Not Rational Utility Maximisers

One cornerstone of neoclassical economic thought is the assumption in microeconomics (and microfounded macroeconomics) that humans behave as “rational utility maximisers”.

Yet this assumption is increasingly outdated. Empirical findings in behavioural economics show that the neoclassical assumption of utility maximisation has very little basis in reality.

First, it is crucial to define what we mean by utility maximisation. Paul Samuelson, one of the grandfathers of the neoclassical New Keynesian school defined consumer rationality as follows:

• Completeness — Given any 2 bundles of commodities A & B , the consumer can decide whether he prefers A to B (A≻B), B to A (B≻A), or is indifferent between them (B≈A).

• Transitivity — If (A≻B) and (B≻C) then (A≻C).

• Non-satiation — More is preferred to less.

• Convexity — Marginal utility falls as consumption of any good rises.

This definition remains dominant in neoclassical economics today.

Sippel (1997) tested whether consumers really adhered to these four rules. He gave his student test subjects a budget, and a set of eight priced commodities to spend their budget on:


This was repeated ten times, with ten different budget and price combinations. Sippel found that 11 out of 12 of his test subjects’ behaviour failed to meet Samuelson’s criteria for rational utility maximisation. Sippel repeated the experiment later with thirty test subjects, finding that 22 out of 30 did not meet Samuelson’s criteria. Sippel concluded:

We conclude that the evidence for the utility maximisation hypothesis is at best mixed. While there are subjects who appear to be optimising, the majority of them do not.

It is interesting that some individuals obey the rules set out by Samuelson, and that some don’t. Human behaviour is highly variable from individual to individual. If the hypothesis of utility maximisation is right about a subset of individuals, but wrong about much of the general population, then this underlines the variability of human behaviour. And different circumstances call for different decision-making frameworks — some individuals may act like rational utility maximisers under some sets of circumstances and not others. This is really an area that deserves much, much more empirical study.

The evidence so far suggests that humans are complex animals whose decisions are multi-dimensional. This could be because our brains have evolved to use different neuro-circuitry for different decisions. According to the behavioural economist Daniel McFadden:

Our brains seem to operate like committees, assigning some tasks to the limbic system, others to the frontal system. The “switchboard” does not seem to achieve complete, consistent communication between different parts of the brain. Pleasure and pain are experienced in the limbic system, but not on one fixed “utility” or “self-interest” scale. Pleasure and pain have distinct neural pathways, and these pathways adapt quickly to homeostasis, with sensation coming from changes rather than levels. Overall, presumably as a product of evolution, our brains are organized well enough to keep us alive, fed, reproducing, and responsive to but not overwhelmed by sensation, but they are not hedonometers.

All of this points to the idea that microeconomics needs a new framework based on neurological and behavioural evidence, not decades-old assumptions that are unsupported by empirical evidence.

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Judge Katherine Forrest is a Modern American Hero

Sometimes, the greatest deeds are done by those who are just doing their jobs, like Judge Katherine Forrest who last week struck down the indefinite detention provision (§1021) of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

It would be all too easy in this age of ever-encroaching authoritarianism in America for a judge ruling on a matter like this to just go with the government line and throw water over the plaintiffs. After all, telling truth to power has consequences. Forrest was appointed by Obama, but after this ruling one wonders whether she is about to meet a career dead-end. Power — especially narcissistic power — does not like being told uncomfortable truths.

Everything about this case is shameful; it should be obvious to anyone who can read the Constitution that indefinite detention without trial (just like assassination without trial — something else that Obama and his goons have no problem practicing and defending) is hideously and cruelly unconstitutional. It defecates upon both the words and the spirit of the document.

It is directly and completely in contravention to the Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

It is shameful that this law was proposed, it is shameful that any legislator would vote for it, and it is shameful that the President would sign it into law, albeit with a flimsy signing-statement claiming that he would not use the indefinite detention provision against American citizens.

More shameful still is the fact that when this challenge was brought that the Obama administration tried to dismiss it on a technicality — they tried to make the case that because none of the plaintiffs were to be indefinitely detained that they could not challenge the law. Judge Forrest’s investigation of this claim was revealing. Naomi Wolf notes:

Forrest asked repeatedly, in a variety of different ways, for the government attorneys to give her some assurance that the wording of section 1021 could not be used to arrest and detain people like the plaintiffs. Finally she asked for assurance that it could not be used to sweep up a hypothetical peaceful best-selling nonfiction writer who had written a hypothetical book criticizing US foreign policy, along lines that the Taliban might agree with. Again and again the two lawyers said directly that they could not, or would not, give her those assurances. In other words, this back-and-forth confirmed what people such as Glenn Greenwald, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the ACLU and others have been shouting about since January: the section was knowingly written in order to give the president these powers; and his lawyers were sent into that courtroom precisely to defeat the effort to challenge them. Forrest concluded: “At the hearing on this motion, the government was unwilling or unable to state that these plaintiffs would not be subject to indefinite detention under [section] 1021. Plaintiffs are therefore at risk of detention, of losing their liberty, potentially for many years.

Very simply, it is now obvious that the NDAA was written not to deal with terrorists or potential terrorists. After all, if the government has evidence that an individual or group is planning to commit a terrorist attack then they do not need an indefinite detention provision; all they need is to arrest such individuals and prove beyond reasonable doubt before a jury of their peers that a crime has been committed. That is how justice works — if the evidence exists you can bring a successful prosecution. After all if they do not have the evidence to prove that a group or individual was planning to commit an act of terrorism then they have no business arresting them or charging them with any offense. Suspects — lest we forget — are innocent until proven guilty.

These new powers have nothing to do with combatting terrorism. If the government has no evidence that can stand up in a court of law it has no business detaining anyone. No, this new power grab has an entirely different target — like the plaintiffs in this case: writers, investigative journalists, bloggers, philosophers, dissidents, human rights activists, libertarians, free-thinkers, tax protestors, critics of fractional-reserve banking, whistleblowers — people like Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Jennifer Bolen, and Birgitta Jonsdottir. People like Congressman Justin Amash and Congressman Adam Smith who tried to amend indefinite detention out of the bill. People like me — and to some degree, if you are reading this, people like you. 

The fact that the Obama administration could not give assurances about those who simply criticise U.S. foreign policy indicates very strongly that this power grab is about shutting-up and frightening critics of the U.S. government and the Obama administration.

But — for now —  §1021 of the NDAA, that implement of fascism, has been struck down and thrown out as “facially unconstitutional” as well as having a “chilling impact on First Amendment rights”.

We should be thankful for this brave judge’s actions, and for the plaintiffs’ actions in standing up to tyranny, and vigilant against future incursions.

On the other hand, every politician involved in writing, legislating and authorising this hideous unconstitutional law should be reminded of the words of the Declaration of Independence — it is the right of the people to alter or abolish any government that becomes destructive to liberty.

Ron Paul & Austerity

Regular readers will be aware that on the topic of austerity, I generally agree with John Maynard Keynes:

The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.

Regular readers will also know that I like Ron Paul — a Presidential candidate who promises a $1 trillion spending cut in his first year in office.

Is that a contradiction? I don’t think so.


In comparison to most austerity-stricken nations, the United States under Ron Paul would be a special case, for one key reason.

Ron Paul’s cuts — rather than destroying productive output like Brüning in the 1930s, or Papandreou today — are aimed at cutting the two greatest wastes of productive output: financial sector corporate welfare, and imperial military spending.

This topic cuts to the heart of the Keynesian and Rothbardian views on recessions in general, and depressions in particular.

Essentially, the Keynesian position (and its later monetarist adaptation) is that a slump in aggregate demand (i.e. GDP) is — for whatever reason — the problem, and that this can be remedied by the government doing whatever it can to raise aggregate demand (Keynesian stimulus, quantitative easing, nominal GDP targeting).

The Rothbardian position is that the problem is caused by government-led malinvestment, and that the junk must be allowed to liquidate before an organic recovery can ever take hold (zombification).

Both views have something to them, but both views overcomplicate the problem. The real issue is the drop in productive output.

As I have shown before, it is perfectly possible (and actually quite common) for monetary and fiscal policy to raise or stabilise aggregate demand without actually addressing the underlying productivity issue — leading to superficial (and hollow) recovery, like Japan in the 90s and (probably) America today.

Austerity policies during a recession can often totally choke off productivity (Brüning, Papandreou, etc). This is particularly true in nations that are very centralised, and where government has become a very important economic actor.

Now Austrian economists may say that government spending is always a misallocation of capital. Well, I agree that central planners lack the information of the free market. But government is useful in supporting underlying productivity (as Adam Smith noted) through infrastructure creation, the rule of law, etc, and withdrawing that support during a slump for the purpose of paying down debt is detrimental.

So the key here is that government should do what it can to support productivity. What the Keynesians (and monetarists) got wrong is the idea that aggregate demand was somehow a good reflection of underlying productivity, and that underlying productivity can be effectively supported with money pumping, or by digging holes. My model is that the best means to sustain and increase underlying productivity is that government should let failing economic systems completely fail, end wasteful and capital-destroying activities like imperial adventurism, and recapitalise the broader people of the nation. Ron Paul’s aim of cutting taxes and simultaneously cutting military adventurism and corporate welfare would do that.  His policies are not the austerity policies of tax hikes and spending cuts which constrict the economy by sucking money out to pay down creditors without putting anything back in.