||Intro. [Recording date: July 5, 2018.]
Russ Roberts: I'm going to do something I haven't done in a while, which is a monologue episode--my thoughts on an issue that I thought you might find interesting. And, that issue is the state of political conversation, discourse in America. And it probably applies to lots of places as well: it's not just America. And I'm going to be talking about the role of social media and other websites and their impact on that conversation on our political system. I realized in getting ready for this episode that some of this goes back to my conversations with David Weinberger--I think it's the 2007 episode, which is crazy--and a more recent episode with Cass Sunstein on his book, #Republic, as well as an episode with Matt Stoller on monopoly issues. But it's also a theme I've been thinking about quite a bit in the last year or two--the angry nature of American politics, the loss of civility, usual respect, and so on. And it's somewhat related, I think, to the episode with Megan McArdle on internet shaming, and those kind of things. I'm basing this episode on an essay that I hope to post soon on Medium.com, and I'll link to that. It should be up by the time that this airs.
Russ Roberts: So, one way to sum up what I'm talking about is best expressed by the poet Yeats in his powerful poem, "The Second Coming." He says the following--it starts at the third line of the poem:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So, that seems to be a pretty accurate description of what's happened in America in the last few years: the center cannot hold; we've moved to the extremes. And I particularly like, unfortunately, the accuracy of the last two lines: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." So, it feels like political conversation in America has deteriorated a lot in the last few years. There's a lot of yelling, a lot of arrogance, a lot of overconfidence. People parroting, retweeting, sharing stories that confirm what they already believe as opposed to stories that challenge what we only think we know. And a lot of people sharing information with each other and believing things that simply aren't true. And some of this is just factually inaccurate; but it's also much more, as listeners know, I'm much more interested in these questions of evidence for various beliefs that we hold and this idea that 'studies show'--as if certain research is irrefutable. As if, 'My side has all the good studies and the other side has nothing.' And I think that feeling is increasingly growing among a lot of people, that they have all the answers and that the other side is just awful. And, of course, it's not enough just to disagree with someone: People can't imagine how a decent human being could disagree with their view of, say, immigration, or the minimum wage, or President Trump. And the other two episodes I just want to reference here are Arnold Kling on the three languages of politics and the episode of Pluckrose and Lindsay on modernity. So, it's not just that, 'I don't see the world the way you see it,' which is Kling's point; but Pluckrose and Lindsay made me realize that not only do I not see your vision, your framework, but 'Your framework is awful. It's dangerous. It's evil. It's got to be stopped, destroyed; everything depends on that, making sure that doesn't get used, doesn't happen.' And, a lot of this is feeling that you are part of the virtuous tribe--which means not only do you have the correct card in your wallet to reassure yourself you are on the good side--but you have to believe that the people who carry any other kind of card are irrational, or evil. And this means an end to civilized conversation. It probably often means an end to any kind of conversation at all. And this is extremely dangerous. When you can't imagine that your political opponents might possibly be right--when you are certain that you are right and they are wrong--it dehumanizes them and it justifies the worst atrocities that human beings are capable of.
Russ Roberts: Now, we have to be careful. Some of this feeling that this is the state of the world of course comes from being on Twitter or Facebook where there's a lot of ranting and yelling, and a lot of normal people aren't there. Of course. And people say things anonymously that they wouldn't normally say. And that maybe that's misrepresentative of what's actually going on. Politics is a blood sport. It's been a blood sport forever. You should see the things they said about Thomas Jefferson when he ran for President. And so, I don't want to romanticize the past and say that the world we're in now is unique; or, I want to be careful not to overstate how different things are. But I do think things are different. And, just to reference one more episode, I think the Jonah Goldberg episode on Suicide of the West, his book, I asked him at one point, 'What's changed?' And I think I also asked that of Phillip Auerswald in his episode, the conversation I had with him, and we were talking there about populism. And I think a common answer--I think it's what Jonah said--maybe also what Phillip said, although Phillip I think had other aspects as well--but a common answer you hear, at least, is, 'Well, it's immigration. There's all this turmoil about what's going to happen to the nature of our country, and our national identity, our culture?' And I think that's part of it, but I don't think that's what's going on in America. And, in fact, I think that immigration has been used to enflame the feelings of tribalism that are already there under the surface.
Russ Roberts: I think it's all about tribalism, in the following sense. What do I mean by tribalism? Tribalism is our desire to join together with others and be part of something larger than ourselves. It can be a very beautiful thing. It can explain our embrace of religion, our sports teams; certainly our politics. It's very old. It's probably embedded in our DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid]. So, that's not what's changed. What has changed is our ability to feed and indulge our tribalism, particularly in the area of news and politics. And this newfound ability to indulge and let our tribalism run wild is, I believe, the result of the transformation of the news and information landscape. And it began with cable news, and cable generally; and it's been taken to a new level with the Internet.
Russ Roberts: So, I don't want to be totally negative--or negative at all--in a summary way about that transformation. Most of that has been glorious. For a curious person--I often say this here--this is the greatest time to be alive, if you want to discover things about the world and how it works, podcasts, online education, courses on anything; Wikipedia; YouTube videos on how to carve a turkey or how to change your oil. You name it. You can find so much extraordinary stuff, practical and impractical. You can explore all kinds of wonderful things on the Internet. And that profusion, that incredible landscape allows me to customize the news and the information that I consume. And there are many ways to do that. But, some of the most obvious ways are social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. They entertain us; they allow us to keep in touch with friends; they let us learn things we couldn't have imagined. Knowing and by friending and following the right people they let us discover and unending stream of content, a stream that we curate for ourselves. So, I don't want to listen to one news channel, or even three, or one newspaper or a few magazines. With Twitter or Facebook or the Internet generally I create my own newspaper, my own news channel, by choosing who to follow or who to friend. I can get the highlights of every network, every newspaper, every pundit, every talking head, any reporter who does interesting work. And this information revolution is an extraordinary achievement; and much of it is glorious.
Russ Roberts: The metaphor I want to start with--I'm going to use a couple here today, but the one I want to start with is a buffet. A restaurant that's got a bunch of food out and you can help yourself. In the old days, there were only three suppliers to the buffet: ABC, NBC, CBS [American Broadcasting Company, National Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting System]; and maybe a fourth--your local newspaper. It was a pretty cushy environment for the networks. They jockeyed for market share, but they all had a pretty good deal. And bland was the order of the day.
Russ Roberts: Now, one reason it was bland was you don't want to ruin a good thing. But the other reason is totally driven by technology, and it's a really an interesting just sidebar I want to mention. When you live in a world where a house has at most one television--so, for a while only a few people had televisions; then, maybe televisions started to become more common, but very few people had two televisions. That was a big luxury. So, when you have one television, you've got to put out programming that makes pretty much everyone in the household happen. Because--this comes back to the Nassim Taleb point about the power of the minority--if there's something awful on TV to one person's taste in a family, we're not going to watch that because we don't want to make the mom or the dad or the kid unhappy. Everybody might not be ecstatic with what's on, but we're going to pick things that appeal to a common denominator. And so, when there's only one TV per household, you've really got 2 or 3 or 4 people, maybe 5 watching something; and it's not literally a majority rule--people don't generally make decisions that way in small groups--they're going to have a conversation, and if there's something that one person hates, then you're not going to show it. So, you're going to watch something else. So, that, of course, affects what they're going to put on TV because they're in competition with each other. And they're going to tend to produce bland stuff. Meat and potatoes. There was some variation: not much. Each station pretty much served up the same meat and the same potatoes every night on the network news; and the same type of silly sitcoms, and the same type of procedural police dramas, say. A show would come along like the Carol Burnett show that was a little outside the box; we look at it now and it's not so outside the box. But at the time that was kind of like an innovative show. People would go, 'Oh, this is different.' And it struggled. Some of those shows struggled to be successful, those innovative shows. And, when they failed, the networks took notice and said, 'Don't do that. Stick with the meat and potatoes.' Maybe one had french fries. The other had baked. Maybe the third had hashed browns. But it's potatoes. And that buffet of news in particular was only open a few hours a day.
Russ Roberts: And then cable comes along. And, one of the reasons that cable comes along isn't just technology that we could have cable television, but also this point about multiple televisions per household. Once you had more TVs per household, you could allow people to customize what they watched. And people would then watch in smaller groups when they had more televisions. And so cable comes along, and suddenly there are more choices. You could have Fox News, and MSNBC [Microsoft + National Broadcasting Company], you could have [FSH?], [?]; and they are open all day long. A lot of them are providing 24-7 coverage. Then the Internet comes. And with Twitter and Facebook: there's ethnic food and fancy cuisine and diner food and paleo and even some crazy stuff like chocolate covered locusts. You can go back for more any time you like. It's open all the time. And, of course, everybody's got their own device now. Everybody has the equivalent of their own television in their own pocket, which is their smartphone, so, 'I'm going to watch what I want to watch.' I'm not going to watch anything that I don't love: I'm going to find stuff I love. And suddenly it's now possible to cater to what people love, and that's as individuals, not giving them the lowest common denominator.
Russ Roberts: And so, that changes everything. And, of course, one of the things it changes is that it suddenly becomes very difficult to run a news organization. It's a lot harder to make money because there's a lot more competition out there. And it--I was going to say it took a while for people to figure that out; I'd say they haven't quite figured it out. But some people went to subscription basis; some went to advertising. But, no matter how you look at it, it got a lot harder. And a lot of places didn't make it. A lot of newspapers went out of business. A lot of news sites on the Internet still struggle to pay their bills or to make it. And there's a big shakeout. And that transformation--that disruption, as it's frequently called--is still going on. But one thing is very clear: traffic is still crucial. Visitors, eyeballs, attention: they are all scarce, and getting more of them helps pay the bills.
Russ Roberts: And that's the obvious part. So, the obvious part is--we all know this--that the Internet has disrupted the news business and the information business. It's a lot harder to make a living. And some people decried this as, 'It's awful.' But of course what's great about it is for most of us now we get to watch news that's more like the news we want to watch. We get to watch entertainment that's more we want to watch. The quality is, you know, extraordinary. I mentioned this recently--I don't remember which episode--but the quality of, say, Netflix drama or Amazon drama, it just dwarfs what used to be and still now is to some extent network television. It is an extraordinary--it's the golden age of visual storytelling. The movie business struggles some. It's doing okay. But what is doing extraordinarily well is--it doesn't have a name. What's doing extraordinarily well is stuff that's great for you and me to watch. There's just too much to watch. It's fabulous.
Russ Roberts: So, that's the good side. And that's the obvious part--that, to thrive in that world, it's really hard. Because there's a lot more competitors all of a sudden, jockeying for those scarce eyeballs' attention and visits. So, the important, not-so-obvious part--obvious once you notice it--is that when it's a giant buffet and there aren't just three providers doing meat and potatoes--when it's a giant buffet with people all over the place and people are able to customize what they see and read, the providers aren't going to keep providing the kind of food that they provided before. So, it's not just that there are new kinds of food: everybody, people who were already in the business, are going to have an incentive to change what they do, because now they are in an intense competition. And they are going to be much more eager and much more intensely focused on giving people what they want. So, there's an increased urgency to give the viewer what the viewer wants. And if you do what you've always done, you are probably not going to survive. Nobody wants the same well-done steak and over-cooked mashed potatoes any more. They put up with it when they had to, when that's all there was on the other plates, the other parts of the buffet: the other channels. But now they don't have to.
Russ Roberts: So if you are a news organization and you want to stay alive, you have to attract more viewers, more attention. You have to do your job--I was going to say you have to do your job better; but what doing your job better means is really the crux of this whole conversation and episode. Because, what they are going to try to do better is make me happy.
Russ Roberts: Now, that may not necessarily--I'm going to suggest it doesn't--mean they do a better job covering the news. Which is inherently indefinable. But you'll understand what I'm talking about in a minute. So, here are the dynamics--and this is, I think, easily forgotten and missed: Who is CNN's [Cable News Network] biggest competitor? Well, most people think it's Fox News. Of course. But that's not their biggest competitor. Their competition is really MSNBC and the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos and Twitter, on the Left, who give people what they want on the Left. The competition of CNN is people who lean Left. The biggest competitor of Fox News isn't CNN. It's Breitbart and Rush Limbaugh and other sites that cater to the Right.
Russ Roberts: So, to get more views in that competitive landscape, you have to be a little bit louder in favor of the home team, and a little less nuanced. You can't just politely disagree with the other tribe. You need to vilify them. Outrage sells, when competition is this intense. And, just to get people to pay attention, you have to be more entertaining than the rest of the options that people have for screen time, because you are not really just competing with the other news organizations.
Russ Roberts: So, look at your own habits. What do you want to watch? What grabs your attention when it comes to news and politics? Well, if you are like most people, you have a tendency to read what makes you feel good about yourself. It's hard to read things that challenge your preconceptions, that are charitable to the other side. How many stories have you read that turned out just to be wrong? Well, do you even know? Of course you don't. You have no idea. I don't. How much time do you spend making sure that what you believe about some policy issue--immigration or trade or the President's whatever--that those views are really backed up by the evidence or by the facts? When somebody writes a speculative story that turns out to be false--and I've noticed these; they are out there all the time, now--when do you notice? When does a price get paid? When does a reporter who runs a story like that or an op-ed writer who writes a speculative predictive story that turns out to be wildly inaccurate, do they pay a price for that? I don't see it. In fact, they're doing fine. They are making their readers happy.
Russ Roberts: Reporters that I follow on Twitter, who are all over the political, ideological spectrum--they often make claims that don't hold up. They are competing for attention. They say dramatic things. And they are louder and angrier and more partisan than reporters were in the past by my very crude, non-scientific assessment. I just see people saying things that are shocking from reporters who purport to be objective. And that's from the Left and the Right. Louder and angrier sells. That's part of the reason Trump won the nomination. Look at Bernie Sanders. He's a self-proclaimed Socialist. He is louder and angrier, and almost beat Hillary Clinton. What I see is people treating the news the way they treat sports: It's more about entertainment than a search for the truth; more about tribalism and worshiping than being well-informed.
Russ Roberts: It's a little like horror movies. It's a weird thing--I'm not a horror movie fan, but I'm obviously--I don't know what kind of minority or majority I'm in, but obviously a lot of people like horror movies. Actually pay to be scared. Which is--interesting, right? Normally, you would not necessarily think that would be a good product to put out, a creepy movie. People like creepy movies. Part of the reason they like creepy movies is that, when they're over, they get to go back out to their car and go home and it's safe. But I think the other part is, I suspect there's some kind of evolutionary explanation that we're drawn to worrying. We're drawn to paranoia. And, I think--well, I don't 'think.' The news business taps into this big time by showing us the risks of the other side gets in power and whatever policy issue is up for grabs. And, this demonization--it's really turning the political debate into a horror movie: the other side, zombies or vampires, or they're just--they're creepy. And what then happens is: if you are a Left-leaning viewer, Trump isn't just somebody whose policies you don't like. He's 'threatening the country. We're going toward Nazi Germany.' And on the Right, if you are a Right-leaning person, Hillary Clinton wasn't just a liberal. 'Had she won, the country would never have recovered.' And, I know smart people who believe both of those things. Not at the same time--to be clear. But, I know smart people who think that Hillary Clinton would have destroyed America forever; and I know smart people who think that Trump is taking us down the path towards Nazism. And, that's--I don't think that's a good thing. That's an incredible example of the center not--I don't think either of those is credible, to put it a different way. I think both of those are wildly exaggerated. And, if you are sitting there going I'm wrong, 'He's so naive,' maybe we have different definitions of how to use certain words. It doesn't mean that everything is great but [?] the Trump Administration, or Hillary Clinton would have been a fantastic President. It's just--I'm just saying that the extremes there, the extreme reaction is an example of the center not holding.
Russ Roberts: Outrage sells. A lot of news these days seems designed to get people outraged. And people enjoy--I know I do; I'm not proud of it; I work on trying to stop it--but people enjoy being outraged. They like working themselves into a state. And, the news is one way to do that. A Twitter feed is one way to do that. Or a Facebook is another way to do that.
Russ Roberts: Now, the news industry, and the market for news, the market for information really isn't that much different from any other product where there's a lot of competition. Suppliers work hard to make the customer happy; otherwise, the customer will turn elsewhere. I'm sure you all remember my favorite quote from Walter Williams--this is my relationship with my grocery: 'I don't tell them when I'm coming. I don't tell them what I want to buy. I don't tell them how much of what I want to buy I'm going to buy. But if they don't have it when I get there, I fire them.' And that's because I have a choice. That's because there's a lot of competition out there. And that means that I have to be made happy, and it keeps suppliers on their toes. And that's usually a very good thing. In this case, I'm going to suggest it's not such a good thing. But, in most markets it's a fabulous thing.
Russ Roberts: So, think about the market for shoes. Think about Zappos, which is a website that sells shoes. They carry about 50,000 kinds of shoes in 2018; more, I think--that's my best discovery of doing a little poking around on the Internet. That's a near-infinite, unimaginably large selection to find the shoes you want. There's no charge for returns. It's really delightful if you love shoes. I don't love shoes, but every once in a while I have to buy some and I've used Zappos. And when you shop for shoes, what do you care about? Well, you want them to fit. You want to be comfortable. And you want them to have some kind of style--you want other people to think you are stylish and look good. You don't want someone judging your shoes as old-fashioned or out of date unless that's the look you are aiming for--in which case old-fashioned could be just right. But the three things you care about are fit, comfort, and style. So, how does that work in the shoe market? Do I get fit, comfort, style? You bet. Zappos is just one example of it. It's fabulous. It's easy to find the shoes that do what I want. That's what the Internet let's me do. It lets me find shoes that are comfortable, that fit me, and that are stylish.
Russ Roberts: And I think that's increasingly the way the Internet lets people get their news and information about the way the world works--fit, comfort, style. I want to consume news that fits my preconceived notions. I want to consume news that makes me comfortable. And I want to consume news that makes my friends think I'm really a great guy, and really smart, and really understand the way the world works. Fit, comfort, and style.
Russ Roberts: Now, when the shoes I buy don't fit, my feet hurt, so I return them. But what's my incentive to get rid of the views or return the views or drop the views I hold that aren't true? Or that hurt the country? Or that hurt you? That are dangerous? that are unhealthy? that are bad? I can keep watching a news channel; I can keep following people on Twitter who are wildly inaccurate. And, where's the feedback loop to tell me to change the news I consume? Well, there isn't one. With shoes, I have to wear them. I have to live in the world of the shoes that I bought. With my political views, I don't live in that world. I'm not in charge. I get some tiny--in my case almost no--aspect of my worldview gets implemented, so I don't really bear any of the price of the views that I hold. I have no skin in the game--literally, almost none. And, even if something I do favor happens, and the world takes a turn for the worse because of some position I've advocated, it's really easy to convince myself that, 'Oh, well that turn for the worse, that wasn't because of that. It was something else. The world's complicated. I don't need to--'. And it is complicated. So, it's really hard to figure out what the independent effect of one change is, relative to all the other stuff that's going on.
Russ Roberts: And so, what I want to believe in is sort of up for grabs. It's really a personal choice. It's like deciding what color of shoes to wear or what cut of my coat, or what style of my dress. It's just--fit, comfort, and style. I don't need to worry about whether it's really great for the rest of the world.
Russ Roberts: Now, on one level, I shouldn't care. If you want to watch Shakespeare and I want to watch cat videos, that's what makes the world go 'round; and we each consume what gives us pleasure. I don't try to convince you, 'Oh, you bought the wrong shoes. You are hurting your feet.' If you say you are comfortable, I just say, 'Well, fine.' But it's a little different when it's the news, because it might start to change how you vote, and how you feel about your neighbor who doesn't vote the same way you do.
Russ Roberts: And all of the above is, by the way, just as a side note: That's all about actual things: real people shouting and yelling. It doesn't include fake accounts that try to rile people up and manipulate them. You know, one of the sub-themes of this conversation--a long side right now in my monologue--is the power of the Internet and Internet sites like Twitter, Google, and Amazon to affect our lives. And, you know, I've said many times on the program: You know, it's not a big deal if they're powerful: you can stop using them. The problem is, of course, if I stop using them and you don't, and you start getting, through political manipulation a lot of things in your feed that gets you really angry, and they are able to do that because they know a lot about you and what your habits are, that's kind of scary. That's not good for democracy. And, we're going to talk at the end of this conversation about what we can do about that. But, it's not an easy problem to solve. And I think we're going to be struggling with this for quite a while. I think it's--and I think it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. My joke is: Everyone assumes the next election is going to be something like Joe Biden against Mitt Romney, but it's more likely to be Oprah against Ronda Rousey. I just--you know, I just don't have any idea how the Internet is going to be used to get people worked up. It's a real issue. And, as I said, that's just with accurate information, not just--who knows what it's going to do when people are going to be making up stuff. Literally.
Russ Roberts: So, the standard answer to this problem, these problems, is an answer I used to give. Now, I'm laughing because I just find it a little bit, just a titch naive, which is: Media literacy. 'We just need people to understand that not everything you read is true; so you need to be skeptical. All we need to do is help people understand that not everything they read is true. You just have to kind of take things with a grain of salt. Be skeptical.' And, of course, that's--I confess, when I laughed that I'm suggesting it because I'm a little naive: it's part of the goal of this program. Part of my goal here is to help people become better skeptics about what they read. And part of my goal, a personal goal, is to understand the limits of my own knowledge, and to figure out what I don't know; and to be skeptical about what I think I know. And I think that's all great. I'm a big fan of that, still. But I'm not sure it's a national policy.
Russ Roberts: And, one of the reasons it's not likely to be so helpful is you have to ask the question: What if people don't care about what's true? Think about that. What if most people don't care about what's true? Just hold the beliefs that make them feel good--just like they wear the shoes that make their feet comfortable. Now, I know you're different. But, if you really are--if you really just care about objective truth and never indulge in your tribal urges--you are really special. You are probably one of a kind. The rest of us, alas, are deeply flawed. Truth is not the only thing we care about. And if we care about it at all, it's pretty far down the list, long after fit, comfort, and style, I'd suggest. The return to discovering the truth just isn't high enough. As a citizen, your incentive to figure out whether your deeply-held policy views are good or bad for your country, or the world, is pretty small, after all. You are not in charge. Even if you bother to vote, your one vote is unlikely to break a tie. So, why spend a lot of time studying the evidence for and against your views?
Russ Roberts: I was giving a version of this talk publicly and someone in the Q&A part said, 'Well, I don't know. I think I care about the truth.' And of course, we all think we do. That's another thing we like to believe about ourselves, because, you know, as Adam Smith said, 'Man naturally desires not only to be loved, but to be lovely.' And that is to be respected and admired, and to earn that respect and admiration and praise honestly. So we don't like to think bad things about ourselves. We like to think, 'Yeah. I'm a truth-seeker. I want to make sure that everything I believe is true.'
Russ Roberts: So, here's a story to help you put that in perspective. Around 1846 or so, Ignaz Semmelweis proposed that the reason that up to 20%, sometimes more, were dying in childbirth of puerperal fever was because doctors didn't wash their hands after they went to the morgue. This is a story I've told on EconTalk before. I'll give a slightly different emphasis for why I'm telling it this time. But, so, Semmelweis makes this hypothesis, and he tests it. And he has people in this hospital start washing their hands with this solution of--I think it's chlorine, some kind of disinfectant. And mortality rates drop. And he's thrilled. And he starts spreading the word that we need to[?] wash our hands, as doctors. And, he made almost no impact whatsoever. It wasn't at least for another decade, maybe more, until Pasteur came up with the theory of germs that people started thinking he might have been right. And why is it? With this horrible tragedy of women dying in childbirth because of doctors themselves? Why wouldn't doctors take his hypothesis more seriously? And, one answer, I'm afraid, is that, even though of course they wanted to know the truth, the idea of that truth was really unpleasant. It was a very unpleasant truth. It was a truth that said that it was the doctors themselves that were killing these women. And they just didn't want to face it. And they found a lot of reasons to dismiss his work--some of which might have been right, by the way. It wasn't perfect. He didn't do a great job. He had a difficult personality. He didn't do a very thorough test. And it was easily dismissed. He wasn't 100% right--he didn't totally understand germs. He totally didn't understand them at all. But he did see this correlation. And, of course, easily dismissed as correlation isn't causation. And, for decades or more, another few decades women continued to die needlessly because of their unwillingness, doctors' unwillingness to see Semmelweis's hypothesis as correct.
Russ Roberts: So, I just would suggest that we struggle with the truth. Here's another, less dramatic, more whimsical example. You may remember Deflategate--a scandal where Tom Brady of the New England Patriots was accused of deflating footballs below the regulation level of pressure to make them easier to throw. And, most of you know that I'm a Patriots fan. I wrote a lengthy essay, which we ought to link up to as to if I remember, as to why the evidence showed that Brady didn't do anything wrong. I wasn't alone. An MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] physicist also gave a lecture on the Internet about this. A theme of both that lecture and my article was that weather explained--the temperature and the moisture in the air explained the level of deflation of the footballs without relying on the possibility that Brady cheated. But, of course, there's also--there was some questionable stuff in there; there never is. Naturally. We had some texts between him and people who worked for the team that were at least ambiguous at best about his interest in having them do something that wasn't 100% kosher. So, it was hard to know, with any certainty. But, I don't think it's a coincidence that I, as a Patriots fan, and an MIT professor who I presume was a Patriots fan, were out there spreading the word that maybe Brady was innocent.
Russ Roberts: They did a survey--just fabulous--they did a survey of the American people--this was not an Internet poll. I think. It was an actual survey: 75% of the American people thought Tom Brady was a cheater. Seventy five percent. So, 3 out of 4. They found the evidence conclusive that he was a cheater. But in 4 states--not 5, not 3. Four. Four states, 22% or less of the people in those states thought that he was a cheater. So, 75% is the national average. But in 4 states the proportion who thought he was a cheater was 22% or less. I wonder if you could guess what those 4 states are? You could turn off, you could pause the episode here and just, maybe, speculate what those four states are. One of them is Massachusetts, where the New England Patriots find their home. The other three, of course, are Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Deliciously, Connecticut, which is the dividing line between Boston and New York sports fans, was at 55%. Right in between.
Russ Roberts: So, people's views on Deflategate were correlated with their tribe--the group they identified with. The group they rooted for. Or, the group they hated. I don't think evidence was the decisive factor for whether you thought, or think now, that Tom Brady was a cheater. Tribalism is a much better predictor. This is not surprising. And, it's not that important in the ultimate scheme of things, even if you are a Patriots fan or a Patriots hater. But it's kind of important for whether or what the influence of the Russian government was on the election of 2016. Did Donald Trump collude with the Russians? Did he get framed? Did the Russians interfere in a substantive way with our election? That's a little more important than Deflategate; and it's really hard to know what the answer to those questions are. You may think you know with certainty and you are really angry about it on one side or the other. But I'd say it's not so obvious. And, I don't think most of us who hold strong views on those questions have a lot of evidence to defend what we believe. A lot of it is just our tribal instincts. And those are what we use to make our political judgments, and lots of our judgments.
Russ Roberts: So, if we only consume news that confirms our tribal identity, and that shows up, humiliates the tribes on the other side of the political fence, we will not only stick to our views, but we will stick to them with a lot more enthusiasm and undeserved certainty. If you read The New York Times day in and day out, you are going to be much more confident that Trump is a threat to America, impeachment is necessary to prevent racism and oppression from running rampant in[?] America becoming unrecognizable. If you watch Fox News day in and day out, you are going to be much more confident that Trump is the victim of a left-wing conspiracy, he's all that stands between the United States and something unrecognizable. When tribalism trumps the search for truth, democracy is going to struggle. The ability to indulge our tribalism and the increased certainty that many people have about what is true, and the faith they have in their own beliefs, makes it a lot harder to have a country that works--political system that works. As Yeats said, when "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," the center will not hold. I worry we are heading toward a very dark place. One of the greatest virtues of the American system of government has been its inertia--that checks and balances make it hard to move the ship. But, if the views of the citizenry head toward extremes and become less amenable to change, we may get some very unusual political candidates and politicians and political outcomes may oscillate a lot more widely.
Russ Roberts: The other day I came across an article, "How to Fix What's Gone Wrong with the Internet." I don't know what the article was about. But, if we want to fix what's gone wrong with the Internet--what if what's gone wrong is us? What if our nature is the problem? How do we fix ourselves?
Russ Roberts: So, to summarize the problem: The freedom of the Internet and the social media ecosystem lets us tailor our news to what we want to hear. The competitive landscape of the information in a news world encourages media outlets to be louder and more tribal. They sing to their own particular choir, the louder the better. And this is going to change how we vote, and how we interact as citizens. It's already doing it.
Russ Roberts: So, what's to be done about this natural impulse besides go off in a corner and cry? Or continue to do EconTalk and hope for the best? So, I want to try to suggest some things that might make this a little bit better. And I do this with a lot of trepidation, obviously. It's very hard to know what is to be done here.
Russ Roberts: Well, the problems I'm laying out, these are a classic case of what economists call a market failure. A situation where my private incentives lead to unattractive outcomes for others. You can call that a negative externality, or just a market failure in general. So, if I don't care much about the truth and care instead about fit, comfort, and style, my choices are going to end up hurting you--the way I vote is going to end up hurting you. Your choices are going to end up hurting me. We are going to vote for things that aren't really in our actual interest. We are going to hold views that don't make sense. We're going to believe things that aren't true, because the incentives we have to find out the actual truth are relatively limited.
Russ Roberts: And when we're in a situation like that, a lot of economists typically advocate government intervention of some kind to fix these kind of problems. And, there's usually a presumption that if we do that, the bureaucrats and the politicians will just implement the things we tell them to. And listeners will know that I'm usually, often skeptical of these kinds of interventions. But, not always. There are things the government does better than the private sector. But I'd argue this is not one of them, unfortunately, because politicians and bureaucrats face their own private incentives that often conflict with what's a good outcome. So, you know, the competition that usually would self-regulate here by having firms take care of their customers is really the part of the problem. It's the fact that the firms themselves are providing information that customers want to hear, even if it's not 100% objectively true. So, competition is not the--is actually exacerbating the problem, is making it worse. It's the wrong kind of feedback loop.
Russ Roberts: But the problem is, is that there's no reason to think that the government can do it any better. Not just 'no reason to think': It's actually the same problem. Putting the problem into the government's inbox doesn't do anything to avoid it. The whole problem is that the way we choose our politicians and policies are being corrupted by the information landscape. There's no reason to think that people chosen by that process will be interested in providing the truth or being objective. So, one way to just frame this whole problem is: The news providers have lost any sense of objectivity. It just doesn't pay. It doesn't pay in politics or policy either. Letting the government decide speech or news or anything to do with the stream of information we receive is unconstitutional; but it's also, I think, dangerous. There's a reason it's unconstitutional. So, that's not going to work very well.
Russ Roberts: And, just to step back for a second--I just want to mention this because it fascinates me: Journalists still have a code that they are objective, and that they are truth-seekers. And, when I--if you tell a journalist that they have a bias, or that their newspaper or their network has a bias, they get really mad. They get deeply offended; they'll yell at you and say, 'You don't understand. Our job is to be objective. That's what we're paid to do. We have to present both sides.' And, as an economist, I step back and I look at the incentives they face; and the incentives they face are to get eyeballs. And if you want to have a story on the front page of the New York Times or the lead at Fox News or wherever, you are going to naturally be pushed relentlessly toward drama. 'If it bleeds, it leads' is the joke in the news business--not the joke: it's the slogan of the news business. And people like dramatic things. And I think we're just seeing, with the Internet and with cable, we're just seeing the most extreme versions of that.
Russ Roberts: So, I don't want the government to try to fix this. I don't think they can. That's scary, actually, deeply scary. That the government is going to decide what's true, what's not true, say 'fine' or regulate these providers of content or their platforms where we find content to only do the things that are true and correct is a horrifying thought; and I don't want the government involved in that at all.
Russ Roberts: One private solution is: Elon Musk having been, in his opinion, mis-covered and covered badly in the news about--I think it was some investor's a comment he made. So he proposed--I think I have this right--a Yelp-like solution so you could rate the truthfulness of news stories. That works okay with restaurants, where we eat the food. But we don't eat the political views that we hold. We don't know if our political food is really good or if it's actually poisoning us. The world's too complicated. A Yelp-like solution is going to end up like a Deflategate poll: People just indulge their tribalism. And you can see this in comment sections. In theory, when I'm on Amazon and I'm trying to decide whether to read a book, and I read the reviews, I learn, by the way the review is written and the type of person, something about the type of person who is writing it. And I can decide, 'Is that person kind of like me?' And, of course, there are people who give dishonest reviews. But a lot of reviews, I think, are honest. People say what they liked or didn't like about a book. Go and read the comment section to, say, Megan McArdle at the Washington Post, or Paul Krugman at the New York Times, or anybody who is writing in a mainstream media outlet with some kind of viewpoint. And you just see comment after comment about how horrible and evil the person is, or how brilliant and wonderful they are. It's just--we're not going to learn a lot from voting on stories like that.
Russ Roberts: Now, the other worry I have--we don't have time for this in this episode, but it's somewhat related to what I talked about with Matt Stoller but not the direction that he's worried about--let's say there is some monopoly power, which I think there is, with these large Internet folk like Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, etc. Well, they are self-regulating. They are already talking about how they are going to fix this for the next election; they are not going to let it happen again. But, I'm not convinced that what they're going to propose or what they're going to do is so conducive to objective truth. They have their own axes to grind, their own tribalism. To the extent they have monopoly power, they can indulge that power and indulge their own flavors of tribalism to enhance the chances that their kinds of politicians, their kinds of policies get passed. So that's also kind of scary. And, again, I don't really think there's going to be a good way for the government to regulate that. So, I think that's the--top-down correction of those kinds of impulses is not so healthy.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to now suggest what I think we can actually do, both as individuals and perhaps in groups to make things better. And I don't want to pretend this is going to be--don't get your hopes up. This is not going to be like this fabulous list of suggestions. They are quite modest--as you'd expect. It's like: 'Well, we've got to do something.' Well, no, we don't. What we have to do probably is something that actually is good. That would be my first rule. Not, 'We have to do something.' We have to do something that's good. Something that actually makes the problem better. Improves things. That's always my first rule of thumb.
Russ Roberts: So, first thing, not surprisingly, for long-time listeners, I would suggest humility. We don't know everything we think we do. I've learned to enjoy saying, 'I don't know.' Admitting ignorance is bliss. Recognize, as Shakespeare suggested, 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' That's not so easy. And, as I've alluded to in a few times in recent conversations, humility has got its own risks. Which, if things really are going badly, you don't want to be humble. You've got to be passionate. So, you don't want just the certain people to be passionate. You do want some of the humble people to be passionate. If you are always saying, 'I don't know,' you tend not to be very proactive. So, that's a genuine concern. It's an issue I'm sure I'll be returning to now and then, inevitably. But that's a real problem. Both those things: We are too arrogant, we need to be more humble; but we also have to keep in mind that there may be some things that are genuinely dangerous and we can't just sit on the sidelines and say, 'Who knows?' There are some things we know. So we should stand by our principles. But we should be humble and aware of the possibility that some of those principles may not be correct.
Russ Roberts: Second piece of advice is to follow people on Twitter or Facebook who don't agree with you. Try to find folks who are relatively civil. That may be unrealistic. They just may make you madder. So if you follow people on Twitter or Facebook who are different from you, instead of getting educated you might just get angry. So, that's not the best solution, perhaps. But it's a thought.
Russ Roberts: The third is to hold your anger for a day--a wonderful expression, which I'm a big fan of. Don't ratchet up the rhetoric. Do your part to bring more civilization and more civility to social media. Don't answer emails from strangers who hate your guts with the same kind of angry rhetoric. Answer people calmly. Don't play the game. Don't lower yourself. That's really just good advice generally, not just for this issue but just for one's own sanity and soul.
Russ Roberts: Fourth: Spend less time on the Internet, more time with human beings. That's easier said than done, especially for young people. But if you can't quit, take a day off--a Sabbath or [?]--I think that's a great idea if you can handle it.
Russ Roberts: And, the fifth is: Try to notice when you enjoy outrage. Just be aware of the fact that you may have that personality trait. I think many of us do. Then, when you find yourself feeling the sweetness of that anger, to realize that that's a very unhealthy emotion, and that you should keep an eye on it.
Russ Roberts: Now, I have some other things to say, but those are just sort of personal pieces of advice to, I think, move us in the right direction; and I think the more people who follow that, the world would be a better place. I try to do all those things. I struggle. It's not easy. They are not straightforward. They are not effortless. They are hard.
Russ Roberts: There's also the possibility that market forces may create a set of objective, civilized news sources. But, that's a long shot. That's going to be hard, for reasons I've talked about. But, market forces may improve things through a different set of channels. Someone might start a Facebook competitor or Twitter with a different set of incentives for making you feel good about yourself by attracting eyeballs [?] being loud and angry. So, consider using those options when they come along. And I think they will. If you are worried about the power of Google, you might consider using DuckDuckGo or another type of search engine that knows less about you. True, it won't know when you are taking a trip and slot it into your calendar--which I confess I find really cool. But, it's not really that important.
Russ Roberts: Arnold Kling, frequent EconTalk guest, economist, recently, quote:
I am sick of reading about people who want to regulate Facebook. You didn't come up with the idea. You didn't build the business. Now that it's here, who the heck do you think you are telling them how to run it?
It's not that I'm happy with Facebook. Far from it. But to me, the best way to fix it would be to come up with something better. I figure that if we really do come up with a much better way of running a social network, then some entrepreneur will be able to make a success out of our idea.
That's a great point. It's not a bad thought to try to build an alternative social network that is less about ranting and yelling, or finds ways to reward people other than just attracting followers to make them feel good about themselves. I'm not saying that's an easy thing to do, but I think it's going to happen. People are going to try it. They may try it for different reasons than just these political reasons that I'm giving, but I think people will try it.
Russ Roberts: The last thing I would say is: I think there are things that foundations and think tanks can do. I am a Fellow at the Hoover Institution. We work with Brookings on financial regulation. Brookings and AEI [American Enterprise Institute] have for a long, long time done work on regulation generally, together, trying to find common ground from people who are generally on the Right and generally on the Left to work together. So I think that's a great idea. Of course, part of the problem is that, in many dimensions, Hoover, Brookings, AEI--we're like just totally centrists compared to some of the extremes that are getting more attention. And, I think those extremes are going to find their own think tanks and generate their own sets of policies to gather attention and to gather money. And, it's a lot harder for somebody on the far Right to work with somebody on the far Left than it is for somebody on the centrist Right, like Hoover, to work with somebody on the centrist Left like Brookings, or AEI with Brookings. I think these are--I don't want to overstate how exciting this is. It's not ¬that exciting. But I think it's a step in the right direction.
Russ Roberts: And, I think within a discipline, like economics, it would be really cool if some of us had the courage to partner with an economist on the other side of the ideological fence to come up with a research project, a research agenda, that held each side accountable--that held each other's feet to the fire, so to speak. That is, let's say you are talking about the minimum wage. Well, there's a lot of people who are convinced the minimum wage is relatively benign: It doesn't, at current levels it has very little impact on employment. There are a lot of people who disagree. They each do their own studies. Strangely enough, they find evidence for their viewpoints. But what if there was a new data set, or a new social experiment--like a new city, like Seattle has done recently: they went out and then raised the minimum wage dramatically. And two economists, one from each side of the fence--one who is a worrier about the impact on employment, and one who is not so worried about it--said, 'Whatever data comes out of this, we're going to work together to try to see what the actual impact is.' And I think that would be a fascinating thing. You know, I tried to do that on EconTalk a little bit with--I'm going to hedge[?]--John Christy and Kerry Emanuel on their talk about climate change. So, it's an issue that people are very passionate about. They are a rare duo in that I think they disagree very strongly about climate change and their understanding of it. But they are civilized, and civil to each other and can have a real conversation. So I think that would be a great thing. I'm not sure it would revolutionize the debate on immigration, if a pro- and anti-immigration economist went and looked at data together. But, I think it's a good idea. And I think a bunch of issues--the minimum wage, the macroeconomic role of stimulus, immigration, trade policy--it would be really interesting if we could find two civil economists on different sides of any issue who are both empirically minded and both willing to be brave enough. The problem is: it's really scary. Because you might find out that your view is wrong. That would be really awful. But I think--the challenge here is that those types of empirical findings I think are just not so important--unfortunately, are not. It doesn't really matter. I think economists like to think that their work determines the policy landscape--their findings. But I think they are just tools that politicians use to justify their beliefs, and justify their positions. I don't think they are really--I'm not convinced they are decisive. I think they are more window dressing for politicians. So, I'm not sure this is a really important idea. But it's, I think, a useful idea.
Russ Roberts: But, I think a more general point I want to make is that: I think we have to hope that a cultural norm is going to emerge that it's a bad idea to indulge a tribalism all the time. And, cultural norms are really powerful. They really run our world in all kinds of ways under the surface that we don't even think about or realize. And I think there's going to--I'm hopeful that there will be some kind of pendulum swinging back on these issues that I'm talking about, that people will be more uncomfortable, embarrassed to be as tribal as we are right now, and to be as outraged as we are right now. And, perhaps it will become a cultural norm to be more thoughtful, a cultural norm to be more open-minded, a cultural norm to be more humble. A cultural norm not to yell at your opponents. A cultural norm not to dehumanize your opponents.
Russ Roberts: The only problem with this as a solution is that we don't know how to create cultural norms. But, they are the results of lots of individuals doing lots of things. And organizations like think tanks and foundations can have a role in encouraging us in those directions, and I think that would be really helpful. So, while we don't know what creates cultural norms and we don't know how to control them, and there's no lever or knob for making sure that we've got these norms to change toward a more healthy or more skeptical structure about, say, our own views or how right we are, or how extreme we should be in the face of the other side, it's also the case that our own individual actions do matter. Not so much by themselves, but in cumulative fashion alongside the actions of others. So, the more and more people who are humble, the more and more people--the more people who are humble, the more people who are nuanced, the more people who are empathetic, kind, non-dehumanizing, humanizing, it adds up.
Russ Roberts: And it's something you have control of: You. You. Not your Representative who you have to call, and not the think tank you maybe donate to but thank-you-very-much. But you, in your personal actions, alongside millions of others, you eventually determine the landscape of civility or non-civility in our political discussion. And every time you dismiss someone as evil or an idiot or a Nazi or whatever term that you use to demonize the people who don't agree with you, you are taking us in a bad direction. And every time you are open-minded and kind and skeptical and humble, you take us in a different direction. So, I try to do what I can. As I said before--it's under my control, it's under your control, those decisions, tiny decisions about how to respond to people on Twitter, how to respond to people via email. How to respond to people over the dinner table. Those are our lives. Those are the things we do that make up our lives. And, added together across all the people who make up a country, or even the world, those are the things that determine the culture. So, each of us can help push us in the direction of creating a norm that's better than the one that we seem to be heading toward now. And I encourage all of us to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Russ Roberts: Thank you very much. Thanks for listening. If you have any feedback, there will be a place to comment, of course, at econtalk.org. And I look forward to interacting with you there when this comes out. Thanks so much.