Why Economics Is, And Should Be, Creepy

Hostile questioners tried to trap Jesus into taking an explicit and dangerous stand on whether Jews should or should not pay taxes to the Roman authorities. … Jesus first called them hypocrites, and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. (more)

Long ago, Jesus avoided political entanglements by appealing to a key distinction long made between “official” worlds like work, commerce, war, governance, and law, and “personal” worlds like friends, lovers, parenting, hobbies, religion, conversation, and art. Economists have long been identified with that official world, of work and money and material things. But over the last century economists have increasingly moved outside that official world, looking at mating, conversation, and much more. This has often irritated academics who study personal worlds; they’ve seen economists as having “imperialist” ambitions to “conquer” other academic areas.

Economists studying personal worlds have also bothered a public that hears of economic concepts applied to personal worlds, but using words originally associated with official worlds.  For example, “marriage markets”, “dollar value of a life”, “price of fame,” “below optimal crime”, or my recent “sex redistribution”. This can seem to violate common norms separating official and personal worlds, which I’ll call “world norms”, such as that money should stay out of friendship, or governments stay out of conversation. And this can make economics seem “creepy.”

What is “creepy”? Imagine you are in a bar, late at night, in a not-so-safe neighborhood. You look a little different from the locals, you’ve heard of muggings nearby, you suspect muggers may follow non-locals out of the bar to mug them, and you see some people in the bar who rub you the wrong way. They are poor young males with a rough style, and you can’t be sure but you feel like they glance at you sometimes and their jocular laughing seems a bit fake. At this moment, you are likely to see them as “creepy”, i.e., as an ambiguous threat. You aren’t at all sure they are a threat, but threat is plausible and something about them doesn’t feel right.

A nice recent psych article says “creepiness” is all about threat ambiguity:

The perception of creepiness is a response to the ambiguity of threat. Males are more physically threatening to people of both sexes than are females, and they were more likely to be perceived as creepy by males and females alike. The link made by females between sexual threat and creepiness is also consistent with the fact that females are simply at greater risk of sexual assault and have potentially greater costs associated with it than males. We are placed on our guard by people who touch us or exhibit non-normative nonverbal behavior, or those who are drawn to occupations that reflect a fascination with death or unusual sexual behavior. People who have hobbies that involve collecting things that we are predisposed as a species to fear such as spiders and snakes or things that can only be acquired after something has died seem creepy to us as well. We are also wary of individuals who have a preoccupation with monitoring the activity of others.

While they may not be overtly threatening, individuals who display unusual patterns of nonverbal behavior, odd emotional responses, or highly distinctive physical characteristics are outside of the norm, and by definition unpredictable. This may activate our “creepiness detector” and increase our vigilance as we try to discern if there is in fact something to fear or not from the person in question. Interestingly, our results indicate that we do not necessarily assume ill intentions from people who are creepy, although we may still worry that they are dangerous. Most of our subjects believed that creepy people cannot change, and only a small minority of our subjects (8.6%) believed that creepy people are aware that they are creepy. (more)

When economists make a “model” to analyze any area of life, they describe the different kinds of actors involved, and the different kinds of situations in which such actors can be. Within each situation, and for each actor, economists define the different possible actions an actor can take, and in what order, and the preferences each actor might have over outcomes. They also define what each actor knows when about those actions, outcomes, and preferences. Finally, economists assume some commonly-known probability distribution over situations and outcomes set by “nature.” This all defines a “game” that these actors play.

Then using one of many standard “game theories”, economists can identify possible “equilibria” of such a game. Such an equilibrium determines a probability distribution over the outcomes, and combined with actor preferences gives distributions over how much each actor likes their outcomes. So economists can look at inequality across actors in how much they like outcomes, as well as the risk each actor faces from a range of possible future outcomes.

Of course all this theory depends on knowing actual facts about situations, actions, preferences, and information, and also on knowing the actual game theories that describe how real people act. And so to study any particular area of life one seeks to infer all these details from lab and field experiments, and formal field data, all augmented by (and sometimes dominated by) causal observations.

Economists can also look at variations to a game, and say how actor satisfaction, inequality, etc. depends on those variations. If some social norm or organizational (e.g., government) policy might plausibly influence variation along a dimension, such analyses can form a basis for recommending the policy positions along that dimension that produce better outcomes overall. Economists have a standard “efficiency” metric they use most often to weigh the different outcomes for different actors to give a single overall “welfare” number. One can also augment that with standard “inequality” metrics, or use more focused policy metrics, like those that care only about outcomes in one nation, or only about outcomes for labor and not for owners of capital. With all this, economists can search for policies that do better by these welfare metrics. For example, one can seek policies to change the distribution of outcomes (i.e., “redistribute”) to become less unequal.

This whole framework can be applied to social worlds as diverse as commerce, war, mating, law, crime, friendship, conversation, charity, politics, and religion. Both official and personal worlds. Pretty much any human activity, actually. Of course it is very hard and complex to actually do all this, and economists have only made modest progress in most areas. And traditional focus areas like trade have received a lot more attention than other areas like romance. But in principle, economists can study any area of human life, and seek policies to increase or “redistribute” any relevant outcomes. Such outcomes don’t need to easily tied to money, and may be hidden in people’s heads, like “respect” or “boredom.” Among the policies economists can consider are money transfers, taxes, and using law or government to require or prohibit behaviors.

In considering such policies, economists can easily violate “world norms” against comparing personal to official outcomes (e.g. dollar value of life), and against official institutions influencing personal behaviors (e.g., a tax on kisses). Mostly such norms probably exist because in some past world violations often led to bad outcomes. For example, bad things happened then when people tried to buy sex with money, or when governments told people what to believe about religion. Thus someone who violates world norms can seem like a threat. And people who consider such violations consider creating a threat. So when economists consider world-crossing concepts and policies, ordinary people can see them intuitively as a threat.

Yet economists are relatively high status people, mostly smart, friendly, and careful. (Economics students and professors are unusually well-paid.) While economists are obviously selfish in pursuing personal career success, the policies they recommend don’t seem designed to benefit them personally, and economists make a plausible case that these policies are designed to help most everyone. By these considerations, others should trust economists, who are just trying to help. But economists are a bit odd in terms of their personal styles, and seem a bit too casual and analytic on many topics they discuss, with muted versions of common emotional responses.

So economists often consider language and policies that violate world norms, which makes them possibly threatening. While many surface indications suggest they have the best of motives, they also have many quirks that make them seem a bit odd. So they are harder to trust. Making economists an ambiguous threat. Which is to say: economics is naturally a bit creepy.

And I say: at least when we are doing it right, economics should be at least a bit creepy. We should continue to use our tool kit to explore all areas of human behavior, and when possible subsume and include concepts and insights from other humans and social sciences. We should seek one integrated view of people and society, crossing as needed borders between official and personal life areas. We should evaluate all possible policies that could plausibly influence key outcomes, even those that violate world norms.

Of course norms and feelings of creepiness are part of the social world, and so we should not neglect them in our analysis. Adopting policies that violate norms may undermine those norms, and our merely suggesting such policies may undermine respect for economists. If we could talk privately among ourselves, we could freely consider all policies and issues before suggesting the best of them to the world. But much of our “internal” talk is actually open to the world, and available to be publicized and misinterpreted, often on purpose to generate controversy. Should we make some concepts and policies taboo even internally among economists, for fear of such outcomes?

For example, I recently tweeted:

Many objected to the very ideas of comparing sex and income, and of considering “sex redistribution” policies, both of which violate world norms. And of course to women there are additional ambiguous threat elements when a man talks oddly in public about sex in ways that aren’t focused exclusively on female welfare.

A resulting Slate article titled Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist? concludes:

At best, Hanson’s inflammatory comparisons between cuckoldry and rape or progressives and sexually frustrated men reveal an incredible myopia. Women (and many men) are terrified of rape because we view our own bodies as sacred and vulnerable, and crimes that violate them are more frightening, and do more to diminish us, than things that merely hurt our pride. People worry about income inequality because money and wealth shape every aspect of our lives, and distribution is deeply intertwined with our political choices. Whether a few Redditors can get laid is, comparatively, not that important. …

But fundamentally, Hanson’s repeated forays into the subjects of rape, “cuckolding,” and male sexual pleasure are just creepy—as in, it’s impossible to read his stuff without feeling an ambient sense of unease. Peruse his blog, and it’s not hard to come away with the impression that he believes men are owed sex, that women are devious about it, and that rape is a subject that can be toyed with lightly as an intellectual exercise. (more)

Of course I deny these “impressions”, but you can see world norms at work here, leading to “creepiness”. To this author, official world outcomes obviously matter far more than do personal world outcomes. Money, wealth, politics, and physical harm matter far more than pride, a desire for sex, or a desire to have the child you spend a lifetime raising be made from your genes. While in many religious traditions personal world outcomes were seen as far more important, in the more secular and “materialist” circles that dominate cultural elites today, it is the official world outcomes that are more important.

Of course had I realized this size of this reaction, I’ve have written my post and tweet more carefully. But such publicity bursts are hard to predict, and part of the point of blog posts and tweets is that you don’t spend weeks honing them. While I acknowledge there are costs of letting a wider public see that economists consider violating world norms, the alternative of our stopping and no longer considering them even internally seems to me to impose a much larger cost. In time, with enough analysis, economic analysis has a reasonable potential to dramatically improve outcomes for everyone, in every area of life. At least if a wider world will eventually listen.

And there’s no other way than by exploring possible concepts and policies, including those that violate world norms. World norms may have made sense at some point, and versions of them may stay reasonable in the future. But we economists won’t be able to figure out which are which unless we can at least talk among ourselves about the possibility of violating them. We must think, and talk, to find better ways.

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