Cooper and Kovacic on Behavioral Economics and Regulatory Agencies

Josh Wright —  26 July 2011

There is an embarrassing blind spot in the behavioral law and economics literature with respect to implementation of policy whether via legislation or administrative agency.  James Cooper and William Kovacic — both currently at the Federal Trade Commission as Attorney Advisor Commissioner, respectively — aim to fill this gap with a recent working paper entitled “Behavioral Economics: Implications for Regulatory Behavior.”  The basic idea is to combine the insights of public choice economics and behavioral economics to explore the implications for behavioral regulation at administrative agencies and, in particular given their experiences, a competition and consumer protection regulator.

Here is the abstract:

Behavioral economics (BE) examines the implications for decision-making when actors suffer from biases documented in the psychological literature. These scholars replace the assumption of rationality with one of “bounded rationality,” in which consumers’ actions are affected by their initial endowments, their tastes for fairness, their inability to appreciate the future costs, their lack of self-control, and general use of flawed heuristics. We posit a simple model of a competition regulator who serves as an agent to a political overseer. The regulator chooses a policy that accounts for the rewards she gets from the political overseer – whose optimal policy is one that focuses on short-run outputs that garner political support, rather than on long-term effective policy solutions – and the weight she puts on the optimal long run policy. We use this model to explore the effects of bounded rationality on policymaking, with an emphasis on competition and consumer protection policy. We find that flawed heuristics (e.g., availability, representativeness, optimism, and hindsight) and present bias are likely to lead regulators to adopt policies closer to those preferred by political overseers than they otherwise would. We argue that unlike the case of firms, which face competition, the incentive structure for regulators is likely to reward regulators who adopt politically expedient policies, either intentionally (due to a desire to please the political overseer) or accidentally (due to bounded rationality). This sample selection process is likely to lead to a cadre of regulators who focus on maximizing outputs rather than outcomes.

Here is a little snippet from the conclusion, but please go do read the whole thing:

The model we present shows that political pressure will cause rational regulators to choose policies that are not optimal from a consumer standpoint, and that in a large number of circumstances regulatory bias will exacerbate this tendency. Our analysis also suggests special caution when attempting to correct firm behavior as regulatory bias appears likely more durable than firm bias because the market provides a much stronger feedback mechanism than exists in the regulatory environment. To the extent that we can de-bias regulators – either through a greater use of internal and external adversarial review or by making a closer nexus between outcomes and rewards – they will become more effective at welfare-enhancing interventions designed to correct biases.

Thinking about the implications of behavioral economics at the regulatory level is incredibly important for competition and consumer protection policy (think CFPB, for example).  And I’m very happy to see scholars of Cooper and Kovacic’s caliber — not to mention real world agency experience to bring to bear on the problem — tackling it.   For full disclosure purposes, I should note that I have or am currently co-authoring with each of them.  But don’t hold that against them!  Its a thought provoking paper upon which I will have some more thoughts later on, as well as tying it in to some of the work I’ve done on behavioral economics.  For example, Judd Stone and I explore a related problem of the implications of firm level irrationality — both for incumbents and entrants — in this piece, and find the implications for antitrust policy less clear (and in some cases, absent) than have behavioral antitrust proponents.  See also Stone’s post during the TOTM Free to Choose Symposium on BE and Administrative Agencies.

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