Sunday, April 16, 2017

Ideas That Teach Economics: A Progress Report

In two previous posts I described my current project to put together a collection of works of literature that teach economics. Inspired in part by comments to those posts, I now have almost half a book's worth and am looking for more. Here is the current list, not necessarily in what will be the final order:

From Imitations of Horace by Alexander Pope

"Margin of Profit" by Poul Anderson

"The Peace of Dives" by Rudyard Kipling

"The Cambist and Lord Iron" by Daniel Abraham

"The Jigsaw Man" by Larry Niven

“The Verger” by Somerset Maugham

A Petition by Frédéric Bastiat

George Orwell, A Review of The Road to Serfdom and The Mirror of the Past

With a little commentary by me, this would come to about 40,000 words. I am aiming at at least twice that, preferably a little more.

A few comments on what I want:

1. The idea is to teach economic ideas. Economics, to me, isn't the study of the economy, it is the approach to understanding behavior that starts from the assumption that individuals have objectives and tend to take the actions that best achieve them. So the fact that a story describes events in the economy, such as inflation or unemployment, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. 

2. I am looking for works that teach economics, not works that support my (libertarian, pro-free market) political views. 

3. I am looking for works that are good enough literature to be read as such. A story written by an economist to teach economics, such as Hazlitt's Time Will Run Backwards or Murder at the Margin by Marshall Jevons, does not qualify unless it is a good enough story to have survived on its literary merit alone. Ideally, this would be a collection that could be read for pleasure by someone uninterested in economics as well as being used as supplementary reading for discussion in an economics course.

4. I don't want excerpts that read as excerpts. The piece by Alexander Pope is part of a longer work but reads on its own as a complete poem.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a somewhat similar project published in 2003, The Literary Book of Economics by Michael Watt. It is where I discovered the Pope poem, but so far that is the only thing I have found in it that I would want to use. It is not a book that I can easily imagine anyone reading all of for fun, although there are some interesting bits in it.

Suggestions can either be put as comments here or emailed to me.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Again Fictional Economics

A while back, I put up a post about an idea for a book, a collection of works of literature that taught economic ideas. Thanks to comments on that post, my list has expanded from two works to four, with a few other possibles. The purpose of this post is to make what I am looking for clearer and ask for more suggestions.

The plan is for a book consisting of works of literature, probably stories and poems, that are good enough to be worth reading for entertainment but that in addition embody interesting economic insights. Since it is to be a collection, the individual pieces have to be reasonably short—a novel would not fit. In my experience, good fiction writers usually write better fiction than even good economists, so I am not looking for something written by an economist to teach in fictional form, such as Looking Backwards by Hazlitt or Murder at the Margin and its sequels by Breit and Elzinga writing as Marshall Jevons–and in any case, all of those are too long for my purposes.

My present list:

"Margin of Profit" by Poul Anderson

A science fiction story whose point is that, in order to stop someone from doing something, you don't have to make it impossible, just unprofitable.
"The Peace of Dives" by Rudyard Kipling

An allegory in verse arguing that economic interdependence brings peace.
"So I make a jest of Wonder, and a mock of Time and Space,
"The roofless Seas an hostel, and the Earth a market-place,
  "Where the anxious traders know
  "Each is surety for his foe,
"And none may thrive without his fellows' grace."
--> "The Cambist and Lord Iron" by Daniel Abraham

A short story about prices--of an obscure currency, two men's lives, and a soul. 

--> "Business as Usual DuringAlterations" by Ralph Williams

A short story about why matter duplicators would not crash a market economy. 

Other suggestions? An excerpt from a longer work isn't impossible, but it has to stand on its own, be worth reading as a story. 

P.S. I think I have one more. "The Jigsaw Man" by Larry Niven. The central point is the same that I later and independently published in the  JPE as "Why Not Hang Them All: The Virtues of Inefficient Punishment."

A commenter pointed me at The Literary Book of Economics by Michael W Watts, which seems to be a project along the same lines as mine; I've ordered a copy. From descriptions I could find, it's a lot of relatively short excerpts from works of literature, each  making some economic point. I'm thinking in terms of many fewer pieces, probably each complete. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Free Distance Learning

Both of the courses I am teaching this year are being video recorded and webbed. It occurred to me that some of my readers might find one or both interesting.

Economic Analysis of Law
Class Page
Book: Late Draft in HTML  Page Images with Virtual Footnotes

Legal Systems Very Different From Ours
Class Page

Friday, March 17, 2017

Propaganda Masquerading as News: The Incredible Shrinking Horse

I recently came across a news story which struck me as a good example of how to mislead people, probably for political purposes, without saying anything that was not actually true. The title was "Watch out: Mammals shrink when Earth heats up, study says." The story reported evidence that, at a period when global temperatures were high, a number of ancient mammals became smaller—by fourteen percent in one case, by four percent in another.

There were two things wrong with the story. The first was the repeated use of the term "shrinking." What it was actually describing was evolutionary change, probably over a period of several million years, but the story never said that. It made it sound as though  animals were actually shrinking, and that is how I would expect a casual reader without much scientific background to read it. How else would you interpret "At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled a bit in size."
At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled in a bit in size

Read more at:
At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled in a bit in size

Read more at:
At least twice before in Earth's history, when carbon dioxide levels soared and temperatures spiked, mammals shriveled in a bit in size

Read more at:

The second was the picture that accompanied the story. It shows a modern horse, a Morgan, contrasted with Sifrhippus sandrae. The visual impression is of enormous shrinkage, the modern horse being nearly a hundred times the weight of the ancestral horse. But that is totally irrelevant to the facts being reported, since all of this was happening many millions of years before there were any modern horses.

My conjecture, on which the title of this blog is based, is that the article was designed to mislead, to scare casual readers about the effects of global warming, to make them imagine that it would shrink them by a similar amount. It is possible that I am mistaken, that the author did not care about politics and was merely trying to write a story people would read. Shrinking from the size of a horse to the size of a cat is a much more dramatic story than evolutionary change from the size of a large cat to the size of a medium cat, which is what the story was actually describing.

On either interpretation, I see no plausible way of interpreting the story, in particular the picture, that does not make it a case of deliberately dishonest journalism.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Proposal to Triple Tax Robots

Certainly there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.
(Bill Gates, from a Quartz interview
A robot that does a job earns income for its owner. If the owner is an individual, that income gets taxed—income tax, social security tax, all those things. If the owner is a corporation, the income pays corporate income tax then is paid to the stockholders as dividends and taxed again, although at a lower rate than ordinary income.

Gates is proposing that we replace the double tax with a triple tax.

I expect one could construct arguments for special taxes on capital that replaces labor that were not absurd, although there is no particular reason to focus on robots—capital has been substituting for labor at least since the invention of the plow, probably longer. 

But this one is either stupidity, unlikely in the case of Gates, or blatant demagoguery.

Friday, March 10, 2017

A Scrap of Libertarian History

I just came across a letter I wrote to Edith Efron in 1978 on the anarchist/minarchist controversy. It occurred to me that others might find it interesting. I don't remember if she ever answered it. 

But then, I also don't remember writing it.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Crazy Like a Fox

One possible interpretation of Trump's actions is that he is ignorant, stupid, impulsive and thin skinned. During the campaign the obvious implication, which many drew, was that he had done and would continue doing stupid things that would lose him the nomination or, if he somehow got the nomination, the election.

That did not happen. When your theory confidently predicts something that does not happen, it is worth considering that the theory may be wrong. 

Additional evidence against that theory comes from Trump's earlier history. His finances are not public knowledge and some have argued, for all I know correctly, that he would have done at least as well if he had invested his inherited wealth in a collection of low risk interest bearing assets. But he didn't. He engaged in a long and risky series of entrepreneurial projects. If he was as incompetent as many seem to believe, he would by now have lost all or most of his money. 

That suggests an alternative interpretation, that while Trump may indeed be impulsive and thin skinned he is not stupid, that the apparently stupid things he did were for the most part tactics that were intended to win and did win, that it was not Trump who did not understand what he was doing but his critics. 

Hence the title of this post.

How well does that fit what has happened since the election? 

The initial travel ban made very little sense as a way of preventing Islamic terrorism  but quite a lot as a way of giving Trump the image of doing everything he could to defend America from Islamic terrorism. Seen from that standpoint, even its poor design made sense as a way of provoking noisy and passionate opposition, making his opponents in the Democratic party and the mass media seem to be soft on terrorism. It isn't as if the average voter can be expected to pay attention to the details.

The oddest thing about the response of Trump's critics to his moves is the implicit assumption which they would surely disavow if were made explicit—that Trump's motives are benign. On the assumption that his objective was to make America better, his actions look stupid. But not if his purpose was to promote his own power and status. 

The theory I am offering also explains the accusation that Obama tapped Trump's phone. As best I can tell, there is no evidence that it is literally true. But there is evidence, reported in the New York Times more than a month ago, that federal agents acted under a FISA warrant to tap the communications of some members of Trump's team in the Trump Tower. There is probably no evidence that they did so at Obama's urging or in order to provide information to him, but there probably would be no evidence of that even if it were true.

Obama, the New York Times and the rest of the opposition could have responded to Trump's charge by denying that Obama had tapped Trump while conceding that some around him had been tapped as part of a legal investigation, a fact reported a month or more before Trump made his charge. They could even have suggested that confusing the two claims was evidence of Trump's weak hold on reality. Perhaps some did. But the overall impression of their response as I saw it and, I suspect, as most others saw it, was that it amounted to "That's absurd, Trump must be crazy, nothing of the sort happened."

At which point Trump's supporters could respond that something of the sort, even if not exactly the same thing, had not only happened, it had been reported in the New York Times. That might not convince someone paying close attention to the two claims and the differences between them, but not many voters would be. Making people less willing to trust the mass media, especially when they are criticizing Trump, is a win for Trump.

When I offered arguments along these lines in a Facebook comment thread, the response I got, at least implicitly, was that by denying Trump's incompetence I was defending Trump and that Trump defenders were not worth listening to. My response, that assuming your opponents are stupid when they are not is a very dangerous mistake, fell on deaf ears.


An earlier version of this argument.