iPhones and ringtones: a parable of markets.

"Markets in everything!"

There is a problem in the New Statesman office. Like so many companies, we have a growing abundance of iPhones. At least half of the 40 million they've sold are here somewhere, by my count. But all these people having the same phone leads to a downside: the distinctive Apple message alert goes off, and everyone checks their screens thinking that they are the ones with a new text.

There is an easy, socially optimal solution to this problem, of course: everyone changes their text tone to something new, we all grow to recognise our individual tones, and confusion need never reign again.

Unfortunately, what is socially optimal is not individually optimal. I don't want to change my ring tone, because I've already learnt to respond to it. If everyone else changed theirs, then I could keep mine the same. But those incentives are the same for everyone else; no-one wants to be the first mover, and everyone hopes to be a free-rider.

Why? Well, an economist might say its because there are no markets in action. If everyone could bid to be the person who gets to keep their old ringtone, then people would have an incentive – in the form of cold, hard cash – to switch, while the person who most wants to keep their phone sounding the way it used to forks out the money equivalent to how much they care. If we truly have an efficient market, then this cannot fail to make everyone better off. And if the highest someone is prepared to pay is lower than the lowest it would take to make everyone switch, then we are already at the optimal solution.

The alternative to markets, of course, is government intervention. We don't have a government, but we do have an editor, who could very easily impose a rule mandating that employees use custom ringtones. That would work almost as well, although it wouldn't be the optimal solution. And with that, there's always the risk of corruption. What happens when our he gets an iPhone?

Markets in everything, even ringtones. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.