Wednesday, March 28, 2012

We Are Gullible And Easily Manipulated

The title of this post is my understanding in plain words of the essence of behavioral economics, particularly as applied to politics and public discourse.  A series of studies have validated this view that people often don't realize what's (fairly obviously) in their best interest and hence undermine it.

It explains for example, why more Americans disapprove rather than approve of the 2009 health reforms (inadequate and marred by compromise as they were) that overall better their lot.  Or how so many Americans fall for Tea Party tax ideals that basically favor the top 1% at the expense of the 95% (even if not all the 99%.)

Now The Economist in its March 24, 2012 article "Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think" describes how forces for public good can use behavioral economics to manipulate people back to collectively bettering their lot. The article informs how the two authors of "Nudge" are helping governments and socio-political campaigns. Cass Sunstein, has been recruited by Barack Obama to the White House. Richard Thaler has been advising policymakers in several countries including Denmark, France and, above all, Britain, where David Cameron has established a Behavioural Insights Team, nicknamed the Nudge Unit.

Prof. Richard Thaler has since my University of Chicago days in the 1990s been engaged in a vigorous and running though largely good-natured debate with his "efficient markets" colleagues.  The latter who dominated our University's financial ideas say that investors as a whole make completely rational decisions based on their self-interest. Can there be irrational investors who pay more or sell securities for less than what they're worth according to publicly available information?  Sure.  But according to efficient markets theory there are enough rational counter parties to benefit from their stupidity to drive the prices back to the "correct" level.

The University to its credit brought in Thaler and others to enrich its diversity of economic ideas instead of stacking its faculty ranks with just its renowned efficient market theorists.  Thaler's thinking has increasingly gained traction in academic, financial, social and political circles.

Behavioral economics is of course a double edged sword and special interests have been using it to dupe people into supporting their causes even at the expense of the general populace.  Now genuine reformers in politics and government can harness the concepts to swing the pendulum back towards gaining popular approval for the best public interests.