Friday, October 28, 2011

1Q84 first impressions

200 pages in; I'm taking my time with this one. Some people are speculating on whether this will be his all-time best work. It is still early to tell: slow-moving plot, mainly because even the main characters are getting a lot of back-story attention. And, there is just so much here, going on, already, in terms of characters and plot complexity. So it's uncertain where and how everything will tie up. In this way we are seeing a shift from most of his earlier approaches, but it is indeed similar to Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and could therefore leave some readers quite upset by the end (though, this did not happen to me).

He's also elevating his themes -- religion, politics, the state -- thereby entering relatively unexplored territory given the ultra-personal approach of most of his other novels/short stories. He could therefore really be trying to do too much if he still wants to maintain the classical Murakami elements. Early evidence suggests he's trying to do both though (Fuka-Eri is a particularly striking example). But if he pulls it off, there is no doubt that this could be a true masterpiece.

Some magical realism but it's really a matured version of even his somewhat more recent examples (e.g., Kafka on the Shore). It makes me feel less guilty about reading it but all the more amazed at how he still pulls it off.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

thought of the day: radical economics and intro textbooks

Reflecting on yesterday's post, which had a quote that was admittedly out of context, I started thinking about how Mankiw treats neoclassical theory vis-a-vis other economic theories.

Of course we know that Mankiw intends to present the consensus view of the mainstream of the economics profession, which is (apparently) why he pretends not to be making any conscious decisions about what to include in his book. Rather, he can say that he doesn't mention radical economics because the mainstream no longer engages with radical economics.

But, my point yesterday is partly that we are taking this intention of presenting the consensus for granted. Samuelson, as it may or may not be evident from reading yesterday's quote, felt as though he needed to address Marx and Marxism on their own terms. He actively engaged with "the old man", pointing out what he thought were both the strengths and weaknesses of his ideas. And as one of my professors at UMass Econ (who is an MIT PhD) would tell us in class, Samuelson was always bringing up Marx in his graduate classes! You would walk in the room, hear this guy talking about Marx, and wonder where the hell you were. One certainly does not find that kind of active engagement with radical economics in graduate courses at the top schools today.

But, there's a flip side of the coin. At times, Samuelson fails to accurately portray Marxist ideas. Just as Mankiw sometimes glosses over core logical steps in neoclassical economics, so Samuelson did similarly with Marxism. And that kind of treatment may be as bad, if not worse, than not talking about him at all (a la Mankiw -- who does not mention Marx a single time in his intro book).

The question is, which is worse? No mention of Marx, or mention some things about him, get some things right, and some things wrong?

What do you think?

I tend to believe that some mention of Marx, even if it's not the best portrayal of his ideas, is the best option for effective pedagogy. And I would say, as a kind of meta-analysis of economics textbooks,  that there is something to be said about the evolution of bourgeois ideology that they do not even actively recognized the existence of this countervailing force in their intro textbooks.

The question I leave you with is the following: what does choice of reducing exposure to Marxist ideas imply about the state of bourgeois economics? From the perspective of instruments of bourgeois ideology (an extremely important point to keep in mind), have Marx's ideas become more politically relevant than they were in the 1960s, thus, the need for more forceful repression of them? (This could mean that class struggle has become more acute in society since the 1960s.)  Or have the instruments of bourgeois ideology simply found a more effective (efficient, whatever) means of dealing with radical theories? Are both ideas right?

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

quote of the day

Marxism may be too valuable to leave to the Marxists. It provides a critical prism through which mainstream economists can -- to their own benefit -- pass their analyses for audit.
Samuelson, Economics [Introductory Textbook], 9th Edition (1973), pg. 866

How the world has changed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

quote of the day: lawyers and justice in colonial vermont

On attitudes toward the law in colonial Vermont and New Hampshire:
The Yankee pioneers, and especially the judges, who were invariably laymen, viewed trained lawyers with suspicion. One lawyer complained that a chief justice in New Hampshire, 'having no law learning himself, did not like to be pestered with it at his courts.' Another lawyer attempted to file a demurrer, only to have it ridiculed by the judge as 'an invention of the Bar to prevent justice.' (John Page, "The Economic Structure of Society in Revolutionary Bennington", Vermont History 49 [1981], pp. 69-84)
You really have to wonder how much such attitudes have changed over time, or where this view is found in the general population today. Most of us have heard jokes about lawyers and their uselessness to society. But, what other way would we have it? Do we really want to go back to the mid-18th century when a single judge, member of some privileged elite, would argue and then decide on our cases instead of some weasel-of-a-lawyer? Aren't things made just a tiny-bit better by such improvements?

And yet, popular opinion of lawyers is sour. There seems, in the end, to be a kernel of this conservatism in our modern discourse still left over from our distant past.

Although, it is useful to remember at this point that there is a third way, definitely distinct from the two above -- more revolutionary in scope. Abolish the institutions of capitalism which give rise to a professional class of lawyers, and maybe the path to justice, obfuscated by the lawyer (according to the quote above!), might end up being a bit clearer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

link roundup

Been reading too much lately. Here is a menu of select links for your enjoyment:

History of the Rhode Island Supreme Court highlights the interaction between economic growth, distribution, and institutional change. I enjoyed the discussion of how the rise of the textile towns led (or did not lead to) changes in political representation in the state.

Glenn Gould wikipedia entry. One of the new graduate students in our department (hi Luke!) knows too much about non-economics stuff and has recently introduced me to Gould's academic writings on art. Gould has done some amazing interpretations of classical pieces including two very striking renditions of Bach's Goldberg Variations. Start listening to the 1955 version here. 1981 version here. Gould felt that the best strategy for classical player is to come up with completely new and innovative interpretations of existing pieces, not necessarily striving for what the composer may or may not have intended (who could really know that?) but instead trying to make something that is internally consistent and sounds beautiful.

A truly excellent Lapham's Quarterly history of financial speculation. The story they tell is how financial speculation is a tale of how we as humans fall in love with our ideas and creations but in the end how we're fallible. Some really remarkable quotes in a well-written piece. Here's one that comes at the end of the article: Speaking about the technologies that in part drove the financial boom and eventual bust:
Nearly fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote about our tendency to become fascinated by our inventions, which are, ultimately, extensions of ourselves. As McLuhan tells it, the death of Narcissus had to do not only with his reflection but with his inability to see himself in it. Just as the words “narcosis” and “narcotics” derive from his name, Narcissus was numb; he treated his image as an object of courtship, and he willingly became its slave. McLuhan, ever alert to the perverse urge to lose our uncomfortable selves, described how Narcissus died so that we could live. We court an exquisite ruin whenever we succumb to a pretty face that we fail to recognize as our own.
Somewhat of an "oldie", this article from Daron Acemoglu outlines (in an extremely broad sense of the word "outline") the tasks of institutional economics as economic theorists move forward. As some of you may know, Acemoglu has been a real leader in this field and his works are absolutely recommended (though maybe, you can skip some of the math!). If you want to see where some of his work is headed, check out page 23 of his Political Economy Lecture Notes, "Towards a Framework".

There has been way, way too much aimless debate over Corey Robin's book The Reactionary Mind. To the point of pure frustration of people like me, who understand exactly where Robin is coming from. While engaging in the debates somewhat peripherally over at Rortybomb, I began to realize that people just don't understand the terms in which a classical conservative would make his or her point. Liberals are either too elitist to think that conservatives could be making an intellectual argument (though it's hard to blame them on that front), or their minds are too ingrained into a narrow view of politics that sees the "Republican-Democrat" division as the universal axis of all politics. let's get something straight: classical conservatives understand power and politics and class much better than any progressive Apple-loving Obama-revering hippie. It's not their fault that conservatives live in a different world. No, I take that back -- it is their fault, and that's part of the reason why America is in such a bad shape today. In short, Robin is the only one who really makes sense of modern politics and it's too bad that mainstream liberals can't own up to that fact.

The Chronicle of Higher Education exposes some of the intellectual roots of the beautiful movement that is #OWS.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

will write a paper on this, someday...

...But until I do, you should all send me your comments on the following idea :)

Google ngram for "Think Like an Economist" and "Thinking Like an Economist"

Friday, October 14, 2011

call to arms

Readers of this blog --

For those of you who expressed interest way back when the Anti-Mankiw movement started, I have an idea for a collectively-written blog project. We would need at least 5 or 6 people for it to run smoothly. If you're interested in helping out, please leave a comment with your email in the comments section of this post.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

empirical dimensions of class conflict, part iii (final)

See the previous two installments of this series here and here. Recall where we ended: we wanted to know how workers respond to a wage increase or decrease depending on the social conditions around them.

The idea that the employment relationship is composed of more than a (wage, effort) contractual agreement between the worker and employer is not new, even in the neoclassical canon. The theoretical notion of an implicit labor contract, which was first developed in the 70s and 80s by theorists interested in the dynamics of asymmetric information (and separately, the economic effects of unions), admits that notions of trust, reciprocity, and authority are key ingredients of the formal employment relationship. Nevertheless, the neoclassical tradition has for the most part taken these factors as exogenous. To wit: theorists have traditionally assumed that trust, reciprocity and so on are ingredients of the labor relationship and then looked at the impact of those factors on wages, productivity, and so forth.

Relatively little has been done on endogenizing (i.e. explaining the actual origins of) trust, reciprocity, and other institutional features of the labor contract. This question is arguably the more important one: rather than examine how informal institutions impact some kind of optimal relationship, shouldn't we look at the actual origins of  informal institutions? Shouldn't the question of optimality be relegated to second-place status given how unrealistic it often is? Theory has begun to open up to these questions, but because such work usually involves "fuzzy" notions of informality with connotations of sociology, anthropology and other "soft" sciences, they are rarely accepted by economists, and always with a good deal of reluctance. A recent (accessible!) paper by Daron Acemoglu highlights some of the important work needed to be done in the mainstream if they are to make progress on the important issues.

But for someone steeped in a more radical political economy tradition, the study of the origins of informal institutions such as trust, reciprocity, and conflict is old news. Quantitative studies of the impact of such institutions on economic outcomes, however, is a little less explored. That is where the end contribution of my paper lies (hopefully): giving an account of how political economic conditions shaped the contours of class conflict in early America and tying it to worker behavior on the job to see how such conflict manifested itself.

And this is ultimately where the informal contracts literature needs to go -- it needs to integrate work in other social sciences or else it will never be able to give a good account of the economic effects of institutions. Providing some empirical support is the first step. The particulars of class conflict as an institution arise from political and economic "objective" conditions, including the legal framework in which contracts are drawn up, the distribution of property in society (i.e. who owns the means of production), the availability of labor in reserve, the technology being used, and so on. Those particulars then shape economic outcomes -- wage rates, productivity -- in the firm. It becomes immediately evident that understanding these connections is absolutely crucial for understanding capitalist economic growth.

Monday, October 10, 2011

columbus day

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:
They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned.... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane.... They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.
These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

From chapter 1 of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (pg. 1)

(Yes, this was posted last year on the blog as well...)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

analogical reasoning in mankiw's principles text: an introduction

In chapter 2, amusingly titled "Thinking Like an Economist", Mankiw sets out to describe the economist's world view. The chapter is similar in scope to some of the most popular economics textbooks of the last 50 years, demonstrating a long tradition of taking time in an intro text to introduce the student to the language and tools of economics before jumping into supply and demand.

But, for whatever reason, Mankiw's treatment of the topic is remarkably different than his predecessors, and in some very important ways. What I want to concentrate on today, briefly, is the role of analogical reasoning in chapter 2 of Mankiw's text.

Now, readers of this blog who have taught before know that analogies can be extremely powerful tools for comprehension. Have a difficult topic you need to cover, and not everyone seems to get it? Try an analogy by drawing a connection between the theory and some experience they have in their daily lives -- like back at their dorm room or at home or something.

But, as some of you may also have realized when trying to deliver these analogies, there are also a lot of problems with them. There are minor issues. It's easy to have your analogy miss some part of the audience, for example. Talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer when maybe 5% of the room has ever even seen an episode makes your point less effective. Basically, if people aren't familiar with what you're drawing an analogy to, your argument immediately loses credibility.

But there are more serious problems with analogical reasoning. On the most basic level, analogies cannot be used as air-tight proofs of some conjecture because they derive their credibility from the likeness of two separate concepts and the images people have in their minds of those two concepts. Analogies are really best used as helpful mnemonics or for some humorous or otherwise playful purpose. Thus, while they might be good last-resort methods, they are poor substitutes for a sound argument. This point is essentially derived from the fact that the actual effectiveness of an analogy is only as good as the similarity is between the two objects being analogized. Drawing poor analogies will only confuse the student -- because they will start thinking "well, is economic concept A really like analogous concept B? There are some important differences between A and B such as..." -- as soon as they start down that road, you've lost them on your original argument for economic concept A.

Unfortunately, Mankiw commits these mistakes all over the place in chapter 2 of his favorite textbook. The result? Analogical reasoning may help to improve on a basic understanding of economic methodology, but you can never actually prove anything using analogy -- nor can you give a deep analysis of a concept by relying on analogy. At best, Mankiw's analogical reasoning approach to economic methodology perpetuates an incomplete understanding of the role of methodology in economics. At worst, the (poor, insufficient) analogies lead to pure intellectual brainwashing by failing to provide a rigorous account of the core (crucial, politically contingent) ideas.

Example from the text: Mankiw on the use of assumptions in economics

The premise: assumptions are important in economics because they force us to boil down a situation into its essential aspects. We can then use logic and reasoning -- i.e. the deductive method -- to derive economic predictions based on our assumptions.

Analogy: it is similar to the situation of a physicist who wants to know how long it will take for a marble to fall from a building. The physicist abstracts from other forces, such as wind, which might impede the fall of the marble. In other words, the wind force is said to be "negligent". In this manner, the physicist can obtain a good approximation of how long it will take the marble to reach the ground. And obviously, we might adjust this assumption of no wind in the case of a beachball, in order to obtain a better prediction.

How competing textbooks dealt with the same idea: Samuelson (1985) deals with methodology but not assumptions per se. Nevertheless, a large majority of his discussion of methodology relies on logical discussion, illustration of the core ideas (but not until the argument has been explained in words). McConnell (1978) discusses simple critiques of the above premise -- for example, that assumptions tend to be unrealistic, thereby leading fall predictions of behavior. He also spends some pages discussing the shortcomings of the deductivist approach in general (i.e. the proliferation of mathematics, of unrealistic but complex models), in light of the debate over assumptions. Lipsey and Steiner (1975) go a little further. They give a lengthy discussion about how the realism of assumptions does not matter as long as the theory has predictive power. L-S, it should be noted, are much more mathematical and methodlogically conscious than the other texts.

Why does it all matter: students could become caught up in the many ways in which physics is not like economics -- in the relative lack of experimental data, or the fact that molecules can't think, or in the lack of any "universal laws" or constants which define the core theory of the field. This immediately weakens the analogy -- which, as was stated above, should only be used in informal situations to begin with. In the end, it is an ineffective tool and only perpetuates the idea -- already hinted at in chapter 1 -- that this textbook seriously lacks intellectual integrity.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

class warfare: a clarification

Greg Mankiw joins the chorus of right-wing politicians and members of the media claiming that Barack Obama is engaging in class warfare against the rich by enacting redistributive changes in the American tax code.

Now, I wouldn't normally engage in such lowly politicking, particularly when we shouldn't be surprised by who is spewing such nonsense into the blogosphere. But since my reply has a historical component to it, I thought, why not.

Shays' Rebellion, 1787. Here we have a 9-month revolt by farmers who were very much in debt following the Revolution and did not have sufficient means to pay it back. Members of the Massachusetts supreme court at the time -- consisting of a group of wealthy landowners and other elites with strong connections to them -- enlisted the state militia to crack down on the revolts. Farmers had tried occupying the court rooms and at one point, breaking into the Springfield Armory to arm themselves (they ultimately failed). It was essentially a class war waged by propertied interests against destitute farmers -- and thus it represents one of the first examples of class conflict in the new Republic's history.

Homestead Strike, 1892. This was a particularly violent strike during an era of severe labor unrest.  Here we see militiamen -- following on the backs of Pinkerton (a local detective agency) agents -- preparing to retaliate against the steelworkers. Andrew Carnegie, owner of the steel company, fled to Scotland before the strike really got under way. The confrontation left 10 dead and hundreds injured in what is a prime example of class conflict in the era of big business and industrialization.

Over the course of the late-19th century and into the early 20th, court injunctions (orders) against unions, instead of a full trial, became increasingly common across the U.S. as businesses, backed by the judicial system, took more forceful measures against labor. Many of these issues were intended to be solved by the New Deal in the 1930s which, particularly in 1936, provided an institutional space in which capital-labor disputes would be subject to rules, regulations, and a fair trial.

Launching us into the so-called "golden age of American capitalism" where high productivity was matched by rising living standards for workers across the board, these New Deal institutions were symbols of a "capital-labor accord". Except that such stringent victories for labor hardly meant a truly more democratic economy -- while democracy on the workfloor is arguably the whole point of a labor movement, the voices and contracts of the golden age had been reduced to asking for yearly wage increases and increased profit-sharing. And then, even that began to change, as the unions themselves began to die out -- union membership began declining in the 70s and 80s.

Ronald Reagan made sure to maintain that trend in 1981:

In 1981 Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers who did not comply with his order to return to work, after 2 days of protests over their contract. Reagan showed what class power could do and quashed any resistance.
That's what class warfare looks like. 

If you want to know what redistribution looks like, see the following:

-8 hour workday
-Job benefits including health care and retirement funds
-Public education at affordable costs

Doesn't look like class warfare to me!!!!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

october, by robert frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost--
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

From The Poetry of Robert Frost. Edward Connery Lathem ed., 1969, Henry Holt and Company

Sunday, October 2, 2011

some numbers to ponder

Take a close look at this table, which tabulates sales data for Samuelson's and McConnell's texts between 1948 and 1984. 

From Kenneth Elzinga, "The Eleven Principles of Economics," Southern Economic Journal. Vol. 58, No. 4, 1992, pg. 874.

While you could argue that there were some isolated years in the mid- to late-1960s when McConnell outsold Samuelson, upon closer look at the edition release years you can see that it's not until McConnell's 4th edition -- in press from 1969-1971 -- that it outsold Samuelson's competing new text, the 8th edition -- in press from 1970-1972. The previous editions of the two texts were certainly competitors, but Samuelson won by a hair in the previous edition wars: 389,000 for his 7th edition vs. McConnell's 378,000.

Also, notice the dwindling sales of the 11th edition of Samuelson (and the long revision date! for a while, both texts were on a 3-year cycle). For the 12th edition, released in 1985, McGraw-Hill brought Nordhaus on board as a cowriter of the text in order to try to reorient the ship. One of the big problems with Samuelson's book was its explicit Keynesian focus -- no doubt a product of the seminal intellectual and political influence of its author, but something which in the end would harm a textbook writer, since one needs to be able to adapt in some way to the shifting political winds (particularly if you're writing in the mid-70s, early 80s!).

the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts -- brief reflections on the classic snes game, chrono trigger

Detroit DJ (or DDJ), whose top 10 ads on videogame history have been featured on this blog before, has started up his own website with some interesting and original writing. For those interested in reading some really high-quality writing on games, I would check him out. He published a piece about a month ago which, while primarily about Final Fantasy 6 (FF6), contained some strong attacks on Chrono Trigger (CT), to which I'd like to add a few comments.

The article is entitled "Why Don't We Remember Final Fantasy 6?" and can be found here. I might agree with DDJ's argument about CT if his points were a little less obvious. He attacks CT's lack of a deep gameplay system, relatively simple story and characters, and a "gimmicky" time travel system as particular sore spots. All of these things are true, and they do indeed detract from what might have been an even better game. And DDJ might be right if the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. But that's certainly not true here. CT has staying power and is an excellent game precisely because of the charm of the overall package that it presents.

It is one of the only games that I can play from start to finish not particularly dreading any scene, boss battle, or dungeon. Everything works so seamlessly -- from rescuing Marle and Robo, to the Ayla scenes, to the magical world of 12,000 BC (the "Magic City", I can still recall the unbelievable music you experience in that era...), and finally, taking on Lavos of course. All of it just fits: while there aren't a lot of sidequests to keep you busy, or extra skills to master, just playing through the adventure itself is what makes the game so great. Each era moves seamlessly into the next -- as you first get caught up in resolving particular character conflicts and then finally uncovering an underlying connection between Magus/Janus/Lavos, leading you to some particularly stark scenes involving these enemies. It's a true adventure with a really great cast of characters and strong underlying themes camaraderie as well as human struggles for power and (on the opposite end) justice.

And that leads me precisely into the most crucial argument for why CT is such an excellent game: the replay value! Players are encouraged, and indeed want to play through the game multiple times and try to find all of the different endings because they are so charmed by the main characters and the story overall. Replay is also a particular strength of this game precisely because it's so short and there aren't a lot of "fringe" things to do. In contrast, playing through a mammoth 40+hour RPG a second time is significantly less appealing in most cases -- in those types of games, you try to do everything in one go-around -- experiment with all of the characters, do all of the sidequests, and in general explore every little area. CT actually takes that formula and flips it on its head: we have a short story with a lot of charm but with a lot of reasons to go through and learn more about the characters and game more than once.

And just a quick disclaimer: I'm not being simple-minded here about CT. I realize that the game is very basic in a lot of glaring ways. But it doesn't help to critique something based on those obvious aspects. If you're going to say something substantive, something new about a game, maybe you can think about how the game fits into comparative context with other SNES RPGs or how it fails to live up to some well-defined model of a quality RPG.

In short, Square-Enix created a wonderfully unique game in CT: it's hard to find a more humane set of characters and such a great (albeit small) adventure story. "The whole is bigger than the sum of its parts"  is a theme that applies to few games nowadays, as gamers ask for more and more detail and longer and longer adventures. This is not to say today's games are any worse than previous era -- in fact, in a lot of ways more detail is better and leads to a more real and beautiful world -- but art is not necessarily all about details: it's about message, too, and games like CT or FF7 pull that off superbly.