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.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Deception in Experiments - Not Cool

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, December 08, 2009 | Category: , , | 3 comments

A recent Slate article comments on work in Psychological Science in which people are used for an experiment (the 'people' are probably university students) on moral behaviour and 'buying green'. The subjects are asked 'What do you want to buy from Online Store X' (the experimenters manipulate the store's stocks), which is all good and fits with experimental protocols (oh yes, though it's imaginary, and they aren't spending money, so hey?). What is not cool, not cool at all, is that the experimenters then set up a dictator game telling the players they were paired with someone, when they weren't. The money they were 'giving' to someone else, didn't get given to anyone. The experimenters deceived their subjects. Not cool. Fantastic that they are doing experimental work, and using economicky experiments to do it, but not cool that they deceive their subjects. Why? Experimenter legitimacy! One of the big battles as an experimentalist is having your subjects BELIEVE that what you say you will do, you ACTUALLY will do. If word of this kind of deception (almost always by psychologists) gets out, then more and more experimental subjects won't believe experimenters and therefore won't behave in ways consistent with how they would outside of the laboratory or experiment. This is why economics experimenters have such a strong code of ethics about not deceiving and doing what you say you will do.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Books I

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, December 01, 2009 | Category: , , | 0 comments

I have split this post into two sections: non-fiction (Part I) and fiction (Part II). All as a consequence of reading more than I've felt like writing about what I've read. But, I know that the content always cements itself better when I write about it.

Non-fiction Hayek - The Fatal Conceit
I have enormous respect for Hayek because he has an interesting methodological take on economics and because he supports evolutionary methods in economics. First, he takes an methodological position in economics that opposes the position taken by most economists in that he advocates a non-mathematical approach. Second, he argues for strongly for an evolutionary perspective on economics, which results in him advancing a theory of group selection. But I do not agree with the conclusions he draws from the positions he takes, namely that of quasi anarcho-capitalism, or a state that exists purely to uphold laws and to act as defence against outside forces. Nevertheless, I believe that many of his arguments against socialism are accurate and should be better recognised and negotiated by socialists and statists alike. But Hayek also makes several errors, some of which I will bring up in this review, mainly those conceived by academics I have read, but about which you may not know.

First, he conflates a notion of a firm as actor and an individual as actor when firms are not individuals and markets often do not operate with an internal market structure, i.e., people are not priced within firms, they are managed. The problem with this is that corporatism and competition are often incompatible, or, at least, firms that have obtained substantial market share will spend substantial amounts of money to maintain that market share (see Herbert Simon on this). Second, he does not discuss the benefits of monopolies, and neither does he do much to consider Schumpeter's arguments about the roles of monopolies and entrepreneurs as innovators (maybe I've missed something), nor does he consider the extent to which markets facilitate lock-in and monopolization and which, if harmful, cannot be undone without suitable government intervention. Third, he articulates how human society needs both filial ties and commercial ties for it to function well, but he does not accurately specify the exact limits of each, and when he tries to make some arguments as to some limits (i.e. market interactions are 'commercial' family interactions not), they often seem forced rather than well-argued or evidence-based, that is what about gift exchange, or charitable giving, or helping a neighbour, doing volunteer work? Where exactly does the boundary lie and why? Does the boundary exist at all, or is it a hangover of Adam's Fallacy (as Duncan Foley might put it). Fourth, and probably most importantly, Hayek does not speak about power and the market - not market power, but how individuals with amassed market share have political power outside of the market and in the political sphere. They can, and do, exert power over others in a way that is anti-democratic and anti-libertarian. There are several other problems with the book, but these are the ones that leapt out at me.

That said, Hayek commands his territory well. He bulwarks private (several) property with many strong arguments, defends an epistemology based on evolutionary arguments for economies and group selection in particular, marshals an attack on more mainstream economic thinking (his famed 'Fatal Conceit' chapter) and socialistic thinking in particular, and continues onward to garner a position that stands for both a minimal state, yet with specific liberties. But when reading the book, I got the sense, disturbingly, that Hayek would rather live in an authoritarian state that defends private property than a democracy that does not. This jars with my senses of liberty and democracy. Nonetheless, the book is a landmark of libertarian philosophy and must be read by any ambitious scholar of the institutions and mechanisms of capitalism and human cooperation.

Robert Heilbroner - The Worldly Philosophers
What new can be said about The Worldly Philosophers? The book is a marvel of easy-to-access history of economic though, charting the path from before Adam Smith, through Ricardo, Malthus, Marx, Veblen, Keynes and Schumpeter and ending with a discussion of the ends of the worldly philosophy - both its intentions and its extinction. Going in, I already knew a substantial amount about those whom Heilbroner wrote about, but I had not had their stories told to me with such panache and verve. Having previously read various short biographies of Marx, for example Paul Johnson's acerbic short biography in Intellectuals, it was refreshing to see a more forgiving and holistic view of Marx, especially from an author who has written so much using marxist theory. The Worldly Philosophers makes a fantastic introduction to the history of economic thought - simply to provide a more expansive understanding of the intentions of economics and why so many have found its study to be such a stimulating and motivating force in their livings. I want to buy copies for my parents, and my wife will read it soon. What made it all the more pleasurable, is that, unlike many more technical books on economics, it was an easy 'read before bed' book because you could capture the narrative and sink back into it with ease, and emerge from it without feeling anxious about statistics and abstruser musings. I recommend this book strongly to any student of economics and anyone related to that student, you'll understand them better, I promise (it should be compulsory reading for any parent who wants their child to study economics).

Finally, it should be given a strong recommendation because of the final chapter, in which Heilbroner discusses the 'end' of Worldly Philosophy. In it, Heilbroner launches an attack on mainstream, largely mathematical, neoclassical economics, arguing for a more inclusive, historically located economics that allows people to consider simultaneously the small, niche questions that they do, in addition to the 'big-think' that made so many of the worldly philosophers great. Paul Samuelson, who recently passed away, gave similar advice in a recent interview, saying that, in hindsight, non-technical economic history and history of economic thought had greater relevance than he would have originally thought, giving particular weight to understanding the structures and evolution of the institutions that make so much of modern society, modern capitalism possible and, current events notwithstanding, to make them flourish. What a marvellous book.

H. L. Mencken - Prejudices: A Selection (James T. Farrell ed.)
Mencken was a fantastically witty, intelligent and acerbic commentator. He's also probably one of my favourite conservatives (Yes, I have a list of my favourite conservatives). He wrote short and cutting pieces about subjects or things of which he doesn't approve (for example, see his essay on Chiropractic written back in 1924). I did not read all the essays in the book, its expiry date was up at the library and I intend to buy it and have the pleasure of reading some essays that I had not read. If you have not read any of Mencken's essays this book provides a fantastic short collection to introduce you to some of his more famous work, looking at everything from domestic US politics, to literature, to his thoughts on the world as a whole. Give it a try if you enjoy short, and often personal, essays.

Thomas Childers - WWII: A Military and Social History - TTC Lectures
The course was advertised as a 'social and military' history, but far more weight was given to the military history of the war, and this is where Professor Childers shines. However, he does the social history well tpp. He intersperses tales of battles (infantry firing, tanks blitzkrieging, aircraft bombging) with stories of the everyday lives of the people living and experiencing the war. Both of these aspects of the war require the emphasis that they get, though it must be said that Childers focuses greatly on the Allies' experience of the war, and the experiences of US and British citizens in particular.

Two factors made this series of lectures particularly relevant to me: the way in which Childers describes the pacific arena, and also how he lent credence to how the Russians bore the brunt of the German war machine. I had not understood the extent of the war between Japan and the United States previously, which I assume was a consequence of my anglocentric upbringing and the eurocentric instruction in WWII history. Being a non-American, having the Pacific war brought home was both perplexing and revelatory, and I began to understand some of the motivations behind the use of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima (but not for Nagasaki). Why? Estimates for an invasion of Japan ran up to 1 million casualties, both civilian and military. Using the bomb would result in fewer casualties. Now, I do not claim the excuse the action, but rather that part of me which objected to the bomb on principle began to understand some of the political and military dynamics behind it: the jungle warfare had resulted in phenomenal US and Japanese casualties, the kamikaze killed hundred, the ritual suicides of the Japanese - whole villages throwing themselves off of cliffs, the suicide bayonet charges of Japanese soldiers - the abuse and torture of American POWs, led the Americans to believe that their enemy would stop at nothing, and would likely repeat a Pearl Harbour had they the option to do so. Again, this does not begin to excuse the use of the bomb, or the consequent fallout, but it did begin to explain it to someone whose only understanding of these things was a rudimentary knowledge of Iwo Jima.

Secondly, Childers, though he does not emphasise it to the extent I think it warrants, describes how the war was, to a great extent, won by the Russians, or maybe lost by the Germans because of their Russian invasion, and thus the brunt of which was borne by the Russians. The Russians were assisted by the allies, specifically the Americans, with supplies of food and arms, but the Russian death toll was the greatest amongst the allies, and the reciprocal casualties that the Russians (and their landscape) wrought on the Germans decisively determined the end of the war: the Germans would lose. The rest of the Allies, though they did well in Africa and Southern Europe, did nowhere near as much to end the war and could almost be considered mere irritants to Germany in the face of its Russian invasion. The reasons why we anglophiles often don't know this, I think, is probably a consequence of the Cold War - it would not have been politically feasible for historians or politicians to recount the extent to which the West was indebted to Russia for its survival, or at least for teachers to tell the children they were educating as good capitalist citizens to believe that a communist power was their saviour.

Childers thus constructs an intelligent and useful historic architecture, filling in many of the gaps that I had, while also allowing me to understand the breadth of what I still do not know by hinting at many of the military, social, political and economic factors that he did not have time to consider. For example, I would like to understand better the internal functioning of Germany during the second world war: exactly how it incorporated other countries during the anschluss, the means by which Hitler ruled as Fuhrer, and the internal politics that facilitated fascism. More in time, I assume, as I read and study more about WWII.

Robert Bucholz - History of England: From the Tudors to the Stuarts - TTC Lectures
Initially I found it odd being lectured to by someone with an American accent. However, what Bucholz does well is to introduce the non-Briton to British history. Therefore, even though I am a colonial, I benefited from him explaining a number of things that would be obvious to a Briton because he would have absorbed through cultural osmosis, whereas as a non-Briton I would have to look it up to understand it better (my father's commitment to his birthplace notwithstanding).

Bucholz produces a fascinating and well-structured course. Starting just before the reign of the Tudors to set the scene of medieval and pre-protestant Britain, he proceeds onwards to the War of the Roses, the establishment of the rule of the Tudors through to Elizabeth's death. This first large part of the course taught me a substantial amount of things that were predominantly mythical to me. Two of the most important myth-breakers: first: England's irrelevance to European politics, and, second, the extent of the tall tales I had internalized about some of England's rulers. For example, although I understood that Henry VIII was profligate and arrogant, I had not understood the extent to which he almost bankrupted England through inane wars, or the extent to which his rebellion was quite unimportant to many, though obviously significant to others because of its protestant nature. Second, I had not understood that, although Elizabeth I ruled well, many actions she took jeopardised Britain's stability and its rule as a good protestant state - she let down many of the iconoclastic sects of Christianity.

Moving beyond Elizabeth into the Stuart rule, I learned a substantial amount about the revolution leading up to the Glorious Revolution. Bucholz seems to cover most of the areas well and answered many of the questions I would have considered had I done this course in a classroom, covering the ineptitude of Charles I, the brilliance of Oliver Cromwell and the gap left by his subsequent death, the restoration of Charles II, and the ultimate succession of William of Orange with the advent of the Constitutional Monarchy. Not having known all the details of the Glorious Revolution previously, I marveled at the sequence of events that led up to it. Moreover, the ways in which Britain has evolved since then are equally fascinating and constitute more history that I would like to pursue to understand better the contemporary United Kingdom.

Gender and Risk: Context and History

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: , , | 0 comments my series on risk aversion, competition and gender (see my first post here) after a long hiatus, today's papers try to assess whether risk and competition preferences are determined by 'nature', something inherent in women, or 'nurture', the environment in which the person grew and came to be socialised, or some combination of the two, or maybe something which is residual and unexplained. Moreover, are risk-preferences 'state-based' - are they contingent on the situation or context in which a person makes their decisions. We can therefore ask the following questions. Does the composition of the school, business, or social group in which you find yourself affect your willingness to engage in risky behaviour, or your willingness to compete? Does your personal history of nurture, as a woman, affect your risk preferences?

A recent pair of papers by Alison Booth and Patrick Nolen, both of the University of Essex, grapples with these questions using experimental methods and a quirk of policy to evaluate the mechanisms and structure of risky behavior and competition - they want to understand whether nurture or nature speak out. To foreshadow, they come to conclusions similar to one of my favourite books, Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley. Men and women, girls and boys, seem to tend towards specific attitudes towards risk, but these attitudes are dramatically affected by the nurture that they experience and the context in which they find themselves. It seems, though, that girls, more than boys, are more affected by nurture and by context and that by manipulating these we can provide a context in which girls choose to compete about as much as boys, or choose to act as riskily (in a good way) as do boys.

In their first paper, Booth and Nolen interrogate whether a girl's history (coeducational or single sex schooling) and her context (being in a group of girls only or a group of boys and girls) affect her choice to compete (defined well in their paper, don't worry to much about it here). In the second paper, they assess whether a girl's history or context affect her risk preferences. How do they interrogate such important questions? Well, they opened the economic experimentalists' toolbox to manipulate context, while happening upon a quirk in policy in the British education system that allowed them to isolate history. In Essex and Suffolk, which border one another, we can assume that socio-economic status is distributed similarly. Consequently, that some students, by a quirk of policy can attend single-sex schools while others, just across the border, attend coeducational schools provides us with a natural environment in which to test history, or nurture, as a determinant of risk preferences. With an experiment, we can control the composition of the group in which a subject makes decisions, to see whether this composition affects their decisions.

In both areas, Booth and Nolen resoundingly answer that nurture and context strongly affect female decisions. Girls from single sex education background behave substantially less risk aversely than girls from coeducational backgrounds. Girls from single sex educational backgrounds behave similarly to boys in this respect (boys' behavior does not seem to be affect by background, which is a separate path for inquiry about gender effects) - single sex girls' behavior vacillates from being statistically not differentiable from boys' behavior, to being slightly (very slightly) more risk averse. Similarly, girls from single sex backgrounds choose to compete far more often than girls from coeducational backgrounds, and the incidence of girls' choices to compete is not statistically significantly different to the incidence of boys' choice to compete. So nurture matters.

With respect to context, for both single sex girls and coeducational girls, context matters. Girls from both groups are likely to behave more risk aversely and to choose to compete less often when boys are included in their group. Boys, on the other hand, don't change their behavior if they're from single sex or coeducational backgrounds.

Can we consider specific policy implications of their papers? First of all, one policy could be that to evaluate girls and boys, segregated schooling or, at minimum, segregated testing environments could ensure that women perform lest risk aversely and choose to compete as regularly as boys do. Also, there could be a role for all women companies or firms in which women only compete with and interact with one another and choose not to introduce any men into the women-only environment. Now, I'm not proposing that these things should be done, but rather that they are fairly logical implications of the Booth and Nolen results.

Another result could be, simply, that we'd rather have more risk and competition averse people involved in banking and finance, and that to ensure this we employ more women in these environments. However, sample selection could bias our sample. But maybe not, because it seems as though female MBAs are still more risk averse than their male counterparts, so the selection bias may not matter too much (see Levy, Elron and Cohen, 1999).

Another question goes begging. If girls' behavior is so responsive to environment and history, why can't the same be said of boys? Are boys immune to nurture? Is their behavior more innate or less? These are questions that remain to be answered, but, I hope, will continue to be questions that researchers try their best to answer with experimental techniques and an understanding of institutional peculiarities that make work like Booth and Nolen's so compelling.

Alison Booth and Patrick J. Nolen, 2009, 'Gender Differences in Risk Behaviour: Does Nurture Matter?' University of Essex, Department of Economics Discussion Paper 672
Alison Booth and Patrick J. Nolen, 2009, 'Choosing to Compete: How Different Are Girls and Boys' University of Essex, Department of Economics Discussion Paper 673,

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, November 21, 2009 | Category: | 1 comments

In his recent column for the FT, Tim Harford discusses the idea of Scroogenomics. The idea, conceived by economist Joel Waldfogel, proposes that Christmas be abolished. No, Waldfogel is not the Grinch made flesh, but rather an economist who has rather narrow views on gifts and gift valuation. Waldfogel argues that each year at Christmas the worldwide deadweight loss is approximately $25bn. The reason? If someone gives you a gift with a price of $50, you may value it at $35-40. Extrapolate this outwards and you can arrive at suitably large numbers. Waldfogel's proposal for Christmas is that people give cash rather than physical gifts. Giving gift certificates (vouchers) also isn't efficient because people often don't use them and they expire, not serving their purpose. Thus give money.

Harford challenges Waldfogel's idea of deadweight loss by calling on 'Warm Glow' effects, i.e. how we feel about giving gifts and how we could attach a monetary value to the warm glow that would diminish the deadweight loss. I agree with Harford, but two other criticisms come to mind. First, the much researched notion of framing. The problem is that when people frame things as financial interactions rather than as gift-giving they often behave less cooperatively and less prosocially. Imagine at Christmas not giving any non-monetary gifts whatsoever, but only exchanging envelopes of cash - it may come to feel like an exchange of cash for services rendered, even if the service was just a big 'thank you' afterwards (note, there might be an optimum at some combination of gifts and cash-in-hand). Secondly, people are known to experience the endowment effect for goods, that is to value goods more than their listed price when given the option to exchange that gift with someone else. Highlighting the endowment effect somehow could overpower the straight monetary losses by affecting how people value the gain. I'm not suggesting here that we try to set up post-christmas trades between siblings, but playful commentary on the 'subjective worth' rather than the 'monetary worth' of things could be justified, and potentially more in the spirit of Christmas, regards of your religious or secular affiliation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

(Fred) Halliday's 'What Was Communism?

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, November 20, 2009 | Category: , , | 0 comments

I finally got around to reading Fred Halliday's article at OpenDemocracy 'What Was Communism?' I found it quite edifying, from the little things I appreciate, such as expanding my vocabulary (I did not know, or do not recall looking up previously, that 'aporia' was the Greek for impasse, specifically in the case of understanding potentially divergent or ambiguous meaning), to larger and more significant contributions such as finding a worthy critique and commentary on the lessons that we must learn from Communism and its failure; particularly how it is necessary for us to realise the ways in which capitalism adapted to the presence of, and how it now adapts to the lack of, communism as a an alternative for state policy.

Though one may be sceptical of the 'if you don't know history you'll be doomed to repeat it' trope, Halliday articulates the role of 'communism as reminder' well:

Judging from the politics and intellectual debates of today, neither those who celebrate the end of communism, nor those who are now articulating a radical alternative, have carried out such an assessment: between (on one side) the still resilient complacency of market capitalism and an increasingly uncertain world of liberal democracy, and (on the other) the vacuous radicalisms that pose as a global alternative, the lessons of the communist past remain largely ignored. And so, as they say, they will be repeated.
And on adaptation,
The greatest achievement of communism may well turn out to have been not the creation of an alternative and more desirable system contrasted to capitalism, but its contribution to the modernisation of capitalism itself. No account of the spread of the suffrage, the rise of the welfare state, the end of colonialism, or the economic booms of Europe and east Asia after 1945 could omit the catalytic role which, combined with pressure from within, the communist challenge from without played.
I subscribe fairly strongly to the notion of institutional evolution: that institutions either adapt to the social environment in which they find themselves: they mutate and succeed, they mutate and fail, they do not recognise that the environment has changed and they expire because unadapted. With institutions, as with most things on such an epic scale, what matters is that we recognise how both an historic presence of an institution and how contemporary legacies of an institution affect the current institutions that appear and mutate to adapt to the current institutional milieu. Certain things in our 'democracies' scare me: for example, the evisceration of rights historically held sacred in the West petrifies me as a potential adaptation of capitalist democracy to a world in which communism no longer threatens it. I hope though that mass action - demonstration, voting, community involvement - will act as counterweight. Though I get annoyed by aphoristic 'Time will tell's, it should.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Will Hutton's LSE Lecture

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, November 11, 2009 | Category: , , | 0 comments

Last Wednesday evening I attended a lecture by Will Hutton at the LSE titled 'Them and Us: How Capitalism without Fairness is Capitalism without a Future' [podcast]. Though some did not like it, I appreciated the talk, but I got the sense that it was, as Hutton said at the outset, the first time he was discussing in public the topics he intends to put into his next book and he was therefore not as structured nor as well-articulated as I expect him to be once he has the book done and dusted.

Hutton covered several broad areas of interest ranging from a theory of justice based on fairness and equality of opportunity (relating to an open access society as he articulates it), improved democracy, a better functioning market, increased government investment in innovation and technology, and improved regulation of financial markets. That was a lot to cover in one lecture, and I think he lost a few people because of being a bit all over the place. Nevertheless, I have rarely come across a lecturer who so closely mirrors my own position on things.

First, he articulated how, consistent with Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, humans seem to have a native, persistent and seemingly ubiquitous moral intuition about most things that affects us regardless of our stated rational positions. Though we may think rationally otherwise, we seem to have an inclination to punish those who infringe social norms, and reward those who we believe act responsibly and exert effort. Hauser backs this up with experimental evidence and surveys. I believe more in experiments, and I'm not so big on straight surveys for this kind of stuff. Anyway, the basic point stands: human moral judgements seem to be based on biological rather than purely rational pathways of thought and emotion. Hutton argues that this moral intuition oddly enough mirrors a sentiment that Marx articulated early on - from each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution - note contribution and not need. Moreover, he proposes an argument for equality of opportunity - or an open access society - that I thought was similar to John Roemer's in his Equality of Opportunity - control for luck, allow for personal responsibility over effort. [I asked Hutton about this connection during the question time and he replied that the contemporary milieu calls for a re-annunciation of Roemer's theory, which was apposite when it appeared in 1998, but even more apt and urgently needed now.]

Second, to reform contemporary politics and capitalism we need to embrace this human inclination to interpret others' behavior relative to ourselves and to our intuitions about fairness. Thus, partisans on the left and right need to re-conceive their thinking on phenomena such as CEO pay - what value do they really provide? are their paychecks accurate representations of their productivity or grotesque arms-race style rewards? - of single mothers on benefits - at what point are they responsible? at what point is it bad luck? - and progress from here to redress the function of the political system in the UK (and, I hope, abroad). This reminded me of some of the prescriptions in Eric Beinhocker's The Origin of Wealth in which Beinhocker argued for a role of complexity economics, social preferences and advances in theoretical biology that seem to better approximate how people think and act rather than the polarized partisan positions that people take on issues independent of the evidence.

Third, Hutton goes on to argue that, at their best and most competitive, markets are the optimal way to elicit the value of contributions that people make to society. But the competitiveness of markets has been undermined by political shenanigans, rent-seeking, monopoly power, and the connections of political interests to corporate interests rather than the interests of the citizenry - our democratic votes are in no way as powerful as the money of the capitalist elite. Consequently, though, value has been corrupted, the notion of just reward undermined, and our sense of rightness and fairness has been contravened by the actions of commercial oligarchs acting in their own interests to the detriment of the population at large. *Applause* I couldn't agree more. The problem relates to how we conduct policies in modern democracies, to lobbying and to political clientelism that pervades both the developed and developing worlds. What can we do about it? I favour grass roots collective action. To some extent Obama's presidential campaign showed the power of such tactics and I wish that more people would adopt such action for other important causes, reforming democracy itself for example. On this, Hutton advocates diminishing the power of the executive in the UK, delegating more power to local authorities, and increased participation by citizens.

Hutton made several additional points, but I thought that these three general areas were the most interesting and relevant. I believe, particularly, in a system that better approximates equality of opportunity and does allows people to move beyond the context in which their parents were born - a system of zero intergenerational transfer of inequality of opportunity. Unlikely, but at the moment it is something towards which I am inclined. I am not entirely sure how to get there, but the ideas that Hutton conceived seemed, to me, at least a contemporary utterance in a conversation that needs to continue.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Dowden on Africa and China

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, November 09, 2009 | Category: , , | 0 comments

Richard Dowden's recent Times article is entertaining and contains some truth.I found the following paragraph particularly amusing though disturbing:

There is a widespread perception that saintly Britain had adopted this poor little girl called Africa and was busy saving her from hunger, war, disease and poverty. Suddenly big, greedy China, flashing huge deals and cheap goods, has seduced the girl and is leading her astray, even raping her. And to make it worse for Britain, ungrateful Africa sometimes feels that although Chinese intentions may not be entirely honourable, China at least treats her like a grown up.

Take a look at the article, it's worth a read. I continue to reflect on the moral dangers of trading with China for countries in Africa, and the extent to which, if trade makes these countries more successful, they will come to believe that politically mirroring China will also bring them success. I hope that this does not happen. I believe that the SA-China campaigns to block the UN Vote on Zimbabwe typifies this danger.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Carnival of the Africans

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, November 05, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments am late to this party, many apologies.  The most recent Carnival of the Africans, the 12th, was hosted by Mike Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment.  One of my recent posts on risk aversion is in the carnival, so take a look at it if you haven't read it yet (and I promise more are coming, I am simply working quite hard on a paper at the moment which prevents regular blogging for some reason, not all of us are Tyler Cowen).  Other posts from the blog that I found interesting are the following: Jacques Rousseau's discussions of whether Faith Kills and on the relevance of Blasphemy Day (basically what's the point of being an offensive non-believer? it doesn't assist the cause and alienates people - here I think it's necessary to separate acts which are political (say PZ Myers and the cracker - though it's debatable about the offence vs. politics here) and those that are just out to offend); two posts on psychic-related stuff - one by Tim at Reason Check on a psychic claiming to have contacted Michael Jackson (LOL!) and another by Angela the Skeptic Detective about a surprisingly boring psychic fair in Durban.  Finally, Mike himself explains some things about the human immune system, the understanding of which seems to have been evaded by many people of late.  Those are my picks (read, I managed to read them) from this month's carnival.  Take a look at the whole thing though for the link love.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, October 30, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments

I've decided to return to my previous system of short reviews of several books, rather than lengthy reviews of books one-by-one.


Fareed Zakaria - The Post-American World -  [Audiobook]
I can't say much about this book, except, 'Wow, you really didn't expect the financial crisis, did you?' That said, Zakaria makes interesting and enlightening points about the US's relationships with China and India, and the potential changes in international relations that are likely to occur as a consequence of these new powers flexing their political muscles during the 21st century.  But, Zakaria's economics was much more conservative than I expected them to be, advocating Chicago-style policies, without much discussion of more social support, the nuances of alleviating poverty and inequality, or the ways in which interactions between more powerful developed countries and less powerful developing countries could affect the development paths of the 'rest' - his perceptions of socialism, communism and even social democracy seemed a bit jaded and biased. Though the evidence indicates that many countries that did not grow for most of the 20th century are growing and will continue to grow in the 21st century, but this does not mean that their growth will be slower, or that it will favour specific echelons in their societies, or that new problems, particularly with inequalities in power, wealth and rights won't plague these countries, particularly China and Russia.  Nevertheless, I still learnt a fair amount from this book, though not enough to warrant the overall defence of capitalism Zakaria advocates, his approach required more nuance.  

Joseph J. Ellis - Founding Brothers - [Audiobook]
Ellis takes a strongly episodic approach to the American revolution in Founding Brothers.  He begins the book with an episode after the revolution - the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.  Burr shot Hamilton, after which Hamilton died.  The episode illustrates a larger conflict between  the Federalists and the Republicans, and how their beliefs about the intentions of the revolutionary generation affected their beliefs about the direction of the fledgling American union.  We see this time and again throughout the book, manifested particularly in the animosity between Jefferson and Hamilton, in both parties' attacks on John Adams, on the name-calling (both Washington and Adams were accused of being 'monarchists'), and on myriad other events during the years immediately subsequent to the revolution.

For me, the most interesting of the larger episodes Ellis recounts is that of the evolution of the friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Initially close as a consequence of their time spent together in the Continental Congress during which time Adams supervised Jefferson, closer still after their time together in Europe, then diverging after their return to America: Adams staunchly support of  Washington (and therefore tacitly supported Hamilton) and was sceptical of the French revolution believing that it would come to no good, whereas Jefferson believed that the American Revolution were one and the same, that Washington had concentrated too much power in the presidency and that Hamilton, through Washington, was in the process of making the Union a slave of banking interests, and thus vicariously a tool of the British Empire.  However, after much impugning of character, after both their presidencies, and after tragedy had befallen them both, after Jefferson came as close as he would to apologising for his conduct, they became friends once more, dying within hours of each other on the 50th anniversary of signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1826, during the presidency of John Adams's son, John Quincy Adams.

But I found a few problems with the book.  First, for someone unfamiliar with the American revolution a lot of the content and context would be missed - you need to know at least the background, surrounding structure, and consequences of the revolution to understand the episodes that Ellis recounts, though I understand this because of my own reading, others unfamiliar with the information might not.  Second, as in Ellis's other book on the American revolution, American Creation, Ellis tends to try to create a myth around the evidence, rather than letting the evidence do as much speaking for itself as it can.  Not that I expect a history book to be without argument or without discussion, but I prefer a history in which I hear less of the author's voice and more of the voices of those involved - letters, essays, speeches from their pens and mouths.  Ellis writes quite forgivingly about his founding brothers, taking their good qualities with their bad, and relating how he believes much might not have been achieved without the synthesis, the sum greater than the parts, that they created in the American union.  However, his picture still lacks some of the nuance of social history - to what extent was Washington actually indispensable? Did the history really revolve around him? What about all the Americans working and supporting the many politicians who made their names? What was their relevanceo to the founding? To the American constitution's development? To the development of democracy? So expect a detailed picture of the main players, indeed the founding brothers, and their families and acquiantances, expect biographical details without greater details of the times, locations and social context.  For those look elsewhere. McCullough - John Adams - [Audiobook]
I loved this audiobook and I came to appreciate the personality and character of John Adams while listening to it.  For those of you who don't know, John Adams was the second president of the United States, succeeding George Washington, and preceding Thomas Jefferson.  As the man succeeding Washington he had to deal with the relative mess left by Washington and the machinations of Hamilton, and the blooming anti-Federalist sentiments spurred by Jefferson, Madison, and the Republicans. McCullough captures well the challenges that Adams faced, articulating how his flaws impeded him and how his virtues enabled him to achieve the highest office in the land. 

McCullough introduces us to Adams during the lead-up to the revolution, and then backtracks to when Adams was the oldest child of John Adams Sr., a boot maker and town alderman. John Adams Jr. studied well and went on to attend Harvard College under the supervision of such luminaries as John Winthrop and others, after which he went on to study the law.  His decision to study law, rather than to become a teacher as he had intended dramatically altered his path as it gained him access to thinkers and practitioners who were on both sides of the revolutionary perspective: Tories and those in favour of opposing the British.  Adams's simultaneous high quality education, his dedication to ethical and godly behaviour, his determination to be purely and incorruptibly independent in thought and deed (causing many problems later when the States became dominated by parties), his dedicated marriage to Abigail and its proto-feminist equality of intellect (she was basically his sole advisor during his presidency when he realised that his cabinet ministers were Hamilton's toadies), make Adams a phenomenally interesting man to read about.  Moreover, because of the close relationship between John and Abigail, the book is as much her biography as his, except that she would not have been allowed to be the second president of the United States.  

The book is supported substantially by the primary sources that the Adams family left to historians, based predominantly on the exhaustive of letters between John and Abigal, the vast collection of letters between Adams and Jefferson, Adams and so many others - Benjamin Rush, Elbridge Gerry, John Jay, The Warrens, his son John Quincy Adams (6th President of the US), several Dutch friends, to name a few.  McCullough draws heavily on letters written by others too, particularly Abigail and Thomas Jefferson.  In addition, McCullough recreates the context of the revolutionary colonies and then the republican United States. He provides every day details ranging from Abigail's continuous demand that John buy needles and cloth when in Philadelphia, to the worries about money, land and children. 

Although John's relationship with Abigail forms the backbone of the book, his relationship with his children paints on odd picture of a the role of the rotestant father tied to duty.  John believed that his life was not his own and that doing duty to God and to country were far more important than his family.  His attitude led to conflict with Abigail, but also to later conflict and remonstrances from his children, particularly Thomas who never seemed to forgive his father for being distant, for being against nepotism and for arguing against any form of speculative investment (Thomas lost several thousand dollars to speculation, thousand dollars of which belonged to his brother John Quincy).  Thomas died an alcoholic, leaving his wife and children to the care of his extended family.  Sadly, Charles too, after insufficient success as a lawyer turned to the bottle.  Nabby, the Adams's eldest child married Colonel Smith, John Adams's one-time secretary.  But Col. Smith too favoured speculation and lost substantial amounts of money, losing John Adams's favour in the process.  John Adams, informed greatly by his religious background I would suspect, believed that people should have pride in their work, should work determinedly, and should always avoid mummery with money and speculation particularly - simply using money to make money, rather than doing something constructive with your time and abilities was immoral in John Adams's mind. Consequently, apart from his sometimes warm, sometimes cool relationship with his son John Quincy, John Adams ended up having fairly poor relationships with his children.  It seems as though this tragedy hurt him, but that he wished his children to understand that a person's life was not their own, but rather given to duty and to God.  Adams's work ethic was heroic, he religiously rose at 5am, worked many hours every day, reading late into the night by candlelight.  Anything less, he seemed to feel, would not be upholding his duties.

I could go on about the many lists of events, triumphs, tragedies, failures, and renewals in John Adams's life.  In fact, with a biography like this, where I really felt compassion and appreciation for the person being written about, it is difficult to determine whether the biography itself is worthwhile.  However, I believe that David McCullough's presentation of the narrative does lend one to appreciate John Adams, but it also enables us to see Adams's flaws and his understanding of these flaws. McCullough therefore writes good popular biographical history - allowing us access to the inner life of the main character of the history, while illuminating us about their many quirks and foibles.  I recommend this book because it allowed me access to the history of a man who so evidently felt passionately and worked devotedly on behalf of his country and its union. Paine - Common Sense - [Audiobook]
I read Common Sense because it is referred to in all the books I've read recently on the American Revolution.  Almost all of these books argue that revolutionary sentiments were not sufficiently high to justifyrevolution prior to Paine writing and publishing Common Sense, but after he published it sentiments tended far more towards independence than they had before. The change enabled the continental congress to vote on independence, rather than favouring re-integration with Great Britain alongside greater colonial power in parliament. Paine's work should also be seen as part of a larger project within The Enlightenment in which philosophers and commentators grappled with the problems of liberty, representation, science and the role of the state.  I strongly recommend reading this as a way to access the
prevailing sentiments in the colonies that were to become the United States.

Fiction Sebold - The Lovely Bones -
In The Lovely Bones, Sebold tells the story of an adolescent girl, Susie Salmon who is raped and murdered, and then ascends to heaven.  The story is told from Susie's perspective, as she observes people on  earth, and the novel spans several years after Susie's death. 

Susie details her parents' relationship after her death - her father's obsession with finding her murderer, and her mother trying simply to 'get on with life'.  Susie shows too the development of her sister, Lindsey, from an awkwardly gifted, yet beautiful younger sister to someone reconciled with her sisters death.  She charts the growth  of her brother, Buckley, from someone confused by the sudden disappearance of a sister who had always been there, to someone who knows and understands.  She describes the path taken by the boy she liked in school, Ray Singh, as he moves on from being the intelligent and considerate outsider.  Susie portrays too the life of her friend, Ruth, a school misfit convinced that ghosts exist, that she is watched, and uncertain whether she is attracted to men or women.

Though one of the main ideas behind the novel, that Susie's murderer continues to live down the road from her parents, could detract from the novel, it doesn't because the novel is not, ultimately, a detective novel or a whodunnit of any sort.  Rather, you should take this novel as an interesting confessional or detail-oriented and compassionate portrait of family life after death. 

There are several intriguing facets to The Lovely Bones seen mainly in Susie's contemplations and actions: from trying to cross over from heaven to earth and touching those who live on earth in an urge to manipulate what occurs on earth, to lamenting what she has  missed because she was killed while remonstrating herself for those things she did not do while alive, to accepting where she is and releasing her attachment to those on earth.  Sebold achieves a fairly innovative novel, which I found enjoyable to read.  It won't change your world, but you'll gain a sense of a family's suffering after death and how that family strives for resolution, written in a way that feels compassionate and new.  Don't be deceived into thinking it's the novel of the century as some reviews would have you believe, but rather that it's fairly slow-moving, thorough and enjoyable if you don't have crazy expectations. Gibbons - Cold Comfort Farm -
Written in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm is a satirical take on the Victorian novel and the  heroins that populated the work of Jane Austen, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and others. Gibbons plays up the polarity of rural vs. urban, illuminates the machinations required to make a love overcome class barriers, while making a laugh of it all.  Reading Cold Comfort Farm, you get a sense of the doomy and gloomy become spirited and bright, with a manipulative nudge, spit and polish, hard work, and determination.  Flora Post, the protagonist, takes on the curse of the farm, the will of her dreadfully backward, suspicious and superstitious family and turns their lives on their head, changing the lives of the surrounding quasi-nobility and villagers in the process.  The book must be read to be believed, and you'll laugh your way through it, especially if you know and understand 19th century English fiction. Have a read, it's easy and enjoyable. Auster - The New York Trilogy
I find it difficult to comment on Auster's trilogy, mainly because the books, though creating a unified whole, also seem to jar, to rub against each other oddly.  That said, they constitute a masterpiece of post-modern literature, consistently playing with the notion of authorship, the position of the author in the novel, the nature of autobiogrpahy and biography, and embedding post-modern theorizing and playfulness in a well-known genre: the detective novel. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the first and third parts of the trilogy, becoming slightly annoyed by the second part while I read it, but then understanding its relevance to the whole once I reached the end of the novel.  It would not have worked without the annoying, but still well-written, second section.  My annoyance derived from the post-modern ploys that Auster adopted to achieve his end result, the relevance of which I understand, but I remained annoyed by them.  But don't let this detract from the novel too much, the first and third sections are sublime.  The third section takes the first two, builds on the structure they provide, and makes the entire novel into something enchanting and truly worthwhile.  If you struggle a bit in the middle of the book, champion onward - you will be rewarded by a well-plotted literary detective novel that achieves several 'Ahah!' moments. Enjoy them. Chevalier - Burning Bright 1/2
I expected more of Burning Bright, having been told that Chevalier wrote Girl With a Pearl Earring, which I've yet to read, but I have been told is good.  I was not to be satisfied.  In the book, Chevalier tries to depict London during the Romantic era, playing too with the ideas beloved by the Romantics, for example the beauty of the rural and the corruption of the urban. But her execution of these ideas is clumsy, and they almost lose relevance as a consequence, which the Romantics themselves would have lamented - Coleridge twists in his grave. 

The plot progresses as follows. A family from the good rural areas up North, move down to London when opportunity calls. But they are led astray by the allures of the city - they end up poorer than they began, tales of woe hound them, one of the few thins to make their lives seem worthwhile is the assistance they are given by one Mr. William Blake, their neighbour in Lambeth.  William Blake meets the two main characters of the book - a boy and a girl - for whom he tries to explain the nature of innocence and experience, an ongoing conversation in which Blake expounds on how everyone has some innocence and some experience in them, and that each person but finds themselves somewhere on the continuum.  Rah rah! Enter caddish lad, all suave atop a military horse, who navigates a lady's innocence and makes her more experienced. Ho hum. The book had a lot of potential, there was so much that could be done with the character of William Blake and the people who surrounded him, but it was not to be.

Instead, somehow, Chevalier manages to take the good bits, peel many of them away, and trivialize what remains by turning it into something puerile and arbitrary.  If you've read Songs of Innocence and Experience, then you'd know that Blake plays with the these notions deliberately, plays with ideas of religion, of youth, of age, of creation and destruction.  Yes, these come through in Chevalier's story, but so obviously and clumsily that they are far less appreciable than in William Blake's poetry.  I'd recommend that instead of reading this book, reading a biography of William Blake, read some of his poetry, and maybe read a bit about the history of London at the time.

Annie Dilard - The Maytrees
Rarely do I read a book that conjures images as vividly and imaginatively as those that Annie Dillard  conjures in The Maytrees.  A love story, the book charts the love of a couple living in Provincetown on the Eastern Coast of the United States: they give birth to a child, they rift, but where does love go? What happens to love? Does it vanish? remain? transform? Can you love more than one person at a time? What of children?

I consistently read passages of The Maytrees out to my wife, astounded by Dillard's ability to characterize moments and sensations perfectly, for example, "They shook hands and hers felt hot under sand like a sugar donut," (7) or "Lou saw the sun spread like a gull for its landing on the sea." (105) Both are beautiful comparisons and evoke  the exact image, the exact sensation to make me, as a reader, feel and see what the author makes the characters feel and see in these moments.

The Maytrees is stately, it carried me on the ebbs and flows of its prose as it would a piece of driftwood, and I had to give in to the rhythms of it, let it speak to me slowly, occasionally overwhelmed, occasionally feeling as though I sat atop a wave and was glimpsing an horizon beyond the book.  Ok, I'm over-writing now, but I simply wanted to say I thought the book beautiful, poignant, poetic.  It will not suit everyone, not that much 'happens'.  Much is shown for us to interpret and relay, but I believe that if you appreciate Dillard's writing style, I have but read The Writing Life, The Maytrees will reward you with equally good steadily unfurling beauty and truth about love. 

Raymond E. Feist - The Serpentwar Saga and The Conclave of Shadows Trilogy
I've read these books a number of times.  Having recently been moving country, staying in a friend's living room, finding an apartment,
moving, getting internet, signing contracts, getting work, etc, I needed something non-literary.  I fly through these books when I read
them and they satisfy a strange urge for reading about heroes, battles, magic, etc.  Feist does epic battles, multiple-world-spanning wars, and bad philosophy about gods and people well.  The Serpentwar Saga probably contains one of my favourite books of his Rise of a Merchant Prince, in which the main character, Rupert Avery, tries to set up a trading empire.  Feist details how Roo fails, has the chutzpah to try something phenomenal, triumphs, then loses a huge amount of money in the next book because of a war, after which he starts up again in an attempt to regain his wealth amidst the ashes of a burnt-out kingdom.  Thrilling stuff.  Just what I needed while dealing with admin and getting back into a working paper on risk aversion.