NPR Shows How Bad Opinions Get Made

Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke University who struck gold with his Malcolm Gladwell-esque airplane book, Predictably Irrational. The book discussed his work in human behavior and how apparently irrelevant or minor factors affect our behaviors in significant and surprising  ways. I like the book, and I like Professor Ariely, but I now suspect him of using the American public as his guinea pigs for Best Seller #2,  and of rigging the experiments in the process.

Prof. Ariely dropped by National Public Radio the other day to announce the results of a survey he had taken of NPR listeners. In his comments, he quickly moved from calling his 600 individual survey group  “NPR listeners” to calling them “the public;” that was the first hint that we were on the road to misinformation. He knows better. NPR’s listeners are overwhelmingly  college educated, affluent, politically active, and culturally sophisticated. They are also relatively young, averaging about 50 years old, with the greatest concentration between 35 and 44. They watch plays, listen to concerts and read books; they do not, as a general rule, watch “NCIS,” go to NASCAR and shoot guns. In other words, they represent  “the public” only in John Kerry’s dreams.

Prof. Ariely’s topic of the day was the distribution of wealth in the United States. He referred to the “vast disparity” of wealth in the U.S., a loaded term that conveys disapproval, and inherent injustice. This is called  assuming the answer before you ask the question, and kills any chance of a fair inquiry. “Vast disparity” only means that some people have a lot more money than other people, which on the face of it is not unreasonable or even necessarily unfortunate, depending on whether the people with less money can still live, prosper and be happy, and whether the people with more money can be reasonably said to deserve what they have.

Then Ariely announced his first survey result: his 600 subjects had guessed that the top 20% of Americans controlled 65% of all the country’s wealth, while the actual proportion the top 20% controlled was 88%.

Oddly, I couldn’t answer that question at all, because I have no idea what “controlled” means in that context. Do you? Do we give Bill Gates credit for “controlling” everything Microsoft owns? Surely his board controls something. If I own shares of stock in the company, I think I’m supposed to “control” part of it too. Is each sliver of wealth controlled by just one individual, or are pieces of wealth counted more than once if more than one person “controls” them? Who, for example, “controls” my house—the bank that owns the mortgage? Me? The city that can take it away if I don’t pay my property taxes? Do the distribution percentages add up to more than 100%, if some parts of our wealth are jointly “controlled?”

My guess is that it is impossible to determine with precision who “controls” what in America, and that the statistics that purport to do so are inherently unreliable.

Having established that John Kerry’s dream version of “the public” erroneously thinks that 65% of all wealth is controlled by 20% of Americans, though they couldn’t possibly know exactly what it was they were estimating,   Ariely then revealed the “surprise” in his survey. The “public” thinks some disparity in wealth is OK, he says, just not too great a disparity: repondants told him that the ideal amount for the 20% to control would be 33%, a third.

The NPR host, who apparently is Karl Marx, was shocked.  “I can’t get over the fact that the public  is all right with an unequal distribution!” he said.

Remember this exchange the next time you are tempted to mark a Republican as a hysteric for arguing that NPR is a taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for the Far Left. The host and Ariely both left the impression that it was obvious that a fair distribution of wealth—check that: “control” of wealth— in the United States would be absolutely even, and oh-so-quirky that “the public” accepted “inequality.” The wealth distribution that Ariely and the host assumed would be the most appealing one is called, I believe, Communism. Unique talents, artists, inventors, intellects and entrepreneurs would have no more wealth than the 7-11 clerk or the part-time librarians. People who saved and invested their money would be no better off than those who blew their paychecks in President Obama’s favorite destination, Vegas. Those who worked 80 hours a week at a challenging job would earn the same amount as a beach-comber.

But it would be so fair!

So a survey of demographically-skewed group, using a badly-worded question, yielded the “surprising” result that the American public favors socialism over the obviously more just and fair solution of Communism. Then the whole topic is dropped, the wise professor says good-bye, and the program moves on to reviewing a jazz recording. This is how bad opinions get made.This is how people get dumb ideas in their heads that take root and grow into full-blown delusions.

Perhaps NPR’s defense would be that such shoddy research and reasoning wouldn’t confound NPR listeners, since they are  well-educated and sophisticated. After all, the Americans who are so intellectually careless as to blindly accept the implications of this casual,  Marxist segment are too busy watching re-runs of “Reba” to be edified, so what’s the harm in letting Dan Ariely have his fun? If so, then how does one explain the brain-dead response of the NPR host, who not only professed a belief that all American wealth should be shared equally, but also acted as it was bizarre that anyone would think differently? Surely NPR’s hosts are at least as sophisticated as its listeners.

The distribution of wealth in a nation, and the considerations of economics, finance, regulation, taxation, social responsibility, community, fairness, sharing, incentives, wealth creation, innovation, government control, autonomy and freedom that are intrinsically bound to the policies concerning it, are a complicated and difficult issues ill-served by carelessly worded surveys, slumming  professors and economically ignorant radio hosts. NPR receives government funding to help Americans become better informed, not dumber than bricks. If National Public Radio won’t take the time to fairly examine this important issue, it has an obligation not to distort it.

This was irresponsible scholarship by Ariely, and irresponsible broadcasting by NPR.

7 thoughts on “NPR Shows How Bad Opinions Get Made

  1. As for trade and other economic or social science statistics and indicators etc.: I have posted a Statistical Reference Inventory (http://crisismaven.wordpress.com/references/) to my economics blog with economic and statistical data series, history, bibliographies etc. for students & researchers, probably the most comprehensive on the Internet. Currently over 300 meta sources, it will soon grow to over a thousand. Check it out and if you miss something, feel free to leave a comment.

  2. Upfront, I am a strong supporter of and constant listener to my local public radio stations which carry a lot of programming, some of which is produced by National Public Radio.
    Based only on your comment and not first-hand experience, I still find it puzzling that you can jump to an NPR announcer being in favor of Communism based on what you report was said.
    If there is to be a distribution of wealth, I’d certainly like my fair share. My guess is that if there is to be a distribution based on earning wealth then I would expect to get a share equivalent to what I earn.
    Your jump from a conversation of what people think about a distribution of wealth to what people might think about a distribution based on earnings are two very different things. I believe the problem with your thinking is that it started off from a bias against NPR which you characterized as “a taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for the Far Left” based on the opinions of people who rarely if ever listen to public radio who you refer to as Republicans. Having lobbied state and federal legislators for over 30 years, I find that people who have the most biased opinions against certain services they may or may not fund are based on none to little association with the service, in the case of public broadcasting, very little oral or visual contact indeed. You’re welcome.

    • Dwight: I didn’t say that I thought NPR was “a taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for the Far Left,” nor do I think that. I said that one should reflect on a host saying he was “shocked” that people wouldn’t advocate an absolutely even distribution of wealth when one is tempted to call Republicans paranoid who make the accusation that NPR leans to the Left unacceptably hard. There ‘s no bias in interpreting a statement to mean what it says: if wealth is shared absolutely, if the top 20% makes and keeps no more wealth than the bottom, then you have pure communism. What else would you call it?

      I actually think it was an ignorant comment, and that the host would honestly swear that he was anything but a Communist. Nevertheless, the entire exchange had the effect of promoting even distribution of wealth as the “fair” approach without fairly exploring the issue. I don’t see your objection, frankly. It appears to be simply, “I like Public Broadcasting and you shouldn’t say bad things about it.” Well, I like it too, but I expect it to be responsible, and not throw out highly questionable political/economic assertions without some serious thought.

  3. I am not against critical comments on any subject and public radio content is no exception. My comment was based on what I feel was about a conclusion you drew from some comment that was about what a sample of people thought about the distribution of wealth. Again, my point is that if the discussion had been about how wealth should be distributed based on earnings, not a theoretical question about how wealth, in general, ought to be distributed, your point might have resonated with me.

    • Dwight: I guess your distinction between “should” and “ought” escapes me. I do not believe anyone who thinks twice about it and who believes in freedom, liberty, autonomy, personal property and the fairness of one keeping the fruit of one’s toils and talents would say that wealth “should’ OR “ought” to be distributed regardless of productivity, effort, talent or enterprise. What is it do you think such a statement implies? Just that it would be nice if everyone had plenty of money, and lollipops grew on trees?

  4. I listen to NPR with some frequency. I also watch CNN, Fox News, and local channels. I read the New York Times.

    Regarding the case in point, the answer is to the interviewer is: DO YOUR RESEARCH! Or at least ask the right questions and make Ariely define his terms. In other cases (television news, e.g.) I am constantly amazed at interviewers who have no idea what they’re talking about, ask stupid questions, and sit glassy-eyed when they get an answer they don’t understand. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal at least vet their stories before they print them.

    NPR IS primarily a federally funded enterprise (in spite of their endless fund raising radiothons). Ever been in their studio? It is sumptuous. And we all pay for most of it. According to Ariely and the interviewer, it would be more fair if it looked more like WSQZ in Alma, Texas (pop. 603). That would be an equitable distribution of wealth, wouldn’t it? And wouldn’t it be fun?

    And, off topic, “equal distribution of wealth” has been tried and has never worked. Ref. USSR. In that great experiment, 80% of GDP went to party members, other elites, the military and the space program. The general populace stood in lines all day for loaves of bread. Sure: “from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs.”

    Perhaps this is not what Ariely was really talking about, but he didn’t make it clear, and the interviewer should have had the knowledge, the smarts, and the ability to force him to make himself clear. It was shoddy work. And if Ariely meant what it seemed he meant, then NPR needs to either re-interview him, do an editorial of some kind, or interview someone else with another point of view.

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