Are you sick and tired of politicians and their antics throughout the United States? Regardless of your political orientation, this is likely the case.  Over the last 20 years there has been a rising tide of bitter partisanship, leaving a large contingent of US Citizens feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.  Meanwhile both parties point their fingers at their adversaries proclaiming that it is the ideological extremism of the other party causing the divide.   The liberals are accused of promoting socialistic policies while the conservatives are accused of acquiescing to religious and corporate interests.

 

Underlying this partisanship are two driving concepts, dogmatism and belief superiorityDogmatism is generally conceptualized as ideological rigidity.  This is characterized by the holding of beliefs as “incontrovertible and sacrosanct,”with a conviction that the beliefs cannot, and should not, be abandoned.  Belief superiority, on the other hand, is self defining but it lacks the rigidity factor.  One can hold a belief as being superior to the beliefs of others, but be willing to modify that belief based on evidence or changing societal values.

 

Some contend that both liberals and conservatives at the polar ends of the political spectrum are ideological extremists and thus are more likely to be dogmatic.  This position is known as the Ideological-Extremist Hypothesis.  Another perspective, held by many, is the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis, that contends that conservatives tend to score higher than liberals on measures of dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, and closed-mindedness.  Naturally, the issue is more nuanced than this.  These issues have been studied and published in a paper by Toner, Leary, Asher, and Jongman-Sereno (2013) titled Feeling Superior Is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority.   Toner et al., (2013) contend that:

 

“Not only do individuals – liberals and conservative alike – vary in the issues about which they feel superior, but also evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives may be dogmatic about different issues.  For example compared to conservatives, liberals are more dogmatic about global warming, equally dogmatic about civil unions, and less dogmatic about affirmative action.” 1

 

Measuring both belief superiority and dogmatism, Toner and her colleagues attempted to assess the veracity of both the Rigidity of the Right and the Ideological Extremism Hypotheses.   They did this through an online questionnaire service whereby they collected data on 527 subjects (55% male, 49% with some college, ages 18-67 years with a mean age of 30.7).  Three questionnaires were completed by each participant including: 1) an issues oriented set of questions quantifying attitudes on nine contentious political topics –  thereby determining their political sensibilities on a conservative-liberal spectrum; 2) a superiority of belief measure assessing the degree of certainty of correctness on each issue, and 3) a measure of dogmatic thinking.  Co-author Mark Leary  noted that they: “… examined whether those who endorse the extremes of conservative and liberal viewpoints demonstrate greater belief superiority than those who hold moderate views.2

 

Consistent with previous research findings, those espousing more conservative attitudes scored significantly higher on the dogmatism scale.   Thus the Rigidity of the Right Hypothesis was supported while the Ideological Extremism hypothesis was unsubstantiated.  In other words, extreme conservatives scored much higher on the dogmatism scale than did extreme liberals.  With regard to belief superiority, both conservatives and liberals demonstrated this attribute, but on different topics (see Figure 2 below from Toner, et al., 2013).  Specifically, people who endorsed conservative attitudes expressed greater belief superiority than did liberals when asked about voter identification laws, affirmative action, and taxes.  Liberals demonstrated greater belief superiority on the issues pertaining to the role in government in helping the less fortunate, the use of torture on terrorists, and the basing of laws on religious teachings.  The more “extreme” one’s attitudes were, the greater their belief superiority tended to be.

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As this study and a number of previous studies have provided evidence for, dogmatism tends to be associated with those at the conservative end of the spectrum.  Meanwhile, belief superiority is more specific to the issues and is evident at both ends of the spectrum.  Toner et al., (2013) note:

 

“… belief superiority does not include the unchanging, inflexible element implied by dogmatism.  Thus, people who endorse extremely liberal views may feel as equally superior in their beliefs as those endorsing extremely conservative views, but they might be more likely to adjust their views over time with changes in evidence, social norms, or other people’s influence.”1

 

History is filled with travesties perpetrated by extremists at both ends of the political spectrum promoting egalitarian (liberal), individualistic (conservative), and/or religious agendas.   As Toner et al., (2013) suggest, strong beliefs based in evidence may be reasonable and justified.  It is dogmatism, regardless of what belief system that it emanates from, which constitutes danger. Dangerous yes, but more relevant today is the reality that such bombast results in gridlock.  These mindsets help explain the current US governmental stalemate as Toner noted in an interview for Duke Today: “These findings help to explain why politicians with more extreme views can’t reach across the aisle.  As more extreme candidates get elected to Congress, compromise becomes more difficult and deadlocks increase because those with more extreme views are more certain that they are right.”2

 

Although certainty and confidence are attractive in leaders, it is exactly these very attributes that render politicians ineffective.  Life and society are complicated.  There are no easy solutions.  What I took away from this study is that we need collaboration among diverse and intelligent thinkers who are unencumbered by dogmatism and extremist ideology.  We, as a people, must stop feeding into the vitriolic nature of politics and look for leaders who are more willing to work together to solve complex problems.  We must stop feeding the monster, before it eats us up.  One important way to end this is to stop attending to extremist political pundits who stir up hatred and polarize politics.  We all know who these pundits are.  The reality is that media driven hatred and fear mongering drives these phenomena and it is commercial Television and Radio that gives these pundits a platform.  Perhaps it is time to hit their corporate sponsors as they are complicit in spoiling the well.

 

References:

 

1. Toner, K., Leary,  M. R., Asher, M. W., & Jongman-Sereno, K. P. (2013).  Feeling Superior is a Bipartisan Issue: Extremity (Not Direction) of Political Views Predicts Perceived Belief Superiority, Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797613494848

 

2.  Duke Today. (2013). Belief Superiority is Bipartisan

 

Also See:

 

American Exceptionalism: I’m All For It!

 

The Illusion of Punditry

 

Political Divide

 

Moral Foundations Theory

 

Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?

 

 

 

 

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It is often argued that the United States is exceptional with regard to its capabilities and responsibilities.  With respect to its military prowess, and defense budget, it is certainly exceptional.  I am curious however.  To what extent is the US exceptional in other important ways?  Is the US the envy of the world with regard to its educational system and its healthcare?  How safe are Americans?  Further, does America prove exceptional with regard to issues such as equality, democracy, and opportunity?  I for one, am all for being exceptional.  Shouldn’t we strive for superiority in all these areas?  Is not a person’s character judged based on variables other than one’s physical strength?  Are not issues such as kindness, fairness, and morality given important consideration when we evaluate each other?  I suggest that nations too should be judged on these issues.  We as a people certainly judge other nations based on these attributes.

 

So, how does the US compare to other wealthy and developed nations on these important issues?  Let us take a closer look.  By far, the best accessible and concise analysis of this question is contained in The Measure of a Nation by Howard Steven Friedman.  Dr. Friedman is a prominent statistician and health economist at the United Nations and he teaches at Columbia University.  Measure of a Nation was named by Jared Diamond (author of Pulitzer Prize winning Guns Germs and Steel) as the best book of 2012 in an interview published in the New York Times.  I have to agree with Diamond’s opinion.  Friedman’s book is a data driven assessment of 14 nations, each meeting specific criteria for population (at least 10 million) and wealth (mean GDP at least $20,000).   Friedman methodically and carefully analyzes data from each nation and creates a relative ranking system whereby each nation is evaluated on diverse issues such as Health, Safety, Education, Democracy, and Equality.  The comparison countries include: UK, Canada, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Netherlands, Australia, Korea, and Japan.

 

Friedman’s book constitutes an ambitious undertaking and he is careful to be clear about the pitfalls associated with the measures and analyses used.  In the end however, as a skilled statistician and economist, he was able to pull together a clear and concise  comparative ranking system that factually answers the question – “Is America Exceptional?”

 

He are the rankings:

Data is from The Measure of a Nation, by Howard Steven Friedman

Data is from The Measure of a Nation, by Howard Steven Friedman

 

I don’t know about you, but I was appalled by these findings.   The US comes up with a last place ranking on a majority of very important quality of life variables with regard to health, safety, democracy, and equality.  It gets worse when you look at all the comparisons drawn in Friedman’s book.  I included only those measures that could easily be put in a table without the need for deeper explanation.   And with regard to education, we are in the middle and bottom third of the rankings, except when it comes to years of education and percent of the population getting secondary education.   Our literacy rankings are unacceptable.

 

Neither Friedman or I are driven to bash the United States.  Instead, he and I both are motivated by a desire for exceptionalism across all these measures.  Friedman makes recommendations about how we as a people, and a nation, could improve on all these important variables.   The subtitle of his book is How to Regain America’s Competitive Edge And Boost Our Global Standing.  The problem is one of over-confidence and unquestioning nationalism.  To boldly contend that America is exceptional in every way is both unsubstantiated and untrue.  How I wish it was otherwise.

 

It is time to step back, look deeply at these issues, accept the reality that we can do better, and then devote our efforts to making it so.  We are arguably the richest and most powerful nation in the world with a vast capability for excellence.  It comes down to priorities and hubris.  If “we the people” demand excellence in these areas, and stand-up and make our voices heard, politicians will have to respond.  If however, we bombastically proclaim “We’re #1″ regardless of what the evidence suggests, we will continue to languish.   Should not the measure of a nation, with such capabilities,  be the best?

 

Spread the word, get and read Friedman’s book.  Let’s start changing the dialogue in this country away from the current divisive and unproductive rancor, and begin focusing on what really matters.  It starts with knowledge and it ends with a healthier, safer, smarter, and more fulfilled populace whose politicians truly represent them and actually address important issues.

 

 

 

For other discussions and data points on US rankings relative to other nations see:

 

We’re # 37! USA! USA! USA! A look at the US Healthcare System

 

A 2010 US Department of Education report releasing the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicated that 15-year-old students from the US scored in the average range in reading and science, but below average in math.

 

Happiness as Measured By GDP: Really?

 

There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem.  Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it.  The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.

 

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It is widely believed that as a society, we are heavily burdened by freeloaders who are content with living off the fruits of others’ labor. Inherent in this belief is the idea that the poor are more likely to be cheaters. This notion is core to the ideology that fuels the discontent of many on the conservative end of the political spectrum. I have recently written about cheating behavior in general, and how pervasive it is, particularly at the upper end of the economic spectrum. I have also written about corporate and white-collar crime and the egregious costs we all bare as a result of misconduct among the nation’s economic elite. When I sat down to write each of those two previous articles, my intent was to write something about a recent peer-reviewed paper that looked empirically at the relationship between cheating behavior and income level. The evidence substantiated in this series of studies challenges the belief that poor people are more inclined to cheat. In fact, the results turn this misconception upside down.

 

In this very interesting 2012 paper titled: Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the authors, Paul Piff, Daniel Stancato, Stephanie Côté, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, and Dacher Keltner empirically examine the relationship between relative wealth, propensity to engage in unethical behavior, and attitude about greed. Piff, et al. reviewed the relevant literature and hypothesized, based on a landslide of evidence, that affluent people, relative to low income people, will be more likely to engage in and condone unethical behavior and value greed. In their review of the literature they note that:

 

“Abundant resources and elevated rank allow upper-class individuals increased freedom and independence, giving rise to self-focused patterns of social cognition and behavior. Relative to lower-class individuals, upper-class individuals have been shown to be less cognizant of others and worse at identifying the emotions that others feel. Furthermore, upper-class individuals are more disengaged during social interactions — for example, checking their cell phones or doodling on a questionnaire — compared with their lower-class peers. Individuals from upper-class backgrounds are also less generous and altruistic. In one study, upper-class individuals proved more selfish in an economic game, keeping significantly more laboratory credits — which they believed would later be exchanged for cash — than did lower-class participants, who shared more of their credits with a stranger. These results parallel nationwide survey data showing that upper-class households donate a smaller proportion of their incomes to charity than do lower-class households. These findings suggest that upper-class individuals are particularly likely to value their own welfare over the welfare of others and, thus, may hold more positive attitudes toward greed.”

 

To test their hypotheses, these investigators devised seven studies to look at these relationships across a variety of contexts. Research subjects included more than 1,000 people from all walks of life. Studies 1 and 2 were naturalistic field studies whereby “Observers stood near the intersection, coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded [1] whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn” and [2] “whether upper-class drivers are more likely to cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk.” Affluence was calibrated based on the make, age, and appearance of the vehicles driven – because vehicles have been established as a reliable indicator of a person’s “social rank and wealth.” People driving expensive (premium brands such as BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, etc.), late model (newish), and well cared for automobiles were deemed to be affluent – while those driving older, less expensive (i.e., Chevy, Dodge, etc.), and more poorly maintained automobiles, were deemed to be low income individuals.

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Study 3 directly assessed the participant’s relative level of affluence and their subsequent proclivity toward a variety of unethical decisions (e.g., “participants read eight different scenarios that implicated an actor in unrightfully taking or benefiting from something, and reported the likelihood that they would engage in the behavior described“). Study 4 literally assessed whether there was a correlation between affluence and the willingness to take candy from a jar purportedly for children participating in a different study. Study 5 assessed the relationship between affluence and honesty in a role play involving a hypothetical scenario where participants were asked to engage in negotiations with a job candidate looking for long-term employment. The participants were told that the job they were filling was likely to be eliminated, and their honesty about sharing the instability of the job with applicants was assessed. Study 6 looked at actual cheating behavior on a game of chance “in which the computer presented them with one side of a six-sided die, ostensibly randomly, on five separate rolls. Participants were told that higher rolls would increase their chances of winning a cash prize and were asked to report their total score at the end of the game. In fact, die rolls were predetermined to sum up to 12. The extent to which participants reported a total exceeding 12 served as a direct behavioral measure of cheating.” The tendency to cheat on this game was also assessed as a function of affluence.

 

In each of these first six studies, the findings suggest that upper-income people, relative to low-income people, were statistically more likely to: (Study 1) cut off other drivers, (Study 2) disregard people in crosswalks, (Study 3) condone and report a likelihood to engage in similar unethical conduct, (Study 4) take candy from children, (Study 5) be dishonest in the role of hiring someone regarding the permanence of the position, and (Study 6) cheat on a game of chance. In addition, in studies 5 and 6, people of greater wealth were more likely to favor and value greed relative to their less affluent compatriots.

 

Study 7 was a bit more complicated and assessed the degree to which attitudes toward greed were responsive to pro-cheating priming. Individuals from across both high and low income groups were assigned to one of two conditions: (a) a greed neutral activity (listing three things they did that day), or (b) pro-greed priming (an activity where they were asked to list several positive attributes of greed). Participants were assessed regarding their attitude toward greed and self-reported propensity to engage in unethical behavior at work. Regardless of level of affluence, those exposed to pro-greed priming were more likely to engage in unethical behavior. Attitude about greed seems to play a crucial role in driving ethical behavior. The authors note that: “… upper-class individuals’ more favorable attitudes toward greed can help explain their propensity toward unethical behavior.” They also assert that throughout their lives, richer people are more likely to be educated and primed to be assertive with regard to accomplishing their own goals. Poorer people generally have negative feelings about greed and are thus less likely to behave unethically.

 

In these naturalistic and laboratory studies, affluent individuals were more likely to cheat or act unethically than were poor people, and to have positive feelings about greed. These results generalized across self-reported measures of affluence as well as objective measures. The implications of these findings are not to suggest that affluent people, as a whole, are unethical and greedy – nor does it suggest that the poor are uniformly ethical and less greedy. The bottom-line here is that relative to poor people, affluent people have a greater likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior and endorsing greed. These conclusions contrast a popular misconception about the poor and expand how we should think about cheating behavior in general.

 

It is important to note that this study will need replication in order to become firmly established; however, these findings are unidirectional and unambiguous. They are also consistent with what has been verified in the literature to date. Although there are examples of extraordinary philanthropy by affluent people such as Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, there are many other examples of systematic corruption and crime among the economic elite. On the other end of the spectrum there are those poor individuals who proudly game the system in such a way to take more than they contribute. I hear stories of such individuals with such regularity that these narratives take on the feel of urban legend. I routinely work with hard working individuals from the lowest end of the economic spectrum and in my more than 20 years of exposure to this population, I have only come across one family that fits this description. Meanwhile, my professional colleagues have to devote huge amounts of time to documenting Early Intervention and Preschool Services as a result of Medicaid Fraud perpetrated by affluent and unethical service providers who bill for services never rendered. In other words, my extensive personal anecdotes align with the findings of this series of studies.

 

It seems to me that it is indeed time to challenge the meme that poor people are lazy, freeloading, cheaters. At the same time it seems prudent to open our eyes to the misconduct of the affluent. The evidence certainly supports such a conclusion. This brings to mind a quote by John Adams:

 

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

 

Reference:

 

Piff, P. K., Stancato, D. M., Côté, S., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Keltner, D. (2012). Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

 

 

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Cheaters

17 March 2013

Nobody likes a cheater.  Such acts may stir deep feelings of loathing that erode trust and have ruinous consequences with regard to reputation and relationship.  It’s one of those things that is hard to overcome.  I’m not just talking about infidelity here.  I’m referring to a broader type that does include infidelity, but also includes things like pilfering, speeding, lying about one’s age, and other forms of dishonesty that benefit you at a cost to someone else.  Irrespective of the potential social costs, most people, given the opportunity, with little threat of detection, will and DO cheat.  Be honest with yourself here.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  What is surprising is the fact that altruism, or selflessness, the behavioral opposite of cheating, exists at all.

 

By virtue of the fact that human beings are the product of millions of years of evolution by means of natural selection, we are imbued with a selfishness that is hard to deny.   As distasteful as this may be, it is nonetheless true.  We are compelled by our selfish genes to survive, thrive, and replicate.  Within this context, cheating and selfishness make perfect sense and altruism makes little.  Yet we do exhibit altruism.  Why is this?  Steven Pinker wrote in How the Mind Works (1997, p 337):

 

Natural selection does not select public-mindedness; a selfish mutant would quickly out reproduce its altruistic competitors.  Any selfless behavior in the natural world needs a special explanation.  One explanation is reciprocation: a creature can extend help in return for help expected in the future.  But favor-trading is always vulnerable to cheaters.  For it to have evolved, it must be accompanied by a cognitive apparatus that remembers who has taken and ensures that they give in return.  The evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers had predicted that humans, the most conspicuous altruists in the animal kingdom, should have evolved a hypertrophied cheater-detection algorithm.

 

And indeed we have – this cognitive algorithm drives the emotional response we have toward cheaters.  Human beings are one of the few species that engage in altruism outside of their kin.  This is referred to as Reciprocal Altruism and clear links have been established between the demands of this type of social exchange and the origins of many human emotions (e.g., liking, anger, gratitude, sympathy, and guilt).  Pinker (1997) notes that “Collectively they make up a large part of the moral sense.”  We are inclined to engage in reciprocal altruism because we have the cognitive capacity to compute cost benefit analyses and the emotional capacity to respond in ways to encourage gains and discourage losses.  We have to be able to remember favors given and received and we must effectively calibrate reciprocation.  It is a delicate and intricate dance that if kept in balance does result in both individual and group benefits.

 

When benefits or favors are traded, both parties profit as long as the value of what they receive is greater than the value of what they give up.  Because most favors are not exchanged at the same time and they likely vary in degree of effort and value, a calculus is needed to keep the exchange in reciprocal balance.  This balance can tip in either direction and people “remember past treacheries or good turns and play accordingly.  They can feel sympathetic and extend good will,  feel aggrieved and seek revenge,  feel grateful and return a favor, or feel remorseful and make amends.”  (Pinker, 1997 p. 503).

 

It is important to note that there is a different calculus, a more flexible and enduring one that plays out in friendships and kin based, as well as intimate relationships.  “Tit-for-tat does not cement a friendship; it strains it.  Nothing can be more awkward for good friends than a business transaction between them, like the sale of a car.  The same is true for one’s best friend in life, a spouse.  The couples who keep close track of what each other has done for the other are the couples who are the least happy.” (Pinker, 1997 p. 507).  Healthy close relationships come with a feeling of indebtedness and spontaneous pleasure associated with contribution instead of anticipation of in-kind repayment.  This is true to a point however, and if one person takes too much, without giving back, the relationship is likely doomed.  In such healthy relationships, there tends to be compassionate and enduring love, free of ledgers, time cards, and cash register receipts.

 

So, we are hyper-vigilant cheater detectors, and our scrutiny of others’ cheating behavior varies based on a number of variables.  Certainly kinship and friendship play a part in our perception.  But in addition to what we understand about reciprocal altruism and cheating, we also know that our cheater detectors tend to be finely focused on people who are different from us.  Those outside our identified social groups (tribal moral communities) are scrutinized much more closely than those inside our circles – and they are examined with much more resolution than we direct toward our own conduct and toward those in the in-group.

 

This inclination is a byproduct of the universal and innate tendencies to be much more forgiving toward one’s own mistakes and more judgmental towards others’ transgressions.  This is the self-serving bias.  We also have a tendency to see exactly what we expect to see and miss or ignore things that don’t fit within our expectations.  These tendencies are explained by our inclinations toward confirmation bias and inattentional blindness.   Finally, there is the fundamental attribution error which leads us to blame others’ transgression on their internal personal attributes while we ignore important and contributing external environmental circumstances.

 

That is a lot to take in, but suffice it to say that we are much more likely to give ourselves and those similar to us, a break when it comes to cheating.  We are much less forgiving toward outsiders, particularly those that seem to hold different values, norms, or customs.  This is even true within a society where there is, to a substantial extent, social cohesion; but, where differences exist with regard to beliefs or ideologies.  These truths are self evident – just look at the rancor between Liberals and Conservatives in the United States.  But it also helps explain the racial and ethnic tensions within and across this country toward Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims, and particularly, the poor.

 

Currently, much blame for this country’s financial woes has been heaped onto the poor due to “entitlement spending.”  These recipients of social safety net spending are often defined as cheaters and freeloaders.  There is no doubt that there is, and shall forever be, a small contingent of citizens who are completely comfortable with getting a free ride.  It would be foolish to argue otherwise.  This is a legitimate problem.

 

On the other hand, I suggest that we must be willing to acknowledge the prevalence of cheating across the economic spectrum and refocus our microscope on the costs of cheating by corporations, white collar criminals, and those whom we tend to give a pass because they are similar to us.  In my previous article, Crime & Punishment and Entitlements: A Deeper Perspective, I discussed the egregious costs of our prejudicial criminal justice system and the entitlement mentality rampant in corporations and those at the upper end of the economic spectrum.  I submitted that article with the intent of opening eyes to the wider hypocrisy that pervades this country and the erroneously sharpened focus on a small fraction of our fellow “freeloading” countrymen.  If you believe that the infamous 47% of Americans are truly freeloaders, I suggest that you take an objective look at the data from that group (from FactCheck.org):

 

  • 22 percent [or around 47% of the 47%] receive senior tax benefits — the extra standard deduction for seniors, the exclusion of a portion of Social Security benefits, and the credit for seniors. Most of them are older people on Social Security whose adjusted gross income is less than $25,000.
  • 15.2 percent [or 32% of the 47%] receive tax credits for children and the working poor. That includes the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit. The child tax credit was enacted under Democratic President Bill Clinton, but it doubled under Republican President George W. Bush. The earned income tax credit was enacted under Republican President Gerald Ford, and was expanded under presidents of both parties. Republican President Ronald Reagan once praised it as “one of the best antipoverty programs this country’s ever seen.” As a result of various tax expenditures, about two thirds of households with children making between $40,000 and $50,000 owed no federal income taxes.
  • The rest [21% of the 47%] ended up owing no federal income tax due to various tax expenditures such as education credits, itemized deductions or reduced rates on capital gains and dividends. Most of this group are in the middle to upper income brackets. In fact, the TPC [Tax Policy Center] estimates there are about 7,000 families and individuals who earn $1 million a year or more and still pay no federal income tax.

 

According to the US Federal Budget, in 2012 we spent about $187 billion on traditional welfare programs (e.g., food and housing supplementation and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), accounting for 5% of the total $3.7 trillion budget.   An additional $333 billion (or 8.9% of the budget) was spent on Medicaid (healthcare for the poor and disabled).  In total about fourteen cents (14¢) of every tax dollar you pay goes to the poor.

 

For relative comparison, in 2012, $925.2 billion (or 25% of the 2012 budget or 25¢ of every tax dollar) went to defense, $805.6 billion (21.6% or about 22¢ of every tax dollar) went out in Social Security income for seniors citizens, $492.3 billion (13.2% or 13¢ of each tax dollar) went to Medicare (healthcare for our seniors), and $121.1 billion (3.2% or 3¢) went toward education.  The remaining expenses include unemployment, building roads and bridges, government operating costs, public safety, government supported research, interest payments, and so on.

 

For further comparison, according to a report from the Conservative think tank The Cato Institute, in 2006 $92 billion (3.5% of the 2006 budget or about 4¢ of every tax dollar) went to corporate subsidies.  This “Corporate Welfare” was defined by Cato as “any federal spending program that provides payments or unique benefits and advantages to specific companies or industries.”   Cato indicated that corporations such as “Boeing, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Dow Chemical, General Electric and others” were recipients of your tax dollars and Cato further noted that such companies “have received millions in taxpayer-funded benefits through programs like the Advanced Technology Program and the Export-Import Bank.”  Additionally, it should be noted, that between 2002 and 2008, tax breaks totaling $53.9 billion and $16.3 billion in direct spending for a total of $70.2 billion were directed to companies in the fossil fuel industries (e.g, Exxon-Mobile, Shell, Chevron).

 

Source: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1012/subsidize-this/flat.html

Source: http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1012/subsidize-this/flat.html

 

Clearly that 14¢ of every tax dollar has triggered much contempt in a significant proportion of our population.  Many outspoken Conservative and Tea Party folks heavily focus on the this portion of the budget and the “entitled” individuals who allegedly, willingly and lazily, live off your hard earned money.  We must acknowledge that these angered individuals are endowed with this tendency as a natural result of our altruistic tendencies and our subsequent finely tuned cheater detection neural software.  And I submit, that this software has been hijacked or perhaps even hacked by the those whose gains are ignored as long as you focus your anger at the poor.  It serves the very specific financial and security interests of the wealthy when Americans direct such anger toward those at the bottom of the spectrum rather than those at the top.  Next time you come across an economic “freeloader” I challenge you to really think about the cheating that occurs across the spectrum, and ask yourself whether there is a chance that your anger has been manipulated and perhaps even misdirected.  Coming together on this issue will likely result in more targeted and effectual reforms that will benefit us all.  The splinters that currently exist keep our collective eyes off the ball.  The result is an ever widening disparity between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us.

 

 

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The true costs of crime are difficult to calculate.  Different types of crimes inflict substantially varying societal costs.  Violent crimes alone cost Americans about $50 billion dollars a year according to a report from the Center for American Progress.1  It is estimated that the costs of pain and suffering borne by the victims of violence are several times higher than this $50 billion figure.1

 

There is no doubt that violent crime in the US is a major problem.  Murder is certainly not a uniquely American act, but as in other things, we Americans excel at it.  The U.S. murder rate is nearly three times the rate that it is in Canada and more than four times the rate that it is in the United Kingdom.1  And although violent crime captures our attention and makes us fear one another, its relative economic impact is perhaps one half the cost of so called “White-Collar” crimes committed by our affluent brethren.   Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates of white-collar crime come in at $300 billion dollars a year.2  Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme alone was estimated to cost his investors somewhere in the range of $50 billion dollars.3  And what was the cost to the American Taxpayers for the 2008 Financial Crisis?  An article in Bloomberg Businessweek tallies the total costs to American taxpayers at $12.8 trillion.  What portion of that cost could be attributed to white-collar crime?

 

Granted, the crisis was caused by numerous factors including pressures in the 1990s on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from Clinton Administration officials to increase national home ownership rates,4 as well as the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (eliminating banking barriers allowing banks to be both investment and depository banks).  But opaquely risky mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) were sold around the world with little understanding of the associated risks.  These CDOs and MBSs essentially bundled bad debts in the form of subprime mortgages that were sold to people for homes that they could not afford.  Then the housing bubble burst and upwards of 27 million mortgages5 had been issued for homes whose values were well below the debt obligation and ballooning payments forced many Americans to default.  This perfect storm of contributing factors was a product of greed, deregulation, lack of understanding of risk due to the complex nature of financial derivatives, and so on.  But it was also, as seems evident today, a product of criminal behavior.  In a 2010 New York Times article by Peter Henning it was reported that:

 

At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware summed up the frustration on Capitol Hill with the lack of any identifiable villains for the financial troubles of the last two years. “We have seen very little in the way of senior officer or boardroom-level prosecutions of the people on Wall Street who brought this country to the brink of financial ruin,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Why is that?”

 

Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the Federal District Court in Washington expressed similar frustration with the settlement between the Securities and Exchange Commission and Citigroup over the bank’s misstatements in 2007 regarding its exposure to subprime mortgage-backed securities. In its complaint, the S.E.C. refers repeatedly to “senior management” receiving information about increased losses in its portfolio from problems with subprime mortgages, but none were named in its complaint.

 

The United State’s prisons are filled with “criminals” because politicians have to take a “tough on crime” stand in order to get elected by their constituents, us; however, we must take a closer look at who in particular resides in our prisons and assess to what degree these white collar and corporate criminals are actually held to account.

 

According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at years end in 2011 over 6,977,700 adults were under correctional supervision or in jail or in prison.   About 4,814,200 offenders were supervised in the community on probation or parole.   About 2,239,800 were incarcerated in state or federal prisons or local jails.   According to a report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2010, just under 71,000 juvenile offenders were held in residential placement facilities. These are big numbers, but let’s put them in relative terms.  From a recent BJS Report:

 

  • About 2.9% of adults in the U.S. (or 1 in every 34 adults) were under some form of correctional supervision at year end 2011, a rate comparable to 1998 (1 in every 34).
  • About 1 in every 107 adults was incarcerated in prison or jail.

 

How does this compare to other nations?  Our incarceration rates far outpace any other modern industrial nation and are only comparable to the pre World War II rates in the Soviet Union’s Gulag system.  From the National Council on Crime and Delinquency Fact Sheet (2006):

 

  • The US rate of incarceration is the highest in the world.
  • The US has less than 5% of the world’s population but over 23% of the worlds incarcerated people. 
  • Compared to the world’s other most populous countries, the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the US is 153% higher than Russia, 505% higher than Brazil, 550% higher than India, and over 2,000% higher than Indonesia, Bangladesh, or Nigeria (ICPS, 2006). 

 

According to a breakdown of the Federal and State Prisoner Population from ProCon.org, in 2008 violent criminals accounted for about 47% of the total State and Federal Prison Population, while drug offenders constituted 22%, property thieves made up 17%, drunk drivers, immigration offenders, and other public order offenders accounted for 12%, and juveniles and other unspecified offenders made up the remaining 1%.  These numbers were derived from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.  There is no category for white-collar crime; although, within the property crime statistics, at the Federal level, there is a category listed as fraud. But even in these Federal Prisons, the number of people convicted of fraud is a fraction of 6%, or well under 11,000 Federal Penitentiary inhabitants.

 

Now let’s look at incarceration rates by race and ethnicity.  Again from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010, White males were incarcerated at the rate of 678 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents of the same race and gender.  Using the same relative comparison groups, Hispanic males were incarcerated at the rate of 1,755 inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and black (non-Hispanic) males were incarcerated at the rate of 4,347 inmates per 100,000 black males.  African Americans (13% of the US Population) make up about 40% of the prison population and Hispanics (16.7% of the US Population) account for about 20% according to 2010 US Census Data.  These rates are hugely disproportionate.  Let’s contrast this data to the following information on white-collar crime from the U.S. Department of Justice,  Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division:

 

The [National Incident Based Reporting System] (NIBRS) data for 1997 through 1999 show white-collar crime offenders are, on average, in their late-twenties to early-thirties, which is only slightly older than most other offenders captured in NIBRS. The majority of white-collar crime offenders are white males, except for those who committed embezzlement. However, in comparison to offenders committing property crimes, there is a higher proportion of females committing these white-collar offenses.

 

…much of the investigation and regulation of corporate white-collar crime is left to regulatory agencies and professional associations (American Medical Association, American Bar Association, etc.) and not to the police or other law enforcement agencies. White-collar offenses, in these cases, probably will be reported to the [Unifrom Crime Reports] (UCR) Program only if criminal charges are filed, which is extremely rare in instances of corporate crime. Corporate crime is usually handled within the regulatory agency (sanctions, cease-and-desist orders, etc.), or corporations are made the subject of civil cases.

 

A quote from Noam Chomsky seems appropriate here:

 

“For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.”

 

 

So, is it that Corporate Crime and other forms of white-collar crime fall largely outside the scope of the law?  Not entirely.  Individuals like Bernie Madoff, whose crimes cost his wealthy customers a great deal, are in prison.  But what about Corporate criminals?  Here is a case in point recently reported by Christina Rexrode and Larry Neumeister in the Associated Press, where corporate criminals are seemingly given a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card.

 

When the Justice Department announced its record $1.9 billion settlement against British bank HSBC last week, prosecutors called it a powerful blow to a dysfunctional institution accused of laundering money for Iran, Libya and Mexico’s murderous drug cartels.

 

But to some former federal prosecutors, it was only the latest case of the government stopping short of bringing criminal money laundering charges against a big bank or its executives, at least in part on the rationale that such prosecutions could be devastating enough to cause such banks to fail.

 

They say it sounds a lot like the “too big to fail” meme that kept big but sickly banks alive on the support of taxpayer-funded bailouts. In these cases, they call it, “Too big to jail.”

get out of jail free card

 

Something seems askew here.  These disproportionate incarceration rates go hand in glove with the prejudice directed toward the poor and non-whites in our communities.  How is it that American’s give corporate criminals a pass and at the same time celebrate liberty and freedom while incarcerating the poor and our minority citizens at rates that typify the Soviet Gulag?  This all drips of palpable hypocrisy.  The economic costs alone seem to justify a colossal reorganization of our priorities.

 

As Conservatives and Liberals battle contentiously over important issues, it seems to me that the vitriolic banter just keeps the American eye off the factors that truly harm us.  A couple points are clear to me.  First, as long as corporations have legal rights as individuals, but limited accountability, and secondly, as long as money equates to political power, things will not change.  As we bicker over ideological perspectives that define the political poles, and as Americans direct blame and scorn toward the people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, we miss the true essence of who is entitled and who is TRULY destroying this great nation.

 

Footnotes:

 

1. Shapiro, R. J., and Hassett, K. A., (2012).   The Economic Benefits of Reducing Violent Crime: A Case Study of 8 American Cities.  Center for American Progress.

 

2. Cornell Law School. White Collar Crime

 

3. Lenzner, R. (2008).   Bernie Madoff’s $50 Billion Ponzi Scheme. Forbes.com

 

4. Holmes, Steven A. (September 30, 1999). “Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending”. The New York Times

 

5. Wallison, P. (2011).  The True Story of the Financial Crisis.  The American Spectator: spectator.org

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Citizens of the United States are endowed with certain unalienable rights: one of which is the right to pursue happiness.  Governments generally need to attend to the common level of happiness of its citizens in order to sustain power.  As evidenced by the Arab Spring, unhappy people have the capability to overthrow ineffectual governments.  As it turns out, the way politicians and economists presume to measure happiness is through a statistical measure called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Let’s take a closer look at GDP and ponder the questions as to whether it is, in fact, an appropriate measure with regard to overall happiness.

 

Following World War II, a metric called the Gross National Product (GNP) was adopted as the key indicator of a nation’s economic growth.  Eventually GDP replaced GNP and it acquired broader meaning as a proxy of individual well-being (happiness).  But what does GDP really measure?  GDP as defined by InvestorWords.com is:

The total market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given year, equal to total consumer investment and government spending, plus the value of exports, minus the value of imports.

 

GDP is the measure we look at to determine whether our economy is growing, in recession, or in depression.  This makes sense.   But the deeper fundamental belief is that GDP equates to personal wealth, and that the more personal wealth individuals posses, the happier they will be.  Our economy grows when people have money and spend it.  The bottom line assumption here is that money buys happiness.

 

Since developed nations have strategically attended to this measure, GDP has skyrocketed.  Concurrently, there have been unequivocal rises in living standards and wealth.  The United States has done relatively well in this regard.   But you might be surprised to know that according to a CIA website, the US ranks 12th in the world on a measure of GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) behind countries like Qatar, Luxembourg, Norway, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Brunei.

 

In poor nations where GDP is very low, quality of life and subjective measures of happiness are indeed low.  As GDP increases, there is a correlated increase in both quality of life and happiness.  But that relationship holds up, only to a certain point, and then it falls apart.  For example, in developed Western Democracies such as the United States, UK, and Germany, since the 1970’s, GDP has grown, but on a variety of measures, the happiness of its citizens has stagnated or declined.  See the chart below from James Gustave Speth’s book The Bridge at the Edge of the World.

Average Income and Happiness in the USA

As it turns out, when a nation’s GDP rises above $10,000.00 per capita there is no relationship between GDP and happiness.  For a reference point, in the United States our GDP per capita rose above this $10k point in the 1960s and is currently around $50k per capita.  The reality is that despite a five-fold increase in personal wealth, people as a whole, are no more happy today than they were in the 1970s.  This suggests a fundamental flaw in the thinking of our policy makers.

 

I am not alone, nor am I first to point out the problem with assuming that GDP equates to citizen happiness.  James Gustave Speth, provides a ground shaking critique of our current political, economic, and environmental policies in his 2008 book The Bridge at the Edge of the World.  This GDP-Happiness issue is a prominent theme in his book and he explores what actually accounts for happiness.  What follows is a summary of Speth’s discussion of this topic.

 

Research suggests that there are a number of important factors associated with individual happiness.  What is interesting is that the major factors are relativistic, innately internal, as well as social and interpersonal.  Yes, below a certain point, when people are impoverished and struggling to survive, happiness is indeed tied to GDP.  But above that $10K GDP per capita line, these other human factors play a major role.

 

Let us start with perhaps the most powerful factor associated with happiness, our genes.  It is estimated that about one-half of the variability in happiness is accounted for by our genetic composition.  One’s happiness is much like one’s personality, to a large extent it is written in our DNA.  Some people are just congenitally happier than others.  Some are chronic malcontents no matter what the circumstances provide.  Such proclivities are difficult to over ride.  But the remaining 50% of variance in happiness does seem to be rooted in variables that we can influence.

 

One’s relative prosperity is a clear variable.  There is an inverse relationship between happiness and one’s neighbors’ wealth.  If you are relatively well-off compared to those around you, you are likely to experience more happiness.  If however, you are surrounded by people doing much better than you, you are likely to experience discontent.  It is more about relative position rather than absolute income.  And as everyone’s income rises, one’s relative position generally remains stable.  So more money does not necessarily equate to more happiness.

 

Yet another innately human factor that plays out in this happiness paradox is our incredible tendency to quickly habituate to our income and the associated material possessions that it affords.  We seem to have a happiness set point. There may be an initial bump in happiness associated with a raise, a bigger better car, or a new house; however,  we tend to return to that set point of happiness pretty quickly.  We habituate to the higher living standards and quickly take for granted what we have.  We then get a relative look at what’s bigger and better and begin longing for those things.  This is the hedonic treadmill.

 

Happiness is to a large extent associated with seven factors:

  1. Family relationships
  2. One’s relative financial situation
  3. The meaningfulness of one’s work
  4. Ties to one’s community and friends
  5. Health
  6. Personal freedom
  7. Personal values

 

Speth notes that “except for health and income, they are all concerned with the quality of our relationships.”  We clearly know that people need deeply connected and meaningful social relationships.  Yet we are living increasingly disconnected and transient lifestyles where we relentlessly pursue increasing affluence all the while putting distance between us and what we truly need to be happy.   We are on that hedonic treadmill convinced that happiness comes from material possessions, all the while neglecting the social bonds that truly fulfill us.

 

Obviously, GDP misses something with regard to happiness.  Speth quotes Psychologist David Meyers who wrote about this American Paradox.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century he observed that Americans found themselves:

“with big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale, secured rights and diminished civility.  We were excelling at making a living but too often failing at making a life.  We celebrated our prosperity but yearned for purpose.  We cherished our freedom but longed for connection.  In an age of plenty, we were feeling spiritual hunger.  These facts of life lead us to a startling conclusion: Our becoming better off materially has not made us better off psychologically.”

 

The reality is that there is a great deal of disillusionment in this country.  And we are falling behind in other areas of significant importance.  Our healthcare systems ranks 37th in the world with regard to life expectancy.  The efforts of our education system finds us loosing touch with the world’s top performers.  A 2010 US Department of Education report releasing the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores indicated that 15-year-old students from the US scored in the average range in reading and science, but below average in math. Out of the 34 countries in the study, the US ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.  The US students ranked far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland, Canada, and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai each in China.  Secretary Duncan, at the time of the PISA announcement, said that:

“The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades…In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”

 

Although GDP is an important economic measure, many economists and some leaders suggest that we should assess well-being more precisely.  For example, alternatives include the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) that factors into the equation environmental and social costs associated with economic progress.  See the graph below for how we in the US have fared on GPI.

GDP and GPI Growth

This GPI data suggests that since the early seventies there has been a clear divergence between GDP and the well-being of the citizens of the United States.  This GPI line correlates strongly with the relative happiness line over the same time period.

 

Another effort made with regard to measuring the well-being of the citizens is the Index of Social Health put forward by Marc and Marque-Luisa Miringoff.  They combined 16 measures of social well-being (e.g., infant mortality, poverty, child abuse, high school graduation rates, teenage suicide, drug use, alcoholism, unemployment, average weekly wages, etc.) and found that between 1970 and 2005 there has also been a deteriorating social condition in the United States despite exponential growth in GDP.

 

The New Economics Foundation in Britain has developed the Happy Planet Index (HPI) that essentially measures how well a nation converts finite natural resources into the well-being of its people.  The longer and happier people live with sustainable practices the higher the HPI.  The United States scores near the bottom of this list.  At the top of the list in the Western Developed nations are countries like Malta, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Iceland, and the Netherlands (due to long happy lives and lower environmental impact).  At the bottom across all nations are countries like the US, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait (each as a result of atrocious environmental impact) and Rwanda, Angola, Sudan and Niger (due to significantly shortened life spans).

 

Right now,” Speth notes, “the reigning policy orientation and mindset hold that the way to address social needs and achieve better, happier lives is to grow – to expand the economy.  Productivity, wages, profits, the stock market, employment, and consumption must all go up.  Growth is good.  So good that it is worth all the costs.  The Ruthless Economy [however] can undermine families, jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, even mental health, [but] in the end, it is said, we’ll somehow be better off.  And we measure growth by calculating GDP at the national level and sales and profits at the company level.  And we get what we measure.

 

All this taken together seems to suggest that we would be better off as a citizenry if we radically re-prioritized our economic, social, and environmental policies with increased focus on factors that more closely align with human well-being.   Yet, we continually forge ahead striving unquestionably for economic growth because we believe it will make us better off.  Closer scrutiny suggests that we should broaden our thinking in this regard.  If we were to focus our energies on GPI and/or HPI, like we have on GDP over the last 50 years, just imagine what we could accomplish.

 

References:

 

Central Intelligence Agency. The World Fact Book: GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP).

 

Guild, G. (2011). We’re Number 37! USA! USA! USA!

 

Happy Planet Index. NEF

 

Johnson, J. (2010). International Education Rankings Suggest Reform Can Lift U.S. US Department of Education.

 

Speth, James Gustave.  (2008).  The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

 

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 | Posted by | Categories: Happiness, Politics, Poverty | Tagged: , |

Often things are not as they first appear. This was point of the hit Broadway play Wicked.  My wife, Kimberly, and I, went to see this show in New York City and we walked away very satisfied and at the same time, moved by this not so subtle message.

 

The show was based on the popular children’s story The Wizard of Oz. It was a prequel and a postquel of sorts, that told a story with very different implications than those popularized in the 1939 movie version. It portrayed the Wicked Witch (whose name in Wicked was Elphaba) as a wise and caring person both gifted with magical powers and cursed with a different skin color.  She also was imbued with a powerful sense of right and wrong. Elphaba struggled with life in part due her father’s rejection but also as a result of sweeping societal prejudice that valued an increasingly narrow subset of the preferred “people” of Oz.

Once she was sent off to University (primarily to care for her physically disabled sister), Elphaba showed great potential as a sorcerer.  However, she was outside the norm.  She just did not fit in – she was smart, her skin was green (as a result of her mother’s consumption of an illicit drug when she was conceived), and she questioned the morays of the day.  Essentially, because she was different, she was bullied.  She also threatened those in power because of her assertions for justice.

 

The twists and turns of Elphaba’s University experience both alienated her further and highlighted rampant and unappreciated societal injustices. Ultimately, due to these sweeping and strengthening ideological changes, as well as Elphaba’s own deeds (as righteous as they were), she was labeled the equivalent of a terrorist.  Concurrently, a closer look at the Wizard revealed his sheepish compliance with the up swell of prejudicial ideology.  It became apparent that not only was the Wizard of Oz merely a man behind the curtain pulling the strings of the idyllic Wizard, but that he was more of a naive puppet himself, both riding the tide of ideology and sustained by those with true power.

 

There is much more to Wicked that tells the back story of the characters and situations in the Wizard of Oz.  It was a clever story, entertaining in it’s own right, but much more than just a story.  It clearly serves as a social commentary about the ideological tendencies and injustices of our unique economic and social policies.

 

If one looks past the white washed American History spoon fed school children throughout our land, one will discover unpleasant, if not deeply troubling realities carried out by our government and corporations in the name “freedom.”  All you have to do is look at the facts underneath the story and you may be shocked by what we have done in foreign lands. Our popular media outlets, owned by corporate interests, also white wash these events.  It is indeed alarming to learn what the rest of the world knows of our endeavors in places like Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Panama, Chile, Argentina, and Columbia.   Most Americans know nothing of it.

 

Democrats as well as Republicans have been active players in these atrocities.  Its about globalization, free trade, and unabated profit seeking.  It’s about the Corporatocracy that we embrace without question.  I’m not suggesting a conspiracy – it’s rather a consequence of a way of thinking and our ravenous consumption.  It takes courage and substantial effort to suspend one’s nationalistic tendencies and the presumptuous notions of American Exceptionalism.  I dare you to take a closer look (here, or here, or read this and perhaps this).  You won’t like it – really it is Wicked!

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 | Posted by | Categories: Politics | Tagged: , , |

The year 2011 proved to be a challenging year.  A number of serious health issues in close family members took center stage.  The frequency of my posts declined in part due to these important distractions but other factors also played a major role.  Although I published fewer articles, the number of visits to my blog increased substantially.

 

Over the course of the year, I had 18,305 hits at my website by 15,167 unique visitors, accounting for over 25,000 page views.  I had visitors from every state in the Union and visits from people from 140 nations around the world.  Visitors from the United States accounted for the vast majority of those hits, but the UK, Canada, and Australia also brought in a large contingent of visitors.

 

One article in particular far outpaced all other posts.  My post on Brain Waves and Other Brain Measures accounted for as many visits as the next three most popular posts combined.  Of my posts published in 2011, only four made it to this year’s top ten list.  The other six were published in 2010.  Of those six from 2010, four were also on the top ten list last year.

 

Great interest persisted in my post entitled Nonmoral Nature: It is what it is.  This review of Stephen Jay Gould’s most famous article sustained a number two ranking for a second straight year.  I had also reviewed in 2010 a very popular New York Time’s article by Steven Pinker entitled The Moral Instinct.  This article moved up a notch this year, ultimately ranking number three.  My critical article on the Implicit Associations Test ranked number four this year, versus a number six ranking last year.  And my Hedgehog versus the Fox mindset piece ranked number ten this year, compared to a number seven ranking last year.

 

So here is the Top Ten list for 2011.

  1. Brainwaves and Other Brain Measures (2011)
  2. Non Moral Nature: It is what it is (2010)
  3. Moral Instinct  (2010)
  4. IAT: Questions of Reliability and Validity  (2010)
  5. Where Does Prejudice Come From?  (2011)
  6. Cognitive Conservatism, Moral Relativism, Bias, and Human Flourishing  (2011)
  7. What Plato, Descartes, and Kant Got Wrong: Reason Does Not Rule.  (2010)
  8. Intuitive Thought  (2010)
  9. Effects of Low SES on Brain Development  (2011)
  10. Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?  (2010)

It’s interesting to me that this list includes the very foundational issues that have driven me in my quest.  And each was posted with great personal satisfaction.   This encompassing cross section of my work is, in fact, a good starting point for those who are new to my blog.  There are several popular 2011 posts that ranked outside the top ten but ranked highly relative to other posts published in 2011.  These other posts include:

One article I published late in 2011 has attracted significant attention.   I believe that it is perhaps one of the most important posts I’ve written.  As I was writing this retrospective, Conspicuous Consumption and the Peacock’s Tail was far outpacing all other posts.

 

The most emotional and personally relevant articles pertained to significant problems in healthcare in the United States and my wife’s battle with breast cancer.  These articles include: (a) What not to say to someone with cancer: And what helps; (b) Up and Ever Onward: My Wife’s Battle With Cancer; (c) Cancer, Aging, & Healthcare: America, We Have a Problem; (d) We’re Number 37! USA USA USA!; and (e) Tears of Strength in Cancer’s Wake.  The latter pertains to perhaps the proudest parental moment of my life.

 

Another very important issue that I wrote a fair amount about includes the pernicious affect of poverty on child development.  Clicking here takes you to a page that lists all of the articles on this topic.  Knowing the information in this series should motivate us, as a society, to truly evaluate our current political and economic policies.

 

One of my favorite articles tackled my long standing curiosity about the geology of the place I live.  The article itself did not get a lot of attention, but I sure loved writing it.

 

This two-year journey, thus far has resulted in perhaps unparalleled personal and intellectual growth.  It has changed the way I look at life, the world around me, and my fellow human beings.   It is my sincerest hope that those who have seen fit to read some of my material have experienced shifts of perception or at least a modicum of enlightenment.

 

The bottom line:

 

The human brain, no matter how remarkable, is flawed in two fundamental ways.  First, the proclivities toward patternicity (pareidolia), hyperactive agency detection, and superstition, although once adaptive mechanisms, now lead to many errors of thought.  Since the age of enlightenment, when human kind developed the scientific method, we have exponentially expanded our knowledge base regarding the workings of the world and the universe.  These leaps of knowledge have rendered those error prone proclivities unessential for survival.  Regardless, they have remained a dominant cognitive force.  Although our intuition and rapid cognitions have sustained us, and in some ways still do, the subsequent everyday illusions impede us in important ways.

 

Secondly, we are prone to a multitude of cognitive biases that diminish and narrow our capacity to truly understand the world. Time after time I have written of the dangers of ideology with regard to its capacity to blindfold its disciples.  Often those blindfolds are absolutely essential to sustain the ideology.  And this is dangerous when truths and facts are denied or innocents are subjugated or brutalized.  As I discussed in Spinoza’s Conjecture:

“We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of [it], then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.

Because of these innate tendencies, we must make additional effort in order to discover the truth.

 

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You know the feeling, that intense rush that follows a perceived threat.   The flushed face, the perspiration, and the increased heart rate: they are all signs of activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  This system’s job is to ready you for a fight or fleeing when danger appears.  This incredibly adaptive and automatic system has facilitated our very survival as a species.  But here is the rub – this response is non-specific.  In other words, it doesn’t always differentiate between physical and psychological threats.  And, as it turns out, the brain’s psychological threat detector is very sensitive.

 

I have long wondered why people (including myself) get so emotional when discussing issues such as politics and religion.  The human brain’s threat detector, you see, interprets challenges to our core beliefs as if they are indeed threats to our personal safety.  And unfortunately, this response is accompanied by a diminished capacity to use reason and by an intensification of emotion.  Rarely are these latter two factors helpful in conflict resolution.

 

Think about it.  Do you recall getting upset when someone has challenged one of your deeply held beliefs?   Or perhaps experiencing a similar reaction when someone shows contempt for something you like or enjoy?  It’s a general rule in my family – “Never discuss religion or politics at social gatherings.”  I think this rule came to be part of my culture because of the general futility of such discussions, but perhaps more so, because of the interpersonal damage done when this rule has been ignored.  Little did I know – it’s the brain’s fault!

 

It doesn’t take much effort to see this phenomena in action.  All you have to do is post something of a provocative or controversial matter on facebook and you may see the emotional decay that follows.  Or likewise, you could say something equally provocative to an acquaintance with diametrically opposed beliefs.  While many people hold their tongues, some get upset and respond with vitriol or personal attacks.  At the root of this latter response, is that same brain system that really evolved to ready you for fight or flight.  In the belief arena, however, this autonomic arousal tends to be anything but adaptive.

 

A recent study found that the scope of this non-specific response includes even the brands we identify with.  Yep!  Even attacks on your brands may be misinterpreted by your brain as an attack on you.  Think about the acrimony aroused in conflict between those who have strong feelings about Apple vs. PC, iPhone vs. Android, or the pissing matches that ensue between fans loyal to Chevy or Ford.  I’m sure you have seen the stickers in the back windows of pickup trucks of a boy urinating on the emblem of the opposing brand.  This loyalty, I think, is best evidenced by the intense loyalty people develop for their hometown sports teams.  Some fans have brutalized other fans at NFL football games for cheering for the wrong team.   If you throw alcohol into the mix, things can get ugly.

 

You see, from your brain’s perspective, you are your beliefs and your brands.  Perhaps understanding this will help you cope with the feelings that rush forth in the moment – or help you assess the relative futility of walking into such conflicts.  You must understand that when you attack someone’s beliefs (or brands), they will likely respond, unbeknownst to them, as if you are attacking them personally.  Reason and objectivity become irrelevant in such circumstances.  Know this, anticipate this, and weigh your words carefully.

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We all love a good story.  Children are mesmerized by them and adults, whether through books, TV, movies, sports, gossip, tabloids, or the news, to mention a few, constantly seek them out.  It is core to our identity, and a vital part of our nature.  It is both how we entertain ourselves, and how we make sense of the world.   This latter tendency troubles me.  Why?  Specifically because we are inclined to value narratives over aggregated data, and we are imbued with a plethora of cognitive biases and errors that all mesh together in a way to leave us vulnerable to believing very silly things.

 

This may be hard to swallow, but all of us, yes even you, are by default, gullible and biased: disinclined to move away from narratives that you unconsciously string together in order to make sense of an incredibly complex world.  Understanding this is paramount!

 

I have discussed many of the innate illusions, errors, and biases that we are inclined toward throughout this blog.  I have also discussed the genetic and social determinates that play out in our thought processes and beliefs.  And throughout all this I have worked diligently to remain objective and evidence based.  I do accept that I am inclined toward biases programmed into my brain.  This knowledge has forced me to question my beliefs and open my mind to different points of view.  I believe that the evidence I have laid down in my writings substantiates my objectivity.  But I am also tired, very tired in fact, of making excuses for, and offering platitudes to, others who do not open their minds to this not so obvious reality.

 

I am absolutely convinced that there is no resolution to the core political, economic, religious and social debates that pervade our societies, unless we can accept this reality.  Perhaps, the most important thing we can do as a species is come to an understanding of our failings and realize that in a multitude of ways, our brains lie to us.  Our brains deceive us in ways that necessitate us to step away from our gut feelings and core beliefs in order to seek out the truth.  Only when we understand and accept our shortcomings will we be open to the truth.

 

Because of these flawed tendencies we join together in tribal moral communities lending a blind eye to evidence that casts doubt on our core and sacred beliefs.  We cast aspersions of ignorance, immorality or partisanship on those that espouse viewpoints that differ from our own.  I cannot emphasize this enough, this is our nature.  But, I for one, cannot, and will not, accept this as “just the way it is.”

 

We as a species are better than that.  We know how to over come these inclinations.  We have the technology to do so.  It necessitates that we step back from ideology and look at things objectively.  It requires asking questions, taking measurements, and conducting analyses (all of which are not part of our nature).  It necessitates the scientific method.  It requires open peer review and repeated analyses.  It requires objective debate and outright rejection of ideology as a guiding principle.  It requires us to take a different path, a path that is not automatic, one that is not always fodder for good narrative.

 

I am no more inclined to believe the narrative of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi suggesting that “his people love him and would die for him” than I am to accept the narrative from Creationists about the denial of evolution or those that deny anthropogenic global warming based on economic interests.  Likewise, I am not willing to accept the arguments from the anti-vaccine community or the anti-gay marriage community.

 

My positions are not based on ideology!  They are based on evidence: both the credible and substantive evidence that backs my position and the lack of any substantive evidence for the opposing views.

 

Granted, my positions are in line with what some may define as an ideology or tribal moral community; but there is a critical difference.  My positions are based on evidence, not on ideology, not on bronze-age moral teachings, and certainly not on fundamental flaws in thinking.  This is a huge and critical difference.  Another irrefutable difference is my willingness to abandon my position if the data suggests a more credible one.  Enough already! Its time to step back, take a long and deep breath – look at how our flawed neurology works – and stop filling in the gaps with narrative that is devoid of reality.  Enough is enough!

 

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