Econ 210a: Readings and Topics
The Next-to-Last Scene of the Iliad

Reading Notes/Discussion Questions for Paul Seabright, "The Company of Strangers"

Trust and Panic/Who's in Charge?

  • Why do we need to trust strangers with our money?
  • Why is it unnatural to trust strangers with our money?
  • What kinds of animals engage in elaborate task sharing between genetically-unrelated individuals?
  • What institutions make elaborate task sharing even possible?
  • Roughly, how many people needed to cooperate to make and get his shirt to Paul Seabright?
  • Who is in charge of the supply of bread to London?
  • Which is a more important underpinning of our economy: our power to engage in rational calculation or our disposition to engage in strong reciprocity?

Man and the risks of nature/Our violent past/How have we tamed our violent instincts?

  • What role does risk-sharing play in making elaborate task sharing beneficial?
  • What role does specialization play in making elaborate task sharing beneficial?
  • What role does the collection of knowledge play in making elaborate task sharing beneficial?
  • Why does Seabright believe that humans--or at least human males--have been predisposed by evolution to be killer apes?
  • What fraction does Seabright think our current murder rate compared to what we think was the case 20,000 years ago?
  • Why do we pay taxi drivers? Why don't taxi drivers claim we stiffed them?
  • Can you think of something that happened this week in which your self interest and strong reciprocity reinforced each other?

How did the social emotions evolve?/Money and human relationships/Honor among thieves: hoarding and stealing/Honor among bankers: what caused the financial crisis?

  • Why is it important that we be able to trust and tend to help near-strangers?
  • In what sense is money perhaps our ultimate trust-making institution?
  • Why do we trust our money?
  • How does the government choose what our money will be?
  • In what sense is your idea that the money you deposited is still in the bank an illusion? In what sense is it a reality?
  • What is a bank run? Wherefore deposit insurance?
  • What is a Ponzi scheme?

Professionalism and fulfillment in work and war/The city, from ancient Athens to modern Manhattan/Water: commodity or social institution?

  • Why are planned cities so often boring?
  • What are we committing ourselves to when we treat water as just another economic commodity?

Prices for everything?/Families and firms /Knowledge and symbolism

  • What must be true about a market for what Seabright calls "tunnel vision" to be most effective?
  • In what sense are prices opinion polls?
  • What things should not be for sale?
  • How large should the islands of central planning in our market economy be? *Why do cities tell us that decentralized market exchange is not enough--that we need collective action, and governance?
  • What is a "winner take all" market? Why are there more of them than there used to be?
  • In what senses is intellectual property like and unlike other forms of property?

Exclusion: unemployment, poverty, and illness/States and empires/

  • "Machine operators become unemployed because other people stop trusting finance directors". How? Why?
  • What is an "information island"?
  • What are "public goods"?
  • Why, in what are supposed to be market economies, do North Atlantic governments spend 40% of the money?

Globalization and Political Action

  • What does Seabright think is wrong with the history modern liberalism tells about itself?
  • How fragile is the great experiment?