Economics for the Common Good
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Economics for the Common Good

Jean Tirole, Steven Rendall

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eBook - ePub

Economics for the Common Good

Jean Tirole, Steven Rendall

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About This Book

From Nobel Prize–winning economist Jean Tirole, a bold new agenda for the role of economics in society When Jean Tirole won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Economics, he suddenly found himself being stopped in the street by complete strangers and asked to comment on issues of the day, no matter how distant from his own areas of research. His transformation from academic economist to public intellectual prompted him to reflect further on the role economists and their discipline play in society. The result is Economics for the Common Good, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a "dismal science, " is a positive force for the common good.Economists are rewarded for writing technical papers in scholarly journals, not joining in public debates. But Tirole says we urgently need economists to engage with the many challenges facing society, helping to identify our key objectives and the tools needed to meet them.To show how economics can help us realize the common good, Tirole shares his insights on a broad array of questions affecting our everyday lives and the future of our society, including global warming, unemployment, the post-2008 global financial order, the euro crisis, the digital revolution, innovation, and the proper balance between the free market and regulation.Providing a rich account of how economics can benefit everyone, Economics for the Common Good sets a new agenda for the role of economics in society.

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Do You Like Economics?
IF YOU ARE NOT an economist by training or profession you might be intrigued by economics (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this book), but you do not necessarily like it. You probably find economic discourse abstruse, even counterintuitive. In this chapter I would like to explain why that is, describe a few cognitive biases that sometimes play tricks on us when we think about economic questions, and propose some ways of spreading an understanding of economics more widely.
Economics concerns all of us in our everyday lives; it is not just for experts. Once we look beyond appearances, and identify and overcome the initial obstacles, it is also accessible and fascinating.
Psychologists and philosophers have long examined the factors that shape our beliefs. Numerous cognitive biases work to our advantage (which no doubt explains why they exist) but they also occasionally mislead us. We will encounter these biases throughout this book, and see how they affect our understanding of economic phenomena and our view of society. In short, what we see – or want to see – and reality are different.
We often believe what we want to believe, rather than what the evidence points to. Thinkers as diverse as Plato, Adam Smith, and the great nineteenth-century American psychologist William James have all pointed out that the way we form and revise our beliefs serves to confirm the image we want to have, both of ourselves and of the world around us. When these beliefs are aggregated, they determine a country’s economic, social, scientific, and geopolitical policies.
Not only are we subject to cognitive biases, we also frequently seek out things that reinforce them. We interpret facts through the prism of our beliefs; we read the newspapers and seek the company of people who will confirm us in those beliefs; and thus we stick obstinately to these beliefs, whether or not they are correct. When Dan Kahan, a professor of law at Yale University, confronted Americans who voted Democrat with scientific proof of the anthropogenic factor (the influence of human beings on global warming), he observed that they were more convinced than ever of the necessity of taking action against climate change. When Republicans were confronted with the same data, many of them were confirmed in their skepticism.1 Even more astonishing, this was not a matter of education or intelligence: statistically, the refusal to face up to the evidence was at least as firmly anchored in Republicans who had advanced degrees as it was in less well-educated Republicans. No one is immune to this phenomenon.
The desire to reassure ourselves about our future also plays an important role in our understanding of economic (and more generally, scientific) phenomena. We do not want to hear that the battle against global warming will be expensive. Hence the popularity in political debate of the idea of “green growth.” The name suggests that in environmental matters we can have our cake and eat it too. But if it is really so easy, why hasn’t it already been implemented?
We like to think that accidents and illnesses only afflict others, not ourselves or those close to us. This can lead to harmful behavior, such as driving carelessly or not looking after our health (though this is not entirely negative since worrying less improves our quality of life). In the same way, we do not want to believe the possibility that an explosion of public debt might endanger the survival of our social safety net – or at least we want to believe that someone else will foot the bill.
We all dream of a world in which the law would not have to encourage or constrain people to behave virtuously, a world in which companies would voluntarily stop polluting and avoiding their taxes, in which people would drive carefully even without police officers around. That is why movie directors (and not only of Hollywood movies) invent endings that meet our expectations. These happy endings confirm our belief that we live in a fair world where virtue wins out over vice (what the sociologist Melvin Lerner called “belief in a just world”2).
When populist parties on both the right and the left promote the vision of an economy free of difficult choices, anything that questions this sugarcoated fairytale is perceived at best as scaremongering, at worst as lies put about by global warming fanatics, austerity ideologues, or other enemies of humanity. The insistence on reality rather than fairytale is one reason why economics is often called “the dismal science.”
First Impressions and Heuristics
The teaching of economics is usually based on the theory of rational choice. To describe the behavior of an individual, economists start by describing his or her objectives. Whether the individual is selfish or altruistic, seeking profit or social recognition, or has some other ambition, in every case he or she is assumed to act as far as possible in his or her own interest. This hypothesis is sometimes applied too strongly, and not only because an individual does not always have the necessary information to make a good choice. As the victim of cognitive biases, this agent is also likely to make a mistake when evaluating the best way to attain an objective. Humans are subject to many biases in reasoning or perception. These biases do not invalidate the theory that rationality defines the choices that individuals ought to make to act in their best interest (normative choices), but they explain why we don’t necessarily make those choices.
We will make use of the notion of heuristics, as described by Daniel Kahneman,3 a psychologist who won the Nobel prize in economics in 2002. Heuristics are rules of thumb for thinking, shortcuts to an answer to a question. They are often very useful because they allow us to make decisions quickly (if we are face-to-face with a tiger, we don’t have time to calculate the optimal response), but heuristics can also mislead. They channel emotion, which can be a reliable guide but can also be very ill-advised.
For example, we are more likely to remember situations in which our activity has been interrupted. Thinking “the telephone always rings when I’m in the shower” is clearly a trick played by our memories. The call that interrupted the shower remains imprinted on our memories, unlike the calls that did not. Similarly, we are afraid of airplane crashes and terrorist attacks because they are covered at length in newspapers; we forget that car accidents and “ordinary” murders kill many more people than these fortunately rare events. Since September 11, 2001, there have been 200,000 homicides in the United States, of which only 50 were carried out by (American) Islamic terrorists.4 This does not, however, prevent terrorist acts from being etched on our psyche.
The main contribution of Kahneman and Tversky’s work has been to show that these and other heuristics often mislead us. They give many examples, but one is particularly striking: medical students at Harvard made significant errors5 when calculating the probability that a patient had cancer given certain symptoms. These were the brightest American students, yet their shortcuts in reasoning were not corrected, not even by their brilliant intellects and stellar education.6
In economic matters too, first impressions can mislead us. We look at the direct effect of an economic policy, which is easy to understand, and we stop there. Most of the time we are not aware of the indirect effects. We do not understand the problem in its entirety. Yet secondary or indirect effects can easily make a well-intentioned policy toxic.
Throughout this book we will encounter many examples of this phenomenon, but let us start with a deliberately provocative example.7 I have chosen this example because it allows us to see immediately the kind of cognitive bias that leads to poor public policy decisions. Let’s suppose an NGO confiscates ivory from traffickers who kill endangered elephants for their tusks. The NGO has to choose between destroying the ivory or selling it discreetly on the market. The immediate reaction of most readers would be that the latter choice is reprehensible. My spontaneous reaction would be the same. But let us examine this example more closely.
The NGO would receive revenue from selling the ivory, which it could use to provide more resources to detect and investigate, or to provide additional vehicles to limit the traffic in ivory. Selling the ivory might also have the immediate effect of lowering its price. The price would be a little lower if not much was sold, and a lot lower if a lot of ivory was put on the market.8 Traffickers are economically rational actors: they consider how much money they can make from their activity and consider the risks they take (in this case, prison or meeting armed police). If the price of ivory falls, it would therefore discourage some of them from killing elephants. Given this, would the NGO’s sale of ivory be immoral? Possibly. A conspicuous sale by an organization with a respectable reputation might legitimize the trade for potential buyers who would otherwise feel guilty about their desire to purchase ivory – hence my emphasis on a “discreet sale” in this scenario. But at the very least, we ought to think twice before we condemn the choice of selling the ivory, especially since doing so would not prevent the government from exercising its sovereign authority to prosecute poachers or retailers of ivory or rhinoceros horn, or from communicating to the public the importance of protecting endangered animals in the hope of changing the accepted social norms.
This hypothetical scenario helps explain why the 1997 Kyoto Protocol failed. The Protocol promised to be a major step in the battle against global warming. Because of carryover effects (known in environmental economics jargon as “the leakage problem”), whereby polluting activities tend to migrate to countries with more lenient regulations, the battle against greenhouse gases in a single region may have little or no effect on worldwide pollution. Suppose, for example, that the United States reduces its consumption of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal). On its own, this effort would be laudable. Experts agree that it would require similar major efforts by every country to limit the global rise in temperature to the 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade that is considered to be a bearable level of global warming. The problem is that when one country saves a ton of coal or a barrel of oil, the price of coal and oil falls, which encourages greater consumption elsewhere in the world.
Similarly, if a virtuous country forces its resident industries to pay to emit greenhouse gas, these industries are likely to move to another country where the absence of carbon taxation would make it cheaper to produce. This would partly or entirely cancel out the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the virtuous country, and there would be only a weak effect on the environment. Any serious solution to the problem can only be global. In economic matters, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The Bias toward the Identifiable Victim
Our empathy is naturally directed toward people who are geographically, ethnically, and culturally close to us. Our natural inclination, which has evolutionary origins,9 is to feel more compassion for people in economic distress from our own community than for children dying of hunger far away, even if we recognize intellectually that the starving children are in more urgent need of help. More generally, we feel greater empathy when we identify with victims; and to do so it helps if we can recognize them. Psychologists have identified our tendency to attach more importance to people whose faces we know than to other, anonymous people.10
This bias toward the identifiable victim, no matter how instinctive it is, affects public policies. In the words of the quotation often attributed to Joseph Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million men is a statistic.” Thus, a deeply distressing photo of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian child found dead in 2015 on a Turkish beach, forced us to pay attention to a situation it would have been more comfortable to ignore. It had much more impact on Europeans’ awareness of refugees than the statistics about the thousands of migrants who had already drowned in the Mediterranean. The photo of Aylan had a similar impact on European attitudes toward migration as the 1972 photo of Kim Phúc, a Vietnamese girl burned by napalm running naked down a street, had on opinions about the Vietnam War. A single identifiable victim may affect many more minds than millions of anonymous victims. In the same way, an advertising campaign against drunk driving has a more powerful effect when it shows a passenger flying through a windshield than when it announces the annual number of victims (a statistic that provides, however, far more information about the consequences of drunk driving).
The bias toward the identifiable victim also leads astray the employment policies practiced in Southern European countries, in which some permanent jobs are strongly protected while other jobs are insecure. In many countries with this kind of strong employment protection, the media focuses on the battles to save jobs fought by employees with permanent contracts; their tragedy is made more acute because they live in a country where they have little chance of finding another similarly secure job. These victims have a face. Yet the media reports ignore the much larger group of people who alternate between short-term jobs and spells of unemployment. They have no faces, they are only statistics. As we will see in chapter 9, they are the victims of institutions – some of them set up to protect the first set of employees on permanent contracts – that cause firms to prefer to hire employees on fixed-term contracts rather than create stable jobs. While we worry about dismissals of protected workers, we forget the people who are excluded from the labor market in the first place, even though these groups are two sides of the same coin.
A Tale of Two Professions
The contrast between economics and medicine is striking: in contrast to its low opinion of “the dismal science,” the public regards medicine – rightly – as a profession devoted to people’s well-being (we call it “the caring profession”). Yet economics takes a similar approach to that of medicine. The economist, like the oncologist, makes a diagnosis on the basis of the best available (though necessarily imperfect) knowledge, and then either proposes the most suitable treatment on that basis or recommends no treatment at all, if none seems necessary.
These diverging perceptions of medicine and economics are easy to explain. In medicine, the victims of secondary effects are for the most part the same people who are being treated (epidemiology is an exception – think for example of the consequences of the spreading resistance to antibiotics, or of the loss of herd immunity when vaccination levels decline). A doctor has only to remain faithful to the Hippocratic Oath and recommend what is in the best interest of the patient. In economics, the victims of secondary effects are rarely the same people who received the original treatment, as the example of the labor market shows very clearly. An economist is obliged to think about invisible victims as well, and so the public sometimes accuses that economist of being indifferent to the sufferings of the visible victims.
Air, water from a stream, or a beautiful landscape can be enjoyed by one person without others being prevented from benefiting as well. But for most goods, one person’s consumption means th...

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