Less is more

Reading the news, I find a lot of items demonstrating a scale of values that makes no sense to me. Some are important in the grand scheme of things, some are less so, but perhaps more relevant to me. I think about writing posts but don’t find the time. So here are a few examples, which you are welcome to chew over.

* Blowing things and people up is seen as a demonstration of clarity and resolve (unless someone is doing it to us, in which case it’s correctly recognised as cowardly and evil). The most striking recent example (on “our” side) was the instant and near-universal approval of Trump’s bombing of an airfield in Syria, which had no effect at all on events there. In this case, there was some pushback, which is a sign of hope, I guess.

* The significance of art and artists is determined by the whims of billionaires. Referring to the sale of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat for over $100 million the New York Times says

most agree that the Basquiat sale has cemented his place in the revenue pantheon with Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon; confirming that he is not some passing trend; and forcing major museums to acknowledge that, by not having the artist in their collections, they passed over a crucial figure in art history.


* As far as economic research is concerned, less is more. More precisely, an academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded by other economists than one with an equal (or even somewhat larger) number of ‘good journal’ publications along with more research published in less prestigious outlets. I can vouch for that, though it’s less of a problem in Australia than in less peripheral locations. I have the impression that the same is true in other fields, but would be interested in comments.

[fn1] To be fair, this is preceded by a brief acknowledgement that “auction prices don’t necessarily translate into intrinsic value”, but there’s no suggestion that any other measure of intrinsic value is worth considering.

12 thoughts on “Less is more

  1. Another “sign of hope” is that Trump has not invaded Syria.

    Re art: “wealthy people tend to have their preferences dictated by a system meant to milk them” Nassim Taleb AmericanUBeirut Commencement Speech

    Education in Australia (inclusive publicly owned institutions) as an industry or as a business.

    Infrastructure expenditure – the more the merrier.

  2. Regarding ranking of publications. This is a pernicious practice which carries significant administrative overheads (such as the need to re-submit to a different journal) and is a suboptimal measure of the quality of the research published, aAs the authors of your linked article footnoted.

    It is not surprising that the practice of ranking has arisen, because anyone with a laptop can become a publisher and outlets such as vanity journals are available to compromise the integrity of academic publishing. And if such outlets exist, then it is necessary for someone to differentiate them from the vast bulk of journals where the peer review and editing is honest. And once that differentiation is made, then it is a slippery slope to then enter define shades of acceptability.

    In my scientific field, I’m aware of one local respectable journal that is at risk of going under because of the shortage of papers and another which has lifted its profile by dint of considerable effort and broadening the range of formats published beyond simply full research articles. But the practice of ranking threatens the survival of all unranked journals.

    Negative support for the proposition that ranking inhibits curiosity-led research is that this second journal I mentioned is generalist and will accept papers on a wide range of subjects. Its current flourishing is partly due to its appeal to researchers who have a bright idea or a personal enthusiasm uninhibited by editorial restriction to high profile subjects.

    Given modern indexing and the power of Google Scholar in particular, authors published in lower ranked journals need have no fear that their work will go unrecognised. Ranking then becomes simply a status symbol. The better-known scholars gain recognition while early career researchers struggle to get a foothold. Like so many forms of competition, this creates more losers than winners.

  3. On matters Trump, the real sign of hope is that he is failing at everything. He is full of empty bluster. No legislation through, no executive orders with any effect, no big wall, no attack on N.K. Nothing. A great big fat nothing. It’s good when someone bad and stupid like Trump achieves nothing. The world is far better off than it would have been otherwise.

  4. It’s not just Google Scholar, Geoff Edwards. The impact of Academia.edu on such things has been, to quote a famous man, “yuge.”

    I’ve put on my own Academia page links to not only refereed journal articles I’ve written (with the usual fair-use requirements concerning copyright), but occasional articles in mainstream current affairs / cultural magazines, and nobody complains about the latter. Which they should do, you would think, if ranking of publications really meant anything.

  5. Yes but the proliferation of predatory journals, low ranked journals, working papers, and more articles in mid-ranking journals, means people focus even more on highly ranked journals and respected working paper series like NBER in order to filter out a lot of the crap being put out on the web.

  6. There is a nice Dutch story against point-scoring by publications in higher education. Earnest Dutch quality assessors went to the highly-rated Technical University of Delft and ran into a problem with the Desoartment of Water Engineering. Why, the inquisitors asked, do you have such a poor record of research publications in international journals? The embarrassed professors mumbled, “we tried, but there isn’t really anybody else in water engineering. We have an unchallenged world monopoly”.

    BTW, does blog publication help or hinder professional standing in the upper reaches if the economics trade? JQ, deLong, Wren-Lewis, and of course Krugman? What about rising juniors like Wsldmann and Noah Smith?

  7. «in academic economist with a small number of publications in top-rated journals is better regarded»

    What matter is which journals are rated by funding agencies, not by other economists, and “top-rated journals” in Economics are famously ideologically “reliable”.

  8. From a criminal law perspective I see regularly evidence of the law as it should be and the practical application of politics to the actual implementation of it.
    One extreme example is the politicisation of the Queensland Chief Judge’s position and the farce of his removing himself from further participation in the appeal of Cowan because he had spoken to a child protection activist who had expressed a prior very anti-Cowan view.
    Cowan lost his appeal mainly on the basis of the High Court majority decision in Tofilau. Heydon’s judgement there as part of the majority should be contrasted with that of Kirby in the minority. They had directly opposed views on the law concerning the admission to an undercover agent who promised substantial monitory and evidentiary benefits for an admission to the murder.
    There was “more” of a gap in the media analysis of this perversion of the legal system [I say] than the less or miniscule presence of experts providing an analysis of the competing legal positions.
    I suspect a layman would not even consider the law of the admissibility of this admission being more swayed by the media’s presentation of Cowan’s guilt based on his “admission” only.
    It seems to me though conceding the possibility of his involvement there were others or another involved.
    Kirby’s assertion that an undercover policeman who promises a benefit for the provision of an admission is always committing a crime stands in marked contrast to Heydon’s assertion to the contrary.
    Not all convictions for murder are legally valid eg. that of Stafford who spent 15 years in jail for a murder he was eventually found not guilty of. The witnesses involved in fabricating evidence have this far escaped proper scrutiny.
    I trust this is on point of the dichotomy of the law and the public presentation of it.

  9. Once I drove past 2 or 3 Melbourne art galleries/dealers with some Aboriginal friends from central Australia who had some paintings they wanted to swap for money. None would buy, even though 2 of the artists with us already had work at one of the places when we walked in . They explained that they only buy via their official channels.- Frustrating and hard to explain to my friends who are used to being able to get some quick cash that way.

    As for a confusing scale of values ;- national hysteria over our relatively small war on terror losses v’s disinterested silence over their relatively gargantuan losses still does it for me.

  10. The microeconomic theories, sometimes erronisly labelled Price Theory in high school textbooks, explain the fringe of upper price realms using the mathematics and/or physics of large numbers. When you do not see how economists get a certain outcome, look to Physics. Economists, starting with Alfred Marshall, borrowed a lot from Physics. Of course, early price mechanism theories started with the assumption that only normal goods were being studied. Rare art work, however this is judged, isn’t a normal good, because it does not have a normal sloping demand curve and, if the artist is dead and we preclude forgeries, the supply curve is vertical. Thus demand factors set the market price. And market theory tells it something like this:
    “Price setters dominate the market and the sellers have the bargaining power”
    So that a one off price of $100 million is possible, in that market period. Which means that if the same rare art was offered, at another time and place, say at a bankruptcy sale of personal assets, the price paid may be significantly lower than $100 million. Let the buyer beware.

  11. “Economics (UK English: /iːkəˈnɒmɪks/, /ɛkəˈnɒmɪks/;[1] US English: /ɛkəˈnɑːmɪks/, /ikəˈnɑːmɪks/[2][3]) is “a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services”.” (Wikipedia)

    Perhaps John its time for you to disconnect yourself a bit from the world of anthropocentric economics which has developed an hegemony over the concept of ‘values’ and much else narrowing the perspectives of our civilization and basic capacity to adapt or ask questions like why bother (e.g. why does Gina Rinehart need 20 billion? beats me). And put yourself inside the heads of other academic disciplines and philosophies/religions/belief systems.

    Certainly economics has provided many valuable insights for us and without the products it focuses on we could not maintain a complex city based civilization. But it misses so much. For example:

    1. Take Maslow’s needs hierarchy which seems not a bad summary of what drives people. Economics covers the bottom two rungs of physiological needs and safety fairly directly. But the higher needs of self actualization, esteem and love/belonging? For these its a blunt instrument suited mainly to exploiting these needs for the fun and profit of tunnel visioned business types/cynics who cant see passed their own gain (its even against often their long term self interest).

    2. Then there are Environmental Values which notionally aim to not be specifically anthropocentric. cf Reser, J. P., & Bentrupperbäumer, J. M. (2005). What and where are environmental values? Assessing the impacts of current diversity of use of ‘environmental’ and ‘World Heritage’ values. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(2), 125-146. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.03.002

    In respect to your interesting case examples:

    * Regarding blowing things up its rather curious that useless arms production is counted as a GDP plus but its hardly surprising. Its like waste management services, or increased energy use. While disarmament, waste minimization or insulation are effectively not counted at all or are even arguably negative against all reason. And then there is the lack of incorporation of technology improvements. e.g. a high tech efficient modern car is notionally less valuable than a 60s rust bucket was……or consider the equivalence of a modern PC with a Commodore 64.

    Perhaps you need a new metric the Global balance product – which incorporates these disparities and puts the likes of Adani in perspective. They the resource economists can survive and do some actually useful modelling. At the very least it could inform government policy. Unfortunately that isnt how money based value works as the determiner of all value in the current mindset.

    * Regarding art……maybe that work is worth it……but I am reminded of Damien Hurst and his daft decomposing Tiger Shark (from South Australia) installation or his tasteless diamond encursted skull both of which are values at a motza.

    Perhaps what you are seeing is another ultimate result of the social impact of neoliberalism, the commodification of everything – along the lines of turning people into human resources or the recommendation of privatizing the natural world in total as the way to save the planet. And you are using this dodgy metric when you shouldnt be in the first place. Or perhaps we are leaving post modernism behind and moving into capitalist realism in art – a bit like its grotesque Nazi and Soviet predecessors – costly, mostly destroyed and yet they are provide collectors items like a piece of the Berlin Wall?

    Using capitalism to save us from capitalism? Give me a break.

    The interesting thing here is to wonder about the minds of such rich art valuers. Actively contemplating superannuation sums as I am at the moment is revealing. To SMSF or leave it passively in the hands of Unisuper. The first is more cost effective but it requires becoming obsessed with money and maximising benefit over risk in ways which threaten one’s sanity or at least stability perhaps a bit like casino gambling. The Unisuper alternative is to trust in people whose minds are being distorted by the mentality of a casino. What a choice!

    * Academic journal publication …… nothing surprising here given the increased siloing of academic disciplines, the greater difficulty posed by some disciplines than others, rise of lobotomy linked management methods like KPIs, the colonization of granting bodies by management wonks who believe this ad hocery, the rise of the internet and the failure to date to find an alternative editorial sieve for removing the junk (which as we know from emails are far from perfect) and of course the primacy of money which allows you to buy students and hence research, to name a few.

    For Economics you have something further. That is the parlous state of mainstream theory which allows publication of rubbish in the first place followed by recanting – both of which count when like waste management they should be counted as negatives. e.g.

    Smets, F., & Wouters, R. (2007). Shocks and frictions in US business cycles: A Bayesian DSGE approach. The American Economic Review, 97(3), 586-606.
    Lindé, J., Smets, F., & Wouters, R. (2016). Challenges for Central Banks’ macro models. Handbook of Macroeconomics, 2, 2185-2262.

    In the end though I dont see a big issue unless you believe in some kind of posterity based in higher journal ratings. If you have something worth publishing the important thing is to get it out there while reminding yourself its the fringe and interdisciplinary stuff, which the top journals have trouble with because or fierce competition and the reviewers are siloed. This may be far more interesting because among the dross will be more likely found some real paradigm changers.

  12. Re: Less is more. I may do a whole blog post on this, but when people in ancient history talk shop, I have never heard anyone say “and it was published in $famous_journal” or “but it is just from $small_press.” The most cited and praised works are often by little academic presses which nobody outside the right speciality has ever heard of. If anything, people who publish in the biggest and most famous presses are often =criticized=, because some of those presses charge readers too much and provide few services to authors such as copy editing.

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