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August 1, 2009

Economist's View - 3 new articles

Social Insurance and the Severity of Recessions

The question of how bad would economic conditions be right now if there had been no stimulus package and no financial bailout is receiving considerable attention. There's no way to know for sure, but I believe the economy would have been much worse off without these two policy interventions. But without actually running the alternative scenario - something we can't do - there's no way to know for sure.

But one thing I am fairly certain of, and something I don't think is getting enough attention, is the effect that automatic stabilizers have had in helping to ease the impact of the recession for individual households on and for the overall economy.

What are automatic stabilizers? Automatic stabilizers are taxes and transfers (e.g. unemployment compensation and food stamps) that automatically change with changes in economic conditions in a way that dampens economic cycles. For example, when the economy turns downward, the amount spent on food stamps automatically goes up as more people apply (or eligibility rules are eased), and the extra spending the food stamps helps to soften the downturn for the individuals receiving the help and for the businesses and employees where the money is spent (and then the multiplier process spreads the benefits more widely). Similarly, unemployment compensation, which obviously rises as jobs are eliminated, goes up when conditions deteriorate and that also provides a boost to demand. In addition, income tax as a share of GDP goes down in recessions and that helps to offset the fall in GDP as well.

How much worse would things be now if we had followed the advice of the hardcore rightwing and eliminated the welfare state programs that function so effectively as automatic stabilizers? It still wouldn't be like the pictures you see of the Great Depression because we are a much wealthier nation than we were then and thus have more private resources to rely upon. But even so, not everyone has wealth to rely upon and the recession would be much more evident, and the amount of human suffering would be much greater, without the social insurance programs we put in place in the years since the Great Depression -- programs that we, for the most part, now take for granted. I don't mean there is no suffering due to the downturn, there is and I don't want to minimize it - I wish our social insurance programs were even more generous than they are now for that reason - and I don't mean to say there are no signs at all of economic problems, there are, but we shouldn't overlook the important role that social insurance plays during recessions.

I think we can have a debate over the appropriate level and form of social insurance, as I said, I don't think it is generous enough and I would also broaden it to include health care. But I don't think there can be any doubt about the importance and effectiveness of social insurance in helping to limit the impact of economic downturns.

So when we are assessing the effectiveness of government interventions designed to ease the recession, there are two alternative (or baseline) scenarios to think about. One is a world without the stimulus package and without the financial bailout, and that would be bad enough. But the other is a world without the stimulus package, without the financial bailout, and without social insurance, and that would be much, much worse.

Plain Vanilla Mortgages

Should the government mandate that lenders offer "plain vanilla" mortgage contracts as an option?:

Thaler Responds to Posner on Consumer Protection, by Paul Solman: Paul Solman: Earlier this month, I was pleased to learn that ... the University of Chicago's Richard Thaler ... had entered the rotation of the NYT's weekly "Economic Scene" column. His initial public offering, Mortgages Made Simpler, applied his gargantuan expertise in behavioral economics ... to home mortgage regulation. ...

A mere 17 days after Thaler's NYT debut, I opened the Wall St. Journal op-ed page and spotted an essay by ... Richard Posner... I was all eyes, and the headline -- Treating Financial Consumers as Consenting Adults ... intrigued me. ...

[W]hat dumbfounded me, and occasions this post, was the extent to which Posner took personal aim at Thaler and his argument. ... So I emailed Thaler to see if he had written a rejoinder. When I found that he hadn't, I invited him to do so, promising that I'd publish it. And so, here it is.

Richard Thaler: ...[T]he proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency ... is the subject of Judge Posner's essay. As Judge Posner says, one of the jobs of the agency would be to prohibit a product that is likely to "cause substantial injury to consumers" that "is not reasonably avoidable by consumers and . . . is not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition."

Furthermore, the administration wants oversight of consumer finance to be based on "actual data about how people make financial decisions". Posner is horrified by these principles. ... The proposal that particularly draws Posner's ire is the idea that the Agency would designate a few types of "plain vanilla" mortgages and suggest that unsophisticated shoppers concentrate their search on those. The idea is very similar to the standard leases used in most rental agreements. The landlord can change the terms of the standard lease, but those changes are done in a way that makes them quite salient to prospective tenants, and the tenants are alerted to the fact that these terms are not the usual ones. The plain vanilla mortgages would all have the same terms (like the standard leases) and issuers who want to offer different kinds of mortgages would have to make their modifications clear. Only mortgages judged to be very dangerous would be banned.

The administration has not stipulated how many types of plain vanilla mortgages there would be, but the research on which this proposal is based makes it clear that it is reasonable to assume that there would be at least a fixed-rate and some type of adjustable-rate mortgage in the mix. ... Nonetheless, Posner writes as if there would be only one plain vanilla mortgage. This is seriously misleading. An analogy would be to say that we would not want the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate the production of cribs because they might decide only to allow pink cribs and some people might like blue ones. Of course the agency would not do that; it would only make sure that whatever color crib you bought would not kill your child.

Posner does not stop at mischaracterizing the proposal. He launches a second line of attack based on the following logic. 1) Behavioral economists such as Thaler have endorsed this plan. 2) Thaler has been known to make mistakes. 3) Therefore, he should not be in the business of helping consumers avoid mistakes. Of all the evidence readily available that I am not perfect, he concentrates on the fact that I have written about the well-known puzzle in economics that the difference in returns between equities and bonds (the "equity premium") has, in the past, seemed to be too large. With the market now down, presumably he thinks this writing makes me look foolish. I plead guilty to joining the hundreds of other economists (most of whom are not behavioral economists) who have written about this historical puzzle. And, as Posner suggests, for many years I did advocate that young investors should consider putting all their money in stocks, and I followed that advice myself until 2000 when the level of the stock market bubble got so ridiculously high that I switched half of my retirement portfolio into treasury inflation-protected bonds (TIPS). But of course, I am not a perfect forecaster. I, like most people, did not get out of stocks last summer. And, I certainly plead guilty to being imperfect. For a long list of particulars, contact my wife.

But, given that I do not claim to be infallible, what does this have to do with whether we should try to help people make better choices? The premise of behavioral economics is that humans are not perfect decision-making machines. We are busy and distracted. We have fields that we know well, but are amateurs in most other domains. If our car breaks down, we go to a trained mechanic. Even the best mechanics will make some mistakes (they are human), but for most of us they still have a better chance of getting our cars to work than doing it ourselves. Even Judge Posner is human, and given the number of books he has written, he must have made a few mistakes in print. But our legal system needs judges, and one of the reasons we have a layered judicial system is so that mistakes by one judge can be corrected by others. Should we abolish our legal system because judges are known to make mistakes?

No government agency (or judge) will be error-free. The goal ... was to create decision-making environments in which it is easier for error-prone human decision makers to choose well. The Agency proposed by the administration is a good example of this kind of thinking. Even imperfect experts can help us achieve better outcomes, just as imperfect judges can help us enforce the law fairly. Until we invent the perfect human (or computer decision-making devise), we have no good alternatives.

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