Arnold Kling  

Pro-Autistic Economics

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Rightly or wrongly, autistics are often seen as staking out their independence from the group and from group norms. They're seen as questioning the psychological power of the leaders and bullies and indicating that they do not, within their minds, bend to the worlds created by those cliques
This is from Tyler Cowen's forthcoming Create Your Own Economy. Because it gave me a lot to think about, I am enthusiastic about the book. However, if people buy books in part to demonstrate their cultural disposition, you should be warned that having this book featured prominently on your shelf may send some strange signals.

What the book description at Amazon does not convey is that the main theme of the book is autism. In Tyler's treatment, autism is not a disease or defect. It is instead a cognitive style or personality type, something to be understood, not cured.

In fact, it might feel more comfortable to go through the book and, wherever the word autism appears, substitute Myers-Briggs INTP or Enneagram "five," Investigator. For the latter, the description I found on the web reads in part


we see the genius and the madman, the innovator and intellectual, the mildly eccentric crackpot and the deeply disturbed delusional schizoid...Their potential problem results from the fact that they emphasize thinking over doing, becoming intensely involved with their thoughts...their mental world becomes all engrossing, virtually to the exclusion of everything else...The only thing they know with certainty is their own thoughts. Hence, the focus of their attention is outward, on the environment while identifying with the thoughts about the environment. The source of many of their problems is their need to find out how their perceptions of the world square with reality...they believe they are not capable of functioning as well as others and so make it their number one priority to acquire the skills and knowledge they feel is necessary for them to be able to operate adequately in life...feel that they must keep everything and everyone at a safe distance lest they be in danger of being overwhelmed by some outside force.

Personality psychology is somewhat "soft." There are those who view these sorts of classifications as having no more rigor than astrological signs. I confess to a weakness for them.

In conventional thinking, the opposite of autistic is normal. If instead we were talking about, say, a Myers-Briggs INTP, the opposite would be an ESFJ, both of which are normal (although the INTP is less common).

My favorite chapter is the third one, on modern consumption of music, art, and other forms of culture. In countering the argument that the Internet undermines patience and wisdom, he writes (p. 54),


people can construct wisdom--and long-term dramatic interest in their own self-education--from accumulating, collecting, and ordering small bits of information. What we're growing impatient with is bits that are fed to us that we do not really want.

He proposes a metaphor in which classical culture is a long-distance love affair and modern culture is like a marriage (p. 63).

Many critics of contemporary life want our culture to remain like a long-distance relationship, with thrilling peaks, when most of us are growing into something more mature. We are treating culture like a self-assembly of small bits, and we are creating and committing ourselves to a fascinating daily brocade, much as we can make a marriage into a rich and satisfying life...the production of value--including beauty, suspense, and education--is becoming increasingly interior to our minds.

The chapters can be read in almost any order. If you are looking for introductory material, perhaps the best place to start is page 125-126, in the middle of a chapter called "the new economy of stories."

if you wish, you can think of this book as a study in behavioral economics. Nonetheless, I am going beyond standard behavioral approaches in at least four ways...Most current neuroeconomics assumes that people are the same...In contrast, I start with the natural neurological differences between human beings...

Second, I focus on contemporary culture and the web..Third, the analysis is dynamic...I am asking how the evolution of culture and technology will make a difference for modern life and how it will alter the relative importance of our cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, I emphasize the notion of stories.

I cannot resist pointing out that Akerlof and Shiller in Animal Spirits also address the topic of stories. There is an overlap between Tyler's point that stories can sometimes be too simple and Akerlof-Shiller's point that the story that house prices always rise was, well, too simple.

The chapter on "autistic politics" is also interesting. The link between politics and personality type is one that has long interested political scientists, psychologists, and amateur political economists. Tyler's thoughts include (p.196)


I have noticed that self-aware autistics...tend to attach weaker moral importance to the boundaries of the nation state than do most other people.

He associates autistic politics with the ability to follow abstract rules. On p. 206,

A country were people do not wait in line in orderly fashion, or where the drivers do not stay in their lanes, is usually a country with serious economic and political problems.

On p. 207-208,

Many Russians value freedom but their conception of freedom is not tied to a comparable understanding of the benefits of rules or how rules can operate as a useful abstraction mechanism...Instead most Russians...find their first attachment to their friends and to an ideal of friendship. Their attachments are highly emotional and directed toward very particular human connections, not toward the abstract or toward a principle of order.

Overall, the book bears no resemblance to anything that you would expect from economics or political economy. It is pretty difficult to summarize in any concise way. As they say in the blogging world, read the whole thing.



COMMENTS (8 to date)
bgc writes:

The description of this book made me think of a recent speech by Charles Murray:

"Throughout history, much of the meaning of life was linked to the challenge of staying alive. Staying alive required being a contributing part of a community. Staying alive required forming a family and having children to care for you in your old age. The knowledge that sudden death could happen any time required attention to spiritual issues.

Life in an age of plenty and security requires none of those things. Being part of a community is not necessary. Marriage is not necessary. Children are not necessary. Attention to spiritual issues is not necessary. It is not only possible but easy to go through life with a few friends and serial sex partners, earning a good living, having a good time, and dying in old age with no reason to think that one has done anything more significant than while away the time.

Perhaps, as the song says, that’s all there is. (...) That seems to be the attitude of an increasing number of European young adults. Secular, childless, preoccupied with the length of their vacations and the security of their pensions, they appear to have decided that the purpose of life is indeed to while away the time as pleasantly as possible"

http://www.atlasnetwork.org/networknews/wp-content/uploads/charles-murray-keynote_fd-07.pdf

aaron writes:

Does the book have accompanying Bjork theme music?

Martin Regnen writes:

Sorry, but I can't help thinking of Carter Van Carter's aphorism that "libertarianism is applied autism".

bjk writes:

TC may have alienated many of his potential buyers with his last book . . .

Erich writes:

That review clinched it for me, as I self-identify with those personality characteristics.

I am finding Tyler's sales campaign quite different this time around. No secret blogs hinted at, no pre-sales offers for personalized Q&A...
I wonder if his presales numbers last time were so successful that his publisher or Amazon made too many copies, as the book now lies in the bargain bin at Amazon (@$5.25 new)

If this book comes up short on sales expectations, maybe Tyler should ease back towards the signalling property of a person's bookshelf and publish a tome titled "I Read MarginalRevolution.com"

Someone from the otherside writes:

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jb writes:

I'm an INTP. But definitely not autistic. Maybe it's just me, but most people I know who seem on the Asperger-Autistic side are more J than P - (i.e. INTJ).


David Bradley writes:

You may be interested to know that there was a recent study comparing astrology to the Five-Factor Model of personality (PubMed abstract here). Given two descriptions taken from astrology, people were no better than chance at choosing the one written about them. They were better than chance when the task was choosing the correct personality profile.

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