October 15, 2008

Another one bites the dust

Note: this picture of Wu has nothing to do with the subject at hand. I just thought it was cool.

These are tough times for true believers in the cult of the market god, although not quite as tough as one might expect if the moral arc of the universe really did bend toward justice.

(As far as I can tell, that arc tends towards randomness most days.)

We've seen the spectacle of Wall Street Masters of the Universe begging for the Visible Hand of government to rescue them from the Invisible Hand of their moribund deity.

Another sacred relic that has taken a few hits lately is the idea of humans as homo economicus, which is sort of a profit seeking organic bipedal calculator. He/she has shown up in many places in economic theory although not so much in the real world. Here's one definition from John Stuart Mill:

“a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.”

While Mill used that purely as a model, it caught on and has become a tenet of prominent schools of economic ideology. As a recent article in Business Week put it,

This 19th-century concept, embedded in classic economic theory and still embraced today, rests on two assumptions about human nature. The first is that individuals are only motivated by self-interest; the second is that we're all rational decision-makers.

More and more scientific research suggests that humans are more like sentimental monkeys who can talk than organic calculators that can walk.

After all, the human brain wasn't manufactured from the top down; it grew from the ground up. First came the brainstem that we share with reptiles, then the limbic system that we share with mammals. Our enlarged cerebral cortex is, if you'll pardon the expression, an afterthought.

Real people have all kinds of motives, such as the desire for status, respect, fairness, honor, compassion, sex, love, fun, excellence, a good fight, knowledge, or any number of things. Don't take my word for it--just take a good look at human history. As Pascal said,

The heart has reasons that reason knows not of.

IN THE SPIRIT OF FAIR PLAY, if the idea of homo economicus has taken a hit, so has the idea of the Noble Savage. This item shows that chimp-like bonobos, sometimes viewed as a peace-loving paleo-vegan primates, have been discovered hunting and eating monkeys.

SPEAKING OF EATING. Here's a long one by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (which, by the way, is a good book if you haven't tried it) on the politics of food.

THE WISDOM OF CROWDS? This item discusses the psychology of financial panics.


No comments: