Do nudges and civic apps help or hinder public policy reform?

sbst_2015_annual_report_final_9_14_15_pdf

The New York Times published a thoughtful exploration of societal probems, behavioral economics and government policy today. The intended big takeaway is clear enough: systemic issues, from poverty to retirement savings, need bigger policy intercessions than “nudges” to address the underlying issues.

To the extent that nudging distracts or delays broader change, the thinking goes, they may even be negative. You can tell that’s the intention because Eduardo Porter, the author, and the editor gives the “kicker quote” — the last word — to this expert:

“The single biggest contribution of behavioral economics to public policy is taking this flawed approach to retirement savings and making it a little bit more viable,” Mr. Loewenstein told me. “The downside is that if we make it just sufficiently viable, people won’t recognize how bankrupt the concept is.”

To his credit, Porter did acknowledge *why* the Obama administration has embraced applying behavioral economics in public policy — “Washington’s political paralysis.” In the face of a Republican-controlled Congress, the White House has had little reason to expect to enact any large social reforms since 2010, which means taking other approaches to improving social outcomes became more attractive. This is relevant to the Democratic presidential campaign as well, but that’s a subject for a separate piece.

As it happens, this is an argument that I’ve run into before, albeit in another context.

In 2013, voluble tech critic Evgeny Morozov made a similar observation about food stamp apps that help people keep benefits:

When I asked him why alerting the poor via a mobile device that their food stamps are expiring (versus a densely worded mailed printed document) is not an achievement, he responded that it “perpetuates a neoliberal regime where paperwork equals precarity equals a barrier to decent life.”

When I responded that, barring a political revolution, this system is the one the poor must negotiate, Morozov suggested that I take my pragmatic attitude somewhere else: a food stamp app is “a perfect example of tech that makes already ugly regimes more efficient.”

In my view, then and now, is that if “paperwork equals precocity,” improving the capacity of poor to access & retain benefits looks like a social good.

Morozov responded that “social goods come in different kinds, and that “the one you advocate is woefully unambitious.”

“Keep pretending that making ugly programs more efficient is apolitical or is in fact a social good,” he suggested.

Morozov asked if I had ever heard of a basic income, arriving at the significant social reform he presumably supports, providing the poor with an automatic benefit instead of one that they must register for and maintain. (The answer, then and now, was yes.)

It is extraordinarily unlikely, however, that the 114th Congress of United States of America will enact such a reform this year or next.

In that context, I’m not sure that food stamps — subsidies for families to buy food — are “ugly.” Removing a social program families depend on and letting our fellow citizens and their children go hungry to try galvanize political reforms would be ugly.

I do think that the way that they are currently delivered and administrated is ugly and must be improved. The software people must use to register for food stamps should be just as user-friendly as ordering a car through Uber.

I also think that applying behavioral economics to existing government programs makes sense, along with better designed digital services, as long as policy makers are transparent about how they are using nudges and disclose evidence to justify the defaults that they establish.

If you share Morozov’s view or have other arguments, please link and share them in the comments.

P.S. I think there was something of a strawman embedded in the Times article: Have President Barack Obama, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein or any other public official or researcher ever claimed that “nudges” alone would be enough to lift people out of poverty or develop additional income needed to save enough for retirement? I couldn’t find such an assertion. (If you do, please let us know.)

[FIGURE CREDIT: Re-enrollment rate changes for military service members after the introduction of a prompt, as detailed in the 2015 annual report of White House Social and Behavioral Sciences team]

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