Archive for August, 2007

The Last Semester

August 26, 2007

Tomorrow begins my last semester as an undergraduate.  I have a lot on my plate as I attempt to get in those last few classes that I need/want to take. 

Economics Thesis – The topic is corruption, especially in developing countries, and this project will receive a great deal of attention here over the next few months.

Symbolic Anthropology – Some of my best friends are/were anthro majors.  It’s high time I learn the lingo in a more structured environment than a coffee shop.

Probability and Statistical Inference – As I’ve started to really plumb the depths of econometrics and economic modeling, I have felt handicapped by an absence of advanced mathematical understanding.  Hence, over the past year and a half or so, I have tried to remedy this by taking multivariable calculus, an elementary discrete mathematics course, and linear algebra.  My hope is that not only will this course keep me on a path of a deeper understanding of the more abstract notions in my chosen field, but will also attract more potential employers to my resume. 

Existentialism – Why do you think my blog is called Philosonomics?  I find philosophy courses to be fantastic exercises for the mind, as well as fascinating in their own right.  I think my unofficial minor in philosophy puts real meat on my intellectual bones.  This course will taught by the notoriously tough department head, so since it is not required for graduation, I may switch it to pass/fail.

The Fed Challenge – I came to the realization late in the Spring that I have focused on heterodox methods in my economics education at the expense of developing a deeper understanding of the very mainstream that those methods purport to challenge or amend.  In a sort of last ditch effort to alleviate the consequences of that, I chose to join some of my fellow econ majors in preparing for and competing in the Fed Challenge, an annual academic competition held by the central bank.  I don’t know much about it, but my hope is that in the process of preparing for it, I will acquire some of the depth that I seek.  And of course, if we win, its a great resume booster, too. 🙂  This is a wildcard, though; I’ll probably write on this a fair bit in the coming months, as well. 

And now for lunch.

Search Terms for the Interdisciplinarian

August 15, 2007

Over the past few years, I have found that one of the hardest parts of research is devising a set of search terms.  I do not know if I am in the minority in this or not; I do tend to pick topics that flirt with the lines between different disciplines and my own, and on that line new ideas are often fleshed out and new words/phrases are invented or reinvigorated with a certain meaning in order to express those ideas. 

First, the obvious:  Why do you need a good set of search terms?  Perhaps the better way to phrase that question is “How do you take your research topic/question and decide what the key terms are?”  This is not always as straightforward as it might at first seem.  For instance, my topic is corruption, but more specifically it is a critique of the anticorruption agenda on the grounds that it ignores important sociohistorical and politicoeconomic intricacies in developing and third world nations.  At most out of that previous sentence, search terms could include:  corruption, critique, “anticorruption agenda”, development, and some play on the words sociohistoric/politicoeconomic/intricacy. 

The problem is that, in my humble opinion, such a critique is necessarily interdisciplinary.  This means that I am attempting to recognize and label ideas for which I have no specialized terminology or training.  I am, in effect, trying to reinvent the wheel.  If you place those words into a search database, you will get a long, very mixed set of search results, and going through them one by one to discover the key is a painstaking and inefficient process.  So you need a good set of search terms in order to acquire a strong, concise set of resources, which will define your starting point in your research. 

What, then, is a poor undergrad student to do in this situation?  Your partner the anthropology major is out of the country and your professors, as interested as they may be, are not in positions to help you redefine your set of search terms.  So you’re stuck staring at a Google Scholar page that has returned 1500 results on your search terms.  I think once you get to this point, you have to start improvising; find some roundabout way of getting at the sources you REALLY want.  Possible strategies:

1) Wikipedia:  Regardless of how you or your professor feels about the veracity of the entries in this online encyclopedia, it is often a good a first approximation of the issue at hand, and the fact that it is web-based means any theory worth its salt will probably end up on it.  Perhaps one of those theories comes close to describing your intended topic. 

2) Find an author:  This may seem a silly idea in light of the above discusssion; after all, how can you have a good author if you can’t run a good search?  Well the idea is that you don’t necessarily need THE seminal work on your topic.  What you need is someone who is making at least SOME of the claims that you would like to make/study.  You can get a source like this by going through articles/books you read for older classes or research projects ( NEVER DELETE/THROW AWAY OLD SOURCES FOR OLD PROJECTS).  Anyway, once you have that author that kinda sorta gets it, run her name through Google Scholar and see what comes out the other end.  She may have written something closer to what you want, or you might find someone who has cited her and who comes closer to what you’re trying to say.  Read that paper and if its close enough, devise some search terms based on that paper.  If it is closer but not yet perfect, then search the author again, or search using the new author that cited the original paper.  This is a process of elimination that can be very effective if you’ll take the time to read the articles/books you turn up.

3) One final possibility, probably often looked over by undergrads, is doctoral and masters theses.  Perhaps I’m just an optimist, but I tend to think doctoral/masters candidates are willing to be a little more daring than the establishment they are seeking to join.  Thus, a search on corruption (or some other topic) in dissertations may turn up a slightly more radical set of results than on an established academic search engine.  Also, because institutions are offering more and more specialized degrees, you may get lucky and find a department somewhere devoted entirely to the study of your topic.  Chances are that they have students who have written dissertations that are just what you are looking for, but not necessarily available on your local dissertation search engine. 

By the way, it turned out that the best search terms for me were:  networks, authority, legitimacy, corruption.

Who knew? 

Property Rights, Government, and Development

August 1, 2007

Prior to my decision to focus on corruption for my honor’s thesis, I was focusing on property rights (the topic of this post, previously left incomplete).  I leave it as is without further development, but I think the questions at the end merit attention. 

My readings of late have focused on the nature of property rights and the importance of their role in indigenous societies.  Some focus on the mythology that has sprouted up about the harmonious relationship that societies have with nature and their neighbours.  Others have focused on how indigenous groups located within developed societies, and which have experienced a long history of oppression, are now adopting certain rules of private property in order to “opt-in” to the national or global economy.  Most recently, I read a paper whose author argues that a system of formalized property rights enforced by the state – a proposed solution about which most mainstream economists find themselves quite enamored – is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the rise of efficient markets for land. He suggests instead that the government work only to broker intercommunity agreements to ensure that no conflicts arise from alloting land rights to strangers (either by rental or sale or other measures).

It is this last point that I would like to take up.  Such a proposition does not, in my humble opinion, sync up with the Hobbesian view of government that most economists are so prone to accept as given.   If we assume that theory, then it is impossible to expect a government to fairly broker such deals.  Indeed, the differential power of the parties to any sort of deal-brokering will inevitably play an important role in how the government moderates any such proceedings. 

Two questions, then, are important to answer:  1) Is the Hobbesian and/or Machiavellian theory of government adequate?  2) If so, can we honestly expect a government to fairly broker intercommunity agreements on property rights?

Research as a Knowledge Creating activity

August 1, 2007

Some time ago I read a post at Pedablogy concerning the creation of knowledge and the way it is communicated to students.  This notion of knowledge creation fascinates me on a philosophical level, but it also has important practical implications, especially for my senior research thesis. 

As scientists, we subscribe to the relevant version of the scientific method, and I may be granted that the scientific method provides a general framework of how we match a priori theorizing with a posteriori empirical observation.  When the theory is shown to predict the observation, and that within some degree of tolerance (which can be fairly variable), and when those experiments are repeatable and the results verified, then at some point it becomes knowledge.  I have found it to be extremely tempting to develop theory a priori with the intention of testing it through simulations.  It is tempting because data collection is not only costly, but also because data is often difficult to acquire and full of holes or open to charges of imperfections.  Thus in economics it has become common in my experience to develop a clever model, then bask tautologically in one’s cleverness by running a simulation within the confines of the model without any accountability to the real world. 

I for one would prefer not to fall into this temptation, because I think ultimately it leads to obscurity.  However, I am also keenly aware of the fact that the difficulty of providing empirical evidence is that, simply put, data often does not exist.  In these instances, data sets must be somehow painstakingly created and models adapted for use with that data.  These data sets are often imperfect, but I think they are an important development in the social sciences.  A good example may be Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index (CPI).  While I think there are many reasons to worry about the underlying assumptions upon which the CPI is founded, I really admire the attempt to create such an index and a similar one at the World Bank.  Corruption and its effects are terribly difficult to measure because they are illicit in nature; no one will simply own up to their crime.  Indeed, this is a major obstacel in any study of illegal or taboo behaviors.  So if you want to measure and analyze any black market with any sort of accuracy, you have to be very original in your approach; that is, you need to have a new methodology.

And this is precisely the point:  Methodology.  Your methodology is where you decide what data to collect, how to collect it, and how to apply it to your a priori theory.  It is in your methodology that all your assumptions come to the fore.   It is (or at least it can be) the place where the most creativity and imagination is required because it is precisely here that pure method (mathematics and survey methodology), abstractions about the world (a priori assumptions and theory), and data all must be fit together into a cogent theory. 

 I really believe it is in the methodology that the most reform must take place.  In the absence of data in the form of dollars and cents, economists need to think about alternative methods for collecting, synthesizing, and evaluating data and models.  I think this is where I would most like to focus my attentions in my honor’s thesis.  I have been warned by a person who shall remain nameless that few economists have ever achieved fame and fortune for their work in methodology.  This may be true now, but I wonder if that trend will continue.  In any event, my overwhelming desire is to increase my own level of knowledge; being recognized for that is just the cherry on top.