Sunday, January 29, 2023

No More Noma

Eating is a necessity and can be a great pleasure.  It also has a symbolic dimension in every culture.  In the long history of European civilization, going back at least to the Romans, it has been a form of status distinction, allowing the elites at the top to display their separation from the masses below.

For many centuries elite food was set apart by its ingredients, like caviar, choice cuts of meat, difficult to procure spices and rich dairy products.  Restaurants in times past would announce their status appeal not only through their prices, but also menus that advertised rarity and bounty.

Today this emphasis on ingredients is not enough.  A general increase in prosperity and the rise of a large middle-to-upper class that can afford them means that status distinction must now rest on much greater inputs of human labor, both the highly skilled labor of innovator-chefs and the line labor of dozens of underlings who precisely execute each minute twist of preparation or presentation.  Add to this the aura of world-transforming inventiveness claimed by the tech industry, and you have Noma and restaurants like it.

There has always been a tension between elite appeal and nourishment in cuisine.  The excessively rich foods of the uppermost stratum are unhealthy, which may be one reason the humbler fare of the peasantry was sometimes gussied up and given a place on the menus of the rich, like gustatory Eliza Doolittle’s.  We will see whether the chem lab restaurant ethos can find a middle ground by absorbing some of the foods people used to eat before eating was “disrupted”.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Extending Capital to Nature, Reducing Nature to Capital

The Biden administration has announced it is inaugurating a program to incorporate the value of natural resources and ecological services into national income accounts.  The New York Times article reporting this development predictably portrays the response as divided between two camps: on the one side are environmentalists, who think this will lead to more informed decision-making, and on the other Republicans and business interests who fear it is just a stalking horse for more regulation.

For the record, here is one environmentalist (me) who thinks it’s a bad idea—not completely, but mostly.

Are the quality of our environment and the availability of natural resources crucial to our well-being?  Certainly.  Can these effects be captured by economic measurement?  Mostly no.  The monetary economy is, almost by definition, the realm of the fungible.  Money is what allows us to have more of one thing at the cost of less of another, and then to change our minds and switch back to what we had before.  Pizzas can be bought and sold for money.  School buildings can built for money.  So as a society we face a choice between different consumption categories, one that is reversible if attitudes shift.

What is fundamental about most natural resources is that they are not fungible.  If you destroy an old growth forest and use the proceeds to construct a highway—not to mention a high-end housing development in Sun Valley—you can’t turn around and liquidate the road to get the forest back.  And ecological services, critical as they are (they are often have literal life and death consequences), are not produced or consumed for money, which means they are outside the chain of exchange that generates the fungibility of the goods inside it.  The monetary value attached to them by economists is strictly notional, and it matters that no one will actually pay for their provision or receive income from it.

The wiser approach is to have parallel accounts, many of them, and measure the impacts on our well-being in units meaningful to them.  Let the fungible money economy be recorded as is, and keep close track of resource depletion, the loss of ecological services and pollution in easily understood metrics of their own.  Reducing nature to measures of monetary gains and losses drains it of what makes it different and intrinsically valuable. 

PS: I’ve written two books that develop this argument in different contexts, Markets and Mortality: Economics, Dangerous Work and the Value of Human Life (1996) and Alligators in the Arctic and How to Avoid Them: Science, Economics and the Challenge of Catastrophic Climate Change (2022).

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Herb and then Barkley: we will try to sing your song right

 They are falling all around me

They are falling all around me
They are falling all around me
The strongest leaves of my tree

Every paper brings the news that
Every paper brings the news that
Every paper brings the news that
The teachers of my sound are movin’ on

Death it comes and rests so heavy
Death it comes and rests so heavy
Death comes and rests so heavy
Your face I’ll never see no more

But you’re not really going to leave me
You’re not really going to leave me
You’re not really going to leave me

It is your path I walk
It is your song I sing
It is your load I take on
It is your air that I breathe
It’s the record you set
That makes me go on
It’s your strength that helps me stand
You’re not really
You’re not really going to leave me

And I have tried to sing my song right
I have tried to sing my song right
I will try to sing my song right
Be sure to let me hear from you

--Bernice Johnson Regan

Barkley Rosser, 1948-2023

I've just learned that Barkley Rosser, the mainstay of this blog, died yesterday.  I'd crossed paths with him in Madison, WI in the early 70s and then reconnected in the late 1980s, even coauthoring a paper with his wife Marina in 1990 (I think).

Barkley and I would get together for a meal most years during the economics meetings.  He was a human tornado, quick and vociferous, backed up by a vault of reading, study and thinking.  He was uncommonly wide-ranging: although his reputation rested primarily on his work in complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics, he was a textbook coauthor in comparative systems and served as editor of the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.  Of course, if you read his blog posts here, you would know how wide his horizons were.

Bark had a great sense of humor, loved to laugh, and was optimistic despite his cynicism.  He went out of his way to help others.  Given his never-ending intensity, I'm glad his heart held out for this long.

One of the sadder parts of aging is having to say final goodbye's to so many people who have meant so much.  Bye Bark.

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Memo to Janet Yellen

 Mint the Coin!

Friday, January 6, 2023

Herb Gintis, 1940-2023

My dissertation chair, Herb Gintis, died yesterday in Northampton, Mass.  We didn’t stay in touch after I graduated—our interests and perspectives diverged—but I will always appreciate what he gave of himself at a difficult time in my life.

After my first dissertation went awry (don’t ask!), Herb, who had been on my committee, stepped in and helped me identify a new topic.  I had to learn a new set of tools, and he was patient as I stumbled through what I now recognize as elementary technical hurdles.  He even watched my kid on a couple of occasions, so I could have a few hours of freedom.  I’ve heard dissertation advisors don’t always do this!

I confess that our final session together was rocky.  At my dissertation defense I attacked my own work, and it was Herb who defended it.  He even had to convince me to publish the game theoretic modeling in a journal—I had become so embarrassed by it.  It was a terrible closure to a relationship for which I remain deeply grateful.  In recent years I had thought about contacting him again just to let him know how much his generosity meant to me, but I delayed....and now it’s too late.

So I’m taking this opportunity to say that, although Herb could be crusty—he had a reputation for this—he was also a true mensch.  He had an open mind and bottomless curiosity.  He rose to the top ranks in a field, evolutionary game theory, he didn’t take up seriously until middle age.  His intellectual partnership with Sam Bowles resulted in one of the most productive twosomes in the history of economics.  (Can you name any others?)

Here is Herb’s Wikipedia entry, and here is his website.  An impressive guy.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Why the Battle over Electing a House Speaker

I don’t know how this will turn out, and maybe what I’m about to say will be disproved by events, but here goes:

I think the Republicans face a difficulty in electing a Speaker that the Democrats wouldn’t have, and it will be hard to overcome.  Democrats may disagree intensely, but they all have legislative agendas to pursue, and in the end they are likely to compromise in order to get at least some of what they want.  Republicans have little to no agenda.  In the last presidential election they didn’t even have a party platform.  Thus there is no incentive to compromise.  If you’re a Republican congressman eager to cement your brand as a “patriot” who won’t settle for RINO’s like Kevin McCarthy, what would motivate you to vote for him?

True, representatives, even very right wing ones, still want federal money for their districts and to win favors for friends and donors.  But these things usually take the form of riders to bills for other purposes or fine print in legislative language.  The whole point of the process is that it occurs out of public purview and is therefore difficult to use to break highly visible logjams like the speakership.  The IRA compromise among the Dems did involve side payments to West Virginia but primarily took the form of substantial trims to programs most Democratic senators supported.

What will a compromise that assembles a working Republican majority in the House look like?