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Archive for January, 2010

Sunset at Rigi

Sunset at Rigi

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Megan’s article reminded me of some thoughts I have had in the past about political polarizations.

There are several commonly held intellectual blinkers, or, to use a Robin Hanson terminology, roads to rationality ruin, that prevent us from properly appraising the value of a political position. This is true with respect to positions we support as well as those we oppose. In the past, I have blogged or linked to articles about several of these. One that is unfortunately rather common among  people who feel alienated from the thinking of the masses is the pleasure they derive from believing something different than most people. As Hanson says, this pleasure is evil because it clouds rational thinking. Another that seems to afflict a lot of people of every political stripe these days is to assume bad-faith on the part of their opponents. Megan’s article, linked above, is a great take on this issue. Then, there is the confirmation bias, which means that we tend to put more weight on evidence that agrees with things we already believe in, and discount those that don’t.

There is a common way in which many of these biases express themselves when actually appraising a political position. In a way, this expression is so common that people rarely write about it. However for precisely that reason I will repeat it here. And that is simply this, when evaluating a policy proposal, people tend to disproportionately look at only one side of the cost-benefit equation. (Those who support it, mainly look at the benefits, those who oppose it, mainly look at the costs). I am not saying that people are unaware of the other side, simply that they put far less effort in making an intellectually honest appraisal of it. This is related to but not the same as the confirmation bias. Think of the confirmation bias as a kind of blinker that biases evidence-gathering, and this as a blinker that biases decision-making.

Sometimes this blinker leads to contradictions within the views held by the same person. To start with an almost trivial example, polls show that most people favor cutting taxes. Yet, they also want the government to provide for a lot of things that would be impossible unless accompanied by extremely high levels of taxation.  Clearly there is a wide gap between what most people want and what most people are willing to pay. This is an example of the kind of dissonance I have been talking about. When thinking of benefits they want, people often fail to properly appraise the cost that is necessary to provide the benefit.

But at least the issue of taxation, when posed in a plain-vanilla style, is one that unites most people. So it is not really an issue that causes political polarization. Things get trickier when one moves on to more subtle questions.

For instance, should some version of the Glass-Steagall act, that was weakened over the years and ultimately repealed by Clinton, be reinstated? Most progressive say yes, conservatives and libertarians say no. And anyone who follows politics seems to have an opinion on that matter.

What seems to clear to me however, is that most people have something of a blinker on when appraising this issue. Progressives rarely consider in a detached manner the question of whether there are gains of uniting commercial and investment banking. Very few have read papers like this which argue that unified banking is actually safer, while they have all certainly read Krugman’s pieces. They tend to forget that that without the repeal of the Glass-Steagall, many of the acquisitions that mitigated the effects of the crazy financial meltdown in 2008 would have been legally impossible. On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives tend to ignore anything written by a liberal economist. This is perhaps justifiable when the issue is one you have thought deeply about already but such is rarely the case, especially about questions on current affairs which are politically charged. For instance, if asked whether unified banking (repeal of Glass Steagall) led certain institutions like Citi to make riskier ventures than they would have otherwise (this question, which is a very different one from whether the effects of the repeal were a net negative, has in my opinion the correct answer Yes), many conservatives would reflexibly answer no.

So my prescription to those wishing to seriously understand a subtle political issue is this. See what you initially think of the proposal. Do some research. Form an opinion. Then, look around. Think seriously about practical and philosophical objections to your position. If you are supporting a law under discussion, have you really considered its fiscal, social and moral costs? If you oppose it, have you considered its benefits?  Even if your morality/basic philosophy impels you to take one side, it is still important to research both sides. This is because of two reasons. One, you may otherwise overlook some opposing point that is also morally relevant to you. Two, because your moral philosophy can sometimes change or get more refined when faced with new arguments and evidence.

In short, do not claim to have a well-formed opinion on an issue until you have exhaustively researched the  opposing view. Anything less is intellectual laziness.

Talking of intellectual laziness, I am struck by two different contexts in which the word ‘extreme’ in used in politics.

One of them refers to people with political opinions that are fringe or out of whack with the mainstream. But having an opinion that is out-of-whack but well-considered should really have no negative connotation attached to it. If anything, it is among these people that one usually finds the visionary thinkers of each era. Furthermore, it is very difficult to evaluate out-of-whackness. What do you call someone who does not neatly fit into the conventional left-fight spectrum, for instance? Yet, the words extreme and extremist are bandied about in this context with implications that are not particularly positive.

The second, very different, context in which the word ‘extreme’ is used is with respect to strongly held political feelings, rather than fringeness of views. At the edge, it refers to people who are bitter, violent or reactionary in their political expression. Going through the blogosphere, I would estimate that about 80% of those who regularly comment on partisan blogs fall in this category. They tend to demonise the opposing view, assume bad-faith from the outset, are verbally vicious and show remarkable little evidence of having deeply considered both sides of the matter. Of course, it is possible I am wrong about some of them; after all, one reason to write is to quickly release frustration. Nonetheless, I do think that many of these people, which include not just a lot of commenters but also certain popular writers and journalists, radio and TV show hosts, and film directors, suffer from all the biases I have mentioned above. In short, whether they are right or wrong, they certainly are intellectually lazy, and thus do not deserve to be taken too seriously. People like those are much more deserving of the epithet extreme in a derogatory sense.

Now I of course realize that those who are extreme in the one sense are occasionally extreme in the other sense, but the difference between the two meanings is worth emphasizing.

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A pretty great post by Megan McArdle on open-mindedness, spite and political polarization.

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Michael Bloomberg, chief nanny of New York, while defending his plan to regulate the amount of salt restaurant chefs will henceforth be allowed to put in their dishes:

If we know there’s asbestos in a school room what do you expect us to do? Say it’s not our business? I don’t think so.

This is an absurd analogy and not just because of the substantial difference in harmfulness between salt and asbestos. (If it was just that, I’d merely call Bloomberg’s analogy far fetched.) There are more fundamental reasons why his analogy breaks down.

1. Choice.  Salt imparts taste to food. Life’s choices are about weighing costs and benefits, in this case weighing the cost of increased risk of high blood pressure versus the benefit of a possibly tastier meal. Ditto with other unhealthy lifestyle choices: smoking, spending all day playing video-games or riding a motorbike. It’s a freedom issue, one of individual choice. On the other hand, not many people in this age knowingly choose to live in a house with lethal asbestos in the roof.

2. Fraud. Assuming that the asbestos is typically present without the consent or knowledge of whoever owns or lives in the building, it is a case of fraud and a lethal one at that. On the other hand, the food you buy: well you get what you wanted and ordered. Presumably you know perfectly well that it contains a fair amount of salt. There is no fraud of any kind. (And if a lot of people are unknowingly ordering food with high amounts of salt, well, that would at best call for some kind of salt-quantity-disclosure law.)

3. Age. A school room is populated by students, who are mostly not of legal age and in some cases very young. Restaurants are populated by a lot of adults who, presumably, should be able to eat very salty food if they want to.

Finally, if some person  knowingly goes ahead and builds asbestos into the roof of his house, I think — notwithstanding Bloomberg’s protests — it is not the government’s business to stop him, but merely to make sure he makes this information available to all other occupants, tenants and any guests who come to the building, and does not have any children living there.

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Here’s a great article by Tunku Varadarajan on the tea-party movement.

On right and left, “educated” people have given vent to their contempt for the Tea Party crowd, leading me to conclude that there must, surely, be considerable significance in a movement that has had scorn poured on it by such varied names […]

On the left, they are afraid that it will initiate a tidal wave that causes the loss of numerous House seats. On the right, the fear is that it will mount its own candidates and simply be a spoiler.

This fear would explain the sneering toward the Tea Partiers, the smugness with which they are looked down upon. As many in the movement note, you need only change the protesters ideologically and demographically, and you have merely another cool example of “community organizing.” […]

What bothers me, however, is that although ideological differences are at the bottom of the Tea Party assaults, the critique is almost purely aesthetic: The Tea Partiers, it is said, are crude, sloganeering, lemming-like, heartland Bible-Beltists who don’t understand policy or David Brooks’ subtleties. […]

It is hardly surprising that in times like these there should be a large, angry, populist movement. But populism does not conform to the standard left/right divide, and in different circumstances it can go either way. […]

Yes, the populists fear and hate the big businesses and Wall Street; but—and this is the heartening thing—they have not let this turn them against capitalism and the free market. They seem truly to have taken in the point, long emphasized by libertarians and others, that big business is not the same thing as capitalism or the free market, that it is in fact often their enemy. […]

[This video] makes me emotional, because this woman represents an America that Tocqueville would have lauded. I will take her any day over the “educated class,” the bureaucratic mollusks and the defeatist sad sacks in Washington. I do think the Tea Partiers are political amateurs, but the content of their politics is deadly serious. The professional politicians will dismiss them at their peril.

Read the whole thing.

Personally, I doubt if I’d ever attend a tea party even if I were in the States. Do their most frequently expressed sentiments reflect my political philosophy? No. Are they filled with a lot of nuts and weirdos? Yes. Do I think that the tea-part movement represents a positive change for America? Most certainly.

Let me be clear. The tea-party people are a hodgepotch bunch, a diverse mix of libertarians, fiscal conservatives, angry reactionaries, populists and social conservatives united by little else than anger at the state of the nation and contempt for those with power and influence. Yes, most of them are not primarily devoted to the cause of individual liberty, or any ideology in particular. But no populist movement can ever be truly for libertarianism, history has taught us that much. And the tea-party comes closer to the spirit of liberty than either of the two major parties.

It is true that some of their anger is misdirected, much of their political ideas naive; yet in their essentially grassroots opposition to the forces in power and their disdain for big government, they have created an environment which might lead to good things in the not too distant future. America today suffers from a near total political domination by the two main parties. And sadly, both parties represent entrenched interests and a desire to control you, in one way or the other.  A recent poll, however, found that the tea-party brand is today regarded more highly than either the Democrats or the Republicans. The spirit of this movement is just waiting to be tapped into by a serious, inspirational candidate with a real chance of winning. And maybe, just maybe, that candidate will be someone who will actually be able to affect some real changes in a positive direction.

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No, the terrorists didn’t blow up a plane or kill people. They don’t need to do that. For, their essential tactic is to make us feel threatened and destroy our normal way of life. And we are making sure they get what they want.

In the latest exhibit of caution gone berserk, a Hawaii bound plane turned back to Portland because the pilot was scared. The reason? Some passenger, unhappy with the stewardess, decided to make a weak attempt at humor and write some random nonsense on the feedback form:

“I thought I was going to die, we were so high up,” the card said. “I thought to myself: I hope we don’t crash and burn or worse yet landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet, end up on some place like Gilligan’s Island, stranded, or worse yet, be eaten by a tribe of headhunters, speaking of headhunters, why do they just eat outsiders, and not the family members? Strange … and what if the plane ripped apart in mid-flight and we plumited (sic) to earth, landed on Gilligan’s Island and then lived through it, and the only woman there was Mrs. Thurston Howell III? No Mary Anne (my favorite) no Ginger, just Lovey! If it were just her, I think I’d opt for the sharks, maybe the headhunters.”

Not only did the plane turn back midway, the guy has been charged and faces up to twenty tears in prison.

This is exactly how we do the terrorists job for them. By losing our common sense. To irrational fear.

As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:

A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

Indeed.

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A new French law criminalizes “psychological violence” against a spouse or cohabiting partner.

Pretty great I say. The French are geniuses. They have already outlawed pesky things like free speech, unsexy clothes and hard work. Now all those domestic arguments must stay within strict rules laid down by the government. Think about all the hours saved. No endless bickering, no name-calling, no emotional blackmails. Ah, what a life. Relaxed, stress-free and productive. A nice, fat, motherly government to keep deviants in line and make sure no one ever hurts another’s feelings. What’s there to worry? Big momma will always watch out for you.

“Why can’t you be caring and romantic again, like when we were seventeen? I wonder why I still stick with you!

“No one’s forcing you to stay honey. Feel free to move your fat ass and leave me for good. Just stop subjecting me to your endless blabbering.”

“Sob! Police!! I have been PSYCHOLOGICALLY abused!!”

On the French agenda for next month: rules forbidding laziness, rudeness and jealousy.

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