Sunday, May 21, 2017

My European Speaking Trip

For people interested in attending, here is the list of the open talks:

Gothenburg, Sweden, May 24, 18:00 CEST
"A World of Strong Privacy: Anarcho-Capitalism Online"
Allégården, Södra Allégatan 4, Gothenburg
Stockholm, Sweden, May 25, 17:00
"The Confederation of Liberal and Conservative Students - Speakers evening with David Friedman"
Blasieholmsgatan 4a

Batumi, Georgia, European Students for Liberty Batumi Conference, May 27
Shota Rustaveli University   11:30 – 12:30 "Market Failure, an Argument Both For and Against Government"
14:45 – 15:30 "Feud Law: The Logic of Private, Decentralized Law Enforcement" 
17:30 –18:00 – "Future Imperfect: Many Ways the World Might Change in Your Lifetime"

Moscow: I don't have the details yet

Graz, Austria, June 6
University of Graz, Resowi Building, 2nd floor
"The Case for Anarchy," 11:30am, room SZ15.22
"Climate Change, Population, and the Problem with Externality Arguments, 6pm, room SZ15.21
Link to organizer with some additional information (partly in German): 

Budapest, Hungary, June 7, 6 P.M.
"The past and future of law without the state"
Kossuth Klub, Múzeum u. 7, Budapest 1088, Hungary
Facebook event
Facebook page for details and discussion

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Most Exciting Maybe of the Year

A  link in a recent post on my favorite blog took me to a piece on a recent article from the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. It describes a procedure which appears to reverse aging in mice. These are early results, they might be wrong, there might be currently unknown problems, and we are not mice. 

But it at least suggests the possibility of not merely slowing aging, which is what most anti-aging research is about, but reversing it.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Something Different. Or Maybe Not.

My younger son writes, among other things, fiction set in the world of super heroes and super villains. This morning he pointed me at someone else's work in that genre, a novella: Interviewing Leather. I read it.

The narrator is a reporter working for a Rolling Stone equivalent in a world with super heroes and super villains. His assignment is to interview a mid-level super villain, more precisely super villainess, who goes by the name of Leather.

It is an enjoyable story with interesting characters, plot, and moral issues. But what most impressed me was that the author took a pattern of behavior that came into existence for literary reasons, to make good stories, and constructed a persuasive explanation of why real people would act that way. Not easy to do when "act that way" involves a lot of dramatic posturing and dialog by both sides, most of it well suited for the dialog bubble of a comic book but entirely unnecessary for either committing crimes or stopping them.

To see how he managed to pull it off, read the story.

Discussing it after I finished, my wife raised the question of whether the story would work for the book I plan of stories that teach economics. It might. Part of the background is a description of the economics of the super villain business. Much of the point of it is people taking the actions that achieve their objectives, which is what economics is about, although neither the objectives nor the actions are exactly what we are used to.

If you read the story, or have read it, let me know if you think it belongs in my book.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Thoughts on Literature, Economics and Education

My recent posts here have dealt with my current project of putting together a book of short works of literature that have interesting economic ideas embedded in them. I've gotten suggestions both here and in response to emails that I sent to people who I thought might help. Some of the suggestions I expect to use. But my reaction to most of them was that they were not what I was looking for. The purpose of this post is to explain why. Part of doing so is looking at the difference between the project I am planning and the somewhat similar, but I think fundamentally different, project that Michael Watts produced in The Literary Book of Economics.

What is Economics?

Probably the most common definition is "the science of allocating scarce resources to diverse ends." Watts offers Marshall's definition: The study of mankind in the ordinary business of life. Neither of those is what I think of as economics. Still less is it the study of the economy, which I suspect would come closest to what most people think the word means.

To me, economics is that approach to understanding behavior that starts from the assumption that individuals have objectives and tend to take the acts that best achieve them. That is what economists mean by "rationality," and it is the assumption of rationality that is, in my view, the distinguishing characteristic of economics. What I am looking for are works that tell us something interesting about the implications of that assumption.

Someone at some point suggested Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. It is an interesting book, although much too long for my purposes. But what makes it interesting, economically speaking, is not the vivid picture of poverty in the period between the wars but particular details relevant to implications of rational behavior.

I can give, by memory, an example. Orwell observed waiters in a fancy Paris restaurant, out of sight of the diners, spitting in the dishes they were going to serve. In an idealized market context, the waiter would never spit in the dish unless the value to him of doing so was more than the disvalue to the patron he was serving, which is unlikely. But throw in the inability of either the patrons or the waiter's employers to monitor the waiter's behavior and any benefit to the waiter of expressing his hostility is a sufficient incentive to make him do it. That suggests the further point that, when you cannot monitor someone's behavior, his preferences matter--you want the job he is doing for you to be done by someone whose preferences are close enough to yours so that he will want to do what you would want him to do–even if nobody is watching.

Economics is not the study of the economy. A picture of poverty, or unemployment, or wealth, or economic growth, however accurate and vivid, does not in itself teach you any economics. A story such as Poul Anderson's "Margin of Profit," which deals with a wholly fictional future, does, because it demonstrates in that world an important implication of rationality that holds in our world as well–that in order to prevent someone from doing something you do not want him to do it is not necessary to make it impossible, merely unprofitable.

How to Learn

One difference between my project and Watts' is that he includes things that are not, by my definition, part of economics, along with others that are. The other difference is that most of what he includes are not complete works but excerpts from much  longer pieces. 

I can imagine an economics professor reading through The Literary Book of Economics in search of things he can use in his teaching. But I find it hard to imagine anyone else doing so on his own initiative, merely because he enjoyed reading it. There is a reason why a book is the length it is; a novel is not, with rare exceptions, a series of short stories. I conclude that most of the people reading Watts' book, most of the people it was written for, will be students reading it because their professor told them to. And, judging by my experience of students over the years, many of the students told to read it won't. 

That fits the pattern of most modern schooling at all levels. Someone else decides what you should learn, tells you what you must do to learn it, and makes some attempt to make sure you follow his instructions. It is not a model I think highly of. A much superior model in my view, if you can pull it off, is to get someone to learn something primarily because he finds it interesting. The best way of doing that is to provide students with things to read that are  worth reading on their own, not things they read only because they are ordered to. Not even things they read only because they think the labor of reading them will pay off in future benefit. 

That view of education is why both children of my present marriage were unschooled. It is also why all of my nonfiction books, with the partial exception of Price Theory, were targeted at the proverbial intelligent layman. They can be, and sometimes are, used as textbooks, but they were written with the assumption that if the reader did not find a chapter worth finishing he was likely not to finish it.

It is also why I am not looking for literary excerpts that can be used to demonstrate economic points, unless the excerpt can stand on its own as a work of literature.