Private Prisons and Incentive Design: Critiquing Oliver Hart

One of Nobel prize-winner Oliver Hart’s most influential papers (co-authored with Andrei Shleifer and Robert Vishny) is on incentive design and private prisons (see Tyler’s post covering Hart’s work). Yesterday was not the day for a critique but Tyler and I do critique this paper in our principles textbook, Modern Principles. I believe that our textbook is the only principles textbook to have a chapter on contract design and we make this modern material accessible to undergraduates! Here is our explanation and critique:

Should the management of prisons be contracted out to the private sector? The
owners of a private firm have a strong incentive to cut costs and improve productivity because they get to keep the resulting profits. If a public prison cuts
costs, there is more money in the public treasury but no one gets to buy a yacht so the incentive to cut costs is much weaker.

private_prisonIn 1985, Kentucky became the first state to contract out a prison to a for profit firm. Private prisons today hold about 120,000 prisoners in the United
States, about 5 percent of all prisoners. Should efficient private prisons replace
inefficient public prisons? Three economists—Oliver Hart, Andrei Shleifer, and
Robert Vishny (HSV)—say no. HSV don’t question that the profit motive gives
private prisons stronger incentives than public prisons to cut costs—HSV say
that’s the problem! Suppose that we care about costs but we also care about
prisoner rehabilitation, civil rights, and low levels of inmate and guard violence.
What we pay for is cheap prisons, but what we want is cheap but high quality
prisons. If we can’t measure and pay for quality, then strong incentives could
encourage cost cutting at the expense of quality.


The principle is a general one, a strong incentive scheme that incentivizes
the wrong thing can be worse than a weak incentive scheme. One car dealer in
California advertises that its sales staff is not paid on commission.
 Why would
a store advertise that its sales staff do not have strong incentives to help you?
The answer is clear to anyone who has tried to buy a car. High-pressure dealers
who pounce on you the moment you enter the showroom and bombard you
with high-pressure sales tactics (“I can get you 15 percent off the sticker, but
you have to act NOW!”) may sell cars to first-time buyers, but the strategy is
too unpleasant to win many repeat customers. Car dealers who rely on repeat
business usually prefer a low-pressure, informative sales staff….
In theory, a car dealer could have strong incentives and repeat business by
paying its sales staff based on their “nice” sales tactics, but in practice it’s too
expensive to monitor how salespeople interact with clients. Cheating by the
sales staff would be difficult to detect and thus would be common. 

What about prisons? Are HSV correct that weak-incentive public prisons
are better than strong incentive private prisons? Not necessarily. HSV assume
that cutting quality is the way to cut cost. But sometimes higher quality is also
a path to lower costs. Low levels of inmate and guard violence, for example, are
likely to reduce costs. And respect for prisoner’s civil rights? That can save on
legal bills. When quality and cost cutting go together, a private firm has a strong
incentive to increase quality.


HSV may also underestimate how well quality can be measured. Measuring
output pays off more when incentives are high. Unsurprisingly, therefore,
private prison companies and government purchasers have made extensive
efforts to measure the quality of private prisons.


Finally, don’t forget that weak incentives reduce the incentive to cut costs
but they don’t increase the incentive to produce high quality! Public prisons
might use their slack budget constraints to offer high-quality rehabilitation
programs, or they might instead offer prison guards above-market wages.
Which do you think is more likely?


Nevertheless, whether HSV are right or wrong about private prisons, their
argument is clever. The usual argument against government bureaucracy is that
without the profit incentive, public bureaucracies won’t have an incentive to
cut costs. HSV suggest this is exactly why public bureaucracies may sometimes
be better than private firms.

Addendum: We don’t go through the empirical literature in the text but overall it’s not supportive of HSV. As HSV predict, private prisons appear to be cheaper than public prisons but they are not significantly cheaper and the quality of private prisons is comparable to that of public prisons and maybe a little bit higher (faint praise). Basically the government gets what it pays for.

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