Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Four books and one film to understand the world

Money, Coordination and Prices (1998)
Fieke van der Lecq

Van der Lecq asks the question 'Why does money exist?' After an extensive review of the many approaches to understanding money, she ultimately argues that the very reason for money may be the same reason that there is often little incentive to change nominal prices. Money provides a broad look at the role of norms, conventions and institutions in coordination - the macro-foundations of micro behaviour, if you will. The point is made clear when she looks at the necessity of meta-assumption in  game theory, the meta-assumptions in game theory that we ignore but are the key reasons there is so little practical application, and so on. It is probably a book for those with a fair bit of economics training.

One stand out section for me was the way coordination requires clues about the behaviour of others. In game theory it is merely assumed, almost always without question, that there is a common knowledge of instrumental rationality. What that assumption is also rational is never quite made clear. But in any case, the way Van der Lecq describes the role of 'focus points', or clues we use to infer the likely behaviour of others. She quotes Schelling
People can often concert their intentions or expectation with others if each knows the other is trying to do the same. Most situations (...) provide some clue for coordinating behavior, some focal point for each person's expectation of what the other expects him to be expected to do (Schelling 1960, p57)
To be the approach in this book to money sits very cleanly with Erving Goffman's approach to coordination, in that we present ourselves in particular ways in different circumstances in order to present the necessary signals for coordination. While I don't have a separate entry for his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, I highly recommend it.

Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013)
Joshua Greene

A brilliant look at what morality is, how people respond differently to seemingly different framing of the same utilitarian dilemma (mostly centred on the trolley problem). The big message from this book for me is summarised in the passage below.
Morality evolved to enable cooperation, but this conclusion comes with an important caveat. Biologically speaking, humans were designed for cooperation, but only with some people. Our moral brains evolved for cooperation within groups, and perhaps only within the context of personal relationships. Out moral brains did not evolve for cooperation between groups (at least not all groups). How do we know this? Because universal cooperation is inconsistent with the principles of natural selection. I wish it were otherwise, but there's no escaping this conclusion

Economic Indeterminacy (2013)
Yanis Varoufakis

A terrific book focussing on the rather technical aspects of game theory and the hidden assumptions that no one wants to talk about. The big message for me was that all economists, when they truly dig down into the depths of their theory, hit a wall of indeterminacy. Most then do the dance of the meta-axioms to step back from the wall with additional hidden assumptions. To make a career you must continue to dance away from that wall - confronting it casts you as an outsider.

Another important piece in Varoufakis's work is the nature of human conflict, and how it can fit into the picture of rationality. Put simply it can't. And that the puzzle that led Varoufakis down the garden path.

The following passages are insightful.

…young graduates, who spent countless months and years mastering this analysis, they will, indeed, require an heroic disposition to ‘come clean’; to admit that all this investment has led them to the conclusion that conflict is … indeterminate. Those of them who do say this courageously will never get tenure, as their papers will remain unpublished – their models will not have achieved the requisite ‘closure’. And those who maintain silence of the faulty foundations of their analysis, continuing to produce models of greater complexity along the same lines (and on the basis of the same denial of indeterminacy’s actual hold), will become the new blood that keeps neoclassicism fresh and forever dominant within the economics departments of the best universities. 
In this sense, economists do not mind it when other social scientists disparage their model of men and women as unrealistic, as unrepresentative of how people actually think and act, even as downright misleading about the people around us. Their defence is simple: while homo economicus, the instrumentally hyper-rational ideal type, may not exist, it is an excellent benchmark against which to ‘measure’ the rationality of living and breathing humans and, moreover, it represents a very helpful model of the type of behaviour toward which real humans tend the greater their immersion in market competition.   
And when critics of the economists’ theories point out systematic differences between actual behaviour (e.g. in the laboratory) and the behaviour economists predict, the latter resort to the explanation that these differences are the result of the fact that people are not as rational as they, the economists, assume. That if they were truly rational, economic theory would predict perfectly their behaviour. Thus, economists interpret the chasm between observed human behaviour and the behaviour their models predict as a reflection of the divergence between actual and ideal human rationality.

Debt: The first 5000 years (2011)
David Graeber

There are hundreds of reviews of Debt online. This is not a review, but merely a recommendation. The book is long and wonders a little, but you will be rewarded by reading with an open mind. Debt focuses on recasting the nature of financial debt as fundamentally a human relationship - something we all too quickly forget when discussing the modern world of high finance (or should I say modern world of relationships). The following passages make this ‘relationship calculation’ role of debt and money quite clear.
Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly: 
"Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs. 
... The refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found throughout the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began "comparing power with power, measuring, calculating" and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt. 
It's not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to calculate. If he wasn't aware of it, he could not have said what he did. Of course we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.
Here is another
This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don't owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it's a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would rec­ognize today.

The Fog of War (2003)
Errol Morris

Lastly, a documentary that really opened my mind to recent US war history - The Fog of War. It is based on the life of Robert Strange McNamara, and centred on a lengthly interview of him at age 85 reflecting on the nature of war. McNamara was the US Secretary of Defence from 1961-1968, following a period as the President of the Ford Motor Company, and overall was a very influential decision maker in key aspects of US military actions. It is a little scary the way he explains just how close the US was to other wars, including the invasion of Cuba, and how often mistakes are made that cost the lives of millions.

The whole film is on YouTube here, and below is the trailer. It is worth your time.