Michael Hinge

67Joined Nov 2021


Hi Daniel,

Sorry, I only just saw your comment!

I think Lysenko and Lysenkoism is completely fascinating, but kind of proves the quote above. 

Lysenko was a biologist of sorts whose falsified, confused and just invented results on plants supported Stalinist and Marxist thinking on how people are not innate but created by environments, and then got brought into GOSPLAN to bring these insights to the economy. This is not because there was a lack of brilliant economists initially, just that those Stalin had were either cringing on his party lines, hidden in side posts for their own good, or dead

The problem was both to solve a complex problem (economics) and do it in a way that was acceptable to your masters and Marxist thinking of the time, which made the problem more complex than rocket science.

Once we move past Stalin (Red Plenty is very readable on this!) we get people like Kantorovich stepping out of the shadows. They were really smart, inventing new tools we use today and were really brilliant thinkers, but still had to solve not only the problem of the maths, but also the difficulty in understanding the people who they were supposedly commanding and their complexity and agency. On top of this, some tools and analysis are still forbidden to you.

Compare this with the rocket programme. Brilliant scientists again, solving really difficult problems, but orbital mechanics does not shift its behaviour to ruin your plan based on complicated politics (you may have missed an interaction, but they're a property of your materials and physical forces), and solving physics equations does not contradict Marxist thought (mostly, E=MC2 was banned for a period as it apparently contradicted Marx).

The point of the Soviet Union's failure, or that quote, was not that if it had a few more smart economists or thinkers they would have succeeded, or that economists are somehow better than physicists. The point was that they were trying to do something that could not be done with their or our technology: fully tame and control complexity like it was a space rocket.

Hi Ed!

One thing that falls potentially into all three categories of difficulty is food stocks/reserves, which is an issue with high relevance to exposure to shocks and food insecurity, but really hard to track. 

It's a tricky issue, but could really help many researchers inside and outside of EA to improve!

A few issues we have found which would be very useful to see developed are:

The USDA PSD and FAOSTAT both have estimates for crop year end, but as crop years do not line up effective stocks are higher than this figure. These results are based on a few methodologies, but do not match reality exactly, and are better for globally traded crops. 

Reconcilliation and improving on these estimates is possible, but requires detailed trade data or insider data, which is very commercially sensitive often. Big traders (ABCD companies/COFCO) would know this, but they do not disclose.

Stocks can be reasonably accurate at a global level and when averaged over a period of time, however fluctuations in demand, smuggling and delays in data releases mean they can be hard to track on a country by country basis for the poorest. These are often the countries we care most about for food insecurity.

Stocks in strategic reserves, private reserves and simply in transit can be difficult to divide out. In some cases this suggests chunks of available stocks are missing, or that stocks would not be available to the market if classed as "private" when actually state controlled.

There are EA groups working on food security as a system, such as ALLFED, however while some of the work looks at today's systems, much is concerned about future crop losses in the 5-10% range, up to nuclear winter and wars. It may be something to consider in the context of his tweet and your article, however it is more abstract than food aid today, more about designing ethical and resiliant ways to manufacture foods and the social systems needed to feed everyone in shocks - where the food equivalent of a bank run commonly occurs.