Monday, May 17, 2010

Krugman discovers humans are not rational

Paul Krugman is a fan of behavioral economics. He’s also fabulously well read, he must have read some anthropology, history, and political science at some point in his life. At heart though, Krugman is an economist. It’s hard for an economist to escape the prejudice that humans are fundamentally rational self-interest optimizers. It’s baked into their culture.

Alas, humans are only partly rational part of the time*. Obama, like every politician, knows this in a deep way. That’s why he ignores Krugman’s political advice.

Krugman can learn though. I’ve read him religiously since he became a byte-stained wretch, and he’s changing. He’s learning politics (emphases mine) …

Krugman - The G.O.P. - Going to Extreme -

… Right-wing extremism may be the same as it ever was, but it clearly has more adherents now than it did a couple of years ago. Why? It may have a lot to do with a troubled economy.

True, that’s not how it was supposed to work. When the economy plunged into crisis, many observers — myself included — expected a political shift to the left. After all, the crisis made nonsense of the right’s markets-know-best, regulation-is-always-bad dogma. In retrospect, however, this was naïve: voters tend to react with their guts, not in response to analytical arguments — and in bad times, the gut reaction of many voters is to move right.

That’s the message of a recent paper by the economists Markus Brückner and Hans Peter Grüner, who find a striking correlation between economic performance and political extremism in advanced nations: in both America and Europe, periods of low economic growth tend to be associated with a rising vote for right-wing and nationalist political parties. The rise of the Tea Party, in other words, was exactly what we should have expected in the wake of the economic crisis…

Better late than never. The new Krugman will be even more interesting than the old one was.

* I suspect on average, over time, the system in which we are embedded is more rational than it seems, but that’s another post. (Yes, sounds like “psychohistory”, and, yes, Krugman, like me, grew up on Asimov.)

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