Saturday, July 25, 2009
Critical Thinking about Economics
I was delighted when the Ohio Board of Regents hired me as Chancellor to help them and the state "think out-of-the-box." That's what my education and management consulting career had trained me to do. So I've been especially pleased when I find others who do so and help others stretch their thinking.
Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational introduced me to a new field - behavioral economics - and it challenged my previous thinking.
The only economics courses I took in college were in my MBA curriculum. While taking those courses - which I enjoyed - I thought I would have enjoyed taking economics as my undergraduate major (instead of the mathematics and physics which I took), and I have advised others interested in studying business as an undergraduate major to major in economics instead. With my math background, I quickly understood the economics principles from the models on which they were built. My understanding of the simple principles of supply and demand and economic efficiency became the basis for my self-described moniker of "free-marketeer."
From Prof. Ariely's book - and then a couple of sessions by Cornell University professors in Ithaca last year for the Trustee/Council Annual Meeting entitled "Why Trial Judges Make Mistakes" and "Using Psychology to Create a Better Economics" - I learned that the economics models that have been developed to describe decision making are perhaps too simplistic to reflect decisions that are actually made.
The notion that models don't perfectly predict performance isn't surprising to me. All models necessarily simplify the real world and hence must be produce somewhat inaccurate depictions of reality. The research done by Prof. Ariely at Duke and Profs. Jeffrey Rachlinski, Thomas Gilovich, and Edward O'Donoghue at Cornell, though, leads to real questions on how useful many of the fundamental economic theories are in depicting the real world, since their research shows that people behave so differently from what those basic theories predict.
This issue is not one of mere "academic" interest. The world has experienced an economic meltdown that has affected hundreds of millions of people - a meltdown that, at its core, was enabled by notions based on those basic economic theories. Alan Greenspan, for example, has testified that his lifetime of free-market thinking and economic policies were based on the mistaken belief that financial institutions would do what was necessary to protect their shareholders and institutions.
For over 20 years, I have questioned whether CEOs really would act in the long-term interests of their companies and shareholders. While I was certainly trained in my MBA studies to act with such interests, I remember first questioning that objective the year Michael Eisner earned what I recall was $104 million in his first year as CEO at Disney. I asked if any CEO who could make more money in one year than he or his heirs could ever spend in their lifetimes would be concerned about the future earnings, let alone survival, of their institutions. Wall Street earnings and bonuses have since made that $104 million look like chicken feed.
I cite the difference between Greenspan's and my thinking not to in any way to suggest that I'm smarter than he is. Rather, I do so to note the crucial importance of challenging old thinking. Trillions of dollars in net worth have evaporated because a basic old thought wasn't sufficiently challenged by those with the authority - and responsibility - to do so.
Developing "critical thinking" in its students is the professed objective of virtually every college and university in America. How these institutions accomplish this objective is a largely unexplored mystery. Certainly, some students have mastered the required disciplinary knowledge to think deeply about questions and are able to synthesize their knowledge to apply it to questions other than those they have studied. But how has their education systematically developed these abilities? Further, to be applied in the appropriate situations, critical thinking must also be a personal disposition, for unless a Greenspan challenges his own thinking, the mere possession of the knowledge and the ability to think critically will be woefully wasted.
As demonstrated by this new work in behavioral economics, one way academe gets its scholars and students to think out-of-the-disciplinary-box is to encourage interdisciplinary studies - in this case, the interaction of psychology and economics. Looking between the cracks in organizations has been a fundamental strategy I learned in my management consulting career. However, such exploration is a very unnatural act in academe, in which scholars' academic careers have been built on being experts in precisely small fields within single academic disciplines. As it's been said, a Ph.D. learns more and more about less and less. Then gaining tenure has required a slavish dedication to one's chosen discipline, if only as an act of career self-interest (for if you don't gain tenure in one institution, you'll need to look to your colleagues in your discipline to help you secure a position in another institution to try again).
So how do we actually get students to develop the knowledge, ability, and disposition to think critically? As I've noted, this is a crucially important question and it is one that transcends individual academic disciplines. The answer must not be sloughed off with simplistic replies like "Well, that's what liberal education is all about." After all, our current economic and political situation is one that has been developed by public officials, leaders, and voters who are largely products of that liberal education system.
We need to do better. Challenging our old ways of thinking is a way to start.