Toward an economics of social norms

Sep 17, JDN 2457649

It is typical in economics to assume that prices are set by perfect competition in markets with perfect information. This is obviously ridiculous, so many economists do go further and start looking into possible distortions of the market, such as externalities and monopolies. But almost always the assumption is still that human beings are neoclassical rational agents, what I call “infinite identical psychopaths”, selfish profit-maximizers with endless intelligence and zero empathy.

What happens when we recognize that human beings are not like this, but in fact are empathetic, social creatures, who care about one another and work toward the interests of (what they perceive to be) their tribe? How are prices really set? What actually decides what is made and sold? What does economics become once you understand sociology? (The good news is that experiments are now being done to find out.)

Presumably some degree of market competition is involved, and no small amount of externalities and monopolies. But one of the very strongest forces involved in setting prices in the real world is almost completely ignored, and that is social norms.

Social norms are tremendously powerful. They will drive us to bear torture, fight and die on battlefields, even detonate ourselves as suicide bombs. When we talk about “religion” or “ideology” motivating people to do things, really what we are talking about is social norms. While some weaker norms can be overridden, no amount of economic incentive can ever override a social norm at its full power. Moreover, most of our behavior in daily life is driven by social norms: How to dress, what to eat, where to live. Even the fundamental structure of our lives is written by social norms: Go to school, get a job, get married, raise a family.

Even academic economists, who imagine themselves one part purveyor of ultimate wisdom and one part perfectly rational agent, are clearly strongly driven by social norms—what problems are “interesting”, which researchers are “renowned”, what approaches are “sensible”, what statistical methods are “appropriate”. If economists were perfectly rational, dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models would be in the dustbin of history (because, like string theory, they have yet to lead to a single useful empirical prediction), research journals would not be filled with endless streams of irrelevant but impressive equations (I recently read one that basically spent half a page of calculus re-deriving the concept of GDP—and computer-generated gibberish has been published, because its math looked so impressive), and instead of frequentist p-values (and often misinterpreted at that), all the statistics would be written in the form of Bayesian logodds.

Indeed, in light of all this, I often like to say that to a first approximation, all human behavior is social norms.

How does this affect buying and selling? Well, first of all, there are some things we refuse to buy and sell, or at least that most of us refuse to buy and sell, and who use social pressure, public humilitation, or even the force of law to prevent. You’re not supposed to sell children. You’re not supposed to sell your vote. You’re not even supposed to sell sexual favors (though every society has always had a large segment of people who do, and more recently people are becoming more open to the idea of at least decriminalizing it). If we were neoclassical rational agents, we would have no such qualms; if we want something and someone is willing to sell it to us, we’ll buy it. But as actual human beings with emotions and social norms, we recognize that there is something fundamentally different about selling your vote as opposed to selling a shirt or a television. It’s not always immediately obvious where to draw the line, which is why sex work can be such a complicated issue (You can’t get paid to have sex… unless someone is filming it?). Different societies may do it differently: Part of the challenge of fighting corruption in Third World countries is that much of what we call corruption—and which actually is harmful to long-run economic development—isn’t perceived as “corruption” by the people involved in it, just as social custom (“Of course I’d hire my cousin! What kind of cousin would I be if I didn’t?”). Yet despite all that, almost everyone agrees that there is a line to be drawn. So there are whole markets that theoretically could exist, but don’t, or only exist as tiny black markets most people never participate in, because we consider selling those things morally wrong. Recently a whole subfield of cognitive economics has emerged studying these repugnant markets.

Even if a transaction is not considered so repugnant as to be unacceptable, there are also other classes of goods that are in some sense unsavory; something you really shouldn’t buy, but you’re not a monster for doing so. These are often called sin goods, and they have always included drugs, alcohol, and gambling—and I do mean always, as every human civilization has had these things—they include prostitution where it is legal, and as social norms change they are now beginning to include oil and coal as well (which can only be good for the future of Earth’s climate). Sin goods are systematically more expensive than they should be for their marginal cost, because most people are unwilling to participate in selling them. As a result, the financial returns for producing sin goods are systematically higher. Actually, this could partially explain why Wall Street banks are so profitable; when the banking system is corrupt as it is—and you’re not imagining that; laundering money for terroriststhen banking becomes a sin good, and good people don’t want to participate in it. Or perhaps the effect runs the other way around: Banking has been viewed as sinful for centuries (in Medieval times, usury was punished much the same way as witchcraft), and as a result only the sort of person who doesn’t care about social and moral norms becomes a banker—and so the banking system becomes horrifically corrupt. Is this a reason for good people to force ourselves to become bankers? Or is there another way—perhaps credit unions?

There are other ways that social norms drive prices as well. We have a concept ofa “fair wage”, which is quite distinct from the economic concept of a “market-clearing wage”. When people ask whether someone’s wage is fair, they don’t look at supply and demand and try to determine whether there are too many or too few people offering that service. They ask themselves what the labor is worth—what value has it added—and how hard that person has worked to do it—what cost it bore. Now, these aren’t totally unrelated to supply and demand (people are less likely to supply harder work, people are more likely to demand higher value), so it’s conceivable that these heuristics could lead us to more or less achieve the market-clearing wage most of the time. But there are also some systematic distortions to consider.

Perhaps the most important way fairness matters in economics is necessities: Basic requirements for human life such as food, housing, and medicine. The structure of our society also makes transportation, education, and Internet access increasingly necessary for basic functioning. From the perspective of an economist, it is a bit paradoxical how angry people get when the price of something important (such as healthcare) is increased: If it’s extremely valuable, shouldn’t you be willing to pay more? Why does it bother you less when something like a Lamborghini or a Rolex rises in price, something that almost certainly wasn’t even worth its previous price? You’re going to buy the necessities anyway, right? Well, as far as most economists are concerned, that’s all that matters—what gets bought and sold. But of course as a human being I do understand why people get angry about these things, and it is because they have to buy them anyway. When someone like Martin Shkreli raises the prices on basic goods, we feel exploited. There’s even a way to make this economically formal: When demand is highly inelastic, we are rightly very sensitive to the possibility of a monopoly, because monopolies under inelastic demand can extract huge profits and cause similarly huge amounts of damage to the welfare of their customers. That isn’t quite how most people would put it, but I think that has something to do with the ultimate reason we evolved that heuristic: It’s dangerous to let someone else control your basic necessities, because that gives them enormous power to exploit you. If they control things that aren’t as important to you, that doesn’t matter so much, because you can always do without if you must. So a norm that keeps businesses from overcharging on necessities is very important—and probably not as strong anymore as it should be.

Another very important way that fairness and markets can be misaligned is talent: What if something is just easier for one person than another? If you achieve the same goal with half the work, should you be rewarded more for being more efficient, or less because you bore less cost? Neoclassical economics doesn’t concern itself with such questions, asking only if supply and demand reached equilibrium. But we as human beings do care about such things; we want to know what wage a person deserves, not just what wage they would receive in a competitive market.

Could we be wrong to do that? Might it be better if we just let the market do its work? In some cases I think that may actually be true. Part of why CEO pay is rising so fast despite being uncorrelated with corporate profitability or even negatively correlated is that CEOs have convinced us (or convinced their boards of directors) that this is fair, that they deserve more stock options. They even convince them that their pay is based on performance, by using highly distorted measures of performance. If boards thought more like economic rational agents, when a CEO asked for more pay they’d ask: “What other company gave you a higher offer?” and if the CEO didn’t have an answer, they’d laugh and refuse the raise. Because in purely economic terms, that is all a salary does: it keeps you from quitting to work somewhere else. The competitive mechanism of the market is supposed to then ensure that your wage aligns with your marginal cost and marginal productivity purely due to that.

On the other hand, there are many groups of people who simply aren’t doing very well in the market: Women, racial minorities, people with disabilities. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which might go away if markets were made more competitive—the classic argument that competitive markets reward companies that don’t discriminate—but many clearly wouldn’t. Indeed, that argument was never as strong as it at first appears; in a society where social norms are strongly in favor of bigotry, it can be completely economically rational to participate in bigotry to avoid being penalized. When Chick-Fil-A was revealed to have donated to anti-LGBT political groups, many people tried to boycott—but their sales actually increased from the publicity. Honestly it’s a bit baffling that they promised not to donate to such causes anymore; it was apparently a profitable business decision to be revealed as supporters of bigotry. And even when discrimination does hurt economic performance, companies are run by human beings, and they are still quite capable of discriminating regardless. Indeed, the best evidence we have that discrimination is inefficient comes from… businesses that persist in discriminating despite the fact that it is inefficient.

But okay, suppose we actually did manage to make everyone compensated according to their marginal productivity. (Or rather, what Rawls derided: “From each according to his marginal productivity, to each according to his threat advantage.”) The market would then clear and be highly efficient. Would that actually be a good thing? I’m not so sure.

A lot of people are highly unproductive through no fault of their own—particularly children and people with disabilities. Much of this is not discrimination; it’s just that they aren’t as good at providing services. Should we simply leave them to fend for themselves? Then there’s the key point about what marginal means in this case—it means “given what everyone else is doing”. But that means that you can be made obsolete by someone else’s actions, and in this era of rapid technological advancement, jobs become obsolete faster than ever. Unlike a lot of people, I recognize that it makes no sense to keep people working at jobs that can be automated—the machines are better. But still, what do we do with the people whose jobs have been eliminated? Do we treat them as worthless? When automated buses become affordable—and they will; I give it 20 years—do we throw the human bus drivers under them?

One way out is of course a basic income: Let the market wage be what it will, and then use the basic income to provide for what human beings deserve irrespective of their market productivity. I definitely support a basic income, of course, and this does solve the most serious problems like children and quadriplegics starving in the streets.

But as I read more of the arguments by people who favor a job guarantee instead of a basic income, I begin to understand better why they are uncomfortable with the idea: It doesn’t seem fair. A basic income breaks once and for all the link between “a fair day’s work” and “a fair day’s wage”. It runs counter to this very deep-seated intuition most people have that money is what you earn—and thereby deserve—by working, and only by working. That is an extremely powerful social norm, and breaking it will be very difficult; so it’s worth asking: Should we even try to break it? Is there a way to achieve a system where markets are both efficient and fair?

I’m honestly not sure; but I do know that we could make substantial progress from where we currently stand. Most billionaire wealth is pure rent in the economic sense: It’s received by corruption and market distortion, not by efficient market competition. Most poverty is due to failures of institutions, not lack of productivity of workers. As George Monblot famously wrote, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” Most of the income disparity between White men and others is due to discrimination, not actual skill—and what skill differences there are are largely the result of differences in education and upbringing anyway. So if we do in fact correct these huge inefficiencies, we will also be moving toward fairness at the same time. But still that nagging thought remains: When all that is done, will there come a day where we must decide whether we would rather have an efficient economy or a just society? And if it does, will we decide the right way?

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