Cost Benefit Analyses Suck

Rick Santorum wrote in the Wall Street Journal this past weekend about his Economic Freedom Agenda.  Most of it sounds good.  This part bugged me though:

I’ll review all regulations, making sure they use sound science and cost benefit analysis.

One reason it bugs me is that Candidate Obama made a similar promise four years ago. The Obama/Biden campaign promised to go through the budget and “keep the stuff that works and stop the stuff that doesn’t.”

Sounds good, but it didn’t happen.  And there’s a good reason it didn’t happen.  That brings us to the second reason Santorum’s comment bugged me: It’s impossible.

Believing it is possible is a true marker of naiveté or willing deceit.

Cost benefit analyses sounds good to a lot of people. They teach you cost benefit analysis in college, after all, no?

But cost benefit analyses have a major weakness — they’re usually wrong.  They’re wrong for a couple of reasons.

First, cost benefit analyses can be made to say what you want them to say, so they are subject to the same political wills as if the cost benefit analysis didn’t exist. The cost benefit analysis serves one purpose: to fool those who don’t understand this about cost benefit analysis.

Publicly funded stadium, museum and public transit projects are notorious for such analysis.

Even when a cost benefit analysis is conducted with the best of intentions by supposedly competent folks, it is usually wrong. As I mentioned here, Richard Feynman said:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself…and you are the easiest person to fool.

He said this because he specialized in finding where experimental physicists had fooled themselves while conducting their experiments.

Unfortunately, the only true cost benefit crucible is the real world — and even that can be misinterpreted, and often is.  Economists still debate whether FDR’s actions in the Great Depression helped or hurt.

The truth is that government programs face incentives different from the free market. There’s always plenty of reasons to keep a government program around, even when it clearly does not have desirable outcomes (e.g. minimum wage).

But, the main reason to keep a program in the free market is if its doing its job.  If its not doing the job, the market (or “us”) finds ways to use those resources better.

The restaurant where I had my first W2 job went out of business long ago. It was bulldozed and replaced with a convenience store that does brisk business and has for years.

Had it been a government program, the old restaurant would still be open, supported by your always forgiving tax dollars.  It wouldn’t have many customers, but that’s okay. Politicians will claim they are keeping folks employed. Voters can feel good about voting for them for that reason and the cooks in the restaurant feel great about getting paid to not work that hard.

Ask folks then if they’d like to keep the restaurant, they might be inclined to say yes, you know, to keep the workers employed.  Ask them if they eat at the restaurant, they would tell the truth. No.

Nobody would be able to see the true opportunity cost of all that. They would never have guessed that had the restaurant been allowed to go out of business, it would have been replaced by a convenience store that produces much more value for the community and more jobs. And higher paying jobs.

Ask folks in the community now if they’d like to put the restaurant back in place of the convenience store and most would laugh at you.


6 thoughts on “Cost Benefit Analyses Suck

    • Good question. A convenience store that has lots of customers vs. a restaurant that has few customers, yes, I think it creates more ‘real’ jobs.

      And this particular convenience store is known for paying its people well. In most busy times they have 3 folks staffed (they are that busy) with someone staffed 24 hours a day. While the restaurant may have had more bodies, I’m fairly certain that the total wages paid from the convenience store exceeds that of the restaurant, even adjusting for inflation and adding in tips.

      Thanks for the comment.

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