Bryan Caplan  

Competitive Manipulation

PRINT
The Future of Mass Media... Carbon Tax Club?...

Arnold's carved out an intermediate position about who's responsible for bad policies. Yes, the public currently opposes e.g. raising the retirement age. But:


It depends on how the issue is framed. When Al Gore framed it during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 2000, he framed it as forcing a single-mom waitress to keep working after age 65. And most politicians frame it as if people aged 67 today would be forced back to work.

Instead, it might be framed as, "If you are under the age of 50, we will cut your Social Security taxes in exchange for raising the age at which you collect benefits to 70. Our other choice is to wait until you are 65, and then cut your benefits based on what we think we can afford at that time. Deal?"

Perhaps, but let's pursue this a little deeper. Suppose we gave BOTH the most articulate proponent AND the most articulate opponent of raising the retirement age equal time to address the public. They engage in "competitive manipulation": each speaker has an equal chance to frame the issue and change minds. Who wins?

I'd think it's pretty clear that the opponent of Arnold's position would win. A majority would still be with him, and he might even on net increase support for his views. Why? Because he's eloquently telling the public what it wants to believe anyway.

You can blame politicians for manipulating the public. But if the public responded positively to a different style of rhetoric, politicians would supply it. The public gets manipulated the way that it does because in a deep sense it wants to be so manipulated. That's why demagogues hold the reins of power, while Arnold and I are niche bloggers.

I make this point in a chapter in the Ed Younkins' forthcoming Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literacy Companion:

At times, admittedly, Rand seems to accuse intellectuals – the "mystics of spirit" and the "mystics of muscle" - of ideologically seducing the public. Yet the intellectuals' contradictions are too blatant to make this a credible excuse. All it takes to see through their rhetoric is the common sense of a Fred Kinnan: "Save it for Jim Taggart, Doc... I know what I'm talking about. That's because I never went to college." (p.507) If intellectuals brainwash the public, they brainwash it by engraved invitation.

If you're as big of an Ayn Rand geek as me and Alex Tabarrok, you'll get the joke. But either way, you get the point.


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (12 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

I appreciated the joke, but I'm not proud of that fact.

Bill writes:

Bryan,

Don't you have access to a copy of Adobe Acrobat? Do you have a lot of these Word docs floating around? They're so sad, that I'm willing to go all anti-Rand on you and offer to convert them to pdfs for free (as long as you don't have too many).

JohnDewey writes:

"I'd think it's pretty clear that the opponent of Arnold's position would win. A majority would still be with him"

Arnold's deal was offerred to the population under the age of 50, right? My guess is that a large majority under 40 would take it, or even vote to kill social security altogether. Power, though, is with the Boomers and their parents. Younger voters can't win even if they voted 100% - which they certainly don't.

"The public gets manipulated the way that it does because in a deep sense it wants to be so manipulated."

With respect to social security, I don't see how the Boomers and the elderly are being manipulated. I think we realize our children will get less, but also that nothing can be done. We're not about to sacrifice our retirement so they can have more toys than we had.

Many over 50 also realize government will have to shrink in order to keep funding our social security. That's not a big problem for me.

Medicare is different. I doubt voters understand the magnitude of that problem. I think politicians are manipulating them by continuing to ignore it.

Nathan Smith writes:

Brilliant post, Bryan, this is one of your best.

But standard median voter theory has something to offer here. People under 18 have the biggest stake in this fight-- it's their future whose blood the Social Security vampires are sucking-- but they can't vote. This is one reason to lower the voting age to 15 (or heck, as low as 10, as far as I'm concerned). A stronger one is that it would do wonders for reforming the schools. It's no accident that the switch from a state-monopoly to a competitive education system occurs at exactly the age where people become able to vote. If politicians had to please under-18 voters, the days of public high schools would be numbered.

JohnDewey writes:

Nathan Smith: "It's no accident that the switch from a state-monopoly to a competitive education system occurs at exactly the age where people become able to vote."

Are public elementary and high schools that much more a monopoly than college education? Certainly school districts in many urban areas compete with one another.

Below are some statistics on public vs private education, taken from the 1999 Current Population Survey.

(all enrollment figures are millions)

Total elem/high school students: 48.789
Public elem/high school students: 43.902
Percent educated in public schools: 90.0%

Total 2yr/4yr college enrolled: 12.046
Public 2yr/4yr college enrolled: 9.689
Percent educated in public colleges: 80.4%

I agree that more competition would lead to better schools overall. But I don't agree that "the days of public high schools would be numbered". Public colleges have shown they can compete. Why would public high schools be any different?

Nathan Smith writes:

Public colleges are very different from public high schools. Students are typically assigned to public high schools. Where you go depends on where you live. Of course that's not universally true but it's the rule. You don't apply. Public high schools don't advertise, don't try to distinguish themselves in order to attract students. They don't have any financial incentive to attract students, because funds don't follow students. They can't reject students (admittedly it would be hard to arrange it so that they did since K-12 education is an entitlement, but still). In all these senses, "public" colleges are more like private high schools that get voucher funding or grants than they are like the present crop of public high schools.

Public high schools typically have a rule that students can't leave school during the day. I remember school assemblies where teachers blocked the doors so students couldn't leave, and students scrambled to find hidden exits to avoid being bored and wasting their time listening to the administration drone on. This is inconceivable in public colleges. Which is why they're far better-- more effective, more enjoyable-- than public high schools. Basically, public colleges take students' utility into account, public high schools don't. And why? Because the market makes them.

If under-18 kids could vote, the high school education system would rapidly evolve into something like the college education system. They'd be wedge voters. "Open campus at all high schools" would be a political no-brainer. School choice would come next. And so on.

MjrMjr writes:
The public gets manipulated the way that it does because in a deep sense it wants to be so manipulated.

I agree. We don't get the most articulate of anything here in the U.S. Instead we get George W. Bush.

I think that raising the retirement age is inevitable. I also think that one of the reasons this scares people(much more beyond the idea of, well, having to work longer) is that companies prefer to hire younger workers. I think that a message of 'we need to raise the retirement age, and here's what we're going to do to make sure that old people can get jobs' sells a lot better than a message soley about raising the retirement age. I can't think of a public policy solution to this problem but "ageism", or at least the absolutely terrifying idea of it is a very real factor for people in that age group.

Robert writes:

It's no accident that the switch from a state-monopoly to a competitive education system occurs at exactly the age where people become able to vote.

Yes, when the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 back in 1970, the state monopoly in higher education fell apart quickly.

Robert writes:

An interesting question is not just how many are leaving, but who is leaving. Are these out-migrations the kind that will make indigenous North Asian peoples once again the majorities in their thinly populated homelands, and if so, is there any reason for the Kremlin to be nervous?

JohnDewey writes:

Nathan Smith,

I think you're correct that students are assigned to schools within a public school district. But that doesn't mean schools are not competitive. Affluent suburban cities and housing developers constantly advertise the high quality of their schools.

"They don't have any financial incentive to attract students, because funds don't follow students."

Quality school districts do attract development. Even within a single school district, development tends to favor the better schools. I believe that school funds actually do follow students in large metro areas. They do so in the smaller cities as well, but it just takes longer for poor education systems to drive out the population.

"Public high schools typically have a rule that students can't leave school during the day."

And they should. Parents expect the schools to ensure the safety of their kids during school hours.

"If under-18 kids could vote,"

I understand all of your arguments except this one. These are kids you're talking about. They have no business in the voting booth. Their parents are perfectly capable of voting in their best interests.

The Real Bill writes:

I understand all of your arguments except this one. These are kids you're talking about. They have no business in the voting booth. Their parents are perfectly capable of voting in their best interests.

Oh, yeah, and adults do so well...

JohnDewey writes:

Me: "Their parents are perfectly capable of voting in their best interests."

Real Bill: "Oh, yeah, and adults do so well..."

Bill, what is your point? Are you saying that parents are no better voters than their 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds kids would be? I know you cannot believe that.

IMO, U.S. voters - the portion of citizens who actually vote - do an excellent job. (Minnesota voters just had a bad day when Ventura won.) I'm convinced our elected representatives do represent the views of the people who sent them to state and national capitals. And that's really what we want, isn't it?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top