Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Gary Marcus ups the ante

Recently I wrote about the arrogance of how the Nudge movement assumes that humans need help but that they, despite themselves being humans, not only don't need help but instead are somehow qualified to engineer choices for other humans.

Now in today's WSJ, one Gary Marcus, goes even further. His basic argument is that (A) evolution is not perfect so (B) neoclassical economics is completely invalid. Really, that is pretty much it. Check it out for your own self here.

Then he gets down to bidness:

"All this matters because endeavors like economics and social policy are all built around theories about what human beings are and how they function. We allow consumers access to credit cards, for example, because we assume (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that they will be smart enough to balance their short-term needs as consumers with their long-term capacity to maintain a fiscally sensible reality."

Yikes! People, what is up with "We allow consumers access to credit cards"? Is Mr. Marcus somehow immune to the imperfection of evolution in a way that entitles him to run other people's lives?

I guess his actual thesis is (A) evolution is imperfect for everyone but me and people who agree with me so (B) we have a clear duty to shape the world for the regular imperfect dolts that inhabit it.


Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with the statement "We allow consumers access to credit cards," any more than with the statement "We prevent consumers from having access to kiddie snuff porn." Usury was illegal in lots of places, for a very long time...

Having said that, I had to laugh at the "oh noes, nudgez bad, too!" tone of this.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right, there is no difference between prohibiting adults from engaging in a voluntary financial transaction and disallowing the direct enabling of abuse and murder of small children. Thanks for that valuable insight.

Anonymous said...

Nope, none at all. Both prohibitions are enacted through the same process, by the same people, and for the same reasons (i.e., moral objections to the behavior in question).

[People forget just how bad usury was not so long ago -- punishable by death, and all that.]

If more people recognized that legislation is just legislation, regulation's just regulation, perhaps they wouldn't get so twitchy about it.

Anonymous said...

It's immoral to prosecute people for both (1) usury and (2) accessing kiddie snuff porn. The immoral act in (2) has nothing to do with the recording or viewing of it. It's unnecessary to compromise freedom [of information]in order to effectively prosecute people for the abuse and murder of small children.

Angus said...

my point in these posts is basically this: it's hypocritical for social scientists to say it's intrinsically human to screw up and then present social engineering plans, unless they too are somehow not human. The elephant in the room is that they clearly do think of themselves as a superior species to other folk. I am used to that from politicians, I really hate to see it from academics, especially economists.

I really don't see what Kiddie Porn has to do with it and I'd appreciate if we kept stuff like that out of the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, I suppose. But how is what the Nudgers are doing different from, say, the auction work Myerson won his Nobel for? Start with some basic assumptions about what people want and how they make decisions (in the Nudgers' case, assumptions informed by psychology / behavioral economics), then derive a mechanism that will take advantage of those decision-making processes to achieve the goal.

Believe me, I'll be the first to call academics (especially economists) arrogant. But what the Nudgers are doing doesn't seem any more so than a lot of other examples.

Angus said...

it's different because they are claiming human fallibility as their excuse to play god. We can claim externalities as our excuse to play god and that's logically consistent and plausible. but the nudge view makes no sense.

the logical syllogism should be as follows:

Humans are dopes. Sunstein is a human. therefore Sunstein is a dope.

but they are arguing like this:

humans are dopes. Sunstein is a human. therefore Sunstein should play god.

and it makes no sense

Their implicit syllogism seems to me to be.

other humans are dopes. we are super-humans. therefore we know best.