Because I’m embedded in the heartland within a sea of retirement practitioners, I generally don’t report on legislative speculation.
But when NBC Nightly News called on Saturday looking for a quick (7 second) soundbite, you can bet your sweet bippy my research gears went into overdrive.
The eventual exchange (all 15 minutes of it), left me more curious than when I started. Did retirement professionals really feel the way the media was reporting them?
I discovered, after conducting my own interviews, financial experts had more nuanced opinions (see “Retirement Pros Reveal Worst Fears Regarding Tax Reform,” FiduciaryNews.com, October 24, 2017). What was more interesting, though, is what NBC left on the cutting room floor.
Before I get to that, allow me to explain why things – even good things – get left on the cutting room floor.
Producers of half hour news programs have precious little time to devote to each report. Each report must tell a story with pictures, words, and video. Each scene lasts not much longer than seven seconds, and, unless it’s a person making a statement, usually much less.
NBC was truly interested in the metaphor I presented. How do I know this? They asked me several times to repeat “only shorter than before.”
The truth is, I lacked the capability to make it a sound bite. This is one of the trade-offs after years of perfecting a long-form (i.e., keynote) speaking style – the audience wants to immerse themselves into a story, and you just can’t accomplish that with soundbites.
The question that prompted my response represents one everyone is thinking: “Why, given we’re not doing near enough to encourage retirement saving, would anyone propose anything (like drastically reducing the cap limit of tax-deductible contributions) that would actually accomplish the opposite and discourage people from saving for retirement?”
My initial response was “Does your audience know the difference between static scoring and dynamic scoring?” I already knew the answer, but I wanted the producer to tell me “no.”
To understand why we’d believe an unsourced story (although attributed to “Republicans,” no sources were ever identified saying they wanted to reduce the tax-deductible contribution cap), we need to understand three things: The power behind Richard Thaler’s research, how the government’s budget accounting works, and why parents buy pants for their kids the way they do.
Recent Nobel Prize recipient and acclaimed behavioral finance researcher Richard Thaler broke the mold of traditional economic thinking. Unlike other finance and accounting professors of his day, he was less enamored with the statistics of quantum physics and more interested in the workings of human psychology.
Today, we all know the fruits of this research (and others like it) as behavioral economics. It contains a very simple and common sense premise: People don’t always behave rationally.
Unfortunately, government accounting assumes a rational model. It “scores” any policy changes using a “static” formula.
That means people will continue to behave the same no matter how the policy is changed. As Thaler might surmise, people, in fact, alter their behavior once circumstances – and policies – change.
We saw this in the early 1980s, when traditional economists called Reagan’s “supply-side” policies “voodoo economics” (actually, that was his vice-president who said that during the primaries). They feared lowering taxes would significantly decrease the government’s tax revenues. That’s the static view. It assumes people will continue to behave as they’ve done prior to the policy change.
After Reagan’s tax reform passed, a strange thing happened. Tax revenues skyrocketed! How could this be? The static scoring model predicted they would fall.
The explanation is obvious: People changed their behavior. Because tax rates were lower, they could earn more money without the fear of having most of it transferred to the government. As a result, they modified their decision making and increased their earnings. A dynamic scoring method would have suggested this.
You’d think the government might have learned from that lesson. It hasn’t. It continues to score all policies using the static model. That’s why today, as we once again talk of tax cuts, politicians are scrambling to find ways to increase other taxes to “offset” the revenue losses incurred by the proposed cuts.
“But,” I can hear you thinking, “isn’t this the same argument used by those who opposed the Reagan tax cuts?”
Yes it is. The philosophy of the static scoring method betrays the insights Richard Thaler’s years of research has uncovered. (It’s not that they’ve always ignored his research. In 2006, Thaler and others did convince Congress how a subtle policy shift – the 2006 Pension Protection Act – could “nudge” people into saving more.)
All of this suggests that not only does Congress lack the intellectual rigor of a Nobel Prize winner (no surprise there), but it also seems to lack the common sense of the average parent of young children (also no surprise there). And this where my cutting room floor analogy fits in.
Congress, in relying in the static scoring model which balances short-term losses with short-term gains, seeks a present-day perfect fit while ignoring any potential long-term benefits.
Contrast this with what goes through the mind of typical parents when they go shopping for a pair of pant for their kid.
They could buy the pair that fits perfectly today, but they don’t. Instead, they purchase a slightly bigger pair. Why?
Because a slightly bigger pair means the child has room to grow. It also means they won’t have to purchase pants as frequently as they would should they always limit themselves only to perfect fitting pants.
In the end, that strategy saves parents money. And that extra savings could be placed in their retirement plan.
Can you see why the NBC producer was so interested in this analogy?
You can also see why there’s no way this story would have fit inside seven seconds.