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More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics (Historical Perspectives on Modern Economics)
More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics (Historical Perspectives on Modern Economics)
by Philip Mirowski
Edition: Paperback
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Failed Postmodernist Experiment, August 20, 2014
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Philip Mirowski, More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Philip Mirowski is a talented, widely read, exceptionally broad thinker with excellent training in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities and philosophy. He is well equipped to contribute fruitfully to the history and interpretation of economic theory. In fact, as I explain below, his substantive claims are mostly wide of the mark, and even egregiously so. But first, we must understand what led him to take the shockingly intemperate and arrogant tone exhibited in virtually every paragraph of this long work?

I will spare the reader an account of the ungenerous stance Mirowski assumes facing both physics and economics, but rather recall two reviews of this book. The first appeared in Methodus by UC Davis economist Kevin Hoover. Hoover writes “I hold no special brief for neoclassical economics. … Yet, reading this book gave me a slowly rising feeling of outrage. Taken as a whole, it is an outrageous book: neither the history nor the methodology is persuasive; the scholarship is often slapdash; the tone is intemperate; and the style is often obnoxious. Mirowski's hatred of neoclassical economics borders on the pathological… Mirowski strikes a flashy, bullying tone throughout the book, patronizing the reader, economists and physicists.”

The second review, by D. A. Walker, appeared in the Economic Journal. Walker writes “Mirowski portrays neoclassical economics as a conspiracy to delude the public hatched by prevaricating fools… A dispassionate critique of the work of the neoclassicals, both old and new, would not destroy the perception that they were scientists. Scientists, after all, have often been wrong, but have nonetheless been scientists. To destroy the perception it would be necessary to demolish the neoclassicals' legitimacy, moral authority, and prestige in the mind of the reader, and to do that it would be necessary to destroy their dignity. That is the effect, if not the intent, of Mirowski's presentation. Whereas the reader would refer to their scientific dedication, their search for truth, their research papers and scholarly debates, Mirowski refers to their 'tiffs and squabbles', their 'contretemps over marginal productivity, periodic shouting matches over capital theory, pothers over supply curves and empty boxes, and pouts over the superfluity of the firm and the entrepreneur' (page 284). At best their work had a superficial resemblance to science; they 'were dazed into incoherence' by it; but they pretended to be scientific (page 271). As Mirowski tells the story, the neoclassicals' motives, sincerity, and veracity were questionable. They 'smuggled' assumptions; they made 'gambits'; and even the modern neoclassicals engage in 'one big shell game' (pages 273-4). Paul Samuelson, for example, is disingenuous and deliberately misleading on the relation of his work to physics (pages 378-85). The neoclassicals may have used mathematics 'to browbeat and hoodwink their colleagues' (page 249), and they concocted their theories 'surreptitiously, generally under the guise' of one or another pretense (page 273). Of uncertain mental health, they 'clutched neurotically' to their field theory of value (page 275; cf. pages I97, 243). Emerging from the pages of Mirowski's script as petty and childish, they are given to throwing tantrums, 'breast-beating, wailing, crowing, and soul-searching' (page 356), and to 'calumny and cacophony' (page 28i). They 'squirm in a most apprehensive and guilty manner' (page 287), but are also prone to 'smug satisfaction and self-congratulation' (page 356). 'Lost in the funhouse' (page 377), they caper and emote, by turns coy and assertive, naive and cunning (pages 279, 367-8, 37I). Thus, under Mirowski's expert direction, they perform exactly as he wants, deftly reduced to the undignified status of buffoons in an animated cartoon.”

To understand Mirowski’s stance, we must recognize the author as experimenting with a mode of analysis known as postmodernism, which Wikipedia describes as “a late-20th-century movement in the arts, architecture, and criticism that was a departure from modernism [i.e., Enlightenment thought]. Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, history, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism. It is often associated with deconstruction and post-structuralism because its usage as a term gained significant popularity at the same time as twentieth-century post-structural thought.”

The most important tenet of postmodernist treatments of science is that all truth is socially constructed. In particular, theories create their own criteria for truth, and the Enlightenment method of testing theories against exogenously given “facts” is completely discredited. It follows that one cannot compare theories by assessing their relative ability to explain the facts, because different theories explain different sorts of facts. The historian of science Thomas Kuhn is often drawn on for support of this position, although he was in fact a strong critique of this interpretation of his work.

If theories produce their own facts, then the scientist who follows the Enlightenment method is of necessity deluded and even complicit in hiding the true nature of the scientific enterprise. Therefore it is perfectly appropriate to consider scientists as fools and scam artists, and to treat their “discoveries” as deceptions no different from that of the astrologist and reader of tea leaves. Whence comes Mirowski’s intemperate and arrogant tone.

Postmodernism is today mostly discredited, although it leaves a powerful residue in the older members of university faculties throughout the world. It was an interesting experiment, but its limits were carefully revealed in the literature prior to 1990. The Enlightenment method of comparing theories against empirical reality reigns supreme in most areas of natural and behavioral science. For this reason, Mirowski’s work now seems bizarre and embarrassing. If I had written this book, I would apologize. I might ask that the book be read as an exercise in (academic) mob psychology, however.

Neoclassical economics does some things right and some things wrong. I have outlined my take on the theory in my book The Bounds of Reason (Princeton 2009), which includes strong support for the rational actor model, and my work with Antoine Mandel, which shows how to handle the many weakness of the standard general equilibrium model. My critique of Mirowski is very simple: the only effective critique is one that (a) shows explanatory weaknesses in some area and (b) provides a theory that conserves the correct parts of the old theory and modifies the incorrect parts so as to explain the area in question and (c) explains new, previously unanticipated, phenomena.
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Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents
Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents
by Christian List
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $45.90
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Recent Contribution to Collective Choice Theory, July 29, 2014
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In behavioral theory (economics, biology, etc.) an agent must have sensory inputs allowing it to assess its environment, as well as organs and other means of interacting with its environment. In addition, an agent must be capable of choosing among various available behaviors in a given context based on it store of knowledge plus the sensory information available to it. An agent must have sufficient unity as an actor that it has transitive preferences; i.e., under identical environmental conditions and internal states, if an agent chooses action A over action B when both are available, and chooses action B over action C when both are available, the when both A and C are available, the agent will choose action A over action C. When this property fails, there is no meaningful sense in which the entity can be described as an agent seeking to attain certain goals subject to its material and informational constraints.

List and Pettit include all of the above criteria in their definition of an agent, confining their analysis to groups of humans that must make a single choice in a situation in which each member of the group has a preference ordering over the choice. Their concern is discovering a set of conditions under which the group’s choice represents in some meaningful sense the preference orderings of its members. This of course is the classic setting of the Arrow Impossibility Theorem. In his doctoral dissertation and later a book Social Choice and Individual Values (1951), Kenneth Arrow showed that when group members have at least three distinct available choices alternatives and member preferences are arbitrarily heterogeneous, no aggregation of individual preferences can be Pareto efficient (no alternative to the group choice can better satisfy the preferences of some members without hurting some other members) and satisfy the independence of irrelevant alternatives (the ranking of any two choices is the same regardless of what other choices are available) unless it is dictatorial (i.e., the group choice is that of a single one of its members).

This book explores the more recent literature on alternatives to the Arrow axioms that might permit “corporate agency,” by which they mean that the group choice does reflect individual preferences in meaningful ways. The literature on this is technical and tedious mathematically, but not particularly deep or interesting to non-specialists (in my humble opinion). The answers they provide are of a simple form: if we restrict the range of preferences of group members, then corporate agency is possible. For instance, if membership in the group requires that all members have certain beliefs and goals, then it is reasonable to attribute attitudes and beliefs to the group. This is fairly obvious, but nonetheless a significant result because it delegitimizes many forms of social bias and bigotry, such as attributing beliefs to all members of an ethnic group on the basis of the collective behavior of some subset of members of the group.
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Consciousness and the Social Brain
Consciousness and the Social Brain
by Michael S. A. Graziano
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.48
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Compelling Advance in Modeling Consciousness, July 28, 2014
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Michael S. A. Graziano, Consciousness and the Social Brain (Oxford University Press 2014)
There are two major problems in understanding consciousness. The first is: how do we account for the qualia of consciousness---the sensation of seeing a sunset, feeling pain, hearing a symphony or a bird call. This is often called the hard problem. The second is accounting for the brain mechanisms that are responsible for being conscious. This is often called the easy problem. Of course, the easy problem is extremely difficult; it is just easy compared to the hard problem.

If you are concerned with the hard problem, this is not the book for you. Indeed, I know of no scientific treatment of the problem of accounting for qualia. If you do, dear reader, please inform the rest of us. I know of no plausible philosophical treatment either, but I am not very interested in philosophical treatments.

If you are interest in the easy problem, this book has a lot to offer. I am generally uneasy about neuroscientists who watch the brain light up and then try to tell us the nature of the human spirit. They remind me of actors who play TV doctors, to whom many fans turn for medical advice. But this book is extremely judicious and informative. Indeed, the book is rare in that it gets more interesting as you move into later chapters. So don’t despair if you find the first few chapters less than satisfying.

Graziano identifies consciousness with awareness. He begins with the notion of attention. The mind, inundated with much more sensory information that it can handle, must select out at any point in time a small subset of signals to process intensively. This is attention. He then identifies awareness with a reconstructed model of attention in others and in oneself. The basic question is: why do we need a model of attention at all? What is consciousness for?

Graziano argues that attention plus low-level cognitive processing (I suppose he means the stimulus-response and operant conditioning so loved by behavioral psychologists) are sufficient for many purposes and do not require awareness. But there is often a huge fitness gain to an organism that can decipher the nature of it environment more subtly.

For instance (my example, not the author’s), take the awareness of pain. Basic behavioral psychology explains why a brain might register pain and learn to avoid conditions that give rise to pain. But consider preparing food with a sharp knife. The first time you cut yourself, your behavioral brain might instruct you to keep away from knives, but it cannot do more than that. But suppose we have brains equipped with expert systems that make high level models of the networks of complex causality involved in cooking a meal. Suppose that when we cut our finger while chopping, our attention turns to this expert system and we become aware of the multiple possibilities for adjusting our behavior so as to reduce the probability of cutting our fingers in the future. No system of operant condition could handle this adjustment process, but if we focus our attention on this expert system (i.e., if we become conscious of being in pain), then we might be able to work out a superior coping mechanism. This, for Graziano, is the essence of consciousness.

I find this a very compelling analysis. Of course, it does not explain the qualia of feeling pain, but that is a bit too much to ask. Moreover, it is a purely functional explanation. It does not tell you at all what brain processes are involved. Graziano does talk about the regions of the brain in which the mechanisms producing consciousness are located, but this is extremely poorly known.

This book might be supplemented by another the tracks the biological roots of consciousness. We know that members of some non-human species are conscious, including probably many birds, most mammals, and all primates. But I know of no study that attempts to explain the evolutionary process of the emergence of consciousness in animals. Perhaps some erudite reader can help me here. Of course some will say that we can’t know that an animal is conscious. True, but I can’t know you are conscious, either. We can however, list some behavioral and physiological conditions that appear to be associated with awareness of the environment and high-level problem solving. The biological roots of these conditions would be nice to know in some detail.

Rectangular Waste Bin,Steel Mesh,10x16-7/10x14-7/10,Black
Rectangular Waste Bin,Steel Mesh,10x16-7/10x14-7/10,Black
Offered by MyOfficeInnovations
Price: $24.18
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very elegant and useful., July 13, 2014
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This waste bin is as beautiful in fact as it is in the picture.

Multi Purpose Aluminum Ladder Folding Step Ladder Scaffold Extendable Heavy Duty
Multi Purpose Aluminum Ladder Folding Step Ladder Scaffold Extendable Heavy Duty
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3.0 out of 5 stars Well designed, but cannot be used as a step ladder., July 13, 2014
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This ladder has no steps, only rungs. This is not okay for household use, where users wear normal shoes rather than workers' boots.

The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left
by Yuval Levin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.19
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Lively Rehash of Old Ideas with Questionable Relevance for the Contemporary Liberal-Conservative Divide, July 13, 2014
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Thomas Paine believed that the correct principles of government can be deduced through reasoned argument based on the Natural Rights of Man. Edmund Burke believed that government evolves organically through gradual historical trial and error, and new social problems should be addressed by applying the wisdom of past generations. This divide is well known and has been discussed in innumerable books and papers for many decades. Yuval has nothing new to say about these two thinkers, but if you don't know the story, this is a very nice place to learn it.

Why Levin was awarded a Ph.D. from the august University of Chicago for this work is beyond me. There is little scholarship and no addition to the literature on the two writers or their philosophical positions. It is a nicely done work of journalism, nothing more.

The idea that Burke embodies the basic ethos of modern American conservatism and Paine that of its liberal counterpart is pretty far-fetched. I cherish both these men: Burke as the adamant opponent of demagoguery (the hallmark of the bloody massacre known as the French Revolution), and Paine as the champion of universal human rights. Any reasonable political thinker will recognize the truth in what both these men espoused, and the error in thinking that they are contradictory or opposed principles.

Do these categories apply to the modern conservative vs. liberal ethos in the United States? Levin suggests exactly this in the concluding chapter, but the chapter itself is simply an incoherent jumble of interesting insights with no underlying coherent theme. "The deep commitment to generational continuity and to the institutions of implicit social knowledge that we have found at the core of Burke's thought remains essential to today's American right." (p. 228) Apparently "generational continuity" refers to the old-fashioned home-grown tradition of white male privilege in the face to the growing power of women, ethnic and racial "minorities," and immigrants. The notion that this is related to Burke's concern is ludicrous. These groups just want to be part of the traditional system of American values. They are not creating or demanding any new order of things, as was the case of the French Revolution (or later, the Russian and Chinese revolutions). An "implicit social knowledge" for today's conservatives has nothing to do with the Wisdom of the Ages, but rather the denial of scientific truth in favor of Creationism and the rejection of global warming. Any relationship to Burke is verbal only. Burke would have thought it bizarre to consider fundamentalist Christianity and a wild-West enthusiasm for hand-held weapons expressions of the Wisdom of the Ages. Moreover, the conservative opposition to big government is not based on tradition, because there is not a single advanced market economy with a small state sector, and there is not much chance there ever will be, unless new and unknown technologies render such a society feasible. Finally, the possessive individualism of the American right is much more in line with Paine's principles of natural right than the social egalitarianism of the American left, which hearkens back to the age of Jefferson's small-town agrarianism.

Contemporary American liberalism revolves around issues of income distribution, not the Rights of Man, and liberal arguments on behalf of the historically dispossessed are based on Burke's principles of generational continuity in the form of asserting the rightful inclusion of new groups into the traditional forms of social power and influence. Moreover, the liberal defense of labor unions and opposition to school choice are based on tradition, a la Burke, not the universal rights of man.

I do think there are values difference between liberals and conservatives, including the fact, emphasized by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his research, that liberals endorse the individual-focused moral concerns of compassion and fairness more than conservatives do, and conservatives endorse the group-focused moral concerns of ingroup loyalty, respect for authorities and traditions, and physical/spiritual purity more than liberals do. But this value difference does not explain the absurd positions often taken by conservatives (there is legitimate rape, there is not global warming, guns are wonderful, global warming is a liberal scam, etc.) and corresponding stupidity of liberals (teachers' unions are wonderful, competition in education is terrible, obesity is caused by corporate advertising, poverty is caused by discrimination, government should legislate equal pay for equal work, etc.). To my mind, no serious student of social policy could possibly be either a liberal or a conservative. We all love Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, but they do not embody contemporary political wisdom.

A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics: What Managers, Executives, And Students Need To Know
A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics: What Managers, Executives, And Students Need To Know

4.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Introduction to the Macro Economy, July 8, 2014
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This book not only covers lucidly the major categories of macroeconomic theory, but also explains in considerable detail what every student of economics should know about national income account, exchange rates, inflation, and the like.

What is missing from the book should be carefully noted. There is no discussion of dynamics in any form, except for elementary and outdated notions of the Keynesian multiplier, and the like. This is good, because standard macroeconomic theory pretends to do market dynamics but it is in fact all smoke and mirrors. There is no serious, acceptable model of market dynamics, no matter what the so-called experts tell you (if the claim there is, they are liars or self-deluded fools).

Also missing are perspectives on economic regulation. There is no discussion of state failures vs. market failures, the role of automatic stabilizers vs. discretionary fiscal and monetary policy, and no discussion of the sociopolitical forces that led to the replacement of classical macro by Keynesian, and Keynesian by New Classical.

What is missing from this book is controversial, but a discussion of the various sides of the issues would be useful to the reader, who must search elsewhere for such material.

Butterflies...and Other Stories
Butterflies...and Other Stories
Price: $1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Masterful Short Stories, July 5, 2014
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These are graceful, elegant, and insightful short stories by a first author from which we can expect much more.

Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality
Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality
by Max Tegmark
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.68
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0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars From Terra Firma to Way Beyond the Wild Blue Yonder, July 5, 2014
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The first half of this book is an inspired and highly accessible overview of modern astrophysics, marred only by really bad photos and cramped figures. I would have preferred if this section of the book were twice as long with better graphics, and the second half of the book offered as Online Supplementary Material.

I will not go over Tegmark's speculative metaphysics, the subject of the second half of the book, as other reviewers have done this quite well. I was not convinced in the least by Tegmark's justification of the idea that the universe is a mathematical object. Rather than a sophisticated used of information theory to arrive at this result, he offers a thought experiment in which both we and aliens from another universe have completely different sensory attachment to the real world, so share only their mathematical theories, which Tegmark takes to be sets of logically consistent rules rather than a unified set of principles based on a small set of axioms. Since both we and the aliens experience the same real world, the only think this experience could be is the mathematical system itself. The problem is that we and the aliens may share much more, such as sensitivity to electromagnetic radiation and thermal activity (heat). It is probably true that evolutionary beings all share a set of sensors that are preconditions of successfully evolved creatures.

The one think I learned from this book was a really neat interpretation of Everett's many worlds interpretation of quantum uncertainty. This led me to reread Everett's short and elegant dissertation with new eyes. Tegmark's idea is that human consciousness is subject to quantum superposition, but the qualia of consciousness are localized differently in each entangled state. In other words, when we observe quantum entanglement, all possible eigenstates become associated with a distinct copy of your conscious identity. Thus it is not that there are really "many worlds" but rather "many entangled consciousness." I don't know why this might be true, but it is an intriguing idea.

Tegmark's inconsistencies are sometimes a bit annoying. On the one hand he defends constructive mathematics in which even the real numbers and Hilbert spaces do not exist (I agree with him on this) and there is no such thing as a "realized infinity." On the other hand, he argues that with probability one there are exact copies of yourself in other parts of the universe, or in other parallel universes. This argument depends, however, on realized infinities. I doubt that there are exact copies of me and my bowling team on some BetaCentauri XXVIII.

This book draws you in with excellent descriptions of what we know, and leads you Pied Piper-like into LaLa Land. Good fun.

What Have We Learned?: Macroeconomic Policy after the Crisis
What Have We Learned?: Macroeconomic Policy after the Crisis
by George A. Akerlof
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.19
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Highly Informative and Equally Tentative, June 20, 2014
If you are looking for definitive answers to the book's title, you won't find them here. That of course is a blessing, since anyone that offers definitive answers is overstepping the current state of knowledge concerning macroeconomic regulation.

Most of the papers in this volume are written by seasoned high-level financial regulation experts, not academic theoreticians. Most of the insights are generalization from history in the large or personal experience over the past few decades. These insights are extremely useful, and the authors give excellent references to the literature (the individual chapters are mostly just a dozen pages long and even fewer). Academic economists have produced a number of first rate empirical/historical studies of financial instability since the financial melt-down of 2007/2008. I urge the interested read to dive into these illuminating studies. But of course, don't forget the writings of Hyman Minsky, whose take on financial crises, although formed many decades ago, is still quite prescient and not at all outdated.

The summing up section of the book includes rather incisive short papers by George Akerlof and Joseph Stiglitz. Akerlof correctly stresses how effective was the US response to the crisis and how misled the US public has been in underrating this effectiveness and overstating its cost to taxpayers. Akerlof estimates the benefit-cost ratio as 1000 to one and that sound right to me. Siglitz, the ultimate bottom-liner, argues that we have learned from the crisis what many of us already knew: markets are not stable, efficient, or self-correcting. That of course should be obvious, but is denied by the free-market fundamentalist (who to my mind vie with flat Earthers for empirical cogency). Stiglitz also takes a well-directed swipe at real business cycle theory, which treats exogenous shocks as the source of instability. Stiglitz correctly notes that the recent financial crisis was completely endogenously generated by the housing bubble. I should note, however, that the housing bubble may have been caused or significantly deepened by Federal Reserve low interest rate policies; see John B. Taylor's provocative paper in the American Economic Review of May, 2014.

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