Wednesday, June 17, 2015

I really don't get Richard Thaler

I was listening to Here and Now yesterday and there was a discussion with Dan Gilbert and Richard Thaler about Thaler’s new book. In the discussion Thaler brought up the story of how he had told an audience of psychologists at Cornell about something like the life cycle theory of saving and how they had all laughed “hysterically.” He seemed to think it was another great example of how everyone else can see how getting a Ph.D. in economics subtracts “common sense” from economists. He probably hadn’t told them about the numerous empirical studies that found some degree of consumption smoothing. But haven’t they at least heard about the debt their students are taking on in the expectation that their future earnings will be higher. Haven’t they met anyone saving for the retirement they are looking forward to? Do they all really live as if there is no tomorrow? Really? Surely he can come up with a better example of the problem with economics than a theory that fits with common sense, casual empiricism and careful statistical analysis.

Thaler also said that the first sentence in every economics textbook is something like “People maximize utility.” Name one. It’s not in the versions of Mankiw, or Krugman and Wells, or Frank and Benanke, or Cowen and Tabarrok. I'm sorry. I really shouldn't keep letting the evidence get in the way of a clever story.

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