Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street - Reason Magazine

Jonathan Haidt, author of one of my favorite books, The Happiness Hypothesis, applies his theory of moral foundations to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ve provided some quotes below. I like his approach.

My colleagues and I found that political liberals tend to rely primarily on the moral foundation of care/harm, followed by fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression. They are very concerned about victims of oppression, but they rarely make moral appeals based on loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, or sanctity/degradation. Social conservatives, in contrast, use all six foundations. They are less concerned than liberals about harm but much more concerned about the moral foundations that bind groups and nations together, i.e., loyalty (patriotism), authority (law and order, traditional families), and sanctity (the Bible, God, the flag as a sacred object). Libertarians, true to their name, value liberty more than anyone else, and they value it far more than any other foundation. (You can read our complete research findings at

So what is the mix of moral foundations at Occupy Wall Street (OWS)? In my visit to Zuccotti Park, it was clear that the main moral foundation of OWS is fairness, followed by care and liberty. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity, by contrast, were very little in evidence.

Many pundits have commented on the fact that OWS has no specific list of demands, but the protesters’ basic message is quite clear: rein in the influence of big business, which has cheated and manipulated its way to great wealth (in part by buying legislation) while leaving a trail of oppressed and impoverished victims in its wake.

Will this message catch on with the rest of the country, much of which also values the loyalty, authority, and sanctity foundations? If OWS protesters engage in acts of violence, flag desecration, destruction of private property, or anything else that makes them seem subversive or anti-American, then I think most Americans will quickly reject them. Furthermore, if the protesters continue to focus on the gross inequality of outcomes in America, they will get nowhere. There is no equality foundation. Fairness means proportionality, and if Americans generally think that the rich got rich by working harder or by providing goods and services that were valued in a free market, they won’t support redistributionist policies. But if the OWS protesters can better articulate their case that “the 1 percent” got its riches by cheating, rather than by providing something valuable, or that “the 1 percent” abuses its power and oppresses “the 99 percent,” then Occupy Wall Street will find itself standing on a very secure pair of moral foundations.

I particularly like what he says in the last paragraph about fairness. I’ve touched on this subject earlier in December in response to Obama’s speech in Kansas. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Repo Men - Kevin D. Williamson - National Review Online

This scathing article by Kevin Williamson targets Obama and his Democrat colleagues for their profiteering from intimate connections with Wall Street while pontificating how they're protecting the little guy, us 99% to use the Occupy Wall Street lingo. Republicans aren't spared his scorn either. And rightfully so (no pun intended). Just a warning. If you suffer from high blood pressure be sure to take your medication before reading this expose.

Williamson's points support what I said in my previous post:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saving the New Year - Megan McArdle - Business - The Atlantic

I'll admit that this post by Megan McArdle doesn't at first glance appear to fall in the category of political or social commentary and yet I feel it's worth sharing for her financial advice. Why? Because our current financial condition  is similar to what is happening in Europe I think we're going to face serious changes (i.e., cut backs) to Social Security, Medicare and other "entitlement" programs if (and that's a big IF) we're going to face the incredible financial hole we've dug for ourselves with trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities. The more we can rely on our own personal financial resources the more we can isolate (or try to isolate) ourselves from relying on the "safety net."

After a long explanation of the different economic and political factors that affect us she offers this advice.

The important thing is to pay yourself first. Savings should be the first thing you do, not the last. After you've saved, then you budget your consumption. I won't tell you what to cut, because when you confront your new, slightly leaner budget, you'll be perfectly able to calculate what's no longer worth the money to you. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that after a few weeks or a few months of initial pinch, you won't remember that you miss the money much.
Unfortunately saving for the future isn't nearly as much fun as splurging on buying things today, even if it means using our house basically as an ATM as many people did before the housing market imploded (and then expected someone to help extricate them from bad decisions). 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

PJ Media » What’s the Matter with Obama’s Kansas Speech?

I like Neoneocon's analysis of Obama's recent speech on PJ Media » What’s the Matter with Obama’s Kansas Speech?

For me a telling phrase in Obama's speech is this one, especially the last sentence.

There is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let's respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. "The market will take care of everything," they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn't trickle down, well, that's the price of liberty.
Now, it's a simple theory. And we have to admit, it's one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That's in America's DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. (Laughter.) But here's the problem: It doesn't work. It has never worked.
Should we really be so surprised by his comment? I ask this because I recall coming across a similar sentiment when helping my daughters with the Social Studies homework when they were in middle school more than ten years ago. I recall reading in their textbook how FDR’s New Deal policies saved capitalism from its own excesses and continue to do so. Obama is just touting the same line of thinking. (For a contrary -- and I think more plausible -- explanation of what caused the Great Depression and our current economic woes I recommend checking out the Ludwig von Mises Institute for the Austrian school of economics perspective.)

Getting back to Neoneocon’s article I would take a somewhat different angle. She correctly identifies that “Obama repeatedly mentioned this goal of fairness while blurring or ignoring the all-important distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome as a measure of that fairness.” While this is indeed a valid distinction fairness also masks an inherent fuzziness that works to the advantage of (to use one of Obama’s favorite phrases) those who want to expand the concept of fairness to suit their agenda. I would argue that the concept of individual rights gets forgotten in this line of argument. We can argue forever over which definition of fairness we use unless we have a valid concept of individual rights to ground this argument and to settle disagreements over what is “fair.”

I’ll admit that the Left has successfully eroded or expanded the idea of individual rights to justify their desired enlarged of the role of government but it took some mighty verbal acrobatics to do it. For a good discussion of how FDR did this check out NeverEnough: America’s Limitless Welfare State by William Voegeli. However if we get sucked into debating definitions of fairness we have already lost the intellectual fight. With individual rights there is some objective standard to which we can repair.

Fairness, like a magician’s sleight of hand, gets us to shift our focus away from the conditions necessary for each individual to live freely and to pursue happiness to the relationship between individuals. In other words Obama and his supporters substitute the concept of individual rights which has an objective basis (if formed properly) to fairness, which can mean whatever one wants it to be. I think this is precisely their motive.

While fairness is a valid concept on the social level in terms of how people treat each other in a non-legal context elevating fairness to trump rights and to be a governing political principle is a path fraught with peril.