Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Could the science of moral psychology help to explain the greatest regulatory mistake in history?

In Chapter 15 of “The New Science of Morality” by Jonathan Haidt in “Thinking”, 2013, edited by John Brockman we read:

“We need metaphors and analogies to think about difficult topics, such as morality… let’s think of… a perceptual analogy…

I think taste offers the closest, the richest, source domain for understanding morality. First, the links between taste, affect, and understanding behavior are as clear as could be. Tastes are either good or bad.

The good tastes, sweet and savory, and salt to some extent, these make us feel ‘I want more’. They make us want to approach. They say ‘this is good’. Whereas sour and bitter tells us, ‘Whoa, pull back, stop.’

Second, the taste metaphor fits with our intuitive morality so well that we often use it in our everyday moral language. We refer to acts as ‘tasteless’, as ‘leaving a bad taste in our mouths. We make disgust faces in response to certain violations.”

And I want to ask whether something of that could be helpful in explaining what is a great mystery to me, namely current bank regulations. Here a brief resume of my problem:

One of the pillars of current regulations is the risk-weighted capital requirements for banks;which in general terms requires banks to hold more equity against assets perceived as risky, than against assets perceived as safe. The justification of that is of course that what is perceived as risky carries more dangers for the banks than what is thought safe.

That could indeed occasionally be true for some individual banks but, for the bank system at large, I hold that what ex-ante is perceived as very safe, but that ex-post can turn out to be very risky, is what poses the real dangers.

And if my opinion were correct, then current regulations would, in principle, be 180 degrees off the target.

So here is the question to Professor Haidt, or to anyone else related to this field of “moral psychology”.

Does "risky" and "safe" play the same role as what tastes bad and what tastes good… and is there anything down this line of thought that could explain a mistake that I feel is endangering the economies of the Western world… as those regulations introduce a very serious distortion in the allocation of bank credit to the real economy.

Does this not represent an urgent, vital and fascinating research topic for you in the field?