The intellectual imperialism of economics
At this time of year, most people are focused on leisure. The holiday you have just had, the one you are on now, or the one you are just about to go on.
With exquisite timing, the 1 August issue of the top Journal of Economic Perspectives has a symposium of papers about work.
The opening sentences in the summary of the first of these reinforces the impression that economists can sometimes be rather unworldly. This is despite the fact that the author, Edward Lazear, occupies a chair at Stanford Business School and replaced Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors in 2006.
“Labor is supplied”, the summary proclaims, “because most of us must work to live. Indeed, it is called “work” in part because without compensation, the overwhelming majority of workers would not otherwise perform the tasks”.
It is an excellent illustration of the technique outlined by the 1950s British satirical writer Stephen Potter about how to gain the upper hand in a conversation about business. In his book One-Upmanship, he describes his ‘Economics B’ technique as the ‘Approach of Utter Obviousness’.
To be fair, the paper itself has real content. Lazear points out that economics as a science has made good progress in specifying how compensation and the forms in which it comes influences worker effort.
The results are sometimes surprising. For example, Bengt Holmström, the 2016 Nobel Laureate, concluded his Prize lecture with the statement that “one of the main lessons from working on incentive problems for 25 years is that, within firms, high-powered financial incentives can be very dysfunctional and attempts to bring the market inside the firm are generally misguided”.
The other two papers are much less about conventional economics. They focus on the psychology and meaning of work.
Greg Kaplan at Chicago and San Schulhofer-Wohl of the Chicago Federal Reserve examine how changes in the distribution of occupations since 1950 have affected the aggregate non-monetary costs and benefits of working.
The physical effort of work has obviously declined a lot over the decades, so that is a benefit. But the authors find that the emotional impacts of the changing occupation distribution vary substantially across demographic groups.
Compared to 70 years ago, work has become happier and more meaningful for women, but more stressful and less meaningful for men. And most of these changes are concentrated on workers with lower educational qualifications.
The final paper, by Lea Cassar of Cologne and Stephan Meier of Columbia is even further removed from the traditional areas studied by economists. They tackle the massive topic of work as a source of meaning in people’s lives.
The authors develop an initial theoretical model which incorporates the three psychological needs at the basis of self-determination theory: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Intriguingly, they suggest that the concept of meaning at work can be examined using existing tools in economics such as labour supply theory and principal-agent analysis.
Economics has a strong streak of confident imperialism. Increasingly, it intrudes into a wide range of other social sciences.