Fifteen years after the Global Financial Crisis: Recessions and Business Cycles in the History of Economic Thought

“Call them soldiers, call them monks, call them machines”: not mental, but moral accounting matters

Maas Harro, université de lausanne

In a much-cited paper on consumer decision making of the early 1990s, Richard Thaler provocatively embraced Jeremy Bentham and Francis Ysidro Edgeworth’s conception of human beings as ‘sentients’ that basically function like pleasure machines. The paper, “Mental Accounting Matters” relied largely on Tversky and Kahneman’s distinction between two systems, the first thinking too fast, the second more thoughtful, that is still at the basis of many of the theories and empirical investigations of behavioral economists into the fundamental difficulties in correcting for biases in human decision making. The baseline of Thaler and Sunstein’s bestselling Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Wellbeing of 2008 is that since the human mind is irreparable, so-called choice architects have to change the environment in what individuals themselves would also consider their best interests. It goes without saying that this theoretical (and empirical) stance has not remained uncontested, that the distinction between both systems is more flexible, or that at birth, we do not have any preference for an SUV over a Fiat Panda hard wired in our brain. Humans need and can be educated to make choices in the first place. Instead of addressing this current criticism, I will go back to Bentham, or in fact, to Benjamin Franklin’s so-called moral algebra as the starting point for a historical tour to investigate what tools and instruments were invented and used to improve an individual’s decisions about health, wealth, and wellbeing. This will bring me to a discussion of the tool based decision making of individuals on important decisions in life, such as what profession to take, whether to marry or not, to immigrate, to vote for or against Brexit, and what price to put on environmental harm. The tools I will discuss comprise pencil and paper, tables, diaries and agendas, exhibitions and questionnaires. The short version that comes out of this tour is that decision making is a distributed practice between individuals and tools which are mostly not of their own making, and that decision making in the marketplace on what car to buy is as historically determined as deciding on the value of nature. It is this distributed practice I try to capture with the notion of moral accounting.

Area: Eshet Conference

Keywords: behavioral economics, moral accounting, tool based decision making

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