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Has the Obama Administration Retreated From Behavioral Economics?

The WSJ implies that the answer is yes in an interesting article describing the Obama administration’s changing views on behavioral economics and regulation.  The theme of the article is that the Obama administration has eschewed the “soft paternalism” based “nudge” approach endorsed by the behavioral economics crowd and that received so much attention in the blogs — especially as it related to Cass Sunstein’s appointment to OIRA, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and a few other issues — in favor of harder paternalism and “shoves” including recent proposals for “regulating health-insurance rate increases, separating commercial banking from investing on behalf of their own bottom lines, and prohibiting commercial banks from owning or investing in private-equity firms or hedge funds.”  The article also points to a proposal for new regulations (that I had not heard of prior), that “would require retirement counselors to base their advice on computer models that have been certified as independent” as a precondition that must be satisfied before advisers can push funds with which they are affiliated.

A few observations.

First, is anybody really shocked to see behavioral economics-based proposals give way to harder forms of paternalism?  Though I take Rizzo and Whitman to be focusing on a different slope towards old paternalism, the idea that the behavioral economics nudge approaches reveal policy preferences consistent with hard paternalism is one that has been discussed frequently in this context.  Perhaps the surprising thing is how quickly the shift has occurred?

Second, given the buzz around behavioral economics in antitrust, and especially the misguided notion that the financial crisis has taught us that the baseline assumption for antitrust analysis should that firms are irrational, I was pleased to see Peter Orszag recognizing that “Institutional decision-making is much closer to a rational economics than individual decision-making, no question.”

Third, and cutting to the chase a little bit, its unclear to me that the Administration was ever really interested in behavioral economics as an intellectual guiding force as a “new” approach to regulation.  For example, little attention has been paid to areas where behavioral economics implies less regulation.  Regulators of all sorts want intellectual support for what they are doing.  That is not a criticism.  But was there really ever anything there?  Has anybody seen anything that has come out of OIRA with the signature of behavioral economics?  On this score, TOTM readers may recall that, since early on, I have expressed skepticism about claims that the Obama administration had made any real commitments to behavioral economics:

The second issue is that I’m not convinced that Obama’s policies have much to do with a behavioral economics-based platform. Leonhardt raises Obama’s savings plan (opt-out 401(k)’s), broad based tax cuts for the middle class, and opposition to a health care “mandate” as examples of policies informed by behavioral economics. I understand the the connection between the 401k default policy and behavioral economics. But the second two examples don’t strike me as have much do with with the insights of behavioral economics per se. The link between tax cuts and the lessons of behavioral economics, in this context, is tenuous at best. And as Ezra Klein notes while taking the position that he doesn’t see much behavioral economics in Obama’s positions either, one might suspect that a health care mandate would be more in line with the teachings of behavioral economics rather than Obama’s plan.

Fourth, and finally, I can’t help but note that some agreement on what counts as a behavioral economics-informed policy choice might be helpful in order to make progress.  I’ve been fairly critical of those, especially in the law review literature, who invoke the terms like irrationality and endowment effect willy-nilly, wave their hands around quickly while saying something about market failure (usually this section of the paper also has the term “orthodox neoclassical theory” in it somewhere), and move on to discuss regulatory proposals on the assumption that they will be costless.   But if we are going to be keeping a scorecard here, we should at least agree on what counts as a nudge.  The WSJ shares an example that it says is consistent with what is left of the Administration’s commitment to behavioral economics:

Landlords, for instance, have no incentive to replace a 40-year-old refrigerator if the tenants are paying the utility bills. So the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration and the Energy Department are looking for ways to give property owners more incentives to save energy, possibly through loan discounts or guarantees offered through mortgage brokers. In October, Mr. Biden unveiled a pilot Property Assessed Clean Energy financing program to try it out.

Wait.  So, the landlord has less than optimal incentives to make investments in refrigerators when the tenant plays the bills because he doesn’t internalize the benefits of the investments.  I hate to be a stickler, but I’m pretty sure standard economics can do this one.   Transacting parties reach agreements to economize on agency costs and incentive conflicts.   The fact that the landlord’s private decision process is different when he owns the refrigerator than when he doesn’t imply irrationality!  Nor is any regulatory shove to get individuals to act closer to the what the regulators think is “optimal” decision-making based on behavioral economics simply by invoking the term.

But if the WSJ is right, maybe this debate about behavioral economics is old news anyway.  Shove is the new nudge and all that.

Filed under: antitrust, business, credit cards, economics, financial regulation, markets, regulation