Economics

Read: How Markets Work

After a few a little bit more radical, heterodox critiques of current (textbook) economics Prasch’s “How Markets Work” is rather orthodox. It still deviates from the standard introductory textbook treatment of markets in the sense that it does not blindly follow The (competitive) Market is best doctrine that advocates the market institution as the easy solution to many problems – if only the market was unregulated. Yet, the critique focuses rather on the unreflected application of the perfectly competitive commodity market model to goods and services that do not fit into the standard commodity category.

Hence, Prasch discusses the peculiar deviations of specific markets that render the standard textbook toy model inapplicable. He discusses e.g. financial asset markets that are characterized by positive feedback loops instead of negative feedback loops and that are therefore not necessarily self-stabilizing and labor markets that feature non-monotonic supply curves that bend backwards, forwards, and backwards again and may have four different equilibria, two stable and two unstable one, at different levels of wages. He also touches upon the issue of prices, values, and incommensurability. There are contexts in which the orthodox utility framework seems not to apply, where the choice problem cannot easily be represented by a scalar utility model.

Overall, Prasch’s “How Markets Work” is utterly unspectacular, non-revolutionary, orthodox, and just well thought-out. The didactic approach, starting with a discussion of property rights, is impeccable. As an added benefit the book is easily accessible also for the uninitiated and mostly non-technical as even the number of graphs is kept at a minimum. It may be a good supplementary reading for any introductory (micro-) economics course covering the analysis of demand and supply.

Read: Risk, Uncertainty and Profit

After years of pointing out the difference between risk and uncertainty – without actually discussing the consequences for economic analysis in detail – to my students in economics it is time to finally read the classic Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (pdf) by Frank H. Knight.

The obvious lesson is learned, I am prepared and eager to discuss the implications of uncertainty in class now. (It is sad that these very important points never made it into the textbooks.)

There were, however, a few other observations that I made while reading Knight’s dissertation.

First, the four prefaces give a nice glimpse into the change and constancy of the (history of) economic thought (of at least one influential scholar) at their time. These prefaces are worth reading even without the intention to continue into the main text.

Second, just a hundred years ago German economic scholars were read (in German no less) and cited, discussed and indeed at the frontier of their science. I knew that before, of course. Still, it is nice (?) to be reminded of this fact. A lot has happened since.

Third, there are some points that, I guess, no author today would make, at least not en passant as Knight did, e.g. (on p. 320):

The abolition of slavery or property in human beings rests on the fact that slaves do not work as effectively as free men, and it turns out to be cheaper to pay men for their services and leave their private lives under their control than it is to maintain them and force them to labor.

Fourth, it is very clear why Knight is one of the intellectual pillars of the Chicago School (though his ideas and perspective is markedly different from the later / modern neoclassic approach), or rather Chicago Libertarianism. According to Knight, Freedom, the power of control, is and should be inseparably linked to responsibility, the willingness to bear the consequences of one’s own decisions (p. 271):

…at the end of it we shall find that in a free society the two [responsibility and control] are essentially inseparable. Any degree of effective exercise of judgment, or making decisions, is in a free society coupled with a corresponding degree of uncertainty-bearing, of taking responsibility for those decisions.

Finally, and here I have to admit a bit of surprise on my side, given his status as the foundation of the Chicago School of economics I did not expect his deviations from today’s orthodoxy with respect to individual rationality as expressed by (p.238):

We should not really prefer to live in a world where everything was “cut and dried,” which is merely to say that we should not want our activity to be all perfectly rational. But in attempting to act “intelligently” we are attempting to secure adaptation, which means foresight, as perfect as possible. There is, as already noted, an element of paradox in conduct which is not to be ignored. We find ourselves compelled to strive after things which in a “calm, cool hour” we admit we do not want, at least not in fullness and perfection. Perhaps it is the manifest impossibility of reaching the end which makes it interesting to strive after it. In any case we do strive to reduce uncertainty, even though we should not want it eliminated from our lives.

and (p.331):

The desire (or necessity) for conforming to conventions is not the same things as the need for food and protection; the easy fallacy is confusion of the requirement for food, clothing, and shelter of the conventional kinds with the requirement for food, clothing, and shelter as physiological necessities. A large part of the consumption of persons, in the lower income strata even, does not yield satisfaction as consumption; the motives and cravings are social in their origin and nature. It is commonplace that many of the necessities of to-day did not exist or were not available for our ancestors a few generations ago, irrespective of their wealth.

And yes, he knows, of course, of Veblen’s work. Even though he did not cite him in this context.

There is more: A lot is happening in the footnotes. He is not at all shy with pointing out flaws in the argument of others. There is no list of references.

Overall it is obvious, I should read more of the classics.

Read: The Economics Anti-Textbook

Teaching evaluations are just in and it does not look bad. The changes I implemented during the last fall term had some positive impact. Though there is still room for improvements, and I already have a few ideas… I am a bit surprised though that there are some students demanding “more math (it is ultimately economics)” – these were principles courses. Given the huge heterogeneity in math skills this is not going to happen! And I also don’t think there is much to be gained by applying math to the over-simplified models of a first year principles course in economics. For grad school they should rather take dedicated math courses.

Indeed, I rather want to strengthen the discussion part of the course, the critical reflection of the theory.

Enter the Economics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Microeconomics by Rod Hill and Tony Myatt. The Anti-textbook is a great source for inspiration for such in-class-discussions. It provides a nice anti-thesis to the standard neoclassical textbook treatment, it makes the underlying value judgments explicit, and it provides an antipole to the doctrine of fundamentalist free-market theory (see Jim Stanford in Labour/Le Travail for a review that mirrors my own sentiment of the book quite well).

Much of their critique is not new. However, they provide a very accessible juxtaposition of orthodox and heterodox views, and a set of very thought provoking questions that should get the discussion started after students were treated with the standard view in class. Hence, this is where some of the ideas for next fall will come from.

I like this anti-textbook much more than Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics (that I also mentioned to the more curious students this fall). The anti-textbook is accessible and perfectly suited as a companion for a microeconomics principles course (a macroeconomics equivalent is still in planning). Thus it will be included in my recommended readings list in the future.

Read: Sixty Days and Counting

After reading Robinson’s Fifty Degrees Below I was hoping the “science science fiction” trilogy would get better with its concluding volume. It didn’t.

The trilogy started as science fiction about science. You got a glimpse at academia, research and administration, and the plot’s background addressed a serious, topical issue: global warming. That was the first volume. Unique and interesting enough to get me on reading despite the novel’s flaws. The second volume, I still do not know what to make of the second volume.

And now, the third volume is even worse. Sixty Days and Counting is strangely anticlimactic. It is not science fiction about science any more but an odd mix of political thriller, conspiracy theory novel, spy novel, new age self improvement, and rant against capitalism. Yes, the ranting about the evil economic system, the evil capitalists’ exploitation of the poor 99% that put me off in the first volume is back. The transitions between the genres do not succeed and the book would not be a good example for any of these genres.

Bottom line: Sixty Days and Counting was a waste of time and I am seriously concerned about my memory as I was pretty sure that I liked Robinson’s Mars trilogy. It was well written and absolutely enjoyable. Can a writer deteriorate that dramatically?

Read: Debunking Economics

Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics has the potential to greatly antagonize the reader, not just mainstream economists.

The book leaves me divided.

I like, I greatly appreciate the undertaking of pointing at all the flaws of economic theory – as it may be taught in many places – to improve our understanding of the real world. ‘Our’ as in the economic researcher and teacher, the student of economics, and the economic layperson. Yes, textbook economics has many flaws, over-simplifications that may lead us to wrong conclusions and thus policy measures if ‘we’ believe (too strongly) in them but over-simplifications that also may facilitate the understanding of specific economic mechanisms. There are many attempts to correct our economic model-theoretic view of the world. The current rise of behavioral economics is just one observable symptom of this change, of this advancement of (micro-)economic science. And, I guess the financial crisis will also lead to a change in macro-economic modelling.

I absolutely detest Keen’s writing style. He is condescending, not just with regard to the mainstream economics and economists that he is (rightly) criticizing. Also the reader has to feel like a little child that is guided through the world by a deeply disappointed, cynic great-uncle who was denied the one success that he so desperately strived for. This changes, however, dramatically to the better when he is not criticizing other’s economic modelling failures but is introducing his own macro-economic model that allowed him to predict the looming occurrence of a financial crisis.

If all of the book would have been written in this enthusiastic manner, with the desire to instruct, I would absolutely love this book. It’s not.

Nevertheless, the book is instructive and more of the many little flaws, the limitations of standard theory Keen is pointing out should be mentioned in textbooks, also in introductory textbooks, to stimulate a critical discussion and reflection of the material. I know I am often deviating from the text – have to, really.

Since I do not mention any details of the book’s content here, I want to at least point to a stimulating chapter by chapter discussion of Debunking Economics at Unlearning Economics.

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Read: The Calculus of Selfishness

Karl Sigmund’s The Calculus of Selfishness applies basic evolutionary game theory to the analysis of cooperation in strategic interactions. Though it is published in the Princeton Series in Theoretical and Computational Biology it is rather addressed to social scientist, economist and psychologist, and in particular undergraduates.

The Calculus starts simple enough and Sigmund introduces whatever mathematics he needs without being too formal in his approach. For a text in applied math the book reads surprisingly well. However, it is still a book in applied math and I fear it is as such not really appealing to an undergraduate in the social sciences. Indeed, I do not believe there are many undergraduate economics students who would enjoy this book and not put it aside after the first few pages, the first chapter at the latest. While this may be a good example of a text in applied math it is not ”good enough” for the nascent social scientist.

On the other hand, it is an excellent introductory text on the evolutionary game theory of cooperation, direct and indirect reciprocity, fairness, reputation, and trust. I only wished Sigmund would have expanded on structured interaction and the co-evolution of subpopulations. He only hints at what results would be obtained when one would look at these things more carefully.

I also particularly appreciate that each chapter ends with a briefly annotated list of references for further, in more depth, reading on the topic and the game theoretic approach that was introduced in the respective chapter. While the terse exposition of the chapter can only serve to raise one’s interest these references are the real treasure trove of The Calculus of Selfishness.

Hence, while I would not recommend the book to any of my undergraduates in economics or social sciences I would happily point any graduate student in its direction.

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