A blogger and his best friend circa February 2010.
One of the things that I have learned to reject over the years is grand theories that purport to explain the entirety or large parts of human behavior -- see e.g. Marxism and Freudian psychology to name two. In recent years, it seems to me that badly applied behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology have taken up this mantle, with equally dissatisfying results. People who become overly enamored of this kind of thing tend to engage in a baffling combination of either overly-reductive thinking to explain that which is complex and nuanced, while perversely complicating things that are not that hard for living, breathing human beings to explain. To wit:
- I haven't picked on Yglesias for a while but this post in which he expressed skepticism over people's claims that they would not kill their favorite pet for $1 million strikes me as the response of your classic pod-person who has spent way too much time reading about behavioral economics and too little time in the company of a beloved dog or cat. As frequent readers here know, my dog Stanley is rather near and dear to my heart. Truly, I love that little dog and I say that without exaggeration. Indeed, I too often contemplate his mortality and it depresses the hell out of me. There simply isn't a sum of money on earth large enough that would tempt me to kill him and merely contemplating the question made me feel vaguely nauseous. So nothing about this response strikes me as shocking, except maybe for the fact that there are 11% of people who claim that they would do such a thing (libertarians should not be allowed to have pets). It seems to me that one of the most fundamental aspects of human behavior is that we form bonds that transcend this kind of transactional analysis. People are willing to die for those that they love -- surely this is a mysterious way in which to maximize one's utility.
There are concepts of human behavior that are simply impossible to put into economic models -- for instance, notions of honor. One can behave in a way that one finds to be so dishonorable that it literally negates the value of your life in your own eyes -- killing a small, beloved dog for money would be one of those things to me. I literally could not allow myself to live if I did something like that.
- And then there is your garden-variety economic asshole type arguments like this and this, in which utterly clueless people cannot understand why we limit by statue the straight time work hours of certain kinds of employees. Robin Hanson, the blogger in question, is yet another clown from the Economics Department at George Mason University, who needs to be given a pallet full of sixty-five pound cinder blocks and a trowel on a 95 degree day here and told to work twelve hours at straight time. I am guessing that if he survived the ordeal, he might have some greater insight into this question. Let's be clear -- the law does not generally require that employees not work more than forty hours in a week -- it mearely requires that if they do so they be compensated at one and a half times their normal hourly rate for these additional hours. The purpose of this law is to fully compensate the employee for the loss of leisure time, to recognize the hardship associated with working such hours, and to encourage employers to think about hiring additional personnel to do the work, rather than working existing employees to death. (Sometimes hours are in fact capped for public safety reasons, see e.g. truckers and pilots -- does this too shock and offend Mr. Hanson?)
I find it astonishing that allegedly smart people do not understand 1) the imbalance in power relations between employer and employee; 2) the physical toll that working long hours takes on people who do not engage in mental masturbation for a living; and 3) the fact that people value their time away from work and do not want to be compelled to spend all of their waking hours in toil without some reasonable reward for what that sacrificed leisure is worth. Once full employment is restored in the building trades, I would happily offer Mr. Hanson a chance to spend a week doing seven-twelves for straight time to see how he'd like it. I am pretty confident he wouldn't be back for day two.