The Government, Nudging, and Delay Discounting

The theory behind the idea that government should nudge (or coerce, as the case may be) us into "better" behavior is based on the idea that many people are bad at delay discounting.  In other words, we tend to apply huge discount rates to pain in the future, such that we will sometimes make decisions to avoid small costs today even if that causes us to incur huge costs in the future (e.g. we refuse to walk away from the McDonalds french fries today which may cause us to die of obesity later).

There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that many decisions that may appear to be based on bad delay discounting are actually based on logical and rational premises that outsiders are unaware of.

But the most obvious problem is that people in government, who will supposedly save us from this poor decision-making, are human beings as well and should therefore have the exact same cognitive weaknesses.  No one has ever managed to suggest a plausible theory as to how our methods of choosing politicians or staffing government jobs somehow selects for people who have better decision-making abilities.

Here is a great example.  These are the people who think YOU have a problem with delay discounting:

When all the numbers are crunched, one fact is crystal clear: Yes, a disaster was looming for Detroit. But there were ample opportunities when decisive action by city leaders might have fended off bankruptcy.

If Mayors Jerome Cavanagh and Roman Gribbs had cut the workforce in the 1960s and early 1970s as the population and property values dropped. If Mayor Dennis Archer hadn’t added more than 1,100 employees in the 1990s when the city was flush but still losing population. If Kilpatrick had shown more fiscal discipline and not launched a borrowing spree to cover operating expenses that continued into Mayor Dave Bing’s tenure. Over five decades, there were many ‘if only’ moments.

“Detroit got into a trap of doing a lot of borrowing for cash flow purposes and then trying to figure out how to push costs (out) as much as possible,” said Bettie Buss, a former city budget staffer who spent years analyzing city finances for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. “That was the whole culture — how do we get what we want and not pay for it until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow?”

Ultimately, Detroit ended up with $18 billion to $20 billion in debt and unfunded pension and health care liabilities. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr as the city’s emergency manager, and Orr filed for Chapter 9 on July 18.

  • Another_Brian

    And of course the most obvious examples at the national level would be Medicare and Social Security. Anyone that takes even a cursory glance at their budgets has a difficult time taking seriously the suggestion that those people will be better at assessing our current costs and future risks better than we will ourselves.

  • JKBrown

    "There are many problems with this theory, not the least of which is that many decisions that may appear to be based on bad delay discounting are actually based on logical and rational premises that outsiders are unaware of."

    Such as a belief that consumption delayed today may result in government taking of savings in the future. If you want delayed gratification, one of the best supports for that is strong property rights and stable low taxation.