinkle as well: the seating capacity of our church, originally built by Jackson for his family to worship, was smaller than our guest list. I suggested the obviously most efficient way to deal with this was to auction off seats. When this was sadly rejected, we thankfully agreed that we would allow the first people to RSVP to come.


          Perhaps Keene’s best line in her book is that a bridesmaid’s job is to keep crazy at least 10 feet away from the bride. That’s certainly helpful during the wedding itself. But in the entirety of the planning process, pursue calm – get enough sleep, eat healthy, and spend quality time together as a couple (for us, that was reading, walking, praying, laughing, and socializing with close friends). I also arranged for Ashley to get regular massages throughout. 

          If your family won’t allow you to auction off seats or charge for food and drink, your only other profit opportunity is the gift registry (which, according to one analysis, is basically the only visited page on your wedding website). I have one close friend who invited everyone he ever met to his wedding – and then made getting to it as inconvenient as possible (our route to get there quite literally involved planes, trains, and automobiles). Result? Maximum gifts, minimum cost. 

          In reality, we tried to tell our guests that, in lieu of a gift, we would greatly cherish a handwritten note of encouragement and personal reflection. Nevertheless, many people did indeed get us gifts – surprisingly, even some that were not invited. We listed practical luxuries like skillets, pizza scissors, and shotguns; we offered the popular opportunity to finance particular aspects of our honeymoon; and we availed guests of the options to finance our book budget or investment fund.

          And yet, as Dwight Eisenhower reflected, while planning is indispensable, plans are useless. You’ve got to be prepared for contingencies – perhaps something as basic as being able to use the programs as a fan during a heatwave but also something as drastic as having to rethink the whole idea during a pandemic. As we approached our first wedding date, we were continuously uncertain as to whether we’d be able to have it all amidst covid. As we got nearer and it looked like Nashville wouldn’t allow a party of our size, we had to think: should we scramble for a last minute venue in freer, more rural Tennessee? Should we convert the whole wedding to a Star Wars theme so that people could plausibly wear breathing apparatuses? Should we postpone everything and how would we know when would be permissible? As noted, we wound up getting married in an intimate ceremony and then celebrating in a bigger way on our one year anniversary. But even then things popped up – one groomsman got covid the week of! As Keene advises: “One of the gifts of your wedding day is the fact that you can choose, over and over again, in each moment, how you react to the things that go wrong. You can choose to allow the bigness of your commitment to take a front seat to the disappointments. ‘Perfect weddings don’t exist’” Adapt and overcome!

          wedding groomsmen

          Figure 6. One guest got dressed up to go to our wedding and realized in his final step that he had forgotten his tie. Calling an Uber to the venue, he asked to stop at any plausible store that might sell one. One, two, three, four stops later he finally manages to secure a tie and get it on in the car – but throughout he’s thinking “Am I going to be the only schmuck without a tie?” But then he arrives and immediately runs into one of my groomsmen and, spotting his collar, asks “No tie?” “Oh no,” my groomsman replies. “Grant and Ashley decided no ties.” So he made the long walk to the church thinking “Am I going to be the only schmuck with a tie?” (He was not.)


          As we approached our second wedding date, we had been keeping loose track of how our finalized and cut-down spreadsheet was being marked off but a month away, we really devoted all of our attention to making sure that everything indeed was ready and, in particular, distributing specific and detailed day-of plans to everyone involved (though we couldn’t be perfect: one local guest miswrote the date and arrived at the church one week early to witness a different wedding altogether.)

          I should mention one other bit of planning – it’s apparently unconventional and it really isn’t done by you. I can’t tell you the number of weddings I’ve been to in which I run into the best man on the very day of, already a little tipsy, somewhat bragging, somewhat worried that he has a speech to give that night and he hasn’t begun preparing. That tends not to be a recipe for success, leading to the all too typical speech in which tears flow, obscure events are referenced, inappropriate remarks are made, and an opportunity is wasted to commemorate a moment for dear friends before a crowd. 

          Instead, we set aside time for – and made a centerpiece of our wedding – thoughtful, heartfelt speeches from our closest friends who have the ability. We carefully selected speakers, alerted them well in advance that this was important to us (and may even have provided pointers), and asked, as a gift, for a transcript of their notes after they had spoken. The results were deeply moving for Ashley and me. And, of course, the speeches followed a wonderful sermon by our pastor (a dear friend) as well as specifically selected readings from the Bible of personal inspiration. To keep things running smoothly (and amusingly), I also asked my longtime collaborator in humorous speechmaking to be master of ceremonies –  a position he filled masterfully in setting up the crowd and cracking jokes. And I took the opportunity personally to conclude the speeches with one of my own, reflecting on our marriage and the wonderful opportunity to know the people present. In the end, I was delighted to be told again and again by guests that they were the best set of speeches they had heard at any wedding!

          Wedding dance

          Figure 7. After speeches, we shuffled along for a first dance, followed by father and daughter and mom and son. The latter efforts were complicated by the particular musical tastes of our parents. For my father-in-law, we struggled to find a slow dance in the ACDC catalog. My mom’s only musical interest that originates after 1800 is the Bee Gees – and you’ll find that the lyrics of most everything they have sung don’t exactly lend themselves to the occasion.


          It was a (second) magical day – from photography around the estate, to ceremony in the old church, to drinks in the gardens, to dinner and speeches and dancing under a big tent. And, to end it all, we borrowed an idea from another friend to have an exit line in which we could say goodbye to every person who attended and be the last to leave ourselves!

          Wedding honeymoon

          Figure 8. Ashley had originally wanted to go to Italy for our honeymoon – but, alas, covid again intervened. So we instead went to the Italy of the United States: Wyoming!


          There were other things on the margins that nevertheless can take up a great deal of time – plotting moving in together (strongly correlated with increased snuggling), Ashley changing her surname. But the best thing that we did after our honeymoon was sit down and record all of our memories for posterity. We had wanted a few things to go right. Turns out everything went right.

          Man Nup

          Figure 9. Click here to acquire Man Nup by Rick Webb – a strong 7. Good overview for how things should go, nothing crazy, generally good advice from the groom’s perspective (at least one actively involved.)

          Pratical Wedding

          Figure 10. Click here to acquire A Practical Wedding by Meg Keene. Approaching a 7. There’s some very good advice in here (which I’ve pulled out for this newsletter) but there are some jarring voice changes. Especially good in revealing that many “traditions” are really upsells and that you should focus on the most important things. Not as relevant for us but certainly for other couples: “A wedding is not a surprise party for the groom.” We agree: “Planning a major event with your partner is going to help you develop skills for working together that you’ll use for years.”


          Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone planning on getting married? How about someone who just loves weddings? Or anybody who has ever been or might be married?

          For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Five Love Languages.

          I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

          Wedding shoes

          Figure 11. You’ve reached the bottom!

            Derisking Marriage

            The Gist: Due diligence before “I do”

            A review of multiple books and sources, including Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married by Gary Chapman.


            Congratulations! You’ve found the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. As we discussed in our last correspondence about getting serious if you’re single, this is a big deal and very worthy of celebration.


            But the thing about love, especially in the early years, is that the nights are brighter, the grass is bluer, and the sky is greener. In that love is blind, love distorts. You look past every defect and think you can overcome every obstacle because love conquers all. But before you get married – a contract that should last a lifetime – you should take a hard look at those defects and obstacles because they’ll become real soon enough. 

            Naturally, if you are en route to getting married, you think your person is pretty swell – but bear in mind that practically no one who gets married is planning on getting divorced. Divorcees at one point thought their spouses were pretty swell, too.


            Figure 1. Exceptions include gold-diggers and green-card-chasers. 


            Put another way, imagine the due diligence you’d want to do before buying a home you’d live the rest of your life in. Gosh, the property seems dreamy – but will you still love the style when it’s a few decades old? Can the layout and location accommodate your needs as a professional, a parent, a retiree? Are you certain that the internal structure is sound? Again, remember that who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life – and that as annoying and expensive as a home remodel can be, it’s infinitely easier than trying to do anything similar with your spouse.

            Six million dollar man

            Figure 2. Note that, with inflation, the Six Million Dollar Man would actually be more like the Thirty Eight Million Dollar Man. Even then, his bionic improvements were all physical and he looked like Lee Majors even before his accident. Of course, if you’re just looking for a more attentive husband, maybe you can pay an electrician a few bucks to administer some shock therapy.


            As Ashley and I dated, we always talked about the prospect of marriage – but as we approached the time when it might be a near-reality (a proposal should not be a surprise), we spent every Saturday morning for months talking things through: 


            Will we be good friends for a lifetime? 

            Will we assume the best about each other and work on problems and opportunities together? 

            Will we be good parents whose qualities we want our kids to inherit? 

            Are we willing to sacrifice for each other?


            All of which are admirable qualities. But we also talked in detail about how we argue, how we’d divide family responsibilities, how we felt about money and ambition and religion and autonomy and any number of ideas. We hypothesized how we would react if various problems arose and we talked about how we might deal with the opportunities and challenges that life might bring us, including what kind of values we might want to raise our kids to live up to, assuming we could be blessed with them.


            Figure 3. In one instance, Ashley’s heart poured out about raising kids to be independent and work hard and love God and their country and be exceptional in whatever they chose to be. After hearing that, I simply added, “And to take care of their parents.”


            We also took a hard look at our odds. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics, suggests that before you take on any venture you should find the base rate of success for people who do something similar to ensure that you have the appropriate expectation – and then try to reason as to why you might be different from the average. From there, you can accept or reject the gamble. 


            At first, it seems daunting: about half of marriages end in divorce. And divorce is bad, as bad as cigarettes for your health. If you end up having kids, they’ll suffer too – in their academics, mental health, and eventually in their own relationships. And, as one satirical twitter account has observed, marriage means you’re betting 50% of your future net worth. Which seems like maybe a good deal for the other party, except that the lower income earner tends to fare worse after a divorce.

            But take a closer look at the data and how it applies to you. 78% of women with a college degree remain with their first husband for over 20 years (the length of the study). Generally, only 41% of first marriages end in divorce (compared to 60% of second marriages and 73% of third marriages) – in other words, though half of marriages do end in divorce, most people who get married stay married. If you’re wealthier, if you’re conservative, if you’re a practicing Christian, if you’re Asian, if you have a high IQ,  if you marry after age 25, divorce is less likely. And if you can’t be all those, try to find someone to marry who is.

            Crazy rich asains

            Figure 4. The best marriage manual on the market turns out to be Crazy Rich Asians.   


            There are lots of other stats out there: those who live separately before marriage are less likely to get divorced; meeting in a bar is more likely to lead to divorce; those who delayed sex until adulthood and those with fewer lifetime sexual partners are less likely to get divorced. Certain professions are more likely to get divorced – dancers, bartenders, massage therapists, Navy SEALs; others, less likely – farmers, clergy, certain kinds of doctor. The bigger the age gap between you and your spouse, the worse. If your parents are happily married, you’ve fortunately got a better shot of being happily married yourself. If your parents are divorced, you’ve unfortunately got a better shot of being divorced yourself. 

            Amusingly, the more people you invite to your wedding, the less likely you are to get divorced — but the more you spend on your wedding, the more likely you are to get divorced.  Also: Men who have good relations with their in-laws are less likely to divorce while women who have good relations with their in-laws are more likely to get divorced. 

            Some of these things you can change – and though rather famously correlation is not causation, I’ve always figured why not lean into the correlations you like? If you’re starting early, turns out the conservative lifestyle has nice life outcomes: delay having sex until adulthood and then be choosy, look hard in college for a spouse, date for a couple of years but don’t live together, and get married after you turn 25. Even if you’re already married, you can derisk when you quit drinking, avoid divorced friends and coworkers, stop using social media, make more money and spend less of it, become a farmer (apparently an unusually successful one), watch romantic movies, have sex about once a week (with your spouse, I should note), go to church weekly but move away from concentrations of Evangelical protestants, and if and only if you’re a woman, pick fights with your in-laws. 

            I am only joking a little. These kinds of statistics are fun and sometimes strange but they can be genuinely helpful in making the right decisions and finding the right spouse. And, perhaps most importantly, if you look at these statistics and discover that the correlations are going the wrong direction – that, for example, you’re thinking of marrying a divorced dancer you met in a bar – you should abandon your efforts or move forward with particular vigilance knowing that Vegas would bet against

            I am about to share the questions that Ashley and I asked each other before we got engaged but although I think marriage is awesome and that you should get serious about searching for a spouse, it’s okay not to get married to the particular person you’re with right now. If you go through due diligence before you get married and you discover that the odds are stacked against you or the answers to basic questions start to unnerve you, it’s better to start your search anew than invite all your friends and family to a big party and then subsequently divorce. Indeed, if you have any doubts at all, discuss them, if not with your significant other, with someone else you trust. At the same time, acknowledge the real and flawed human being you are spending time with, fairly compare them to others you’ve dated, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

            Even before Ashley and I went over the questions below together, I tried to figure out the answer by myself by running through a series of questions inspired by Kahneman to push past cognitive biases. I asked fundamentally what the first principles of being married were about and how well they applied. I quickly concluded that my relationship with Ashley was my best ever – so getting married was a good example of pouring gasoline on fire (and leaning into the math of romance). I worried about being so in love with Ashley that my perspective was skewed. But, borrowing an analogy from my work in the apartment building business, I determined that Ashley’s replacement cost was sky-high!

            Anyway, take a look at the questions below and adjust them for your own use – in particular, you should expand any section in which there is more concern and/or in which the odds are not in your favor. 


            1. Do we agree that this is perhaps the most important decision in our life and that we want to seriously and truthfully explore whether we are right for each other?
            2. First Principles
              1. Will we be good friends for a lifetime? 
              2. Will we assume the best about each other and work on problems and opportunities together? Will we be partners in success? 
                1. Recommended reading: Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
              3. Will we be good parents whose qualities we want our kids to inherit?
              4. Are we willing to sacrifice for each other?
                1. Recommended reading: The Meaning of Marriage. A quote: If two spouses each say, “I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,” you have the prospect of a truly great marriage
            3. Why we’re here: be as expansive and as mushy as you’d like – get all the feels down on paper and you can look back in the years to come and remember the spark that started it all. And, of course, you can look here to weigh any doubts against.
              1. Why Grant loves Ashley
              2. Why Ashley loves Grant
            4. Zooming out and looking at the base rates of success for marriages, what do our specific chances look like? Where are we swimming with and against the odds? How are we different from the averages described? What is within our control? How can we strengthen our positives and derisk our negatives?
              1. Probably the best resource is this compendium of divorce facts and figures: 
              2. But there is plenty out there and you might want to especially investigate anything that particularly affects you. Answering this question takes the most outside work – but it’s really rather important as a reality check. And once you’ve got your answers, adjust the scope of the remaining questions accordingly. 
            5. Marriage models:
              1. What is the role of a wife and a husband?
              2. How did your family divide responsibilities growing up? What roles did they play?
              3. How did your family argue? Did your family throw plates, calmly discuss issues or silently shut down when disagreements arose?
              4. Name and discuss two unrelated couples that you admire and would hope to emulate.
            6. Agreement and conflict:
              1. What do you want to do with your life? What are your biggest dreams and how does our relationship fit into them?
              2. How will we make decisions together?
              3. How can we best tell each other when we’re upset and resolve it in a way that respects each other?
              4. Will we turn toward each other when arguing? Are our conflict management styles compatible? Why do you think we avoid or confront?
            7. Religion:
              1. Have we reached a clear understanding of each other’s spiritual beliefs and needs?
              2. How are we going to live this out in our life?
              3. What does our religion expect of our marriage? How does our religion inform how we should conduct our relationship?
              4. How can we best pray for each other?
              5. What does our ideal community of faith look like?
            8. Children: 
              1. Are we going to have kids? If so, when? How many? How far apart?
              2. Parenting models: what is the role of a mother and a father?
              3. What beliefs do you have about yourself that resulted from your childhood? If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be and why?
              4. How will we divide child rearing responsibilities?
              5. What values do you want to teach our kids?
              6. How would we teach religion to our kids?
              7. Should we always tell our kids the truth? (About Santa, for example)
              8. How would we want to discipline our kids?
              9. How would we go about educating our kids?
              10. How will we teach our kids about money? How will we financially support our kids?
              11. What would we do if we could not have kids? If our child has severe disabilities? If our kid does drugs? Rejects our religious principles? What else might be a challenge? 
              12. How are we going to get to know best practices for raising kids?
              13. Will we take care of ourselves as much as we take care of our kids? How will we prioritize our own relationship as spouses amidst parenting? 
            9. Money:
              1. What is the best way of going over our finances so that we can be completely transparent with each other? (Current net worth, fixed monthly overhead, debt, savings, investments, etc.)
              2. What is the purpose of money? What do we want to do with it?
              3. What does our spending preference look like? What’s the most we’d be willing to spend on a car, couch, shoes? How much are we prepared to save? Should we strictly impose budget rules about how much of our monthly income we will spend? (And on what?)
              4. How will we manage our money? Who will manage our money? What’s our risk tolerance? How do we feel about debt?
              5. Should we have separate bank accounts?
              6. Will we both work? How should we contemplate major career decisions? What does work/life balance look like?
            10. Lifestyle: Do we share the same vision of life together? 
              1. What are the perfect and the typical weekday evenings?
              2. What are the perfect and the typical weekends?
              3. How should we spend time off? How often should we travel for a vacation, visit family?
              4. What do we enjoy doing together and separately? How much autonomy should we have on a week to week, month to month basis where we spend time apart? Can you deal with my doing things without you? 
              5. Where precisely are we going to live? What does our ideal home look like?
              6. How will we maintain our home and divide responsibilities for chores? 
              7. How would you like to change and how does our relationship fit in?
              8. How will we decide what to eat?
              9. Will our home have a television? A pet? Alcohol?
            11.  Family and friends:
              1. Will we consistently choose each other over our parents? Do we value and respect each other’s parents? Do either of us have any concern about parents or in-laws interfering with our relationship? What does my family do that annoys you? How will we resolve differences between our families? How will we care for aging parents?
              2. Do we like and respect each other’s friends? Anyone of particular concern? How often will we socialize? 
            12. Health:
              1. Do we fully understand each other’s emotional and physical health, as well as family history? Do we have any experience with addiction?
              2. When you are sick, how do you want others to respond to you? When a significant person in your life is sick, how do you respond?
              3. How will we work through real tragedy (e.g. death of our parents)?
              4. Are we willing to diligently pursue calm? How can we best tackle day to day stress?
            13. Familiarity: Don’t marry a stranger
              1. Has dating and being in love been a close enough approximation of a future relationship as a married couple and introduced major fault lines? Do we need more time?
              2. If I could live your life for one day, what do you think would surprise me the most? 
              3. Do you think Younger You would be happy with what you have become? 
              4. What are the highs and lows of your life so far?
              5. What would be one thing you’d change about our relationship? 
              6. Are there things I say or do that make you want to spend less time with me? 
              7. When do you feel most loved? Are we familiar with each other’s Love Languages?
              8. How do we keep love alive?
              9. Can we comfortably and openly discuss our sexual needs, preferences, and fears? 
            14. Commitment:
              1. What is your greatest fear or concern about being married? What have you done to address these concerns?
              2. What are our honest feelings about divorce and under what circumstances we would consider it?
              3. Will our experiences with our parents help or hinder us? Will our experiences with our exes help or hinder us? What have you learned?
              4. How will we be vigilant in protecting our marriage, especially from adultery?
              5. Are there some things that you and I are NOT prepared to give up in the marriage?
              6. If our marriage runs into trouble, what are we prepared to do to work on them? Would we go to counseling?
              7. Have we been completely honest with each other? Is there anything that the other person should know but does not?
              8. Are we confident in agreeing to a contract in front of our family, friends, and God to be with each other for the rest of our lives?
            15. Returning to First Principles
              1. Will we be good friends for a lifetime? 
              2. Will we be partners in success? Will we assume the best about each other and work on problems together?
              3. Will we be good parents whose qualities we want our kids to inherit?
              4. Are we willing to sacrifice for each other?
            questions before engaged

            Figure 5. Click here to acquire 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged (7.5/10). Focused on Christian couples, there is a mix of questions good for anyone and those specific to the Bible. I’ve incorporated some of the best above, but there are other provocative questions here: What are five reasons a person would want to spend the rest of their live with you, and three reasons they wouldn’t? Who are the people in your life you’ve needed to forgive and how did you accomplish this?

            things I wish I'd Known

            Figure 6. Click here to acquire Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married (8/10). Also from a Christian perspective, though has a fairly broad application. By Gary Chapman, who also wrote the Five Love Languages. Especially good at discussing the two stages of love – the initial brain chemistry euphoria in which everything is easy and the following reality that requires intentionality but is far more rewarding. 


            Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone seriously dating and thinking about marriage? How about someone engaged? Or anybody who hasn’t found the right person yet but is looking ahead?

            For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Five Love Languages. 

            I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

              Marriage: Recommended

              The Gist: Get intentional about the most important decision in your life.

              The first of a three-part exploration of the marriage mindset. Click here to read part two: Derisking Marriage, and here to read part three: Two Weddings, One Marriage.

              The marriage mindset comes down to this:


              If you’re single, get serious: who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life. 


              If you’re dating, be deliberate: if s/he’s not the one, s/he’s in the way. 


              If you’re engaged or on your way there, congratulations! But look hard before you leap. 


              If you’re married, marvelous! Cherish your spouse and place yourself second.


              Figure 1. An addendum and disclaimer: if you’re 13 years old, it’s perfectly fine to dream about getting married, but if you get caught up in a whirlwind romance with the heir to your parents’ enemies, please don’t take any drastic measures. Though the world often feels like it’s going to end when you’re a teenager and something goes wrong, try a little patience. For never was a story of more idiots than that of Romeo and his Juliet.


              Why get serious? Because marriage is awesome. There is nothing like having a permanent partner to pray with, to pray for, to pray for you; someone to hug when you get home; a trusted confidant who knows you and wants what is best for you; a companion who surprises you with delicious chocolate chip cookies; a protector who investigates sounds in the night (perhaps aided by a small arsenal or a big dog); a lover to experience countless intimate moments; another parent to raise your children to be all they can be; a sacrificing spouse that you will sacrifice yourself for; a friend to share your laughter and your tears, your highs and lows forever.

              So, yes, five stars out of five, I personally recommend it.  And you can observe that I’m a year and change in so you can say I’m still honeymooning but I’ll simply report that my life is better than ever. You should join the club. And if you’re like most Americans, you do want to get married – a delightful and worthy aspiration that you should pay at least as much attention to as you do plotting your career.  

              Notably, getting serious is more than being open to getting swept off your feet. There’s a harsh reality at work for women, compounded by modern society’s lie that men and women can pursue love and work at identical pacing. Many of my wife’s friends are in their twenties, hyper-focused on work (with the encouragement of everyone around them) and succeeding in acquiring degrees and job offers, but carefree about romance, sharing a fantasy that they’ll be reading Jane Austin in their favorite boutique coffee shop when Mr. Darcy will appear to lead them on a great adventure of love. Sometimes some version of that can happen, but there’s danger waiting around for it (just as there would be danger hoping that your dream job would magically open to you without your doing anything about it).

              Fancy guy

              Figure 2. Indeed, the very pronounced lesson of 19th century romantic literature is that a good marriage takes much scheming.


              The reasons are obvious, though nobody likes to acknowledge or discuss them at the appropriate ages: as if millennia of history could be doubted, dating apps confirm that women prefer to date older, more educated, more successful men and men prefer to date younger women. As a result, a man’s pool of opportunities expands well into his thirties and remains rather large almost until 50 while a woman’s shrinks almost immediately into adulthood, and more so if she pursues postgraduate education. This is an uncomfortable fact, but absolutely vital to transmit to young women, especially insofar as school may be one of the best sources of spouses (41% less likely to get divorced compared to alternative meeting locales).


              Figure 3. Imagine a five-star recruit who decides to just dabble in intramurals until he starts feeling the pressure in his early thirties to try out for the NFL – and then expects to join the Hall of Fame.


              The other factor that should encourage women to marry young is so they can have maximum flexibility in having as many kids as they want to. The biological window is not as small as you might think: according to Emily Oster, “the chance of having any children [is] very similar for women who [get] married at any age between 20 and 35” then it begins to decline, with those married between 35 and 39 90% as likely to have a child; 40-44 62%, 45-49 14%. That being said, according to surveys, American women are having fewer children than they want, so getting intentional early helps achieve the ultimate goal.

              Grandpa starrett

              Figure 4. Note that the data is mixed on whether having kids is good for your happiness, though the data is rather decisive that having grandkids is great for your happiness. And even the data claiming that kids are a hit to happiness also suggests that you’d have to have seven kids before you’d be as relatively unhappy as a single person.


              That men can wait longer to get serious about getting married and perhaps do better is unfair but true – and the truth is what should inform women’s strategy. Parents should tell their daughters, schools should educate their students, friends should strategize together: think about marriage prospects soon and often! Women need to know that their present appeal is not permanent – and decisively act on that knowledge to attract the best, reject the rest. And, in this context, the “best” means not just a great guy full of wonderful qualities but in particular a man who is ready to get married.

              Of course, that’s often the problem with men. And irrationally so! I offered above a rather poetic take on how marriage is awesome – but marriage is so awesome that its awesomeness can be shown statistically. The Institute for Family Studies reports that, compared to their single peers, married men…

              • Live longer (average: about 10 years); 
              • Make more money ($16,000 more – which is about half the median personal income! Or, put another way, 10-40% more for those otherwise similarly situated)
              • Report being happier (more than double as many married people as singles reporting being “very happy”), and perhaps relatedly…
              • Have sex more frequently and report greater satisfaction in it – even greater than those who cohabitate, so it’s not purely a matter of convenience;

              What more does the typical guy want?

              A man’s optimal dating strategy is to pursue the highest career prospects he can, knowing that his opportunities in the dating market expand with success and (some) age. (Once men drift toward their later thirties and beyond, they still have a lot of options but there are less women in the younger range who want to date that old and high quality women of various ages have already been taken.) But men in their twenties should still embrace the marriage mindset – again, school is a great source for a spouse and some religious communities do a fantastic job of creating a culture of marriage and practically set up young men for success (the Mormons, for example, host singles wards where pairing off happens rather efficiently). Perhaps from a pure dating economics perspective a full court press can wait until their early thirties, but men should be on the lookout for the one rather than a series of hot dates – because if a guy gets too used to looking for the wrong thing, he might not really know what the right thing is.


              Figure 5. Also, the thousands of hours mastering targeting in Call of Duty turn out to have low romantic relevance.


              Strategically, both men and women should be upfront about what exactly they’re looking for: saying that you are dating to look for a spouse will properly screen out a good amount of people who don’t share your goal. And both genders should understand the math of romance, otherwise known as the optimal stopping problem. I’ve written about this before and you can read the explanation here, but the bottom line is that if you want to be married by age 35, you should go on lots of dates without committing to get a sense of what you want until you’re 24 – and then marry the next person you date who is better than anyone else you’ve dated before. Along the way, you should really think about what it is you do want (and what would be good for you). As time goes on, acknowledge the real and flawed human beings you are spending time with and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. 

              You should also be aware that the median age at first marriage in the United States has been climbing over time, with men now just over 30 and women just over 28 (with a couple years added if you pursued higher education). Given that a couple of years of dating before marriage is decent due diligence and that you’re trying out multiple options, adjust your strategy accordingly. If you’re fast approaching or beyond the average marriage age and getting concerned, forget regrets – they’re just sunk cost – and channel your concern into taking marriage more seriously than ever. The good news is that almost 70% of women who wait until 40 to get married eventually do tie the knot. 

              Tactically, in an age of dating apps, it’s easier than ever to put yourself out there. But it also can be emotionally draining to sift through so many choices, screen out the creeps, and make all the arrangements. What truly bothered me is that I like to think that most of what I do I am investing in for a lifetime of returns – when I sit down with a friend, I hope we benefit from each other’s company for decades. But when I was dating, I had to simultaneously approach each date as if this person could be the love of my life or someone I’d never see again! And yet quantity leads to quality. Keep at it – and take it as seriously as you would the most important decision in your life – because the payoff is so large.

              This is the best advice I’ve got for any individual – and I think it has a nice payoff for society at large as well. I’ve done my best to point to larger trends and data – but it’s also a reflection of my personal experience. I am a man who has always wanted to get married; was open-minded to it happening in my twenties and dated around enough to have a sense of what was good and bad, occasionally making mistakes along the way; decided to dedicate significant time, energy, and attention to finding my spouse when I was 30, leading me to a goal of taking out 3 women a week for 13 weeks; exhausted, I met a wonderful woman as date #31 and told her soon into meeting that I wanted to date her to explore if we would get married and if we discovered that wasn’t where we were headed, go our separate ways. Today, I’m married to her.

              But before we got married, we took a hard look at our odds. More on that in my next email.

              Seven Principles for making marriage work

              Figure 6. Click here to acquire Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (10/10). You can read my full review at this link – the author has run a gazillion experiments at the University of Washington trying to get at what makes people tick. I think it’s very helpful to be reading about what makes a good marriage before you get married so you have a sense of what to look for and what to avoid.

              meaning of marriage

              Figure 7. Click here to acquire the Meaning of Marriage (10/10). The book is based on a series of sermons that Tim Keller gave about being single and looking for love. I mentioned repeatedly that who you marry is just about the most important decision in your life – but the one more important may be that which affects your afterlife. Still, many faithful people have a version of the fantasy I described before regarding Mr. Darcy, except they assume their faith will lead them to the right person. I think the proper advice here is, as ever, pray as if it all depended on God, work as if it all depended on you. 


              Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is looking to get married? Or someone who should be? Or a parent who knows someone who should be?

              For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Five Love Languages. 

              I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

                If You’d Like To Be Liked

                The Gist: Honestly appreciate people.

                A review of How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

                If you’d like to be liked, Dale Carnegie says you already know the “greatest winner of friends the world has ever known.” Indeed, “You may meet him tomorrow coming down the street. When you get within ten feet of him, he will begin to wag his tail. If you stop and pat him, he will almost jump out of his skin to show you how much he likes you.” Yes, if you want to win friends and influence people, take as your model the family dog. 


                Figure 1. “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx.


                Carnegie’s fundamental advice in one of the best selling books of all time is really very simple: honestly appreciate people. Whenever you are going to talk to someone – even or perhaps especially if it’s a difficult conversation – think: what do you like about this person? At the very least, that will put you in the right mindset. And then as you meet, if you happen to think of something that is true, positive, and would be appreciated by the person, share it! As Megan McArdle observes, “‘You are amazing and here’s why’ never gets old.”


                Figure 2. In college, I got an internship with the White House Office of Political Affairs, which reported to Karl Rove. I told my grandmother what I’d be doing that summer and she, a lifelong Democrat, said that she could think of something nice to say about nearly everyone – but not Karl Rove. I inquired, “What about Stalin?” She replied, “He had a nice mustache.”


                A related mandate is to embrace curiosity and take a genuine interest in others. After all, everyone you meet knows something you don’t. (Unless you’re a teenager. Then you know everything already.) Personally, I am fascinated by what people actually do in their job day to day, rather than simply the topline on their resume – someone may tell you she’s a teacher, but of what topics and what ages and how many kids does she see per day and how is she evaluated and what does she think of homeschooling and, my gosh, I have a thousand questions!

                Carnegie advises that there’s another benefit: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Forget the basic small talk about the weather or the weekend. Move beyond the standard “how’s it going” “fine, you?” interaction. Caroline Webb advises to ask open questions “that can’t be answered with a yes or a no” and invite people “to share their thoughts, motivations, or feelings, rather than merely facts.” Find out what makes people come alive!


                Figure 3. I once had lunch with a man who most came alive when recalling his recreational visits to graveyards. Ironic? Sure. Atypical? Different from every other meal I’ve ever had. But bear in mind that one of the most famous subjects of classical literature came alive from graveyard visits.


                You may recall that this is a neat echo of Carnegie’s wonderful advice for giving a speech: find your passion and you can connect with an audience. Find your conversation partner’s passion and they can connect with you! You can even just directly ask: what are you currently excited about? What are you spending time thinking about? The results are often extraordinarily interesting. And Carnegie reminds us, “the royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most.” If it’s a commonality, you have a ready friendship. If it’s not, you can learn something new.

                Carnegie published his book in 1936 so we might add a particular exhortation: put away your phone and commit to being fully present with anyone you meet one study has found that even the mere presence of your digital device on a table can lessen people’s feelings of connection.  Focus instead entirely on the person in front of you – really intentionally listen to what they have to say and try to understand what values or goals you might have in common.

                Furthermore, be generally positive and specifically compassionate. Carnegie mentions you can’t wag your tail but you can and should smile to express your gratitude for someone’s time. Webb cites a study that found that “merely being near someone in a good mood can be enough to lift people’s motivation (and therefore their performance), and being near someone grumpy can do the opposite.” Remarkably “this happened even when people were working on completely different tasks—and it happened within five minutes, without any conversation.” But you of course will be having a conversation – so celebrate all the good things you can find going on in each other’s lives, laugh, swap stories and jokes. Olivia Fox Cabane defines charm as how delightful it is to interact with someone. Have a good time and you can give someone else the same.

                All of this is well and good but here we arrive at an insistence of Carnegie’s that clashes with my own personality: “You can’t win an argument.” Why not? Because at most you get “an academic, theatrical victory” but you lose “a person’s good will.” People don’t like to be wrong, or made to feel so. Warren Buffett considered this lesson one of the most profound of his life and he worked hard to change his natural tendency to be a contrarian so that he could win people over. 

                I haven’t quite followed that path as of yet, for better or worse. One interviewer set expectations in this way: “When you meet Grant Starrett, you’ll likely have two experiences: you’ll get in a debate with him, and you’ll like him.” Perhaps he was being generous. If he’s right, my guess is that humor plays a role. Or Bryan Caplan offers his own interpretation: “When Carnegie urges us to avoid argument, he primarily means a one-on-one attempt to reverse someone’s position even though at least one of you is upset.  He’s not against argumentative essays or public debates; neither does he oppose sportsmanlike conversations on controversial topics.” Indeed, Caplan argues that in a public debate, you want that theatrical victory. But in more personal settings, Carnegie’s warning should be in the back of your mind if tensions rise.

                Indeed, Carnegie’s very first piece of advice is to insist that you should not criticize, condemn, or complain. “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.” Carnegie holds up the example of Abraham Lincoln, who as a young lawyer was quite a vocal critic until he was drawn into a duel that was barely averted and vowed to change his ways. Your best bet is to take a cue from Lord Chesterfield: “Be wiser than other people if you can; but do not tell them so.”


                Figure 4. If you’d really like to restore civility to politics, take advice from Abe Lincoln and Zell Miller: a dueling society is a polite society.


                This may be sensible if your utmost goal is to get people to like you – no one likes getting criticized – but as a practical matter, I don’t think that a good boss, parent, or friend should avoid it entirely. In Kim Scott’s popular matrix, Carnegie’s advice can seem awfully close to “ruinous empathy” while she encourages you to move to “radical candor.” Given that Carnegie puts such an emphasis on authenticity, a careful and honest approach may still be kosher. Cabane suggests that, before you criticize, you have to get into the right mindset of compassion:  “When people feel that you have their best interests at heart, it can change the dynamic entirely.” In particular, “try thinking of a person whom you highly respect just before you deliver criticism” – like a favorite grandparent. “If you were to make this comment to them, or in front of them, how would you word your criticism?”

                Carnegie realizes that sometimes some sort of correction is needed but he encourages you to be indirect. You might engage someone socratically to raise questions they had not thought about and tease out nuance. Just make sure you truly understand their position: Marshall Rosenberg writes that “Studies in labor-management negotiations demonstrate that the time required to reach conflict resolution is cut in half when each negotiator agrees, before responding, to accurately repeat what the previous speaker had said.” Webb suggests “the trick is to express your views without making the other person wrong, by finding ways in which they could be (partly) right and building your suggestions around that.” Tell people what you like and then what would make you like it even more. 

                For Carnegie, the important thing is to allow people to save face. Rosenberg warns that “When we combine observation with evaluation, others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying.”  The marriage expert John Gottman suggests that a lot of perennial disagreements are unresolvable, but if you are going to raise something, follow a few intentional steps: soften your introduction to set the right tone and ask for permission for a discussion, identify a specific situation (not a general trait), acknowledge your own responsibility, describe your own feelings about it, and then specifically identify what you want done going forward. And if you are the one in the wrong, Carnegie encourages you to “admit it quickly and emphatically.” 

                Of course, all of Carnegie’s advice has to do with what I mentioned in the very first sentence: If you’d like to be liked. Honestly, I have mixed feelings about that goal as one to pursue above and beyond any else. It certainly is wonderful to be blessed with friends – and I’d certainly like to influence ideas. But I also am interested in pursuing truth, which often best emerges through argument and bringing up uncomfortable ideas. I’ve been told that it’s impossible to know me without becoming more conservative and the trick may be to try to disagree without being disagreeable. And yet sometimes when I think of Dale Carnegie, I think of Will Rogers, a charming humorist who claimed he never met a man he didn’t like – but he had met Mussolini

                The critic of capitalism Sinclair Lewis was also a critic of Carnegie, claiming that the advice above taught people to “smile and bob and pretend to be interested in other people’s hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them.” But I think Lewis misses the boat on this one – if there’s one thing Carnegie is very clear on, it’s to give honest and sincere and genuine appreciation and interest. This contrasts entirely against more manipulative advice built on insincerity. Relatedly, one of the reasons older people tend to be happier is that, over the years, they edit their friend group and spend more and more time with people they actually like.

                Bryan Caplan, another natural contrarian, has the most insightful take on Carnegie’s work. Caplan argues that likability is not the only key to success, but it is certainly one of the easiest ones. “If a toxic genius builds a multi-billion-dollar company, the reason is probably his genius – not his toxicity.  And though you can’t choose to be a genius, you can choose to treat others well.” Caplan suggests that “While [the Carnegie method] isn’t a good way to accurately assess another person, it’s a good way to make friends and influence people.” The “big picture” is to “Stop demanding reciprocation from others. Unilaterally smile.  Unilaterally show interest.  Unilaterally encourage others to talk about themselves.” Ask yourself: “Before you treat another person in a less-than-perfectly-pleasant way, always ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to accomplish?’  You’ll rarely have a good answer for yourself…. Before you speak to another person in a less-than-perfectly-pleasant way, always ask yourself, ‘Is there a more constructive way to say this?’” Ultimately, he teaches his “kids to be the kind of positive person we’re delighted to meet.” May you do the same!

                I’ll close with an anecdote about two different kinds of charm. In the late 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone were two giants of British politics and the great offices went back and forth between them. One woman managed to sit next to each at different occasions and reported: “After dining with Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest person in England. But after dining with Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in England.”

                How to win friends and influence people

                Figure 5. Click here to acquire How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Carnegie claims that he “hired a trained researcher to spend one and a half years in various libraries reading everything [he] had missed, plowing through erudite tomes on psychology, poring over hundreds of magazine articles, searching through countless biographies, trying to ascertain how the great leaders of all ages had dealt with people.” And, amazingly, they “read over one hundred biographies of Theodore Roosevelt alone.” Which is appropriate in that TR every night used to look at who he was meeting the next day and stay up late reading books about whatever they were interested in. I’ll leave you with perhaps Carnegie’s most famous line: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”


                Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend.

                I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

                  Bring Your Life Up To Code

                  The Gist: How computer programs can make a better you.

                  A review of Algorithms To Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths.

                  You might expect that the only use you have for a computer scientist is designing a better app. But he might be able to help you design a better you.


                  Figure 1. Especially if you’re a cyborg!


                  Programmer Brian Christian and cognitive scientist Tom Griffiths argue that “There is a particular set of problems that all people face, problems that are a direct result of the fact that our lives are carried out in finite space and time… For more than half a century, computer scientists have been grappling with, and in many cases solving, the equivalents of these everyday dilemmas.” Their book, Algorithms to Live By, is a survey of solutions to computer problems that have insightful things to say about human problems, like finding a mate or organizing your closet. And don’t be intimidated by the jargon: Oxford defines “algorithm” as a “A process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” Our authors insist: “When you cook bread from a recipe, you’re following an algorithm. When you knit a sweater from a pattern, you’re following an algorithm.” What other sets of rules might be helpful?


                  Figure 2. The computer scientist approach to romance is really quite simple – make a few billion dollars developing an extremely popular app, then maybe follow closely the steps described below, and you, too, could marry a supermodel


                  You could spend a lifetime searching for the perfect spouse or house; a computer could spend perhaps even longer time searching for the perfect solution to a query. To actually arrive at a good solution sometime soon, computer scientists have continuously explored the optimal time to stop and move on to other problems – and it turns out that there is a proven mathematical solution under certain conditions: review the first 37% of an expected total and then choose the next best option that is better than anything seen so far. Why does this work? Imagine you are trying to hire the best secretary – but with the condition that once you’ve dismissed a candidate, you cannot recall him.

                  “With just one applicant the problem is easy to solve—hire her! With two applicants, you have a 50/50 chance of success no matter what you do. You can hire the first applicant (who’ll turn out to be the best half the time), or dismiss the first and by default hire the second (who is also best half the time). Add a third applicant, and all of a sudden things get interesting. The odds if we hire at random are one-third, or 33%. With two applicants we could do no better than chance; with three, can we? It turns out we can, and it all comes down to what we do with the second interviewee. When we see the first applicant, we have no information—she’ll always appear to be the best yet. When we see the third applicant, we have no agency—we have to make an offer to the final applicant, since we’ve dismissed the others. But when we see the second applicant, we have a little bit of both: we know whether she’s better or worse than the first, and we have the freedom to either hire or dismiss her. What happens when we just hire her if she’s better than the first applicant, and dismiss her if she’s not? This turns out to be the best possible strategy when facing three applicants; using this approach it’s possible, surprisingly, to do just as well in the three-applicant problem as with two, choosing the best applicant exactly half the time.”

                  Notably, “Even when we act optimally in the secretary problem, we will still fail most of the time—that is, we won’t end up with the single best applicant in the pool.” In other words, your soulmate could have been in the first 37% of people you dated and you’ll never find another person better – or your soulmate could be the 39th person out of 100 you would have dated had you not married #38 because she was better than the previous 37. But, crucially, there’s actually no better method of improving your odds within the parameters. Of course, the parameters might not perfectly reflect the real world – if there’s a chance your best reject of the first 37% will take you back, then you could explore more options without trying to commit; but, on the other hand, if there’s a chance that your best options won’t actually agree to marry you (perhaps you’re in their first 37%) then you actually should explore less before trying to settle down.

                  A significant challenge comes if you don’t know the expected total: how can anyone guess, for example, the total number of people they’ll date in their lifetime? You could try to find an average or a proxy but the easiest expected total to examine is time. One way of looking at it is lifetime: if the average American male lives to 78, he has until just under 29 to explore and thereafter should marry his next best option; likewise, the average American woman lives to 81, suggesting she has until just under 30 to get the lay of the land – but this calculation does not take into account either the more narrow biological window for women having kids nor the economic reality that younger women tend to be able to date a larger pool of men. One might instead have a different model in mind: if one is absolutely determined to get married by a certain time – say 35 – then, factoring in only adult dating, the “better than before” optimal stopping age is 24.

                  Diamond ring

                  Figure 3. If lifetime is the proper window, then things worked out neatly for me but my younger wife apparently should have held off for more observation. She assures me, however, that she was on the accelerated timeline.


                  Regardless, the implications of a time-based plan are twofold: first, you should explore a great variety of options in your initial phase so you know what kind of options are available to you and what you want; second, as your time window closes, you may need to lower your standards to succeed. 

                  Inherently, the more you explore new options, the less likely they will be better than your familiar favorites – but everything that is currently a favorite was once new. So, front-load your exploration.Very amusingly, the mathematician who popularized this problem, Merrill Flood, introduced it in order to convince his daughter, who had just graduated high school but was in a serious relationship with an older man he did not approve of, to keep looking while she was still so young. Practically, if you’ve just moved to a city, you would do well to try out lots of different restaurants all at once – but by the time you’ve lived there for several years, the chances are that a new restaurant will not be as enjoyable as a favorite you’ve never had a bad experience with. Indeed, happiness researchers speculate that older people are happier partially because they’ve trimmed their social group and daily activities and spend most of their time with people they actually like doing things they want to do. In experiments where people try slot machines that have different pay-out rates than each other but the same over time, “people tend to over-explore—to favor the new disproportionately over the best.” But a dynamic situation – in which an individual slot machine’s pay-out rate differs over time – is impossible to perfectly optimize. That can be closer to actual life – but it does suggest that until your favorites disappoint, exploration after a certain point is overrated. 

                  Indeed, optimal stopping is trying to prevent you from over-exploring: once you’ve seen 37% of a group, you tend to have a good sense of what’s out there. When you find the next best thing, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: quit while you’re ahead. You should also beware the situation in which your exploration phase is meaningfully different from your decision phase – where, for whatever reason, the kind and quality of options you had available to you before are no longer available (and then perhaps you ought to reset the clock). If what you’re looking for is quantifiable, then the math is pretty straightforward – if you wanted to hire the secretary who was the best typist, regardless of other qualities, “the chance that our next applicant is in the 96th percentile or higher will always be 1 in 20… the decision of whether to stop comes down entirely to how many applicants we have left to see.” So, “when looking at the next-to-last applicant, the question becomes: is she above the 50th percentile? If yes, then hire her; if not, it’s worth rolling the dice on the last applicant instead, since her odds of being above the 50th percentile are 50/50 by definition.” For the quantifiable, the math rolls on easily: “you should choose the third-to-last applicant if she’s above the 69th percentile, the fourth-to-last applicant if she’s above the 78th, and so on, being more choosy the more applicants are left. No matter what, never hire someone who’s below average unless you’re totally out of options.” Notably, if you have this kind of specific information, your chance of getting the best option jumps considerably, up to 58% – and you might even adopt a rule that says if an option appears above a certain threshold, it should be instantly taken. For the less quantifiable, you might chance committing to a dream option in the exploration phase – but as the commitment phase drags on without an obviously superior option, you might need to reconsider what you’re looking for.

                  So far we’ve been considering searching for new intrigues like restaurants and romances but computer science can also tell us how to best organize (for best search) things stored in email inboxes, closets, and bookshelves – and it turns out that the best method for sorting is often not to sort at all. “Sorting something that you will never search is a complete waste; searching something you never sorted is merely inefficient.” How often are you trying to find a specific book on your personal shelves? Consider the opportunity cost: “we search with our quick eyes and sort with slow hands.” You should be especially wary as the size of the organizing task grows – the more stuff there is, the greater multiple of wrong places each item could be. Christian and Griffiths argue further that for your own inbox or computer, it’s often faster simply to use a search bar than to devote lots of ongoing time meticulously grouping everything into folders.


                  Figure 4. The post-laundry optimal sorting of “‘socks confound[s] me!’ confessed legendary cryptographer and Turing Award-winning computer scientist Ron Rivest… He was wearing sandals at the time.”


                  You may be determined to get organized – and maybe you have to because you’re running out of room. I’ve previously reviewed (and enjoyed) Marie Kondo’s Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the main advice of which is to only keep things that spark joy – but Kondo also has detailed instructions as to how to beautifully organize your closets according to the colors and types of items. Computer scientists reject beauty in favor of utility because there’s a significant trade-off between computer performance and storage capacity. And apparently innumerable studies have shown that the most efficient way to organize is to sort everything such that your most recently used items are the most convenient. Or, to put it in more familiar closet purging terminology, the winning question is: “When was the last time you wore it?” Notably, demonstrably less efficient means of purging include random removal, getting rid of the oldest stuff, and even getting rid of the least frequently used stuff (but computer scientists appear not yet to have tested the efficiency of “spark joy.”)


                  Figure 5. The computer scientist who arrived at the “least recently used” optimization was a Hungarian named Lazlo Belady who fled Hungary in 1956 with nothing more than “one change of underwear” and his thesis. In 1961, he managed to get into the United States but only with “his wife, an infant son, and $1,000.” Christian and Griffiths note: “It seems he had acquired a finely tuned sense of what to keep and what to leave behind by the time he found himself at IBM, working on cache eviction.” 


                  An overarching theme of the book is to be computationally kind to yourself and others. “One of the implicit principles of computer science, as odd as it may sound, is that computation is bad: the underlying directive of any good algorithm is to minimize the labor of thought.” Humans can easily be overloaded: “With one ball in the air, there’s enough spare time while that ball is aloft for the juggler to toss some others upward as well. But what if the juggler takes on one more ball than he can handle? He doesn’t drop that ball; he drops everything. The whole system, quite literally, goes down.” Unfortunately, humans can’t simply get more RAM – “we’re stuck with what we got.” Computers avoid getting thrashed by doing fewer things at once and coalescing similar tasks to do together  – which neatly echoes the best of self-help: focus on one thing at a time, be willing to say no to things outside your core interests, and group tasks to minimize switching costs. Work on whatever you are most passionate about, decline invitations to less important activities, and treat your email like your mailbox by checking it once a day. If that’s hard given your responsibilities, do your best:

                  “For your computer, the annoying interruption that it has to check on [is] you. You might not move the mouse for minutes or hours, but when you do, you expect to see the pointer on the screen move immediately, which means the machine expends a lot of effort simply checking in on you. The more frequently it checks on the mouse and keyboard, the quicker it can react when there is input, but the more context switches it has to do. So the rule that computer operating systems follow when deciding how long they can afford to dedicate themselves to some task is simple: as long as possible without seeming jittery or slow to the user…To find this balancing point, operating systems programmers have turned to psychology, mining papers in psychophysics for the exact number of milliseconds of delay it takes for a human brain to register lag or flicker. There is no point in attending to the user any more often than that… The moral is that you should try to stay on a single task as long as possible without decreasing your responsiveness below the minimum acceptable limit. Decide how responsive you need to be—and then, if you want to get things done, be no more responsive than that.”

                  “We can be ‘computationally kind’ to others by framing issues in terms that make the underlying computational problem easier.” You’ll get better results asking for something specific and easily answerable (“Are you available Tuesday at 2 PM?”) then something general that requires much more cognitive work (“When are you available in the next few weeks?”) Or to use another example: if a group of friends (or couple) is trying to decide where to eat or what movie to watch or what to do, the least empathetic answer is some punting version of “I don’t know, I’m flexible – what do you want to do?” which translates into “Here’s a problem, you handle it.” The much better option is to answer “Personally, I’m inclined toward x. What do you think?” Trying to guess what others want is one of the most difficult computational issues there is – help others out! Indeed, this is why you need to tell your loved ones what you want for Christmas.

                  Because of the prospect of overload, simple systems are very often much better than complex systems. “A theme that came up again and again in [their] interviews with computer scientists was: sometimes ‘good enough’ really is good enough” Harry Markowitz won the Nobel prize in economics for demonstrating that diversifying across risky assets could produce a superior, less risky return – but his personal investments were actually a very simple 50/50 split between US stocks and bonds and he did just fine. For most people whose heads hurt when they have to think about money, they’ll be far better off with a set-it-and-forget-it diversified self-balancing index than trying to manage it closely themselves.


                  Figure 6. You just need to be careful that you don’t “overfit” your goals by creating the wrong incentives for your organization or overzealously pursuing one thing at the expense of others (such as taking unhealthy steroids to build muscles.) A fear among futurists is that some mega-computer is going to someday be directed to maximize pencil production and then bulldoze everyone’s home for the wood (perhaps with you in it because you’re wasting pencils). 


                  Consistent with the overarching theme of doing less computing, if you do need to solve a really hard problem, the experience of computer science would tell you to first make the problem less hard and solve that first. In “constraint relaxation,” ask yourself how you’d take on a challenge if you had unlimited resources or if you could instantly learn a new skill or whatever and you may very well find that you’re well on your way to figuring out how to overcome your issue.


                  Figure 7. Just don’t start executing as if the constraint doesn’t exist at all, a la South Park gnomes’ problematic plan: Step 1 – Collect underpants. Step 2 – ? Step 3 – Profit


                  Christian and Griffith have got lots of other advice from computer science – about how to best do your laundry (find “the single step that takes the least amount of time—the load that will wash or dry the quickest. If that shortest step involves the washer, plan to do that load first. If it involves the dryer, plan to do it last”), run auctions (everyone should submit their best price with the anticipation that the highest bidder will pay whatever the second highest bidder proposed), or manage your to do list (if a low priority thing is preventing a high priority thing, low becomes high – but 84% of scheduling problems have not settled on an optimal solution) They’ve got complaints – about sports tournaments (which are not optimized to ensure the best team prevails, for better or worse), about libraries and bookstores (which should display the most recently returned/bought books up front, not the newest acquisitions), and about people’s approach to gambling (slot machines are memoryless and so you can never improve your odds – because there is no optimal stopping point, you probably should never start). But let’s conclude where we began, with romance:

                  A game-theoretic argument for love would highlight one further point: marriage is a prisoner’s dilemma in which you get to choose the person with whom you’re in cahoots. This might seem like a small change, but it potentially has a big effect on the structure of the game you’re playing. If you knew that, for some reason, your partner in crime would be miserable if you weren’t around—the kind of misery even a million dollars couldn’t cure—then you’d worry much less about them defecting and leaving you to rot in jail.

                  algorithms to live by

                  Figure 8. Click here to acquire Christian and Griffith’s Algorithms to Live By (8/10). I very much appreciated the idea of trying to apply solutions in one field to a much broader array – and I wish there were more quality books from a variety of professions that did this. Note that if you are absolutely determined to organize your bookshelves, apparently the best algorithm is “mergesort” where you divide your books into approximately equal piles, ideally recruit as many volunteers as piles, sort each pile, then combine the piles two at a time.


                  Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is unmarried and wants to optimize their dating? Or anybody you try to do things with? How about someone with a closet of finite space?

                  For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Tech-Wise Family, which includes 7 specific and escalating steps to spend less time with your favorite screen. 

                    Let Me Follow My Bent

                    The Gist: What happens if kids have no curriculum at all?

                    A review of multiple books, most notably Unschooled by Kerry McDonald.

                    “Nancy was concerned for her son. At eight years old, in school for the first time in his life, Tom was not doing well. After three months, his teacher, Mr. Engle, called him ‘addled,’ or unable to think clearly. Tom had spent his childhood up to that point freely playing and exploring near his home, and he found the adjustment to school difficult. He especially disliked the emphasis on sitting, memorizing, and repeating, and he found the teacher’s ways harsh and rigid. Tom was miserable. Nancy went to speak to Mr. Engle about her son, but she was turned off by his sharp ways. Frustrated by the teacher’s tactics and his low opinion of her son, Nancy removed Tom from school and homeschooled him. Thomas Edison was done being schooled.

                    At home, free to be a curious boy once again, Edison developed a passion for books and knowledge. Nancy mostly allowed Tom to learn naturally, following his own interests. Edison biographer Matthew Josephson writes that ‘she avoided forcing or prodding and made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history that she had learned to love.’ A former teacher, Nancy Edison facilitated her son’s learning by noticing the things that interested him and gathering books and resources to help him explore those topics more fully. Tom became a voracious reader, reading at age nine the great works of Dickens and Shakespeare and many others. Also at nine, Tom became interested in science, so his mother brought him a book on the physical sciences… and he performed every experiment within it. This led to a passion for chemistry, so his mother gathered more books for him. Edison spent all of his extra money to buy chemicals from a local pharmacist and to purchase science equipment, and he conducted his first experiments in a makeshift lab in his home’s basement while still just a tween. Josephson writes that in allowing Edison so much freedom and autonomy, his mother ‘brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path.’ Edison himself wrote about his mother: ‘She understood me; she let me follow my bent.’”


                    Figure 1. Enlightened learning in this case led to much broader enlightenment.


                    This story about Thomas Edison is provided by homeschooling mother of four and Harvard education school graduate Kerry McDonald in her book Unschooled and demonstrates an especially different approach to education in which children self-direct their own learning. But – my gosh! – if children choose what to do day in and day out, will they learn anything at all? Won’t kids endlessly play games, fail to get into college (much less the Ivy of their parents’ dreams), and then be totally unprepared for the “real world” that awaits them in adulthood? There is a really small sample size of kids who are brought up this way but advocates claim that trusting children yields amazing results. Whether you’re prepared to completely abandon the traditional curriculum or not, there’s something to learn from their experiences.

                    It’s probably worthwhile exploring the origin story of the Sudbury Valley School, one of the rare institutions that practices unschooling. Daniel Greenberg was a popular physics professor at Columbia University who became frustrated that his students “seemed motivated to get the highest grades they could while learning the least possible amount of the subject matter.” Students gave him high marks for teaching but practically none used his class as inspiration to read and learn deeper about physics outside his curriculum. Greenberg became convinced that conventional school had so strangled the natural curiosity of kids that college was much too late to fix them and so he abandoned his prestigious position to found Sudbury, a 10 acre campus in rural Massachusetts. His ideal was “a free market place of ideas, a free enterprise system of talents” where “students should be free to explore any ideas that engage their interests” and, incredibly, without any required curriculum at all. Operating since 1968, about 75% of alumni have gone on to college and, according to one survey done by Boston College psychologist and Sudbury parent Dr. Peter Gray, the vast majority have been “remarkably successful in finding employment that interested them and earned them a living.”


                    Figure 2. I once took a seminar on the history of Chinese-American relations in which one of my peers soon confessed that she was a proud “panda-hugger” who adored the People’s Republic. That description seemed to capture the mood of the class, except for myself and a couple of others who vigorously dissented against the party line (thankfully, there was no Cultural Revolution to dispense with us.) My professor was not exactly sympathetic to the minority. At one point, he proposed a rule that each person get equal time to air their views; I countered that each view deserved equal time and there wasn’t much learning from continuous echoes. But, more remarkably, he asked me to stop reading material outside the curriculum because my unique knowledge of the area disadvantaged my classmates.


                    What unschooling relies on is children’s natural curiosity about how the world works – and then fanning that curiosity into a roaring flame. As McDonald insists, “The deepest, most meaningful, most enduring learning is the kind of learning that is self determined.” Adults unschooling kids do three things: model the behaviors you want your kids to pursue, give your kids a rich variety of opportunities to explore, and empower your kids to chase their curiosities to the maximum.


                    Figure 3. Be an arsonist of curiosity! 


                    John Holt, who became so frustrated with conventional school that he helped popularize homeschooling as an alternative, described an incredible semester at an open-minded 1960s-era elementary school in which the teacher was in the habit of writing down any unanswered questions that her children had on big pieces of paper hung around their homeroom, to be investigated at leisure as much as children’s curiosity persisted. One spring, as children put away their winter clothes, one asked why they could not be washed. “Many of them knew that it was because the wool would shrink. But why did wool shrink?” The class wrote a letter to the state university asking for use of a microscope, which eventually arrived. The kids excitedly learned how to use the microscope and soon examined “wool fibers before and after washing,” followed by a “number of other fabrics,” noticing differences based on how they were woven. So these elementary school children then decided that they wanted to learn how to weave, wrote another letter to get raw wool, “washed it, carded it, spun it, and wove it.” One kid “thought it would be interesting to find out how much work it would take to make the cloth” and so they tracked the man hours to produce one “small square of cloth” and were shocked to discover it was 72! They then got interested in calculating “how long would it take to make a whole suit,” which “brought in a good deal of arithmetic, plus the problem of calculating the area of an odd-shaped object.” Once discovered, “they began to wonder how people like the early colonists ever managed to find time to make their own clothes” and researched history, which led to both to looking at the innovations of time-saving devices and labor relations, even prompting a class field trip to a textile mill. From there, they researched how to dye their cloth (which led to an exploration of botany); then they got interested in the diversity of wool and wondered why different kinds cost different prices, so one kid began to map out the origins of wool across the world, others investigated the different animals wool came from and how hard they were to raise. They did all this while investigating other questions of interest. “In a year the class of thirty-five children borrowed seven hundred books.”

                    Warren Buffett

                    Figure 4. Sure, this sounds like an impressive semester. But, with just a little more effort, the class could have discovered the undervalued textile mill stock Berkshire Hathaway.


                    Perhaps the most vital skills your child should learn are literacy and numeracy – both subjects wind up being tested ahead of college (for now) but they are also genuinely useful in the real world. Unschooling seizes on that second point: showing your kids the actual uses you and they have for math and reading will be infinitely more engaging than a compulsory examination of abstract blackboard formulas or reading at a preset pace a boring book of no special relevance or interest. Between kindergarten and 6th grade, the average Tennessean spends over 7,000 hours attending school. But according to award-winning public school teacher John Taylor Gatto, “reading, writing, and arithmetic only take about one hundred hours to transmit as long as the audience is eager and willing to learn. The trick is to wait until someone asks and then move fast while the mood is on.” Sudbury more specifically reports that “it takes about twenty hours to learn the entire K–6 mathematics curriculum when a child is interested in learning it.”

                    Many unschoolers initially get excited about math due to interest in games – adding and subtracting from their Monopoly money, calculating probability for Dungeons and Dragons dice rolls, comparing on base percentages for baseball players. McDonald insists that her kids just treat math workbooks as fun puzzles to work on, the same way you might fill in the daily crossword for your own fun. The idea is to explicitly discuss all the math around your kids – the measuring and timing of daily cooking, the list-making and bargain-hunting of weekly shopping – and then cultivate their interests until the political kid examines campaign contributions and creates a pie chart of the federal budget, the budding businesswoman follows stock market price-to-earnings ratios and learns accounting, the hands-on tinkerer reads manuals and takes apart and rebuilds equipment to precision. Notably, unschoolers are openly skeptical that every child should study all advanced math that never comes up in day to day life – if a child loves the subject and wants to study it further, by all means, they should do so; if a teenager wants to go to a college with certain requirements they have not yet hit, they’ll be incentivized to hit them on their own.

                    Ace of spades

                    Figure 5. One economist helpfully suggests making bets with your kids. This can be especially profitable shortly after a birthday check arrives from Grandma: kids make perfect poker marks!


                    Meanwhile, perhaps the primary motivation for unschoolers to read is envy. In an institution like Sudbury, children “became motivated to read primarily by observing older students reading and talking about what they had read.” As one reported, “I wanted the same magic they had; I wanted to join that club.” In a home, if you want your children to read, you should read – yes, aloud to them, but also tell them about what you’re reading and let them see you read and let them see the fruits of your reading, including the books spread across the house for little hands to thumb through. The same principle applies if a particular subject is important to you: if you want your kids to love the Gospel, then make it a center of your home with your own personal Bible study, grace at meals, your own prayer at bedtime, etc. If you really want your child to love reading, let them read what they’d like. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Samuel Johnson is “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history;” he advised:

                    “I would put a child into a library (where no unfit books are) and let him read at his choice. A child should not be discouraged from reading anything that he takes a liking to, from a notion that it is above his reach. If that be the case, the child will soon find it out and desist; if not, he of course gains the instruction; which is so much the more likely to come, from the inclination with which he takes up the study”

                    Once they have the basics, the world is their oyster! Gatto insists anything in the world of any significance is accessible to a 13 year old mind – the question, as ever, is what engages your child’s ambition and delight? Gatto recalls that “until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all” and that “only a few lifetimes ago, things were very different in the United States. Originality and variety were common currency.” Draw attention to the heroes of America: “A considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln…” And, yes, these are exceptional historical figures who had meaningfully different experiences from contemporaries who instead had to spend their time cultivating fields or practicing a trade – but presumably your kids don’t have to do those things, either. Indeed, “if David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do.” 

                    This flexibility can lead to kids truly pursuing their passions. At Sudbury, “Classes in specific subjects are offered when students request them, but no one is required or particularly encouraged to join a class and many students never join one. Classes have no formal status and last only as long as student interest lasts.” One girl, Carol, “developed a love of boats,” first playing with small models in a pond on campus but later “took advantage of the school’s open-campus policy to spend as much time as possible at a nearby seacoast area, where she studied navigation and sailing.” She became captain of a cruise ship. Another girl, Fran, got fascinated with making clothes for her dolls, “then, as a teenager, she began making clothes for herself and her friends.” She graduated to become a “master patternmaker and head of a facility in the high-fashion clothing industry.” One boy, Henry, was enchanted with science and biology – and was able to regularly retrieve dead animals for dissection. He wound up becoming a successful mortician!


                    Figure 6. A tad more challenging, at least for a muggle, would be if your child is primarily interested in a wizarding career. To this end, you may instead embrace the advice of Cal Newport, who argued that most people’s biggest passions (such as sports or movies) do not have commensurate employment opportunities and that you should instead focus on what you’re good at. But don’t count out flexibility! Perhaps your child may become, if not a wizard, a magician.


                    The core of unschooling involves entrusting children with responsibility with the understanding that it’s the best preparation for adulthood they could receive. In Gray’s survey,

                    “Graduates explained that at Sudbury Valley they had always had to make their own decisions about how to spend their time, that there was nobody to blame but themselves for mistakes they made, and that they had had to work through the school’s democratic procedures for any changes they had wanted in the school. The resultant sense of personal responsibility remained with them, they said, and served them well in higher education and employment.”

                    But if your kid does not have a particular, immediate focus to pursue to the ends of the earth, then try to draw it out. At its purest, unschooling repositions education as an invitation – for better or worse, “A primary characteristic of unschooling is its emphasis on noncoercive education, or the ability to say no.” McDonald offers the analogy of a museum: 

                    “Information, exhibits, and lectures are offered, usually centered on the museum’s focus (art, science, nature), and museum guides are available to answer questions or lead a demonstration. Nothing is forced. If you want to explore a particular exhibit for a long period of time and ignore the other ones, you can. If you want to spend time in the contemporary art wing and ignore the impressionist painters, go for it. If you want to listen to a lecture on animal behavior or do a hands-on geology activity, it’s there for you. If you don’t want to, that’s OK too. You can come and go as you choose. The museum won’t cajole you or evaluate what you know. With unschooling, as with museum learning, resources, materials, and opportunities are made widely available for exploration and discovery—without coercion.”

                    For reasons that are probably obvious, the small number of kids who are unschooled can underperform conventionally schooled kids on early standardized tests (though those conventionally schooled kids underperform structured homeschoolers). Unschoolers are not especially concerned. William Stixrud argues that “brain development makes it easier to learn virtually everything (except foreign languages) as we get older.” Gatto notes that there was no widespread formal schooling in the American colonies, yet literacy was near-universal among free adults. When it matters, it will come – and stay. “Most of us learned the periodic table through a preestablished schooling curriculum with various learning objectives and assessments. How much do you remember? In one family McDonald describes, most of the kids learned to read early – but, incredibly, the parents let one kid’s illiteracy persist until he was 13 – at that time, he really wanted to read his sports schedule – and he went from reading Dr. Seuss to Shakespeare in a matter of weeks.

                    Now, I don’t know about you, but I personally would have a difficult time letting illiteracy persist into teenage years. My own read on unschooling is that it can give you hope that if a complete abandonment of the traditional curriculum seems to work out not too shabbily, giving kids substantial autonomy to pursue their interests within the broad goals of advancing literacy and numeracy offers a lot of promise. If our goal is to teach kids how to effectively communicate ideas, I don’t mind if they read and write about topics that they themselves are curious about rather than are imposed upon them – but I do rather think they may need the broad requirement to indeed read and write on a regular basis. I’ve reviewed the work of the economist Bryan Caplan before on how schools are wasting lots of time – he homeschooled his kids and gave them lots of flexibility on what to read but required that they do math problem sets for at least 90 minutes a day. But beyond those basics – read, write, and calculate – there’s a lot of room for parents to curate kids’ adventures and curiosities.

                    There are still other elements of unschooling that I have mixed feelings about.

                    Unschoolers are very wary of evaluation. At Sudbury, there are two exceptions: “students who wish to use expensive or potentially dangerous equipment… must first become ‘certified’… by proving they can use it appropriately” and, if they wish to acquire a diploma, they must “prepare and defend a thesis explaining why they are ready to graduate and how they have prepared themselves for responsible adult life outside of the school” – to be graded by outside reviewers not present at the school. Unschoolers do this because they want kids to constantly explore their curiosity rather than chase grades and scores. They also argue that testing does not necessarily enforce genuine learning and that it’s artificially outside the real world experience with arbitrary restrictions (such as forbidding the use of calculators or notes). They also point to evidence that the very act of knowing you’re being evaluated has two effects: people are generally less creative and novices in particular underperform. But on the flip side of that equation, experts actually perform better when they know they’re being evaluated. My sense is that mastery requires relatively constant feedback on performance and I am not sure, based on my reading, whether unschoolers reject that entirely or are open-minded to it so long as kids are actively asking for it. 

                    Unschoolers are also quite zealous about the opportunity for kids to play – some of the benefits of which you may very well agree with. Gray argues:

                    “Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates. In vigorous outdoor play, children deliberately dose themselves with moderate amounts of fear—as they swing, slide, or twirl on playground equipment, climb on monkey bars or trees, or skateboard down banisters—and they thereby learn how to control not only their bodies, but also their fear. In social play children learn how to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate and overcome the anger that can arise from conflicts.”

                    Sudbury believes that free play is especially powerful for kids playing with other kids, especially of mixed age and without adult interference (in other words, a pick-up sandlot baseball game rather than Little League). Sudbury believes that by mixing children of different ages, younger children can get exposure to advanced topics familiar to their older peers and also be effectively taught by near-peers who might better understand their difficulties. Further, mixing ages allows younger children to participate in activities that would otherwise be beyond their skill level, such as a game of catch where their throws aren’t very precise. Meanwhile, older children get the benefit of reinforcing their skills by teaching younger kids, apparently inducing more nurturing behavior. Younger children also apparently inspire older kids to be more creative. For better or worse, Sudbury also rejects adult-organized sports in order to foster kids’ ownership of their activities, including negotiating mutually satisfactory conclusions to disputes. There are some interesting arguments here and I am quite open-minded to letting kids play but I am not quite there at letting it go on indefinitely and I do wonder if fully embracing every kid’s opportunity to exit at any time undermines resilience.  Of course, all of these benefits of play with other kids can be more difficult to regularly achieve in a homeschooling environment.


                    Figure 7. The real question is how kids on the sandlot resolve the infield fly rule.   


                    I suspect, however, that there is a bigger problem: what if a kid only wants to play video games? At Sudbury, “all [kids] have unlimited access to computers and television, and almost all of them play and enjoy video games.” Unschoolers argue that it’s essential to give kids exposure to and understanding of the tools of the adult world – and that prohibition may even make tech more appealing. Sudbury further reports that kids are learning to read faster as a result of early exposure to social media – and various authors cite additional benefits to video gaming, including problem solving and hand-eye coordination. One homeschooling parent suggests that her kids were inspired by playing video games to learn Japanese, take music lessons to be able to play the theme song to their favorites, and work to earn money for more games. And, ultimately, Sudbury argues that, for most kids, video games are a release from their hyper-controlled daily life, the digital realm being a place where they can “make their own decisions and strive to meet challenges that they themselves have chosen. At school and in other adult-dominated contexts they may be treated as idiots who need constant direction, but in the game they are in charge and can solve difficult problems and exhibit extraordinary skills.” Sudbury reports that their students strike a healthy balance – and indeed prefer to be out in the woods playing with their friends than playing a game. Unschoolers generally advise that as kids are given control over their time, the appeal of screens dissipate. 

                    I am not so sure. If you look at time data on unemployed adult men, who have presumably complete control over their time, they are spending 7.5 hours a day on leisure via screens. Further, as Stixrud notes, “If you’re a kid, the formula begins to look like this: the more technology you use, the poorer your self-regulation. The more technology you use, the worse your executive function (your Pilot). This matters a lot; self-regulation and executive function are about twice as good predictors of academic success as IQ at all grade levels, including college.” Screen leisure has significant opportunity cost: sleep and time in real life with family and friends, not to mention reading, writing, and math. I’ve reviewed Andy Crouch’s thoughtful take on technology for families before – and he recommends a total prohibition on kids using screens until age 10, with limits thereafter. I also think of the neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was doing pretty poorly in conventional school until his mother limited his television time and required that he write for her two book reports a week and – wouldn’t you know it? – his grades improved as he went on to bigger and better things.

                    Amidst all their trust for kids, unschoolers do like to cite the doctrine of A.S. Neill, who said he gave the children at his British boarding (un)school Summerhill, “freedom, not license” – that is, responsibility, not permissiveness. It meant that kids were welcome to play the trumpet – but not in the middle of the night when people were trying to sleep. It also meant that kids were welcome to swear – but were not allowed to insult each other. A related concept is distinguishing hazards and risks: “The minute a child thinks an adult is in charge of the space, and in charge of determining risks, setting limits, and managing conflicts, the play space can become both more sterile and more dangerous. In such instances, the responsibility for safety rests outside the child.” All of which sounds like at least some cabining of total freedom, except that Summerhill allegedly permitted underage sex and had anarchic problems associated with its completely democratic operating structure (in which students, outnumbering teachers by a significant margin, exercised full power – Sudbury operates similarly but without the same reported problems). As if that wasn’t enough, some of its teachers were prominent British Communists and Neill himself was sympathetic – though, to his credit, he realized that his anarchic school was rather inconsistent with totalitarian Stalinism.

                    All of which is to say: I both recognize the benefits of play but also think it ought to have limitations – that kids should be directed to learn but with empowerment to take that whatever direction they might. Especially with more structure, I don’t think college should be much of a problem – McDonald reports that one successful applicant remarked “For my application transcript, my dad and I sat down and tried to list out all of the books I had read. Books were my curriculum.” The standard curriculum has problems – especially if it is true that it teaches in 7,000 hours what only takes 100. Ultimately, trusting kids to pursue their own interests has great promise, especially in that it much better prepares them for the “real world” than the compulsory abstractions of conventional school.


                    Figure 8. Click here to acquire Unschooled by Kerry McDonald, a Harvard education school graduate and homeschooling mom of four. In addition to her overview of how to unschool your kids at home, she also thinks ahead to a broader reform: “When trying to envision what an unschooled future might look like, public libraries are ideal examples. Publicly funded, sometimes supplemented by private donations, libraries are free, self-directed learning spaces in the truest sense.”

                    Free to learn

                    Figure 9. Click here to acquire Free to Learn by Dr. Peter Gray, a Boston College psychologist who sent his son to Sudbury Valley School. Much of the book is a profile of how the school works, though he does begin with some underwhelming anthropology about the nature of childhood. Gray rather boldly predicts that most schools will adopt the Sudbury model in the decades to come – but also notes that at Sudbury, there’s quite a bit of self-selection going on, with about half the students having trouble in conventional school before arriving and the other half being the children of true-believing parents. To give you a sense of how much he entrusted his son with responsibility, I relay this anecdote:

                    When he was thirteen, my son went to London for two weeks by himself. I must admit, that was back in 1982, when it was easier to be a trustful parent than it is today. He had approached his mom and me in the spring, when he was still twelve, with this proposal. He would earn all the money for the trip himself, so we couldn’t use cost as an excuse to stop him. He would plan the whole trip himself—in fact, he had already planned much of it. He wanted to prove to himself that he could organize and do something this complicated without adult help. He also wanted to see certain castles and museum treasures, which he had been reading about and which were prominent in the Dungeons and Dragons games he played. He had never been abroad. Neither, for that matter, had his mom or I.


                    Figure 10. Click here to acquire How Children Learn, by John Holt, an educator who helped popularize homeschooling. The book is a bit odd, sometimes reading like diary entries of interactions with specific children, other times having general observations of education. The edition I read also included commentary by Holt more than a decade after he first wrote the book about how his thinking had developed – and that actually was often quite interesting as a contrast. Holt said: “this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult.”  Holt was an advocate of youth rights and believed that “A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing. Why can’t we make more use of this great drive for understanding and competence?” Kids needed to get real exposure to the real world because “[Children] want to be able to do what the bigger people around them do—read, write, go places, use tools and machines. Above all, they want, like the big people, to control their immediate physical lives, to stand, sit, walk, eat, and sleep where and when they want.


                    Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone who is a parent? How about a grandparent? How about anyone who is a former child?

                    For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Case Against Education