Saturday, August 19, 2017


My letter to NPR


I just read "Readers Rankled By 'Democracy In Chains' Review" by Elizabeth Jensen.  It made me laugh.  Yes, it's progress to at least publicly consider and address the issue of whether a historian, rather than a novelist, should have reviewed Nancy MacLean's book.  But the fact of the matter is that the subject of the book is a Nobel economist's evaluation of democracy.  How can a historian possibly be qualified to effectively judge the validity of James Buchanan's economic arguments?  Of course this is the inherent problem with MacLean's book.

Since I'm here anyways, I might as well endeavor to explain the relevant economic concepts...

"NPR has made a push in the past year to review or interview the authors of all major nonfiction books that are published, and as close to publication date as possible."

Why just the major nonfiction books?  Why not the minor ones as well?  It's because NPR's resources are limited.  So it makes sense for NPR to allocate its limited resources to the more important books.  But it's also the case that the major books aren't equally important.  So then the real issue is... how, exactly, do you determine the importance of a book?

The NY Times maintains a list of the bestselling books.  Why should we care how many people have purchased a book?  Why does it matter how many people have been willing to pay for a book?  Would it be more effective to use voting (democracy) to determine the importance of books?  Or would it be more effective to vote for the representatives who vote to determine the importance of books?

One book that has never made the NY Times' list of bestsellers is The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.  Does this mean that it's less important than Thomas Piketty's book, which has made the list?  The issue is that, unlike Piketty's book... Smith's book is freely available.  This means that the two books are on an extremely unlevel playing field.

In order for NPR to optimally/efficiently divide its limited resources between these two books, it's necessary to correctly determine their importance.  Here are some possibilities...

1. Direct democracy.  NPR could give the public the opportunity to vote to determine the importance of the two books.

2. Representative democracy.  NPR could give the public the opportunity to vote for the representatives who will vote to determine the importance of the two books.

3. Charitable market.  NPR could give the public the opportunity to donate to NPR and earmark their donations to determine the importance of the two books.

Which system would most correctly determine the importance of the two books, which, in turn, would most efficiently divide NPRs limited resources between them?

This is what Buchanan worked on.  Well... unfortunately his work was entirely theoretical.  He never devised any experiments to test the effectiveness of these very different allocation systems.  But it's hard to blame him for failing to stand on his own shoulders.  Especially since these fundamental issues continue to be almost entirely overlooked/ignored by most economists.

We use representative democracy to allocate around a third of our country's limited resources.  Yet, this system has never been scientifically tested.  We all assume that it works, but there's absolutely no credible evidence that it works better than the alternatives would.  Historians can certainly explain how we ended up with this system, but they definitely can't prove or justify it.  For this we need economics/experiments/science.  We really don't need a novelist reviewing a book written by a historian criticizing an economist's work on public finance.

Let's say that NPR conducted an experiment to determine the importance of Smith's book and Piketty's book.  With direct democracy... historians and novelists would certainly have no problem voting for Piketty's book.  Neither would they have a problem voting for representatives who would vote for Piketty's book.  With the charitable market though, perhaps they'd have no problem donating and earmarking $5 dollars... or perhaps $20 dollars to Piketty's book.  But with larger amounts of money, they'd have to seriously confront the limits of their economic knowledge.  Would it be worth it for them to spend so much money on a subject outside their area of expertise?  For most it wouldn't be worth it.  So the charitable market would do by far the best job of filtering out public ignorance.  Which is pretty much the same thing as minimizing virtue signalling.  The outcome/results would embody/reflect public knowledge... which would logically help to eliminate public ignorance.  It would be a virtuous cycle.  If this system expanded to include all books, then the most valuable knowledge in each field would cross-pollinate all the different fields.

NPR can, and should be, the platform that we, the people, use to help bring the most valuable knowledge to each other's attention.


See also:

- Evonomics
Public Finance For Andy Seal
Show Me The Economic Case For Democracy
The Pragmatarian Model For The NY Times

No comments:

Post a Comment