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The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future
The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Inequality is Not the Problem, October 25, 2014
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Joseph Stiglitz is one of the greatest economists of our time, a Nobel Prize winner, former head of the World Bank and Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. He is also seriously concerned about poverty and inequality in America. I remember well hearing him on NPR radio being interviewed on the day he was informed that he was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics: he spoke passionately and almost exclusively about the need for eradicating poverty in America and around the world.

The economic argument for policies that favor the poor over the rich are very simple, being based on the universally accepted principle of the declining marginal utility of income. What that means is that one dollar is worth a lot more to a person who makes $20,000 a year than it is to a person who makes $200,000 a year. Thus a policy that gives $1 to the poorer and reduces the income of the richer by the same amount will increase general social welfare. Some people have argued that this is a value judgment rather than a fact, but that is just wrong. It is a fact, pure and simple.

The bottom half of the income distribution in America earns only 12% of total income. Why don’t they just vote to take money from the top 1% of earners, who capture about 20% of total income? If voters took away half of the earnings of the top 1% and gave it to the bottom 50%, each recipient household would receive about $14,000, a not insignificant sum.

I do not know why voters do not expropriate the rich (both supporters and opponents in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries certainly expected that to happen upon the advent of democracy with universal suffrage), but there is one strong arguments against expropriating the rich: to the extent that high incomes motivate the talented to acquire and exercise skills and to take risks, excessive taxation will lead to economic stagnation.

In fact, my observation of American politics leads me to a very simple understanding of voter sentiments: people care about injustice but not about inequality. The current wave of anger at the top 1% is not fueled by resentment against inequality, but rather against the injustice of the people at the top gaining while others are losing jobs and houses due to the economic elite’s anti-social and greedy machinations.

There are of course societies where people care about inequality per se. But those are invariably relatively poor, clannish societies. For instance, in hunter-gatherer societies without forms of material wealth, when one family is very successful, others who are less successful will demand sharing the bounty. This of course eliminates the incentive to be successful and entails enduring social poverty of the group. In rich societies such as our own, people are used to congratulating the successful, whether sports stars, movie stars, real estate wheeler-dealers, and other celebrities. People object only when they feel success was based on some form of injustice, or the well-off are behaving uncharitably. Inequality per se is simply not something people think is wrong (except, of course, for a fringe of super-liberals, who are politically irrelevant).
Stiglitz draws precisely on this sentiment in this spirited call to action for income redistribution towards the less well off. Recounting the well-established fact that the very rich have done extremely well in the past few decades while the fortunes of those below the top 10% have stagnated, Stiglitz argues that the good fortune of the winners is indeed unjust, being a reward for their inveterate rent-seeking rather that their contributions to society. Stiglitz writes: “This book is not about the politics of envy: the bottom 99 percent by and large are not jealous of the social contributions that some of those among the 1 percent have made, of their well-deserved incomes. This book is instead about the politics of efficiency and fairness. The central argument is that the model that best describes income determination at the top is not one based on individuals’ contributions to society… Much of the income at the top is instead what we have called rents. These rents have moved dollars from the bottom and middle to the top…In the United States the “Occupy Wall Street” movement echoed the same refrain. The unfairness of a situation in which so many lost their homes and their jobs while the bankers enjoyed large bonuses was grating.”

Stiglitz recognizes that because the increase in inequality is due to rent-seeking rather than inexorable “market forces,” it can be reversed by ending the rent-seeking---in effect by changing tax laws. He writes “while we may be able to do only a little to change the direction of market forces, we can circumscribe rent seeking. Or at least we could, if we managed to get our politics right.” Much of the book consists of suggestions to this end. These include curbing the financial sector, stronger pro-competition and anti-trust laws, limiting the power of CEOs, eliminate “corporate welfare” in the form of subsidies to privileged sectors of the economy, improve access to education, institute comprehensive and universal health care, follow a vigorous full-employment fiscal policy, expand affirmative action for minorities, and restore the power of workers’ unions.

Perhaps Stiglitz’ most ambitious suggestion is his proposal for curbing the inegalitarian effects of globalization. He writes, “Globalization and technology both contribute to the polarization of our labor market, but they are not abstract market forces that just arrive from on high; rather, they are shaped by our policies. We have explained how globalization— especially our asymmetric globalization—is tilted toward putting labor in a disadvantageous bargaining position vis-à-vis capital. While globalization may benefit society as a whole, it has left many behind— not a surprise given that, to a large extent, globalization has been managed by corporate and other special interests for their benefit. Too often, the response to the threat of globalization is to make workers even worse off, not just by cutting their wages but also by lowering social protections. The growth of the antiglobalization movement is, under these circumstances, totally understandable. There are myriad ways in which globalization could be brought back into a better balance.”
It strikes me that Stiglitz’ analysis and his policy recommendations are closely tailored to what progressive Democrats in America are thinking, and to what seasoned politicians believe it is possible to attain politically. However, and while I fully agree with many of his policy recommendations, I disagree with some crucial recommendations, and there are important policy options that he does not discuss.

Most important, I think it is likely that the increase in before-tax inequality that we have experienced in the past few decades is in fact market-driven rather than rent-seeking-driven. This is because there are similar trends in all the advanced market economies, the increases in income accrue to members of high-skilled professions, such as law, medicine, and management, and the most income-skewed sector, finance, as grown exponentially through increased public demand for financial services. I should note that Stiglitz himself admits that his rent-seeking thesis is more or less untenable, and he accepts it for reasons of personal taste. He writes: “It is essentially impossible to single out any one factor’s relative contribution, given how intertwined the various forces shaping inequality are; there can be honest differences of opinion. But… markets don’t exist in a vacuum. They are shaped by our politics, often in ways that benefit those at the top. Moreover, while we may be able to do only a little to change the direction of market forces, we can circumscribe rent seeking. Or at least we could, if we managed to get our politics right.”

This admonition reminds me of the old saw about the economist looking for his lost keys one evening under a lamppost despite the fact that he dropped them in the bushes, explaining that there is more light under the lamppost. More to the point: if the problem isn’t rent-seeking, then you can’t reverse it by curbing rent-seeking! It would be more plausible to say that before-tax income inequality has been caused by market forces, but could be corrected by higher taxes on the rich (think of avoiding taxation as a form of rent-seeking). The problem is that the well-off already pay most of the taxes. The top 5% of the income distribution, who receive 45% of national income, pay 71% of all federal income taxes, while the bottom 50%, who receive 12% of national income, pay only 2% of all federal income taxes. There is not likely much leeway for increasing tax rates on the rich much more without generating very strong tendencies for tax avoidance and reduced economic participation of the economic elite.

Another indication of Stiglitz’ adherence to the agenda of the Democratic Party is his pandering to unions. Public sector unions are especially great contributors to the Democratic Party coffers, but it is not clear that they are in any way a force for the mitigation of inequality. Take for instance the teachers’ unions, which are inveterately hostile to competition in education, and which must be pulled kicking and dragging even to allow the firing of incompetent teachers. Stiglitz repeats several times in the book that teachers are underpaid, but never mentions the fact that incentive pay is virtually impossible without serious educational reform. He does not include charter schools or education voucher plan in his recommendation for progressive policy reform.

I have an alternative vision for progressive reform in America. It is not predicated on redistribution through tax laws, strong unions, or crippling the power of business and banking leaders. It is through what Samuel Bowles and I have called “productivity enhancing redistributions” (PEDs) These are policies that both improve the productivity of the economy and at the same time materially benefit the less-well-off. To the extent that a more competitive educational system contributes to the work skills and attitudes of poor youth, it is a productivity enhancing redistribution. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a productivity enhancing redistribution, as are on-the-job apprenticeship programs, support for some forms of job retraining, and support for community health programs. Probably most such policy endeavors can be implemented without increasing tax rates.

Perhaps the political types are correct in believing that productivity enhancing redistribution are not politically feasible, but I cannot imagine why not.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 31, 2014 8:56 AM PDT


Uni-ball Stick Micro Point Roller Ball Pens, 12 Black Ink Pens (60151)
Uni-ball Stick Micro Point Roller Ball Pens, 12 Black Ink Pens (60151)
Price: $7.36
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5.0 out of 5 stars First rate, economical pens., October 20, 2014
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I used to buy expensive roller-ball pens to work with. These are better, much cheaper, and a perfect shape for fine work, such as drawing diagrams or doing math.


Danco 80807 Universal Toilet Flapper with Attachment Chain
Danco 80807 Universal Toilet Flapper with Attachment Chain
Price: $9.36

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It flaps, just as a flapper should., October 20, 2014
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Life becomes truly meaningful only when you have a Danco Universal Toilet Flapper. The chain is particularly useful, especially if you attach this gizmo to you toilet. If you want to wear it around your neck, I suggest a longer chain.


The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It
The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It
by Robert Kurzban
Edition: Hardcover
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Analysis of Demographic Influences on Politics, but a Flawed Interpretation of the Data, October 20, 2014
Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban, The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won't Admit It (Princeton University Press, 2014)

It is common to view politics in America as reflecting a fundamental split between two general philosophical world-views, the conservative represented by the Republican Party and the liberal represented by the Democratic Party. Weeden and Kurzban wide-ranging study of political preferences in American shows that this is not at all the case. Rather, there are as many political viewpoints as there are major life-styles and networks of demographic relationships. This is certainly a deep truth about American politics, and the authors present their case quite well. This is a careful, dispassionate, informative, and enjoyable read.

Weeden and Kurzban analysis of this data is that people are really self-interested in their political opinions and behavior, but they sanctimoniously wrap themselves in a cloak of self-serving pseudo-morality. Early in the book they write: "while people often pursue their interests, part of this pursuit occurs through self-deceptive efforts to portray one's own preferences and actions as not so much about one's interests, but about one's competent and generous character." Many pages later they write more definitively: "people ... are, in the final analysis, basically self-serving politicians in the worst sense of the word. They fight to advance their interests at others' expense and engage in blatant spin to hide their real motives, usually without even being aware that this is what they're doing."

There are several problems with this argument. First, the authors show that demographics are important, but they do not show that they so well explain the data that such a strong conclusion is warranted. The authors present difference in voting behavior and political attitudes across different demographic groups, but they don't do an analysis of variance to show the relative importance of the demographic traits they measure and the total variance in the behavior. For instance, suppose there are two groups of voters, Young and Old of equal size, the Young vote Democratic with probability 30% and the Old vote Democratic with probability 70% (I made these numbers up). That certainly is a big difference. But a simple statistical calculation (analysis of variance) shows that Young vs. Old only explains 16% of the variance in voting behavior, so there could be five other factors equally important in determining voting behavior. Moreover, they avoid standard statistical analysis in which multiple factors are evaluated for their contribution to explaining the dependent variable. Thus, cultural values or philosophical positions could explain differences in political preferences, but because they are correlated with demographics, the authors would attribute these effects to the demographics alone. A standard linear regression model could clear this up.

Thus even if it were true that Democratic politicians strongly favor the Old over the Young, much more than "self-interest" is needed to explain the observed voting pattern. But this is pretty obvious even without the calculation. If only the poor voted for welfare, there would be no welfare. If only people who have or expect to have children in school voted for funding education, there would be no public education.

A second problem with the authors' analysis is their use of the term "self-interest" in the title of the book and elsewhere in the book to describe what is in fact thorough-going prosocial, even altruistic, behavior. They write: "Something is in a person's "inclusive interests" when it advances their or their family members' everyday, typical goals." Perhaps one might consider inclusive interests as selfish (biologists certainly would), but later, in an effort to explain the data, they radically revise this notion, writing: "And so our earlier notion of "inclusive interests " needs to be expanded further. People's everyday, real-life endeavors are enhanced by various kinds of material and nonmaterial gains, over shorter-term and longer-term horizons, received by themselves, their family members, and their friends, allies, and social networks." I submit this is so far from "self-interest" as to represent a misrepresentation of the word. This is especially serious in the title of the book, which is indefensibly misleading.
So what the authors really are saying is that people's political behavior is strongly affected by the social networks to which they belong. This is a nice piece of work. There is no need to distort it for public consumption. Moreover, there is nothing cynical or hypocritical about supporting the values and interests of one's social networks. People freely admit that they do this at least some of the time. When I read in the journal Nature that "scientists should fight for better funding for science," I do not consider that selfish or self-serving. Quite the opposite.
Another problem with the author's "spin" on their data is that people join social networks often out of deep moral conviction, so their morality explains their demographics, and hence the politics. The general movement is in fact probably network -> network's social culture -> individual morality -> individual political behavior. This is the opposite of the story the authors are trying to tell.
Perhaps the deepest problem with their interpretation, however, is one they share with many political analysts who fail to appreciate that for the average citizen and voter, political activity cannot be explained instrumentally at all. Whether an individual is selfish or altruistic, money-grubbing or generous to others, conservative or liberal, his vote does not matter at all. In the whole history of the United States, no single voter has ever made a difference in any state or federal election. Never. And probably no single voter will ever matter in the future. Voting, becoming politically knowledgeable, and even participating in large-scale collective actions are individually non-consequential.
Conclusion: a selfish individual will not vote. Even an individual who is embedded in a complex web of social relationships and cares very much about these relationship and the other individuals involved therein will not vote, unless he affirms the value of non-instrumental, non-consequential behavior. Such an affirmation is deeply prosocial and altruistic.
But of course humans regularly act as political creatures who sacrifice on behalf of society even when they make, as individuals, absolutely no difference at all, any more than a single cell in your body can make any difference at all to your survival and prosperity. Humans are, as Aristotle said, fundamentally and irreducibly Zoon politikon.
Go read this book, but think carefully before accepting the authors' flawed interpretation.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 22, 2014 5:39 PM PDT


Evolution and the Mechanisms of Decision Making (Strüngmann Forum Reports)
Evolution and the Mechanisms of Decision Making (Strüngmann Forum Reports)
by Jeffrey R. Stevens
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Mixed Bag of Insight and Straw-man Bashing, October 1, 2014
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Peter Hammerstein and Jeffrey R. Stevens (eds.), Evolution and the Mechanisms of Decision Making (The MIT Press, 2012).

This volume is the result of a Strüngmann Forum workshop. The Strüngmann Forum is the successor to the very influential Dahlem workshop series, and like the Dahlem workshops, it is dedicated to bringing together high-profile researchers from a variety of behavioral science disciplines for a week-long series of discussions and interactions on a particular interdisciplinary theme, culminating in a book published by The MIT Press. Several of these volumes have been produced and are worthy contributions to the literature.

This volume contains some incisive syntheses of the literature by Alex Kacelnik, Nick Chater, Jessica Flack, David Krackaur, Peter Hammerstein, and Robert Boyd. Some of the collective summary chapters, however, are needlessly combative, misrepresent classical decision theory, and offer illogical arguments supporting the capacity of evolutionary biology to displace the rational actor model in contemporary decision theory.

In the opening pages the authors write: “We propose … the goal of initiating an alternative to the existing axiom-based decision theory by developing a theory of decision making founded on evolutionary principles.” The authors call this ‘Darwinian decision theory’ and assert that this is a theory of “substantive rationality” (p. 3) because evolutionary fitness is an “external standard” for measuring rationality. I should explain to the reader (Nick Chater does this very nicely in his chapter on basic decision theory) that “formally rational” means that the choice system is internally consistent (mostly that it exhibit transitive preferences over alternatives), while “substantively rational” means that the choice system is optimally geared towards achieving some external goal, such as biological fitness, individual well-being, or foraging efficiency.

This argument is needlessly combative because there are many very well documented applications of classical decision theory (I will call this the ‘rational actor model’) in biology, economics, and the other behavioral disciplines, and the mathematical decision theory based on a few simple axioms is extremely elegant and powerful. There are situations where the rational actor model appears not to apply, especially if we ask too much of it (e.g. both time inconsistency and prospect theory fit into the rational actor framework, although they require appropriate specifications of the choice space---the traditional models simply do not work in these cases). This does not mean that evolutionary theory is irrelevant in these cases. Indeed, I have spent many years using evolutionary theory to explain why humans have the particular preferences they do (especially other-regarding, moral, and political). But in most cases the rational actor model is complemented and deepened, not replaced by, evolutionary models.

In cases where the rational actor model fails so that a decision-maker exhibits inconsistent choices, in the sense that he prefers A to B, he prefers B to C, yet he prefers C to A, of course we need a new model of choice behavior, and perhaps evolution can suggest one. But there are almost no such cases in the literature except where subjects are forced to make choices about things they really don’t know much about and concerning which they have no developed preferences. I explain this in "A Framework for the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences", Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2007) and in the final chapter of my book The Bounds of Reason, Princeton University Press (2009) . Even where the rational actor model fails, an evolutionary approach may help us understand why, but it does not and cannot supply an alternative model. The collective authors simply do not supply real analytical model of “irrational” behavior. Imprecise verbal “why” arguments cannot serve the job of providing “how” models of choice behavior.

There is one very interesting situation in which we might expect decision-makers to display inconsistent preferences. This is where an object to be chosen varies on several different dimensions, such as accuracy, weight, longevity, size, and the like. If different parts of the brain “vote” on the agent’s choice, the Arrow Paradox may kick in: something like majority rule can easily lead to choice-inconsistency. I speculate that this is more likely, the less experience the decision-maker has with the object in question. I do not know what this has to do with evolution, though.

The disparaging opening arguments are supplement by a long Chapter 7, written by nine participants, the major claim of which is that “In some cases, irrational behavior might be adaptive.” In fact, they give no examples of adaptive irrational behavior, if irrational means a violation of the axioms on which the rational actor model is based. The authors present the von Neumann-Morgenstern version of these axioms (p. 101), although the more relevant version would have be the much more cogent Savage (1954) axioms. They then argue that “the axiomatic approach fails on both conceptual and empirical grounds” (p. 104). The first conceptual problem is that the theory does not say why people have the preferences they do. This is a truly silly objection, like criticizing Newton’s Second Law for not saying why the force is what it is. The point is that it does not matter why---the theory is valid for all consistent preference orderings. The second conceptual problem, they say, is that the theory assumes that “agents are able to maximize their utility functions.” I kid you not---they really do put this up as a conceptual objection! In fact, theory proves that if the axioms hold, then decision maker act as though they are maximizing something. The supposed conceptual problem is simply non-existent. If there is something wrong with one of the axioms, the authors should say what it is. The third objection is that “decisions are typically made in a highly structured environment.” But this is no objection at all. The structure of the decision-making environment is captured by the available choice set and the probability structure of the model. Finally, our august nine authors suggest that people might get the probabilities wrong. Well, of course they might. The theory does not say that the decision-maker’s subjective prior over the implications of their choices are objectively correct probabilities.

I will not go into any detail concerning the supposed empirical weakness of the rational actor model. Except for regret theory, they all are wrong (such as saying that time-inconsistent preferences cannot be fit into the rational actor model) or simply do not apply (such as when agents are making dynamic choices over time in which they can learn more about the outcomes and the relevant probabilities). To be clear: the rational actor model is not a model of learning over time at all.

The rational actor model can easily withstand the fumbling and ill-considered criticism proffered in this volume. This of course is not to that evolutionary theory has nothing to tell us, but rather that it is an important tool in the behavioral scientist’s repertoire, along with many other tools, including the rational actor model, game theory, agent-based modeling, ethnography, and many others.


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.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 30, 2014 6:30 AM PDT


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: $43.64
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1 of 3 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
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5 of 6 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.
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Best Choice Products® Multi Purpose Aluminum Ladder Folding Step Ladder Scaffold Extendable Heavy Duty
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