Posts Tagged ‘race

nudging the economists (guest post by juan pablo pardo-guerra)

with 7 comments

It is the best of prizes. It is the worst of prizes. Let me focus on the latter.

On Monday, the renowned behavioral economist Richard Thaler was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel Prize in Economics. For the Washington Post, the award made “economics more human—and real”. For The Atlantic, it was a much-deserved recognition for someone whose “career has been a lifelong war on Homo economicus”. There may be much to celebrate, but there is even more to ponder.

Thaler’s award speaks to three problems in economics and its relation to the ‘real world’ it inhabits. Firstly, it is disparaging that the prize recognizes research showing “that people can be influenced by [mostly social] prompts to alter their behavior” given that other sections of the social sciences have been doing this for, well, just about forever (e.g. seems there was this French dude called Gabriel Tarde…). This year’s Nobel Prize was as much a recognition of behavioral economics within the intellectual firmament of the discipline as a legitimation of economic imperialism: a finding is only truly relevant if published by an economist (corollary: being an economist from Chicago helps).

This year’s Nobel Prize is problematic for a second reason. Behavioral economics does not seem to be in the same league as the politically troublesome contributions of some of the more controversial previous laureates (think: Milton Friedman or Robert Lucas), but as a matter of fact, it sort of is. Though it might make economics “more human—and real”, the behavioral turn doesn’t make away with the ontological commitments of discipline, privileging market processes and individual action as the fundamental sources of virtue. Consider the metaphor of the ‘nudge’, central to the type of applied behavioral economics that made Thaler’s research so publicly relevant. Rather than questioning the economics of general equilibrium, ‘nudging’ is a proposal in calculated engineering: we can build policies that create outcomes similar to those of theory by gently walking slightly irrational, bounded economic agents through the correct ‘architectures of choice’. I am not saying that this is not positive: I am sure that creating psychological incentives so that people increase their investments in retirement will eventually help them; but so would a stronger social security net and a stronger, better funded state welfare apparatus. At the end of the day, the metrics of success in behavioral economics are uncritical of how the economy is built and remit to the ‘less human’, more market-centered, and ‘more surreal’ varieties of economic analysis that behavioral economists like Thaler so bemoan at a first degree of approximation.

Thirdly, the economics prize showcases and arguably reproduces the lack of diversity and intellectual variety in the discipline. Historically, the economics prize is overwhelmingly white and male. Only one woman received the prize to date—Elinor Ostrom, “for her analysis of economic governance”; the same is true for non-white economists—represented by Amartya Sen for his “research on the fundamental problems of welfare economics”. So while economics might expand its reach in colleges, universities, and government offices throughout the world, the Nobel committee reminds us year after year that there is pretty much one type of economics that is better than the rest. It has a race; it has a gender. This is quite regrettable, particularly in a year when discussions about gender in economics were so prominent in the news. There is no dearth of women or minorities in economics—example: Maureen O’Hara’s work in market microstructure theory is perhaps more relevant and intellectually important than Eugene Fama’s somewhat passé discussions of asset prices and market efficiency from the 1970s that were recognized with the Nobel Prize in 2013. (Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart also jumps to mind).

So this was the best of prizes (for Thaler—kitchen remodel) and the worst of prizes (for the rest—economics won’t change much), a missed opportunity to nudge the discipline in a slightly different direction. Perhaps this is asking too much from a committee that represents all too well the gendered dynamics of economics in Sweden (I could not find a female committee member, but I might be wrong): in 2005, Statistics Sweden only identified one full professor of economics in the entire country. How’s that for an architecture of choice?

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra is an assistant professor of sociology at UCSD. His research explores the connections between markets, cultures and technologies.



Written by jeffguhin

October 11, 2017 at 12:26 am

apparently the solution to racial inequality is a cool 10k. or not.

I’m not sure if Ross Douthat intended his suggestion to be ridiculous, but I’m assuming, out of intellectual charity if nothing else, that he did: that saying a cool 10,000 dollars to every black descendant of the slave trade might be more effective than contemporary efforts at targeted inclusion was just a satirical what-you-will to get us thinking about, I don’t know, something.

If this is really the rhetorical equivalent of let-them-eat-babies, it’s not clear to me what the punchline is.  For Swift, it was obviously that the English are, you know, eating the Irish.  But what’s Douthat trying to do here?  It’s a provocation, sure, and probably not a satirical one.  But like all provocations, at least it gives us a chance to gain some analytic clarity on the question at hand, in this case, race in America. Here’s the take-away that Douthat really doesn’t seem to get. We have a race problem not because of particular inequalities that can be fixed with a once-over.  It’s an ongoing system of *racism*.  If you’re a sociologist who already gets this, what’s below might be stuff you already know, but I think it’s worth working through as a means of understanding how a lot of whites still seem to think about race.

So: to Douthat. We get the typical complaints about affirmative action: that it rewards middle-class African-Americans and immigrants from Africa or the African diaspora over those descendants of North American slavery for whom the work is really intended.  Let’s just bracket for a second that racism (not to mention global white supremacy) affects those folks too.  And we can also bracket that affirmative action is a complex problem even for people who recognize systemic oppression, as Ibram X. Kendi lays out in Stamped From the Beginning.

As Dan Hirschman put out pretty well in a recent interview in Vox (with basically all the links you could want as well), the big problem isn’t where black people are relative to whites; it’s the processes of power that keep things that way.  This is not a story about black people needing to catch up; this is a story about white people needing to stop pushing down, and just as importantly, needing to recognize how their seemingly neutral and “race-blind” actions are, in fact, pushing down.

If that’s the case (and there’s ample sociological evidence it is), then Douthat’s account is strangely post-hoc, which is something sensible white conservatives have been doing forever: okay, sure, fine, things have been really bad up until, I don’t know, last Tuesday, but now, finally, let’s just settle this once and for all.  Hell, we’ll even give you some money!  Here’s 10k, which should, cover, oh, half a semester of college. Or what about a job! How’s that then?

The shift allows certain kinds of white intellectuals or policy makers to do two things: first an ability to claim past whites acted poorly but “we” have done nothing wrong and continue to do nothing wrong and, second, despite that, a chance to square things up by this one last fix.  Contemporary white responsibility is limited to settling our parents debts. That inability to see ongoing racism is either shocking naïve or actually outright cynical: we’ll pay you now and then you’ll have no right to make us feel bad anymore. Guilt money might be part of reconciliation, but it’s not the same thing.

Yet the reality is obviously much more difficult. I say all the time that religion provides helpful metaphors for sociology if sociologists would get over their secularist fears, and a good one here presents itself: original sin. In the Christian conception of the term, you’re a sinner because of Adam’s action, and you continue to participate in it, regardless of your intentions or desire or even the fact you, unlike Adam, never took the damn fruit. It’s a frustrating metaphor as an explanation for human suffering, but it’s a helpful way to understand how evil maintains itself through what liberation theologians call “structural sin” (though you get something somewhat similar in Karl Rahner’s take on original sin).

Tons of sociological work—from audit studies to surveys, ethnographies to interviews—show how these maintain themselves in institution after institution. White people benefit from racial hierarchies and its in their interests to maintain them or, at best, be apathetic or ignorant about what it might take to change them.  It’s not enough not to be racist: whites have to be actively anti-racist, and that’s often a tough sell for a people who are convinced they’re just pure, or that racism is really a matter of individual prejudice rather than structural constraint.

That last bit gets annoying to anyone who’s aware that actively hostile prejudice never went away, not to mention the many audit studies that show how very subtle racial markers can lead to radically different results. But the broader point remains: Until we’re truly committed to anti-racism in every institution and individual, no amount of money (or preference, or what have you) is going to shake these inequalities.

Now what such anti-racism would actually look like, and how it would coexist with so many other intersecting oppressions is a whole separate set of complex questions.  None of this is going to be easy to work out, at least on the normative level of where we go from here.  But on the empirical level of agreeing this is where we are, I don’t think it’s actually that complicated.  Just look at Amanda Lewis and John Diamond’s recent book on how well-meaning white parents can still reproduce racial inequality, Despite the Best Intentions.  In their introduction, they describe how the kind of neutrality in which Douthat seems to believes his vouchers would operate still reproduce inequality:

Race still operates on multiple levels—shaping how we think about and interact with one another, shaping the resources we have available as we move through the world, and shaping how institutions like school reward those resources. Many of the hourly and daily practices and processes that are the substance of what we think of as “school” are racially inflected. What is different is that even as these school policies and practices are operating to create advantages for some groups and put others at a disadvantage [e.g. tracking, A.P., I.B., honors], they simultaneously appear to be “race-neutral.” Their apparent “nonracialness” is crucial; at the same time that their enactment contributes to inequities, their surface “neutrality” helps to provide legitimacy to the differential outcomes they help to produce. To be sure, today they are generally not designed to or even intended to produce discrepant outcomes. Yet good intentions do not mitigate the results. However intended, these patterns still reinforce racial hierarchies and dominant racial belief systems. It is, we argue, in the daily interaction among school policy, everyday practice, racial ideology, and structural inequality that contradictions emerge between good intentions and bad outcomes (xix).

Look: I’m not saying some form of reparations are a bad idea. I happen to think they’re a great idea.  But as Coates himself acknowledges in the piece to which Douthat refers, what those reparations look like would be quite complicated and unclear.  And I know that even what I I just outlined gets messy.  Certain whites (like me, living in Santa Monica) have to give up less than other whites in most of the sorts of anti-racist systems we talk about.  And the problem of good intentions Lewis and Diamond warn about could affect sociologists’ stuff as much as anything else: the difference is that at least the sociologists recognize what it is we’re fighting.

Perhaps most importantly, focusing too much on anti-racism can put all of the agency in white saviors rather than the marginalized people they’ve kept out or, you know, people actually working together (though I think it’s a misreading or anti-racist literature to assume it’s only white people who work against racism!).  So, fine, even the empirical stuff is tricky and much debated.  But, well, I’m pretty sure this is right: you can’t understand race until you actually understand racism.

(There obviously could be a billion more links above: I’m happy to add more as people suggest them in the comments or feel free to e-mail me at

Written by jeffguhin

March 6, 2017 at 4:01 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , ,