I have another piece in the LA Review of Books, this time a review of Tyler Cowen’s book Stubborn Attachments.

The end blurb:

Stubborn Attachments is short and intentionally vague on many dimensions. Respecting human rights is an admirable pursuit, but what is the definition of human rights? At what point do income transfers become so excessive that they make immigration untenable? How exactly can we be sure to establish institutions that lead to higher sustainable economic growth? Cowen knows these are important questions but instead chooses to emphasize the need to rethink our big-picture goals. How we get there is still up for debate, but Stubborn Attachmentspresents a compelling case for redefining our long-term priorities in favor of more sustained economic growth and a greater respect for human rights.


The persistence of history’s effects on economic growth is significant and remarkably robust to negative shocks.

A paper by Comin, Easterly, and Gong asks the question “Was the wealth of nations determined in 1000 B.C.?” The paper looks at the relationship between the technology available in various regions in 1000 BC, 1500 A.D., and levels of per capita income today. Their findings suggest that history from three thousand years ago can be a strong predictor of economic standards of living today. The results are even stronger for the connection between 1500 AD and contemporary per capita incomes. These two chosen periods of time are picked as a way to tease out the impacts of industrialization and colonization, two massive forces prone to cause noise in the analysis. In a pre-explorer world with very little long-distance trade and very high isolation, the math of compound economic growth suggests, as the paper writes, “those who started out ahead would be even further ahead in both population and income today.” Further evidence from Nunn and Wantchekon (2011) shows that areas of Africa with higher participation in the slave trade centuries ago still suffer from lower levels of trust.

The larger question I think this idea begs is how persistent certain X-factors of economic growth can be throughout time. Economists theorize about factors like institutional quality, levels of trust, culture, access to trade, and natural resource environment, among many others, as the catalyzing “ingredients” for economic growth. However difficult it may be to nail down what these x-factor ingredients are, evidence suggests that the x-factors can survive massive external forces.

All areas started out as poor at one point. What made countries that initially escaped economic misery centuries ago in northwest Europe rich was the subject matter of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Of course many other countries have since followed suit, with the East Asian Tigers rising up to “Western” levels of wealth, and so-called emerging market economies realizing double digit economic growth. The exact recipe for a country to grow is debatable and varies across countries, but as a country finds this special recipe for economic growth, it’s nearly impossible for it to regress. Some countries may stagnate or exhaust their potential for a period of time. But only one country – Argentina – was considered high-income a century ago and middle-income today.

Think of the dramatic events that can happen that would seem to shake the x-factors out of its crucial hold. Political upheaval leading to “failed states,” a currency or financial crisis that breaks the economy, a civil war that breaks social fabric and kills millions of people. Surely, these would reset the conditions needed for economic growth?

While watching the great Babylon Berlin television show, I’m drawn to the powerful example of Weimar Germany – the country’s history between the two world wars. Consider what happened in Germany after 1913: first, the country led the losing side of a world war that killed 60-80 thousand of its soldiers and was fought partially in its backyard; then, experiencing massive sovereign debt and unable to reach any stability, the country entered a debilitating economic depression and accompanying hyperinflation that ravaged any sense of social fabric and functioning economy; then, Hitler took power and… you know this part of the story; then, the country was rebuilt in significant part by Turkish immigrants because so many German men had died; then the country was physically divided by a wall for the almost-45 years after WW2 ended, governed on one side by social democracy and the other by Soviet proxy rule. The tumult, uncertainty, constant mindless death, identity struggles, ripe distrust, and sheer hopelessness seem like overwhelming forces that would keep the country poor for a long time. Yet ten years after the Wall falls, the country is the de facto leader of the European Union, hosts the European Central Bank, and today has a top 5 economy in the world.


Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany


There seems to be an implied “potential” GDP per capital level in Germany that was able to sustain itself throughout that near-century of struggle. Countries with less conflict and instability were poorer than Germany in 1913 and continue to be today. Very few Germans were alive before World War I that saw the transition into the euro currency on January 1, 1999. So what characteristic is it that Germany kept during the 1913-1989 period that allowed its potential standard of living to stay the same? The formal governmental institutions have changed dramatically, the demographic makeup has changed, and the surrounding world is entirely different. The physical geography has remained relatively constant, but this is not the underlying reason Germany is the 5th richest economy in the world today.

“Culture” is a squishy catch-all term that some social scientists like to use as the significant explanatory variable in economic growth. It could be a “Protestant work ethic” or the entrepreneurial spirit of diasporas like the Murid sect of Islam that explain why some groups are rich and others poor. If this is so, is culture really that persistent – and robust to so many outside forces – that it withstands the strongest winds of history?

Another set of evidence comes from Alexander de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. de Tocqueville was writing in the 1830s as a Frenchman describing what made America so different than its European counterparts. There’s a question about how accurate his descriptions were for the time, but he notes cultural differences between the regions of New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern colonies in his chapter “Origin of the Anglo-Americans.” His analysis is apt to ascribe contemporary differences as being borne out of differences set centuries before. For example, compared to England settlers, “the men sent to Virginia were seekers of gold, adventures, without resources and without character, whose turbulent and restless spirit endangered the infant colony.” Remarking on the lasting impact of of slavery in the South:

[slavery] was the main circumstance which has exercised so prodigious an influence on the character, laws, and all the future prospects of the South…it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance, and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.

The areas were settled under slightly different circumstances and by slightly different groups that determined the nature of their political institutions and cultures. Remember, the settlement of these places by European pilgrims was centuries before – yet in his eyes, the differences persisted to that day. Even now, many of his descriptions of the regions ring true, at least to our intuitive sides – whether it be the individualism on the frontier or the commitment to localized governance. What’s striking is the strength of this persistence. The quality and type of institutions and culture that were set up at square one had such strong path-dependence that all of the coinciding forces that one would assume would “reset” the environments were in reality unable to change.

Perhaps revolutions can reset these environments. But do political revolutions change what we might believe to be the crucial x-factors conducive to economic growth?De Tocqueville also believed the American Revolution to be borne out of an ethos present at initial settlement, “the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, which had been nurtured in the townships and municipalities, [that] took possession of the State.” Maybe cultural revolutions – that at least claim to change the underlying social fabric of a nation – reset and redefine these conditions. But what are examples of true cultural revolutions? Did Mao’s gruesome one really change thousands of years of history for the Chinese people? Maybe on the surface, but I’m unconvinced it was a “reset” in the way meaningful to economic potential.


Alexander de Tocqueville

But the vast majority of Americans are not children of Puritans, at least in the biological sense. Today, German is the most common ethnic group in the United States. And, importantly for this analysis, New England is now dominated by non-English people. Over 37% of New York City residents are foreign-born. In fact, every region has had its demographic makeup totally shaken up and redefined with each new wave of immigration and cross-mating of ethnicities and religions. If different groups are assumed to have a “culture” or “work ethic,” did the newcomers to these regions adopt the local customs rather than modify the regions to be more like their homelands? Compared to Germany’s 20th century, which has seen a nontrivial amount of inward migration, America’s demographic makeup has changed even more.

Yet the regions of the United States, as far as I can tell, are not defined by the Native American tribes that resided there pre-colonization. It could be that the newcomer migrants, unlike the original colonizers that wiped out the native population, never arrived in a critical enough mass to totally redefine the areas they moved into. Instead, their relatively small numbers meant they had no choice but to assimilate to the pre-existing norms, cultures, and customs of their destination. This usually meant they added their own flavor with a nod to their homeland, but it wasn’t a total reset.

So did the governments that were set up in Plymouth or Jamestown or the Pascua Florida peninsula in the 1500s – seemingly arbitrary and highly fungible at the time – define the destiny of these areas nearly five hundred years later? Does this mean that America’s national fabric – struggling to find itself amidst contemporary politics – will continue on relatively unscathed? The past shows that underlying cultural x-factors can have an incredible amount of resilience.

Check out my latest post at Novel Stance about how economists need to incorporate sympathy more into their models. Here’s a bit:

Economic models’ overreliance on rational self-interest as the basis of human nature made their conclusions appear selfish and out of touch with reality. By not embracing a more nuanced view of human nature, economists lack a full understanding of how people behave and risk losing more credibility with the general public.

Read the whole thing here.

What follows is the second installment in a long-overdue series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.” The first post for the titular track can be found here. Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by the first section and chapter of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Of the many misunderstandings of Adam Smith’s work, the idea that Smith saw humans as being motivated entirely by rational self-interest is the one that looms largest. The robotic Homo Economicus model of human nature so dominant in modern economic theory is far from how Smith explained human behavior. The first song on Silent Revolution, called “Fellow-Feeling,” invokes his idea that the basis of human behavior is not in rational utility maximization, but rather sympathetic fellow-feeling and a desire to share in the sentiments of others.

The first of Smith’s two books, Theory of Moral Sentiments, starts with this:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principals in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others…for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane…

A few things to emphasize here: 1) as selfish as we may appear to be and often can be, we exhibit behavior suggesting we are interested in the well-being of others ; 2) there is universality in his analysis (“by no means confined to the virtuous and human”). Smith was writing specifically in contrast to David Hume and Bernard Mandeville‘s writings that took more of a utility maximization perspective. People’s tendencies to exhibit altruistic, sympathetic, or ethical behavior could be viewed through a redefined utility function, they argued. In other words, we are nice to each other and follow rules because it’s in our best interest. Smith is not convinced. He gives a number of examples where we put ourselves in the shoes of others, with no discernible self-interest or rational calculation.

When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm…the mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies…persons of delicate fibers and a weak constitution of body complain, that in looking on the sores and ulcers which are exposed by beggars in the streets, they are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation…

As another example, consider instances where we cry while watching movies. Our tears will not help the characters in the movie and the characters are often fictional and/or experiencing fictional events; there can be no explanation for our tears being out of expected reciprocity or benefit to anyone. So what gives? Smith would say our impulse towards fellow-feeling has put ourselves in the shoes of the characters concerned, and though we cannot feel exactly as they do, we respond as if it were happening – in part – to us. In his examples, seeing someone about to be hit, struggling for balance on a tight rope, or experiencing severe discomfort from homelessness, our reaction is so instantaneous that it’s hard to imagine it being the result of a rational calculation or perceived personal benefit.

This tendency towards sympathetic fellow-feeling not only governs our behavior, it is the basis for explaining what we truly desire. Rather than pursuing a straightforward utilitarian life of wealth, fame, and prosperity, what we seek is for others to share our sentiments. We want them to understand how we feel, like what we like, and – more importantly – dislike what we dislike. We can all relate to the giddiness of sharing with friends works of art that we enjoy. Knowing that they enjoy it as we do gives us a deep pleasure.

A man is mortified when, after having endeavoured to divert the company, he looks around and sees that nobody laughs at his jests but himself…When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion…But both the pleasure and the pain are always felt so instantaneously, and often upon such frivolous occasions, that it seems evident that neither of them can be derived from any such self-interested consideration.

Similarly, when our friends dislike people or things that we disliked, we are even more pleased (more on this in the future). To me, Smith believes that the deep pursuit of our lives is to feel we are correctly understood by the peers we care about, and to be worthy of accompanying praise.

Nestled towards the end of this section in TMS is a quick teaser on how Smith explains our ethical behavior.

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave…It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.

Through the mechanism of fellow-feeling, Smith says we put ourselves in the position of those we see that are dead and think “wow, that would really be a bummer to be that guy.” Again, mourning for someone that’s dead – especially one in fiction or someone you don’t know halfway across the world – cannot be explained through the lens of rational self-interest. Your tears cannot bring them back to life, being sad does not benefit you, and crying for a fictional character should have no real effect on your well-being. But from this tendency to sympathize with the dead, we refrain from killing each other and are given “the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind.” By understanding as best we can what it feels like to be dead – in the cold, dark grave, never again able to experience the pleasures of life – we aim to never put anyone in that situation nor put ourselves in that situation anytime soon.

So why can we sometimes be unethical? Aren’t there limits to our fellow-feeling? How does this square with the view of human nature found in Wealth of Nations and the market economy? Answers to all of that coming up later in this series!


The complete lyrics to “Fellow-Feeling”:

So I mourn for the dead, though they cannot hear my cries
What good is it unnoticed, what good is it to try
From that fear of cold and darkness, when imagined in that grave
Give power to restrain the injustice of mankind

The fortune of others, as I conceive
Not just the virtuous, or humane
However selfish that I may seem
Derive his sorrow
Though at ease I cannot feel his pain, imagination puts me in his place

The stroke is aimed (I shrink back) upon his arm
The beggar on the street, ulcers and sores
On the slackrope (I twist) the dancer writhes
Only conception
Yet enough to cause me that unease, the robust and feeble feel it too

To share the amusement of a book or a poem
And to enter in their sentiments just as if they were our own
The mortification when we jest and no one joins,
Feels so instantaneous that it cannot be self-love


P.S. here’s a selfie I took by the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh last week


Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Donald, and on and on and on. There can no longer be any doubt about the existence of male privilege and how it breeds sexual entitlement. Something has to change.

The obvious answer for men on the individual level is to call out instances of misogyny and loudly condemn any sexual assault within our own immediate vicinity (in addition to not being a pig). But what to do on a systemic level? A lot of the commentary coming out now casually connects misogynist culture with some notion of capitalism, but it’s not clear to me what role the American economic system plays in all this.

[Anyone who has ever read this blog knows my sympathies to the market economy, though I’ll admit it’s not perfect and there can always be productive tinkering.]

Capitalism, in most real world manifestations of the word, allocates resources based on consumers’ preferences. When inequality is such as it is in the United States, rich people’s preferences are overrepresented massively because consumption is a function of income. If the consumers’ dollar is their vote, people with more dollars have a lot more votes. Money is power and I don’t think this is up for debate. In this sense, movies will be made that reflect men’s view of the opposite gender because they write the checks for the movies to be made and have more money to spend on movie tickets. If those with more money don’t want to see football players kneeling in social protest, then the profit-maximizing action for the NFL is to make a rule disallowing kneeling during the national anthem. Essentially, a capitalist system will shake out to reflect the interests of those with money and power, even if those interests are discriminatory and completely exploitative like in the case of Harvey Weinstein. Under these scenarios, I admit, the market economy is a system that rewards and perpetuates unethical behavior. [Not all corporate behavior is done under profit-maximizing conditions, however.]

On the other hand, I’m cognizant of arguments that show the market economy as being a force for good in this debate. Money talks, but this can go both ways. Bill O’Reilly was effectively forced out from Fox News because advertisers were boycotting. They didn’t want to be associated with such a vulgar human being. Were their decisions based on ethics, or just avoiding bad PR? Either way, the boycott worked. Similarly, Harvey Weinstein was forced out from his own company and seemingly blacklisted from the entire industry. Compare this to the President: his first wife alleged marital rape, he’s had countless sexual assault allegations, and the Access Hollywood tape was a smoking gun showing what kind of person he is. But he’s still in power. He’s not the only politician or person in government to retain their position after doing terrible things. We can all choose to support companies that we think are ethical and not use our dollar votes to support unethical ones, yet we are all bound to pay taxes to the same government.

So then I wonder: Under what circumstances do market forces punish men for this behavior better than the democratic process? It’s easy to look at the very real faults of a consumer-driven market economy and see an alternate system based on public control as the antidote. But if culture is the real problem, a new economic system might not make much of a difference. In fact, high-quality legislation from the democratic process could be disappointingly ineffective if the underlying culture is so engrained. If you think of different countries around the world with less ‘capitalist’ economies, how much of an improvement is there? For European countries that boast higher female participation in corporate boardrooms or the legislature, was it because of their culture or some sort of tinkering in how their economy is structured? I’m skeptical that replacing the current US economic system with, say, a full-on Bernie Sanders system will improve much. A sexist culture will still put sexist men in charge, though often we assume the right democratic outcome weeds them out.

The economy is not always a zero-sum game. We can both be better off without it coming at the expense of someone else. But power is a zero-sum game. So the asymmetric power of men, reenforced by their asymmetric holdings of money and connections, does come at the expense of women. Closing this power gap absolutely needs to be a policy priority, but more importantly it must be a cultural priority. Market forces should be used in tandem with legislation and the democratic process; anyone suggesting only markets or only a new economic system will cause the change which we would like to see should rethink their approach.

Three new podcast episodes, starting with most recent:

  1. 2002 Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith talks about his work in experimental economics and how Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments influenced his work.
  2. Dan Hirschman of Brown University discusses “stylized facts” and their role in the process that takes ideas from academia to public policy, specifically inequality.
  3. Nell Compernolle of the University of Michigan tells the migration story of Nepalese men and its impact on marital attitudes.

Lots more episodes coming soon, hopefully. If you know anyone that would be interested in being interviewed, let me know!

New podcast episode finally out. I interviewed Carson about The Ethics of Locavorism. Essentially, the question is: if we want to be ethical consumers, should locavorism be a priority in our consumption habits? I won’t spoil the answer, but we examine the case for locavorism through the environmental lens, economic lens, and trying to foster communities. Find the RSS feed here, iTunes here.