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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.” Continue reading "Why Economics Is, And Should Be, Creepy" »

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