Thursday, October 27, 2011

Contracts with empty promises

I always feel small talk has no specific purpose and is a waste of time. In fact, every time somebody asks me how I do, I launch into a well reasoned explanation of my current state of affairs, while my intelocutor is just expecting a "well-thanks-and you?" Yet, some people have found value in such chitchat, see a previous report. But what about contracts that have clause that have no chance of being met? Why would one allow empty promises in a legally binding contract?

David Miller and Kareen Rozen look at contracts that involve team work in a complex production environment, where opportunities for moral hazard abound. Performance clauses are hard to specify and you want to use peer monitoring and pressure rather than checking for the result of each individual task. Obviously, monitoring is costly, and along with statistical complementarities in the success rate, this implies that it could be optimal to delegate all the production to one person and the monitoring to another (the least productive one, according to the "Dilbert Principle"), and the latter may resort to wasteful punishment: naming and shaming, and even firing. It is wasteful, because it does not provide any direct benefit to the supervisor and it may not even be subgame perfect. Where are the empty promises? The one performing tasks can promise to fulfill them, but it obvious to all that they cannot be all successful because of some outside probability of failure. But the supervisor is willing to forgive failures, without knowing whether chance or moral hazard are at play.

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