Sunday, March 29, 2009

Is Economic Man Parsimonious?

by the Sandwichman

"Of course we know that this is not so... but we assume it for simplicity’s sake, as an hypothesis."

But of course... For simplicity's sake...

In Narrative Policy Analysis, Emery Roe argued that a counter-narrative must be "as parsimonious" as the policy narrative that it challenges. That word, parsimonious, appeared also in Joseph Persky's 1995 JEP retrospective on "The Ethology of Homo Economicus": "to compete successfully against Economic Man, a new ethology must be parsimonious..." (Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse!)

Roe and Persky were, of course, referring to Occam's Razor -- the principle that the fewest possible assumptions should be made when explaining a thing. Such theoretical economizing by economists is not to be confused with the economizing done by Economic Man. Or is it? Could there be a strange, self-referential loop that fancies itself parsimonious about parsimony?

There's one way to find out. Build the equally parsimonious counter-narrative that, so to speak, unmans Economic Man.

Doctor Frankenstein's got nothing on the Sandwichman, who has been disposing of his spare time for several weeks constructing the definitive counter-narrative to Economic Man. In an earlier post, I proposed the name Hesci for my creature. Another possibility would be Persona Parsimoniae. Or how about both: "HESCI, Persona Parsimoniae"?

Heschi is a spreadsheet that summarizes the characteristics of an implied economic subject from (so far) 19 texts from the working time literature, spanning 237 years. The idea is to relate those characteristics to the presumed characteristics of Economic Man, i.e., utility maximization, rationality and independent preferences. Inevitably, there is overlap between the working time literature and the 'classics' of political economy and economics with, for example, Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, Marx, Lionel Robbins and J.M. Keynes being represented in both.

Some of the statements don't so much contradict the assumptions of Economic Man as complicate them. Others do contradict them flatly. What I believe the exercise shows is that not only are the assumptions about Economic Man, in the words of Walter Bagehot, trivially "not so" but they are also, more importantly, not so simple. Assuming them "for simplicity's sake" is thus disingenuous, a strategy for deferring, deflecting or evading reasoned analysis rather than for facilitating it.

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