License to Kill

There has been a theme coalescing in what I read about how people approach rationalizing their actions.  Essentially, people keep running tallies of their “good” and “bad” deeds and try to balance the books so to speak.  I use quotes here because I don’t necessarily mean good and bad in a moral or ethical sense.  This system is used by people for far more innocuous things.  The behavioral economics term for this behavior is self-licensing or the licensing effect.

You are witnessing the licensing effect whenever you hear someone justify their racist actions by responding with a variation of “I have a black friend!” as if one example of tolerance somehow excuses an expression of intolerance.  Scientists have demonstrated this effect in a diverse array of environments.  For instance, research showed that publicly endorsing Barack Obama cause his followers to express more racially biased views.  It’s been suggested as a reason that energy use increases after one purchases energy efficient appliances.  One that I routinely see and hear (and succumb to myself) is when people reward themselves with dessert after having a salad or engaging in a strenuous day of walking.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this research is how little one must do in order to invoke the licensing effect.  All it takes is voicing the intention to do something good (like the Obama example above) and the effect is triggered.  In one case scientists elicited self-licensing by merely having the participants imagine doing something charitable.  It’s amazing how effortlessly we appropriate evidence that we are good and wholesome to puff up our self-image.  It doesn’t take more than just imagining we are compassionate and caring!

Now the ease with which we accrue moral capital might no be so terrible if we didn’t readily spend it on misdeeds grossly out of proportion to our supposed good deeds.  That is, human beings seem very bad at this moral tallying system.  We chalk up points in the positive column with abandon for the slightest thing and then heavily discount the value of our sins.  In fact, my theory, and this shows up in many other domains of human behavior, are that human beings are more enumerators than scales.  We don’t typically store the value of our deeds as much as count the number of good deeds and the number of bad deeds and try to keep the sum above zero to maintain our fragile egos.  It would explain how CEOs embezzling money can justify their actions by giving a tiny fraction of that money to a charity.

I am also puzzled where this system originated and whether it has become worse in our modern age.  I say this because the major religions of the world do not, to my knowledge, endorse this theory of morality.  Sure, a numerical scoring that determines who gets in to heaven, ala the TV show The Good Place, is a popular conception, but I don’t recall Jesus actually proposing that you balance your sins and virtue so delicately.  Instead he continually called people to not judge (a key component of self-licensing) and always show kindness.  As a counterpoint, Catholic practices like indulgences would suggest that entry to heaven is determined by balancing your misdeeds against your donations to the church.  So maybe we can once again leave some blame at the feet of the religious institutions that spring up around the core precepts and texts.  I remain unconvinced though.

Has this gotten worse?  I think the modern segmentation of society into cloistered groups with similar views would likely make this worse.  Who is going to challenge your moral accounting if everyone you interact with thinks just like you do?  It’s OK to make that racist joke at a party, you all voted for Obama.  It doesn’t even require drawing down your moral bank account.

It might not be readily apparent, but the judginess of liberals and even conservatives on social media platforms is symptomatic of rampant self-licensing.  I say this because, as I mentioned earlier, self-licensing requires a strong, almost unassailable, confidence in your judgement.  If you doubted your ability to tally points in the appropriate column then I think you would at least have a harder time accruing and spending your moral income.  The irony of the internet liberal is that tolerance is one of the core precepts of liberalism that they seem continually unable to express and that the self-licensing allowed by their loud pronouncements of virtue on the internet likely enables all kinds of poor behavior in other settings.

In conclusion, I think one should be aware of this poor mode of thinking and avoid it at all costs.  The appropriate view is to do good always and do evil never.  You can’t go wrong with that.


Understanding the Rising Populist Right

Paul Krugman recently wrote a column expressing befuddlement regarding non-xenophobic reasons for the surge in support for Trump from mostly rural whites.  This is just a continuation of the liberal self-scrutiny after Clinton lost that follows from what I call the Bernie Sanders critique, that liberals need to stop playing identity politics and engage voters under the big tent of economic progress for all.

Krugman and others point out that politics is always identity politics.  For instance, identity politics propelled Trump to the White House.  Some of this identity is defined by racism, the erroneous belief that society is offering a helping hand to minorities as it leaves rural whites behind.  The other part appears to be a dissatisfaction with “elites”, both Republican and Democrat, that they believe look down upon them with disdain. Trump played on both of these, positioning himself as an outsider and fueling racial resentment.

I also don’t agree that racial equality and economic equality are mutually exclusive in a rhetorical sense or in reality and in my mind they in fact build on each other in a virtuous cycle.  There is plenty of evidence from scholarship and recent elections that poor economic conditions predispose people towards intolerance.  On the other side, a better economy will free the poor and disadvantaged to engage in politics more (via the bee sting theory of poverty) which should improve support for liberal policies and express the appropriate amount of opprobrium towards racism and xenophobia.

Let me return to Krugman’s befuddlement.  First, Krugman is not actually ignorant of the positions of the Populist Right, he is more confused about how they got from resentment of nonwhites and elites due to dissatisfaction with current culture and economic circumstances to voting for Trump because they think he can fix it.  He cannot follow the logic and neither can I or other liberals.  Now some would just dismiss this as the irreconcilability of the conservative and liberal world view, but throwing up our hands in despair is never the answer.

From a policy perspective, Democratic policy has been and will continue to be geared toward addressing income inequality through progressive tax structure, government benefits and regulation to curb the excesses of corporate and moneyed elite.  Trump policy in this area is fairly orthodox Republican policy: cut taxes for rich, deregulate and cut government benefits.  The only satisfaction this will give the many Trump supporters in the low and middle classes is that many minorities they perceive as undeserving will be hurt.  But this is classic cut off the nose to spite the face behavior.  Trump’s sole policy contribution is a more extreme antagonism towards immigration, but there is little evidence that immigration is a contributor to the economic malaise felt by Trump supporters.  There is an even more tenuous relationship between Trump’s suggestions in this area and economic prosperity.

Thus, the conclusion is that most people don’t care about policy or at least the details of policy, which I believe was always obvious.  Conservatives realized this long ago and I am not sure why so many on the Left still labor under the false belief that policy informs voting decisions.  Maybe it is a charitable assumption about voters or an inability to see that not everyone thinks like them.  Or maybe they all know it, but refuse to lower themselves to a political discourse that revolves around “feelings.”

I cannot understand the white working class dissatisfaction and what they see as their future.  The picture emerging is that they want to live their small town lifestyles, as they seem to have a strong distaste for city life, but want the economic progress and perks of modernization.  However, human progress is built on the back of the agglomeration benefits of cities and it is very hard to see how you export that out of cities.  There was a short period of prosperous small manufacturing towns dotted around the country, but that era is over and it is not coming back.  Even if globalization trends downward, robots will continue to erode manufacturing positions.  The irony of course is that manufacturing has been in decline so long that many of these voters aren’t even pining for a nostalgic past they experienced, but merely one they imagined their parents living.

Therefore, when Krugman writes that these people are voting against their interests he seems exactly right.  He is not engaging in liberal paternalism or disdain.  He is writing from the perspective of an expert in economics engaging in an economic analysis and his conclusion is that they haven’t thought beyond their immediate anger and resentment.  This is also how democracy works, people vote for representatives that are hopefully better informed and can therefore make better decisions, decisions that may not align with popular opinion.

Which is not to say that there is not a strain of disdain among the liberal camp, a feeling I all too often succumb to as well.  For me, this mostly springs from what I perceive is the blithe dismissal of evidence and empiricism by the conservative half of the country.  WHY DON’T THEY JUST LOOK AT THIS GRAPH AND AGREE WITH ME?  THEY MUST BE MORONS.  It’s very hard to tamp down on that particularly because logic and data have been my language through school and into my post-graduation career.

However, there is a particular faction of liberalism, most readily seen on social media that are very judgmental about their opponent’s culture or lack thereof.  They mock their food and clothing styles or even their methods of speech.  It dovetails with a general surge on the internet of a belief in the infallibility of personal preferences and culture and a need to project them onto others.  In the Democratic party this appears to mostly be driven by the younger, whiter, more affluent and college educated demographic.  The irony is that the real Democratic base of the poor and minorities probably has more in common with Midwestern Trump supporters than they do with this privileged minority of the Democratic Party.  And yet it is likely that this outspoken minority draws the ire of so many Trump supporters that feel a real disdain coming from the liberal camp.

The rallying cry of the Democratic party should not be about adherence to some specific set of cultural mores or even a grounding in facts and empiricism.  It is about compassion for humanity, all of it, any race or socioeconomic status and even those outside our own political boundaries.  And around that core of compassion, we construct a solid theory, backed by as much data as we can muster, of governance and policy.  And it just so happens that theory suggests that government is not always the problem and that the market is not always right.  Democrats are not the party of big government.  They are the party of better government that cares for all people.



Racism is a Tool of the Oligarchs

As many have pointed out, this election and recent political events in Europe highlight just how strong a force racism and xenophobia still are in the modern developed world.  What seems to go unremarked upon is how this is a distraction from the actually important struggle between the moneyed elites and the rest of us.  It’s not the Mexicans stealing our jobs, it’s the bankers and CEOs sucking up all the productivity gains from the last thirty years.  Class warfare is the decisive struggle of our time and whenever we take our eye of the ball we are succumbing to the oligarch’s feint.

The elites harnessing racism to divert attention from their looting and pillaging of the economy is, literally, the oldest trick in the book.  The key is to play on humanities natural prejudices to present an ideal cause for all the things wrong with your life.  How convenient that you already harbor a natural animus towards that group and now you learn that all along they were sabotaging your life.  I don’t like to bring up Hitler, but in this case it is a salient and well-known extreme example of relieving mass economic distress via unleashing racial animosity that culminated in genocide.

Now it should be obvious that apart from being morally wrong, tapping into racism almost never produces the results promised.  Many studies have shown that immigration is at worst neutral for the existing population and in many cases bolstered the wages of natural citizens.  Furthermore from a logical standpoint, racism (and sexism) are obviously inefficient.  I wrote about this before, but the best everything are not all white males.  By putting up barriers you are limiting the talent pool you can draw from and reducing the efficiencies of comparative advantage.

So playing on racism is a classic red herring employed by the elite to distract people from the true cause of their distress, the elites.  They have a disproportionate amount of power, even in a democracy, over the apparatus of government.  Upon acquiring this power, they bend the rules in their favor even further to amass more power and wealth.  The trend toward heightened wealth and income inequality in developed countries suggest a vicious feedback cycle where wealth begets social power which begets more wealth.

Thus, the central skirmish of modern (and often ancient) civilization is that of the weak and numerous versus the few and wealthy.  The oligarchs know that they are in fact quite vulnerable and the 19th and early 20th centuries bear this out as the working class realized that their institutions were merely the tools of the already powerful and revolted.  Even when revolutions did not succeed, they reduce the precious wealth of the elite.  As such the oligarchs employ a divide and conquer strategy to divert the masses.  As long as the lower classes fight among themselves they can’t turn on the ruling class.

Now so far I have talked in generalities, but this is exactly what we expect a Trump administration to be.  He gets elected on racial anxiety and may make a few attempts at some of the more insane proposals meant to ameliorate that anxiety, but more than likely the morass of the U.S. government will stop him.  He will likely have far more success implementing the tax cuts for the rich, deregulation and the gutting of aid to the poor that have also been planks of his campaign and that of the now dominant Republican party. So he throws a few sops to the masses and gets on with his real agenda, enriching himself and his friends at the expense of everyone else.

So good job America.  You elected a terrible man and you aren’t going to get any of the things you wanted while the real enemies gorge themselves.


The Ends Justify the Means on Weekends and Holidays and… Always…

I was reading my favorite socialist blogger when I came across an article that I pretty fervently disagree with.  It is on the “theory of second best” and its application outside of economics and policy.  The idea is that because we do not live in an ideal world we may have to engage in acts that are ethically or morally wrong in order to arrive at an improved state of the world.  However, the author, Chris Dillow, points out, rightly, that “There is, though, a massive problem with such second-best thinking – it can justify pretty much anything.”

This is just “ends justify the means” morality in a different form and as everyone knows, this is the inherent weakness of the philosophy.  Anyone can rationalize their actions under the auspices that their ultimate goal warrants the (literal or figurative) blood on their hands.  In fact when people decry this philosophy this is the implicit argument that they are making.  However, the only possible way to make any decision is to employ this strategy.  I give up much of my free time to go to work and make money because I believe the ends (money) justifies the means (working).  Similarly we take money from people (a violation of private property) to fund programs that we believe enhance the welfare of all citizens more than the cost of seizing private property.  This is always the moral calculus we engage in.

I guess the only time you don’t need to justify your ends are situations that are in a sense “no-brainers.”  If I have a bunch of leftovers I wasn’t going to eat anyway and I give them to a homeless person, it really entailed no sacrifice on my part to give them to him.  It was a non-decision.  At the same time this also washes away any goodness associated with the act.  To pick up a strain of thought in Dillow’s piece, engagement with an imperfect world does not sully us.  I would argue that it is in fact through this interaction that our moral worth is assayed.  A perfect world would not require sacrifice (nor would it allows harm) so how would we ascertain the morality of an act?

However, I digress.  My point is that despite the fact that you must always justify your means by your ends only under the most extreme moral relativism does that mean that if a person believes that the consequences of his actions will outweigh the costs of the action itself that the action is morally permissible.  This is why we form societies and governments and democratically elect leader so that people can come to an agreement on which actions are justified.  This should be obvious, but instead I suspect many people would disagree that “ends should justify means” after numerous media portrayals of heroes and villains that ostensibly deny or manipulate this doctrine.  Of course as my earlier post on macro morality discusses, they are often in the wrong.

Consequences of the Relativity of Happiness

A recent blog post from one of my favorites, Stumbling and Mumbling, ponders the question of whether improving happiness could be reflected in GDP growth.  I have no issues with his argument, but a particular quote caught my eye.

“workplaces with rising employee job satisfaction also experience improvements in workplace performance.”

What is interesting about this is that rising employee satisfaction is required.  This suggests that the level of employee satisfaction is really not that important.  This mirrors the observation that satisfaction with politicians correlates with GDP growth rates and not the level of GDP.

The lesson I am drawing here is that in most arenas of life people do not use absolute metrics but compare against a somewhat arbitrary benchmark.  This fact shows up even in our physiological responses:  loudness is perceived based on average levels of noise and warmth is based on the energy flux, a function of the relative temperature difference between the body and the environment as well as other thermal properties.

Furthermore, they have very short memory.  You presided over a recession a couple years ago?  All is forgiven if GDP growth has come back.  However, benchmarking against the status quo provides a hard limit on the effect documented in the above quote.  The research only supports improved performance in the face of rising satisfaction.  It’s impossible to increase satisfaction always and forever.  Will people recalibrate and wash away the effects of the improved satisfaction?

This is a problem with all happiness maximizing philosophies.  Human beings seem to be utterly immune to permanent satisfaction and quite vulnerable to peer comparisons. The evidence is plain; despite hugely improved conditions do you think modern man is orders of magnitude happier than medieval man?  No, they see the man over there with a bigger TV or more prestigious job or prettier wife and a gaping pit of resentment and anger enters their heart.  He does not compare himself to his great great grandfather.

Interestingly, one strategy developed for happiness is to recognize things for which you are grateful.  I believe this is related to taking a broader view of your life not rooted in the narrow relativity that afflicts us.

This does not suggest we abandon such strategies that focus on happiness, but that we have to be very careful in how we define happiness and measure it.  Because we might implement some great idea that makes everyone happier and then two years later the satisfaction bump may have worn off as they ask “What have you done for me lately?”

We Don’t Need New Ideas

Ezra Klein thinks the Democrats need new ideas.  This is of course BS.  I outlined the problems facing the U.S.A. in a previous post.  Democrats have good ideas for tackling all of them.  The issue is not ideas, it’s implementing them over Republican opposition.  Universal Health Care has been an issue since at least Nixon who proposed a law that I would classify as to the LEFT of Obamacare.  The irony is that Klein thinks Republicans have new ideas.  But no, it’s the same old supply side, anti-Keynsian, corporatist schlock.  Klein’s examples are basically Republicans saying to other Republicans “hey, maybe we should be less, you know, Republican.”

We have the macro ideas, we don’t need new ideas.  The only thing we are unclear on are the details.  We know single payer healthcare is cheaper than private insurance.  However, there are lots of other ways to cut healthcare costs we are still unsure about.  Like switching to salaried workers rather than fee for service.  Or how many tests are actually unnecessary.  Details like that matter, but they aren’t big party ideas that you can hammer on for votes.

If voters really just want repackaged old ideas, well then maybe they really are as stupid as Jonathan Gruber said they are.

The Most Pressing Issues Facing the U.S.A.

With an exasperating mid-term election behind us I thought it would be a good idea to look at all the issues facing the nation that will be completely ignored for the next two years at least.

1.  Income Inequality/Economy – Considering that economic wealth is, in my opinion, the single most important determinant of a person’s happiness, it is no wonder I rate this first.  We have two problems here: an economy that refuses to recover and even if it does will see most of the gains accrue to those already on top of the economic strata.  The thing is, we have an easy answer for both of these, income redistribution and “unconventional” monetary policy.  I use quotes because it’s not really unconventional at all and has firm theoretical groundings among right-minded economists.

2.  Healthcare – This is actually inextricable from the above problem.  Now you may be thinking that Obamacare fixed this right?  Well, Switzerland has the second highest healthcare costs in the developed world and it has mandatory private insurance like Obamacare.  You know what works?  Single-payer healthcare.  Anyways, as long as healthcare costs take up an increasing share of the economy, it will cut into people’s wages either directly as employers stagnate wages to pay for health insurance or indirectly as people spend increasing shares of their income on medical care.  Single-payer is a great start, but lots of evidence points toward other areas we can improve such as an overabundance of testing, often without any proof of their efficacy.

3.  Housing – Hey look another problem dealing with the economy.  You see, cities are coming back big time.  This is great.  People in cities are way more productive than their rural counterparts.  The problem is, cities are fascist despots when it comes to zoning.  Republicans decry every little thing the Obama administration does as an assault on our liberties, but never seem to care that city governments are telling people what they can and cannot build on their private property.  For the most part cities seem to dislike dense residential areas and sadly, the market is not great either as most developers want to make high margin luxury condos.  This is driving up housing prices in all growing cities and pushing poorer people into long commutes into the city.  And of course commuting is essentially the most depressing activity you can engage in.  Not only this, but it’s causing an exodus to shitty places like Texas where wages are actually relatively low, but it may make economic sense if housing costs less.  The thing is, more housing benefits everyone on the economic ladder as it lessens competition at every bracket and it makes labor cheaper in the city too which will lower prices for all other kinds of goods and services.

4.  Education – I think the worries over primary education are completely overblown.  It’s doing just fine for our middle class or higher families.  It’s doing terribly for our poor minorities.  However, a lot of that would be fixed by getting the #1 issue fixed.  My concern is more with the increasing inaccessibility of secondary education.  Huge amounts of student debt are not a solution.  For-profit colleges are a hair’s breadth away from being scams.  Something needs to change.

5. Immigration – The irony of immigration is that those most fervently opposed to it probably support free trade of goods.  However, immigration is just the import of labor, another economic input.  Freer immigration is a win for our society just like free trade.  Yeah, we can’t let everyone in, but our current restrictions are ridiculous and spending ever more on ridiculous border schemes seems absolutely crazy.

As I will talk about in a future post, our political system is grossly ineffective and I would not count on any of the above issues being tackled or if they are, it will be an ineffectual compromise.