Taking a look in the mirror

Over at NZQuest, Oliver Woods claims that economics

…works around perfect conditions and universal application of models and theories developed many years ago to any economic problem, believing history, society and all sorts of other factors undermine the ‘homo economicus’, or the supposedly rational profit-driven man who thinks entirely in his own self-interest and only helps others when they can help him.

As Matt has previously addressed there is a huge difference between positive statements and normative judgments. Woods is confusing the judgments he attributes to economists with positive statements of economics. Read more

The economist’s economic growth bias

Reading the titles of the last two posts (the birth rate vs the growth rate and growth forecasts and government) I realised that neither rauparaha or myself defined what ‘growth’ we were talking about. Like all economists, we took ‘Growth’ to be synonymous with growth in gross domestic product.

Could this possibly imply that economists such as rauparaha and myself have an inherent bias when discussing normative statements about welfare that points us towards pro economic growth policies – even when there is a hefty trade off in other social values. Do economists focus too strongly on technical and allocative efficiency without taking social efficiency and equity into account?
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Ignoring costs and misrepresentation – People’s attitude to economists

One thing that gets to me is the fact that people from both sides of the political spectrum love to avoid costs. As economists pride themselves in discussing the opportunity cost associated with any given policy or action, we end up being attacked by both sides (Update:  Including psychologists it seems.  Dang I thought they were the one social science that understood us 🙁 )

However, the way both sides attack economists is different, equally irritating but different.

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The moral high ground

Economists are often seen as cold and calculating by the public. I have personally been referred to as a ‘deranged sociopath’ for a post I made on this blog. Today’s post by Eliezer at Overcoming Bias (yeah, it’s my blog of the moment) reassures me that we economists really do have the moral high ground 😉

“What!” you cry, incensed. “How can you gamble with human lives? How can you think about numbers when so much is at stake? So much for your damned logic! You’re following your rationality off a cliff!”

You know what? This isn’t about your feelings. A human life, with all its joys and all its pains, adding up over the course of decades, is worth far more than your brain’s feelings of comfort or discomfort with a plan. Does computing the expected utility feel too cold-blooded for your taste? Well, that feeling isn’t even a feather in the scales, when a life is at stake.

Altruism isn’t the warm fuzzy feeling you get from being altruistic. If you’re doing it for the spiritual benefit, that is nothing but selfishness. The primary thing is to help others, whatever the means. So shut up and multiply!

The morality of discounting

There’s a showdown at Overcoming Bias between Eliezer and Robin over discount rates. Eliezer says,

I’ve never been a fan of the notion that we should (normatively) have a discount rate in our pure preferences – as opposed to a pseudo-discount rate arising from monetary inflation, or from opportunity costs of other investments… If you wouldn’t burn alive 1,226,786,652 people today to save Giordano Bruno from the stake in 1600, then clearly, you do not have a 5%-per-year temporal discount rate in your pure preferences.

While this is music to the ears of environmentalists everywhere, Robin replies,

Very distant future times are ridiculously easy to help via investment. A 2% annual return adds up to a googol (10^100) return over 12,000 years, even if there is only a 1/1000 chance they will exist or receive it.

So if you are not incredibly eager to invest this way to help them, how can you claim to care the tiniest bit about them? How can you think anyone on Earth so cares? And if no one cares the tiniest bit, how can you say it is “moral” to care about them[?]

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