Economics

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Read: Stuffocation

A downside of reading ebooks is that you cannot briefly skim the whole book to get an idea about its content, the argument the author wants to make. Yes, the table of contents can still give a clue about this. Yet, somehow with an ebook it is less likely that I will consult the table of contents (again) once I have “turned” the pages.

Hence, while reading Suffocation (as an ebook) I often wondered why the author would now discuss things like the Streisand effect, or whether he sees a future in our society for whatever he was discussing at the moment.

Wallman builds his argument slowly, carefully. Yet, without telling his reader the big picture up front. Only after a chapter, at the end of it, or even only after several chapters, it becomes clear what Wallman wants to say, why he tells what he just told, what the purpose of all the (anecdotal) evidence is. At the end, everything is obvious.

Wallman identifies a problem: Stuffocation. Materialism in the sense of buying (too much) stuff, conspicuous consumption. After the all the unclutter and simplify-your-life books and articles that seem legion nowadays he does not need to spend too much time and effort to make and explain this point. He then discusses three potential solutions: minimalism, regression to simple living, and medium chill (a result of satisficing with rather modest aspirations). They all ain’t it.

So, he identifies a common core and a less anti-materialist solution to Stuffocation, all the stuff that clutters our homes and makes us miserable, that seems more likely to catch on. Experientialism, conspicuous spending not on lots and lots stuff but lots and lots of memories (and some high-quality stuff that helps to have a great experience).

All in all, this conclusion does not seem to be very controversial. Or original. Psychologists like Gilovich and Dunn arrived at the conclusion that spending money on experiences is making people happier than spending money on consumer goods much earlier. On the other hand, Wallman asks (and answers) whether this shift in spending on goods to experiences would be viable, whether people would change their behavior in large numbers to have a lasting effect on the economy. Of course, the anecdotal pieces of evidence still hint a the current stage of this idea’s dissemination and adoption: It’s still very, very early. Right now, experientialism seems something that is mostly for the financially (very) well off. Though, of course, these may be exactly the people who feel the most “stuffocated”, who have reached the end of material scarcity, and for whom time has become the ultimate scarce resource.

So, despite all the shortcomings there were a few parts of the book and ideas for which I am happy to have read Stuffocation.

For instance, I was surprised to find a(n interesting) discussion of the economic concept of GDP in the book. While Wallman’s perspective seems to be rather anti-business (“captains of consciousness”) he quite correctly points out: (only) what gets measured gets managed. Hence as long as there is no widely accepted replacement (or at least complement) for GDP that captures well-being the progress of society will be measured as the increase of the monetary value of the goods and services produced and sold and not as the increase in its citizens’ well-being, their quality of life.

And, Wallman gave a nice summary of why conspicuous spending on experiences is better in the sense of likely to make people happier than conspicuous spending on stuff. With stuff, it is almost always easy to rank what is the better (as a proxy the more expensive) thing. With experiences the cost may not serve anymore as a proxy for the quality: a “cheap” experience may still be great. Hence, there is less of a feeling of being behind, less pressure to upgrade and spend more.

Read: Misbehaving

Thaler’s Misbehaving is a personal account of the development of modern behavioral economics. It is not the history of behavioral economics. It is a (part of the) history of behavioral economics. Thaler is a contemporary witness, and at the same time one of the major figures in modern behavioral economics.

I like Misbehaving for (at least) two reasons.

First, Thaler establishes very early and often reinforces later that standard economic [consumer / decision] theory, rational choice theory is a normative theory. It describes how people should behave if they were to optimize their utility. It (often) does not describe what they really do. Rational choice theory is based on mathematical axioms, not true human behavior. For many purposes, this is absolutely fine. In many contexts, the observed aggregate behavior is driven more by the institution than the individual. For describing human decision making, for predicting an individual’s choices it is not. This is where we need a positive, descriptive theory.

Human cognition is bounded. Full rationality (in its mathematical definition) is, therefore, impossible. Bounded rationality is the best we can hope for. And this is the core of behavioral economics.

Without a pre-existing unifying model to compete with the dominant Rational Choice Theory research had to start with identifying “anomalies.” Thaler did exactly this. He reports many of the initial hostilities and criticisms against his heretics, the abandoning of the dominant doctrine. Sometimes he also reports a researcher’s conversion as a result to economics becoming a more empirical science. Nevertheless, still today some colleagues, and even colleagues among the experimental economists, would start to defend Rational Choice and Expected Utility Theory even if I just described it as a normative and not a positive theory.

The still standard normative economic theory approach can serve many purposes well and is often easier than more realistic approaches. As-if utility maximization has its purpose. Yet, as the sole policy analysis tool it may lead to the wrong conclusions and should, therefore, be augmented with the many insights we have gained from neighboring fields and the empirical economic research of the decision maker. A recommendation that, obviously, also Thaler advocates and has already helped to implement on several occasions.

Second, somewhere in the middle of the book Thaler alerts,

Tempering expectations about the magnitude of the sizes of effects that will be obtained is important because the success of […some nudges…] can create the false impression that it is easy to design small changes that will have big impacts. It is not.
It is also crucial to understand that many improvements may superficially appear to be quite small: a 1 or 2% change in some outcome. That should not be a reason to scoff, especially if the intervention is essentially costless. […] A 2% increase in the effectiveness of some program may not sound like a big deal, but when the stakes are in billions of dollars, small percentage changes add up. As one United States senator famously remarked, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

I believe this statement is more important than its place in the book and its extent of the discussion in the book implies.

In the laboratory, we are used to large effects. Experiments are often designed such as to generate as large an effect as possible. Even though the lab is the real world with real world incentives and real world decision makers, decisions outside the lab are made in a context that matters, after a series of other different decisions that matter, by more heterogeneous decision makers what matters, too. This is not just additional noise. These factors need to be investigated as well. Yet, this means that an effect in the field of maybe 2% when standard theory would predict none is huge.

Of course, this also has implications for research. Experimental results obtained under “clean” conditions with small samples in the laboratory will not always translate to similar effects outside the laboratory. The small samples imply that statistical significant effects may be over-estimated. The “clean” lab environment may lack moderating factors. Hence, large-scale field studies will become more and more important as the basis for evidence-based policies. We have already begun to see this.

Read: How Markets Work

After a few a little bit more radical, heterodox critiques of current (textbook) economics Prasch’s “How Markets Work” is rather orthodox. It still deviates from the standard introductory textbook treatment of markets in the sense that it does not blindly follow The (competitive) Market is best doctrine that advocates the market institution as the easy solution to many problems – if only the market was unregulated. Yet, the critique focuses rather on the unreflected application of the perfectly competitive commodity market model to goods and services that do not fit into the standard commodity category.

Hence, Prasch discusses the peculiar deviations of specific markets that render the standard textbook toy model inapplicable. He discusses e.g. financial asset markets that are characterized by positive feedback loops instead of negative feedback loops and that are therefore not necessarily self-stabilizing and labor markets that feature non-monotonic supply curves that bend backwards, forwards, and backwards again and may have four different equilibria, two stable and two unstable one, at different levels of wages. He also touches upon the issue of prices, values, and incommensurability. There are contexts in which the orthodox utility framework seems not to apply, where the choice problem cannot easily be represented by a scalar utility model.

Overall, Prasch’s “How Markets Work” is utterly unspectacular, non-revolutionary, orthodox, and just well thought-out. The didactic approach, starting with a discussion of property rights, is impeccable. As an added benefit the book is easily accessible also for the uninitiated and mostly non-technical as even the number of graphs is kept at a minimum. It may be a good supplementary reading for any introductory (micro-) economics course covering the analysis of demand and supply.

Read: Risk, Uncertainty and Profit

After years of pointing out the difference between risk and uncertainty – without actually discussing the consequences for economic analysis in detail – to my students in economics it is time to finally read the classic Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (pdf) by Frank H. Knight.

The obvious lesson is learned, I am prepared and eager to discuss the implications of uncertainty in class now. (It is sad that these very important points never made it into the textbooks.)

There were, however, a few other observations that I made while reading Knight’s dissertation.

First, the four prefaces give a nice glimpse into the change and constancy of the (history of) economic thought (of at least one influential scholar) at their time. These prefaces are worth reading even without the intention to continue into the main text.

Second, just a hundred years ago German economic scholars were read (in German no less) and cited, discussed and indeed at the frontier of their science. I knew that before, of course. Still, it is nice (?) to be reminded of this fact. A lot has happened since.

Third, there are some points that, I guess, no author today would make, at least not en passant as Knight did, e.g. (on p. 320):

The abolition of slavery or property in human beings rests on the fact that slaves do not work as effectively as free men, and it turns out to be cheaper to pay men for their services and leave their private lives under their control than it is to maintain them and force them to labor.

Fourth, it is very clear why Knight is one of the intellectual pillars of the Chicago School (though his ideas and perspective is markedly different from the later / modern neoclassic approach), or rather Chicago Libertarianism. According to Knight, Freedom, the power of control, is and should be inseparably linked to responsibility, the willingness to bear the consequences of one’s own decisions (p. 271):

…at the end of it we shall find that in a free society the two [responsibility and control] are essentially inseparable. Any degree of effective exercise of judgment, or making decisions, is in a free society coupled with a corresponding degree of uncertainty-bearing, of taking responsibility for those decisions.

Finally, and here I have to admit a bit of surprise on my side, given his status as the foundation of the Chicago School of economics I did not expect his deviations from today’s orthodoxy with respect to individual rationality as expressed by (p.238):

We should not really prefer to live in a world where everything was “cut and dried,” which is merely to say that we should not want our activity to be all perfectly rational. But in attempting to act “intelligently” we are attempting to secure adaptation, which means foresight, as perfect as possible. There is, as already noted, an element of paradox in conduct which is not to be ignored. We find ourselves compelled to strive after things which in a “calm, cool hour” we admit we do not want, at least not in fullness and perfection. Perhaps it is the manifest impossibility of reaching the end which makes it interesting to strive after it. In any case we do strive to reduce uncertainty, even though we should not want it eliminated from our lives.

and (p.331):

The desire (or necessity) for conforming to conventions is not the same things as the need for food and protection; the easy fallacy is confusion of the requirement for food, clothing, and shelter of the conventional kinds with the requirement for food, clothing, and shelter as physiological necessities. A large part of the consumption of persons, in the lower income strata even, does not yield satisfaction as consumption; the motives and cravings are social in their origin and nature. It is commonplace that many of the necessities of to-day did not exist or were not available for our ancestors a few generations ago, irrespective of their wealth.

And yes, he knows, of course, of Veblen’s work. Even though he did not cite him in this context.

There is more: A lot is happening in the footnotes. He is not at all shy with pointing out flaws in the argument of others. There is no list of references.

Overall it is obvious, I should read more of the classics.

Read: The Economics Anti-Textbook

Teaching evaluations are just in and it does not look bad. The changes I implemented during the last fall term had some positive impact. Though there is still room for improvements, and I already have a few ideas… I am a bit surprised though that there are some students demanding “more math (it is ultimately economics)” – these were principles courses. Given the huge heterogeneity in math skills this is not going to happen! And I also don’t think there is much to be gained by applying math to the over-simplified models of a first year principles course in economics. For grad school they should rather take dedicated math courses.

Indeed, I rather want to strengthen the discussion part of the course, the critical reflection of the theory.

Enter the Economics Anti-Textbook: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Microeconomics by Rod Hill and Tony Myatt. The Anti-textbook is a great source for inspiration for such in-class-discussions. It provides a nice anti-thesis to the standard neoclassical textbook treatment, it makes the underlying value judgments explicit, and it provides an antipole to the doctrine of fundamentalist free-market theory (see Jim Stanford in Labour/Le Travail for a review that mirrors my own sentiment of the book quite well).

Much of their critique is not new. However, they provide a very accessible juxtaposition of orthodox and heterodox views, and a set of very thought provoking questions that should get the discussion started after students were treated with the standard view in class. Hence, this is where some of the ideas for next fall will come from.

I like this anti-textbook much more than Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics (that I also mentioned to the more curious students this fall). The anti-textbook is accessible and perfectly suited as a companion for a microeconomics principles course (a macroeconomics equivalent is still in planning). Thus it will be included in my recommended readings list in the future.

Read: Sixty Days and Counting

After reading Robinson’s Fifty Degrees Below I was hoping the “science science fiction” trilogy would get better with its concluding volume. It didn’t.

The trilogy started as science fiction about science. You got a glimpse at academia, research and administration, and the plot’s background addressed a serious, topical issue: global warming. That was the first volume. Unique and interesting enough to get me on reading despite the novel’s flaws. The second volume, I still do not know what to make of the second volume.

And now, the third volume is even worse. Sixty Days and Counting is strangely anticlimactic. It is not science fiction about science any more but an odd mix of political thriller, conspiracy theory novel, spy novel, new age self improvement, and rant against capitalism. Yes, the ranting about the evil economic system, the evil capitalists’ exploitation of the poor 99% that put me off in the first volume is back. The transitions between the genres do not succeed and the book would not be a good example for any of these genres.

Bottom line: Sixty Days and Counting was a waste of time and I am seriously concerned about my memory as I was pretty sure that I liked Robinson’s Mars trilogy. It was well written and absolutely enjoyable. Can a writer deteriorate that dramatically?

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