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.

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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.

In Praise of Academia

This week I got the happy news that my article on Ayn Rand’s views on international relations was accepted for publication. Once it is posted ‘online first’, I shall write a bit about its content. For now I would like to make a two other points, though.

One of the reason for my happiness is that this article took an exceptional time to get accepted. I started working on it in 2010, doing the initial reading (in this case all published works of Ayn Rand). The actual drafting started in 2011, I solicited commentary, and came to an acceptable first version in 2013. To be sure: I did not work on the paper on a full time basis, and there were many other distractions, not least my day time job, other academic projects, and family affairs. Still, the article kept nagging in the back of my head, perhaps not daily, but certainly on a weekly basis. I got the first few rejections by journals in 2013, then again a few in 2015, and another one this summer. So reason enough to be happy to get accepted and all the more exciting to see it through the production phase in the coming months, with actual printed publication still in the somewhat distant future.

I am not writing this to congratulate myself in public. My reason for this blog is to show young (aspiring) scholars, that it is completely normal to work on a project for ages, and to get rejected a few times. Yet the reward is sweet. As long as you persevere, are ready to change and edit your text, overcome your anger when you get unjust blind reviews (and believe me: writing on Rand regularly solicits angry, malicious and/or erroneous responses, also from editors and reviewers of high ranked reputed journals), and keep the faith in the possible value of your modest contribution to the world’s knowledge base.

This is a lesson I learned from experience in the past decade or so. But early on, I also greatly benefitted from one of the best and useful guides to PhD research and academic life I have ever come across: LSE professor Patrick Dunleavy’s Authoring a PhD. It realistically describes what to expect of academic life, it’s ups and also it’s downs. So get it, if you are still unsure what to expect of academic life.

The other remark I would like to make is about the unique and open character of academic publishing. It is really great, as a part-time academic, to be able to get published in reputable journals. I am sure the editors of journals and presses are more keen to see academics from highly reputed universities submitting papers and book manuscripts. Yet they first and foremost value content. If you have something interesting to say, and live up to the academic standards, you will get the same chance and treatment as everybody else. That is pretty unique, compared to many other professions.

So: academia be praised!

Some thoughts on the ivory tower; part 1: discrimination

I entered academia in 2009 when I started my bachelor’s degree and began graduate studies in 2014 when I entered a master’s program. I have been in the ivory tower in some form for almost a decade. Others have spent much more time in the tower than I, but I am hardly a newcomer. I hope then that I can offer thoughts on discrimination and mental health in the ivory tower.

In the past few years I have noted an increased self-aware discussion on the lack of diversity, both in terms of phenotype and ideology, in the ivory tower. The tower is full of center-left white men. I have seen various formal (e.g. #womenalsoknowstuff ) and informal groups groups advocate for greater inclusion in the tower. For the record there are non-leftist groups involved in this as well. CU Boulder has a program to increase conservative intellectuals. The Institute of Humane Studies (IHS) essentially serves to advocate for classical liberals in the tower. 

There is nothing wrong with these goals. Women also knows stuff tries do this by advertising the work of female scholars. IHS does it by inviting classical liberals to book discussions – and providing beer. Both approaches sound sensible to me. My concern is that ultimately the pipeline isn’t being fixed. Not really. Both approaches help those who managed to enter, at minimum, graduate school but do little to help solve more structural reasons for why there respective groups are rare in the tower.

Why are there so few women and classical liberals (and especially so few classical liberal women!) in academia? It’s partly cultural and partly institutional.

Minorities get made fun of in academia. Academics like to think of themselves as cosmopolitan, but it’s a big lie. A recent undergrad thesis by a Berkeley student looked at misogynistic discussions on an online forum frequented by economists. I disagree with the research design of the paper, but I believe the general argument that the tower is filled with misogyny. I also believe it’s filled with dislike for conservatives, Christians, atheists, whites, blacks, Arabs, Chinese, etc.

I don’t think the tower is unique in this. Human beings divide themselves by groups and I don’t see why that will ever change. I think the academy is just a bit whiter and a bit more lefty because of sorting effects. You can see this happening even within the tower. Classical liberals sort into economics – how many classical liberal anthropologists do you know? Not counting NoL’s chief editor? Some minorities sort into ethnic studies. How many black game theorists do you know? Native American psychometricians?

What can we do? I’m not sure. We can improve the pipeline so that grad students, and eventually faculty, get more diverse. However I suspect the sorting problem will remain. Superficially we will have more diversity, but is it really diversity if we’re sorted by discipline and subfields? Should we force new classical liberals to enroll in sociology grad programs? I don’t know. Maybe we should give up on diversity all together and focus on abolishing the state. Maybe? Who knows? What do you  all think?

By the way if you want to know what true cosmopolitanism is, visit an inner city. True cosmopolitanism is seeing blacks, Mexicans and Koreans eating pupusas made by a Honduran. Everything else is a GAP commercial concoted by HR people.