Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

The Triumph of the Social Animal

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 24, 2012 15:37 UTC

BERLIN — Does fairness matter? As France prepares to elect a president this spring and the United States gets ready to elect a president in the autumn, that old philosopher’s chestnut is gaining tremendous real-time political relevance.

Economics, by contrast, hasn’t traditionally been much concerned with fairness. Instead, economists have based their analysis on “Homo economicus,” a model human being who is perfectly rational and perfectly guided by self-interest.

The financial crisis of 2008 made it hard to believe in a world of perfectly rational actors, even when they earn million-dollar salaries and have advanced degrees. Now, a growing body of research is challenging the second part of the definition of Homo economicus — that he is guided purely by self-interest.

The alternate view was advanced by Armin Falk, a Bonn University economist, at a recent economics conference in Berlin organized by the Institute for New Economic Thinking. It emphasizes the importance of fairness and trust to human behavior. This approach takes as its starting point the idea that we are social animals, driven powerfully by how we fit into our community.

The social animal school may sound touchy-feely, but one of its favorite research tools is the M.R.I. That is the machine Dr. Falk and his colleagues used to try to figure out whether we care most about the absolute material reward we get for our work — as a rational Homo economicus should — or whether fairness matters, too.

The rise of lousy and lovely jobs

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 12, 2012 21:56 UTC

More bad news for the middle class: When the economy recovers, jobs in the middle won’t. That is the conclusion of an important new study that connects a long-term trend in the labor market with the business cycle of recession and rebound.

Nir Jaimovich, an economist at Duke University, and Henry E. Siu, an economist at the University of British Columbia, take as their starting point one of the most important continuing changes in Western developed societies. That shift is what economists, most notably David Autor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have called the ‘‘polarization’’ of the job market. Maarten Goos and Alan Manning, extending the research to Britain, have more colorfully dubbed it the dual rise of ‘‘lousy and lovely’’ jobs.

Their point is that, thanks to technology, more and more ‘‘routine’’ tasks can be done by machines. The most familiar example is the increasing automation of manufacturing. But machines can now do ‘‘routine’’ white-collar jobs, too — things like the work that used to be performed by travel agents and much of the legal ‘‘discovery’’ that was done by relatively well-paid associates with expensive law degrees.

Statecraft via Twitter

Chrystia Freeland
Apr 5, 2012 21:36 UTC

It turns out you can govern in 140 characters. Social media is often accused of coarsening our public discourse and of making us stupid. But some innovative public leaders are taking to their keyboards and finding that the payoff is a direct and personal connection with their communities.

To understand how statecraft by Twitter works, I spoke to three avid practitioners, who are spread around the globe and work at different levels of government: Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden; Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, Alberta.

Bildt is a veteran blogger, but he was dubious about Web 2.0, as the social-media revolution is sometimes called. “I was rather skeptical on Twitter,” he told me. “I thought, ‘What can you say in 140 characters?’”

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