Monday, September 27, 2010

Employment Policy Follies

It's almost like South Africa is begging economists (or anyone with common sense) to lampoon it when it does stuff like this.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Barrington Moore Problematic and more

Brad DeLong recently gave an interesting talk about the "Social Studies" major at Harvard. It seems that this concentration is a hodgepodge of humanities and social science subjects, including history, economics, and political science. It seems a little like the "Philosophy, Politics, and Economics" concentration that some universities have. It seems to also be related to the "Great Books" concentrations, but with perhaps more emphasis on social science and less on the humanities. DeLong says that the major has been focused on the study of the Big Question of the 20th century: totalitarianism vs. freedom, tyranny vs. tolerance, etc., what he calls the Barrington Moore Problematic. In the 20th century, especially the middle of the 20th century, this seemed to be the main problem at hand. However, the Nazis and Soviets are gone now, so what should we study? DeLong points out that we actually don't even have a consensus that the Lockean principles of liberalism (freedom of religion, etc.) are correct. So in a sense the new Social Studies students maybe will be studying the post-Barrington Problems, but also perhaps pre-Barrington problems, since the Problematic basically takes for granted a Lockean consensus that doesn't exist.

I agree with the bulk of what he says, but I have two comments.

1) The period we are in looks a bit like the 1815 to 1914 period: relatively peace, prosperity, advancement of science and civil liberties. But that period was followed by the age of totalitarianism. How do we know ours won't be followed by something similarly monstrous? Or maybe the monstrosity will look a lot different. Maybe our dystopia won't look like "1984," but rather like "Brave New World." Maybe that dystopia is already here to a large degree. Even if we grant that our current political arrangement is fairly good, are we really in a stable equilibrium? I take it that we may actually be in fairly uncharted waters. For example, it seems that religious unbelief is more widespread among non-intellectuals than it was in just about any previous period. This is true especially of Europe and China. Can we know with much confidence that this won't lead to catastrophic outcomes?

2) Perhaps the students of Harvard need to go deeper than Locke. I think the Enlightenment consensus of live and let live made a certain amount of sense, but it was in some ways a bit ad hoc. We didn't know why we should stop killing each other, but we agreed to stop killing if the other side did as well. It was a contract more than an actual intellectual consensus. I think the same is true, and maybe even more so, of the post WWII consensus. We talk a lot about human rights, but we don't really agree on why slavery and murder are so wrong. I actually think that Aristotle and Aquinas had a coherent worldview in a way that the liberals of, say, 1776 or 1945 did not. Are our current problems more matters of philosophy than of social science?

I think Mr. DeLong would do well in reading "After Virtue" by Alasdair MacIntyre, if he has not done so already. In some ways I am closer to the liberals than to MacIntyre, but I think he does a great job of explaining how unsatisfying the current "consensus" is.

Lastly, a minor point: It seems that Locke had some hesitations, to say the least, about tolerating Catholics and atheists. So, in being intolerant towards Muslims, perhaps Peretz is not quite so un-Lockean after all.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Genteel professions

David Brooks has a provocative column about the debased values of contemporary. One example he gives is that: "America’s brightest minds have been abandoning industry and technical enterprise in favor of more prestigious but less productive fields like law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism."

I think the validity of that statement is less obvious than Brooks may think. He seems to view the economy the way many (maybe most) people do. There are the "real" jobs that actually matter where people make things (manufacturing, etc.) or think of better ways to make things (engineering, science, etc.) or do something else with obvious tangible benefits (mechanics, doctors, farmers, etc.) And then there are the soft, cushy, basically unimportant, unproductive jobs in law, finance, entertainment, etc., where people just move paper around or leech off productive people or whatever.

There's obviously some grain of truth here. We need the farmer and the manufacturer on a more basic biological level than we need the talk show host or columnist(!) or ambulance chaser. And surely the world wouldn't be all that worse off if management consultants didn't exist.

However, what does he mean by the word "productive"? Economists say that people are by and large paid according to their marginal productivity, i.e. usually the more productive you are the more income you get. A lot of people are attracted to fields like law and finance and consulting, because they pay well. Therefore, they appear to be fields with high productivity, at least in some economic sense of the word. They seem to be producing something that someone somewhere values. So, is this the pursuit of gentility or the pursuit of income? And if society doesn't need these lawyers and financial analysts, why are we paying them so much?

Well, maybe some of them are gaming the political/economic system in some way that doesn't actually increase GDP through "rent-seeking" or what have you. Maybe some of them impose some large cost on society that the market isn't taking into account ("negative externalities"). You could imagine this to be the case with, say, a pornographer. But I don't think all of the lawyers and financiers are significantly hurting society in these ways, not by a long shot. Brooks should've fleshed out his argument a bit more.

If the US had half the lawyers/bankers it has now and twice the engineers and scientists, would it be better off? Maybe, but I think it's a pretty open question.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Which Classes to Take

Greg Mankiw wrote a slightly surprising article recently, in which he advises students to take at least a class in economics, statistics, finance, and psychology. If you follow Mankiw's blog, you'll know that he tends to take fairly safe positions rather than bolder positions that might turn out to be wrong later. Maybe if you came out in favor of protectionism, he'd lash out at you. But on issues where the economics profession is more evenly divided he can be fairly meek. (By the way, I'm sometimes like that myself.)

What made the article a little surprising is that he seems to imply that those four areas of knowledge are more likely to be worth one's time and effort than the alternatives. It's possible that he's right, but this is not exactly an iron-clad proposition he's putting forward (and he basically admits as much towards the end of the article.) There's something very unMankiw about it.

Anyway, here's my take. When it comes to choosing classes, there are at least two things to keep in mind. There are practical classes, which might be helpful in one's career later. E.g. Of Mankiw's choices, statistics, finance, and perhaps economics fall into this category. I might also add accounting, computer science, and others as well. Yes, psychology could conceivably be of us in one's job, but I don't know that such a class is really much more important than many other alternatives, such as, say, learning a language or taking calculus or creative writing. So, I found that suggestion to be slightly odd.

Then, there are classes which might enrich one as a person, improving the way one thinks about the world, etc. Many courses could do this, but in my experience courses such as philosophy, history, and theology or some hybrid such as literature/philosophy can be great at this. I don't advocate all such classes. But a really good humanities class can really blow your mind. Maybe a history of Western Civilization or a study of philosophical classics such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, etc. They can be rather thought provoking. You start to think about the grand questions. I think biology and economics can be interesting in that they can be used to study human affairs with analytical rigor. Also, anthropology and psychology (especially with a more biological focus) can be helpful as well. Often people see some common human behavior and just marvel at it, confounded. But sometimes it makes a lot of sense from an economic or evolutionary perspective.

E.g. I remember someone remarking in a philosophy class that she didn't understand why she felt like she always had to buy nice new things, even though from a rational perspective she knew she didn't really "need" such things for happiness. My answer was that such overly powerful acquisitiveness and gluttony can be thought of as vestigial traits. So, when you feel a strong craving to eat sweets all the time, it makes sense if you realize that your distant ancestors in the plains of Africa didn't see such things so often and it made sense for them to have a great love of sugar so that they would eat it when they found it. Such analysis can be easily taken too far and can be too reductionist (I think C.S. Lewis called it "nothing buttery.") But I think in moderate doses it is extremely helpful.

I haven't worked out in my own mind how much one should emphasize practical classes in college and how much one should emphasize the grand-questions-classes. But definitely take several of each.