Economic view

The dangers of economists with ‘physics envy’

Unlike in physics, there are no universal and immutable laws of economics. You cannot will gravity out of existence.

Two questions: is it good or bad that professional athletes earn 400 times what nurses do, and is string theory a dead end? Each question goes to the heart of its discipline. Yet, while you probably answered the first, you would hold an opinion on the prospects of string theory only if you have studied physics.

That annoys economists, who wonder why everyone feels free to join economic debates instead of leaving them to the experts, as they do with physics or medicine. What economists don’t usually admit is that, on a range of topics they examine, they often had an answer to the question before they began their studies. Scientists are supposed to reach their conclusions after doing research and weighing the evidence but, in economics, conclusions can come first, with economists gravitating towards a thesis that fits their moral worldview.

That should not surprise us. Economics has always been an ethical and social exercise, its purpose being to produce the rules by which a community organises its production. It is not accidental that Adam Smith, whose work The Wealth of Nations (1776) is often seen as the founding text of economics, was a moral philosopher. Yet ever after, it was the holy grail of economists to make their art into a science, using it to uncover the codes supposedly buried in their heart of human existence. They experimented with mathematics and pondered Charles Darwin’s revolution in biology, but it would be the late 19th century before economics finally found a model for itself. It found it in physics.

The marginalists’ take

Alfred Marshall, one of the architects of the “marginal revolution” that gave birth to modern economics, no doubt had the predisposition that inclined him towards a physical view of the world. A former seminarian who enjoyed unwinding with long walks in the Scottish highlands, he was undoubtedly attracted to the view of a universe that was inherently orderly. Yet the marginalists had another reason to adopt the physical view of the world. Physics was then emerging as the most canonical of the sciences. As a model, it had no rival. Besides, with a few basic assumptions, the physical model seemed to transfer rather neatly to human behaviour.

Think, for example, of that high-school lesson on energy transfer. You stick a piece of hot iron into a bucket of cold water, steam rises, the rod cools, and the water warms until the two eventually reach the same temperature: equilibrium. Well, you can similarly think of the hot iron as a shopkeeper, the bucket of water as a customer, and energy as money. The item the shopkeeper has to sell is hot – everyone wants it – but, as a customer, your empty purse makes you a bucket of cold water. Either the shopkeeper drops the price to reach equilibrium with you, or waits until a hotter customer, one with a full wallet, enters the shop. That way, the handbag will sell at an equilibrium-price more pleasing to the shopkeeper.

That is sort of how the marginalists conceived of market transactions. Some of the early marginalists went so far as to explicitly liken pleasure, or what they would call utility, to energy. From there, it was a short leap to say market transactions revealed the laws of nature. In the 1930s, Lionel Robbins laid down the basic commandments of the discipline when he said that the premises on which economics was founded followed from “deduction from simple assumptions reflecting very elementary facts of general experience”, and as such were “as universal as the laws of mathematics or mechanics, and as little capable of ‘suspension’”.

Ah yes, general experience. What did Albert Einstein allegedly say about common sense? A funny thing happened on its way to becoming a science: economics seldom tested its premises empirically. Only in recent years has there been serious investigation of its core assumptions and, all too often, they have been found wanting.

‘Physics envy’

Unlike in physics, there are no universal and immutable laws of economics. You cannot will gravity out of existence. But as the recurrence of speculative bubbles shows, you can unleash “animal spirits” so that human behaviour and prices themselves defy economic gravity. Change the social context – in economic parlance, change the incentive structure – and people will alter their behaviour to adapt to the new framework.

That is something that “physics envy” cannot capture – that the social nature of human beings makes any laws of behaviour tentative and contextual. In fact, the very term “social science” is probably best seen as an oxymoron. In the early years of the neoclassical revival, in the 1970s, the Nobel laureate Wassily Leontief warned against the drift that had begun in economics towards what was subsequently called “physics envy”. Noting that human data differed from that in the natural sciences by its fluid nature, Leontief said that economists would do better to spend less time perfecting their mathematics, and more time getting down and dirty with their data.

Less science, more social

However, he also acknowledged his warning would likely fall on deaf ears. The apogee of economic “scientism” came in the 1990s, a decade in which economists such as Alan Greenspan were lionised as gurus, Bill Clinton was describing globalisation as a force of nature to which governments had to submit, and whizzkid experts such as Jeffrey Sachs were jetting into one country after another advising former communists how to re-align their countries with this presumed natural order.

Hindsight has revealed the misplaced hubris of that decade, one during which Greenspan helped fuel a speculative bubble that nearly destroyed the world economy, and the Soviet Union’s failed reform knocked seven years off its life expectancy. Many economists, Sachs included, defend themselves on the grounds that their advice was not actually taken: bad politics got in the way of good economics.

But that only vindicates Leontief’s point. Economies are social constructs. That necessarily entails politics. Precisely because economic policies affect them so profoundly, people take much more interest in them than they do in physics debates. The method of economists at the turn of the century was to go through data-sets looking for patterns – economics at 30,000 feet (sometimes, literally). Had they instead taken Leontief’s advice, and spent more time on the ground getting to know their subjects, they might have been able to anticipate the ways that politics would affect their models.

Given this wilful blindness, the current reaction against economists is understandable. In response, a “data revolution” has prompted many economists to do more grunt work with their data, while engaging in public debates about the practicality of their work. Less science, more social. That is a recipe for an economics that might yet redeem the experts.

This article first appeared on Aeon.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.