How to overcome recession: develop some ‘autistic’ skills

Books on behavioural economics are everywhere, but this one brings something particulary bizarre to the debate: the idea that autism shows us a way out of recession.

Stuart Derbyshire

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The basic premise of Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World is that mainstream society is changing to benefit behaviours commonly associated with autism. These behaviours include collecting, aggregating and ordering, and rearranging the external world to match our own desires and interests. Thus, author Tyler Cowen argues, we are creating richer inner lives and drawing closer to the day when we might ‘create our own economy’.

Cowen points out that we can self-assemble cultural bits – songs, articles, photographs, TV shows and so forth – into any configuration we like using digital technology. He also points out that we can better control how other people communicate with us, avoiding difficult telephone conversations, for example, in favour of more direct instant messages. These changes are of a certain interest, but it’s not clear how they lead us to ‘create our own economy’. Cowen tries to explain:

‘Traditional economics has a [tough] time with “What do people believe?” and “How do people order their internal realities?” and “How does that order shape our emotions?” Yet without a grasp on those issues, economics will fail repeatedly, most of all when we are trying to understand large-scale social phenomena.’

Cowen then goes on to state that traditional economics generally fails to predict or understand a vast array of economic events, such as stock market crashes, and human behaviours, such as the tendency for people to work more diligently when they are not paid. Cowen’s explanation rests on the assertion that traditional economics focuses on how people respond to objective changes but avoids the nature of the individual mind. The individual mind, he argues, is the root cause of responses to objective changes and so economics should focus on human psychology rather than on objective economic conditions.

It is a familiar argument that has already been trotted out in books such as Nudge and Animal Spirits. The argument has purchase not because of any special insight into economics but because of the perceived failure of traditional economics to predict and explain the current crisis. But psychology similarly fails to explain the crisis. It is hard to see how undermining intrinsic satisfaction with payment, which is why payment can cause people to work less diligently, connects to the current crisis. The same is also true of the more novel arguments in Cowen’s book. He might have a point that the torrent of information generated by the digital age presents a favourable circumstance for those inclined to collect, construct and order information. But that doesn’t explain economics either. Information overload does not cause industries to collapse and the ability to organise information will only provide minimal innovations (the iPhone is so overrated) and will decidedly not regenerate the British or American economy.

Create Your Own Economy suffers from a lack of substance, tends to be vague and banal and fails to provide any direction out of the current situation. That much is common with the many other books in this area. Cowen’s focus on autism, however, is novel. It is also unfortunate. He suggests that people with autism, and related syndromes such as Asperger’s, have a set of cognitive skills that allow them better to negotiate the modern world (and ‘create their own economy’). He also speculates on the autistic manner of Sherlock Holmes, other famous fictional and real historical figures, and his own autistic tendencies. Cowen is probably trying to be helpful towards those with autism, and maybe even hoping to come across as a bit radical, but his approach is less helpful or radical than he thinks.

The eagerness with which Cowen accepts his (self) diagnosis of autism is indicative less of his personal pathology than of the growing popularity for disease labels and the general acceptance that we are all on some mental continuum from normal to pathological (1). Far from being empowering, as Cowen expects, blurring the boundaries between the normal and the pathological, and expanding categories of disorder to include almost everyone, implies a diminished capacity and potential to deal with the world. Even if the argument that some things are easier for those with an ‘autistic style’ of thinking is accepted, there will remain considerable scope for people to claim difficulties based on their ‘disability’.

Normalising autism by claiming everyone is, or can benefit from being, a little autistic also risks trivialising the problems of those with more severe cognitive deficits associated with autism. It risks underestimating the extreme aloneness that results from the social impairment of autism, even in the higher-functioning individuals.

Romanticising autism as a helpful cognitive difference might have given Cowen a novel hook for another book in the crowded field of behavioural economics. It might also be the case that Cowen has some unusual cognitive habits. But his novel approach provides no further insights into economic activity and adds to the misunderstanding of autism that can cause significant irritation for those with autism and their families.

Stuart Derbyshire is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham.

Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World, by Tyler Cowen, is published by Dutton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion, by Michael Fitzpatrick, Routledge, 2009

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