Found at Environmental Economics: a new book called “Environmental Economics, Experimental Methods” has just surfaced, a happy example of (at very least) broadly innovative methods in economics (the experimental part) being wedded to policy questions outside the popularly perceived scope of economics. The book describes a variety of laboratory experiments whose results are relevant to environmental policy. The contents are here (pdf).

The experimental revolution must really have arrived for a book like this to exist. The whole problem of inferring causality in the complexity of the world is an acute problem that science has always tried to solve, one that the social sciences naturally have particular difficulty with. In economics, from this common difficulty came abstract theorizing, econometric inference from real data, and, latterly, randomized trials (aspiring to be cousin to the same in medicine) and laboratory experiments (aspiring to be cousin to the same in psychology).

A simple characterization of the difference between those last two might be this: the randomized trial method tries to isolate the effect of one thing on another, while the experimental school is entwined with the behavioral economists who seek to isolate the way people act. Clearly this steps on some psychological toes; our method is certainly pretty similar, with the possible exception that we’re . We usually get people to sit at consumers and make decisions about what to do while they’re interacting (usually anonymously) with other people in the experiment.

I think it’s pretty amazing that experimental economics has exploded so quickly to generate a whole (big) book applying its results to a niche like environmental economics. Whatever you make of the experimental field, it’s surely a pleasure to see an expansion in the range of scientific methods economists are employing. Logic, math, statistics; now trials and experiments.

On a completely unrelated note, I love this post, from Environmental Economics, about explaining your job as an economist.

“‘Oh really, what do you teach?’…
‘Economics.’ The glazed look…
‘Oh so you’re in the business school?'”

I bet misunderstanding about what economics is can be even more annoying for an environmental economist than it is for the rest of us…

What do you want to happen?

Step one in normative economics is, I think, finding out what you want. Without a goal, positive economics is as useless as a coffee break (unless, of course, your goal was a cup of coffee). Is it odd, then, that economists don’t seem to spend any time figuring out what people want?

Although I’m certainly no authority, it seems to me that psychologists and sociologists spend a lot more time on this question. For example, I recently came across a psychology article with the wonderful title “Not Having What You Want versus Having What You Do Not Want”(here’s a link, but the full text is subscriber-only). I cannot resist quoting the first paragraph:

“No childhood passes without disappointment about a birthday present, no adolescence seems to be complete without a disappointing love affair, and hardly anyone is a stranger to the unpleasant feeling that stems from buying an expensive consumer product that turns out to be less than expected. All in all, a life without disappointment seems rare.”

And they call economics the dismal science… I wish we could be so melancholy. The point, however, is that while behavioral economics might be trying to push the boundary of what the people in economic models care about by incorporating, for example, disappointment, I don’t know of any economics literature that’s trying to figure out what people actually care about.

Of course, it’s difficult. How could we go about it? Economists are very distrustful of surveys as unscientific. One of my favorite normative economics results is hidden in a paper called “Economics of the Endangered Species Act” (link): US household surveys asked people what they’d be willing to pay to save each of a set of endangered species. Scaled up, the answers implied that the US population would be willing to pay one percent of its total income to save two percent of endangered species. It’s a bit of a facetious point, but it’s a neat way of showing that talk is cheap in answering surveys. Simply observing what people do can’t really answer the question either, especially when we’re talking about a bigger scale than the individual level.

Do we assume that democracy will elect leaders who represent the goals and ambitions of the people? I think the whole thing poses a serious problem for any economist bold enough to make a policy recommendation: how has the normative branch of economics tried to figure out what people want?

If someone asked you what you wanted, specifically or generally, for you or for the country, or the world, what might make the list? Money, a job, friends, lovers, health, the environment? How closely will the list match the things inside your head? What if you had to give up one thing on your list to get another? Again, a common recourse in economics is to turn our back on this whole sorry mess and just take the things in which we have relatively high confidence: most people like money to some degree.

No economics paper seems to be complete without the mysterious “welfare analysis”, which is essentially a bolted-on normative exercise attached to a positive, descriptive theory. How valuable is such an exercise if we have simplified the motivation of people in the theory? Obviously the normative “welfare analysis” is equally dependent on the assumptions of our theory as the theory itself. It’s a false dawn that is equally as unsuited to answering the question of “what should be” as positive economics itself: again, if we could come up with the metric that captured the quality of any conceivable thing, the magical normative criteria, we should pack up and start a technocracy.

Yet there is no reason to force the positive and normative analyses into the same box. Expanding the foundations of normative analysis, in particular, to include the hypothetical answer to the question of what people want to happen, can happily be done without affecting the quality of positive theory, whether or not it rests on the same foundations. The economist who claims to evaluate the quality of an outcome fails to see that what he calls normative economics is only as realistic as positive economics: not at all. Real normative economics would spend more time trying to figure out what people really want.

Psychologists are evil

This is just an outstanding quotation, from a New York Times article:

“Often introducing money into the exchange — putting it into the marketplace — is what people find repugnant. Mr. Bloom asserted that money is a relatively new invention in human existence and therefore “unnatural.”

Economists are asking the wrong question, Mr. Bloom said at the panel. They assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”

“The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, it’s that they’re evil people,” he said. “They work in a different moral universe. The burden of proof is on someone who wants to include” a transaction in the marketplace. (Mr. Roth, who acknowledges that “economists see very few tradeoffs as completely taboo,” did not take the criticism personally.)”

Sadly, it seems that Bloom was kidding. Isn’t it nice that “economists are evil” is a statement that can be mistaken for seriousness, but “psychologists are evil” is so clearly ridiculous?

How can economists plausibly evil, but psychologists cannot? I think the idea that economists “assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”” is wrong. It’s a common criticism: economists reduce everything to dollars and cents, trying to measure the value of stuff that’s invaluable (the article is talking about how “repugnance” affects trade, using the example of selling organs).

As the social science of the allocation of scarce resources, how could economics operate without trying to figure out some concept of the value of something to someone? I think environmentalists have long despised economists for this reason. Say we’re talking about a scarce natural resource, a rain forest for example. Again, positive economic science cannot possibly hope to tell us what the “best” use of this resource is, but it can hope to tell us the consequences of each use. Unfortunately, it’s clearly easier to measure, say, the value of this resource to the logger and grazer who seek to use it today than it is to measure the value to humanity of preserving the forest.

Similarly, it’s easier to measure the willingness to pay for an organ by a terminally ill individual, and to measure the willingness of another individual to give up an organ, than it is to measure the potential consequences of allowing the sale of organs. The question at hand is: do we do what we can, even given this imbalance, or does the imbalance justify making no valuation, even the ones that are possible? Is attempting to value anything an assumption that “everything is subject to market pricing”?

Trying to understand more about the consequences of a particular allocation of resources is not the same as either propagandizing for that allocation or method of allocation, that is, markets. Even in jest, the charge that we “operate in a different moral universe” is a serious one. It actually makes me very sad, because I’m very familiar with the particular problem of introducing myself as an economist: it alienates a decent percentage of people you meet. (“I’m an economist, but I’m not evil, honest”.) Economists are evil, or at least morally bankrupt, to some people. I wish that wasn’t the case.

It’s understandable. Let’s take the ideal world where all positive economics is done scientifically and without normative judgment. Is it surprising that value-neutral economic science seems evil, while value-neutral physics, or chemistry, or psychology, seems like the noble pursuit of knowledge? The Methodology of Positive Economics by Friedman is, again, eloquent on this subject:

“The subject matter of economics is regarded by almost everyone as vitally important to himself and within the range of his own experience and competence; it is the source of continuous and extensive controversy and the occasion for frequent legislation. Self-proclaimed “experts” speak with many voices and can hardly all be regarded as disinterested; in any event, on questions that matter so much, “expert” opinion could hardly be accepted solely on faith even if the “experts” were nearly unanimous and clearly disinterested. The conclusions of positive economics seem to be, and are, immediately relevant to important normative problems, to questions of what ought to be done and how any given goal can be attained. Laymen and experts alike are inevitably tempted to shape positive conclusions to fit strongly held normative preconceptions and to reject positive conclusions if their normative implications – or what are said to be their normative implications – are unpalatable.”

It’s not just confusion between positive and normative economics, between the practice of the science and its interpretation, it’s the very attempt to be value-neutral, to be agnostic, that makes economics seem evil. This is all the more true if, as Friedman is arguing, that there’s temptation to attach value judgment to positive economics. If there’s any hope of us shedding the “evil” tag, this is a temptation that all economists must resist and fight.