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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