Why Luck Is the Silent Partner of Success

Princeton University Press is partnering with Knowledge@Wharton, The Wharton School’s online business analysis journal, to bring you regular thought pieces from our authors. Our inaugural post is from economist Robert Frank. The piece appeared initially on the Knowledge@Wharton site. 

Why do the rich underestimate the role of luck in their success? Why does that mindset hurt society? What can be done about it? These are some of the questions that Robert H. Frank, author of Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, addresses in this opinion piece. Frank is an economist at Cornell University and an economics columnist for the New York Times. His books, which include Success and Luck and The Winner-Take-All Society, have been translated into 24 languages.

As the essayist E.B. White once wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” Some people are of course quick to acknowledge the good fortune they’ve enjoyed along their paths to the top.  But White was surely correct that such people are in the minority. More commonly, successful people overestimate their responsibility for whatever successes they achieve.

Even lottery winners are sometimes blind to luck’s role. In his 2012 book, The Success Equation, Michael Mauboussin describes a man inspired by a succession of dreams to believe he’d win the Spanish National Lottery if he could purchase a ticket number whose last two digits were 48. After an extensive search, he located and bought such a ticket, which indeed turned out to be a winner. When an interviewer later asked why he’d sought out that particular number, he said, “I dreamed of the number 7 for seven straight nights. And 7 times 7 is 48.”

The tendency to overestimate the predictability of events extends well beyond lottery winners. The sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld illustrated this tendency, known as “hindsight bias,” with people’s reactions to a study that investigated how different groups of men adjusted to the rigors of military life. As he described the study to his subjects, its principal finding was that men who had grown up in rural areas adjusted far more successfully than their urban counterparts. Many of Lazarsfeld’s subjects reacted exactly as he had expected. Why, they wondered, was a costly study needed to confirm something so obvious?

The twist was that Lazarsfeld’s description of the study was a fabrication. The study had actually discovered that men who had grown up in urban settings adjusted to military life more successfully. If Lazarsfeld had reported the actual finding to his subjects, of course, they would have found it just as easy to construct a compelling narrative to explain its truth.

“An unfortunate consequence of seeing ourselves as entirely self-made … [is that it] makes us much less likely to support the public investments that made our own successes possible….”

In similar fashion, when successful people reflect on their paths to the top, they tend to view their success as having been all but inevitable. In their attempts to construct narratives to explain it, they search their memory banks for details that are consistent with successful outcomes. And because the overwhelming majority of successful people are in fact extremely talented and hardworking, they’ll find many ready examples of the long hours they logged, the many difficult problems they solved, and the many formidable opponents they vanquished.

But as the psychologist Tom Gilovich has shown, they’re much less likely to remember external events that may have helped them along the way — the teacher who once steered them out of trouble, perhaps, or the early promotion received only because a slightly more qualified colleague had to care for an ailing parent. This asymmetry, Gilovich points out, resembles the one with which people react to headwinds and tailwinds.

When you’re running or bicycling into a strong headwind, for example, you’re keenly aware of the handicap you face. And when your course shifts, putting the wind at your back, you feel a momentary sense of relief. But that feeling fades almost immediately, leaving you completely unmindful of the tailwind’s assistance. Gilovich’s collaborations with the psychologist Shai Davidai demonstrate the pervasiveness of analogous asymmetries in memory. People are far more cognizant of the forces that impede their progress than of those that boost them along.

An unfortunate consequence of seeing ourselves as entirely self-made — rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—is that this perception makes us much less likely to support the public investments that made our own successes possible in the first place.

Being born in a good environment is an enormously lucky thing and one of the only lucky things we can actually control. Basically, we get to decide how lucky our children will be. But that requires extensive investment in the future, something we’ve been reluctant to undertake of late. Even as a shrinking group among us has been growing steadily luckier, a growing number of the unluckiest have been falling still further behind.

The good news is that we can easily do better. It turns out that when successful people are prompted to reflect on how chance events affected their paths to the top, they become much more inclined to pay forward for the next generation.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that simply telling successful people that they’ve been lucky will elicit this reaction. On the contrary, it seems to have precisely the opposite effect, making them angry and defensive. It’s as if you’ve told them that they don’t really deserve to be on top, that they aren’t who they think they are.

Consider Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 you-didn’t-build-that speech, in which she reminded successful business owners that they had shipped their goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for, they had hired workers educated at taxpayer expense, and they had been safe in their factories because of police and firefighters the community hired. In return, she then reminded them, the social contract asks them to pay forward for the next group that comes along.

It is difficult to spot anything controversial in these words. Yet shortly after she spoke them, the video of her speech went viral, provoking outraged comments by the millions.

“Don’t remind your successful friends that they’ve enjoyed a bit of luck. Instead, ask them to recall examples of lucky breaks….”

No, simply telling rich people that they’ve been lucky won’t make them more willing to invest in the next generation. Mysteriously, however, an ostensibly equivalent rhetorical move seems to have precisely that effect: If you ask your successful friends whether they can think of any lucky breaks they might have enjoyed, you’ll almost invariably discover that they seem to enjoy trying to recall examples. You’ll see, too, that their eyes light up as they describe each one they remember.

Research has demonstrated that priming people to experience the emotion of gratitude significantly increases their willingness to incur costs to promote the common good. And people who recall instances in which they’ve been lucky reliably experience gratitude, even when there is no specific person to whom they feel grateful.

The economist Yuezhou Huo, for example, asked one group of people to list three external causes for something good that had recently happened to them, a second group to list three personal traits or actions that had contributed to the good thing, and a third group merely to report a good thing that had recently happened. Subjects received a bonus payment for their participation in this study, and  Huo offered them a chance to donate some or all of that payment to a charity when the study ended. Those who had been asked to list external causes — many of whom mentioned luck explicitly — donated 25% more than those who were asked to name personal traits or behaviors. The control group’s donations fell squarely in the middle.

As psychologists have long understood, logically equivalent statements often elicit very different emotional responses. Calling a glass half empty, for example, conveys something quite different from calling it half full. So, too, with our statements about luck. Don’t remind your successful friends that they’ve enjoyed a bit of luck. Instead, ask them to recall examples of lucky breaks they might have enjoyed along the way. Even if their recollections don’t prompt them to adopt a more generous posture toward future generations, you’re bound to hear some interesting stories.

Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: The Humanomics of Tax Reform

CentsThe Trump administration is now placing tax reform near the top of its legislative agenda. Perhaps they will garner the votes for tax reduction, but reform? Good luck.

It has been three decades since there has been meaningful tax reform in this country. In 1986, tax shelters were eliminated, the number of tax brackets went from 15 to 4, including a reduction of the highest marginal tax rate from 50% to 38.5% and the standard deduction was increased, simplifying tax preparation and resulting in zero tax liability for millions of low-income families. At the same time, a large-scale expansion of the alternative minimum tax affected substantial numbers of the more affluent.

President Reagan insisted that the overall effect be neutral with regard to tax revenues. That demand made it possible to set aside the issue of whether government should be larger or smaller and instead focus on inefficiencies or inequities in how taxes were assessed. Two powerful Democrats, Dick Gephardt in the House and Bill Bradley in the Senate, were co-sponsors.

Economists might evaluate the merits of this monumental piece of legislation in terms of the incentives and disincentives it created, its ultimate impact on labor force participation, capital investment and the like, but there is another metric to be evaluated – was it perceived to be fair? Accounts from that day imply that it was.

The notion of fairness is not generally in the wheelhouse of economics. But the humanities have much to say on that matter.

To begin with, literature teaches that fairness is one of those concepts that seem simple so long as one does not transcend one’s own habitual way of looking at things. As soon as one learns to see issues from other points of view, different conceptions of fairness become visible and simple questions become more complex. Great novels work by immersing the reader in one character’s perspective after another, so we learn to experience how different people – people as reasonable and decent as we ourselves are – might honestly come to see questions of fairness differently.

So, the first thing that literature would suggest is that, apart from the specific provisions of the 1986 tax reform, the fact that it was genuinely bipartisan was part of what made it fair. Bipartisanship meant the reform was not one side forcing its will on the other. Had the same reform been passed by one party, it would not have seemed so fair. Part of fairness is the perception of fairness, which suggests that the process, not just the result, was fair.

Fairness, of course, also pertains to the content of the reforms. What are the obligations of the rich to support needy families? Are there responsibilities of the poor to participate however they can in providing for their own transformation?

In Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, two main characters, Levin and Stiva, go hunting with the young fop, Vasenka, and as they encounter hard-working peasants, they start discussing the justice of economic inequality. Only foolish Vasenka can discuss the question disinterestedly, because it is, believe it or not, entirely new to him: “`Yes, why is it we spend our time riding, drinking, shooting doing nothing, while they are forever at work?’ said Vasenka, obviously for the first time in his life reflecting on the question, and consequently considering it with perfect sincerity.” Can it really be that an educated person has reached adulthood with this question never having occurred to him at all?

And yet, isn’t that the position economists find themselves in when they ignore fairness? When they treat tax reform, or any other issue, entirely in economic terms? Levin recognizes that there is something unfair about his wealth, but also recognizes that there is no obvious solution: it would do the peasants no good if he were to just give away his property. Should he make things more equal by making everyone worse off? On the contrary, his ability to make farmland more productive benefits the peasants, too. So, what, he asks, should be done?

Levin also knows that inequality is not only economic. If one experiences oneself as a lesser person because of social status, as many of the peasants do, that is itself a form of inequality entirely apart from wealth. In our society, we refer to participants in government as “taxpayers.” Does that then mean that to exempt large numbers of people from any taxation entirely demeans them – not least of all, in their own eyes?  There may be no effective economic difference between a very small tax and none at all, but it may make a tremendous psychological difference. Isn’t the failure to take the psychological effect of tax rates seriously as disturbingly innocent as Vasenka’s question about inequality?

Combining a humanistic and an economic approach might not give us specific answers, but it does make questions of fairness, including symbolic effects, part of the question. And in a democracy, where popular acceptance of the rules as legitimate is crucial, that would be a step forward.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040 and the authors of Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities.

Richard H. Thaler wins the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, 2017

Princeton, NJ, October 9, 2017—Upon today’s announcement that Dr. Richard H. Thaler is the winner of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2017, Princeton University Press extends hearty congratulations to the celebrated economist.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Science recognizes Dr. Thaler “for his contributions to behavioural economics.”

Dr. Thaler is the Charles R. Walgreen Distinguished Service Professor of Economics and Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business where he directs the Center for Decision Research. He is also a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research where he codirects the Behavioral Economics Project. Dr. Thaler’s research bridges the gap between psychology and economics. He is considered a pioneer in the fields of behavioral economics and finance.

Princeton University Press is deeply gratified to be the publisher of Dr. Thaler’s The Winner’s Curse: Paradoxes and Anomalies of Economic Life (1994) and Advances in Behavioral Finance, Volume II (2005).

According to Joe Jackson, Senior Economics Editor at Princeton University Press, “Dr. Thaler’s is an edifying story of how economics adapts and, over time, can come to embrace new perspectives that at first might seem at odds with the whole tradition, but that stand the test of extensive scrutiny and experimentation and end up broadly changing the field.  Princeton University Press is proud to have played a minor but relatively early part in that story by publishing the paperback of The Winner’s Curse, shortly after it was published in hardcover by the Free Press in 1992, which is still in print today.”

Since 1905, Princeton University Press has remained committed to publishing global thought leaders in the economic sciences and beyond. We are honored to count Dr. Thaler’s work as a cornerstone of this legacy.

Richard Thaler joins a number of esteemed PUP authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Economics, among them Angus Deaton, Jean Tirole, Lars Peter Hansen and Robert J. Shiller, Thomas J. Sargent, Peter A. Diamond, Elinor Ostrom, Edmund Phelps, Robert J. Aumann, George Akerlof, Robert Engle, John Nash, and Alvin Roth.

Jean Tirole on Economics for the Common Good

When Jean Tirole won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suddenly found himself being stopped in the street by complete strangers and asked to comment on issues of the day, no matter how distant from his own areas of research. His transformation from academic economist to public intellectual prompted him to reflect further on the role economists and their discipline play in society. The result is Economics for the Common Good, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

What inspired you to write this book, and what did you learn in the process?

I wanted to show how economics can open a window to the world. I have long taken part in policymaking, conversing with private and public decision-makers, but as yet I had never engaged with the wider public.  After receiving the Nobel Prize I was regularly asked by people I met in the street or as I gave talks to explain to a broader audience the nature of economic research and what it contributes to our well-being. Not as a commentator on each and every topic, but simply to share with the public how scientific knowledge can guide economic policies and help us understand the world we (will) live in. I tried to write a book that is intelligible for any intellectually curious reader even with no or slight knowledge of economics. The book is divided into 17 stand-alone chapters so the reader can pick and choose.

Can you talk a bit about the value of making economic ideas comprehensible to a general audience?

Repeatedly blaming politicians for flawed policies won’t get us very far. Like us all, they respond to the incentives they face, in their case the hope of being (re)elected. Very rarely do they go against majoritarian public opinion. So we, citizens, get the policies we deserve. And as I explain in the book, our understanding of economic phenomena is obfuscated by various cognitive biases; we are dependent on rules of thumb and narratives, and we often believe what we want to believe, see what we want to see. Economics acts as a deciphering key, although it of course has its own shortcomings.

In the book you talk about economics for the common good. What exactly is “the common good?”

Economics for the Common Good is an ambition: to help our institutions serve general interest by studying those situations in which individual motives conflict with the interests of society, in order to suggest policies that align social and private interests. The invisible and the visible hands—the market and the State—are mutually complementary; to function well a market economy needs an efficient State to correct its failures. But sometimes the State does not work for the Common Good; for example, many countries are leaving their children substantial levels of unfunded public debt, unemployment, a degraded educational system, inequality, and a lack of preparation for the digital upheaval that our societies are on the brink of encountering. And the world does little to contain climate change. The book therefore pays particular attention to what is going wrong with governments and how this can be remedied to promote the Common Good.

Why do economists have a reputation as “scaremongers?”

I have already mentioned our cognitive biases. Economics is accessible, but can be counterintuitive if one stops at first impressions. Accordingly, and as I illustrate in the book though housing, labor market, climate and other public policies, the road to economic hell is often paved with good intentions. Public policies—the reflection of the electorate’s beliefs—too often ignore side effects. Contrary to general opinion, these side effects are usually borne by third parties rather than the beneficiaries of the policies. Economists, when pointing to the indirect harm on mostly invisible victims (e.g. those who don’t find a job or decent housing, or the taxpayers), are often accused of lacking empathy for the intended and very visible beneficiaries.

Economists may also be the bearers of bad news; while the classical economics representation of a society of purely self-interested individuals is a mediocre description of reality (the book details how morality is privately and socially constructed), when economists mention the need for incentives they trigger anxiety and resistance; we would all rather live in a world of honest, hardworking and empathic citizens. To my mind, the whole point of economics is to design policies and institutions that work towards reaching this different world, where individuals spontaneously operate for the Common Good.

Economics has come under sharp attack, especially since the 2008 financial crisis. Is it a science?

Economists’ judgment may be impaired by financial conflicts of interest, political friendships, or ambitions to be a publicly recognized intellectual. But we must also be humble and accept that as a science, economics is an inexact one. Like any science, it is built on to-and-fro between theory, which provides a lens to the world and allows us to understand observations and describe their implications, and empirical work, which measures the importance of effects and helps question the theory: lab experiments need fieldwork, econometrics, big data. But our knowledge is imperfect; good data may be unavailable, theories may oversimplify, and behavioral patterns and self-fulfilling phenomena (such as bank runs or bubbles) may complicate the analysis. Overall, an economist will generally feel more comfortable analyzing past events and proposing future policies rather than forecasting. A characteristic that is incidentally shared by doctors and seismologists, who detect environments that are conducive to a heart attack or an earthquake and provide useful recommendations, and at the same time may be hard-pressed to predict the exact timing of the event or even whether the latter will occur at all.

TiroleJean Tirole, the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, has been described as one of the most influential economists of our time. He is chairman of the Toulouse School of Economics and of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His many books include The Theory of Corporate Finance and Financial Crises, Liquidity, and the International Monetary System.

Scheidel, Lo, and Tirole longlisted for FT & McKinsey Business Books of the Year

Scheidel Great Leveler jacketThe longlist for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Books of the Year Award was announced on August 14th, and we’re thrilled that once again the list of finalists includes several Princeton University Press books:

The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel, the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Economics for the Common Good by French winner of the Nobel prize in economics, Jean Tirole, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

Adaptive Markets by Andrew Lo, a new, evolutionary explanation of markets and investor behavior.

Economics for the Common Good by Jean TiroleThe shortlist for this highly distinguished prize will be announced on September 19th. The winner of the Business Book of the Year Award will be awarded £30,000, and £10,000 will be awarded to each of the remaining shortlisted books.

Take a look at all the finalists for this honor during the past decade here.

LoA heartfelt congratulations to our authors.

 

 

 

 

Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: How the study of economics can benefit from the humanities

CentsEconomists often act as if their methods explain all human behavior. But in Cents and Sensibility, an eminent literary critic and a leading economist make the case that the humanities, especially the study of literature, offer economists ways to make their models more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro argue that economists need a richer appreciation of behavior, ethics, culture, and narrative—all of which the great writers teach better than anyone. Original, provocative, and inspiring, Cents and Sensibility brings economics back to its place in the human conversation. Read on to learn more about how the study of economics is lacking, the misreading of Adam Smith, and how the humanities can help.

You clearly think that economics as traditionally practiced is lacking in fundamental ways. Why?
We believe that economic models could be more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just, if economics opened itself up to learning from other fields.

But don’t economists already work on subjects within the typical domain of such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history, among others?
It is true that economists apply their models very widely, but they often expropriate topics rather than sincerely engage with other fields. Too often economists act as if other disciplines have the questions, and economics has the answers. It is one thing to tread on the territory of another discipline; it is quite another to be willing to learn from it. Economists have often been imperialistic, presuming that the subject matter of other disciplines could be put on a “sound basis” if handled by economic models. They rarely ask whether the methods and assumptions of other disciplines might help economics. We need a dialogue, and a dialogue goes both ways.

You say that economics can be improved by interaction with the humanities, and especially the study of literature. In what ways does economics fall short so that an understanding of literature might help?
Economists have an especially hard time in three sorts of situations: when culture plays an important role, since one cannot mathematize culture; when contingency prevails and narrative explanation is required; and when ethical problems irreducible to economic models are important. For instance, whether to have a market in kidneys—one topic we address—is not a question that can be adequately addressed solely in economic terms. Economic thinking has something useful to say in many such cases, but not everything.  Great works of literature have offered the richest portraits of human beings we have. If social scientists understood as much about human beings as the great novelists, they could have produced pictures of human beings as believable as those of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Leo Tolstoy, but none has even come close. The great novelists, who were often keen thinkers who discussed the complexities of human feeling and behavior, must have known something! They also produced the subtlest descriptions of ethical problems we have.

Isn’t economic imperialism the legacy of Adam Smith, the founder of the discipline?
Not at all. Economists, who seldom read The Wealth of Nations and rarely ask students to do so either, present a version of Adam Smith that is largely fictional. A thinker with an immensely complex sense of human nature, and who insisted that human beings care for others in ways that cannot be reduced to self-interest, is presented as a founder of rational choice theory, which presumes the opposite. What has happened is that a few Smithian ideas have been represented as the whole, and then a model based on them alone has been constructed and been attributed to him. While Adam Smith is often invoked to justify a simplistic view of human behavior guided by rational self-interest, and of economic policies that reject any interference with the free functioning of markets, his work was much more nuanced and sophisticated than that. To truly understand The Wealth of Nations, one must also read his complementary volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together, they provide the kind of far-reaching, inclusive economics celebrated in this book—an economics that takes other subjects seriously and embraces narrative explanations.

Don’t those two books contradict each other?
The idea that they do, and the question how the same author could have written them both, is often called “the Adam Smith problem.” In fact, the problem arises only when one misreads Smith. We offer a solution to the Adam Smith problem, which also shows how his thought looks forward to the great novelists to come.

You believe that narratives could teach economics a great deal. Is that why you argue that the humanities could be so useful in making economics more relevant?  How exactly does narrative help?
Stories are important, especially those told by the great realist novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Austen. They help in at least two ways. First, in a world where genuine contingency exists, it is necessary to explain events narratively, and there are no better models for narratives about people in society than those in great novels. Second, novels foster empathy. Other disciplines may recommend empathy, but only novels provide constant practice in it. When you read a great novel, you identify with characters, inhabit their thought processes from within, and so learn experientially what it is to be someone else—a person of a different culture, class, gender, or personality. In a great novel you inhabit many points of view, and experience how each appears to the others. In this way, great novels are a source of wisdom. They appreciate people as being inherently cultural while embracing ethics in all its irreducible complexity.

That doesn’t sound like the way English courses are currently taught or accord with the currently predominant premises of literary theory.
Quite so. We are stressing a particular version of the humanities, what we think of as “the best of the humanities.” In a variety of ways, the humanities have been false to their core mission, which may be why so many students are fleeing them. In addition to the dominant trends of literary theory, we have witnessed a series of “spoof” disciplines, which purport to be humanistic but are actually something else. Sociobiological criticism, digital humanities, and other such trends proceed as if literature were too old fashioned to matter, and one has to somehow restore its importance by linking it—how doesn’t matter much—to whatever is fashionable. They all too often dehumanize the humanities, reducing their value not just to economics but to other fields as well. We celebrate, and recommend economists consider, the humanities at their best.

Are there any particular subjects within economics where engagement with the “best” of the humanities would be especially worthwhile?
There is a wide range of areas covered in the book—from economic development, to the economics of higher education, to the economics of the family—for which we believe a genuine dialogue between the humanities and economics is useful. We offer case studies in each of these areas, with some unanticipated results. We don’t pretend to conclude that dialogue in our book; we instead seek to get it started in a serious way.

Where do you see the dialogue of the two cultures leading?
The point of a real dialogue is that it is open-ended, that you don’t know where it will lead. It is surprising, and that is what makes it both stimulating and creative.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Conspicuous consumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the ‘aspirational class’. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call ‘inconspicuous consumption’. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

The rise of the aspirational class and its consumer habits is perhaps most salient in the United States. The US Consumer Expenditure Survey data reveals that, since 2007, the country’s top 1 per cent (people earning upwards of $300,000 per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward. Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1 per cent now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6 per cent of top 1 per cent household expenditures, compared with just over 1 per cent of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1 per cent spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.

The vast chasm between middle-income and top 1 per cent spending on education in the US is particularly concerning because, unlike material goods, education has become more and more expensive in recent decades. Thus, there is a greater need to devote financial resources to education to be able to afford it at all. According to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from 2003-2013, the price of college tuition increased 80 per cent, while the cost of women’s apparel increased by just 6 per cent over the same period. Middle-class lack of investment in education doesn’t suggest a lack of prioritising as much as it reveals that, for those in the 40th-60th quintiles, education is so cost-prohibitive it’s almost not worth trying to save for.

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27 per cent of mothers fulfill this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11 per cent).

Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today’s aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.

Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

More profoundly, investment in education, healthcare and retirement has a notable impact on consumers’ quality of life, and also on the future life chances of the next generation. Today’s inconspicuous consumption is a far more pernicious form of status spending than the conspicuous consumption of Veblen’s time. Inconspicuous consumption – whether breastfeeding or education – is a means to a better quality of life and improved social mobility for one’s own children, whereas conspicuous consumption is merely an end in itself – simply ostentation. For today’s aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.Aeon counter – do not remove

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the Price School, University of Southern California. Her latest book is The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (2017). She lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

The Financial Diaries

FinancialThe Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider details the results of a groundbreaking study they conducted of 235 low- and middle-income families over the course of one year. What they found is that the conventional life-cycle method of approaching finances, wherein a family saves steadily to prepare for eventual retirement, is unrealistic for many. This book combines hard facts with the personal stories of people struggling to make ends meet, even in a time when America is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. You’ll meet a street vendor, a tax preparer, and many more as Schneider and Morduch challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save. Read on to learn more about the everyday challenges of a casino dealer from central Mississippi.

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Janice Evans has worked at the Pearl River Resort— a family-friendly destination on the Choctaw reservation in central Mississippi with water slides, a spa, two golf courses, a steakhouse, and a casino—for close to twenty years, since she was in her mid-thirties. She works the night shift, starting at 8am and finishing up at 4am. As a single, African American mother with a high school degree, she makes $8.35 per hour, but in a good week she can double that in tips. Customers can put chips in her “toke box,” and at the end of each shift they are collected and counted; the equivalent amount in dollars is then added to Janice’s next paycheck. She does well during the summer months, but fall is much slower. Her income also rises and falls based on where the local college football team is playing that year—when they play near Pearl River people often come to the casino after a game, and when they don’t the casino does not get that business. Over the course of the year Janice makes just over $26,000, or an average of about $2,200 a month. However, due to the fluctuating income from tips, her actual take home pay each month can vary from around $1,800 to approximately $2,400. That represents a 30% deviation between paychecks. Just before the study began, Janice’s son Marcus was laid off from his maintenance job when his employer lost a contract; as a result, he and his three-year-old daughter moved in with Janice. Since he no longer had an income, he qualified for food stamps, an average of $125/month, but this income was unsteady as well: at one point the local social services agency mistook Janice’s income for Marcus’s and canceled his food stamps. It took two months to get them back. And while he also qualified for unemployment benefits, several months passed before the first check arrived. Altogether, the benefits boosted the household’s net income to $33,000, but with the increased funds came increased inconsistency. Whereas before Janice’s income swung 30%, it now swung 70% from high to low months. Given the nature of Janice’s work in a seasonal, low-skill, tipped job and the unreliability of Marcus’s benefits, you might assume that her family’s income would be among the most erratic of the 235 households studied in the U.S. Financial Diaries. In fact, it’s not—the degree of inconsistency in Janice’s household was on par with most families that the authors got to know throughout the course of their study. Morduch and Schneider’s study of families who struggle with income volatility revealed new insights into how Americans make money, borrow, spend, and save.

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To learn more, pick up a copy of The Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider.

Carol Graham on the optimism gap between rich and poor

GrahamThe Declaration of Independence states that all people are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and that among these is the pursuit of happiness. But is happiness available equally to everyone in America today? How about elsewhere in the world? In Happiness for All, Carol Graham draws on cutting-edge research linking income inequality with well-being to show how the widening prosperity gap has led to rising inequality in people’s beliefs, hopes, and aspirations. Recently, she took the time to answer some questions about her new book.

Why did you decide to write a book on unhappiness in the U.S.?

CG: This was a first for me, as I have spent much of my career exploring and writing about the causes and potential solutions to poverty and inequality challenges in developing countries. I took a modest change in direction about a decade ago and began to explore the determinants of happiness in countries and cultures around the world. This turn was driven by my findings of deep frustration among upwardly mobile low-income respondents in emerging market economies. What was most notable was the remarkably consistent patterns in the correlates of happiness across countries of all levels of development. I then found that happier people tended to have happier and more productive lives, and wrote one of the early papers on what happiness ’causes.’ Those findings have since been confirmed by several subsequent studies. Meanwhile, despite (or because of?) my grounding in development economics and origins in Peru, I have been increasingly concerned by the very large gaps between the incomes, opportunities, and lives of the rich and poor in the U.S. – a country with a reputation as the land of opportunity. As such, I decided to explore if and how those gaps were mirrored by differences in well-being and ill-being across the same groups in this book.

What is different about this book from the many recent studies of rising inequality of incomes and opportunities in the U.S.?

CG: While many economists, including me, have been discussing and writing about the downsides of increasing inequality in the U.S., interest in the topic was largely confined to academic audiences until very recently. And while the debate surrounding the 2016 elections brought inequality to the public’s attention, public understanding of actual trends in inequality and their implications remains very limited, in large part because of the complexity of the metrics used to measure it, such as Gini coefficients and 90/10 ratios. In the book I try and tell the same story from the perspective of well-being metrics, in the hopes that it might be a better way to explain the implications of inequality for economists and non-economists alike. One of the little known channels that I highlight is a beliefs and behaviors channel via which high levels of inequality – and large differences between those at the top of the distribution and the rest of the population – can act as a disincentive to investments in the future. This is because ‘success,’ as defined by the lives of those at the top, seems (and often is) out of reach for those at the bottom, making them less likely to make the difficult trade-offs to forego current consumption for the ‘promise’ of future outcomes.

What are your key findings for the land of the American Dream?

CG: Most markers of well and ill-being, ranging from life satisfaction to stress, are more unequally shared across the rich and the poor in the U.S. than they are in Latin America, a region long known for high levels of inequality. The most remarkable finding is that the belief that hard work can get you ahead in the future – a classic American dream question – is the most unequally shared metric. The poor in Latin America are almost four times as likely to believe that hard work will get them ahead than are the poor in the U.S. In contrast, the rich in the U.S. are more likely to believe that hard work will get them ahead than the rich in Latin America. Meanwhile, stress, a marker of ill-being, is significantly higher among the poor in the U.S. than the poor in Latin America. The stress which is typically experienced by the poor is related to constant negative shocks which are beyond individuals’ control. This kind of stress makes it hard to plan ahead, much less invest in the future, and is distinct from stress that is associated with goal achievement – which is more common among those with more means and control over their lives. These findings highlight very different incentives – and capabilities – for making investments in the future across the rich and the poor in the U.S.

Were there any other surprises?

CG: The most surprising of the findings were large gaps in optimism across racial cohorts, which did not run in the expected direction. In the fall of 2015 – about the same time as the riots against police violence against blacks in cities such as Ferguson and Baltimore – I found that the most optimistic group among the poor were poor blacks, followed by poor Hispanics. In contrast, poor whites showed signs of deep desperation. At roughly the same time, Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a study highlighting rising U.S. mortality rates driven by preventable deaths among uneducated middle aged whites. Since then, I have matched my desperation data/lack of optimism data with the mortality rate trends – by race and place – and find that the markers correspond quite closely. The most desperate people and places are poor and vulnerable middle class whites in the rust belt, where available jobs are shrinking due to the hollowing out of manufacturing and people are extremely isolated by distance and climate. In contrast, cities, which are more racially diverse, are healthier, more hopeful, and happier. These trends help explain some of the anger and desperation that drove the 2016 election results in the U.S. and also mirror those which influenced the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and an unexpected (and economically costly) decision to leave the European Union.

What are the potential solutions?

CG: There is no magic bullet to the narrowing the gaps between the lives – and well-being – of the rich and the poor in the U.S. And while desperation among poor and downwardly mobile whites is clearly a concern, there are still momentous challenges facing poor – if more optimistic – minorities. In the book I highlight a range of policies – from better vocational training, to more widely available pre-school and quality public education, to improving our safety net so that it does not stigmatize recipients and at the same time leave the non-working poor behind. I also provide examples – from novel experimental data – of interventions which raise aspirations and hope among the poor and disadvantaged, thereby encouraging investments in the future. I conclude by highlighting the important role that well-being metrics can and should play in official statistics, by tracking the health and well-being of our society, as the U.K. is already doing. The metrics can, for example, identify pockets of desperation before mortality rates increase, and highlight community level practices which increase well-being among the vulnerable, among many other things.

GrahamCarol Graham is the Leo Pasvolsky Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. Her books include The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-BeingHappiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, and Happiness for All? Unequal Hopes and Lives in Pursuit of the American Dream.

In memory of William Baumol

Princeton University Press is saddened to learn of the passing of the great American economist, William Baumol. Baumol was the Harold Price Professor of Entrepreneurship and Academic Director of the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Stern School of Business at New York University; senior economist and professor emeritus at Princeton University, and a prolific author. He will be remembered for his numerous contributions to the study of innovation and economic growth, including a famous theory known as Baumol’s cost disease, recalled here.

Kenneth Rogoff: The Compactness of Big Bills

Today in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash:

From Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, comes a video story marvelously explaining why criminals, tax evaders, and corrupt official so love large denomination notes. Here, an apparently corrupt Nigerian official (who pleads innocence) finds $100s very convenient for stashing cash. The story comes at the top of the show.

I am grateful to Larry Kintisch of Blauvelt NY for drawing my attention to this story. Yes, there is a world of difference between a “less-cash society” as my book argues, and a cash-less society that the cash lobby likes to point to as a scare tactic for maintaining the absurd status quo.

The paperback edition of The Curse of Cash: How Large Denomination Bills Aid Tax Evasion and Crime and Constrain Monetary Policy will be coming out early this summer; now with an analysis of Indian demonetization and other issues that have arisen in the past year.

Read other posts in the series here.

Andrew Lo on Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought

Half of all Americans have money in the stock market, yet economists can’t agree on whether investors and markets are rational and efficient, as modern financial theory assumes, or irrational and inefficient, as behavioral economists believe. In this groundbreaking book, Andrew Lo cuts through this debate with a new framework, the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, in which rationality and irrationality coexist. Adaptive Markets shows that the theory of market efficiency isn’t wrong but merely incomplete. Lo’s new paradigm explains how financial evolution shapes behavior and markets at the speed of thought. An ambitious new answer to fundamental questions in economics, Adaptive Markets is essential reading for anyone who wants to know how markets really work. We asked him to explain the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, the strengths and limitations on the current theories, and how this new thinking can be practically applied.

What led you to write this book?

AL: Ever since I was a graduate student in economics, I’ve been struggling with the uncomfortable observation that economic theory doesn’t seem to work in practice. As elegant as this theory is, there are so many examples where the data just don’t support the theory that, after a while, I started wondering just how useful our theories were. For example, stock market prices don’t follow random walks, market prices don’t always seem rational, and people often make poor decisions, especially when it comes to financial matters. But it takes a theory to beat a theory. Rather than just criticizing existing theories, I decided to develop an alternative—this book describes the personal journey I took to arrive at that alternative, which I call the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis.

What’s the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis?

AL: The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis is my solution to the longstanding debate in financial economics between two competing camps. One camp consists of the disciples of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, who believe that investors are rational decision makers and market prices fully reflect all available information. The opposing camp consists of the psychologists and behavioral economists who believe that investors are irrational and market prices are driven by “animal spirits.” It turns out that both camps have correctly captured certain aspects of human behavior, but neither camp offers a complete picture of how investors and markets behave. The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis fills this gap.

How?

AL: By drawing on recent research in psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and artificial intelligence, I show that human behavior is the result of several different components of the brain, some of which produce rational behavior while others produce more instinctive emotional behavior. These components often work together, but occasionally they compete with each other. And for obvious evolutionary reasons, rationality can be trumped by emotion and instinct when we’re confronted with extreme circumstances like physical threats—we “freak out.” The problem is that these hardwired responses to physical threats are also triggered by financial threats, and freaking out is generally not the best way to deal with such threats. Therefore, investors and markets have a split personality: sometimes they’re quite rational but every so often, they freak out.

Are you suggesting that the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which dominates financial thinking today, is wrong?

AL: No! On the contrary, the Efficient Markets Hypothesis is one of the most useful, powerful, and beautiful pieces of economic reasoning that economists have ever proposed. Generations of investors and portfolio managers have been saved from bad investment decisions because of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, which says that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis is not wrong; it’s merely incomplete. Its focus is the behavior of investors and markets in normal business environments, where the “wisdom of crowds” rules the day. What’s missing is the “madness of mobs,” when investors are reacting emotionally and instinctively in response to extreme business environments—good or bad—leading either to irrational exuberance or panic selling. The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis provides a more complete framework in which both types of behaviors are possible. The combination of these behaviors yields a much richer set of implications for price dynamics, investment strategies, risk management, and financial regulation.

Who is the intended audience for this book?

AL: My intention was to write this book for the general reader, but only time will tell whether or not I’ve succeeded. In fact, I’m hoping that there’s something for everyone in this book. For example, readers wondering whether or not it’s possible to beat the stock market using mathematical models will want to read Chapter 2, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” For readers already convinced that it’s possible and want to understand the neuroscientific basis of irrational behavior, they’ll want to read Chapter 3, “If You’re So Rich, Why Aren’t You Smart?” No book on finance would be complete without a discussion of how the recent financial crisis could have happened to us—a country with one of the most sophisticated financial systems in the world—and that’s Chapter 9, “Fear, Greed, and Financial Crisis.” And for readers interested in getting a glimpse of the future of the financial industry and the amazing things that can be accomplished with finance if used properly, there’s Chapter 12, “To Boldly Go Where No Financier Has Gone Before.” Although the book is based on my academic research, I’ve worked hard to translate “academic-speak” into plain English, using simple analogies and real-life examples to make the research come alive. In fact, there’s not a single equation or mathematical formula in the book, which is no easy feat for someone from MIT!

In Adaptive Markets you take an interdisciplinary view of financial markets, bringing in cognitive neuroscience, biology, computer science, and engineering. How did you come to bring all of these seemingly disparate fields together and why is that important?

AL: Although I do enjoy learning new things and have broad-ranging interests, when I started my academic career as a financial economist, I had no interest or intention in doing “interdisciplinary” research. I was perfectly happy spending my days and nights working on traditional neoclassical financial economics—portfolio theory, derivatives pricing models, asset pricing models, financial econometrics, and so on. But the more I tried to fit financial theories to data, the more frustrated I became that these theories performed so poorly. So I started trying to understand why the theories broke down and how they could be fixed. I began by studying behavioral economics and finance, which led me to psychology, which then to the cognitive neurosciences, and so on. I was dragged—sometimes kicking and screaming—from one field of study to the next in my quest to understand why financial markets don’t work the way we think (and want them to). This process ultimately led me to the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, which is a very satisfying (for me, at least) integration of various disciplines that have something to say about human behavior. I’m especially pleased by the fact that Adaptive Markets reconciles the two competing schools of thought in financial economics, both of which are compelling in their own right even though they’re incomplete.

Why do we need to understand the evolution of finance?

AL: Many authors and academics will use evolution as a metaphor when referring to the impact of change. In Adaptive Markets, I use evolution quite literally because financial markets and institutions are nothing short of evolutionary adaptations that Homo sapiens has developed to improve our chances of survival. Therefore, if we really want to understand how the financial system works, how it changes over time and circumstances, and what we can do to improve it, we need to understand the evolution of finance. And unlike animal species, which evolve from one generation to the next, the financial system evolves at the speed of thought.

You argue that economics wishes it were more like the hard science of physics where 99% of all observable phenomena can be explained with three laws. Will we ever have a complete understanding of how financial markets function?

AL: It’s true that most economists—myself included—suffer from a psychological disorder called “physics envy.” We wish we could explain 99% of economic behavior with three laws like the physicists but this is a pipe dream. The great physicist Richard Feynman put it best when he said, “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings!” I tell all my students at the start of the semester that all economic theories are approximations to a much more complex reality, so the key question for investors and portfolio managers is not “is the theory correct?” but rather, “how good is the approximation?” The answer to this question lies largely in the environment, which plays a huge role in evolutionary theories. Whether we’ll ever be able to develop a truly complete theory of human behavior—and, therefore, how financial markets function—is hard to say. But I do believe that we can get much closer to that complete theory through the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis.

How can investors and portfolio managers incorporate the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis into their investment philosophies?

AL: The Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has a relatively straightforward but sweeping implication for all investment philosophies, and that has to do with change. During normal business environments, the principles of Efficient Markets are an excellent approximation to reality. For example, from the 1930s to the early 2000s, a period where the U.S. stock market had relatively consistent average returns and volatility, a long-only passive investment strategy of 60% stocks and 40% bonds produced pretty decent returns, particularly for those who were investing over a 10- or 20-year horizon. The problem is that this approach doesn’t always work. When market conditions change and we experience large macro shocks like the financial crisis of 2008, then simple heuristics like 60/40 no longer work as well because financial markets have changed in their dynamics. Today’s markets are now much more responsive to intervention by governments and their central banks and punctuated by the irregular cycle of fear and greed. So since 2007 and 2008, we’ve seen a very different market dynamic than over the previous six decades. The point of Adaptive Markets is not simply to be wedded to any static theory, but rather to understand how the nature of markets can change. And once it does change, we need to change with it. John Maynard Keynes put it best when, in responding to criticism that he flip-flopped on the gold standard, he said, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

Can you give an example of how change might impact today’s investors?

AL: One important implication of Adaptive Markets for investors and portfolio managers is that passive investing is changing and we have to adapt. John Bogle—the founder of the Vanguard Group and the father of passive investing and index funds—had an incredibly important insight in the 1970s which he calls the “Cost Matters Hypothesis:” reducing trading costs can have a huge impact on wealth accumulation. Bogle has done more for the individual investor than anyone else I can think of; he democratized the investment process. Thanks to technological innovations like automated trading, electronic market-making, and big data analytics, we’re ready to take the next evolutionary step that builds on Bogle’s legacy. For example, like the trend in healthcare towards personalized medicine, we can now create personalized indexes that are passive portfolios designed to achieve specific goals for a given individual. You might be more risk tolerant than your neighbor so your portfolio will have more equities, but because you work in the financial industry and she works in big pharma, your personalized portfolio will have fewer financial stocks and hers will have fewer biopharma stocks. Also, personalized indexes can manage the risk more actively to suit an individual’s threshold of “pain.” Current financial wisdom criticizes investors who don’t invest for the long run, and I’ve always thought such criticism to be terribly unfair. After all, how easy is it for someone to stick with an investment that’s lost 50% of its value over just a few months? Well, that’s exactly what happened between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009. Traditional investment advice is a bit like trying to prevent teenage pregnancies by asking teenagers to abstain—it’s not bad advice, but it’s unrealistic. Why not manage the risk of an individual’s portfolio more actively so as to reduce the chances of freaking out?

Finance has developed a bad reputation in the popular press, particularly in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis. Does the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis have anything to say about this and how things can be improved?

AL: Absolutely. At the heart of all bad behavior, regardless of the industry or context, is human nature. Humans are the Curious George of the animal kingdom, but there’s no “man in the yellow hat” to bail us out when we get into trouble. Homo sapiens has evolved in some remarkable ways and we’re capable of extraordinary things, both good and bad. The same social and cultural forces that give rise to wonderful organizations like the Peace Corps, the Red Cross, and Doctors without Borders can sometimes lead to much darker and destructive organizations. The only way for us to deal more effectively with the negative aspects of society is to acknowledge this dual nature of human behavior. Chapter 11 of Adaptive Markets, titled “Fixing Finance,” is devoted entirely to this objective. We have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater—the financial system definitely can be improved, but we shouldn’t vilify this critically important industry because of a few bad actors.

What are some specific proposals for how to fix finance?

AL: Well, before we can fix finance, we need to understand where financial crises come from, and the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has a clear answer: crises are the product of human behavior coupled with free enterprise. If you can eliminate one or both of these two components, you can eliminate financial crises. Otherwise, financial crises are an avoidable fact of modern life. Human misbehavior is a force of Nature, not unlike hurricanes, flash floods, or earthquakes, and it’s not possible to legislate away these natural disasters. But this doesn’t mean we can do anything about it—we may not be able to prevent hurricanes from occurring, but we can do a great deal to prepare for them and reduce the damage they do. We can do a lot to prepare for financial crises and reduce the damage they do to those individuals and institutions least able to withstand their devastating consequences. This perspective is important because it goes against the traditional narrative that financial crises are caused by a few greedy unscrupulous financiers and once we put them in jail, we’ve taken care of the problem. The Adaptive Markets perspective suggests something different: the problem is us. Specific proposals for dealing with crises include: using new technologies in data science to measure economic activity and construct early warning indicators of impending crises; studying crises systematically like the way the National Transportation Safety Board studies airplane crashes so we know how to make the financial system safer; creating adaptive regulations that change with the environment, becoming more restrictive during booms and less restrictive during busts; and systematically measuring individual behavior and corporate culture quantitatively so we can engage in “behavioral risk management.”

Now that you’ve written this book, where do you see your research going from here?

AL: Well, this is still early days for the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis. There’s so much left to be done in exploring the implications of the theory and testing the implications empirically and experimentally whenever possible. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis took decades and hundreds of academic studies to get established, and the same will be true of this one. One of my goals in writing this book is to motivate my academic and industry colleagues to start this vetting process. In the same way that Darwin’s theory of evolution had to be tested and challenged from many different perspectives, the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis has to go through the gauntlet of academic scrutiny. One important implication of the Adaptive Markets perspective is that we need to change the way we collect data and test theories in financial economics. For example, traditional tests of financial theories involve collecting stock market prices and analyzing the statistical properties of their risks and returns. Contrast this approach with how an ecologist would study a newly discovered tropical island in an effort to preserve it. He would begin by first cataloguing the flora and fauna, identifying the key species, and measuring their biomasses and behaviors. Next, he would determine the food chain, environmental threats, and predator/prey relationships, and then turn to population dynamics in the context of the changing environment. Ultimately, such a process would lead to a much deeper understanding of the entire ecosystem, allowing ecologists to determine the best way to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of that island. Imagine doing the same thing with the financial industry. We would begin by cataloguing the different types of financial institutions and investors, measuring their financial biomass, and identifying key species—banks, hedge funds, pension funds, retail investors, regulators, etc.—and their behaviors. Then we would determine the various types of business relationships and interdependencies among these species, which are critical for mapping the population dynamics of this financial ecosystem. This approach seems sensible enough, but it’s not yet being done today (except by my collaborators and me!).

How do you continue to evolve your own thinking? What do you do?

AL: Someone very wise once said that the beginning of wisdom is humility, and I’m convinced that this is how we make progress as a civilization. Once we’re convinced that we have all the answers, we stop asking new questions and learning. So I’m continually looking for new ways to understand financial market behavior, and constantly humbled by how little I know compared to how much we have yet to discover. In this respect, I guess I’m an intellectual opportunist—I don’t care where an idea comes from or what academic discipline it belongs to; if it gives me new insight into an existing problem, I’ll use it and build on it. I’m currently working on several applications of the Adaptive Markets Hypothesis to investments, risk management, and financial regulation, and also hoping to test the theory in the context of individual and institutional investment decisions. The initial results are quite promising and show that financial industry participants adapt much more quickly than we thought. These results point to several important unintended consequences that have clear implications for how we should regulate the industry so as to reduce the chances of another financial crisis.

Andrew W. Lo is the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor at the MIT Sloan School of LoManagement and director of the MIT Laboratory for Financial Engineering. He is the author of Hedge Funds and Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought. He is also the founder of AlphaSimplex Group, a quantitative investment management company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.