Saturday, February 9, 2008

Why Am I Spending Part of My Weekend Writing a Blog Post About Obama?

Cornell prof Robert Frank has a nice column in today's NY Times in which he comes out as another prominent economist for Obama. The column is principally about the issue of why people devote money and time (and blog posts) to campaigns at all, when they have zero chance of influencing the outcome. It ends with the following:

Many people have likened the response to Mr. Obama’s appeal for civic engagement to the response to similar appeals by President John F. Kennedy during the 1960s. Then, as now, many economists were skeptical. The Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, for example, began the opening chapter of his 1962 book, “Capitalism and Freedom,” by quoting the already-famous passage from Kennedy’s inaugural address in which he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Mr. Friedman seemed to find the statement unintelligible, or at any rate not “worthy of the ideals of free men in a free society.”

“The free man,” he wrote, “will ask neither what his country can do for him, nor what he can do for his country.”

Some economists seem similarly baffled by the exuberance inspired by the Obama candidacy. But while homo economicus may be unresponsive to calls for sacrifice for the common good, the plain fact is that many people find such calls compelling.

Self-interest is surely an important human motive, perhaps even the most important motive much of the time. But it is never the only important motive. And during at least some moments in history, narrow self-interest models miss the essential story line completely. This may be one of those moments.

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