Have you considered meeting like with like?

Tyler Cowen wrote in his Bloomberg column last week:

Two questions are of particular concern: Is he [Putin] rational? And can he be deterred?

…The answers, unfortunately, are: Yes and no. That is, he is probably rational and cannot easily be deterred.

It’s a sensible approach for an economist to assume that all actors are rational while admitting their preferences might be unusual – e.g., “when power is the end itself” in Cowen’s words. He takes a big step forward by suggesting that Putin might be interested in power for power’s sake, but shrinks from going all the way through to the logical conclusion.

In addition to being unusual, Putin’s presumed preferences are also inconvenient in the sense that they don’t lend themselves easily to standard economic analysis. “The economic framework doesn’t work well,” writes Cowen. But I suspect he is narrowing down the field to avoid addressing the hardest questions. Consider the subtitle to Tyler Cowen’s piece:

Economics teaches that most people respond to incentives, but not people who are obsessed with power.

There are plenty of people obsessed with power in this world. (Certain philosophers claim that power is humans’ primary obsession.) Some of the power-crazed won’t respond even to the most painful negative stimuli. (“A unique positive relationship was found between pain tolerance and the meanness facet of psychopathy.”) Still, most power-hungry monomaniacs end up dead or locked up. Typically, it doesn’t take more than a well-trained, well-armed police unit to neutralize them. Draw your own analogies.

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