If You Love Truth So Much, Why Not Give Up Stories?

Robin Hanson wants to know:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

via Overcoming Bias : Stories Are Like Religion.

Emulating Fictional Characters

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

They found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

via ‘Losing Yourself’ In A Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life.

The Trouble with Public Choice: Too Generous to Politicians

Matt Yglesias recently admitted in a blog post to increasing bafflement about “the high degree cynicism and immorality displayed in big-time politics.” Today Matt says some libertarians “responded to that post by deciding they should be condescending and give me a little less in Public Choice Economics 101. That, however, misunderstands what I’m trying to say about the subject.” Which is what?

The formal model of the self-interested legislator is very easy to understand. What I’m saying is hard to understand is the actual psychology of this kind of behavior. I think I now have a much better grasp than I once did of what’s going on inside the heads of people who have ideological beliefs I disagree with. But I find it very difficult to extend my powers of moral imagination to the kind of people who hold high political office in the United States.

I’m with Matt. I too find it hard to get inside the heads of politicians, and I don’t find rational choice assumptions very illuminating in this regard. By insisting that politicians are motivated by considerations no different than businessmen or anybody else, public choice economists have helped slay the pernicious myth that politicians are generally warmly other-regarding public servants. But the economist’s assumption of motivational uniformity fails to capture that politicians do in fact seem to be really odd people who don’t seem to be primarily motivated by the same considerations that motivate most of us most of the time. The incentives of the political process create a kind of filter that selects for individuals extraordinarily fixated on power and status and extraordinarily motivated to keep it. If this is right (anyone know of personality studies of politicans?), then the problem with standard public choice is that it gives too much credit to politicians by assuming they’re like everyone else and therefore it fails to capture just how exceptionally prone politicians are to narcissism, motivated cognition, self-deception, and brazen lying.

I find I almost always side with those defending empirically-informed motivational realism against a priorist rational choice/public choice types. (The dispute here between classic public choicers Mike Munger and Anthony de Jasay against empirically-informed political philosopher Jerry Gaus is illustrative. Jerry’s right, I think.) So I agree with Matt that politicians are probably odd, and in a bad way. But then I wonder what Matt takes the general lesson of that to be. Maybe if I thought about it longer, I could imagine a story in which this doesn’t tend to imply skepticism about the efficiency and justice of a system in which politicians are given a great deal of discretion to shape individual and public life, but I can’t think of one right now. So I’m curious what Matt takes to be the broader implications of the idea that “we’re fated to be ruled by the sort of people who are really desperate to cling to power.”

What's Wrong With Empathy?

I truly don’t get it. Empathy is “code” for judicial activism? “Judicial activism” is obviously code for the judging of Democratic judges. What “empathy” is obviously code for is a group-identity-based nomination, in particular the nomination of a woman. And what’s wrong with that?

One of the deepest problems in philosophy is the relationship between general rules and their application in particular instances. Rules don’t apply themselves. And there can be no infinte regress of rules that tell us how to apply rules. Judgment is completely unavoidable. And, hey, maybe there’s a reason we call judges “judges”!

Anyway, suppose there’s a fact of the matter about the external totality of facts that constitute a “situation.” (This is a problematic supposition; it’s not so easy to individuate “situations”– but suppose.) This totality can’t possibly fit in anyone’s head, so the situation has to be edited by selective awareness. So we’re left with a perception of the situation as edited by habits of attention. Within one’s perception of the situation, certain features will stand out as especially salient. This can be moral or legal salience or something else, depending on the purposes of judgment. One’s history is obviously relevant to the habits one brings to attention and to the recognition of features of a situation relevant to judgment.  One way a rule may be misapplied is to fail to recognize the relevance of an objective feature of the situation to the rule. This can happen at the initial step of editing — one doesn’t notice the feature at all — or at the step of the judgment of salience or relevance — one doesn’t see why it matters.

Even when there is unanimity about the meaning of a rule, there may be disagreement about whether and how a rule applies in a particular instance due to differences in the habits of attention and sentiment that guide judgment. If a society has a history of inequality, people within different groups may have developed very developed very different but also very reasonable habits, and will therefore make very different judgments, for good reasons, even if there is zero disagreement in the abstract meaning of rules.

The Supreme Court is a deliberative body. If it is extremely homogenous in composition, there’s a good chance that judgment will become biased in the direction of the characteristic habits of the largest group. Difference in ideology provide some check, but they may also paper over subtle an not-so-subtle uniform assumptions that lurk behind political and methodological disagreement. Some of this sort of disagreement may be over the relevance of things like empathy to legal judgment in constitutional cases, but surely the capacity to put oneself in the position of parties involved in a case before the court is relevant. And the ability to put oneself in the position of another is certainly improved if one has at some point been in a similar position. (E.g., No man was ever a teenage girl; white people rarely face the kind of subtle discrimination routinely experienced by even privileged black people; etc.) One plausible understanding of “empathy” in this context is simply a heightened sensitivity to features of certain kinds of cases that are missed or downplayed due to the habits of mind and sentiment common to most current judges.

I think that, other things equal, the Court would improve the quality of its judgment by including more women and minorities. However, other things aren’t equal. My sense is that the best-qualified women and minorities are likely to have substantive views about Constitutional interpretation I disagree with. So I’m likely to be unhappy with Obama’s nominess because of ideology. But holding ideology fixed, I think there’s a strong reason to prefer a well-qualified woman to a well-qualified man. And I think another woman would likely increase the scope of empathy on the court in a pretty straightforward and desirable sense.

Anyway, I’m just being dense. The Republicans were going to attack basically any Obama nominee as a monster of judicial activism anyway, and so they used the unusual and thus salient appearance of the word “empathy” to get started. It’s stupid, but politics is stupid.

The $250,000 Focal Point

Yes, people who think they’ll get walloped with extra taxes if they touch that 250 thousand and first dollar don’t understand the nature of marginal tax rates. But it’s hard to escape the class war overtones of Obama’s stategy of sticking it only to those who’ve passed the magic number. If you’re under the line, you’re one of us. If you’re over the line, you’re one of them. Reserving higher marginal rates, the cut in the charitable deduction, etc. for the top bracket sends a message: you don’t deserve it and you owe us. It’s easy enough to grasp the desire to approach but not join the resented class.

Krugman on the Bully Pulpit

Paul Zrimsek in the comments below offers us this gem:  

Last but perhaps not least among causes of the consumer funk is the administration’s own determined pessimism. Mr. Bush has a bully pulpit, and he is using it to preach economic alarm. This adds powerfully to the chorus of doomsaying. And when it comes to short-term economics, believing can sometimes make it so.

Paul Krugman, 2/21/01

Oh snap!

The Incoherence of Neo-Keynesian Doomsaying

In response to my post below, friend and former colleague Ryan Avent writes:

This is just too cute. The paradox of countercyclical macroeconomic politics is only a paradox if you believe that the current recession is the result of equal parts Democratic fear-mongering and facts on the ground. But can any sane person actually believe this? Does anyone really think that Barack Obama’s acknowledgement of economic reality and the op-ed warnings of lefty economists are the things producing this downturn, or perpetuating it, or deepening it?

I don’t think Ryan understands the cute argument. The cause of the recession is irrelevant. I never even intimated that Democratic fear-mongering caused it. (I think normal periodic breakdown of efficient-ish economic coordination + American houselust + democracy + fancypants finance + executive myopia + regulatory failure caused it.) So does anyone think that pants-wetting op-eds by Presidents and Nobel Prize-winning economists can perpetuate or deepen a downturn? Yes! For example, people like the President or Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman who believe that countercyclical macroeconomic policy works largely by manipulating consumer and investor psychology. If you don’t think Obama and Krugman’s confidence-destroying disaster forecasts hurt, then you probably shouldn’t accept confidence-restoration theories of stimulus, either. Or maybe Ryan knows of some research that shows that badly-targeted tax cuts and infrastructure spending effectively boost confidence and buoy markets while doomsaying from the most powerful man on Earth means squat. That would be interesting to see.

More Macropsychoeconomics

I certainly do not reject the idea that coordinated, population-wide changes in beliefs and/or preferences have macroeconomic effects. I think herd psychology and fool-in-the-shower-style updates of expectations about lifetime income can and do have big macroeconomic effects. In fact, I think we are seeing some of this now. But booms and busts are not only about aggregate demand and animal spirits. Nor are they only about government-induced capital misallocation. I’d like to see somebody with the wherewithal to explain how policy-led misallocation interacts with herdy consumer and investor psychology. Then I’d have a reason to really believe someone who says we merely need to wait and let all the malinvestment shake out, or someone who says we merely need to prop up the confidence of consumers and creditors.

It seems likely that there are in fact a lot of bad bets that need to get squared and that the herd could use some prozac. But what dose? How much is too much; how much leads to just the sort of systemic malinvestment that leads the herd to panic again? This is the sort of thing I feel like no one really knows anything about, though I am more than eager to be shown the secret science.

Daron Acemoglu’s VoxEU op-ed reminds me of another piece of macropsychoeconomics I’d like to know a hell of lot more about: backlash threat:

Decisive action on the crisis is necessary; not just soften the blow of the recession but also to avoid a backlash that could be deeply harmful to long-run growth. A deep and long recession raises the risk that consumers and policymakers start believing that free markets are responsible for the economic ills of today. If so, we could see a move away from the market economy. The pendulum could swing too far, bypassing properly-regulated free markets, towards heavy government involvement that could threaten future growth prospects of the global economy.

A comprehensive stimulus plan, even with all of its imperfections, is probably the best way of fighting these dangers. Nevertheless, the details of the stimulus plan should be designed so as to cause minimal disruption to the process of reallocation and innovation. Sacrificing growth out of our fear of the present would be as severe a mistake as inaction. The risk that the belief in the capitalist system may collapse should not be dismissed.

OK. I find the backlash hypothesis totally plausible. The idea here is that (1) good economic institutions require sufficient cultural support, (2) the “do nothing” response will erode cultural support and thereby threaten future economic performance, so (3) we should do something that prevents backlash, but nothing that screws up the very institutions we’re trying to preserve by not doing nothing.

So what’s the actual evidence for (2)? Acemoglu notes that populist, anti-market backlash is a big problem in developing economies, and I agree with him. But surely places with durable, high-quality economic institutions already have a lot of both elite and popular buy-in, which should limit the magnitude of any  backlash. If the point of “doing something” is really institution-preserving political theater (like Acemoglu, I’m an institutionalist, and think this does count as “economic policy”), then how much theater do we need? What is the minimum that will suffice to keep the pitchforks in the barn? Over the medium- and long-term how much can upgrades in economic literacy do to reduce backlash threat? Obviously, institution-preserving political theater creates a political opportunity to screw up economic policy, or Acemoglu wouldn’t be warning us against it. So maybe good long-term economic policy involves prioritizing economics education as a prophylactic against future backlash.