History repeating, volume ∞

Right now I’m reading Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen. It’s about Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court decision on forced sterilization, and the shocking breadth of the surrounding eugenics movement. It’s leaving me frequently speechless and the writing is great. I recommend it.

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Arguing without moving

Doesn’t it sometimes seem like two arguers are actually saying the same thing in slightly different ways? The devil’s in the semantics, or something, and a three-headed book review by Jonathan Derbyshire in the Guardian seems uncannily to be presenting a classic case applied to -what else? – economic man.

Here’s a bit about Tim Harford’s approach in “The Logic of Life”:

Yet for all the demotic breeziness of their style, both writers have a serious purpose. In Harford’s case, it is to defend a version of rational choice theory, which tries to explain human behaviour in terms of the maximisation of individual preferences or “utility”. On this model, which Harford thinks applies more or less universally, human beings respond to trade-offs or incentives: “When the costs and benefits of something change, people change their behaviour.” The important point for Harford is that those costs needn’t be financial…

Proponents of rational choice theory say that to act in accordance with the cost-benefit principle is to behave “rationally” – in a distinctive (and drastically circumscribed) sense of the word. And Harford’s contention is that we’re much more rational than we’re inclined to think. There’s a “rational explanation”, it seems, for more or less everything: for the shortage of eligible men in New York City, for instance, or for the evolved biological preferences of men and women.

We’re again in a world where it’s impossible to know exactly what drives people to make decisions, but where we can speculate that there are reasons for this or that decision, and speculate on what those reasons might be. But then here’s this, in discussion of Robert Frank’s “The Economic Naturalist”:

One problem with this approach is that it seems to apply better to an ideal creature called Homo economicus, whose preferences are perfectly consistent, than it does to flesh-and-blood human beings… Homo economicus would never change his preference for a roast beef sandwich over chicken salad just because the waitress remembers they’ve also got tuna on the menu.

This is a reference to a classic “behavioral” result; but, then again, says who? It’s of course possible to rationalize anything, as the behavioral school well knows when it invariably goes on to try to write down a model of a decision maker who would display these or other preferences. Aren’t we still in a Harford world, where we can identify a potential justification for any superficially weird-looking decision? I don’t see any difference between these “behavioral” results and this:

Frank’s book, meanwhile, is based on an assignment he gave to students taking his introductory course in economics at Cornell University. The students were asked to pose and answer a question about observed events or behaviour, and what they came up with certainly wasn’t the staple fare of Economics 101: why did kamikaze pilots wear helmets, they asked. Why is coyness often considered an attractive attribute? Why do women endure the discomfort of high heels?

All these phenomena obey what Frank calls “economic logic”, the fundamental law of which is the cost-benefit principle. This says that an action ought to be taken only when the extra benefit that accrues from taking it outweighs the extra cost. So when a woman decides to squeeze her feet into a pair of stilettos, for example, she has weighed the benefit of being “more likely to attract favourable notice”, as Frank somewhat coyly puts it, against the costs of discomfort.

Finally we get Stephen Marglin’s “The Dismal Science” (uh oh):

Marglin argues that to think about people as always rationally calculating their self-interest is at odds with the way non-economists think about people… And you don’t have to agree with Marglin that the way of life of the Amish people of Pennsylvania is the best counter-example to that to think there’s something drastically wrong with it.

That kind of reasoning is an F. First of all, self-interest does not equal concern only for my own material outcome: I can, like, perhaps, the Amish people appropriated as an example, be self-interestedly concerned with my peers. I absolutely cannot believe that anyone finds it difficult to fit the behavior of someone who, for example, donates to charity into a utilitarian model of the kind economists use every day. Yet these are the examples we come up with to try to “disprove” the “rationality” of “economic man”?

Dead left

Just a quick note to strongly endorse the excellent article on Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine”: Dead Left by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic. There’s a long deconstruction of Klein’s argument. He ends with this:

What makes Klein’s thesis so odd, and so awful, is that in fact there is an unlimited supply of raw material, an abundant basis in reality, for the sorts of arguments that she wants to make. The last two decades certainly have seen the global spread of absolutist free-market ideology. Many of the newest adherents of this creed are dictators who have learned that they can harness the riches of capitalism without permitting the freedoms once thought to flow automatically from it. In the United States, the power of labor unions has withered, and prosperity has increasingly come to be defined as gross domestic product or the rise of the stock market, with the actual living standards of the great mass of the population an afterthought. Corporations, which can relocate nearly anywhere around the world, have used their flexibility as a cudgel against workers, who do not enjoy the privileges of mobility. Domestic policy has aggressively sharpened income inequalities, and corporations have enjoyed unfettered influence to a degree not seen in a hundred years. And the president did start a war without paying the slightest bit of attention to the country that he would be left occupying or how its people would react.

All these things are true. And all these things are enormous outrages and significant problems. It’s just that they are not the same outrage or the same problem. And Naomi Klein’s relentless lumping together of all her ideological adversaries in the service of a monocausal theory of the world ultimately renders her analysis perfect nonsense.

Searching for a schism

Word reaches my desk this afternoon of an interesting-looking new book on the horizon, called “The Foundations of Positive and Normative Economics“, an essay collection edited by Andrew Caplin (of the monkey brains) and Andrew Schotter. Details are a bit sketchy, but the idea is just fine with me. I have a high tolerance for this kind of thing, and hopefully it lives up to my expectations.

On that note, I hope for something a bit different to the endorsement quotes on the book’s rather empty webpage:

“Are you puzzled by the implications of behavioral economics? Are we in the throes of a paradigm shift? Is neoclassical economics refuted? Economic methodology has never been more disputed. If you want to be part of the debate, this book is the place to start.”–Ken Binmore, University College London

I still don’t see this distinction between ‘behavioral economics’ and ‘neoclassical economics’, to be honest (see here, for example). Why is a different model of people an abandonment of neoclassical economics? ‘People maximize stuff’ is my minimalist description of neoclassical economics, and the behavioral set is just trying to figure out what the stuff is. Again (again, again), since it’s not possible to test rationality, the ‘maximize’ bit just has to float out there unattached.

I don’t really get this one either:

“Should economics take account of neuro-physiological data? Can subjective states of mind play a useful role in economic analysis? These and other provocative questions are examined and debated in this fascinating volume of essays from some of the deepest thinkers in contemporary economics.”–Eric Maskin, Nobel Laureate in Economics, Institute for Advanced Study

Maybe I’m behind the curve on this one, but I’m not sure what that really means. It gives the impression that this book might be predominantly concerned with the implications of psychological and neurological research, but to me all that is really something different from the epistemological question of what positive and normative economics are doing for us, where they came from and where they’re going. The state-of-the-art in economic theory or modeling is one thing, but I hope the book tackles the big questions rather than obsessing about the value of behavioral evidence.

I disagree fundamentally that “economic methodology has never been more disputed”, hence the futility of chipping away at the tiny and ultimately boring debates at the root of modern research. The assumptions, the beliefs can surely differ, but I think the approach is set on some fundamental level. Superficial differences in approach do not go down very far: yes, a ‘behavioral economist’ might be searching for realism by figuring out how people act, and an ’empirical economist’ is running regressions on cleverly constructed data, a ‘theorist’ is off in the land of abstraction and algebra, but all are operating on the same field of positive economic science. The real question is how we got to be that way, not why some economists do one thing and some another. That’s the question of the foundations of positive and normative economics.

Economists in fiction: Noboru Wataya

Not to get too “Dear Diary”, but I am reading “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami, and, lo, the protagonist’s brother-in-law is an economist.

On academia:

“Noboru Wataya chose to remain in academe and become a scholar. He was no fool. He know what he was best suited for: not the real world of group action but a world that called for the disciplined and systematic use of knowledge, that prized the individual skills of the intellect.”

Noboru’s book, a perfect parody of economics books everywhere:

“Noboru Wataya published a big, thick book. It was an economics study full of technical jargon, and I couldn’t understand a thing he was trying to say in it… I couldn’t even tell whether this was because the contents were so difficult or the writing itself was bad… Two expressions he had coined, “sexual economics” and “excretory economics,” became the year’s buzzwords.”

Freakonomics, anyone? Fashionomics? Freedomnomics? The most delicious morsel of the lot is Noboru’s approach to public debate, what could be the credo and the damnation of positivist economics:

“But if you paid close attention to what he was saying or what he had written, you knew that his words lacked consistency. They reflected no single worldview based on profound conviction. His was a world that he had fabricated by combining several one-dimensional systems of thought. He could rearrange the combination in an instant, as needed. These were ingenious – even artistic – intellectual permutations and combinations. But to me they amounted to nothing more than a game. If there was any consistency to his opinions, it was the consistent lack of consistency, and if he had a worldview, it was a view that proclaimed his lack of a worldview. But these very absences were what constituted his intellectual assets. Consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media’s tiny time segments, and it was his great advantage to be free of them.”

Welcome to our world.