In it for the Money: For Economy of Opinion

Facts, like pennies, are nice, because they are impartial

Editor’s note: This column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. 

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Listen: Today I’m hoping to convince you that our opinions are largely a cost with no corresponding benefit, and that the vast bulk of these opinions are unaffordably expensive.

We’re in Ann Arbor, where any two folks seem to have at least three opinions on a given topic, so I don’t imagine this is going to go super well, but hear me through.

Before you rush to the comments, I wish to assure you that I am indeed aware of the irony of writing an opinion column about how opinions are maybe something that we shouldn’t reflexively whip out like Glocks in a cop film.

And, if that lil proviso doesn’t give you pause, maybe this should: The opinions I share today are the result of about 18 months of meditating on the underlying costs and benefits of sounding off; if you’ve likewise spent a year-and-a-half working through this, then please chime in.

If you’re jumping to the comments to put me in my place, I invite you to take a few minutes, maybe an hour, or maybe, I dunno, 550 days or so to stew on this before giving me a piece of your mind. I’m not coming to this lightly or flippantly, which is apropos, because it’s the way we rack up opinion debt with such spendthrift flippancy that’s costing us so dearly.

Opinion/Debt Cycle

Here is the vicious debt cycle we see playing out all the time in coffee-pot office banter and online news-story comment threads:

  1. There is an Item of Note. [1]
  2. Someone issues commentary regarding the Item. [2]
  3. The rest of us feel the need to take a position, and then voice our Opinion(s).
  4. Get angry. Go to Step 3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.  . . .

Although Step 3 could be informed by further legitimate research or investigation, I strongly doubt it is in most cases. I base this claim on two observations: (a) The rarity with which folks involved in a kitchen-table political debate bother to look anything up, despite the fact that most of us walk around with the full sum of human knowledge in our pockets; (b) the velocity with which comments pile in on any online discussion thread.

I research and write for a living; reading an online article and the existing comment thread, giving it all a little thought, then writing a hundred cogent words, taking the time to double check the spelling of a viscount’s name and the year someone dropped a bomb, takes thirty minutes, minimum. When was the last time you saw a half-hour lag between posts in any online debate of Ypsilanti’s foreclosed feral cat healthcare problem? [3]

In Step 3 folks may draw on previous personal experience or a secondhand anecdote, but it’s virtually guaranteed that nothing has been done to verify that this older experience/anecdote is true and accurate, let alone assure that it really is analogous to the Item in question (see above re: research).

This process obviously results in mostly “second order” opinions (at best), that is, opinions based not on first-hand experience coupled with our own detailed analysis, but on evaluating other folks’ stated (or perceived) opinions.

If you want to see this in action, you can eavesdrop while riding the bus or wait for an extended family meal, or head straight on over to any news site with poorly moderated comments (yes, looking at you, or just head to Facebook (aka, the Devil’s Party Line).

There is a totally obvious surface-level cost to all this opinionating, and it’s our finite Time. Stretch out the timeline, and the conclusion is obvious: We are all dying. It’s always later than we think, which is why it’s nigh unto criminal to squander an hour – an afternoon, a night of decent sleep – running in the vicious loop from Step 3 to Step 4, a loop that doesn’t just steal the precious hours we spend reading and typing, but steals our peace of mind, as we spend the remainder of the evening fuming about how stupid our goddamn cousin-in-law is with his Small Government fluoridated moon-landing autistic chicken pox vaccine bullshit!

Sharecropping For Facebook

A few weeks back, dear Mojo of Poor Mojo’s Newswire fame [4] pointed out that posting to social media sites is basically sharecropping [5], and that point’s well taken: It isn’t just that Facebook (kinda-sorta) owns what you say in their weird little universe of blue boxes – which is really literally sharecropping – but that your saying it is all that gives that place its perceived value.

People compulsively return because of all the incompetent, inflammatory opinions flying around, to follow up with the beefs in which they’ve become embroiled. If you weren’t coming for opinions and baby pictures, why the hell would you go to Facebook at all? The news and videos and music and cat pictures are all created and live elsewhere; Facebook is just a place to argue about them. And Facebook comments and status postings have traditionally been capped at a few hundred characters [6] – Facebook wasn’t conceived to be informative, or even entertaining, precisely; it was conceived to be sticky.

Online forums – and Facebook is just the most ingeniously crafted example – are designed to start fights, because fights keep people coming back, clicking refresh, adding to the scuffle. It’s all movement, which is volatility, which is velocity, which is where the money is made. You are spending your Time and your thoughts, which the forum owners then monetize.

“Crowdsourcing” is the newest way to run a company store in a company town. And how much are you spending at that store on uninformed opinions? Take the number of hours you spend arguing on the Internet (or wherever), and then the number of hours you spend cranky because of some opinion-fight, and multiply it by your hourly pay. That’s the minimum cost, the money you would have banked if you’d just stopped chasing the rabbit around the track and done a little extra work.

It gets worse when you spend your free time on opinions, rather than wasting cubicle time on it. By definition you value free time more highly than your labor time. Spending your lunch break and after hours supping on opinions that leave you with knots in your gut is just plain criminal. This is the time you could spend enjoying the company of your fellow humans, or quietly enjoying the solace of solitude, or enjoying an activity that helps you relax.

In other words – just in case the repetition slipped by – you’re spending Joy to buy Spite. Everyday our pockets get picked by the worst possible versions of ourselves.

Wasting More Than Money On Opinions

So that’s all just about wasting Money, in a way. That’s sort of forgivable. We make unwise investments all the time; some are gambles toward possible gain (These Beanie Babies are just gonna go up, up, up! I’ll be a plush tycoon!), and others gambles toward possible joy (I’ll look great in these jeans!), but we accept that part of the point of Money is its fungibility, it’s gamblibility, the fact that it’s easier to spend and transfer than the blood, sweat, and tears that are the actual currency of our labors.

But when we air our bilious, unconsidered opinions, we also blow social capital, which is harder to earn and account than plain old Money. We spend “social capital” (or, as we used to say at the Hippie School for Troubled Youth, “withdraw from the Karma Bank”) when we call a pal to pick us up in the rain, or puke in a neighbor’s pool, or need help getting through the door because we’re crying so hard. Similarly, we deposit in the Karma Bank when we pull over to help a stranger, when we run over to a neighbor’s house with the spare key and check to be sure the oven really is off, when we help a pal mop up after a critical plumbing failure.

The Karma Bank is a cash-only operation; there are no investments here, no dividends, and no loans. If you overdraw from the Karma Bank, you get cut off: folks stop answering your calls or, worse yet, bitch about you endlessly because you are in Karmic debt and are a drain. This is really, at the base, what’s happening with most pariahs in individual social circles: They’ve accrued Karmic debt, and they have no clue the bank even exists, and thus aren’t bothering to make regular deposits.

When we sound off with our opinions – our uninformed, knee-jerk, hardly-skimmed-the-damn-article opinions – we always withdraw from the Karma bank. You may think there is a counter argument here about how sounding off builds camaraderie among like-minded individuals, but I’m telling you that, over those 550 days of considering this, I no longer believe it. Either your opinion pisses off someone previously neutral to you (thus decreasing the worldwide population of people who would at least bother to piss on you if you were aflame), or it does nothing.

No one really wins points with an opinion: if they disagree with you, they like you less; if they already agree, their feelings remain unchanged. Please don’t reject this claim out of hand, not before you’ve scrolled down your Facebook News Feed (or whatever they’ve renamed it this week), and privately asked yourself “How do I really feel about these folks now? Was it maybe better when I just saw Aunt Gertie at Christmas and Pesach, rather than enduring her unbearable opinions all year?”

Having Karma in the bank is, in most respects, far more vital to our life than the plain old Money. Our work, our leisure, our community, our capacity to pay the bills, it all comes back to the credit extended to us by the individual humans we know, their trust and confidence in us. Folks will spot you plenty of cash if you have Karma on hand, but your Money is useless if no one will deal with you.

Above and beyond our growing individual debt in Money and Karma, our collective over-investment in volatile opinions has badly undercut the foundations of our larger intellectual economy, which should probably worry folks living in a community like ours, where a big chunk of the middle-class is knowledge workers.

The Opinion-Based Economy: Semantics

When all of our discussion is framed by opinion, we wind up in this opinion-based economy where everything feels like it must be commented upon before it can mean anything. We subsequently look to commentators to shape our world, instead of, say, researchers. Everything comes to us as second- or third-order opinion, an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation.

We don’t read legislation that’s before Congress, we read articles interpreting that legislation, or emails from the ACLU, or links of transcripts of some Right Wingnut screaming about it somewhere on the AM dial. We don’t read scientific studies, we read alarmist rhetoric. Generally, if you take a few to email the actual researchers (who are really nice non-confrontational folks, given the chance) you get a sigh, and then they explain how their study was twisted and misinterpreted, how their quotes were taken out of context in the interest of buttressing someone’s opinion.

As a nation of independent folks, a nation dedicated to valuing “free thought,” we’ve accidentally slipped into a homonym error: In disregarding “authority” (as in “the cop who has the state-given right to kick the shit out of college kids sitting and holding hands on a sidewalk”), we’ve inadvertently also discarded “authority” in its older sense: “the person whose view commands respect because of a recognized mastery of his/her subject.”

We’ve correspondingly lost track of the fundamental meaning of the word “jurisdiction” (which, literally, comes to us from the Latin for “the right to speak”), and the notion that there are situations where given individuals have a right – even an obligation – to speak up, and the rest of us have a corresponding obligation to close our holes and think about what’s being said. [7]


The ubiquity of opinion tricks our brains into seeing everything as opinion, just as staring into a vast sea of fallen leaves can make that big, fat tasty doe invisible. When all our exchanges are opinion, we lose track of the simple fact that the fact of the matter is that there are, in fact, knowable facts out there, upon which we really ought to base not just our opinions, but our actions.

And facts, like pennies, are nice, because they are impartial: The sky is clear or cloudy, the murder rate has risen or fallen, 51 cents is 51 cents no matter whose pocket it’s in. Facts and pennies are cheap, they’re easy to collect, and they’re individually pretty inconsequential, but you can bank them, and when you get a whole big collection of them all together in one place, you can really start to get something done.

But if you fritter them away – in pairs (as in “Here’s my two cents”) or individually (as in “A penny for your thoughts”) – pretty soon you’ve got nuthin.

In short, they have value.

But, you know, whatevs. That’s all just my opinion, anyway.


[1] Perhaps this is an actual event observed at first hand – e.g., “economically disenfranchised man with obvious medical issue requests coins” or “adult woman publicly scolds child” – but more often it’s a “news” item received via TV, radio, or web site.

[2] This may, or may not, be informed by past experience, new research, or investigation beyond the momentary observation of the existence of the Item of Note.

[3] Such “snap” opinion formation is almost by definition unresearched; no real evidence is presented or considered or evaluated. FYI, presenting “evidence” isn’t the same as slapping in a few links of dubious provenance, nor is “consideration” the same as “comprehension.” I can comprehend a claim in seconds, but may still need to invest years in considering what it means.

Aside: If you’re looking for what makes us superior to the beasts of the field, ladies and gents, I urge you to consider this art – full consideration – to be the Human Project of Merit. If you’re of a theological bent, I further urge you to consider the possibility that when we say “G-d made us in G-d’s image,” the notion wasn’t a literal one of “G-d has a face and ears and two legs from the hips to the ground” but more along the lines of “G-d is the ability to examine and weigh abstract concepts over the long haul, and really build a Good Thing from them.” SPOILER ALERT: That “Good Thing” is universal justice and compassion. I’m a Jewish guy in his mid-30s with a beard and handicraft skills, so you can take my word on this.

[4] DISCLOSURE: Mojo is an incredibly close pal and co-conspirator from back in our knuckleheads-drinking-gin-from-a-Sprite-can days. I co-operate the Poor Mojo’s Media Empire with him, and do so unapologetically.

[5] A point he raised via Facebook, naturally.

[6] FYI, Facebook bounced this up to 5,000 characters in September, and then to 60,000+ in late November, but the psychology remains the same: Years of being shut out with error messages for exceeding a page or so of thought has trained us to keep shallow in our discussions.

[7] Props to friend Trek Glowacki for putting this etymological point right in front of my big, dumb nose, God bless him.

About the author: David Erik Nelson has written columns previously for The Chronicle on topics like medical marijuana and glass-eating clowns. Nelson is the author of various books, including most recently, “Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred“.

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  1. December 21, 2011 at 7:13 am | permalink

    You are on to something here. As someone whose Karmic debt due to opinions is so large that it could erase the national deficit if I could only change its sign, I naturally have an opinion on this. It is not just that we have too much uninformed chatter, but also that much news and analysis in the “legitimate” media has also devolved to opinion.

    A signal example of this is that the New York Times recently changed its Weekly Review to the Sunday Review, with a stated purpose of emphasizing opinion over news analysis. (“News analysis” implies taking factual sources and trying to make some sense of them; “opinion” is your basic bloviating.) Apparently opinion is what sells newspapers, these days.

    Now just to increase my KD to the max, I’ll state that (in my opinion) much of the really useless chatter is the result of anonymous commenting. Back in the day, when you had to sign your name to a letter to the editor, there were still silly comments, but fewer of them.

  2. By Trek Glowacki
    December 21, 2011 at 11:52 am | permalink


    I have made an appointment on my calendar to return 550 days hence and specifically not share my opinion with you regarding this matter.

  3. December 21, 2011 at 9:37 pm | permalink

    I commend you, Mr. Nelson, for this finely crafted and well thought article of opinions about the world’s opinions. A great read.

  4. By Tom Teague
    December 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm | permalink

    David – Interesting and thoughtful column. The risk of commenting on it is that the discussion can get pretty meta, but here goes:

    I’ve been thinking for some time that we are quickly losing the concept of “preference” and replacing it with the notion that our opinions are richly supported by facts. In this universe, different preferences are really a sign of ignorance. People no longer just prefer the schnitzel at Restaurant A, they order the schnitzel because it’s been made with premium ingredients, or has been voted the best schnitzel in the Great Lakes region, or because the schnitzel at restaurants B through Z is known to be made with imported . . . umm . . . well, in truth, I don’t know what goes into schnitzel.

    I respect folks with strong opinions backed by fact but, as I get older, I find myself giving more credence to ideas when people express them as preferences. When I hear all those facts propping up an opinion, my immediate suspicion is that people really just don’t want to say that they prefer the schnitzel at Restaurant A because it’s saltier and cooked with more fat.

  5. By Alan Benard
    December 24, 2011 at 1:27 am | permalink

    Thanks for this, it certainly is food for thought. Vivienne is correct about the importance of signing and owning one’s opinions. It is a strong deterrent to casually hitting the reply button. And we have no excuse of youth or inexperience with a a new technology, as did your students at the Hippie School for Troubled Youth a decade ago, when you reminded them on a daily basis to avoid admitting to crimes in Web postings.

    The advent of the Facebook Timeline makes the ongoing, careful curation of one’s own digital spoutings even more critical. Reading your column this month — especially because you personally do take me to task when my opinions appear to wander far from a reasonable basis — made me very uncomfortable, which I presume was the desired affect for the general readership.