Reading and writing

What I’m up to while neglecting the blog:

This is as good a piece on the Ayn Rand cult as I’ve ever seen. I’ll own up to having been a great fan of The Fountainhead when I was about 20, but I sobered up somewhere about halfway through Atlas Shrugged. At the time I was double-majoring in economics and creative writing — there are some obvious conclusions (or cheap jokes) that probably follow from that particular conjunction of facts.

I think it’s a symptom of the crazy times we live in that David Brooks has been occasionally making sense. This week’s column is a bad example though. What the world needs a lot less of is cheap moralizing about Kanye West, of all people. But what’s interesting (if ultimately pointless in a nagging-dad way) about it is the sort of fuzzy, aesthetic conservatism, the sappy nostalgia for a time when people knew how to behave themselves and everything was just better in some hard-to-define way. I catch myself thinking this way sometimes, and I feel occasional pangs of sympathy for conservatives on that basis. I’m talking Evelyn Waugh conservatives here, not Strom Thurmond ones, if you’re wondering.

Sometimes I think that if you could feel nostalgia for the present, you’d have things pretty much figured out. Just putting that out there as a possible meaning of life.

Other times I think you could stay busy blog-stalking David Brooks in an Aaronovitch Watch kind of way. And at still other, distinct times, I think you could lick your finger, hold it up to the wind, see which side gets cold first, and twitter about that.

And now that I’ve hopefully chased everyone off with my impersonation of Steven Wright having a stroke: I wrote this review of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture for The Quotidian. Go over there and leave a comment, if only to balance out the one that basically says “tl;dr“.

As long as Sunday is Controversies in Economics day

While this paper by Robert Driskill is interesting in itself (for certain possibly eccentric values of the word “interesting”) what really jumped out at me is this passage*:

It is simply over-reaching to try and use this model to counter the zero-sum argument about trade between countries, and it destroys the profession’s credibility: the student who, having diligently learned the “free trade is good” lesson of the Ricardian model, and who realizes later in life that the individual analogy is a poor one for countries, might be tempted to dismiss all the economics learned at that earlier age.

Take out the word “diligently” (just to be perfectly fair) and you’ve got my critique of my own undergraduate economics education in a nutshell. Is there any other discipline that teaches its undergraduates a toy version of the subject, and saves the real stuff for grad school? Or where students who plan to pursue doctorates are better off studying something else entirely (in this case math) as undergrads?

(via here, from here).

*the model he’s referring to, if you’re following along at home, is the classic two-state two-good Ricardian comparative advantage model. Which I’m lucky even to understand since, like an idiot, I majored in economics.


Krugman’s big piece on the major conflicts within economics, and how the crisis exposed the depth of the schools’ disagreements, is required reading, of course.

And Matthew Yglesias shows where to look next, with some pointers towards an analysis of the incentives that led so many economists to go so very wrong. It’s worth clicking through to see the Larry Summers ketchup paper that Yglesias links to.

Expect to see more of this “economics of economics” business in the near future.

The Dutch Socialists have half a point

I generally don’t check in with the old Momus to find out something new about politics, but I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what’s happened here. He points to the Socialist Party of the Netherlands and their excellently named leader Agnes Kant, who have come out against immigration. Now I’ll be the first to admit that Dutch politics often looks a bit topsy-turvy from the outside — Momus mentions the openly gay but rabidly right-wing Pim Fortuyn — but this is definitely an odd case.

Momus sees nothing but cynicism beneath this stance, and on one level it’s hard to argue with him. The SP’s fortunes have apparently improved quite a bit recently, and whether that’s because the Dutch voters are in a particularly socialist mood or just a particularly anti-Muslim one is an open question. All the typically tolerant Northern European countries are experiencing a bit of an anti-immigration backlash, with the green menace on a lot of minds at the moment — so it’s easy to see this as a bit of populist pandering.

I’m not so sure that’s entirely right. For those of us on the leftishly inclined side of the Anglosphere (which here includes both Momus and myself) it’s almost impossible to imagine a coherent anti-immigration stance that’s not on some level racist or xenophobic. But apparently it’s been part of the SP’s plank since the 1980s.

Why? It’s an often overlooked feature (or bug, or whatever) of capitalism that it depends for its efficiency on the free movement not only of capital but of labor as well. The Dutch Socialists quite rightly point out that this is not such a great deal for the workers. Here in the US, you’re more likely to hear the lament of the increasingly redundant American laborer: they’re taking our jobs. What you’re less likely to hear about is the effect on the economic migrants themselves, and on the communities they’re leaving behind when they cross borders in search of higher wages.

Maybe the life of a girl who moves from Krakow to London only to end up cleaning hotel rooms for far below the legal wage is a fulfilling and rewarding one. And certainly the remittances that migrant workers send back to their families are better than nothing. But from Poland’s point of view, sending a generation of young people abroad in search of better economic prospects is not exactly a recipe for local development, much less thriving communities and tight family bonds.

Of course none of this is exactly what the SP is talking about here. They don’t mention decimated Polish communities or fragmented Romanian families. Instead they maintain that freedom of migration is not a right but simply a ploy to supply corporations with cheap labor, and their solution is to “make migration unnecessary” — presumably by working to bring the entire rest of the world up to the Dutch standard of living.

This is where, like Momus, I get skeptical. There are a lot of countries worse off than the Netherlands, and there will be for a very long time, unless, finally, worldwide socialism is just around the corner. It makes some sense to be against economic migration, in the sense where you’re opposed to a global order that forces people to emigrate in order to find good work. But you don’t cure a disease by outlawing the symptoms.