(Another note on method: I’ve continued to debate, with myself, what form this blog should take. Lately, I’ve started to think that much of it should be devoted to incredibly basic economics, as an introduction to — as cliche as it sounds — ‘the economic way of thinking.’ There are three reasons for that: (1) I don’t have the ability to write at a very high, technical level now, (2) some of the keenest interest in what I’ve been writing recently has come from friends who know very little economics and are full of wonder, and (3) I think I will learn a lot just by revisiting and trying to accessibly articulate the very basic stuff–since this blog is just getting started now may be the time to that. So here goes.)
“Should we defund NPR?”
There are two ways that we can go about thinking about this question. We can think about it rationally. Or we can think about the way almost all of us actually do — using heuristics. What is a heuristic? It’s a sort of cognitive short-cut or rule of thumb. When we have a question that is very complex, abstract, and difficult to answer, we mentally replace it with another, easier question. When someone asks “Should we defund NPR?” our brain hears, “Is NPR good or bad?” And that question then becomes “Are I and my friends NPR-type people, or not-NPR-type people?”
So let me start out answering the heuristic question: I think NPR is not just good but great. I love NPR’s programming. I subscribe to 3 NPR podcasts, read one NPR blog, and tune in whenever I have access to a car. I think it’s terrific.
But I also love my neighborhood Indian restaurant, the cigar shop by Harvard Square, and red socks from J Press. I think they’re all terrific, too. But none of those three deserves public funding; and it would be naked selfishness for me to advocate subsidies for any of them.
So, the obvious point is, there’s a really basic but really important distinction between liking a thing and thinking it’s terrific, and having a good reason to think it should be government-subsidized. (Indeed, usually the way we express our liking for a good is to take money out of our own bank accounts to pay for it.) This is all very obvious when written down in a blog post, but the problem is that most of us do a really poor job internalizing this idea. And this is a big problem, because the way to get the correct answer to any question is to think about it rationally.
So let’s just take a few steps in that direction. “Should we defund NPR?” This question hinges on the question of “what deserves public funding?” Clearly, not all good things. Most good things, like Indian take-out and red socks from J Press, are provided by markets — by businesses eager to satisfy people’s likings at a price that people think is worth it (if you don’t think you’re getting more than you’re paying out for your Indian food, you shouldn’t buy it).
Is NPR different? Yes, of course. But how so? Is it different in a way that means it shouldn’t be simply left to the market? Well, it’s possible that there’s a “market failure” here. The classic example of a market failure is a lighthouse. Everyone enormously benefits from lighthouses — people on ships that don’t get sunk, and regions that therefore benefit from the trade they bring. But it’s hard to get the people who benefit to willingly pay for lighthouses — each ship captain can claim that she knew the waters so well she didn’t really need the lighthouse that night, while no individual townsperson can be directly charged for the more general prosperity the town has gained — because there’s no way to exclude non-payers from its benefits (i.e., it would be impossible to only cast light for pre-subscribed ships). So lighthouses won’t be adequately provided by markets. If a thing has enormous public benefits, but experiences a market failure, then almost everyone agrees that the government should step in to provide it at public expense. A classic market-failure/public good happens when a good is (i) non-excludable (there’s no way to stop people from enjoying its benefits) and (ii) non-rivalrous (my gain from the lighthouse doesn’t detract from yours).
Is NPR a public good? It is easily the most intelligent and informative radio we have in the U.S. But if intelligent and informative radio is valuable why can’t we all — XM radio style — just individually subscribe and pay for this intelligent and informative radio, just like we pay for intelligent and informative books? With the rise of satellite radio, there is no longer a tenable argument that public radio is a classic market-failure — radio is now very much ‘excludable.’ And, indeed, since the average NPR listener is more well-educated and affluent than the general population, (1) shouldn’t she be able to pay for the content she desires? and (2) isn’t public funding for NPR, then, truly regressive, because it uses taxpayer dollars collected from all economic classes to satisfy the tastes of the most well-educated and affluent tier?
Again, maybe. But there’s also another response to that. Let’s make the implausible assumption that it costs NPR $2 per listener to produce its content each month. But suppose that individual prospective listeners are unwilling to pay this fee. Every individual person says that NPR is only worth $1 a month to him. Is this proof that NPR is not “worth it” — i.e. that the costs of producing it outweigh its benefits? Not always. There might be what economists call “externalities.” An externality happens when you are affected by my consumption of a good. When I smoke a cigarette, I’m not just smoking a cigarette — I’m also getting some tar in your lungs, too, which could drive up your medical costs. When I get immunized, I’m not just getting myself immunized — I’m also helping people who aren’t immunized, because I’m decreasing the likelihood of an outbreak that would affect them. Smoking has negative externalities; immunizations have positive externalities. If a good has an externality, its costs to society are different from its costs to you. In other words, if a good has a positive externality, it is worth more to society as a whole than you personally are willing to pay for it — which means, if we all just act individually and selfishly, then we won’t get enough of it.
Does NPR have positive externalities? It could. Maybe intelligent and informed people are more likely to contribute to society’s flourishing, by working and voting and interacting more intelligently. In that sense, maybe I benefit simply by you listening to NPR. In the example above, NPR costs $2 per listener per month, but each person only values it at $1. But suppose that society as a whole would gain benefits equivalent to $3 per month for each new listener because of these externalities. In that, case, it makes sense for the government to fully fund NPR’s costs for a very basic reason: society as a whole can gain $3 of benefits per listener for only $2 of costs per listener; the market won’t provide those $2 of costs per listener; and government is supposed to look out for the interests of society as a whole. If we’re concerned that NPR mostly appeals to more affluent people, and that funding therefore effectively redistributes toward the top, then there’s another easy solution: The government can tax away some of the benefits generated for society as a whole, and use that extra revenue to fund other goods for lower-income people.
There are a lot more questions and complications here, including a lot of second-order effects. Consider the fact that there are no other intelligent radio stations on the airwaves today. Why is this? Ironically, part of the reason may be precisely that we have publicly subsidized NPR — thereby scaring away potential competitors who might’ve liked to compete with it. This competition, theoretically, could have forced NPR to be even better.
But the point is, there are a *lot* of difficult, complex, and abstract questions we have to answer in order to answer the question “Should we defund NPR?” And not one of these question is “Are I and my friends NPR-type people?” Who you are, or how you identify, doesn’t matter — what matters is the correct answers to the questions above. There’s no inconsistency in a pickup-driving, rural-dwelling right-winger supporting NPR because he thinks it contains enough information that could make the nation more prosperous but that markets won’t supply; and there’s absolutely no inconsistency in a square-glasses Cambridge resident supporting defunding because she thinks it will invite challengers to compete for highbrow and ‘progressive’ niche markets. We really shouldn’t be surprised either person.
But we are surprised by both people above. And, indeed, both people are in practice surpassingly rare. And the reason is that, when people think they are thinking about policy, they’re very rarely actually thinking about policy. They’re usually asserting their identities and symbolically defending the status of the groups they identify with. And NPR is held, in the popular imagination, as a symbol, a sort of religious talisman, of urban progressivism. And so, accordingly, more funding for NPR is held in the popular imagination as a kind of elevation of the symbols of this group; its opposite held as the opposite. Questions about public goods, externalities, or potential competitors never enter the popular imagination — until an economist comes on the air, in which case she is assumed simply to be rationalizing her own cultural sentiments toward the talisman.
Do ‘identity politics’ and ‘symbolic politics’ sound like pet peeves? They are. Am I basically saying that most people are stupid? Well, yes and no. Most people are stupid about public policy, because learning about public policy takes a lot of time, and most people have jobs and relationships with real people and — equally importantly — very limited influence over public policy. So it’s just not rational for them to be rational about policy. This is what economists calls “rational irrationality.” People are stupid about policy in the same way that I’m stupid about theoretical chemistry: When my brother talks to me about his research in that field, my thoughts go no further than, “That sounds cool!” I take his word for everything he tells me about chemistry, never really question it, and move on. You could say I use the “kin heuristic” to learn about chemistry. This is — does it sound condescending? well, it’s plainly true — precisely how most people think about policy and how to vote, except they rely on the social groups they identify with rather than just kin.
And so perhaps I should be more sympathetic toward people who are stupid about policy, if I expect my brother and his friends to tolerate my ignorance of chemistry. Maybe. But sympathy doesn’t imply permissiveness.
There are two big differences, as far as I see it, between chemistry and policy. The first, obvious, one, is that we’re all responsible for policy because we live in a democracy. Your policy knowledge has externalities in ways that my chemistry knowledge doesn’t. If you vote for shitty politicians with shitty policies, I’ll get hurt; if I still believe in phlogiston, I’m not sure that’s really a problem. The second is that identity politics are intensely divisive and — call me old-fashioned and sentimental — I’m still committed to the idea that we should be good neighbors to each other. There are people who won’t get lunch with you if you have the wrong political identity, because politics in their mind — whether they are cognizant of it or not — is about in-group and out-group tribal identity. If you support defunding NPR because you want to facilitate competition for the high-brow listenership, many potential friends will assume you support that defunding because you resent urban progressives — because they assume you use the same kinds of heuristics for policy as they do — and will be committed to disliking you as a result. People’s tribal political sensitivities can make life really unnecessarily and unfairly difficult for intellectually idiosyncratic people, those who will make themselves ideological minorities wherever they go. And the only cure to this, it seems to me, is to expect people to be able to converse rationally and dispassionately.