Monthly Archives: March 2017

A moral issue

Two hundred years ago it seems that practically everything was a moral issue; that’s why they were able to hang poor wretches for petty crimes and then sit down to enjoy a hearty meal, content that they had done their moral duty. In most of the South, clergymen preached that slavery was God’s will, buttressing this by extensive biblical quotations. In wide swaths of the North their counterparts preached that it was an abomination in the sight of the Lord, with their own scriptural quotations. Hellfire and brimstone awaited those who contravened God’s will, whatever it was.

Around a century ago or so, something seemed to break. Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry announced an age when confident assertions of morality were liable to challenge. People had sex much as they always had, but were less secretive and ashamed. Hemlines rose like airplanes. Some got divorced and were not ostracized.

It was the First World War, it was the rise of urbanization, it was all the immoral immigrants, it was devilish machines, it was God’s testing of the American people. In any event, moralizers were as likely to be greeted with derision as with solemn respect.

To an extent, the urge to moral condemnation found other channels. Totalitarian Fascism was all but universally condemned as wholly evil, at least after the Fascists made war on us. And of course Godless Communism had always been totally immoral. But domestically, moralizers were fighting a rear-guard action.

But now moralism seems to be making a comeback. Abortion of course is the headline example, but there are plenty of other issues that many see in moral terms. If you feel uncomfortable with people of other races or ethnicities you’re a bad, evil, wicked person. Similarly if you want to deprive Americans of their sacred right to have, carry, and use guns as they see fit. Families split apart over the issue of whether the children should be immunized against communicable diseases.

(To be clear, I’m not in any way either condemning or praising people for opposing [or supporting] abortion, discrimination, gun control, or immunization; I’m only illustrating the prevalence of issues that many people take to be matters of absolute right and wrong, not subject to examination of the evidence or reasoned discussion.)

Morality is expressed in values, and for the last several decades a worldwide alliance of social scientists has been studying values across cultures, and finding some very significant things. It’s called the World Values Survey and ever since the 1980s it has been asking thousands of people around the world probing questions about their values, producing a massive database—big data about what people value. The database is available online for analysis by anyone who has the interest (and industrial-strength statistical software such as SPSS, PSPP, or R).

The WVS provided the basis for a very intensive analysis by Professors Ronald Inglehart (who founded the WVS and led it for a number of years) and Christian Welzel (who now leads it): Modernization, Cultural Change, and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). I have written a review essay, “A Scientific Examination of Modernization.”

Through intensive statistical analysis of the data from responses from tens of thousands of individuals across dozens of societies over a two-decade span, Inglehart and Welzel were able to bring together a profound and compelling picture of the forces and processes that lie at the root of democracy. I cannot begin to do it justice here and even my 6,400 word review essay no more than scratches the surface. (There is also much valuable information to be found by browsing through the WVS Web site.)

By the time the book was written more than 165,000 respondents had each answered more than 200 questions about their values. Naturally, there was huge variation in the results, But analysis of the data showed that a great deal of the variation was accounted for by two scales or axes: what Inglehart and Welzel refer to as the traditional vs. secular-rational and survival vs. self-expression axes.

Traditionalists, in Inglehart and Welzel’s definition, tend to put their faith in God, established authority, and their “tribe” much more strongly than secular-rationalists, who see the course of events as being directed by human rather than divine will and view inherited norms and values with skepticism more than reverence. Traditionalists raise their children to be obedient while secular-rationalists want theirs to be independent-minded go-getters. (Both are frequently disappointed with the results.)

Traditionalists dominate in static agrarian societies while dynamic industrial societies tend to breed secular-rationalists; there aren’t many traditionalists in the upper reaches of Silicon Valley. Most industrial societies tilt strongly toward secular-rationalism but the United States, almost uniquely, is more closely balanced between traditionalism and secular-rationalism.

A good example of the tension in action is provided by Prohibition. It was enacted when America was predominately rural but as urbanization and industrialization spread the forces against it gained strength and it was ultimately repealed in 1933. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi however remained “dry” for a decade or more beyond 1933, and the Bible Belt has a great many dry counties or counties that are dry except for some urban areas that have opted to allow alcohol sales. Sunday “blue laws” are common throughout rural areas. There’s debate about how effective prohibition is in reducing alcohol consumption, particularly local prohibition, but its supporters generally see it as a moral rather than pragmatic issue.

Today we see the traditionalist vs. secular-rationalist tension being played out again in prohibitions of marijuana, of other drugs, and of abortion, as well as in firearms rights. In all of these matters the traditionalist advocates see their positions in moral terms while their secular-rationalist adversaries view them with scorn as blinkered and irrational. It all makes for pretty uncomfortable politics.

And survival vs. self-expression? That’s material for another post.

The water torture drips on

I seem to have been right in thinking that it was not possible for President Trump to simply endure the steady drip, drip, … of stories about the Russia connection. But my concerns about the the risk of a violently destructive response have abated a little in light of recent developments. Lashing out with tweetstorms at scattered targets in hopes of regaining tempo and raging at his staff continues to be about the extent of his repertoire—so far. No doubt this has pretty much the desired effect with most Republicans, carpings from the likes of Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ben Sasse not withstanding.

But will it satisfy his inner needs? Perhaps, but I would guess not. I think he needs if not adulation then at least sullen submission from pretty much everyone, and that is going to take a great deal more fear than he has thus far been able generate. Many persist in seeing him as at least faintly ridiculous, and for a man too thin-skinned to face the ordeal of a White House Correspondents Dinner or Gridiron Club roast that has to be agonizing.

I can see no way in which the Russia issue can be resolved in a manner satisfactory to Mr. Trump. Indeed it’s not hard to imagine that the situation will grow worse from his perspective. I know some who believe that he will somehow crack under the pressure, but I question this. I can see no route for him to yield short of total disintegration of his fragile personality, followed presumably by suicide.

Possibly he will simply continue to insist on his version of reality and dismiss and ignore the doubters. But if the doubts come to consume his administration then the hermetic seal will become progressively more difficult to maintain.

Will he seek to take up arms against his foes by one means or another? As I’ve observed before, he has no squadristi or Sturmabteilungen ready to hand. But the military, police, and security services are the natural home of those with authoritarian personalities and President Trump’s combination of authoritarian tendencies of his own and much legitimate power are ideally calculated to appeal to them. Anyone who has spent much time around these organizations knows that their members get their information and views very largely from Fox News and right-wing talk radio.

But of course their leaders tend to have broader visions and greater circumspection. It’s also true that Mr. Trump, having successfully avoided any experience of combat, is much less hardened to violence and its risks than were men like Mussolini and especially Hitler. He is a practiced bully but at least in adulthood his bullying has been virtually all bluster.

In the meantime, my sense is that the water torture really is very slowly spreading doubts even among the faithful, undermining his potential strength. So perhaps he will hesitate to resort to force until he has too little left to resort to.

So can we hope. So had we better.

Promises, Promises

CNN has a poignant piece of reportage on people in Michigan who voted for Donald Trump in the foredoomed hope that he would make the good times roll again with an abundance of well-paid manufacturing jobs. They are good, decent folks who work hard (whenever they have the opportunity) and don’t knowingly harm others. They’ve arranged their lives to minimize their need for system 2 analytical thinking, just like most people do, and had no independent basis for evaluating the realism of Mr. Trump’s promises. Now they await their reward, which in due course they will get good and hard, just as most of the other Trump voters will.

Of course Mr. Trump had no clear and definite idea of how he was going to summon forth the jobs and other wonderful things he promised. He will discover that his various handlers and courtiers have no better ideas than he. How long the faith of the faithful will persist remains to be seen, but it is sure that massive and intensive searches by very smart people have failed to reveal any plausible means to bring back large numbers of $30/hr manufacturing jobs, or of creating a healthcare payments system that is at once better and cheaper than ACA, or for delivering on any of the other myriad glittering promises that helped bring Mr. Trump to office (along with darker forces).

In short Mr. Trump made a lot of promises he didn’t know how to keep. For the most part, it seems to me, he made them sincerely. Although he is by no means unintelligent his knowledge is exceptionally limited. The “genuine” quality that many ordinary people feel is strong in him reflects the fact that he, like them, avoids critical analytical thinking. Not only avoids it but despises it and those who engage in it. And simply because he knows so little, how little he knows does not trouble him; it is the natural order of things in his universe. After all he has no idea how to construct a large building and yet he has regularly called them into existence. And if some of these projects involved a lot of unforeseen trouble, surely it was no fault of his. So why shouldn’t he equally be able to bring back plentiful good jobs, create a great healthcare system, and generally make America great again?

Of course Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton (whom he despises for their wonkishness among other qualities) are very distinctly given to analytical system 2 thought. Yet they too made promises they didn’t know how to keep, promises no one knew how to keep. And while their promises were less sweeping, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama may very possibly have made them with less sincerity than Mr. Trump did. We even heard from people who saw real merit in Mr. Trump’s greater sincerity, notwithstanding their appreciation of the hollowness of his promises.

Unfulfillable commitments have become a prominent fixture of our political discourse. (Was it always thus? I’m not sure, but it does seem to go back a long way.) It has made the public cynical about political cynicism. Many long for a sense of genuineness in their politicians, even if it means that the candidate is a simpleton. His actor’s polished ability to project a sense of sincerity was perhaps Ronald Reagan’s greatest asset—greater than anything owing to analytical system 2 thought, surely.

And perhaps it’s all the public really requires. I hear constantly from people who repine for the wonderful leadership of Reagan and refer to the terrific economic achievements of the Reagan Era, referring to golden trends entirely at variance with what the economic statistics. Perhaps Mr. Trump’s genuineness (f such it is) will be enough to divert attention from his all-but certain  failures to deliver the cornucopia of good jobs, better and cheaper health care, and other promised benefits.

The illusion of thinking

I read an interesting interview today, Sean Illing of talking to Prof. Steven Sloman, a psychologist at Brown. Sloman’s on a book tour pitching The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, co-written with Philip Fernbach. It seems bound to be a very worthwhile book and I’ve ordered a copy.

It’s a subject of particular interest to me, having spent a lifetime studying at close hand how people make big, consequential decisions on issues of war, money, and engineering design. Often remarkably bad decisions.

It has long been speculated that humans have two quite different modes of problem-solving mental activity. They go by various names, but one way of putting it is that we can engage in (1) calling up remembered skills, ideas, and facts and threading them together in our amazing associative memory or (2) rational analysis. Any reader of Daniel Kahneman’s marvelous Thinking, Fast and Slow will immediately recognize these as his “system 1” and “system 2,” respectively. As Kahneman explains, the associative thinking of system 1 is very fast and very efficient of energy, while the analytical thinking of system 2 is slower and costs much more energy.

It’s a little amazing that our brains are as big and powerful as they are, for that big, energy-consuming brain was a major burden for our early ancestors, who lived always awfully close to the edge of starvation. Virtually all of our evolutionary history was passed as hunter-gatherers living in tiny bands with very minimal resources, and we can feel sure that the architecture of our minds is almost entirely optimized for survival under such conditions.

This seems to imply a strong inherent tendency to minimize brain energy expenditure, among other things through reliance on the associative system 1, avoiding use of the analytical system 2. Consider a concrete example, driving a car. When you first start driving you have to think about everything you must do and it’s exhausting. You come home from a driving lesson ready to veg out, and you’re liable to make neglectful mistakes in your driving. But once you have learned the necessary repertoire of skills, driving becomes much easier and you can drive to a known location with little conscious thought or mental effort.

We all have an illusion of doing more rational analytical system 2 thinking than we ever do in reality because it’s the kind we’re aware of. It generally takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 milliseconds to become aware of a sensation and because associative system 1 thinking happens faster than this, we are at best only very slightly aware that it is taking place at all. The ideas and solutions that the associative memory presents come to us as revealed and if asked where it came from we cannot give an accurate account. If we are socialized to conceive of ourselves as rational beings we will rationalize them with spurious analyses.

So fast and automatic is associative thinking that it is entirely unavoidable; presented with a problem we will almost always conceive an associative response. In the vast majority of cases these associative system 1 responses are acted upon without any further analysis. And quite a large proportion of us never expend the energy and time to subject our associative responses to analytical scrutiny. Most people have the illusion of rational thinking, but almost never engage in it. And even those with a genuine analytical bent nevertheless rely very largely on associative thinking.

Sloman points out in the interview (and presumably in his book) that some substantial portion of our associative memories are filled with things we have heard and absorbed from other people. This is surely very natural, given that we are (as Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have shown in one of my favorite books) above all a cooperative species. Were it not for the operation of a sort of collective group mind it is unlikely that our ancestors could have survived in a hostile world. And of course it follows from the Bowles-Gintis argument that this tendency will be especially marked in groups involved in conflict, whether commercial, political, or military.

Sloman concludes by saying

My colleagues and I are studying whether one way to open up discourse is to try to change the nature of conversation from a focus on what people value to one about actual consequences. When you talk about actual consequences, you’re forced into the weeds of what’s actually happening, which is a diversion from our normal focus on our feelings and what’s going on in our heads.

It’s a reasonable idea, but I’m not hopeful. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort on attempts at institutional ways to improve deliberation and have found that at least in the kinds of senior decision  groups I have mostly dealt with getting people off their values focus is very difficult and getting them to actually engage consequences issues at all realistically is a great deal more so.


The Russia quagmire

So Donald Trump came to Washington pledged to drain the swamp. Only it’s appearing that the alligator in chief is his good buddy and role model, Vladimir Putin.

This is a story that most Republicans wish desperately would go away. But having been declared enemies of the people by the Republicans, the news media have every conceivable incentive to continue the water torture, drip by drip. One possible way to end it would be to impanel a real investigation, presumably with a special prosecutor. But that would surely seem like cure worse than the disease in the eyes of the Republicans.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Trump stoically enduring the water torture. Surely he will seek to take some action to end it. One course would be to declare the First Amendment obsolete and use the power of the government to attack the media directly, for instance with mass arrests on “Trumped-up” charges. This would presumably be tied in with moves to ensure that all those “illegal voters” (meaning everyone who doesn’t vote Republican) are excluded from the 2018 elections. In other words, a fascist putsch.

I would not put this past Mr. Trump, not for a moment, but I think that some of those around him—and conceivably even he himself—would see such a course as excessively risky. After all, he lacks a hardened and tested corps of Brown-shirts, or Black-shirts, or Blue-shirts whom he can depend upon for the necessary “wet stuff.” He would have to rely on a lot of people in government—people who are not ideologically committed to him and might hesitate to carry out actions that on their face would be seriously illegal. Congressional leaders like Congressman Ryan and Sen. McConnell might be persuaded to try to secure legal cover for a putsch, but it is by no means sure how much support they could count on in Congress, The more imaginative might find it easy to envision outcomes in which they would wind up being hanged from lampposts by outraged mobs, all the more so in the wake of the past few weeks of “town meetings.”

More likely, it seems to me, would be reliance on good old demagoguery, stirring up some desperate threat  so as to take power in the name of protecting the nation from imminent disaster. Mr. Trump would suffer in such an endeavor in having cried “wolf!” a great deal already, leading to a lot of threat fatigue among much of the population.

Of course his friend Mr. Putin might be able to help with this by invading the Baltics, or something. But saving Mr. Trump’s skin is a sideshow from the Kremlin perspective and it’s unlikely that it would seem worth the risks and costs of a direct confrontation. The ideal thing from the White House standpoint would seem to be some naked aggression by Iran, a major push by ISIS, or perhaps a Chinese move. It would need to be pretty genuine because there are a number of people in the Intelligence Community who might well blow the whistle on a fake threat. But with the aid of Mr. Putin and his merry men, and perhaps Mr. Netanyahu, something might arranged.

(I observe that we’ve had manufactured threats in the past for demagogic purposes; need I mention WMDs in Iraq, or the Gulf of Tonkin Incident? Still, the actions these were concocted to justify fell well short of the short of putsch addressed here.)

In any event, I do not look for Mr. Trump and the senior Republicans to walk quietly down to path to an investigation. Stay tuned.


In his book, How Propaganda Works, (see previous post) Prof. Jason Stanley seems to be mostly concerned about propaganda from the press and “establishment” that diverts the attention of the oppressed from how downtrodden they truly are in western liberal democracies such as ours. (It’s all a bit nebulous and I may be getting this wrong, of course, but that’s the impression this old skeptic gets.) He inveighs at length against the promotion of “false ideologies” without ever giving us a clear idea of what qualifies as an ideology, let alone how the false ones are to be distinguished from the others. I cannot believe that this is accidental: he knows perfectly well that the question of distinguishing truth from falsity is one of the enduring central foci of the whole philosophical enterprise.

He notes along the way that liberal democracies are not the only societies subjected to propaganda, that totalitarian societies also have their propaganda. And he notes that demagogues are major emitters of propaganda. He’s not much concerned about totalitarians and only to a limited degree about demagogues—as may have seemed quite reasonable in 2014—but much of what he says that sounds most interesting and relevant in the Age of Trump deals with totalitarian and demagogic propaganda.

Indeed, the closest he comes to letting us know what he means by “flawed ideology” is when he says:
“National Socialist ideology involves a hierarchy of race, an explicit elite group, and the dehumanization of other groups. It is an example of what I will call a flawed ideology. When societies are unjust, for example, in the distribution of wealth, we can expect the emergence of flawed ideologies. The flawed ideologies allow for effective propaganda. In a society that is unjust, due to unjust distinctions between persons, ways of rationalizing undeserved privilege become ossified into rigid and unchangeable belief. These beliefs are the barriers to rational thought and empathy that propaganda exploits.” [Stanley, Jason. How Propaganda Works (Kindle Locations 264-268). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.]

About the clearest his argument ever gets is when he uses Adolph Hitler to demonstrate that speech need not be insincere to be propagandistic. Stanley asserts—very believably, it seems to me—that Hitler’s vile calumnies against the Jews accurately represented his actual vile innermost feelings. Of course when Der Führer said in Mien Kampf,  “Was there any excrement, any shamelessness in any form, above all in cultural life, in which at least one Jew would not have been involved? As soon as one even carefully cut into such an abscess, one found, like maggots in a decaying body, often blinded by the sudden light, a Kike,” he no doubt meant to be taken figuratively regarding the likeness of Jews to Brachycera larvae and employed the simile to excite disgust and revulsion. Yet there is equally no doubt that it was a sense of disgust and revulsion that he himself shared in.

It’s hard to doubt that Mein Kampf is propaganda, but it’s sincere propaganda.