What love for freedom?

Chris Dillow blogs about the effect of freedom on happiness:

Does freedom make us happy? Two things I’ve seen today suggest not. First, a cross-country study of the link between economic freedom and well-being concludes:

“Economic freedom is significantly negatively related to life satisfaction if controlled for the influence of income per capita, unemployment, social trust, life expectancy and aging.”

Of course, controlling for income is a big control. The raw correlation between freedom and happiness is positive. The message is that economic freedom make us happy insofar as it makes us rich, but it has no intrinsic value for well-being.

It reminds me of something Gary Brecher wrote about in the context of modern, asymmetric warfare and why people fight:

People are superstitious tribalists. Democracy comes about 37th, if that. Nobody wants to face that fact: we’re tribal critters. We’ll die for the tribe. More to the point, we’ll kill for it. We don’t care about democracy. And I’m not just talking here about people in tropical hellholes like Somalia, I mean your town, your street. Most Americans are just like me: old-school nationalists. We want America to be Roman, to kick ass. The rest is for Quakers.

Those two things seem to go to the same point: pursuit of freedom is not a serious goal for most individuals. That really makes you wonder how such enormous decisions as going to war are justified on the basis of defending freedom and democracy. It’s far to big a topic to cover in a blog post and I have no expertise in the subject, but it does make me immediately think of Robin Hanson’s ideas about signalling status. Take a description of his position on health care and substitute in ‘democracy’ for ‘health care’:

And every single data point that passes by in the [freedom] debate does nothing but strengthen the position that Robin Hanson articulated: [freedom] altruism is a permutation of our evolutionary drive to “show we care”; or rather, make infrequent, and very large expenditures to show our loyalty to an alliance. The frequency has gotten greater as our society has gotten richer, but the underlying motive is still linked to our evolutionary roots.

Doesn’t that sound kinda plausible? I’m looking forward to learning plenty as the political scientists bring some real knowledge to bear here 😛

Robots, uber richness, unemployment: Points to keep in mind

I think the statement “points to keep” in mind is currently my favourite thing around … however, I digress and I haven’t actually started the post yet.

Over at the Dim Post Danyl has an interesting point, derived from this post:

If some future entrepreneur invents a labour saving device that makes them a multi-trillionaire but puts dozens of millions of people out of work, should the government redistribute their private wealth?

To put my value judgments on the line, yes I do think that the more technological advancement we have, and the less “scarcity” exists, the more sense it makes to have more redistribution.  However, that is my values – as an economist I want to put them to the side for a moment and think about the idea of allocation objectively.  Here we go:

tl;dr labour saving devices are really just cost reductions – as society adjusts either people are no worse off, or everyone is better off.

Read more

Strawman at the centre of the discussion of economics

In an article in the Herald it is suggested that the separation of economics from moral philosophy is morally abhorrent, and as a result we should ignore what economists say about tax.

I will put the tl;dr up first:  Economic theory is “descriptive” – which in turn allows us to discuss how economic theory is actually a very useful thing for discussing these issues.  In my opinion it is important to make these trade-offs that are described transparent –  and that is all economists are trying to do.  In that context, economists don’t actually seem morally abhorrent 😀 .  Furthermore, by showing a willingness to discuss and identify trade-offs, we can find some issues and facts that seem to get slightly missed in the article 😉

Read more

In defence of neo-classical economics

I have recently seen an increasing number of attacks on “neo-classical” economics from every section of the political spectrum.

Last week, I heard a number of commentators at the sustainable economics conference claim that neo-classical economics was:

  1. Based on falsified views of the individual,
  2. Static,
  3. Had no supply side.

Then I saw an attack on “neo-classical economics” from Roger Kerr at the Business Roundtable (and more) which seemed to imply:

  1. It ignores institutions,
  2. It ignores transaction costs,
  3. It is static.

I was surprised by these attacks.  More than surprised, I felt like the attacks were based on a straw man version of neo-classical economics – one that in many ways never existed, and if it was floating around it was during the 1950’s-1970’s when a lot of the focus was on a narrow neo-classical synthesis in macro theory.

Neo-classical economics is a term for the “core” of economic theory – primarily modern mainstream microeconomics.  I have discussed here how we get from scarcity to neo-classical economics, and I have discussed neo-classical economics in more detail here.

This “core” is different to the core in the 1970’s – as many of the fringe elements of theory have now shifted their way inside the core of economics (think game theory, endogenous growth theory, transaction cost economics).  However, this is the point, neo-classical economics has evolved and it is this modern version that is taught in universities (at least it is at Victoria) nowadays – contrary to the claims at the sustainability conference that economics hadn’t changed.

The reason I am so defensive about the definition of neo-classical economics is because people see it as the current core – which according to my definition it is.  Setting up an alternative definition of neo-classical economics and knocking it down is either equivalent to setting up a straw man to attack, or directly misleading people to make it sound like modern economists are incompetent.

Seeing the future and determinism

As an economic forecaster, the idea of “seeing the future” is no doubt of interest to me.  Combined with the fact that I have compared economic forecasting to tarot card reading, it would seem that I have a prior belief that the ability to see the future exists – but in fact, I very much don’t.

In essence, my prior belief is that the future is not predetermined per see, but that there are current factors that influence future outcomes that are observable – as a result, we can use knowledge about the causal or empirical relationship between these factors to get some idea regarding what could happen and some of the risks around it.

However, in the face of genuine uncertainty I would believe we have no knowledge.  This specific view also indicates that the distinction between free will and determinism is unobservable – as there is no way to disentangle the relationship between cause and effect in a way that tells us whether there is choice, or whether the causal mechanism in itself determines the future.

Yet, a recent study that appears to show a mildly statistically significant relationship between people’s predictions of what will happen and what does happen BEFORE what occurs has been in any way determined.  In essence, there is complete uncertainty but people’s ability to judge what will happen in the face of this is greater than we would expect from chance! [ht Chris Blattman, Marginal Revolution *].

To me, this also provides a test of determinism vs free will – at least along some level of interaction.  Why?  If it is possible for people to “see the future” before it is ex-post determined then the future must in some sense exist before it appears to exist.

In the face of free will, we can still judge what will happen on the future given information, but we would not expect people to outperform chance in the face of no information.  In the face of determinism we would expect the ability to judge the future with no information would be related to the strength of the precognitive ability of the person – if, among people, this is on average greater than zero we would expect a statistically significant deviation from chance.

This is all very interesting, but I would like to see the results replicated and further testing done before I even begin to shift my posterior probability regarding such things.

Neuroscience, determinism, and free will

The title sounds serious, but I am (sadly) not capable of steering into too much detail in this subject matter.  However, given that I have a rising interest in neuroeconomics I felt I should type something out about this quote (ht Andrew Sullivan):

Dualists about the mind and brain – those who hold that there are thinking substances like souls in the world as well as all the ordinary physical stuff – say that the mind sees and thinks and wants and calculates. Contemporary neuroscience dismisses this as crude, but Hacker argues that it just ends up swapping the mind with the brain, saying that the brain sees and thinks and wants and calculates. He says, “Merely replacing Cartesian ethereal stuff with glutinous grey matter and leaving everything else the same will not solve any problems. On the current neuroscientist’s view, it’s the brain that thinks and reasons and calculates and believes and fears and hopes. In fact, it’s human beings who do all these things, not their brains and not their minds. I don’t think it makes any sense to talk about the brain engaging in psychological or mental operations.”

Read more