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What has economics got to do with the brainwashing of MAGA Republicans?

It all has to do with the importance of making choices and how those choices inform us. Consumers choose which products to buy. Citizens choose which facts to believe. Many economists actually define their discipline as the “science of choice.” In the very first economics class I took as a college freshman (and therefore the first class I would teach my principles students years later), my professor identified the “economic problem” as a situation where humans have unlimited wants yet they are confronted by scare (because finite) resources with which to satisfy those wants.

[For a minute we must ignore the fact that many people deny that humans inherently have “unlimited wants” --- anthropologists, in particular, would have a field day describing plenty of societies who do not fit this description!]

Given unlimited wants and scarce resources, people have to make choices as to how to utilize their scarce resources. For consumers that involves choosing how to allocate their income among various products. Meanwhile, businesses make choices of what products to produce, how to utilize the resources at their disposal to actually make those products. (They also have to figure out what products consumers will want to buy.) In this economists’ version of reality, it is the consumer who actually makes the choice about which products to buy.

[Again, there is plenty of argument in the field of economics about this assertion as well. Economists from Thorstein Veblen to John Kenneth Galbraith have argued that advertising and even more subtle forms of “influence” permit businesses to “create” their customers rather than merely responding to consumers’ desires. But we will let that pass as well.]

The choices made by consumers and businesses interact to determine what products are produced and how they are produced. Some wax eloquent and call this process the MAGIC OF THE MARKET. What they mean by that is that if a product is no good, consumers will not buy it and pretty soon, producers will either stop producing it or change it sufficiently so that consumers will want to buy it. Meanwhile, producers will figure out how to produce the products that consumers want while getting the most out of the resources they have available. Businesses that fail to utilize their resources efficiently or who use backward technologies will find themselves unable to sell their products.

Consumer choices have led to dramatic changes over time. Here’s a simple one. The personal computer has made typewriters obsolete. Once consumers got the hang of typing on a word-processor (with all the ease of correction and editing compared to the way type-written material had to be corrected and then re-typed) the era of the typewriter was over. Here’s a big one. The automobile (initially called the “horseless carriage”) replaced the horse and buggy as the means of local transport (to and from town, to and from church) because businesses figured out how to produce them cheaply enough for consumers to switch. The automobile then went on the conquer the railroad and the streetcar for commutes to work and between cities. In the modern era, computers and kindles have dramatically reduced the desire of people to read (and therefore buy) printed newspapers, magazines and books.

The beauty of this process --- the reason it is referred to as the MAGIC OF THE MARKET -- is that people get a lot of information merely by buying and using a product. And businesses get a lot of information merely by using a piece of machinery or trying out a particular technology or hiring a particular worker. After you eat in a restaurant that gives you a lousy meal you don’t go back. If you buy a car that gives you a tremendous amount of trouble, you will not buy that model again --- and you will tell your friends. A business that uses a machine that constantly breaks down will not buy that same machine again. IF a particular technology has so many bugs the down time is excessive, it will be replaced. A worker who does a lousy job will be fired. In other words, when you exercise the choice to buy something, you get a tremendous amount of feedback as to whether or not you made the RIGHT choice.

It is now time to answer the question posed at the beginning of this commentary. What does this have to do with MAGA Republicans being brainwashed by Trump and his media outlets – particularly Fox News? Well, citizens are consumers of news and information just as ordinary consumers buy and use products. All citizens of all political persuasions: MAGA Republicans, progressive democrats, moderates of all stripes --- make choices on what to believe about politicians and policies. Someone who consumes the facts according to Fox News or the liar-in-chief, Donald Trump, is consuming a product just like a car or a restaurant meal. But here is where the analogy breaks down. What is the feedback mechanism that will permit the consumer of these “facts” to determine whether they have been sold a bill of goods? (How do they know whether a particular set of facts is equivalent to a good car as opposed to a lemon? Is equivalent of a good meal as opposed to a lousy one??) The consumers of information from Fox News and/or Trump would have to rely on and trust sources of news and information INDEPENDENT of those “producers” of their “product.” You see the problem?

When you eat a lousy meal in a restaurant, your stomach gives you the bad news and you know it was a lousy meal. When you consume a lie from a Fox News broadcast, how do you learn it was a lie? YOU DON’T IF YOU GET ALL YOUR INFORMATION FROM FOX NEWS. In other words, the so-called magic of the market does not work in the current era where MAGA Republicans get their information from one major source. Unlike the stomach telling you the restaurant meal was lousy, the only source of real honest information would be ALTERNATIVES to FOX and Trump. But here, those who have been brainwashed by constant repetitive “information” from Fox News and/or Trump have been told that the information contradicting FOX and Trump is FAKE NEWS. This creates a “truth proof” feedback loop. Maga Republicans consume lies from FOX and Trump while the fact checks (the equivalence of the stomach ache after a lousy meal) do not get through to them. The so-called “magic of the market” fails to weed out lies.

Interestingly, a study where FOX NEWS viewers were paid to watch CNN for a bunch of hours revealed that exposure to “real” news helped change their minds about some things. [Details here ]. This gives hope that even the closed feedback loop of Fox News and Trump can be broken. We can hope, can’t we?

[I came across this particularly interesting story about how Finland actually teaches their students how to distinguish between pure propaganda and real information --- how to spot efforts to fool them with misinformation. The article is by Professor Alan Singer:]

By the way, in addition to the issue I hung my hat on in the oral delivery of this commentary, the “closed bubble” created by FOX news and the incessant identification of facts and analyses that contradict FOX and the Trump “alternative facts,” there is something known as “confirmation bias.” There is a very interesting (short) article about it from Britannica available here. In this article, confirmation bias is a tendency to credit information that supports your already existing opinion and a converse tendency to dismiss information that opposes your already existing opinion. This is one of the reasons why in assigning essays about economic policy issues, I would INSIST that the student figure out the strongest possible argument they could think of AGAINST their conclusion and then explain why that strong argument is unconvincing. I promises them that if they wrote an essay that agreed with what they thought I agreed or with some reading no matter how good they were at explaining it, if they ignored my insistence that they come up with the best possible counter-argument I would promise them --- VERY GOOD EXPLANATION, WHERE’S THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT, C-. (I actually wasn’t quite as extreme as that but it was impossible to earn a B or higher without taking that next step. Obviously, a few essays like that doesn’t “cure” confirmation bias but it definitely was a step in the right direction.

In the context of this issue, since “consuming” an opinion from FOX news or a Trump speech does not have any immediate feedback (the the example I keep using of a lousy meal in the restaurant), confirmation bias can reinforce the fact that too many MAGA Republicans “consume” their news from inside the FOX and Trumpist bubble.

Again, we can only hope that the weight of evidence starts to erode both the loyalty of MAGA Republicans to the “world according to Trump and FOX” and breaks through confirmation bias.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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