Damned Models and Cutting off the Chinese

I have a good eye for what ought to be there but isn’t. Don’t congratulate me; it’s a natural talent. I am retired so, I usually spend hours listening to the radio, reading newspapers and, watching television and, (Oops) on the internet. Nowadays, I do more of the same.

Today’s lecture is going to be a little longer than usual, on the one hand. On the other hand, there will not be a test. Bear with me; it’s going to be worth it (if I say so myself).

The first thing that’s missing from the endless and frankly a little sickening commentary on the C-virus epidemic is a good explanation of what’s a “model.” I mean the kind of models that are being blamed a little bit everywhere and especially in the conservative media for seemingly wildly inflated predictions (of infections, of deaths, of anything connected to this illness). Just from listening to talk radio, I think that some, or many, believe that with “computer models,” computers actually do the thinking instead of people. It’s not so.

The second thing missing is a clear description of the downside of national economic self-sufficency that appears so tempting now that we are extra-sensitive to both the comparative incompetence of our China-based suppliers, and to the possible ill-will of the Chinese Communist authorities.

First, first: a model is logically pretty much the same thing as we do when we say, ” On the one hand, on the other hand.” That’s as in, “One the on hand, If have saved $20, I will buy a nice cake; on the other hand, if I manage to save $200, I will look for a good used bike.”

The problems are: 1 that we have only so many hands; if we had one hundred each, and remembered each, we could produce mental models that cover more possibilities; 2 that we are not agile at combining possibilities, like this: “If the third hand and the fortieth hand are combined with the fifty-first then, this will happen.”

Models – designed by humans working slowly – can be entered into computers with many values and many combinations of values to tell us what would (WOULD) happen if… That’s all, folks.

Don’t blame the models, don’t blame those who build the models, in this capacity, rather, blame those who don’t do the needful to explain to decision-makers what actual models do and don’t do. (It’s true that they are often the same as those who actually construct the models but in a different role.)

Also, blame American universities and colleges that should have been in the business of teaching this stuff to all students since the late sixties and that have only done it for a tiny elite minority. A big missed opportunity. Even high school students could learn, I believe.

Second undiscussed issue. Under normal circumstances, self-sufficiency has a certain intuitive appeal: Let’s not count on others because they might fail, or fail us and, at any rate, distance makes the best linkages vulnerable. Now that we worry about running out of essential medical supplies made in China, now that we fear a shortage of the raw materials that go into our medical drugs, our intuition seems broadly vindicated. It did not help that a highly placed Chinese Communist official actually threatened the US aloud, about a month ago, with withholding medications. (I am guessing he is not going to have a happy retirement.)

Much about our intuition is correct, of course. As I never tire of stating (wittily, if you ask me), we should not count on steel deliveries from China to build the naval ships we would use in a war with China. The steel deliveries might be too late.

That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, there is a downside to national self-sufficiency. It violates the general principle that specialization makes for efficiency. Just imagine that you had to grow all your own grain, harvest it, mill it, raise your own cattle, slaughter it, butcher it, skin it, preserve the meat, treat the skins (and cut and sew clothes out of them). You would do a bad job of some of these tasks, at least, possibly of all. You would have much less to consume than is true now. You would be poor.

And that’s the downside: National self sufficiency is a sure path to poverty. I am not speaking of small differences but of big ones. I remember clearly when the cheapest hammer at the hardware store cost $20, five years later, the cheapest hammer cost only $5. What happened in between was expanded imports from China. (Don’t even begin to talk about quality; the difference among the cheapest items of a kind is largely illusory anyway, or much exaggerated.) And if you think this is a special case, ask your self if the Canadians – who love bananas – should grow their own in the name of self-sufficiency.* (For an expanded view of international trade, see my series of articulated short essays beginning here: “Protectionism; Free Trade, Step-by-Step.”)

Here again, American colleges and universities deserve strong blame. First, many don’t even require a course in economics to graduate. One of the best undergraduates I have known personally, an honors students who is now very successful in her career, never heard a single lecture on anything pertaining to economics. Second, economics professors, by and large, do a piss-poor job of teaching international trade. Across 25 years of teaching in a business school, I have met a fair number of good MBA students who had taken three courses in international trade and still did not see the possible downside of self-sufficiency. So, this simple idea is not widespread among the educated populace. It’s not well anchored enough in the opinion media for many to push back intelligently against the wave of demands that the US minimize its dependency on what we obtain from abroad in general. (A national policy designed to induce American companies to source in Vietnam, for example, rather than in China is a different and defensible proposition.)

So, here you have it: Models are not to blame, confusion about them is; economic self-sufficiency is the road to poverty though it might be worth it. Knowing these two things does not prevent us from taking action collectively. It makes for more rational action in these irrational times.

* Those of you who received a decent education in economics might wonder here if I have just dealt improperly with the topic of Comparative Advantage. I haven’t, I have not even begun.

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