Cyclical History

An interesting result from behavioral/experimental economics is that bubbles can happen even with smart people who should know better. But once those people go through a bubble, they do a better job of avoiding bubbles in the future.

I think this result has major implications for society more broadly and I think we’re seeing it play out in the news. In the ’70s people learned a lot of hard lessons about things like stagflation (and racism–but ask a sociologist about that) that made the following decades easier. But those people gradually retired and were replaced with people who weren’t inoculated to certain ideas (like the idea of inflating your way out of a supply-side recession).

We’re now living in a world where the median voter and her elected representatives have unlearned those hard lessons. And so we’re going to live through the 1970’s again. Hopefully. If we’re not so lucky we might live through the 1930’s again.

Nightcap

  1. Understanding Homo Economicus in Deeper Terms Garreth Bloor, Law & Liberty
  2. The Homo Economicus is “The Body” of the Agent Federico Sosa Valle, NOL
  3. Worker ownership: threat or promise? Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Flower Fires Setsuko Adachi, Berfrois

Nightcap

  1. The Sexless Life When Sex Is God David French, National Review
  2. An excellent, conservative history of America’s sexual revolution Kay S. Hymowitz, City Journal
  3. An excellent, libertarian history of America’s sexual revolution BK Marcus, FEE
  4. Why economics is, and should be, creepy Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias

Midweek Reader: The Drug War, the Opioid Crisis, and the Moral Hazard of Overdose Treatment

Today, I’m reviving an old series I attempted to start last year that never came to fruition: The midweek reader. A micro-blogging series in which I try to link to stories that are related to each other to provide deeper insight into an issue. This week, we’re looking at the relationship between the Opioid Crisis and the drug war, and the academic debate around a controversial paper finding moral hazard in policies that try to increase access to Naloxone.

  • At Harpers Magazine, Brian Gladstone has a fantastic long-form piece looking into how attempts to crack down on opioid addiction by targeting the prescription pain meds have left many patients behind and questioning the mainstream narrative that the rise of opioids was driven primarily by pain prescriptions. A slice:

    Yet even the most basic elements of this disaster remain unclear. For while it’s true that the past three decades saw a staggering upsurge in the prescribing of opioid medication, this trend peaked in 2010 and has been declining since: high-dose prescriptions fell by 41 percent between 2010 and 2015. The question, then, is why overdose deaths continue to skyrocket, rising 37 percent over the same period — and whether restricting access to regulated drugs is actually pushing people toward more lethal, unregulated ones, such as fentanyl, heroin, and carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

  • Similarly, at the Cato Institute, Jeffery A. Singer has a good piece exploring the relationship between America’s War on Drugs and the rise of opioid addictions. He concludes:

    Meanwhile, President Trump and most state and local policymakers remain stuck on the misguided notion that the way to stem the overdose rate is to clamp down on the number and dose of opioids that doctors can prescribe to their patients in pain, and to curtail opioid production by the nation’s pharmaceutical manufacturers. And while patients are made to suffer needlessly as doctors, fearing a visit from a DEA agent, are cutting them off from relief, the overdose rate continues to climb.

  • At Voxphilosopher Brendan de Kenessey of Harvard has a piece exploring the philosophy of the self and of rational choice to argue that it’s wrong to treat drug addiction as a moral failure. A slice:

    We tend to view addiction as a moral failure because we are in the grip of a simple but misleading answer to one of the oldest questions of philosophy: Do people always do what they think is best? In other words, do our actions always reflect our beliefs and values? When someone with addiction chooses to take drugs, does this show us what she truly cares about — or might something more complicated be going on?

  • An econometrics working paper by Jennifer L. Doleac of University of Virginia and Anita Mukherjee of the University of Wisconsin released earlier this month, which sparked spirited discussion, investigated the link between opioids and laws increasing access to Naloxone. They found the laws increased measurements of opioid use but did reduce mortality, which they theorize is because Naloxone increases moral hazard for addicts by reducing potential costs of an overdose. However, they conclude:

    Our findings do not necessarily imply that we should stop making Naloxone available to individuals suffering from opioid addiction, or those who are at risk of overdose. They do imply that the public health community should acknowledge and prepare for the behavioral effects we find here. Our results show that broad Naloxone access may be limited in its ability to reduce the epidemic’s death toll because not only does it not address the root causes of addiction, but it may exacerbate them. Looking forward, our results suggest that Naloxone’s effects may depend on the availability of local drug treatment: when treatment is available to people who need help overcoming their addiction, broad Naloxone access results in more beneficial effects. Increasing access to drug treatment, then, might be a necessary complement to Naloxone access in curbing the opioid overdose epidemic.

  •  Alex Gertner, a PhD candidate at UNC-Chaple Hill, published a criticism of Doleac Murkhejee at Vox pointing out that their data linking Naloxone and opioid-related hospital visits are not necessarily due to a casual story involving moral hazard:

    The authors find that naloxone access laws lead to more opioid-related emergency department visits, the premise being that naloxone access laws increase opioid overdoses. But there’s a far more likely explanation: People are generally instructed to seek medical care for overdose after receiving naloxone.

    Overdose is a general term to describe experiencing the toxic effects of drugs. People can overdose, and often do, without either dying or seeking medical attention. If people who would otherwise overdose without medical attention are instead using naloxone and going to emergency rooms, that’s a good thing.

  • The widest-ranging and most thorough critique of Doleac-Murkhejee comes from Frank, Pollack, and Humphries at the Journal of Health Affairs. They argue that the original authors (1) assume too much immediacy in effect of changes in Naloxone laws than is probably warranted (2) ignore a variety of exogenous variables like Medicare expansion. They conclude:

    We believe the best interpretation of Doleac and Mukherjee’s findings is that their main treatment variable—naloxone laws—thus far have had little impact on naloxone use or nonmedical opioid use during the period studied. This disappointing pattern commands attention and follow-up from both public health practitioners and public health researchers.

Nightcap

  1. The applied theory of bossing people around Deirdre McCloskey, Reason
  2. How to survive being swallowed Ed Yong, the Atlantic
  3. Soviet architecture, then & now Noah Sneider, 1843
  4. The Atlantic Ocean before Columbus David Abulafia, History Today

Where did Homo Economicus come from?

Over on my Facebook page, I posted a short criticism of both neoclassical and behavioral economic scholarship on rational choice (drawing from a paper I’m working on exploring that topic). Stated a bit polemically,  though homo economicus has largely been dead in neoclassical theory, his spirit still haunts the work of most modern neoclassical scholars. Likewise, though behavioral economists are trying to dig the grave and put the final nails in the coffin of homo economicus, their nightmares are still plagued with the anxieties of his memory.

This led a former colleague from Hillsdale to ask me where I thought homo economicus came from historically. I wrote the following in response (lightly edited for this post):

It could be argued, in a sense, that the protestant Christian aim to complete moral purity and the Enlightenment aim to make man perfect in knowledge in morality (as embodied in Franklin’s virtue ethics) helped give rise to a culture that would be primed for such a model. Within economics, historically it comes from Bentham’s utilitarianism and Jevon’s mathematical extrapolations from Bentham’s psychology. However, I’d say this comes from a deeper “Cartesian anxiety” in Bernstein’s use of the term to make economic a big-T True, capital-C Certain, capital-S Science just like physics (which Jevon’s himself stated was an aim of his work,[1] and has preoccupied economists since the days of JS Mill). If economic science cannot be said to be completely positive and “scientific” like the natural sciences with absolutely falsifiable propositions and an algorithmic means of theory-choice, it is feared, it must be written off as a pseudo-scientific waste of time or else ideology to justify capitalism. If economics cannot make certain claims to knowledge, it must be solipsist and relativist and, again, be another form of pseudo-science or ideology. If economic models cannot reach definitive mathematical results, then they must be relativistic and a waste of time. This is just another example of the extreme Cartesian/Katian/Platonic (in Rorty’s use of the term) either/or: objectivity OR relativism, science OR nonscience, determinate mathematical solutions OR ideological emotional bickering. Homo economicus was erected as a means to be an epistemic foundation to solve all these anxieties and either/ors.

Of course, as any good Deweyan, I think all these either/ors are nonsense. Their understanding of science, as revealed through the so-called “growth of knowledge” literature in postempiricist philosophy of science (ie., the work of Thomas Kuhn, Lakotos, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Michael Polanyi, Richard Bernstein, Richard Rorty, etc.) has shown that this positivist conception of science, that is science consists of algorithmic theory choice selected based off correspondence with theory-free, brute “facts” of the “external world,” is woefully inaccurate. Dialogical Aristotelian practical reasoning in the community of scientists plays just as much of a role in formulating a scientific consensus as empirical verification. This does not undermine science’s claims to objectivity or rationality, in fact it puts such claims in more epistemically tenable terms.

Further, the desire to make the social sciences just another extension of the natural science, as Hayek shows in the Counterrevolution of Science, and as even positivists like Milton Freidman argue, is a completely misleading urge that has led to some of the worst follies in modern social theory. Obviously, I cheer the fact that “homo economicus is dead, and we have killed him,” but now that we’ve “out-rationalized the rationalizer of all rationalizers,” we must try to re-evaluate our economic theories and methods to, as Bernstein or Dewey would put it, “reconstruct” our economic science.

In short, immenatizing the eschaton in epistemology and philosophy of science created homo economicus.

For the record, you don’t have to be a radical scientific anti-realist like Feyerabend or Rorty to agree with my analysis here.[2] I myself wax more towards Quine than Rorty in scientific matters. However, the main point of philosophy of science since positivism is the exact type of foundationalist epistemology undergirding modern positivist methodology in the mainstream of the economics profession, and the concept of rationality that is used to buttress it, is a naive view of science, natural or social.

Notably, this critique is largely unrelated to much of the Austrian school. Mises’ own conception of rationality is mostly unrelated to homo economicus as he understands rationality to be purposive action, emphasizing that economists first understand the subjective meaning from the point of view of the economic actor him/herself before declaring any action “irrational.”[3] [4]

What are your thoughts on this? Are neoclassical and behavioral economics both still way too influenced by the spirit of homo economicus, or am I off the mark? Is my analysis of the historical conditions that led to the rise of homo economicus right? Please, discuss in the comments.

[1] Consider this quote from Jevon’s magnum opus Theory of Political Economy “Economics, if it is to be a science at all, must be a mathematical science.”

[2] In fact, I doubt anybody mentioned is really a scientific anti-realist, I agree with Bernstein that Feyerabend is best read as a satirist of the Cartesian anxiety and extreme either/or of relativism and objectivism in philosophy of science and think Rorty’s views are more complex than simple scientific anti-realism, but that’s an unrelated point.

[3] Of course, any critique of epistemic foundationalism would apply to Mises, especially his apriorism; after all, Mises did write a book called “Ultimate Foundations of the Social Sciences” and the Cartesian anxiety is strong with him, especially in his later works. Notably, none of this applies to most of Mises’ students, especially Schutz, Machlup, and Hayek.

[4] For a more detailed discussion of Mises and the Austrians on rationality, see my blog post here or this paper by Mario Rizzo. For a more general discussion of the insights of the type of philosophy of science I’m discussing, see Chapter 2 of Richard Bernstein’s excellent 1983 book Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis.

Good Health Will End Civilization

Good health and decisive minds. With maybe about 5% probability. We’re far more likely to destroy ourselves with war or stupidity, but knowledge could do us in too.

The basic problem is that as our knowledge of health and aging increases, we’re going to end with a lot of old people around. We’re going to be those old people, which is great for us, but it could be deadly in the long run.

Institutions are made up of formal rules, and informal interpretations of those rules by members of society. We learn how to interpret our environment by observing how our predecessors did so, copying them, ideally refining their approach, occasionally rebelling against the old ways and finally pushing our ways on the next generation.

This sets up an evolutionary process where variation and generational turnover occur together. The basic problem is that few people change their minds once they’re about 25. You might be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but odds are good you can’t teach him a new way of looking at the world.

Yeah, some people can change with the times, but on the whole Bill Burr’s pretty much spot on: [as far as other people are concerned] you can live too long. The older the median voter, the further removed their view of the world is from the actual reality of the time.

Now, there’s certainly some optimal degree of conservatism. We don’t want to upend society every five years in the name of progress. But if generational turnover grinds down to a glacial pace, so may institutional adaptation.

But of course we don’t know what the future holds. Perhaps an older, wiser median voter is a good thing. Perhaps the key to longer lifespans includes therapy to stimulate neural plasticity.

In any case, I hope that coming generations will hear a message that mirrors advice given to my generation. We were told “don’t expect to have the same job forever.” Now we need to be told “don’t expect to have the same opinion forever.”

What makes it science?

When I hear the phrase “I experimented with drugs/diet/habit/whatever [on myself],” I tend to call bullshit. (A good exception is the author at Gwern.net who does blind, randomized trials on himself sometimes.) Without a control group you aren’t doing an experiment.

But I heard some interesting phrasing that is making me reconsider. Scott Adams was talking about experimenting with changes to his diet by isolating one thing and seeing if he can observe a change after a week. It’s clear that he understands the limitations of this approach. And that clarity makes me think that he’s really properly experimenting. He’s not going so far as running a double-blind study, he’s just taking a serious look at imperfect evidence and being epistemically honest.

Like any good scientific thinker of our time, Adams knows that the outcomes he observes can be affected by any number of variables he’s failed to account for. He knows that his estimates need an error term. He almost certainly knows that time isn’t on his side and ever so slightly affects his results. He almost certainly also knows that path-dependency plays a role. But he corrects for all that in his interpretation. It’s this considered approach to the evidence that makes me view him as operating on a scientific basis. So even if his trials do not provide powerful evidence, his interpretation and application of the evidence is what makes it science.

I suppose this would mean that an experiment can’t be considered scientific until the data is interpreted.

And of course all of this is to say that he’s definitely right about Donald Trump.

“Just Leave Me Alone Goddammit!”*

The basic argument I want to make is that we’ve been thinking about labor and human capital imprecisely,** and we would do better to think of labor as the selective application of attention, and habit (which economizes on attention) as the basic essence of human capital.

Attention

The kernel of this idea was planted when I read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning a few years ago. An important point it makes is that whenever our work is interrupted it takes something like 15 minutes to get back to work. Mental work is like barbecuing (or what the uninitiated erroneously call “smoking”). After 8 hours of cooking your guests are impatient (and drunk) and want you to check the meat. So you open up the barbecue and a plume of smoke billows out. You put in a meat thermometer and sure enough, the meat isn’t done. But now it’s going to take another 15 minutes for enough to smoke to build up to get the process moving again. 20 minutes later people want you to check again. (And that’s why our parties back in San Jose so often dragged on so long.) Showing up to work for 8 hours a day isn’t sufficient for getting your work done; sometimes you just need your boss to leave you alone long enough for you to focus deeply enough to solve the problem you’re facing.

Or we could think of work like juggling. Working on some difficult problem, you’ve got a few pieces of mental material in the air. When someone knocks on your door (or you take notice of an email notification on your phone) you drop the balls. Getting them going again takes some effort, so even a one second interruption sets you back a few minutes. Those of us who work at desks are familiar with how difficult thinking can be. Managing our attention takes effort. But with practice we can get better at coping with distractions and skipping the easy, but unproductive paths offered to us.

And what about grunt work? There’s less attention necessary (perhaps rhythm serves a role in maintaining that minimal bit of attention), but nobody gets paid for not doing what they’re told. Your job is to keep applying effort in the appropriate way. The only human capital you really need is what is necessary to get out of bed and get to work every day.

Habit Capital

People who smoke cigarettes, they say “You don’t know how hard it is to quit smoking.” Yes I do. It’s as hard as it is to start flossing.

Mitch Hedberg

Habit offers a means of economizing on attention. Instead of using up our mental capacity to decide to brush my teeth every day, I just do it automatically. Flossing is not so easy… except that I was able to make it a habit by piggybacking it on an existing habit.

Many of the skills we have are built on a collection of complex little habits, whether it’s muscle memory (you must watch the video above), understanding how to read graphs, or bearing in mind that everything has an opportunity cost.

(Obviously) getting a college degree is not the same as accumulating human capital. What college does (we hope) is inculcate students with critical thinking habits and some basic knowledge deemed necessary or particularly helpful for navigating the world. Learning on the job is similarly about providing workers with habits, and both positive and normative knowledge (i.e. factual knowledge and norms/beliefs/corporate culture). Growing up is about building up human capital largely in the form of internalized norms (moral habits). Habits are everywhere and they’re at the core of what we mean when we use the term human capital.

Habit capital allow us to direct our attention to critical areas in the same way physical capital allows us to leverage (and ultimately replace) our physical effort. By establishing habits we can get certain things done (teeth brushed, books read, etc.) while conserving attention. This takes more attention upfront just as physical capital requires upfront investment.

Anticapital

Economists generally don’t think much about bombs as an investment. Bombs require foregoing current consumption, but once they’re made, they’re intended to get a negative return by destroying something of value. Physical anticapital, as a social scientific idea, falls primarily in the domain of International Relations. Which isn’t to say economists haven’t thought about investments that destroy value. The idea of rent seeking is an important one, but it’s one that has been rationalized.

There’s probably not much to gain by thinking about rent seeking as investment in anticapital.*** But we can bring bad habits out of the purview of irrationality and bring it into the warm, rational glow of economics with the concept of human anticapital.

Just like in biological evolution, we’re satisficing, not optimizing. Habits may initially be adaptive and turn bad as circumstances change. We should expect a tendency towards “good” habits–and how those habits propagate is certainly an interesting question–but we should also expect the odd bizarre byproduct, misfire, and obsolete habits to emerge.

“We are still very close to our ancestors who roamed the savannah. The formation of our beliefs is fraught with superstitions–even today (I might say, especially today). Just as one day some primitive tribeman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his nose to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with the appointment of the new president “at the helm.”

Nassim Taleb

tl;dr:

Attention matters more than time. Habit economizes on attention. Mental work involves applying mental tools to particular problems and habit allows us to do so more or less automatically. In other words, habit is human capital.****

*That’s one possible title for the next paper I want to write. A more boring but descriptive possibility is “Habit Capital.” Another with more regional flavor is “Hey! I’m Working Here!” Maybe I’m not very good at titles…

**This follows in a similar vein as my entrepreneurship research which basically boils down to: entrepreneurship theory is good, but our empirical measures suck.

***Although I should mention that thinking about rates of depreciation will surely shed light on rent seeking questions.

****I’ll leave it for the comments to sort out whether it’s the only sort of human capital. Maybe you can also help me sort out how to wrap belief, understanding, and learning into this view.

Open Access Gary Becker papers, and a couple of thoughtful links on him

Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker died Saturday. For those of you who don’t know about his work, go here. For the rest of you, economist Tyler Cowen has compiled a great list of articles by Becker that you can read:

    1. Irrational Behavior and Economic Theory.”  Can the theorems of economics survive the assumption of irrational behavior? (hint: yes)
    2. Altruism, Egoism, and Genetic Fitness: Economics and Sociobiology.”  The title says it all, from 1976.
    3. A Note on Restaurant Pricing and Other Examples of Social Influence on Price.”  Why don’t successful restaurants just raise the prices for Saturday night seatings?
    4. The Quantity and Quality of Life and the Evolution of World Inequality” (with Philipson and Soares).  The causes and importance of converging lifespans.
    5. Competition and Democracy.“  From 1958, but most people still ignore this basic point about why government very often does not improve on market outcomes.
    6. The Challenge of Immigration: A Radical Solution.”  Auction off the right to enter this country.

Cowen also linked to sociologist Kieran Healy’s fascinating take on Michel Foucault’s thoughts about Gary Becker’s work over at Crooked Timber (and here is a pdf of Becker on Foucault on Becker).

And economist Mario Rizzo shares some short thoughts about Becker’s work in relation to the Austrian School of Economics (Becker is associated with the Chicago School of Economics). Rizzo’s account of the early 1960s debate on rationality between Becker and Kirzner is worth a look.

Update: Here is Gary Becker’s 1992 Nobel Prize lecture (pdf)

Economic Rationality

[Cross-posted at the Foldvarium]

The concept of rational action is a frontier of economic theory. The new field of behavioral economics combines economics and psychology to analyze actions that seem to be irrational. For example, people value health and long life, yet they smoke and eat unhealthy food. A related field, behavioral finance, examines psychological and emotional traits that prevent people from making wise investments. Perverse psychological biases include anchoring to past prices and facts, the bias of weighing recent events too highly relative to the more distant past, being overly confident in one’s abilities, and following the herd to a cliff.

Neoclassical economics often assumes that people are purely self-interested and always seek financial gain, and that therefore altruism is irrational, whereas as Adam Smith and Henry George wrote, human beings have two motivations: self interest and sympathy for others. Since people get satisfaction from serving others, it is incorrect to label altruism or actions based on subjective views of justice as “irrational.”

The Austrian school of economic thought has a different perspective on rationality. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises envisioned human action as inherently rational. A person has unlimited desires and scarce resources. Human beings economize, seeking maximum benefits for a given cost, or minimizing costs for a given benefit. At any moment in time, a person ranks his goals, ranging from most to least important. He chooses the resources to achieve the most important goal at some moment, then the second most, and so on, until his gains from trade have become exhausted. This is the inherent rationality of human action. Continue reading