How you frame the question means a lot

My son sent me a link the other day to a isidewith.com to see who I would vote for.  You are allowed to weight the questions according that issue’s importance to you, which ostensibly will lead to a more accurate assessment of who you support based on their positions.  I came down solidly on the side of Mr. Trump, which was not something I particularly wanted to see.  Much of my hostility to Mr. Trump is that he is a populist just like Mrs. Clinton–a nationalist populist as compared to her socialist populism–and I loathe populism.  Yet the questions asked didn’t allow me to register that large component of my election preferences.

But as we all know, how you frame an issue really matters to the conclusion of an opinion poll.  This article argues that even though most economists support efficiency over equality, in an experiment where people were allowed to have a larger pie with unequal distribution or a smaller pie with more equal distribution, they preferred the more equal distribution.

Consider an experiment published last year in the journal Science. Four economists tested people with a computer simulation in which they could either be greedy and keep tokens that had real cash value, or share them with others. The catch: If they shared them, the total number of tokens would decline. In other words, the more evenly the pie was divided, the less pie there was to go around. There was a trade-off between equality and maximizing income, a version of economic efficiency. Among the general American public, about half of those who played the game favored equality over efficiency.

But when the game was played with elites at Yale, there was a different outcome:

But the researchers also did the experiment at Yale Law School, an elite bastion filled with people who become Supreme Court clerks, White House aides and richly compensated lawyers. Among the Yale students who played the game, 80 percent preferred efficiency to equality. They were more worried about the size of the pie, apparently, than making sure everyone got a slice.

The conclusion?  Elites value things like efficiency that the average voter doesn’t.  This helps explain results like many American’s support for Donald Trump, opposition to the TPP trade deal, and Brexit.  There is a fundamental disconnect between elites and the common Joe or Jane.  While I might not disagree with that conclusion at some level, what is missing in the experiment?

Most of us  would not want to live in a world where you can not voluntarily share from your earnings to help others.  Most of us would rather voluntarily give some of our excess to help those in need have more.  But the critical question is when this preference for voluntary action is forced by government policy.  Do we have a preference for coerced income redistribution?  Some may draw that conclusion from the experiment, but that is really an entirely different question.  Framing matters a lot in public policy issues. There is also a corollary question. Is this government program likely to work?  In the experiment, if you give up some, everyone below you gets a little more–there is an improved outcome.  Whereas in the U.S. war on poverty, the only certain resulting improvement is on behalf of the elites who administer the program.

As usual, it pays to be a Berean, and closely scrutinize what we are seeing.

24 thoughts on “How you frame the question means a lot”

  1. This blog brings up a really good question about voluntarily giving vs. forced giving by the government. I enjoyed your thoughts!

  2. Forced giving vs. voluntary giving kind of reminds me of communism, though definitely not the same. There is less incentive for people to work if they don’t get to see the fruit of their labor, and it is less likely for people to enjoy giving if they are required or forced to.

  3. I definitely think it is important to have voluntary giving rather than forced giving. God likes a joyful giver, not someone who is being forced to give because they have to. I’m not saying I am against equality though, but I do believe that we should be able to choose when we give rather than be forced to give so that we can all be equal.

  4. Some people would have the choices in the world be either black and white. The world simply doesn’t work that way, it usually operates in shades of gray. Several people who would vote for one political candidate may not like everything that candidate says or does, even though that person will receive their vote.

  5. TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) aims to cut taxes and tariffs on trading with certain other countries. This would lead to a larger pie with unequal slices, but wouldn’t this trading still cause ALL the pieces to grow larger from trade?

    1. In the long run everyone benefits, but in the short run–if you are one of the industries that doesn’t have a comparative advantage–you’re hammered. Its the the classic Public Choice case of concentrated harms and disbursed benefits ensures focused and intense opposition with only lukewarm support from the multitude (who are generally rationally ignorant). It’s no solace that you get better, cheaper products in Walmart that are made in China when you’ve lost your job.

      1. First, we have to consider that there is no such thing as complete freedom. I think we all agree and see that if we were completely free there would be chaos. I like to drive on the right side of the road and you like the left and so on. Second, we all agree we live in a fallen world and even many who would consider themselves Christian give at church but do little to help the disadvantaged. I say disadvantaged, because we are not all born with the equal ability to earn money and then some who were able bodied come back from the war with no hand s and feet. There is a lot more to gaining wealth than just working hard and smart. So, does a free democratic society born with a constitution based on Christian principles not have some obligation to help those who were born less lucky, born with a disability, born to poor parents needing to go to work to help support the family rather than go to school, born in a bad environment, disabled in a war, etc?

        I would love to see the church take care of all these needs but it hasn’t. If you look around the world every free democratic society has some amount of socialism, it’s just deciding how much is optimum. For example, the greed of coal mine owners in the 20s, lead to women and their children being kicked out of their homes when their husbands died of black lung. Is that the kind of free market we want again? Ford was wise enough to double the wages of his workers and prosper but that’s an exception, greed seems to be the rule.

        The economy of the last 10 years has not lifted all boats. The top 10% have received most of the benefit. The comparison in wage between the CEO and the line worker is nowhere close to what it was even ten years ago. So why are the rich complaining?

        There is no disagreement that some of our laws and social programs have produced disastrous results but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. We need laws and programs that work for all of us not just the physically and socially advantaged.

  6. As someone who follows Austrian Economics how did you side so much with Donald Trump and not Gary Johnson?

    1. Again, it was the way the questions were framed. The immigration questions were more based around security issues, and I have much sympathy to the position that we ought to know exactly who is coming into the country, and their motivations. That gave me more support for Mr. Trump. But many other aspects of immigration (not really captured in the questions) I would not favor Mr. Trump. This is from my memory of the survey (perhaps taken a week or two ago).

  7. This is an especially hard challenge for I side with. What are Trump’s views? Build a wall. Other than that? Depends on the day.

    He is consistently pushing one tax plan recently, I’m not a fan of it but at least it gives something to talk about.

  8. I read this post immediately after reading Andrew Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth” and it helped me both understand it better, and also see Carnegie’s ideas in today’s society.

  9. I believe that there is a HUGE difference between the government forcing you to give of your money and you willingly deciding to do it. God calls us to serve with a giving and joyful heart. I don’t think society works as well when we are forced to give as opposed to having the choice to give.

  10. I just took the Isidewith quiz and it said I sided with Gary Johnson. Like any survey or test, it can’t truly know how I make decisions or prioritize my values. While I appreciate that Isidewith starts a conversation, I would never suggest that be the way you pick your candidate. As Christians, we have to be discerning.

  11. Voluntary giving of assets and income to help the poor is a good thing. God commends us for helping the poor and ask that we give to help others in need, as stated in Proverbs 19:17. However, when we are forced to give there is a certain element and feeling lost that mostly destroys the generous heart and turns the generous deed into a normal outcome in everyday life. We are all sinners and are in this fallen world. Most would not like to give to the poor because we are greedy and selfish. First,I believe people are fallen and would not give to the poor because we are sinners. When the government is forcing this distribution , doesn’t that sound like an economy we don’t want to be in? Communism comes to mind. This obviously destroyed economic situations as seen in the USSR and I don’t believe this will help our economy either. Because most Elites believe in making the pie bigger and most have economic concerns and study the election to accurately vote like most average Americans don’t, doesn’t mean there thoughts and opinions are over the average Americans.

  12. Surprising that you came down solidly on Mr. Trump’s side; I would not have guessed that with his protectionist views and other economic stances. Then again, how a question is framed can mean a lot. Higher efficiency (i.e. larger pies) is very attractive if people are willing to help the poor on their own, but that’s a huge if. Sure some will, but often the separation between classes becomes so great that the poor will not be suitably helped without some form of government intervention. The line between efficiency and equality can be hard to find.

  13. I also took the isidewith.com quiz and it showed strong alignment with Jill Stein. This is hard to understand because on major issues of abortion and same-sex marriage we were at opposite spectrums on our views. I don’t know if it was the quiz and their analyzing process, but it brings a lot of truth to “phrasing” of questions. Also I have a hard time with the firm stances that these quizzes show. The political races have become so much more focused on personal appearance of the candidate than their actual platforms. Some issues aren’t clear for a few of the candidates so it makes it hard to make a choice as a voter when the race becomes less about politics/the economy and more about the actual person.

  14. I believe that it should be noted that poverty in itself cannot truly ever be eliminated given our fallen nature and the natural greediness of our hearts. When one group of people obtains a larger sum of money than another, redistributing the wealth of the one group to the other would ultimately lead to a loss of an incentive to work as hard. This also brings up the question as to what the threshold would be for obligatory giving of money if it was mandated by the government? What would truly define “giving” and would that work in such a similar fashion to taxes? Also, if the government mandated people to give, then I believe that it would actually do more harm than good because people would not be giving from their hearts, but rather to just to satisfy a law and they would therefore have less motivation to give elsewhere.

  15. This is a very insightful article. The fundamental problem with the experiment is that just because a person favors more even distribution of wealth does not mean that they favor coerced income distribution. I agree that believers should give to others willingly (2 Cor. 9:7) as an act to service to God, and I do not think that coerced income distribution should be under the government’s authority because in the past it has not proven to be successful in eliminating poverty.

  16. I took the isidewith.com and I was so confused because I am not very familiar with the United Sates political system. I don’t understand how people like Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton become the best candidate for their respective party. If you don’t vote, are there consequences or penalties such as a fine? I find American government very interesting. My result for isidewith was also Gary Johnson but I rarely see any social media or news about him.

  17. At this point, I believe that our government is run largely by the entrenched political elite that hail from institutions such as Yale. If the study is accurate, and these “elites” do favor efficiency over equality, then why is our country sliding towards socialism? Shouldn’t it increasingly favor the free market and resulting benefits of it?

  18. I think an interesting result from the first part of the experiment, is the inclination people have to help others at the expense of themselves. All humans are fallen, we know this. But it is refreshing to see that the common person is willing to take a hit in order to benefit another. (Ignoring the negative-economic results of this action according to the experiment)

  19. While it’s not largely relevant, I agree on the statement about Trump being a populist rather than a true Republican. I still don’t see how he is the nominee when the other candidates seemed better suited for the presidency, and since Trump has a questionable past with other political parties (he was a Democrat at one point during his life, and he has made donations to the Clintons before. Additionally, I believe I read somewhere that he won the nomination for the Reform Party in the early 2000s. I’m not entirely sure what they stood for, but it is relatively concerning for me). At least he’s not entirely Hillary, I’ll give him that.

    There goes my political rants again. Back to the main topic, it fascinates me that average people prefer equality, and the “elites” prefer efficiency. Obviously there has to be something that each respective group has in common, because the correlation is too strong for this to be a coincidence. I wonder if sin factors into these viewpoints at all. Could it be that the elites prefer efficiency because it benefits them the most, and are selfish as a result? Or does the common person promote equality because they are envious of the successful? This could probably be a very interesting survey that a Christian could conduct.

  20. As far as voting choices, isn’t it more important to consider the long term effects of the candidate that you choose, such as who will probably win if you vote for a less popular candidate, or the what Supreme Court Judges will be selected, rather than just the policy choices that will only effect the next four or eight years?

  21. I love your concluding thoughts! I have been basically saying the same thing for a few years when I explain why I am against government policy relating to redistribution of wealth and such. I also found the results of the experiment very interesting.

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