Moss and Huang on “How the New Economics Can Improve Discrimination Law, and How Economics Can Survive the Demise of the ‘Rational Actor’”

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Feminist Law Professor Scott Moss (Colorado) and Peter H. Huang (Temple) have posted to SSRN their article, “How the New Economics Can Improve Discrimination Law, and How Economics Can Survive the Demise of the ‘Rational Actor.’” Here is a portion of the abstract:

Much employment discrimination law is premised on a purely money-focused “reasonable” employee, the sort who can be made whole with damages equal to lost wages, and who does not hesitate to challenge workplace discrimination. This type of “rational” actor populated older economic models but has been since modified by behavioral economics and research on happiness. Behavioral and traditional economists alike have analyzed broad employment policies, such as the wisdom of discrimination statutes, but the devil is in the details of employment law, and on critical damages-and-liability issues the Supreme Court and litigators face regularly, the law essentially ignores the lessons of behavioral economics and the affective sciences.    * * *

This Article also analyzes broad implications of behavioral and happiness research for law and economics:  

(1) Do behavioral and happiness adjustments to a rational actor model make economics indeterminate? Economics still can yield useful legal analyses, but likely narrower ones (e.g., improving individual, micro-level determinations of damages and reasonable behavior) than past economic analyses of macro-level issues like whether all discrimination law is “efficient.”  

(2) Psychologically informed economics often prescribes regulation of markets; when is such regulation worth the transaction costs and incentive distortions? More complex rules, like those this Article prescribes, are more worth the cost in higher-stakes, less-repeated transactions like employment than in lower-stakes, often-repeated transactions like consumer purchases.  

(3) Should courts rely on these new findings or instead disclaim reliance on any social science because new research often displaces prior findings? In employment cases, courts must assess make-whole damages and employee reasonableness, so they cannot avoid some conception of well-being and cognition – and even imperfect new findings beat disproven, too-narrow “rationality” assumptions.  

This Article thus offers a half-full/half-empty assessment of the usefulness of economics, and of behavioral and happiness research, to law. It sounds a cautionary note against using social science to assess grand legal policies, but a hopeful note that such research can improve decisionmaking by judges, firms, and individuals.

The full paper is available here.

-Bridget Crawford

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