Good books on The Troubles

In the discussions on Brexit the situation along the Irish-Northern Irish border is pivotal. Nobody wants a return to a ‘hard’ border, even though that is the obvious consequence of the UK leaving the Common Market and Ireland staying in it.

For those unfamiliar with the reason why this is troublesome there are a loads of good reads on what the British called ‘The Troubles’, but what by all standards was a cruel civil war, with 3500 deaths and many more injured. The two recent books I would like to bring to the attention of the readers are different.

Milkman is a novel that won the Man Booker Prize. It is a story about a young woman growing up in Troubled times, and what is particular gripping is the sense you get of the intensity of life in those days. Everything in daily life was somehow drawn into the conflict, you had to think about your moves all the time and everybody lived in fear. Not only for the enemy, but at least as much for the paramilitary group that happened to control your area. They did not just wage their war, but literally wanted to control everybody in their neighborhood.

Say Nothing is narrative non-fiction, well-researched and with hundreds of pages of notes. It is written in very attractive prose, not like any regular history book. The focus is on some of the key-players on the IRA-side, the bombs, and the attacks. Central is the disappearance and subsequent murder of a mother of ten by one of the main people in the story. The book also pays a lot of attention to Gerry Adams’ denial to have played any role in the violent side of the civil war. One of its strengths is also that half of the book tells what happened after the Good Friday agreement, which formally made an end to the Troubles. If only it did…

These are great books to learn more about one of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe in recent times. They also help to understand current debates about Brexit. Hopefully, they will just keep saying something about the past…

Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s “Future of Capitalism”

Paul Collier, the controversial Oxford professor famous for his development work and his acclaimed books Exodus and The Bottom Billion, is back. But the author of Exodus and The Bottom Billion is long gone. The compelling writing and carefully reasoned world that made Bottom Billion impossible to put down has somehow disappeared. In The Future of Capitalism, Collier is tired. He is bitter. And he is sometimes quite mad – so mad that his disdain for this or that group of thinkers or actors in society consumes his otherwise brilliant analytical mind.

Instead of having his editors moderate those of his worst impulses, he doubles down on his polemic conviction. Indeed, he takes pride in offending people in all political camps, believing that it supports the book’s main intellectual point: ideologues of every persuasion are dangerous, one-size-fits-all too constricted for a modern society and we should rather turn to a communitarian social democratic version of pragmatism – by which he means some confused mixture of ideas that seem to advocate “what works” on a case-by-case basis.

Yes, it’s about as nutty as it sounds. And he is all over the place, dabbling in all kinds of topics for which he is uniquely unqualified to offer advice: ethics, finance, education, family, social policy and on and on and on.

One reason The Future of Capitalism went awry might have been the remarkable scope: capturing all the West’s so-called ‘Anxieties’ – and their solutions – in little over 200 pages of non-academic prose. Given the topic, a very unfitting sort of hubris.

Apart from the feeble attempt at portraying a modern society that has “come apart at the seams,” there’s no visible story, no connection between the contents of one paragraph and the next and hardly any connection between one chapter and another. Rather, it’s a bedlam of foregone conclusions, appeals to pragmatism, dire stings to ideological ‘extremists’ on either side and a hubris unfitting for someone like Collier. I guess this is a risk that established academics run at the end of their careers, desperately trying to assemble all their work into One Grand Theory.

The most charitable thing I can say about Collier’s attempt is that it offers a lot of policy prescriptions – tax unearned land rents, tax-and-redistribute productivity increases, expand housing supply through local governments, have governments direct the Silicon Valley-clusters of tomorrow, cap mortgage finance, benefits for families, expand ethical responsibilities of firms, encourage marriage, create a new G6 (EU, US, Russia, India, Japan, China) that could overcome the global collective action problem (good luck with that!), expand Germanic vocational training and workers’ representation on company boards, embrace patriotism but never nationalism, detach ownership from control and place control with stakeholders (workers, suppliers, local homeowners).

The common denominator seems to be an imperative to do all these things that seem to have worked well in some time or place or utopia, conveniently ignore institutional or cultural reasons, while espousing all ideological positioning and political capture.

Just voicing the suggestions ought to spark at least some fruitful conversations.

Chapter 8, ostensibly concerned with the Class Divide, is an illuminating case study. It takes Collier about 36 pages (out of 37) to mention ‘class’ (not that I blame him: the concept is way too nebulous and politically infected to be meaningfully dealt with in such short space). Instead, Collier discusses all kinds of topics whose relevance to class is quite unclear: public policy for single mothers, German vocational training, lawyers and the rule of law, a Yorkshire project to encourage reading in school kids – not to mention a ten-page digression into the institution of marriage for stable families.

When his polemics, dry writing, unsupported analysis or incomprehensive treatment of a topic hasn’t put me off (I gave up on the book at least four times during the last couple of months), some of the picture Collier paints does resonate with me. There is a social and geographical divide in Britain: the economically flourishing South-East, dominated by the well-educated English and the cosmopolitan accents of almost every language on the planet, is posited against the collapsing towns of the backward Midlands or the North. If this divide is real – in support of which Collier offers next-to-no evidence – it is not clear to me that it wasn’t already captured in, say, David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere or Branko Milanovic’s Global Inequality, or for that matter the countless of magazine articles trying to outline the fractures that Brexit unearthed about British society. Considering the effort those authors put into mapping their divides, Collier’s attempt seems frivolous.

He can do better. Much better.
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My fellow Notewriter Rick is organising a summer reading group around Feyerabend’s Against Method. The equivalent Collier reading group could be aptly named Against Ideology.

For and/or Against Method, initial miscellany

The past couple weeks I’ve been accumulating material related to our fledgling summer reading group. First I got For and Against Method, realized it was more for than against so I ordered the third edition of Against Method and also found the (apparently much shorter) first edition online.

I’m currently dipping my toes into For and Against, reading Lakatos’s lectures at LSE on the scientific method. I was expecting to be more interested in Feyerabend’s perspective, but so far I’m pleasantly surprised. Lakatos is an interesting guy, and the conversational tone of the (transcribed) lectures is delightful.

I’m not sure how we plan to do this reading group, so, anarchist that I am, I’m going to randomly lash out until something sticks! Here are some initial thoughts from Lakatos’s first two lectures:

  • Around pp. 24-25 he lays out the demarcation problem: we want a (set of) method(s) to separate good and bad science. Presumably, our method should stand up to its own scrutiny. If our method is L(t), taking theory t and returning “good” or “bad”, then L(L) should return “good”. To me, this looks Gödelian.
  • p. 26: “I remember when back in my Popperian days I used to put this question to Marxists and Freudians: ‘Tell me, what specific historical or social events would have to occur tin order for you to give up your Marxism?’ I remember that this was usually accompanied by either stunned silence or confusion. But I was very pleased with the effect.

    “Much later I put the same question to a prominent scientist, who could not give any answer because, he said, ‘of course anomalies always spring up, but somehow sooner or later we always solve them.’ This is why, according to Feyerabend, who follows in Popper’s footsteps, all these criteria for intellectual honesty have one and the same function: they are empty rhetoric to frighten school children.” [emphasis my own]
    • Anyone here know something about rhetoric and the Greeks? Personally, I’m drawn to the notion that it’s all basically rhetoric. The term I prefer, though, is bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, by BS I don’t mean “wrong” or “bad” (per se). And for that matter, I don’t quite mean rhetoric either. It’s something like the sort of communication that goes on during a poker game.
      • You might be able to see that I’m going to be naturally sympathetic to Feyerabend who, apparently, preferred to think of himself as an entertainer than an academic philosopher. That’s part of the reason I’m reading Lakatos first. But I’m happy to see that a) Lakatos has a sense of humor, and b) He’s got a character endorsement from Feyerabend.
    • There’s good BS and bad BS. Bad BS leads to things like advertising campaigns and college accreditation schemes. Good BS leads to open minded learning. Good BS is what happens between grad students in a good program after midnight.
    • Good BS isn’t arbitrary, but it isn’t too tightly bound to reality either. You can’t send an astronaut to space on good BS, but you probably need good BS to come up with the idea in the first place.
    • I’m a materialist at the end of the day, and I believe in an objective external universe (though I can’t reject a Cartesian evil genius). But my map of that universe is highly impressionistic. I think anyone who’s map is more precise is either fooling themselves, or highly specific (i.e. they’re missing out on something).
    • Currently, I’m thinking rhetoric is for strangers and BS is for friends.
  • Lakatos talks about three basic groups: Militant positivists, anarchists, and elitist authoritarianism.
    • The positivists would be right if they were omniscient. In principle we could come up with theories that perfectly aligned with reality. And we could come up with a theory of theories that neatly separated the good from the bad. But the universe is more complex than our finite minds can handle.
      • Did you hear the one about the economist who was told about the latest brilliant new business? His response: “sure it works in practice, but does it work in theory?”
    • Lakatos’s view of the anarchists is that different theories are essentially all at the same level, but some get more support and others get less.
    • According to the elitists “there is a demarcation, but there are no demarcation criteria.”
    • I’m basically an elitist-anarchist with a heavy dose (I hope) of humility. There are better and worse theories (it’s not quite “anything goes”), and often (but not always) the elite are in the right position to pass (fallible) judgement. If a professional economist (ahem) says “Theory X is stupid”, then odds are good they’re correct. But it’s not guaranteed. Not even if all economists agree.
  • There’s no easy way out. Some science is good and some is bad, and there’s no algorithmic way to distinguish them.
    • It’s like the historians’ joke: “What was the outcome of WWII? Too soon to say.” We can extend the metaphor all the way back. It’s too soon to declare any specific outcome to the Big Bang. It’s surely the case that there will be some outcome (according to my materialist, even LaPlacian, priors), but predicting that outcome would require a computer bigger and more powerful than the universe.
  • Fundamentally, distinguishing good and bad science requires going out on a limb, taking a risk, making a judgment. All theories will ultimately be tested against objective reality, but nature isn’t always great about sharing her data and our methods (especially our language, which places the ultimate constraints on our ability to share and accumulate knowledge) prevent us from getting to 100%.

My understanding is that Lakatos will be building up to some notion of a more-or-less objective way to demarcate good and bad science. I believe there is good and bad science, but I’m skeptical of humanity’s ability to draw any sort of hard line separating the two. I think the evaluation of science is more like the evaluation of art than the evaluation of competing answers to a well defined mathematical question.

Sometimes science is more art than science…

Tying this in to my wheelhouse: science (as LaVoie has repeatedly told us) is in a similar position to market enterpreneurship (and also ants, which are amazing) and the Austrian insights apply: this is the sort of stuff that fundamentally only works in a decentralized, anarchic fashion. The ant queen is not actually a central planner. Entrepreneurship is decentralized social learning that central planning is no substitute for. And science is not so comprehensible that we’ll ever find some way to automate approval of grant proposals.

Learning is hard because we’re finite beings staring into an infinite abyss.

The nonexistent moral decay of the west

Humankind’s struggle with moral is of course nothing new, it rather inherent to our nature to revolt against the meaningless world and the manmade system of reason. Furthermore, moral values vary over a specific period of time swinging from rather high moral standards to very low ones. Regarding morality as an abstract compass guiding our thought, goals and behaviour, Economist, in general, are not known for dealing in depth with the metaphysical reason behind our behaviour yet they explore and explain human actions through our surrounding incentives, which also structure and direct our action. Economist such as Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson or William J. Baumol have explored these changes in human behaviour through changing incentive structures thoroughgoingly.

However, folks mourning the moral decline of today’s west often fail to provide concrete evidence for their argument. They either cherry-pick events or legislatures to infer a macro trend inductively or they lose themselves in difficult language trying to somehow save their argument by making it incomprehensible. I cannot help feeling that mourning the moral decay of the west has somehow become a shibboleth for eloquently expressing the “Things used to be way better back then” narrative. However, I admit that there were probably a couple of sociological papers who have covered this issue very well which I am unaware of. Contrary, the public debate was dominated by a few grumpy intellectuals holding the above-named attitude. I was recently provided with a very concrete set of indicators to measure moral decline while digging through Samuel P. Huntington’s infamous classic “The clash of civilization” from 1996. He states that there are five main criteria which indicate the ongoing decline of moral values in the West. [1]

After being provided with a concrete framework to quantify the moral decline of the west, I was keen to see how the moral decline of the west has developed in the 20 years since the book has first been published in 1996. Although I also take issue with some of these indicators to measure moral decline, I avoid any normative judgement in the first part and just look at their development over time. Furthermore, since Samuelson himself mostly takes data from the USA representing the West, I might as well do so too for the sake of simplicity. So, let’s see what happened to moral values in the West in the last years by checking each of Huntington’s indicator one by one.

1. Increasing antisocial behaviour such as acts of crime, drug use and general violence

Apart from the global long-term trend of declining homicides, we can also observe a recent downward trend in the reported violent crime rate since 1990 in the USA. Scholars agree that the crime rate is in an extreme decline. Expanding the realm towards Europe, you will see similar results (see here).

1Source: Statista

Despite these trends, the public (as well as some intellectuals as well I assume) vastly still holds a distorted perception of the crime rate. The sharp decline in actual crimes strongly contradicts the fact that a majority of the people still uphold the myth of increasing crime rates.

2

Source: Pew Research Center

Regarding drug use in the USA, it is important to mention that the absolute amount of illicit drugs consumed has slightly gone up since 1990. This development is mostly driven by an increasing  consumption of marijuana: Use of most drugs other than marijuana has stabilized over the past decade or has declined., states the National Institute on drug abuse in 2015.

Contrary, the number of deadly injections are increasing. However, the share of the population with drug use disorders has remained on the same level of 5.3% over the last 20 years.

2. Decay of the family resulting in increasing divorce rates, teenage motherhood and single parents

It is hard to measure the “Decay of the family” itself. Luckily, Huntington further concretizes his claim by naming some of the measurable effects. There is nothing much to do to refute these statement except for looking at the following graphs.

a) Firstly, the divorce rate is sharply declining.

3

Source: Statista

b) Second, teenage pregnancy rates are also dropping since 1990.

4Source: National Vita Statistics Report

c) Third, the number of Americans living in single parenthood is not increasing drastically since 1990.

5Source: Statista

I often take issue when (especially conservative) scholars mourn the declining importance of family. Even if there are certain indicators which would back up Huntington’s claims, he does not name them himself. While it is indeed true that “family” as an institution is undergoing changes, there is no evidence (at least named by Huntington) to back up the claim of a decline of its importance.

3. Declining “social capital” and voluntarism leading to less trust.

It is indeed true, that the adult volunteering rate declined from early 2000 to 2016 from 27.4% to 24.9%. Interestingly, it recently bounced back to a new high in 2018, hitting the 30% target. Really the only point where one must agree to Huntington’s claim is the decrease of interpersonal trust as well as trust in public institutions. This trend is indeed very worrisome considering that trust is a major factor for flourishing societies.

4. The decline in work ethic

The research here is a little bit tricky and points in both directions. Although there has been wide academic coverage of the millennial work ethic scholars could not find a consensus on this issue. Its is especially difficult to extract the generational influence from other key determinants of work ethic, such as position or age. Academics warn to mistake the ever-ongoing conflict between young vs. old with the Boomer vs. Millenial conflict. I haven’t settled my opinion on this one. These Articles from Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today provide a good overview of both sides of the medal.

5. Less general interest in Education

This indicator is particularly interesting for me because as a member of the 90’ generation, I have experienced quite the opposite in Germany. But let’s have a look at the data.

Despite ranking only in the middle in a global country comparison, the US students still made a huge leap in terms of maths and reading proficiency, which only slowed down in 2015:

6

Source: Pew Research Center

Furthermore, the overall educational level of the USA continues to rise, resulting in the fact that  “the percentage of the American population age 25 and older that completed high school or higher levels of education reached 90% [for the first time ] in 2017.” Contrary, there are still major differences when one looks at features like race or parent household (See here), but the overall trajectory of the educational level is sloping upwards.

What do these criteria measure?

As you can see, there is little to no evidence to empirically back up the claim of western moral decay. Furthermore, while many case studies have shown that lack of interpersonal trust, lack of education or a declining work ethic can pose a great threat to society, I refuse to see a connection (a no known to me study disproves me here) between (recreational) drugs consumption, alternative family models, increasing hedonism and moral decline. Thus I believe that many advocates of the moral decay theory regard it as an opportunity to despise developments they personally do not like. I do not imply that everyone arguing for the moral decline of the west is unaware of the global macro-trends which heavily improved our life, but I highly doubt their assumption, that we are currently in a short-to-medium term “moral recession”. Even when one upholds the very conservative statements such as drug consumption adding to moral decline, is hard to argue that we are currently witnessing a moral decay of the west. Contrary, It may be true that Huntington has observed something different in the period before publishing “The clash of civilization” in 1996. Of course, I myself witness the ongoing battle against norms on the increasing hostility towards the intellectual enemy in the west, but one should always keep in mind the bigger picture. Our world is getting better – in the long- and in the short-run; There is no such thing as a moral decline of the West.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. (2011): Kampf der Kulturen. Die Neugestaltung der Weltpolitik im 21. Jahrhundert. Vollst. Taschenbuchausg., 8. Aufl. München: Goldmann (Goldmann, 15190). P. 500

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 1): Introduction

There are books that are aimed at a spectrum of readers that are counted within the “well-informed public.” They are not books confined to academic circles, they are not for mass consumption, but they do concern problems that involve entire countries and are written in a register that involves certain intellectual training. In this genre, there are three works that have much to say about the relationship between institutions and incentives. The first of them dates from 1990 and was published by a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Douglass C. North: Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, which elaborates the distinction between formal and informal institutions and incremental and disruptive institutional change, ending with a historical analysis that seeks to explain the differences in economic performance between the United States and Latin America. It is an academic book that can be approached by the said well-informed public.

Eleven years later, in 2001, William Easterly published The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. It is proposed as a political essay in which an economist interprets his own professional experience as a member of international teams for the development of Third World countries. To do this, drawing on the theoretical notions of other leading economists, such as Paul Romer (who later, in 2018, received the Nobel Prize in Economics), he makes an assessment on the development plans for the Third World that were implemented since the end of World War II. The central thesis of Easterly stresses that, in order to have an empirical relevance, every theory of development -or of the absence of it- must carry the following behavioral postulate: “people respond to incentives.” If this reality is not taken into account, there is no public policy that can be successful. The main lessons that can be drawn come from the theoretical instruments deployed to explain the political dynamics of most of these countries, particularly in regard to the phenomenon of polarized societies.

The third book to consider is also the more recent publication. Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, was published in 2012 and reached the global debate on the realm of the well-informed public. The proportions achieved by the population of academics and professionals, in addition to the extension of the internet, allowed the aforementioned book to generate varied opinions along both traditional and digital media throughout the world. Acemoglu & Robinson dedicate their pages to those countries that were successful, as well as those that were not, but also here, in the case of this book, the most juicy lessons truly comes from the conceptual structure that articulates the whole book. Among such notions, we find those of inclusive and extractive institutions, which in turn are divided into political and economic institutions. The worst of the institutions are preferable to the total lack of institutions. Thus, a country organized around a closed political and economic system will be preferable to a failed state. However, once a certain degree of centralization and institutionality has been achieved, it is preferable to move towards a pluralist democracy and a competitive economy. The challenge is how to accomplish such transitions.

Since there are still four years left until the year 2023 – following the periodicity of the selected works – we are still in time to make a brief synthesis of the ideas that can be applied to the analysis of the impact of the institutions on economic and political incentives.

[Editor’s note: this is the first part of a rich series on institutions and incentives. You can find the full, Longform Essay here.]

Persecution & Toleration

I’m glad to announce that my new book, Persecution & Toleration (with my colleague Noel Johnson) is now available in the UK.  I’m hoping to receive copies next week. The book is available at CUP, although Amazon still has a US release date of April (you can preorder it).

The blurb is below:

Religious freedom has become an emblematic value in the West. Embedded in constitutions and championed by politicians and thinkers across the political spectrum, it is to many an absolute value, something beyond question. Yet how it emerged, and why, remains widely misunderstood. Tracing the history of religious persecution from the Fall of Rome to the present-day, Noel D. Johnson and Mark Koyama provide a novel explanation of the birth of religious liberty. This book treats the subject in an integrative way by combining economic reasoning with historical evidence from medieval and early modern Europe. The authors elucidate the economic and political incentives that shaped the actions of political leaders during periods of state building and economic growth.

‘A profound new argument about the relationship between political power and religion in the making of the modern world. If you want to know where the liberty you currently enjoy, for now, came from, this is the book to read.’ James Robinson, Richard L. Pearson Professor of Global Conflict, University of Chicago

‘Johnson and Koyama investigate the fascinating intersection of the state and religion in late medieval and early modern Europe. Rather than enduring patterns of religious toleration or persecution, of liberty or tyranny, they tell a rich history of change and variation in rules, institutions, and societies. This is an important and persuasive book.’ John Joseph Wallis, Mancur Olson Professor of Economics, University of Maryland, College Park

‘Lucidly written, incisively argued, this book shows how religious toleration emerged not only from ideas, but also from institutions which motivated people – especially the powerful – to accept and act on those ideas. A brilliant account of early modern Europe’s transition from identity-based privileges to open markets and impartial governance.’ Sheilagh Ogilvie, University of Cambridge

‘This analysis of the historical process underlying the modern state formation is a fantastic scholarly accomplishment. The implications for the present, in terms of the risks associated to the loss of the core liberal values of modern western states, will not be lost to the careful reader.’ Alberto Bisin, New York University

 

The Gandalf Test

The two dominant American political parties have one defining trait in common, and it’s the trait that makes them both undeserving to hold the power they seek to wield. Both parties fail the Gandalf test.

I derive the Gandalf test from one of my favorite conversations in the Lord of the Rings. Gandalf pays a visit to Frodo Baggins after concluding that Bilbo’s old ring is in fact the One Ring–the single most dangerous and powerful object in Middle-earth. Once the full enormity of the ring dawns on Frodo, he tries to thrust it upon Gandalf. Gandalf flatly refuses. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible.” He recognized that he cannot embrace so much power even though he would want to do good with it. “Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me!”

The Gandalf test is simple: a righteous cause and a genuine desire to save the world do not qualify anyone for the exercise of extensive unilateral power. The Republican and Democratic Parties both have recently failed this test, and not for the first time. On one side, President Trump has turned to emergency powers to barge through constitutional barriers, so convinced he is that his cause is just. On the other side, the Green New Deal proposes to remake the United States economy. We tend to too often squabble over the merits of these policies instead of stepping back to apply the Gandalf test. Even if the policies themselves are good ones, even urgent ones, we must ask whether any person or cadre should wield the extraordinary power to put them into action. The “desire of strength to do good” is not enough.

A clear message of Gandalf’s and the Lord of the Rings generally is that progress toward the good and worthy comes through the everyday courage and goodness of ordinary people, not a few great souls on gilded thrones. Elsewhere, Gandalf points out: “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay.” And in the Return of the King: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” What a wonderfully apt response to the Green New Deal’s attempt to rule with an iron fist today in order to literally rule the weather that others might have tomorrow. That kind of hubris is poison to a republic.

We need to subject our leaders to the Gandalf test. We need to know if they are the type to vainly “master all the tides of the world,” or whether they will lead in humility by quietly empowering the everyday deeds of everyday people. If they can’t pass the test, I couldn’t care less whether they’re proposing a wall, a tax hike, or a clean energy revolution.