Thaler responds to Posner about the benefits of consumer protection nudges like plain vanilla mortgages

In his inaugural Economic View column, Richard Thaler proposed plain vanilla mortgages as a nudge to protect some consumers from falling into the trap of buying more exotic mortgages with low teaser rates and other tempting payment plans. Last week, in an op-ed, Richard Posner questioned the value of such a product, and the new consumer financial protection agency that would be tasked with designing and implementing it, by pointing out the cognitive limitations of behavioral economists, government bureaucrats, and anyone else acting as a choice architect. Thaler has now responded (via Paul Solman of PBS):

The administration has not stipulated how many types of plain vanilla mortgages there would be, but the research on which this proposal is based makes it clear that it is reasonable to assume that there would be at least a fixed-rate and some type of adjustable-rate mortgage in the mix. (For my take on this proposal see my recent NYT column, linked above). Nonetheless, Posner writes as if there would be only one plain vanilla mortgage. This is seriously misleading. An analogy would be to say that we would not want the Consumer Product Safety Commission to regulate the production of cribs because they might decide only to allow pink cribs and some people might like blue ones. Of course the agency would not do that; it would only make sure that whatever color crib you bought would not kill your child.

Posner does not stop at mischaracterizing the proposal. He launches a second line of attack based on the following logic. 1) Behavioral economists such as Thaler have endorsed this plan. 2) Thaler has been known to make mistakes. 3) Therefore, he should not be in the business of helping consumers avoid mistakes. Of all the evidence readily available that I am not perfect, he concentrates on the fact that I have written about the well-known puzzle in economics that the difference in returns between equities and bonds (the “equity premium”) has, in the past, seemed to be too large. With the market now down, presumably he thinks this writing makes me look foolish. I plead guilty to joining the hundreds of other economists (most of whom are not behavioral economists) who have written about this historical puzzle. And, as Posner suggests, for many years I did advocate that young investors should consider putting all their money in stocks, and I followed that advice myself until 2000 when the level of the stock market bubble got so ridiculously high that I switched half of my retirement portfolio into treasury inflation-protected bonds (TIPS). But of course, I am not a perfect forecaster. I, like most people, did not get out of stocks last summer. And, I certainly plead guilty to being imperfect. For a long list of particulars, contact my wife.

Read Thaler’s full comments here.

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