Monthly Archives: March 2014

Sunday Links

Teju Cole wrote a story for Twitter. A Piece of the Wall explores the desert spaces between Mexico and the United States and the ugly discourse around immigration; the direct and concise nature of the medium makes it all the more powerful. Cole talks about the piece here (H/T for both links to Tom from A View from the Cave).

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I’ve been exploring Chris Blattman’s excellent advice for development students: Ten Things I Tell Undergraduates is a good place to start, but check out the sidebar for a wealth of helpful information.

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Bill Easterly wrote The New Tyranny for Foreign Policy, based on his latest book, The Tyranny of Experts. I’m three chapters in, and so far its been a stimulating look at the history of ideas about development, and the conditions that make a paternalistic, rights-negating approach to development possible.

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This is an old one but required reading: How To Write About Africa, by Binyavanga Wainaina.

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On the state of economics: Michael Sandel calls for more explicit engagement with political philosophy in Market Reasoning as Moral Reasoning. I think his argument is compelling. Dani Rodrik’s What is Wrong (And Right) in Economics is a reminder that many economists are already engaging in these kinds of questions.

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On Venezuela, A Historic Low for El Nacional seems like a fairly innocuous story but is, I think, tremendously significant. Fans of liberal democracy find it easy to sympathise with the Venezuelan opposition. This is a timely reminder that elements of the opposition are as sensationalist, populist and closed off to genuine dialogue as the chavistas. 

Writing Economics

Donald McCloskey (1987:3), in The Writing of Economics, bemoans the standard syllabus that teaches things about economics rather than how to be an economist:

Students are taught minor details in statistics, when the hard business of quantitative thinking in economics is getting the data straight; they are taught minor details in mathematics, when the hard business of mathematical economics is getting economic ideas straight. In most schools they are taught nothing about writing, when the hard business of economic thinking is getting the words straight.

Writing matters, deeply. It matters even more perhaps in a field like economics, data-heavy and maths-rich, often deliberately obscure (or so it seems). As I try to shift gears into a more rigorously economic mindset in preparation for the honours year ahead – and pine for the familiar theories of the political science literature – I take refuge in words. If I can learn to write like an economist, perhaps I can learn to be one, as well.

The Writing of Economics, McCloskey

Writing would be better if more of us saw economics as a way of organizing thoughts and perceptions about economic life rather than as a poor imitation of physics. 

— Robert Solow (1984), cited in McCloskey (1987)

This little gem is a clear, concise read. A lot of the stylistic and research advice applies across disciplines:

  • Writing is thinking. Start writing before research is finished.
  • Be plain. Be clear. Above all, look at your words and make sure each is where it belongs and means what you think it means.
  • Speak to an audience of human beings.
  • Read it over out loud (this may be the most helpful writing advice I ever received. Follow it).

McCloskey’s love of language and communications shines through and in many ways his book reminds me of Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. Both focus on the mechanics of getting your point across and abhor adornment and flourish, without reducing language to mere function. He challenges conventional arrangement and calls for a more natural, conversational writing style. 

A Guide for the Young Economist, Thomson

Thomson’s Guide is much more detailed. He echoes many of McCloskey’s concerns – clarity, conciseness, precision – before looking much more deeply at the nuts and bolts of economic papers. The sections on presenting notation and mathematical proofs are rather dense and I suspect I will need to revisit them when I have actually written my thesis. Perhaps the most important take-away is to take the reader on a journey with you: to remember the errors and difficulties you encountered on the way and point them out to the reader; to tell a story; to define clearly and denote consistently; to be as transparent about process as possible.

Thomson also includes helpful advice on presenting papers at seminars and refereeing journal articles. 

Resources

McCloskey, D (1987). The Writing of Economics. New York: McMillan.

Strunk, W Jr. & White, E B (2000). The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Thomson, W (2001). A Guide for the Young Economist. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Williams, J (2000). Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 6th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Quote

Marx on alienation

The laws of political economy express the estrangement of the worker in his object thus: the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes; the better formed his product, the more deformed becomes the worker; the more civilized his object, the more barbarous becomes the worker; the more powerful labor becomes, the more powerless becomes the worker; the more ingenious labor becomes, the less ingenious becomes the worker and the more he becomes nature’s bondsman.

Karl Marx on alienation, in the Elgar Dictionary of Economic Quotations.

Links I Liked – 9 March 2014

Samuel Farber’s Trotsky in Cuba looks at art and dissent in authoritarian societies, through the lens of Cuban writer Leonardo Padura and his ‘The Man Who Loved Dogs’.

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What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun by David Graeber is wonderful:

Once you reduce all living beings to the equivalent of market actors, rational calculating machines trying to propagate their genetic code, you accept that not only the cells that make up our bodies, but whatever beings are our immediate ancestors, lacked anything even remotely like self-consciousness, freedom, or moral life—which makes it hard to understand how or why consciousness (a mind, a soul) could ever have evolved in the first place.

Graeber celebrates freedom and play – the expenditure of energy for the sheer joy of it – and wonders about play at an elemental level.

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Mary Beard’s The Public Voice of Women was brought to my attention at last week’s IWDA Half the Sky event. Beard takes a historical view of the denial of women’s voices from Homer through Ovid to Henry James and Twitter:

But the more I have looked at the threats and insults that women have received, the more I have found that they fit into the old patterns I’ve been talking about. For a start it doesn’t much matter what line you take as a woman, if you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact you’re saying it. And that matches the detail of the threats themselves. They include a fairly predictable menu of rape, bombing, murder and so forth (I may sound very relaxed about it now; that doesn’t mean it’s not scary when it comes late at night). But a significant subsection is directed at silencing the woman – ‘Shut up you bitch’ is a fairly common refrain. Or it promises to remove the capacity of the woman to speak. ‘I’m going to cut off your head and rape it’ was one tweet I got. ‘Headlessfemalepig’ was the Twitter name chosen by someone threatening an American journalist. ‘You should have your tongue ripped out’ was tweeted to another journalist. In its crude, aggressive way, this is about keeping, or getting, women out of man’s talk. 

LatAm Political Economy, Australian Democracy: What I’ve Been Reading

I’m about to start Honours-level Economics so everything I read is being torturously parsed for possible thesis topics. Lots of thought-provoking stuff here. Also lots of Latin America. Scroll down, non-latinophiles. There’s a depressing one for you at the bottom.

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Jeffery R. Webber writes a sprawling but fascinating analysis of Bolivia’s economic policies and contesting ideologies for Jacobin magazine. Western commentators tend to ignore the fact that president Evo Morales’ team have pursued fairly orthodox policy despite the country’s close alignment with Venezuela and much of the government’s socialist rhetoric. Webber draws on a number of interviews and a great deal of theory to craft a really interesting analysis of the prevailing tensions. I’ll be reading it again.

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Eugenio Diaz-Bonilla demolishes the myth of a century of Argentine decline, at least in terms of quantitative economic indicators. There’s probably an argument to be made for a century of political decline, and I’m not sure the causation is as cut-and-dried as he seems to suggest, but it’s a myth I’d kind of reflexively accepted as fairly compelling. I like being made to sit up and rethink things.

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Four (at least tangentially) on Venezuela this week. Political Violence at a Glance link to some potentially interesting data on the outsourcing of government repression; Francisco Toro looks at the long-term development impacts of hurling petrodollars at the poor; Hector Schamis criticises Latin America’s forgetful left [sp], who ignore Venezuelan repression when many of them lived through state repression and human rights abuses themselves. Greg Weeks’ 15 Annoying Things About the Venezuelan Crisis is short, sweet, and pretty damn accurate.

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If you care about Australian democracy Chloe Hooper’s Lives of the Magnates will make you very, very sad.

Aside

Francisco Toro at the Campaign for Boring Development takes issue with the Guardian’s Valentine’s Day Ethics: How Green is your Red Rose? which advocates for ethical consumption of cut flowers and chocolate based on murky working conditions and environmental standards in producing … Continue reading