29 July 2008

My Latest Policy Brief and More

My latest policy brief, "Strong and Competitive: The American Economy in the Free Trade Era," written for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is now available online. An economist might notice that I defend free trade without ever mentioning comparative advantage, but my handlers worried that it is too complex a read for most of their supporters anyway. I've yet to figure out how to simply and intuitivey explain comparative advantage, although I've seen some valiant attempts. I think such an explanation would be a great boon to the world.

My next policy brief, due out in October, I believe, will be on the presidential election. I'm not sure yet what I'll say.

I've also received the proofs for my latest political science journal article, "A Primer on Applying to the Liberal Arts College," which will be appearing in the October issue of PS: Political Science and Politics. You can see my name in the table of contents here. It's advice for writing a good application for new PhDs who are applying for a job at a liberal arts college. It's based on my experience running a job search, in which the applicants' overwhelming lack of understanding of the job market and hiring process became abundantly clear. That is, they were just as clueless about how to write a good letter of application as I was when I finished my PhD. My friend, Jim, who just proofread the final copy for me, agreed that he also didn't understand the importance of the cover letter until after sitting on a hiring committee. This isn't an especially intellectual work, but I think it should help a few job candidates. Unfortunately it probably won't be available online for a year or so.

I have other projects on tap, too. My friend, Jeff has finally sent me moe current data on patents granted and R&D in the US, Taiwan, and Korea, so with luck we can finish our long-in-process article on that causes of the development of intellectual property rights regimes in developing countries, and I am working with my chemist friend, Michael on a paper comparing the benefits of the dollar coin vs. the paper dollar. He initially wrote it as a quickie paper in grad school, and recently found out that it's been floating around in influential circles, but they can't make use of it because it's not a peer-reviewed article. Our goal is to change that, which requires some upgrading of the paper, but I think we'll have a completed version by spring '09.


James K said...

I'll have to give that brief of yours a read some time.

Its a pity you had to avoid comparative advantage as its the major thing that separates economist intuitions about trade from other people's.

I do agree it is hard to understand though, at times I think it is the most counter-intuitive thing humanity has ever developed (though it has some pretty stiff competition from Quantum Mechanics).

Have you looked at the Wikipedia article on comparative advantage? it seemed pretty simple to me, but I'm not really a good judge of whether something is easy to understand.

James Hanley said...

Don't expect a masterpiece--it's probably something less than a review for someone at your knowledge level.

The trick with comparative advantage is getting the average person to understand that you can have a comparative advantage at something, even if others are better at it.

In class I use the example of an electrician and a lawyer--even if the lawyer was actually a better electrician than the electricial, it would still make sense to pay the electrician because the lawyer has a more productive use of his time.

They seem to get that, but have a hard time extrapolating to a nation's economy.

Of course you have to have an understanding of opportunity costs, too, and most people struggle with that, it seems.

It's reported that when a scientist sneeringly asked a noted economist to name one idea in economics that was both important and non-intuitive, comparative advantage was the answer.

James K said...

Definitely. As you mentioned opportunity cost would be another, but Comparative Advantage is a really hard idea to understand.

Besides which, the very fact that essentially no-one listens to economists when formulating policy suggests many ideas in economics are counter-intuitive.