More on the Ideological Neutrality of Behavioral Economics

Below, Mark links to a fascinating-looking paper pointing out that government regulators are human, too, and therefore subject to the same cognitive foibles as the rest of us.

It might seem pretty surprising to Cato-style classical liberals that this sort of application of behavioral research didn’t immediately leap out to researchers. But on reflection, it makes sense that the first bunch of policy implications to be suggested from a new area of research will tend to reflect the ideological preferences of the investigators. This need not imply any kind of willful axe-grinding bias. This kind of unwitting bias, in fact, illustrates a few of the main points of behavioral economics: We don’t have unbounded cognitive capacities, the mind uses lots of quick and dirty rules of thumb, and we can’t count on those speedy cognitive tricks to conform to canonical standards of rationality. Even brilliant economists and sage government regulators simplify the complexity of the real world by passing it through sometimes shoddy ideological filters — even while attempting to draw out the implications of that very phenomenon.

Here are a couple more examples of papers drawing on behavioral research that don’t have an obvious ideological tendency. In a paper under review at Public Choice, “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State” [doc], Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaullier write:

Critics often argue that government poverty programs perversely make the poor worse off by discouraging labor force participation, encouraging out-of-wedlock births, and so on. However, basic microeconomic theory tells us that you cannot make an agent worse off by expanding his choice set. The current paper argues that familiar findings in behavioral economics can be used to resolve this paradox. Insofar as the standard rational actor model is wrong, additional choices can make agents worse off. More importantly, existing empirical evidence suggests that the poor deviate from the rational actor model to an unusually large degree. The paper then considers the policy implications of our alternative perspective.

The policy implications would make Charles Murray smile. And here is a working paper by Daniel Benjamin, Sebastian Brown, and Jesse Shapiro showing that

… higher cognitive ability — especially mathematical ability — is predictive of much lower levels of small-stakes risk aversion and short-run impatience. For example, we calculate that a one-standard-deviation increase in measured mathematical ability is associated with an increase of about 8 percentage points in the probability of behaving in a risk-neutral fashion over small stakes (as against a mean probability of about 10%) and an increase of about 10 percentage points in the probability of behaving patiently over shortrun trade-offs (with a mean of about 28%).

And what are we to make of that? The authors somewhat tepidly suggest that better education might improve poor cognitive ability a bit, though they recognize that differences in ability run deeper than differences in schooling. More intriguingly, their results go to the heart of the currently raging inequality debate. Because the more “cognitively able” are less likely to make errors relative normative standards of risk and expected utility, they’re likely to do better at choosing the elements of an investment portfolio:

Our results also suggest additional reasons why the overall returns to cognitive ability may be underestimated by focusing solely on the labor market returns … we might conjecture that a one-standard-deviation increase in cognitive ability is worth about 0.3% of lifetime wealth due to improved portfolio allocation alone. Since portfolio choice is only one of many important household decisions that are affected by cognitive ability, the total value of cognitive ability’s effect on decision-making could be quite substantial.

If changes in the economy have increased the payoff to the decisions affected by cognitive ability, that might explain some changes in wealth inequality.

Behavioral economics done right is just good science. The real peril is in the transition over the gap from psychology to policy. Big philosophical and ideological assumptions lurk in the gap. It’s very important to make those assumptions explicit, and defend them. Unfortunately, that’s too rarely done

Hopelessly Devoted to HIM?

SMU Biblical studies professor Mark Chancey has just penned a study of Bible teaching in Texas Public Schools (.pdf). The report concludes that “the public school courses currently taught in Texas often fail to meet minimal academic standards for teacher qualifications; curriculum, and academic rigor; promote one faith perspective over all others; and push an ideological agenda that is hostile to religious freedom, science and public education.”

Chancey’s most damning charge: “Most Bible courses are taught as religious and devotional classes that promote one faith perspective over all others.” If true, that, of course. would be unconstitutional. (Nadine Strossen, call your office.)

Here’s a thought: Rather than forcing all Americans to pay for a one-size-fits-few government monopoly that inevitably creates legal and cultural conflict over the curriculum, why not institute a school system that would give both parents and other taxpayers real educational choice? This could easily be done by combining and enlarging the existing personal use and scholarship donation tax credit programs that exist in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona. A short exposition of the idea appears here, and a more comprehensive one is available here.

Cato’s Neal McCluskey will be publishing a study of the endless school wars caused by our state-run education monopolies later this year. Stay tuned.

New at Cato Unbound: Veronique de Rugy on Anti-terrorism Spending

In today’s installment of Cato Unbound, AEI resident scholar (and Cato adjunct scholar) Veronique de Rugy argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent.

“Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.”

The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

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.

Doublespeak and the War on Terror

Last week, Cato published my paper “Doublespeak and the War on Terrorism.” Of course, this has not kept President Bush from using doublespeak. 

In his televised address this week, Mr. Bush said that all members of the U.S. military are “volunteers.” Not so. We do not have the large-scale conscription of civilians, but we do have “stop-loss” orders from the White House, which means soldiers that have fulfilled the terms of their enlistment contracts may not leave military. The men and women who wanted to return to civilian life after serving their term of service are not “volunteers.”  In military circles, the stop-loss order is known as the “backdoor draft.”

Fortunately, more people are calling attention to such misuse of language by government. Go here for a column by Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. Go here for a column by Dick Meyer of CBS News.

We’ll never be able to stop the government from engaging in doublespeak because the government is constantly engaging in mischief. But if we’re vigilant about it, we can keep the government in check.

A New Solution to the Trade Deficit ‘Problem’

I’ll be honest with you folks — in Australia we have an expression, “Only in America!” It is used whenever outlandish, seemingly crazy, or especially unusual ideas or events occur over here. It is frequently used by news-readers. Please don’t be offended.

Anyway, I am proposing a new expression, “Only from Congress.” It could be used to describe, well, whenever an outlandish, seemingly crazy, or especially unusual idea is announced by members of Congress. And to kick things off, I would like to introduce the first item for your consideration.

Two Democratic senators, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, have proposed that any company wishing to import goods into America would need a government-issued certificate. The senators, according to this New York Times article (link requires subscription), view this as a “market-based system to cut the trade deficit to zero within 10 years.”

It would work thus: Any company that exports goods would be issued an import certificate that would allow it to import goods. The “exchange rate” would fall from $1.40 in the first year (i.e., $1 worth of exports would earn $1.40 worth of imports), to $1.30 in the second year, and so on until we achieve “balance.” If a company does not wish to import anything, it can sell the import certificate to someone who does. I guess that’s the “market-based” part.

Sherman Katz of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was quoted in the article as saying that “’it looks on the face of it to represent an enormous intrusion of government activity into business totaling trillions of dollars each year.”

“Enormous” doesn’t seem to quite capture it though, does it? How about “insane”?

Can you imagine the type of federal oversight this would require? And how would our trade partners react to the U.S. market being restricted in this way?

And what about oil? Ah, the wise senators have already thought of that. Oil would be given a 10-year phase-in, to allow the economy “time to find and develop alternative energy supplies.”

Imports of goods keep inflation in check and imports of capital keep interest rates down and help finance economic growth. Restricting imports would necessarily restrict capital flows into the economy because of the necessary balance between the current and capital accounts. To bring investment in line with savings, domestic interest rates would need to rise, reducing investment and economic growth. (More here.)

Question for the senators: What sort of certificate would you issue to cope with those sorts of macroeconomic effects?

I’m guessing we can expect lots of “Only from Congress” ideas in the coming campaign season. I’m excited.

Regulation News Pegs!!

In the public relations racket, they’re called “news pegs” — current events that can be used to promote your research. As editor of Regulation, I sometimes get the complaint that my publication is “interesting, but it doesn’t have a lot of news pegs.”

So how about this — two Regulation news pegs in one day!

Peg 1: Should we tax nonprofit hospitals?

Decades ago, Congress awarded tax-exempt status to private nonprofit hospitals in return for the hospitals agreeing to treat indigent patients who would otherwise rely on taxpayer-provided healthcare services. But this “grand bargain” is now under Capitol Hill scrutiny following the discovery that for-profit, non–tax exempt hospitals provide roughly the same amount of free medical care to the poor. Today’s NPR program Marketplace discusses the congressional hearings.

All of this should come as no surprise to readers of Regulation. In the summer issue, Guy David of Penn and Lorens Helmchen of Illinois-Chicago lay out this very problem and ask (pdf), why is the government giving one type of tax treatment to some hospitals and another type to others?

Peg 2: Soft Paternalism

For several years I’ve believed that one of the most important intellectual challenges to libertarian ideas is behavioral economics — the empirical field of study that suggests people often do not act rationally and thus markets do not maximize public welfare.

The current issue of the New Yorker contains an article by John Cassidy on behavioral and neuroeconomics that confirms my view. In the article, Cassidy writes that “most economists agree that, left alone, people will act in their own best interest, and that the market will coordinate their actions to produce outcomes beneficial to all.  Neuroeconomics potentially challenges both parts of this argument.”

The regulatory prescriptions that follow from this research are often described as “soft” or “libertarian” paternalism.  The basic notion is that government should require certain behaviors as a default rule (for example the purchase of health insurance or particpation in 401k saving plans) but allow people to opt out if they prefer.

But government actors appear to be no more rational than economic actors — and it is quite possible that soft paternalism could be more detrimental to public welfare than the private choices studied by behavioral economics. Harvard economics professor Ed Glaeser states this case (pdf) in the summer issue of Regulation.