Economics, Literature and Scepticism

Powered by Blogger.

About Me

My photo
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, September 30, 2009

Dilow on Fairness

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, September 30, 2009 | Category: , | 0 comments Dillow instructs us in his post 'Come Dine With Me: The Economics' that social preferences, or preferences that involve regard for the person with whom one interacts, are pervasive in the British Television show 'Come Dine With Me'. It's a fun hypothesis, and an even more fun forum in which to 'test' it, where a 'test' is a simply discussion of the incentives and the evidence of what people seem to do in several episodes of the show.

The structure of the game is as follows: there are four players, each player hosts a meal, each player rates the other players' meals after they have dined, the player with the highest score wins £1000 at the end.  Initially the game is more like an anonymous interaction because players do not have information about others,  but as it proceeds more information is revealed.  Players rate the host's meal out of ten.  As the goal is to win the game, a rational player should always rate other players' meals as a 0 out of 10 as that would dramatically increase their own chances.  If that occurred, the backward induction solution would be for all players to give zero and no player would win (assuming rationality and common knowledge of rationality). 

But players almost always give ratings higher than zero, which would indicate that either a) they are irrational, or b) there are norms that govern their behavior and their behavior is rational.  Dillow articulates how the correct option is most likely b) and that these players either have preferences over fairness, or, in my view, have a reference point about what constitutes an 'ok' number of points to give and that they add and subtract points from that reference point, rather than use zero as the be-all-and-end-all.  Take a look at the post if you've the time, it's an interesting informal application of social preference theory.

HT: Mark Thoma.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review - The History by Elizabeth Kostova

Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, September 19, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments Historian - Elizabeth Kostova 1/2
Based on the the history of Vlad Ţepeş and his fictional counterpart, Count Dracula, The Historian details the routes taken by three related people in their search for Dracula. We have the story of the narrator, an unnamed 16 year old girl; the narrator's father, Paul; and her father's doctoral supervisor, Bartholomew Rossi. Other characters feature: Helen Rossi, the illegitimate child of Batholemew; Professor Turgut Bora, a Turkish historian; and Anton Stoichev, a Bulgarian Historian. Kostova constructs what can best be called 'academic gothic' - some would find this book awfully slow-moving, but others would enjoy the theorizing, arguments about sources and their use in history, and other aspects of history as practice. But these positive aspects can be occasionally damaged by a tendency to over-write, and a need to get on with the action. We want a gothic tale about vampires! But, for those who want a horror story, steer clear of this book. If horror is what you want, look elsewhere.

The book takes you on tours of Oxford, Istanbul, and Budapest, and through the lands of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, France, and Italy. Consequently, it's enjoyable for its travel writing aspect as Kostova marshals a strong vocabulary and illustrative mind to create the backdrop to the narrative. I also appreciated it for its aspirations to historical fiction and the classic gothic novel. The reason for all the traveling is that the main characters are trying to piece together the story of Vlad Ţepeş, or Count Dracula, to understand how he has managed to stay alive, how he has remained hidden, and what exactly he does to those who track him down. As his history creates its trail around Europe, so too do the characters find their way into various phases of his past.

What one also needs to understand when reading this novel is the legacy of the gothic novel, from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to Bram Stoker's Dracula. Kostova's novel differs from these books in that the idea or history of that which scares us (Dracula/Frankenstein) is that which the characters engage with and pursue, rather than the thing itself. Certainly, this may require an understanding of Dracula 'the man', but it also requires a recognition of history, architecture, art, bureaucracy, geography, Eastern European socialism vs. Western Capitalism, people, and how these overlap. Ultimately you have a readable, but sedate historical, and Victorian-style, novel recounting the retreading of paths in history, and their realisation in a theory finally vindicated. It is this conclusion that we yearn for from the first chapter and that we appreciate when it finally arrives.

I especially enjoyed reading The Historian during winter: rain splattering across the windows, and dark clouds lurking above. It is not a book to read during summer, too much of its ambience would be lost in summer's heat and light. I heard The Historian has been compared to The Da Vinci Code. The Historian was far better written and far more academically inclined that The Da Vinci Code. I read The Da Vinci Code and I deplore the loss of those irretrievable hours.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Little's 'Understanding Society'

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, September 16, 2009 | Category: , | 0 comments Society is a blog I recently began to read. I have been impressed with the author, Daniel Little, and his command of a several subjects within the social sciences. Little touches on topics that relate predominantly to philosophy (political, philosophy of science), and to sociology, anthropology, and economics. Little blogs the ideas he plans to discuss in a new book that he is writing, which I assume will be called Understanding Society.  I thought I'd comment on some of his posts by way of introduction to the blog.

In Wealth Inequality, Little touches on the challenges of inequalities in wealth (not just in income), i.e. property, assets, etc, that pervade US society and most contemporary capitalist economies. He provides additional related posts that on Poverty, Growth and Sustainability and on Social Mobility. In his discussion on social mobility he highlights the myth that Americans in the US believe of the US being the most mobile society, which is empirically false. In the US, a parent's socio-economic status, is a strong predictor of a child's socio-economic status, which, for those who believe in some kind of material equality can be problematic.  Little also assesses Popper's discussions of falsifiability and historicism in his post Revisiting Popper, another illuminating contribution in which he highlights the problem of tackling the condition of 'falsifiability' in the social sciences where so much varies, and little can be properly controlled. this post, Little discusses the notion of corporations as analysed by Charles Perrow in his book Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism. Why is this apt? Well, the supreme court in the US is trying to grapple with whether corporations should have free speech (in the same way that people do), and thus whether they should have unlimited ability to promote their speech as people do. I hope they resolve that corporations do not have free speech, but more on that another time. I found Little's discussion useful and enlightening. Here, Little discusses Michael Polanyi's notion of 'tacit knowledge'. I have not yet read Polanyi, though his brother, Karl Polanyi, has been on my reading list for some time - I might have to give both brothers a chance now. Nevertheless, Little's post intersects well with two books I've been reading: Friedrich Hayek's The Fatal Conceit and Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soul Craft. Though Polanyi affiliated himself differently to Hayek (and would have affiliated himself differently to Crawford I suspect), his notion of tacit knowledge, which Little recounts and teaches well, is crucial to understand the operation of everyday business: people learn how to do things without`knowing' what they know. It's a kind of knowing 'how' rather than a knowing 'what'. More specifically, Little wants to interrogate (or wants others to get off their bums and interrogate) the extent to which social knowledge is tacit, is experienced, or somehow embodied (I assume). To what extent do individuals fail or succeed when expressing tacit social knowledge? For example, some think me tactless, when I think myself honest and in continuous pursuit of truth, am I simply failing in my understanding of tacit social knowledge?

Anyway, I have found the blog edifying and I have enjoyed the posts, though they often require more time to read and think about than your average blog.  I find that I disagree with the author, but I'd like to surround myself with clear thinkers who think differently to me in order to understand better my position. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Review - Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, September 15, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments B. Crawford - Shop Class as Soulcraft

Matthew B. Crawford's appeal for a society that engages more with its material world caught my attention some time back in a recommendation that I saw.  My father retired from electrical engineering some time ago, and now does all kinds of DIY jobs for people.  Because I spend most of my time uninvolved with such work, but intrigued by the idea of finding what so fascinates my father, I picked up Shop Class as Soulcraft thinking that Crawford might provide me with some insights.  He did just that, and challenged my thinking with trenchant philosophy to boot. 

A word of warning, as much as Crawford's book is the telling of a gearhead opening his own shop, it is also, and probably more so, an academic philosopher's appeal to the academically-inclined and college-educated to give greater credit to those who are involved in manual labour, the trades, and the crafts.  He explains his case as an academic would using academic language, references, end notes, and the other mainstays of academia.  This book is not a memoir, neither is it just a story about the pleasures of construction.  Instead, it is a philosophical attack on the motives for college education rather than 'vocational training', in which he argues that college education is turning people into cogs, and that 'vocational' training is more cognitively challenging than received wisdom would have you believe.  Consequently, you should not buy this book if you are looking for a comfortable or easy read about restoring and repairing motorcycles.  Don't go in thinking it's a quick holiday read, or just a bit of fun - it'll require some serious work if you're unfamiliar with the debates, especially those in which the names of Marx, Smith, Heidegger, Polanyi, and others pop off of the workshop shelves.

With that in mind, I think that Crawford largely achieves what he sets out for himself. He argues that allowing workers to use their judgment provides them with greater happiness and provides non-monetary rewards. He asserts that giving workers objective standards, rather than the mealy-mouthed corporate speak of 'missions' and 'buy-in' allows workers to succeed or fail, and when they fail they better understand their success. He attacks college education for not including places where kids can go wrong, he argues that "The experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process, at least for gifted students... A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong." (204) He laments the devaluation of genuine mastery, and is frustrated by "the easy fantasy of mastery [that] permeates modern culture." (17) He believes, probably like many conservatives do, that modern consumer culture, with its emphasis on immediacy and short-termism, damages humanity and, "If the modern personality is being reorganized on a predicate of passive consumption, this is bound to affect our political culture." (18) So he has many worries and many criticisms, and his proposed solution is what he calls 'progressive republicanism'.  He argues that it should be progressive because "the defenders of free markets forgot that what we really want is free men" and thus "It is time to end the confusion of private property with corporate property" (209).  Furthermore, he argues that many politicians fail the electorate because,  "Those who belong to a certain order of society - people to make big decisions that affect all of us - don't seem to have much sense of their own fallibility. Being unacquainted with failure, the kind that can't be interpreted away, may have something to do with the lack of caution that business and political leaders often display in the actions they undertake on behalf of other people." (203-4) I think that Crawford should have foreshadowed these rather radical statements earlier on, and that in the expectation of such conclusions many people might have read on to see exactly how he motivates such end results. 

Notwithstanding the credit he gives to those whose work requires a physical engagement with a physical world, Crawford seems to miss one large fraction of the working population with his 'switch it on and see it work' nostrum for the value of the trades.  Computer programmers have the same need, to 'switch on' (compile) their program and see it work.  Others appreciate their product because it works for them every day, each hour.  Yes, like poor craftsmanship there is poor programming, but good programming and database management have many similar characteristics to their physical brethren in the engineering, trades, and crafts. In my view, Crawford doesn't give programmers, and knowledge workers generally, sufficient credit for their good work, but derogates them for their poor work, and for the apathy and indolence of many of those who inappropriately do programming and IT work.

Additionally, when Crawford says, "Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right." (20) By rights, then, many 'knowledge' tasks should be classified as 'crafts'.  Should I not, when I spend hours before a computer trying to engage with data, dwelling on it for many hours, be classified as a craftsman trying to craft or model the correct, or most true, set of regressions? For me this differentiates academia from consultancy or an equivalent (Crawford dislikes consultancy and management greatly) - the ability to spend hours pondering one question, or one set of questions, in order to provide a rigorous and honest answer. 

Though there may be a few shortcomings to the book, I think it was largely worth my while to read it and to engage properly with what Crawford sets out - an argument for smaller, responsible businesses and responsible, free workers, craftsmen and tradespeople, brought together in markets and allowed to engage in free exchange.  Though his dream seems Utopian, and there are occasional flaws in his reasoning, the ideas are nonetheless clearly set out and often beautiful. 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Man Who Invented Exercise

Posted by Simon Halliday | Saturday, September 12, 2009 | Category: , | 1 comments

I thoroughly enjoyed this Financial Times article on about Jerry Morris, one of the first scientists to pick up a positive correlation between health and exercise.  Apart from the enjoyable reportage, the short biography, etc, what struck me was the simplicity in the setup for which Morris was able to detect a pattern.  I will describe it slightly differently, just to show how ideally it is suited to a quasi-experimental approach. a group of a few thousand people of roughly the same socio-economic status. Assign about one half of the group to one job, the other half to another on the basis of some random criterion.  Observe that members of the one group live longer than the members of the other seemingly as a consequence of doing the one job and not the other.  Try to interrogate the differences between the jobs, isolate this difference, and voilà.  So this is what Morris had: take the two people who work on buses in England during the 40s: a bus conductor and a bus driver.  Both men (and they were all men I believe) were from the same socio-economic background (class) and basically didn't require any particularly different qualifications - driving itself being quite common.  But, for some reason, the risk of heart attack for a driver was roughly double that of a conductor. What, then, separates the activities of a conductor from a driver to explain this? A conductor walks all the time and climbs between 500 and 750 steps during his shift every day, whereas a bus driver remains sedentary. This was the only factor that could legitimately explain the differences in outcome and was set up so well as to be an experiment, what we call a 'natural experiment' or a 'quasi-experimental' setup.

So, as an empiricist, the article appealed to me on grounds factual, biographical, and technical.  What an intriguing tale.  Well done to Kuper for the entertaining read.  Well done to Morris for establishing the connection between vigorous exercise and health. Coincidentally, I also support Morris's idea that exercise needs to be made more easily accessible - pedestrianised areas to encourage walking, bicycle paths to encourage cycling, accessible and inexpensive swimming pools for swimming, that champion of full-body exercises, and, I believe, accessible public transport to and from which one can walk and access resources like parks, pools and gyms.  We shall see.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Review - Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Posted by Simon Halliday | Friday, September 11, 2009 | Category: | 2 comments

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Moxyland, from young SA author Lauren Beukes, takes the near future sci-fi of authors like Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and others and locates it in Cape Town, rather than the more traditional locales of such fiction - NYC, LA, London, Tokyo, etc. But this is a post-superdemic, corporatist, freedoms-limited-by-crazy SAPS Cape Town, not the liberal-outpost, 'Shwaa man', sea and sun, more-laid-back-than-thou Cape Town we know and love. In this mutant, infected, ugly step-sister of contemporary Cape Town there's enough Cape Town to identify it through the smog - references to Long Street, Obs, Delft, Roodebloem Rd, the taxi ranks & the parade (no more where Mandela spoke of freedom, but where street kids are learning graf art sponsored by corporate social investment who've done strange things to the paint). You arrive in Beukes's Cape Town and you enjoy the potholed, nano-injected ride

So yes, Beukes does the cyberpunk thing well - corporates in control, government serving them & not the people, heavy restraints on freedoms, cellphones and computers pervasive with a little bit of VR gaming and avatars thrown in for good measure. Beukes freshens the cyberpunk genre with her use of SIM cards as the ID document, credit card, vehicle of punishment, all-in-all lifeline, and in her idea of using nanotech to genetically modify people so that they become walking ads and artwork.

But the notion of corporates 'watching you', and the eventual denouement of 'yes they're really watching you more than you think' was a bit stale. I've read that before. You won't be surprised by the plot, there's not much new there. You mustn't let that get you down - the new, funny, interesting and cool stuff is bonded to the architecture, to thescaffolding of the plot as it unfolds: the characterisation of Lerato, Kendra, Toby & Tendeka; the Nguni, Cape Malay and so-called coloured names instead of the US-Nippon-Sino melds you so often see in
cyberpunk; the familiar-mutated landscape; the Cape Town art/model-scene gone wrong (I'm thinking Michael Stevenson & the Goodman Gallery with legalized drugs, more corporates, more models, nano implants, and pretension skyrocketing); the polarisation of Rural vs Connected; the gross & crazy inequality and how Connected vs. Non- makes this all the more apparent, all the more alienating.

Don't go in expecting to be blown away by an untold story - that's not going to happen. But don't hold that against the book. The novelty's in the unweaving, the style, and the characterization. The book feels like the synthesis of bits of Orwell, with a character or two from Bret Easton Ellis, and various cyberpunk & sci fi authors, Gibson, Dick, Stephenson, Cory Doctorow come to mind. Expect a typical cyberpunk story, but take pleasure in the SA- and CT-specific minutiae, appreciate the 3rd world take on a genre so typically 1st world, endure some of the ways txt msg speak invades speech and writing, laugh at the occasional silliness. It's a good book, a good quality SA product to be exported to the SIM-toting, cyberpunk-reading masses in the rest of the world; many of the sci-fi junkies out there will lap it up and love its uniqueness - Charlie Stross likes it, so you could too

Post-script 1: My wife, Amy, just finished reading Moxyland and was surprised by how much she liked it. Amy had never read sci-fi before and loved it, so my compliments to Beukes for drawing my wife into a sci-fi novel, I had tried before with little success.

Post-script 2: I wonder if someone could convince Jessica Tiffin to resurrect her 3rd year English lit sci-fi elective at UCT and teach this book... Hmm... <schemes>

Sushi & Pregnancy

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 2 comments sister recently announced that she is pregnant.  Our family is overjoyed for her, and interested to see all developments.  Anyway, when she told me she went on to say, 'So no sushi for me.' This immediately got my sceptical brain humming, so I compiled what I could of the research I found on the internet and emailed her.  The content of the email is below, slightly edited to be a blog post.

After our conversation about pregnancy I did some research on the sushi question.  It turns out that there are three main factors: 1) problems with raw fish, 2) increased mercury levels that are unhealthy for a foetus, and 3) vitamin/dioxin issues. 

On the first problem, eating any raw fish can be a problem because of the possibility of parasites & funnies.  Parasites are worse when you are pregnant because they could affect the foetus, but there is no 'increased vulnerability' to parasites because you're pregnant. Note this does not rule out all sushi. For example, California rolls contain steamed crab which, because it is cooked, should contain no parasites.  Similarly for other cooked fish sushi, like crispy prawn rolls.  The crucial thing is to stay away from the uncooked eel, salmon, tuna, and cod.  The second thing with raw fish is that it (and soft cheeses like brie or camembert) has a higher likelihood than other foods to contain things called 'Listeria monocytogenes'.  But again, eating cooked sushi means
you avoid this.  Also, you could eat sushi if the fish has been frozen at  -20 degrees or lower (as this should kill most of the bad stuff). the second problem, the thing is to stay away from all uncooked and cooked swordfish, mackerel, shark, and tile fish (not like you regularly eat these anyway) because these have higher mercury levels than other fish.  High mercury levels, for which you'd have to eat a substantial amount of these fish, can damage a foetus's development or cause mutations.  If you don't eat these fish, then this shouldn't be a problem.

On the third issue, salmon can contain funny substances (dioxins) that can be harmful to foetuses in large  quantities, which means that you shouldn't eat salmon more than twice a week.  The second thing is that raw fish and shellfish contain substances (thiaminases) that break down vitamin B which babies need for growth. Again  not a problem if you're getting Vitamin B in supplements or in other foods, but it motivates not eating raw sushi more than twice a month, no problems for cooked sushi.
All of this said, I couldn't find comprehensive studies actually showing that eating sushi is 'bad' for you during pregnancy (or at least worse for you than eating much of the crap that is in supermarkets these days). A lot of the hullabaloo seems to emanate from urban legends propagated in the US.  I'd probably consult a qualified
dietician (not a nutritionist) and ask them to give you a properly researched answer before you stop eating your favourite food for 9 months.  The most comprehensive online article I read suggests that as long as you don't eat raw sushi more than twice a month you should be fine.  Millions of Japanese people seem to do ok eating sushi while pregnant and there are lots of healthy Japanese babies as far as I know. Also, another article I found suggested that a US government study said that the risks of disease from eating cooked fish are about 1 in 2 million, whereas for cooked chicken it's about 1 in 25 000. So yes, on those Japanese and lots of fish...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Book Review - Love, etc by Julian Barnes

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, September 02, 2009 | Category: | 0 comments

Love, etc by Julian Barnes

Some time ago I read Julian Barnes's Talking It Over. Published in the early 90s it made a fair dent on contemporary literature by simultaneously maintaining entertainment and fun, with the interesting and semi-postmodern gimmick of switching between narrators. I reviewed (in the earlier days of my reviews - it was brief indeed) Talking It Over in December of 2008 - take a look if you want to get the gist.

Anyway, on my recent flight to Cape Town, having divested myself of many books because of our move from Italy to London, I needed something to keep my going during the flight and during the layover in Qatar. I purchased Love, etc by Julian Barnes and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (review to follow shortly). I finished Love, etc easily during the flight and thoroughly enjoyed it.

What does Love, etc offer? It's the sequel to Talking It Over - and it involves the same characters. Barnes decided to set it ten years on - Stuart, Oliver and Gillian are our main narrators, along with Gillian's mum, Stuart's 'bit of crumpet' who also happens to be Gillian's assistant, and one or two others. Apart from characters, expect symmetry. The idea behind Love, etc seems to be a symmetricality of narrative - creating symmetry in the ideas of marriage and infidelity, memory and recall, perception and interpretation, similar to those that pervaded Talking It Over. In Talking It Over, however, those ideas were new. I understand why Barnes would want to create symmetry with what happened to his characters - and what his character think and believe - in middle age. But, in Love, etc the techniques don't work as well, nor are the characters as likeable or as easy to sympathise with as they felt in Talking It Over.

Nevertheless, Love, etc is still an entertaining, amusing, and generally occupying book. Barnes fills it with wit, intelligence and clever commentary. The book generally pleased me, and I especially appreciated the diversion on a plane filled with Chinese pre-adolescents kicking the back of my chair, with air hosts and hostesses (what is the PC name for these people nowadays? air assistants? aircraft personnel?) who kept on bumping my knees with their trolleys, and with someone in front of me who insisted on always having their seat as far down as possible after the captain allowed them to do so. Love, etc was calmness and sanity in a sea of annoyance. So yes, perfectly suitable, funny and good, just not as good as Talking It Over.

Book Reviews - Changing my format

Posted by Simon Halliday | | Category: | 0 comments

I'm going to try a new format with book reviews for a while. A friend of mine recommended some time ago that I try to dedicate individual posts to individual books, rather than doing the summary posts that I've done for the past while. Consequently, I've decided to try that for a while to see how it goes. I have a bit of a backlog of books so you'll see a number of posts on books for the next while, but following that I'll try to review books immediately after I've read them, rather than some time afterwards. I hope that I'll have clearer and more enjoyable reviews as a consequence.

Also, apologies for the lack in posting I was away and out of internet contact, then finishing with an editing job (which just about quashes all creativity), and spending time with family while my sister and her husband are down from Johannesburg while my wife and I are in Cape Town. So more posts will follow soon, I promise.