A PPE pandemic reading list

I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


Three Additional readings:

Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.

 

More on the trap of college debt

I’m writing this short note to point to John Elliott’s article about how student debt is changing the American family. He has mentored young students at both the Institute for Humane Studies and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

The article at times seems to play the idea of going to college against starting a family as two incompatible choices.

Some time ago, though, I wrote a piece on how to avoid student debt, get a degree and even focus on more important things such as work and family.

The article was published here, but as a summary I’m pasting below the “cheap college tips” again:

1. Do well enough at school to get a substantive merit-based scholarship

2. Don’t count on athletics scholarships

3. Start at a community college and transfer

4. Try distance learning at a fraction of the cost

5. Go to a local college and stay with your parents

6. Do your college abroad through distance learning

7. Move abroad and pay much less tuition

8. If abroad, you can still study for a while in America through student exchange

9. Do credit-awarding exams to cut corners – and costs

10. Do French and German for reading (this will save you time and money at Graduate School)

Cheap college: Ten Tips

If you’re about to embark on your undergraduate education in the US or Canada, you probably have a good chance of ending up owing some money to pay for your studies and expenses. Can you avoid financial disaster and still end up with a pretty good “education” section on your CV? I believe so, and I’d like to share with you a few tips on cheap college education. They might turn out to be useful, whether you want to go straight to the job market after graduation or whether you have further studies in mind.

I did my undergraduate degree in Brazil. Then, I moved to the UK and completed my graduate education there with a very generous stipend. I also taught in higher education in both countries, including two top universities in the UK. I worked part-time for an institute attached to a university in Europe. Now I work at a major university in South Africa. I know a few things about higher education, and here’s a list of tips for you.

1. Accept a full-tuition scholarship.
If you’ve received an offer of a full-tuition scholarship, go for it. As long as it’s not a loan. No brainer. You’re being subsidised to study full-time. This is your job now. Do a little bit of networking and career skills training, but focus on your degree. Try to do as well as you can. The problem with this strategy is that, quite frankly, the vast majority of students aren’t offered scholarships that get even close to covering full tuition costs.

2. Avoid the athletics trap.
Don’t count on your prowess in sports to put you in a position where you earn full tuition to study. Athletics scholarships cover at most a fraction of the college cost. At most, you’d be able to combine an athletics scholarship with some other source of funding, but even if you get to that stage, you’ll have to figure out a way of earning B+ or A on average with little time to study.

3. Split your degree.
This is the oldest trick in the book. Yet, not enough students seem to follow it. I didn’t know the North American system very well, and I owe this point to Gary North. He explains it on this video. In the US, you can save a lot of money by doing the first two years of your degree at a community college or some other low-cost higher education institution. You can earn an Associate degree and then transfer credits to a four-year college to complete your Bachelor’s degree. One advantage (apart from the financial factor) is that you could do it in the evenings, while you earn some money during the day. Another advantage is that permanent teaching staff in a small college or a community college are gifted teachers – that’s why they were given their jobs in the first place – whereas at a major university professors are rewarded according to their research achievements and teaching might not be terrible, but it’s not necessarily the best you can get either.

4. Try distance learning.
This is emerging as a major alternative to traditional university attendance. You can either earn credits (which you can, later, transfer) or a whole degree at a fraction of the normal cost of university attendance. You can also combine this with point (3) above.

5. Stay with your parents.
Okay, as a Brazilian I didn’t see any problem in staying home for another four years during my university education. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and it’s up to you to decide if this strategy is worth it, depending on your family’s culture and habits. But the fact is that, even if your parents charge you some rent, they won’t charge as much as the average university dorm would. This means you can save. Plus there won’t be any learning curves related to living in a completely new locality. This strategy requires you to do either a distance-learning degree or to attend your local college, and you can combine this with points (3) and (4) above.

6. Distance learning abroad.
This can be combined with (3), (4) and (5) above. The truth is, most employers don’t care very much about where you got your undergraduate education, except if the place is one of the top five or ten universities in the country. Higher education in the UK is slightly cheaper (on average) than in the US, and often much cheaper if you’re doing it online. You can register at the Open University, or at the University of London’s international programmes. Depending on the area of study, you can even do a distance degree part-time while you work, paying for each course at a time. The University of Aberdeen, for example, offers a distance degree in Religious Studies along those lines. If you give up halfway, you can still earn a CHE degree after completing the first year, a HE Diploma after two years, and the undergraduate course in the UK normally lasts for three years (except, normally, for Scotland).

If you want to save even more money and benefit from favourable exchange rates, you could also apply to study at the University of South Africa (UNISA), one of the world’s largest universities. UNISA has a very good reputation. Remember Nelson Mandela? He earned a degree there. For South Africans, each year of study costs around 1,000 dollars, and if you live abroad, you need to pay extra, but not a whole lot more. There are no classes. Normally, you use multimedia material, lots of written material, and travel to some place in your country where you can do the exams. So you need to factor in the cost of travel, but it still might be worth it. Other South African universities, such as North-West University, also offer distance degrees for certain fields.

7. Move abroad.
This is also becoming more of an alternative for North Americans. In Germany, for example, you can register at a university, as long as you can prove you know the German language well, and get a degree from some of the top universities in the world. The downside is the learning curve of moving abroad, visa bureaucracy and, perhaps, the cost of living in Europe might not be worth it. For example, you could pay low tuition fees in Finland, but it’s not that cheap to live there. For a tuition fee of around 1,000 Euros per year you can also do a degree in Portugal or Spain. Tuition fees in France and Italy are also relatively cheap. All this assumes you can prove you know the local language well enough to register. Depending on where you go, the case for doing a degree abroad is even stronger. In Portugal and Spain, an undergraduate degree normally takes four years. In Italy and France, it depends. In Germany, it normally takes three. This means you save a whole year of expenses.

8. Erasmus+.
If you decide to do your degree in Europe, you can still end up experiencing campus life and networking in North America. The reason is that students at European universities can be selected to do a year abroad under the Erasmus+ programme, and some of the partner universities are from North America. This is not very easy, but what I mean to say is simply that going abroad doesn’t mean abandoning any hope of experiencing student life in North America.

9. Cut corners while still following the rules.
You should thank Gary North for pointing this out. In a North American degree, you must do a number of credits, including electives or credits you can choose, as part of the total number of credits you must earn to obtain the degree. You can cut corners and save time and money by learning independently and then doing a credit-awarding exam. Some of the exams you can do are for general courses you’d end up doing as an elective anyway.

10. Make sure you do French and German.
How does this relate to “cheap college”? I confess there’s no direct relation. But I’d still urge you to do French and German as electives, particularly if they’re “for reading knowledge“. Those are intensive courses that get you to be able to read scholarly work in French or German by the end of a semester. This might not in itself make your college life cheaper now, but it will get you some skills you can use in the future. It gives you a head start in applying for the top, well-funded, PhD programmes in the US and Canada, in case that’s what you’re planning to do. Most PhD courses require you to have reading knowledge of at least one, if not two, of these languages. You might as well do it now. Moreover, if you just want to go to the workplace after you graduate, this can also give you a little advantage over the competition. While it doesn’t necessarily make your college any cheaper, this strategy will make your life easier by adding another relevant item to your CV which might turn out to be very useful in the near future.

I hope those tips can be useful. Maybe you’re even reconsidering whether you should really get deep into debt in order to earn a degree. Well, here’s my appeal. Please reconsider. Student loans may be common. Some even call this kind of debt an investment. But it’s not healthy to owe tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars when you’re just 22 or 23 and under pressure to find a good job to pay that money back. You want to be free. Maybe you want to go to a well-funded graduate programme without that stress. Maybe you want to get married. Who knows? Before accepting a loan to finance your education, please consider these alternative options. I urge you.

Before concluding, a disclaimer. I’m not saying any of these tips will work in every case. Be responsible and make sure you understand the details and implications of any decisions you make. Check, for example, if your target university or college will accept credit transfers from the place where you obtained those credits. Read the small print. But this is more or less what you’d be doing if you accepted a loan – you’d read the small print, right?

Economics in the ancient world?

Part of my research is located between philosophy and specific disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. I’m currently working on a project on several facets of economic life in the ancient Near East. I’m very serious about it, and even did some study in Akkadian, Sumerian, and Hebrew to understand some of the debates on the interpretation of primary sources.

Some crucial questions that anybody in my situation have to ask relate to theory: Was there any such thing as an economy, to begin with? Okay, the answer is straightforward: people were indeed allocating scarce resources, trading them, producing them, and so on. I don’t know of anyone who doubts that, and in case anyone tries, I’d point them to the enormous amount of ancient Mesopotamian contracts, receipts and court cases dealing with the issue, not to mention the famous “law codes” of Hammurabi and other kings.

The answer to next question, though, is less obvious: Can we apply contemporary economic theory to interpret, understand, explain, model, etc. economic behaviour in the ancient world? So far, I’ve identified three schools of thought on this matter in the field of Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

First, there are those who focus on particulars on the “micro” level. Their research is predominantly concerned with the publication, translation, and commentary on hundreds and hundreds of inscribed clay tablets containing valuable information about everyday life in the ancient world. These scholars won’t have much to say in terms of generalisation, because the questions they address are a degree further removed from the questions we tend to ask, say, in economics or sociology.

A common type of research in this line (and, frankly, a type of research I wouldn’t mind executing someday) looks at the complete set of cuneiform tablets found in a specific place and tries to elucidate some patterns within that set of texts. I’ve heard, for example, of someone who did his PhD on the archives of a certain family in Babylon which was involved in trade. That scholar didn’t stop at telling the story of that family, but also synthesised a considerable amount of information about economic transactions and the everyday struggles for that town in that particular period. He also pointed out some interesting linguistic features present in the contracts, letters, and receipts that he transcribed, translated and published as part of his thesis.

In this kind of research, the emphasis is on detailed observation and description, and on a modest type of generalisation to a mid-range view of the local situation. It doesn’t really deal with the economy in general and, arguably, doesn’t make much room for any of today’s economic theories to be used.

The second school of thought borrows from economic sociologists and anthropologists the idea that any economy is intrinsically linked to the way a specific society operates in a given period of history. The works of Karl Marx, Max Weber and, more recently, Karl Polanyi and Immanuel Wallerstein are examples of broad statements of this thesis. Polanyi, in particular, has applied some of this thinking to ancient economies, arguing that, in the ancient Near East, there was no such thing as a “market” in the modern sense. If that’s indeed the case, then the task is to develop a new economics (or at least a new economic theory) to account for phenomena which are particular to that historical context.

In this second kind of research, a key procedure is to ask what the ancients thought they were doing when they were engaged in economic activity. This is analogous to the anthropologist’s “thick description” of a culture in its own terms. Hermeneutics and interpretation should play a major role. We’d need to read those primary sources in search for clues about the ancient view of the economy. Did they imagine the economy as we imagine it today? Or was it something different in their view? What were the words and notions they used to describe economic activity? And so on.

However, how would we know what to look for in the first place? Wouldn’t the very notion of an “economy” be alien to the ancient mind, at least until much later with the Greeks and Romans? Because of this tricky implication, people in this line of research may choose to ignore any subjective or discursive features and may opt instead for a reduction of ideas to material factors, perhaps driven by a Marxist philosophy.

Then, thirdly, there’s the view that presupposes the applicability of contemporary economics to ancient economies. So far, I’ve come across two lines of research, both of which seem underexplored because of the lack of interest of economists in the ancient world, or lack of ability to tackle primary sources. The first line of research looks at the relationship between institutions and the general operation of the economy. I’d place this within the broader approach of neo-institutional economics, or also the so-called law and economics tradition of economic thought.

One interesting question that has been asked in this line of research has to do with the impact of government regulations in the everyday functioning of the economy. For example, how clear were property rights? If we look at the “law codes” of ancient Mesopotamia, we see a large number of definitions of what was allowed and what was forbidden, but were those rules enforced? Were they simply a suggestion? Sometimes, there’s a contrast between what the law code says and what local judges decided in a concrete court case. This way of researching ancient economies, in my view, is more productively executed as teamwork, with an economist and a specialist in ancient texts, languages, and archaeology joining forces.

A second way of applying contemporary economic science to ancient economies resembles the mainstream way of doing research. A model is constructed on the basis of some initial hypothesis, and then the hypothesis is tested against “data”. An important problem with this is that there’s a dearth of concrete and unambiguous information amenable to this sort of treatment. However, this is not the case for all periods. As a matter of fact, we do happen to have access to sizeable sets of information about prices and wages for Babylonia in the Hellenistic period. The crucial source is a set of records that people made correlating the position of the stars and planets with all sorts of information, including economic information. Some preliminary analysis of those series has suggested that prices, for example, behaved more or less like a mainstream economist would expect them to behave.

This issue of the dearth of data leads me to the following thought. I believe that even a mainstream economist should be open to the possibility of another style of economics in the study of ancient economies. I don’t think economists should give up studying them altogether. Some cross-theoretical dialogue with those engaged in other ways of thinking about ancient economies may be in order. However, I understand that many on both sides of the attempted dialogue will feel uncomfortable. After all, a mainstream economist and a Marxist don’t just disagree on method. They also disagree on politics, ethics, the meaning of life, and a number of other issues.

As a possible avenue of research, then, I’d like to suggest a more deductive approach in theory construction and a more discursive approach in the study of historical patterns. From the deductive system we’d know how an economy works in general, even if there are historically-specific possibilities to tackle. From the discursive approach we’d be able to make the most of the “data” that we do have in abundance – thousands of clay tablets with textual information – and with that illustrate the general points.

In my view, this would look like a combination of Austrian political economy with rigorous philological use of primary sources. It would be the sort of research programme to be tackled with a team of people, good libraries, near a museum and in constant dialogue, learning, and interaction. Both fields could potentially benefit from the original interdisciplinary research programme that would emerge.

Oil Again: Keep an eye on OPEC members

OPEC’s decision earlier this week is being interpreted as something that will lead to an “oversupply” of oil. Prices of the commodity seem to be going down already. There are several political implications, and perhaps the most interesting countries to watch are the OPEC members themselves.

Many oil-rich countries end up affected by the so-called “resource curse”. Due to cronyism and other types of interventionism, they distort the economy and focus too much on that one special resource they have.

As a result, whenever the artificial bubble of that sector is hit, the effects are disastrous. Many of these countries need to develop – and that’s across the board, not just the resource sector. This is bad enough, but there’s more. If you consider the corruption of cronyism, it’s not necessarily the case that the country will be well when things go well in that sector.

OPEC reminds us that the state is not a unitary actor in world politics. Their collective decision to supranationally plan the supply and price of most of the world’s oil has deep consequences, some of which are negative for their own people.

In order to understand this, you have to look inside that “black box” of the state and look at the winners and losers of this foreign policy decision. The ruling elites and the cronies want to remain in charge and extract as much as they possibly can from each decision.

However, this may undermine their own position in the long run. This is because those on the losing side, the have-nots, often get very annoyed and do something about this, especially when the state apparatus is weak and lacks legitimacy. In fact, many of the conflicts related to the “resource curse” today include something of this component as part of their root causes.

If OPEC has been used as a tool of crony capitalism, the effectiveness of this move for those running the show is partial, and even questionable in the long term – it might turn out to be a shot in the foot. And it certainly doesn’t help the poor, the local population, the ones who would benefit from a very different approach.

Brazilian Elections 2014: Results and Problems

I’ve recently posted on the Brazilian Presidential Elections of 2014. Brazilians also voted for State Senate, National Senate and Congress and State Governor.

The top most voted candidates in the Presidential Elections make the cut to the second round (unless the top candidate dominates by a considerably wide margin).

Labour Party incumbent Dilma Rousseff was the most voted candidate with 41% of the votes. Social-Democrat Aécio Neves will challenge her in the second round – he got 34% of the votes, whereas Marina Silva of the Socialist Party was the choice of 21% of the voters.

This comes as a big surprise, since Neves and Silva were technically tied after the final poll before the elections. Because of the power that polls have to potentially influence the vote, rumours are that Aécio had been faring much better, but that the polling methodology had been compromised.

A technical issue with the electronic vote machines has been denounced by several voters in different parts of the country. Some people complained they couldn’t choose Neves as their candidate, because the machines wouldn’t allow it. A police report was issued in at least one incident related to faulty machines, which allegedly shifted votes in favour of the incumbent candidate. A simple internet search reveals stories of people who tried to set the machines on fire, among other isolated episodes.

Former footballer and US 1994 World Cup champion Romário is also making the headlines. Romário has been a Congressman for some time. He has adopted a pragmatic anti-corruption approach during his term. This time, he ran for the Senate. With more than 5 million votes, Romário is the most voted Senator in the history of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Neves and Rousseff will have only a few weeks to carry on their campaigns and debates before the final decision.

Brazilian Elections 2014: Preview

Tomorrow, when Brazilians vote for President, the most likely outcome is that we’ll know the names of two candidates that made the cut for the second round of elections. And the incumbent Dilma Rousseff is likely to be one of them.

The candidates

Labour Party candidate and current President Rousseff is leading the polls, but in everyday conversation she’s arguably the least popular candidate. There’s nothing fresh in her platform, and it’s safe to assume a second Rousseff term would look pretty much the same as the first term: unimpressive.

Environmentalist Marina Silva, of the Socialist Party, has surprisingly defended a centrist and pragmatic economic agenda, a slight shift to the right, if compared to Rousseff’s platform. Amongst other things, Silva would push for the autonomy of Brazil’s Central Bank, along the lines of the Fed in the US.

Aécio Neves, a Social-Democrat, has a similar centrist agenda, but clothed in small-government rhetoric – again, out of pragmatism and in pursuit of more efficiency, and not necessarily out of principle. Pundits have analysed Neves’ debate performance and he seems to come across as the most well-prepared candidate in the field.

Compulsory Democracy

We’re to expect a large turnout, due to a peculiar arrangement in Brazilian law: voting is compulsory to all citizens, residents and non-residents alike, over the age of 18, with few exceptions.

In order to vote, it’s necessary to show a voter’s ‘permit.’ If a citizen fails to turn up to vote, that permit number will have a negative record. Citizens who can’t make it in time will have a deadline to turn up in electoral court to justify why they didn’t vote. If there’s a good reason, they get a stamp and a document clearing their voters ‘record’. If the absence isn’t ‘justified,’ then a fine is due.

Votes are cast electronically. Each voter will use a cabin with a machine where a candidate number must be entered. In case the number is incorrect, it’s possible to correct the vote. In case the number hasn’t been assigned to any candidate, the vote is ‘nullified’. Citizens also have the right to a blank vote. The transparency of this system has ben questioned on several occasions, not least because of the risk of tampering with the machines.

Final Sprint

Marina Silva’s campaign was a great surprise, since her party’s nominee died in a plane crash. She quickly rose in popularity and took the second place in the polls. Critics pointed out that Silva was one of the founders of the Labour Party – President Rousseff’s party, and then defected to the Green Party and later joined the Socialist Party, where she currently is. A key objection to her campaign was the similarity between her ideological background and that of the President’s.

Speaking of background, Aécio Neves’ family story was another factor emerging in this campaign. Neves was an unlikely nominee initially, because most of his party’s base and its inner circle are concentrated in São Paulo, whereas Neves made his political career in the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais. Neves’ grandfather was the first President elected after the end of military rule in Brazil (1985), but he died tragically before being sworn in. Since then, the name Neves has been associated to the many political ironies of Brazilian history.

For a few weeks, Silva sat comfortably in the second position. However, after a series of TV debates, it became clear that President Rousseff was struggling to get her points across, and that Neves was well-prepared and well-advised. The incumbent lost some points in the polls while Neves came to a surprising rise in the final sprint, overtaking Silva in the second place.

The common outcome of Brazilian presidential elections is a smaller question mark – from a pool of five or more candidates, the top most voted are generally selected for a second round, to take place a few weeks later. This is likely to happen again, but it’s hard to predict who will get the ticket to challenge Rousseff.