Arnold Kling  

Five Myths of the Rational Voter

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Rick Shenkman writes,


by most measures, voters today possess the same level of political knowledge as their parents and grandparents, and in some categories, they score lower. In the 1950s, only 10 percent of voters were incapable of citing any ways in which the two major parties differed, according to Thomas E. Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who leads the Pew-backed Vanishing Voter Project. By the 1970s, that number had jumped to nearly 30 percent.

Here's what makes these numbers deplorable -- and, in fact, almost incomprehensible: Education levels are far higher today than they were half a century ago, when social scientists first began surveying voter knowledge about politics. (In 1940, six in ten Americans hadn't made it past the eighth grade.)

I believe it is the case that in cross-sections, education is correlated with civic knowledge. Evidently, one does not see that correlation over time. Quite a puzzle, unless one thinks of educational attainment as reflecting aptitude, not acquisition of knowledge.

The piece, which uses the "five myths" format to trash the voting public, appears in the Washington Post.

Somehow, I think that it is apropos to point to Half Sigma's armchair IQ test of Sarah Palin.


Both of Sarah’s parents are school teachers, the quintessential middle class jobs, but Sarah has clearly sunk to prole. Her husband hasn’t graduated from college, Track is not going to college, and Bristol gives no indication of being college-bound. Track getting arrested, and Bristol getting pregnant at 17 are markers of being prole rather than middle class.

Sinking in class below one’s parents tends to indicate having a lower IQ than one’s parents, which is why I have a hard time believing that Sarah’s IQ is any higher than 110.

I admit that the journalism degree from Idaho is not a credential that appeals to me. On the other hand, I don't care for Harvard Law types. I can't think of anyone from Cal Tech or MIT in public life, at least in this country.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (19 to date)
KipEsquire writes:
I admit that the journalism degree from Idaho is not a credential that appeals to me.
You are aware that Palin actually attended five different colleges over six years before finally earning that journalism degree, yes? (Also, the campaign has not released her transcripts.)
Paul Sand writes:

John E. Sununu, current NH senator, is an MIT graduate in Mechanical Engineering. Unfortunately, he sullied that promising academic start with an MBA from Harvard.

His dad, John H., also did the ME thing at MIT.

Steve Roth writes:

A propos of this, I was just re-reading MotRV last night (as part of an independent study I'm leading for my high-school junior daughter and a fellow student of hers.)

These two sentences stood out:

Perhaps voters have holistic insight that defies measurement. But this is a desperate route for a defender of democracy to take.

Replace "voters" with "vp candidates"?

Bob Knaus writes:

So, in the 1970s, 3 times as many voters could not see any difference between the two major parties as in the 1950s? And this is cited as a LOSS of political knowledge?

Seems like a GAIN to me.

dWj writes:

The secretary of energy, Sam Bodman, was a professor at MIT in the sixties; I'm not sure how much of a "public" figure he is. (He went from engineering professor to small businessman applying engineering to practical problems. As you say, not the typical background of a government figure.)

Dain writes:

So, in the 1970s, 3 times as many voters could not see any difference between the two major parties as in the 1950s? And this is cited as a LOSS of political knowledge?

Seems like a GAIN to me.

I thought this too once, but then I had to admit that people can't tell the difference not because they are so knowledgeable that they realize the parties differ little, but because they aren't knowledgeable, period.

The most informed, radical ideologues can at least tell you what the supposed difference is, via their understanding of the mainstream "debate" which they deplore for its superficiality.

greenish writes:

Half Sigma's argument seems rather to suggest that Palin has a high IQ. The tendency is regression towards the mean, so, (assuming this were the only effect) if Palin's child has a significantly lower IQ than Palin, then Palin's IQ must be much higher than average to produce that difference.

greenish writes:

My mistake, the argument is totally different from what I thought it was.

Stella Baskomb writes:

I think I'm getting confused. Maybe it's because I'm not smart enough to know what I like.

Anyway, I thought the LAST presidential election was about which candidate was smartest. I thought that was settled when we learned that Dubya's Yale grades were better than Kerry's.

Now THIS election is going to be about who is smartest, too?

A simple IQ test would be much cheaper than all this stuff about voting. So maybe we're better off if the smart people in charge could eliminate parties, primaries, conventions, elections, and so forth, and just appoint the smartest persons as President and Vice President. If the smart people in charge are smart enough, they can figure out a way to side-step the Constitution and get this done, smartly.

Sharper writes:
In 1940, six in ten Americans hadn't made it past the eighth grade.
Is it possible that an eighth grade education in the 40's is a higher educational achievement on an absolute amount of knowledge scale (so throwing out progress in total knowledge since that time and just measuring how much is known) than a 12th grade education is currently?

Or maybe just that knowledge of politics was more popular in the 40's without as many other leisure activities available?

I can think of a few plausible possibilities to explain the cited statistics.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Track getting arrested, and Bristol getting pregnant at 17 are markers of being prole rather than middle class.

This is sickening. It's the kind of "thought" that can only occur to someone who sits in his Mom's basement and blogs on the Internet all day and night. Apparently, smart teenagers never raise hell, don't enjoy sex, and would never keep a child, crippled or otherwise. They proceed into adulthood and never have problems or face any kind of adversity. Obviously, they never take risk either, and every positive outcome is handed to them because of their superior breeding.

As someone who does have an IQ that tests slightly higher than 110, the kind of argument that Half Sigma lays out is the kind of argument gives Palin emotional appeal to me. Palin does not fit any of their documented prototypes. She could be a perfect person to mix things up.

Milky Way writes:

Maybe you want to enumerate how many successful figures in the private sectors do not possess a degree from Harvard?

IQ and degree are used only when we do not have much else. Say I am an employer, I would compare IQ and degree if I'm hiring college graduates. But if I'm hiring a 40yr old, then there should be much more that interest me.

For Palin, she's not the one that says her college degree matters. That's a good sign for a 40yr old. Otherwise, I would feel really sorry.

(1) Given that most of the intellectuals with graduate degrees that I know are also socialists who favor policies that have been discredited by years of disappointing returns, I don't know if educational attainment worries me as much as most. [context to judge this assertion: I live in Chicago]

(2) Bush, Gore, Kerry, and Biden were all mediocre college and graduate students, yet they somehow ended up getting into these really prestigious schools and consistently advancing in life. We know how and why this happened. So why do we feel the need to degrade someone who made it pretty far without any of these mostly illusory educational bells and whistles? I have a feeling most wouldn't degrade the successful businessman who made millions after dropping out of high school.

dearieme writes:

Gosh, so many of you Americans are snobs.

Palin is clearly smarter than Half Sigma.

As Tom Sowell has pointed out, lower status professions usually have higher standards for demonstrating you 'know' something. He gives the example of the farm boy, who, in order to say he 'knows' how to milk a cow, has to go out to the barn with an empty pail and return with one filled with milk.

Contrast that with a criminologist. Does he have to go out into a community and lower the crime rate? Or, can he get by with writing a paper on how he thinks crime is caused?

Palin has 'buck stops here' accomplishments that are pretty impressive at a young age.

Too bad she won't be debating somebody who graduated above the bottom 10% of his law school class.

RobbL writes:

Arnold,
Aren't we ready for 5 myths of the rational economist?

Dan Weber writes:

John Deutch, former CIA director, got a PhD in Chemistry from MIT in 1966.

The fact that I can knew this (along with Sununu) probably emphasizes the point of just how few MIT graduates go into politics.

Kim writes:

I feel that the reason so few people can state the difference between the parties is that there is so much propoganda that it's hard to tell (firmly) what the candidtates stances are on the "issues". How many commericals do you see daily that use a lot of either feel good terms about the candidate it supports or inflammatory comments about the candidate it opposes with no real facts? With all of the commercials and biased reporting by the media, it's easy to feel like the candidates (ALL of them) are talking out of both sides of their mouth.

A harvard JD seems to me like it would be part of a good CV for someone applying to be chief executive of a nation's laws. A quant heavy Ph.D. from MIT or Caltech would also be favorable, because all the world and decision making seems to be turning into a quant-heavy endeavor. Israel is notable for its history of physics/math PhD's (at least a couple from MIT) becoming leading political leaders. Outside of Israel it seems to be a quirky phenomenon in other nations.

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