The Choices! THE CHOICES!!

Tyler Cowen excerpts this NYT piece by Barry Schwartz on whether we have too many choices. I found titibits like this pretty damn obvious:

• Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper, psychologists at Columbia and Stanford respectively, have shown that as the number of flavors of jam or varieties of chocolate available to shoppers is increased, the likelihood that they will leave the store without buying either jam or chocolate goes up. According to their 2000 study, Ms. Iyengar and Mr. Lepper found that shoppers are 10 times more likely to buy jam when six varieties are on display as when 24 are on the shelf.

If you're optimizing with respect to jam, then an increase in your number of choices increases your search costs. If it looks like the cost of sorting through all the jam is going to be fairly high, and your desire for jam isn't urgent, you're likely to just walk out jamless. You don't have to be optimizing, etither. More likely you'll be happy with anything that passes some threshold. But thresholds like these tend to be context sensitive (the worst jam at Whole Foods might be better than the best jam at Giant, but in both cases, you may aim for the middle of what's on offer), so you won't be sure where it is until you get a sense of your options. This, too, costs.

Tyler presents these cases as “brickbats” for libertarians and economists. Well, OK. To me, this points to the economic importance of “editors”. If people get turned off when the choice set gets too big, but people will buy something in the set if its smaller, then the money is in packaging smaller choice sets and knowing who to present them to (like the shoe salesman Tyler mentions). To some extent, this is precisely the difference between a boutique and a department store. Part of what you're paying for in a boutique is the editorial skill of the buyer & salesperson. The trim they choice set so you don't have to.

Methodological digression: Schwartz's results point to an fascinating area of research for experimental economists. The establishment science fiction economics isn't happy to recognize the scarcity of computational resources, and so just assumes that everybody is able to costlessly and immediately represent the entire choice set and come up with some preference-ordering over all those choices. Of course, we don't do this. We represent a tiny fraction of the potential choice set, and the fraction that we do represent seems to be primed by context together with our belief systems (and other stuff). Somebody, please please tell us: HOW DOES THIS WORK?!

It's, like, the system, man

— Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber drips with disgust at Congressman Billy Tauzin's whoring:

For the last couple of weeks, there’s been a bidding war between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) for Tauzin’s services. The MPAA had paid its outgoing head lobbyist, the unlamented Jack Valenti, more than $1 million a year. Apparently this wasn’t nearly enough for Tauzin, who held out for a substantially larger sum – and got it from PhRMA. As it happens, PhRMA is a particularly unpleasant organization – it played a dishonorable role in the AIDS drugs licensing for Africa controversy a few years ago, and has been up to its eyeballs in other controversies and backroom arrangements, up to and including the recent Medicare porkfest. Needless to say, Tauzin has been assiduous in his efforts to protect the interests of big pharma and the content industry over the last couple of years; it’s hard to believe that his grossly inflated salary is unconnected to services previously rendered. The phenomenon of Congressman-turned-lobbyist is hardly a new one; but the openness and extent of the greed on display is unusual, even for Washington.

I agree: sickening. I do hope Henry will accept this as pointing to a general lesson about the deep structural relationship between the motivations of political leaders and very large governments with vast regulatory powers. I've noticed that some people seem to think that if only the leaders or the regulations were different, then all would be well. Which is, I guess, a cute idea.

Doing it First, Doing it Best

— Gawker Media has launched a new blog devoted to gossip about the Federal City side of the District. Despite their innovative reputation, let it not go unsaid that in this instance Gawker is derivative. Swamp City has been covering the same beat for some time now, with panache. You should add it to your blogrolls forthwith, so that the Swamp City chick will stop pestering me.

Vice Ain't Right

— Joanne McNeill has the lowdown on paunchy aging hipster Gavin McGinnes. His claim to be conservative was apparently a spoof. This supports my argument below that claiming to be conservative is likely to be cooler than actually being conservative. McGinnes does a great job of showing how very uncool conservatives are by showing us just how eager they are to associate themselves with anybody, ANYBODY, with a jot of hpister cred.

Burke is the New Black

— Despite the arguments set forth by Holiday Dmitri on NRO, conservatism is not now, and never was, cool. Indeed, anyone disposed to utter “young hipublican” without scare-quotes is immediately disqualified from the cool sweeps (unless of course the lack of scare quotes is itself part of an undetectably ironic performance of earnestness, which is cool.) As scientists at many of America's most prestigious research institutions have long noted, cool is the most elusive and indefinable of properties. Nevertheless we do have some intuitive grasp of the logic of cool, which enables us to evaluate the arguments Dmitri adduces in support of her counter-intuitive claim.

Argument from the Existence of Cool Conservatives

(1) Gavin McGinnes is editor of Vice
(2) The editor of Vice is ipso facto cool.
(3) McGinnes describes himself as a conservative.
(4) The cool do not describe themselves as having uncool properties.
Thus, (5) Being a conservative is cool.

(2) is questionable (one might edit a magazine like Vice in order to create a perception of coolness in order to compensate for a deep lack), but let's grant it.

(3) Is a problem if we interpret it as implying that being a conservative is cool just in virtue of the nature of conservatism, instead in virtue of the relationship between conservatism and other attributes, such as having an obscure record collection, or looking effortlessly fly. All we're really getting here is that conservatism does not necessarily rule out being cool.

(3) has deeper problems still. It's false. There is nothing less cool than visibly trying to be cool. Ascribing to oneself manifestly uncool properties, like being conservative, mitigates the perception that one is trying to be cool, and therefore enhances one's coolness. So the cool are very likely to describe themselves as having uncool properties, such as being conservative. This fact leads to the necessity of distinguishing between those that say that they are conservative and those that are. To establish that it may be cool to say that one is conservative does not establish that it is cool to actually be conservative.

Now, I believe the author implies that she is cool, although she is cool enough not to explicitly admit to her self-estimate. And she appears earnest in her self-description as conservative. She has gone so far as to write an essay on how it is cool to be conservative in a widely-read publication, which is evidence of earnestness. So let's take for granted that Dmitri believes in good faith that she is conservative. There are several possibilities here.

(A) She is mistaken in her belief and is not conservative, but is in fact cool.
(B) She is mistaken, but is not cool.
(C) She is not mistaken, and is cool.
(D) She is not mistaken, and is not cool.

On the basis of my slim knowledge of Ms. Dmitri, I will assume that she is cool, limiting myself to options (A) and (C).

To establish (A) we'd need to know what it is to be conservative. I believe there is much confusion here, and that conservative is a two-place, not one-place, predicate. One is conservative about ______, where the blank is to be filled in by some domain of life such as marriage, drugs, dress, constitutional interpretation, architecture, etc. If one is conservative about almost every domain, it may make sense to say that one is conservative simpliciter. But someone who is conservative in this unrestricted sense is necessarily not cool. If Ms. Dmitri thinks she is conservative in the unrestricted sense, then she is mistaken. But probably she does not believe that she is John Derbyshire, give or take a few secondary sexual characteristics. So (C) is most likely correct, given the restricted interpretation.

It is possible for someone like McGinnes to be both cool and conservative only if we interpret conservative in the restricted, domain-relative sense. One may be conservative about, say, the interpretation of rights, free-markets, and affirmative action programs, but decidely not about porn, music, and gender role.

But then we might suspect that McGinnes, or Dmitri, is not cool in virtue of of being conservative, but cool in virtue of NOT being conservative about the domains most relevant to being cool. But look. Then it's possible that I am both cool (just imagine) and conservative on the restricted interpretation, despite the fact that I am pains to not describe myself as conservative.

The thesis that it is cool to be conservative is interesting only because it is counterintuitive given the unrestricted interpretation of conservative. But if the author of an article like Dmitri's then deploys the restricted interpretation in order to successful identify some self-avowed conservatives who actually are cool, then the thesis becomes fairly trivial.

To get a taste of the triviality, notice that on the restricted interpretation it's possible to have two people who are both conservative in this sense, but who agree about nothing whatsoever.

The Argument from college (little 'c') Republicans

(i) More college students identify themselves as Republicans than as Democrats
(ii) Large percentages of college students won't do something unless there is a common perception that it is cool.
So, (iii) If a large percentage of college students identify as Republican, then there is a common perception that it is cool to be Republican.
(iv) There would be no such common perception unless it was true.
(v) Republicans are ipso facto conservative.
Therefore, (vi) It is cool to be conservative.

I think (iv) is just obviously false. The vast majority of college students have no or almost no cooldar, which is why so many try to be cool, yet fail so miserably, usually simply in virtue of trying. Just as one may infer the awfulness of the Dave Matthews Band on the basis of their popularity with college audiences, a consensus among college students that conservatism was cool, would constitute almost overwhelming evidence that it is not. The fact that students have had it up to here with the moralizing liberal self-love of the professoriate, establishes nothing whatsoever about the coolness of reaction.

(v) is also clearly false. Being Republican and being conservative are independent properties. And this is exactly what makes it possible to jump around in the category of Republicans in the service of an argument to the coolness of conservatism. A Venn diagram will refute this argument:

(a) Most Republicans are conservatives.
(b) Some Republicans are cool.
Thus, (c) some conservatives are cool.

The cool Republicans may well be those who are not conservative.

The Argument from College (big 'c') Republicans

“Since 1999, the College Republican National Committee has tripled its membership and now holds claim to 1,150 chapters, with more than 1,000 student coordinators on campuses nationwide.”

Same analysis as above. What this has to do with coolness is anybody's guess. Julian suggests that Millenials are neo-fascist nationalists, which is not cool. Maybe that explains it.

The argument from the coolness of the The Criterion

(I)The editorial board of The Criterion are conservative.
(II) The board of The Criterion are “fashion-conscious provocateurs who inject dirty humor and an in-your-face attitude into the pages of their publication”
(III) It is cool to be a fashion-conscious provocateur, as is the expression of dirty humor and an in-your-face attitude.
So, (IV) The board of the Criterion is cool.
Thus, (V) There are cool conservatives.

This argument very clearly implies that dirty humor and an in-your-face attitude account for the cool of The Criterion. But these attributes are unconservative in their domains. As is being “fashion-conscious” for a man who is conservative about masculinity. The argument gets us no further than we were.

So, I think the best we can get out of Dmitri's analysis is that it is possible to be both cool and conservative, assuming that we interpret conservative in a limited, and domain-specific way. But this makes the argument trivial. Saying that you are conservative is clearly not inconsistent with being cool, because saying that you are conservative is an excellent way of pretending to not be cool, which is cool-conducive. Also, more college students are becoming Republicans, for some reason.

The rhetorical thrust of Dmitri's essay is that if you were worried about it, it's OK to identify yourself as Republican or conservative, because it's now cool. This idea (dare I say “meme”) seems to be getting around, and some people may even believe it. But it's probably self-defeating. The reason cool is elusive is that it flees as soon as too many people think they can see it and be it. The question is whether Dmitri cares more about cool or conservatism. If it's the latter, then she'll be happy to use the rhetoric of cool to nudge a few rubes into pulling the lever for conservatives, even if it ensures that conservatism will not in fact be cool.

Anyway, gotta go: Star Trek's on.