The Importance of the Sociological, Psychological, and Cultural Elements in Understanding the Labor Market

In the January 16, 2020 edition of the Financial Times, Edward Luce reviewed three books trying to understand the rise of populism in the United States. One of the books he reviewed was Dignity by Chris Arnade, which sounds like a fascinating read, as do the other two books. I have not read any of the books, yet, but they all of them are at the top of my reading list beginning with Dignity. Luce’s review is a fascinating read, but one brief paragraph in his article really grabbed my attention. To provide some context to the quote, Arnade was a bond trader on Wall Street before quitting his job to travel to poor communities around the U.S. to observe an experience what poverty in America is really like instead of just relying on data analysis and theories. His observations were counter to his preconceived notions.

Arnade’s journey also taught him about the importance of place. Again and again, he would ask people in desperate straits why they did not simply pack up and leave. “Because this is my home,” they would reply as if talking to a child. Whether he was in a black or white neighbourhood, or mixed, the answer was usually the same. None of the Arnade’s spreadsheets could explain why. He had to leave his own world to understand why religion and place were the life rafts people clung to (Source given below).

The reply, “Because this is my home,” really struck me because in economics we more often than not assume perfectly competitive labor markets, and in order for such markets to exist, we assume labor is mobile. So, if workers find themselves in a situation where they are not making enough money (i.e., they are living in poverty), they will simply move to find a higher paying job, if possible. Clearly, this is not always possible (or reasonable to expect) and is yet another example of why we need to understand the sociological, psychological, and cultural elements of economic behavior, if we really want to understand it.

Source: Luce, Edward. January 16, 2020. “Populism and the Smouldering Rage of American Poverty.” Financial Times.



Insights 1: Econs and Humans

I am launching a new series – called “Insights” – that will include posts on brief statements of wisdom or viewpoints that I come across in my readings or other sources. My hope is that this will pique your curiosity and encourage further exploration of the topic.

The first insight comes from Dr. Daniel Kahneman. I just finished reading his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is full of great insights, especially if you have an interested in human behavior and economics. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.

In this passage from the book, an “Econ” is the name given to the fictitious person modeled in neoclassical economics.

In a nation of Econs, government should keep out of the way, allowing the Econs to act as they choose, so long as they do not harm others. If a motorcycle rider chooses to ride without a helmet, a libertarian will support his right to do so. Citizens know what they are doing, even when they choose not to save for their old age, or when they expose themselves to addictive substances. There is sometimes a hard edge to this position: elderly people who did not save for retirement get little more sympathy than someone who complains about the bill after consuming a large meal at a restaurant. Much is therefore at stake in the debate between the Chicago school and the behavioral economists, who reject the extreme form of the rational-agent model. Freedom is not a contested value; all the participants in the debate are in favor of it. But life is more complex for behavioral economists than for true believers in human rationality. No behavioral economists favors a state that will force its citizens to eat a balanced diet and to watch only television shows that are good for the soul. For behavioral economists, however, freedom has a cost, which is borne by individuals who make bad choices, and by a society that feels obligated to help them. The decision of whether or not to protect individuals against their mistakes therefore presents a dilemma for behavioral economists. The economists of the Chicago school do not face that problem, because rational agents do not make mistakes. For adherents of this school, freedom is free of charge (p. 412).


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.