History

The author is Michael Booth and the subtitle is Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia; please note the book is (at times) as much tribute as critique.  I found it interesting and informative throughout, here a few passages:

Right now, the Danes are especially preoccupied with role playing — dressing up like Gandalf or elves and acting out violent narratives deep in the woods with their foam “boffers” (the name given to role-play weapons).  There are also 219 folk dancing clubs in Denmark, but do not worry, as with the pigs, you very rarely see them.

Here is a not funny to outsider satiric video about the Danish language, cited by the book, which refers to its “declining intelligibility.”  The video has about five million views.

On Finland:

You have got to love a country that enters Lordi into the Eurovision Song Contest and wins, which consumes more ice cream per capita than any other European country (14 litres a year), and has more tango dancers than Argentina.

I enjoyed this fragment of a sentence:

The Finns’ obmutescence seemed especially to go hand in hand with that other most famous Finnish characteristic…

On economic issues, the author thinks Denmark in particular is overextended and in denial about the need for reform.  Overall I found the Danish sections to be the most interesting and detailed, the chapters on Sweden to be the least deep, and the Iceland and Finland sections to have the most new information.

Recommended, it is fun plus you will learn something.  Imagine “Bill Bryson goes to Scandinavia,” as The Christian Science Monitor put it.

America fact of the day

by on August 6, 2015 at 1:51 pm in Education, History | Permalink

Today, the most studied language in U.S. higher education, behind Spanish and French, is a homegrown one: American Sign Language.

The study of Spanish, by the way, is slightly in decline.

That is all from Charles King, “The Decline of International Studies: Why Flying Blind is Dangerous.

Good sentences about Godzilla

by on August 5, 2015 at 3:17 pm in Film, History, Law | Permalink

In movie after movie, people merely ran away from the stampeding monster, and no one tried to face up to the issue of accountability, he said.

Those are the words of the new director for the series.

Singapore_Flag12

Singapore as an independent nation will be fifty years old this August 9.  In the comments, a number of you have asked me why I find Singapore so special.

I would cite three features of the country above all else:

1. It is a place where large numbers of people are obsessed with both food and economics.

2. The citizens and leadership of Singapore have an unparalleled knowledge and understanding of economics, engineering, and public policy.  In this regard the polity is distinguished in world-historic terms, and anyone who visits is enjoying a remarkable privilege to see this in action.  In my admittedly idiosyncratic view, this is one of the best and most important sights of the contemporary world, more interesting than most natural wonders.

3. Singapore has created what is possibly the highest quality bureaucracy the world has seen, ever.  Imagine a country where you can have a serious debate as to whether there is a brain drain into the government rather than out of it!

Singapore of course, like all places, has various problems and imperfections, but I believe its significance does not receive enough recognition from outside commentators.

Here is a good article about how Singapore is seeking to export its own expertise.

Imagine if I wrote a post that just served up a list like this:

The people who deserve to be raised in status:

Norman Borlaug, Jon Huntsman, female Catholics from Croatia, Scottie Pippen, Yoko Ono, Gordon Tullock, Uber drivers, and Arnold Schoenberg,

And

The people who deserve to be lowered in status:

Donald Trump, Harper Lee, inhabitants of the province Presidente Hayes, in Paraguay, doctors, Jacques Derrida, Indira Gandhi, and Art Garfunkel

You might get a kick out of it the first time, but quickly you would grow tired of the lack of substance and indeed the sheer prejudice of the exercise.

Yet, ultimately, the topic so appeals to you all.  So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status.  It’s pretty easy — too easy in fact — to dissect most Paul Krugman blog posts along these lines.  It’s also why a lot of blog posts about foreign countries don’t generate visceral reactions, unless of course it is the Greeks and the Germans, or some other set of stand-ins for disputes closer to home (or maybe that is your home).  Chinese goings on are especially tough to parse into comparable American disputes over the status of one group vs. another.

I hypothesize that an MR blog post attracts more comments when it a) has implications for who should be raised and lowered in status, and b) has some framework in place which allows you to make analytical points, but points which ultimately translate into a conclusion about a).

Posts about immigration, the minimum wage, Greece and Germany, the worthiness of entrepreneurs vs. workers, and the rankings of different schools of thought or economists all seem to fit this bill.

Sometimes I am tempted to simply serve up the list and skip the analytics.

Addendum: Arnold Kling comments.

Arrived in my pile

by on August 2, 2015 at 4:28 pm in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece.  This new history of ancient Greece has an intriguing estimate of living standards during that time, I hope to spend more time with it soon.  Ober argues there was plenty of economic growth at the time and that the Greeks lived at well above subsistence; I agree with both of those claims.

Here is the book’s home page.  Here is one useful review, though its carps at the books’ economism.  Other reviews are here.  As a first-order approximation, you can think of this book as how an economist might think about ancient Greece.

*The Meursault Investigation*

by on August 2, 2015 at 12:37 pm in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

This new book, by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, starts with Camus’s The Stranger, and then retells the story from the point of view of the brother of the Arab murder victim.  It’s both commentary on the original and a compelling narrative in its own right.  The Guardian called it “an instant classic and Michiko Kakutani described it as “stunning.”  Here is Roger Cohen on the novel.  You can buy it on Amazon here.  Unless your memory is very good, I recommend a refresher on The Stranger first.  Daoud has produced one of this year’s must-reads.

That is the new and excellent book by Sebastian Strangio, which you can think of as a post-Sihanouk look at the country from a political economy point of view.  Here are just a few bits:

The cruelty and callousness that allowed jilted wives to order and commit such brutal attacks on young women also had its echo in history.  As the historian Michael Vickery has written, patterns of sudden and extreme violence had deep roots in Cambodia, especially against those groups and individuals defined in some way as enemies.  Through cruel violence found its fullest expressions under Pol Pot, it long predated Democratic Kampuchea, stemming from cultural notions of face, honor, and revenge, in which personal grudges (kum) could elicit a disproportionate and overwhelming response.

And:

Hun Sen’s rise over the past two decades has been accompanied by the rise of what might be called HunSenomics — a blend of old-style patronage, elite charity, and predatory market economics.  Since the transition to the free market in 1989, Hunsenomics has succeeded in forging a stable pact among Cambodia’s ruling elites, but has otherwise done little to systematically tackle the challenges of poverty and development.

And:

Because Hunsenomics provides few incentives for sustainable agricultural development, Cambodia’s land and water resources remain drastically underutilized.  Just a third of Cambodia’s total land area is currently under cultivation — a much lower proportion than in neighboring countries.  Only 18 percent of this  land was irrigated as of 2005, compared to 33 percent in Thailand and 44 percent in Vietnam, and due to lack of maintenance only a fifth of irrigation systems were fully functional.  As a result, rice yields per hectare lag far behind the likes of Vietnam and Thailand.

Definitely recommended, and as Dan Klein and I used to say to each other “You so much learn the whole book.”

Tsuyoshi Shimmura, Shosei Ohashi, and Takashi Yoshimura have a new paper:

The “cock-a-doodle-doo” crowing of roosters, which symbolizes the break of dawn in many cultures, is controlled by the circadian clock. When one rooster announces the break of dawn, others in the vicinity immediately follow. Chickens are highly social animals, and they develop a linear and fixed hierarchy in small groups. We found that when chickens were housed in small groups, the top-ranking rooster determined the timing of predawn crowing. Specifically, the top-ranking rooster always started to crow first, followed by its subordinates, in descending order of social rank. When the top-ranking rooster was physically removed from a group, the second-ranking rooster initiated crowing. The presence of a dominant rooster significantly reduced the number of predawn crows in subordinates. However, the number of crows induced by external stimuli was independent of social rank, confirming that subordinates have the ability to crow. Although the timing of subordinates’ predawn crowing was strongly dependent on that of the top-ranking rooster, free-running periods of body temperature rhythms differed among individuals, and crowing rhythm did not entrain to a crowing sound stimulus. These results indicate that in a group situation, the top-ranking rooster has priority to announce the break of dawn, and that subordinate roosters are patient enough to wait for the top-ranking rooster’s first crow every morning and thus compromise their circadian clock for social reasons.

In case you had any doubts.  The pointer is from Michelle Dawson.

The subtitle is Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, and the editor is Elizabeth D. Samet.  Here’s the shocking truth: these really are writings by our greatest thinkers!  Usually I am allergic to the topic of leadership and all the more allergic to edited volumes.  But this book has well chosen excerpts from Thucydides, Cervantes, Borges, Marcus Aurelius, Tolstoy, Milton, Plutarch, and Shakespeare, among many others, and a variety of moderns, including Mandela, Gandhi, Frederick Douglass, and Osip Mandelstam’s poem on Stalin.

This is actually a remarkable book.

Mirko

1. Novelist: Help!  I do own a copy of Sarah Nović’s Girl at War, but haven’t yet read it.

2. Basketball player: Toni Kukoc, the “Croatian sensation.”

3. Painting: There was an active school of Naive painting in Croatia, from Hlebine near the Hungarian border.  Perhaps my favorite from the group was Ivan Generalic, but Mirko Virius was very good too.

4. Inventor: Nikola Tesla.  Before you go crazy in the comments section, however, here is a long Wikipedia page on to what extent we can justly claim that Tesla was Croatian.  Here are further debates, Croat or Serb?  Or both?

5. Pianist: How about Ivo Pogorelić?  Here is his Petrushka.

6. Economist: Branko Horvat, the market-oriented market socialist, is the only one I can think of, here is an overview of his contributions (pdf).  Am I forgetting someone?

7. City: Split, not Dubrovnik.  I am here for two days right now, then on to Belgrade for a conference/salon.

I cannot name a Croatian movie or composer or pop star.  I have the feeling they have many more famous athletes.  Don’t they have a lot of beautiful models?  Aren’t they the world’s most beautiful people?  Has anyone set a movie here?

The bottom line: It would be worse without Tesla.

When I was last living in Chicago, in the spring 2014, a regular visitor to the department of the University of Chicago and the editor of the Journal of Economic Literature, Steven Durlauf, asked me if I would be interested in writing something for the journal. For many years I had promised Gary Becker that I would write something to help clarify the meaning and role of price theory to my generation of economists, especially those with limited exposure to the Chicago environment, which did so much to shape my approach to economics. With Gary’s passing later that spring, I decided to use this opportunity to follow through on that promise. More than a year later I have posted on SSRN the result.

I have an unusual relationship to “price theory”. As far as I know I am the only economist under 40, with the possible exception of my students, who openly identifies myself as focusing my research on price theory. As a result I am constantly asked what the phrase means. Usually colleagues will follow up with their own proposed definitions. My wife even remembers finding me at our wedding reception in a heated debate not about the meaning of marriage, but of price theory.

The most common definition, which emphasizes the connection to Chicago and to models of price-taking in partial equilibrium, doesn’t describe the work of the many prominent economists today who are closely identified with price theory but who are not at Chicago and study a range of different models. It also falls short of describing work by those like Paul Samuelson who were thought of as working on price theory in their time even by rivals like Milton Friedman. Worst of all it consigns price theory to a particular historical period in economic thought and place, making it less relevant to the future of economics.

I therefore have spent many years searching for a definition that I believe works and in the process have drawn on many sources, especially many conversations with Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy on the topic as well as the philosophy of physics and the methodological ideas of Raj Chetty, Peter Diamond and Jim Heckman among others. This process eventually brought me to my own definition of price theory as analysis that reduces rich (e.g. high-dimensional heterogeneity, many individuals) and often incompletely specified models into ‘prices’ sufficient to characterize approximate solutions to simple (e.g. one-dimensional policy) allocative problems. This approach contrasts both with work that tries to completely solve simple models (e.g. game theory) and empirical work that takes measurement of facts as prior to theory. Unlike other definitions, I argue that mine does a good job connecting the use of price theory across a range of fields of microeconomics from international trade to market design, being consistent across history and suggesting productive directions for future research on the topic.

To illustrate my definition I highlight four distinctive characteristics of price theory that follow from this basic philosophy. First, diagrams in price theory are usually used to illustrate simple solutions to rich models, such as the supply and demand diagram, rather than primitives such as indifference curves or statistical relationships. Second, problem sets in price theory tend to ask students to address some allocative or policy question in a loosely-defined model (does the minimum wage always raise employment under monopsony?), rather than solving out completely a simple model or investigating data. Third, measurement in price theory focuses on simple statistics sufficient to answer allocative questions of interest rather than estimating a complete structural model or building inductively from data. Raj Chetty has described these metrics, often prices or elasticities of some sort, as “sufficient statistics”. Finally, price theory tends to have close connections to thermodynamics and sociology, fields that seek simple summaries of complex systems, rather than more deductive (mathematics), individual-focused (psychology) or inductive (clinical epidemiology and history) fields.

I trace the history of price theory from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth when price theory became segregated at Chicago and against the dominant currents in the rest of the profession. For a quarter century following 1980, most of the profession either focused on more complete and fully-solved models (game theory, general equilibrium theory, mechanism design, etc.) or on causal identification. Price theory therefore survived almost exclusively at Chicago, which prided itself on its distinctive approach, even as the rest of the profession migrated away from it.

This situation could not last, however, because price theory is powerfully complementary with the other traditions. One example is work on optimal redistributive taxation. During the 1980’s and 1990’s large empirical literatures developed on the efficiency losses created by income taxation (the elasticity of labor supply) and on wage inequality. At the same time a rich theory literature developed on very simple models of optimal redistributive income taxation. Yet these two literatures were largely disconnected until the work of Emmanuel Saez and other price theorists showed how measurements by empiricists were closely related to the sufficient statistics that characterize some basic properties of optimal income taxation, such as the best linear income tax or the optimal tax rate on top earners.

Yet this was not the end of the story; these price theoretic stimulated empiricists to measure quantities (such as top income inequality and the elasticity of taxable income) more closely connected to the theory and theorists to propose new mechanisms through which taxes impact efficiency which are not summarized correctly by these formulas. This has created a rich and highly productive dialog between price theoretic summaries, empirical measurement of these summaries and more simplistic models that suggest new mechanisms left out of these summaries.

A similar process has occurred in many other fields of microeconomics in the last decade, through the work of, among others, five of the last seven winners of the John Bates Clark medal. Liran Einav and Amy Finkelstein have led this process for the economics of asymmetric information and insurance markets; Raj Chetty for behavioral economics and optimal social insurance; Matt Gentzkow for strategic communication; Costas Arkolakis, Arnaud Costinot and Andrés Rodriguez-Clare in international trade; and Jeremy Bulow and Jon Levin for auction and market design. This important work has shown what a central and complementary tool price theory is in tying together work throughout microeconomics.

Yet the formal tools underlying these price theoretic approximations and summaries have been much less fully developed than have been analytic tools in other areas of economics. When does adding up “consumer surplus” across individuals lead to accurate measurements of social welfare? How much error is created by assumptions of price-taking in the new contexts, like college admissions or voting, to which they are being applied? I highlight some exciting areas for further development of such approximation tools complementary to the burgeoning price theory literature.

Given the broad sweep of this piece, it will likely touch on the interests of many readers of this blog, especially those with a Chicago connection. Your comments are therefore very welcome. If you have any, please email me at glenweyl@microsoft.com.

Everyone wants to find a version of history under which all the problems of the Eurozone are Germany’s fault, because everyone knows that all the solutions involve Germany paying. But it’s not really true; Germany spent the early years of ERM/EMU paying far more than anyone else was prepared to in order to smooth the adjustment path for the former Communist states. And after fifty years of structuring everything in Europe to prevent German hegemony, is it really a big surprise that Germany isn’t well set up to act as a hegemon? Imagine if the USA had lost the war in the Pacific and was today being blamed for its failure to ensure the economic development of the Phillippines.

That is from Daniel Davies, there are other good points at the link.

It depends on the Communist Party.

Of course you are free to leave alternative nominations in the comments.

They are not good, as evidenced by a new paper by Buggle and Nafziger (pdf):

This paper examines the long-run consequences of serfdom in the countries of the former Russian Empire. We combine novel data measuring the intensity of labor coercion on the district level in 1861 with several intermediate and present-day outcomes. Our results show that past serfdom goes along with lower economic well-being today. We apply an instrumental variable strategy that exploits the transfer of serfs on monastic lands in 1764 to establish a causal link between past serfdom and current economic development. Tracking the evolution of city populations throughout Soviet times corroborates the finding of persistent economic differences. Furthermore, our results suggest a political economy mechanisms linking higher historical economic inequality with worse public goods provision (roads and education), as well as lower urbanization and structural change towards factory production, as explanation for this persistence. We do not find differences in contemporaneous cultural attitudes and preferences.

The pointer is from Pseudoerasmus.