By James Kwak
Don’t get me wrong: I like behavioral economics as much as the next guy. It’s quite clear that people are irrational in ways that the neoclassical model assumes away, and you can’t see human nature quite the same way after hearing Dan Ariely talk about his experiments on cheating. But I don’t think cognitive fallacies are the answer to everything, and I don’t think you can explain away the myriad crises of our time as the result of them, as Richard Thaler does in his recent New York Times article.
Like many people, Thaler wants to write about the parallels between the financial crisis and the BP oil leak. For Thaler, the root cause of both crises is that “people in general are not good at estimating the true chances of rare events, especially when human error may be involved” — catastrophic market seizures in the first case, catastrophic oil rig explosions in the latter case.
I have no doubt that it is true that people have problems estimating the chances of certain rare events.* But to stop there is to whitewash the sins of the companies and the executives who created these crises.