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Economics: Which Way for Obama?

The bursting of the housing bubble and the associated credit crunch has so far wiped out about $3 trillion of wealth—nobody knows the exact amount—caused havoc in the financial markets, and prompted hundreds of thousands of homeowners to default on their monthly mortgage payments. Some experts predict that by the end of 2009, the number of homes entering foreclosure could reach two million. Not surprisingly, the question of what to do about the housing crisis has emerged as a divisive policy issue in the 2008 presidential election, with each of the three leading candidates representing a distinct economic ideology.

John McCain, for all his protestations that economics is not his strong point, has put forward a coherent, if somewhat heartless, case for doing nothing, or very little, anyway. Echoing the arguments that Andrew Mellon, Friedrich Hayek, and other enthusiasts of the free market espoused in the early years of the Great Depression, McCain has said it is no business of the government to bail out people who took out loans they couldn’t afford. Evidently such socialistic interventions would only reward reckless behavior, and, in any case, they wouldn’t work. The laissez-faire argument says it is better to let the market “correct”—i.e., let the foreclosures mount up—until people learn to live within their means and prices become more affordable, at which point sustainable economic growth will resume.

Hillary Clinton, after initially equivocating, has emerged as the would-be heir to FDR and John Maynard Keynes. In addition to imposing a ninety-day moratorium on foreclosures and a five-year freeze on certain adjustable mortgage rates, she would have the federal government buy up an undetermined number of troubled home loans, enabling lenders to convert them to more affordable deals and putting a floor under the housing market.

Clinton would also allow bankruptcy judges to reduce the value of mortgages, a proposal the banking industry vigorously opposes, and she has criticized McCain as the reincarnation of Herbert Hoover—a comparison that is a bit unfair to the thirty-first president, whose intellectual commitment to voluntarism didn’t prevent him from expanding public works programs, raising taxes on the wealthy, and creating two institutions that funneled federal money into the housing market: the Federal Home Loan Bank and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

Barack Obama has also criticized McCain for sitting back and watching while so many American families face eviction. Yet his own proposals are more nuanced than Hillary’s. They include setting up a $10 billion fund to help prevent foreclosures, cracking down on mortgage fraud, providing tax credits to low- and middle-income homeowners who don’t currently itemize their interest payments, and standardizing the terms of mortgages so that potential borrowers can more easily figure out when they are being hoodwinked. Obama has also expressed support for Democratic Senator Chris Dodd’s plan to expand the Federal Housing Administration’s ability to refinance troubled loans. So far, though, he has been noticeably less enthusiastic than Clinton about a large-scale injection of public funds into the market for mortgages and mortgage securities.

Should Obama win the nomination, political considerations may well force upon him a more interventionist position, but his first inclination is to seek a path between big government and laissez-faire, a trait that reflects his age—he was born in 1961—and the intellectual milieu he emerged from. Before entering the Illinois state Senate, he spent ten years teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, where respect for the free market is a cherished tradition. His senior economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, is a former colleague of his at Chicago and an expert on the economics of high-tech industries. Goolsbee is not a member of the “Chicago School” of Milton Friedman and Gary Becker, but he is not well known as a critic of American capitalism either. As recently as March 2007, he published an article in The New York Times pointing out the virtues of subprime mortgages. “The three decades from 1970 to 2000 witnessed an incredible flowering of new types of home loans,” Goolsbee wrote. “These innovations mainly served to give people power to make their own decisions about housing, and they ended up being quite sensible with their newfound access to capital.”

When I spoke to Goolsbee earlier this year, he said that one of the things that distinguished Obama from Clinton was his skepticism about standard Keynesian prescriptions, such as relying on tax policy to stimulate investment and saving. In a recent posting on HuffingtonPost.com, Cass Sunstein, who for ten years was a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago Law School—and has said he is “an informal, occasional adviser to him”—made a similar point regarding government oversight of the financial markets: “With respect to the mortgage crisis, credit cards and the broader debate over credit markets,” Sunstein wrote, “Obama rejects heavy-handed regulation and insists above all on disclosure, so that consumers will know exactly what they are getting.”

If Obama isn’t an old-school Keynesian, what is he? One answer is that he is a behavioralist—the term economists use to describe those who subscribe to the tenets of behavioral economics, an increasingly popular discipline that seeks to marry the insights of psychology to the rigor of economics. Although its intellectual roots go back more than thirty years, to the pioneering work of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, behavioral economics took off only about ten years ago, and many of its leading lights, among them David Laibson and Andrei Shleifer, of Harvard; Matt Rabin, of Berkeley; and Colin Camerer, of Caltech, are still in their thirties or forties. One of the reasons this approach has proved so popular is that it appears to provide a center ground between the Friedmanites and the Keynesians, whose intellectual jousting dominated economics for most of the twentieth century.

The central tenet of the Chicago School is that markets, once established and left alone, will resolve most of society’s economic problems, including, presumably, the mortgage crisis. Keynesians—old-school Keynesians, anyway—take the view that markets, financial markets especially, often fail to work as advertised, and that this failure can be self-reinforcing rather than self-correcting. In some ways, the behavioralists stand with the Keynesians. Markets sometimes go badly awry, they agree, especially when people have to make complicated choices, such as what type of mortgage to take out. But whereas the Keynesians argue that vigorous regulation and the prohibition of certain activities such as excessive borrowing are often necessary, behavioralists tend to be more hopeful about redeeming free enterprise. With a gentle nudge, they argue, even some very poorly performing markets—and the people who inhabit them—can be made to work pretty well.

In a fortuitous accident of timing, Sunstein and his friend Richard Thaler have just published a book that makes the behavioralist case in nontechnical language: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. On the face of it, finding two more suitable coauthors would be difficult. Sunstein is a one-man think tank and a prolific writer—by my count, this is his eighth book in as many years. Thaler, who, like Goolsbee, teaches at Chicago’s Graduate School of Business, is one of the founders of behavioral economics. During the 1980s, he began publishing a series of columns in the Journal of Economic Perspectives about economic phenomena that defied the accepted wisdom of the subject, which depended heavily on the twin assumptions of individual rationality and market efficiency.

Thaler’s columns, some of which he coauthored with Kahneman and Tversky, ran under the rubric “Anomalies.” Among the things they highlighted were the failure of participants in economic experiments to pursue their own self-interest; the buyer’s remorse suffered by many auction winners when they contemplate what they have bought; and the popularity of lotteries. (If people were fully rational, they would realize they had virtually no chance of winning.) The articles, which in 1992 were published as a book, The Winner’s Curse: Paradoxes and Anomalies of Economic Life, inspired many bright young economists to take a closer look at human psychology.

For decades hitherto, young economists wanting their elders to take their work seriously had followed a three-step research program that could roughly and uncharitably be described as follows: (1) write down a set of equations to describe how people or firms behaved; (2) fiddle around with the math until it yielded some refutable hypotheses; and (3) using the most highfalutin statistical technique you could master, subject the theory to the data. Thaler and his followers were savvy enough to couch their theories in mathematics. To test them out, though, they borrowed some tricks from experimental psychology, monitoring actual people—groups of students, usually—doing everyday things, such as drinking beer, playing computer games, bidding for cheap objects, and, in one case that has recently attracted some attention, masturbating while viewing online pornography. (MIT’s Dan Ariely was one of the organizers of the latter experiment, which he covers at length in his best-selling book, Predictably Irrational.*)

As is true of almost all research programs, some of the results the behavioral economists obtained weren’t exactly shocking. (Ariely “discovered” that sexually aroused young men develop a taste for unprotected sexual intercourse and other, more deviant, sexual practices.) Taken together, however, the experiments confirmed something most people outside of economics hadn’t doubted for a moment: rational economic man, the all-seeing, all-knowing figure on whose shoulders much of contemporary economics had been constructed, was a purely fictional character. Faced with even simple sets of options to pick from, human beings make decisions that are inconsistent, suboptimal, and, sometimes, plain stupid. Rather than thinking things through logically, they rely on misleading rules of thumb and they leap to inappropriate conclusions. Moreover, they are heavily influenced by how the choices are presented to them and, sometimes, by completely irrelevant information.

If you think you are too smart for this description to apply to you, try this simple mental exercise. Take the last three digits of your cell phone number, obtaining a number between zero and 999, and add two hundred to it. Write down the resulting figure and put the letters AD after it. Now, consider this question: When did Attila the Hun invade Europe?

Unless you are an expert on the Dark Ages, or your brain is unusually wired, the chances are that your answer will be pretty close to the date you write down. Say the last three digits of your cell number are 787 and the number you write down is 987 AD. Then, most likely, 900 AD will sound like a reasonable answer to you, and so will 1050 AD, but 400 AD will sound wrong. That was certainly how it worked when I tried the exercise.

The last three digits of my cell number are 314, so I wrote down 514 AD. Then, I volunteered 450 AD as the answer to the history question. (As chance would have it, I almost got the correct answer, which is during the 440s.) My experience was fairly typical. When Thaler and Sunstein asked some of their students to play this game, those who started out with high numbers gave dates that were, on average, three hundred years later than those proffered by students with low numbers.

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    HarperCollins, 2008.

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