Another pundit questioning the future use of behavioral economics

Andrew Ferguson devotes his latest Weekly Standard article to a topic this forum has addressed before: the fading reputation of behavioral economics as a political tool.

Is it possible that the people who run the Obama administration aren’t as smart as we’ve been led to believe?

Stay with me here, seriously. I’m thinking now of the administration’s much-publicized devotion to behavioral economics. Not long after his election, Time magazine noted that Barack Obama had surrounded himself with a “dream team” of behavioral economists, outside-the-box envelope-pushers like Peter Orszag, who became the administration’s first head of the Office of Management and Budget, and Cass Sunstein, whom the president appointed as his “regulatory czar.”

Behavioral economics is très chic. All the coolest economists are into it. It partakes of the obsession with social science that has lately gripped the country’s smart people, who exhibit a grinding need to quantify human behavior so that it will become more predictable, describable, and controllable. To meet demand, a steady flow of “studies” in human behavior passes through the sluice gates of university departments of accounting, psychology, marketing, sociology, business, and of course economics. From these the behavioral economists build vast edifices of theory and now, thanks to President Obama, public policy too.

The most salient of these policies was the Making Work Pay tax credit of 2009 and 2010. It was an essential element of the president’s famous $250 billion “middle-class tax cut,” which was slapped like a defibrillator onto the limp and supine figure of the American economy a couple years ago. The MWP was carefully designed according to the principles of behavioral economics, and now it seems not to have worked the way it was supposed to.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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