Richard Thaler, with whom I had a nodding acquaintance many years ago, is one of my least favorite economists — and a jerk, to boot. (See, for example, “The Perpetual Nudger“, “Richard Thaler, Nobel Laureate“, “Thaler’s Non-Revolution in Economics“, “Another (Big) Problem with ‘Nudging’“, and ” Thaler on Discounting“.) What the world needs isn’t a biography of the nudger-in-chief, but that’s what the world now has, no thanks to The Library of Economics and Liberty, where the mercifully brief bio is posted.
In it, the reader is treated to such “wisdom” as this:
Economists generally assume that more choices are better than fewer choices. But if that were so, argues Thaler, people would be upset, not happy, when the host at a dinner party removes the pre-dinner bowl of cashews. Yet many of us are happy that it’s gone. Purposely taking away our choice to eat more cashews, he argues, makes up for our lack of self-control.
Notice the sleight of hand by which the preferences of a few (including Thaler, presumably) are pushed front and center: “many of us are happy”. Who is “us”? And what about the preferences of everyone else, who may well comprise a majority? Thaler is happy because the the host has taken an action of which he (Thaler) approves, because he (Thaler) wants to tell the rest of us what makes us happy.
Thaler … noticed another anomaly in people’s thinking that is inconsistent with the idea that people are rational. He called it the “endowment effect.” People must be paid much more to give something up (their “endowment”) than they are willing to pay to acquire it. So, to take one of his examples from a survey, people, when asked how much they are willing to accept to take on an added mortality risk of one in one thousand, would give, as a typical response, the number $10,000. But a typical response by people, when asked how much they would pay to reduce an existing risk of death by one in one thousand, was $200.
Surveys are meaningless. Talk is cheap (see #5 here).
Even if the survey results are somewhat accurate, in that there is a significant gap between the two values, there is a rational explanation for such a gap. In the first instance, a person is (in theory) accepting an added risk, one that he isn’t already facing. In the second instance, the existing risk may be one that the person being asked considers to be very low, as applied to himself. The situations clearly aren’t symmetrical, so it’s unsurprising that the price of accepting a new risk is higher than the payment for reducing a possible risk.
That’s enough of Thaler. More than enough.