Wolfers Gets Loopy

Over the years I’ve not only met folks who do drugs, I’ve met folks who’ve had deep mystical experiences on drugs. They have told me that their drug experiences made them feel sure the physical world we see around us just can’t be all there is — they’ve touched something deeper and more important. When asked how exactly a weird drug experiences could possibly count as evidence on basic physics, they have little coherent to say. It seems their subconscious just told them this abstract conclusion, and they can’t not believe a cocksure subconscious. Even one on drugs.

Druggies might say such things in private, but it is much rarer to hear a professional physicist say them in public. Odd then to hear professional economist Justin Wolfers say his near-mystical parenting experience makes him doubt standard econ:

I learned economics in my twenties, before I became a dad. … Hard math and complex models … exploring the basic idea … that people are purposeful, analytic decision makers. … I had always believed in the analytic self; I was rational, calculating, and tried to make smart decisions. Of course real people don’t use math, but I figured that we’re still weighing costs and benefits just as our models say. …

Today, I’m not so sure. My feelings toward my daughter Matilda aren’t easily expressed in analytic terms. … Her laugh is the greatest joy, and it thrills me that she shares it with me. … She’s central not only to my life, but to who I am. There’s something new and strange about all this. Today, I feel the powerful force of biology. It’s visceral; it’s real; it’s hormonal, and it’s not in our economic models. I’m helpless in the face of feelings that overwhelm me.

Yes, I know that a twenty-something reader will cleverly point out that I just need to count kids as a good which yields utility, or perhaps we need to add a state variable to the utility function as in rational addiction models. But that’s not the point. I’m surprised by how little of this I’ve consciously chosen. While the economic framework accurately describes how I choose an apple over an orange, it has had surprisingly little to say about what has been the most important choice in my life.

I’m a committed neoclassical economist. … But what kind of economists would we be if we learned our economics only after we were parents? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and truth is, I don’t know the answer. … Slivers of evidence—my own introspection, conversations with other economist-parents … —all tell me that it would be different. (more)

I don’t need to speculate – I am exactly that kind of economist. I started econ grad school with two kids, ages 0 and 2, and had no undergrad econ. I’ve seen a lot of the parenting cycle – my youngest graduates from high school tomorrow. My kids are central to who I am, and I’ve known well feelings that are visceral, hormonal, and that overwhelm me.

But none of that makes me doubt the value of neoclassical econ. How could it? First, econ makes sense of a complex social world by leaving important things out, on purpose – that is the point of models, to be simple enough to understand. More important, econ models almost never say anything about consciousness or emotional mood – they don’t at all assume people choose via a cold calculating mindset, or even that they choose consciously.  As long as choices (approximately) fit certain consistency axioms, then some utility function captures them.  So how could discovering emotional and unconscious choices possibly challenge such models?

Having an emotional parenting experience is as irrelevant to the value of neoclassical econ as having a mystical drug experience is to the validity of basic physics. Your subconscious might claim otherwise, but really, you don’t have to believe it.

Added 11p: Wolfers is usually an excellent economist, and here he seems to realize he is acting a bit loopy. This suggests a “religious” scenario, where someone tries to show devotion via a willingness to believe extreme things. Wolfers feels a new strong attachment to his family, and shows it by a willingness to change related beliefs in an extreme way. Being an economist, one of the biggest beliefs he can sacrifice on this altar is his belief in the standard economic framework. So Wolfers says that his new family attachment has made him question this framework.

Added 22June: Wolfers responds here.

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  • Wonks Anonymous
  • http://contrarianmoderate.wordpress.com Ben

    I’m not sure Wolfers is questioning the integrity of economics so much as noting its limitations. He’s saying that based on his economic learning, he’s still largely unable to understand an important phenomenon–his relationship with his daughter. He’s wondering whether there might some better theory, to better explain his world, just as a drug-user who suddenly experiences new perceptions of familiar phenomena might say the same.

    Recreational drugs certainly seem to evoke creativity; Freud was likely high as a weather balloon when he first used the term subconscious. If Robin Hanson is a typical post-parental economist, I’d think that children probably have a similar creative effect, as Wolfers suggests. RH churns out for innovative theory on this blog than most economics departments produce in total. He’s like the Tupac of economics bloggers, to the extent that I’d expect new ideas to keep popping out long after he’s been cryonically frozen.

  • Ben

    If neoclassical economics assumes people act in their own narrow self-interest, but the reality on the ground is that they will prioritise the well-being of their children, isn’t that an important modification to economics?

    He’s not making some amazing revelation. He’s just discovered neuroeconomics first-hand.

    The difference between physics/mysticism and classical economics/real economics is this: if you take LSD, you can’t break the laws of physics, but if you have a real evolved brain, you can and will break the assumptions of neoclassical economics about your levels of rationality, self-interest and so on.

    Now, as you mention, neoclassical economics may still be a useful model in some cases – but surely taking into account parental love would improve the model, whereas taking into account spiritual feelings wouldn’t improve physics.

  • Matthew

    That’s not an argument but an expert opinion.

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    I think the key part of the paragraph you quote is the second to last one, and the problem with it may be nothing more profound than Wolfers not thinking carefully enough about what he was trying to say with it.

    To turn Wolfers into Wolfers+, I might argue that even if you can make neoclassical economics capture observed human behavior by making unusual choices about what things are “goods that yield utility,” this might not be the best way to think about them.

    So maybe you can get a pretty good model of revenge by supposing revenge is a good which yields utility, but there’s a more helpful explanation out there: if dispositions to seek revenge are hard to fake, a disposition to sometimes seek revenge even when it nets negative utility can evolve for its deterrence value.

    Taking the evolutionary angle a little further, here’s a hostile question for neo-classical economists: “how strong do you think the reasons are for evolution to produce people who at least approximately fit the consistency axioms of neoclassical economics?”

  • http://www.gwern.net gwern

    On a side note – I wonder what it’s like to be raised by Robin. What do the kids make of cryonics? Are they signed up? Have they been traumatized by his universal cynicism? :) (I bet they have some interesting stories.)

    • AspiringRationalist

      Perhaps he’s not _actually_ as he comes across on OB and he just acts this way to signal lack of gullibility.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    reminds me of deep insights from college bong or mushroom sessions, they all seemed so profound at the time, yet somehow, never managed to generate any lasting insights. Theory isn’t reality and vice versa. I myself find ‘love of one’s progeny’ a strange desire in some sense (not transferable), but it’s just a preference, nothing outside the box.

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    that block quote reads as continuous but isn’t actually, if compared w/ wolfer’s post. i think an ellipsis is probably warranted.

    here’s an omitted paragraph in wolfer’s post i thought added context:

    And it’s not for want of trying. Today, I find myself wondering: Is parenthood a constant returns technology? That is: Would a second child bring as much joy as a first? But how could it? Since meeting Matilda, my heart is bursting with joy. Will it explode? Are the returns diminishing then? And if so, how fast? Forget self-interest; I’m not the only stakeholder in this debate. Beyond my better half, there’s Matilda, and the dozens of others she has brought joy to—her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and caregivers. There are the old ladies who smile as she walks down the street, the dads I share a knowing glance with, and all the good that will come from whatever lies ahead for my baby.

    to me it sounds like neoclassical theory has some tools to approach the problem, but things get really complicated and confusing. and also your introspectively based model of humans is shaken because your kid has changed you, and now you’re open to less self-centered conceptions of human self-interest, which probably complicated things further. maybe economic models don’t usually take into account internal human states, but don’t economists all the time use introspection to try to grok what people might do in given economic situations?

  • mjgeddes

    I am surely a walking poster-child of the insight that drug-style ‘trips’ can achieve!

    Wolfers has realized what I did… neoclassical econ, based on the math of Bayes and decision theory, is merely an approximation to a far deeper theory of goal-directed systems. The point is that Bayes/decision theory fails to incorporate consciousness into the model..thus important components of goal-directed systems are missing from the model. The difference from physics is that goal-directed systems are not the subject matter of physics..whereas for econ, features of minds surely influence the model.

    Only the drug-induced haze of super-duper ultra-uber intuition is capable of finally apprehending the real answers… the 27 cosmic ontological categories at the heart of it all, the replacement of the notion of ‘probability’ with ‘similiarity’, categorization and analogy-making as the core of cognition, a new form of math based on a ‘fuzzy category theory’, the derivation of Bayes from this more general theory, the total revision of standard economics and so on.

    Let this symbol be the sign of the ultimate cosmic category…

    Drop some acid, you’ll understand all.

    • http://lesswrong.com/user/Jayson_Virissimo Jayson Virissimo

      Wolfers has realized what I did… neoclassical econ, based on the math of Bayes and decision theory, is merely an approximation to a far deeper theory of goal-directed systems. The point is that Bayes/decision theory fails to incorporate consciousness into the model..thus important components of goal-directed systems are missing from the model. The difference from physics is that goal-directed systems are not the subject matter of physics..whereas for econ, features of minds surely influence the model.

      So can you provide some arguments for why your theory of economics is better than the neoclassical variety or do we need to be on acid to properly appraise them?

    • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

      Re: “The point is that Bayes/decision theory fails to incorporate consciousness into the model..thus important components of goal-directed systems are missing from the model.”

      What model do you mean? “Decision theory” refers to a category that includes many types of model about how to make decisions.

    • Doug S.

      You certainly sound like someone on drugs… ;)

  • Marcus

    Lol, okay if you’re really against hypocrisy then you’ll recognize that this is you saying, “What, a better world without logic?! That’s just not logical!”

  • candy

    But that’s not the point. I’m surprised by how little of this I’ve consciously chosen. While the economic framework accurately describes how I choose an apple over an orange, it has had surprisingly little to say about what has been the most important choice in my life.

    You don’t choose how much you like apples, and that’s a major influence on how many apples you buy. You might not choose how to feel about your children, but you don’t really choose how you feel about anybody. Economics is fine with what we happen to like, be it oranges, apples, children, cats, whatever. Econ doesn’t even purport to describe why people desire things, so how is this even a challenge to the model?

  • Drewfus

    “…the economic framework accurately describes how I choose an apple over an orange…”

    I didn’t realise revealed preference could do that. So briefly, what is the mechanism?

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Ben, for a counter-example on children, James Watson says he wouldn’t have accomplished as much if he wasn’t single. But who knows how accurate his introspection is.

    Eric Falkenstein, yup Bertrand Russell and William James have related similar anecdotes.

    mjgeddes, where is the evidence that your intuition is actually any good beyond your claiming it to be so? You say there are 27 categories, so what are they?

    • DK

      Watson accomplished little of note during almost two decades that separated the discovery of DNA structure and the birth of his first son. In contrast, Crick was married and taking care of an infant at a time of DNA Race. He later had another daughter and while raising his children Crick accomplished several more things of crucial importance for molecular biology.

    • mjgeddes

      The 27-categories are implicit (hidden) within category theory, I already indirectly referred to them in the thread ‘Super Watch Dilemna’, where I listed 3 ontological axes, each with 3 ontological prims. Each combination of prims (‘triple’) represents one of the categories.

      As to proof, all will be revealed in the fullness of time. The narrative has to unfurl at its own pace, possibly in a series of techno-thriller novels I am writing ;)

      The web-page at the link below shows all my symbols for the categories, who can crack the code?

      HackersCode

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  • Douglas Knight

    The comparison of psychedelics with parenthood is interesting. Are parents less impressed by LSD than non-parents?

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  • http://www.daviddfriedman.com David Friedman

    “Taking the evolutionary angle a little further, here’s a hostile question for neo-classical economists: “how strong do you think the reasons are for evolution to produce people who at least approximately fit the consistency axioms of neoclassical economics?””

    For my view of some ways in which one might modify neoclassical economics to take account of the implications of Darwinian evolution, see:

    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/econ_and_evol_psych/economics_and_evol_psych.html

  • jimmy

    To be fair though, drugs can push you in the other direction too – I know someone who clicked on reductionism while on psychedelics.

  • http://infiniteinjury.org Peter Gerdes

    Those of us who have had plenty of mystical drug experiences but who dismiss them as merely the product of substance induced experiences tend to be a lot less vocal about the whole thing.