Links: Reading, photos, teaching, life

* Inadvertently depressing, though it does raise the relative status of photographers: “Photos are the killer content type on mobile. Quick to consume like text, but easier to produce on a phone.”

* “The Moral Inversion of Economic Thinking,” or, why economics offends through counterintuitive facts and principles.

* “Putting Teacher Tenure In Context,” which has revised my opinions.

* “Reading: The Struggle” (maybe).

* Is tax evasion the key to understanding nonsensical-seeming data about first-world indebtedness?

* Someone found this blog by searching for “nurses making love.” I don’t know either.

* “When Literature Was Dangerous.”

* “Teaching college is no longer a middle-class job, and everyone paying tuition should care.

Most volunteering is a waste of time for anyone except the volunteer

Volunteering is primarily driven by the need of the volunteer to feel good about themselves, not to do the most good; the way to really do the most good is to know how to do something valuable, like make a computer do what a person wants, or building things. Not that many people can or choose to learn how to do something really valuable, but many people can rehab trails or serve meals to the homeless.

Nonprofit and public agencies know this and many don’t really want volunteers, though they also can’t really turn volunteers away for PR reasons.* Nonprofit and public agencies want cash, which is fungible and can then be spent hiring professionals who don’t consume a lot of time and energy. Programmers know that the smallest number of programmers possible should work on a given project, because each additional programmer increases the communication overhead of the project. Sufficiently large projects often collapse because programmers cannot communicate effectively and ensure their code works coherently together. Volunteers face a similar problem, albeit to a lesser extent.

Low-wage labor is also widely available. Someone with a skill that can be sold for a couple hundred dollars an hour is better off doing that, and then donating their wages to hire at least ten people for ten dollars an hour. That’s much more useful to society as a whole. We’re in the habit of automatically admiring volunteers and volunteerism, to the extent that claiming volunteer hours has become yet another way of gaming college admissions through dubious altruism.

The primary way to usefully volunteer is to have a specialized skill that can be effectively deployed by the organization, but that rarely seems to happen. If the organization really needs a given skill, it tends to pay for it, because it needs that skill delivered reliably and, often, to precise specifications.

Mastering a complex skill, however, is a labor-intensive process; it’s famously been said to take ten years. Maybe one can master a skill in less time, but certainly it takes thousands of hours of dedicated practice. No one can wake up and decide to write a (good) novel or (good) operating system or whatever. One can go off and seal envelopes or make cold calls or serve meals for a couple hours.

One sees this at work in the misguided efforts to send expensive American teenagers to developing countries to build houses. Developing countries by and large do not have a shortage of effective construction workers (the U.S. imports plenty of Mexican construction workers)—they have a shortage of money. The thousands of dollars it takes to feed, secure, and transport American teenagers or twenty-somethings would be much more effectively spent on local labor and materials. But the purpose of volunteer trips is of course not about building houses but about making the volunteers feel good and useful.

Still, if the choice is between volunteering or watching T.V., volunteering is probably a “better” thing, but if the choice is between volunteering and mastering a unique skill, master that skill (and perhaps teach it to others). Be an example to others by becoming an expert, instead of by sacrificing time that should be optimally spent doing something useful for a large number of people.


* I’m a grant writing consultant. Many nonprofit and public agencies will admit in private that they don’t want volunteers. I suspect all or nearly all professions generate uncommon or counter-intuitive knowledge. The Internet is pretty good at letting people discuss that knowledge in a pseudonymous environment.

Albert Hirschman succinctly describes the academic problem

“the rapid exit of the highly quality-conscious customers [. . .] is tied to the availability of better-quality substitutes at higher prices” (51). That’s from Albert Hirschman’s brilliant Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

In other words, those with the best alternative options, even if the “price” of such options are high, tend to leave declining situations first. That’s essentially what is happening in academia: the people who can get real jobs leave and the ones who can’t stay and put up with geographical mobility and other problems. The result is plain to many grad students and smart, aware undergrads.

Thoughts on Debt: The First 5,000 Years — David Graeber

Mike Beggs’ review of Debt expresses my reservations about the book better than I can. In Debt there are many solid-seeming micro-insights but the overall narrative doesn’t cohere (I say “solid-seeming” because of Graber’s many errors—see the last paragraph of this post). Beggs describes the problems with Debt better than I can.

One point: Graeber notes religious prohibitions on debt—”The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but the rules often fell into desuetude[. . .]” (10)—and religiously-inspired depictions—”Looking over world literature, it is almost impossible to find a single sympathetic representation of a moneylender—or anyway, a professional moneylender, which means by definition one who charges interest” (10)—but my understanding is that those prohibitions arose prior to the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment—in other words, times when growth could be negative for decades, and when growth, even when it did occur, was usually under 1% a year.

In that atmosphere, taking on debts would be ruinous for the vast majority of people. Today, by contrast, many people can use debt safely and successfully for things like education or business. I don’t know how much of that is a just-so story and how much is empirically supported, however.

It is also easy to find many nasty representations of women in world literature, and especially of prostitutes, but, if I may stereotype for a moment, that doesn’t mean that a bunch religious lunatics from the Middle Ages should control modern conceptions of femininity or sexuality. Depictions of groups, professions, or practices from the past may be revealing or important, but they don’t and shouldn’t bind what we think in the future.

Another point: Graeber writes that, in recent times, “the bankers were doing it [that is, making “utterly irresponsible loans”] on an inconceivable scale: the total amount of debt they had run up was larger than the combined Gross Domestic Products of every country in the world [. . . ]” (16). I agree that having “too-big-to-fail” banks is a problem and that the U. S. federal government should get out of the business of subsidizing and guaranteeing mortgages, which are practices that contributed to the size of the financial sector but were probably not decisive to it, but that doesn’t stop me from also noting that every lender needs a borrower. So far as I know, few borrowers had guns held to their head with orders to borrow. Borrowers took loans freely. The story of the last five years should not be a homily about the evils of bankers; they played a role but did not act alone. Everyone who could have taken out a large mortgage in the 2000s but chose to rent instead knows this.

Graeber appears to successfully bury the idea, often mentioned in economic textbooks, that money systems arose from barter. But I don’t think that conception is essential to many, if any, modern ideas in economics. He seems to want to deliberately misstate what economics does:

for there to even be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. (32–33)

This misunderstands economics to a degree that seems like willful ignorance: economics is a discipline that studies how people respond to incentives and trade-offs.

The book is frustrating because it has many fascinating descriptions of how native peoples barter and trade, but those observations are marred by moments like this one. Graeber describes positively how native peoples develop ongoing business relationships, and that indeed sounds good, but having ongoing relationships with every single person with whom one wants to trade for goods and services would be incredibly time-consuming in a modern economy. The social arrangements that work well for native people will not necessarily work well for modern people dealing with clerks at Walgreens.

Some points are viable and important: for example, Graeber brings up the example of third-world debt incurred by autocratic leaders and enforced after those leaders are deposed. In instances like that he’s right: the people of third-world countries shouldn’t be forced to repay debts created by dictators. But that doesn’t mean all debt everywhere is automatically bad. Nor am I convinced that the sexual-economic practices of indigenous people, though interesting, necessarily tell us how we should arrange sexual-economic practices today.

Many indigenous people seem to have more fun than most Americans, and in that respect maybe we should emulate, but I can’t judge whether Graeber is cherry-picking examples. The U.S. could improve its sexual culture in many ways, and take some cues from indigenous people, but those cues can be lifted without taking along economic practices.

Debt ends this way:

A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point, we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe. (391)

But a debt isn’t really “the perversion of a promise;” it’s a particular kind of promise. If you don’t like “math and violence,” then don’t take debt. It’s not all obvious, even after almost 400 pages, how Graeber gets from the first two sentences in the paragraph to the last sentence—is anyone “tell[ing] us our value?” Who is this person? And when we start life, “no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe,” but if we want to buy a car for $0 down and $499 a month, then someone does have the right to tell us what we owe, because we gave it to them. There are many edge cases, which you can read about in Contracts law textbooks, but the overall principle is reasonable.

It is hard for me to imagine wanting to re-read Debt.

(I title this post “Thoughts on” because I don’t have sufficient knowledge for a comprehensive review, and because the book is sufficiently broad in scope that a real review would probably need to be thousands of words even if many of them are citations.)

EDIT: See also Brad DeLong on Graeber’s many errors of fact.

An economic model of paid sex: Coase’s “The Nature of the Firm,” gains from trade, and the gift economy

In Roosh’s “Orgasm or Money” story, he describes encountering yet another semi-pro prostitute in Latvia,* and he ends by wondering about sexual cultures around the world:

Then I thought about what she had said, how it was stupid for American girls not to ask for money before sex. Was it possible that the sexual culture in America and other Western countries is fantasy, and that the best move for women was to get as much as she could out of a guy?

It’s possible that getting “as much as she could out of a guy” in terms of money is optimal for an individual woman in some circumstances, but if she plays that game she’s likely to find guys who are unwilling to make long-term investments in her. A guy who pays for sex expects to dump the provider: as the philosopher Charlie Sheen once supposedly said regarding prostitutes, “I don’t pay them for sex. I pay them to leave.”

But there are deeper problems.

Moving unpaid “labor” into the “paid” labor can have the nasty, unintended effect of monetizing a lot of activity that’s better left outside the conventional economy. Roosh is really describing is the difference between a gift economy and market economy, which Lewis Hyde describes in his eponymous book. Moving all or a great deal of sexual activity to a market economy will result in fewer people forming mutually beneficial relationships in which both reap gains from trade and specialization. Monetizing such relationships increases transaction costs for both buyers (men, usually) and sellers (women, usually), which can leave both sides worse off for transaction costs and other reasons.

Ronald Coase’s famous essay “The Nature of the Firm” (alternately, here’s Wikipedia on it) points out that firms exist to reduce friction / transaction costs that arise from alternate arrangements—like having a large number of consultants work together. When individuals are try to gain every last monetary or other advantage at the margin, they aren’t working towards the good of the whole. It’s cheaper and better for large groups of people to get lump-sum payments and then work together, to the best of their abilities, to further the total enterprise. That’s true of firms and of marriages.

A relationship can be conceptualized as a very small firm, as people continually rediscover—in “Marry Him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough,” Lori Gottlieb realizes that often “Marriage isn’t a passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business. And I mean this in a good way.” She realizes this after having a child on her own, however. Instead of figuring out that she can reap major gains from finding a decent guy and marrying him, she decides to date around and has a child via a sperm seller, only to find what should really be obvious and only isn’t to someone who’s been taught to never “compromise.”

As noted above, both parties reap gains from specialization in a firm or marriage: one person might like to cook, for example, while the other person does dishes, or runs errands, or builds stuff. Granted, this only works if both parties actually have useful skills: one time I was in a bar, listening to a nasty-sounding woman complain to two friends, one male and one female, about the guy she was divorcing, and the woman was going on about how she wouldn’t cook, or run errands, or acquiesce to any number of normal-seeming things. Finally I asked her, “What do you bring to the relationship beyond your vagina?” The guy started laughing, hard, and the other woman began chuckling, and the complaining woman didn’t know what to say, so she told me I was rude (true, although I prefer to call it “honest”) and asked how I dare ask her that sort of thing—I dare many things. But she didn’t and probably couldn’t answer the obvious question, perhaps because she already knew the answer in her heart.

The larger point contained in that anecdote, however, is that both parties gain, or should gain, from not having search for sex partners or pay for sex. In addition, long-term plans, like offspring, are easier to make.

Most of us don’t want to live in a purely market economy with every potential transaction: when our significant others come over, we don’t charge them for dinner, and, if we did, the charge would create very different expectations. Dan Ariely describes the expectation issue in Predictably Irrational and elsewhere. Once market norms, as opposed to gift-based norms, are activated, they’re very hard, and perhaps impossible, to de-activate.

Plus, to return to Coase, it’s very inefficient to price everything, and to continually think of pricing. It’s better for individuals and the economy as a whole if people trust each other and create value for each other without (always) charging for it. Relationships are, in part, a movement from market economies to gift economies, and in the process they create a lot of value, along with love, trust, and assorted other positive feelings. If there’s a large-scale culture shift away from non-paying relationships and towards women trying “to get as much as [they] can” out of guys, as Roosh describes, both sides lose, including the woman trading sex for money.

Granted, if a woman isn’t looking for long-term relationships or real help, it can make sense to move to a mercantile economy: this might be why a fair number of college girls get into stripping or even hooking, only to quit at or near graduation: they’re shifting from short-term expectations to long-term ones, and they know that violating social taboos can have a (major) economic payoff, but it’s easy enough for many of them to shift back into the “normal” relationship economy when their interests shift to long-term relationships.


* “Semi-pro” meaning someone who doesn’t explicitly advertise their wares but does eventually demand money for sex, or simply tries to drain guys through overpriced bar drinks and the like.

Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance and what normal people should do about interest group accretion

In Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance, I noticed his discussion of regulatory thickets* and patents, both of which are real but hidden problems of the kind that accumulate in democracies, like free radicals in the body. But there’s not an obvious way for random people to do anything, which led me to ask Tabarrok directly:

I have a question about Mancur Olson [if you’re interested, see The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities] and interest group accretion: what, if anything, could and/or should normal people do about it? If normal people are worried about free speech, they can put their money where their online complaints are and join the ACLU or EFF, but I don’t see any obvious parallel for the accretion of interest groups. Is there an anti-interest group interest group out there?

The ACLU / Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) model is an obvious one to me because a lot of people online complain about things like the police abuse of photographers and the patent system. Complaining online is better than doing nothing, but it’s even more helpful to support interest groups that are trying to preserve freedom in the face of growing state power. I get the sense that relatively few people move from the “complaining” to “doing” stage.

Tabarrok replied:

Excellent question. Unfortunately, Olson isn’t too helpful on this score as he says one of the few times the interest groups are cleared is after losing a terrible war! I am hopeful that as we see other countries such as China and India leaping forward that we will clean our house. Not much of any answer, I know. We have to develop a base that supports innovation even when we don’t know what innovation will bring.

It seems like a lot of large-scale, serious problems do not have simple or obvious solutions. Reading Launching the Innovation Renaissance helps at the margin—Tabarrok is after all the co-writer of Marginal Revolution—but I am also looking for space to expand that margin, which inspired the question.


* Example: “The problem is that building even a small hydro-electric project requires the approval of numerous agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments and State Historic Preservation Departments. It’s simply too expensive, time-consuming and risky to build these projects when any of these agencies could veto the project at any time.”

Alex Tabarrok's Launching The Innovation Renaissance and what normal people should do about interest group accretion

In Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance, I noticed his discussion of regulatory thickets* and patents, both of which are real but hidden problems of the kind that accumulate in democracies, like free radicals in the body. But there’s not an obvious way for random people to do anything, which led me to ask Tabarrok directly:

I have a question about Mancur Olson [if you’re interested, see The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities] and interest group accretion: what, if anything, could and/or should normal people do about it? If normal people are worried about free speech, they can put their money where their online complaints are and join the ACLU or EFF, but I don’t see any obvious parallel for the accretion of interest groups. Is there an anti-interest group interest group out there?

The ACLU / Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) model is an obvious one to me because a lot of people online complain about things like the police abuse of photographers and the patent system. Complaining online is better than doing nothing, but it’s even more helpful to support interest groups that are trying to preserve freedom in the face of growing state power. I get the sense that relatively few people move from the “complaining” to “doing” stage.

Tabarrok replied:

Excellent question. Unfortunately, Olson isn’t too helpful on this score as he says one of the few times the interest groups are cleared is after losing a terrible war! I am hopeful that as we see other countries such as China and India leaping forward that we will clean our house. Not much of any answer, I know. We have to develop a base that supports innovation even when we don’t know what innovation will bring.

It seems like a lot of large-scale, serious problems do not have simple or obvious solutions. Reading Launching the Innovation Renaissance helps at the margin—Tabarrok is after all the co-writer of Marginal Revolution—but I am also looking for space to expand that margin, which inspired the question.


* Example: “The problem is that building even a small hydro-electric project requires the approval of numerous agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, State Environmental Departments and State Historic Preservation Departments. It’s simply too expensive, time-consuming and risky to build these projects when any of these agencies could veto the project at any time.”

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