Policy Rationality vs. Cultural Identity Heuristics

(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.


5 thoughts on “Policy Rationality vs. Cultural Identity Heuristics

  1. Suppose that on the whole, my policy preferences match up better with the Republican party than with the Democratic party. Yet I can have an influence on Republican policy choices and make the party match my preferences even more closely as long as I don’t kill my credibility within the party through ill-advised speech-acts. So suppose I am in favor of publicly-funded radio. If I say, “don’t defund NPR” what my fellow Republicans hear is “I am a latte-drinking, Volvo-driving liberal, please disregard everything I say from here on out.”

    That is, deviating from the party line on a cultural touchstone issue is costly. It’s only rational to do so if that issue is a high enough priority for you (and/or you sufficiently agree with the party line on every other issue) that you’re willing to damage your ability to influence the party line on other issues in the hope of influencing the party line on this particular issue.

    So if I’m now a Democrat who wants to defund NPR but also wants a say in how Democratic foreign policy is conducted, it’s only rational for me to advocate for the former if I care about it enough to forfeit my influence over the latter. Otherwise, when I say, “Defund NPR,” what people will hear is “I read Ayn Rand and post about Ron Paul on the Internets.”

    You can say that this is only an argument for rational political tribalism if others are politically tribal, but then, they are.

  2. You’ve stopped short of what I think you think is the rational conclusion to your post on “rational irrationality”– that is, if you don’t understand policy, don’t vote.

    And I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I’m inclined to agree with you– someone who doesn’t understand policy but wants to vote for the best candidate for the nation probably isn’t equipped to do so. Maybe he should relinquish his vote

    Maybe. But maybe, selfishly, he has other interests. Maybe one candidate’s professed opinions align with his moral compass. He doesn’t care about the policy’s effects because to him, it is Good, with a capital G. How do you tell him that your idea of morality– this best utilitarian good to the nation– is better than his conception of the Good?

    Just an interesting question, or so I thought.

    • The question is, what do I say in response to somebody who says, “I admit that I don’t understand policy, but this candidate’s professed opinions align with my moral compass — I don’t care about this policy’s effects, because it is Good with a capital G”?

      My reply is that this claim is completely analytically unsound and intellectually irresponsible. This whole statement is actually just a barely more sophisticated version of “I feel that this is good.” Well, okay. I know lots of little children who feel that it would be good policy for the government to give everyone a silo of candy for free. And this is why children don’t vote, and this is also why children should be educated and not empowered. Is it a bit mean to compare adult voters’ desires for various programs/tax cuts to children’s desire for candy? Yes. But the point is not to compare the desire per se. The point is that it just doesn’t make sense to assume a heroic posture, let your eyes well up with tears, and make declarations about your moral compass. Our moral compass tells us what counts as a worthy goal, or a good life for a human being — but intelligent analysis is what tells us what policies actually contribute toward that end.

      More fundamentally, you’ve hit upon the difference between ‘teleological’ and ‘deontological’ goods. While I’m not a pure teleological utilitarian (i.e., there are surely things that are intrinsically good even though they don’t have ‘good consequences’ like, e.g., honoring a passed grandmother or appreciating good art), it just doesn’t make any sense to not take account of consequences in policy at all. And when people say, “I don’t care about the consequences — we must do it because it is Good with a capital G,” I find that those people usually haven’t actually thought about what they are saying.

      Consider three common examples: (1) Libertarians often say, “I’m not just against public welfare on consequentialist grounds. I think it’s always intrinsically immoral to take from some and give to others.” But the logical extension of this view is that they would hypothetically prefer a world in which 99% of the population starved while 1% of the population made a pittance, rather than once in which even very low levels of taxation and public investment made everyone wildly prosperous. And I take their responses to this thought experiment to mean that they don’t really mean what they think they mean. (2) When I try to explain the economic case against the minimum wage to people, they’ll say, “I don’t care about the economics of the issue. I care about the morality — every person deserves a living wage.” But that statement is actually just incoherent — the whole bottom line of the economic analysis of the minimum wage is that it *does not boost wages* and does increase unemployment and detract from public revenues that could be used to help the poor, so we should get rid of the minimum wage *precisely in order to guarantee people a living wage.* This is a typical example of people believing that they have refuted an economic argument with a moral posture when, in fact, they have just been to lazy to actually understand the bearing the economic argument has on their moral position. (3) I myself believe that some things are worth pursuing even if they don’t have good ‘consequences,’ including a liberal arts education, which I believe broadens the mind. But even so, I need to think about consequences so I know how to trade off the value of expanding liberal arts education with other goals I have. If — for another thought experiment — policy analysis told me that we had gotten to the point where giving a liberal arts education to each extra group of 20 students would eventually result in the death of 1 innocent child from inadequate health care or the collapse of the American empire, or whatever, I would surely say, “We’ve gone far enough!” Even when I value non-economic goods, I still need social-scientific knowledge and rational thinking to tell me how to trade them off with other important goals.

      So, what I’m saying is, (1) I think everyone actually does care about consequences, (2) anyone who doesn’t is lying, confused, or a sociopath — whatever the case, their position shouldn’t be taken seriously, and (3) insofar as we do care about consequences and achieving particular goals, we need to think rationally and social scientifically — because social science is, by definition, the rational study of how to connect social means to social ends.

      • You still haven’t answered my question. Maybe I should rephrase it: what should people do? Does everyone need to study policy? Or are you saying most people shouldn’t vote?

      • Actually, scratch that. We are tilting at windmills, as you said. Voting doesn’t matter. A candidate has a number of positions, and none of them will ever align with what one takes to be the full set of “rational” positions. it’s only in rare instances when we vote on policy measures that this will ever really matter.

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