Silly Consensus

A new 8min video echos this year old WSJ article:

Imagine you were a state legislator and some folks asked you to pass a law making it a crime to give advice about paint colors and throw pillows without a license. And imagine they told you that the only people qualified to place large pieces of furniture in a room are those who have gotten a college degree in interior design, completed a two-year apprenticeship, and passed a national licensing exam. …

The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) … have waged a 30-year, multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to legislate their competitors out of business. And those absurd restrictions on advice about paint selection, throw pillows and furniture placement represent the actual fruits of lobbying in places like Alabama, Nevada and Illinois  …

Fifty years ago, only 5% of the American workforce was licensed; today it is nearly 30%. We’re not talking about brain surgeons or airline pilots, either. Louisiana requires florists to be licensed (yes, florists), and in several states — including Louisiana, Oklahoma and Virginia — only licensed funeral directors may sell caskets.

The only supporting argument I could find at the ASID website says:

Every decision an interior designer makes in one way or another affects the health, safety and welfare of the public.  Those decisions include specifying furniture, fabrics and carpeting that comply with fire codes and space planning that provides proper means of egress.  Additionally, interior designers deal with accessibility issues, ergonomics, lighting, acoustics and design solutions for those with special needs.

This is completely inadequate as an economic argument, and I expect economists would pretty strongly agree that neither economic theory nor data on net supports such regulations.  But economists almost never actually speak up about them, and they continue to grow.  Why?

My colleagues tell me that it would just seem silly to make a fuss over this; it is just not a serious topic.  Yes we can’t take seriously the idea of legally requiring a college degree to suggest where pillows go, but we also can’t take seriously an economist who would focus on such a trivial and obvious point.  Economists are supposed to talk about serious, important, difficult topics, you see. 

Which saddens me more than I can say.  Yes focusing on areas where answers are not obvious, where we disagree, better adds to our body of knowledge.  But if we cannot actually apply that knowledge effectively to obvious cases, what is the point exactly?  

I know, academic economics isn’t about good policy; academia mostly sells affiliation with credentialed impressiveness.  But I think of all those students suffering needlessly through useless classes, and their customers later paying needlessly extra for it, and it still makes me sad.

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  • James D. Miller

    Forgive my bragging but my Principles of Microeconomics textbook devotes one and a half pages to occupational licenses (246-247) and suggests to students that the next time they get a haircut they ask their stylist about any state mandated training programs that the stylist took and inquire whether the program helped her become a better stylist.

  • jimrandomh

    The problem here is not that economists agree, but are failing to speak up against foolish laymen. The problem is that almost everyone agrees, but are overruled by a small minority with resources and a financial interest in making sure legislatures reach the wrong conclusion.

  • James D. Miller

    jimrandomh -

    Most people support licenses for many professionals such as lawyers, teachers, electricians and doctors even though you can make an extremely strong case against state mandated licensing for these occupations.

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    The WSJ link goes to an article from 2009-04-01 about Karl Rove and Barack Obama.

  • valter

    Robin, what are your suggestions exactly? That economists write letters to the NYT or to their local newspapers about this? or that they become political entrepreneurs and found one or more Associations Against Obviously Absurd Legislation to lobby against the “bad” lobbies?

    I do not think it is a matter of silliness. It is not silly to worry about Obviously Absurd Legislation. It is just that for most economists starting a battle against, say, interior design licensing, would be boring, take a lot of time and bring little expected gain to the fighter.

    I guess you might say that there are plenty of economists (and others) that take on Don Quixotesque battles with even lower expected net gains. Probably most of them (I have no data) are about “serious, important, difficult” issues (war, poverty, inequality, etc.) that have high emotional impact – something that interior design licensing sadly lacks (unless framed as an example of lack of free trade, which does have some emotional impact on many economists).

  • Peter Twieg

    Actually, valter, I’m inclined to disagree – I think it would be easy to argue that there are better returns to economists going after “low-hanging fruit” which they tend to agree upon than creating more noise over, say, the financial crisis or broad issues of political economy which have already been hashed-over time and again. This isn’t to say that these issues aren’t worth discussing, but a lot of contemporary debates have a low signal:noise ratio and the contributions of those inclined to opine upon them tend to just signal intellectual solidarity rather than add anything new.

    But I imagine that there would be relatively decent returns to coming down as a discipline against certain kinds of policies – even if economists’ ire is focused on one particular law (in this case, licensing of interior decorators), it seems reasonable to believe that the tide of public debate of these issues could be turned. In a broader sense, I have to wonder to what extent the existence of systematically biased economics beliefs that Caplan describes can be faulted to economists themselves for not doing a better job of engaging the public on these issues.

  • Douglas Knight

    How about rent control?
    I don’t think economists consider that undignified. I think silliness is an excuse confabulated for the other examples, but the real reasons also cover rent control.

    I’m not sure what these real reasons are, but I suspect that they are more along the lines of being afraid of revealing / being forced to learn that the public and politicians don’t care about expert opinion or simple argument.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    James, congrats; Peter, agreed; Douglas, could be.

    jim, James is right; public opinion is the obstacle.

    Paul, thanks, fixed.

    valter, we could collect petitions with many signatures, for example, or have our economics associations make official statements.

  • Douglas Knight

    In other words, valter is right about gains to the economist.

    But in terms of value to society, cases where there is expert consensus are “low-hanging fruit.” The expected value of action may be low, but at least it is positive.

  • MissedCall

    Silly, Robin? A bouquet of flowers killed my father!

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    coming down as a discipline against certain kinds of policies

    You’re not taking into account the distorting effect of the media, which will quite happily represent the entire weight of a discipline versus a few nutjobs as a raging debate on which the jury is still out.

  • Jason

    Robin, I would be glad to sign a petition about this or encourage a professional organization to make an official statement (or sign a petition encouraging an official statement). I’m curious – did the colleagues you spoke with refuse to take even these steps?

    Incidentally, does the AEA take official positions on any policy issues? (forgive my ignorance about this!). Which other professional organizations might we appeal to?

    Maybe the problem is just that there isn’t an obvious official avenue through which to raise these issues. It might be helpful if some official body like the AEA released an annual poll asking economists to weigh in on a range of issues so at least there would be some authoritative place that non-economists could go to see what economists think.

  • http://www.kymberlie.com Kymberlie R. McGuire

    This is TypePad Support testing your comments. Please feel free to delete this. ravio

  • raivo

    This is a test comment from TypePad Support. Please feel free to delete.

  • Dan

    Someone says that the debate is dominated by nutjobs, I totally agree. Their attitude is like: “See if you have to license doctors and pilots, next the government is going to go after interior designers!!!!!”
    While this works wonders to reinforce already like minded ideologues that they are right, it doesn’t work as a persuasion tool for policy change. Most people would like to think that when they receive a service that involves their life and health that there is some minimum standards backed up by government rules and laws, while they will agree that a botched interior design job should only involve the fashion police… But the absolutist doesn’t make this rational argument, they just thump some Hayek tract.

    So yes it is a Silly Consensus because it involves Silly people, and to challenge the “consensus” you will find yourself allied with some very silly people.

  • Grant

    I actually have asked a hair stylist about state licensing. Her opinion was roughly that state-required licensing was absurdly expensive (in Florida). She didn’t know why it existed, only that it was just a silly hurdle to be overcome. However, she did feel that regulation and inspection related to hair styling was useful; mostly because regulators looked for proper antiseptics and procedures that keep hair-borne parasites and diseases from being spread. I have no idea how effective or costly these health-related regulators are, but I’m less concerned about them because there are actual economic arguments for their existence.

  • http://www.xuenay.net/ Kaj Sotala

    James D. Miller: While licenses for interior decoration and being a florist are obviously absurd, you say that one can also make a very strong case against mandated licensing for professions such as teachers and doctors. I’m curious to hear why this is so – could you provide a brief summary, or a reference that’d explain it in more detail?

  • ad

    My colleagues tell me that it would just seem silly to make a fuss over this; it is just not a serious topic.

    They have a point. What you need is a general anti-licencing rule. Then you can say that no licencing regulation should be passed if it violated that rule.

    Any ideas about what that rule should be?

  • Erin

    I don’t think the analogy to the medical field is as relevant as comparing it to architecture.

    As much as I disagree with required licensing for interior designers, there is a very large difference between interior designers and interior decorators. The former needs to understand and be able to successfully apply fire and life safety principles, barrier-free design (e.g. ADA)and many standards and codes that most would assume only architects are required to understand/know. The latter just needs to match colors, fabrics and styles together.

  • frelkins

    @Erin

    You nearly had me until I went over to the ASID website and was greeted with:

    “Michael Alin, ASID Executive Director, Gives Video Address on Legislative Priorities for 2009
    Society pledges legislative support to create more opportunities for designers in a down economy.”

    and

    “How to Report Your CEU Compliance

    No course information is required. Simply access your online profile and select “Go to My ASID.” Scroll down to “Report your CEU Compliance,” and you’re all set. The reporting deadline is Dec. 31, 2009, but don’t risk being audited by waiting until the last minute.”

    Very rigorous, right, this mandatory continuing education requirement – no course information required!

    So I went to see what kind of important continuing education is in fact offered for the requirement. I was greeted with this so-important-for-public-safety online class – American Indian Culture, Southwestern Tradition, and Santa Fe Style. Ah yes, you must pay them to learn how tastefully recognize the cultural importance of bleached cow skulls and fake Indian blankets by Ralph Lauren.

    Robin’s right, this is a scam to keep talented gay men down, and make sure all the others pay the regular dues.

  • http://law.harvard.edu JDavies

    Though economists may not do too much about it, there are organizations that challenge licensing laws on a regular basis. The public law organization Institute for Justice (a libertarian outfit) has an Economic Liberty division that mounts legal challenges to these types of licensing laws. (http://www.ij.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=557&Itemid=240) Lots of interior design, hair-braiding, and florist cases. I know there are some other, smaller organizations that do similar work as well.

  • http://tiffanygholar.blogspot.com/2008/08/i-did-not-get-into-all-that-debt-so-i.html Tiffany

    It’s very interesting to see the argument against licensing for interior design from an economic perspective. I call myself a renegade interior designer because though I have a degree in it I do not have a license. (Oh, the horror!) I think it is important to learn about building codes and ADA requirements and green design to benefit the health and safety of everyone. No sense in designing a beautiful space made of asbestos and coated in lead paint. Design education is important. But I think that the problem is that unlike in some of the other professions listed, there are too many artificial barriers to employment as a designer. I cannot take a licensing exam until I have worked for a few years for a designer who is licensed, but there are so few of them hiring entry-level designers. They want someone with experience. So I don’t have experience because no one will hire me, but no one will hire me because I have no experience. Which is how I ended up selling carpet and furniture for a while.

    But now I say screw it. I’m going to call myself a designer anyway and if they want to sue me, take it up with a lawyer. And speaking of lawyers, at least they get to take the bar exam once they get their degree instead of doing some b.s. “apprenticeship” first.

    So as someone who is personally affected by these ridiculous laws, I am glad to see that you took the time to use interior design as an example of the useless regulations. Also, you may want to read this report:

    Designing Cartels by The Institute for Justice

  • Mtm42393

    Can I just say…I am in school for Interior Design right now, and having to do a paper on this particular issue. I have only been through one semester of the necessary courses for this degree and I can already argue against your point of view. I am going to keep it short and to the point. My cousin is a licensed Interior Designer and she has to design hospitals. With this job comes SEVERAL codes and regulations that I strongly believe a registered Interior Designer should handle. Would you trust yourself, someone with knowledge on “paint selection and throw pillows”, to put those who are disabled and in need of critical care to design the living environment for patients in need of serious help? I would personally want my loved ones to be placed in a hospital where all of the codes have been followed while constructing this environment. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=27218610 Itchie Rin

      I would like to elaborate on Mtm’s response here in regards to hospital design. Often, the architect designs the shape of the building, the structural needs, and of course the overall design. The interior designer comes in to detail the ceiling plans, the materials and finishes used for the flooring (again- non-slip flooring is an issue as well as off-gassing materials), the interior elevations- including the height of ADA toilets (these details include the height of the toilet, the selection of the toilet and whether it meets building code, the height and placement of assisting bars in the toilet rooms, the layout of these toilet rooms to ensure that there is room for a wheelchair to maneuver in these rooms, and many more… just for the toilet room!!), as well as several additional details, such as electrical.

      There is a tremendous amount of responsibility put on an interior designer- and we work at less than a teachers’ salary and are constantly barraged with ignorant posts such as this one. Lesson of the day? Respect your interior designer and the level of knowledge we hold. We didn’t study intensely in the toughest programs in school to be told that we pick paint colors.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=27218610 Itchie Rin

    To every one of you who claim that all interior designers do is to match colors and select pillows… this is EXACTLY why we need legislation. Because people do not even know what we do and it is WIDELY misunderstood. Interior designers are Interior architects. We are trained in architecture… from the inside out. Architects are trained in structural design, we are trained in interior design. 

    As an interior designer, I have selected floor tile for ADA accessible ramps complying with building code to meet the proper slip rating coefficient and ensure that when that tile is wet, people with disabilities are not sliding and injuring themselves. I ensure that safety exits are placed within rooms as needed. I understand what materials are appropriate for use vs. those that may be flammable or otherwise unsafe.
    I do not select pillows. I do not hang pictures. In fact, if I were asked to do so I would fail miserably. I am not a good decorator. I do, however, understand the amount of acoustical material needed in a particular square footage of a gym. I also know how to detail the structure of a window so that it looks the way the architectural designer would like it to look and maintains energy standards per the Leadership for Energy Efficient Design.Please, educate yourselves before shoving your foot in your mouth and completely misinforming others in regards to someone else’s profession.