My Thoughts After Reading 5,000 Pages of Magazine Articles in 2017

This year I had a goal of reading 5,000 pages of magazine and news articles (and a few blogs and academic papers). Happily I have completed this goal!

(My other goals were to study both math and programming every day of the year (success!) and listen to 500 hours of podcasts, I only hit 300).

A sub-goal, which I also completed, was to read the top 25 magazine articles ever written as determined by Kevin Kelly, founding editor at Wired. Kelly solicited hundreds of suggestions from contacts in the publishing industry and ranked the articles according to the number of recommendations. Of course, any such list is arbitrary, but as far as lists like this go it seems to be definitive (try Googling “best magazine articles ever” and his list comes up repeatedly. Other lists in the search results are publication specific, say, Esquire’s Top 10 Best Articles). Kelly’s list actually has hundreds of entries and I read a number outside of the top 25.

Because most articles these days are online my goal essentially translated into reading 2.5 million words. I decided early in the year on a figure of 500 words per page to make sure these were proper pages, not the 250-word, double-spaced pages we all wrote as high school Freshman.

If you’re curious this amounts to reading about 14 pages a day. Reading 14 pages isn’t so hard; doing it consistently can be very hard. If you go on a 3-day long weekend getaway that’s not suitable for reading, on the following Monday you need to read 56-pages just to keep up.

I was buoyed by a habit of 15,000 words a day for several months near the beginning of the year when I was toying with a goal of 10,000 pages. I think that goal is achievable, but not while trying to fit in a healthy dose of daily math and programming.

Here are some details about this goal along with some fun graphs and figures.


I kept track of everything I read in a Google spreadsheet. I used the “Word Counter Plus” Google Chrome plugin to keep track of the number of words. To use the plugin you just highlight the words. One problem is that for many articles highlighting the article also highlights advertisement text and recommended reading lists. In these cases I would estimate the number of superfluous words highlighted and subtract them out.

In my spreadsheet I recorded the date, article title and publication, and a link to the article. I also kept track of my general feeling about the article on a scale of 1-10 and then a second rating of my feeling about the best or most interesting part of the article. I found this to be very helpful for personal organization! I plan to keep track of every article I read going forward as it makes rereading much easier. (Do you ever think, where did I read that? And can’t find it. Keeping track of what you’ve read helps a lot. It is also great to go back and see things you liked, but can’t quite remember so that you can reread them to refresh your memory).

I didn’t actually record everything I read. Only articles I read in full were recorded, so any article I merely browsed — which is likely equal to the number I actually read — was not recorded. I also didn’t record articles that were too short. For example, I read Marginal Revolution daily, but recording dozens of 50-100 word blog posts quickly got tiring and so much of this reading simply went uncatalogued.

Likewise my list did not include any books I read or technical articles related to my goal of studying math and programming.


So where did I find the articles I read? Although I did not keep track of article sources in my spreadsheet here is a list from memory.

The Browser

  • If you don’t subscribe to The Browser and you like reading, I don’t know what you’re doing with your life. Just go subscribe. Pay the $34 annual fee, it’s worth it. (The browser sends a daily email digest).


  • I subscribe to their weekly roundup of long-form articles, which I highly recommend as another great source of good writing.


  • I follow a bunch of different people who are always sharing articles. I find subscribing to smart people and reading what they are recommending to be a really great way to stay abreast of important conversations. Nuzzel is great app for consolidating what those you follow on Twitter are sharing the most.


  • Friends post articles and I follow a number of news outlets.

Marginal Revolution

  • This is my favorite blog and I read it daily. Tyler posts a list of daily links, which I often click and browse. I end up reading a number of them all the way through.

Kevin Kelly’s List

  • I read all of the Top 25 articles listed on the main page and about 20 or so articles that were on the list, but outside of the Top 25.

Other Lists

  • For example, I picked out articles to read from the Pulitzer Prize feature writer winners and various end of year “Best of 2017” lists. I ended up reading seven winners of the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing this year.

Things I’ve wanted to read for a while

  • Several pieces I read this year I’ve been wanting to read for a while. Snow Fall and The Case for Reparations are two examples, both of which I’ve started in the past but hadn’t finished.

Looking for other pieces by an author I liked

  • For example, I read a number of pieces by Chris Jones after reading two that I liked. Jones is easily one of the best magazine feature writers around today. Likewise Pablo Torre is one of my favorite hosts of PTI, so I looked up and read a number of his pieces. Torre is most famous for his Sports Illustrated article

    “How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke”.

References and Recommendations

Ideological Spectrum

I read across the ideological spectrum because there is good, cogent, interesting writing across the ideological spectrum.

What Did I Not Read?

So much! Just looking through the various “Best of 2017” lists I see that I missed a lot I hope to catch up on in 2018. There is simply too much good writing to read and more coming out everyday. I find it a bit sad knowing I won’t be able to read it all despite, or maybe because of, the amazing and enriching articles I read this year.


Here is a summary of this years reads. All told I read 1,085 articles totaling 2,529,738 words (5,059 pages). I read an average of 6,931 words (about 14 pages) a day. The average article length was 2,332 words. I read 260 different publications in total.

You can see from my weekly reading habits that I took some breaks from hardcore reading. During these times I was focusing more on programming.


What were the longest things I read?

I had a good mix of long and short articles. The chart below gives a sense of the length of some of the longer pieces I read.



Below is the list of all articles I read that were over 10,000 words. Quite a few of them are classics (meaning they appeared on Kelly’s list) and a few more are Pulitzer Prize winners. The longest piece was “Fractured Lands” a 43,000-word (86-page) behemoth that took up the entire print edition of The New York Times Magazine the week it was published.

The next longest article was Wired’s famous “Mother Earth Mother Board” about the laying of underwater submarine cables. (For those that don’t know all intercontinental internet traffic goes through cables that are laid across the bottom of the ocean. Satellite transmission is far too slow and accounts for less than 5% of transmissions. See this short article for more details.) “Mother Earth Mother Board” came in a close second at 41,750 words.

Rounding out the top three was Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It was a paltry 23,000 words.

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What were the shortest things I read?

Glancing at the shortest things I read you can see why I stopped recording all my visits to Marginal Revolution. But don’t miss the “Amazing Bull Fart Sculpture by Chen Wenling” that I read in The Design Inspiration. (It’s actually a really amazing sculpture, you should check it out).

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 7.00.32 PM.png

What publications did I read most?

I read 260 different publications in all. There is quite a long tale of publications I read only once. You will see some familiar names on the list below. Both Vox and The Hustle were buoyed by the fact that I subscribe to their email newsletter (same with Aeon, Nautilus, and the National Review).



Here are some supplemental resources that might be of interest.

Esquire Classics podcast series – Contains podcast episodes with the authors of many of the classic Esquire pieces cited here.

Longform – Contains podcast episodes with the authors of many pieces cited here (and many, many others).

Nieman Storyboard’s Annotation Tuesday – Contains annotated Q&A with many of the authors cited here.

Articles That Will Stay With Me

These are articles (outside of the Top 25) that will stick with me. I will tackle the Top 25 separately below.


I don’t read much fiction, but these two stories from McSweeney’s are truly hilarious. I’m sure I missed many more wonderful stories in McSweeney’s.

I’m Wes Anderson, And I’m Directing This FBI Investigation Into Russia And The Trump CampaignMcSweeney’s (2017) – So accurate.

Though I Can’t Be Certain, I Suspect That This Hollywood Actress I’m Interviewing May Be Entertaining Thoughts Of Having Sex With MeMcSweeney’s (2017) – The inner monologue of men.

This story from SB Nation is truly hilarious.

I watched in bewilderment while a man tried to return butternut squash because he thought it was cheese, SB Nation (2017) – The greatest live tweet storm of 2017 annotated with behind-the-scenes notes.


There are many profiles in other parts of this list, but here are a few I enjoyed this year.

Secrets of the Magus, The New Yorker (1993) – Mark Singer’s famous profile of the magician Ricky Jay.

The Fighter, The New York Times Magazine (2017) – C.J. Chivers won the 2017 Pulitzer Price in Feature Writing for this fantastic essay of Sam Siatta, a marine having trouble reintegrating after returning from Afghanistan.

Honorable mention: Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast, The New Yorker (2017); A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof, GQ (2017); Jackie Chan’s Plan to Keep Kicking Forever, GQ (2017).

The Death Essays

Essays about death and dying, the fear of death, grieving for the dead, both young and old, and what it means to live a good life.

Letting GoThe New Yorker (2010) – A life changing essay by Atul Gawande on the way we grow old and what it means to have a good death. I am excited to read “Being Mortal” in 2018.

One Man’s Quest to Change the Way We Die, The New York Times Magazine (2017) – Jon Mooallem’s profile of B.J. Miller. A life changing essay on dying young and what it means to have a good death.

The Way We Age Now, The New Yorker (2007) – Atul Gawande on the way our body breaks down as we grow old. Aging is inevitable, dispiriting, and beautiful.

Fear Itself: Learning to Live in the Age of Terrorism, The Washington Post (2004) – On riding a bus in Israel. More broadly, a contemplation of whether the US was headed the way Israel in 2004. In Jerusalem residents live in constant fear of death by bombing, due to a pernicious sense of terrorism all around them: “See the stone lion on that building, four stories up? Body parts hung there from the second bombing of the 18 bus in ’96. Down the street, see the Sabarro sign? Fifteen dead, August 2001. It’s closed now. They moved it, but no one goes there anymore. That falafel place to the left? It exploded the same day as that pub over there. ”

The Things That Carried Him, Esquire (2008) – See description under the Top 25 section.

What Bullets Do To Bodies, Huffington Post (2017) – Profile of Dr. Amy Goldberg, a trauma surgeon at Temple University Hospital in North Philadelphia specializing in gunshot wounds. “Her religious faith is still strong—it’s not that she goes around talking about it, she told me, it’s just that she has worked for 30 years in trauma and seen a lot of death, and it’s hard to do that and not feel something about God.”

The Really Big One, The New Yorker (2016) – Kathryn Schulz won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for this story. I have been aware of this article for some time: I live in Seattle and it made the rounds last year (it’s all about how half the west coast, including Seattle, is at risk of a massive earthquake of unprecedented scale). I finally got around to reading it. It legitimately makes me want to move. If I start a family and raise kids how can I have them live in a place so destined for massive destruction?

Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?The Washington Post (2010) – See description under the Top 25 section.

Trial by Fire, The New Yorker (2009) – A now famous piece on whether Texas executed an innocent man. It contains a surprising lesson in arson investigation and the persistence  of non-scientific mysticism in matters of grave importance. If this last part appeals to you see also David Grann’s 2010 The New Yorker piece, The Mark of a Masterpiece: The Man Who Keeps Finding Famous Fingerprints on Uncelebrated Works of Art and also John Oliver’s recent segment on forensics.

New Media Articles

Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel CreekThe New York Times (2012) – This piece won John Branch the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. I’ve wanted to read it for some time, but only now got around to it. In 2013 it looked like the future of journalism. It was filled with topographical, animated maps; first-person video and audio; and interviews. This article hit home since it takes place on the back side of a mountain I skied numerous times near Seattle. It’s interesting to look back at Snow Fall in 2017. Features occasionally incorporate interactive elements, but more often they simply contain photos and charts. I suspect that the elements in Snow Fall are still expensive to create even in 2017 and so they are reserved for long-form articles with powerful bylines (John Branch also wrote “Deliverance From 27,000 Feet” and Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations”).

Deliverance From 27,000 Feet, The New York Times (2017) – Think of this as Snowfall 2.0. It tells the story of the recovery of several bodies of West Bengali climbers that had died the previous season. Interactive elements are similar to Snow Fall.

The Case For Reparations, The Atlantic (2014) – I see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ project as mainly about brining Critical Studies to a broader audience. Little of what he says is new, but he writes about it for a public audience in a style that is elegant and searing. This piece contains video, interactive maps, and original documentation that can be examined.

Although I read it last year, see also Paul Ford’s famous Bloomberg 29-thousand word piece What is Code? The most sprawling piece of New Media I have ever seen, the print edition took up an entire Bloomberg weekly.

Articles About Technology

Google Maps Moat, Justin Obeirne’s Blog (2017) – A fascinating deep dive into how Google is combining satellite images and its own street view data to automatically create Areas Of Interest and highlight these regions for users. Obeirne also discusses how much better Google map’s data is than Apple’s and what Google might do next.

Neuroscience and the Law: Don’t Rush InThe New York Review of Books (2016) – Much of law focuses on intent. Two people that committed the same crime may be charged differently (involuntary manslaughter vs. murder, for instance). Some claim that new imaging techniques and understanding of the brain’s inner workings give us a deeper sense of whether someone intended to do an action. The author argues that these techniques are not yet mature enough to use in sentencing. Although he doesn’t mention it the author’s logic implies that one day in the future it may be appropriate and widespread to use various brain technologies to determine criminal intent.

Why AjitPai Is Right, Stratechery (2017) – Ben Thompson of the consistently good Stratechery gives a reasoned argument for why most people have net neutrality all wrong. I should say Thompson is very much pro-neutrality, but thinks the current discussions are missing a lot. I found this article very persuasive. For a more pointed critique directed at the media see Larry Downes Forbes article Why Is The Media Smearing New FCC Chair Ajit Pai As The Enemy Of Net Neutrality?

Estonia, the Digital Republic, The New Yorker (2017) – I have known for some time that Estonia is trying to create a forward looking, technological state (ex. blanketed internet in public spaces). The extent to which they have already done this boggled my mind. Estonia has already integrated nearly every piece of government information into a portal that every citizen has access to. This portal contains court records, school records, voting access, and much more. The main tenet of Estonia’s system is the once-only principle, meaning data should only need to be entered into the system once. Why enter a user’s address multiple times if that information already lives in the system.

Here is one representative passage: “The bigness is partly inherent in the government’s appetite for large problems. In Tallinn’s courtrooms, judges’ benches are fitted with two monitors, for consulting information during the proceedings, and case files are assembled according to the once-only principle. The police make reports directly into the system; forensic specialists at the scene or in the lab do likewise. Lawyers log on—as do judges, prison wardens, plaintiffs, and defendants, each through his or her portal. The Estonian courts used to be notoriously backlogged, but that is no longer the case.”

The Spy and Theft Stories

These were the most entertaining and fun pieces of the year. I loved them!

The Untold Story of the World’s Biggest Diamond Heist, Wired (2009) – This is like Mission Impossible or Ocean’s 11, except it’s actually real. This article is so, so good. You will not be able to stop reading it once you start.

Art of the Steal: On the Trail of World’s Most Ingenious Thief, Wired (2010) – This article was so outrageous I wasn’t sure if it was real. From the opening line you are put in the middle of unbelievable action that lasts the entire article. Also, so, so good.

How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran, Wired (2007) – The article that served as the basis for the film Argo. Even having seen Argo I found this to be a fantastic and original read.

Inside Quebec’s Great, Multi-Million-Dollar Maple-Syrup Heist, Vanity Fair (2017) – There’s big bucks in syrup.

The Hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso, Bloomberg Business Week (2017) – Like a classic spy movie only real. Full of corporate greed, clever investigatory techniques, and brutal murder.

The Untold Story of Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination, GQ (2017) – A stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport by VX nerve agent. Kim is the older half brother of Kim Jong-un, the current North Korean Dictator. The assassination was expertly planned, so much so that the two killers had no idea they were involved in the plot.

Stealing Mona Lisa, Vanity Fair (2009) – A thrilling tale of the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa and its subsequent return.

Diary, London Review of Books (2017) – Alexander Briant’s diary of an investigation for a major oil company in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. “A few days ago a whistleblower made an allegation that an organised gang in one of the bases has been working to control the supply of goods to our business there. Not only that, we are paying handsomely for large quantities of goods that do not exist. The suppliers, it’s alleged, are owned by government officials who in return will favour the company with contracts. To make matters more complex, the whistleblower alleges that some of our employees are also among the suppliers’ owners.”

The David Foster Wallace man-on-the-street essays

Should we call them that? These are Wallace’s pieces where he is ostensibly sent to visit and report on some public event. The pieces of writing he returns with are so hard to describe and so quintessentially his, half anxiety-induced inner monologue and half comically observant at the micro level.

Ticket to the FairHarper’s Magazine (1994) – David Foster Wallace goes to the Illinois State Fair. Wallace’s description of watching junior baton twirling and amateur clogging are reason enough to read this piece, but there is much more of interest.

Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury CruiseHarper’s Magazine (1996) – See description under the Top 25 section.

The first half of Consider the Lobster – See description under the Top 25 section. Before he tells us why we should consider the lobster Wallace is merely a festival goer at the Maine Lobster Festival.

The work of Chris Jones

I realized I have been reading Jones for a while. He wrote an essay in Esquire back in 2010 that I liked very much, “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man.” Back then I didn’t take note of the author. This year I routinely checked Kevin Kelly’s Top 25 List as I made my way through it. The name Chris Jones stuck in my head. When someone I follow on Twitter (I forget who) suggested “The Woman Who might Find Us Another Earth”, I read it and recognized the byline. I went back and to Kelly’s list and realized it was the same person who had written “The Things That Carried Him.” It made perfect sense, the writing style in the two pieces is so similar. I enjoyed them both so much that I listened to Jones’ Longform podcast episode and when back to read a number of his pieces. I’m happy he has written much more that I have yet to read.

The Woman Who Might Find Us Another EarthThe New York Times Magazine (2017)One of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. On a woman searching for life on another planet while rebuilding her own on ours.

Home, Esquire (2007) – Two American astronauts are stranded aboard the International Space Station in 2003 after the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. How will they get home?

The Things That Carried Him, Esquire (2008) – See description under the Top 25 section.

The Big Book, Esquire (2012) – Fascinating profile of Robert Caro who has spent most of his adult life writing a series of books about Lyndon Johnson (I’ve been wanting to read these books for a while now, maybe that will be a goal during an upcoming year!). There is fear he might die before completing the last book. After reading this profile I really hope he makes it through.

The Honor System, Esquire (2012) – Someone has stolen Teller’s trick. It is a beautiful trick. What happens next?

The Contestant Who Outsmarted The Price Is Right, Esquire (2007) – Terry Kniess scored the first exact guess in the Showcase showdown in the 38-year history of The Price Is Right. How did he do it? And then, how did he really do it?

General culture

A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick, Longreads (2017) – A fascinating inside look at the life of a mover whose job is to relocate the wealthy who have millions of dollars of furniture they need to get to their new homes.

Consistent Vegetarianism and the Suffering of Wild AnimalsJournal of Practical Ethics (2016) – Argues that to be consistent vegetarians must also desire to reduce wild animal populations by various means.

Rape Choreography Makes Films Safer, But Still Takes a Toll on Cast and Crew, LA Weekly (2017) – An important piece about how Hollywood makes rape scenes safe for women and what happens when they don’t. Also addresses the toll that rape choreography takes on the men and women involved in producing and editing the film.

India’s ‘Phone Romeos’ Look for Ms. Right via Wrong Numbers, The New York Times (2017) – On a group of Indian men looking for love by dialing random numbers and trying to talk to the women who answer. “The “phone Romeo,” as he is known here, calls numbers at random until he hears a woman’s voice, in the hope of striking up a romantic attachment. Among them are overeager suitors (“Can I recharge your mobile?”), tremulous supplicants (“I am talking to you, madam, but my body is shaking”) and the occasional heavy breather (“I want to do the illegal things with you”).”

What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?The Paris Review (2017) – Claire Dederer grapples with the idea of terrible men who produce great art.

Did We Change the Definition of ‘Literally’?Merriam Webster (2017) – “There is no plot by dictionary-makers to destroy our language. There is not even a plot to loosen our language’s morals and corrupt it a bit. There is, however, a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used, and there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that literally has been used in this fashion for a very long time…The use of literally in a fashion that is hyperbolic or metaphoric is not new—evidence of this use dates back to 1769.”

O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, No. 16-1901, United States Court of Appeals (2017) – What happens when you leave out a comma? “The parties’ dispute concerns the
meaning of the words “packing for shipment or distribution.” The delivery drivers contend that, in combination, these words refer to the single activity of “packing,” whether the “packing” is for “shipment” or for “distribution.” The drivers further contend that, although they do handle perishable foods, they do not engage in “packing” them. As a result, the drivers argue that, as employees who fall outside Exemption F, the Maine overtime law protects them. Oakhurst responds that the disputed words actually refer to two distinct exempt activities, with the first being “packing for shipment” and the second being “distribution.””

Opinion: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, The Supreme Court – The 1943 decision overturning compulsory flag pledges in public schools:

“It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings. There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origin of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. Authority here is to be controlled by public opinion, not public opinion by authority.

The case is made difficult not because the principles of its decision are obscure, but because the flag involved is our own. Nevertheless, we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. When they are so harmless to others or to the State as those we deal with here, the price is not too great. But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power, and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.

The decision of this Court in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, and the holdings of those few per curiam decisions which preceded and foreshadowed it, are overruled…”

The Top 25

In keeping with the formatting adopted by Kevin Kelly the number of stars represents the number of recommendations.

********** Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Esquire, April 1966 – Often considered the greatest magazine feature of all time. It’s significant in part because Talese was sent to profile Sinatra, but was not able to interview the subject of the profile. He was thus forced to interview a supporting cast of characters and observe Sinatra from a far. It’s well written, but perhaps my sensibilities have not yet developed to the point of fully appreciating its genius. I much prefer other pieces on this list.

********* Hunter S. Thompson, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” Scanlan’s Monthly, June 1970 – A simple assignment to cover the Kentucky Derby turns into a drug-induced haze.  The rumor is that Thompson, up against his deadline, started faxing over copies of his notes taken while high at the Derby. The result was the start of Gonzo journalism. I prefer this piece to Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing,” the writing and story are tighter. This is also Thompson’s first collaboration with Ralph Steadman, the brilliant cartoonist who would work with Thompson for the remainder of their careers.

********* Neal Stephenson, “Mother Earth, Mother Board: Wiring the Planet.” Wired, December 1996 – I was always curious about underwater cables. I just couldn’t believe we actually laid communication cables along the bottom of the ocean, because, like, the ocean is really deep. But we do! And this article tells you everything you will ever want to know about the process of laying these cables. It is long, but a really terrific read.

******* David Foster Wallace, “Federer As Religious Experience.” The New York Times, Play Magazine, August 20, 2006 – DFW attempts to describe the genius that is Roger Federer. If you like this article see also Wallace’s other famous piece on tennis, “The String Theory.” I liked both of these pieces, but prefer Wallace’s longer form pieces like “Shipping Out.”

******* David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster.” Gourmet Magazine, August 2004 – In the same way that Hunter S. Thompson was sent to cover the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly 35 years prior and unexpectedly came back with what would become the first ever piece of Gonzo Journalism (“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved“), Wallace was sent to cover the Maine Lobster Festival and returned to surprise readers with a thoughtful reflection on the ethics of eating lobster, down to the inner workings of the lobster’s neurological system. Remember again that this was published in Gourmet magazine! Few groups are likely to love lobster more than its readers.

****** John Updike, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” The New Yorker, October 22, 1960 – A very famous sports piece about Ted Williams’ last at bat.

***** Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” Rolling Stone. Part I: November 11, 1971; Part II: November 25, 1971 – The article that became a book. Thompson and his lawyer hit Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 desert rally. Mostly they just do drugs and wander around.

***** Richard Ben Cramer, “What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?Esquire, June 1986. Another very famous sports piece about Ted Williams. I actually prefer this piece to Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu. Made me wish I was there to witness his greatness.

**** Jon Krakauer, “Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds.” Outside Magazine, January 1993 – The article that became “Into the Wild.” I prefer this to Krakauer’s other famous piece, “Into Thin Air” (also on this list). It’s a wildly entertaining piece that also grapples with serious issues about the things we are all searching for in life.

**** Susan Orlean, “The American Man at Age Ten.” Esquire, December 1992. Susan Orlean’s endearing profile of Colin Duffy, a normal ten-year old boy living in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Perfectly captures the imagination and innocence of childhood and the particular realities that start to dawn on all ten-year olds. If you like this kind of thing check out “A Boy of Unusual Vision” about Calvin Stanley, a ten-year old blind boy in Baltimore. A classic from Alice Steinbach, it won her the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing. Or for something even more serious check out the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner in Feature Writing from Lane Degregory, “The Girl in the Window.” Be ready to cry.

**** Edward Jay Epstein, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?The Atlantic, February 1982 – Fascinating piece, perhaps less relevant in 2017, about why diamond’s value is so drastically different if you try to sell one as an individual. Tackles the DeBeer’s monopoly more broadly.

**** Ron Rosenbaum, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box.” Esquire, October 1971 – How an eclectic group of miscreants across the U.S. used various methods to hack telephone lines and get free long distance phone calls. Particularly fascinating if you are old enough to remember when landlines and not mobile phones were the norm. The cast of characters in this piece is just so interesting.

**** Tom Junod, “Can you say…”Hero”?” Esquire, November 1998 – A profile of Mr. Rogers that might just restore your faith in humanity. He really was a hero.

**** Michael Lewis, “The End.” Portfolio, November 11, 2008 – The article that eventually became “The Big Short.” A good piece that I liked, but didn’t love. I had to head to the library to read this piece.

*** George Plimpton, “The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch.” Sports Illustrated, April 1, 1985 – This piece is so amazing and enthralling, but note the date it was written.

*** David Foster Wallace, “Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise.” Harper’s Magazine, January 1996 – To me “Shipping Out” is peak DFW. It’s all on display, Wallace as the gonzo raconteurism, the erudite vocabulary, the nihilism, the portmanteaus (both literary and travel), the epic footnotes.

*** Jon Krakauer, “Into Thin Air.” Outside Magazine, September 1996 – The article that inspired the book. I prefer the article to the book actually. And because of its reduced length it reads much more like an adventure story.

*** Tom Junod, “The Falling Man.” Esquire, September 2003 – This was a reread for me. It’s about the search for one of the most iconic photos from 9-11, a man falling — seemingly with grace like a diver — from one of the top floors of the World Trade Center. Who was this man?

*** Gene Weingarten, “The Peekaboo Paradox.” The Washington Post, Sunday Magazine, January 22, 2006 – Truly fantastic profile of The Great Zucchini, a clown and children’s performer with some secrets.

*** David Foster Wallace, “Host.” The Atlantic, April 2005 – This piece grew on me, but I ended up really enjoying it. It’s a profile of John Ziegler, a Rush Limbaugh-style conservative talk radio host. This piece is expertly researched and has footnotes which sometimes have footnotes and sometimes even those footnotes have footnotes. I recommend reading all of these footnotes. The online version of this piece is out of order. You will start to read the online piece. Everything will seem fine. There are these high-tech expanding footnotes. Then at a certain point a passage stops mid-sentence and another passage begins. The print version is better for reading the footnotes anyway. I had to go photocopy the original from the library.

*** Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast.” The Washington Post, Magazine, April 8, 2007 – As the description goes in Kelly’s list for this piece, “Joshua Bell is one of the world’s greatest violinists. His instrument of choice is a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius. If he played it for spare change, incognito, outside a bustling Metro stop in Washington, would anyone notice?” This piece won Weingarten the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing.

*** Chris Jones, “The Things That Carried Him.” Esquire, May 2008 – As the description goes in Kelly’s list for this piece says, “It’s extremely moving without being saccharine or twee. It’s a military story, but utterly without jingoism or indictment. And it’s wonderfully observed.” This piece is told in reverse chronological order, which works perfectly. The care and honor with which the U.S. military treat their dead is really something to behold. It makes you wonder about what you want done with your own body after death.

*** Michael Lewis, “Wall Street on the Tundra.” Vanity Fair, April 2009 – Another piece I couldn’t find online and had to hit the library to read. An account of how tiny Iceland and its cast of characters found its way to the center of the global financial crisis. “This in a country the size of Kentucky, but with fewer citizens than greater Peoria, Illinois. Peoria, Illinois, doesn’t have global financial institutions, or a university devoting itself to training many hundreds of financiers, or its own currency. And yet the world was taking Iceland seriously.”

*** Gene Weingarten, “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?The Washington Post, March 8, 2009 – Weingarten won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for this piece. Accidentally leaving a child in the backseat of a car kills more children than you think. Often times the parent is prosecuted for child negligence. For many it doesn’t matter, their grief and regret is overwhelming. Others try to move on and use the tragedy as a tool for change. And if you think this can’t happen to you — that you would never forget your child — trying reading this piece and then see what you think.


The Firm as Economic Integrator


I once got paid $18 an hour to edit graduate papers for a year. I had some rules. One rule was that the quality of a paper was usually inversely related to the number of times the word “modalities” was used. If you’re using “modalities” you’re likely trying too hard. There’s a better way to say what you need to say. Too many grad students mimic Foucault. They don’t understand that Foucault was a great thinker, but not a great writer, at least if writing is meant to be read. Unfortunately, most graduate students seem to write to show other graduate students and their professors how smart they are. If they were actually smart they would take the time to learn how to write well.

If I use my own rules to judge the quality of this paper it doesn’t do so well. In addition to being poorly written, it doesn’t give due care to the economic sociology literature despite attempting to be an economic sociology paper. Use it as an example of how not to write.


I argue that the use of the phrase “the market” when defining and describing economic integration is both a rhetorical and logical mistake. That a more useful and accurate mode of thought is to envision the firm as the institution that generates exchange and acts as the epicenter of a broader, society-wide economic integration. I claim that this new theory allows for a better description of the real world. I conclude with a brief discussion of some applications.

Economic Integration

Traditional economic analysis has focused on “the market” as the name to describe the coming together and exchanging of goods by people throughout history, thereby subsuming economic integration within material exchange, what Mark Granovetter called “undersocialized” analysis (Granovetter 1985)[1]. Karl Polanyi reinterpreted the market process as what he termed, “instituted economic integration,” and attempted to extricate different types of integration across time and space that had become confounded by traditional analysis in the social sciences (Polanyi 1957). In doing so, Polanyi hoped to give a more nuanced view of the specific type of integration involved in the modern market, making analysis contingent on historical particularities.

Perhaps equally important as Polanyi’s primary argument that distinct modes of economic exchange have existed across time and space is the implication that economic exchange itself is a type of “integration.” It is a binding force that both carries with it a particular bundle of social relations and is itself embedded within an ongoing and evolving social context (for more on embeddedness see Granovetter 1985).

Whereas Polanyi’s project was an attempt at moving away from the market to a more macohistorical view that allowed for “the market” to become referable in a context outside of itself, I suggest moving to a more microeconomic-sociological context where the firm is viewed as the main actor in analysis of economic integration.

“The Market” – A Rhetorical (and Logical) Mistake

One key problem in traditional economic analysis is a rhetorical one: the variegated meaning of the term “market.” It wants to mean so many things. On one hand it is a higgle-haggle style bazaar; on another it is a once-a-week pop-up style gathering where people sell trinkets or flowers or banjos made of cigar boxes; on yet another it is the corner grocer (as in “I’m going to the market to buy some milk”); and on still another it is the “marketplace” of ideas. We could continue: labor markets, stock markets, commodity markets, currency markets. What all of these types of “markets” have in common is that they haven’t change much over time (aside from technology perhaps). Further, they all invoke images in which half of the parties have something to sell and the other half have the money to buy, and each is in a sort of dance looking to find their perfect partner and make an exchange.

It is no surprise then given these uses of the term “market,” that the phrase “Market Economy” or “Free Market” conjures visions of people moving freely about their daily business, at some times buying certain goods while neglecting others (thereby creating “demand crowds”) and at other times working in some business or another for production (thereby creating “supply crowds”). The problem is that what constitutes the economic component of one’s daily life has changed greatly over time, and so the term presuppose a certain generality that is at odds with particular historical episodes. This is not simply true across “modern” and “pre-modern” societies, but within modernity itself. One example is what Alfred Chandler chronicled in his book The Visible Hand (Chandler 1977).

Chandler outlines roughly two periods. The first, 1790 up until the 1840s, was a period of increased specialization—a movement from general merchants to specialized enterprises. “In the 1790s…[the merchant] carried out all the basic commercial functions. He was an exporter, wholesaler, importer, retailer, shipowner, banker, and insurer. By the 1840’s, however, such tasks were being carried out by different types of specialized enterprises (Chandler 1977 pg. 15).” In the second period, 1850 to the post-WWII era, Chandler recounts the rise of the managerial firm, starting with the railroads. “A small number of large, managerially administered enterprises replaced a large number of the small personally run transportation, shipping, and mercantile firms that had previously carried goods from one transshipment point to another (Chandler 1977 pg. 122).” This required “a type of cooperation between business enterprises [that] was an entirely new phenomenon (Chandler 1977 pg. 123).”

So by the late 1860’s there had emerged a type of managerial firm with new organizational structures, interfirm connections, and social relations. Chandler’s project is to show the significant ways in which these firms changed over time. Indeed, the types of firm structures, interfirm connections, and social relations that were present in 1860, or even in 1960, cannot be assumed in whole to describe the firms of 2011 because they simply do not. This profound evolution, however, is obfuscated by deference to “the market” as the main driver of economic integration. In each epoch, then and now, market mechanisms were at work determining prices and allocating resources (with varying degrees of government intervention). But this processes is quite different than the one of economic integration—the means by which one satisfies material wants within a social context because the social context itself has changed. So too has the variety and type of goods available for material want drastically increased. These two subjects—satisfaction of material wants and the social context in which it takes place—are the two components that make up economic integration.

Aggregation of economic integration to the market level can at most tell us that social relations are transmitted during exchange, but tells us very little about the nature of the specific relations involved or how they might have changed over time. It can tell us that reciprocity and redistribution involved different social relations than the modern system, but leaves to the imagination a richer description. Shifting the focus of economic integration from the aggregated marketplace to the firm level can solve this problem.

The Firm as Economic Integrator

Focusing on the firm as the economic integrator has two logical underpinnings. In the first place, firms are the engine of the market, fueling both the supply of, and demand for, the panoply of exchangeable goods and services. Whereas in past societies, as Polanyi demonstrated, forms of redistribution or reciprocity might have been the means to satisfy material wants, in a modern society individuals integrate via firms—they both purchase goods from firms and simultaneously act as producers for firms to earn income.

In the second, the parallel rise of capitalism and the managerial firm, has created a new component of identity that was previously nonexistent (or at least extant in a very different form). And so firms more clearly identify and delineate the social relations involved in economic exchange than does “the market.” In short, people don’t identify much with the statement, “I am an actor in the broader market economy.” However, they might very much identify with the statement, “I’ve been an engineer at The Boeing Company for twenty-five years.”

Along with the rise of capitalism (both pre- and post-industrial) there has been a parallel increase in the division of labor, in employment specialization, and, since 1850, in the proliferation of the managerial firm. One effect has been a perpetual increase in the choice of goods available to consumers (so great that it led psychologist Barry Schwartz to coin the term “The Paradox of Choice”(Schwartz 2004)). So while in 1790, as Chandler notes, families self-produced much of their own goods themselves, as the choice and complexity of goods has increased it is all but impossible to satisfy material wants alone, or even in a small group. Thus there has been a simultaneous increase in material wants and a decrease in the ability for self-production. This is not to say that the material well-being of consumers has suffered as a result—quite the opposite. It is simply to point out that this process has resulted in the rise of the firm as the central node of economic integration.

The Firm as the Engine

We can see the importance of the firm in satisfying material wants by briefly examining the broader context of the economy. First, let us turn our attention to the National Income Identity:

Y = C + I + G + (X-IM)

That is, the demand for aggregate products and services, and indeed any particular product or service, is given by the sum of the demand from consumers (C), from firms (here ‘I’ stands for firm Investment), and from government (G). The notation (X-IM) simply denotes the net sum of exports minus imports. Exports are generated at the firm level as supply to those outside a particular geo-political region, and imports are the demand for goods and services, themselves provided by outside firms. So ‘X-IM’ and ‘I’ clearly emanate from the firm, but so does demand from consumers (C) since their wages also originate at the firm level. Government may seem exempt from our calculation, but anything more than a cursory glance will reveal that: (a) much government spending redounds upon firms, and (b) government accrues tax revenue from wages, again paid by firms. This is not to say government has no part to play in the economy, indeed they are likely the institution with the most important role.

This is simply to say that firms are the dominant player in economic integration (a more complete theory will need to further examine the roll of government in economic integration, but this is a project for a later date).

Integration from the supply side is even more evident. If supply does not come from firms, from where does it originate? It is true that a very small number of individuals create products originating from their household and attempt to sell them at some sort of common marketplace shop. But the key is to recognize that these exchanges that are economically integrated outside of the firm-based market are but a patina of dust on the rich and gargantuan tapestry of exchange that takes place with the firm at its center. To imply that the amorphous “market” is the key economic integrating force is to overlook the firm as the very institutional social structure that acts as the engine of the market, providing both goods and services and the means to purchase them.

The Firm and Identity

The interconnectedness of firms and social identity is perhaps best demonstrated when discussing individuals who are economically disintegrated. Those with reduced economic integration define themselves, and are defined by others, by their exclusion from the firm. For example, the “unemployed”—the population that is looking to find a job. Where? With a firm. Discouraged workers—the group that has given up hope. Of what? Of finding a job with a firm. Retired persons—what have they retired from? From working for a firm. How do they live? From pensions, Social Security, 401Ks, or savings, all of which were accumulated during work with a firm. Informal workers—what do they do? The same sort of work that could be done by a firm, but usually for less money and often for friends or family.

We have touched thus far mostly on pecuniary matters, but it is important to remember that each of these transactions carry with them a set of social relations. This is the entire purpose of focusing on integration rather than simply exchange. The focus thus far has simply been to reconceive economic integration away from “the market” and to point out that while it may be a useful rhetorical device for discussing the mechanism of resource allocation, it is a silly way to discuss economic integration. We now turn our focus to the matter of social relations by embarking on two applications of our new theory.


Having severed our old definition and created a new one we must now discuss its implications.

Using this new theory we can make one immediate addendum to traditional economics and the so-called Theory of Value. Since the Marginal Revolution, traditional economics has theorized that value is determined when prices are transmitted back through the chain of production. Every purchase at the margin accrues with every other purchase, aggregately creating a demand for a good or service and imputing down through the chain of production the value of all resources required to render the good (in competition with all other final goods that require each of the same inputs). In this way the supply and demand for final goods also determines the value of both intermediate goods (including labor) and natural resources.

By analyzing economic integration at the firm level we see that an additional process is at work. Since social relations are also interconnected within the firm structure it is clear that along with price is a transmission of a dyad of social relations. First, an imputation of the value of both the resources and the social relations that acted together towards production. Since certain social structures within firms are more effective at producing particular goods than others, both act together towards production and so both are rewarded at purchase. This is one mechanism, but not the only, whereby social relations become embedded. Second, as Mark Granovetter referenced (see Granovetter 1985), empirical studies have shown that supplier-buyer relationships are often very social. These relationships, then, are also affected by imputation since interfirm contact is, at least to some extant, reliant on factors such as sales, new order shipments, and price changes. Consequently there is both an intrafirm and interfirm component of the social relation transmission when our new framework is applied to the traditional Theory of Value.

Let’s look more closely at the supply side social relations we just discussed, that is, the relations within firms. As economic integration has grown to be primarily instituted in the firm, and as firms have grown, it has engendered new types of social structures and redistributed power relations.

With the growth of larger firms dominated by managers power and obedience have evolved. The relations within firms are complex and cannot receive a full treatment here. However, it is clear that sometimes economic considerations dominate behavior within firms (as New Institutional Economics might predict) while at others they are subservient to social relations (as Economic Sociology argues). One obvious change chronicled by Chandler and illuminated by the latter field has been the increase in the types of organizational roles within firms. This process has redistributed power, but not in the way one might think.

In Why People Obey professors Gary Hamilton and Nicole Biggart use empirical data from organizational behavioral studies to argue convincingly that it is the organizational structures themselves that have power (Hamilton and Biggart 1985). Neither managers nor their superiors can act belligerently, not simply because of supervision and discipline from above, but because power and legitimacy themselves stem from gaining the respect of others within the firm. All employees, then, must role-play according to the requirements of their position. It is the structure and nature of these games where power and discipline originate.

But with the rise of the managerial firm there has also been a rise of rationality so that the roles to be played quite frequently impose a discipline of bureaucracy and ordinality: there must always be a process and steps must be taken in seriatim; all problems have solutions that can and must be solved, in one way or another. So there is an environment of achievement, of surpassing difficulties, of extraordinary reason. There are deep social norms that both reproduce those present in the larger society and are created emergently by the processes of the firm itself, projecting back upon society the logics of its inner culture.

The important factor is that these structures of power and obedience are markedly different than those that were present during the 1860s when the first managerial firms emerged. There were various types of firm arrangements in place as industrial capitalism began to develop and so too was there a method to satisfy material wants and an accompanying social structure—an economic integration. Importantly, though, these firm arrangements and their resulting forms of economic integration have been superseded since the rise of capitalism with the managerial firm and its new type of economic integration. But even these managerial firms have continued to change, along with society, itself and so the story continues. To say that “the market” was at work throughout this historical episode tells us nothing about the evolution of these social relations or the vastly different ways individuals have come to satisfy their material wants. A different model must be used, one centered on the firm itself.

Yet another application of our theory is to the drastic change in the way consumers purchase goods. Indeed, 2011 was a record setting year for online sales (BusinessInsider). As technology continues to usher in new methods of interfacing with firms, material wants will continue to be satisfied outside of traditional social settings. Standard economic analysis would examine this phenomenon only superficially, but a firm based theory of economic integration would allow an exploration of both the economic and sociological implications including the way firm structure, interfirm connections, and social relations might adapt to this change (again I leave this project for a later date).


We started by noting that economic integration is a particular view of exchange that is different than that normally analyzed by traditional economics. Some problems with this view were discussed, perhaps stemming from the mixed meaning of the word “market”, resulting in a poor framework if one wishes to discuss economic integration (as oppose to other types of economic analyses where the market level might be appropriate).

A new framework was proposed that uses “the firm” loosely defined as the main source of economic integration. We put to the side the interesting and larger question of how changes in firm structure that accompanied the rise of capitalism have influenced different types of economic integration over time. Instead, we focused only on the structure of managerial firms after the change has been “completed” (the process, of course, is ongoing).

Finally, two brief applications of the new theory were discussed. The first combined economic integration and the neo-classical Theory of Value, and showed that both value (in the monetary sense) and social relations were imputed with the purchase of goods. The second example demonstrated one area, power relations, where a change in economic integration has resulted in a change in power relations.

Herein has been a cursory treatment of this topic. The theory most certainly needs refined and must be subjected to a broader set of historical episodes and processes and must be examined to see if it holds up to more rigorous empirical analysis.


[1] As Granovetter demonstrates, even fields such as New Institutional Economics use a sort of robotic view of human behavior rooted in assumptions of behavior that stem from years of the economics discipline focusing on “the market.”


Anon. US Online Sales Reached A Record $6 Billion Last Week – Business Insider.

Chandler, Alfred. 1977. The visible hand: the managerial revolution in American business. Cambridge  Mass.: Belknap Press.

Granovetter, Mark. 1985. “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91 (3) (November 1): 481-510.

Hamilton, Gary G., and Nicole Woolsey Biggart. 1985. “Why People Obey: Theoretical Observations on Power and Obedience in Complex Organizations.” Sociological Perspectives 28 (1) (January 1): 3-28.

Polanyi, Karl. 1957. Trade and market in the early empires  economies in history and theory,. Glencoe  Ill.: Free Press.

Schwartz, Barry. 2004. The paradox of choice: why more is less. 1st ed. New York: Ecco.


The Future of the Greek Economy


I wrote this paper as part of an intentional finance class I took from UW’s school of public affairs. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written, but there’s some decent analysis in it. I wrote it before I learned Adobe Illustrator so there are some pretty ridiculous looking graphics. As I remember, we were suppose to put ourselves in the place of a policy advisor. The heading for mine was “Report for Mr. Yiannis Stournaras, Greek Minister of Finance.”

Executive Summary and Problem Statement

On Thursday, 2 August 2012 Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank (ECB), held his latest press conference. “The euro is irreversible,” he said, “It stays…It is pointless to bet against the euro.”[1] However, Mr. Draghi also made it clear that the continued flow of funds to troubled countries would come with requirements for economic reform.[2] While he did not announce immediate ECB action, Draghi did state that in upcoming weeks the ECB would begin the purchase of short-term Greek bonds in a continued effort to help the Greek economy.

However, the austerity measures that have been required by the ECB, and by its informal umbrella institution, the Troika, have been unpopular with the Greek people. In addition to austerity, two economic alternatives have been suggested in recent months – internal devaluation and an exit from the Eurozone – each claiming to provide the best chance of resolving the now five-year long Greek recession. Is continued Troika assistance really the best alternative?

This report will outline four possible policy options for the Greek government moving forward. Included is one package of reforms that are recommended independent of the other three policy options:

  • Maintaining the status quo and accepting Troika assistance
  • Leaving the Eurozone and returning to the Greek drachma
  • Defaulting on the current debt obligations

None of these solutions is perfect and all of them will require sacrifice and, likely, economic hardship in the short term. They also have varying degrees of political and social feasibility. After a detailed analysis it seems clear that the least harmful path is indeed Troika assistance including some form of austerity reforms. However, as will be suggested in the concluding recommendation, these reforms could possibly be restructured by negotiating with Troika officials. As unpopular as austerity has been with the Greek populace, other policy options would likely turn out to be equally unpopular and have the additional effect of hurting political relations between Greece and the rest of Europe.

The stakeholder positions of the various groups involved in the Greek debt crisis are shown in the stakeholder map below. Note two things. First, the interests of the stakeholders are far from aligned. Second, these are the interests as they stand today. Hedge funds, for instance, having already locked in their investment portfolio with Greek debt, care about full repayment and little else. Meanwhile, the interest of the Troika and various European countries are more complex.

This is not to say that these are the interest as they should be. For instance, Greece should probably shift some portion of its interest away from maintaining Greek entitlement payments and toward more governmental and business reforms. The discussion in this report will make this point clear.




The current crisis in Greece is a confluence of factors including steadily increasing public debt, stagnant government revenue, large public sector obligations, a history of government corruption and low transparency, a poor business environment, all combined with a European-wide slowdown in output.

Greece enjoyed fairly strong growth from 2001 through 2007, but has been very hard hit in the years since the Euro crisis started. Problems worsened throughout 2009 and 2010 with the release of a series of budget deficit revisions, most notably a change in the 2009 figure, which began at 3.7% of GDP[3] and eventually topped out at 15.4%.[4]

This only increased suspicions of Greek corruption in a country that already ranked among the lowest countries in all of continental Europe in the Corruption Perceptions Index. Indeed, Greece’s ranking steadily decreased between 2009 and 2011.[5]


Unfortunately, Greece could ill afford such budget deficits, which added to an already mounting public debt that peaked at 167% of GDP in 2010. Government revenue, meanwhile, remained stagnate, hovering around 40% of GDP since 2001.[6]

Rather than decline, however, government expenditures have increased since 2008 from 45% to 50% of GDP.[7] This is a result of a shrinkage in GDP from the Greek recession, combined with a failure to adequately cut expenditures accordingly. A significant portion of government expenditure has been dedicated toward public employment and support programs. For instance, one report found that before the required ECB reforms, “On average, Greeks retired at 58 years old and received 96% of pre-retirement income.”[8]

As the Greek crisis worsened three financial institutions came together in what has become known as the Troika. These are the European Council, the ECB, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Troika release two separate bailout funds: €110 billion in May of 2010 and a second €130 billion package in February of 2012.[9] All told, Greece debt stands at €356 billion.[10]

This brief history demonstrates the enormity of the problem facing Greece today. The following sections will discuss four separate policy options with the first being a set of necessary general reforms.

General Reforms

The current Troika loans are contingent on political and economic reforms that can be separated into two types. One type is a contentious set of so-called “internal devaluation” reforms. The other set contains a sensible set of government and business reforms that are long overdue. These should be undertaken regardless of the broader economic measures that will be discussed in the next part of this report. The Greek economy cannot plunge into a five-year recession and experience two elections in 2012 alone, only to keep things as they have been.

Tax reform

Tax payment is notoriously lax in Greece. Only about 25% of the €40 billion owed in taxes are collected annually.[11] The government can ill afford the loss of so much potential revenue in the middle of the worst debt crisis the country has ever seen. One option is to moderately reduce taxes, but drastically increase collection from 25% closer to the averages seen in most developed economies, thereby increasing government revenues while simultaneously giving concessions to tax payers.

Improved transparency

Greek political transparency must improve for its economic situation to improve. Greek government corruption has cost the country dearly, especially the fiscal budget deficits that were repeatedly covered up, leading to artificially high investment in Greece and worsening the credit situation. Implementation of consistent long-term measures to improve transparency and fiscal reporting will help restart foreign direct investment in Greece, but at levels that are commensurate with its true financial condition.

Business reform

Greece ranked 100 on the 2012 World Bank Doing Business Index. This is an extremely low ranking for a country of Greece’s stature and represents the significant challenges to starting and efficiently running a business in the country. The good news is that many other countries have made quick and substantial progress in reforming their own business environment. Such reform is necessary if Greece is to spur domestic and international investment, and would likewise improve the fortunes of the Greek people – 99.9% of businesses in Greece are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).[12]

The government must also continue the fight against widespread abuse by business cartels. These cartels have caused prices in Greece to continue to rise even as the economy has shrunk by 13%.[13] This hurts consumers and limits the flexibility of government policy.

Benefits cuts

Public wages rose 50% between 1999 and 2007[14], an extraordinary rate. Cutting wages is a different discussion, but stopping the disproportionate increase in public sector wages is a necessary step to help stem the chronic deficit problem.

Keeping with the Status Quo

The first option is to maintain the current plan of receiving Troika bailouts and move forward with economic reforms. Again, one set of Troika requirements discussed above is necessary regardless of whether the rest of the bailout package reforms are accepted.

The second set of bailout reforms, geared toward creating a so-called “internal devaluation,” are more politically and socially contentious. The difficulty of these reforms has already come to light. After the June passage of an austerity package expected to save €28 billion, two days of violent riots ensued during which 300 protesters and police were injured.[15] Yet as of 4 August 2012 only 100 of the required 300 reforms had been completed.[16] Some of these are not set to take effect until 2013 or ‘14 and further Troika funding is unavailable until all 300 reforms are in place. Given the already widespread public discontent of the limited reform measures that have been enacted, when the full set are completely implemented public discontent is likely to grow, possibly resulting in further violence.

An internal devaluation uses internal structural changes to a country’s economic system in an effort to reduce production costs, and through this channel prices for goods. This improves competitiveness in world markets and increases exports, thereby spurring economic growth. As growth increases and public debts are reduced, the structural changes can be slowly reversed.

There are two possible methods to impose an internal devaluation. The first is a mandated decrease in wages, while the second uses adjustments to payroll and value added taxes (VAT).

In first the method, wages are reduced, inducing a recession, but lowering production costs and increasing exports, eventually reversing the recession and restarting economic growth. This strategy is not unprecedented as a solution to the worldwide financial crisis. Estonia embarked on such a path throughout the past few years. In Estonia, internal devaluation led to 2010 GDP growth of 2.3%; by 2011 growth stood at an impressive 7.5%![17] Additionally, public debt in Estonia is now far below any other Euro country. However, it is important to remember that the political and social situation in Estonia is far different than that in Greece.

Growth did come in Estonia, but it was preceded by several years of economic hardship as its leaders refused to borrow and instead fought to keep government spending low. Initially, GDP dropped by over 14% in 2009 and unemployment hit 16%.[18] Estimated GDP loss for Greece is 15.8% if the current internal devaluation measures continue, but could be much worse.[19] Unemployment in Greece is already 22% and could easily slip even higher if events in Estonia are a precedent. Nevertheless, it is this first method that the Troika has so far favored.

The second method of devaluation is to encourage exports more “stealthily” by increasing the VAT and decreasing payroll taxes.[20]  This second method keeps wages at their current levels while also keeping operating revenue roughly the same (since income taxes are unchanged). At the same time the lower payroll tax decreases production costs significantly – in Greece the employer contributes 28% of wages toward such taxes.[21] Additionally, a higher VAT discourages consumption of imports leading to a positive balance of trade. The hope is that in the long run payroll taxes can rebound or other forms of public support can be found to recoup the necessary short-term loss to the social security fund, eventually refilling the fund before permanent cuts to entitlements are required. This second method seems to be more politically and social feasible, but would require a renegotiation of the bailout reforms as they currently stand.

Troika action has by no means been all bad, however. Greek banks have been heavily reliant on the ECB for liquidity during the crisis and even during the pre-crisis era 2.5% of Greek GDP came from EU transfer payments.[22] Additionally, the recent ECB announcement of the purchase of short-term Greek debt seems reasonable given the extraordinary increase in Greek two-year bond yields. Combined with the €240 billion in bailout funds and consistently strong rhetoric of Euro survival, it seems clear that overall the Troika is committed to seeing Greece, and indeed the Eurozone, succeed. Likewise, austerity is not an unreasonable reform considering the state of Greek public debt, revenue, and expenditure. Austerity of some kind will be required, although the degree and form it takes may be able be negotiated with the Troika.


Leaving the Eurozone

Leaving the Eurozone would involve a return to the drachma and subsequent currency devaluation. Greek exports would increase and this would improve economic prospects in the medium and long run. Again, in the short term a recession is likely since domestic wealth and savings are decreased by the devaluation at the same time that imports would become more expensive. As a result, aggregate demand would likely fall in the immediate aftermath of the devaluation. This is somewhat offset, however, by an increase in exports and tourism in the short run, and in the long run it is suggested that these two factors would together pull the country out of the recession and restore long-term economic growth.

Additionally, a move to the drachma would mean an increase in the debt overhang – the amount of debt that Greece owes to foreign creditors. This increase is due to the fact that most Greek debt is denominated in foreign currencies and so cannot be devalued along with the domestic currency. Additionally, this foreign denomination means the debt cannot be “inflated away” with loose monetary policy after a return to the drachma as is true when debt is domestically held or otherwise denominated in the domestic currency.

An analogy to Iceland is instructive as to the possible consequences of increased debt overhang. In 2008 Iceland began a devaluation of its currency, the Krona. As the chart below demonstrates, the external debt shot up to roughly three times its previous levels.


Greece would have to either negotiate a payment of its debts in drachma – at an unfavorable drachma to Euro exchange rate – or purchase Euro itself on the open market in order to repay its obligations. Obviously, this would be a great burden on the Greek economy. One option that could be used in conjunction with an exit from the Eurozone is a debt default, which will be discussed in the next section. If Greece chooses not to default, it would have to service its debt at regular intervals, which would entail a substantial regular payment from Greece to its creditors.

This increase in debt must be weighed against the simultaneous increase in Greek tourism and exports. After its devaluation, for instance, Iceland was considered a “bargain” as a travel destination.[23] A full quarter of Greek GDP comes from tourism[24] and a significant increase in tourism could indeed be great news for growth. This is especially true if a return to the drachma is viewed by the Greek people as a superior policy, and therefore leads to more social and political stability and an end to rioting and protests, which otherwise would most certainly discourage tourism.

On the whole, however, the merits of a devaluation may be less significant than has been suggested in other reports. Imports account for 30% of Greek GDP and are mostly inelastic – goods that customers are reluctant to cut back on even if they increase in price – such as oil, food, and pharmaceuticals.[25] Exports, meanwhile, only account for 25% of GDP; and some major export industries, such as shipping, are dollar denominated and therefore immune from a drachma devaluation and its otherwise lowering of prices.[26] Together, this may mean that the relatively more expensive imports caused by a devaluation outweigh the benefits of cheaper exports, perhaps making the economic situation worse, not better.

Lastly, the logistics of a Eurozone exit are challenging, but certainly not impossible. First, Greece would have to take a so-called “banking holiday,” temporarily freezing the banking sector to stop capital from leaving the country in anticipation of a drachma reinstatement. Next, over a period of several days the government would set an exchange rate and redenominate the banking sector into drachma. After banks reopened, Greek citizens could go to any branch and exchange their Euro for drachma, which the government would have to print and distribute to banks. Producers would also have to update all of their prices in terms of drachma.

Loan Default

A third option is a loan default. Under this plan, Greece would decide not to pay back any of its debts, or, alternatively, pay back carefully selected loans – perhaps those held domestically, for instance – thereby reducing public debt substantially. This plan is not an option if continued Troika funding is desired and in practice it would likely be combined with a Eurozone exit and drachma devaluation.

A more ideal option would be to structure a large-scale debt write down, but such a debt restructuring already took place in March of 2012 when private bond holders of Greek debt voluntarily agreed to take a 53% loss totaling €105 billion.[27] It is unlikely, then, that there is remaining low-hanging fruit, as it were, when it comes to renegotiating debt. Pay back or complete default seem to be the only two possible scenarios at the moment.

The obvious benefit of this approach is the drastic reduction of the large Greek debt. Combined with a currency devaluation, it would avoid the debt overhang problem and provide an opportunity for economic recovery. Such a strategy would drastically increase the cost of borrowing, however, and would shut Greece out of international lending markets for several years at a minimum.

The reason a Eurozone exit is inevitable under a default is simple. Suppose for a moment that Greece did not exit the Euro. Since revenues are not yet covering government expenditures, and because borrowing would no longer be an option, a default would mandate immediate measures to balance the budget. This would entail either raising taxes, laying off public sector workers, cutting welfare benefits, or some combination of the three.[28] Greek banks would also loose Eurozone loan support, resulting in a failure to recapitalize and insolvency, quickly leading to a large number of bank failures.[29] Together these factors would induce a deep recession and would likely result in widespread riots and violence.[30] However, combined with a return to the drachma and devaluation, these events could be avoided or dampened.[31] However, this plan is still subject to the economic weaknesses of a return to the drachma that were outlined in the previous section.

There are other concerns in defaulting as well. A default would likely hurt political relationships with other European countries. A substantial amount of Greek debt is held either by other European governments or by private banks in European countries. Together US$44.3 billion is held in France, US$13.3 billion in Germany, US$10.5 billion in the UK, and combined Italy, Switzerland, and Span hold approximately US$5 billion.[32] Defaulting on those creditors would undoubtedly cause negative shocks throughout their national economies, and the move would be seen as fiscally irresponsible, perhaps even leading to a breakdown of normalized political relations with other members of the EU.

Lastly, a default might also mean the seizure of Greek assets abroad as foreign governments, private banks, and, especially, hedge funds – which also hold several billion in Greek debt – attempt to recoup their losses.[33] Some hedge funds, known colloquially as “vulture funds,” make seizing assets an explicit strategy.[34] And seizures are quite common throughout history having occurred in other sovereign defaults involving Brazil, Peru, Liberia, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name just a few.[35]


Ultimately, remaining with the status quo appears to be the most politically feasible policy available and offers the best chance at economic success. The New Democracy Party, which was elected 17 June 2012, ran on a pro-bailout platform and garnered the highest percentage of votes from the Greek electorate.[36] Investors worldwide reacted positively to this news[37] and it is important to continue to demonstrate political follow-through and stability going forward by keeping with the policy platform on which the party was elected.

Thus far, riots, sometimes violent, have not been uncommon. But the Troika is likely sensitive to the political stability of Greece and does not desire nationwide Greek violence any more than the incumbent Greek government. If discontent among Greeks grows to the point that the radical Syriza party – which has a contentious relationship with the rest of Europe[38] – is likely to win election, or, worse, a coup is forecast, the Troika would likely be willing to postpone or reduce austerity measures. In the end, of course, some austerity is necessary for the Greek economy to recover. Likewise patronage, business cartels, and government corruption must be rolled back. All of these measures will temporarily hurt some segment of the Greek populace, but in exchange long-term economic health is likely to be stronger. It is up to Greek politicians to sell this idea to the people.

The Troika and individual European nations, most notably, Germany, do not always agree on the best European-wide economic policy. However, in the final analysis they are both committed to Greek success. A Greek default or Eurozone exit would ripple throughout Europe, causing investor panic in Spain, Italy, and Portugal, eventually spreading to France and Germany.[39] For this reason, Greece has some leverage over the Troika and can perhaps use this power to negotiate a reduced set of austerity requirements. Specifically, an internal devaluation using the VAT and payroll tax method is politically and socially preferable to the Troika’s current wage reduction plan. One further suggestion, then, is to take this change to the Troika using Greek social resistance and possible riots as leverage.

Whatever happens, Greece has a tough line to walk between the desires of the Greek people and the reforms proposed by the Troika. This line, though, is still preferable to Greece turning its back on the rest of Europe as would be necessary in a return to the drachma or currency devaluation. In this particular case, what is best for the Eurozone is what is also best for the Greek government and people.

Charts and Graphs

All charts and graphs besides the Stakeholder map, which I created, are sourced from Wikipedia.


[1] Jones, Johnson, and Watkins, “Draghi Kills Hope of Instant Action.”

[2] “Draghi’s Bold Move in Euro Chess Game.”

[3] Catao, Fostel, and Ranciere, “Fiscal Discoveries, Stops and Defaults.”

[4] Jolly, “2009 Greek Deficit Revised Higher.”

[5] “Transparency International – Country Profiles.”

[6] Eurostat, “Government Revenue, Expenditure and Main Aggregates.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Roscini, Schlefer, and Dimitriou, “The Greek Crisis: Tragedy or Opportunity?”.

[9] The Associated Press, “Key Dates in Greece’s Debt Crisis.”

[10] “Q&A.”

[11] “The Greek Economy.”

[12] Hyz, “Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Greece – Barriers in Access to Banking Services. An Empirical Investigation.”

[13] “The Greek Economy.”

[14] “Q&A.”

[15] The Associated Press, “Key Dates in Greece’s Debt Crisis.”

[16] “The Greek Economy.”

[17] Greeley, “Krugmenistan Vs. Estonia.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Weisbrot and Montecino, “More Pain, No Gain for Greece.”

[20] Editors, “Greece’s Least Bad Option Looks to Be Internal Devaluation.”

[21] Wikipedia contributors, “Taxation in Greece.”

[22] “Greece.”

[23] “With Devaluation of the Krona, Iceland Is Now a Hot Spot.”

[24] “Greece.”

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Wikipedia contributors, “Greek Government-debt Crisis.”

[28] Giles, Birkett, and Jones, “Consequences of a Greek Eurozone Exit.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “Q&A.”

[33] “Greece.”

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Brown, “Greek Elections.”

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Giles, Birkett, and Jones, “Consequences of a Greek Eurozone Exit.”


Brown, Abram. “Greek Elections: Investors, Take A Moment To Cheer Pro-Bailout Party’s Victory – Forbes.” Forbes, June 17, 2012.

Catao, L., A. Fostel, and R. Ranciere. “Fiscal Discoveries, Stops and Defaults.” (2011).

“Draghi’s Bold Move in Euro Chess Game.” Financial Times, August 2, 2012.,Authorised=false.html?

Editors, the. “Greece’s Least Bad Option Looks to Be Internal Devaluation: View.” Bloomberg, n.d.

Eurostat. “Government Revenue, Expenditure and Main Aggregates”, n.d.,C,X,0;GEO,L,Y,0;UNIT,L,Z,0;SECTOR,L,Z,1;INDIC_NA,L,Z,2;INDICATORS,C,Z,3;&zSelection=DS-054156UNIT,PC_GDP;DS-054156INDICATORS,OBS_FLAG;DS-054156INDIC_NA,B9;DS-054156SECTOR,S13;&rankName1=SECTOR_1_2_-1_2&rankName2=INDIC-NA_1_2_-1_2&rankName3=INDICATORS_1_2_-1_2&rankName4=UNIT_1_2_-1_2&rankName5=TIME_1_0_0_0&rankName6=GEO_1_2_0_1&pprRK=FIRST&pprSO=PROTOCOL&ppcRK=FIRST&ppcSO=ASC&sortC=ASC_-1_FIRST&rStp=&cStp=&rDCh=&cDCh=&rDM=true&cDM=true&footnes=false&empty=false&wai=false&time_mode=ROLLING&lang=EN&cfo=%23%23%23%2C%23%23%23.%23%23%23.

Giles, Chris, Russell Birkett, and Cleve Jones. “Consequences of a Greek Eurozone Exit.” Financial Times, May 21, 2012.

“Greece: Better To Stay Put In Euro?” Seeking Alpha, n.d.

“Greece: Here Come the Vulture Funds.” The Guardian, May 17, 2012.

Greeley, Brendan. “Krugmenistan Vs. Estonia.” BusinessWeek: Global_economics, July 20, 2012.

Hyz, Alina. “Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Greece – Barriers in Access to Banking Services. An Empirical Investigation.” International Journal of Business and Social Science 2, no. 2 (February 2011).

Jolly, David. “2009 Greek Deficit Revised Higher.” The New York Times, November 15, 2010, sec. Business Day / Global Business.

Jones, Claire, Miles Johnson, and Mary Watkins. “Draghi Kills Hope of Instant Action.” Financial Times, August 2, 2012.,Authorised=false.html?

“Q&A: Greek Debt Crisis.” BBC, June 18, 2012, sec. Business.

Roscini, Dante, Jonathan Schlefer, and Konstantinos Dimitriou. “The Greek Crisis: Tragedy or Opportunity?” Harvard Business School, September 16, 2011.

The Associated Press. “Key Dates in Greece’s Debt Crisis.” BusinessWeek: Undefined, June 15, 2012.

“The Greek Economy: Promises, Promises.” The Economist, August 4, 2012.

“Transparency International – Country Profiles”, n.d.

Weisbrot, M., and J. A. Montecino. “More Pain, No Gain for Greece: Is the Euro Worth the Costs of Pro-Cyclical Fiscal” (2012).

Wikipedia contributors. “Greek Government-debt Crisis.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., August 10, 2012.

———. “Taxation in Greece.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., August 3, 2012.

“With Devaluation of the Krona, Iceland Is Now a Hot Spot.” U-T San Diego, n.d.


Whose Reality Counts?: Fifteen Years Later


This one goes out to all the feminists out there. I wrote this as part of a development management class, thus the frequent digressions into development economics. I don’t necessarily agree with everything I’ve written here – Ed Glaser is one of my favorite economists, for instance; he was integral in revitalizing the field of urban economics. That said, it’s an important exercise to take a point of view when writing, especially if it’s not your own. Far too many people vacillate or pull punches and it makes their writing weak. Be bold people.

Whose Reality Counts?: Fifteen Years Later

“There is but one social science,” economist George Stigler is reported to have once said, “and we are its practitioners.” Though Stigler meant his statement as a slight at the qualitative nature of economics’ “softer” alternatives, the “we” in his pithy remark can also double to mean “we men,” a distinction that has been borne out by a long history of female exclusion from the social sciences in general and from economics in particular.

The three themes embedded in Stigler’s remark – (1) the promotion of economics as the pinnacle of social science research employing (2) rigorous measurement and mathematical analysis thereby unconsciously resulting in (3) women having lower status within the profession – though not first identified by Robert Chambers, were perhaps best articulated by him. These ideas were included as part of his bigger project on professionalization within the social sciences and the need for participatory practices in development, which were collectively formalized in his late ‘90s work Whose Reality Counts?

It would be pleasant to believe that in the fifteen years since Chambers’ book was first released the social sciences have “learned their lesson,” lead by an infusion of humility and inclusion within the economics profession. Unfortunately, Chambers’ critiques can be levied just as easily today as they were when he initially wrote his book.

Economists as Kings and Scientists

The economics profession is still very much living in the shadow cast by Paul Samulson who first formalized its study in the 1940s by applying advanced mathematical models to what was previously a largely qualitative field – there is no math in Keynes’ General Theory, for instance. All of that has changed. Led by economists, mathematics has now spread to virtually every social science; it has leaked into such non-mathematical fields as history, sometimes going by the name “cliometrics,” several sub-branches of modern philosophy, and, according to Chambers, even cultural anthropology. Only the post-positivists have remained immune from the influence of mathematics, but then that’s how they make a living.

As Chambers argues forcefully in his book, economists are at the “head of the class” according to traditional status hierarchies within the social sciences. This fact is easy enough to observe. The President has a Council of Economic Advisors; there is no Council of Sociologists. When hundreds of billions of dollars in government bailout funds are at stake it is the economists, not the historians or philosophers or feminists, that are brought to the table for discussion. Demographers are not appointed to the position of Treasury Secretary. The Federal Reserve controls the money supply and sets interest rates, power that ultimately radiates to affect the lives of billions of people worldwide; yet, an ethnomusicologist has never been considered for the job. Only those in security studies enjoy equal power in the U.S. government, with their appointments as heads of the various U.S. intelligence agency posts, presidential advisors, and, often, the powerful position of Secretary of State. Similarly prominent positions reserved for economists exist in most Western-style governments worldwide.

That economists have come to hold positions that deal with economic matters seems logical enough; however, the hubris they display through the use of formal mathematics and sophisticated statistical techniques is anything but logical. The term “social science” was meant to denote a type of analytical rigor directed toward the social world, not the conversion of “people to things,” as Chambers himself chides, or the notion that complex social systems can be studied and controlled in the same manner that a laboratory physicist can careful control and monitor her experimental setup. If there is an analogy between the social and physical sciences, economists are more like geologists – they know something, but are unable to precisely predict the location and veracity of the next earthquake, tidal wave, or volcanic eruption, and do not posses sufficient technology to easily and swiftly deal with such catastrophes when they do occur.

Of course, economists do not phrase their doctrine of mathematical rigor this way, but rather as a sanguine belief that mathematics, applied properly, can tease out casual relationships with precision as well as offer prescriptive policies. For example, economist Ed Glaeser, in his recent op-ed “The Role of Economics in an Imperfect World,” phrased things this way:

“Hubris has been part of the human condition, with or without math, long before the Black-Scholes asset-pricing formula. Mathematical models create discipline. They ensure that we specify our assumption and that our conclusions then follow from our assumptions. Statistics then provide us with indispensable tests of our theories.”[1]

But if this were true we would expect – or at least hope – that testing of various theories would generate consensus within the profession, anchoring a public policy question with normative prescriptions so that that the next question could be addressed and so on until a socially efficient outcome was reached. But surveys show that economists are still widely divided on most important public policy issues.[2]

And what is true about economic consensus in general is true for development economics in particular. Late last year, for instance, Twitter exploded after Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson brazenly responded to Jeffery Sachs’ Foreign Affairs review of their popular book Why Nations Fail?[3] Sachs also famously disagrees (on nearly everything) with NYU economist William Easterly, but so too does Easterly disagree with the various “poverty trap” theories put forth by Paul Collier in his best-selling The Bottom Billion.[4] If data has done anything to resolve these controversies it doesn’t show.

As Chambers puts it, “Figures so selected are then accepted, repeated, cumulatively misquoted, and used, consciously or unconsciously, to reinforce predisposition and prejudice.”[5] Economist Tyler Cowen calls this phenomenon “mood affiliation,”[6] the notion that one first unconsciously chooses a “mood” and then selects or interprets results to comport with this pre-selected world view. In the universe that Chambers and Cowen envision, data does little to resolve fundamental disputes over theory as Glaeser suggests.

In fact, such disagreement even extends to the data-heavy Randomized Controlled Trial (RTC) craze. For instance, in a 2008 blog post – again involving Jeffery Sachs – Harvard development economist Dani Rodrik cited an RTC to support Sachs’ view that insecticide-treated bed nets should be given away for free rather than sold at a nominal price.[7] However, Mead Over from the Center for Global Development quickly responded by arguing that the RTC did not at all support Sachs.[8]

Intellectual disagreement, of course, is to be encouraged. Indeed, it can be a powerful force in creating new knowledge and moving research programs forward. However, when paired with the hubris of those such as Stigler or Glaeser it can be dangerous. This is doubly true when economists are hoisted into powerful government positions and then expected by both government officials and the general public to carefully predict and steer the economy as a physicist would a laser beam. The latter two parties would do well to realize the limitations of what is possible in matters of economics, but so too should economists chisel away their patina of scientism and refrain from promoting themselves as surgeons who simply opted to operate on matters of public policy instead of on human patients.

Holy Measurement Error Batman

Part of the idolatry of the economics profession is the belief that “data” can erase all sins. To the extent that reliable data can serve as evidence to support an argument or claim there is no harm done. But the fabrication of unreliable data where data simply doesn’t exist can indeed be harmful. In Chambers’ book he references Gerry Gill’s paper Ok, The Data’s Lousy, But It’s All We’ve Got, summarizing Gill’s piece with his own colorful observation:

“At worst, they [economists and consultants] grub around and grab what numbers they can, feed them into their computers, and print-out not just numbers but more and more elegant graphs, bar-charts, pie diagrams and three-dimensional wonders of graphic myth with which to adorn their reports and to justify their plans and proposals.”[9]

In The Black Swan Nassim Taleb offers an elegant parallel for much of the data hunger in economics.[10] In his analogy you have just boarded a plane in Atlanta that is destined for New York City. Suddenly a flight attendant’s voice can be heard over the intercom, “The pilot has misplaced the map for the NYC airport,” he says, “but don’t worry he’s going to use the map for Chicago’s airport.” But Chicago is not New York; the two airports are in different parts of their respective cities; the runways are facing different directions and require different approach patterns; JFK is positioned next to Jamaica bay while O’Hare is fifteen kilometers inland from Lake Michigan. The dissimilarities are nearly endless. If placed in such a scenario Taleb argues any rational person would immediately disembark the plane. In economics, however, researchers proudly pat themselves on the back, remarking the good fortune that they found data to apply to their cause.

Perhaps the single best example of this phenomenon in all of economics comes from the recent developments in African GDP revisions. Economists have long known that African nations had severe obstacles in collecting the sort of data needed to construct accurate GDP figures: poor infrastructure, widespread corruption and institutional failures, low-skilled government workers, technology shortages, and so on. Yet, GDP figures were constructed anyway and indiscriminately imported into the databases of prominent international organizations such as the OECD, IMF, and World Bank. Economists have used the data for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of regressions to determine both the causes of poverty and to assess the multitude of macro-level poverty alleviation interventions that have been tried over the decades. And now it turns out that unreliable GDP data may invalidate a large portion of that work.

How bad is it? Alwyn Young from Britain’s London School of Economics reconstructed GDP for 29 Sub-Saharan countries using household-level income gathered in DHS health surveys. He estimates that for the past two decades the region has been growing between 3.4 and 3.7 percent per year, or roughly four times the figures reported in international data sources.[11] Compounded over time the difference between his findings and official statistics are enormous.

To give some sense of the magnitudes, in 2010 Ghana’s government revised its GDP figure upwards by 60%, meaning that roughly $13 billion worth of economic activity had been overlooked.[12] This is all the more alarming because “[o]ver the past thirty years Ghana has been one of the most scrutinized, measured, studied, pick-over economies in Africa.”[13] If the pending investigation in Nigeria yields a similar GDP revision it would be the equivalent of “40 economies roughly the size of Malawi’s” hiding in the African country.[14] Similar news is certain to appear Africa-wide as more governments undertake revision investigations at the behest of international aid organizations and researchers.

With such enormous misinformation about GDP figures – much of it dating back decades – what is really “known” about development economics becomes quite murky. This should serve as a tale of caution to economists, and indeed all social scientists, about the fallacy that some data is better than none at all.

The Second Sex

One key concept for Chambers is what he terms “Normal Professional Status” – a status hierarchy within and between practicing professions composed of five primary factors: education and training, competence and specialization, gender, influence and wealth, and location. Regarding gender Chambers writes, “The high-status professionals are mainly men, while those of lower status are mainly women, or have a higher proportion of women.”[15] Cambers continues by specifying several examples of women being positioned at the bottom of the academic ladder. Again, little has changed in the time since he wrote. Female exclusion is still prevalent both in economics and in the social sciences more broadly.

While Chambers wrote in 1997 that no woman had every won the Nobel Prize in Economics, as of 2013 only Elinor Ostrom has achieved that honor, though even she was technically a political scientist. When the Chronicle of Higher Education created a visual representation of academic papers authored by women over the four centuries between 1665 and 2010 (using data from the University of Washington’s Eigenfactor Project), it found that only 9.7% of economics papers were female-authored. Since 1991 the percentage has increased, but is still paltry at just under fourteen percent.[16]

Again, what is true in general is also true for development in particular. It was not until 2011 when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was first headed by a woman, Christine Lagarde; meanwhile, The World Bank has never had a female president. There has been only one female USAID administrator, Henrietta Fore, who served two years from 2007 until 2009. Yet, since its founding in 1946 USAID has disbursed a third of a trillion dollars in development loans and grants[17], the World Bank nearly $450 billion since it began[18], while the IMF currently has over a trillion dollars in pledged or committed resources.[19]

In this regard, the economics profession is not alone. The pattern of female underrepresentation is replicated throughout the social sciences. When women are represented they tend to be in those specialties associated with what feminists scholars have identified as feminine values such as community, connection, sharing, nature, life, and interdependence[20]: household decision making and subjective well-being in economics, gender and family studies in sociology, women’s studies and concept of self in anthropology, women candidates in U.S. election studies, feminist history in history, early childhood and infant learning in cognitive science, pregnancy outcomes in occupational health, hospital queuing in operations research, society and fertility in demography, minority students in education, and, of course, Lie algebras in mathematics (meanwhile a measly 1.5% of papers on Riemannian manifolds have been authored by women).[21]

But these feminine values are not appreciated in a system that treats “truth” and “measurement” eponymously. Instead, women are pushed either to the edges of their fields or must choose lower-status academic professions that place a greater value on concepts of qualitative research and intuition. This is not to say that only women express or appreciate these feminine values, but as Chambers points out, men who are empathetic to such ideas are driven to positions of lower status. Nor is it to say that all women are more interested in “community” than in “measurement.” However, it does seem true that these feminine values come more easily to women than to men and as such women are more often required to make career decisions that are at odds with personal sensibilities.


The problems identified by Chambers fifteen years ago are very much alive today. Economists still enjoy high status positions due, in part, to the way they are perceived by the general public and the important government positions they fill. They in turn sustain their status by using advanced mathematics to lend an air of science and control to the profession, in practice, however, rarely moving toward consensus. The emphasis on measurement and data depreciates feminine values and thus drives women to the fringes instead of incorporating their viewpoint as an important and necessary alternative. Here’s hoping that fifteen years from now Chambers’ concerns will be a distant memory.


[1] Glaeser, “The Role of Economics in an Imperfect World.”

[2] Klein, “An Amazing Consensus Among Economists: Not.”

[3] Murphy, “Thanksgiving Eve Twitter Debate: Sachs Vs Everyone.”

[4] Easterly, Easterly on Growth, Poverty, and Aid.

[5] Chambers, Whose Reality Counts?.

[6] Cowen, “The Fallacy of Mood Affiliation.”

[7] Rodrik, “Jeff Sachs Vindicated.”

[8] Over, “Sachs Not Vindicated.”

[9] Chambers, Whose Reality Counts?.

[10] Taleb, Taleb on Black Swans, Fragility, and Mistakes.

[11] Blattman, “Africans Are Richer (and Getting Richer) Than You Think.”

[12] Jerven, “Lies, Damn Lies and GDP.”

[13] Moss, “» Ghana Says, Hey, Guess What?”.

[14] Jerven, “Lies, Damn Lies and GDP.”

[15] Chambers, Whose Reality Counts?.

[16] The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Women as Academic Authors, 1665-2010.”

[17] Services, “Standard Program Report.”

[18] The World Bank, “Total Disbursements by Country.”

[19] International Monetary Fund, “Factsheet — The IMF at a Glance.”

[20] Tong, Feminist thought.

[21] The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Women as Academic Authors, 1665-2010.”


Blattman, Chris. “Africans Are Richer (and Getting Richer) Than You Think.” Chris Blattman, October 30, 2012.

Chambers, Robert. Whose Reality Counts?: Putting the First Last. First Edition. Intermediate Technology Publications, 1999.

Cowen, Tyler. “The Fallacy of Mood Affiliation,” March 31, 2011.

Easterly, William. Easterly on Growth, Poverty, and Aid, February 11, 2008.

Glaeser, Edward. “The Role of Economics in an Imperfect World.” Economix Blog. Accessed February 13, 2013.

International Monetary Fund. “Factsheet — The IMF at a Glance.” Accessed February 12, 2013.

Jerven, Morten. “Lies, Damn Lies and GDP.” The Guardian, November 20, 2012.

Klein, Dan. “An Amazing Consensus Among Economists: Not.” EconLog, February 6, 2012.

Moss, Todd. “Ghana Says, Hey, Guess What? We’re Not Poor Anymore! – Center for Global Development: Views from the Center.” Center for Global Development, November 5, 2010.

Over, Mead. “Sachs Not Vindicated.” Center for Global Development, January 18, 2008.

Rodrik, Dani. “Jeff Sachs Vindicated,” January 15, 2008.

Services, USAID Economic Analysis and Data. “Standard Program Report,” February 8, 2011.

Taleb, Nassim. Taleb on Black Swans, Fragility, and Mistakes. Podcast, May 3, 2010.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Women as Academic Authors, 1665-2010,” 2012.

The World Bank. “Total Disbursements by Country.” World Bank Finances. Accessed February 12, 2013.

Tong, Rosemarie. Feminist thought : a more comprehensive introduction. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2009.

Public Policy Memo

This is a memo I wrote as part of a public policy class focusing on regression methods and analysis. My professor thought it was good overall, but that I should’ve simplified my diagrams and message. Probably correct. Of course, it’s the first memo I’ve written so bumps are to be expected.

The assignment was to play junior analyst and present the results of a David Lewis paper to a party of our choosing. I don’t remember what paper it was precisely, much of his work is centered around the question of political appointees and performance.

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Welcome to My Homepage!

Welcome to my homepage. I started this site to be a sort of online resume – a repository for my coding and design work so that potential employers can see my value first hand. I’m currently a master’s student at the University of Washington. My home department is the Jackson School of International Studies, but I’ve taken many graduate classes in other departments (mainly public affairs and statistics). I start a new data analysis job in late June. Feel free to follow the links below or browse around!

Find out about more about me…like as a person ‘n’ stuff.

For my more traditional resume click here.



For examples of my R programing work go here.
Classes: (1) Applied Regression, (2) Nonparametric Regression (in progress), (3) Statistical Computing (in progress). All three were graduate statistics courses.
Projects: NBA Data Analysis (ongoing). I used R’s XML and RCurl packages to scrape several websites using a variety of techniques.


For examples of my Stata programing work go here.
Classes: (1) Basic Linear Regression and (2) Survey of Regression Techniques (IV, Regression Discontinuity, Difference-in-Difference, etc.), which were both offered by the School of Public Affairs; (3) Correlated Data (in progress) from the Department of Biostatistics.
Projects: I completed a semi-supervised 2-credit analysis of World Bank data using Stata. The project involved merging many .dta files, creating and concatenating variables, and running a series of bootstrapped logistic regressions using the Clarify library.


For examples of my C work go here (in progress, coming soon).
Classes: All of my C work was done in Statistical Computing (Statistics Department).

Microsoft Access & SQL

For examples of Microsoft Access work go here.
Classes: (1) Database Concepts (Information School). I completed the entire 600-page GO! Microsoft Access Comprehensive textbook. I’ve enrolled in a certificate program in database management this summer, which will include 100 hours of instruction. There is a strong SQL component to the course.


For examples of my Excel work go here (more to come).
Classes: Excel modeling, an upper-division undergraduate business school class in the quantitative methods department.

Adobe Illustrator and InDesign

For examples of my design work go here.
I learned Illustrator and InDesign last summer to improve the look and feel of my thesis. I’ve come to really love design so I play around a lot in Illustrator for fun.

Research and Writing

Check out some of the papers below for samples of my research, writing, and analysis skills.


Classes: I took Beginning Scientific Computing (taught in Matlab) from the Department of Applied Math two years ago. My skills are somewhat rusty and I prefer R, but I do have some Matlab knowledge.


Nothing to complicated here, but still a nice skill to have. For examples of my LaTeX work go here.

International Cooperation and A Post-Kyoto Regime: Participation, Problems, and Promise


In 2005 the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, a product of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Despite its alleged success, Kyoto suffered from various shortfalls including no dispute resolution system and an exemption of the world’s developing nations. Kyoto is set to expire in 2012 and there have been continued negotiations aimed at creating a post-Kyoto regime. Yet despite continued dialogue there has been negligible progress toward meaningful agreement that would significantly reduce world greenhouse gas emissions. What can explain the lack of international agreement on climate change? This question will be analyzed using three alternative international relations frameworks: relative gains theory, republican liberalism, and neoliberal institutionalism. Relative gains theory posits that states act strategically to maximize their gains relative to other nations. Though applicable to particular countries participating in negotiations, this theory fails to recognize the inherent difficulty in making such calculations when considering complex and ambiguous problems such as climate change. Republican liberalism explains state action by studying interactions between domestic interest groups and national governments and theorizes that these complex relationships then manifest at the state level. While initially appealing, this theory ultimately fails to be adequate in dealing with problems at the international system level. Lastly, neoliberal institutionalism will be considered. This approach is primarily concerned with supranational institutions and provides a set of predictions that have largely come to fruition between states negotiating a post-Kyoto agreement.


For over a decade long-term climate change has been one of the most important topics for governments of both rich and poor countries alike. For instance, in a recent survey by the World Economic Forum climate change ranked as one of the issues with the highest aggregate score of both current governmental concern and potential global impact. Yet despite persistent rhetoric about rising sea levels, displaced populations, and widespread crop failure the global community has made little progress in the way of cooperation to stem the problem. What can explain this lack of international agreement on climate change? The question of this “dilemma of common aversion” will be examined using the Kyoto Protocol as a case study with special emphasis on the last four rounds of negotiation (since 2009) within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Three alternative explanations will be discussed: relative gains theory, domestic explanations of political interest groups known as republican liberalism, and neoliberal intuitionalism. Relative gains theory is powerful at explaining some actors such as China, but fails as a universal explanation because of the difficulty of calculating gains for complex problems such as climate change. Republican liberalism offers important insights into the processes that determine state preference, but offers little predictive power or policy solutions at the global level. Neoliberal institutionalism, however, can adequately explain both the behavior of actors at a global level and provides powerful policy prescriptions that have already begun to materialize in the latest rounds of negotiations.


Scientific interest in climate change has gone through several stages. There was, in fact, little interest in the subject at all in the first half of the twentieth century. From the 1950s forward concern gradually increased within the scientific community until the late 1970s when a consensus began to emerge. The first World Climate Conference convened in 1979 and it was in 1988 that the IPCC was founded as a joint venture between the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). In 1992 the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed. The Convention was an international treaty meant to help stem increasing global surface temperatures and manage the impacts of change that did occur. It has since become a framework for annual climate meetings—so-called Conventions of the Parties (COPs)—the goal of which is to spawn further treaties that call for specific reductions, the Kyoto Protocol being the most notable. It emerged in Kyoto, Japan during the 3rd annual meeting of the UNFCCC in 1997.

Climate change has only gained further prominence in recent years. Al Gore and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their environmental education efforts (The Nobel Foundation 2007); during the 2009 Copenhagen round of UNFCCC negotiations 15,000 delegates and 5,000 journalists attended (Bhagwati 2011); and in both the 2011 and 2012 World Economic Forum surveys of global risks, climate change ranked among the top in terms of both likelihood and impact (Tambourgi et al. 2012).

The Kyoto Protocol set reduction targets on six Greenhouse gases for 37 industrialized countries and the European Community (at the time consisting of 15 European countries now subsumed within the European Union). The reductions required for each country equate to an average of a 5% reduction below 1990 levels between the period 2008-2012. Whereas other types of pollution may be feared for harmful effects to humans directly, greenhouse gas emissions are threatening through their affects on surface temperature increases of air, water, and land masses. In “the most comprehensive modeling yet” (Chandler 2009) on the subject, a group at MIT published estimates of median surface warming of 5.2 degrees Celsius by 2010. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has projected a host of negative effects if temperatures continue to rise. These include increasing drought and water stress, increased plant and animal extinction, extensive coastal flooding, redistribution of fertile croplands, severe heat waves and storm patterns, and negative health impacts including malnutrition, cardio-respiratory problems, and infectious diseases (I.P.O.C. 2007).

At first glance the Kyoto Protocol seems to negate the central question of this paper—if there, in fact, has been global cooperation on climate change why is there an open question as to the nature of any alleged lack of international climate agreement? As the world’s first international treaty regulating climate change the important precedent set by Kyoto should be recognized. However, it should not be oversold. Kyoto was limited along several important dimensions that only further animates questions about global recalcitrance toward significant agreement.

First, Kyoto was mainly a treaty aimed at industrially developed nations. All developing countries were excluded from emissions restrictions including China, which has grown into the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Second, Kyoto had limited enforcement power. The United States delegation during the Kyoto meeting signed the treaty, but after returning home the United States Congress refused ratification. The fact that the United States was at the time the largest greenhouse gas emitter only exacerbated the magnitude of the enforcement problem (the US is now second behind China). This enforcement problem also extents to violations of the protocol. In May of 2011 Russia, Japan, and Canada announced they would not join the Kyoto extension after the initial agreement expired in 2012 (The Sydney Morning Herald 2011) and in December Canada announced it would leave Kyoto altogether to avoid paying billions in fees (Austen 2011). Third, the agreement was of limited duration: the period between 2005 and 2012. It makes perfect sense to draft an agreement of limited length so that its goals and success can be reevaluated and updated as needed. Nevertheless, it only postpones wider agreement until 2012—an agreement that must now incorporate not only developed countries, but developing ones as well, to say nothing of the more stringent reductions now required if climate change is to be stemmed.

Clearly, then, this is a case of “anarchy” if we take the term to mean the absence of legitimate international government in the same way it exists in domestic politics—the usual definition employed in IR (see Waltz 1979, for example). This fact, however, merely creates a point of departure. That there is no central authority in global politics is a fact, not a theory. To what extent anarchy defines the actions of, and relations between, states is the heart of the matter and where important cleavages between theories emerge.

Three such approaches that take differing views on the prospects of anarchy will be discussed throughout the remainder of this paper. These three are relative gains theory, republican liberalism, and neoliberal institutionalism. Though not comprehensive of the entire field, these three IR theories offer the most compelling possible explanations concerning the lack of global agreement on climate change. What follows is an elaboration of each of these theories and its application to climate change. While each can explain some portion of the friction between countries, only neoliberal institutionalism can fully explain and predict current affairs.

Relative Gains

One result of anarchy might be that states maximize their relative power—the size of their slice of the pie rather than the size of the pie itself. Under this view State A would be perfectly willing to give up some power as long as State B lost more of its own power. “For sure, each state tries to maximize its absolute gains; still, it is more important for a state to make sure it does no worse, and perhaps better, than the other state in any agreement (Mearsheimer 2001, p. 68),” wrote theorist John Mearsheimer. Relative gains theory entails additional calculations since two different aspects of “pie growth” must be considered—the size of the pie and your slice of it. As a result, relative gains theory argues that “cooperation is more difficult to achieve…when states are attuned to relative gains rather than absolute gains (Mearsheimer, 2001, p. 68).” One possible explanation for a lack of climate agreement, therefore, is that states are reluctant to sign climate treaties because they fear relative losses.

To be clear, we must ask what “gains” and “losses” we have in mind. Climate change involves the weighing of current gains and losses in economic growth against a more amorphous calculation of potential future losses that differ by country, but likely includes economic, environmental, and citizen welfare considerations. The calculation is cofounded by the fact that the world is a global commons and as such greenhouse gases affect all countries roughly equally regardless of the country that originally released the gases.

Current reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are inextricably linked to economic growth. This is because CO2, the most prominent greenhouse gas, is mainly a product of transportation and energy sectors, which often compose significant portions of a nation’s economy. Government regulation to cut greenhouse gas emissions will necessarily need to take into account reductions in CO2, thus limiting transportation and energy sector growth and through this channel affecting overall GDP growth. Further, economic gains and losses are a direct channel to political power. As Robert Gilpin eloquently phrased it: “In a world in which power rests increasingly on economic and industrial capabilities, one cannot really distinguish between wealth…and power as national goals (Gilpin 1975).”

To be sure, particular countries are exhibiting some signs of relative gains calculations. China is one such example. Though it has often marketed itself as a 21st century economic powerhouse, when it comes to climate change agreement China has aligned with the developing countries of the Group of 77 (G77) (a group that actually includes 132 countries). For example, after the opening day of the talks in Durban, South Africa at the end of 2011, the G77 and China released a joint statement calling for meaningful progress during the talks (Executive Secretariat of the Group of 77 2011). While China continues to show modest per capita GDP, there is irony in the world’s second largest economy aligning with developing nations, many of which have economies orders of magnitude smaller than China (to say nothing of their comparison to sustained Chinese growth). By positioning itself as a developing country and mounting continued momentum toward the view that developing countries should receive aid and face more lenient emissions requirements, China stands to benefit from the subsidies of rich countries even as its own economy grows further ahead of those providing support.

Relative gains theory falls short when applied systematically, however. In addition to the challenges of weighing short-term economic security against uncertain global risk decades in the future, the calculation of relative gains is complicated further by the specific features of the Kyoto Protocol. Such features include the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that allows for investment of green energy projects in developing countries; Joint Implementation (JI), which enables developed countries to invest in each other in exchange for carbon credits; and Emissions Trading, a global carbon credit trading market. Such interconnectedness makes it difficult to predict what strategies particular countries will favor over the long run and thus which states stand to gain in relation to others.

A deeper analysis of UNFCCC negotiations reveals that there is significant state action operating outside of relative gains calculations. It is clear that a variety of institutional pressures and norms have developed that guide state action to particular ends. The details of these features will be taken up when discussing neoliberal institutionalism.

Republican Liberalism

A second theory that can be directed toward explaining the lack of climate change agreement is republican liberalism. This theory posits that state action is simply a manifestation of domestic interests. It “emphasizes the ways in which domestic institutions and practices aggregate…transforming them into state policy. The key variable… [is] whose social preferences dominate state policy [emphasis original] (Reus-Smit 2008, p. 244).” The theory studies governing coalitions, regulatory capture, unions, lobbyists, administrators and others who affect and determine foreign policy.

There is a lot to like about republican liberalism, starting with the fact that the theory is an articulation of what is obvious: states are artificial and abstract conceptions. In practical terms it means nothing to say that “China” signed a treaty. “China” has no hands. What we mean when we say “China signed” is that some Chinese official was sent to a conference and he or she signed a treaty. The authority to do so was given by others in the Chinese government who calculated that signing the treaty would most probably lead to particular benefits for particular parties within the country. Still other experts helped make those policy determinations, themselves likely influenced still further by domestic groups: firms, political strategists, unions, and so on. This process is true for issues of both a domestic and international nature.

Republican liberalism, then, suggests that we should follow the trail of actors that determine policy in the real world rather than abstract to the state level. They might likely point to the global financial crisis, for example, to explain the lack of forward movement toward climate agreement since 2008. One common charge of states’ domestic politics is that their governments can bank on only a scarce amount of “political capital.” When a significant crisis occurs they must put other issues on the back burner and put out the fire of the moment. Since the financial crisis has been consuming significant political capital of countries across the world, it stands to reason that issues with long time horizons—like climate change—are put aside until the crisis subsides.

What about the period before the financial crisis? A republican liberal would likely respond that there was not sufficient simultaneous policy alignment at the domestic level of enough countries to form common international agreement. Perhaps in 2004 Russia was willing to concede to additional emission cuts and India was not, whereas in 2005, because of domestic politics, the situation reversed. Since the government of neither country wanted to sign at the same time as the other, no agreement was made. Multiply this situation times the 194 countries currently negotiating within the UNFCCC and the picture becomes as dire as it is complex.

To be sure, it is domestic actors who both determine and implement policy. But such a theory borders on being something other than international relations. There is no end to the hole down which one can descend when studying the complex interconnections and motivations of domestic actors. Further, it is impossible to determine a priori who might “win” the game of domestic politics. Who is more persuasive: the teacher’s union or the political lobbyist; the citizens’ movement or the corporation; municipal jurisdictions or presidential policy advisors? It is impossible to know until after the battle has already been won and so republican liberalism has powerful ex post facto descriptive abilities in some holistic view of what comprises politics, but much less to say if events within the international system itself is our primary concern.

To reify states we don’t need them to grow arms and legs and a brain. We only need that the infinitely complex affairs of domestic actors consistently materialize at the state level as if states had interests, fears, and desires. The evaluation of neoliberal institutionalism will show that abstraction to the state level is quite useful indeed.

Neoliberal Intuitionalism

The third, final, and most compelling theory to be discussed is neoliberal institutionalism. Its primary axiom is simple: no state is an island unto itself. In the Oxford Handbook of International Relations Andrew Moravcsik summarizes the view as follows: “The universal condition of world politics is globalization. States are, and always have been, embedded in a domestic and transnational society…that transcends borders (Reus-Smit 2008, p. 234).” Already the theory quickly becomes promising to the problem of climate change since there is perhaps no more globalized issue—emissions from any single country cause atmospheric change that affects every other country. Like realism, neoliberal intuitionalism uses the state as the primary unit of analysis and assumes state power and interests. From here it diverges from the former theory, intuiting a role for international institutions under the premise that states are just as likely to protect their interests by cooperation as by exclusion. This does not imply, however, that international cooperation is automatic, only that it is possible and that states may indeed seek such cooperation for a variety of reasons to be discussed momentarily.

Neoliberal intuitionalists are generally sanguine about the role of institutions in global politics and it is important to give this view credence. There are now 194 countries participating in the UNFCC; getting 194 nations to simultaneously talk about anything is itself an accomplishment and demonstration of the power of global institutions. It’s worth noting that the UNFCCC is itself an arm of the United Nations, perhaps the most important global cooperative the world has ever known. Undoubtedly, these institutions have fallen short in specific areas and have been prone to particular problems, the generating function for this paper. Nonetheless, that international institutions have formed in increasing numbers to cover a widening array of political, economic, and environmental issues suggests that the view of neoliberal intuitionalists deserves particular consideration when discussing a body such as the UNFCCC and its resulting Kyoto Protocol.

The theory posits that international institutions help create and enforce norms that influence state behavior, that defection and cheating will be the biggest obstacles to agreement, that international institutions will therefore try to develop regulations that limit cheating, but that reduced transaction costs can also provide incentives for cooperation.

International Norms

Social norms – one of the many concepts in IR theory brought over from microeconomics – “are customary rules of behavior that coordinate our interactions with others (Young 2008).” Abstracted to the international level such norms might include believing that only democracies should have rights to hold nuclear weapons or that it is the responsibility of rich countries to provide aid to poorer ones.

There are two major international norms that have emerged regarding climate change. Together they work bidirectionally, both to pull states together and drive them apart. On one hand it is clear that a norm has developed that prescribes that countries should be participants in UNFCCC negotiations. Over time more and more nations have joined the Kyoto Protocol, yet the Protocol itself covers only a fraction of the world’s nations. Signing has become a sign of goodwill and signal that a nation is committed to future dialogue.

Norms are not regulated, of course, so countries are free to break them. The United States is one such example – it has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol. As the world’s hegemony it can afford to do so, but this has not stopped it from facing opposition and pressure for its breaking of this international norm. Notably, in 2007, France threatened to persuade the EU to impose a carbon tax on US imports if America did not sign Kyoto (Bennhold 2007).

That some states have been so recalcitrant to actually do something about their greenhouse gas emissions (rather than to simply talk about doing something) only strengthens evidence of this norm. Why become party to a discussion about an issue you have no intention of implementing if not to show that you are at the table “cooperating” like everyone else.

However, there is another norm acting to divide countries: belief about who should shoulder the burden of emissions reductions. To rich countries the international norm dictates that because climate change is a global problem, everyone should participate in the solution; poor countries disagree, arguing the norm should be that those nations most able to handle the economic impact of emissions reductions should be responsible until developing countries have matured economically. Both norms revolve around fairness and equity, just along different dimensions.

This issue—the difference in expectations between rich and poor countries—is one of the most prominent reasons climate change agreement has failed to move forward. The title of a November 2011 article from the Associated Press reviewing the prospects for the Durban talks aptly sums up this polarity, “Climate talks’ focus again falls on rich-poor divide (Max 2011).” Neoliberal institutionalists usually envision the enforcement of norms as a benefit, providing international pressure toward some positive outcome. If the norms are disparate and deeply entrenched, however, climate change negotiations demonstrate the norms can act to stymie broader agreement.

Defection and Cheating

Neoliberals often rely heavily on a concept borrowed from economics known as “game theory.” The most prominent example of game theoretic calculations is the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma in which two prisoners must decide if they should rat out their accomplice. Though perhaps not obvious from this description, game theory offers explanatory power for several of the features of climate change negotiations.

What two countries might we envision to play the role of our two prisoners? The dilemma applies most aptly to China and the United States. Together they account for 43.1% of all CO2 emissions (Council on Foreign Relations 2011) and their policy toward one another is at once cooperative and combative. A December 2011 article in the British broadsheet The Daily Telegraph, for instance, reported that, “[a]t the moment the US and China are holding back the negotiations because neither country is willing to move first (Gray 2011).” Thus a narrow way to envision the problem of climate agreement is as a two party coordination problem between these two nations. Each party has preference map DC>CC>DD>CD where coordination requires sacrifices to economic growth and defection does not (for more on game theory and cooperation see Oye 1985). Each party is driven toward defection resulting in DD, or in this particular case, no change to the status quo. Indeed, the status quo is exactly where the United States and China are today, both remain outside the group of nations party to current Kyoto reductions and seem unwilling to budge until the other party’s cooperation is guaranteed to their liking.

As predicted by neoliberal institutionalism, then, defection and cheating remain central problems to climate agreement, hindering countries from moving forward for fear a key counterparty might leave the post-Kyoto agreement. This prediction is more than speculative, however; in fact, defection from Kyoto hasalready happened. In May of 2011 Russia, Japan, and Canada informed the G8 that they would not submit to additional carbon cuts after the first round of the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Then in December Canada left Kyoto altogether to avoid paying billions in noncompliance fees.

As a result, neoliberal institutionalism further theorizes that when countries prefer unilateral defection to unrequited cooperation, binding institutionalized regulations will be required. Indeed, a big focus of the 2011 Durban round of negotiations centered around how to make the follow-on to the Kyoto Protocol have more legal force in order to avoid a repeat of Canada’s all-out defection. After many hours of negotiation it was finally decided that the countries will, by 2015, devise a treaty with a “legal outcome” (Framework Convention on Climate Change 2011).

However, game theory adds a wrinkle when cooperation is iterative. Incentives for cooperation change when states know they will deal with one another long into the future and when dissimilar games are played simultaneously. For example, consider two states that must engage in economic trade, nuclear arms agreements, climate change negotiations, regulations concerning international law and human rights, and so on. To be sure, in today’s world every state is engaged in multiple types of games with every other state, but some groups of nations are already locked in economic or diplomatic governance structures of above average strength. The European Union is one such group. Because of their strong economic ties there has been little difficulty in getting EU countries to work together on climate change. Similarly, the G77 have united together in climate change negotiations as they have carried over their union from the broader United Nations body. OPEC is another such organization that has operated together during negotiations. These groups likely do not fear defection and cheating among one another because of their past history and likely future cooperation across a variety of international issues.

None of this internal cooperation was inevitable, of course, but it helps speak to the power of global institutions that cooperation can be carried across issues. It also helps deepen the understanding about how the norms between rich and poor countries developed. Nations likely carry baggage from other iterated foreign policy games to the arena of climate change, and with that baggage import their norms about how best to organize the global system. Rich countries like those of the EU, the developing nations of the G77, and OPEC have certainly experienced different historical accretion, participation in the global system, and effects of anarchy and thus it makes perfect sense that their norms about state behavior should differ. Indeed, one review of climate negotiation history noted that, “The division of the globe into two unequal parts was embedded in the first climate convention adopted in 1992 (Max 2011).” This divide has remained embedded ever since.

Adding to the difficulty of concerns about defection is the reality that there is no effective verification plan in place to assure stated emission reductions. A path forward for a so-called MRV plan—‘M’ for ‘Measurable’, ‘R’ for ‘Reportable’, and ‘V’ for ‘Verifiable’—was accepted during the 2007 Bali talks, and later strengthened during Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 and Cancún in 2010. Despite this limited progress the details remain undecided. Greenhouse gas emission measurements are technically difficult and many developing countries simply do not have the means to physically measure output. Current reporting for developing countries only requires a public release of emissions every six years and these figures are often only estimates based on extrapolation from key polluting industries (Council on Foreign Relations 2011). It is easy to see that difficulty with MRV only exacerbates fears of cheating because with such large margins of error there is little incentive for countries to pursue accurate emissions reporting.

Transaction Costs

Under normal circumstances, fears of cheating and defection are partially offset by advantages of reduced transaction costs and thus supranational institutions may still form even without binding regulation to counter defection. One hope in forming the UNFCCC was that it would eventually implement mechanisms that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions (such as CDM, JI, and Emissions Trading discussed previously) and leverage economies towards the creation of initiatives like joint funds that would pool monies for certain projects.

Despite these hopes, however, the UNFCCC has grown bureaucratic and started to falter under its own weight (Council on Foreign Relations 2011). One study found that less than 30% of the funds from the CDM program actually went to toward emissions reductions with the remainder being spent on administrative costs (Burston and Haynes 2009). The JI initiative also remains burdensome with a complex approval process, eligibility requirements, committees, working groups, and so on (UNFCCC). Here the traditional benefits seen in transaction costs have been negligible, or even counter productive, and so have not provided an incentive toward agreement sufficient to overcome the probabilities of cheating and defection and of the obvious polarity in norms.

It is no surprise, then, that many smaller institutions have popped up recently to skirt the burdensome procedures of the UNFCCC and once again try to regain a reduction in transaction costs. These organizations have been both supranational and subnational in nature. An informal search revels an alphabet soup of over 100 such organizations of varying size and regional focus: the Global Climate Network, an alliance of research think tanks in nine countries; the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group, a group made up of 40 of the world’s largest cities working together to reduce carbon emissions; the International Climate Change Partnership, a worldwide group of companies and trade associations; and so on.

These groups prove both that there is still strong momentum toward fighting climate change and that nations, and cities for that matter, are willing to skirt burdensome procedures if they feel like non-UNFCCC groups can add additional benefits and reduced transaction costs.

Room for Optimism?

In a 2006 essay, David Victor pointed to the World Trade Organization as a possible model for future climate change negotiations (Victor 2006). Indeed, the WTO seems to be in the position the UNFCCC is striving toward in the post-Kyoto regime. Like the UNFCCC, the WTO membership includes a vast array of countries (over 130) with different beliefs about how trade should operate. However, unlike the UNFCCC, the WTO has reduced transaction costs by standardizing a universal trade framework that has provided sufficient motivation (in most cases) for countries to compromise on norm divergence. Moreover, the WTO has implemented a dispute resolution system that member countries have abided by quite willingly, unlike Canada’s easy dismissal of Kyoto. Finally, also unlike climate change the gains and losses from trade are more readily identifiable and so cooperation is easier since each country knows what it is gaining and giving up, both in the present and foreseeable future.

So can the WTO really give us hope that the UNFCCC might one day (soon) produce a follow-on to Kyoto that can make a significant dent in global greenhouse gas emissions? The WTO certainly proves global cooperation is possible, but by no means certain. Victor envisions an evolution of a post-Kyoto agreement that mimics that of the WTO—an initial agreement with approximately a dozen high-emission countries followed by gradual incorporation of remaining nations. This evolutionary process for trade agreements, starting with GATT and later transforming into the WTO, took decades, however, and unlike trade, climate change represents a global commons problem with shared environmental consequences as long as agreement is delayed. Such a gradual path toward agreement may leave the world devastated from environmental degradation before an agreement is reached.

If a post-Kyoto consensus is to work there will need to be an overhaul of the current regime. First, particular aspects of the UNFCCC will need an update: a streamlining of the mechanisms to measure and verify reductions for each member country, a redesign of the cross-country carbon trading and green technology investment functions, and perhaps a reimagining of the negotiation process itself. Second, countries will need to buy into an international authority for dispute resolution, as they have done with the WTO, and not defect from the agreement at the first sign of monetary penalty. It will probably not happen until the third and crucial change is realized—a method to calculate the future costs of climate change more accurately. Thus far environmental impact estimates have been rather vague conjectures, usually embodied by a list of possible repercussions without detailed geographic specificity—something along the lines of, “increased coastal flooding.” As the economic consequences of climate change become increasingly apparent, either from improved scientific modeling or from actual environmental changes, countries will be better positioned to determine just how much cooperation they will be willing to provide and what specific reparations they need in return. This exactness can only help negotiations.


What can explain the lack of international agreement on climate change? Neoliberal institutionalism points at several complementary causes. First, competing state norms have developed among the nearly two-hundred countries party to the UNFCCC. On one hand these norms have drawn countries toward dialogue on the issue, but on the other nations have diverged in their beliefs about who should shoulder the economic burden. Rich countries continue to believe that every nation should cut emissions equally while poor countries maintain that it is the rich countries’ responsibility until developing nations mature economically.

Additionally, defection and cheating remain a concern for many members of the UNFCCC, and for good reason, as Canada, Russia, and Japan have recently abandoned Kyoto altogether. Efforts are underway to improve MRV, especially in developing countries, and to institute legally binding regulations. Both moves are aimed at helping reduce fears of cheating and defection in the future, the goal being to bring more substantive emission reduction agreement from a wider membership.

Finally, reduced transaction costs have not been realized, negating a primary goal of most international institutions. Many of the programs designed to encourage cross-country investment and the pooling of resources have turned out to be inefficient, and as such have provided little incentive to move past differences in norms and fears of defection and cheating.

If major reforms are undertaken there is a chance the post-Kyoto regime might move toward the WTO model. In addition to institutional reforms, however, for this prospect to materialize it will take improved measurement technologies that can more accurately ascribe gains and losses to future climate change possibilities. Moreover, it will take the kind of cooperation sometimes seen at the micro level—in the work of Elinor Ostrom, for example. The 2009 Nobel Prize recipient undertook pioneering research that showed even common goods problems can be solved without an overarching sovereign authority. Such cooperation does not require altruism, simply an understanding that a marginal loss in the short-term may well lead to greater marginal gains that can extend indefinitely into the future. This sort of cooperation works best when groups are geographically restrained to a particular region and cannot simply exhaust a pasture only to move one field over and repeat the process. As the effects of climate change are further realized, as the processes of the UNFCCC and similar organizations are improved, and as our ability to measure and calculate the future effects from climate change improve, it is likely that global cooperation will also improve. After all, whatever reality of climate change emerges in the future, one fact will remain constant—there is only one earth and we are not at liberty to “move one planet over” and start again. We can only hope that these necessary improvements outpace the harm done by continued emissions in the meanwhile.




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Burston, Jane, and Emily Haynes. 2009. “The Cost Efficiency of Offsetting Through the Clean Development Mechanism”. Carbon Retirement.

Chandler, David. 2009. “Climate Change Odds Much Worse Than Thought – MIT News Office.” MIT’s News Office, May 19.

Council on Foreign Relations. 2011. “The Global Climate Change Regime.”

Executive Secretariat of the Group of 77. 2011. “Press Release.”

Framework Convention on Climate Change. 2011. “Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”. United Nations.

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