Bryan Caplan  

True Insults and False Compliments

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A petition at the Economist's View accuses ABC of insulting the intelligence of the American people. I'd like to respond by accusing the petition's signatories of complimenting the intelligence of the American people. And at least ABC seems to have truth on its side.

Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps some of the eminent petitioners would like to sponsor a rematch where they ask the questions. 100% substance. No demagoguery allowed. It would be the Lincoln-Douglas debate of the 21st century. And the only people watching would be a few eggheads who know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were.

HT: Alex Tabarrok


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
liberty writes:

I read the whole post thinking you meant the Austrian Business Cycle (which arguably insults the intelligence of investors). Right. ABC.

Anyway, yeah ABC giving people what they want isn't insulting people's intelligence - people obviously want it or ABC would not offer it; they'd lose ratings.

It would never happen. 100% substance would be pure scandal. Trust me, Obama would much rather answer questions about the Weather Underground and his pastor than about substantive social and economic issues. The less people know about what he believes, the better he will do. I think people would watch -- the shock value of such a demonstration would be pull enough. Let alone the endless things the news and talk show hosts would have to talk about.

eric writes:

I wish they would discuss the assumptions behind their view of dynamic scoring in tax rate modifications, ie, how explicitly the address the elasticities of supply and demand in response to tax rate changes. further, I would like to know to what degree they think the incidence of tax rate changes to capital, via corporate profits taxes, dividend taxes, and capital gains rate taxes, differ in the short and long run. They can answer in written essay form, using Google to get references for their empirical assertions, but a strict time limit and no help.


Perhaps the only way to get this to work would be to have literacy tests for voters. Simple stuff, like where's Mexico, solve this quadratic equation in your head (x^2-2x+1=0), does the Fed control monetary or fiscal policy, etc.

God, I would love to see someone ask those kinds of questions just to see the looks on their faces!

Jim writes:

liberty says "people obviously want it or ABC would not offer it" but there is an important difference between the ratings game and real markets.

To illustrate, suppose the american people consists of Al, Ben and Cal. Suppose they face two options in programming, stupid and intelligent. Suppose stupid is worth $1 to Al and intelligent is worth $100. Suppose Ben and Cal value stupid at $2 and intelligent at $1.

Under these assumptions, the american people value intelligent programming at $102 and stupid programing at $5 but a ratings driven network will choose stupid programming anyway.

Our observations about actual programming may tell us about the median viewer but they do not tell us about the average viewer. The difference is important.

liberty writes:

jim, if 1/3 of people value intelligent programming that much, don't you think someone would cash in on that? They would watch the smart channel 100% of the time because they value it so highly.

Grant writes:

Bryan, why all the hostility towards voters?

For democracy to work as advertised, a huge number of people would have to act in ways contrary to their own self-interest. Sure it helps if voters were more intelligent, but thats not the root of the problem. Everything would work better if people were more intelligent. The problem is that the system is flawed, and does not deliver on what is promised. Its not the voters' faults they were given a critical role in a hopeless system.

David R. Henderson writes:

Bryan,
We already have a test. The last half of the debate had amazing substance. Charles Gibson was unusual in keeping after the candidates, especially Obama, on whether they would increase taxes on people making between $75K and $200K a year. And when they talked about capital gains taxes, Gibson pointed out twice, once in the intro to his question and once to call Obama out for evasion, that past cuts in cap gains tax rates had led to increased revenues.
So the test is whether the ratings fell in the second half.
I was stunned when I saw the petition because I wondered whether the petitioners had watched the debate. It was meatier than average.
Best,
David

Jim writes:

Liberty,

It is a simple example with only one channel. There would exist no intelligent programming for the Al to watch 100% or any other amount of time. The example can be made more complicated with many people and many channels but the simple point is the same, ratings do not capture strength of preference.

liberty writes:

jim,
That is only true if you assume a static number of channels, as you are doing. And you are ignoring the way that people express th strength of their preference: length of time spent watching each channel they like.

The fact is that if one third of people had that much greater an interest in the very smart stuff, they would disproportionately watch the smartest stuff available on all available channels (but hardly ever watch the dumb stuff) until some smart entrepreneur picked up on this audience and started a new channel catered to them. (Like, geez I don't know, the Science Channel or something...)

Brandon Berg writes:

Subscription fees are one way to cash in on strong but highly concentrated interest in a certain type of programming.

Zubon writes:

Have you read the Lincoln-Douglas debates? The entertainment/conspiracy theory to policy content ratio may not beat all our modern debates.

Gunnar Wentzek writes:

Hello, just starting reading the blog.

Anywho, why would you watch mainstream TV media in the first place? Come now, I'm only 22 and I know better.

As Sun Tzu said, "Know your enemy as yourself." Can't fix something if you don't know what's wrong. Also, you need data and details. Specific examples work wonders in an argument.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Bryan,

I guess I am confused here. Which "truth" does ABC have on its side? Several here are impressed that Charlie Gibson pushed Obama on capital gains tax cuts and revenues, but the evidence has long been in that such cuts tend to produce revenue increases in their immediate aftermath, but less so later on. That is far from a clearcut case.

And then we had that scintillating question from George Stephanopolous about Iran pursuing nuclear weapons in complete disregard of the NIE report supported by all 18 US intel agencies that they are not doing so. Frankly, I was disappointed that neither Obama nor Hillary had the guts to call him on this incredible piece of misinformation, although it is a piece of misinformation widely believed by the US populace.

BTW, while I would have signed that letter if asked, I think ABC did Obama a favor by giving him a dry run to practice how to deal with the sort of questions asked in the first part of the debate, as it is clear that the November race will feature a major focus on this sort of stuff by supporters of his likely opponent.

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