Thursday, September 24, 2009

"this is your brain on kafka": what reading absurdist literature does to your psyche

I don't have a really good reason for not posting in a while, other than the fact that school started and I have therefore been busy preparing for my class and taking part in other beginning-of-the-year activities. Nevertheless, I thought I'd share this short piece grabbed from aldaily which reports on a psychological study performed on subjects who read a short story by Kafka and were then tested on their cognitive abilities. The conclusion is that reading absurdist literature stimulates brain activity.

I liked this quote:

So it appears Viktor Frankl was right: Man is perpetually in search of meaning, and if a Kafkaesque work of literature seems strange on the surface, our brains amp up to dig deeper and discover its underlying design. Which, all things considered, is a hell of a lot better than waking up and discovering you've turned into a giant cockroach.

In fact, Frankl's point is more relevant than the author of the article asserts here: in addition to the theme of absurdity, Kafka's stories are very often about this search for meaning as well. There is a strong connection in Kafka's writings to the idea of myth and its interpretations. For example, in The Trial, it certainly is true that a main theme of the story is the absurd condition of the person and his environment, but don't forget what the entire narrative is centered on: Josef K.'s search for the reason for his arrest! And does he ever discover the "truth"? Well, I won't spoil the story for you. But my main point is this: in Kafka, you have both absurdity of the human condition and the active search for the meaning of that condition. This is just an additional reason why Kafka is so intellectually stimulating to me. And, you can find it in a host of his other works: "The Burrow", "A Hunger Artist", "The Great Wall of China", etc.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

how history can influence theory: a little-known angle on keynes' general theory

There is both an uplifting and depressing side to the place Keynes' General Theory has in the history of economic thought. The depressing side is easy to tell: many economists afterward used a "watered down" version of Keynes. The critics of these watered-down versions argue that Keynes' ideas were reduced to overly simplified mathematical concepts or cast against a classical backdrop that did little to change the policy implications or logical conclusions of the Keynesian model past the short run.

The uplifting side is that Keynes' General Theory really was a methodological revolution. While many economists who talk about Keynes like to criticize the second chapter for many things (it's incoherent, not an accurate description of later parts of the book on expectations, etc.) I was really impressed by that chapter when I read it for the first time. I think part of that has to do with my background in math, because he uses a very interesting analogy in that chapter which I can deeply appreciate.

He begins by describing the classical system as based on two fundamental postulates. Calling into question the second of these postulates -- the one concerning whether wage is ever equal to its marginal disutility, or what economic forces may determine it to be so -- he says the goal of the General Theory is to break this second classical postulate, and that this is analogous to the breaking of Euclid's parallel postulate in geometry.

I find this interesting because of the history of the parallel postulate in mathematical thought. From the beginning, Euclid found it the hardest to put in words: indeed, while the parallel postulate is the 5th postulate in his axiomatic system of geometry, it is the longest stated by far and it contains vague references to infinity, something none of the other axioms do. So, the first postulate is "To draw a straight line from any point to any point", etc., until you get to 5:

That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines makes the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles are lessthan the two right angles

The history of the parallel postulate springs from the fact that it was so difficult to put in words and, indeed, so difficult to prove! Euclid himself, offering demonstrations of his other postulates, simply assumed the postulate to be true. Essentially, since Euclid introduced his geometry mathematicians have wondered whether the parallel postulate is independent of the other axioms of Euclid's system. What this means is: can we construct logically consistent geometries that may require the first four postulates, but do not require the parallel postulate? Early arabic mathematics, which mostly concentrated on algebra and trigonometry, was also obsessed with proving the parallel postulate but never did. Later attempts were made by Italian mathematicians, and many others as the 19th century saw the most activity in the field of geometry. (Some of this information comes from Boyer's A History of Mathematics)

The result, however, was not an eventual proof. In fact, in the 19th century several mathematicians developed an entirely new field of gemoetry, appropriately named non-Euclidean geometry, which was based on using the first four postulates and breaking the parallel postulate and seeing the resulting properties of that system. One of the major contributers to this field was Riemann. Riemann is in turn important because Riemannian geometry is the basis for Einstein's theories of space-time (incidentally, also developed in the 30s when Keynes wrote the General Theory!). Einstein developed his theory of general relativity based on the idea that the universe operates on a large scale not according to the principles of Euclidean geometry, but by these non-Euclidean systems which can deal with all the geometric oddities of space.

Drawing this all back to Keynes, what this means is that Keynes saw the breaking of the second classical postulate of economics as similar to the development of a theory of general relativity which revolutionized our understanding of physics. We can debate on whether he actually accomplished this, but certainly the General Theory should be appreciated on a methodological level for its contribution to economic thought. What the implications of truly breaking an axiom of an economic system mean for the state of economic theory is a very exciting thought.

And finally, should appreciate it not because of what "New Keynesians" such as Mankiw have done to Keynes' original theory: that is, reduced it to a few assumptions of sticky factor prices in the short run while maintaining the classical long run assumptions.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

beethoven, kreutzer sonata (1st mvmt.)

A really amazing performance of an excellent sonata for the violin and piano by Beethoven. You should read the Tolstoy novella by the same name as well.

Monday, September 7, 2009

exploring the causal link between labor institutions and productivity

This may sound a bit strange but I developed an argument while writing my economi history comp that I am somewhat interested in taking up in a more serious fashion. There was a question on the relationship between institutions and productivity, specifically the link between "free" labor and slavery generally.

You can do a simple comparison of Southern and Northern GDP growth prior to the Civil War to test this theory. And, I would argue that you can more than simply show a correlation (which may or may not imply causation!). Specifically, after testing for a correlation you could analyze the micro-evidence on the (firm- and institution-specific) sources of productivity in the North and South. The story goes as follows.

Before the Revolution, indentured servitude was a pretty common labor contract form in the North. Basically, a worker would sell anywhere from 2 to 7 (or more) years of his labor power in exchange for wages and food, shelter, training in some skill or craft, etc. The Revolution changed this institution. The Revolution was carried by the bourgeois but also represented a set of ideas of freedom that were fundamentally incompatible with indentured servitude, especially in the case of white males. Thus, in the North we saw a gradual shift from this "unfree" labor to a more "free" labor where the employer did not have complete control over the worker: contracts were freely entered into and, increasingly, workers could leave before a contract's terms were up (say, a stipulation that the worker must stay with the employer for a year). This gradual shift really was gradual, encompassing 4-5 decades of post-Revolutionary U.S. history.

Indeed, this is one very important part of this story, of this shift from unfree to free labor: it was not an "overnight" phenomenon. To use, Steinfeld's characterization, it was bound in the political, legal and cultural struggles of the post-Revolutionary northeast, as workers came to terms with their own freedoms and the extent of those freedoms at the same time that new modes of organization of work were being introduced by entrepreneurs. A rough marker of the official change over to free labor is the case of Mary Clark in 1821 who was not required to serve out the full term of her contract and received compensation for the time she did seve; this is covered by Steinfeld. But throughout the 1820s and 1830s, what free labor really meant was still being debated. For example, if a worker in a northeast textile mill agrees to work for one year but quits after six months, is he or she entitled to compensation for these six months? The answer was not so clear cut during this time. But things did gradually change, and disputes such as this were not very common in the 1840s and afterward.

So if we can establish that labor contracts in the North were in a kind of limbo for the first part of the 19th century, while in the South slavery as an institution contineued to survive and perform well, our next question is: what was the performance like of the two economies during this period? We have an answer, and although it would be nice to have earlier numbers they are difficult to come by:

GDP per capita 1840 1860

North 109 141

Northeast 129 181
North Central 65 89

South 74 103

S.Atlantic 66 84
E.South Central 69 89
W.South Central 151 184

(Data taken from Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross p. 248.)

Northern economic performanace was clearly outstripping the South by the 1840s, but two additional points should be made from this table. First, the Northeast experienced the greatest boost in growth between 1840 and 1860. This is in conjunction with the rise of "free" labor as a contractual norm. Second, the West South Central had some of the highest levels of per capita growth in any region. This outlines the movement of slavery from first along the coasts (Virginia, South Carolina) into the "cotton belt" by the 1840s, as soil was being exhausted and more land was being taken from the Native Americans.

What I would argue that this shows is the relation between labor markets/institutions and productivity growth. The South had always been ahead of the North since the first decades of colonization, due to the thriving plantation economy and trade with the West Indies and Africa. Slavery, it is argued, was a very productive institution given the South's emphasis on agriculture. When compared to a "mixed" institution of some unfree, some free labor (as was the case following the Revolution and into the 1830s) it is clearly superior. But, the birth of the proletarian and all that comes with it (capitalism: the employer owning the means of production; labor organized in increasingly large and centralized factories; various forms of regulation of labor's behavior; and so on) is the engine of the rapid economic growth that gripped the U.S. economy in the second quarter of the 19th century.

So, in the end we find more than a simple correlation: homogeneous institutions provide the best performance within any one economic system, but capitalism is the mother of them all in terms of being able to harness the full productive capacity of the worker and turn out the greatest profits and change possible.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

final fantasy 13 announce ment of release date announced

This frustrates me: FFXIII announcement of release date announced (yes, I wrote that correctly)

Mostly because I know what Square is and is not doing: They are releasing remakes of other FFs (FF4 for the DS, summer 2008), mediocre remakes of their other classics (Chrono Trigger DS, May 2009), and spinoffs of their popular titles (Dissidia, Summer 2009) that are little more than fan tributes. They are not being very forward-looking or creative.

Square should stop trying to milk the success of their past titles and focus on developing new imaginative RPGs which they were known for in the days of the SNES, PS, and PS2. Back then, FFs were coming out every year and a half or so, and when they did do fan service (say, with FF Anthology which came out right after FF8) it was not at the sacrifice of newer games (FF9 came out a year and two months after FF8/Anthology).