Why are there so many ignoramuses in political theory? A rational choice perspective.

July 10, 2012 at 5:26 am (Oh the humanities!, Price theory)

I discovered a “ranking” of the upcoming stars in political theory today, as ranked by a collection of over a thousand political theorists in Moore’s Political Theory Today: Results of a National Survey. Out of sheer boredom, I went through the works of perhaps twenty or so, reading their biographical details, education, main publications and notable ideas. I would categorize these political theorists mainly into three similarly sized groups:

1) Shameless demagogues who see academic research as another front in a larger political struggle. The young theorist in Chicago is a nice example.

2) People well-trained in the rhetoric and obscurantist techniques of political theory, but without a cogent argument, nor any basic understanding of political processes.

3) A minority of liberal theorists defending what the rest of us already know, with ever more arcane language and terminology that they themselves probably are uncomfortable with. (Free Market Fairness…)

If this is not enough of an evidence of the continued intellectual hollowness of the field, consider this: there are perhaps 25% of liberal theorists who consider the rest of the field to be a complete joke; and there are perhaps 25% Marxist/post-structuralist theorists who also consider the rest of the field to be a complete joke; and this has been the state of the discipline for roughly a hundred years. They can’t both be right, and it follows that at least 50% (you do the math) of the discipline is a complete joke and has been for a hundred years. That is not a sign of a healthy discipline.

So why is political theory such a mediocre field? Why do they seemingly not advance despite the mountains of contrary evidence against the relevance of Hegelian theory, the hollowness of ethics, the irrelevance of moral philosophy without an analytic foundation? How can they proceed so comfortably in their theorizing even as the rest of the discipline (political science) moves further and further away?

C.P. Snow, and later Krugman, refers to this fundamental divide as a difference of “culture” – the culture of nerds and the culture of the literary intellectuals. But I think the difference in culture is merely the result of something more fundamental – a difference in incentives. A personal anecdote would be illustrative here. When I was in my first English class in college, which was taught from a heavily postmodernist perspective, I managed to convince myself that the various vices commonly associated with postmodernist writing – the use of obscurantist terminology, the use of namedropping, analogies and anecdotes as proof, the avoidance of any clear argument or direction, and the general lack of rigor and preciseness – as, indeed, virtues. If they’re not, how else could I have any faith left in the “elders” of the literary tradition that I was eagerly following? And more pertinently, if I do not pretend that postmodernist writing is rigorous and useful, how do I bring myself to conjure up the 8 paged, double spaced essays that I desperately need for a good grade in the course?

After I abstained myself from (or rather, was yanked away from) the literary tradition and switched to economics through the influence of some brilliant minds, I found it pretty obvious, in retrospect, how silly it all was. And I think any reasonably educated and astute mind – once he suspends his faith in the intellectual authority of some literary academics for a moment – can easily recognize after some serious reading and thinking that there is little value in postmodernism, or the poststructuralist tradition, or more specifically deconstructionism. The key thing I want to point out here is that there really is no culture. Culture is persistent, unchanging and, in the short term, irrational. Yet it is possible for one to turn from an addict of postmodernism to a fervent critic of it merely in response to the changing of incentives.

So why do some disciplines seem to have such failing incentives? How do these incentives come by? It may be worthwhile to consider how some disciplines succeeded as a contrast. Economics and analytical philosophy are two disciplines that are widely regarded as successful, in the sense that they have managed to weather criticism, and in the case of economics, colonize other disciplines. A crucial common characteristic, I propose, is that both disciplines arose primarily in Anglo-Saxon countries, which have several cultural characteristics that influence the incentives of the academe:

  1. The Anglo-Saxon academe is highly reverent of positivism and the natural sciences
  2. The Anglo-Saxon and especially American public tends to be critical or skeptical of authority and elites
  3. The Anglo-Saxon countries were relatively unaffected by the Second World War, and thus are less prone to political radicalism in its aftermath

The combination of these factors, I think, are why economics and philosophy both had an analytic turn in the first half of the 20th century. In economics, this is what critics justifiably deride as “physics envy”; an obsession with putting everything into neat mathematical models and equations, and an eventual complete rejection of all non-mathematical research (in stark contrast to the early 20th century, when mathematical economics was a fringe, suppressed field). This was necessary both to gain some credibility in the public, especially among bureaucrats and the business elite; and as a reaction against the rapid turn to Marxism in the continental academe. I think, in retrospect, it would be fair to credit much of the modern relevance and rigor of economics – especially compared to other social sciences – with this (in the context of the global intellectual culture) rather accidental quantification of economics.

-t.b.c.

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Freedom in markets and freedom in the academia

June 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm (Information, Oh the humanities!, Price theory)

Here’s one curious phenomenon: The vast majority of those academics who spend careers studying market failures and how government intervention can correct them (by this I don’t mean only economists speaking in the language of economics, but any social scientist implicitly arguing for a role in public planning and regulation in controlling markets) are also vehemently against public control of a market that is probably the most prone to the pursuits of self-interest at the expense of others (i.e. failures to internalize costs) – the academic market.

I don’t mean the generation of ideas in the broad sense. I mean the system with which we generate, debate and publicize those ideas in most developed countries, through the research university system and in the form of publications, lectures and conferences. If we were to analyze it as a market – with society (including other academics) purchasing knowledge from academics in return for salary, social status, and reputation – it is a very peculiar market indeed. There are several characteristics that seem to define the academic market:

1. Extreme difficulty in measuring output and productivity, especially in the short-run and outside of the sciences.

2. An almost complete inability to internalize costs. Having bad ideas doesn’t hurt you – look how well our sociologists and anthropologists are doing.

3. Conflation with several other markets – in the sense that society does not only demand knowledge (in the narrow sense of useful, relevant information about society or the physical world) but also entertainment, grading, political ammunition and other goods from academics.

It suffices to say that there is great potential for market failures among academics, the most pertinent of which is probably the incentive for academics to peddle nonsense in place of actual knowledge. Any honest scholar who has bothered to examine the last 30 years of postmodernist research in the humanities surely will not disagree that such market failures exist.

In a sense, “intellectual freedom” is a specific case of “free markets”; if we are so eager to impose our restrictions on badly functioning markets, then why is it considered taboo to even speak of limiting intellectual freedom? Perhaps when one thinks of intellectual freedom, one thinks of a young genius challenging an out-dated orthodoxy with daring conjectures; when one thinks of limits of intellectual freedom, one thinks of Giordano Bruno burning at the stake for questioning religious dogma.

It helps to think in terms of another perspective. Think of intellectual freedom as the struggling sociologist whose discipline is eroding in significance as it is gradually replaced by quantitative methods, and who has never had a knack for mathematics; he has no choice but to join the dying chorus of fellow sociologists decrying the “unrealistic” and “inhumanistic” nature of mathematical modelling, whatever merit these criticisms may have. And think of limits of intellectual freedom as a political adviser in the Medieval times, who is forced to provide useful and accurate analyses of each situation simply because his head will be cut off (by the enemies or by his own liege) if his advice turned out to be wrong.

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A few comments on Grade inflation

June 1, 2011 at 1:57 pm (Personal experiences, Price theory, Rochester)


One of the most unpleasant things I had to deal with while studying under the American system is grade inflation. I grew up studying for one of the most harshly curved exams in the world, in which usually less than 2% of students receive an A in each subject, and less than 7% receive a B (there is no +/-). The American system was obviously a drastic change for me. The first day I entered my American high school (for the senior year), I realized that I could receive an A with work that formerly only deserved an E. I was quite delighted for about twenty minutes before it dawned on me that the system is absolutely terrible, especially for students like me who only knew how to distinguish ourselves by our grades.

Steven Landsburg has an excellent article that says pretty much everything which needs to be said about grade inflation – why it exists and why it is horrible. Grades, he argues, are fundamentally a source of information to employers. With less distinction on the higher end of the curve, employers are not able to distinguish between the best and the slightly less great applicants. This makes it difficult to allocate work effectively in society and hence reduces productivity. He raises the example of a worker worth $40,000 and another worker worth $30,000 with a similar profile (let’s say they both get a 4.0 – the matter is more complicated but essentially the same once we introduce lower GPAs). Because the employer cannot distinguish between them, their average value drops from $35,000 to something like $32,000. While the lesser worker is quite content, the better worker ends up a lot worse.

As a student and as someone who has studied in an alternative system, there are two points I would like to add:

First, the focus is somewhat narrow. The biggest problem, I would argue, is probably not with the “demand” but with the “supply”. To be succinct, this is because students influence their own value as workers.  If employers cannot distinguish between the best and second-best students, the best students may choose to slack off (until they can barely, but still, get an A) and hence reduce their future productivity. Or, more optimistically, they may find other methods to set themselves apart besides studying for classes. These methods should also increase their future productivity (with the possible exception of socializing with professors), but are certainly not effectively as taking classes, or such methods of selection would have been adopted without grade inflation.*
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How NOT to be an environmentalist

May 31, 2011 at 11:57 am (Politics, Price theory)


Germany plans to completely abolish nuclear power in a decade. As always, the Greens have managed to do the single thing that will most contribute to global warming and pollute the environment at the same time. When the German industry can no longer rely on electricity generated by nuclear fission, they will turn to the second best option: coal. Note that nuclear power has not killed a single person for over two decades. Coal, on the other hand, claims the lives of tens of thousands of people in China every year, through mining incidents and lung disease. The problem, of course, is that Western countries only care about Third World livelihood when the unions tell them to.

As a few case studies have shown us, the problem with nuclear power is mostly an illusory one. When the leaders of a country have the sufficient courage and commitment to develop nuclear energy, its citizens eventually see that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Hence why the French (who have relied almost exclusively on nuclear power for three decades) are still highly favorable towards nuclear energy, despite years of incessant propaganda from competitors in the energy sector. Let me end with one of my favorite quotes from Professor Steven Landsburg:

“…I am frankly a lot more worried about my daughter’s becoming an environmentalist than about her becoming a Christian…we face no current threat of having Christianity imposed on us by petty tyrants; the same can not be said of environmentalism. My county government never tried to send me a New Testament, but it did send me a recycling bin…”

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