You might think that politics is an area where being analytical is especially useful. If you do, well, I have news for you: Libertarians measure as being the most analytical political group. That’s according to something called the cognitive reflection test, which is designed to measure whether an individual will override his or her immediate emotional responses and give a question further consideration. So if you aren’t a libertarian, maybe you ought to give that philosophy another look. It’s a relatively exclusive club, replete with people who are politically engaged, able to handle abstract arguments and capable of deeper reflection.
What else can we learn from this new study of political and analytical tendencies, conducted by Gordon Pennycook and David G. Rand of Yale University?
For the 2016 election, one group that measured as especially nonanalytical was Democrats who crossed party lines and voted for Donald Trump. There is a stereotype of a less well-educated voter, perhaps both white and male, who reacts negatively and emotionally to Hillary Clinton, who decided to vote for Trump even if Trump’s actual policies will not prove in his best interest. For all the dangers of stereotyping, the study’s data are consistent with that picture.
Both nonvoters and independents do poorly on the analytic dimension. There is a myth of a reasonable, rational politically independent America, sitting in the middle of the spectrum, weighing arguments carefully and seeing which candidate or party has the better ideas and platform. In reality, that group measures as relatively impulsive and prone to less informed judgments.
If you are a Democrat, you might take some cheer in the fact that Democrats/liberals measure as somewhat more analytical than Republicans/conservatives. But if you take being analytic as a positive mark, you might feel at least a slight tug toward the libertarians. At the very least, you might find it harder to attack or make fun of the Republicans for being intellectually backward, because you as a Democratic liberal no longer sit atop of the totem pole of reason. Note that individuals who are conservative along economic dimensions measure as more analytical than those who are not, again on average. That is a slightly uncomfortable result for those on the left. The opposite is true for social conservatives, by the way: They are less analytical on average.
Cowen is quick to point out that there are analytical people in all camps. He also notes that being analytical can put “you out of touch with the American citizenry…Extremely analytical leaders might be best for managing an organization of predominantly analytical people, but that doesn’t mean they will be good national politicians.”
I’m anti-abortion, and this meme really annoys me:
This meme is addressed to pro-lifers, but it only makes sense if it completely ignores the fundamental pro-life argument: abortion kills non-aggressive, innocent humans. To a pro-lifer this meme is roughly equivalent to “Don’t like murder? Don’t commit one.” Yeah great. Solid point.
Now, an abortion rights advocate might respond that abortion isn’t murder for a variety of reasons, and then we can have that debate. That debate is worth having because it’s actually addressing what the target audience–pro-lifers, in this case–are saying. The above meme completely ignores what pro-lifers are saying. What good is a point that ignores the central premise of the group you’re addressing?
And that’s why, even though I’m a gun rights advocate, this meme annoys me too:
This meme is addressed to gun control advocates, but it only makes sense if it completely ignores the fundamental gun control argument: permissive access to guns results in the deaths of non-aggressive, innocent humans. I imagine to a gun control advocate this meme is roughly equivalent to “Don’t like mass shootings? Don’t commit one.” Insightful, thanks.
I know gun rights advocates, including myself, argue that access to guns can and has saved lives. And I think that’s a debate worth having because it’s addressing what the target audience–gun control advocates, in this case–are saying. But the above meme completely ignores what they’re saying, in the exact same way the abortion meme did.
I understand memes by their very nature can’t be in-depth, nuanced arguments. But they could at least be remotely relevant to the audience they’re supposed to be addressing. That’s not too high of a hurdle, right?
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins have an incredible article on the moral psychology of different candidate supporters. The two begin with the 6 major moral foundations:
Care/harm: We feel compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering.
Fairness/cheating: We constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters.
Liberty/oppression: We resent restrictions on our choices and actions; we band together to resist bullies.
Loyalty/betrayal: We keep track of who is “us” and who is not; we enjoy tribal rituals, and we hate traitors.
Authority/subversion: We value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos.
Sanctity/degradation: We have a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life. (This foundation is best seen among religious conservatives, but you can find it on the left as well, particularly on issues related to environmentalism.)
In the graph below you can find how supporters of the various candidates scored:
Here are some highlights from Haidt and Ekins:
“The most obvious thing to note is that supporters of the two Democratic candidates are high [in Care], whereas supporters of most Republicans are low. This is consistent with most studies of the left-right dimension: The left values care and compassion as public or political values more than the right does. (We note that all people, and all groups, value care to some extent; we are merely looking at relative differences among groups.)…Rand Paul’s supporters score particularly low [in Care]. We have consistently found that libertarians score lower on care and compassion compared with others — indeed, they score low on almost all emotions, while scoring the highest on measures of reason, rationality, and intelligence.”
“As you move to the right, the bars [in Fairness] rise. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio supporters score highest on this foundation. This pattern is consistent with these candidates receiving the most support from the Tea Party. In our earlier research, we have each independently reached the conclusion that Tea Party supporters are highly motivated by the sense that the government routinely violates proportional fairness, by bailing out well-connected corporations and by spreading a safety net of welfare benefits under people they see as undeserving of help.”
“Not surprisingly, Rand Paul’s supporters rate [Liberty] the most important foundation, by far…More surprisingly, Bernie Sanders supporters also score high. Sanders seems to be drawing the more libertarian elements of the left, consistent with his more libertarian views on personal freedom, gun rights, and dovish foreign policy. Libertarian-minded voters seem to choose Sanders if they are on the left on economic policy, and Paul if they are on the right…Clinton supporters, in contrast to Sanders’s supporters, score slightly below the national mean. This may be one of the most important differences between the two candidates: Clinton attracts voters less concerned about individual autonomy.”
“Supporters of the Republican candidates tend to highly rate authority/loyalty/sanctity. Supporters of Democrats and libertarian-leaning Rand Paul do not…Sanders supporters score the lowest on these foundations and are joined not by Clinton supporters but by Paul supporters.”
But perhaps the biggest surprises?:
One surprise in our data was that Trump supporters were not extreme on any of the foundations. This means that Trump supporters are more centrist than is commonly realized; consequently, Trump’s prospects in the general election may be better than many pundits have thought. Cruz meanwhile, with a further-right moral profile, may have more difficulty attracting centrist Democrats and independents than would Trump.
One last interesting finding: Jeb Bush supporters are closest to the average American voter, despite the fact that his campaign has thus far has failed to gain any traction among Republican primary voters.
Bush’s failures may have more to do with his poor debate performances than with his moral profile, but in this time of high and rising polarization, cross-partisan hostility, and anger at elites and the establishment, Bush appears to be suffering from an excess of agreeability: He has no standout moral message that connects to any particular moral foundation, even at the risk of alienating supporters of another.
Politico Magazine ran an article a few weeks ago about overcriminalization in the US that was interesting in two ways. The first was the recitation of statistics and examples that show just how ridiculously overcriminalized our society has become. We have 5% of the world’s population. We have 25% of the worlds prisoners. Think about that: one out of every four human beings in a jail is in an American jail. That seems insane. What’s more, the sheer scope of our criminal code is absurd:
Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year. Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.)
The tax code contained just 11,400 words in 1914, one year after the Constitution was amended to permit the federal government to levy an income tax. It didn’t stay that way. Forbes contributor Kelly Phillips Erb said that the code was up to about 4,000,000 words by January 2013. That’s about four times as long as all of the Harry Potter novels combined. And you know what? That vastly understates the complexity of the US tax system. The code itself is just the law that tells the IRS what to do. The IRS has to devise regulations to put the law into practice. I doubt anyone really knows how many words are in the regulations, and the story gets worse.
The Forbes article he referred to is here, and it includes another jarring fact:
Since 2001, Congress has made nearly 5,000 changes to the Tax Code. That’s more than a change per day.
At this point we are way, way, way past the point where any normal human being could possibly be certain that they had not violated the law even if they made it their full-time job to do so. This is what led Harvey Silverglate to write his book Three Felonies a Day, suggesting that is how many felonies a typical American commits on a daily basis without ever knowing it. Sound crazy? So do some of the violations summarized in the Politico piece:
This explosion of criminal laws has led to imposing liability on activities that ordinary citizens would have no reason to believe would be criminal such as converting a wild donkey into a private donkey, bathing in the Arkansas Hot Springs National Park without a doctor’s note, and agreeing to take mail to the post office but not dropping it off. It has led to criminal liability for amateur arrowhead collectors who had no idea their hobby could be a federal crime, as well as criminal charges and a conviction for a former Indianapolis 500 champion who got lost while snowmobiling during a blizzard and unwittingly ended up on federal land.
So let me make one point (something not brought up in the article): the way Americans think about our government has a serious, serious flaw. We tend to view the job of legislators and the executive to get things done. Which, for most purposes, means to pass laws. When government doesn’t pass enough new laws you hear about gridlock and the assumption is that our government is defective. It is as though Americans have this bizarre picture in their minds that Washington DC is a factory for churning out legal statutes, and if we don’t get our quota than there’s something wrong with the factory. Why are more laws automatically better? Clearly we have too many laws already. Not every problem needs to be tackled by adding new laws. We can also think about repealing, reforming, consolidating, and streamlining the laws and the agencies we already have. But nobody gets elected by making enemies, and so our obsession with manufacturing new laws continues.
Here’s the thing, though, the average law-abiding, middle-class, educated American doesn’t have that much to fear from overcriminalization. Sure, you might get lost in a blizzard and end up on federal land and get slapped with a criminal charge, but for the most part if your life is more or less together before such a freak accident occurs, you can probably depend on your savings, education, friends and families, etc. to survive the ordeal. In this way, breaking the law (on accident) is a lot like having your house burn down or losing your job or other life emergencies: they are the biggest threat to the most vulnerable.
And that’s the second interesting thing about this article. It is written by Charles G. Koch and Mark V. Holden. Yes, one of the infamous Koch Brothers (Holden is General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Koch Industries, Inc.) And yet the primary point of the article is that overcriminalization is basically a form of systmatic, state-oppression of the poor and vulnerable. For example:
African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues. According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”
Now, even if you’re very skeptical and you think that that Koch Brothers are just pretending to care about the African-American community, fine: you should still read the article. Whatever you think of their motives, the fact remains that they have presented a very good argument for why overcriminalization is hurting America’s poor and even included a 6-step plan to fix it. Check it out.
I used to hang out on Slashdot a lot. (That’s a popular news aggregation site for techies.) I remember one signature from a user that said something like “the root password for the Constitution is ‘think of the children’.” The idea was that you could circumvent constitutional protections on free speech by just citing “the children”.
There are two problems with that. The first is the idea that the baseline for free speech is “anything goes”. Freedom of speech has never been absolute, and it’s incredibly frustrating to live in a society where people seem to believe that the primary purpose of one of our most cherished rights is to make porn readily accessible. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Voltaire had in mind.
The second is the assumption that “think of the children” is always an unfounded appeal to hysteria. This is far from true, and two recent articles from the Daily Mail make that painfully clear.
If porn does have the insidious power to be addictive, then letting our children consume it freely via the internet is like leaving heroin lying around the house, or handing out vodka at the school gates.
The second describes how a young boy started viewing porn at age 10 and soon developed an uncontrollable addiction to it. Like any addict, he began searching for harder and harder stuff, until at the age of 13 he was found guilty of accessing child porn and, practically a child himself, he found himself on the Sex Offender Registry.
When economists look at voting, they usually say that the benefit from voting is the probability that your vote will be the deciding vote in an election. Since no major political election in American history has been decided by one vote–or even by anything close to one vote–this means that the effective benefit of voting is basically zero.
And yet people vote. What’s more, we have an idea that people ought to vote, and that they probably should try to be moderately informed about it, too.
Jason Brennan is one philosopher who feels quite differently. His argument, in The Ethics of Voting, is that there’s no real civic duty to vote. If you’re uninformed, he argues, then your vote does more harm than good. And instead of spending the effort to become informed, why not spend the effort on some other socially beneficial activity? Start a business, found a charity, volunteer somewhere: but skip the voting.
Here’s the problem with that analysis, however. The term “more informed” is, by definition, relative. So if we say that only the most informed 50% of the electorate should vote (morally speaking, I’m not suggesting any kind of law or policy to disenfranchise ignorant people here), why stop there? Now instead of 200,000,000 voters you have 100,000,000 voters, but 50% of them are smarter than the other 50%, so shouldn’t we reduce the number again, to 50,000,000? The point is that there’s no good reason to ever stop this winnowing process until we end up with a world where only a handful of super-geniuses are voting and the rest of us are just sitting on the sidelines.