Thursday, December 31, 2009

spirit tracks review

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (hereafter "ST") is the second Zelda game for the Nintendo DS, following up on the relatively successful Phantom Hourglass (released November 2007). ST works off a lot of the elements Phantom Hourglass (including a bit of the story), but since I've never played Phantom Hourglass I cannot say to what extent these games are similar. I can say that ST is markedly different from Twilight Princess (released in December 2006 for the Gamecube and Wii), both in style and overall gameplay. And while Twilight Princess was a very good game, so is ST, but in different ways. Let me try to explain through this review.


Nintendo went back to cell-shaded "cartoon" Link for this game, giving the game a "cute" atmosphere to it. But don't assume this style symbolizes superficiality on any level: the visuals are still stunning. Dungeons look good, the world map is colorful and varied, and the towns look good as well, considering the engine of the DS. My only complaints would be the lack of detail in the maps and the slowdown which sometimes occurs when too much is going on (some train battles and a few dungeon battles caused slowdown for a few seconds). I'm guessing the developers were truly pushing the limits of the graphical capabilities of the DS.

In addition, the story themes, towns, and music all add to this "cartoon" atmosphere in a significant way, engrossing the player deeply in another world in the way a really good game should. In this aspect, it is similar to the great games Okami and some of the earlier Final Fantasies, and it is much different from Twilight Princess or some of the later FF's such as FF12, whose worlds are so expansive that depth in any one town or area is sacrificed for more breadth overall. In ST, so many things happen in such a seemingly small game that it's amazing to think how the developers made sure no two sidequests bumped into each other at any point. I'll explain a bit more about this below.


Zelda games have never emphasized story, as they are mostly about puzzle solving in dungeons and exploration (which implies here, though it doesn't have to a lot of sidequests). That being said, the story is at least mildly interesting for its interaction with gameplay aspects: Zelda's spirit comes along with you for this journey, playing an integral part in dungeons and even some boss battles. She adds a good comic element to the story as well.


Just as the unique aspect of the story mentioned above adds to the gameplay, it also adds to the music. Link is in possession of a spirit flute which is used to advance the story. The songs are all excellent for ST's environment, further immersing the player in this highly detailed world.


(See my previous post on ST where I talk about this a bit.)

This is where things get really interesting. In addition to 5 dungeons, you must make your way up the Tower of Spirits, taken in 6 parts over the course of the game. The dungeons follow the standard Zelda format: you find a new item, use the item throughout the dungeon while solving puzzles, and use the item in a final test by fighting the dungeon boss. Overall, I found it easy to navigate the dungeons although the control takes some time to get used to.

The Tower of Spirits is also a dungeon in itself, played in 6 parts over the course of the game, but is less standard: you use Zelda to possess phantoms which you must control alongside Link and which have different abilities that you must utilize to traverse three or four floors of the tower at a time. In a sense, this is your "new item" in the normal dungeons. Yes, you still must use Link's items in the Tower, but emphasis is placed on controlling Zelda in her phantom. Being in control of both Zelda and Link adds a really interesting strategic dimension to the gameplay and is done quite successfully. There are a few times where movement of Zelda/the phantom is frustratingly difficult but there is nothing in these that seriously inhibits the gaming experience.


There are so many things to do in this game! It's really amazing at how such a small world (relatively speaking) has so much going on in it: there are hidden stamps to collect in mostly every main area of the game, hidden rabbits to find on your train, several minigames involving dungeons and hidden areas/tracks, as well as tons of people who need help getting to this or that place, etc. So after you beat the game, there are many reasons to simply start right up after watching the credits and explore the world. This is definitely my favorite part of the game.


From the minute you start playing, ST throws you into its world in a way that few games can do so completely. Charming you with its unique concept (driving a train to traverse the world map?!) along with an amazing variety in dungeons, puzzle solving, and side quests (the three reasons to play a Zelda game, right?) once you start playing you will easily get hooked. Aside from a few minor issues with the lack of detail in environments, some slowdown and a few problems with the controls, this game will not disappoint you.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

why study traditional economic institutions? part I of a week-long series

Part I: Background, motivation, initial challenge

Lately I've read some libertarian arguments criticizing the "nostalgia" some American leftists have over what were "better times." The libertarians argue that we shouldn't be looking backward and praising primitive societies for being more democratic, more equal, more communal, etc. One basic reason, they argue, is that we should not engage with essentialist human nature theories (although I would question whether the libertarians in general have a better response). Their arguments against the nostalgic views are well taken. Furthermore, I think they are right to a degree, that some leftists in the U.S. like to pine over better days and that influences their stance on economic policy (for example, labor or financial institutions). In fact it can plague the most radical of leftists. But where the libertarian critique and my own views diverge is in that I do not think a careful study of these alternative societies, whether they existed hundreds of years ago or still exist now, is counterproductive.

This is an extremely important point: themes of social policy; of more academic or theoretical issues; even themes concerning the very future of economic systems arise from a discussion of what we can learn from precapitalist forms of society. (See the Tocqueville quote on the right side of this blog.) Here's a quick question to demonstrate my point: where was the first social security program enacted? Answer: Bismarck's Germany, 1889. Interestingly enough, the social security act page on the government website has at the top a disclaimer: THIS IS AN ARCHIVAL OR HISTORICAL DOCUMENT AND MAY NOT REFLECT CURRENT POLICIES OR PROCEDURES.

I beg to differ. History can tell you a lot about contemporary policy, especially an act such as this one which was introduced in the U.S. as part of New Deal legislation in the 1930s. But why did Bismarck enact it? In part, to quell labor unrest. He did it to appease labor which was obviously pushing for more radical reform. Social security was just enough to keep them happy with a labor reform and to not hurt capital too much. The fact that social security was instituted as part of New Deal reforms at a time when, as Sombart would later write, "workers learned to look toward the State to solve their conflicts with capital" (paraphrased) tells you a lot about historical contingency and how it influences contemporary policy. In short, policies that are sometimes seen as a victory for leftists were really, at another point in time, merely a compromise between parties who were looking towards much more radical change -- that goes for both labor and capital! And even further, that very fact changed how future labor radicalism in unions was expressed!! (Think carefully about the Sombart quote!)

So given the importance of history, might we find elements of so-called "primitive societies" in our contemporary one? And if so, how do they interact on the scene of policy or academic discussions? It's a big question to tackle but their are clues in the example of Bismarck's policy. This is my specific thesis: The historical and contemporary existence (both of which need to be proved) of moral economies -- more specifically, institutions of democratic governance of the economic sphere-- work against capitalist institutions that have aimed, since day 1, to separate the spheres of politics and economy.

The first important question is: how do we demonstrate the existence of these moral economies? (But don't forget, we eventually want to arrive at an answer to the question of "why study traditional economic institutions?") A helpful related question is, how do you "see" capitalism? I've never written a blog post on "Why 'Imagining History'?" but this is exactly what I mean by it: we must accept that we are largely informed of history through other people imagining historical events, constructed of course from letters and other documents, other evidence that is necessarily incomplete. The task of understanding history is to imagine for yourself in the most complete way how events took place and then unfolded as a sequence. Here we are confronted with the possibility of imagining what capitalism looked like in the early 1800s U.S. and imagining its alternatives.

This is the end of part I, which has summarized the background, motivation and initial problems for exploring the question of the uses and abuses of praising traditional economic institutions. Part II to come in a day or two! And please, feel free to post your own thoughts/answer to the question. I will try to incorporate these views into future posts.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

sifting through the criticisms and praise, ff13 -- should we be excited?

Final Fantasy XIII is provoking a lot of controversy. It was released on December 17 in Japan and even before that, people were outraged at certain aspects of it, such as its apparent linearity (examined below). While the game will not be released in the U.S. until March 9th, I thought I'd give a summary of what I see to be the pros and cons of the game after sifting through message boards and websites.

Is the game linear? This is one problem many people have with the game. First, however, we should specify what we mean by "linear". The story could be linear in the sense that there aren't a lot of subplots to the characters. The most recent trailer, which you can see here, seems to easily dispel this possibility. In fact, this trailer gives you an early look at the story, which is argued to be one of the best parts of the game and definitely does not seem linear. Is the actual gameplay linear (in the sense that you don't have a lot of sidequests)? Not from several reviews I've read, one of which can be found here: you have the return of hunts from FF12 along with a chocobo digging game (similar to the excellent one found in FF9?). Or are the actual, physical dungeons linear? One of the message boards linked to this picture. It's an astonishing picture for sure. So, it seems we can safely admit the game is linear but in a very narrow sense of the word.

I would argue that without towns, with linear dungeons, and with little to speak of in terms of a world map, the game is portrayed as being one-dimensional but in a very insignificant area. Furthermore, even if the game is criticized for being linear, we must ask, "relative to what?" In fact, most FFs are linear at their core (story, gameplay, and dungeons). The least linear FF in the series is probably 6, given the branching off you do throughout the game's story and even moreso toward the end. Also, consider the amazing amount of characters you have in that game. In FF7, 8 or 9 (the Playstation FF's), you had your share of minigames and sidequests but there wasn't much opportunity to explore various characters' histories until near the end, when you might wrap things up and get their ultimate weapons or summons. Aside from that, a town in an FF game may be "devoted" to a character, but aside from this, the game didn't explore alternative plots or areas.

Some would argue that through these elements, Square Enix is attempting to revolutionize the Japanese RPG (JRPG) genre. Is that a bad thing? Square has been doing this since the first FF! Consider the controversies around most of the FF's of the last 12 years (starting with FF7): people either loved them or hated them, but all saw extremely high sales and were successful in this regard at least partly because each game was so different from the previous ones and did some really innovative and interesting things. Each was a milestone and influenced many JRPGs that came after it. Especially consider the first games on new consoles: 7, 10, and now 13 all have undergone extreme criticism but sold millions of copies.

Of course, some would argue that the disappearance of towns, and therefore shops, takes the soul of the RPG right out of the game. Perhaps, but until the actual buying and selling of items or weapons upgrades becomes devoid of any strategic element, I'm not going to have any less fun if I can't buy my armor from a mog in some random village.

I'd also like to note a very interesting debate over the game's difficulty: those who have played it through seem to argue for the most part that the game is generally harder than past FF's. I was relieved to hear that because FF's have been notoriously easy; in fact it wasn't until FF4 (for the DS) was released two summers ago that I had ever experienced a "game over" screen repeatedly for some boss or dungeon. Others say the difficulty is too easy so I guess this aspect is still open to debate, but I am doubtful at this point.

Finally (and this is something I can comment on with experience) the music seems really good! Here is the battle theme (not bad but not great). Here is the main character's theme (very good). Lately the FF's have been moving towards non-instrumental main themes and ending themes. I am not a fan of this as most cases it hasn't turned out too well. The latest example of this is FF13's use of a Leona Lewis (???) song for the ending in the American version. Not good, not good at all. The only good main theme with lyrics I've heard is "Sanctuary" by Utada from KH2, found here (and highly recommended).

Overall, based on what I've seen I think the game will be worth getting, although I may wait till the summer to play and review it here, considering how long it is (many people have said it's over 60-70 hours!). Enjoy this hyperlink-ridden summary of fanboy criticism and praise and leave comments!

Material for this post came from a collection of links found on the message boards for Final Fantasy 13 at, the best website out there for gamers.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

legend of zelda: spirit tracks first impressions

Another excellent Nintendo title. They really have put a lot of effort into making the more recent games in the series accessible, enjoyable, and challenging. Just to recap: in the last two to three years we've seen a Metroid Prime series makeover, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and DS, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

At any rate, I am about halfway through Spirit Tracks and I'm loving it.


Firstly, I should not that I have not played Phantom Hourglass, which is the other Zelda title for the DS that shares a lot of characteristics with Spirit Tracks. The game is definitely different from Twilight Princess (the last epic Zelda game for the Gamecube and Wii): dungeons are still the central part of the game, but a lot of gameplay occurs outside of these dungeons in the form of various quests and backtracking, along with smaller dungeons which serve different purposes. These are all great aspects of the game and keep things refreshing. Filling in the gaps between all these dungeons and towns is your standard world map, but travel to different towns and dungeons takes place on a train (thus the title "Spirit Tracks"), which is a surprisingly fun part of the game.

Your train is your mode of transport on the world map and as you progress, you can make additions to the engine, car, or cannon. There are also some game-specific tasks to be completed on the tracks, such as delivering goods (or people) to various locales and having to keep to a set of tasks in the process. There is a minigame which you can play on the tracks as well, involving spotting rabbits hiding behind various parts of the scenery ... it's nothing serious, but this game was not meant to be serious (something one can tell from the very beginning). Overall, the train bit does not become monotonous (yet... and really, I think it would have by halfway through the game considering this is the slowest the train will be).

One dimension many have complained about is the controls. The dual screen of the DS is used well, with the top screen providing a map in dungeons which the player can fully write on, which may be useful for taking notes on treasures to return to or for help in solving puzzles. The bottom screen touch pad is used to the fullest extent: the XYAB buttons are not used in this game, nor is the D-Pad. So, movement involves touching the screen in the direction you want Link to move. Attacking involves tapping an on-screen enemy. Occasionally, a poorly placed rapid tap will send link somersaulting across the room, which can get a bit annoying and (at rare times) dangerous to Link's health. Link's items also make extensive use of the touch pad (and even the mic!), but for the most part if you properly use the shoulder buttons for activating the items, you will not run into any issues. In fact, once I realized that holding down "L" button activates my weapon, say boomerang, and then I can trace the direction of the boomerang with my stylus in the right hand, and then simply let go of "L" when I am done using it, things became immensely easy for me. I am able to rapidly switch between item and sword which makes battling much more effective, quick, and fun. So really, I don't think there are any serious problems with the controls; like most of the people who have issues with controls, it is more often than not about the person using the controls.

I sound harsh here because it's really the same thing as when people blame the controller, or the game itself (!) for missing a critical jump in, say, one of the early platformers (remember Spyro!? what about the early Mario Bros. ... they could get quite frustrating). I can't tolerate these arguments, especially when reviewers use it to say a game is not worth getting. This stuck out most clearly for me in some reviews of Okami for the Wii. As most of you who have read this blog for a while know, Okami is my favorite game of the last 4 or 5 years. Originally for the PS2, Capcom decided to bring it to the Wii around two years ago. This game relies heavily on the Wii controls since a central part of the game is painting designs on a canvas (for special moves, or items, etc.), so any imprecision can be a real hindrance to gameplay. Some people said that the controls were outright terrible and made the game unplayable. This is completely untrue! Perhaps the reviewers should have paid more careful attention to the sensor bar in relation to where they are sitting/standing, because I honestly had no problems in that game.

Of course, there are times when controls are so bad that the game is unplayable. But this rarely happens, and definitely rarely happens to a game that has a lot of hype behind it. One of the many testers are sure to point this type of flaw out.

At any rate, I hope you see my point that the controls really are not that bad and it's more about adjusting yourself to the game and learning a few shortcuts. Overall, this is a really good game and you can look forward to a fuller review quite soon.

Friday, December 25, 2009

review of new super mario bros. wii

Just wrapping up a few more thoughts on New Super Mario Bros. Wii (NSMB Wii)!


The Wii has never been a console whose purpose is to demonstrate the technical potential of developers' skills. Nintendo is purposely focused toward opening gaming toward a wider audience. While this goal doesn't imply graphics will take a backseat, in reality this is usually the case. NSMB Wii is no different on this account. Don't get me wrong; the levels are really well done, very colorful and detailed when necessary (some of the backgrounds are really cool). The special effects are well-done, too. In addition, the game never slows with a great amount of activity. Overall, I'd say the graphics definitely fit the "atmosphere" of the game.


The basic framework is this. You have 6 or 7 levels in a world. There are 9 worlds total. The minimum goal is to complete the level by evading and killing monsters, clearing perilous platform challenges, and (of course) jumping on the infamous flagpole. For gamers looking for more challenge, there are three star coins placed in each level that are usually placed in somewhat tricky locations. Getting all the star coins in a world unlocks a secret, difficult level in the ninth world, which is unlocked once you beat the game. Each world ends with some boss level, and also includes a ghost house and some random monster encounters.

The game is said to be relatively more difficult than more recent Marios, and having completed the game 100% on 7 of the 8 worlds and getting a few of the less challenging star coins in worlds 8 and 9, I agree with this assessment. Some of the coins are really challenging to get and you will find yourself spending quite a few lives, and sometimes even asking your friends to help you get some of the trickier coins. It's not so difficult as to detract from the game, however, so I find it a positive aspect of the game.

The cooperative mode is the real innovation in NSMB Wii. By allowing up to 3 players to join Mario in working through the worlds, the game adds dimensions of frustration, cooperation, and what can turn into loads of fun. While it can make the main challenges in the game a bit more difficult at times if you have a companion slowing you down, I think that, overall, it does add a positive element to the game. This is especially true when considering you can have fun with other players without having to work through a level in a serious fashion.

What I mean is there are two alternative game modes that are open to cooperative play: "Free-for-all" and "Coin Battle". The first simply allows you to go through any level you've completed in the game in a "just for fun" style. The second is more involved but, I would argue, is also tons of fun if you have 3 or 4 players on the screen at once. In this mode, you choose one of 5 specially-designed levels or any of the regular levels and race with other players to the end, trying to collect as many coins along the way as possible. Bonuses go to those who finish highest on the flagpole, beat the boss, or get a star coin,. It adds a really interesting competitive atmosphere, especially when you have more than two people on the screen at the same time. The "battles" for coins can get quite heated and they are a lot of fun!

It's interesting to note this because when I gave my "first impressions" of the game in a previous post I noted that playing the main game cooperatively is no fun with more than 2 players, especially if the third player is not particularly talented or into the game. The fact that competitive battle is only really fun when there are more than two players (whose talent can vary widely and still offer a great experience) gives you the perfect balance of multiplayer experience.

It is for this reason that I am tempted to award full points for gameplay. The game is just that fun.

Overall, after having enjoyed this game for quite a few more hours, I give it between a 9 and a 9.5 for offering a fun, challenging experience that is not too long and that really offers a great array of options for those looking for a cool multiplayer experience on the Wii. Anyone with a Wii should add this to a select few "must have" unique, charming and fun titles for the Wii.

Monday, December 7, 2009

more links

Three articles on time, all tangentially related to something I mentioned a few posts back on the relationship between work culture and time (both in discussion of the relationship between technology and industrial structure here and in my mention of one of my favorite papers, by E.P. Thompson in this post). The first is a contemporary example of why, and what we need to do in the twenty-first century to take some time off. The second and third are book reviews of Eva Hoffman's Time. While the reviews differ widely in their appraisals, both bring up some very interesting points which are addressed in Hoffman's book and which address the relationship between time and economy/society.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

/el doctor/ fidel castro: american politician

Every revolution needs a language, right?

Pietro in The Nation on the Cuban Revolution:

Who knew that better than he, the man who had subjugated the entire country, brought it to its knees with his "revolutionary violence"? Because where others--and I myself at the time--naïvely saw a voluntary acceptance, an "election," he saw with absolute clarity that all of it had been adamantly opposed, that it would never survive the test of a real election or stand up to any airing out, any public discussion of his practices and methods. That's what happened with Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms, to which, with perfect clairvoyance, el doctor Fidel Castro was fiercely opposed from the beginning.

For Castro and Gorbachev were historical epochs apart from each other. Gorbachev had inherited his power, didn't know how it had been gained, saw himself as a "good leader," someone who hadn't needed to have people killed, who'd never gotten his hands dirty or built socialism by force and against the popular will. Standing atop a pyramid of infinite power, Gorbachev behaved like an heir who knows nothing of his grandparents' effort and sacrifice to amass the fortune that he, wanting to be a good person and not an "exploiter," is eager to squander, distribute among the poor.

Fidel Castro's situation was very different: he was the one who'd brought socialism to Cuba. The superhuman effort it had taken to put the entire country onto that footing was fresh in his memory (though, let's concede once more, he did it for reasons of the Confrontation and not in pursuit of the mere chimera of a better life for all). He harbored no doubt that given a choice, the public, the entire nation, would choose to get rid of him, and fast.

Much more here

Saturday, December 5, 2009

a real gem in "guitar hero: van halen"

Guitar Hero: Van Halen is not a great Guitar Hero. There aren't many changes from Guitar Hero 5, but I guess that isn't the point of a game like this -- it's more about getting a package for fans of the band. Not to alarm you -- I am not one of these fans. I got the game for free (!) because I bought Guitar Hero 5 within the first week of it coming out. I had to mail in a sticker and some confirmation info which was a bit of a hassle but it's worth it for a free game.

So why am I writing about it? Because even though there's not a lot to write home about this game, there is something about it which is unique. The song list includes 20 or so Van Halen songs and 20 or so songs from other groups. The songs from the other groups are mediocre at best (one of several reasons the game is not that good). The Van Halen songs are, of course, very well done. But even most of these songs have a point where I start to get sick of them. It's the case with all Guitar Hero songs, for the most part: you can only play them so many times before you get bored. One Van Halen song, however, has me coming back again and again in a way that only one other Guitar Hero song has ever done. This song is just simply fun to play, in a way that combines challenge and innovation. That song is "Little Guitars". While I couldn't find a youtube video of the song played on "Hard" (the difficulty setting I'm at), I found an "Expert" which is surprisingly close in structure to the Hard version, so I'm posting it to give you a good impression of why this song is so fun:

Oh, and in case you were wondering what the other song is that I can play over and over again, it's "Cliffs of Dover" by Eric Johnson which can be found on Guitar Hero: Legends of Rock. Here it is on Expert (again, I can only play it on Hard):


Thursday, December 3, 2009

assorted links

Here are some interesting articles I've found this week:

I liked this piece for many reasons: it's funny, it's instructive (in terms of giving a history of big business in the U.S. and its effects on capital-labor relations), and it brings in some perspectives that we are not used to seeing (namely, how capital attempts to monopolize more than just market space -- artistic ability as well). Overall, it is highly recommended.

*The economic effects of religion, in 2 parts: here and here

Unlike some of my more leftist colleagues, I see a positive role for religion in economy/society. Whether it is the Buddhist belief in shunning material desires or Christian adversities to inequality, I believe that at the local level (at the very least) religious institutions can have a significant impact on economic performance. These articles search out the direct causal mechanisms, either finding room for a link (as in the first two articles) or failing to find one (in the third). To speak to the Boston Globe article, I do think it's more of an indigenous religion finding, and that we need to be careful with the conclusions we draw concerning whether it's religious institutions themselves or simply the behavior fostered by these institutions.

The second link is to a paper which is supposedly the most data-intensive test of the Weber hypothesis.

*A new collection of T.S. Eliot letters appears

*Stiglitz and Akerlof have a nice piece on innovations in models of the financial market

While it definitely falls in the "plurality" camp (essentially all these new models have nothing to say about the most fundamental institutions of capitalism and how those might need to change) I thought it was a good look at where the profession is headed


Friday, November 27, 2009

thought of the day - marx on the relationship between state and society (with some kafka thrown in for good measure)

Not only what it says in the title, but an interesting perspective on American Exceptionalism as it applies to the lack of a strong socialist presence here after 1886 as well! I mean, what a potent paragraph.

From R. Miliband, State in Capitalist Society pp. 180-1:

The obvious question this suggests is why this has been so; why the anti-socialist parties have so regularly been legitimated by popular support in elections; why the dominant classes in these societes have been able, in conditions of open political competition, to ensure the continuance of the kind of economic and political predominance which has been outlined in the previous chapters....

The answer which Marx gave to that question was, in a famous formulation, that 'the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas' and that the reason for this was that 'the class, which is the ruling material force in society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it'.

Much has happened in the world of capitalism since this was written in 1845, and it was not even then a sufficient answer to the question. But it remains, as will be seen in the following pages, the basic element of an answer to it.

And Franz Kafka in The Problem of Our Laws:

The law is what the nobles do.

A worthwhile paper or research project (which I am sure has been explored already and I'm just unable to recall examples) would be to go back to primary documents of the late 18th century U.S. (or other countries at the time of their capitalist origin) such as newspapers and other popular media, and school/university curricula and see expressions of Marx's thesis/Gramsci's "political socialization".

Thursday, November 26, 2009

new super mario bros. wii -- first impressions

The game is definitely worth getting. While I have only reached the fifth world (of eight) it's fair to say I've seen enough of the gameplay to form a general impression of the game. It is a 2D sidescroller in the tradition of the older Super Mario Bros., before the 3D "turn" on the N64. In fact, a lot of the levels' themes will remind you of levels in these older games. Mario still has his standard moves and not much more: jump, slide, spin, wall jump, etc. In addition, there are the ice and fire powerups, and there are two new "suits": one where Mario can transform into a helicopter allowing him to span the entire screen with a simple jump and spin of the Wii remote; and another where Mario turns into a Penguin, allowing him to belly slide over water, swim better, and shoot ice balls (like the ice Mario powerup). The worlds follow your standard themes: a water world, an ice world, a jungle world, a lava world, etc.

Sounds pretty standard for a Mario game, right? The big innovation that will really draw people to the game and enhance the experience is the cooperative mode. Basically, one can either move through the game according to the standard 1-player format (complete it 100%), or play the levels with up to three other characters on the screen at once. This added dimension really makes the game a lot of fun, though it is not without its weak points.

In terms of positive aspects, the cooperative mode adds a real feeling of teamwork and team accomplishment as you go through the levels. As anyone who has played one of these sidescrolling platformers before knows, they can be very, very frustrating experiences. But at the same time, pulling off a difficult maneuver, especially with another person there to cheer you on (and maybe even help you!) is a great feeling. Sometimes teammates will want to communicate with each other in order to get an optional coin (of course, with a bonus attached) or take care of a particularly difficult sequence of platform jumps. There is also a specific set of built-in team abilities, such as lifting characters to throw them to locations, or taking advantage of the helicopter ability mentioned above that are really fun and occasionally useful.

On the negative side, there are the obvious issues with having one or two good players and then a third player who isn't as good that can definitely affect the experience. This normally comes into play when the third not-so-good player gets in the way on platforms or can't execute a team strategy. This of course could affect any cooperative game so it's not really a levelling criticism. What really seems to be a weakness is that while the game is meant to have four players on the screen at once, there's really not much need for more than two -- the team problems you have to solve, as well as your ability to navigate the screen, seem most effectively handled with two players! The only reason I can see myself being wrong on this is because I've only had one other "interested" gamer to play with (one of my brothers) in the sense that my other brother and my sister either don't like it that much or aren't that good. Perhaps if I had two other people who were really interested the experience would change, but I'm skeptical at this point.

Here is a fuller review you may want to check out: Gamespot has the advantage of historical knowledge and says this game is one of the harder Mario's to ever come out, giving it an 8.5 based on this difficulty and the richness of the gameplay/replayability but also partly agreeing with me over the ambiguous nature of the multiplayer.

Overall, however, I really do think it's worth it and definitely whets my appetite for Super Mario Galaxy 2 in the first half of next year!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

applying the chandlerian model today - the internet age and changing economic institutions

I found this article after skipping off a few links that originated from a BoingBoing post on contemporary media. The thesis presented here is not new. Alfred Chandler's work on the rise of big business (in which he explains several of the consequences of industrialization mentioned in the article, including centralized products, big companies, and mass marketing) places primary emphasis for this change in the rise of integrated transportation and communication networks. Specifically, after the Civil War, railroads played a very important part in providing the markets necessary for large enterprise. Improved communication also allowed information concerning supply chains and prices to spread more quickly and across a wider area, fostering firm growth.

The author of the article is extending Chandler's model to the rise of the internet by asking, what kind of production structure will arise out of the arguably more decentralized market that is the internet? One of the most interesting implications which he or she outlines is, "work life integration", questioning whether "Not only will more people work from home, but personal life will also permeate more traditional offices through IM, e-mail, and other communication forms. Conversely, people will never really leave work, because mobile technology will let them take their offices wherever they go."

Certainly this idea is more reminiscent of the artisan shops of pre-19th century production (and also of grad school!!!), and I wonder to what extent this can become a part of the internet age. Can we combine the gains we've made in productivity over the last few centuries with a more "humane" understanding of work? I think that the rise of open source software and alternative forms of copyright law that have gained prominence in this digital age show signs of the Chandlerian model emerging in this period: specifically, the influence of new forms of communication and transportation technology (the latter taken in a much more broad sense now in order to consider uploading/downloading as a form of 'digital transportation') on the organization of production. The question is how far this institutional model can take us in revolutionizing the economy.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

theoretical models of state and society bleg

I let the blog cool down for two weeks mainly for work-related reasons. In my attempts to hone in on some area of interest concerning U.S. economic history in the early 19th century, I've struggled with some overwhelming questions and I'm now working on finding a theoretical framework in which to give some semblance of an answer to at least one of them. The process has consumed much of my time and thoughts for these past two weeks and since you, the reader, are familiar with most of these issues, I thought it would be redundant to explain my problems again. See, for past examples of my struggles, my posts here (moral economy of competition) and here (understanding the legal dimensions of proletarianization). This gives you a flavor of the central ideas I was presenting to my advisor.

My main question wrestles with something that I've stressed all semester in Econ 362: giving a narrative of early economic development which stresses the lack of freedom in property and contract. Here, my advisor has directed me toward the theoretical Marxist literature on the relationship between the state and society in capitalism, toward people such as Miliband and Poulantzas. In addition, for my own intellectual curiosity I picked up a book of selections from Gierke's Community in Historical Perspective. While I haven't completed Miliband's book, it deals, on a theoretical level, with defining the term "ruling class" (a popular term to throw around that is by no means easy to pin down analytically) and exploring how to demonstrate that such a class exists in society, and finally, the social effects of this established class. Poulantzas and Gierke I have yet to crack open.

If you have any suggestions for books on this topic I will be very appreciative. Specifically, I would be looking for any evolutionary theories of the relationship between the state and society in capitalism. Readings which characterize the modern state in advanced capitalism are good and certainly helpful but they aren't exactly what I'm looking for. Thinking out loud, is it possible that the development of such an evolutionary theory could be a new addition to the literature, historically/theoretically speaking? I conjecture that studying how it exists today is helpful to a certain extent for forming a history but to avoid falling into the teleological trap I definitely need a more thorough treatment of how the state developed and its effects, along the way, on society (and materialism is just not an answer...sorry!).

At any rate, I do have a bunch of articles and things I've accumulated over the last two weeks that I will be sharing with you all quite soon.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

sounds like bach - douglas hofstadter and formalism in classical music

Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in an article titled "Sounds Like Bach" on computer programed classical music:
In my lectures, I usually have a second musical interlude, this time involving mazurkas -- one by Chopin and one by EMI [Experiments in Musical Intelligence]. One time, when I gave this lecture at the world-famous Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, nearly all the composition and music-theory faculty was fooled by the EMI mazurka, taking it for genuine Chopin (and the genuine Chopin piece, by contrast, for a computer-manufactured ditty). An Eastman music student, Kala Pierson, wrote me an email about this event in which she said, 'I voted real-Chopin for the second piece, as did most of my friends. When you announced that the first was Chopin and the second was EMI, there was a collective gasp and an aftermath of what I can only describe as delighted horror. I've never seen so many theorists and their composers shocked out of their smug complacency in one fell swoop (myself included)! It was truly a thing of beauty.'
Much, much more here

Marvin Minsky, called the "father of AI", takes up the same topic but a little earlier than Hofstadter. His argument is more theoretical so he's making a slightly different point from Hofstadter: basically, that the formalistic models of classical music are incomplete but that does not mean we have to give up on the project:
Minsky: In a computation-based treatment of musical expression you
would expect to see attempts to describe and explain such sorts of
structure. Yet the most "respectable" present-day analyses -- e.g., the
well-known Lerdahl & Jackendoff work on generative grammars for
tonal music -- seem to me insufficiently concerned with such
relationships. The so-called "generative" approach purports to describe
all choices open to a speaker or composer -- but it also tries to abstract
away the actual procedure, the temporal evolution of the compositional
process. Consequently, it cannot even begin to describe the choices
composers must actually face -- and we can understand that only by
making models of the cognitive constraints that motivate an author or
composer. I suspect that when we learn how to do that, many
regularities that today are regarded as grammatical will be seen as
results of how the composer's motivations interact with the
knowledge-representation mechanisms shared by the composer and the
listener. In any case it seems to me that, both in music and language,
one must understand the semantics of tension-producing elements -- at
least in the forms that resemble narrative. Each initial discord, be it
melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or whatever, can be seen as a problem to
be later resolved. A lot of what a composer does is setting up
expectations, and then figuring out how to frustrate them. That gives
the composer some problems to solve. The problems and their
solutions are then like elements of a plot, and composition becomes a
kind of story telling.

Otto Laske: To look at composing as a variety of story-telling, and at music as
a pseudo-story, wouldn't that help us to arrive at a theory of musical
Just a few paragraphs down we come to what I find to be the most interesting aspect, the (partial) answer to the above:
OL: So, then, for you to apply AI to music, if one can say apply...

MM: ... would be making composers, or at least listeners...

OL: By "making," do you mean to produce a robot-like creature that
does certain things like, observably composing?

MM: Yes, indeed. And in the case of listening it would have to know
when to say "oh, this is exciting," or "how very tender," and the like. I
haven't seen much of that.

OL: In Japan, one has built a robot that is capable of reading music,
and play it on the piano.

MM: Yes, that fellow at Mazda.

OL: Is that something you have in mind here?

MM: Not at all. Because I'm more concerned about what happens at
larger scales of phrase and plot. Our listening machine would have to
understand the music well enough to recognize from each moment to
the next which problems have been solved, and which remain open.

OL: How would that understanding have to become manifest?

MM: Well, for example, an understanding listener can hear a piano
concerto and appropriately say things like "that was a good idea here in
the cadenza, but he didn't carry it through." I'd want the robot to make
similar analyses.

OL: To do that, the robot must be able to recognize solutions, good or
bad. But then how would it communicate this to others?

MM: One way might be to have it write the sorts of sentences that
critics write. Or to have work more in the musical realm by performing
as a teacher does, explaining differences by demonstration -- "Look how
much better it would be to delay a little these notes here, and make
those near the end more staccato, like this, and this." And of course if
our machine turned out to able to produce interesting enough
interpretations, then we might be satisfied by that alone -- if many
listeners were to agree that "really, that performer has a lot of good ideas
about this music, and brings out stuff that I didn't realize was there."
Here is the lengthy conversation. All emphases my own. See about halfway down for the quoted passages. To defend him, he does consider the possibility of alternative logics (even mentioning Hegel), but "the idea is not carried through." :)

See this comment thread which took place on Joe Rebello's blog back in August where we have a spirited discussion of formalism(s) in economics which directly relates to Minsky's discussion of alternative formalisms in the article.

Monday, November 2, 2009

quote of the day: gavin wright on proletarianization in the postbellum south

Gavin Wright is a really good economic historian. He comes from the same generation as the cliometricians and new economic historians such as Fogel and Engerman, but he's much more conscious about his use of neoclassical models/concepts when studying history. He also asks much more interesting and nuanced questions. A good example of this is found below, from his paper "American Agriculture and the Labor Market: What Happened to Proletarianization?" where he considers two very intriguing points. First, he questions the traditional Marxist model of proletarianization, beginning the paper with a passage by Lenin. Second, he considers an argument that is actually quite similar to the "moral economy of competition" paper by Jason Opal discussed in a previous post.

But one of the most striking passages comes at the end when he is summarizing his main findings, one of which argues that proletarians in the South did not come from an increasingly impoverished middle class. The premise: Southwestern farmers in the late 1800s, early 1900s found it hard to recruit labor due to their specialization in seasonal commercial crop production, as opposed to year-round farming, or the sharecropping system which was mostly present in the South Central, Southeast. In order to keep the workers around all year, the farmers on these commercial crops would therefore have to offer a high enough wage to persuade people to work on the farms. (These are the "pressures" mentioned below.) How did they deal with these pressures? Well, they could mechanize...
But where mechanization was technically difficult, the combined result of these pressures was the emergence of a migrant labor system as insulated as possible from urban and industrial labor markets. This system began in the southwest around the turn of the century, spread to California by the 1920s, and continued to expand eastward in the twentieth century, for the most part little noticed or bothered by most Americans, organized labor included. The social invisibility of these migrant workers and their families, their insulation from the mainstream of industrial development (quite in contrast to traditional proletarianization scenarios) is perhaps the major reason why most Americans do not believe that their country's agricultural history has much to do with proletarianization.
As I said, this quote is very striking, which is the reason I chose to share it. But I also find it quite instructive in terms of understanding the source of much of American development within a historical and Marxist framework.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

moral economy of competition

See here for an interesting paper by Jason Opal on the moral economy in New England immediately after the Revolution.

I've always been intrigued by the moral economy model as it is applied to New England economic history. The model addresses the economic nature of the society that spans the time of the Puritans' settlement of Massachusetts in 1629 up until the first few decades after the Revolution. It has been the one constant theme of interest of mine since I read E.P. Thompson's classic paper "Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism" in my Intro to Economic History class my first semester of grad school. A moral economy is an economic system wherein production and distribution are regulated by the community; work, wages, and prices are also socially regulated; and finally, production is generally for self-sufficiency and not for profit. It can be contrasted with capitalism or a market economy which is governed by individualist market forces of self-interest guided by competitive markets towards the accumulation of capital/profits. In this system, free markets "regulate" work, wages, prices, production and distribution.

I like the moral economy model for a number of reasons. First, it's a heterodox view of economic history because neoclassical economic historians and conservative historians of this period like to argue that since the first settlements, colonists have been inherently profit-driven and capitalist. Second, it's an evolutionary view of history (as opposed to determinist) that gives theoretical weight to the possibility that a variety of economic systems may have coexisted in the colonial era/Early Republic. Finally, I think that even today you can find examples of these "moral economies", or at the very least, traits of them.

Many people have worked on how one would construct a theoretical model of a moral economy. Much of this work has come from Marxist historians, and more recently from the "New Left" historians who emerged in the 1960s and 70s, each group has set out to show either theoretically or historically how features of the moral economy model can, or have, expressed themselves. For example, Michael Merril shows how farmers in colonial Massachusetts used money in a very different way from how we use it today: cash never really exchanged hands (it was generally only used as a store of account) and was seen on the same level as food or other goods which could be bartered. Sean Wilentz and others have shown how workers in the Early Republic reacted against the changing labor laws and the rise of capitalism in urban areas by pushing for their traditional workplace institutions.

And in the new economic history, historians such as Winifred Rothenberg have set out to demonstrate empirically the rise of the market economy. It began, according to her work, in the late 18th century. She is able to argue this by showing how prices for agricultural goods converged over the period 1750-1850, suggesting the presence of market forces conforming to the standard model of microeconomics (which most of us here are familiar with: rational, self-interested economic agents competing in free markets). Another example is Gordon Wood, who argues that what makes America exceptional is the value we placed on economic autonomy gained through hard work, and this led naturally to a unique brand of democratic capitalist institutions in the Early Republic.

The central tension in these two literatures is this: Rothenberg's evidence of an integrated market economy beginning in the early 1800s is strong and it conforms to other historical studies of this period. Few would doubt that this market economy existed -- and was, therefore, guided by profit motives which leads to capitalism. On the other hand, the evidence also confirms the existence of moral economies during this period. How can we reconcile these views?

A lazy way is to say that both systems existed simultaneously. Indeed, this is probably true: in the Early Republic there were most likely pockets of moral economies existing around networks of market economies. But this leaves important questions unanswered: how did some societies evolve from one system to the other? How did some societies resist/accept the intrusion of market forces from the outside?

A more interesting way of reconciling these views is to take the route Jason Opal embarks on in the paper I linked to above: what precisely were the motivations behind the development of the market economy? Were they really, as Rothenberg and others assert, defined by market forces of self-interest and competition? Or alternatively, was there still an essentially communal element to economic development, where wealth-producing "capitalist" enterprises were undertaken by and for the good of the community?

Opal identifies a historical example of this alternative view which reconciles the moral and market economists by saying that the market economy in this case was a result not of market economy forces but of moral economy forces of the public good and public regulation. The example he uses is of turnpikes in a Massachusetts town in the Early Republic. Turnpike projects were developed by towns in order to facilitate the transport of goods to and from markets, in other words, promoting the development of the market economy. When outside competition threatened to build roads that were uncomfortably close to the town's own roads, the autonomy of the community to use the roads without being economically bound to these new turnpike developers (in the form of tolls, etc.) was compromised, and thus these projects were resisted by the town.

Of course these groups, when they expressed opposition to the new turnpikes in the 1790s and the first decade of the 19th century, were against both dominant political parties of the era and indeed against the whole transformation in the legal conception of property in this period (see Horwitz on this) when public works projects were consistently given protection by the law against people suing over damage to their property. Opal states that during this period "[c]orporations became, not public entities funded by private means, but fictive individuals who used tax money to build bridges, canals, and then railroads" (16). Here is a good quote from the paper exemplifying the general situation:

"In this way, turnpike opponents echoed common law restrictions on competition as a public nuisance and an invasion of property rights, yet the dominant tenor of the anti-turnpike 'rage' was not a defense of older, static view [sic] of property or harmony but a vivid sense of local autonomy" (12).

Thus, in a way Opal blends the market economy and moral economy stories. In the end, Horwitz' narrative takes over to explain the burst in public works projects and their protection by law in theearly 19th century. But here we see precisely where this spirit of compromised property rights in the name of economic development came from: bourgeois attitudes that were not shared by the population at large -- that is, decidedly undemocratic.

More work needs to be done in this model. For example, Tomlins has done work on the changing conception of police in legal history in the U.S. Essentially, the difference is on the one hand between an older conception of the police as regulating the public good, public happiness and on the other hand the beginning of the centralization of the law partly as a product of the constitution and legal battles which ensued thereafter. The professionalization of law enforcement is a central part of 19th century legal and social history. How did communities deal with this development in the law? How and why did things eventually change? Can we find hybrid models of law enforcement/traditional understandings of police in this period?

These are all very important questions which chip away at the entire institutional edifice upon which early American development is based. What were the moral, economic, political mechanisms driving growth? How was the market policed/regulated to maximize growth?

We are getting there, slowly but surely...

final fantasy 13 trailer (tgs)

Below you will find the latest FFXIII trailer, which was shown at Tokyo Game Show a few weeks ago. Weaving together story and battle elements, the trailer gives me the impression that:

-Compared to previous FF's, the story will be filled with more (quantity- and quality-wise) subplots than we're used to seeing

-The battle system is your traditional turn-based (contrary to FFXII, which had strong real time elements) but not without its innovations, such as the combo system (not sure how it works though)

Some more obvious points/impressions:

- The futuristic style of FF7, FF8 is back ... regrettably

- A female main is not new to FF: 6, 9, 10, 12 had elements of this

- The graphics, of course, look amazing

- The voice acting doesn't seem that bad


Saturday, October 24, 2009

reflections on teaching time on the cross

Teaching this book was a very interesting experience. After Monday's class (just reading the introductory chapters: prologue, 1 and 2) I was uncertain how the rest of the week would go. In fact, even after Wednesday's class I questioned whether I would ever assign the book again. (I think I would.) If I were to assign it again, for the first class I would assign prologue, 1, 2, and 3, because chapter 3 contains the arguments over whether slavery was profitable/economically viable, and there is a lot to discuss there in terms of all the data they present and their methodology. The problem with this setup is you're assigning 100 pages of reading for the first class, which may be daunting for this text. It's possible to leave out chapter 2 (on "Occupations and Markets") as a compromise because there is comparatively little there in terms of their main arguments.

Basically, my approach was to first present methodological concerns (discussing what cliometrics is all about, and the new economic history more generally), then getting to their main points as quickly as possible. This part is really quite necessary because without a proper understanding of the formalist turn which took place in economic history at this time one may end up thinking 1. all economic history is done this way and 2. all economic history has always been done this way. While I do think an understanding of the themes in the historiography leading up to their book (in fact, some of which they leave out!) is important, such as how books written in the late 1960s and early 1970s that argued that slavery was inefficient were not based on racism, grappling with issues such as "How is slave productivity measured?" or "Is their definition of exploitation appropriate?" are relatively more important and can take some time to discuss. In terms of methodology, I highlighted the following:

-The issue of qualitative vs. quantitative evidence and how it influences historiography
^This is especially important for Fogel and Engerman since they often rely upon some notion of statistical or formalist economic significance (e.g., "it wasn't that important to their profit margins," etc.) to advance claims concerning the family, etc.

-The rise of formalism in economic theory after WW2 and then economic history in the mid-1950s
-Methodological individualism vs. social institutions (classic Jerry Friedman material from 103) in the context of slavery's efficiency
-Framing the entire debate in terms of economic incentives/motivations

These 4 points alone cover a class and a half of lecture and discussion. From there, you can move into the more intricate details of their quantitative analysis and the implications for an interpretation of slavery. Here are the main points:

-Calculating: slave diets in terms of caloric intake, whippings (very popular topic), medical problems of slaves, infant mortality rates, comparing standards of living to the North, data on slavery's effect on family (implication follows) => interpreting whether slavery was relatively benign for slaves
-Calculating efficiency and growth of the slave economy => unfree origins of labor productivity and nature of economic systems

In the end, I would definitely assign the book again. It is the best example I have found of how formalism can be taken to its extremes in economic history, and it does this in a way that makes it easy for students to debate and discuss the relative merits of the issues. What caught me off guard on Monday, I think, was I didn't realize how prepared I needed to be. Of course, I read the book before the week began. But Fogel and Engerman leave so much of the historiography out that to teach and have a dialogue with the text one needs some external resources (either the original texts or some good textbooks). I think this would allow me to strengthen the arguments I make concerning methodology and of course, some controversies with their data. It will also give me space to appreciate these classic texts better.

Overall, I must say, it was an excellent experience.

after apple-picking, by robert frost

As promised to several of you --

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, copyright 1969 by Henry Holt and Co.

See the comments for my thoughts on the poem.

EDIT: This was posted just today (Sunday) on 3QD. Coincidence or do I have lurkers? If the latter -- I encourage you all to comment!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

world of goo - pay what you want

The indie publisher/developer 2DBoy has offered up its famous puzzle game World of Goo for any price you want until October 25th:

I would recommend getting this game for a number of reasons. First, you can pay as little as 1 cent for your copy (as many people did). Second, it's a great puzzle game which combines spatial problem solving with an interesting physics twist. Third, the environment is captivating, offering a unique art style and soundtrack (and you know how much I love videogame soundtracks). Finally, it doesn't require the investment of large amounts of time -- you can do a few levels and easily leave it for some other time. All of these elements combine to offer you a very unique videogame experience with extremely low cost.

Even though I already have it for the Wii (through their download content) I picked it up since it's been almost a year since I played it, so I forgot how to do most of the levels. It's really fun to go through a second time.

The "pay what you want" model is, of course, an interesting one which first gained widespread media coverage when Radiohead offered their album In Rainbows using this model a little over two years ago. Fortunately, 2DBoy were much more open about their "success": see an article here on the results of their experiment.

Additional links on World of Goo:

Gamefaqs page (including reviews, message board, screenshots)

World of Goo piano medley

Little-known fact: Some members of 2DBoy also worked on Henry Hatsworth, a review of which can be found here

Monday, October 19, 2009

economic origins of institutional persistence

Here is a paper by Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman who explore the possible connection between economic incentives and legal institutions, basically making an economic argument for institutional persistence. They presented it at the Harvard economic history conference a few weeks ago.

Suresh has a Master's from UMass Amherst and a PhD from UC Berkeley.

I found the paper interesting, specifically the idea that institutional persistence can be explained by economic incentives. Essentially, the argument presented in the paper is that British industrial firms in the early- to late-19th century reacted to increased demand for labor by enforcing the Master-Servant laws which were in place until 1874. Furthermore, once the Master-Servant laws were abolished, wage rates increased. This suggests that (similar to Huberman's and Steinfeld's arguments) there are a variety of legal and monetary incentives placed on workers in capitalism to get them to exert the maximum amount of effort desirable from the perspective of the employer. Thus, they are never completely "free" in the legal/politicalsense of the word. For the Master-Servant laws, this entailed various legal threats such as being jailed for contract breach. And the efficiency wage model argues that in order to control the worker, the employer pays them above their reservation wage.

I have some issues with the argument. first, it is unclear what body of theoretical literature in economics Noam and Suresh is drawing on. While they use a game theoretic model to make their argument this is definitely not where the theoretical motivation comes from. I would suggest them to be more explicit here, identifying Steinfeld's arguments and (other legal scholars') that make the interesting case that the legal system inherently contains class (i.e. political/economic) interests. Thus, since the legal system is an instrument of the capitalist class we must reevaluate what it means to have an efficient "free" labor market. Honestly, I think the strongest entry point here is through work by people such as Horwitz, who has written one of the most influential books on American legal history in the last 50 years, arguing for an instrumental conception of law which brings such interesting topics into focus such as how property is socially defined.

Second, it is unclear how universal this argument is, especially if we consider the U.S. case. In the U.S., Master-Servant law disappeared from legal discourse by the turn of the 19th century due to a variety of reasons such as the rise of republican ideology, individualism, and its effects on how people viewed employment relationships. So, as I mentioned above with regard to Horwitz, to what extent can we argue that the various legal constraints on employment were a result of economic incentives of the capitalist class? While I think the argument is strong here as well, it begs the question of what kind of data could be used to show this. It's not as clear as the British case where you have a very clear break-off corresponding to the end of the Master-Servant laws. A variety of legal constraints were placed on the worker all the way up to the New Deal (for example, unions were never legalized/made illegal before this time!) For example, can we say employers used this as an alternative to the wage and that once these legal constraints lessened the wage series sees a break upwards? If not, what methodology may we use to establish Suresh's argument for the U.S. case?

Nevertheless, I found the paper interesting and would welcome ideas on how to approach this question for other countries with radically different institutional arrangements!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

teaching time on the cross

I'm teaching Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross next week which means that I will hopefully have one solid week of great discussion after great discussion. For tomorrow we're reading the prologue and chapters 1 and 2, and I'm thinking of starting off class with the classical quantification debates, although there are really 2 or 3 other arguments I can foresee bringing up in class tomorrow. They mainly have to do with methodology, especially since the new economic historians have been quite forceful in forwarding their perspective as the "real economic" perspective and this idea occupies a significant part of the prologue and beginning chapters. These new economic historians rely on statistical analysis of data and formal economic models to answer questions in history. It raises immediately the question of how applicable economic models really are to reality: isn't the point of economic theory to generalize economic behavior by deducing a set of primary factors and testing the model against data? How does this compare to the obsession with general equilibrium since World War 2? I am reminded of a quote by Ronald Coase:

"Economists have devoted themselves to studying imaginary systems, and they don't distinguish between the imaginary system and the real world."

(There's a better one with the same flavor that I can't find right now where he basically says that all the Nobel prizes in economics have gone to economists who study a world which doesn't exist.)

So the idea that we can apply economic models to questions of history seems ridiculous. Especially since one of the central claims of McCloskey in "Does the Past Have Useful Economics?" is that we should be looking at history to inform our theory. There are other issues, such as how time has been dealt with in neoclassical economics (the answer: not very well, it's almost just like another dimension in space...), but this central point is very important because it strikes at the heart of what the new economic historians aim to do: reinterpret economic history using these models and data.

On the data -- few historians would disagree that the new economic history has done a great service to history by digging up massive amounts of data and compiling great databases of information on wages, slave prices, and other juicy details from employers' books. However, when it comes to how these economists have used the data, things are much more open to questions of methodology. Time on the Cross emphasizes formal methods, which are not "wrong" in and of themselves, but some argue that they clash with the traditional methodology of history (and of much social science) prior to the 1950s which was more oriented towards qualitative methods. When you combine this with the inherently conservative nature of neoclassical formal methods you have a mix that would definitely upset your traditional liberal historian.

But is there substance to the critique? I think there is. While one could argue that any historian uses models and that theory is always going to be a political project, the pressing need of the new economic historians to quantify everything seems not only a misplacement of emphasis of formal methods but can be downright hurtful to their analysis. For example, the narrow view of exploitation which they take up in Time on the Cross to argue that slaves were not as exploited as is commonly thought completely misses the main point and compromises the effectiveness of their argument. Essentially, they use a measure of the rate of exploitation which is the amount a slave produces over their compensation (in wages, living expenses, etc.). Even if Fogel and Engerman (rightly) point out that this isn't the whole of exploitation, simply by making the argument they are not adding anything productive to the debate at all. And what's worse, they imply that in a world of market processes where slaves get paid their marginal product exploitation is not an issue. Indeed, Ransom and Sutch used the same line of argument and measure of exploitation in their discussion of the postbellum Southern economy in One Kind of Freedom to say that racial exploitation is embodied in this labor market disequilibrium, implying that notions of power in the employer-employee relationship would be nonexistent were it not for overt racism. This is a world in which the neoclassical ideal is the baseline and so history is the story of deviations from this baseline. I simply cannot buy into such a story (and indeed, some very good neoclassical economists would not even buy into this story) , and I can see why people would be so upset by some passages of this book.

Another (less controversial!) thread of debate concerns the relationship between different economic systems in history. First and foremost, how do we characterize slavery as a socioeconomic system? Is it capitalist? Agrarian pre-capitalist? Feudalism? Whatever it is, the experience of the Southern U.S. is certainly not anomalous, as societies built on the idea of property in persons have existed for thousands of years. I think it's best to view slavery as an independent system of agricultural production for profit using people as (economic) property as the central means of production, and I do think this is where Fogel and Engerman operate on a stronger basis. Essentially, some historians of slavery in the South have argued that it's an institution that would have died out eventually -- either due to lack of markets, or declining productivity through exhausted resources, or some other economic reason. I believe that such arguments, especially made about entire institutions, do not do justice to the agency of anyone in such a system. If you have two distinct groups in an economic system and you argue that the system as a whole was on its way down the tubes, then you basically are arguing that both groups of agents were passive adjusters to forces out of their control. Fogel and Engerman instead give agency to both the strength of the families of slaves and also the rationality/profit-seeking behavior of the plantation owner by arguing that slavery was not on its way out immediately prior to the civil war. Here's a good quote explaining my point:

"While the New Orleans data show that slaveowners were averse to breaking up black families, they do not tell us about the reasons for their reluctance. Because earlier historians became overly preoccupied with dramatic and poignant but relatively isolated instances of the destruction of black marriages, they failed to grasp the extremely important role that the master class assigned to the family institution, a role that will be examined in chapter 4. Commitment to an exaggerated view of the eagerness of masters to put families on the auction block prevented historians from recognizing the strength and stability that the black family acquired despite the difficult circumstances of slave life." (Time on the Cross pg. 52)

In fact, you could argue that this was a central weakness of Marx's own theory: he failed to attribute sufficient level of agency to the proletariat and therefore saw the downfall of capitalism as occurring prematurely. Regardless of whether you buy into the conservative argument that individuals are inherently individualist, history has shown us that capital or state interests have not always been antithetical to worker interests and that worker interests haven't always been about overthrowing the property relations of capitalism. I of course would love to hear arguments against this and in fact to an extent I am one who is trying to produce such arguments, but it's by no means an easy question. Nevertheless, the ability of the capitalist system to reproduce itself at a rate contrary to Marx's and others' own predictions points to other forces at work in an economic system, and this, by analogy, is what Fogel and Engerman are doing with the traditional view of slavery. I think this is one very valuable contribution they have made.

Nevertheless, it will be an interesting week and I'll be sure to post more comments in the coming days!