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.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Seminars today

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, June 05, 2008 | Category: , , , , , |

Today we had a feast of seminars. Wait, of course I wrote my macro exam first and it went ok I think. The course was mostly to do with the theory of economics and its applications in Western Europe, focusing predominantly on fiscal policy, monetary policy and on social insurance. Some of it was interesting, some of it about as exciting as cold fish and chips.

Our first seminar today was a discussion by one of the grad students here, Edgar Sanchez Carrera, about his research proposal for his PhD. He has all kinds of ideas about poverty traps and growth, linking inequality to low growth, multiple equilibria problems and many other issues. His one approach is that he would like to be able to define a situation in which imitative learning results in a situation where there are multiple equilibria in an economy of agents and a one time shift in public policy could result in a movement from one low equilibrium to another. Now, this isn't a new idea in economics (in fact it goes back as far as Leontief, but anyway). But so many people are still skeptical about the phenomenon of multiple equilibria. This still astounds me. Especially when you have, as Arthur argues, situations with increasing returns that are prevalent in everyday life. The evidence is yet to be convincing when it comes to individual countries though, some argue. I don't know enough, except to say that people who know more than I do have endorsed the idea.

Our second seminar was the second in the series to be presented by Arthur Robson the current chair in Bioeconomics here. There is much debate going on in my class about whether it is worthwhile or not for us to attend the seminars that he is giving, mainly because a number of people are not sure that they know enough biology in order to be able to credibly critique or argue for/against some of the points he makes and for some because they dislike his style of presenting. My general opinion though, despite the fact that he is occasionally verbose, is that the topics are fascinating, he knows a fantastic amount of stuff and his ability to comment rigorously on things about which I have minimal knowledge constitute sufficient reasons for me to continue to attend. Today's discussion was particularly intriguing: a discussion of the neolithic revolution and about the reasons why there could have been valid bioeconomic reasons as to why individuals would have adopted agricultural practices. His model gave valuable insight into the phenomenon of individuals choosing to adopt agriculture despite the fact that it resulted in decreased longevity, lower quality of life, higher exposure to disease and malnutrition. Hence, worthwhile and interesting for me.

The third seminar is based on a forthcoming book by Erik Olin Wright of the University of Wisconsin. He is a much acclaimed sociologist, part of the September Group and has written prolifically on all kinds of topics. The discussion today was part of a lead up to his concluding writing his book on alternatives to capitalism. No, he is not one of those arb people who claim that markets shouldn't exist. He was discussing instead that different types of power exist, that these types of power correlate to different economic systems and that understanding these types of power could constitute a method for understanding ways in which society could be altered so that individuals could live more flourishing lives. I know that I am not being particularly specific here, but that's because I think that I need to read the book before I can comment relevantly. I asked him a question about Michael Albert's idea of Participatory Economics, which I think is interesting, a bit of an artefact, and completely impracticable. Erik's commentary though was quite interesting and I look forward to reading the book. I sincerely believe that any kind of reform requires an understanding of markets and their capabilities, moreover as he argues the different kinds of ways that we approach them and attempt to understand them could give us insight into ways in which individuals, those who have otherwise been 'left behind', could be given the opportunity to live more 'flourishing' lives.

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