Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Main Currents of Political Science and Economics — Over a Cataract

Duke professor Jedediah Purdy highlights a NY Times essay by Molly Worthen, particularly the following passage:
"The left can’t talk openly about ideology, while the right pretends to ignore its own identity politics. The country’s political conversation is boring and unsatisfying precisely because its unspoken rules forbid politicians from acknowledging what is really going on and encourage them to talk past one another. 
"The right has so thoroughly captured the terms of economic debate that American liberals — uniquely in the Western world — champion cultural issues like same-sex marriage equality while avoiding serious confrontation with the structural sources of socio-economic inequality. Their ideological cowardice has left them turning sensible reform proposals like single-payer health insurance into the Frankenstein’s monster of government-subsidized private enterprise that is the Affordable Care Act."

Before the elections, the Times was running a side by side comparison of several models predicting the outcome of the campaigns. I haven't found an account of how those models actually shaped up in the actual outcome.

One way or another, the "conversation is boring and unsatisfying" also captures something about the state of political science exemplified in those models. It's badly missing something. And I don't think it's any accident that it has bought so completely into the methods of the main current of economics that so badly missed critical trends of the past 35 years (not just the past 7 years).

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Entropy, the Business Cycle, and the New Mediocre

Vanessa Frieden, New York Times fashion critic, has an essay in the paper drawing on comments by Christine Lagarde, director of the IMF, on what Lagarde calls the "new mediocre." I think Frieden doesn't quite get the point.

Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, coined the term "paradigm shift." Later, after it became a buzzterm with many meanings and little force, he regretted that, critically brilliant though it was. I wonder whether Christine Lagarde might feel something like that with the "new mediocre."

Lagarde means something specifically economic (as Vanessa Frieden acknowledges). Still, Friedman may be onto more than she realizes. The "meritocracy" that the privileged rave about (think executive pay, elite universities, charter schools, privatization of government functions, etc.) is mostly a myth. The great people of merit have proved to be stunningly mediocre (even incompetent, even criminal) — Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, about 90% of Congress and the executive, even the Supreme Court. Economic theorizing (including about meritocracy) has failed like very few sciences have ever failed. (A whole science — that's impressive.) Meritocracy was a cover story invented after the fact.

But the irony is in what Frieden and Lagarde still buy into: Growth must go on — the old thinking. "No prosperity without growth." People must buy more. Throw out the old — or even the new, useful or not. Buy newer, needed or not. Get a new cell phone each year. New clothing each season. Frieden's real quibble seems to be with the pace, not the irrational cycle.

Here's another law of physics: Entropy increases. Disorder increases. In time, things fall apart. Irrationality will accelerate that.