Change Theory and Small Responders

October 12th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

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.

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11 comments in reply to "Change Theory and Small Responders"

  1. Justin Singer says:

    The amazing thing is, Laffer *has* repudiated the notion of relying on supply-side theory in a depression since the advent of the theory. From a 1982 New Yorker article by James Brooks:

    “A problem I have with people who follow us [supply-siders] is that they don’t recognize the theory’s shortcomings. They go too far. I don’t think you cut Social Security or unemployment insurance in a down economy. To do that is–well, immoral. You cut those things in an up economy. I might agree with Mundell that Keynesian policy is the right one in a depression. But I seldom write things like that. As I see it, my role is not to be balanced and eclectic…When I talk about taxes, I talk about taxes. I don’t say that nothing else matters. My specialty is taxes, not sociology or anthropology.”

    Robert Mundell goes even further: “I’ve described Keynesianism as romantic and the supply side as realistic. There’s room in the world for both. In depression times, Keynesian romanticism is correct.”

    Read the full article here:

  2. Michael says:

    “What evidence, arguments, facts, presentations, etc.,”

    Jesus, dude.

    Ok, once more for the peanut gallery — it’s not that most people don’t understand how to follow an argument. It’s that they don’t understand what arguments (and facts, and evidence) are.

    You need stories. You need narratives. Facts and arguments and evidence are irrelevant to the average exhausted, numbed, malnourished, and community-deprived American.

    “But the very concept of the issue seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. (This was also true of a number of committed voters in both camps–though I’ll risk being partisan here and say that Kerry voters, in my experience, were more likely to name specific issues they cared about than Bush supporters.) At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics–maybe, I thought, “issue” is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they’re being quizzed on a topic they haven’t studied. So I tried other ways of asking the same question: “Anything of particular concern to you? Are you anxious or worried about anything? Are you excited about what’s been happening in the country in the last four years?”

    These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment.”

    • Richard Hoefer says:

      Reply to Michael, in your comment above: Thank you so much for your post, and inserting the anecdotal information from a doorknocker doing get out the vote ground work in Wisconsin in 2004.

      ( this quote from Michael’s post is actually a quote from Christopher Hayes, from a blog post he wrote analyzing undecided voters in the 2004 election cycle, from his direct experience knocking on doors in Wisconsin, trying to engage undecided voters )

      “But the very concept of the *issue* seemed to be almost completely alien to most of the undecided voters I spoke to. … At first I thought this was a problem of simple semantics–maybe, I thought, “issue” is a term of art that sounds wonky and intimidating, causing voters to react as if they’re being quizzed on a topic they haven’t studied. … I tried other ways of asking the same question …
      These questions, too, more often than not yielded bewilderment.”

      MY REPLY: Christopher’s takeaway analysis of what undecideds are actually deciding matches the analysis and prescriptive work of Berkeley linguist George Lakoff…who has been presenting solid examples for 13 years now of how facts and logic don’t matter at all in elections. But Christopher’s post take that argument even further.

      I had never read nor heard of the following kinds of dialogues. Hayes cites one particular example: He met a “truck driver who was despondent because he had just hit a woman’s car after having worked a week straight. He didn’t think the accident was his fault and he was angry about being sued. “There’s too many lawsuits these days,” he told me. I was set to have to rebut a “tort reform” argument, but it never came.

      He didn’t seem to think there was any connection between politics and whether his company would cover his legal costs. Had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of tort reform, it might have benefited Bush; had he made a connection between his predicament and the issue of labor rights, it might have benefited Kerry. He made neither, and remained undecided.”

      — MY REPLY, CONT’D —
      That one blog post by Christopher Hayes ( ) presents example after example of undecideds not connecting to the whole concept on where a politician stands on any given issue, such as tax breaks, or social security. But there might be single-interest areas, such as oil drilling, and if they hear one candidate talking about it positively, that’s who they’ll vote for”.

      It amazes me, Michael, that time after time after time the Democratic Party, and its surrogates, just cannot process and internalize these communication truths, and adjust their messaging accordingly. Pelosi and Reid are the absolute worst in these matters. But the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard was when Obama & company, a year or 2 back, simply adopted the disparaging name “Obamacare” for the health care act. The correct strategy would have been to name it something linguistically catchy and POSITIVE before the GOP claims the entire oxygen around it… But at the very least, adopting a GOP meme is cooperating with the GOP messaging emotions that assign crippling meaning to the very sound of the word.

  3. Michael says:

    In general, conservatives become liberals when they break down sobbing in a cornfield in the rain and accept that whatever bad thing happened to them, there wasn’t much meaning to it, and they can’t prevent it in the future by being cruel to others.

    It isn’t about arguments or sense. It’s about whether you let hate and fear control your life or not.

  4. Jeremy Haile says:

    Thought provoking piece.

    An interesting case study on how change occurs, should anybody choose to take it up, might be the emerging consensus on the need to reform our criminal justice system.

    It was not that long ago that lock ’em up rhetoric was a staple of stump speeches, both Republican and Democrat. (Nixon probably started this with his condemnation of drug abuse as “public enemy number one,” but Bill Clinton would later say in a State of the Union address that criminals “will be put away and put away for good.”)

    But according to a Pew report earlier this year, a plurality of American voters now says that too many people are in prison, and an overwhelming majority — including voters across political, generational, and racial lines — wants policies that would exchange prisons for more effective alternatives.

    My organization recently analyzed the Democratic and Republican party platforms and found that in a number of areas, from reducing recidivism, to enhancing reentry program and drug treatment alternatives to incarceration, the two major parties are largely in sync.

    What changed? Did drops in crime make the tough on crime rhetoric less effective? Given budget pressures, are people finally concerned by the enormous costs of mass incarceration? Did the work of advocates — including George W. Bush, who rallied evangelicals — make a difference?

  5. wendy beck says:

    I’m confused. If “debates” make little difference in changing people’s voting behavior, why have the polls reversed since the President’s lackluster performance at the debate?

  6. Smiley Bob says:

    Because I am middle class, those I know are also middle class. In that group, Most of those who support Romney/Ryan are in the middle or towards the bottom of the middle class, do not typically have health insurance (some are on Medicare and others have very little insurance coverage), most are not in the best of health, some are on SS, a few on Vet benefits and insurance, and some require a little charity. They are all getting by, and few are out of work. They are obviously the 47% and would be the ones who would be the most hurt by a Romney-Ryan win.

    It seems to me that facts are not what they base their decision on; all of this great information you provide to us is not being used. Any thoughts on this?

  7. Dennis says:

    I think it’s important to recognize that in order for facts to matter, people have to feel relatively secure in terms of their resources and prospects; someone who’s out of work isn’t liable to take the most rational approach, to look for the long-term benefit, or to recognize quick-fix scams proposed by politicians. Anxiety tends to work against reason, and our society is currently as anxious as it can be, so facts, as such, are only going to be important to those who aren’t suffering. The austerity proponent/deficit hawk/debt reactionary group has taken advantage of the anxiety by screaming that the sky is falling. Their message is almost entirely emotional, as evidenced by the fact that Romney and Ryan didn’t seem to care whether anything they said was factual in the two debates so far. If you want to persuade the voting public that “an amply funded, efficient government sector that can meet and offset market failures,” you have to work against the fear-mongering and hysteria being broadcast by the opposition. It’s difficult to do under the current circumstances, because the financial crisis has been scary in the extreme, and it’s tough to make frightened people feel secure. We have one advantage, in that the President doesn’t panic easily, but he also has to show that he understands the emotional process of the typical voter. People made fun of the Big Dog’s “I feel your pain” comment, but only when people feel understood can they be reassured, and only then can they hear facts.

  8. Nancy Cadet says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful , well-written and informative essay. It certainly would be difficult to debate someone who simply lies (I think an eptithet Paul Ryan is using in his speeches re the ” other guys” is deny, defeat, and another word beginning with D–talk about projection!)

    Here is a question about another GOP talking point : the fear/threat associated with US debt and deficit. An report in Bloomberg notes the US government & household debt is down as a percentage of GDP. Is that a good sign?

  9. Nancy Cadet says:

    I forgot to mention that when taking the A train home from the beach at Far Rockaway, NYC, my friends and I saw a seagull walk into the open door of the subway car, and then exit at the next station . ( The A line is an elevated, outdoor train in this part of Queens.) a New York bird, indeed.