The old copy-paste

Perhaps the most tragic falsehood promulgated by economic theory is the idea that people everywhere are mutually interchangeable agents. [Update: that’s not a fair characterization of economic theory, see comments.] That other falsehood of them being rational agents — well, there’s a whole cottage industry centered on knocking it down, Nobel prizes and all. But try to speak out against the former falsehood, and you’re in crimethink territory.

Hyper-rational stupid-smart people fall for for this all the time. “Copy and paste from Singapore’s healthcare setup.  Copy and paste from Estonia’s e-government setup.” When Eliezer Yudkowsky gives that as a response to a hypothetical King of the World to-do list, we can write it off as comedy. When the Atlantic suggests that What’s Wrong With American Schools is Not Enough Equality — just copy-paste from Finland, guys! — we are well into farcical (and even tragic) territory.

PTT not being a data blog, I won’t bother looking up the number of Finnish teachers annually assaulted by their students. The US numbers tend to kind of, er, hit you in the face — but don’t you dare talk about it, racist. And I’ll bet the Finnish numbers, whatever they are, are negligible by comparison. So sorry to disappoint you, o Brahmins from the Atlantic: copy-pasting from ethnically homogenous Finland won’t solve America’s diverse problems. Taking the red pill is a necessary starting step.

2 thoughts on “The old copy-paste

  1. Copy and paste thinking is indeed a fallacy. But economics is not at fault for this. Economics does not promulgate the idea that people everywhere are the same. Economics does not make claims about human nature, it’s not its subject. In order to understand how large, impersonal markets work (historically, the main question it was exploring), economics made a simplifying assumption (repeat, assumption) of actors identical in some respect. This assumption, along with other simplifying assumptions, such as perfect information, helped in constructing a model that explains pretty well how the market works. Even the standard market model allows for different consumer tastes, and in other contexts, economists have no difficulty assuming heterogenous agents by skill, ability, effort, you name it. True, there are people, including economists, who mistake simplifying assumptions for statements of fact, but the fault is with them, not with economics.

    The same can be said about rationality. It is a simplifying assumption that works well for certain purposes.
    It does not mean the same thing in economics as in everyday speech, so this is a source much confusion. A rational consumer is the one who substitutes cheaper goods for more expensive, and this behavior has been experimentally confirmed in rats, so what’s there to object? The limitations of rationality have been acknowledged and explored since the 1950s (Herbert Simon and bounded rationality), which does not detract from the value of the assumption in some uses.

    There is economics, and there are myths about economics. Dont fall for the latter.


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