Category Archives: Behavioral Economics

Towards an Objective Understanding of Scarcity

When Henry Holt & Co. sent me an advance edition of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much to review, I had presumed it to be another book on the ubiquitous nature of scarcity. However, their book, while acknowledging the phenomenon of scarcity to be omnipresent, argues, in a novel manner, the adverse effects scarcity has on the cognitive resources of individuals. In other words, scarcity (of money, time, etc.) forces people into a scarcity-trap: the poor stays poor; the busy remain busy; and the lonely remain lonely. For, ‘[s]carcity creates a mind-set that perpetuates scarcity.’ The aim of their book, writes Mullainathan and Shafir, is ‘to unravel the scientific underpinnings of scarcity’ in order to make more sense of ‘social and behavioral phenomena’ and is targeted at a ‘wide audience’. Their book is an attempt to present ‘the logic and consequences of scarcity.’

‘Scarcity captures our mind. … It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.’ And, ‘scarcity’s capture of attention affects not only what we see or how fast we see it but also how we interpret the world.’ Hence the authors argue that scarcity ‘is not just a physical constraint. It is also a mind-set.’ The consequence of scarcity, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, is that it makes ‘us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled.’ It reduces our ‘bandwidth’ – our cognitive ability. There is however a positive outcome of scarcity, the ‘focus dividend,’ which makes us more effective in the immediate period but ‘scarcity eventually ends in failure.’ They label the mechanism which reduces our cognitive resources ‘tunneling’. ‘Sometimes when we tunnel, we neglect other things completely.’ ‘Focus dividend’ is a short-term positive outcome of scarcity whereas ‘tunneling’ is a long-term adverse consequence arising from the tax scarcity imposes on our bandwidth. They are, in fact, interdependent phenomena. Based on their experiments, they observe that poor people ‘tunnel’ and therefore do not purchase insurance which would have helped them in the future. For, ‘scarcity taxes bandwidth’ and ‘generates internal disruption’ by lowering ‘fluid intelligence and executive control’. The authors acknowledge the role ‘self-control’ could play in overcoming scarcity, but they note that ‘will-power’ is something which is not yet fully understood. To summarise: ‘[t]he problem is not the person but the context of scarcity.’

Opposite of scarcity is ‘slack’ or ‘abundance’. ‘Slack’, writes the authors, ‘is a consequence of not having the scarcity mind-set.’ Those who have an abundance of resources (money or time) have the luxury not to make trade-offs. Additionally, ‘[s]lack gives us room to fail.’ Scarcity therefore not only leads to ‘greater errors’ due to the bandwidth tax, but also implies that there is ‘less room to fail.’ Marginalist economics treats any unused or underutilised resource as wasteful and inefficient and the authors follow this logic. Although, in the later part of the book, they distinguish between useful and useful slack. Of course, what is useful or wasteful depends on the goals or aims of the individual, organisation or government. The subjective assessment of physical/objective scarcity is also dependent on the goals, and the process of tunneling depends on this subjective measurement of scarcity and the goals. Therefore, the experience of scarcity is in itself conditioned by the goals and they affect each other in a dynamic fashion – reasoning is not limited to the means to achieve the ends, but it also can modify the ends. In the initial chapters, the authors, using results from experiments, quite convincingly argue that the subjective feeling of scarcity generates an objective result – it taxes the bandwidth and lowers the cognitive ability. In fact, the entire book can be seen as an attempt to provide an objective understanding of scarcity (which can be real or imagined or both).

Scarcity leads to borrowing. Borrowing, according to the authors, is a ‘simple consequence of tunneling.’ Although, it is conceivable that scarcity can lead to borrowing, it certainly cannot be maintained that all borrowing is because of tunneling. The phenomenon of a debt-trap is nothing new. ‘Scarcity leads us to borrow and pushes us deeper into poverty.’ Scarcity, writes the authors, causes the poor to focus more on immediate (short-term) goals and they overlook long-term goals. The focus on several short-term goals is termed juggling, and is a ‘logical consequence of tunneling.’That is, the poor resort to ‘short-term fixes.’ Can one get out of scarcity? Without some external intervention, the authors argue, it is highly unlikely. For, getting out of the scarcity-trap requires a (long-term) plan but since the goal is not immediate, the scarcity mind-set does not accommodate it. ‘Planning requires stepping back, yet juggling keeps us locked into the current situation.’ Also, ‘future planning requires bandwidth, which scarcity taxes heavily.’ To state the obvious, the authors note that ‘[a]ll this is complicated by the lack of slack.’ Scarcity implies a lack of slack. Similarly, slack implies a lack of scarcity. Owing to the objective effects of scarcity on cognitive resources, getting out of a scarcity-trap is extremely difficult, be it those who lack money or time.

Chapters 7 and 8 are devoted to understanding (income) poverty and some suggestions are offered for improving the lives of the poor. The authors rightly argue that the extant explanation of poverty is largely ‘piecemeal.’ Their major contribution, I think, to studies on poverty is that the poor ‘lack not only money but also bandwidth’ as a consequence of their income poverty. As they ask: ‘Why not look at the structure of the programs rather than the failings of the clients?’ This bandwidth tax is something the designers of social programmes ignore. Therefore, ‘strong incentives’ do not often function well. The authors call for social programmes which are ‘fault tolerant’ given the already taxed bandwidth of the poor. A limit ‘penalises but fails to motivate’ the poor and according to the authors such limits/penalties on incentives are flawed because they do not take into account the cognitive effects of scarcity. ‘Limits create scarcity, the logic goes, which might lead to better management of how the resource is “used.” This almost relies on the psychology of scarcity. But it is flawed.’ A better solution, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, would be ‘to create smaller but more frequent limits.’

A greater focus on the creation of dependable jobs and stable incomes for the poor across the world could be psychologically transformative.

All this is a radical reconceptualization of poverty policy. … Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity.

A powerful and political conclusion emerges from the authors: social engineering should be built on better foundations, in this case, that of the psychology of scarcity.

Chapter 9 is titled ‘Managing Scarcity in Organizations’ wherein the importance of slack is stressed, in contrast to the views espoused by the ‘efficiency experts.’ Organizations should ‘explicitly manage and ensure the availability of slack.’ In other words, the quality of the workplace must be improved – less surveillance, adequate leaves, reduced working hours, etc. For, as the authors note:

Increasing work hours, working people harder, foregoing vacations and so on are all tunneling responses, like borrowing at high interest. They ignore the long-term consequences.

In line with the optimizing story told by marginalist economics, Mullainathan and Shafir emphasise the need to ‘maximize our limited cognitive capacity.’ They call for a greater focus on the ‘cognitive side of the economy’ and even go as far as to suggest the creation of a ‘Gross National Bandwidth’ index!

Despite the authors adopting some static concepts employed in marginalist economics of a very subjective nature, their research points towards a very dynamic and objective understanding of scarcity. Moreover, the adverse consequences of scarcity on cognitive resources highlight the extreme importance of careful social engineering, especially in the reduction of poverty.

Malthus: The Scope of Political Economy

In these difficult times we live in, what economics needs is perhaps, depth and not breadth. Unemployment, poverty, inflation, food insecurity, financial fragility, debt crisis, etc can be better understood and tackled by diverting increased resources (time and financial) in understanding the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of wealth. This blog post very briefly examines Thomas Malthus’s (1766-1834) view of political economy – its method, scope, uses and limitations.  For this purpose, I have used John Pullen’s definitive variorum edition of Malthus’s Principles of Political Economy published as 2 volumes by Cambridge University Press in 1990.

According to the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary, ‘scope’ is defined as the ‘range of subjects covered’. In the context of political economy, scope refers to the range of subjects it covers. That is, the scope of political economy informs us about the sphere of analysis, the boundaries or limits, the kind of situations it describes and its applicability in the real world or, its relevance. Keeping in mind that mathematics played only a small role in political economy during Malthus’s time, let us see what his view of political economy is: ‘the science of political economy bears a nearer resemblance to the science of morals and politics that to that of mathematics’ (p. 2). Undoubtedly, morals played and still play an important role for interventions in the economy based on what we consider to be a ‘good society or economy’. And politics, distributional conflicts over income, land, natural resources and employment are integral part of any economy. Thus, it is important that political economy (and economics) takes into account these distributional conflicts when theorising or modelling an economy. However, for purposes of theory, these conflicts can be taken as given from outside economics (exogenous) or can be determined within economics, in the manner of behavioural economics.

It would not have mattered if political economy was/is not a very important branch of knowledge. Reminiscent of Keynes’s words, Malthus writes: ‘The science of political economy is essentially practical and applicable to the common business of human life. There are few branches of human knowledge where false views may do more harm, or just views more good’ (p. 12). But, Malthus wrote it more than a century earlier. (See also Sismondi’s words of a similar nature). Since Malthus viewed political economy to have significant practical applications, the complete title of his book reads ‘Principles of Political Economy Considered with a View to their Practical Application’. The editor, Pullen, gives us a bit more information on this matter. ‘This was apparently a lifelong concern. As a student at Cambridge in 1786 Malthus wrote to his father: ‘I am by no means, however, inclined to get forward without wishing to see the use and application of what I read. On the contrary I am rather remarked in college for talking of what actually exists in nature, or may be put to real practical use’’ (p. 291, Vol II; all other page numbers excepting this refer to Vol I).

Malthus understands that ‘To trace distinctly the operations of that circle of causes and effects in political economy which are acting and re-acting on each other, so as to foresee their results, and lay down general rules accordingly, is, in many cases, a task of very great difficulty’ (p. 12). Economic processes are caused by a multiplicity of causes and often not by a single one. Owing to this and because of his view of economics as a practical science, he maintained that ‘[t]o know what can be done, and how to do it, is, beyond a doubt, the most valuable species of information. The next to it is, to know what cannot be done, and why we cannot do it’ (p. 17). In other words, we must be very aware of the ‘scope’ of our knowledge.

Furthermore, if our objective is to understand the problems of unemployment and poverty, we must perhaps, as mentioned in the introduction, study in-depth the process of generation and distribution of wealth. I conclude with a statement by Malthus: ‘If we wish to attain anything like precision in our inquiries, when we treat of wealth, we must narrow the field of inquiry, and draw some line, which will leave us only those objects, the increase or decrease of which is capable of being estimated with more accuracy’ (pp. 27-8).

Utility in Microeconomics: Outdated?

This post clarifies the concept of a utility function, which occupies a very significant position in neoclassical microeconomics. Advances in neuroeconomics and related fields of behavioural economics is constantly challenging the conventional assumptions of microeconomics. This post takes up one such insight by Stephen B Hanauer which was published in Nature in March 2008.

A utility function can be understood in the following way:

U=f(x,y,z) where U is the utility derived from the consumption of x, y and/or z. Alternatively, a utility function transforms combinations of various goods into a single value. Note that x,y and z refer to ‘quantities’ of goods/services consumed.

Suppose, consumer A has the following utility function: U=x+y+z; arbitrary values of x,y and z would result in the following values of U.

x y z U
0 0 0 0
1 0 0 1
10 10 0 20
6 6 8 20
0 10 10 20
10 10 10 30

That is, microeconomics teaches us that the utility of the consumer is determined by the quantity of goods consumed. An common assumption is that ‘more is better’, which implies that the consumption of more goods gives the consumer more utility. The point to be noted is that microeconomic theory teaches us that utility is strictly a function of quantities. The question posed in this post is whether utility is ‘only’ a function of quantities. What happens if utility is also a function of prices? At this juncture, we need to recollect the objective of utility functions. From the utility function, we derive indifference curves and marginal utilities. Utility or use value of the good or service forms the basis of the demand function, which along with the supply function determines the value/price of a commodity or service. Thus, the use value was employed so as to arrive at the exchange value/relative price of the commodity.

What happens if utility (or experienced pleasantness) is influenced by “changing properties of commodities, such as prices”? That is, can neoclassical microeconomics accomodate the following utility function:


And research in behavioural economics and related areas suggest that prices exert a significant influence on utility and hence on choice and demand. However, if we accept such a utility function, it can no longer be used to explain exchange values/relative prices. Another implication is that prices are no longer determined by the interaction of demand and supply. And the statement that ‘consumer is the king’ no longer holds. Also, producers can adjust prices in such a way as to affect consumers’ utilities. We know that high prices are often associated with better quality and hence higher utility.

x y Px Py U
0 0 10 10 0
10 10 10 10 200
10 10 5 10 150
10 10 4 4 80

The above table can be explained by the following utility function: U=x.Px + y.Py

In this case, a higher price gives more utility to the individual. The maximum utility is when x=y=10 and Px=Py=10.

The other extreme case is when high prices are detested by the individual. For instance, consumers with low incomes will get more utility from consuming goods which are priced less. Their utility function could be represented as follows: U=x.-Px + y.-Py

In which case, the consumers utilities based on the previous values of x,y,Px and Py will be 0, -200, -150 and -80. And the consumer’s utility is maximum when he/she consumes x=y=10 when Px=Py=4.

Empirical evidence suggests that utility is equally influenced by prices of commodities as well. Does this threaten the core of neoclassical microeconomics? This is problematic because neoclassical economics assumes the following to be given: 1) tastes and preferences of individuals, 2) endowments of goods and 3) constant technology. It if from these ‘givens’ that prices and quantities (demanded and supplied) are arrived at through the mechanism of demand and supply/competition/market forces. How can we include the recent findings pertaining to consumer utility and satisfaction in a consistent manner?


The link to the reference was embedded in the authors name. However, because of the comment by Dr. Thomas Alexander, the reference is prrovided below. Also,I acknowledge him for bringing this article to my notice.

Hanauer, S (2008), ‘Experienced Pleasantness,’ Editorial, Nature Reviews Gastroenterology and Hepatology 5, 119 (1 March 2008).

The ‘Micro-Foundations’ of Economic Survey 2009-10

The Economic Survey 2009-10 is different from its predecessors. Of them, it is chapter two of the publication which deserves special attention. The chapter is titled ‘Micro-Foundations of Inclusive Growth.’ This is no new phrase for economists who have witnessed the recent ‘we want microfoundations’ movement in economics. Traditionally, economic survey analysed trends in income, food production, prices, net exports, and so on without telling the readers about their ‘foundations’. For the first time, microfoundations of macroeconomics (a progeny of the failed neoclassical microeconomics enterprise) makes a loud entry into the analysis of the Indian economy.

One of the first signs of this shift is to be seen on the book cover itself. This has been reproduced below, as it is a matter of great concern.

In 2007-08, the cover page indicated various aspects on the Indian Economy. Coupons equilibrium, something which very few people understand gains entry on the cover page. Why? Is it to show that economics is scientific and can only be understood by a few? Or does it mean that economic survey is only for those who know such concepts? Or does it convey that the economy is in safe hands now, run by competent economists? One can only wonder. The rest of the post will hover around theoretical explanations and policy suggestions provided in chapter 2. Very often, the proposal outlined below are seen as emnating from the ‘political economy school’. It will be argued that this school is only a variant of neoclassical economics, albeit a superior one.

The chapter starts by emphasising the need to look at the foundations of macroeconomic policies, which have been neglected. The author(s) point out that an ‘enabling state’ is what India needs; a state which provides incentives through proper institutions for the individuals. That is, for policy to be effective, we “need to take people to be the way they are and then craft incentive-compatible interventions.” Under the sub heading of ‘development and distribution’, some space is devoted to the question of futures trade. It is of national concern because very often futures trade tends to make the underlying spot prices volatile. However, it is argued that “An enabling Government takes view that if we cannot establish a connection between the existence of futures trading and inflation in spot prices, we should allow futures trade.” The literature contains mixed views on this issue. Perhaps, it is being suggested that since it cannot be proved conclusively, we must go for futures trade. The rationale provided to pursue futures trade is a dangerous trend. For, economics is unlike sciences where laboratory experiments can be carried out. In any case, what is the percentage of people who invest in futures trade? And what is the percentage of Indian farmers?

Trickle down effect is said to have taken place in India through injection of demand to the poor through increases in budgetary allocations for anti-poverty programmes. The firming up or increase in prices of food items is presented as evidence for income increases of the poor. This piece of evidence is wrought with methodological as well as conceptual difficulties. Hence, it cannot be argued with such certainty that incomes of the poor have risen. For, if the prices of food items have gone up, their real wage or purchasing power must necessarily be reduced. In effect, there might not have been any notable improvement.

Subsidies are considered essential for India. However, price controls are seen as distortionary and also they result in high levels of corruption. Therefore, it is pointed out that subsidies should take the form of ‘coupons’. This achieves two objectives. (1) Prices are left to the market and (2) Individuals have more choice. Both are hallmarks of neoclassical as well as neoliberal thinking. Hence, the need for Unique Identification (UID) system for improving information. It is argued that the state should not tamper with the ‘preferences’ of the subsidy reciever. Because “modern behavioural economics reminds us that there are situations where individuals act against their own interests because of lack of self-control or inconsistencies in their inter-temporal preferences, and so some pateranlistic interventions can be good for them.” This result cannot be directly imported to a macroeconomic setting, owing to differences in objectives and also, the sum of parts may be more or less than the whole (fallacy of composition).

Apart from such proposals, foreign direct investment (FDI) in the textile and clothing sector is favoured as they “can help modernize this industry and aid its integration to the global textile market.” The introduction of powerlooms have rendered many weavers jobless and most of them have become migrant construction workers. When any sector gains more importance than those employed in that sector, it is a sign that the objective of policy makers is plain ‘numerical growth’ and not employment!

The end of the chapter contains a discussion on ‘social norms, culture and development’ which points out that standard economics has not paid much attention to social and cultural factors. And that game theory and behavioural economics “is begining to give us some insights into the formation of customs and behaviour.” It is argued that though such “phychological and sociological determinants” may not effect short-term economic outcomes, they do affect medium-term and long-term outcomes.

In the following manner, this ‘political economy school’ explains economic issues through concepts such as ineffeciency, information asymmetry, bureacracy and corruption, inventives, incomplete contracts, etc. This school of thought should not be confused with Marxian or Sraffian political economy. This chapter is testimony to the fact that economists believe that economics is a science which has testable propositions and that they result in conclusive results. For the authors hail behavioural economics as though it is a new branch of economics which is the ‘saviour’ of economics. More dangerous is some of the causal connections made in the chapter, as they are not based on any logically consistent theory nor are they borne out of experience. The ‘micro-foundations’ of the economic survey definitely needs a rethinking!