Thursday, January 22, 2004

I've been wondering for years what makes otherwise rational people disbelieve or fear economics. Arnold Kling asks the same question in a recent TCS article. To put the question in a simpler form, why do so many people believe that trade with a country such as India will make USA poorer? I can accept that people aren't hard-wired to understand market pricing. Instead, people may be hard-wired to understand sharing, and when a rich person shares with a poor person, the rich person becomes poorer (and the poor person richer). Or perhaps we understand individual trade of concrete objects, being perfectly willing as individuals to trade some of our excess grain for somebody else's excess fabric. It definitely becomes less natural to understand abstract money because that money has developed only recently in evolutionary terms: coins in 600 BC, paper money in 800 AD or so; checking accounts by the Italians around 1500, electronic money only in 1918, anonymous credit in 1937. Institutions to pool money or trade have developed along the same lines, so the concept of a "national trade deficit" (stupid concept, BTW) is a recent one. No wonder we have to think carefully about modern trade issues to understand them.

But I can't believe Kling's second hypothesis, that a fear of math is at fault here. I've known people with a University degree in Math (also Computer "Science", also the hard sciences) to have economo-phobia. Kling's sample must be too small for his hypothesis.

There are other possible models to explain economo-phobia, assuming of course it's a real phenomena (Kling and I could be deluded, after all...).

  • Economics goes against common sense, by which I mean pre-scientific models of trade and money. This is related to Kling's evolutionary psychology theory.

    • Pre-scientific models are replaced by generational churn, more than by rational thought. (For that matter, scientific revolutions also happen only at the pace of a generation). International trade in labour is too new to understand.

    • The data that falsifies common-sense models is too hard to see. We can't directly link a drop in the price of the new pants we buy to a friend losing an IT job and deciding to go back to school.

    • Common-sense models lead to plans like rent control. When these don't work, we're notoriously bad at throwing out models-- in fact we may become emotionally attached to them, rather than go through the unpleasant process of admitting rent control is not really possible.

  • Economics seems to conflict with morality.

    • Economics uses the same words or terms as moralists, only perverting those terms from what a moralist understands. For example, "correct" outcomes and "value". Not to mention, a "good". It's difficult for armchair moralists to accept that terminology.

    • Economists must overcome a certain "gag reflex" when putting a value on certain things, such as a human life.
    • Economists seem to oppose certain moral-seeming actions. Taking the example of rent control again, surely it's a proof of moral upstanding to want poor people to afford decent living quarters. When an economist opposes a plan like rent control, she seems to oppose the whole idea of providing poor people with decent living quarters.

    If common sense and morality are arrayed against economics (even if economics isn't against them), it's not too surprising that we find an understanding and acceptance of economics so rare.

    Wednesday, January 14, 2004

    Two people sent me this link in the same day, which just shows how well they know me. I've spent quite a while since, exploring the branching links off it, learning about some geeky knitters I didn't know about.

    Here's my own geek knitter cred: I actually knit Fibonacci-striped socks (described in more detail on my knit stuff gallery). I also want to do a cellular automata lace shawl, which you'll understand why when you see Debbie New's beautiful cellular automata sweater.

    Tuesday, January 06, 2004

    Here's quote from a different project I've proof-read some pages for: The Jesuit Relations. This paragraph is from Father Pierre Biard, in a letter to his superior, the General of the Jesuits at Rome.

    Such are the marks of intelligence in the people of these countries, which are very sparsely populated, especially those of the Soriquois and Etechemins, which are near the sea, although Membertou assures us that in his youth he has seen chimonuts, that is to say, Savages, as thickly planted there as the hairs upon his head. It is maintained that they have thus diminished since the French have began to frequent their country; for, since then they do nothing all summer but eat; and the result is that, adopting an entirely different custom and thus breeding new diseases, they pay for their indulgence during the autumn and winter by pleurisy, quinsy and dysentery, which kill them off. During this year alone sixty have died at Cape de la Hève, which is the greater part of those who lived there; yet not one of all M. de Potrincourt's little colony has even been sick, notwithstanding all the privations they have suffered; which has caused the Savages to apprehend that God protects and defends us as his favorite and well-beloved people.

    This is the kind of evidence that now leads many to believe that Europeans killed off "savages" through disease vectors. Guns, Germs and Steel was where I first read a bunch of stuff about this theory, it's a good book, but it's not the only place you see this nowadays. The letter quoted here was sent in 1611, one hundred years after the French believed they had laid claim to the area. Four or five generations after first claim, there were still "Savages" falling ill regularly. They weren't "breeding new diseases", of course.

    Also in the original French:

    Voylà les marques de l'esprit de cette nation, qui est fort peu peuplée, principalement les Soriquois et Etechemins qui avoysinent la mer, combien, que Membertou assure qu'en sa jeunesse il a veu chimonuts, c'est-à-dire des Sauvages aussi dru semés que les cheveux de la teste. On tient qu'ils sont ainsi diminués depuis que les François ont commencé à y hanter: car, depuis ce temps-là, ils ne font tout l'esté que manger; d'où vient que, prenant une tout autre habitude, et amassant de humeurs, l'automne et l'hyver ils payent leurs intemperies par pleurésies, esquinances, flux de sang, qui les font mourir. Seulement cette année, soixante en sont morts au Cap de la Hève, qui est la plus grande partie de ce qu'ils y estoient; et neantmoins personne du petit peuple de M. de Potrincourt n'a esté seulement malade, nonobstant toute l'indigence qu'ils ont paty; ce qui a faict apprehender les Sauvages que Dieu nous deffend et protége comme son peuple particulier et bien-aymé.

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