A Physics Look at Economics

16 09 2007

Sean Carroll at the Cosmic Variance blog.

But the other, closely related, sense of linearity is the ability to simply add together the utility associated with different kinds of goods: U(x+y) = U(x) + U(y), where x and y are different goods. In the real world, utility isn’t anything like that. It’s highly nonlinear; the presence of one good can dramatically affect the value placed on another one. I’m also pretty sure that absolutely every economist in the world must know this, and surely they use interesting non-linear utility functions when they write their microeconomics papers. But the temptation to approximate things as linear can lead, I suspect, to the kind of faulty reasoning that dissuades you from ordering wine in nice restaurants. Of course, you could have water with your meal, and then go home and have a glass of wine you bought yourself, thereby saving some money and presumably increasing your net utility. But having wine with dinner is simply a different experience than having the wine later, after you’ve returned home. There is, a physicist would say, strong coupling between the food, the wine, the atmosphere, and other aspects of the dining experience. And paying for that coupling might very well be worth it.

Physicists deal with this by working hard at isolating the correct set of variables which are (relatively) weakly-coupled, and dealing with the dynamics of those variables. It would be silly, for example, to worry about protons and neutrons if you were trying to understand chemistry — atoms and electrons are all you need.

More here.



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