Posts filed under ‘Food and Agriculture’
| Peter Klein |
Via Michael Strong, a thoughtful review and critique of Western-style economic development programs and their focus on one-size-fits-all, “big idea” approaches. Writing in the New Republic, Michael Hobbs takes on not only Bono and Jeff Sachs and USAID and the usual suspects, but even the randomized-controlled-trials crowd, or “randomistas,” like Duflo and Banerjee. Instead of searching for the big idea, thinking that “once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket,” we should support local, incremental, experimental, attempts to improve social and economic well being — a Hayekian bottom-up approach.
We all understand that every ecosystem, each forest floor or coral reef, is the result of millions of interactions between its constituent parts, a balance of all the aggregated adaptations of plants and animals to their climate and each other. Adding a non-native species, or removing one that has always been there, changes these relationships in ways that are too intertwined and complicated to predict. . . .
[I]nternational development is just such an invasive species. Why Dertu doesn’t have a vaccination clinic, why Kenyan schoolkids can’t read, it’s a combination of culture, politics, history, laws, infrastructure, individuals—all of a society’s component parts, their harmony and their discord, working as one organism. Introducing something foreign into that system—millions in donor cash, dozens of trained personnel and equipment, U.N. Land Rovers—causes it to adapt in ways you can’t predict.
| Peter Klein |
Longtime readers of this blog expect skepticism about behavioral social science. One of my issues is the assumed, but unexplored, assumption that private actors and market institutions cannot deal with behavioral anomalies, and therefore government intervention is necessary to make people act “rationally.” But if we can really improve health outcomes by putting the chocolate cake behind the carrot sticks in the display case, why wouldn’t profit-seeking entrepreneurs exploit this fact? Consumers pay substantial price premiums for organic produce, grass-fed meats, and other healthy products, even when the purported health benefits are long-term and uncertain. Wouldn’t some patronize the behavioral-economics-influenced grocer? “Our shelves are arranged to encourage healthy food choices.” Add earth tones, hipster music, an onsite juice bar, and the place will make as much money as your local Whole Foods.
To be a little less flippant: consider adverse selection theory. Many people misread Akerlof’s famous paper as a call for government regulation of used-car markets (or, worse, as a demonstration that used-car markets can’t exist). In fact, as Akerlof states plainly in the original piece, his theory explains the existence of private assurance mechanisms such as warranties, third-party certification, quality signalling, and the like.
A recent Forbes piece puts it this way: How do you make money by helping mitigate behavioral anomalies? Cognitive biases “have been accepted into the mainstream of economics and pop culture, particularly since the recent publication of popular books such as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Even so, relatively few companies have attempted to use behavioral economics to try to change people’s behavior around overeating, smoking, or other bad habits many are desperate to break.” The focus is on the diet company StickK, which takes advantage of loss aversion (pun intended) to help people achieve weight and other goals.
StickK is a cool site, and I hope it is successful. But, if behavioral theory is so powerful and general, why aren’t more entrepreneurs taking advantage of it?
| Dick Langlois |
I had a brief mental hiccup today when I received an email advertisement from Stanford University Press for a book called Epinets: The Epistemic Structure and Dynamics of Social Networks by Mihnea C. Moldoveanu and Joel A. C. Baum. Because the ad carried prominently the SUP logo — a stylized fir tree — and because epinette is the Canadian French word for spruce tree, I thought for a nanosecond that I was being offered a treatise on conifer biology, penned by a man whose name means “tree.” But no. It’s a book of organizational sociology. “Drawing on artificial intelligence, the philosophy of language, and epistemic game theory, Moldoveanu and Baum formulate a lexicon and array of conceptual tools that enable readers to explain, predict, and shape the fabric and behavior of social networks.” Might be worth glancing at, if only to find out what epistemic game theory is. (Perhaps it is as opposed to ontological game theory.)
Of course, the Palo Alto of the Stanford seal is not a spruce. It’s a coast redwood, also called a sequoia.
| Peter Klein |
A friend tipped me off to this, um, interesting paper on farmers markets, which the authors place within the larger field of “critical agrifood scholarship.” We all know what “critical” means, and I’m familiar with much of the agrifood literature, but I didn’t know about this particular field. I learned a lot from the paper about the slow-food movement’s ability to “create political transformation,” and build a “radicalized space” even though such markets “cluster around property and privilege.” The authors seek to “unpack the racialized and class-inflected narratives at play in farmers markets [and] to extend the alternative agriculture movement’s strategic rupturing of the veil of commodity fetishism to include the systemic inequalities on which both conventional and alternative agriculture depend.” How about that thesis statement! In passing, the authors manage to chide the slow-food movement’s “complacency with capitalism and consumerism, systems that are inherently exploitative and divisive,” while adding editorial remarks to such important scientific phenomena as “the working class performances of ‘god, guns and country’ that fill the rhetoric of the GOP.”
Thank goodness for taxpayer-subsided universities. If there were a free market for higher education, this kind of valuable scholarship would probably be grossly underfunded.
| Peter Klein |
An important contribution to the history of technology and the relationship between technology, organization, and strategy:
Gordon Winder’s The American Reaper is a solid and significant contribution to the history of American grain harvesting implements. Winder offers several revisionist challenges to standard accounts, both those that have treated Cyrus McCormick as a heroic inventor, as well as those that have touted the International Harvester Corporation (IHC, formed in 1902) as a path-breaking model of a vertically integrated and internationally dominant firm. . . . Reaper manufacturers forged licensing agreements, subcontracted with suppliers and branch factories, shared expert personnel and innovations, hired widely dispersed sales agents, and formed alliances to protect patent advantages in order to remain competitive.
Read the rest of the EH.Net review here.
To honor Julia Child on her 100th birthday, Lynne Kiesling writes a nice post combining three of my favorite things: cooking, entrepreneurship theory, and Austrian economics. Good cooking is about the combination of heterogeneous resources, it requires experimentation and creativity, and it either works or it doesn’t. Most important:
A system that will yield the most valuable and pleasing combinations of entrepreneurial economic or cooking activities will have low entry barriers (anyone can try to cook!) and a robust feedback-based system of error correction. Low entry barriers facilitate creativity in discovering new useful products from the raw elements, as well as enabling new value creation when some of those raw elements change. Error correction, whether a “yuck, that’s gross!” at home or a lack of profits due to low repeat business at a restaurant, is most effective and valuable when there are feedback loops that can inform the cook-producer about the value that the consumer did or did not get from the dish.
This emphasis on error correction highlights one of my differences with Kirzner’s approach to entrepreneurship. In Kirzner’s system, which emphasizes entrepreneurship as a coordinating agency, the entrepreneur is modeled as “piercing the fog” of uncertainty — hence the familiar metaphor of entrepreneurship as the discovery of preexisting profit opportunities. My approach focuses on action, not discovery, and gives a larger role to uncertainty. What generates coordination, in this approach, is the entrepreneurial selection process, not the “correctness” of entrepreneurial decisions.
Incidentally, Saras Sarasvathy often uses cooking to illustrate her “effectual” approach to entrepreneurial decision-making (i.e., cooks don’t always follow a recipe to produce a known dish, but use the ingredients they have in a sequential, experimental process). And for more on food, see here and here.
| Peter Klein |
[M]uch of what we do as economists is akin to what Simon calls natural science. We develop theories about how the economy works, and we conduct empirical studies that test these theories or estimate the parameters of key economic relationships that explain how general results derived from our theories manifest themselves in a particular context.We strive for results that explain what is or that predict what will be. . . .
Economists also design economic artifacts (e.g., markets, contracts, organizational structures, public policies) that reshape economic systems in order to better meet human needs. This work, which I will call economic design, is complementary with but differs fundamentally from economic analysis. While economic analysis is motivated by a question or a puzzle and focuses on explaining what is and predicting what will be, economic design is motivated by a problem or opportunity and focuses on what can be and ought to be or on what will yield a satisfactory outcome. . . .
While we are comfortable in recognizing “good science” in economic analysis, I believe we have devoted less attention to developing a shared understanding of “good science” in economic design.
It is certainly true that economists are increasingly involved in economic design (a trend that accelerated around WWII) though I am less sure this is a good idea. A lot of economic design — specifying “optimal” contracts, for example — might be considered the domain of entrepreneurs, not social scientists. But applied policy work is certainly of this character, so the essay may be read as a call for applied economists to pay closer attention to issues like decomposability, modularity, search, creativity, etc. (See Dick’s work for rich discussions of these issues.)
Kudos to Rob for a thoughtful and intelligent piece. A friend calls it “perhaps the most interesting President’s Address from AAEA in the last 20 years.”