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Why is Supply and Demand so confusing?

In critique, popular economics, reblog on July 29, 2009 at 11:49 am

Scott Sumner, professor of economics at Bentley University, wrote an honest-to-goodness article about the general confusion that students, teachers and business journalists have in thinking about supply and demand. I found the article through the site of Greg Mankiw, the author of the textbook which Sumner refers to in this illuminating article. Consider this:

Question:  A survey shows that on average 100 people go to the movies when the price is $6 and 300 people go when the price is $9.  Does this violate the laws of supply and demand?

Very, very few can answer this question, especially if you ask for an explanation.  Even worse, I think there is a perception that there is something ‘tricky’ about this question, something unfair.  In fact, it is as easy a question as you could imagine.  It’s basic S&D.  It’s merely asking students what happens when the demand for movies shifts.  I cannot imagine a less tricky question, or a more straightforward application of the laws of supply and demand.  In the evening hours the demand for movies shifts right.  Price rises.  Quantity supplied responds.  What’s so hard about that?  And yet almost no student can get it right.  Our students enter EC101 knowing one of the two things they need to know about S&D, and they leave knowing one of the two things they need to know about S&D.  Maybe instead of having them memorize mind-numbing lists of “5 factors that shift supply,” and “5 factors that shift demand,” we should just tell them to read something that will explain what economics is all about, something that portrays economists as detectives trying to solve the identification problem, something like Freakonomics.

Scott Sumner articulates one of my personal concerns in studying economics. I felt that the general concepts, when you really think about them, really lack the empirical basis of the natural sciences. I thought that a more comprehensive education would make the philosophy of economics indispensable to clarify abstract concepts like value, exchange, utility, price and demand. These terms never fail to confuse me, though what I like in general is how the universe of economics can be postulated in the form of a labyrinth.

The author criticizes the manner with which reputed publications talk about the subject. “I feel like something is wrong.  What they are doing is about as closely related to economics as astrology is to astronomy.”

The full article can be found here.

Related posts:
Economics post archive

Health care is not a right

In critique, philosophy, reblog on July 25, 2009 at 8:25 am

To make medicines and health services available to all citizens, care of the government — any sane person would think that this is moral and well-intentioned. People who oppose the health care plan in America reason out that while indeed it is moral and well-intentioned, it is impractical. As of this date, “the US spends more on health care than any other country” (Financial Times).

Dr. Leonard Peikoff, who is heir to Ayn Rand’s intellectual estate, says that the health care plan, or the concept of socialized medicine for that matter, is impractical because it is immoral. The opponents of the plan are therefore merely scratching the surface. Peikoff argues: Health Care Is Not A Right. The reason is as follows:

Now our only rights […] are the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. That’s all. […]

Why only these? Observe that all legitimate rights have one thing in common: they are rights to action, not to rewards from other people. The American rights impose no obligations on other people, merely the negative obligation to leave you alone. The system guarantees you the chance to work for what you want—not to be given it without effort by somebody else.

The right to life, e.g., does not mean that your neighbors have to feed and clothe you; it means you have the right to earn your food and clothes yourself, if necessary by a hard struggle, and that no one can forcibly stop your struggle for these things or steal them from you if and when you have achieved them. In other words: you have the right to act, and to keep the results of your actions, the products you make, to keep them or to trade them with others, if you wish. But you have no right to the actions or products of others, except on terms to which they voluntarily agree.

The Translators of “Tao Te Ching” and Arthur Waley

In book review, critique on July 21, 2009 at 6:01 am

Arthur Waley’s translations of Chinese classics are considered the most readable for modern readers. His abridgement of Wu Cheng-en’s The Journey to the West, certainly one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China and which he retitled as Monkey, is praised by Jorge L. Borges (the greatest writer not to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature) as the product of a translator who is simultaneously a sinologist and a man of letters.

I recently finished a version of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching by Waley in the book The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place in Chinese Thought (1934). The Tao Te Ching is composed of 81 short poems talking about the basic principles of Taoism. I have since loved the book after picking up a copy translated by the scholar Stephen Mitchell, who also translated the last version of Bhagavad Gita that I’ve read. Taken on face value, the book of Tao is full of paradoxes, ironies and contradictions, but once the reader has familiarized himself with the iconoclasm of, say, Buddhism and the Zen sect, he will understand the rationale behind these linguistic features.

Waley’s translation of the book, however, is different from his other projects. He admits that the modern reader wanting to read the ancient text for practical ends must look at the version of Richard Wilhelm.  His Tao Te Ching will not try to achieve what Wilhelm’s version has done for the modern reader. Waley reconstructs the ancient book based on historical context in order to capture how it was received by the people during the time of its initial publication. The position of the text is then interpreted side-by-side with the positions of other schools of thought at that time.

There are two kinds of translation. One is historical, the other (as Waley calls it) scriptural. Waley’s version serves the interest of specialists in Chinese literature and sinology. Wilhelm’s version, perhaps like Mitchell’s, is for readers who want to read the book for modern purposes. I have not seen Wilhelm’s translation but Mitchell’s version is surely more readable than Waley’s, but not necessarily better. A reader-friendly translation is not always equal to an accurate one, and the notion of a “best version” depends on the purpose of the translation.

Related posts:
Notes on the film “Hero”
In the mood for Zen
Bhagavad Gita

Notes on the film “Hero”: Milton, Deconstruction, the Tao

In critique, philosophy on July 20, 2009 at 3:19 pm

The events in the 2002 film Hero, which was directed by Zhang Yimou, are surely lacking sense in Western paradigms of thought. After all, one story contradicts another, fight scenes do not occur in reality but only in the minds of the fighters, and on top of it all, the film abandons its own genre toward the end when the assassin refuses to do his job.  But I feel that the assassin’s refusal to execute the tyrannical emperor resembles Hamlet’s slowness to kill his father’s murderer — both seemingly passive actions are results of higher thinking.

What can possibly be said when you want to say everything? That’s my problem in discussing Hero. There are at least five main ideas which are related to the discourse and which simultaneously reflect my personal interest on this great film: Taoism, Confucianism, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and deconstruction, semiotics, and narrativism. There is no other martial arts film that elicits this much response. I can only speak in fragments, hypotheses and observations, leaving the “metanarrative” of my arguments (perhaps) to a future essay that will synthesize all these. I have yet to deal with the translation issue, and I suppose that too will be a fruitful endeavor in the discussion. I can only offer the following notes:

1. Hero and the Tao. The protagonist, obviously for lack of a name, is called “Nameless”. In Arthur Waley’s translation of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching or Book of the Way from The Way and Its Power, the eternal Tao “cannot be told” — it is nameless. We are enticed to make a Taoist reading of the final action of Nameless — abandoning the mission essentially constitutes non-action . Action-less activity is one of the central teachings of the book. A Western equivalent, but a poor one, is Hamlet, whose consciousness causes him to “lose the name of action” — like Nameless, Hamlet can be said to have renounced his cause through his delays. Perhaps the Tao is what Nameless, Broken Sword and Emperor Qin simultaneously understand, and which the Western audience may possibly miss because it is too difficult to comprehend.

Taoism is a kind of active disinterestedness with the ways of the world. Central to this doctrine (though it cautions you to forget this very doctrine) is the notion of emptying ourselves of passion, knowledge and morality. Closest to the Tao is the infant and the water. The infant doesn’t know what’s good or bad. The water doesn’t care where it goes, that’s why it’s everywhere. We can interpret the ending (when Nameless refuses to kill the Emperor) as constitutive of Taoist submission — but this is an active rather than a passive submission, since through it we align ourselves with the “power” and the “mystery” which gave birth to the world.

2. Hero and Confucianism. The setting, which is shortly before the construction of the Great Wall of China by Emperor Qin, is a period in Chinese history when the philosophies of the people were bent on establishing the bureaucracy (government routines and ranks) and the education of officials. This was made possible by the Qin kingdom’s efforts to unite all of China under one rule. Confucianism addresses this need, since its primary concern is the moral virtues of the citizens for harmonious politics. Historically, most of the officials of this era were predominantly influenced by the teachings of Confucius in executing their government functions. The uniformity of the Qin army and the court officials constitutes the Confucian element of the film, and the command to execute Nameless is very much in line with Confucianism, which in turn resembles Platonism in the West. Recall the determination of Socrates to drink the hemlock.

3. Hero, “Paradise Lost”, and deconstruction. Catherine Belsey, in an essay introducing Jacques Derrida’s theory (?) of deconstruction, mentions John Milton’s Paradise Lost and how the text may be read by scholars as demonstrating the notion of differance. I believe Milton has already anticipated this notion. From a post on Paradise Lost:

The design of the epic revolves around how we gain knowledge about death, choice, and a sense of good and evil. What ensues is an argument that concepts cannot be construed with a positive term — they must always rely on other concepts, often their opposite. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit because the consequence is death. But how can they make sense of death if it has not yet been introduced in the world? We are thus in a situation where nothing can be known without experiencing it first. The Fall gives us knowledge. To know they are capable of choice, the angels must choose the other term (disobedience), because to remain obedient cannot possibly give rise to that knowledge.

In the same way, Hero is about how we can only start to make sense of things if, and only if, we gain a knowledge of their opposites. The kingdom of Qin is like God’s heaven in Paradise Lost, the assassins are the rebel angels. Though the rebellion was not successful, and though all the rebels’ actions made no difference in terms of real results, their very existence as an antithesis to the kingdom of Qin made the latter meaningful. Without the antithesis, Emperor Qin can never assert his vision of “all under heaven”.

4. Hero and semiotics. The film has been compared to Leni Reifenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will”. Other reviews call it propaganda, a call for radical reunification of modern China. This is only a natural result of the politicizing of the text in semiotics. But I believe a Taoist reading of the film (see #1) will dispel the misinformed criticism that the film is a paean to authoritarianism and tyranny. The renunciation of Broken Sword and Nameless can only be seen as mere passivity in Western paradigms of thought.

5. Hero and narrativism. While Hero is clearly about an assassination plot, it is also about the nature of narratives, why they are told, and who gets to tell them. The movement of events in the film resembles a kind of dialectics of tales — one story sublates the last one, not to cancel it out or contradict it totally, but to contain it in a higher and more complex level. (There’s also a Scheherazade-esque story-within-a-story-within-a-story, a technique we witness in One Thousand and One Nights). The version of Nameless is pitted against the version of the Emperor, and when the latter seems to have won, Nameless revises his version to defeat the Emperor’s. In this story, hardly any battle ever took place on the plane of reality. Some fights were fictional, some imagined, the others probably exaggerated. In this film, the real battle is the battle between narratives. I can almost hear Nameless say, “Fiction and swordplay have the same principle”.

Related posts:
Paradise Lost
In the mood for Zen

Absurd objects

In critique on June 25, 2009 at 12:45 pm

What to make of a film that makes you want to leave the cinema? Or a poem made up of numbers? Would you buy an invisible painting? What is their worth to a viewer or reader who innocently goes to an exhibit, reads a text or watches a film only to become an unwilling witness of the existence of such artifacts as a blank poem, or a motion picture on freeze frame from beginning to end? Of course, we can put all this to the level of theory and academic discourse, no problem.

But if you were to bring only one worthy art object or literary work with you on an island, would that ultra avant-garde piece have any chance of being chosen? The island, of course, is just a rhetorical device, but I suppose there’s always this one object or work in our life sufficient and inexhaustible enough to accompany us to our death.

The island hypothesis removes a work’s “excess baggage” of criticism, commentary and theory, allowing it to operate without the aura of institutional importance. I don’t know what to call it, but whatever is left after you remove all the excess baggage — its essence, core, substance, form, matter, haecceity, quidditas, radiance, ousia, hypokeimenon, etc. — is an index to the personal worth of a piece.

Will you honestly be happy to be stranded with Duchamp’s urinal, for instance? Unless you recognize in the work some cult value or aura (see Perloff on the aura of “Fountain”), then I suppose you’d still be happy to let the urinal accompany you. But let’s say you have a canvas with only a black dot on the center, a work by a famous artist extolled in the most reputable art journals. Its status as art has been defended staunchly by the fiercest and most intelligent critics in the field. Now you have that entire cathedral of theories to support that what is in your possession—a black dot—is a work of genius, because it interrogates the true meaning of art itself, questions the process of creating meanings, unsettles the viewer about what art should be, etc. Then suddenly you’re stranded on an island and a wish-giving mechanism can only grant you one book, poem or object of beauty to marvel at until you die. Are conceptual and theoretical intentions enough for that object to be chosen? Does it stand a chance?

Saying “yes” will not necessarily be a counterpoint, because it will only refute the very framework that made them socially significant in the first place. It seems to me that refusing the work is a more logical decision in the eye of the paradigm that institutionalized it, more in keeping with the object’s assault on meaning, tradition and establishment. Saying no is consistent with the purpose of that object, but saying no is also a kind of confession that the artifact has absolutely no personal worth.

What about the simple reader or viewer? By simple, we mean not giving a damn about that excess baggage of content outside the content—the dialogues, the discourse woven around the piece. These are people who want to confront the work for what it is, because their concern is something else other than being radical or avant-garde. When they confront this bombardment of absurdity, it is perfectly acceptable for them to reject. Rejection is a healthy and legitimate response. And when they do, I hope manufacturers of such artifacts will have the decency to not call the audience stupid.

Note on “smart” people

In critique on June 3, 2009 at 4:51 pm

If we observe these young people whom they say are well-versed in critical intellectual discourse, we would see that they are post-adolescent young adults, usually in the liberal arts who can talk endlessly about the relativity of truth, social construction of reality, patriarchy & postmodernism using the jargons they learned in class, spouting ideas they got from Xerox copies of their professors’ lecture materials, and echoing quotes from Marx, Derrida or Irigaray. Their favorite word is “subvert”, and for them a thing is not beautiful unless it “subverts” the hegemony. They praise anything they like as “postmodern”, as though postmodernity is a badge or laurel. They use the word “mind fuck” to characterize something positive, profound, beautiful and sublime. They believe that “reality is subjective”, that “there is no absolute truth”, that “everything is relative” — so they hate such things as “dogma” and “tradition” and pose themselves as the “radical” intellectual elite. They uniformly like the surrealists, and passionately call themselves “nihilists” who find life and the world meaningless. But if we study their rhetoric, speech habits, and word choices (“subvert”, “mind fuck”, “anti-dogma”, “anti-tradition”, “radical”), we may realize why they are so attracted to critical theory. I think that’s because they are a bunch of disturbed, delinquent & dissident teenagers or young adults who can’t get past their adolescent issues. They are nothing but the equivalent of angsty nerds. Their vocabulary is not the vocabulary of genius. It is the register and rhetoric of the rebellious for rebelliousness’ sake. That’s why they like Marx, Derrida, and the whole line-up of critical theorists. Misunderstanding these thinkers is beside the point; they only like the angsty interpretation of Marxism, feminism or deconstruction. They are mere sublimated forms of their adolescent selves, dying to question authority, to offend the law, and to assert their half-baked ideas of utopia. They are dogmatic in their radicalism, and are more orthodox than the orthodoxy in their florid celebration of unorthodoxy. Their existence is a big contradiction.