Motivated Reasoning and the Act of Obliteration

I continue to explore the notion of motivated reasoning and whether there is hope of overcoming the deep societal divide on political issues as empirical evidence separating fact from fiction mounts.

Adherence to views central to identity drives people toward sources of information that confirm their existing perspectives. Furthermore, people resist correcting misinformation. As one set of scholars studying this phenomenon note, “research indicates that corrective information often fails to change the false or unsupported belief in question, especially when the targeted misperception is highly salient.”

A critical question confronting us, then, concerns the conditions under which those holding beliefs central to their identity might revise their views in the face of strongly contradictory evidence.

Some researchers have identified mechanisms that might break through motivated reasoning.

Earlier this year, communications scholars at Boston University found from experiments with videos on climate change that skeptics were more likely to change their views when seeing damaging climate change impact in close geographical proximity, making the evidence less abstract.

In a fascinating 1955 book, When Prophecy Fails, researchers from the Laboratory for Research in Social Relations at the University of Minnesota studied an extreme instance of motivated reasoning, in which a small group of people embraced a prophecy involving their rescue from outer space from an upcoming cataclysmic flood. When the appointed flood (and extraterrestrial salvation) did not materialize on the appointed date, most of the followers in fact intensified their proselytizing. But a small number of former believers began to retreat from their views. The researchers found that in contrast with the former group, the latter individuals had been extracted from the social milieu reinforcing their original views, and were simply physically isolated from other adherents.

But how in such a deeply polarized and politicized environment saturated in social media is an equivalent “social isolation” effect possible?

Research on interactions between Twitter users, for example, suggests that while not all interactions are ideologically polarized, such polarization becomes highly pronounced for discussion of political issues (such as elections, government shutdown, the State of the Union address, e.g.).

These researchers find that for specific traumatic events – like the Newtown school shooting of 2012 – discussions that begin as information exchanges become highly polarized as they evolve into political debates about causes and remedies (i.e., gun control).

On Saturday I was at a social gathering which included many people I did not know. As I approached two men in the midst of discussion, prepared to introduce myself and join in, I overhead one make reference to “how unfair the whole thing is, since there is no evidence at all.” The man listening nodded vigorously in agreement. They were discussing the Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination and the allegation of Christine Blasey Ford that Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Since this was a polite social gathering, I steered clear.

However, I’ve been thinking about this brief encounter ever since. Echoing a position heard frequently from conservative politicians and media sources, these two men do not consider Ford’s specific and detailed allegation as “evidence,” which of course it is (not to mention that there already is some additional evidence in the record).

In one stroke, they obliterated Ford’s existence, rendering the allegation simply a trick conjured by the political opposition.

I wondered whether it would have been best to break in to the conversation to offer an alternative perspective. Would my intervention have burst their self-reinforcing bubble, encouraging them to consider an alternative view? Or would they have instead, when learning that I am a professor, latched on to this fact to conclude that I suffer from liberal delusions and the disease of “political correctness,” further reinforcing their shared view?

And I continue to wonder: when Dr. Ford testifies this coming week, will they listen to the evidence? Will they approach her testimony with the understanding that her vivid recollection of the event, but not of the ancillary details of precise date and location are entirely consistent with everything known about sexual assault and memory?

Will they consider the possibility that she may well be telling the truth, and that Kavanaugh rather than Ford may be lying here (just as those of us inclined to believe Dr. Ford should be willing to conclude that the evidence is not compelling if warranted)? Or will they – as many others unwilling to look beyond their politically-driven conviction that Kavanaugh is “a good man” and a reliably conservative judge —  simply adjust their rationale for rejecting Christine Blasey Ford’s story?

Unfortunately, I fear I know the answer.

British Exit from the European Union and the Perceptual Divide

The parallel between the perceptual divide over politics in the U.S. and the divide that yielded the British vote to exit the European Union has been a theme of this blog.

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As in the U.S. in the wake of the last presidential election, we have mounting evidence in the UK of the costly consequences of the collective decision reached in 2016.

And what we learn by examining the case of British exit from the European Union is that citizens reach opposite conclusions from the same body of evidence. This confirms the finding established by social psychologists: when views are central to a person’s identity, they revise their justifications for holding those views much more readily than they revise the views themselves.

Ultimately, in the face of contradictory evidence, people find psychological value in adopting justifications for their views that are based on faith and simply cannot be falsified.

Following from the inherent ambiguity of the June 2016 referendum on EU membership, the British government has been unable to determine how it wants to leave the European Union. Negotiations with the EU have not gone well for the British. Essentially every claim of the “Brexiters” about the ability of the UK to determine the outcome of negotiations has been proven false.

With the treaty process limiting negotiations to 24 months unless all parties agree to extend the deadline, time is running short. Allowing time for the required approval of a British exit deal by both the British parliament and the European Parliament, negotiations must wrap up within the next couple of months.

And yet the British government continues to fight with itself about what it wants.

Most recently, Theresa May, after locking in the members of her senior leadership at Chequers, the British Prime Minister’s country retreat, announced the outlines of a British plan. Within days, the plan was dead, rejected by members of her own Conservative party and the European Union alike.

There is now mounting attention to the prospect of Britain leaving without any sort of deal. This would mean that World Trade Organization rules would apply to British economic ties with European Union countries. There would be two sources of disruption: tariffs of varying levels on goods and customs inspections at the border as goods cross between the UK and the EU and from the EU into the UK.

Is this a big deal? Yes. An enormous deal.

With the UK’s current membership in the European Union’s customs union and single market, goods move across borders unhindered. Businesses have as a result developed supply chains in which inputs are sourced from across Europe, moving seamlessly and swiftly across borders. But now there would need to be inspections that would disrupt these flows. Recent reporting by Stephen Castle in the New York Times points to mounting concerns about miles-long backups of supply trucks at the Dover port of entry, potentially resulting in shortages of food (about 40% of the UK’s food is imported from the EU or through EU trade agreements with other countries) and medicines. Stockpiling is not an option due to both the absence of warehousing space and the limited shelf-life of the foodstuffs in question.

In a recently released study on food security after Brexit, the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London warns of the dangers of a “careless” Brexit. The study suggests that border inspections of trucks of only a few minutes each could lead to backups of supply trucks of up to 29 miles.

The alternative – to simply abandon inspections at the border in order to keep supplies moving – would not amount to the “taking back control” promised by Brexiters, but would instead mean “abandoning it,” as the study’s authors assert. Furthermore, eliminating controls could lead to a complete suspension of agricultural exports from the UK to an EU wary of accepting products from a country with no food inspection regime.

With much publicity focused both on the divisive and shambolic performance of the British government and the potential disruption to supplies of foods, medicines and other products, what has been the response in the British electorate? Has there been a convergence of perceptions around the notion that British exit from the European Union may not be in the best interest of the country, and that the decision to leave was perhaps a mistake?

Not quite.

The YouGov survey has tracked leave and remain voters over time. The most recent survey – from September 4 and 5 – shows that 46% of respondents believe it was the wrong decision to leave the EU, while 43% believe the decision was correct. The shift from earlier results is a marginal tilt toward “wrong decision.”

Stunningly, though, while 87% of “remain” voters believe the decision to exit was wrong (and only 7% now believe it was right for the UK to decide to leave), 84% of “leave” voters continue to believe exit was the right decision (with 7% considering it the wrong decision to exit).

The perceptual divide, in other words, remains entirely intact despite the evidence cited above.

What is fascinating is that there is broad agreement on several aspects of Brexit dynamics. First, 80% of “remain” voters and 71% of “leave” voters believe negotiations are going badly for the government, and precisely 58% percent of each group believe the EU has the upper hand in negotiations (hardly what politicians advocating for Brexit promised during the referendum campaign). And majorities of both remain (70%) and leave (59%) voters think it is unlikely that the British government and the EU will reach a deal in time for the scheduled date of British exit (March 29, 2019).

In other words, leave voters observe the same evidence as remain voters: the British government is faring poorly in negotiations; the EU has a much stronger bargaining position; time is running out for the UK to reach a deal.

But on the basis of this shared body of evidence, the two groups reach entirely different conclusions. What seems to change as evidence mounts is not the conclusions different groups of citizens reach, but their justifications for those decisions.

All of this casts doubt on the efficacy of fact-checking campaigns such as Gina Miller’s Dover-based “End the Chaos” project. The worthy goal is to provide straightforward, honest information in order to reduce the bitter divisiveness wrought by the Brexit decision. Sadly, it is not at all clear that good information can lead citizens to revise their positions.

For those interested in a short podcast on this topic, please listen to the forthcoming episode of the World Views podcast produced by the David L. Boren College of International Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

A Natural Experiment

We are in the midst of a natural experiment at the national level.

As I wrote about a few months ago, there is a great perceptual divide in the nation. I argued at the time that in the face of mounting evidence of lies and corruption “one portion of American society recoils in disgust, lamenting assaults on the rule of law, separation of powers and fundamental human decency” while “another group of American citizens grows increasingly angry with what they perceive to be a coordinated effort to delegitimize an administration that simply refuses to adhere to conventional norms imposed by elites, and takes delight in this refusal.”

The perceptual rift is deeply embedded, driven, as social psychologists have shown, by motivated reasoning in which individuals adjust to evidence threatening to their world view by modifying their justification for embracing that view rather than revising that view itself.

This appears to be a cogent explanation of a world in which, according to a June Quinnipiac poll, 82% of Democrats believe the Mueller probe is legitimate, while 81% of Republicans indicate it is a “political witch hunt.”

When Prophecy Fails.pngThe psychology of the perceptual divide explains why the incremental accrual of evidence is unlikely to result in significant converge of views. But we have now embarked on a natural experiment — a study in which events unfold that are not designed or planned by those conducting the experiment, and which are applied to the study group — i.e., supporters of the current administration. (Note that the study group would be those who condemn the incumbent of the White House as venal and dishonest were there mounting exculpatory evidence. That is by no means where the evidence is trending.)

The “treatment” applied to those who see a politically motivated investigation of the administration arrives in the form of confirmed legal evidence of massive and pervasive corruption, from tax fraud to money laundering to obstruction of justice, and likely more.

The outcome of the experiment could not be more significant, for the result will illuminate the future course of  American democracy. Will there be continued support for an unfettered press, democratic accountability and for rule of law?

Amazingly, we also have underway a localized microcosm of the larger experiment that is, chronologically, running just ahead of the national experiment.

In California’s 50th Congressional District, Congressman Duncan Hunter was indicted on August 21 – the very same day of the federal indictment against Michael Cohen and the finding of Paul Manafort’s guilt on charges of bank and tax fraud. The indictment against Hunter detailed misuse of $250,000 worth of campaign funds for personal expenses, along with wire fraud, falsification of records, breaches of campaign finance rules and other crimes.

While Hunter has been under federal investigation for a year, we now have an indictment detailing very specific and egregious illegal activities.

The indictment can be viewed as the “treatment” in the “experiment” underway. How will Hunter’s constituents react?

The experiment will continue until results of the November 6 election are settled, unless Hunter were to resign or drop out prior to that time, which to date he has indicated he will not do.

A recent New York Times article about Hunter’s 29-year old Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, quoted a veteran and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who was particularly disturbed by Hunter’s falsified filing of one set of personal expenditures as a contribution to the Wounded Warrior Project.

“It’s a form of stolen valor,” this person asserted, adding “that’s just a really crappy thing to do.” The conclusion? This individual “had not decided whom to vote for in November.”

How might we explain a logic that enables those observing the corrupt behavior to nonetheless continue to support, or at least to consider supporting, the perpetrator?

While offering only anecdotal evidence, the San Diego Tribune recently published a few reactions from constituents.

One wrote: “Gadz!! A politician involved in a scandal. That’s it, the world is about to end!!! Truthfully, I think it’s a slap in the face to his constituents, but I’ll vote for him (again) over his opponent, as the thought of the Democrats gaining even one more seat in the House is distasteful at the very least.”

Two components of the logic at work justify the decision to stick with Hunter: (1) all politicians are corrupt; and (2) electing a Democrat to Congress is the worst of all possible outcomes.

A commenter responding to an August 23 article in The Federalist echoes the first element of the justification for backing Hunter despite the indictment:

“This was a stupid crime, easily exposed and provable. Hunter and his wife wanted to live the good life. They probably hobnobbed with many rich people and wanted more. But I wonder if all the other members of Congress are now being audited to see if they did similar things?”

Presenting a version of the second component of the argument – that a member of Congress is simply an instrument for delivering a vote in support of an agenda, another constituent writes to the San Diego Tribune:

“Our good Congressman Duncan Hunter is criminally indicted for spending some campaign funds for personal use. As a public record that should be the extent of it. It was donated money. It’s disappointing, but no one here was a victim. Accordingly, I see no problem with a congressman choosing how to spend campaign funds for election probabilities. He may sacrifice in other ways no one is aware of. It’s how he votes that matters.”

Here we have a third logical construction at work that extends the ability to confirm support in the face of damning evidence: the Congressman makes other sacrifices for his constituents that are not visible. The psychological value of this rationale is that it is entirely irrefutable. Since the sacrifices are unnamed and invisible, their extent and magnitude are up to the imagination.

Buttressing the “all politicians are corrupt,” “it’s how he votes (and the opposition is far worse) that matters” and “he sacrifices in other ways” logics are rationales for dismissing the evidence that involve an embrace of macro-level narratives advanced by the current administration, involving distrust of the media and of the workings of the “Deep State” judiciary.

The recent New York Times article focused on Hunter’s Democratic challenger cites a self-identified conservative and supporter of the current occupant of the White House who is “withholding judgment” on Hunter’s indictment due to mistrust of the media. “How can you have an opinion about it if you don’t really know the circumstances?” asked this individual.

Another respondent to the August 23 article in The Federalist, implicitly embracing the “Deep State” conspiracy, writes:

“My question is why was this withheld until after the primary? Most of these events happened years ago and the investigation has gone on for a year. Why the delay? Was it to disadvantage the Republicans in the general election? It seems like it to me.”

Despite this anecdotal evidence, we do not know what the aggregate result of the stark verification of corruption will be. We know that some portion of voters will rationalize – through logics including those outlined above – their continued support for the corrupt member of Congress from the political party they support. We can surmise that that share of supporters of the corrupt Congressman will be substantial, but we do not know if it will be sufficient to carry him to reelection.

The most recent poll of likely voters – from late July — shows a somewhat narrowing race, with Hunter  ahead by 9 points. While this poll occurred in a context of investigations and allegations of campaign finance fraud, it does not yet factor in the formal indictment.

Dynamics at the national level look similar. The experiment is in a relatively early phase, so results remain uncertain. The psychology of motivated reasoning, along with the administration’s construction of narratives of media conspiracy and judicial illegitimacy may be reasons to despair of any convergence of views of American voters. But there are also some glimmers of hope.

A recent Washington Post article cites evidence – however tentative – that the administration’s attacks on the Mueller probe are becoming less effective.

There is little doubt that much more evidence of fraudulent and criminal behavior by the current occupant of the White House is soon forthcoming. The “treatment” applied in the experiment, in other words, will intensify.

As this occurs, we will have a crucial test of the extent to which assaults on democratic institutions and the rule have done deep and lasting damage to American democracy.

Two Plus Two Makes Four!

When citizens in a democratic society participate in public demonstrations, they reveal the intensity of their preferences for a political outcome. In short, they are passionate about a cause. When opponents simply dismiss demonstrators as “hired protestors,” they negate their citizenship and nullify democratic engagement.

image.pngDuring the past few weeks, I have written about the strategy of the current incumbent of the White House and supporters of denying the legitimacy of institutions that normally check the exercise of authority in a democratic system. I have argued that this approach goes beyond the deep partisanship that has become the norm in American politics in recent decades.

I’ve illustrated the argument with reference to the media – the most obvious case — and the civil service (aka “Deep State”), including the Bureau of Labor Statistics that produces unemployment data.

The argument extends to citizen protest. Intense partisanship would involve making the case that the protestors are misguided, misinformed, or simply wrong. But labeling them “fake” – hired actors rather than motivated citizens – eliminates the need to present substantive counterarguments. The exercise of citizenship rights by the protestors is simply erased in one sweeping gesture: fake.

The most prominent recent example concerns the student protestors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who organized the “March for Your Life” rally earlier this year. But the approach was already deployed in response to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

In both cases, as it turns out, those on the right valuing control of power above democracy amplified the impact of their message by pointing to George Soros as the source of payments to protestors, simultaneously nullifying legitimate protest and appealing to their clutch of “anti-globalist”/antisemitic followers.

The tactic is a close kin to the frequent use of the “outside agitator” label deployed in response to labor organizing in the 1920s and ‘30s as well as in response to civil rights demonstrators in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King excoriated members of the clergy for invoking the “outside agitator” argument to oppose civil rights organizing in Birmingham, advancing in an assertion of both social justice and democracy that “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Ironically, the tactic has been employed to powerful effect in Russia, where in 2011 and 2012 Vladimir Putin’s regime pronounced that Russian citizens protesting electoral fraud were paid by the West — AND incited by an “outside agitator,” U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, p. 55).

The approach has now fully blossomed, as indicated by the declaration of the current occupant of the White House at a recent rally in Kansas City that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Sources reporting on this stunning negation of reality underscore the affinity with George Orwell’s 1984, in which the ruling totalitarian party “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”

In the chapter of 1984 from which I’ve quoted above, Orwell notes that the logic of the totalitarian regime that controls all “truth” would lead it to command that “two and two made five.” He concludes that chapter with this: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Insist that two plus two makes four we must.

The dangerous campaign to delegitimate alternative centers of power – the media, the politically neutral civil service, dissenting citizens, and, of course, U.S. intelligence agencies – will continue. We’ve seen the effort to delegitimize democratic institutions applied to the electoral system, with the claim that the system is “rigged” employed to, well, rig the system.

It is not possible to overstate the stakes of November’s election, which very possibly include the fate of American democracy.

This is not a partisan issue; if the party currently in power retains control of Congress, the administration will perceive license to follow in the recent footsteps of governments in Hungary and Poland and enact concrete measures (beyond those already underway, such as the systematic removal of FBI and potentially Justice Department officials involved in investigating the misdeeds of the current incumbent of the White House) to permanently weaken countervailing institutions.

After all, if the institutions are illegitimate, why not remove their authority?

 

 

Unemployment: Propaganda and Truth

We have gone beyond partisanship; the party in power in our country has engaged in a systematic campaign to manipulate the electorate by destroying the credibility of governing institutions.

This campaign has been disturbingly successful.

Citizens interested in preserving democracy, legitimate political debate and rule of law must combat propaganda – by identifying it, revealing the selfish and destructive motives behind it, and responding with truth.

Last week I wrote about the assault on the free press. The civil service – now presented to supporters of the current occupant of the White House as part of a “Deep State” — has been another object of attack. One target has been the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the otherwise apolitical process of calculating the unemployment rate.

With the unemployment rate declining steadily during the Obama presidency and in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis, Republicans decided that reality was stubbornly inconvenient. The unemployment rate was not moving in the desired direction (after all, political ends come before the welfare of the country). The numbers themselves, therefore, would have to be declared fictitious, and those involved in compiling the data would have to be villainized.

With a willing hyperpartisan following committed to condemning the Obama administration no matter the facts, Republican operatives embarked on a coordinated assault on the unemployment data and the civil servants involved in processing the data.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation was at the center of the process. In 2006, Heritage published a “Jobs and Labor” report “Hard at Work,” explaining why the decline in the unemployment rate under George Bush was real, despite a fall in the labor force participation rate. The author of that report argued that “Changing demographics explain part of the lower participation rates. Beyond that, much of the decline in labor force participa­tion (LFP) rates-the propor­tion of the population either in or actively looking for work- can be attributed to the rising numbers of younger Americans opting to invest in their future by continuing their education rather than entering the work­force.”

Five years later, when no longer suited to the political moment, Heritage turned the argument on its head, embarking on a steady stream of efforts to delegitimate the measured unemployment rate. In September 2012, Heritage reported that “The workers now outside the labor force are primarily either studying in school or collecting disability benefits. Approximately 2.1 million more Americans report being outside the labor force and enrolled in school. The weak economy has both made it more difficult for students to find part-time jobs and reduced the opportunity cost of going to school.”

While leaving the labor force to pursue further education represented a choice “to invest in their future” under George W. Bush, under Obama people left the labor force for education because of declining opportunity costs of doing so.

In fall 2012; the right-wing Washington Times brought the popular media into the propaganda effort, publishing an article claiming of the pre-election reduction in the unemployment rate: “At best the new unemployment number is a fluke; at worst it is the product of partisan hacks.”

The New York Post broadened the claim with a fall 2013 article simply asserting “Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report.” The article pointed to a single Census Bureau data canvasser who claimed to have made up his jobs data. Never mind that (a) the person in question did not work for the Census Bureau during the period claimed; and (b) economists familiar with the calculations explained that even if one person’s data WAS entirely made up, there would be zero impact on the data accumulated by thousands of canvassers. As with the news, the concept of “fake” unemployment numbers had entered the discourse.

MarketwatchMic and Forbes (“Did the BLS Give Obama a Major Election 2012 Gift?”) amplified the campaign, picking up on the Post’s invitation to elaborate a case for partisan fixing of the data.

Declaring the officially calculated unemployment rate “fake” or manipulated – a claim that has been proven false — is itself a manipulation, an act of propaganda.

The political advantages of propaganda are that it provides a shortcut to desired political conclusions and that it is immune to evidence. But anyone truly committed to democratic debate shuns such shortcuts and embraces evidence.

The recent decline in the measured rate of unemployment under the current administration is real. But there is important context to this decline, and discussion of that context constitutes legitimate political debate rather than the shameful, destructive propaganda that has become the stock-in-trade of the present administration.

To begin with, the recent fall in the unemployment rate clearly is a continuation of a trend well established during the Obama administration. The unemployment rate is now at 3.9%; during the Obama years, the rate declined from a peak of 10.0% in December 2009 — during the financial crisis the Obama administration inherited — to 4.7% at the end of his second term:

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True, there have been 17 straight months of job gains. But this follows 75 consecutive months of job gains under Obama.

Furthermore, the rate of job gains has not increased. During the stretch of 75 months of job gains of the Obama recovery, the U.S. economy gained 199,000 jobs per month; during the second Obama administration, the average monthly gain was 217,000.

Since January 2017, the rate has been 189,000 per month.

Finally, the decline in the unemployment rate does not mean that working people are better off. In fact, during the past year, while wages rose by 2.7%, inflation was 2.9%. The average worker, in other words, is losing ground in real terms.

In short, while propaganda renders recent job market performance miraculous and unprecedented, facts suggest otherwise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not been lying; the current administration cannot tell the truth.

 

Time to Defend Democratic Institutions

Partisan division over the news media is nothing new; but something new – and more sinister – is certainly afoot.

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Assessments of the fairness of news coverage have long varied by party identification, with each party perceiving news coverage of the presidency as less fair when their party occupies the White House. Partisan identification also shapes perceptions of media bias – views of whether the media are “liberal” or “conservative.”

Seething crowds ranting against the press at rallies held by the current occupant of the White House provide anecdotal evidence of a more sharply divisive tone. But there is something more systematic going on.

So what has changed?

A 2013 Pew Research Survey revealed a deep partisan divide, with 65% of Republicans viewing the media as liberal (17% conservative; 12% as neutral) and Democrats more evenly divided between 36% perceiving the media as liberal, 37% as conservative and 20% as neutral. But there was a critical area of common ground: 69% of Republicans and 67% of Democrats indicated in the survey that the press play a vital watchdog role, “keeping leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.”

In just four years, that shared assessment vanished. Pew conducted a similar survey in 2017, and a review of the findings proves unsettling. While 89% of respondents identifying with the Democratic Party believe the media “keeps political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done,” only 42% of Republicans believe this. What’s especially astonishing is that the figure for Republicans tracks that of Democrats upward during the financial crisis and the latter years of the Obama era. In fact, at the close of the Obama era, Republicans had a slightly higher preference for the media’s watchdog role, at 77%, versus 74% for Democrats.

The 47 percentage point gap in views of the role of the press as a check on government’s exercise of power between Republicans and Democrats is by far the highest ever recorded in the Pew Survey, which has been asking this question since 1985. The highest gap prior to this was 28 points, recorded during the George W. Bush administration in 2005.

An academic article on public attitudes toward the press by John Immerwahr and John Doble published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 1982 – still close on the heels of the Watergate scandal – showed that citizens wanted evenhanded coverage of major news events and equal time to competing political candidates. Survey respondents also strongly supported the rights of reporters to criticize the president and of newspapers to print stories the president considers biased and inaccurate.

But partisanship has now produced an environment in which respect for those press freedoms is not shared across the political spectrum.

I’ve written previously about the deep perceptual divide in American society (and in the UK, as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the debate that has ensued), and the manner in which the arrival of new evidence – of, say, Russian contacts previously denied by people associated with this administration – only deepens the divide rather than drawing citizens toward common conclusions. By itself, the perceptual rift is not new.

What IS new is that the current administration and its backers have systematically undermined support for institutions that represent checks on its authority – and which also represent the bedrock of democracy.

In the realm of media perceptions, Republican political operatives have prepared the ground for years; the 2013 Pew Survey reveals evidence of this in a strong perception of “liberal” bias by Republicans. But, as I will write about next week, the intensified assault on institutions began with a systematic critique of the unemployment rate and the Bureau of Labor Statistics during the Obama Administration. Unable to accept evidence of a steadily declining unemployment rate following the financial crisis, right-wing political groups and think-tanks embarked on a systematic campaign to impugn the data and the institution producing them. The results were inconvenient, so the strategy was to label them a fiction.

That assault continued with the press, and has since encompassed the civil service (“the deep state”) and even citizens expressing dissent in the form of protest (“paid actors”).

We’ve moved well beyond a simple partisan divide. From a state of affairs in which adherents of each political party believe institutions are biased in favor of the other side, but embrace the value of the institutions and want them to be fair, we’ve arrived at a moment in which supporters of the party in power reject the institutions themselves. This gives license to the party in power to systematically undermine those institutions.

In his book, On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder underscores a lesson also advanced by leading scholars of fascism, such as Robert Paxton: institutions do not defend themselves. As Snyder points out, the error made by supporters of democratic institutions is “to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions – even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”

It is time to defend our institutions. Stand up for the free press. For the civil service. And yes, for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

 

 

 

 

Californians and Oklahomans Unite!

Spending the 4thof July in San Diego, California, I am wondering about the source and meaning of negative perceptions of California presented to me in recent months by several people in my home state of Oklahoma.

“California” has long had a mythical quality in large portions of the United States, with the association ranging from admiration and wonder – California as the harbinger of technological and cultural things to come – to bemused skepticism – California as a vortex of religious, culinary and leisure time experimentalism and oddity (from the water bed, advanced as a Master’s thesis project by a student at San Francisco State University in 1968 to the hot tub, initially developed in old wine vats in northern California in the 1960s), and a place that is simply weird.

In discussions over the course of the past year or so, I’ve discovered that for some of my fellow residents of Oklahoma, “California” has come to symbolize everything they despise: excessive regulation, environmental fundamentalism, moral decay and lawlessness (marked by the sanctuary cities movement).

In response I’ve pointed out that California is an extremely dynamic place; that the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, has one of the fastest growing economies in the United States and is a locus of technological innovation that yields tremendous benefits for the entire country.

But rather than seeing my alma mater, UC Berkeley, as the home of the largest number of Nobel Prize winners of any public university in the country (by far, with 69 Nobel laureates; the University of Illinois is second with 24), my interlocutors see it as a haven of intolerance and repression of free speech.

And herein is a clue to the puzzling perceptions I’ve encountered: the politics stoked by the current administration and its supporters have turned bemusement and skepticism over California’s oddities and innovations into a full-blown sense of “otherness.”

Despite California’s pivotal place in the economic, cultural and political fabric of the nation, the political message is to reject the entire state (with its 40 million inhabitants and GDP of $2.5 trillion) as a blight on the country.

The message, that is, is one of division — an effort to rupture the social cohesion of the nation, as I wrote about in my last post.

Of course, there are many inventive, broad-minded Oklahomans who realize their kinship with Californians and the contribution of the state to the national endeavor. And California is itself an extremely diverse place in every way; even those Oklahomans who condemn the state would in fact find much in common with many of their fellow Americans in California were they to spend time here.

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Accordingly, though I do so with skepticism and deep concern about the destructive politics that may unfold in the coming months, I express the hope that this 4thof July marks the nadir of the erosion of social cohesion in the United States.

The Costs of Destroying Social Cohesion

During my week in small, wealthy, verdant Norway, I thought extensively about how societies create and sustain social cohesion.

As I was considering this process, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley publicized the administration’s rejection of a May report of the UN Human Rights Council documenting the immense scope of inequality and poverty in the United States.

The report, based on an intensive visit to the U.S. by U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston (who met with government representatives at every level as well as civil society organizations and poor people themselves) points out that inequality and poverty have long been higher in the U.S. than in other western countries.

As Alston, a scholar of international law and human rights, underscores, the United States clearly has the resources to ameliorate these problems, but simply lacks the political will.

What is distinctive, though, is the extent to which the current administration has embarked on a path deliberately designed to exacerbate inequalities of wealth, power and opportunity.

While handing out enormous tax breaks to the wealthy, the administration has embarked on reductions in benefits for the poor; a rollback of environmental, health and safety protections that are vital to the quality of life of the poor and the middle class; and an ongoing effort to narrow access to health care.

The report of the Human Rights Council, which also identifies serious problems of a high rate of infant mortality, broad discrimination and racism, systematic disenfranchisement and criminalization of poverty, should be a great embarrassment for the United States.

But rather than acknowledging flaws in outcomes and policy and identifying means by which the U.S. might achieve better results, the administration withdrew from the U.N.’s Human Rights Council (though the motive likely was broader than this report), scolded the U.N. for focusing on the United States rather than any of a number of developing countries with high rates of poverty, and attacked the Human Rights Council as a “cesspool of bias.”

Noting the contrasts involved in a country of such vast wealth and innovation, the U.N. Rapporteur writes that these attributes “stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States. Its citizens live shorter and sicker lives compared to those living in all other rich democracies.”

The U.N. report underscores that the dominant political narrative guiding attitudes toward social welfare policy begins from the (false) premise that past policies were a wasteful failure. In fact the evidence clearly shows that the War on Poverty initiated fifty years ago was highly successful in reducing poverty in the ensuing decades.

Also essential to this narrative is the notion that the poor themselves are unworthy: recipients largely consist of people dedicated to “cheating” the system, and the poor themselves are responsible for their situations because of laziness and bad decision making. Both elements are undoubtedly heavily tinged with racism, especially since prevailing conceptions of who receives social welfare assistance do not correspond to the actual racial makeup of recipients.

The report observes that “it is striking how much weight is given to caricatured narratives about the purported innate differences between rich and poor that are consistently peddled by some politicians and media. The rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic and the drivers of economic success. The poor are wasters, losers and scammers.”

In scrutinizing these narratives, the U.N. Rapporteur made the effort to gather real evidence those currently in charge of policy willfully refuse to see: “The Special Rapporteur wonders how many of those politicians have ever visited poor areas, let alone spoken to those who dwell there. There are anecdotes aplenty, but little evidence.”

In contrast with this divisive narrative and the socially destructive policies that follow, social democratic societies like Norway and Sweden engaged in sustained policy efforts to cultivate a broad sense of societal inclusion starting from the Great Depression. Norwegians pay much higher taxes than Americans. They like paying taxes no more than Americans do, but the willingness to pay is sustained by the services that Norwegians receive in return (including health care benefits, university education, modern and efficient public transportation, etc.) – and by the trust between citizens cultivated by inclusive policies.

Conservatives will respond that Norway is a “socialist” society whose relevance is to be dismissed. That’s completely wrong.

Norwegians are capitalist entrepreneurs par excellence, where technological strides in sectors such as aquaculture (primarily salmon farming, a booming and rapidly growing industry) are possible because of policy consistency that encourages long-term investment and innovation.

Similarly, Norway’s policy makers recognize that all policies affect market incentives. Innovations to reduce CO2 emissions in Norway have been hard fought, requiring a series of measures designed to alter market calculations, such as reductions in taxes, road tolls and parking fees for electric vehicles. These incentives rather than some inherent “green gene” account for a recent explosion of electric vehicle sales in Norway.

The current U.S. administration, in contrast, views the inequalities documented by the U.N. NOT as a series of policy problems requiring attention, but as an opportunity that can be exploited to deepen societal divisions for political gain. The administration, in other words, is invested in destroying rather than building social cohesion.

Social cohesion is under stress in Norway over contentious issues such as immigration and taxation. But past policy has mobilized a constituency dedicated to preserving that cohesion and the societal benefits it brings, so efforts to deepen societal divisions will meet with significant resistance.

Put differently, high levels of trust between citizens and a strong sense of social cohesion tend to reinforce themselves. Once destroyed, citizen trust of governing institutions and trust between citizens are extremely difficult to rebuild.

The U.S. is not Norway, nor can it be. But there is an important lesson here: policies that generate social cohesion have dramatically positive effects not only socially, but for longer-term economic innovation and growth.

Intergenerational economic mobility in the U.S. is among the very lowest of the world’s rich countries.

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The degree to which income of one generation determines the income of the next (0 = income completely independent of prior generation; 1.0 = income completely determined by prior generation)                                                                                         Source: the Norwegian American; https://www.norwegianamerican.com/opinion/opportunity-of-social-mobility-great-in-scandinavia/

The best predictor of where children will end up in the future is the zip code into which they were born.

Talent, entrepreneurship and innovation are lost.

As the U.N. report notes, “The United States already leads the developed world in income and wealth inequality, and it is now moving full steam ahead to make itself even more unequal. But this is a race that no one else would want to win, since almost all other nations, and all the major international institutions, such as OECD, the World Bank and IMF, have recognized that extreme inequalities are economically inefficient and socially damaging.”

An administration truly dedicated to the welfare of the country would receive the U.N. report as a call to action. Instead, the reaction of defensiveness, spite and lashing out only further erodes the sinking international reputation of the U.S.

On top of this, the destruction of social cohesion wrought by the administration will yield long-term economic costs.

The Virtue of Political Accountability

I am in Oslo this week, investigating sustainability issues and government accountability in Norway. While there is no easy comparison between a country of 5.3 million people with low levels of poverty and income inequality and the United States, the contrast in degrees of political accountability could not be starker.

For all its tradition of social democracy through much of the 20th century, Norway is now governed by a right-wing coalition that includes a libertarian/nationalist/populist party advocating strict controls on immigration and asylum-seekers. This includes a Progress Party proposal to essentially criminalize asylum seekers by detaining in secure facilities those arriving without documentation as well as those whose asylum applications are rejected.

Three months ago, Norway’s Justice Minister, Progress Party member Sylvi Listhaug, posted on Facebook comments accusing the opposition Labour Party (Norway’s single largest party) of weakness in combatting terrorism.

Specially, Listhaug wrote that Labour put “terrorist’s rights” above national security.

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The Stortinget, Noway’s parliament building

Context makes the remarks particularly offensive, painful and highly inappropriate. Seven years ago, on July 22, 2011, a terrorist attack by a Progress Party supporter targeted a Labour Party youth summer camp in the worst mass shooting in Norway’s post-World War II history. The perpetrator set off a car bomb in central Oslo, killing 8, and then boarded a ferry to the island of Utoya. Impersonating a police officer checking on security in the wake of the car bombing, he spent 90 minutes executing 69 young people for their political affiliation.

What was the political reaction to the March 2018 remarks of Norway’s right-wing Justice Minister?

The opposition parties unified in condemnation of the minister’s comments, vowing to issue a vote of no confidence in the government if Listhaug did not resign.

Although Listhaug resorted to the empty “free speech” defense that has become so tiresome as justification for outrageously uncivil and destructive comments in American politics, she ultimately did resign. Listhaug was free to speak her mind. But she was held accountable for her verbal recklessness.

Accountability is vital for democracy; without it, trust in governing institutions, trust between citizens and the willingness to treat political opponents as loyal fellow citizens evaporates.

Politics in Norway may in recent years have become highly contentious, but a sense of competition between competing policy agendas nonetheless endures.

Perhaps so for Norway, but no longer for the United States.

In U.S. politics, spokespersons for the current administration now say virtually anything, no matter how scurrilous, about anyone – from the Prime Minister of a friendly country to a former U.S. President or Vice President, to elected members of the opposition party, to the policies and role of the Democratic Party, with increasing abandon and zero accountability.

Over time, the ultimate casualty may be democracy itself.

“Disruption” Imperils the U.S. at Home and Abroad

Many of us have watched in horror during the past week as the current U.S. administration has attempted to bully our allies on trade. The drama culminated in the U.S. executive repudiating the G7 communiqué issued on June 9 with a contrived attack on the Canadian Prime Minister.

The confrontation and bravado is for domestic political show. The approach makes no sense as foreign economic policy, only as domestic political mobilization. For the first time in memory, the United States has a “President of his base” rather than a President of the United States.

The disruption to valued domestic institutions and critical international relationships appears to be considerably effective with “the base.” As numerous media accounts suggest, supporters of the administration approve of disruption because the current occupant of the White House “is not a normal politician” and “says what he believes.” The substance of behavior, no matter how offensive, misguided and destructive, does not matter.

While supporters of the administration in the farming sector express reservations about the aggressive use of tariffs, recent accounts of voters in politically decisive districts reveal that some advocates of disruption believe the tariffs and threats of more to come are “necessary” to protect America.

But protect the United States from what, exactly?

Let’s start with the U.S. trade deficit. It is, in fact, enormous, typically running in the range of $50 billion per month. Ironically, though, trade deficits have fallen in recent months, largely due to an acceleration of U.S. exports in a growing global economy.

Global economic growth –- best nurtured through stability rather than disruption — is one of the surest ways to trim the trade deficit.

Trade deficits with individual countries – bilateral deficits – do not tell us a great deal, and a bilateral deficit with a country is certainly not a “loss.”

The U.S. ran a $318 million trade deficit with Bolivia in 2016. Are we “losing” to Bolivia, a country with a GDP per capita of $3100, about 1/19th that of the U.S.? U.S. producers import from Bolivia precious metals, gems and mineral ores, obviously inputs to higher value added production that enriches U.S. companies that import these goods.

Overall, the U.S. consistently runs a trade deficit precisely because the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. The dollar is the most widely used currency for transactions around the globe, and it is the currency most widely held in reserves of central banks around the world, comprising something like 63% of all global reserves.

This means demand for the dollar remains high, bolstering its “price” – i.e., the value of the dollar. Put differently, the value of the dollar is higher than it would be were the dollar not the global reserve currency. The consequence is that U.S. goods are more costly on global markets than they would otherwise be; the flip side of this is that imported goods are cheaper in the U.S. than they would be were the dollar not the principal global reserve currency.

Americans maintain a higher standard of living because of the global role of the dollar.

Were the dollar to decline as a global reserve currency, its value would fall relative to other major currencies. The U.S. trade deficit would as a consequence diminish.

Would we be better off?

Well, to begin with, with less demand for dollars, the U.S. would have to pay higher rates of interest to induce investors to purchase U.S. government debt. With the rising deficits ahead due to the slashing of corporate taxes in December 2017, a considerably larger share of U.S. spending would have to be directed toward paying interest on our debt.

Additionally, our standard of living would be lower due to the higher cost of imported goods.

Perhaps, then, it does not make much sense to focus so exclusively on the size of the trade deficit?

What about our G-7 allies? Supporters of the current administration point to high EU tariffs on U.S. products; the 10% tariff on U.S. autos gets a lot of attention, since the U.S. imposes a tariff of only 2.5% on auto imports from Europe. There are Canadian tariffs on U.S. milk, without which Canadian dairy farmers would be swept aside by a river of U.S. milk.

Nonetheless, Canada imports a much larger share of its total dairy product consumption than does the U.S. (which restricts imports), and the U.S. runs a large overall surplus in dairy trade with Canada.

Canada is also, by far, the leading market for U.S. exports; last year U.S. businesses sold $341 billion of goods and services to Canada.

Canada is also the second-largest source of foreign direct investment in the U.S.

At least three additional points are worth noting in response to claims that tariffs are necessary to protect the country. First, according to World Bank calculations based on U.N. Conference on Trade and Development data, the average level of tariffs between the U.S. and our European allies on traded goods is less than 2% on each side, among the lowest in the world among major economies (with the exception of Canada, which has an average applied tariff rate of about 0.8%).

Collectively, the G-7 countries purchase approximately 1/3 of all U.S. goods and services.

Second, while there are some goods for which European tariffs on U.S. goods are higher than U.S. tariffs on European goods, there are also many products for which the reverse is true.

Finally, while the U.S. runs a large trade deficit with its European Union partners, those partners in turn send a vast flow of investment into the U.S. EU investments in the U.S. total more than $2.7 trillion; U.S. firms hold about $2.3 trillion in investments in the EU. EU investment in the U.S. is eight times the size of EU investments in China and India combined.

The six countries of the G-7 just shunned by the current occupant of the White House account for a larger share of foreign direct investment in the U.S. than the rest of the world combined. Furthermore, these investments contribute enormously to U.S. exports.

Perhaps a policy of disrupting this relationship is not in the interest of the U.S.?

If the administration were genuinely interested in lowering trade barriers rather than engaging in a brawl over trade, diplomacy and steady negotiation would make sense. This could include resuming talks on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a focus of negotiations from 2013 to 2016.

As conveyed by the U.S. Trade Representative during the negotiations, “The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) is an ambitious, comprehensive, and high-standard trade and investment agreement being negotiated between the United States and the European Union (EU). T-TIP will help unlock opportunity for American families, workers, businesses, farmers and ranchers through increased access to European markets for Made-in-America goods and services.”

But the current administration abandoned TTIP upon entering office.

Careful diplomacy is inconsistent with a policy of bluster and “disruption” designed to appeal to the 40% or so who think the current administration is doing a superb job of putting “America first.”

Support for disruption is especially frightening because disruption drains policy of content. For supporters, it doesn’t matter what the current administration does, only that it is done loudly, that it trample on existing norms and structures, and that it be done in the name of “America first.”

But make no mistake, there are costs. Last week I wrote about the cost to domestic institutions, rule of law and democracy.

There are also costs of disruption to politically and economically important international relationships that can prove especially valuable for coordinating responses to international turmoil or crises.

Disrupting these relationships may just hasten the decline of American economic dominance and the role of the dollar — reducing the trade deficit, and our standard of living – after all.