The Risk of Reading This Blog

From a reader named William Haisley:

I’m a weekly columnist for the Daily Collegian, the Penn State newspaper, where I currently attend law school. Today my column about why I don’t vote — an idea I was exposed to and ran with after reading your “Why Vote” article — ran and I have been dealing with the fallout ever since. I think I’ve been insulted more often today than the rest of my 24 years combined.

In some sense, my column is just an amalgamation of your article and various Overcoming Bias articles — which, again, I was introduced to on your blog and can’t thank you enough for — I’ve read over the years, though I guess I could say that about my entire belief system at this point.

Anyways, you should have a warning label at the end of your articles that tells people the potential dangers of publicly stating some of your more controversial findings (though I really didn’t think this was that controversial, but I’ve been proven wrong). You really need the cultural tread to take people somewhere they didn’t know they were going.

Something like, “Warning: improper use of contents may cause hate mail.”

So what constitutes “improper” use?

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  1. Ahmed Waris al-Majid says:

    Not giving the required background. If I go around telling stories from the Freakonomics books, people would give me the “Are you insane?” look and laugh me off. The presentation style matters, and that is out of either of your departments.
    Rest easy.

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  2. Andreas Moser says:

    My advice regarding hate mail: Publish it! It usually makes for great reading.

    I once got a hate call after a blog I had written. The anonymous caller threatened me and asked me to leave his country: (which I did, sooner or later)

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  3. Mike says:

    “Improper” use would be forgoing the reasons you proposed, and instead assuming that people only vote because they want to be seen. There’s a big difference between “people want to feel like they are doing their civic duty, even if it has little effect” and “people want to be seen affiliating with a party.” The latter is insulting for everyone that actually cares.

    The article wasn’t at all based on the economics: that the cost of voting outweighs the benefit, but rather on assuming that voters do it to be seen and that everyone voter shares exactly the same beliefs as the person voted for.

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  4. Fred says:

    I am on the same page as this guy. We need to change the democratic process in the USA. The common citizens vote doesn’t matter and the politicians do whatever the money tells them to.

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  5. Roger says:

    They don’t call it “The Dismal Science” for nuthin, ya know!

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  6. tylerh says:

    I am continually stunned that economists, of all people, can’t understand the one-word reason why they should vote: correlation.

    Imagine an island of 100 voters. 75 are economists who are thoughtful, respectful, and have jointly worked out a brilliant economic policy. 25 are ne’er-do-wells who do whatever the latest winner of their song-and-dance contest tell them to do.

    Of course, the island is run by the song-and-dance folks, because these economists (a) have focused on the wrong aspect of vote and (b) applied over-simplistic math. In particular, they have failed to grasp that, while their marginal vote may not matter, the marginal effect with whom they correlate with _is_ determining.

    Recall that near tautolgy that the vote the matters because it prevents disenfranchisement. When it come decide who gets their taxes raised or who gets drafted, a democratic government has strong incentives to put the heaviest burden on the group that votes the least.

    So the proper question is not ‘what is the marginal effect of my vote isolation’, but ‘what is the marginal effect on the group with whom I correlate.’

    Now, this nested math is more complicated — perhaps it’s in your self-interest to be a free-rider within your own group, confident that even without your vote your group is strong to avoid being taxed or drafted or whatever. But notice how makes the “should I vote” question subtler and more interesting.

    In November, an Auto-worker in the mid-west would be a fool NOT to vote, but the typical NPR listener in Alabama can probably rationally skip going to the polls.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 11
    • Bogolov says:

      As an NPR listener in Alabama, I certainly intend to vote in November. It won’t make a difference in the Electoral College, of course, but it is important to remind the majority that the minority exists, and that we are a large minority at that. Put one hundred Alabamans in a room, and the sixty or so conservatives need to remember that forty of us are liberals, and can’t be entirely ignored.

      (Needless to say, a Rush Limbaugh listener in Alabama can reasonably skip going to the polls as well, and I don’t mind if he does.)

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  7. Tristan says:

    I’ve been considering reasons why people would want to vote, and while the original Freakonomics piece does a good job it only considers one possible outcome of voting – a candidate winning or losing the election. But that’s certainly not the only outcome of voting, there’s also the impact it has on voter turnout, margin of victory and demographic voting info. All of those things are statistics that politicians in Washington (and in state capitols) pay attention to, and in all cases voting would seem to provide incentives for politicians to act better.

    High turnout means that whoever wins has the “mandate” of the people, and therefore gives incentives to work with them. Low turnout gives more power to the “base” of the party, which gives politicians incentives to pander to their base and not compromise with the other party. A larger margin of victory has a similar effect for the party you’re voting for, and increasing the representation of your demographic in voting totals means that demographic will get more attention from politicians.

    Now, the impact any one vote has on these totals or ratios isn’t big, but it certainly isn’t zero. The winner of an election is a binary outcome, while these other outcomes are linear. The impact of your voting most likely will have 0 outcome on the winner of the election, but it will definitely have a small, but non-zero, impact on other linear factors.

    The question then becomes not “is the effort of voting worth the likely 0 impact I’ll have”, and instead is “is the effort of voting worth the small impact I’ll have?” Depending on how much effort it takes to vote that answer may change for different people, but it’s definitely a much more interesting and useful way to frame the question.

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  8. econobiker says:

    ” It’s not that your vote categorically doesn’t count — it’s that one person’s vote has such a miniscule chance of being decisive, that it is actually irrational to take the day off of work, drive to the polls, wait in line and finally vote.

    Your vote has almost no chance of making a real difference in who wins or loses.”

    “One rain drop does not make a flood but millions do…”

    Been voting alternative political party (also called third parties) since 1988 just to give my “none of the above vote”.

    If more people did this, the two main parties and info-tainment media would be stopped cold…

    You know there ARE are more than two political parties, RIGHT?

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    • Enter your name... says:

      > You know there ARE are more than two political parties, RIGHT?

      Sure, but in the US, there are only two “main parties”.

      As for taking the day off work, maybe it should be a holiday (or half-holiday).

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