Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The "Heart of Economics"

I'm currently teaching a course on "the economics of social problems." It can be a tricky course because I need to communicate to students that, for example, poverty is about more than low income. Its also about opportunities, happiness or well-being, cognitive adaptations (i.e., beliefs) and more.

With this in mind, I found today's piece in the NY Times by Ed Glaeser interesting. He writes:
Teachers of first-year graduate courses in economic theory, like me, often begin by discussing the assumption that individuals can rank their preferred outcomes. We then propose a measure — a ranking mechanism called a utility function — that follows people’s preferences.

But then we turn to welfare, and that’s where we make our great leap.

Improvements in welfare occur when there are improvements in utility, and those occur only when an individual gets an option that wasn’t previously available. We typically prove that someone’s welfare has increased when the person has an increased set of choices.

When we make that assumption (which is hotly contested by some people, especially psychologists), we essentially assume that the fundamental objective of public policy is to increase freedom of choice.

Economists’ fondness for freedom rarely implies any particular policy program. A fondness for freedom is perfectly compatible with favoring redistribution, which can be seen as increasing one person’s choices at the expense of the choices of another, or with Keynesianism and its emphasis on anticyclical public spending.