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A few articles worth reading

I was recently inspired by Arnold Kling’s blog post questioning the value of reading books as a way to learn: “The educational return on investment for the consumer is highest on essays and blog posts…Before you read the book you should search for an essay by the author that is the basis for the book.” I agree, and have found that time is better spent reading blog posts, articles summarizing books, criticisms and reviews of those posts, short video lectures, and even viewing all or part of a good MOOC (Russ Roberts at Econtalk did an ensuing podcast with Andy Matuschak, who inspired Kling in the first place. They emphasized the value of non-written learning sources such as MOOCs).

Thus, I have decided to start producing a list of articles that strike me as high bang-for-your-buck, and helped start a change in perspective I have had on an issue.

1. Devourer of Encyclopedias: Stanislaw Lem’s “Summa Technologiae”. David Auerbach. A very nice ‘summary and discussion’ of Stanislaw Lem’s Magnus Opus Summa Technologiae (500 plus pages). I really liked the book, but it is a tough slog. The article gives a taste of the book and its relevance, and is also an in-road into thinking about a lot of interesting ideas: artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, synthetic life, information theory, entropy and thermodynamics, complexity theory, the “singularity.” Added coolness: Lem was thinking about this stuff back in the 1960s from behind the Iron Curtain in Poland (along with writing Sci-Fi classics like Solaris).

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My Jordan Peterson Article

I wrote a Medium piece on Jordan Peterson about 1 year after he started getting notoriety (in February 2018). It was the republished in an edited and truncated form on international policy digest here, which actually lost some of the context and tried to make it more negative. I am reposting my full updated version below, just to bring my blog up to date; but this is a bit dated. Some views have changed, and in my opinion Peterson has morphed several times over the past 2 years, especially when you watch his older, more normal footage (as I did ie watching his entire 2016 Lecture series The Maps of Meaning on Youtube.) Overall he’s been a nice gateway into some pressing issues. Some of the points in the article may have dated themselves a bit already, but I do hope it brings up a few points of interest.

Updated Version of Article (last edited June 2018).

Title: The Jordan Peterson Effect

In the first year or so following the arrival of Jordan Peterson on the media scene (until roughly January 2018), most journalistic attempts at discussing him were poorly written and ill-informed, it was pretty evident that the journalists were regurgitating second-hand accounts or summaries or short YouTube clips. However, in the past 6–7 months, this has changed, partially as a function of the increased media attention (FT Lunch), but also the publication of Peterson’s book and media interviews which attained viral status.

There has been a lot written on Peterson, and this is not meant to be a review of his books or ideas. Rather, just as food for thought, here is a list of a few of Peterson’s views which I feel are underdeveloped or even misleading, and want to flag for others to consider:

1) All social systems equally lead to extreme inequality aka the power of the Pareto distribution

Of course all social systems lead to some degree of inequality (economically, but also in terms of political power, etc). However, Peterson’s reliance on the law of Pareto distribution is too crudely employed, and used to rationalize societal outcomes that in fact are malleable.

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Complexity Economics @YSI, and a few links

Below is a summary of 2 posts I made in the INET YSI Complexity Economics group last week, with regards to the reading list they have for their internal complexity economics group (see below). My posts describe an uneasiness with the application of complexity ideas to economics that seems fairly common (ie at INET’s Oxford Martin School). My general critique is that ‘complexity economics’ stills remains a rather narrow-minded field. Furthermore, this is somewhat emblematic of YSI & INET altogether. See a few critiques of ie the 2017 INET Conference here and here. (The William Janeway keynote dinner talk was my highlight, along with the Perry Merhling-Isabella Kaminska crypto session as part of the YSI pre-conference workshops coverage here in FT Alphaville and the session video).

How to approach complexity as an economics student? I advocate trying to first really understand some of the powerful ideas behind complexity (emergence, complex adaptive systems, chaotic sensitivity to initial conditions, the dynamics of outcomes of cellular automaton, uncertainty, the difficulty modelling and understanding complex phenomenon), and then using this to think through economic/political/cultural problems.

Here’s the comment, and the syllabus is found at the end of this post.

Hi All, I have noticed that this reading group is still largely focused on economics at the expense of ‘complexity’: ie with articles from David Graeber, Perry Merhling, and the ‘complexity stuff’ coming from ie Doyne Farmer, Schelling, etc. In my opinion much of this work would be (and is) otherwise covered in other courses which YSI scholars are largely familiar with – and thus this course potentially serves to in some way reinforce a “broadened” narrow understanding of complexity economics. For those interested in another way to tackle complexity ( & economics) I suggest taking a step out of the economics discourse directly, and trying to first understand the basics of complexity. Melanie Mitchell’s Introduction to Complexity MOOC with the Santa Fe institute provides one of the clearest such looks at a wide-range of complexity issues (I believe both Brian Arthur and Doyne Farmer are interviewed in the lectures). https://www.complexityexplorer.org/courses/89-introduction-to-complexity-spring-2018-spring-2019. “

Here is a part of my follow-up message, in reply to suggestions for relevant complexity economics work the group could read.

“I am afraid I am not particularly up-to-date (however below I do link to 2 papers). Furthermore, having thought about your comment, I find myself advocating to only use complexity as a warning that we must employ high epistemologic uncertainty regarding methods of evaluating or understanding economic and social processes (sidenote see Russ Roberts of Econtalk in general). For instance, at my institute the IASS Potsdam (transdisciplinary sustainability think tank), we are engaging with complexity ideas in application to societal risks (incl financial crises). Currently, I am working on an EU-funded project which tries to use complexity principles to understand technological innovations within the framework of the precautionary principle. Here, the use of complexity is rather used to elicit epistemological humbleness in the face of uncertainty regarding highly-complex processes (ie gene-editing, Crispr, GMOs, financial innovation, AI.)

Coming full-circle to my initital comment, another paper we wrote last year together with YSI member Steffen Murau (and under the direct influence of Perry Merhling ironically), at best employs the epistemological uncertainty derived from complexity to develop potential scenarios (scenarios building being another tool or consequence for dealing with complexity) for the development of the IMS which would be implied by the Money View’s understanding of money creation, shadow banking, the USD and C6 swap lines. Take a look here: (https://ssrn.com/abstact=3191786 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3191786).

Where to look for different complexity economics ideas? Here is just a top of the head list:

1) Use complexity to compare economics schools: Barkley Rosser has a set of articles trying to see how various economics schools exhibit complexity ideas (ie Austrian, post-keynesian, and behavourial economics.

2) Applied to political/economic history in a co-evolutionary way: Yuen Yuen Ange’s How China Escaped the Poverty Trap applies a complex adaptive systems approach to China’s growth.

3) Read and think through any economics, political economy, and financial system work you are doing with a complexity and CAS viewpoint. Someone like Russ Robert’s implicitly brings up complexity and adaption in many of his Econtalk interviews. Try-out putting his lens on when thinking through problems.

4) Many essays by Friedrich Hayek touch on the ideas of emergent order, information exchange via prices, etc

Continue to See the Course Syllabus I am critiquing
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Formal economics without parallel universes

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Joe Rini's blog

Writing under the influence of: economics, sociology, complexity studies, interest in the history of thought across many fields