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!

miyazaki intro

Here is an interesting article on the famous Japanese movie director Hayao Miyazaki. It has a lot of interesting tidbits, including his views on Disney, as well as some interesting facts about his political views. Miyazaki is apparently strongly influenced by Marxism and Communism. My friend Zhun has told me that this theme appears in an early television show of his titled Future Boy Conan. While the communist theme of industrialism and a post-capitalist utopia are described very explicitly in that show, one can see more subtle elements of this in his later movies as well.

For example, in one of his most celebrated films titled Spirited Away (2001), the theme of greed is encompassed in the interesting character, "Noface." He is first portrayed in the movie as essentially a passive character. He does not voluntarily enter the spirit bath house but waits to be welcomed in by Chihiro. He is a product of his environment (definitely a Marxian idea) since once he enters the bath house (which could easily be seen as the ideal capitalist firm), he is overtaken by the greed of the workers and he feeds off of this greed just as much as the greed feeds off of him. It is not until he encounters the genuinely selfless Chihiro that Noface changes back to his previous form. He then spends time with Xeneba in a world that is completely the opposite of Yubaba's, an ideal post-capitalist society that is another recurring theme in his movies.

Check out a very good Miyazaki interview at the Disney studios here

At any rate, enjoy the excellent introduction to Miyazaki and his ideas!

t.s. eliot's "the waste land"

T.S. Eliot reads his poem "The Waste Land" (from HarperAudio)

The text can be found here

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

say hello

Welcome. You may be new to this blog (I just advertised on Facebook with the very hope of this), or you might have been reading it for a while now but never commented, or you may be one of the select few who have actually commented on my posts. Regardless of who you are, I'd like to extend a warm Hello and Welcome to you. I've recently finished a project where I tagged all my entries for easier viewing for you, the reader. You can find a list of the tags on the right side of my blog (you may have to scroll down).

I did this for two reasons. First, it gives me an opportunity to look back and reflect on where this blog has gone since May, when I began writing for it with the intention of putting some research and teaching ideas out in a public forum and also freshen things up every now and then with some articles on my hobbies. Second, it gives you the opportunity to browse topics according to your own interest. Initially, I thought I would accomplish this by including a Google "search" bar on my blog. But I realized later on that it's probably not the best way to find, say, my review of Final Fantasy Tactics A2 or my writings on the the social nature of property. So hopefully this is a bit more effective. Since you will now more easily find those posts simply by clicking on the tag "videogames" or "law and economics"

So, enjoy! And please feel free to give me your comments. They are much appreciated.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

link roundup - more on how kafka stimulates your brain, some comments on classical music, and more

First, here is a followup to the previous discussion on this blog about a psychological study which showed through an experiment how Kafka stimulates your brain.

As I noted in the comments to this post, there is more to this study than simply showing a relationship between the experience of the absurd and intellectual activity: a psychologist working on this project notes "We're so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere.... We channel the feeling into some other project, and it appears to improve some kinds of learning" such as mathematical understanding.

Another quote, just because I find this idea so fascinating: "Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams."

Here we find some interesting comments by former conductor Alfred Brendel who has recently retired and taken up writing. He talks about his revelation that life is "grotesque and absurd" -- but it's more uplifting than that, I promise! Includes an interesting perspective on Rachmaninov and classical music in general.

Roberts makes some comments on who should win the Nobel Prize in economics.

Arthur Krystal in the New York Times on "When Writers Speak"

And, for good measure here are movements 1, 2, and 3 of Beethoven's Piano Sonata 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 for two reasons: first, I've been listening to his piano sonatas a lot lately and find them absolutely amazing (particularly I've listened to no. 32 an uncountable number of times); second, so you can see for yourself about the end of the third movement and whether it inspires laughs, as Brendel says in his piece linked to above.

My apologies, but one more on classical music: Glenn Gould talks about how he plays Mozart in an age of "super recording techniques", etc., basically defending his unique artistic style. Only 3.5 minutes, highly recommended.

Gould, brilliant quote: "I think that all the basic statements have been made for posterity now, I think what we must do is try to find our way around these things [the super recording techniques and so on], try to find a raison d'etre, that is somehow different and yet still somehow right, that makes sense. I think if it does not, if it does not really make sense one must chuck it out and indeed I would have said that two days after having made that record had I not listened to it in a playback booth and thought it really is fun and it really does make sense and it really does say something about the architecture of that particular work then I would have chucked it out and gone back and done it as Hollywood would prefer."

Enjoy, and happy Sunday!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

thoughts on the department talk

On Tuesday:

A lot of what was said had to do with the events leading up to the package deal in the spring of 1973. Some things were said about what happened immediately afterward: the battles fought between the faculty and the grad students, for instance. However, almost nothing was said about the state of radical economics or the department in the 1980s. A few things were said about the 90s, and of course Sam and Steve gave their thoughts on the current state of radical economics and where it might go in the future. While I do have some issues with what some people said about the present and future, I was more interested in the past: specifically, what happened in those early years of the department that led, so quickly, to things changing?

In our digging up of EGSO records over the summer, we came across a variety of memos and minutes beginning in the late 1970s. These were really helpful in constructing a memory of some of the debates which occurred (such as the controversy over the Affirmative Action committee). But they also painted a picture of EGSO's thoughts on their situation as graduate students in this unique department. Their views on TA allocation, funding issues, and other matters of cogovernance are strikingly similar to the views expressed by EGSO today on the same or similar issues. Their views on the changing direction of the department can also be captured in these documents. Indeed, as early as 1983 when students expressed concern over the change in curriculum they noted the changing direction of certain professors' work in the department, towards more mainstream ideas and techniques.

What I find so interesting about this early look at the orientation of the department is how quickly things changed. It makes me wonder, what was the lifespan of this radical movement in economics, both here and in the profession as a whole? If these economists really were riding a wave of social movements, when that wave died did the movement die with it?

This is the reason why I ask: does it really make sense to talk about "the history of radical economics and a radical department, 1973-present" or is it more like "the history of radical economics and a radical department, 1973-79" or some proximate date? The framing of the study, I believe, is essential to understanding both the nature of a radical department and what we can do today to change things for the better. Why? Here is my point: because if radicalism more or less lost steam after this early period (the "to 1979" scenario) then we must look at what things were like at that time, and try our best to go back to that time. Otherwise, in the "to present" scenario, we are left wondering whether radical economics is a simple skirting of the mainstream by people who mostly ask alternative and slightly more interesting questions without relying entirely on neoclassical tools to answer them.

My personal thoughts on the issue are that radicalism was most likely a punctuated event in the history of economic thought in the U.S. I have very few doubts that things were quite different in UMass econ by the mid-1980s and probably even earlier. The question is then, what are the reasons for this change? Like most questions in history, there are both agency and social institutions dimensions to the story, related through some notion of dialectics which I won't go into too much :) I will briefly sketch out what I see as some of the main factors.

1. Sam plays a central role in this history because he was the organizer of the group of professors who were hired in the spring of 1973. Before coming to UMass he researched other attempts at radical institutions that had ultimately dissolved. While he was hesitant at first to share the lessons he learned in studying these departments, later on he admitted that lack of group cohesion was a central element to all of the failure stories. While the initial pact amongst the five did exist, Sam turned towards a different set of questions and ideas in the 1980s which dealt less with critiquing capitalism and more with studying topics that were excluded by neoclassicals at that time, and criticizing the neoclassical theory. He admits this himself.

In fact, by moving more in the direction of Hayek (criticizing the Walrasian model) than, say, Rawls (providing moral critiques of capitalism), Sam had not only given up on the intellectual challenge posed by the construction of a post-capitalist society but he also became increasingly engaged with the academic aspect of his research program. (Find a previous post here on where I see the relationship between radical academics and society.)

2. The problems facing the world in the 1970s when some economists got interested in radical ideas were monumental: global inequality, imperialism, and at the same time a fear of Marxist ideas as "dangerous and subversive." This is definitely a volatile point in global history in terms of what was being talked about and the severity with which people held oppositional views. The 1980s, in contrast, were a period of social conservatism, government crackdown of unions, and the beginning of an era characterized by leftist economists as "neoliberalism." Given that to at least some extent social movements informed these radical economists, you can possibly make an argument that it works in the other direction as well: specifically, that this period gave new theoretical strength to the fundamental neoclassical doctrines of competitive markets and little government intervention.

What does this mean for an understanding of radical economics and what radical economists can do about it? First, as Jim Crotty pointed out near the end, the social problems (partly outlined in -2-)which they confronted in the 1970s are no bigger than the problems radical economists face today. The conditions exist for radical economists to criticize capitalism and face the greater intellectual challenge of constructing an alternative, so what radical economics had in the 1970s is similar to (if not less important than) what radical economists have today.

Second, so much of this is about individual choices, and that is something I find both amazingly beautiful and powerful but also very dangerous. Here, I believe all we can do is trust in education and fruitful debate. In fact, lots of debate -- open communication is absolutely central. And, it might be necessary to make some pacts at times :) but we should not view them as necessary evils but as opportunities for cooperation.

Finally, I would strongly differ with Sam concerning open engagement with the top of the mainstream. There is no a priori reason to do this, and in fact it may compromise our position by fetishizing the elite, which is directly contrary to radical principles.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

library thing

Check out this site: http://www.librarything.com/

It's a space you can use to catalog what you've read, find related authors you may find interesting, and read others' comments and reviews.

It seems like a great site. In addition to the above, their "author" pages contain a wealth of information about the author as well as popular links associated with them. For example, here is the entry on Murakami.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

dreaming, again

In the past two weeks, my class has covered what I find to be some of the most fundamental questions facing students of American history and the history of capitalism. However, I have doubts about whether I conveyed my extreme enthusiasm in class. Partly, this is because the issues are so complex that it's hard to go to the front of the class every other day and show them anything representing a coherent answer. I'm somewhat confused myself, and the hardest thing to do as a teacher is pretend like you know something really well when you are still searching for the answer yourself.

For example, today we read the beginning chapters of Kessler-Harris' Out to Work. Sure, the book is about the gendered aspects of work but it is just as much about workers coming to grips with the new social relations that came to dominate the economy by 1860. For example, on pg. 21 she asks, "Could a largely agrarian population unused to laboring for masters be persuaded not merely to sell their labor, but to sell it in confined quarters and under conditions that could remove them from their agrarian roots?" Honestly, this is one of the most striking sentences I've read in any work of economic history. It goes to the core of what the changing social economic system truly meant for these workers. I think it is the mark of a great historian (social, political, economic or other) to ask a question about the psyche of the people he or she is studying. Indeed, this is one of the questions that motivated me to focus on this time period in American history. I really want to understand on a fundamental level how factory work became such an integral part of American society and how people responded to it.

This is related to what I believe is the other central question of this time period which we have studied in class: given that work is a social relationship between parties, these relationships have a legal expression in the form of contracts. In fact, this is one of the most important expressions of the work relationship because contracts specify an exchange of property rights (labor power for a wage), and people are instinctually very attached to their property and the rules governing the use and distribution of that property. Here is the second question: How did the law deal with the changing nature of contracts which reflected the rise of factory work?

Of course, the two questions are intricately related. At the same time that you see the rise of a will theory of contract, you see the rise of proletarianization. Both are rooted in individualism, the market economy, liberalism. But the roots are more complex than what this simple picture may imply. Simultaneously with the rise of the factory worker, societies consciously grasped onto the home as a point of stability. How are we to fit this into our narrative, especially if the institutions of democratic capitalism are so entrenched by 1860?

Actually, how "entrenched" were they? Shaun, a friend of mine and a commentor on a few previous posts of mine on this subject questions whether we should think about capitalism in a utilitarian framework -- as an efficient economic system representing the interests of the majority. Can power explain the rise of capitalism in the U.S.? Does individualism contain any grain of truth in the story?

Such difficult questions indeed. I fully appreciate what my friend Zhun told me back in May when I was searching for a unifying theme for my American history syllabus: find that, and you have yourself a dissertation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

what does a radical economics department look like?

Tomorrow, my department (UMass Amherst Economics) is hosting a workshop on its history and the history of radical economics in the U.S. more generally. I'm very excited about this talk for a number of reasons. First, the speakers for the workshop were some of the leaders of this movement in the 70s. Second, the place of radical economics in the history of economic thought is quite an interesting one. Let me briefly explain why.

Even though they are often identified this way in the media, I don't usually think of academics as the most radical force in society. Consider the social sciences. Often, the dominant theories of social sciences reflect the prevailing social consensus. So, neoclassical economics is more popular in society than heterodox economics at least partly because neoclassical economics affirms the dominant economic order. In other words, neoclassical economics provides theoretical justifications for capitalism. While I don't know as much about sociology or psychology, etc., I think the situation there is similar. Even some academics who teach radical ideas in their classes hold conservative views about the academy and society.

I think this blurring of what radicalism means to academics is fairly demonstrated above ... at least it's enough to drive my main point that to think about a truly radical department or academic tradition means challenging the boundaries between the academy and society. It is of utmost importance to keep this in mind when discussing the radical tradition of the econ department here. Why? Because UMass Econ imported radical economists in the early 1970s, economists riding on a wave of social demonstrations such as the civil rights movement and workers' strikes. These same economists turned in the early-to-mid-1980s toward answering radical questions using neoclassical techniques (see work by Sam Bowles and Herbert Gintis for two examples). Radicalism in the department slowly died, and now (in 2009) radical economics has nothing of the attention it received in the 1970s, when mainstream journals such as the American Economic Review were publishing work by these radical economists.

Why do I think it's so important to frame the story in this way? Because it gets away from the tendency some people have of saying "the field of economics is quickly changing, we need to identify those changes and keep with that current if we are to establish ourselves as a premier heterodox institution." People making this argument are operating under a severely flawed impression of the relationship between the academy and society and what it truly means to be a progressive institution of higher education. The "dominant" field of economics is swayed by the slow tectonic shifts of orthodoxy. Attaching oneself to that in the hope for radical change is intellectual complacency, and downright conservative at worst.

Of course, I'm no radical myself, I want to get a PhD for my own reasons. These are simply my thoughts on the state of radicalism in economics and the reason for why I'm so interested in tomorrow's talk.