Monday, August 31, 2020

The Wellspring of Economics: "The Social Enthusiasm which Revolts from the Sordidness of Mean Streets and the Joylessness of Withered Lives "

A.C. Pigou offers not a definition of economics, but rather an account of the source of economics as a field of interest,  near the start of his classic 1920 book, The Economics of Welfare. He writes: 
It is not wonder, but rather the social enthusiasm which revolts from the sordidness of mean streets and the joylessness of withered lives, that is the beginning of economic science.
Here's the quotation in its fuller orotund context: 
When a man sets out upon any course of inquiry, the object of his search may be either light or fruit--either knowledge for its own sake or knowledge for the sake of good things to which it leads. ... But there will, I think, be general agreement that in the sciences of human society, be their appeal as bearers of light never so high, it is the promise of fruit and not of light that chiefly merits our regard. There is a celebrated, if somewhat too strenuous, passage in Macaulay's Essay on History: "No past event has any intrinsic importance. The knowledge of it is valuable, only as it leads us to form just calculations with regard to the future. A history which does not serve this purpose, though it may be filled with battles, treaties, and commotions, is as useless as the series of turnpike tickets collected by Sir Matthew Mite.
Sir Matthew Mite is the leading character in Samuel Foote's 1772 play The Nabob; a comedy, in Three Acts (1772). Mite is an avaricious and corrupt character who worked for the East India Company in India, got rich doing so, and has now returned to England. Pigou continues: 
That paradox is partly true. If it were not for the hope that a scientific study of man's social actions may lead, not necessarily directly or immediately, but at some time and in some way, to practical results of social improvement, not a few students of these actions would regard the time devoted to their study as time misspent. That is true of all social sciences, but especially true of economics. For economics is "a study of mankind in the ordinary business of life"; and it is not in the ordinary business of life that mankind is most interesting or inspiring. 
"The ordinary business of life" is the famous definition of economics from the work of Alfred Marshall's 1890 Principles of Economics. Marshall was Pigou's teacher, and also his predecessor at Cambridge. Pigou continues: 
One who desired knowledge of man apart from the fruits of knowledge would seek it in the history of religious enthusiasm, of martyrdom, or of love; he would not seek it in the market-place. When we elect to watch the play of human motives that are ordinary--that are sometimes mean and dismal and ignoble--our knowledge is not the philosopher's impulse, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but rather the physiologist's, knowledge for the healing that knowledge may help to bring. Wonder, Carlyle declared, is the beginning of philosophy. It is not wonder, but rather the social enthusiasm which revolts from the sordidness of mean streets and the joylessness of withered lives, that is the beginning of economic science.
I would quibble with Pigou's formulation. In my own view, the "ordinary" actions of people earning an income, supporting families, opening up possibilities for consumption and pursuing their interests, and saving for the future offer deep insights into people as they really are. In many cases, the "ordinary" actions of people are intertwined with love and sacrifice for families, friends, and communities. I am suspicious of a claim that I learn more about human nature from martyrdom than from someone's efforts to build a career and support their family. I do have a sense of "wonder" in contemplating the workings of a decentralized economy. I am congenitally suspicious of those who want economics to offer a justification for their own preferred shortcut to the fruits of economic gain, without sufficient consideration of how their proposals will interact with the lives of "ordinary" people. But Pigou's formulation also has obvious merit, in that many economists have in fact been drawn to the field by a desire to improve social conditions, and in a recognition that a lack of economic activity and opportunities for economic participation can lead to mean streets and withered lives. 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Wearing Face-masks: The Mixed Evidence

What does the actual scientific literature say about wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19? It's less clear than a non-scientist like me might prefer. Indeed, a lot of the discussion seems to be happening in real time in working papers that have not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal. Ultimately, the case for wearing face-masks lacks a clear-cut scientific base--but it may still be a good idea. Let's stroll through some of the studies. 

Several recent reviews of the existing literature on studies of face masks that use random controlled trial methods do not find a reason to wear a mask. For example, Julii Brainard, Natalia Jones, Iain Lake, Lee Hooper, and Paul R Hunter have published "Facemasks and similar barriers to prevent respiratory illness such as COVID-19: A rapid systematic review" (posted April 6, 2020).  It's at the medRxiv (pronounced "med-archive"), a "preprint" system for sharing early drafts run by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Yale University, and BMJ, where it says at the website: "Preprints are preliminary reports of work that have not been certified by peer review. They should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information." The Brainerd et al. paper does a systematic analysis of 31 studies across different masks, different settings, and with different methods. They write: 

Based on the RCTs [randomized control trials]we would conclude that wearing facemasks can be very slightly protective against primary infection from casual community contact, and modestly protective against household infections when both infected and uninfected members wear facemasks. However, the RCTs often suffered from poor compliance and controls using facemasks. Across observational studies the evidence in favour of wearing facemasks was stronger. We expect RCTs to under-estimate the protective effect and observational studies to exaggerate it. The evidence is not sufficiently strong to support widespread use of facemasks as a protective measure against COVID19. However, there is enough evidence to support the use of facemasks for short periods of time by particularly vulnerable individuals when in transient higher risk situations. Further high quality trials are needed to assess when wearing a facemask in the community is most likely to be protective.  

Another group of authors has their own literature review up on medRxiv, with similar findings. T. Jefferson et al. have written, "Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Part 1 - Face masks, eye protection and person distancing: systematic review and meta-analysis" (April 7, 2020). They look back at evidence from a previous coronavirus outbreak--the SARS episode in 2003, and then also at 15 randomized control trial studies since then. They write: 

Most included trials had poor design, reporting and sparse events. There was insufficient evidence to provide a recommendation on the use of facial barriers without other measures. We found insufficient evidence for a difference between surgical masks and N95 respirators and limited evidence to support effectiveness of quarantine ... Despite the lack of evidence, we would still recommend using facial barriers in the setting of epidemic and pandemic viral respiratory infections, but there does not appear to be a difference between surgical and full respirator wear.
On the pro-mask side, a widely mentioned study is from Jeremy Howard et al. "Face Masks Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review" (most recent version July 12, 2020). This one is at, a server run by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, and it again is not a peer-reviewed paper. These authors "synthesize the relevant literature," which is a way of saying that they are writing a persuasive essay, not summing up the results of earlier studies. 

They point out: "A primary route of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is likely via small droplets that are ejected when speaking, coughing or sneezing." They focus on masks not as a method of protecting the wearer, but as a method of protecting others. They write: "Although no randomized controlled trials (RCT) on the use of masks as source control for SARS-CoV-2 has been published, a number of studies have attempted to indirectly estimate the efficacy of masks." They point to one study with 10 people, another study with 4 people, a study of health care workers in Chinese hospitals, a case study of someone who flew on a plane from China to Toronto, and other pieces of evidence. Some studies looked at combinations of measures like masks, hand-washing, disinfecting and social distancing in earlier outbreaks of flu, and found that the combination helped to reduce the spread of disease. Finally, they argue that the costs of wearing masks are low, so the "precautionary principle" suggests that it is worth doing even given the imperfect evidence. They conclude: "When used in conjunction with widespread testing, contact tracing, quarantining of anyone that may be infected, hand washing, and physical distancing, face masks are a valuable tool to reduce community transmission."

For a skeptical view of this argument, Graham Martin, Esmée Hanna, and Robert Dingwall have their own preprint paper, "Face masks for the public during Covid-19: an appeal for caution in policy" (April 24, 2020), available at the SocArXiv website.  They suggest several concerns (footnotes with citations omitted): 

First, the very weak evidence for face masks should be reiterated. Although some important studies followed the outbreak of SARS-Cov-1 in the 2000s, by and large the quality and clarity of the evidence base for face masks as a means of reducing transmission is disappointing. Few studies examine use of face masks in community settings; those that do find no evidence of reduced transmission compared with no face masks. ... Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence ... But existing research also provides little information on potential harms, such as “discomfort, dehydration, facial dermatitis, distress, headaches, exhaustion.” Here, too, absence of evidence should not be taken as evidence of absence. 

Second, it is unclear how well equipped the general public is to make proper use of face masks, or how readily good practice might be disseminated and taken up. Appropriate use of face masks is challenging and is something healthcare workers themselves can struggle with;  poor use (including poor fitting, adjustment, touching) can reduce effectiveness and pose an infection risk in itself. ... For non-disposable clothbased masks, the evidence base is slim, though one hospital-based three-arm trial found worse infection outcomes in wearers of cloth masks than in wearers of medical masks and in a control group (usual practice, which included much mask-wearing).  Cloth masks will retain moisture, with indeterminate consequences for their efficacy and for the creation of a microbiological environment favourable to other bacterial or viral organisms. ...  An evidence base for homemade masks is likely to be elusive. However, the existing research, coupled with the potential for great variation in materials, fit, adherence, touching and adjustment, doffing, disposal, frequency of laundering and so on, suggests the need for caution in advising widespread uptake, especially given the paucity of evidence for cloth face masks, their use, and their possible microbiological downsides. 

Third, at the microsocial level, the argument might be made that encouraging uptake of face masks might lead to reduced compliance with other measures, due to the false sense of security presented by the mask. Such arguments rest on evidence around risk compensation in other areas of public health, for example seatbelts,  cycle helmets,  vaccination against sexually transmitted infections,  and injury prevention in competitive sports. ... [T]here is a case that face masks might promote, if not active risk-taking, then at least a complacency that might reduce adherence to other measures, especially given the largely collective rather than individual benefits that the wearing of masks seeks to address. ... There is also an argument that universal mask-wearing might aggravate the climate of fear already documented for Covid-19, 17 adding to mental health concerns by providing a constant reminder of the threat posed by other humans. 

Fourth, potential downsides of the promotion of face masks in community settings present themselves at the macrosocial level. ... As a highly visible symbol of virtuous behaviour, those who fail to comply—for example, because of respiratory ailments that make prolonged mask-wearing dangerous, 20 or because of religious preferences such as beards worn by Sikh men or hijabs worn by Muslim women that may make mask-wearing difficult—may be subject to stigmatisation or worse. ... Meanwhile, notwithstanding the weak evidence base for face masks as a standalone measure,  businesses or states might see widespread or mandatory mask-wearing as a warrant for a premature return to ‘business as usual’, justifying unsafe workplaces or crowded commuting conditions in terms of the protection offered by masks. 

This leads us to our final point. ...  Face masks (and measures to secure their uptake) are a complex intervention in a complex system: the results of a change of this nature are emergent, unpredictable, and potentially counterintuitive. 

This list of potential costs of mask-wearing is not dire, but neither is it illusory. 

Where does this leave us? It's perhaps worth pausing a moment to be clear on what "science" is telling us here. If "science" means peer-reviewed studies, then none of these essays are telling us anything--because they have not been peer-reviewed. The advice to wear masks based on a combination of partial information and the precautionary principle may be seem sensible, and may in fact be sensible, but "it just makes sense" is not a proven scientific result. 

On the other side, the pandemic is happening now. The overall US death rate continues to be elevated, and COVID-19 is the likely cause. Comprehensive studies done with ideal methodology take months or years. We need to make a decision now, based on imperfect evidence, and then follow up as best we can with evaluating the results of that decision. Of course, the current wave of rule-making seems to emphasize mask-wearing in indoor or crowded settings. 

On yet another side, I'll point out that the argument for experimenting with imperfect steps now, based on imperfect scientific evidence, applies to a lot more than just wearing masks. For example, it applies to the use of imperfect tests for COVID-19 as they are developed, to experimentation of imperfect treatments for COVID-19 as they are proposed, and maybe in the not-too-distant future the use of an imperfect vaccine. In all of these areas, the "science" is likely to be shakier than one might optimally prefer.

It seems to me that the public health experts have badly muddled the question of whether mask-wearing was needed. The general advice back in March and April was that masks were not needed; now in August and September, masks have become near-mandatory in various settings. I don't know whether the public health crowd was underreacting then or is overreacting now.  I suppose one could even argue that the anti-mask recommendations early in the pandemic made sense because of the lack of clear-cut evidence, while the pro-mask recommendations now make sense because the pandemic is lasting longer than some of the early epidemiology models predicted. I have masks in my car and my office to follow the rules. But I don't automatically put on a mask when walking outside or standing six feet from someone and having a conversation. And if I see someone walking by without a mask when I happen to be wearing one, I don't snark at them--unless they are actually sneezing and coughing, or singing operatically, as they walk by. 

Friday, August 28, 2020

Jacob Viner: A Modest Proposal for Some Scholarship in Graduate Training

Academic specialization has its tradeoffs. On one side, extreme specialization and focus helps to develop insights and discoveries that would otherwise be  unlikely to occur. On the other side, it's possible, as the old saying goes, to know more and more about less and less until you end up knowing everything about nothing. Recognizing this tradeoff isn't a new insight, but it has rarely been addressed with more grace than by the economist Jacob Viner in a speech entitled "A Modest Proposal for Some Stress on Scholarship in Graduate Training," given at the Graduate Convocation at Brown University on June 3, 1950, and then published a few yeas later in the Quarterly Journal of Speech (February 1954, 40:1, pp. 15-23). 

Viner's talk is the source of one of my own favorite comments about academic graduate training: "Men are not narrow in their intellec­tual interests by nature; it takes special and rigorous training to accomplish that end."

Viner is a very prominent economist who does highly specialized work, and who values the specialized work done by others. Thus, he strives to be both mild but definite in his praise of broader scholarship. He offer a number of wry observations along the way. Here's a comment on academic specialization: 
This is the ever-growing specialization not on­ly as between departments but even within departments, a specialization car­ried so far that very often professors within even the same department can scarcely communicate with each other on intellectual matters except through the mediation at seminars and doctoral examinations of their as yet incomplete­ly specialized students. This develop­ment has not been capricious or without function. The growth in the accumula­tion of data, in the refinement and deli­cacy of tools for their analysis so that great application and concentration are necessary for mastery of their use, has not only ended the day of the polymath with all knowledge for his province, but seems steadily to be cutting down the number of those who would sacrifice even an inch of depth of knowledge for a mile of breadth. 
Viner suggests making some room for "scholarship," by which he does not mean the addition of even more specialized work. He said:
My proposal is both sincere and mod­est. I give also only an old-fashioned and modest meaning to the term "schol­arship." I mean by it nothing more than the pursuit of broad and exact knowl­edge of the history of the working of the human mind as revealed in written records. I exclude from it, as belonging to a higher order of human endeavor, the creative arts and scientific discovery. What I propose, stated briefly and simply, is that our graduate schools shall assume more responsibility than they ordinarily do, so that the philosophers,economists, mathematicians, physicists, and theologians they turn out as finished teachers, technicians, and practitioners shall have been put under some pressure or seduction to be also scholars. ... 
A small place once given to scholarship, moreover, I would not object if it were then confined to its allotted space, or at least not permitted to spread with­out restraint into areas beyond its prop­er jurisdiction, where if it intrudes it steals time and other less valuable resources from what are generally acknowl­edged to be more important activities. A verger of a church, reproved for lock­ing the doors of the church, replied that when they were left open it often re­sulted in people praying all over the place. I concede that we don't want students and faculty unrestrainedly pur­suing scholarship all over our universi­ties while they have so much more ur­gent business to attend to. 
One virtue of scholarship is that it will help teaching, especially undergraduate teaching. Viner writes: 
The graduate schools, I repeat, tend to mould their students into narrow spe­cialists, who see only from the point of view of their subject, or of a special branch of their special subject, and fail to recognize the importance of looking even at their own subject from other than its own point of view. These stud­ents then acquire their doctoral degrees on the strength of theses which have demonstrated to the satisfaction of their supervisors that they have adequately decontaminated their minds from any influences surviving from their undergraduate training in other fields than those occupied by their chosen disci­pline. They then find their way back to the colleges to transmit to the next gen­eration the graduate school version of a liberal education, or how to see the world through the eye of a needle ...

Men are not narrow in their intellec­tual interests by nature; it takes special and rigorous training to accomplish that end. And men who have been trained to think only within the limits of one subject, will never make teachers at the college level even in that subject. They may know exceedingly well the possibilities of that subject, but they will never be conscious of its limi­tations, or if conscious of them will never have an adequate motive or a good basis for judging as to their consequence or extent. 
A broader virtue of scholarship, Viner argues, is that it provides a context for satisfaction with a life spent in reading, writing, and thinking: 
And I plead on be­half of scholarship, not that it will save the world, although this has conceivably happened in the past and may happen again; not that it brings material re­wards to the scholar, although this also may have occurred, to the scandal of his academic superiors; not that it is an in­variably exciting activity, for it gener­ally involves a great deal of drudgery ... All that I plead on behalf of scholarship, at least upon this occasion, is that, once the taste for it has been aroused, it gives a sense of largeness even to one's small quests, and a sense of fullness even to the small answers to problems large or small which it yields, a sense which can never in any other way be attained, for which no other source of human gratification can, to the addict, be a satisfying substitute, which gains instead of loses in quality and quantity and in pleasure-yielding capac­ity by being shared with others ....

Pride in one·s special subject is a virtue, not a vice. It is right and proper, and good to look upon, to see a tanner in love with leather and a carpenter in love with wood. But what a meager portion of the realm of the mind is covered even by the proudest single subject! If only there is the will, how much of the rich realm of the human mind lies open for invasion, for the physicist beyond, be­side, and behind nuclear fission, and for the economist in regions where the circulating medium is of more precious metal than even under the gold stand­ard!
I sometimes try to make Viner's argument, in a less graceful way by noting that academic specialization always has two functions. One is the use of specialization as a tool for research and communication about research. It would be difficult, for example, to communicate about cutting-edge research on a coronavirus vaccine without using specialized jargon. But academics are people, not just research machines, and so specialization ends up having a social dimension as well. In particular, extensive use of particular jargon and keeping up with how it changes defines a certain academic in-group, and thus can be an important tool for pure careerist purposes. Some academics find ways to move fluently between jargon and broader forums and purposes for communication--like the undergraduate classroom. Some have a harder time doing so. 

For a previous meditation on this subject, see "How the Jargonauts Keep  Normies in their Place" (August 20, 2017). 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Hewitt's 10 Commandments for Academic Writing

Richard M. Hewitt worked as an editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association, among other publications. He wrote a pithy essay about some shortcomings he commonly observed in an essay in the medical literature: "Exposition as Applied to Medicine: A Glance at the Ethics of It" (JAMA, October 2, 1954, 156:5, pp. 477-479). Hewitt wrote: 
Physicians are under obligation to teach, and teaching is done largely by means of the printed page. When I chose medical editing as my full-time contribution to that educational effort, I entered an occupation that W.  Albert NoyesJr. recently said is a way to lose old friends and to make no new ones. True enough, an editor is paid to find fault. The faultfinding here, however, will be broadly based. First in work on The Journal of this association, and later in war work supported by my present organization, I read thousands of manuscripts that originated in places situated throughout the United States. I aim, then, at no person, at no group, but at certain writing practices that, springing from innocent motives, finally have beset members of the medical profession.
After some discussion with real-world examples, Hewitt summarize with 10 commandments: 
Therefore, may I submit 10 commandments for the medical expositor, and consider them, please, always with the realization that an exceptional circumstance may make one or another of them inapplicable: 
  1. Thou shalt not, unless circumstances be extraordinary, release for publication a paper that neither contains anything new nor sheds new light on something old.
  2. Thou shalt not allow thy name to appear as a coauthor unless thou hast some authoritative knowledge of the subject concerned, hast participated in the underlying investigation, and hast labored on the report to the extent of weighing every word and quantity therein.
  3. Thou shalt not fail to place within quotation marks the words of another, nor shalt thou fail to verify the accuracy of thy quotations.
  4. Thou shalt not consider that to alter the words of another frees thee from the obligation to credit that other with an idea that thou hast borrowed from him.
  5. Thou shalt not publish a reference in such manner that the reader will think thou hast read a certain article if thou hast read only an abstract or paraphrase thereof.
  6. Thou shalt not write to please thyself but to meet the needs of thy reader.
  7. Thou shalt not publish, as if thou wert sure of it, that of which thou art not sure.
  8. Thou shalt not allow one part of thy paper to disagree with another part thereof.
  9. Thou shalt not mix categories.
  10. Thou shalt not fail to verify, again and yet again, thy arithmetic.
As someone who has worked as the Managing Editor of an academic journal for the last 34 years, albeit in economics rather than in medicine, I will say only that a clear majority of these concerns remain  uncomfortably present.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Milan Kundera: The Primeval Attraction of Circle Dancing

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (published in English in 1980), the Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote about the deep human desire of character in the novel--Madame Raphael--to combine with a group of other people who have unified set of thoughts and statements and actions (from p. 89): 
Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.
A few years ago, I was having a friendly argument (and yes, it is possible!) about some campus cause of the day. I was arguing that the factual and analytical claims behind the cause was misguided. My friend mulled over my comments, and then responded that I might be right about the argument, but he thought it was valuable for students to have the experience of participating in a broad-based social actions. So if the argument for the cause itself was at least plausible, he had a default position of acting and speaking in direct support of such movements--even if he had not much considered the underlying merits or was dubious about them. My friend saw positive value in circle dancing. 

I feel the emotional pull of circle dancing. I even participate from time to time. But not often. I'm more likely to find reasons and make distinctions about why I don't feel comfortable joining up or signing off. My inner curmudgeon wants to recoil---and recoil hard--from any intensely unified group. Instead, I want to read, write, think, discuss, and draw distinctions. Mind you, I'm not confident my friend is wrong, and I'm not making a case in defense of my leanings. Even when it comes to nonparticipation in groups, I don't necessarily want to be grouped with the nonparticipants.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The History of the Fish Stick: The Ocean's Hot Dog

There comes a time in the life of every parent where you are trying to toss together a dinner in the next 20 minutes that you already have in the house, that can stand to serve your small children, and that your small children are willing to eat.   For us, as for many parents, fish sticks were one item in our rotation of possibilities. 

How were fish sticks invented? As is so often true when looking at any innovation in detail, a mixture of false starts, new technology, marketing, and broader social developments is at play. Paul Josephson tells the tale in "The Ocean's Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick" (Technology and Culture, January 2008).  
The postwar years witnessed a rapid increase in the size of merchant marines in many countries, with these merchant fleets adopting new, almost rapacious catching methods and simultaneously installing massive refrigeration and processing trawlers. Sailors caught, beheaded, skinned, gutted, filleted, and then plate-or block-froze large quantities of cod, pollock, haddock and other fish--tens of thousands of pounds--and kept them from spoiling in huge freezing units. Once on shore, the subsequent attempt to separate whole pieces of of fish from frozen blocks resulted in mangled, unappetizing chunks. Frozen blocks of fish required a series of processes to transform them into a saleable, palatable product. The fish stick came from fish blocks being band-sawed into rectangles roughly three inches long and one inch wide (~7.5 x 2.5 cm), then breaded and fried. Onboard processors eventually learned to trim fish into fillets and other useable cuts before freezing. Processors considered these other cuts the "portion," in institutional kitchens (schools, hospitals, factories, and restaurants).
One false start was the idea of fishbricks, rather than fish sticks. Before the fish stick arrived in 1953:
For example, the fishing industry tried marketing "fishbricks," which were quick-frozen filleted fish packaged like blocks of ice cream. The main selling point was that "the housewife can cut the fish into any shape and be confident that the shape will be retained even after cooking"; no defrosting was necessary. But the First National and Kroger's grocery stores could hardly sell the product, and moreover, most stores lacked frozen-food display cases to accommodate the bricks.
Some of the most important technological developments for fish sticks involved freezer technology. The fish needed to be quick-frozen at sea. When the fishing trawler reached port, there needed to be an ability to ship frozen products by rail and truck. Supermarkets needed to have a sufficient freezer section. Then households needed to have a refrigerator with a freezer.  By the early 1950s, the big moment had come: 
[T]he Birds Eye product line of General Foods introduced fish sticks to national fanfare on 2 October 1953. A newspaper article even claimed that that this was "the most outstanding event" in seafood since the early 1930s. Fish sticks signaled the modern era of easy-to-prepare, nutritious foods. This shift toward precooked foods, and sea foods in particular, represented "the first big improvement in the use of raw food materials since early days of the introduction of quick freezing." Developed at Bird's Eye's seafood laboratories in Boston over a three-year period, fish sticks time-saving quality was its greatest attribute: "No actual cooking is required," its promoters proudly announced. Just as important, the fish stick would "help increase the per capita consumption of fish." ...
As noted, fish sticks met with immediate success. Within months of their introduction in 1953, they had grabbed 10 percent of noncanned fish sales. Production leapt upward; in Gloucester alone, there were 500 new jobs and processing went from seven months to year-round. According to the Wall Street Journal fish sticks were "the first really new processing development in a quarter-century for one of the nation's oldest industries."
But it wasn't all easy sailing. Various government policies also gave fish sticks a boost. 
One was the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act, passed by Congress in 1956, that both supported fisheries research and provided $45 million to promote the virtues of new products in supermarkets, including the fish stick. Senators Leverett Saltonstall and John F. Kennedy, Republican and Democrat of Massachusetts, respectively, introduced this legislation for several reasons: to support commercial fisheries during a recession in the industry due, in part, to growing foreign competition; to convince a skeptical public of the value of fish sticks and other products; and to encourage supermarkets to undertake the large expense of purchasing and installing freezer display cases.
Another program was the National School Lunch Act of 1946, which helped to a unified school lunch market and a reliable market for fish sticks. The US Department of Agriculture also stepped in by publishing U.S. Standards for Grades of Frozen Fried Fish Sticks in 1956, to help ensure quality. 

The scientists in the MIT food-technology department played a role as well. 
... in July 1956 Gorton's and MIT sponsored what the organizers claimed was "the first seminar in the history of the frozen foods industry." The seminar focused on "how to keep frozen seafood sufficiently frozen at all times from plant to customer to maintain flavor, texture, nutrition and kindred values inherent in wholesome fresh fish." Observers called the seminar a "unique [and] trailblazing researcher-marketer" session. The seminar's participants visited several supermarkets and the automatic seafood-freezing plant recently opened by Gorton's. Professor Bernard Proctor, head of MIT's food-technology department, committed his department to a long-term effort to assist Gorton's in improving the fish stick.
Apparently, two MIT students wrote doctoral dissertations on fish stick technology, But according to Josephson, apparently the true heyday of the fish stick only lasted until the early 1960s. At that point, breaded fish patties and breaded shrimp overtook the humble fish stick. Josephson writes of a race to the bottom in quality of fish sticks: 
As more and more companies entered the market, many of them sought to cut costs by producing an inferior product, one with more breading and other non- fish substances. The fish stick became the "hot dog" of the ocean; many Americans continued to feel that fish sticks were a mediocre food, and companies that strove to keep quality (and fish) at the forefront of production suffered the consequences.
My children have outgrown the fish stick age. But I remember standing there in the freezer section of the grocery store, reading labels on fish stick boxes, trying to figure out which brands included more actual fish as a main ingredient.  

Monday, August 24, 2020

Free Expression of Professors and Its Prudential Limits

About a century ago, there was a tussle in higher education policy about the freedom of professors to express opinions. Academic tenure was not yet well-established, and so the prospect of professors being fired because they openly disagreed with someone in academic or political power was quite real. In 1915, the "General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure" was presented at the annual meetings of the American Association of University Professors. It was published in the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors (December 1915, pp. 15-43), and is readily available through the magic of HathiTrust

In my reading, the report sought to strike a balance. It affirmed in strong terms that professors had a right to speak out, conclude what they wanted from their research, write what they wanted,  join political movements,and so on. However, it also stated that professors should either forebear or be cautious, in several specific contexts, from expressing political opinions. In particular, the report argued against professors bringing their political beliefs into the classroom or into the institutional purpose of the university. To put it another way, part of the tradeoff for the freedom and security of academic tenure in the personal sphere was an assumption of responsibility that the university itself not take overtly or excessively partisan positions, whether officially or in its classrooms. It also argued that this standard should be enforced by other faculty members. 

(Of course, as with so many good things in life, this report had some origins in economics. The report began in 1913 as a joint effort by the American Economic Association , the American Political Science Association , and the American Sociological Society. Then in 1914, it was expanded to become a more general effort by the American Association of University Professors. The 15-member committee was chaired by economist Edwin R. A. Seligman of Columbia, and included two other economists, Richard T. Ely from U-Wisconsin and Frank A. Fetter from Princeton.) 

Here's a comment on how the report saw problems of academic freedom as they relate to the social sciences: in some private universities, professors were losing their jobs because they were insufficiently opposed to socialism; in some public universities, professors were losing their jobs because they were insufficiently supportive of socialism. The Committee wrote: 
The special dangers to freedom of teaching in the domain of the social sciences are evidently two. The one which is the more likely to affect the privately endowed colleges and universities is the danger of restrictions upon the expression of opinions which point towards extensive social innovations, or call in question the moral legitimacy or social expediency of economic conditions or commercial practices in which large vested interests are involved. ... On the other hand, in our state universities the danger may be the reverse. Where the university is dependent for funds upon legislative favor, it has sometimes happened that the conduct of the institution has been affected by political considerations; and where there is a definite governmental policy or a strong public feeling on economic, social, or political questions, the menace to academic freedom may consist in the repression of opinions that in the particular political situation are deemed ultra-conservative rather than ultra-radical. The essential point, however, is not so much that the opinion is of one or another shade, as that it differs from the views entertained by the authorities. The question resolves itself into one of departure from accepted standards; whether the departure is in the one direction or the other is immaterial. 

This brings us to the most serious difficulty of this problem; namely, the dangers connected with the existence in a democracy of an overwhelming and concentrated public opinion. The tendency of modern democracy is for men to think alike, to feel alike, and to speak alike. Any departure from the conventional standards is apt to be regarded with suspicion. Public opinion is at once the chief safeguard of a democracy, and the chief menace to the real liberty of the individual. ...

An inviolable refuge from such tyranny should be found in the university. It should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world. Not less is it a distinctive duty of the university to be the conservator of all genuine elements of value in the past thought and life of mankind which are not in the fashion of the moment. Though it need not be the “home of beaten causes," the university is, indeed, likely always to exercise a certain form of conservative influence. For by its nature it is committed to the principle that knowledge should precede action, to the caution (by no means synonymous with intellectual timidity) which is an essential part of the scientific method, to a sense of the complexity of social problems, to the practice of taking long views into the future, and to a reasonable regard for the teachings of experience. One of its most characteristic functions in a democratic society is to help make public opinion more self-critical and more circumspect, to check the more hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling, to train the democracy to the habit of looking before and after. 
The Committee also argues that academic freedom brings with it certain responsibilities: in particular, a responsibility in setting forth conclusions to use "a scholar's method and held in a scholar's spirit," to engage in "competent and patient and sincere inquiry," and to communicate with "dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language."
Since there are no rights without corresponding duties, the considerations heretofore set down with respect to the freedom of the academic teacher entail certain correlative obligations. The claim to freedom of teaching is made in inquiry; it, is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim. The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar's method and held in a scholar's spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language. 
These responsibilities apply with particular force in the classroom, because the job of a professor is "not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves."
The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently. ... 

There is one case in which the academic teacher is under an obligation to observe certain special restraints--namely, the instruction of immature students. In many of our American colleges, and especially in the first two years of the course, the student's character is not yet fully formed, his mind is still relatively immature. In these circumstances it may reasonably be expected that the instructor will present scientific truth with discretion, that he will introduce the student to new conceptions gradually, with some consideration for the student's preconceptions and traditions, and with due regard to character-building. The teacher ought also to be especially on his guard against taking unfair advantage of the student's immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher's own opinions before the student has had an opportunity fairly to examine other opinions upon the matters in question, and before he has sufficient knowledge and ripeness of judgment to be entitled to form any definitive opinion of his own. It is not the least service which a college or university may render to those under its instruction, to habituate them to looking not only patiently but methodically on both sides, before adopting any conclusion upon controverted issues. By these suggestions, however, it need scarcely be said that the committee does not intend to imply that it is not the duty of an academic instructor to give to any students old enough to be in college a genuine intellectual awakening and to arouse in them a keen desire to reach personally verified conclusions upon all questions of general concernment to mankind, or of special significance for their own time. ...
These constraints, the Committee notes, are not intended to prevent professors from taking an active role in public life, joining political movements, or even running for political office. But even in such cases: "It is manifestly desirable that such teachers have minds untrammeled by party loyalties, unexcited by party enthusiasms, and unbiased by personal political ambitions; and that universities should remain uninvolved in party antagonisms."
In their extra-mural utterances, it is obvious that academic teachers are under a peculiar obligation to avoid hasty or unverified or exaggerated statements, and to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression. But, subject to these restraints, it is not, in this committee's opinion, desirable that scholars should be debarred from giving expression to their judgments upon controversial questions, or that their freedom of speech, outside the university, should be limited to questions falling within their own specialities. It is clearly not proper that they should be prohibited from lending their active support to organized movements which they believe to be in the public interest. And, speaking broadly, it may be said in the words of a non-academic body already once quoted in a publication of this Association, that it is neither possible nor desirable to deprive a college professor of the political rights vouchsafed to every citizen.”

It is, however, a question deserving of consideration by members of this Association, and by university officials, how far academic teachers, at least those dealing with political, economic and social subjects, should be prominent in the management of our great party organizations, or should be candidates for state or national offices of a distinctly political character. It is manifestly desirable that such teachers have minds untrammeled by party loyalties, unexcited by party enthusiasms, and unbiased by personal political ambitions; and that universities should remain uninvolved in party antagonisms. On the other hand, it is equally manifest that the material available for the service of the State would be restricted in a highly undesirable way, if it were understood that no member of the academic profession should ever be called upon to assume the responsibilities of public office. This question may, in the committee's opinion, suitably be made a topic for special discussion at some future meeting of this Association, in order that a practical policy, which shall do justice to the two partially conflicting considerations that bear upon the matter, may be agreed upon. It is, it will be seen, in no sense the contention of this committee that, academic freedom implies that individual teachers should be exempt from all restraints as to the matter or manner of their utterances, either within or without the university. 
What happens when professors cross these lines in their professional or public communications, or in their teaching? The Committee suggests that professors should be self-policing. However, the Committee also warns: "If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others ..." 
Such restraints as are necessary should in the main, your committee holds, be self-imposed, or enforced by the public opinion of the profession. But there may, undoubtedly, arise occasional cases in which the aberrations of individuals may require to be checked by definite disciplinary action. What this report chiefly maintains is that such action can not with safety be taken by bodies not composed of members of the academic profession. 

[I]t is, in any case, unsuitable to the dignity of a great profession that the initial responsibility for the maintenance of its professional standards should not be in the hands of its own members. It follows that university teachers must be prepared to assume this responsibility for themselves. They have hitherto seldom had the opportunity, or perhaps the disposition, to do so. The obligation will doubtless, there- fore, seem to many an unwelcome and burdensome one; and for its proper discharge members of the profession will perhaps need to acquire, in a greater measure than they at present possess it, the capacity for impersonal judgment in such cases, and for judicial severity when the occasion requires it. But the responsibility cannot, in this committee's opinion, be rightfully evaded. If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others—by others who lack certain essential qualifications for performing it, and whose action deeply injurious to the internal order and the public standing of universities.
The 1915 report is in part useful as a reminder that the mix of professors and partisanship has been a live issue for a long time. Re-reading the report is also useful as a sincerity check on what people really believe about the principles behind higher education. Then and now, universities consistently state that when it comes to teaching, they exist to teach students how to think, not what to think. But then and now, a meaningful proportion of professors and administrators clearly also believe that when students learn how to think, the students will pretty much all agree with a certain right answer. 

As someone with degrees from two institutions of higher education, who has worked at several colleges and universities, who has two college-age children at different universities, and who reads more than the average person about what's happening in higher education, I see a lot of messages and emails from colleges and universities about various issues. The general tone of these messages--whether related to racial discrimination, environmental protection, the need for additional government financial aid, divestiture of certain companies from the college endowment, or other topics--often has a strong point of view. Such messages almost never suggest that recipients of such messages should "become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue," as the 1915 Committee put it, and such messages almost never "provide ... access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently." Of course, it's very human to believe that all beliefs should be rigorously questioned, except for one's own. But it's a habit to which colleges and universities should be wary of succumbing.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Origins of the Body Mass Index

Body Mass Index is commonly used as an indicator of obesity, and thus as a sign that a person might be a risk for various health problems (including worse health effects from contracting COVID-19).  But where did the measure come from? 

The definition is straightforward. As the Centers for Disease Control notes: "Body Mass Index (BMI) is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters." For adults (of any age or gender), the usual guideline is that below 18.5 is "underweight" 18.5-24.9 is "normal or healthy weight," 25.0-29.9 is "overweight," and 30 or above is "obese." For an adult is who is 5' 9" (or 1.8 meters), the range for a normal or healthy weight would be 125-168 pounds (or 57 to 76 kilograms). 

The original formula dates back to a Belgian statistician named Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874). Garabed Eknoyan provides an overview of his story in "Adolphe Quetelet (1796–1874)—the average man and indices of obesity" (Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, January 2008, 23: 1,  pp. 47-51). 

Quetelet was quite a guy. Eknoyan reports that while still a teenager: "But it was his love of the humanities that dominated his early years. He published poetry, exhibited his paintings, studied sculpture, co-authored the libretto of an opera and translated Byron and Schiller into French." At age 23, he was the first recipient of a doctorate in science from the newly founded University of Gent. He became fascinated with probability theory after spending time in Paris with  Joseph Fourier (1768–1830), Simeon Poisson (1781–1840) and Pierre Laplace (1749– 1827). He became interested in seeking out probability distributions of the human form, including the creation of the first height-and-weight tables. Eknoyan continues: 
His subsequent conceptual evolution in the study of man evolved from the study of averages (physical characteristics), to rates (birth, marriage, growth) and ultimately distributions (around an average, over time, between regions and countries) [12]. The latter was the basis of one of his contributions to statistics; the demonstration that the normal Gaussian distribution, typical throughout nature, applied equally to physical attributes of humans, including body parts, derived from large-scale population studies. ... 

In developing his index, Quetelet had no interest in obesity. His concern was defining the characteristics of ‘normal man’ and fitting the distribution around the norm. Much like Dublin a century later, he encountered difficulty in fitting the weight to height relationship into a Gaussian curve and began his quest for a solution. In 1831–1832, he conducted what has been considered the first cross-sectional study of newborns and children based on height and weight, and extended it to the study of adults. ...

[I]n an 1835 book, A Treatise on Man and the development of his aptitudes, Quetelet wrote: ‘If man increased equally in all dimensions, his weight at different ages would be as the cube of his height. Now, this is not what we really observe. The increase of weight is slower, except during the first year after birth; then the proportion we have just pointed out is pretty regularly observed. But after this period, and until near the age of puberty, weight increases nearly as the square of the height. The development of weight again becomes very rapid at puberty, and almost stops after the twenty-fifth year.' 
Quetelet was famous in his own time, and a major influence on other pioneer statisticians like Francis Galton. A statue of him stands on one corner of the  Places des Palais in Brussels, at the entrance to the
Palais des Academies. A century after his death, Belgium put his picture on a postage stamp. But although Quetelet originated the formula, he did not discuss or draw conclusions about obesity. 

However, the Quetelet index was not re-baptized as the Body Mass Index until 1971, in research by a physiologist named Ancel Keys (1904-2004). Nicolas Rasmussen tells this story in "Downsizing obesity: On Ancel Keys, the origins of BMI, and the neglect of excess weight as a health hazard in the United States from the 1950s to 1970s" (Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Autumn 2019, pp. 299-318). Rasmussen also tells the story of efforts by life insurance companies in the early 20th century to pool their data and try to find out if causes of death like heart disease, cancer, and stroke could be predicted based on individual characteristics and behaviors.  Rasmussen writes: 
Big insurance companies began pooling data in quasiprospective collaborative studies around the turn of the century, in which length of life was correlated to a range of risk factors recorded on initial health examinations (Bouk, 2015; Czerniawski, 2007). These intercompany studies were massive, far larger than anything public sector epidemiologists could do at the time. In the landmark Medico‐Actuarial Mortality Investigation (MAMI) of the early teens, over 440,000 insured individuals were examined (representing equal numbers of men and women) for a span of 10–25 years up to 1909—millions of life‐years of observation (Association of Life Insurance Medical Directors & Actuarial Society of America, 1912). MAMI was followed by the similarly designed and executed Medical Impairment Study, which included data on 667,000 men issued policies since 1909, followed through 1928 (Actuarial Society of America & Association of Life Insurance Medical Directors, 1931). Both studies mainly looked at overall mortality rates associated with physical “impairments” and occupations, rarely attempting to identify predictors of particular causes of death (prudently, given the variability in how doctors completed death certificates). Insurance actuaries had tried a number of measures to gauge obesity such as girth for spine length, but the statisticians found that weight for height had the best predictive power for longevity (Czerniawski, 2007; Marks, 1956). And the association between weight and mortality was strong and consistent, changing very little between the generations represented by the two big studies (for people older than 25). In the Medical Impairment Study, for example, men categorized as 25% or more above average weight for their height suffered 30–40% higher mortality rates (depending on age). Similar findings were reported for women, although the mortality penalties of high weight were not quite as severe (Marks, 1956).

By 1900, insurance firms were already screening out applicants well above or below the average weight for their height and, unsurprisingly, after the big intercompany studies, the firms revised their rates and standard height‐weight tables to reflect greater mortality penalties for overweight (and smaller mortality penalties for underweight, as tuberculosis was in retreat). Tables of a normal or healthy weight for each height category were widely distributed by insurance companies and ubiquitous in doctors’ offices during the early 20th century (Weigley, 1984). Thus, the insurance industry informed the understanding of proper body weight among doctors and patients alike, during the period when it first became a matter of popular concern (evidenced, for instance, by rapid diffusion of weighing scales; Jutel, 2001). ...

Life insurance firms stiffened their price discrimination; that is, the overweight paid more for their “substandard” policies, if they could get them at all (Czerniawski, 2007; Weigley, 1984). Later, by 1930s, it was something like a universally accepted medical fact that obesity contributed to early death, especially from heart disease. ...
The National Heart Institute was created in 1948 to promote research in this area. But perhaps surprisingly, Ancel Keys--who would originate the label for Body Mass Index--was an opponent of the conventional wisdom about the linkage from weight to health. Instead, he argued that concerns about being overweight were often just moralistic lectures (what some today would call "body-shaming"). 

As Rasmussen explains it,  Keys agreed that obesity was unhealthy. However, he argued that measurements of excess weight-for-height were not a reliable measure of obesity. "Based on the observation that, because muscle is denser than fat, extraordinarily lean and  muscular men like varsity football players (and apparently, himself) registered as overweight on standard tables despite being unusually fit, he launched around 1950 into a campaign to replace relative weight measures of obesity with a measure of body fatness or adiposity." In addition, Keys argued that fat in one's diet was the key predictor of negative health consequences like coronary heart disease: "Thus, in the 1950s Keys took a strong position arguing that dietary fat intake, not caloric intake or its weight gain consequence, was the cause of high serum cholesterol and therefore a major driver of coronary disease. So he sought to discount weight as a heart disease predictor."

Keys thus explored other methods of measuring body fatness. For example, one approach was to submerge someone in water to calculate their volume, then divide by weight to get their density, and then infer body fat from this density. However, this approach was tricky. You had to take into account factors like residual air in the lungs. The extrapolation from density to fat content was at that time based on data from guinea pig dissection experiments. And it was hard to imagine a really large-scale study (or a life insurance policy) that involved dunking all the subjects. 

Another possible approach involves "skinfold measures," which basically  involved using certain calipers and pressures of pinching at specific places around the body. After experimenting with many pinching practices, the concensus seems to be that "the best sites for measuring skinfolds were the
back of the upper arm when extended 90° and just below the scapula, on the back."

Keys led a famous "Seven Countries" study that looked at how obesity might predict coronary heart disease, and when the study was published in 1972, it included three measure of obesity: skinfold measures, weight-for-height, and what Rasmussen calls "a heretofore obscure measure—BMI (weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared, first proposed a century earlier by Quetelet)." The statistics suggested that the skinfold measures offered no difference in predictive power over the weight measures: "So at this point, after more than 20 years of conspicuous efforts to showcase skinfold and the body fatness it measured as a more rigorously scientific and predictively effective index of obesity than relative weight, Keys just dropped the topic of skinfold and adiposity and embraced BMI ..." However, in his study, BMI had only a very mixed record in predicting coronary heart disease. 

Simple measures, like the Body Mass Index, are going to be imperfect. There are longstanding concerns that dividing by height isn't quite right, and can lead to short people seeming thinner and tall people seeming fatter. There are other methods. Skinfold techniques are still used. There have been studies that suggest looking at waist-for-height measures, either alone or perhaps together with BMI. 

There are also methods that seek to measure body fat more directly. The approach of submerging someone in water, calculating density, and inferring body fat now rejoices in the name of "air displacement plethysmography." There are also approaches which involve shining infrared light ("near-infrared interactance") or different levels of photons ("dual energy X-ray absorptiometry") through the body, and then calculating body fat based on the idea that fatty tissues absorb more infrared light or attenuate photons differently than lean muscle.

For studies of large populations, Body Mass Index is a useful measure in part because height and weight are relatively easy to collect. There are also historical records of height-and-weight, which were often kept for large population groups like soldiers being drafted into a nation's armed forces. Also, the research since Keys has established strong linkages that groups with higher rates of obesity as measured by BMI do on average have a higher rate of adverse health outcomes. But individuals can and do vary considerably, the specific numbers and labels that the Centers for Disease Control place on BMI should be viewed as useful guidelines for groups, not as a firm judgement applying to every person. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

"Socialism is the Name of Our Desire"

Lewis Coser and Irving Howe started a magazine called Dissent back in 1954. They called themselves socialists, but they were also strongly opposed certain others who called themselves socialists, like the the leadership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Thus, in the second issue they co-authored an essay called "Images of Socialism," subtitled "At so late and unhappy a moment, can one still specify what the vision of socialism means or should mean? Is the idea of utopia itself still a tolerable one?" The essay rewards re-reading, but the opening paragraphs always strike me forcefully. Coser and Howe write:  
“God,” said Tolstoy, “is the name of my desire.” This remarkable sentence could haunt one a lifetime, it reverberates in so many directions. Tolstoy may have intended partial assent to the idea that, life being insupportable without some straining toward “transcendence,” a belief in God is a psychological necessity. But he must also have wanted to turn this rationalist criticism into a definition of his faith. He must have meant that precisely because his holiest desires met in the vision of God he was enabled to cope with the quite unholy realities of human existence. That God should be seen as the symbolic objectification of his desire thus became both a glorification of God and a strengthening of man, a stake in the future and a radical criticism of the present.

Without sanctioning the facile identification that is frequently made between religion and socialist politics, we should like to twist Tolstoy’s remark to our own ends: socialism is the name of our desire. And not merely in the sense that it is a vision which, for many people throughout the world, provides moral sustenance, but also in the sense that it is a vision which objectifies and gives urgency to their criticism of the human condition in our time. It is the name of our desire because the desire arises from a conflict with, and an extension from, the world that is; nor could the desire survive in any meaningful way were it not for this complex relationship to the world that is.
The goal for Coser and Howe is "to suggest some of the qualities that can make the image of socialism a serious and mature goal, as well as some of the difficulties in that goal. They want to address this question honestly, which means that parts of the answer may be uncomfortable for others who view themselves as socialists to read. 

Coser and Howe argue that socialism is a kind of utopian vision. A danger is that those who hold utopian visions will face a powerful temptation to come up with reasons why an elite group has a duty to humanity to impose that utopia on everyone. Another danger is that the vision of socialism becomes hazy: for example, socialism may be loosely defined by some believers as "a society in which tension, conflict and failure had largely disappeared." But such a definition is about what doesn't happen, not about how a house is built or a sick person receives health care, or even about what most people will plan on doing when they wake up on a Monday morning. Moreover, a lack of tension, conflict, and even failure seems to describe a static and unchanging society.  They argue: 
Socialism is not the end of human history, as the deeply-held identification of it with perfection must mean. There is no total fulfillment, nor is there an “end to time.” History is a process which throws up new problems, new conflicts, new questions; and socialism, being within history, cannot be expected to solve all these problems or, for that matter, to raise humanity at every point above the level of achievement of previous societies. As Engels remarked, there is no final synthesis, only continued clash. What socialists want is simply to do away with those sources of conflict which are the cause of material deprivation and which, in turn, help create psychological and moral suffering. Freedom may then mean that we can devote ourselves to the pursuit of more worthwhile causes of conflict. The hope for a conflictless society is reactionary, as is a reliance upon some abstract “historical force” that will conciliate all human strife.
Coser and Howe discuss big issues like how their version of socialism would view the necessary evil of  bureaucracy, how it would be focused on many small decentralized communities and producers rather than centrally controlled, and how a high-production socialist society would still have inevitably some work, along with (they hoped) a social problem of how average people would spend their greater leisure time. They wrote in 1954: "Today, in an age of curdled realism, it is necessary to assert the utopian image. But this can be done meaningfully only if it is an image of social striving, tension, conflict; an image of a problem-creating and problem-solving society."

There are a number of points that might be made in response to their essay, but here I'll limit myself to a couple of thoughts. 

Their formulation that "socialism is the name of our desire" helps for me in explaining why the juxtaposition of socialism vs. capitalism often seems like such a peculiar argument. If someone chooses to take all their hopes for a better and more just society and bundle it up in the name of "socialism," than any criticism of "socialism" will be viewed as an attack on their dreams and desires. Conversely, pretty much no one ever has said that "capitalism is the name of my desire." The arguments for capitalism are typically made in terms of machine-like functionality, emphasizing what works and doesn't work under capitalism. And of course, the arguments for capitalism emphasize how it has actually raised the standard of living for average people over recent decades and centuries, not how it summarizes one's dreams for the future. 

I would also add that that equating the practice of real-world socialism with virtue is as shaky as equating the practice of real-world capitalism with sin. For those who would like some back-and-forth discussion of the interrelationships between market-incentivized behavior and human virtue, one useful starting point is a two-paper "Symposium on Economics and Moral Virtues" in the Fall 2013 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives:  
I also posted awhile back on "The Moral Significance of Economic Life: Aristotle vs. Locke" (January 2, 2014). 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Thomas Schelling: "A Person Cannot ... Draw Up a List of Things That Would Never Occur to Him”

Thomas Schelling (Nobel 2005) once wrote: "One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” It's a comment that perhaps rings especially true given the events of 2020. Here, I want to explain why I see the comment as a defense of structured economic analysis.

These comments comes from Schelling's essay "The Role of War Games and Exercises," published in the 1987 book Managing Nuclear Operations, edited by Ashton B. Carter, John D. Steinbruner, and Charles A. Zraket (pp. 426-444). Schelling is explaining why,when thinking about questions of strategy, it is useful to play through games that represent actual scenarios, because in playing such games and then talking about them afterwards, you discover issues that you would not previously have considered--like the reasons why another player might either trust or mistrust statements you made. Schelling wrote:
Efforts to think through critical details under hypothetical circum­stances are usually called exercises and sometimes, if the organizational structures warrant, games. Exercises and games come in many varieties and serve many purposes. Some play a role in the design, maintenance, and improvement of the physical assets of a command and control system, helping to test its capacity, identify correctable faults, and enhance the familiarity of key personnel with the system. Others are directed to some aspect of the actual management of forces. Exercises can be grand and global or local and partial. They can be routine; they can be occasional, but scheduled in advance; they can be designed to catch by surprise; they can entail uncertainty and allow discretion to test versatility. The more the uncertainty and surprise, the more the interaction among elements of the system, the more the effort to simulate some kind of reality, and the more the challenge to senior officials, the more likely the exercise will be thought of as, and called, a game. ...

There are many reasons for organizing research exercises in the form of games. Motivation is one: games can captivate and stimulate; they make minds work faster; and people can memorize the streets of Berlin or the mountains of the Caucasus faster and better in a game than by merely poring over maps. Games have a playful quality, and people can try policies that they might not yet want to be responsible for proposing seriously. Games often cast people in roles-a Russian leader, a civilian, a terrorist, a secretary general of the United Nations-in which they can criticize or spoof with substantial impunity the policies and ideologies of their own governments or their own agencies or military services.
Those properties of games are important. But they do not provide any reason why, in principle, the insights or analytical results generated in a game could not be produced by the more straightforward analytical meth­ods. Games, however, have one quality that separates them qualitatively from straightforward analysis and permits them to generate insights that could not be acquired through analysis, reflection, and discussion. That quality can be illustrated by an impossibility theorem: one thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of the things that would never occur to him!
As Schelling pointed out, games can also help to clarify a difference between what people say and what people actually do, and how other players perceive such a difference.
The blockade of Cuba required intricate links among forces and the transmission of messages, but the blockade itself, even the decision whether to call it a blockade or a quarantine, was the significant event. It was the best way Kennedy could convey to Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev the nature of U.S. intentions toward the Soviet military pres­ence in Cuba. Like the raid on the torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, U.S. surface and air activity in the neighborhood of Cuba was potent diplomacy. Actions may not always speak louder than words, but they are sometimes clearer than words and are sometimes the only way to get a message across. "That son of a bitch won't pay any attention to words" is the way President Kennedy described Khrushchev. "He has to see you move."
I would only add that a structured game, with movements back and forth, has a high degree of similarity with a structured economic way of thinking. Even a very basic supply-and-demand model forces you to think about a list of possibilities for why prices and quantities might be changing. Of course, a specific  economic model or a game can also be a potentially misleading way of discussing certain situations. But when it works well, spelling out the parameters of the economic model or game forces you to write down what you are assuming is important, and then investigate the implications of that structure. It is a mental discipline that makes you consider connections and possibilities that previously would not otherwise occurred to you. 

For more on Schelling and his work, useful starting points include: 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Supply and Demand: The Scissors, Banana, and the Parrot

The time for introducing a fresh group of students to supply and demand is soon to be upon us. In a spirit of sympathy and support, here us some background on three images used by prominent economists about supply and demand: the scissors, the banana, and the parrot.

A common question for students, and a common error for teachers, is to discuss situations of supply and demand as if only one of these forces was relevant at a certain time. But of course, when it comes to considering the effects of a shift in demand on equilibrium price and quantity, the shape of the supply curve is highly relevant, because a shift in demand happens along a supply curve. Similarly, when it comes to considering the effects of a shift in supply on equilibrium price and quantity, the shape of the demand curve is highly relevant, because the shift in demand happens along a supply curve.
Alfred Marshall made this point elegantly in his 1890 Principles of Economics, where he famously analogized supply and demand to the two blades of a pair of scissors. He wrote:  
We might as reasonably dispute whether it is the upper or the under blade of a pair of scissors that cuts a piece of paper, as whether value is governed by utility or cost of production. It is true that when one blade is held still, and the cutting is effected by moving the other, we may say with careless brevity that the cutting is done by the second; but the statement is not strictly accurate, and is to be excused only so long as it claims to be merely a popular and not a strictly scientific account of what happens.
Another common question for students is to ask where prices come from in a market economy. I've never found an explanation more crisp and straightforward than this one from Joan Robinson (from the 
original Introduction to her 1933 book The Economics of Imperfect Competition, as reprinted in the 1969 second issue, pp. 6-7): 
It is not easy to explain what the analysis of value is, without making it appear extremely mysterious and extremely foolish. The point may be put like this: You see two men, one of whom is giving a banana to the other, and is taking a penny from him. You ask, How is it that a banana costs a penny rather than any other sum? The most obvious line of attack on this question os to break it up into two fresh questions: How does it happen that the one many will take a penny for a banana? and: How does it happen that the other man will give a penny for a banana? In short, the natural thing is to divide up the problem under two heads: Supply and Demand.
Finally, there's the old joke(?) among economists that you can teach a parrot to be a perfectly good economist. All you need to do is train the bird to answer every question by saying: "Supply and demand." Some version of this joke has appeared in a number of economics textbooks, and probably in even more lectures. Garson O’Toole took on the job of tracing the origins of this comment at his Quote Investigator website. He finds multiple cases of anonymous writers and book reviewers going back to 1850 referring to supply and demand as "parrot words."

But perhaps the first case of the "joke" appearing in full in the work of a prominent economist is in Irving Fisher's 1907 classic The Rate of Interest: Its Nature, Determination and Relation to Economic Phenomena.   But in taking a closer look at Fisher's comment, he is actually using the "joke" as a way of warning against an overly facile reliance on supply and demand as a quick-and-dirty, thoughtless form of explanation. Fisher writes: 
If a modern business man is asked what determines the rate of interest, he may usually be expected to answer, "the supply and demand of loanable money." But "supply and demand" is a phrase which has been too often forced into service to cover up difficult problems. Even economists have been prone to employ it to describe economic causation which they could not unravel. It was once wittily remarked of the early writers on economic problems: "Catch a parrot and teach him to say `supply and demand,' and you have an excellent economist." Prices, wages, rent, interest, and profits were thought to be fully "explained" by this glib phrase. It is true that every ratio of exchange is due to the resultant of causes operating on the buyer and seller, and we may classify these as "demand" and "supply." But this fact does not relieve us of the necessity of examining specifically the two sets of causes, including utility in its effect on demand, and cost in its effect on supply. Consequently, when we say that the rate of interest is due to the supply and demand of "capital" or of "money" or of "loans," we are very far from having an adequate explanation. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Christopher Walton, William Law, and the 296-Page Footnote

It has been my tradition at this blog to take a break from current events in late August. Instead, I offer a series of posts about academia, economics, and editing, focusing on comments or themes that caught my eye in the last year. I start with the story of the 296-page footnote, and how its author cried out for an editor. 

The story of our footnote begins with Christopher Walton (1809-1877), a businessman who made a fortune dealing in silk, jewelry, and goldsmithing, and his fascination with a Church of England priest named William Law (1686-1761). In turn, Law is perhaps best-known today for his 1728 book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and more generally for his arguments that religion should include be fully lived in action and spirit, including a deeply felt and mystical piety. 

In short, Christopher Walton thought that William Law was the bee's knees and the cat's pajamas. Walton wanted the world to know about Law. So he collected writings by and about Law, and tried to write them up in a privately printed book in 1854 under the unwieldy title: Notes and materials for an adequate biography of the celebrated divine and theosopher, William Law. Comprising an elucidation of the scope and contents of the writings of Jacob Böhme, and of his great commentator, Dionysius Andreas Freher, which is available via the magic of HathiTrust

For background on Walton, I draw upon the entry written by David L. Wykes for the Oxford dictionary of national biography : in association with the British Academy : from the earliest times to the year 2000 (edited by H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison, British Academy, 2004). Wykes describes Walton and his book in this way:   
Alexander Gordon, a personal acquaintance, described him as physically 'of large build and in character sententious but kindly, and absolutely destitute of humour' ... He made a fortune as a jeweller and goldsmith, enabling him to pursue his interest in theosophy. He became particularly interested in the mystical works of William Law. ... About 1845 he advertised for an assistant to help prepare a biography of Law, for which he acquired a great collection of antiquarian works in addition to his existing library. He began to print an Outline of the Qualifications . . . for the Biography of ... Law in November 1847, finally completing it at Christmas 1853, but he circulated copies of the incomplete text before it was finished. To the completed work he added To the Christianity, the philosophy, the erudition, science and noble intelligence of the age. Notes and materials for . . . biography of... Law. Comprising an elucidation of ... the writings of ... Bohme, and of his great commentator . . . Freher; with a notice of the mystical divinity ... of all ages of the world (1854). The 700-page work is disorderly beyond description, 'a chaotic mixture of the relevant and the irrelevant' (Hobhouse, 196), yet it contains much bibliographical and biographical information of value.
I've only dipped in and out of Christopher Walton's book, but I can vouch that calling it "disorderly beyond description" is an understatement. Nonetheless, it also has the genuine charm of a heartfelt intellectual quest--albeit a quest that gets out of hand. For a sense of Walton's style of exposition in the book, here is the opening sentence of the "Preface:" 
The understanding of the Editor upon the subjects of recondite and practical knowledge introduced into this work, having been greatly enlarged and perfectionated during the several years he has been occupied over it, especially as he approached to its conclusion, when it was, that he first obtained a true and philosophic insight into the arcanum of "Animal" or "Vital Magnetism," so denominated, with the magical wonders that lie couched in it, both as a science and an art; and without which apprehension, it must be affirmed, that neither the original revelations of Scripture as to their literal truth, nor the purely magic phenomena of Nature in any age, can be adequately understood, or rationally explained :—such being the case, the reader will please to observe, that those only of its statements ore to be regarded as the Editor's final determinations, which shall be found to be unmodified by subsequent remarks, either in the work itself, or in the " Introduction to Theosophy," which immediately succeeded to it, or by the contents of the "Corrigenda and Addenda " prefixed to it, and immediately following the present introduction* or Preface. 
And so it goes, for 34 pages of "Preface" and 688 pages of text that follow, all in very small print. When I find myself smiling at Walton's book, I also find myself thinking: "Oh yeah, buddy? What are the 700 pages of small print that you poured your own heart and soul into lately?"

Round about p. 334, it must have been apparent to Walton that the flow of exposition wasn't going well. (And again, who among us hasn't reached p. 334 of a book we are writing and had these similar feelings?) So Walton starts a footnote with a cry for help--indeed, a cry for a perfect human being who is also AN EDITOR who will take Walton's hundreds of pages of notes and collected writings and put together the ideal biography of his ideal man, William Law. The key footnote starts like this (and I have put in boldface type a few of the traits of the EDITOR Walton is seeking): 
As a relief to the uniformity and matter of these pages, we present currently therewith, the following Notes and Memoranda, relating to the personal history, birth-place, family and friends of the subject of the proposed biography ; which, though belonging more appropriately to that work, may not be unacceptable to the readers of this preliminary treatise. 
And here we take occasion to say, in reference to the compilation and authorship of the Biography, that what is WANTED in short, as the sum and the object of the present treatise, and as necessary in the nature of the thing, is AN EDITOR, who, whilst proving himself an exact historian, a solid universal scholar, a just thinker, a profound philosopher, and a deeply-experienced, enlightened christian, shall produce a masterly picture, or biography of the individual, in all the features and developments of his mind and character ; interweaving the scanty incidents of his life that have been preserved, with such tender and manly reflections, and filling up the vacancies in his history with such elevated and charming natural conceptions and observations, and interspersing the whole with such dashes and reliefs of sublime instruction, though popularly expressed, as shall irresistibly inspire the reader with a fervent admiration of true wisdom and piety, and also fire him with an ardent and indomitable resolution, to immediately commence the pursuit of evangelic perfection, and the imitation of so perfect a model of a learned and accomplished English gentleman, philosopher and christian. The whole to be rendered as captivating, by the dignity and importance of the diversified subjects upon which it treats, in so uniformly felicitous and masterly a manner, as. by the condescending tenderness, nobility and wisdom of its sentiments, and the classic purity, elegance and sweeping rhetorical and strictly logical power of its composition : all which qualifications, a solid duly-constituted ordinary genius may engraft upon itself, by diligence and a close study of the models referred to, and through the directions and specifications interspersed throughout the present treatise. In a word, as none but a Law could design and execute a perfect biography of a man. a scholar, a philosopher, and a Christian ; so this treatise aims solely at creating another Law, possessed of all the talents of the former, with all the highest practical experiences, discoveries, and divine manifestations in the human nature, that have distinguished these last ages, superinduced thereupon ; for without a beau-ideal or model of a perfect man in all his characteristic features and particulars, how shall mankind be elevated to their proper redeemed perfection, how shall the Gospel produce its full results. To proceed.
The absolute earnestness and sincerity of Walton's hopefulness, coming in the midst of his colossal effort in putting together this manuscript of more than 700 pages, makes me a little teary. Biographies have been written of William Law, but no larger-than-life EDITOR answered Walton's call. 

Thus started the footnote then proceeds for 296 page, from p. 334 to p. 628. For the first 25 pages or so, the main text is the top half of each page, followed by a hairline, with the ongoing footnote covering the bottom half of the page. For the following 140 pages, the  mixture between text and footnote varies, with the text sometimes being the top third of the page, and sometimes taking most of the page. But about 160 pages into the footnote, the note takes over, and for over 100 pages, the "main text" is a couple of lines at the top of each page, with the rest devoted to the unending footnote. 

The story of the 296-page footnote has, at least to me, a happy ending. Wykes describes it this way in Walton's entry in the Oxford dictionary
Walton donated copies to every major public library in the world. Some other anonymous works relating to theosophy were probably written at Walton's suggestion and printed at his expense. He kept his Theosophian Library' at 8 Ludgate Hill, and made it freely available to those who shared his interests. In August 1876, at the suggestion of his friend Keningale Cook, Walton offered the books he had collected to Dr Williams's Library, stipulating that they should be kept apart as the 'Walton Theosophical Library', and always be available to those interested in the subject. His manuscripts relating to Law were included in the gift. Alexander Gordon was paid £20 to catalogue the books. The Walton collection now forms the best collection of books on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mysticism in Britain.
The two versions of Walton's book that were copied and put up on the web by HathiTrust were from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. 

After learning of this story, I have sought to visualize what one might call the "Christopher Walton editor," that paragon of humanity and editing skill with all the highest practical experiences, discoveries, and divine manifestations in the human nature," who would face that 296-page footnote with twinkling eyes and a modest smile--and edit something beautiful out of it. Christopher Walton never got the editor he had hoped for. But I suspect that in his own "sententious" and "humorless" way, he would be so very pleased that his collection of writings has remained a useful source of research, and that his book is available with a web connection to all the world. All it takes, after all, is one person to love the life and work of William Law as much as Christopher Walton did, and to take up the task of editor.