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“as a”

“as a”

Kwame Anthony Appiah has an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times dissecting the “as a” locution, in which one first announces one’s gender, race, sexual orientation, or class position before making an argument during a public discussion.  He interprets it as a claim to represent the entire group defined in the preparatory clause, and explains why this claim is invalid; better you should begin with “speaking for myself”.  But I disagree with his interpretation of what “as a” means; I think it communicates speaking from rather than speaking for.

From my experience, “as a” is an acknowledgment that one’s view of the world is limited by one’s background and identity.  It’s a way to anticipate the criticism that what is being said is not universal or “true” in some objective but unattainable sense.  Of course, that limitation can be valorized in different ways.  If an oppressed identity is being invoked—or even better, an intersectionality of multiple oppressed identities—the partiality of perspective is even a strength, because it brings to the fore experiences and ideas that have historically been marginalized.  By the same token, if one is speaking “as a” member of a dominant identity, the limitations are pernicious because they reinforce what has been unfairly imposed over the same long duration.

From an epistemological perspective, the immediate problem is that the “as a” formulation conflates two different consequences of the speaker being positioned in the world rather than above or outside it.  One has to do with differences of experience, the other with proclivity to believe.

 

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Would Serious Climate Change Mitigation Policy Increase World Hunger?

Would Serious Climate Change Mitigation Policy Increase World Hunger?

That’s the finding of a recent study published in Nature Climate Change, “Risk of Increased Food Insecurity under Stringent Global Climate Change Mitigation Policy” by an international team of 22 researchers.  (Coauthorship like this is why god created et al.)  The abstract has made the rounds of the blogosphere, including Marginal Revolution, which is where I found it.

The article reports an integrated assessment model (IAM) exercise in which various scenarios are run, each consisting of a climate piece (how agriculture will be affected by climate change) and a climate policy piece (how steep a carbon tax is imposed and how it impacts production and consumption).  More tax, less climate change and vice versa.  The unsurprising result is that, if the tax is universal and large it will raise food prices, putting millions more people at risk of hunger.

But where does all this extra money collected in carbon taxes go?  That was not addressed: “In most models, carbon tax revenue stays outside of agricultural sectors both on the producer and consumer sides, and is not properly redistributed to affected people.”  That’s all they say about carbon revenues, but it’s enough to explain why climate policy is portrayed as a threat to the world’s poor.  In any sensible approach, carbon taxes or moneys collected from carbon permit auctions are returned to the people who pay them in a progressive manner, so those with the lowest incomes come out ahead.  (They get back more in rebates than they pay in higher prices.)  The simplest way to do this is with an equal per capita dividend.

I did a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation of the effect of a global carbon price rebated via an equal lump sum payment everywhere.  For every dollar of this price, $12.5 billion is effectively transferred from upper to lower income countries.  (Details will appear in my climate change book when it appears next year.)  Of course, there are large political and administrative problems to overcome in setting up such a system, but they are not insurmountable, especially since higher income countries can decide (or negotiate) how to divvy up carbon revenues between those destined for national versus international rebates.

So, yes, a global carbon tax as modeled by the Nature Climate Change team would make the poor poorer, but the one additional tweak of recycling the money on an equal per capita basis would lead to the opposite effect.

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Mush versus Mush on Climate Change

Mush versus Mush on Climate Change

The very long New York Times piece on climate change politics in the 1980s by Nathaniel Rich has attracted a lot of critical commentary—justifiably.  To say that the failure to achieve a political response was due to human nature, a genetic defect that prevents our species from planning ahead, is just lazy and wrong.  Were the scientists, environmentalists and other activists that did want to take action a bunch of mutants?  Haven’t humans acted with foresight (and also failed to act) since time immemorial?  “Human nature” explains everything and nothing; it’s what you invoke when you don’t want to do the digging a real explanation would require.

I wish the left had a solid response to this immobilizing mushiness, but instead it mostly offers its own version of counter-mush.  A case in point is Naomi Klein.  I’ve already written at length about her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, but I don’t want to let her latest piece at The Intercept pass without notice.

Klein rightly excoriates Rich, but then goes on to make this argument:

Capitalism, not human nature, is responsible for climate inaction.
Capitalism is an ideology that worships profit and “endless growth”.
Its purest form is neoliberalism.
The late 1980s was the high water mark of neoliberalism, so climate activism was suppressed.
We must reject capitalism by adopting the earth-centered philosophy of indigenous peoples.
Politically, this means embracing a caring economy of green jobs, meeting human needs and rejecting “extractivism”.

If this were just Klein’s own idiosyncratic viewpoint we could shrug and move on, but since it reflects what may be the main current in left thinking about the climate crisis, it matters that it turns what ought to be well focused and clear into a thick, gummy soup.

No, capitalism is not an ideology.  What makes Jeff Bezos a capitalist is not his belief system but his ownership and deployment of capital.  Capitalism is a system of institutions that give economic and political primacy to the possession and control of capital.  There is no single metric that captures the effect that a capitalist context has on an issue like climate change, but the starting point is surely anticipated capital gains or losses from a given policy.  (One way we can tell that existing policies are largely toothless is that their enactment had imperceptible effects on asset prices.)

Yes, the 1980s was the zenith of the modern neoliberal project, but there are currents within neoliberalism that support climate action.  One doesn’t have to be a fan of this school of thought to recognize that it’s not monolithic on environmental matters—or on racism, criminal justice, public health and other questions.

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The Value of Life and the Metaphor of Choice

The Value of Life and the Metaphor of Choice

Perhaps no topic generates such bewilderment between economists and the general public as the monetary valuation of human life, or the value of a statistical life (VSL) to use the term preferred by professional economists.  Economists insist that longevity is a commodity bought and sold on markets like anything else, which means it has a price and an underlying schedule of willingness to pay just as we would find for any other good or service.  Most noneconomists regard this as madness: surely the value of a human life can’t be expressed as the equivalent of a certain number of pizzas, even a very large number of pizzas.  But, respond the economists, you do trade off longer life against pizzas, or at least the money that could be used to buy them, since there is a limit to how much you’ll spend to reduce a physical risk.  And then there is a reply to the reply: yes, but that has nothing to do with the value of being alive, which can’t be reduced to a monetary price.  And it goes back and forth from there, with neither side able to understand the other.

Elsewhere I have made substantive arguments for why we are better off without putting monetary values on our lives, but I won’t get into that here.  My interest at the moment is the incomprehension on all sides of the VSL debate.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: the metaphor of choice.  This metaphor is so deeply ingrained in economic analysis most economists can’t think beyond it, but the moment it is invoked the very notion of what it means to be alive rather than dead is rendered irrelevant.

No need to reinvent the wheel.  I discussed the metaphor of choice in my introductory micro text:

 

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For a Fiscal Neutrality Amendment

For a Fiscal Neutrality Amendment

Against the dogmatic ignorance of a proposed amendment to the US constitution mandating a balanced budget, I propose an alternative, a fiscal neutrality amendment:

“No unit of government within the United States may establish voting or other decision procedures that embody a bias in favor of either higher or lower tax rates and revenues.  The federal government may not adopt voting or procedural restrictions that bias decision-making in favor of either larger or smaller fiscal deficits.  Fiscal policies should be assessed on their merits according to neutral procedures.”

Requirements for supermajorities to raise taxes but not lower them should be unconstitutional.  Restrictions on property tax rates or government revenues as a proportion of aggregate income or some other benchmark should be unconstitutional as well.  Nor should the federal government be encumbered in its choice of appropriate fiscal policy.  The historical record shows policy errors have been made in all directions; there is no reasonable basis for biasing policy away from one set of mistakes only to bias it toward another.

A parallel agreement to replace the EU’s (In)Stability and (De)Growth Pact would also be desirable.

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What to Do about Conservative Rationality in Addressing Climate Change?

What to Do about Conservative Rationality in Addressing Climate Change?

Two business-friendly conservatives, both former senators, Trent Lott and John Breaux, have an op-ed in today’s New York Times announcing the formation of new group, Americans for Carbon Dividends.  Now out of office, they recognize climate change as “one of the great challenges of our generation.”  To counteract it they propose a bipartisan coalition to institute a carbon tax, with all the revenues returned to the public on per capita basis.  The carbon price would cut emissions and spur the development of alternatives to fossil fuels; the rebates would redistribute income progressively and protect the incomes of the majority of the population.

What’s a progressive climate policy activist like myself to do?

Basically, I’d like to say, “Welcome to the party.  Let’s sit down and work out the details.”  While I believe resistance from capital is the underlying reason the last three decades of climate activism have been so dismal, I don’t see any purpose in drawing lines of ideological exclusion.  On the contrary, if the deepest problem is the role of wealth (at risk from rapid shifts in energy prices) and not divergent philosophies as such, we should be happy to form broader coalitions so long as they don’t require unacceptable compromises.

(I don’t subscribe to the Marxist base-superstructure formulation as a matter of theoretical commitment, but I think it applies pretty well to the problem of climate change.  There is no intrinsic conflict between political conservatism and climate action, except insofar as conservative ideology is a cover for the interests of owners of capital—which it typically is.)

I am in full agreement with the two fundamental principles laid down by Lott and Breaux, putting a price on carbon and rebating the revenues through equal dividends to all citizens.  Of course, I differ on other matters:

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Is Strengthening Labor Good for Development?

Is Strengthening Labor Good for Development?

Servaas Storm, who’s always worth reading, has posted on the INET website a summary of a new working paper he coauthored.  This issue goes way back with me—I first started looking into and writing about the labor rights/wage/trade/development nexus back in the 1980s.  Working on my own, I had a lot of false starts, and I’m happy to see others digging much more deeply today.

I won’t comment on the substance of this paper, but I think an important piece is missing: how dual economies articulate, and in particular the role of clientelism.

Countries in which formal sector jobs are highly valuable but scarce, in a sea of abundant but unremunerative informal employment, have to have some mechanism for allocating them.  Some classic economic models to the contrary, it never happens through lotteries.  My hypothesis, based on what I’ve seen and read, is that the predominant mechanism is clientelism.

A brief digression: Most of the literature on clientelism appears in political science, where it refers to the exchange of votes for personally targeted services or transfers by politicians.  I use the term to refer to a much broader phenomenon, the exchange of personally targeted benefits in return for the performance of loyalty between patrons and clients.  Patrons have access to resources from which they can supply benefits to clients, while the extent of client loyalty is a determinant (but not necessarily the only one) of how many resources a patron can command.  Conceptually, the client-patron relationship is a dyad, although clientelist systems are constellations of such exchange relations across whole populations: many dyads, multiple levels (patrons are clients of higher-level patrons), competing networks.

A large gap between formal and informal employment increases the tendency for clientelism to expand as an allocative system.  Clientelism is not all bad—it can moderate frictions that market or formal administrative processes generate—but to the extent it replaces these “modern” alternatives it reduces social efficiency.  For instance, allocating scarce formal sector jobs through client-patron exchanges is relatively harmless if the people getting the jobs are no less qualified than those left out of the system, stuck in the informal sector.  If clientelist networks override formal qualification (administrative) or competitive performance (market) criteria, however, they degrade outcomes.  It’s a matter of degree.

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Regulation: A Gut Check

Regulation: A Gut Check

 

 

How do we get the word out that our underlying conception of how regulations should be designed and enforced needs to change?

The New York Times has an ominous article about the overuse of antibiotics by the livestock industry and its risks for animal health and ours.  Flooding our digestive system with these drugs damages the gut microbiome we depend on for nutrition and waste processing, and it promotes the evolution of resistant strains of bacteria.  The upshot, according to this piece, is that 23,000 Americans die of antibiotic resistance each year, and it adds:

A growing body of scientific research also shows that the antibiotics we take as medicine can disrupt our so-called gut microbiome, the bacteria that live happily in our stomach and intestines and that are the key to our ability to properly digest food and process fats. This disruption has been linked to the rise of noncommunicable diseases such as obesity, juvenile diabetes, asthma and allergies. Some researchers also believe that alterations in the gut microbiome have led to an increase in the incidence of autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Ranchers lace their feed with antibiotics to speed up animal growth because it’s profitable.  The risks are difficult for the public to appreciate, and the externality of reducing the effectiveness of legitimate antibiotic treatment is unpriced.  This is a serious problem.

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Economics: The View from 35,000 Feet

Economics: The View from 35,000 Feet

Air travel offers an opportunity to catch up on one’s reading.  In my case, this means Marion Fourcade’s “Economics: A View from Below”, which had been sitting in my pile for at least two long weeks.  For those wondering about her title, she has been toying for several years with the actual/mock inferiority felt by other disciplines, such as her own sociology, in the face of the pretensions, authority and worldly success of economics.

This essay is another dancing, enigmatic exploration of this apparently stable dominance, one that survives public embarrassment, like the backwash against its claimed expertise after 2008, and internal fissures.  She plays with Hayek, who denounced economists for their empty pretense of knowledge, and sports with contemporary eminences such as Ricardo Caballero, who have similar objections to the intellectual simulacrum that passes for economic insight.

To cut to the chase and save you from a more detailed reading if you’re not so inclined, Fourcade goes part of the way with Hayek, but recognizes that the critique of pretense is a gun that points in all directions, since there is no position of “postense” from which to aim it.  She, like many others, sees the shared worldview and methodology of economics as the source of its strength, the reason why the discipline can prosper and expand its influence even as it hosts bitter debates among its practitioners; in fact, its capacity to cohere despite apparent fracturing is exactly its greatest asset.  She also sees the discipline’s internal discord reflecting a dialectic between altering the world as a significant participant in it and interpreting it as a reflective bystander—not so different from a priesthood if one recognizes both aspects of what it means to be priestly.  Economics does not converge on consensus because of the dynamic relationship between particular understandings of economic and political life and the ensuing events created by those understandings that themselves become objects of study.

Along the way, Fourcade demonstrates a tendency to be conventional.  Foucault is invoked in a big way, for instance, even though it is now becoming apparent she profoundly misread classical and more modern political economy—a trajectory that ended up as utterly deluded cheerleading for neoliberalism.  We also read that Keynesianism is a response to economic disorder stemming from fixed prices (getting JMK’s critique of his orthodox opponents exactly backwards) and German ordoliberal macroeconomics reflects the country’s experience with hyperinflation (rather than the hyper-austerity that ushered in Hitler).  I get the impression that Fourcade’s method is to critique the conventional wisdom of particular academic specializations by juxtaposing them with the conventional wisdom of others.

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A Teachable Moment: The Importance of Meta-Learning

A Teachable Moment: The Importance of Meta-Learning

Today’s New York Times has a fine article by Manil Suri about math education and the development of reasoning skills.  Its concluding point is that, while the general contribution of the first to the second is weaker than you might think, math instruction can be improved by bringing the math-reasoning tests themselves into the classroom.  I’m pretty confident that Suri is right, since I’ve seen positive results from doing something similar in economics and related areas.

When preparing to introduce a new topic in econ, for instance, I’ll often start by taking stock of what lots of people without an economics background think they know about it.  This might mean looking at surveys or some excerpts from news or other websites.  It often involves drawing out this information from the class itself.  For instance, I’ll divide students up into groups of five or so in which they can say to each other what they believe, or even suspect, about the topic, and then have the groups report in a general way what these views were.  (I try to use methods that don’t identify potentially mistaken concepts with specific people, to avoid any sense I’m trying to belittle anyone.)  Then we will go on to learn about the question, keeping in mind the misconceptions we’ve found and trying to locate the points at which “pop economics” veers off from the real stuff.*

There are many reasons for doing this.  One is frankly political: a lot of the political babble in this country is framed by erroneous economic thinking, such as nearly all the fretting over “the national debt”.  (Every time I bring this up in the context of the income accounting identities I see expanding eyeballs all across the classroom.)  Another is pedagogical: if you don’t put effort into deconstructing pre-existing beliefs as well as developing new knowledge, what you will see on papers and exams is a weird mishmash of the two.  It took me too many years to figure this out.  But a third is the insight Suri also came to, that using an external point of reference to step outside oneself and observe one’s own learning process provides a powerful boost to learning of all sorts.  The misunderstandings of pop econ provide a baseline from which students can measure their progress; they illuminate what they are learning and how.

The name for this is meta-learning (or deutero-learning in cybernetic-speak).  It is foregrounded by activities that help students get outside the technique or concept immediately in front of them and see their learning of it as the object of attention.  Like all forms of learning, it is best approached inductively and in context: rather than give lectures on meta-learning, provide exercises that call attention to it in situ.  I incorporated material to support meta-learning in my textbooks, more in the second (macro) than the first (micro), since I was learning (and meta-learning!) as I went along.

I’ve come to think that explicit incorporation of meta-learning may be the single most important innovation to transform teaching.  For those of you who have this a day (or night) job, give it a try.

*Just to be clear, “real” economics is not mean “sanctified by the mainstream”, just conceptual approaches that can be supported by careful reasoning and empirical data.  Some mainstream econ is rather closer to the pop variety than to legitimate analysis.

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