Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Pecking Order of the Social Sciences

The Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms it—there is a clear pecking order in the social sciences. Here we see graphs of how frequently the following words (case sensitive) appeared in 4% of all English Language books published in the world.

See larger version here.

It's hard to read, so I'll read it off: we have economics on top, followed by sociology, then anthropology, and lastly, political science. The people have decided which subjects are most worth talking about!

I'm not well versed in the history of these disciplines to explain any patterns that may appear in these graphs, but there are some features of it that catch my eye. I find it fascinating that even though all the keywords started out neck-and-neck in the late 1800s, they ended up diverging completely. I'm also surprised to see political science at the bottom; though, admittedly, most of political science strikes me as recycled and refurbished economics/sociology.

Economics, of course, is king. I've heard professors (indirectly) explain why this is by saying that economics provides a really powerful predictive framework. It's because of this power, for example, that economics has a habit of colonizing areas of research that were previously the domain of other fields (e.g. Becker's study of crime coopted the study of deviance from sociology).

But I think another less-discussed reason why economics is so dominant is that the allocation problem is the most basic and most fundamental problem of society. It's the academic discipline that rests at the bottom of Maslow's Pyramid, as it were: first we want food on the table, a roof over our head, a way to earn a decent living, and then we can talk about the subtleties of cultural sovereignty.

The Reading List

In our continued effort to provide you with the foremost intellectual experience, we here at have come up with our latest feature on the blog: the Reading List.

Here we'll list our roundup of thought-provoking and/or generally worthwhile reading materials, accompanied by short reviews and synopses.

We hope you find something interesting here that you'd recommend to your friends. As always, we welcome feedback and suggestions.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Black Swan

I went to see this movie not knowing what I was in for, but that's probably the only way I would have seen it anyway: it's a real mind-f@#%.

The premise is simple: anxiety, tension, and rivalry in a NYC ballet company's production of Swan Lake. But the director, Darren Arenofsky, takes this simple story and makes it a deep and haunting and rich.

The plot goes like this: Nina (played by Natalie Portman) is a ballerina driven to perfection, and yearns for the lead role as the Swan Queen in the company's upcoming production of Swan Lake. She auditions for the role, and she gets it (not before the director tries to get some of her), but with the condition that she needs to fix the weakness in her performance. The Swan Queen part comprises two roles, the White Swan and the Black Swan; and though Nina plays the White Swan to perfection, she has trouble connecting with the dark, imperfect, sensual side of herself to play the Black Swan. At the same time, a new ballerina, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), has joined the company, and she has all the dark edgy qualities required of Nina. Nina's mind starts to buckle under the stress: she deliriously imagines that Lily keeps trying to take her place, and she begins to rebel increasingly violently against her controlling and suffocating ex-ballerina mother. The movie follows her journey into the dark side and her spiraling psychosis.

It's difficult for me to explain why the movie was so scary, but I think the main reason is that in this case the threat is internal. You can always run away from an axe-murderer, but you can never run away from your own mind. Plus, the visuals were really gruesome, and unrelenting. This wasn't a movie that had a rising action, climax, and denouement; instead, the tension only increased and increased as the film went on, until it released spectacularly at the end.

I try to come away from these kinds of heavy films with some lessons, and also I think this film, which is so clearly a glimpse into the mind's abyss, particularly invites it. So here's what I learned:

1. Suppressing any aspect of your personality is not healthy.

At the director's urging, Nina connects with her dark side. But since she had neglected it so much, once she begins to make that connection it overcomes her. Her personality swings to the other extreme and she loses control over her mental equipoise. She isn't able to handle the new ideas and emotions and thoughts that are engulfing her.

2. Perfectionism is an ugly trait.

The crowd that watches Nina's astounding performance only sees the final result, but through the film we witness what the cost is of the perfectionism that leads to that performance. It costs Nina her mental stability—paintings come alive and taunt her, blood stains her hands, she imagines stabbings and voices shouting "I'm not good enough." It costs her her relationship with her mother. It costs her her relationships at the ballet company, where she constantly feels alone and threatened. And ultimately, it costs her ballet: something she presumably picked up for enjoyment becomes mental torture and a death sentence.

Less philosophically:

1. Ballet can be quite vertiginous.

Arenofsky's cinematography does a good job of showing just how alive and quick ballet can be. I've seen a production, and it looks rather static-y and calm from a distance, but after watching Black Swan I realize the dancers themselves experience a quiet whirlwind.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Geopolitics of Google Maps

The Google Maps project started out innocently enough. When the company launched Google Maps, it made the following announcement on its official blog:
We think maps can be useful and fun, so we've designed Google Maps to simplify how to get from point A to point B. Say you're looking for "hotels near LAX." With Google Maps you'll see nearby hotels plotted right on a crisp new map (we use new rendering methods to make them easier to read). Click and drag the map to view the adjacent area dynamically - there's no wait for a new image to download...[read more].
But like with a lot of other things that Google does to simplify people's lives, this venture has also gotten the company embroiled in controversy: Google Maps, a project with purely geeky and cartographical intentions in mind, has become the latest frontier in boundary disputes.

Recently, this issue got a lot of attention with the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican flare up. When a Nicaraguan general was asked why his troops were stationed on the Costa Rican side of the border, he cited Google's erroneous version of the map, which showed his position to be on the Nicaraguan side. This led to the Costa Rican government to petition Google to change the map, while Nicaragua filed a counter-petition to keep it the same.

The incorrect Nicaragua-Costa Rica boundary
Even though the general's answer was completely disingenuous (it was just a pretense really—Nicaraguan troops stayed put even after the mistake become clear), it became an occassion to reopen this old controversy. The blog Ogle Earth, which is dedicated in fact to how "internet mapping tools like Google Earth affect science and society," has an excellent post that tries to get at the real historical motivation for the general's action.

The Google geopolitics problem is not just restricted to Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The Indian ministers have become savvy to what the media calls Google's "3-map policy" regarding the Indian border:

The problem is that Google shows three separate maps of India depending on which version you use. The Indian version shows India as Indians know it, but the Chinese version shows parts belonging to China, and the American version shows all those areas disputed. It seems, the reporter says dismissively, that Google is giving everyone what they want—which means a company like Google which tries to stay out of politics and keep everyone happy really can't win any which way.

I have a hunch that these controversies are only just starting. Border disputes have always been around, but now the stakes are much higher. Because Google Maps are the standard maps for most people around the world, border conflicts are no longer just about reconciling with the neighbors but also about protecting your national integrity and pride in front of the entire world. If Google's going to continue with its Maps project, than it should expect more angry phone calls, and should probably set up a Political Affairs department to handle them.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Understanding the economy from the bottom up

Anthropologists have developed a framework that I think would be instructive to economists. The Livelihoods Framework, as it is known, was developed by scholars of development to compare the development status of two unrelated groups. But I think it offers general insights on how economies work.

For the Livelihoods Framework, the fundamental unit of analysis is the household. Households are socially defined, and include just the nuclear family or a large network of relatives, blood-related or otherwise, depending on the culture.

Households control assets. These are the bundles of goods/abilities/talents/resources that households use in order to survive, and meet their livelihood goals. Because these resources used for the purpose of gaining access to other resources, they are known as varying forms of capital.

Anthropologists have identified around six main forms of capital:
  • Natural capital: Resources/access that come from geography. This includes the land that a household owns, or access to river or forests.
  • Physical capital: The structures and equipment that a household may own. This includes a house, machinery, and wells, for example.
  • Human capital: The skills and abilities of the people in the household. This may be simply having access to labor, from the kids, or also the levels of education, street-smarts, or health that the members of the household may have.
  • Social capital: The ability to mobilize social connections to procure resources. For example, a family in tough times may be able to lean on their relatives, or their friends.
  • Economic capital: Financial resources. It refers to both the households' income stream, as well as the material assets it can sell in order to raise money.
  • Political capital: The ability to procure resources through the political structure. Political capital takes the form of well-connectedness, or access to political institutions.
Households operate within a specific geographical, historical, political, economic and cultural context. This context determines the kinds and levels of assets available to households.

Livelihood strategies are the way in which households mix and match assets to meet their needs and goals. The household's set of available strategies is constrained by the processes and structures which govern the society. These are the rules, norms, and institutions that direct households to act in a certain way.

As a result of employing strategies, households face outcomes. These outcomes refer to the goals that households seek—health, education, financial stability, security, a sense of place. These are the true measures of a household's success.

The following is a standard graphic summarizing the Livelihoods Framework:

What can economists learn from this model?

1. Economists should think of replacing the individual with the household as the fundamental unit of analysis.

Society is not just a collection of individuals trading and bargaining with each other. Rather, we are parceled into small, socialist blocs, called families, which govern and constrain our actions. Hayek also recognized the divide that exists between family life and social life:
...we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed rules (of caring intervention to do visible ‘good’) of the…small band or troop, or...our families…to the (extended order of cooperation through markets), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were to always apply the (noncooperative) rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. (The Fatal Conceit, p 18; qtd. Vernon Smith's Nobel Lecture).
Thus the market isn't reducible down to the individual (nor, as Hayek argues, should it), as classic economic models assume. To be honest, I'm not sure whether this really makes a differences, since we can think of individuals in the market as representing the interests of the whole household, but I think it might, and it's worth exploring. Also, it's useful for us economists to ask ourselves why we are naturally averse to using market principles within families.

2. The assets that households hold are diverse.

I think we often think of money as the only way households can procure resources, but this model makes it clear that there are a number of other ways too. Economists should see the wealth of households in a more holistic light, and see beyond income flows. If, for example, a certain program increases household income, but decrease its natural capital, or its social capital, then we need to be able to recognize a potential net loss in wealth.

3. The importance of consumption is overstated.

This is an old refrain, but the model offers an alternative. Consumption is for the sake of fulfilling outcomes, and these outcomes should be the metrics we use to judge economic success. These other metrics aren't separate from the economy, but an integral part of it.

4. An economy is not only a distribution of resources, but also a distribution of livelihoods.

Economy is the way we live our lives. It's how we decide what careers we pursue, the places we live, the industries we establish, and the way we spend our leisure time. It's what we think our job is, not only in the market, but in life. These concepts are so fundamental to our being that we have a hard time adjusting to change. This is why economic changes are so difficult and, at times, heart-wrenching.

In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs talks about his role in advising the Russian government during the transformation from communist planning to markets. His description of the challenges that Russia faced really illustrate this point.
The transformation would be the hardest in modern history because the gap between where Russia was and where it needed to be—for domestic peace, stability and economic development--was as vast as imaginable...People were literally in the wrong places. They were in Siberia, living in large secret cities that had been created for military purposes. They were working in heavy industries utterly dependent on the massive use of oil and gas reserves, as if there was no limit to those resources....No economic policy could be massive enough to relocate people, factories, and assets in a matter of days or weeks or even a few years. (pgs. 134-135)
That's why when we craft economic policy, we need to be very careful and judicious. We're pulling the strings of peoples' livelihoods.

Irrational Lawsuits

From the New York Times, we have here a distinctly American litigation case: a New York judge has determined that a 4-year-old who accidently hit an old woman in a bike race with a friend can be sued for negligence.

Here's a quick overview of the story:
Juliet Breitman, 4, and Jacob Kohn, 5, were racing their bicycles, under the supervision of their mothers, Dana Breitman and Rachel Kohn, on the sidewalk of a building on East 52nd Street. At some point in the race, they struck an 87-year-old woman named Claire Menagh, who was walking in front of the building and, according to the complaint, was “seriously and severely injured,” suffering a hip fracture that required surgery. She died three months later of unrelated causes.

Her estate sued the children and their mothers, claiming they had acted negligently during the accident. In a response, Juliet’s lawyer, James P. Tyrie, argued that the girl was not “engaged in an adult activity” at the time of the accident — “She was riding her bicycle with training wheels under the supervision of her mother” — and was too young to be held liable for negligence.

[...] But Justice Wooten declined to stretch that rule to children over 4. On Oct. 1, he rejected a motion to dismiss the case because of Juliet’s age, noting that she was three months shy of turning 5 when Ms. Menagh was struck, and thus old enough to be sued.

Mr. Tyrie “correctly notes that infants under the age of 4 are conclusively presumed incapable of negligence,” Justice Wooten wrote in his decision, referring to the 1928 case. “Juliet Breitman, however, was over the age of 4 at the time of the subject incident. For infants above the age of 4, there is no bright-line rule.”
The lawyer blogs are abuzz with this story, and thousands of other laypeople have already given their opinions. At the risk of being redudant, here's my two cents:

In none of the blog posts and op-eds that I read did I find a discussion of whether litigation is even a valid means of redress. Since the money can't bring back life, these kinds of  lawsuits seem to be principally about deterring people from acting negligantly by penalizing them for doing so. But even if we determine the child is fully negligent, lawsuits can't punish her in a meaningful way. Four-year-olds have no income of their own to be deprived of. They don't even know what "litigation" means.

This case is by no means an isolated incident of irrational litigation; the U.S. seems to be an especially fertile breeding ground for it. It's easy to chalk it up to some cultural flaw, but I suspect there's something deeper going on—I just haven't had the time to research it properly.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Blast from the Past

Did you know that the New York Times maintains online searchable archives all the way back to 1851?

Here, for example, is an article I found while researching U.S.-South American trade relations:

It's funny to see how news from so long ago reads as if it were contemporary. At the bottom of the page, in small print, the publication date reads: May 24, 1914.

From the artist's rendering, it seems like the Plaza de Mayo has seen better days. For some reason the full-bodied trees shown here have been replaced with gangly palm trees:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Mathematics of Social Life

We can think of a person's personality as a vector in Fn. The dimensions of F represent the dimensions of the goals and interests that one might entertain—what one values, broadly speaking. Some people are more interested in pursuing money than others; some people have more an inclination towards spirituality than others; some people give more importance to their family than others. Thus, we can say that money, spirituality, and family represent some of the nearly infinite dimensions of this space (but we think of n as finite for simplicity). The zero vector would signify balance within all dimensions.

Like R, F is continuous, infinite, and contains postive and negative values; just as value traits come in shades of grey, have no known limits, and always work in pairs of opposites. Although personality doesn't just include values, they are its most important component. Values are what drive action and shape our life's trajectory, which is what we're interested in modeling.

These personality vectors represent a static snapshot of a person's personality. However, people's goals and interests are, of course, constantly changing: at any given moment, a person has a certain place she's at in life, and a certain place she'd like to go. This defines what we'll call a change vector in Fn. The vector points towards the new personality vector one wants to have, and the magnitude represents the rate at which the change is happening. Continuing the previous example, we can say that a person with a penitant heart who wants to focus more attention on his family rather than on money would have a change vector that points 1) less on the money dimension 2) more on the spirtuality dimension and 3) more on the family dimension.

Over the course of our lives, the personality vector traces a trajectory through Fn that describes how our goals and interests have changed. These trajectories are useful in describing, characterizing, and categorizing people's lives. When we say, for example, that someone has meandered through life, we may mean that the distance traveled along the trajectory is much larger than the distance traveled in Fn.

The change vectors are first derivatives of our life's trajectory. At each moment in time, the vectors are tangent to the trajectory, and mark where we're immediately heading. Because our personalities have inertia, our life's trajectory follows the vector unless the vector changes: until we receive some new information, or have some new experience, our thought pattern will not change.

A society is a well-defined set of people. Societies can be both big and small, ranging from small towns, to nations, to the entire world. Societies can also be defined in terms other than geography, such as national origin, occupation, or marital status.

Societies do not have a uniform distribution of personalities. Instead, they tend to cluster in certain regions of the space (this is where stereotypes come from). We can describe the distribution of personalities of a society with a density map on Fn.

Not all people within a society are equally important to us; we tend to think that some have more of a claim on our consideration than others. A social network is thus defined as a graph of all social claims on oneself that one considers meaningful. The graph is organized as a series of concentric rings, with us at the center and each progressively farther rings representing more distant/less valued relationships.

Hypothesis on Nature vs. Nurture
When we are born, we have an initial personality vector in Fn. This is the nature component, since it limits the possibility of our life's trajectory to within the neighborhood of that point. However, once that point is established, we can move in any direction. This is the nurture component.

An analogy is a cow tied by a rope to a tree: the cow can only move as far as the rope will let her, but within the radius of the rope she can move in any direction.

It's hard to say whether babies are born with change vectors as well, i.e. whether they have a conception of what they want to do with life. But even if they did, it would be almost inseparable from the immediate influence that the family exerts on the newborn.

Interaction is comprised of two components: liking and influence. They are separate matters, since we are often influenced by people that we do not necessarily like.

We often gauge how much we like something or someone by how much it aligns with our goals and interests. That is, liking is a measure of the similarity between two vectors, i.e. the angle between them. An angle of 0 measures complete liking and an angle of pi measures complete dislike. If a vector is perpendicular to another, then it is neither heading in a similar direction on any dimension, nor is it heading away; perpendicular vectors thus signal indifference.

Note that we are talking about personalities, not genes. People with very similar personalities may look completely different, talk different, and manifest their goals and interests in different ways—but their goals and interests are similar.

Liking, like influence, happens not just through face-to-face encounters with other people, but also by learning about the work they produce. Our work crystallizes our personality in time, making it possible for distant, unknown people to like and be influenced by us, even without directly meeting. Reading the works of an author reveals the idea vector of the author at that time; learning about the social works of a great leader is a way of meeting their vector.

Influence is a question of what influences the change vectors. Since influence can occur to varying degrees, we can think of it as lying on a spectrum. One one extreme, we have complete influence, where both parties fully and equally influence each other. In complete influence, two people leave the interaction with the same new "goal" personality vector, one that is the sum of their previous individual personality vectors: components of the vector moving in opposite directions would cancel out, and components moving in the same direction would build on each other. However, because personality change is continuous, and occurs over time, the change in personality vector is not instantaneous. Instead, after the interaction, both parties leave with change vectors that now point towards their new goal personality vector. Over time, if these change vectors are unaltered, then their personalities will become the same.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a complete lack of influence, where the interaction does not affect the change vectors at all. Most interaction is either of this latter type (since we can't afford to constantly reevaluate ourselves every time we interact), or somewhere in between.

Because individuals have free will, personality change is a stochastic event, and hard to pin down. However, we do know that a person is more likely to be influenced one direction or another based on the distribution of her social network within Fn.

We can simplify the process of influence by thinking of it as a random event where a person chooses to be influenced from someone in her social network. That is, every t periods a person decides to be influenced. She samples someone at random from her social network and is influenced, let's say completely influenced. Because her social network is unevenly distributed, she is more likely to sample certain people over others, causing her to be more influenced in a certain direction. The family, as a child's first social network, has the first say in influencing the child's change vector. However, as the child begins her process of socialization within larger society, the familial claims weaken and other people gain stronger influence.

Social Life
When we find ourselves in good company, it is because the personalities of the people involved complement each other. Similarly, in tight knit circles of friends, the personality vectors are linearly dependent on each other.

Social cliques are subspaces of Fn. These cliques are, by definition, closed and bounded, and represent clusters of a socially defined personality type.

Large social gatherings, such as parties, are also home to the formation of subspaces. Like-minded people tend to gravitate towards each other and form social circles, and at times these circles don't even mix. A good party, though, is one where the maximal subspace of the party includes every member, meaning that everyone has interest in each other.

We can think of all the people in the world as also representing a bounded region in Fn. The edges of the space represent the boundaries of the present human experience. As people have interacted more and more throughout history, they have provided more and more opportunities for ideas to change, pushing personality vectors in new directions and expanding the human experience.

The region of high density of a density map on all of humanity is the zeitgeist of the era. It represents the certain general paradigm of thinking, acting, and being for people at that time.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Photoshop Lab, Volume 3

I found a website with a lot of cool Photoshop tutorials (see here), which has inpired me to create the following new set of projects. Enjoy!

I used this tutorial for the elephant one and this tutorial (plus this one, for the background) for the boxer one.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Much to my surprise, I'm finding that learning Photoshop hasn't just been about picking up some cool technical skills, but also about discovering this whole new world of graphic design, a world that produces all the visual media I consume all day everyday but which I've taken entirely for granted.

Today's latest discovery: typography.

typography |tīˈpägrəfē|
the art or process of setting and arranging types and printing from them.

Typography has two parts to it. On one hand, it's about the design and creation of new fonts. This is, perhaps, the world's most underappreciated art form. I never thought of type design myself until I got into Photoshop and looked up the blog I Love Typography, where you see how the process of type creation involves all the trappings of traditional artwork, including sketches, concept drawings, and numerous edits. Typography is also perhaps the world's most useful art, since it's what drives all the blogs, advertisements, flyers, and other visual media that we use. It's nice then that typography has gotten a recent boost from the MacArthur Foundation, which recently awarded a grant to type designer Matthew Carter, known for fonts like Georgia (this one) and Verdana (this one).

The second side of typography is making pictures out of words. I've really taken a liking to it. Here are some of my favorite examples, collected from around the Internet:

You can find a lot more examples of stunning typographic artwork here. Here's my own attempt at the art form:

I based the design on what I learned in this tutorial.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Making Sense of Political Campaigns

The mid-term elections are coming up in only a few weeks, which means our nation's ritual democratic exercise in absurdity—that is, political campaigning—is fully underway.

In trying to figure out why these campaigns always become so ridiculous (e.g. by running ads that compare the opponent to the Taliban, or start off with "I am not a witch"), it's easy to blame voter stupidity. It's tempting to believe that if only everyone were smart and educated, politicians wouldn't be able to confuse or fear-monger voters so easily, and, hopefully, we could have a less chaotic democracy.

However, William Riker, a political philosopher at the University of Rochester, argues convincingly that democracy can be inherently unstable. His analysis in Liberalism Against Populism, which I present below, applies Social Choice theory to democracy in a fascinating way. It's one of the most powerful theories I've heard.

Riker employs a lot of technical vocabulary and notation, which I'll define here first.

X=(x, y, z, ...) represents a set of alternatives. Alternatives can be anything—bundles of goods, motions on the House floor, values, or candidates running for election.

Preference is a relation between two alternatives, with three possibilities: either xPy (x is preferred to y), xIy (x is just as good as y), or xRy (x is at least as good as y; this condition is also known as weak preference, with xPy representing strong preference).

Rationality requires that preferences be complete, reflexive, and transitive. Completeness means that a person should be able to come up with a preference relation for any two options. Reflexive means that an option x is at least as good as itself (this is to ensure people aren't schizophrenic, basically). Transitive means that if xPy and yPz, then xPz.1

A Social Welfare Function (SWF) is a function that takes a set of individual preferences and gives an overall group preference. If, for example, I'm in a club with three members that has to decide on a name, and there are three names avaiable, then the SWF takes our individual rankings and comes up with a ranking for the group. For this ranking to make any sense, then we require it to follow the same rationality conditions that we require the individual members themselves—completness, reflexivity, and transitivity.

Condorcet Voting is a democratic procedure for choosing among three or more alternatives that involves taking simple majority votes on all pairwise alternatives. To illustrate, we have three people—A, B, and C—who are choosing among alternatives x, y, and z. They have the following preference orderings:

A: x y z
B: y x z
C: z x y

When we take pairwise votes we ask how many people prefer x to y, y to z, and z to x. In this example it turns out that on the vote x or y, x wins; on the vote y or z, y wins; and on the vote z or x, x wins. This gives us social preferences of xPy, yPz, and xPz, which together gives us a social ordering of x, y, z; x is the winner.

The Condorcet Voting Paradox is when individual preferences are such that the Condorcet Voting procedure doesn't yield a transitive social ordering, but rather cycles. If, for example, our three people (A, B, C) have the following preferences,

A: x y z
B: y z x
C: z x y

then we have xPy, yPz, zPx, or in other words, x beats y, y beats z, but z beats x! The social ordering is cyclical, x, y, z, x, which makes each option equally valid as the social choice.

Arrow's Impossibility Theorem
The formal problem is that we want a fair, reliable, logical, and democratic way of choosing from three or more alternatives. In other words, we want a democratic way of aggregating individual preferences that really reflects "the popular will."

The starting point for the analysis is Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, which shows that there is no SWF for three or more alternatives that also satisfies "some reasonable conditions of fairness on the method and a condition of logicality of the result" (Riker 116).

This may sound rather abstract, but Riker takes this formal problem and applies it quickly to democracy by modeling democracy as a SWF: voters have certain individual ranking of candidates, and democracy amalgamates those individual preferences into a social choice.

The way the proof works is that first Arrow gives six basic, logical conditions that we can generally agree a SWF should have, and then shows how they contain a contradiction. This method is called axiomatic social choice theory, because the theories are built up from axioms, or conditions. The axioms are (following Riker 116-119):
  1. Universal admissibility of individual orderings: People should be able to rank alternatives in any way they want, as long as it's rational.
  2. Monotonicity: If a person raises the value of a winning alternative, it cannot become a loser; or, if a person lowers the value of a losing alternative, it cannot become a winnner.
  3. Citizens' sovereignty or Nonimposition: An alternative x is imposed if it is the winner no matter what set of individual preference orderings are given.
  4. Unanimity: If everyone preferes x to y, then the SWF should not choose y. Riker notes there are only two ways of violating unanimity: one, if the SWF is not monotonic, and two, if the method of amalgamation of preferences imposes x regardless of the set of preferences.
  5. Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives: Adding alternatives to an original set of profiles shouldn't affect the SWF's relative ranking of the original alternatives. For example, if in the original profile (x, y, z) everyone prefers x to y, adding w to the list shouldn't make y somehow place higher than x. Similarly, subtracting alternatives shouldn't affect the relative ordering of the remaining alternatives. If everyone prefers x to y, subtracting z shouldn't cause y to beat x.
  6. Nondictatorship: There should be no person whose preference xPy sets the social choice as x, regardless of what other people think.
The proof of Arrow's Theorem involves exploiting the Universal Domain axiom to allow for Condorcet Voting Paradox preferences, showing that these preferences contain a dictator for one alternative, and then showing that if we have a dictator over one alternative then he's a dictator over all alternatives.

When faced with this result, one's natural reacction is to question the necessity of some of the axioms. Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives seems particularly suspect, since, for example, it exludes all plurality voting systems. Nevertheless, these axioms are important. They ensure that the result of the aggregation process is not manipulable, and to remove any one of these is to open up the system to agenda setting, strategic voting, and other forms of manipulation.2

Double Peaked Preferences and Strategic Voting
Arrow's theorem only applies when we have cycles. When do cycles occur in politics?

In politics, our alternatives are almost always positioned along a spectrum, most commonly the liberal/conservative one. To model what cyclical preferences would look like in actual politics, we take our alternatives x, y, z to represent candidates from various parts of the liberal/conservative spectrum. The Condorcet Voting Paradox over these candidates would look like:

Both A and B's preferences make sense: the farther they move away from their preferred candidate, the less they like the alternatives. C, on the other hand, has strange preferences. As he moves away from his most preferred candidate, z, he likes the alternatives less and less. But after a certain point, as he moves even farther away towards x, he starts liking the candidate more!

What makes A and B's preferences sound is that they are single-peaked. When you graph the preferences on a political axis, they only have one peak, and as you move further from the peak preference only decreases. By the opposite token, what makes C's preferences illogical is that they are double-peaked. Double-peaked preferences come in many shapes, but they all have the property of increasing preference at some point as one moves away from the preferred alternative.

Why would double-peaked preferences occur? Riker argues they result from disagreement about the meaning of the political spectrum. Person C is probably not only be looking at the candidates in terms of the liberal/conservative axis, but also the environmental axis, the trustworthy axis, or even the good-looking axis. This transforms a 1-dimensional problem into a multi-dimensional problem. As long as these various axes overlap, then there will be no disagreement about the axis; but the more orthogonal these axes are, the more likely we are to see double-peaked preferences.

Critics of Riker have argued that studies show that Americans overwhelmingly agree on the liberal/conservative axis. That seems to save democracy from Arrow problems, right? Riker counters that even if society doesn't actually have cyclical preferences, individuals can vote strategically to create them. When we have cycles, we have no true social choice, which means the result depends entirely on how one sets the agenda and the voting system. Strategic voting thus allows for manipulation of the social choice.

Riker's argument is especially strong because he not only shows that it is theoretically possible to strategically vote, but also provides examples from U.S. history where he argues that it's happened, such as the repeated defeat of the Powell amendment to the federal education bill in the House of Representatives.

Chaos in Politics
Thus, when Riker claimed that democracy was inherently choatic, he was arguing that democracy is susceptible to cycles, and cycles allow for manipulation of the social choice.

I see Riker's argument applying to political campaigning in that campaign managers often design campaigns to shift the terms of the debate. Ads will come out that arguing "this election isn't about small government, it's about jobs"; or, as is more often the case, "this election isn't about policy, it's about who looks more presidential/American/empathetic/working-class." In Rikerian terms, campaign managers who find their candidates losing on the traditional left/right policy axis try to find other orthogonal axes to divide voters, which creates cycles and allows for maniuplation. Right now these other axes are stupid because we have stupid voters. But even if all voters were smart, there always exist new axes (e.g. freedom) that bisect the traditional left/right spectrum and divide even intelligent voters.

1. We have good reasons to believe that these conditions make sense; if you need convincing, see Chapter 1 of On Philosophy, Politics, and Economicsby Gerry Gaus.

2. In fact, one very infamous and controversial paper, "Agenda Influence and Its Implications," exploits the fact that all voting systems have a weak spot. Levine, president of the local flying club, has to decide how to structure the voting for the club's new round of purchases. His problem is that his preferences go against what everyone else in the group wants. Levine turns to Plott, an economist, and the two of them devise a strategic voting system that sets up the votes in such a way that Levine gets what he wants—and he does! Not surprisingly, after the paper is publihed, Plott and Levine get a lot of flak for their "unethical" study.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dance. Dare. Move. Soar.

Here's my latest Photoshop project. I'm especially proud of how it turned out.

It's based on a tutorial that I found here.

[I've been getting so into Photoshop lately that I've been neglecting to do my homework. This reminds me of high school, when I'd regularly experience these transient obsessions (including calculus, computer programming, and playwrighting) that would literally make me forget the world around me. I don't know what to make of this habit of mine: on one hand, there's the exhiliration of discovery, the joy of passion, and it's truly a wonderful experience; but on the other hand, it's caused me too much guilt and too many unnecessarily sleepless nights...If only I could choose what my homework was based on my mood.]

Friday, October 15, 2010

Foray into Photoshop

I've recently started to work on learning Adobe Photoshop. It's intimidatingly powerful software, which is why I've been reluctant to get into it before, but now I see it in a different light because I focus more on the amazing potential that this array of features has to offer me. Even after a couple tutorials I'm inspired to further explore a neglected creative side of me. Here are some of my first projects:

No rights reserved. Feel free to use them as you wish. This is not a political statement in any way—I'm just really excited to share what I've made.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Berkeley Blog

Dear Reader,

Here's another tool to help you in your lifelong quest for knowledge—The Berkeley Blog, a compilation of blogs from UC Berkeley professors:

You can read up on a vast array of topics, from the humanities, to politics and economics, to science and technology, to health and medicine.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Why do we have music?

I was listening to NPR today and heard a piece on Christoph Eschenbach, currently the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra (pictured right). Indirectly, he gave what I found to be a very cogent answer to this question:

"Music can invade you totally, and can speak all the languages of emotion to you. You can express all the language of emotion with that music."

We writers often complain about not being able to fully trasmit our emotions. Music, it seems, can fill this gap which writing cannot. To say that writing is just the language of the intellect and music is just the language of emotions sets up a false dichotomy, but it also gives a good sense of their respective strengths.

Update (2hrs later): When I wrote this post, I didn't consider poetry, arguably the most emotional form of writing. Even still, I feel music has a superior fidelity for emotions. Music doesn't rely on words, or even concepts, and that allows it to speak to us from a place in our minds before words or concepts even form.

Monday, September 27, 2010

One Year of Blogging

Anniversaries somehow have a way of sneaking up on you—I was flipping through some of my older posts and realized that I've been blogging for just over a year now. Already! I can't say that I feel anything but proud. This is one of the first projects I've sustained for such a long-term, and I think it's done me a lot of good. Since these types of occasions are normally marked for reflection, I thought I'd take a moment to step back from my writing and see how I've been doing over the past 74 posts. (This one will make it 75!)

Looking back on old posts makes me feel like an archeologist of my own mind. I can see how each post crystallized my state of mind at the time, forming a sort of mental fossil record that makes it possible for me, now, to contemplate the evolution of my thinking from the outside. Like the archeologist, I feel at once a strong connection and objective distance to the past, which gives my study a tinge of both nostalgia and curiosity. The main difference, of course, is that one year doesn't make ancient history. As much as I try to approach my old posts with the objectivity of archeology, I know I'm still attached to my old writing.

One of the first things that strikes me when I read my early posts is how clearly anxious this project made me. Right after finishing my first post, I wrote a second one worrying about how I'd find my own voice. About a month later, I wrote another post entitled Washed up?, where I wondered aloud whether I wasn't creative enough to come up with new posts constantly. Although my first instinct was to dismiss these posts as comical and childish (which they are), I now believe it's more important to recognize how much writing involves putting yourself out there, and becoming comfortable with that. That I can look back on my earlier posts with a kind of grandfatherly humor is, to me, a sign of real progress.

I'm happy to find that, one year later, I have some answers to the questions I was asking in the beginning. As I mentioned, I used to wonder how I'd find my voice. Now I don't—not that I understand my own voice any better, but I've learned to stop worrying about my writing so much, and to keep my focus on expressing myself as clearly and consistently with my purpose as possible. I also used to wonder how I'd constantly come up with topics. It wasn't until this post in August that I realized that my inspiration for posts came more from my interactions with new ideas outside of me rather than from some place within me. That took a big psychological burden off of me.

I'm also happy to find how impressed I often become when I read my old posts. On the whole, they tend to be quite good, and surprisingly insightful. [Actually, what I mean is that they turned out better than I remember; when you're in the midst of a flurry of edits and re-edits, it's hard to see anything but errors. That's why exercises like these serve as a helpful way of getting out of that constant self-criticizing mode.]

For the next year, there are some aspects of my writing I'd like to improve. First, I want to modify the way I process my writing. Currently, I think more about style, the way the words sound on the page, rather than substance, what I actually want to communicate. Sometimes I compromise on my ideas for the sake of getting a pretty turn of phrase. I find that, too often, I use turns of phrases without actually thinking about what they mean. I think it's time to change these habits. Style is not an end in itself, but rather a tool to better communicate one's ideas. When I think about what to write, I want to think about style not as separate from substance, but as a part of it.

In addition to communicating accurately, I'd like to start communicating more artistically. Reading journal articles and political economy books all the times has made me forget that the occasional well-crafted metaphor, simile, or image makes reading much more enjoyable. I appreciate that kind of beauty when I see it in other's writing, so I'd like to incorporate it in mine too.

P.S. If I were to hold an Oscars of my writing then my nominations for the category of "Best Sentence(s)" would surely be:
  • "The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin has compiled a complete list of the words DFW circled in his copy of the American Heritage Dictionary. Wallace scholars are of course using this list to glean some more insight into his mind and work, but I just enjoy birdwatching all these rare and exotic words that somehow show up in the English language." from What David Foster Wallace Circled in His Dictionary
  • "The thing—the problem, you could say—with epiphanies is that no matter how small they are, they bring such a burst of clarity that it's easy to forget how private and personal the whole experience is. You walk outside after an epiphany and the blue sky suddenly feels more blue and humanity seems somehow more enlightened and less hopeless. It's hard not to think of the experience as anything other than a leap forward for mankind." from Maybe Not a Leap Forward for Mankind, but At Least a Quantum Leap for Me
  • "And of course, the film is absolutely joyful to see, visually: a real treat for the eyes." from Avatar

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

DFW Calls Out Bullshit

I was reading an interview of David Foster Wallace by Larry McCaffery, professor of English and Comp Lit at San Diego State University, when I stumbled upon this passage:
LM: . . . yeah, another commodity. I agree with Fredric Jameson and others who argue that modernism and postmodernism can be seen as expressing the cultural logic of late capitalism. Lots of features of contemporary art are directly influenced by this massive acceleration of capitalist expansion into all these new realms that were previously just not accessible. You sell people a memory, reify their nostalgia and use this as a hook to sell deodorant. Hasn’t this recent huge expansion of the technologies of reproduction, the integration of commodity reproduction and aesthetic reproduction, and the rise of media culture lessened the impact that aesthetic innovation can have on people’s sensibilities? What’s your response to this as an artist?

DFW: You’ve got a gift for lit-speak, Larry. Who wouldn’t love this jargon we dress common sense in: "formal innovation is no longer transformative, having been co-opted by the forces of stabilization and post-industrial inertia," blah, blah. But this co-optation might actually be a good thing if it helped keep younger writers from being able to treat mere formal ingenuity as an end in itself....[emphasis mine, obviously]
There were, perhaps, more polite ways of saying it, but still: who else has the balls to call out BS like that?!

You can find a link to the interview in its entirety here.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Hypothesis on Poverty

I recently read a paper for class entitled "Destitution and the Poverty of its Politics—With Special Reference to South Asia" by Barbara Harriss-White. Harriss-White analyzes destitition, the state of the poorest of the poor, and finds that it encompasses three aspects: first, "having nothing"—that is, old-fashioned economic poverty, or lack of access and control over assets; second, "being nothing"—having no political rights, being marginalized and outcast; and lastly, "being wrong"—having the law work against you.

As an economist, I was used to thinking of extreme poverty in terms of the first aspect, material deprivation. But these latter two caught my eye. The paper made me realize that true destitution (far beyond ordinary relative poverty) is not just an economic process, but also a social and political one; that is, market processes alone aren't enough to drive people to destitution—it takes people actively excluding others for such a dire situation to exist. As Harriss-White puts it:
Destitution is a process in political economy. It is not simply that the technical requirements for labor processes require some kinds of bodies to be denied access [...] It is not simply that revenue for social sector spending is simultaneously squeezed, and thus eligibility for social protection by the state will need to be restricted (Russell and Malhotra, 2001). It is also that the exclusion of people from exploitation is culturally legitimated; society actively allows oppressive practice and, it is argued here, the state is often complicit in this process.
If she's right, if societies do truly actively allow and legitimate exclusion, then why do they do it? My hypothesis is that it is a culturally evolved way of dealing with overpopulation: societies that have exceeded their carrying capacity exclude groups of people to preserve scarce resources. If the carrying capacity can only support 70% of the population, the social norms evolve to exclude the other 30% from competition.

The people who engage in exclusion obviously do not think in those terms. They think of morality, or personal responsibility, or not having to deal with addicts, or the "unclean." But these tensions only manifest themselves and get worse when people are pressed. I suspect that as societies become wealthier, they become more willing to include formally marginalized peoples, simply because they can afford to; the pretexts formerly used to legitimize the exclusion lose support, lose importance, and slowly drop away.

[The biggest problem with the hypothesis is figuring out what "overpopulation" means. How do we distinguish between "overpopulated" societies and those that are merely very crowded? What standard of living does each person in the society "need"? By whose standards?]

Sunday, September 5, 2010

One of the Wisest Things I've Heard

"The hardest thing in the world to learn is when to stop." 

As in:
  • Enjoying food is nice, but not when we eat too much.
  • Enjoying someone's company is nice, but not when we cling on to them.
  • Enjoying power is nice, but not when we sacrifice all values to maintain it.
While enjoying something, to have the presence of mind to know that the enjoyment will end if we abuse it is a very difficult thing to learn indeed.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sir, I have a bone to pick with you

From the Economist's online edition comes this article about the Argentine government's offensive against Clarín, the nation's media conglomerate. After describing the Kirchner's efforts to "kick Clarín out of the ISP business" and "wrest control" of its share in Argentina's newsprint company, Papel Prensa, the author, D.P., makes the following conclusion:
By declaring war on Argentina’s most powerful opinion-former, the Kirchners are gambling with their political future. If they can bloody the company enough to make its management seek a truce, they could secure friendlier coverage of the 2011 presidential election. Even then, however, the strategy might backfire. First, it has made them look hypocritical: by trying to kill Fibertel, they have made the already-concentrated ISP market even more so. Moreover, they have given the fractious opposition a new cause to unite around.
For the first time, I actively disagree with the Economists' appraisal of the facts. Kirchner, I feel, is actually winning political points in this campaign against Clarín. No one I met there truly supported them. The left excoriated Clarín as a propaganda machine for the wealthy.1 Moderates admitted that it attacked the government more than necessary, and preferred to read La Nación. Above all, almost everyone felt uneasy by Clarín's near-monopoly status over print, radio, and television media.

The backdrop of President Kirchner's actions, which the Economist article strangely omits, is the push to pass La Ley de los Medios (The Media Law), whose explicit intent and purpose is to trust-bust Clarín's monopoly. Although the law is controversial (like everything in Argentina), it enjoys broad popular support. Here, for example, is a snapshot of the turnout for the rally in favor of La Ley de los Medios outside Congress in Buenos Aires in late April:

Most people I talked thought the law was a good idea. The professor who taught my peronismo class, someone who struck me as an intelligent and consummately careful scholar, opposed it, but only because she thought it was badly crafted. The law would simply replace Clarín's monopoly with a government monopoly, she said, but she didn't disagree that something had to be done about Clarín.

So I don't know why D.P. feels that the Kirchners are "gambling with their political futures." Perhaps the issues of Papel Prensa and Fibertel, both of which developed after I left Argentina, have created new opposition or turned the tide of opinion. But I doubt it.

Update (Sept. 1, 11am):
Another point, which I forgot to mention—The article, entitled "Pressed," portrays Clarín as a poor victim of government abuses. I think the abuse really goes both ways. In any case, I don't think anyone feels sorry for Clarín.

1. I've heard people claim that Clarín has fabricated facts, grossly misrepresented inflation, and engaged in all kinds of journalistic malfeasance; but in Argentine politics there are so many claims and counterclaims flying everywhere that it's difficult to assess their veracity.

Bonus Feature!

The article offers this link (available only in Spanish) to a government report on business dealings with the Papel Presna company. The report is full of account balances, citations of laws and decrees, and other boring details, but in true Argentine fashion that doesn't stop the authors from proclaiming this issue as a matter of the most profound human rights. The excerpt from the Acknowledgments section reads (with my translation):
We thank especially those people who, having been participants in these acts, through their testimony permitted us to reconstruct an era of history in which were carried out the most dark and horrible acts of of physical, moral, and psychological violence that human beings can suffer.

It should be highlighted the interest demonstrated in the search for the Truth, shown by all the institutions, organizations, and people who, in one way or another, and from their respective places, helped with their contributions so that this present report would illuminate a part of history that tried to be submerged in darkness until it fell in negation, lies, and oblivion.
They're obviously referring to El Proceso, the brutal internal genocide that took place during the military dictatorship of the 70s. Many of the incidents of this report probably also take place during the 70s, and I'm sure that the business dealings they describe are pretty messy, and probably involve violence—but there's no way it can compare to the torture, murder, and rape of the era they are so strongly evoking.

Monday, August 30, 2010

What Makes the Dollar Special?

One of the most jarring things about America after returning from Argentina was seeing so many dollars bills everywhere. I remembered sitting in my Monetary Economics class at my university in Buenos Aires, listening to the professor drive home the point that Americans use the USD as local currency. They don't see anything special about it!, he exclaimed, wide-eyed and emphatic, as if it were an utterly preposterous idea.

And he's right, of course; we Americans look out and see the plurality of currencies and assume ours is just another member of the ranks.

Argentines, however, have an entirely different point of view. Argentina has what they call a "dual currency," which means that dollars are just as standard a medium of exchange as the Argentine peso. For example, most restaurants have a sign on the door that indicates the rate at which they exchange dollars and euros. Apartments are bought and sold in terms of dollars, not pesos, which means Argentines maintain dual accounts of pesos and dollars. I saw wealthy Brazilians vacationing in Patagonia with a stack of crisp $100 USD bills in their wallets, and I even saw Argentines with large sums of USD, even while they were traveling within their own country.

So then, what makes the dollar so special? Why does it hold such a privileged status in other parts of the world?

Most of all, because it is highly stable. Inflation is usually very low, America has never defaulted on a loan, the US Federal Reserve is highly disciplined.

That may sound incredibly boring, but it is enough to get an Argentine who's lived long enough teary-eyed. Just over the past 30-40 years alone, the Argentine monetary authorities have dropped about 13 zeros off the currency; prices were rising so fast during the hyperinflation of the 80s that grocery stores couldn't relabel their items fast enough; and in the 2001 economic crash the dollar exchange rate jumped from 1:1 to 4:1 overnight.

In response to such a high degree of instability, Argentines have sought refuge in the dollar. Highly durable goods, like apartments, are priced in dollars to protect against wild, transient fluctuations. During hyperinflation, even school kids as young as 10 had come to learn that as soon as they obtain extra spending money the first thing they should do is invest in USD.

Even in stable times, like now, holding pesos is still inferior to holding dollars. The exchange rate may say 4 pesos = 1 USD, but in all practicality the two are not equivalent. Having four Argentine pesos is just not as good as having one small dollar. The reason is that although the peso may be stable today, there is no guarantee it will stay stable tomorrow. The fragility of the Argentine market means that holding pesos always carries with it an implicit risk of devaluation.

By the same token, holding dollars carries with it an implicit guarantee from the US government that the currency will preserve its value over time. Because Latin American governments have a history of irresponsibly financing extra spending by printing more money (i.e. inflation), their central banks maintain a reserve of dollars to keep their populations' anxieties at bay. The idea is that if anyone loses faith in the local currency, they can simply swap it out for dollars.

Note how the dollar acts as a monetary guaranteer of the last resort: when people lose faith in all currencies, they turn to the dollar. Thus, what makes the dollar special is that everyone in the entire world trusts in it. It also means that the United States is not only underwriting the monetary stability of its own citizens, but also that of the entire world financial system. Everyone assumes that in a panic at least they'll be able to salvage their savings by converting them to dollars.

The USD is therefore not just another currency, but rather a promise. A promise that in this fiat world of meaningless paper bills, your savings actually mean something.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paradigm Shift

When I arrived on campus this semester I noticed a marked difference in the way I thought about the university compared to when I first arrived. As a freshman, and even as a sophomore, I'd think of the university as a separate entity from me—an institution that runs by the grace of other people, with programs designed and run by other people, and a culture set by other people. I'd evaluate the university as an outsider would: What are U of A kids like? Are the clubs run well? Do they offer fun programs and activities?

Now that I'm a junior, neck-deep in activities and programs, I realized that I'm no longer on the outside looking in. The incoming freshman class must be evaluating the university the same way I did (What are U of A kids like? Are the clubs run well?...), but now I realize that whom they're judging is really us, the upperclassmen. The questions I used to ask of others are now directed at me—What are we like? Do we run our clubs well? Do we come up with new, fun, and innovative programs and activities?—because in your junior year you realize that there's no one else who make the university run but ourselves. Our culture is the university's culture. Our brains are the university's brains. Our drive is the university's drive.

Here's an example of what I mean. Currently the International Studies program offers a colloquium series on various regions of the world. It's an innovative idea, most of all because the colloquia are taught and designed by undergraduate students who have visited the regions they discuss. As a freshman or sophomore, I would have thought it was the university who was giving the opportunity, and students were simply receiving the benefits. However, when I learned that the colloquium was actually the brainchild of a student here at the U of A, I saw the student-university relation in a broader light: The university may provide opportunities to students, but students can also provide opportunities to the university. The plethora of programs and activities that we have exist because of someone, and continue to exist because someone is working to maintain them.

Every part of the university is supported by the students that form it. On a more day-to-day basis, take for example the tutoring center. If I were a student who came for help and had a bad experience, I would think that the university had a bad tutoring center. I'd tend to interpret the faults of individuals as the faults of the university. But since I work at the tutoring center, my thinking goes the other way. The quality of the university's tutoring center becomes partly my responsibility when I realize that students anxiously waiting for help at the tutoring center are relying on meto do a good job.

I think this personal shift in thinking also represents a broader sociological principle. Although we like to think of institutions as formal, abstract concepts, when you get into the details, as in this example, you realize that everything about an institution remits back to the people who form it. Some people are, of course, more involved than others, and that seems to influence the degree to which you identify yourself with the institution. But everyone plays a role, whether they realize it or not; and perhaps the bigger the stake that everyone has, the more successful the institution will be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I'm still here

I haven't forgotten about the blog. The reason why I haven't been publishing the last couple weeks is that I've been hard-pressed to find a complete, meaningful thought to write about.

Now that I'm back at school after this long break, I'm really appreciating how much it stimulates new thinking. Just in the past two days of classes I've already faced ideas that have forced me to reconsider my judgments, convictions, evaulations, and beliefs. As I continue to reflect, the precipitate should manifest itself in some new blog posts in the coming days.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

What I Learned From Argentina

1. We all have our roles to play.

Watching the behavior of others, I soon realized that some people have more of a right to a seat on the bus than others—and that as a young, healthy man I'll be the last one to sit down. Even if a seat opens up right in front of me, I learned I should always give it to the pregnant woman or old man standing next to me first. At first it annoyed me that I had to do this, especially when I was tired, or in a bad mood, or just didn't want to have to stand for the hour long bus ride. Over time, though, I came to realize that the tiredness I felt could just be a fraction of the tiredness that the people I gave my seat to must be feeling. I'm not old enough yet to understand what it's like not to be young and healthy, but I should at least be sensible and realize where I fit in in society. In life we find that we've been giving certain roles, sometimes by our choosing (husband, father, friend), and sometimes not (young, healthy, man). Life needs people in all types of roles, and once you recognize the role you're cast in, the right thing to do is play it properly.

2. People don't necessarily have to have similar mindsets to appreciate each other's company.

In Argentina you describe people that make good company by saying they have "buena onda," which literally means "good waves." Someone with buena onda doesn't necessarily share the same values as you, may use more swear words than you would normally approve of, or may have different interests. But that doesn't matter. All that matters is that their heart is in the right place, that they like to enjoy themselves and they like to see you enjoy yourself, and that they're sincere and genuine. Don't worry about the faults (just like they don't worry about yours), since after all we're all just trying to get along.

3. I'm a vegetarian.

Since I was raised in a vegetarian household, I always took my vegetarianism for granted. It was just the natural state of affairs at home. In Argentina, however, staying vegetarian meant I had to actively refuse to participate with everyone else; I had to mark myself in opposition.

All my life I've grown up surrounded by a meat-eating culture. I would see my friends eating meat, and me not, and not think anything of it, reasoning simply that we were just brought up in different ways. But now I'm no longer able to say I'm a vegetarianism simply because of my upbringing. I'm free to choose, one way or another. To stay vegetarian means I must sincerely believe that it is a better way of living, and that meat-eating is worse.

4. Simply recognizing someone's presence can mean a lot.

In the US we have the bad custom of tending to ignore people we don't know in a crowd. I was really glad to find that Argentina didn't have it. If I was talking with a group of kids from class, and another kid came to join the conversation, he would say hi to me with the same friendliness that he would show to everyone else in the group. When you're in a foreign land, insecure about your language skills, lonely, not having many friends, small gestures like that can mean a lot.

5. Things take time.

I went to Argentina assuming that if I gave enough effort, I could leave 5 months later speaking Spanish like a native. Obviously that didn't happen. I tried as hard as I possibly could, but even at the end of my trip I found that if I didn't speak Spanish for a couple days I would start to lose the hang of it. It took a couple weeks before I made any noticeable improvements in the language in the first place. I now realize I can't rush it. To truly speak like a native requires multiple years of immersion, and neither sweating more nor growing unnecessary gray hairs will speed up the process.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Wilderness of Suburbia

I lay adrift upon a raft
In a sea in my backyard;
Nine feet of water lay pristine beneath me
And a vast blanket of stars covers the night sky.
Here on my raft I am a pioneer daring
The wilderness of suburbia.
I am solo, caught between two expanses:
The abyss below envelops me,
The heavenly mantle above transcends me,
And the two swallow whole my insignificant ego.

Comparative Advantage and Education Policy

In an earlier post I postulated that not all comparative advantages are equal, reasoning that since technology and inventions are more prized than other specializations, they consequently confer more power. Here's a consequence of this comparative advantage framework that I hadn't considered before:

You'll have noticed that politicians are always talking about expanding and improving math and science educations in K-12 schools. They argue that it's crucial for "staying competitive in the 21st century." In more direct words, I think that means: we need to constantly advance our math and science to maintain our dominion over the realm of inventions. I used to think that emphasizing math and science education was just about helping kids find jobs in their local markets. That's true, but at the same time the bigger picture is that inventions and technology are vital to tipping the balance of power in our favor. In the end, it's about ensuring continuing U.S. hegemony.

Thus, to expand on the conclusion of my earlier post, just as technology and inventions are about power, so are the academic disciplines that produce them. All knowledge is power, true, but math and science generate economic power, and that's the type of power we've deemed most important.

[As a side note, just take a stroll around your local university campus and notice how it's not a coincidence that the math and science buildings are the fanciest and the most well-maintained.]

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Med School

Recently I fell sick, and since it was the first time I had to take care of myself, I quickly realized that I didn't know what to do. Should I take fever-reducing medicine or not? Do I just have a cold or something worse? How can I tell? Will it just pass with time or will it just get worse?

Conventional wisdom says that when in doubt just go and see a doctor, but that can't be practical, and plus it's very expensive. We may leave the real medicine for doctors, but we shouldn't be so helpless that we have to rely on them for everything. It strikes me as strange that we have a system of societal organization where the knowledge most essential to our own well-being is also the most outsourced and divorced from our control. I feel the complete asymmetry of information in the doctor-patient relationship is dangerous, because a clueless patient has no way of defending herself against an insincere, mistaken, or scheming doctor.

That's why I think it would make a lot of sense to teach medicine in K-12 schools. Why not? After all, it's the most practical thing to learn. Teachers spend all of elementary school trying to convince us that math is useful, but the benefit of learning medicine is self-apparent. If there's any guarantee in life it's that every man, woman, and child is going to fall sick.

We already offer general health courses here and there that educate mostly about nutrition and STDs. This can just be another component. There's no need to pass the MCATs to be able to understand that a viral infections go away with time whereas bacterial ones don't; or that a nice hot, ginger tea works well for clearing out mucus and wet coughs.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Such was life

Here's a funny anecdote from the economist Kenneth Rogoff about the intellectual climate of the 80s. If there's anything I love, it's irony:
There are more than a few of us in my generation of international economists who still bear the scars of not being able to publish sticky-price papers during the years of new neoclassical repression. I still remember a mid-1980s breakfast with a talented young macroeconomic theorist from Barcelona, who was of the Chicago-Minnesota school. He was a firm believer in the flexible-price Lucas islands model, and spent much of the meal ranting and raving about the inadequacies of the Dornbusch model: "What garbage! Who still writes down models with sticky prices and wages! There are no microfoundations. Why do international economists think that such a model could have any practical relevance? It's just ridiculous!" Eventually the conversation turns and I ask, "So, how are you doing in recruiting? Your university has made a lot of changes." The theorist responds without hesitation: "Oh, it's very hard for Spanish universities to recruit from the rest of the world right now. With the recent depreciation of the exchange rate, our salaries (which remained fixed in nominal terms) have become totally uncompetitive." Such was life.
The anecdote was presented at an IMF research conference lecture about the influence and brilliance of Dornbusch's overshooting model, which is based precisely on sticky prices. You can read the full lecture here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

America, The Teenage Pop Star

Uno de los cuentos más populares de Gabriel García Márquez se llama "Los funerales de la Mamá Grande." Además de tratar, obviamente, los funerales, también incluye una gran crónica del reinado de la Mamá Grande, una figura matriarcal que maneja todo el poder del pueblo. Ella pasa los días en su mecedor de bujico, mientras que su sobrino Nicanor se ocupa con la resonpsabilidad que inevitablemente viene con tanto poder.

Una interpretación de la Mamá Grande es que en ella encontramos una imagen de Colombia: su reinado es una dictadura, su poder viene de herencia, su único trabajo es coleccionar arrendamientos, y, sobre todo, se está muriendo. Es el resumen del sistema de poder agobiante y opresivo de Colombia.

Una línea de pensamiento para entretenerte: Si bien Colombbia se puede caracterizar como una vieja Mamá Grande, cuál imágen escogerías para tu propio país (en mi caso, los EE.UU.)?

Es bastante divertido—y difícil—pretender clavar la esencia de la vida política y social de tu patria con un solo personaje. Pero creo que mi respuesta será: los EE.UU. son como un Teenage Pop Star.

Por un lado, los pop stars, como los EE.UU., tienen mucho glamour, mucha buena fama, mucha popularidad, muchos afanes. Siempre se habla de ellos, siempre llevan las modas más nuevas, tienen los cuerpos más codiciados, las vidas más interesantes. Se piensa que tienen lo mejor de todo (una vez un muchacho argentino me contó que le sorprendió la pobreza que vio en Denver, Colorado, como no esperaba que la encontrara en el "Primer Mundo"); son admirados por muchos (los commentarios que he oído de los argentinos incluyen, por ejemplo, ¡qué estable! ¡qué creativo! ¡qué disciplinado!); y tienen una presencia cultural omnipresente (todo el mundo conoce tanto a los pop stars norteamericanos como la cultura general norteamericana, desde los Simpsons y películas hasta el football y música).

Fíjate que este es el discurso del exterior. Adentro, nosotros ciudadanos no solemos ver el país como un gran milagro sino una larga serie de problemas para enfrentar: una economía temblante, gran recortes en los presupuestos estatales, el terrorismo, la inmigración, la jubilicación de los baby boomers, un sistema de salud terrorífico, y un racismo intransigente, entre otros. Esta "realidad interior" se parece al hecho de que la vida privada de los Teenage Pop Stars es bastante cotidiana. Tendemos a olvidarlo, pero los pop stars son personas también, con las mismas frustraciones, las mismas ambiciones, los mismos deseos, y las mismas preocupaciones que tenemos todos. Igualmente, los EE.UU., por más poderoso que sea, es a la vez sólo un país más.

¡Ya te toca a tí! ¿Cómo describirías a tu país? Deja un commentario con tus ideas.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Orwell and Huxley

This may be a comic strip, but the analysis is very, very, very astute. I think it's right on the money:

On a related note, I've heard that one of the hardest things to learn in life is when to stop.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Scene from the Subte

I know her lips are pursed, but it still looks like she's puckering up to kiss me. Maybe she would if she had a chance. After all you don't wear leopard print and pumps at 55 for nothing. I try to inch away, but it's rush hour—

—so the best I can do is pivot a little closer to the open window, close my eyes, and submerse myself in the click-clack of subway tracks and the constant screeching of brakes.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Not All Comparative Advantages Are Made Equal

One of the foundations of international trade theory is the old idea of comparative advantage. However, in light of Latin American history, I'd like to make a tweak to it.

Quick overview of comparative advantage
Countries have a certain amount of productive resources (land, labor, capital, etc.) and they use them to produce goods and services. When resources are channeled towards a certain good or service, that means that they can't be used for something else; that is, there's an implicit trade-off every time something is produced. Different countries have different resources and are able to channel them in different ways, which means that different countries give up different amounts of other possible production when they produce the same good. When Country A is able to produce a good without having to give up as much other production as Country B, we say that Country A has a comparative advantage in that good over Country B.

Comparative advantage forms the basis of the argument in favor of trade specialization. Countries should specialize in those things in which they have comparative advantages, and trade for the rest. That way they can have more than what they could have produced individually.

Something's not quite right
After reading about the history of Argentina, and relating it with the history of all the other Latin American countries that tried Import Substitution Industrialization, it's clear that Latin America's experience in specializing in agriculture didn't work out too well for them. Indeed, these countries seem to have been (and, to some extent, still are) rather like leaves tossed about at the mercy of economic winds. At the diplomacy table, they've never had much stature either; rather, it was always the industrial powers that were naming the rules of the game.

Why is it that Latin America found itself in such a weak position? The theory of comparative advantage doesn't give preference to one type of specialization over another. It treats them all as equal. Then why was having a comparative advantage in agriculture such a disadvantage?

Technology and Comparative Advantage
I think the answer to these questions lies in the existence of a technology gap between different types of production.

Some countries are producers of inventions, and some countries are consumers of inventions. For some reason (which I leave to future research) the number of countries that produce inventions has always been small, and the number of countries that rely on those inventions is large. Because the invention-producing countries (currently known as the "developed world," or the "first world") have something that it is rare, and something that the whole world relies on, they gain power. In short, developed countries have a natural monopoly on inventions, and inventions are the most valuable thing humanity has to offer.

To illustrate the point, let's take the case of Argentina and Great Britain in the early 20th century. Great Britain was Argentina's biggest customer of agricultural products, and with the foreign currency that Argentina received in the trade it imported manufactured goods from abroad. Great Britain traded with Argentina because it was convenient; if necessary it could have imported from any other country in the world (because all countries have agriculture), or, at worst, it could have produced its own food. Argentina, however, depended on Great Britain. It needed the foreign currency to buy manufactured goods from Great Britain and the United States, which it wasn't able to produce on its own.

Thus, trading bananas for computers is not an innocent, equal trade; it implicitly signifies a power and dependency relationship.

If economics were only a story about stuff, then the old Ricardian comparative advantage idea would be just fine. But economics is also—and perhaps even more so—a story about power, and that obligates countries to develop the capacity for self-sufficiency.