Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Tribes, Gods, Indeterminancy, Property, Capitalism

The title of this post reflects the tone of my casual reading list for about the last month. I wanted to provide a brief comment on some of the books in the hope it may guide others.

Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict
Ariel Norenzayan

The book opens by introducing the eight interrelated principles that summarise the book’s core arguments.
  1. Watched people are nice people
  2. Religion is more in the situation than in the person
  3. Hell is stronger than heaven
  4. Trust people who trust in God
  5. Religious actions speak louder than words
  6. Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods
  7. Big Gods for Big Groups
  8. Religious groups cooperate in order to compete
These principles appear to describe religion as a formalised system of reward and punishment for within-group cooperation, allowing groups or tribes to out-compete other tribes. So far this is completely consistent with much of the experimental economic work on group cooperation and punishment, much of which contradicts game theoretic predictions of a lack of cooperation.

Folk theorems also get a mention, thankfully.

In all this is a good explanation of the rise, fall, of amorphous conceptions of religion and gods. Read it. 

I recommend this book for those who want to start thinking about morality and justice. Unfortunately I could sum up the book with the following: Utilitarianism is good, but ultimately impractical for determining morality, and for solving the more pressing problem of conflicting inter-group morals.

The thing this book does well is put in one place a coherent explanation of the evolved moral drivers for cooperation. Such moral drivers allow often astonishingly coordinated feats to be achieved by single groups - I'm think of the pyramids, or extensive military operations during wartime - while at the same time producing conflict between groups that at first glance appears immoral.
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.
This snippet of evolutionary moral theory sits at the heart of so many economic problems - the maintenance of peace, facilitation of trade between groups, nations, etc, tax morale and the willingness that masses conform to common laws, and more.

While I loved the discussion and explanation of moral challenges, Greene doesn’t seem to offer much to help resolve these challenges. Perhaps there are no solutions.

Owning the Earth: The Transforming History of Land Ownership
Andro Linklater

This is kind of a historical story-telling book about experiments with different types of land ownership around the world, linked with philosophical discussion and anecdotes about key characters in these historical stories. Very much worth reading if you want understand the social product that is property rights, and how these need to be balanced between rights for individual owners and for society at large.

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation
Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen wrote a whole book about inequality and long term labour market trends facilitated by labour-saving technology without once mentioning William Baumol. And for the life of me I just can’t understand how anyone, especially this respected economist, can waste so many words justifying inequality of labour market outcomes in terms of Solow’s unexplained residual.

As if by inter temporal magic, Cowen uses examples of 2000’s era tech startups to explain labour market trends that began in the 1970s.

What stares you in the face is the glaring omission of any policy discussion - it’s as if the changing nature of production technology occurred in a ceteris paribus world of unchanging policy. When in doubt label the residuals some kind of eminent flux of ideas rather than intentional incremental policy changes in favour of the asset-owning class.

A refutation of Cowen’s analysis of the impact of technology on the labour market and on income distribution simply needs to comprise an example of a period of extensive residual (technology) change that was not accompanied by rising inequality and labour market dysfunction. In the west we have a good recent example of the post war boom of the 1950s and 60s, where rapid commercial adoption of military technology was taking place. The only differences between then and now are institutional structures that produce more unequal outcomes.

After all, income distributions are a policy choice regardless of technology. I like Matt Bruenig’s take on this point. 
If we had wanted to make sure median incomes continued to rise, we could have done that. We would have just needed different distribution policy.
This book is a big distraction.

Economic Indeterminancy: A personal encounter with the economists’ peculiar nemesis
Yanis Varoufakis

This is a terrific book aimed at the economic profession (it gets quite technical) about the tribal nature of economics and its attachment to determinacy and finding single ‘solutions’ to the issues they analyse.

Varoufakis takes us through much of his work on whether there is a rational economic theory of conflict, which I found very interesting.

The introductory chapter really summarises the way economists limit their analysis by adopting the ‘dance of the meta-axioms’ that defines neo-classical economics. He explores the way the core of economics was challenged multiple times only to recoil from the ‘wall of indeterminancy’ and either ignore critiques or slightly modify their theory in order to regain their determinant solution, even if they have to defy logic to do so.

One good example is the capital controversies, which essentially state that you can’t measure capital. This would absolutely crush the core production theories. Alas, although the UK Cambridge won the battle, they lost the way, and these crucial debates are now routinely ignored.

Recommended for frustrated economists.

23 Things they don’t tell you about capitalism
Ha-Joon Chang

Which could be called '23 common sense things people know but economic training beats out of them’. I want to briefly note some of my personal favourite ‘Things’ Chang writes about.

There is no such thing as the free market
This point cannot be stated enough in the libertarian wild west of the blogosphere. Legal institutions and enforcement, especially regarding the protection of contracts and private property, are the foundations of market exchange. Prices are facilitated by a monetary and banking system supported by decades, if not centuries, of institutional development.

Free market policies rarely make poor countries rich
I recommend Chang’s book Bad Samaritans to cover this point in more detail. Essentially, every developed country, including the newly developed, followed policies that are routinely opposed by economic theorists and policy advisors in the west. Government-backed export industries and infrastructure investment are usually critical ingredients, whether they occur through government owned corporations or other cooperative partnership with private sector companies.

We do not live in a post-industrial age
The declining share of economic activity occurring in agriculture and manufacturing is often interpreted as some kind of ‘decoupling’ of the economy from activities involving the transformation of material goods. What we usually forget is that these measurements are typically the result of a) a limit to agricultural demand, and b) Baumol’s cost disease, whereby productivity growth in any sector passes through to higher wages in other sectors. Thus it is only because there is a highly efficient agricultural and manufacturing sector that high wage tertiary services sectors can exist.

More education is not going to make a country richer
A simple thought experiment can make it obvious that education is not the crucial ingredient, and that education need only be ‘matched’ to the available real capital for countries to prosper. Chang uses the example of Switzerland’s low rates of tertiary education, and its more vocational post-school training which delivers competent workers with the skills necessary to complement high tech production equipment.

The general rule here is that education is only valuable if the physical capital exists to complement the know-how in genuine production activities. Many economists are often unable to comprehend this obvious point.

Big government makes people more open to change
The argument here is that a strong welfare state allows the private sector to be more dynamic since workers are less threatened by losing their job and are therefore more eagerly adapt to corporate change. This allows companies to be more dynamic and innovative. Chang explains that the US approach of employer-facilitated welfare in the form of health insurance creates a massive fear of losing one’s job, and hence creates tensions between workers and owners of a business seeking to reorganise. In countries where healthcare is publicly provided and not linked to employment, and where decent unemployment benefits and job transition arrangements are available, workers need not fear corporate owner’s decisions.

Finally, good economic policy does not require good economists. Nothing more to add to that!

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