Saturday, April 17, 2010


I spotted this in The new York Times Book Review, in reference to Sheena Iyengar's new book, The Art of Choosing (emphasis added):

Sheena Iyengar is the psychologist responsible for the famous jam experiment. You may have heard about it: At a luxury food store in Menlo Park, researchers set up a table offering samples of jam. Sometimes, there were six different flavors to choose from. At other times, there were 24. (In both cases, popular flavors like strawberry were left out.) Shoppers were more likely to stop by the table with more flavors. But after the taste test, those who chose from the smaller number were 10 times more likely to actually buy jam: 30 percent versus 3 percent. Having too many options, it seems, made it harder to settle on a single selection.

Wherever she goes, people tell Iyengar about her own experiment. The head of Fidelity Research explained it to her, as did a McKinsey & Company executive and a random woman sitting next to her on a plane. A colleague told her he had heard Rush Limbaugh denounce it on the radio....

Other writers also allude to this:

It doesn't take a lot to upset Rush Limbaugh, but who knew a few pots of jam could do the trick?

... To devout free marketeers like Mr. Limbaugh, the study was a sacrilege, for it undercut the dogma that people -- sorry, consumers -- always benefit from a greater array of choice....

What's Limbaugh's problem? All Iyengar's study demonstrated was that people's capacity for processing choices isn't limitless; as the Times review (written by Virginia Postrel, a libertarian) notes, Iyengar is hardly a capitalism-basher or choice basher: "More choice is not always better, she suggests, but neither is less. The optimal amount of choice lies somewhere in between infinity and very little, and that optimum depends on context and culture."

But that's Limbaugh for you -- to him, capitalism is so exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable that it needs to be chivalrously shielded from even the slightest threat. Even one slightly skeptical word about infinite choice could cause capitalism to wither and die, you see.

This is essentially what Republicans and teabaggers believe, or at least what they assert -- that frail, weak capitalism will perish if it's further regulated, if a near-universal health care plan really takes effect, if hedge fund managers are taxed at the same rate as schoolteachers, if derivatives aren't traded in secret -- in fact, if anything is allowed to happen that isn't pure laissez-faire. And that's because capitalism is dainty and sickly and barely able to function on its own. (As Mark Steyn put it while guest-hosting on Limbaugh's show last month, the leading figures on Wall Street are "not fat cats. They're emaciated, cadaverous cats. They've got ... that cat version of AIDS that the cats get -- the feline immunodeficiency virus.")

I don't get it. It seems to me that capitalism is pretty damn robust. It seems to me that capitalism survived the union movement, child labor laws, the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, Social Security, OSHA, all sorts of nondiscrimination laws, the New Deal, the Great Society, not to mention the decades-long global spread of Marxism ... and still came out quite able to churn out millionaires and billionaires and to eventually become the dominant economic system of the entire planet. Capitalism is quite healthy, thank you. It doesn't get the vapors when you regulate it or so much as question its core premises; it readjusts to the new rules and keeps on cranking out money.

That's a big difference between non-socialist liberals and conservatives: conservatives think capitalism is perpetually on life support, while liberals see no reason not to regulate capitalism because, for the love of God, capitalism can take it.

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