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July 11, 2009

Economist's View - 4 new articles

"Trumped by Darwin?"

Robert Frank returns to the point he made in Alpha Markets, i.e. that Charles Darwin provides the "true intellectual foundation" for economics. Though the example this time is male elk rather than bull elephant seals, the central point - and it's one worth giving more thought to - is that "Individual and group interests are almost always in conflict when rewards to individuals depend on relative performance." In these situations, which occur frequently in economic and social relationships, the assumption in neoclassical economic models that the maximization of self-interest is consistent with the maximization of social interest does not hold, and failure to recognize this has " undermined regulatory efforts ... causing considerable harm to us all":

The Invisible Hand, Trumped by Darwin?, by Robert Frank, Commentary, NY Times: If asked to identify the intellectual founder of their discipline, most economists today would probably cite Adam Smith. But that will change. ... Charles Darwin ... tracks economic reality much more closely. ...

Smith's basic idea was that business owners ... have powerful incentives to introduce improved product designs and cost-saving innovations. These moves bolster innovators' profits in the short term. But rivals respond by adopting the same innovations, and the resulting competition gradually drives down prices and profits. In the end, Smith argued, consumers reap all the gains.

The central theme of Darwin's narrative was that competition favors traits and behavior according to how they affect the success of individuals, not species or other groups. As in Smith's account, traits that enhance individual fitness sometimes promote group interests. For example, a mutation for keener eyesight in hawks benefits not only any individual hawk that bears it, but also makes hawks more likely to prosper as a species.

In other cases, however, traits that help individuals are harmful to larger groups. For instance, a mutation for larger antlers served the reproductive interests of an individual male elk, because it helped him prevail in battles ... for access to mates. But as this mutation spread, it started an arms race that made life more hazardous for male elk over all. The antlers of male elk can now span five feet or more. And despite their utility in battle, they often become a fatal handicap when predators pursue males into dense woods.

In Darwin's framework, then,... [c]ompetition, to be sure, sometimes guides individual behavior in ways that benefit society as a whole. But not always.

Individual and group interests are almost always in conflict when rewards to individuals depend on relative performance, as in the antlers arms race. In the marketplace, such reward structures are the rule, not the exception. The income of investment managers, for example, depends mainly on the amount of money they manage, which in turn depends largely on their funds' relative performance. Relative performance affects many other rewards in contemporary life. ...

In cases like these, relative incentive structures undermine the invisible hand. To make their funds more attractive to investors, money managers create complex securities that impose serious, if often well-camouflaged, risks on society. But when all managers take such steps, they are mutually offsetting. No one benefits, yet the risk of financial crises rises sharply. ...

It's the same with athletes who take anabolic steroids. ...

If male elk could vote to scale back their antlers by half, they would have compelling reasons for doing so, because only relative antler size matters. Of course, they have no means to enact such regulations.

But humans can and do. ... Darwin has identified the rationale for much of the regulation we observe in modern societies — including steroid bans in sports, safety and hours regulation in the workplace, product safety standards and the myriad restrictions typically imposed on the financial sector.

Ideas have consequences. The uncritical celebration of the invisible hand by Smith's disciples has undermined regulatory efforts to reconcile conflicts between individual and collective interests in recent decades, causing considerable harm to us all. ...

[And, again, for those who might be interested, see also Paul Krugman's: What Economists Can Learn from Evolutionary Theorists Synopsis.]

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"Is Benefit-Cost Analysis Helpful for Environmental Regulation?"

Robert Stavins notes that:

With an exceptionally talented group of thinkers - including scientists, lawyers, and economists - now in key environmental and energy policy positions at the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Treasury, this question about the usefulness of benefit-cost analysis is of particular importance

Here's his (balanced) discussion. Points four, five, and eight struck me as particularly noteworthy:

Is Benefit-Cost Analysis Helpful for Environmental Regulation?, by Robert Stavins: ...[Does] economic analysis - in particular, the comparison of the benefits and costs of proposed policies - play ... a truly useful role in Washington, or is it little more than a distraction of attention from more important perspectives on public policy, or - worst of all - is it counter-productive, even antithetical, to the development, assessment, and implementation of sound policy in the environmental, resource, and energy realms. ...

For many years, there have been calls from some quarters for greater reliance on the use of economic analysis in the development and evaluation of environmental regulations. As I have noted in previous posts on this blog, most economists would argue that economic efficiency — measured as the difference between benefits and costs — ought to be one of the key criteria for evaluating proposed regulations. ... Because society has limited resources to spend on regulation, such analysis can help illuminate the trade-offs involved in making different kinds of social investments. In this sense, it would seem irresponsible not to conduct such analyses, since they can inform decisions about how scarce resources can be put to the greatest social good.

In principle, benefit-cost analysis can also help answer questions of how much regulation is enough. From an efficiency standpoint, the answer to this question is simple — regulate until the incremental benefits from regulation are just offset by the incremental costs. In practice, however, the problem is much more difficult, in large part because of inherent problems in measuring marginal benefits and costs. In addition, concerns about fairness and process may be very important economic and non-economic factors. Regulatory policies inevitably involve winners and losers, even when aggregate benefits exceed aggregate costs.

Over the years, policy makers have sent mixed signals regarding the use of benefit-cost analysis in policy evaluation. Congress has passed several statutes to protect health, safety, and the environment that effectively preclude the consideration of benefits and costs in the development of certain regulations, even though other statutes actually require the use of benefit-cost analysis. At the same time, Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush all put in place formal processes for reviewing economic implications of major environmental, health, and safety regulations. Apparently the Executive Branch, charged with designing and implementing regulations, has seen a greater need than the Congress to develop a yardstick against which regulatory proposals can be assessed. Benefit-cost analysis has been the yardstick of choice.

It was in this context that ten years ago a group of economists from across the political spectrum jointly authored an article in Science magazine, asking whether there is role for benefit-cost analysis in environmental, health, and safety regulation. That diverse group consisted of Kenneth Arrow, Maureen Cropper, George Eads, Robert Hahn, Lester Lave, Roger Noll, Paul Portney, Milton Russell, Richard Schmalensee, Kerry Smith, and myself. That article and its findings are particularly timely, with President Obama considering putting in place a new Executive Order on Regulatory Review.

In the article, we suggested that benefit-cost analysis has a potentially important role to play in helping inform regulatory decision making, though it should not be the sole basis for such decision making. We offered eight principles.

First, benefit-cost analysis can be useful for comparing the favorable and unfavorable effects of policies, because it can help decision makers better understand the implications of decisions by identifying and, where appropriate, quantifying the favorable and unfavorable consequences of a proposed policy change. But, in some cases, there is too much uncertainty to use benefit-cost analysis to conclude that the benefits of a decision will exceed or fall short of its costs.

Second, decision makers should not be precluded from considering the economic costs and benefits of different policies in the development of regulations. Removing statutory prohibitions on the balancing of benefits and costs can help promote more efficient and effective regulation.

Third, benefit-cost analysis should be required for all major regulatory decisions. The scale of a benefit-cost analysis should depend on both the stakes involved and the likelihood that the resulting information will affect the ultimate decision.

Fourth, although agencies should be required to conduct benefit-cost analyses for major decisions,... those agencies should not be bound by strict benefit-cost tests. Factors other than aggregate economic benefits and costs may be important.

Fifth, benefits and costs of proposed policies should be quantified wherever possible. But not all impacts can be quantified, let alone monetized. Therefore, care should be taken to assure that quantitative factors do not dominate important qualitative factors in decision making. ...

Sixth, the more external review that regulatory analyses receive, the better...

Seventh, a consistent set of economic assumptions should be used in calculating benefits and costs. Key variables include the social discount rate, the value of reducing risks of premature death and accidents, and the values associated with other improvements in health.

Eighth, while benefit-cost analysis focuses primarily on the overall relationship between benefits and costs, a good analysis will also identify important distributional consequences for important subgroups of the population.

From these eight principles, we concluded that benefit-cost analysis can play an important role in legislative and regulatory policy debates on protecting and improving the natural environment, health, and safety. Although formal benefit-cost analysis should not be viewed as either necessary or sufficient for designing sensible public policy, it can provide an exceptionally useful framework for consistently organizing disparate information, and in this way, it can greatly improve the process and hence the outcome of policy analysis.

If properly done, benefit-cost analysis can be of great help...

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