Tag Archives: welfare

What Expanded Safety Net?

By James Kwak

In general, I think Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff’s article on how the same people oppose government handouts and take government handouts is very good. But I think their framing buys into a piece of conventional wisdom that just isn’t true.

Here it is, without any shortening (but emphasis is mine):

“The problem by now is familiar to most. Politicians have expanded the safety net without a commensurate increase in revenues, a primary reason for the government’s annual deficits and mushrooming debt. In 2000, federal and state governments spent about 37 cents on the safety net from every dollar they collected in revenue, according to a New York Times analysis. A decade later, after one Medicare expansion, two recessions and three rounds of tax cuts, spending on the safety net consumed nearly 66 cents of every dollar of revenue.

“The recent recession increased dependence on government, and stronger economic growth would reduce demand for programs like unemployment benefits. But the long-term trend is clear. Over the next 25 years, as the population ages and medical costs climb, the budget office projects that benefits programs will grow faster than any other part of government, driving the federal debt to dangerous heights.”

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Does Behavioral Economics Undermine the Welfare State?

By James Kwak

That’s the title of a post by Mike Konczal, who answers it in the negative. The question comes from Karl Smith and is based on a paper by Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier. The paper argues that welfare programs expand the set of choices available to people; while that is all good according to traditional economics, if we think that people are inclined to make bad choices (“behavioral economics”), then welfare programs give people more opportunity to make bad choices and hurt themselves. This is particularly a problem because, they claim, “there are good empirical reasons to think that behavioral economics better describes the poor than it does the rest of the population” (p. 4). In other words, if poor people are more irrational, then giving them more choices will hurt them more than other people.

Let’s start with that last claim. What could it even mean that “[some academic subfield] better describes [one group of people] than it does the rest of the population”? It seems to me there’s a category error here. Behavioral economics describes human beings, and the major population used in most experiments is undergraduates at prestigious universities. If the findings of the research are biased in any way, that’s the bias.

But what Caplan and Beaulier really mean to say is this: “Existing literature provides good reasons to think that the deviations of the poor from the standard neoclassical model are especially pronounced.  Their judgmental biases are more extreme, and their self-control problems more severe, than those of the rest of the population” (p. 12). So basically they boil down all of behavioral economics to the proposition that people behave irrationally (admittedly, this is what is most prominent in the popular literature), and then they say that the poor are more irrational than “normal” people. (The normative standpoint is theirs, not mine. Check out this clause: “deviant behavior is much more pronounced among the poor.”)

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