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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ben-Shahar & Schneider Symposium Part VI: Lauren Willis

This is the sixth in a series of posts that are part of a virtual symposium on the new book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl E. SchneiderMore Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure Biographies for the first week's contributors can be found here.  The authors' introduction to the symposium can be found here.

WillisLauren Willis is Professor of Law at the Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. 

More than You Wanted to Know: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The Good: Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Schneider’s critique of the ability of mandated disclosure to directly equip consumers to make good complex choices in today’s marketplace is excellent. Consumers usually do not read, or if they read they usually do not understand, or if they understand they usually fail to use or even misuse mandated disclosures.

Moreover, many disclosures do affirmative harm. As I have explained elsewhere, disclosures are a sword with which disclosers disarm consumers into believing that the law protects them more than it does and a shield with which disclosers deflect consumer complaints when the transaction causes harm. Disclosures almost certainly impose regulatory opportunity costs, giving policymakers and consumer advocates illusory gains to point to when they go back to their constituencies. The costs of mandated disclosures are in many instances high, and those costs must be confronted.

While the explanations and arguments in the book are not novel, they are made more accessible to non-academic audiences than prior treatments and are put together in such a way that the sum is greater than its parts. Several passages in the book brilliantly capture points others have made, but not nearly so well. For example, at 74:

Few things make you feel less autonomous than studying a choice that hourly becomes more convoluted and confusing. You feel even less autonomous on realizing that you may never understand. And less autonomous still when you realize that the choice is essentially illusory. The kind of control over life’s choices that disclosurism seems to promise is an illusion.

The authors’ use of the choice between a treatment with a low chance of success but a low risk of death and a treatment with a high chance of success and a high risk of death to illuminate tradeoff difficulty (at 109) is very effective. Their explanation of the problem with anecdotal evidence – “[t]rouble stories, then, may tell us something about the numerator but not the denominator” (at 142) – is ingenious. And their photo of the 32-foot iTunes “scroll” perfectly captures the absurdity of this disclosure for a 99- cent transaction.

The book favorably and copiously cites my work, so perhaps I ought not criticize, but a review would be dull without The Bad:

As perhaps inevitable in a book hoping for popular consumption, the authors overstate their case, branding all mandated disclosure as useless or harmful. But disclosure is neither a panacea nor a poison.

MoreDisclosures intended not to help consumers make complex decisions but to nudge their behavior in a particular direction can work. “Contains peanuts” is a disclosure that likely saves lives. The relevant consumers are highly motivated, sellers have no reason to hide the disclosure, and the information is provided at a point in time and in a manner that makes it easy to use for most consumers. Graphic disclosures have been effective in reducing smoking abroad. A picture of a wilted cigarette next to the word “impotent” appears to be a sufficient turn-off. Unit pricing disclosures at grocery stores facilitates comparative price shopping. More people can and will shop for the cheapest peas when someone else has done the math, likely increasing price competition to the benefit of all who shop at that store. “Smart” disclosure of energy consumption reduces energy use substantially. When people can see in real time that their electricity use is spiking, they can identify which appliances are energy hogs and many scale back use.

Disclosure can also work in more circuitous ways. Some, such as securities disclosures, work through sophisticated third party intermediaries. Others may work because they facilitate competition. Prior to mandated disclosure, firms had no way to credibly compete on trans fat content. But after the mandate, firms were able to advertise “no trans fat” on the front of packages to garner market share, even if most consumers did not read the mandated Nutrition Facts label on package backs.

The trans fat disclosure story may hold another lesson as well. It may have provided a bridge to a ban on trans fat that would have been politically impossible without consumer awareness of the issue, driven by the marketing enabled by the mandated disclosure. In addition, the disclosure regime gave firms an incentive to adapt over time, time firms used to reconstitute products without trans fat and even to develop new seed crops that produce oils that replace trans fat. The imminent national ban on trans fat is thus much less painful for firms and consumers than it would have been without a period of mandated disclosure.

Of course, in each of these examples disclosures faced conditions conducive to efficacy. Cigarettes cause not only long-term health problems that people ignore, but also short-term impotence that grabs attention. The market for peas is structured so that a minority of consumers can likely create price competition, at least within pea product classes (organic peas, petite peas, organic petite peas). Securities transactions are lucrative enough to support third party intermediaries. Enough social awareness of diet and fat existed for consumers to take notice of “no transfat” marketing. But all this is the point: under some conditions disclosure improves welfare and the trick is to limit its use to those conditions, whether previously existing or created by regulation.

In the introduction, the authors assert that disclosure is a “fundamental failure” (at 12) because it “fails to achieve its ambitious goals” (at 6). But policymakers’ grand expectations cannot be the right metric. The authors then assert that “the relevant issue is whether this kind of regulation does more good than harm” (at 13, emphasis added). Social welfare is the right metric, but the costs and benefits of disclosure cannot be assessed devoid of context. “This kind of regulation” may often fail, for all the reasons the authors claim and more, but without a careful examination of the effects of any particular disclosure, the authors cannot conclude that any particular disclosure is a failure.

Recent research on the CARD Act brings this point home. The Act requires issuers to include in accountholders’ monthly statements a chart that states (a) the amount of interest they will save if they pay down their existing debt in 3 years rather than making only the minimum payment and (b) the amount they need to pay monthly so as to retire their debt in 3 years. This disclosure appears to cause more accountholders to increase than to decrease their monthly payments, and thus leads consumers to pay less interest than they would otherwise have paid. The benefits of the disclosure are not dramatic (affecting, at most. .5% of accountholders and saving, on average, only $24 per accountholder affected). But the costs of adding the disclosure to the monthly statement, even if it does crowd out other information, are likely to be even smaller. Whether the disclosure crowds out better regulation is a more difficult to question to answer, one that depends on identifying policies that would entail fewer costs and/or produce more of the benefit policymakers seek. As Ben-Shahar and Schneider recognize, identifying such alternative policies is a task beyond the scope of this book.

And what about The Ugly? There is none. The book is a delightful read, as anyone who knows the wit and charm of the authors will not be surprised to hear. It should be required reading for policymakers and for consumer and patient advocates who, through comfortable familiarity in addition to the political and practical pressures the authors describe as the driving forces behind the use of disclosure, have become overly enamored of the tool. The book is chock full of wonderfully accessible yet nuanced examples and spot-on accounts of human thinking and feeling. Sometimes the authors over-generalize their privileged male perspective (contrary to their assertion, not all academics think they are more productive than their colleagues; female and minority professors of both genders notoriously underestimate their contributions). But the writing is honest to the authors’ own experience throughout, overcoming another fantasy of the privileged – that because we can understand and use (or think we can understand and use) the disclosures we encounter, the disclosures are, or have the potential to be, efficacious for the population as a whole. Kudos, gentlemen, kudos.

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