Thursday, September 17, 2009

Silver Linings and False Tradeoffs

Timothy Egan writes in the New York Times about something that used to trouble me a lot back in the dark ages of my life as a pretend political scientist. Lately, though it's been bothering me again, like some sort of recurrent rash, as I'm trying to sort out how to map expected utility maximization into a real world where people continually vote against their economic self-interest. If I were a true drinker of the rationality kool-aid, this should provide an opportunity to measure the intrinsic value of culture; that is, the economic benefit I give up in lost wages and benefits should be the value I place on things like living next to my friends, more leisure time (thanks John Cochrane), and various "psychic benefits." My problem is that most of these "psychic benefits" actually muck around with the expected utility framework itself. It stretches the fabric of believability to think that I'm clever and dispassionate enough to do the calculus of utility of maximization and also to believe that I'm actively trading off my happiness that our President fails (because it justifies my pre-existing worldview) for $x. [Skip this if you live in the real world and have, like, non-imaginary friends: the problem is that things like fear and love of stasis warp the expectation operator in non-linear and path-dependent ways, ways which can't be accounted for by applying a linear operator to even a path-dependent and multi-attribute utility function. I think.] Ok, in English. Thinking that Obama is trying to kill me when I get older and my enjoyment from having today look exactly like pre-Reese Witherspoon Pleasantville actually causes what I expect from the future to deviate from what is likely to happen. This is because I don't see a tradeoff from my happiness for economic failure and my income; I actually think that I can have a Rosie the Riveter economy and my iphone too. And that's why I felt sadder after reading this article than I have for awhile. Postscript: you should also read Timothy Egan's book, The Worst Hard Time.

So what did I think about after reading this? Well, besides a delicious sandwich? The Stiff Little Fingers of course...

Silver Lining

They tell you not to worry, they say they're terribly sorry
But that's the way it has to be, for the likes of you and me
Just be good and know your station
Always look on the bright side
Keep you faith and keep your patience
Your reward is after you've died

So don't be told, don't be consoled
Things are so bad, you can never make do
And there's always someone better off than you

They tell you that's your future, it's all down to human nature
Simply settle for what you got, that's destiny and that's your lot
All of us cannot come first, yes what you have is second best
But it might be a good deal worse
Third world peasants get even less...

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