Thursday, August 23, 2007

a better title might have been: re-discover your inner economist

I read the first six chapters of Discover Your Inner Economist by the economist and popular blogger Tyler Cowen today. I don't read his blog, but given how much people enjoy it, I was expecting the book to be better. Indeed, I kept reading despite not feeling I was getting much out of it because I kept presuming it would get better. It didn't.

While reading it, I was reminded of the line in Ghost World where Enid says some kitsch performer has gone from being "Past being so bad it's good to being bad again." In this case, one of the main parts of book's overall argument is to go past being counterintuitive to where it is intuitive again. Earlier popular economics writers like Steven Landsburg have created a stage in which another economist talking about how much of the world of interpersonal relationships and intrapersonal striving is not, in fact, like buying bananas at the supermarket can be called channeling one's Inner Economist, instead of, well, one's Humanity. That is, sometimes Cowen is arguing to a popular audience against standard economics and more toward the view the popular audience would have if it hadn't paid attention to some of the excesses of standard economics in the first place.

Apparently also, if you have a Ph.D. in economics, you can give whatever life advice and theories about human nature that you have and pass it off as manifesting economic expertise. Much of the book is about Cowen's vague ideas about the human need for "control." The last anecdote that made me decide I couldn't justify spending any more time with the book began:
On a more personal level, a willingness to give up control can make us better teachers. When we teach our children how to drive, we like to pretend they will never do anything stupid. We give them a lecture about the long list of things they should never do.

My approach is different. I taught Yana, my then-fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, how to drive. One day I started with: "The first thing we are going to do is hit the curb. Drive over the curb, just not too fast." This is the best way to learn where the curb is. Yana is going to find the curb anyway, sooner or later, so let this learning occur under safe circumstances.
Some people might find these expositions more interesting or amusing than I did, but they also provoked this recurrent sense that we were straying far for a book that said it was going to be about incentives. He has this whole chapter about how to appreciate art better, parts of which were interesting, but even then I kept wondering how particular points were "economic." It's as if anything that evinces wisdom in a social setting is to be understood as channeling your Inner Economist.

* This column by Landsburg in Slate singlehandedly stunted my growing interest in economics for almost a year, by making an enterprise that I was coming to better appreciate suddenly seem ludicrous (the stunting abated when I realized that Landsburg was not the ambassador of mainstream economics he presents himself as being).


Anonymous said...

With each passing day, you become more and more of a national treasure! Head down and your chin up, the MR folks are bound to come after you with a vengence. It is likely to get rather irrational...

Ang said...

That is, sometimes Cowen is arguing to a popular audience against standard economics and more toward the view the popular audience would have if it hadn't paid attention to some of the excesses of standard economics in the first place.

Good point. That's my beef about how some classes get taught (at least in my discipline). Students hear things like, "so, over time, housework actually is evening out between genders," and they're like, "Yeah? So?"

Ken Houghton said...

Over time, the gap has gotten smaller. It's down to about a day and a half now. Anyone describing it as "evening out" is trying to sell you something.

Good to see that Diane Coyle (Sex, Drugs, and Economics, 2002) remains the only readable of that spate of pop-econ books. (Don't get me started on Freakonomics.)

Ang said...

It was a made-up example. I had a larger point.

Methadras said...

"The first thing we are going to do is hit the curb. Drive over the curb, just not too fast."

Interesting observation. This is a modified version of a parent who in knowing that his son or daughter drinks alcohol, will let them do it in the confines of their own home because its 'safe' to drink at home than to drink somewhere else where it may be 'unsafe'. If I took this type of parental advice and applied it to his economics, I might as well tell everyone I know to take all of their money, go to a roulette table and bet on black or red. We all know you will have a 50/50 chance of losing it, but when you do, at least then you will know what it will feel like.

Hell, I might as well tell my daughter about not doing drugs, but since 'I' know they are going to do it anyway, why not get them to engage with the drugs, like his proverbial curb and then that way once they hit that curb or attain that high, they will know never to do it again... and on... and on... and on...

This fools book, and I've stomached it unfortunately, is nothing more than a new age ego stroke that is heavy on ideas and slapdashed on practicality. Any economist should know, save as much money as you can, more money in, less money out. Simple way to build wealth and this is the most distilled form of it.

gabriel said...

What I don't like about Landsburg is that he's so enamored of theory that data becomes superfluous. If the data agrees, great, and if not, well that's too bad for the data. The escalator thing is a good example. Another case is an article he wrote on tomatoes on the vine where he confidently asserted that they must cost more to produce than vineless tomatoes and he makes a point of not finding out why. He then smugly acts as if he has told you something interesting when in fact he's only demonstrated that he doesn't understand how tomatoes are harvested. I'd guesstimate that about a fourth of his columns follow this pattern and it's enough to make Karl Popper turn over in his grave.

On the other hand I don't think you can plausibly level this accusation against Cowen. On those occasions when Cowen discusses data that contradicts his theory, he has the humility and candor to admit that this is a problem for his theory.

blizzardo said...

Wow, that escalator article is really an indictment of academia. It shows it's possible to be really smart and an idiot at the same time. I was hoping by the end of the piece his lesson would be that the simple answer is often the best one. (Stairs don't move, an escalator does.) Instead it's a tribute to arguing how many angels can fit on the tip of a pin.