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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Are Welfare debates unresolvable?

If I know you're opposed to gay marriage, it'd be safe to infer you're not a fan of amnesty for illegal immigrants.  And if you tell me you're very concerned about global warming, I can divine with some accuracy your attitude toward Obamacare.

This, of course, makes no damn sense.

Is there a refugee crisis on Fire Island?  Does your insurer index your co-pays to worldwide carbon emissions?  These issues are not related in real life, yet our attitudes on the subjects are.  Why?

The world of politics is frustratingly irrational.  We like to imagine our political positions to be the result of careful and calculated reasoning.  That we examined all the facts, objectively and impartially, and came to the inescapable conclusions.  At least that's our story.

But let's be honest...that's total nonsense!  If our politics and values were governed by pure reason, we'd have as many political parties as we have people!

No two people have the same goals, experiences or endowments.  So why can we predict things like voting patterns (on a national scale, no less), with decent accuracy, based on characteristics as broad as race and geography

Its so obvious, I think its axiomatic.  Our morals - our core beliefs about right and wrong - come from the heart, not from the head.  C'mon, be real!  You've observed this phenomenon in your own life and social circle.  You've observed it yourself.  Why is it so hard for us to admit it?

"The Righteous Mind"

When I see a review claim a new book to be "a landmark contribution to humanity’s understanding of itself," I my eyes roll just as hard as your would.  However, in the case of Jonathan Haidt's "The Righteous Mind," the accolade is deserved.  Seriously.

I just got finished reading this book, and was absolutely floored by it.  Haidt is a psychologist who studies the psychology of values.  From the time we were children, we perpetually are registering certain human actions as right or wrong, fair or cruel, good or bad.  Haidt wants to know how our brain arrives at to its judgement.

In this new book of his, he walks the reader through the last 15 years of his research and experiments, in a way that's extremely easy to read and comprehend.  His ideas are nuanced and intricate, but the writing is very clear, very engaging.

Every few pages of this book, I came across an observation that made me say: "Jeez that's so obvious!  Why did I never notice that before!"  I think that's what made the book so exciting.

I haven't found any negative reviews of the book yet...and I think its just because it's so hard to argue with Haidt's observations, that a negative review would be impossible to write!

I'm not going to get into the book's contentions in this post - the ideas aren't soundbiteable (and if you really want to know, you can just read the book yourselve).  But if you want to get a quick taste of his work, check out Haidt's TED talks.

The basics

Economics is barely mentioned at all in the book, however there's a few points Haidt's make about human thinking itself that I thought could have fresh - and worrying - implications for economists.

First, a little context: Haidt talks about our values/political leaning (e.g. "liberal," "conservative," "libertarian") kind of like they were personality types.

I'm on board with that.  Whatever way we lean politically, we lean that way all the time.  I don't wake up some days a Republican, other days a Dem.  If your friend was a conservative five years ago, you would assume they are one now.  Our politics is part of our personal identity.

We even acknowledge this in our speech.  "We are liberal," "he is a conservative," "I am an independent."  Heck, you can even hard-set your politics on your facebook page, right along with other personal data like your gender, school, and date of birth!

Haidt suggests that political labels/identities are a social construct we use to organize certain personality types, not the other way around.  As we created the idea of "liberal," to categorize a type of person that has always existed (i.e. excited about novelty, higher capacity for sympathy, etc.), for example.

He points out that some people just have stronger senses of empathy than others.  In his experiments, Haidt found that subjects who show abnormal high level of worry for others also tended to identify themselves as 'liberals.'

Haidt doesn't think that these people "became" liberal through some accident (what ever that would mean), and then decided to just stay 'liberal' without actually being liberal (what ever that would mean), and inadvertently learned empathy - on account of that narrative making absolutely no sense.

Instead, he points out it has to work the other way - an individual develops that empathy on their own, and when they operationalize/express it, society just deems that "being a liberal."

I'm 100% on board with this whole heuristic, and here's my simple argument supporting it: human nature existed before the advent of the Democratic and Republican parties, will still be around even after they have ceased exist.


With these concepts in mind, check out the following passage from "The Righteous Mind" (pg 159-160):

"On the left, concerns about equality and social justice are based in part on the Fairness foundation—wealthy and powerful groups are accused of gaining by exploiting those at the bottom while not paying their “fair share” of the tax burden. This is a major theme of the Occupy Wall Street movement...  

On the right, the Tea Party movement is also very concerned about fairness. They see Democrats as “socialists” who take money from hardworking Americans and give it to lazy people (including those who receive welfare or unemployment benefits) and to illegal immigrants (in the form of free health care and education).

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes."  
(Emphasis added)

WOW!  In just a few clean sentences, Haidt puts together a very satisfying explanation of something I've been trying to get my head around since high school.

Some people feel "fairness" means every one is on the same level - an equal playing field.  Others see "fairness" as proportionality - everyone getting out what they put in.  

We just so happen to call the people of former persuasion "liberal," and the latter "conservatives," but the psychology predates the politics.

The important thing to note is that the ideas exist independent of the labels.  The differing attitudes are first and foremost results people's personalities, the designation of these as two fundamentally, intrinsically different camps, is a post-hoc social construct.

Honestly, Haidt's assertions don't sound much like a "hypothesis" to me at all.   It sounds like a rather a good description of observable human behavior.

Who doesn't associate the left with a 'concern for the have nots'?  Or with a automatic revulsion for the well off?  And who doesn't consider the fascination with the 'lazy' people who leech off the hard work of others, and the reverence of the 'self made man' a 'conservative' trait?

What's all this have to do with "Welfare debates"?

If Haidt is correct (and it really feels like he's on to something here), then those Welfare debates I  recently wrote about are essentially unresolvable.  The only way one side of the political spectrum can win is for the other side to lose - both sides can see nothing but injustice in the other's approach! 

Think about it: "Welfare" type programs (the kinds that actually exist, like food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, etc.) involves transferring wealth from those who have it to those who don't.

For the 'liberal,' this is "fair," since it puts all citizens on an equal footing, and gets rid of the undue advantages the hegemon enjoys.

For the 'conservative,' this type of program is intrinsically unfair...for the exact same reason the liberal sees it "fair"!!  The conservative correctly sees "The Welfare State" as extracting money earned by workers and corporations, and handing it to those who do not earn.

The converse is true if the Welfare programs were to be removed - the conservatives would see this as fair, since everyone gets to keep what they've earned, but the liberals see this as unfair since it leaves poorer folks high and dry.

With the two interpretations of "fairness" so diametrically opposed, there really is no room for consensus.  No matter who gets there way, the other side will see it as a great wrong that must be undone. 

This is probably why these debates get so heated, and are rarely productive - both camps sees the other guy's positions as "lets do something bad."

And if these positions are rooted in your personality, in the very fiber of your being, and NOT in your rational/reasoning mind (as Haidt suggests), then how the hell can we ever hope for people to accept compromise?  These attitudes are hard wired.

Ugh.  Scary, right?


  1. But that can't be true, right?

    If the positions are hard-wired, how did any shift in political views ever occur? Forget all the changes that have occurred since the Constitution was written, just over the last ten years we've seen shifts in the view of gay marriage. The evidence that these views are still labile is all around us.

  2. Hold your cursor over the words "hard wired" in yellow, at the end


    Was it always like that or did you do that just for me?

    -Your Devil's Advocate