Bryan Caplan  

Closet Your Inner Economist?

Tyler May Not Agree With Me On... Transporting Success...

Here's some advice from Discover Your Inner Economist that I won't be following:

Think of "the economics of the family" as The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name. If you are the economically informed member of your family, or perhaps even an economist, don't flaunt it. Hide its universal nature or widespread applicability. Do not present economic wisdom as a matter of principle or a general way of thinking about life.
Frankly, I'm baffled. First, we "discover our Inner Economists," then we go into the closet? I won't do it. I won't!

Yes, if you stay in the closet, some other people will like you more. But these people aren't really your friends. If they can't accept you for who you are, you need to move on. Perhaps one day, they'll realize their mistake, and you'll magnanimously accept their apology; but you can't live a lie to spare the feelings of others. This is wisdom for gays and economists alike.

In fact, the case for being openly economistic is even stronger than the case for being openly gay. How so? Being gay isn't for everyone; being straight isn't "false." The economic way of thinking, in contrast, is true whether people like it or not. Economic wisdom can, should, and must be presented as a general way of thinking about life because that's precisely what it is.

Luckily for Tyler, he's an out-of-the-closet economist and he's never going back in. His readers should do as he does, not as he says.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (15 to date)
awhogan writes:

I'm not sure about with your family, but I do think hiding your inner economist can be a good idea while dating. I don't know if it's just 'economics' that turns women off or 'economics' and 'grad student', but either way I try to hold off coming out of the dismal closet until the second date.

John Goes writes:

I think he's trying to spare his readers the fate of being dismal dullards.

Eric Crampton writes:

Bah and humbug to the previous commenters. You want to induce SEPARATING EQUILIBRIA, not pooling ones! You'll date less, but the ones that pass the test are marriage material. Hard core economist from day one. Masking type is bad strategy as you'll just divorce later once you're no longer able to mask type, or you'll cease being an economist. Bryan's dead on right here. If they can't deal with the true economist you, it's better to wait for them to come round than for you to mask type.

John -- who says economists have to be boring? If all you want to talk about is the latest modifications to GARCH models, sensible potential dates will certainly steer clear, but so too will anybody else in the world except for wierdo time series econometricians. Economics IS interesting; if it isn't interesting, is it really economics? Go read Miylo on the economics of orgasm and use that as cocktail party fodder. Or just about anything from Bowmaker's Economics Uncut. Or anything from EconLog or Agoraphilia. Or, even better, your own material. Separating equilibria. Why waste your time with anybody who doesn't like economists?

caveat bettor writes:

I think Tyler is onto something. Most of my friends couldn't be bothered with most of this stuff, including a law professor, a law partner with some very well known clients, and a New York City councilman. And my friends who are doctors, even less so.

With knowledge comes sorrow. The smartest person (and I don't mean academically) in the room is usually the most frustrated.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I can see the pick up line now:

"Hey baby, do you believe in the Coase Theorem? Because I've got a big externality for ya..."

hanmeng writes:

Are you sure being gay isn't for everyone? Don't you know if gay marriage is legalized, everyone might become gay? Watch out they don't make "economist marriage" illegal too...

meep writes:

Well, that's for sure. You should have seen my husband go nuts over "price gouging" with regards to hurricanes, and I tried to explain to him how =not= raising prices will end up with shortages during disasters, and also provides disincentives to stocking up before disasters.

I had him half-sold by the end (with regards to incentives), but he still grumbles about gouging. He agrees with some of my economic explanations, but when it comes to price-setting, he's incorrigible. And he's the one I'm most likely to convince in the family....I'm already barely tolerated for my propensity for going into historical lectures. Nobody loves a know-it-all.

Thom writes:

Surely keeping it quiet gives you an informational advantage over the rest of your family. You can then use incentives to, ahem, motivate your family (as per the subtitle of the book), without them becoming suspicious.

Phil writes:

I have a friend, libertarian and reasonably economically-literate. I lent him Steven Landsburg's "The Armchair Economist." He gave it back in disgust after getting to the part where Landsburg suggests bidding against your spouse to decide what movie to see.

Moral: trying to use economic logic WITHIN a family relationship can be even more fatal than admitting you use it outside.

Hi, Phil.

It's interesting that your friend chose that point to put the book down. I can't remember the incident in detail, but since I'm 100% sure I've never seen the movie Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama, I must have won the bet. I'm sure we engaged in it in good fun at the time, though perhaps not on equal footing in terms of economic understanding, since at least one of us had a Ph.D. in economics, and it wasn't the loser of the bet. That said, the suggestion in Chapter 3 that one bet against one's spouse to decide on a movie was probably more a question of provocative illustration than prescription.

I'd have been more likely to put the book down on the preceding page, after reading this paragraph:

I tried this problem [the paradox of determining if someone is a liar on an island with people who either always lie or always tell the truth] the other day on my four-year-old daughter. Her solution was to say "I won't be your friend if you won't tell me the truth." I concluded that she was too young for logic puzzles.
In fact, her solution cut right to the crux of the matter--because reputation solves the problem in repeated games such as within the family. The dry-witted conclusion drawn by the author glibly dismissed the real reason why superimposing market solutions for problems within a family is often an inefficient approach. A family has tools, inside information, and long-term commitments that are often not available in the market. In turn, using an analogy with the family to illustrate why some solutions work well in the market may lead to false inferences. And perhaps to people not reading your book.

daublin writes:

It is entirely possible to discuss such things without being a jerk or a bore. It is possible to use your differences as a chance to shine, a chance to share interesting things and be *less* boring.

To do so, you must avoid correcting every individual thing that people around you say. You have to pick your battles. Choose things that are important and are easily countered, respond with just a few sentences, and then shut up to let other people talk.

There are a lot of great examples of this in the Market Correction blog. I try to follow Boudreaux's style -- or at least, a style one notch less acidic than his.

One small tip. If you do bring someone around, it is unlikely to happen right at that moment. More likely, they will give you their prior belief right then, and only really consider your argument at a later time. Thus, you need to be extra careful to pick one or two GOOD sentences to make your argument.


PS -- It is only fair to offer the same consideration to their arguments, that you are asking of them. Ask them what their best argument is, and listen to it.

Jacqueline writes:

For insight into what it's like to be out of the closet and dating, read Russell Roberts' novel _Invisible Heart_. (Best romance novel since _Atlas Shrugged_!) Although my situation (economics-minded female dating "normal" men) was a little different than the one presented in the book (economist male, "normal" female), it seemed as if Russ must have been spying on my dates -- some of the conversations in the book were almost word-for-word the same as conversations I'd personally had with dates.

I eventually became soooooooooooooooo sick of dating the economically illiterate. Fortunately I'm marrying a former finance/economics major next month so I'm all set now.

Andrew S. Johnson writes:

I agree, if there is one thing economics needs is a secret handshake. That way we know when it is safe and who does not like being a member of a secret club, with a secret handshake to boot!

Tom West writes:

The economic way of thinking, in contrast, is true whether people like it or not. Economic wisdom can, should, and must be presented as a general way of thinking about life because that's precisely what it is.

*sigh*. The trouble is that the 'economic way of thinking' is that it so often fails when dealing with human beings.

More to the point, while in theory practicing economics on a local scale should make everyone happier, given the way most humans are constructed, it often fails to give people what they actually want, instead giving them what economics dictates they should want. (Well, your revealed preference indicated that's what you want, so how DARE you be unhappy when you get it!)

Of course, economic understanding is a useful tool to have in one's belt, but one needs to be aware that it fails to model the subtleties that bond human beings together.

It's no surprise that applying economic principles on a family scale often ends up with something that might make economic sense, but most human beings instinctively know would fail in reality (ala the Armchair economist's advice above).

Biomed Tim writes:

When is the armchair economist's wife gonna come out with her own book? I'd buy it!

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