I have to mention a New York Times op-ed in which Roger Cohen can barely contain his glee at the fate of the “masters of the universe” who may now be seeking alternate employement. I sympathize:
economics is still not about money
Economists talk weird
I was going to rant a bit about “Lessons in Love, by Way of Economics” by Ben Stein from the New York Times, but, and I didn’t even think this was possible, the whole thing is too ridiculous to justify it. Suffice to say it’s more bad PR for the poor econ set.
One of my least favorite things about economists is that we often seem more prone to talking about normal stuff in economics-speak. You’d like an example?
In every long-term romantic situation, returns are greater when there is a monopoly.
Good grief. I mean, who is reading a bunch of aphorisms about ‘love’ translated into economics jargon and thinking ‘awesome article’? Plus, as an added irritant, half the dodgy analogies are to finance, not economics, viz “[t]he returns on your investment should at least equal the cost of the investment” etc etc.
Who knows, maybe there could be something interesting under that title. What I hoped might crop up in an article with such a title might be something about the things people want, the monetizing of economics versus the rich motivations of life. From the tail end of the article:
Ben Franklin summed it up well. In times of stress, the three best things to have are an old dog, an old wife and ready money.
OK. It’s the old “no-one ever died wishing they’d spent more time at the office” bit. Shouldn’t that apply to economists too? Then why are economists so keen to spend all their time at the office by talking about normal stuff in economics jargon? That’s tiresome, not fun.
Classifying economics: humanity or science?
How should the discipline of economics be classified within academia – does it belong to the arts, sciences, social sciences, humanities? A wonderful article called ‘The Burden of the Humanities‘ by Wilfred McClay in the Wilson Quarterly got me thinking about that this morning.
Even if we go by something so simple as what degrees are offered in departments of economics there doesn’t seem to be much consensus. While the Bachelor of Arts remains perhaps the most common undergraduate degree in economics, the Bachelor of Science isn’t unheard of; indeed, the London School of Economics, one of the most recognizable schools for the subject, awards the BSc. At Oxford University, the undergraduate degree is the BA, but at postgraduate level the MSc – is this a good reflection of the journey up the hill of science, math and statistics that we economists make on the course of our study? If so, why do so many North American universities – NYU, Yale, Brown, Toronto, etc etc – award the MA as a postgraduate degree (albeit in the US usually as a consolation prize for those abandoning the PhD)? What about something like Economics and Finance? Is that more BSc-ish than just economics?
Do we belong to the humanities or to science? This question is obviously closely tied to the ethos of economics teaching, especially the positivist teaching method and the quantification of the discipline. If your economics education focuses on the political, moral, philosophical, historical, intellectual parts of economics, it sounds more like the humanities. If it focuses on the mathematical, statistical, empirical, experimental, computational parts, it sounds more like science, or at the very least, ‘social’ science. Maybe since there’s no ‘standard’ blend of these two categories in an economics degree it’s right that we don’t know which degree is more appropriate; all I know is that the scientific categories are much, much more prevalent in the content of US undergraduate economics education than the humanities categories.
McClay’s essay talks about the defining characteristics of humanities, borrowing first from the National Endowment for the Humanities definition which allows the humanities to include, among other things:
“those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods…”
This would seem to allow economics into the party, since it is closely concerned with human behavior, especially microeconomics which is obsessed with how people make choices and decisions. Or is it? Historically, macroeconomics has often relied on a characterization of a country as a big machine, to ask how, for example, exchange rates interact with interest rates, or whatever. There has to be a human element buried somewhere, unlike in the natural sciences, but it’s not the focus. McClay addresses just this point:
“But this can be stated more directly. The distinctive task of the humanities, unlike the natural sciences and social sciences, is to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon.”
You could plausibly argue that the history of economic thought has been a reduction of the human to something else; this is valuable because it allows us to abstract from the uncertain world of how people behave into a place where we might be able to draw plausible, tangible conclusions, but just as it’s taken the discipline into a place of backlash where ‘behavioral economics’ wants to recover a keen interest in the way humans operate, it might have carried away much claim we had to be part of the humanities. Of course this also implies that a bunch of the psychological-type economics that’s so very popular at the moment might arguably be ‘humanities’, but that probably overstates the case, since psychology itself isn’t usually considered as such.
McClay argues further about the tendency towards science and away from the humanities:
“For many Americans… [the humanities go] against the grain. After all, we like to think of ourselves as a practical people. We don’t spend our lives chasing fluffy abstractions. We don’t dwell on the past. We ask hard headed questions such as Where does that get you? How can you solve this problem? What’s the payoff? If you’re so smart, we demand, why aren’t you rich?”
There’s a strong similarity between this line of argument and the tendency towards science within economics itself, and perhaps all the same questions apply there. If I imagine arguing that we should have more normative content in economics courses, I immediately imagine being challenged, ‘where does that get you?’, ‘what’s the payoff?’. Plus, as a nice bonus, ‘why aren’t you rich?’ could, in another context, be a very pithy summation of the boneheadedness of economists towards the normative metrics of happiness or success.
The weird paradox, however, is that, to this eye, the practical value of the majority of economics research is very difficult to find; I know science for its own sake is still science, pushing the bounds of knowledge etc etc, and I know the charge can be leveled at any subject, but still, for better or worse, ‘what’s the payoff?’ is a question we could rightfully ask in response to any claim of economics to be a science.
And what do we lose when we drop the humanistic from economics? McClay says:
“For you can’t really appreciate the statuary of our country—our political and social and economic institutions—or know the value of American liberty and prosperity, or intelligently assess America’s virtues and vices against the standard of human history and human possibility, unless you pay the price of learning the stories.”
This is certainly true of the abandonment of economic history and the history of economic thought as fields of study in so many departments of economics. If we can argue for economics as science or as humanity, why have we dropped all humanistic study of it? Won’t we lose the ‘stories’, the lessons of the past, the normative context, the ability to critically evaluate the scientific results that we might be able to squeak out of our modeling and empirical analysis?
Finally, McClay ends discussing the role of the humanities in contributing to the attainment of ‘happiness’ or satisfaction in life.
“…the lure of a pleasure-swaddled posthumanity may be the particular form of that temptation to which the Western liberal democracies of the 21st century are especially prone.
One of those things left behind may, ironically, be happiness itself, since the very possibility of human happiness is inseparable from the struggles and sufferings and displacements experienced by our restless, complex, and incomplete human natures. Our tradition teaches that very lesson in a hundred texts and a thousand ways, for those who have been shown how to see and hear it.”
In the context of the study of economics, can’t we make a similar argument? It’s not just that economics may have contributed heavily to the ‘happiness as goal’ business, or to the wedding of income, GDP and money to ‘wellbeing’; By abandoning the humanistic in the teaching of our subject, don’t we neglect to show the next generation how to see and hear the humanistic as it relates to the organization of our economies, our world? Economics is not a technocracy. We need to understand its humanistic foundations if we are to wield its tools and arguments as experts.
Happy happy joy joy
Via the wondrous fark.com comes ‘How Rich People Spend Their Time‘ from the Washington Post – it’s about an article in Science written by a battery of psychologist/economist types, including Daniel Kahneman. Very relevant to the question of what motivates people; my first instinct was to assume that it might reveal what people with the time to do what they want do with their time, if you see what I mean, and while the actual intention of the article is somewhat different it’s still full of fun.
The original article is behind the Science subscriber wall, but via the wonders of institutional access, I can get access to metaphysical nuggets like this:
Schkade and Kahneman noted that, “Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”
Perhaps some intriguing fact about human nature; perhaps not. The article goes on to talk about some well-known results in the burgeoning ‘happiness’ literature, like the importance of relative rather than absolute income, and adaption to circumstances. I think a great article about this stuff, for the terminally interested, is Richard Layard’s ‘Happiness and Public Policy’.
But the thing that hooked me on this particular Science article is the following piece of weird:
“In a representative, nationwide sample, people with greater income tend to devote relatively more of their time to work, compulsory nonwork activities (such as shopping and childcare), and active leisure (such as exercise) and less of their time to passive leisure activities (such as watching TV).”
Let me get this straight: richer people work more and buy more stuff, and poor schmucks watch a lot of TV? Stop those presses. The point of the article is well-made (from the the title, ‘would you be happier if you were richer’, right on down), and that is to say that people with higher incomes aren’t necessarily engaging in relatively more ‘fun’; however, there are a bunch of unasked questions. Does ‘TV’=’fun’? Is this really evidence that the rich are wasting their time, or are there other reasons why they endure work to get money?
The happiness literature is desperate to find an answer to the question of whether money buys happiness; an eerie similarity to the oft-(mis?)perceived economists’ equation of money with happiness when modeling people, and surely as deserving of the same retort: we know people care about more than money. The obvious question is, well, obvious. What does motivate people?
Looking for something quite different (as usual), and found this page, from something called Investopedia, which is entitled “Economics Basics”. It makes me think, more than anything else, of the Telephone game (or Chinese Whispers if you’re British), because it’s one degree removed from everything – one degree removed from correct, one degree removed from stereotypically bad, one degree removed from sensible.
Economics may appear to be the study of complicated tables and charts, statistics and numbers, but, more specifically, it is the study of what constitutes rational human behavior in the endeavor to fulfill needs and wants.
Immediately the lean towards ‘professional’ or investment-bank type economists is obvious: academic economics is emphatically not the study of complicated tables or charts or numbers. Statistics, maybe. But that’s fine, a good way to start, to address the misconception about economics and math-y stuff.
Wait, though: the “study of what constitutes rational human behavior”? That makes zero sense. I don’t really understand what that would mean, let alone how it relates to economics. I don’t know what ‘rational human behavior’ is; no-one does. No economist should say to a person ‘here’s what you should be doing’ (with the exception of policy advising normative economists, for obvious reasons), and indeed they don’t.
As an individual, for example, you face the problem of having only limited resources with which to fulfill your wants and needs, as a result, you must make certain choices with your money. You’ll probably spend part of your money on rent, electricity and food. Then you might use the rest to go to the movies and/or buy a new pair of jeans. Economists are interested in the choices you make, and inquire into why, for instance, you might choose to spend your money on a new DVD player instead of replacing your old TV. They would want to know whether you would still buy a carton of cigarettes if prices increased by $2 per pack.
Snooze. And then we default right back to the ‘economics is money’ thing. Goodness me, but the problem of scarcity informs questions so much more vital than ‘how does this guy spend his money on electronics’. Sure, we’re interested in consumer behavior, but come on, this is Economics Basics! Give me some life. The fruit of the earth, the budget of a government, the precious time of a modern human being, all of these are scarce resources. All of these are used to fulfill wants and needs, and are subject to choices.
To study these things, economics makes the assumption that human beings will aim to fulfill their self-interests. It also assumes that individuals are rational in their efforts to fulfill their unlimited wants and needs. Economics, therefore, is a social science, which examines people behaving according to their self-interests. The definition set out at the turn of the twentieth century by Alfred Marshall, author of “The Principles Of Economics” (1890), reflects the complexity underlying economics: “Thus it is on one side the study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man.”
I love that Marshall quotation. It sums up very well the state of the economics art at the time, the discipline spawned by interest in wealth and how it accumulates, perpetuates, moves around. I hate the repeated ‘self-interests’. Delete ‘self-‘ and you’d have a (semantically identical) but more neutral, and more accurate, statement. And again – broken record time – this is misleading on the rationality assumption. We don’t make it because we know what rationality is, because we don’t, or because we believe people are rational, because that’s unknowable, or because we’re grumpy bastards who shout ‘humbug’ at the rich tapestry of life. We make it because we want to try to answer questions that involve the actions of people and groups of people, and we can’t start that unless we breathe life into those actors.
If I ask you how the process of exchange of stuff between people works, do you a) dismiss the question, because people are weird and unpredictable, b) tell a parable about a guy who makes wine and a guy who makes cheese who get together and have wine and cheese, or c) model some people who like some goods and show that they might prefer to trade some of their goods with each other?
Well, b) and c) are the same. They are only the difference between an idea and its mathematical expression. If you say a), you can’t be an inquisitive human being, let alone an economist. Fine, I don’t care about a lot of stuff, especially in economics, but these are questions we can try to answer, and the denunciation of any model of human behavior, implicit in criticisms of this straw-man ‘rationality assumption’ is philistinism and willful ignorance.
I don’t suggest that Investopedia is willfully subverting the course of human intellectual endeavor, though. I just accuse them of being a bit narrow-minded in their Introduction to Economics Basics. I know that “Economics Basics” can’t be complicated or anything, but is this what a whirlwind tour of economics has to look like? But wait: our Introductory Economics courses are exactly the same. Pot, kettle.
I resisted talking about ‘Predictably Irrational’, a book by Dan Ariely, “the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the eRationality Group at the Media Lab”, when the first wave of columns and reviews appeared about it. I haven’t read it, but it is mining the vein of doing experiments to figure out how people behave.
The title, of course, is not palatable to me. It’s not possible to test rationality. I see why it’s attached to the work that behavioral economists do, but semantically, it’s a real pain. Let me dive right in to this article, direct from MIT News.
“Though Ariely’s book is often compared to the bestseller “Freakonomics”–both certainly share a quirky, hands-on approach to questions of everyday behavior–he says that in fact his research is almost the opposite of that book’s. Those researchers found cases where people’s behavior, even in seemingly irrational contexts, was perfectly rational and followed established economic principles. Ariely’s work, by contrast, shows the consistently irrational ways people behave in situations where traditional economics predicts they would follow a course of rational self-interest.”
Goodness me. Consider the bait taken: what’s ‘traditional economics’ and why is it different from behavioral economics (or are they the same)? What’s an ‘irrational context’? Here’s an example, from the article, of the Ariely book:
“Ariely and his students went around and left six-packs of Coke in randomly selected dorm refrigerators all over campus. When he checked back in a few days, all of the Cokes were gone.
But when he later placed plates of six loose dollar bills in those same refrigerators, not a single bill was missing when he checked back. Even though the value was comparable–and thus the situations were supposed to be equivalent–people responded in opposite ways. Why is that?”
First of all, if I see a plate of loose dollar bills in the refrigerator I’m pretty well out of my comfort zone. Can it be so hard to explain why people don’t take dollars from a plate in a dorm refrigerator? Aside from being a bit silly, it’s the first misperception of economics at work! ‘The value was comparable’. Actually, I’m being unfair: this is worse than the first misperception of economics, because the Coke-dollar game, as reported by the article, is refusing to acknowledge any preferences whatsoever, ignoring, then, the most fundamental building block of modeling in economics. Maybe that’s why it’s ‘not traditional’.
There are other examples in the article, and I’m sure the book is full of interesting experimental results. I can’t get past that title, though, and it, like Freakonomics itself and the cottage industry it spawned, is squarely in the making-economics-look-stupid camp with the Christmas stuff. I’m sure insights from behavioral experiments can be informative beyond the triviality – the Obama advisers come to mind – but the press coverage for this new book has instead reinforced the discipline’s ‘quirkiness’ and furthered, in some small and delightful way, the misunderstanding of economics.