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.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the Carnival of the Africans #5

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, December 31, 2008 | Category: , , | 0 comments

Below, my comments on some of the recent pieces from the Carnival of the Africans #5.

Michael of Irreverence shares a piece I had intended to comment on previously: 7 Myths about the SA Economy. I enjoyed his summary. I disagree with Cronin and Nzimande on the 'scientific' nature of Marx, but still believe that he made occasional relevant points (as exemplified in work by Stiglitz, Bowles and others).

The Skeptic Detective discusses an encounter with Tarot Reading. I used to have a Tarot Deck (I know, I know). I always thought the pictures particularly pretty and liked the mythological ties, but I gave up on the divinatory stuff a long time ago (forgive me). Anyway, the discussion is interesting and entertaining.

A blog I had not read previously, Ambient Normality, has a report on a Christian campaign for the death of Santa Claus as a "new Pagan god of Materialism." The blogger comments on how odd the double standard is, and, particularly, how odd the assertion that the 'true' reason for Christmas is the birth of Christ, rather than, say, the Winter Solstice (northern hemisphere). Brief and cutting.

Limbic nutrition gives a good bullet point summary on the riots in Greece. Worthwhile to read covering most of what you 'should' know about the riots.

Lastly, a comment from retroid raving on the state of Science in SA was enlightening. I am in the process of applying for funding from the NRF so I won't voice an 'actual' comment, except to say that I hope that they support me as an 'unrated' researcher.

Ok, that's enough for now. If I feel enlivened enough to escape from research and read some more blog posts I'll see what I can do later.

Bringing it home

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 0 comments

One of my classmates is Palestinian. When he and I are not studying together in Italy, He lives in Ramallah with his wife, child and family. Although he is not close to Gaza, the violence in the region is overflowing into the West Bank in small ways. He told me, in email communications, of violence close to his home in which clashes between Israeli soldiers and members of the public is becoming more common. Recently, these clashes were within 100 meters of his home. This saddens me deeply.

He keeps a photograph of his daughter on his cell phone screen. She is a beautiful little girl. He and two other Palestinian students in our PhD program are committed to improving their own lives and the lives of their compatriots in the Palestinian Territories. I sincerely hope they get the chance. I sincerely hope for a more unified and peaceful response from our world leaders. I hoped for more from Obama. I am glad the EU proposes peace and asserts that the solution cannot be military. I do not regularly comment on political strife in contexts other than those which are immediately pertinent to me as a South African, or as an economist, but in this context I hope simply for the end of killing, for an end to unequal responses.

For those who have not read it, I recommend this short piece on the current conflict, and the lead up to it, in the London Review of Books written by Sara Roy of Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Carnival of the Africans #5

Posted by Simon Halliday | Sunday, December 28, 2008 | Category: , | 2 comments

Owen Swart of 01 and the universe is hosting the fifth Carnival of the Africans. I have not read the pieces yet, but wanted to promote the carnival. Go and have a look. I will read and tell you of the posts that I enjoyed.

I admit that I have been quiet of late because of work and teaching summer term, but I hope to have a couple of interesting pieces on Neuroeconomics up for the next carnival (Mike hold me to this!).

Anyway, it is also necessary for me to update my African Sceptical and Scientific blogroll. Here they are, I will be adding them to my sidebar promptly:


Friday, December 26, 2008

Priced Charity

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, December 26, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

I know this makes me 'sound like an economist', but I am in favour of the low-priced, profit-driven provision of support for those in need. Specifically the targeting of 'poor' individuals for goods that they require, but at prices that still allow a business to run, for example the provision of mosquito nets, or paid toilets or others.

Al Roth comments on this (initially in reference to an article by Nicholas Kristof, but anyway), and, in general, I am with him. Read the Ashraf paper, she is an (upcoming) goddess of experimental development work - she did experimental economics work in SA a while back (J. Exp Econ, 2006 if I recall). Very cool lady.

Ok, back to work.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

This Makes Me Happy

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, December 23, 2008 | Category: | 0 comments

The UN general assembly signed in a declaration for the universal decriminalization of homosexuality. The action was opposed by the US, the Holy See and by a conglomeration of Islamic Countries.

Anyway, I understand that this kind of thing is not binding, but it is a step in the right direction for the promotion of LGBT rights. I am in favour.

See the article from the UN Dispatch here.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, December 12, 2008 | Category: | 4 comments

I have not commented on books that I have read for quite some time. Here are a few paragraphs on a selection of books that I've read since last posting on the topic.

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson: Bryson is always good to read and this book didn't disappoint. I reveled in the little anecdotes about the context in which Shakespeare wrote. I remain convinced (as Bryons is) that Shakespeare wrote the plays, but lament the fact that we don’t have more documentary evidence of his history and his literary ‘processes’. What made reading the book even more fun was the fact that I have met Stanley Wells, who Bryson regularly quotes in the book. He is based at the Shakespeare Institute where Amy (my wife) volunteered during her year in Stratford. He took a shining to her and, consequently, I have met him on several separate occasions. He took Amy and I to lunch when we were in Stratford during August. Paul Edmondson (who presided over our wedding) is also quoted a few times in the book, which made it even more entertaining to talk to Paul about speaking with Bryson about the book: this brought a double joy to the reading. Don't go in expecting a book about the plays, go in expecting a book about Shakespeare, his time and his England.

Talking It Over by Julian Barnes: A fantastic little novel which tells the stories three people (two men and a woman) who end up in a love triangle, each telling the story from their perspective as the narrative progresses. Barnes has a fantastic sense of humour and the voices of each of the characters is distinct and seems to encapsulate that character’s foibles, complexities and modes by which they interact with others. Very funny, and quite deeply satirises certain British stereotypes.

Daniel Martin by John Fowles: Is an epic novel that traces the steps of the title character from a brief retelling of his childhood, to his life as a student at Oxford, to his adult life as a screen- and playwright. The book drips with irony, and, rather like the Magus, you cannot believe that there are so many ways in which characters can interact, or threads by which the narrative can be extended. Still, it is a beautifully written novel, it captures a sense of what it must have been like to be a British scriptwriter or author in the US in Los Angeles, but still retaining an essential Britishness that cannot, or is not, adequately understood by many (North) Americans. It is also interesting because during the writing Fowles often goes on philosophical tangents: he tries to navigate an understanding of the con´Čéicts of capitalism and socialism, something in which I am deeply interested, as well as problems of aesthetics, such as whether art should be instructive or not. It is a challenging, fantastically written and epic novel. It makes me want to retrace the routes that the characters do to remote places in the US, certains spots in the UK (yes the UK does have remote beautiful areas) and also Egypt. I'd give this book a big thumbs up if you can deal with his occasional over-writing.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison: I enjoyed this book far more than I
enjoyed the previous book of hers that I read, Beloved. Beloved was very well-
written and understandably lauded (for example the New York Times did a survey of American authors and they voted it as the best American novel of the past 25 years). However, I found the writing style of Song of Solomon easier to read, as well as finding it more manageable in terms of the characters and narrative Morrison introduced. The main character’s name is Macon Dead, an African American growing up in the US during the period spanning the 1940s to 60s. Morrison tells his life: how his experience, as the son of an African American who owns property is both an intrinsically African American experience, but also distinctly not African American in the advantages that he has because of his father being a property owner. Combine this with a backdrop of odd family members, a narrative that takes you back to his grandparents and their tale and the book makes for riveting reading - it's a window into the paradoxed of African American life in 20th Century USA.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje: I picked this up in Borders Bookstore in Heathrow's Terminal 3 to read on my flight back to Cape Town. I read about half of it on the flight, distracted by action movies, mindless entertainment and the copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers that I have on my ipod (not quite finished more on that book another time). Anyway, this book is somehow caressingly written, as if Ondaatje is drawing you in with the lyrical nature of his writing, drawing you in to the stories of how people love one another, how it damages them, how it helps to construct who they are. This is the second novel of his that I have read (The English Patient was my first, glorious delving into Ondaatje's fiction) and it contrasts oddly with his poetry, which I find to be more comical and more playful, definitely more playful with respect to how he treats and interacts with words. Nevertheless, this book is wonderful and now that it is in soft-cover it constitutes a good gift to the Ondaatje uninitiated.

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: This book constitutes a fun introduction to a fairly limited draw of modern experimental economics and social psychology, the barried between the two is quite small with respect to what Ariely does as I would not always call what he does 'experimental economics'. Although I think that Ariely does some intriguing and worthwhile work, he suffers from the experimentalists Achilles' Heel (in my mind) in that he overstates the parallelism, or generalizability, of the results that he obtains in small-scale and localized experiments. I don't believe that he gives sufficient credence to cultural difference, or to heterogeneity of individual responses. That being said, I would recommend this book to most critical thinkers as it restates many examples of how we, as humans, thinking irrationally and do it in a predictable manner. For as many overly general or slightly inaccurate statements that he makes, Ariely makes many more that are worthy of our consideration in modern economics and psychology, especially in the contemporary crisis-wracked world.

Experimental Methods: A Primer for Economists by D. Friedman and S. Sunder is a book from which I read a chapter or two for a course on decision theory and behavioral economics. I decided to read the book and found it very valuable. Most of my reading in experimental economics has tended towards individual decision-making and individual preferences, the book, though quite dated (published in 1994) now in terms of the field, but is still a classic. They have a significant focus on market, auction and asset-market experiments with barely a mention of preference-based experiments, yet they provide general guidelines for conceiving and implementing experiments, data analysis and writing up that are very valuable. The book is an easy read and I found it worthwhile considering how I want to undertake experiments as part of my disseration research.

Otherwise, I am reading a book of Italian Short Stories, Gladwell's Outliers as mentioned, a book on Italian History, and another on neuroeconomics, in addition to which I am still doing my best to read Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments when I have the time (and the patience). Oh yes, I also forgot to mention reading the inestimable 'On Liberty', but I don't believe that I can add much to criticisms or laudatory remarks on that book as it really is one of the great texts in philosophy (or so I believe, whether you disagree with its conclusions or not). Sherbet, I also realise I read Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto for the first time, I found it interesting with some of the content agreeable and other content particularly disagreeable, but I suppose that was bound to happen. I know I am forgetting others, but this will have to do for now.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Positive Feedbacks

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, December 09, 2008 | Category: , | 2 comments

Not necessarily what I will get from my students after prescribing them actual (shock! horror!) reading for ECO2003P, but hey. Anyway, the reason I mention this is that while lecturing in Intermediate Micro one of the subjects that I cover with the students is that of monopoly power through network externalities, increasing returns, lock-in and specific, or irreversible, investment. The discussion is based on two articles both very easy to read:

W. Brian Arthur, 'Positive Feedbacks in the Economy', Scientific American, Feb 1990.
Paul A. David, Clio and the Economics of QWERTY, AER, May 1985.

I am hoping to get some lights on in the minds of some of the kids by doing a question-based discussion of the papers. I want them to engage with the readings and come up with their own ideas, I know such intentions may be naive but I remain optimistic. Even if only 1-5 of the 65 students gains some insight and some ability to think better about the world as a consequence of the discussion (rather than a straight up lecture) then I will be happy. In fact, I am guaranteed at least one with a bright and engaging student who I see is getting a fair amount from my lecturing, but I am hoping to get more than four more students to have something more than crepuscular lights going on in their heads.

Does anyone have specific ideas for South African situations of lock-in, network effects resulting in monopoly and irreversibility of investment resulting in monopoly type market dominance?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Back in CT

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, December 08, 2008 | Category: | 4 comments

So after some time travelling, arriving back in SA, going up to Plett for a few days and then arriving back in Cape Town I am now lecturing ECO2003P, intermediate microeconomics, for the Summer Term at UCT. Joy! Well at least it pays for flights and a bit more.

Anyway, my hiatus was as a consequence of said travels. Coming back to SA has been surprising in terms of realising the effects of inflation, but also talking to people who are remarkably positive about the future of the country, as well as (overly?) optimistic about the economic potential of South Africa. I had one of the secretaries in the department ask me if I didn't want to stay on to lecture this same course during the semester, as much as I would love to I need to complete my PhD else no employment for the white male in SA in an academic institution. Note that this is said with no sense of unjustness, but simply a statement of fact. I cannot think of how any (economics) department in South Africa could offer a white male anything resembling a permanent position without them having a worthwhile PhD and some publications. Hence, I will apply to UCT when I am approaching the end of my PhD and I have some job market papers, in the meant time ad hoc work if and when they need me!

So yes, if you are in Cape Town or the vicinity and would like to see me then give me a shout. I look forward to hearing from you. I'll try to keep up a semblance of blogging even though I am teaching. Maybe I will be inspired by my minions (read students) to deal with interesting questions. Or maybe not.