Monday, December 31, 2007

Free Trade

In the past, I tended to ignore news about economics and trade agreements. But since learning more about Adam Smith, I'm beginning to understand, and it's become more interesting.

On Wednesday, December 26, 2007, The Washington Post had two items related to free trade: the first was an article describing how free trade is helping some American manufacturers by increasing their opportunities to export goods. The article includes examples of American firms that make high-quality goods. A supervisor at a plant that makes and exports precision valves states:
It wasn't that long that guys looked at globalization like it is going to cause us all to lose our jobs. Now it's probably going to save our jobs.
However, will the trend towards free trade last? Or will countries pursue political interests by restricting trade (perhaps Russia will refuse to export oil to Europe)? That is the question raised by Robert J. Samuelson in an op-ed in the Post the same day. He argues that a rising tide of nationalism has some countries moving away from global trade and economic interdependence and reverting to mercantilism (the policy that Adam Smith attacked).

Not all are convinced. In today's paper, Clyde Prestowitz, a U.S. trade negotiator in the Reagan administration, criticizes both these items and adds:
America has pursued free trade, but mercantilism has been the secret of the Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Irish and other economic miracles. There has never been an era of global free trade.

The Seventh Day of Christmas

We're halfway through the 12 days of Christmas. We've eaten over half of the fruitcake. Here is a photo of the nativity that I made this year; I'll take it down on Epiphany.

Today we visited the Renwick Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. While not on the Mall, like many of the museums, it is not too far away. The Renwick is on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. We were there to see the Going West! Quilts and Community exhibition, which had dozens of antique quilts with a wide variety of patterns and colors and themes. There was one with concentric heptagons (not a typical quilt pattern), and another made of old ties. My favorites, however, used traditional quilt patterns: a nine-patch and a blazing star.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Sound of Music

Laury gave me The Sound of Music Companion for Christmas. So far, it is a fascinating look at the story of the real von Trapp family (which Maria von Trapp described in her memoir, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers), the creation of the Broadway musical, and the making of the wonderful movie.

In the story of the von Trapp family, more interesting than the differences between the real family and the stage and movie ones (and there are many) are the facts that remained the same: a would-be nun goes to tutor the child of an Austrian naval officer, the children were excellent singers who performed at a Salzburg music festival, a family retainer was a Nazi, the father was offered a post in the Germany navy, and the family fled from Austria using a ruse.

The von Trapps were a popular singing group in America after World War II. After the family's music career ended in the mid-1950's, Maria and three of the children went to New Guinea to become Catholic missionaries. Others ran the family farm in Vermont.

The transformation of Maria's best-selling memoir into a successful Broadway musical and a major motion picture is the story of systems designed to produce successes. A German film version of the memoir came to the attention of a director who showed it to Mary Martin (who would play Maria on stage). She and her husband convinced a friend to be the producer, and he hired well-established writers to write the script and Rodgers and Hammerstein to do the music. Similarly, the movie had an experienced director, a successful screenwriter, and a talented leading lady (Julie Andrews, who had just finished Mary Poppins).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Faculty Politics

The Outlook section of the December 9, 2007, Washington Post included a column by Robert Maranto, an associate professor of political science at Villanova University. The column discusses the political correctness of American universities and the evidence that university faculty are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. The article cites work by Daniel B. Klein, Carlotta Stern, and Andrew Western, among others. You can find two of their relevant articles in the journal Academic Questions, Volume 18, Number 1, Winter 2004/2005. The first surveyed voting behavior among faculty in six disciplines: anthropology, economics, history, philosophy, political science, and sociology. They found 909 faculty who said that they voted either mostly for Democrats or mostly for Republicans. In economics, the ratio was 3 Democrats to 1 Republican; in sociology and anthropology, it was around 30 D to 1 R. They conclude:
In discussing the one-big-pool D to R ratio for the social sciences and humanities, 7 to 1 is safe lower bound estimate, and 8 to 1 or 9 to 1 are reasonable point estimates.
The second paper looks at the voter registration of tenure-track faculty at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford in four areas:
  • Social Sciences: Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, Psychology, and Sociology.
  • Humanities: English, French and Italian, History, Linguistics, Music, Philosophy, and Religious Studies.
  • Hard Sciences and Math: Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Neurobiology/Neurology, and Physics.
  • Professional schools and departments: Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Law, Journalism, Accounting, and Marketing.
They found no information for about 30% of the faculty. Almost 50% of the faculty were registered Democrats, and over 5% were registered Republicans. The other 15% were split among the Green party, non-partisan, declined to name a party, and others. The overall D to R ratio was 8.9 D to 1 R. The social sciences total ratio was 13.6 D to 1 R, the humanities were 21.9 D to 1 R, the hard sciences and math were 7.6 D to 1 R, and the professional schools were 4.5 D to 1 R. The two engineering departments had the lowest ratios of any group and were just over 3 D to 1 R. The authors conclude that universities demonstrate "extreme lopsidedness."

When I first read Maranto's article, I was sure that the D to R ratio was smaller in engineering, and the above data confirm that suspicion. But Republicans are still out-numbered, surprisingly, and the business school is no different.

Maranto, citing these and other similar results, argues that universities need to encourage intellectual diversity (not just ethnic and racial diversity) in order to reestablish meaningful debate on campus and to recliam their importance in society.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, and Gutter Cleaning

On Tuesday I drove from Maryland to Piscataway, New Jersey, to give a talk in the Fall 2007 Seminar series at the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rutgers University. It was 180 miles each way, and I listened to a book on tape about Adam Smith and his masterpiece of economics, the Wealth of Nations, in which he argues that, by each person's looking out only for his own self-interests, the actions and decisions of many persons (as if guided by "an invisible hand") form a rational economic system that maximizes the wealth of a society. Part of the emergent behavior is that persons will find that specialization is their best chance of success. (Another aspect is the appearance and adoption of a currency that does not lose value and can be divided into very small portions.)

Those ideas of specialization and of self-interest were very real today, as the guy cleaning the neighbor's gutters knocked on our door and wanted to know if we needed his services as well. Actually, we did need our gutters cleaned (and I don't do gutters). So it was a win-win: he earned some income doing something in which he specializes, and we got our gutters cleaned while I graded papers.