Look what just arrived in my hands

Trent MacDonald is an economist in Australia. You can order the book here. Or you might have better luck hollering at him on Twitter. Thanks Trent!

Afternoon Tea: “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy”

The central problem of today’s global interactions is the tension between cultural homogenization and cultural heterogenization. A vast array of empirical facts could be brought to bear on the side of the ‘homogenization’ argument, and much of it has come from the left end of the spectrum of media studies, and some from other, less appealing, perspectives. Most often, the homogenization argument subspeciates in to either an argument about Americanization, or an argument about ‘commoditization’, and very often the two arguments are closely linked. What these arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or other way: this is true of music and housing styles as much as it is true of science and terrorism, spectacles and constitutions. The dynamics of such indigenization have just begun to be explored in a sophisticated manner, and much more needs to be done. But it is worth noticing that for the people of Irian Jaya, Indonesianization may be more worrisome than Americanization, as Japanization may be for Koreans, Indianization for Sri Lankans […] Such a list of alternative fears to Americanization could be greatly expanded, but it is not a shapeless inventory: for polities of smaller scale, there is always a fear of cultural absorption by polities of larger scale, especially those that are nearby. One man’s imagined community is another man’s political prison.

This is from Arjun Appedurai, an anthropologist at NYU. Here is the link.

From the Comments: What’s worth reading from Karl Marx?

Given all the time I wasted reading Marx, I’d say I lost big time. If I had it to do over again I’d read Grundrisse and stop.

This is from Terry Amburgey, a now-retired Professor of Management from the University of Toronto’s business school. He got his PhD from the same sociology program as Jacques.

Here is a link to Grundrisse (pdf), and note that Marx spends a good deal of time near the end of his manuscript on “the Frenchman,” Frédéric Bastiat. Oh, and Grundrisse has over 800 pages of reading in it.

Nightcap

  1. Syria: the knowledge problem Chris Dillow, Stumbling and Mumbling
  2. Why tribal sovereignty is so important Ryan McMaken Mises Wire
  3. Seattle baseball fans are eating grasshoppers, not hot dogs Eric Gomez, ESPN
  4. Art, science, and political economy Peter Boettke, Coordination Problem

The Dictator’s Handbook

I recently pointed you towards a book that has turned out to be a compelling and interesting read.

At the end of the day, it’s a straightforward application of public choice theory and evolutionary thinking to questions of power. Easy to understand theory is bundled with data and anecdotes* to elucidate the incentives facing dictators, democrats, executives, and public administrators. The differences between them are not discrete: they all face the same basic problem of compelling others’ behavior while facing some threat of replacement.

Nobody rules alone, so staying in power means keeping the right people happy and/or afraid. All leaders are constrained by their underlings. These underlings are necessary to get anything done, but they’re also potential rivals. For Bueno de Mesquita and Smith the crucial facts of a political order are a) how big a coalition (how many underlings) the ruler is beholden too and b) how replaceable the members of that coalition are.

The difference between liberal and illiberal orders boil down to differences in those two parameters. In democracies with a larger coalition and less replaceable coalition members, rulers behave better.

 

I got a Calculus of Consent flavor from Dictator’s Handbook. At the end of the day, collective decision making will reflect some version of “the will of the people… who matter.” But when we ask about the number of people who matter, we run into C of C thinking. Calling for bigger coalitions is another way of calling for an approach to an effective unanimity rule (at least at the constitutional stage).

In C of C the question of the optimal voting rule (majority vs. super majority vs. unanimity) boils down to a tradeoff between the costs of organizing and the costs of externalities imposed by the ruling coalition. On the graph below (from C of C) we’re comparing organization costs (J) against externality costs (I) (the net costs of the winning coalition’s inefficient policies). The idea is that a unanimity rule would prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. I is downward sloping), but that doesn’t mean unanimity is the optimal voting rule.

Figure 18.  Click to open in new window.

But instead of asking “what’s efficient” let’s think think about what we can afford out of society’s production, then ask who makes what decisions. In a loose sense, we can think of a horizontal line on the graph above representing our level of wealth. If we** aren’t wealthy enough to organize, then the elites rule and maximize rent extraction. We can’t get far up J, so whichever coalition is able to rule imposes external costs at a high level on I.

But I‘s height is a function of rent extraction. Rulers face the classic conundrum of whether to take a smaller piece of a larger pie.

The book confirms what we already know: when one group can make decisions about what other groups can or must do, expect a negative sum game. But by throwing in evolutionary thinking it shed light on why we see neither an inexorable march of progress nor universal tyranny and misery.

As you travel back in time, people (on average) tend to look more ignorant, cruel, and superstitious. The “default state” of humanity is poverty and ignorance. The key to understanding economics is realizing that we’ve bootstrapped ourselves out of that position and we aren’t done yet.

The Dictator’s Handbook helped me realize that I’d been forgetting that the “default state” of political power is rule by force. The liberalization we’ve seen over the last 500 years has been just the first part of a bootstrapping process.

Understanding the starting point makes it clear that more inclusive systems use ideas, institutions, capital, and technology to abstract upward to more complex levels. Something like martial honor scales up the exercise of power from the tribe (who can The Chief beat up) to the fiefdom (now the Chief has sub-chiefs). Ideology and identity can tie fiefdoms into nation-states (now we’ve got a king and nobility). Wealth plus new ideologies create more inclusive and democratic political orders (now we’ve got a president and political parties). But each stage is built on the foundation set before. We stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants were propped up by the non-giants around them.

Our world was built by backwards savages. The good news is that we can use the flimsier parts of the social structure we inherited as scaffolding for something better (while maintaining the really good stuff). What exactly this means is the tricky question. Which rules, traditions, organizations, and processes are worth keeping? How do we maintain those? How/when do we replace the rest? And what does “we” even mean?

Changing the world involves uncertainty. There are complex interrelations between every part of reality. And the knowledge society needs is scattered through many different minds. To make society better, we need buy-in from our neighbors (nobody rules alone). And we need to realize that the force we exert will be countered by an equal and opposite force some plural, imperfectly identifiable, maybe-but-probably-not equal, and only-mostly-opposite forces. There are complex and constantly shifting balances between different coalitions vying for power and the non-coalitions that might suddenly spring into action if conditions are right. Understanding the forces at play helps us see the constraints to political change.

And there’s good news: it is possible to create a ruling coalition that is more inclusive. The conditions have to be right. But at least some of those conditions are malleable. If we can sell people on the right ideas, we can push the world in the right direction. But we have to work at it, because there are plenty of people pitching ideas that will concentrate power and create illiberal outcomes.


*I read the audiobook, so I’m basically unable to vouch for the data analysis. Everything they said matched the arguments they were making, but without seeing it laid out on the page I couldn’t tell you whether what they left out was reasonable.

**Whatever that means…

The Pox of Liberty – dixit the Political Economy of Public Health

9780226922171

A few weeks ago, I finished reading the Pox of Liberty authored by Werner Troesken. Although I know some of his co-authors personally (notably the always helpful Nicola Tynan whose work on water economics needs to be read by everyone serious in the field of economic history – see her work on London here), I never met Troesken. Nonetheless, I am what you could call a “big fan” in the sense that I get a tingling feeling in my brain when I start reading his stuff. This is because Troesken’s work is always original. For example, his work on the economic history of public utilities (gas and electricity) in the United States is probably one of the most straightforward application of industrial organization to historical questions and, in the process, it kills many historical myths regarding public utilitiesThe Pox of Liberty is no exception and it should be read (at the risk of become a fan of Troesken like I am) as a treatise on the political economy of public health.

Very often, it will be pointed out that public health measures are public goods that government should provide lest it be “underprovided” if left to private actors. After all, it is rare to hear of individuals who voluntarily quarantined themselves upon learning they were sick. As a result, the “public economics” argument is that the government should mandate certain measures (mandatory vaccination and quarantine) that will reduce infectious diseases. Normally, the story would end there. And to be sure, there is a lot of evidence that mild coercive measures do reduce some forms of mortality (mandatory vaccination and quarantine). The more intense the policies, the larger the positive effects on health outcomes. For example, taxes on cigarettes do reduce consumption of cigarettes and thus, secondhand smoke. In fact, even extreme coercive measures like smoking bans seem to yield improvements in terms of public health (another example is that of Cuba which I discussed on this blog).

However, Troesken’s contribution is to tell us that the story does not end there. In a way, the “public economics” story is incomplete. The institutions that are best able to deploy such levels of coercion are generally also the institutions that are unable to restrain political meddling in economic affairs. Governments that are able to easily deploy coercive measures are governments that tend to be less constrained and they can fall prey to rent-seeking and regulatory capture. They will also tend to disregard property rights and economic freedom. This implies slower rates of economic growth. As a result, there is a trade-off that exists: either you get fast economic growth with higher rates of certain infectious diseases or you get slow economic growth with lower rates of certain infectious diseases (Troesken concentrates mostly on smallpox and yellow fever). The graphic below illustrates this point of Troesken. Countries like Germany – with its strong centralizing Prussian tradition – were able to generate very low levels of deaths from infectious diseases. But, they were poorer than the United States. The latter country had a constitutional framework that limited the ability of local and state governments to adopt even mild measures like mandatory vaccination. Thus, that meant higher mortality levels but the same constitutional constraints permitted economic growth and thus the higher level of living standards enjoyed by Americans relative to the Germans.

fullsizerender

But Troesken’s story does not end there.  Economic growth has some palliative health effects (in part the McKeown hypothesis*) whereby we have a better food supply and access to better housing or less demanding jobs. However, in the long-run economic growth means that new sectors of activity can emerge. For example, as we grow richer, we can probably expend more resources on drugs research to extend life expectancy. We can also have access to more medical care in general.  These fruits take some time to materialize as they grow more slowly. Nonetheless, they do form a palliative effect that contributes to health improvements.

However, there is an analogy that allows us to see why these palliative effects are important in any political economy of public health provision. This analogy relates to forestry. The health outcomes fruits from a “coercive institutional tree” can only be picked once. Once they are picked, the tree will yield no more fruits.  However, the yield from that single harvest is considerable. In comparison, the “economic growth tree” yields fewer and smaller fruits, but it keeps yielding fruits. It never stops yielding fruits. In the long-run, that tree outperforms the other tree. The problem is that you cannot have both trees. If you chose one, you can’t have the other.

In this light, public health issues become incredibly harder to decipher and understand. However, we can see a much richer wealth of information under this light. In writing the Pox of Liberty, Troesken is enlightening and anyone doing health economics should read (and absorb his work) as it is the first comprehensive treatise of the political economy of public health.


* I should note that I think that the McKeown hypothesis is often unfairly lambasted and although I have some reservations myself, it can be adapted to fit within a wider theoretical approach regarding institutions – like Troesken does. 

Trump’s rejection of TPP: a political economy comment

Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems virtually certain. Without the United States and with a weak Canadian prime minister on the issue (who got elected without a clear position on it), the agreement will die a swift death. By dying that rapidly, it confirms a point I have been making for years: agreements like the TPP are managed trade that generate as much (if not more) opposition than genuine free trade agreements (those that could fit on a few pages, not 10,000).

Protectionism are basically income-redistributing schemes. Shifting from protectionism to free trade means altering these schemes. Thus, the political opposition and the agreements we have seen over the last decades where special dispensations are placed inside the agreements. In some instances, like the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement of 1988 (CUFTA), this leads to genuinely freer (not free) trade. In other cases, like CAFTA in the early 2000s, the agreement is nothing less than rent-seeking by different means.

In the case of TPP, it seems that popular discontent is large enough to kill this very complex (and flawed) agreement. I am not sure whether or not, in net terms, the TPP was an improvement over the current state of affairs. What I am sure is that the opposition was similar to what the opposition would have been with unilateral trade liberalization.

At this point, small countries with no influence on world demand (like Canada) should simply go “at it alone”. What I mean is that unilateral trade liberalization is the way to go. There is a strong case for unilateral trade liberalization (see notably the work of Edwards and Lederman) for small economies. A large part of the cost of protectionism is not the level of tariffs and quotas, but the distortions generated in relative prices that lead to inefficient allocations of resources.The low hanging fruits are to be found in the tree of leveling the field. Small countries could convert quotas into tariffs and set a uniform (across the board) low tariff (see Chile’s case).Although far from ideal free trade (no barriers), this would represent a considerable improvement over the distorted relative entry barriers.

In such a situation, the political costs would be the same as those with agreements like the TPP, but the benefits would be infinitely larger making it easier for governments to proceed. The narrative would also be easy to sell to electorates: no special treatment for anyone. In the long-term, this may even “spillover” into multilateral trade agreements by reducing frictions during negotiations.