Tag: economic rationality

Robert Shiller on narrative economics

Listening to Robert Shiller’s online lectures, I’ve often half-written him an email in my head on some point. I distract myself and have to rewind. If you go to the “Drafts” folder in my brain, a third of them are to Robert Shiller.

Essentially, I wanted to tell him something about the humanities. I’m not sure what. Maybe just that the humanities exists. Professor Shiller can be quite perplexing. On the one hand, he’s a hugely influential figure in behavioral economics, and behavioral economics is the field with a great track record in confronting the more brutal absurdities of mainstream economics. On the other hand Shiller still is, frustratingly, very much an economist.  Although behavioral economics may ameliorate some of the features of scientistic finance and economics which humanities scholars tend to find so frustrating, it never goes nearly far enough.

So I’m happy to see this article from him!

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.

If Shiller is serious about narrative economics, he may want to give poststructuralism a whirl, and see if he can shake the set of intellectual habits that make “human instinct for storytelling” seem like an appropriate way of introducing an endeavor of this kind.

But it’s another step in the right direction …

See also: Shiller’s ‘Narrative Economics’ paper (2017).



Excerpt: Karl Polanyi, Socialist Accounting

Full article here.

A form of accounting, in which the sums were not expressible in common units, would of course not yield anything rationally intelligible. Now, a socialist economy, as we have defined it earlier in terms of its goals, in no way presumes a purely administrative economy, which unilaterally sets the prices for all goods (fixed prices), yielding figures that can be readily added. Instead, such a socialist economy also allows for these prices to arise through agreement (negotiated prices). Since we thus do not want to make any presuppositions about price formation, we must consider the theoretically most general––and, from the viewpoint of accounting, practically most unfavorable—case. We therefore assume that the economy for which we seek a quantitative overview has all types of price formation, from price formation in a market through the free play of supply and demand to administratively set prices. Whether such an assumption is theoretically valid, or even practically conceivable, remains to be seen. […]

But here begins the actual difficulty, which we wish to designate the quantitative difficulty. Fixed prices can affect negotiated prices at a minimum in two fundamentally different ways, according to whether their effect propagates “downstream,” […] meaning the same direction that the production process runs (towards the final product)—or in the opposite direction (towards the raw materials). The cost principle in accounting implies, however, that only those cost figures arising from the “downstream” effect of a fixed price may be added to one another. […] A fixed price and all the negotiated prices that arise from its “upstream” effect may be added neither to that fixed price itself nor to the negotiated prices arising from its “downstream” effect […]

Natural costs express the sacrifices that the natural process of material production requires, according to the character of the production task involved. Social costs, on the other hand, are that extra sacrifice that society’s will imposes on us via the effort both to ensure just distribution in every instance and to secure production with higher social utility. It is evident that separate quantitative recording of these cost groups (natural and social costs) is the main, practical task of socialist accounting. Without the recording of natural costs, production would have no reliable, infinitesimally precise guidelines, operating instead on intuition and approximation. We wish to point out here with particular emphasis that without the recording of social costs, the political-moral side of socialism would be no more realizable than the technical side would be without the recording of natural costs. Humanity will only be free when it understands what it must pay for its ideals. Only then will humanity come to recognize that the realization of these ideals depends exclusively on humanity itself. Then too, however, humanity will find the strength to realize its ideals.

“Sozialistische Rechnungslegung” [“Socialist Accounting”], 1922; trans. Johanna Bockman, Ariane Fischer, & David Woodruff 2016.

Paper: The Priority Heuristic: Making Choices Without Trade-Offs, by Eduard Brandstätter, Gerd Gigerenzer, and Ralph Hertwig

ABSTRACT: Bernoulli’s framework of expected utility serves as a model for various psychological processes, including motivation, moral sense, attitudes, and decision making. To account for evidence at variance with expected utility, we generalize the framework of fast and frugal heuristics from inferences to preferences. The priority heuristic predicts (i) Allais’ paradox, (ii) risk aversion for gains if probabilities are high, (iii) risk seeking for gains if probabilities are low (lottery tickets), (iv) risk aversion for losses if probabilities are low (buying insurance), (v) risk seeking for losses if probabilities are high, (vi) certainty effect, (vii) possibility effect, and (viii) intransitivities. We test how accurately the heuristic predicts people’s choices, compared to previously proposed heuristics and three modifications of expected utility theory: security-potential/aspiration theory, transfer-of-attention-exchange model, and cumulative prospect theory.

Read the full paper.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

This brings us to one of the most important component of the new social law and the oikodicy, a defining feature of homo economicus and his milieu, the market. Economic beings are reliable on account of their very limitations, they are social due to their lack of sociality, and it is only through their self-interested participation in trade that they can be brought to serve a purpose extrinsic to themselves. Above all, they best exercise control over themselves and others if they are left uncontrolled. There is nothing — and this will be one of the leitmotifs of the liberalism to come — more harmful than a government that wants to do good. On the contrary, what is called for here is a Mephistophelian agenda, one that takes its cue from a power “which would do evil constantly and constantly does good,” inadvertently producing what is best for all. Civil society, which constitutes itself as the milieu of homo economicus, is governed by the principle of nontransparency or inscrutability; there is no benevolent political actor, possessed of an all-encompassing overview and piercing insight, who might be willing and able to do what is good for everyone.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p.24.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

Even if the concept of equilibrium has taken different theoretical and epistemological forms on its journey from classical economics, via the marginalists of the nineteenth century, to twentieth-century neoliberalism, these versions share a limited spectrum of basic assumptions. They assume that all market players are interested in maximizing profit or use-value, that a self-regulating relationship between different quantities, forces and other factors obtains, that exchange mechanisms operate most effectively when arbitrary intrusions and interventions are kept to a bare minimum, and hence that the market should be seen as an exemplary arena for the clarification of otherwise inscrutable and opaque forms of social interaction.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 35.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, the Specter of Capitalism

Since the seventeenth century — to put it briefly — the discourses of natural rights and moral philosophy have provided some of the building blocks for an all-purpose definition of homo economicus. These discourses connect assumptions about the state of the world with presuppositions about human nature, and they have led to a long-lasting, radical change in the moral household and in the economy of human interrelations. This means, first, that modern homo economicus appears on the scene not merely as a rational subject but also as a passionate one, whereby these passions are regulated via a mechanism of interests. Second, he acts as a blind subject with limited knowledge. It is precisely through this blindness that he produces — unintentionally and unconsciously — harmonious social relations. For this reason, he follows a specific path in life. Homo economicus acquires wisdom through his ignorance and gets ahead in life thanks to his limited awareness and narrow horizons. Incidentally, a similar contradiction can be found in the plot structure of the German Bildungsroman: Wilhelm Meister, too, arrives at his rightful place in life precisely through his limited knowledge and the unintended consequences of his actions, as if steered there by an invisible, “higher hand” […] Third, homo economicus is an enemy of the state in a special sense.  As far as he is concerned, the implementation of a good system — involving laws, institutions, administration, and so on — conflicts with the good implementation of systematicity itself. […] And fourth, this hostility to government interference does not detract, as might be expected, from homo economicus developing into an eminently governable character type.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 27.

Excerpt: Amartya Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory”

It is possible to define the interest of a person in such away that in every single decision they make they are seen to be following their own interests.

Amartya Sen, “Rational Fools: A Critique of the Behavioral Foundations of Economic Theory,” in The Self and the Political Order, ed. Tracy B. Strong (New York, 1992), p.121.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

Precisely because human beings are asocial — this is how the surprising argument goes — they help contribute to social order; precisely because they are unreliable, they can be integrated into society as reliable, known quantities. How is this possible? By what mechanism can lawfulness be produced from anomic beings? What dynamic is at play here and what is its overall function in the system? Here too the answers given by English empiricists, French moralists, and German social engineers coincide in one essential point: all these affective dynamics come together in the mechanism of self-interest. At the heart of all (mis)deeds and passions, all desires and inclinations, lies an irreducible element which, since the seventeenth century, has gone by the name of “interest” or “self-interest.” The concept of (self-)interest probably originated in raison d’état or national interest before passing into social theory […] [p.21] Even the vilest cravings and most heated passions are stabilized by a trace element of self-interest that dictates the choice of the more pleasant, less painful option […] It is in self-interest that the inclinations and passions of all parties meet, and it is precisely in their pursuit of that interest that the social and political laws of nature are revealed.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University, 2015), p.20.

Excerpt: Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital

If, then, in modern times the earth not only begins to rotate around the sun but money too starts to rotate around the earth […] these revolutions are evidently complemented by an anthropological one, which no longer presents a mere “image” of mankind but manking as it “really” is — and this redefinition becomes the starting point for new conceptions of socio-political order. At any rate, ever since the Baroque, teachers of natural law and moral philosophers have generally agreed that human beings are no longer to be understood simply as zoa politika, as political animals who are directly and instinctively adapted to life in society. In contrast to most other creatures, human beings have instead shown themselves to be dysfunctional and quite unsuited to communal existence. By nature, they are disagreeable companions for their fellows — and an extensive literature [p.19] about such concepts as “self-love” or “self-preservation” proves that here, so far as human beings are concerned, we can only join Kant in speaking of “unsociable sociability” or a “nation of devils.” According to this view, “real” human beings find themselves in a hopelessly “ruined state”; they are “creatures filled with all kinds of wicked cravings.” […] The identification of a new type of human being thus coincides with novel conceptions of social order, conceptions in which market events and political economy will ultimately assume a privileged role.

Joseph Vogl, The Specter of Capital (Stanford: Stanford University 2015), pp.18-19