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

    • Glory Liu kindly brought to my attention a review of TMS, on the occasion of an 1817 Boston edition, by Levi Frisbie (1783-1822) in the North-American Review 8(23), 1819: 371-396. The piece is republished in an 1823 volume of Frisbie’s miscellaneous writings, edited by Andrew Norton. The piece too should be quoted in the compilation. For example, Frisbie writes: “And that can never be an ultimate standard, which is itself to be judged by one more so” (382).

    • 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

    • That this “survey” passes for anything other than the ridiculous crock it is is extremely troubling. 8 agree or disagree statements, with and admitted political bias (In what way does asking questions which only challenge liberal mentalities give any kind of a useful result measured against political ideology?). What’s more, all but two of the questions could be correctly answered by simply following the “all government action bad” philosophy.

      Especially troubling are the following two questions: “Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited,” and “Free trade leads to unemployment.” The first question is WAY too open to interpretation as to the meaning of the word “exploited,” while the second should certainly be qualified by a statement either limiting it to immediate effect (assuming that this does not contribute positively to specialization, allowing new industries to develop which might suck up the surplus), or at least noting noting that it does not refer to a poorer country which signs a free trade agreement with a richer one.

      The two remaining questions, which aren’t simple “government bad” types, aren’t terrible, but any test that you can score highly on with no knowledge other than “biggest market share does not necessarily equal monopoly, government is bad, and stuff is better than it was” can hardly be said to be an indicator of economic knowledge.

      I don’t know if the authors are trying to push a political ideology as grounded in fact (an easy conclusion to reach, given the giddy, masturbatory response the study has had on arch conservative online publications such as “American Spectator”), but this survey should be fully discounted by every respectable publication as the crock it is. This is the first thing I’ve come across on Econ Journal Watch, so maybe it’s a joke publication, but if not, for shame.

    • 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

    • This is a great article as the others have said. This study needs far greater exposure to provide greater diversity in economic thinking. There is far more to economics than Keynesianism and the mechanics. Thank you.

    • 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

    • In an 1819 lecture, Constant calls on his listeners to realize that there is a fundamental difference between what people of antiquity considered liberty and what the concept means for the modern person. For the former, liberty consists of taking full advantage of collective political rights; liberty to the latter is the conducting of his private affairs without interference. He argues that the liberty of the moderns must be carefully guarded and not forgotten for the sake of political rights. In the course of his argument, Constant also defends the French Revolution as beginning with the right perspective on liberty but later confusing the liberty of ancients with that of moderns, which contributed to the disastrous results. Surprisingly, he praises Rousseau as a lover of liberty who was led into error by the confusion over ancient liberty as opposed to modern liberty.
      Constant offers a point-by-point comparison of the two concepts of liberty that is very illuminating. His main concern is that people would unwisely sacrifice modern liberty as the ancients often did, when in a modern nation, political rights are much less significant and valuable than in a small city-state. His contention that political rights used to be the more valuable of the two in ancient times because people were limited in their economic activity is one of his most striking points. It most clearly highlights the rationale behind people trying to acquire political power at the cost of personal and economic freedoms but also leads to a slightly conflicting message. Constant asserts that private activity is more important and valuable than public activity in modern society yet urges people not to ignore the political process. He anticipates the concept of the rationally ignorant voter by noting that many people will prefer to attend to matters that benefit them most and argues for citizens to be informed and watchful instead.
      It is worth noting that Constant often seems to be sanctioning the liberty of the ancients, where the society had the moral authority to control people’s private behavior, as morally acceptable for that time and the particular conditions. It weakens his argument, since his own concept of modern liberty could become dated in the same way unless it were justified by something other than the current political and economic systems being too large and complex for it to be otherwise.

    • 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

    • Great study, The next step should be finding “WHY”?
      First of all, we know scientists and faculties are likely to be less religious and more atheists, what about atheists’ political leaning, how much of “atheists” explains the D:R distribution.
      Second, majority of the Faculties are “secondary value generation” which means they do not produce goods and services directly, rather, they are supposed to “enable others to create more value”. We also know people working in “secondary value generation” industries (I.e. journalism, acting, etc) are also more politically leaning to the left.
      Third, “narcissistic intelligence”, which means how much people consider their own political believes and their intelligence is superior than others, and what are the typical political learning for people with “higher than normal self-confidence in their own believes”.
      Fourth, “political openness” what is the likelihood of people with D or R political leaning hire peole who are not politically aligned with them.

    • 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

    • Using the contrast between two philosophies that both have been referred to as individualism, Hayek outlines many of the usual justifications for a government and an economic system built around precepts of individual liberty. He tracks the intellectual history of the word “individualism”, claiming that what he calls false individualism leads inevitably to socialism and collectivism. He praises true individualism as worthy because it produces the most desirable results; false individualism has been wrongly associated with it and thus usurped its meaning.
      Hayek argues that the basic principle dividing the two philosophies is their differing conceptions of human nature. False individualism is more or less an overconfident humanism, while true individualism freely admits to human foibles and limitations. Thus, people who subscribe to false individualism have inflated expectations that men can rationally design the perfect society. Hayek argues for property rights, limited government, free exchange of goods and services, and the price mechanism built on the idea that men are fallible. The order in society develops unintentionally from the choices that free people make. Hayek’s defense of a classical liberal society on these grounds is utilitarian and compelling.
      It is somewhat surprising the particular battle lines Hayek drew. He equates true individualism with the Anglo-American culture and its associated thinkers, like Adam Smith and Hume, while pointing to French thinkers following in the tradition of Descartes as the primary source of false individualism. Hayek claims that German culture has yet another sense of the word individualism, which is the rejection of historical tradition as a source of authority over one’s behavior. It is an interesting division but a little difficult to believe that nationality follows the divisions between the intellectual traditions so simply.
      The most surprising point in the essay is Hayek’s effort to demonstrate that liberty and cultural traditions are consistently compatible. Cultural norms develop from a spontaneous order that reflects the process of the market. Hayek argues that respect for naturally evolving norms, rather than designed ones, encourages respect for the power of spontaneous order to produce the most desirable outcomes. His assertions seem to match the historical outcomes of the French Revolution, which ended with a military dictatorship, and the American Revolution, which resulted in a system of government with a strong presumption of liberty. The former tried to radically remake the society but the latter was simply an assertion of principles deeply ingrained culturally.

    • 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

    • People believing firmly in free market and voluntary exchange efficiency (just missed some fluctuations in Q.16 and negative externalities in Q17) are wrong and “Unenlightened”.
      People believing after USSR economy TOTAL failure and China transition to market economy that voluntary transactions are inefficient and only Gosplan could succeed to organize it are right and enlightened? Are you sure Q16-17 really helpful?
      BTW, conservatives actually able to count negative externalities.
      Q14: say Farmer A hired 5 immigrants from the country w/o tradition to respect property and human life, dignity etc. Let Farmer A saved for a Seazon $100K his costs (taxation, salary) and shared part of $100K among his product consumers. So, public wealth increased $100K. OK, now, close to the end of the Seazon (game almost over, last move of the gamer could be very unpleasant) this immigrant workers grabbed and killed farmer B and raped farmers’ C daughter and escaped to Mexico.
      Public losses counted say $5 million at least. So, conservatives actually count negative externalities, some libertarians so stubbornly ignore (Caplan vs. Friedman):
      http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/06/milton_friedman_10.html

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

    • The main point of Macfie’s article, The Invisible Hand of Jupiter (1971), is to analyze, and attempt to reconcile, Smith’s various uses of the famous, yet mysterious, “invisible hand” metaphor throughout his work.

      The original use of the invisible hand is in Smith’s History of Astronomy, an early essay written by Smith, which was published posthumously. In History of Astronomy, the invisible hand belongs to the Roman god Jupiter, and is used by polytheistic “savages” to explain seemingly irregular natural phenomena that interrupt the status quo (e.g., lightning, thunder). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and Wealth of Nations (WN), the invisible hand, assumed by Macfie, among others, to belong to the Christian Deity, is a mechanism of coordination that guides people’s self-love in order to achieve universal benevolence.

      While the uses of the invisible hand seem contradictory, Macfie contends they are not. He suggests that the use of the invisible hand in History of Astronomy was merely where Smith first coined the phrase, and has no significant bearing on its later use in TMS and WN. Macfie interprets the invisible hand metaphor in TMS and WN to be Smith’s attempt to express “his own view as to the relation between divine guidance, the system of nature, and human behavior”, accordingly becoming the energizer of his entire system of thought (pp.598-99).

      While Macfie’s interpretation may be plausible, there is another way to interpret Smith’s use of his famous metaphor. I believe that Smith used the invisible hand metaphor when talking about things beyond human understanding. In History of Astronomy, the savage ascribes lighting, a natural occurrence that he cannot understand, to the mood swings, and invisible hand of Jupiter. In TMS/WN, Smith employs the same invisible hand metaphor when he talks about markets; in doing so, he suggests that people cannot understand why order emerges spontaneously when people pursue their own ends in free markets, but can merely observe that it does. Perhaps this emergent order in markets can be attributed to a benevolent Deity, but, if the use of the metaphor is consistent with its use in History of Astronomy, Smith argues that the cause of this order is outside the realm of human understanding. With this interpretation of the invisible hand, Smith’s seemingly contradictory uses of the metaphor can indeed be reconciled.

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

    • Religion may not provide us with analytical tools designed for “sciences”, but it may tell us a lot about the ends to which economic analysis are applied.

      For example, some religious perspectives are easily applied to say that the goal is to maximize bounty, whereas others could say it is to care for the earth, or to provide for the poor and vulnerable. In these senses, I think it is worth asking what direction economic analysis may take from the wise words passed down through religious communities over the ages.

    • 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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