PM Pick

Revealed preference

In the latest issue of The Economist is an article about immigrants' social mobility in America, in which appears this statement: "In absolute terms, Mexican have grown much richer by coming to the United States. If they had not, they would go home." I don't necessarily disagree with this statement, but the logic seems a bit specious. Economists in general often fall into this kind of de facto reasoning that presumes that there is always a perfectly logical set of incentives that explain any situation, and that since individuals are responding to incentives of their own free will, no one need bother interfere -- certainly not the government. But people don't always respond rationally to incentives, or to put that differently, incentives don't always correspond to maximizing utility at the margin, as economists assume. Imperfect information, stubborness, altruism or sheer stupidity can wreak havoc on such models that ascribe to humans a uniform rational competence. In fact, the advertising industry exists to create information asymmetries, to produce irrational behavior, to provoke marginal stupidity. But since no one has forced these people to respond to ads,and no one can judge objectively what another person subjectively needs, their behavior is said to constitute revealed preference.

Revealed preference is an attractive (if unforgiving) notion because it assesses people's interests by what they do and not what they say. (People say they want smart programming on TV, but they actually watch Big Brother. People say they are going to quit smoking, but they buy cigarettes by the carton online.) And it eschews making value judgements on the interests so revealed or assigning standard one-size-fits-all human preferences to everyone. Thus it seems to admit the greatest possible scope for individual freedom. But it seems to exempt economists (which should be read to mean conservative economists of The Economist stripe) from making any useful prescriptions whatsoever and consign them to mere description and modeling. Of course, that's not so mere in practice, but it leads to, for example, The Economist's reticence in its article in the same issue about American inequality, which is very frustrating. The article points out a huge and ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in America, but is strangely passive about assigning blame for it and certainly advocates no actions to ameliorate it -- instead there is faint speculation about what might happen, as though we have no possible say in the matter and are left to the whims of the economic gods, as if this unfair division of the society's spoils is not the result of political machination.

I guess my resistance to revealed preference arguments ultimately stems from the obvious empirical fact that many people (myself included) don't always no what they are doing or why, and that my consumption choices reveal simple confusion or inertia or rather than any actual preferences -- not a preference for confusion or inertia or decision-avoidance. I may just object to the word preference in this context, because I think markets can be coercive -- they can constrain choices and lead to self-misrecognition -- the "this is not my beautiful house" moment so vividly described in the Talking Heads song. Of course, I may be resisting the fact that preferences change constantly, and "revealed preference" reveals most of all that mercurialness.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image