Kindness in the economics profession

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Economics Twitter spent some of the past week reacting to a new paper reporting survey results on how economists evaluate peers’ publication lists. Here’s a description of the results from the authors:

highlights

I’m not here to stop anyone from evaluating publication lists however they see fit. There have definitely been some snotty responses on Twitter that of course this is the right way to judge the publications of others, and that wouldn’t it be good if other disciplines did the same. I find that a little tactless and bratty, but fair enough. If you feel like you want a mechanism to sort your peers and you feel like this is the right one, knock yourself out. Maybe be a little more tactful about it, but okay.

Another class of response has been much gentler: not all strands of research pan out or are super groundbreaking, but they may still be worth publishing somewhere rather than being trashed. This is arguing against the attitude in the survey and against the kind of incentives those attitudes might generate. In a similar spirit lots of folks have been making good sport out of pointing out examples of ultra-influential papers outside of the “top” journals.

These seem a lot kinder in spirit than the “yeah, so?”, but they still make me a bit uncomfortable. The problem here isn’t merely that some not-so-brilliant research is buried or that some not-immediately-influential research upends the conclusion. To my ears the problem here is the erasure of vast numbers of hard-working economists.

The majority of professional economists don’t publish regularly or at all in “top” journals. There are countless reasons why some economists may not be willing or able to conduct research that will be accepted there. And being willing and able is in any case not enough to guarantee that it will happen. (For one thing, let’s recall another paper that had Economics Twitter buzzing recently on the importance of social ties in the publication process.)

Are the people who happily brag about their distaste for research outside of “top” journals ignorant or cruel? I take for granted that they do not consider someone a true colleague if they are not “good enough”, but what I do not easily understand is whether they don’t comprehend what they are implying or if they don’t care.

Pages in “top” journals are finite and the number of Ph.D. economists grows. How can you ask for nothing but “top” publications and sustain the industry as it is now? You cannot. If economists whose job requires research output refuse to publish outside of the “top” journals, they will lose their jobs. If instead they continue to publish outside of the “top” journals, then not one of their colleagues should treat them unkindly for it. Naturally there is a role for systems to identify great, broadly interesting research, and naturally such a system tends towards elitism, with all the pros and cons that implies. But it needn’t be toxic.

Once again: I’m not the thought police, and it is your right to look down on others if you want. But my advice, if you want it, is to shut up about it. I’ve argued before that economics is structurally not very good at supporting the average economist, and this is another manifestation of that.

If all economists who were not willing, not able, or not lucky enough to place research in a “top” journal were to leave the profession, what would you have? The graduate students you rely on, the citations you covet, the undergraduate enrollments you are enriched by, and the textbook royalties you enjoy would disappear with them. May you get what you wish for.

Efficient outrage

Matt Damon put yet another foot in his already quite full mouth this week. In an interview with ABC, he was invited to discuss the reckoning of sexual harassment and assault in his and other industries. He decided, for some reason, to go to bat for the idea that not enough is being made of what he perceives as a gradation of harm across different manifestations of workplace misogyny. Implicit is an attack on those who would advocate swift and severe punishment for what Damon would have us believe are minor sins.

I want to make the case that textbook economic theory will firmly reject Damon’s line of reasoning. Outrage of the type that Damon describes is more than justified, it is efficient. The market and the law don’t have the tools to reckon with the full, true cost of misogyny. This market failure makes for fertile soil for institutions that force perpetrators and enablers to internalize some of those costs. Outrage-of-the-day culture invites a lot of criticism from those looking to score a cool, contrarian take, but it is smart economics.

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The pedagogy of parameters

A difficult thing that I ask my students to do is to parameterize everything.

The ideas that my game theorists come up with for applied theory projects are uniformly great. The puzzles they want to study are rich with potential, and many are easily original enough to be of publishable grade.

Compared to coming up with ideas, kicking it up a notch into something that looks like an economics paper is much harder. There are two main hurdles:

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Soliciting strategies

I once was a research assistant on a project that called on participants in an experiment to make a decision that depended on the expected value of a randomly drawn object. The scenario and instructions were printed on a bit of paper and we asked players to put a checkmark next to their choice. So far, so good.

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FTC vs. sponsored content

The FTC is finally following through on its stern words on “sponsored content” on social media:

Each letter reads: “The FTC’s Endorsement Guides state that if there is a ‘material connection’ between the endorser and the marketer of a product — in other words, a connection that might affect the weight or credibility that consumers give the endorsement — that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed, unless the connection is already clear from the context of the communication containing the endorsement.

I have a paper on some of the basic economics behind targeted product launch in social networks, and so just a couple brief thoughts about the relationship of this new enforcement to the theory.

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Time versus money

Without thinking about it too hard: would you say you prefer time or money?

When we teach labor supply models, our workhorse model is a stylized constrained maximization problem in which a decision maker has to decide how many hours to work. They don’t particularly like working, but they do like to buy things, and so they have to decide where the sweet spot of that trade-off is for them, given how much they’d get paid for working and what their outside option is.

Let’s leave aside that this is a cash-centered conception of work, and that it typically assumes a distaste for work (though it doesn’t have to, since it is just coded into preferences—a good exam problem is to brainstorm plausible labor supply models with a taste for work).

What I really want to talk about is the real version of that toy model’s objective function. As economists, we write down parameterized utility functions to see what happens if the relative preference for time versus consumption goods changes. We all want to enjoy leisure time and be able to afford nice things. But where on the spectrum do you lie?

I ask the question at the top—do you prefer time or money?—to my class whenever I start teaching labor supply models. In my experience there is a genuine difference of opinion, right down the middle, between the two options. I’m more of a time person, but reasonable people could well disagree, as they say.

It’s a real difference in worldview, though. A person might think I was crazy if I did something that left money on the table, just as I might think them crazy for counting every penny. Why wouldn’t you want to get rich? Why wouldn’t you want to relax?

I sometimes wonder if one’s preference here has something to do with political preference. That old trope where everyone to the right of you is greedy and everyone to the left of you is lazy—isn’t that just relative money preference and relative time preference in action? Maybe some part of talking past each other is just the usual story from chapter 1 of microeconomics: different preferences.

 

 

Profit maximization

I read today David Colander’s article How to Market the Market: The Trouble with Profit Maximization and Aswath Damodaran‘s response in the most recent issue of the Eastern Economic Journal. By coincidence we’re also talking producer theory in my economics 101 class right now, so the timing is good. I favor Colander.

As the 101 story goes, profit maximization plus the assumptions of the perfectly competitive model generate maximal efficiency in the hypothetical economy. The Colander article establishes the historical context, entwined with the formal mathematical turn in economic theory and the methodological-ideological mashup of “free market” economics circa Friedman.

My feelings on the use and abuse of “efficiency” as a concept are well established. On top of this we have the evidence that learning about profit maximization induces students of economics and business to answer moral dilemmas involving hypothetical businesses differently than other people.

Something that bugs me is that I feel like “business” gets a pass on things that would never fly in other walks of life. I mean, sure United Airlines gets a justified backlash when a passenger is violently concussed on one of their flights, but the subtext is “well, yeah, they’re trying to make money.” Albert Burnenko was on to this at Deadspin after the United incident. The motives of the corporation are taken for granted to be inhuman.

In politics, behavior that would sink a typical politician a hundred times over rolls off the back of an “outsider” candidate from “the world of business”.

I struggle to think of examples from books, movies, or television in which firms, business, corporations—whatever you want to call them—are the good guys. Instead if you’re consuming the culture you’re getting a creeping collective paranoia about the callousness of the profit motive. This is what Angela Allan is getting at in this Atlantic article that I continue to assign regularly. I realize that the people who create art may have a particular perspective distinct from the average businessperson or person-on-the-street, but if culture creates and reflects itself then corporations are not the heroes of this story.

Damodaran concludes his response like so:

Implicit in that statement is the presumption that talking about private businesses making profits makes people feel queasy, a presumption which may be justified in the rarefied air of some parts of Vermont but it is not true in the rest of the world!

I don’t agree with this at all. Every semester I try to have my students think about what connotations they and their peers are carrying about “business”, “corporations”, “profit”. The connotations of “big business” are not positive. Economics is infected by association, and I know what the average person thinks of economists.

Or, more nuanced, the idea that a corporation is a callous automaton that is supposed to do whatever it can get away with to make as much profit as possible is so baked in that it doesn’t even seem like a bad thing anymore.”Of course” businesses are supposed to try to make as much money as possible, right?

On the other hand, Damodaran is quite right that there is nothing new in human suspicion of the pursuit of wealth just because economists came to adopt profit maximization into the canonical texts. It’s just another one of those aspects of our methodology that gives us a pedagogical PR problem.

I find profit maximization a lot riskier and more nefarious in econ 101 than utility maximization. It’s too real. It’s tricky enough to tease out the technical meaning of rational choice and preferences to sell utility maximization properly, but this ultimately lets profit maximization off very lightly since it doesn’t require the same technical ramping up. It just feels too obvious, and so I find myself having to work twice as hard to give it the interrogation it deserves. There’s no getting around either of them if you want to teach general equilibrium and the welfare theorems, and of course we do. I worry about the proportionality.

I also find it interesting the advent of behavioral economics has mobilized so much energy beating up on utility maximization, and the 20th century debates on profit maximization that Colander describes have given way to consensus. I think this is way out of proportion with the funkiness of the concepts. Utility maximization is abstract and flexible in way that profit maximization just is not. Profit is a real thing in the real world, very close to the model version of profit in its definition and spirit. Utility is not. Maybe we could pick the straw man of homo economicus up from under the bus, since I for one am much more relaxed about selling rationality than I am about selling profit maximization.