Wednesday nexus

Freddie deBoer bemoans writing and discussing things on the internet. From my limited perspective what he describes is more of a problem for left-wing folks on the internet than for other groups, but the problem applies all over.

David Friedman debunks another misrepresentation of something Darwin wrote. Darwin seems to be one of the biggest targets of this kind of misrepresentation. The other is Herbert Spencer.

The FBI admits flaws in its hair matching analysis over several decades. That it happened for so long is disappointing but not shocking. That they admitted it is encouraging and shocking. I guess the pressure was too much. I covered a similar story recently.

Odd notes in a 1990 NFL scouting report.


The West Lothian question from the outside

The West Lothian question is an interesting window into British politics. The summary from Wikipedia:

The West Lothian question refers to whether MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, sitting in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, should be able to vote on matters that affect only England, while MPs from England are unable to vote on matters that have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

Take a moment to think about this. (If you’re British or otherwise familiar with the issue, try to step outside of that frame.) On the surface it seems perfectly reasonable to mandate that England-only laws get the same treatment from the UK parliament as the others. One possible counterargument is that, with England making up the major part of the UK at 83.9% of its total 2011 population, an English assembly would become the de facto decision-making body, although (a) constitutionally, matters that affect all the constituent countries are voted on by MPs from all of them and (b) the political parties can and usually do cross the internal borders, so this is probably of minimal practical concern. There might be other counterarguments that are also reasonable from a third-party view; I’m not an expert on the topic and I’m open to making a different judgment with more data. But country X votes for country X laws makes sense in the abstract.

So why is it a simmering, unresolved issue? I got a vague sense of it reading the article until somewhere after the halfway point when it was stated clearly: the Labour [sic] Party is disproportionately well-represented outside England and resists changing this part of the system. In fact, on some votes on England-only issues they don’t get a majority of the English MPs but get a majority overall. Maybe their justifications are the most convincing but they don’t seem particularly strong to me, an outside observer with no dog in the fight. (Or if I have one I can’t identify which one it is.)

As an aside, this is particularly interesting in light of the Scottish referendum on independence last year. My own personal preference is for more and smaller states rather than fewer and larger states, ceteris paribus, although in this specific case I wasn’t even remotely informed and didn’t get a vote anyway. I read a variety of takes, including some making the classical liberal argument for voting No in the referendum by saying essentially that the SNP is less classically liberal than what they’re getting now, so even if independence is appealing in the abstract staying in the union was the least bad option. As Scotland was long dominated by Labour and as Labour is steadily losing ground to SNP, maybe this will tip the scales in the future.

The West Lothian question is reminiscent of an issue in US politics, but I’ll save that for a future post.


Social science dialogue with Bockman and Boettke

Earlier today I watched a presentation on the crisis in the social sciences, with Johanna Bockman representing sociology and Pete Boettke representing economics. Boettke brought his usual social science ecumenicism to the table—anybody familiar with his work on the Ostroms?*—and Bockman gave what I presume to be the less enthusiastic but similar answer from a sociological perspective. I don’t have enough background to know what somebody representing the discipline as a whole would say. There was an odd amount of talk about doing sociology on social media, but I digress.

I don’t want to recap the whole thing, but there are a few points I thought were interesting.

1. Critics of Hayek have a very different perception of his influence than fans of Hayek. He was at one point an incredibly influential economist, no doubt, and even long after this influence waned he was still respected for his work even if this respect was more formal than heartfelt. The Thatcher and Reagan governments paid lip service to his ideas, which is where I think the confusion comes from, but as a fan of Hayek I don’t see much beyond talking points to indicate any deeper understanding or commitment. The collapse of the Soviet bloc made Hayek popular again outside of the small group of people who kept the flame during the Samuelsonian domination.

From Ebenstein’s biography of Hayek:

Hayek’s following was strongest at LSE and, by the later 1930s, almost all of those who had been Hayekians a few years before had shifted to Keynes. Ludwig Lachmann, an Austrian-oriented economist who studied with Hayek during this period, recalled that when he arrived at LSE in the early ’30s, “everybody was a Hayekian; at the end of the decade there were only two of us: Hayek and myself.” Hicks wrote that Hayek’s “audience dispersed.”

Bockman mentioned more than once that despite his interest in spontaneous order he was on the boards of “hundreds” of organizations, think tanks, etc., implying that he was a hypocrite. Boettke was too polite to really give this charge the refutation it deserved, but in short when almost all of the powerful forces in society are trying to plan things centrally it might take constant effort to promote the ideas that would lead to institutional settings whereby order beyond the most basic could emerge. (It’s my personal opinion that most people who criticize the idea of spontaneous order, or emergent order as I prefer to call it, don’t really understand it.) Add to this the fact that being on the board of an organization does not mean the organization dances to your tune. Sometimes people like to get big names associated with their organization even if they don’t do much of the work. Hayek’s day still had 24 hours in it just like ours. What Boettke did point out rightly was that you need to compare this to others in the field. When you do that you find Hayek’s influence being very minimal next to Keynes, Samuelson, and Stanley Fischer, the last two being Boettke’s examples. In his words, Hayek was “peeing in the ocean.”

Hayek’s critics also don’t understand the vast influence of Hayek’s opponents on policy worldwide, nor the fact that failures in Keynesian-Samuelsonian policy and in Soviet central planning were what led, respectively, to Western economists and then to economists the world over being receptive to Hayek’s ideas again. His books where still on the shelves, people simply weren’t reading them.

2. I don’t know why I never connected these dots before, but people who know about Hayek and don’t like him are the only people I can think of that consistently refer to him as “von Hayek” in speech. I see the tactic: emphasize the noble title to paint him as a defender of the Ancien Regime. This despite the fact that noble titles were banned in Austria in 1919 and that he doesn’t seem to have used it himself after that. (His signature read “F.A. Hayek”.) And despite the fact that he was not a defender of the Ancien Regime. If this seems like a nitpick on my part, it seems deliberate on theirs.

3. Boettke was probably more confusing to the other side of the audience than he realized. In addition to talking about social science broadly and representing the rational choice side, he was also talking about debates within economics, the mainline vs. mainstream stuff he covered at length in Living Economics, in his History of Economic Thought course, and elsewhere. I think they may have gotten some of his point but not all of it. Not that this is a complaint. I can’t think of a way to do it better and still stay on topic, and he didn’t get to pick the topic.

4. One of the audience members who seemed to be on the sociology side of the audience asked what hash tag should be used for live tweets. Somehow the consensus answer from those who spoke up was #firestorm, which I thought was silly and which I haven’t looked up yet but might later. I think they thought it was going to get a lot more heated than it did. I guess they hadn’t seen Boettke speak before and didn’t know how open he is in social science discussions.

There were plenty of other points covered but these were the things I left thinking about. I had to cut out slightly early so I missed a lot of the Q&A, so maybe I’ll hear about a real bombshell when I look up #firestorm later.


* This clause originally read “anybody heard him talk about Ostrom before?” but he took issue with that admittedly informal characterization.


Wednesday nexus

Innovations in governance: Off-world colonies of the Canadian Arctic. Conditions in the Canadian Arctic and on Mars are very different from conditions elsewhere; efficient long-term governance might look very different there. On a related note, Alex Tabarrok defends the company town and private proprietary cities.

The Future of Economic Development: A Conversation Between Tyler Cowen and Jeffrey Sachs. I wasn’t able to be there in person but there’s video.

Nice unintentional prophecy at about 4:30 in this clip of Vin Scully’s radio call of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, the anniversary of which was last week. Also baseball-related: The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule.

FiveThirtyEight credulously shares a poorly-conceived, allegedly economics-based piece about the wage gap. If your results show firms becoming more sexist as the costs of sexism increase you need an explanation beyond “because sexism” to make it work.

[Side note: In general I had high hopes for FiveThirtyEight. I now realize that was premature.]

The History of Byzantium podcast continues to impress.

The Hole-in-the-Wall Pass had a long history of overlapping use by many different outlaw gangs:

Geographically, the hideout had all the advantages needed for a gang attempting to evade the authorities. It was easily defended and impossible for lawmen to access without detection by the outlaws concealed there. It contained an infrastructure, with each gang supplying its own food and livestock, as well as its own horses. A corral, livery stable, and numerous cabins were constructed, one or two for each gang. Anyone operating out of there adhered to certain rules of the camp, to include a certain way in handling disputes with other gang members, and never stealing from another gang’s supplies. There was no leader with each gang adhering to its own chain of command. The hideout was also used for shelter and a place for the outlaws to lay up during the harsh Wyoming winters.


Wednesday nexus

New Mexico’s legislature passed a law ending civil forfeiture. Some commentary. Will the (Republican) governor sign it? I’m a little out of the loop of NM politics but I would be surprised since she has a law-n-order background and obviously wants to run for president soon.

“Everything is problematic”: an insider’s critique of the student activist social justice movement. Very insightful.

Are economics majors anti-social? A study that, to me as an economist, seems remarkably silly even though one of the co-authors is an economist. (He’s also an activist though.) Economics classes make students less likely to donate to left-leaning or generic but ineffectual organizations? Is this a Bad Thing?

The early history of British (free?) trade. Commerce with out-groups is a very old phenomenon.

A program that guesses an author’s gender based on a writing sample. Sort of fun/interesting but not very useful, not for me anyway.


The other kind of organized criminal activity

It’s one of the biggest crime scandals you never heard of. In 2013 chemist Annie Dookhan pleaded guilty to falsifying crime lab tests involving up to 40,000 people from 2002 to 2011. For this crime she was sentenced to 3–5 years in prison. You read that right. In response to her intentionally fraudulent work that may have resulted in tens of thousands of years of jail time for people who did not deserve it, in addition to the economic disadvantage of having drug crimes (or more serious drugs crimes than actually committed) on the records of people sacrificed to the correctional system Moloch, the judge gave her 3–5. Prosecutors were well aware of her activities. One email published during the trial showed the prosecutor suggesting what he wanted the result to be, which, surprise, Dookhan found.

A system of criminal activity of this magnitude should have had a mighty hammer brought down on it. My gut reaction is that this case is obviously offensive to any useful theory of justice and merits punishment on those grounds alone, but gut reactions are not good foundations for rule making. A stronger argument, the law and economics argument, is that punishments should be an efficient deterrent for crimes that are serious and/or difficult to detect. This pattern of crime was obviously hard to detect, as Dookhan got away with daily violations for nine years, enabled by other employees at the lab and prosecutors. And it is serious: 40,000 cases involving thousands or tens of thousands of years of prison time. It should be known by all crime lab employees that this is a behavior to avoid at all costs.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court could not completely reverse the damage, but it did rule in the right direction last year:

Massachusetts’ top court ruled on Wednesday that the state shares blame for thousands of drug convictions tainted by crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who admitted to faking test results over nearly a decade.

The ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will make it easier for people convicted in drug cases linked to Dookhan to win new trials, by removing one of the standards for reversing a guilty plea.

“We must account for the due process rights of defendants,” said the ruling, written by Justice Francis Spina. “In the wake of government misconduct that has cast a shadow over the entire criminal justice system, it is most appropriate that the benefit of our remedy inure to defendants.”

The ruling said that in all cases in which Dookhan was the lead or secondary chemist, defendants were entitled to a presumption that there was egregious misconduct by the state – one of the standards for overturning a guilty plea.

This is very important. It is not only the individual lab workers who should feel the wrath of fraud. We apparently need to ensure that prosecutors, too, have greater incentives to favor honest lab work. To see their efforts undone en masse must have elicited a great wailing and gnashing of teeth except for what I imagine to be the tiny minority who were relieved that this miscarriage of justice had been reversed.

I bring this up now after seeing Radley Balko tweet about a crime lab scandal-in-the-making in Omaha. My concern over fraudulent lab results is not paranoid libertarian venting. Because crime labs are another arm of the same system that oversees police and prosecutors, they have incentives to falsify results. Taking it a step further, while there are no solid numbers on the victims in these situations it’s hard not to believe that they are disproportionately poor and/or racial minorities. This is an issue that should have people marching in the streets. Maybe when the next one comes to light.


Since last summer one of my favorite blogs has been Slate Star Codex. Scott Alexander may be long-winded but his willingness to consider an idea honestly, apart from its expressive implications, is rare and refreshing. He recently reviewed David Friedman’s classic The Machinery of Freedom and highlighted this passage:

Under any institutions, there are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends: love, trade, and force.

By love I mean making my end your end. Those who love me wish me to get what I want (except for those who think I am very stupid about what is good for me). So they voluntarily, ‘unselfishly’, help me. Love is too narrow a word. You might also share my end not because it is my end but because in a particular respect we perceive the good in the same way. You might volunteer to work on my political campaign, not because you love me, but because you think that it would be good if I were elected. Of course, we might share the common ends for entirely different reasons. I might think I was just what the country needed, and you, that I was just what the country deserved.

Love—more generally, the sharing of a common end—works well, but only for a limited range of problems. It is difficult to know very many people well enough to love them. Love can provide cooperation on complicated things among very small groups of people, such as families. It also works among large numbers of people for very simple ends—ends so simple that many different people can completely agree on them. But for a complicated end involving a large number of people—producing this book, for instance—love will not work. I cannot expect all the people whose cooperation I need—typesetters, editors, bookstore owners, loggers, pulpmill workers, and a thousand more—to know and love me well enough to want to publish this book for my sake. Nor can I expect them all to agree with my political views closely enough to view the publication of this book as an end in itself. Nor can I expect them all to be people who want to read the book and who therefore are willing to help produce it. I fall back on the second method: trade.

I contribute the time and effort to produce the manuscript. I get, in exchange, a chance to spread my views, a satisfying boost to my ego, and a little money. The people who want to read the book get the book. In exchange, they give money. The publishing firm and its employees, the editors, give the time, effort, and skill necessary to coordinate the rest of us; they get money and reputation. Loggers, printers, and the like give their effort and skill and get money in return. Thousands of people, perhaps millions, cooperate in a single task, each seeking his own ends. So under private property the first method, love, is used where it is workable. Where it is not, trade is used instead.

The attack on private property as selfish contrasts the second method with the first. It implies that the alternative to ‘selfish’ trade is ‘unselfish’ love. But, under private property, love already functions where it can. Nobody is prevented from doing something for free if he wants to. Many people—parents helping their children, volunteer workers in hospitals, scoutmasters—do just that. If, for those things that people are not willing to do for free, trade is replaced by anything, it must be by force. Instead of people being selfish and doing things because they want to, they will be unselfish and do them at the point of a gun.

Is this accusation unfair? The alternative offered by those who deplore selfishness is always government. It is selfish to do something for money, so the slums should be cleaned up by a ‘youth corps’ staffed via ‘universal service’. Translated, that means the job should be done by people who will be put in jail if they do not do it.

Though Friedman says it better than I can one of the lessons I try to get my students to absorb is that however much they may dislike how markets work, there isn’t a better system in terms of resource allocation that can work on any policy-relevant scale. (Remember, economics is mostly not about policy but my course is.)

One of the great things about SSC is that its readership appears to be mainly people who (1) are very bright, (2) don’t grok economics, and therefore (3) are much more likely than not to be constructivists when it comes to social science. One of the major lessons we get in economics is that there are serious limits on what can be feasibly constructed in the social realm. Seeing this passage endorsed on a blog they frequent is all the good news I need for one day.


King Offa’s dinar

One of my favorite episodes from the Anglo-Saxon period of British history is this coin struck in the name of King Offa of Mercia (r. 757–796 C.E.):

Imitation dinar

Most literate Mercians could easily recognize the English/Latin phrase “OFFA REX” on one side but the rest would have been a mystery. The coin is an imitation of a 774 C.E. Abbasid dinar, including the (incorrectly-copied) phrase “There is no god but God”. The minter would almost certainly have had no idea what the text meant.

One of the implications of the coin is that despite their large cultural gap the commercial gap between the Christian and Islamic regions was much narrower. It’s very well known that Christian Europeans learned a lot, culturally, from Muslim trading partners. The classic example from a few centuries later is Arabic numerals (which likely ultimately originated in India). It is hypothesized that Offa intended this coin to be used in foreign trade rather than in England. Muslim traders were preeminent in the Mediterranean at this time and southern European merchants would have been very familiar with the dinar this coin mimicked.

One of the lessons I try to impart to my students is that commerce is a much bigger part of history than they’ve been taught before. Not only did it expose people to foreign material goods, but it enriched their cultures in the process. The average man on the street seems only to begrudgingly appreciate commerce, but to think of any culture as it stands today without recognizing its foreign antecedents transmitted because of commerce is a great historical misunderstanding.

UPDATE 2105/03/15: Via Twitter, there are more examples from other parts of Europe.


Though he was not an economist Leonard Nimoy deserves an obituary notice here. He not only portrayed Spock but brought his own interpretation to what the character should be like. The ever-logical Mr. Spock had a huge cultural impact, for which I’m very grateful.

Spock


What I learned from teaching

Before I start a new class this afternoon, I thought I should reflect on what I learned after teaching my first class, ECON 385: International Economic Policy.

1. Few people outside of economics know what economics is about. This one is pretty obvious, and I knew it before but I learned another, deeper lesson on it. It actually matters a great deal how one thinks about value, for example, but almost nobody has really considered this issue. Economic issues are in the headlines every day, but this is either politically-oriented, i.e. expressive and non-technical at best, or financial, and not necessarily related to theory. Economic theory just does not filter around very much. I mostly blame political partisans for muddying the waters, but economists themselves don’t promote it outside the office very much either. (The blogosphere is ever so slowly changing this.)

It should be noted that I don’t blame people for not knowing about economics, as on practically any other topic I’m in the same position. You can only specialize in a very small subset of human knowledge, and as a college undergraduate one has almost never had the time to do even that much.

2. Economics is considered very sexy by other sections of the academy. I can tell this by the fact that non-economics classes seemed to teach my students a great deal about economics. A lot of it was wrong or at least misleading as far as I could tell (see point #1), but they really wanted to cover my ground anyway.</notsosubtlebutgoodspiriteddig>

3. One good student makes up for a multitude of uninterested students. None of my students were downright bad students, but some of them were supremely uninterested. I know my field is not appealing to most people. That’s ok. Most other fields are not very appealing to me. Since 385 is a required course, many of the students were there just to pass and be done with it. I understand. I did that with plenty of courses as an undergraduate. But however much I know this intellectually, I still had a small, emotional hope that they would see the light. The students who really put in the effort to grok the material made me proud, though, as other students have in other situations I’ve been in at lower levels.

4. Public choice should be a much greater part of our economics curriculum. I know this may be a little homer of me, since public choice is one of my specialties, but it very rarely occurs to people that the mission du jour has to be implemented by people and that these people respond to incentives just like everybody else. The way I structured the course was (i) theory, leading to ideal positions, then (ii) why we don’t see ideal positions commonly implemented as defaults, then (iii) development, because it’s very important, very topical, and ripe for the extension of lessons from (i) and (ii) . Section (ii) is where public choice comes in. If we’re right about at least the broad outlines of ideal positions, why don’t they exist most of the time? Surely decision makers must have stumbled across them once or twice? The answer is because implementation matters, and it’s tricky.

5. Teaching the material made me understand it better. It’s said that if you can’t explain an idea to your grandmother, you don’t really know it. That’s an overstatement, but considering how to best transmit this material to students made me really use the creative side of my brain to come up with good examples, metaphors, and alternative angles. Things that were clear to me but not to students with questions made me reevaluate how I synthesized various concepts to produce lessons. I recall David Friedman saying that Jim Buchanan had him teach different courses each semester when they were at VPI together in order to catch him up from his physics background to his economics career. It sort of made sense then, but it makes a lot of sense now.

6. I don’t quite get the fuss about laptops in the classroom. Yes, I know that many of the students aren’t paying attention to me while I’m talking, but as long as they don’t disrupt others and learn the material in another way that’s not really a problem. It’s not like I was never guilty of the same. If anything it may lower the cost of going to class rather than skipping entirely. Students who have no interest in paying attention would have skipped in the past, and now they may pick up something from the lectures even if they’re on Facebook the other 95% of the time. Not everybody learns primarily from lectures.


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