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.


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.

Public choice on the ancient Roman frontier

This is another blog post about the “Migration Period” in the late Roman and early medieval eras. But first…

One of my core beliefs about politics is that foreign policy is just domestic policy where the action happens outside of the country, i.e. it is the interactions among domestic entities that produces foreign policy, and not a coherent internal reaction to foreign phenomena. To say, for example, that France’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia was to exploit resources and protect the Catholic Church is really to say that French raw material importers and French Catholic Church supporters were the winners in the internal debates about how the French government should use its military forces. If Catholic missionaries were considered at risk in a different part of the world that also had natural resources, the winning coalition would have had French military forces sent there instead; if the missionaries were proselytizing in a barren wasteland, the coalition would have had a different composition that did not include raw material importers; if the missionaries were warmly received and very successful in Southeast Asia, the Catholic bloc might have focused on other matters and the importers would have paired with a different group. You get the picture.

This post is prompted mainly by Guy Halsall’s ideas, the ideas I could read on Google Books and from book reviews either by him or of his works, stuff that was available to me via JSTOR. M.A. Claussen’s review of Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376–568 makes an intriguing point most succinctly:

Finally, the last chapter of the section deals with the relations between the Romans and the barbarians before 376. Halsall convincingly shows that, despite the money the Romans spent on the maintenance of the frontier throughout the history of the empire, the barbarian threat was generally minimal, that the frontier played a more important role in internal Roman politics than it did in Roman “foreign policy,” and that the management of the Rhine and Danube frontiers, when they were supervised appropriately and regularly by conscientious emperors, ensured that the Roman state would not be threatened by those on the other side.

Future analysis of what to us is the contemporary American political scene will necessarily flatten out complexity and nuance for a general picture, and one of the parts of that picture will be that in 2003 the United States began a war against Iraq. The further into the future this analysis is, the more likely it will be that the vigorous internal opposition to the war and the actions of the various pro-war interest groups are minimized. The picture will be tied into 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, and it will in all likelihood be painted as a sort of clash of cultures, making it seem more natural and inevitable than the war’s opponents thought it was. (Whether this is the correct short version is beside the point.)

I say this because this is the prevailing way in which we today look back on the Roman Empire’s foreign policy. For lack of detailed knowledge, from having absorbed the interpretation of the culture I come from, and due to having a far perspective, even I do this sometimes. But as you can guess by now, I’m especially receptive to Halsall’s interpretation. War has almost always been a strong motivational technique, and internal political debates invariably discount the value of foreign populations who aren’t even involved in the debate. The usual tendency in politics is to magnify rather than downplay threats, just in case. Why would this have been different in the Roman Empire? It could have been different because wars cost resources, and they were much closer to the Malthusian edge than we are. But they were nevertheless at war constantly for hundreds of years, so the cost factor doesn’t seem to have dissuaded them frequently enough to use this explanation. If the reasoning behind the modern field of public choice is correct, and I think it mostly is, applying it to ancient Rome yields the picture presented here.

It could be argued that the ease with which the Germanic tribes took over formerly Roman territories despite being vastly inferior in numbers indicates that they were a serious threat. If it only takes 150,000 Franks to take over 5+ million Gallo-Romans, the Romans were right to play up the foreign threat of the 150,000 Franks. I partially answered this in an earlier post: Roman elites expected an increase in their status under direct barbarian rule—the barbarians were good at fighting, not ruling a civilized society—and the tax payers were pleased to find a decrease in their taxes. But this was only after the Roman state had grown bulky, as centuries of growth, special interest wrangling, and mismanagement will do, and after several generations of Romanization of the barbarians. The early days of Roman-Germanic interaction were nothing like the later days. This public choice interpretation of Roman history is brief, but I think there are good reasons to take it seriously.

I didn’t put the announcement on here earlier, but in addition to this blog I have also begun blogging with four other guys from the Mason Ph.D. program (all of us beginning in 2011) at The Calculus of Dissent. My latest post is Ancient methods for modern times: Team suspensions in cycling, continuing several themes I have addressed before on this blog. Check it out!

Obama outfoxes Rubio on Cuba

Big news this week: Obama is starting to normalize relations with Cuba. This is great. I’ve written before about the Cuban embargo being a terrible policy. Obama is not able to lift the idiotic and destructive embargo without Congress, but normalizing diplomatic relations is a good first step. I commend him for that.

One of the things I always wonder when hearing about new policy is timing. Why now? It’s possible that Obama had bigger projects on his hands that are now more or less dealt with, leaving him free for Cuba. This is definitely a second-term policy; imagine the reaction from Republicans if he had done this in his first time. Maybe things happened behind the scenes that opened up new possibilities. It’s probably a combination of the above and other things too.

One of those things came to my mind when I heard the reactions to the announcement. In particular, Florida senator Marco Rubio opposes the policy. That’s the same Marco Rubio that I—perhaps foolishly—thought the Republican Party leadership would try to set up as a presidential candidate for 2016. He has his Republican bona fides and would also appeal to Hispanic voters, a bloc that the Republicans notoriously declined to court in 2012 and whose support they will need in the future if they ever want to win again on the national stage. By announcing this new and eminently sensible policy right now when the campaigns are beginning to take shape they made Rubio look like a fool. He really has no choice but to stick to his guns even as the wider world realizes the folly of the long-standing US policy on Cuba. This may endear him to some of his base but will not, repeat will not allow him to get 50% + 1 in the 2016 presidential election should he make it that far. By neutralizing the Republican Party’s major eligible Hispanic figure, Obama & Co. did a huge favor for their eventual candidate. I support neither of the big parties, but I have to hand it to them on their strategizing.

Gordon Tullock, 1922-2014

I’ve just learned that Gordon Tullock died yesterday. Even at Mason, where there are many great economists and thinkers generally, Tullock was one of my favorites. His contributions to public choice and law & economics were enormous, and we are all in his debt.

Play and rules

It’s been noted in a million outlets that association football is truly the world sport. The rules are easy to learn, the play is straightforward (not that there isn’t a lot of strategy in how high-level games are played), and it can be played just about everywhere. On the other hand, the most popular US sports, gridiron football and baseball, have much more limited audiences and—coincidentally or not—many, many more rules. I like both of these sports and still couldn’t give an exhaustive summary of the rules.

What’s interesting is that the only US sport to really catch on globally is basketball, which is a lot more like association football than gridiron football and baseball. There are more (and more complicated) rules in basketball than in association football, but less than in the other big US sports, especially in the early years of the sport.

This may not be remarkable except that I’ve heard from more than one non-US person that we Americans seem to them to be fixated on rules. Do we like our professional sports to be more structured because we just think about rules more in general?

The division of labor in Medieval Welsh literature

One of the many famous passages in The Wealth of Nations is the description of how the division of labor makes a pin factory far more productive than it would have been had all the workers performed all of the steps themselves.

One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations… Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

My recent bedtime reading has been the Mabinogion, a late medieval collection of older Welsh stories. Though its purpose is not economic education, the Third Branch has a reference to greater productivity through the division of labor. It describes the character Manawydan’s attempt to earn a living in a new town as a shoemaker, assisted by his friend Pryderi:

As long as it could be obtained from him, no shoe nor boot nor anything could be sold by a shoemaker in the whole of the township. As for the [other] shoemakers, they realised their profits were failing: for just as Manawydan crafted his work, so Pryderi stitched.

The extent of the market and technology were both very limited in the period when those stories were told (relative to today). The division of labor was therefore far less advanced. But it did happen, and judging by the stories that endured, people noticed even if they didn’t yet have the economic theory to appreciate it.


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