Later On

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A strong indication of a sick society

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Absolute intolerance of undesired facts—we see that in the US as well. But not to this level.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 December 2014 at 3:10 pm

Posted in Media, Politics

Political identity from dissimilar cognitive biases

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Very interesting column by Paul Rosenberg in Salon:

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, it marked the first time in 70 years that conservative Republicans controlled all three branches of government. By the time Bush left office, we were all reminded why. The financial crisis and resulting global economic meltdown Bush left us with were eerily reminiscent of the Great Depression, but there was also 9/11, the Iraq War and Katrina—a multifaceted record of spectacular failure so stunning that it should have disqualified conservative Republicans from holding power for at least another seven decades.  Yet, the Democrats’ political response to the many messes Bush left behind has been so spectacularly inept that they’ve not only lost both houses of Congress, they’ve also lost more state legislative seats than any time since before the Great Recession.

There are many ways one might explain this state of affairs—and certainly the rise of Wall Street Democrats and the decline of labor played crucial roles. But beyond any particular issue area, there’s also the matter of differences in how liberals and conservatives think—and how they act and organize as a result.

As I’ve written before, a growing body of literature reveals that liberals and conservatives think differently from one another in ways that can even be traced back, in part, to the level of instinctual response, reflecting conservatives’ heightened sensitivity to threat bias. This work is congruent with an integrated multi-factor account offered by John Jost and three co-authors in the 2003 meta-analysis “Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition.” In their abstract, they explained,  “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism–intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” Their meta-analysis integrated findings from 88 sample studies in 12 countries, with 22,818 individual subjects—meaning it drew on a substantial body of work by others.

Yet, once publicized, it drew such a hostile response there was even talk of Congress defunding the entire field of research into political attitudes. In response, Jost and one co-author wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed, which defused the crisis. In it, they wrote:

True, we find some support for the traditional “rigidity-of-the-right” hypothesis, but it is also true that liberals could be characterized on the basis of our overall profile as relatively disorganized, indecisive and perhaps overly drawn to ambiguity — all of which may be liabilities in mass politics and other public and professional domains.

This statement underscores the point that liberal cognitive tendencies can be as problematic in their way as conservative ones are.

The multi-factor distinction Jost and his colleagues analyzed is roughly congruent with a broader distinction, discussed by Chris Mooney in”The Republican Brain” (which  I wrote about here), related to two of the “Big Five” personality traits—conservatives score higher on conscientiousness, while liberals score higher on openness to new experience.

As these few examples suggest, there are multiple ways to characterize the differences in how liberals and conservatives think. For instance, Mooney argued that liberals, still fundamentally inspired by the Enlightenment promise of ever-growing knowledge about the world, are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of human reason, which they see as knowledge- and truth-seeking. But modern cognitive science teaches us that our brains are much more fundamentally shaped by the need to make persuasive arguments, which only require the appearance of rational argument.

In “The Battle for God,” Karen Armstrong illuminates a slightly different, though related, difference, contrasting the modalities of mythos and logos. As Armstrong explains, logosis concerned with the practical understanding of how things work in the world, whilemythos is concerned with ultimate meaning. Either modality can be used by liberals and conservatives alike in their everyday lives. But macro-historically, there’s been a distinct bias—and weird twist on top of it—at least since the dawn of the modern era. That’s whenlogos began becoming so all-pervasive that it seemed destined to dislodge mythos, and some defenders of mythos (now commonly known as fundamentalists) fought back paradoxically by assuming the framework of logos, and arguing that their mythos was literally true—a move that true traditionalists would have found to be deeply in error, because it devalued the essential purpose of mythos.

The congruence with Mooney’s argument is obvious: There’s a clear kinship betweenlogos and the Enlightenment model of reason on the one hand, and mythos and persuasion on the other. If conservatives under George W. Bush once again proved themselves incompetent in the logos of governing, liberals under Obama proved themselves incompetent in its mythos.

Or so I hypothesized. But I wanted to check things out with perhaps the world’s leading expert on incompetence, psychologist David Dunning, the senior researcher in the team that discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect, which Wikpedepia defines as “a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.” Wikipedia added that “This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” Or, as Dunning explained to Errol Morris, writing an essay series, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is,” for the New York Times, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent … [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”  A recent article by Dunning, “We Are All Confident Idiots,” provides both humorous and serious examples showing just how pervasive the problem is.

Like many, I first learned of the Dunning-Kruger effect from that NYT series—and made some observations based on it at the time. There are obvious conclusions one can draw from the Dunning-Kruger effect: perhaps most important, that none of those obvious conclusions will apply to your own shortcomings, even though those are the ones that ought to concern you most. But this is specifically an individual effect, and my observation was about groups—and rather large ones, at that. So in reaching out to talk with Dunning, behind any specifics, I had two questions in mind: Could it apply to groups as well as individuals? And was it possible to do something about it?

In both cases, he answered yes, but some of the specifics surprised me. Which is just what I should have expected—to discover some limits of my own understanding. (Dunning himself has referenced Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase “unknown unknowns” to describe what we’re up against, just by the very nature of being human. But don’t have a cow, man. He’s also referenced Socrates, as well.)

To begin with, I wanted to make sure we were on the same page. An example that came readily to mind was the GOP’s claims to have 46 jobs bills that had passed the House, and were languishing in the Senate. If only Obama and Harry Reid would act on them!  The reality, of course, is that these bills would not actually do very much in the way of job creation, as critics have pointed out repeatedly over the past several years. In late October, the New York Times even interviewed some top GOP economists who admitted as much, along with independent analysts who said it would be hard to measure much impact.

In short, the GOP “jobs bills” aren’t seriously intended to create jobs. They’re intended to create talking points about creating jobs — and to counter Democratic talking points (while also doing favors for GOP donors, of course). They reflect both the persuasive nature of human cognition highlighted by Chris Mooney, and the meaning-making function of mythos described by Karen Armstrong. They might not create many jobs, I noted early in my conversation with Dunning—it’s aggregate demand that’s the primary driver in doing that—but they do resonate with the “job creator” mythos, which has been so prominent in conservative circles these past several years, and which makes perfect sense in the world of small businessmen I’ve known.

Dunning thought it was an apt example. He noted that people are often perplexed over where a never-ending, chicken-and-egg cycle begins. “You have business people, they don’t just decide there is going to be a market, they respond to the market, they respond to a demand,” Dunning said. “But they start the process where they enter the picture … People tend to think of themselves sort of as creators who come in and are imposing their will and their desires on the environment, and sort of filter out the conditions that they are really reacting to. They can recognize it pretty accurately for everybody else, they just miss that for themselves. Which I think is interesting.”

Understanding an example of how conservatives’ thinking leads them astray is the easy part, however. It helped to get our thinking in sync. But the real challenge would be making sense of how liberals and Democrats make comparable kinds of errors—errors they cannot see. And here is where things had to get a bit tricky, since

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 November 2014 at 9:52 am

Posted in Politics, Science

European science’s great leap backward

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Michael Specter writes at the New Yorker:

Since 2012, the distinguished Scottish biologist Anne Glover has served as chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission. When José Manuel Barroso, who was then President, appointed her to the post, he described the job as one that should “provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation.”

Last week, Jean-Claude Juncker, the man who has just succeeded Barroso, announced that he would not reappoint Glover. In fact, Juncker, the former Prime Minster of Luxembourg, abolished the position of chief scientific adviser entirely. The decision was a clear victory for Greenpeace and its hidebound allies, who had long sought Glover’s dismissal.

The complaint against Glover was simple: when providing scientific advice to the commission on a range of issues, from nanotechnology to G.M.O.s, she invoked data rather than rely on politics or whim. Last year, at a conference in Scotland, for example, she said that there was “not a single piece of scientific evidence” to support critics’ claims that food produced from G.M.O.s was less safe than food grown in any other way. “No other foodstuff has been so thoroughly investigated as G.M.,” Glover said, and described the opposition as “a form of madness.”

This kind of talk from a public scientist was too much for European activists to bear. In July, several groups, led by Greenpeace, expressed their displeasure with Glover in a letter to Juncker: “The current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety.… We hope that you as the incoming Commission President will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser.” Score one for the Luddites.

When commenting on Glover’s dismissal, a spokeswoman for the European Commission said, “President Juncker believes in independent scientific advice. He has not yet decided how to institutionalize this independent scientific advice.” This sentiment would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. When politicians reject verifiable data and reputable research and rely instead on politics or desire, the results can be devastating. To cite a particularly painful example, Thabo Mbeki, the former President of South Africa and an AIDSdenier, refused to recognize Western pharmaceutical solutions to the H.I.V. epidemic. In urging the use of home remedies like beetroot and garlic instead of anti-retroviral drugs, Mbeki hastened the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

Glover has been dismissed at a time when there has never been a broader scientific consensus about the safety of agricultural biotechnology or better data to support that consensus. Recently, for example, researchers at the University of Göttingen published a comprehensive analysis of studies that have assessed the impact of G.M. crops. It found that the agronomic and economic benefits, not only in the United States but in the developing world, have been significant: “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

The World Heath Organization has repeatedly weighed in on the safety of genetically engineered products, proclaiming, “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of G.M. foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine has come to the same conclusion: “Foods derived from G.M. crops have been consumed by hundreds of millions of people across the world for more than fifteen years with no reported ill effects (or legal cases related to human health) despite many of the consumers coming from that most litigious of countries the U.S.A.” In addition to the W.H.O. and the Royal Society, scientific organizations from around the world, including the European Commission and, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences, have strongly endorsed the safety of G.M. foods. (It should be noted that the U.S. can claim no superiority in our approach to evidence-based science, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly half of the country rejects the “theory” of evolution, and that vaccination rates in the fancier precincts of Los Angeles are comparable to those in Sudan.)

Scientific leaders were outraged by Juncker’s action. . .

Continue reading.

Greenpeace is drunk on righteousness.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 November 2014 at 11:07 am

Why the white working class hates Democrats

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Interesting note by Kevin Drum. It’s because Democrats support programs that help the poor.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2014 at 11:43 am

Posted in Politics

Kevin Drum gets exasperated

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Venting a little. And check out those comments.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 November 2014 at 5:53 pm

[Fake] Letter from the Norwegian Nobel Committee to President Barack Obama

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Reported in The Intercept, apparently as a parody but not identified as such:

President Barack H. Obama
The White House
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

It was late in the evening when we first learned of your decision Friday to deploy an additional 1,500 troops to Iraq. Sorry, we were catching up on the latest episode of “Lilyhammer.” But, seriously, is that a tradition in the States? Releasing such news late on a Friday with the fatuous hope people would forget by Monday? But on second thought, after perusing the American media, it’s possible such schemes may be effective. There appears to be more concern over one Ebola patient— in a country of 316 million people— than the news that your administration is invading Iraq all over again.

Did you forget the words you spoke in Chicago on October 2, 2002? “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. . . That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics”. Were those your words or merely the pandering musings of a state senator with grander political ambitions? If so, you succeeded. Because in 2011, as President, you announced the “end” of the Iraq War, and you boasted “The tide of war is receding”. Was that a twisted joke? You have bombed 7 predominately Muslim countries. That’s not to mention the thousands killed because of your imperialist policies or the Americans you have targeted with military drones, and without due process.

Did you also forget your speech on that crisp December day five years ago next month? “Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.” You certainly haven’t followed said standards; it doesn’t appear you ever even intended to. After all, your expansion of executive war powers will be the biggest stain on your floundering presidency. Worse than George W. Bush.

You are the most undeserving Nobel Peace Prize winner since the odious, war-mongering Henry Kissinger. What company you keep! We were delusional dupes for giving the Peace Prize to him and you both. That is all. Now, back to “Lilyhammer.”

The Norwegian Nobel Committee
Drammensveien 19 NO-0255 OSLO

And if Glennon’s book is accurate, and certainly the reviewer mentions no howlers he made, then Obama is simply incapable of meeting the demands: the deep-state second government of our security apparatus, and the security apparatus is the combined might of a great many agencies with a common mindset, a lot of overlap of training, a sense of working for the right cause (righteousness)—a great meme except that it evolves into, “And since we are doing this for good, we can do any damn thing we want, so long as it is for the good,” and (perhaps unsurprisingly) quite a wide range of things turn out to be for the good—some that you’d probably not suspect, such as torture. But that’s absolutely necessary. And that applies, BTW, to suspects, because waiting for a warrant or even looking for probable cause—that’s the sort of red tape that lets the bad guys get away, and bringing it up makes you a bad guy sympathizer.

Worse yet, all that apparatus is just a tool. The control lies with those of extreme wealth, the tiny minority that have the resources to purchase a national newspaper—and being published in DC, perhaps the national newspaper (though it’s been declining badly)—as a hobby, or the Koch brothers, Sheldon Aldelson, and others more or less openly bidding for control of the overt government.

It’s amazing to see it playing out in reality—more intense and complex than Game of Thrones, and yet people don’t seem interested—cf. recent mid-term election. Perhaps they’ve now figured that it doesn’t make any difference?, though it certainly could: a solid majority in Congress can indeed pass laws, and things can happen, but it requires a common will. I recall from an earlier blog post on the fall of the Berlin Wall two different things. First this passage:

What had changed was the self-assurance of the people. By autumn 1989, the protest movement had gained sufficient confidence to take advantage of this incompetence. The people already knew the authorities would back down: A month earlier, peaceful protesters in Leipzig had turned out in such overwhelming numbers that the security forces, which we now know had planned a Tiananmen-style crackdown, had backed off.

And they knew they could trust each other. Stasi interrogators had once asked a prisoner named Katrin Hattenhauer, a young rebel, how she and her fellow dissidents held together despite all of the Stasi’s actions against them. She replied that shared suffering welded people together more strongly than shared success: “Where the hammer has come down, whatever is underneath is going to hold together.”

And then a thought-provoking comment from “Umbrella”:

I am writing from Hong Kong, a Westernised-city within the holds of China. The situation is a bit inverted, we are just a tiny city in the midst of the concrete dragon which is China, lead by a group of government puppets who are intertwined with the 41 tycoons who control 70% of our GDP. Every day, I hear from my parents, my in-laws, my bosses, “The student movement and protests are no use, don’t fight with China, it is a regime that is omnipotent, ruthless and rich. Just give up.” But what they fail to see, or are too scared to see, is that our future is not defined by those who refuse to change, but by those who will fight for change.

That security mindset controls the combined might of the following: police (local, county, state), security personnel (bodyguards, armed property guards, armed response units in private security, and, of course, in many states any citizen who fears for his life is free to use deadly force, so perhaps they count as a way to keep people fearful, since fearful people tend to want even more security: it’s a self-licking ice-cream cone. [edit: It just occurred to me that only some people become more fearful when reading of stand-your-ground killings—I feel sure that in others it arouses a different feeling, a wondering about what it feels like, to stand your ground—followed by rereading the parts about “feeling in fear for your life.” Must remember that. – LG] But to continue: to those add: the military, FBI, Secret Service, DEA, Border Patrol, IRS, CIA, NSA, and all the other intelligence agencies (military, private), SWAT teams (now operating as private-corporation independent entities—businesses—under contract to several police forces), the independent mercenary forces (Blackwater/Xe Services/Academi/? (candidates for the next namechange required by war crimes such as slaughter of civilians). I’m sure there are others.

That’s just part of the second government against which Obama cannot act. The review blogged earlier observes:

As Glennon points out, presidents get to name fewer than 250 political appointees among the Defense Department’s nearly 700,000 civilian employees, with hundreds more drawn from a national security bureaucracy that comprise “America’s Trumanite network” — in effect, on matters of national security, a second government.

That’s the part that requires the heavy lifting by Congress, the courts, the Executive to break down and remold.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 November 2014 at 3:56 pm

Why some object to the Confederate flag

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There is absolutely no doubt that the Civil War was primarily fought to protect the institution of slavery, which was highly profitable for slave owners. The purpose of the war is writ large in the various articles of secession that the 13 states enacted. At the link you can see summaries and links to the actual text of the various articles of secession. The war was initiated by the South, as we all know: South Carolina provided an unmistakeable bellus causi by opening fire on Fort Sumpter.

Mississippi’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union” begins:

In the momentous step, which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product, which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove. . .

Continue reading.

And the institution was indeed profitable. In Salon Michael Schulson interviews Edward Baptist on his new book on American slavery:

It’s impolite to talk about money. Perhaps that’s why, when we discuss the history of slavery in this country, we tend to talk about racism, and paternalism, and the way that awful social institutions just stick around, those pesky buggers — talk about anything, that is, except for the profits.

But there were profits, of course, and large ones. Slavery, after all, is a cost-efficient way to extract labor from human beings. It’s an exceptionally brutal flavor of capitalism. And it worked: In 1860, the U.S.’s four wealthiest states were all in the deep South. After the Civil War, though, white Americans found ways to downplay the profit motive. “Above all, the historians of a reunified nation insisted that slavery was a premodern institution that was not committed to profit seeking,” writes Edward Baptist in his new history of slavery, “The Half Has Never Been Told.” (Read the Salon excerpt from the book here.)

Baptist, a professor of history at Cornell, has spent much of his career helping to undo this narrative. In “The Half Has Never Been Told,” he lays out a sweeping economic history of slavery. Baptist traces the flow of human capital from the Atlantic seaboard to the cotton fields of the deep South. He describes how slavers used whippings to extract more work from their property. He details how slave labor and loans secured with human collateral helped drive the industrial revolution.

These observations aren’t new. Baptist’s real achievement is to ground these financial abstractions in the lives of ordinary people. In vivid passages, he describes the sights, smells and suffering of slavery. He writes about individual families torn apart by global markets. Above all, Baptist sets out to show how America’s rise to power is inextricable from the suffering of black slaves.

Naturally, this makes some people rather uncomfortable. Reviewing Baptist’s book last month, the Economist huffed that “all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” A few days later, the magazine took the rare step of withdrawing the review, pointing out that slavery was “an evil system.” The message was clear, though: Even today, many are uncomfortable acknowledging the full brutality of an institution that helped build the modern world.

I reached Baptist at his home on the Cornell campus. Over the phone, we spoke about capitalism, the historical vision of Steve McQueen, and why it’s easier to find a memorial for a Confederate soldier than for an American who died enslaved.

How did slavery drive the economy of the 19th century United States?

It drives it in some obvious ways and some less obvious ways. The obvious way is the absolutely central role of cotton to the functioning of the economy. Cotton ends up supplying about 50 percent of all the value of exports in the U.S. for most of the period from the early 1800s to the Civil War.

That income doesn’t just stay in the South. Certainly a lot of it is going to enslavers, but a lot of it is also going to bankers and merchants, and later to insurers and shippers. Ultimately, the U.S. starts up its own cotton textile industry.

The U.S. is a developing economy. It’s also a capital-importing economy. It needs credit. Lending to the slaver sector is secure and it’s profitable. Secure, because there’s a reliable liquid market for human collateral. And profitable, because enslaved human beings are making cotton, the world’s most widely traded commodity.

When you start to look at slavery in this larger, global context, places like Europe and New England, which we tend to separate from the slave system, end up seeming implicated.

Absolutely, and not just because of the direct and indirect investment of Northern savers and lenders in the Southern system. The South — and especially enslavers — are really the first reliable market for Northern industrial products. In fact, U.S. policy sets that up. Congress creates a tariff which protects the U.S. market for cotton textiles of low quality. So this allows U.S. textile mills in New England, which are not capable of making the same quality of cloth on a mass scale as British mills are, this gives them a protected market. And that protected market is basically the South, and it’s basically the cloth that’s bought by slave owners every year and given out to the slaves.

You write that few people realize “how crucial systemized torture was to the industrial revolution.”

In 1800, when cotton expansion started, workers could generally plant and cultivate about twice as much cotton as they could pick. Slave owners decide that they want to increase the amount that is picked, so what they start doing is weighing the amount each slave picks per day and establishing that as an individual daily picking quota. People were given quotas. If they didn’t meet the quota, they would be whipped. Over time, the quotas are increased.

And over time, the amount that people pick increases dramatically. There are people who say, “Oh, it’s because of the seeds [of easier-to-pick cotton cultivars],” and I’m sure that makes it possible to pick more, but enslaved people actually have to figure out how to move their hands and their bodies fast enough, and do that all day long, in order to meet their quotas. They still have to do that, and they are threatened by torture if they don’t make it. I say torture deliberately. We have, over time, sort of bowdlerized, we’ve used euphemisms. But if this was happening to U.S. POWs, we’d have no trouble calling it torture.

The average enslaved person picked cotton four times as quickly in 1860 as in 1800.

Reading your book, I felt as if you were telling the story of capitalism taken to its absolute extreme, in which the right to personal property trumps all other rights, and in which human lives become tradable commodities. Can we read your book as a cautionary tale of capitalism run amok?

Continue reading.


Written by LeisureGuy

9 November 2014 at 1:43 pm


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