Monday, June 30, 2008

Cash and sports

Short interlude for some sports today, spurred only by the fact that this article by Gene Wojciechowski at ESPN was rather delightfully titled "The economics of insanity" by my iGoogle newsbar; sadly it didn't carry over into the article, but still some food for thought. The issue at hand is rookie contracts in the NFL:

"NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it's "ridiculous" to reward untested rookies with lucrative contracts, and wants the issue addressed in contract talks."

I'm tempted to point out that no-one's forcing teams to enter into these contracts, but then I'm not completely sure what the rules are about draft picks going unsigned. In any case, the negotiated salary cap rules determine the total pot available to pay rookies, right? Either way, it's just more evidence in favor of the old truism that American sports are more socialist than their capitalist European counterparts: try this or this for some of the arguments.

It's staggering how exactly the analogy holds, precisely opposite to the stereotypes of American and European rules for resource allocation. American sports are organized to give every team a fighting chance of winning within a few years, with the help of active intervention in the form the draft and salary caps and the guarantee that a terrible season is not punished the following year, while European sports are dog-eat-dog, pure capitalism. Maybe it's because of cross-country competition in Europe: it would be hard for Spain, say, to use American-sport policies to level the playing field without players jumping ship to Italy or England and without Spanish teams being destroyed on the field by the elite of other countries.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Happiness and behavioral stuff again

Via Arts & Letters Daily (again) comes a wonderful (and long) article by Alan Wolfe for the New Republic: "Hedonic Man, The new economics and the pursuit of happiness." There's far, far too much for me to discuss in suitable depth here, but, beyond recommending the article, let me pick out a couple of choice bits.

I wholeheartedly agree with Wolfe when he says:

"The social sciences are not just empirical; they are normative, too. It was precisely the insistent normative preference for market-based social arrangements that turned me against Chicago School economics. Governmental regulation is always sub-optimal, they inevitably maintained. Individual freedom is worth more than social equality. If market logic works for firms, surely it can work for recruiting an army, fighting poverty, or providing kidneys. Non-Chicago economists were subtler about these matters, and at times questioned the reliance on markets; but for the many sons and daughters of Milton Friedman, we are hard-wired to be rational choosers, and any efforts we make to direct the course of our actions collectively are bound to fail. Myself, I do not believe that any of these propositions bring us closer to a good society. Other people feel differently. Democracy requires that we argue out our differences. But democratic debate is not well served by pretending that the empirical findings of a single controversial approach in a single academic discipline contain definitive answers to these questions."

The presentation of economics as a discipline of study certainly does make it seem like we've magically cracked the nut of what is the 'best' way to organize a society, and, as I've argued before, that's not just dangerous, it's a misrepresentation of what good economic science is capable of. One reason why it's a misrepresentation is the measurement issue at work again: to say 'best', we need a metric, and to do that we need to ask what people want, to speculate on their motivations and desires. Of course, as misrepresentations go, it's a tempting one, because from day one of a Principles of Economics course it's made again and again and again.

Wolfe's article is built around the review of two books: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (which I've talked about before, much to the author's chagrin, so I won't return to it now) and Happiness: A Revolution in Economics by Bruno Frey. 'Happiness', as discussed by Wolfe, is concerned with exactly that big question in normative social science, which is: what exactly constitutes a 'good' outcome? It's exactly that question that's the dangerous misunderstanding within economics, the dangerous belief that we know what's 'good'.

Wolfe talks at length about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the pioneers of what has become 'behavioral economics', and I admit that I share Richard Thaler's reaction, as reported by Wolfe:

"When I read this paper," [Thaler] wrote of Kahneman and Tversky's classic article "Judgment Under Uncertainty," which appeared in 1974, "I could hardly contain myself."

He talks further about the supposed 'revolution' in economics to account for the kind of behavior documented by Kahneman and Tversky and the whole slew of experiments run by economists since:

"One has to wonder why the revolution in economics failed so badly even before it really got off the ground. Neoclassical economics may in some ways be preferable to what the revolutionaries offer, but it remains a vulnerable approach, stuck in unrealistic assumptions about human behavior and all too complacent about the beneficial equilibria established by markets. Nor can one deny the ingeniousness of the early days of economic psychology, especially the inventive puzzles that Kahneman and Tversky devised. If ever a field were ripe for revolution, it is economics. Yet if these two books are any indication, supply and demand, marginal utility, rational choice, and cost-benefit analysis are not going away. At best, economists will tweak their models a bit to account for some of our odder calculations. More likely, they will simply reiterate their belief that we need not examine the internal mechanisms of utility satisfaction because the price someone is willing to pay for something is really all we need to know."

Again, though, I offer this as the reason why the 'revolution' has 'failed': we simply can never say what motivates people, whether a person is "rational" or not. 'Neoclassical economics' does not restrict the range of assumptions one can make about human behavior. It is therefore completely resilient to any evidence on how people act in a given situation. That's not a defense of the approach, it's a fact. It's distressing, because my prejudice is definitely to agree that economics is 'complacent' about the superiority of markets (again, because we ignore the variety of normative metrics of comparison), and that there's too much arcana.

We need true normative debate. Look again at what Wolfe says about economics: "it remains a vulnerable approach, stuck in unrealistic assumptions about human behavior and all too complacent about the beneficial equilibria established by markets". It's a mistake to conflate this problem - the arrogant assumption that we know what's 'best' - with the neoclassical assumptions on human behavior, because, as I've argued repeatedly, the method of scientific economics doesn't actually assume anything about human behavior, as evidenced by the fact that the 'behavioral revolution' is comfortably within the confines of 'neoclassical economics'.

The real revolution would be quieter, and would say something much more familiar: keep your science separate from your opinion.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Happy happy joy joy

Via the wondrous comes 'How Rich People Spend Their Time' from the Washington Post - it's about an article in Science written by a battery of psychologist/economist types, including Daniel Kahneman. Very relevant to the question of what motivates people; my first instinct was to assume that it might reveal what people with the time to do what they want do with their time, if you see what I mean, and while the actual intention of the article is somewhat different it's still full of fun.

The original article is behind the Science subscriber wall, but via the wonders of institutional access, I can get access to metaphysical nuggets like this:

Schkade and Kahneman noted that, "Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it."

Perhaps some intriguing fact about human nature; perhaps not. The article goes on to talk about some well-known results in the burgeoning 'happiness' literature, like the importance of relative rather than absolute income, and adaption to circumstances. I think a great article about this stuff, for the terminally interested, is Richard Layard's 'Happiness and Public Policy'.

But the thing that hooked me on this particular Science article is the following piece of weird:

"In a representative, nationwide sample, people with greater income tend to devote relatively more of their time to work, compulsory nonwork activities (such as shopping and childcare), and active leisure (such as exercise) and less of their time to passive leisure activities (such as watching TV)."

Let me get this straight: richer people work more and buy more stuff, and poor schmucks watch a lot of TV? Stop those presses. The point of the article is well-made (from the the title, 'would you be happier if you were richer', right on down), and that is to say that people with higher incomes aren't necessarily engaging in relatively more 'fun'; however, there are a bunch of unasked questions. Does 'TV'='fun'? Is this really evidence that the rich are wasting their time, or are there other reasons why they endure work to get money?

The happiness literature is desperate to find an answer to the question of whether money buys happiness; an eerie similarity to the oft-(mis?)perceived economists' equation of money with happiness when modeling people, and surely as deserving of the same retort: we know people care about more than money. The obvious question is, well, obvious. What does motivate people?

Monday, June 16, 2008

The arrogance of economics?

A while ago I mentioned the mysterious science of "welfare analysis". It tries to evaluate outcomes or predictions of economic analysis or modeling; the idea is to figure out whether x is "better" than y.

That's not an easy task; we have to figure out how we're going to measure things if we're going to compare them. Unfortunately, the only way to answer the question is to take a position on the motivations of the people who'd be affected by your policy. It's sometimes said that the noxious euphemism "thinking like an economist" means "taking all consequences into account"; leave aside for a moment the obvious point that that's not "thinking like an economist", it's "thinking properly", but rather let's figure out what "thinking like an economist" actually requires.

It often seems to require answering that question of "better", to require taking a position on how you're going to evaluate policies. It's more fundamental than assuming something about a utility function, or whatever it takes to perform welfare analysis, but rather seems to require an acceptance of those nefarious so-called "principles" of economics, an agreement with what constitutes a "better" outcome for society.

Then we're led into a world in which very few people who self-identify as "economists" profess support for any policy or means or resource allocation that lies outside the capitalism-with-some-government model that is the status quo. Is that because once a person has studied economics, it's obvious to them that this is "best"? Is it because it's impossible to succeed in the study of economics if you don't agree that it's "best", because you're turned off or ridiculed?

Economists run the risk of being seen as arrogant if we pretend to understand what a "better" outcome is. In the small this manifests as our faith in the cipher of "welfare analysis"; in the large it manifests as the homogeneity of belief and thought among economists.