Friday, October 25, 2013

Economics makes you selfish

I was motivated to write this post by fellow Australian young economist Gabriela D’Souza
I disagree. Selfishness is not common sense. It all seems to have started with this article, part of the periodic publicity the sprouts up around new studies into the selfishness of economists and economics students.

There is now quite a deal of evidence that economists are ‘more selfish’ than other groups. Here is some research showing lower rates of donations by economics students. Here is research showing economics students lie more, and here is a good summary of other research. The evidence is overwhelming that economists act in ways which most people find unacceptably selfish.

To me this body of evidence reveals the massive disconnect between mainstream theory in economics, that rests on the fundamental notion that greed or selfishness is the driver of coordination in a market economy, and the reality that social cooperation rests fundamentally on trust.

I would certainly agree with Francis Amasa Walker’s 1879 interpretation of the apparent social “odor” of economists arising from their disregard of “…the customs and beliefs that tie individuals to their occupations and locations and lead them to act in ways contrary to the predictions of economic theory.”

As Frans de Waal explains “Economists are being indoctrinated into a cardboard version of human nature, which they hold true to such a degree that their own behavior has begun to resemble it… Exposure in class after class to the capitalist self-interest model apparently kills off whatever prosocial tendencies these students have to begin with. They give up trusting others, and conversely others give up trusting them. Hence the bad odor.”

Without justifying this behaviour, let me just make it clear that economic indoctrination teaches that this apparently selfish behaviour is both what everyone actually does (despite ample evidence to the contrary), and that through self interest we prosper. They have swallowed this iconic Adam Smith quote hook line and sinker.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest

I want to use this post to provide an example of how such a view, an economic way of thinking, can lead you astray in everyday life. I draw on ideas from my good friend Uwe Dulleck, whose expertise is credence goods.

Credence goods are those whose value or utility can never be known by the buyer due to information asymmetries. The classic examples are doctors, who can prescribe medication for a diagnosed illness which you will never know is what you are truly suffering from. Or car mechanics, who diagnose mechanical failures and sell repairs, without the customer being able to know whether such repairs were either needed or carried out.

As usual Uwe’s research centres on some important questions

Under which conditions do experts have an incentive to exploit the informational problems associated with markets for diagnosis and treatment? What types of fraud exist? What are the methods and institutions for dealing with these informational problems? Under which conditions does the market provide incentives to deter fraudulent behaviour? And what happens if all or some of those conditions are violated?

Uwe introduces a simple example of a behaviour that, by economic reasoning, is expected to reduce fraud in credence goods markets

For some of us a feasible solution might be… to ask the mechanic to put the replaced part in the back of the car and to inspect the defect of this part. 

Uwe is cautious about whether this advice is sound. As am I. But I reckon that most economists would be more than happy to take this advice based on the ‘economic intuition’.

But does the common sense of unselfish non-economists also support this behaviour? Or is this an example of how the economic model of self-interest can lead us astray? I suggest the latter. And as a peek at my conclusion, the behaviour I might advise is to buy the mechanic a six-pack of beer.

Imagine you are a mechanic. Occasionally you realise that a customer is a bit of a sucker with too much money, so you charge them a little extra for some repairs you didn’t do. Most of the time you are pretty straightforward and honest.

One day a new customer comes in. They don’t seem particularly knowledge about cars, and since this is their first visit there is nothing to suggest they will become a regular customer. You diagnose the problem with their car, which is a very typical problem in that model, and explain that the repair could involve replacing certain parts, but you won’t know till you start taking things apart. This new customer agrees to go ahead with the repair, but asks you to put the old parts in the boot when you are done. It’s an odd request.

You realise that by making this request the customer has revealed that they are less knowledgable about cars than you thought, have no trust in you, and are solely relying on seeing a bunch of parts in the boot to judge your service.

What do you do? I’ll tell you what I would do. I would grab a bunch of parts from around the workshop and stick them in the boot, then charge for parts and repairs I didn’t do.

By following the behaviour suggested by a model of selfish individuals you have inadvertently signalled you complete ignorance about cars and a complete lack of trust.

Now imagine you are the mechanic who dealt with this customer and they didn’t ask for you to put the old parts in the boot. Maybe you still fleeced them a little and replaced a couple of parts that really didn’t need replacing. When the customer comes to collect the car they bring you six-pack of beer and thank you for your good work as they are so dependent on having a reliable car.

Would you fleece them again next time?

My point is that society deals with credence goods through the establishment of trust, either through non-market signals, like memberships of reputable societies, or ongoing social relationships. That mainstream economic theory ignores the fundamental role of trust and the cooperative behaviours that results from it, leaves their advice typically unsuited for many circumstances. As experimentalists know, in repeated games many forms of cooperation can become entrenched, yet most economic theory relies on the selfish response to a one-shot game.

Until economics courses around the world move beyond indoctrinating students into “cardboard version of human nature” we will continue to have selfish economists.

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