Archives For behavioral economics

Fruit trees in a number of cities, including San Francisco, are prevented from bearing fruit in the name of “protecting” pedestrians from slip and falls and keeping away insects and vermin.  In response to these regulations, a group of Guerilla Grafters has emerged to — you guessed it — graft fruit bearing branches onto the non-fruit bearing city trees.

But grafting trees to bear the occasional pear is not all fun and games, apparently.  San Francisco officials consider the renegade arborists to be engaged in a serious offense (San Francisco Examiner):

While the grafters’ activities might seem harmless, Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru said the renegade gardeners are running afoul of the law.

“The trees that are in the right of way, they’re not for grafting,” he said. “The City considers such vandalism a serious offense. There would be fines for damage to city property.”

Nuru had not heard of Guerrilla Grafters, but said he would ask his staff to investigate. Meanwhile, he added, if the grafters have ideas about urban agriculture, they should discuss them with city officials.

NPR embeds one reporter with grafter Tara Hui on a covert grafting operation.  The first thought that crossed my mind as I read the story was skepticism that the costs associated with fallen fruit on city trees could be significant.  The second was hope the story had overestimated the prevalence of this type of regulation.  There is also some interesting law and economics.  The cops and robbers angle in the NPR story with Hui attempting to avoid detection for fear of sanction by the city authorities in the way of fines for vandalism was also interesting.  From the standard Beckerian model of rational criminal behavior we see Hui’s sensitivity to changes in the “price” of engaging in guerilla grafting (that is, the probability of detection weighted by the sanction she will pay if caught) and investments to avoid detection.

But what about the economic benefits?  Here’s Hui’s account:

“If we say where it is, they could come after me,” says Tara Hui, a fruit tree grafter. She’s talking about city officials, who manage the trees and say it’s illegal to have fruit trees on sidewalks.  So let’s just say we’re in some Bay Area city in a working-class neighborhood, at a line of pear trees that bear no pears.

Hui and two assistants pull out a knife, reach into a plastic bag filled with twigs no bigger than your pinkie, and cut from a fruit bearing pear tree. She says it’s an Asian pear, and that she’s grafting it onto a flowering pear tree.  They whittle a wedge into one end of their twig, then cut a groove into a similar-sized twig on the city tree. They join the two, like tongue and groove carpenters. And when their grafted twig eventually grows into a branch.

“There will be a much better looking tree that actually will provide fruit for people that come by,” Hui says.

Hui’s motives to break the law are straightforward.

“We don’t have a supermarket and we have very few produce stores [here],” she says. “What better to alleviate scarcity of healthy produce in an impoverished area than to grow them yourself and to have it available for free.”

For a recent and illuminating paper on the law and economics of criminal behavior which attempts to incorporate conventional critiques of the economic approach — for example, that criminals lack self-control, have non-standard preferences or do not act in their own self-interest — into the standard model, see Murat Mungan’s Law and Economics of Fluctuating Criminal Tendencies.  Mungan’s main goal is to show that the standard economic approach is capable of modification so as to absorb more realistic assumptions and that it gains explanatory power by doing so.

HT goes to Steve Salop for pointing me to the Guerilla Grafter story.

Douglas Ginsburg and I have posted “Free to Err: Behavioral Law and Economics and its Implications for Liberty” on the new and very good Liberty Forum.  Our contribution is based upon a more comprehensive analysis of the implications of behavioral law and economics for both economic welfare and liberty forthcoming in the Northwestern Law Review.   We were fortunate to draw several thoughtful responses to our piece as part of the Forum, and I’ve provided links to those here:

We have have some thoughts to the various responses later, but please do go and read them.

And a reminder to readers interested in the topic more generally that our “Free to Choose” symposium on behavioral law and economics is available here.

Haas-Sloan Conference on 

The Law & Economics of Organization: New Challenges and Directions

Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2012

The Walter A. Haas School of Business, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is issuing a call for original research papers to be presented at the Conference on The Law & Economics of Organization: New Challenges and Directions. The conference will be held at the Haas School of Business in Berkeley, CA, on Friday, November 30, and Saturday, December 1, 2012. A reception and dinner will follow a keynote address by Nobel Laureate Oliver Williamson on Friday.

The purpose of the conference is to take stock of recent advances in the analysis of economic organization and institutions inspired by the work of 2009 Nobel Laureate Oliver Williamson and to examine its implications for contemporary problems of organization and regulation. Empirical research and research informed by detailed industry and institutional knowledge is especially welcome.

Relevant topics include but are not limited to

  • the nature, role, and implications of bounded rationality and opportunism as they relate to issues of contracting and the institutional framework governing contractual relationships
  • government intervention in the market through regulation, antitrust policies, and direct investment (e.g., energy market and health care regulation; patent enforcement; concession contracts in alternative legal environments; government tax preferences for and subsidization of technologies and markets)
  • the operation and regulation of financial markets and institutions (e.g., the origins of and responses to the financial crisis; the role of credit rating agencies; financial and futures market organization and regulation)
  • legal and economic determinants of corporate organization, from joint ventures to the organization of corporate boards (e.g, labor restrictions and corporate organization; organization of high technology companies; regulation of corporate boards)

Paper proposals or, if available, completed papers should be submitted on line at by March 31, 2012. The deadline for completed papers is November 1, 2012. Selections will be made by the conference organizers, Professors Pablo Spiller (Berkeley), Scott Masten (Michigan), and Alan Schwartz (Yale). Conference papers will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization.

Tomorrow morning at 10:30 I’ll be on a panel at AALS discussing behavioral economics and antitrust law and policy.

The panel includes: James Cooper, Bruce Kobayashi, William Kovacic, Steve Salop, Maurice Stucke, Avishalom Tor and myself.  Its a really good group and I’m looking forward to the discussion.  Here are the session details:

The program will focus on the influence of Behavioral Economics on Antitrust Law and Policy.  Behavioral economics, which examines how individual and market behavior are affected by deviations from the rationality assumptions underlying conventional economics, has generated significant attention from both academics and policy makers. The program will feature presentations by leading scholars who have addressed how behavioral economics impacts antitrust law and policy.

In my presentation I’ll be discussing my work on the topic (co-authored with Judd Stone) and some extensions of that work.

See you there.

TOTM alumnus Todd Henderson recently pointed me to a short, ten-question interview Time Magazine conducted with Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman.  Prof. Kahneman is a founding father of behavioral economics, which rejects the rational choice model of human behavior (i.e., humans are rational self-interest maximizers) in favor of a more complicated model that incorporates a number of systematic irrationalities (e.g., the so-called endowment effect, under which people value items they own more than they’d be willing to pay to acquire those same items if they didn’t own them). 

 I’ve been interested in behavioral economics since I took Cass Sunstein’s “Elements of the Law” course as a first-year law student.  Prof. Sunstein is a leading figure in the “behavioral law and economics” movement, which advocates structuring laws and regulations to account for the various irrationalities purportedly revealed by behavioral economics.  Most famously, behavioral L&E calls for the imposition of default rules that “nudge” humans toward outcomes they’d likely choose but for the irrationalities and myopia with which they are beset.

 I’ve long been somewhat suspicious of the behavioral L&E project.  As I once explained in a short response essay entitled Two Mistakes Behavioralists Make,  I suspect that behavioral L&E types are too quick to reject rational explanations for observed human behavior and that they too hastily advocate a governmental fix for irrational behavior.  Time’s interview with Prof. Kahneman did little to allay those two concerns.

Asked to identify his “favorite experiment that demonstrates our blindness to our own blindness,” Prof. Kahneman responded:

It’s one someone else did.  During [the ’90s] when there was terrorist activity in Thailand, people were asked how much they’d pay for a travel-insurance policy that pays $100,000 in case of death for any reason.  Others were asked how much they’d pay for a policy that pays $100,000 for death in a terrorist act.  And people will pay more for the second, even though it’s less likely.

 This answer pattern is admittedly strange.  Since death from a terrorist attack is, a fortiori, less likely than death from any cause, it makes no sense to pay the same amount for the two insurance policies; the “regardless of cause” life insurance policy should command a far higher price.  So maybe people are wildly irrational in comparing risks and the value of risk mitigation measures.

 Or maybe, as boundedly rational (but not systematically irrational) beings, they just don’t want to waste effort answering silly, hypothetical questions about the maximum amount they’d pay for stuff.  I remember exercises in Prof. Sunstein’s class in which we were split into groups and asked to state either how much we’d pay to obtain a certain object or, assuming we owned the object, how much we’d demand as a sales price.  I distinctly recall thinking how artificial the question was.  Given the low stakes of the exercise, I quickly wrote down some number and returned to thinking about what I would have for lunch, what was going to be on Sunstein’s exam, and whether I had adequately prepared for my next class.  I suspect my classmates did as well.  Was it not fully rational for us to conserve our limited mental resources by giving quick, thoughtless answers to wholly hypothetical, zero-stakes questions?

If so, then there are two possible reasons for subjects’ strange answers to the terrorism insurance questions Kahneman cites:  Subjects could be wildly irrational with respect to risk assessment and the value of protective measures, or they might rationally choose to give hasty answers to silly questions that don’t matter.  What we need is some way to choose between these irrational and rational accounts of the answer pattern.

Perhaps the best thing to do would be to examine people’s revealed preferences by looking at what they actually do when they’re spending money to protect against risk.  If Kahneman’s explanation for subjects’ strange answers were sound, we’d see people paying hefty premiums for terrorism insurance.  Profit-seeking insurance companies, in turn, would scramble to create and market such risk protection, realizing that they could charge irrational consumers far more than their expected liabilities.  But we don’t see this sort of thing.

That suggests that the alternative, “rational” (or at least not systematically irrational) account is the more compelling story:  Subjects pestered with questions about how much hypothetical money they’d spend on hypothetical insurance products decide not to invest too much in the decision and just spit out an answer.  As we all learn as kids, you a ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

So again we see the behavioralist tendency to discount the rational account too quickly.  But what about the second common behavioralist mistake (i.e., hastily jumping from an observation about human irrationality to the conclusion that a governmental fix is warranted)?  On that issue, consider this portion of the interview:

Time:  You endorse a kind of libertarian paternalism that gives people freedom of choice but frames the choice so they are nudged toward the option that’s better for them.  Are you worried that experts will misuse that?

Kahneman:  What psychology and behavioral economics have shown is that people don’t think very carefully.  They’re influenced by all sorts of superficial things in their decisionmaking, and they procrastinate and don’t read the small print.  You’ve got to create situations so they’ll make better decisions for themselves.

Could Prof. Kahneman have been more evasive?  The question was about an obvious downside of governmental intervention to correct for systematic irrationalities, but Prof. Kahneman, channeling Herman “9-9-9” Cain, just ignored it and repeated his affirmative case.  This is a serious problem for the behavioral L&E crowd:  They think they’re done once they convince you that humans exhibit some irrationalities.  But they’re not.  Just as one may believe in anthropogenic global warming and still oppose efforts to combat it on cost-benefit grounds, one may be skeptical of a nudge strategy even if one believes that humans may, in fact, exhibit some systematic irrationalities.  Individual free choice may have its limits, but governmental decisionmaking (executed by self-serving humans whose own rationality is limited) may amount to a cure that’s worse than the disease.

Readers interested in the promise and limitations of behavioral law and economics should check out TOTM’s all-star Free to Choose Symposium.



There has been plenty of Hurricane Irene blogging, and some posts linking natural disasters to various aspects of law and policy (see, e.g. my colleague Ilya Somin discussing property rights and falling trees).   Often, post-natural disaster economic discussion at TOTM turns to the perverse consequences of price gouging laws.  This time around, the damage from the hurricane got me thinking about the issue of availability of credit.  In policy debates in and around the new CFPB and its likely agenda — which is often reported to include restrictions on payday lending — I often take up the unpopular (at least in the rooms in which these debates often occur) position that while payday lenders can abuse consumers, one should think very carefully about incentives before going about restricting access to any form of consumer credit.  In the case of payday lending, for example, proponents of restrictions or outright bans generally have in mind a counterfactual world in which consumers who are choosing payday loans are simply “missing out” on other forms of credit with superior terms.  Often, proponents of this position rely upon a theory involving particular behavioral biases of at least some substantial fraction of borrowers who, for example, over estimate their future ability to pay off the loan.  Skeptics of government-imposed restrictions on access to consumer credit (whether it be credit cards or payday lending) often argue that such restrictions do not change the underlying demand for consumer credit.  Consumer demand for credit — whether for consumption smoothing purposes or in response to a natural disaster or personal income “shock” or another reason — is an important lubricant for economic growth.  Restrictions do not reduce this demand at all — in fact, critics of these restrictions point out, consumers are likely to switch to the closest substitute forms of credit available to them if access to one source is foreclosed.  Of course, these stories are not necessarily mutually exclusive: that is, some payday loan customers might irrationally use payday lending while better options are available while at the same time, it is the best source of credit available to other customers.

In any event, one important testable implication for the economic theories of payday lending relied upon by critics of such restrictions (including myself) is that restrictions on their use will have a negative impact on access to credit for payday lending customers (i.e. they will not be able to simply turn to better sources of credit).  While most critics of government restrictions on access to consumer credit appear to recognize the potential for abuse and favor disclosure regimes and significant efforts to police and punish fraud, the idea that payday loans might generate serious economic benefits for society often appears repugnant to supporters.  All of this takes me to an excellent paper that lies at the intersection of these two issues: natural disasters and the economic effects of restrictions on payday lending.  The paper is Adair Morse’s Payday Lenders: Heroes or Villians.    From the abstract:

I ask whether access to high-interest credit (payday loans) exacerbates or mitigates individual financial distress. Using natural disasters as an exogenous shock, I apply a propensity score matched, triple difference specification to identify a causal relationship between access-to-credit and welfare. I find that California foreclosures increase by 4.5 units per 1,000 homes in the year after a natural disaster, but the existence of payday lenders mitigates 1.0-1.3 of these foreclosures. In a placebo test for natural disasters covered by homeowner insurance, I find no payday lending mitigation effect. Lenders also mitigate larcenies, but have no effect on burglaries or vehicle thefts. My methodology demonstrates that my results apply to ordinary personal emergencies, with the caveat that not all payday loan customers borrow for emergencies.

To be sure, there are other papers with different designs that identify economic benefits from payday lending and other otherwise “disfavored” credit products.  Similarly, there papers out there that use different data and a variety of research designs and identify social harms from payday lending (see here for links to a handful, and here for a recent attempt).  A literature survey is available here.  Nonetheless, Morse’s results remind me that consumer credit institutions — even non-traditional ones — can generate serious economic benefits in times of need and policy analysts must be careful in evaluating and weighing those benefits against potential costs when thinking about and designing restrictions that will change incentives in consumer credit markets.

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.

Daniel Kahnemann and co-authors discuss, in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HT: Brian McCann), various strategies for debiasing individual decisions that impact firm performance.  Much of the advice boils down to more conscious deliberation about decisions, incorporating awareness that individuals can be biased into firm-level decisions, and subjecting decisions to more rigorous cost-benefit analysis.  The authors discuss a handful of examples with executives contemplating this or that decision (a pricing change, a large capital outlay, and a major acquisition) and walk through how thinking harder about recognizing biases of individuals responsible for these decisions or recommendations might be identified and nipped in the bud before a costly error occurs.

Luckily for our HBS heroes they are able to catch these potential decision-making errors in time and correct them:

But in the end, Bob, Lisa, and Devesh all did, and averted serious problems as a result. Bob resisted the temptation to implement the price cut his team was clamoring for at the risk of destroying profitability and triggering a price war. Instead, he challenged the team to propose an alternative, and eventually successful, marketing plan. Lisa refused to approve an investment that, as she discovered, aimed to justify and prop up earlier sunk-cost investments in the same business. Her team later proposed an investment in a new technology that would leapfrog the competition. Finally, Devesh signed off on the deal his team was proposing, but not before additional due diligence had uncovered issues that led to a significant reduction in the acquisition price.

The real challenge for executives who want to implement decision quality control is not time or cost. It is the need to build awareness that even highly experienced, superbly competent, and well intentioned managers are fallible. Organizations need to realize that a disciplined decision-making process, not individual genius, is the key to a sound strategy. And they will have to create a culture of open debate in which such processes can flourish.

But what if they didn’t?  Of course, the result would be a costly mistake.  The sanction from the marketplace would provide a significant incentive for firms to act “as-if” rational over time.  As Judd Stone and I have written (forthcoming in the Cardozo Law Review), the firm itself can be expected to play a critical role in this debiasing:

Economic theory provides another reason for skepticism concerning predictable firm irrationality. As Armen Alchian, Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, Benjamin Klein, and Oliver Williamson (amongst others) have reiterated for decades, the firm is not merely a heterogeneous hodgepodge of individuals, but an institution constructed to lower transaction costs relative to making use of the price system (the make or buy decision). Firms thereby facilitate specialization, production, and exchange. Firms must react to the full panoply of economic forces and pressures, responding through innovation and competition. To the extent that cognitive biases operate to deprive individuals of the ability to choose rationally, the firm and the market provide effective mechanisms to at least mitigate these biases when they reduce profits.

A critical battleground for behaviorally-based regulatory intervention, including antitrust but not limited to it, is the question of whether agencies and courts on the one hand, or firms on the other, are the least cost avoiders of social costs associated with cognitive bias.  Stone & Wright argue in the antitrust context — contrary to the claims of Commissioner Rosch and other proponents of the behavioral approach — that the claim that individuals are behaviorally biased, and that because firms are made up of individuals, they too must be biased, simply does not provide intellectual support for behavioral regulation.  The most obvious failure is that it lacks the comparative institutional perspective described above.  Most accounts favoring greater implementation of behavioral regulation at the agency level glide over this question.  Not all, of course.

For example, Commissioner Rosch has offered the following response to the “regulators are irrational-too” critique:

My problem with this criticism is that it ignores the fact that, unlike human beings who make decisions in a vacuum, government regulators have the ability to study over time how individuals behave in certain settings (i.e., whether certain default rules provide adequate disclosure to help them make the most informed decision). Thus, if and to the extent that government regulators are mindful of the human failings discussed above, and their rules are preceded by rigorous and objective tests, it is arguable that they are less likely to get things wrong than one would predict. Of course, it may be the case that the concern with behavioral economics is less that regulators are imperfect and more than they are subject to political biases and that behavioral economics is simply liberalism masquerading as economic thinking.24 My response to that is that political capture is everywhere in Washington and that to the extent behavioral economics supports “hands on” regulation it is no more political than neoclassical economics which generally supports “hands off” regulation. On a more serious note, perhaps the best way behavioral economics could counter this critique over the long run would be to identify ways in which the insights from behavioral economics suggest regulation that one would not expect from a “left-wing” legal theory.

For my money, I find this reply altogether unconvincing.  It amounts to the claim that government agencies can be expected to have a comparative advantage over firms in ameliorating the social costs of errors.  The fact that government regulators might “get things wrong” less often than one might predict is besides the point.  The question is, again, comparing the two relevant institutions: firms in the marketplace and government agencies.  “We’re the government and we’re here to help” isn’t much of an answer to the appropriate question here.  There are further problems with this answer.  As I’ve written in response to the Commissioner’s claims:

But seriously, human beings making decisions “in a vacuum?”  It is individuals and firms who are making decisions insulated from market forces that create profit-motive and other incentives to learn about irrationality and get decisions right — not regulators?   The response to the argument that behavioral economics is simply liberalism masquerading as economic thinking (by the way, the argument is not that, it is that antitrust policy based on behavioral economics has not yet proven to be any more than simply interventionism masquerading as economic thinking — but I quibble) is weak.

As calls for behavioral regulation become more common, administrative agencies are built upon its teachings, or even more aggressive claims that behavioral law and economics can claim intellectual victory over rational choice approaches, it is critical to keep the right question in mind so that we do not fall victim to the Nirvana Fallacy.  The right comparative institutional question is whether courts and agencies or the market is better suited to mitigate the social costs of errors.   The external discipline imposed by the market in mitigating decision-making errors is well documented in the economic literature.  The claim that such discipline can replicated, or exceeded, in agencies is an assertion that remains, thus far, in search of empirical support.

With the recent announcement of Sendhil Mullainathan as the Assistant Director for Research at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (WSJ profile here), while one turns to the question of how economic input will be incorporated into agency decision-making.

Luke Froeb makes a nice point about the organization of economists in administrative agencies:

The FTC, which enforces identical consumer protection laws, is organized along functional lines, with attorneys and economists each writing memos to a bipartisan Commission. By design, this results in conflict between the economists and attorneys, which allows benefit-cost analysis done by economists to be heard at the highest levels of the organizations.

Watch the organizational design of the new agency. I suspect it will put economists, if it has them at all, under the supervision of attorneys to reduce their influence, as was done during the FTC early years.

For those more interested in how Mullainathan’s economic views will translate to policy, the correct place to start is in his October 2008 piece (co-authored with Michael Barr and Eldar Shafir) on Behaviorally Informed Financial Services Regulation, which includes discussions of at least ten policy ideas, including:

  • Full information disclosure to debias home mortgage borrowers.
  • A new standard for truth in lending.
  • A “sticky” opt-out home mortgage system.
  • Restructuring the relationship between brokers and borrowers.
  • Using framing and salience to improve credit card disclosures.
  • An opt-out payment plan for credit cards.
  • An opt-out credit card.
  • Regulating of credit card late fees.
  • A tax credit for banks offering safe and affordable accounts.
  • An opt-out bank account for tax refunds.

I also believe, but not with great confidence, that this particular paper was the first to propose the well-known “plain vanilla” requirement.