Voters Clueless About the Economy The looming recession tops the list of voter concerns this year. But economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter says most voters know precious little about the economy.

Voters Clueless About the Economy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Rachel, you said stimulus package.


I did.

PESCA: Stimulus package. We will be discussing stimulus package - stimuli packagi.

MARTIN: I think we will be.

PESCA: Because the economy rates as the number one issue to voters in recent polls - greater than even Iraq - Congress and the president are wrangling over what kind of stimulus package…

MARTIN: Stimulus package.

PESCA: …stimulus package is needed to - cliche alert - jumpstart the economy. Okay, it's the economy, stupid. We get it. But who's the stupid in that sentence? Hmm.

I raise this issue, because a fellow named Bryan Caplan is here. He's an economist at George Mason University. And he's also the author of "The Myth of the Rational Voter," a book where he argues that people don't really vote their economic interests.

So Bryan, that phrase - it's the economy, stupid - it's what the Clinton campaign in '92 told themselves: Always talk about the economy. Was your basic point that the voters themselves aren't really that smart when it comes to the economy?

Professor BRYAN CAPLAN (Economy, George Mason University; Author, "The Myth of the Rational Voter"): Yeah. That will be a very fair way of putting it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CAPLAN: I mean, basically, in a situation like this, people want to hear that politicians are going to do something. And as to whether or not the doing something is actually going to make any difference doesn't seem to matter very much, because people slightly hear that politicians are trying.

PESCA: So you think it's all up for performance on the part of politicians, just to seem like they care?

Prof. CAPLAN: Yeah. I mean, pretty definitely. And they're seeing several ways of looking at it. One is you just look at the size of the stimulus packages that are being proposed. You know, you'll see like 25 billion, 75 billion. I mean, that sounds like a lot of money, unless you have some idea at all about how big the U.S. economy is, which is $13 trillion. So when I hear these numbers, I often think about the first "Austin Powers" movie, when the villain tries to hold the country hostage for a million dollars. And since he - if you recall the movie, the villain - since, you know, he was frozen time for 30 years - he doesn't realize that a million dollars isn't very much anymore.

PESCA: A million dollars.

Prof. CAPLAN: Yes, $1 million.

PESCA: Fingers - pinky in the mouth, yes.

Prof. CAPLAN: (unintelligible) numbers like 25 billion, that is like 0.2 percent of what the economy is right now. So these are just numbers that couldn't possibly really make much of a difference, you know, even, you know, even to start.

PESCA: So do you think that - and now, you know, let's be a little detailed here. Let's talk about Democrats for a second. Hillary Clinton has unveiled a $70-billion plan to jumpstart the economy.

Prof. CAPLAN: Mm-hmm.

PESCA: Barack Obama came out with a, you know, $75-billion jump plan - plan to jumpstart. And there were some details - you know, if you really want to get into it, Mrs. Clinton's plan includes 25 billion for home-heating grants, 5 billion for energy conservation grants. Whereas Barack Obama is talking more about he would repeal the Bush tax cuts of those earning over a quarter million, raise capital gains taxes.

Here's my question.

Prof. CAPLAN: Mm-hmm.

PESCA: Do you think the details of these plans are important because they really give us an insight as to the economic philosophies of the candidate? Or is it all just a way - like the more detail they put in the plan, the better they do that thing that you say is the really important thing, communicate, I'm listening and I care about the economy?

Prof. CAPLAN: Yeah, yeah. I think it's probably more of the second thing. I mean, you might say that it gives you some clue about their philosophies. But I think you have, you know, much more of a clue for everything else they've said.

And basically, what they want to do is fill your minds with a list of details that's enough to get - to keep you from thinking about whether what they're saying could possibly make any difference. So, you know, really, really, it helps to go and find, you know, five or six groups that are very sympathetic and say, we're going to do something for them. And, you know, and then the question is to whether or not it's actually going to make any real difference is pretty much off the table.

PESCA: Among the Republicans still alive and viable in the race, and among the Democrats - so let's not compare the two parties. But within each party, do you think there are any of the candidates whose stimulus bills, or economic packages standout, are notable in any way, or very different from their compatriots?

Prof. CAPLAN: No, I wouldn't say so. I mean, I think it's all so close to zero in terms of what difference it's going to make that, you know, it's really -you're really best off just ignoring what they're saying.

PESCA: Well, let's get a little taste of some of what they are saying.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and I want to kill the death tax once and for all.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): We are going to end the tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): No tax on dividends, on savings. No tax on inheritance, no tax on capital gains.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democrat Senator, North Carolina; Democratic Presidential Candidate): The national minimum wage should be at least $9.50 an hour. It ought to be indexed to go up on its own.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Bottom-up economic growth is what the president should be fighting for.

PESCA: Romney, Clinton, Huckabee, Edwards, Obama. I mean, we played them all at you rapid fire. But anything stand out as notable, like I'm an economist, hey, watch out for this? Or hey, that's a great idea?

Prof. CAPLAN: I mean, what I would say is that, you know, there are number of proposals that may actually be good long-run ideas. But as a solution to short-run economic problems, they really ain't going to make much difference.

So, I mean, you know, in terms of whether or not continuing tax cuts is a good idea, that's something we're talking about. But in terms of saying, this is what is going to reduce, you know, to prevent a recession from happening one or two years from now after I'm in office, it's pretty crazy.

PESCA: Yeah. Well, what relationship does the economy that we vote on today have to the economy when a president gets inaugurated in January of next year?

Prof. CAPLAN: Yeah, not much. I mean, if you just add up all the delays - I mean, of course, first of all, these guys aren't even going to be in office for over a year. But then, if you also understand the way that the U.S. political system works, it takes a lot of time to get legislation through Congress. And then finally, takes, you know, it takes a lot of time to - for the package, once implemented, to actually do anything different. So you're really trying to affect an economy two or three years out in the future when conditions could easily be - in fact, almost certainly will be - very different. Right?

You know, and in contrast, if you take a look at how quickly monetary policy, which, you know, which the Federal Reserve does, is able to take effect. I mean, really, when you hear that the Federal Reserve has cut interest rates, that happens now.

PESCA: Yeah.

Prof. CAPLAN: Right? So that's not two or three years from now. So that's why -you know, insofar as trying to do something that, you know, is going to make a difference, that's what's going to make a difference.

PESCA: I think economists agree that in 1992, Bill Clinton won largely on this economic issue. And the fact is that the recession that he was campaigning about then was receding as he was campaigning. We just didn't feel it until a little after he gotten to office.

Prof. CAPLAN: Yeah, you know, that's right. He was a very good talker. He made people feel good. But still - I mean, you know, if the slogan is the economy's stupid, it's, you know, it's correct in the sense people really care about it.


Prof. CAPLAN: But that doesn't mean that what their views about the economy are actually makes much sense, and, you know, politicians get elected by figuring out what people want to hear and telling it to them.

PESCA: Now, your book is called "The Myth of the Rational Voter." And you claim that, for instance, people are really capitalists in private life, but they become irrational and vote like socialists. And you're a libertarian, and I understand your point there.

But what I want to know is do you think any of the candidates actually kind of agree with your book in how they frame their proposals? Do you see any indication that they themselves think the voters are irrational?

Prof. CAPLAN: Yeah. That's a really good question. Yeah, I think they do. I mean, I think - I actually got - a while back, I got a letter from a former state senator in Virginia who said, actually, I agree completely with your book, even though I never had any trouble getting elected. But I saved the letter. (unintelligible)

PESCA: Did he say but I can't…

Prof. CAPLAN: He thinks my blog - after blocking out his name, because I didn't want to reveal the guilty, but…

PESCA: I mean, did he say but I kept possibly ever admit that to the electorate?

Prof. CAPLAN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, he's retired, so he has to give me - he wasn't so worried any longer. But yeah, I mean, I think that when, you know, when if you're to go and try and get politicians off the record and say, you know, just talk to me like a normal human being. Don't try to pull the wool over my eyes. What's really going on? Say, why can't you just be honest with people? They say well, if I were honest with people, they wouldn't like me.

PESCA: All right. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and the author of "The Myth of the Rational Voter."

Thanks very much, Bryan.

Prof. CAPLAN: Thank you.

PESCA: We'll talk about another business coming up: Mary Kay Cosmetics. The question: Cosmetics versus food. What would you buy? Some women in Los Angeles are struggling with that question. Find out why next.


Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.