On the rift between economics and everything else

The line is often heard: economists are “scientific imperialists” (i.e. they seek to invade other fields of social science) jerks. All they try to do is “fit everything inside the model”. I have this derisive sneer at economists very often. I have also heard economists say “who cares, they’re a bunch of historians” (this is the one I hear most often given my particular field of research, but I have heard variations involving sociologists and anthropologists).

To be fair, I never noticed the size rift. For years now, I have been waltzing between economics and history (and tried my hand at journalism for some time) which meant that I was waltzing between economic theory and a lot of other fields. The department I was a part of at the London School of Economics was a rich set of quantitative and qualitative folks who mixed history of ideas, economics, economic history and social history. To top it all, I managed to find myself generally in the company of attorneys and legal scholars (don’t ask why, it still eludes me). It was hard to feel a big rift in that environment. I knew there was a rift. I just never realized how big it was until a year ago (more or less).

There is, however, something that annoys me: the contempt appears to be self-reinforcing.  Elsewhere on this blog (here and here) (and in a forthcoming book chapter in a textbook on how to do economic history), I have explained that economists have often ventured into certain topics with a lack of care for details. True, there must be some abstraction of details (not all details are useful), but there is an optimal quantity of details. And our knowledge grows, the quantity of details necessary to answering each question (because the scientific margin is increasingly specialized) should grow. And so should the number (and depth) of nuances we make to answer a question.  There is a tendency among economists to treat a question outside the usual realm of economics and ignore the existing literature (thus either rushing through an open door or stepping in a minefield without knowing it).  The universe is collapsed into the model and, even when it yields valuable insights, other (non-econs) contributors are ignored.  That’s when the non-econs counter that economists are arrogant and that they try to force everything into a mold rather than change the mold when it does not apply. However, the reply has often been to ignore the economists or criticize strawmen versions of their argument. Perceived as contemptuous, the economists feel that they can safely ignore all others.

The problem is that this is a reinforcing loop: a) the economists are arrogant; b) non-economists respond by dismissing the economists and ridiculing their assumptions; c) the economists get more arrogant. The cycle persists. I struggle to see how to break this cycle, but I see value in breaking it. Elsewhere, I have made such a case when I reviewed a book (towards which I was hostile) on Canadian economic history. Here is what I said for the sake of showcasing the value of breaking the vicious circle of ignoring both sides:

These scholars (those who have been ignored by non-economists) could have easily derived the same takeaways as Sweeny. Individuals can and do engage in rent-seeking, which economists define as the process through which unearned gains are obtained by manipulating the political and social environment. This could be observed in attempts to shape narratives in the public discourse. According primacy to the biases of sources is a recognition that there can be rent-seeking in the form of actors seeking to generate a narrative to reinforce a particular institutional arrangement and allow it to survive. This explanation is well in line with neoclassical economics.

This point is crucial. It shows a failing on both sides of the debate. Economists and historians favorable to “rational choice” have failed to engage scholars like Sweeny. Often, they have been openly contemptuous. The literature has evolved in separate circles where researchers only speak to their fellow circle members. This has resulted in an inability to identify the mutual gains of exchange. The insights and meticulous treatments of sources by scholars like Sweeny are informative for those economists who consider rational choice as if the choosers were humans, with all their flaws and limitations, rather than mechanistic utility-maximizing machines with perfect foresight (which is a strawman often employed to deride the use of economics in historical debates) . In reverse, the rich insights provided by rational choice theorists could guide historians in elucidating complex social interactions with a parsimony of assumptions. Without interaction, both groups loose and resolutions remain elusive.

See, as a guy who likes economics, I think that trade is pretty great. More importantly, I think that trade between heterogeneous groups (or different individuals) is even greater because it allows for specialization that increases the value (and quantity) of outputs.  I see the benefits of trade here, so why is this “circle of contempt” perpetuating so relentlessly?

Can’t we just all pick the 100$ bill on the sidewalk?

Is it always wrong to be angry?

Recently it was brought to my attention a text by a Brazilian journalist “chocked with the anger the Brazilian middle-class has for Lula,” evidenced in the celebrations over Lula’s imprisonment. Honestly, I couldn’t finish reading it because I have better things to do, but in the first lines, she questions how people can be so angry and at the same time rejoicing while Brazil goes through such a turbulent moment. In her understanding, Lula represented the aspirations of millions of Brazilians, and these aspirations are now failing.

Ironically, I believe I know where her frustration comes from. Marxism is nothing but a Christian heresy.  Marx belongs to the group of 19th-century intellectuals who declared that God is dead. However, Marx was not able to get rid of all the Christian ethos. He simply transformed the working class into the suffering Messiah, the socialist intellectuals (like himself) into prophets and the future communist society into Paradise. Classical liberalism has its roots in Christianism, and Marxism is one step further away from it.

One of the most basic Christian teachings (expressed by Jesus himself) is “love your enemies.” Maybe this doesn’t sound controversial today, but it certainly was in 1st century Palestine. My understanding is that, as a deformed form of Christianity, Marxism is questioning how people in Brazil are failing to love Lula, their enemy.

However, Jesus didn’t simply say “love your enemy.” He went on to explain what he meant by love. Love in a Christian sense is less a feeling (although it is also a feeling) and more an attitude. It is mostly to follow the 10 commandments in our relationship with God and with other people.

The love Marxists preach lacks definition and as so lacks meaning. Therefore it is open to abuse. The love Christians preach is deep and complex, and not always easy to understand or to put into practice. But it is certainly not shallow. It is possible, Biblically speaking, to love your enemy and at the same time rejoice with justice.

Some may argue that this is not necessarily due to Christianity. Some philosophical school that predates Christianism (such as stoicism) preached something similar. I’m not going to argue about that. I’m not doing the most scholarly argument here, so you can’t take it or leave it.

Some may argue that the journalist I’m referring to is not a Marxist. To those, I quote John Maynard Keynes (who was not always a very good economist, but sometimes was very accurate in his observations about life):

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

As a Christian, I don’t hate Lula and I don’t rejoice in his suffering. But I’m certainly rejoicing with justice. It may be hard to understand or to accept, but while I love my enemy I don’t necessarily approve his actions. And I certainly don’t consider my enemy my friend. It’s complex. As C.S. Lewis put it “people who have never been to Narnia find these things hard to understand.”

West Coast Hillbillies

A long time ago, after moving from San Francisco, I bought a beautiful Labrador puppy from a woman named Brigid Blodgett, in the hills above Santa Cruz California. (I think she won’t mind the free advertising in the unlikely case that she reads Notes On Liberty or my blog.) Her house was an older conventional California so-called “ranch house,” with low roofs and a sprawling house plan. The pup she had in mind for me was playing with his ten siblings in a concrete backyard when I arrived. There was one new litter, lying with Mom on some rags in the living room, and another in the kitchen, that I could see and smell. The lady, the breeder, told me there was yet another litter in the garage.

To get my new dog, I had not gone to just anybody since most dogs last longer than most cars. I had gathered recommendations in Santa Cruz (pop. 60,000) and its suburbs. Brigid Blodgett’s name kept coming up. Other things being more or less equal, (“et cetibus…” as they say in Latin) I believe in the predictive power of redundancy. I purchased the pup, “Max” (for the German sociologist Max Weber. My previous dog was “Lenin,” another story, obviously). He was a wonderful animal, big, sturdy, healthy, smart, and with a physique that turned heads. I never saw Ms Blodgett again. She asked me once by phone to enter Max in a show but I thought it would inflate his ego and I declined. Her name came up a couple of times when perfect strangers stopped me to ask if Max was one of “Brigid’s dogs.” Continue reading

Tech’s Ethical Dark Side

An article at the NY Times opens:

The medical profession has an ethic: First, do no harm.

Silicon Valley has an ethos: Build it first and ask for forgiveness later.

Now, in the wake of fake news and other troubles at tech companies, universities that helped produce some of Silicon Valley’s top technologists are hustling to bring a more medicine-like morality to computer science.

Far be it from me to tell people to avoid spending time considering ethics. But something seems a bit silly to me about all this. The “experts” are trying to teach students the consequences of the complex interactions between the services they haven’t yet created and the world as it doesn’t yet exist.

My inner cynic sees this “ethics of tech” movement as a push to have software engineers become nanny-state-like social engineers. “First do no harm” is not the right standard for tech (which isn’t to say “do harm” is). Before 2016 Facebook and Twitter were praised for their positive contribution to the Arab Spring. After our dumb election the educated western elite threw up our hands and said, “it’s an ethical breach to reduce our power!” Freedom is messy, and “do no harm” privileges the status quo.

The root problem is that computer services interact with the public in complex ways. Recognizing this is important and an ethics class ought to grapple with that complexity and the resulting uncertainty in how our decisions (including design decisions) can affect the well being of others. My worry is that a sensible call to think about these issues will be co-opted by power-hungry bureaucrats. (There really ought to be ethics classes on the “Dark Side of Ethical Judgments of Others and Education Policy”.)

I don’t doubt that the motivations of the people involved are basically good, but I’m deeply skeptical of their ability to do much more than offer retrospective analysis as particular events become less relevant. History is important, but let’s not trick ourselves into thinking the lessons of 2016 Facebook will apply neatly to whatever network we’re on in 2026.

It hardly seems reasonable to insist that Facebook be put in charge of what we get to see. Some argue that’s already the world we live in, and they aren’t completely wrong. But that authority is still determined by the voluntary individual decision of users with access to plenty of alternatives. People aren’t always as thoughtful and deliberate as I’d like, but that doesn’t mean I should step in and be a thoughtful and deliberate Orwellian figure on their behalf.

In memory of Christie Davies: defender of the right to joke

ChristieDavies

As we approach the end of 2017, I remember this year’s sad passing of Christie Davies. Davies was a rare academic beast: a classical liberal sociologist. Despite representing a minority perspective in his discipline, he was able to thrive and leave a mark that will continue to influence scholars for generations.

Continue reading

Minarchism, Anarchism, and Democracy: A Shared Challenge

Minarchism–basically as small a government as we can get away with–is probably the most economically efficient possible way to organize society. A night watchman state providing courts of last resort and just enough military to keep someone worse from taking over.

The trouble (argues my inner anarchist) is that if we’ve got a government–an organization allowed to force/forbid behaviors–we’re already on the slippery slope to abuse of powers through political trading. Without an entrenched culture that takes minarchism seriously it’s only a matter of time before a) the state grows out of control and you’re no longer in a minarchist Utopia, or b) a populace unwilling to do their part allows violent gangs to fill the power vacuum.

Having a government at all is a risky proposition from the perspective of someone worried about the abuse of that power. Better not to risk it at all.

Anarchism relies on the right culture in a similar way. This is clear to critics of anarchism (basically it’s just the minarchists who are willing to take anarchists seriously at all) and is the crux of an important argument against anarchism. Without the right culture, what’s to stop people from just creating some new government? Nothing at all.

In fact, we face the same problem in the military-industrial-nanny-state complex of our imperfect real world. For any government–or lack of government–to work, the ideological framework of the people living in that society has to line up properly. To the extent people are ignorant, distracted, short-sighted, biased, or mean-spirited, we get governance that reflects those flaws.

If we want to live in a better world, we can argue all day about what sort of government we do or don’t want. But ultimately we have to work on improving the culture, because the median voter is still in charge.

Inventions that didn’t change the world

Have you ever learned about an amazing invention–whether it was the Baghdad battery or the ancient Roman steam engine or Chinese firecrackers–and wondered why it didn’t do more to change the world? In this podcast, we examine a selection of curiosities and explore hypotheses for why their inventors didn’t use them to full effect.

We move VERY quickly through a range of fascinating examples and hypotheses, and therefore leave a lot up to discussion. We hope to see your thoughts, feedback, and additions in the comments section!

For any invention that you want to learn more about, see the links below:

Knossos’ toilets

In the 2nd millennium BC, a “palace” (now thought to be a building that served as administrative, trade, and gathering hub) had running-water toilet flushing. Much like the Roman Cloaca Maxima, likely a HUGE public-health benefit, but basically died out. Does this show that military protection/staving off the “Dark Ages” was the only way to maintain amazing inventions?

Link: http://www.nature.com/news/the-secret-history-of-ancient-toilets-1.19960;

The Nimrud lens

Whether it was a fire-starter, a magnifying glass, or (for some overeager astronomy enthusaists), the Neo-Assyrian ground-crystal Nimrud lens is an invention thousands of years out of place. While the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used lenses of different sorts, and glass-blowing was certainly popular by the 1st century BC in Roman Egypt, no glass lenses were made until the Middle Ages and the potential scientific and engineering uses of lenses–that can hardly be understated even in their 16th-to-18th-century applications–had to wait another couple millennia. Many devices like the Baghdad battery and Antikythera device are heralded for their possible engineering genius, but this seems like a simple one with readily available applications that disappeared from the historical record.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nimrud_lens

Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine

In the 1st century AD, Hero was a master of simple machines (that were mostly used for plays) and also invented a force pump, a wind-powered machine, even an early vending machine. However, he is likely most famous for his Aeolipile, a rotating steam engine that used heated water to spin an axle. The best attested use of this is for devotion to the divine and party tricks.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeolipile

The ancient mechanical reaper

Ancient Gallo-Romans (or just Gauls) invented a novel way of grain harvesting: rather than using sickles or scythes, they used a mechanical reaper, 1700 years before Cyrus McCormick more than tripled the productivity of American farmers. This antiquated device literally but the cart before the oxen and required two men to operate: one man to drive the beasts, and another to knock the ears off the stalk (this reaper was obviously far less sophisticated than McCormick’s). This invention did not survive the Volkswanderung period.

http://www.gnrtr.com/Generator.html?pi=208&cp=3

http://reapertakethewheel.blogspot.com/2013/03/impacts-of-invention.html

Note: the horse collar (which allowed horses to be used to plow) was invented in 1600-1400 BC in China AND the Levant, but was not applied widely until 1000 AD in Europe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_collar.

Inoculation

Madhav, an Indian doctor, compiled hundreds of cures in his Nidana, including an inoculation against smallpox that showed an understanding of disease transmission (he would take year-old smallpox-infected flesh and touch it to a recently made cutaneous wound). However, the next 13 centuries did not see Indian medical understanding of viruses or bacteria, or even copied techniques of this, development. https://books.google.com/books?id=Hkc3QnbagK4C&pg=PA105&lpg=PA105&dq=madhav+indian+smallpox+inoculation&source=bl&ots=4RFPuvbf5Y&sig=iyDaNUs4u5N7xHH6-pvlbAY9fcQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwic8e-1-JXVAhUp6IMKHfw3DLsQ6AEIOjAD#v=onepage&q=madhav%20indian%20smallpox%20inoculation&f=false

At least, thank god, their methods of giving nose jobs to those who had had their noses cut off as a punishment survived: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rhinoplasty

The Chinese:

List of all chinese inventions:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_inventions#Four_Great_Inventions

Gunpowder

Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists attempting to discover the elixir of life (irony, no?)

https://www.thoughtco.com/invention-of-gunpowder-195160

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Great_Inventions

(maybe a good corollary would be Greek fire, which was used effectively in naval warfare by the Byzantines, but which was not improved upon and the recipe of which is still secret: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire)

Printing

The Chinese invented the printing press possibly as early as the 6th century. However, unlike the explosion of literacy seen in much of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe–see our last podcast), the Chinese masses never learned to read. In fact, in 1950 fewer than 20% of Chinese citizens were literate. Compare this to Europe, where some societies saw literacy rates of as high as 90% (Sweden, Male population) in some societies within a few centuries of the introduction of the printing press. Why? There may be several reasons–cultural, religious, political–but in our opinion, it would have to be the characters: 100,000 blocks were needed to create a single set.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/02/12/news/chinas-long-but-uneven-march-to-literacy.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing_in_East_Asia

They also invented pulped paper by the 2nd century BC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_inventions.

The compass

Invented by 200 BC for divination and used for navigation by the Song dynasty; despite this and the availability of easily colonizable islands within easy sailing distance, the Chinese did not colonize Indonesia, Polynesia, or Oceania, while the Europeans did within the century after they developed the technology and first sailed there.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_compass.

The rudder

While they did not invent the rudder, they invented the “medial, axial, and vertical” sternpost rudder that would become standard in Europe almost 1,000 years before it was used in Europe (1st century AD vs 11th century).

Natural gas

The Chinese discovered “fire wells” (natural gas near the surface) and erected shrines to worship there.

https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-4425-0_9568

They even understood their potential for fuel, but never developed beyond primitive burning and bamboo piping despite having advanced mining techniques for it by the 1st century BC.

Chinese miscelleni:

Hydraulic powered fan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_(machine)#History

Cuppola furnace for smelting and molding iron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_furnace.

Coke as a fuel source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

Belt-drive spinning wheel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

The Precolumbian wheel

The pre- and early Mayans had toys that utilized primitive wheels, but did not use them for any labor-saving purpose (even their gods were depicted carrying loads on their backs). This may have been because scaling up met with mechanical difficulties, but the potential utility of wheels in this case with a bit of investment literally sat unrealized for centuries.

https://tcmam.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/did-pre-columbian-mesoamericans-use-wheels/

The Tucker:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-tucker-was-the-1940s-car-of-the-future-135008742/

The following book contained some of our hypotheses:

https://books.google.com/books?id=ynejM1-TATMC&pg=PA399&lpg=PA399&dq=roman+and+greek+labor-saving+devices&source=bl&ots=BI6GVGTrxC&sig=8ZJqirOVUyjH7TNq0fcW6UUPn1k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj55O7395XVAhVqwYMKHSb2Dy4Q6AEIKTAB#v=onepage&q=roman%20and%20greek%20labor-saving%20devices&f=false

 

The rest of our hypotheses were amalgamated from our disparate classes in economics and history, but none of them are our own or uncommon in academic circles. Thanks for listening!