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Herbert Gintis RSS Feed (Northampton, MA USA)

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Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests
Markets without Limits: Moral Virtues and Commercial Interests
by Jason Brennan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $36.89
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A major contribution to our understanding of the limits to markets, June 9, 2016
The authors' major contention, that if it is okay to give something away for free, or to accept something from another person without payment, then it is in principle okay to have a market in that something. I think this is a major contribution to the debate over commodification, mainly because it leads us to avoid quarreling about a lot of irrelevant issues. For instance, you cannot sell your child as a sex object, or to be sacrificed for organ transplant material because you don't have the right to give away your child for these purposes. Similarly, it is beside the point that current markets are not properly regulated (e.g., for sexual services) because than can in principle be well regulated in the public interest.

The authors contend that this principle is universal, but they may be significant qualifications. For instance, some things that are permissible may nevertheless be socially undesirable, especially if they become common. If markets in such a thing are suppressed the level of the activity might be quite low, but when markets are opened in this thing, the level might grow to very harmful levels.

At any rate, the book is a pleasure to read and very though-provoking. I predict it will lead to a much higher level of debate about commodification in coming years.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 10, 2016 10:49 AM PDT


Thinking Physics: Understandable Practical Reality
Thinking Physics: Understandable Practical Reality
by Lewis Carroll Epstein
Edition: Paperback
Price: $23.20
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Problem-oiriented Journal through basic Physics, June 8, 2016
There are tons of interesting problems, and the explanations are often ingenious. The difficulty of the problems is highly variable, and there are some I could not answer without actually writing out the appropriate equations. But mostly, all that I required is basic physics intuition and common sense. Highly recommended.


Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: Unleashing the Power of Financial Markets to Create Wealth and Spread Opportunity
by Raghuram Rajan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $32.59
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars but warned that businessmen did not like competition and will try to undermine it at every ..., June 4, 2016
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In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith defended the new world order of market competition, but warned that businessmen did not like competition and will try to undermine it at every turn. They will do this by collusion, acquiring competitors, and asking the government to give them a monopoly position (rent-seeking). The authors relentlessly repeat Smith's theme and bring it up to date. The most important thing they do in this book is explain what a healthy financial system does for the economy (mainly keeping the cost of financing innovation and competition low), and explaining why so many countries have severely underdeveloped financial systems (the capitalist powers that be and their government cronies don't want competition, so they hate modern financial institutions).

The authors are accused by many reviewers of begin laissez-faire right-wing ideologues, but it is the reviewers who cannot get beyond left versus right. I recommend this book highly.


A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity
A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity
by Luigi Zingales
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.99
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lots of anecdotes, few facts. Good policy advice, especially for real crony capitalist countries, June 3, 2016
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There is no doubt but that the US could be more competitive, and that lobbying efforts sometimes lead to undeserved profits for the already rich. But the author's claim that the US is a crony capitalist country is certainly not proved by bunch of unsupported asserts and cherry-picked anecdotes. There are not even many crony-exhibiting anecdotes---the author dredges up Fanny Mae and ADM over and over, and they are very poor examples because they ended up not costing taxpayers anything. Rather, they are examples of successful state intervention.

The author hates to give references and details. For instance, he speaks of a "data provider" who sued "a friend" without naming either. Spare me.

The policy advice in the latter half of the book is good, and it is about what the magazine The Economist says every week. This advice, however, does not address the US's current key economic problems, which are the economic failure of African American and lower middle class white males.


The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
by Eric Liu
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.65
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3.0 out of 5 stars Where is the policy bottom line?, June 3, 2016
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A number of books have appeared in the past few years that purport to go beyond the old divisions of right vs. left. This is an interesting addition to the mix. It is not clear what right and left mean because the positions they hold change over time and one standard right vs. left position can shift in the next period. I think the effort to deep-six right vs. left is a great idea. I can't stand either Leftists or Rightists---both are non-thing dogmatic ideologies (although changing over time).

The idea of the economy as a garden is, of course, a new way to say that there is a role for the planner (the gardener) in making the economy work. It is nice to have a new name for this, and it correctly implies that an unrestrained free market economy must go to the weeds. This is very true. The idea also is in opposition to the mechanistic notions of intervention proposed in the past by the Left (five year plans, price controls, and the like). So I like very much the garden metaphor, which I heard first in a speech by Bill Clinton some years ago.

A second important idea is that there is narrow self-interest and real self-interest. Real self-interest is considerably prosocial and altruistic. In my work I drop the word self-interest because it is confusing. If we are happier and healthier by giving to others, then giving is self-interested. But we don't feel calculating and selfish when we give, so the word is confusing. I use the terms self-regarding and other-regarding. A self-regarding motive is one that directly affects one's material well-being (what I earn, what I eat, how I enjoy my recreational time, etc.). Other-regarding motives look beyond myself to other people, the environment, issues of justice, fairness, and basic character virtues, such as honesty and loyalty. The authors' discussion of this is very nicely done.

The weakness of this an other books of this genre is that it does not lead to clear policy conclusions. What does it say about financial reform, educational policy, income redistribution, and the other myriad policy choices that we face? Not much, I am afraid.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2016 10:08 PM PDT


The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (Castle Lectures Series)
The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (Castle Lectures Series)
by Samuel Bowles
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.94
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The New And Improved Social Science Strikes Home, June 2, 2016
I am a colleague and coauthor of Samuel Bowles, so it is perhaps not surprising that I am excited about this book. Rather than praise it, given my natural bias, I will say something about what it is all about. More than mere praise, this might induce you to read the book.

A long tradition in economics and biology assumes that individuals are purely selfish or behave morally only when dealing with close genealogical kin. An equally long tradition in philosophy, sociology, and anthropology assumes that moral reasoning and action are basic human traits that apply in all social transactions. Simple observation in society has been incapable of adjudicating the differences between these two traditions. Of course some individual behave ethically and morally even where there is no way they (or their kin) could gain materially therefrom, but these could be simple mistakes, like car accidents or eating poisonous mushrooms. People are often honest when they would be better off cheating, but this could be because they overestimate the cost of getting caught, and/or the severity of the punishment they would suffer if caught. So how important, actually is morality?

Bowles uses new evidence, developed over the past few decades but still not widely known by the public, to argue that people regularly (but of course not always, and not all people) behave morally in a manner that fosters the well-being of others simply because they believe it is right to do so, and they feel better when they act morally rather than selfishly. More than that, Bowles argues, correctly I believe, that all of the material incentives and laws in the world will not create a highly cooperative society of prosocial-acting individuals unless these individuals also behave morally because it is the right thing to do. He approvingly quotes the Roman author Horace, who write " Quid leges sine moribus vanae proficient," which means "laws are worthless without morality." For instance, people generally obey traffic laws in one society and flaunt them in another. The police enforce the laws in one society but not in another. A policeman is punished for not stopping violators in one society, but is not in another. The laws and rules are worthless unless somewhere along the line someone feels morally obligated to enforce them and expects to be rewarded at least symbolically for doing so. Traffic law are still necessary to punish violators, without which the cooperation of drivers would quickly unravel. But it is the moral commitment to respect the rights of other drivers that allows the system to operate smoothly.

Bowles goes through the evidence that purely self-regarding individuals cannot be motivated to contribute to a collective effort based on carrot and stick alone. Bowles and I showed this for based game-theoretic models (the so-called Folk Theorem) in various publications (e.g., A Cooperative Species), and Bowles adds to this the failure of Mechanism Design to achieve this goal (the main theorems for which economist were awarded a Nobel price are non-existence theorems---i.e., It can't be done). Students of economics still learn the Folk theorem and study Mechanism Design (as they of course should), but many still don't get it that the major results are that self-regarding agents cannot be motivated to cooperate at a high level in most realistic situations (e.g., where there are several people cooperating and there is incomplete information as to how hard each is trying).

How do we know that people often are motivated to be honest, trustworthy, kind, considerate, and helpful? We use carefully constructed experiments with normal everyday people as subjects, mostly in an academic laboratory but also in the field with fishermen, card and stamp collectors, members of hunter-gatherer groups, and the like. Bowles major contribution in this book is to describe a plethora of such experiments to show that people in fact regularly trade off personal self-interest with feelings for unrelated others and respect of virtuous behavior.

Bowles is especially interest in how we might make better social policy by combining material incentives with moral incentives in such a manner that neither "crowds out" the other, but rather they mutually reinforce. This is part of a larger project of social policy theorists who argue that we must view the economy as a "complex system" rather than a mechanical system. For example, see Eric Beinhocker's book,
The Origins of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Business School Press, 2006).


Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers
Violence and Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers
by Mark W Allen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $150.00
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern Anthropology at its Best, June 2, 2016
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One of the most fascinating questions we can ask concerning human nature is to what extent are the behaviors of modern people etched deeply in our genes and evident in the behaviors of our ancestors from the very dim past. Our eldest ancestors were uniformly hunter-gatherers, and there are still some 1000 basically hunter-gatherer societies around the world, most of which have been studied to some extent by modern ethnographers. To the extent that these groups mirror their forbears from the ancient past, their behavior has some informative value in addressing this question. For a general and highly informative use of such information, see Donald E. Brown, Human Universals (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1991). A more recent application of this method addresses the question of how much modern technology has affected our sleeping patterns, some claiming that it is "natural" to sleep when the sun goes down and awake at dawn, others not so sure. The evidence is that modern hunter-gatherers, without electricity, stay up by the campfire long after dark and sleep some 6.5 to 7.5 hours, on average.

A prominent question that has been asked since the Enlightenment is whether men are naturally good but corrupted by modern society, or naturally evil, the corruptness of society being a result of our venal natures. The answer, we can now say with some certainty, is that humans harbor within their breasts the ingredients for both extreme good and extreme evil, and often both reside in the same breast. For instance, there is no disagreements among experts but that (a) our ability to cooperate and collaborate [good] has been central to our success as a species, and (b) human groups have always been extremely violent, on average, and probably much more so in the dim past than in the present (See Pinker's fine book, The Better Angels of our Nature).

One debate that I have found less than enlightening is whether making war is part of our nature as a species, or whether war-making is the product of modern society. Humans are violent, they are expert weapon makers and have been since they emerged as a species, and our bodies have been modified over at least the past 200,000 years to make us more powerful and accurate as weapon wielders. See my paper in a recent issue oif Current Anthropology, or Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Individuality and Entanglement (Princeton, 2016). There is surely no "gene for war" any more than there is a gene for violin playing. But war, like violin playing, is well within human capacities and war is likely to break out between groups when their common presence in the world threatens the secure future of each.

Those who dedicate their lives to making the world peaceful often find this conclusion highly threatening. I do not understand why. Just because war has always been part of human social life does not mean it must continue to be so. Social progress consists in creating new conditions so that people can lead better lives than their ancestors. World peace is one goal of such a social dynamic.

There are however, people who do not see it that way, but rather see war as a modern highly corrupt overlay on human nature. They seem to believe that if they are wrong, then we are condemned to kill each other in blazing conflicts until our presence on this planet is extinguished. Anthropologists of this persuasion claim that war is a modern invention.

The contributors to this excellent volume show that they are simply wrong. If we define war as "socially sanctioned lethal conflict between independent polities" then war has a long history, quite evident in the archeological record. I urge the reader to refer to the massive evidence presented by the many authors who have contributed to this book.

I must repeat: war is not part of human nature. Violence, lethal weapon-making capacity, and a physiology well suited to wielding lethal weapons are part of human nature. War can be contained and prevented, but the human capacity for war-making will always be with us, at least until Big Brother can give all his children a little pill every morning that drains these capacities from his behavioral repertoire.


The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
by Sean M. Carroll
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.11
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful contribution to modern metaphysics, May 22, 2016
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Sean Carroll is a prominent physicist. I love his lectures in the Great Courses series (I watch them regularly while working out on my treadmill), and his Spacetime and Geometry text is very good. My own work is highly interdisciplinary, although completely within the behavioral sciences (physics has remarkably little to add to understanding complex species). Thus I very much appreciate having and expert physicist's contributions to understanding "life" and "meaning." The strongest parts of this book are his criticisms and appreciations of the larger contributions of philosophers and scientists who understand modern physics and attempt to grapple with the problems it raises. The weakest part of the book is attempt to deal with moral philosophy and the nature/meaning of our existence as a species.

Carroll attempts to give meaning to an impersonal, deterministic universe by espousing "poetic naturalism." He freely throws around this term, but it really doesn't mean much. Basically, he correctly notes that there are many alternative frameworks for describing the same phenomena, and the rigid determinism of the Core Theory (his term for the Standard Model of Particle physics) simply has no place for many of the key concepts relevant to human existence. Among these are causality, beauty, responsibility, morality, and hosts of others. Poetic determinism recognizes that our actions are "determined" by the configuration of molecules in our brain and our interaction with the environment, but that there is an overlapping discourse in which it is perfectly sensible to say that we have free will over many aspects of our lives.

The most important point Carroll makes is that we cannot expect some interpretation of quantum mechanics or relativity to answer the deep questions we have about human nature and human behavior. He reminds me of the early Wittgenstein who, after showing that virtually all philosophical statements are strictly meaningless, and being asked if philosophy has any use at all, replied "Yes. Philosophers can protect us from meaningless philosophy."

Carroll's discussion of Turing's criterion for consciousness is very useful, and his critique of Penrose's attempt to derive from a purported non-algorithmic structure of the human brain is quite persuasive (or, at least, I perfectly agree with him). Quantum mechanics and microtubules are not like to explain consciousness. He also has little affection for the many attempts to see consciousness as related to the measurement problem in quantum mechanics (the role of observability in accounting for the collapse of the wave function). I quite agree that decoherence does not solve either the measurement problem nor contribute to a theory of consciousness.

Of course, Carroll has no explanation for consciousness, except to explain the basic principles of complexity, define and study emergent properties of complex system, and simply say that consciousness is one such property of the brains of some species. But then no one else has an explanation either.

Carroll's critique of the many theories of consciousness that depend on forces that lie outside standard particle physics + relativity is extremely vigorous and challenging. Most important is the idea that only electrons, neutrons, and protons make up the world of everyday life, and the Core Theory holds that by the proper rotation of Feynman diagrams we can expect any particle that interacts with these would be observed in particle accelerator data. There simply is no room, he holds, for additional mysterious forces. I appreciate this strong argument, but it certainly could be wrong, if it turns out the Standard Model is incomplete in some way. The fact that it has never been wrong does not give one confidence that it might be missing something important.

One of the biggest mysteries in modern physics is the irreversibility of time in the real world, despite that time is perfectly reversible in quantum mechanics and relativity. The major spheres where irreversibility are prominent are thermodynamic processes and the wave function collapse in quantum mechanics. Carroll is perfectly convinced that the arrow of time is due to the low entropy state of the early Universe. I have heard this argument for many ears, and it has always seemed completely lacking in credibility. Perhaps one can explain the gross increase in entropy in the Universe by this argument, but that does not explain why I age from baby to adult to old man, or why my coffee gets cold. The arrow of time is indeed a great mystery, or at least a proof if the limited nature of the Standard Model.

All this and more are richly discussed in this most welcome book. Where Carroll completely fall down is in dealing with human nature and morality. He has not read the behavioral literature at all, and his discussion of the philosophical literature are sophomoric and irrelevant. Irrelevant because the question of human nature cannot be answered by philosophy, but only by science. And sophomoric because he continually confuses how people "should" act and what moral statements "should mean," and never addresses how humans do act and how morality fits into our nature as a social species. He should have studies the literature before writing the last section of his book.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 6, 2016 3:10 PM PDT


Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912
Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912
by Thomas S. Kuhn
Edition: Paperback
Price: $36.00
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful history of science, but you must know quantum mechanics to appreciate it, May 13, 2016
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I knew Thomas Kuhn's work well before reading this book. My radical friends and I threw around the work 'paradigm' freely to suggest that the neoclassical economics we were studying at Harvard was just one of many equally plausible alternative frameworks.

When I got to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 1977, my office was right across the hall from Kuhn's, and we spent many hours talking about science, the history of science, and related themes. Kuhn gave me a draft of Black-Body Theory... to read and comment on, but I did not know enough history of the period to have anything useful to say.

I did learn from Kuhn that he was very dissatisfied with the way in which his earlier book, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, was being transformed into an anti-science post-modern diatribe by many academics. He taught me that there is nothing post-modern whatever about his theory of scientific change. I never forgot the lesson.

This book reveals the art of a true historian of science craftsman. The scientific content is very simple. Planck did not discover the quantum, but he discover and measure Planck's constant h brilliantly. Planck followed Boltzmann's statistical mechanics argument, in which phase space is divided up into very small cells of size epsilon, where epsilon is sufficiently large that each cell can contain many particles. Boltzmann then analyzing the resulting multinomial distribution, assuming all occupancy combinations are equally probable. It turned out for Boltzmann that the size of epsilon did not much matter (you could not take zero-limit, though). When Planck did the same thing with h rather than epsilon, he found that he could fit the observed shape of the black-body radiation curve, and fit it almost perfectly for the now well-known value of h. However, Planck believe the radiation was still continuous (a la Maxwell), and h was a property of what he called 'resonators'; i.e., the radiating dipoles that he used in the proof./ Only after Einstein, in 1910 or so, did Planck recognize the quantum nature of light.

So who cares? We should care. Kuhn's work supports the idea that science progresses from-what-we-know to what-we-know-next. This is in contrast with the Whig interpretation of science, which is the inevitable march from darkness to light, from confusion to clarity, from error to truth. Of course, there is nothing wrong with teaching physics by recounting its past successes, but that is not in fact how the dynamic of knowledge works.

Kuhn makes the interesting point in the Afterward to the book that even the innovators often rewrite the past to make the dynamics more "logical' and 'transparent.' Kuhn says: "...quite usually, scientists will strenuously resist recognizing that their discoveries were the product of beliefs and theories incompatible with those to which the discoveries themselves gave rise." (p.366).

Insights such as this abound in this rich work.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 20, 2016 2:42 PM PDT


Niels Bohr's Times, In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity
Niels Bohr's Times, In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity
by Abraham Pais
Edition: Hardcover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Uniquely beautiful and elegant history of a vital time in modern science, May 12, 2016
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Pais is a beautiful writer, an admirable human being, and a fastidious chronicler of the history of physics. I confess that I loved all three books he has written. It is true that you cannot really appreciate this material if you don't know some physics and you don't care about the details of quantum mechanics and nuclear physics. But if you do, this is the books for you.


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