October 27, 2003

Principles of Economics

The Thirteen-Year-Old has found Greg Mankiw's Principles of Economics.

"Gosh. If this is what you teach, it sure is complicated, Dad," he says.

"But that's because the economy is complicated," I say. "We have a very sophisticated division of labor and a very complex economy--that's what makes us civilized," I say.

You mean that back before civilization economics was much simpler?" asks the Ten-Year-Old.

"Yes," says the Thirteen-Year-Old. "Back then, Principles of Economics books were really simple. They said: '(1) Find a rock. (2) Throw the rock to kill some small furry creature. (3) Eat the small furry creature.' That was it."

"But then things became more complicated. People invented farming, and some people became peasant farmers who grew the crops."

"And other people became workers who made pots," says the Ten-Year-Old. "And other people became blacksmiths who made spears."

"And," says the Thirteen-Year-Old, "then the people who got the spears told the peasants and the workers to give them half their crop--or else!"

"But," says the Ten-Year-Old, "the peasants and the workers made an alliance with the small furry animals. And then one night while the spear-chuckers were all asleep they raised the banner of revolution!"

"Now wait a minute," I say. The economics I teach is not the Materialist Interpretation of History crossed with the Chronicles of Narnia.

Posted by DeLong at October 27, 2003 12:15 AM | TrackBack

Comments

Ah, but the Ten-Year-Old's insight may be relevant to the domestication of dogs. :-)

Posted by: William in Beijing on October 26, 2003 08:37 PM

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I rarely burst out laughing when reading blogs, but this time...can we commission Delacroix or someone to paint an image of that alliance?

Posted by: Linkmeister on October 26, 2003 09:54 PM

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//"Now wait a minute," I say. The economics I teach is not the Materialist Interpretation of History crossed with the Chronicles of Narnia.//

Bet your version isn't half as entertaining as theirs. :)

Posted by: Ritu on October 26, 2003 10:37 PM

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>>"And," says the Thirteen-Year-Old, "then the people who got the spears told the peasants and the workers to give them half their crop--or else!">>Very concise! And I guess this is exactly what used to happen during most of our economic history. Could you really say anything more important about it in fewer words?

Posted by: Mats on October 26, 2003 11:54 PM

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..."relevant to the domestication of dogs"...

Actually, there is a theory that dogs are not domesticated wolves, but rather a subspecies of wolves that evolved as scavengers. And who better to scavenge than human beings, since we are picky eaters and organize our garbage? So as these wolves scavenged human camp sites and tolerance developed between the two species, humans came to recognize the value of these dog/wolves insofar as they would give warning of predators, and so, eventually, brought the dog/wolves along when they learned to domesticate and herd other species. So humans did not domesticate dogs, but dogs domesticated humans, so successfully that they now command a pet food industry worth billions of $.

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 27, 2003 12:31 AM

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john c. halasz:

In light of your post, I think we can find consensus on the Ten-Year-Old's original explanation: "the peasants and the workers made an alliance with the small furry animals."

Posted by: William in Beijing on October 27, 2003 02:31 AM

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The following is how I was introduced to economics at 13 years old. The old ones are the best:

Son: "Dad, I have to do a special report for school. Can I ask you a question?"

Father: "Sure son. What's the question?"

Son: "What is economics?"

Father: "Well, let's take our home for example. I am the wage earner, so let's call me "Capitalism". Your mother is the administrator of money, so we'll call her "Government". We take care of your needs, so we'll call you "The People". We'll call the maid "The Working Class", and your baby brother we can call "The Future". "Do you understand, Son?"

Son: "I'm not really sure, Dad. I'll have to think about it".

That night, awakened by his baby brother's crying, the boy went to see what was wrong. Discovering that the baby had seriously soiled his diaper, the boy went to his parent's room and found his mother sound asleep. He went to the maid's room, where, peeking through the keyhole, he saw his father in bed with the maid. The boy's knocking went totally unheeded by his father and the maid, so the boy returned to his room and went back to sleep.

The next morning he reported to his father. "Dad, now I think I understand what economics is".

Father: "Good son! Can you explain it to me in your own words?"

Son: "Well Dad, while Capitalism is screwing the Working Class, Government is sound asleep, the People are being completely ignored and the future is full of shit".

Posted by: PJ on October 27, 2003 03:36 AM

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I dreamed I saw Snowball last night,
Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Snow youíre ten years dead;
I never died said he.
I never died said he.

Napoleon's pigs framed you Snow
They shot you Snow said I;
Takes more than guns to kill a pig,
Said Snow I did not die.
Said Snow I did not die.

Snowball ainít dead he says to me,
Snowball ainít never died;
Where furry beasts are out on strike,
Snowball is at their side,
Snowball is at their side.

I dreamed I saw Snowball last night,
Alive as you or me:
Said I, but Snow youíre ten years dead;
I never died said he.
I never died said he.

Posted by: Ian Whitchurch on October 27, 2003 03:38 AM

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PJ:

So is the moral of the joke that it is just like academic economics- all the premises line up perfectly?

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 27, 2003 04:11 AM

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If the Bush political officers decree thatthere is only one, one-size-fits-all remedy for all economic ailments, upper bracket tax cuts, why would any reputable economist attach himself to this administration?

As for economists in general, recall Galbraith's "An economist is one who predicts not because he knows, but because he is asked".

Posted by: BobNJ on October 27, 2003 06:58 AM

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the problem is not with the "material interpretation" of history, but rather with its just-so narration

Posted by: schnauze on October 27, 2003 07:04 AM

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the problem is not with the "material interpretation" of history, but rather with its just-so narration

Posted by: schnauze on October 27, 2003 07:05 AM

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>the peasants and the workers made an alliance with the small furry animals."

ALL POWER TO THE SOVIET OF PEASANTS, WORKERS, AND SMALL FURRY ANIMALS!

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on October 27, 2003 09:59 AM

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John Halasz,

Bears are next:

http://www.msnbc.com/news/985026.asp?0dm=s16Dk


I understand that there is simiar thinking regarding animals kept for food. They "chose" (without realizing it - oh well) to associate with humans because, though they are slaughtered in their billions, they are the most successful genetic lineage of their sort. There are billions, of milk and beef cattle, more than any wild variety, as a result of their "choosing" to let humans protect, feed, medicate and eat them.

Posted by: K Harris on October 27, 2003 12:12 PM

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K Harris:

The theory is an actual one, put forth by an ethologist who studied domestic dog-human interaction cross-culturally. My information source is a CBC science documentary. The passive warning function of dogs is widespread among e.g. African cattle herders and Italian mountain shepherds. The notion of "choosing" here is facetious, but the point is that it is possibly a case of symbiotic co-evolution rather than active human mastery. The issue of how human beings domesticated other species, though lost in the mists of time, is an interesting one. Darwin himself closely studied the lore of breeding domestic species, even though this is clearly a case of non-natural selection. It does imply an intense behavioural observation of other species, even a sort of "empathy". I would nominate horses as the most curious and momentous case. At any rate, I should think it is one not entirely without interest to economists, insofar as they cast their eye beyond the dynamics of industrial capitalism and the current prospects of technology formation. It adds a wrinkle to the "materialist interpretation of history", involving, as it does, the "human metabolism with nature".

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 27, 2003 01:30 PM

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john c. halasz - I've also read that our social hierarchies are very unlike most other great apes, but surprisingly similar to those of dogs. Since our civilization started about the same time that we domesticated dogs, it's likely that dogs civilized humans, not the other way around.

Posted by: Chip Unicorn on October 27, 2003 01:54 PM

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john c. halasz - I've also read that our social hierarchies are very unlike most other great apes, but surprisingly similar to those of dogs. Since our civilization started about the same time that we domesticated dogs, it's likely that dogs civilized humans, not the other way around.

Posted by: Chip Unicorn on October 27, 2003 01:59 PM

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Um, sure it wasn't the cartoon version of *Animal Farm*?

Thirteen-year-old's version, though, is the MCP version. So far as anyone knows, hunter/gatherers did a lot of gathering and a little hunting, and they did it in groups, which can probably accurately be called tribes. Small furry creatures are *hard* to catch.

"there is a theory that dogs are not domesticated wolves, but rather a subspecies of wolves that evolved as scavengers."

Ahem. All wolves are scavengers, and prefer the meat that doesn't run away. And they eat plants--they're omnivores like us. The rest of the theory is likely enough.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on October 27, 2003 03:20 PM

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John,

Yes, indeed. Tending of herds, rather than enclosing pasture, requires a "decision" on the part of the critter to allow itself to be herded. One under-aged human, with a stick and not much else, cannot be expected to compel docility from 500 lbs of beef on the hoof, much less from 30 such creature. The beef must agree. Interestingly enough, when the one under-aged human does have help, it is often canine. The deal with the canine is pretty easy to understand, because the canine's deal with the cattle is similar to our own. The human and I allow you to procreate more successfully than would otherwise be possible, and you allow us to eat you.

Posted by: K Harris on October 28, 2003 08:20 AM

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K Harris:

But I should think that the key point about the domestication of wild species is that it requires some insight into the behavioural instincts of the species in question and some "trick" as to how to turn those instincts to human advantage in controlling the behaviour of said species. After that, it requires some insight into the selective effects of breeding, in order to create a distinctly domesticated breed of the species, which, in turn, presupposes some insight into the distinctive and humanly desirable charecteristics to be selectively bred. How this was possible for the "primitive" untutored human mind is the question. As to the improved selective and collective survival chances of herd animals under domestication, I do not think that individual animals have any notion of this in conducting their mating rituals, which are liable to be interferred with by humans anyway, nor do I think that they have any clear idea that they are going to be eaten until they get that stunning conk on the forhead- (the relaxation from the threat of predation may in fact be a pleasant motive for them.) There is a reason "bovine" is an adjective with cross-species application.

Posted by: john c. halasz on October 28, 2003 10:04 AM

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OK, this time, I think I really did blow up a post, but this may turn out to repeat a prior effort. If so, sorry.

John,

I agree that the character of the critter has much to do with human choices in domestication. I think, however, that there was probably a very long gap between early herding and early breeding efforts. I vaguely recall that there were long gaps between domestication of various species, indicating that it was qualities inherent in the wild critter, rather than the possibilities of improving the species, that drove early domestication. We took 'em as we found 'em. There also seems to be an intermediate step, in which herds grudgingly accept human predators on the fringe. Laplanders and reindeer, I think.

I wonder whether herd animals, especially in cultures that slaughter in the open, can be ignorant of their ultimate relationship with humans. Surely, we smell like death. Surely, the cutting out of animals for slaughter cannot be missed. Those animals never come back. Social animals know each other - there is a structure to the herd and social relations that mean the slaughtered animal will be missed. Masai (I think) will actually bleed live animals for sustenance. The animal can't miss that. The point about how much individual animals "choose" human company is a good one. I think the human input to the decision is far greater than that of the herd animal. The one case that I know of in which wild critters are still recruited into domestication is that of Indian elephants, and it is very much a one-way street at the beginning. Then, we start feeding them. Even so, wolves and lions can spark a stampede and certainly give herds of their prey the heebie-jeebies. Not so for Laplanders. Somehow, we seem to be the predator of choice.

Posted by: K Harris on October 28, 2003 12:54 PM

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About the domestication of animals...
One has to remember that in general it is theorized that only the omega animals from a wild herd were successfully collected and domesticated. In a group of wild cattle, an alpha or beta cow would never submit to being corralled, but an omega, that has little to no prospect of being able to pass on its genetics would be more likely to "agree" to domestication - and therefore the continuation of its genes. Ultimatley, we have billions of omega cattle - continuing the most docile genetics, which is by definition, not the most hearty for wild animals.

Posted by: Treacy on October 29, 2003 12:19 PM

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About the domestication of animals...
One has to remember that in general it is theorized that only the omega animals from a wild herd were successfully collected and domesticated. In a group of wild cattle, an alpha or beta cow would never submit to being corralled, but an omega, that has little to no prospect of being able to pass on its genetics would be more likely to "agree" to domestication - and therefore the continuation of its genes. Ultimatley, we have billions of omega cattle - continuing the most docile genetics, which is by definition, not the most hearty for wild animals.

Posted by: Treacy on October 29, 2003 12:27 PM

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About the domestication of animals...
One has to remember that in general it is theorized that only the omega animals from a wild herd were successfully collected and domesticated. In a group of wild cattle, an alpha or beta cow would never submit to being corralled, but an omega, that has little to no prospect of being able to pass on its genetics would be more likely to "agree" to domestication - and therefore the continuation of its genes. Ultimatley, we have billions of omega cattle - continuing the most docile genetics, which is by definition, not the most hearty for wild animals.

Posted by: Treacy on October 29, 2003 12:32 PM

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Economics are the worst! .. very difficult to understand. :)

Posted by: diet pill on December 10, 2003 01:57 AM

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I was not very good with economics.

Posted by: Jenny on December 10, 2003 11:53 PM

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