20 Years Before Fall of Rome, Ammianus Described “a World Exhausted by Crushing Taxes”

(p. 48) . . . ghosts surged up from the Roman past. An ancient literary critic who had flourished during Nero’s reign and had written notes and glosses on classical authors; another critic who quoted extensively from lost epics written in imitation of (p. 49) Homer; a grammarian who wrote a treatise on spelling that Poggio knew his Latin-obsessed friends in Florence would find thrilling. Yet another manuscript was a discovery whose thrill might have been tinged for him with melancholy: a large fragment of a hitherto unknown history of the Roman Empire written by a high-ranking officer in the imperial army, Ammianus Marcellinus. The melancholy would have arisen not only from the fact that the first thirteen of the original thirty-one books were missing from the manuscript Poggio copied by hand–and these lost books have never been found–but also from the fact that the work was written on the eve of the empire’s collapse. A clearheaded, thoughtful, and unusually impartial historian, Ammianus seems to have sensed the impending end. His description of a world exhausted by crushing taxes, the financial ruin of large segments of the population, and the dangerous decline in the army’s morale vividly conjured up the conditions that made it possible, some twenty years after his death, for the Goths to sack Rome.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Lack of Innovation, Not Globalization, Killed U.S. Furniture Industry

The following is from a review by Marc Levinson, one of our leading experts on process innovation. I’m guessing that there is more wisdom in the review than in the book being reviewed:

(p. C6) . . . it was not by chance that the U.S. furniture industry provided easy pickings for foreign manufacturers.

In the 1990s, U.S. furniture making was a backward industry. Its productivity–the efficiency with which capital and labor are put to use–grew only one-third as fast as in manufacturing overall. While firms in other industries were investing in laser cutters and five-axis milling machines, furniture makers were devoting only 2.6% of their revenue to capital investment. Instead, they relied heavily on cheap labor, paying their average worker 29% less than the average in all manufacturing.
Nor was there much innovation. When Ikea’s flat-pack furniture, designed to minimize shipping costs and leave assembly to the purchaser, arrived in the United States in 1985, American manufacturers had nothing like it. Ms. Macy reports that Universal Furniture cut costs by designing for efficient production at high volume; U.S. manufacturers did not. Similarly, when JBIII countered the distant Chinese by guaranteeing that Vaughan-Bassett would deliver orders within a week, his own company’s credit and delivery departments couldn’t cope.
Globalization takes the blame for many ills these days. But the implosion that Ms. Macy chronicles owes less to import competition than to executives in a sheltered industry who failed to keep up with a changing world.

For the full, largely negative, review, see:
MARC LEVINSON. “Made in America; It’s not easy to copyright a furniture design–and somebody will always come along and make it for less.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 19, 2014): C5-C6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 18, 2014, and has the title “Book Review: ‘Factory Man’ by Beth Macy; It’s not easy to copyright a furniture design–and somebody will always come along and make it for less.”)

The book being mainly panned is:
Macy, Beth. Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.

Nobel-Prize-Winner Views Success as Rigged (Except for Nobel Prizes)

(p. 245) . . . , Solow interprets the evidence on intergenerational mobility as showing that the economy is not very meritocratic. (Oddly, he exempts the economics profession. He seems to believe that lack of success is often the result of bad luck or a rigged system, unless you are an economist, in which case it’s your own fault.) Although I noted in my article that those born into extreme poverty face particularly difficult obstacles, I view the rest of the economy as more meritocratic than Solow does. In addition to the Kaplan and Rauh study, I recommend a popular book called The Millionaire Next Door (Stanley and Danko 1996). Written by two marketing professors who extensively surveyed high net worth individuals, the book reports that the typical millionaire is not someone who was born into wealth but rather is someone who has worked hard and lived frugally.

Mankiw, N. Gregory. “Correspondence: Response from N. Gregory Mankiw.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 244-45.
(Note: ellipsis added; italics in original.)

The Stanley and Danko book that Mankiw praises (and I use in my Economics of Entrepreneurship seminar) is:
Stanley, Thomas J., and William D. Danko. The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy. First ed. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1996.

“Different Structural Models Can Fit Aggregate Macroeconomic Data About Equally Well”

(p. 1149) There is an apparent lack of encompassing-forecasting and economic models that can explain the facts uniformly well across business cycles. This is perhaps an inevitable outcome given the changing nature of business cycles. The fact that business cycles are not all alike naturally means that variables that predict activity have a performance that is episodic. Notably, we find that term spreads were good predictors of economic activity in the 1970s and 1980s, but that credit spreads have fared better more recently. This is of course a challenge for forecasters, as we do (p. 1150) not know the origins of future business cycle fluctuations. Much needs to be learned to determine which and how financial variables are to be monitored in real time especially in an evolving economy when historical data do not provide adequate guidance.
Explanations for the Great Recessions usually involve some form of nonlinearity. The sudden nature of the downturn following the collapse of Lehman is consistent with nonlinearity being part of the transmission mechanism. At the same time, we lack robust evidence of nonlinearity from aggregate low-frequency macroeconomic data. Essentially, there is an identification issue as different structural models can fit aggregate macroeconomic data about equally well.

For the full article, see:
Ng, Serena, and Jonathan H. Wright. “Facts and Challenges from the Great Recession for Forecasting and Macroeconomic Modeling.” Journal of Economic Literature 51, no. 4 (Dec. 2013): 1120-54.

“A Unique Moment in History . . . When Man Stood Alone”

(p. 71) . . . , something noted in one of his letters by the French novelist Gustave Flaubert: “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.” No doubt one could quibble with this claim. For many Romans at least, the gods had not actually ceased to be–even the Epicureans, sometimes reputed to be atheists, thought that gods existed, though at a far remove from the affairs of mortals–and the “unique moment” to which Flaubert gestures, from Cicero (106-43 BCE) to Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), may have been longer or shorter than the time frame he suggests. But the core perception is eloquently borne out by Cicero’s dialogues and by the works found in the library of Herculaneum. Many of the early readers of those works evidently lacked a fixed repertory of beliefs and practices reinforced by what was said to be the divine will. They were men and women whose lives were unusually free of the dictates of the gods (or their priests). Standing alone, as Flaubert puts it, they found themselves in the peculiar position of choosing among sharply divergent visions of the nature of things and competing strategies for living.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Did Intel Succeed in Spite of, or Because of, Tension Between Noyce and Grove?

(p. C5) . . . , much more so than in earlier books on Intel and its principals, the embedded thread of “The Intel Trinity” is the dirty little secret few people outside of Intel knew: Andy Grove really didn’t like Bob Noyce.
. . .
(p. C6) . . . there’s the argument that one thing a startup needs is an inspiring, swashbuckling boss who lights up a room when he enters it and has the confidence to make anything he’s selling seem much bigger and more important than it actually is. And Mr. Malone makes a compelling case that Noyce was the right man for the job in this phase of the company. “Bob Noyce’s greatest gift, even more than his talent as a technical visionary,” Mr. Malone writes, “was his ability to inspire people to believe in his dreams, in their own abilities, and to follow him on the greatest adventure of their professional lives.”
. . .
Noyce hid from Mr. Grove, who was in charge of operations, the fact that Intel had a secret skunk works developing a microprocessor, a single general-purpose chip that would perform multiple functions–logic, calculation, memory and power control. Noyce had the man who was running it report directly to him rather than to Mr. Grove, even though Mr. Grove was his boss on the organizational chart. When Mr. Grove learned what was going on, he became furious, but like the good soldier he was, he snapped to attention and helped recruit a young engineer from Fairchild to be in charge of the project, which ultimately redefined the company.
. . .
Remarkably, none of this discord seemed to have much effect on the company’s day-to-day operations. Mr. Malone even suggests that the dysfunction empowered Intel’s take-no-prisoners warrior culture.
. . .
So while the humble, self-effacing Mr. Moore, who had his own time in the CEO’s chair from 1975 to 1987, played out his role as Intel’s big thinker, the brilliant visionary “who could see into the technological future better than anyone alive,” Mr. Grove was the kick-ass enforcer. No excuses. For anything.

For the full review, see:
STEWART PINKERTON. “Made in America; A Born Leader, a Frustrated Martinet Built One of Silicon Valley’s Giants.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 19, 2014): C5-C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 18, 2014, and has the title “Book Review: ‘The Intel Trinity’ by Michael S. Malone; A born leader, an ethereal genius and a tough taskmaster built the most important company on the planet.”)

The book under review is:
Malone, Michael S. The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

Locke and Smith Showed How Economic Life Has Moral Value

(p. 241) Andrzej Rapaczynski discusses “The Moral Significance of Economic Life” in the most recent issue of Capitalism and Society. His abstract summarizes the argument (p. 242) compactly: “Much of the modern perception of the role of economic production in human life–whether on the Left or on the Right of the political spectrum–views it as an inferior, instrumental activity oriented toward self-preservation, self-interest, or profit, and thus as essentially distinct from the truly human action concerned with moral values, justice, and various forms of self-fulfillment. This widely shared worldview is rooted, on the one hand, in the Aristotelian tradition that sees labor as a badge of slavery, and freedom as lying in the domain of politics and pure (not technical) knowledge, and, on the other hand, in the aristocratic medieval Christian outlook, which–partly under Aristotle’s influence–sees nature as always already adapted (by divine design) to serving human bodily needs, and the purpose of life as directed toward higher, spiritual reality. . . . As against this, liberal thinkers, above all Locke, have developed an elaborate alternative to the Aristotelian worldview, reinterpreting the production process as a moral activity par excellence consisting in a gradual transformation of the alien nature into a genuinely human environment reflecting human design and providing the basis of human autonomy. Adam Smith completed Locke’s thought by explaining how production is essentially a form of cooperation among free individuals whose self-interested labor serves the best interest of all. The greatest “culture war” in history is to re-establish the moral significance of economic activity in the consciousness of modern political and cultural elites.” Capitalism and Society, December 2013, vol. 8, no. 2, http://capitalism.columbia.edu/volume-8-issue-2.

Taylor, Timothy. “Recommendations for Further Reading.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 235-42.
(Note: italics, and ellipses, in original.)

Climate Models Allow “the Modeler to Obtain Almost Any Desired Result”

Integrated assessment models (IAMs) are the commonly-used models that attempt to integrate climate science models with economic effect models. In the passage quoted below, “SCC” stands for “social cost of carbon.”

(p. 870) I have argued that IAMs are of little or no value for evaluating alternative climate change policies and estimating the SCC. On the contrary, an IAM-based analysis suggests a level of knowledge and precision that is nonexistent, and allows the modeler to obtain almost any desired result because key inputs can be chosen arbitrarily.

As I have explained, the physical mechanisms that determine climate sensitivity involve crucial feedback loops, and the parameter values that determine the strength of those feedback loops are largely unknown. When it comes to the impact of climate change, we know even less. IAM damage functions are completely made up, with no theoretical or empirical foundation. They simply reflect common beliefs (which might be wrong) regarding the impact of 2º C or 3º C of warming, and can tell us nothing about what might happen if the temperature increases by 5º C or more. And yet those damage functions are taken seriously when IAMs are used to analyze climate policy. Finally, IAMs tell us nothing about the likelihood and nature of catastrophic outcomes, but it is just such outcomes that matter most for climate change policy. Probably the best we can do at this point is come up with plausible estimates for probabilities and possible impacts of catastrophic outcomes. Doing otherwise is to delude ourselves.

For the full article, see:
Pindyck, Robert S. “Climate Change Policy: What Do the Models Tell Us?” Journal of Economic Literature 51, no. 3 (Sept. 2013): 860-72.

The Unintended Consequences of Requiring Monks to Read

(p. 28) The high walls that hedged about the mental life of the monks–the imposition of silence, the prohibition of questioning, the punishing of debate with slaps or blows of the whip–were all meant to affirm unambiguously that these pious communities were the opposite of the philosophical academies of Greece or Rome, places that had thrived upon the spirit of contradiction and cultivated a restless, wide-ranging curiosity.
All the same, monastic rules did require reading, and that was enough to set in motion an extraordinary chain of consequences. Reading was not optional or desirable or recommended; in a community that took its obligations with deadly seriousness, reading was obligatory. And reading required books. Books that were opened again and again eventually fell apart, however carefully they were handled. Therefore, almost inadvertently , monastic rules necessitated that monks repeatedly purchase or acquire books. In the course of the vicious Gothic Wars of the mid-sixth century and their still more miserable aftermath, the last commercial workshops of book production folded, and the vestiges of the book market fell apart. Therefore, again almost inadvertently, monastic rules necessitated that monks carefully preserve and copy those books that they already possessed.

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.