Why you should be skeptical of the next good vs. evil story you read.
This column was published in the 14 Feb 2012 edition of The Beaver, the newspaper of the London School of Economics Student Union.
The magazine covers in a grocery store checkout line are a fascinating case study in capitalism. They’re colorful, attractive, and eye-catching. The lifestyle magazines – GQ, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Esquire – rely on sex appeal (often to great effect), while tabloids promote tawdry sensationalism. This puts the adjacent news magazines in a tough position – they must have covers provocative enough to wrench our eyes from scantily clad members of the opposite sex to more serious issues, like the troubles of the Eurozone or the American presidential election.
It’s interesting to take a step back from each individual cover and think about how news magazines as a group make their appeal. On the face of it, these appeals are more pressing now than ever, as almost every print outfit struggles to turn a profit. The long-term outlook is bleak at best – they’re pitted in competition not only with their fellows but also myriad free, up-to-date sources of information online. There thus needs to be a truly special reason to buy a news magazine.
One salient quality of their appeal is fear. A recent Bloomberg Businessweek depicts a book on fire with the headline “Amazon wants to burn the book business” in thick capital letters. The latest WIRED features an ominous, muscular robot hand clutching a gearshift and asserts, “Your next car will drive itself.” The wonky Foreign Affairs even feels compelled to join the fray – “Is America Over?” is splashed in large typeface on the final 2011 issue. The Economist has had so many covers over the past year featuring one euro coins breaking, crashing, cracking, collapsing, falling, or otherwise generally deteriorating that if added up, they’d probably be enough cash to put Greece back on track.
That magazine covers are often wildly hyperbolic is not the problem. Feeling impelled to buy a magazine must rely in no small part on the fear that if you don’t read it, you’re at a competitive disadvantage. The real problem is that the content itself – especially opinion columns in newspapers and magazines – is similarly hyperbolic. And these columns aren’t simple marketing tools; they’re the raw fuel that propels our worldviews and outlook.
Consider this recent example of the Wall Street Journal stumbling over itself to exaggerate the impact of the “individual mandate” in President Obama’s 2010 health care bill.
First, a bit of context. The individual mandate is a provision of Obamacare that seeks to reduce the number of Americans without health insurance (~50 million) by making insurance purchase obligatory. The mandate is far from a purely liberal concept – Newt Gingrich and the conservative Heritage Foundation were peddling it in the ‘90s, and Mitt Romney passed a state-level mandate in his Massachusetts health law in 2006.
Thus, the individual mandate has enjoyed a smattering of support on both sides of the aisle over the past few decades. The WSJ, however, seems to see it as a world-historical Orwellian nightmare, saying that,
“The Obama Administration’s legal defense of the mandate to buy insurance or else pay a penalty is that the mere fact of being alive gives the government the right to regulate all Americans at every point in their lives.”
I would say it’s unfortunate that such grotesquely overwritten, fear mongering, conspiratorial drivel makes it into one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers, but writing a column about hyperbole makes me extra sensitive about making hyperbolic statements myself. So instead I invite you to read the quote again and ask yourself whether Barack Obama and his administration really think that “the mere fact of being alive” gives the government the power to “regulate all Americans at every point in their life.”
My guess would be no. And I would further say that if they make this argument in the Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the mandate, Obamacare will be summarily struck down.
This isn’t to diminish the importance of the major philosophical and constitutional issues surrounding the individual mandate. But this sort of fulminating outrage doesn’t add anything to the debate whatsoever. The effect is purely emotional – neither liberal nor conservative learns anything. Notice that there’s no discussion whatsoever of either the purported raison d’être of the mandate or the actual penalty of not buying insurance (which is quite modest).
What would a more levelheaded conservative opposition sound like? Something like this:
“We as a society have made the value judgment that we will provide necessary medical care in the emergency room to individuals regardless of their ability to pay. Hospitals never get reimbursed for most of these costs, so they shift the costs to you and me – people who are already privately insured. The mandate requires everyone to buy insurance to avoid the “free-rider problem” – not buying insurance but still being able to get care and have others foot the bill. We disagree. The free-rider problem in health care is not important enough to violate the commerce clause of the Constitution and impinge on our freedom to voluntarily engage in private transactions.”
Unfortunately, not very sexy reading.
Not very sexy reading because it requires work. It requires work to digest the information, it requires work to consider an emotional reaction to that information without being supplied one, and it requires work to then reflect on that emotional reaction.
Articles that plumb the complexity of policy don’t conform to our prejudices and reinforce our worldviews. Issues suddenly become inconveniently muddled shades of gray rather than starkly painted black and white narratives. Health policy ceases to be the front of an exciting battle to maintain liberty and becomes the mind-numbingly dull wonky subject that it is.
And so these columns are rarely written and even more rarely read.
But why? Most columnists are thoughtful and incredibly well read graduates of elite universities. Why is their world black and white?
One reason is the beguiling power of good vs. evil stories. We all believe in them. In-group/out-group notions are evolutionarily stamped into the deepest parts of our psyche, and we define ourselves against “the other” – believers, atheists, oil companies, environmentalists, liberals, conservatives, prudes, sluts, gunners, slackers, the 1%, the 99%, etc.
The result is that we all inherently assume that other people’s motivations are extremely simplistic. And this is almost always untrue. As economist Tyler Cowen said in a recent TED talk, “every time you tell yourself a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by 10 points.”
Sit down sometime and think about how paper-thin are the motives we typically ascribe to other people. You’ll likely be surprised, as I was. Think about all the times we assume people are doing things for 2-D reasons like “greed” and “popularity,” how often we assume politicians are simply “in bed with lobbyists,” or “don’t care about poor people.” If anyone accused us of these things, we’d likely be deeply offended, because we know that our goals are much more complicated, our motivations rarely reducible to single words.
Yet somehow we never make the leap and realize that the other guy – the one we’re castigating as shallow – is thinking the exact same thing.
Even the best minds are beset by underestimation of other people’s motives. Paul Krugman of the New York Times is an excellent example. He’s a Nobel Prize winning economist and a professor at Princeton. Yet the way he portrays his antagonists is startlingly superficial, endowing conservative politicians with sub-hominid level motives and bashing distinguished laissez-faire economists for making “fail-an-undergrad-level-quiz errors”.
Newspapers are the tip of the iceberg. The printer word is a remarkably unsentimental art form. If it is possible to consider any sort of media unemotionally, it should be print. Faulty assertions printed on a page can be checked and re-checked; there’s no ominous music or disturbing images to reinforce the points.
TV, on the other hand, is a media ripe for deception, and it certainly doesn’t suffer from want of viewers – the average American adult watches 4.5 hours a day. TV often feels no compunction about deploying the aforementioned ominous music and disturbing images to their best use in shaping opinion.
This is why I’m wary of any documentary I watch – I end up agreeing with all of them. At the end of Inside Job (blaming Wall Street for the financial crisis) or Jesus Camp (exposing the horrors of Christian fundamentalist childhood education), I feel outraged, as if I’ve been missing some horrible truth in plain sight. In reality, I’ve probably just fallen victim to an excellent job of editing. I’m sure I would feel the same way watching a hypothetical Outside Job about how bankers are unfairly blamed for the crisis or a Dawkins Camp about raising children as atheists.
As we advance further into the infotainment age, it will be crucial to develop a critical awareness of our vulnerability to hyperbole in both print and (especially) visual media. In fact, TV analysis is probably as important in today’s universities as textual analysis, at least in utilitarian terms. This dignifies the medium as worthy of learned study, but that’s perhaps a price worth paying.
In my opinion, literature looms large in helping us overcome our automatic tendencies toward solipsism. It’s an outmoded art form, but it could be the antidote to the papier-mâché figures of screeching columns, evocative news reports, and reality TV shows. More so than anything else, literature allows us to occupy the consciousness of another person. To let us know what and how they think – and perhaps most importantly, that they do think. Deeply. It causes us to sympathize with even the most outwardly grotesque characters – Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita, Mersault in Camus’s The Stranger, Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
This might not be convenient or pleasing or especially fun, but it is important.
 David Brooks of the New York Times is a notable exception. He can sometimes drift into pop psychology mode, but his excellent political columns usually begin from the premise that the world is in fact not ending.
 Down from 6 hrs/day in the 90’s; now an additional 2.5 hrs/day are spent on the Internet, some of which presumably involves video consumption.
 Unless the impact of good editing on our psyches qualifies as a horrible truth in plain sight, which it might.
 Here I disagree with Tyler Cowen, the economist whose TED talk I linked above. He thinks that stories are the main problem and is thus wary of literature. I probably agree with this in terms of business, investing, and economics, but I think that the main problem in the political and social sphere is less telling ourselves stories than being unable to understand the consciousness of other people (as I’ll explain about two sentences further in the main body of the article). The two are certainly related – thinking that other people are simple makes it easier to plop them in the center of some overarching narrative.