Anthropology is most likely to outperform economics when wealth maximization is not a useful proxy for utility maximization. That's quite a broad swathe of cases. We need then to see how other values become imbued with social meaning and why they hold such an important place in the utility function. The answers to these questions are almost certainly context-dependent. Yet most useful economic theories deliberately abstract from context. For this reason, every economist should do fieldwork at some point in his or her career. A stint in government, time behind the counter at Nordstroms, or a sojourn in a third world village can all qualify. That being said, without an inquiring and curious spirit, all of these endeavors are a waste of time.There are limits to how far one can take a demonstration that all monetary values ultimately reflect subjective preferences before one runs afoul of the problem that any observation can be explained by an appeal to preferences. Therein lies the dilemma that Anthropology and Economics faces. Specifically,
Meanings qua meanings are not scarce. In the material world and especially in the artistic world, I can attribute any meanings to any object.Sure. Fantasies, hobbies, role playing, hanging out with friends, the possibilities are in fact endless. The problem, however, is in getting others to see the value in those possibilities. (I have gotten into more than one argument with an artistic type about the concept of "intrinsic value." In my view of the world, it doesn't exist. I find requests for subsidy for artistic expression that rely on that argument particularly offensive.) Professor McCracken is struggling precisely with that point:
But credible, shared meanings begin to take on scarcity when the meanings of the private domain are exposed to public scrutiny. I can claim any meanings for myself that I want. (And this is a growth industry with individuals empowered to make larger and more various claims in a kind of solipsistic vacuum. Maybe people now cherish the notion that they are the king of France. I believe history will one day show me to be the one true claimant. But that?s another topic.) But if I want these meanings to be publicly ratified, I am obliged to display, perform, variously present them to public scrutiny.Yes, and to get that Mercedes, you have to exchange your best efforts for the best efforts of others. Competition entails the discovery of those best efforts, and competition to discover best efforts is socially useful because some kinds of resources are indeed scarce and have competing uses.
This becomes one of the reasons I go to the marketplace. It is, among other things, a market of meanings in which I must make a choice under constraint. A Mercedes gives me a claim to certain kinds of meanings. It allows me to present, perform, display a bundle of meanings to do with status, age, sophistication, etc. It allows me to lay claim to these meanings in a manner that the world can recognize and ratify. (?We know who you are.? ?We accept who you are.?) I have surrendered economic value to get cultural value.
On the topic of best efforts, Professor Cowen notes his enthusiasm for Professor McCracken's work. Professor McCracken has been bouncing ideas off of his colleague Steven Postrel (yes, that Steven Postrel), all of which makes his comment that "Karlson writes like a wizard" (from here) particularly gratifying. Thanks!