I Agree with Larry Summers
| Peter Klein |
Justin Fox reports on a recent high-powered behavioral economics conference featuring Raj Chetty, David Laibson, Antoinette Schoar, Maya Shankar, and other important contributors to this growing research stream. But he refers also to the “Summers critique,” the idea that key findings in behavioral economics research sound like recycled wisdom from business practitioners.
Summers [in 2012] told a story about a college acquaintance who as a cruel prank signed up another classmate for 60 different subscriptions of the Book-of-the-Month-Club ilk. The way these clubs worked is that once you signed up, you got a book in the mail every month and were charged for it unless you (a) sent the book back within a certain period of time or (b) went through the hassle of extricating yourself from the club altogether. Customers had to opt out in order to not keep buying books, so they bought more books than they otherwise would have. Book marketers, Summers said, had figured out the power of defaults long before economists had.
More generally, Fox asks, “Have behavioral economists really discovered anything new, or have they simply replaced some wrong-headed notions of post-World War II economics with insights that people in business have understood for decades and maybe even centuries?”
I took exactly the Summers line in a 2010 post, observing that behavioral economics “often seems to restate common, obvious, well-known ideas as if they are really novel insights (e.g., that preferences aren’t stable and predictable over time). More novel propositions are questionable at best.” I used a Dan Ariely column on compensation policy as an example:
He claims as a unique insight of behavioral economics that when people are evaluated according to quantitative measures of performance, they tend to focus on the measures, not the underlying behavior being measured. Well, duh. This is pretty much a staple of introductory lectures on agency theory (and features prominently in Steve Kerr’s classic 1975 article). Ariely goes on to suggest that CEOs should be rewarded not on the basis of a single measure of performance, but multiple measures. Double-duh. Holmström (1979) called this the “informativeness principle” and it’s in all the standard textbooks on contract design and compensation structure (e.g., Milgrom and Roberts, Brickley et al., etc.) (Of course, agency theory also recognizes that gathering information is costly, and that additional metrics are valuable, on the margin, only if the benefits exceed the costs, a point unmentioned by Ariely.)
Maybe Larry and I should hang out.