Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ferguson, Akin, and the End of the Enlightenment?

What does an effete, British, Harvard-university-professor of history have in common with a right-wing, divinity-degree-holding, Republican Congressman and engineer from the middle of America? Basically, timing and perspective. In the past two days, both Niall Ferguson and Todd Akin have revealed themselves to be men incapable of rational thought. Evidence contrary to their claims, whether scientific or historical, doesn't seem to phase them. In both cases, their own ideology guides them to the reality they wish to see or want to perceive to see.

Let's quickly address each case on its own. First, there is our good friend Professor Niall Ferguson. This week he wrote the cover story in Newsweek on why he believes Obama should not be re-elected. As a piece of intellectual insight or informed observation or even political pamphlet, it counts as pure dribble. The errors in his analysis of the ACA, employment performance under the Obama administration, deficits, debt and how it's measured, China, foreign policy, etc., are too numerous to list here. The best critiques come from Paul Krugman, James Fallows, and, most damaging and vitriolic, Brad De Long. More is to come from Andrew Sullivan. I strongly recommend going to the links, including a summary of the best reactions here.

What I find so depressing is not so much the quality of his writing, but how closed-minded he is to actual facts as well the lack of logic in his essay as he constructs his argument. A typical college student would get a D for this paper, except for maybe at Harvard (a gentleman's C there).

Why is Ferguson is permitted to write such a horrible piece of writing in a "major" American newsweekly? In a world governed by reason, we would have outside third parties existing to check truth claims, often the "fourth estate," if the author fails on his own. But the media, in this case, Newsweek, is just "monitoring" the "debate." Apparently Newsweek just "trusts" its cover story writers to check their own facts. If it sounds like the "truth" or has a degree of "truthiness," then it must be true. And, in their ironic post-modernity, conservatives and contemporary American media (at least the mass-produced form) think truth is in the perspective of the beholder. It just FEELS true. There are always "two sides" to people's claims about the world. Any independent arbiter of reality does not exist here, except for other bloggers. And, yet, Ferguson says his credibility is still intact, for some reason.

Then, there is our good friend Rep. Todd Akin, who apparently believes that the female body has special hormonal powers to prevent pregnancy from "legitimate rape." This comes from his pro-life ideology, misogyny and junk science. It's a worldview that he holds, despite evidence to the contrary, in spite of reality. Although the establishment-elements of the Republican Party are denouncing him, he's not alone. First, VP-candidate Ryan supported legislation that also limited abortion funding to "forcible" rape, as opposed to the other kind (it has to do with the battle over abortion and whether Planned Parenthood was seeking federal funding for pregnancies resulting from statutory rape). And one of our resident wackos in the House of Representative, Rep. Steve King, apparently doubts whether women can become pregnant from incest or statutory rape. So there's no one within this movement to check these folks and confront them with facts either.

This is sad. Very sad. It's sad when a major political party in the most powerful and influential country on Planet Earth is entirely captured by forces that are determined to deny the role of reason in governing. Reason and facts have no place in the public sphere. We can just throw away that nasty, and outdated movement, called the Enlightenment, they argue. Paul Ryan certainly thinks the Enlightenment was a quaint debate in the 18th Century, but governing by reason doesn't seem to relevant to him anymore. This is nothing new in America, of course. My chief complaint, and what Ferguson and Akin both show coincidentally these past two days, is that the conservative political movement's efforts to push out reality as a basis for discussion and continue to reject rationality as a basis and mode of argument and for thesis-generation has not just deepened, but widened. It now includes a Harvard professor, from one of the best universities in the world. It's sad to see how tow people with such different backgrounds can have so much in common. And they do make for strange bedfellows, but the fact that they're even in the same room together is even more sadder.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Southerners Need Not Apply!

So much to say about the Romney/Ryan ticket. First, I'm still not sure if these two names are alliterative or not. But aside from the possible literary qualities of the ticket, there is one other major historical quality about this Republican ticket to point out.

Many have already written about how this is the FIRST presidential ticket from a major party WITHOUT a white Protestant on the presidential ballot. That is something to applaud, even if to bring that about one party's ticket was replaced by a conservative Catholic and a Mormon. Actually, it's not too surprising if you think about it. Mainstream (white) Protestants have become much more moderate socially, while the Republican Party has moved to the far Right on social issues related to abortion, gay marriage, contraception, and pornography, to capture or reflect the evangelical Christian base that remains WASP.

But, notice that there's no Southerner on either party's ticket either, since...well, a long time. What about Sarah Palin from Alaska in 2008? That's just the South with ice and oil. There's one exception--Ford/Rockefeller in 1976. But since Ford was only there because Nixon resigned, and Agnew was from Maryland and on the ballot in '68 and '72, which is the "South," I'm not counting that election. Anyway, if you look at presidential election history, you see a Southerner somewhere on the ticket almost all the way back to the turn of the 20th Century. On both sides of the ticket. And, while I'm not a scholar of American political history,it appears that we're now at an important juncture in American political history.

What does the absence of a Southerner on the ticket this fall indicate about American politics and society? Well, first, it appears that the two parties are more comfortable than before in thinking that they can win the presidential election without one on the ballot. The fact that North Carolina and Virginia are turning into real swing states, along with that bizarro land known as Florida, seems to show that. Northerners can actually win those states that were once part of the Confederacy. At the same time, other Southern states are firmly in the Red column, probably still for years. So, Dem's have no incentive to try to court voters from those states by putting a Southerner on their ballot.

At the same time, you wonder if a vast majority of Southerners are getting the representatives they want if they go R. Remember, Santorum captured a majority of the Southern vote during the Primary season, except for some major metropolitan areas [click on the state results to see the pattern]. The exception is Newt, who got South Carolina and Georgia, and the same counties, generally. Overall, ANYWHERE where the median income in a county was at or below the national average, someone other than Romney won it. And that's a majority of Southern counties! Sad to say that the Republican Party--with a Mormon patrician from the Midwest/Northeast on the ticket and a libertarian ideologue from the Midwest--won't be representing those people's interests.

Romney and Ryan are now working to win an election while taking the Southern vote for granted, with the exception of VA, NC and FL, states that represent the "New South." And that's a safe strategy. But their policies, as lamented in so many other places, only hurt a majority of those voters, or at least don't help. At the same time. some don't feel sorry for the South. Some wish they would secede. I think this just indicates, perhaps contrary to some conventional wisdom, the South is not the political powerhouse it was in the 1990s. Or, more precisely, the South is changing, but, in a typical Southern fashion, very slowly..like molasses! If Obama is reelected and there is continued social change in states like NC, VA, and even Georgia, regional patterns of voting in the US could, maybe, start to end. And new divisions based on ethnicity or rural vs. urban will take their place.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Paul Ryan is the P90X VP you don't want!

So, here we go! Paul Ryan is the first Wisconsinite to appear on a presidential ticket since 1980 when Gov. Patrick Lucy (yeah, never heard of him either) was the vice-presidential nominee for John Anderson. One difference, though, is his comparative youth and fitness.
Let's forget about his Eddie Munster good looks for a moment! Put aside his arrogant attitude and smug sense of superiority without much to show for it. I don't think reading Ayn Rand and following objectivism, except for the atheism part, makes you an intellectual per se. Yet, you do have to admire him for his strong commitment to fitness. I'm sure there's a great six-pack somewhere under those adult-size suits he wears. And that's where I think his lean body-fat and lean view of government come together.
You see, he's a big follower of this P90X exercise routine. Ryan's commitment to such a crazy fitness regime as P90X reflects his personality and, as we say in German, his Weltanschauung.
First, P90X adherents have a false belief that everyone is just like them. No one's body type, physical condition or opportunity is that much different from theirs. So, there's nothing really holding anyone else back from losing all that weight and having rock hard abs--a "12-pack" as some say Ryan has. Just start the program and get to it, lazy bones!
Second, routines like P90X seem to fetishize pain. In order to be reasonably fit and healthy, you have to do 1000 crunches and change to a primarily meat and berry diet?!?!  The routine is almost masochistic.
Third, if you can't do it and don't meet your goals in a SHORT amount of time, you just aren't worthy. You didn't put enough hard work into it. There was no luck that led you to success or anyone out there that helped you along the way. You did it on your own, and if you didn't, then you failed...and just live with that failure. You're a loser!
Let's ignore for the fact that his budget plan is so full of empty spaces that its bloody tragic that the document counts as something "serious" on DC Sunday talk shows. What it does do, in summary is this.
  • It transforms Medicare from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Need more treatment than what the voucher gives you? You're SOL. Better get that P90X training video.
  • Block grants to the states for MEDICAID? Well, given these grants won't keep up with healthcare inflation (and repeal of Obamacare would just create more uninsured and higher costs), you're just SOL if you're poor and sick! 
  • Just TWO tax brackets--25% and 10%, for those earning more than 50K or less, respectively, if you're single. [BTW : no gay marriage for you!] Yes, someone making MILLIONS pays the same taxes as someone making 75K--the closest to a flat-tax system that has been proposed by a major candidate for office. This is based on the belief that anyone can be rich..anyone can get into that higher tax bracket..which is only fair because you "worked hard." If you didn't or luck kept you down, then you have only yourself to blame. 
And why do (some) Americans subscribe to this view? One easy answer is that those who do are already in power. And if they "built it," then they don't understand why others can't do the same. A more complex and realistic answer is probably a combination of two other reasons. First, just as Americans buy billions of dollars of exercise products every year, they think they CAN do P90X and succeed, too. It's simple and quick! If they failed, it was their own fault, not anyone else's. They've been "trained" to think that (pun intended). Second, and related, they see in Ryan at least something they would like to be or envision themselves as! And at least they're not as bad as that "weird/undeserving" person next door [sound familiar?].

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why We Punish Cheaters

First, the blog entries will become shorter. While I've made that promise often, it still goes unfulfilled. But now I have a real chance to do that.

Second, this blog is not just going to have rants, although Ross Douthat (here's a really bad one) and David Brooks give me enough material for that. [More on Douthat's profundity later]. No, I'm also aiming to rave about stuff I read and watch, too.

So, while browsing The Economist yesterday, I came across a really interesting article about fairness. I was so excited by this little piece that I just needed to share it all with you {that and it's been a little difficult generating a similar amount of excitement among members of my close social circle; hopefully, this will create some excitement out there that was on par with my keen level of joy}.

So, here it goes. In this article, anonymously written, as is the Economist's style, the author reports on an experiment that two Brits did. Apparently, it's very hard to determine why people choose to punish others for misbehaving. Without doing a giant literature review (and these scientists show how to write a brief and effective one you political scientists should follow), these scientists discuss some possible explanations. Negative emotions that lead people to engage in the costly act of punishing someone could be the result of many causes. First, people can punish others for violating specific norms of cooperation. If a person cheats, that's morally bad, it raises negative emotions, and the cheater is punished. Second, punishment could be weeded out just for retaliation; if you cheat, then I cheat--tit-for-tat. Third, if the cheater's behavior leads to that person to become much better off or the relative position between the two changed as a result, then that person will be punished because the result was "unfair."

So far, it's been really hard to disentangle what motives people have for punishing another because many of these causes are difficult to assess independent of each other. That's where these researchers came in. They set up an experiment. It's based on the "moonlighting game." They use a cool technique called Amazon Mechanical Turk to get subjects that are more diverse than your typical college undergrads at an elite university. With over 500 subjects, they test under what conditions a player will PAY to punish another for "cheating." Without going into the details, they set up three basic scenarios or treatments. In each treatment, Player 2 can cheat and take a certain amount of money away from Player 1. It turns out that Player 1 retaliates or "punishes" Player 2 MOST OFTEN when the results of the cheating produced inequity, i.e., changed the relative position of Player 1 to Player 2. Punishment did NOT happen when someone was left worse off in an absolute sense or just because cheating happened. In other words, punishing the offender happened most often when the first person perceived the result of the other person's behavior as leading to an "unfair result." [Side note--Some people "retaliated" even when no cheating happened; those were the sadists!]

So, these findings are very exciting to me for the following reasons. First, it turns out we don't punish either because a norm was violated, nor out of a simple desire to retaliate [See stupid, ubiquitous IR book by Robert Axelrod every IR grad student is forced to read.] No, human beings go through the messy and complicated analysis, or as the scientists write, "a more cognitively complex task," of determining whether the result was "fair" or not before punishing another. Those crazy humans! [AND, it turns out that ONLY HUMANS do this; other species just retaliate every time.]

So what are some of the implications here? First, apply that to the big banks! We didn't care that they were gaming the system for so long, as long as our financial position relative to them hadn't changed. But if it did, then we get angry! So, yes, President Obama and Elizabeth Warren are right, we're not upset that people are rich, and we're not trying to start a class war. We're out to punish them for cheating, because they've made us all worse off because of their cheating for the last ten years, they've been made a LOT better off as a result, and we will punish them (someday) even if it's expensive to do so.

This also has foreign policy implications. When creating environmental or other types of international agreements, we shouldn't set up agreements that lead to automatic retaliation when cheating is discovered. We should expect that to happen from time to time. When constructing agreements, we don't just need to lay out the conditions for punishment ahead of time. We also need to include a clause in the agreement that says what the consequences will be if the cheating leads to an unfair outcome, i.e., made some party better off than before relative to the other party. If one player thinks that the other player's cheating led to inequitable outcome, then punishment will be dealt.

This means we should just acknowledge that cheating happens all the time when it comes to international agreements, and all the monitoring mechanisms and sanctions threatened may not work to prevent it. And it's really damn costly to set up all of those rules and institutions anyway. Just acknowledge that China/Iran is going to cheat on the agreements it makes. The US should focus on the cases that lead to the change in relative position between the US and China/Iran when deciding to punish. (Q to IR-friends: Does this resurrect that old, stupid debate over absolute vs. relative gains in international cooperation theory and show that those relative gains people are right, sort of?]

There are so many other implications worth discussing.

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