Sunday, December 29, 2013

One Final Comment

And one last comment on Haidt that I have made before.  Haidt is one of many psychologists these days who argue that facts are irrelevant to persuasion, and that only people's intuition matters.  But that poses the same problem for Haidt as to any other psychologist.  Facts have no obligation to conform to anyone's moral intuition, and the mere fact that they offend people's intuition does not make facts go away.

Global warming is an obvious example.  I have commented, somewhat jokingly, that our whole debate on global warming sounds a bit like a Monty Python skit that goes somewhat like this:

Denier:   I don't believe in global warming.  It's against my principles.
Scientist: But there's no principle involved.  It's undisputed scientific fact.
Denier:   Your undisputed scientific facts are against my principles.

Well, guess what.  If global warming is real, then being principled against it will not stop it.  Nor will being principled against receding coast lines stop them from receding.  And if it is against your principles to believe that there will be flooding on land you mean to develop, your principles will prove to be very ineffective at flood prevention.

The same applies to economics.  What is needed to fight recession tends to be deeply counter intuitive. But the public demands that the economy be fixed.  Maybe some future Tea Party politician will respond to a financial crisis by letting banks fail, shredding the safety net, cutting spending to balance the budget, and maintaining tight money.  Maybe that politician will tour the resulting economic devastation and boast that it is a proud achievement in making people suffer the consequences of their bad decisions.  Maybe Haidt will defend that politician's actions as the logical outcome of karma-based morality.  But somehow I wouldn't bet much on that politician's future.

The Toxic Combination of Group Loyalty and Purity

To continue with Haidt, I see another problem with his insistence that the Tea Party (or whoever) does not lack morality but simply follows a different morality.  I have already discussed what I see as the danger of the justice-as-karma view -- it tends to encourage people to automatically see other people's misfortunes as deserved and thereby promote schadenfreude.

My other problem rests somewhere between the group loyalty foundation and the purity/sanctity foundation. Although I cannot find the link, somewhere Haidt explains that conservative opposition to closing the Guantanamo prison stems from a loyalty-based morality -- the need to protect America from outside dangers, while the liberal desire to close it is based on the narrow-minded liberal focus on compassion as the sole good.  I see several problems here.  One which I have discussed before is that too often focusing on group loyalty can mean excluding some people from a circle of compassion.  Furthermore, while wanting people in GTMO to be treated humanely is a matter of compassion, wanting their innocence or guilt to be fairly determined and the innocent to be freed is a matter of justice, either by liberal or conservative sights. That many conservatives are opposed even to that might be taken as a sign of putting group loyalty ahead of universal justice.  Or it might be taken as driven by simple fear.  But I have long considered Haidt mistaken in assuming that the four moral foundations can be neatly separated anyhow.  And I think a lot of what is going on here implicates another foundation -- purity/sanctity.

Haidt gives as an example of the purity foundation at work people's aversion to getting a medically safe, disease-free blood transfusion from a child molester.  Speaking as a liberal, this seems silly to me.  The child molester's crimes are not somehow dissolved in his blood, and receiving a transfusion from him will not convey any sort of moral taint with it.  But at least a child molester is a moral offender.  My initial reaction to the purity/sanctity foundation was that I was willing accept it and admit it into public discourse so long as it did not actually harm anyone.  But looking back, that is a naive reaction.  Any system of morality must necessarily include penalties against transgressors, in other words, it must hurt people who violate morality, or it has no teeth.  So I will change it to saying I can accept purity/sanctity so long as it penalizes people only for what they do and not for who they are.  Because I do think a dark side of purity/sanctity that Haidt ignores is its ability to combine with group loyalty to stigmatize certain people as inherently impure, regardless of their actions.

To understand what I mean, let us start with a relatively harmless example: Pamela Geller's crusade against halal meat.  Geller wants halal meat labeled so people won't accidentally eat it.  Geller tries to express her hostility to halal meat in harm/care terms -- she calls halal slaughter cruel because it requires cutting the animal's throat and bleeding it out.  Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, she says find it offensive to eat such meat.  Jews are spared because they eat only kosher.  Of course, there is one little problem here.  Kosher slaughter and halal slaughter are the same.  Yet Geller endorses kosher meat.  So much for the harm/care explanation.  More realistically, some Christians fear eating halal food because it has been sacrificed to an idol, which clearly implicates the whole matter of purity/sanctity.  Well, for what it is worth, St. Paul thought such scruples were unnecessary, but that Christians should respect even needless scruples in others.  As an outsider, I will simply sit on the sidelines and say that if other people have such scruples, we should respect and not mock them, even if we do not understand them.  But I suspect what is going on here is something deeper.  I suspect that what Geller and her followers really believe is the Muslims are impure people and that their acceptance of  certain meat by definition defiles it.  I have a problem with that.  And no, it is no good to say that many Muslims regard non-Muslims as impure and see contact with non-Muslims as inherently defiling, so why not return tit for tat.  This is part of the whole outlook that assumes we should make other people's worst behavior our guide.  If you regard halal meat as tainted because it is sacrificed to an idol, fine. I may not understand it, but I will respect it.  If you regard halal meat as tainted because tainted people eat it, then it becomes a problem.

Of course, there are a lot of more harmful examples.  Haidt may have come to accept the legitimacy of the values of group loyalty, authority, and purity in India, but India has one of the most complex systems of the whole toxicity of seeing some people as impure -- the caste system and untouchability.  Our old system of segregation in the South was part of the same toxic mix of group loyalty and purity, with a touch of appeal to tradition.  And anyone reading of the persecution of Ryan White, a hemophilic boy who contracted HIV from tainted blood products in the 1980's comes away with the impression that there was not just fear of disease at stake, but that people seemed to believe that the HIV virus carried a contagious moral taint that exposure might cause moral as well as physical contamination.

And I cannot escape the conclusion that fear of closing the GTMO prison, of transferring prisoners even to super-max prisons in the US, or trying them in the regular US justice system is driven by something more than fear of escape or terrorist acts.  It is fear that the purity of the US soil or the US justice system will be tainted with the presence of foreign terror suspects, and that mere individual innocence does not keep suspects from being polluting.  Something similar, I suspect, is at work at conservative outrage at the thought of extending any rights of US citizens to foreigners.  They see those rights as sacred badges of citizenship that are degraded when extended beyond our borders.

Haidt may assure us that this is not immorality, but merely a different morality, and I will take his word for it.  But contrary to what some people believe, liberals are not complete moral relativists.  And I have no difficulty in saying that this is an inferior morality.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Haidt, Gilligan, Karma and Schadenfreude

To continue with my criticisms of Jonathan Haidt, he argues that conservatives who would let the uninsured die are not lacking in morality, but basing their morality on karma rather than harm avoidance.  The uninsured have behaved irresponsibly in not getting health insurance and should suffer the consequences.  For government to come to their rescue is evil because it subverts the laws of karma.  Elsewhere, Haidt has expressed some misgivings about karma-based morality, not because it lacks compassion but because -- well, I am not clear why, but I suspect because he considers it factually inaccurate.  It simply is not true that everyone gets what they deserve and deserves what they get, and a morality based on factual inaccuracy tends to lead in bad directions.

To explain my problem with a karma-based morality, I am going to start on a rather remote and unrelated subject -- Carol Gilligan's book, In a Different Voice (which I admit to not having read).  Gilligan was challenging the common psychological view of the day that women were trapped in an immature, care-based system of values that men outgrew in adopting a more mature and superior justice-based system.  Her goal was to argue for the superiority, or at least the equality, of a feminine care-based system.  Her methodology, on the other hand, was dubious.  It consisted (as I understand it) of reading interviews with a 9-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl about their morality and values and analyzing them to see how the boy was expressing an ethic of justice and the girl and ethic of care that was just as good, if not better.  There are some obvious flaws here.  One boy and one girl are hardly a large enough to offer any sort of statistical validity.  Does anyone seriously believe that all males will give the same answers (at least in substance, if not word-for-word) as Jason and all females the same answers as Amy?  And their answers are often fairly subtle and nuanced, requiring a good deal of parsing to come up with the simple dichotomy in ethics that Gilligan claims to find.  A better interpretation might be that an ethic of justice and an ethic of care are not simple dichotomies, but alternative approaches that people might apply in different situations, or even blend.  (And, of course, Haidt would say that offering only these two ethics shows liberal bias by leaving out the "binding foundations" of loyalty, authority, and purity).

When challenged on this, Gilligan said that her goal was not to offer actual evidence that this dichotomy existed, but to vindicate the ethic of care as just as good as the ethic of justice.  The best example I know that offers actual, statistically valid evidence of such a dichotomy, I recommend this study.  In the study, 16 men and 16 women, with their brains wired to an MRI saw a fair player receive a painful electric shock and a cheater receive such a shock.  In both men and women, the compassion and empathy sections responded to seeing a fair player in pain.  When a cheat received pain, the compassion sections of women's brains still responded, but in men, the pleasure centers lit up.  Now that is real evidence of the difference between an ethic of care and an ethic of justice.  It is typically reported from a somewhat female viewpoint -- men show schadenfreude; women don't.  But a more male alternative is certainly possible -- women are just to soft to inflict punishment when it is needed.

In any event, I am not really prepared to favor one ethic over the other here.  Society must punish offenders to enforce proper behavior, but we should not lose compassion, even for bad people.  But the main reason I am reluctant to criticize the men here is that they witnessed the cheating and knew that the offender was getting what he deserved.  And that is where I see them as different from a Tea Party, karma-based morality -- a morality based on karma automatically assumes that anyone who suffers deserved to suffer. Schadenfreude is not special response to people whose suffering is known to be deserved, but an automatic response to anyone suffering unless their innocence can be proven.  This may be a morality, but I certainly would not consider it a good one.

Or let us put it differently.  Republicans regularly denounce Obamacare and do their best to prevent people from getting coverage under it.  They offer a variety of reasons for opposing it, but one thing they never argue is that they see having a large number of uninsured as a positive good.  Nor do I expect the governor of Tennessee to call a press conference any time soon to boast that, while Kentucky saw its number of uninsured fall by half (or a third or whatever), Tennessee was able to hold the line and sharply limit the number of people getting insurance so that their number only fell slightly.  Nor do I expect Governor Rick Perry of Texas to call a press conference any time soon boasting how proud he is that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, and that while he couldn't keep people from getting insurance under Obamacare altogether, by refusing the Medicaid expansion at least he was able to keep those lazy slobs below the poverty line from benefiting.

I think it is fair to ask why not, since this would seem the logic of karmic morality.  I suppose some conservatives might say that the politically correct liberal media censure them and prevent them from speaking their minds.  But I think this is just another way of saying that they are ashamed to utter such opinions because they are not acceptable in our society.  And I am inclined to believe that such shame is an implied recognition that such views really are not moral.

Finally, let me cite some more personal incidents to illustrate my point.  My my grandmother wrote memoirs of my grandfather, she recounted an apocryphal tale about his two grandmothers in southern Germany.  According to this story, when the town of Toul was captured in the Franco-Prussian War, church bells rang to announce the event and both women ran out into the streets to see what had happened.  Hearing that Toul had fallen, one of them said that she hoped she wasn't hurt.  The other, upon hearing that Toul had surrendered, which in the local dialect also meant vomited, said that it served her right for eating too much.  I am skeptical of this story because it reminds me of an equally apocryphal American story about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  According that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, one listener supposedly said that the way she dresses, she was probably asking for it.  It is the difference between one whose automatic assumption on hearing of someone's misfortune is to react with sympathy, and one whose automatic reaction without knowing any details is to rejoice that someone suffered the consequences of a bad decision.  You might consider it the difference between innocent until proven guilty and guilty until proven innocent.  Or between a care-based morality and a karma-based morality.  I will accept Haidt's word that really it is not the difference between morality and immorality, but between two different moralities.  But I am not willing to accept that the two moralities are equally good.

The Fed Tapers; Markets Cheer

Last time Ben Bernanke suggested that it might be time to start tapering QE3, markets freaked out and tight money types took it as evidence that he needed to start tapering right away.  Clearly, they said, markets had become hooked on easy money and it was time to take their drug of choice away, no matter how much it hurt.  Besides, they said, how could anyone possible know when it we could taper safely.  Better to taper now and get it over with.

Well, now Bernanke has started his taper and markets are cheering, presumably because they take it as his endorsement that the economy is getting stronger.  All of this should be taken as a sign of when it will be safe to taper.

When market engage in bizarre perverse, through-the-looking glass behavior, it is a sign that all is not well. When they cheer bad news as a sign that the Fed will engage in more monetary expansion and become alarmed at good new because they fear the expansion will stop, it is a sign that the economy is too weak for monetary expansion to stop.  When they start behaving normally -- cheering good news and becoming distressed over bad news, it is a sign that things are returning to normal and taper may be safe.  When you discuss possible taper and markets panic over having their support withdrawn, it is a sign that taper is premature.  When you discuss taper and markets cheer it as a sign that the economy is getting stronger, it is a sign that taper is safe.

When you discuss taper, or reject taper and hard money types freak out, it is a sign that hard money types are being typical hard money types and should be ignored.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Which I Disagree with Haidt (Again)

It has been almost two months since this article on Jonathan Haidt and this brief review came out, but I have felt the need to follow up on it ever since.  Haidt argues that what seems like immorality to us is simply a different kind of morality.  When Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if a health 30-year-old man did not buy health insurance and then was diagnosed with cancer, should be let him die.  The crowd cheered.  Liberals considered this immoral.  Haidt explains that it really wasn't immoral, it meant the crowd saw morality in terms of karma, and that any attempt to soften the harsh effects of karma is  evil.  Likewise [can't find link] a liberal with a care-based morality might favor closing Guantanamo prison, but a conservative with a group-loyalty based morality would be more concerned about protecting Americans from outsiders and want to keep it running.  And yes, I suppose it is worth understanding how someone else's morality is different, but in cases like that, I am simply not willing to say one morality is just as good as another.

Keep in mind, I have argued something like what Haidt is saying in other posts.  Psychologist Robert Altemeyer seriously annoyed me when he claimed that "authoritarians" have "compartmentalized thinking" and "double standards."  To support this view, Altemeyer offers several examples.  "Authoritarians" are more willing than liberals to censor ideas they consider harmful, including right-wing ideas.  When a fight breaks out between pro- and anti-gay demonstrators, they sentence the instigator more or less seriously depending on which side he is on.  The support Christian prayers in school in a predominantly Christian country on the basis of majority rule, but oppose Muslim prayers in a majority Muslim country on the basis of minority rights.  They claim to favor parental authority, but would try to convert a teenage runaway from an atheist home, even as they would insist atheists refrain from trying to convert a runaway from a Christian home.  But none of these show inconsistency or hypocrisy at all.  Willingness to censor just means that you favor promoting truth over a morally neutral free speech.  Differing sentences depending on who incited a riot shows that you consider violence more or less reprehensible depending on whether it is done in a just or unjust cause.  And clearly Altemeyer's authoritarians are being entirely consistent on the matter of promoting Christianity trumping all other values.  The fact that Altemeyer does not consider promoting Christianity to be a legitimate value does not mean that conservative Christians have to agree with him.

But simply acknowledging that other people are following their values is not the same as acknowledging that those values are good ones.  Nothing is stopping Altemeyer from arguing, say, that a value-free concept of freedom of expression is the best way to promote the truth, or that violence must be equally prosecuted no matter who commits it, or that promoting Christianity should not trump all other values.  But he does not argue these things; he simply assumes them.  So in my next two posts, I want to make the case that even if punishing the uninsured and keeping Guantanamo open reflect genuine values, they reflect bad ones that we should oppose.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shutdown is Dead. Long Live Default!

First the good news.  The House passed the budget with a strong bipartisan majority.  That means there will be no further government shutdowns until after the 2014 election.  It also relaxes the sequester somewhat and should have modest benefit to the economy.  In further good news, the economy is looking up, although we have all heard this story before and should know better than to get too excited over it.

The bad news is that the debt ceiling was not included in the deal, so we are still set up for a showdown over that sometime early next year.  During the last showdown, while the Tea Party wing of the Republicans demanded a government shutdown, the "moderate" faction urged them to hold out for now and have their showdown over the debt ceiling, even though a debt ceiling breach was much more harmful that a shutdown. The reason for that appeared to be twofold.  One was nakedly (and short-sightedly) political -- government shutdown polled badly.  Tying a debt ceiling increase to deficit reduction polled well.  That refusal to raise the debt ceiling could have disastrous results was presumably not well-understood by most Americans, although moderate Republicans in Congress almost certainly did understand it.*  The other reason appears to have been that some Republicans were unwilling to raise the debt ceiling under any circumstances whatever, so presenting it as an opportunity to extract a major ransom was an attempt to get Republicans to agree to raise the debt ceiling at all.

For that reason, I favored a shutdown.  My calculation was simple.  Shutdown and default were just over two weeks apart, with shutdown happening first.  Their proximity would inevitably link both events in voters' minds, so that resolving one could easily be associated with resolving the other.  That would give Republicans cover to raise the debt ceiling because most people would confuse it with ending the shutdown. One of the most important concessions Democrats gained in the last standoff was extending spending until January 15 and extending the debt ceiling until February 7.  That ensured that if no deal was struck, shutdown would again precede breach, so the two would be linked in most voters' minds and could be resolved together.

Now a debt ceiling showdown is again looming, with no shutdown in sight.  The two will not be linked in voters' minds because there will be now shutdown.  So we get to play politics with the nation's credit rating once again.  Wheeee!!!

In averting the soonest crisis, Congress might just have made the next one worse.

*The desire to have a really valuable hostage may also have been a motive there, but I am inclined to give Republicans at least a little benefit of the doubt here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Iran Deal: Is it Skill, or Is it Luck?

So let’s get this straight.  Iran and the Great Powers come up with a deal whereby Iran agrees to halt all enrichment above 5% and dismantle the technical connections to enrich above 5%, dilute its 20% enriched uranium to 5% or less, install no further centrifuges, halt growth of its low enrichment stockpile, halt further reactors, and allow inspectors to monitor its actions and ensure that it is keeping these stupendous promises?!  And all it gets in exchange is limited, temporary, and reversible relief on sanctions that leaves the bulk of sanctions in place?!  And plenty of hawks’ knee jerk reaction is to denounce it as appeasement?!  

Yes, I know, what they really want is regime change, a subject unlikely to be brought about by a deal.  Well, that ain’t gonna happen.  There is no significant faction in Iran that favors the overthrow of their government.  Next!  If Iran hawks absolutely can’t escape a deal, they will settle for one that ends all uranium enrichment by Iran.  That is slightly more likely, but not a lot.  Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The treaty provides for inspectors of members’ nuclear programs to ensure that they are not being diverted to build weapons.  It does not forbid members from enrichingin uranium at all.  Demanding that Iran refrain from what it has every right to do under the treaty is just an excuse for scuttling any sort of deal so we can get back to demanding regime change.  And, I will add, I do not think the criticism is purely partisan.  A lot of people making it have been chomping at the bit for war since well before Obama was elected, and they include a fair number of Democrats, so I think we can rule out pure partisanship.*

So, looking at the actual deal, it is about as good as anyone could reasonably hope for.  No, scratch that.  It is a whole lot better than anyone could reasonably hope for.   I, for one, when they were closing in on the deal, was sort of stunned.  In my experience, deals of this kind just don’t materialize that quickly; they take motnths if not years to achieve.  What happened?  And then there was the Syria deal.  John Kerry makes an offhand remark about the only way for Syria to avoid bombing is to give up all chemical weapons, and within days it is doing just that.  (And, of course, the usual suspects denounced the deal as appeasement).   What is going on here?

To me, but obvious question is, is it skill, or is it luck?   My first response was to think, no one could possibly be that good.  It must be luck.  My second is to think, no one could possibly be that lucky.  It must be skill.  Well, it turns out, a lot of secret, back door negotiations preceded the Iran deal, so it was nowhere near as fast as it appeared.  And right now Kerry is hinting that a lot of back door negotiations preceded the Syria deal, so it was not as pure luck as it appeared.  I don’t know.  The back door negotiations strongly suggest that at least some degree of skill must have been involved.   But at the same time, it certainly made a difference that a less belligerent government was elected in Iran, which was pure luck.  And as for the Syria deal, there seems little doubt that Obama really, truly did intend to go to war and was given a more or less miraculous face-saving out.  Definitely luck.

Of course, there is a certain skill involved in seizing luck when it comes our way.  And its seems like an extraordinary coincidence that we started getting lucky so soon after John Kerry became Secretary of State.  So my provisional verdict is that it was a mixture of skill and luck, with a strong emphasis on the skill of seizing luck when it comes one’s way.  The real answer will come when we see how well Kerry’s luck holds.  If we just get these two lucky breaks, I will say it was just that – luck.  If John Kerry keeps getting lucky, I am prepared to call him our best Secretary of State since – well, I don’t even know who.  But no one could be that good or that lucky.  Or even both.


*Of course, if Obama ever did bomb Iran, many of the people who are outraged that he hasn’t done so yet would be outraged at him for doing so.

What Will Republicans Do if Obamacare Subsidies are Blocked?

Kevin Drum had a strange post Tuesday on the Republican suit, now in the DC Circuit, to block large numbers of people from getting subsidies under Obamacare.  The case is simple.  The statute provides for subsidies for people getting insurance through state exchanges, but not for anyone getting insurance through federal exchanges.  Most states then refused to set up exchanges, thus disqualifying their citizens from subsidies, but the IRS (which handles the subsidies) set up a regulation allowing subsidies for people purchasing on the federal exchange as well.  The regulation is constitutionally and statutorily dubious, so Republicans have filed suit to block its implementation.

Drum games out various scenarios as to how this might be handled, whether the Supreme Court will dare strike it down, whether the prospect of people losing their subsidies will inspire states to set up their own exchanges, and so forth, but omits the obvious.  The whole issue is simply a statutory oversight that Congress could easily correct and render the whole issue moot.

Come on, you may say, don’t be silly.  Congressional Republicans would never fix a mistake in the Obamacare statute.  They have their hearts set on making it work as badly as possible and would never actually do anything to make it work.  At least so far, that is certainly true, but Drum should at least mention this possibility if only to discount it.  And I am not certain it can be discounted so easily as not to be worth even discussing.  After all, there will be winners as well as losers in Obamacare.  At present, Republicans are pointing up the losers and trying to minimize the number of winners in order to create pressure for a repeal.  And it is certainly true that the people who lose their insurance under a new statute (or the ones who see its price go up or quality go down, or who resent paying a fine for not having it) tend to be a lot more vocal than the people who gain under it.  It is easier to block a benefit than to take one back.  But that is precisely the problem.  Assume that either the DC Circuit in 2014 or the Supreme Court in 2015 block the subsidies to people buying insurance on federal exchanges.  Suddenly a non-trivial number of people who had affordable insurance will see its price needlessly skyrocket.  Republicans will cheer and celebrate.  People losing their insurance (or seeing it priced out of their range) will not be amused.  Obama will propose a simple solution.  Just change a few lines of statute and the subsidies will be restored.  Republicans who refuse will start getting a lot of angry phone calls.  Now, presumably the majority will look over their right shoulders at a potential Tea Party challenge and vote no.  The most moderate Republicans will be from states with their own exchanges, so their constituents will not be harmed.  But can we be sure there won’t be enough defectors joining the Democrats to make passage impossible?  I am not so sure.  Championing the losers under the reform and trying to limit the number of winners is one thing.  Actually setting out to harm the winners, with no discernable benefit to anyone else is quite another.

The Republican argument for seeking to block the subsidies is apparently that the employer mandate penalizes employers who do not provide their employees with health insurance, but only if their employees are eligible for subsidies, so we have to strip those employees of subsidies.  Their argument is unconvincing.  The more obvious approach is simply to repeal the employer mandate.  But the Democrats would never agree, Republicans may protest.  Well, given that Obama has already unilaterally delayed the mandate by a year, I am inclined to think they would.  Besides, even if Democrats resist, you could always package repeal of the employer mandate with correction of that statutory error.   Democrats are guaranteed to bite then.  But, of course, that would be utterly unacceptable to Republicans because it might make the Act work, and their whole goal is to keep it from working, no matter who they hurt.  The question is how long such a position will be politically viable.