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Read: Economics as Religion

Is economics a religion? Are economists secular priests? This is what Robert Nelson tries to convince us of. He fails.

Nelson offers a unique history of modern economic thought or rather thinkers. The focus is on Samuelson and his textbook “Economics.” — the 15th edition, then by Samuelson and Nordhaus, was the textbook assigned to the introductory economics course I took in the nineties. Hence, it often seems that Nelson does not write about the field of economics but only but this, admittingly influential, textbook. Other protagonists, the antipole, are the various members of the Chicago School, most prominently Frank Knight.

The observation that many early economic analyses were based in (unexamined) presuppositions that were more like articles of faith is not enough to convince this reader of economics as religion. The observation that some economist assiduously follow their agenda, may it be driven by intellectual curiosity or political conviction, is not enough to convince this reader that economists are secular priests.

Nevertheless, the links between Catholicism and leftist Progressivism on the on side and Protestantism and more right-wing Libertarianism on the other side and their respective protagonists in economics are interesting. Religion influences, of course, culture, and therefore, it will also influence (economic) thought. Still, the increasing secularization, agnosticism, atheism, non-religiousness, and the move towards scientism does not make economics a religion.

In spite of Nelson’s failure to convince me of economics as religion I agree with him on one major point: Economics, economic analysis is not value free. Economics is often more normative than we like to admit. Those presuppositions need to be examined. Luckily, they are.

Read: Writing Science

Schimel’s “Writing Science” seems a better guide to ‘serious’ writing than Pinker’s recent “The sense of style.” Though both are aimed at the non-fiction writer and have many recommendations in common.

Schimel takes a more hands-on, practical approach. Indeed, “Writing Science” is a more classical textbook, even including end-of-chapter problems. It is showing what works and less discussing the why. On the other hand, it makes very clear why good writing is necessary. You want your article not just getting published but also cited. And you need that grant.

All in all, “Writing Science” is not dramatically different from other good writing guides. A distinguishing feature may be the explicit framing of the article and that grant applications as stories. A scientific article is not that different from a novel, the research note may not be that different from a newspaper piece. Hence, the story arc features prominently in this writing guide. The story arc determines the overall structure of the article, its sections, paragraphs, and sentences.

As particularly eye-opening and helpful I would consider Schimel’s discussion of an article’s resolution, its conclusion. It should not end with and emphasize the article’s shortcomings but its contribution. It should not emphasize that “more research is needed” but the potential application. It should not give the reason to read another paper but the reason to cite this article.

Read: The second machine age

Bought in 2014, right after it was published, I should have read it much earlier. OK, there are still plenty of other books on my to-read shelves that I got before 2012

Brynjolfsson and McAfee present a compelling (and maybe alarming) case for (information / computer) technology induced economic growth and inequality. We have entered an age of noticeable advancement in computer technology and noticeable impact of computer technology on society. Networked computer technology and globalization leads not just to opportunities in the long tail, an increase in the diversity of goods we may consume, but also to a concentration of the benefits. Competition is not anymore about the absolute (perceived) quality of a good, it is about the relative quality. Only the global relatively best matters in a (digital) economy where local supply is global. A few lucky “superstars” may capture the whole market.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss the chances and challenges, and they offer some counsel. Will the growth be beneficial for all? While the presentation of the data, the discussion of what can and what will happen leaves no doubt (some people will, a lot of people may be harmed), their advice is less convincing. The short term policy recommendations are uncontroversial (and unspecific). Yet, they are less well argued for then all earlier points. This is even more true for the long-term recommendations: Even though I would mostly agree with them; me agreeing with their appropriateness has nothing to do with Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s advocacy. I always liked the idea of a negative income tax; I always would rather tax bads than goods, i. e. I would rather tax consumption than work. I do not agree with the authors’ fondness for MOOCs. I do not like MOOCs; I think they have failed their intended purpose.

So only 2 out of 15 chapters are lacking a little in persuasiveness. That ain’t bad. The other, better argued, chapters may even end up on a reading list for any course that discusses economic growth, GDP, and inequality.

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Read: Are Markets Moral?

A complete waste of time.

“Are Markets Moral?” is a transcript of a one day inter-disciplinary workshop on the question that is this book’s title.

Presenters regurgitate ideas that they have presented much more eloquently and convincingly earlier, often in other, much longer books of their own, or they speculate about issues, social phenomena that they have absolutely no clue about. The discussions are shallow; the discussants talk at cross-purposes, don’t try to synthesize, or if they respond they resort to cheap attacks, free from empirical facts with the sole purpose to discredit an opposing (and reasonable, evidence-driven) opinion.

The composition of the group of participants is seriously biased. Everyone seems to have (just) their own pet peeve and no genuine interest in answering the workshop’s big question. I pity the poor souls who attended in the hope of gaining new insight.

Much more enjoyable, instructive, and insightful are Daniel Friedman’s “Morals and Markets” and Paul Zak’s “Moral Markets.”

Read: The Darwin Economy

Frank’s The Darwin Economy leaves me torn inside. I agree with essentially everything that Frank proposes and how he justifies his prescriptions. Yet, I expected something very different.

Of course I agree that there is a tension between individual interests and the individual action and the collective interest and the resulting desired action. The market mechanism does not guarantee the maximization of social welfare. That only happens under very specific circumstances, it is a special case.

Collective action: the agreement that individual action sometimes needs to be – voluntarily – restricted is not controversial at all.

I, of course, also agree that we need taxes to finance public goods and that we should rather tax bads instead of goods. Hence I find the suggestion to tax consumption instead of income rather compelling.

I also liked the reference to Coase and the re-focus on what may have been Coase’s actual intended lesson very enlightening.

Hence, for all this I may actually recommend The Darwin Economy. Frank is preaching to the choir.

On the other hand, the book is written almost exclusively for the North-American market. As a European I found the narrative, a discourse with an imagined dogmatic, narrow-minded “movement libertarian” very annoying. At first I did not even understand what Frank was trying to describe when he wrote “movement libertarian.” I believe – I know – that behind the term libertarian is much more than the anti-government market-devotee that Frank targets. More importantly, I am looking at the world from a completely different vantage point. There is no reason to believe any of Frank’s explanations would give rise to more government intervention (than we already have).

Finally, I do not share Frank’s expectation that Darwin will dethrone Smith as the intellectual starting point of modern economics. And, in this context, the title of Frank’s book is at least slightly misleading. Darwin, or rather Darwin’s survival of the fittest, has a comparatively minor role in the book. Evoking Darwin just allows to add a couple of non-economic collective action problems as introductory examples. The subtitle “Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good” is much more honest, much closer to the content and intent of the text.

Read: The Sense of Style

Pinker’s The Sense of Style is a unique writing guide in the sense of its foundation in psychology, its acknowledgement of the nonsense of a strict prescriptive–descriptive dichotomy, and its reference and discussion of other well known guides and popular texts on writing. I like that. It unfortunately also contains a chapter with a very common list of good and wrong usage of terms that could be found on any blog on writing as well. I did not like that.

Hence, the first five chapters are easy to recommend. They instruct, explain, and entertain. It was interesting and enlightening to learn that many “rules”, that need to be broken, are based on the misconception that English is Latin. It is not. Latin grammar does not apply to the English language.

There are a couple of other things I noticed and learned.

Pinker’s Sense of Style is political. Pinker takes clear positions. (On, for instance, feminism and the gender neutral singular)

Every sentence requires a writer to grapple with tradeoffs between clarity, concision, tone, cadence, accuracy, and other values. Why should the value of not excluding women be the only one whose weight is set to zero?

Typographical conventions that support the reader, the ease of reading, and hence facilitate the understanding of a text may be at odds with grammatical structure that also clarifies the meaning and facilitates the understanding of a text.

No discussion of the illogic of punctuation would be complete without the infamous case of the ordering of a quotation mark with respect to a comma or period. The rule in American publications (the British are more sensible about this) is that when quoted material appears at the end of a phrase or sentence, the closing quotation mark goes outside the comma or period, “like this,” rather than inside, “like this”. The practice is patently illogical: the quotation marks enclose a part of the phrase or sentence, and the comma or period signals the end of that entire phrase or sentence, so putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks is like Superman’s famous wardrobe malfunction of wearing his underwear outside his pants. But long ago some American printer decided that the page looks prettier without all that unsightly white space above and to the left of a naked period or comma, and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

I would usually prefer the typographers’ approach. Though Pinker (and Pullum) makes a valid point when it comes to the discussion of the structure of a text, its sentences.

The American punctuation rule sticks in the craw of every computer scientist, logician, and linguist, because any ordering of typographical delimiters that fails to reflect the logical nesting of the content makes a shambles of their work. On top of its galling irrationality, the American rule prevents a writer from expressing certain thoughts. In his semi-serious 1984 essay “Punctuation and Human Freedom,” Geoffrey Pullum discusses the commonly misquoted first two lines of Shakespeare’s King Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”68 Many people misremember it as “Now is the winter of our discontent”, full stop. Now suppose one wanted to comment on the error by writing:
Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent”.
This is a true sentence. But an American copy editor would change it to:
Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
But this is a false sentence, or at least there’s no way for the writer to make it unambiguously true or false.

Hence, yes, the typographer’s rule needs to be broken if necessary.

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