Myopic Political Blindness
I'm frightened by the polarization of our world, and read books that I hope will help me reduce that polarization, and interact fruitfully with people who see the world differently than I do. I hoped these two books would help. They did not. Haidt's book started in that direction, but then wandered off into mental prison. Sandel's book started in a different mental prison, and never left it.
blind right eye: What Money Can't Buy - The Moral Limits of Markets - - Michael J. Sandel, 2012
blind left eye: The Righteous Mind - Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion - - Jonathan Haidt, 2012
Partisan politics is built on social myopathy, the inability to comprehend other points of view, much less value them. Two books (suggested by others) demonstrate blindness from the left or the right. Without stereo vision, depth perception disappears. In politics, that means that a multidimensional landscape is reduced to single-template us versus everyone else pattern matching.
I was unable to read very far into either book; the outcome of both books seems predetermined by their introductions. When that happens, I often resort to the index, and sample subjects out of order. I measure arguments by breadth; are multiple viewpoints represented? Are the authors aware of their own biases? Are they choosing examples to buttress their biases? Do they ignore data that conflict with theirs? Do they calibrate their yardsticks to their own views.
... Money ... - - Sandel doesn't like what others do with it. As a professor at Harvard, the wealthiest university in the world, you would think he might notice that his position and income depend on it; Harvard is outlandishly expensive, and the money spent educating a Harvard student and maintaining its grassy campus could educate many other students, and colocate many more classrooms and dormitories in a dense urban setting. But enough about hypocracy - let's focus on the book, and a few examples.
Futures markets in assassinations: the U.S. Department of Defense doesn't have an infinite budget; it cannot respond quickly to every possible threat. DoD is structured to respond to previously encountered threats, past failures and embarrassments especially. Minimizing future embarrassment (and consequent funding and career damage) requires a broader view of the future than a narrowly-trained and task-focused organization can create within it's own ranks. So, DoD recruits outsiders into prediction markets, outsider individuals betting on near-term future geopolitical outcomes, in the same way that investors bet (win or lose) on financial outcomes. Some individuals are much better at this than others; learning how those individuals think helps the military train and equip its own personnel.
Sandel focuses on one single DoD prediction experiment (out of hundreds) - political assassinations. In a world plagued with strongman leaders, one assassination can change a nation, and the course of history. The point of that prediction market was not to facilitate assassination - it was to understand causes and geopolitical vulnerabilities, and to prepare the US military to respond ... or NOT respond. With thousands of journalists, hundreds of congressmen and senators, and dozens of executive branch officials ready to poundce on the DoD for not predicting such events, or not having a response already prepared, it is far better to prepare the responses in advance, hopefully discovering what works (or doesn't work) before making hasty decisions and abrupt responses. Assassinations happen, always have, and the DoD rarely instigates them. A sober and carefully-thought-out understanding prior to events can improve the response in the aftermath. Planning ahead is what brains are for.
Paying others to stand in line for a "free" event. Sandel is vexed that some attend space-limited "free" concerts in the park because they paid others to stand in line for them. The "prices" paid are tens or hundreds of dollars for concerts, perhaps thousands of dollars for congressional hearings. Sandal considers this "unfair", since some cannot afford to pay these prices. They could if they had a source of income - like standing in line for pay, a job admirably suited to the unskilled, even the wheelchair-bound. A thousand dollars spent on a line-stander is a thousand dollars not spent on bribes.
Standing in line isn't the primary cost of attending most events, or visiting Yosemite, or any other local event in a vast nation. I am in Oregon, and the "cost" of standing in line in Washington DC is a round trip plane ticket and a hotel room. Am I supposed to spend a thousand dollars on flights and hotel in order to stand in line ... and fail to get in, and fail to represent my interests when ignorant legislation is being created that will hurt me? Or merely see Yosemite, or a concert, or some other phenomena that the Cognescenti deem vital to a civilized existence? Professor Sandel would be vexed if an important event in Oregon excluded him, because he lives on the East Coast and cannot get to Oregon quickly.
New York Times journalist Nicholas Christof was born in Oregon and resides in New York City. Neither a resident, nor a trained politician or administrator, he wants to run for Governor of Oregon, which has a three year residency requirement. Rather than live here for three years, "standing in line" with the other four million of us, he challenged that requirement in court. That is not "money talks", but "ink by the barrel". Fortunately, the Oregon courts rejected his challenge.
Money, fame, power, influence, location, family, health ... opportunities are not equal. People use the resources they have to get what they want. The problem is limited, rivalrous opportunity, and the solution is the creation of more opportunities. If Sandel wants more seats at concerts, create more concerts. If Sandel wants shorter lines for congressional hearings, depower the federal government so those hearings are less rivalrous and less important. Paying others to do something is sharing wealth, and what is unpleasant for some can be enjoyable for others. That is what a healthy economy is all about.
... Righteous ... though Haidt represents himself as a left-leaning academic as a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, he biases his measurements to put a narrow interpretation of human values in the center of his map.
The book starts out OK, with some useful observations about how untrained humans make decisions. The "intuition elephant" (instinct, early training, cultural bias) makes the decision, judgement labels the decision, reasoning finds post-hoc justifications for it. The diagram on page 47, illustrating the social intuitionist model, describes how the human mind naturally reacts to stimulus:
The intuition - the brain's gigantic, rapid-response pattern matcher - produces a reaction very rapidly. Judgment is a concious awareness of that reaction, reasoning is how individuals explain and justify their reaction to others ("B"). Those others react, then notice their own reaction, then explain it. "Intuition" is the elephant, judgement and reasoning are the rider, who go where the elephant goes, and pretend they are choosing the direction. A useful model; it explains the natural tendency of our minds to make intuitive quick responses, then make social noises to excuse them.
This reactive mind an OK model for a small tribe, but a recipe for warfare between tribes; the diadic loop fails when expanded to thousands, millions, or billions of minds. If this is all there is, we are doomed; reactivity plus nuclear arsenals is one misjudgement away from global annihilation.
We create institutions to channel our innate reactivity and prevent such catastrophes. Voluntary cooperation is the goal. Suppression, intellectual poverty, and societal failure (like Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China) result when "extreme cooperation" becomes totalitarianism.
A modern nation cannot survive if all minds think alike; we need butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. We also need vegetarians, celiacs, and LED makers, because our finite planet does not have enough cattle, wheat, and wax to supply 8 billion people.
Where Haidt's book goes off the rails is when he places minds on maps, and hypothesizes measurements to position them. His "six foundations of morality" (page 125) are
Haidt designed surveys to "measure" how different people value these foundations ... but he does not specifically describe the surveys, nor how he choses which questions to ask, or how he choses to weight the answers.
The zero to five agreement/disagreement "measurements" are not described, nor how they are weighted, or mapped onto a zero to five disagree/agree scale. To a tobacco grower, abundant tobacco is a great social benefit; to an oncologist, tobacco is a addictive poison. How does Haidt choose his scale, and why should we accept his opaque choice?
The X axis of Haidt's graphs runs from "Very Liberal to Very Conservative" ... and seems to be based on self-reporting. He does not justify this self-choice, describe how people make it, nor how many of his interviewees fit into each category. Where are his samples taken? Which populations?
Geographically, the prime meridian runs through Greenwich England, because the British Navy ruled the seas when this arbitrary line was drawn. In the modern world, it would make more sense to measure from the international date line, perhaps using more computable units than "degrees". But we always draw maps relative to ourselves, discounting the experience of others.
The result of Haidt's opaque calculations is graphs that show "conservatives" have a more uniform balance of his six foundational virtues. The prime meridian of his social map runs through Virginia.
Haidt's foundational choices are incomplete, and poorly adapted to 21st century realities. Scientific accuracy, precision, repeatability, explainability, sutainability, and many many other values are required for modern survival, and seem entirely absent from his surveys, measurements, and mappings. Haidt's enlightenment foundation might serve for a medieval village, but not a global technological civilization.
The place to start reading again is page 309 through 313, and the cartoon on page 318: "Your mother and I are separating because I want what's best for the world and your mother doesn't"
Myself - I would describe myself as a universalist technologist scientific libertarian, with a focus on gigayear prosperity. Social posturing and conflict are incompatible with my goals and outlook. While classical liberal comes vaguely closer to my outlook, neither modern collectivist liberal nor modern racist conservative comes anywhere close.
A large fraction of the US population doesn't waste much time thinking about any of these issues, focusing on childcare and acquisition and sports and television. Many just "do what they do", and are too distracted to think about why. The elephant trods a straight line, but does not extrapolate that line into the future.