Everybody Lies: Except in a Google Search

Don’t bother answering questions by the next pollster who calls to do a survey. You’re probably going to lie to him. Because “everybody lies.” And there’s no point in taking a survey if you’re going to lie. Besides, Google’s already got you on the truth meter.

That’s one of the main discussion points in the new book, “Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.”

The blurb on the book says, “By the end of an average day in the early 21st century, human beings searching the Internet will amass 8 trillion gigabytes (GB) of data.” Every day, 8 trillion GB. What does that even amount to? Who knows, but it’s a lot. The average computer has about 4 GB of memory. A flash memory card in a camera may store 16 GB. We’re talking 8 trillion GB – daily.

So what are people searching? Pretty much everything, according to “Everybody Lies” author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.  And the data these searches reveal can be one useful tool for putting the human psyche under the microscope.

“People are honest on Google. They tell Google what they might not tell to anybody else. They’ll confess things to Google that they wouldn’t tell friends, family members, surveyors, or even themselves,” Stephens-Davidowitz said Tuesday in remarks about his book.

Take, for instance, some of the common confessional-style searches that Google gets: “I hate my boss,” “I’m happy,” “I’m sad,” or even “I’m drunk.”

Some of the searches can become rather morose and depressing. For instance, after the San Bernardino attack in 2015, in which 14 people were killed and another 22 seriously injured, top Google searches that soon followed included “Muslim terrorists” and “kill Muslims.” Stephens-Davidowitz says certainly it lacks context to try to guess what people were trying to express in the search, but it also provides guidance.

Here’s one way the data were used. Shortly after the attack, President Obama delivered a speech to try and calm fears about Muslims in America. But his grandiose sermonizing about opening America’s hearts backfired. Even during the speech, people got angrier. But at one point, Obama said that we have to remember that Muslim-Americans are our friends and neighbors, they are sports heroes, and members of the military who are willing to die to defend this country.

Immediately, while the speech was still being given, Google searches for “Muslim athletes” spiked. The increase was so notable that when Obama gave a speech a couple weeks later on the same topic, he skipped the lecturing and focused on the contributions of Muslim-Americans.

Stephens-Davidowitz argues that while Obama’s sermon didn’t tell anybody anything that they didn’t know, the line about sports heroes provoked curiosity, provided potentially new information, and redirected attention. This may not indicate that there’s a science to calming fears after a terror attack, but it does show the power of the data to change how people act and react.

Stephens-Davidowitz says part of the reason why data searches are more useful than old-fashioned survey questions is because people tend to lie in surveys to make them look good. It’s called social desirability bias. It happened during the elections of 2008.

During that time, most Americans surveyed said Obama’s being black didn’t matter. Yet during the election, there was a spike in racist term searches. And graphing that data revealed that racist term searches were geographically divided between East and West. While correlation is not causation, where the racist term searches spiked, Obama lost about 4 percentage points of the vote over the previous Democratic candidate (John Kerry) in Democratic strongholds. He also generated a 1-2 percentage point increase in the number of African-Americans who voted.

Map of Google searches of racist content

The book, “Everybody Lies,” isn’t entirely about politics. It talks about a variety of topics like the stock market, crime, sports, and of course, sex, a hugely commercial enterprise on the Internet. In one example about the truth of big data, Stephens-Davidowitz notes that American women said in recent polling that they had sex (hetero and homosexual sex) once a week and used condoms about 20 percent of the time. Extrapolating the numbers, that would mean about 1.6 billion condoms were used that year. But asking men the same question (about hetero and homosexual sex) resulted in just 1.1 billion condoms allegedly used that year.

So who’s telling the truth, men or women? Neither. According to sales reports, just 600 million condoms were sold during the year in question.

Stephens-Davidowitz conjectures that people have an incentive to tell the truth to Google in a search, more so than to a pollster asking a survey, because they need information. For instance, an increase in the search volume for voting places in an area in the weeks leading up to an election is more likely to reveal whether turnout is going to be high in that location than whether a pollster finds that 80 percent of the people say they will vote.

But is Internet search a digital truth serum? Is it the best way to get real answers? Yes and no.

It depends on how available other high quality data are. For instance, Google flu, which attempted to determine how sick the population was during flu season based on searches about symptoms, was not as accurate as flu modeling currently used by government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Furthermore, what people search doesn’t explain why people search. Likewise, Google doesn’t identify who’s searching so we don’t know if the search is a representative sample of the population. There’s no way of knowing what an absolute level of response would generate. For that, we need lots of different types of data.

But Internet searches may be useful in measuring the human psyche more so than in predicting futures. Big data can be helpful in looking at information that does not require very precise numbers. Predicting an election within 5 percentage points isn’t helpful. But it probably is not a big deal to be off by 10 percent when counting the number of condoms used in a year.

As for topics like child abuse, Stephens-Davidowitz says that he’s not actually sure how to use the data to help governments and protective agencies develop programs to identify and address abuse, but that it’s certainly information that would be helpful in filling a gap in reporting. And like any pollster worth his salt will tell you, being able to ask the right question is one vital way of getting to an accurate answer.

Watch the remarks by Stephens-Davidowitz.

Why We Have an Electoral College — To Preserve a Two-Party System

Why does it happen that a candidate can win the popular vote but still lose an election? You know the answer is that in the United States, the Electoral College selects the president.  But was the Electoral College also designed to ensure a two-party system in the United States?

2016 is the fifth time in the nation’s history when the popular vote went to the loser of the presidential election. To some, it seems unfair. If the winner doesn’t win, then why have a contest? Well, there appears to be method to this madness, and perhaps the Founding Fathers were looking past the danger of a single-headed monarchy to the chaos of a multi-party system and its destructive impact on the republic.

You probably already know how the Electoral College came to be, but here’s a recap for history lovers: the Founding Fathers were concerned about flat-out letting the public elect a president. To rely on the popular vote would have meant each state would likely have put up its own candidate, and the biggest state would win with a small plurality of the popular vote.

At the same time, the Founding Fathers were smart enough to figure out that if the Congress selected the president, the president would eventually become beholden to it, when really the idea is to have checks and balances to prevent any concentration of power within one branch of government.

The “third way” called for each state to pick a body of electors to serve in an Electoral College that would meet only once — to select the president and vice president. In this way, the electors wouldn’t be subjected to political persuasion and each state could choose for itself how to select the electors.

Each state is assigned a number of electors based on its size and proportional representation in Congress. Originally, it was set up so that each elector got two votes — one for president and one for vice president. This was aimed at preventing each elector from choosing his state candidate only. A second vote would force electors to look at candidates from other states.

Over time, the system has faced a few changes, most notably the 12th Amendment, which shifted the election from the Electoral College choosing the president and vice president based on a first- and second-place vote to a shared presidential/vice-presidential ticket.

Fast forward to today: 48 states and the District of Columbia use a winner-take-all system for awarding Electoral College votes based on the popular vote in the state. Maine and Nebraska, however, award two electoral votes for the popular vote winner and then the Electoral College votes are distributed based on the popular vote winner in each congressional district.

Five hundred thirty-eight votes are cast in the Electoral College and the ticket must win a simple majority of 270 to win the presidency. Each political party gets a slate of electors based on the number of senators and congressional representatives in the state.  Whichever political party’s candidates win the state, that’s which party’s slate gets to vote in the Electoral College. The District of Columbia gets three Electoral College votes even though it is not represented by a voting member of Congress. Hence, the 538 members of the Electoral College.

In 26 states, the members of the Electoral College are bound by law to cast their votes for the winner of the state’s overall vote. Though it’s not required in the rest of the states, the Electoral College is usually comprised of party loyalists so there’s no chance of overturning the state’s majority rule. However, the notion of the “faithless elector,” who disregards his state’s popular vote, has been known to happen, reemerging as an issue again in 2016.

Despite the “odd-man-out” behavior of faithless electors (and while some have tried to change how the Electoral College works within their own states), the Electoral College has served the nation for more than two centuries by maintaining the legitimacy of the outcome of presidential elections. This nation is governed under a constitutional system, not a parliamentary one, and despite the partisan motives (and questionable patriotism) of those behind the hashtag #notmypresident, the president represents all the people, even when elected only by a large plurality. Otherwise, we’d be electing a prime minister.

But could it be that the Electoral College was designed to create and preserve a two-party system? After all, a parliamentary system works in England without (too) many crises.

There have been several iterations of political parties in the United States — the ill-fated Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists, who became Democratic-Republicans who became Democrats, or Democratic-Republicans who became National Republicans who became Whigs who became New Republicans. But there have generally only been two major factions competing at a time, even with the participation of third parties like Anti-Masonics and Free-Soil and Constitutional Union and even the “American” Party.

In the 2016 election, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson was on the ballot in all 50 states, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein put up a show, even suing for a recount in three states. But neither of these candidates, nor any of the dozens of others running on third-party platforms, will impact the Electoral College.

Economist and public policy researcher Ben Zycher suggests that the Founding Fathers intended it that way, and for good reason (emphasis added below).

Because the plurality winner in a state gets all of that state’s Electoral College votes, third and fourth parties have little hope under most circumstances of winning important numbers of Electoral College votes (although they can deny a plurality to a given candidate in a particular state, as Ralph Nader almost certainly did to Al Gore in Florida in 2000).  This means that the Electoral College promotes the two-party system at the state level.  However unsatisfying and mushy the candidates and platforms often served up by the two parties, the two-party system offers the supreme long-term benefit of forcing candidates and party platforms toward the middle of the political spectrum so as to forge broader-based coalitions, thus increasing consensus and compromise and reducing political strife.

In other words, you think you don’t like the candidates now, imagine if there were 10 candidates of equal party stature to choose from in the general election. And if you think the nation can’t seem to make any progress, imagine if there were factions pulling for their specific and minimalist goals. We’d have special interest presidents who are way more specialized than they are today.

As a nation, we would be more divided than we are now. And that can’t be good for the republic. So to the victor go the spoils, and that’s just one example of the perennial wisdom of the Founding Fathers.

Smugness vs. Humility: What Works in Conservative and Progressive Leadership

Remember the letter that George H.W. Bush wrote to Bill Clinton after the 1992 presidential election? He left it in the desk at the Oval Office for Clinton to receive post-inauguration. The letter was considered the mark of civility in that a defeated Bush wished Clinton well, and told Clinton that he was now  “our” president, and “your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

Describing the essence of Bush’s action, Andy Smarick in The Weekly Standard asks where the days of unity went:

It demonstrates America’s proud tradition of peaceful transitions of power and highlights Bush’s ability to show kindness and maintain impeccable manners in what must have been his most dispiriting professional moment. But that generous letter is also the byproduct of a worldview; it’s a point on a straight line between a political philosophy and an approach to public policy. We do ourselves, and our politics, a disservice by separating the letter and its sentiments from the author’s views on governing. They’re part of the same fabric.

Smarick argues that the qualities of modesty and humility are conservative in nature and inform attitudes about collectivism. He points to a 2011 article by the University of Toronto-Scarborough’s Andrew Stark that explains that by their very nature, conservatives don’t put a lot of faith in the ability to herd people into political units to be measured and organized even while they trust their fellow man to make good decisions.

As a result, Smarick notes:

(C)onservatives are deeply skeptical about governing strategies that presume too much about our capacities—for instance, centralization, muscular government, expert administrators, and grand schemes. This naturally leads the conservative to seek to limit the authority of others: decentralization, the separation of governmental powers into branches, trusting small voluntary associations over compulsory state bodies, putting faith in markets over central plans. But—crucially—this humility extends down to the self and shapes how the temperamentally conservative individual engages in the public’s business: I am limited. I may be wrong. I need to trust others.

It was because of his humility that Bush succeeded in building coalitions, whether global or in Washington. It was his “personal modesty, deference to longstanding institutions, and dependence on local decision-making” that enabled him to cross the bridge between his own decision-making and majority rule, Smarick says.

But much of that behavior has gone the way of the 20th century. The difference in progressive vs. conservative leadership has grown wider over the last 25 years even as the right now trends toward left-leaning styles of governance.

For progressives, the whole notion of humility is long out the window, if it ever was a guiding principle. Leftists themselves acknowledge that idea, Smarick says, pointing to several liberals who have acknowledged their own “smug” condescension for the idea that people can take care of themselves. This distrust of self-governance manifests itself in the presumption that right-leaning Americans are uninformed and that makes them wrong, and that means they need to be told how to behave and what to think.

Yet, that’s precisely what blinded the left to the rise of Donald Trump. The left believed that Americans want to be organized and told what to do, and in the telling, they could be led to conclusions that they wouldn’t reach on their own. Trump, using the very bombast and conceit that is considered uncharacteristic of the right, tapped into the frustration felt by the half of America that was sick of being told that they don’t know what’s good for them.

With the campaign over, governing begins, and as humility and modesty are not guiding traits for Trump, therein lies the danger for conservatives who don’t want top-down policies. Trump’s success will depend on being able to decentralize governance while not letting his opponents or his followers slip into badgering Americans into accepting what’s good for them. Trump must pair his leadership and management skills with the conservative traits of humility, modesty, and trust in others to demonstrate how limited government can help the most people succeed.

The outright rejection of alternative viewpoints brings with it inaction and further division. This is true for both left and right. Trump needs to form the connective tissue to pull together these disparate parts. Multiple interests coming together to create agreeable and elastic solutions will have the greatest impact on our economic and cultural outcomes.

Smarick notes that the conciliatory victory speech by Trump is a good start for maintaining the ground game of where political conservatives can go from here, even if society trends toward slogans not solutions.

(N)o one should be accused of cynicism for doubting that the national political scene is about to enter a golden age of humility. It may well be the case that politics will always privilege hubris. We get fired up for “hope and change,” “morning in America,” and “happy days are here again,” not for modest expectations and incrementalism. The buoyant confidence of FDR, Reagan, Bush 43, and Obama was rewarded with reelection. The humility of a Gerald Ford or Bush 41 was not.

But we should also recognize that the greatest line in our greatest president’s greatest speech masterfully blended conviction and modesty. Abraham Lincoln ended his second inaugural by encouraging the nation simultaneously to pursue justice while recognizing our limited ability to ascertain it—”with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” Perhaps appreciating—even embracing—the tension between those cardinal principles was essential for acting with malice toward none, offering charity to all, and binding up the nation’s wounds.

Read the entire article by Smarick in The Weekly Standard.

Millennials and Democracy: They Do Want It, Don’t They?

A recent survey of Millennials and democracy suggests they prefer authoritarianism to freedom and liberty, but a very enlightening look at the concerning phenomenon by a Russian citizen leaves hope that American democracy could actually benefit from the younger generation’s seeming rejection of it.

As America’s youngest adults search for the best future for themselves, the position of government as the go-to answer for life’s everyday problems could lose its dominance.  That may not have been the intention of author Leonid Bershidsky, but it does create the sense of relief from the head-shaking conclusion that Millennials are creeping toward totalitarianism.

First, the scary part: A look at the data that has triggered the widespread talk of Millennial rejection of democracy. Bershidsky reports on the findings in a July paper by Roberto Stefan Foa, a principal investigator of the World Values Survey, and Harvard political scientist Yascha Mouk.

More than two thirds of American Millennials do not consider it essential to live in a country that is governed democratically. About a quarter of them consider a democratic political system a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way to run the country. At the same time, support for authoritarian alternatives is rising. In 1996, only 1 in 16 Americans said it would be good if the military ruled the country. By 2014, it was 1 in 6. Only 19 percent of Millennials say it wouldn’t be legitimate for the military to take over if the government proved incompetent or unable to do its job. A growing share of young people is in favor of a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections’ and a government of ‘experts’ rather than politicians.

Yeah, definitely scary, but the conclusions may have been misinterpreted, to everyone’s relief.

As I covered the U.S. presidential campaign, I saw much that appears to contradict Foa and Mouk’s dire warnings. Bernie Sanders’ movement, still alive despite his primary loss, has persuaded many young people that traditional politics can be used to further their goals. These Millennials and younger Generation Z-ers follow a strong leader, and much of the grassroots campaigning they do is outside the political system as we know it — but they don’t seem drawn to authoritarianism or a government of ‘experts.’

For those who think Sanders’ democratic socialist approach to governing is nothing to feel relief about, here’s where Bershidsky’s observations become more encouraging.

Democracy isn’t meritocratic enough for the Facebook generation, which deifies tech capitalists and social media stars. None of their heroes are elected. Democracy throws up people like (Donald) Trump and (Hillary) Clinton, not Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. The proponents of raw democracy these days are anti-technocratic, like Michael Gove, Brexiter extraordinaire, who says Britons have ‘had enough of experts.’

Young people assume there are other ways for a talented leader to get to the top than by rising through political ranks — and the tech billionaires support that intuition by trying to bypass government as they fight disease (Zuckerberg) or prepare to colonize Mars (Musk). A world run by these well-meaning people wouldn’t be democratic, though their support comes from below. …

So, the conclusion is that young people don’t reject democracy per se, they reject the brutal game of politics and an electoral system that foists up candidates more interested in “gotcha” moments than on governing. It’s the very bureaucratic nature accompanying the growth of government that is anathema. Young people want to choose their leaders, but want those leaders to make the economy grow, increase innovation, and reduce the technocratic nature of goverment.

If millennials feel they are represented by smart people who understand their agenda and have the necessary expertise to implement it, they may like politics better than they do now. And so may the older generations: They, too, are not immune from the irritation caused by crude election battles such as this year’s.

That doesn’t suggest Millennials want authoritarian government. It suggests that they want the choice for creative problem-solvers in government. And who can argue with that?

Does Character Matter in Election 2016?

Does character matter when it comes to the 2016 presidential election?  Many campaign operatives and pundits say that elections are no longer about persuasion to any meaningful extent. Instead, they argue, campaigns are purely a turnout game and campaigns should focus exclusively on turning out their base.

But recent research shows this argument might not be valid. Political scientist Danny Hayes, a friend dating back to my days in academia, studies political traits — the qualities and characteristics people assume you possess because you are a conservative or a liberal.

He finds that if you are a liberal, people overwhelmingly assume you are empathetic and compassionate. For conservatives, the traits people assume are good morals and strong leadership.

Hayes’ research also suggests a moral double standard among the public. In other words, people are especially hard on politicians who betray the traits they’ve already ascribed to them. For instance, people would probably be more outraged if a liberal politician were a jerk to his interns than if a conservative politician did the same thing. And they get madder at conservatives than liberals when they are sexually immoral.

At the same time, voters seem to go out of their way to reward candidates who attempt trait-trespassing. Hayes found that candidates win roughly 60 percent of the vote when they take on traits not usually associated with their party. So for Democrats, the prototypical untapped trait is strength; for Republicans, it’s empathy — a reverse of the standard assumptions about the parties.

Knowing about this huge windfall in voter rewards would have been good for both candidates if they could project authentic character traits not typically ascribed to them. Instead, they missed a golden opportunity. Trump could have started to close the gap by embracing empathy and  compassion for the vulnerable. Clinton could have tried to shut the door on Trump by focusing on projecting strength, upright moral leadership, and a modicum of traditional values.

If you’re interested in a more detailed account of this research – including the specifics about what candidates stand to gain from being unconventional, take a look at this column on breaking out of the party box.

Do Presidential Debates Matter? Probably Sooner Than Later

By most accounts, Monday’s first presidential debate brings Americans a strange mixture of joy and despair. On one hand, this interminable campaign is finally entering its homestretch. On the other hand, an evening of hand-to-hand mudslinging will dominate our televisions and our discussions even more than usual.

Each season, the first head-to-head debate seems to mark the unofficial beginning of the campaign’s end. And while the buildup is always dramatic, the country seems especially on edge this time around. Not only have the polls been tightening of late, but there has also been unusually high variance in the results, adding extra uncertainty. Throw in two candidates who most Americans don’t like, and it’s no surprise that analysts are predicting Monday evening’s debate could be the most watched in history.

This got me wondering how much of a difference these election debates actually make. Do presidential debates matter really? Is all the commotion remotely justified? What do the hard data say?

I dug into the research.

As it turns out, the answer academics have come up with is a go-to favorite among ivory-tower types. Do the debates make a difference? It depends.  

First of all, general election debates seem to matter less than everyone thinks. Surveying the literature, Professor John Sides at George Washington University concludes that presidential debates usually have little to no effect on general election outcomes. One study he cites, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, examined a big set of elections from 1952 to 2008. Their finding? “The best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”

So the general election debates hardly ever yield earth-shattering inflection points. But the data can still help us guess what might happen Monday night. In 2012, Nate Silver looked back at the historical record and found that the first debate usually helps the candidate whose party is out of power. Interestingly, he published his piece just a few days before Mitt Romney turned in an enormously successful performance in his first debate with President Obama. Romney’s big night won him a real bump in the polls (as per Silver’s analysis), but it soon faded away, and the underlying fundamentals of the race returned to the fore (as per Erikson’s and Wlezien’s hypothesis).

But this contrasts sharply with the research on primary debates, which seem to matter a lot. One 2013 study found that after primary debates, a whopping 35 percent of viewers said they changed their candidate preference. After the general election debates, only 3.5 percent of viewers said the same. People’s minds are seemingly only 1/10th as open during the general debates as during the primary debates. Why? I’ll make a few guesses.

For one thing, the primaries usually feature candidates with similar views. If voters can hardly distinguish between their options on policy substance, it makes sense that stylistic differences would exert a larger impact. What’s more, we hear a lot from primary voters that they are actually value debating skills pretty highly as an important trait that they’re looking for. (“I want someone who can really take the case to the other guy on national TV in October!”)

In sum, we are left with a bit of a paradox. While many primary voters seem to care a lot about rhetorical skills when they’re choosing who will represent their “team” in the general election, very few general election voters seem to be swayed permanently by those prime-time performances. As a result, debates matter a lot in the primaries but only a little in October.

Try dropping that factoid into the conversation at your debate watch party. It might be the most substantive talking point people hear all night.

Rights Vs. Duties: Getting Out the Vote for Better or Worse

None of the freedoms spelled out in our Constitution were put there so people could cast uninformed ballots out of some misplaced sense of civic duty brought on by a celebrity guilt-trip. The right to assemble, to protest, to speak freely — these rights were included to help assure that the best ideas and the best candidates would emerge from the most transparent process possible.

Workhorse Mike Rowe is at it again, milking another sacred cow to expose its infertility. The latest installment in his ever-fresh responses to viewer mail is about rights vs. duties and whether get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts are worthwhile or even potentially damaging, especially when targeted at people who are unaware or incapable of articulating their own political and economic perspectives.

Rowe, the star of “Dirty Jobs” and the founder of MikeRoweWorks, a scholarship program that helps people prepare for jobs that exist (think vocational and trades jobs), rather than prepare for jobs that don’t exist (think “liberal arts careers”), tells reader “Jeremy” that “the truth is, the country doesn’t need voters who have to be cajoled, enticed, or persuaded to cast a ballot. We need voters who wish to participate in the process.”

He compares the “right to vote” to the Second Amendment, which while accurate is often misunderstood, perhaps because the Second Amendment is in the original Bill of Rights enumerated by the Founding Founders whereas “the right to vote” is developed in later amendments, including the 15th and 19th amendments, which gave women and African-Americans the explicit right to cast a ballot.

In the comparison, Rowe alludes to how he would conceivably regulate guns, which is for another discussion, but the point he rolls his argument down to is, in short, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

I’m afraid I can’t encourage millions of people whom I’ve never met to just run out and cast a ballot, simply because they have the right to vote. That would be like encouraging everyone to buy an AR-15, simply because they have the right to bear arms. I would need to know a few things about them before offering that kind of encouragement. For instance, do they know how to care for a weapon? Can they afford the cost of the weapon? Do they have a history of violence? Are they mentally stable? In short, are they responsible citizens?

Rowe also suggests putting GOTV pushers to the test.

Remember – there’s nothing virtuous or patriotic about voting just for the sake of voting, and the next time someone tells you otherwise, do me a favor — ask them who they’re voting for. Then tell them you’re voting for their opponent. Then, see if they’ll give you a ride to the polls.

In all, the moral of the story is if you’re going to exercise your right to vote, make sure you know what you’re voting for, not just what you’re voting against.

Read Mike Rowe’s entire response to voting rights vs. duties.

Cost of Higher Education to Spike From New Federal Loan Forgiveness Rules?

The advent of universal schooling was a noble, distinctly American endeavor that is responsible for massive strides in education among the American public. But the over-reliance on public education and a resistance to for-profit institutions has created its own beast, including a federal Department of Education that is overbearing in the areas of regulation and implicated in the rising cost of higher education.

No one wants to be cheated in their learning after paying the pricey cost of higher education, and while some predatory for-profit institutions need to be reined in to prevent substandard college-level teaching, the creation of a new trigger in the Department of Education to cover the tab for students who didn’t get what they expected could be the next step in the push for universal higher education.

That appears to be a potential outcome resulting from the latest set of guidelines proposed to penalize for-profit schools — and even public universities — when students don’t get the post-degree payoff they expected.

Under the new (Education Department) proposal, former students may apply for (loan) forgiveness if a college has made a ‘substantial misrepresentation’ to its students, defined as a statement or omission with a ‘likelihood or tendency to mislead under the circumstances.’ This clear-as-mud definition would give wide latitude for complaints. In a typical fraud cause, the burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate an ‘intent to deceive.’ Here, the burden would be on the defendant to disprove a ‘tendency.’ The verdict will rest on the whim of a Department of Education hearing examiner; colleges will have no recourse to a court of law.

According to the Education Department, these regulations are aimed primarily at for-profit colleges. But, this standard would apply to all colleges, and all ought to be alarmed. For-profits aren’t the only institutions that could find themselves accused of fraud.

Take, for example, Arizona Law School, ranked 40 by U.S. News and World Report’s ‘Best Law Schools.’ Alumni could point to a flier boasting a 2.8 percent unemployment rate nine months after graduation. Bloggers at Above the Law accused the law school of deception, pointing out that Law School Transparency lists the number at 9.7 percent. Arizona Law School responded that 9.7 percent was the nonemployed number, which included those who are not seeking work, so they were well within their rights to advertise 2.8 percent. No court would call this fraud.

But an enterprising graduate could claim that it ‘had a tendency to mislead under the circumstances,’ and recruit all alumni who plausibly could have seen that flier for a joint-action complaint. The burden would be on the ‘schools to demonstrate that individuals in the identified group did not in fact rely on the misrepresentation at issue.’ That being plainly impossible, a hearing officer could grant loan forgiveness to all. These graduates wouldn’t just see their outstanding balance erased, they’d also recoup the last six years of payments.

How does this affect the taxpayer? Well, according to author Max Eden in U.S. News & World Report, quoted above, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both have proposals for dealing with loan forgiveness, and both appear to open the door for the public to ultimately cover the cost of repaying student loans. Clinton’s proposal is flat-out taxpayer spending while Trump’s idea would force universities into an asset insurance program that could clearly drive the schools into bankruptcy.

Eden doesn’t take the step of suggesting that the new regulations are an attempt to rig the system toward the ultimate ends of government-paid higher education, but if it becomes an exorbitantly prohibitive cost for colleges to protect themselves from spurious alumni demands for tuition repayment, that direction seems like an obvious heading.

Read more from Eden about how loan forgiveness rules could increase the cost of higher education paid by everyone.

Hillbilly Poverty: Trump’s Appeal to Poor Appalachian Whites

The discussion of "hillbilly poverty" — a deep and abiding poverty that has been prevalent, but overlooked, for generations in the Appalachian region — seems to keep coming back to the fore, particularly this election season. It may be because white poverty is a blind spot to many Americans who are either white, but don't live in poverty, or are non-white and unaware of or too preoccupied with their own identity struggles to worry about the white underclass. Or maybe most Americans are aware, but feel helpless to do anything about it. read more

Cognitive Bias and Why We’re Always Right

Everyone has an opinion (like something else) but cognitive bias seems to be edging out debate, fueled in part, no doubt, by the national party conventions.  The various forms of cognitive bias creep into our ability to think critically. They offer validation, and there’s no better feeling than to have someone else’s conclusions reinforce our own beliefs that we are right.

This tendency to bask in the opinions of those whose ideas comport with our own appears to be on the increase (or else we just think it’s more prevalent because of our own biases).

But no place is this trend more evident than on social media, which online tech publisher Sean Blanda points out is probably the worst arena to find validation.

Blanda calls this common byproduct of social media a case of “false consensus bias,” in which people surround themselves with other people who thinks like they do, and are therefore surprised when they found out that not everyone thinks like they do.

Over time, this (bias) morphs into a subconscious belief that we and our friends are the sane ones and that there’s a crazy ‘Other Side’ that must be laughed at — an Other Side that just doesn’t ‘get it,’ and is clearly not as intelligent as ‘us.’ But this holier-than-thou social media behavior is counterproductive, it’s self-aggrandizement at the cost of actual nuanced discourse and if we want to consider online discourse productive, we need to move past this.

What is emerging is the worst kind of echo chamber, one where those inside are increasingly convinced that everyone shares their world view, that their ranks are growing when they aren’t. It’s like clockwork: an event happens and then your social media circle is shocked when a non-social media peer group public reacts to news in an unexpected way. They then mock the Other Side for being ‘out of touch’ or ‘dumb.’ …

When someone communicates that they are not ‘on our side’ our first reaction is to run away or dismiss them as stupid. To be sure, there are hateful, racist, people not worthy of the small amount of electricity it takes just one of your synapses to fire. I’m instead referencing those who actually believe in an opposing viewpoint of a complicated issue, and do so for genuine, considered reasons. Or at least, for reasons just as good as yours.

This is not a ‘political correctness’ issue. It’s a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right. It’s a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, and not the complicated individual human beings that they actually are.

Blanda is describing one of many biases that is creeping into our collective conversation. Some others:

Availability bias — The tendency to believe that if something can be recalled, it must be more significant or important.

Confirmation bias — The tendency to only seek out information that confirms our beliefs.

Outcome bias — The tendency to believe that the desired ends justify the means.

Selective perception — The tendency to let our expectations drive how we view events.

(Read a list of 20 cognitive biases in this Business Insider infographic)

This “other sided”ness, this “us vs. them” mentality is a problem because it prevents progress toward common goals. We as a nation are a stiff-necked people, getting stiffer in our convictions because we feel that we have more to lose if we compromise.

But compromise enables progress and solutions to be devised. We may think we have the answer, but if we can’t get enough people – those outside our echo chamber – to work with us toward our goal, then we merely play a game of one-step forward, two-steps back.

As for the false consensus, Blanda offers an exercise to test one’s predilection toward this bias.

A dare for the next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with: Don’t try to ‘win.’ Don’t try to ‘convince’ anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to ‘lose.’ Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it. No one is going to tell your environmentalist friends that you merely asked follow up questions after your brother made his pro-fracking case.

Read Blanda’s article on false consensus bias and how it operates on social media.


Sasse Vision Talks: America’s Political Parties Suffer a ‘Crisis of Political Vision’

College students are talking about robots and the role they will play in America’s future. The political parties are fighting over whether to make America Europe again or make America 1950 again.

No wonder young people are largely disinterested in the debate in Washington, concluded Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

“Neither of these (conversations) is very interesting,” Sasse said recently, telling an audience in Washington, D.C., that the major political parties in America would be considered failed enterprises if looked at from a business perspective.

“Both parties have a massive vision problem about what we need to accomplish in our time and place,” he said.  This problem is “a crisis of political vision that flows partly from the fact that we have two exhausted political parties right now. We have a conversation in Washington that is really stultifying relative to the vibrancy and vitality of the American people and relative to the magnitude of the challenges we face right now, and what really needs to be accomplished in our time,” Sasse said.

Sasse was speaking during the latest Vision Talks, a series of conversations convened by the American Enterprise Institute that puts together Washington policy insiders with social entrepreneurs, non-profits, and other enterprising organizations outside the Beltway.

Sasse described the other contributors to the most recent series of Vision Talks, including two men whose organizations help ex-inmates and disabled people find work, and a small business owner who challenged her state government to change the licensing requirements for hair braiders, as “heroic” in their efforts to live freely and independently while contributing to their communities.

These types of people and organizations are looking outside of Washington to create solutions that honor the dignity of all the natural rights of everybody, American ideals that are close to being extinguished if the political parties can’t change their respective directions, he said.

Noting a Pew research study that found that 203 of the 230 largest metro areas in the nation — containing 75 percent of the U.S. population — have a shrinking middle class, Sasse said America’s political parties aren’t up to the task of laying down a vision for the future because they look at the new information economy using the lens of politics relevant to the industrial era.

Republicans “are suffering from a declining customer base, because root core Republican voters are dying. The Democrats don’t have the same customer base problem, but they have a massive product problem because the Democrats are still trying to pretend that if you just expand 1965 entitlement programs and the chassis of the federal government from 50 and 51 years ago, that somehow this is only three tinkers away from being a working system. It’s not true. The Democrats are trying to sell central planning in the age of Uber,” Sasse said.

The presidential candidates aren’t explaining to young people, the post-industrialist up and comers, solutions to address job market prospects in a rapidly changing economy.

“Jobs that are routinize-able, if that’s a word, and predictable, those jobs are going to become more and more rapidly disintermediated and disrupted. We’re going to need to create a completely different kind of conversation than we’ve ever had before, and our politics are not really up to that level of disruptive conversation.”

Fortunately, Sasse said, all is not lost. America still has a lot to offer, and it’s up to the people to take the opportunity during this upheaval to form the future.

“The distinction between politics and culture is really important. There’s a lot that’s broken in our politics, but there’s a lot about our culture that’s still hopeful. and there’s a lot to dream about and lot to try to recover, and culture is well upstream of politics. Politics is downstream from culture.”

Watch the entirety of Sasse’s remarks in AEI’s Vision Talks.