Monday, March 13, 2006

Lunch Debate

Over lunch at Pfoho today, an undergrad and I argued about the lack of coverage and interest in foreign affairs among the US population. Foreigners (particularly Europeans) frequently lament the local focus of American news. They view this as some great character flaw with Americans. I disagree. I don't think that Americans are different then people everywhere else in that they demand information about stuff that actually affects them. Given the vast distances between the US and most of the rest of the world and size of the US economy, Americans are for, the most part, much more insulated from what happens in the rest of the world then other people. When our economy or our safety are affected, Americans pay attention. Americans relative lack of interest in foreign affairs stems not from innate differences in character, but rather from differences in situation.

At lunch, though, the student made a new, much more interesting argument. Her argument was that, given the enormous influence wielded by the US government in our names, American citizens have a responsibility to be informed about what is going on the world and what the US is doing about it. While I agree with this in principle, I don't think the incentives currently in place are likely to produce a productive dialogue. As such, I am much more concerned about the quality of discussion that takes place within the government than I am with the quality of discussion taking place among the general populace.

Below is an email I sent the student after lunch which more thoroughly outlines my view:

I just wanted to follow-up on the debate about American views of foreign policy. As usual, as I was walking away I figured out what the fundamental source of disagreement between us.

As I understood it, your view is that, given the enormous influence of US foreign policy on people throughout the world, all Americans need to be more informed than others on what goes on abroad -- especially when it come to the effects of their foreign policy. What I think you believe, and correct me if I am wrong, is that such a debate would lead to different (specifically "better") foreign policy choices by the US. This is the assumption that I disagree with. I am unconvinced that greater debate among the general public would necessarily lead to "better" foreign policy decisions (although it might produce different decisions). That is, I disagree that lack of public debate is the cause of (or increasing debate the solution to) "bad" US foreign policy.

Here's why.

Individual voters have very little incentive to be fully informed about any issue because seeking out "Truth" is costly for them individually, but, in general, produces almost no benefit to them (because their vote has essentially zero probability of affecting the outcome of an election). As such, they are easily lied to and manipulated by politicians (see these papers by Ed Glaeser and this paper by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro). Thus debate observed by average people (see cable talking heads) tends to be overly emotional and somewhat shallow because people lack proper incentives to care if people are lying to them.

Further, US political debate focuses on domestic issues because what few incentives voters have to pay attention lie here because domestic issues are much, much more likely to affect their lives. Changes in tax laws or social security benefits, etc. affect most everyone, but changes in foreign policy have little effect on most individuals.

This makes debate about foreign policy issues even worse than debates about domestic issues because, as Glaeser shows, the less stake an individual has in a decision, the less likely s/he will invest the effort in finding out the truth.

Add to this, that foreign policy decisions are hard to simplify into neat slogans and 5 minute TV "debates" because, obviously, different situations are probably best served by different choices, and I arrive at my point that I am not convinced that a public that generally doesn't get involved in foreign policy debates is a bad thing.

Just consider American foreign policy debates over the past several years. In 2000, you have W. famously proclaiming that he doesn't believe in nation building. Two years later he marches the country (using largely false claims) into a war and a prolonged exercise in nation building with the full support of almost everyone who agreed with his no-nation building view in 2000. Those who don't share his views are traitors who are not interested in protecting the country. This is a crazy swing (and I don't buy the 9/11 changed everything logic) and the claim that those who opposed the war in Iraq are traitors who don't care about national security is obviously insane. Yet, this is the discussion that we've had. Even scarier, given the loss of life and treasure (tax dollars) associated with the war and real potential effects on national security, you would think that the incentives would be present for a more rigorous debate which more clearly tries to establish "Truth." Yet, this is the debate that we produced (and continue to produce).

While collectively, Americans care about foreign policy choices, individually most don't care enough to be fully informed (nor is it realistic to think that they can be given the number of countries and the number of issues involved in dealing with each). Unless we can magically make the average person care enough to become fully informed and have a stake in the outcome, I am not concerned that the average American doesn't engage in more foreign policy "debate."

I do care, however, that within the government and within the foreign service community specifically (and within the academic and social circles that interact with these people) there is rigorous debate about everything that we do. You are absolutely correct that the US can wield an enormous amount of influence over the populations in other countries, and thus I would hope we would be very careful to consider the effects of our actions on the quality of life in those countries (and not just on our own security). Understanding these issues is very difficult, and I am much more concerned that the quality of debate among these people is too low than I am about the quality of debate among regular Americans.

Comments: Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]