What should young libertarians do?

(Continuing the tradition of not finishing a draft and instead creating a whole new post.)

Several months ago I was able to present an essay at symposiums in Georgia and Utah, confident that I was entering the academic world, beginning to make connections. My academic references are even better than my professional. I know I would like teaching because I love tutoring, and I can guess with mild confidence that I wouldn’t get bored with the same material.

Four years of college seemed to be moving me toward grad school and teaching. But now, I’m part of a pool of internship concurrent- and post-students working academic programs, and I couldn’t imagine their lives. I’m one of few activists in the group, where my job is talking to non-libertarians, and theirs is all too often preaching to the choir. Programs like these build our professional skills and cultivate young leaders for the philosophy, but near everyone chose to go the route of policy instead of activism. Why? Is ground work too manually exhausting? Do libertarians lack good people skills? (I don’t even need to ask that, really.) Is activism considered “lowly,” and policy work prestigious? Are there not enough liberty-aligned activism groups and an imbalance of policy/media organizations?

Our project at my group right now is getting good people elected. That requires doorknockers to talk to people. Where are all the young libertarians to get out the vote? Waiting in line for a policy job, it seems. This is not to reject division of labor and say that the academic side isn’t contributing to the success of liberty — we’re winning all the time, about as much as we’re losing. It’s to say that the kid in the classroom who’s always arguing, obnoxiously and persistently, the libertarian case, is suspiciously missing out in the field. The people who can quote Mises and Hayek ad nauseam aren’t prepared to help get a candidate elected who isn’t Mises or Hayek. They are prepared, however, to read more Mises and Hayek.

In politics, nothing moves unless it’s pushed. We need movement, bodies, material, out in the neighborhoods and city blocks; words on a page can only do so much. And maybe this anti-intellectual cynicism will extinguish as the time grows since I last read Feyerabend. But for now, young libertarians are highly frustrating. I’ve tasted victory. And the thing preventing new victories is nothing but a lack of people.

Battling Time and Ignorance: Mario Rizzo at 70

Last week my friend and colleague Mario Rizzo, a scholar central to the revival of  contemporary Austrian economics, turned 70. This occasion prompted a spontaneous outpouring of praise for his work, as well as messages of gratitude for his support of students and fellow academics over his decades as an intrepid professor with his home firmly at NYU. They are collected over at ThinkMarkets. Jeffrey Tucker has written an excellent summary of Mario’s intellectual contributions at the American Institute for Economic Research. Below is a segment of my birthday message:

In my home, the United Kingdom, classical liberal thought has until recently been virtually unheard within much of academia. As a student and think-tank researcher ravenous for liberal approaches to public policy, I gorged on Mario’s blog posts from ThinkMarkets. Together with Marginal Revolution and Cafe Hayek, ThinkMarkets was a critical lifeline for me facing an intellectual world dominated by various visions of authoritarianism and only slightly more benign variants of paternalism.

Thanks to Mario’s selfless contributions to the revival of Austrian economics, that intellectual world is changing, even in the UK. His co-founding of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics and hosting the Program on the Foundations of the Market Economy at NYU has provided support and inspiration for countless young scholars.

I am very fortunate to be among that multitude.

IMG_5104

 

Crediting Co-Authorship

“… Who worked with you”

“Didn’t you know? It was Tamwile Elar. He worked out the theory that made the device possible and I designed and build the actual instrument.”

“Does that mean he took the credit, Dr. Monay?”

“No, no. You mustn’t think that. Dr. Elar is not that kind of man. He gave me full credit for my share of the work. In fact, it was his idea to call the device by our names – both our names – but he couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Well, that’s Professor Seldon’s rule, you know. All devices and equations are to be given functional names and not personal ones – to avoid resentment.”

-Forward the Foundation, Isaac Asimov

Most of my research is co-authored. As I noted in my previous post, I strongly believe that science is a collaborative enterprise. I of course have a few solo authored working papers, mainly those that I hope to include in my dissertation, but for the most part my work is with others. A problem with this is deciding how to credit the paper. Who gets the prized first author spot? Is it the most senior member of the team? The person who came up with the initial idea? The former RA who got upgraded to co-author status to avoid having to pay them? All of these can be tricky and can lead to resentment among co-authors.

I’ve seen various alternative arrangements to try to side step the issue. There are those who list co-authors by alphabetical order or alternate first authorship (Landgrave & Christensen 2015, Christensen & Landgrave 2016, etc etc). A few, like my grand advisor, combine their names with frequent co-authors (e.g. McNollgast). As cool as Christgrave sounds, I think these alternatives ultimately fall short because they continue to personalize science. It’s not clear to me what the benefit of this is. Not only does this lead to resentment among co-authors but it, I think, slows down the revision process as people mis-interpret critic on a given idea as a personal attack.

It is entirely possible, for example, to dislike JM Keynes’ work but to be indifferent or even warm towards the man himself. Likewise, it is possible to praise someone’s work, but find them to be personally awful.

Would it not be better to refer to papers by institutions or ‘labs’? Coase’s theory of the firm would, for example, be referred to as LSE 1937, as opposed to Coase 1937.

Thoughts? Comments? As always, write in the comments section!

#microblogging

Should The Academic “We” Be Ditched?

“Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.” – Mark Twain

When writing academically I use the “we” pronoun. I do so for a variety of reasons, but I am starting to rethink this practice. This may seem like a silly topic, but a quick google shows that I’m not the only one who thinks about this: link 1, link 2.

My K-12 teachers, and even my undergraduate English professor, constantly told me that I was prone to writing in a stream of consciousness. My writing, they argued, contained too much of my personality. They pointed out my constant use of “I”s of example of this. I I was, in general, an awful English student. In 12+ years of schooling, I rarely used the five page paragraph structure that American school children are indoctrinated with. I first adopted the use of the academic “we” in an attempt to force myself to distinguish between personal forms of writing, such as when I write on blogs, where these eccentricities could be tolerated and technical writing.

While that was my initial motivation for using the “we”, I also found the pronoun a way to emphasize the collaborative nature of science. I have several single authored papers, but I would be lying if I said that any of them were developed in a vacuum divorced from other’s feedback. Getting feedback at a conference or brown bag workshop may not merit including someone as a co-author, but I feel it strange to use “I” academically in this context. For anyone who disagrees with me – I ask that you compare a paper before and after submitting it to the review process. One may hate reviewer #2 for insisting on using an obscure estimation technique, but it cannot be denied that they shaped the final version of the paper. Again, I’m not saying we should add reviewers as co-authors, but isn’t using ‘we’ a simple way of acknowledging their role in the scientific process?

I admit, I also enjoy using the academic “we” in part because of its regal connections. King Michelangelo has a nice ring to it, no?

There are downsides to the use of the academic “we”. On several occasions I’ve had to clarify that I was the sole author of a given paper. What do NOL readers think? Do you use the academic “we”?

#microblog

Low-Quality Publications and Academic Competition

In the last few days, the economics blogosphere (and twitterverse) has been discussing this paper in the Journal of Economic PsychologySimply put, the article argues that economists discount “bad journals” so that a researcher with ten articles in low-ranked and mid-ranked journals will be valued less than a researcher with two or three articles in highly-ranked journals.

Some economists, see notably Jared Rubin here, made insightful comments about this article. However, there is one comment by Trevon Logan that gives me a chance to make a point that I have been mulling over for some time. As I do not want to paraphrase Trevon, here is the part of his comment that interests me:

many of us (note: I assume he refers to economists) simply do not read and therefore outsource our scholarly opinions of others to editors and referees who are an extraordinarily homogeneous and biased bunch

There are two interrelated components to this comment. The first is that economists tend to avoid reading about minute details. The second is that economists tend to delegate this task to gatekeepers of knowledge. In this case, this would be the editors of top journals. Why do economists act as such? More precisely, what are the incentives to act as such? After, as Adam Smith once remarked, the professors at Edinburgh and Oxford were of equal skill but the former produced the best seminars in Europe because their incomes depended on registrations and tuition while the latter relied on long-established endowments. Same skills, different incentives, different outcomes.

My answer is as such: the competition that existed in the field of economics in the 1960s-1980s has disappeared.  In “those” days, the top universities such as Princeton, Harvard, MIT and Yale were a more or less homogeneous group in terms of their core economics. Lets call those the “incumbents”. They faced strong contests from the UCLA, Chicago, Virginia and Minnesota.  These challengers attacked the core principles of what was seen as the orthodoxy in antitrust (see the works of Harold Demsetz, Armen Alchian, Henry Manne), macroeconomics (Lucas Paradox, Islands model, New Classical Economics), political economy (see the works of James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Elinor Ostrom, Albert Breton, Charles Plott) and microeconomics (Ronald Coase). These challenges forced the discipline to incorporate many of the insights into the literature. The best example would be the New Keynesian synthesis formulated by Mankiw in response to the works of people like Ed Prescott and Robert Lucas. In those days, “top” economists had to respond to articles published in “lower-ranked” journals such as Economic Inquiry, Journal of Law and Economics and Public Choice (all of which have risen because they were bringing competition – consider that Ronald Coase published most of his great pieces in the JL&E).

In that game, economists were checking one another and imposing discipline upon each other. More importantly, to paraphrase Gordon Tullock in his Organization of Inquiry, their curiosity was subjected to social guidance generated from within the community:

He (the economist) is normally interested in the approval of his peers and and hence will usually consciously shape his research into a project which will pique other scientists’ curiosity as well as his own.

Is there such a game today? If in 1980 one could easily answer “Chicago” to the question of “which economics department challenges that Harvard in terms of research questions and answers”, things are not so clear today. As research needs to happen within a network where the marginal benefits may increase with size (up to a point), where are the competing networks in economics?

And there is my point, absent this competition (well, I should not say absent – it is more precise to speak of weaker competition) there is no incentive to read, to invest other fields for insights or to accept challenges. It is far more reasonable, in such a case, to divest oneself from the burden of academia and delegate the task to editors. This only reinforces the problem as the gatekeepers get to limit the chance of a viable network to emerge.

So, when Trevon bemoans (rightfully) the situation, I answer that maybe it is time that we consider how we are acting as such because the incentives have numbed our critical minds.

A Sex Fiend

Like many others, I find the current collective hysteria about sexual harassment a bit overwhelming. Around November 22nd or 23rd, a woman came on FB proclaiming that she was willing to hurt the completely innocent to combat the scourge of harassment of women. She mentioned it was part of the struggle against the “patriarchy.” She said she was willing to “pay the price,” (meaning hurting any number of innocent men). The exchange that followed demonstrated that she was not acting sarcastic. If I were the dramatic kind of guy, I would say this it the beginning of the end of civilization, also a good argument in favor of a now non-existent patriarchy. (Non-existent in the US. Explanations on request.)

Since the repulsive Harvey Weinstein began disgracing the pages of newspapers daily, I have been trying to inject little shots of rationality into the brouhaha. I know it’s not much but if half of all rational people – especially women – do the same I believe we will have a significantly calming effect. Given the overpowering nature of the media excitement, I don’t have the courage to develop an overall strategy of rationality injections. Instead, I do a little bit of this and a little bit of that according to my mood and according to my availability on a particular day. Sometimes the relevance of my intervention to the current situation may seem only tangential. I assure you it’s worth thinking about it though (if you have time).

My main reaction to all of the horror stories in the media is this: Even if they are all 100% true, these stories tell only part of the larger story; they exist in a vacuum. The relationships (plural) between men and women are complex and often conducted at an infra-conscious level. A new fact for our species as a whole is that they are often enacted between perfect strangers. Not long ago, it practically never happened. People had plenty of occasions to find out about one another before anybody made a move. No more. Here is a true story about all this.

A long time ago, I am at an academic meeting in Chicago. I am still a fairly new academic but not a total novice. American university professors are supposed to be actively engaged in scholarship (“research”). Many actually are. Periodically, college professors in their several disciplines get together at academic meetings to present their research papers to one another – sometimes to a nearly empty room. They listen to one another and sometimes, they argue. It’s well understood though that the main function of this custom is to network rather than to spread knowledge. Normally, your employing university pays your way entirely. Such meetings are one of the fringe benefits of academia.

After delivering my own paper, I head for the coffee shop of the hotel where the meeting is being held. It’s about 3PM and I need a pick-me-up. The place is not crowded but most tables are occupied. I find one next to a table where a youngish woman is sitting alone before what appears to be a formal tea-set. As I sit down, I say “Hello” politely. She answers the same way. That’s the established custom at academic meetings: We are not strangers even if we are. My saluting her does not mean I am trying to pick her up, I know and she knows. She is in her early thirties, a very short, slight and pretty women with dark hair and black eyes.

After I order, I introduce myself as one does in such meetings and I ask what’s her specialty and where she comes from. She is a historian employed by a university about which I know little. I am a sociologist at a big Midwestern university. She has a light foreign accent I can’t place. I have a foreign accent not so hard to place, I guess. She asks me if I am French. She is a Lebanese Christian herself. It turns out her people and the French go way back. Her native language is Arabic but her English is perfect. She starts talking about her research and I about mine. We discover that we have earned our doctoral degrees from the same university, within two years of each other. We guess we never crossed paths because we were both studious and we used different ends of the main library there, in accordance with our respective disciplines.

What follows is a conversation of about one hour that should have been recorded for posterity. It was a model of gracious intellectual interchange between two cultured people who have enough in common to be able to communicate untrammeled, but with enough differences that they may yet be interesting to each other. We had much to discuss beside our scholarship, including the little-explored experience of middle-class immigrants to the US. The whole conversation stayed on the highest plane you can think of, no levity, no small talk, no useless words. This interchange might even have been enough by itself to justify the mind-boggling expense of academic meetings. It may have been the best conversation I had had, and have had in my life.

All the while, my new acquaintance has been drinking tea. With a lull in the conversation, she excuses herself to go to the restroom. When she returns, as she is slipping back into her seat, she looks straight a me and she says,

“I want you to know there is zero chance I will have sex with you.”

If I had not been sitting down, I would fallen backward from being embarrassed for her. I was so amazed, it took me several seconds to reply, “I was just thinking the same.” Immediately, I regret my retort because, with its devious ambiguity, it’s impossibly rude. I do what I can by way of friendly noises, to make up for it. Then, we say goodbye. The academic meeting is coming to an end the next day; we don’t bump into each other again. Two years later, we did meet again. But, that is another story, obviously.

What’s your point, you may ask? I don’t know, you tell me, especially if you are a woman.