27 July 2007

Mitul votantului rational

O carte care face ceva valva acum, oarecum surprinzator: The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics de Bryan Caplan. Caplan arata ca multe dintre presupunerile Public Choice Theory sunt gresite si ca de fapt votantii sustin adesea opinii irationale (i.e. opinii care atunci cand sunt puse in practica duc la rezultate proaste pentru ei insisi). Apoi insusi comportamentul lor politic este irational, oamenii fiind preocupati mai ales de implementarea anumitor politici si nu de faptul daca aceste politici au intr-adevar rezultatele pozitive scontate.

In plus, votantii care nu se pricep la ceva nu au opiniile distribuite la intamplare in toate directiile (lucru care ar face ca rezultatul final sa fie decis de o minoritate care chiar se pricepe), ci, mai ales in materie de economie, sunt indreptate in mod consistent in directia gresita (dar nu numai in economie - de pilda situatia e identica si in ceea ce priveste disputa legata de organismele modificate genetic). Acesta diferenta intre economia intuitiva (bazata pe conceptul de echitate) si cea stiintifica (bazata pe utilitatea marginala si pe cerere si oferta) e cunoscuta de ceva vreme in psihologia evolutionista dar acum s-ar putea sa fie prima oara cand o carte de stiinte politice ii da atentie in mod serios.

Un interviu cu Caplan (destul de detaliat: 1h21min).

Si un citat din The Blank Slate de Steven Pinker despre motivele pentru care economia intuitiva o da in bara:

[The] core intuitions are suitable for the lifestyle of small groups of illiterate, stateless people who live off the land, survive by their wits, and depend on what they can carry. Our ancestors left this lifestyle for a settled existence only a few millennia ago, too recently for evolution to have done much, it anything, to our brains. Conspicuously by their absence are faculties suited to the stunning new understanding of the world wrought by science and technology. For many domains of knowledge, the mind could not have evolved dedicated machinery, the brain and genome show no hints of specialization, and people show no spontaneous intuitive understanding either in the crib or afterward. They include modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics and mathematics.

It's not just that we have to go to school or read books to learn these subjects. It's that we have no mental tools to grasp them intuitively. We depend on analogies that press an old mental faculty into service, or on jerry-built mental contraptions that wire together bits and pieces of other faculties. Understanding in these domains is likely to be uneven, shallow, and contaminated by primitive intuitions. And that can shape debates in the border disputes in which science and technology make contact with everyday life. (p. 221)

The most common kind of exchange is what [anthropologist Alan] Fiske calls Equality Matching. Two people exchange goods or favors at different times, and the traded items are identical or at least highly similar or easily comparable. The trading partners assess their debts by simple addition or subtraction and are satisfied when favors even out. (…) When someone violates an Equality Matching relationship by taking a benefit without returning it in kind, the other party feels cheated and may retaliate aggressively. Equality Matching is the only mechanism of trade in most hunter-gatherer societies. Fiske notes that it is supported by a mental model of tit-for-tat reciprocity, and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have shown this way of thinking comes easily to Americans as well. It appears to be the core of our intuitive economics.

Fiske contrasts Equality Matching with a very different system called Market Pricing, the system of rents, prices, wages, and interest rates that underlies modern economies. Market Pricing relies on the mathematics of multiplication, division, fractions, and large numbers, together with the social institutions of money, credit, written contracts, and complex divisions of labor. Market Pricing is absent in hunter-gatherer societies and we know it played no role in our evolutionary history because it relies on technologies like writing, money, and formal mathematics which appeared only recently. (…) Misunderstandings in which one person thinks in terms of Equality Matching and another thinks in terms of Market Pricing (…) tap into very different psychologies, one of them intuitive and universal, the other rarefied and learned, and clashes between them have been common in economic history.

Economists refer to “the physical fallacy”, the belief that an object has a true and constant value, as opposed to being worth only what someone is willing to pay for it at a given place and time. This is simply the difference between the Equality Matching and Market Pricing mentalities. (…) The belief that goods have a “just price” implies that it is avaricious to charge anything higher, and the result has been mandatory pricing schemes in medieval times, communist regimes, and many Third World countries. Such attempts to work around the law of supply and demand have usually led to waste, shortages, and black markets. Another consequence of the physical fallacy is the widespread practice of outlawing interest, which comes from the intuition that it is rapacious to demand additional money from someone who has paid back exactly what he borrowed. Of course, the only reason why people borrow at one time and repay it later is that the money is worth more to them at the time they borrow than it will be at the time they repay it. (…)

Just as the value of something may change with time, which creates a niche for lenders who move valuable things around in time, so it may change with space, which creates a niche for middlemen who move valuable things around in space. A banana is worth more to me in a store down the street than it is in a warehouse a hundred miles away, so I am willing to pay more to the grocer than I would to the importer – even though by “eliminating the middleman” I could pay less per banana. For similar reasons, the importer is willing to charge the grocer less than he would charge me. But because lenders and middlemen do not cause tangible objects to come into being, their contributions are difficult to grasp, and they are often thought as skimmers and parasites. (…)

The obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education. And this offers priorities for educational policy: to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. The perilous fallacies we have seen in this chapter, for example, would give high priority to economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics in any high school or college curriculum. Unfortunately, most curricula have barely changed since medieval times, and are barely changeable, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics. But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only 24 hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided. (p. 233-6)

Caplan pare sa fie destul de bucuros sa-si asume rolul filistinului. In interviu descrie felul in care aceste erori ale economiei intuitive sunt agregate prin procesul democratic si conduc la punerea in practica a unor politici economice adeseori gresite. In plus, datorita faptului ca oamenii nu au nici o motivare serioasa pentru a aloca timpul necesar invatarii economiei, politicienii care cunosc economie nu au sanse de succes, ci devin victime ale propagandei populiste care se axeaza pe conceptul de echitate. Cum aceasta e sentimentul innascut de la baza economiei intuitive, o astfel de propaganda are si un efect emotional mult mai puternic asupra votantilor decat explicatiile economice rationale.