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, May 31, 2009

Leeson on Pirates

Posted by Simon Halliday | Sunday, May 31, 2009 | Category: , | 1 comments too long ago, Peter Leeson published a paper, 'An-arggh-chy', on the internal governance structures of pirate societies in the 17th & 18th centuries.  I recently presented the paper to my PhD class 'Institutions of the Capitalism' with Professor Sam Bowles. You can download my presentation here.   Leeson produced a great piece of economic history, combining good discursive writing with high quality institutional analysis. 

Leeson provides evidence to indicate that pirate ships ran with democratic institutions (elected captains and quartermasters), that they obeyed unanimously ratified constitutions, and that they had universal suffrage for crew members regardless of race or gender (approximately 25-30% of crews were black and they all had equal voting rights).  If you have the time, read the paper, it is a highly commendable piece of work and should be relatively easy to read for the non-economist, though it may require you to look up some ideas like 'principal-agent problems'.

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, May 30, 2009 | Category: | 4 comments

So here's a summary of books that I have recently read or listened to.  I am trying out a new thing - star ratings here.  I cross-post these reviews to under my account details there (SD Halliday "Economics Grad Student").  I thought I may as well give the star ratings here too.

Non-fiction White - Essays of E.B. White -
I have seldom come across a book of essays that I want to read, re-read and read yet again.  E.B. White's collection left me wondering if I could ever construct a piece of writing, essay or otherwise, to compare to the worst (least good?) in this collection.  I think it unlikely.  His writing conjures clear and beautiful images.  With detailed descriptions of sounds and moments he brings his experiences to the present, to the moment when you read the essay.  I found so many quotes in the novel that I wrote down either in my journal or on scraps of paper, laughing all the while, intrigued and hoping I could find essays or articles into which I could insert his crystalline depictions of moments, sentiments, and behaviours. I cannot recommend this book enough: find it, read it, realise how your writing can improve having read it. Wolfe - The Right Stuff -
Whenever I mention this book to someone I seem to get the response, "It was such a great movie." Well, even if the movie was good, it can't be as good as the book.  Wolfe commands 'the long sentence' (OK not Joyce-length, but long enough) while maintaining rhythm and pace, and driving you on to whatever comes next.  The Right Stuff retells the stories of US space flight's early days, of the worship of those who became astronauts, of how they came from flight jockey stock. Wolfe shows us how the astronauts' history motivated them to do as much as they could to incorporate piloting into the space program, when what many scientists wanted instead was rats pushing levers.  The book holds importance because of its relevance as an historical text, and because of its literariness.  Wolfe's writing makes what might have been just a somewhat interesting story into a mythic tale of courage, training, perseverance, and 'the right stuff'.   William Zinsser refers to the book in his On Writing Well, where he marvels at Wolfe's abilities with the long sentence.  Zinsser quotes Wolfe as the exception to the 'brief and clear' general rule.  Zinsser was correct, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is the exception that proves the rule.

Sam Harris - The End of Faith [Audiobook]
I am an atheist (as the big 'A' on the side of the blog announces).  This is one of those books one is meant to read, it's in the atheistic canon if you will.  I don't think that the book is as much about atheism, as it is about the dangers of extreme religiosity and the moderate religiosity that enables it.  My feelings on this topic are conflicted, mainly because I favour religious practices because they contribute to the formation and maintenance of social capital, but I have a problem with them for other reasons (not to be discussed here).  Anyway, what I found interesting about Harris's book was the methodical attack on the position that Islam is a 'peaceful' religion and that practising Muslims have different views on what constitutes reality to more secularly inclined Jews and Christians. The litany of violence-promoting passages that Harris quotes from the Quran was devastating, I had not realised there were that many.  Harris also attacks Christianity, and Christians, for their choosiness about passages to obey or not to obey. A part of the book I found interesting, and not 'new age' or 'non-atheistic' as some comment, was the final chapter where Harris discusses meditation and reflections on the self.  I found the sentiments about the notion of reflecting on the self, while realising it is the self doing the reflecting to be pleasing (he refers to Eastern philosophers here, some of which I find coherent, some of which I don't).  His discussion of torture was relevant to contemporary events, though I remained unconvinced because the evidence is conflicted on the 'confessions' of the tortured.  Though interesting, the book was sometimes overwrought. Nevertheless it is timely.  I think it is relevant mostly for promoting discussion and for arguing that religion should not be given precendence over secularism (say, tax exemptions for churches).   That said, I found the book to be over-written.  There are only so many times I can hear 'admit of' in a book written for the layperson in the 21st century.  What was he thinking? Instead of writing simply and clearly Harris often used strange and obtuse language.  This indicates either a bad editor, or an obdurate writer. I get the sense Harris might be just a bit obdurate.  Nevertheless, the book is worth reading to clarify those points with which you agree, and those with which you do not. 

A People's History of the United StatesHoward Zinn - A People's History of the United States [Audiobook]
Howard Zinn set out to produce an alternative representation of the history of the United States in this landmark, and rather (in)famous book.  (Some) Conservatives detest it.  Leftists (tend to) love it. That said, some of his most vociferous critics are on the left.  Zinn makes the point that most histories are often about Big Men, normally White and Christian.  But, there have been many other big people involved, women, men, black, white, hispanic, native American, LGBT, and more.  He believes that a great gap exists in most American histories of the activities of the 'people' qua public, and that many historians ignore collective action as a driver of change.  I sympathise with this view.  As much as single people matter, there are many who fall by the wayside having done their bit, others who contine to work in the shadows, who write (and send!) letters, raise money, carry placards, and generally show their discontent with the status quo.  What makes the book even better is that Zinn is quite up front about the failings of the book, he knows and admits that he predominantly ignores the 'big people' (though he recognises their occasional follies and successes). Zinn admits too that in earlier editions of the book he didn't pay sufficient attention to LGBT people and to their suffering, their mass movements.  But, having done so, he gives us access to a story of collective action and mobilisation that is remarkable, and that distinguishes the book from many other histories that I have read.  The audiobook only covered the second half of the print book, which focused on the 20th century and its movements in the US.  What made the audiobook even more enjoyable was that Matt Damon read it, and he was a better reader than I expected him to be - the Harvard dropout continues to entertain and learn it seems.  Anyway, I would definitely recommend this book, but with a caveat, make sure you read (or listen to) other histories of the US that focus on the 'big men' (mostly DWMs), or histories that provide more conservative views on the country and its peoples.  With History, who tells and what they tell as a consequence are very important. If you have only read 'big people' and conservative histories, then be sure to read this as an important complement. 

Fiction Leavitt - Martin Bauman
Wow.  If ever a book captured the pettiness of humanity, this was it. The characters are petty, the storyline is petty, it's all just petty.  Leavitt obviously has a strong command of the English language, and he appears capable of chiselling beautiful sentences from dreck, but the book left me dreadfully annoyed.  I read and I read in the hope that a likeable character would appear.  One did.  I read too in the expectation that something consequential would occur.  Expectation unmet.  Supposedly, the book was a semi-autobiographical confession. If that is the case, I would have expected genuine contrition or something resembling true apology.  There were no genuine apologies or any exculpatory passages; the attempts were thin, lacking substance, they sounded like the protests of a chastised child.  Martin Bauman annoyed me.  I wouldn't bother.  I give it two stars for the occasional beautiful sentence that grew out of the muck. Bolano - 2666
I didn't finish it.  I reached the second last section of the book and I couldn't read the phrase, 'She was anally and vaginally raped' any more.  I understand that Bolano tried to depict the different hues of corruption - personal, political, thematic, and others.  But, I couldn't find the will to continue reading.  This didn't worry me too much.  I enjoyed the second and third sections of the book, but the first and the fourth? No.  I didn't get to the fifth.  I also believe that the book generally required more serious editing, it required someone to examine it, cut it, shape it.  Bolano didn't live long enough to do it himself.  I believe that the point (as much as it could be isolated) could have been conveyed in many fewer words and with more grace.  I can neither recommend nor  discourage the reading of 2666 - any pleasure from this one is probably (and largely) intellectual. It wasn't enough for me.  I admit that I was disappointed after all the hype. Oddly enough, from the reviews I read it seemed much better received in the US than it was in the UK. 

Kate Atkinson - When Will There Be Good News
I enjoyed Atkinson's previous book, One Good Turn, also featuring her character Jackson Brodie.  Brodie doesn't feature too greatly in this novel, though his position is crucial.  The book is set in Scotland and plays around a character, Joanna, whose family was murdered when she was a child. Atkinson writes with characteristics literariness, yet she maintains a velocity in the events that kept me entertained.  I appreciated her characterisation of Joanna's behaviour with her baby - the reciting of nursery rhymes that I recall from my childhood (my Liverpudlian grandmother recited similar rhymes to me).  Reggie, Joanna's 'mother's assistant', is a determined orphan set on getting her A-levels and acts the part of detective, she's accompanied by another character from Atkinson's previous book, DCI Louise, who keeps us entertained with her cynicism and her fervent aggression towards her in-laws.  With a series of coincidences and errors woven together the tale reaches its finale.  It was a fun read, and kept me going while studying.  I always need fiction, this was a humorous, romping-three-star-movie equivalent.  I don't believe it was as good as Atkinson's previous novel. Beaumont - Thirteen 1/2
I devoured Thirteen in two days.  Stephen Bardot, a taxi-driving, failed businessman reflects on the world while driving his taxi.  The world, time, and space, however, seem to do strange things once he has reached a dreadful enough level of fatigue: plastic bags become rabbits in a sideways glance, a house, once there, disappears.  But the people he meets in this alternative reality seem to be present in his own world, to be recognised by people he knows to be real, to be able to affect him in ways that he didn't believe possible.  Having read it so quickly, I almost feel like I should go back and re-read it to see if there are clues I missed, hints dropped that I did not pick up.  One of the few things I did not like about it was the author's use of italics on words that did not I believe require them.  The ways he constructed the sentences naturally gave the words emphasis, then he gave them additional emphasis with italics.  I didn't get it, I don't get it. The book was recommended to me by Amazon's 'you liked that book, you might like this one' algorithm.  I appreciate Haruki Murakami, and consequently Amazon recommended Beaumont's Thirteen. Have a look for it if you appreciate books combining the surreal with psychological drama.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Auctions and Politicians

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, May 25, 2009 | Category: , | 0 comments

David Warsh has an interesting new column out at Economic Principals.  In it he discusses the growing role of 'Market Design' a relatively new field in economics that focuses on auctions, the underlying structures of markets, and more.  The champion of this new field is Al Roth of Harvard, from whose blog, Market Design, I got the tip about the article.  Take a look at Warsh's summary to read a review of some of the latest ideas in market design and auction theory.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bardhan on West Bengal

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, May 21, 2009 | Category: , | 0 comments

Yesterday evening, Pranab Bardhan, of UC Berkeley and currently the Fulbright Visiting Professor here at Siena, presented a seminar on a working paper written by him and Dilip Mookherjee.  The work is based on previous research of theirs with 89 villages in West Bengal, India. Previously, their research was about village-level variables and the dynamics that affected the villages.  Recently though, they undertook a household survey in the villages looking at all kinds of phenomena.  The main result of their working paper contradicts Esther Duflo's famous result about reservations for 'Pradhans', or head of the gram panchayat council (A gram panchayat is normally constituted by a group of 4-5 villages). and her co-author, Raghabendra Chattopadhyay, showed in one district of West Bengal that reserving positions for women resulted in better representation of women and improved delivery of goods that were 'favoured by women', specifically improved water access and improved roads.  Bardhan and Mookherjee's recent data, however, show a contradictory result.  Reserved positions for women in West Bengal (their sample covers all 15 districts) do not increase the likelihood that women would be policy-makers or that, when in power, they would promote delivery of access to water or improving roads. 

Now, obviously, Bardhan and Mookherjee would have preferred not to find this result as they are both in favour of transformation in the gram panchayats for both women and other previously disadvantaged groups in West Bengal. But, they suspected that Duflo's result may not hold, and more specifically may that it may not have held after the second election in which the laws had implemented the reservations for women.  The seminar also focused on some other results, but I thought that this was the most important one on which to report.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Boston Globe on Happiness Research

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, May 20, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments

'Perfectly happy', the title of the Boston Globe article on happiness, is a bit of a misnomer because 'happiness' research still has not defined way to make people 'perfectly happy', but just probably 'happier than you'd think'. Nevertheless, many of the comments that the journalist makes about happiness are valid.  For example, "what we're learning should make us reconsider some of the basic rules by which government regulates behavior: how we litigate lawsuits and write contracts; how we zone neighborhoods; which medical research we fund, and how we prioritize healthcare."
Another interesting one, at least as far as economic and urban policy is concerned: "Cornell economist Robert Frank has pointed out, the two things affect our mood in different ways. While we quickly adapt to a bigger house and start taking it for granted, research suggests that a long, trafficky commute is something we never adjust to, and that even grows more onerous with time."

What I find strange though is that the author made no reference in the article to the fairly exhaustive research on the correlates of physical outcomes and happiness.  For example, values on happiness index (or better a 'subjective well-being index or measure) correlate with 'true' smiles, diagnosis of clinical depression, use of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, incidence of suicide, skin response measures to stress, and many more.  These act as 'objective' measures of the legitimacy of subjective well-being research. I reiterate here that I am in favour of calling it 'subjective well-being' and not 'happiness' (or even felicity as some do). 

Anyway, I am glad that research into subjective well-being has begun to affect the way that the policy-makers and law-makers think.  I am interested to see what kinds of research is done on this topic in developing countries, and particularly South Africa.  Who knows, I may contribute to it eventually - I am playing with some data at the moment and will let you know. 

Friday, May 15, 2009

Rowthorn at Siena

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, May 15, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments Rowthorn is presenting a series of lectures at Siena, which he began on Wednesday with a lecture introducing the basics of genes, altruism, and the co-evolution of culture and genes. Today's lecture (where I currently am live-blogging from, joy!) concerns altruism in families.  He's presenting his model, published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology (2006) called the 'Sibling Model' - the article is 'The Evolution of altruism between siblings: Hamilton's rule revisited'. The main conclusion of his model is that siblings are more like one another, with respect to altruism, than they are similar to the average member of the population.  This may seem unsurprising, but he derives it with a simple mathematical argument, and re-derives Hamilton's Rule using slightly different assumptions.  He also uses derives a two (altruism) allele-equilibrium in which individuals display '50% Marginal Altruism', i.e. he finds a simulated and mathematical basis for Hamilton's rule, deriving it with great clarity.   

Something else that I found interesting was that he took the quote, attributed to Hamilton saying "I will sacrifice myself for 2 of my brothers or 8 of my cousins" and restated it as follows, "I will kill 2 of my brothers or 8 of my cousins to save myself." The second feels decidedly sinister. Anyway, an interesting presentation.  Sam's questions made it all the more interesting.