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"
"Market Failure: An Argument Both for and Against Government"
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: May 29, 7:30 P.M.
"Zombie-Visionary: Can We Control the Future?"
Osobnyak na Volkhonke, Bolshoy Znamensky 2 Building 3, 2 floor
People need to apply at
May 30, 7:30
"Legal Systems Very Different From Ours"
Higher School of Economics, Staraya Basmannaya, 21/4 Building 1, 4 floor
People need to apply at and have their ID with them, since it is on a university campus.  

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.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Ideas That Teach Economics: Who Should I Ask?

At least since I successfully used this blog to get a design for the cover of the third edition of my first book, I have been intrigued with the idea of using the internet as a way of collecting ideas and information. My current project, described in my previous post, is an obvious candidate. I have accordingly been using this blog, Facebook and G+ to ask for suggestions on what I ought to include in a book of short works of literature that contain economic ideas. I have also been emailing everyone I can think of who might contribute additional suggestions, ranging from my undergraduate debate partner, a fellow Kipling enthusiast and currently a federal judge, to two science fiction authors, also friends. Also lots of economists. It just occurred to me that I ought to try the second order approach--using the Internet to get suggestions about who I should use the Internet to get suggestions from. Hence this post.

Who should I contact by email who would be likely to know of short works of literature that included interesting economic ideas? What sites online might it be worth putting posts or comments on? 

So far the only one I have tried, aside from here, FB and G+, is Baen's Bar.

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

I am considering adding, at Peter Leeson's suggestion,  

"The Judgement of Solomon." 
It is a well known story but provides a simple illustration of a preference revealing mechanism, although arguably a flawed one.

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.