Robert Mundell On Why The Market Is Feminine

Robert Mundell received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1999 for his work in “monetary dynamics and optimum currency areas.” (He is currently professor of economics at Columbia University.) For as long as I can remember, I’ve owned a copy of his little primer, Man and Economics (McGraw-Hill, 1968; another edition bears the subtitle The Science of Choice.) Somehow, I’ve never gotten around to reading it. In this regard, Mundell’s book is exactly like many other books on my shelves.  But on Friday, I finally began to make my way through its pages, curious to see what it held within.

Man and Economics  was released in 1968, so I expected some aspects of its discussions of choice, supply, demand, inflation, money, currency rates, recession and unemployment, the gold standard etc to be just a little dated. As I read on, I noticed that what really gave the book’s vintage away was its choice of illustrative examples.

To wit, men are earners and women are spenders. The man brings home money, the woman spends it. This division and classification is then used to illustrate problems of liquidity, budget balancing, and so on. For instance:

There is a certain unevenness in spending and earning patterns . The husband may be paid for his services only once every week, fortnight, or month. Typically, the husband will deposit his salary in the bank every month, while the wife will go about the business of shopping every day or perhaps once a week. In this case, the cash balance will be high at the beginning of the month and gradually fall toward zero…toward the end of the month. Discipline is required at the beginning of the month, since it would be most unwise for the wife to spend a whole month’s income on rent, groceries, and other needs in the first two weeks. If this discipline is not present the family will suffer from a liquidity crisis toward the end of the month. Experience (or intrafamily strife) will teach the wife the expenditure pattern over time that is feasible with a given income, or the husband the income that is needed to maintain a certain expenditure.

But that’s not all.

Consider for instance, Mundell’s description of the language used to describe currency markets:

The language used by foreign-exchange dealers and operators responsible for supervising a market in which the government has a great stake may strike the reader as unusual. One speaks of the “feel of the market,” its “depth, breadth, and resiliency,” “strategy of penetration,” “getting in and out,” “slackness,” “looseness,” and the market “drying up.” It is the language of market intervention, but it all sounds like a scenario for a grand seduction. Indeed, one distinguished dealer from a very important central bank likens intervention to an exercise in applied psychology and manipulation of a market to the management of a woman. When it is troubled, it must be caressed; when it is quiet, it should be left alone; and when it gets hysterical, it has to be slapped. In that sense, the market is feminine.

Markets are temperamental creatures indeed.

Unsung Heroines and Premature Glory

News Scientist  is currently featuring a story titled “Unsung Heroines: Five Women Denied Scientific Glory.” The woman scientists featured are: Hertha Ayrton, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Gerty Cori (an odd choice given she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize), Rosalind Franklin, and Lise Meitner.

For my money, of the stories told here, those of Burnell, Franklin, and Meitner are especially poignant. The little bio provided for Burnell includes a pair of interesting remarks made by her:

In 1967, as a postdoctoral physicist at the University of Cambridge, she discovered the first pulsar using a radio telescope she had built with her supervisor Antony Hewish, astronomer Martin Ryle and others….Bell Burnell was the second author named on the paper that announced the discovery (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/217709a0), but it was Hewish and Ryle who received a Nobel prize for it in 1974. She has made light of this, saying that “students don’t win Nobel prizes” and “an award to me would have debased the prize”.

I take Burnell to be making the point that Nobel Prizes–descriptively 0r normatively–recognize not isolated achievements, but a sustained record of scientific excellence. Of course, Burnell was not ‘only’ a “student” – she was a post-doctoral fellow, and thus already a practicing academic. Her concern about the prize being “debased” seems misplaced in two respects: 1) she had not made an accidental, flukish discovery 2) the Nobel Prize is awarded for both lifetime achievement and singular inventions or discoveries.  I suspect that besides her suggestion that the Nobel only recognize careers worth of scientific work, Burnell had also internalized some cultural prejudices about excessively early recognition serving as a disincentive for future effort. It is, if I may say so, an old-fashioned attitude.

Burnell’s remarks remind me of an incident in my own career. Shortly after I finished my doctorate and began work as a post-doctoral fellow, I was asked by a colleague, then working on a highly technical book on computational learning theory, whether I’d be interested in co-authoring a chapter that would explain the philosophical significance of the new formalisms being developed.  I would not be a co-author of the book, but would be listed as a co-author for that chapter alone. I agreed; my friend’s work was fascinating, and I looked forward to fleshing out its conceptual foundations. And the co-authorship line on the CV wouldn’t hurt one bit.

There was one small problem though: my colleague was working with two other logicians on his book. They needed to approve of my writing that chapter. One of them, a senior academic, refused. His stated reason was straightforward: I would be spoiled by such ‘early success’; I should not expect co-authored chapters in books to come my way so easily; I needed to build a ‘track record’ before I could earn such distinction.

As a reminder: I was a Ph.D, not a fledgling graduate student; I was not going to be made co-author of the book but only of one chapter.

I’ve had many head-shaking moments in my academic career; this was one of them.

The Never-Ending Angst Over the Nobel Prize In Literature

Ian Crouch asks why more Americans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature. (The last one to do so was Toni Morrison in 1993, an award I remember especially clearly because a) I had only recently started reading her and b) I was struck by the fact of an African-American woman writer being so recognized.)

This sort of discussion seems vaguely familiar to me: worries about whether the Nobel committee–a bunch of Swedes!–is deliberately resisting an ever-threatening global American hegemony and/or rubbing American noses in it by selecting year after year, ‘obscure’ writers and poets that Americans will be unfamiliar with; vague condemnations that ironically flirt with narrow-mindedness themselves while indicting the American literary scene of provincialism and parochialism; suspicions that the Nobel Prize is awarded to those literary works that are, for some reason or the other, simply not produced by American writers; and so on. (These discussions are distinct from the usual dismayed and disbelieving, ‘Can you believe X was never awarded/Y hasn’t yet been/Z has been nominated for/ the prize?’)

This buzzing mass of speculation, confusion and half-baked theorizing is inevitable: first, we are talking about a Prize, and second its being awarded for Literature. (The money associated with the Nobel Prize does its bit but, really, it’s the hype that does most of the damage.) Judging writers by panels was always going to generate this sort of discussion. If prizes for physics can engender as much controversy as they have, then literature should be even more productive.

The good news for Crouch is that if an American doesn’t win this year, he can just republish the same piece next year.

Note: The most entertaining part of the Crouch piece comes in the comments, where a cranky gentleman writes:

It startles me to find that some people believe America to be a literary powerhouse.  My impression is that 95% of the material to be found in bookstores, or in lists of prize winners, was all written by the same person who had spent too many years at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Truth is, the literary industry today aims its products primarily at semi-educated urban feminist careerists who adhere to the current liberal dogmas while employing a demotic prose that reads as if it were dictated by a 35-year-old woman with a Northeastern degree while she lies soaking in warm bathwater.

Do this – go to your nearest bookstore, pick up some highly praised post-modern novel, open said book, and read just the first page.  Do this ten times with ten different novels, and then swear to me on your life that they were not authored by some adept, or some inept I should have said, piece of software. Because that’s where the money is, at the most congested segment of the Bell Curve.

I once asked an editor if William Faulkner could be published today, assuming he weren’t already famous.  “Certainly not,” she said.  “No one would publish him today, and if someone did, no one would read him.”

Enrico Fermi, Abduction, and Slow Neutrons

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938, Enrico Fermi spoke briefly and thoughtfully about the theoretical and experimental work which had earned him this honor.  His talk, ‘Artificial Radioactivity Produced by Neutron Bombardment,’ is a little gem of scientific writing, which showcases not only descriptions of the results of the groundbreaking work in atomic and nuclear physics he had engaged in, but scientific explanation as well.

I provide here a little extract to show Fermi demonstrating abduction–inference to the best explanation–in his recounting of the phenomena of ‘slow neutrons’:

The intensity of the activation as a function of the distance from the neutron source shows in some cases anomalies apparently dependent on the objects that surround the source. A careful investigation of these effects led to the unexpected result that surrounding both source and body to be activated with masses of paraffin, increases in some cases the intensity of activation by a very large factor (up to 100). A similar effect is produced by water, and in general by substances containing a large concentration of hydrogen. Substances not containing hydrogen show sometimes similar features, though extremely less pronounced.

The interpretation of these results was the following: The neutron and the proton having approximately the same mass, any elastic impact of a fast neutron against a proton initially at rest, gives rise to a partition of the available kinetic energy between neutron and proton; it can be shown that a neutron having an initial energy of 10^6 volts after about 20 impacts against hydrogen atoms has its energy already reduced  to a value close to that corresponding to thermal agitation. It follows that, when neutrons of high energy are shot by a source inside a large mass of paraffin or water, they very rapidly lose most of their energy and are transformed into ‘slow neutrons.’ Both theory and experiment show that certain types of neutron reactions…occur with a much larger cross section for slow neutrons than fast neutrons , thus accounting for the larger intensities of activation, observed when irradiation is performed inside a large mass of paraffin or water.

This explanation of experimental data–or ‘interpretation’ as Fermi terms it–is, I think, a particularly elegant one. It is concise both in its form and content; it does justice to the observations with very few claims on our credulity; it integrates the new into the old with a minimum of effort. It is dazzling too–as many explanations of that heady time in atomic and nuclear physics were–in the seeming sleight of hand it performs: it takes the broad, chunky, mundane details of macroscopic phenomena and reduces them to the minute interactions of invisible particles. It pulls off that trick that is so distinctive of so many memorable scientific explanations: such sparse data, such elaborate theory.

I first read of the phenomena that Fermi describes in my eleventh-grade physics textbook; it is only recently that I have read of them in Fermi’s own words. The explanations seemed elegant then, but their style is even more acute in Fermi’s formulation.

Quotes from: Emilio SegrèEnrico Fermi, Physicist, Appendix 2, University of Chicago Press, 1970, pp. 217-218.

General Petraeus Goes to CUNY: Nobel Prize Winners, Eat Your Heart Out

The initial reaction to the hiring of General David Petraeus to teach at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College was one of astonishment at the salary–$150k for one semester–offered; this has since devolved into looking askance at the source of the funds and an inquiry into whether such expenditure was the best possible for a public university that is always struggling to make ends meet. (For a full round-up, please check Corey Robin‘s posts on this subject.). And since the course description for Petraeus’ course has been made available much skepticism has been directed at what seems like an exceedingly skimpy course, at best a generic international relations elective.

Petraeus is not teaching a specialized seminar for graduate students, or faculty, or anything like that. He is teaching sixteen undergraduates a senior year special topics elective. Presumably, his salary is a function of what CUNY perceives his worth to be, based on his experience and education. The weekly rate for Petraeus is not unheard of when it comes paying very accomplished academics; for instance, last year, the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities, as part of its Hess Scholar in Residence program, brought Sean Wilentz, the distinguished Princeton historian to the Brooklyn College campus for a  week; the amount paid to him–from the Hess Foundation–worked out to about the same rate as paid to Petraeus. But in that one week, Wilentz attended half-a-dozen faculty panels, some undergraduate classes and three working luncheons, and delivered a talk. In sharp contrast Petraeus will teach his regular class, once a week, just like any other adjunct would. (I presume he will have a TA, unlike adjuncts.)

With that in mind, here are some alternative scenarios for CUNY to ascertain what its market pricing for highly skilled and experienced teachers might be. Bear in mind we know nothing about Petraeus’ teaching abilities; he is just a highly educated and experienced military man.  So, what would CUNY pay for a distinguished academic , the winner of the highest honor in his or field, to teach a class in their special domain?

Consider the following examples:

A Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry to teach Concepts in Nanochemistry

A Nobel Prize winner in Physics to teach a Quantum Mechanics seminar

A Nobel Prize winner in Economics to teach Special Topics in Microeconomics

A Nobel Prize winner in Literature to teach Creative Writing: Advanced Techniques

A Noble Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine to teach Recent Advances in Genetics

A Fields Medal winner to teach Advanced Algebra: Groups, Rings and Fields

An Academy Award winning director to teach and direct a film in co-operation with Film Studies majors.

Would CUNY pay any of these 150,000 dollars to teach the class specified? Remember that CUNY does not have, like some other universities in the US, Nobel Prize winners in its ranks. If it was to secure the services of such a luminary, it would almost certainly hold it out as an attraction for its ‘best’ students–as it seems to be doing in the case of this Honors College seminar. My guess is that if CUNY was feeling generous, it would pay the folks above $20,000.  Maybe.

So, why the special treatment for Petraeus? As I said yesterday in my last post on this subject, it’s because bringing Petraeus, a powerful member of the governmental-military-corporate complex, to CUNY, will open the doors for folks in CUNY administration to get close to cushy consulting gigs in Washington DC, with the Pentagon, with the military, with all those folks in industry that Petraeus is, as we speak, networking with right now. They will have Petraeus here for a semester, and that is plenty of time to give him a copy of their CVs over a cup of coffee or dinner. Once he goes back to his regular tramping of the corridors of power, he will be able to take care of those who took care of him.

So, it bears repeating: this hiring decision has nothing to do with the students at CUNY; it has everything to do with folks in power taking care of each other.