Thursday, May 29, 2014

Medically Affirming the Gluten-Free Consequent, a Rant in Three Parts

Instead of making three separate posts today, I'll break this up into a trio of bite-sized chunks.

First, via [post since taken down], a piece from one of the flagship journals in economics, the AER. Titled "Who Is (More) Rational," the authors conclude that decision-making consistency correlates with wealth, even after controlling for standard SES variables including income. Think about that for a moment. If you measure wealth, controlling for things like age, education and income, the residual will be savings. Of if you prefer, retained earnings net of consumption. What the authors are showing is that risk consistency correlates with consumption. Risk-inconsistent folks blow their paychecks in other words.

But the the embarrassing bit is that a non-economist pointed out the very obvious emperor-has-no-clothes error of affirming the consequent. The authors use these findings to claim that choice architecture is therefore wise. Good risk consistency leads to wealth, therefore a wise and just government should help people make better (more consistent) risk decisions. A→B therefore B→A. Yikes!

The discipline of economics exists in part to cure folks of common fallacies. The discipline is not covered in glory when practitioners commit elementary logic errors of their own.

Then there's this. I noticed a tube of gluten-free lotion on my bathroom sink this morning. I assume Mrs. Spivonomist picked it up because she liked the smell rather than the fact that an enterprising manufacturer was kind enough to extract the glutenin and gliadin from the, I don't know, spelt or whatever they use to make body lotion.

Celiac disease is horrible. So is Crohn's, and so are all of the common co-morbidities (ataxia, various anemias, dermatitis, etc.). So it is a good thing that folks burdened with these sorts of disorders have products tailored for them. But it seems insulting somehow to co-opt an awful medical condition for fashionable food purity signaling. Then again, if you've got an autoimmune disorder that tells your T-cells to eat your intestine any time you nibble on a cracker, you'll probably rest a bit easier knowing you can visit KFC after slathering on some body lotion. Your BATNA is worse than mine, so I'm on wobbly footing when I complain.

The combination of these two stories hints at what's been bugging me this week. We've got a risk-inconsistent voting population who demands gluten-free body lotion from Trader Joe's. On its own, that's fine. Voluntary, mutually-beneficial commerce is great as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. But it does seem weird to want to hand over important medical decisions to this (rationally) irrational mob of voters. There seems to be something desperately perverse about mocking Middle America's beer-swilling, NASCAR-watching proclivities, and then turning to the government for relief of everyday, private grievances. If the government is us, and we are a bunch of Yahoos, does not the transitive property apply? What alchemy transforms the dross of the median voter into the gold of the philosopher king inside the voting booth?

Unless and until we are each distributed our very own vial of unicorn tears on our 18th birthday, perhaps it's wiser to keep mob justice out of our personal lives. The next thing you know, mayor Bloomberg will have us all drinking gluten-free sodas out of thimbles or something. "Non-euvoluntary" isn't code for "government should do something."

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?