Baby you can drive my car

19 08 2015

I’m someone who finds it hard to talk about economists without rolling my eyes. Good lord, they actually think models=life.

This is, admittedly,  mostly just interdisciplinary trash-talk, but then I read something like this. . .

test drive

. . . and I think I am not nearly skeptical enough.

~~~

I should note that I generally enjoy reading Tyler Cowen: he’s smart, well-read, strange, and willing to take curiously-premised positions to their bug-nut logical conclusions. (His colleague Alex Tabarrok, on the other hand, . . .)

I should also note that it’s equally possible that Cowen is a) entirely serious; or b) trolling his readers. Hard to tell, given his deadpan writing style.





Love me, love me, say that you love me

2 12 2012

Not everything that can be measured matters; not everything that matters can be measured.

This is one of those tropes that I periodically repeat to my students. (It’s possible that I came up with this wording, but given that the sentiment has been around a lot longer than I have, I’d guess that I swiped the line from someone else. [Pause while I search.] Ah, stolen: A variation on Einstein.)

Anyway, it’s a good line, although a bit dangerous for the classroom: My students are already disinclined to take statistics (despite my admonitions to do so), so suggesting that measurement has its limits might lead them to translate this to mean measurement is bunk.

Measurement is not bunk, but there are some phenomenon which cannot be captured by a nifty formula. Money, money can be easily measured, but why it matters beyond its utility is a question which requires knowledge beyond that of currency itself. It’s not that you can’t get responses to the question, but that those responses are so embedded within history and culture and politics and psychology that in order to elicit good responses, the questions must be informed by history and culture and whatnot.

Then there are some phenomenon which are damned near impossible to capture with any precision, in large part because they lack clear definition.

Love is one of those things. The best you can do is to try to identify the elements which you’d want to include in the corral, but even then some of those bits may flee over the fence while others might tunnel in and by gum it’s worse than herding wet angry cats in the presence of puppies and raccoons.

Still, the damned-near-impossibility of drawing any kind of definitive line around love does not mean it does not exist. I admit to my own agita regarding its role (or lack thereof) in my life, but that I can’t see it for myself does not mean it is not a real thing for other people.

Not only is it a real thing, it’s a real and powerful thing, and it drives people in all kinds of directions, including ’round the bend and over the cliff and up a wall. It matters, in other words.

Deidre McCloskey also thinks it matters, and, furthermore, that it ought to matter to economists that they have no good way of comprehending love or incorporating it into their theories.

I am, of course, not an economist, and I get just a bit too much pleasure bashing (in particular freshwater) economists for their oft-ridiculous assumptions regarding rationality and the maximization of utility. Nonetheless, McCloskey has peeled back a lid my fellow political scientists would also prefer kept securely in place:

The great Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, for example, thinks in this fashion, as do his numerous followers. He realizes that love — or as he usually styles it, with embarrassed male scare quotes, “love” — entails more than “caring” in his restricted sense: “If M cares about F, M’s utility would depend on the commodity consumption of F as well as on his own.

” But treating others as “inputs into a self’s utility function,” as Becker puts it, is to treat the others as means, not as ends. Immanuel Kant said two centuries ago in effect that your mother, if she is truly and fully loving, loves you as an end, for your own sweet sake. You may be a rotten kid, an ax-murderer on death row in Texas. You’re not even a high-school graduate. You give her “nothing but grief,” as we say. In all the indirect, derivative ways you are a catastrophe. And yet she goes on loving you, and stands wailing in front of the prison on the night of your execution. Economists need to understand what everyone else already understands, and what the economists themselves understood before they went to graduate school, that such love is of course commonplace. [emph added]

Political scientists don’t do love or humor—that’s another line I toss at my students—which is particularly unfortunate because politics is full of love and humor and every other kind of emotion. To the extent that we ignore the role of love in politics, we miss something crucial about the subject which we, for some reason or another, have decided to study.

~~~~~

One last bit: I was (and to some extent, still am) like Becker in that I put “love” and “caring” in those scary quotes, but Joan Tronto’s Moral Boundaries forced me to reckon with an “ethic of care” as a morally serious (as opposed to frivolous) concept. I’d borrowed the book about a decade ago on a recommendation from a friend, but recently managed to snag a used copy. I’ll write about it when I re-read it.

She’s now at the University of Minnesota. I wonder if I would have been smart enough to have engaged with her when I was there. As McCloskey notes, we unlearn so many things while in grad school.

(h/t: Andrew Sullivan, Daily Dish)





Crossover ephemera

14 07 2012

True or false, they have a human value, which, meaningless though it may be to an economist, is important to the historian.

—C.V. Wedgewood, The Thirty Years War, on the horrors of the war

(Since I plan to use this bit again, it’s not, strictly speaking, ephemera, but the quote did “float up” and off the page.)