Bryan Caplan  

Give Me Some Fair Questions

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I think that people are a lot more rational (and better-informed) as consumers than they are as voters. Other people disagree. Pointing to existing surveys isn't a very helpful way to resolve this debate: If people get 70% on a consumer knowledge test, and 55% on a voter knowledge test, one could always object that the questions are not of comparable difficulty.

An alternate strategy is to create a survey comprised of new questions that I and my critics stipulate, ex ante, to be of equal difficulty. So here's my request: In the comments, please give me pairs of comparably difficult questions relevant to consumer and voter decision-making.

P.S. Here's an example of what I'm looking for:

Question for consumers: Out of, say, six spending categories, where does the average consumer spend the most? The second most? The least?

Question for voters: Out of, say, six spending categories, where does the federal government spend the most? The second most? The least?


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COMMENTS (19 to date)
John V writes:

1.What would you do if a retailer you chose to patronize didn't meet your expectations?

2.What would you do if politician you voted didn't meet your expectations?

I posit that in question one, the person would more than likely simply go somewhere else next time...thereby sending a message a non-validation to the retailer. In question two, the person would vote for the same person again thereby sending a message of validation to the politician.

Fabio Rojas writes:

Bryan - for the statistically minded, you don't need an an priori question rating. Item Response Theory is a way of figuring which questions were of same difficulty. Check it out.

RL writes:

Consumer Question: What is the current price of a carton of milk?

Voter Question: What is the current price of the federal government?

I suspect the latter, but not the former, will be off my two orders of magnitude.

Brandon Berg writes:

This pair of questions is unfair to you. In my role as a consumer, I don't need to know how the average consumer spends his money. I'm not average, so that's information that's probably not relevant to my own life, unless I use it to form a business plan. But most people can tell you how they spend their own money, which is what really matters.

Now, your critics will probably argue that it wouldn't be fair to ask people about their own budgets, because that's an easier question than the one about government budgets. But that's the whole point: People are more informed when it comes to things they can control unilaterally, because their decisions in these affairs matter more.

I think you're going to run into this problem with any test. Any test that accurately tests your hypothesis will appear to your critics to be unfair.

John V writes:

Excellent point, Brandon.

"Now, your critics will probably argue that it wouldn't be fair to ask people about their own budgets, because that's an easier question than the one about government budgets. But that's the whole point: People are more informed when it comes to things they can control unilaterally, because their decisions in these affairs matter more."

That should hit close to home with Bryan in light of his book's theme.

;)

John Thacker writes:

For people with kids who are students:

1. How much per student does your school district spend?

2. How much is tuition at your local private school?

Public university version:

1. How much per student support does the state provide at the local public university?

2. How much is tuition?

8 writes:

1. How much is a gallon of gasoline?
2. How much of that is gasoline tax?

1. How much is a plane ticket from New York to Los Angeles?
2. How much of it is taxes and fees?
(I got a surprise in my most recent purchase of a ticket to China, which was 68% above the base price)

1. What is your credit card interest rate?
2. What is your town's property tax rate?

1. How much has your spending has increased/decreased in the past 10 years?
2. How much has your local, state and federal government spending increased/decreased in the past 10 years?

Chuck writes:

Voter: Which is running a surplus, general revenue or the Social Security Trust Fund? (They'll get this wrong, but that's only because the MSM lies about it all the time.)

Consumer: What percent of the price of an ink jet cartridge is the cost of manufacturing it? What percent of price is lock-in premium?

Consumer: What is the marginal quality benefit of consuming nationally branded products?

Consumer: What is the extra cost to you of Microsoft's dominance in consumer software?

Consumer: How does the credit card company calculate the interest you pay each month on your carried balance? Under what conditions can they change your interest rate?

Devin Finbarr writes:

It's not that consumers are more informed about products than citizens about government. It's that consumers can draft off of the well informed. My parents don't find out about useful tech products by researching it themselves, they find out from me. Products flow from the early adopters down to the least informed. In politics though, the will of the majority is opposed on everyone. That's what makes it so problematic.

Snark writes:

Question for Consumer: If you enter into an oral contract with a private party who fails to honor the terms of that contract, do you have legal recourse?

Question for Voter: If you vote for a candidate based on his/her campaign promises who is elected to federal office and who fails to honor those promises, do you have legal recourse?

Question for Consumer: If, over a 40-year period, you had invested in a portfolio of carefully selected mutual funds the same amount you paid in Social Security taxes, under which plan could you expect to receive more benefits?

Question for Voter: Should we reform Social Security by increasing taxes?

If you want to compare apples to apples:

Consumer: On what basis do you hire people to accomplish things for you that don't know how to do (e.g. accountants, plumbers, contractors)?

Voter: On what basis do you vote for your representatives in the federal, state and local governments?

James writes:

Consumer: How much time do you spend deciding how to allocate your share of your family budget? If you were to spend an additional hour each month to think about how best to spend your share of your household budget, what percentage of your spending do you think you might change?

Voter: How much time do you spend deciding how to allocate your share of the federal budget? If you were to spend an additional hour each month to think about how best to spend your share of the federal budget, what percentage of your spending do you think you might change?

Consumer: Which automotive company offers the bundle of features you consider most important in a car?

Voter: Which police department offers the bundle of features you consider most important in a law enforcement program?

Customer: Which actions will your credit card company take to protect you in the event of online fraud committed by hackers in Eastern Europe?

Voter: Which actions will your state government take to protect you in the event of online fraud committed by hackers in Eastern Europe?

Customer: When was the last time the company that made your computer's operating system killed someone that they suspected was selling products that they want to keep off the market?

Voter: When was the last time the DEA killed someone that they suspected was selling products that they wanted to keep off the market?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Voters: What percentage of federal tax dollars are spent on foreign aid?

Consumers: What percentage of your household income is spent on charity?

Peter St. Onge writes:

How much money did you earn last year? How much will you earn this year? In 5/10/20 years?

How much tax did you pay last year? How much tax will you pay this year? In 5/10/20 years?

or

How much is your 401(k) worth today? How much do you expect it will be worth in 5/10/20 years?

How much of the national debt is yours, in proportion to the % of federal taxes you pay? How much do you expect that figure will be in 5/10/20 years?

ajb writes:

If you owe money on your credit card, is it better to pay the balance down or to invest in a savings account paying 5% per year?

Should a person who can't afford a fixed rate mortgage get an ARM if it makes the payments affordable?

For most American investors, which group made more money over their lifetimes: a) those who bought and held market index funds or b) those who selected active funds that received the highest rating from Morningstar or a financial magazine at the time of investment?

In general, which is a better deal: a) buying towing insurance for your car or b) buying earthquake insurance for your house?

If you play the lottery, can you increase your chances by never playing numbers that have won in the past?

On average, how much should you be spending in used car repairs before it pays to buy a new car of the same model?

Which is likely to have a bigger effect on your budget: moving to a different city or seeing the cost of gasoline rise by $3 a gallon?

ajb writes:

Previous were all for consumers. You're the expert on the voting stuff.

Chuck writes:

You know, when evaluating the fairness of questions to voters, I think you have to consider that often voters see their representative as an agent implementing priorities. They don't see their job as understanding policy, but simply deciding what priorities to pursue.

So, for example, the average voter doesn't see it as his job to know what percent of the budget ought to be spent on defense, or actually is spent on defense, he sees his job is simply to say how important defense spending is relative to other priorities like a clean environment.

fundamentalist writes:

Of course consumers know more about consuming than they know about economic policy. That shouldn't be hard to prove and is highly rational on the part of voters. They consume daily while making economic policy decisions every two to four years. Consuming affects them directly and daily while economic policy affects them indirectly and only after a very long time lag. As a result, consumers don't have the time or the inclination to research economic policy for themselves. They rely on experts. If you want to know how consumers differ on economic policy, ask them where they get their information to help them formulate the economic ideas on which they make voting decisions. Voters won't know much about the details of a debate because they leave those to the people they perceive as experts. But they'll have the same opinion on policy as do the experts.

Andrea Williams writes:

I don't think that there are any questions of equal level of difficulty that you can use to determine if people are as knowledgable about voting as they are about consumers. They are two completely different aspects of life. They are pretty much unrelated so I don't really know why it would matter how the two correlate.

In my opinion, people tend to be more knowledgable as a consumer because they are directly affected by the decisions they they make when purchasing products, whereas when voting, they are only one voice out of millions. They are affected by the decisions that they make as voters, but if the results of the vote do not turn out their way, then they cannot blame themselves.

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