Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Formality and Informality in Cost-Benefit Analysis

Professor Amy Sinden at Temple has posted a paper titled Formality and Informality in Cost-Benefit Analysis. This is an important paper that seeks to transcend a debate about cost-benefit analysis that has gotten intellectually (though not politically) stale in recent years. Professor Sinden points out that there are many levels of cost-benefit analysis, formal and informal, precise and imprecise, analyzing many alternatives and few. The mistake that is made according to Professor Sinden, (who is a critic of how CBA is used in environmental law and related fields) is that the case for CBA is often made by appealing to the intuitive usefulness of informal CBAs, while the formal but falsely precise formal CBAs actually bend public policy. I wonder if this is just a variant of the "false formalism" critique of CBA, but even if it is, it deserves some attention because of the nuance with which it treats different CBAs. Here is the abstract:

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is usually treated as a monolith. In fact, the term can refer to a broad variety of decision-making practices, ranging from a qualitative comparison of pros and cons to a highly formalized and technical method grounded in economic theory that monetizes both costs and benefits, discounts to present net value, and locates the point at which the marginal benefits curve crosses the marginal costs curve. This article develops a typology that helps to conceptualize and analyze the multiple varieties of CBA along the formality-informality spectrum. It then uses this typology to analyze the treatment of CBA by the academic community and the three branches of the federal government. In academic and policy circles, the formal end of this spectrum generates far more controversy than the informal end. Additionally, the law (federal environmental statutes and federal case law) seems to favor informal over formal varieties of CBA. Nonetheless, the executive branch appears to be moving toward the formal end of the spectrum. Executive Orders and guidance documents direct agencies to conduct a highly formal mode of CBA. And anecdotal evidence suggests that agencies often go out of their way to give their CBAs the trappings of formality, sometimes in ways that lead to irrational results. I argue that 1) failing to distinguish between formal and informal CBA, and the many varieties in between, has led to muddled thinking and to misuses of CBA; and 2) the trend toward formality in the executive branch is a bad development, in part because it can, and often does, lead to what I call "failed formalism" — a corruption of CBA that can occur when agencies fail to clearly and consistently define where on the formality-informality spectrum a particular CBA falls.

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