Homo Economicus [5]: Ethics and Economics

homo economicus

This Harvard Crimson op-ed argues that that economic policy-making doesn’t embrace the full human story because what’s missing in free market self-interested capitalism is due regard for “normative ethics” :

“Economists distinguish between ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ judgments. Positive judgments are testable and predicated on objective facts. Normative judgments weigh those facts according to subjective personal values.

“Although Enlightenment-era economics was normative and philosophical, contemporary economics is a precise and quantitative science that seeks to determine what happens in the world under a particular set of assumptions. Policymakers, political philosophers, and ordinary citizens can then evaluate those occurrences according to their own normative judgments and determine whether they find them desirable.

“Responsible economic scholarship requires assigning positive and normative judgments separate roles in the policymaking process. They do not simply trade off; they have entirely different jobs.”

 “[Economists] are often characterized as robots completely devoid of ethics, chasing professional ambitions that are as sterile and soulless as they are. Authors, including in these pages, have written that human ethics are incompatible with good economic policy. This line of argument claims that our economic logic should be free from our personal values, and we must prevent our moral judgments from “getting in the way” of objective decisions…  this logic is flawed… It is not the strength of one’s feelings that matters, but rather that they fulfill their proper role in the decision making process.”

The article urges policy-makers to give equal time to both positive and normative judgments. This commentator agrees, but admits that normative  concerns — the province of behavioral economics — can be messy:

“[In economics], the beauty of a mathematical model may have little to do with the complexity of local institutions and other bottlenecks to getting prices to work or markets to clear without externalities.  Behavioral economics is far messier than standard models of rationality.”

Yale economics professor and Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller advocates for “narrative economics” — a practice driven by the human love of storytelling  — to bring a human touch to the profession. “Not everyone is equally proficient at understanding narratives,” he says, “and economists are among the worst at appreciating them.” He thinks economists need to fix that.

“Twenty-five years ago, Chicago Booth’s Dick Thaler and I set up a series of workshops at the National Bureau of Economic Research on what we called “behavioral economics.” Behavioral economics was economics with an input from the psychology department. Every department has its own tool kit for approaching research; we were very much influenced by psychology. Maybe a little sociology, maybe a little anthropology, but nevertheless all social-science fields. I’m starting now, with my more recent work, to think that we have to look at the humanities as well.

“There is something difficult to formalize about human beings, but something that we nonetheless have to understand, and I think one way to do that is with an approach that I’m calling “narrative economics”: taking economics and adding the study of the narratives that people transmit.

“The human brain is built around narratives. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, but that may be something of a misnomer…. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould said we should be called Homo narrator. Your mind is really built for narratives.”

Economics And The Human Instinct For Storytelling, Robert Shiller, Chicage Booth Review (May 8, 2017)

As usual, Silicon Valley is ahead of the game, having already embraced the power of story as its own cultural norm:

“In Silicon Valley these days, you haven’t really succeeded until you’ve failed, or at least come very close. Failing – or nearly failing – has become a badge of pride. It’s also a story to be told, a yarn to be unspooled.

“The stories tend to unfold the same way, with the same turning points and the same language: first, a brilliant idea and a plan to conquer the world. Next, hardships that test the mettle of the entrepreneur. Finally, the downfall – usually, because the money runs out. But following that is a coda or epilogue that restores optimism. In this denouement, the founder says that great things have or will come of the tribulations: deeper understanding, new resolve, a better grip on what matters.

“Unconsciously, entrepreneurs have adopted one of the most powerful stories in our culture: the life narrative of adversity and redemption.”

Silicon Phoenix:  A Gifted Child, An Adventure, A Dark Time, And Then … A Pivot? How Silicon Valley Rewrote America’s Redemption Narrative, Aeon Magazine (May 2, 2016)

More on economic narratives coming up.

For more on ethics and economics, see Ethics and Economics (The Library of Economics and Liberty), The Economics of Ethics and the Ethics of Economics:  Values, Markets and the State (2010), and Ethics in Economics: An Introduction to Moral Frameworks (2015).

Homo Economicus [4]: Enlightened Self-Interest

homo economicus

The concept of “homo economicus” captures the belief that the rigorous pursuit of self-interest in a free market improves things for everyone. This belief powered Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” and finds a philosophical ally in Ayn Rand’s “objectivism”:

“The core of Rand’s philosophy… is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. [The pursuit of self-interest], she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. In “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal,” Rand put it this way:

‘Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.’

“By this logic, religious and political controls that hinder individuals from pursuing self-interest should be removed.”

What Happens When You Believe in Ayn Rand and Modern Economic Theory, Evonomics (Feb. 17, 2016)

Thus Ayn Rand became the patron saint of American capitalism in its current iteration. This is from a 2017 Atlantic article:

“’I grew up reading Ayn Rand,’ … Paul Ryan has said, ‘and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.’ It was that fiction that allowed him and so many other higher-IQ Americans to see modern America as a dystopia in which selfishness is righteous and they are the last heroes. ‘I think a lot of people,’ Ryan said in 2009, ‘would observe that we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel.’”

Critics point out that there is no such thing as a free market or objectively rational self-interest, arguing instead that the market is inescapably skewed toward policy-makers’  beliefs and values — i.e., their particular interpretations of what “self-interested” behavior looks like.[1] As a result, economic policy always comes laden with ethical and moral beliefs about “good” vs. “bad” outcomes, which the not-so-free market then dutifully delivers:

“Milton Friedman argued that competition between big businesses suffices to safeguard the public interest, but in practice it is almost always insufficient, especially where there is collusion among the players to safeguard their market dominance – and their political influence.

“Free-market economists have an unwarranted faith in the capacity of price adjustments to produce technological changes in production and patterns of consumer demand. Their theories imply that the price system has infinite capacity to shape sustainable outcomes.

“But if the self-interested market behaviours continue to seek an unchanged goal – more personal incomes with which to purchase more material goods – ultimately they cannot be fulfilled.

 “Ultimately, the short-term self-interested economic arrangements are not sustainable anyway. As the US economist Kenneth Boulding once said: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.

“Economic inequalities also predictably widen where self-interested market behaviours dominate. Capital makes capital, while those without capital often remain consigned to poverty. Certainly, the very rich have become notably much wealthier during the last three decades while neoliberal ideologies and policies have been dominant. In the absence of strong unions and governments committed to some degree of egalitarian redistribution, the unequalising tendency is inexorable. The result is predictably unhappier societies that experience a higher incidence of social problems, as empirical research complied by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett clearly demonstrates.

“Something has to give. An economic system that rewards amoral self-interest creates economic instability, fractures economic insecurity, fosters concentrations of economic power, exacerbates economic inequality and violates ecological sustainability. So much for the self-regulating market economy!

“There is currently much talk of ‘social responsibility’ in business and of ‘triple bottom line accounting’ that emphasises the use of social and environmental criteria, as well as a financial criterion, in assessing business performance… Indeed, businesses developing reputations for responsible behaviours may reap benefits in the form of worker and customer loyalty. But unless and until ethical behaviours become integral to how markets function – by directly affecting ‘shareholder value’, for example – it is hard to see the overall effect as much more than window dressing for ‘business as usual’.”

Oh, The Morality: Why Ethics Matters In Economics, The Conversation (in partnership with the University of Sydney) (March 22, 2012)

More on ethics and economics next time.

[1] For more on whether the market is truly “free,” see this article and this one. Or if you prefer, here’s a short video and here’s a TEDX talk.

Free Market Professionalism

snake oil salesman 2

10- 15 years ago I discovered the Wannabe Economy.

It’s staffed by speakers, writers, facilitators, hosts, coaches, consultants… awake, aware, alive, attractive people ready to show us how to have it as good as they do. I needed their help. I dove in, gobbled up their wares.

At one point, I tried to be a Wannabe provider myself (books and workshops). But then doubt started stalking me: was I promoting sustainable change or just trashing people’s lives? How would know? I meant well, but so do lots of harmful people. The Wannabe Economy didn’t have an existential crisis:  it championed personal responsibility and trusted the marketplace to sort  things out.

The pitch is, “Do this, get that” — here’s the secret, the key, the code. the password, the knock. This gets you in. We want in, so we lay our money down. We feel grateful. We go for it. Then what? It’s all on us — personally responsibility, remember? — so if it works, we did it right, and if it doesn’t, we didn’t. We don’t call our guru to account; instead, we buy more.[1]

Why? Because we want desperately to play until we win. The sellers are invariably charismatic, assured, happy, rich — or appear to be. We believe in their sincerity, look for and find evidence that they live what they’re selling. (They’re making money selling to us, but we miss that point.) So we keep shelling it out, keep trying to finesse our way to the promised land. Meanwhile, our guides have no skin in the game — not our game, at least. There’s no investment, only well wishes.

I suspect that 99.999% of the helpers in the self-help industry genuinely want to help. But it’s a business, after all, not charity.[2] There’s no mens rea for buyer’s remorse in the Wannabe Economy. You pays your money, you takes your chance. Caveat emptor.

And, more pertinent to this blog, what I just described has become how “professional” services are bought and sold. Capitalism serves up both the Wannabe Economy and Free Market Professionalism.

Any problem with that?

In two words, trust and accountability, which are reducible to one word:   professionalism. And professionalism is taking a beating in the free market. That’s the message of this article: Why A Market Model Is Destroying The Safeguards Of The Professions. It’s written by a German academic mostly about the medical profession, but it applies to other professions as well.

“Wasn’t there a time when professionals still knew how to serve us – a cosy, well-ordered world of responsible doctors, wise teachers and caring nurses? In this world, bakers still cared about the quality of their bread, and builders were proud of their constructions. One could trust these professionals; they knew what they were doing and were reliable guardians of their knowledge. Because people poured their souls into it, work was still meaningful – or was it?

“In the grip of nostalgia, it’s easy to overlook the dark sides of this old vocational model. On top of the fact that professional jobs were structured around hierarchies of gender and race, laypeople were expected to obey expert judgment without even asking questions. Deference to authority was the norm, and there were few ways of holding professionals to account.

“Against this backdrop, the call for more autonomy, for more ‘choice’, seems hard to resist. This is precisely what happened with the rise of neoliberalism after the 1970s, when the advocates of ‘New Public Management’ promoted the idea that hard-nosed market thinking should be used to structure healthcare, education and other areas that typically belonged to the slow and complicated world of public red tape. In this way, neoliberalism undermined not only public institutions but the very idea of professionalism.

“This attack was the culmination of two powerful agendas. The first was an economic argument about the alleged inefficiency of public services or the other non-market structures in which professional knowledge was hosted.

“The second was an argument about autonomy, about equal status, about liberation – ‘Think for yourself!’ instead of relying on experts. The advent of the internet seemed to offer perfect conditions for finding information and comparing offers: in short, for acting like a fully informed customer.

“These two imperatives – the economic and the individualistic – meshed extremely well under neoliberalism. The shift from addressing the needs of citizens to serving the demands of customers or consumers was complete.

“The imperatives of productivity, profitability and the market rule.

“We are all customers now; we are all supposed to be kings. But what if ‘being a customer’ is the wrong model for healthcare, education, and even highly specialised crafts and trades?

“What the market-based model overlooks is hyperspecialisation, as the philosopher Elijah Millgram argues in The Great Endarkenment (2015). We depend on other people’s knowledge and expertise, because we can learn and study only so many things in our lifetimes. Whenever specialist knowledge is at stake, we are the opposite of a well-informed customer. Often we don’t  want to have to do our own research, which would be patchy at best; sometimes, we are simply unable to do it, even if we tried. It’s much more efficient (yes, efficient!) if we can trust those already in the know.

“But it can be hard to trust professionals forced to work in neoliberal regimes.

“Responsible professionalism imagines work-life as a series of relationships with individuals who are entrusted to you, along with the ethical standards and commitments you uphold as a member of a professional community. But marketisation threatens this collegiality, by introducing competitiveness among workers and undermining the trust that’s needed to do a good job.

“Is there a way out of this conundrum? Could professionalism be revived? If so, can we avoid its old problems of hierarchy while preserving space for equality and autonomy?”

Good questions that deserve engaged, real-time answers from people with skin in the game.

[1] For a scathing description of this particular consumer behavior in the Wannabe Economy,  see 11 Billion Reasons The Self Help Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know The Truth About Happiness (Hint: Unhappy People Buy Things) Inc. (Oct. 19, 2017).

[2] Although it is very much a religion — I write more on topics like that in another context.