Sunday, March 10, 2013

Why Jonathan Haidt is wrong

Jonathan Haidt is a remarkable man.  He is the dominant thinker on the psychology of morality today.  And he got there by doing something amazing.  He listened to what conservatives have to say about moral issues!  For someone with his liberal background that was a wrenching move.  Leftist psychologists have built up in their own minds a caricature of what conservatism is and work with that (e.g. here).  It is however a caricature that is more or less totally divorced from reality.  But since they never talk to conservatives they never find that out.  Haidt did talk -- and listen.

And what Haidt found was a real revolution in psychology.  He found that liberals were simplistic thinkers on questions of right and wrong (can you get much more simplistic than:  "There is no such thing as right and wrong"?) while conservatives had a much more complex account of moral issues. And that conclusion was precisely the opposite of what Leftist psychologists had been preaching for over 60 years at least.

I share that broad conclusion.  In my own academic career in the 70's and 80's I regularly got research published which challenged the prevailing notion that it was the conservatives who were the simple thinkers.

So where does Haidt go wrong?  I have set that out previously but the essence is that Haidt believes what people say about their own motivations.  He believes Leftists when they talk about their noble motivations of achieving equality etc.

Haidt has therefore built his castle on sand.  Ever since the work of LaPiere in the '30s psychologists have known of the large gap between people's attitudes and behaviour.  What they say about their values and intentions is a poor guide to what they will actually do in any given situation.

Why is that so?  Why can you not rely on what people report about their own inner life?  A very common answer to that which has been around for a long time is that people commonly "fake good":  They say what they think will make you think well of them.  They hide their real thoughts because they suspect that other people will disapprove of such thoughts.  And as a result, psychologists routinely use "Lie scales" or "social desirability scales" in their questionnaires to get some handle on such distortions.

I would argue that looking at what actually happens or has happened in politics (history) gives us a much more accurate interpretation of what actually drives people.

Leftists for instance are big preachers of tolerance but just listen to what they regularly say about conservatives and Christians.  Very often it is pure hate.  They have no actual tolerance at all.  They tolerate only their own views.  I document it often on my TONGUE-TIED blog.

And they rail against discrimination.  But as Haidt himself has emphasized, liberal professors discriminate heavily against conservatives in hiring and firing.  See also here.

And Leftists regularly claim to be anti-authority but in the global warming debate almost their only argument is that "the authorities" support global warming.  That the whole global warming scare relies on totally hypothetical (and improbable) "tipping points" seems generally to be unknown to them.   I document that authoritarianism regularly too  -- on my GREENIE WATCH blog.  And that arguments from authority are among the classic informal fallacies of logic seems to bother them not a bit.

And what about the great volte face from pre-war Leftism to modern-day Leftism?  Before WWII, Democrats and socialists generally energetically advocated eugenics, were great patriots, convinced racists and were by far the most antisemitic.  FDR turned back Jewish refugees and TR (founder of America's "progressive" party)  and his allies built battleships, invaded several other countries and  glorified war, seeing it as a purifying force. But Hitler had those ideas too so, when he was defeated, Leftists reversed direction and disowned most of their previous enthusiasms.  In other words, they stand for nothing. They have NO lasting principles or moral anchors.

So what DOES motivate Leftists and their Greenie fellow-travellers?  I think it's obvious if you look at real-life politics: Anger/Rage/Hate, closely related emotions that readily  morph into one-another.  Leftists are always claiming that hate motivates conservatives but that is just projection.  And projection is a good protective strategy.  It tends to make people say:  "A pox on both their houses!"

Like that great hater, Karl Marx, today's Green/Left hate just about everything in the world about them and want to change it.  And the torrent of abuse directed at those who disagree with them is patently in many cases pure hate.  Abuse is their shtick, not factual argument.  Haidt is failing to see the wood for the trees.  He is naive in a way that no psychologist should be.  He needs to look at real life political behaviour, not self-serving lies and airy theories.


Three Takeaways from Rand Paul's Filibuster About Drone Strikes

Yesterday's 12-hours-plus filibuster led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is among the most electrifying and insipiring events in recent political memory. The point of the filibuster - which derailed a confirmation vote on John Brennan as Barack Obama's CIA head - was to call attention to the president's insufficient answers to questions about his policy of targeted killings via drones and, one assumes, other methods.

Here are three takeaways from yesterday's epic event:

1. It shows what one man can do to call attention to a hugely important issue that nonetheless is largley ignored by the mainstream media and the political establishment.

Elected in 2010, Rand Paul has rarely been the Republican - or the Democrat's - media favorite. He's been heckled big time from his own side (which initially worked against his election) and across the aisle as an irresponsible ideologue (he's a dirty tea-bagger don't you know!). Among a good chunk of his father's most devoted followers, he's been assailed as a neo-con war hawk who was willing to trim his libertarian bona fides to win favor with the D.C. party crowd. His sad-sack opponent in the general election  the GOP primary, Jack Conway, set new lows with the infamous "Aqua Buddha" ad that accused Paul of everything short of devil worship; his general election opponent in the GOP primary, Trey Grayson, had already trotted out many of the same pathetic lines.

reasonYet since showing up in D.C., Paul has been exactly what Reason dubbed him: "The most intersting man in the Senate" who has offered specific legislation and made extended arguments for a unified vision of limited government that is not only fully within some great lines of American political tradition but urgently needed in the current moment. Senators who pride themselves on their foreign policy expertise and have free-loaded for decades in D.C. haven't made a speech as thoughtful and out-front as the one he delivered a while back at The Heritage Foundation, for god's sake.

Rand Paul didn't speak or act alone yesterday, of course - and props to the dozen or so colleagues (including a Democrat or two) who joined him on stage or otherwise engaged him. But the opthamologist from Bowling Green, Kentucky almost singelhandedly brought the news cycle to a halt yesterday by insisting that the American government answer some basic questions about how, when, where, and under what circumstances it thinks it has the right to kill its own citizens.

2. It shows the power of transpartisan thought and action. Make no mistake: Despite the presence of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), yesterday's filibuster was a GOP-conducted orchestra. But what was most bracing and ultimately powerful thing about the filibuster was that none of the speakers exempted the Republican Party or former President George W. Bush, whose aggrandized view of executive power still roils the sleep of the Founding Fathers, from withering criticism and scrutiny. How else to explain that hard-left groups such as Code Pink were proud to #standwithrand yesterday on Twitter? The same with reliable Rand and GOP critic Eugene Robinson and many others who up until yesterday thought little of Rand Paul.

The filibuster succeeded precisely because it wasn't a cheap partisan ploy but because the substance under discussion - why won't the president of the United States, his attorney general, and his nominee to head the CIA explain their views on limits to their power? - transcends anything so banal or ephemeral as party affiliation or ideological score-settling.

The chills started early in the filibuster as Paul said things along the lines of, "If you're gonna kill people in America [as terrorists], you need rules and we need to know your rules," and "To be bombed in your sleep - there's nothing American, nothing constitutional, about that" (these quotes are paraphrases). Those are not the words of a career politician trying to gain an advantage during the next round of horse-trading over a pork-barrel project. They are the words of a patriot who puts his country first and they inspire accordingly.

3. It ties a direct line between the abuses of power and the growth of the state.

Despite using various self-identifiers over the years (he's called himself a libertarian, a conservative, a constitutional conservative, etc.) Rand Paul has always been rightly understood as an advocate of sharply limited and small government. During his Senate race, for instance, he said questions about drug legalization should be pushed back towards the states, where different models could be tried in accordance with the wishes of the people most directly affected. He presented a budget that was heavy on spending cuts that would have balanced the budget in five years. He has called for either actually declaring war on countries such as Iraq and Libya or getting the hell out. What unites his positions is a default setting against giving the federal government a free hand to do whatever it wants irrespective of constitutional limits.

A year or so ago, we were debating whether the government had the right to force its citizens to engage in particular economic activity - that was the heart of the fight over the mandate to buy insurance in Obamacare. That overreach - and the fear that a government that can make you buy something can also theoretically make you eat broccoli - was at the heart of Rand Paul's opposition to the Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court ruled that in fact, the federal government not only has the right to regulate commercial transactions that take place anywhere in these United States, it has the right to force them to take place.

And now, we're arguing over whether the president of the United States in his role as commander in chief in an ill-defined, barely articulated "global war on terror" has the right to kill U.S. citizens without presenting any sort of charges to any sort of court. In fact, it's worse than that, since the president won't even share his rationale for what he may or may not believe with the country's legislature.

By foregounding the issues of limited government, transparency, and oversight as they relate specifically to the most obvious and brazen threat to civil liberties imaginable, Rand Paul and his filibuster have also tied a direct line to a far more wide-ranging and urgently needed conversation about what sort of government we have in America - and what sort of government we should have.



To create growth, unleash the invisible foot

Across the political spectrum, there is a growing recognition that while short-term battles over government spending are important, they would be far less ferocious and intense if our economy were growing at a faster clip. But while conservatives and liberals alike clamor for more growth, they disagree about how to produce it. The key is unleashing what the economist Joseph Berliner once called the “Invisible Foot,” the neglected counterpart to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”

Before we turn to the Invisible Foot, let’s think through the prescriptions for growth offered by Democrats and Republicans. President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies often argue that substantial increases in public investment will deliver robust growth. Republicans, in contrast, emphasize the notion that reductions in marginal tax rates will spur growth by increasing the incentives to work and invest. These approaches are obviously far apart, yet they face at least two common obstacles. First, the aging of the population and the high cost of health entitlements severely limit the government’s ability to increase spending or cut taxes. Second, advanced economies have by definition already taken advantage of the most obvious sources of productivity growth and so are forced to innovate to find new sources of productivity growth. And innovation is a trial-and-error process that is far more expensive and arduous than simply following the leader.

So the question of the day isn’t whether we want growth (yes, we want it badly) or whether we can dramatically increase public investment or dramatically cut taxes (neither strategy is in the cards). Rather, it is whether there is anything we can do to make the American economy friendlier to the kind of risk-taking and innovation that will eventually yield productivity gains without breaking the bank.

Enter the invisible foot. Despite sluggish growth, large U.S. business enterprises have fared reasonably well in the post-crisis years. Corporate profits after taxes have hovered around 10 percent of gross domestic product, almost twice as high as they were during the Reagan years. High corporate profits aren’t an intrinsically bad thing. Yet we’d normally expect that they would over time be reduced by competition from new entrants enticed by the prospect of making their own fortunes. This invisible foot of new competition is what drives incumbent firms to either step up their games ‑ a process that often involves burning through stockpiles of cash and shrinking profits ‑ or go out of business.

Unfortunately, this reallocation of resources ‑ from inefficient incumbents to innovative upstarts and the incumbents that manage to keep up with them ‑ stops when incumbent firms succeed in erecting regulatory and legal barriers to shield themselves against competitors, which is why regulatory reform and patent reform are so important. It is also why we ought to take care not to give large incumbents any undue advantages in our tax code.

As it turns out, the U.S. tax code does give large incumbents an enormous advantage over start-ups by subsidizing corporate debt. When businesses want to raise money for operations, they can pour their profits back into the business, they can sell shares or they can borrow. In an ideal world, we’d want business enterprises to make these decisions on the basis of what makes the most sense based on underlying economic conditions. But in the United States, we allow companies to deduct interest expenses from their taxes but not dividends on their stocks. This makes it far cheaper for companies to raise money by borrowing than by selling shares.

One reason this debt bias is a problem is that it leads companies to take on large amounts of debt, which raises the risk that they will go bankrupt. Yet there is another problem: It is much easier for some companies to borrow than for others. Specifically, well-established firms ‑ for example, large incumbents with pricing power that have been around for years ‑ find it much easier to borrow than new, unproven firms with high-growth potential, which have little choice but to rely on selling shares to finance investment. And so the tax-deductibility of interest expenses and not dividends gives the entrenched corporate Goliaths that have the option to borrow a big boost, while doing nothing for the would-be corporate Davids eager to take them on.

With this in mind, Robert Pozen of the Brookings Institution and Harvard Business School and his research associate, Lucas Goodman, have devised an ingenious plan to level the playing field. First, they call for cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. This lower statutory rate will make the U.S. a much more attractive destination for profitable investment projects, particularly since our current corporate tax rate of 35 percent is the highest in the industrialized world. To finance this substantial cut, Pozen and Goodman propose a modest 60 percent to 85 percent cap on the amount of interest companies can deduct from their tax bills, sharply reducing debt bias and keeping the proposal revenue-neutral. Firms that rely heavily on debt would cry foul, and for some the process of reducing debt levels would be painful. Yet start-ups that don’t have the option of raising money by taking on enormous amounts of debt would find themselves at far less of a disadvantage. The end result could be an entrepreneurial renaissance, as lumbering corporate dinosaurs that had used cheap credit to scare off competitors are forced to reckon with innovative new rivals.

And if reducing the debt bias really does encourage start-up activity, the implications for employment levels could be significant. As the economists John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin, and Javier Miranda have observed, start-ups and young firms make a substantial direct contribution to creating jobs. Yet they can also make an indirect contribution to job creation by forcing incumbent firms out of their defensive crouch and into a fight to retain and gain market share. Consumers will also stand to benefit from this kick of the invisible foot as competition forces down prices and gives rise to entirely new products and services.

There is obviously no guarantee that reducing the tax code’s debt bias will be a silver bullet for economic growth. But Pozen and Goodman’s plan has enormous upside potential and, if designed with care, wouldn’t add a dime to the deficit. It would be foolish not to give it a try.




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