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...)

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