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  1. Dissing "The Theory of Moral Sentiments": Twenty-Six Critics, from 1765 to 1949

    • I discovered something that is a maybe:
      Hugh Murray, Enquiries Historical and Moral, Respecting the Character of Nations, and the Progress of Society (Edinburgh, 1808).

      Of “the science which analyses the faculties of the human mind,” he writes:

      “The progress of this science accordingly, has been still slower than that of physics. It is only recently indeed that it has reached its <i>acme</i> of corruption, and has with difficulty found any sure ground on which to rest its foot.”

      For a couple of reasons, I think he might have Ed. 6 of TMS in mind as the acme of corruption.

      In the next paragraph he looks forward to the sciene’s “establishment on a firm and permanent foundation.”

      In the book he mentions (just once each, I believe) Kames, Hume, Ferguson, and Millar, but never Smith.

      He makes some remarks against conjectural history (167), the drift being that we should seek facts, not make things up.

      Several pages of his description of savages reminds one strongly of Smith, “death song”, etc. pp. 276ff.

    • 10 comments
    • First comment 11 Jun 2018 by Daniel Klein
    • Last comment 08 Aug 2019 by Daniel Klein
  2. Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables: A Zogby Survey of Americans

    • I enjoyed this article but I have a concern that the questions are not truly measuring “economic enlightenment”, but rather how readily individuals repeat the platitudes of their respective parties. A person who has little economic education could potentially appear to be economically enlightened simply by repeating the standard catch phrases of the Republican or Libertarian parties, without actually understanding the economic logic which makes their position correct. Is this person really enlightened?

      I agree with Mr. Potts that it is necessary to have some questions that would challenge the libertarian and conservative positions. Such questions might show that respondents answer correctly by and large when the answer conforms with their party’s standard phrasing.

      I may come to be a libertarian or conservative not through the process having thought through the results of various policies, but rather because I was born into a family that professed libertarian or conservative values. I may not know why rent control leads to housing shortages, I just know government intervention is bad (because that’s what I heard at the dinner table), and so I’m against rent control. This could explain the lack of correlation between enlightenment and education.

    • 6 comments
    • First comment 10 Jun 2010 by N. Joseph Potts
    • Last comment 16 Nov 2015 by wargames83
  3. Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists

    • The point has been made in preceding comments that Smith did not seem to discuss the virtues of faith and hope in TMS. As has also been noted, McCloskey’s defense of those two virtues in a secular setting of modern liberal society leaves much to be desired. I argue is that Smith was not a virtue ethicist in the Christian tradition but in the classical tradition.

      Before Christianity, ancient philosophers developed a set of four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. It was only later, particularly by Aquinas and the schoolmen, that the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity were added to make a set of seven virtues. McCloskey argues that Smith includes charity along with the four cardinal virtues in his system of ethics while leaving out faith and hope. I think a better reading of Smith is that he adopts the four cardinal virtues but treats charity (which he mostly calls benevolence) differently. In this way he is following the ancient tradition of the stoics more closely than the Christian tradition of Aquinas.

      Smith is clearly sympathetic to the ideas of the Stoics, though he argues they take their principles too far (TMS 272-293). We can see evidence of Smith’s stoicism in how he treats poverty and wealth, what he considers to be necessary for happiness, and how men should bear with misfortune or good fortune. In all these cases, it is the life of the mind, the tranquility of the soul, that is most important; not external circumstances. His description of how the beggar by the side of the road has the security that kings are fighting for is an argument for the superiority of philosophy, not material circumstances (see Thomas Martin’s forthcoming essay on Diogenes & Alexander the Great). All that being said, Smith does take exception to the stoic philosophy that men should not care one bit about their external circumstances (TMS 292). But his objection is a minor exception to only the strictest form of stoicism.

      TMS is filled with references to benevolence. Smith believes that benevolence is one of the key attributes of human sympathy as well as a praiseworthy motivation for action. He describes Nature and God as promoting the whole system of mankind for the purpose of universal benevolence. But Smith doesn’t think of benevolence as a virtue like he does fortitude or temperance. He criticizes moral systems that say benevolence is the only important virtue (Hutcheson), and he criticizes systems that suggest benevolence is irrelevant (Mandeville), but in his own system he treats benevolence as a goal, a good end; not a manner of behavior.

      McCloskey is right to argue that Smith was critical of one virtue systems, having a more complex and developed system of virtues himself. But I think she is wrong to focus on Aquinas and the seven virtues, minus two. Instead, a better reading of Smith considers how much he admired the ancients, not only the stoics but Plato and Aristotle too. It is from them that he takes the four cardinal virtues and incorporates them into his own views of why men have sympathy with each other and how they should live so as to be most happy and productive. Benevolence is the over-arching end, just as Plato talked about “the Good” or the stoics talked about the benevolence of God. It is not simply the most convenient of the three theological virtues that Smith adopted for his theory of moral sentiments.

    • 6 comments
    • First comment 22 Sep 2010 by Steve Kunath
    • Last comment 14 Nov 2012 by Todd Peckarsky
  4. Mankiw vs. DeLong and Krugman on the CEA’s Real GDP Forecasts in Early 2009: What Might a Time Series Econometrician Have Said?

  5. Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management

    • This article suffers from several flaws. First, the authors fail to make a compelling case for religion as a mechanism to avoid “silent risks.” The only case noted is debt, and a strict prohibition on debt might well prevent debt-related catastrophic failures, but given the centrality of credit and debt to the world economic system, this seems like a disproportionate “cure.” Furthermore, the authors give us no mechanism, other than perhaps the most stubborn conservatism, how religion per se actually would prevent silent risk.

      The most glaring problem, though, is that the authors fail to offer a good definition of religion. They point out that religion shares features of every social institution, i.e. intergenerational propagation of norms, but fail to adequately distinguish religious from secular institutions beyond mentioning the label “God.” But what do they actually mean by “God”? Their preamble is unhelpful: what precisely do they mean by “true religion” and “genuine spirituality”? The authors are silent.

      Finally, the authors insistence on the irrelevance of the epistemic basis of religion, indeed even of its truth, seems deeply problematic. Should we not try to understand how and why systems of ideas (i.e. ideologies) work and don’t work? Should we not make our best effort, albeit imperfectly, to base our worldview on truth? Is the understanding that some ideologies rest on obviously untrue beliefs about the world not at least raising an important problem? The authors’ handwaving away of epistemic analysis seems also in contrast to Taleb’s other work, which offers a sharp and perspicacious critique of the epistemic problems in science, and especially economics and political economy.

      I have a more thorough analysis on my blog: Religion as risk management

    • 5 comments
    • First comment 30 May 2014 by Tom Garnett
    • Last comment 15 Aug 2015 by G. Ashton
  6. Advanced Placement Economics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

    • Excellent article. I concur with Paul Johnson. Very sad that AP Economics includes so little real economics and so much of the bogus mechanistic/mathematical type.

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 25 Jan 2011 by Paul Johnson
    • Last comment 16 Mar 2011 by David B
  7. The Ideological Profile of Harvard University Press: Categorizing 494 Books Published 2000-2010

    • Quick question about cause and effect… I’m sympathetic to the argument here, and the social psychology literature demonstrates, quite well, that we read things more critically when they run counter to our own ideological perspectives, so clearly conservative books would have a more difficult time in the peer review process. However, I’m wondering if Harvard could defend its publication list by arguing that the number of conservative books published is actually proportional to the number of conservatives in academia. I’m noticing, for example, that some of the numbers here seem to mirror data about the number of conservatives in each discipline. So if field X is comprised of 10% conservatives, and 10% of HUP’s publications in that field fall right of center, couldn’t they argue that conservatives have the same chance of being published as liberals? Is there any way to see a sample of submissions and or rejections?
      April Kelly-Woessner

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 24 Jan 2011 by Hal Luft
    • Last comment 16 Feb 2011 by Milo Schield
  8. The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns

    • Constant’s speech discusses the tradeoffs that are imposed by the modern idea of individual liberty. In most representative governments today, individuals are left to make choices about how involved in the political process they chose to be. If Jack thinks that dedicating his afternoons to discussing policy is more costly than going to his job, he essentially outsources his political power—he votes (or chooses not to vote) and expects that his representative will act with similar interests to his own. The price that is paid for not censoring the public and not requiring full political participation (as was the practice of the liberty of the ancients) means that some people will, by choice, decide that their own private pursuits are more profitable. The profit Jack receives could simply be more time to spend engaging in discourse that is not political, it is not necessarily a monetary profit.

      The problem with trading political power for more individual liberty is that as more power is giving to legislators, they can exert more control over Jack’s individual pursuits, through regulation, taxation and other governmental controls. As an individual, he will find it more difficult to engage society in reforming these actions. A presumption of liberty needs to be maintained in the political sphere and also needs to be protected by legal rights of the individual. Otherwise, direct government involvement in the market process will begin to offset the betterment that Jack was pursuing in the first place by choosing a smaller amount of political power over his individual liberty.

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 15 Apr 2011 by Ariel Nerbovig
    • Last comment 06 May 2011 by Stephanie Myla Helmick
  9. Entrepreneurship and Islam: An Overview

    • Do any central banks apply Shari’ah principles to their market operations?

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 31 May 2014 by Eric Rasmusen
    • Last comment 03 Jun 2014 by Nathan W
  10. Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology

    • John Quiggin: Thanks for your comment on Pew. You have a good point about the importance of baseline numbers. Unfortunately the Pew survey is unclear as to who its survey respondents are. They indicate that they surveyed the membership of the American Assoc. for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS publishes journals, and it includes a large share of academics. Also, its membership includes many outside the hard sciences, specifically in the notorious field of psychology. Hence, the Pew survey isn’t useful as a baseline. I just finished a study in which I actually found a higher rate of D affiliation among hard scientists in elite liberal arts colleges than in the Pew survey, so there is something wrong with it. In fact. some of the past AAAS presidents have been psychologists. A good survey of nonacademic scientists would be a good baseline. When you find one, please let me know. Thanks. ML

    • 4 comments
    • First comment 02 Oct 2016 by John Quiggin
    • Last comment 17 Oct 2017 by Mitchell_Langbert
  11. Preference Falsification in the Economics Profession

    • While I agree with the overall point that Davis presents in the paper—that of preference falsification existing within the economics profession, I’m really wondering if the division into scholastic and public-discourse sections is nothing more than a division of labor, and as such should not be “changed” by the lay person. Granted, I’m not spending much time reading articles out of the top journals, because I honestly couldn’t understand the math anyway, but it seems likely that those articles get published, hopefully separating at least somewhat the wheat from the chaff, then some professor or researcher with good scholastic and nominal communication skills writes to other professors who have less scholastic and better communication skills, and then the Russ Roberts’ of the world apply the relevant research to public topics. If that flow of information could be possible, then the part that is self-referential, -validating, and -perpetuating is only the original publishing tier, while the professor/communicator levels are more and more responsive to the lay person’s choice (if it really is the lay person that should be choosing what is discussed, but that’s another question). It is probably always going to be true that the best researchers will not be the best communicators, though Davis’ paper seems to imply that the two orientations of the economics profession should be inhabited by the same person. While that sort of super-human-ness certainly is nice, it seems rare that one would be able to skillfully perform both roles, and so a revolution toward such a system would be attended by very few people.

      Now, one could say that a piece of work may become “less relevant” (and I think that is one of the main points here, that the profession/top journals are becoming less relevant) because it becomes less understandable to others, or because it becomes full of information that is not true. My ‘division of labor’ notion is based on the understanding that when Davis says on p. 363 “economic science has not improved its explanatory capacity of the last several years” and reports comments from survey-takers on p. 364 that the profession “fails to explain observable events,” “gain[s] an elegance of sorts but at the expense of relevance,” he is saying something about how more and more, in the top journals, there is high-theory/math-heavy work that is not understandable to the intelligent layperson (or the masters student). “People want to understand the economy, but we are not helping them.” That is; the top journals are not helping them. I think that that is a fine situation. If there is anything to be gained by model-production and heavy statistical analysis, then better mathematicians and scientists can produce those results, and other people can do a better job than they can in transmitting the results.

      If Davis and his respondents are stressing that not only has the top-tier journal become more incomprehensible, but more full of false or inconsequential information, and the preference falsification is supporting this propagation of nonsense, then obviously a view of the profession as division of labor would fall short, as the input stage is being fed by garbage. Davis doesn’t quite make clear whether the “less relevance” of the scholastic tradition is producing true and potentially useful data that is incomprehensible, or false and irrelevant data.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 21 Apr 2010 by Jon Goldstein
    • Last comment 22 Apr 2010 by Shawn Reed
  12. A Life among the Econ, Particularly at UCLA

    • On Bill Allen: One day, when I was an economics graduate student at UCLA, I was waiting for the Bunche Hall elevator. Prof. Allen was waiting as well. I didn’t know him, he had been on leave when I was an undergraduate. Waiting for the elevator, he was friendly and talkative. Afterwards, I asked someone who he was. When they told me he was an economics professor, I was surprised because he had been so friendly and nice!
      I enjoyed listening to the interview, thanks to all involved in putting it together.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 08 Sep 2010 by morrie goldman
    • Last comment 17 May 2011 by josil
  13. Individualism: True and False

    • Hayek does well to remind people of the true definition of individualism in his opening chapter. Many assume the common meaning of terms and concepts such as “individualism” without evaluating the meaning of the term or concept as it was used in a past age. However, Hayek does not seem to dive deep into the Bible to understand its methods or how they were supposed to work. He assumes that history has proven that biblical methods of economics do not work. He does acknowledge the usefulness of biblical principles, but does not see biblical methods as legitimate. Maybe the reason biblical methods have not worked is because governments and nations refuse to implement certain practices? Hayek does not take time to wonder what would happen if a Year of Jubilee was practiced. Finally, Hayek does not address biblical assumptions about man and how he works either. Men’s hearts are corrupt according to the Bible. Hence, greed and usury is prevalent. Hayek does a wonderful job of defining individualism, but makes too many assumptions about how the Bible should be used in regards to an economic system.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 22 Sep 2010 by Tony Quain
    • Last comment 10 May 2013 by Matt
  14. "The Two Faces of Adam Smith"

    • Vernon Smith seeks to solve the Adam Smith problem and reconcile what seem to be two inconsistent views of human nature in Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In Wealth of Nations, Smith’s invisible hand theorem proposes that it is not from benevolence, but rather “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” which drives our behavior (1776; 1909: 19-20). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith declares that there are “some principles in… [human] nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it” (1759; 1976: 9). Vernon Smith asserts that these two views are consistent if we recognize a “universal propensity for social exchange” (3). He proposes the following behavioral axiom: ““the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another,” where the objects of trade I will interpret to include not only goods, but also gifts, assistance, and favors out of sympathy, that is, “generosity, humanity, kindness, compassion, mutual friendship and esteem” (Smith 1759; 1976, p. 38)” (3). Vernon Smith then proceeds through historical, psychological, and experimental evidence to support this theory. Vernon Smith offers a very convincing and creative solution to the supposed Adam Smith problem. He makes crucial distinctions between reciprocated and non-reciprocated exchange. However, Vernon Smith seems to neglect the importance of non-reciprocated ethical behavior in Adam Smith’s work. Hanley (2010) elaborates on the distinctions between Adam Smith and Vernon Smith. He also points to divergences in opinion on intended beneficence and social vs. unsocial behavior. Vernon Smith asserts that Adam Smith’s explanation of beneficence is “utilitarian” and argues that it arises “from the expectation of reciprocal benefits” (17). This egoistic view of man may not fit neatly into Adam Smith’s conception which encompasses broader views on ethics and virtue.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 25 Apr 2011 by Echo Keif
    • Last comment 06 May 2011 by Steve Kunath
  15. Economic Enlightenment Revisited: New Results Again Find Little Relationship Between Education and Economic Enlightenment but Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse

    • I think many of the questions were worded in a way to elicit the wrong response. In a public policy discussion context I think there is an implicit “to a meaningful degree that in any way justifies the cost” modifier to be understood. If you add such a modifier appropriate to each question the answers become understandable. Conversely if you added “to any degree at all” or some such to each question I would guess you would get a different answer. People understand communication in context to make it make sense which results in their adding an impllicit modifier such as I mention.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 17 May 2011 by rihir akidan
    • Last comment 28 Apr 2012 by Moshe
  16. The Invisible Hand of Jupiter

    • I hope to add to, and hopefully not just echo, what Erik has already pointed out.

      It would seem that Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” allegory in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations is used to illustrate the edict of nature and society that direct economic activity. Whereas, in the History of Astronomy the “invisible hand” is used to explain the unexplainable— the events that are beyond the natural laws of the secular world. On the surface, the “invisible hand” reference takes on a slightly different connotation in the three Smith pieces mention above. In The Wealth of Nations it can be interpreted as the natural laws that manage markets and society; in The Theory of Moral Sentiments it can be seen as a divine set of universal rules directing a just and virtuous society; and, in the History of Astronomy it can take on the role of a divine authority overriding these rules and laws. I believe, as I deem Erik does, that the latter use of the “invisible hand” also shows up in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. Consider the following few lines from The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The rich…only consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life…had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants…”. Although “selfishness and rapacity” would seem to be characteristics that would not direct society in the way of justice or virtues, the industrious individual’s “natural” penchant to serve his own interest ultimately benefits society—the mean may not appear agreeable, but the end is. Is this “natural” penchant toward “selfishness and rapacity” not assumed to be put in place by a precocious, divine authority? It certainly can be interpreted that way. If we except that the “invisible hand” is the work of a higher authority, who has directed the butcher and the brewer to act in their own self interest, and who has provided society with nature ethics and virtues to govern themselves, and who makes it “lightening” and “thunder”, then the metaphor is consistent in all three of Smith’s works referenced above. Since this heavenly intention or intervention is not observable, Smith does not bother with a speculative explanation, simply calling it the “invisible hand”.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 15 Oct 2011 by Pavel Kuchař
    • Last comment 15 Nov 2012 by Francis Conlon
  17. Can ‘Religion’ Enrich ‘Economics’?

    • I do not share Eric’s confidence in perfectly and justly adminsitered providence.

      If we want things to be better on earth, I do not think we should wait for providence. We may have to wait for a very long time, and poor, starving and vulnerable populations worldwide need out compassion and support today, not whenever providence thinks it is time to do it.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 30 May 2014 by Eric Rasmusen
    • Last comment 10 Jun 2014 by Nathan W
  18. Education Premiums in Cambodia: Dummy Variables Revisited and Recent Data

    • Thanks for your comment Ronald.

      You give me too much credit. The approach I used was not my technique, but the conventional approach used in the literature.

      As it happens, I agree with you that the conventional approach to reporting education level premiums can be misleading. I’ve made the same point elsewhere. Unfortunately for you and I… if we want to make comparisons with other estimates around the world or through history, then we need to use the same approach as others.

      Perhaps we can help change that convention over time. Good luck to us. But the point of this paper was more modest.

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 30 Sep 2015 by Ronald Michener
    • Last comment 30 Oct 2015 by Ronald Michener
  19. Ideology Über Alles? Economics Bloggers on Uber, Lyft, and Other Transportation Network Companies

    • I am and always have been surprised by the “cartel” view of taxis. No one calls the Maine lobster industry a cartel. Yet surely and appropriately it is. The lobster fishery is a common access resource. So, too, are the streets of a city. Part of the income enjoyed by lobster fishermen is a scarcity rent. So, too, is the price of a taxi and a taxi-cab medallion. Cities for many, obvious political-economy reasons are awful at managing common access to the streets. Nonetheless, the social value of Uber is not to lower the price of a taxi, which should be even higher in some cases, but to offer the consumer a more technologically efficient way of delivering the scare good

    • 3 comments
    • First comment 30 Sep 2015 by Michael Maloney
    • Last comment 24 Oct 2015 by Carl Edman
  20. The Social Science Citation Index: A Black Box—with an Ideological Bias?

    • Hoover Institution publication Policy Review just printed its last issue this month (2/2013). That’s one less conservative SSCI journal cited in the Klein and Chiang article. Will any of the remaining conservative academic journals (such as ANAMNESIS, Academic Questions, First Things or Modern Age) ever obtain SSCI?

    • 2 comments
    • First comment 01 Nov 2011 by Alex Littlefield
    • Last comment 11 Feb 2013 by Alex Littlefield

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