The one criticism of economics that annoys me the most is the charge that economics is unrealistic because economists think people are only motivated by money. "Oh those silly economists," the argument usually goes, "they think people only care about getting rich!" This recent comment by Indiana sociologist Fabio Rojas is representative:
In an argument, economists will concede that people seek stuff other than money, but this is rare in published papers and nearly non-existent in economic theory. Do economists have a theory of when people maximize money as opposed to other stuff (e.g., prestige)?This is stupid. Basic economic theory says that people seek to maximize utility, which is generally defined as a person's level of satisfaction. I've never seen an economics textbook that defines utility as the amount of money a person has. Economists tend to measure utility in terms of willingness-to-pay (e.g., how much would Jane be willing to pay for the prestige that comes from winning the Good Samaritan Award?). This doesn't mean that economists think people are only motivated by money, it just means that in economic models, utility is usually denominated in money. You can criticize the practice of measuring utility in terms of willingness-to-pay, if you like—there are certainly legitimate criticisms to be made. But if you think basic economic models assume that people are only motivated by money, then I'm sorry, but you fundamentally don't understand what economics is all about. This misunderstanding could be remedied by 10 minutes with Mankiw's Principles of Economics. Economists are impatient, but I'm pretty sure they'll wait.