Thursday, September 04, 2008

Occupational Hazards: Lawyers and Economists

[I am a guest on the Concurring Opinions blog this month. The post below is a very slightly edited version of my post there yesterday. Throughout the month, I will cross-post here on my blog home, Dorf on Law, because I will be writing on subjects that are of interest to our regular readers as well.]

There is a question that virtually every law professor has asked me since I migrated from being an economics professor to a law professor: What is different about economists and lawyers? The question, of course, invites generalities and over-simplifications -- an invitation that I do not decline when asked the question and will certainly not decline here. Admitting that there are a million exceptions to every rule, I do believe that there is one predictable type of error toward which legal training seems to push people, and there is a different error toward which economics training tends to push other people. To put the point slightly differently, lawyers and economists have very different tendencies when approaching a problem or a question. These tendencies, or occupational hazards, can of course be overcome. Still, I have found them to be surprisingly reliable traits of the two professional minds. To put my answer simply: Lawyers look for black-and-white answers, while economists too often forget the limitations of their models.

First, the lawyers. Time and again, I find that lawyers, law professors, and (especially) law students will look at a possible answer to a problem and say: "Well, that won't solve the problem." For example, if I were to suggest that it would be a good idea to decrease class sizes in public schools, my stereotypical lawyer will say: "Well, that won't solve the problem. Even with smaller classes, kids in poor schools will still do worse than kids in rich schools." The lawyer might be right about that, but the economist in me immediately says: "So what? Even if I can't fix the problem entirely, can I make a decent dent in the problem at an acceptable cost?"

Economics trains people to think in terms of marginal impacts, with the default mental exercise (conscious or not) being a multivariate equation with a set of explanatory variables. If one right-hand-side variable changes, what happens to the left-hand-side variable? This habit of mind strongly resists the temptation to expect too much of any particular solution. Legal scholars know this problem as "allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good," demonstrating that the basic idea does cross disciplinary boundaries. Again, however, we are talking about tendencies here, not absolutes.

A few years ago, in a session at AALS, I offered a variation on this observation about the absolutism of lawyers. Afterward, Professor Tamar Frankel of BU Law School suggested to me that the reason for the legal tilt toward all-or-nothing answers is that the basic concepts in law are guilt or innocence, liability or no liability. Lawyers are trained to argue that their client is right, not partially right. I suspect that Professor Frankel is correct that this explains a great deal of what I've observed over the years. In any case, I would be very interested to know whether or not the experiences of readers support my observations about this occupational hazard and, if so, if other explanations come to mind.

Now, the economists. The central tool of economic thinking is the simplified model. Boil the myriad complications of the world down to a limited set of variables that seem to capture the essence of what we want to understand, try to understand how the variables interact, and see if we can make predictions or give reasonable policy advice. The very power of that approach, however, sometimes (often?) leads to the tendency to treat a model as if it is the reality. Two very different examples will, I hope, make clear what I have in mind.

(1) At a tax workshop several years ago, in the context of a discussion of progressivity and regressivity, a participant noted a then-recent news story in which a Nokia executive in Finland had received a speeding ticket that carried a fine of more than $100,000. The amount of the fine, if I recall correctly, was set by law as a percentage of the violator's income rather than a set number of euros. An economist in the room objected that this was an inefficient way to set the fines, because the harm of speeding was not correlated with the driver's income. A law student replied that the harm of speeding might not be the only harm that policymakers cared about. They might put a positive value on the idea that people -- no matter how wealthy -- should not be able to easily buy their way out of socially acceptable behavior. Expanding the social welfare function, in other words, to reflect positive utility arising from greater social equality could support such a penalty regime.

This student's suggestion, of course, is not the end of the story; but it is at least a good way to make the well-understood point that the standard economic approach to efficiency is very adaptable. Even so, the economist in question (who is, by the way, a justifiably well-respected member of the fraternity) simply rejected the suggestion out of hand, saying that social equality was not an appropriate argument in the social welfare function. Apparently, he was so accustomed to thinking about social welfare functions that included only certain familiar variables and excluded others that the very idea of changing the variables (even within the same analytical framework) struck him as illegitimate.

(2) I've recently written a series of posts on Dorf on Law (the most recent being here) about the housing crisis. As part of my analysis, I've been talking about the surprising fact that home ownership is generally not the wise financial move that we often believe it to be. As I described the factors that one takes into account in determining the wisdom or foolishness of buying versus renting, I focused on the standard financial variables that one typically takes into account in analyzing financial decisions: interest rates, expected time in the residence, etc.

On the comment board, Michael Dorf of Cornell Law pointed out that one reason people buy rather than rent is the relative paucity of pet-friendly rentals, which drives pet-owning potential renters into purchases that might end up being relatively very costly. As I read his comment, I realized that I had not merely ignored a fairly important non-financial matter that might be at play in the minds of many potential home owners. I had, in fact, ignored the most important reason that I have owned homes for most of my adult life. Each time I moved between 1993 and 2005, I bought a house -- even when I knew that I was likely to stay in the house for only a short time -- because I had multiple dogs and cats. Even so, when thinking in the abstract about home ownership, I ignored this experience and simply focused on "the standard model."

The point of these two examples is obviously not that every economist makes this kind of mistake all the time but to demonstrate the kind of error to which economists are generally prone. Lawyers say, in essence, "My client is innocent," while economists say, "My model is right." Luckily, there are plenty of good lawyers and good economists who regularly avoid these professional pitfalls. Still, the pitfalls are there.

In any event, you now know my answer when people ask me the difference between economists and lawyers. But I could be wrong, at least marginally, if my model is incorrectly specified . . .

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan