I’m deeply interested in how change occurs, specifically change that would once again provide our system with the ability, now lacking, to accurately diagnose our problems and efficiently derive and implement solutions.
How is it that Keynesianism is now rejected in favor of austerity, despite compelling evidence to the contrary? What will it take to change people’s views on taxes such that the Norquist postion would be unsustainable? What evidence, arguments, facts, presentations, etc., are the right ones to convince a majority of the importance of an amply funded, efficient government sector that can meet and offset market failures? How can junk science on climate change be banished? How do views form and shift on these and all the other issues we deal with here at OTE?
I don’t adequately understand it–I’m not sure anyone does. I recently went to a meeting of some of the smartest political economists I know and they pretty vehemently disagreed on the related question of how public opinion is shaped, with one side arguing that people are actually pretty rational and generally understand and vote in their self-interest and the other side saying…nope, not really.
I was thinking about all this today in the wake of last night’s VP debate. I thought it was a good debate wherein the VP did what he needed to do, and that seems to be the consensus this AM. But there are the predictable, and largely correct, I’d guess, views in the papers today saying that the debate didn’t change anything—few votes were moved either way (though I expect partisans were re-energized, and that’s important).
Sure. It’s one VP debate. And btw, my political scientist friends—at least some of them—argued that even presidential debates rarely matter. The statistician in me views such judgments as “low-power” tests. There aren’t enough observations to reliably know the impact of these debates, and outliers happen, so even if they mostly don’t matter, any given debate can matter a lot.
On the other hand, I was reminded last night of a) Lloyd Bentsen’s absolutely devastating take-down of Dan Quayle, and b) the fact that the latter, not the former, became the VP.
I was also thinking of the insights of one Ezra Klein, who I view as holding the political version of one of my main economic views: that of “small responders.” The folks with whom I argue typically maintain implausibly large responses to changes, even tweaks, in policy variables, with almost no evidence to support their views. Raise the minimum wage a few cents, and millions will lose their jobs. Except for they don’t. Raise marginal tax rates by a few percentage points and everyone will stop working. Cut them a few points and the economy will soar to Elysian heights. Except for that’s not what happens.
Ezra tends to discount the impact of a lot of the big ticket events—like presidential debates, Supreme Court arguments, and state of the union speeches—that get a lot of attention, and he’s got the evidence to back it up.
So what does matter? What does drive changes in opinion and of policy?
What about facts? One of my favorite lines from the VP last night was “facts matter!” Of course I think he’s right, but I think one also has to admit that facts have taken a huge beating in recent years. I mean, I think all those fact checkers in the papers are useful (except when they disagree with me…I’m talkin’ to you Kessler!) but isn’t it a bit weird to have fact checkers in the newspaper in the first place? Aren’t newspapers themselves supposed to be factual? Or is it that in the age of “truthiness” we need to have articles about something that happened and what people said about it accompanied by other articles that gauge the truth of what we just read?
[BTW, I’m sitting in Newark Airport, Terminal A, and a pigeon just calmly walked by happily pecking at crumbs on the floor…go figure! I commented on the bird’s bravado to a guy sitting next to me who correctly pointed out: “it’s a Jersey pigeon.”]
Certainly impressions matter. There’s a fair bit a commentary out this morning, for which I admit I have little patience, on the VPs demeanor last night. When asked about that on TV last night and this AM, I begged off, protesting that I’m not a theater critic. But there’s no question that impressions matter, and they probably matter in inverse proportion to the extent that facts don’t matter. If you can’t trust the facts, you have to rely on gut impressions.
Conditions obviously matter too. I’ve written quite a bit about how people’s views on the economy are a function not just of where they are in terms of living standards and opportunity, but on where they think they’re headed. And that aggregates up to the macroeconomy. The fact that the unemployment rate is down 2.2 percentage points from its Oct 2010 peak may well be more important than the fact that it’s still an elevated 7.8%. Momentum matters as much as, if not more than, levels.
Leadership matters and our faith in our leaders is diminished when we can’t trust them. In that sense, there’s an important interaction here between our current ambiguous relationship with facts and the extent to which people in leadership positions skew them. Romney’s equivocating on his positions, like his $5 trillion tax cut that seems to disappear when it’s inconvenient, or his sudden embrace of Wall St. regulation (he accused Obama of being too soft on the banks) is quite harmful in this regard.
And as much as I’d like to be balanced here and accuse both sides equally, it’s just not so. Few politicians take an exceedingly careful, scholarly approach to the facts of the case—they all cut corners. But the difference between the tickets in these debates so far when it comes to an honest representation of their agendas has been enormous.
In the context of change theory, the willingness of some leaders to say anything to get elected dampens not just their own ability to mobilize people on behalf of change, but their opponents as well. It leads to a “he-said, she-said” dynamic where the substance is so confusing we’re left talking about who smiled and who smirked.
Finally, institutions matter. The media plays a huge role in change, both leading and lagging, but at this point, its balkanization is such that most of us go to the site or the station that pumps up our priors. That makes it that much harder to listen to the other side with an open mind that would lead to compromise and change. In this media climate, our change muscles atrophy.
Cass Sunstein recently wrote that it’s largely “surprising validators” that change their viewers or readers opinions. This means, for example, that all my evidence against supply-side, trickle-down economics won’t convince anyone who’s not with me already. For that to happen, Kudlow or Laffer would have to repudiate it. Don’t hold your breath.
Other institutions are also looked upon with more suspicion than faith these days, whether its government, corporations, or even the church. At least for now, government is pretty dysfunctional, too bought and paid for, and thus comprised of too many actors who actively and proudly reject compromise and change, which is one reason why our ability to diagnose our problems and propose solutions is so stymied. These days, you look to Congress not to fix problems but to hopefully not make them worse (e.g., fiscal cliff).
Like I said, I don’t yet know the answer to this one. But I don’t think it’s hopeless. While the “small responders” are right—most of the unique events that seem to be a big deal in real time in terms of influencing change really aren’t (a big deal)—enough small nudges can accumulate to move things in the right direction, though it’s two steps forward, 1.97 steps back.
I think the answer comes down to the VPs point that facts matter, though given that I’m in the facts’ business, that’s a predictable place for folks like me to land. But given small responses, the weakening of key institutions, money in politics, and balkanized media, the barriers which facts have to clear to reach the people seem higher than ever.
All of which means we should be up and running here at OTE for a long time to come—at least until pretty much everyone agrees with me.