Monday, March 25, 2013

Noah Smith on non-market goods


He argues they're substantial and they ought to be considered when thinking about policy. I agree. What's interesting about his list is that a lot of these things are directly related to market goods - like satisfaction at work.

I have a few thoughts on this, since these issues come into gender economics a lot:

1. We do have a few tools for smuggling this stuff in: specifically, externalities and compensating differentials. They're pretty blunt tools, though, and they're better at accounting for non-market things without really thinking in depth about them. Nancy Folbre, for example, has written a lot about care as a positive externality and implications for the time spent caring for others. And she is among the economists who has thought most deeply about the sort of problems Noah raises.

2. Folbre brings to mind one important way that we've accounted for non-market activities: when they require time, we (well, some of us) have been including them in our models for decades: child care, home production, etc.. Macro models endogenizing these things as well as fertility also do that. The reason of course, is that you can still do constrained optimization and the price you're thinking about is just the opportunity cost of the time you spend in the non-market activity. Again, though, this has limits - but it it's still an important approach that economists are uniquely positioned to take, since time is a major constraint on most people.

3. So what do we do about it? Well many surveys do have these sorts of variables that we certainly ought to play around with. But I think we should simply be collaborating more with other social scientists like psychologists and sociologists. I've been working with a sociologist for years now and am just starting up a research relationship with a psychologist friend of mine who sometimes comments here (she goes by Dr. J). She is quite interested in these satisfaction and personal aspiration issues. These relationships have helped to keep me well rounded (and let me specialize in what I do best). Along the same lines, I think economists ought to always be involved with projects that have site visit or interview components to the extent that they are able to as well. Nothing illuminates what's actually going on in the world than sitting down and talking with someone. Often its fairly straightforward to translate what they're saying into economics lingo (although of course something might be lost in translation). We're still faced with optimization under constraints and strategic thinking in a lot of these cases. But at the very least it provides context to other research.

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