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Posts Tagged ‘discussion’

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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I was at a birthday party today when some of my friends started talking about the economic crisis and the stimulus. This is, more or less, how the conversation went.

Person A : Well, once the stimulus is passed there should be more grants because the NSF is getting so much money.

Person B : Yes, and it seems they have to spend it immediately, so basically any proposal that was a borderline reject will pass this time.

Person C : But there is a lot of extra nonsense in this bill. They are spending a billion dollars to prevent STD’s. How will that help the economy?

Person B : But that is the basic idea — the whole point is to create jobs.

Person C : So how does this help create jobs? How many people are employed to fight these STD’s?

Person B : More than you have any idea.

There’s a bit of back and forth about the STD prevention industry and its capacity.

Person C : But some say the bill should be more streamlined. Build more infrastructure. Spending on STD prevention is not the answer. They are just printing money.

Person B: No, you have to understand. The point is to put money into everything. That’s the basis of the trickle-down effect. The more areas you spend it in, the more the economy gets stimulated. It trickles down. Now if you believe this theory, it makes sense to spend. That’s what they are doing.

Person A : Actually I heard Jon Stewart talking about the ‘trickle up’ effect too. Give the money to us and let’s all save and it will trickle up.

Everyone laughs.

I was quiet during the entire discussion of course. But it felt a bit like being in a parallel universe.

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That was the topic addressed by a panel of scholars gathered at Princeton University two weeks ago. Reason has the report. Excerpts:

Hayes said he thinks more ideologues of all stripes are beginning to notice that real-world government tends toward neither a social-democratic nor libertarian ideal. “The problem of the U.S. economy in the past eight years has been a kind of corporate socialism…[a] hydra-headed monster of corruption and malfeasance.” He added, “In the current financial crisis, the two groups who come out looking good are the Marxists and the Austrians,” since both schools of economists predicted that government will tend to come to the aid of the already-wealthy amidst cyclical booms and busts.

[…] Paul Starr, on the other hand, sounded more willing to defend modern, welfare-statist liberalism on philosophical grounds. “What do liberals and libertarians have in common? The fundamental value of liberty. What do liberals and libertarians disagree about? What liberty means.” Liberals, he argued, see threats to liberty from concentrations of private power and will continue to defend government as a means of combating those threats: “The value of these programs,” such as Social Security, he said, “isn’t just security but liberty itself.”

[…] Lindsey coined the term “liberaltarians” for an imagined alliance meant to replace the decades-long, arduously-constructed “fusionist” alliance between libertarians and the right. He voted for conservative Ronald Reagan as a young libertarian (calling himself a “con-symp”) but voted for Democrats in 2006. He said he can no longer stomach the pretense by the two near-identical major political parties that, as he put it, “a 35% top marginal tax rate is Social Darwinism but a 39% rate is socialism.”

[…] Indeed, he echoed Massey’s call for open empirical discussion of how large a welfare state would be effective, saying that countries like Sweden suggest that once nations are wealthy enough, they can “afford” welfare states. “That just doesn’t seem like a matter of great importance,” he argued. Instead of an all-or-nothing, “yes or no” argument about whether to have a welfare state at all, Lindsey envisioned a collegial conversation about the size of the government safety net. “Bottom line: I’d rather hang out with the liberals and argue about economics than hang out with the Republicans and argue about Darwin and stem cells.”

[…] Brown University political science professor John Tomasi offered a plan for bringing together such feuding factions. Theatrically arranging three cups in front of himself on the podium, Tomasi encouraged libertarians (and liberals) to drink three metaphorical cups of potentially strange-tasting philosophical ideas: (1) Accept that there is a real distinction between classical liberals (who share a somewhat flexible bundle of ideas such as democracy, constitutionalism, and individual rights) and libertarians, adherents of a strict version of property rights that “not many people believe;” (2) accept that some version of “social justice” will seem intuitively appealing to most political thinkers and must be part of our agenda; and (3) recognize that once 1 and 2 are accepted, a friendly empirical conversation about economic policies can proceed.

On a related note, I highly recommend the liberal-libertarian blog “The Art of the Possible”.

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Apologies to the reader for the small number of posts here this week. I was at the University of Oklahoma for a math visit from Tuesday to Friday.

It was a fruitful visit. I gave a couple of talks and discussed a lot of number theory. In many ways the whole thing, especially the math discussion, was reminiscent of my Olympiad days when we would think about math problems all the time, sometimes in groups, sometimes individually and explain our bright ideas to each other with a particular kind of passion that few people ever experience. The trouble with research is that everything is so specialized that it is hard to find people to talk to who really understand your stuff. So the last few days were almost from another planet — waking up at 8 AM, going over to Starbucks to meet the other two, and mathiness for the rest of the day. And did I mention that I was put up in a luxury suite and everything I ate or drank (including every cup of coffee) during my stay was paid for by them?

I am back now, so blogging should resume. Cannot promise a flood of posts though. Math has a way of reminding you of its superior status from time to time.

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