Thought experiments:


Tyler Cowen has a fun thought experiment over at Marginal Revolution. The discussion in the comments  section really brought out the medieval geeks.

I wanted to ask for survival tips in case I am unexpectedly transported to a random location in Europe (say for instance current France/Benelux/Germany) in the year 1000 AD (plus or minus 200 years). I assume that such transportation would leave me with what I am wearing, what I know, and nothing else. Any advice would help.

I hope you have an expensive gold wedding band but otherwise start off by keeping your mouth shut.  Find someone who will take care of you for a few days or weeks and then look for employment in the local church.  Your marginal product is quite low, even once you have learned the local language.  You might think that knowing economics, or perhaps quantum mechanics, will do you some good but in reality people won’t even think your jokes are funny.  Even if you can prove Euler’s Theorem from memory no one will understand your notation.  I hope you have a strong back and an up to date smallpox vaccination.

Is there any way [you] can leverage knowledge of modernity into socially valuable outputs?  Would prattling on about sanitation and communicable diseases do him any good?

My favorite reader responses included the following:

  • Generally agreed that opening a distillery is a good move. Cognac and whiskey would be more powerful than anything available then and would be easy to make
  • Become a false profit (you’d be taller, paler, and more toothed  then anyone)
  • Introduce accounting, mass production and specialization making horse carts
  • Steal a horse and head to Asia/Arabia as quickly as the horse can carry you
  • (And the obligatory) Invent the 3G iPhone

But there’s really no obvious answer to this question (unlike being transported to 1970, 1950 or 1900)

I’ll add another thought experiment to this (courtesy of Dean Karlan): What if you were transported to a rural village in the developing world without any connections or possessions.  Would you do better or worse than the average village dweller? Certainly there would be the obvious disadvantages — lack of language, the relevant practical skills and cultural knowledge.

Would the advantages compensate?

– You (start out) big, strong and healthy
– You understand markets (well .. some of you at least)
– You are very comfortable with financial vehicles such as loans, investment and savings
– Confident knowledge of sanitation

I go back on forth on this one.  Sam has some nice thoughts in Barefoot Basketball. Opinions?


5 Responses to “Thought experiments:”

  1. Nic Says:

    Nice post.

    I think a lot about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and I think there is a parallel here.
    Maslow talks about the needs we have as human beings that are pre-requisites for self-actualization.
    I think what you’re referring to above is economic self-actualization (how do I maximize, or optimize, my economic situation?) We do that partly by outsourcing all the lower end needs we have (fresh water, heating, etc.) to other parties. But this is a phenomenon that is relatively recent to us in the US, and not quite there in many parts of the world.
    Many of the skills we learn as white collar workers assume that lower end needs are already satisfied. Eliminate that assumption and all of a sudden a lot of the learning and training we’ve had over the years isn’t so valuable.
    Instead of being transported back in time, what if you found yourself in the middle of the Amazon with a tribe of people who had no knowledge of outside civilization (an image of men shooting arrows at a helicopter that appeared in the newspaper recently comes to mind). Your white-collar skills would be just as useless, unless you were somehow able to fashion a GPS device, out of amazonian hardwoods and tree snakes, to guide you back to civilization.

    I personally think the goal is some sort of enlightened personal self-actualization (back to Maslow). But you can only get there once you’ve satisfied all the other goals (try telling a homeless man “to be open his subconscious to understood the real cause and driver of his behavior” and tell me how much luck you have.)

    With economics, it’s pretty easy to make a rational decision about money and other options. What I mean is, there is an opportunity cost to making more money, and people can evaluate that option rationally. Optimizing economic self-actualization may not mean maximizing the economic part, and that’s ok.
    What I don’t quite understand is the personal self-actualization. I don’t see a real opportunity cost to that learning (it takes some time, but nothing like having a 70hour/week job) but the benefits are huge, and yet people don’t seem to pursue them that aggressively.

    I’m rambling, but it’s something that’s been on my mind since moving out here.


  2. phil Says:

    Nic, you always have a different spin when we get too soulless here. Love it.

    Self-actualization is tough when you don’t have your basic needs provided for. A base level of economic success is required before any personal optimization can take place: Food, warmth, shelter.

    Developmental economists typically use the $1 PPP per day income line to divide “poverty” from “extreme poverty.” I suspect this line is also significant in terms of one’s ability to self-actualize. Below that line you are deficient in the basic necessities, and life can be little more than survival. Your homeless guy in the US is actually doing far better than extreme poverty, and I agree, in principle it is not ridiculous to tell him to open his subconscious.

    However , in Cowen’s thought experiment, we’d all die from the plague within a week … so no need to trouble ourselves with Maslow I guess.

  3. Nic Says:

    You don’t think you would know enough to boil the water before drinking it? Or making sure the meat you were eating didn’t smell rotten before putting it in your mouth?

    I would give myself more than a week to die from the plague. Though I might die from hunger and poverty not much after that.

    I agree, the whole idea of personal self-actualization is totally irrelevant for most of the world. At $2 per day, $5 per day, or even $10 per day, you’re still talking about committing a majority of your resources to sustaining life.
    It’s only when you are productive beyond your needs do you have the ‘luxury’ to choose.

  4. Sam Says:

    I believe strongly that if I were put in a city in a developed country in modern times, I would have a strong advantage and be able to thrive compared to my peers. I would have strong advantages for understanding and taking advantages of resources around me (technology, markets, etc). See “Barefoot Basketball.” Plus my appearance would give me greater opportunitis to connect with other people given that our modern world is racist. In a remote tribe in the jungle and I would be screwed because I don’t understand any of the drivers that make that world work.

  5. Sam Says:

    Sorry, I meant “underdeveloped” country. In other words I think that a good American education and experience in business (or elsewhere in the American economy) would give you some tools to succeed as a poor person in a poor city. But not to succeed in some tribe in a jungle.

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