Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Well, I'm listening?

Roberts' Essay about intended consequences is really spot on. We've learned through the past several weeks several key points about the economic way of thinking.

Roberts points out that people often act in their own self interest, after weighing the costs and benefits of their options. When doing what's best for yourself can be considered rude, or outright selfish, like Roberts' example of someone ditching a funeral, then a person will try to put a spin on their decision. In the example, Roberts implies that attending the funeral would be a hassle so the person who decides not to go explains that they aren't going because that's what the deceased would want them to do. Fair enough.

I'll except that provisionally, although I really don't think Roberts has any insight into the thought processes of the person who made the decision to ditch the funeral. Roberts comes right out and says that if attending the funeral was less costly then the person would have attended. He is in effect calling the funeral dodger a liar. Not cool Roberts, but I'll accept your psychic judgment.

The part where I'm in agreement with Roberts is the issue of spin. People will do something for a greedy or self-interested reason, and then tell people they did it for some other reason. I've seen it happen almost every day. On a personal note, I try to be open about my selfishness and greed. Let me give you an example:

I was in the Wood Center eating some tortilla wrapped mystery protein that I bought from a place I'll call "Burrito Ding". I had my iPod earbuds in, but I wasn't listening to anything. (I just didn't feel like having a surprise conversation.) I have a standing lunch invitation extended to Zack, and I'd hoped that maybe that would be the lunch he'd finally climb down from his Ivory tower and hang out with me. It didn't happen that day, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Anyway, an annoying woman who's in my speech class comes up to me and taps me on the shoulder and starts asking me what I'm listening to.

"I'm not listening to anything", I tell her, "I just keep these ear buds in so people won't try and talk to me while I'm eating."

"Oh that's nice." She said. "Is that seat taken?"

She points at the seat next to me and starts to sit down.

"Sadly, no." I say "I'm not going to ask you not to sit there, but hopefully you'll do the right thing."

She just smiled at me obliviously and sat down. I sighed loudly in a way that I'm sure would make my drama teacher proud. My lunch went down hill from there...

Anyway that's an example of the honesty policy I've developed over the years. It doesn't always keep me spin free, but I try really hard.

Back to Roberts. He says:

A final lesson for policy advocates and concerned citizens is to be careful what you wish for. What is best for the general interest is unlikely to survive the sausage factory of the legislative process. What results is imperfect.

So when you hear the politicians talk about how much they care about the people or the children or the environment or health, keep your hand on your wallet and keep a lookout for the bootleggers lurking nearby. They are always there.

This guy has a pretty prestigious degree from some pretty amazing university, I'm told. But the best he can do is warn us that politicians lie to us. My Father's Father barely graduated high school, and spent his whole life pounding nails in to wood and fathering children. His advice is at least as good as Roberts.

Roberts, you are an economist! I expect more from you. Instead of telling us that politicians lie, why don't you whip up some suggestions for how to keep em honest. They don't even have to be good suggestions, but I promise, I'll take my earbuds out and listen to them.


  1. I do get that by simply stating politicians lie your not making any enormous academic feat, but at least your stating common knowledge hence your point is now agreeable. Note that for once you kind of agree with Mr. Roberts even though he's making no break through point here.

    Today I experienced an awesome experience by listening to this guy with a PHD basically dis my field of study, though I fervently disagreed with what he was saying on his powerpoint slides (that for some reason had random pictures of fairies, and angels, and citations from Wikipedia). I noticed that this made me think more than just listening to some guys who I would agreed with. I think this is the service that the ol' Rus is doing for you because if you are focused in finding flaws in his arguments then at least you're actively thinking.

    I think this week is where Roberts is just pausing before his next statement. By giving those who disagree with him something to agree upon (Even if it is simple), often in the end it helps you gain some leverage in your ultimate argument. If not at least he's making you think (every week but this week anyways).

  2. I'm guessing there has to be some way to incentivize honesty!

  3. Camilla,

    You are right. I agree with you 100%.

  4. Oh crap that's 2 agreements in a row! I must be sick. Sherri better bring some chicken soup to econ tomorrow!

  5. I agree...agreeing too much can't be good...Oh crap now I'm agreeing too :-)

  6. Well you should get some of Sherri's famous chicken soup then!

  7. Economist Steven Landsburg once proposed giving voters double suffrage, allowing them to vote once in their own district, and once again in a district of their choosing as a way of keeping politicians honest. He reasoned that a politician who directs large quantities of pork barrel spending to constituents in his favorite districts (eg Ted Stevens) would be more cautious about the negative externalities associated with their lobbying efforts if they had to worry about pissing of a whole lot of voters in another district that didn't get the funding instead.

  8. Richard! Now that's what I'm talking about!