Drawing a direct analogy with the effect of vouchers in the education system, Messrs. Seeman and Luciani suggest “healthy-living vouchers” that could be redeemed from different (certified) places–gyms, diet classes, vegetable sellers and more. Education vouchers, they point out, are generally disliked by rich whites as being bad for poor blacks–and generally liked by poor blacks.
Three things here. First, I’m sick and tired of all the rich-white bashing. I mean, what’s the deal? Matt Ridley is a rich white, I’m a rich white, so are lots and lots of the readers of the Wall Street Journal. If you got a problem with rich whites, maybe you should start writing for a publication associated with a different income stratum and a different ethnic group.
Second, the rich-white thing seems so selective. Does Ridley bash rich whites who want to lower taxes? Rich whites who want safe neighborhoods, clean streets, fast wifi, winning sports teams, bomb-free commercial aircraft, juicy steaks, cold beer, and all the rest? No. It’s only when rich whites happen to disagree with him that he decides to play this populist game.
Third, it’s not true that rich whites oppose school vouchers. It’s poor whites who oppose them. Here are our estimates from the 2000 and 2004 Annenberg surveys:
Fourth, who says that opponents of school vouchers oppose them “as being bad for poor blacks”? Where did that come from? I imagine there are a lot of different reasons why people support or oppose school vouchers. And I doubt that worrying about what’s “bad for poor blacks” is a high priority for most whites–rich or poor. Maybe things are different in Canada, but here in the U.S.A., we rich whites spend a lot more time thinking about ourselves than we do about poor blacks.
So let’s rephrase Ridley’s sentence, given what we’ve learned above:
Education vouchers are generally disliked by poor whites and are liked by rich whites (if they happen to be Catholic or evangelical Protestant), poor Hispanics, and poor blacks in the Northeast. Two Canadian academics, Neil Seeman and Patrick Luciani, state, with zero evidence, that opponents of school vouchers oppose them “as being bad for poor blacks.”
Hmmm . . . doesn’t sound so impressive . . .
You might say I’m picky, mucking up a clean story with messy survey data. And, hey, maybe opinions on school vouchers have changed since 2004. If Seeman and Luciani want to propose an ideological solution to obesity, fine. But don’t start making up numbers and making up motivations!
I can hardly blame Ridley here: it’s natural for a journalist to take academic researchers’ claims at face value (even if the two scholars mentioned above are closer to policy analysts than academics). The scholars oozed authority and Ridley didn’t think of questioning them. After all, journalists are busy people and can’t be expected to check up on every quote. That’s the point of experts: you can trust them, right?
One more button
But then we come to one more thing that Ridley wrote, pushing one more of my buttons. Here’s Ridley:
Messrs. Seeman and Luciani’s suggestions will annoy both the left and the right. . . . But the very fact that their idea defies conventional wisdom suggests that it is a good one.
Huh? I agree that conventional wisdom isn’t always right. But does he really believe that the very fact that an idea defies conventional wisdom suggests it’s a good idea? If so, perhaps Ridley might consider driving a 1975 Gremlin. Conventional wisdom (backed up by the Consumer Reports frequency of repair records) suggests that AMC cars were crappy. And maybe he’d like to wash down his next KFC meal with a delightful C&C Cola, which conventional wisdom suggests is high quality.
And, to get back to public opinion for a moment, let’s forget about sample surveys. Conventional wisdom says that Gallup etc. know what they’re doing. So maybe it would be better to defy conventional wisdom and just invent numbers. It’s so much easier than conducting a survey, and the very fact that it defies conventional wisdom suggests it’s a good idea!
P.S. Why does this irritate me so much? I analyze survey data for a living. If I were to go around making up numbers about the atomic weight of potassium or international trade, people would rightly ask what I know about chemistry or economics. But when people start spreading false statements about public opinion, they’re believed without question–even by a science writer who prides himself on defying conventional wisdom–and used as part of a pseudo-populist argument about that despicable group, “rich whites,” It all just makes me want to barf. If you want to attack rich whites, fine. But use a more plausible argument, please!
P.P.S. I’m surprised that Cowen fell for the “rich whites” bit, but I suppose he was focusing on the weight-loss ideas. I only noticed the education vouchers part because I’ve done research in that area. Once I noticed that problem, the whole argument fell apart in my hands.