Monday, September 29, 2014
After reading our book and the blogs about it, you are surely in danger of hearing more than you want to know and even more surely apprehensive about a response in which we battle and bicker point by point. Our critics have described our thesis accurately: More Than You Wanted To Know does argue that mandated disclosure is the most common and least successful form of regulation today, that it cannot be fixed, and that it does more harm than good. But our critics puzzle us in some basic ways we will briefly explore.
Our objection to mandated disclosure is not an objection to information. People need information, seek it, and commonly use it wisely, especially when they want and even enjoy it. Advertising would not thrive were people indifferent to information, nor would libraries, newspapers, universities, or Google. But mandated disclosure is not just about information; it is a regulatory technique that directs quite particular kinds of information at quite particular times in quite particular ways. It aspires to give people information they did not seek and do not like to use. Information they often find irrelevant to their decision. Information that is often repellently complex and baffling. Information that thus requires training to use well. All this while people are contending with counterparties who are well informed and have interests of their own.
Our critics in this symposium and elsewhere widely acknowledge the strength of our core arguments that mandated disclosure’s record is poor and its challenges great. In area after area, mandated disclosure’s history is the same: high hopes that people will be liberated from ignorance, made at last truly autonomous, and led to improved decisions. In area after area, able and thoughtful people have labored decade after decade to realize these hopes. After all these years, those hopes are still thwarted. One might have expected, then, that all this thought and effort and ability would be turned to seeking better regulatory methods and persuading law-makers to use them. Instead, two responses are common: One is to argue that disclosure will work if only we can at last learn to do it better; the other is to shift the goals of disclosure from helping people make choices to more general benefits more indirectly achieved.
For example, immense creativity has been harnessed to solve the problem of conveying complex information to people ill-situated to interpret it. We devote a chapter in the book to arguing that simplification—the deus ex machina of contemporary disclosurism—has not only disappointed its advocates’ eager hopes, it has barely budged the meter. True, there are always more techniques to try, like Ryan Calo’s “visceral” disclosures, Bar-Gill’s “use pattern” disclosure, or Porat-Strahilevitz’ “personalized” disclosures. These might succeed where others failed, but let’s make sure we understand how formidable their task is and how discouraging the history of such efforts has been.
Take Lauren Willis’ example of the CARD Act’s simplified disclosure, a payment “nudge” invented in the era of “smart” disclosure to prompt debtors to pay balances faster. Willis—one the most sophisticated critics of disclosures in consumer law—calls this regime successful even while recognizing that its benefits are not “dramatic.” How undramatic can benefits be before we stop advocating simplified disclosure? A recent study based on government data finds few cardholders responded to this nudge, that those who did saved only $24 on average, and that the total effect of this disclosure reform was $71 million annualized savings. In a $750 billion market, this benefit is so undramatic that we doubt it’s worth its design costs. (Luckily, the CARD Act did more than simplify disclosure. It also limited fees and saved consumers—especially lower income people—many billions of dollars.)
Can disclosure serve other goals than improving people’s decisions? Can it “improve accountability”? Can firms be deterred from bad conduct even if disclosures go unread? If disclosure helps the government improve enforcement actions, then the answer is yes. But now we are talking about a different regulatory animal, where information is reported to the government and used as a baseline for command and control, like enforcing emission standards or collecting taxes. When, instead, disclosure is targeted at the public, does it improve accountability? Hospital report cards have almost no detectable effect on the quality of medical care, but hospitals worried for their reputation seem to be sending high-risk patients (especially minorities) away. How is that for accountability? What evidence is there that campaign-finance disclosure reduces money’s corruption of politics? Or that Miranda stops police coercion? Instead of sanitizing public life, disclosure is often a fig leaf to make disreputable behavior acceptable. The rich buy influence—and file their disclosures. Police, as Stuntz shows, use abusive tactics—and recite Miranda warnings. Lenders lure gullible borrowers into disastrous debt—and making everything kosher with their neat stack of disclosures.
While our critics are rich in new refinements on disclosure and in new purposes for disclosure to serve, they are not rich in responses to one of our central concerns: that mandated disclosure is incompatible with basic features of human nature, with the way that people live their lives and make their decisions. Unless human nature changes or people live differently, refinements in mandated disclosure can do little and new purposes for mandated disclosure will be increasingly peripheral.
So what do we propose instead? We propose a moratorium on mandated disclosure because we want real problems to be addressed with real solutions. Are credit card fees obnoxious? Regulate them. Are medical charges unconscionable? Face up to the perplexities of medical costs. Do firms cheat customers? Punish them. Do conflicts of interest distort incentives? Decide whether the distortion is great enough to justify prohibiting the conflict. All these solutions are politically hard, and some of them may be politically unattainable. But is that a good reason to encourage law-makers to persist in solutions that, while politically feasible, don’t work?