Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Rastafarian to Economics in Six Steps

To quote that great American man of song Jack Black: "You can't manufacture Inspirado."

To put it another way, you never really know when the Owl of Minerva will swoop down and strafe your brain-banana.

Such a thing happened last night, and it all emerged from someone making fun of me. That someone was, as it happens, my girlfriend.

First, some background. This wonderful woman seems to take great joy at making fun of how nerdy I am. You know...all my maps and economic theory and historical ramblings. It seems to be one of her favorite indoor sports (though I get the sneaking suspicion that she actually likes it but would never admit it).

Anyway, I was going on about my post of a few days back, "Is Economics Dead?" She claimed that she was a loyal COTL reader and that she had read that post. I asked if there was anything in particular that she liked. She said some of the words were interesting.

When I asked which ones, she replied, "economics and Rastafarian." Now, I know that I didn't mention Rastafarianism in the post, so I know my chain was being yanked.

What did occur, though, was an interesting thought experiment: could I connect Rastafarianism and the academic study of economics in six steps? I told her this was great "blog fodder."

She asked if she was my muse. I answered that, in a way, I supposed she was.

So, without further ado, I attempt to connect...

Rastafarian to Economics in Six Steps

1. Rastafarianism is a monotheistic, new religious movement that emerged in a Christian culture (Jamaica) in the 1930's. Rastafarians believe in the Second Advent like Christians do, but they believe that it happened in the person of...

2. Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who denied that he was divine, but who did rule Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. His reign was a long and eventful one, fighting a bloody, anti-colonial war against Benito Mussolini's Italy in 1935 and 1936. Domestically, though, Selassie's main problem was that of economic development. He knew that, to survive in the 20th century, his country would have to undergo...

3. Modernization, which is a contentious topic among historians, political scientists and other such eggheads. It basically studies the social factors and the ties an "underdeveloped" country has to "developed" countries and how these factors interact and can change to help a country modernize (whatever that might mean). These ideas about modernization have their roots in the Enlightenment with...

4. Marie Jean Antoine Nicholas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, who, in 1795, postulated that advances in technology and economic changes could change moral and cultural values. This notion, the Idea of Progress, became a cornerstone of Enlightenment thought and influenced liberal ideologies well into the twentieth century. These notions of progress were related, in Condorcet's mind, to democratic political institutions. Condorcet studied, in particular, voting in democratic systems and found a problem, known as Condorcet's paradox. This is basically the idea that majorities choices in any decision situation are intransitive and can conflict with each other. This paradox in decision making was further expanded upon and defined by...

5. Kenneth Arrow, who's "impossibility theorem" takes Condorcet's paradox to the next level. Arrow argued, in his Ph.D. thesis and later in his 1951 book Social Choice and Individual Values, that no voting system can translate the preferences of individuals into a group-wide preference without the system resorting to dictatorship. In other words, the rule of the majority can never really be achieved and not have a dictator. This work laid the foundation for social choice theory, which is an important theoretical framework in...

6. The Academic Study of Economics.

So, there we have it. From Jamaica in the 1930's, we went to Ethiopia, back to late eighteenth century France, forward to twentieth century America to arrive at our final destination, making several interesting discoveries along the way.

Oh, for my fellow documentary junkies, can you tell I was raised on a steady diet of James Burke?

I hope you found this thought experiment interesting, enlightening and further proof that everything is connected in one way or another.

Oh, and to my muse, a sincere thank you. I usually balk and get defensive when she pokes gentle fun at my preoccupations (I secretly like it, but I would never let on...)

The Chuckwagon: Shredded Beef Carnitas (Sort Of)

The slow cooker is really the great tease of the food world. You gather your ingredients, put them all in the stoneware vessel, turn a knob and, well, wait. Usually for hours.

Meanwhile, ever so slowly, the wonderous smells of your food start to emerge and waft around you. As you go about your daily tasks, you are tempted and seduced by the ever-stronger aroma of food that you cannot have. It is a good exercise in forebearance and discipline.

This is not a problem if you are gone all day while it is cooking, but be ready for the big barrage when you open that door and are confronted by a wall of deliciousness. Even if you are in and out of the house all day, when you return, the aroma gets stronger; while you are away, it is at the back of your mind.

This is one of my favorite slow cooker recipes for a lot of reasons. Since it is ideal as a filling for tacos and such, it goes a long way. It can be adapted and added to, depending on your tastes and heat tolerance. Lastly, it freezes well and can be a real frozen "ace-in-the-hole" when the food stores are running low.

Oh, why the "Sort Of" in the title? Well, I know how real carnitas are made and they are really easy. I also know they are not done in a slow cooker. For a great, easy and tasty recipe that is closer to traditional carnitas, try this one by Mexican cuisine Renaissance man Rick Bayless.

Shredded Beef Carnitas (Sort Of)

  • 2.5-3 lb. boneless chuck or rump roast
  • 1 10oz. can of diced tomatoes with green chiles
  • 1 c. beef broth
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 2-3 chipotle peppers plus 1 tbs. of the sauce from the can*
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 tbs. ground cumin
  • 1 tbs. dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste

* These particular chipotle peppers are sold in a can with an adobo sauce. They can be found with the Mexican foods in most grocery stores.


  • Put roast in slow cooker.
  • Add (in this order) tomatoes/green chiles, broth, garlic, chipotles, sauce, onion, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper.
  • Turn slow cooker to "LOW," cover and cook for 4-6 hours. When done, the meat should be tender and falling apart.
  • Remove the beef from the liquid and reserve some of the liquid.
  • Let cool briefly.
  • Shred beef with two forks until, well, shredded enough for whatever you are using it for.
  • Moisten beef with some of the liquid until it is damp but not sopping wet.

Serve this with any/all of your favorite trimmings. I particularly like guacamole and a little lime juice on the beef, all wrapped up in a warm tortilla. This, as I said, can be used as a taco filling, served along side rice and beans by itself or however you want to enjoy this succulent, tasty roast.

So, gird up your discipline, get it all together and let 'er rip. On second thought, maybe plan to be out of the house all day so you are not tempted. Even if you are around, the pay-off is well worth it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What is Fascism?

(N.B. This post was going to be longer. A lot longer. It followed the upward and outward spiral a lot of my posts do. I have shortened it, plagiarized myself a lot and I think made it more acccessable. If anyone out there is interested in a more in-depth look at this, let me know.)

When groups of ideas are labelled, these labels can (and usually do) take on a life of their own. They change, mutate and often become so completely divorced from their original context that they are almost meaningless.

These labels, though seemingly meaningless, retain a great deal of rhetorical power, but rhetorical power of the "bash over the head" type, not the Oxford Debating Society type.

Such it is with fascism.

Fascism, or to call someone a fascist, has basically mutated into a term for anything or anybody that you hate or disagree with. It is a term that has such power while at the same time being so wildly understood as to be contradictory at best and laughable at worst.

I have personal experience with this. In teaching the history of Modern Europe, I lectured on the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920's and 1930's. One of my express missions in doing so was to let the students know that this term refers to a specific group of political, economic and social policies that emerged from a specific place at a specific time.

I tried to impress upon them that fascism can be defined, but that these definitions are not, well, definite. To put it another way, it is hard to say which "fascist" regime in Europe was the archetype, the quintissential fascist polity and society.

The Rise of Fascism in Europe

Flip through the slides of this presentation, done for my History 120 class. I think it will provide definitions of fascism, examples of fascist regimes and some conclusions. This presentation on the rise of the Nazis in Germany might also be of interest.

Final Thoughts
  • "Fascist" as an epithet has, as terms often do, become completely divorced from its original meaning. It simply means, "someone I don't agree with" now.
  • There were several other regimes, like Franco's in Spain, that had the trappings of fascism, and were certainly authoritarian, but were not really fascist. Particularly notable here are Estado Novo in Portugal, the Fourth of August regime in Greece and the Iron Guard in Romania.
  • What was the closest regime to a "purely" fascist one? I would say Mussolini's Italy. Feel free to debate me on this one.

Link Exchange

  • Margaret Atwood's take on Twitter.
  • Tyler Cowen explains the greatest flaw with the labor theory of value.
  • Land smugglers? Indonesia has them.
  • Apparently, the founders of the American Economic Association in the 1890's were progressive, scientifically minded and really into eugenics and race purity. In other words, they were absolutely typical of many intellectuals of their age.
  • Baffled by the whole "militia movement?" Robert Churchill's recent book is a good start.
  • Magnetic stimulation to certain parts of the brain can change moral judgements.
  • Peter Boettke wonders, "why is economic common sense so hard to communicate?" I wonder if, "economic common sense" *might* just be an oxymoron.
  • With talk of the 2010 Census in the air, check out this chart of the most populous US cities according to the first census in 1790. New York tops the list...with 33,131 people.
  • The allure of glamour.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Moving Thoughts

(This whole post, in one way or another, is informed by George Carlin's classic routine, "A Place For My Stuff." Watch it here.)

I moved recently and, as those who have done this before know, it is never a cut-and-dried task. There are always things you forget, corners you forget to dust, boxes you didn't tape right, hitching a trailer in a blinding snow storm. That sort of thing.

I suppose as moves go, mine was relatively uneventful (apart from the fact that I did most of the work without my glasses, no mean feat). It went how most moves go, in stages:
  1. Gather boxes, tape, labels, Sharpies, garbage bags and other vessels for stuff.
  2. Let those things sit around for a week while you do absolutely nothing.
  3. Realize the move date is coming up and frantically start to sift through your stuff.
  4. Establish guidelines for what stays and what goes. The dusty, rarely-used, broken, stained, too-hard-to-clean, or about-to-collapse stuff goes.
  5. Gather usable, but unwanted stuff, and donate it or give it away. Feel good about yourself and, as a reward, do absolutely nothing for another week.
  6. Realize that the move is even closer now and start to jam stuff into aforementioned boxes, bags, pants with the legs tied off, whatever. This is the stuff, naturally, that made the cut and is not junk or potential home decor for some insufferable hipster.
  7. Begin cleaning, realize the enormity of the task and then do absolutely nothing for a few more days.
  8. Realize that you move in three days and turn into some hopped-up combination of a house-parlour maid and Bob Vila, cleaning and repairing (or masking) all your sins.
  9. Realize that it is all done and then do nothing until the trailer is ready for pick-up.

That's about how it went.

The interesting thoughts, however, came about in Stage 9. There I was, clean apartment, everything packed and sitting neatly (?) in a pile in front of me.

First I thought, "sitting in front of me, in boxes saved by Yo La Tengo Shirt Guy at the corner store, is, well me. These are, as they say, all my earthly possessions. This is all I got. Everything I own in this world that is not my body is there in a pile. This thought depressed me, as you might imagine.

Can a life be reduced to this? Is this the sum-total of my estate? What does this pile of boxes and bags mean, exactly?

I then thought, "No. This is not me. I am me, and these are just material possessions. Why, I could get rid of all of this and still be me. I am not defined by my posessions anymore than I am defined by a job, nationality, religion, ethnicity or baseball team affiliation (well, maybe not so much that last one)."

Well, then, why do you keep any of it? Why not just hippie/Jesus out, dump it all and just live, man?

Like it or not, I then thought, I have grown attached to some of these things. Why?

Then, the real question hit me: why did you keep the particular things you did and get rid of the rest?

Some of it is personal, things that remind me of my past and the past of my family. These things are priceless (not in a literal sense, but you get my meaning). A lot of what I kept were books. As an academic, they are the tools of my trade and the medium through which I keep my mind active and discursive as ever. Movies and music also made it past the garbage/Goodwill stage. These things make me happy and give me perspective, so I kept those. Practical items, too, like clothes. Well, there are few who want to see a naked guy wandering around, and almost none who want to see a naked me, so I had better have those. Apart from my computer, that was about it.

What does any of this prove? I think it boils down to value. When asked to move, we take the path of least resistance. We want to move as little as possible as quick as possible. We must make some hard decisions about the material things around us. In the end, it shows what we really value most. I guess I value my memories, ideas and not being naked.

What I am perhaps getting at is that a move involves a certain value calculus, one that is different for everyone. This process of winnowing is different for everyone and I suppose the process says as much about the individual as the things processed. It is all signalling, to put it another way.

So, whether you are moving are not, take a look around your place, pick out a few things and ask yourself: "Why am I keeping this? What does this object mean to me? What does it say about me? What would I think if I never saw it again? Would I care?"

The answers might surprise you. I know they surprised me.

Link Exchange

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is Economics Dead?

In its current form as an academic discipline, David Brooks thinks so.

First, a caveat about me and my opinion of David Brooks. Sometimes I think he is right on the money, other times I think he is on some other planet. On this score, I tend toward the former.

Economics is considered one of the "social sciences," basically disciplines that attempt to explain human behavior (in one way or another) using empirical methodologies. These disciplines usually include political science, psychology, sociology and economics.

Brooks does not take issue with the "social" part. It is the "science" that he has a problem with. He basically argues that economics will, in the future, be more like history or philosophy. It will be a powerful voice in a chorus of voices trying to explain the human condition as it is, was or will be.

What he thinks is at an end, though, is economics as a science in the sense that it is meant to render definitive answers about certain questions, follow a method of experimentation, value the quantitative over the qualitative and (perhaps most importantly) make predictions about how people might behave in the future. He posits, in fact, that economics will become more like art than science.

I do agree with Brooks that human behavior is a slippery thing that is not easily explained by any of the social sciences. What's more, I also agree that any pretense that any of these things are close to the "hard" sciences like chemistry or physics or biology. These sciences can explain how people work. The social sciences attempt to explain why people work, and this is a much harder thing to do.

I disagree with Brooks in that I don't think it was the recent economic crisis that was the "tipping point" for this supposed change in economics. I think of it in a more positive manner. Interdisciplinarity has been a force in academia for some time now and I think economists are finally coming out from behind their figures and charts to realize that they can learn from their colleagues. I think that this is a good thing, in the main.

The question, as a bit of an aside, arises: well, can any discipline keep its integrity in such an environment? Yes, because there are certain sorts of questions that one discipline answers better than others. Want to know about the causes of schizophrenia? A historian might be able to tell you how this disease and the perception of it changed over time, but for the direct answer, best to ask a psychologist. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Greg Mankiw offers a different take on this, disagreeing pretty much in whole with Brooks. He says that journalists fundamentally misunderstand changes in academia and does not realize that professional economists are not really in the business of predicting the future anyway.

He goes on to admit that, while certain changes do need to be made to basic econ courses, the breadth and depth of them are good for now. He admits he might be biased on this score, and he is right to do so. He is the author of damn near the most popular text for Microeconomics 101 classes today.

In the end, though, I think Brooks is on to something here. He is calling economists to remember that their roots are not in the sciences. The earliest people you could call economists came from other, older disciplines that probed the human mind and condition.

To take but one example: if you were to meet Adam Smith and call him an "economist," he would have no idea what you were talking about. He was really a moral philosopher, interested in how people can achieve happiness and live, well, the right way.

It was in this spirit that he wrote his first (under-read, in my opinion) book The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759. This book provides the moral and philosophical underpinnings for his later (more quoted, less read, even less understood) work The Wealth of Nations in 1776.

You would get the same quizzical looks from other early "economists" like David Ricardo, Francois Quesnay, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot and others. In fact, the first person you might be able to call an economist as they developed to the present day might be Alfred Marshall, leader of the "marginal revolution."

So, back to my original question: is economics dead. I think not, but the way the discipline looks at its problems and itself will, and should, change. Economics can be a powerful voice in explaining human behavior, motivation and action.

One voice, however, does not a chorus make.

Link Exchange

  • Interesting article and book about an often-forgotten investment bubble of recent years: baseball cards. In the 1980's, baseball cards became seen as a viable investment, people rushed in, prices rose and the bubble burst in 1994 with the baseball strike. I was part of this bursting (in a minor way), and I suppose it was an early education in boom and bust.
  • Speaking of booms and busts, this is a super summary (in chart form) of US booms and busts (and other economic data) for the period 1775-1943. This, for me, is a real conversation starter.
  • Interactive diagram showing why general equilibrium analysis is no easy task.
  • I have seen this making the Internet rounds, an attempt to show that we depend heavily on that which is supplied by government. Here is the libertarian response. I guess it just goes to show that our society is really neither.
  • Should airlines pay you to check your bags, in interest of effeciency? Felix Salmon thinks so. His argument is a compelling one.
  • Engrossing discussion of positive vs. negative liberty at Cato Unbound. I, as you might imagine, come down on the negative liberty side.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Oh, No. Not Him Again.

Yes, I am back in the blogging saddle.

It has been a tough few months, and in many ways, I have been incommunicado.

I intend to change this.

My schedule has opened up somewhat (well, I am unemployed), and might have some more time to write here.

So, read the below two posts and expect more in the future. More recipes, more links, more history, more econ.

In short, more of everything that makes you like (?) me and this site.

Greeks Begging for Gifts

Greece is one of the worst governed countries in Europe, and certainly damn near the worst in the EU.

There. I said it.

Today, it was announced that the French and German governments have agreed, with help from the IMF, to bail out the Greek economy to prevent it from completely coming apart.

This move shows a few interesting things. To wit:

  1. France and Germany "wear the pants" in the EU. Always have, always will.
  2. Greece, as a country, was considered "too big to fail." Well, this is not literally true, but systemic risk is certainly an issue here.
  3. This, for me, calls into question Europe as an optimum currency area (OCA). Now, I know that Europe is the first place this has really been tried, but I think, after the Euro conversion in 2002, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.
  4. The recent labor unrest in Greece is a reflection of the dire (to put it mildly) state of the Greek economy rather than its cause.
  5. I think a lot of the blame for a lot of the current economic problems lie in the 1970's and former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and his Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK). After the military junta was brought down in 1974, the right was discredited and the left took over in all levels of government. While this is not in and of itself bad, it did mean that there was no effective opposition and the PASOK and its allies proceeded to wreck the economy and create general malaise amongst the populace.
  6. This might happen again. I am looking at you, Spain and Portugal.

Addendum: Will the US become the next Ireland, which supposedly serves as a model for recovery for the Greeks? Probably not.

Link Exchange

Addendum: I realize that the Sixteenth Amendment deals directly with the income tax and that Article I, Section 8 (Enumerated Powers of Congress) gives Congress the right to levy taxes. I apologise for the confusion.