Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Only in Theory

A recent editorial in the WSJ lays out the overly simplistic rhetoric that some economists use to criticize those with a more complex world-view.

The piece claims to highlight that "liberals" and "progressives" are woefully ignorant of basic economic principles. The article highlights the eight measures used in the survey:
The other questions were: 1) Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (unenlightened answer: disagree). 2) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (unenlightened answer: disagree). 3) Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree). 4) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (unenlightened answer: agree). 5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree). 8) Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable (unenlightened answer: disagree)
What the author clearly fails to understand is how overly simplistic these examples are. His use of the term "unenlightened" further shows the author's inability to comprehend that someone may not simply agree with these supposed truisms from Economics 101. However, the true story behind many of these statements is more come complex when you look at them empirically (as opposed to pretending that theoretical understanding plays out perfectly in the real world). Those familiar with the actual empirical literature on minimum wages know that the simple assertion of #7 is simply unfounded. Unemployment is a complex issue and to pretend that it is so largely affected by one factor just highlights how out of touch many in the field of economics are with reality.

Also, anyone familiar with survey methodology can identify poor question design and vague wording in many of the suppositions posed to the interviewees. The question don't ask whether these assertions are "correct according to economic theory." Were that the case, it is likely that many would answer differently (I know I would); and then you could only say that progressives and liberals didn't understand economic theory (something very different from economic reality). The survey questions also make widely unfounded suppositions -- for example, that there is something called "free trade" that exists outside of the minds of economists.

Finally, the questions fail to highlight that the benefits of many of these measures outweigh the theoretical negatives highlighted in the statements. Were it always true that mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services, then such an increase is a minor problem in comparison to having various unlicensed pseudo-professionals posing as actual professionals in a given field. To claim that simply disagreeing with such a simplistic statement in any way impugns the intervieweree is absurd to say the least.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Never Enough Time (Buddhism: A Series, Part 5)

As I got more and more comfortable in my job, time began to fly by. Weeks felt like they were passing in days, and months would end before I had time to flip my calendar. There is a lot to do in DC and it has kept us pleasantly busy. But I felt a nagging feeling: Where was the time going?

Each Moment is the Universe by Dainin Katagiri highlights the teachings of impermanence and inter-being and how our ignorance of them causes us to suffer. This was the first book I read that delved deeply into Zen practice and ideas. The book focuses on being aware and mindful in each moment.

As human beings, we always base our thoughts on this misunderstanding [that we are separate from everything else in the universe]. We always feel that something is missing from our lives. We think that to live a peaceful life we must get something that is outside ourselves. Then we try to get it. But actions based on thirsty desire just become the cause of more suffering. That is why Buddha's teaching that suffering arises from desire based on ignorance is the second Noble Truth.

This teaching, for me, highlighted the importance of being aware each day. I began to focus more on taking time to just be aware of what I was doing at that moment. This would often meant little more than taking time throughout the day to keep level and focused. I found the practice rewarding and came to take pleasure in these instants of awareness.

One aspect of the book I found intriguing was the emphasis on the congruence of time and space. Here the book explores an idea similar to some from physics.

Time seems to be separate from beings, but actually there is no separation. From moment to moment, all sentient beings exist together as a completely independent moment of time. When the moment begins, all sentient beings temporarily appear as particular beings in the stream of time and seem to have their own separate existences. When the moment ceases, all sentient beings disappear, but they do not go away: they are interconnected smoothly and quietly in timelessness.

In physics, there is the notion that time and space are not separate. That they are tied together. This notion, for me, highlights that while we can say we are in the same place, are lives continue moving. Even at times when we feel stuck or lazy, that which we depend on and which depends on us continues to change.

The next book I read was Becoming Enlightened by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was interesting in understanding more about this fabled figure in Buddhism.