Be careful of the Pied Piper

I recommend listening to the latest Freakonomics podcast, The Power of the President. In it, Freakonomics economist Steven Levitt admits he was wrong about Obama.

At the 12:30 mark Levitt says:

I’ve probably never been more wrong about anything than I was about my projections for what the Obama administration would look like.

Levitt usually doesn’t pay much attention to politics and usually doesn’t vote. But he did in the last election. He credits Obama for being a great speaker and compares him to the Pied Piper, because:

…even though I disagreed with most of what he said, I immediately wanted to do them. I would have done whatever he would have told me to do.

That’s why I voted for Obama. I never vote, but I thought there was a good chance that Obama would be the greatest president in the history of mankind, and I wanted to be able to tell my grandchildren that I voted for Barack Obama.

One reason Levitt usually doesn’t vote is because he doesn’t think a president “matters all that much,” but he thinks the president can set a tone for the nation, and he thought “Obama would be able to set an incredible tone for our country.” He goes on:

…and what’s strange and surprising to me is that almost exactly the opposite happened. As soon as he got into office, it was just rancor and off-tune, off-pitch.

I’m glad someone can admit he was wrong. I wish he’d give other people, who weren’t wrong, more credit. Maybe we should more carefully consider their position in the future.

I’m reminded of a time where I participated in a mock government exercise as a high school student. In the gubernatorial campaign speeches, one candidate passionately recited some non-sense lyrics from a Prince song.

I remember thinking “what a disaster, this guy is bombing big time.” Much to my surprise, the auditorium erupted in applause and gave him a standing ovation. Myself and the guy sitting next to me were among the few who remained seated and silent with furled eyebrows. I asked him, “What the hell did he just say?” He responded, “I have no idea.”

That’s when it first occurred to me how many people could be swayed by style and emotion and there are very few of us that are more resistant to that.

Even Levitt, an economist, duped himself. He didn’t agree with much of what Obama said, but he would have done whatever Obama told him to do. For some reason, I have a natural tendency to put more weight — nearly all weight — on whether I agree or disagree with what someone is saying, not whether I like the way he or she says it.

I’m usually scanning for content and filtering out style. Much to my chagrin, I’m at the mercy of a population that appears to do the opposite.

But, they don’t just do the opposite. They often know they disagree with the person, but rationalize it away. I had friends in ’08 election who tried to convince me that while Obama appeared to be a bit far to the left (judging from what he said and his voting record), but he’d move to the middle when president. One even told me recently that while Obama hadn’t really moved to the middle in his first term, he expects that he will if he gets a second term. I’m sorry, what?

I would appreciate hearing Levitt say something like, “I’m going to make a point to be more careful about being swayed by style, emotion and fallacy in the future, and I encourage all of us to do the same. Listen to what people are saying. Ask yourself if you agree or disagree and then ask yourself why. Then find someone who can represent the disagreeing position well and talk to them.”

3 thoughts on “Be careful of the Pied Piper

  1. Style and charisma have always won elections. Money has played a big role too. But regardless of what all the “Haters” might come up with, America has had 25 months of improvement in the overall Economy and the President’s policies have been successful even in spite of all the obstruction from the party of “We are going to make sure Obama is a one term president.”

    This success has, in fact, so rattled the Right that they had to abandon their attacks on the President’s policies and have had to revert to their old attacks on women’s rights and the old “Family and Moral Values” trumpet that has lost most of it’s appeal except to the very insignificant religious base (Which doesn’t really buy them anymore either).

    I know a lot of Real Americans who hope he gets a second term– especially after listening to the nonsense being peddled by the clown show that we witnessed recently on all the major media. (I would have said “Debates” but nothing was debated except the shortcomings of one another.)

    • It’s too bad we put more emphasis on style than what the person says, which is the point of my post.

      As for money, that’s a mistaken causation. That has been proven false by self-funded and failed candidacies of the likes of Steve Forbes and Meg Whitman. What matters is how many people donate to a specific candidate. A candidate who can attract a lot of donors is an indication of a candidate that can attract a lot of votes as well.

      The 25 months of steady improvement is debatable. Charts like this (, this ( and this ( give good reason for plenty of folks to feel like whatever improvement you are referring to are on paper, not in the real world.

      But, I find the economic record debate to be off the mark for a couple reasons. First, it’s not the President’s job to fix the economy. When they try to, they usually cause more damage.

      Second, even if it were, I doubt you’d support these same policies (like nearly doubling debt) if a conservative was doing it. But, I could be wrong.

      As for the rest of your post, I don’t believe terms like “Haters”, “clowns” and “Real Americans” contribute to a productive exchange.

      I appreciate and welcome a good discussion, but I like to keep fallacies and name calling to a minimum.

  2. Why do people respond to style rather than substance? I think it has much to do with a reversion to atavistic behaviors. Our societies have advanced at a much more rapid rate than our minds have evolved. In primitive times, one had to make rapid, “instinctual” actions in order to avoid being dinner for some other creature. Taking the time to thoroughly examine the options and make a “rational” decision based upon substance was a trait that would have been de-selected from an evolutionary standpoint. Hence, the trait that has survived is the one that favors quick, non-intellectual decisions based upon appearances rather than the one that favors slower and more deliberate decisions based upon a reasoned examination of the facts and alternatives.

    Now, one would hope – as Jefferson did – that informing (or educating) the nation’s citizens would result in a body of voters willing and able to overcome these atavistic tendencies and to give more thought to the actual substance of the arguments proposed by the opposing candidates. And, indeed, it’s reasonable to assume that an educated public is a necessary, although not a sufficient, condition for the survival of the Republic. We may never know the answer. Thanks to our system of state sponsored public education, we have millions of kids who have gone to school, but relatively few who are truly informed/educated. This should come as no surprise – it’s another example of the federal government screwing up something that it claimed it would (a) provide more cheaply, (b) guarantee access to, and (c) improve the quality of. Gee, does this sound familiar?


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