Archive for April, 2010

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

April 24, 2010

Years ago, I bought Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. I love Neil Gaiman. For a long time, I only knew him as the author of the Sandman comic series. Later, I’ve discovered him as a great fanatasy writer as well. The novel American Gods are among the best I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Gaiman. It’s something about the way the supernatural is weaved into the ‘real’ world which is so fascinating and so natural you almost believe it.

Fragile Things. Had it for years, read it just recently. I cannot remember any particular reason for not reading it before, other than that I didn’t have time when I bought it. Fragile Things is a collection of ‘Short Fictions & Wonders.’ It also has a couple of poems. In the introduction, Gaiman tells a little bit about each story; how or where he came up with the idea, what inspired him, or what he wanted to do.

Some stories are longer than others. I tend to like the longer stories best. The first one, for example, A Study in Emerald, about an unusual murder investigation in seventeenth century London, could have filled the whole book if it were up to me. The same goes for Bitter Grounds, Goliath, Sunbird, and certainly The Monarch of the Glen, in which Shadow, the main character from American Gods get into trouble again. Other stories, like October in the Chair, Other People, Good Boys Deserve Favours, and Harlequin Valentine work perfect in the short format. My Life is an hillarious monologue by some sort of monkey and deserves to be read out loud in good company. The only problem is that it is too short! In the introduction, Gaiman writes, ‘I have no doubt that, given enough alcohol and a willing ear, it could go on for ever.’ I’m all ears.

Fragile Things are filled with all this wonder, and everyone should have something wonderful in their life. Gaiman is one way. Perhaps illegally, I bring the first couple of paragraphs from the short story Other People, just as a teaser:

‘Time is fluid here,’ said the demon.
He knew it was a demon the moment he saw it. He knew it, just as he knew the place was Hell. There was nothing else that either of them could have been.
The room was long, and the demon waited by a smoking brazier at the far end. A multitude of objects hung on the rock-grey walls, of the kind that it would not have been wise or reassuring to inspect too closely. The ceiling was low, the floor oddly insubstantial.
‘Come close,’ said the demon, and he did.
The demon was rake-thin, and naked. It was deeply scarred, and it appeard to have been flayed at some time in the distant past. It had no ears, no sex. Its lips were thin and ascetic, and its eyes were a demon’s eyes: they had seen too much and gone too far, and under thier gaze he felt less important than a fly.
‘What happens now?’ he asked.
‘Now,’ said the demon, in a voice that carried with it no sorrow, no relish, only a dreadful flat resignation, ‘you will be tortured.’

Alright, so perhaps Other People is not the most ideal story to bring wonder into your life; its still a little pearl of a story; Fragile Things is filled with them.

A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark (Part Two)

April 20, 2010

Some time ago I finished Part Two of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (see my comments to part one). Part One deals with the Malthusian Ear which lasted until the Industrial Revolution taking place around 1800. Part Two discusses the Industrial Revolution in detail, in particular why it took place in England, of all places. The third part is devoted to the development subsequent to the Industrial Revolution.

Clark begins his discussion of the Industrial Revolution by claiming that the Industrial Revolution is mislabeled. Rather, he claims that the switch from having most of the population employed in agriculture to industry was a result of the idiosyncrasy of England’s geography and demography and that the Industrial Revolution had nothing inherently industrial about it (p. 193). In my opinion, when a lot of people shifted from working the fields to working in factories, whatever the reason, an industrial label is fine.

Despite the apparent complexity of modern economies, the fundamental equation of growth for the world since the Industrial Revolution can, according to Clark, be reduced to ‘the approximate expression’ (p. 203)
On the left is output growth, on the right is the share of income flowing to capital times the growth of capital. Of course, Clark has a wide scope, and one probably has to actually read his book to accept, if ever, this reduced expression. Anyway, he notes,

[…] when we arrive at this final truth as to the nature of modern growth we have lost all ability to empirically test its truth. It is a statement of reason and faith, not an empirical proposition (p. 204).

I find it interesting, and I also took note of similar rhetorics in Part One, that Clark moves from an ‘approximate expression’ to the ‘final truth.’ That growth equations are inherently hard to test empirically, however, I agree with.

Clark concludes his discussion of growth with a bold statement, true to his initial outlook:

[T]he path to explaining the vital event in the economic history of the world, the Industrial Revolution, is clear. All we need explain is why in the millenia before 1800 there was in all societies warlike, peaceful, monotheist, polytheist such limited investment in the expansion of useful knowledge, and why this circumstance changed for the first time in Britain some time around 1800. Then we will understand the history of mankind (p. 207).

It is clear; we are closing in on the core of Clark’s thesis. And Clark vastes no time getting there; already on the next page he writes:

This book adopts a particular view of the Industrial Revolution: that it emerged only millenia after the arrival of institutionally stable economies in societies such as ancient Babylonia, because in the interim institutions themselves interacted with and changed human culture. Millenia of living in stable societies, under thight Malthusian pressures that rewarded effort, accumulation, and fertility limitation, encouraged the development of cultural forms in terms of work inputs, time preference, and family formation which facilitated modern economic growth (pp. 208-209).

‘This book’ is coward and alienating; he should use I.

After discussing (and opposing; see last paragraph on p. 211 for an amusing instance) alternative theories of the Industrial Revolution, Clark discusses the Industrial Revolution in England in detail and asks ‘Why did the Industrial Revolution Appear so Dramatic?’ (p. 242). His explanation is the coincidence of faster productivity growth in England (which happened gradually, see Figure 12.5, p. 240) with ‘an unexpected and [notably] unrelated explosion in English population in the years 1750-1870’ (pp. 242-243). (He continues, ‘Britain’s rise to world dominance was thus a product more of the bedroom labors of British workers than of their factory toil’ (p. 243); Clark knows how to give his writing an interesting touch!) That is, Clark claims that the Industrial Revolution was a much more drawn out process than what is often thought, and that it was long in the making before 1800.

A question Clark adresses in Chapter 13 is why the Industrial Revolution took place in England, a tiny island in the outskirts of Europe, and not in traditionally more technologically sophisiticated China or Japan or even India. Clark hypotheses that both China and Japan were on their way to their own revolutions (that is, transitions to modern growth rates), but that changes happened at a slower pace there. In particular, it seems like middle-class culture and, perhaps more important (who knows?), genes, spread relatively quickly through the English society.

Clark concludes Part Two by discussing social consequences of the Industrial Revolution. He points out that those who have most benefitted are the unskilled workers in industrialized societies; the Industrial Revolution has brought equality and social harmony. Across societies, however, the Industrial Revolution has lead to larger income differences.

Before the Industrial Revolution the rich and the poor were close neighbors. Now they are but distant cousins, gazing at each other across national borders and widening income gaps [p. 299].

In Part Three, which I will discuss later, Clark discusses what he calls the Great Divergence which has happened after the Industrial Revolution.

Related post:

Fisheries Classics: The Tragedy of the Commons

April 13, 2010

Garret Hardin’s 1968 article in Science, The Tragedy of the Commons is for sure a classical piece in the fisheries economics literature and has become the most popular description of the commons problem; fisheries problems are usually regarded as a special case. The passage where Hardin describes the tragedy is perhaps the most famous:

Garret Hardin (1915 - 2003)

Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his [input] without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244).

Hardin has had an enormous influence, perhaps particularly in the sciences. It has been suggested (by notable persons as Jim Wilen and Elinor Ostrom) that Hardin’s choice of metaphor (the tragedy, where helpless individuals are lead to destruction in an inexorable process) has been unfortunate; Wilen, for example, has written that modern fisheries management systems are founded on a perception of tragedy.

Related post:

Fancy Keynote Beamer Theme

April 9, 2010

Those using the Beamer package in LaTeX to generate slideshows are perhaps interested in a theme which mimics the classic Keynote style. I’ve used Beamer for years and got bored with the old Madrid theme I was using (which looks really great, I just wanted something new). I’ve used the Lankton-Keynote theme a couple of times and like it a lot.  I had some trouble setting up the footer to count slides and such, so I’ve used the theme without the bar at the bottom. It’s a bit unfortunate without the bar sometimes, however, but then I don’t like the way it looks, either. (Something to thing about before my WCERE 2010 presentation!)

With the Lankton-Keynote theme, my slides look like this:

Pretty fancy, or what?

UPDATE: I realized I have customized the Lankton-Beamer theme slightly. I took out the package ‘beamerthemesplit’ to get a cleaner look (no frames around title and headings). I also found a way to add slidenumbers, just add the following command to the preamble:

\setbeamertemplate{footline}[frame number]

It simply gives the slidenumber and the total in the bottom left corner. I tried to add more fancy stuff (authors, short title) to the footer, but it became a mess.

UPDATE 2: Here’s how it looks with slidenumbers and a logo:

Related post:

Adam’s Fallacy by Duncan Foley

April 8, 2010

Duncan Foley’s name popped up, and somehow I ended up reading a discussion of his book Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology. I had the pleasure of reading Adam’s Fallacy a couple of years back and for a long time, I was meant to write down some thoughts on it. Now, the thoughts are long gone, instead, I will shamelessly cut and paste from the cutted and pasted discussion on the Economist’s View:

On the influence and authority of conscience, and other considerations not found in any economics textbook, by David Warsh: Duncan … Foley was born in 1942. His father was an industrial physicist, his mother an environmentalist. Foley himself began attending Quaker meetings at age nine and joined the Society of Friends at fifteen. He graduated from Philadelphia’s famous Central High School in 1960, from Swarthmore College in 1964 and went straight to Yale, where he skipped the core courses and took the qualifying exam instead, obtaining his Ph.D. in mathematical economics in just two years. In 1966, he moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to teach and do research.


Foley read Marx. He published mainstream papers: with Miguel Sidrauski, with Karl Shell, with Robert Engle, with Martin Hellwig. He moved to Stanford University in1973, and … returned east to Barnard College of Columbia University in 1977.

After 22 years at Barnard, mostly teaching undergraduates, Foley moved downtown to the New School in 1999, replacing Robert Heilbroner as the senior figure there, with a view to building up the economics department. (He had published four ambitious books in those uptown years as well…)

Now Foley has followed still further in his predecessor’s footsteps, writing an alternative version of Heilbroner’s great book, The Worldly Philosophers.

Adam’s Fallacy: A Guide to Economic Theology is a beautiful little book. It contains some of the most lucid exposition of the core ideas of economics that I have ever read. Laid out pretty much on the same plan as Heilbroner, though with none of the attention to history that makes The Worldly Philosophers such a gripping read, Adam’s Fallacy leads the reader through the ideas of Adam Smith (“Adam’s Vision”), David Ricardo and T.R. Malthus (“Gloomy Science”), Karl Marx (“The Severest Critic”), Alfred Marshall (who in “On the Margins” rates but a single mention, in contrast to many entertaining pages on Thorstein Veblen), and, finally, of the twentieth century trinity of John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich von Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter (“Voices in the Air”). As a penetrating critic of capitalist economic development, with its “immense opportunities, and its equally immense social and moral stresses,” Foley has few peers.

Yet Adam’s Fallacy seems to me, at least in a certain way, to be profoundly mistaken. The reason is simple to relate. Foley dwells entirely on what economists have managed to make so far of The Wealth of Nations, and gives short shrift to Smith’s other book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and to the relationship of the one to the other. Published in 1759, seventeen years before the work for which Smith is remembered, Moral Sentiments is a compendium of much that today’s economics leaves out — declares “exogenous,” in the argot of the field, “human nature” being quite beyond economists’ models present-day ability to address.

So what exactly is Adam’s fallacy? According to Foley, it’s “the idea that it is possible to separate an economic sphere of life, in which the pursuit of self-interest is guided by objective laws to a socially beneficent outcome, from the rest of social life, in which the pursuit of self interest is morally problematic and has to be weighed against other ends.” This abstraction of an economic sphere from the messy complexity of real life is indeed the kernel of present-day economics, just as Foley says it is:

[U]nderstanding the logic of capital accumulation does not require us to surrender our moral judgment to the market… The exploitation of any profit opportunity involves a range of consequences, some good and some harmful. There is no escaping the moral relevance of weighing the good and the harm in each case. The fallacy lies in thinking there are universal principles that short-circuit this process.

But Smith isn’t responsible for what has happened in the 200+ years since he died, in 1790. He saw the world whole. And, in the first instance, what he saw was that self-interest was an inevitably complicated matter. […]

Many economists have been content to believe that somehow Smith abandoned these views [laid out in the Moral Sentiments] by the time he finished The Wealth of Nations. Their conviction usually rests on a famous passage near the beginning of the book: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own self-interest,” he wrote. But, as D.D. Raphael asked in his introduction to the 1976 Glasgow edition of The Moral Sentiments, who, on the basis of this sentence and a few others like it, especially the image of the Invisible Hand, would think that this meant that Smith had recanted his earlier belief in the existence or the moral value of benevolence? “Nobody with any sense.”Nor is it surprising that economic science should proceed this way — modeling what it can at the expense of ignoring what it cannot, in the expectation that better models will emerge in time from the strategy. […]

Foley simply ignores the earlier Smith, and caricatures the latter:

Smith asserts the apparently self-contradictory notion that capitalism transforms selfishness into its opposite: regard and service for others. Thus by being selfish within the rules of capitalist property relations, Smith promises, we are actually being good to out fellow human beings. With this amazing argument, Smith proposes to absolve us of the moral ambiguity and pain that haunt capitalist reality.

Certainly it is true that economics has not yet succeeded in incorporating in the scope of its formal reasoning such topics as “the influence and authority of the conscience.” Only recently has it begun to tackle the problem of increasing specialization in its deliberations, despite the abundant clues that Smith gave in the first three chapters of The Wealth of Nations. Interdependent utility functions and persuasive interpersonal comparisons of welfare will be the work of many years.

Economists are in the thrall of any number of fallacies, small and large. Some of them are downright dangerous if taken seriously. Duncan Foley alerts his readers to the worst of them. But they do not owe their existence to Adam Smith.

I picked up Adam’s Fallacy after stumbeling over it in a bookstore. I tend to pick up odd books, I admit. (In an odd coincidence, I picked up, on a whim, unaware of the connection to Foley, Heilbroner’s The Wordly Philosophers the next time I visited that same bookstore. Of course, the coincidenciallity also speaks of my limited knowledgability of economic literature.) The time I picked up Adam’s Fallacy, however, it was not completely out of the blue: I had just met Duncan Foley. He visited San Diego in the spring of 2008 and gave the best economics seminar I’ve ever attended. Pure, simple ideas connecting to elegant and surprising conclusions. (I’ve meant to discuss the paper he presented on this blog too, but you know; perhaps I get to it some day.)

Hat-tips: Env-Econ, Economist’s View

Fisheries Classics: The Common Wealth in Ocean Fisheries

April 8, 2010

In this series, I will post bits and pieces from, and perhaps comments to, various classical texts in fisheries economics. I’ll begin with the very first paragraph of The Common Wealth in Ocean Fisheries by Christy and Scott (1965). The Common Wealth is perhaps not a dominant landmark in the fisheries literature, but Christy and Scott were indeed to very influental characters in the early development of fisheries economics, and their book helped introduce fisheries problems to social scientists.

The biological resources of the sea have long fascinated man. The mystery of what lies beneath the surface has stimulated his imagination and nurtured hope that in this vast area there are resources capable of feeding a growing and a still hungry population for centuries to come. But, at the same time, realization of this hope is impeded by the opacity, instability, and sheer magnitude of the medium itself – by man’s inability to see and hold. Fishing – one of man’s earliest callings – is still haphazard and subject to the vagaries of weather, ocean currents, and mysterious migrations (p. v).

WCERE 2010: Here I Come

April 6, 2010

Recently, I got word that my paper ‘A Market-Based Approach to Manage Endangered Species Interactions’ was accepted for the 2010 World Congress of Environmental and Resource Economists to be held in Montréal, Canada (WCERE 2010 for short). Indeed, I consider myself quite lucky. Funny how these things turn out; I spent two hectic weeks piecing together a manuscript just in time for the submission deadline and it got accepted; for the European meeting last year, I submitted a manuscript which had been in the works for a year or so already but it didn’t make it (I went to Alaska instead).

Reason and Rationality by Jon Elster

April 5, 2010

A while ago, I read the little book Reason and Rationality (2009) by Jon Elster. Jon Elster is a Norwegian philosopher and social scientist. He has also  authored more than thirty books. A recent and relevant one is Explaining Social Behavior (2007); an older and perhaps less relevant one is Making Sense of Marx (1985).

In Reason and Rationality, Elster ‘proposes a unified conceptual framework for the study of behavior.’ Further, Elster provides ‘a brief, elegant, and accessible introduction to his work’ (both quotes from the back-cover). The latter first; to someone not familiar with Elster’s writings, nor with the writings of moralists and philosophers in general, I do not find Reason and Rationality particularly elegant nor accessible apart from its brevity. Perhaps his language and choice of words are elegant, but his way of arguing and demonstration does not communicate well with me. And perhaps my poor ability to perceive Elster is why Elster’s ‘unified conceptual framework’ eludes me. However, it is necessary to be aware (which I was not) that Reason and Rationality was originally Elster’s inaugural lecture at Collège de France. ‘Given formally in the presence of his colleagues and a large audience, this lecture provides him with an opportunity to situate his work and his teaching in relation to that of his predecessors and to the most recent developments in research’ (pp. 78-79). In other words, Elster’s language and choice of words did have additional tasks to proposing a ‘unified conceptual framework’ (whatever that means, anyway). With that in mind, I find his concluding paragraph less cryptic:

What, finally, are the functions of reason and rationailty in human behaviours? They are the functions, respectively,of the prince’s tutor and his councilor. The tutor teaches the prince to promote the public good in the long term. The councilor tells him how to act in order to achieve his goals, whatever they might be, in the most efficient way. It is not incumbent upon the councilor to impose the demands of reason; but if the tutor has done his job well, the prince will make them his own (p. 68).

It is somewhat unclear to me what the unifying framework consist of, other than that Elster thinks reason (the actual, human, internal reason for an action) and rationality (an analytical concept which demands a system of preferences weigthed against each other) are deeply connected; I cannot disagree. What strikes me as interesting (and perhaps a bit disappointing), is Elster’s extended argumentation through examples. An argument with examples at its core leaves me dissatisfied, although, perhaps, everything is, deep down, nothing but examples. Anyway, I found one of his examples interesting; the voter’s paradox:

Is it true, is it coherent, to say that the common good can be realized only through the pursuit of private goods? Is it true that the more rational actors are, the better reason’s demands are met? Or must we see, inversly, the rationality of individuals as an obstacle to reason? Take, for example, the “voter’s paradox,” which results from the fact that the rational actor has no reason to vote. In fact, the chance of having an influence on the outcome of the election is clearly less than the risk of dying in a traffic accident on the way to the polls. Moreover, those who are in the best position to understand the logic of this line of reasoning-in particular, professional economists-choose the cooperative strategy less often in the “prisoner’s dilemma,” of which voting is a classical example (pp. 6 – 7, footnotes with references are omitted).

Although a bit hard to follow, Reason and Rationality is an interesting book. Among other things, he touches upon hyperbolic discounting, a concept I myself find very interesting. Elster also seems to be a likeable guy. According to this article, (in Norwegian), he cannot small talk, he thinks social scientists must have lesser ambitions than their current ‘grand theories,’ and he has some interesting views on how research is managed and funded in Norway today. Anyway, read Reason and Rationality! It will leave you curious!