Repugnance Revisited, or: Are Economists Really ‘Evil’?

Patricia Cohen has an article in today’s Times about a recent American Enterprise Institute panel on the notion of repugnance and how it affects markets. In other words, why are some behaviors considered repugnant while others are acceptable, and how and why do such demarcations change over time?

Three of the panel’s five participants — Arthur Brooks, Sally Satel, and Al Roth — may be familiar to readers of this blog. And when we wrote a Times column a while back about whether there should be a free market for human organs, it was Roth’s thinking about repugnance that framed our argument.

I find the idea of shifting repugnance fascinating. My favorite example is life insurance: long ago, it was considered morbid to place a bet that allowed you to profit if a loved one died; now it is uncommon to not do so.

But as interesting as I find the subject, it was something else in Cohen’s article that caught my eye:

Economists are asking the wrong question, [Paul] Bloom, [a professor of psychology at Yale] said at the panel. They assume that “everything is subject to market pricing unless proven otherwise.”

“The problem is not that economists are unreasonable people, it’s that they’re evil people,” he said. “They work in a different moral universe. The burden of proof is on someone who wants to include” a transaction in the marketplace.

Economists are “evil people”? I assume Bloom was kidding, although there was no indication in Cohen’s article. Honestly, I’m not sure what he meant, or what she meant. Perhaps the general public does see economists as “evil” — since they analyze the world so coldly, since they seem willing to put a price on anything.

But if so, I would argue that the reason to regard economists as “evil” is in fact the very reason to regard them as valuable. Although there are noteworthy exceptions, economists are among the few groups of people who in this day and age will analyze an issue (whether it’s organ transplantation, political corruption, or sexual preferences), as the Times itself likes to put it, “without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

If that’s evil, count me in.

Addendum: Shortly after this post was published, I received the following helpful e-mail from Paul Bloom:

Hi Stephen,

I just read your entry on the Freakonomics blog, and thought I should send a quick reply.

Yes, my remark about evil economists was a joke. This was perfectly clear at the talk and it’s clear if you watch the video, but not from the NYTimes article, unfortunately. After I make the remark and people laugh, I then say “To put it more fairly …,” and go on to make the point that economists tend to reason consequentially, and are less sensitive to other considerations such as taboo, disgust status quo bias, and so on. I actually think that economists are right to do so in general, and I’ve argued in particular that disgust is useless as a guide for moral behavior. So, no, I don’t think you’re evil!

Best,

–pb

Thanks, Paul, for the clarification. And allow me to remind everyone that my defense of economists was not as self-serving as it may seem, since I am not now, nor have I ever been, an economist.

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  1. Ben says:

    @Allan

    I think that all depends, there are plenty of economists who have proven that things like deforestation and unsustainable use of natural resources are not economically efficient.

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  2. Brad says:

    My one cent (let’s not overvalue this) is that economists are just very often socially awkward individuals. As a result they/we tend to underappreciate the intangible social and psychological costs implicit in decision making.

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  3. Phil Steinmeyer says:

    I agree with Andy that the claim that “…economists are among the few groups of people who in this day and age will analyze an issue (whether it’s organ transplantation, political corruption, or sexual preferences), as the Times itself likes to put it, ‘without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.’” is a joke.

    Further, the claim that “my defense of economists was not as self-serving as it may seem, since I am not now, nor have I ever been, an economist.” misses the point, as Dubner has earned fame and presumably some measure of fortune through collaboration with an economist on a book whose very name was a play on the word “economics”.

    Economists are not heroic. They are trained to use one set of tools on various problems. Sometimes those tools fit the problem well and reveal interesting insights. Other times, the tools miss key issues (such as with the Hannah Montana story, tongue in cheek though it may have been). In fact, the Hannah Montana story was an excellent example of how economics can go astray. An accurate analysis would have addressed issues of the true value of those two tickets (with ~5 minutes left before the show, the value was probably NOT what it would have been an hour earlier), what was the goals of attending the show in the first place (happiness for the daughter, bonding for the father), the effect of downgrading those tickets on those goals, the various costs and risks associated with trying to sell the tickets and so on. Instead, the story (again, tongue in cheek) performed an overly simplistic analysis and reached a conclusion that went against common sense for most readers. In that case, I think the readers were right, because they WERE including rough approximations of the other variables in their mental models.

    Economics tends to look at issues in terms of perhaps 1 to 3 variables that may or may not have 1 particular effect. But these models are often too simplistic, ignoring numerous other causes and secondary effects.

    In short, economists need to step down from the pedestal and recognize that their profession, as commonly practiced, has limitations. It can contribute to useful discussion on a variety of topics, but it is not the end-all be-all.

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  4. Lee says:

    Mr. Steinmeyer: It seems to me that you’ve just made a series of economic arguments explaining why the analysis in the Hannah Montana tickets post was insufficient. Fine, and agreed, but the fact that a given economist didn’t sufficiently flush out an argument in a blog post, or the fact that others may intuitively evaluate economic arguments rather than vocalizing them piece by piece, does not constitute a critique of economics. The existence of complexity and the problems of confounding variables do not diminish the value of economic reasoning, they simply call for greater rigor. After all, what would be the alternatives?

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  5. gator80 says:

    Thanks for the clarification by Prof Bloom.

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  6. Otto says:

    Actually, one might argue that the Hannah Montana anecdote was indeed amendable to an economics argument, only that the father was not employing his craft very well. He was ignorning the immeasurable value of making his daughter happy (or inversely, of making her very unhappy*) when doing his calculations.
    *Future therapy payments alone would probably erase any profit that he made.

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  7. banal says:

    Economists are not evil, they are just trying to be objective about reality. However, they are somewhat inconsiderate.

    This is because they do not appreciate that by attempting to fit reality into models that they can analyze, they sometimes arrive at results that they do not appreciate are wrong until unexpected outcomes make it obvious.

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  8. bill says:

    “My favorite example is life insurance: long ago, it was considered morbid to place a bet that allowed you to profit if a loved one died; now it is uncommon to not do so.”

    I think ‘compensate’ would be a better term here, as it is attempting to offset a loss.

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