Jun 13

On “Rationality,” Other Misinterpreted Words, and Cultural Exceptions

A long-time friend and colleague writes (in French, so my own loose translation follows):


I was thinking about your post on rationality, a concept whose [economic] definition differs from its popular definition.

Other examples: “structural,” “public good,” or “efficiency.” In the limit, “profit” and “rent.”

Is it the layperson’s job to learn accurate definitions, or the economist’s job to be more precise about their vocabulary?

I think it’s our job to define the terms we use when we engage in public debates, for two reasons. First, because I believe the onus is always on the writer to be understood by his readers. That belief of mine probably stems from studying philosophy in college in a French-speaking university, and from the allergic reaction I got from being exposed to some of the most willingly obfuscating writing ever published (see Derrida, Jacques; or don’t.) Continue reading →

May 13

The Importance of Food in Quentin Tarantino’s Movies

Via Open Culture, a mini documentary about the importance of food in Quentin Tarantino’s movies.

From the restaurant scene in which tipping is discussed at length in Reservoir Dogs to Calvin Candie’s seeming addiction to sweets in Django Unchained and from Big Kahuna Burgers (“The cornerstone of any nutritious breakfast!”) in Pulp Fiction to the apple strudel in Inglourious Basterds, it’s all there:

Apr 13

Is Culture Useless as an Explanation for Behavior?

Economists are generally suspicious of explanations for behavior relying on culture. This likely stems from the fact that individual rationality, whose twin assumptions of completeness and transitivity constitute the cornerstone of economics and of much of modern social science, are not context-dependent.

The typical economist’s skepticism regarding culture as an explanation for behavior also stems from the fact that most economists fundamentally believe a human being is a human being the world over, and only economic circumstances change to provide a different set of incentives, which themselves explain variations in behavior. It is in that sense that no matter what its critics might say, economics remains very much a humanistic discipline.

Not only is invoking culture as an explanation for behavior the hallmark of lazy thinking, it is also unscientific. A few weeks ago, Frances Woolley wrote: Continue reading →