A grumpy take on behavioural economics


Jason Collins


June 30, 2015

I missed this when it was first posted, but John Cochrane has posted a great rant (not that I agree with it all) in response to a couple of articles on Richard Thaler’s new book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (HT: Diane Coyle).

A couple of excerpts:

When it gets to economics, though – market outcomes, not individual decisions –  a common complaint is that “behavioral” approaches study small-potatoes effects. OK, some asset might have a price 10 basis points off. OK, Dick knows how to rebase exams to get a bit better teaching ratings. OK, so your non-economist spouse wants roses on Valentine’s day. But really, in the big picture of growth, unemployment, inequality, climate – you name it – has this risen past cuteonomics? How do I use psychology to study the practical problems of everyday economics, say How much does progressive taxation hinder innovation and growth; How do I separate the risk premium from expected inflation in reading long-term bonds; How much carbon would a tax reduce, and so on?

That’s an interesting debate. We could have it. We should have it. There are good points on both sides. Too bad Dick chose not to address it at all.

On libertarian paternalism:

The case for the free market is not that each individual’s choices are perfect. The case for the free market is long and sorry experience that government bureuacracies are pretty awful at making choices for people. “Empirically demonstrating” that some people do silly things does not empirically demonstrate that other people, organized into the US regulatory agencies, can make better choices for them. This is another simple failure of basic logic.

And psychological, social-psychological, sociological, anthropological, and sociological study of bureaucracies and regulatory agencies, trying to understand their manifest “irrationality,” rather than just bemoan it as libertarians tend to do, ought to be a tremendously interesting inquiry. Where is behavioral public choice? (More in a previous post.)

And on being an outcast:

Most of the Wall Street Journal review passes along Thaler’s of complaining about how people resisted his early ideas. Really, now, complaining about being ignored and mistreated is a bit unseemly for a Distinguished Service professor with a multiple-group low-teaching appointment at the very University of Chicago he derides, partner in an asset management company running $3 billion dollars, recipient of numerous awards including AEA vice president, and so on.

Thaler is now AEA president.

Read the full post. A response by Noah Smith is here.