The Price of Watches
Safety and Weight of Vehicles

To a Humanist, It Doesn’t Add Up

By Jonathan B. Wight

John Lanchester has an interesting review in The New Yorker of several economic books (July 23). These are:

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life;

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Cents and Sensibilities: What Economists Can Learn from the Humanities; and

Mihir Desai, The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanitiy in the World of Risk and Return.

Hanson and Simler argue that 90% of all human activity can be traced back to signaling in one form or another. Lanchester, a novelist, finds the argument interesting but overstated; the complexity of human motives does not lend itself to such overreach.

Lanchester has a far better opinion of Morson and Schapiro’s work, which he calls “wonderful” because of its attempt to bridge the gap between economics and the humanities. More on that book later. As for Desai, he uses “warm and engaging” stories that bridge the complexity of finance with real human trials and tribulations.

Lanchester concludes, however, that:

“The project of reducing behavior to laws and the reject of attending to human beings in all their complexity and specifics are diametrically opposed….if I committed any further to economics I would have to give up writing fiction” (p. 63).

The allure of finding some generalities of human nature remain at attractive feature of social science, even if we agree that history, culture, and psychology throw us curve balls. 


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