Two cheers for speculation

I’m currently reading Boix’s book. When I saw it assigned for class, I thought it would be yet another book that is a theory of everything- a feeling that made me fall asleep almost instantaneously. 

The very first book I read of that sort was a pop science one that had President Bill Clinton endorsement. It was before the industry flourished under the leadership of Diamond, Acemoglu&Robinson, and many others. The books described a natural history of human kind based on the idea that societies had become increasingly complex to facilitate cooperation. It was evolutionary, gametheoretic-ish, and had plenty of references that made me feel more cultivated than I actually was. It was also full of inaccuracies and disputable ideas (“thank god the Roman empire fell, for it was in decay and the barbarians were progressive“). It was driven by this big idea of “non-zero sum games”, commitment devices and mutual interdependence and tried to make everything fit into it. I perfectly remember the feeling after reading it that I could explain everything. It took a bit to discover the infinitely many holes and inaccuracies that existed in the narrative. I had to discuss with friends knowledgeable in History, read many books, and have many stupid discussions to become aware of how wrong I was on so many things.

Yet, I now realize how much I learned with Wright’s book. It had an enormous amount of anecdotes and reference of many disciplines I would eventually never know of. More importantly, it made me cristalized many of my intuitions, and an important part of my intelectual ancestry can be traced back to that book -a book that was in a substantial part name dropping an speculation.

Then, some more serious, some less, some read with more attention, some less others followed: Diamond, Landes, Olson, Mokyr, Allen, Clark, Acemoglu&Robinson, North, Fukuyama,Galor, Pomeranz… And I inevitably ended up being bored. The essential idea is almost always the same: evolution of mainly by institutions (broadly understood) that could be regarded as game theoretic equilibria, and whose sustainability depended on materialist ideas: technology, factor endowments, inequality. At its very root, everything had that marxian flavor that fitted so well with my some of my intellectual heroes -wasn’t it cool to find that your post-adolescent prejudices were ex post vindicated?. Yet, people seemed to disagree over stupid details. All books tried to rewrite history shedding light on certain stupid detail. I just did not feel I had the time for getting more involved with that reading: I essentially had gotten the main idea from the first book.

I was just discussing with a friend that I am enjoying Boix’s book. The book combines very simple, very stylized formal models to make sense of distinct stages of life. It is ambitious in its scope, but says explicitly that it is intended to convince readers of the plausibility of the claims, combining this theoretic ambitions with evidence from anthropology, history, etc.

My crazy identification-loving office mate was just telling me that he finds the mechanism implausible.  I felt his objection was more or less justified, but I did not think it would invalidate anything. Actually do I believe most, or even a substantial part, of what is said in the book? I really don’t know. What I find interesting is that the simple hypothesis Boix crafts (just as, for example, A&R Economic Origins of democracy and dictatorship), is something that allows me to put order into my ideas. It’s a nice intuition pump. It’s not like I necessarilly agree with most of it -I tend to think that it makes sense, but I don’t feel equiped to discuss it further- but it definitely helps me to think about the world, organize the bits and pieces of knowledge I had. It allows for a certain big picture that you may lose if you think about everything at the microdata local level.

So, the bottom line of this posts is that sometimes, it is useful to craft ideas and mechanisms that may make some violence to your intuition or the data. This is a bit “Theory ahead of measurement” which is something I find interesting. Speculation is something that has gotten an unduly bad reputation in empirical research.

Two cheers for speculation

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