Economic Storytelling

January 5, 2010

“Wanna know how I got these scars?”

-The Joker

In response to yesterday’s post, Tom puts forward some questions:

Is male dominance some kind of currency among these people? To put it another way, if these people didn’t kill their daughters what perceived negative effects would there be?

which make me think of nothing so much as the fine line I am walking here, due to my almost total ignorance of Middle Eastern culture and history.

The advantage of economics as an analytical tool is that it allows you to come up with explanations for phenomena using limited data. Someone with a critical eye might refer to this as “making [stuff] up,” but it’s not so bad as all that. Economists study the choices people make, and notice that these choices have broad commonalities. Examples: When the price of something goes up, people demand less of it. People respond to incentives.

Yesterday I was using something like the converse of that latter point, that if you see people responding (acting), there must be some incentive that they are responding to. So then I set out to look for the incentives driving this behavior. Honor killing looks and sounds like a case in which people are defending a reputation, so it fits in with a broader story about trust, game theory and branding that economists have already discussed in detail.

We started out with a formless mess, and the economic theory was an improvement. Before thinking about this subject, my reaction was something like, “They have the practice of honor killing in the Middle East because honor killing is a part of their culture,” but this explanation explains nothing at all.

In doing this sort of theorizing, you are sort of choosing a point on a spectrum between “Everyone is a unique snowflake,” and “I have One Big Theory that explains everything!” Economics falls way towards the latter part of that spectrum.

That basically sums up why I do theorizing using economics. Let’s talk about a couple of the disadvantages:

First, the discussion of honor killing wasn’t a prediction, it was an explanation for something I already know happens. As Rudyard Kipling proved in his Just So Stories, there are any number of satisfying ways to explain something that has already happened. The difficulty is in making predictions about things that haven’t happened.

The second problem is that economists don’t specify a mechanism by which their theories are supposed to come true. This is the same thing that bothers me about the Marxian notion of “false consciousness.” If I specify in my theory that the people who make choice are deceived about the reasons that they make those choices, you can say, “But I’ve talked to the people whose behavior you purport to explain, and they tell me that the reasons you cite for their behavior have nothing at all to do with their choices,” and I’ll just respond “Indeed, which is exactly what my theory predicts!” Arguing against me is very difficult.

The question the Joker asks in The Dark Knight is, “Why do people do evil things?” The problem is, our desire to understand evil is so strong that we are tempted to accept any explanation, without proper reflection on whether or not it is true.

In my explanation of honor killing, I think that the features I described were broad enough and the characteristics universal enough that it is very likely to be a true theory of why honor killing is a persistent feature of some societies. But every attempt to get more specific adds a degree of uncertainty to the story, and when you pile up enough of those uncertainties, your overall story is likely to be false, even if it makes your story sound more convincing.


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