Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Slate, Universities and Economics

Written by johnleemk on 10:33:28 am Jan 23, 2006.

If you know me primarily through my online activities, you're probably aware I intend to study at Princeton and/or the University of Chicago some day. What you may not be aware of is why. This article will highlight a couple of economics professors I'm hoping to study under some day, and review some books they've written (along with much mention of the online web magazine Slate).

First, let's identify these two professors. The first is Paul Krugman, prominent New York Times columnist, former faculty member at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, and currently teaching at Princeton University in New Jersey. Krugman was widely expected to play a significant role as economic advisor to John Kerry if he had won the presidency in 2004. The other is Steven Levitt, a faculty member at the University of Chicago who, when his son died, had his undergraduate economics lectures taught by Nobel laureate Gary Becker. If Levitt sounds familiar, it's because he has famously argued that the legalisation of abortion in the United States has led to dramatically decreasing crime rates.

Now, before we go further, what does Slate have to do with all this? Well, both Krugman and Levitt have written for Slate -- Krugman was a prominent columnist for Slate in 1997, and Levitt's debate with a fellow economist on his abortion-decreases-crime theory was syndicated on Slate. In addition, significant excerpts from both the books I plan to review today were published on Slate -- Krugman's book was a compilation of his opinion pieces first published there, and a portion of Levitt's book was adapted and published on Slate as part of the promotional campaign.

Now, the Krugman book that I am going to review is The Accidental Theorist. For a long time (okay, not really -- a bit more than six months) this has been my favourite book on economics. A compilation of Krugman's thoughts at the time of the 1997 economic crisis and beyond, The Accidental Theorist quickly became one of my favourite non-fiction books that had nothing to do with Malaysian politics (other than a snide remark about Dr. Mahathir).

The Accidental Theorist, surprisingly, contains no radically left- or right-leaning polemics. While Krugman has gained fame as a a vocal and vehement critic of George Bush and his economic policies, as wel as been condemned as a "welfare statist", The Accidental Theorist is surprisingly and pleasingly free of any indication of where Krugman's political loyalties lie. The book condemns the French economic system in one chapter, and vilifies supply-side economics in another. While most "liberal" economists out there call for an end to sweat shops, Krugman contends in a surprisingly conservative manner that economically, 3rd world citizens are better off working in sweatshops than not working at all because their sweatshops couldn't comply with labour rules or union demands.

It's this sort of neither-right-nor-left thing that appeals to me. Even "Third Way" middle-of-the-road things like Bill Clinton's welfare reforms are condemned by Krugman as being based more on fantasy than reality. I've found that unorthodox viewpoints tend to be the most accurate ones, especially in complex questions where the truth can be neither here nor there, and it's refreshing to find someone whose work has been critical of economic policies from both the left and right. Krugman's no-nonsense and unpolitically correct way of saying things certainly didn't hurt either; I have no time for people who sugarcoat the truth.

As a serious economics student now, I find macroeconomics rather boring and abstract. However, it is just that in which Krugman excels, and so the casual reader had best be prepared for some possibly unfamiliar economic jargon (as macroeconomics rarely has little directly to do with our daily lives). Nevertheless, The Accidental Theorist is what got me hooked on economics in the first place. Before I read it, I was neither here nor there, and still a bit unsure about my choice to focus on economics as my chosen field of study. After reading the book, with its lively thought experiments and ability to explain the complexities of change in human life, I had zero doubt about where I would focus my studies on.

Still, that would be an understatement compared to the effect Steven Levitt's book had on me. Co-authored with journalist Stephen Dubner (Levitt's a self-acknowledged stereotypical nerd who would have trouble writing the book himself, and needs his wife's help to open jars), Freakonomics totally revolutionised the way I look at economics and the social sciences. It literally blew me away. (Grammar Nazis: Dig up the right article on Slate and you'll soon find that I actually used the word "literally" correctly.)

The problem is that this revolution almost didn't happen. Procuring the book was a real pain in the ass -- after I saw the excerpts on Slate, I knew I had to get it. Unfortunately, my father gawked at the price in the bookstore, and I mentally filed away a note in my head to somehow obtain the book. Then one day, joy of all joys, I found the book at the local library and borrowed it. But alas, the cruelties of life conspired to spirit the book away from me -- when I left on holiday for the Philippines, I was forced to return the book to the library due to a logistics error (my father forgot to pass me the library cards necessary to renew the books).

Fortunately fate smiled down on me, and last night, I at last got my grubby paws on Freakonomics with the intent to read it. Fascinated, I flipped my way through all 200+ pages in just under 16 hours, most of those spent sleeping or on the computer. I just couldn't stop reading -- except to perform other vital body functions. (And even in the toilet, I read.)

Levitt is another unorthodox economist. With no cares for political correctness at all, his book contends parental nurturing -- even to the point of having one parent give up his/her job to look after a child -- can never hope to outweigh genetic nature in determining a child's future success. And of course, there's that controversial abortion-decreases-crime conclusion I mentioned earlier. Levitt's strange hypotheses -- and the mounds of data he presents to back them up -- don't fit in easily on either side of the political aisle.

Indeed, the very questions he asks often make you wonder whether he's been acclaimed as the best economist in the United States under the age of 40, or committed to a mental asylum. For instance: What do sumo wrestlers and schoolteachers have in common? Why do drug dealers live with their mothers? Which is more dangerous: a gun, or a swimming pool? These are the sort of crazy questions I live for -- not "should I sell my house now or next year?" Oh, sure, that's practical, but where's the fun in that? I like the things I study to be both fun and practical, but fun first and practical second. Now, as should be clear, Levitt's focus is on microeconomics -- the interactions between bit players in an economy, and not the big aggregates that one studies in macroeconomics. Again, this plays to my interests, as I've always enjoyed microeconomics -- even the dry theories -- more than macroeconomics.

However, what really sold me was the book's combination of some social sciences -- namely politics and sociology -- with the study of economics. I've always been a dabbler with social studies, but never really bothered to do a more in depth study of them until last year. After all, school here expects you to be a mathematician or scientist if you're anything but stupid. However, doing Sociology for my O Levels really intrigued me, piquing my curiosity about, well social sciences. And I've always found politics and government a rather interesting subject.

So, it really isn't surprising that Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's Freakonomics has displaced The Accidental Theorist as my favourite non-fiction, non-Malaysian book. The book addresses some interesting and important questions about the nature of modern society, yet constantly teases you with its economic perspective. Questions like whether how much money a political candidate spends seriously affects his chances of winning are cheekily answered by tying them to other topics in the book. Want to know how a member of the Ku Klux Klan and a real estate agent are related? Read the book.

In the end, perhaps it was this that really hooked me: Levitt's book has no unifying theme. It's a coherent and organised but disparate collection of thoughts on society. And that's what makes it so attractive to me, a by nature very disorganised person, a dilettante in everything and nothing at the same time.

While both The Accidental Theorist and Freakonomics have a number of things in common -- they both question conventional wisdom and defy political pigeonholing -- they deal in largely different realms. Krugman tackles political and abstract questions like what the world will look like a century from now, or why France's currency is so weak. Levitt handles problems one can see a use for in one's daily life -- like whether your daughter should play at the home of the neighbour with the gun, or the neighbour with the swimming pool. Both viewpoints are critical and crucial for modern society. That is why I cannot more highly recommend for any interested casual reader The Accidental Theorist and Freakonomics. And that is why I have my sights set on studying under Paul Krugman and/or Steven Levitt.

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