Sunday, November 06, 2005

Arguing Economics

In olden days when the Internet was populated only by nerds, I used to have a pastime of arguing with libertarians. Sometimes these were just stupid fights, but occasionally they were enlightening, at least to me. It helped me sort out my own political opinions, and realize that my naive communitarianism was impractical and markets were an excellent tool for resource allocation, some of the time. I was not, however, converted to the culty libertarianism that was the rpevailng ideology on the net, which is essentially that markets are in every situation the best and only mechanism for resource allocation and every other social process there is.

One of the people I used to argue with was Eric Raymond, who later went on to be a famous author and proponent of the naive communitarianism known as Open Source. I don't know if arguing with me had any influence on him, but I like to think so. He's still ostensibly a libertarian despite being one of the leading proselytizers for a very successful form of socialism.

I long ago tired of arguing with ideologues, but every so often the impuslse surfaces again. Nowadays it's different thought -- I can bash on famous economists with bestselling books, rather than unwashed basement-dwelling geeks. Twice now (that makes a trend) I've had to chasten Steven Levitt, the Freakonomicist, for applying his deformation professionelle to get obviously absurd results. The latest was on the occasion of today's column in the New York Times maagazine, where he (and partner Stephen Dubner) presents his mystification as to why people should vote. I and many others take him to task for taking an inappropriate stance to this issue, and I point to Valdis Krebs' paper on social networks and voting as a more interesting and meaningful way to look at voter turnout issues. But maybe the best comment was from GamblingEconomist:
If millions of people vote and the standard economic model predicts that people should not vote, the problem is probably with the model not with the people.
An earlier posting of Levitt's dealt with Peak Oil and energy issues (inexplicably vanished from his site, link is to Google cache), which he dismissed with the wave of the magic wand of the markets -- prices will rise, demand will drop, equilibrium will be achieved and all will be well. I pointed out that the speed at which this happens matters a lot -- slow changes in prices allow time to adjust, rapid price increases will cause a lot of pain. Actually it was my attempt to respond to this that ended up in the creation of this blog, so I guess I owe them.

OK, my critiques are not exactly flashes of genius, more like flashes of common sense. Still, it would be nice to know what Levitt's response to them would be. I haven't seen that, because blogs+comments are really not the kind of conversational mechanism that mailing lists and usenet are/were. This is a peeve of mine about the blogging medium, it doesn't really support conversations that well. Comments generally suck -- there are too many (or in some cases not enough), no structure, no quality control, and no conversational structuring.

Partly it's the power-law effect -- the network in the old days was a flatter space, where anybody could wade into the conversation and get an argument going. Now that the web is a reflection of the outer social world, we are back to having celebreties and nonentities, although the barrier between them is perhaps more permeable. There is no way that Levitt could respond to all the people who would like to argue with him even if he wanted to.

Well, maybe the answer for me is to stop trying to debate people who are both a) too high up the curve and b) aren't really saying stuff that's new/relevant. For an amateur political economist, the folks over at Crooked Timber, ie, are both more accessible and more interesting.


goatchowder said...

Indeed you've pointed out how remarkable it is that Stallman's little Free Software utopian experiment has turned out to be the most successful and longest-running implementation communitarian socialism ever.

I think this has some interesting implications, but I haven't seem much discussion of them. Maybe CT is the place to look.

I don't think the Free Software model would apply everywhere and for everything, but I suspect there may be many more places where it would do some good. Identifying those might be a useful exercise.

goatchowder said...

Since you mention ESR, I couldn't resist linking this