Advertisers vs. Teachers

Suppose that commercial advertising increases your demand for advertised products, but at the same time makes you worse off by reducing your ability to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don’t sell.  Since the harm that you suffer doesn’t affect the advertisers’ profits, they have no incentive to take it into account when choosing their level of advertising.  This is a market failure in the same sense as better known ones like pollution; the fact that the people choosing the level of the activity don’t bear the full costs causes there to be "too much" of it.  This alone strikes me as sufficient reason for a pretty pronounced hostility to persuasive commercial advertising (there are other reasons too), particularly when children are involved, since children are more likely to suffer the ill effects.

But taking this position raises a question.  Children are going to get their ideas from somewhere, so arguing that there should be less advertising persuasion is pretty much tantamount to saying that there should be more of some other kind of persuasion.  Let’s say for argument’s sake that the competitor for the attention of children is their (mostly public school) teachers.  Let’s also stipulate that it is not hard to come up with stories in which teachers won’t do what’s best for kids either.  Maybe they want to teach obediance and so make their own jobs easier, or maybe they want to turn the kids into little clones of themselves, and so on.  But I mostly like teachers, for all their flaws, and mostly think that increasing their influence on kids would be a good thing.  Is there any sound basis for this?  Or is it just bias on my part stemming from the fact that I was raised to respect the kinds of things that teachers are about?

I will offer three defenses for my anti-advertiser, pro-teacher position.  First, teachers’ opportunities to make themselves better off at the expense of children, while not negligible, are for sure much smaller than those of commercial advertisers.  Second, the kinds of people who select into teaching tend to be people who like kids (why else spend all day with them?) and so are naturally inclined to seek their well-being.  Third, teachers are part of a profession that inculcates and supports the adoption of the identity of "teacher," providing a social and emotional infrastructure that makes it easier to perform the (pro-kid) behaviors that the identity prescribes, even when you don’t feel like it.

I didn’t convince Robin.  Did I convince you?  First blog post ever!

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  • http://n8o.r30.net/ Nato Welch

    This is similar to some discussions I’ve been having on the Technoliberation mailing list about this piece:

    http://www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2848/

    Is Diversity Enough?
    Walter Benn Michaels asks us to consider the harm done when we worry about identity and forget about inequality.

    Michaels claims that because any attention focused on diversity //could// have been focused instead on inequality, that any attention focused on diversity is a de facto loss for equality. I don’t think that logic holds up.

    It’s difficult to characterize your preference for teachers as a bias in interpreting certain facts or arguments about how to direct one’s attention as much as your individual preference for teachers as a demonstration on how you would make such a choice, whether on your behalf, or another’s. There’s a difference between a bias and a desire.

    It’s one thing to come to errors of fact or argument based on what one wants to believe. It’s another to be in error about what one wants. If I don’t know what I want, and make no effort to think critically about who I allow to direct my attention, then you can make a case that you are being guided – perhaps badly – by whoever lures you in with the flashiest, noisiest carrot. But if you actually take the time to take responsibility for your attention and manage your time by consciously choosing who you listen to (as I have by throwing away my TV), then there is far less of a case that those orchestrating the objects of your attention are somehow harming you, and more of a case that they really are serving your intent. This applies without regard to whether you’re listening to teachers or advertising.

    I don’t really think this is a good case for reducing commercial advertising in the sense of censorship or bans. Better that audiences should have the option to reduce ads by opting out at will – or, better yet, having to opt in to begin with. I tend to think freedom of speech is best exercised as a right of the audience, rather than the speaker.

    Reducing advertising universally might reduce the harm you cite against those irresponsible with their attention management – but it invites unnecessary collateral damage against those who are deliberately paying attention to advertising.

  • Michael M. Butler

    It’d be nice if you titled your posts :). Congrats on your first.

  • michael vassar

    “I mostly like teachers, for all their flaws, and mostly think that increasing their influence on kids would be a good thing. Is there any sound basis for this? Or is it just bias on my part stemming from the fact that I was raised to respect the kinds of things that teachers are about?”

    It’s stated as a preference, not a belief, so it’s not stated as bias per se, even if you would have thought differently if you were raised to respect other kinds of things, any more than it’s a bias to like sugar even if an organism with different evolutionary history would not like sugar.

    On the other hand, I think that most people ALSO have biases towards believing that teachers actually contribute towards the achievement of their alleged functions, e.g. literacy and knowledge of math and science.

    I strongly suspect that teachers harm children FAR more than advertisers, ESPECIALLY when judged by their impact on the children realizing the supposed values for which teachers supposedly exist. I say this as someone who has been disgusted as both a student and as a teacher, at all grade levels, and across the whole socio-economic spectrum, as well as reading the unschooling classics by John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, etc.

  • Matthew

    We unschool our kids, for reasons related to Michael’s comment.

    We also don’t happen to have broadcast TV, although there is Netflix, itunes TV store etc. for stuff we care to watch. . .

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    David is summarizing a conversation he and I had a few weeks ago. The crucial context not described above is that David wants the government to discourage advertisers, by for example limiting Saturday morning TV ads to kids, and encourage teachers, by subsidizing schools. The issue I was trying to push was how confident does David need to be in his judgment so that it makes sense for him to want policy to enforce his choice on others who might have different inclinations.

  • Matthew

    David,

    It appears to me that people have a great deal of control over their exposure to advertising.

    For example, there is adblocking software you can run that will remove many advertisements from web pages that you view.

    With television, there is TiVo and the other DVRs that allow you to easily fast forward through commercials. Or renting TV shows from Netflix, or purchasing them, sans advertisements on the apple iTunes store. I find that myself and many of my peers avail themselves of some of these options. Given the ability of consumers to filter out advertising, why do we need big brother to create yet more regulations in this area?

    Re: government subsidies to schools — I am confused. We live in a world with massive government subsidy to schools through the public education system. Are you saying that the $10,000+ per pupil/year is not enough money? From where I sit, this subsidy is distortive, resulting in the propagandizement of pupils to believe in the efficiency and necessity for large-scale government interventions that prove ineffective and wasteful in practice. It also funds a vast bureaucrazy of public employees and huge building projects that vastly outscale comparable private-school institutions.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    David, it’s possible your conclusions about teachers are right, but your reasoning sounds rather biased.
    There are many professions that involve working with people and have fewer opportunities than commercial advertisers to benefit from harming those people, but for which your “why else spend all day with them?” question brings to mind less favorable motives. For example, a manager rarely gets paid for treating employees rudely, yet many people believe bosses are often motivated to do so. And most people can imagine that prison guards want to mistreat prisoners without having external incentives to do so.
    Why are teachers exempt from similar suspicions?
    One possibility that comes to mind is a bias to discount the opinions of those most likely to complain about teachers (i.e. students).
    For some evidence that there is a widespread bias that might have such an effect, see David Deutsch’s essay The Final Prejudice at http://www.youthrights.org/final.php .

  • michael vassar

    Great article Peter. Thanks! And I say that as a person who usually loathes Star Trek references.

  • http://www.aleph.se/ Anders Sandberg

    In this scenario, why doesn’t teachers advertise? Given the assumptions it seems to be an effective way of getting people to favour them.

  • http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2006/12/teaching_bias.html EconLog

    Teaching Bias

    David Balan has joined the august bloggers at Overcoming Bias. Let me tell you about this guy. A couple months…

  • bartman

    “Suppose that commercial advertising increases your demand for advertised products, but at the same time makes you worse off by reducing your ability to appreciate those things that commercial advertisers don’t sell.”

    But it doesn’t. Care to elaborate upon how you fabricated this absurd premise?

  • nolrai

    You didn’t unconvince me.