According to Leonhardt in yesterday’s New York Times, the fault line between Clinton and Obama runs through the rationality postulate. Hilary’s citizenry is rational and responds to precisely calibrated market incentives; Barack’s is guided by impulse and habit and can only be moved by big policy objects in bright colors with thick borders. Is this the revolution in economics we’ve been hearing about?
Leonhardt locates the Obama/Goolsbee strategy in the rise of behavioral economics, an approach that replaces robotic rationality with a psychologically realistic characterization of real-world decision-making. In particular, he is drawing on the field of behavioral law and economics, which emphasizes commonplace cognitive “biases” that prevent people from acting consistently in their own interests. Examples include “availability bias” (attributing greater-than-actual probability to outcomes that are vivid or widely publicized), “status quo bias” (resistance to switching from A to B, or if starting with B, from B to A) and the inability to cope with high levels of complexity (such as public benefits few apply for because the forms are too complicated).
With this view of human fallibility, it is not surprising that practitioners of this sort of economic thinking incline to paternalism. The non-biased minority with impeccable cognitive skills (you know who you are) must take it on themselves to guide their less capable brethren toward more rational choices. I exaggerate, but not too much, as those who have delved into this literature will recognize. Yes, there is elitism in the traditional incentive-based approach too, but it is at least honest and transparent in its methods. The flagship policy innovation of the behavior-wonks, making participation in private savings plans the default option, so that workers would have to choose to opt out (rather than making no savings the default and asking them to opt in), combines the we-know-what’s-best-for-you of the incentive school with a kind of tawdry manipulation. Of course, it may also work better.
But loyal readers of this blog should be aware that behavioral economics is much larger than its portrayal by Leonardt. For one thing, much research now focuses on the differences in behavioral patterns across the population. Rather than fixing on the central tendency, attention has shifted to the dispersion. What this will mean for policy is not clear at this point, but it has to lead to greater diversification and decentralization of the means and ends, don’t you think?
Another important departure concerns the emergence, reproduction and evolution of social norms governing economic (and other) behavior. Many, myself included, think this has enormous potential for changing how we think about politics and human well-being. It reintroduces cultural factors that have been banished from proper economics for generations, not least of which are the gender norms emphasized by feminist economists. And what about the effect that changes in governmental policies and business practices have on the norms governing income distribution? We have begun to see empirical work in this area and it is a safe prediction that we’ll see a lot more.
I hate writing these vague, sweeping posts, but it would take much more than a few paragraphs to properly document the upsurge in behavioral research. The point for now is: the policy space spanned by Clinton and Obama is minuscule compared to the opportunities for new thinking in economics that already exist.