Yes, but can it help you predict?

From acommenter:

I’d ask why self-interest needs to be manifested in overtly economic terms.

If you define self-interest broadly enough, then the statement “people pursue their self-interest” becomes irrefutable. And if you cannot refute it, then it is just an empty tautology.

I would much prefer to work with refutable claims than with empty tautologies.

So I continue to treat public choice theory as saying that people pursue economic gain in the political process. With that definition, public choice theory is often wrong, but at least it can be usefully right.

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25 Responses to Yes, but can it help you predict?

  1. Andrew' says:

    The trick is when the narrow definition is falsified by the broader one being corroborated.

    A middle ground is to determine the relevant currency. Pretty close to the money side of the spectrum is the future lobbying opportunities and post-office speaking fees.

    • Andrew' says:

      Also, one would not necessarily view government jobs as relatively highly remunerative unless you expand the view of benefits. And we see this confusion (or is it obfuscation?) in the debate on private vs public sector pay scales.

  2. asdf says:

    Eh, this strikes me as lazy.

    The regression has a few relevant variables. Solve for them. Don’t just say either a single variable has to explain everything or if not we don’t even both with doing analysis.

    Even in the classic “Bootleggers and Baptists” two variables (economic and social) are posited.

    • Andrew' says:

      To be fair, Arnold is suggesting that the other way around can also be lazy. Since we can’t measures Utils, the tendency is to assume them and then assume the conclusion that they are the incentive.

  3. BenK says:

    We face the question of motivations in microbiology fairly routinely, as it turns out.
    One would think that microbes are pretty straight-forward in their motivations. If microbes present challenges, then humans are going to be nowhere near trivial. Simplifying motivations to economic arguments is a recipe for wheels within wheels; but pop psychology hasn’t done much better; nor has sociology.

  4. Levi Russell says:

    The important distinction is between a tautology and an empty tautology.

    Much of geometry is tautologous. Does that mean geometry is empty of insight? Certainly not.

    It may be tautologous to say that “people prefer their own self interest” where “their own self interest” is whatever they subjectively desire, but it is certainly useful. Focusing on the subjectivity of costs and benefits dramatically increases economists’ ability to understand human behavior. Defining self interest narrowly, such that only objective costs and benefits are considered relevant is actually a step backward, even if it is more consistent with, say, the methods of physicists.

    • MikeW says:

      It seems that bureaucrats’ motivation is typically more about power and empire building than money.

    • Bueller says:

      Also, it raises the question of whether, in certain instances, (i) PCT is “wrong” in the sense that it predicts aberrant behavior, or (iii) PCT is simply “inadequate” in that we have not yet figured out how to measure self-interest in a way that allows for accurate predictions. In other words, just as there is merit in a theory/model being “usefully right,” it seems almost equally helpful to understand where a theory/model is “usefully wrong” (to bastardize the phrase) in a way that reveals its shortcomings?

      For instance, take the statement that “Some people who run for office or accept government positions clearly lower their lifetime incomes by doing so.” If true, it would suggest that PCT is “wrong” because no one would lower their lifetime incomes. That would seem to be an insight that reflects a potential flaw in the underlying theory.

      Yet, a couple of problems with this statement immediately come to mind. Most notably, how do we distinguish an individual who lowers her lifetime income by accepting a government position from an individual who increases his lifetime income by accepting a government position? The latter individual may very well either (i) use his government experience to eventually obtain a more lucrative job in the private sector (i.e., the “revolving door”) or (ii) have been unable to obtain a more (or equally) lucrative job in the private sector in the first instance.

      Can we really say that PCT is “wrong” with respect to government employment in the sense that it reveals a useful insight about the shortcomings of the theory? I suppose the concern about relying solely on economic terms to refute a theory/model is that such an analysis can purport to demonstrate that a theory/model is “wrong” without demonstrating that it is “usefully wrong”.

      Arnold stated in the other post, “I think that the public choice framework of interpretation has plenty of room for competitors.” In that vein, perhaps the original question is better rephrased as, “In what circumstances do competitor models more accurately predict political behavior/outcomes than PCT”?

  5. djf says:

    John McCain voted to save Obamacare after saying for years he would vote against it. Why? No reason to believe he has any financial interest one way or the other. He’s about 80 and has just been diagnosed with cancer, so it’s unlikely that he’s making a calculation about getting reelected on more time. Maybe he’s made a close study of the issue and reached a reasoned, independent judgment that Obamacare should be kept just as it is, but I doubt it.

    McCain does seem to like being praised by the mainstream media and his Democrat nominal adversaries. Knowing that, you could predict the way he would vote on this.

    • Andrew' says:

      He has been doing this for a while. I would assume his constituents don’t punish him for it and it may even help his re-elections.

      And being independent from party is appreciated by the media almost as much as establishment liberalism. He likes the gadfly role which is funny cohsidering how establishment he is. Then the speaking engagements you are likely to get versus a standard issue Republican or a crotchety conservative.

      So we can’t be entirely sure there isn’t at least overlap with financial considerations. But it is funny how the media views him as a maverick when we can see how hacky and predictable his schtick is from a mile away.

      • Andrew' says:

        It’s funny how many interviews he gets where the questions are “So, Senator McCain, what is other Republicans failing considering you have the establishment take on global warming plus a dash of your special sauce of arrogant holier-than-thou?”

        And he relishes those opportunities. What they never ask him is why he thinks he is a Republican. If cancer doesn’t kill him first, he probably will switch parties if it is ever electorally expedient.

      • djf says:

        McCain promised to vote to end Obamacare in his last election, and of course he voted against it in the first place. So it doesn’t look like he thinks supporting Obamacare would help him electorally. But the man is about 80 and has just been diagnosed with brain cancer – in case you were not aware – so I don’t think he is going to be running again.

        I assume McCain is rich enough that, at this point in his life, any indirect financial interest he may have in perpetuating Obamacare is not going to be a major influence on him. At his age and in his state of health, I don’t think he’s going to be planning any Clinton-like speaking tours.

        Yes, it is laughable the way the Leftist establishment treats agreement with their orthodoxy as if it was some kind of brave iconoclasm.

        • Andrew' says:

          You have to look at it holistically.

          Being against Obamacare helps him in a campaign.

          Doing a douchy thumbs down overly dramatic flair move and then using what Scott Adams calls the high ground manouvre and calling for bi-partisanship helps him now.

          • Andrew' says:

            ” it is laughable the way the Leftist establishment treats agreement with their orthodoxy as if it was some kind of brave iconoclasm.”

            I’m stealing this, just so you know :)

          • Andrew' says:

            I do wonder about people like McCain, Hillary, and Chris Christie who keep lying even after they have won the game, even when it starts to backfire on them

            Either it is just in their nature or, habit, or addiction, or just momentum.

          • djf says:

            “. . . we can see how hacky and predictable his schtick is from a mile away.”

            Well said.

  6. R Richard Schweitzer says:

    As I recall, Gordon Tullock was looking for what theory(ies) might be developed from using “the tools of economic analysis” to investigate non-market decisions (behavior?).

    What may be occurring is what Arnold notes as the “swing” of economic analysis toward “Sociology;” a reassessment of the adequacy (or adaptability) of the “tools” for the tasks; basic “flaws” in the tools or in the techniques of their uses.

  7. EB says:

    Arnold, you may want to consider this DB’s quotation of the day to think again your definition of public choice based on economic self-interest:

  8. Handle says:

    If a theory is often wrong, but sometimes right, it’s still not useful, unless we know when it does and doesn’t work. We can describe the safe operating envelope of Newton’s laws, but can we do that with public choice to know when economic interests dominate and when they won’t?

  9. Andrew' says:

    On the topic of predictions, Sessions is out at AG, and the media still doesn’t understand why, or they do and they are lying to you.

    You guys realize I don’t know anything, right? You just have to understand people and not let your brains get in the way of the weak signals.

    • Andrew' says:

      So I was a few days off, whole the media still says it can’t be done.

      This isn’t about my anonymous status, I’m trying to help you!

      • Andrew' says:

        While the media is spouting irrelevant BS or outright lies, here is the real deal.

        Trump didn’t know that,Sessions was supposed to recuse himself on Clinton, but Sessions knew and didn’t tell Trump.

        Threatening establishment players,with investigatino their real crimes is one of the only bargaining chops Trump has to get the swamp to stop fishing expeditions into the imaginary conspiracy theories of his administration.

        • Andrew' says:

          Predict Trump – 1. he wants America to win. 2 the establishment is in his way.

          Predict the establishment – the establishment protects the establishment

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