Nudges Versus Regulation

Nudges Versus Regulation

“Libertarian paternalism, we think, is a promising foundation for bipartisanship.” Write Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge. The authors are in favor of a governance structure that does not eliminate choice and possibility for people in the world. They are in favor of a system that allows flexibility for the people who have the time and capacity to consider all of their options before making a choice, and they prefer subtle and almost invisible forces to shape public opinion and behaviors. Throughout the book they argue that heavy handed regulation can be harmful to the long-term success and progress in some areas because people may push back against laws and regulations that limit freedom.  Nudges, in their view, can be an avenue toward real bipartisanship and cooperation because they can make real world changes without heavy handed government action.

 

The authors present the standard view of American politics where the Republican Party is presented as the party of small government while Democrats are the party of big government action. Republicans are all about freedom of choice and individual responsibility while Democrats are the party of government planning and the use of public institutions to improve people’s lives. I think this view is wrong. I think people are primarily self-interested, and gravitate toward the party that better reflects their identity, personality, and self-interests, and through motivated reasoning find high-minded excuses for supporting the party that generally aligns with the overarching political preferences that the standard view of American politics presents. But does this mean that Sunstein and Thaler are wrong about the ability of nudges to bring together Republicans and Democrats for action on public policy?

 

They write, “In many domains, including environmental protection, family law, and school choice, we will be arguing that better governance requires less in the way of government coercion and constraint, and more in the way of freedom to choose.”

 

When we consider whether Sunstein and Thaler are correct, we have to ask what is meant by better governance. Better governance might be reaching actual goals and actually improving people’s lives. It might mean creating a system that people are happier to interact with. Better governance may also mean a system that is more equitable, creates more social cohesion and trust, or that operates quicker. Each of these concepts is different, yet related, and we demonstrate that how we chose to measure better governance can shape the approaches we take. A focus on greater equity might come at the cost of quicker hiring and firing processes. Creating a system that leaves individuals who interact with governance happier may mean a system that is bigger and more expensive, but might not mean that it actually solves people’s problems. What we mean by better governance can conflict with what someone else means by better governance, so it is important to be clear about goals and expectations.

 

And that gets to the question – do nudges actually do any of these things? In terms of addressing environmental protection, I don’t think nudges are adequate. I think we are at a point where catastrophic environmental damage and climate change are unavoidable unless we have massive societal and technological changes. Simple nudges that tax oil and gas while offering rebates or incentives for purchasing electric cars won’t change the landscape quick enough to help mitigate climate change and create a sustainable world moving forward. I think we are at a point where we need real action to produce meaningful changes that lead to better governance in environmental policy. It might be time for outright bans on sales of gasoline and diesel engines, billion dollar prizes for green technology, and other heavy handed government interferences in markets and people’s daily lives.

 

However, within family policy, nudges do seem like they can be meaningful. Tyler Cowen recently shared research correlating child car safety laws with the number of children a family has. The argument being that car seats and seat-belt requirements may make it more difficult to have multiple young children who take a long time to get situated in a car before driving, reducing incentives for parents to have more kids. Family decisions, it seems, can be highly influenced by seemingly inconsequential factors. If this is accurate, then nudges, such as child care rebates, really might reduce the costs of childbearing, and might encourage larger families, shaping the actual outcome of people’s lives and securing a young tax base to support social service programs. Nudges might be an effective approach to encouraging more family formation.

 

To continue analyzing policy in areas where Sunstein and Thaler’s quote suggests nudges would be helpful, my argument on school choice would be that it is effectively 100% signaling and self-interest. Religious parents probably don’t care too much about what their children actually learn in school or where they go. They do care about how much their school choice argument and energy demonstrate their religious devotion. Wealthy parents care about the signaling power of elite schools and universities, and similarly care about how much their children will be able to signal and benefit from a private school education that is out of reach for the majority of families who send their children to public schools. Race, socio-economic status, and other identity markers seem to be core to the self-interest of most school choice freedom advocates in my opinion. From my point of view, better governance would enhance social cohesion, encourage more opportunities for those individuals who otherwise would be left out, and help us manage diversity collectively. If school choice is overwhelmingly dominated by signaling and self-interest, then I see little reason why nudges would be the best approach to shaping policy. Nudges that increase costs of signaling end up creating stronger signals for those who can afford to still send their children to private institutions, therefore increasing their value and creating more division and contention within the debate.

 

Nudges seem to have real power in shaping public policy and can likely bring together Republicans and Democrats in some instances, but if governance is not about public policy, but is instead about identity, self-interest, and signaling, then I don’t think nudges can truly do much to improve governance or bring together Democrats and Republicans. Similarly, for massively consequential policy areas, I don’t think we can leave our future and success up to nudges. They may take too long and not be forceful enough to really shape public behavior and attitude, especially if they face entrenched opposition.
The precautionary principle in governance

A Factor for Paralysis in Regulation & Legislation

A common complaint today in the United States is that nothing gets done. We are frustrated by political leaders who can’t pass important legislation. We dislike how slow local governments are to update infrastructure, adopt new technologies, and make improvements in the places we live. Gridlock has become the norm, and the actions that governments take seem to be too little too late.

 

But is this criticism really fair? Is the problem slow governments, ineffectual legislators, and inept public officials? Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow highlights a basic aspect of human psychology that might be one of the major contributing factors to the paralysis we see in governance today, and it has nothing to do with the quality of officials and legislators, but instead is all about the structures and systems of incentives that elected officials and policy actors respond to. The precautionary principle, a side effect of our general tendency toward loss aversion and our general stance against taboo tradeoffs drives our paralysis, and it is a logical response to the structure of many of our governing institutions.

 

Governments are necessary parts of human society, helping us establish rules for how we will live, interact, and make decisions collectively. Governments make investments, determine safety and efficacy standards, and help allocate resources across populations. In each of these functions of governance there is a possibility for error, a possibility for failure, and risk involved in the decisions. This is where the precautionary principle comes in. Kahneman writes,

 

“In the regulatory context, the precautionary principle imposes the entire burden of proving safety on anyone who undertakes actions that might harm people or the environment. Multiple international bodies have specified that the absence of scientific evidence of potential damage is not sufficient justification for taking risks. … the precautionary principle is costly, and when interpreted strictly it can be paralyzing.”

 

When risk is involved in decision-making processes, elected officials and public leaders are held responsible for any the bad outcomes that come to pass. There will always be a chance that a government investment fails, and no public official wants that failure to reflect poorly on their decision-making. There is always the risk that allocated resources could be misused, and it is often the official who approved the resource allocation (as well as the bad actor themselves) who faces consequences. When there is a deliberate decision to trade-off some level of safety or to accept an increase in risk in exchange for improved economic performance, faster traffic flows, or reduced government spending, public leaders and elected officials are the ones who look bad when something goes wrong.

 

The way our governance operates today encourages the precautionary principle. Risk is incredibly dangerous for public leaders, so the safer and more costly approach feels like the right choice in each individual decision. Over time, however, the costs add up, the paralysis becomes suffocating, and the public becomes dissatisfied and cynical. The answer might not be to completely cut out the regulation and safety apparatus of the government (that didn’t work well for President Trump who eliminated the NSC directorate for global health and security and bio-defense). The answer will be new structures for governance, new ways to allow government to take risks, and new ways to understand the risks that we all take in our lives. None of these are easy or simple transitions, but it is likely what we need in order to survive in a more complex and turbulent world.
Taboo Tradeoffs

Taboo Tradeoffs

A taboo tradeoff occurs when we are faced with the dilemma of exchanging something that we are not supposed to give up for money, food, or other resources. Our time, attention, energy, and sometimes even our happiness are perfectly legitimate to trade, but things like health and safety generally are not. We are expected to exchange our time, attention, and physical labor for money, but we are not expected to exchange our personal health for money. When I first read about taboo tradeoffs in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, the year was 2019, and we had not yet entered into a period of time defined by a global pandemic where people began to challenge the taboo against trading health and safety for entertainment, for trials for COVID-19 cures, and to signal their political allegiance.

 

In the book, Kahneman suggests that holding to hard rules against taboo tradeoffs actually makes us all worse off in the end. “The taboo tradeoff against accepting any increase in risk is not an efficient way to use the safety budget,” he writes. Kahneman’s point is that we can spend huge amounts of resources to ensure that there is absolutely no risk to ourselves, our children, or to others, but that we would be better off allocating those resources in a different way. I think Kahneman is correct, but I think that his message has the potential to be read very differently in 2020, and deserves more careful and nuanced discussion.

 

“The intense aversion to trading increased risk for some other advantage plays out on a grand scale in the laws and regulations governing risk.” The important point to note is that complete security and safety comes at a cost of other advantages. The advantage to driving to a football game is that we get to enjoy watching live sports, the risk is that we could be in a serious traffic accident. The advantage of using bug spray is that we kill the creepy crawlies in the dark corners of the garage, the risk is that we (or a child or pet) could accidently ingest the poison. The safest things to do would be to watch the game on TV and to use a broom and boot to kill the bugs, but if we avoid the risk then we give up the advantages of seeing live sports and using efficient pest control products.

 

Kahneman notes that when we make these decisions, we often make them based on a fear of regret more than out of altruistic concerns for our own health and safety or for the health and safety of others. If you traded some level of risk of your child’s safety, and they died, you would feel immense regret and shame, and so you avoid the taboo tradeoff to prevent your own shame. When this plays out across society in millions of large and small examples, we end up in a collectively risk averse paralysis, and society gives up huge advantages because there is a possibility of risk for some individuals.

 

To address the current global state of affairs, I think Kahneman would recognize the risk of COVID-19 and would not encourage us to trade our health and safety (and the health and safety of others) for the enjoyment of a birthday party, holiday meal, or other type of gathering without wearing masks and taking other precautions.  Throughout the book Kahneman highlights the difficulties and challenges of thinking through risk. He addresses the many biases that play into how we behave and how we understand the world. He demonstrates the difficulties we have in thinking statistically and understanding complex probabilities. The takeaway from Kahneman in regard to the taboo tradeoff is that there is a level at which our efforts of safety are outpaced by the advantages we could attain by giving up some of our safety. It isn’t necessarily on each of us individually to try to decide exactly what level of risk society should accept. It is up to the experts who can engage their System 2 brain and evaluate their biases to help the rest of us better understand and conceptualize risk. We might be able to do some things understanding that there is a level of risk we take when engaging in society in 2020, but adequate precautions can still mitigate that risk, and still help us maintain a reasonable balance of safety tradeoffs while enjoying our lives.
The Cost of Marijuana Prohibition

The Cost of Marijuana Prohibition

“Tremendous sums of money are spent on enforcing federal and state marijuana laws every year,” writes John Hudak in his book Marijuana: A Short History, “A 2010 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron puts that total cost at around $14 billion annually for federal and local law enforcement, judicial, and correctional costs.”

 

A common refrain in the public policy world is that government budgeting reveals a society’s priority. In the United States, our system of incarcerating individuals and enforcing laws that often disproportionately impact individuals from racial minorities does not reveal something that many American’s would be proud of. The amount of money that our country, our state governments, and our local municipal governments spend on law enforcement and incarceration is enormous, and the amount we spend on actual rehabilitative programs and preventive efforts is comparatively small. We seem to be a nation that is all about punishing bad guys, but not as concerned about preventing crime and helping people avoid lives that lead toward illegal behavior in the first place.

 

There is still a lot we don’t know about how marijuana use will impact the human body, and we don’t know the full costs of legalizing marijuana, but I think it is fair to question whether $14 billion dollars is worth the cost of prohibition. Keeping people in jail for low level drug charges doesn’t seem to be worth the cost to many people, and that is why some libertarian and conservative groups (such as the Koch brothers), have begun to support marijuana legalization. The question is whether our priority really should be policing and arresting people for using marijuana, or whether we should be investing that money toward other purposes.

 

Police and law enforcement resources could be redirected toward other crimes. Reduced judicial and correctional costs might allow for smaller local budgets, meaning lower taxes for citizens. And in states like Nevada, legalized marijuana has meant tens of millions in new revenue specifically for schools and rainy day funds. Ultimately, where our government decides to put money reveals what our preferences are as citizens and voters, and for a long time our preference has been to pay to remove people we don’t like from society, even if the cost is huge and overwhelms our state and local budgets.

Placing Blame Rather Than Working Toward a Solution

I like to think deeply about public policy. I think there are very interesting structures and ideas that we could put in place which would help us to achieve better outcomes in our societies. The challenge, however, is that the outcomes we want to see are based on value judgement. As in, I think the world should be more this way or that way. When we use the word should we are expressing a judgement that represents some type of value that we hold, which other people might not hold. That means that our political structure is ultimately based on opinion and preference rather than rational cold hard facts.

 

But we don’t really see our world of politics in this way. We see the world of politics differently, believing instead that there is a clearly preferential best answer that can be empirically determined, and arguing as if we know what that perfect answer is. The result from this in the United States, where we have a two party system, seems to be polarization and contempt for the people on the other team. Across the globe, this tends to result in blaming others for bad things that we see around us, and voting for politicians who make us feel warm and fuzzy and rationalizing our support for them even if their ideas might not actually make sense when fully implemented.

 

In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes about this phenomenon, “Elections these days often seem more about who is to blame than who is to govern.” We don’t think deeply during an election about the governable skills that someone has. We discuss policy, but the reality is that almost none of us understand policy in a deep way, and if we do, we only understand one narrow policy space. We are not all economic experts across the board, we are not all education experts, and we are not all medical experts. But we have vague senses about what would be in our interest and what types of views we should hold to fit in with other people like us. As a result we fall into a blame game where we criticize the other side for bad things and put blinders on to ignore the governance shortcomings of our own team.

 

Cowen continues, “Voters are less inclined to see their selection as a long-term contract with a candidate or party and more likely to see it as resembling a transaction with a used car salesman.” This is not surprising if you consider that no one is actually a policy expert. We want to see people like us do well in society, so we align with whoever seems to be best positioned to do that. We don’t really know what will lead to good outcomes, but as long as the politician or party says that people like us are good, then we know to align with and vote for.

A Public Purpose Mandate

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak advocate for new governance structures to help encourage innovation and lead to dynamic growth for cities and metropolitan regions. Katz and Nowak believe that current structures and institutions are inadequate to respond to global challenges that demand multisectoral action, technological innovation, and network approaches to problem-solving.

 

One of the recommendations from the authors is to produce new systems and structures for the effective management, use, and development of public assets. The authors are critical of public management strategies that often lead to politicized decision-making and cronyism. At the same time, the authors don’t suggest that public assets should simply be sold to the highest bidder from the private sector for their own profit maximization. Public assets can play a huge role in city revitalization and growth if managed properly, and the authors recommend that cities and metros look to Copenhagen for examples of better public asset management.

 

The City of Copenhagen has created publicly owned private corporations for the management of public assets and economic development spaces. An insulated private company is responsible for maximizing public benefit through the use of the city’s assets. In regard to transferring this system to cities in the United States, the authors write, “The United States also has to come to terms with the fact that public assets can be effectively managed by the same private systems and principles that build private wealth and productivity, but with a public purpose mandate.”

 

We like to think that there are either public systems, like say the DMV, or private businesses. Our debates and discussions generally center around the pros and cons of each, with people trying to reach an impossible conclusion that one system is inherently better than the other. Katz and Nowak show that Copenhagen took a different path, looking at how a private corporation could be established with public ownership and an ultimate purpose of maximizing public returns rather than private financial returns. The result has been an entity that can think long term, coordinate with both public and private organizations for responsible and equitable growth, and make decisions that focus on improving the city of Copenhagen in a realistic way that responds to actual economic trends, pressures, and forecasts. This blend of public and private is more robust than either pure private development or public management. The result of finding a third path is a new structure that can actually address problems in rational manners and sidestep the pitfalls that are so common in American city governance.

New Considerations for the Public vs Private Discussion

In the past I wrote about the importance of privacy in our politics from the point of view of Jonathan Rauch and his book Political Realism. We have almost no trust in government, and we frequently say things like, “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” but the reality is that politics is made much more complex when it is in the open. Difficult negotiations, compromises, and sacrifices are hard to do in open and public meetings, but can be a little easier when the cameras are turned off and political figures who disagree can have open and honest discussions without the fear of their own words and negotiations being used against them in the future.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak acknowledge the difficulties faced by governments when open meeting laws force any discussion to be public. The laws come from a good place, but for local governments that need to move fast, make smart decisions, and negotiate with private and civic sectors to spur innovation and development, public meetings can lead to stagnation and gridlock. A solution proposed by Katz and Nowak is for local governments to authorize private corporations overseen by public bodies and boards to operate economic development areas and to take ownership of public asset management.

 

They describe how the city of Copenhagen has used this approach, “Copenhagen has found that by managing transactions through a publicly owned, privately driven corporation, operations run faster and more efficiently in comparison to how local government traditionally tackled public development projects.”

 

The private corporation running local development is publicly owned. It is still accountable to the local elected officials who are ultimately still accountable to the voters. But, the decisions are private, the finances are managed privately, and negotiations are not subject to public meeting laws. While the corporation has to demonstrate that it is acting in the public interest, free of corruption, it can engage with other public, private, and civic organizations in a more free and flexible manner to accomplish its goals. Leveraging the strengths of the private sector, publicly owned private corporations that put local assets to work can help drive change and innovation.

 

Directly calling back Jonathan Rauch’s ideas, these corporations create space for negotiations that would be publicly damning for an elected official. They also prevent elected officials from having undue influence in development and public asset management, preventing them from stonewalling a project that might be overwhelmingly popular in general, but unpopular with a narrow and vocal segment of their electorate. This prevents public officials from pursuing a good sounding but ineffective use of public resources to signal loyalty or virtue to constituents. Removing transparency and making the system appear less democratic, as Rauch suggests, might just make the whole system operate more smoothly and work better in terms of the outcomes our cities actually need.

The Complement of Networked Governance

The last few weeks I have been writing about governance ideas presented in Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism. One idea I have brought up multiple times is the idea of new institutions at the local level formed from networks of public, private, and civic actors. Katz and Nowak argue that these networks are crucial for the development of plans and strategies to help cities grow, adapt, and thrive in a globalized economy. New institutions include structures and frameworks that bring together public, private, and civic leaders who have the ability to mobilize energy, capital, and people to actually get things done, rather than to just talk about doing things.

 

Katz and Nowak are clear, however, that these new network governance structures are not something they suggest as a replacement to traditional government structures and agencies. In their book they write, “In the end, however, networked governance is a complement to functioning government, not a substitution. As responsibilities shift downward in societies, capable local governments become a necessary component of problem solving and leadership.”

 

I previously wrote about the ways in which our denigration of government in some ways create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where talented and motivated people are afraid of the stigma of government work and chose to work in the private sector, leaving government with less capable and dynamic talent. A lot of rhetoric says that government is the problem and not a solution, but Katz and Nowak show that government has to be part of the solution.

 

City and local governments create the structures that can organize private and civic groups. They create the forums through which stakeholders can deliberate and discuss the problems that people in the region face. Agencies play a role in ensuring that projects and programs taken on with the support of private and civic groups follow legal precedent and sound administrative practices in an equitable manner. Without a competent public sector, the plans from governance networks would have nothing to graft onto, and could not be implemented nor developed.

 

New governance approaches through networks are efficient and effective because they bring in the people who have the expertise in a given area and invite them to be part of a larger solution than just maximizing their bottom line. They engage community members and actors in place-making, helping the region grow in a way that will in turn benefit each member of the network. The network fills the gaps in public action and strengthens the weakest parts of the public sector. Together, a competent local government combined with the nimble and expert private and civic sectors has a great advantage in the field of problem solving.

Culture Busting

In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak call for culture busting among city leaders who want to find new solutions to pressing problems. One of the challenges we face is that in general, the public doesn’t understand governance well. We operate with set ideas about what governance is, who sets rules and regulations, and the roles that private companies, local community groups, and formal government agencies play. In the future, as problem solving becomes more local and as we try to tackle major challenges we will need to get beyond these simple models from our high school civics classes.

 

This is what Katz and Nowak call culture busting, “culture busting is a form of risk taking and a fundamental shift in understanding that many responsibilities in a city and metropolis lie with the community broadly rather than with the government narrowly.” The role of government, the role of businesses, and the role of everyday citizens needs to change if we are to truly address the big problems in our societies. If we want to tackle climate change, if we want to reduce healthcare spending, and if we want to spark economic development, we have to realize how interconnected all of the challenges we face are, and we have to develop a community focused action plan to make the necessary changes. Thinking that problem solving is the role of government or that economic development is purely a free market phenomenon will not help us jump to be dynamic leaders in a globalized economy.

 

Part of what culture busting calls for is more education around governance and part of it is a reemergence of community action. A major failure of suburban life is that we drive from our homes to our places of work or commerce, and rarely interact with anyone else along the way. We let others deal with problems unless they happen to be unavoidably right in front of our face. We might get out for a sporting event or a conference, but otherwise we are just as content to watch Disney+ at home. Culture busting replaces this individual isolation with networks that want to see real change and are willing to own part of that change.

 

Culture busting requires that we re-imagine what is possible for governments and redefine the role of businesses and civic organizations. It requires that we think about the challenges our communities face, and ask ourselves what resources and advantages do we have that we can use to make a difference. Rather than waiting for government to make a decision, it requires civic and private energy to clear the path and display a public will for government to direct resources in the direction that the populace already wants to move. It shifts leadership from government back to the people and aligns actors to make the community a better place.

A Complex Interplay

In the United States, we have a myth about the power of private industry. We believe that the private sector is robust, efficient, and always provides the correct and stable equilibrium needed to solve problems and provide us with innovation. We see free-market competition as the only legitimate way to advance and grow, with popular TV characters expressing ideas such as, “Capitalism: God’s way of determining who is smart, and who is poor.

 

Public action, on the other hand, is downplayed and typecast as an incompetent, greedy villain. Accepting aid from a public agency is seen in some ways as a cop out, or only as something that is acceptable for a short period of time as long as you are deserving of assistance by working hard, trying to be smart, and following all the rules that others lay out.

 

For those who have achieved success, this model fits nicely with the worldview that they would like to see and believe. It elevates them while framing poverty or economic distress as a moral failure.

 

As we move forward as a globalized society that is able to adapt to technological changes and new institutions, we will have to realize that this myth does not reflect the reality of public programs or the private sector. In The New Localism Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about their idea of dynamic new approaches to policy and governance,

 

“Successful network governance models show the complex and varied interplay of the public, private, and civic. The models eviscerate the cartoon version of an efficient private sector taking the place of an inept and incompetent public sector. Rather, network governance combines the entrepreneurial capacity and capital of business and philanthropy with the legitimacy and broader concerns of local government.”

 

Government and public institutions have an authority and responsibility that is hard for the private sector to replicate. Because government agencies don’t have a profit motive, they are able to focus on public priorities and concerns in ways that businesses cannot. However, because businesses have private capital available for investment, they can take risky bets and make investments that public sectors could not. Finding ways to merge the strengths and weaknesses of public and private sectors is crucial to develop networks that have the appropriate capacities to invest in the future and implement changes to help regions grow and advance.

 

Simply claiming that the private sector always provides the best outcomes or that the public sector is slow and bloated does not help us think about what is really needed for economic growth and development in the 21st century. Both sides need to be understood clearly and appreciated for their strengths and unique features. Future governance models will combine aspects of both the public and private sectors to get stuff done.