Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Performativity as a critique of economics and market design

Yesterday's prize to Paul Milgrom for his work in market design (among other things) brings to mind a curious critique (and criticism) of economics in the economic sociology literature, namely that economics is "performative," in the sense that economic theories influence the real economy to become more like economic theory. (I blogged about one such paper here.)

As far as I am aware, the term originated in linguistics to distinguish those cases in which saying is also doing. Thus saying "it will rain tomorrow" is not performative, but saying  "I apologize" is: when you say it, you have done it, saying it makes it happen.  So the basic idea applied to economics is that e.g. creating an option pricing formula might change the way options are priced. Designing a kidney exchange might change the number of patients who get kidney transplants. Or in Paul's case, designing auctions might change the way the FCC sells radio spectrum licenses.

The criticism, such as it is, seems to take two forms. The first is that, since economics is performative, it isn't a 'real' science which describes things as they are. The second, often more between the lines, is that this is just part of the way that economics has been sucking the meaning out of life ever since the invention of agriculture and trade.

Of course, that economics is performative is a criticism that economists, especially market designers, might take as a compliment. (It's a little like criticizing body builders for working hard to have big muscles, and not just settling for the ones they could get without cheating by exercising.)

I was reminded of this on reading Brett Christophers, "Games and prizes in the economic (and geographical?) performance of markets: Nobel, Shapley, and Roth," in Environment and Planning A 2012, volume 44, pages 2542 – 2545, a critique and criticism of the 2012 Nobel economics prize. Market designers may be interested in (and either annoyed, puzzled or flattered by) what he has to say...

He writes:

"Talk of markets being ‘designed’ and of economists engaging in ‘engineering’ will undeniably strike a chord with many economic sociologists and with students of social studies of finance. The past fifteen years have seen the emergence amongst such scholars of a broad and expanding critique of the so-called ‘performativity’ of economics—a literature interested in, precisely, how economics designs, formats, and otherwise engineers real-world economic configurations in general and markets in particular. While economic ‘performativity’ means different things to different commentators, the central gist of the approach is captured in Donald MacKenzie’s (2006, page 12) assertion that economics is “an active force transforming its environment, not a camera passively recording it”; or that economics, in Michel Callon’s (2007, page 316) words, “contributes to the construction of the reality that it describes.” Notably, one of the most intensively discussed ‘successes’ of the market design or ‘design economics’ field—the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) auctions of US radio spectrum (eg, Roth, 2002)—is also one of the most heavily analyzed and debated ‘exemplars’ of economic performativity purportedly in action (eg, Guala, 2006; Nik-Khah, 2006; Santos and Rodrigues, 2009). Indeed, not for nothing does Ana Santos (2011, page 719) argue that “the efficacy of design economics ultimately hinges on determining the extent to which economists are able to implement their models in the real world and make reality conform to their theoretical constructs, that is, on determining the performativity of economics.”
He further writes of the
"profound ethical concern—over the penetration of market and market-like mechanisms into more and more areas not only of social life per se but also of society–nature relations. Such interests and concerns, distilled in a range of connected critiques of ‘neoliberalization’, ‘commodification’, and ‘marketization’, are of the utmost relevance in the context of the “economic engineering” lauded by the Swedish Academy. For, as Santos (2011, page 721) observes, Roth and other proponents of design economics “actually”—explicitly and overtly—“aim at inculcating economic calculus in human deliberation and introducing market-like forms of social interaction where they have been absent.” 

Chistophers then goes on to suggest that the very idea of markets is so flawed that probably they don't really even exist...

"it is vital ... to be aware that the notion of economic performativity is a highly contested one. The mobilization of this concept has attracted often biting critique, both in relation to examples directly connected with ‘Rothian’ market design, and those not. Daniel Miller (2002), for instance, claims that capitalist economic transactions are so entangled in social relationships, and actual economic agents are so resistant to the type of economic rationality presumed in economists’ market models, that it is simply incorrect to think of real-world exchange practices in terms of ‘markets’—despite the attempts of economists, consultants, and others to (re)make the world in the image of their theories. Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah (2007) attack the performativity thesis from a related angle. As for Santos (2011), market design ultimately belongs, for Mirowski and Nik-Khah, to the realm of neoclassical economics; it retains the core principles of rationality and efficiency, notwithstanding its appeal to some elements of heterodox economics (such as the recognition that economic agents sometimes engage in opportunistic behaviours). This is crucial because, say Mirowski and Nik-Khah, neoclassical economics is so flawed that it simply cannot be made practically to ‘work’—to ‘perform’ markets, that is to say—other than in the most partial and ephemeral of senses.


dWj said...

This is more or less the Lucas Critique. (If the change caused by the intervention is, at least in principle, predictable, then there is something relatively immutable that is underlying the system, and, if we want to engineer things in robust ways, we should strive to work in terms of the stable underpinning rather than the slippery ephemera.)

AlexP said...

The thing I got out of this is that there's a "Rothian" style of economics.


Anonymous said...

Nasty economists! First they invent a theory which is obviously wrong, and now they go to the real world and make it work like their wrong theory! Just imagine a psychologist discovering a new mental illness (which doesn't exist yet), and then going around and driving people crazy so they get that mental problem he described in the first place. ;-)