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Are People Prudent?


Preferences often differ from prudent interests, and economics, business, and politics address (and regulate) imprudent choices differently:

1. Are American’s prudent? 69% eat imprudently, and 75% don’t save enough.  

2. Economists mostly assume “rational” preferences, but businesses, knowing “there’s one born every minute,” regularly manipulate preferences towards profitable imprudence.

3. In politics we limit preferences, even of the majority, when collectively imprudent (e.g. interracial marriage, legalized in 1967, wasn’t majority preferred till ~ 1995).

4. Precaution vs. post-caution: Regulations ideally represent imprudence-reducing precautions;  lawsuits are post-cautions. Isn’t prevention preferable to cure?

5. Some regulations should create socially useful “inefficiencies” e.g. requiring safety features, or including costs that both sides of transactions have incentives to disregard. If “efficiency” is the only goal, why not permit voluntary child labor (like this deadly silo cleaning)?

6. Regulation resisters have three kinds of motives: principled, easier-for-me, and exploitative.

7. Resisters-on-principle are freedom lovers. But should we be free to choose which side of the road to drive on? Some limits, like “rules of the road,” effectively enhance freedom, and abstract “freedom” must work with other goals, like safety.

8. Easier-for-me resisters want to avoid inconveniences. But they’re often blind to their own imprudence. Regulations can protect them (and us) from themselves.

9. Exploiters seek profit in laxer rules (e.g. lower pollution fixing costs). Regulations help deter and punish exploiters who are tempted by bad deeds, just as laws do with would-be criminals. Even if few are exploiters, easier-for-me resisters can abet them.

10. By all means, eliminate regulations that don't advance civic goals. But don’t promote imprudence or abet the unscrupulous. Regulations aren’t about the good guys (though their absence can push good guys into race-to-the-bottom competitions against malefactors). Calling regulations burdensome, or dumb, or corrupt is an argument for better management of regulators, not for abandoning what only regulations can do.

11. Markets coordinate billions of actions and can do much more harm than individuals ever could. Freer markets might work better if people were prudent. But many evidently aren’t. And the prudent can’t quarantine those who aren’t: Markets can aggregate and amplify imprudence to affect everybody (e.g. treating obesity-related diseases increases everyone’s medical insurance costs). We don’t need “less regulation”; we need fit-for-purpose regulations.

As with political freedoms, the price of market freedoms must be eternal vigilance. Markets are like fires. If not carefully managed, they consume everything in their path. But controlled and put to good use, they’re invaluable. We unbridle them at our collective peril. That’s imprudence.

 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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