The Private Sector Fallacy

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By James Kwak in the Baseline Scenario

Felix Salmon highlights an important point to bear in mind when it comes to banks and short sales. Actually, it’s an important to bear in mind when you’re thinking about any big private sector company, be in Citigroup or British Petroleum. Yes, companies do things in their own self-interest that hurt other people and may not be net benefits to society. But they also do things that are not in their own self-interest all the time, because companies just aren’t all that efficient.

Felix’s post is largely about two factors. One is that big company executives are prone to exactly the same sort of cognitive fallacies as ordinary people, and hence make stupid decisions routinely. The second is that the incentives of individual people who make decisions (or provide information to people who make decisions) are only tangentially related to the interests of the company as a whole, and certainly not when you think of those interests over the long term.

A third factor is simply that companies are big, dumb, poorly designed institutions. There’s lots of talk about how individual human beings do not resemble the rational actors of textbook economic theory. The same is at least as true of big companies, of which I have seen many, from various perspectives.

Yet the belief that the private sector is the answer to all our problems remains deeply rooted. One might even call it an ideology. I would hope that the financial crisis (and the BP disaster) might cause people to question that ideology, at least a little bit.

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