When ignorance trumps incentives

When something bad happens it is often helpful to think about why it has happened in two ways: did someone have a reason to make it happen, or did it happen by accident? This can also be expressed in a slightly different way: were incentives to blame, or ignorance? Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus have made a compelling argument that ignorance explains more about the world than we often realize, using the 2008 financial crisis as an example. This post is an attempt to summarise their argument.

Economists often remind us that incentives matter. Indeed this is sometimes said to be the cornerstone of ‘the economic way of thinking’. Russ Roberts gives the example of death rates on British ships bringing convicts to Australia in the 18th Century – rather than attempting to raise ship captains’ awareness of the badness of letting their passengers die, the government gave captains a bonus for every convict that walked off their ship. This was very effective.

Clearly this way of thinking can be very powerful. It is the foundation of the price system, which is the mechanism that markets use to allocate resources effectively in a world where information is dispersed: if demand for pizza rises, the price of pizza rises, giving cooks and restaurant owners an incentive to sell more pizza. It helps to explain why some people stay on welfare payments for long periods of time: the welfare money they lose when they go into work represents a significant disincentive to work. Or, if you offer something like a bailout to businesses that go bust, you reduce the incentive for them to act prudently to avoid going bust.

This last example is what is known as moral hazard. And it is a popular and compelling explanation for the 2008 financial crisis. Banks expected to be bailed out if they went bust, so they acted more recklessly than they would if they thought they would be on the line for their mistakes.

However, Friedman and Kraus argue that this popular and compelling explanation may in fact be wrong. A good way of testing it would be to compare how the bankers involved in making bad decisions acted where perverse incentives applied, and how they acted where perverse incentives did not apply.

One strong piece of evidence against the incentives narrative is that bankers seem to have acted the same way with their personal investments as they did with their business investments.

Many bankers lost a lot of money personally in the crisis because their personal portfolios were not ‘bailed out’ in the same way that their banks were. If we are to treat the ‘incentives story’ as a falsifiable proposition (as all claims about the world should be treated), this might be a fairly strong reason to disregard it.

This may be where ignorance comes in. If bankers acted the way they did because they were unaware of the risks they were taking, then we would expect their private and business investments to be pretty similar.

However, it is strange that so many bankers seemed to make the same mistake. We know that they were not acting in a neutral environment: as Friedman and Kraus have shown, regulations like the Basel accords and the US’s recourse rule directed banks to prefer mortgage debt to business debt. Other regulations directed banks to rely on the risk judgments of three specific ratings agencies, giving those agencies protection from competition.

(On the ratings agencies point, astonishingly, it seems that nobody realized that these agencies were basically protected from competition. Both bankers and regulators assumed they were being subjected to market forces, leading to everyone trusting them a lot more than they would if they knew they were dealing with protected monopolies.)

These regulations were designed to make banks act prudently: the regulators had no incentive to make banks act badly. It seems possible that they did not realize the error of their ways until it was too late. Perhaps regulatory ignorance was to blame.

It is important to stress that the regulators should not be blamed personally. They probably made the best choice they could have made given the information available to them. Rather it is the position they found themselves in that seems to have been to blame. If a single bank (or even a handful) makes a mistake, that bank will suffer but the whole sector probably won’t. It is only when a whole sector of a market (or almost all that market) makes an error that we should worry. (Incidentally, as shaky as the housing and financial sectors were, the real trouble did not begin until monetary policy tightened unexpectedly, as Scott Sumner outlined at our recent Adam Smith Lecture.)

Given ignorance, we should expect errors to take place. Because regulation necessarily applies to everyone in a market, a regulatory error affects everyone.  That may be the fundamental problem with regulation, and a reason to have a strong ‘prima facie’ objection to regulation. It is better to have one hundred firms making one hundred different mistakes that happen at different times and in different ways to one hundred firms making one single mistake that happens at the same time for everyone.

None of this implies any special knowledge on the part of firms. Indeed regulators may be much more expert than the firms they are regulating, but the danger of a collective error would still give us a reason to generally object to regulation in principle, no matter how sensible it may seem.

Politics makes us ‘stupid’ because the world is complex

Ezra Klein has launched his new site, Vox.com, with an essay on ‘how politics makes us stupid’.

The piece is provocative, and Klein uses some interesting examples. Most striking is the study that shows that people’s maths skills get worse when the problem they’re dealing with has a political element and goes against their political instincts. (Klein seems to have slightly misunderstood the study he’s written about, but his basic point stands.)

The basic claim is that people engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ when they think about politics – in other words, they think in order to justify what they already believe, not in order to discover the truth. This, he suggests, is because the politically-engaged people get more loyalty to their ‘tribe’ than they lose by being wrong.

This ‘identity-protective cognition’, as he calls it, makes sense – a pundit who decides that the other side is right about some particular political issue (Klein uses global warming as an example) has a lot to lose in terms of status within the group they’re part of, and little to gain by being right.

Klein says that this has become worse as political parties have become more ideologically uniform and ideological ecosystems, like think tanks, blogs, media, more expansive. Not only is there the external cost of being wrong, but admitting to yourself that you’ve been wrong for a long time is quite difficult too, especially if you’re politically engaged and some of your sense of self is tied up with your beliefs. You could call this ‘rational ignorance’.

Even though that might seem plausible, I think he is assuming too much and is wrong about some of the phenomena he identifies. I’d like to suggest an alternative understanding of political ignorance that, I think, explains more and assumes less.

I think Klein’s fundamental error is to assume that the truth – or, at least, his mode of truth-seeking – is obvious. Basically, he starts off from the position that most people could reasonably see the light if they wanted to. If that’s right, then it could follow that incentive to disbelieve the truth. And “identity-protective cognition” is an interesting way of understanding that.

But suppose truth is not obvious – that we’re ignorant not because we want to be but because, in Keynes’s words, “we simply do not know!”. In contrast to the rational ignorance Klein is discussing, this kind of ignorance comes about because life is complex. The existence of this kind of ignorance is what allows people to disagree without either being willfully ‘dumb’.

To demonstrate his case, Klein uses examples of ideological dogmatism that are based on rejection of the hard sciences. Here he is assuming that a reasonable default position must be to believe in the usefulness of science, so anyone who deviates from that by disbelieving some scientific point must have an incentive to do so. But if they are simply unaware of the fact that science is usually a good way of learning things, them ignoring scientific consensus is simply a mistake.

Klein may see it as being obvious that science is great. But he has probably spent a lot more time thinking about it than most people – for many, rightly or wrongly, the jury is still out on science, as a great man once said. Error, not group loyalty, may be a simpler explanation for people’s refusal to accept what seems to be a well-established truth.

If the truth is difficult to determine, people who have an interest in politics need some way of sorting the truth from the information they can access. Since there is a huge amount of conflicting data and theory in nearly every area of policy (whether garbage or not), people need some way of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

That’s where an ideology comes in. An ideology, I suggest, is a type of ‘web of belief’ that allows people to use what they already believe to be true to sort relevant and true new information from irrelevant and untrue information. As Jeffrey Friedman puts it, ideology “provides pegs on which to hang the political facts of which non-ideologues tend to be so shockingly ignorant”.

This fits with the fact that ideologues are usually a lot more informed than non-ideologues, an important fact that, so far as I can tell, Klein ignores.

Klein’s view is that political ideology ‘makes us stupid’, but ‘closed-minded’ is probably a more accurate term. The vast majority of the public is shockingly ignorant of basic political facts, with the informational ‘elite’ also happening to be the more closed-minded. The alternative to closed-mindedness may simply be to be extremely uninformed.

This matters because the things Klein blames for politics making us stupid – ‘gerrymandering, big money, and congressional dysfunction’ – are mostly irrelevant if the view I’ve outlined here is correct. In a complex world where the truth is hard to discover, even the purest politics would make us stupid.

This implies a much more fundamental problem with the democratic process than Klein suggests. The trade-off between ignorance and dogmatism may be unavoidable in politics, making a well-functioning deliberative democracy virtually impossible to achieve. This may imply that less cognitively-demanding ways of making decisions, like markets, may be even more valuable than we realise.

There was no British housing bubble

Marcus Nunes graphed the Housing Stock to Population ratio in the US recently, showing that housing reached something like a steady-state in the US from the mid-1980s onwards. As Philip Stephens says, “The constructing in US housing was exactly what was needed to maintain the housing-population ratio in the face of increased population growth. You cannot have an “unsustainable boom” without oversupply.”

This is what the UK looked like over this period (my thanks to Daniel Knowles for the data):

The long-term trend (black dotted line) is attributable to the tendency in recent decades to smaller households, but what’s interesting is that, not only was there no spike in the run-up to 2008, the growth of dwellings over population actually fell below the trend. This is not what we would expect to see if there had been a bubble in housing production.

Dwellings data is a little bit unreliable, though – splitting a house into two flats creates an extra dwelling – so it might be better to look at the amount of new houses that were actually built. Here’s a chart showing the number of residential construction permits granted over the past forty years:

And here’s the ratio of new residential construction permits over population across the same period:

These charts show that housing construction was actually well below historical levels in the 1990s and 2000s, both in absolute terms and relative to population. It is difficult to see how someone could claim that the 2008 bust was caused by too many resources flowing toward housing and subsequently needing time to reallocate if there was no bubble in housing to begin with.

What this suggests is that the Austrian story about the crisis may be wrong in the UK (and, if Nunes’s graphs are right, the US as well). The Hayek-Mises story of boom and bust is not just about rises in the price of housing: it is about malinvestments, or distortions to the structure of production, that come about when relative prices are distorted by credit expansion.

What did cause the crisis? Jeffrey Friedman has shown that bank regulation (most notably, the Basel accords) was one of the major factors that led to the financial crisis, and Robert Hetzel has outlined a convincing theory that central bankers’ tightening of monetary policy in early-to-mid 2008 was the overriding cause of the world’s economic collapse. There is also the possibility that financial investment in the housing market was a simple error.

I was once convinced that the Mises-Hayek story about the boom and bust was true, but the evidence does not seem to bear this out.

Update: A lot of people seem to be implying that Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) means: Easy money -> high prices (“bubble”) -> bubble burst, people lose money. This is incorrect. ABCT relies on distortions to the structure of production (that is, the “real” economy) which have to be liquidated over a period of time following the point at which it becomes clear that they are not good investments. If a ‘bubble’ just meant that people had lost money it would not cause a long-running recession, it would just mean that overnight a lot of people had lost money (like a stock market crash). The reason the recession takes time according to the ABCT is that resources have been invested in a sector where price signals take a considerable amount of time to adjust after a credit-induced malinvestment bubble and so it takes a while for people to determine which investments are ‘mal’.

In short: There may have been a price bubble in British housing market, but there was not the production bubble that ABCT predicts.

PS: I am interested in seeing these data for countries like Ireland and Spain, where the Austrian story may be more valid. It is also possible, as Anton Howes has pointed out, that a regional breakdown would show that there were bubble-like expansions in housing supply in certain parts of the UK, which the country-wide figures hide. If you have these data please let me know, either in the comments or by emailing me at sam@adamsmith.org.

The problem with democracy

The public is ignorant about politics and lacks even the basic facts that it would need to make sound judgments about political issues. A new poll by Ipsos-MORI shows just how deep this ignorance is. Among other things, the poll found that:

  • 29% of people think we spend more on JSA than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn)
  • 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year.  More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn)
  • the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales.
  • people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+.  In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.

These are not just little mistakes, they’re absolute howlers.

This ignorance is perfectly rational and understandable. The problem is that these are the people who decide who runs the country. How can you choose the best set of welfare policies – ‘the best’ being what you would choose if you had all the information available – when you know absolutely nothing about welfare? How can you choose which of the two main parties is offering the best immigration policy if you haven’t got a clue about immigration?

Obviously, you can’t. And giving more power to well-informed elites seems even more foolish. Political psychology suggests that that the more information you have about something, the more resistant to new, contradictory information you are – or, in other words, the more dogmatically ideological you are.

That ideology is often dressed up in terminology that sounds neutral but makes significant assumptions about the role of the state and its ability to effectively solve society’s problems. Anyone for some ‘evidence-based policy’?

This is a problem not just for elections, but for any kind of administration of the state that gives experts decision-making power. If they are inherently dogmatic then giving them power may be even worse than putting every policy issue up to a referendum may be the lesser of two evils (while still being very unappealing).

The choice we have in a democracy appears to be between open-minded ignoramuses or well-informed ideologues. There is no reason to think that either will choose anything like the ‘right’ policy for any given problem. And, as Jeffrey Friedman has argued, unlike when you buy the ‘wrong’ flavour of ice-cream and can immediately buy a different kind next time, the feedback mechanism in politics is weak and difficult to discern.

The answer may be to recognise these crippling limitations of democracy and, wherever possible, prefer decentralized market mechanisms. We cannot solve the problem of ignorant voters or dogmatic elites in democracy, but we can at least try to take as much power out of their hands as possible.

Putting bankers in jail cannot prevent mistakes

The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards has published its report on how to make bankers act less irresponsibly. Among other things, it recommends making bankers criminally liable for reckless professional conduct. “Too many bankers”, it says, “especially at the most senior levels, have operated in an environment with insufficient personal responsibility”.

The assumption here is that bankers acted recklessly because they were insulated from the negative consequences of their actions. I don’t know if that’s true. During the 2008 crisis, plenty of executives at failing financial institutions made the same mistakes that their firms made. AIG’s former CEO kept much of his net worth in AIG stock, most of which he lost. The CEO of Lehman Bros lost $1bn. Citigroup’s Sanford Weill lost $500m. Between them, Bear Stearns’ executives lost billions.

There are many other examples like these. If bankers had known that they were acting recklessly in business, they would not have done the same thing with their personal holdings. That so many executives’ personal losses were so great suggests that they did not realise what they were doing. Their bad business moves were errors, not calculatedly reckless decisions.

Indeed, Jeffrey Friedman has shown that the real error was on the part of regulators. Financial regulations such as the Basel capital accords that were designed to make banks act more prudentially in fact did the opposite, incentivizing banks to load up on government-backed mortgage debt and, particularly in Europe, government bonds. And, unlike mistakes made by individual firms, these mistakes were compounded across the entire global financial system.

Making the punishment for failure harsher will only improve behaviour if the people affected already know that they’re doing wrong. If they’re simply mistaken – as I would imagine you’d have to be to lose billions of dollars of your own net worth – regulations like this will not have the effect we want them to.

But what about the ones who really did know what they’re doing? We used to have a mechanism for punishing reckless business practices — it was called bankruptcy. In banking, at least, this seems to have been abandoned in favour of unlimited bailouts. If we had let bad banks go bankrupt, as Iceland did, we might not be in such a bad situation today.

Throwing a few scapegoats in jail to satisfy an anti-banker mob ignores that the crisis was largely about regulators’ and bankers’ error. It is no replacement for letting bad firms go bust and punishing them the old-fashioned way.