Topic: Regulatory Studies

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Behavioral Economics

Peter raises the threat that behavioral economics poses to free market policy. I’m less concerned about this movement, in large part because its teachings can be turned against central regulators. 

Here’s law professors Stephen Choi and Adam Pritchard, from the conclusion to their excellent 2003 article Behavioral Economics and the SEC (from the Stanford Law Review; working paper version available here):

Regulators are vulnerable to a wide range of behavioral contagion. Regulators may suffer from overconfidence and process information with only bounded rationality. Heuristics play a large role in how regulators make decisions. Even with expertise, regulators may misapply heuristics across the spectrum of different regulatory problems. Regulators may also suffer from confirmation bias, supporting prior regulatory decisions whatever the wisdom of the decisions.

And in groups the decisionmaking of regulators may decline rather than improve. On the one hand, groups and organizational structures may help alleviate some of the mistakes that derive from individually biased decisions. Studies of group decisionmaking provide evidence that the total can indeed be greater than the sum of individuals in enhancing the accuracy of decisions. But cognitive illusions may grip entire groups. Groupthink may also lead to an uncritical acceptance of regulatory decisions.

If both investors and regulators operate under the influence of behavioral biases, the value of regulation in correcting these biases comes into question. If regulators are not well equipped to determine whether regulation will counteract the biases facing investors, regulation may well do more harm than good. Worse still, SEC regulators may suffer greater behavioral biases than securities market participants. Investors that perform poorly will either learn (and perhaps put their money into an index fund or otherwise hire expertise) or exit the market. Private institutions face similar market pressures to serve the interests of their client-investors or perish. Although some types of biases may give institutions a competitive edge, the magnitude of such biases is limited by the cost that they impose on investors. The market may not function perfectly, but regulators under the present regime face no such pressures.

A Compelling State Interest in… Fabulous Decor?

I know, this one’s outside my bailiwick, but can you blame me? Apparently New Mexico has forbidden interior designers from calling themselves “interior designers” unless they are officially certified by the government.

What, exactly, is the compelling state interest for such a ban? Are New Mexico legislators fearful that citizens will suffer irreversible harm from bad Feng Shui? “You’ve lined up your dining room table with your couch?!? Are you mad!?!”

Or have they developed such a keenly felt artisitic sensibility that they must spare New Mexicans from a return to the “Interior Desecrations” of the 1970s?

As a forthcoming Cato Institute paper reveals, state licensure of professionals is a bad idea even in important areas like teaching (“Giving Kids the Chaff: How to Find and Keep the Teachers We Need”). That it is even contemplated in interior design is, at the very least, decidedly tacky.

Hat tip, Jacob Sullum.

Watching the “Lack of Competition” Meme

Ars Technica — a wonderful publication with brief, informative, and interesting pieces on technology — is showing a little sloppliness in covering the broadband competition issue. The question whether there is sufficient competition in the provision of broadband Internet service underlies the debate about “net neutrality” — whether there should be public utility regulation of broadband.

Discussing FTC chair Deborah Majoras’ speech at the PFF Aspen Summit, an Ars reporter casually observes, “[M]arket forces really do not exist when it comes to broadband.” That’s at least overstatement. A little more caution would be good given the centrality of the issue.

To show the existence of a duopoly (which is not inherently a competition-free situation), the report links to an earlier Ars piece interpreting a study as showing “not much” competition between DSL and cable. But that conclusion goes only to price competition. And it’s a little overstated, too.

The actual study, from a group called Kagan Research, seems to show that DSL is the low-cost option (and getting lower), while cable is the high-bandwidth option (getting higher in bandwidth while dropping in cost more slowly). That diminishes head-to-head price(-only) competition because each is focused on a different niche. But they’re still in competition.

The Kagan Research analyst concludes: “Eventually, cable will probably have make [sic] some reductions to cater to the lower end of the consumer market simply to get more customers.” So the study author believes more direct price competition is coming.

That’s some distance from “market forces really do not exist when it comes to broadband.” There is some price and quality competition among the major broadband platforms. Substitutes (such as getting broadband at work and getting information and entertainment offline) play a role in the competition question. And several competitors wait in the wings, to become viable through improvements in technology, new investment, or bad behavior by the current platforms.

I hasten to add that I am not satisfied with the current level of competition. I would like it to be more intense along all fronts and in all regions.

Capitalism Saves

The Sunday New York Times has a great article — the first of a series on aging — titled “So Big and Healthy Nowadays That Grandpa Wouldn’t Even Know You.” Reporter Gina Kolata begins with this 19th-century biography:

Valentin Keller enlisted in an all-German unit of the Union Army in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1862. He was 26, a small, slender man, 5 feet 4 inches tall, who had just become a naturalized citizen. He listed his occupation as tailor.

A year later, Keller was honorably discharged, sick and broken. He had a lung ailment and was so crippled from arthritis in his hips that he could barely walk.

His pension record tells of his suffering. “His rheumatism is so that he is unable to walk without the aid of crutches and then only with great pain,” it says. His lungs and his joints never got better, and Keller never worked again.

He died at age 41 of “dropsy,” which probably meant that he had congestive heart failure, a condition not associated with his time in the Army. His 39-year-old wife, Otilia, died a month before him of what her death certificate said was “exhaustion.”

But his modern-day descendant, living in the same town of Hamilton, is healthy and going strong at 45. Kolata interviews doctors, economists, and gerontologists to find out why Americans are taller, heavier, healthier, and living longer. Describing the research of Nobel laureate Robert W. Fogel and his colleagues on Union Army veterans, she notes:

They discovered that almost everyone of the Civil War generation was plagued by life-sapping illnesses, suffering for decades. And these were not some unusual subset of American men — 65 percent of the male population ages 18 to 25 signed up to serve in the Union Army. “They presumably thought they were fit enough to serve,” Dr. Fogel said….

People would work until they died or were so disabled that they could not continue, Dr. Fogel said. “In 1890, nearly everyone died on the job, and if they lived long enough not to die on the job, the average age of retirement was 85,” he said. Now the average age is 62.

Much of this research has surprised scholars:

Life expectancy, for example, has been a real surprise, says Eileen M. Crimmins, a professor of gerontology and demographic research at the University of Southern California. “When I came of age as a professional, 25 years ago, basically the idea was three score years and 10 is what you get,” Dr. Crimmins said. Life span was “this rock, and you can’t touch it.”

“But,” she added, “then we started noticing that in fact mortality is plummeting.”

So why? Why has this epochal change — what Fogel calls “a form of evolution that is unique not only to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of humans who have ever inhabited the earth” — happened? Kolata discusses the benefits of better nutrition, cheaper food, vaccines, and antibiotics. But still:

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said David M. Cutler, a health economist at Harvard. “Maybe it’s the trillion-dollar question. And there is not a received answer that everybody agrees with.”

Kolata is a science reporter, so she’s looking for a scientific answer, and she’s found several that contribute to our health and longevity. But she’s missed the forest. What is it that started changing in the United States and northern Europe in the past few centuries? (Fogel’s book on the general trend is The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America, and the Third World.) Technology, yes. Nutrition and antibiotics and a better understanding of diet and exercise, absolutely. But what caused those things to appear after, as Fogel says, 7,000 generations?

Capitalism.

The introduction of the institutions of economic freedom in the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and then the rest of the world beginning around 1700 caused what historian Steven Davies calls a “wealth explosion.” A great part of the unprecedented wealth creation went into sanitation and more abundant food and later into the research necessary to produce vaccines and antibiotics. Those institutions include secure private property, the rule of law, open markets, and economic freedom generally — or what Adam Smith called “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.”

Capitalism has made the West rich and thus healthier and longer-lived. It could do the same for Africa, Asia, and the Arab world.

Kolata overlooked this point. Her article never mentions capitalism, freedom, or even wealth as an answer to the trillion-dollar question. But it’s still a great report on just how much better off we are. For more data on such trends, check out It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years by Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon.

Poker and Sausage

Forbes today posts a terrific article looking at many of the peripheral issues surrounding the online gambling debate that I touched on yesterday. A few key passages:

Big credit-card associations MasterCard and Visa have allowed issuing banks to prevent payments from going through to Internet gambling sites for several years by using specially coded computer software that identifies a vendor as an online gambling site. American Express also blocks transaction with gambling sites. The online payment service PayPal actually got into hot water over the issue and had to pay $10 million to the federal government two years ago to settle charges it helped facilitate illegal online gambling.[…]

But with billions of such payments made every year, compliance with a new set of monitoring laws will be difficult at best and financially onerous to say the least. Smaller banks would be hit harder than larger banks, which have the resources to build the compliance technology that would be needed to track payments and block them if need be. Smaller banks are already struggling with the additional costs of complying with stricter anti-money laundering rules under the Patriot Act.

[…]

Blocking wire transfers through banks would force people to be more creative if they still wanted to use the online sites–for example, opening accounts in foreign banks or using non-U.S. Internet payment services.

Certainly, the House bill, should it become law, would be a boon to PayPal because it essentially eliminates all other online payment service competitors from the U.S. market. That would include Neteller, a U.K.-based online payment service, whose stock was down 15% on the London Stock Exchange’s alternative investment marketplace, and Firepay, owned by FireOne Group, whose stock was off nearly 20% on London’s AIM market. Both those companies would have to give up their online gambling site customers if they wanted to do business in the U.S. “It’s a protectionist bill for PayPal,” says Cato Institute’s Radley Balko.

Not surprisingly PayPal, owned by eBay, enthusiastically supported last week’s legislation. Its only remaining competitor in the U.S. market would be Google’s fledgling Internet payment service.

But other financial firms have been supportive of the effort to clamp down on Internet gambling. In a statement Tuesday, MasterCard said the vast majority of its cards deny authorization for Internet gambling. “MasterCard will continue to work aggressively with all appropriate parties to combat illegal Internet gambling,” it said.

It isn’t surprising that the credit card companies are supporting the ban. They already agreed to block their customers’ access to gambling sites and offshore payment services years ago, under threats from the Justice and Treasury Departments, as well as from aggressive state attorneys general, particularly New York’s Elliott Spitzer. It’s a similar story with the larger banks, who can absorb the costs associated with the news legislation. Probably doesn’t hurt that it’ll deliver a blow to their upstart competitors, who will have to spend a higher percentage of operating costs to comply with the law than will the bigger banks.

And neither banks nor credit card companies want to incur the wrath of the ban’s supporters in Congress, who some insiders I’ve spoken with say have made clear that how these industries approach the gambling ban might well effect the outcome of what the banking and credit card industries consider to be higher-priority issues.

All of which means banks and credit card issuers are supporting the online gambling bill, even though it will raise the cost of doing business, and require them to infringe on the privacy of their customers.

Sausage-making at its finest.

Charged with Second-Degree Innovating

Here’s a clever idea:

They’ve been described as Minnesota’s Tupperware parties for wine tasters.

For the past two years, a consultant with the Traveling Vineyard, a Massachusetts company operating in nearly 30 states, would come to your home. Along with friends, you’d sample a pinot or chardonnay, and then fill out a form if you wanted to buy some.

And here’s how the regulators are going to kill it:

On Tuesday, state authorities raided a landmark Minneapolis liquor store, Surdyk’s, seizing about 40 cases of wine in an effort to shut down the Traveling Vineyard. Surdyk’s ships prepackaged and prepaid orders from the company to its customers.

The state alcohol enforcement division says the Traveling Vineyard can’t legally sell wine without a license.

[…]

Texas, Washington and Massachusetts will be taking some form of regulatory action against Geerlings & Wade, which owns the Traveling Vineyard, to change or stop how it does business in those states because it is violating licensing laws, according to a search warrant filed Tuesday.

Minnesota would be the first state to attempt to present a criminal case against the company. Misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges are expected to be filed by the Minneapolis city attorney’s office today, Kjelsberg said.

“We aren’t aware of any other business in the state that operates like the Traveling Vineyard,” she said. “They are taking sales away from legitimate retailers.”

[…]

“I hope this will be the end of the company, but that remains to be seen,” she said.

The alcohol industry deserves a heap of scorn for its position on these types of issues. I regularly get industry publications where an article defending “personal responsibility” runs next to an article defending the three-tiered wholesaler system because, the argument goes, alcohol is special and deserves that extra layer of regulation. Consumers can’t be trusted to buy direct from wholesalers, Internet proprietors, or companies like the Traveling Vineyard, alcohol executives say. It’s just too cheap! We’ll drink too much.

In truth, of course, the retailers just like the fact that most states have laws in place that protect them from competing business models. The three-tiered system is a racket that protects antiquated business models from wholesalers like Costco and Sam’s Club, and from innovators like Traveling Vineyard.

As the Supply Curve Shifts…

Today’s New York Times runs an oped on the supply of physicians by David C. Goodman, an investigator with the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care. The Dartmouth Atlas does invaluable work documenting the waste that exists in Medicare and other parts of the U.S. health care sector. Goodman critiques a recommendation by the Association of American Medical Colleges that the United States increase its output of doctors by 30 percent to meet the needs of the growing number of elderly Americans. That critique is excellent as far as it goes, but it seems to miss half the picture.

Goodman argues that increasing the number of physicians will do nothing to improve the quality of health care. He cites the sort of data for which the Dartmouth Atlas is famous:

Many studies have demonstrated that quality of care does not rise along with the number of doctors. Compare Miami and Minneapolis, for example. Miami has 40 percent more doctors per capita than Minneapolis has, and 50 percent more specialists…

The elderly in Miami are subjected to more medical interventions — more echocardiograms and mechanical ventilation in their last six months of life, for example — than elderly patients in Minneapolis are. This also means more hospitalizations, more days in intensive care units, more visits to specialists and more diagnostic tests for the elderly in Miami. It certainly leads to many more doctors employed in Florida. But does this expensive additional medical activity benefit patients?

Apparently not. The elderly in places like Miami do not live longer than those in cities like Minneapolis. According to the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, which polls some 12,000 elderly Americans about their health care three times a year, residents of regions with relatively large numbers of doctors are no more satisfied with their care than the elderly who live in places with fewer doctors. And various studies have demonstrated that the essential quality of care in places like Miami — whether you are talking about the treatment of colon cancer, heart attacks or any other specific ailment — is no higher than in cities like Minneapolis.

In other words, doctors in some areas of the country order up a lot of health care that seems to benefit no one but the doctors themselves. All that apparently value-less health care costs workers and taxpayers tens of billions of dollars per year.

But Goodman does not address an equally important question: whether an increase in physician supply could make health care more affordable. In the standard supply and demand model, loosening a constraint on supply shifts the supply curve to the right, which reduces prices. With third-party payers, the process gets pretty attenuated – probably more so when the government is paying than when a private insurer is paying. But that’s not the same thing as saying it breaks down. In fact, it’s hard to believe that increasing the supply of anything by 30 percent over time wouldn’t have an effect on prices.

Goodman might have noted that (1) the persistence of expensive, low-quality care and (2) a relatively unresponsive price mechanism are both enabled by the same same feature of the America’s health care sector: our over-reliance on third-party payment. As Mike Tanner and I noted in Healthy Competition, we even nose out Canada in terms of the share of medical care purchased by third parties.

Fixing that problem could address both cost and quality problems. Miami patients would be less likely to let their doctors order up useless tests if those patients are paying, say, 5 percent or 10 percent of the cost. And price is much more likely to respond to supply shifts if you have 200 million price-sensitive purchasers as opposed to a few hundred third-party payers, not all of which are price-sensitive.

Goodman’s Dartmouth colleague John Wennberg has recommended using medical savings accounts to cut out some of the waste in Medicare. Here’s an idea for getting rid of even more useless medical care: just give Medicare beneficiaries a lump-sum payment, adjusted for their individual health risk, and let them purchase medical care and coverage until it stops providing them value.

That might even change the political dynamics enough that we could eventually put to bed these wasteful political discussions about whether we should allow 30 percent more people to become doctors each year.