Happy Birthday to a Great Mentor, Coauthor, and Friend

by Glen Whitman

When I arrived at NYU in Fall of 1994, I knew Mario only as a distant scholarly figure, someone whose work I had read along with Hayek and Mises.  He seemed as unapproachable as those intellectual giants – which is really something, given that both Hayek and Mises were already dead.  Fortunately, the Mario I met in person was neither dead nor unapproachable.  He invited me into the Austrian Economics Colloquium, as it was then called, where I met many other living-and-breathing Austrian thinkers and fellow travelers. In the years that followed, Mario became my teacher, then my dissertation advisor, and finally – I’m proud to say – my coauthor, with five published articles and counting.  Not to mention the long-awaited book on behavioral paternalism that we will submit to the publisher later this month.  (Mario would probably tell me to stop wasting time on a silly blog post and get back to editing.)

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Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science

by Glen Whitman

Last year in this space, I posted the Call for Abstracts for a forthcoming book called Economics of the Undead. That project is now coming to fruition! The book will officially be published tomorrow; here’s the Amazon page, and here’s the Barnes & Noble page. (The Kindle version should also become available tomorrow.) If the brilliant title and fetching cover haven’t already convinced you to buy the book, then you should visit the official website, which includes the table of contents, chapter excerpts, a course guide, and even a blog.

I know that some economists, including some who might frequent this page, have a problem with the term “dismal science.” For that reason, I thought I should post the following passage from the book’s introduction:

But before you start sampling, let’s return for a moment to the subtitle of this book: “Zombies, Vampires, and the Dismal Science.” In a book about the undead, we couldn’t resist the temptation to use the economics discipline’s most famous nickname. But while many people know economics as the dismal science, few know the true origin of that phrase. It came from Thomas Carlyle, another Scottish philosopher. And Carlyle was not denigrating economists for their (quite real) tendency to emphasize the limits of our resources and the barriers to remaking society as a fanciful utopia. No, Carlyle was criticizing economists for supporting the abolition of slavery! He was incensed by the optimism of economists like John Stuart Mill, who believed that people of African origin—like people of all races—were capable of governing themselves.

We tell this story because we think you’ll find, possibly to your surprise, that this book presents one of the more optimistic perspectives you’ll find on the undead threat. From Darwyyn Deyo and David T. Mitchell’s argument that we should trade with vampires instead of staking them; to Kyle Bishop, David Tufte, and Mary Jo Tufte’s suggestion that innovative humans might ultimately achieve victory over the zombie threat; to Brian Hollar’s discussion of how humans will seek prosperity even after a zombie apocalypse, a broad theme emerges: that humans—and maybe our recently dead brethren as well—have a vast capacity to cope with adversity and somehow make the world a better place.

(There’s also a citation to Levy and Peart in there, which I have omitted from this post.)

Economics of the Undead

This is a project I’ve been working on, and I hope that some of ThinkMarkets’ readers (and bloggers) will consider contributing.

Call for Abstracts

Economics of the Undead:  Blood, Brains & Benjamins

Glen Whitman & James P. Dow, Editors

The editors seek abstracts for essays exploring the relationship between economics and the undead, especially zombies and vampires.  The chosen essays will appear in a collection to be published by Rowman & Littlefield.

Ideal contributions will use economic reasoning to address issues related to the undead, use the undead as a means of exploring economic thought, or both.  Abstracts and final essays should be written in an accessible and engaging style for a popular audience.  Contributions should also make relevant reference to the undead in pop culture, such as the Twilight saga, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the novels of Anne Rice, World War Z, the films of George Romero, True Blood, and The Walking Dead.

Possible topics include:  supply and demand in the market for blood; the operation of zombie labor markets; the political economy of responding to undead threats; macroeconomic recovery after a zombie apocalypse; what zombie and vampire behavior tell us about rational-choice modeling; etc.

Submission Guidelines:

1.      Send abstract of paper (100-500 words) in Word or compatible format.

2.      Include resumé/CV for each author.

3.      Submit by email to both glen.whitman@gmail.com and jpdow@verizon.net.

4.      Submission deadline is 7 April 2013.

5.      For accepted abstracts, first drafts of essays will be due 15 July 2013.

Feel free to forward this to anyone with economics training or experience who might be interested in contributing.  Although we are only asking for abstracts at this time, if you have already written an unpublished article that fits the subject matter, you may submit the article in its entirely.

When Nudging Isn’t Enough

by Glen Whitman

In a New York Times op-ed, George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel argue that policymakers are relying too heavily on behavioral economics, when traditional — that is, rational choice — economics would often serve them better.

On cursory reading, you might think this op-ed repudiates the facile use of behavioral economics to guide policy. But in fact, the authors encourage us to go further down that road. They do so by questioning the efficacy of behavioral policies while implicitly accepting behavioral welfare analysis. Continue reading

The Fundamental Transformation in Breaking Dawn

by Glen Whitman

If you’re on Team Edward, you might think the fundamental transformation in Twilight: Breaking Dawn is a person getting turned into a vampire. Or if you’re on Team Jacob, you might think it’s a boy morphing into a wolf. But if you’re an economist, it’s the conversion of undifferentiated assets into relationship-specific assets.

That came out more boring than I planned. But it’s true! On Deadline Hollywood, Nikke Finke reports that several supporting actors played hardball during negotiations for the final installments of the Twilight series:

Really, my eyes glazed over at the recent ruckus that those secondary actors were demanding as much as $4 million each to do the 4th and 5th installments of the Twilight Saga. … I’m all for higher pay for thesps, and Summit has tons of cash to spread around. But in this case Summit gave these actors their big break, and offered them 10 times what they’d made in the first movie, and could have replaced every one of them with hungry unknowns had it not been for the execs’ fears of offending fans.

We’ve seen this happen before, of course, most notably when the six leads on Friends wangled $1 million each per episode in their final season. In economics jargon, stories like these illustrate what Oliver Williamson dubbed the fundamental transformation (see p. 176). Continue reading

New Paternalism: Odds & Ends

by Glen Whitman

The Cato Unbound discussion on new paternalism has come to a close, but I want to address a few loose ends that came up during the exchange.

The Demand for Evidence

Richard Thaler has demanded empirical evidence that the new paternalism has led to slippery slopes. Given that the new paternalism is a relatively new phenomenon, I certainly don’t claim that the slope has already occurred.

I do claim that slippery slopes are real, that slopes are most likely when certain features are present, and the new paternalism has many of those dangerous features.

Historically, there can be little doubt as to the existence of slippery slopes. Examples that came up during the Cato Unbound forum included the run-up to Prohibition, the escalation of the drug war, and the gradual encroachment of smoking restrictions. I believe an honest examination of other, non-paternalist domains yields similar conclusions. For instance, after passage of the 16th Amendment, the vast majority of people paid no income tax at all, and the top marginal tax rate was only 7%. We all know how that turned out. A much more complex story could be told about early interventions in healthcare that laid the groundwork for more extensive intervention later. Continue reading

Hayek’s Knowledge Problem, as Applied to New Paternalism

by Glen Whitman

Mario Rizzo and I have recently published another article on the new paternalism, titled “The Knowledge Problem of New Paternalism,” in the BYU Law Review. (Mario briefly blogged about it here.)  The article lacks an abstract, but here’s a lightly edited portion of the introduction:

The “new paternalism” spawned by behavioral economics faces a severe knowledge problem akin to the knowledge problem that Friedrich Hayek argued afflicts centrally-planned economies. If well-meaning policymakers possess all the relevant information about individuals’ true preferences, their cognitive biases, and the choice contexts in which they manifest themselves, then policymakers could potentially implement paternalist policies that improve the welfare of individuals by their own standards. But lacking such information, we cannot conclude that actual paternalism will make their decisions better; under a wide range of circumstances, it will even make them worse. New paternalists have not taken the knowledge problems that are evident from the underlying behavioral and economic research seriously enough. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 11: Avoiding Paternalist Slopes

by Glen Whitman

This will be the final installment in my series of excerpts from Mario’s and my article on the slippery-slope potential of new paternalism. The comments on the posts have been minimal, so I’m uncertain how helpful this series has been. Since I’m considering doing the same with a closely related article Mario and I have just published, please let us know what you think.

In the final section of the paper, we offer a few suggestions about how to resist the slippery-slope tendencies of new paternalism (p. 737-739):

How, then, might we protect ourselves against paternalist slopes? We have three recommendations, addressed both to the new paternalists themselves and to those who might be persuaded by them. These recommendations are intended to lower the probability of adopting new paternalist policies to begin with, but also to help resist more intrusive policies after initial policies have been adopted.

1. Have Reasonable Expectations of Decisionmakers

One lesson of behavioral economics is that we cannot reasonably expect decisionmakers to carefully consider the full ramifications of their choices in light of the best available evidence. Instead, they economize on information by using choice heuristics, and they sometimes myopically focus on present and concrete problems while ignoring more distant and abstract ones. This is no less true of public decisionmakers (including voters, politicians, judges, bureaucrats, experts, and rent-seekers) than it is of private citizens. Indeed, the problem is likely worse for public decisionmakers, because they lack the incentives to discover and control their own cognitive limitations. Private decisionmakers at least face the costs and benefits of their own mistakes, and thus have an incentive to correct them.

It is therefore insufficient to ask policymakers to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of each new paternalist proposal. The “careful, cautious, and disciplined approach” advocated by Camerer and coauthors is rather unlikely to guide real-world policy. We should not expect policymakers to weigh all the economic, scientific, and psychological evidence objectively, to stand on nuanced distinctions, and to adopt policies that carefully target just those people who need help most. We should expect policies to be blunt instruments. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 10: Rejoinder to Objections

by Glen Whitman

Some new paternalists have recognized the slippery-slope objections to their approach, and they have made some effort to respond. But we find the responses insufficient (p. 735-737):

In their book Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler recognize the slippery-slope objections to their policies, and offer three responses. We reply to their responses here.Sunstein and Thaler’s first response is that the slippery-slope argument “ducks the question of whether our proposals have merit in and of themselves.” They say if the initial interventions are worthwhile, then we should “make progress on those, and do whatever it takes to pour sand on the slope.”

Our claim is not that slippery slopes are the only objection to the new paternalism. Various other objections have also been made (and referenced in the introduction to this Article). The slippery slope is an additional argument against the new paternalism.

The idea that we should “make progress” on the initial interventions, and then do what we can to “pour sand” on the slope, is a variant of the usual (and, we think, hackneyed) response to all slippery-slope arguments: that we can simply “do the right thing now, and resist doing the wrong thing later.” But if the slope argument is correct, there is a causal (albeit probabilistic) connection between initial interventions and later ones. Saying we should move forward on those initial interventions is akin to saying we should do something because it promises present benefits, while ignoring the potential costs in the future. Ironically, it is just this sort of error in private decision-making that most new paternalists think cries out for correction. The slope risk must be counted among the costs of the initial intervention.

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New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 9: Framing in Public Policy

by Glen Whitman

And after another long interruption, I’m finally going to finish my series of excerpts from Mario Rizzo’s and my article, “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes.” There are three more posts, including this one.

As discussed in an earlier post, the new paternalists use the notion of framing — that is, the idea that people’s choices respond to seemingly irrelevant differences in how the choice situation is presented — to justify a variety of policy interventions. But what happens when we apply the notion of framing to the choices of the policymakers themselves? There is a natural human tendency to frame decisions narrowly “because immediate and concrete effects are more psychologically accessible than remote and abstract ones” (p. 726), and this tendency has worrisome implications for public policy. Specifically, paternalist policy-makers will tend to ignore the indirect and longer-term and implications of their policy choices (p. 726-727):

Narrow framing leads decisionmakers to consider choice-options simply as they arise, framed by present circumstances, the crisis of the moment, and perhaps the activities of rent-seekers. Their actions will often be ad hoc solutions to particular problems, and the narrow framing produces a tendency not to see important interrelationships. In Kahneman’s words again, “[t]he decision of whether or not to accept a gamble is normally considered as a response to a single opportunity, not as an occasion to apply a general policy.” For example, the interaction of biases may be ignored. This means the problem is not simply one of discounting long-term effects, but also of discounting effects that occur through longer and more complex chains of causality.

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New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 8: Hyperbolic Discounting in Public Policy

by Glen Whitman

As discussed in a previous post in this series, the new paternalists often use the concept of hyperbolic discounting (roughly, excessive impatience) to show that people make systematic errors that could, in principle, be corrected by government intervention. But what if policymakers, too, are prone to hyperbolic discounting? That is the question raised in the next section of the paper (p. 724-725):

Policymakers can have short time horizons for various reasons. They might no longer hold office when future costs and benefits of their policies occur. Insofar as voters have imperfect memories, they might fail to fault policymakers for the ill effects (or credit them with the good effects) of policies they supported. Both of these effects give fully rational policymakers an incentive to discount future consequences.If policymakers are hyperbolic discounters, there is yet another reason they will tend to discount the future: because they apply especially high rates of discount when some costs or benefits are in the present (or near future). Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 7: The Inevitable Misinterpretation of New Paternalist Arguments

by Glen Whitman

Happy new year! After a holiday-induced hiatus, I’m now resuming the series of excerpts from Mario Rizzo’s and my recently published article, “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes.”

A number of our claims in the paper rely on the new paternalists’ arguments (which are largely based in behavioral economics) being misconstrued or misrepresented by other parties such as politicians, bureaucrats, and rent-seekers. We claim such people will often employ simplified, unsophisticated versions of the new paternalists’ arguments when crafting policy. Is this a fair line of criticism? We believe it is (p. 723):

Experts, and more broadly intellectuals like the readers of scientific and law journals, naturally respond to sophisticated argumentation. The complex interaction of multiple justifications is their favored milieu, the drawing of distinctions their stock in trade. Some of the claims of this Part might, therefore, seem anti-intellectual or unfair, because we are discussing the misinterpretation of the new paternalists’ arguments, rather than the new paternalists’ actual arguments. Why can’t the experts simply reject the simplification, distortion, and expansion of their justifications for policy? Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 6: Rent Seekers

by Glen Whitman

As discussed in the previous post, the “experts” in charge of implementing new paternalist policies will have a tendency to simplify their own theories to make them useful for crafting policy. That alone creates slippery-slope potential. But that potential is magnified by the existence of rent-seekers – that is, interest groups whose agenda is to change policy for their own interests. Such interests can be ideological, monetary, or simply personal. In the paper, we illustrate the power of rent-seekers to distort the facts and confuse the debate with two issues: environmental tobacco-smoke (ETS) and obesity. With respect to ETS, however, we have to run off a potential objection: that ETS is not really a paternalist cause at all, because smoke harms non-smokers (p. 714):

We should note that although policies addressing exposure to secondhand smoke (“environmental tobacco smoke” or ETS) are not strictly paternalistic, inasmuch as secondhand smoke can potentially harm bystanders, paternalist arguments have played an important supporting role. Most importantly, many actual and proposed anti-smoking regulations limit the ability of individuals who may not be bothered by smoke to expose themselves voluntarily to secondhand smoke as customers or employees of restaurants and bars. Furthermore, by creating a hostile environment for smokers, the ETS argument easily slides into the paternalistic. Thus, even some ETS arguments must be regarded as partially paternalistic either in intention or merely in effect. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 5: Deference to Authority

by Glen Whitman

Another problem with the new paternalism is that it necessarily involves greater deference to the authority of experts. Here is the basic logic (p. 710):

Substantial deference to authority is inherent in the application of new paternalist ideas to public policy. This is because the complexities, vagueness, and indeterminism of their analysis (previously discussed) raise the costs of decision-making on the part of voters, politicians, and bureaucrats. The locus of effective decision-making will then quite reasonably shift to experts (“authorities”) or to simplifiers of technical ideas who may have agendas of their own. As Eugene Volokh puts it, “The more complicated a question seems, the more likely it is that voters will assume that they can’t figure it out themselves and should therefore defer to the expert judgment of authoritative institutions . . . .” There will thus be a tendency for policy to slide away from the values of the targeted agents themselves toward those of outsiders regarded as authorities. This happens in at least two ways. First, experts simplify their own theories to make them applicable in a policy context. Second, people seeking to advance their own interests will further simplify the theory and distort the facts to suit their purposes. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 4: Context Dependence

by Glen Whitman

New paternalists have also relied on the notion of context dependence to justify their policies. But as with hyperbolic discounting, they unjustifiably assume the existence of an inconsistency of preferences gives the policymaker license to choose among the inconsistent preferences. That assumption is the paper’s next target (pp. 703-704):

For a variety of decisions, people are subject to what behavioral economists call context-dependence. This means that how they choose among two or more options depends on seemingly irrelevant aspects of how the situation is described. For example, medical patients are more likely to assent to a treatment with a 90% survival rate than one with a 10% death rate, even though these are the same. In this case, people seem to favor “positive” over “negative” framing. People also seem to prefer options framed as the existing or a baseline position; this may be called status-quo bias. Another example of the power of framing is the persistent difference between willingness-to-pay (WTP) and willingness-to-accept (WTA), meaning that people will demand more money to part with an item than they will pay to acquire it, even when the item’s value is a trivial portion of their wealth or income. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 3: Hyperbolic Discounting

by Glen Whitman

New paternalists often rely on the phenomenon of “hyperbolic discounting” to justify their policies. Hyperbolic discounting is difficult to define in a non-mathematical way. It is sometimes summarized as excessive impatience, but that’s an over-simplification. A person with a high-but-consistent rate of time discounting would not be a hyperbolic discounter. What hyperbolic discounting really means is having inconsistent rates of time-discounting. One consequence is that a hyperbolic discounter may exhibit “time inconsistency,” a tendency to make choices and then reverse them. After explaining hyperbolic discounting (in more technical terms that I have here), Mario and I explain how paternalists have made unjustified leaps in their use of the concept (pp. 699-700):

In short, hyperbolic discounting means that people at first make long-term plans for saving or dieting but then, when the time comes to implement these plans, they succumb to the desire for short-term gratification. For the new paternalists, this type of behavior suggests an opening for paternalist intervention or correction. Examples include the previously mentioned proposal to automatically enroll people in savings plans, and to impose a sin tax (on unhealthy foods, cigarettes, and so forth) to provide additional incentive for impatient people to resist their temptations. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 2: How New Paternalism Creates Gradients

by Glen Whitman

A key conclusion of the literature on slippery slopes is that they are especially likely in the presence of gradients — meaning situations in which there is a relatively smooth continuum from one policy to another, and in which it is difficult to draw sharp distinctions. Gradients don’t guarantee slippery slope events, but they increase their probability in the presence of other slope processes.

In “Little Brother,” Mario and I review the literature on gradients and slippery slopes, and then we consider how the new paternalists deliberately frame policy choice in terms of gradients (pp. 693-694):

The new paternalist paradigm, as presented by its leading advocates, relies on discarding sharp distinctions in favor of gradients. Specifically, they reject standard distinctions between choice and coercion and between public and private action. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler minimize the importance of the distinction between paternalism in the private and in the public sectors. In explaining their concept of “libertarian paternalism,” they say that the distinction between libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism “is not simple and rigid.” Moreover, they explicitly state that libertarian and non-libertarian paternalism lie on a continuum: “The libertarian paternalist insists on preserving choice, whereas the non-libertarian paternalist is willing to foreclose choice. But in all cases, a real question is the cost of exercising choice, and here there is a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy . . . .”

Sunstein and Thaler thus present us with a gradient on which choice is characterized by low costs of escaping the prescribed course of action, while coercion corresponds to higher costs of escape. Who imposes the costs of escape and how these costs are imposed are regarded as unimportant questions. Continue reading

New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes, Part 1

by Glen Whitman

As Mario has already announced, we’ve just published a new article, “Little Brother Is Watching You: New Paternalism on the Slippery Slopes,” in Arizona Law Review. You can find the full text here.

The article is quite long. As a result, I expect few people will read the whole thing. I’ve therefore decided to excerpt the article in a series of blog posts. I won’t be covering all of our arguments in the paper, but I’ll be pulling out some passages that I particularly like — and that might otherwise be missed. Continue reading