On the cover of my microeconomics textbook, Microeconomics and Behavior, is an image from one of Piet Mondrian’s Compositions in yellow, blue and red. The choices editors make for textbook art is really quite intriguing to me. It has been said not to “judge a book by its cover”, but perhaps – just perhaps – the entire text can be summarized by their choice of this one piece of art.
Piet Mondrian was a neo-plasticist from the early 20th Century. He was largely influenced by the theosophical-mathematical writings of books like Schoenmaekers’s Principles of Plastic Mathematics. The De Stijl movement (i.e. neo-plasticism in Dutch) was interested in ideal geometric objects and neoplatonic philosophy. To my knowledge there is no such “plastic” art movement, so it’s worth noting that neo-plasticism had nothing prior to itself to build upon. The name itself is rather groundless. The entire movement can be summarized as saying that what is geometrically pleasing is aesthetically pleasing, and this was their measure of truth.
What is the author of Microeconomics and Behavior, Robert Frank, saying about economics then? Microeconomics, like neo-plasticism, is characterized by absolute simplicity in abstraction. Already this is somewhat of an insult to the student of economics. Does the author mean to imply that microeconomics itself or his presentation of it is simplistic? Regardless, the point of the text is not to ground microeconomics in calculus, as has been my experience in the past, but to provide the insights behind the models in order to aid students’ understanding.
So already we have evidence for thinking the author believes that the mathematization (ex.g. formalism) of microeconomics is the best abstraction for a perfect aesthetic. It is only when discussions about behavior enter into the equation that doubts about a perfect science of human rationality plague neoclassical economics, yet this is not a small caveat.
The simplifying assumptions and conditions of neoclassical economics rarely hold. I would point out that Mondrian’s composition avoids symmetry, and this is perhaps indicative of “information asymmetry” in microeconomics: when information is asymmetric, choices are skewed and solutions distorted. Various problems arise out of this one particular problem. And therefore the discussion of microeconomic decisions from this point on becomes imperfect and imprecise. The realization of the impurity and imprecision of behavioral economics and the autistic (or rather, “plastic”) simplifications of neoclassical microeconomics has made the economics profession simultaneously idolatrous and skeptical with regards to its fundamental neoclassical assumptions.
Neo-Plasticism, Neo-Classicalism, all these are fundamentally idolatrous philosophies, versions of Neo-Platonic theories of truth. In my view the discussion of game theoretic behavior and cognitive psychology is a step away from the neoclassical assumptions about human rationality, but the book’s author should have chosen something more Dadaist or Fluxist for the cover if he wanted to exemplify an all-out attack on rationality. Instead, just as the profession seeks to preserve some sense of microeconomic purity from attacks on rationality, and the Neo-Plasticists sought to provide some measure for truth in art by grounding it in the purity of mathematical asceticism, so too microeconomics is still reaching for an immutable rock on which to ground its cherished beginnings and foundations. Robert Frank’s text as a whole symbolizes a defensive academic discipline whose foundations are struggling to survive the tide of skepticism being mounted against it.