Are We Reaching A Turning Point In The Politics Of Outrage?

According to Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer is “No.” But it appears that there a growing number of pundits who agree with me about the negative utility of political outrage.

Earlier this month Slate published a beautiful recap of 2014 as “The Year of Outrage.” (hat/tip @NickSacco55) A giant grid depicts their dutiful tracking of what they considered the most outrage-inducing story of every single day of the year, It’s stunning to look back at all the outrages I forgot about or never knew about in the first place. It’s interesting to ponder how many of the ephemeral outrages I avoided with my blogging hiatus.

It’s illuminating to see the stupid outrages side-by-side with the serious ones.

Throughout the piece(s), there’s a mournful tone about how the silly outrages distracted from the genuinely important issues (which naturally are the ones featuring the greatest crimes against Slate’s writer’s progressive political positions). Their conclusion is relevant for pundits of all stripes:

it’s fascinating to look at how our collective responses skipped from the serious to the picayune without much modulation in pitch.

When everything is outrageous, nothing is.

But it’s not just liberals who are questioning the long-term value of our obsession with outrage. Mollie Hemingway took on those trying to tie the NYPD police murders to Democratic politicians, reminding us of a similar Palin-blame game and asking if we can all “try to see the best in each other’s arguments.” An Atlantic feature on Erick Erickson noted that the Red State hero has been questioning the anger that made him famous:

In August, he wrote, “I increasingly find conflict between my faith and some conservative discourse.” He cited the right-wing furor over undocumented minors, Ebola, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri…

He told me about a man who had come up to him to rant about immigrants ruining schools and neighborhoods. “I’m like, ‘Why are you so angry?’ ” He thinks conservatives suffer from a persecution complex…

Most of our modern political groups do. I’m encouraged to see more pundits recognizing the problems of outrage. Perhaps the movement will continue to grow, though I suspect the demand remains too strong for such things. Nash equilibria do not tolerate vacuums. Even if Red State manages to fend off the temptations to keep peddling its own outrage, will that just send more readers to the Matt Walshes of the world? Or can leaders like Erickson help bring down the demand curve while shutting off the supply?

World Wars Per Century

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This summer marked the one hundred year anniversary of World War I. It means that for the first time in 75 years, only one world war was begun in the last century (presuming that any current regional conflicts do not flair up and become retroactively associated with the beginning of another). Even World War II is quickly fading into the farthest quadrant of the most recent hundred years.

That may sound like a trivial mathematical curiosity, but I believe it is a significant marker. Essentially, everyone alive today has experienced their entire lives in the shadows of two world wars, something that was previously not experienced in the entirety of human history. It was natural to wonder, especially after the second war and during the Cold uncertainties, if this was a new normal, if this previously uncharted territory would continue and take us to the end of the world. I suspect we do not appreciate how much that paradigm influenced decisions of the last several decades.

Yet many an eschatological timeline has since been foiled. World Wars are increasingly a distant memory, and they increasingly present fewer difficulties for Pinker’s narrative that humanity is following an arc towards peace. For the first time since global war burst onto the scene, a new generation is arising who will not know anyone who has lived through it. Globalization has connected us all, and it is now plausible to imagine that the steps on the above graph will turn out to be nothing more than a momentary blip in the course of history.

Not that I would not bet on it. Today’s nonpocalyptics may be as unrealistically optimistic as their apocalyptic counterparts were pessimistic decades ago. Thomas Friedman’s Golden Arches Theory appears increasingly strained. Obama’s mockery of Romney’s Russiaphobia now appears hubristic. Markets may be swifter than missiles for limiting the upper bounds of Putin’s aggression, but the double-edged sword of global connectivity also may make them less capable of ending it altogether.

And so we plod on in this lukewarm era that is too complex for any certain predictions. Many have over-expected war, but I am also wary of under-expecting it. Human nature does not change, and it only gets more tools to use. Old Russia and new ISIS/L are simply the latest heralds of both wars and the rumors of them. Are we now living in an era with both the greatest potential for violence and the least manifestation of violence in history? Every day it proceeds I wonder if it increases the chance that it is self-stabilizing or if it increases the chance of correction. Assuredly I do not know.

I Think I Need A New Paradigm

Since starting this blog three years ago, I have continued to explore territory further from traditional libertarian camps. Much of my recent shifting has been influenced by reading fewer blogs and reading more books. Jesus For President strengthened the anti-war views of my libertarian past and added skepticism about the importance of private arms for personal security. Fast Food Nation and Salt, Sugar, Fat strengthened my growing concerns about negative externalities and unintended consequences in the food industry and added somewhat greater sympathies for unions and regulations. Affluenza strengthened my growing skepticism about the usefulness of GDP as a measuring stick and added skepticism about the value of much of our rising standards of living.

So Where Am I Headed Now?

Enter this video, shared by a Facebook friend.

I am more sympathetic than I used to be to some of these ideas. I strongly believe the cycle of debt-fueled growth is a harmful and unsustainable manifestation of short-term thinking that often masks external costs. I agree that it feels like we should be able to come up with a better way to channel the productivity increases of recent decades into fewer working hours and more freedom to pursue personal passions that could have greater benefits to the rest of humanity.

Not So Fast…

However, I strongly disagree when the video accuses companies of taking resources that used to be free and selling them to us for profit, or when it apparently claims that problems arise because money is artificially scarce. These claims may be emotionally or superficially appealing, but I believe they betray fundamentally flawed understandings of economics.

Money essentially represents resources, and it is resources that are truly scarce. Most resources cannot be free in the utopian sense that air is free because they have a limited supply. Sure, I “have to” pay money to my electric company, and they profit from it, but this setup has several advantages over a “free” energy source of wood. First, the electric company provides a greater amount of energy at a far greater efficiency than I could acquire myself. Despite the dirtiness of fossil fuels (and I am very excited about solar energy), they are said to at least be cleaner than the “free” wood burning of the past.

Additionally, those old forests were never really “free,” anyway. The “tragedy of the commons” indicates time and time again how freely available resources become exhausted. Conversely, private property rights incentivize owners to make energy sustainable to maintain their source of profits while simultaneously incentivizing consumers to use less energy so they can save money. When the buffalo was “free,” it was almost hunted to extinction. When resources are owned, they almost never run out.

Even if I somehow deserve some ownership of those limited resources, the electric company is still not simply taking something that would be free and selling it back to me; they are providing a valuable service by refining those raw fossil fuels into forms of energy I can actually use. So I voluntarily choose to pay my electric company for a larger, faster, cleaner, more sustainable, and more useful source of electricity than I could otherwise find for “free.”

On The Other Hand…

On the other hand, it is quite probable that I simply don’t understand Charles Eisenstein’s “gift economy” and need to read his book. Flawed ideas about resources do not necessarily invalidate many of his ideas, and the deep hunger for a better way is not necessarily a utopian fantasy.

“Cleaner” is still dirty enough to pollute countless rivers and lungs. “More sustainable” may not be sustainable enough. Why do I need “larger” amounts of energy, anyway? So I can drive farther to work? What do I do with my extra time from getting it “faster”? Check Facebook more often?

For years, I’ve extolled the virtues of markets that provide us with so much growth and innovation only to find myself wondering what all that innovation is really doing for us. The System now helps Brazilian students learn English by connecting them to online chats with lonely elderly Americans! The System keeps giving us better pills to increase our quality of life! The System gives us fancier treadmills with cup holders and customizable TV screens! Isn’t that awesome?!

But what if the American seniors are only lonely because the System made transportation so cheap that the rest of their family moved away? What if we only need those pills to offset all the negative health effects we got when the System gave us television and TV dinners? What if we only need those treadmills because the System made our lives so convenient that we didn’t have to walk anywhere? (Maybe we are paying for things that used to be free…) When I start peeling back the layers of “why,” I feel like I don’t have to go very far before I wonder if we’re really making much progress.

I used to like to say it was the Government that kept setting up new programs to fix the very problems caused by the old programs (see the old yarn about government breaking your leg and giving you a crutch). But I’m starting to realize that this happens with the whole system, businessmen and regulators all mixed in together! At least with the Government paradigm you have a convenient entity to blame. If it’s the entire System that’s breaking our legs and inventing newer, shinier, foldable crutches paid for by tiny ads on the handles… then maybe we have no one to blame but ourselves. And when I dare to think this way I lose all interest in the ideological turf wars about whether the Auto-Syncing Wi-Fi enabled LED SmartBulb 3000X was the product of profit-seeking market innovation or government research and regulation. How did we end up in a world where fancy lightbulbs made us so excited in the first place?

…Maybe I’m Starting To Shift

For a while I dealt with my growing unease by appealing to technology as a savior. Solar panels and electric cars will free us from pollution. Self-driving software will free us from road deaths and unproductive commutes!  3d printers and asteroid mining will save us from manufacturing scarcities and stagnation! Maybe Bitcoin will even save us from the financial system! But if new technology merely solves the problems old technology gave us, why should we assume the new forms won’t create new problems that lead to new “treadmills” that we have to discretely add back in to our increasingly compartmentalized days that are still only twenty-four hours long? What if new technology just distracts us even further?

I used to relish every new Apple product presentation with religious fervor. Now I think future civilizations will find our archives of “incredible” and “amazing” new ways to swipe a screen and won’t believe it was real.

I think I need a new paradigm.

I thought I had achieved political enlightenment when I stopped seeing things from a left-right Democrat-Republican paradigm and started seeing things from a freedom-authoritarian paradigm. The real question wasn’t whether Democrats or Republicans should grow government; the real question was whether or not we should grow government at all! But I’m starting to think that this “mind-blowing” revelation is just another axis on the same false plane of economic progress.

Maybe I need to look at things from a third dimension – a more spiritual plane that considers the purposes behind our clamor for conveniences, a paradigm that accounts for the unintended consequences of each “new” and “improved” innovation. This kind of thinking is certainly not exclusive to religion, though I find it quite at home with the teachings of Jesus Christ; it seems more difficult to help “build the kingdom of God” when your money is tied up in mortgages and your time is tied up cleaning, mowing, fixing, and organizing the properties he “blessed” you with. Have I gained the whole world wide web in my pocket, but lost my sole purpose for living? Maybe the real question isn’t whether a bigger or smaller government is better for economic growth; maybe the real question is whether or not we still want economic growth at all!

Gasp! Surely not! Old paradigms do not quickly surrender to such heresies. Whatever complaints one may have about the diminishing returns of Western materialism, surely we do not need to throw the air conditioning and the antibiotics out with the neo-Luddite bathwater! The march of progress may have a few unpleasant side effects, but it would be foolish to presume that life is not better now than it was a hundred years ago. Life will never be perfect and people will always have something to complain about, so just keep your head down and play along and if you don’t like the treadmills or the Taco Bells just ignore them and make different choices. What’s so hard about that?

Well, I don’t know. This is the cognitive dissonance I have recognized but not yet resolved. What good are power windows if they make your muscles atrophy from lack of use? Is there a point at which the march of progress stops making life better and just makes it more complicated? Can we filter the “bads” the System gives us and keep the “goods,” or are they inseparably linked? How much can a citizen free himself from the consequences of the System’s conveniences without uprooting all of them, and how does one reach those limits, and how does one extend them?

These are the kinds of questions I’ve started asking. These are the kinds of ideas at which I’ve started directing my meager grasps of economic principles and political insights. These may just be the silly and pretentious existential musings of a privileged blogger, but I’m willing to take that risk to see where it leads me…

Why NPR Is My Favorite News Source

NPR is doing their spring fundraising thing, which means I do my usual thing where I admit that I get utility from their reporting but not enough to give them money because I probably wouldn’t listen to them if I wasn’t driving to work and the marginal utility of any one of my dozens of news sources is not really that high and anyway I’m pretty sure my tax dollars support them somehow so I have no incentive to stop being a free rider.

This year, however, I changed my mind. I’ve long recognized that even though many would consider me conservative I much prefer NPR to Fox News, but I generally just thought of it in terms of outright bias and overall focus. Thinking in the framework of my recent post on the politics of outrage, though, I realized explicitly why I prefer NPR so much:

NPR almost never peddles outrage!

Yes, they still have bias like every other form of media, but rarely does the bias imply bad faith on the part of those who disagree. Rarely does it suggest that opposing tribes are evil incarnate. I’ve always thought their random pieces on economic developments in Mauritania (or whatever) were more interesting than the latest tirade about a third-rate Obama staffer’s obscene tweets (or whatever), but I’d never acknowledged the value of the outrage difference – a difference that is generally maintained even when NPR is presenting their angles on more relevant and boring topics like mainstream US political news.*

I realized that I consider non-outrage news both very rare and very important, and I am very interested in ensuring that this sort of news sticks around. So I pledged. It was an amount smaller than their smallest suggested amount, so I’m not looking for congratulations. Nor am I looking forward to the inevitable (and presumably just as calming) slew of snail mail petitions now that they have my address.

But I did want to express my appreciation for a news source that reliably provides more helpful context than unhelpful outrage about current events. I will save the discussion about the political philosophy implications of profit-seeking vs. non-profit media corporations for another day.

*Note: my overall impression of NPR may be disproportionately skewed by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, the programs on during my typical commute.

The Politics of Outrage

So much of political coverage is about generating outrage against other tribes. This outrage is in high demand and easily supplied, but it ultimately leads to a market failure. It satisfies our short-term desire for confirmation bias, but by causing us to think other tribes are more evil than they actually are, it reduces our long-term ability to win people over to our side and make the world a better place.

The Details: What Outrage Looks Like

Whether it’s Democrats against Republicans, Republicans against Democrats, or libertarians against the government, time and energy is consistently diverted from arguing the merits of one’s position to the weaker but more enticing strategy of simply portraying the people who hold the opposing position as embodiments of evil.

Sometimes the outrage focuses on the Evil Opponent’s words as indicators of how “out of touch” the Evil Opponent is (47% are takers! You didn’t build that!). Sometimes the outrage focuses on the Evil Opponent’s actions as indicators of the Evil Opponent’s lack of moral fortitude or love for America (He cut a kid’s hair in college! He “bowed” to a leader of a country I can’t find on a map!). Sometimes the outrage manifests as a remarkable fascination in the details of the Evil Opponent’s personal life (Zimmermann’s boxing! Now he’s not boxing!) Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the person said or did as merely mentioning his or her name is enough to foment outrage from the appropriate base (Kochs! Obama! Limbaugh! Obama! Palin! Fluke! Obama!)

The mainstream media uses outrage whenever possible, but the most frequent peddlers include websites such as TheBlaze, HotAir, MotherJones, and ThinkProgress. You can generally tell how high HotAir has their Outrage Meter by how many times they mention Reid on their home page (at the moment, it’s 4, accompanied by words like liar, pain, and un-American.) You can generally tell how high ThinkProgress has their Outrage Meter by how many pictures of old white men they have on theirs (at the moment, only 2, but I’ve seen Republican men in every single above-the-fold photograph before). Outrage meters tend to spike as we approach elections, as it becomes more important than usual to expose Evil Opponents to try to prevent them from gaining power.

The Economics: Why Outrage Persists

The proliferation of such outrage can be explained with basic economics. The supply of outrage-inducing material is very high, and the cost of production is lower than it has ever been. No one is perfect; the worst 10% of things any given individual has ever done or said could probably be thrown into the outrage machine to generate results. Additionally, the worst 10% of people in any given political group generate even larger supplies of words and actions that can be thrown into the outrage machine to smear the entire group. Furthermore, thanks to social media, cellphones, YouTube, and more, technology now enables us to discover and promote a greater proportion of the worst things individuals or groups say or do than ever before.

The demand for outrage-inducing material is also very high. People are simply more interested in clicking, reading, and sharing news that makes them excited and angry than news that makes them calm and happy.

When so many people want something that is so easy to supply, we should not be surprised to see so much of it. Websites publish outrageous posts for the same reason politicians create more commercials slinging mud at their opponents than dusting themselves off – it might not change many minds, but it’s more effective at involving people who already have their minds made up.

These incentives create tensions for content creators who don’t necessarily want to get sucked into the outrage machine. My most popular post of all time is also probably the most outrage-inducing post I’ve ever written. I could probably generate more page views by cranking up the Outrage Meter more often, but if I believe outrageous page views ultimately create negative utility, why would I want to maximize that?

The Problems: Why Outrage Is Harmful

One problem with outrage is that, while it may be very effective at reinforcing your side’s existing biases about the other side, it is extremely ineffective at winning people over to your side. While we love to throw outrage at them, we are very good at dismissing outrage against us as irrelevant and actually turning it into another reason to be outraged at them (Oh there they go again bringing up Seamus / Benghazi / whatever).

Sometimes the outrage is so great it produces visible backlash (think 2012’s “legitimate rape“), but even then the accusing side tends to overplay their hand, allowing the defending side to spend less time rationalizing their weakness and more time accusing the other side of exploiting it.

To be sure, there are injustices worthy of outrage, but the worthy outrageous things that don’t outrage us are just as revealing of our biases as the less worthy things that do. I had to stop and ask myself why the TSA terrors and NSA surveillance have outraged me far more than Michael Dunn’s murder and essential acquittal.

Am I more concerned about laws that merely take away liberties than about laws that enable racists to kill people they stereotype as dangerous and get away with it? And is it just a coincidence that my outrage seems to correlate less with the level of injustice and more with how closely the victims match my ethnicity and income level?

The biggest problem with an abundance of outrage is that over time it gives you a very unbalanced impression of your political opponents. You begin to assume your opponents are always acting from malicious intentions rather than good ones, which hampers your ability to understand them or admit errors in your own thinking.

Liberals think virtually all conservatives are racist compassionless homophobes. Conservatives think virtually all liberals are socialist Marxist environmentalists. Libertarians think virtually all government employees are corrupt, power-hungry statists.

A consequence of assuming your opponents are acting in bad faith more than they really are is that it makes you more gullible to believing partially-true (or downright false) stories about something outrageous they did. That’s how anti-government crusaders got outraged about voluntary chicken nuggets and liberals got outraged about a fabricated anti-science memo – they already believed it was something those people were probably doing anyway.

The more boring but more persistent consequence is that it decreases your overall ability to get along with members of the other tribes. If you believe the worst 10% of an opposing tribe is representative of the whole tribe, you’ve probably spent more time reading about them on the Internet than you’ve actually spent with them. But once you believe that, why bother trying to spend time with them?

At times I’ve despaired about whether the United States is getting too big to govern. I see pro-Russian and pro-European factions fighting in Ukraine and it makes me wonder… are we always destined to split off into warring tribes? I don’t know, but if I can get more people to recognize outrage and reduce their demand for it, I’ll feel like I’ve done something to help.

Appealing To The Future

As partisans and ideologues wage their linguistic wars, I’m always looking for ways to cut through the fog and optimize the journey towards truth. There’s a particular type of argument I often see that I think is particularly weak. I’m calling it appealing to the future.

An “appeal to the future” is when a partisan pundit gets really excited about a prediction, proposal, promise, or otherwise unrealized claim, and perfunctorily elevates it to prophetic status. This claim is used as evidence that the other tribe’s policies or politicians are evil personified, or evidence that my tribe’s policies or politicians are gloriously brilliant.

The only ingredient a pundit usually needs for an appeal to the future is a “source.” It doesn’t really matter if the source is a CBO budget analysis, a corporate quarterly forecast, a scientific paper, or an anonymous insider tip. Nor does it matter whether or not the pundit has previously considered the source to be trustworthy. The only purpose of the source is to use its projection as a starter to generate emotional validation of the pundit’s pre-existing worldview. (In fact, the really brash “thought leader” pundits do not even need a source; a gut feeling about upcoming trends tenuously linked to any arbitrary news is good enough.) Generally, the claim does not pan out as predicted, but by then the pundit has moved on to a new appeal to the future to generate the next round of outrage or excitement.

For Example: Obamacare

Obamacare has already been through several rounds of respective “imminent failure” and “imminent success.” Supporters recently seized on a report that insurers planned to spend $500 million on advertising. Pundits like Paul Krugman practically hailed it as the second coming of Obama. I didn’t realize this advertising plan was “the shoe we’ve all been waiting to see drop,” but apparently it was and it’s great news! “Insurers think this is going to work.” Never mind that the same pundits are usually criticizing insurer actions. Never mind that we could just as easily interpret the advertising rush as a ploy of desperation, or that it may not actually happen, or that it may not actually have any significance if it does. Never mind that previous future appeals – por ejemplo, that people would learn to love Obamacare – have thus far failed to materialize. Why worry about present reality when we can always appeal to a newer, hopeful future?

Not that Obamacare critics have been much better. The presently unfolding several million cancelled health plans wasn’t bad enough, so some started appealing to predictions that 80 million people will be seeing their plans cancelled! “Several experts predicted it,” and “the administration estimated” themselves. Never mind that conservative critics laughably dismissed other, rosier predictions from the administration. Never mind that even that prediction requires some creative stretching to interpret it in such a devastating way. Never mind that if this prediction fails to materialize, we’ve already moved on to a new appeal – surely the insurers are bound to start revolting any time now! Why worry about present reality when we can always appeal to a newer, hopeful future?

For Example: Climate Change

The climate change debate is full of this appeal. It seems like I’m always seeing someone tout some new evidence for climate change that, to my surprise, is not actually a new data or observation but a new projection about the loss of some habitat or an increase in some bad weather metric that could occur forty years from now!

In a widely circulated piece on Slate’s Bad Astronomy last year, Phil Plait attempted to debunk the claim that there’s been no global warming for 16 years. In my opinion, he did not prove that it “has not even slowed,” but what’s really ironic is that among the actual observations (like the record low Arctic ice cap in 2012), Phil used an appeal to the future that was just too emotionally validating not to pass up: “It is getting so hot in Australia right now that weather forecasters had to add a new color to the weather maps.” Never mind that the actual temperature ended up being seven degrees cooler than predicted and well within the old color range. Never mind that the “new color on the map!!!” hysteria is still circulating the Internet as evidence of climate change (an interesting example of an appeal to the future from the past!)

Conclusion

The projections that feed appeals to the future are not inherently useless. But they are not generally intended to be used as arguments for an ideological case, and they are often weaker than other types of arguments available for making those cases. All future projections are by definition a type of calculated knowledge, which is generally more likely to be wrong than direct knowledge. But if appeals to the future are so often unreliable, why do partisans keep using them?

The incentive to create appeals to the future stems directly from the ideologue’s exaggerated worldview in which his views are sacred truth and his opponent’s views are evil lies. In the actual present and complicated reality, many of the ideologue’s predictions and prescriptions are not as wonderful as he imagines; neither are his opponent’s quite as harmful as he believes. So the only way to continue to validate a worldview that is not actually validated by the past or the present is to grasp at any potential indication that the future is about to prove it all right.

“The economy under my president may not look so hot now, but just you wait – this new survey shows a confidence uptick that proves the recovery is just around the corner!” Or: “the economy under their president may not look like it’s collapsing yet, but just you wait – the latest Fed statement betrays a weakness that proves the end is just around the corner!” And round and round it goes.

Universal Income

A basic income (also called basic income guarantee, unconditional basic income, universal basic income, universal demogrant, or citizen’s income) is a proposed system of social security in which citizens or residents of a country regularly receive a sum of money unconditionally from the government. (Wikipedia)

When I first heard about “universal income,” I laughably dismissed it as extremely naive leftist thinking that was so patently ridiculous that it bordered on satire. The government gives everybody a standard amount of money? Where does that money come from if not the very people it is being given to? Wouldn’t such a policy totally destroy any incentive to work? And then who is going to pay for it?

However, I have since learned that the idea has some interesting substance to it, and it has actually been promoted by several prominent conservative and libertarian thinkers throughout history. Discussion of the old concept has seen much revival across the Internets lately due to global economic trends and the emergence of experiments in various places that have been providing interesting results.

Continue reading Universal Income

Is Cutting Food Stamps “Unchristian”?

Congress is currently debating how much to cut food stamps in the new omnibus Farm Bill, and whenever liberal websites write about it, they invariably generate upvoted comments about how “unchristian” it is to “cut funding for a much needed social safety net program that provides for the least among us,” or quoting Matthew 25 for its condemnation of alleged Christ-followers who among other things did not feed the hungry.

The implication is that conservative Christians who oppose food stamp benefits are hypocrites who oppose their religion’s teachings for the sake of selfish politics. Now I myself have not spared harsh words for conservatives who hypocritically oppose poor welfare programs while supporting welfare for rich farmers, and I also agree that many conservative Christians who vigorously oppose programs like SNAP do not seem to share an equivalent concern for personally trying to help those who rely on them (although I think there are growing numbers who have a more holistic understanding on both accounts). However, I am not convinced that the moral implications of the government program itself are so clear.

First, blanket statements about cuts being “unchristian” force a gray issue of degrees into an unrealistic black and white world of “feeding the poor” vs. “not feeding the poor.” In the absence of deeper reasoning, someone who was more cynical might be forgiven for wondering if such arguments would be trotted out to oppose any possible cuts to any possible level of benefits. But Jesus did not say “I was hungry and you cut back my bread ration by a couple slices”; surely there is some level of benefits that might be so generous that there would be no moral quandary involved in a slight reduction? I think discussing where currently proposed levels and cuts fall on that continuum requires more nuance and depth.

But even if we could assume there is a proper “Christian” level of food stamp benefits that we can identify, there is a more fundamental issue – conflating the distinction between voluntary giving and forced giving. Maybe this matters for the Christian; Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me,” not “I was hungry and the Romans taxed you to feed me.” And what about taxpayers supporting these benefits who are not Christians? Jesus definitely didn’t say, “I was hungry and you had the Romans tax your rich neighbor to feed me.” Political opponents of the “Religious Right” seethe whenever they try to “impose their morality” on others via laws about sexual behavior, yet such progressives seem to have no issue imposing others to be more moral in their financial behavior by forcing them to be more generous. Is this really any better?

Finally, even if we in theory decided that the ends of enforcing such generosity was worth the means and we could determine an acceptable level that met everyone who had need, we would still have to deal with the practical effects of reality that might undermine our good intentions. What about the disincentives that are harder to monitor from such a distance? What about the crowding out of private generosity – if my tax dollars are already facelessly, namelessly feeding the poor, am I less motivated to feed them myself (and maybe get to know them and help them improve their situation)? What about the irritating politics that seem to inevitably show up whenever government gets involved, like cities that ban feeding the homeless on your own because they can’t regulate the food you’re giving away? How “Christian” is that?

One response is to argue away the hyper-individualism about forcing one person to give food to another by claiming that citizens of the United States are all part of a community with a long-standing tradition of supporting each other and caring for our neediest members. A decent family looks out for each other; many of those dynamics extend to a church community; why not an entire country, especially for those who consider it a “Christian nation”?

I guess I can see the idea being presented, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s without merit. But I don’t think I’m convinced it applies to that degree. For one thing, it seems a little vague and hand-wavy; how do you decide that a “Christian nation” should mandate feeding its poor but not, say, mandate sex within marriage? For another, the dynamics of a support network within a family or even a church inherently depend on familiarity that allows and even requires expectations, responsibilities, and accountability – the sorts of things that tend to be considered faux pas for humongous top-down government programs that lack the capacity for such local familiarity and even compete with the very organizations and voluntary involvements that can sustain it.

Another possible response would be to ask if there is some contradiction between a support for ending government actions that harm people and a support for cutting government actions that help people. Or, to be more specific, if I want to end government farm subsidies because they end up hurting people, should I not also oppose cutting food stamps because that will end up hurting people also? And if the answer lies in my philosophy about government (the freedom to spend your own money vs. giving people the ability to eat?), is that merely an indictment of the morality of a philosophy that is OK with hurting people? Or does that theoretical question depend on how much programs like SNAP actually help people in practice, especially once we properly consider long-term effects and opportunity costs?

Like most things, it’s a complicated issue. Unfortunately this makes me conflicted about supporting organizations like Bread For The World, which are doing an amazing job lobbying to fix corrupt and harmful food aid practices but also seem to treat any reduction in food stamps as a tragic sin. My own uncertainty is compounded by my regretful (but hopefully transient!) lack of familiarity with food stamp recipients, forcing me to rely on statistics and the dangerous stereotypes by either side. I’m trying to increase my understanding of the opposing arguments, in case I’m missing something important, but I’m not yet convinced that cutting food stamps is “unchristian,” and I definitely don’t think it’s a slam-dunk.

How Partisans Abuse Polls

Back during the Great American Gun Control Debate of 2013, the liberal side loved to cite polls showing 83-91% of Americans supporting universal background checks. Republicans opposed it even though a majority of even their own constituents appeared to support such a thing. Similarly, during the government shutdown, the progressive side continually trotted out polls about 72% of Americans opposing a shutdown to prevent Obamacare from going into effect. The point is to emphasize how “out of touch” those extreme obstructionist conservative / Tea Party / Republican / GOP types are.

But it should not surprise you that this strategy cuts both ways. You didn’t hear too many Republicans talking about the above polls. But whenever liberal columnists or politicians talked about their shutdown polls, you almost never heard them also talking about the 70% of Americans who opposed raising the debt ceiling. And now, as Rand Paul is trying to leverage Janet Yellen’s confirmation to get a vote on his Audit the Fed bill, all the people who will likely bloviate about how stupid that is will probably not mention the polls that show 74% of Americans wanting to audit the Federal Reserve.

Both sides of the partisan demagoguery are quite adept at cherry-picking the views of the American people to support whatever they’re trying to do at the moment – not that there’s anything groundbreaking in pointing that out. But that does lead to some deeper thoughts about our continually growing democratic republic. Why are a vast majority of the American people continually thwarted in getting the things they tell poll-makers they want, whether it’s background checks or a balanced budget or a rise in the minimum wage?

Well, it’s important to note that most Americans do get what they want regarding a whole host of issues that have been settled for a long time; by definition, it’s only the rare currently contentious issues that get noticed. But what about those?

The conventional answer might be that the constitutional system of checks and balances was built to prevent the tyranny of majority mob rule. This is true, although some of the issues above are not really failing because they run into the Bill of Rights. The cynical answer might be that the corrupt system of lobbying and special interests play an outsized role in determining policy. There is probably truth to this as well, along with messy realities of Americans not really knowing what they want and changing their minds and definitely not pressuring Congress enough to really try to make some of these things happen.

How Welfare For Conservative Farmers Kills Ethiopians

I’ve been reading Enough: Why The World’s Poorest Starve In An Age of Plenty. I was afraid it might ignore economic and political realities to express naive wishes that we could all just share more, but it actually dives deep into some of those economic and political realities. Among other things, the authors (two long-time Wall Street Journal correspondents) explain how African farmers were left behind by the Green Revolution.

The book recounts efforts to increase yields for Ethiopian farmers in the early 2000’s, leading to a bountiful crop. But unlike previous successes in Central America and Asia, even that good crop paradoxically led to another famine.

First, there was no infrastructure to store or transport the surplus crop to other parts of the country, so it all came on the market in the same place at the same time. Predictably, prices crashed below the cost of production.

Second, there were no commodities markets to allow farmers to lock in prices for the next season, and third, there were no government subsidies to provide price supports. This all left the farmers both unable and unwilling to plant nearly as much the next year, which just happened to have a drought. Cue severe food shortage and calls for food aid.

But it gets worse. The food aid undermined what was left of the fragile market. The free-marketer in me wanted to believe the power of market incentives must have been inspired somebody in the country to try to transport surplus grain to make a profit. A few pages later, I learned that indeed some traders did, but they were met by “free” food aid that made their efforts worthless. There were even traders trying to store up extra grain to sell later at higher prices, but American food trucks rolled right past their storehouses, cornering the market.

It would be sad enough if the food aid was coming from well-intentioned charities. It would be even worse if it was coming from well-intentioned government programs. But what makes it so incredibly tragic is that the food aid essentially comes from the American farm lobby that needs the government to buy up a good chunk of their product, which it then tries to give away to other countries as good-looking aid.

Part of this story could be used to support government involvement in building infrastructure to help goods move or even subsidizing farmers to keep production high enough in the face of low prices to avoid famine. But the irony is that even any theoretically perfect attempt by the Ethiopian government to improve their country’s agriculture would have been completely undermined by the reality of the American government’s extravagant subsidies to its own farmers. The deeper irony is that these extravagant subsidies go to farmers who are generally staunchly conservative and presumably opposed to other farms of welfare.

Congress is currently working on a new farm bill, which is apparently supposed to have a new Five Year Plan for subsidies and price supports and other goodies. I don’t even know what’s up for debate on those aspects because the only news I can find about the bill involves disagreements about cuts to the food stamp program. Now I have few qualms about cutting food stamp benefits; even the recently reduced-from-a-temporary-increase maximums ($347 for 2) are higher than my wife and I spend on food in an average month. And I find the ubiquitous anecdotes of fraud more convincing than pat reassurances that such fraud is rare and taken care of.

But at least that welfare goes to people who are generally poor and only has costs in money and perhaps poor incentives. The welfare to farmers involves hundreds of thousands of dollars in transfers to already-wealthy farmers that essentially get the government to pay them to haphazardly dump their wares on disrupted foreign markets, exacerbating famines and almost certainly killing many people.

I wrote my Congressman to express my disapproval of such policies, although I don’t know if the farmer part of the bills are even up in the air at this point. I can even see an argument for some farmer subsidies, although I suspect Ethiopia might succeed just fine without them if it had the roads and the commodities markets to help. (In a cruel twist of fate, Enough explains how developed countries pressure developing countries to refrain from using such subsidies anyway, in spite of – or more likely, because of – the fact that they themselves are using far more extravagant subsidies on their own farmers, who understandably don’t like the competition.)

So I think it’s perfectly reasonable for conservatives to highlight the recent doubling of food stamp rolls for the poor and all of the problems that entails, but my patience grows thin for any who do not also highlight the welfare for their own farmers that is quite literally killing even poorer people on the other side of the world.