Microecon of Media

Many have expressed concerns that corporations with free speech may “drown out” other voices.  This view seems to vastly misunderstand modern communications media.  For their benefit, and yours, let us then review the basics of modern media.

First, reader/viewer/listeners today can choose among many many sources.  There are hundreds of TV and radio channels, thousands of newspapers, magazines, and journals, and millions of web pages.  Most readers track many of these, and try new ones often. Readers return more to the sources they see as more valuable.  So sources who want to attract and retain readers must make such readers feel they are getting value, relative to reader time, money, and other costs.  Reader values obtained include info, image, status, fun, and morbid curiosity.

Complaints about corporate political speech often give analogies to street corners or bathroom graffiti, places where the loud can literally drown out the quiet.  Early radio was like this too; radio stations with big transmitters could drown out weak stations.  But the vast majority of media today are tunable; if you choose a particular TV station, magazine, or web page, that is the source you will get – there is little chance you’ll accidentally hear a different station.

So today, the main way some sources take readers away from others is by out-competing them — offering readers more net value.  If your message is not eagerly consumed by readers, your complaint should be with how readers estimate value, not with other sources that offer better value according to reader estimates.  You can of course offer meta-messages, to persuade them they are making mistakes in how to estimate value.  But again, if readers also neglect those meta-messages, your primary complaint is with readers, not with other sources.

Now it does seem that many folks are willing to hear ads instead of paying higher cash prices for media access.  To the extent that some such folks have a natural tendency to believe whatever the majority of ads they hear on such topics tell them, such shallow folks are in effect offering to believe whatever the most monetarily-eager advertisers want them to believe.  For such shallow folks, money-wise the loud can indeed drown out the less loud.

But again, your primary complaint here should be about those shallow voters, not the advertisers.  If you believe that some voters care so little about political outcomes that they are willing to sell their political beliefs to the highest advertising bidder, you should believe that such folks have no business voting!  After all, preventing some folks from directly buying political ads may have little net effect – those folks may buy ads indirectly, or find other ways to buy voter beliefs.  The key problem is that some voters care way too little about political outcomes.

If there are only a few such shallow voters, we can probably just ignore this problem.  If many voters are shallow about politics, however, it seems wiser to restrict the voting franchise to folks whose beliefs are less easily distorted.  The opinions of shallow folks who are easily swayed should have almost no additional information value – why let such them make a mess of how we determine policy?

Added 10:20p: Many folks mistakenly assume that distortions from shallow voters stop if corporations are silenced.  But not only would that hinder non-shallow voters from getting info from corporations, the total distortion by shallow voters is not obviously reduced!  Shallow voters who believe whatever side shows the most ads would either be bought by corporations more indirectly, or by other deep pockets more directly.  And the many other kinds of shallow voters, who believe whoever has the funniest ads, or the coolest spokesfolks, or the prettiest candidates, would still cause distortions.

Mechanically, it would be straightforward to limit the franchise by age, income, IQ, education, knowledge test scores, etc.  Yes such changes seem unpopular now, but that’s no excuse for ignoring them.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Weasel

    Ads are not things we choose to hear. They are things we are forced to put up with hearing, usually in the process of consuming some other media product.

    • I would be very, very surprised if you’ve ever been *forced* to listen to an advert. You decide that watching ads is a price you’re willing to pay in order to watch the programs/films/websites they accompany. If you don’t want to see the ads, change the channel

      • Weasel

        There is a distinction between listening and hearing. And you can’t seriously expect people to turn off the TV or change the channel everytime an ad comes on. Moreover, home exposure, where one is presumably has that option, is not the only venue. Many public spaces have radio or television going, and to expect a person to spend their life going out of their way to avoid hearing things they don’t want to hear, (and how do they know this until they hear it), is really not reasonable.

      • Chris

        Weasel, ads annoy me. I surf using adblock. I watch House a year late on DVD. That’s my choice.

        Anyone who doesn’t wish to hear ads can do the same thing I do.No one is forcing you to watch “Best Celebrity Body Parts” and stay glued to the TV during commercials.

    • Urstoff

      ^^^ doesn’t have a DVR.

      • Weasel

        I do in fact, however, even fast forwarding one still sees the ad, if in an abreviated format, and usually the message is still clear. I don’t deny that it’s possible to avoid a lot of advertising, but to avoid ALL advertising is more effort than it’s worth for me, and I suspect most people.

        It seems like those of you who have decided all ad viewing is an choice on the part of the viewer are stuck in an idealized and overly literal point of view, rather than a more pragmatic or objective one. Sure I can very easily choose not to see or hear an ad ever again, by blinding and deafening myself, or going to live in a cave in the woods, but I like most people don’t really consider that an practical option.

  • david

    Isn’t solving the problem of identifying who is competent to vote is far more difficult – and dangerous – than simply minimizing the ability of a few people to influence those who aren’t competent to vote but will anyway?

    In both cases, the risk that a small group of people come to dominate the screening process and influence mechanism(s) seems extraordinarily likely.

    As for voter shallowness, well, wishing away shallowness is liable to be as effective as when anti-market thinkers wish away greed.

  • William H. Stoddard

    As far as voter shallowness goes, there is the argument in The Myth of the Rational Voter that it is not rational for most voters to care about being politically informed, given how little influence they have on election outcomes and how little they personally have at stake in an accurate vote. People often think much more rationally when they face real costs for making bad choices.

    Perhaps what we need is a mechanism where the right to vote is treated as expendable capital, like money in the market, or scientific reputation in the research community. Spend your vote foolishly and you lose voting weight. Donald Kingsbury hinted at something like this in Courtship Rite many years ago.

    • gimli4thewest

      What would you think about voting on a point bases? For example, you get one point (vote) for being a citizen, one point for serving in the military, one point for owning land, one point for starting and owning a business, one point for raising children who do the former, and so on. That way people corrupting the system would have less weight than those contributing to the wealth, well being, and freedom of the nation—just something I was thinking this evening for conversation sake.

      • magfrump

        Why a point for serving in the military? What about pacifists and conscientious objectors? Why a point for owning land? What about renters, minors, immigrants? How would New York fare compared with Wyoming? Would a birth mother get voting rights for raising a child, or would adoptive parents? Would an unmarried gay couple both get voting rights for a child? What about the guardians of a child with divorced and remarried parents and joint custody?

        Which people are “corrupting” the system? Who decides and how?

        The “spend your vote foolishly” line from the parent seems like more of a reference to prediction markets.

      • Weasel

        Actually I like that idea, except for one point for starting and owning a business.

        Why the business bias? How about doctors, or teachers, there are multiple professions where you can argue the contribution to society is greater than the individual’s output.

      • Prakash

        An even simpler one.

        Tag every tax dollar paid and associate it with a human being. i.e. shift to any kind of direct tax system.
        Weight every vote by the net tax paid per person. For military and civil service, you can use the premium that private income has over military income (which you can study in advance seeing how much of a pay rise do people get when they leave military jobs) and weight servicemen’s vote by that amount in addition to taxes they pay.

        Thus your ability to influence the commonwealth is a straightforward function of your contribution to the commonwealth.

  • Matt

    I have a riddle for you:
    I rarely drink Coke. I almost always drink Pepsi. Does this prove that corporations have the ability to control my beliefs and thoughts or does it prove the exact opposite?

  • diogenese

    Robin — so you want a government based on ideal rational humans, rather than humans as they are —- THAT makes a lot of sense!

    however, it seems wiser to restrict the voting franchise to folks whose beliefs are less easily bought. …. why let such shallow folks make a mess of how we determine policy? Is extremely straight forward.

    Restricting corporate contributions to elections or implementing the above —- I wonder which one is a.) possible b.) pragmatic. Hmmmm?

    • nelsonal

      If you restrict contributions to elections but leave all the shallow folks, you’ll get elections that are primarily contests over who can be the most charismatic, which has been a bad way to choose leaders. A restriction on assets would be a quick test to greatly reduce the easily affected by ads.

      • David J

        diogenese: I think its more that the people who want to quash corporate speech really would prefer to make it so shallow people cannot vote but since that is not viable they pick the next worse option which is to apply targeted restrictions to corporations.

        nelsonal: If you want to institute a system where only actual candidates can approve and run advertisements and the funds used to run them is equally proportioned and limited that would be fine as then everyone is on the same territory. But whether such a limitation is practical (how would you police “idea” add – not explicit endorsement) is questionable. Furthermore, how would this apply to “propositions” as opposed to elected officials?

        William: A vote is an opinion; how do you have foolish opinion and by what criteria would you use to say someone else’s opinion is foolish? By extension, how would you non-subjectively judge policies and laws since that is ultimately what voting produces?

        Each voter has the same influence as any other but without organization you don’t know how big a voting block you represent and you know that the people out to get you are organized and thus you are helpless to do anything to challenge it. Thus organization, whether PAC, Corporate, or otherwise is a good thing and should be encouraged – especially since the process or connecting with an organization broadens the prospect that your vote will go to the proper candidate.

        The question becomes, should the government be involved is this kind of influencing (or discrimination) or should those that need people to join their organization fend for themselves? So what if people are voting on charisma – at least they are doing so of their own free will.

  • Bill

    I think Matt’s riddle, above, is really on point.

    I agree with you that there are shallow voters.

    That’s their choice. Both on what they want to solicit, and what they want to

    But, what isn’t their choice is the following:

    This recent Supreme Court decision, overruling prior precedent, gives corporations the right to use their resources in campaigning.

    I’m not talking money here. Corporations can contribute to PACs.

    I’m talking about the data they collect about me as a consumer and customer, data that resides in their corporate databases which they can mine for a political campaign. I’m talking about using their corporate marketing department to prepare campaign commercials and messages which can be targeted at me.

    I’m talking about that privacy statement that you check off which says that the corporation may use internally any information I give them–hint, data–internally, to prepare any communication to me.

    Now, I as you, probably receive solicitations from political parties. Often they contain surveys. I decline giving this information.

    Guess what. The person who wants to prepare a campaign directed to me using my information I gave them in a commercial transaction now has a very potent, non-consented weapon.

    Before I here you say, well, marketing is ineffective, data mining doesn’t work, consumer profiles do not matter, I would argue that if they are not, corporations are sure wasting a lot of money.

    Now, as you were saying about shallow voters….They don’t stand a chance.

    • David J

      The Supreme Court can only strike down laws the contradict existing law and thus the proper recourse is for the Congress to either repeal the conflicting law or concede that the striken law is illegal. As mentioned is previous posts – individual can run campaigns and corporations in many respects are treated like persons (taxation especially) and thus share in many of the same protections under the law.

      Fine, corporations can send you more junk mail but instead of trying to convince you their product is worth your money they want to convince you that certain policies or people are worth your vote. The Constitution/Law is blind to such distinctions – between individuals – as degree of shallowness; and in the end voting is an act of voicing ones opinion no matter how well or dis-informed such an opinion may be.

      So I guess the choice comes down to ripping up the Constitution or toss away corporate campaign fliers. Personally I’d prefer every just throw away the fliers.

      • Bill

        No problem with individuals running campaigns.
        The actual history of corporate speech, and the precedents the Supreme Court overruled, stare decisis notwithstanding, is complex. Had Sandra Day O’Connor remained on the Court, the decision would have gone the other way, and precedents that were overruled would have remained.

        This is a complex subject. Apparently you like literal interpretations of the constitution. Here’s something for you: at the time the framers drafted the first amendment, there were no corporations. Another factoid: 1 USC 1, which defines person and is a statute, and includes corporation within the meaning of person, changes by congress from time to time.

        Here is a constitional law blog, among many: http://www.acslaw.org/acsblog

        I wish this were as simple as as simply reading words.

      • Bill >This is a complex subject.

        If it were a complex subject, it would be simple. May I suggest using the word complicated?

      • Jayson Virissimo

        Here’s something for you: at the time the framers drafted the first amendment, there were no corporations.

        The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded in 1670. The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. These were around LONG before the First Amendment was drafted.

      • Chris

        Bill, since you evidently don’t believe corporations have the right to free speech, can you explain what prevents the government from censoring the corporate media? I.e., the NYT, NBC, CBS, FOX, etc?

        It seems that the only freedom of the press you believe in is sole-proprietorship newspapers. Is that right?

      • pdf23ds


        From Merriam Webster:

        complex … 2: hard to separate, analyze, or solve

      • pdf23ds:

        From RMCM:

        Complexity : polymorphic multibehavioralism + attribution (see also Simplicity).

        Simplicity : polymorphic multibehavioralism + inexpression (see also complexity).

        Rational : that which adheres to the rules that iteratively bind Form, Function, Cause and Effect into the Universe

        Can anyone here show me how free speech for corporations arises directly out of that which is rational?????

    • Bill

      Chris, Funny you should use as examples charters granted by the king, not the states, and certainly not of the United States at the time of the framing. State charters which came later limited the activities to just those prescribed in the charter. In fact, it wasn’t until, I believe, 1886, through a transcription error. Quite a bit of time, and a big surprise, since 1789. Here is a link for further information: http://www.reclaimdemocracy.org/personhood/index.html

      So, Chris, it seems ok with you that a corporation which owns your personal data that you gave them in a commercial transaction can use that to elect someone. Did you ever approve of that? You did, when you clicked through the privacy statement saying that the corporation could use personally identifiable information internally and could communicate with you. Now, if I am your bank credit card company, I know a hell of a lot about you.

      Good luck on exercising your right to vote and your free speech.

      You’ll need it.

      • Bill

        I can see I left out some words:

        Should read: State charters which came later limited the activities to just those prescribed in the charter. In fact, it wasn’t until, I believe, 1886, through a transcription error, that personhood for corporations came into existence. Some distance since 1789 when the constitution was drafted.

      • Chris

        Bill, you completely ducked the question. Not a single word of your post addresses it. I’ll ask again:

        Do you believe that corporate news sources do not have the right to free speech? That the government can censor the NYT and CNN if they so desire?

    • Bill

      I’ve got to get some coffee before I blog.

      1. I was responding to Jason in the first response re dates of corporate personhood.

      2. The bill of rights, containing the first amendment, was adopted in 1791.

      3. re Chris’s statement of Fox having more rights as a corporation. I am troubled by the media corporation, but not for free speech reasons. You see, you choose to buy those newspapers, tune in that dial, etc. We could debate whether repeal of the fairness doctrine for over the air broadcasting was good or bad; I think it was good, so long as people could buy more airwaves and cable and the internet are viable.
      But, the solution to the media corporation issue, which isn’t one, is not to create rights for the corporation that amplify the problem, particularly when I don’t buy Pringles to get their political harrangue.

      • David J

        Bill #3 – Fine, I understand you but I’d rather not toss aside the Constitution so that you can avoid unpleasant ‘junk mail” that you are free to ignore and discard. I’ll deal with the fact that some people will indeed act upon said junk mail but in the end I realize that whether I agree or not that is their choice.

        I feel that on balance removing the Free Speech rights of individuals who are acting on behalf of a corporation is not a good thing. You focus on political ads but there are ways that corporations contribute to the political discussion either directly or indirectly (e.g., publishing a book) that would be covered as well from a legal standpoint.

      • Chris

        Oops, didn’t see this actual response to what I wrote.

        My question is not whether you are against speech by the corporate media. My question is this: since corporations do not have free speech rights, do you believe it is legitimate for the government to censor the corporate media?

        I.e., does the government have the right to tell the NYT “don’t publish the pentagon papers.” I’m not asking if you consider it to be good policy, but simply whether you consider it to be a violation of free speech rights.

        And if you believe the NYT gets free speech rights, why not Pringles?

    • Bill

      For the English majors on this site, you will have to forgive my unnuanced understanding of complex, complexity, etc. I am only human, not a corporation, or a computer either.

  • Eadwacer

    There are hundreds of TV and radio channels, thousands of newspapers, magazines, and journals, and millions of web pages. Most readers track many of these, and try new ones often.

    That may be true nationwide, but in any given market there’s just a few popular TV channels, one local and a few faux-local Clear Channel radio stations, one or two newspapers, and only a small fraction of the community that scans web pages. The TV channels and radio stations are popular because they are entertaining, not because they are sought after by truth-seekers.

    In addition, we know that broadcast lies can drown out the truth — witness ‘Harry and Louise’ and ‘swiftboating’. Greater corporate spending will likely result in greater warp in the information the general public holds.

    • William H. Stoddard

      What century are you living in? The last I heard, the great majority of Americans had cable, and cable provides not just a handful of broadcast channels, but dozens of specialized channels of many sorts. Or for those in more remote areas, there’s satellite access, which grants the same benefit.

      And the long-term trend is toward increased reliance on the Internet for news—which means getting news from thousands of sources. Print media are dying out; broadcast media are less far along, but their audience share has peaked.

      Yes, businesses lie. But so do other groups with agendas: labor unions, government agencies, political parties, churches, scientists and scholars, artists, even individual bloggers. You can’t ensure that only truth will be communicated; and the attempt to do so, if say you set up a Ministry of Truth to preapprove all publications, will do more harm than good, by shutting out any viewpoint that disagreed with the officially accepted pravda. The least bad choice is to let everyone talk and let people develop their own mental antibodies against lies and manipulation. That approach was good enough for the framers of the Bill of Rights and I think they had a point.

  • The Theory of the Second Best seems relevant here. Given that it’s politically infeasible to disenfranchise shallow voters today, why consider allowing corporations free speech “good news”? Sure, it would be good news in a first-best world, but we don’t live in that one.

  • I just added to the post.

    • Weasel

      Shallow voters who believe whatever side shows the most ads would either be bought by corporations more indirectly, or by other deep pockets more directly.

      I’d be for eliminating all paid political advertising. Require the so-called news media to do it’s job and properly cover the candidates and issues. I’m not sure if it’s still the case, now that the FCC is selling off the commons to the highest bidder, but I believe broadcasters used to be under some requirement to carry a certain percentage of informational programming for the “public good”. On the plus side it might have the side benefit of forcing so-called news organizations to spend more time on actual information and ideas instead of dragging out 10 seconds worth of celebrity gossip for days on end.

  • I wrote this on AskReddit yesterday: Underpinning all the furor over Citizens United is the assumption that whoever has the most money will win. (1) Is this backed by empirical results? and (2) If so, what does this say about the true worth of a democracy? Or, put another way, if the quantity of political advertising governs the results of elections, what does this say about the quality of voters’ opinions? Is the implication of such data that the median voter is stupid and easily suggestible?

    • Popeye

      If money decided elections, then that would mean that voters are stupid.

      If money didn’t decide elections, then that would mean that corporations that spend money to influence elections are stupid.

      Oh noes! What a conundrum!

    • Freakonomics examines that. Self-funded wealthy candidates pretty much always do terribly. Candidates that receive lots of donations also receive lots of votes. Their is a fairly obvious shared causality there: popular candidates receive more support in the form of both donations and votes. There is little evidence for donations having independent effects on the odds of political success.

      Steve Levitt is somewhat controversial, but less so than John Lott. Lott’s book “Freedomnomics” is framed as an attack on Freakonomics, which was a big mistake in my view. Nevertheless, there are some very interesting portions. One finding that actually seems to gel with the above from Freakonomics is that campaign contributions don’t have a noticeable effect on the behavior of legislators. Those who are retiring and don’t have to raise campaign funds don’t behave any differently. Lott’s theory is that people give money for the same reason they vote for a candidate: they like them and want them to win. A similar theory is in the abstract Tyler Cowen recently posted for “Why isn’t there more money in politics?”.

    • “In 93 percent of House of Representatives races and 94 percent of Senate races that had been decided by mid-day Nov. 5, the candidate who spent the most money ended up winning, according to a post-election analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The findings are based on candidates’ spending through Oct. 15, as reported to the Federal Election Commission. ”


      • Of course, this doesn’t say anything at all about which way the causality goes. If people only donate to the candidate they plan to vote for, or if special interests only donate to the candidate they think will win, results like these will occur even when spending has no effect on people’s votes.

  • In the absence of a better voting/decision-making system, which seems impossible for the foreseeable future, a case could be put forward that corporations are more pernicious than the other groups that would try to appeal to shallow voters. I’m not sure if I believe that, particularly in the US where you have idiotic populists like Palin who also pull in those voters, but I don’t think it should be dismissed out of hand.

    • gimli4thewest

      Enjoy the anti-Palin comments. Somehow I have always been attracted to the rural-feminist: strong, competent, happy, in control of their body, slightly anti-intellectual but with good instincts over the urban-feminist: whiny, victimized, married to a cheating smooth talker, and needing the government to help raise the family. But, maybe that’s the experience of being married to a strong gun slinging woman like Sarah rather than a pantsuited Monica-second like Hillary.

      • Popeye

        Well, just look at how Chelsea Clinton was raised — pregnant at 17, raising a baby without a dad. What do you expect when your mom wears pantsuits and indoctrinates you with liberal values?

      • gimli4thewest

        Popeye, sorry to be sarcastic, it’s my weakness. My point is that it would have been political expedient to have Sarah’s daughter abort her child and thus save the political career of a conservative rather than have the daughter give life to a wonderful baby. In other words, it’s easier to be “prochoice” rather than “prolife.” I hope the child of such grandparents would say, “Thank goodness my mom was flawed but prolife.”

        Blessing to you and your family

      • Popeye

        Yes, for most people who are sufficiently judgmental to refer to the American Secretary of State as a “pantsuited Monica-second” “uber-feminist: whiny, victimized, married to a cheating smooth talker, and needing the government to raise a family,” raising a daughter who became an unwed mother at age 17 would be considered a failure, while raising an independent woman with a successful career would be considered a success. But gimli is different: to him, being an unwed mother is a great sign of strength, because it’s just so EASY to have an abortion.

        But now gimli — the same person who wrote:

        I have always been attracted to the rural-feminist: strong, competent, happy, in control of their body, slightly anti-intellectual but with good instincts over the urban-feminist: whiny, victimized, married to a cheating smooth talker, and needing the government to help raise the family.

        now would never want to judge anyone. I mean, a woman may be flawed, but at least she’s prolife, and that trumps everything else. And if you’re a 17-year-old mom with no husband and your parents aren’t rich enough to support your baby, and you need to turn to the government for help — well la la la la la.

        This is why divorced people think that gay marriage is a grave threat to our most sacred institution — well they’re seriously flawed, but you still need to have standards, you know.

    • gimli4thewest

      Abortion is so glorious!

      • Popeye

        Chelsea Clinton was aborted? I don’t get it gimli.

    • I’d like to hear this supposed case that firms are more pernicious speakers to shallow voters, relative to unions, churches, organized political interest groups, news media, etc. It would need to be a pretty strong case before I’d be tempted to silence firms. I’d rather take away the vote from low IQ folks – that judgement seems less open to corruption.

      • Doug S.

        That suggestion reminds me a lot of the “literacy tests” used to disenfranchise blacks in the South. (If you were white, you got an easy test, if you were black, you got an impossible one.)

    • gimli4thewest

      Actually, Popeye I don’t know much about Chelsea, but I’m sure she’s a fine lady. I just don’t remember any press coverage on her during those awkward adolescent years. Maybe someone will dig up her medical records and dig deeper into her associates so folks like you can pound their chess after taking apart a 17 year old girl who is not part of the debate.
      Of course, I wouldn’t want to say anything judgmental about the Clintons and especially our beloved Secretary of State. I take it all back and gay marriage too.

  • peter4455

    While everybody’s thinking about the ramifications of rights to free speech and free hearing, I’d like to point out a conspicuous exception to such rights.

    When a person is accused by the government of committing a crime and when that person is brought to trial to answer the government’s accusation, that person’s right to speak and to defend himself is almost entirely eliminated. Such a person is only allowed to say things to the jury that the judge, a government employee, allows him to say. For example, if you are charged with possession of marijuana in federal court in California, you are not permitted to say to the jury that you were acting lawfully under California law.

    Of all the times and places at which a person should be allowed to exercise his right to free speech, and to say what he wishes to say, a trial, especially a criminal trial, would seem to be among the most important. But I never hear any complaints about this restriction on free speech.

    • Yes, that seems a good place for open communication, but even then I’d talk in terms of the right of the jury to learn all they want to know to make their evaluation. Surely they’d want to hear from the accused.

    • David J

      My only real qualm with the jury system is that the jury cannot pose questions but simply hear the sides presented. Not allowing the jury to perform self-research also seems somewhat limited especially on general knowledge questions (like definitions) where some people bring said knowledge into the discussion while others do not.

      As for limiting the rights of the defendant I am pretty sure that either during the open/closing arguments or via direct examination of the defendant pretty much anything that the defendant wants to communicate to the jury can be said. Yes, you need to stand up to cross-examination but even that can be mostly avoided by invoking the 5th amendment.

    • Rich Rostrom

      The defendant is also not allowed to inform the jury that if they vote to convict him, his associates will murder them and their families.

      The prosecution is also strictly limited in what it can say during the trial. Prosecutors are not allowed to inform the jury of the defendant’s previous criminal record, unless it directly relates to the charges being tried. I have read several accounts by jurors who voted to acquit a defendant, and then learned afterward of previous history that made it obvious the defendant was guilty.

  • steven

    I note that Robin’s focus was on shallow voters. I’m curious what (effective) message he thinks profit maximizing corporations will (on average) send. Vote for politician X because s/he’ll: (1) regulate its (current and potential) competitor(s); (2) lower its taxes; or (3) it likes Politician X’s hairstyle.

    My prediction is more of one and less of two with (in either case) three thrown in to reduce criticism to itself. I conclude this because taxes are generally applied to all, whereas, regulations are an effective screen for entrants/competitors. (Although I concede that regulations apply to all…with a heavy bias toward incumbent firms.)

    Whatever the case, Speech could also have no substanitve effect based on of most U.S. history (I,e we’ve heard corporate and NGO messages so why wouldn’t it be the same as pre McC/Fein..)

  • Clifford Nelson

    “To the extent that some such folks have a natural tendency to believe whatever the majority of ads they hear on such topics tell them, such shallow folks are in effect offering to believe whatever the most monetarily-eager advertisers want them to believe. For such shallow folks, money-wise the loud can indeed drown out the less loud.”

    Hold on … your blog is entitled “Overcoming Bias” and I thought your belief was that we humans (as in all of us) are prone to be biased. Don’t you have to accept us as we are and then decide how we can best “overcome bias?” Are people who disagree with you to be labeled as “shallow” and faulted? Since humans generally act in accordance with their own interests who would protect the interests of the “shallow” people if they didn’t have a voice?

  • Clifford Nelson

    Also, aren’t people issue bias (meaning that we generally think “deeper” when an issue directly effect us, we project ourselves or our past experiences on to the decision, or decide based upon the limits of our emotional ability)? If this is true, don’t “biased decisions’ have less to do with some innate shallowness and more individuals circumstances??

    • I’m happy to grant that shallowness can vary with person, topic, and context. If it is rare, we can ignore it, but it is more common than not we need to seriously revise who can vote on what – silencing firms will not help much.

      • David J

        Any system (especially one designed and implemented so long ago) can normally be improved; so the real question – presupposing “mass shallowness” – is what kind of improvements would we want to make.

        If we simply prevent the masses from voting we are likely to have a rebellion on our hands and entrenched government power would be even harder to unseat since only the government would be qualified to screen its citizens.

        Focusing our efforts on information dissemination and transparency effects would do more good that simply trying to silence those with money, influence and organization.

        A “shallow person” is making a decision based upon some criteria and we have not yet even tried to touch such criteria. In our two-party system I suppose a shallow person either votes their party consistently or they vote the incumbent until things seem to be really bad then they vote the other guy – defaulting to their preferred party if necessary.

        With our current political system party candidates are not all that different since the party determines the platform. Even between the parties the candidates are not all that different when it comes to how government should be run – and in any case incoming individuals always have to deal with the previous administration’s leftovers. So who can really blame a voter for being expedient and voting on a system instead of an individual? Without looking at the system structurally this incentive will not go away and working around it – limiting votes only to those few who would put in the extra work – no longer gives the masses a voice simply because they are being efficient within the reality of the system they are dealing with.

  • Edward

    “There are hundreds of TV and radio channels, thousands of newspapers, magazines, and journals, and millions of web pages. Most readers track many of these, and try new ones often”

    This statement lays the foundation for your argument – that corporations can’t drown out actual people – and it is false. As you state it, it is ridiculous. What reader tracks “hundreds” of stations and “thousands” of web pages? None, obviously. Most people are too busy earning a living and living their lives to track more than a few – and it isn’t very hard for corporations to target these. So, I say you have missed the boat completely and your entire argument falls apart.

  • Robert Koslover

    I take it, Edward, that you are not speaking for yourself, since you are among those (precious-few!) well-informed and most-enlightened ones, i.e., those who are wise enough not to fall for the damned lies of corporate speech, eh? You mean to speak out only for the welfare of the poor unwashed workers (i.e., those “too busy earning a living”) who (unlike you!) are utterly powerless to recognize or resist the insidious, clever, and deceptive advertising foisted upon them by those evilest-of-all corporations. If only (if only!) more humans possessed your insights, or even a fraction of your piercing clarity of thought, then we would not need to protect those poor, unfortunate, and (dare we say it?) ”shallow” wretches from encountering dangerous, corrupting, or wrong-headed ideas! For that sir, I do so admire your sense of noblesse oblige! And thus, I can only agree that we must put an end to this most-dangerous experiment in social injustice, this foolish outdated notion called “Freedom of Speech.” Indeed, it is high time that only truly smart people, perhaps to be pre-selected and pre-approved (by the vote of a “Central Committee” perhaps?) be allowed to speak to the weak-minded ears of the Proletariat! Workers (Comrades!) of the world, shut your ears! Edward knows far, far better than you do what you should or should not hear! Hail to Edward, and Hail to those wise, pious, unbiased, and deeply philanthropic, insufficiently-appreciated, and incomparably-smarter-than-you-or-me souls at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc! [Note: the inclusion or non-inclusion of MIT and Caltech is TBD; after all, they do emphasize “engineering” (shudder) there! But let’s get back to the subject at hand…] Please, we beg of you, oh great and wise philosopher kings! Tell us what to hear! Protect us, shelter us, from Satan’s corporate lies! Deafen our ears for us to ANY potentially dangerous, politically-incorrect, or offensive (again, this can be decided by committee!) form of speech that might cause us needless pain and suffering! For yours (yes you, Edward, and those who agree with you) is the Glory, the Power, and the One and Only Truth^TM, now and forevermore. Hallelujah! Amen.

    • Admirably witty comment, though a bit hostile for my tastes.

    • mike

      I laughed. The caricature presented here is unfortunately too accurately embodied by many prominent voices in the USSA.

  • Yes, there are many different channels and sources of media, but most people continue to get their information from a very limited set of branded sources. Economists discount the transaction cost of searching out new information in new venues, and that is the problem with assuming that what people watch or consume is necessarily what they like or prefer. People watch what is easy to find, what they know, and within that limited range what they like.

    The fact remains that established companies, channels and media sources have a tremendous leg up in capturing the attention of the voters, and these remain the most expensive venues through which to reach people. Money has always helped less popular candidates get attention when they couldn’t attract volunteers due to their ideas or platforms. When one looks at the use of money in American politics, it proves more akin to the proverbial steaksauce on shit.

    That is why the money as speech argument is so frustrating and angering to people on both the right and the left: on a fundamental level Americans recognize that money is not functioning as speech but advertising. In the same way that heavily packaged pop artists who can barely sing and lipsynch their way through concerts are marketed to listeners, voters end up with slick candidates who rely on polls, direct mail, and carefully focus grouped answers to gain office and cram through policy their corporate sponsors wanted, but that the American people would never support on its merit.

    If anyone wonders why politicians on both sides cannot seem to do anything of merit, I have your answer: It’s the money, stupid!

  • fen

    I don’t see the sense in looking at this as if the question of whether loud voices will drown out softer ones is merely a matter of shallow viewers being swayed by content-free ads.

    A more interesting approach would be to note that with any real issue, there’s a pretty good argument for either side – otherwise it wouldn’t be an issue. And if the loud voices are all on the same side of that issue, inevitably viewers will be made more aware of the arguments in one direction than those in the other. Thus it’s natural to expect looser restrictions on corporate advertising to sway more people, *even if* the people are wholly rational and unswayed by shallow advertising. In such light, it’s frankly mysterious what the point would be of restricting the franchise by IQ, or similar such nonsense.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Mechanically, it would be straightforward to limit the franchise by age, income, IQ, education, knowledge test scores, etc. Yes such changes seem unpopular now, but that’s no excuse for ignoring them.

    The point of having universal (equal) suffrage is not to patake of the wisdom of the populace; it’s to ensure that there is no significant group that have to endure hideously bad conditions without any chance of improvement. They get to have their interests represented, not their opinions.

    Now, nowadays there may be quite a divergence between interests and opinions, but that’s because all the easy questions have been solved, and people are – broadly – comfortable enough not to care about the fine details. But if slaves had been voters as well as slaves, slavery would not have endured past two election cycles; similarly, if illegal imigrants were voters today, their problems would be addressed with great vigour.

    Restricting to (say) high IQ voters would ensure that only their interests would ever be represented. We get a much better alignment of interests and opinions, but only at the cost of throwing out the interests of most of the population.

    I see no way that restricting the franchise could work – unless, maybe, it were to happen on alternating elections? That way, there would be an injection of reason into the system half the time, and a safety valve to ensure the consequences of this are not too hideous the other half.

    • mike

      “But if slaves had been voters as well as slaves, slavery would not have endured past two election cycles”

      Are you sure about that? I think the militant gay marriage movement would disagree that the franchise = getting what you want.

      “similarly, if illegal imigrants were voters today, their problems would be addressed with great vigour.”

      You think that letting random foreign invaders vote in our elections is a good idea? If random people come and crash your party, would you let them decide whether we should play Pictionary or Charades?

      Their “problem” is that they are trespassing, and the only solution is for them to go home. When you talk about the “problems” of illegal aliens, I can’t help but think of this old saw:

      Patient: Doctor, it hurts when I do this…

      Doctor: Stop doing that.