Monday, January 18, 2010


Two articles which discuss incentives.
First, an article by Tim Harford in the Financial Times.
Just over two years ago, British soldiers in a remote region of Afghanistan came across a solitary man sowing seed – wheat rather than poppies. This was risky and unusual: a planting at the turn of the year was very late, and the area had been made dangerous by incessant fighting. But the farmer had his reasons. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, had been assassinated a couple of days earlier. The man reckoned that wheat prices would soar as a result and wanted to cash in...
There has been a tendency among commentators and politicians to treat the “hearts and minds” aspect of counter-insurgency as a popularity contest. But the “voters” are not casual spectators, trying to choose between the Taliban or the coalition forces; they are individuals weighing up complex choices in difficult circumstances.
He concludes
I have been as guilty as anyone of being fascinated by behavioural economics. But the financial system did not fail because of some psychological trait, but because it was riddled with damaging incentives that were hard to spot because the system was complex and changing quickly. So, too, with counter-insurgency: Mackay started by thinking about economic psychology but ended up focusing on complexity, and what it takes to create an organisation capable of adapting to complexity. It has taken me too long to come to the same conclusion myself.
Next, an interview in the New Yorker magazine with Nobel Laureate Hames Heckman on what remains of the Chicago School.
I want to distinguish between two different ideas. The Chicago School incorporates many different ideas. I think the part of the Chicago School that has been justified is the claim that people react to incentives, and that incentives are important. Nothing in what has happened invalidates that idea. People did react to incentives—clearly they did. It turned out that the incentives they were reacting to weren’t socially beneficial, but they definitely reacted to them. The other part of the Chicago School, which Stiglitz and Krugman have criticized, is the efficient-market hypothesis. That is something completely different.
I think it is important to put it into historical perspective. In the late nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties, when Keynesianism was really dominant, that sort of Keynesianism—so-called hydraulic Keynesianism—completely ignored incentives and the way people reacted to them. What Chicago did—Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and others—was to redress that balance. They did a whole lot of empirical studies that showed how people did react to incentives, such as changes in taxes or prices. That was incredibly influential, and it is still is.

No comments: