A rather rambling post on observing versus prescribing.
My Basic Question: What’s the cognitive difference (if any) between linguistic decisions and economic decisions?
My Other Question: What’s the difference between the way linguists study data and the way economists study data?
As I’ve said on this blog before, over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in economics, particularly macro-economics. I follow several econ blogs like Greg Mankiw, Brad DeLong and Freakonomics (have not yet read the actual Freakonomics book, though)and have read a variety of popular econ books by Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz. For what it’s worth (not much) Mankiw can count me as a member of the Pigou Club.
But the more I read, the more uncomfortable with basic economics analysis I am becoming, and I think I’ve finally hit on why. It’s because, as a linguist, I’ve been trained in descriptive analysis, but it’s my impression that economists are in the business of prescriptions. Specifically, they prescribe optimal decision making. All economists I’ve encountered (liberal, conservative, libertarian) assume a model of human decision making where some decisions are good and others are bad (presumably based on the utility of the outcomes of those decisions). If I’ve gotten this generalization wrong, please let me know. Though I’ve never studied it formally, this seems to be the basic point of game theory.
I think it’s fair to say that few linguists think of linguistic decisions as either good or bad. Linguists avoid labeling decisions as “bad” because that would be a fundamentally prescriptivist approach. Linguists simply record decisions as facts (e.g., Americans say “ain’t” in context Y but not in context Z) then try to model the decision making as it is.
Part of the difference is probably due to the fact that economists work under the assumption that economic decisions are conscious and rational while linguists work under the assumption that linguistic decisions are automatic or unconscious; it’s not as though we think people are weighing the option between ain’t and am not then making a rational choice regarding which to choose to articulate. It is the natural human language system that makes the decision, and it’s our job as linguists to figure out what factors influence that decision. Weighing the option between a 25 cent/lb orange from
This descriptive/prescriptive distinction is fundamental to studying linguistics, and it’s also the one point above all others that causes the most friction between linguists and non-linguists when discussing language issues. Popular perception holds that linguists want to change the way people talk. But this is pure fantasy. Maybe high school English teacher do, but linguists don’t. Linguists are first and foremost observers.
Can this also be said of economists? Are they trained to avoid prescriptions? My impression is, no. Quite the opposite. Economists are trained to provide prescriptions. Economists seem to be primarily concerned with policy. Policy analysis is about prescribing decisions.
For a recent example of this, see Mankiw’s post Must or Should.
This all started with Mankiw referencing some neuroeconomists support for the claim that the comparative size of a reward affects people’s happiness (not just the absolute size). According to Mankiw, he and Brad DeLong have different views about people’s basic motivations (a descriptive fact). DeLong made this descriptive comment September 3, 2006:
According to Mankiw, he and Brad DeLong have different views about people’s basic motivations (a descriptive fact). DeLong made this descriptive comment September 3, 2006:
My point was that the rich are spiteful--that they enjoy the envy of the poor.
Here’s Mankiw’s summary from Sept 3, 2006:
Brad seems to see the rich as especially mean and spiteful. I see them as some combination of more talented, hard-working, and lucky than average but otherwise like everyone else. (Or maybe Brad views everyone as mean and spiteful and the rich as having more opportunities to exercise these vile attributes.) I wonder if our varying perspectives on human nature can partly explain our different positions on public policy.
It seems to me the basic problem facing both Mankiw and DeLong (and any policy minded economist) is the challenge of teasing their respective descriptions of how people really do make decisions apart from their respective prescriptions for how governments should affect people’s decision making. Economics is fundamentally about human decision making, making it, in essence, a branch of cognitive science.
I recognize my own need to tread carefully on the ground of economics since I have no training in the area. I will gladly stipulate that economists like Mankiw and DeLong are very smart, well trained scholars who understand the complexities and nuances of economic decision making far better than the vast majority of people on this Earth (certainly far better than little ol’ me). I fear I might be reducing their analyses down to an absurd straw man out of my own ignorance of their actual, detailed work which may be far more savvy about descriptions of decision making than I am currently giving them credit for.
Nonetheless, in the spirit of off-the-top-of-your-head blogging, I wonder if they are trained in the descriptive/prescriptive distinction in the way the linguists are?
Linguists are explicitly trained to describe language as it really is (if North American English speakers say "ain't" and end their sentences with prepositions, then so be it, we study that). In fact, most linguists are trained to despise prescriptivism as inherently unnatural and counterproductive. Language is what it is.
But when I read the popular work of economists (Mankiw's blog, Sach's books, Stgilitz's book, etc) I often wonder if they are keeping the distinction straight. It seems like they confuse their prescriptions for the way people ought to make decisions with the facts of how people really make decisions (and that was the point of the neuro-economics study). Any policy suggestions linguists may recommend (e.g., anti-English only) are based on our understanding of the facts about how people really use language, not on opinion about how we feel people should use language. In other words, it seems like economic policy suggestions from Mankiw et al. are based on their (educated, intelligent) opinion about how people ought to make decisions, with the, at least implicit, hope of changing the decision making system of the average person.
I doubt any serious linguist would make policy suggestions in the hopes of changing the way people naturally make linguistic decisions.
Do economists try to sculpt economic policy suggestions to try to change the way people naturally make decisions? My hunch is, yes. And I fear this is a fool’s errand.
I have a close friend who did a B.A. in economics at
The answer is that I don't remember much emphasis on doing things one way or the other. We clearly did want to create theories that would help people make better choices, but there were also theories about why people made bad choices where there were market break downs (generally problems with information or instances where group benefits conflict with individual benefits). Clearly though I don't remember us ever being told "do not try to change people only observe." Changing for the better would have been seen as good I think (emphasis added)
Interesting. We seem to have hit on the crux of the issue.