Finished Fiddlers and Whores: The Candid Memoirs of a Surgeon in Nelson's Fleet . A bit like a real life Dr Maturin: it's an extended letter written by a surgeon to his brother, about his adventures over six years in the navy. Has some fascinating stuff there: accounts of battles, a shipwreck, being taken prisoner; plus quite a lot about escapades ashore.
The problem is that his actual diaries were lost in the shipwreck, so this is all reconstruction after the fact, and frustratingly lacking in detail sometimes. Does mean it's pretty short though. Worth looking out for if you like Patrick O'Brian or are interested in the period.
Finished the Early Middle Ages course mentioned here. Not bad, but events towards the end are a lot less interesting than the beginning in the late Roman empire.
Just started another one: an anthropology introduction called Peoples and Cultures of the World by Edward Fischer. Only three lectures in, but not getting much out of it. Haven't learned much I didn't already know; and the way Fischer describes the subject makes anthropology seem more like stamp-collecting than science. He's very keen on saying that anthropologists must reason inductively, and draw theories from their research rather than research to find out if their theories are true. If you can't draw any systematic conclusions though, the whole thing seems a bit like a pointless collection of anecdotes.
What I'm Reading 2
Nearly halfway through Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. Reads much like some of the novels in Robert Rankin's interminable Brentford series. Also suffers from a blandly generic central character: yet another wimp trying to find his confidence.
Not actually that bad though, just a bit too cutesy and a bit too familiar.
Went to see the excellent Crossfire Christian Marclay exhibition at White Cube. Well, the comic extracts were pretty mediocre, but there's a great video installation: you stand in a room with four wall-sized screens while a gunfight montage scene plays out on each, with loud sound. Does very well at pointing out the conventions of it, by cutting them all together, like there's about ten seconds of the rolling-across-the-floor-shooting move, but from a dozen different movies. The whole thing also follows the traditional dramatic structure, too. At the start there's about a minute of cocking revolvers, snapping shotguns shut, sliding magazines into assault rifles, working the slides on semi-automatic pistols. Then it goes into dramatic looking-down-the-gun-barrel shots, then the actual fight starts, and after mass mayhem it peters out into the individual gunshot bits as the hero and villain of each movie duel it out.
Well worth seeing if you're in the area.
There's an argument that I see on Metafilter a lot. It basically goes that the common assumptions made in simple economic models, such as perfect competition, job switching being easy, rational actors, are wrong. So far, so good. However, the arguer usually then goes on to imply that therefore traditional socialism and protectionism are right. I've can't really see that link.
They seem to talk disparagingly about "simple models". This seems to imply that they have their own, more complex models, which justify command economies, protectionism and so on. So, where are these complex models? Can someone link to them?
In some cases, they seem to imply that economies are somehow impossible to model at all. But if so, surely since they're making economic claims, there must be some kind of empirical evidence behind their claims instead. Examples could be systematic studies of a group of nations that have liberalized or restricted their trading policies. Are there such studies which suggest protectionism is a good thing?
Returning to theory, here are some of the "simple assumptions" mentioned in the thread as unrealistic, and what I think happens when you start factoring in the complexities.
- People switching jobs from one industry to another easily
Now that is definitely a serious issue. If an economy rapidly switches from isolation to trade, there can be serious dislocation in the short term.
However, that does not change the long-term result of trade. It's an good argument for slowing down globalization. However it is not an argument for stopping globalization.
Moreover, in the thread above, this appears to be being used as an argument to reverse globalization. The chief example given in that thread, the "muffin" example, urges an industrialized nation to isolate itself from trade in order to boost employment. In that case, to avoid the short-term pain, we should maintain free trade.
- Prices being set through perfect competition
Another good, realistic objection. In the real world competition is not perfect. But how does this affect the result?
Take the example of the cost of shipping, something missing from a simple model. This means that the profits of a firm exporting over a long distance will be reduced over exporting locally.
This is a reasonable argument. However, it does not imply that governments need to erect trade barriers to stop it happening: the reduced profits give the firm a disincentive already. Moreover it seems to be being used to argue that trade is actually harmful: but since companies don't want to trade at a loss, this is not the case.
- Agents being rational
This is definitely a strong topic of debate amongst economists. For example, it is argued with some evidence that people fail to take inflation into account in their financial decisions. People may also tend to save less for their retirement and spend more money in the short-term than is truly rational.
As such, the latter is a valid argument for some forms of central control over the economy. It can be argued that the government needs to coerce people to save a certain amount for their retirement.
However, it's not clear that this argument affects trade. It seems unlikely that consumers act differently-rational for imported goods than they do to domestically-produced goods.
For this argument to be valid, you need to look the specific ways people act irrationally, and whether state controls are necessary to correct them.
It seems more common though that the phrase "agents are not rational" is misunderstood to to mean a quasi-mystical statement than the human soul is beyond mere economic understanding. Stating that agents are not rational is not the same thing as stating that agents are not predictable.
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