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Blogging in the Interstices

Interstice by gregory lee

Interstice by gregory lee


I have been thinking about interstices a lot these days–that is, ever since one of the Chinese students in my Networks and International Development Class protested that, given institutional lock-in, reforms could never come about in China. I gently begged to disagree. As I told her, and as we had discussed in class, in a networked society, small changes in any one part of the system can have major ramifications throughout. As important, by focusing on these small changes in the interstices of a social order, reformers could remain under the radar, and thereby circumvent the powers that be. The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

The key for those of us who want to bring about change today is to identify the most promising interstices.

Somewhat skeptical, the student persisted, asking for examples. So I provided an account of how the rise of cities in the Middle Ages helped to undermine the European feudal order (Braudel 1992).

It so happened that I was well prepared for the task, having listened only a few days before to a lecture on tape by Professor Teofilo F. Ruiz, in the series Medieval Europe: Crisis and Renewal, which was sponsored by The Teaching Company. As the lecturer had pointed out, although late Medieval cities originally emerged as an off-shoot of feudal land holders, they eventually took on a new, and transformative, life of their own.

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

Middle age alley by Vincent Giraud

In fact, with the rise of commerce and the city merchants that promoted it, Europe was never the same. This new merchant society, which was based on the accumulation of wealth and industrial performance, gave rise to a new class–the bourgeoise–as well as new institutions –such as the guilds– that sought not only to restrict the powers of the nobility but also to extend the social order outside of the parameters of the feudal world itself.

Where are the critical interstices in our global society today? Recent events in Iran provide a clue. Just as, during the Middle Ages, cities went relatively unnoticed as they developed the commercial resources that allowed them to overturn the prevailing social order, so today Iranian hackers have managed to develop the kinds of net-savvy skills required to create a protest movement in an interstitial, virtual space, making it possible for them to outwit a very powerful and seemingly entrenched regime. As described by Murad Ahmed, writing in The Times Online, June 18, 2009:

It has come as a surprise to many, not least to Iran’s regime, just how effectively the country’s young population has been able to articulate and organize [an] opposition protest on the web. New technologies have turned yesterday’s flashmob into today’s political rally. With elements of the Iranian mobile phone system disabled, the internet has become the organizing medium for the opposition and Facebook and Twitter the tools of choice to communicate and organize dissent.

Further contemplating the notion of interstices, I see a new link between some of the ideas that we discuss in my Networks and International Development class and those that we focus on in my class on The Networked Economy. In the latter, we read Ron Burt, and discuss the resources gained by an organization when it develops structural autonomy by bridging structural holes (that is, the gaps in social structure). With the recent events in Iran in mind, it seems that Burt’s notion of structural autonomy is also apropos for describing that situation. For it would appear that the interstices that I speak of in my development class are non other than Burt’s structural holes where– with a little bit of strategic networking–formidable resources and power can be cultivated.

Blogging the Networked Economy: Students Have Their Say!

Nonna e nipote - Grandmother and grandchild by luigi.carrieri

Nonna e nipote - Grandmother and grandchild by luigi.carrieri

For their last blog in my Network Economy Class, I asked the students to pretend that they were grandparents who–having lived to a ripe old age–had witnessed everything from the depression era to the present. Imagine, I said, that your grandchild, age 20, comes to you asking for advice about how to best prepare for the future. Having done all the readings for the network economy class, and having participated intensely in all of the discussions, what might you advise? Here are some excerpts from the students’ blogs.

Here are some excerpts from what students’ blogs.

According to Corinna Wu,

always prepare an alternative/alternatives for your goal, either for the sake of a fall back plan, or just for insurance, because nothing is certain, even if you are on top of your game. Be humble, and listen to all outlets, do not close any doors.

Jimalyn Yao might agree. Sitting around the kitchen table with her grandchild–a familiar occurrence in her household–she would emphasize that our deep involvement in our environment does not necessarily imply that we have a deep individual affect on it. Citing Beinhocker, she says:

economics truly is an evolutionary process, and by that same token, it rides the tide of collective change, and not specific ones.

Sherri Berman assumes that by the time she reaches 90 or so, she will be nostalgic for the good old days when life was simple. She would tell her grandchild: 1) Be multifaceted; 2) Be flexible; 3) Do NOT live in a vacuum!

Christina Politi wants her grandchild to think big and to move forward notwithstanding the vicissitudes of changing times and complexity.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road by Crystal ♥

Follow The Yellow Brick Road by Crystal ♥

Emily Zwelzer would serve her wisdom up with tea and crumpets, saying:

Think of the fitness landscape as the yellow brick road in mythical Oz, adapting to the bumps, and terrain of this path will allow you to survive in uncertainty. The road will undergo phase transitions, sometime perilous (as in time of economic crisis, war, or crisis) but as long as you change along with it you will not be left behind.

Mark Wenger would employ the phrase, Whatever will be, will be. As he says:

This phrase accomplishes two very helpful things: 1) identifies that the larger fitness landscape is beyond your individual control .. and 2) that you do the best given the circumstances you are in. . . its straight out of Beinhocker’s evolutionary economics.

Whatever Will Be Will Be by Gale Franey

Whatever Will Be Will Be by Gale Franey

Matthew Tyrrell’s advice is to be true to oneself. As he says:

Find strength in your imagination; it’s what makes you special. Look for the good in people. Put value in relationships. Listen to those who disagree with you. Find what you stand for and stand in it; be the structural hole. The world changes at a constant rate but we need energy (in the form of love, heat and food) that will remain the same.

Jake Landis would caution his grandchildren against a belief in equilibrium, noting that:

Equilibrium by Ivan Makarov

Equilibrium by Ivan Makarov

Equilibrium is true for baseball players hitting above average, and umbrella sales when its raining, but the human element is unpredictable. Evolution is about surviving challenges and adapting, not returning to the center.

What about reading Erik Beinhocker? Will his book, The Creation of Wealth be out of date? Not according to Rebecca Jacob who drew upon a case, which occurred decades ago–the Soviet Union 5-year manufacturing plan that produced shoes no one wanted. She advised:

Prepare for uncertainty and risk. This might seem counterintuitive, [as] a step by step plan for the future may appear the better thing to do. But what if the future doesn’t fit the plan, as is so often the case?

Shoes

Shoes

In her blog, Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst, and Expect the Unexpected, Lauren Alfry cited her own grandfather’s advice. He was a taciturn man, so when he spoke it had all the more impact. As he advised Lauren:

Success is where preparation and opportunity meet!

Many students have been affected by the recent economic crisis, and what it bodes for the future. According to one, achieving success in the future will require challenging conventional views, especially the advice and analysis of pundits, equity analysts, and popular economists. Juliette Arnaud, who brings a French skepticism to her writings, might agree. As she urged:

Evolution does not always mean progress. Embrace it! As [her] great grand-father used to say: life is unfair.

NEED I SAY MORE? Imagine how my students might affect the fitness landscape.

The Safety Net

CCT alum Molly Moran flying high! (courtesy of Garrison Le Masters

CCT alum Molly Moran flying high!

In some circumstances, it really behooves one to have a safety net! That’s why when children take their initial steps, and teenagers first get behind the wheel, mothers and fathers are close at hand. A ritualistic dance ensues–as children develop their skills and talents, parents step back, making room for them to grow. The trick is establishing the right distance, appropriate for the circumstances at hand. 

Even as adults we benefit from safety nets, although they are far more transparent, receding into the background until a need for them arises. For example, I vividly recall a time a few summers ago, when my husband Brock and I came to appreciate the value of a safety net, while vacationing at our home at Hawthorne Lake.

Hawthorne at Sunset (courtesy of RHITMrB)

Hawthorne at Sunset (courtesy of RHITMrB)

As is our habit, Brock got up early to make coffee, which we planned to drink in bed, while watching the sun come up. Eager to watch the dawn break, he went down to the dock while waiting for the water to boil. Unfortunately he fell asleep. When he awoke the kitchen wall was in flames. Smelling the smoke, I ran downstairs, almost colliding with my husband who was racing up from the dock. Somehow we managed to call the fire deparment all the while throwing buckets of water at the fire. Driving ten miles up the mountain road–the last leg of which is dirt–the firemen finally arrived. They were there just in time to tell us that we had successfully put out the fire.

Sparta Fire Department

Sparta Fire Department

We were panicked nonetheless. How were we to inform my son Stephen–one of the fifth generation to grow up at the lake–that we had destroyed his patrimony? How were we had to restore the kitchen, much less Crossepatch, our smoke filled house, to it’s historic charm? Although it seemed a hopeless cause, we jumped into the car and raced to town, where we purchased every cleaning apparatus, and cleaning solution, in sight. Scrubbing away over the next few hours, our efforts seemed hopeless. However, not much later, my sister Anne came along, and–sympathetic to our plight, but surprised by our endeavors–reminded us our house was safe: As she pointed out, we had a safety net–our insurance company.

Crossepatch in Summer (courtesy of Haley Collins)

Crossepatch in Summer (courtesy of Haley Collins)

Safety nets are not always institutionalized. Nor do they necessarily require financial investments. Even though we are less cognizant of them, many safety nets inhere in the social structure in which we are embedded. This fact was brought home to me ten day’s ago after my husband’s fall. Within a few hours of the event, the phone began to ring. Neighbors and friends alike emerged from out of nowhere, looking for ways to help. Most touching to me was the call from Rachael, my husband’s ex-wife, who–reassuring me that “she was there for me–” invited me over to share her delicious, Seder left-overs.

Some say that the safety nets that emerge from social interactions are no different from formal institutions–such as insurance companies–in which we consciously invest in order to hedge our bets about the future. Thus, for example, rational actor theorists such as Nan Lin insist that individuals weigh the costs and benefits of investing their time and energy in establishing connections in the hopes of capturing future returns in the form of greater resources. I beg to disagree. Just as Mark Buchanan has argued in his book The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbors Usually Look Like You, humans motivations are far more complex than rational actor theorists might surmise. As Buchanan emphasizes, we are essentially social atoms whose behavior is guided as much by our evolutionary instincts and emotional needs as it is by rational choice.

And thank goodness! Circumstances call for a variety of actions, and a variety of responses. When our formal institutions fail us, we have our social relations to fall back on–just as in the hard times of today, when family and friends are turning inwards to support one another. If scholars such as Robert Putam are correct, these informal groups might generate greater social capital in the course of their interactions, which can be employed, in turn, to help reshape and rebuild much sturdier formal institutions for future generations.

Interdisciplinarity and the Iron Cage

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

When Max Weber portrayed bureaucracies, he characterized them as iron cages (Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978: 1403). This metaphor reflected his belief that, because bureaucracies were so efficient, all organizations would have to conform to them, if they were to survive in a competitive, capitalist environment. Organizations would become isomorphic as a result. And so they did!

Thinking about this argument in today’s terms, we might view Weber as an early complexity theorist, based on his claim that changes in the socioeconomic environment, or as we might say now–(the fitness landscape)–require appropriate adaptations in organizational behavior.  On the other hand, the very notion of an iron cage, secured by rule-based self reinforcing feedback, suggests that bureaucracies are especially prone to lock in.  One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and all the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

Dealing with complexity requires continuous feedback from, and adaptation to, an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. For this reason, Beinhocker, in his book The Origin of Wealth suggests that the best way for organizations to cope with complexity is to incorporate it within. However, this is a daunting task. Bureaucracies tend to be relatively closed systems, in which behavior is reinforced through daily reenactment. For this reason, many businesses employ monitoring systems and change mechanisms, such as benchmarking, large scale interventions, and the use of outside consultants. 

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

But what about universities, a type of organization that–as one might imagine–is very close to my heart? Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail. As a result, change is incremental, at best.

Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail.

In their book, The Social Life of Information, Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown warn against assuming that resistance to organizational change is evidence of Luddite behavior. Doing so, according to the authors, will lead to unintended, and undesirable, consequences. They suggest, instead, to look at the substance of resistance for clues about how to build upon the existing organizational context to better design a plan for change.

How might this insight pertain to universities? Let’s consider disciplines. Perhaps nothing is more entrenched in the university setting than academic disciplines. Functioning much like communities of practice, academic disciplines provide a shared sociocultural environment (habitus to use Bordieu‘s terminology) that serves to govern and maintain a set of beliefs and code of behavior. Efforts to relax the boundaries separating disciplines have typically focused on fostering collaboration among them. However, in an increasingly complex environment, in which enhanced feedback is critical, perhaps collaboration around points of interdisciplinary agreement is not what is needed. Instead, we might look to academic disciplines to challenge each other’s assumptions, and thereby enhance the  overall pool of knowledge–what Beinhocker call the design space. Organizations such as the Santa Fe Institute have demonstrated the rewards of this kind of cross training. Ironically, efforts such as these have typically taken place outside of the university environment. It is time to bring complexity inside!

The Top Layer (as in Michener’s The Source)

(courtesy of babblingdweeb)

(courtesy of babblingdweeb)

Needless to say, I love books: they are, for me, like comfort food. Perhaps that’s because they bring to mind my mother, with whom I spent many summer afternoons reading books and exchanging ideas about them, while happily ensconced in wicker chairs on the veranda at our house at Hawthorne Lake. These days my husband and I (together with our dog Sparky) continue in this tradition, sharing insights from our readings of the night before, while snuggled under our comforter in the morning, drinking our coffee in bed.

Novels function to map alternative pathways, helping us to situate ourselves in, and negotiate our ways through, difficult territories.

 

When not in an academic mode, I often turn to novels.  Over the years, I have come to appreciate not only how they provide a great source of pleasure, as well as a retreat from daily cares, but also, and as importantly, how they function to map alternative pathways, helping us to situate ourselves in, and negotiate our ways through, unknown territories. One book that has served me very well in this regard is James Michener‘s The Source.

Great historical fiction, The Source is a tale about the evolution of the various groups who occupied and interacted with each other in what the Jews of biblical times characterized as the promised land.  

Across the Promised Land (courtesy of Gaulis Caecillus)

Across the Promised Land (courtesy of Gaulis Caecillus)

The narrative, which takes place in the Galilee, is a story within a story. At the meta level, the main characters are three archeologists–a Catholic, a Jew, and an Arab–all digging at a tell called Makor.  The sub-narrative, and major story, is told through their diverse eyes, as they dig up and interpret–each from their own perspectives–artifacts from the sequential layers of history, dating back 9000 years to the beginning of monotheistic practices. Tracing the evolution and dispersal of the Family of Ur through each level of the dig, the investigators paint a continuous, and often tragic, picture.  At each level, someone, or group of people, from among the Christian, Jewish, and other Semitic communities, seek to reconcile the three populations, only to be stymied by some unanticipated consequence or event.  The three archeologists continue their investigation up the layers until they reach the top.  When they do, it is 1948, the time of the first official Arab-Israeli war.

The Source was one of the first books I packed when, in January 1998, my husband decided to accept an offer to teach The Politics of the Environment at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.  Situated on Kibbutz Ketura, in the Negev Desert, The Institute’s mission is quite in keeping with the theme of The Source: Specifically, it is devoted to bringing Arabs, Jews and Christians together around the common venue of the environment.  Reflecting in the AravaThus, with Michener in mind, I was able to give far greater meaning to my own presence and participation there.  It was a transformative experience, to say the least.

In thinking back on it, one particular incident comes to mind.  It occurred during the holiday Purim, a time when Jews typically let down their hair in celebration of their rescue by  Queen Ester from the Persian Haman. And so, on Purim 1998, the vodka–which was otherwise rarely visible–flowed freely on Kibbutz Ketura.worker bees (Purim 1998)  Joining in the celebration, my husband, some of our students, and I dressed up as worker bees, and we partied and danced late into the night. Amidst the chaos, we stopped at one point and looked at each other, asking: What in heaven’s name are we doing here–two Episcopalians, together with a mishmash of Arab, Jewish and Christian students, celebrating Purim, on a kibbutz in the Negev?  Smiling knowingly, we said to each other–of course, we are the top layer!

Smiling knowingly, we said to each other–of course, we are the top layer! 

The recent collapse of the peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis is sorrowfully reminiscent of the long history of the region that presages it.  When I first heard the news, a piece of my heart was broken.  My  hope is that, as Michener–were he alive–might agree, there will be another try for peace–that is to say, another layer.  And who knows, it may very well emerge from the on-going work of  the Arava Institute.

Technology Assessment to the Rescue

Over the past several months, as it appeared that we might get a new Administration, support for, and speculations about, reviving the Office of Technology Assessment have been on the rise. In Congress, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt has been carrying the flag.

But support is growing even at the grass roots level. Take, for example, the new online support group, Hey, hey–let’s reopen-the ota-with citizen input, which gets considerable play on my facebook page. The group has also set up a predictive market that allows members to wager on OTA’s future.

My prediction is that OTA will be revived, and–putting my money where my mouth is–I am prepared to bet heavily on it. But my rationale is not analytically grounded. As in any betting situation, it is a gut reaction, made in the face of uncertainty. Given my hopes and passions about a revived OTA, I would vote based not on a careful analysis of all the complex variables but rather in response to the excited signals coming from the emotional center of my brain.

It's a Gamble (Courtesy of MarkyBon

It

This is just what Dan Ariely, author of Predictable Irrationality would predict–even in the case of experts. As he points out, individual predictions about uncertain events are rarely based on rational assessments; moreover, because they are typically ladened with considerable emotional baggage, such predictions are typically way off the mark.

If–as I suspect–others are like me, it would behoove OTA’s supporters to rethink the rationale that they use to promote the revival of OTA. Responding to critics from the past, who argued that OTA’s reports were untimely and therefore unresponsive to Congress’ day-to-day legislative needs, OTA’s supporters have generally sought to demonstrate OTA’s positive impact by linking its reports to subsequent Congressional legislation. Perhaps that is not what is most important. Reading recent books about uncertainty–such as Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkards’ Walk and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, I’m more and more convinced that what decision makers need today, in this age of complexity and high uncertainty, is a way to think holistically and creatively about the possibility of future outliers and unanticipated events–metaphorically described by Taleb as Black Swans. As he emphasizes, we are fooled by our belief that we can make sense of the world by reducing problems down to what we know. The demon in all of this, he says, is:

not just the bell curve and the self-deceiving statistician, nor the Platonified scholar who needs theories to fool himself with. It is the drive to ‘focus’ on what make sense to us. Living in our planet, today, requires a lot more imagination that we are made to have. We lack imagination and repress it in others (The Black Swan, p. xxvii)

Ironically, anticipating the future was one of OTA’s original goals, and holism was the method used to achieve it. In fact, many of our studies were highly successful in this regard. Speaking of my own work, for example, I would point to Intellectual Property Rights in An Age of Electronics and Information, which anticipated how networking technology might undermine the copyright and patent systems; Electronic Enterprises: Looking to the Future which pointed out how network architecture would determine the future of the networked economy; Global Standards: Building Blocks for the Future, which identified the need for a global standards strategies long before the Chinese decided to become major players in this arena.

No doubt, these are uncertain times. Today, we are trying to make sense of recent, unanticipated disasters, such as the outcome of the war in Iraq and Afganistan and the recent colossal market crash. These events are Black Swans; Could they have been anticipated? I doubt it, given the way knowledge generation is organized in bureaucratic universities and disciplinary silos, where creativity and the cross fertilization of ideas and methodologies is generally inhibited. But OTA was designed to identify Black Swans. To this end, it fostered an interdisciplinary culture, a more relaxed research methodology, and reached out to a broad array of thinkers and publics. Would not a refunded OTA be best suited to address the present situation?

Recognizing that people are becoming more and more anxious in the face of uncertainty, and highly unanticipated events, I propose a new narrative for marketing OTA. Technology Assessment to the Rescue! This is not only a good idea; it gets you right in the guts.

Holiday Greetings!

Written (late) December 2008, by Brock Evans

Dear Family and Friends,

Yep. “Things are a little late this year,” as the song goes. But for good reasons we think. For example, we just returned yesterday from what Brock calls “a Norman Rockwell kind of Christmas”, meaning that so much reminded us of the popular Saturday Evening Post covers, from those more innocent times when we were children in this season. All of it–the lights, the presents under the tree, the warmth and the music everywhere, occurring amidst the happy (and noisy) chaos of delighted scampering grandchildren. ‘These are the kinds of time we dream about’, says Brock. …and how blessed we feel for being actually able to experience them all over again. Now.

Better late than never. . . another unanticipated benefit is that we got to read your own beautiful and interesting cards and newsletter first–another real treat. We now feel so reconnected Thank you. So much fun, in fact, that we may just be ‘late’ again next year!

So back to the rest of this (mostly) happy and eventful year; what’s been going on in the Evans/Garcia household? Basically a bit of this and other bits of that. . ..yet all together, it has seemed to us, woven into one pleasant, challenging, and adventurous tapestry. Some important markers and milestones, and some sadness too.

At Georgetown University, Linda continues on as Director of, and teacher in, the ever more successful (and popular with students) Masters Program: Communication, Culture and Technology. Indeed its great success (plus what Brock calls her ‘spreading renown from pervious writings”) has attracted international recognition. eg. Linda’s appointment to the Technology Assessment Board of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, and an invited lecture at the Central European University (Budapest) on “The Future of the University.”

But best of all for Linda has been her blog. Begun in July, in response to a challenge from Brock, it quickly became what Brock describes as a ‘brilliant and articulate set of essays which tie together ‘unrelated’ things from ‘real life’ (Such as desert canyons, frogs, Thanksgiving, etc.) into the network theories she teaches daily.

Of course Brockie, ever the ‘modest’ one, invites you to read the blog entry featuring him (Living with a Legend), which is about a wonderful Leadership Award he just received.

Brock has not been idle through all this activity, even as he (His words) ‘basks in the reflected glow of Linda’s accomplishments” (to see what the really means, see below, under ‘travels”) Still President of the Endangered Species Coalition, still speaking and lecturing about conservation, the Endangered Species Act, and–most importantly for him–still always reminding the new ones coming on (in such places as Ohio, Boston, and California) that “no matter what the odds, you can do it.”

While delighted about the results of the election (“it seems that once again we have our country back,” we say to each other and friends), Brock, ever the wary political animal, warns that some of the new faces may likely not be much friendlier to environmental values than those just replaced. So this is not a time to relax, or to cease striving; not if we want to pass on a sustainable and beautiful earth into the future, he says.

While most of the travels were business related, one turned out to be among the most memorable ever. That one was a visit to the University of Wyoming for a day-long series of lectures in October, time to coincide with the anticipated birth of new grandson, Kaydon–to son Noah, and Sarah, who live in Fort Collins, just an hour away.

The lectures and visit to the splendid facilities at the University of Wyoming (many of Brock’s papers are deposited there at its renowned American Heritage Center) were thus a high point of the whole year and not only because of the lively sparkling interchanges with students and faculty. But also because of that anticipated ‘afterwards,’ namely, Brock’s first meeting with our third grandchild who Brock termed after a few days of holding and admiring, as “a very very hungry and fast-growing delightful little gnome, who could just about fit into the cup of one hand while I fed him.” Not any more! In his latest pictures, the tyke almost completely fills out a Washington Redskins T-shirt, his first gift from his grandfather.

Family: After a spell of experiencing the downside of this ‘new economy’ son Joshua now is a full tim IT engineer with a firm in Northern VA, while Stephanie continues her job as artist-in-chief for celebrity magician Chris Angel. Stepfather Wayne sadly passed away last January, and now Brock’s 95-year old Mom, Adele, lives with sister Lynne and Mark at their home on Long Island. Part of our “Normal Rockwell Christmas” included a warm and cosy visit there, and, again, more spirited conversations. “We only hope, if and when we reach 95, that we can be as much fun to talk with as Mom is,” we say to each other after each such visit. That other ‘grandchild’ part of our Christmas was spent with Steve, a successful management consultant, and Supermom Haley. . .and with the delightful causes of that happy chaos, 8 year old Ben, and 5-year old Sophie.

TravelThe picture this year is from a beautiful trip to the canyons of Southern Utah in July. The smiles on our faces are because of the happy news just received at Brock’s visit to the Huntsman Cancer Hospital in Salt Lake City, where he was pronounced to be ” still in complete remission” from the bone marrow cancer that struck at him six year ago. And, a spectacular 8-day adventure in Vienna, Prague (met by a friend from Slovakia) and Budapest. The reason was Linda’s invites, referenced above. But Brock said: “I’m not gonna miss this one. . .” so while Linda lectured and did Board things, Brock wandered happily through the old cobbled streets, cathedrals, and ancient monuments of places long dreamed of, plus savoring delightful restaurants when Linda was one.

Another eventful and happy year. Thank you for being such good friends and for letting us share our activities with you. Love, Brock and Linda

Economics 10#**=%#!

During my undergraduate days at Syracuse University, I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Jim Price as my economics professor. A fresh graduate from MIT, and a Keynesian, Dr. Price did not view economics as a dismal science. To the contrary, he saw economics as a mental construct that not only approximated reality, but also–and for that reason–could be used to improve upon it.

he saw economics as a mental construct that not only approximated reality, but also–and for that very reason–could be used to improve upon it.

Bloody Dismal Science (Courtesy of Sjamsu)

Bloody Dismal Science (Courtesy of Sjamsu)

This idea came as something of a surprise to us, his students. For, although we had grown up in the relatively prosperous post war period, our parents had continually admonished us for overspending, recalling how the roaring twenties had given way–without notice–to the dreadful and enduring days of the Depression. When we asked Dr. Price about depressions, and their likely probability, he told us that we need not worry. Depressions were a thing of the past, he said: Now we have the Phillips Curve!.

asked about depressions, and their likely probability, he told us that we need not worry. Now we have the Phillips Curve!

Over the next few years, my enthusiasm for economics waned, not, however, for lack of interest but rather for lack of math skills. As a result–and much to my regret at the time–I chose to study international relations. To be sure, the subject matter was equally interesting and demanding; but, as compared to economics, the discipline’s problem solving ability and methodological approach seemed to me, at least at the time, to be a little fuzzy.

it was not long after, however, that I began to appreciate the decision I had made. For, in the context of the recession of the seventies, and the subsequent oil shocks, the prescriptions that I had learned in Economics 101 no longer seemed to fit. Although the United States still made economic adjustments according to the mathematically proven Phillips Curve, the results were becoming increasingly problematic. The outcome was not greater stability, as economists had led us to expect. Instead the economy suffered persistent stagflation–that is to say, higher prices and fewer jobs. As the late Jane Jacobs characterized this state of affairs (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1984), the United States was suffering from underdevelopment. The answer, according to Jacobs, was to shift our focus away from equilibrium outcomes, and to center our thinking on the problem of wealth creation and growth. Jacobs insisted that understanding cities, and how they generate wealth, was the place to start. A non-economist, who employed the wealth of all the social sciences to make sense of the failing US economy–well, that was enough of an inspiration for me.

Faced with the prospects of an up-coming, serious depression, my students ask me what I think. Unlike Dr. Price, I don’t have recourse to an answer such as the Philips Curve. But perhaps this is fortunate. For although I cannot offer formulaic solutions–which may turn out to be wrong–I can provide something that was unavailable in my day–alternative ways of thinking about the economy. Thus, I can point my students to–among other things–Jochai Benkler’s discussions of cooperative growth strategies, which are designed not only to coordinate production but also to generate positive externalities (The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedoms) Likewise, I might direct them to Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth (2006) for a discussion of the complexity and non-linearity associated with economic interactions. Alternatively, I might suggest that they take a look at Samuel Bowles, Microeconomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution, (2004) for a far more nuanced perspective on economic behavior.

Thus, as I see it, the situation is far from dismal. In fact, we have a learning/ teaching opportunity here. Experience has shown us that prescribed economic solutions, no matter how elegant, are typically situation specific. They are vulnerable to changes in the larger environment. Thus, in teaching about the economy, we must provide our students, not so much with answers, but rather with a menu of perspectives from which they can draw, when faced with fast-moving, unpredictable change.