The time I saw Ezra Klein talk about presenting research

This post and the next are leading up to a discussion of IRS Form 3800. Why should you care about Form 3800, a form you likely have no personal dealings with? Because a form nobody cares about is a great place to hide a lot of things.

I’ll start the story by telling you about the time I saw Ezra Klein, the head of an increasingly popular news outlet. Somebody in one of the World Bank’s research groups invited him to present an explainer to the researchers about how they can get their news out to the public.

He opened strong: we eggheads like to complain that the public just wants fluff and isn’t interested in detailed or technical work, but if the public doesn’t care about your work it’s your fault, not theirs. There’s an interesting and accessible lede to every story, and it’s up to you to find it (and not bury it in academic-level detail).

If you think it’s an especially interesting story, then there’s nothing wrong with directly and politely contacting journalists and telling them about it. Finding recent papers with something new and newsworthy is exactly the kind of thing Ezra’s journalists are trying to do all day.

One WB researcher had a paper on pirates. Does having military officers on board deter them? Yes, he found, but only at a scale such that it’s not deemed cost-effective. Ezra was delighted—pirates!

Another had a paper about textbook provision in countries that rarely see textbooks. She found that teachers don’t hand them out to the whole class as one would expect, because they don’t expect to ever see another textbook shipment again and the conservation/stockpiling instinct kicks in. Ezra was less excited. Maybe the correct audience is not the general public, but the community of people who do procurement and distribution.

The third example was mine, during the Q&A after his talk. I’m writing a paper about a technical issue of great import to the U.S. public—the one tweak that could save the U.S. taxpayer billions of dollars. But you can’t understand it until you know a lot of background about the existing state of a technically complicated system (even more nuanced than Form 3800). How does one get over the hump of background information? Ezra’s reply: you don’t. He thinks that my target audience is not the public at all, but maybe even just one person, the Secretary of the Treasury. Representative democracy and an informed public is great, but we also have to respect the time of our readers, who have lives outside of public policy.

To summarize my read of his position, we can explain anything to the public in a manner that will hold their interest, but that doesn’t me we should. The journalist side doesn’t have the bandwidth to cover it all, and the public doesn’t have the bandwidth to digest it all—even Congressional staffers don’t have that much time.

This is a little more nuanced than the typical story that the public is too dumb or too apathetic, which Ezra rejected at the outset. Rather, it’s a question of the finite resource constraint of a 24-hour day. Readers will only pay attention to so many issues, especially given that they have only negligible power to change anything, and people who curate and prepare issues for the public can only hit so many topics given their own resource constraints. Technocratic issues have an inherent disadvantage on these fronts, because they cost more in time and effort for readers and authors, and the public typically has an even more minuscule influence over them.

Next episode, I’ll visit the House Ways and Means Committee, where a good deal of the more obscure policy is discussed. This is where the lack of public bandwidth will start to matter.


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