I’m in the middle of reading The Moral Economy by Samuel Bowles. It’s about how explicit financial rewards and punishments can lead to bad consequences through their “crowding-out” of a person’s pro-social motivations. I’m learning a lot from the book and I would recommend it.
Roger Goodell has joined the debate on the semantics of the word “economics”. Welcome, Roger! From ESPN (warning: obnoxious auto-load video alongside article) today:
Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote NFL players Thursday, outlining the league’s last proposal to the union and cautioning that “each passing day puts our game and our shared economics further at risk.”
Now what might “shared economics” mean? Of the several points of disagreement between NFL owners and players in the current conflict, one is, of course, money. I’m going to regretfully assume that the resource to which Goodell’s “economics” refers is only money. So what does he mean about that money?
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”?
One very important concept in economics is ‘goods’. They’re one of the most fundamental building blocks of the tangible side of economics. If economics is about resource allocation, ‘goods’ are what the resources are being allocated towards. What is a ‘good’?
It’s not quite so simple as just a thing, like a TV or a sandwich; ‘goods’ are anything – any thing – that one can allocate resources towards that contains value for that allocator (rather confusingly, ‘services’ are ‘goods’ too, by this definition; so is something like ‘charitable contributions’). Yes, we’re going to have to plunge into the pool of abstraction. First of all, we have to think about time and space: is a hot coffee in the morning in winter in New England the same as a hot coffee in the afternoon at a swim-up bar in the summer in the Caribbean? Doubtful.
We have two broad strategies, as economists, for dealing with that problem. One might be to say, well, people have different preferences at different places, at different times. That’s difficult to work with because we have to try and hit a moving target, so to speak, and since we can’t know preferences for sure anyway we sure can’t know changes in them either. A second might be to say, those two coffees are different goods. That’s also difficult to work with because then it’s difficult to compare things at all.
In fact, in either case it will be very difficult to generalize. On the individual level, knowing how you allocated your resources in this situation at that time doesn’t help me describe what you did or predict what you’ll do in the future: if I see what you did at 11a.m. on Thursday when faced with the decision of coffee versus tea, how can that help me figure out what you might do at 10a.m. on Friday when faced with the same decision. These aren’t necessarily the same ‘goods’ at both times, and in any case, the difference might not just be the time or something else that I can measure; it might be your mood or whether you’re especially tired or just feel like a nice cup of tea for some mystical reason.
Seems trivial, but raise that to the level of the market for coffee, or the global coffee industry, or the impact of consumer decisions on the American economy, and the difficulty of defining a ‘good’ has snowballed into modeling chaos. For example, it’s impossible to properly think about the current climate in the market for oil without thinking of the market for oil in the future. Of course, in the real world, the financial world, it’s well understood that things vary in space and time: that’s why we have things like futures markets, which let you buy ‘thing X at time Y’ (which is just a special case of ‘good X now’, really). These things are considered separate (though connected) markets, with separate prices.
And that’s just how they were treated by economists as we developed microeconomics. The definition of a good was allowed to be very, very flexible and abstract, so that these ‘things’ don’t just vary in physicality but in time, space, functionality, and so on and so forth.
It’s not just time and space, though. An example: think of a college education. Is the good being sold by universities a ‘college education’? Is it a ‘degree from college X’? Is it a ‘college education of quality Y from college X’? The signaling model by Michael Spence wondered (and I obviously paraphrase wildly) if people would still pay for a college education if it the education was intrinsically worthless but had the value of ‘signaling’ that you were willing to give up four years to prove that you were great.
Should it be surprising that the cost of a college education has been rising despite there being a bigger supply of colleges? Maybe not, if our definition of the ‘good’ includes ‘quality’, perceived or actual; it’s easy to build a new college, but impossible to build a new college with a reputation to rival Oxbridge or the Ivy League. The supply of that good, whatever it is, is fairly well fixed. Econ 101 is obsessed with ‘supply and demand’ analysis; the fact is, supply and demand analysis takes you very, very far if you’re prepared to speculate properly on what a ‘good’ is.
This is all quite similar to the corporate strategy mantra of identifying your ‘core competencies’ and defining the industry. For example: railroads and train companies aren’t ‘the railroad industry’, but ‘the transport industry’, competing with airlines and buses, and maybe even ‘the food industry’ if they serve food, etc etc. That leads us dangerously close to the kind of ‘provider of transport services’ corporate-speak euphemisms that plague so many firms, but it’s pretty much the same question as how to define a good in economics.