Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Stupid Politicians May Be Smart

Disturbed by political distortions (which some would call lying), some earnest commentators make some wonkish proposals. I haven’t reviewed them, but I can almost guarantee that they are DOA. Yes, yes – politicians do some stupid things and stretch the truth like Silly Putty. You might want to read Why Politicians Lie. But more fundamentally, all you need to know is that politicians lie and do other stupid things because such activities win elections. Are voters really that stupid? Yes and no. Modern behavioral psychology explains a lot: most voters are simply neither terribly engaged nor well informed because that would be an inefficient use of their mental energy – they have other things, like families and jobs, to worry about. Politics and policy only gets whatever mental cycles are left over after higher priority needs are serviced. Thus, for politicians, a winning strategy is to portray a simple message which is sympathetic and easy to digest. It’s hard to see democracy working any other way – and it’s hard to see a better system than democracy.

English: Library of Congress summary: "Ca...

English: Library of Congress summary: “Caricature showing politicians and people representing different professions revolving around head of Richard “Boss” Croker as the Sun.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I write this not to express cynicism. Instead, I find it helpful to remember that whenever a see some politician as stupid and venal, it’s just the way it has to be. Lighten up! This ought not to discourage us from thinking about issues and policy – instead, we should manage our expectations and focus where we can make a difference, not where we can’t.


Not Quite Utopia

Many people share a vision of a desirable society: no one would be destitute, everyone would have adequate food, shelter, and health care, everyone could have a job, and everyone would have the opportunity for an education. This might not quite be Utopia, but it’s close enough for most people and the stated desire of many. Call it the Ideal Society. This sounds appealing and there are many activities underway to achieve such a society. Yet many resist – how can that be?

There are many serious and thoughtful people who think that such a society might not be as desirable as it seems on the surface. They resist the actions and thinking that move us toward this vision. What is behind their thinking?

Since nothing is free, they worry that we will pay in ways we regret. For example, some think that in an Ideal Society, some people (or most people or everyone) would, after a period of time, be worse off than if we had not moved to an Ideal Society. Some think that an Ideal Society would gradually deteriorate and that eventually some people (or most people or everyone) would be worse off than we are today. Others think that an Ideal Society would cause a permanent underclass. Still others have even more grim predictions of how we would end up.

Still others think that the movements we’ve already made toward an Ideal Society have already made us worse off than we would have been and have already created a semi-permanent underclass.

Some critics of the Ideal Society think that the objectives are impossible; others think the objectives are possible but only if addressed indirectly.

My goal here isn’t to wade though all of the arguments and data that the critics worry about. It’s complex and I lack the ability. However, I think we can all agree that that it would be wrong to make people’s lives worse. Proponents of change have a duty to honestly consider objections and still have a high degree of confidence that the change will not make things worse. This won’t happen if people holding different viewpoints are demonized and dismissed.

The example I’ve used concerns an ideal of the political left which scorns the political right’s objections. I could just as easily have picked an ideal of the political right, which scorns the left’s objections.

This is not a recipe for improving the world.

Freedom for Me

The world is full of people with poor judgement, i.e., people whose judgement is different from yours. To make matters worse, their poor judgement impacts you in bad ways. What to do, what to do?

The operating philosophy that seems to unite us all is one of more freedom for me (and everyone displaying similar judgement) and more restrictions for everyone else. Conservative, liberals, the Tea Party, OWS – all share this common outlook. I might give the libertarians a pass, but theirs is largely an academic and philosophical exercise which often melts under the heat of reality.

This realization is giving me a whole new understanding and appreciation for politics.

More Moral Foundations Theory

I’m still intrigued by  Moral Foundations Theory and, as predicted, there’s a fair bit of commenting going on in the blogosphere, mainly in terms of reviewing The Righteous Mind, Haidt’s book discussing the theory. I haven’t absorbed all of the comments yet, but two points made by reviewers strike me as important.

  1. The value of  Moral Foundations Theory is that it should force us to to view opposing views more seriously. Conservatives shouldn’t demonize liberals and vice-versa. Haidt himself, an avowed liberal, was apparently motivated upon learning that a conservative outlook was thoughtful and intended to improve people’s lives: it was just built on a different mix of moral foundations.
  2. There is some legitimate complaint about the specific methodology Haidt used to evaluate political outlooks in terms of moral foundations. Liberals, in particular, may have taken a bad rap by being classified as having low regard for sanctity. The methodological complaint is that, with a different set of questions, answers would have been different. Liberals may have a higher regard for sanctity than Haidt noted, but might apply the sanctity in a different domain such as environmentalism.

I’m still reading and studying, but I like where this is headed.

Evaluating Economics

The Coat of arms of Chile

Image via Wikipedia

There’s no shortage of writing about economics and political philosophy, much of it contradictory. In particular, there is a vast gulf between the Austrian economic/libertarian politics and the mainstream conventional economics/social democracy crowds. I myself find the Austrian/libertarian view quite convincing, but this is mainly due to its logic and intellectual rigor. But we all know things can be different in the real world – we’d all like to see some empirical evidence. Of course, deliberate scientific experimentation would be unethical, so we have to settle for comparing “sort of kind of” approximations with each other. With that in mind, I direct your attention to this article about  the economic fortunes of Chile. They seem to be profitably ignoring the conventional wisdom.

Political Boundaries

Uncle Sam with empty treasury, 1920, by James ...

Image via Wikipedia

Don Boudreaux hits the nail on the head:

Most modern “liberals” believe that domestic economic problems are caused chiefly by unsavory characters – “business people” – who impose their destructive rule on masses of innocent workers and consumers yearning for more prosperity, and that the best solution to these problems is government force deployed using armies of regulators to subdue these bad guys and to keep close watch over them and their successors.  Failure to intervene is immoral.  These same “liberals,” though, believe that foreign problems are typically the result of complex forces that can be understood only poorly by American-government officials; it is naïve to suppose that even well-intentioned foreign intervention by Uncle Sam will not have regrettable unintended consequences.

Most modern conservatives believe that domestic economic problems are typically the result of complex forces that can be understood only poorly by government officials; it is naïve to suppose that even well-intentioned economic intervention by Uncle Sam will not have regrettable unintended consequences.  These same conservatives, though, believe that problems in foreign countries are caused chiefly by unsavory characters – “dictators” or “tyrants” – who impose their destructive rule on masses of innocent people yearning for more democracy, and that the best solution to these problems is government force deployed with armies of soldiers to subdue these bad guys and to keep close watch over them and their successors.  Failure to intervene is immoral.

Yep! Either way, we’re going broke!

The True Nature of Society


Image by Massimo Valiani via Flickr

The reason we cannot have a coherent, comprehensive plan to solve the political and economic difficulties of the federal government (and of the state governments) is that people do not have a coherent, comprehensive hierarchy of values beyond the basics of social order.

via Sowing and Reaping: The True Sickness of Society « ThinkMarkets.

I don’t know that this is society’s sickness so much as society’s true nature. I’m a big fan of the old Bentley view that all politics is about special interest. I’m willing to concede that there might be some high minded folks who are really concerned about “the common good“, but they must deal with some inherent conflicts and constraints – what I think of as political physics. We only have so much time and resource, so decisions about “the common good” must deal with two key issues:

  • How much to focus on security versus opportunity? More of one means less of the other.
  • How much to focus on the present versus the future(s)? Long term gains mean short term sacrifice and vice versa.

There are multitudes of choices embedded in these two key issues. Combined with “special interest” motivations, it’s a wonder we can ever agree on anything at all!

We would have less rancor and more civility in government if every issue was examined in three contexts:

  1. Implications to security vs opportunity
  2. Implications over time
  3. Who benefits and who loses

Sounds like a nice little project to me!