Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Economics and Moral Sentiments Group Yesterday

We read and discussed the two papers about culture by sociologists Richard Peterson and nobody came at me with a pitchfork . . . yesterday was a victory! I thought other people would be troubled by my reading selections. Much of what Peterson writes about is information important to sociologists but not as relevant to the economic conversation. For example, is writing about the evolution of country music radio really that important for growth and economic development? No. But, what emerged from our conversation that could prove helpful?

There are values in a culture that are conducive to economic growth: integrity, thrift, and trust. Trust and integrity are important aspects of trade. When making trades it is possible that one person is put in a vulnerable position, especially in the absence of a solid legal system. Therefore, people lacking trust in others may never seek to make certain trades which results in unrealized gains from exchange.

Thrift is important because savings is the real engine of growth. Savings provides capital for entrepreneurs and other large important purchases that spur innovation, improve efficiency and jolt other sectors in the economy. We know that savings does happen even in less developed countries where people live on $1 or $2 a day; but, there isn't much room for disposable income.

Now, how do we cultivate (ie produce) such values that we think are important? How could people come to have greater integrity and trust? Where will they learn the merits of thrift? We've entered the realm of belief systems. Why do people choose certain beliefs? How are those beliefs acted out in difficult circumstances?

The article about how culture is produced had some very interesting thoughts about what helps to spread culture: television can help spread culture (recent economic studies have linked soap operas to decreased fertility in Brazil and television shows in India have been linked to attitudinal changes toward women). I'm still thinking about how the other ideas that Peterson discusses might help propagate values and produce culture. More on this later.

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