Economists and Cocktail Parties

Sometimes I remark to my students, “This is why economists don’t get invited to cocktail parties.” This post is about that.

From 2008 – 2011 I taught a course at Florida State called “Economics of Compassion”. It is a course co-designed with my mentor Mark Isaac. The class discusses historical and contemporary problems related to poverty, both at the domestic and international levels. Having heard about the course, the Social Justice Living Learning Community at Florida State wanted me to teach the course to their incoming freshman. 

It was quite different from other courses they were taking that seemed to talk in terms of solutions without regard for scarcity. My role was to put parameters on their utopia and get the students to think carefully about a couple questions related to issues they care about:

  • Compared to what?
  • What happens next?

The students seemed to like the class, but, for a committed group of people who want to change the world it was also quite a downer. It was a downer for them the same way economics is a downer for people at cocktail parties.

We start with scarcity. Scarcity is a fact of life. There are never enough resources to satisfy everyone and there will always be unmet desires. For the economist, the notion of trade-offs — you must give up one thing to get another — flow from this scarcity. It means that anytime a solution to a problem is attempted you are always giving something up.

For example, the death of George Floyd this summer sparked conversation about how to reduce police violence. One approaching to curbing this important social problem is to eliminate or reform qualified immunity (QI). This is a legal doctrine intended to protect police and others from frivolous lawsuits. The problem is that QI has made accountability extremely difficult. The logic of reforming QI is that doing so will increase accountability, raise the cost of police violence, and therefore lead to less police violence. That’s good economics.

But, remember there are trade-offs. In a new world where police are opened up to lawsuits, local government might need to increase police compensation to retain or attract qualified men and women. Where does the money come from? Can you reduce the number of police and/or will you have to raise taxes? There are other trade-offs too. Will police become more reluctant to enter dangerous neighborhoods? After all, there is a greater chance that inserting themselves into a risky situation will lead to financial ruin.

Moving from heavy to light. If you haven’t seen Yoram Bauman’s comedic schtick on Principles of Economics Translated, take five minutes and check it out here. As he illustrates, “economic profit” depends on alternatives: A Snickers bar valued at one dollar with no alternative implies an economic profit of $1. However, if the alternative was M&Ms that you value at 70 cents then your economic profit is 30 cents … Your profit from pursuing one course action declines as the value of the alternative increases.

By accounting for trade-offs the net benefit of a course of action goes down. When we bring up trade-offs in conversation, economists effectively eat into people’s mental profits for some course of action.

Another thing to consider, when you’re intervening, that intervention can sometimes have dramatic side effects that you didn’t even think about. You cannot merely move people around as if they’re pieces on a chessboard (head nod to Adam Smith).

For example, it is possible that eliminating qualified immunity leads to less police violence but more neighborhood violence overall if police decide not to insert themselves into situations that could be more costly. Beyond this hypothetical example I have been using, there are loads of other unintended consequences economists talk about.

Thinking in this way is the bread and butter of economists. This is how we see the world. But, don’t try this in social settings. As EconTalk host Russ Roberts once commented (this podcast), a pleasant picnic veered into chilly company when he pointed out someone’s proposed minimum wage could have negative employment effects. The others at the picnic started to inch away from him on the picnic blanket. At parties, I’ve had people talk about the idea that a tax won’t effect them because it is only on sellers, homeowners, etc. I’ve had to ask myself, “Is it worth it to bring up that the tax is likely to be passed through?”

So while my last couple posts sing the praises of economics, I should let you know, at cocktail parties people don’t like to think about scarcity, tradeoffs, and unintended consequences. Economists like to think about the seen and unseen. Many others, especially in social settings, would rather the unseen remain unseen.

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