Sunday, April 5, 2009

What is your inner economist?

As I was reading Tyler Cowen’s book “Discover Your Inner Economist” I wished that I had read it sooner.

The cover of the book and the table of contents did not give me good reasons to buy the book. The cover invites potential readers to use incentives to fall in love, survive their next meeting and motivate their dentist. The contents page suggests that the book is about things like how to control the world, possess all the great art ever made and practice the art of self-deception. Since I do not aspire to be a master of the universe I have given higher priority to reading other books, such as Tim Harford’s book about the economic logic of life and Dan Ariely’s book about hidden forces that can tend to make decisions predictably irrational (discussed here).

If I had read some reviews of Tyler’s book I would have discovered that it is really about how your inner economist can help you to live a good life. I would also have discovered that Tyler’s inner economist does not try to apply market place logic to all aspects of life. The book is full of parables drawn from every day life and suggestions about how to live well - including suggestions on how to make visits to art galleries and museums more rewarding and how to eat well on a limited budget.

If someone had asked me to describe my inner economist before I had read this book I would probably have said that it was the inner voice that kept telling me things like: incentives matter; resources are scarce; don’t forget about opportunity costs; sunk costs are irrelevant to current decisions; and human behavior is motivated by self interest. I would probably have mentioned that, like any other sensible human, any sensible economist also has other inner voices (e.g. the voices of ethicists, psychologists and sociologists) questioning whether the advice of the inner economist is appropriate to the circumstances. I might also have said that there is always potential for an inner voice of reason to preside over this inner babble and say things like “on the one hand ...” and “on the other hand ...” and for an inner executive to conclude “on balance, it seems to me ...”.

One obvious problem with my initial perception of the inner economist is that economists have a well deserved reputation for saying “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”. Good economics takes account of insights from other disciplines where they are relevant – it involves more than just an exploration of what might happen if people behave in the way economists have often assumed that they will behave in simple models of market behaviour.

Tyler sets up pattern recognition as the most important function of the inner economist: “Your Inner Economist sees patterns that you might not be seeing at first glance” (p 8). He argues against the view promoted by some economists that monetary incentives, markets and property rights should be applied to all aspects of life, including family life. “Our Inner Economist knows that money cannot buy love, respect or peace of mind” (p 3). But our inner economist can recognize the circumstances in which monetary incentives will work well (e.g. where performance is highly responsive to extra effort or where intrinsic motivation is weak).

Tyler identifies a major drawback of rewards and penalties as follows: “We use them to influence the behavior of other people. And this is precisely what makes those people feel a lack of control and a lack of freedom” (p 33).

If aspiring masters of the universe were the intended audience for this book, I hope a lot of them have bought it. However, I doubt whether many of them would have enjoyed reading it as much as I did.

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