politics


“Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

Many have adopted that Eleanor Roosevelt quote as a guiding principle in their lives. Powerful ideas have enabled great advances in technology and have inspired the masses to take action, both for good as well as ill. But like any piece of wisdom, it can be misapplied and dogmatically adhered to in a way that is simply self serving.

The Haiti earthquake is seen by the religious right as an opportunity to spread the evangelical version of christianity, and to hell with the haitian people? Others on the extreme right have used the Haiti earthquake and President Obama’s response to it as their latest vehicle for their not so subtle racist views.

Naturally this disgusts those commentators seen as carrying the progressive banner:

Historical context only serves to magnify the depths to which those exploiting Haiti to push their ideology have really sunk:

And that is not even considering US and France’s involvement in the overthrow of exiled ex-president Aristide. It is very easy to anger those with more centrist views by highlighting the spokes people for religious and racist superiority.  Free market ideology is another matter, but deserves an equal amount of scrutiny and perhaps a comparable level of outrage.

There are times when we need to be thinking with what Eleanor Roosevelt calls a “small mind”. This is one such time.

A lot is being made of the decline in the belief in global warming amongst the American public, and the trending topic for “Climategate”. However, I’ve noticed that a formerly right-wing blog has actually joined the fray on the side of the climate scientists. Although the descent of human-induced climate change denialists into pure conspiracy nuttery might have had something to do with that blog author’s recent conversion,  looking through his archived posts on global warming shows the flip-flop occurred around the 2007-2008 timeframe. Prior to that, LGF posts would echo the same sort of rubbish you’d find on global warming denialist sites. Curiously around the same time LGF was actively debunking creationism and Intelligent Design.  I guess this blogger (Charles Johnson) and many of his readers noticed that the same tactics that the Creationists were using against the science of evolution, very closely mirrored tactics being applied against climate science, so something had to give. Unfortunately, the rest of his readership has since disowned him and wandered off to a spin off denialist site.

Charles Johnson is late to the AGW camp but so is this acknowledgement. His rational thinking is most welcome to the blogosphere.

It is how you approach an issue that determines what you see.

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(Click thumbnail to download 640×480 version to do with as you please)

That’s a good start. Hopefully this is one campaign promise the president elect does not break in the next four years. What is really sad however is that the audience was moved to loudly applaud such a basic statement of belief. That just goes to show how damaging the past eight years of the Republican war on science has been to human progress.

The trouble with treating all basic science research as an earmark in the same class as that infamous bridge to nowhere, are all those nasty unintended consequences.

Is it now a scientist’s responsibility to defend the funding of basic research against cuts made by a Christian fundamentalist who denies anthropogenic global warming, defends creationism being taught alongside evolution as science, entertains thoughts of banning books, and believes she needs protection from witchcraft?

UPDATE: Keith Olbermann also weighs in:

As stock markets collapse across the globe, the US House of Representatives were already deeply mired in a game of finger pointing to lay blame for the failure of the $700 billion bailout bill on one party.  But the truth of the matter is that several factors are to blame for the bill’s defeat.

A sweeping rescue plan for US financial markets foundered in the US House Monday on a combination of doubts about the plan, reelection concerns, disdain for bailing out Wall Street bankers, and a deep philosophical distaste for massive government intervention in the private sector among conservatives.

The freezing of the credit markets could not have come at a worse time, when many of the lawmakers are up for reelection, giving their constituents unusually large influence on how they would vote. Many were inundated by e-mails, calls and faxes from the voting public all voicing opposition to the bill. And in a tight election who could blame lawmakers for adopting the populist position.

“We could lose seats over this,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York, who nonetheless voted for the plan.

Many Wall Street insiders are shocked that Main street would hold such a self destructive position.  After all, we are told that without the bailout it is the ordinary citizen, the mortgage owner, the pensioner, and the blue collar worker who will suffer the most. Who in their right minds would wish upon themselves a worldwide recession, unemployment, negative-equity, bankruptcy, foreclosure, and a retirement in poverty? It may be irrational but it certainly should not be surprising. The late Stuart Sutherland cited the following example in his book, Irrationality:

The rivalry between groups may be so irrational that each may try to do the other down even at its own expense. In an aircraft factory in Britain the toolroom shop stewards tried to preserve this difference, even when by doing so they would receive a smaller wage themselves. They preferred a settlement that gave them £67.30 a a week and the production workers a pound less, to one that gave them an extra two pounds (£69.30) but gave the production workers more (£70.30)

This anecdotal evidence of group rivalry distorting value-based decisions has been subsequently confirmed and independently studied in surveys and controlled experiments. Often it arises from an innate sense of social relativism as noted by Michael Shermer in his article, “Why People Believe Weird Things About Money

Would you rather earn $50,000 a year while other people make $25,000, or would you rather earn $100,000 a year while other people get $250,000? Assume for the moment that prices of goods and services will stay the same.

Surprisingly — stunningly, in fact — research shows that the majority of people select the first option; they would rather make twice as much as others even if that meant earning half as much as they could otherwise have. How irrational is that?

This result is one among thousands of experiments in behavioral economics, neuroeconomics and evolutionary economics conclusively demonstrating that we are every bit as irrational when it comes to money as we are in most other aspects of our lives. In this case, relative social ranking trumps absolute financial status.

To further investigate the motivations behind behaviour that flies in the face of what classical economic theory would predict, economics researchers proposed what is now known as The Ultimatum Game:

a man approaches with a proposition. He offers you $20 in one-dollar bills and says you can keep the money, under one condition: You have to share some of it with your friend. You can offer your friend as much or as little as you like, but if your friend rejects your offer, neither of you get to keep any of the money. What do you do?

The ultimatum game is the brainchild of Israeli game theorist Ariel Rubinstein, who predicted in 1982 that a person asked to decide in such a game would choose to offer the least amount possible. This notion describes a behavior called rational maximization — the tendency to choose more for oneself.

The following year, Rubinstein’s prediction was tested by three economists — Werner Güth, Rolf Schmittberger and Bernd Schwarze. The three researchers found results from their test of the ultimatum game that directly contradicted Rubinstein’s prediction — the average offer from one participant to the other was around 37 percent of the money. Further studies found an average offer between 40 and 50 percent. Even more, approximately half of the receivers turned down offers under 30 percent.

What these experiments revealed is that people’s individual measure of fairness plays a big role in whether one favours or rejects what is offered to them. Humans are prepared to pay to deliver punishment against those judged not to be playing fairly. Such a strategy has been observed in many similar experiments, especially those set up as a non-zero sum game such as the Prisoners’ Dilemma. In iterated forms of the game, a punishment regime often emerged as a consequence –  When Wall Street enriches themselves through massively unsustainable leveraging then begs for a bailout when things go wrong, it is like opting to defect. Main street defects when they refuse to play along in order to punish the investment banks. The flipside of this strategy is that punishment of unfairness may have been a necessary component toward the eventual evolution of reciprocal altruism. Perhaps the rejection of unfair bailout deals by the ordinary citizen is not so irrational after all.

In 2005, the Department of Psychology at Yale University taught capuchin monkeys how to use money, then observed what spending decisions they made when faced with various purchasing scenarios.

In their studies monkeys were given a budget of disks and asked to decide how much to spend on apples, and how much to spend on the gelatin cubes, even as the prices of these goods and the size of their budgets fluctuated. Capuchins performed much like humans do. Capuchins, like humans, react rationally to these fluctuations.

In a second experiment, capuchins were asked to choose between spending a token on one visible piece of food that half the time gave a return of two pieces, or two pieces of visible food, that half the time gave a return of only one piece. Economic theory predicts that consumers should not care which of these outcomes they receive since they are essentially both 50-50 shots at one or two pieces of food. The capuchins, however, vastly preferred the first gamble, which is essentially a half chance at a bonus, than the second gamble, which is essentially a half chance at a loss.

Loss avoidance is a key feature of prospect theory which explains why we tend to work harder to prevent the loss of £10 than we would to gain £10. What we own is valued more than the equivalent that we do not own. The Yale experiment with capuchins points to loss aversion being deeply rooted in our evolutionary past, and as such this primitive irrational bias is very difficult to overcome when we go through life making everyday financial decisions. One major consequence of this can now be observed in the mortgage market as the housing bubble deflates. Last June, mortgage approvals hit a record low which implies that the house prices that sellers are asking for are too high in relation to the credit that is available to buyers. This reluctance to lower prices can easily be explained by the seller’s aversion to the loss perceived when the stratospheric house evaluations of one year ago are used as reference.  The bias is only made worse if the owner is in negative equity.

Michael Shermer, author of The Mind of the Market, has long recognised the role that loss aversion and other irrational biases play in market making decisions. He writes of the Yale research:

This research goes a long way toward debunking one of the biggest myths in all of psychology and economics, known as “Homo economicus.” This is the theory that “economic man” is rational, self-maximizing and efficient in making choices.

What is interesting is that Shermer is generally in favour of minimally regulated free markets – a libertarian ideal he shares with followers of the Austrian School of Economics. Rational individualism forms one of the key pillars upon which the system of laissez-faire capitalism relies.  Due to a deeply ingrained mistrust of regulation and big government, there is a strong tendency for libertarian capitalists to be in denial about global warming issues.  However, Shermer seems to be one of those rare individuals with libertarian leanings who has become convinced of the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the need to adopt measures to mitigate against it. He has since voiced support for tradeable emissions permits via carbon credits, a scheme intended to harness free market mechanisms to bring down CO2 output globally. In effect, CO2 pollution becomes a scarce right much like private property.

If recognition of our inherent psychological irrational tendencies is what allows people like Shermer to overcome the ideologically-driven confirmation bias that is endemic within the libertarian movement, then perhaps it is the exploitation of these same psychological mechanisms that holds the best promise for overcoming our reluctance to change course toward a more sustainable future. A major obstacle for taking decisive action in the face of peak oil and climate change, is the fact that most people frame this decision as losing the fossil-fueled lifestyle of convenience. This is why off-shore drilling has such an appeal in the US because it offers a chance, however small, that they would not have to give up their high energy consuming existence.  Expert lifehackers are well versed at motivating productive activity by working with one’s emotional biases rather than directly opposing them.  With an appropriate reframing, even loss aversion can become a powerful ally when pursuing changes in lifestyle one may be reluctant to make initially. It is a strategy that everyone, on both sides of the sustainability debates, would do well to adopt.

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