Jon Stewart’s feedback problem

Here’s Jim Treacher on Jon Stewart’s disappointment in the apparent unfolding of government with Obama in charge (via Instapundit). I primarily appreciated this:

…once I saw through his Clown Nose Off/Clown Nose On routine — “You should listen to me because what I’m saying is important, but I’ll brush off your rebuttal by insisting I’m just a comedian” — it was like the optical illusion with the cows. It might take you a minute to see it, but once you do, you can’t unsee it.

The ‘clown nose off/clown nose on’ is an apt description for Stewart. But, why should he engage? He makes enough money putting the clown nose on whenever faced with something that challenges his worldview.

That’s a feedback problem, which I think is why he still believes in government. I always tell my friends that I don’t trust politicians, not even the ones I think I like. It was a lesson I learned at a young age when I realized that it wasn’t worth defending folks I don’t know and hoping they could want to be politicians for noble reasons.

That’s one of the key reasons why I would like to keep the power of government limited. Politicians aren’t noble.

Jon Stewart’s view on taxes

While flipping channels tonight, I came across a segment of the Jon Stewart Show where Mr. Stewart claims John Boehner referring to taxation as theft showed a lack of understanding of the United States Constitution.

Here’s a link to the full clip.

I’d be open for Mr. Stewart, or the writer of that joke, to point me to the part of the Constitution he believes Mr. Boehner doesn’t understand.

Article I, Section 8 of the CoTUS gives Congress the power to ‘lay and collect’ taxes. However, it does not say that taxes are not theft.

I’ll give Mr. Stewart the benefit of the doubt that he is referring to meaning of theft as the unlawful taking of another person’s property without their permission. Since the Constitution makes taxing power lawful, then (I’m guessing) Stewart believes taxes are not theft.

However, some folks believe the more salient meaning of theft is the part where another person’s property is taken without their permission. In that view, many taxes are theft.

I’d rather have elected officials who see taxes the way Speaker Boehner sees them than the way Mr. Stewart sees them.

Stewart was miffed that Boehner’s (what he thought was a) “mistake” didn’t get media attention, while President Obama’s lack of understanding of Star Wars and Star Trek did.

Maybe others in the media were concerned that Mr. Boehner’s view on taxes would make sense to people, especially folks fresh off their 2% payroll tax holiday.

Well put

I’ll give Santorum credit for finding a concise and accurate way to describe those who want everybody to go to college, like President Obama, “What a snob!”

Jeff Jacoby writes about Santorum’s dig on Obama here and how it elicited criticism from, well…snobs:

Ridiculous? Offensive? Hypocritical? Manifestly, all of the above,” wrote Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post. On The Daily Show, the inimitable Jon Stewart was beside himself: “Just to be clear,” he said, “you’re coming out against people educating their kids because it’s – fancy?” Vice President Joe Biden assured a radio interviewer that Santorum had managed to separate himself from “all of America on this.”

A note to Jon Stewart: Just to be clear, no, Santorum didn’t come out against anybody educating their kids. That’s a straw man fallacy.

Santorum came out against the idea that college be considered the only path worth pursuing and using government policy to reinforce that mythical idea.

And Santorum meant that it’s snobbish to ignore the good work done by millions of people in this country who don’t have college degrees, but still managed to contribute to society and achieve the American Dream.

I know plenty of such people. They are business owners, electricians, factory workers and railroad workers. They build roads, program computers and edit video. They work on garage doors, paint houses, build fences, clean windows, fix cars and tractors and run restaurants.

They also start companies like Microsoft, win Oscar awards and play professional sports.

Many of these folks do amazing things that they didn’t learn in a classroom.

For example, I’m amazed that a painter I use can finish painting a room quicker than it would for me to set up and start, and his product looks far better than anything I’ve tried to paint.

I was amazed by the movers I hired a few years ago to move the heavy stuff from my old house to my new house. They accomplished in 3 hours what would have taken me days. I would have strained my muscles, maybe injured myself and I’m sure I would have marked up my walls or damage my furniture.

The path to the American Dream isn’t about going to college.

It’s about adopting a set of behaviors that includes a strong work ethic, integrity, personal responsibility, ability to get along with others, productivity, willingness to learn, careful consideration of decisions and resourcefulness, among other things.

The folks I mentioned above, who didn’t go to college, would score well on these behaviors. Likewise, I know folks who did go to college, who are struggling to achieve the American Dream and would score low on these behaviors.

We’d be far better off if we encouraged and reinforced the behaviors that lead to the American Dream, rather than encouraging shortcuts to achieving a facade of the American Dream.

Restore Sanity? II

At about the 8:30 mark in John Stewart’s closing speech at his rally last Saturday, he starts a segment with:

We do impossible things, only made possible by the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

He then shows video of cars in traffic and describes the individuals in each car.  For example, “that car has a lady who’s in the NRA, loves Oprah.”  He describes several more individuals like that and then the video pans out to show the traffic merging into a couple lanes to get through a tunnel carved under a river, “carved, I’m sure, by people who had their differences.”

Back to the merging cars…

…and they do it concession by concession.  You go, I go.  You go, I go.  Sure, there’s some selfish jerk that comes along and cuts in, but that individual is rare and is scorned…

I found this segment interesting for a few reasons.

1.  It shows an example of a zero sum game.

I won’t pick on this point too much.  I know the idea was to show an easy visual of people cooperating.  But, I think the visual happens to represent how folks like Stewart view things — as a zero sum game.  There are only so many lanes in the tunnel and we just all have to share.

However, a broader visual with a time series would provide a truer example of how our getting along results not in a zero sum game, but a positive sum game where things can get better for everyone.

For example, a time series video may have shown how folks crossed the river before the tunnel was made and how the tunnel improved things by adding to the existing options of crossing the river.

Also, a broader picture might have included technology or new construction that saves people from ever entering the traffic jam, like a telecommuter working from home over a high speed internet connection or new apartments on the side of the river everyone wants to get to.

2. Stewart recognizes that people who disagree on some things generally get along for some reason, though I’m not sure he knows that reason.

Number 2 occurred to me when he made the remark about the workers coming together to carve a tunnel under a river, “even though they may have had their differences.”

This strikes at what I think is one of the most fundamental attributes of free markets and is overlooked or discounted by free market skeptics: the mutually beneficial, voluntary trade.  That mutually beneficial trade is the most effective way to align our “differences”  so that something good for everyone results.

For example, I buy my coffee from a dude who I may not agree with politically, because I want my coffee and he wants his paycheck.  To Stewart’s point, I compromised and he compromised.  I didn’t try to convert him to my way of thinking before I bought a cup and he didn’t qualify the sale of the coffee on my politics.  And we both came out ahead in the trade.

So, why do people with differences work together to carve a tunnel beneath a river?  Adam Smith explained it in this quote:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

The people working on the tunnel didn’t build the tunnel out of kindness.  Nor did they refrain from imposing their beliefs on their co-workers because they’re nice people.  They wanted a paycheck and they wanted to remain employed, so they supplied their labor and got along with their co-workers.  There’s nothing wrong with that and something good and useful resulted.

The problem is so few people understand the underpinnings of the human interactions that brought about many of the things that make our lives better.

3.  Stewart recognizes why people make concessions in traffic and why jerks on the road are rare:  accurate, clear and direct feedback.

One of my pet theories is that any problem can be traced to problem in the feedback loops.  There are few jerks on the road because we have several methods of providing clear and direct negative feedback.  One  feedback, as Stewart points out, is scorn (btw, Don Boudreaux mentions this in the video of his I posted recently on the law).  That might show up as honking horns, finger signals, yelling, shaking heads, risk of road rage or not receiving favorable treatment by other motorists at the next merge.

Even the most stubborn jerks have a difficult time not modifying their behavior with all of that clear and direct feedback, so jerkish flare-ups are usually squelched quickly.

The leap in the thinking that Stewart doesn’t seem to have made yet is why these concessions that are so clear and direct in traffic are not so apparent or strong in political discourse.  If he made that leap, he might better understand why the “24/7 politico conflictinator” exists.

Let’s go back to my feedback theory of everything.

Correct feedback on political ideology is unclear and indirect.  When I accidentally cut someone off in traffic I know right away by the accurate feedback I receive.  I learn and take care not to do it again.

Consider a political ideology that supports policy touted at helping poor people.  What feedback do I receive if the policy works or not?  It’s unclear and it may not be accurate.  It’s certainly not as clear as someone giving me the one-finger salute in traffic.

If I question the effectiveness of the program, I might receive clear feedback.  “You’re stupid and heartless if you think this great program hurts!” But, that may not be accurate feedback.  Notice, that’s a name-call and it doesn’t give me any information as to whether the program works or not.

Stewart himself is guilty of feeding this monster. He has the sanctimonious, authoritative, thou-shalt-not-question-my-superior-judgment, let’s-all-just-get-along (as long as it matches what I think) act down pat.  It puts food on his table.  It also prevents him from learning that he might be wrong.

If I question a policy’s effectiveness, I might also get  feedback from less biased sources.  A group of economists might tell me why it helps and another group may tell me why it hurts, and I’m left sorting out which group I think is right and why.  I think that’s better than being bullied into not questioning the policy, but it’s still not as clear and accurate as traffic signals.

4.  After listening to Stewart’s rally closing and also to Beck’s, I think there’s one big message missing from each: It’s okay to not know, to ask questions, to be wrong and to learn.

I’m reminded of Steven Landsburg’s advice, delight in losing arguments because you’ve learned something.

Somehow, somewhere in our society we’ve lost the idea that it’s possible that we could be wrong and that it’s okay to lose an argument.  I can empathize.  It took me a long time to get past that and sometimes it still gets in the way.

But our betters tell us to get out, vote and let our voices be heard.  They should know better.  Instead they should encourage us to get out and lose some arguments so that we’ll be better informed. And when you lose an argument, say thank you.

We’re not afraid to ask an electrician for help in wiring stuff up.  We know that if we do it ourselves and screw up, the consequences can be deadly.  So why are we afraid to let people know that we don’t know much when it comes to politics?

Is it because politics is a bit more like a religion than wiring skills?

Restore Sanity?

I agree with one thing near the end of Jon Stewart’s closing speech at his Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear this weekend, Stewart says “Sanity is in the eye of beholder.”

Take 12 minutes to watch Stewart’s speech here.

Now, take another 5 minutes and read this , which is Thomas Sowell’s latest column.

I wonder what Stewart would think of Sowell’s column?


Jon Stewart on NPR

I happened to catch the last few minutes of an interview with Jon Stewart on NPR on last Friday’s afternoon drive home.

The interviewer asked Stewart to describe a time when he felt it all came together for him on his show.

Stewart described a time after 9/11 when he said Democrats let their political wills get in the way of a “no-brainer” decision.  They held up legislation to pay the medical costs of the heroes of 9/11.  Stewart said that looking at that frustrating situation through the lens of comedy was helpful.

As I listened, I was reminded of how I use to think about government long ago and just how from that I am now.

Stewart was frustrated with government and Democrats of the time.  He couldn’t fathom how they could let their own motivations stand in the way of doing something that seemed so right.  I use to think like that too. I was 20 years old then.  Everything seemed simple to me.  Government should do the right things and not do the wrong things.

And, of course, I was the perfect judge of what those things were!  And, of course, I had no qualms using government to force my fellow citizens to fund or participate in the right solutions.  Why wouldn’t they?  It’s their responsibility! And, of course, I could never be wrong.

Unlike Stewart, though, I learned over the past couple decades because I asked some simple questions and sought out the answers to those questions.  And, I often considered that I could be wrong (and still do).

I’d ask and look for answers to questions like:

Why didn’t that work the way I thought it should?

Why do we seem fairly well satisfied with goods and services made available to us through free markets while we bitch and moan nonstop about government? And if you don’t think we bitch and moan about government, tell me why there are three radio stations in my market dedicated to political discussions nearly 24/7 and none dedicated to discussing goods and services provided by the free market.  Or explain to me why Stewart’s show itself–which focuses heavily on political satire–is so successful.

Why is it when politicians win elections, they seem to behave differently than we thought they would?

Why is government unable to fix things that aren’t working well (e.g. public education)?

Instead of answering these questions, Stewart learned how to poke fun at news events in a way that sounds reasonable, funny and entertaining to people who share the viewpoints I held when I was 20. 

On the NPR program, Stewart described one key problem with politics (though I don’t think he realized it)–it’s an ineffective way to get what you want.  And, that’s exactly why it’s so juicy to talk about.

Economist Walter Williams explains why politics is so heated in his column, Bitter Partisan Politics.

I like the Lexus LS 460. I also like Dell computers. Many other people have a different set of preferences. Some might prefer a Cadillac and an HP computer while others prefer a Chrysler and IBM computer. With these strong preferences for particular cars and computers, we never see people arguing or fighting in an effort to impose their preferences for cars and computers on other people. There’s car and computer peace. Why?

You buy the car and computer that you want; I do likewise and we remain friends.

Suppose our car and computer choices were made in the political arena through representative democracy or through a plebiscite where majority ruled. We would decide collectively whether our cars would be Lexuses or Cadillacs or Chryslers. We also would decide collectively whether our computer would be a Dell or HP or IBM computer.

I guarantee you there would be nasty, bitter conflict between otherwise peaceful car and computer buyers. Each person would have reason to enter into conflict with those having different car and computer tastes because one person’s win would necessarily be another person’s loss.

Try a simple experiment the next time you go out to eat with a group of friends.  Tell everyone they must order the same drink and size and they will vote on what that drink is.  Majority wins.  Then keep doing it.  The first time, people may give in for the sake of the group.  But, if you keep doing it, eventually it will raise hostilities.  Those giving up their drink preference for the group’s decision will not tolerate it for long.

It never seems to occur to folks like Stewart that there are better ways to get the end result they want without relying on the government.  They continue to complain about politicians doing EXACTLY WHAT WE ALL DO (including Stewart)–and that is take care of our self-interests and satisfy our preferences.  We want to order the drink we like.

Thomas Sowell also explained well in his book, Applied Economics, why political decision-making is so contentious and ineffective, which I excerpted in this post last March.

Folks like Oprah mistake Stewart as a smart guy who should be listened to for political commentary rather than seeing him for what he really is, a talented entertainer.  I’d recommend Oprah invite folks like Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Don Boudreaux and Russ Roberts if she’s looking for smart people with good political commentary.  Better yet, I’d love to see any of these guys on the same show as Stewart to counter his points directly.

I see Stewart as guy who puts a dime in a vending machine where drinks cost a dollar and is perplexed that the vending machine won’t give him a Coke.  He proclaims that it should work.  He makes jokes about it and builds a TV show around those jokes.  He has a good act.  He’s developed such an aura of confidence and condescending that he can sell a bunch of people on his belief that when he puts a dime in the vending machine, it should workIt’s absurd that it doesn’t!  Putting a dime in the machine is a “no-brainer”.

It never seems to occur to Stewart that he may be wrong.  Perhaps we shouldn’t expect government to solve our problems.  Perhaps we should look closer at private, unforced solutions and less at public, forced dictates.

That way, instead of using government to impose his will on the rest of us and moaning when politicians don’t agree with him, Jon can easily help solve the problem.  He can contribute to the cause voluntarily and use his air time and celebrity to encourage his fans to donate as well.

Given the outpouring of voluntary giving following events like the Tsunami, Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, I think we should learn that such efforts can solve problems and we should encourage more of that.

Jon Stewart on Oprah

I watched Jon Stewart on the Oprah show recently.  Here are some of my observations.

Stewart is a funny and reasonable guy and beyond that there’s not much there in the way of solving the world’s problems.  To his credit, he seems to know this and he had to keep reminding Oprah about it.

Oprah said once or twice he was “influential.”  He would reply that he makes jokes.

Oprah asked if Stewart would run for office.  The first thing he said is that he knows that he doesn’t have the answers. Oprah then said he’s probably more influential with his show and he said something to the effect that he makes jokes.

Oprah teed up a segment about where he was going to show pictures of people, and wanted Stewart to comment because “he’s one of the sharpest guys we know”.  I believe he responded again, “I’m funny.”

Oprah showed a picture of Glenn Beck.  I felt a pause in the audience as if Stewart was going to lay into him, I expected something like, “this guy is an…”  Yet, exceeding my expectations, I could detect no visible animosity in Stewart’s body language.  Quite the contrary.  There was a glimmer in his eyes.  He said that he considers Beck his moneymaker and his kid’s college fund.

I think Stewart knows he’s tapped an artery.  Many folks who have never listened to Beck beyond his sound bites dislike him enough to illicit strong emotional responses.  Stewart the shrewd joker and businessman sees a money-making opportunity.   He’s cashing in on those emotions.  In other words, very much like Beck, he’s riding the emotional waves for cash.

Stewart’s wife said “he’s not like this at home, he doesn’t talk about politics or anything like that”.  That’s not surprising.

Overall I got that sense that Stewart is grounded and he knows he’s thankful that he has a good act.  It was refreshing to see that  Stewart seems to know his strengths and limitations. Which is good because when he talked about some real issues, he was awful.  He threw out straw men (e.g. “those on the right say there are school shootings because we don’t read the bible in school”) and weak, caricatured arguments that include just enough of the buzz of the issue delivered in a well-honed comedic/authoritative manner to get head nods and applause for folks that don’t often think beyond the surface of the issues.

Early in the segment he said that 70% to 80% of the people in the country are “reasonable”  and that 15% – 20% are not and the problem is that we are run by the latter.  He went on to attempt to discuss a real issue.  He talked about the mosque at Ground Zero.  He presented several straw men of the opposing positions and presented the supporting position as the reasonable one.  Yet, according to this poll from Time magazine, 70% of Americans polled agreed that “continuing with the plan would be an insult to the victims of the attacks of the World Trade Center,” which doesn’t match up with his belief that he falls into the reasonable 70% crowd.

Stewart seems to know his strength is in making fun and I enjoy his comedy.  He’s good at it.  But, I think some of his viewers, including Oprah, mistake his act for reality and accept his commentary as well reasoned positions on par with folks such as Thomas Sowell, Charles Krauthammer, George Will and Walter Williams, when he’s probably not quite on part with Glenn Beck.

Stewart also gave great career advice.  Talking about his stand-up comedian days, he said some nights you bomb and some nights you crush, with the same material.  The audience response isn’t necessarily an accurate gauge on the quality of the content.  He drops the high and low scores and thinks his actual performance is somewhere in between and doesn’t let it get him down.

Those years as a stand-up, he developed a skill set.  Telling jokes, commanding an audience, developing a breadth of material to draw on while he’s in his act.  He’s experimented with several different things and happened upon a black swan in the form of a news parody show.  He’s happened along another in the form of tapping into the Glenn Beck opposition.

He’s participating in capitalism and doing quite well.  Others should recognize that and root for the system that allows his success.