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Aaron Alvarez

I am not familiar with Gary Becker's actual work but from what I remember of Parson's claims about Marhsall's claim of imperialism seemed to resonate around the claim that the rationalist methodological homogeneity of objects of observation is not just a methodological decision but descriptive of actuality. Is Becker's imperialism the explicit ontological continuation of economics into other fields with the normative focus , the implicit ontological continuation of economics into other fields or something different?

Marcus Stanley

Interesting that your last post on Piketty seemed so sympathetic to the search for long-run economic 'constants', while this one seems hostile. I am more in the spirit of this post.

eric Schliesser

Marcus, I am, in fact, sympathetic to the search long-run economic 'constants,' as a means to the development of better theory and/or understanding the mechanisms/laws of capitalist economies/structural change (etc.). In this post, however, I note that Piketty also helps himself to concepts that he knows to be flawed on some level (and that prevent such a search). And in the post I understate it a bit, because Piketty is (correctly) quite critical of the Samuelson textbook on Russia, which was flawed precisely because it relied on production frontier.

eric Schliesser

Aaron, I suspect you intended this response to the post on Becker/Parsons. Parsons has a lot of criticisms of Marshall. (Marshall plays a very big role in his Structure.) You can read about Becker's economic imperialism in some of the links that I provide, but the short answer is 'yes.'

Dan Kervick

But its meaning is clear from context: (i) a country's (world's) technological frontier clearly limits the possibilities for growth. (As we philosophers like to say, it's a modal concept.) And (ii) growth can be faster toward the frontier than being on the frontier, where a "relatively slow pace" is "characteristic",.

Eric, I still think you are mistaken in assimilating the concept of the technological frontier to the concept of technological determinism. And your use here of the phrase "a country's technological frontier", it seems to me, is connected with the problem. I believe that for Piketty and others, the concept of a technological frontier is an inherently global notion. It is used to explicate the phenomenon of "catch-up growth" and the tendency for rates of catch-up growth in rapidly developing countries to decline eventually.

Let's be optimistic and say that some new combination of entrepreneurial innovation and macroeconomic policy jolts the entire world economy into a sustained 5% global growth rate. There would still be a technological frontier in that world, in the sense that countries at a lower level of economic development would be able to achieve growth levels significantly higher than 5% by engaging in catch-up growth, but when they had achieved an equivalent level of economic development, they would not be likely to grow faster than other developed and technologically advanced countries.

Now maybe this understanding of catchup growth is right and maybe it is wrong, but it is a quite different concept than the concept of technological determinism. Even if there is no roughly "determined" pace of global technological development, and human beings have the ability to achieve significantly higher or lower levels of global growth and development based on their aggregate policy choices, there is still going to be a technological frontier given any pace of global development defined by where the "leading edge" is.

Eric Schliesser

Dan, first you are not engaging with a crucial feature of my argument (which was, in part, about Piketty's claim about the impotence of macro-economic policy), and you ascribe a misunderstanding where there is none. I am not at all denying the part you are stressing about catch up growth. (It's in the original post -- recall (ii) about growth being faster toward the frontier [that's your catch up] than on the frontier.) Nor am I denying that it is global--recall that in the post I also allowed that it can a global/world frontier (not just a country one). Why do you treat what I say as somehow denying that? You are merely, partially repeating Piketty's position that I have described above. And you, too, treat the 'technological frontier' as a modal concept that limits possibilities; on your view *if you are on that 'frontier' you somehow have a certain potential for growth*--it's this thought (there is a frontier, at the frontier one can grow a certain limited amount, etc.) that I associate with technological determinism. Even if you (and Piketty) think this is not technological determinism as such (maybe you associate the phrase 'technological determinism' with something else?), then what is it? (The frontier determines maximum possible growth rates if you are on the frontier.) Moreover, in doing so, you just recycle a version of neo-classical economics and its thinking about the production possibility frontier. This despite the fact that in your blogging you often claim you reject neo-classical economics. (In the post I explain why Piketty offers the right sort of criticism(s) of production possibility frontier.)
Now, this is not to deny that Piketty may well reject technological determinism in my sense or some other sense. It's certainly not -- as he wrote me in an email that I will discuss before long -- the point of his book to advocate technological determinism; I fully grant that. But if you deploy this 'frontier' concept in the way you do, then you do instantiate a version of technological determinism. Now, I may be wrong about that, but, perhaps, you could offer an argument rather than just a restatement of the view?
By the way, what is your evidence that there is a technological frontier defined by the leading edge, etc.? What supplies your confidence on this matter? Samuelson's text-book?

Dan Kervick

Sorry, Eric, I feel like you are throwing a lot at me at once that I can't possibly respond to. I really don't know what "neoclassical" means in this context, nor do I care. Nor can I recall ever having formulated a previous opinion in my blogging on technology and growth, so that seems irrelevant. Can't we just stick to this one issue?

First I agree with you in wanting to push on Piketty's apparently pessimistic attitudes about 21st century growth. I just don't think the concept of the technological frontier, as he uses it in the few places he does in the book, is germane to that issue.

Let's put it this way: Consider countries X, Y and Z. X and Y are among the most technologically advanced countries in the world. Z is not nearly as advanced economically but has abundant people and resources. Would you say X, Y and Z all have the same growth potential?

Also, why is the fact that "potential" is a modal concept significant? There are modal concepts permeating almost every field of thought, and they always play some kind of role where practical reasoning and policy are concerned. It would be shocking if economics and economic policy could get by without them.

When Piketty says, "Similarly, once these countries had attained the global technological frontier, it is hardly surprising that they ceased to grow more rapidly than Britain and the United States or that growth rates in all of these wealthy countries more or less equalized", do you think that is a reasonable statement or not? Do you think it is surprising that growth in France, Germany and Japan slowed down after they had caught up with the US and Britain? If not, how would you describe what happened?

Eric Schliesser

It's great that economics has modal concepts. The issue is what are the mechanisms/laws (etc.) that underwrite these.
We can't answer the questions you ask without understanding the mechanisms/law that drive growth or 'technological advance'. One can't claim something is or isn't surprising then.
What is the evidence that there has been 'catch up'? What you and Piketty do, is notice a relative pattern of growth and then describe that outcome pattern in terms of catch up. But without measures or proxies that track this so-called frontier, you are just describing a pattern that seems intuitive to you (and may rely on tacit assumptions about diminishing rates of return).
Finally, the technological frontier is a technical term in economics; Piketty uses it in that sense. His data, however, have no measures to track it.

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