Sunday, February 7, 2016

A course on human socio-biology

The title of this post is not exactly the title of the course I will start teaching this Tuesday. The title is "Political Economy", and it will be the second part (about Macroeconomics) of an introductory course in economics for Sociology students. I have been thinking about ways to motivate their interest in the subject. Although the textbook is the one by Krugman et al., which is more than enough material, I will try to add comments and references to topics that are related to the broader social sciences and to Sociology in particular. I will also try to find strategies to relate the contents to media news, along the lines of the book by the late Peter Kennedy on understanding macroeconomics from the news (recommended to me by my great sociologist and statistician friend, Daniel Guinea). To study social insects (such as bees or ants), we do not distinguish between sociology and economics, but we (or biologists) understand that they are organized in complex societies to better solve their problems of resource allocation and distribution. In the interacting global economy I am not sure that one can study macroecomics in a separate way from social influences and dynamics, as I do not know how we can study sociology without understanding how we allocate and distribute our scarce resources in a way that promotes or harms well being. That is why I am reading interesting articles on social capital, networks and structures, and how they are related to economic development, by authors like Durlauf, Granovetter or Dasgupta. The latter's "Very Short Introduction" to Economics is a masterpiece of clarity on the impossibility to separate economics from other social sciences, as well as the impossibility to separate microeconomics of macroeconomics.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Global soccer and the nation-state

In my soccer and economics class I was asked in the two groups I have the same question: what would happen to the participation of FC Barcelona in the Spanish League in case of Catalan independence. My answer went more or less as follows. In the very unlikely case of Catalan independence, most probably the borders of soccer jurisdictions would not correspond to the borders of political jurisdictions. Either FC Barcelona would be invited to remain in the "rest-of-Spanish" league (and the club and even those fans that are pro-independence would be happy to accept) or it would be invited to participate in the French league, or who knows, perhaps even in the English Premier League. The overlap between sports and political boundaries already takes place in soccer, for example the Scottish having their own league and national team without being politically independent, although they do not participate independently in the Olympic Games. The Welsh have their own soccer national team but their club teams participate in the English leagues. Hopefully, in the future this will matter little because we'll have a true European superleague (also, hopefully political independence will matter less because we'll have a united, federal and sovereign Europe). Monaco participates in the French league, and Canadian teams participate in the mostly US Major League Soccer and in the NBA in basketball. National flags and anthems still matter a lot and are part of the show of World Cups, games and tournaments among national teams, but perhaps in the future (or is that already happening?) one of the few remaining roles of the current nation-states will be to wave a flag in the soccer World Cup and in the Olympic Games.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Europe and the black Earth

I finished reading "The Black Earth," by historian Timothy Snyder. Now I'm going to re-read it, or at least parts of it. As its subtitle says, "The Holocaust as History and Warning," this is not only a history book, but an essay about the possibility that crazy ideologies take advantage of the anxieties of populations in a globalized world with scarce resources. To avoid this, the author explores the Holocaust and the years of the second world war in Europe to claim that state institutions are key to constrain humans not to exploit our lowest instincts. In the 1940s, in those regions were state institutions basically vanished, the Nazis and their allies were able to perpetrate the worst of crimes against Jews. The final solution was much more effective in stateless zones of Eastern Europe under German invasion or influence rather than in Germany itself. Similar disasters are happening today in stateless zones in the Middle East or Africa. In Europe, what stops us from repeating history is the stability of public institutions provided by the always criticized European Union. Those who promote the unravelling of the common currency and the Schengen Treaty, even from the left, should think twice about stopping or reversing the momentum towards an ever-closer union. If climate change gets worse, and massive migrations and regional conflicts follow all over the world, it is better not to think what will be of us and the world without the European Union. Snyder (p. 333) writes that "Just as the purpose of alliance with Hitler in 1939 was supposed to turn the most radical force in Europe against Europe itself, so Russian support of the European Far Right is meant to disrupt and disentegrate the most peaceful and prosperous order of the early twenty-fist century -the European Union. In 2014 and 2015, Putin rehabilitated the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that began the Second World War and created some of the preconditions for the Holocaust."

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The victory of the TV "expert"

The first chapter of the long-awaited new season of the "X-Files" tells the story of how the former agents of the FBI Scully and Mulder are pushed to get involved again into the investigation of para-normal phenomena involving alien beings, because of the interest of a mega-rich popular TV journalist. After more than a decade in the dark, this new episode reflects one of the trends of what has been happening on Planet Earth during the long pause of the famous FBI fictitious files. This trend is the increasing role played by supposed "experts" that base their popularity on the appeal of their theories and fantasies on TV. The victory of a popular TV pundit as president of the Portuguese Republic also shows that being famous on TV (or having chaired a famous soccer club, as in Argentina) is a big asset to become a successful politician. Unfortunately, as explained by the great expert in expertise, Philip Tetlock, in his books, having a high profile in the media, and especially on TV, is very poorly correlated with true expertise, measured for example by the ability to make accurate forecasts. Becoming famous because of a talk show on radio or TV does not guarantee any particular level of wisdom, although it may guarantee a substantial pay cheque. Depth of knowledge is not even correlated with having a column in a newspaper. Some individuals that write in newspapers and that can be seen on TV (from time to time) may be wise and their judgement may provide socially useful insights, but most of what's in the popular media is there to satisfy a demand for stories that most of the time have nothing to do with true explanations of social phenomena, or with plausible solutions to our social problems.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Referendum, "neverendum" and "preferendum"

That a binary sovereingty referendum is a bad idea in the globalized and multicultural XXI century is very well explained in the book by Peter Emerson "Designing an All-Inclusive Democracy." Since Quebec has lost the appetite for such referenda, only the United Kingdon remains addicted to it among developed democracies. Today in the BBC the leader of the Scottish nationalists has said that if the "in" vote wins in Scotland, and the "out" vote wins in the rest of the UK, in the soon to take place referendum on the participation of the country in the EU, then a new referendum on Scottish independence will become inevitable. My impression is that this "neverendum" dynamic will leave things more or less as they are now institutionally (whatever is the outcome of the votes), but that societies will end up more divided and pollarized, thus making the life easier for populists of the calibre of the Scottish nationalists and the UKIP. Referenda were tools adapted to the times of border instability between the two world wars in the XXth century. Even today, when they take place, they reflect disfunctional and desperate societies (the Balkans, Crimea), and are a symptom of a social illness rather than a remedy to heal the illness. Timothy Snyder explains in his book "Black Earth" (pp. 81-82) that when the Austrian government felt the pressure of Hitler just before the second world war, it called a referendum about the independence of Austria: "The days of March 9 and 10, 1938, were devoted to propaganda in favor of Austrian independence, over the radio, in the newspapers, and, following Austrian traditions, in signs painted on the streets of Vienna. The main propaganda slogan was simply Österreich -Austria." One day after, just before the referendum date, Austria had ceased to exist because the national government had decided not to resist Hitler's invasion. The next morning the "scrubbing parties" began. Members of the Austrian S.A. (one of Nazis' paramilitary bodies) "working from lists, from personal knowledge, and from the knowledge of passersby, identified Jews and forced them to kneel and clean the streets with brushes. (...) They were erasing a word that had been painted on Vienna's avenues only a few days before: "Austria." When the institutions of democracy are attacked, the attempt to restore them through sovereignty plebiscites is a symptom of weakness. Stable societies are the result of a basic consensus and international respect, of a mechanism that allows people to express their preferences through deliberative democracy: Emerson calls it "`preferendum".

Thursday, January 21, 2016

How should the faculty's language skills be evaluated?

When I started studying economics as an undergraduate (I had studied history before), I was surprised by the bad language skills of economics professors (in Spanish and Catalan). Some of the best teachers in my centre had translated into Spanish a then famous economics textbook, and the translation was very bad. Both in writing in the blackboard and in speaking, I found that they made constant grammar and other mistakes. However, they were good in many other aspects: they were well organized, communicated efficiently the important concepts, and kept the tension of the students with well structured courses. Yesterday, now myself as an economics faculty member, I attended a meeting with representatives of our evaluating agency. This agency's representatives were accompanied by two foreign professors that were recruited to have an external point of view in the evaluation of the degree of internationalization of our offer. The controversy started when one of these foreign professors asked our opinion about the possibility that we, the faculty, should have our knowledge of the English language tested in a formal exam. The point is that we were trying to demonstrate that we are very internationalized because we now have students coming from all over the world and we teach many courses and entire degrees in English. Our departments now recruit internationally and one of the criteria to recruit new faculty members of course is having published and studied in English and being able to make presentations in this language. Our knowledge of English is also evaluated by the students, who are asked specific questions about this in the questionnaires they have to answer about their courses. A colleague of mine told the anecdote in this meeting that when she was studying her PhD at a famous US university, some of her colleague students complained because they had difficulties understanding an Asian professor speaking in English because his accent was unfamiliar. The direction of the centre told them to adapt to the level (or specific characteristics) of English of this professor, because he was top in the profession. What I mean by this is that yes, I believe that our knowledge of English should be evaluated (by giving a seminar in English when we are initially recruited, by students tests, supervisors' observation or other means), but that we have to be aware that language is not the only important input in good teaching. And that the priority should be to have good teachers in general, which is something multidimensional and with some difficult to measure dimensions (most of them in general positively correlated with a good command of English). I am afraid that many potentially very good faculty members would not feel very attracted by a job offer that included the obligation of passing a formal English test, after having completed a PhD in English, having written in English journal articles and coming from a professional market were basically everything today is in English, which basically is the language with the largest number of bad speakers in the world.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A muscular progressive realism that pushes outward the politics of the possible

I found a review of economists' recent contributions to the debate on inequality. The title of this post is at the end of the review article, and I though it reflects very well what many (or just some?) of us would like to see. I would like to select these few pieces, but please read the whole thing: "In the usual economic model, markets are mostly efficient. Power is not relevant, because competition will generally thwart attempts to place a thumb on the market scale. Thus if the society is becoming more unequal it must be (a favorite verb form) because skills are receiving greater rewards, and the less-skilled are necessarily left behind; or because technology is appropriately displacing workers; or because in a global market, lower-wage nations can out-compete Americans; or because deregulation makes markets more efficient, with greater rewards to winners; or because new financial instruments add such efficiency to the economy that they justify billion-dollar paydays for their inventors.
Increasingly, however, influential orthodox economists are having serious second thoughts. What if market outcomes and the very rules of the market game reflect political power, not market efficiency? Indeed, what if gross inequality is not efficient, and there is a broad zone of indeterminate income distributions consistent with strong economic performance? What if greater liberalization of financial markets produced tens of trillions of costs to the economy, benefits that are hard to discern, and billion-dollar paydays for traders that don’t comport with their contributions to general economic welfare? Evidence like this is piling up, and hard to ignore. (...) I suppose you might say we need both. The AEI-Brookings effort seems more rooted in the near-term politics of the possible, though, as noted, the several members whom I interviewed don’t believe that the current Republican Congress will touch even these toned-down ideas. The Atkinson analysis reflects a deeper understanding of the economic realities. Possibly, the AEI-Brookings effort will serve as a role model to a post–Tea Party generation of Republicans picking up the pieces from what could be a 2016 blowout, though if Trump self-destructs and Marco Rubio is the nominee, it’s a whole other story. One must also hope that the work of Atkinson, Reich, Stiglitz, Solow, and others will energize a muscular progressive realism that pushes outward the politics of the possible."