Thomas Hobbes would be spinning in his grave

by Andrew Gelman on February 9, 2013 · 12 comments

in Media,Political Economy


A few years ago I watched a bunch of Speed Racer cartoons with Phil in a movie theater in the early 90s. These were low-budget Japanese cartoons from the 60s that we loved as kids. From my adult perspective, the best parts were during the characters’ long drives, where you could see Japanese industrial scenes in the background.

Similarly, sometimes the most interesting aspect of a book or article is not its overt content but rather its unexamined assumptions.

I was reminded of this today when reading the Times this morning. In an interesting column reviewing recent research on happiness (marred only by his decision not to interview any psychology researchers; after all, they’re the academic experts on the topic), Adam Davidson writes:

So much debate about government policy is based on economic statistics that come out of the market. But the goal of government is not just to maximize revenue.

This perked me up. Not just to maximize revenue? This has to be a sign of the times, the idea that anyone would think that “maximizing revenue” is the main goal of government, to the extent that it would be considered necessary to say it’s not the only goal. My point here is not to make some sort of political statement—-it’s not about left or right, nor is it a criticism of Davidson. It’s more of a comment on the unexamined assumptions of our political discourse that someone would say this at all, especially in such a matter-of-fact tone, as if it’s some sort of standard belief that maximizing revenue is the goal of government. Weird stuff.

P.S. I’m also not so happy about this line:

There is no evidence, [economist Justin] Wolfers says, that an artist would be happier if she became a hedge-fund trader.

I think this is misleading because it implies an ability to switch between low and high-paying jobs. It’s not clear to me how relevant Justin’s comparison is, given that “becoming a hedge-fund trader” is not an option for most people. Lots of people can’t find jobs at all, and only a very small fraction of people can find jobs that are so well-paying. So Justin is, in effect, talking about a very rarefied group, for which the relation between income and happiness might be much different from that of the general population.


Joe February 9, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Actually, this isn’t too surprising for those of us who research neoliberal rationalities. Not something we like to talk about here in the United States, but I think it’s increasingly important to understand these ideologies and their impact.

Gaurav February 9, 2013 at 3:55 pm

GDP growth rates are standard in discussions about performance of governments. ‘Maximizing revenue’ may be a badly phrased nod to that. And imho, Wolfers is using an “extreme” counterfactual for expository reasons, not social scientific.

Bill February 9, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I didn’t read the Justin Wolfers quote the way you did. I take it as the simple idea that, while more money would make most of us happier, money is not all that matters in choosing a profession.

The artist presumably chose that occupation because she loves art. Even if it had been possible for her to become a hedge fund manager and make more money, she might be happier in the lower-paying profession that she loves.

RobC February 9, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Suggesting that an artist could become a hedge fund trader is consistent with the conceit of a good deal of popular entertainment. For example, in “Working Girl,” a secretary poses as an executive and promptly puts together a complicated business deal. Nobody would believe that a layman could step in and function as capably as a neurosurgeon or a statistics professor, but business and finance are treated as requiring no particular talents or experience. It’s populism pure and simple. See also the 2012 Obama campaign.

John Sides February 9, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Same assumption about politics. See “Dave.”

Eric L. February 10, 2013 at 2:06 pm

And the great “Being There.”

Joel February 11, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Having done both, I don’t think this tendency is terribly problematic. Business ain’t rocket science (or brain surgery).

Matt_L February 10, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I loved Speed Racer. I used to watch as a kid. It was usually on Chanel 6 (in San Diego) before school along with Thunderbirds and some other Japanese animation. I totally need to see it again as an adult.

Yes, it would be nice if people thought that the government had something better to do besides maximizing the returns of the owning classes. We might actually get something done around here.

Doug February 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm

speaking of “unexamined assumptions,” definitions make a difference.
Mr. Gelman apparently accepts that “lots of people can’t find jobs at all,” which requires parameters. If your children are hungry, I assure you, jobs can be had. Today, we Americans seem to believe that if you cannot have the job you want, or feel you deserve, you “cannot” find a job.
2. Happiness. Another definition required. In early America, a more common definition for “…life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” was the legal right to privately own land, and keep the fruits of your labor. Now, the word is much broader, emotional, and selfish (i.e. focused on “me,” vs focused on “feeding/providing for mine,” which was likely more common 200+ years ago).
Good point- assumptions carry great impact on our research, and how we interpret data… even on what data we choose to analyze.
* see
as a wise soldier once said, “words mean things.”

Scott February 11, 2013 at 12:51 am

Unless this is Doug Rivers (and I doubt it is) I find it hilarious that this guy is lecturing Andy Gelman on Causality (and is doing so by linking to a Khan Academy video).

Chaz February 10, 2013 at 9:44 pm

I assume he meant maximize GDP. That is indeed informative about mainstream thinking. If he actually did mean maximize government revenue then he is not a representative sample, because basically no one sees that as a goal and I doubt he does either.

Doug, I know some homeless people with extremely low expectations who are nevertheless unable to get jobs. Instead they spend the whole day gathering cans to turn in for a tiny fraction of minimum wage. You have no understanding of their lives, and it is immoral for you to post such lies about them.

idiot February 11, 2013 at 1:49 pm

I think you guys have failed to appreciate why Andrew Gelman mentioned Hobbes. Hobbes stated that government is necessary to prevent a chaotic “state of nature”, where life would be brutish and short. No matter how terrible you think the US government is, you have to admit that crime is decreasing and there is no overt civil war at the moment, and that has to count for something.

It’s very disconcerting, and somewhat insulting to Third-World countries that do not have effective governments, that you have a guy somehow take for granted that “order” can magically exist without government, and that government can do a whole lot of things like maximize revenues and provide happiness, and forget about such petty things such as providing national security and funding police officers.

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