Thursday, December 30, 2010

looking beneath the left-right distinction: the tradition of critiques of economics pedagogy

Greg Mankiw made a quick reference the other day on his blog to a panel at the AEA meetings on economics education. He linked to a paper by Lopus and Paringer that compares the leading textbooks on the market today. Here is a link to Mankiw's post, which has a link to the paper:

Here are some bullet point comments:
  • I certainly agree with Lopus and Paringer's claim that Samuelson's book still sets the framework for economics education, even as other texts have superseded it. In content and approach, Samuelson's successors including McConnell and Mankiw are focused on political balance built on fundamental principles of market mechanisms, limited government intervention, supply and demand, and thinking at the margin, among other key features of a mixed economy.
  • But Lopus and Paringer simply miss the big issues when they claim that the main problems scholars had with Samuelson's book (and thus the later texts as well) were that it was either "too Keynesian [or] not Marxist enough" (pg. 3), depending on one's place in the political spectrum. This is a very narrow summary of the debates surrounding Samuelson's books. Marc Linder's criticism of Samuelson in particular is much more fundamental. Shunning the left-right distinction, Linder showed how Samuelson's approach to teaching economics was also ahistorical because it pretended to teach "core" economics concepts of scarcity and market efficiency as if they were God-given aspects of economics. Linder argued that these concepts are actually the product of the particular socioeconomic system of capitalism. In short, by ignoring key changes in the history of economic thought, Samuelson's book naturally fits itself into market rhetoric and, if I might add, indoctrination -- precisely because it does not even question principles and ideas which are not wholly absolute or scientific.
  • It was interesting to learn that McConnell's book overtook Samuelson's in sales by 1975. I thought it was later than that, but it does make sense. It shouldn't surprise anyone because during the mid-1970s a lot of turmoil in the political economy was brewing which led people to question certain basic Keynesian fundamentals. This was also around the time that Harvard started using a different book for its Ec 10 course (i.e., not Samuelson), causing a lot of uproar which has been documented in the Harvard Crimson. The story here goes as follows: after WWII Samuelson had a visiting position at Harvard, but he was denied a full professorship there, purportedly due to the fact that he was Jewish, so Samuelson ended up going to MIT instead. This caused a lot of negative sentiment between the two schools, with one Crimson article arguing that it would take decades for Harvard to recover from their mistake. Thus, when Harvard switched away from Samuelson, this also caused some discontent, seen as another political move against Samuelson and his brand of economics. I talk about some of these controversies more in depth in a post relating to Anti-Mankiw from a while back; you can find it here:
  • Of course, the paper finds little difference among the leading books, aside from small differences in the level of mathematics, policy orientation, and range of topics. While some would qualify an important difference in the top books in terms of their hegemony in the field, to some this is not an important distinction. I for one would certainly not argue that Mankiw's Principles is more hegemonic than any of the others, since economics education itself is partly a political project. But it would have been nice to hear more about different methodologies, in particular when dealing with economics education!
  • Paper notes that Mankiw's intro does not address the short run as fully as other texts, and there is no discussion of the Keynesian aggregate expenditures model.
Overall, I was not thrilled with the paper, but it is a useful introductory discussion to different economics textbooks. We still have very far to go...

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

imagining leisure time

Here are some of the main things I'm working on over break and which will most certainly be subjects of more in-depth posts on this blog in the weeks to come:

Finishing Tomlins' Freedom Bound

This is a fascinating history of law, labor, and society in the U.S. from early colonization up until the Civil War. Not only is there tons of new material in here, but Tomlins does an excellent job of synthesizing demographic research and the existing legal history of the colonial period to make some compelling new arguments. For example, he gives a more refined view of English feudal law's implementation in the colonies, and he argues that there are some striking institutional continuities before and after the Revolution which question the notion of the Revolution as a "sharp break" with the past. Here is an interview with Tomlins about the book. Really an amazing scholar. I recommend anything by him; he has deeply influenced my work.

Watching Cowboy Bebop

An anime with a theme that is very dear to my heart, Cowboy Bebop is about a group of wanderers, a sort of 21st century "Lost Generation" that has a fantastic soundtrack and moving story. It was a bit slow at first, but the story and themes develop quickly after the first 8 episodes or so, as they move into more personal accounts. I very rarely watch anime, so when I do I try to look for the best. This is definitely up there with the others I've watched -- Deathnote and Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Staring at Stata output

I'm working on an applied theory project which lies at the intersection of contract theory and labor history. The fact that it is my first serious empirical paper means that I am spending many hours slogging through manuals and websites for the simplest commands. Needless to say it is a very frustrating experience.

No fiction for me this holiday! Normally I take the winter weeks off to catch up on favorite authors. Unfortunately that is not the case this year as I move into an important stage of dissertation writing and as other activities crowd out the leisure time normally associated with reading. This is a very readable discussion of the most effective econometric tools used in applied analysis today. It may not solve any problems with your code, but it will give you a good primer on important studies and ideas behind each idea.

Professor Layton and the Unwound Future

The latest installment of the Professor Layton series leaves much to be desired. I firmly believe this is the worst in the series. The puzzles are uninspiring and at times are a real insult to play through. I'm serious, some of the puzzles are just that bad, relying on subtle tricks which require absolutely no logic. The music is bland and unmemorable. The minigames, while much more varied than in previous installments, lack the depth and quality which they had in previous games. Maybe I'm getting sick of these games, but I doubt it -- I was really excited to jump into Unwound Future and now I just can't wait to get back out.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

The latest AC is really just as much an improvement over II as II was over I. This series keeps getting better and I'm extremely excited to see where the developers go in future installments. Focusing on one very big city (Rome), the game adds more challenge, reduces some of the nonsense sidequests, and slims the game in other areas to give the gamer a truly high-quality sandbox experience. I'm only about halfway through so I can't say too much about the story, but I've heard from around the web that it's the only drawback to this installment.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

political economy of the arts

A very interesting comment thread today over at MarginalRevolution on unions in the Arts. I think that it's a great example to use in a labor history or just a (heterodox) labor econ class. It's a fun example that highlights many of the important themes of trades unions such as protection of trade skills, skilled vs. unskilled issues, and how politics and economics intersect for labor on a macro scale. Anyway here is the link:

I had something to say about the ways in which political entities have historically restricted access to a trade and why we're not necessarily worse off for it. I then drew the grad school analogy, asking "Are grad schools an enemy of scholarship?" to which one person replied, "I could name some that certainly are :)"


Saturday, December 25, 2010

considering economic history as narrative

Apparently Brad DeLong is teaching economic history at the graduate level next semester and will be posting his notes. Here are some things he has to say about why we should study economic history:

It is either a " history of thought" type of motivation or maybe Brad just doesn't understand the reasons why economics as a whole (that includes New Keynesians such as himself as well as Chicago guys like Fama) turned away from historical and institutional approaches after WWII. I can really never tell with him -- sometimes he has some thoughtful things to say about methodology, and other times (say, when he is talking about why we shouldn't talk about Marxian economics) he just comes off as stunningly ignorant. See this piece:

I think this is a very insincere discussion of the theory. Or take his views on Polanyi, which I think are superficial (he gives a "supermarket analogy" for understanding the concept of embeddedness, which doesn't seem appropriate when applied to labor markets, thereby missing an important part of the 'embededness' idea):

In short, in reading DeLong's notes on why we should study economic history, he seems to appreciate the discipline as a tool for understanding "what really happened". That's fine if you want to point out in an ad hoc way the blind ignorance of most of modern economics to reality, but I contend that economic history is much more meaningful as an actual discipline. We should study economic history because it forces us to understand institutional processes, like how market integration occurred, or how the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism occurred.

Both of these examples are studied in the economic history classes at UMass because these are issues which demand more tools and a broader view of study than economics alone permits. Yes, on the way we at UMass still encounter a greater range of "facts" with which we illustrate theories, but more fundamentally we get to understand the social relations and (political, cultural) institutions that underly economic activity.

What we find is when we add social relations and institutions to the mix, economic activity becomes much more varied and thus much more beautiful as an object of study.

Friday, December 24, 2010

gamer heaven

Although this deal has been out for a while, I'm only just getting around to blogging it. Check out the Humble Indie Bundle (HIB) 2, which recently added games from the first HIB to it (including the extremely famous World of Goo): so in addition to getting the games from the first HIB, the second one adds solid titles including Mechanarium, Osmos, and my personal favorite Braid. Here is the BoingBoing announcement, which will direct you to the relevant site for downloading:

How does it work? You get a bunch of really cool computer games made by independent developers for... however much you want to pay! With the latest additions, you get 11 games for a minimum price of $7.60. Not a bad deal! You can even choose how much goes to the developers and how much goes to select charity organizations.

I would suggest you act fast on this deal -- not sure if it was around for very long the last time they did this. But trust me, it's certainly worth it -- I'm already having tons of fun with Braid and Osmos, and World of Goo was a really excellent experience. All three are innovative action/puzzle games that are really great in short bursts when you want to take a break from work (or other games!).

Thursday, December 23, 2010

santa shouldn't wear red

This article in the FT yesterday caught my eye -- while the theme is nothing new, I think it does a good job of reminding us of the distinction between social relationships and market incentives. In particular, the article's focus on how the "public realm" of being a good citizen is distorted by economics is really good. Take this paragraph and bring it to a mainstream micro theory course:
The public realm continues to rely on thousands of people who offer services voluntarily, and the very nature of health, or education, or policing demands that it be undertaken by people who do not have a purely instrumental view of their vocation. Perhaps it was appropriate to build Blenheim Palace for John Churchill, or to offer his distant descendant Winston a dukedom: but these measures were recognition of great achievement, not performance incentives designed to encourage the individuals concerned to try harder. If Marlborough and Churchill had needed such incentives, they would not have been the right people for the roles they fulfilled.
What may strike the reader about these arguments is the somewhat unnatural dichotomy implicit in the above discussion -- specifically 1. that we must delegate things to either the public or private realms, and 2. that we should not wholly rely on either the public or private realm to advance policy. Like all social concepts this dichotomy is a social construction, and a really interesting history of thought question would be to ask, how did this social construction evolve? To what extent was it influenced by economics?

Pragmatists such as Margaret Radin would argue that the goal of democratic policy is to draw a finely-tuned line between the public and private in a way that preserves our innermost sense of personhood. For example, we may permit prostitution as a way for females to further their economic position in society, but we could reduce the role that contract plays in its operation so as to sidestep issues of commodification (the state could severely regulate contracts, lessening the role of private enforcement).

More extreme solutions might take note of the historically contingent character of the public-private distinction, calling for an embedding of the two within each other. That is, they would recognize that within the history of capitalism these public-private distinctions take place as part of larger ideological forces which attempt conceptualize private relations as different from public ones. The goal was (and is) to delegate a set of relationships based on hierarchy and unequal exchange in the private sphere.

Of course, this is quite a bit of a digression from the FT piece. But it spurs an important point related to the article: the "department store Santa Claus" is not absurd because we need to hide the fact that he's intimately related to the market from the children. He is absurd because he fundamentally accepts capitalist social relations -- that's true whether we look at his relationship to the department store or his own factory in the North Pole.

In this way he is no different from the bastardized western Nanny state -- gift giving with a cruel historical twist re: labor relations.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

group intelligence, hierarchy, and the history of society

Found via 3QD, the Boston Globe reports on new research showing how an individual's intelligence is partly contingent on the group it's in.

A particularly noteworthy paragraph:
More broadly, groups and the complex social structure of human interactions may help account for how people got “smart” in the first place. The dramatic changes in science, culture, art, language, technology, and music over the past thousand years are not due to the development of brand-new mental or physical capacities. Instead, it is a particular kind of group benefit, Goldstone argues, in which human progress bootstraps upon itself through a collective cultural memory. Knowledge ratchets up in successive generations without our having to reinvent technologies, discover laws of nature anew, or risk tasting all the mushrooms in the forest.
Old institutionalists and of course Marxists have known this for a long time. It is a richly historical idea. It may also improve the scientific foundation of some modern-day studies of team production and other ways of decentralizing authority in the workplace.

Interestingly, the article ends with this passage:
“There’s been a tendency to focus on the negative, the mob psychology, the idea that people can bring out the worst in each other,” Goldstone said. “There’s just as much evidence that people can bring out the best in each other.”
Depending on your view of "good" and "bad", this can become a very important statement. The implication of the above paragraph is that successful groups are founded upon the promotion of efficient individual behavior. And so my question to the reader is -- does capitalism bring out the best in people, fostering its own success?

Perhaps one would retaliate to this question by saying that hierarchies are different from groups. Essentially, it may be the case that groups are more efficient but capitalism is built on a different network structure. I would agree with this argument, but I don't see it reflected in these studies. For one, the study finds that group unity is unimportant -- high levels of group technology are behind the efficiency results.

Of course, Gordon, Edwards, and Reich have argued that in America, the development of firm technology was not due to efficiency considerations. But I suppose another, simpler, test of the issue would require examining the efficiency of different types of groups (hierarchical, egalitarian, and so on). I wonder if this has been done before?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Some of you may be wondering where I currently am, having sparsely updated the blog in the past, oh, 2 months or so.

I promise to update the blog and get back to writing very soon -- the classic dissertation has been getting in the way. Although it never really leaves you, the past two months have been particularly difficult...

For those interested, my project is contract law, social conflict, and labor in early nineteenth century U.S. history. Some interesting results, and while I can't give away too much I will be sharing some interesting ideas soon.

I really miss writing here. More to come soon!

In the meantime: