A Physicist’s Thoughts on Economics

Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance:

The utility function encapsulates preferences by measuring how happy I would be if I had those goods. If a set of goods A brings me greater utility than a set B, and I have to choose between them, it would be rational for me to choose A. Seems reasonable. But a number of issues arise when we put this kind of philosophy into practice. So here are those that occur to me, over the course of one plane ride across a couple of time zones.

* Utility is non-linear.

This one is so perfectly obvious that I’m sure everyone knows it; nevertheless, it’s what immediately popped into mind upon reading the wine story. We need to distinguish between two different senses of linear. One is that increasing the amount of goods leads to a proportional increase in utility: U(ax) = aU(x), where x is some collection of goods and a is a real number. Everyone really does know better than that; the notion of marginal utility captures the fact that eating five deep-fried sliders does not bring you five times the happiness that eating just one would bring you. (Likely it brings you less.)