Monday, September 16, 2013

The three "modern Malthusians" I am thinking I'll talk about briefly tomorrow...

...any thoughts?

Amartya Sen - famines as a consequence of social structure rather than absolute underproduction of food (which is Malthus's view too - that was the origin of my last post. He considers the other checks so effective that he says that famines only emerge as a result of inequality and the lower classes living so close to the subsistence line and makes the point that famines rarely affect the upper classes when they do happen - so it's not that there is not enough food per se but the nature of the class structure. It's not exactly Sen's explanation but it's along the same lines).

Oded Galor - endogenous fertility models.

Casey Mulligan - incentive effects of welfare payments.

The idea, for those of you that haven't read what I'm trying to do with this class before, is to try to get them to understand connections between old and modern research agendas and the continuity and evolution of economic thought. We talk a lot about what's the same and what's different in these arguments and the older ones, particularly focusing on the impact of theoretical changes over time (for example, how does the introduction of marginalism make "modern Smithians" different from Smith himself).

They've never encountered most of these modern economists before (based on polling of the class I do when I bring them up), so it's also a nice way to familiarize them with the lay of the land.

So far we've talked very briefly about Stiglitz, Stigler, and Coase, and more extensively about Krugman, Romer, Arrow, and Vernon Smith. These three will get brief treatment (probably ten minutes in total) at the end of the class tomorrow.

I may drop Mulligan - I'm not sure. He's kind of a stand-in because everyone thinks welfare has behavioral responses. He's just a great example of that work. But I think it's nice to show the diversity of economists and perspectives that represent the Malthusian research agenda today.


  1. I'm not sure whether A.K. Sen can be classified as a modern Malthusian, but I don't know his work well enough to comment on that particular aspect. I also don't know about the other two scholars' works to say whether they are modern Malthusians or not.

    However Daniel, have you ever heard of an economic historian by the name of Gregory Clark? He apparently has some inclinations toward Malthusianism.

  2. Not sure if you'd qualify it as 'Malthusian,' but the infamous Donohue-Levitt abortion & crime paper might be a good choice to replace Mulligan. It's maybe a little more in line with the other two (in talking about social effects of fertility), and at this point everyone's read Freakonomics so it's (unfortunately) one of the few studies that your class might already know about.

    1. Oooh - that's a good one. Malthus has some good lines about how high fertility leads to other "vice" and "misery", so this is quite Malthusian. This is one of those cases where I need to phrase the bullet points very carefully.

  3. Pseudonymous's suggestion is a goodie.

    In a similar vein, and though he was not an economist and might not even qualify as "modern" for that matter, Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" remains the classic economic metaphor for common-pool resources.

    Of course, Hardin's essay is overridingly Malthusian in nature. Interestingly though, the key (Malthusian) point that he was making is often lost against the broader imagery that he brought to the discussion. That is, individuals would have to concede particular "freedoms" (the right to have as many children as they want) in order to preserve other freedoms (the right to a productive and clean environment).

    "To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action."

    1. PS - DK, I know that you're very familiar with all this, but Tim Harford had a nice essay on Hardin and Elinor Ostrom in the FT recently. See here.

  4. Your thoughts about Janet Yellen,

  5. Although it's too late now, I still stand by my suggestion of Gregory Clark, Daniel Kuehn. Here's his official website.

  6. Sen as a Malthusian... sorry I don't see it. Any similarities appear to be coincidental and tend to point in the other directions (in terms of policy recommendations, causality etc). They both just happen to use the word "famine" in their writings a good bit. Are there any specific works/passages/parts of Sen that you have in mind here? Or specific parts of Malthus' Essay that are reminiscent of Sen?

    As an aside, the stuff about famines, war and epidemics is probably some of the weakest in the Essay. Well, I guess some argument can be made (and Malthus partly makes it) that epidemics are somewhat endogenous. The rest is just tacked on as a form of scare mongering. There's also some fairly basic logical mistakes with regard to the whole social structure and income redistribution. Remember that Malthus doesn't just say that redistributing income to the poor will fail to help them. He over stretches and says it will actually hurt them! Aside from the fact that contradicts his description of how his forces actually operate, that also doesn't sound very Sen-like.

    There are actually a lot of Malthusians (NOT to be confused with the "neo-Malthusians) among Economic Historians (Ron Lee and Nick Crafts at least to some extent) and even regular historians (although I haven't checked in with the history literature in some time)


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.