Archives for October 2014

A Theory of Economic Development

If I had to give the Most Underrated Professor Award to anyone I studied under, it would easily have to be Professor Meir Kohn. His work falls squarely outside the paradigm of mainstream economics, which (coming from me anyway) could not be a higher compliment – yet also makes it difficult to get traction inside the field. Kohn himself wrote a great essay contrasting the mainstream paradigm of Samuelson and Hicks with the lineage of more qualitative thinking descended from Adam Smith, including fields like economic history and new institutional economics and public choice theory among others.

He has been working on a theory of economic development for two decades now, and in my opinion it appears to be substantially correct. He first composed an unpublishable opus about European economic development from 1000-1600, which I read in its entirety. Then he wrote a more condensed version, where he applied the theory to China as well as Europe, which is likely going to be published in the next couple of years. In private correspondence, he has indicated that he and his students are now applying the model quite successfully to analyzing other economies throughout history.

The first chapter of his first opus contains the best description of his overall model I have yet read. Because I hold it in high regard, believe it to be fundamentally true, and I refer to it often, I am posting my summary of it below. All errors and omissions are mine.

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(Partial) Summary of A Theory of Moral Sentiments

Adam Smith is best known for being the father of modern economics with the publishing of his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations. Far fewer people know about his second most famous book A Theory of Moral Sentiments (which, incidentally, is where the term “invisible hand” actually comes from). While the book is nominally about moral philosophy, I think it would be more accurately described as a work of psychology: Smith is trying to explain how morality arises from the workings of our minds. Much in the same way that The Wealth of Nations still seems surprisingly insightful today, I posit that A Theory of Moral Sentiments accurately described aspects of human psychology that were not appreciated until much later. I enjoyed listening to the EconTalk book club on ToMS as well, if you want to have a lively discussion with lots of background and historical context.

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Understanding Body Language, Touch, and Appearance

When it came to understanding body language, fashion, all of that kind of stuff, I used to be a typical clueless nerd. I didn’t perceive it, and I didn’t think it really mattered.

I know better now.

It matters. A lot.

Over the years I have seen a lot of objections to learning to perceive this kind of thing on a conscious level – but notably these objections tend to come from people who already know how to do it! For those of us who never learned how to perceive these things by default, there is little choice but to go through the usual conscious incompetence route at first, and I wholeheartedly support any geeks who want to learn how to get better at the things that everyone else already does.

To that end, I have written up notes on body language, touch, and appearance, which systematize most of what I know about these important social variables, and I want to make them available to anyone who wishes to learn this stuff. It can be a challenging and even overwhelming road at first, but I think it’s an incredibly important life skill. Remember that social interaction is a positive sum game. You can have increasing social success and other people will find you more fun to be around!

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