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5 posts from January 2013


Highlights of the 2013 ASE/ASSA meetings (part 3): Costly posturing in China

By Jonathan B. Wight

(This is the second in a series of posts from Dr. Wight, current president of the ASE, describing sessions at the recently completed ASSA meetings in San Diego. See also the first and second installments.)

Xi chenXi Chen (Yale University) presented a fascinating paper at the recent ASE/ASSA meetings in San Diego (co-author Xiaobo Zhang of the International Food Policy Research Institute and Peking University).

"Costly Posturing: Relative Status, Ceremonies and Early Child Development" explores the relationship between social behaviors and economic and health outcomes. In particular, it examines how public ceremonies such as funerals, weddings, home blessings, and other events negatively affect substantive measures of human well-being -- specifically by caloric intake and malnutrition.  People feel intense social pressure to participate in these social rituals even when it detracts from the well-being of their own children.

The authors present evidence that in rural areas of China, poor families spend more on gifts than do the richest families-- creating what the authors call "squeeze effects".  The impact of this is statistically observed on children who are in utero at the time of the ceremonies.

This is counter to what one normally thinks, which is that social events tend to be redistributive.  For example, in the highlands of Guatemala, ceremonies are paid for disproportionately by wealthier villagers.  Such ceremonies serve to redistribute wealth in society according to a cosmic vision of what promotes justice in the circumstances. (See: Blevins, Ramirez, and Wight, "Ethics in the Mayan Marketplace," in Mark D. White, ed., Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 87-110).

These findings also appear to contradict Confucian beliefs about the duty of a leader to provide for those in a lower hierarchy.  It may be that these data can be explained by arguing that poor people have to try harder to make an impression and gain status. Hence, they give larger gifts.

Adam Smith noted that it is not simply the rich who are interested in status. Writing in The Wealth of Nations, Smith noted that:

"By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without. A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life…. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in publick without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct. (566)" 

What is not in the paper is a broader general analysis that would examine whether social affiliations provide important pay-backs over many decades to the wider group.  That is, social events during hard times may injure an in-utero baby.  But being part of the social group may confer advantages to other siblings in terms of jobs and marriages. 

This was a highly stimulating paper and a remarkable attempt to understand the link between status spending and negative health indicators in poor communities.


Call for papers: Association for Social Economics sessions at 2014 ASSA meetings

Association for Social Economics

Call for Papers

Allied Social Science Associations Annual Meeting
Philadelphia, PA, January 3-5, 2014

THEME:  Exploring the Relationships between Law and Social Economics

Social economics has long emphasized the inherent social nature of the economy, stressing that the ties that bind people together in the economy have essential effects on economic outcomes (and vice versa). Law is also a social institution that regulates and influences how people relate to each other, including its effects on economic transactions and other related social interactions. In other words, law should be an integral part of social economics, and this conference theme hopes to enhance and highlight this.

In terms of economics, law is best established within the mainstream traditions of law-and-economics. But there is a need for this paradigm, based almost solely on neoclassical economic principles, to be supplanted by a social economics outlook. There are already efforts on the part of legal scholars to question neoclassical law-and-economics (such as the law and socio-economic movement and behavioral law-and-economics) as well as areas stressing the social aspects of law (such as law-and-society). Social economics has an tremendous opportunity to contribute to this reorientation of economic thinking within the law.

For the ASE sessions at the 2014 ASSA meetings we welcome proposals for papers on all aspects of social economics, especially those dealing with the law. Possible law-related topics include:

  • In what ways can social economics offer an improved economic analysis of law?
  • How have social economics addressed legal issues in the past, either directly or indirectly?
  • How can social economists incorporate legal concepts into their work? Many substantive topics of interest to social economists, such as inequality, poverty, and discrimination have important legal components that affect social-economic outcomes.
  • What general topics in legal studies could benefit from a social economics approach? Such as:
    • Contract law (based on promise, consent, efficiency, etc.)
    • Property (individual versus collective orientation, issues of taxation, etc.)
    • Criminal punishment (justified by deterrence, retributivism, rehabilitation, etc.)
    • Judicial decision-making (based on rights, efficiency, social justice, etc.)

To submit a paper or a session, please go to the proposal submission area of the ASE website (under Conferences > ASSA > Proposal submissions). Submission deadline is April 30, 2013.

Individuals whose papers are accepted for presentation must either be or become members of the Association for Social Economics by July 1, 2013, in order for the paper to be included in the program.  Membership information can be found at socialeconomics.org.

All papers presented at the ASSA meetings are eligible for the Warren Samuels Prize, awarded to the best paper that advances the goals of social economics and has widespread appeal. Papers can also be considered for a special issue of the Forum for Social Economics. Details of these opportunities will be sent to authors of accepted papers.


Highlights of the 2013 ASE/ASSA meetings (part 2): Professional economic practice

By Jonathan B. Wight

(This is the second in a series of posts from Dr. Wight, current president of the ASE, describing sessions at the recently completed ASSA meetings in San Diego. See here for the first installment.)

A wonderful panel session explored "Ethics and Professional Economic Practice – Next Steps?"

George F. DeMartino, University of Denver, argued for the creation of a new field in economics devoted to professional economic ethics, similar to what exists in law, accounting, and other fields.  In an informal survey of business and economics journalists, DeMartino found that despite the crisis of 2008 and the movie Inside Job, journalists and editors were almost totally uninterested in conflicts of interest when researching stories using economists as experts.

David Colander, Middlebury College, argued that ethical lapses in economics were rarely due to money bribes, but rather due to the hubris of economists in pretending to have answers when they really do not:  "[E]conomists have a tendency to convey more scientific certainty in their policy positions than the theory and evidence objectively would allow. Too many economists are willing to make seemingly definitive scientific statements about policy based on models, that they know, or should know, are highly imperfect." 

  David M. Levy, George Mason University, and Sandra J. Peart, University of Richmond, presented a paper on "The Ethics Problem: Solving the Collective Action Problem of Economic Expertise."  This explores the collective action problem that arises from economists having non-monetary commitments (such as to particular principles or ideologies). There's an interesting discussion of Ronald Coase's attempt to defend his name after he was accused of bias, and a look at John Rawl's margin notes to Frank Knight's, The Ethics of Competition.

Steven Payson, the Association for Integrity and Responsible Leadership in Economics and Associated Professions (AIRLEAP), was generally critical of the culture of academic economics, in which "contributing to the literature" substitutes for actually making the world a better place.  Instead, economist-academics are self-interested to advance their careers and there is a "pretense" of scientific merit. 

Much more than this was presented and I am sure each of these authors would be happy to send you their papers. 


Jonathan B. Wight is the 2013 president of the Association of Social Economics and Professor of Economics and International Studies at Robins School of Business, University of Richmond. He blogs regularly at Economics and Ethics.


Highlights of the 2013 ASE/ASSA meetings in San Diego (part 1)

By Jonathan B. Wight

(This is the first of several posts from Dr. Wight, current president of the ASE, describing sessions at the recently completed ASSA meetings in San Diego.)

At the 2013 meetings of the Allied Social Science Assocations, Paul Zak gave the plenary address for the Association for Social Economics titled "The Neuroeconomics of Trust:  The Moral Molecule." For the last 10 years Zak has been trying to find the biological origins of social instincts, as elucidated in Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).  Smith noted the strong biological imperative for human behavior and the powerful role of instincts over reasoning: 

Thus self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which Nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals…. But though we are in this manner endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has not been intrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason, to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts (TMS, Liberty Fund edition, 77–78).

But how do these instincts work?  Paul Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has become a leading figure in the movement to understand the instincts that underpin social and ethical behaviors.  Zak's book, The Moral Moleculeappeared last May.  It reveals the economic role of the hormone oxytocin, which Zak helped uncover by drawing copious amounts of blood from human subjects around the world.  Indeed, Doctor Zak has become known as the Vampire economist.  He's also known as "Doctor Love" for his famous hugs.

Zak's talk was inspiring on several levels, and produced a lot of commentary over the weekend.  If you're not reading Paul Zak, you're being left out of a wonderful discussion about human sociability. 


Jonathan B. Wight is the 2013 president of the Association of Social Economics and Professor of Economics and International Studies at Robins School of Business, University of Richmond. He blogs regularly at Economics and Ethics.


Daily Freeman covers Dr. Pavlina R. Tcherneva and ASE's Helen Potter Prize

TchernevaThe Daily Freeman reported on Pavlina R. Tcherneva, research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College and assistant professor of economics at Bard, who won the 2013 Helen Potter Award from the Association of Social Economics. The Potter Award is given once a year to the author(s) of the best paper published in Review of Social Economy, and Dr. Tcherneva won for her article "Permanent On-The-Spot Job Creation—The Missing Keynes Plan for Full Employment and Economic Transformation" which appeared in the March 2012 issue. The award was announced at the ASE Presidential Breakfast on Saturday, January 5, 2013, at the ASSA meetings in San Diego, and everyone at the ASE congratulates Dr. Tcherneva for her exemplary work.