Was Einstein an idiot?

Cite this Article
Geoffrey A. Manne, Was Einstein an idiot?, Truth on the Market (January 04, 2008), https://truthonthemarket.com/2008/01/04/was-einstein-an-idiot/

Well, obviously, not, of course, but he sure sounds like a thoughtless hack once in a while.

In a cafeteria near my office on the Microsoft campus, there is a sign near the door.  It’s a testament to something or other that I have no recollection at all what the sign is actually about.  But it shows a sepia-tone picture of a bridge being built from both sides of some body of water.  The traverse is almost complete, except that the the two sides don’t quite line up.  Oops.  In big letters above the picture is a quote from Einstein.  It says, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”  I’ve never read a word of Deepak Chopra, but this is about what I imagine he or others like him would sound like.  Trite.  Persuasive to the relatively thoughtless.  And, well, idiotic.

But perhaps precisely because of its triteness and persuasiveness, this sort of thinking underlies an unfortunate amount of policy analysis and actual policy implementation.  Much to our detriment. 

Here’s the problem:  The statement doesn’t account for decision-making in uncertainty.  It doesn’t acknowledge that trade-offs are inherent in any planning.  It presumes that errors or bad results were caused by defective decision-making.  It doesn’t account for ex ante optimizing.  It thus fetishizes ex post consequences without considering that the very “best” level of thinking might still lead ex post to “bad” results. 

This defect is inherent in so much that is so awful in politics and government.  Enron went bankrupt?  Corporate governance is out of control! Pass Sarbanes-Oxley, quick!  Microsoft has a dominant position in the browser market?  The free market has failed!  Regulate the crap out of ’em!  Neoclassical economics doesn’t have a perfect explanation for why college students hoard coffee mugs?  Send in the behavioralists!  It’s all about positional goods!  Or availability cascades!  Or something!

Most antitrust enforcement–most regulation, full stop–has this post hoc ergo propter hoc sort of character.  Analysis of decisions requires analysis of institutions.  It requires an understanding of the economics of information and of uncertainty.  And most of all it requires a sense of humility.  Unfortunately, post hoc rationalization seems to be extremely persuasive with your average voter and I’ve never heard of a humble politician.

Ah, well.  Another year begins, and an election year, at that.  The news and the blogs will be full of calls for reform, calls to “do something,” assignments of blame, examples of alleged market evils, and examples of post hoc rationalization.  There will be a deficit of sensible institutional analysis and restraint.  It should be quite fun, actually.

 UPDATE:  John Tierney seems to have had a similar concern.