“The stupidity of the American electorate,” Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber repeated to his Democratic colleagues, was essential to passing that law. Had Americans suspected the reality: that the law does not let them keep their doctors or their plans, that it makes them pay more for less, they would have warned Democrats that voting for the law would mean being voted out. But the Democrats, combining deception with shortsightedness, passed Obamacare – and, when reality blew away their fog, got voted out.
Recently, I have taken to reading the website Vox, started by Ezra Klein based on the view “that current news websites [do] not provide enough context to the stories they cover.” I agree that Vox provides a lot of background, which makes it attractive. I also read it because I like to have access to different political perspectives, and Klein’s is certainly that.
A recent article on Vox illustrates the benefits and costs of the website. The piece “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” written by Ezra Klein, discusses the work of Yale Law Professor Dan Kahan, which argues that people often reject evidence because of the social effects that accepting that evidence would produce. Kahan’s theory is called Identity-Protective Cognition. As Klein quotes Kahan, “as a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” The idea is that if someone suddenly accepted arguments from a different ideological perspective, their friends and support groups – which are organized ideologically – would criticize them and most people are unwilling to accept that.
The idea is quite interesting. To my mind, it is not simply that one’s support groups would attack one for straying from the party line; it is also that those same groups praise us when we further their values. When one adds these motivations to the ideological passions, the effect is very powerful.
What is funny is that Klein appears to recognize, at least implicitly, that “identity protective cognition” applies to both the left and the right, but the article is filled only with examples of right wing people rejecting evidence – whether it be Justice Scalia, Sean Hannity, or more generically people who reject climate change. It is as if Klein wants to suggest that people on the left are not motivated by such considerations. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
The knock on the CIA is that its interrogation program, exposed as ineffective and abusive in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s recent report, was lawless. But the agency’s worst excesses may have resulted from the attempt to be excessively lawful.
Such a paradox can only come about when what Edmund Burke called “the first of all virtues, prudence,” has fled the scene. The Intelligence Committee’s voluminous report (even its summary is 525 pages long) is an in-depth account of that decline.
The New York Times has been running a multi-part story—with countless additional internal links—on the connections between (Republican) state attorneys general and industry groups and their lawyers and lobbyists. There’s lots of wining and dining in fancy places to gain and maintain corporate access to state AG’s when it’s needed—more often than not, to deal with this or that multi-state investigation and prosecution. Also, the energy industry in particular has made common cause with state AG’s in fighting the Obama administration’s climate change agenda. The article series is quite good in a Times-ish way—informative to the point of exhaustion, self-congratulatory (“We intrepid reporters unearthed this information on the internet! And through open records requests!”), and slightly paranoid.
Perhaps the biggest technology story of the year is also the most general—the recognition that machine intelligence is poised to displace more people in the labor market more rapidly than ever before. Among many other treatments, two economists wrote a well reviewed book, the Second Machine Age, on the subject, the financial commentator Nouriel Roubini took note of the trend, and the New York Times recently wrote a long piece trumpeting the development. I wrote about machine intelligence’s imminent invasion of the legal space. But this news is all around us. Google and others are developing self-driving cars. Self-service kiosks are replacing cashiers.
The cause of this development is the most important phenomenon of our age—the relentless exponential increase in computer power. Until a certain level of power is reached, computers cannot compete with humans. But once they get into a domain they can improve rapidly until they oust human competitors.
[Update: According to the Washington Post, yesterday Paramount Pictures, the maker of Team America, pulled that film—a 2004 puppet animation satirizing Kim Jong Il, among other targets—from all theaters. Alamo Drafthouse’s defiant showing of it will apparently not take place.]
Last month, when hackers invaded the personal and medical information of every employee of Sony Pictures, and then threatened to bomb any theater that screened the studio’s new movie, The Interview, the reaction was clueless.
It was a Seth Rogen comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong Un, and the hackers were presumed to be the North Koreans or their proxies. Here was a private American company being punished by sophisticated cyber-attackers from abroad who menaced life and limb. But so what—Rogen and other Hollywood figures like Aaron Sorkin did nothing but complain about the disclosure of their private emails in the massive cyber attack. The entertainment press that covers them (such as the website The Wrap) was similarly preoccupied, hyping the gossipy highlights of those emails.
That this was shaping up as a much bigger event became inescapable yesterday, though.
When Gary Becker put forward his idea of human capital in 1964, it was to address the effects of knowledge and training on individual economic performance. This idea can and should be extended to gauge the productive capacities of society in general.
Cultural patterns of behavior that become engrained over time, such as norms of punctuality, honesty, sobriety, or what others might call social capital, are just another way of speaking about human capital. When Max Weber described the attributes of character that marked the modern bourgeois, he was in fact emphasizing patterns of beliefs that facilitated the operation of markets by enabling individuals to effectively negotiate their social landscape—to engage in commerce and production over the long run.
One of the criticisms of the Cromnibus is that it very substantially raises the amount individuals can give to political parties. But this change was inevitable and generally positive. It was inevitable, because recent Supreme Court and lower court decisions have protected the First Amendment rights of citizens to band together for political messaging at election time. Without corresponding increases in the capacity to fund themselves, political parties would become a relatively less important political platform.
This development is also a positive one so long as it happens in concert with empowering electoral speech by individuals not connected with parties.
For a time now, the crusade to declare a rape culture on campuses and to address it through a series of standards that denies accused males a variety of due process protections has been progressing largely unimpeded. Perhaps the high point was the California affirmative consent statute and the Rolling Stone article on the alleged University of Virginia rape at a fraternity.
But since those two events, there has been a significant pushback against the crusade. Of course, the crumbling of the Rolling Stone article has been important, showing once again (after Duke, after Hofstra, etc, etc.) that such allegations are sometimes not credible. But it has also been 28 Harvard Law Professors – mainly of the left – who have attacked the one sided standards at Harvard.
Now comes an excellent article by Emily Yoffe who writes the Dear Prudence column at Slate. Yoffe is no right winger (in fact, I have sometimes disagreed with her advice from my own political perspective) and has very mainstream media credentials.
Joseph de Maistre never met men in the abstract. Frenchmen, Italians, yes—but not “Man.” There were no universal principles of government, applicable to all men at all times, only governments suited to the different kinds of people in different countries.
Maistre was right, and to that extent, American conservatives are wrong if they think that their constitution is the perfection of human reason, a light unto the Gentiles. They’re especially wrong since the Constitution isn’t looking too good these days. One can love liberty and one can love America’s Constitution, but one can’t love both together without a thick set of blinders.