Tag Archives: NPR

Misunderstanding Motivation

13 Apr

I am increasingly fascinated by our collective ignorance of what drives our desires, actions, and visions of delight – as our basest needs are met, wealth and “utility,” the cold economic term for happiness, diverge logarithmically. And I am not the only one focusing on this. Dan Pink did a wonderful talk at RSA on the subject. David Brooks wrote a book and a piece in the New Yorker on this question as well. I can’t go a week without reading a story how wealth and happiness only partially relate at all, and rarely directly.

Our laws, legal system and public policy, of course, will lag such scientific understanding or debate. Transforming new academic positions into productive governmental positions take time. But as the simplistic economic rational actor theory – that all people will logically and predictably choose more of a good than less, and make personal choices to maximize their economic situation at the least cost – becomes more and more exposed as trite and incomplete at best, our laws and policies based upon that theory are revealed as incongruous to the facts. Our tax laws and penal code are based upon the idea that we can induce, encourage, and incentivize behavior (Nudge it, perhaps) based upon cash pay outs or punishments, carrots and sticks, because Americans are rational actors. Let me give two seemingly unrelated examples where that is clearly not the case: NPR and marijuana.   

Lost in the debate about federal funding of NPR, as Republican politicians seemingly wish to exact revenge for some perceived slight, and Libertarians and budget cutters seek to remove the government from educating and informing the public via radio at all, is that if the economic rational actor theory was wholly accurate, NPR should not exist at all. Corporate NPR gets little of its funding from the federal government, but they are merely the news organization that produces the programming. The individual NPR station in towns and cities and rural areas across the country receive the greatest percentage of their funding from individual listeners. But it is in no one’s personal economic interest to donate their money to a radio station. Listening to the news is free, and as far as any individual can tell, the news will appear whether I give money or not. Why pay for an item when I can have it for no cost? That is not economically rational. As a tax break, I get a maximum of 35 cents back to my dollar donated – the rational economic choice is to keep the dollar.  Business donations make up the second major chunk of funding, but there too advertising dollars would be better spent. Why spend $1000 to get a ten second mention on NPR when I can have a full ad in another outlet or venue? Radio host Michael Medved speaks for many conservatives when he says he would donate money to NPR the day federal money dries up. Why? Because just like the motivation to donate to NPR, the debate about governmental funding of it is about a lot more than the economics.

Similarly, laws and public policy fail to account for, control, or incentive the use (or disuse) of marijuana. If man were a rational actor, the punishment for smoking pot would effectively discourage its use. But despite nearly 900,000 arrests a year, or roughly one in 25 who smoke regularly, marijuana remains the third most used recreational drug behind alcohol and tobacco. Roughly one third of Americans have smoked it at some point, and 25 million a year partake. Smoking pot is like speeding, jaywalking and drinking underage – technically illegal behavior that is widely socially accepted and now little influenced by the law. Thirty percent of Americans live in a jurisdiction with lax marijuana laws, and academic studies in those areas (plus Holland and other western nations that have taken similar steps) have shown that Doritos stay on the shelves and productivity does not decline. In other words, everyone who wants to smoke pot is smoking it, the world hasn’t ended, and our rational actor public policy needs to catch up with our understanding of human nature.

One for Williams

22 Oct

The right wing has its OUTRAGEOUS OUTRAGE of the day®.  It’s usually something picked off of Drudge and then a game of telephone blows it out of all proportion by the time it gets to the wingnut sites or talk radio.  The current outrageous outrage is NPR’s “firing” of Juan Williams.

Here’s what Williams said:

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.


He went on, however:

“Wait a second though, wait, hold on, because if you said Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta bomber, these people who are protesting against homosexuality at military funerals, very obnoxious, you don’t say first and foremost, we got a problem with Christians. That’s crazy.”

The Daily Beast runs with the idea that Williams was fired because he said those words on Fox News.  NPR told Williams that his termination occurred because,

Ellen Weiss, NPR’s head of news, suggested that he “had made a bigoted statement,” which Williams denied. He said he asked her in the cell-phone discussion: “I don’t even get a chance to come in and we do this eyeball-to-eyeball, person-to-person, have a conversation? I’ve been here more than 10 years.”

Weiss’ response, according to Williams: “There’s nothing you can say that would change my mind. This decision has been made above me.”

So, so what?  Who cares?  NPR is free to hire and fire people as it sees fit.  Just like Fox News is free to pick Williams up for a new $2 million contract yesterday.  It doesn’t matter why NPR fired him, or under what circumstances or rationale.  It’s amazing what a weak grasp of the 1st Amendment the ignoranti have, crying out for Williams’ free speech!  (You don’t have a constitutional right to an NPR gig).

It’s suddenly become vogue to declare oneself as not being politically incorrect – Carl Paladino’s entire campaign is based on that trend.   That’s all well and good, and the government can’t force you to think one way or another.  But when you quite openly state that you hold a prejudice over someone because of the way they dress, because their religion or culture mandates it, ask yourself how it would go over if you criticized Hasidic Jews for their appearance, or the Amish, or any other culture that is out of the mainstream.   Does he reach for his wallet when he sees a Hasidim? Does he whip out his camera when he sees some Amish?  Does he fear molestation when he sees someone in a priest’s collar?  Does he [insert stereotype here] when he sees a [insert minority group here]?

Saying something bigoted, ignorant, or prejudiced is what ought to be socially unacceptable – not saying it and then attacking “political correctness”.  Frankly, we’re not even talking about “politics” in this case – we’re just talking about being a rational, thinking human being.

Much of what I’m seeing and hearing on Facebook or on the radio excoriates NPR for firing Williams for merely parroting what a lot of people think.  So, if a lot of people are prejudiced, it’s ok for you to be prejudiced, too?

Part of what the terrorists who want to kill civilians do is blend into the surroundings.  The last thing a terrorist would do is dress as if he were in downtown Peshawar in order to commit mass murder in the states.  So, the “fear” that Williams has is dumb, to boot.

Sometimes what becomes a firestorm goes beyond silly and into stupid territory.  Go ahead and “de-fund” NPR – an organization that does not receive any direct federal funding, and only sees federal money indirectly through grants, representing a whopping 1 – 3% of its total budget. It helps to listen to what NPR’s CEO says about it:

Q: Okay. What happened?

A: Let’s state a couple of facts. Juan is not an employee of NPR. He’s an independent contractor. He’s not NPR staff. He’s an NPR analyst. We have a contract with him for analyst opinions to provide news analysis. He is not a columnist or commentator. He also has an on-going relationship with Fox News. Mara Liasson is also on Fox News and is a full-time staffer. We accept that’s a whole other issue. However, we expect our journalists, whether they are news analysts or reporters to behave like journalists.

Q: So did Juan really get fired over just those Muslim comments? [He said he was uncomfortable with Muslims dressed in traditional garb on airplanes during a Fox News telecast yesterday.]

A: There have been several instances over the last couple of years where we have felt Juan has stepped over the line. He famously said last year something about Michelle Obama and Stokely Carmichael. [The quote on Fox News early last year: “Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going” and that she’ll be an “albatross” for President Obama.]. This isn’t a case of one strike and you’re out.

There you have it.  Williams wasn’t even an NPR employee.  Time to get ready for tomorrow’s Outrageous Outrage of the Day®.


NPR's StoryCorps in Buffalo

29 Jul

The interviews recorded will be kept in the Library of Congress, and may be played on NPR.