If You're Not Outraged, You've Internalized a System-Justifying Ideology

“I just don't believe this,” is as close as Hedgemaster General Tyler Cowen ever gets to “this is total bullshit.” Well, that's his response to Jamie Napier and John Jost's argument [pdf] that conservatives report higher levels of happiness than do liberals largely because of their failure to be pained by high levels of economic inequality. Well, I just don't believe it either, and neither does the University of Virginia's Jonathan Haidt, who took apart Napier and Jost's argument at an AEI panel on happiness last spring. Here's the video. Jump ahead to about the 35:00 minute mark to catch Haidt's ten-minute takedown.  

The thrust of Haidt's critique is that Jost and Napier attribute conservatives' edge in happiness to their ability to” rationalize away inequality.” So how do they measure that? By looking at responses to a single item in World Values Survey thought to track attitudes toward meritocracy.  The respondant is asked to identify where he or she stands on a ten point scale that runs from “Hard work generally doesn't bring success–it's more a matter of luck” to “In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life.” Conservatism is of course strongly correlated with an answer toward the “hard work pays” end of the scale. But, as Haidt puts it in his talk:

This isn't some weird belief that shows that you're explaining away inequality. This is the basic ideological fact — or rather, the basic ideological difference.  It's not legitimate to take a core aspect of conservative belief and say that it's not really what it seems, but is really an unconscious mechanism to deal with something uncomfortable.

It would be legitimate were that the best explanation. But Napier and Jost's story is really hard to credit, both for reasons Tyler mentions and for deeper methodological reasons. For one, it's not clear what the “meritocracy” question has to do with inequality. If one wants to see a meritocratic bent as a common cause of conservative leanings and higher happiness, here's a less tendentious explanation. (1) Those with a greater sense of the efficacy of their behavior — with a greater sense of being in control — will tend to (a) think hard work brings a better life, (b) be happier, (c) see policies that seem to penalize hard work as unjust. (2) People likely to see high taxes as an unjust penalty on hard work tend to identify as “conservative.”

So here you've got a way of getting from a meritocratic attitude both to happiness and conservatism without bringing in anything to do with inequality. This is conjecture, of course, but I think it suggests that Napier and Jost's conclusion has all the benefit of theft over honest toil. How did they get from a question apparently about whether work pays to the ability to reconcile one's sense of justice with abstract macroeconomic variables? The fact that they evidently find it intuitive, rather than bizarre, that the state affairs captured by a nation-level Gini coefficient would have “negative hedonic effects” pretty much gives away the game. It makes exactly as much sense as thinking that certain people must have found some way to harden their consciences against the otherwise intolerable pain of high levels of government spending as a percentage of GDP. Huh? 

Anyway, doesn't the WVS meritocracy question seems ill-formed to you? What's the point of opposing “success” and “a better life.” If one interprets “success” in terms of social comparison and “a better life” in terms of self-comparison over time, then there's no problem in agreeing strongly with both ends of the alleged opposition.

I strongly agree that success, understood as a significant upward move on a valued status dimension, is largely a matter of luck. But I also strongly agree that hard work (in a society with decent institutions) usually brings a better life. It's possible to work hard and achieve a better life without ever winning anything you'd count as success. So I haven't a clue how I'd answer this question. Do I believe in meritocracy or not?Maybe my agreement with both statements would sort of average out and push me toward the middle?Or maybe I decide that it's pointlessly self-defeating to see fortune as overriding agency, even if deep-down I suspect it does (I probably won't write the Great American Novel, but I definitely won't if I admit that to myself), and so I'll just go ahead and agree whole hog with the “work pays” side. Maybe optimistic self-deception, which is good for self-reported happiness, predicts pro-agency answers on the meritocracy question. What does that have to do with inequality?  

Look at it from another angle. Suppose you do know how you'd answer it. You incline heavily toward the “meritocratic” end of the (bunk) spectrum due to your firm faith in the power of hard work and your sense that it is pointlessly demoralizing to think success a hostage to fate. It remains possible to understand that (a) people start in radically different positions due to fortune, (b) hard work doesn't usually improve each person's life equally (indeed, people starting with disadvantages may have to work very hard to move up only a little), and therefore (c) inequality can rise even if every hardworking person manages to thereby bring him or herself a better life. In this case, your “meritocratic” belief hasn't done anything to help you “rationalize away” inequality. You can strongly believe that effort usually pays without thinking that differences in pay reflect differences in effort. In fact, you ought to believe this.    

My guess is that Napier and Jost are not very interested in psychology and so have simply assumed that a preference for explaining lives in terms of agency rather than fortune is pretty much the same thing as thinking people deserve whatever they get.

The Wit and Wisdom of Nick Gillespie

In an interview at Splice Today, Nick Gillespie's lays out the objectively correct response to Joseph Lowery's crowd-pleasing inaugural benediction doggerel:

What the hell was that? An unpublished Nipsey Russell rhyme from a lost episode of The $100,000 Pyramid? Yellow will be mellow? When the Jew can drink Mountain Dew? The wop can be a cop? The kraut can give a shout?


I realize Lowery is an old man and I cut him some slack for all the crap that he and too many others like him had to deal with for far too long. But I think we've hit that day where black is not asked to go back. And Asians, those poor, sad-sack model minorities, don't have to be any more mellow than the fans at a Ted Nugent concert. That's good news.

And Nick's rhetorical delicacy enables him to put into subtle perspective the proper place of politics in human life:

[W]e believe that politics—a rotten, zero-sum game in which the winners rub the losers' face in dog shit like a schoolyard bully—should not be the primary focus of human activity. It should be squeezed into the smallest box possible so that individuals and the communities they form can get on with far more interesting and exciting and liberatory stuff. 

So knit a sweater without a picture of the president on it, fools.

The Obama Touch

From The Politico:

Joe Lieberman has felt it. So has Joe the Plumber. 

It’s the Obama Touch — the squeeze on the biceps, the pat on the shoulder or the tap on the back that signals the displeasure of the commander in chief. Let others turn on the deep freeze or lose their cool when they’re annoyed. Obama prefers to deal with problems by taking them in hand — literally. 

Just ask Vice President Joe Biden, who made a joke about Chief Justice John Roberts flubbing the oath of office last week and immediately felt his boss’s disapproval, in the form of Obama’s fingers on his back. 

“[Obama] was castigating him. There’s no other way to put it,” says Joe Navarro, a former FBI special agent specializing in nonverbal communication. …


Another member of the press, who witnessed a similar moment with a colleague during the campaign, recalls thinking the gesture seemed intended to regain control over the conversation — friendly on the surface but also a little intimidating. 

This dual experience is no accident; in sensitive situations, Obama typically uses touch to control and console simultaneously.

Just ask Michelle!

If only Obama could touch enough consumers and investors, confidence could really take off and save the economy. It's as good as the macroeconomist's ideas!

[HT Dave Weigel via Twitter]

Don't Wait for a Job to Come to You

That's my advice in this morning's Marketplace for the tens of thousands of Americans who have lost, or are about about to lose, their jobs. I knew this wouldn't be very popular advice, and I was right. A number of commentators ask “What about the house?” Good question. The policies that subsidized homeownership for millions of Americans for whom it might not otherwise have made economic sense are the same ones that led to the massive misallocation of capital that contributed both to this recession and to the meltdown of the financial sector, which has made the recession worse. That is to say, a Fed policy of low interest rates, home mortgage deductions, the positive encouragement of sub-prime loans, etc., etc. have doubly or triply screwed over huge numbers of Americans. Lots of people are now losing their jobs in part because of stupid homeownership subsidies. The sensible thing to do when you can't find work locally is to pick up and go where you can find a jobs (and, contrary to one commenter, the fact that unemployment is up in every state doesn't begin to imply that no one is hiring anywhere.) But if you can't sell the house at all, or if you have to sell it at a huge loss, that's obviously going to make it hard to move.

That's one reason why in the commentary I wanted to emphasize just how terrible it is to be unemployed. In terms of psychological well-being, it really is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. And I undrestand that there are lots of forces that hold people in place. But if we're not even willing to consider painfully abandoning sunk costs, we can put ourselves in the way of even greater pain.

If government policy can help in these circumstances, it's going to be policy that encourages mobility, not rootedness. The first thing government can do is to stop subsidizing homeownership in a way that anchors people at precisely the times when they most need to set sail.

Never Enough

The current recession may turn into a small depression, and may push global living standards down by five percent for one or two or (we hope not) five years, but that does not erase the gulf between those of us in the globe's middle and upper classes and all human existence prior to the Industrial Revolution. We have reached the frontier of mass material comfort—where we have enough food that we are not painfully hungry, enough clothing that we are not shiveringly cold, enough shelter that we are not distressingly wet, even enough entertainment that we are not bored. We—at least those lucky enough to be in the global middle and upper classes who still cluster around the North Atlantic—have lots and lots of stuff. Our machines and factories have given us the power to get more and more stuff by getting more and more stuff—a self-perpetuating cycle of consumption.


Today, buttermilk-fried petrale sole with pickled vegetables and parsley mayonnaise, served at Chez Panisse Café, costs the same share of a day-laborer's earnings as the raw ingredients for two big bowls of oatmeal did in the 18th Century. Then there are all the commodities we consume that were essentially priceless in the past. If in 1786 you had wanted to listen to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in your house, you probably had to be the Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, with a theater in your house—the Palace of Laxenberg. Today, the DVD costs $17.99 at amazon.com. (The multiplication factor for enjoying The Marriage of Figaro in your home is effectively infinite for those not named Josef von Habsburg.)

That's a taste of Brad Delong's fascinating new column at The Week.

The Economic Patriot Act

Steve Horwitz totally nails it:

This [the stimulus bill] isn't just your run-of-the-mill pork.  What we are seeing happen right now is that Congress sees this crisis as an opportunity to enact a whole variety of programs that they've wanted to pass for years, especially (but not only) the Democrats who no longer fear a veto, and now finally have the chance.  Just as the Patriot Act was a bunch of laws waiting for a political “crisis,” so is much of the stimulus package a bunch of programs waiting for an economic “crisis.”  The current crisis is just a convenient excuse.

Disaster dirigisme.

We Need Cynics

Starting today, I'm part of The Week magazine's new online Bullpen, where I'll be joining David Frum, Bob Shrum, Brad Delong, Daniel Larison and several others as a regular columnist. Here's my inaugural effort, discussing Obama's inaugural and defending the idea that we'll all be best off if we don't just roll over for popular presidents in times of crisis. It starts like this….

By late September of 2001, George W. Bush was the most popular president of modern times. The tragic shock of 9/11 awakened a sense of patriotism, common purpose, and deference to government entirely new to Americans who came of age after Nixon. The President displayed comforting steel in the wake of the terrifying attack. He was a uniter, not a divider. And never in recent memory have Americans been so united. Congress trembled in the face of Bush's mighty approval ratings. Nor was the media eager to gainsay the national mood. 

And so it was that America gave Bush most of what he asked for. In return we got Iraq, crushing budget deficits, waterboarding, the ire of the world, and, finally, collapsing financial markets. It's not what we had in mind. 

Maybe it would have been better had we been less united, had we been more skeptical of grand plans, had more of us pushed back when so many of us pushed forward in the same direction.  …

Check it out, and please let me know what you think!

And hey, why not subscribe to The Week which smartly and entertainingly “distills the best of the U.S. and foreign press into 44 pages.” Perfect for those on the go who need to stay in the know!


Bryan Caplan's summary of Chapter 2 of Murray Rothbard's classic For a New Liberty reminded me of one of the reasons I'm not that kind of libertarian. It starts with the fact that I can't grasp how fraud counts as a violation of the “non-agression principle” while other ways of manipulation of another's will don't. I can't grok the conception of coercion that includes lying to someone in order to get something but leaves out, say, the threat to withdraw intensely valued affection in order to get something. A credible threat of emotional distress seems a lot closer to a paradigm case of coercion (a threat of physical harm, e.g.) than does a misrepresentation of facts.

Even when I was a believer in Rand/Rothbard-style libertarianism, I found the 'or' in the “no force or fraud” formulation of the non-coercion principle a bit vexing and suspect. It seems too frank an admission that fraud isn't force or agression at all. It's another morally questionable way to get someone to do something they might not otherwise choose to do. But there are yet still other morally questionable ways to get people to do things. Why not add more 'or's?

Now it seems to me that non-coercion libertarians tend to reason backwards. You start with a list of kinds of action considered impermissible, struggle to classify them all instances of coercion, and then say that your philosophy is based on non-coercion and not on whatever principle (if there was one) that led you to try to include some classes of actions (that are not intuitively coercive) but not others (that seem pretty coercive) under the coercion rubric.

I guess this is just another way to make my complaint about fake libertarian clarity. Let me just say that because I think emotional coercion is coercion doesn't mean I think the state should try to stop it. And just because I think fraud isn't coercion doesn't mean I think the state shouldn't try to stop it. What I think is that some coercive actions (emotional blackmail, e.g.) should be legal and some non-coervice actions (fraud, e.g.) should be illegal. Which is to say, I don't think the notion of coercion can be made to do the work many libertarians want it to do.

This Is What I Am Talking About

The New York-based blogger for The Economist's Free Exchange replies to my lament by arguing that economists do have a theory of the psychology of coordinated expectation. They do, sort of. But they don't have the kind of theory that I have in mind. Harvard's Gregory Mankiw admits as much when he blogs:

Yale's Bob Shiller argues that confidence is the key to getting the economy back on track.

I think a lot of economists would agree with that. The question is what would make people more confident. Bob thinks that confidence would rise if the government borrowed more and spent more. Other economists think that confidence would rise if the government committed itself to, say, lower taxes on capital income. The sad truth is that we economists don't know very much about what drives the animal spirits of economic participants. Until we figure it out, it is best to be suspicious of any policy whose benefits are supposed to work through the amorphous channel of “confidence.” [emphasis added]

In what macro textbook can one find references to empirical psychological work on confidence? On individual-level variability in confidence, on the conditions under which the confidence of various personality types is affected by economic variables, on the relationship between changes in condfidence and changes in economic behavior, on the social “infectiousness” of changes in confidence, etc.

I have a lot of respect for Shiller, but Mankiw is right. Shiller doesn't have any real evidential basis for claims about what policies will induce confidence. And neither does anyone else.