The Economics of Voting and Other Archaic Rituals
In The New York Times today the 'Freakonomics' duo basically recycle and old column. I knew TV shows went into re-runs, but am a bit surprised that opinion columns, even cute ones, do so too. So here is the 'stupid economist joke' that Dubner & Levitt used as a hook a couple years back:
The obvious question from the point of view of a non-economist is why the final "sheepish" interaction, all that promising and hand-shaking to seal the deal? Indeed, why even their initial pretense? Is any of that less gratuitous and irrational than voting? After all, unless we assume some anonymous medium that might be used for professional character assassination, in order for either of these two economists to reveal that he'd witnessed the other entering the booth, he'd also have to reveal that he himself had gone to the polls. Perhaps he might insist that he'd not voted but merely accompanied his wife - the sort of "date" to which only a self-respecting economist would admit. But that would hardly be credible. And the colleague he'd already "outed" would surely testify loudly to that effect.
Within the economics departments at certain universities, there is a famous but probably apocryphal story about two world-class economists who run into each other at the voting booth
"What are you doing here?" one asks.
"My wife made me come," the other says.
The first economist gives a confirming nod. "The same."
After a mutually sheepish moment, one of them hatches a plan: "If you promise never to tell anyone you saw me here, I'll never tell anyone I saw you." They shake hands, finish their polling business and scurry off.
So the ritualized mutual assurance involved in making up implausible excuses and promising and hand-shaking is a complete waste too, right? Yet in all likelihood, for any given year world-wide, there are very many, many more instances of people (and economists too) engaging in those sorts of ritual than in going to the polls to vote. A mildly clever economist, and they are nothing if not clever, will no doubt start invoking epicycles here - reputation effects and repeated interactions and so forth. In this example that is simply ad hoc. Both of these world class economists (in fact, even any middling member of the club) surely would be able to see through to the essential strategic structure of their interaction and dispense with the ritualized niceties. They would, that is, if they really acted out their theories. Pragmatic contradictions are a killer. They remind us that we too are just regular folks.