Below are a few different articles on the shortcomings and false assumptions of modern economics. What’s central to each of these is the difference between the human sciences and the natural sciences and the consequences of mistaking one for the other. Economics is a social science and many problems arise when we treat it as if, because of its sophisticated mathematical models, that it is like a natural science. The last article is an interesting example of the important of models when trying to understand reality.
Old economics is based on false ‘laws of physics’ – new economics can save us
It is time to ditch the belief that economies obey rigid mechanical rules, which has widened inequality and polluted our planet. Economics is evolving
In the 1870s, a handful of aspiring economists hoped to make economics a science as reputable as physics. Awed by Newton’s insights on the physical laws of motion – laws that so elegantly describe the trajectory of falling apples and orbiting moons – they sought to create an economic theory that matched his legacy.
Their mechanical metaphor sounds authoritative, but it was ill-chosen from the start
“Nudges, small design changes that can markedly affect individual behavior, have been catching on. These techniques rely on insights from behavioral science, and when used ethically, they can be very helpful. But we need to be sure that they aren’t being employed to sway people to make bad decisions that they will later regret.”
“Earlier this month, President Obama signed an executive orderdirecting federal agencies to collaborate with the White House’s new Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to use insights from behavioral science research to better serve the American people. For instance, studies show that people are more likely to save for retirement when they are automatically enrolled into a 401(k) retirement saving plan that they can opt out of than when they must actively opt in.”
“Today, the notion of ‘smart-thinking’ is ubiquitous. This huge publishing field was prefigured by the work of social psychologist Richard Nisbett who in 1977 published an empirically researched article that showed that many of our choices and preferences are influenced by factors outside our conscious awareness. This was ground-breaking and it became one of the most cited articles of the decade. Nisbett, who is Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition programme at the University of Michigan, has published numerous books over his long career. The latest isMindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. Here, he discusses some of his ideas.”
“That a person with such everyday flaws has scaled the unforgiving heights of the economics establishment is striking in itself. Even more so is the fact that he has done so by turning those weaknesses into the very subject of a new branch of economic science. Thaler has spent a career seeking to understand individuals as they really are – chock-full of weaknesses, irrationalities and idiosyncrasies. He labels these creatures ‘humans’, rather than as ‘econs’, walking calculators rationally optimising their utility.”
Another interesting discussion on the field of behavioral economics (see a previous post on the topic). Some really interesting discussions on this podcast about the contrast between classical economics and behavioral economics. You get some insight into the different approaches to knowledge and assumptions between two related fields in the human sciences.
You also get some interesting insights about how we make decisions. To what degree are our decisions motivated by reason? And to what degree are they motivated by emotion? Is it ethical for someone to use their knowledge of our emotional decision making to push us to make a decision they want us to make (i.e. buy something we otherwise wouldn’t)?
“Let’s take an example where you go to an airline website and it … quotes you a price for your seat to Sacramento, whatever it may be, and it says only four seats left at that price. Now, that works on me. I’ve spent eight years studying this stuff, I know it’s an attempt to exploit my scarcity bias, but it still makes me click. That’s just the way I’m wired. Now implicit in that line is that subsequent seats will be more expensive. But actually the person in their weasel wording hasn’t exactly made that promise, have they? They’ve merely said at this price. At this price is not quite clear. It could be that the subsequent four seats are being sold actually at a lower price.”