Friday, January 8, 2016

Government Needs to Advertise

I once read an essay that argued people think government does nothing because government can't afford to advertise all the good it does. (I think it was by one of my favorite authors, Steven Johnson, but I can't find a link.) And good news doesn't get covered by the media, of course, since it doesn't have enough man-bites-dog appeal, while every problem is amplified by critics.

Well, here's one of those moments you won't hear about: the CARD Act, which came in with the Elizabeth Warren-inspired Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has saved consumers $7 billion in late payment fees and $9 billion on over-limit bank fees.

You probably won't hear about that anywhere else. Either of those amounts is more than was spent on the 2012 presidential election in total.


Update: I found the Steven Johnson quote... because he answered me when I asked him on Twitter, and then another person came up with the source. (Sometimes I love Twitter). It's from his book Future Perfect (excerpt here). The relevant portion:

...we tend to assume that innovation and progress come from market environments, not the public sector. This propensity is no accident; it is the specific outcome of the way public opinion is shaped within the current media landscape. The public sector doesn’t have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet its successes. If a multinational corporation invents a slightly better detergent, it will spend a legitimate fortune to alert the world that its product is now “new and improved.” But no one launches a prime-time ad campaign to tout the chicken gun. The vast majority of public-sector dollars spent on advertising go into electing politicians. No one buys airtime to sing the praises of the regulators and the civil servants, so we assume the regulators and the civil servants have done nothing for us. The end result is a blind spot for stories of public-sector progress.

That blind spot is compounded by the deeper lack of interest in stories of incremental progress. Curmudgeons, doomsayers, utopians, and declinists all have an easier time getting our attention than opinion leaders who want to celebrate slow and steady improvement. The most striking example of this can be seen in the second half of the 1990s, a period when both economic and social trends were decisively upbeat: the stock market was surging, but inequality was in fact on the decline; crime, drug use, welfare dependence, poverty—all were trending in an encouraging direction. With a Democrat in the White House, you might assume that the op-ed pages of The Washington Post would be bursting with pride over the state of the nation, given the paper’s center-left leanings. But you would be wrong. Over the course of 1997, in the middle of the greatest peacetime economic boom in U.S. history (and before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke), 71 percent of all editorials published in the Post that expressed an opinion on some aspect of the country’s current state focused on a negative trend. Less than 5 percent of the total number of editorials concentrated on a positive development. Even the boom years are a bummer.

I suspect, in the long run, the media bias against stories of incremental progress may be more damaging than any bias the media display toward the political Left or Right. The media are heavily biased toward extreme events, and are slightly biased toward negative news and trend stories. This bias may just be a reflection of the human brain’s propensity to focus more on negative information than positive, a trait extensively documented by neuroscience and psychology studies. The one positive social trend that did generate a significant amount of coverage—the extraordinary drop in the U.S. crime rate since the mid-1990s—seems to have been roundly ignored by the general public. The violent crime rate dropped from 51 to 15 (in crimes per thousand people) between 1995 and 2010, truly one of the most inspiring stories of societal progress in our lifetime. Yet according to a series of Gallup polls conducted over the past ten years, more than two-thirds of Americans believe that crime has been getting worse, year after year.

Whether these biases come from media distortions or our human psychology, they result in two fundamental errors in the popular mind: we underestimate the amount of steady progress that continues around us, and we misunderstand where that progress comes from.

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