Status quo sells

Trying to untangle last night’s debate, and get set for tonight’s, my mind kept drifting back to a New Yorker story from last winter, which reviewed findings from new books on behavioural economics. The core idea was that consumers, acting on scant information and irrational biases, will make predictably irrational decisions about how much stuff if worth.

What stuck with me was this paragraph that extended some of these insights from the marketplace to the political arena:

“When it comes to public-policy decisions, people exhibit curious—but, once again, predictable—biases. They value a service (say, upgrading fire equipment) more when it is described in isolation than when it is presented as part of a larger good (say, improving disaster preparedness). They are keen on tax ‘bonuses’ but dislike tax ‘penalties,’ even though the two are functionally equivalent. They are more inclined to favor a public policy when it is labelled the status quo. In assessing a policy’s benefits, they tend to ignore whole orders of magnitude.”

There’s a lot to chew over in that paragraph. The public inclination to favour policies that are part of the status quo could work for either Harper or Dion. Harper says, I’m the PM now, so whatever new stuff I’m proposing is an extension of what’s already happening. Dion says, I’m the inheritor of the Liberal governing tradition, so whatever new ideas I’m suggesting is an extension of a deeper status quo, which Harper is merely interrupting.

Then there’s the insight that people prefer policies described “in isolation,” rather than those sold as part of a “larger good.” It’s hard to describe the Green Shift narrowly; it’s inherently linked to a “larger good.” But it’s easier to package a cap-and-trade system as a focused response to industrial pollution, rather than as part of a wider save-the-planet goal.

As far as a public preference for tax ‘bonuses’ over ‘penalties,’ it seems obvious the Tories are playing that card more shrewdly than the Liberals.