Saturday, September 05, 2009

Links For The Weekend

Just a few links today.

A fantastic essay from Paul Krugman on macroeconomics through the decades, both as an intellectual enterprise and as a source of prescriptions for policymakers. I really enjoyed reading this and it helped me contextualize some of the debates out there right now. And everything he says about some economics being overly enamored with elegant mathematics instead of hard reality is true in Political Science as well. If you left it up to formal modelers, the entire universe could be explained by one of the following: credibility of commitment problems, collective action problems, and informational asymmetries. Am I missing something? Isn't that all they use to explain everything?

Courtesy reader JZ, a piece by Shandana Minhas on over-the-top religiosity during Ramzaan, and the Arabification of Pakistan.

How do you spell humility? L-I-O-N-E-L M-E-S-S-I.
How does it feel to be the best player in the world?

This team has made me big. This Barça has made me grow and makes me better every day. All those with whom I had the honour to play have taught me something and this group makes you better. For me, that is very clear: I am great because of them. All those individual trophies should have copies, reproductions, one for each team-mate. That's the way we work, as one, we are one and that way it is easier to stand out and to do what you like to do. Someone is covering for you when you are trying to make an action that could be decisive but that also carries some risk. It's great to ba part of a team like this Barça.

Yet more evidence that the American right has lost its collective mind. They are raging against the fact that Barack Obama wants to make a speech directed to children, urging them to stay in school and work hard. Oh, the horror. As one blogger says, "This is what American politics has come to in 2009." A reaction from a schoolteacher to the craziness here.

Funniest news item of the week, right here. No summarizing from me, you have to go and read it yourself.

Ezra Klein makes the simple but useful point that crazy people at town-hall meetings on healthcare being covered extensively says more about the media than about the townhalls. Most were quiet affairs, but of course those didn't make the news. Dog bites man, etc.

Farhad Manjoo says we shouldn't bitch and complain about the two-hour long Gmail outage the other day. Whatever, dude. I basically have Gmail open for every waking minute of my day. I don't even get that many emails. I just have to have it open.

Steven Walt has a good post on what academic freedom actually means.

Going back to healthcare, Nate Silver says Obama's address to Congress next week is do-or-die time.

I know I should probably be outraged by this but I just found it really funny, in a sad and pathetic kind of way.

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

And finally, a fantastic video of the Belgian Grand Prix from 1998. Somehow the Jordan team's radio chat was broadcast/leaked. The silence from Ralf Schumacher when told to back off from teammate Damon Hill (he was going 3-5 seconds faster per lap, and could easily have gone past him) is priceless.


Nabeel said...

any chance you could email me the Krugman article on macroeconomics?

I can't access it because I'm not a NYT subscriber. thanks.

Ahsan said...


Here's the print only version:

If this doesn't work either, just sign up for NYT. It's free and takes all of 30 secs. And very useful.

Anonymous said...

Haha, so you do read Daily Times. :)

Sputnik said...

You're right about the rat choicers in Poli Sci and Econ... well, maybe you should add moral hazard and rent-seeking behavior to that list. Thus filling their bag of tricks up to 5! Honestly, I felt pretty bad for my friends in the econ department as I was reading Krugman's article. Then I remembered the number of times they've told me I was an idiot for not accepting rational choice and mocked the other social sciences for not being "real science." Then I felt vindicated. All in all, I think they suffer from Mike Myer's syndrome- they start off with a good thing and just don't know when to stop.

Sputnik said...

I just realized moral hazard is actually an information asymmetry problem. Guess they're back down to 4. You could probably make a similar case for rent seeking. Jesus, they do use those three things to explain everything.

Ahsan said...


Haha, yes. But only reluctantly!


I made this point to a professor of ours (who shall remain nameless) who made the point that it's sort of like having a 4 sided dice for these folks. They throw them down and whatever two options come up, they combine them as their explanation for whatever puzzle there is.

dbldot said...

Rationality as defined in economics is pretty straightforward and does not mean the same thing as what we would expect it to mean in English when we say someone is 'rational'.

In economics rationality means that (1) an individual can compare any two goods and say which of those two she prefers (or is indifferent).
(2) the choices are transitive meaning that if you prefer A to B and B to C then you prefer A to C.

To me these are pretty straightforward and basic axioms. I don't see why this is an issue.

In much the same way that Krugman criticizes economists with trying to be 'fashionable' I think it is in vogue to criticize the assumption of rationality without quite perceiving its simplicity (and that apparently goes for Krugman too)

[BTW, I am not an economist but thanks for letting me say whatever comes to my mind!]

Sputnik said...


I think the disagreements between rational choice modelers and non-rational choice scholars break down along three lines:

1) whether human beings actually a) have and b) act in accordance to complete and transitive preferences (as you described).

2) whether rational choice modelers actually employ such a limited definition of rationality in their models or whether they smuggle in other assumptions.

3) how individual rationality is aggregated into group preferences/action.

So I don't think that the problem is that people fail to understand how formal modelers use the rationality assumption... as you said, it's a pretty damn simple concept. I think the problem is that many scholars just don't think the world works in that way.

I personally think formal models are really useful simplifying tool, but since all 3 critiques make some valid points, formal models often overgeneralize their results beyond their plausible domain.

I think that was the nerdiest comment I've ever left on Rs5...

Ahsan said...


I'm glad you've brought this up. Sputnik and I have actually talked a lot about writing a paper together dealing with the issues you brought up, but haven't yet done so because of laziness/other more important work/not caring enough. But let me make the argument here I would make in such a paper.

Sputnik's point number 2 is key. Number 3 in my view is a bit of a red herring in the sense that much of formal work USES the fact that individual rationality translates to socially suboptimal outcomes in aggregate (either through collective action problems, bounded rationality, tragedy of the commons etc etc). Number 1 can be assumed for the purposes of scientific inquiry; it is ok for reasonable people to disagree to what extent those assumptions are well-serving, but that is an argument for another day.

My main point is that while what you say is technically true, formal modelers in poli sci and economists never stick by the strict definition of rationality. In any mainstream paper in poli sci which uses game theory/rat choice, self-interested and selfish motives are imputed to the actors in question. So you SAY that rationality only means complete and transitive preferences, but in fact (in practice) they mean complete, transitive and SELFISH preferences.

While this is an often useful assumption, it is often taken too far (which is what Krugman's point was). To quote a famous IR theorist, methodology should not become tacit ontology. In other words, economists and formal modelers ACTUALLY think that's how humans behave, not just for the sake of their models, but in general. Thus they are more willing to slip and slide in their applications of assumptions which should be more circumscribed in their use.

This is what Krugman's point was. Theories of the world where we can safely say WHAT people want (rather than figure out how or why they want what they want) are elegant, simple and, on the surface, self-evident.

To that end, much of the work I appreciate most in poli sci, much of the work that has truly taken my breath away in its implications, has been formal stuff. But much of the work I scoff at and dismiss out of hand is also formal. The distinction lies in how far formal modelers are willing to stretch the applicability of their wholly simplistic and unrealistic frameworks of analysis.

Again, you are technically correct. But open any academic journal in which formal models/game theory is used extensively, and I defy you to find more than three articles where the de facto definition of rationality isn't used.

dbldot said...

The SELFISH preferences part ('more is better') can be derived from the complete and trasitive axioms (but I forget how.)

Therefore, it is a safe assumption as well (assuming you agreeing with basic definition of rationality as outlined above.)

I think people usually violate rationality (in experiments etc) when their preferences are not transitive. It will be interesting to understand why they show non-transitive preferences at times. But, by and large, I think people are transitive.

Ahsan said...


No, the selfish preference thing is imputed, especially in dynamic games, and even more so in games where leaders are the central actors. Which is almost everything in poli sci.