Delightful conversation with Sylvia on the train. She is an academic micro-economist with a slight foreign accent, and I started us off by noticing that she was reading a paper on “poverty of aspiration”, and asking what that meant. It is the theory that the poor are so because they do not imagine they can do any better. At worst this is an excuse for the rich, a useful phrase to express that it is the fault of the poor that they are poor, they should just aspire more. But it can be an observation that at least some people might do better if they imagined they could, so that there are efforts to instil self-respect in schoolchildren, and they are taken on day trips to universities to encourage them to imagine they might go there.
-There is a crisis in Economics.
-Because of the crash and its aftermath.
Macro-economics looks at large groups, but micro-economics considers individuals, trespassing on the territory of sociology or psychology, but in a more mathematical way than those disciplines. Economics has always postulated rational actors, but we are not.
I say that I gain pleasure from altruistic behaviour. I think it is a character trait. Could such a trait evolve? she challenges. Well, yes, in my subsistence farming village of a hundred people, I am altruistic and they all love me for it.
– it is reciprocal, she agrees. But you could also have introjected it from your religious upbringing.
Yes. So we have two theories, and need to consider what observations might confirm or refute them.
-And we might consider what religious/moral beliefs are best for the good of society.
She is pleased to hear I am considering reading Thomas Piketty. It is written for the educated lay-person, she says. She recommends Esther Duflo on poverty. What do you do? I confess my personal interest in “poverty of aspiration”. I despaired. She speaks warmly. It is obvious from speaking to you that you have gifts and talents and you are attractive and able to engage. You must not despair!