Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

I was SOOO busy last night

Posted by Simon Halliday | Sunday, October 23, 2005 | Category: | 1 comments

A tapestry of shoes 23.10.05

The structure of


is a frayed collection

of threads

and it is the frays

where severances

hurt and where

they retie newborn

offshoots of hemp,

roughed off

of their own accord

but tied tighter

than old shoelaces

burnt with selotape

and holding together

rubber and the soul -

i am molded to

you in this old shoe way

scared of discard

or tempted by it

Polemic 23.10.05

it is the fuck-with-you

way with complete disregard

for anything I say or do

that says it

if this were a record of

samples, with a hip-hop

beat sliding between

them, it would yet

crave meaning, But

these words, these

linked-tight hardfast

daft yet credible

Words are what make

this, This believable

and all i do is stand

in a red t-shirt

banner in hand with

a hoarse voice and

a look of (hurt by lack of

remorse) incredulity

that changes nothing,

no thousand words

in a photo, but

a thousand unloosed

tongues with no more

voice than a woman before

Herod and even more

screaming babies dying

as i wear a red t-shirt

(it wasn't red before)

and a banner limp

(with tears repressed)

if only the wind would

shriek to steal the air

that rips from their

throats the dirge of the dead

the speedbumps are

graves as i walk, unflowered

and graveled and potholed

for the lack of digable

soil to cover up the lost

Road 23.10.05

I would be gracious

were I yet prepared to

thank you

but that is the

dark backroad that

betweens us

left open to wound

down windows

and heart-blown

kisses goodnight

(I'd rather not it's

easier to fight)

Carving tree 23.10.05

I can still see green in

the moonlight of

oak leaves

shrouding the moon

painting pointed patterns

over memories

they are sharp aren't

they when you pick

them up

enough to make an

acorn worth planting

for my intents

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Philosophy of Economic Policy Making (or 'Work Avoidance on a Saturday Afternoon)

Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, October 22, 2005 | Category: | 0 comments

Subsequent to having studied a course in Policy Analysis in my Honours year of Economics and now having completed a development style course in Masters, something has become horribly apparent to me. This problem is that people pre-judge the discipline of Economics because of its idealism. Not only is this 'sin' committed by policy-makers external to Economics and by politicians attempting to derogate the discipline, but also members within the discipline itself.

What makes this doubly frustrating is that Economists have to sell their models and their methodologies to government in order to create some kind of actionable change in policy or in the economy itself. However, if Economists themselves cannot agree on what is necessary in order to have a decent Economic model, then this is more than problematic. When I talk about this dispute I am not referring to the mundane nature of the New Keynesian-New Classicist debate, but rather an approach to statistics and economics combined.

Now, every economist who reaches a high enough level of competence and study inevitably encounters the problems with assessing whether a program or intervention works or not. In order for us to know whether an economic or policy intervention works, we need to be able to answer a counterfactual question: How would those who were in the presence of said intervention have fared were they not treated or in the presence of the intervention? Or equally, how would those who were not in the treated group have fared were they treated? If we cannot answer these counterfactual questions then the whole point of applying policy in the first place is irrelevant. The reason for this is that policy is meant to enact positive change, change that will help the economy and that will provide for people in an optimal way. Moreover, it is meant to do so in the most cost effective way. If a policy is rolled out to the entire population, but it is ineffective then spending the money in the first place was inane and a poor choice when there are so many opportunity costs to poorly spent resources.

Now, the methodology of Randomised Evaluation1 is easily understood by Econometricians and by Statisticians. However, policy makers in attempting to address specific population groups and constituents often ignore both statistics and econometrics in favour of attempting to look as though they have done something when in reality nothing has changed. This is all to reminiscent of the Peron style policies of giving people pots and pans to make them like you, but these pots and pans DO NOTHING to help these people in reality.

Where the problem lies for Economists is that people often don't like 'The Truth'. When I talk about 'The Truth' in this context, I refer to statistics or qualitative statements which provide us with some reflection of what occurs in reality, rather than some peoples rhetoric about 'poverty alleviation' or 'employing the unemployed'. These themselves are worthy goals, but claiming that a project or a policy will do one of these things is inaccurate when we have no way of measuring if a change occurred.2

This is where the problem arises, both within Economics and with those who attempt to deride it. Two main problems that people have with such statistical practices are as follows: 1) it's unfair, and 2) it (randomised evaluation) is ivory tower intellectualism that doesn't work in the real world. I will deal with both statements.

As far as the first is concerned, this is a drastic misrepresentation of what Randomised Evaluation is and does. A randomised evaluation attempts to find two very similar groups, intervene in one with some treatment (say an extra teacher in a classroom, food provision or some such) and compare this treated group against the similar group which remained untreated. This is often performed on a fairly small (depending on your interpretations) scale, for example looking at 20 schools: 10 of which get the intervention and 10 of which do not.

Now, if we need to roll out a program to enhance school quality, BUT we are unsure of how to do this just reading what other people have done and claiming that 'This is what is good for 'our country' does not actually tell us if it is. In order for it 'to be good for our country' it should fulfill some criteria – test scores should improve, attendance should increase, numeracy and literacy levels should improve. However, the only way we can know if they have improved at all is if there is some basis for comparison. If we expend money without knowing whether a program will do anything, then how is that at all fair? As far as a utilitarian argument progresses, welfare has not been improved by any measurable outcome, but large amounts of money have been spent, resulting in an overall decrease in welfare (same people, less money).

If a small pilot project is run with some people getting the intervention and some not, then we can know whether it works. However, people then claim that on the ground if we have two households one receiving a treatment and one not, then the one not receiving the treatment believes that it is being prejudiced against. Notwithstanding the myopia of individual consumers who could voice frustration at not receiving some patronage, the individual unfairness is overridden by social benefit. Hence, again using a utilitarian argument, the overall utility is improved because of us knowing what programs to run and what the impacts are regardless of a small number of peoples' discontent. Contemporary society is riddled with personal injustices which are for the overall benefit, to take a few examples: progressive tax rates are individually unfair on the rich – they give away money for which they have some claim because of work, but this is taken away from them in the name of a greater good, equally so with government intervention in a number of other spheres: government providing free water to the poor (or providing a market for water to the rich), government re-modeling education structures so that they are more equitable and less competitive. Individually, this irks people and people find it individually unfair. However, they are intended to provide for a greater good. People then re-frame the questions as a one of poor vs. poor. 'How can you tell one poor person that you are going to employ their equally poor neighbour, but not them?' Government does this all the time anyway when it initiates public works programs, or when there are programs by international bodies as part of disaster relief or some such. This means that there must be some other motivation – the 'fairness' argument does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact I believe that it comes down to the second point which is the attack on 'ivory tower intellectualism'.

The problem with this second point is that it is predominantly a normative or perspective-based debate. Almost inevitably it remains as a post-modern attack on Statistics and Economics which I foreshadowed earlier with my comments on 'Truth'. People (myself included), often like to believe that they are individuals, that they cannot be described by observable characteristics and that they (because they are special) do not fall into any stereotypical roles or cultural boxes. The problem with this is that it ignores a host of economic, psychological, sociological and anthropological evidence to the contrary. As much as we would like to believe that our free will can and should override any genetic or social imperatives, it often does not. People DO fit into general and describable categories. This is where statistics and econometrics are useful because they DO REFLECT REALITY. Granted this reality is not in an individual or unique sense, but as far as most people are concerned providing them a situation in which they can begin to have food, family and something more than just subsistence living is good.

This then begs the question of where this attack is directed? This is a far more controversial question. My belief is that it is pointed at the perceived elitism of the intellectuals, i.e. people who are intelligent are obviously out to get everyone who isn't. This can possibly also be seen as a misinterpretation of Marx, who wanted equal provision for people but without preferential treatment based on capability. So the problem here is that people perceive that intelligent people are rich people and that rich people abuse poor people. Therefore Academics (in their ivory tower institutions and intellectualism) are out to get the poor. This is a drastic misrepresentation of many academics' intentions. In fact the causation underlying this, possibly generally held, misperception is horribly flawed. It is actually the reverse – the appreciation of an intent to find truth from rhetoric is the intent of the academic. Hence the academic is trying to distill reality to find the constituent truthful parts. This can only be done in a situation where it is not being undermined by rhetoric or by the polemics of politicians whose own interests may be undermined by the 'truth' that is found through a rigorous statistical analysis.

In conclusion, it has been argued (possibly overly vociferously) that the attack on statistically rigorous processes such as Randomised Evaluations is actually based on a normative position, which is inevitably based on the self-interest of the politicians (and maybe other economists whose findings may be undermined) as a result of it. Sadly, it seems as though economists who are striving to find 'truth' are in the minority, or if this quest is their initial intention they become bogged down by political rhetoric and doublespeak which undermines that which they try to achieve. This leads me to my last appeal, that of a belief or at least an acceptance of the hopeful ideal situation of good econometric and statistical analysis in an ideal world, if economists begin to continuously excuse the rhetoric which undermines their work, then their work will suffer. In order for good econometric work to continue to be done in the future we cannot bow down to the intentions of too many self-interested individuals who target a polemic of elitism at those who are, in reality, trying to find new and innovative ways of solving problems of unemployment, poverty and welfare. It should be noted that this is not an attack on government as a body, but rather at individuals who may believe that government and academia are incompatible because of cursorily observed superficial differences, this is not the case. The intentions of government and a host of academics are those presented above – without by in and collaboration from both the possibility of brilliant solutions fades.

1See for example Duflo and Kremer (2003) or Duflo (2003) for explanations of RE.

2This does open me up to many of the problems with the hermeneutics and ontological arguments of what constitutes 'Truth', but in this context I believe that this conceptualisation of 'Truth' is sufficient. I am not about to get all European and post-modern on the discipline of Economics.

Personal Prevarications

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 0 comments

On the noted need to write more... Here are some more for your personal delictations.

The Journey of Jonah 29.08.05

I see these odd water

creatures flowing

about me, this place

where I should be not.

This containment seems

inescapable, damaging

me, my claustrophobia

tightening in.

But muscles move about

me, thrusting me away

from these acids and

half-rotten bodies;

and yet this place is familiar

clearer, but as filled with a

foreign world of many-legged

animals and bulbous eyes

as that in which I was lost.

People I missed, but the places

where I was not, they made

me believe all the more.

Barbarian invasions 09.09.05

Of the struggling social

event, much has been

written, considering that

we disregard convention

I would not put is past

us to attempt to resist

its degeneration, they

would prefer our resignation

these visitors. Instead we

wage our own offence

we attack with our own

wanton lusts and bloody

frustrations. The wine glasses

shudder in hand noticing a

subversive twist in conversation,

hair seems out of place,

you and I marshal our wills

to this, our last movement

the battle of a lifetime lost on

the fields of our consciousness.

Driven 17.09.05

That the moon

embedded in this

low sky is meaningful

charges me.

Its corona would

be a mirror to halo

my existence, forming

still that which

is nascent, burgeons

beneath the skins that

have and will cover

me, sun-caught protections

and the moon's memory

of that all the stronger.

Crestfallen 17.09.05

wave movements onto

and beyond the sand

along the crest of the wave

moves my conscience

disturbed by its own

spaces, by its intents.

Unsure whether it moves

or whether its position

is stable and the world

moves beneath it. My

inertia. My inability to

move is such, and no matter

my efforts I remain densely

unable to change.

dark night 17.09.05

bark scratched my back

as did your fingers pulling

me closer in, demanding

that i see and be inside you

but not – remaining out with

the wind-driven grass and

the wind's crooning voice

lulling us into a suspended

belief, holding us apart for

that extra moment and knowing,

knowing how passing it was

our whispered intents left

in the dark soils, burgeoning

still, some reciprocal growth

there i observe its movement

and envision its plural paths

overcast 22.09.05

there is a pall of skin

over the smoke of

your eyes locking

out the visions

that hold you to me

i am that solid, that

connected, that held

down and wept image

you need to see, but

dare not for fear

of admittance, i am a

recasting of sin, i am a

doubting of self, i am a

foil to all that once would

have made you laugh

but i am transient, the clouds

of me may move slowly

but move they do and by god

you will return pale and screaming

and wrapped in the caul

of a newborn child, waxy

and dim you will see through

these casts over you and there

the joyous cries of your

release will be that free

139. 23.09.05

Hearing your voice is

looking through old glass

the image distorted

the sound a shimmer

of what I thought

it would be

Moses' lost time 26.09.05

I had traveled hard

sandals tight against my

feet, scratching the sand

of this path, I strike

this staff into the ground

in attempts to hold

myself up, I am not so

young that this is easy.

But beneath me, their

prayers convey urgency

the lost ones no longer

trusting me but sacrificing

their souls to unknown idols.

Would that I were so easily

viewed, so easily pleased,

but He requires more than

blood and milk. I trudge on

and, having borne the weight

of these tablets, know that much

will change and I am bound

to suffer.

Rapturous Escape 01.10.05

There is pathology

in the depth of my

investment in you

each time I have seen

your red-rubbed eyes

and your tangled hair

I wish it were me you

had been crying over

instead I spectate, I

support from the

sidelines joyously

crying your escape

from his fawning

hands yet unable

to touch you

my grasp:

one more to

hold you back

Life Support

to nana

there are opaque tubes

replacing your veins

pumping blood

and breath that

you cannot

these are gene imprinted

images on me

appearing every time

when I would rather think

of you:

with your feet like

gnarled roots planted

in the sand soaking

up the salt and water

nourishing you

instead I see the blood

the beeping green and your

face whiter than the sand had

ever been. your roots are gone

you cannot live without them.

if I could only purge myself

of these memories

feeling in reverse 06.10.05

this movement out of

love with you, if it could

have been the first I felt

and built up to

all with which we

had begun

late night rains 08.10.05

still inside

i sensed the acridness

of rain smudged tarmac

awoken to it from this

bed, enraptured by single

strands of your hair

its allure called me

from my entanglement

coarse bricks cool my

feet as i step outside seeing

how right the rain was

and how the moon's

descent was its hallowed

accompaniment, suddenly

here your hair calls me

so immediate my return to its

broken embrace restraining

myself unheeding of

the rankness without

Imbibed 14.10.05

If only you were


I would recover

from you.

But there

is no awakening

from this


my head cannot clear,

you are each and

every movement of

my eyes

my steps sway because

you have taken away

any semblance of


and what scares me

more is that i would rather

it didn't end, that it

remains irrecoverable

my control, my logic

and my overriding

ability to judge, gone

because of this

Freedoms 15.10.05

What is liberty?

What is unconstrained?

What is this rejection

that you refuse to claim?

You wave your hands

in mock severity

claiming damage and


how is it that this

prevents your liberty

how is it that I shackle

you? Except by my

presence, which you find

pervasive. If only that were

all I could be every part

of you burned by some of me

no I do not brand you, and

yes I do still care, but do

not fuck with me darling

you'll lose me, that I swear.

Giving 15.10.05

This is not forgivable

these foggy words that

you offer me in an attempt

at appeasement

they cannot suffice and

I will not succumb. Do not

linger here, rather leave me

and be done with this.

I will not bear you. I

will not kiss. I will not

hold you or offer my love.

I gave and you rejected.

I will give no more.

Margaret Atwood's Cat 16.10.05

For Laura

is neither at its beginning

or its ending

but slips between the

words of her poetry

as it would between her

legs as she sits in

front of a desk

altogether crafting

it would be a reverent

moment spent lying

on laps or over

feet that immediately

have so much and so

little to do with writing

but on the body of a woman

maybe my pawprints

would mean more

Peter, oh Peter 16.10.05

My Redemption was a

finger's breadth away

but it was easier to deny

You, to deny Me as the

case would have it be. And

so I crouched down and

wept as the cock crowed

its assassination of my faith.

Hoping I wept for you I realised I

did not. With that acceptance

faith burgeoned within me again.

Against all sin, against all love,

against any proclamation or the

spears ripping into the bread of

your body it was reborn and

I along with it. Momentarily I

was transfixed and knew You

loved me, that momentous joy

and its legacy hearken this voice

and all the lies that have bound it.

Shameful Allure 18.10.05

Crept up the dangers

of my soul you did

as though they were

lures to your hurt,

but you've seen them for

what they are – dislocated

sections of me that

weren't dangerous at all

rather they were the links

between peace and

soulfulness a calm

amidst the havoc that

is my mind. And all you

wanted was the peace

all you wanted was the joy

and an admission

that love would remain

without yours. My

inertia, the bellowing

breath of my time-fixed body

was not enough. There

was no chaos on my tongue

nor danger in my soul. You have

placed them there: in thrall

to my angers.

the sunlit edges 18.10.05 (night of 16.10.05)

of women drive

sanity from me in

one out-breath

your waking shivers

insulting the heat

to action

looking on

each edge is

an experience -

I savour the

sunlight's scent

streams of dust

moted sun alight

on your half-open

slept eyes