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.