Some of you may have been following Shankar Vedantam on NPR or the discoveries of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist on the Princeton faculty, and their demonstration of the irrational ways that people very naturally and ordinarily reach decisions. Indeed, for quite a long time it’s been apparent that rational decision making often demands too much of people. As Cornell’s Vicki Bogan said in a talk in Albany, the rational choice model of economics assumes that people:
• Think like Albert Einstein
• Can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue
• Can exercise the will power of Mahatma Gandhi
• … [and] make unbiased forecasts
Nobel Prizes have been awarded to psychologists and economists who have been studying human decision making, showing that people literally can’t do what conservative economic theory expects them to. The rational man doesn’t exist, and for that reason, markets often don’t protect us. For both businessmen and consumers, rational choice is often impossible; it’s just too hard. Sometimes things aren’t currently knowable. Sometimes they’re beyond the capacity of individuals, even if institutions can figure it out.
A trip to the grocery store helps make the point clear. Even though much of the information exists, I can’t know enough about all the ingredients of the goods I buy, and their impact on my body, and still take the time to do my work and have a life to live. I have to trust someone or something else. But consumer ignorance shapes what businessmen have to do to survive. Those who cater only to the most informed, cater to small markets and often go under.
One consequence is that the market doesn’t protect us. That’s why workers’ compensation was started many decades ago – workers couldn’t figure out the odds of injury and didn’t have the ability to protect themselves as cheaply and effectively as informed employers could. Government stepped in to move that burden of knowing and choosing from the employee to the employer.
Those are examples. The broader impact of what is now called behavioral economics is that the economic theory of market ideologues is thoroughly discredited nonsense. It doesn’t work. A couple of decades ago there was a big debate about the efficient market theory which claimed that the market had it right even though individuals could be wrong. But they couldn’t tell me whether the market had it right the day before or the day after the crash. In other words it was nonsense on stilts.
That’s one of the reasons the public, all of us, have to get out of the glare of the outdated economics coming from conservative ideologues. It’s one of the reasons why it has been so important that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democratic Party to the left. That shift also clears the way for Hilary Clinton to return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party in the Great Depression, in Roosevelt’s New Deal, in being a party with heart.
Hilary and Bernie both have a lot to offer, but just as big a key to progress will be the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have blocked Obama’s efforts to push this country toward better, more caring solutions at every turn.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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