Eric Wanner: “Social science gives a better, clearer, deeper picture of what is actually happening”
Eric Wanner was inducted as the 2011 Eleanore Roosevelt Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on June 2, 2011. Introducing Dr. Wanner, Robert Sampson, stated that “Eric has had a distinguished and unique career that has been fundamental in shaping the course of social science research. For Eric, however, this research is always about the betterment of society, and I think it is so fitting then that he should be the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Fellow.” Below is a transcript of Eric Wanner’s remarks.
Well, thank you. I am really deeply honored and, to be honest, surprised and quite happy and I can accept this if I can accept the recognition for everybody who has worked with me at Russell Sage for the last twenty-five years, and not to mention all the social scientists who have collaborated with us over that time. I always say that we are much more idea limited than we are money limited, even though we are a pretty small foundation, and if we did not have people all around us who were willing to pitch in with their research ideas and their hard work, we would not have gotten anywhere on any of those problems that Rob told you about.
First, let me say quickly how honored I am to be the Eleanor Roosevelt Fellow. First, I should note that the other people who have been prior Roosevelt Fellows have been people I deeply admire; Donna Shalala, Diane Ravitch, Fran Blau, Becky Blank, Mary Jo Bane, and Sissela Bok. And you can tell I am a little bit different than that group, but even more honored because I am. Also, my path crossed Mrs. Roosevelt’s once; I actually met her when I was a sixteen-year-old high school newspaper editor and in my town there was some kind of a news conference. Mrs. Roosevelt was in town and she was telling us all heathens that we should honor and respect the United Nations, this sort of new emergent institution that in the hinterlands we were all dubious about. And I remember being at the press conference and actually raising my little hand and asking a question, I think it was about the Suez crisis, and I said, “Mrs. Roosevelt, aren’t you bothered that the Suez crisis was settled outside of the U.N., that people went around the U.N. to settle a crisis?” And she looked at me and she said, “Young man, no I am not.” And very gently she explained that we should be happy that we could settle the Suez crisis in any way at all. I got my picture taken with Mrs. Roosevelt, it was in the local paper and most of the parents of my Republican friends thought I was doomed for forever more.
Rob made my job sound pretty exalted. I have kind of always thought of myself as the biggest social science groupie around. I do not agree with David Brooks about very much, sometimes I do, but he once wrote a wonderful article about social science in which he said, “A day without social science is a day without sunshine.” And I must admit I kind of agree with that corny phrase. Rob has been part of the Russell Sage conversation now for a year; I just had lunch with him today. I partake in those lunches day after day, year after year, and that is where the ideas come from. The ideas do not come from me, who sits there and invents behavioral economics, that is ridiculous. They come from a longstanding admiration that I have for the really hard work of social science. So when we began behavioral economics it is because – what did I do? I read a journal article, you know, I read the Econometrica article by Kahneman and Tversky on prospect theory and I thought hmmm, you know, if we can really show that there are systematic departures away from normative rationality, this should have market consequences. Always before, and the economists know, Richard mentioned it, psychologists had been muttering darkly about how human psychology was not real, it did not conform to rational norms. And the economists sort of buzzed it off and said, “Yeah but, you know, it is just sort of psychological noise around a rational means, so get away and don’t bother us.” What Kahneman and Tversky showed was that there were systematic distortions and that these systematic distortions are robust. You just cannot talk people out of them and there are certain conditions under which the market will not deprive them of them, either. So it was on the basis of that that we began to go ahead and say okay, just how are people less than rational and what are the market implications? Not just show me that they are less than rational but show me, give me, build me a model of market behavior which is superior to conventional models. And we have been working on that for twenty-five years. It is the one example I know where social scientists have really tried to follow the reductionist paradigm, really start to try to build social science from psychology up. And I think one thing we have learned about that is it is extremely, extremely hard. It is being done but very slowly and I do not expect it to be anywhere near finished in my lifetime. It does, however, in the meantime have some important consequences.
So, just to pick one, we have been working, we have set up a group with the Sloan Foundation, my old co-conspirators, to apply behavioral economics to consumer finance and we now have sort of formed a kind of quiet allegiance with the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and actually a behavioral economist – actually one of our original early grantees, Sendhil Mullainathan, has just become Director of Research at the C.F.P.B. – and the issue there is this. If you believe that people are capable of deciding consistently in their own self-interest, then the regulatory burden is really rather light. All you need to do is make sure that they get complete information. But if you change your model of human nature just a jot and you no longer can guarantee that they can decide consistently in their own self-interest, then the regulatory burden becomes incredibly tricky. How is it are you going to really protect people from themselves? From their own irrationalities? Or if you do, is that going to limit them from choices; for some people who are capable of behaving rationally is that going to limit their choice? Those are the kinds of dilemmas that you begin to face when you expand your basic model of human nature beyond rational maximization. So that is one example of the kind of thing we do and that usually involves nudging social science a little bit toward what we think is an opportunity and sticking with it twenty-five years to see if, in fact, it is.
The other kind of thing we do which is, I suppose, what Mrs. Sage really wanted us to do, was to try to apply social science to current social problems. And I guess one example of that, Richard mentioned it, is our work on inequality which, again, has been going on for a very long time, since the mid-1980s. And in the original work that we did, it was really just a battle about reality. A lot of what social science does is gives a better, clearer, deeper picture of what is actually happening. I have great respect for good descriptive work. I know it does not get that high status within the tribe out there, but I think when we are all said and done a hundred years from now it is going to be the descriptive work that actually prevails and that tells people a hundred years from now what was going on and for now it can tell us what is going on. The battle in the eighties was whether inequality was rising or not. And there were all kinds of resistance to that. It took a long time to nail that. And then the next issue was, so what? Are the lives of the rich and poor really that different? To what extent are they that different? So we spent another six, seven years on the social correlates of rising economic inequality, and now what we have been working on are the consequences, how does inequality undermine subtly institutions like the public education system and the political system?
So those are examples, I guess, of what we have tried to do over a long period of time. I think it is really just us looking at seeing which way good social scientists are going and then wagging a finger in the air and saying “go that way” and we know they are already headed that way. So I think it is a pretty humble enterprise. I am glad if it has been of help and I am delighted to accept this Fellowship and very honored. Thanks very much.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.