Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Two classical models of leadership: Achilles/Alexander and Aeneas/Augustus

Two of my biggest sources of comfort are music and books, especially old books. And the other day it occurred to me that the ancient Greeks and Romans depicted two important and different models of leadership in their mythology and history.

You can think of the first model as the Achilles/Alexander the Great model, or the conquer-and-destroy model. The second model is the Aeneas/Augustus Caesar model, where you ignore the haters and just focus on building.

These mythological heroes and historical figures go together naturally. First, the similarities. Achilles and Aeneas were both sons of goddesses, but still mortal, since they also had a mortal father. They also were known for their strength and leadership. Achilles starred in The Iliad, while Aeneas starred in The Aeneid. Meanwhile, Alexander the Great was ancient Greece’s great empire-builder, while Augustus Caesar was ancient Rome’s great empire-builder. However, their models of leadership couldn’t be more different.

Alexander the Great was frequently compared to Achilles; in fact, he's said to have sought to emulate him. Both died young after achieving great military victories. They were also both driven largely by wrath and a thirst for revenge and glory.

Achilles was largely responsible for the destruction of Troy, driven by his rage and desire for revenge, including for the death of his close companion Patroclus. Destruction was his legacy. And Alexander the Great is believed to have been responsible for burning the Persian Empire’s capital, Persepolis—including its library—to the ground, allegedly as payback for the Persians invading Greece and burning Athens over a century before.

The total destruction of Persian writings helped pave the way for the Greeks to be revered as the founders of civilization, even though the Persian Empire was richer and more powerful at the time, and even though the Persians had invented monotheistic religion with Zoroastrianism long ago.

Clever a general though he was, Alexander treated the Persians barbarically, raiding and burning Persepolis and forcing Persian women to marry his men. And his conquests did not last. When he died at the age of 32, his empire fell apart. So Alexander the Great ultimately didn’t build a lasting empire, and he completely destroyed the Persians’ writings (and legacy and ideas) in the process.

If you’d like an idea of how civilized the ancient Persians were in some respects, here are a few excerpts from Herodotus’ Histories. Herodotus was Greek, and is credited as being the world’s first historian. His Histories are a delight to read if you’re ever interested, and I wish more people wrote like him.

"Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone, - to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth."

"To my mind it is a wise rule, as also is the following - that the king shall not put any one to death for a single fault, and that none of the Persians shall visit a single fault in a slave with any extreme penalty; but in every case the services of the offender shall be set against his misdoings; and, if the latter be found to outweigh the former, the aggrieved party shall then proceed to punishment."

"They hold it unlawful to talk to anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies."

It would be nice to know more about these ideas as the Persians viewed them—ideas like the importance of proportional punishment and truth-telling—but Alexander the Great destroyed the Persians’ writings, so you have him to thank for that. This wasn’t creative destruction; it was just destruction.

(For context, few writings between Alexander the Great and the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 A.D. survive either, since the Arab invaders then destroyed those writings. It's all the more reason to cherish the few writings that do survive, including Zoroastrian teachings.)

One last thing to note before I move on to the Aeneas/Augustus model: The United States today is arguably more like the Persians’ Achaemenid Empire than the ancient Greek city-states, at least in terms of its wealth, power, and size. So I think it makes sense to try to see things from the ancient Persians’ point of view—as well as everyone else’s—whenever you read about them, whether in Herodotus or elsewhere.

Now, the Aeneas/Augustus model. It makes a lot of sense to compare Aeneas and Augustus Caesar because Virgil wrote about Aeneas explicitly as the founder of Rome and precursor to Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor. Virgil also wrote The Aeneid for Augustus Caesar.

In The Aeneid, Aeneas has fled from Troy with a band of Trojans—the Troy that Achilles has destroyed. And it is now his long and lonely mission to venture to Italy, battle the natives there, and found Rome. Virgil continually describes Aeneas as pius—in Latin, driven by his sense of duty. This is a stark contrast to Achilles’ driving emotions: wrath and thirst for revenge. In fact, Virgil sets up an epic conflict between two forces: pietas (sense of duty) and furor (rage). It is actually the queen of the gods, Juno, who is driven by rage that Rome will unseat her favored Carthage, so she tries at every turn to stop him. Many of Aeneas’ opponents also are guided by furor. But Aeneas stays pius through almost the entire epic (though there are some notable moments when he also gives into furor, showing that we're all still human). Other gods, including his mother Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess of love, keep supporting him. And his self-restraint and devotion to his duty—to the gods, to his family, to his men, and to his divine destiny—guide him to victory. At the end, his legacy is enormous: He’s just founded the beginnings of one of the greatest empires of all time.

Augustus Caesar, similarly, is known for ending Rome’s civil war, bringing about the Pax Romana (Roman peace), and founding the Roman Empire. He was great at strategizing not just about gaining power, but also about wielding it. He expanded the Roman Empire significantly, but even then, he was self-restrained and did not declare himself emperor—instead, he said he was simply “first citizen.” The Roman Empire lasted for about 400 years.

From the perspective of creative destruction, Troy needed to fall for Rome to rise. But the nice thing about being just one person is that you aren’t responsible for doing all the work.

I think we all face a choice between being destroyers and builders. We can choose to be Achilles or Aeneas—Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar. We can focus on tearing down the things we don’t like, or we can focus on building things we like, in the image we want, to set a better example.

Sure, destruction is inevitable, but if you build something superior, then that destruction can happen naturally on its own, as what you have to offer outcompetes the status quo. But destruction without a better alternative to put in place is incredibly dangerous. Just put yourself in the place of the ancient Persians, who watched their capital city and writings get lost to a raging fire. I don’t think that’s a model anyone should support or emulate.

[I may edit this post later, and would welcome suggestions for changes.]

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

General Education Is One Of Democracy's Best Defenses

Here's the conclusion of Harvard's report General Education in a Free Society, which was published in 1945 -- right after the end of World War II. In light of recent events, many of these points seem to be relevant.

"General education is the sole means by which communities can protect themselves from the ill effects of overrapid change. For its concern is with what is the same throughout all changes and with the very process of change itself and the techniques of taking account of it. Political trends and upheavals naturally engage our attention to the neglect perhaps of wider and deeper changes. The coming of steam was a larger event in human history than all but the greatest changes in government, larger not as a material event only but in the spiritual transformations it is still inducing. With it man began to inhabit his planet as a planet. Increased physical mobility has naturally increased the scale of wars, which is a reminder that danger is inseparable from power. The press, radio, photography, television our progressive disembodiment - and indeed all increased means of mass communication have their dangers too. Propaganda, which is their political aspect, has attracted perhaps more than its share of critical attention. Advertisement has received some share, but chiefly in its quality of a potential threat to the consumer's judgment. More dangerous, because more general and because it threatens the spirit rather than the pocket, is the degradation which language undergoes when the greatest words are most often met in servitude to mean or trivial purposes. 'In a world of strife, there is peace in beer.' That slogan was no invention of a satirist. It adorned many a newspaper in the days before Pearl Harbor and is but one example, less harmful through its very fatuousness, of the modes of attack to which mass communications expose standards in all fields. Against them we can only oppose general education at all levels. With such possibilities in mind we do well to remember Hector's words in Troilus and Cresslda:

"The wound of peace is surety,
Surety secure.

"Or, as Poor Richard had it, 'He that is secure is not safe.'

"Such dangers, however, are a spur to a widened and livelier sense of responsibility, individual and collective. Enlargement of the common concern is indeed the distinctive character of our age. Not very long ago the mass of mankind could and did leave peacemaking, for example, to statesmen. Today most people feel some of its weight on their shoulders. Even one generation back, how other people lived was not their business; but all men are neighbors now. Among and beyond all the local and personal motives which drive men to pursue education, this budding collective responsibility year by year grows in power. And as it grows it profoundly influences some immediate motives. The desire to get on in the world or to advance the status of the workers, the two chief drives which have animated out-of-school education hitherto, are being transformed by it into wider interests far more favorable both to growth in democracy and to the final causes for which society itself is only a means. 'War is the great educator,' as enemy propagandists have said, though hardly with this in mind. It has shown us that in technical instruction we have been sadly unambitious and unenterprising. It has shown us equally that in general education the strongest incentive comes from the whole man's awareness of his share in the common fate, of his part in the joint undertaking,"

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Good Links

Here are two great blog posts that I thought would be worth linking to. I hope you enjoy reading them too.

Seth Godin: "Choosing those that choose you"

Key quote:
"A huge swath of human unhappiness is generated by selecting someone to pick you, only to have that person abuse the power, let you down or otherwise seduce you into pursuing something that's not going to happen. Unchoose those people as choosers.
"The person or organization you're seeking to be chosen by: Do they have a good track record? Do they choose wisely? Coherently? Reliably? Do they abuse their power, seducing you into acting against your interests? Do they make you miserable? Do they have good taste?...
"If you've signed up to be approved by, selected by, promoted by or otherwise chosen by someone who's not going to respond to your efforts, it's not a smart choice.
"And one last thing: The ultimate privilege is to pick ourselves."
The whole article is a thoughtful and fantastic exploration of how to choose a career, but here are two quotes that I thought were especially good:
"You shouldn't worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.... If you do anything well enough, you'll make it prestigious.... Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige."
"Don't decide too soon [on your career]. Kids who know early what they want to do seem impressive, as if they got the answer to some math question before the other kids. They have an answer, certainly, but odds are it's wrong."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Christina Romer: After A Financial Crisis, Economic Disaster Is Not Inevitable

These days, according to the conventional wisdom, financial crises almost inevitably lead to severe, prolonged economic downturns. Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, economists at Harvard, have come to this conclusion in recent research, and people tend to intuitively view financial shocks this way.

But none of this may actually be inevitable; instead, bad fiscal, monetary, and financial policy may be more to blame. That's the argument Christina Romer, the UC Berkeley economist and former CEA chair, made at a talk organized by the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy yesterday. You can watch the video here.

Romer based her argument partly on new research that she and her husband David Romer, also an economist at Berkeley, are conducting. (They haven't written the paper yet, so the research is preliminary.) They examined financial crises in 24 OECD countries between 1967 and 2007, and after controlling for a number of factors, they found that the typical financial crisis hurt economic growth much less than Reinhart and Rogoff found, with its effects vanishing after about two years and reducing real GDP by roughly 3 percent, as opposed to Reinhart and Rogoff's findings of 9.3 percent.

(Update (4/10): A technical note: Here, for this particular comparison, the Romers analyzed only "moderate" financial crises, where countries reached a financial stress level of 8 out of 16, while Reinhart and Rogoff's number is an average from their entire sample.)

She said that she and David Romer tried to identify and measure financial crises more precisely than the existing literature. They used a scale from 0 to 16 of financial stress and tried not to let the findings be biased by crises that are known to have been followed by severe recessions. She also said they tried to conduct a more precise empirical analysis that would not be biased by how the economy was already doing.

She argued that when financial crises were followed by prolonged economic weakness, it often was due to contractionary fiscal and/or monetary policy (such as in the case of the Great Depression), or due to continued financial stress (as in the case of Japan) -- not because of the original financial crisis.

"I think fiscal contraction is an important part of why the recovery in this particular episode has been so slow," she said. "It's not that financial crises always lead to large and long-lasting falls in output; rather, contractionary policy dealt a second serious negative shock to many economies just as they were starting to recover."

I'd highly recommend watching the whole video. You can watch it here:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Here's Why You Shouldn't Take Any One Study Too Seriously

Journalists often write about new studies as if they definitively prove or disprove something, when the study may not actually be all that great, and there have often been a lot of previous studies on the same topic that get little or no mention at all, and which may have conflicting results. Also, when a new paper gets posted online, it usually hasn't been vetted by very many people in the profession yet. Here is one more reason why you usually shouldn't take too much stock in any one new paper, courtesy of the 4th-year economics PhD students at the University of Michigan.

Every year, the Michigan economics department holds a skit night, and in the latest skit night two weeks ago, a 4th-year PhD student (who requested to remain anonymous) presented a supposedly typical job market paper. Mind you, this is all exaggerated and meant to be a joke. But I hope it can also serve as a reminder of how some studies aren't always the most robust, and people shouldn't be in awe of a piece of research just because it has numbers and jargon in it. There are differences in quality in academic research, just as in any other profession, and it's important not to take any one piece of research at face value.

Without further ado, here is the presentation, entitled "Every JMP [Job Market Paper] Ever":

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Paul Krugman on Writing

Here is a very good passage from Pop Internationalism (1996) by Paul Krugman, which I think is a useful guide for any economist who wants to write for a popular audience (Click on the photo to read it more clearly):

He also offers this advice in his essay "Ricardo's Difficult Idea" (You can read his full explanation in the essay itself.):

1) "Take ignorance seriously."
2) "Adopt the stance of rebel."
3) "Don't take simple things for granted."
4) "Justify modeling."

I'm taking international trade theory this semester and learning a lot already. If you're interested in international trade, here are a few readings I recommend from the course syllabus:

International Economics: Theory and Policy, by Paul Krugman, Maurice Obstfeld, and Marc Melitz

"What Do Undergrads Need To Know About Trade?" by Paul Krugman (link here) (also in Pop Internationalism)

"Ricardo's Difficult Idea," by Paul Krugman (link here)

"Where Ricardo and Mill Rebut and Confirm Arguments of Mainstream Economists Supporting Globalization," by Paul Samuelson (2004) (link here)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

We still are our jobs, but no longer by choice

Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times that because of “the economic crisis and technological change,” we are no longer our jobs. He argues that since workers have lost so much leverage, they often can no longer choose the professions they truly want to be in, and even if they are in their professions of choice, those careers are becoming less fulfilling because of their increasing demands, sinking pay, and vanishing job security.

You can see the loss of worker leverage in this chart from the St. Louis Fed:

Workers’ share of compensation has plunged to a record low compared to that of the owners of capital, such as property and stocks, and is only barely starting to recover.

There’s a valid argument to be made that we never should have been our jobs in the first place, and that we should define ourselves by our relationships, hobbies, and outside interests instead. Why should what we do to survive define who we are? We should work to live, not live to work.

So, taking that argument a step further, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that work isn't our only identity anymore. Perhaps we now can focus again on what matters most to us, since employers never would have hired us to pursue exactly what we wanted to do anyway.

But now that workers have lost leverage due to high unemployment, they also have less time to pursue outside interests. Making enough money to eat, have a roof over your head, and support your family usually takes precedence over everything else. And those necessities have become more precarious. So work is becoming an even bigger part of people’s identities, but not by choice.

With three unemployed people for every job opening, the jobless and the underemployed have to work even harder to find a job that matches their skills and former income: a job that may never materialize. And many full-time workers—even in elite jobs—have to labor under the assumption that their lives basically are their bosses’ to dictate. For many, working nonstop during the day, late, and during weekends has become the norm.

When workers are under that much pressure, they are less likely to pursue outside interests, be attentive to their friends and family, and cultivate new relationships. You can see it in the fact that Americans spend only 21 minutes per day socializing and 6 minutes on forms of leisure not covered by the American Time Use Survey. And you can see it in the fact that the U.S. marriage rate and birth rate have plunged to record lows. When fewer people are economically secure, fewer are willing to make long-term commitments.

So workers still are their jobs, due to the sheer amount of time they have to devote to work. But now it’s to try to maintain their standard of living, rather than because they love their jobs and can’t imagine doing anything else. When employers have all the leverage, they can make you spend so much time doing whatever they want that you don’t have enough time for anything else.

Thanks to the lousy economy, we aren't just making less money than we otherwise would have. We also have less time to become who we are meant to be.