Tuesday, April 22, 2008

"Economics Basics"

Looking for something quite different (as usual), and found this page, from something called Investopedia, which is entitled "Economics Basics". It makes me think, more than anything else, of the Telephone game (or Chinese Whispers if you're British), because it's one degree removed from everything - one degree removed from correct, one degree removed from stereotypically bad, one degree removed from sensible.

Economics may appear to be the study of complicated tables and charts, statistics and numbers, but, more specifically, it is the study of what constitutes rational human behavior in the endeavor to fulfill needs and wants.

Immediately the lean towards 'professional' or investment-bank type economists is obvious: academic economics is emphatically not the study of complicated tables or charts or numbers. Statistics, maybe. But that's fine, a good way to start, to address the misconception about economics and math-y stuff.

Wait, though: the "study of what constitutes rational human behavior"? That makes zero sense. I don't really understand what that would mean, let alone how it relates to economics. I don't know what 'rational human behavior' is; no-one does. No economist should say to a person 'here's what you should be doing' (with the exception of policy advising normative economists, for obvious reasons), and indeed they don't.

As an individual, for example, you face the problem of having only limited resources with which to fulfill your wants and needs, as a result, you must make certain choices with your money. You'll probably spend part of your money on rent, electricity and food. Then you might use the rest to go to the movies and/or buy a new pair of jeans. Economists are interested in the choices you make, and inquire into why, for instance, you might choose to spend your money on a new DVD player instead of replacing your old TV. They would want to know whether you would still buy a carton of cigarettes if prices increased by $2 per pack.

Snooze. And then we default right back to the 'economics is money' thing. Goodness me, but the problem of scarcity informs questions so much more vital than 'how does this guy spend his money on electronics'. Sure, we're interested in consumer behavior, but come on, this is Economics Basics! Give me some life. The fruit of the earth, the budget of a government, the precious time of a modern human being, all of these are scarce resources. All of these are used to fulfill wants and needs, and are subject to choices.

To study these things, economics makes the assumption that human beings will aim to fulfill their self-interests. It also assumes that individuals are rational in their efforts to fulfill their unlimited wants and needs. Economics, therefore, is a social science, which examines people behaving according to their self-interests. The definition set out at the turn of the twentieth century by Alfred Marshall, author of "The Principles Of Economics" (1890), reflects the complexity underlying economics: "Thus it is on one side the study of wealth; and on the other, and more important side, a part of the study of man."

I love that Marshall quotation. It sums up very well the state of the economics art at the time, the discipline spawned by interest in wealth and how it accumulates, perpetuates, moves around. I hate the repeated 'self-interests'. Delete 'self-' and you'd have a (semantically identical) but more neutral, and more accurate, statement. And again - broken record time - this is misleading on the rationality assumption. We don't make it because we know what rationality is, because we don't, or because we believe people are rational, because that's unknowable, or because we're grumpy bastards who shout 'humbug' at the rich tapestry of life. We make it because we want to try to answer questions that involve the actions of people and groups of people, and we can't start that unless we breathe life into those actors.

If I ask you how the process of exchange of stuff between people works, do you a) dismiss the question, because people are weird and unpredictable, b) tell a parable about a guy who makes wine and a guy who makes cheese who get together and have wine and cheese, or c) model some people who like some goods and show that they might prefer to trade some of their goods with each other?

Well, b) and c) are the same. They are only the difference between an idea and its mathematical expression. If you say a), you can't be an inquisitive human being, let alone an economist. Fine, I don't care about a lot of stuff, especially in economics, but these are questions we can try to answer, and the denunciation of any model of human behavior, implicit in criticisms of this straw-man 'rationality assumption' is philistinism and willful ignorance.

I don't suggest that Investopedia is willfully subverting the course of human intellectual endeavor, though. I just accuse them of being a bit narrow-minded in their Introduction to Economics Basics. I know that "Economics Basics" can't be complicated or anything, but is this what a whirlwind tour of economics has to look like? But wait: our Introductory Economics courses are exactly the same. Pot, kettle.

No comments: