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Hi,

I was introduced to your blog just this morning (May 12). While browsing I happened to read your post about Political Economy and I think this is what I want to pursue in college (I am a freshman of Class of 2018).

But I need to know better before I make any important decision, so could you explain what exactly Political Economy is, and how it is different from Liberal Economy and the “economy” that is being taught in college (and if possible, differences between these two sub-fields).

Concerning my major, I am oscillating between Economics and Political Science. That is partly because of career-related interests (what job to take if I took Pol Sci – according to my mother), and partly because I’m still uncertain which field suits me better. In some way, I seem interested in political issues but only those that directly affect economical well-being of the country’s population, like (for Vietnam) interest groups and what communism/capitalism has to do with anything, but not much in diplomatic issues like the war in Middle East or public policies like Obamacare.

– Vy


Prologue

Thanks to this reader’s question, it’s time for a very belated addendum to our Why Political Economics? series (here and here). Four years have gone by since the last instalment — and gone, too, are a lot of ideals and misunderstandings that I held as a second-year-in-college. So, here is a less wrong answer to Why Political Economics? from a second-year-in-PhD-studies.

I. The three types of Political Economy

Given its broad and deep lineage, the only appropriate definition of Political Economy is perhaps the study of how politics and economic decision-making intertwine. There have been three main traditions in the field.

First is mercantilism, which espouses the idea that statesmen should use economic policy to enhance their nations’ power. Mercantilism thrived in 16th-18th Europe, when the international system was thoroughly anarchic and populated with equally powerful countries. No one is ever sure about anyone else (Game of Thrones style), leading to frequent wars and ultimately the idea that economic policy is subservient to the survival of the states. While this mode of thinking has gone out of vogue a long time ago, we still see its remnants today in nationalist discourse under name of “protectionism.”

Second is the liberal economics  that dominates economic thinking today. Its famous origin traces back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which was a direct response to the prevailing mercantilist thoughts of his time. While common sensical today, Adam Smith was a radical to propose that free trade benefits all countries (thanks to comparative advantage), and that free market benefits everyone (thanks to free price being an effective way to transmit information about what’s needed and available in the economy). These ideas are still the bedrock of modern economics, yet at the same time the practices of today’s economists are nothing like Adam Smith. (We’ll revisit below).

Third is Marxist economics, which is in turn a critique of the capitalist economy that has been ushered in since Adam Smith’s ideas. Marx critiqued numerous aspects of a capitalist economy. One is the paradoxical crisis of production, when there are enough goods for everyone yet the workers are too destitute to buy them. Another is the alienation of labor,  when individual man is but an inconsequential cog in the production line and thus unable to derive creative satisfaction from labor. Contrary to the mercantilist, for Marx, politics is subservient to economic powers: the ruling economic class promotes certain kinds of political and religious ideology in order to prolong its hegemony.

On the ruin of the Soviet Union, liberal economics raised its triumphant flag and became synonymous with Economics. Yet political economy as studied and practiced today is very unlike Adam Smith’s, and we will see how.

II. The ONE type of Political Economy (if you ask U.S. academics)

Over the 20th century economics has evolved several times in order to grapple with the gap between economic theory and reality.

Once staunch believers in free market, economists started to notice numerous market failures from causes such as natural monopoly (i.e. due to economy of scale) and informational asymmetry (i.e. sellers may have private information about the good that buyers don’t, in which case they can’t agree on a price). The existence of market failure seems to argue for government intervention. For example, the government may put in place anti-trust law or product quality regulations.

But yet again, economists noticed that governments fail, too. We view men as self-interested, maximizing actors in the economic realm — there is no reason why they would be altruistic and benevolent in the political arena. This is in fact and old idea, and as James Madison put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Thus, a new area of study sprung up to take the economic assumptions (rational, self-maximizing agent) and methods (dominantly game theory) to investigate political behaviors. It is called Public Choice, and is what Political Economy means today.

III. So, should you study Political Economy / Political Science?

After learning a lot more about Political Economy, I am fortunate enough not to find out that I was wrong 4 years ago. I stood by the claim that, yes, it is foolish to study economic development (or any economic policy-making) without considering politics. The most that economics can give us is a description of various trade-offs, whereas which side of those trade-offs do nations end up choosing is fundamentally a political question.

Having said that, I do feel disappointed with my study of Political Economy, mainly because I came to it with very high expectation (you could see the exuding optimism in the previous instalments in the series.) I thought that if only I could get a PhD in Political Economy I would be able to finally know what countries like Vietnam would need to develop, what I could do to “change lives” and “make the world a better place.”

But development is hard. Many smart people have worked on it for years without a solution. And yet that’s not even the discouraging part. What’s more disheartening about social science is that we are not sure if we are getting any closer to the solution at all. That is because:

  • Without the ability to do experiment (i.e. to re-run history) in order to hold all other factors constant, it is nigh-impossible to decisively conclude what factor is causing what.
  • Yes, there is a surge in Randomized Control Trials in development economics but 1) due to real-world limitations there are certain things we cannot randomize (e.g. political system), and 2) a successful program may fail when scaled-up (basically political actors interfered when the program became a big pot of money).
  • Social sciences study humans, and unlike atoms humans have intentions and wills that change. When something is proven in physics, it stays proven. There is no such law in economics and political science.

Of course, despite all these dead-ends the development industry continues to chug along anyway with a new way to change lives every few years. Like fashion, these development ideas come and go in circle with no clear sense of progress. Not only have we been ineffective, some would argue that developmental aid is downright harmful in some cases.

All in all, I think that Political Economy embodies the fundamentally correct insight that we need politics to understand development. However, let us not be mistaken (as I was) that we are anywhere close to achieving that understanding yet.

IV. So, should you major in Economics / Political Science?

Fascinatingly, even if you want to study Political Economy, it is not clear that you should major in Economics or Political Science.

It is important that you think about jobs. My college career was colored by my disdain for material things and my fascination with intellectual pursuit (as you can see from my old, college-era blog entries.) Looking back, I have to admit that I got the balance slightly wrong. Sure, big ideas are exhilarating, but I am not sure any amount of that can offset the months of stress unemployment will bring. (I applied for graduate school and was spared the entire ordeal, but I have seen way too many struggles.) Since most people would advise you to “try new things” and “expand your horizon,” I hope to bring back some perspective and urge you to think about where you want to be after 4 years of college. (Listen to this NPR broadcast about the economic return of different majors.)

The best way to prepare for that moment in 4 years is to learn skills, not facts. In this day and age, when everything can be looked up there is very little value in knowing a lot of facts about an area. In contrast, to learn technical skills you have to study sequentially (e.g. you need arithmetic before algebra before calculus), and the only time to do that well is in school.

(Note that even though I will be mainly talking about how to best prepare yourself as a worker, that is not the only goal of education. Minor in something that best prepare you as a human being and a citizen. In terms of social sciences / humanities, (for me) that means taking Intro to Econs, Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, a class on comparative political system, moral philosophy, and arts.)

Back to the main topic: depending on what job you want to get, below are your options.

First, if you want to get a private-sector job, a BA in political science is sort of worthless, and a BA in economics is only slightly less so (unless you go to a top research school OR work on frontier research with professors). The reason is that undergraduate political science training is heavily about facts and teach you little employable skills. Economics BA is slightly better since you will get to learn econometrics, but everything else you have to learn (e.g. microeconomic and macroeconomic theories) is of little value on the job market.

Having said that, employers do hire more Economics major, but not for the economic knowledge. Instead, the Econs label is simple a signal of quantitative skills. I thus recommend you to go straight to the quantitative skills (e.g. Econometrics, Statistics) and bypass all the economic theories that you will never use.

Second, if you want to work in the development sector, understand that it is a crowded field with low pay that typically requires post-graduate degrees. It is crowded with low pay for a reason, of course: many people are more than happy to make that sacrifice in order to do meaningful work. The best way to prepare is still to major in something quantitative (i.e. Statistics, Economics), but also take more of other electives, e.g. Political Science / Economics of Development / History, and get some development-related internships.

Third, even if you want to pursue a PhD in Political Economy, you should not major in BA Political Science. Not only are the readings in BA Political Science very outdated, the BA also does not prepare you for the increasingly quantitative and formal methods in PhD Political Science. So major in Statistics, maybe Computer Science, take multiple electives in Micro / Macroeconomics, study the area of Poli Sci that you are interested in,* and take some History classes for a reality check against the theoretical models in Econs and Poli Sci. Write a research paper in one of these electives in order to prove your interest in Political Economy and get good letters of recommendations. (You can read my entry on how to apply to PhD here.)

(* Political Science has 4 sub-fields: comparative politics (comparing systems across countries), American politics, International Relations, and Political Theory (i.e. political philosophy). If you are only interested in development, i.e. comparative politics, then it’s another reason not to major in Poli Sci so that you can bypass all the other stuffs.)


That was a lot to cover. These are the things I wish I had known four years ago, but no one was around to tell me. More troublesome is the fact that I still don’t see anyone telling college freshmen straight-talk about their career like this. Being straight talk, each paragraph of this entry can be controversial and should be more thoroughly argued in a blog post of its own. If there is any advice that does not seem clear of reasonable, I’d be happy to clarify.

Let us skip all the usual rhetorical embellishments so that I can quickly get back to pretending that I care about my incoming finals.

Gay marriage advocates sneer or enrage at the comparison between gay marriage, polygamy, and incest (or more technically correct, consanguineous marriage.) I truly wonder why. Consanguineous marriage also involves two loving and consenting adults. And why stop at two? How about two women and three men loving one another in a lovely polygamous union?

Here is to preempt some of the common counterarguments:

I. Do not raise the biological argument against consanguineous marriage (i.e. inbreeding will cause harm to our gene pool), unless you also accept the following:

  1. Incest / consanguineous marriage is morally acceptable as long as birth control is used.
  2. People with known hereditary diseases should be banned from getting married.

II. Do not raise the equality argument against polygamy because

  1. The relationship is fundamentally consensual. As long as no one is forced into an inferior position, there is no reason to enforce equality in a relationship (gold-diggers would be extremely mad, would they not?)
  2. How do you define “equality” in marriage anyway? Would two men and two women all marrying one another constitute an “equal” marriage?

III. Also, do not bother raising the political / relativist argument (i.e. morality is whatever the majority decides to be) unless you accept that neither gay advocates nor homophobes are morally superior. If “right” is simply defined by “might”, i.e. whoever musters more ad, more opinion pieces, and ultimately, more votes, then homophobic ads or the recent North Carolina’s ban on gay marriage are completely justified. Both sides are exercising their “might”, and neither is more “right” than the other.

Note that I’m not saying gay, polygamous, or consanguineous marriage are right or wrong. I’m just saying that they are morally equivalent — be consistent and admit that if you accept one, you tolerate the others.

Comments and enlightenment are welcome.

Research question: What factors influence post-Mao China’s sensitivity to relative gain in economic cooperation?

I. Background and Motivation

1) The relative gain debate

For realists, international anarchy and its self-help logic cause states to worry about cheating and relative gain. This concern prevents inter-state cooperation even when they share a mutual interest.[1] International institutions can mitigate the problem of cheating in cooperation by providing information, reducing the enforcement cost, and turn cooperation into iterated games—but none of this relieves states’ fear that, in this uncertain world, the gain of a partner today may be the weapon of “a potential foe tomorrow” (Grieco 1993:485).

However, theoretical debate and empirical evidences have convinced both sides that relative gain concern is only conditional.[2] The question now shifts from whether states care about relative gain to how much. Realists insist, “The coefficient for a state’s sensitivity to gaps in payoffs—k—can be expected to vary but always to be greater than zero,” because in an anarchical world of self-interested states anyone can be an enemy (Grieco 1993:323). On the other hand, the institutionalists holds that “this coefficient can be . . . negative, positive, or zero” (Keohane 1993:279). Realists thus charge institutionalists with underestimating uncertainty in anarchy. Institutionalists then accuse realists of overestimation.[3]

How to get out of this quagmire? More theoretical debate is not the answer, for both camps have produced internally coherent theories. The disagreement roots in their differing assumptions about state’s sensitivity to gaps in gain, which only an empirical study of states’ behaviors can resolve. That is precisely the first purpose of this research.

2) Cooperative behaviors of the rising China

That China is rising has been proven many times with impressive statistics and needs not be retold here. With its massive domestic market and export volume, China’s has great potential to destabilize the interdependent global market. Thus, the United States as well as multilateral institutions has actively engaged China into the established economic order (Ross 1999).

They succeeded, to a large extent. Therefore, many gladly point to China’s heavy involvement in international institutions, as well as its cooperative posture, [4] as evidence of the “socializing” force of institutions. However, as Mearsheimer points out time and again, institutions may simple be “arenas for acting out power relationships” (Mearsheimer 1994:13). Since China may be concerned with relative gain, perhaps institutions cannot fundamentally alter its preferences, and perhaps it remains cooperative only insofar as it gains power over other states.

The previous statement sounds highly uncertain because it is. Even though relative gain is the most important debate on cooperation, no one has taken this approach to examine China’s cooperative pattern. To fill this jarring gap is the second purpose of this research.

II. The domain and significance of this research

This research is well aware of its restricted domain: the case of China and the field of economic cooperation. The findings cannot be generalized to states that do not share China’s regime type, position as a rising power, and many other idiosyncrasies. Neither do states’ behaviors in the economic realm neatly transfer into the security area.[5] Therefore, this research claims far less than settling the relative gain debate for good.

What this paper does achieve is more insight into the cooperative behaviors of China, whose participation in the global economy is crucial. For practitioners, this information by itself has great value on the negotiation table and in the process of international institution design. For theorists, findings about China contribute one data point that can be pooled with others into a randomized, multiple-case study of states’ sensitivity to gap in gain. As King, Keohane, and Verba point out, only such an aggregate work can truly verify theory (1994:115-49). This research is only a humble steppingstone toward that achievement.

III. Hypotheses and Methodology

This research seeks to answer the question, “What factors influence post- Mao China’s sensitivity to relative gain in economic cooperation?” My hypotheses are that China becomes more sensitive when: a) it deals with larger and equal states, b) the stakes of the deal is high, and c) the cost of translating relative gain into force against China is low. The alternative hypotheses are that the effect of these factors on China’s sensitivity is either zero or in the other direction.

In order to measure the dependent variable—China’s sensitivity to relative gain—we need to identify behaviors that indicate China’s concern. If China cares more about absolute gain, it will mainly strive to prevent cheating by favoring deals that 1a) have longer horizon (which turns Prisoner’s Dilemma into an iterated game), 1b) have fewer actors (which facilitates verification and punishment of cheaters), and 1c) have more issue-linkages (which increases the iterativeness of cooperation across issue-areas).

If, on the other hand, China cares more about relative gain, it will have the opposite preference, i.e. deals that 2a) have shorter horizon (which allows easy exit if gaps in gain favor the partner), 2b) have more actors (which offsets relative loss to better-positioned partners with relative gain over weaker partners), and 2c) have less issue-linkages (which prevents relative gain in one area to be transferred in yet another area.) Thus, if presented with a choice, China’s preference along these three dimensions will reveal its sensitivity to relative gain.[6]

Measuring the first two dependent variables is rather straightforward. Firstly, the size of China’s partner-states can be gauged via GDP (I will also consider other measurements of state’s power.) Secondly, the stake of the economic deal will be quantified in the amount of dollars. On the other hand, measuring the third dependent variable—the cost of translating relative gain into force against China—demands a closer look into the specific arrangement of the deal. I can provide two illuminating examples. A low-cost situation is the 1992 US-China Agreement: in this case, if China complied to eliminate nontariff barriers against US exports, US industries could easily dominate China’s market and crowd out domestic manufacturers (Ross 1999:186, United States 1995:4-5). A high-cost situation is the 1997 Asian crisis: in this case, even if China responsibly pledged not to pursue protectionist measures, its deeply-troubled neighboring states have little prospect of turning gains into pressures against China (Shambaugh 2004:68).


[1] See (Grieco 1988), (Mearsheimer 1994:12, 1995:86), and (Gilpin 1986:304).

[2] See (Powell 1991), (Keohane 1993:377), (Keohane and Martin 1995:44) and (Grieco 1993).

[3] See (Snidal 1991:173) and (Keohane and Martin 1995:41).

[4] (Johnston 2003:12-16) provides convincing statistics of China’s high rate of participation in institutions as well as its consistent record of compliance (see Appendix for statistics). Chinese officials and academics are also keen to emphasize China’s “Peaceful Rise” (Bijian 2005).

[5] Both sides acknowledge that states show different levels of sensitivity in the security and economic arena (Grieco 1988, Keohane and Martin 1995). (Lipson 1984) observes that political-economic relationships are more institutionalized than military-security ones.

[6] (Axelrod and Keohane 1985) discuss how states design cooperation to prevent cheating. Building on this work, (Grieco 1988) proposes the empirical methodology to distinguish between relative and absolute gain concerns, which I use in this research. Both realists and institutionalists generally agree with this distinction. See supporting arguments in (Snidal 1991), (Keohane 1993) and (Powell 1991).

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So that is the attempt to dispel my worry that I have played too much Starcraft 2. The full version with bibliography and appendix can be download here. I wish I had time to explain why this research on particularly the issue of China’s sensitivity to relative gain can spell the fate of world peace, but by posting this I’m procrastinating the actual research lolz. So, to be continued, when the research finally bears fruits–real, original fruits that contribute to the scholarly debate, and not the paraphrasing bullshit that undergraduate researches often produce.

If there is any IR major who is also interested in the fundamental clash of realism and liberalism on relative gain, your critique is very much appreciated.

This late afternoon, I was waiting to talk to my IR professor (one of the smarter that I’ve met). Someone else was in his office before me, who, from the sounds of apologetic self-explanations that I overheard, seemed to be in quite an awkward situation. Suddenly the door popped open, and my professor signaled me in, even though they clearly weren’t done talking:

“Hey Anh, I just want to have you with us in this conversation. Here is [can’t-remember-his-name], a student from China . . .”

– Who (not a FOB), very unfortunately, decided to use historical knowledge learned since the days of Chinese high school in his IR paper (Example of his non-cited claim: U.S’s post-World War II trade policies towards Japan was exploitative.) I was summoned in, clearly expected by my professor to echo his sympathetic concern with Asian students’ struggling transition from an education that, unlike the American one, “discourage analytical skills and perpetuate distorted facts.”

And I was like: “Hell yeah. I bet this dude thinks Spratly Island is China’s, too.”

Nah, I didn’t. That’s for another time.

The point of this entry is to dispel the almost universally accepted stereotype, by Asians and Westerners alike, that somehow Asian students are indoctrinated with what I’ll call “submissive thinking”. The reasons offered are all too well-known: rote memorization, unquestioned authority, and culture of test-taking, to name just a few.

But the more familiar I become with the American system, the more disgusted I am by this complete myth. Never ever in my academic career do I wish that “Geez, if only I had the critical thinking that those American kids have.” Granted, I was surprised to learn that Ngo Dinh Diem was a nationalist. Granted, I never knew that the 1939 pact between Soviet and Germany was not to “strategically postpone confrontation” as our history book says, but to jointly invade Poland. A lot of you probably had similarly disturbing experiences as a VN student overseas too.

But mark this: all of those are merely factual discoveries, and thus are not intellectually disruptive. We never knew Diem was a nationalist, or Stalin a dictator, only because we were never taught so – and that’s all there is to it, completely non-indicative in any ways of our capability to think. This is a crucial distinction. One can possess excellent analytical skills, and yet retain a utterly distorted picture of the world, simply because he was introduced to false facts. And yet too often people erroneously equate biased world view with non-analytical mind, and count it as evidence against Asian students. (Who lacks the critical thinking now?) Indeed, we can only convict students of submissive thinking if they are taught 1) “Diem is a coward”, 2) “Diem defied some US guidance deemed too patronizing” and was still able to comfortably swallow both facts without questioning.

Some others argue that the culture of unquestioned authority does not encourage students to think. I admit the existence of “unquestioned authority” in Asian school. But I found its effect to be the opposite. The American system is highly protective of individual opinions, which seems like a good thing, but has the unexpected effect of encouraging stupid questions, especially in high school. (Yes, there are dumb questions – my apology for shattering your kindergarten myth.) Students ask questions compulsively, even about trivialities that they could have easily answered had they allowed themselves the chance to ruminate over. Or they share carelessly, invariably prefaced with “I just feel like”, and always concluded by “You see what I’m saying?”

For the millionth time, large-quantity talk is mistakenly prized over high-quality silence.

On the other hand, the stifling atmosphere of Asian school can be perversely conducive to critical thinking. For the 16-something-me, who was high on testosterone, and low on self-restraint, precisely the expectation to not question tempted me only more, in the relentless pursuit of being the rebelliously and masculinely cool. (Hence my high school moniker and gaming alias: Quốc hổ báo.) And the fact that a frivolous question will be readily dismissed only forces you to formulate your thoughts more carefully, fortifying it with logic so strong yet so clear that even a teacher with his privileged position still has to reckon with. Add to that is the challenge to clothe your irreverence in words and inflection whose sarcasm can be clearly felt and yet whose insolence can’t be convicted. The entire ordeal, for me, proved to be extremely intellectual and artistic at the same time.

As can be seen, Asian students may have a terribly misguided worldview, but are nonetheless a critical thinker. The fact that they can very quickly catch up – or, transition, I should say – and excel academically in the American schools is the incontrovertible proof that their problem is not an issue of defect thinking style, which is much more chronic, and only a matter of factual deficiency, which can be cured rather easily. I am indeed thankful that American college provides me with a fuller world view and ample research opportunities – but critical thinking, please, I learned it elsewhere.

So if anyone dares to tell me I am less of a critical thinker than American students, I swear to God, I will beat reason the shit out of him.

Oh, and don’t feel bad for the Chinese dude. He ended up having a presentation before class to share his story, titled “How I quit being a misguided Asian student and you can too.”

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At this point I had to hesitate a little. I wonder if my stated view and experience is typical, or you guys have it differently? May be I’m anomalously skeptical, even too cynical perhaps, that my conclusions are drawn from a non-representative sample. What was your transitioning experience?

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Here is a relevant article by The Korean, one of the coolest Asians on the Internet :D. He lived in Seoul until the age of 16, moved to Los Angeles, and from knowing limited English, worked his way up to being a salutatorian in two years. He’s now working in a D.C. law firm. This guy anonymously started this “Ask a Korean!” blog during his years in Columbia Law School, intending to answer everything Korea-related.

Overrated/Underrated: The Asian Way: http://askakorean.blogspot.com/2010/11/overratedunderrated-asian-way.html

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Update Nov. 17: The entire part on the VN system was way too sugarcoated. I apologized for reconstructing reality to fit my predetermined agenda of trashing the American system and praising the Asian one. I should have deleted it as a decent nerd does, but I spent freaking 3 hours (that should have gone into paper) into this entry, so we’ll keep it here for now LoL.  Sorry. Check out the Korean’s article instead. It’s fairer, and use general examples other than personal ones.

Consumerism is no longer all around us. It’s us. From mundane observations of daily impulsive buying, to sociological analysis of high status associated with having “stuff”. As often is the case, such ubiquity exudes a sense of commonness, and ultimately, also tragically, soon elicits acceptability.

“No, that’s absurd!” My classmate John in International Political Economy protested, “We are not mindless infants being coaxed, nay, indoctrinated by capitalism into psychotic buying spree. Granted, we consume a lot of stuff that we don’t need. But isn’t that just called higher standard of living? Sure I don’t have an innate demand for an iPod, a big screen TV, or a SUV – but as long as those stuff make me happy enough to decide to buy them, then it is a rational decision.

Jon, incidentally a economics major (I can’t help but notice), seems to offer here a formidable defense that promises to exonerate all forms of consumerism. I buy ’em because I want ’em- such is the argument, often clothed in economic terms such as “increased utility”.

Let’s pause here and think for a moment. If the fact that you want to do something is enough to constitute the rationality of your decision to do it – then is there any decision at all that can be called “irrational”?

Eh..n..no? – your sense of logic mumbles, apprehensively under the menacing figure of common sense.

YES, your sense of logic is right (as always; and thus should be listened to more often.)

A decision already implicates free will. Because of that, if we accept Jon’s justification of rationality as “because I want it”, then rationality is built right into the concept of a decision itself. Thus, the two concepts of rationality and decision become inseparable, and thereby effectively negating the possibility of any irrational decision. And if there is not any irrational decision, then there is not any rational decision either – but only decision.

Let’s clear up this philosophical thicket a little bit. How about counterexamples (ah, they do wonders!) that prove the existence of “irrational decision”? Well, I just decided to buy my 5th house. “Doesn’t matter,” John says, “because that newest house clearly raises your utility enough for you to buy it (despite the decreasing marginal utility of being the 5th.)”

To push it further – well, I just decided to buy that 5th house, which pushes me into financial ruin. “Doesn’t matter,” John retorts, “if you had anticipated your financial disaster and yet still proceeded, it means that you had rationally weighed the utility of that 5th house against the potential troubles. If you hadn’t anticipated the mess due to incomplete information, it is even more rational at the deciding moment to buy the 5th house.”

To push it further still – well, I just decided to buy that 5th house, whose price is substantially higher than others available (which I am fully aware of.) “Doesn’t matter,” John persists, “you might have gained non-financial satisfaction from the transaction, such as the smugness of careless spending. Given the fact that no two goods are identical, the decision is even more defensible – there might just be something about this house that you like it.”

Thus, I have demonstrated that no matter how outrageous your decision is, you can still defend its rationality by resorting to say: “I did get satisfaction out of that.” And because rationality in this sense (i.e. Jon’s definition) does not give any new information about decision, “rational decision” is a redundant and meaningless term. Therefore, you cannot justify your buying decision as rational simply because you believe that you want that iPad, or because you believe it will make you happier. Such is a fatally flawed, yet plausibly presented, argument that is accepted by who-knows-how-many social science students that do not equip themselves with the precision and subtlety of philosophy.

Whereas a capitalistic society does not strive much to encourage your rationality, it spends substantial resources to facilitate your rationalization. The 2nd counterexample eerily harks back to the immediate cause of the Great Recession, in which banks helped people rationalize their spending with cheap credit and dubious financial advice. The 3rd counterexample hints at advertising, the infamous midwife of consumerism, whose goal is none but indoctrinating consumers with brand/design differentiation. There is no doubt that some design improvement or differentiation is concrete and legitimate – but think how many people are constantly trying to have the newest stuff just because it is cool to do so? That very attitude is the smoking gun of the consumerist indoctrination.

These last words should be reserved to clear away any suspicion that being a economics major somehow makes John less precise or less subtle. I do not mean to say so. However, for many economics dilettantes, terms such as “rational decision” or “increased utility” have been so frequently and axiomatically mentioned that their precise meanings are being abused. So just think twice about what you say, John. (That I did not tell him in class.)

Edit (09/22/10): Replace the Starcraft 2 and girlfriend counterexamples, which are neither relevant nor even funny.

The message is mildly interesting, while the writing is exceedingly prosaic. This is more of a french exercise than of a political economic treatise – so read on at your own risk.

Le problème de chômage reste un sujet que beaucoup de gouvernements affrontent dans le monde actuellement. Personne ne désire le chômage, mais peu réussit à l’éradiquer. En essayant d’améliorer la situation, les gouvernements et les organisations sociales dépensent prodigalement de temps et d’argent, mais le résultat reste minimal. Pourquoi ça ? Pourquoi le problème persiste bien que tout le société essaye ? C’est un question que les économistes ne peuvent pas répondre tout seul (ils sont ce qui concevaient ces politiques futiles, n’est-ce pas ?) Afin que nous comprenions le problème de chômage, il est nécessaire de consulter les économistes politiques, dont sagesse leur permet de reconnaître que le chômage n’est pas simplement un phénomène économique mais aussi un sujet social.

Le défaut à le raisonnement des économistes est tellement clair qu’ils ne le voient pas. Qui décide les politiques économiques ? Pas les économistes, mais les politiciens, dont but n’est pas directement une meilleure économie, mais ses réélections. Qui participe à l’économie ? Pas les économistes, mais les gens ordinaires, qui ne comprennent pas les graphes et les équations, et dont actions dépendent seulement des informations incomplètes et imprécises. En plus, le fait que ces groupes des acteurs, les politiciens et les citoyens, ne soient pas puissant également – celles soient plus organisées, celles soient moins mobilisées – contribue à faiblir la main invisible que l’économistes classiques adorent. Tout le monde veut vraiment maximiser sa valeur économique comme prédit, mais pas tout le monde possède le fort politique nécessaire pour l’accomplir. Donc, il est probable qu’un groupe désorganisé doit souffrir le chômage au lieu d’une autre.

Quel est un exemple ? Les États-Unis sont notoirement connu pour une absence de politiques qui améliorent la mauvaise situation des gens inemployés. Beaucoup croient que c ‘est simplement l’esprit Américain : on doit être responsable de sa propre vie. Mais ce raisonnement est trop naïf. Demandez quelques gens inemployés, qui dorment dans la rue, qui ont peu à manger, et qui combattent à survivre chaque jour, s’ils ne veulent pas d’aide. En plus, même si nous sommes d’accord avec la supposition que les Américains n’ai nullement envie de ni aider ni recevoir l’aide, pourquoi ils adoptent cet idéologique dès le début reste inexpliqué.

Pour déchiffrer cette mystère économique, il faut que nous nous demandions : qui bénéficiera si le gouvernement décide à améliorer le chômage ? La réponse est claire : les inemployés. Ce qui est moins clair est la nature désorganisé de ce groupe : en essayant à survivre chaque jour, ils n’ont pas la capacité de s’amasser et exprimer son vouloir politique collectivité. A quoi s’ajoute le fait que les retraités, qui ne bénéficieront pas directement de moins de chômage, soient particulièrement organisés. Ils ont beaucoup de temps libre et beaucoup de ressources financières, tous deux sont le plus indispensable ingrédient d’un groupe politique puissante. Mais encore, l’économie qui consiste plus de service que de manufacture des Etats-Unis demande une provision stable de travailleurs bon-marchés et inhabiletés. Cela veut dire une seule chose : les entreprises, une autre groupe organisée, n’ont pas non plus besoin d’aider les inemployés.

Pour résumer d’un mot : les problèmes économiques, comme le chômage, ne peuvent pas être résolues si on n’examine pas ses conséquences politiques. Qui gagnera ? Qui perdra ? Et surtout, qui possède le fort politique ? Reconnus par quelques-uns, ignorés par la majorité, ces questions nous apportons plein de révélations quand nous essayons de combattre le chômage, un problème qui est capable de déstabiliser sérieusement notre système économique et social.

Xem entry đề bài SAT Tiếng Việt – Đọc và Hiểu ở đây.

Đáp án

Điền vào chỗ trống (Sentence-completion):

1. Sa lầy trước lối đánh du kích của kẻ địch, cả quân đoàn chịu thiệt hại về vật chất nhưng đặc biệt là suy giảm về tinh thần. Trong tình cảnh ấy, viên chỉ huy cảm thấy binh lính của mình phải bị/được —— kịp thời.
(A) Viện trợ
(B) Ủy lạo – thăm hỏi, động viên tinh thần những người làm việc vất vả, hy sinh vì sự nghiệp chung.
(C) Bổ sung
(D) Giải thể
(E) Tuyên huấn – tuyên truyền và huấn luyện.

Giải thích: Cụm từ “nhưng đặc biệt là suy giảm về tinh thần” là mấu chốt trong câu này (hay theo từ chuyên môn của SAT là “signal phrase” – nếu không đi thuyết trình SAT mình cũng chả biết được cái này đâu :D) Như vậy, mặc dù cả 5 từ đều có thể điền vào tương đối phù hợp, chỉ có từ “Ủy lạo” là đáp ứng được sự nhấn mạnh lên yếu tố “tinh thần.”

2. Ông Thành là một quan chức —— : làm việc công minh, giao thiệp đứng đắn, và vì thế đều bị/được mọi người cho là ——.
(A) Có thâm niên . . hoàn toàn – “hoàn toàn: hoàn hảo (từ hơi cũ tí)”
(B) Nghiêm chỉnh . . hủ nho – “hủ nho: nhà nho có tư tưởng cũ kĩ và quá lạc hậu, lỗi thời”
(C) Khôn ngoan . . đáng nể
(D) Mô phạm . . mẫu mực – “mô phạm: mẫu mực để mọi người noi theo”
(E) Cần mẫn . . dại dột

Giải thích: Có 1 điểm đáng chú ý: những mô tả về ông Thành sau dấu hai chấm phải bổ trợ cho những gì ở trước dấu hai chấm; tương tự, tính từ trong mệnh đề “vì thế …” phải tương thích với những gì ở trước nó. Vậy thì:

Phương án (A) loại vì “có thâm niên” không liên quan tới “đứng đắn, công minh”. Phương án (B) loại vì “hủ nho” cũng không tương thích. Phương án (E) loại vì quá phỏng đoán và chủ quan (chẳng có lí gì để hành xử đứng đắn lại nghiễm nhiên là một điều dại dột).

Còn lại (C) và (D) – nếu biết rõ nghĩa từ “mô phạm” trong (D), và không hiểu nhầm nó sang “nhà giáo dục” hay một cái gì tương tự, thì bạn sẽ thấy nó đúng hơn từ “khôn ngoan” trong (C) (bởi công minh và đứng đắn là biểu hiện của phẩm chất chứ không phải là kết quả của sự tính toán.)

Tìm mối quan hệ (Analogies):

1. Trở ngại : Ngăn cản ::
(A) Cứu cánh : Giải nguy – “Cứu cánh: mục đích cuối cùng”
(B) Phương tiện : Sử dụng
(C) Phần thưởng : Trao tặng
(D) Thuận lợi : Hỗ trợ
(E) Phụ lục : Bổ cứu – “Bổ cứu: thêm vào chỗ thiếu và sửa lại chỗ sai”

Giải thích: Mối quan hệ ở đây có thể diễn đạt như sau. Nếu A là “trở ngại” đối với B, thì A sẽ “ngăn cản” B.

Câu này chỉ khó duy nhất ở chỗ “cứu cánh” bị dùng sai bởi không biết bao nhiêu nhà báo nhà đài – nhiều đến mức mình suýt hộc máu mà chết như phim Tàu. Các bạn ạ, “Cứu cánh” nghĩa là “mục đích cuối cùng” (ví dụ: nghệ thuật là cứu cánh, không phải là phương tiện), và “cứu cánh” KHÔNG HỀ CÓ GÌ LIÊN QUAN tới nghĩa “chiếc phao cứu nạn” hay là “người ra tay giúp đỡ” cả đâu.
Phù. Nói ra được nhẹ cả người.

Vậy đáp án đúng duy nhất là (D). Nếu A là “thuận lợi” đối với B, thì A sẽ “hỗ trợ” B.

Từ trái nghĩa (Antonyms):

1. CHỮ CHI: – dùng để tả đường nét gấp khúc
(A) Khúc khuỷu
(B) Thẳng thớm
(C) Hình thang
(D) Lòa xòa
(E) Vuông vắn

Giải thích: cũng chỉ đơn giản là đố từ – mình không dám ba hoa gì thêm.

2. HỦ HÓA: – trở thành hư hỏng, mất phẩm chất tốt đẹp
(A) Tiến bộ
(B) Y nguyên
(C) Nền nếp
(D) Phong kiến
(E) Khỏe mạnh

Giải thích: Câu này nó khó ở chỗ, từ “hủ hóa” rõ ràng gợi nên một nét gì rất cổ hủ, tiêu cực, nên ta rất dễ chọn (A) Tiến bộ hay (E) Khỏe mạnh. Tuy vậy, (E) rõ ràng sai, vì “hủ hóa” đề cập phạm trù tinh thần, chứ không phải thể xác. (A) sai là vì “hủ hóa” mang nghĩa đi ra ngoài một trật tự xã hội đã định, vì thế không hề trái nghĩa với “tiến bộ” (Trái nghĩa với “tiến bộ” sẽ là “bám sát vào một trật tự xã hội lỗi thời” – hay còn gọi là “hủ lậu”). Sự khác biệt, mình biết, bé thật là bé. Các bạn có thể, và mình khuyến khích, dùng từ điển để kiểm tra.

Vậy là, vì “hủ hóa” mang nghĩa đi ra ngoài trật tự xã hội, nó trái nghĩa với (C) Nền nếp.


Câu hỏi về đoạn văn (Passage-based questions):

Nhận xét chung: Có vài nhận định cơ bản nhưng rất quan trọng về hai đoạn văn này trong việc hiểu kĩ chúng. Đoạn 1 mang tính chất cung cấp thông tin về triết học Marx, và về Marx nghĩ như thế nào về triết học Hegel – điều tối quan trọng cần thấy là, Đoạn 1 không hề lập luận về sự đúng sai trong triết học Marx hay triết học Hegel. Ngược lại, Đoạn 2 lập luận một cách logic để xem xét giá trị của Triết học Hegel.

(Cũng xin chú thích là Đoạn 1 mình lấy từ wikipedia, Đoạn 2 là của triết gia Trần Đức Thảo, nghe wiki bào thì du học ở Pháp thời còn cách mạng, về làm giám đốc Viện Khoa học Xã hội Việt Nam, và thêm  vài chiến tích khác nữa. Nói tóm lại, 2 đoạn này không phải là do mình chém ra đâu nhé. Các bạn có thể theo link mình đã thêm ở entry đề bài để tìm bản gốc.)

1. Nhận định nào được ủng hộ bởi cả hai đoạn văn trên:
(A) Phương pháp biện chứng vốn không tương thích với lập trường duy tâm
(B) Hegel cho rằng thực tế khách quan được quyết định bởi tinh thần
(C) Cách mạng muốn thành công phải tuân theo thuyết duy vật biện chứng
(D) Hegel đã nhầm lẫn trong cách sử dụng phép biện chứng do chính mình phát triển
(E) Dưới sự lãnh đạo tài tình của Đảng và Nhà nước, công cuộc xây dựng XHCN nhất định thắng lợi

Giải thích: Các đáp án khả dĩ chỉ có (A), (B), và (D). (Và các bạn đừng hiểu nhầm – mình không có ý rằng sự thắng lợi của công cuộc xây dựng XHCN dưới sự lãnh đạo của Đàng và Nhà nước không phải là điểu khả dĩ đâu nhá.)
(A) và (D) sai, bởi vì Đoạn 1 hoàn toàn không đề cập đến vấn đề đúng/sai, hay bản chất của phép biện chứng là gì. Đoạn 1 chỉ nói về Marx nghĩ gì mà thôi.

Vậy nhận định duy nhất được ủng hộ bởi cả hai đoạn là (B).

2. Nhận định nào sau đây nói lên được một sự khác biệt quan trọng giữa hai đoạn văn trên:
(A) Đoạn 1 cung cấp thông tin về triết học Marx, trong khi Đoạn 2 cung cấp thông tin về triết học Hegel
(B) Đoạn 1 ủng hộ một học thuyết, trong khi Đoạn 2 phản bác một học thuyết
(C) Đoạn 1 phổ biến thông tin, trong khi Đoạn 2 cố gắng thuyết phục
(D) Đoạn 1 giải thích phép biện chứng duy vật, trong khi Đoạn 2 giải thích phép biện chứng duy tâm
(E) Đoạn 1 thuyết phục bằng dẫn chứng lịch sử, trong khi Đoạn 2 thuyết phục bằng logic

Giải thích: Như đã trình bày ở Nhận xét chung, Đoạn 1 cung cấp thông tin, còn Đoạn 2 lập luận để thuyết phục độc giả có cùng quan điểm với tác giả. Tuy nhiên, mình thừa nhận đáp án (A) có phần lờ mờ, vì nói Đoạn 2 cung cấp thông tin về triết học Hegel cũng được.

Vậy mình chấp nhận cả (C) lẫn (A) – cá nhân mình nghĩ (C) đúng hơn.

3. Cụm từ nào miêu tả chính xác nhất giọng điệu của Đoạn 2:
(A) Lập luận khách quan
(B) Chỉ trích gay gắt
(C) Bảo vệ ý kiến chủ quan
(D) Văn hoa rắc rối
(E) Chém gió đừng hỏi

Giải thích: Chỉ trích thì có, gay gắt thì không đến mức, vì ít ra tác giả đoạn 2 cũng thừa nhận sự tiến bộ của biện chứng Hegel ở cuối bài – vậy (B) loại, còn lại (A) và (C) là hai đáp án thật khó chọn.

Nó khó ở chỗ, rõ ràng tác giả đoạn 2 đang trình bày một ý kiến chủ quan hòng thuyết phục người đọc nghe theo mình. Tuy nhiên, ta phải nhận rõ sự khác biệt trong “mục đích” và “giọng điệu”. Mục đích của đoạn 2 quả thực là bảo vệ ý kiến chủ quan, nhưng giọng điệu của nó hoàn toàn không như vậy, hoàn toàn không có lối nói “tôi thấy rằng/tin rằng, v.v…”

Tất cả các lập luận trong đoạn 2 đều mang tính khách quan – vì vậy, (A) là đáp án đúng.

4. Trong câu (3), cụm từ “trên đầu” có nghĩa là:
(A) Quan trọng
(B) Đầu tiên
(C) Kết quả
(D) Lý trí
(E) Vai trò lãnh đạo

Giải thích: Đây là câu mình thích nhất :D. Thích bởi vì cụm từ “trên đầu” ở đây mang nghĩa ngược hẳn lại với những cách hiểu thông thường, và để nắm được nghĩa thật ấy ta phải hiểu ý toàn bài (Thích hơn nữa vì lại có một câu đố nho nhỏ như vậy trong một bài viết wiki chỉ tình cờ bắt gặp.)

Từ cả hai đoạn, ta có thể rút ra rằng Hegel là người theo chủ nghĩa duy tâm, còn Marx theo chủ nghĩa duy vật. Như vậy, khi nói “Marx cho rằng phải đặt [vận động thực tế] ở dưới chân”, thì “dưới chân” có nghĩa là nền tảng, nguyên nhân. Ngược lại, khi nói “Hegel đặt vận động thực tế lên đầu”, thì “lên đầu” khi ấy, thú vị thay, mang nghĩa kết quả, hệ quả. Điều này phù hợp với dữ kiện là Hegel cho rằng tinh thần quyết định vật chất/vận động thực tế.

Vậy đáp án đúng là (C) Kết quả.

5. Trong câu (14), tác giả của Đoạn 2 ám chỉ rằng:
(A) Con người vốn lười suy nghĩ, không chịu tiếp thu ý tưởng mới
(B) Một cá nhân không thể có mâu thuẫn với bản thân về mặt tinh thần
(C) Chủ nghĩa duy tâm không thể là nguồn gốc của phương pháp biện chứng
(D) Nếu chỉ dựa vào tinh thần, nhân loại không thể phát triển và tiến bộ
(E) Hegel đã dốt lại còn cố tỏ ra nguy hiểm

Giải thích: Thú thật lúc đầu mình định để đáp án là (B), vì mình cho rằng đây là một phát hiện khá thú vị: trong tinh thần thuần túy thì người ta chỉ có thể tĩnh và bảo thủ được mà thôi. Nghĩa là, khi bạn đổi ý, thì cái quyết định mới là ý chí mới của bạn – vậy là bạn chỉ có thể đi từ bảo thủ một ý chí này đến bảo thủ một ý chí khác, chứ không thể có mâu thuẫn với bản thân.

Tuy nhiên mình nhận ra mình quên mất không dùng từ “thuần tinh thần” mà dùng từ “tinh thần” nên (B) không đúng được nữa, vì có thể có mâu thuẫn trong tinh thần do mâu thuẫn trong thực tế gây ra. Vậy mình chọn (C) là đáp án đúng – (C) cũng chính là điều tác giả đoạn 2 muốn lập luận xuyên suốt.

6. Tác giả Đoạn 2 sẽ có phản ứng gì đối với việc Marx phản bác Hegel trong các câu 2-3 và 6-8
(A) Vui mừng vì đây là những bằng chứng cho sự sai lầm của thuyết duy tâm Hegel
(B) Hững hờ vì nó chả ảnh hưởng vẹo gì đến lập luận của mình
(C) Bực mình vì tác giả Đoạn 1 lập luận không logic
(D) Buồn phiền vì giới trẻ bây giờ toàn hiểu sai về Marx
(E) Khâm phục vì Marx đã hoàn thiện phương phép biện chứng do Hegel sáng tạo ra

Giải thích: Một lần nữa thì, do đoạn 1 là cung cấp thông tin và không lập luận, nên quả thật, nó chả ảnh hưởng vẹo gì đến sự đúng sai của tác giả đoạn 2. Ông ấy hững hờ là phải thôi, và (B) là đáp án đúng.

Trao thưởng

Trả lời đúng 10 trên 11 câu, bạn Minh đầu (hơi bị) búa đã giành chiến thắng!

Xin chúc mừng bạn Minh!
… và xin chia buồn với mình…vì mình định trao giải đặc biệt là một buổi tối cafe lãng mạn, giữa ánh nến lung linh và trong tiếng dương cầm êm ái… :-<
… thật là buồn 5 giây :-<

Phụ lục từ

Dưới đây là một số từ hơi khó dùng. Nó khó không phải vì nó cổ, không ai thèm biết và thèm dùng nữa. Mà khó ở chỗ, là bao nhiêu kẻ tự xưng là nhà báo, nhà đài, tay cầm tấm bằng 4 năm đại học, miệng bô bô Tiếng Việt mấy chục năm, vẫn cứ dùng sai. Đối với chúng ta, những người dành bao thời gian cày cuốc list từ SAT, mình lại càng thấy có trách nhiệm phải hiểu đúng và dùng đúng Tiếng Việt thân thương trước hết.

1. Cứu cánh: mục đích cuối cùng
* Không hề mang nghĩa “chiếc phao cứu nạn” hay cái gì tương tự.
** Ví dụ: nghệ thuật là phương tiện, không phải là cứu cánh.
(Xin thề là 8/10 lần mình bắt gặp từ này thì nó bị dùng sai thậm tệ)

2. Yếu điểm: điểm quan trọng
* Không hề cùng nghĩa hay gần nghĩa với “điểm yếu”
** Ví dụ dùng SAI: Mình nhà giàu học giỏi, có mỗi cái yếu điểm là tốt bụng quá. (Nghe lọt tai đấy chứ – nhưng mà sai hoàn toàn bạn ạ.)

3. Lãi suất
** Ví dụ dùng SAI: gửi tiền ngân hàng lấy lãi suất.
“Lãi suất” là cái % ý, chứ không phải là cái tiền mà rút ra được. ĐÚNG ra phải nói là: gửi tiền ngân hàng lấy lãi.

4. Mô phạm: mẫu mực đáng để mọi người nói theo.
* Mô phạm hay được dùng để chỉ nhà giáo dục – nhà mô phạm. Cách dùng này đúng, nhưng ta cần hiểu nó là một nghĩa phụ được rút ra từ nghĩa “mẫu mực”

5. Hoàn vũ: toàn vũ trụ
* “Hoa hậu hoàn vũ” là “Miss Universe” – cách dùng này chính xác. Mình chỉ băn khoăn không hiểu sao người ta lại gọi là “Bước nhảy hoàn vũ” 😀 – có sự nhầm lẫn nào chăng, rằng “hoàn vũ” gần nghĩa với đẹp/hoàn hảo/v.v…?

6. Đồng bóng: tính thất thường, hay thay đổi
* Từ này thi thoảng bị dùng với sắc thái nghĩa “đàn bà”. Sự nhầm lẫn này cũng dễ xảy ra vì người ta vẫn thường nghĩ đàn bà con gái thì hay thay đổi, mưa nắng thất thường.