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February 28, 2005

Comments

Zogg

Your comments on the Summers comments betray a mind divided against itself. That it stood for this long is a testament to your fighting spirit.

As the petard, I will use the following quote:

"P.S. Babcock, my misguided research assistant, believes that the role of universities is to challenge orthodoxies and to explore provocative ideas, based on evidence."

Your belief in the proper role of universities, or in the proper choice that Summers should make as an academic, is almost completely antithetical to what you might expect universities or Summers to do as agents in economic models. You may think that you are making that exact point in your posting, but, in fact, you are uncharacteristically shying away from the logical progression of this line of thought.

As we all know, an idea is not divorceable from its context. When Summers utters something which challenges orthodoxy, it has far more impact than when Babcock says the exact same thing. I would argue that this is a result of Summers'long-standing efforts to establish himself as an authority in his field (career-building). If Summers utters something that damages his career and authority, he reduces the impact of any future orthodoxy-challenging utterances that he, as an academic, desires to promote. When does the value of airing the current utterance become greater than the risk of damage to future utterances?

This question has more complexity than a simple reduction of Summers' choice to that between "integrity" as an academic and some sort of personal career-preserving utility. I would next argue that, to figure out the proper choice (the choice of maximal integrity), one might use the same models that you economists use to analyze any other pursuit of any other goods.

This would bring us right back to the core battleground of the Babcockian mind: the Verdun where integrity or principle becomes antagonistic to economic models based on utility-seeking rational agents. Fortunately for your mental health, this battleground is all in your mind. In the Summers case, as in all cases you probably have squirreled away, it is all about utility calculations - and whether you call the utility "integrity" or "greed" or "personal growth" does not matter.

Personally, I think Summers is a dumbass for saying this thing about the ladies. The thing itself is a tautology, but why go out and say it?

Philip

Hi Zogg and thanks for your comments.

I'll start with your interesting indictment:

"Your belief in the proper role of universities, or in the proper choice that Summers should make as an academic, is almost completely antithetical to what you might expect universities or Summers to do as agents in economic models. You may think that you are making that exact point in your posting."

Yes, I’m with you, Mr. Zogg, so far. I was trying to make that point.

"...but, in fact, you are uncharacteristically shying away from the logical progression of this line of thought."

Here’s where I lose you. Dr. Boks concludes Summers should do the career-promoting thing and ignore intellectual integrity. You suggest that Summers has the capacity to make an impact precisely because he has built a reputation by not challenging orthodoxies.

"If Summers utters something that damages his career and authority, he reduces the impact of any future orthodoxy-challenging utterances that he, as an academic, desires to promote. When does the value of airing the current utterance become greater than the risk of damage to future utterances?"

Hmmm. If you’re saying that an academic must sometimes pick his battles carefully, sure, I agree. But I’d argue that your analysis is a bit misleading. Is it really the case that what academics do is spend their careers expressing falsehoods and half-truths and systematically ignoring the truth, so that eventually, when they are important and have credibility, they can finally speak and write clearly and truthfully? I don’t see much evidence of this. It is a game that does not end. Ever. I haven’t seen any sudden expressions of intellectual integrity from senior figures. (Summers, for example, has made a habit of saying outrageous and controverial things through his entire career: He didn’t just start doing it now that he’s important.) The tension between expressing bold and controversial ideas versus career advancement does not simply vanish in the long run. There is a genuine trade-off.

By condemning academic hypocrisy, bloggers and others may be able to change the climate at universities. It has already started to happen in some places. Boks sides with the old order. Play the game, produce nonsense, and smile as you put your check in your pocket. Babcock argues against him. Boks' approach creates a classic negative externality. The academic playing the game maximizes his utility at the expense of everyone else (who presumably has a stake in the advancement of knowledge).

In any event, it seems to me you conclude with a very Zoggian tautology:

"In the Summers case, as in all cases you probably have squirreled away, it is all about utility calculations - and whether you call the utility "integrity" or "greed" or "personal growth" does not matter."

The problem is: Utility is whatever you choose it to be, Zogg. When you see someone act, you simply decide that they maximized utility no matter what they did. There is no content to this. It is unfalsifiable. There is no observed act that could make you decide someone wasn’t maximizimg his utility.

Anyway, my alter ego and I stand by our statements, for what they’re worth. Sounds as though you side with Edgie this time. Many others will, as well.

zogg

Reading over my previous comment (always a bad idea), I can definitely see the sponginess of my arguments. As you may have suspected, this does not discourage me at all from restating my still-valid underlying point.
I am saying that an academic, as every other agent, must pick his battles carefully; when he does not, he can be called a dumbass without a concession to some "principle" that overrides the basic rule that you are a dumbass when you pick the wrong battle. If the calculation of utility can be made by me, an outside observer, and I conclude that it was not worth it for Summers to blurt out this particular inflammatory comment, then I have to assume that Summers himself should have made the same calculation and come to the same answer - therefore he is a dumbass for failing to do so. If you reduce this to an absolute, you do get an unfalsifiable statement - that all utility is calculable. However, I would hope that, as a budding young economist, you would have enough trust in measurement systems to avoid the other unfalsifiable extreme - that utility is always incalculable because there are these "principle"-driven actions that lie outside calculable utilities. I think that, in most situations, a reasonably smart person can make the call on whether the agent made the right choice - and what is that if not a utility calculation?

Just to correct your paper tiger:

Summers' choice is not to either endlessly blather points of consensus and have a nice career or endlessly express his own opinion no matter what and be an unread blogger. As you point out, he is known for expressing controversial opinions, yet he has made quite a nice career. My conclusion is that he has picked his controversial opinions quite carefully, and that picking this particular opinion to express was a lapse in judgement.

DaxdoolveReal


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Steven Morgan

The economic facts are eerily familiar and no less depressing: No new jobs were created in August. The national unemployment rate is more than 9 percent. (It is probably closer to 20% when the unemployed who have given up hope of finding a job and the underemployed are counted.) Some states have an official 12% unemployment rate or even higher. Thousands are losing their jobs every day. President Obama has thrown $4 trillion into the economy, including billions to save the banks and car companies, yet not one job has been created. Housing prices continue to fall as more people foreclose. Houses are being demolished in an attempt to elevate housing prices. Once-flourishing neighborhoods now look like ghost towns as jobs disappear. Consumers who are unsure if their jobs are secure, and the many unemployed millions, aren't spending because they lack the money to spend. Most live paycheck-to-paycheck and barely make ends meet. Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party politicians, Independents and every other political persuasion has either failed to make proposals to create jobs, or has implemented proposals that have failed miserably.

I believe there is light at the end of this bleak economic tunnel. Americans need not wake up each day with feelings of despair. To that end I would like to propose solutions to jump-start the economy.

It should be crystal clear by now that tax breaks for businesses and individuals have failed - and will continue to fail - because businesses and consumers can't spend tax breaks. And that is the key to reducing unemployment: consumer spending. According to many economists, some 70% of economic activity in the United States is generated by consumer spending. Consumers and businesses need cold hard cash in their bank accounts.

So my proposal is simple: the federal government should give money to where it will do the most good: directly to consumers. Each taxpaying family earning under $200,000 annually should be given a minimum of $25,000 to spend as they please. When consumers spend, jobs are created. Do families deserve this federal bailout? I firmly believe that they do; it was taxpayers who bailed out the banks and car companies. It is high time for the federal government to show its gratitude to taxpayers by bailing them out. My proposal would result in a short-term decrease of federal government revenue, but the decrease would eventually be offset by tax revenue generated by working people.
A stiff tariff should be imposed on goods imported from countries which have an adverse military, political and/or economic relationship with the United States. For example, China has for many years blocked American imports, dramatically increased its exports to the United States, failed to let its currency float, abused human rights, and created an adversarial political, economic and military relationship. It is morally reprehensible for manufacturers to do business in China or with any other country which does not share our economic, military and/or political values. The tariff would not only send a political message to these countries but would bring back jobs to America.

The income tax system should be scrapped entirely and replaced by a consumer-oriented tax. A 6% tax on all goods and services, including food and medicine, should be levied by the federal government. States and local governments can add another 2, 3 or 4 cents. There would be more than enough money to finance federal, state and local governments.
The United States should vacate Iraq and Afghanistan immediately, not in one, two or three years. While the kids in those countries are receiving a high-quality education at American taxpayer expense (and part of the curriculum focuses on how to hate Americans and other infidels), the infrastructure of many schools in the United States is crumbling, and layoffs of thousands of teachers and other support personnel continue unabated. The U.S. simply can't afford to educate the kids in three countries. Our own kids should take priority.

Your comments are welcomed and encouraged.

Respectfully submitted,

Steven Morgan, North Hollywood, CA

s.morgan56@yahoo.com

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