Mar 27, 2008

The Economics of Sex And The Rise of ‘Pop Economics’

Hi all,

so the post below about Chilean orgies got me thinking whether there is an explanation – apart from Dany’s interesting political and sociological one – that Economics could offer for this phenomenon?

Unfortunately I didn’t really come up with anything specifically relevant to the Chilean situation, but during my research I did find some examples of how the framework of Economics has been used to analyse the broader topic of sex in general.

Firstly, I found this analysis of the ‘Economic Case For Promiscuity’ (the name of the article says it all really), which cites / is based on the work of Michael Kremer from Harvard. I also found this piece from the authors of Freakonomics. Even more curiously, I discovered an article which claims that back in the convict times (the 1800s) in my home country of Australia, female convicts apparently used sexual favours as a resource for exchange, trading these with their captors for a reduction in their punishments (so today I learnt something new about the history of my own country......). And then there is also the literature concerning the economic analysis of prostitution.

All this made me think a bit further about a broader question – is there any thing to which the economist’s toolbox can’t / shouldn’t be applied? Obviously the answer to this is going to be a matter of subjective taste, but is there a point where the whole exercise becomes a bit ridiculous / tasteless / morbid – for a prime example, I point to Becker and Posner’s work concerning the ‘Economics of Suicide’(which, for me at least, is pushing the envelope of good taste)? I mean, surely there would be other considerations (apart from your discount rate, the shape of your utility function, and balancing your expected utility from living with the expected utility to be gained from death) running through your mind when you are about to take your own life........there have to be some things in life which can't be solved as a dynamic optimisation problem.

Moreover, is there a difference between the imperialism of Economics as a field of research and the emergence of the phenomenon of ‘Pop Economics’, or is the latter simply symptomatic of the former? On the one hand I would argue that books / blogs like ‘Freakonomics’ and ‘The Undercover Economist’ have really opened up a Pandora’s box of fascinating research fields, highlighting the diversity of situations in which economic principles can be applied and used to enrich our understanding of what’s going on in the world around us. And this kind of Economics is also cool because it renders the ‘dismal science’ a little sexier, more accessible and less obtuse to the non – specialist reader. It has also been argued here that the emergence of the genre of ‘pop economics’ / ‘freakonomics’ even shows the maturity of Economics as an empirical science.

But on the other hand, is there an argument that, just like bad Britney Spears songs (apologies for the tautology) gave the pop music industry of the late 1990s a bad name, the emergence of ‘Pop Economics’ / ‘Freakonomics’ has trivialised the field of ‘serious Economics’ as a whole in the early 2000s?

Any thoughts?


Pierre-Louis said...

To me freakonomics is the opposite of pop economics...It is applied economic theory and econometrics at its best...with a lot of academic rigour and with a deep interest and how i wish conatgious inspiration...pop economics would be the sloppy blah blah of Rodrik or Stiglitz now who just profuse vague populist comments without any economic reasoning nor non-trivial know what im saying?

Dany said...

I'm divided about freakonomics. In one hand, I agree with PL that is refreshing and interesting. In the other hand, I think that is a manifestation on how many important problems can not be resolved with the current economical techniques, so we force the paradigm to the limit. If you have read Kuns' Structure of Scientific Revolutions, this means that is time for a change in the paradigm...... maybe the future is Rigonomics or Gonzo Economics!!!

Cam said...

Gonzo Economics would be a whole lot more fun....