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?
Kennedy outlined a paradigm that he claims is “common currency” in many poor, black neighborhoods. In this paradigm, he says, America is engaged in a conspiracy to subdue blacks. After the civil rights era, the CIA invented crack. The government keeps trucking it into the ghettos to draw young blacks into the trade so officers can keep arresting them.
When Kennedy first ran into this paradigm, he laughed it off as craziness. But he came to see reasons that made it an attractive theory to people with their experiences and knowledge: America really did overtly subject blacks by law until fairly recently; the crack epidemic devastated the ghetto; the community sees white folks drive in to buy drugs but only sees black kids getting arrested for it; they see a powerful American government with global military and surveillance capabilities, concluding that they must not be stopping the drug trade because they don’t want to stop it.
Once Kennedy understood the logic within this paradigm, he saw how law enforcement actions perpetuate it, and how it affects the community’s coldness toward police and the police’s coldness toward the community. By taking the paradigm seriously, he came up with ideas to address its fatal flaws, such as having law enforcement build up cases against dealer kids and tell them they could arrest them but they wouldn’t if they quit, which proved to the community the police wasn’t out to get them, which motivated them to help keep new dealers off the streets, which proved to the police the community really didn’t want the drugs either, which all in all literally turned dangerous neighborhoods into safe neighborhoods within weeks (!!!).
There’s a lot more fantastic insight and brilliant details about all of this in the book (seriously, read it), but I want to focus on this urban paradigm that America, particularly its government, is still systematically engaged in a racist agenda to subject the black man. I’ve stumbled onto parts of this idea before, but it’s still largely unfamiliar to me, Kennedy’s depiction is the most comprehensive I’ve ever seen. As an outsider, I can’t say if he’s being fair to the paradigm, and what sorts of variations exist and the various reasons people believe in various parts of it. But it seems safe to say that the paradigm exists, and is held by a non-negligible percentage of the American population.
I find it extremely interesting to compare this paradigm to one with which I am more familiar. Many conservatives also like to blame the government for perpetuating cycles of urban poverty, but for opposite reasons. The government is giving away too many handouts! Food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, “Obama phones”… the list goes on and on. The “takers” keep taking from the government so they can lay around with their TVs and video game consoles while demanding even more goodies paid for by hard-working taxpayers who are not nearly as lazy as the folks suffering from the disincentives of ugly marginal tax rates.
Before anybody jumps in with some Doubtlessly Qualified Opinions on the relative truth values of these paradigms, I just want to marvel at the tension.
In one corner, we have a bunch of Americans who are convinced that poor people are poor because the government is doing so much to hurt them. In the other corner, we have a bunch of Americans who are convinced that poor people are poor because the government is doing so much to help them!
Isn’t that kind of… beautiful, in a strangely partisan political way? Isn’t that such a great example of how people with different experiences can come to such different conclusions about the same issue?
Please don’t mistake me for implying some sort of parity between the paradigms. I strongly believe the urban conspiracy paradigm is fundamentally flawed. But the opposing paradigm does not even allow for that paradigm to exist, right? (Well, at least without assuming the complete irrationality of the participants. But I have long believed it too simple to write off people on “other sides” as evil/stupid; most people operate with biases but act rationally based on those biases, and Kennedy’s book confirms the rationality of the participants enough for me.) If the government really is helping poor people so much, how could the paradigm that the government is hurting them even get off the ground? What does the mere continuing existence of that paradigm say about the weaknesses of the other?
I have some preliminary ideas, slowly coagulating in bits and pieces – a comment about a Charles Murray book here, a reference to 90’s welfare reform there. I suspect the “ample social safety net” does not actually catch the “poor” nearly as efficiently as some conservatives (perhaps surprisingly) seem to imagine that it does. Maybe some services require addresses; many people who live in poverty are transient, moving between houses and apartments or nothing at all with different family members and friends as living situations change. Maybe some services require going to city buildings; many poor have limited transportation options. Maybe some services require waiting in long lines, verifying income status, social security cards, whatever; many working poor do not have a lot of spare time, maybe they do not know where their social security card is. Now soak all that in the general inefficiency and ineptitude of the incentives we call “government,” mix in some mistakes and lost paperwork and more long lines to fix them… hmm, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising if a lot of poor people don’t exactly see the government as a Clear and Shining Beacon of Everlasting Free Goodies (That Could Lift Them Out Of Poverty If Only They Weren’t So Lazy).
Of course, since I’ve never been poor, and I’ve picked up most of my conservative ideas of how the government helps the poor from conservative people who have never been poor, I don’t even know how to know how close I am to the right track of what government-poverty relations have ever looked like, much less how they look in 2014. I mean, I know there’s like forty million people on food stamps. That’s got to count for something, right? But there are huge gaps in understanding. I’m having my eyes opened to previously incomprehensible paradigms that are helping me fill them.
In the late 2000’s, I was very wrong about hyperinflation. I had unfounded confidence in a flawed view of the world which made me fall for simple projections peddled by confident people. In fact, I was very wrong about the Federal Reserve in general; I believed their responses to the crisis would quickly backfire with unintended consequences in a vicious feedback loop that certainly did not allow for a 2014 with record stocks, low unemployment, and no inflation – regardless of what may yet occur. Fortunately my risk aversion kept me from ever spending more than a few hundred dollars on silver.
In the early 2010’s, I was less confident about many things. But this blog has dutifully preserved a major mistake I must now confess: I was very wrong about Obamacare.
Two years ago, I fully expected that by now the law’s utter failure would be readily apparent. All the law’s interventions would be backfiring on a huge scale. The cost of plans would be increasing enormously. Insurers would be backing out. There would be undeniable negative effects on employment and the general economy. Every exception, delay, tweak, and twist of the Rune Goldberg machine would reverberate through the rest of the parts, unraveling in a vicious feedback loop of increasing interventions and unintended consequences.
But as I joined the rousing cries of the anti-government crusade, I started to look around, noticing that the looming Obamacare apocalypse didn’t seem to be getting any closer on the horizon. I started noticing that everybody was just appealing to the future. So I shut up and waited. And the future still isn’t here.
Sure, there are little stories all over the place of discontent. I certainly wouldn’t say the law’s been a roaring success. But a hundred million people didn’t lose their plans. Everybody didn’t see their premiums double. The people didn’t rise up and take to the streets in outrage. For the most part the healthcare industry and all the people in it seem to be plodding along pretty much about the same as before.
Now this doesn’t mean conservatives weren’t right about the law’s problems. Jon Gruber’s YouTube highlight reel has been confirming things Republicans have been asserting for years: the cost analysis was gamed, the details were deliberately, opaquely rushed, etc, etc. And Gruber’s attempt to pass off his clear defense of the clear subsidy language as a “speak-o” is the epitome of intellectual dishonesty.
Seriously, guys. A speak-o, if it’s like a typo, would be when you say a word and the context of the speech makes it clear you mean the opposite. Example: “I think Rand Paul could go all the way in 2016 for the Republicans and take votes from Democrats. I think Hillary will fade for the Democrats and Paul’s coalition will expand the Republican base. I’m a pundit so I know things. And that’s why I think a Democrat will win the White House.”
It’s clear from context that the intended word in the last sentence is “Republican,” and the speaker just mixed it up. But if somebody had actually said “Republican” there, and after a Democrat victory tried to convince people that in the speech he was clearly predicting a Democrat win while making a “speak-o” he would be laughably dismissed. If a “speak-o” means you can simply claim what you really said is the opposite of what you really said when it’s politically convenient to do so, then I’ve got a new campaign strategy for Todd Akin.
The most charitable explanation I can think of is that the subsidy language really was a mistake made by non-Gruber-people, but then Gruber assumed it was real and invented motives for it as he carefully and logically explained the reasoning behind it. But that’s not what Gruber said happened, either.
So if you’re still with me, it looks like Republicans were right about all the problems behind the law; they’ve just been wrong about how terrible the consequences of those problems would be.
The Rule of Law vs. The Rule of Man
If the Supreme Court accepts the previous version of Gruber’s argument about the subsidies, it would be an interesting consequence on the law itself. After a few years of incessant “rule of man” interventions to keep the thing moving, the “rule of law” would finally stick a fork in a law that was initially passed with “rule of man” corruption. Or maybe it wouldn’t. What do I know?
Over the last couple years, I’ve learned to take a page from Bastiat, if you’ll forgive the probably oversimplified and inappropriate association, and think about the unseen on matters of race. The unseen is important in many things, but perhaps it is especially important with race due to the large assumptions we make about the unseen of other races based on the seen of our own race.
For example, like many conservatives I used to ask why blacks were so outraged about killings by police officers and not outraged by the much more prevalent killings of blacks by blacks. Nevermind all the reasons, both subjective and objective, one might respond differently to the same actions committed by different people held to different standards. I literally had the audacity to assume that the outrage that I personally observed in the arena of public discourse was equivalent to the outrage that actually took place! Now I have had my eyes opened to some of the outrage that was previously unseen to me.
I have been thinking about this principle again. I am fascinated by the the conservative response to the non-indictment of the officer who choked Eric Garner. The pundits are all quick to point out how very different this case is from the Michael Brown case they just spent four months justifying, although some of them are bending over backwards to express their concern in the most guarded way possible, saying they don’t know enough about it to absolutely sure something is wrong. (Yet they somehow know enough to be sure it’s definitely not about the things their political opponents think it’s about. But, hey, partisans gotta partisan.)
What fascinates me, though, is their implicit confidence that they are responding to an objective illustration of these issues. They are patting themselves on the back for responding consistently to the facts that have entered the arena of public discourse without seeming to notice the array of influences over what facts enter the arena of public discourse to begin with. They are all commenting about how much more justified New York City’s anger was than Ferguson’s without seeming to notice that it is probably only because of Ferguson that they are paying attention to New York City at all. They want to treat these as isolated cases that are not representative of systemic issues without recognizing that a long unseen history of systemic issues could be the only reason these cases bubbled up into their field of vision in the first place.
YouTube clips of Garner’s choking were available weeks before Michael Brown was even killed, but his death remained largely unseen outside the arena of civil rights activists until Ferguson (which itself was largely unseen until the burned QuikTrip gave everyone something to denounce). That anger in Ferguson may have been partially kindled by a history of abusive local practices which have now gotten so much attention in the state that Republican lawmakers are writing up reforms.
In this narrative, unseen but justified anger over systemic issues provoked seen but unjustified anger over a single event, which gave partisans enough to argue about that it held our attention long enough to actually see the justified anger over another similar event. Isolated, unrelated incidents? Please.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying things. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence these publicized decisions came down so near to each other. It’s not like the grand jury process is new. It’s not like police officers killing unarmed men is new, either. What is new is that the decisions about them are being publicized. They have (at least until the next exaggerated health scare) burst from the unseen arena to the seen.
I am fascinated by how consistently the pundits are referencing the video as clearly showing the details behind Garner’s death without seeming to be aware of the influence the video had on the fact that they “saw” this death at all. The video is the reason that Eric Garner is the second “seen” grand jury decision that everyone is comparing to the first “seen” decision about Michael Brown.
Contrary to conservative beliefs about liberal media, the media does not relentlessly spotlight every white officer’s killing of a black man while ignoring the killing of whites. There are far too many “unseen” deaths (of all races) for even the media to pay attention to them all. Many are doubtlessly justified. But no one seems to have a good idea of how many aren’t, and how many of those unjustified deaths receive justice through the justice system. There seem to be a couple of issues that raise doubts that this happens with satisfactory regularity.
One issue is that when there is no video of the incident, the authorities have an enormous amount of control over the information that enters the arena of public discourse. After the release of Brown’s surveillance footage (which was not footage of the officer’s shooting), conservatives criticized liberals for caring more about the footage being leaked than the “facts” of the footage itself, while missing the whole point that the curious way these facts were released raised doubts about what other facts might remain unseen.
Another issue is the inherent conflict of interest in a prosecutor bringing charges against the officers he needs to help him bring charges against non-officers. This leads to unusual grand jury procedures, if the cases even make it to a grand jury at all. Conservatives have shown remarkable interest in dissecting the consistency of the evidence to Darren Wilson’s account without showing nearly as much interest in the unusual way the account was handled by the system. Sympathetic prosecutors may not have led the rigorous cross-examination of a regular trial, which may have left relevant facts unseen, or left questionable “facts” unchallenged.
The system of policing the policemen may have had these issues for a long time, but these issues have remained largely unseen. Until now.
Ferguson brought these issues to the attention of some of us in the St. Louis area, but the apparent absence of clear evidence contradicting the officer’s narrative allowed most to ignore their relevance; maybe the outcome would or should have been the same even without those potential slants. The video of Eric Garner – now that it has entered the arena of public discourse – is bringing those issues to the attention of all.
(Incidentally, this is why I don’t share the despair of those now saying “so much for body cameras”. This footage may not have changed the outcome of this grand jury decision, but it has done more to open people’s eyes to problems with the grand jury process – and thus the potential for change – than anything I’ve ever, uh, seen.)
Which circles us back to the issue of race. The debate about whether or not any given event is “about” race is somewhat distracting, I think. What seems clear to me is that there are a lot of unseen experiences, often grouped along racial lines, which influence not only our perceptions of those events, but whether we perceive them at all.
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.
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…
Marijuana shops opened in Colorado this year, and the sky has not yet fallen. But the trend of former politicians denouncing failed drug policies has suddenly caught up to those still in office, and politicians both red and blue are now falling over themselves to sound more libertarian than the next guy.
Barack Obama – the sitting president of the United States – admits on the public record that he doesn’t think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. Chris Christie says “we will end the war on drugs,” and Rick Perry wants to move towards decriminalization. (Yes, that means the moderate/establishment wing, the evangelical wing, and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party are all now moving in this direction.) Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder wants to reduce drug-related sentencing, and conservatives at CPAC are arguing that it’s actually conservative to put fewer people in prison for drugs so we can reduce government spending on prisons, reduce government intrusion in our personal lives, and reduce crime by stopping the inevitable networking of non-violent drug dealers that leaves them no job options when they get out besides the violent skills they picked up in prison.
All of this is music to my ears.
The cynic would say these politicians are just responding to reality and the shifting opinions of the electorate. It’s true that public polling on marijuana legalization has approached and fully crossed the 50% threshold in recent years. It’s true that tight budgets and bloated prisons, combined with renewed small-government fervor, are incentivizing enough common sense to begin to shift power away from the “prison industrial complex.”
These kinds of explanations are likely enough, but I wonder if that’s the whole picture. After all, it’s easy to find polls on other topics that haven’t created such a shift in the rhetoric of both major parties. So here is my pet theory: Perhaps it has something to do with the growing threat of libertarian politics.
What threat, you may say? Didn’t Gary Johnson only get about 1% of the vote in 2012? Where is the Libertarian Party coming close to winning even statewide elections anywhere? My argument is not that they are winning (outside the Republican Party, that is), but that they are picking up enough votes that both Democrats and Republicans are starting to worry about them.
In this month’s special election for FL-13, the Libertarian candidate picked up 4.8% of the vote in what appears to be the first time they fielded a candidate there. I haven’t done an extensive analysis, but there appear to be multiple districts in 2012 where the Libertarian candidate out-performed the difference between the two major parties, potentially tipping races in both directions.
Most game theory political analysis focuses on how the shifting whims of the electorate affects the two major parties (in this case, since the electorate is allegedly becoming “more liberal,” pitting claims that this means the Republican Party is doomed against more boring claims that the party will simply become more liberal as well. But perhaps that analysis is too simple, and there’s a third player here. Perhaps a growing libertarian presence is also influencing both parties to become more libertarian to reduce the risk of those candidates spoiling races for either of them.
At least that’s what almost seems to be happening with the War on Drugs.
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.
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.
I used to say that, whatever American evangelicals had to say about banning gay marriage, hardly any of them seemed to be trying to ban homosexuality itself, and that this distinction said a lot about what both conservatives and liberals think conservatives believe about the intersection of legislation and morality. Muslims in Iran may kill homosexuals, but Christians in America do not.
But apparently that’s not quite true in Uganda, where evangelical Christian president Yoweri Museveni just signed into a law a bill that, as I understand it, would put those repeatedly convicted of homosexual sex in prison for life (a slight reduction from the originally proposed death penalty). I’m hesitant to hastily judge brothers from an unfamiliar culture on a continent I have never visited, but Jesus prevented the religious leaders of his day from stoning a woman caught in adultery, and even remembering the call to “go and sin no more” I’m having trouble understanding how he would approve of his followers laying similar legal sentences on those caught in other types of Levitically-denounced sexual activity.
Even more disturbing is the apparent right-wing American evangelical influence on the creation of this law. I think the media is likely exaggerating the connection, and much of it seems to be guilt by association (Rick Warren is bad because he was once buddy-buddy with one of these guys, but Barack Obama is not bad because he was once buddy-buddy with Rick Warren?), but even the most charitable interpretations of such claims are, well, not very charitable. This is compounded by the fact that I can find lots of media attempts to connect American conservatives to this shameful Uganda law, but I have neither heard nor found any attempts by conservatives to defend or disassociate themselves.
I find it hard to believe that a significant number of conservative Americans agree with this law, but I also find it hard to explain their silence in the face of the recent flood of accusations (please point me to any defenses I may have missed). This would be a perfect opportunity for right-wing evangelicals to denounce the sort of theocratic legislating that liberals often caricature them as wanting, signaling that their real political beliefs are at least not that unreasonable, campaigns against gay marriage and potentially misrepresented but admittedly vague state laws included.
But “politics is not about policy.” Are American conservative evangelicals so caught up in political tribalism that they are afraid of signaling disagreement with others who are on “their side” when it comes to homosexuality, even if they are extreme enough that such association damages the credibility of their religious beliefs? Yet I have not generally found that to be true in other instances, as the average evangelical is more than happy to hastily disassociate themselves from the protestors of Westboro Baptist, for instance.
I have never liked the far-left attempts to compare the Tea Party with the Taliban, as if throwing acid on women who don’t cover their heads is somehow remotely equivalent to thinking bosses should be able to let employees buy cheap, publicly available birth control pills with their own money. The Taliban kills their political/religious opponents; the Tea Party does not. But unless the Tea Party starts to disassociate themselves from these alleged connections to those putting their opponents in prison for life, such comparisons might start to make me a little more uncomfortable than they ever did before.