Scott Sumner  

Economists who lack an imagination

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One thing that bugs me is economists who seem to think that their way of looking at life is the right way. Indeed the only sensible way.

1. Economists who complain that Christmas presents are inefficient.

Do they ever consider the fact that people might get utility from the thought that others are thinking about them? You don't have to think about someone else to give them money, whereas you do have to try to think about their preferences if you give them a gift.

2. Economists who complain that buying lottery tickets is foolish.

Do they ever consider that people with dreary lives might get utility from buying a little bit of hope for the future? I seem to recall a study that suggested that people with unrealistic expectations about the future are happier.

3. Economists who assume that smoking is inefficient because (they assume) the health risk is greater than the benefit (i.e. enjoyment) from smoking.

My dad knew the health risk, and smoked anyway. Why assume it was not rational? He was highly intelligent, and seemed rational to me. Do they know something that my dad did not?

4. Economists who say that voting is not rational because there is only a tiny probability that your vote will swing an election.

Why not assume that people get utility out of voting? Maybe they are patriotic.

This is not a left/right thing; I see this narrow-minded thinking among economists on both sides of the political spectrum. Rather it seems to reflect a lack of imagination.

This kind of thinking led Deirdre McCloskey to turn away from "maximizing utility" models of behavior. I see her point. But I don't see utility as the problem, but rather a lack of imagination as to all the subtle ways that people can derive utility.

PS. This is my biggest problem with behavioral economics. The field has certainly produced some interesting results, but at times it seems like the practitioners are over-confident about their ability to second guess the decisions of people they have never even met.

PPS. And I think the problem goes far beyond behavioral economics. I often find it hard to even have a conversation with my fellow economists. Sometimes their views on "scientific" methodology are so narrow that any claim that doesn't fit some arbitrary mathematical model is ruled out of order. Or the failure to follow some arbitrary testing procedure results in claims being ignored. Or vast consequences are assumed to flow from whether a statistical test yields a "significant" result.

PPPS. I will be traveling today, and may do less blogging over the holidays.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods




COMMENTS (54 to date)
Scott Freeman writes:

Anecdotally, I have almost never heard anyone explain their decision to vote in terms of gaining utility from the act of voting itself. The explanations that people give are always, in my experience, related in one way or another to influencing the outcome of the election. When the standard economist's explanation is given as to why an individual voting decision makes no difference to the outcome, people do not seem to react by saying that this is an irrelevant factor, but rather by arguing against the claim.

Joshua Woods writes:

I like much of this however I think it should be remembered that the average person voting/gifting/buying lottery tickets has probably never even considered the economic arguments against those things. In this sense the complaining by economists can be seen as just providing information which people are then free to take on or ignore as they please. (Btw if people understood my preferences they would just give the cash). The exception is smoking where the health risks are now commonly known and I agree that anyone now persisting in the habit must be deriving significant benefits to overcome the costs both financial and in health.

Anonymous writes:

One way to determine whether a decision is really rational or not might be to consider whether, if you forcibly prevented the person from making it, they would thank you - and after how long.

The problem with this approach is that it leads straight to the conclusion that everyone should be wireheaded. Maybe McCloskey is right after all.

Philo writes:

PPPPS. Happy Holidays!

Anselem writes:

Nice one sir

Michael Byrnes writes:

On #3: What about addition? I would expect that a person who is addicted to smoking would actually get quite a lot of utility out of their continued smoking habit, maybe enough to offset the health risks. (BTW, this is meant as a general comment - it is not meant to be about your Dad).

This is my biggest problem with behavioral economics. The field has certainly produced some interesting results, but at times it seems like the practitioners are over-confident about their ability to second guess the decisions of people they have never even met.

I think this is an appropriate criticism of behavioral economics (too quick to assume people act against their interests), but in fairness I see similar mistakes from those who hold the opposite view - too quick to assume that if Joe did X, then X has to have been utility maximizing for Joe, else he wouldn't have done it.

Michael Clarke writes:

LVM - Human Action. A core premise of the entire work is that humans act, and every act must be rational for the person at the time of action. It could be the WRONG act, as perceived with hindsight or better (even non perfect) knowledge of consequences, but the thesis is that humans cannot actually perform irrational actions.

Nobody can rationally perform a conscious action that they expect will make them worse off, they only perform actions that they believe make them better off. Third party observers with superior information on consequences may perceive these actions as "irrational", but the person making the action at the time does not perceive it that way (maybe due to low information on the likely consequences, or very high short term time preferences, or satisfaction of various emotions that are considered non-rational etc), otherwise they would not be performing that action!

It is a different definition of irrational/ rational that that typically used, but worthy of thought. It removes the "expert" third party/ perfect information view point from the equation, and places a much more individualistic/ humanistic perspective on the equation. I think this does relate to your lack of imagination thesis, but i think this is a bit deeper than that.

Handle writes:

One thing about the 'nudge-school' behavioral economists is that they often don't even try to count up these utilities.

Imposing little costs on everyone to obtain some good discourages people who will benefit from the nudge as well as people who are harmed by it.

How do we know that the net impact is positive? Instead of a serious attempt to answer the question, their usual answer seems to be, "That's a silly objection. Of course junk food (or whatever) is bad for people."

E. Harding writes:

Agreed fully only with #1. The rest (other than maybe voting, which is about signaling and feeling powerful) are just irrational behaviors.

Taips writes:

You explain other economists' positions by appealing to a lack of imagination when the alternative - they considered your alternate approach, weighed it, and dismissed it - is outcome-equivalent. At least as far as abstracts and press releases are concerned. Is this not lacking imagination?

A pretty big chunk of what Waldfogel writes about Xmas is about the warm glow of giving, whether it affects a well-defined measure of misallocation, how to set up the counterfactual, etc. - like measuring the basic misallocation penalty, then asking "how big does warm glow have to be to beat giving cash"?

Scott, when back from your break, consider talking with one such unimaginative colleague. You might find that against all odds, they have actually thought about your objections and assessed them.

Todd kuipers writes:

Best rant in a while. Merry Christmas!

Sieben writes:
This is not a left/right thing; I see this narrow-minded thinking among economists on both sides of the political spectrum. Rather it seems to reflect a lack of imagination.

The mistakes you list have the ring of "ha ha I'm so much smarter than the average Joe". Maybe a large section of economic thought is social signaling.

Sieben writes:
This is not a left/right thing; I see this narrow-minded thinking among economists on both sides of the political spectrum. Rather it seems to reflect a lack of imagination.

The mistakes you list have the ring of "ha ha I'm so much smarter than the average Joe". Maybe a large section of economic thought is social signaling.

konshtok writes:

I think playing the lottery is rational

as far as I know no bank would offer you a decent (above inflation) return for small payments about the size of lottery tickets

so playing a long shot like the lottery is the only option you have not to lose money to inflation

I hope that the web will solve this issue because now it should be much easier to aggregate small payments

Scott Sumner writes:

Scott, I don't think asking people why they do something is always a reliable indicator. Since very few people know what "utility" means, I'm not surprised that few people cite it as a motive.

I am pretty sure that most people know that their vote is unlikely to be decisive in an election. I think they see their action as showing "solidarity" with the "good guys".

Joshua, I think most people are aware of these things. It would be interesting to do a poll, and ask people how likely it is that their vote swings an election, or whether gamblers lose or make money on average. I think most people know these things.

Michael, Yes,I agree that the opposite assumption can also be a mistake.

Handle, You said;

"Instead of a serious attempt to answer the question, their usual answer seems to be, "That's a silly objection. Of course junk food (or whatever) is bad for people.""

Yup, that's the attitude I don't like.

Weir writes:

Patriots are the last people who should be wasting their time voting. You feel patriotic, but you're demonstrating the opposite. Suppose you'd spent that time doing something even slightly productive or useful or of any benefit at all for somebody, somewhere. You would have done more for your country picking up a Coke can from the side of the road than you "contributed" by voting. If you feel patriotic on the way to the voting booth, then your feelings are wrong.

Henry writes:

Eric Crampton produced a case against Christmas that accepts the utility of gift-giving here. His argument is basically that it's quasi-coercive in that you can't realistically opt out without sending a bad signal to your family, and that it leads to inefficient clusterings of gifts and vacations.

Personally, I think we'd be better off if the social norm was that you only gave presents to your immediate family. Being able to pick a good present for your spouse has good signalling benefits and potentially large shared joy. The aunt you seen twice a year realistically doesn't have any of that.

Vlad writes:

IMO the claim that voting is uniquely irrational is one that is somewhat overstated. An individual's vote has a probability of 1 in 10 million of deciding the election result in the US. Now, suppose that, by your favorite economic metric of welfare, you think the difference between the two parties is $8000 per person over the next four years. As an individual, your expected value from voting is of course $8000 / 10 million = $0.0008, so you should not bother. From a social welfare perspective, however, you can multiply by 300 million to get $240000; hence, someone who is at least somewhat altruistic should definitely vote - it's arguably a substantially cheaper purchase of altruism compared to donating to pretty much any charity.

That said, I don't think most people who vote or donate to charity actually calculate utilities in this way; if we pass a law preventing a random 90% of the population from voting, for example, I don't think that the turnout of the remaining 10% will change much despite the sudden ~8x increase in their EV.

David Friedman writes:

You have a straightforward economic argument showing that it is not in people's interest to do X.

You observe lots of people doing X.

There are at least three possible responses.

1. People are irrational

2. X is in the utility function

3. There is a less straightforward economic argument showing that your first argument was wrong.

1 might be true but abandons the economic approach.

2 might be true, but carried out consistently deprives economics of any predictive power, since if you are entirely agnostic about what is in the utility function, any behavior at all might be rational.

3 is more fun, more challenging—and you might learn something.

Nathan W writes:

I think economists often have an aversion to the notion that someone might be "irrational".

Could we say, instead, that people are OFTEN inconsistent? E.g., investing in an asset at 5% returns but then when deciding whether to buy the more expensive energy efficient fridge revealing a discount of 50, 100 or 150%?

I don't think people are half as good optimizers as they are in the models.

Benjamin Cole writes:

I propose people stop watching NFL football games. If the Philadelphia Eagles (men wearing the right laundry, for the season anyway) win, you do not win.

These are not even city or regional teams anymore, but rather obviously fleeting collections of mercenaries, from owners on down.

I think the NFL is doing everything a business enterprise should do. The fans are morons.

Even worse is when fans (as voters) agree to pay for stadiums, and give up free TV viewing rights. As in, if you want us to build a stadium, then away games on local TV are free for the next 100 years. (This issue has become complicated by cable).

But...the fans and voters act this way. It must be worth it for them.

Koen Smets writes:
This is my biggest problem with behavioral economics

There are undoubtedly behavioural economists who try to second guess other people's decisions, but that shouldn't lead one to have a problem with behavioural economics any more than one should have a problem conventional economics because some economists take a very narrow, rationalist utilitarian view, as the examples illustrate so well.

The real problem arises when economists (whether behavioural or other) get all normative, and try to tell people what they *should* do. Neither non-behavioural economics and behavioural economics are much good at that: behavioural economics may have helped increase the understanding of why a real person is often (as in Scott's examples) a hyperrational utility maximizing homo economicus, but it is poor at providing guidance on what is the right decision.

Empirical observation suggests that raising interest rates will, ceteris paribus, probably get people to save more, but it provides no guidance as to whether it is a good idea, and people are still free to keep on spending if they wish. In the same way, a BE intervention like auto-enrolment in a retirement scheme, with a straightforward opt-out mechanism, appears to get more people to save for a pension, but it doesn't tell people what to do, and everyone still has a free choice.

Radford Neal writes:

"a BE intervention like auto-enrolment in a retirement scheme, with a straightforward opt-out mechanism, appears to get more people to save for a pension"

Right. And that's so, so wrong! Many of these people won't even live to retirement age, and those that do will have wasted their best years saving rather than spending on something they had the good health to enjoy properly. And think of their kids, who live a deprived childhood due to their parents having been nudged (against their initial inclination) into saving more.

"The real problem arises when economists (whether behavioural or other) get all normative"

I think you're missing out on some self-awareness here.

Jhanley writes:

Regarding voting, I find it useful to distinguish between consumption value (feeling good about voting) and investment value (the desired political effect of one's vote). The former is rational (although, like bowling, I don't get the appeal), the second not so much.

It's an empirical question, then, whether people think one vote can make much difference. Obviously a lot if people think not--political scientists call this feeling a lack of efficacy (as though it was a disease rather than an awareness). But I think others do, else we wouldn't hear so much concern about "throwing one's vote away" by voting third party.

The interesting question is the two groups' proportions in the voting public.

andy writes:

Do they ever consider the fact that people might get utility from the thought that others are thinking about them?

But you should also count on disutility of trying to figure out a good gift when you just don't have any idea, but the signalling cost of _not_ giving a present would be quite high? Seriously, some people suffer horribly from this (I do).

This has led a friend to accept an outright ban on gifts in a group of people. Change of inefficient equilibrium?

Scott Sumner writes:

Vlad, I agree with your second paragraph.

David, I agree, one should always look first for possible mistakes in the irrationality assumption, that don't involve appeals to unobserved utility.

But one should also be open minded about utility. It's not at all implausible that people would derive utility in the ways that I suggested.

Nathan, I agree that people are often not good at optimizing when difficult numerical calculations are required. Nor are regulators.

Ben, Well there's a different Philly team that people should definitely stop watching.

Koen, I didn't mean that to be a blanket condemnation of behavioral economics, some of which I like. For instance the nudge into pensions schemes, which you mention, is probably a good idea.

Radford, But if these nudges matter that much, then doesn't that imply people are irrational?

jhanley, Votes for third parties influence policy, even if that candidate doesn't win.

ThomasH writes:

Instead of lotteries, we should offer folks who like to trade small certain losses for large uncertain gains financial instruments with those characteristics.

Anonymous writes:

One implication of taking the irrationality argument seriously is that it's a good thing that democracy doesn't work very well. If people had more control over who ruled them and what the laws were, they would make mistakes in their judgment of what laws and rulers they ought to have.

Which is interesting, but cuts directly against the usual arguments for democracy - consent of the governed and all that. And also, as with all of these anti-choice arguments, requires the assumption that the choice architects will make better decisions for you, in spite of them not only being irrational themselves but having their interests at heart not yours.

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

There is a school of economic thought that has a proposition that explain most of these apparent paradoxes: utility is an ordinal, non scalar quantity, and subjective. We are taught in Econ 101 that utility is a scalar, differentiable function that we can use in child like experiments where we derive the function and maximize utility. I am sorry, but as all the comments and the examples in the post show, this simple model hardly reflects reality. Someone quoted from Human Action above. Good paragraphs explaining the ordinal and subjective properties of the utility concept.

Noah Smith writes:

This post is amazing. I love it so much. Thank you for writing this.

RBL writes:

Jose Romeu Robazzi:
My econ training has always acknowledged that utility is ordinal and subjective, and that any monotonic transformation is an equivalent utility function. In micro we spend a decent amount of time looking at how preference rankings can give us sets of utility functions consistent with stated preferences. None of this is at all outside of standard mainstream economics, especially micro.

Lewis writes:

It is hard to reconcile two claims:
(i) smoking is always irrational
(ii) the end of life is often a revolting withering of body, brain and moral function.

My aunt had schizophrenia and died of lung cancer from smoking constantly after her diagnosis in her 20s. This is very common among those so afflicted: 80% of them smoke. Is it really irrational to choose 40 years with the comfort of cigarettes (which schizophrenics say make them feel much better against often-harrowing mental forces) at the cost of a relatively quick death in your 60s? Especially when your later years would be lonely and involve a loss of what clarity you've maintained?

Maybe if we develop better end-of-life cures for mental deterioration, smoking will become irrational. But at present it seems as rational as lots of other things I can't relate to but basically comprehend as acceptably rational: people who neglect their families working 80 hours a week to make tens of millions (how is $9 million not enough?); people who get PhDs in the humanities; adrenaline junkies.

Even "a tiny probability that your vote will swing an election" means it could be your fault if the bad guys win. So you gotta vote. Also, showing up at the polls is a demonstration of good civil behavior. Apathy erodes democracy.

Chuck writes:

I approach things a little differently. I think of economics as a positive science, and not normative. I am trying to explain why people behave the way they do. I disdain the arrogance of telling people how they should behave. As a positive (game?) I do not like explanations based on either utility or irrationality. Too easy, not enough discipline. For example, if someone asked me why diamond engagement rings are bigger today than 50 years ago I would not say preferences have shifted, I say diamonds are normative goods and suggest that no default divorce has led to larger rings as a way of posting a bond. An incurable romantic...

David Friedman writes:

On ordinal vs cardinal utility ...

It isn't clear whether the people who take ordinal utility for granted are familiar with Von Neumann's demonstration of how cardinal utility could be used to make sense of choice under uncertainty. It isn't a perfect description of human behavior--but neither are other features of the standard models of rational choice. But it's a good deal better than nothing. In particular, it puts substance into the idea of declining marginal utility of income, makes it equivalent to risk aversion, hence observable.

C. writes:

"One thing that bugs me is economists who seem to think that their way of looking at life is the right way ... it seems to reflect a lack of imagination."

I sat through a heated debate over the level of the natural rate of unemployment awhile ago, complete with lots of Phillips Curve specifications. A "lack of imagination" is not our shortcoming. Counterfactuals, general equilibrium, and inter temporal optimization are right up there with Jedi mind tricks and haute couture.

Still any closed system gets stale, that's why economists are best floating their theories out in the real world (we make people think and they us), not in a like-minded seminar room.

PS I enjoyed this post a lot but from Dr. NGDP-Is-Everything that is a great opening line. Economist humor is AWESOME.

Gene Callahan writes:

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ScottA writes:

General problem: utility is subjective and not as easily observable/universally generalizable as we'd like it to be. My utility is someone else's disutility.

But, re: Mr. Friedman, this doesn't mean we have to abandon prediction. Just means that we don't get to explain bad predictions by false consciousness (or whatever we call it these days). Pure rational calculation of impact on victory just doesn't explain voting well. Still predictable through network effects and other means, using rational choice logic and empirical methods. Nothing about the theory says that people have to be anti-social and unemotional; just rational.

Benjamin Cole writes:

Scott-
Haha. Actually, poor Philly has one of baseball's losingist teams, and the 76'ers, and the Eagles who just failed to make the playoffs in the NFL's weakest division.

jw writes:

I have a reasonable understanding of probability and economics yet play the lottery anyway.

For Megamillions, the jackpot odds are one in 260M. The money is distributed unevenly, with the vast majority going to the jackpot, so the relative odds mean that you should only play the jackpot.

Due to the formula used for distributing the winnings over time, inflation’s effect over 30 years, and quite frankly the counterparty risk (see Illinois), you should always take the lump sum payout.

Remember that you are risking after tax dollars so you must calculate after tax returns. The payout will put you in the maximum tax bracket for that year, and most of your income will be in the maximum bracket, so the various government entities will reclaim 40% of their money immediately.

Roughly, after the lump sum calculation and taxes, you will pocket 35% of the advertised total, which means that you will need the rolling jackpot to exceed $740M to actually break even. Needless to say, Megamillions has never reached this total. Even if it did, there is always the risk of splitting the jackpot which could ruin your plans.

And I am under no illusions that the money will be used for education as the lottery is advertised in my state. Money is fungible, and income targeted for education is offset by general budget education cuts, so that the net impact to education spending is minimal (and that assumes that there is a relationship between spending and education, which I doubt).

So why do I occasionally play? Because like a lot of us, I sometimes sit through long, interminable meetings and need a reason to let my mind wander. Lotteries have an entertainment utility beyond their economic returns.

I do agree that most people don’t go through these calculations when they buy a ticket, or as Scott Adams’ Dilbert once noted: “The lottery is a tax on people who can’t do math”. The associated cost of my entertainment value is insignificant to my income. Other people aren’t so lucky and this is where the government unashamedly receives most of its lottery taxes.

Brian Donohue writes:

Great post and comments. Enjoyable. There are utils in there.

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

@RBL
Are you sure you are talking about Econ 101 ?

kurt barker writes:

Regarding # 4, I found this work interesting:

A Logic of Expressive Choice Paperback – November 15, 2000
by Alexander A. Schuessler (Author)

Roger Sweeny writes:

Michael Clarke,

It happens all the time that as people open that bag of potato chips or bite into that donut, they think, "I really shouldn't be doing this. 'A second on the lips means a lifetime on the hips.'"

But they do it just the same.

JFA writes:

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Ben Kennedy writes:

Using utility to model preferences only goes so far, and things like the lottery show where the model breaks down.

For example, consider unhealthy behavior around eating. When my kids come back from Halloween, I need to impose some rules because otherwise they will gain weight and their teeth will fall out. Now, are they actually engaging in trade-offs between the short term utility of enjoying candy vs the long term deleterious health effects? No, of course not. Neither are adults are go to Cinnabon. An explanation of this behavior comes from evolutionary biology - human brains hardwired to seek sugar, and will often overindulge if given the opportunity. Rat experiments prove this out nicely - give them an unlimited amount of rat chow and they maintain a normal weight, give them an unlimited amount of candy and they fatten up. Also, consider innumeracy. Human brains are equipped to avoid large predators, not efficiently comprehend 10,000-1 odds. So, people play the lottery.

A better way model the human brain to account for things like lottery-playing, smoking, etc is to think of it like a computer operating system that is well designed for the ancestral tasks it evolved to solve, but not as well equipped for modern life. There are lots of exploitable backdoors.

Here is and example from nature to illustrate the point - the emerald cockroach wasp is parasitic. It stings the cockroach with venom that hijacks it brain. The wasp then rides it back to the wasp's burrow, lays eggs, and the rest is pretty grim. It seems pretty clear that brain of the cockroach did not evolve to be enslaved, and that there is no hidden utility in being eaten by baby wasps. I don't think I am not being creative enough in finding the hidden utility. What is happening is that the wasp is exploiting a flaw in the OS of the roach's brain.

I am not saying that the people who run the lottery or Cinnabon are the equivalent of parasitic wasps (though the scent marketing of Cinnabon does involve exposure to chemicals and the brain). The point though is to vindicate a degree of judgmentalism. If behavioral economics shows that people are systematically bad at processing lottery-like odds, then I think it's a reason step to say "and therefore, don't play the lottery - it's an exploit in your wetware"

RBL writes:

Jose Romeu Robazzi:
We didn't deal with the weak axiom of revealed preference in econ 101, but the whole introduction to utility as a concept emphasized the subjective and ordinal nature, and in fact included a brief mathematical digression to make sure the class understood the cardinal vs. ordinal distinction. I was happy with my undergraduate econ profs, but I didn't get the impression my classes were particularly out of the ordinary.

BZ writes:

Thank you Dr. Sumner.

It's nice to know that the insight responsible for settling a hundred years of debate in value theory, over a 140 years ago, hasn't been completely forgotten.

andy weintraub writes:

In my cursory review of the comments, no one seemed to mention the Friedman/Savage hypothesis, (David Friedman, of course, comes close.) which provides a nice explanation for risk taking (i.e. buying lottery tickets) even when the expected financial value of the outcome is less than the financial cost of taking the risk.

When I taught micro-economics, it was always on my reading list.

The usual suspect writes:

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Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

@RBL
My question was not rhetoric, thank you for your answer. I am glad to hear what you are saying. 20 years ago, when I took my classes, that was certainly not mainstream.

Radford Neal writes:

In standard decision theory, utility is NOT ordinal. That is, it is NOT the case that only whether or not the utility of A is greater than the utility of B is meaningful. However, it IS true that the numerical values of utilities are not meaningful. And the difference in utility of A and B is also not meaningful.

What IS meaningful is the the difference in the utility of A and B divided by the difference in the utility of C and D. Mathematically, the utility "function" is really an equivalence class of functions that are related by some affine transformation.

This structure is crucial to the ability to combine utilities with probabilities in order to make a decision when uncertain of the true situation.

Rick Bohan writes:

#1. Of course giving Christmas presents is inefficient. So what?
#4 Except that one vote CAN swing an election, of course. And my vote plus your vote can swing an election. And our votes plus the votes we persuade to side with us can swing an election. And all the votes we persuade plus all the votes folks who think like us across the country can persuade, can swing an election.

Bill Drissel writes:

>> 2. Economists who complain that buying lottery tickets is foolish.

People I've known who regularly buy lottery tickets tell me: (translated into Economese)

A. The disutility of the dollar / week is negligible.

B. The thrill of winning (not including the money)
is worth all the money they'll ever make at their jobs.

C. Besides that, there is, after all, the money.

Bill Drissel
Frisco, TX


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