January 20, 2008

Preferences the ignored assumption.

The focus of this blog is really Tyler Cowen’s chapters Eat Well, Bananas Aside and Avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins (or not). Both of these chapters seem to be dealing with similar topics: understanding and mastering our preferences. Preferences to economists are the stuff we never touch when building models, we assume them away. To me its interesting how he takes this assumption and brings it to the fore front of arguments based on economic models.
The first question I must ask is is this economics? The book attempts to sell itself as an everyday guide to economics, and preferences are very much part of economics. But are making those preferences economics? Cultural identity is much more important in this regard. A person must want to maximize the benefit of eating “good” food to accept Cowen’s premises. If Joe down the street eats as at a fancy restaurant to entertain possible clients then the function of the Classy establishment changes to impress the possible client. What if the entire purpose and preference for a restaurant is for business and status meetings? I believe this shows preferences to be a cultural agent and not an economic one. The decision to go to a certain restaurant could, and would, be an economic decision; the value of status vs. the cost of the meal. In that regard economics would come back into play in the form of a cost benefit analysis.
If then we assume that people have a preference for good food then his arguments about how to find the best food hold true. But makes an assumption that he knows are preferences or he can then change our preferences closer to his view. The way in which he tries to change our preferences are almost affront: “Appetizers are often better than main courses.” This tries to influence are preferences for main courses vs. appetizers. Don’t get me wrong this could, and maybe is, great advice but it goes against the basic assumptions we stick to of taking preferences as given. This shows a more culturally minded and preference changing approach to economics. Is that good?
Changing preferences isn’t part of economics but maybe it should be considered a possible expansion. In his last chapter he leaves an opinion of changing preferences as a way to change the possible bad parts of the world (as we see it). I think he is right. Why build these models and develop these theories if we are not ready to make the world a better place from our point of view. Its the old tree in the forest syndrome; does it make a sound? Well the answer could be yes and we could and do explain why it happens, but if it doesn’t impact the world what’s the point of knowing? This titers on the edge of philosophy but no discipline is truly separate from another.
Cowen dives into an area we ignore and exclude from our studies and I believe this to be the greatest highlight of his work. Expanding our understanding and influence isn’t a negative just a new path. Maybe we should start mapping the territory out for future endeavors into the area. I hope one day we can map and change preferences to make the world a better place, at least in our eyes.

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