Friday, May 6, 2016

Beans and Economics and Law and Purity


12 years ago, I pulled this direct mail ad for Crisco 1916 out of an old family trunk that also contained 1000 family letters from Richmond, Quebec, 300 from the 1908-1913 era. Because I am a former advertising writer I found the Crisco ad intriguing. Otherwise I may have let sleeping letters lie and there would be no books on the Nicholsons of Richmond, Que on Amazon Kindle.


I've been reading up on the law with online courses, and I just took a course on Law and Economics on Coursera.

This line of thinking has been very popular among law scholars: it says people act based on some kind of  cost/benefit analysis, formal or informal.

Interesting, elegant theory, except at gut level it makes no sense to me, and, of course, lots of better informed people agree.

I was an advertising writer and if that profession teaches you anything it is that people do NOT behave rationally.

Anyway, that one Law and Economics Course led me to two articles that suggest that human behavior is subject to certain behavioral quirks, explaining why we take out credit cards with 19% interest when we are essentially broke or why we buy lottery tickets.

We think we are above the math.

One article revealed that prospective law-breakers can sense the difference between a 1 and a 2 year punitive sentence but a five year sentence seems no worse than a 2 year sentence.

Take that economists!


If there are, indeed, rational criminals, I imagine they are living in big houses in tax-write off paradises like Bermuda.

Over the years, while researching the Nicholson Family letters from 1910, I have read a lot of advertisements from the 20th century.

In the early days, say around 1900, advertisers did try to influence consumers by giving them 'all of the information'.

Blah blah blah blah blah. " Buying canned beans will save you time, because beans take a long time to make."

Then J. Walter Thompson figured out that 'lifestyle' advertising, with a large visual component and few words worked much, much better.

"Heinz beans are as good as your home-made beans, don't worry, no one will know that you shirked your duty as a wife and mother."

Always my belief is people have basic human needs for which they substitute stuff, and if your product promises to fill these needs, they'll buy the product.

Maslow's hierarchy is it? Power, Love, Work, Belonging. (It's been 40 years since I read that book.)

Sorry all you Protestant Puritan Men from America's Past who say it's all about land and money and efficiency. (Maybe it is when all other things are equal, in an homogenous society where everyone follows the same rules.)

"Coke is happiness" is a slogan used back in 1900 and it's still in use today. So, I guess this essentially meaningless slogan really works.

It is possible that Coke really was happiness in 1880, before they took the opiates out, but from then on it was coloured soda water filled with increasing amounts of sugar, that give you a modest high from the sugar and then a low.

The two articles I just read explained that people, apart from generally being lousy at statistics, have an inherent sense of fairness, a very good thing.

 (July 2000 Law and Behavioral Science: Removing the Rationality Assumption from Law and Economics Russell B. Korobkin Thomas S. Ulen and 1-1-1998 A Behavioral Approach to Law and Economics Christine Jolls Yale Law School Cass R. Sunstein csunstei@law.harvard.edu Richard Thaler richard.thaler@chicagobooth.edu)

This reminds me of another excellent short course I took online, one that I did all the tests for, actually, Paul Bloom's Moralities of Everyday Life. Also Coursera. (Here is a link to his book about Babies and Morality.)

Human beings, Bloom's studies have shown,  are hard-wired for certain moral biases. Four good ones like the need for fairness and one not so good, the anti-dirt instinct, which has been used throughout history against 'the other' all too often.

Of course, middle-class housewives, as an all-too-true cliche rule,  have used this moral bias against each other.


Even dogs have a sense of fairness, apparently. (I believe that animals are given short-shrift in the Environmental Law.)

Anyway, the Nicholsons of the Letters were Isle of Lewis Scottish Presbyterians who thought they had a final word on morality. Hence the 1900 Purity and Eugenics Movements.

In 1910, there was a PURITY movement echoed in many of the era adverts: purity wasn't only about food, but about women, thoughts and, ah, society.

Read Light in Dark Places, a book that was very popular among such people in 1910 Canada, a time that was seeing mass immigration of people of diverse cultural beliefs.

Light in Dark Places states that "self-control" is what keeps you out of prison. There's even a drawing of a man rotting in a jail cell.

Sounds like that famous Socratic dialogue, where the Philospher says people are 'just' when they can control their passions and wait for rewards, arguing with What's His Name who says it is all about what you can get away with at any given time.

Too bad Herbert Nicholson, the only son of Norman and Margaret Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec, my husband's great-grand parents, lacked in the self-control department: he stole $60.00 from the bank where he was working and had to quickly 'move out West.' It's all in the letters.

Luckily, his family was well-connected so he wasn't put in jail, like so many others would have been.

But, even mother Margaret's pleas to the local MP, E.W Tobin couldn't get Herb re-instated at the bank.

Margaret actually thought her son was innocent, that he had only 'borrowed' the money like he claimed.

 (His father, Norman, was in painful debt most of his life, but dutifully paid his creditors and worked until he died in 1922 at age 72.  He kept all the dreadful details in his many log books, including a complete list of family expenses from 1883 to 1921.)

After all, Margaret believed, they were good moral people, and devoted parents, so their son couldn't possibly be a crook.

(Herbert had debts (from women? from gambling?) which brought the entire family down in the 1910 era, and still his Mother forgave him. (This according to my husband's relations.) He went on to shaft naive immigrant farmers out West in and around 1915 (it's in his letters) and also to become successful in real estate in Vancouver. He died in California, Long Beach.

His letters show he felt sorry for himself, but in one 1915 letter he says something interesting. He says he feels sorry for the Native Canadians and thinks it is awful that they had their land taken away from them.