Debasing The Human Mind: Part 2

This is a three part series on the nature of political speech in the recent political party conventions. The first post in this series takes some time to examine the effect of the impact these convention speeches on the speakers themselves. This analysis can be looked at almost without even considering the nature of the speech. This post will detail haw some styles of rhetoric, and media dynamics, alter the value of information, and the quantity of good ideas being passed around. The last post will examine pieces of the effect of rhetoric on social groups and inter-group dynamics.

The examination here will be how these aspects of political discourse affect the value, and weighing of information in decision making. There is a term I’ve given much thought to over the last few weeks that I first saw Larry Summers say here. It is the idea of a “Gresham’s Law of advocacy”. The meaning of this idea is not immediately apparent, and I would suspect that most people aren’t even familiar with the idea of Gresham’s Law in the first place. Here  is a good definition of it, and I would suspect that upon looking at it, the connection is even less clear, so I’ll take some time here to go a little bit more deeply into the idea.

I’ll explain this with a simple example. Consider a government with two currencies, gold, and lead. It is clear from here that gold and lead have different values, gold is much more scarce and highly sought after than lead, thus making it more valuable. For simplicity, lets assume that one gold coin is worth ten lead coins. Now, say there is a marketplace in a town, in which the government allows only lead and gold to be used as payment. Also say that they mandate that for the same good, it must have an equal price in lead and gold. If you are a merchant here, you must raise your prices to reflect the percent of people paying in lead vs gold. If half of the people pay in lead, and half pay in gold, then your price would be halfway between their values, say 5 coins for what you would otherwise charge ten lead coins or one gold coin for. If you are a consumer here, and have 50 lead coins and 5 gold coin, which are you going to spend at the market? Well you can buy 10 chickens with the lead coins, but only one chicken with the gold coins, so you would spend your lead coins and save your gold coins for when you really need them. In this way, people stop spending the gold coins, and only spend the lead coins which drives the gold out of use as currency. Also note, that when this happens, and everyone is spending with lead coins, the merchant is going to price her wares at the lead coin price, because she will not be receiving any gold ones. This drives the use of the higher real value coins out of the economy. This is a somewhat oversimplified example of Gresham’s Law. I could make more about the fact that this happens because the values of the base metal(not the coins themselves) is a strong issue here, but this is intended to be a simple illustration, not a full analysis. Also, if you think this is a far fetched example, there is a long history of currency debasement, and it continues today, even in U.S. dollars. Here’s a look at how Zimbabwe is facilitating this exact process.

So now that we have an idea of how Gresham’s Law exists, we can examine it in the context of ideas and media. For this, we need a bit of a leap of abstraction. We need to conceptualize ideas as a sort of currency that changes are made with, and influence is gained with. Ideas can serve two purposes. Knowledge and ideas are instrumental in determining the best policy to take, or creating new understandings of varying aspects of society. This is what I will refer to as the real value of an idea: its value for forming, creating, discovering, and analyzing policy decision past, present, and future. Ideas though, also have a nominal value. An idea, in the political spectrum, and be used to mobilize sects of society into voting, protest, petition, donation, or any number of related activities. An important thing to consider when thinking about this is how these ideas are perceived by people. There is a strong trend in journalism to attempt to be unbiased. This means when one person comes with an idea, and another person comes with an idea, the ideas are treated with equal validity, and particularly in the context of televised news media, it is left to the viewer to decide which is the better idea. This may seem like a good idea. It may even be a good idea, but it can be thought of in the context of Gresham’s Law.

A simple way to think about this is voter ID laws. There is one side of the discussion, which goes something along the lines of, without ID laws, it will be easier for voters to commit fraud, and thus our elections will be less representative. This follows a certain logic, and is relatively easy to come up with. It however, has a relatively low real value. Consider another side of the issue, which goes something along the lines of, there is low incidence of voter fraud and voter ID laws increase the relative cost and difficulty of voting for some groups in society, so you will decrease voter turnout among those groups more than you will decrease incidents of voter fraud, and actually make elections less representative. Now, if we assume the goal is to give elections the maximum representativeness with respect to the populace, which idea has a higher real value? I would argue the second, as it requires more study, some empirical analysis to actually determine the effects of the policy change, and more thought and consideration. If we treat these positions as equally valid however in media and conversation, as simply a difference of opinion, Gresham’s Law would seem to imply that the well reasoned, nuanced, ideas, would be hoarded. They take more time and expertise to develop, and thus have a higher cost associated with production. If the simple, easy produce ideas, are just as effective as the nuanced, well reasoned ones for political discourse, then why would one bother to produce the better ideas?

Emotional and anecdotal stories are powerful, moving, and important, but they are not a substitute for empirical studies, and nuanced examination of issues. They have a strong nominal value. They are easy to remember, and more importantly, easy to understand at a core level without any specialized knowledge. These are the rallying cries, the banners, and the wake up call that many people need, and appreciate. The problem still remains that they are not particularly useful in forming specific policy decisions, yet when they are used as political centerpieces, they are what the public will expects to be addressed.

I’m not arguing that these personal, heartfelt stories should not be a piece of the discussion, particularly when patterns of behavior emerge, in issues such as police violence. I am arguing, that these stories should be a starting point, and treated as such, instead of the final evidence used to form a certain narrative. These stories tell you what needs to be studied, and where stories differ on each side, suggests a place where a longer, more nuanced discussion should be talking place. These stories would be a great introduction to a speaker giving a longer summary of empirical research, and policy proposals to issues that caused the subject of the story. If we stop here however, and rely on countering anecdote with anecdote(much in the way undocumented immigration was dealt with by both parties), we run the risk of falling into a Gresham’s Law of ideas, and failing to make progress in new ideas as a society.

This will conclude part two. The takeaway is that anecdotes and feelings are important, and relevant to political discourse, but we need to be careful to relate them to more quantitative evidence, and empirical findings. Also, when confronted with a qualitative narrative, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of countering narrative with narrative, and focus more strongly on transforming stories and feelings to tangible decisions and theories that can be tested against.



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