Saturday, August 19, 2017

Come to Barcelona soon

When I was a kid, I used to live very close to the bull ring in Barcelona. From the spring to September there were bull fights which I occasionally attended. Most of the time I didn't go, but our passtime was to watch the tourists (and their funny clothes, or in some cases almost lack of them, to be honest) that parked their coaches in our street. In those years, before the Olympic Games of 1992, we only saw tourists on Sundays because they came for the day to the city to the bull fight from the Costa Brava. In Barcelona, there were not many hotels back then. Another way to see toruists was to go to Montserrat (a mountain near Barcelona) in summer, where tourists from the beaches also came for the day. Since the Olympic Games tourists now stay in Barcelona. They have many hotels and now more or less legal tourist appartments. That does not mean that Barcelona has not been a city of visitors. Most of our touristic assets were here before the Olympic Games, like the Gaudí buildings, the nice weather and... yes, the immortal Rambla where a horrible terrorist attack took place on Thursday. That is the pedestrian street, itself a monument to diversity and freedom, which had seen George Orwell, Pablo Picasso, Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez and many others walking up and down the avenue. Some of our occasional visitors come for a few days or for an academic course and then decide to stay and join us as citizens of Barcelona. And some of them become partners of those that were here before, and even come to lead our associations, political parties or even municipalities. Only a couple of decisions separate a tourist from a local. All those of us who can organize anything know the power of the subject matter "Invitation to Barcelona" in an email. Because of this power (exerted by myself personally or others, we all know the trick) I have been able to spend time with people I admire in my profession, like Paul Levine, Jon Stern, Neil Rickman, Sam Bowles, Branko Milanovic, Glenn Woroch, Maitreesh Gattak, Antonio Estache, Massimo Florio and others. And I am also happy to having spent time with other visitors with whom I don't have professional links. In the last ten to fifteen years, I have had literally hundreds of foreign students in the Autonomous University of Barcelona and its associated courses. I expect to have more this academic course. Every time I start with a new group I feel a sense of excitement for getting in touch with individuals with such varied backgrounds, a sense of excitement that I only hope it is shared by them. All of them will enjoy our street life and be part of us. This is an open city, this is everybody's city. Among the casualties of Thursday's attack the official version says that there are more than thirty nationalities. That's surely wrong. If they followed the appeal of Barcelona, surely many of them as individuals were multinational, multilingual and multicultural. Therefore, it should be thirty times the number of nationalities inside each of them. It could have been any of us, but we are not afraid. To all of the visitors that have been here before and to all those that will join us for the first time, I say: please come soon.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Diversity and Complexity," by Scott E. Page

The book by Scott E. Page "Diversity and Complexity" is a useful complement of the book written before by the same autor, "The Difference," offering definitions and taxonomies of diverse and complex systems.
In that previous book, Page argued that diverse preferences, although presenting social choice challenges, also offer the opportunity for diverse perspectives that help to solve problems with uncertain solutions. Diverse communities or groups do not succeed automatically, as cycling is not something that one learns without some training. But once you learn, cycling goes much faster than running, which is much easier.
Complexity comes from systems that result from the interaction of diverse adaptive units from which patterns emerge that are difficult to predict in advance. A calculus exam is difficult, but not complex, because the parts do not interact.
The more recent book explains that the role of diversity is to provide insurance, competition, redundancy, and innovation. Although the book has mostly a positive tone, it also reflects a preference for diversity. This preference then must be implemented under the positive constraints set out in the book. There are many examples of this, and that is one of the good reasons to have institutional diversity. A preference for diversity makes many of us prefer big cities rather than small villages, although the countryside is also an example of natural diversity.  The author is very aware of the constraints: diversity is no panacea and not every kind of diversity works. If we put lots of randomly different things together they will not create a coherent system from the beginning. In nature, diverse ecosystems work precisley because they have been evolving for centuries. The book has many interesting insights beyond the relationship between complexity and diversity, like the distinctions between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom (in increasing order of structure).
In biology and non-human nature, change comes from evolution. In human societies, it comes both from evolution and from creative intelligence. However, intelligence has plusses and minuses, the latter especially coming from confirmation and other biases.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The book about Buchanan, and what it says about Tullock

In Nancy MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains” there is an impressive account of the efforts of Nobel Prize economist James Buchanan to build over his career a theory of government and democracy to justify the reversal of all redistributive or environmental public interventions. These efforts were generously funded by billionaires and helped to create the intellectual infrastructure of what is today a very powerful network of right wing organizations. The origins of that network are traced in the book to the resistance of the Southern oligarchy in the US to the enfranchisement of African-Americans. How the school of thought promoted by Buchanan has come to be so influential not only in the US but also in Europe (this economist was one of the favorite of more than one of my undergraduate teachers) is probably a combination of the originality and audacity of his radical ideas and the financial support he received. The book is stronger in connecting Buchanan to the social context of the time than in analyzing his ideas on their merits, something for which the author delegates into basically only just another author (Amadae, which I’ll read). By this, she leaves aside an interesting history of economic ideas, which is the debate between Buchanan and his co-authors and other more progressive economic thinkers, such as Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen, who were also concerned about the problems of government and democracy (which are real), who took seriously the critique of Buchanan to public intervention, but who ultimately reached opposite conclusions.

Interestingly, in the book there is also more than a passing mention of Gordon Tullock, the most famous of Buchanan’s co-authors, and who was recently mentioned in this blog. In p. 99 of the book, for example, we can read: “In 1967 (…) for the third time in as many years, the senior economics faculty, led by Buchanan, again recommended that Gordon Tullock be promoted to full professor. (…) Tullock had never earned a PhD and by his own admission had never completed an economics course. Brilliant though Buchanan and his allies might have believed the law school alumnus to be, he lacked training in the field in which he taught, and his publication record –apart from the book he had coauthored with Buchanan- was undistinguished. He was also an awful teacher. It did not help that Tullock struck many as an egomaniac –or just a twit. (Once, for example, as a new colleague was unpacking his books, Tullock appeared at the door. “Oh, Mr. Johnson, I’m glad that you finally arrived,” he said. “I need the opinion of someone obviously inferior to me.”). Tullock would not be promoted. Buchanan was furious.”

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Scaramuccis of the world

The theatrical part of politics attracts individuals like Anthony Scaramucci, the financial executive that lasted ten days as communications director of the Trump administration. It is tempting to say that the chaotic current US presidency is fertile ground for this kind of characters, but the fact is that it is easy to come up with examples from other corners. In fact, the generals that had no option but to take over the sinking Trump presidency have sacked Scaramucci without much hesitation. In private I can give local examples of similar characters from my personal experience. Scaramucci and those like him are fast talking and arrogant. For them, what is important is not any particular ideas or values (they can defend different, sometimes opposite, things in a short period of time), but to express anything with apparent conviction. They have a tendency to talk about themselves and to emphasize humble origins or their contact with important people. In one of the few interviews he had time to give during his brief spell at the White House, he behaved with reporter Emily Maitlis more or less as a drunken youngster would behave in a night club at two o'clock in the morning. It is very revealing to know how this reporter obtained the interview in the gardens of the White House. It seems that she was there for a press conference and she saw Scaramucci taking selfies. She told him that she was from the BBC and asked him without preparation if he was interested in answering a few questions for the prestigious Newsnight program. Scaramucci, who probably had not much traing in international media, probably didn't know anything about the seriousness and the style of reporting at Newsnight. He felt flattered and he gave the interview without preparing anything. The resulting interview did not cause any dramatic accident for Scaramucci, but a similar contact with another journalist around the same days finished with him insulting other White House colleagues. When a new chief of staff was appointed and knew about that, Sacaramucci was fired. In a world of tweets, noise and self-promotion it is probably a matter of time before we see new examples of Scaramuccis, while honest citizens will keep looking for recognized adult behavior in politics. Expect more flamboyant individuals with expensive suits supporting opposite ideas and candidates, but always being flattering to the one they obtained power from.
Before I go to the beach for one week, let me give you two book recommendations to think about politics, economics and much more: the book about the role of James Buchanan in influencing the American right, and a book by Scott Page about complexity and diversity. More about them after the beach.