Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Posner v. Thaler - Behavioral Economics

Richard Posner, one of my academic heroes (see here and here), recently criticized the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 in the Wall Street Journal. Although I don't know the details of this act, I was somewhat surprised that in his editorial, Posner went further and criticized behavioral economics and Richard Thaler, one of behavioral economics' strongest proponents:

The plan of the new agency reveals the influence of “behavioral economics,” which teaches that people, even when fully informed, often screw up because of various cognitive limitations. A leading behavioral economist, Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, wrote “Nudge: Improving
Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” last year with Cass Sunstein, who is President Barack Obama’s nominee for “regulatory czar.”

Mr. Thaler, whose views are taken seriously by the Obama administration, calls himself a “libertarian paternalist.” But that is an oxymoron. He is a paternalist with a velvet glove—as the agency will be. Through the use of carrot and stick, the agency will steer consumers to those financial products that it thinks best for them, whatever they na├»vely think.

. . .

Behavioral economists are right to point to the limitations of human cognition. But if they have the same cognitive limitations as consumers, should they be designing systems of consumer protection?

Two things struck me about this argument. First, libertarian paternalism, at least as it is defined by Thaler and Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein, is not an oxymoron. They argue this point forcefully in an article called "Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron." This article is one of the forces that converted me to the importance of behavioral economics. Among other things, the article argues that regulators will inevitably influence behavior, since default rules (such as voluntary or mandatory enrollment in retirement plans) affect decisions.

Second, although it may have been tongue-in-cheek, I am surprised by Posner's claim that regulators, because they have cognitive limitations, cannot encourage people to make better decisions. This is a poor argument. Regulators have time to make considered decisions, many consumers do not. Regulators are specialists, most consumers aren't. I was pleased to read that Thaler, in a response to Posner, makes very similar points:

The premise of behavioral economics is that humans are not perfect decision-making machines. We are busy and distracted. We have fields that we know well, but are amateurs in most other domains. If our car breaks down, we go to a trained mechanic. Even the best mechanics will make some mistakes (they are human), but for most of us they still have a better chance of getting our cars to work than doing it ourselves.

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