Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Assault of Thoughts - 10/19/2010

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" - JMK

- The Navy hunts for the sunken Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones's Revolutionary War ship.

- Arnold Kling on Robert Hall on quantitative easing.

- I rolled my eyes when I started reading this post about a geneticist and a physicist writing an article about what evolution has to say about economic recovery. Needless to say, economists have been applying evolutionary ideas for decades, and I didn't have much faith that these guys could just jump into the field and have something especially useful to say any more than I could jump into genetics and make a decent point. It actually sounds quite good, though. I've heard the point before (from Santa Fe Institute people), as well as from Krugman and some other trade theorists:
“By treating the world trade network as an evolving system, theory predicts the trade network is more sensitive to evolutionary shocks and recovers more slowly from them now than it did 40 years ago, due to structural changes in the world trade network induced by globalization,” the authors state.

The concept of modularity, which in biology refers to a structure that is part of a larger system but can function on its own, is key to their findings. In evolutionary theory increased modularity leads to more complexity, and a greater ability to withstand shocks. But globalization has decreased modularity in world trade and led to a more homogeneous structure, leading to deeper recessions and longer recoveries.

The blog also notes an IMF paper that has said essentially the same thing - I'm sure the references in there have other examples.

- Michael Hirschorn has an article on the role that the internet plays in political objectivity - the echo chamber effect, essentially. People read things that confirm their priors and essentially feel at liberty to make up their own facts.

- Evan points me to a post by theologian he follows, Adam Kotsko, on the notion of "affordability". The comment section gets into some post-Keynesian/MMT talk about the illusion of affordability as well. It's of the "if you can afford a massive military you can afford to fund the humanities" variety. I have a comment in the comments section noting that the narrative isn't quite that clean. While the military does make up a large share of the budget, the affordability "crisis" is a medium to long-term crisis, and the major culprit is Medicare, not the military. Still - always good to see other bloggers thinking about this. Kotsko will occasionally try his hand at some economics posting.


  1. Well, for a number of reasons, we can't really "afford" a massive military. Large, permanent militaries are invariably a bane to republics, as is a welfare state.

    On the internet and ideological segregation, Gentzkow and Shapiro find the following:

    "We find that ideological segregation of online news consumption is low in absolute terms, higher than the segregation of most offline news consumption, and significantly lower than the segregation of face-to-face interactions with neighbors, co-workers, or family members. We find no evidence that the Internet is becoming more segregated over time."


  2. I'm not quite sure that's the point the article was making, though. The point is that the internet does not have the effect of crowd-sourcing the task of discriminating between fact and fiction. What often happens is that people make up their own facts and promote them as truth.

    You're missing the point by highlighting the issue of "segregation" on the internet. I see people on Cafe Hayek, for instance, referencing Daily Kos all the time. I could count on my hands the number of times I've visited that site. People look at a variety of sites, and I'd bet more extreme people look at a wider variety of sites than less extreme people - the point is, what do they adopt as truth, and what happens when something is identified as pure fabrication. The author's argument - which I have no evidence for but it sounds plausible - is that when an alleged fact is identified as being false, the echo-chamber websites don't even register it. That's the point - it has nothing to do with whether you visit a variety of sites.

  3. "...the point is, what do they adopt as truth, and what happens when something is identified as pure fabrication."

    It is obvious what happens - the false claim is largely outed for what it is. Sure, a certain percentage of the population remains committed to the false idea (e.g., that Bush dodged military service, etc.) but they don't determine the real world outcome as a general rule.

    Anyway, the invention of facts has been around since the start of the republic*; it isn't unique to the internets and I have no idea why people are troubled over such things except for the fact that this is a "new technology" and that sort of troubles some sub-set of the population.

    *Witness the facts that Hamilton made up about Jefferson, and vice versa.

  4. I have no idea why people are troubled over such things except for the fact that this is a "new technology" and that sort of troubles some sub-set of the population

    Did you even read the article? I think you're distorting the argument again. Nobody is saying this is "new" (this gets back to my point about originality and Keynes... why are you so obsessed with a thing's novelty?) - they are comparing it to the period immediately prior to the internet and suggesting there is an uptick.

  5. The period prior to the internet is sort of an aberration in American history though. Remember, through the 1950s and 1960s there was a lot of discussion of how poor the political choices which the American public had - and much of this discussion was within the political science community, btw. In the 1970s and the 1980s things started to return to the norm of American history, and now we have fully arrived at that.

  6. Could you clarify - what does the poverty of political choices have to do with promoting facts as fiction?

  7. I skimmed the article; seemed to be full of a lot of hand wringing, etc. that is typical of stories about the advent of social media, blogs, etc. Oh, and there was the usual ... we just don't have enough of a counter-balance to this sort of thing angle. Rinse, repeat. I have been hearing similar stories about the internets since the advent of the internets. As a guy who has been on the internets since, hmmm, the late 1980s, I find the narrative to be rather boring and useless. After a lot of experience with this sorts of articles I am rather jaded about them.

  8. Daniel,

    When the political universe or ecology is more partisan - and thus more ideological and providing a more stark and thus useful choice - you're going to see more of this sort of thing. You're also going to see fewer backroom deals, etc. as well, and greater political transparency not because politicians are more transparent, but because their enemies are more motivated.

  9. You seem to confirm his point though. "It's jaded"/"I hear this all the time"/"it's useless".

    No actual attempt to demonstrate that his suspicion is wrong. No examples at all. You did produce one study, which was nice, but on a completely different topic.

    I'm not saying that everyone has to respond to everything that's out there in great detail - but it seems to me to have such a strong dismissive attitude to something that challenges your priors you oughta offer more than that. Or simply say "I would have thought differently but he makes a few points that are worth looking into". You strike me as exhibit A in the kind of phenomenon he's talking about.

  10. The study was directly on point actually; after all what Hirschorn is talking about here is in fact ideological segregation by looking at one aspect of it. I don't deny that it happens, I just don't think it is a big deal. It isn't that important.

    Anyway, when a sub-set of people make a broadly similar argument for thirty years and their predictions do not come true, well, I do not put much weight in the argument. I have been hearing this argument all of my adult life.

  11. Of course, there things regarding the internets to be concerned about: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/27/us/27wiretap.html

  12. Moving the subject (tenuously) back to evolution, there was a really great article in the NY Times yesterday about morality in primates, though it also went in a number of other directions:

    I highly recommend it to all.

    (For what's worth, I offered my own thoughts on the article here: http://goo.gl/Ag7L)

  13. Daniel, did you see this?


  14. I did indeed - thanks. Kate showed that to me. She doesn't like me talking economics at home, but she knows my buzzwords and forwards articles on to me when they've got Keynes in the title :)

    I'll probably blog on this tomorrow.

  15. The stimulus has been a good demonstration of the flawed nature of "Keynesian economics." We will overcome its many deleterious effects of course.


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