Is Nudging Ever Enough?

Ezra Klein:

When last we saw some results from New York’s menu labeling initiative, they were from an experiment testing the outcomes at fast food restaurants in low-income neighborhoods, and they were dismal. Now comes news that calorie-labeling appears to be working at Starbucks. But this seems to me to be something of an expected, and depressing, result: For now, menu labeling appears to be working where people are more calorie conscious and nutritionally literate and failing where they’re less attuned to those things. Put differently, labeling isn’t enough.

Weight Watchers seems to do pretty well with precisely that kind of labeling. They boil down the food part of their program to a pretty simple set of metrics that people can follow without paying Weight Watchers money. And yet restaurants and makers of other foods want the Weight Watchers label. They tailor their products to attract those consumers using a metric along which some people want to make food choices. Weight Watchers offers itself as a proxy for your own research and quality control and reaps gains through reputation. Weight Watchers also sues companies that they think misuse their brand.

In saying “labeling isn’t enough,” Ezra is really saying that it’s not enough to dislodge some people from their default choices. Some people aren’t interested in any metric other than, “Is it delicious?” People value calorie information differently and posted calorie information just isn’t enough to make some people choose what Ezra would prefer.

So nudging isn’t working. Would Ezra resort to shoving next?

Klein: Bills are Long Because …

Ezra Klein says:

Whining about the length of a bill is the first refuge of the scoundrel. It’s supposed to denote complexity and ambition and overreach. But what it really proves is that legislative language is sort of arcane.

Scoundrel, really? Legislative language is arcane, sure. But that doesn’t always mean that bills have to be long. Long bills don’t denote complexity?

What long bills prove is that humans are complex and that when you proscribe their behavior, you must also understand that they may act differently than you anticipate … so you need to define things more clearly … and repeat … and so on. You do this until, well, you have a very long, complex, ambitious and probably overreaching piece of legislation.

People pretty much want to take what they have and make the most with it. No law can account for everyone’s preferences or circumstances.

The legislation he refers to is the Baucus bill. Klein points to this chunk …

(c) General Definitions- Except as otherwise provided, in this division:
(1) ACCEPTABLE COVERAGE- The term ‘acceptable coverage’ has the meaning given such term in section 202(d)(2).
(2) BASIC PLAN- The term ‘basic plan’ has the meaning given such term in section 203(c).
(3) COMMISSIONER- The term ‘Commissioner’ means the Health Choices Commissioner established under section 141.

“Acceptable coverage,” “Health Choices Commissioner” and “basic plan” are all terms that must be defined in such a way so everyone is clear what behavior is verboten, what constitutes unacceptable coverage and what choices may be circumscribed by the commissioner.

Not only would it be a challenge for a Health Choices Commissioner or a single piece of legislation to adequately provide for all the preferences of hundreds of millions of people, it would be completely impossible. By the time you wrote a bill of sufficient length to provide for the desires of a hundred diverse people, the information would be rendered irrelevant by events. And that’s before politics even gets involved and votes are taken.

Klein, I hope, appreciates that people with thinking brains will do their best to get the most out of life no matter what Max Baucus might prefer.