Beyond description

For the first two years of grad school, I TA’d in the Anthropology department for a professor that taught Japanese culture. While I had always been interested in Japan — my original plan in grad school was to study Japanese economic history — I was literally a day’s reading ahead of my students.

Anyway, the readings would drive me nuts. Each book opens with a preface or introduction talking about how important it is to study such and such minority group; that to truly understand Japan, we need to be able to empathize with the Monks on Mt. Haguro or whatever. It took me three or four books to realize that the authors wouldn’t actually support this claim in any way. Instead the book would be 200-300 pages of pure description with an off the cuff comment about the dominant culture or American cultural hegemony thrown in.

Bothered by this, I went to the professor and asked her about normative Anthropology. I introduced the topic by asking something like, “On what basis do Anthropologist compare one culture or sub-culture against another? How do they know that minority cultures are in some way better than dominate cultures?”

I don’t remember her exact reply, but it was something like, “there is no normative Anthropology, there’s only description.” This seemed implausible given the tone of the readings for the course, but I let it pass. Every discipline has its delusions (*ahem* rationality *ahem*); who am I to burst Anthropology’s bubble.

Well, gnxp, who often criticizes Anthropology, out of love I’m sure, says there is no positive Anthropology either. Actually, I would say, there are theories in Anthropology, they’re just not written down. They swim around in Anthropologists heads, refracting observations into descriptions.

UPDATE: Just remembered this critique of Japanese Anthropology I wrote up a couple years ago.

Thinking on the margin is a binary decision

You either you do it or you don’t. Which is funny if you think about it.

Funny in the same, British humor, sort of way this post about dog poo is funny. Also, funny in the same way this post and these comments don’t get how funny the first post is.

If you get it ((Marginal thinking)), then you won’t get it ((The post isn’t about dog poo)), it seems.

GDP growth! Huh!

Good god y’all.
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing.
Say it again.

Or wait. Its good for something.

Maybe we economists should learn from those environmentalists and reframe the debate. GDP isn’t a measure of the amount of “stuff” we consume. This invokes a terrible image of an overweight American, driving their SUVs, stuffing the second pound of McDonald’s french fries down their throats (e.g. me circa six years ago).

Instead, GDP is a measure of our interconnectedness. A hundred years ago most families produced everything they consumed — food, clothes, entertainment, etc. Now most families buy those things in markets, growing measured GDP. We are all much more interdependent. As GDP grows, our community grows.

Best of all the interconnectedness has the neat side effect of making it possible for us to specialize. We each get to produce what we’re best at and most likely this means we specialize in producing those things we enjoy producing. Because each of us specializes, we each get more efficient and in the end we all create much more or much better goods and services.

Also, most of GDP growth is in services.

Source: BEA

Growth isn’t the production of more and more stuff, its increasing reliance of people on each other.

Learn some economics, be entertained…

here. YouNotSneaky is taking Max Sawicky to task. The insults are fun and they make the economics go down easier:

Okay, lemme explain slowly the concept of Pareto Efficiency here because folks is confused.

Suppose there’s a total of 100$ in the economy and two people, Meriadoc and Pippin. If all of that 100 bucks is in some way fully divided between the two, then regardless of who gets what, the outcome is said to be Pareto Efficient. Not fair. Not just. Just efficient. But suppose that only 80$ gets divided between Meriadoc and Pippin with, say, Mary getting 79$ and Pip getting 1$. The other 20$ just lies there on the sidewalk rotting. Then we have inefficiency. We could pick up the 20$ and give it to Pip, or give it to Mary or split it up between them two. Even if we give it all to Mary, so that now he’s got 99$ and Pip only 1$, assuming Pip and Mary don’t care about relative status, only more money, then we can all agree that (Mary=99, Pip=1) is “better” or, more precisely, “more efficient”, then (Mary=79, Pip=1). (If they do care about status or whatever, you can reformulate the problem in equivalent terms)

Of course we may care about income distribution, inequality and all those other things. But that comes later. The PO criteria just says, if there’s 20$ laying on the side, for goodness sake, pick it up and give it to someone, anyone. And that’s the attractive property that a “usual” S&D equilibrium has – no 20$ left lying around rotting.