The High Price of Hidden Costs

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 12:21 PM EDT

Austin Frakt read my defense of debit card fees on Friday and says today that it all makes perfect sense. But he's still annoyed by them. "That I feel this way is irrational, but I don’t care....The irrational, feeling part of me wants things to go back the way they were, even as the economist in me knows things are better now."

Right. Even though we won't admit it, most of us are far more likely to accept hidden costs than transparent costs. After all, they're hidden! We don't really know about them. Austin says there's a lesson here for healthcare:

Many policy experts and economists think it’d be far better if people knew the cost of health care, if they were aware what their full, employer-sponsored premiums cost, etc. I agree. Transparency is the right way to go.

But make no mistake, people will be annoyed. No, that’s not right. A $5/month debit card use fee is annoying. Suddenly learning that your income is lower than it would otherwise be by $10,000 because of your “employer-paid” premium is not annoying. It is enraging.

What will Americans do when they finally recognize the full cost of health care?....I think many people will be furious at how much of their paychecks are, effectively, being piped into the pockets of health insurers, health care providers, drug manufacturers, health IT gizmo creators, massive radiology machine developers, other device makers, and government programs. Some will think the return is worth the price. Many will not, particularly those who think insurers are wringing them dry.

Once you start thinking about it, you'll be surprised at just how addicted we all are to hidden costs. There are all the hidden bank fees, of course, which become enraging when they turn into transparent fees and we realize just how high they actually are. There's the hidden cost of healthcare that Austin points to — hidden because, in the American system, employers pay for most of it and most of us never really realize just how much we're really paying.

There are hidden taxes, too. If we want to reduce greenhouse gases, the single best way to do it is via a carbon tax. But that's transparent and produces a gigantic political battle. So instead we end up with direct EPA regulation, something that every economist in the world agrees is less efficient, less effective, and ultimately more costly than a tax. But the cost is hidden, so we all put up with it.

Ditto for tax expenditures, all those subsidies that we give people via breaks on their taxes. They don't seem like government spending, but they are — and they're less efficient than simply flattening the tax code and then making the subsidies directly.

Or there's Matt Yglesias's favorite hobbyhorse, zoning and construction regulations that hide the actual cost of keeping neighborhoods the way current residents like them. Or the hidden cost of supermarket "loyalty" programs, which fool us into providing retailers with valuable information in return for the mere illusion of lower prices.

We hairless apes have a seemingly infinite capacity to enjoy being fooled. But it's worth reminding ourselves every once in a while just how the high the cost really is for preferring inefficient hidden costs to the more efficient transparent kind.