Russ Roberts on the Information Revolution, Politics, Yeats, and Yelling
Jul 16 2018

yelling.jpg EconTalk host Russ Roberts does a monologue on how political discourse seems to have deteriorated in recent years and the growth in outrage, tribalism, and intolerance for those with different views from one's own. Roberts suggests that part of the problem is the revolution of the market for information caused by the internet that allows people to customize what they see to fit their own political narratives and worldview. In short, the market for news works to make us feel good rather than to help us to discover the truth. The monologue closes with some suggestions for how we might improve the way we consume information and interact with those we disagree with.

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Explore audio highlights, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.

READER COMMENTS

Gabriel Chavez
Jul 16 2018 at 8:23am

Just to add to the  conversation, I also think the internet brought a lot of political beliefs that were relatively niche to the surface. From anarco-capitalism to full communism, people with strange ideas discovered that they were not that lonely. This had huge benefits but, as we are currently seeing, some considerable downsides.

I recommend if Russ could interview the author of this book:

https://www.amazon.com/Kill-All-Normies-Culture-Alt-Right/dp/1785355430

She provides a clear view into the ideologically extreme communities of the internet.

Dave Adsit
Jul 17 2018 at 8:21am

This is a good reminder that one should be careful what one wishes for lest one get it. I remember in the early days the internet was often touted as a place where people could create and participate in global communities with a niche interest. We weren’t worried about tribalism and echo chambers and balkanization of ideologies at that point. Instead, we often talked about the positive good that would be created by connecting people who had been isolated from others who their specific interest.

This brings to mind two things:

First is everyone’s favorite Hayek quote about the curious task of economics.

Second is that society evolves away from its current set of problems into solutions that create a new set of unknown problems. I’m reminded of the Red Queen hypothesis and the book by that name. Which isn’t to say that the internet is a parasite on Humanity but is a reminder that no matter how much you do you never outrun your problems you only change their character.

Mary
Aug 5 2018 at 7:10am

Completely agree with the recommendation to interview Angela Nagle. That book opened my eyes to world I had never known.

Denis
Jul 16 2018 at 10:10am

Gee, that’s two very good episodes in a row. I have nothing to add but if you want to pursue this topic any further you might consider having Lilliana Mason as a guest. She teaches political science at the University of Maryland and her recent book, “Uncivil Agreement”  uses results from various social and psychological experiments to give a slightly different slant on the ideological polarization talked about in this episode.

My only criticism of this episode is that the inclusion of the bracketed “[deoxyribonucleic acid]” probably wasn’t necessary.

 

Steve Bacharach
Jul 16 2018 at 10:41am

I enjoyed your essay on Medium, Russ, and this further development of those themes.  Regarding your idea of cooperation between think tanks on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, you may want to follow the progress of Scott Alexander’s attempt to get some of his readers to work on adversarial collaborations.  He put the proposal out a few months ago and asked for updates in his most recent blog post:

http://slatestarcodex.com/2018/07/15/ot106-alexios-i-commentos/

Nonlin_org
Jul 16 2018 at 10:47am

Russ, you’re making two huge mistakes:

A working society is not about finding the razor edge “truth”, but about correcting the most egregious failures. Remember “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt”? Deflate-gate was not egregious enoug as otherwise the Colts (opposing team) would have demanded remediation in court or arbitration.
There’s nothing magic about the middle. Did you really like “the middle” in Nazi Germany? …in Communist Russia? Remember that slavery was mainstream for a long time and it still is in some places.

Kevin R. Breen
Jul 16 2018 at 12:29pm

Love the episode! I’ve spent a lot of time trying to resolve the apparent conflict between peoples’ stated preference for truth and revealed preference for believing whatever seems to be expedient in their circumstances. While the question tends to get complicated by semantic and epistemic issues, the best summary I’ve been able to think of is this: People do care about truth, but the human brain has poor mechanisms for determining what is true.

It would be hard for me to say, for example, that the martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their lives for patently false beliefs didn’t actually care whether or not those beliefs were “true.” I think they cared very much about having true beliefs, but the flawed truth-determining algorithm in their brain had directed them toward false ones. One could argue that we hardly even have a truth-determining algorithm, that instead, we have a tribali-popularity-seeking algorithm that more often tells us what we should claim to believe for “fit, comfort, and style,” as Russ describes in the shoe analogy, and I think that is a good point. But I would still say that people value truth because, as predicted by the theory of self-deception, people who were aware that they were just saying whatever was fitting, comfortable, and stylish would still need to deceive others into thinking they’re actually saying it because they believe it is true, which can be complex and difficult. A much simpler solution is for the conscious mind to simply be unaware that the unconscious is serving it biased information and just believe that it is getting the objective truth.

SaveyourSelf
Jul 18 2018 at 10:15am

Kevin R. Breen wrote, “I think they cared very much about having true beliefs, but the flawed truth-determining algorithm in their brain had directed them toward false ones.”

“Truth” is being thrown around a lot in this episode and in the comments. I’m uncomfortable with the complacency. For one thing, all truth—excepting the speed of light, apparently—changes based on the frame of reference chosen for considering a question. For another, the universe is exceedingly complicated. Trying to tease out what is truly related and what is random overlapping happenstance is really difficult.

As for algorithms for determining truth, we now have the scientific method. But that’s a learned disciplined, not an ingrained DNA prescribed procedure. It’s the best we have, but it’s hard to use, probably because it is so… unnatural.

Richard Fenton
Aug 17 2018 at 7:00pm

Democracy is the worst of all possible systems, except the rest.  Democracy minimises our maximum loss (to the leader whose power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely).  Democracy limits this power with checks and balances.

However, not all democracies are equal.  Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece are struggling nations with no clear route to joining in with northern Europe.

What I like about these podcasts is how Russ tries to improve them with clear arguments in selected fields.  Special interest groups seek to make good for themselves.  However, I’m always interested that Russ never attacks the CEO or Director class who reward themselves disproportionately with fortunes into retirement while the rest are left to work to their graves.

Global capitalism is too big to question, the masters of the universe are beyond even Russ.  Are they really a price worth paying as Thatcher once lectured?

Paul A Sand
Jul 16 2018 at 11:04am

Excellent stuff. I’ve noticed one relevant left/right asymmetry, however, based in what Charles Krauthammer once dubbed a “fundamental law”: “Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.”

Hence the corollary: while there’s too much tribal outrage on both sides, you’ll find significantly more actually-funny humor on the right. Because it’s easier to make fun of stupidity than evil.

Russ Roberts
Jul 17 2018 at 3:24pm

Paul,

I think that is a somewhat accurate characterization of the disdain each side has for the other. But plenty of people on the left think right-wingers are stupid and plenty of people on the right think left-wingers are evil. There is plenty of room for each side to ratchet up their dislike of their ideological opposites.

Michael Byrnes
Jul 17 2018 at 3:53pm

Yes, as someone on the left, I certainly do not think that my side has a monopoly on stupid.

John Thompson
Jul 24 2018 at 8:19am

Russ – your comment, as well as the podcast itself, reminded me of your chat with Jonathan Haidt from a few years ago. You didn’t reference that show during the podcast, but I would encourage others to go back and listen to it. Your discussion with him about the roots of tribalism was very helpful to me. Thanks.

Karen Grubaugh
Jul 16 2018 at 12:55pm

Dear Dr. Roberts:

I was greatly encouraged by your Podcast recorded July 5th to which I listened this morning.  I have thought a great deal about why folks distribute and/or chose to believe false information on which they rest their beliefs.  As a consumer of news, I am highly skeptical of what I read.  Trying to find reliable, truthful sources has been a challenge., particularly on the “other side.”  Truth remains important to me.  Would you consider a podcast including several trustworthy not classical liberal liberals in the future?  Thank you, Karen Grubaugh

Russ Roberts
Jul 17 2018 at 3:52pm

Karen,

Always happy to have non-classical liberals as guests. You can send suggestions to mail@econtalk,org. Thanks.

Tom Barson
Jul 16 2018 at 1:20pm

Russ:  Thoughtful and (I hope) useful episode today.  Some of your  observations, especially about “caring about the truth,” were disturbing but raise questions that  need to be out there.  I accept the (implied) challenge to care about the truth in a way that commends that caring to others.  I don’t know if I can doing it without seeming hopelessly pedantic, but that’s the task.

By the way, your description of how media incentives lead to a “market failure” for civility was brilliant.  And I think Bob Frank would appreciate the picture you drew of left and right, both caught in their own race to the bottom!

Regards, TB

Craig Miller
Jul 16 2018 at 2:16pm

I think Roberts makes some interesting observations about the changes we have experienced in the media resulting from technological change, but I’m not as enamored as others with much of his solution with the current state of affairs between political factions.  To me it sounded very much like “Can’t we all just get along?” to paraphrase Rodney King.  But then Roberts does something of a turnabout and adds at one point: “Which, if things really are going badly, you don’t want to be humble. You’ve got to be passionate.”  Sounds like an internal conflict of visions to me.

In my opinion a great follow-up would be to have Thomas Sowell as a guest, if he is still up to it

Richard Fulmer
Jul 16 2018 at 3:34pm

I think that there are three issues that feed off of each other to make the problem of “walled-off” tribes worse. The first is that as government’s role in the lives of Americans – both economically and socially – increases, the benefits of gaining political power skyrocket as do the dangers of losing power. As the stakes rise so does the intensity of political confrontation.

The second is that people who are able to see more than one side of an issue are far less likely to take to the streets with pitchforks in hand than are people who have become fully “tribal.” As a result, politics is more likely to be driven by the irrational than by the rational.

Finally, politics is driving the demand for disinformation. As the tribes fight for power over each other and as people jockey to live at each other’s expense, the demand for rationales backing their conflicting claims rises. Unfortunately, there are all too many people willing to supply that demand.

David Zetland
Jul 17 2018 at 5:09am

Totally agree on “power at stake” (which has been growing since FDR) and viciousness, which get noticeably worse under Gingrich’s “take no prisoners” leadership of the Rs.

mike wolff
Jul 17 2018 at 11:26am

Well said. The libertarian case for civility.

SaveyourSelf
Jul 17 2018 at 11:59am

Richard, great comments. Some thoughts:

The “walled-off” problem is not a problem. Specialization in markets increases productivity. If specialization in information markets is causing a problem, then it is probably because we are not actually talking about a market. Which is exactly the case. We are talking about politics. Politics is a non-market rationing device.

You said, “As the stakes rise so does the intensity of political confrontation.” I agree, but I would rephrase it to, “As a greater percentage of rationing decisions are made through violent rationing tools, the number of scope of violence necessarily increases.”

You wrote, “politics is more likely to be driven by the irrational than by the rational.” This is biased by your viewpoint, I think. From the viewpoint of a participant in the political process, violence is rational. It is rationing-by-violence-tool, after all.

You commented, “politics is driving the demand for disinformation.” Very true. John Lyly said, “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.” And Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception,” and, “The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy.” War is rationing by violence. So is politics. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus ably demonstrated this fact by drawing out the violence in the system when they confronted it and again when they were murdered.

Richard Fulmer
Jul 19 2018 at 4:32pm

Great points, thanks.  It would be interesting to hear what someone like Peter Boettke would have to say about the “economics of disinformation.”

Gregory McIsaac
Jul 16 2018 at 3:56pm

I was glad that Dr. Roberts started with the “center does not hold”  lines from Yates, written in 1919, well before the internet or cable TV.  Perhaps this speaks to tribalism being an aspect of human nature that occasionally or frequently leads to conflict.  Lilliana Mason (mentioned by Dennis above) discusses this in her work.

And let us also recall that even though there were only three major TV networks in the 1960s and 1970s, and only one TV in most households, there were also prominent political assassinations, attempted assassinations, riots, violent political protests, and violent crime in general was considerably higher than it is currently.  The national political parties at that time had more internal diversity with conservative southern Democrats and liberal northeastern Republicans.  There was notable uncivil disagreement within the Democratic party in 1968. Over time there has been a gradual ideological and geographic sorting of Democrats and Republicans, so that there is more civil disagreement within the parties and less civil disagreement between the parties.

I think it is plausible that the news consumption habits that Dr. Roberts discussed are contributing factors to incivility, but other relevant factors may be some specific events and issues that divide people:

Roe v. Wade abortion decision provides little room for compromise

Impeachment of Bill Clinton

The 2000 Election of George W. Bush being decided by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision

9/11 attacks

Iraq War

2008 Financial collapse

There seemed to be a period of greater civility for a few months after 9/11, despite the contentious 2000 election that concluded just a few months earlier. Understanding and appropriately responding to the attack became a common project. But divisions and uncivility reemerged with the decision to invade Iraq, the failure to discover WMDs there, and the chaos that subsequently unfolded in the region. The 2008 financial collapse eroded trust in experts and national leaders, which also creates an incentive for people to revert to tribe rather than experts.

It may be that our desire to belong to a tribe pulls us into different camps, and this tribalism may occasionally or frequently erupt into uncivil disagreement and/or violence. In the aftermath of violence (such as the US Civil War,  WWI, WWII or 9/11) perhaps the shared project of ending or avoiding violence becomes  a high priority which motivates people to be more civil and cooperative for a time. As memory of the violence fades, the incentive for civility fades, and the desire for tribal victory predominates.

A possible example from the past: According to Stephen Toulmin (Cosmopolis: the Hidden Agenda of Modernity) a motivation for the appeal to reason in the Enlightenment was an attempt to avoid or reduce the religiously motivated violence that had plagued Europe for many decades.

Do we need periodic violence to remind us of the long term costs of growing incivility that inspires violence?  Or could more widespread recognition of the cycles of incivility and violence provide sufficient motivation for civility?

Sam Wright
Jul 16 2018 at 5:27pm

Fantastic episode. I always enjoy your podcast, but this episode was particularly impactful. I’m finding myself quite inspired by your determination to repair our societal discourse in a civil, yet passionate, way. Thanks and keep ‘em coming!

John Bicknell
Jul 16 2018 at 7:42pm

Thanks, Russ, for assembling your thoughtful narrative.  I really like your recommendations, too.  They are all surely bound to help keep our dialogue between the ditches.

This may be anathema here, but I’m surprised that I’ve not heard any positive mention of the so called “Intellectual Dark Web.”  I don’t really like that name because, for me, it conjures up something sinister.  However, far from being sinister, this group of thinkers come from very different backgrounds and political persuasions to have thoughtful and civil conversations about some of the biggest issues facing America and the world today — much like the John Christy and Kerry Emanuel climate discussion mentioned in today’s monologue.

I realize that this may be a bit of a departure from classic Econtalk discussions, but perhaps a podcast interview with one or more of the “Intellectual Dark Web” folks might pull the rope of civil discourse further into the light.

Here’s a NYT article discussing this emerging trend among like-minded thinkers who are tired of our divisive discourse:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/opinion/intellectual-dark-web.html

David Schatsky
Jul 16 2018 at 7:46pm

First you argue that individuals, journalists, and media companies are unlikely to seek the truth because they lack adequate incentives. Then you recommend some things we can all do to make things better. Don’t we lack the incentive for following your suggestions?

Russ Roberts
Jul 17 2018 at 7:29pm

Correct–we lack the incentive to do the right thing. Imagine doing something that goes against your narrow self-interest (give to charity anonymously, leave a tip in a restaurant you’ll never be in again, donate blood, open a door for a stranger, leet someone merge on the highway) and imagine that sometimes, narrow incentives are overcome by our willingness to do something we think is the right thing to do. It can be done. Sometimes we do things that benefit despite their costs to ourselves–our conscience, upbringing, religion, culture–can help make it happen. Trying to nudge us in that direction despite the narrow self-interest we face.

Solutiontastic
Jul 19 2018 at 1:23am

“Correct–we lack the incentive to do the right thing.”

Strongly disagree. I can make a youtube video giving an opinion, vote for an American Idol, give to hurricane victims, but the gatekeepers of academia and bureaucracy won’t give individuals a shot at fixing the problems podcasts like EconTalk have constantly complained about since starting in 2006.

As long as the only people who get a shot at testing out projects, programs, and strategies to remedy society’s ills are those who’ve spent 10+ years in higher education, you’ll never get anywhere because those are often the least qualified people to come up with answers. Case in point, it’s taken Domino’s, a pizza company, to fill in pot holes ignored by cities whose job is to fill in pot holes.

If you want a game changing solution, use the resources of EconTalk to line up a school/neighborhood or two willing to serve as a test case for 5-10 listener submitted ideas that you put up $1000 each for them to try out in addition to doing a study of that idea for the selected issue to gauge success versus other ideas. Think of it as an “American Idol” for problem solving.

Good ideas grow while bad ones go back to the drawing board. Start solving the problems instead of only being aware of them and the rage fueling political discourse will die down. Do this and you’ll reverse you’re growing pessimism.

Carl A B Pearson
Jul 19 2018 at 4:57am

I’m happy to my money where @EconTalker’s mouth is.

How would such a operation be organized?  Is $1000 enough?  What’s the plan for understanding if we made a difference?

I think there are some good candidates from interview alums to organize / run / evaluate the thing in a principled way.

Trent
Jul 16 2018 at 8:30pm

An interesting podcast as always.  Given several of the issues you raised here, and in keeping with issues you’ve discussed in recent podcasts, I’d like to suggest two potential guests for future episodes:

First, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism still offers a course on the history of journalism, but the curriculum has been revised (significantly since I was there) to incorporate current trends.  The course is now called “Philosophy of Modern Journalism,” and I’d bet you would have an interesting discussion with that professor on a host of issues regarding journalism that you raised in this podcast.  For example, I think your view that ‘journalists seek the truth’ would be countered with something akin to ‘journalists seek balance.’  Further, this goes back a few years, but you have raised the issue previously that journalists may know a lot about writing, but not necessarily a lot about the subjects they write about; so why wouldn’t a top-notch program like Medill require a double-major in a content area, like history, economics, political science, science, etc.?

Second, I think you would have a fascinating discussion with Andy Stanley, who is a pastor of a megachurch in suburban Atlanta (and also has podcasts on religion/life issues as well as leadership).  He has a non-threatening, civil, explanatory style that I think you’d enjoy.  A few topics I could see you raising with Andy:

The economics of leading a megachurch
How his specific megachurch got started, how it’s emerged to reach people nationwide, and how he’s managed that growth
Why so many people seem to lack meaning in their lives today
Why more Americans (particularly highly educated ones) are turning away from religion
How leadership is different depending on what you’re leading (e.g. church vs. business vs. school vs. family)
Why America seems to becoming more uncivil and what can we do about it
The challenges of leading a church comprised of people with different views (political and otherwise) and backgrounds
The Enlightenment and the rise of science – good or bad for religion

Shayne Cook
Jul 17 2018 at 8:33am

Hey Trent,

What, exactly, is a “megachurch”?

Trent
Jul 17 2018 at 12:10pm

My own description would be a large Christian church that regularly reaches people/preaches to people far outside its community.  It could be one large facility that regularly draws thousands of people – as best I understand, that’s Joel Osteen’s ministry in Houston at the old Summit basketball arena.  Or it could be a large central church with several other ‘campus churches’ that are all part of one ministry – again, as best I understand, that’s how Andy Stanley’s church is structured in suburban Atlanta & how the Willow Creek church is structured in suburban Chicago.

Scanning the internet for a definition, it looks like what’s emerged is that any church with at least 2,000 average weekend attendance is called a megachurch.

lloydfour
Jul 16 2018 at 8:57pm

You asked for my rant soo…

I think that the nastiness comes from economic worries – will I have a job next week?  I may have a job but my pay gets frozen or cut.  I have to be mean to compete for jobs.  When there are plenty of jobs, people are forgiving of lifestyle/political difference.

The economist have to take big blame here.  Take free trade.  Economist says that free trade benefits all of us.  But we see the factories closing and jobs moving to China.  Economist have a hard time showing us the direct link to jobs created here as a result of that factory/job move.  Yeah, I know the free trade theory from Russ’ interviews.  But you still have to draw that straight line from here (factory closing) to there (new job creation) before we can really believe it and have the faith that free trade will be better off.

Done.

Russ Roberts
Jul 17 2018 at 4:28pm

Lloydfour,

You are not alone in suggesting that financial factors explain rising outrage. Yet unemployment is very low and while some workers have been discouraged, the numbers are small relative to the amount of outrage.

Yes, factories move to China. Yes, it is hard to see the jobs that are created by the opportunity to buy goods made in China and elsewhere at lower prices. But what is not hard to see is the total number of jobs. It rises steadily outside of recessions.

While economic troubles in particular geographic areas may explain some of the rise of populism, I think there is more to the story.

J. Dodge
Jul 18 2018 at 7:41am

It’s more about the incentives in the narrative then the incentives that actually exist in reality. Everything that exists in reality today could have a positive narrative and society would be much different. The incentives are such for those out of power to overlay reality with a negative narrative so as to knock down those in power in an attempt to make them more vulnerable. This creates a cycle that may be disconnected from reality but is very affective politically.

Eric
Jul 16 2018 at 9:45pm

Enjoyed your podcast on the way to work this morning. I found myself pausing the program to contemplate what you said several times.

A few thoughts.

I’m one of the first generation to grow up with personal computers and the on-line lifestyle. When I was a kid we did it with dial-up modems and floppy disk sharing parties. When the first BBS style networks made it possible to communicate with hundreds of like-minded people it was a life changing experience. The discourse was civil, for several reasons. Firstly because this was a unique experience open only to those willing to go through the somewhat difficult process. Second because only a handful of newbies would arrive at a time, usually about the same percentage of the high school kids in the math club and hanging out in the computer lab. So if some newbie decided to get uncivilized they were quickly put in their place, or shunned. And third, we all had 2400 bps modems, and brevity meant lower phone bills. It goes without saying that plagiarism or copyright abuse would quickly get you banned and not just for clobbering everyone’s modem.

That’s not to say things never got out of hand. Even then (or maybe more so) it was so easy to misunderstand a sarcastic comment, or a misunderstood spell check, that you could almost see the tears as they typed up their response. But then there’d be a private message and a public apology and we’d all get back to normal.

Then came AOL. Then came opening up the Internet. And then came the VC money to build out high speed networks. Suddenly everyone was online. The established communities were prepared to deal with all the newbies, and they weren’t interested in our little niche clubs. The discourse changed. The content changed. Suddenly people were “sharing” their CD collection. And scanning their dad’s Playboy centerfolds. Hollywood started to notice. The VC firms started to notice. So they got laws passed to add teeth to the copyright laws. The ISPs didn’t want to be the police so they shut down the free, distributed NNTP servers they offered as a value-add that most people didn’t use. And because the NNTP stuff ran on the same servers as the free web hosting space, they shut it down too.

This left an opening. There were many sites that attempted to recreate the NNTP experience. Some thrive even today. But none have the traction of Facebook. Mostly because it was easy, and also because Hollywood could police it for stolen content. So the VC firms backed Zuckerberg. It was a good idea, combining blogging, newsgroup style and an acceptable UI with “brand safe” content for advertisers. One stop shop. Except Wall St expects growth. When a fifth of all humans on Earth are using your platform, how much YOY growth are you going to see? So you get more revenue by pushing controversy. Just like the MSM. Heck at this point Facebook is every bit as much the MSM as NBC or the New York Times, both of which are happy to steer you to their Facebook page, not their web address.

No one is on Facebook because they like Facebook. They like the people they associate with, and Facebook seems to be the only way they can do it. Something better will come along, in fact I’m pretty certain several better things have already come and gone (NNTP groups and RSS being the most obvious), but it will take a lot of pushing to get the casual “check in once a day” Facebook users to move to another platform. And until that happens the hard core Facebook users will remain.

David Zetland
Jul 17 2018 at 4:02am

Glad you’ve put this out. A few comments (I’m only halfway, but meetings…):

You talk about news (shoes) in terms of fit, comfort and style, but don’t forget cost. It’s obvious that more expensive shoes can better meet these criteria, and the same is true — and much more important — with news. Back in the day, journalists were poorly paid but they COULD make a living. These days, most of the talent has left for other fields, leaving some very good writers (thanks internet diversity) but also a HUGE share of inexperienced, sloppy and often stupid “reporters” whose words are used to fill space and attract eyeballs. The “low threshold” that allows everyone to have a blog also invites plenty of poor quality “journalism” — to the point where the entire “profession” risks losing its reputation. (The same might be occurring with academics, via the open access/pay-to-publish catastrophe.)

Second, I just hope that 100x your normal listener base thinks over these issues, and how they are undermining their lives. Most people will never think of these issues, sadly, and that’s why I left the US: the level of “civil discourse” and political maturity has sunk so low.

Keep up the good work!

Nick
Jul 17 2018 at 7:37am

What to do about tribalism? Define the borders properly and don’t force others into them.

If you want to be communist, join a Kibbutz or hippy commune instead of voting to impose communism on others through politics.

If you believe in a minimum wage, work for a company that pays it or start one, instead of trying to force others through politics.

If you don’t like immigration, move or establish somewhere that has hard borders instead of trying to force it on others through politics.

If you think violence is ok, go and fight other hooligans, but don’t impose it on others through politics. If you think it’s not ok, don’t engage in it, but don’t force that on others through politics.

If you hate Amazon, don’t buy their products, but don’t force it on others through politics.

If you think American foreign policy is good, go meddle or pay for it yourself, but don’t draft others into it through politics.

Taking the power of political compulsion out of these matters means you would have the skin in the game that’s missing (as Russ points out beautifully just when I happen to be reading the book). People would leave communes when communism isn’t working, companies that pay artificially high wages would fail or succeed if it’s a bad/good idea, etc.

If you get rid of the premise that we should decide for others what they don’t agree to (the premise of politics), you resolve most of the problems in this episode. Just as the market solved the shoe problem by making it a personal decision, the market could solve our modern policy dilemmas if we take them out of the policy realm and make them an individual decision.

People who want to engage in uncivil discourse should go do so with each other, as social media is designed for, the name giving it away. It’s only when we assign power to such people that the issue becomes problematic and we have modern politics.

Perhaps tribalism is a reflection of how much power politics has now. Higher stakes, more tribalism type behaviour. Just look at diving in soccer.

The reason that libertarians hold the higher moral ground is that you can be a communist, socialist, individualist, nationalist, feminist, and anything else you like in a libertarian society, but not vice versa. In a Libertarian society you can’t force your views on others because the power doesn’t exist. You can only persuade and prove with skin in the game.

The problem people have with libertarians is that accountability does still exist in this situation. If communists, for example, really are wrong, their communes would be abandoned in a libertarian society. That’s why all those ideologies need the state. To avoid the accountability of skin in the game. Just in case they’re wrong.

Last but not least, I think civil discourse is not encouraged by the size of phone keyboards, which makes us all seem brasher than we are.

Rocky Miller
Jul 17 2018 at 9:34am

I really enjoyed the essay and hope to hear many more public figures turn in this direction.

I’d like to comment on a sub-topic that was only mentioned in passing: internet anonymity. There seems to be a painting of it as mostly bad. I’ve got to disagree with that notion. Yes, it’s being abused by many but I bet not as many as it seems once it’s factored in the multiple account registrations, the paid/voluntary political agitators and with the most radical also being the most prolific and loud. I believe that most of the individual anonymous participants are sincere. The good, the bad and the ugly of it are a real sampling of the array of the positive/negative/optimistic/pessimistic/egalitarian/evil/conventional/subversive/etc. world views that only anonymity can reveal. It’s extreme free speech.

Anonymity offers the opportunity to opine one’s most unconventional thoughts and ideas without social consequences. Sure, the cauldron of these unfiltered thoughts contains both sugar and bile but so does every single human being.

I offer a solution: there should be only two types of social media. One type allows no anonymity whatsoever. In this social media you are subject of all of the social machinations and pressures that shape everyone’s public facade. Facebook is essentially this. The second type should be completely anonymous and have it enforced. And there should be no mixing of the two types of social media. Twitter is an example of a mixed type I’d like to see split into to two separate entities: VerifiedTwitter and AnonTwitter.

Joel
Jul 17 2018 at 9:53am

As always, thanks for the episode Russ. A few comments:

In your opening you ask what changed? In your answer you note that tribalism has always been a part of human nature but technology (and social media) are new. I think a key piece of the puzzle (as discussed in recent Econtalk episodes) is that the decay of large scale institutions (church, family, political parties, civic clubs) has created a void. As a society, we lack outlets to be part of something larger than ourselves and these cultural or virtual tribes formed and nurtured on social media have stepped in to fill the void.

I know the point of his episode was not to reflect on Trump but it’s hard to have a conversation about incivility and the erosion of political discourse without some mention of our president. You even appeared to superficially draw some sort of false equivalence between disliking Trump and disliking Hillary (I don’t think that was your intention but that’s how it came across). Hillary “will destroy America” was a normalized GOP candidate, Fox news talking point. Trump may not be a Nazi but there is a lot of really dangerous territory between generic politician and Hitler acolyte. Isn’t the fact that you present Trump as just another politician the other side doesn’t like the real example of the center not holding? I understand you want the counterbalance the outrage culture, which I applaud. But Trump is truly outrageous by any objective standard.

You don’t need to rely on sensationalist journalism or rabid liberals to recognize the fact that Trump: lies all the time (about trivial and important topics), courts support of white supremacists, appoints grifters and family members to key government roles, undermines the first amendment (threatening CNN, WaPo, sue journalists, avoids any outlet except for FOX), threatens key allies and subjects them to arbitrary tariffs, brags about sexually assaulting women,  sides with a Russian autocrat vs our intelligence agencies, threatens to jail political opponents, pardoned a political ally that ran an illegal labor camp, and on and on. These are just objective facts, to say nothing of his actions on border control (and treatment of asylum seekers, separating migrant children, etc.), Chinese tariffs (or lack thereof with regards to ZTE), refusal to fortify our elections processes from Russian hacking, withdrawal from the Paris Accord, canceling the Iran agreement, North Korean posturing, etc. It’s not so much that policies themselves on the second list are indefensible, it’s the process. There’s no plan, no cohesive agenda other than to give Obama the middle finger.

Epistemological modesty is still in order – it’s impossible to say exactly what becomes of America post-Trump (I for one was certain the market would crater in 2017). But can’t we distinguish between unknown future outcomes and inputs and principles? I can’t predict GDP in 2022 or global temperatures in 2030 but can’t we be outraged by a president that has total and flagrant disregard for the truth and abuses the levers of government to stroke his own ego? Or maybe I’m just an outrage zealot J

SaveyourSelf
Jul 17 2018 at 10:43am

Listening to a monologue for an hour was a lot better than I expected. Thanks, Russ, for taking the time. You gave me a lot to think about. Here are some of my thoughts:

There were a lot of assumptions in this Econtalk episode expressed while Dr. Roberts built a case first for a problem and then for some solutions.  For example, Tribalism is bad. But tribalism was not defined. Truth is good. But truth was not defined. Democracy is good. But what is democracy and, then, why is increased competition in media bad for democracy? Having a strong middle is good. Why is that the case? These answers are necessary to understand the model he is building. Even with them, however, I’m not sure this model can hold. Here’s why:

Around 41:00 Russ Roberts said, “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…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.”

I think Russ is correct about the market failure, but not because of the case he laid out systematically in the podcast. His case, as evidenced in the above quote, is that choices made in the free market cause individual market participants to hurt other people by influencing the way they vote. He hit on the problem, I think, but didn’t recognize its significance and so passed over it.

The real issue underlying the quoted market failure is that voting is a non-market activity. Voting—in our “democratic” society—is rationing by force. The winning voters force their opinions and values on the losers of an election and on nonvoters. Importantly, the fact that voting leads to market failure is not due to polarization of ideas in the market for information. That is correlated but not causal. That voting leads to market failure is the entire point of voting in the first place. It is not a market! Thus the term “market failure” does not and cannot apply. And, since it is not a market, its problems are not curable through humility, patience, and diversification of information streams. It’s worth repeating, if you want to have a healthy market, you first have to have a market. Our political system is not a market.

And therein lies the rub. Russ Roberts is trying to find a way to use the market for information—which actually is a market rationing system—to solve the problems of political force—which is a non-market rationing system. That solution can’t work because force is a trump card. (That’s not meant to be a political pun. A trump is a playing card of the suit chosen to rank above the others which can win a trick where a card of a different suit has been led). Markets, by definition, ration through non-violent trades. Non-violent trades are off-suit in the game-of-rationing. Market transactions are trumped by violence. All the non-violent market activities in the world will not uproot the core of violence rotting at the center of society. To beat a trump card, you have to play a trump card.  It is why “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” (Thomas Jefferson) instead of the far more attractive but completely impractical “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with humility, patience, and diversity.”

mike wolff
Jul 17 2018 at 11:29am

The Closing of the American Mind explains a lot of the current incivility and take-no-prisoners, power politics nastiness.

Eric
Jul 17 2018 at 1:05pm

Russ Roberts: “…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.

And it’s something you have control of… 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. …”

Excellent episode on an important topic.  It just so happens that Arthur C. Brooks has just started a new podcast, The Arthur Brooks Show, that is addressing exactly this issue.

Arthur Brooks explores the art of disagreement. Against the backdrop of a toxic political climate, he believes the issue with our discourse is not that we disagree too much, but that we’ve forgotten how to disagree well. Different perspectives and diverse views aren’t cause to shy away from conversations. To the contrary, they’re a sign to dig deeper—because that’s when things start getting interesting.

Here is the description of Episode 1: Family & Friends:

How do we navigate substantive disagreements – political or otherwise – with those closest to us? And how do we hold a discourse without sweeping differences under the rug or burning bridges? This episode unpacks ways of dealing with those differences of opinion in personal relationships: a primer for dealing with conflict at the next family gathering, and an inspiring story of two friends whose relationship survived their politics.

 

Peter Hartree
Jul 17 2018 at 2:51pm

Hi Russ,
I greatly enjoyed your latest monologue.

I’d love to hear you interview Tristan Harris, James Williams or Luciano Floridi on this topic.

Luciano Floridi because he’s an Oxford “philosopher of information” whose (2014) book coined the term “infraethics” to describe environments that facilitate ethical choices, actions, or process:

by placing our informational interactions at the centre of our lives, ICTs seem to have uncovered something that, of course, has always been there, but less visibly so: the fact that the moral behaviour of a society of agents is also a matter of ‘ethical infrastructure’ or simply infraethics. An important aspect of our moral lives has escaped much of our attention. Many concepts and related phenomena have been mistakenly treated as if they were only ethical, when in fact they are probably mostly infraethical. […] in the same way that, in an economically mature society, business and administration systems increasingly require infrastructures (transport, communication, services etc.) to prosper, so too, in an informationally mature society, multi-agent systems’ moral interactions increasingly require an infraethics to flourish.

[…]

[infraethics] is the not-yet-ethical framework of implicit expectations, attitudes, and practices that can facilitate and promote moral decisions and actions. At the same time, it would also be wrong to think that an infraethics is morally neutral. At its best, it is the grease that lubricates the moral mechanism.

[…] creating the right sort of infraethics and maintaining it is one of the crucial challenges of our time, because an infraethics is not morally good in itself, but it is what is most likely to yield moral goodness if properly designed and combined with the right moral values.

James Williams because his (2018) book argues that freedom of attention is a fundamental capacity that’s required for human flourishing, and that digital technologies will severely threaten this capacity until they become better aligned with our values.

Tristan Harris because he’s making remarkable progress as an advocate on these and related areas.

As I understand Williams and Harris, their proposals to make things better include:

Re-assess the nature, purpose and ethical status of advertising, then update our regulatory norms accordingly.
Recognising that we trust social media platforms more than we trust priests, lawyers, pyschotherapists and doctors, borrow some of the legal norms that protect customers in those domains and apply them to social media (i.e. switch to something like a fiduciary relationship).
Set much higher standards of transparency regarding what goals social media platforms (and perhaps news outlets) are optimising for.
Develop better metrics, particularly better ways of measuring user intent.

Fundamentally I think all three would be very sympathetic to your recent guest Patrick Deneen’s argument that we should build a society which promotes the freedom to choose well.

Books referenced
Floridi, L. (2014) The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality
Williams, J. (2018) Stand out of our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, available free online at <https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/stand-out-of-our-light/3F8D7BA2C0FE3A7126A4D9B73A89415D&gt;

Recommended links
http://humanetech.com/ — Tristan’s nonprofit

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/neurohacker-collective/collective-insights/e/55209096 — Tristan’s best recent long form interview.

Ren Howell
Jul 17 2018 at 3:34pm

Really enjoyed today’s episode.  A lot of food for thought.  While I can’t say I agree with every point you or others propose,  I struggle to think of a more healthy platform for relevant intellectual discussion than EconTalk. Today’s episode was especially thought-provoking and timely; Keep up the good work.

I’d also like to suggest you discuss the book “Factfullness” at some point on your show.  I’d be interested to hear some discussion on the ideas in that book.  Unfortunately the primary author/contributor, Hans Rosling, passed away last year, so you might need to find some other person/method for hosting the discussion.

Denis
Jul 17 2018 at 7:15pm

You might already know this but Anna Rosling Ronnlund (I believe she is the daughter-in-law of Hans Rosling) was a co-worker with Hans Rosling and is continuing his work.

Michael Byrnes
Jul 17 2018 at 4:12pm

It would be great to have some interviews about this topic.  I think Erza Klein (on the left) and Arthur Brooks (on the right) have both addressed this topic on various media. Brooks has a new podcast on a related topic.

 

Eric
Jul 17 2018 at 5:46pm

Yes, the new podcast, The Arthur Brooks Show, is a great addition.  I’ve included some details about it in a posted comment (above).

Michael Byrnes
Jul 19 2018 at 9:16pm

Funnily enough, Klein just released a podcast in which he interviewed Brooks. Brooks has a lot to say on political discourse and would be a great guest on that topic.

Nate
Jul 18 2018 at 12:09am

Really great episode today Russ. I want to share it, but I have to admit that I have trouble imagining any of my friends being open minded enough to even consider this non-partisan message to be more humble. Sigh.

J. Dodge
Jul 18 2018 at 7:28am

Guidance for life. Updated.

1. Live as if it has little to do with you.
2. Try to let others have their special moments, don’t get in the way.
3. Be kind.
4. Have gratitude for all people and things.
5. Support others when it’s healthy to support them.
6. Encourage others in their productive pursuits.
7. Love others first, before they love you.
8. Be considerate of the needs of strangers.
9. Enjoy the day without spending too much money.
10. Cherish the opinions of those that disagree with you.
11. Faith is a gift, don’t act as if you’ve earned it.
12. Live intentionally.
13. Feed your soul.
14. Give it away

B Thompson
Jul 18 2018 at 8:25am

Thanks Russ for voicing what many of us experience on a daily basis. It’s an especially odd time as a libertarian and enduring both sides and often feeling left without a tribe. I appreciate your thoughtful explanation and suggestions. My hope is that this current upswing in growth can sustain and provide more opportunity and ultimately happiness in more people’s lives.

Sybrand
Jul 18 2018 at 10:38am

I happened to stumble into this website earlier today https://knowherenews.com

This might be an example of the unbiased news channel that is created by the market demand for such a service.

Thank you for the podcast. I really enjoy it and it always challenges me to see issues in a new light.

all the best!

 

bogwood
Jul 18 2018 at 12:43pm

A vote for getting government out of the civil discussions rather than adding more regulation.  I don’t give a flying frisbee about Tom Brady but am annoyed by the government subsidies for professional sports (college sports for example).  I should have a fraternal feeling for monotheists since they are, as they say, 99% of the way to the truth.  But they continue to free ride on tax dollars, even after the new higher personal tax deduction.  So I remain a little aggressive in being anti- islam, etc.  A level playing field would make the discussions more balanced.  A strong tribe would not need subsidies.

The same for national news.  Like the episode about museums being more for the major donors, even  PBS is for the congressional incumbents .  As an MD I cannot take a coffee cup from a drug company but does PBS ask about this before interviewing a senator about drug policy?

Some of this was covered in the last episode, favoring less government influence.  Create a huge tax break for atheist, mountain bikers and I will shut up.

(and I know my medical tribe has government subsidy problems too)

David Gossett
Jul 18 2018 at 12:53pm

This is way out in right field, but I think the “hard drive” could be what has changed. Human brains were never built to view this amount of unstructured data now being stored around the world. We have taken Paradox of Choice and put it on steroids.

An analogy may be the grocery store? Stand in front of the frozen pizza or the ice cream or the cereal aisle. The choices (like information choices) are extraordinary. As humans, we pick something from the shelf and stick with it until it disappoints us. CNN and Digiorno pizza may have more in common than we think.

I think Paradox of Choice has forced us to hold onto brands very tight. Even within these brands, we are struggling with the level of data coming at us (variations of Digiorno) — and we have already tuned out every other brand of pizza.

A Paradox of Choice, out of control, next impacts Wisdom of Crowds, which depends on diverse viewpoints to get collective decisions right.

And this same hard drive that bombards us with data, 24/7, is also fertile ground for pundits and people with opinions. A CNN or Fox would be far less effective without these talking heads that are sourced from the same grocery shelves that are overwhelming all of us. Pundit product quality is not even considered. 8 talking heads are better than 4… period.

What’s the solution? Quantum computers, in my opinion. The CPU needs to catch up with the hard drive. The Qubit will process the data for us and help us decide the best choice.

For example, I can see an app, soon, that tracks every elected official in the United States. And I don’t mean votes. I mean everything. Schedules, meetings, you name it. The CPU gives us a daily or weekly summary/analysis of our elected officials. No pundits. No screaming from the grocery shelf. No marketing scams. No product placement. Just a good old fashioned, customized, simple-to-understand report for every citizen in America. Humans (reporters, pundits, TV personalities) no longer gather and synthesize the data on behalf of us. That’s all turned over to the CPU.

I can also see a day when a CPU synthesizes every one of these Econtalk episode comments and reads us a synopsis on the way to work. 40+ comments digested into less than 5 minutes.  The same CPU will ask us to voice record our comments at the end of every episode. 40 comments will turn into 400 or even 4000.

And every listener might get a slightly different comment recap. The differences are designed to keep each of our information diets well-balanced.

jacobn
Jul 18 2018 at 1:18pm

Russ,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think a monologue episode about once a year is just fine. It worked out great.

One thing to potentially add to this theme is the general decline of religion and systems of ethics. How do I know if I’m a good person? Politics is a cheap religion to have. It generally requires no sacrifice and few behavioral changes to my life. I achieve automatic moral virtue by simply stating I support or do not support certain parties, candidates, or policies. Everyone around me says I am a good person because of my verbal support, making me feel great about myself. On top of this I get the thrill of having evil hordes that I oppose and courageously vanquish, all without actually doing much of anything but shoot off a few messages on social media. I’m the perfect combination of a humble priest, a courageous scholar, and Jason Bourne, all without doing or accomplishing almost anything (or perhaps making things worse). I can pat myself on the back and consider myself a “good person” because I’ve put in my quota and my morals/self-esteem are sated.

I think this has always been the case, but in the moral vacuum politics naturally moved in and took a more dominant position. I’ve found myself fall into this trap often and it’s taken me years to notice and even longer to stop myself, albeit with varied success.

Scott Campbell
Jul 18 2018 at 5:51pm

Nostalgia, for the way it use to be, has never won the day nor has it truly affected the future.

From the moment the human spirit began animating the human body the order of the day has been onward and upwards.

The pendulum has never faithfully represented sociological trends. They are better represented by a military tank, traveling to the left, of which the tracks and each cleat represents the trajectory and generations of humans always moving to the left. Ocassionally a generation seems to hold its own and it even appears like it is reversing the trend but it is not. Society moves forward and to the left continually. Conservatism is not a winnng strategy. It may ocassionally balance the scales but it does not produce prosperity.

Where are we headed, you ask?  It think technology and artificial intelligence will finally enable humanity to find and refine its better nature. Religion tried but it failed because it couldn’t overcome secrecy and deceit.  The algorithms of the future and statistical probability allied with physiological sensors and ubiquitous data collectors will resolve the dilemma of doubt and uncertainity in our relations with each other. The vail of ignorance will replace prejudice and the block chain will circumvent greed as a motive for change and benevolence.

I think the materialistic nature of humans will run its course leading to the realization of our spirituality allowing us to adapt and become a force for good, a force for wellbeing, and force for stewardship.

Colston Young
Jul 18 2018 at 11:03pm

I am surprised that you did not address one additional market force enabling the tribal dichotomy, which is the two-party system. Both of the major parties benefit from the current divisive environment – divisiveness creates more dollars, more passion and more lock-in of the system. And it creates a dumbing down of our political identities: unlike any other thriving market, here you only have two choices!

I find it curious that so many people take this political duopoly as a given (and it very much is a classic market-destroying duopoly that protects itself at any any cost, especially through legal and regulatory means). We need more viable political groups with which politicians and voters can affiliate and under whose banner candidates can win.

In practice, enabling more competition in the US political sphere would be challenging – it’s hard to change the rules when the duopoly makes the rules! But it’s inportant to acknowledge that the Democratic Party and Republican Party incentives could be a big part of the political dialogue problem in the country. Enabling more political competition to break down the political duopoly may also have the benefit of enabling people to have more nuanced political identities and help more people be better seekers of truth.

(Disclaimer: I am affiliated with Unite America (http://uniteamerica.org), an organization promoting the election of unaffiliated, independent candidates to both state and federal seats.)

 

 

bogwood
Jul 19 2018 at 8:58am

The Facebook comment was only an aside, but a case could be made for taxing FB at a higher rate.  It has a capitalization of 600 billion dollars and has acquired 65 other companies for billions of dollars over the last few years.  Some of these companies were potential competitors.  Consumers ultimately pay the corporate taxes but in this case the product is “free”.  Bring back the 90% tax rate on certain levels of income.  No startup is going to compete with a company of this size and connections.  Someone has to pay for the cost of government, why not the high flying tech companies.

Ducktales
Jul 20 2018 at 9:54am

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

Era Russ
Jul 21 2018 at 11:03am

Dear Russ,

It is my first time listening to your podcast.

They used to say Seinfeld was the show “about nothing”. I’m not so sure it is the only one anymore.

Tribalism is embedded in our DNA? Somebody else said something similar to that in a garage on June 22, 2015.

Instead of quoting a poet, Yeats, you should delve into John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, specifically Sections 89 and 90. In my opinion, reading Locke, the breakdown into “tribalism” as you call it, is the erosion of the civil society. When man decided to quit his executive power of the law of nature and resign it to the public (consent of the governed) he authorized the legislative thereof to make laws for him. The fact that the left does not care to obey our immigration laws creates a void between those who want to revert back to a state of nature (or absolute monarchy as described in Sec. 91) and those who do not. The power of the vote is solidified for the left if we choose to ignore our immigration laws and disable our borders.

There are plenty of Americans who do not subscribe to your label of digesting news and events through the lens of tribalism. The left continually seeks to divide Americans through utilizing racial issues and cultural Marxism. However, I am an American. There is only one culture I need concern myself with and that is the American culture.

I am an informed American but I am not on Facebook. I have discussions with my peers but I do not Twitter. I have a modicum of history and current events but I unplugged from cable 8 years ago. I listen to both sides through podcasting. You do not have to worry about me exacting my anger upon anyone on either side. Thank you.

Michael Byrnes
Jul 23 2018 at 7:39am

It is notable that while claiming that tribalism has no impact on your own views, you attack “the left”.

That (blaming the people you view as the out group) is tribalism personified.

Dan
Jul 21 2018 at 4:44pm

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but two yellow stripes and dead armadillos” – Jim Hightower.

It turns out people go to more extremes, because being in the middle of the road and trying to be reasonable means you end up creeping towards the side that is more successful being extreme, as the Dems have found out when Clinton and others have tried to follow the GOP rightwards with a corporatist form of the Democratic party.

It’s pretty clear with the Trump Presidency, that lies work very well in this political climate.   “Tax cuts lower Deficits”-Steven Mnuchin.  “Trade Wars are good and easy to win”-Donald Trump  “We can build a Wall and Mexico will pay for it”-Donald Trump.

In a world where lies are the most successful method of political discourse, you may as well rage, and you may as well go to an extreme position.  When 40 years of tax cuts have only modestly raised real median incomes, hey, why not socialism?

The cynicism of politics feeds extreme positions, and cynical politics have been a huge winner in the US’s gerrymandered politics.  I expect American politics to consistently get more extreme, and more populist, even if it is a disaster for the country.

 

 

Dr Bob
Jul 21 2018 at 7:32pm

This was a great podcast and accurately (in my opinion) describes a serious problem in today’s political discussions. A problem that I would like to help fix. The comments were also thought out and very civil for an internet discussion. Unfortunately, that makes me think this audience is not the one that needs to change its ways. Do you have any suggestions for organizations that I can donate to to help change the level of political discourse?  I have donated to fact checking organizations (fact-check.org, politifact), some other organizations (SPLC, ACLU) and I make sure to pay for news that I think is well researched (economist, wsj), but I am always looking for other ways to help. Thanks.

Fredrik Ribbing
Jul 22 2018 at 2:37am

Russ,

thanks ones again for this great show. Funny though that this program on the importance of balanced information and listening was one of few that didn’t have the form of a dialogue and further drilling questions. A form that you by the way is a master of. May I propose that you repeat this topic with a counterpart guest? Say eg. Ezra Klein?

This question on the “market” for good information and good ideas is a definite favourite of mine. My guess is that there is something hidden here that pokes at the very core of the arguments for both markets and democracy. I can not really see the arguments through but there is something in the distribution of information – as a basis for our free choices – that lures us away from what is best not only for all, but also away from what is best for ourselves in the long run.

In science we have a long standing tradition that says it is better to look for what falsifies rather than what supports your hypothesis. Not very easy to live by in practice,  not for individuals nor for institutions. But it’s still an ideal that gives the ones who succeeds with it “style” in the eyes of others.

I’ve long been looking for something similar with news. Something that tells us that drama might be a good way to reach your audience, but it’s really bad if it’s used to choose what stories are the news of the day. In this vain newsrooms should indeed be neutral to the consequences of the stories they report (ones chosen). But they cannot be neutral to the consequences of what stories they choose to report. They are not neutral to the “algorithm” they use in able to pick out the most important stories of the day. I.e. a publisher must be free to put out whatever they like. But it should be noted in the eye of the public that it cannot be called news if it’s not chosen in accordance with what is important to read for the democracy to work well.

I guess it might be time to develop our notion of freedom of speech and start talking also about the need for a freedom to hear. I.e. the freedom of speech is there for a reason, and that reason is not that everyone must be allowed to shout, but rather that we should do our best so that everyone gets a possibility to hear all the arguments there are.

Steve Shank
Jul 22 2018 at 3:48pm

A new news conglomerate app for iOS and Android that attempts to do what Russ is talking about and is new, but already pretty good is:

https://newsvoice.com/app

They  try and present articles from both sides and have user feedback on the article topics.

It makes it easier to check out “the other side”

Charles M Boland
Jul 22 2018 at 6:36pm

I am an avid listener and have been for a long time.  This is the first time I am writing.

I was surprised that you didn’t mention the role universities are playing in curtailing the expression of ideas in a civil environment.  The humanities seem to be a prime mover in not allowing points of view contrary to their own.

Perhaps you believe suppression of free speech is not under the control of the faculty at universities but I believe faculty members like you need to take a more active role in promoting open discussion.

Charles Boland

Charles Mann
Jul 23 2018 at 4:15am

Interesting episode but I guess I was left unimpressed by what I felt was a false equivalence of comparing an outlet like the NY Times to Fox News & Breitbart. Does the NYT have problems? Sure, they’re not perfect (e.g. see Judith Miller’s reporting) but their signal to noise ratio is an order of magnitude better than Fox News. Just compare what Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham spew on a daily basis with the NYT front page.

It’s no comparison, IMO. Of course, I admit that I might be skewed by the fact that I consider myself center-left (liberal on social issues and conservative on spending).

 

 

Jared Szymanski
Aug 9 2018 at 4:35pm

Charles Mann, you claim that Russ Roberts makes a false equivalency between NYT and Fox News but then you equate Hannity and Ingraham, who are acknowledged by all as opinion based hosts rather than news, to the front page of the NYT. A fair comparison would be to the editorial page of the NYT, which obviously and openly leans left.

All news has bias, even the front page of NYT, and it doesn’t seem unfair to compare Fox News to CNN or NYT. I’m less familiar with Breitbart, but the actual news portion of Fox News doesn’t seem any more biased than most other news sources.

Jon Breslau
Jul 23 2018 at 10:20pm

This is a classic case of incentives skewing epistemology, what we WANT to be true versus what IS true, and no surprise, Bryan Caplan’s  “The Myth of the Rational Voter” is the text here.

Generally, how conservatives and liberals interact on the micro level is the same; we stop at stoplights, lock our doors at night, etc.  On the Macro (that is, national level) we come into contact less with reality, so our ideologies are free to fly unhindered.

Examples on the Left:  Colorado is vastly Democratic and (on paper) is for a Single-Payer system.  Thus it was put on the polls with Bernie Sanders endorsing it.  It failed miserably, with Democrats, Progressives, and even Medical Unions voting against it.  Why?  Because states can’t go into debt, and thus actually having to pay for such a scheme forced the principle of single-payer to reconcile with reality.
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/colorado-single-payer-vote_us_581cdf8be4b0d9ce6fbbf369

Examples on the Right:  Many viewed tarrifs as a great thing that would stop the flow of money from the US to overseas.  Instead, some companies shipped labor overseas (see Harley-Davidson) or suffered greatly (see Jack-Daniels).  https://www.wsj.com/articles/harley-davidson-to-shift-production-overseas-to-offset-eu-tariffs-1529927301

Bryan Caplan reasons that because individuals rarely impact elections (esp. in states where the electoral vote is safe in one party or another) voters are “rationally ignorant”:  they spend more time investigating which couch or car to buy than they would a candidate.

At the national level, differing ideologies have vastly different ways of viewing hot-topic issues of immigration, guns, abortion, budgets, and education.  At the state-level, those differences aren’t as large.  At the local level, where reality quick makes work of unrealistic ideologies, most people act (mostly) the same and are concerned about safety, security, family, provision, and how to find their place in a not-entirely cognizable universe.

NaOH
Jul 23 2018 at 11:53pm

Certainly, a thoughtful episode which leaves listeners much to consider. Thank you.

 

I did find the suggestions geared toward individuals misconceived. When the issue was social media platforms, the suggestion was for the market to come up with, say, a better Facebook rather than attempting to fix it. I would agree. But when it comes to problems caused by individuals, there was no suggestion that market forces could help. Rather, it was just about what each person could do to improve the situation.

I think there are forces at play on individuals that society can exert just like there are market forces which influence businesses. There are two in particular I would like to see. 1) Compulsory military service, as this is likely to instill in people a sense of self-sacrifice and contribution to something greater than themselves. 2) An emphasis on education, as this encourages a mindset more inclined to learning.

Obviously, implementing these are serious commitments, regardless of their likelihood. But I think these are socially beneficial causes which would have the ancillary effects Mr. Roberts seeks when it comes to public discourse. And for better or worse, I suspect they’d be more effective to achieving the goals than (broadly speaking) suggesting people stop and think about how they behave. Simply, these efforts are more toward the idea of “Show, don’t tell,” and that tends to achieve desired outcomes.

 

No matter, thank you again for an episode worthy of multiple listenings.

Kevin
Jul 25 2018 at 12:25pm

Thanks for this insightful podcast.

I think media is certainly having an impact, but I think it is not the most explanatory issue.  As others have pointed out as collective decision making seeks to change more, impose more, and control more, the process of collective decision making is going to become more heated.  I think more issues being decided by bureaucrats and the courts, which are not easy to redress, is causing increased strife.  

Read Joel’s post above.  He thinks Trump is a unique threat to America.  Trump lies (is it worse to lie extemporaneously all the time, or tell carefully manufactured lies to get your healthcare plan passed in multiple speeches around the country), he works with Russia (didn’t Trump say something awful like “after the election I will have more flexibility” to Putin?), etc.  I see all politicians from both sides as basically amoral sociopaths and have rarely been proven wrong.  But what if Joel is right and Trump (or Hillary) is a unique threat to America?  That sounds ridiculous to me because I see in Trump in many ways the most centrist president we have had in a generation and Hilary as being run of the mill old school liberal.  Much ado about nothing on both sides.  But maybe the real truth is that we are entering a time when the president really is an existential threat.  

What if calling everyone to the right of you a Nazi is actually a correct description and not just heated rhetoric?  Shouldn’t our personal rhetoric be heating up if that is really the case to rise to the desperate occasion of fighting literal Nazi’s?

The basic idea of Dr. Roberts seems to be that both sides get things wrong and we should all humbly and civilly work together for the betterment of America.  Or at least be polite and respectful to those we disagree with.  What if the premise is really wrong?  What if both sides have visions that are so far apart that not only can they not work together but their visions for the country cannot co-exist?  What if by each groups definitions the other side really is evil?  Then control of the official apparatus of violence becomes the most important venture because the winning team gets to decide who has to bake that cake.  

And its not just the vision that is diverging.  The people are diverging along religious, racial, ethnic, education, economic, geographic lines.   Is it surprising that we are diverging into politics that might not be reconcilable?   I used to feel like there was far more that united most Americans than separated them.  But watch Antifa swarm a college campus and you wonder if maybe that is no longer true. 

Maybe Dr. Roberts is thinking of issues where people can come together and review the data and maybe come to truth – like minimum wage.  But what about the issues where there is no standard for truth?  

How will coming together solve issues like immigration, abortion, identify, acceptance, morality, trust?  Right now we trust our institutions, but as the elite increasingly seems to be on another planet maybe we will lose that institutional support.  Many of these issues are not technical they are cultural or moral preferences where neither side is wrong just different.    What if we reach a point where the only options left are extreme options?

I will propose one more possibility – people of the right have finally learned the techniques of the left which have been incredibly effective.  Make issues moral imperatives, attack relentlessly.   Trump is the forefront of that, but expect more politicians to openly adopt Alinsky techniques because they generally seem to work.  

I take great comfort that one of the best features of our government is that it is hard to change. Whether it is Obama telling people to punch back twice as hard or Trump bellowing on about fake news, neither gets full reign of the government because we have many checks and balances to take the ridiculous rhetoric from both sides, boil off the madness, and force it into slow changing laws and policies that generally don’t over turn the apple cart.  

Matt Keeley
Jul 26 2018 at 5:03pm

Russ, I listen regularly and found your discussion in the Information Revolution very engaging and interesting. Many points stick with me, especially your example on deflate gate.

We really hear what we want to hear and should strive to break out of that behavior. I thought your suggestions at the end were well considered.

I really enjoy the podcast.

 

Matt Keeley

Naperville, Illinois

Mike Riddiford
Jul 27 2018 at 8:04pm

Thanks Russ- great broadcast.

 

You model well the behaviour you urge on others. You also serve as a great callenging/moderating resource on folks such as myself who are skeptical of the political Centre you remind us that sometimes (not always) it can be a very intellectually and morally respectable place to be! Keep on keeping us all honest!

Wendy Teller
Jul 28 2018 at 4:20pm

Thank you for this podcast. I particularly liked you suggestions for improving the situation.

I wonder whether some of the problem is fear that one will be rejected by one’s tribe if one expresses opinions outside the tribe’s normal views. These fears may inhibit people from exploring a controversial topic.

 

Michael Cox
Jul 29 2018 at 12:03am

I’m wondering if you read Eliezer Yudkowsky’s writings on how modest epistemology is a losing strategy?

Richard B Tedder
Jul 29 2018 at 11:44am

Dear Dr. Roberts,

I have been a regular listener to Econtalk since your interview with Allan Meltzer about money on May 19, 2008.  I am 69 years old (so I’m one of your senior listeners!) and a retired chemical engineer.  I have learned a great deal from your podcasts, and while I don’t agree with everything I hear on them I have benefited greatly by listening to and studying your interviews, and reading several of the books you discuss on your podcasts.  I happen to also be conservative, a Christian and a Trump supporter so you know where I’m coming from!  But that is okay.  I greatly appreciate your efforts to get our culture on a more civil and thoughtful path.  I admit at times I become greatly concerned over the behavior of the Left, but I’m also trying to understand why reasonable folks may be greatly concerned by those on the Right.  I have a relative who is  anti-Trump and I’m trying to learn and use better approaches for conversing with him as you suggest.  I like your emphasis on our need for more humility and a recognition that we all have  incomplete knowledge!  So, thanks for your hard work and for Econtalk.  I greatly appreciate them both and just wanted to say so.

Matt Dubin
Aug 3 2018 at 1:03am

Russ:

I am so grateful for your podcast. Your thoughtful, reasoned, and often probing conversations with guests keep me entertained and informed. I did not imagine I would be so moved by an episode without a guest.

I have been deeply troubled by the lack of civil discourse in our country. In fact, it motivated me to run for State Representative in Seattle under the banner “There Is No Them”. This is a cry against tribalism and zero sum, identity politics. It is an acknowledgement that the policies we adopt as a community affect every member of the community, and that every voice deserved to be heard.

Here’s my website:

https://www.thereisnothem.us/

I want to thank you again for the information you provide and the amazing example you set for each of us.

Matt Dubin, Attorney and Candidate

Seattle WA

Jon
Aug 13 2018 at 1:05pm

I have been deeply troubled by the lack of civil discourse in our country. This is a cry against tribalism and zero sum, identity politics. It is an acknowledgement that the policies we adopt as a community affect every member of the community, and that every voice deserved to be heard.

Seems to me you are already starting from the collectivist viewpoint that if we adopt policies as a community, we produce better outcomes for everybody. I think history has that shown to be false again and again.

How about we stop electing representatives who think everybody deserves to be heard and then try to devise policies that produce positive sum outcomes?

How about we simply adopt the classically liberal policies of limited government, private property rights, personal responsibility, and free markets?

Scott Heddle
Aug 8 2018 at 10:39am

Very interesting.  Just 2 days after you posted this podcast, I wrote a Facebook post outlining my take on this very issue.  I just today listened to this podcast.  My argument was less nuanced than yours and my conclusion had one more element.

My argument is that it’s really about survival for these media outlets.  It’s driven by their financial need.  Of course they all have a bias.  They all, always have.  Most of us over 50 remember journalism in its hay day.  When it achieved as close to objectivity as journalism may ever get.  But that was during a time when a large city may have only a couple of major newspapers and 3 or 4 tv stations.   There was little in the way of competition and interestingly this kept them close to the truth on big matters.

But now, every one of those newspapers and television stations are competing not just against each other but every media presence on the internet.  Instead of 3 or 4 competitors, they have hundreds or maybe thousands.  All veing for eyeballs.  Eyeballs mean clicks and clicks equal $.

It, however, has degenerated.  It used to be enough to have salacious headlines to get a click.  But now advertisers want to know how long a visitor remains.  This means that the story or article has to have a pay off supporting the headline.  It is literally “The boy that cried wolf” being played out. If the headline says something but the story doesn’t support it they will lose clicks and thereby, money.  So the stories become based around “unnamed” sources, innuendo, and opinion

My solution is rather simple but I believe effective: Stop Clicking.  We have to starve the beast.  I doubt that pragmatism, or individual righteousness will pull us out of this.  The consumer must stop consuming.

In fact, I think this is happening already.  Most media outlets are suffering financial problems specifically because they are getting less eyeballs.  In desperation, they are going for broke.  They are using every scare tactic, manipulation strategy, and bias affirming plan they can contrive.  It’s why the hyperbole meter is pegged.

As to your argument about humility, it is well taken.  And, as you aptly pointed out, there are times to not be so humble because there are sometimes serious threats.  There is a serious threat which you identified by this very podcast, but are showing too much humility in addressing.  It is of course the tribalism of the media.  You glossed over it.  There is no more “journalism”. It is only media.  It has all become theater.  Really poor theater.  It’s become porn for ones bias.

Its time to be less humble in criticizing the media.  They have completely lost their way.  Not unlike they have done many times in the past.  But they will ultimate produce a product that people want once the people stop clicking on the porn.

As for being humble towards different ideas, it’s a mistake to attribute equivalence to leftist ideology and constitutional conservatism.  First, this country was not founded on, or structured to follow leftist ideology.  The founding principles are almost 100% against such an ideology.  Therefore, arguing against this and in favor of the original principles are not arguments of equals.  One side is superior in that it upholds the law while the other seeks to destroy it.

Second, leftist ideology is being tried and has been tried many times.  It has always failed.  It always leads to lots of suffering.  Leftists often point to Western Europe as examples.  However, they are only 50 years or less into their experiment.  They are extremely homogeneous within their borders, and they spend exceptionally little on their own defense because the US is de facto the world’s security force.  Make them spend 40% of their budget on military and their leftist xanado becomes nothing more than a mirage.

Third, your guest who spoke about how liberalism has failed (including classic liberalism) and argued for a new discussion on how to govern in the post modern world was extremely thought provoking.  However, these are not the discussions being had.  Intellectuals can sit in offices, lost in though, with their heads in the clouds, thinking up new strategies.  This of course rarely works and is a large reason why Trump won.  Intellectuals have failed us for 100 years.  Wilson ushered in an era where society put ever increasing faith in the technocrat.  What has become all to apparent is that we’ve been lied to.  The smart people spent way too much time in the “zero gravity” of thoughts and not enough time on the ground getting dirt under their fingernails.  Trump, people believe, has those dirty hands.

In conclusion, stop clicking on the poli-porn.  Never relent against a leftist.  Get your head out of the clouds and your fingers in the dirt.  And be humble, until it’s time to not be humble.

Jon
Aug 13 2018 at 12:53pm

I think you’re trivializing rational economic and political disagreements and fears as “tribalism”. We’re seeing the slow failure of the progressive welfare state, and that frightens both the people dependent on it and the people who are increasingly forced to pay for it. Conflict is inevitable, and let’s hope it remains limited to Twitter spats.

Having said that, deplatforming, demonization, framing, doxxing, false flags, firing, and outright violence are long-standing, deliberate strategies of collectivists and anti-capitalists. In fact, much of the online vitriol is simply one kind of collectivist beating up on another within the same tribe.

You generally don’t see conservatives, libertarians, and Christians participate in this. We just quietly pull the lever for the least bad choice, occasionally comment on Econtalk, diversify our investment portfolios, quit jobs at left wing tech companies, and keep our suitcases packed in case the US goes full Venezuela.

Ken Muntz
Aug 14 2018 at 2:27am

Russ,  I understand you are sketical of government regulation, but Journalism is essential in any complex society to help authenticate whatever the Common Truth is.  It’s already in the psyche of journalism to be seekers of Truth, and for a article, or video segment to justify the label “THE NEWS”, It must only contain the Common Truth, and excludes the use of words implying personal prejudice.  I would further recommend and easy visual que like “THE NEWS” in red in the background; to make it obvious,

I think the government’s role is to protect “THE NEWS” brand.  BUT, the public in some form, or in multiple forms, must be utilized too monitor day to day, hour by hour montior publications of “THE NEWS”, and judge if the journalist has met the standards.   There is lots of creativity for mechanism Mart phone based to allow for immediate feedback to industry wide stands organization for more delayed thorough evation. Probably lots of ways to approach this.

This is by no way perfect, but it leverage a desire by the main stream media to be respected again.

Allen Jacobs
Aug 17 2018 at 10:24am

Russ,

Good work Russ.  Although long time listeners recognize much of this in bits and pieces already out of your interviews, it’s a wonderful essay and fresh enough to be engaging to listen.  I hope you will engage in further dialogue with others about the “what we can do” aspect.  I feel like your thinking on this is still progressing and your listeners can be a source of dialogue and ideas.  To that end, let me suggest a small one: ad hominem.

There are many forms of argument and debate, but in formal debate, ad hominem is the appeal to the identity or the criticism of who is making the argument rather than anything about the point or argument itself.   “It must be that way because an M.I.T. study said it was.” “It’s not that way – that’s just based on a study done by Podunk college and they’re no good.”  “Paul Krugman’s column made that argument and so it can’t be right.” “That’s ridiculous, that’s just a Milton Friedman type argument.”  “It must be wrong if Trump said it.”  “Your’re wrong because you don’t know economics.” “I’m right because I’m an expert on this.”

Taken to the extreme this is the intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) side of tribalism.  “physics is just jewish science so there must be something wrong with it.”  “X is just a [group label], they are stupid, and their opinion is invalid and should be dismissed as fake news.“  X is just an oppressor so their opinion is invalid.”  “X is just a mainstream journalist and we know they are biased and shouldn’t be listened to.” “He spent too much time at Harvard, so what does he know?”

My suggestion is three parts:

teach students to distinguish the ad hominem component in an argument and to recognize it in what they say and what each other says. I still remember the moment when a teacher taught this to me and how forever after I saw the extent or lack of it in every argument I ever heard.
Encourage and actively distinguish the ad hominem in public debate and news. Encourage people to call out the ad hominem component of an argument or at least recognize that that is explicitly part of the argument. [Not that this is far less ambitious than saying don’t use it or saying that fake news should be counteracted, or that you should listen to particular opposing points of view, etc.]
In making arguments, don’t necessarily exclude all ad hominem arguments and statements, but just recognize them and use them intentionally. We all use ad hominem appeal in shaping our thinking. After all a lot of the academic and legal mode of citing sources for everything you say is just that.  And it’s true that all of our thinking on every subject is just too much to handle without the shortcut of saying “what is X’s opinion?”  I rely on doctors, instruction manuals, studies that appear superficially credible, my wife’s thinking on some subjects, a host of experts on various subjects that I’ll never personally get to the bottom of, etc.   My suggestion is to be aware of and to be explicit in distinguishing ad hominem in all reasons given.

This suggestion is relatively modest.  It’s not any direct counter to fake news.  It’s not a direct counter to holding and reinforcing your one-sided views.  It’s not any direct counter to biased reporting or social media.  It’s indirect.  It’s not so big as selling the concept of humility, selling the concept of skepticism, or selling the concept of people trying on the opposing viewpoint.  However, it’s not so modest in that it is selling a major concept that could shift thinking and discourse.  A systematic effort to impact public discourse in this regard would, I believe, pay immense dividends.

Allen

Richard Fenton
Aug 17 2018 at 6:47pm

I thought this was a very interesting podcast.  I thought it was very heart felt.  Coincidentally, the next podcast in my downloads was this from the BBC

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b91w19

it’s about how technology has turned discussion and debate into micro-targeted messaging.  It’s almost an end to how we’ve all grown up seeing big platforms and everyone listening in together, on TV, at the giant water cooler . . .

Be careful what you wish for.  Here we have individualism and liberty at its most raw.  Everyone is on their own, hearing the message they want to hear, free to think what they want about that message.  Except now the people with the loud haler have much more sophisticated devices, called computers.

Russ asked that we all listen to the views of others.  We now don’t get to hear the messages and context that forms the views of others.  Only the handful of smart puppet masters at the centre see all the messages and the big pictures of how they win votes.

The grand vision of the internet as a global unifying force where we all move towards a common great future has died.  The majority who flip burgers and fill shelves want simple targeted messages to ease their minds to sleep before starting another day’s routine.  300 years ago it was the priest in the local church who provided hopes and fears from his lectern, now it is the political marketing professional from behind the little screen you pay him so much for.

Spot the difference.  Plus ca change . . .

Comments are closed.


DELVE DEEPER

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

  • Information and Prices, by Donald J. Boudreaux. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • Internet, by Stan Liebowitz. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • Advertising, by George Bittlingmayer. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • Socialism, by Robert Heilbroner. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • Adam Smith. Biography. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.
  • Externalities, by Bryan Caplan. Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

 


AUDIO HIGHLIGHTS
TimePodcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [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.
2:00

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.

9:50

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.

15:44

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.

23:08

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.

27:35

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.

29:26

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.

36:52

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.

40:09

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.

47:32

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.

51:09

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.

57:06

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.


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