Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Jay Leno's Unknown Politics

Last week I caught Jay Leno on Bill Maher's show. At one point a panel member said that she couldn't tell what Leno's politics were. He said, "And you never will." He went on to say that he strived to make sure he made fun of both Republicans and Democrats. That's one of the reasons I liked Leno when he was on the air and why I miss him now that he isn't. I also liked that he did something that other comics didn't do. For instance, when he made fun of Obama, Leno hit on Obama's policies like the healthcare web site rollout fiasco, not just his personal foibles.

Why is this noteworthy? Because over the years when I've seen other comics poke fun at Democrats like Bill Clinton or Obama they hit upon mostly their personal quirks, not their policies. Yet when these same comics aim their sights at Republicans they target both the Republican's personalities and their politics. When accused of bias these comics claim they're make fun of both sides. They do but the nature of their poking differs drastically depending on the politics of their targets. (Jon Stewart will take on the policies of Democrats but it seems only when he disagrees with that policy.)

As an aside what I find interesting is that Leno is friendly with a leftist like Maher and with a conservative like Dennis Miller. I'm also not saying that Leno is a closet conservative. He could be a liberal for all I know. I suspect he is. When he had a conservative like Ted Cruz on his show Leno seemed to ask tougher questions than he did of his Democrat guests. At least that's how it seemed to me! Regardless of his true politics I respect his attempt to make fun of both sides.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Where are the conservative social psychologists?

Is the Field of Psychology Biased Against Conservatives? This New Yorker
article starts with:

On January 27, 2011, from a stage in the middle of the San Antonio Convention Center, Jonathan Haidt addressed the participants of the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. The topic was an ambitious one: a vision for social psychology in the year 2020. Haidt began by reviewing the field that he is best known for, moral psychology. Then he threw a curveball. He would, he told the gathering of about a thousand social-psychology professors, students, and post-docs, like some audience participation. By a show of hands, how would those present describe their political orientation? First came the liberals: a “sea of hands,” comprising about eighty per cent of the room, Haidt later recalled. Next, the centrists or moderates. Twenty hands. Next, the libertarians. Twelve hands. And last, the conservatives. Three hands.
Social psychology, Haidt went on, had an obvious problem: a lack of political diversity that was every bit as dangerous as a lack of, say, racial or religious or gender diversity. It discouraged conservative students from joining the field, and it discouraged conservative members from pursuing certain lines of argument. It also introduced bias into research questions, methodology, and, ultimately, publications. The topics that social psychologists chose to study and how they chose to study them, he argued, suffered from homogeneity. The effect was limited, Haidt was quick to point out, to areas that concerned political ideology and politicized notions, like race, gender, stereotyping, and power and inequality. “It’s not like the whole field is undercut, but when it comes to research on controversial topics, the effect is most pronounced,” he later told me.

The rest of the article ranges widely over the various studies researchers have conducted on this phenomenon. I recommend it highly as well as the work of Jonathan Haidt. He describes himself as a political liberal when he embarked on the journey to investigate the foundations of morality. Haidt ultimately identifies six foundations:

1. Care/harm: cherishing and protecting others.
2. Fairness/cheating: rendering justice according to shared rules. (Alternate name: Proportionality)
3. Liberty/oppression: the loathing of tyranny.
4. Loyalty/betrayal: standing with your group, family, nation. (Alternate name: Ingroup)
5. Authority/subversion: obeying tradition and legitimate authority. (Alternate name: Respect.)
6. Sanctity/degradation: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions. (Alternate name: Purity.)

This isn’t too controversial. However Haidt stepped on a live rail when he noted that conservatives tend to rely on all six foundations while liberals and libertarians tend to favor only one. Liberals rely on the Care/harm foundation while libertarians gravitate to liberty/oppression. (See his paper: Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations) As you can see Haidt is not afraid to question the status quo! Imagine the horror that someone dares to suggest that conservatives might have a broader moral foundation than liberals, and the conclusion comes from a liberal! (Haidt admits he has drifted
more to the center as a result of his research and thinking.)

Anyway, please check out this article as well as the links to the various studies that are referred to in it. To me Haidt shows the result of truly trying to be objective.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Narratives and The Languages of Politics

My friend Robert Bidinotto has written a lot at on the importance of narrative in today’s politics and that the group that controls the narrative tends to win the debate and elections. I found an interesting ebook by Arnold Kling called The Three Languages of Politics that talks about the kinds of narratives liberals, conservatives and libertarians favor. He claims if you listen carefully liberals, conservatives and libertarians each have a favored language that centers on a different axis. Liberals talk about oppression versus the oppressed. Conservatives talk about civilization vs. barbarism. (I'd say their reference to tradition translates into preserving the collective knowledge that establishes laws and rituals that preserve civilization.) Libertarians focus on freedom versus coercion.

I think Kling is onto something and that it explains the acrimonious, usually unproductive cross talking when people argue.

Kling gives some examples of this in his book and on his blog, Most recently he predicted how the narrative about the shooting in Ferguson would play out. The media and the left would try to portray Brown as a victim of oppression. The right would say that the ensuing riots show the battle between civilization and barbarism and the need for strong order. Libertarians would decry the use of coercive police force as threatening our freedom.

The more I listen to the different spokesman of the three sides the more I see confirmation of Kling’s model. I'm not saying it applies all of the time but I think he has identified generally valid patterns. He doesn't try to explain why people gravitate to one language, only that they do settle on one language and can’t understand why someone who disagrees with them can’t see the blindingly obvious truth of their position.

The link below has a nice, almost hour long discussion by Paul and Diana Hsieh on the details of this model and some ideas on how to apply them when talking with people who disagree with you. While Paul’s preferred language is in the libertarian axis (as is Kling’s) I believe anyone in the three groups could benefit by giving Paul’s talk a fair hearing. Here is the general outline of points in the pod cast.

  • About the "three languages of politics"
  • The differences in the three languages
  • The difference that the three languages make
  • Examples of the three languages
  • Conflict between camps
  • Alliances between camps
  • Political argument between camps
  • The debates over the Hobby Lobby decision
  • Using the three languages to become more persuasive
  • Caveats and cautions
  • Three take-home points

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Soccer: The Liberal Sport?

During the recent World Cup Bernie Goldberg published an article Why Liberals Like Soccer More Than Conservatives that repeats the two usual arguments I've heard. One, that soccer is boring because there isn't enough scoring. And, that soccer appeals to liberals because it shows that America isn't as exceptional as some would like to think. To support this he quotes Peter Beinart, a "liberal journalist and professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York" who says that people who like soccer typify "a more cosmopolitan temperament, more of a recognition that America has things to learn from the rest of the world, and in fact maybe we have to learn from the rest of the world if we're going to remain a successful country."

While Goldberg probably is right that liberals tend to like soccer more than conservatives I think he is painting with a brush that is far too wide. He seems to be saying "I don't like something simply because liberals do!" Now that's being objective!

Speaking as more of a libertarian I think there are reasons for liking soccer that can appeal to conservatives too. 

1. In soccer players are free to decide how they're going to play the ball and with their teammates. They have more freedom than some American sports like football and basketball which is heavily controlled and scripted by the coach. 

2. To play well soccer a player needs to have both a high level of skill and tactical awareness since they're literally thinking on their feet with no football or basketball time outs or breaks like innings in baseball.

3. The sport doesn't favor one body type. There have been short soccer stars and tall ones. Some are exceptionally fast while others make up for lack of speed with the ability to fake a defender with their moves. While you could argue that this supports egalitarianism it doesn't mean soccer pushes for equality of results but for equality of opportunity to excel. 

4. Because scoring is very difficult in soccer each goal holds more value. With the offside law scoring requires a highly coordinated, skillful attack that can use powerful shots or delicately placed ones. 

5. If soccer was anti-individualist why are some of its stars such as Beckham, Messi or Ronaldo known around the world and command salaries in the tens of millions of dollars?

John Tierney's article, Soccer, a Beautiful Game of Chance, in the NYT, points out that Major League Baseball and the National Football League, the two primary American sports, have the egalitarianism of equality of outcome inherent in their organizational design. By that he means that both leagues have salary caps to even out the haves from the have nots and that the player drafts in both leagues favor the teams which didn't do well in the previous season. Sounds an awful like Marx's "from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs," doesn't it? 

Meanwhile soccer teams in Europe compete to secure the best star players by outbidding each other. And there are no salary caps. In the premier leagues of England and European teams that fall to the bottom of the standings can be relegated to the next lower division while teams that fight their way to the top of the next lower league can be promoted. Being relegated or promoted has huge impact on the finances of the team and the club owing it! Isn't that an example of fierce competition? Where does relegation/promotion happen in America?

The overall story about soccer is much more complicated than Goldberg admits. If soccer really did appeal only to liberals and folks in socialist countries why is it big in relatively free countries such as Canada, Switzerland and Australia as well as socialized countries such as France, Sweden and Italy?

My point is that Goldberg and others like him (such as Ann Coulter) latch onto one point about this sport to further their political agenda without acknowledging there could be other, valid reasons for liking soccer. (Just as Beinart makes the same mistake from the left side.) They grossly oversimplify soccer in the overpowering desire of scoring an easy point (so to speak) by taking an easy but misguided shot.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla: Nature’s Mascot?

I saw the new Godzilla last night with a friend. Both of us went in with high expectations and left disappointed. I felt it was a lumbering mess. As I told my friend it was an example of great special effects in search of a plot. Both of us had issues with what seemed like pointless things the humans were doing.

Then, thanks to a link provided on Watts Up With That, the quote provided below from an interview with the director of Godzilla helps explain what he was trying to delicately say (while indelicately destroying virtual cities). It’s not the plot that’s important. It’s the narrative, something my friend Robert Bidinotto has consistently pointed out:,,

Your version of Godzilla seems to be more rooted in current events, and centers on mankind’s tenuous relationship with nature, and the environment.

Yeah. Man vs. Nature is the predominant theme of the film, and I always tried to go back to that imagery. At the beginning when they find the fossils, it was important to me that they didn’t just find them—it was caused by our abuse of the planet. We deserved it, in a way. So there’s this rainforest with a big scar in the landscape with this quarry, slave labor, and a Western company. You have to ask yourself, “What does Godzilla represent?” The thing we kept coming up with is that he’s a force of nature, and if nature had a mascot, it would be Godzilla. So what do the other creatures represent? They represent man’s abuse of nature, and the idea is that Godzilla is coming to restore balance to something mankind has disrupted.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with this message I think many people are oblivious to the fact that even so-called “mindless” monster movies smuggle an embedded message. I think many moviegoers miss the message and just enjoy the CGI-created mayhem. I do think, however, that the constant exposure to these hidden messages eventually leaves their mark on our collective consciousness. Or at least that must be the hope of the moviemakers because they keep doing it!

Getting back to man’s “abuse” of nature I would agree with this message if these movies showed truly unnecessary destruction of nature for no productive purpose (such as someone who dumps toxic waste into a lake instead of having it treated). Instead these critics throw all human uses of natural resources into the same category. In other words they don’t make a distinction between using resources and wasting them. They’re treated as the same. To me when legitimate and illegitimate uses of nature are treated the same the purpose is simply to instill guilt for our very existence.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Critical Thinking: More Than Finding Fallacies

I like this article by Neo-neocon in which she shows how an article in the Washington Post is written to create the impression of Obama suffering from events that have hurt him.

The article goes on to describe the precipitous decline in Obama’s standing in approval polls this year:

His position is all the more striking when compared with his standing a year ago, as he was preparing for his second inauguration after a solid reelection victory. That high note proved fleeting as the president faced a series of setbacks, culminating in the botched rollout of his Affordable Care Act two months ago.

I offer the above as another demonstration of the care with which these things are written. Some may think reporters and editors are simply clumsy or indifferent writers, and sometimes they are. But much of the time they choose their words (and photos) with exquisite and subtle care. They also realize that most people only look at the headlines and photos of most articles, and that those are therefore the most important, and that even people who do read the article often read only the first few paragraphs.
In this article, the headline and photo have been chosen to suggest that Obama is a suffering victim—in fact, the greatest victim—of a series of unfortunate circumstances that have befallen him. Nearly a martyr. And the copy (the paragraph I’ve quoted here is the second one in the piece) reinforces that idea by this phrase, “faced a series of setbacks.” Passive voice; no actor.
I know not everyone will agree with Neo-neocon's analysis, especially if you're an Obama supporter. I offer this example because critical thinking doesn't rely just on finding fallacies. Critical thinking isn't just about analyzing arguments. It also involves identifying premises buried in choice of words that are chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to influence us.
Years ago I taught a course on critical thinking with a friend. While we did cover logical fallacies we also used articles from weekly news magazines to show how the stories were crafted to get the reader to buy into their hidden and not-so-hidden agenda. We had absolutely no problem finding examples for our class. Actually we could have picked any page at random from the typical news magazines or newspapers.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

On Getting To Keep The Insurance You Like (or maybe not)

About this time last year I was visiting one of my accounts based in Toronto when one of my customers, who is a strong advocate of the Canadian health care system, asked what I thought of Obamacare. My answer: I thought there were far better ways of helping the 10 or 15% of Americans who didn’t have health insurance than forcing the other 85 – 90% to change what they had. She repeated what Obama and his minions have been saying: that we could keep our insurance (and doctor) if we liked it so what’s the big deal? Well, after the initial October roll out we’re learning that we could keep our insurance ONLY if it met the criteria laid out by Obamacare. The news media has been reporting that thousands of people have been receiving notices from their insurers that, oh, their plan doesn’t meet this minimum criteria and that the plans available on the exchanges are much more expensive and have higher deductibles.

Who could have seen that coming? Anybody with a basic understanding of Economics 101. By that I mean that the package of promises sold to us like a miracle balm (or snake oil) contained contradictory claims. We were going to save money, lower the national debt, reduce overall medical spending while covering people with pre-existing conditions and adding millions of folks who previously didn’t have insurance.

How did this happen? I think a constellation of factors made it possible for politicians to sell some people on Obamacare. (Notice I didn’t say most people because the polls have consistently shown a lack of strong public support for Obamacare. It is dropping like a rock since October 1.) One is the lack of understanding how a market works and particularly how distorted the healthcare market is. Second, the mammoth bill was too complex even for its supporters to fully understand. (Hence, Nancy Pelosi’s infamous comment about needing to pass the bill in order to find out what is in it.) Third, I think a lot of people harbor animosity for insurance companies precisely because (a) we don’t know how much medical services truly cost (see examples below) and (b) insurance companies delay or deny payments to protect their bottom line. And lastly, I’m sure there is a minority of people who think they were going to get something for almost nothing while tucking it to the big insurers. Several Obamacare supporters have voiced dismay that they didn’t think they would be the ones footing the bill only to find out, to their dismay, that the bill collector tolls for them too.

During the discussion with my customer I also mentioned that the health care system in the U.S. was far from a true free market system for a number of reasons (best covered at another time) and that having insurance cover most of normal medical expenses hides the true price from the user. I likened it to going into a grocery store and for a $20 co-pay you could fill your cart with anything you wanted, from cheap hamburger to caviar (if the store would carry it). Or it would be like going to the car dealership to get whatever work you wanted done on your car for the measly co-pay. So you could have an oil change or rebuild the engine for the same out-of-pocket cost. As a result of this arrangement there is no incentive for the customer to shop for the combination of best price and quality like we do for other goods and services. But that too is a topic for another post. For more information on this I highly recommend John Goodman’s Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis.

For a much deeper analysis I recommend Robert Tracinski's article.