Russ Roberts

Cass Sunstein on #Republic

EconTalk Episode with Cass Sunstein
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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#republic.gif Author and legal scholar Cass Sunstein of Harvard University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his latest book, #Republic. Sunstein argues that the internet has encouraged people to frequent informational echo chambers where their views are reinforced and rarely challenged. In addition, there is a loss of public space where people might have to encounter dissonant ideas or causes they might wish to champion. Sunstein considers this a threat to democracy and discusses a variety of ways the situation might improve.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: April 20, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Is #Republic indeed your latest book?

Cass Sunstein: I think so. There's something else in the pipeline, but this qualifies as the latest.

Russ Roberts: Okay. Your book is about--a lot of things--it's about the role of citizens, it's about the role of the Internet and cyberspace. But you focus on the dangers of living in an echo chamber surrounded by views and ideas that we already accept. And when we become blind to a world of wider information, perspectives, that's dangerous. And you write: "My largest plea here, in fact, is for an architecture of serendipity--for the sake of individual lives, group behavior, innovation, and democracy itself. To the extent that social media allow us to create our very own feeds, and essentially live in them, they create serious problems." So, let's start with what you are worried about, particularly for democracy.

Cass Sunstein: Okay. So, if you have people who live in cozy, comfortable information cocoons in which they hear, say, that Senator Sanders is basically right on everything, and anyone who disagrees with him is part of a rigged system; in which they hear that Friedrich Hayek--who actually is one of my heroes--but if they hear that Friedrich Hayek was correct on everything, and that's all you need to know on earth, then you have the Hayekians and the Sanders-types who will be unable to understand one another. That, their capacity to enlarge their own horizons is radically diminished, because of the limited set of people with whom they are interacting. And that is very bad for democracy, because as great as Hayek was, he wasn't right on everything; and Sanders has some good ideas but he has some ideas that are not so good. And it's good to be able to see what's wrong with one's own views, either in order to change them or even if on reflection some version of them survives, to see why reasonable people who are also members of the human race think your are quite wrong.

Russ Roberts: Well, one response to that is--sort of a two-pronged response--is: It's always been something like that. We tend to like things that confirm our views. And the second prong is: Is there really anything that can be done about that? I mean, most of us are not professors in law schools questing deeply for the truth, like you are--giving you the benefit of the doubt, there. We're all just flawed. We tend not to be deeply curious about public affairs, because we don't influence them very much. So we have all these biases; and we now reinforce them more intensely. Is that anything new? Is it that alarming?

Cass Sunstein: Well, if we have a problem of persistent poverty, or tens of thousands of people dying on the highways or [?] cancer deaths from smoking, it would be, I think, an inadequate response to those concerned about those things to say, 'None of those is new. Deaths on the highways are as old as automobiles.' And, 'People have been smoking cigarettes for a long, long time.' So, there are some respects in which what we're observing now is new: that is the extreme ease with which one can find a pretty big and comfortable information cocoon. That's a technological novelty. But, the concern about the echo chamber effect is independent in its pervasiveness in human history. The second point about the flawed nature of humanity: I completely agree with that--

Russ Roberts: Alas.

Cass Sunstein: And it's kind of a good thing that people have interests other than politics. So, you want to focus on your family or your job or literature or poems, your reading, and not think about what's happening in D.C. or your local statehouse, that's fantastic. That's part of freedom. But, curiosity is something that distinguishes the human species, and we can have a kind of architecture which promotes and satisfies curiosity, or an architecture that promotes and satisfies the desire to flock together. And the stakes are super-high, both for what individual lives are like and for what our society ends up being. And the flawed nature of humanity is compatible with an architecture that promotes humility and mutual understanding, or one that promotes that kind of, 'I'm right and you're wrong.' And probably it's better to move toward the former.

Russ Roberts: Couldn't agree more with that. I think our disagreement over this conversation is going to be how to get there, and what's acceptable and what isn't.

6:21

Russ Roberts: But before we get to that, I want to lay out more of the ideas. One of the things I found most interesting was your focus on--I forget the wording you used, but thinking about it as public space, or shared space, or--the village green in a small town. The importance of shared experiences especially with respect to information content. [?] why that's important and what's worrisome about what we're experiencing now.

Cass Sunstein: There's an old First Amendment principle that has the name of the Public Forum Doctrine, which is not-widely understood as part of our free-speech tradition. It's really central. The idea is, in addition to saying the government can't censor speech of which it disapproves, it has to maintain spaces open for expressive activity. Parks and streets; and this is a historically-based idea, that streets and parks have been open for expressive activity. Supreme Court has actually said that's part of what free speech tradition requires. And that's important because it gives us an opportunity, if we want to use the streets, to have access to people with whom we have a beef--so, we can protest. It also gives us a sense of visibility into the concerns of people who are unhappy about how things are going. So if there's a protest about, you know, government regulation or about the police or about taxes, so long as the streets and parks are open, it's not easy for each of us to wall ourselves off from that--so we can see the concerns of our fellow citizens. And also, as you say, there's a shared space in which we live together, in at least some kind of modest ways. And the nation needs something like that. And a city needs something like that. And I use 'needs' in a relatively loose sense--not in the sense of needs like you need drinking water. [?] food and drink--you need those in a very strong sense. Needs in a sense to be what they should be. So, if you have a nation where people are segregated and have different sources of information, that share holidays or a shared sense of culture, then the capacity to solve problems, to work constructively together, to feel sympathetic engagement with people who are, let's say, in a different state or have a different occupational trajectory, is compromised. So, people like it when they have shared experiences; and also, shared experiences tend to be a kind of social glue. So, I've recently moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where the American Revolution started, and you can't avoid, once you are in Concord, just being filled, almost like by food, with the majesty of the American tradition and the Revolution. And that is a great thing for the citizens of Concord, who are all unified by that. But it's not just Concord. In a way, it's the United States of America that is unified by that: there's a shared understanding, not everyone but enough, of where the United States came from. The kind of viral nature of Hamilton, the musical is both a fortifier of the shared experience and also a testimony to the craving for it: that the unlikely musical, rap musical about Alexander Hamilton, one reason why it's gone so spectacularly [?] popular is that people want to share something. And this has the serendipitous feature that they are sharing something that is actually about their heritage, as well as about the musical of the year.

Russ Roberts: Well, I'm a big fan of Hamilton; and we have an upcoming episode at least scheduled on it with an interesting guest; I hope that happens. Of course, Hamilton is not historically accurate in any fundamental sense. Maybe in some fundamental sense it is--in the most "fundamental" sense. But not literally accurate. And it's created a certain mythology about the founding--and about Hamilton--which has plusses and minuses. It's not just designed to entertain; it also is designed to educate. And of course the challenge of shared experiences is that they may sometimes be wrong. We may grow up with a myth about how America treated minorities to finally only discover that it maybe wasn't as good as we thought--or--etc. So obviously there are tradeoffs there, right?

Cass Sunstein: Okay. So, I think what we're focusing now on is not only the importance of unplanned, unanticipated encounters--which is kind of the antonym of the echo chamber--but also the importance of shared experiences. So, it can be--you know, the Super Bowl. Or it might be July 4th. Or it could be Star Wars. And all three of those things are great, in my view--differently great. July 4th probably the best, love Star Wars though I do. One feature that is important for all of them is that they create a commonality among people who are really different. And that can be great in the sense that people find it very, very enjoyable or moving. And you can see that with respect to all of these things--sports events. But it's also good in the sense that it creates a glue--probably July 4th more than a sports event. But it creates one where there's--I want to try to be concrete rather than sappy here--but something like mutual recognition, where people will see each other as common types. So, I'll just tell a little story. Not very long ago, a couple of months, I was hit by a car in Concord, Massachusetts. Could have been killed. And I read the police report--

Russ Roberts: Sorry--

Cass Sunstein: I'm completely fine. I got lucky. But I read the police report right now; and the number of 911 calls that my getting hit produced to the police was really high. Now, it's not a lot of fun to dial 911. People are busy. But, as the police report indicated, [?] were saying, 'There's someone hurt there. Let's get help.' And this was--a stranger to every single one. And what I'm describing now is, in really small ways, we're people aren't necessarily hit by cars, but they need a little help; and if you see them as fellow citizens and the things we're describing are contributors to that possibility, like when the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl, which is--

Russ Roberts: frequent--

Cass Sunstein: all the time. I hope. 'Frequent' is the right word. We could reconstruct history and say kind of all the time. But then, New England is--[?] is all one. Red Sox Nation, for the Red Sox. And that is something that in this case government didn't create. It's private. It's spurred by people's desire for this. And what emerging is that not only is it fun, in the case of sports, but it also creates something which binds, in a way that plays a role in the fact that we see each other not as, you know, Martians, but as kind of in some very extended sense, family members.

Russ Roberts: I want to go back to the--I like that idea myself, up to a point. [?], as I'm sure you know, can be harnessed to be destructive and dangerous. We all understand that also.

Cass Sunstein: Well, you mean the New York Giants, when they--

Russ Roberts: Exactly--

Cass Sunstein: threatened the Patriots [?]

Russ Roberts: Exactly. I was thinking more--

Cass Sunstein: So, we could think of them as destructive and dangerous; after 9/11 there wasn't a New Englander whose heart wasn't with New York.

Russ Roberts: That's true. For about a week, maybe a day, maybe an hour.

Cass Sunstein: It was longer.

Russ Roberts: But that's true. But I'm thinking more about the ability of Fascism and other movements to harness people's desire to be part of a group. There are many glorious, transcendent things about that; and some not-so-glorious, transcendent things about it.

Cass Sunstein: Yeah. So, all I want to say, consistent with your question, is that shared experiences are both--[?] people like; and they have a wide range of unintended good consequences. So, whether shared experience turns into Fascism, that would depend on all sorts of stuff independent of the shared experience itself.

Russ Roberts: Absolutely.

15:41

Russ Roberts: But I want to go back to your public forum point, because I found that very provocative. And, it becomes stronger when we are, as you point out and others have observed--we are less likely to get outside, physically. So, if there is a protest, we are less likely to see it. The public forums we inhabit are increasingly virtual. People lamented, I think maybe it was 10 or 15 years ago, that public spaces were diminishing, and the village green was being replaced by the mall, the shopping mall. Now, people are lamenting it's being replaced by Twitter and Facebook and other forms of social media. And it raises the question of--and you deal with this some in the book but not extensively--that these are private entities--Twitter and Facebook, for example. And yet they are our public fora. They are where we go to get our news; they are where we go to get different opinions. And of course, to some extent those are opinions that only agree with our own--the echo chamber problem. But they are the place where, if you want to get other people's attention, that's where you go. It's where you market your book; it's where you market your idea; it's where you market your political campaign. And so, it's an interesting question--for me, as a very hard-core First Amendment person and private property person, whether those traditional bulwarks against government intervention, and in certain areas, should be changed in this modern setting. I don't think you come down particularly strongly on that in the book; but I'd like you to talk about it.

Cass Sunstein: It's a great point, and I'm smiling because when I left government I wrote a book called Simpler, which was published by a non-university press, let's say, a non-academic press; and their instruction to me was, 'Get on Twitter and Facebook.' And I thought, 'How do I do that?' Literally. And just consistent with what you say, that that's how you reach a general audience.

Russ Roberts: Maybe YouTube. There are a few other places. But they are all similar in that for some of us it's very unnatural. And they are all private--which is the more interesting challenge.

Cass Sunstein: Yeah. So, Justice Kennedy has been the most articulate, I think, on the Supreme Court about this. I think a while ago he was talking about airport areas and malls and suggested there the functional equivalent of public fora now, even though they are frequently privately owned, typically privately owned. I guess I think with respect to social media the privateness is decisive, as against government intervention of the sort that we're now discussing. So, the notion that your Facebook page should be treated as, say, a public forum such that you or Facebook are going to be subject to government mandates, that would intrude too deeply on the people's justified capacity to manage their own property as they see fit. So, I wouldn't want government to be saying, you know, some social media platform is now a public forum. The Supreme Court cautions about extending the idea behind streets and parks is correct. Though, something is lost with that caution. Still, what would a public forum look like, even, if we said that Twitter was a public forum? Would a Twitter feed be open to anyone who wanted to throw stuff in your face? Would you lack control to say, 'I don't want to see a protest about x in my Twitter feed today?' Then Twitter would become like a public utility; and that's not clear on what accounting[?] costs and benefits that would have--benefits that justify costs.

19:48

Russ Roberts: You know, I agree with you, but it's an interesting question of how--and this is really a big explicit and implicit part of your book--how you get people to care about things they might not otherwise care about. I'm going to put that in the broadest sense. It seems to me it goes way beyond politics: It includes art; it includes music; it includes literature, sculpture, ideology, philosophy, etc. And right now, it's ironic: It's very private, it's very walled-off; it's very hard to force people to see they don't want to see. And yet, we live in perhaps the greatest time in human history. I don't think 'perhaps'--we live in the greatest time in human history for finding out about stuff. And so, it seems strange to be upset about it. And I think you deal with that in the book. Why don't you talk about that, actually--the sort of, this strange world that it's a paradox: there's more information and more diversity in my Twitter feed than I had in any time in my life; and yet, it's a little bit dangerous in that I worry about whether I've walled myself off.

Cass Sunstein: Right. So, to do a book saying, 'Wow, Twitter, Facebook--this is fantastic'--that would be a pretty boring book. It's more interesting, I think, to explore downsides with things that are generally great, and I recognize as such it's really interesting to explore upsides with things that are socially disapproved and have some fantastic, incidental good consequences. So, the problem with Twitter for many users is that they end up seeing mirror images, really, of their own incipient or developed convictions. And that breeds confidence; and it breeds extremism. So, just as an example from these months, we've seen on college campuses some actual shutting down of conservative speakers; and there are a lot of things to say about that. And it's deplorable. But I think more interesting than the fact that it's deplorable is: How did that actually happen? The hypothesis, pretty smart people are saying, 'We're not going to allow someone like Charles Murray, who has got a lot of interesting thoughts, to speak here at Middlebury College'--how could people think that?

Russ Roberts: And feel good about it? It's one thing they could think it; it's another thing to feel proud of it. We all think things about people we don't agree with; and we understand that. It's: How do you be proud of the fact that you want to shut him down?

Cass Sunstein: Right. And what we're discussing now is a causal factor, which is: if you get like-minded people together, they typically end up in a more extreme point in line with their pre-deliberation tendency. That's kind of a song from social science. And the mechanisms are pretty clear. The most simple is if you are talking to people who think like you do, then you are going to hear a lot of arguments supporting your thought. You're not going to hear a lot of arguments the other way. And after you are done talking, whoa: The arguments that supported your thought are even stronger and the arguments the other way are even less numerous and less plausible than you thought. Then you get more extreme. So you build up--and I think this has happened with respect to silencing of conservatives--you build up confidence, unity, and extremism. Among people who were exposed to a broader information base, they never would have gotten there. And what we're observing on Twitter and Facebook is hardly for most users what we're now talking about. But for many users, it's exactly that, where they see on their Twitter feed something about immigration or climate change or the Affordable Care Act; and you can take it, Left- or Right-wing versions--both work. And they are just exposed to a little group of deliberating types who are pushing one view, as a result of which you are going to move--whoosh--in the direction that you were inclined but more extreme. And we have data on that with respect to people deliberating about climate change and affirmative action: both on the Left and the Right they end up more extreme. And we have data on that--actually with respect to the voting behavior of Federal judges, where on three-judge panels a Democratic appointee sitting with two Democratic appointees shows much more liberal voting patterns than a Democratic appointee sitting with one Democratic appointee and one Republican appointee. Now, what makes that, I think, startling is: Two Democratic appointees, they've got the votes. Why should they show more liberal voting patterns when they're with three Dems than when they are two Dems and a Republican? The reason is information: That in the echo chamber, so to speak, the judicial echo chamber, more extremism is not a product of being a bad person or anything. It's a product of what informational inputs you get. And Facebook in 2016 wrote an account of its core values which was very intelligent and also charming, which talked about, 'You know, there's thousands of things out there. How are you going to get what you want? We're going to help you. Our core values are: We're going to provide what you want; and it's subjective and personal and unique.' I think that's an exact quote. And the idea that that's what your Facebook newsfeed is going to look like--Facebook's very smart author was not self-conscious that that's not good if each person is getting a newsfeed that is subjective, personal, and unique, because then you create a lot of echo chambers.

25:41

Russ Roberts: So, I want to add something to it. I notice in your book, and I think it's not widely talked about: I think the echo chamber problem is in many ways worse than you suggest. I'm going to come back and defend it in a second. But it's worse in the following way: I don't think it's just the information problem, that you're not exposed to ideas that are challenging to you or that fully capture the spectrum of thought on a particular issue. I think people get a lot of pleasure from being around people who think like they do. And, it's fun, to feel smug and self-confident--and over-confident--and superior. And so I think there's a huge--I don't see it as rationally as you've described it. I know that's not the only way you necessarily look at it; but I think that's the standard way it's described: the echo chamber, you don't hear the facts. I think the real problem is: You can revel in the fact that you are better than other people because you know that blank, that whatever it is, is true and those other people are idiots--they don't know. And I think the thrill that people get, to me the most unhealthy part of Twitter--I talked about it; I don't want to beat it too excessively here--but the unhealthy part is the thrill people get from being a troll or being snarky or being uncivil. And I fight against it personally, myself. And I try to educate my children about it, who are all teenagers or early 20s, to get them to think about the fact that they are subject to this phenomenon of the echo chamber, both as an information problem but also as a psychological disability, really.

Cass Sunstein: Right. You are clearly right. And you know, I was working on Behavioral Economics and behavioral science in the early-ish days--not the earliest, but the early-ish days, when the people who were doing that work, before it got mainstream were talking to one another a lot. And you could tell there was a delight in thinking, 'You know, there's stuff we know that those neo-classical people missed.' And it was, for participants, just what you say, fun to think 'We've got something that is unique to us.' And on the political side, surely you're right. So, one thought is that there is a lot of diversity out there with respect to that. So, a lot of people [?] they're in an echo chamber or a group of people are saying, you know, 'Our political view is completely correct and everyone else is full of nonsense,' that that gets a little old after a while. And when it gets old depends on personality and, you know, context. So, there are some people who can't stand it for more than 5 minutes: they are contrarians by nature. And there are other people who can stand it after a year, they think want to make [?] here. And what sort of person you are--a person who loves the feeling, we're in the club of the knowledgeable, or whether you think that that's limiting and dull, the culture you live in as well as your personality is going to matter for that. And so what would be good, probably, is if norms, at least with respect to politics and maybe with respect to a range of things, were pressing people increasingly in the direction of broadening horizons. So, we all know people who are just by nature impatient with things that are consistent with what they already think and they want to see new stuff.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; I was just going to add the point that it's not just a virtual problem. It's also a brick-and-mortar problem. I think most people who would agree--maybe you were not one of them--but I think many people would agree that college campuses and professors tend to be a little bit to the left of center, and sometimes a lot to the left of center. And college students go and hang out with their fellow college students and adopt some of those attitudes. I think they don't adopt all of them. They become skeptical, as you say; they become tired of that echo chamber after a while. But I think it's a norm issue. I think it's a question right now--you know, Jonathan Haidt and others are pushing back against this with--I think it's called the Heterodox Academy--this feeling that there's not a lot of diversity in thought on college campuses. Which is shocking. It's part of the Charles Murray problem you are talking about, this feeling of overconfidence on the part of people that their views are correct. And that in theory colleges are supposed to be the place where you deliberately seek out ideas that make you uncomfortable. And that's somehow not happening at all college campuses the way we would like at least to idealize them.

Cass Sunstein: I'm at a little bit of a comparative disadvantage here because most of my career I spent at the U. of Chicago where the places I knew best were the Law School and the Economics Department, where there's--I think this is part of the greatness of the U. of Chicago--there's a ton of intellectual diversity. So, the great economists who number among the Nobel are on the political Right; and at the Law School, many of the leading lights have been and still are on the political Right. At Harvard, where I am now, at the Law School, which is my essential home, though, I get along with people elsewhere in the University, including people in the Economics Department where one of my co-authors is Ed Glaeser--he's kind of so rigorous and fact-focused that I can't even figure out and have never really tried to figure out where he is politically but I think he's right of center--

Russ Roberts: I would call him something of a libertarian is what I would call him. God bless him. Former EconTalk guest.

Cass Sunstein: So, and these are multiple co-author, my colleagues at Harvard Law School are certainly some of my best people I write with and talk to them--they are not on the Left; I think they are on the Right. So that complicates my ability to answer your question. I gather there's data that's consistent with the premise of the question, and that's a real problem. I would like to think that if you are teaching in a business school and your question is something about entrepreneurship, or if you are teaching Shakespeare in an English Department and your question is what was the historical context in which King Lear was written, it really doesn't matter what your political affiliation is. And I think, while there are prominent exceptions where, you know, entrepreneurship is [?] associated with some bad thing of capitalism, I've never seen that in business school. And there are cases where Shakespeare is read through a political lens. But my understanding is this is an English major but not an expert in English Departments--that Shakespeare is not typically taught, even by people who are left of center, as someone for whom being left of center is relevant. So, what would really disturb me--and I'm sure this does happen--is if in Political Science, or law schools, the treatment of, let's say, the party system or of how to think about the Constitution is pervasively done through a political lens. That would not be good. Or, if it happens, it would be okay if it happened some but in a way that allows a lot of views to flower. But I do think that it's very important to promote, of course, multiple ideas in the university setting. I think professors, including those who are concerned about promoting the plurality by [?] with the university setting are focused a bit too much on the university setting. And one of the lessons of I guess my experience in Washington was: Universities are important, but they are less important, in fact much less important, than the universities think. And to focus on, you know, some issue for which the human consequences are really high is better, on average, than focusing on what should be taught in an English Department.

Russ Roberts: I agree with that.

34:54

Russ Roberts: I want to turn to this question that we're on the edge of, and it's a big part of your book. Interestingly perhaps--I think I agree with you intellectually but I don't agree with the conclusion you draw. You make a distinction between our behavior as consumers and our behavior as citizens. And you suggest that we're all--most of us are screaming, of course--but most of us are pretty comfortable, I think, with the idea of consumer sovereignty, at least up to a point: that people should be free to buy what they want, eat what they want, choose what they want. But you are much less comfortable with the consequences of that in a citizen space. So, one way to phrase that would be: 'Hey, if I don't want my Twitter feed to have anything that disagrees with my viewpoint, that's my business. That's my choice. And that's no different than what kind of car do I like or what kind of ice cream I buy.' And that's an interesting argument. First, push back against that argument--criticize it, because you criticize it vehemently. And then let's talk about what to do about it, if anything.

Cass Sunstein: Okay. So, the idea of consumer sovereignty, as you say, [?] when you go to the grocery store and you get to buy what you want, we must have some identifiable reason to interfere with that: Don't interfere with that. We have roles as citizens, too, where we may support stuff that is different from what we do in our capacity as consumers. So you might think, 'I'm in favor of laws forbidding racial discrimination even though I'm kind of a discriminator.' This happens. Or, you might think, 'I want laws protecting endangered species, though in my capacity as a consumer, I devote no attention to the endangered species problem and I don't want to have to think about that.' Now, one reason that the consumer/citizen disjunction may occur--and Amartya Sen has said and has written nicely about this--is that if you are talking about what kind of laws you support, you can solve a collective action problem if you are lucky that you can't have as consumers. So, for a public good, your own behavior, supermarket, will maybe contribute zero: you are just a loser in a Prisoner's Dilemma. But insofar as you are a citizen, asking for some sort of law, if the law passes it solves the collective action problem. And it may also be the case that there are aspirations you have for your society which you think about when you are thinking about what citizens should support. But when you are a consumer you don't do that very much. And that's fine. And so, the idea is that in your role as citizen you may have commitments that matter to you rarely or not at all at the grocery market.

Russ Roberts: How does that play out, say, in this conversation about what's in my social media feed or--you are suggesting--let me phrase it in a way you don't in the book, for perhaps obvious reasons. Your argument is an externality. So, if I'm a selfish consumer of stuff that just concerns my biases, I'm going to vote badly. I'm going to be less empathetic to my fellow citizens; I'm going to be a poorer citizen in thinking about what issues we face collectively. Is that a fair assessment?

Cass Sunstein: Well, it could go the other way. So, I'm giving a kind of rosy picture of the citizen, though it could be as a citizen you may be rent-seeking and trying to get stuff for your group and you either don't have an interest in that or think you can't succeed in that as a consumer. So it could be that the consumer is kind of better than the citizen, if the citizen is trying to serve selfish interests. Yes, you can be as a citizen concerned about externalities, even if you aren't as a consumer. So, the social media context--here's a way to think of that. And Facebook may actually have some information about this. Who knows? We have aspirations and we have short term behavior. So you may, on Facebook, act in accordance with your short term, what-would-be-fun-to-see now; but it might be that you have aspirations for how you'd be on Facebook that would produce a different pattern of clicks than the clicks that your short term, you know, this-would-be-fun-to-see now reflects. There's a difference social scientists have studied between what people think they should do and what they want to do. So, you may want to have all brownies for lunch but you think you shouldn't; and probably with respect to social media behavior there's a similar disparity. And then the question is what to do about that. And Facebook or any social media provider shouldn't be trying to tank their company. So you want to do it in a way that's consistent with responsibility to shareholders. And you also shouldn't want to play favorites. So, you want to have a high degree of neutrality with respect to things political. But if users, or some percentage of users say, 'No, I'm going to click on the stuff for the reasons you gave, that delight me because it's just like me,' but if I also think there's something kind of not admirable about that, then I don't admire myself: I want to see different stuff. And you might want an Opposing Viewpoints button. And you might click it. And be glad you did, even if the stuff that comes in doesn't cheer you up very much. Or, you might want a Serendipity button, where you can click it and then you get stuff serendipitously, the same way you see if you read the daily newspaper. And that may reflect kind of your citizenship role. Maybe we don't even need the word 'kind of.' May reflect your citizenship role. Because we're talking about the news feed rather than, you know, Amazon.com where you are buying.

41:47

Russ Roberts: So, the libertarian part of me, which is most of me, my thought about that is: Yeah, well we've got all that. First of all, they can offer those buttons if they want. I can tie myself to the mast like Ulysses with the Sirens. There's programs I can put on my computer to limit my time on Twitter and Facebook. I took Twitter off my phone because I found myself not working myself into a state about the snark in my feed, but just spending too much time, 'Is there anything new there?' My serendipity--Twitter for me is serendipity. It's, 'Oh, what's new now?' And I think for a lot of people that's the upside. Of course, there's the positive side of some of this, which you mention in the book, which is: A lot of great social causes have been enhanced by people working themselves up into a state, overcome a free rider problem they might have to be involved politically, to be active. So, to me it's a big complicated mixed bag; and I don't have any reason to think that Nudging--to go back to your previous book with Richard Thaler--who was a guest on EconTalk a long time ago, even longer than you, talking about that book--that we want government doing any of that nudging. If Facebook, YouTube, Twitter wants to offer serendipitous options, that's great--and they do, of course, in many ways; that's part of what they're selling. They do that already. If I want to restrict myself that's up to me. It's hard for me to see any argument for why, other than you on a soapbox, telling me it's good for me to look at a wider range of stuff, why there's any role of the government to be involved.

Cass Sunstein: I'm not sure what a soapbox is. And I certainly haven't ever been on one. So, it's very puzzling what that is. It must have been an old thing you stood on.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, to get more height, to get above the crowd in the village green.

Cass Sunstein: I see. So, the discussion thus far, and the discussion in the book for sure, it's all within a libertarian framework. So, there's no claim that the government should order Twitter or you to do anything. The claim is that there's a market, which creates an architecture, which is reflective, in the case of Facebook and maybe other social media, too, of a particular conception of what the right values are. And you could imagine a Facebook--it might even be today's Facebook--rethinking those values, or a tech provider, and there are a bunch out there that have materialized recently that have zero to do with government, that are interested in doing good and doing well, within a libertarian framework providing people with stuff that creates an architecture that's, let's say, more suitable to expanding your horizons and engaging productively with people who think other than how you think on a particular day. So, on my website--my cellphone--I have no website; well, I guess I have a website but I have no role in it--I have an App called Read Across the Aisle, which is an app which is specifically designed to allow you to monitor, you know, what kind of political veilance[?] is the stuff that you're seeing. And if you see stuff that you are veering Blue or veering Red and it's getting darker, then you are creating a little echo chamber for yourself. And it's a helpful app. And there are a bunch of others where tech people are inspired, you know, by the thought: The United States of America--that's what the country's called--and trying to find ways for people to not flock together. Or, if they are flocking together, [?] that are expansive group. And it's inspiring. And it's fantastic, because it's promoting learning at the kind that at their best the daily newspaper or weekly news magazine provides, where you go on and you see a point of view: You might think, 'I love the minimum wage; it should be really high, maybe $20 an hour.' And then you read something that says, 'If you increase the minimum wage significantly you are going to throw people out of work who are especially vulnerable.' And you read that, and you might re-orient yourself. It can turn a lot of people in a different political direction. Or you might think, 'Immigration seems to be very bad for American employment,' and then you may read something suggesting that's not true--that it has positive or neutral effects and it's good for economic growth. And that can reorient you. Now, I'm just using two examples whose correctness is not necessary for the conclusion. It's just see stuff that's different from what you think. And there's a lot of work being done now at the intersection of technological innovation and democratic practice that's right squarely in the domain that we're discussing. And it involves the Federal government, the state government, local government zero.

47:21

Russ Roberts: Now, I'm all for those private choices. I think perhaps you and I have a different understanding of what the word 'libertarian' means, when you say your book is from a libertarian perspective. Let me read a quote that jumped out at me. You were talking in this section--it's a really interesting point--that preferences are not immutable; they come from somewhere; they are influenced by what we consume, both physically, intellectually, etc. You say,

None of these points means that some abstraction called "government" should feel free to move preferences and beliefs in what it believes to be desirable directions.
That sounds libertarian. Then you go on:
The central question is whether citizens in a democratic system, aware of the points made thus far, might want to make choices that diverge from those that they make in their capacity as private consumers. Sometimes this does appear to be their desire.... The public's effort to counter the adverse effects of consumer choices should not be disparaged as a form of government meddling or unacceptable paternalism, at least if the government is democratic, and reacting to the reflective judgments of the citizenry.
So, what I read you to be saying there is that all that government is, is just our collective choices. And we might choose as a group to stop some practice that we as individuals might enjoy. So, we might decide, say, to ban trans fats or Twitter or something because we think it's bad for us even though we know as individuals we enjoy it. And I don't really see that as libertarian. And I don't understand why I shouldn't disparage that as a form of government meddling. And I think perhaps you and I have a different view of what democracy is, or how it transforms one's individual preference into collective choice.

Cass Sunstein: Okay. There are a couple of things going on--

Russ Roberts: At least. Take your time--

Cass Sunstein: Okay. Okay, good. So, I thought we were discussing responses to the echo chamber question, and responses to the absence of shared experiences question. And I think the words I used were 'within a libertarian framework,' not, 'from a libertarian perspective.'

Russ Roberts: Correct. Sorry about that.

Cass Sunstein: And then, if I was precise, and maybe I wasn't--

Russ Roberts: My fault--

Cass Sunstein: what I meant was that the ideas of Facebook rethinking its newsfeed by providing, let's say, a Serendipity button or an Opposing Viewpoint button, or having an algorithm that's attentive to sort of the things we're discussing, or having the private sector develop things of the sort that have been flowering in the last months--that's all within a libertarian framework. There's no role for the government. So, that's one thing. Then there's another issue--so the book's proposals with respect to the echo chamber effect, I think they're all within a libertarian framework. Now, the sentences you read, could minimally suggest that if there's a collective action problem that citizens seek to solve through government, there isn't a basis for objection. And I think on that view that's correct. And libertarians shouldn't have a problem with that, unless I guess there are anarcho-libertarians who might. And, Ostrom-inspired people who might think you know need this; and that could be true. But it would be really lucky if that were always true. So, the idea would be that it's, you know, a public good, like national security, the easiest example, but clean air and clean water are two others that citizens are trying to combat a Prisoners' Dilemma that they face. I say: Go for it. And consumers may, when they buy automobiles or refrigerators, not take on more of the externality, and then citizens as such informed properly or even intuiting it anyway they go for the suitable corrective tax, let's say, then that's fine. So I'm not sure what you're worried about exactly. The passage--

Russ Roberts: What I'm worried about--public choice, which you write actually somewhat disparagingly about. I worry about the Arrow Impossibility Theorem. I worry about the fact that you painted--

Cass Sunstein: That's a pretty abstract, so--

Russ Roberts: Well, you painted a rosy idea that we as--

Cass Sunstein: So, so, then what are you worried about? And I meant, what concretely, not what theoretically?

Russ Roberts: What am I worried about? I'm worried about special interests hijacking the process. I'm worried about the rights of minorities, I'm worried about--

Cass Sunstein: Yeah, me, too. I'm worried about--

Russ Roberts: the fact that there's no such thing as 'the Public Interest.' It's a phrase that is used often to get people to do things in their own interest--

Cass Sunstein: I think we are getting into theology, and I'd prefer to avoid that. So, the sentences you read are, um, are compatible with--and this is what I actually had in mind, solution to public good problems. And if their concern is that you may have, say, Condorcet's jury theorem or Arrow-type problem with respect to the Clean Air Act, well, I'm not really worried about that.

Russ Roberts: No, neither am I, put it that way.

Cass Sunstein: If the problem is that you are worried that you will have special interests taking over the Clean Air Act, I'm completely worried about that; and I agree with you. So, I disparage public choice theory in the sense that, with respect to the operations of the Executive Branch, my own observation and experience is that it's a tiny, tiny, comparatively, source of problems with respect to exactly the branch decision making--in Congress larger. But I think academics focus too much on it. But 'tiny, tiny' means percentage. It doesn't mean it doesn't matter. And so we need something like a cost-benefit filter to reduce the likelihood that it will have a disastrous impact. So, I meant concretely: I'm trying to think of what concrete practice are you bothered by? If you are bothered by government using, let's say, consumer-overriding--using citizen values to over-ride private property rights--I'm completely with you. So, you want a Takings Clause as a safeguard against that. If you are worried about minority rights, which you said, I agree with that, also. So, I'm trying--I'm struggling to think of the concrete cases where the sentences you read would lead to a result where we disagree.

Russ Roberts: Do you think the bailout of Wall Street in 2008 was a result of the public's effort to counteract the adverse effects of consumer choices? Do you think that was a public good? It was certainly justified that way--

Cass Sunstein: No. No.

Russ Roberts: It was certainly described as a necessary thing to avoid a meltdown of the economy. I'd be--

Cass Sunstein: Well, that one--that's a fair question, which seems to me would depend on [?] and technical stuff about the social consequences of the thing. So, I'm thinking, where is, the sentences that you read aren't about public goods, where we agree, A, that solution of contract problems a good idea. We agree, B, that protection against interest group capture in the process is very important. So we agree on both of those things. So, I'm thinking: Where would we have a disagreement?

Russ Roberts: It's C. I think it's--

Cass Sunstein: It's really not what the book is about.

Russ Roberts: I think it's--oh, but there's--

Cass Sunstein: It's not like bans on racial discrimination--

Russ Roberts: nehhh, there's a--lengthy discussion--

Cass Sunstein: What do you think of bans on racial discrimination?

Russ Roberts: Hang on. There's a lengthy discussion in the book--

Cass Sunstein: I get to ask a question. What do you think of bans on racial discrimination?

Russ Roberts: Well, I think they're not helpful.

Cass Sunstein: Do you think they violate first principles? Bans on employment--discrimination--

Russ Roberts: I don't think that--

Cass Sunstein: Bans on employment--discrimination? They are not helpful is a different point. The sentences you read can be understand to apply not only to the solution to public good problems, but also to allow citizens to say, 'You know what? I might be a discriminator, but I think it's kind of a bad idea.' So we're going to ban employment discrimination. I don't see any, in principle objection to that.

56:01

Russ Roberts: That's not the issue. That's not the issue. That's not what we're talking--it's not what I'm objecting to.

Cass Sunstein: Okay, so--

Russ Roberts: I'm not objecting to the fact that you and I disagree about certain policies--

Cass Sunstein: I might be being obtuse. I'm just not clear on what you are objecting to.

Russ Roberts: I'm objecting to two things, one of which is that, you say we agree on, A, that there are public goods. We agree on, B, that when we intervene to solve public good problems we should be aware of special interests. The question is what actually happens. It's not a question of what the ideal is. The question is what actually happens. So, when government intervenes to solve a problem, using its collective power of the government, whether that's actually done to achieve good or not. And you can certainly argue that it could be. And you could certainly argue that you want it to be. The question is: Does it? And that's the question I--

Cass Sunstein: Okay. Then--okay. That's a different book. And, well, I have other books in the pipeline that are not on that question--

Russ Roberts: You didn't write in this book--you didn't write a number of pages about that people who oppose regulation because they are against government intervention or ignoring the fact that the government intervenes all the time in property rights in courts, which I--

Cass Sunstein: No, no. No, no--

Russ Roberts: That's a big theme of the last part of the book.

Cass Sunstein: But they--the protection of property rights, you need government to do that. Realistically speaking.

Russ Roberts: We agree on that. I'm not an anarcho-capitalist. I'm not an anarcho-libertarian.

Cass Sunstein: So, the argument I was making there is that government regulation is central, as Hayek rightly said, to the operation of a free market system. So that, to oppose government regulation is inconsistent with the creed of those who believe in free markets. And they should not say they oppose government regulation. What they should say is that they oppose government regulation that goes beyond a specified catalog--

Russ Roberts: Of course. That would be my view.

Cass Sunstein: Okay. That's fine. So there's no logical--

Russ Roberts: I'm a classical liberal. I'm not an anarcho-libertarian.

Cass Sunstein: Okay. So, then, so far, on this point we have no disagreement. On regulation, the argument of the book is that to protect property rights, to protect freedom of contract, you need government regulation. You could mean, in principle you could have a private property system that relied on self-help; and then contract systems relied on norms. But that's really hard. So, the argument for government regulation is--the argument about government regulation is that the system of free markets depends on it; and if you want to oppose regulation of the speech market, then you will lead website holders, and Facebook users, to their self-help remedies. And that is--my work is challenging. And to this I would add that some forms of government regulation of the speech market, as through regulation of price-fixing or child pornography or bribery--

Russ Roberts: drugs--

Cass Sunstein: or bribery, that's completely acceptable. So the point there--I think my point is--I think it's much less controversial than you think. Unless I'm missing something. So, my point is only that a system of private property is dependent on government regulation; and beyond that, certain regulations of the speech market are long-standing parts of the most robust free speech traditions. And, you know, maybe they should be scaled back some. But I wouldn't want to authorize people to engage in price fixing.

59:50

Russ Roberts: Well, I agree with a lot of that. I think the tougher question, which maybe we're skirting around here, comes back to this fundamental issue that you do focus on, which is consumer versus political sovereignty. Are you willing--and I think you are, unless I misread your book--are you willing to allow the political process to intervene in these institutions? And I think it's an interesting question--

Cass Sunstein: With respect to Twitter and Facebook? No.

Russ Roberts: Then where?

Cass Sunstein: So--I hope the book's clear on that.

Russ Roberts: Okay, good. Then where?

Cass Sunstein: So, with the speech market, I'm pretty comfortable with where we now are. In terms of government. So, the book is--I mean, the sentences you write are, I stand by. And as I said, I'm struggling to find some concrete domain in which we disagree. But in terms of the speech market, the idea that the government, you know, protects property rights and forbids bribery and price-fixing and child pornography--all of those things seem good to me. False commercial advertising, I'm in favor of banning, at least the Constitutionality, of allowing that to be banned--

Russ Roberts: I don't disagree with any of those. Just tell me, then, what--given the issue that you've raised in the book, which I think is--

Cass Sunstein: Can I just head back a little bit?

Russ Roberts: Sure.

Cass Sunstein: Okay. I think this is important. If I may say, with affection and respect, I think you have a bee in your bonnet about government regulation. And I honor that bee. But the book isn't about that bee. The book is about echo chambers and shared experiences. It is emphatically not a plea for government regulation. It's the opposite of that.

Russ Roberts: I didn't mean to--no, it's not.

Cass Sunstein: So, I feel a little bit like we're having a conversation that is baffling to me. Because this book isn't about that. We could talk about whether bridge is the best game of cards that there is. The book isn't about that. I don't even know how to play bridge. I do know how to talk a little about the issues we're discussing. But it's foreign--it's entirely foreign to the plea of the book.

Russ Roberts: Well, let me say two things in response to that. The first is--to my listeners generally--which is: When I have a guest on, whether I agree or disagree with the guest, my goal is to let the guest expand on the ideas, the main focus of the book. And I think we've done that--perhaps not as much as you'd like, or directions you like. But then I try to find things in the book that are particularly interesting, that we might not agree on. If the only point of your book was to point out that there are echo chambers and they have some implications for democracy, and it was a book of social observation, it would be a much shorter and less interesting book. You have a lot to say in the book about the limits--unless I misread it--about the limits of consumer sovereignty. And in fact I think there's at least a chapter on the fact that, as citizens, there's a chapter called "Citizens." And I'm not suggesting--I don't mean to suggest, that would be unfair; listeners out there take note--the book is not a plea for government intervention into freedom of speech. There's a lot of--on the other hand--sprinkled throughout the book, they are often in the form of 'to be sure'. But I think it would be the case that you want more than--this is more than just a book about: This is alarming. I think you want to do something about it. Don't you?

Guest: Yes. So, yeah.

Russ Roberts: I'm not against that. The question is: What?

Cass Sunstein: No, completely. So that--

Russ Roberts: By the way, Cass, Cass when you--

Cass Sunstein: The book is much more about problems than solutions. And here's, I think, something that is essential to keep in mind. There are some problems for which we lack solutions. The problem of human mortality right now--that's kind of a problem. We don't have a solution for that. So, it may be that the problems identified in the book are ones for which easy solutions just aren't available. Now, I do have a few ideas. And, you know, not--[?] describe aren't original needs--an Opposing Viewpoint button, which isn't going to cure what ails us, but where people can press a button and get access on their news feed to lots of different ideas. That's helpful. And people would like it. It's consistent with consumer sovereignty. Or, a Serendipity button, where people could, you know, choose to get lots of, a random draw of stuff rather than stuff that's an algorithm based on their own preferences. So, those are two ideas. You could see a flowering--and this is very much sought in the book, and we've seen it more in the last months than I think in the previous couple of years--of private sector creativity, both in creating shared experiences and in allowing people to get access to stuff that's inconsistent with what they think. I believe the New York Times now has, once a week, something like: See lots of different perspectives. And that's really admirable. It doesn't have anything to do with government, but it's part of what the book actually calls for. So, insofar as we're talking about social media providers or sources of information from large entities, to go in these directions would be a really good idea. The "Citizens" chapter, to which you rightly point, doesn't say that citizens in their capacity as such should be making hash of free market systems. It just says that citizens sometimes have principles and values that diverge from their own practices as consumers. And, as I say, the environmental and public good cases are the easiest. I would say race and sex discrimination, or sexual orientation discrimination, disability discrimination, or some others--but this isn't a license to say, you know, 'Anything that has the imprimatur of the U.S. Congress is okay.' So, there are rights, base safeguards; there are a narrowish catalog of market failures that citizens can be responding to.



COMMENTS (20 to date)
Josh writes:

Great interview, I thought Russ correctly identified the major problems with Sunstein's thesis which is possibly why he was so defensive.

I disagree with Sunstein that there are no major problems with using people's articulated preferences communicated by voting rather than their consumer behaviour. Although I accept we should listen to people's expressed views and perhaps some economists have been too hasty to dismiss survey evidence etc yet when stated opinions conflict with demonstrated actions then surely we should resolve the conflict using the actions speak louder than words principle?

Otherwise Sunstein appears to have justified the drug war, immigration restrictions and any other foolish govt policies which have popular public support.

Mark Michael writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

DWAnderson writes:

I too thought that this episode was very good. I have not read the book, but here is what I suspect was going on with the disagreements at the end of the discussion:

-- The book made arguments that could easily be used to justify more expansive government regulation of speech even if that was not expressly advocated in the book.

-- Libertarians are justly wary of such arguments unless their scope is expressly constrained. For example: (i) Sunstein's past defenses of Libertarian Paternalism sound great until you discover that the libertarian part is not actually a call for rolling back most of the mandates currently imposed by governments; (ii) the DOT is allowed by statute to regulate "unfair and deceptive practices" in the airline industry, which doesn't sound too bad until you discover that is the basis regulation of every substantive facet of the industry like how long a plane can stay on the tarmac before having to deplane passenger; (iii) the same authority is (ironically) used to prevent airline from showing the tax component of airfares unless a passenger clicks through to another page.

-- Sunstein's query about "first principles" and regulation of discrimination is important because for Sunatein almost everything is subject to being traded away if there is s sufficiently important justification.

Maybe that is the correct approach, but I think it undervalues the importance of rules that prevent unforeseen consequences (e.g. that says the state should not interfere). Without a commitment to such rules that can only be overcome if there is a very strong showing justifying violation, we risk falling prey to being swayed by what we can see rather that what we can't see, but that experience tells us is probably there. This suspicion is consistent with the portion of the conversation where Sunstein presses Russ for real world examples of public choice problems, BTW.

So does the tension between Roberts and Sunstein come down to each ascribing different weights to what it takes to overcome presumptions against government actions? I think so, but consistent with the spirit of the discussion, I would be curious to know what others think.

Matt V writes:

This interview is most engaging at the end, when Russ and Cass get to Sunstein's take on public choice and collective action problems. This issue of consumer vs political sovereignty is fundamental.

One of the of the the critiques Russ makes of Sunstein's book -- that it's sort of uninspired to write a whole book suggesting that social media echo chambers in 2017 exist and are problematic -- might be also be applicable with respect to the first bits of this interview. It's certainly true that people today are much more empowered in creating information feeds that conform to their views/preferences, and Sunstein is articulate in diagnosing and describing these problems. But so what? I was curious to hear more about his proposals re how to remedy this tradeoff. That's the broader problem here.

Miller writes:

This podcast seemed rather hopeful at times, yet I do seem to already understand that one of the greatest divides in this country is precisely the issue of consumer sovereignty vs collective action of any kind. While I do believe that the government shouldn't get involved in many things, I think that rampant over-privatization has extreme negatives at times. This has contributed to the extreme atomization of America, pervasive polarization, and definitely loneliness. You can find some more eloquent speaking and writing on this subject from Yuval Levin, no need to let me try to do it, it's already been done, and he has a PHD

I am willing to concede that income taxes are a bad deal for many people, (especially my indebted father), and perhaps even that it might be best to eliminate them, but the collective action problem which would arise would be even worse later on than already today in the neoliberal US. It's quite a leap of faith to assume that people would voluntarily tax themselves, libertarian style, or to shift those taxes to land, Henry George style, (was he a libertarian?)

I can still find plenty of people who praise Margaret Thatcher for her accomplishments as prime minister, but her death wasn't celebrated primarily because of sad people who wanted more free stuff from the government, it was because of her doctrine of extreme individualism and the idea that there was no society at all. This alienated a lot of people from how they wanted to live life. Plenty of people wrote songs about this, and some of the most ardent critics of neoliberalism (and by proxy, libertarianism), seemingly can be found in the UK. I guess people are extremely selfish and I guess you could say degenerate there. They believe the only people that matter are themselves, which causes a lot of broader problems like perhaps more drug use.


As per the link here from the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot
Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.

Although I will argue on any and every article about this subject, I admit that at times, it seems like libertarians are winning the battle. Which is strange, because neoliberal libertarianism is a depressing and soulless ideology to me. It certainly contains logic, the most prized of which to libertarians, the idea being that income tax is private property and shouldn't be taxed at all, because it violates the non-aggression principle. But carried to extremes, it creates the most heinous of cities (American cities are atrocities) and such pervasive isolation that Americans develop neuroticism which carries them to extreme political forums and ideologies online, or just plain makes them so detached from reality that they go on killing sprees with guns. Yes, I'm literally telling you why mass shootings are probably happening in this country.

Twitter though? I don't really care about Twitter. The only time I've ever used it was to criticize and make snarky comments about libertarianism when #libertarianism was trending. As far as I'm concerned, Twitter can go the way of Dodo, or do whatever else it wants, it's a pretty worthless platform to begin with.

The collective action problem.....well, to be honest, until you can find a rich dude, (maybe one who funds your institute), who can create libertarian collective action portals online for citizens to pool money and do collective things, I think it's probably best to stick with the income tax for a while. I know we have crowdfunding of various things and peer to peer lending, but when it comes to the government, I haven't seen anyone carry out the libertarian vision in any significant way as of yet. Which is definitely surprising, given how animated this makes libertarians and the state of computer technology. Would seem like a perfect storm for change.

Duncan Earley writes:

Best econtalk ever ;)

I just listened to two of the smartest people on the planet have an arguement.

Simon Cranshaw writes:

Is it really true that modern social media puts people more in echo chambers than they have been in the past? I suspect that social media probably increases exposure to political ideas in general and that may compensate for the fact that you can to some extent tailor your feeds to your own tastes. Is there really evidence that people are less exposed overall to opposing ideas than they used to be?
I know for myself if anything I'd rather see less opposing ideas in my feeds than I do. I'm a libertarian and the opposing opinions tend to be the same standard centrist ones that I've heard for the last 30 years. I think I've been over them more than enough and I don't see much value to being shown them over and over again.

Tim Fitzgerald writes:

Good discussion. My takeaway was that Sunstein laments the loss of centralized information--newscasts from ABC/CBS/NBC/PBS; print journalism from the NYT, WaPo, WSJ, AP; and so on. Sunstein seems not to understand that the progressive epistemology that journalists share with bureaucrats and (most) elected officials is what drove people away from traditional information sources.

The aggressiveness with which the current administration is covered by the media is to be applauded. But where was the media during the preceding 8 years? Echo chamber websites, periodicals, newsfeeds, etc exist because mainstream journalists only do their job when it fits their politics.

If Sunstein were honest with himself I think he'd have to admit that an echo chamber in the general republic is an effect of the echo chamber in journalism schools and traditional newsrooms.

Sam writes:

Over the years I have had my issues with Russ, but one thing I have always said about him (usually when advertising this podcast to others) is what a fantastic interviewer he is, how much effort he puts in to see the other side's point of view, and how much latitude he gives the interviewee to explain his/her ideas.

Given all this, Sunstein's reaction at the end was the best argument against his idea. The man who was saying we should hear other points of view refused to talk about an issue one reader, who he disagrees with ideologically, wanted to talk about! He dismissed Russ's objections as "theology", cut off Russ when he was trying to make a point, accused him of being obsessed with regulation, etc.

At the end Russ pointed out that everyone agrees that the problems exist, that is not the interesting part, the proposed solutions are and Sunstein's answer could be rephrased as: "I wrote an uninteresting book".

This is a book I would have bought were it not for this interview so thanks Russ.

Joseph Kozsuch writes:

@Sam Was thinking the same thing. Sunstein's quote of (not entirely verbatim) "My book is about the problems of echo chambers, not concrete solutions." So he wrote about a well known phenomena, and it sounds like he didn't add to the conversation.

His suggestions to combat this included private corporations becoming ethical and supplying the option for consumers to receive news from both sides from the aisle. Which is idealistic and completely detached. Facebook recently admitted that their algorithms may be biased because the coders unintentionally write biased code. Further, why wouldn't media giants actively try to promote their interests?

These echo chambers need to be broken from the ground up. If Americans want to be better informed, then they'll actually read articles and visit multiple news sites. Hopefully this happens organically following this administration's leave. American's have been and are still being overwhelmed by the internet, and it may take some time for everyone to adjust. In twenty years, we may look back and laugh at the lack of self-control in this epoch.

Emerich writes:

I was predisposed to embrace Sunstein's message because I've seen him unfairly vilified from the right for his proposals on nudging. I have to say though, that his prickliness was off-putting. I gather a major theme of the book is that we don't listen to differing viewpoints. Physician, heal thyself!

john penfold writes:

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Bogwood writes:

There is a spam element to Facebook (possibly Twitter) inherent to the advertising model. Somewhere in there is a property rights issue and a monopoly issue. I actively avoid the top twenty Facebook advertisers( yes quixotic).

Could there be an implied warranty mandated for all ads? If there is a bikini in the ad and my sex life is not enhanced I can sue. That might slow down the advertising and thus the free-rider aspect of Facebook. Not exactly free, in the four billion dollar a year range.

On the other hand I financially support less than ten percent of the sites I frequent, that would have to increase. Would I pay extra for serendipity?

Sam writes:

@Joseph Kozsuch the proposed solutions are basically corporate social responsibility (CSR) for social media companies. And CSR is a failed idea: it depoliticizes politics and is dishonest in the sense that it smuggles a certain notion of responsibility (imagine the socially conservative owner of a big company who thinks the responsible thing to do is to oppose gay marriage ...).

It is almost as if Sunstein wrote a job application not a book: "Guys you have a problem and you are sitting on a pile of cash, how about I come and head your CSR office? I literally wrote the book on the topic!"

Instead of these type of solutions we should have a public debate and decide on a policy through the political institutions we have (Congress and courts). I personally do think Facebook and Twitter ought to be treated like public utilities, that they should not be able to regulate speech, Russ holds the opposite view, so let's have that debate, the lawsuits, the election campaigns. This is how it is supposed to work, running around trying to make corporations act against their financial interests for some publicity is not the way to go.

Matt writes:

@Miller

This may seem like an odd bit to nitpick in a lengthy post (which I certainly enjoyed), but the reason American cities are "atrocities" may have less to do with 'libertarianism' than 'bad city planning.' Many European cities enjoy a certain neighborhood-like, pedestrian-friendly, tightly-knit, mixed-use, and organic nature, and much of this was determined by the age and circumstance in which those cities developed. American cities, by contrast, developed much later, and were shaped far more by various bureaucratic aspirations, regimentations, zoning policies, and a prioritization of the automobile, which were very popular at the turn of the 20th century. Free markets and associations, unfortunately in my opinion, have too often taken a back seat to the whims of urban planners and NIMBYs in the development of American cities.

I would also encourage that we not make the mistake of conflating individualism and libertarianism. I DO think America suffers from a sometimes vulgar infatuation with the promotion of individuality, but I think it's a mistake to insinuate that libertarian sentiment might inherently promote such a culture. On the contrary, I think libertarianism is rather agnostic about collective/social vs. individual interactions. It's notable exception, and, indeed, the foundation upon which it is based, is with respect to political sovereignty, in which it seeks to cordon off a space in which individuals are protected from the disparate preferences of the majority collective and/or elite heads of state. That foundation is, no doubt, likely to attract misanthropes and those who, perhaps, adhere to a culture of hyper-individualism, but Such sentiment is by no means an objective or rational deduction from the philosophy and policy that libertarianism espouses.

Joseph Kozsuch writes:

@Sam The public utility designations are unnecessary. There is no law of nature that forces people to use Facebook and Twitter. There are other options. They may not be nearly as prevalent, but social media companies aren't geographically restricted like parks. Locking down Facebook as a public utility would open it to government and ultimately special interests. Kind of like how it is now.

Although, I could understand if the internet was designated as a public utility. Access to the internet is essential and market entry costs to become an ISP are ludicrous.

Len writes:

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John Alcorn writes:

It is fashionable to blame current irrationality in politics on groupthink dynamics of the internet and social media.

However, irrational belief-formation, overconfidence, echo chambers, and polarization have always been mechanisms in political psychology. History is littered with manifestations much more extreme than what we currently observe. Moreover, political irrationality has ample scope in large-scale democracy because voters have little individual incentive to master the issues or to follow canons of rational belief-formation. (For a lively discussion, see Jason Brennan and Bryan Caplan on the ethics of voting, here.)

Are the internet and social media exacerbating these mechanisms? This is an empirical question.

(Perhaps we should remind ourselves that when Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency, social media were lauded as beacons of democracy against the establishment.)

I would like to point EconTalk listeners to a recent study by Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, & Jesse M. Shapiro, "Is the internet causing political polarization?: Evidence from demographics," National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 23258 (March 2017). An ungated version may be found here. I paste the abstract of the paper below:

"We combine nine previously proposed measures to construct an index of political polarization among US adults. We find that the growth in polarization in recent years is largest for the demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media. For example, our overall index and eight of the nine individual measures show greater increases for those older than 75 than for those aged 18–39. These facts argue against the hypothesis that the internet is a primary driver of rising political polarization."
Another helpful resource is Andrei Shleifer's profile of Matthew Gentzkow's broader research about media and civic engagement. The profile was written to mark Dr. Gentzkow's receipt of the 2014 John Bates Clark Medal. An ungated version is found here.

Miller writes:

Well, Matt, I certainly enjoyed reading your post. I apologize if I seem off base a little. To me, however, there is no other single issue in this entire country that I care about more. If you would like to search Youtube for 'America's greatest problem', you would find a better explanation that explains why I feel this way. Sometimes I pidgeonhole many of the arguments I make everywhere I comment on the internet to include a similar rebuke; if I could vote to do something about it, that would make me a permanent single-issue voter for the rest of my life, but the media blacks out this issue, for the most part. They don't care, and to be honest, neither does my parents, who probably would care if the media actually talked about it.

HOWEVER, the author talks about public spaces, and this is not just about Twitter and Facebook, it's real physical spaces, like town squares and other types of things. I find myself almost yelling at the television all the time simply because the people in the media complain about people being addicted to technology and don't give a thought to what they're supposed to do instead, go wander the streets of suburbia? People need repeated and unplanned interactions with each other to be able to normalize themselves in real life. It's no coincidence we're all getting fragmented in opinions, because we mostly form them by ourselves. James Holmes himself became a Batman freak probably because of this very phenomenon and went on a mass shooting spree because of his probable isolation from society, which is in actual fact, VERY COMMON in the US, due to geography and privatization and the car, etc.

I'm open to the fact that I may be off base. But I know for a fact that I'm not very far away from it. I just wish I could urge more people to be as mad as I am about it, because it seems like nothing gets done hardly.

You want a list of references for polemicists and thinkers on this subject?

James Kunstler
Jane Jacobs
Chuck Marohn
Yuval Levin
Ben Dominech (Sometimes)
Henry Giroux
David Harvey (right to the city)
etc.

I could probably think of more, but that's enough to get you going.

But back to your point, I think that individualism, American style, is a consumerist gimmick and a negative ideology in many ways. Does this stem from libertarianism? Is libertarianism truly virtuous in this regard? Libertarianism has made us fragmented, lonely, angry, and some of us it's made psychotic. I hardly think it's as noble as libertarians make it seem. And yes, I would agree that zoning laws make American cities really bad, but libertarianism puts the icing on the cake with celebrating the cult of the car. I know we all have SOME public transportation, but libertarians can't help but think that the car is just.....so much freedom and the perfect encapsulation of unbridled consumer sovereignty and individualism. They just can't get enough of it. And our nation suffers the effects from this in bad ways. The president could do no better good for the entire country than getting up at a podium and critiquing bad urban planning and design. We have a lot of work to do to make our country an enjoyable, livable place.

And this would help with the divides in our country too, to bring it back to the point of the podcast in the first place. Oh, and ABOLISHING the presidency. One man vs 350 million Americans? Recipe for polarization and turmoil.

Kevin writes:

This might be the mostly ironically unaware podcast I have ever heard.

Sunstein is very bright. He lives among intellectuals. He thinks about problems in a big way. That is very noble, but over the course of that life I worry he forgot how real human beings think/live.

First, the idea that we are in the most intellectually isolated era is absurd. More isolated than people who grew up on small towns and only had access to the local newspaper? And then to a few channels on TV? The people most isolated are people like Sunstein who live and breathe among people who think the way he does.

Is Hamilton popular with average people? Have they even heard of Hamilton?

This whole podcast talks about problems a brilliant intellectual sees that really only concern him and his class of elites. The need to think about both sides of issues and to have more in common.

Most Americans don't care about politics or political issues. They don't derive their shared experience from them. They join a team and cheer for that team. Sunsteins desire to have them consider other views is like asking the Patriots fans to consider the merits of the Falcons. Who even cares?

Most people don't think hard about politics and most people don't want to. Shared experiences for Americans are sports teams, religion, and Marvel Movies. The idea that most people would benefit from considering the views of their sports team opponents, other religious views, or whether DC is finally making a good movie are not of interest. People in America share youtube memes. That is the shared culture. Sure, its sad, but the average person isn't a brilliant Harvard law professor writing books.

Sunstein talks about a great app he has that would be a helpful model: "Read Across the Aisle". It has one review. I don't have download numbers but my guess is that it is in the hundreds. A popular app in the US - Kim Kardashian's app Made 100 million dollars. People want to send Instagram photos, not read the opinions of others who disagree with them.

Sunstein sees culture and politics as serious thoughtful things. I agree with him about this. I, however, don't have any illusion that average Americans care about this. The average American wants to complain when his political team loses, cheer when they win, and they do not want to think about it or think about how hard actual good government and policy is. And that is ok (and a really good idea to have a tiny government since if thats the way its going to be chosen - better it does as little damage as possible".)

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