The Future of Economics: The Arational and the Irrational

Back in 2000 The Economist ran an article titled “The Future of Economics” (4 March 2000, p. 80). It was largely a gloss on a symposium on the same from the Journal of Economic Perspectives (vol. 14, no. 1, Winter 2000). The authors acknowledged that economics was a faltering field. Setting aside the proposition that economics may simply have run it’s course and be into its dotage of diminishing returns, the article considers two possibilities for a way forward:

David Colander of Middlebury College, in an article that looks back on the present from an imagined 2050, blames the current discontent on the orthodox general-equilibrium model that underlies most of today’s economic theory. He favors a shift from the current approach, which has been called “loose-fitting positivism” (propose a model consistent with standard assumptions, then test it), to one based on “loose-fitting pragmatism” (forget about canonical principles, just search for patterns in the data).

Such an approach, he says, would be consistent with “the rise of complexity science within the scientific community generally.” Researchers sitting at their computers, subjecting data to a withering barrage of statistical analysis, would still hope to come up with laws of a sort, or regularities at any rate. But these “laws” would be regarded as provisional and ever-shifting: indeed, the claim is that changeless underlying patterns do not exist. Complex systems expand and evolve; even at the most fundamental level, these patterns are temporary. But whether this approach could still be called “economics” is debatable.

The second approach is much easier to reconcile with traditional methods. Its most celebrated exponent is Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, who has also written a paper for the symposium. Mr. Thaler agrees that the canonical principles of orthodox theory have led economics astray, but he believes these mistakes can be put right. He seeks, in other words, a tighter-fitting positivism. You improve the fit above all, he would argue, by putting a more realistic account of human cognition at the center of the theory.

Orthodox theory famously assumes that people are rational. In reality, they are not. On the other hand, they are not crazy, or crassly incompetent — in other words, their behavior is not random. If economics could try harder to recognize that people try to be rational, but in certain, often predictable, ways fail to be, the positivist approach would have a better foundation. In essence, what Mr. Thaler calls for is a marriage, or at least much closer cohabitation, between economics and psychology.

I have thought of this article frequently since reading it back in 2000 when it was first published. Given the spate of books along these lines, especially the second, I’d have to say that this was one of the more perspicacious articles that I’ve ever read.

The first approach is an example of Petabyte Age type thinking, eight years before Wired put it on the cover. But of course it is an idea that had to incubate in the rarified world of advanced theoreticians for years before any eruption into the popular conscience. The main offering in this area would be Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics (2005), though their book is not a fully atheoretic inquiry so much as putting of large questions to the test of large data sets. More to the topic would be Ian Ayres’s Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart (2007), though the fact that Mr. Ayres used the very methods he describes in his book to arrive upon a title casts a great deal of doubt on the soundness of said methods.

As for the build a better model of the economic corpuscles approach, it seems to have advanced along far enough that it is now also ready to be packaged up for mass consumption. And of course the psychologists have much more lucrative options in publishing than the mathematicians and computer scientists.

Judging by some of the key phrases in the Economist article (the predictably irrational stuff) I was pretty sure that they had in mind Dan Ariely’s thinking, published as Predictably Irrational (2008), but it turns out that Richard Thaler is, along with Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge (2008). Rounding out the most omnipresent trio is Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (2008). Also on the list of offerings along this line would be Ori and Rom Brafman’s Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (2008) and Michael Shermer’s The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics (2007).

So that’s the future of economic study. Either a discounting of human rationality in favor of the system effect of irrationality or allowing rationality to drop out in favor of the system effect of economic thing-in-itself.

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Capitalist Systematics and Individual Freedom

In his economic speech on Monday Senator McCain had the following to say about the present financial crisis:

The top of our economy is broken. We have seen self-interest, greed, irresponsibility and corruption undermine the hard work of the American people.

Then on Tuesday morning he said to Joe Scarborough:

Wall Street has betrayed us. They’ve broken the social contract between capitalism and the average citizen and the worker. … This is a result of excess and greed and corruption. And that’s exactly what is plaguing Americans today.

I imagine that a lot of people would call me a leftist and a socialist, but from these two comments it seems to me that John McCain must have a pretty contorted idea of what exactly capitalism is underneath the rhetorical hood.

What’s happening on Wall Street isn’t a corruption of capitalism. It’s not that people are angles and in capitalism we’ve finally found an economic system equal to ourselves. The genius of capitalism is that people are greedy, self-interested wretches and capitalism is a system that channels their greed into social good. What’s wrong with what’s going on with the financial system in recent weeks is not that financiers are greedy, or even excessively greedy, but that the system is rigged wrong.

When Democrats call for a new regulatory regime, this is what they are calling for: a different arrangement of the system. Different prohibitions, different incentives, different inducements. It’s the Nudge approach. Align the incentives right and then laissez faire.

The alternative to systematic change is the reengineering of the human heart. And proposals to change the hearts of men are not very conservative. This is why capitalism and liberalism are so closely conjoined. Capitalism is indifferent to the characteristics of the corpuscles that comprise the system. It is the economic system most compatible with self-determination because it doesn’t require people of any particular character to function. It’s even sufficiently robust as to be compatible with extremes of behavior. Other systems less fault-tolerant and rely for their sustainability on the virtue of their participants. As such other systems maintain an interest in the condition of the souls of their members. Some see this as a virtue of these alternate systems.

Recent weeks don’t argue my case very well. It would seem that capitalism is in fact not very robust and in need of quite a bit of extra-systematic shoring up. But that’s owing to fifteen years of willful neglect. Professed admiration for capitalism on the right is not so compatible with the sustainability of capitalism. If you get the system right, you don’t have to worry about the character of the people.

But this is one of the things that’s distinct about Senator McCain. He isn’t that into leaving people alone. He’s a proponent of a particular type of civic virtue and is interested in cajoling people, even cajoling them rather convulsively, into demonstrating his brand thereof. And on the right more generally opposition to business regulation is so inflexible that social engineering is the acceptable alternative.

Membership Has Its Limitations

I am vehemently opposed to any sort of loyalty cards that are now de rigueur at almost all stores where you make a purchase of any regularity or size. I think a lot of people see them as a harmless way to save a few bucks. And that’s what they are — for now. But they are obviously a foundation on which to build. But build what? Well, the FTC’s deceptive marketing practices lawsuit against CompuCredit is sure suggestive (Silver-Greenberg, Jessica, “Your Lifestyle May Hurt Your Credit,” BusinessWeek, 19 June 2008):

The allegations, in part, focus on CompuCredit’s Aspire Visa, a subprime credit card for risky borrowers. The FTC claims that CompuCredit didn’t properly disclose that it monitored spending and cut credit lines if consumers used their cards at certain places. Among them: tire and retreading shops, massage parlors, bars, billiard halls, and marriage counseling offices. “The company touted that cardholders could use their credit cards anywhere,” says J. Reilly Dolan, assistant director for financial practices at the FTC. “What they didn’t say was that you could be punished for specific kinds of purchases.”

And the more general point:

With competition increasing, databases improving, and technology advancing, companies can include more factors than ever in their models. And industry experts say financial firms increasingly are looking at consumer behavior, as CompuCredit did.

Of course the corporate idiocy here is mind-boggling. First they target a sub-prime demographic, but then cut them off for the very behaviors that made these people sub-prime in the first place. Really? CompuCredit was unaware that the underclass blew their money on scratch tickets and payday loans?

I don’t suspect that this is leading to some insidious world of PreCrime, where government thugs scoop you up, guilty on the basis of a statistical analysis. Rather, nudge style, it will just become the accepted background of people’s expectations. People will recognize an incentive and respond accordingly. “Oh, no, we can’t go out for happy hour. We’re trying to get our credit score up for a home loan.”