I must be ironic right ? I'm not suggesting that this guy with a degree in communications* from Long Beach State has a better understanding of economics than most economists am I ?
The man is a genius but makes it easy to miss this because his genius lies not only in his understanding but in his ability to make things obvious.
He argues two things that don't need to be argued.
Rational is not a synonym for good.
Is he really suggesting that economists sometimes forget that ? He is and we do.
Sometimes people make better choices about what should be done with other people's money than with their own, because when deciding whether to give their money to, say, the hard working poor, they have, uhm, a conflict of interest.
Surely the possible problem that I have a conflict of interest when I am deciding whether to keep my money or use it to help humanity can't be news to anyone ?
Sure it can. It is a shocking idea to economists.
Drum does not understand how devastating his critique is (answer totally devastating). Neither did I, until Brad DeLong explained it to me.
Imagine we care about other people but not as much as we care about ourselves (shocking thought eh well a very very radical departure from standard assumptions in economics). This means that we might care a lot about a transaction or transfer which has no effect on our consumption, leisure or wealth. I am very glad that Bill and Melinda (and Warren) gave so much money and did it in such a very intelligent way (although I still hate windows). This is what we call in the biz an "externality" and it implies that the market outcome is not efficient. I don't especially like to pay taxes. I really really like the fact that rich people pay taxes to support social welfare programs (war in Iraq ? no thank you). Both desires count to a utilitarian. It means that an outcome enforced through the coercive power of the state can make everyone happier than the free market outcome, because of the externality due to altruism.
To consider with Drum the case of Thomas Jefferson, without anything odd (dynamic inconsistency) the position as a slave owner who advocated abolition of of slavery can be perfectly rational. The slave owner might hate slavery, but not hate the enslavement of his own slaves as much as he loves living in luxury off the sweat of their brows. His ideal outcome would be to have all slaves but his own free. A rational anti slavery slave owner knows he's not going to get away with that. Second best would be abolition of slavery -- the desire to free everyone elses slaves outweighs the desire to keep his own. Third would be continued slavery. Finally the outcome he likes least would be to free his own slaves and live in relative poverty in a slave owning country.
Perfectly clear. So why is it that my "explanation" of Drum is ugly and unclear while his essay was clear and brilliant ?
update: The last sentence was not a *deliberate* parody of bad writing. I didn't write "So why was my "explanation" of Drum ugly and unclear, while his essay was clear and brilliant ?" because it is a fact that being an over wordy writer is one of the aspects of being Robert Waldmann, who tends to be wordy.
update I.5: update 1 is corrected so that it no longer claims I wrote what I wished I had written but didn't write. Alright ?
update II: Tim Haab (who is not a jerk) definitely gets Kevin Drum's point as he clearly understands the fundamental difference between a) advocating policy which causes people to internalize externalities and b) listening to kids in the back seat squabble for hours. Also he doesn't own any slaves which puts him a big one up on Thomas Jefferson.
Further commentary here and right here.
An interesting example of rational co-operative behavior which is not in the public interest is link begging, where bloggers attempt to reward other bloggers for links by linking back. Not as repulsive as self linking, but the first sometimes enables a rational egoist to trick Google, while the second is just pathetic.
Over there in comments calmo recommends a re-rewrite, so update 1 is now
I wrote "So why was my "explanation" of Drum ug and unclear, while his essay was clear and brilliant ?" because it is a fact that being an over word writer is one of the aspects of being Robert Waldmann, who tends to be word.
he (or she) kind wrote
your perfect serviceable and occasional brilliant prose. (Works well, but could use some lubricatin libation.)[Which is so much better than 'works well but needs constant supervision and revision.' or 'works well but is gravely offended by any criticism that improvement is possible.']emphasis added.
And why don't you just take that adjective and shove it up your adverb.
*Drum specializes in communications on the internets.
Update CLXXXVIII "one hand" deleted (ouch).
Update no number an update without a number
I thought the three of you might be interested in this comment upon Kevin's post on rational behaviour. I think he rather proves Byan's point (but then being a bleeding heart classical liberal of course I would):
I don't know who the other two are or if Tim Worstall thinks I am one and three like, you know, That Guy.
Worstall criticizes Drum effectively. Mostly he argues that the minimum wage should be replaced by an increased EITC . I think the efficiency costs of the minimum wage were much over estimated in early research. More recent research suggests they are actually very small. However, I certainly agree with Worstall that the EITC is a better program than the minimum wage and that voters are irrational (look who's in the White House). I also think that economic agents act irrationally in the merketplace. The argument that we should use the coercive power of the state to eliminate the externality due to altruism has nothing to do with whether the coercive mechanism is the minimum wage or taxes used to fund the EITC. In either case threats which, if it comes down to it, are enforced with violence, can make everyone happier because the will of each can never be the will of all if there are externalities.
Also note in comments
We're born with a built-in conflict between our self interest and our interest in helping the group survive. I'd write a book about it if I could ever find a publisher.
I assume that Worstall and Kay are responding to my thoughts on the externality due to altruism and not to anything I wrote in update III, but I can't help but note that they know my URL, and that I just linked to them and that, in principle, I oppose link begging but that ... come on do I have to spell it out ?