The Political Limits of Behavioral Economics

One of the problems with the recent fad in behavioral economics is that it assumes there are simple things we can do to change harmful behavior. Of course, one problem is that harmful activity (e.g., Big Shitpile) is not, from an individual’s perspective, irrational behavior. Will Wilkinson quotes George Lowenstein, who makes a similar point:

I’ve come to the view that behavioral economics solutions are often being used as a substitute for more fundamental efforts. British Prime Minister David Cameron is a big fan of behavioral economics and gave a talk in which he said, “The best way to get someone to cut their electricity bill is to show them their own spending, to show them what their neighbors are spending, and then show them what an energy-conscious neighbor is spending.”

This idea plays on Bob Cialdini’s research documenting the impact of social norms on behavior. It’s a great idea, and leads to reductions in energy use of a few percent, but showing someone their neighbor’s bill is not the best way to get them to cut their own bill. The best way is to charge an amount that reflects the true cost of the electricity, including social costs from importing oil, pollution, climate change, and so on. Behavioral economics has a lot of great insights to contribute to public policy, but it will be unfortunate if it substitutes tried-and-true approaches involving taxes and regulation.

Here’s the specific case of obesity (boldface mine):

Take, for example, our nation’s obesity epidemic. The fashionable response, based on the belief that better information can lead to better behavior, is to influence consumers through things like calorie labeling — for instance, there’s a mandate in the health care reform act requiring restaurant chains to post the number of calories in their dishes.

Calorie labeling is a good thing; dieters should know more about the foods they are eating. But studies of New York City’s attempt at calorie posting have found that it has had little impact on dieters’ choices.

Obesity isn’t a result of a lack of information; instead, economists argue that rising levels of obesity can be traced to falling food prices, especially for unhealthy processed foods.

To combat the epidemic effectively, then, we need to change the relative price of healthful and unhealthful food — for example, we need to stop subsidizing corn, thereby raising the price of high fructose corn syrup used in sodas, and we also need to consider taxes on unhealthful foods. But because we lack the political will to change the price of junk food, we focus on consumer behavior.

It seems there’s a trend of going Full Metal Neuroscience or Psychology on a problem when we should realize that some people are being foolish–and rationally, if unethically and irresponsibly, so.

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