Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Travels In Candyland

Near Near Future recently beguiled me into reading an article on the radical new science of "neuroeconomics" (no sooner do I type the words than I imagine a frowning Echidne, lovely in Her wrath).

It was originally published in The Economist - a magazine that has never been afraid to tackle the thornier points of socioeconomic ontology - and it starts off not with a bang, but a whimper:

Although Plato compared the human soul to a chariot pulled by the two horses of reason and emotion, modern economics has mostly been a one-horse show. It has been obsessed with reason.
Don't you just love the structure of that first sentence? I can write non sequiturs too, you know. Watch this: "Although Lesley Gore sang about sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, meteorology has concerned itself primarily with sunshine and rainbows."

Also, the fact that Plato scribbled that gag about horses doesn't mean that he himself wasn't "obsessed with reason," or that he mightn't have argued that economics should be a "one-horse show."

Let's not split hairs, though. Let's just take it on faith that Plato is the intellectual godfather of modern economics, and that he disapproved of placing reason above emotion, so that we can get back to this awesomely outrageous new science that's revolutionizing classical economics:
In decisions from how much to produce to whether to save and invest, humans have been assumed to be coolly rational calculators of their own self-interest. Over the past few years, however, evidence from psychology has persuaded many economists that reason does not always have its way.
That "many economists" have been dragged kicking and screaming from the spun-sugar citadels of Candyland represents real progress - there's no doubt about that - but there's clearly a great deal more work to be done. For instance, this writer's definition of "reason" as the "cooly rational" calculation of self-interest is both gratuitous and absurd. Self-interest and rationality may converge or diverge; they are not Siamese twins. Human economic behavior, taken as a whole, has never been coolly rational, and coolly rational decisions don't guarantee happy outcomes, or even non-fatal ones.

Anyway, just to bring the article full circle - it started out by talking about Plato, remember? - the author ends with an invocation of Life's Ineffable Mysteries:
Then there are age-old questions of free will: is your failure to save for old age simply a lifestyle choice, or is it down to faulty brain circuits?
Beats me...but I do know that "failure to save for old age" has been a common disaster throughout recorded history (almost as common as being defrauded of one's life savings by corrupt financiers). This offers further evidence that human beings can't be described en masse as "coolly rational calculators of self-interest." On the contrary, they've very often been self-defeating, feckless, improvident fuck-ups. What humans want, as often as not, is something for nothing. That's why they gamble, that's why they give their bank-account numbers to self-styled Nigerian functionaries, and that's why they believe in the illogical babblings of politicians and stock brokers and economists.

And as long as we're dragging Plato's carcass through the mud, it's worth noting that he also argued that "it should be impossible to entertain contradictory notions that defy the science of measurement." Just sayin'!

1 comment:

Thersites said...

Y'know, if we're so smart, why don't WE invent some hogwash pseudoscience, give it a snappy name, and rake in the fat grant scratch? Beats working.