In defense of trolls

The Ranking of Human Values

Let us rank what we value. In the end, we will conclude that we ought to be kind to trolls.

Thinking beats speaking because thoughtless speech is just noise.

Yet action speaks louder than words. This means acting is better than speaking.

Is acting better than thinking? Probably not because we also claim that the pen is stronger than the sword. He who lives by the sword dies by it. He who lives by the pen lives forever. Besides, when we’re thinking, we practice silence, and librarians will swear us all to that.

So there it is. Thinking is better than acting, which is then better than speaking.

What then is the point of protecting free speech if it is the lowest form of human interaction?

The answer lies in realizing that we also value compassion. We say that no man is an island, and that when the bell tolls, it tolls for all. We sense that the weakest have only speech. They can plead with the strong to spare them, but that’s about it. And the thinker, if he truly thinks, knows that there’s no point in thinking if he cannot protect the weak. The thinker understands the sense of justice that John Rawls imagined. He thinks that if he could choose his company or society, the thinker would choose to be born into a family of thinkers, and not warriors or orators.

When we see a troll earning his meager pay on canned ad hominem, we thank the Supreme Being that we weren’t born to be trolls. They’re there by an unfortunate act of God when He gave out talents. Trolls wish they could think or act, but all they have are meaningless words. And meager pay.

The pseudo-righteous proclaim that we shouldn’t feed the trolls. True enough. But the higher duty is to think and find ways to have a society where the undeserving rich wouldn’t be able to hire trolls.

In the end, we are all trolls. There are trolls, and there are trolls.

A Winter’s Day

In a bleak and dreary November found me in the ‘burbs of Washington, DC. To the cognoscenti, that’s that famous place that is of course the center of the universe. I do not exaggerate.

Some days ago, the DC baseball team, the Nationals, won the World Series. That’s evidence number one. Two, it has been unseasonably cold, almost freezing, almost unheard of before Thanksgiving. That’s a portent of momentous events as well as palpable evidence of climate change. No self-respecting center of the universe would be left out of the climate change debate, and even if Greta Thunberg preferred to land by sailboat in Frank S’s New York, she sandwiched a protest visit to Washington, making the latter a competitor to the title of the Definite Place To Visit. Three, and most importantly, the Washington Post still shows up on my driveway, once a week at least, although slimmed down measurably with the advent of competing news and advertising sources online. It doesn’t matter, this competition thing, so long as we embrace the philosophy of no more driving to the shopping because of course Amazon.com not only reads your needs but also delivers in One Day Prime. Finally, for nostalgia more than anything else, there’s still The Old Ebbitt Grill; go there for the oysters and crab cakes.

There are certain perennials about the American capital. The Redskins have only the remembrances of things past (to evoke Marcel Proust, Doug Williams, and Joe Gibbs). The Washingtonian Magazine is still around, especially where you go for a haircut. Reagan National is still the airport of choice for Movers and Shakers. The traffic, yes the traffic, still competes with La-la land. The visitors still visit the White House and the great museums, of which the Smithsonian is still the best. The Kennedy Center still has free performances (at 6pm, Monday to Friday).

But there must be things that are new. As a creature of habit, I can report not much. This is due more to my inaction than anything else. But I checked around and came up with certain nuggets, if only to help guide out-of-town visitors. For the museum-hungry there’s a $1 bus called The Circulator. The Washington Monument has re-opened after closing for a renovation in 2016 (get your tickets in advance). The lure of Atlantic City has dimmed, replaced by nearby casinos in Baltimore and at the National Harbor, for the visitor who likes slots and tables. For Filipinos the restaurant scene has grown like mushrooms in a rain forest. In my neighborhood there’s a Kuya Ja’s Lechon Belly (4.5 on 473 reviews at Yelp).

What do the French say? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme. Mao jud. I visit but not in the extremes of winter and summer; for then, there’s Dumaguete.

Bitcoin and bubble gum

Taleb is right, and Bitcoin is no bubble.

Maybe it’s gum.

A “bubble” becomes a bubble when you run out of nonbankrupt people calling it a bubble. ~ Nassim Taleb

The hard part is deciding when the bubble will pop.

So, when a rich guy tells you something is fundamentally great, he’s enticing you to do the bubble; but it’s not, until he shuts up. Think Buffett and Coke.

If the same guy tells you it’s a bubble, it isn’t, because he wants to slow you down so he can get in. When he shuts up, then it’s bubble time. This goes for seemingly staid banker types.

The rich guy then shuts up when he’s selling and laughing.

Sum-up: A bubble has two elements – a rising price, and an inevitable but unpredictable crash. It doesn’t mean that the smart money can’t get rich at others’ expense.

Disclaimer: I call Bitcoin a bubble. But then my opinion doesn’t count. After all, I’m just an economist, and Nassim Taleb says economists don’t know anything. He’s right.

Economics 2.0

THE MEANING OF SOCIAL ORDER

IF there is dumb, there’s dumber; smart, smarter; thievery, plunder; good, saint; plain Jane, invisible; pretty, beauty; etc.

The point is that we can use these gradations to better understand economics.

When you do things for status, that’s social order driving the economy.

But what kind of good is status? It’s not rival, because you can’t eat it; but it’s exclusive. A club good?

Citizenship is a club good. So is formal education. So is the opinion of your peers. We strive for and shed these things, depending.

And that makes the economy, micro or macro, somewhat unpredictable. Yet, understandable.

Perhaps status is an informal club good, akin to Groucho’s inexistent club. And as an informal club good, status is like fiat money, valuable only on the prevailing whim of a society that confers that value.

But unlike fiat money, status can’t just be printed. There is no central bank that can create status.

This kind of thinking leads us nowhere, doesn’t it? Still, better to know that we’re not anywhere, than to pretend we’ve arrived.

Economics in disarray

Economics has problems. Because of Samuelson, it got a half-century case of physics envy. Then people read Schumpeter and McCloskey, and realized economics can’t predict a whit. Economics became useful (ex post) stories, a bit like archaeology or geology.

Then came The End of History (1989) and The Great Recession (2008), and weirdos still talk of evolving economics, but into what they can’t explain. Like Marx redux, they blame ‘capitalism’ or neoliberals, though they can’t go whole hog back to old-style apparatchik economics. Some think that the missing link is a co-equal infant science called psychology.

What to do? At one point, one way out was to study ‘institutions.’ But this seemed like hard work — too much scholarly pain for little gain. But gains there were if you read Coase or Ostrom, or (if you want Keynes to shudder) Hayek.

Perhaps that’s just the way it is. Economists are more like chickens with no heads but imaginarily pecking away at crumbs of intellectual progress. Some toil away at saving the world from falling over a cliff, much like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. That’s at least humanitarian if mostly unheralded.

Keynes did say that economists should be more like dentists. Dentists are good guys who help people prevent cavities and enable them to smile. The economist can then go home after a day’s work knowing the economy will still do its wayward thing but not die.

What next, after 2008? A book review

Mervyn King (The End of Alchemy, W. W. Norton, 2016) has a message. We are not safe. The economics profession has failed us. So have the economic policy makers of the US, Germany, China, and Europe. The banks still play a game that King calls ‘alchemy.’ Central banks won’t or can’t escape the infamous Keynesian liquidity trap. And we are prisoners facing dilemmas, macroeconomic policy is a paradox, sovereign debts are unbearable, and the world is full of ‘radical’ uncertainty.

In short, what we have today is pretty much a lull before the end of the world; 2008 was just the preview trailer. Alternatively, the world may not end but it will take a long while for robust economic growth to re-emerge, and there is very little that can be done about the matter. Either way, it’s a sobering conclusion.

Is the book worth reading? Yes, if only to get a handle on how central banks thought as they dealt with 2008 and its immediate aftermath. In addition, the curious but uninitiated reader gets introduced to the concepts of Prisoners’ Dilemma, the Keynesian Liquidity trap, liquidity transformation by banks, and the difference between risk and uncertainty.

King’s book also contains a longish but bureaucratic take on why 2008 happened. King gets to it on pp. 26-39 and pp. 317-328. Going by his view, as well as that of others in the fields of central banking and macroeconomics, the ‘conventional wisdom’ on 2008 might be summarized as follows.

It began with the fall of the Wall in 1989, also known as The End of History, that ushered in the Great Stability, an era of low inflation and robust economic growth all around. The main central banks finally imbibed the religion of the Quantity Theory in the 1990s and early 2000s, making themselves accountable to the public through pledges to abide by (low) inflation targets. King calls this period The Great Stability. (Never mind the hiccups of the 1997 Asian crisis or the bubble-crash of dotcoms in 1997-2001.)

Beneath the gloss of prosperity were gathering problems. Banks were raising their leverage in the hunt for profit. Prices in stock and real estate markets outpaced inflation of everyday goods, and central banks felt that paper wealth was not a worrisome thing (after all, one cannot eat stocks or houses), and the US Fed actually thought it would boost consumer spending. Some countries pushed their luck with foreign borrowings, notably Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Argentina.

The failure of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 is considered the trigger of the crisis. It was, with hindsight, the outcome of the unexpected fall of real estate prices in the summer of 2007 and associated mortgage defaults in the US. The failure exposed the extreme leverage in the US financial system, and with banks unwilling to recognize their paper losses in the derivatives market for sub-prime mortgages, a run for liquidity, called The Great Panic, ensued. The panic was arrested only by official rescues. Consequently, in 2008-2009, the financial crisis affected real economies, with world trade falling and global GDP decelerating into The Great Recession.

King, as do other observers such as Edwin Truman, believes that underlying macroeconomic imbalances were also to blame. The extreme example often cited was the ‘savings glut’ in China that fueled ‘overconsumption’ in the US. Supposedly, the excess saving in China was intermediated by the banking systems of both countries. The theory is that without such imbalances, there would have been no resources that could fuel the asset price inflation in the US and in other countries.

So far so good. King then ends up suggesting that the re-capitalization of major banks since 2008 is a good thing but probably not enough.

As to the book’s shortcomings, they are:

King seemingly ignores the work of Charles Kindleberger (Manias, Panics, and Crashes, 2005) where Kindleberger had formulated an economic model of financial crises, based on the work of Hyman Minsky. King does mention Minsky but in a somewhat negative light.

King nonetheless cites (on p. 34), with some tongue in cheek, two ‘laws’ on financial crises, which he attributes to Dornbusch. One is that ‘an unsustainable position can continue for far longer than you would believe possible.’ The other is: ‘When an unsustainable position ends it happens faster than you could imagine.’ It is of course almost vintage Minsky.

And yet, to date, the economics profession’s best ever model of financial crises still seems to be the Kindleberger-Minsky model. That model cannot be used to make precise predictions, but it does give the best explanation, ex post, of how a financial crisis plays out. The major central banks had been using, in 2008, something called DSGE (‘dynamic stochastic general equilibrium’) macro models. These models were not at all designed to incorporate Keynes’ deus ex machina of ‘animal spirits,’ except as ‘shocks’ external to the structure of DSGE models, which meant that the central banks had essentially no inkling of the crisis before it hit. The IMF insiders called it ‘group think.’

If we could ask Kindleberger or Minsky today on their views on 2008, most likely they would say that it fits their model that sees a financial crisis in three parts — mania, panic, crash. The story is not much different from King’s, except that Minsky would give greater emphasis on the trigger of 2008 as one rooted in overconfidence, what Greenspan had called ‘irrational exuberance.’ That there had to be other villains is a given. In 2008, they included the toxification of bank balance sheets (with inexplicable financial derivatives) that was an outcome of a ‘deregulation’ tilt that allowed subprime debts to be brazenly sold by lenders as ‘almost prime.’ Since King doesn’t like the fractional reserve nature of modern banking, he gives more emphasis to the alchemy-like leveraging that modern banks practice. In effect, King would not disagree with Minsky that it was a kind of Ponzi game that allowed banks to trap themselves into a corner that would eventually ‘blow up.’

This comparison of models means that King’s main proposal — his view that central banks should act like a ‘pawnbroker for all seasons’ — to narrow monetary base creation to ‘safe’ banks, while widening the securitization of other lending by bank-like institutions, is just another way of allowing excessive exuberance to be seen as a can to be kicked down the (future) road of ‘fundamental uncertainty.’ In short, since King has set up the medium and long term as a problem of fundamental uncertainty, there isn’t much that central banks or governments can do to tame business cycles. That is not different from Minsky and his ‘moments.’ There is an inexorable underlying tension between free capital markets and macroeconomic management by governments and central banks, something Robert Shiller and others had more or less also observed (see Shiller and Akerlof’s Animal Spirits, 2009).

King does not quite succeed in explaining the arcana of modern economics in the areas of: (a) how Keynes was co-opted into the ‘neoclassical synthesis’ (King merely says that Keynes was at odds with ‘neoclassical economics,’ a basic lesson from an introductory economics class); (b) the ‘paradox of policy,’ where he asserts that the short-run need to overcome the liquidity trap is inconsistent with the need in the long run to let the private sector decide how to correct ‘structural imbalances’ in the economy; and (c) how ‘fixed’ exchange rates and differences in saving rates across countries lead to ‘imbalances’ that in the long run need to be addressed.

It appears that it is up to others to try to make better sense of what King wants to recommend as a way out of the economic doldrums post-2008. Perhaps this explains why the book blurbs on the outside back cover hint of mystery amid faint praise from the usual suspects.

Student Essay Competition

For EC42 students:

Just a link for now.

In this site, you can read prize-winning student essays. I’m guessing that the winners are essay-form versions of student dissertations.

You may get an idea on how to structure a topic and proposal for your own thesis from reading and learning from the student essays.