One fallacy that often emerges goes like this: agents aren’t rational all of the time, therefore, any analysis based on them being rational is wrong. It is a fallacy because a lack of rationality is actually highly circumstances-dependent and so finding an instance of it does not translate generally. For instance, Sunstein and Thaler’s ‘Nudge’ suggests that there are circumstances in which small changes can matter alot. But they are cautious to emphasis that this does not necessarily happen when a decision has large immediate financial impacts for someone.
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Today Ross Gittins commits this fallacy in arguing for stamp duty on home transactions. The traditional economic wisdom is that such taxes which are non-trivial sum of money in many states, reduce buyers’ willingness to pay for property and so reduce the number of transactions at any given point of time. How much? That is an empirical matter and from what I can gather then effects are real.
The trouble with this advice, however, is that like all neoclassical analysis, it’s based on an erroneous model of human behaviour that assumes the choices we make are always carefully calculated to maximise our material wellbeing.
For the past 20 or 30 years, behavioural economists have been pointing out to conventional economists all the flaws in their assumption that people are always rational, but this seems to have had zero impact on the happy analysis of the tax economists.
There is so much to deal with here it is not funny. First of all, zero influence? Starting with Sunstein and Thaler onwards it seems that tax is one of the major areas where behavioural economics has mattered. Think about this example for one. Second, Gittins argues that because people are spending so much money they don’t care about the tax. I don’t know where the evidence for this is but consider the sales strategy for new properties ‘off the plan to avoid stamp duty.’ That works because people care. Third, just because a land tax is politically unacceptable does not mean stamp duty is good and efficient even if it is a nice little earner for state governments.
Fourth, just because stamp duty might matter does not mean that anyone thinks it is the most important thing for every circumstance. So this statement really misses the mark.
Similarly, only an economist would be stupid enough to imagine conveyancing duty is a significant factor in explaining an executive’s reluctance to uproot their spouse and school-age children and move them to another capital city.
And, finally, in a similar fashion, no one is talking about encouraging mobility the only issue is not discouraging it. Ross Gittins seems to believe that it is not possible to move back to your social network but only away from them. Taxes may well discourage the former while preventing the latter. Which is socially beneficial depends on your perspective.
When it comes down to it, there is no evidence that behavioural economics as a clear and formal theory translates into housing markets through this route. Gittins cites no study or theory that suggests this to be the case only a bunch of unrelated stuff and ranting out economists. Indeed, it is precisely the blind application of general theory that behavioural economists are so against and so Gittins commits these same sins in spades.