Archive for May, 2010

Voters are dumb and stubborn

May 20, 2010

I read a book last fall that was simultaneously enthralling and depressing. The book was called “The Myth of the Rational Voter” by Bryan Caplan and was published in 2007. The central argument of the book is that voters are neither well informed nor rational, and not because they are bad people but because there are no incentives to be either informed or rational.

What do I mean when I say there are no incentives to be informed when it comes to voting? An incentive is something that motivates action. What motivates a person to vote? One plausible-sounding answer is that the person expects to gain from having one candidate win rather than another, and votes for that candidate in an effort to make that a reality. Voters will then gather information about the candidates to make sure they choose the one who benefits them.

This seems like a reasonable explanation for why people vote but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. The fact is that the gains from voting are far too small to justify spending any time at all collecting information about the candidates. Imagine that you stand to gain $10,000 if Candidate A wins instead of Candidate B. In a national election with 100 million voters, your vote has a 1 in 10 million chance of affecting the outcome. What can you expect to gain by voting? Even though the financial return to you is high if Candidate A wins, the probability of your vote affecting the outcome is so low that your expected return to voting is a meager one-tenth of one cent!

Simple arithmetic demonstrates that voters have almost nothing to gain (and nothing to lose) by voting for one candidate over another, or even voting at all. If people care about maximizing their earnings, we would not expect them to spend copious amounts of time researching who is the best candidate because discovering the answer to that question is irrelevant. In other words, voters and non-voters can afford to be ignorant of politics because there is no pay off to becoming educated.

The data on the public’s knowledge of government bear this out. Specifically, Caplan cites the Kaiser Family Foundation’s nation wide poll of Americans about their knowledge of the federal government’s budget in 1995. The respondents were given a list of six budget items (foreign aid, welfare, interest on the federal debt, defense, Social Security, and health) and then asked to name the two largest budgetary items. Forty one percent of respondents named foreign aid as one of the top two programs, even though it only receives 1 percent of the budget. Only 14 percent correctly guessed that Social Security was one of the top two budget items, which accounts for 21 percent of the budget (making it tied with defense for the most expensive federal program in 1995).

People don’t have the incentives to find accurate information about what the government does, so it’s not surprising that their beliefs can stray so far from the facts. But perhaps this has something to do with the difficulty of finding reliable information. Surely, if the public had easy access to the unadulterated truth, their views would conform more closely to reality. Right?

A friend of mine from college named David Faden pointed me to an academic paper that sheds some light on this issue. The paper was written by political scientists Jason Reifler and Brendan Nyhan, who conducted an experiment in 2005 to test how easily a person’s misperceptions about political issues could be corrected.

Reifler and Nyhan had roughly 130 subjects read a speech by George W. Bush from 2004 in which he claimed there was a risk Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Half of the participants read a news article that mentions the Iraq Survey Group’s finding that it had not found evidence Iraq possessed WMD in 2003. That is the group that received the “correction.” The other half did not read that information. The researchers then asked the subjects how strongly they agreed with the statement that Iraq possessed WMD in 2003. What Reifler and Nyhan found was that the correction changed misperceptions, but only among self-identified liberals. Interestingly, conservatives who read the correction believed more strongly that Iraq had WMD than conservatives who did not read the correction.

In a later study, Reifler and Nyhan then tested subjects’ views on whether or not George W. Bush had banned stem cell research. The participants read a news story from 2004 in which John Kerry accused Bush of having banned stem cell research. Once again, half of the participants were given a news story with an additional paragraph, this time stating that Bush’s policy did not limit privately funded stem cell research. Just as in the first experiment, the correction worked more strongly with one ideological group than another. Here, conservatives who read the correction were less likely to believe Bush had banned stem cell research than conservatives who did not, but the correction had no effect on liberals.

After reading this study, I was even more disillusioned about the prospect of a functioning democratic government than I was after reading Caplan’s book. It’s bad enough to think that people have wildly mistaken beliefs about politics. But to know that people won’t change their mind even after their beliefs are shown to be false? I think that means we need to start looking for better ways of making policies than by voting. I plan to expound on some of those ways in future posts.


Steven Landsburg on ugly protectionism

May 12, 2010

In a column he wrote in 2005, the renowned economist Steven Landsburg compared the “Buy American” campaign to racism. In the column, titled “Why protectionism is a lot like racism,” he wrote:

Landsburg: Both major parties (and most of the minor ones) are infested with protectionist fellow travelers who would discriminate on the basis of national origin no less virulently than David Duke or any other overt racist would discriminate on the basis of skin color. But if racism is morally repugnant -and it is – then so is xenophobia, and for exactly the same reasons.

The Fox News Channel’s John Gibson got wind of Landsburg’s offensive comparison and invited him on to his television program “The Big Story” to answer for his horrendous lapse in judgment.

Gibson struggles to understand Landsburg’s argument, as evidenced by the first question he asks him:

Gibson: Professor, today’s big question: So why is buying American racist?

Landsburg: I haven’t said it’s racist. I’ve said that it’s ugly and it’s ugly in the same way that racism is ugly.

The interview goes down hill from there:

Gibson: Well, let me back up. The headline says, “Why protectionism is a lot like racism.”

Landsburg: A lot like racism. Yes, it’s a lot like racism. That’s not exactly the same as being…

Gibson: You can nuance it, but I get your drift. Why is it a lot like racism?

Landsburg: Well, the easiest way to see that it’s a lot like racism is take the rhetoric of politicians who have pushed this issue, look at what they’re saying about how we have to encourage companies to hire more Americans; we have to save American jobs; we have to buy American. Replace the word “American” with “white” throughout that and you will not be able to tell any difference between that rhetoric and the rhetoric that we have from David Duke.

Still unable to grasp that Landsburg is not arguing that protectionism is the same as racism, Gibson continues:

Gibson: Yes, but we’re looking at these pictures right now of a factory in Detroit. It’s not white. They’re black, they’re Hispanic, they’re white, they come from white…

Landsburg: Absolutely. And we are being asked to care more about those people because they happen to have been born in Detroit than other people because they happen to have been born in Juarez or Tokyo or wherever.

Gibson: That’s what nationalism is.

Landsburg: That’s not a whole lot different from being asked to care more about people because they’re white than because they’re black.

Later on, Landsburg asks Gibson why we should care more about auto workers in Detroit than those in Juárez, México. If you’ve read up until this point, you can guess Gibson’s response:

Gibson: Well, professor, they’re my fellow Americans. I care about people in Juarez, they’re nice Mexicans. But, my fellow Americans come first.

Landsburg: In one case they’re people who share your nationality. In the other case, they’re people who share your race. Why is one a legitimate difference to discriminate and the other not?

Gibson: Well because it’s not race! And professor, it’s a bad example. There’s a lot of black people in Detroit and I’m all for those black people in Detroit.

Landsburg: What’s different about race? What’s special about race? What is special about race that makes it bad to discriminate on the basis of race, but not bad to discriminate on the basis of nationality? What’s the difference?

Gibson: “Stealing assets is wrong,” you write, “and so is stealing the right to earn a living.”

Landsburg: You don’t want to answer it.

Gibson: I don’t think it deserves an answer.

After Landsburg’s segment ends, Gibson invites on another economist who is just as confused as he is. Economist Mike Norman, founder of the Economic Contrarian Update, is also against protectionism, but doesn’t care for the comparison to racism.

Gibson: So, I know you are also not in favor of protectionism. Do you subscribe to these arguments [Landsburg’s arguments]?

Norman: No, absolutely not. These are the most extreme and convoluted and, frankly, bizarre arguments that I’ve ever heard. To try to equate, “Let’s protect American jobs with racism,” is absolutely ludicrous. Look, we don’t hear the professor criticizing the Chinese and the Japanese and the Taiwanese and the rest of the Asian countries…

Gibson: OK. But Mike, you’re on his side in terms of…

Norman: Only in terms of — I’m not saying it’s racism! That’s ridiculous!

Gibson: Here’s my problem: since you’re on his side on the issue of protectionism, why do you find his arguments so uncomfortable?

Norman: Because I think he’s going with some kind of a moral argument. This is not an economic argument. And he’s taking it totally out of context. And it’s inflammatory, as you said. I think it’s taking it to an extreme, which is unjustifiable from an economic standpoint. And that’s why I’m uncomfortable with it. I don’t equate it to racism.

Who needs morality when we have all these graphs and equations to tell us what to do!

Ok, you’re probably wondering why I’m bothering to respond to a couple of knuckleheads like John Gibson and Mike Norman when their errors are so obvious. But I’m not responding to them. I’m writing this blog post for Steven Landsburg.

Landsburg tries to get Gibson to answer what the difference is between protectionism (actually “patriotism”) and racism, which Gibson glibly declines. That was a good effort, and it showed that Gibson should not have his own television show, but I think Landsburg could have made his case even better.

Landsburg should have begun the conversation like this:

Favoring Americans over foreigners is wrong because citizenship is not a morally relevant characteristic.

Then he should have asked Gibson, “Why is citizenship a morally relevant characteristic?” Gibson could have easily responded, “I don’t think it deserves an answer” but at least Gibson would not have wasted time with this “It’s not racism!” crap.

What Landsburg tried to express, without ever actually saying it explicitly, is that racial and national discrimination are wrong for the same reason, namely that race and citizenship are both morally irrelevant characteristics.

In retrospect, he should not have made the comparison to racism, because that opened the door for easily confused people like Gibson and Norman to misunderstand him and think that he was calling protectionists racists, which he wasn’t. He was saying that racists and protectionists are committing the same kind of mistake.

Marriage and democracy

May 1, 2010

The Iowa Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the state one year ago last month. At the time, state legislatures talked about passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling, which would have to be approved by popular vote. Despite calls from opponents of the ruling to put the issue on the ballot, the 2010 legislative session came and went without any action from the Legislature.

What began as a debate about marriage has become a debate about democracy. I think that’s a good thing, because the concept of majority rule is so ingrained in everyone’s political philosophy that it is rarely questioned. You often hear people repeat Winston Churchill’s famous quote that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” It may be true that democracy is the best form of government, but voting is not the only way to make decisions.

Think about all the decisions you make in your life. You decide what groceries to buy at the grocery store. You decide what car to drive and what house to live in. All of those decisions are made by you. I don’t have any control over you when it comes to those decisions. No matter how much I want you to drive a Honda, I can’t force you to buy a car you don’t want. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person in the world who wants to drive a Pinto, you have the freedom to own one.

When we stop to examine our own lives, we see that most of our decisions are individual choices and do not necessarily reflect the will of our neighbors. And thank the good Lord for that! A person knows his own tastes and his own circumstances better than anyone else, so it makes sense for him to be the one to make decisions that affect him. There is no reason to give other people power over his decision if they have no stake in the matter.

We could easily imagine a world in which more decisions are made by majority vote instead of individual choice. Instead of allowing each person to purchase the car of his choice, each person could vote on the model he likes best, and then we all have to buy the model that won the most votes. I think most people can see that this would not be an improvement over the current state of affairs, even though in some sense it would be more “democratic.”

That brings us to the issue of marriage contracts. Under the present Iowa law, any two people can enter into a marriage contract. The decision to enter into a contract is left to the individual and is not subject to majority veto. The opponents of gay marriage are now arguing that contracts between adults should be a group decision. But if it is good to allow each person to select the car of his choosing, on the theory that he knows what’s best for him, I don’t see why selecting a marriage partner would be any different. In both instances, the decision affects only the people involved in the transaction, and those people have a better idea of what is best for them than anyone else.

The current law allows each individual to get what they want. Heterosexuals can marry other heterosexuals, which is what they want, and gays and lesbians can marry other gays and lesbians, which is what they want. How can you improve upon that?