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If we could get economists to stop pushing "utility" and stop concentrating on "economics is optimisation [of a single quantity]" maybe, just maybe, they wouldn't force single lists on people.

Ordinary people have plenty of time, attention span, willpower, and intelligence to deal with arcane sports statistics. Yes, there is a league table because we're talking about tournaments to select a winner, but sports league tables have a gazillion columns full of stats.

So, why do we need a single benchmark again?

[Sports fan counterexample by Ralph Nader, used without permission]

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Oct 20th, 2006 at 06:45:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ordinary people have plenty of time, attention span, willpower, and intelligence to deal with arcane sports statistics. Yes, there is a league table because we're talking about tournaments to select a winner, but sports league tables have a gazillion columns full of stats.

I think only a minority of people -- a minority of sports fans, in fact -- only the real sports otaku, really get much data beyond who won or lost.

Sure, there are other domains: movies (who won which Oscar prizes, made the most money at the box office, said what in which film, acted with who in which film); fashion (who wore what at which gala event, who was People's sexiest man alive in 2002, etc.); and tons of other pop culture domains where people gather, retain and analyze plenty of data.

But here is the big difference:  Just as baseball otaku are a tiny minority of the world population, and just as football otaku are another tiny minority, ditto for movie otaku and fashion otaku and restaurant otaku, etc., economics otaku are also a tiny minority of people in the world.

The difference is this:  Economics affects everybody in the developed and developing world.  But who won Wimbledon in 2001, who directed the most Oscar-winning films, which restaurants in New York serve organic food, barely affects anyone.

What gives people the "bandwidth" to be informed about and have a good understanding of lots of (often subtle) data on a topic beyond a single (or a tiny handful of) figure(s) is a deep personal interest in that topic.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people do not have a deep personal interest in economics.

So we need to come up with something that most of us can deal with: something that is concise and succinct, but that is reality-based and reflects accurately their living conditions, opportunities and hazards.

Truth unfolds in time through a communal process.

by marco on Fri Oct 20th, 2006 at 07:05:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If we could get economists to stop pushing "utility" and stop concentrating on "economics is optimisation [of a single quantity]"...
But "utility" isn't a single quantity in any ordinary sense, it is the ineffable summation of all that is good for a rational being free of internal conflicts, and it just happens to be true that the only thing that matters to a rational being is money, so GDP = aggregate utility = good.

Snarky tone aside, the first half of the above captures a significant point, which is that utility is (of course) defined to be something a lot like "good" as judged from a personal perspective. The concept diverges from reality, though, because it suggests that different kinds of good are more comparable than (in psychological reality) they are. For example, it implies consistent valuations for benefits a day, a week, and a decade from now -- but human valuations don't work that way. This suggests to me that the concept of "utility" has limited utility. Worst, though, the idea turns toxic when it diffuses away from its origin.

As carefully stated by theorists, "utility" inherently includes (for example) the value of being able to expect a sustainable future, the value of having a clean conscience, the value of being a social cooperator, and so on. Acting according to "self interest" might include selfless devotion to others.
Striving to maximise utility in this sense is hard to argue against.

But as understood by people outside the little circle of theorists and their fans, utility mutates into the idea of getting stuff you want, including services and so on. And since rational people "should" maximise their utility, anyone who doesn't grab everything possible is an irrational fool. And since money can be exchanged for stuff, it makes a convenient measure of utility. Hence the sick equation, "GDP = aggregate utility = good".

In short, I'd argue that economic thinking has some surprisingly bad effects not because of what it is, but because of how easily it is debased into the idea that rational behaviour requires amoral acquisition.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Sun Oct 22nd, 2006 at 03:19:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Utility is not only unhelpful but wrong in that it presumes that all preferences (what you call "different kinds of psychological goods") are comparable or reducible to a single scale, that individual preferences are consistent and that collective preferences are comparable, reducible to a single scale, and consistent.

There is no escaping the fact that decision problems are multidimensional.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Oct 22nd, 2006 at 05:38:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Although utility fails as a description of human behavior, it does come closer to being a norm for human behavior (e.g., one can argue that individual preferences should be consistent). Of course it then collapses as a model if one attempts to build from there to collective preferences. Further, the collective-preference problems cast further doubt on the applicability of utility to "in-dividuals", since we seem more divisible when examined in psychological/neurological depth. And this, perhaps, undermines whatever claim it may have to defining a norm.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Sun Oct 22nd, 2006 at 02:10:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It has been suggested that just as in social choice theory it is hard to turn indivudual preferences into a single collective preference, it might be equally hard to turn an individual's multiple wnats and needs into a single individual preference ranking. In other words, if I am hungry, thirsty, cold, bored and tired to various degrees, does it follow that my preferences regarding what to do next, assuming each of my options addresses some nontrivial combination of my wants and needs, have to be consistent?

Sometimes the utility and rational choice model is taken as an action, as in implied preferences, where people decide it is pointless to ask people what they prefer and try to see if their behaviour matches their preferences, and instead postulate that preferences are as they need to be to be consistent with behaviour.

Rational choice theory may be an interesting branch of mathematics, but I think to make it the axiomatic foundation of economics is a bit of a stretch.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Oct 22nd, 2006 at 02:19:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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