Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Politicians lie

Feb. 13, 2015: David Harsanyi, an intelligent and articulate senior editor at The Federalist, commented in a National Review Online (NRO) article[1] about lies that politicians, President Obama's lies in particular, tell the public to achieve their goals. The asserted purpose is to allow or coax the public to arrive at beliefs that the speaker believes are desired or necessary. Whether one believes that or not will vary from speaker to speaker, comment to comment, and listener to listener. Regardless, these comments merit everyone's consideration because they are so rare and candid. They are acutely revealing about how the two-party system thinks and operates with regard to the public.

In his NRO article Mr. Harsanyi says this:
"Politicians break their promises and modify their positions all the time, of course. They BS us about their opinions and carefully craft identities that are palatable to the average voter. When a person enters this political universe, we need to accept that most of the things we hear are, at best, poetic truths."

Two obvious conclusions are direct and simple: Absent personal knowledge to the contrary, there is no reason to trust or believe anything any politician in the two-party system says about anything. They could be speaking truth, lies[2] or some unknown mix of the two.

Although the quoted comments are aimed at a conservative audience as a prelude to a partisan attack on President Obama, the comments are astounding for their candor regarding two-party politics in general. As written, those comments apply to liberals, conservatives and all other players in politics, politicians, pundits, partisans and lobbyists alike. From the context of the full article, the quoted comments are not limited to the President or the democratic party or politicians. Those comments apply to two-party politics as usual. This takes nothing out of context or puts any words into Mr. Harsanyi's mouth. But, of course, everyone can and should decide that on their own.

Maybe this insider rhetoric reflects a reason that, continuing a long-term trend, voters register as independents (43%), more often than democrats (30%) or republicans (26%). That trend arguably reflects distrust and/or disagreement with both parties and/or their way of doing business. That interpretation is not inconsistent with comments such as these from another, more prominent insider, former CIA director and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: "Members of Congress rarely legislate; they basically follow the money. . . . They're spending more and more time dialing for dollars. . . . It's all about winning, it's not about governing anymore."

1.    National Review Online is a hard core right wing website of considerable influence. Its ideological content rarely wavers. According to a conservative source, NRO ranks among the top 20 conservative websites and 4,461 in Alexa ratings as of Q2 2014. Although there may be differences, the ideology of the Federalist seems to largely overlap NRO ideology.
2.    Lies in this context is a misleading and/or incomplete term. Spin, as defined previously, is an expansive but more accurate term.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The high cost of spin in politics

American freedoms include the freedom of speech. The U.S. constitution protects it with a broad, strong shield. With only some exceptions, for example, inciting violence, making false statements and child pornography, Americans can say just about anything about anyone or anything with no fear of legal retribution or lawsuit. That is a real freedom. Despite the constitutional shield's power, a debate is quietly going on about whether to broaden it further.

One of the two sides, hard core pro-free speech Libertarian ideologues, argue for reducing or eliminating at least some existing limits, especially when it comes to spending money in politics as a form of free speech. The other side, maybe less ideologically driven, argues that some limits are needed for civil society. Their proposals are modeled, more or less, on speech laws in some European countries.

Since 2010, the pro-speech side has been winning significant cases in the Supreme Court. Congress, being hopelessly divided and gridlocked, is mostly irrelevant. The court cases expand free speech by nullifying anti-corruption or campaign finance laws on free speech grounds. This is fundamentally shifts power in political debate from average individuals (and candidates to some extent) to entities and individuals willing and able to use wealth for political speech, much of which contains deceptive content. In the process, laws intended to limit political corruption from special interest money were overturned as unconstitutional limits on free speech. The roots of such anti-corruption laws go back a century. Modern successor laws, the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and counterpart state laws, are being successfully struck down on free speech-based constitutional grounds.

Free speech: What is the cost-benefit?
Given the shifting legal landscape, it is reasonable to raise the question about cost-benefit of free speech in politics, including spin.[1] Spin is a subset of protected free speech and in Dissident Politics (DP) opinion, it dominates political discourse. DP's starting assumption is that the costs of spin to the public interest outweigh its benefits. The assumption is based on the beliefs that (i) political policy debates and choices will be better in the long run when spin is not used to convince citizens to choose among competing options and (ii) debate winners should win on the merits, not on the spin because that is the American way, or, the way it should be. However, parts or all of the two-party system (TPS)[2] may not share that opinion.

Maybe some or most TPS participants and supporters would argue that political debate should be dominated by spin because if the public relies on unspun fact and unbiased logic, (i) the public interest is not well-served and (ii) our elected political leaders are elected to get what they want and whatever they want does in fact best serve the public interest.[3] Examples of political spin include its probable use to get American public opinion behind World War II, the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Some would argue that all of those wars were preceded by clever spin on the public to rally public support. Roosevelt bluntly admitted he misled congress and the public to get America into WWII and that it was for their own good.

Assuming allegations of pro-war spin are true, did that spin benefit or harm the public interest? Maybe there was net benefit. Maybe not. Maybe it was necessary. Maybe not, but if not, think hard and carefully if that is really true. In the case of WWII, wasn't it inevitable that the U.S. would be drawn in sooner or later? If later, would that have made a noticeable difference in the outcome? Maybe. Maybe not. No one can know. What is the public interest net balance from a possibly earlier entry into WWII via lying vs. damage to public trust from political lies?

Regardless, if some or most politicians and/or partisans think that spin confers a net benefit on the public, then they owe it to the American people to tell them that their rhetoric is spin intended to deceive us for our own good. In that case, we all might as well stop voting, walk away from politics and let the TPS do whatever it wants because it will be good for us. That's not a very appetizing choice, is it?

Another cost of spin in politics includes loss of public trust in federal governing institutions. That makes governing harder and less efficient. TPS rhetoric has sunk to the point that even some politicians and other prominent TPS players openly voice unwarranted disrespect or false accusations for politicians in the opposing party. That reflects disrespect for their own system and American voters who put the opposition in office. No wonder public trust in government is low. It should be. Even the TPS doesn't trust itself.

The bottom line
If one steps outside the TPS's rhetoric and looks objectively, the costs of political spin are far higher than either side is willing to admit.[4] The costs arguably include trillions of wasted tax dollars, tens of thousands of needlessly lost lives, long-term erosion or stagnation of the American standard of living and a drag on annual GDP growth, maybe 0.5% - 0.7%.[5] Despite the costs and lack of convincing rationale for using it, both parties, their politicians, partisans and the remaining parts of the TPS ruthlessly and relentlessly spin the public with little or no regard for damage to the public interest. If nothing else, incessant reliance on spin over merit and honest debate reflects the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the TPS, the ideologies it is based on and the participants who keep the Leviathan alive and well.

1.    As explained before, DP defines spin as lies, deception, misinformation, withholding, distorting or denying inconvenient facts or arguments, unwarranted character or motive assassination, and, conscious or not, use of fact or logic that is distorted by ideology and/or self-interest. Distortion of reality and logic by ideology, self-interest or both, is common and has been rigorously documented by years of research. DP accepts that research as basically accurate and valid, although it is still ongoing and incomplete. Future research may refine our understanding, but is very unlikely to negate existing research findings that ideology and self-interest have great power to subconsciously distort fact and therefore logic, i.e., garbage in, garbage out.
2.    DP defines the two-party system as the democratic and republican parties, their politicians, their ideologically aligned or affiliated pundits and think tanks, major campaign or other political cause or PAC contributors, lobbyists working for those contributors and partisan media. Although the lines are not sharp and content is not always obviously biased or flawed, the partisan media includes outlets such as Fox News, MSNBC, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times and websites such as Huffington Post, The Blaze and National Review Online. The TPS does not include average Americans, roughly defined as people who engage in typical levels of political participation, non-voters or minor campaign contributors. The partisan media does not include outlets that, although maybe ideologically biased to some degree, rely on mostly on unspun reality or facts and logic not unduly flawed by ideological bias or self-interest. Non-partisan media includes the Economist magazine, the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Week, factcheck.org, politifact.com and flackcheck.org (a FactCheck-Annenberg Foundation joint project). Politifact.com has been accused of being a conservative spin or shill operation set up by the conservative Tampa Bay Times newspaper. If that is true, DP has been fooled because Politifact appears to be even-handed and grounded in unspun reality in criticizing both the left and right. But, as one observer has pointed out, even fact checkers make mistakes, presumably including mistakes that arise at least in part from the subconscious power of fact checker's ideology to screw things up. Human error arises because the mind human is not a perfect cognition machine. Although most partisans 'know' they are solidly grounded in reality and that their opposition is delusional at best and insane at worst. Many or most hard core partisan ideologues use that false argument as their rationale to dismiss facts and logic they dislike or cannot rationalize away. This all boils down to a fight over core values, but that topic is for another post.
3.    There is some evidence that at least some politicians are willing to leave what would appear to be crucial aspects of governing to political leaders and quiet, powerful players in the TPS. For example, some politicians don't bother to read legislation they vote on, preferring to leave that to their party's leaders, lobbyists or whoever it is that does those unpleasant legislating things.
4.    Other costs of political spin include fostering (i) distrust between the left and right by appeal to emotion, primarily fear, anger and hate, instead of neutral argument over unbiased fact and reason and (ii) reluctance or refusal of partisans or ideologues to accept unspun facts that undermine their ideology or self-interest. Rejection of fact is bipartisan. It cripples effective governance. It is usually easy to know whether the politics of a partisan is liberal or conservative simply by asking a few questions they are reluctant or refuse to answer. The reluctance stems from answers that are uncomfortable for ideological reasons. For example, pro-abortion liberals tend to avoid answering the question 'Is a 20-week old unborn child a human being?', while anti-abortion conservatives generally have no discomfort answering the question because the answer does not undermine their anti-abortion ideology or belief. For ideologues, reality (facts) is often hard to reconcile with their ideology and many often do not face it honestly and instead, subconscious or not, deny or distort uncomfortable reality to make it palatable. Politics based on that kind of flawed perception and thinking is second rate and wasteful at best. Ideological politics doesn't serve the public interest nearly as well as facing reality despite the psychological discomforts. The most obvious conclusion is that ideology is bad for politics and the public interest. This boils down to a fight over core values, which is a topic is for another post.
5.    Obviously DP cannot prove the costs, because no one has done a serious, fact-based, unbiased assessment. On the other hand, no one can disprove them either for the same reason.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Federal debt; military bases

Federal debt
Feb. 3, 2015: The Wall Street Journal reported that a White House analysis projects that interest payments on the national debt, about $210 billion for 2015, will increase to about $600 billion by 2021 and about $790 billion by 2025. The 2021 amount is roughly equal to projected defense and nondefense discretionary spending for that year. The projections suggest that the competition between debt service obligations, defense spending and discretionary spending will be fierce.

Under the circumstances, one might think that Congress and the President would instantly jump at any opportunity to increase revenues without raising taxes or passing major legislation. Unfortunately, if one though that, one would be wrong. Each year Congress knowingly allows hundreds of billions in tax revenues to go uncollected. IRS net tax gap (tax evasion) data for 2001 was $290 billion and $385 billion in 2006, an increase of $19 billion/year. At that rate of increase, the tax gap, Congress' annual gift to tax cheats, would be $537 billion for 2014. To collect most of that, all Congress would need to do is to increase the IRS's budget for tax law enforcement. Instead of enforcing existing law, Congress intentionally limits the IRS enforcement budget, thereby allowing tax cheats to steal hundreds of billions each year from honest U.S. taxpayers. This bipartisan game has been going on for years. Not surprisingly, the situation undermines public trust in the tax system and in the rule of law. Obviously, some of the spending that the lost tax revenue could have paid for is financed by debt.

A reasonable conclusion is that Congress annually permits hundreds of billions of theft from taxpayers and resulting added debt because it reflects Congressional incompetence and/or it serves the interests of people in Congress, e.g., pandering for re-election, corrupt payback to campaign contributors or whatever else the case may be.

Military installations
Feb. 7, 2015: The New York Times reported that Pentagon officials have asked Congress for permission to inventory all military installations with the goal of shedding unneeded installations and saving billions in operation costs each year. The Pentagon has about 562,000 facilities worldwide and they cover about 24.7 million acres. That is about the size of Virginia. Congress blocks attempts to allow the DoD to do the inventory. The NYT article implies that Congress prevents an inventory because doing that could be the first step leading to base closings in affected Congressional voting districts.

A reasonable conclusion is, as the NYT implies, that Congress annually defends billions in Pentagon waste because it reflects their incompetence and/or it serves their interests, e.g., pandering for re-election, corrupt payback to campaign contributors or whatever else the case may be.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Political rhetoric is empty debate: Spin defined

The definition of spin
Maybe the best way to categorize political speech that isn't 'honest' is to call it spin. Assuming it is ever defined at all, spin can be and is defined as partisans need it to be defined to validate their goals and policy choices. That is just common sense. The DP definition of spin focuses on what spin means to the public interest, not to any special interest such as the democratic or republican parties or their politicians. From that point of view (POV) spin can be defined like this.

Spin in politics: Spin is speech that consciously or not, is based on or includes one or more of (i) lies, (ii) deceit, (iii) misinformation, (iv) withholding, distorting or denying inconvenient facts or arguments, (v) unwarranted character or motive assassination, and, (vi) conscious or not, the use of fact or logic that is distorted by ideology, self-interest and or another innate cognitive bias.

Two points about that definition need to be clear. First, from the public interest POV, spin includes distortion of fact or logic that ideology or self-interest typically generates, which usually is subconscious. That means that even completely subconscious fact or logic distortions are spin. Although that might seem a bit unfair, the definition only looks at the public interest, not human nature or biology. Second, the definition of spin is broad because the goal of spin, to win policy or ideological arguments, influence or power is broad. Any rhetorical or other tactic, honest or dishonest, civilized or vicious, can and will be employed if the advocate thinks it will help more than hurt.

Why empty debate dominates political speech
Dissident Politics ("DP") posits that most, maybe 95%, of the content of political speech or rhetoric is "empty debate" that is probably about as detrimental to the public interest as it is helpful. Most political debate between opposing sides or points of view in the U.S. amounts to partisans attacking each other while talking past each other on points of substance. There is usually only a limited understanding or recognition of what each opponent is really saying to the other. As with most complicated things in human society, there can be more than one reason for such empty debate.

One reason is distrust and animosity between the two sides. Although the two parties apparently have stopped doing this, in 2013 at least, colloquies between House leadership members made the depth and scope of bipartisan distrust and animosity crystal clear (the fight begins at about 2:30 of the 44-minute C-Span broadcast). In their dialog, Cantor and Hoyer are talking right past each other. The mutual hate and distrust is obvious. So is the futility of the colloquy, which delivers to the public nothing more than an exercise in partisan posturing. One can presume that the one or both of the parties decided to discontinue engaging in House colloquies like this because the fight makes both sides look intransigent and petty.

Another major factor that adds to the emptiness and deception in two-party political debate is leaving key terms undefined. As discussed before, the human mind subconsciously fills in gaps in knowledge such as definitions. The gaps typically get filled with meanings the mind tends to want to use. even though that can and does lead to errors and misunderstandings, that is just how the human brain works. The process is usually subconscious and it presents a very effective tool for people who want to get a message across. It takes conscious effort and time to be aware of such innate but subconscious activity. It takes even more effort to blunt the impacts of how the human mind can inaccurately perceive facts and process information, leading to flawed conclusions.

Another reason for the dominance of empty debate flows from the adversarial nature of political discourse. In political advocacy, one side argues for policy choices or laws it wants. The advocacy almost always goes on without much regard for opposing arguments or facts that undermine the advocate's argument or logic. In other words, the content is one-sided spin, which is almost always unfair, misleading, grounded in false reality or flawed logic, or some combination of those things. The possibility that adverse impacts to the public interest could flow from one-sided dishonesty rarely or never enters the partisans' mind. The one-sidedness of what advocates tell the public is simply irrelevant to a mind set where all is fair in love and war. Since politics is war, all is fair.

A related factor that feeds the one-sidedness of partisan political speech flows from the the free speech clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads: Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. In the U.S., the scope of protected free speech is broad and the only limits are prohibitions on threats directed to a person or group, child pornography and a few other categories of speech. False statements of fact, which includes libel and slander, are theoretically not protected free speech and are subject to criminal or civil penalty. However, the courts are unsure of how to deal with this and prosecutions are rare and often hard to prove in the realm of politics. The current supreme court trend is on the side of expanding the nature and scope of protected speech in politics. And, since liability for false statements can be significantly limited by simply expressing statements as opinions (honest mistakes) instead of facts, political partisans are largely free to at least deceive and misinform the public, if not outright lie.[1]

Like it or not, that is the sad reality of political speech, not an unsupported opinion. Again, politics is war and all tactics are fair, regardless of adverse impacts on the public interest. The battle is between and among special interests. The public interest is mainly an innocent bystander taking lots of collateral damage hits with a few benefits. Meanwhile the raging elephants fight each other. Partisans on each side would usually agree that this perception of reality applies only to the opposing side. DP takes that as solid evidence that it applies to both sides. In other words, both sides are basically correct when they accuse their opposition of spinning or harming the public interest.

When the scope of free speech is coupled with bipartisan animosity and distrust and the power of ideology and self-interest to distort both reality and logic, reasons to see political speech as mostly empty become easy to see. All of those factors feed into the one-sided nature of political speech and that makes the speech, from the public interest POV, mostly or completely empty and usually more harmful than beneficial.

Unfortunately, spin dominates partisan political debate or argument. Partisans on both sides use it constantly and ruthlessly. Spin can be very hard to spot and one-sides arguments seem more persuasive when no counter arguments are present. That is just one reason why political speech is nearly always one-sided and inaccurate to a significant degree. And, when a person believes strongly in an ideology, that amounts to a powerful but usually subconscious biological force that distorts fact and logic. When that fact, not opinion, is added to the freedom of spin, it is easy to see why political speech is mostly empty and deceptive.

All of the foregoing paints a rather negative, even depressing picture of politics and the content and purpose of political speech or rhetoric. The purpose is to win special interest favors, ideological arguments, power and/or money, not to inform and enlighten voters. Can it really be that bad? DP thinks so. If there are qualms about this dark vision of politics consider the following. While still in the U.S. Senate and remarking on ethics and money in politics, Chuck Hagel put it this way: "There's no shame anymore. . . . We've blown past the ethical standards; we now play on the edge of the legal standards. . . . . "money and its pursuit [have] paralyzed Washington. . . . Nothing truly important for the country [is] getting done."

If that bare knuckles attitude applies to political belief about money in politics, why wouldn't the same attitude apply to everything else, including the content of free political speech as viewed from the public interest POV?[2] There are good reasons and logic to support the argument that political free speech is far more empty than meaningful. Of course, that all depends on how one defines things and sees reality, doesn't it?

1. Most partisans are intelligent and fully aware of how to lie, misinform or deceive without running afoul of any laws that punish false statements. Politicians and advocates know exactly where the line is and even cross the line with impunity. Given the court's ideological reluctance to punish political speech of any kind, the risks of expressing lies or misinformation as opinions is nil. It is relevant that many or most democrats believe that republicans or the republican party lie much of the time and the lies involve most topics in politics. Many or most republicans believe the same about democrats or the democratic party. Unbiased fact checking from multiple sources points to partisans often taking liberty with the truth, if not outright lying. Although some must exist, DP is not aware of a single lawsuit and liability arising from any allegedly false statement made by any partisan or candidate for President, Senate or the House in any election since the founding of the Republic.

2. As viewed from a special interest advocate's point of view, spin is better than wonderful. Spin is a powerful tool to get what the advocate wants. Probably the most powerful tool. The importance of always keeping in mind the distinction between the goals of serving the public interest vs. serving special interests cannot be understated.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Serving the pubic interest

At present, service to the public interest is a meaningless concept in politics. Advocates arguing for a new law, absence of a law or a tax break define the serving public interest to mean doing whatever conforms to their own ideological beliefs or much more importantly, serves their own economic interests. Others who have considered what the public interest is believe that it should be assessed impartially. That amounts to acknowledging that the public interest is more than just an endless fight between competing ideologies and/or special interests for a bigger slice of the pie. Logic points to an absolute necessity for rationally balancing competing interest demands or needs.

Without rational balancing, America's complex economy and civil society will remain inefficient, polarized and gridlocked because most subjective ideological arguments cannot be rationally resolved. Subjective ideological beliefs or values are akin to subjective religious beliefs or values - they are subjectively infallible and subjective infallibility cannot be rationally debated.

From the point of view of the "real" public interest, an initial description of serving the pubic interest is this:

Governing in the public interest means governance based on identifying a rational, optimum balance between serving public and individual or commercial interests based on an objective, fact- and logic-based analysis of competing policy choices, while (1) being reasonably transparent and responsive to public opinion, (2) protecting and growing the American economy, (4) fostering individual economic and personal growth opportunity, (5) defending personal freedoms and the American standard of living, (6) protecting national security and the environment, (7) increasing transparency, competition and efficiency in commerce when possible, and (8) fostering global peace, stability and prosperity whenever reasonably possible, all of which is constrained by (i) honest, reality-based fiscal sustainability that limits the scope and size of government and regulation to no more than what is needed and (ii) genuine respect for the U.S. constitution and the rule of law with a particular concern for limiting unwarranted legal complexity and ambiguity to limit opportunities to subvert the constitution and the law.

That description, like everything else in politics, will be criticized. For example, terms are not defined in detail and constraints such as "responsive to public opinion" and "economically sustainable manner" are subject to interpretation. Ideological differences would come into play. A conservative partisans' description might exclude mention of the environment, while a liberal's might exclude mention of commercial interests, economic sustainability or both.

Despite ideologue criticism, precise definition of all terms isn't the point. That is not practical in a relatively short description like this. Instead, a concise description of serving the public interest is intended to force policy analysis to seriously and objectively consider all of the relevant major political principles or values that most Americans, including liberals and conservatives, consider important and relevant. In short, this description is intended to shift political thinking and policy debate to a more rational, fact-based competition among subjective political ideologies in an honest, i.e., fact- and logic-based, marketplace of ideas.

Among other things, this explicitly rejects America's intuitive-emotional spin- and misinformation-based two-party politics in favor of more pragmatic or objective fact- and logic-based politics. Two-party political rhetoric and thinking is based primarily on (i) constitutionally protected spin, (ii) biased perceptions of reality or fact and (iii) bias-flawed logic and (iv) policy choices based almost exclusively on opaque special interest money and self-interest, instead of the will of the American people.

If change in politics is the goal, this description of service to the public interest is a starting point or intellectual framework for understanding how pragmatic, non-ideological or objective politics would work in practice.  

A criticism of this definition from two-party status quo defenders could be that it shifts the focus of normal political discourse from the current focus, partisans, their ideologies and special interests and their demands, to a broader public interest. In Dissident Politics (DP) opinion, that is no criticism at all. The two-party system is self-interested and it serves the public interest by mostly by accident. As it is now, the balance of power is tipped too far in favor of special interests, which include the democratic and republican parties, their ideologies, politicians, partisans and major campaign contributors.

American public opinion may have literally no impact on policy choice at the federal level. Special interests with money dominate policy choice. Based on the data, fidelity to special interest demands appears to constitute the single most powerful political ideology or value in American politics. Liberal and conservative ideology, principles or values are largely irrelevant. The basic argument here is that in the long run, both the public and special interests would be better served by the shift in the balance of power that the DP's intellectual framework encourages.

Context: Why political debate is empty
A key basis for DP's rejection of standard two-party politics is the empty, deceptive nature of most political discourse or debate. There are several key factors that fosters emptiness and deception. One of those factors is a lack of definition for key terms. For example, liberals and conservatives routinely accuse each other of spinning (lies, misinforming, etc), but the concept is never defined. If one steps back from the partisan fights and looks at coldly and objectively at political rhetoric, it is easy to see that nearly all of it is based on spin to some degree or another. From a public interest point of view, spin is reasonably defined broadly as speech or acts that are 'dishonest' or intended to mislead in some relevant sense.[1] 

Common sense says that winning arguments is easier when you define terms to favor your position. Another, probably equally effective, way to win arguments is to leave key terms undefined. There is a reason for a lack of definition. Most listeners will subconsciously read into the advocate's arguments what it is the listener wants to hear and undefined terms facilitate the process. For terms that are not defined, the human mind tends to effortlessly fill in gaps even if the gaps are only subconsciously perceived. That is just how the human brain works.[2] The process is usually subconscious and very effective, even though it often leads to false perceptions of reality or flawed logic or conclusions.  It takes conscious effort and time to be aware of such things and even more effort to blunt the impacts of how the human mind can inaccurately perceive and process information. All of this is well-known to all political partisans and special interests. They use that aspect of human biology to get help them what they want. Spin serves that purpose very well.

The first DP post argued that politics is more a contest between competing interests than between competing ideologies, although most people might understandably believe otherwise. Two-party political fights are framed as ideological in nature and that is how the partisans, media and press usually portray it. That explanation (spin) serves their interests. Despite that, DP argues that ideological fights are primarily a red herring to disguise the actual nature and goals of modern two-party politics. That beast serves to distract and divide voters while quietly serving special interests. Both distraction and division nurture the two-party charade.

The real fight is among special interests competing against each other and the weak, unfunded, unrepresented public interest. In DP opinion, the fight is more about power, influence and money than ideology. That can be criticized as a distinction without a difference, but the criticism really doesn't hold up, as will be pointed out in subsequent posts. Although the ideological fights are genuine and heartfelt (and ancient, endless and unresolvable), they are quietly overlaid on top of the more important matter of special interest goals and demands. Ideological fights have power to distract and divide the public, but does that really serve the public interest? That begs of question of exactly what the public interest is.

1. The DP definition of political spin: Spin is one or more of lies, deception, misinformation, withholding, distorting or denying inconvenient facts or arguments, unwarranted character or motive assassination, and, conscious or not, reliance on fact or logic that is distorted by ideology and/or self-interest. Unwarranted character or motive assassination includes, e.g., "you are a liar" "you are an idiot", "you say that only because it serves your business interests", etc., when such statements are objectively false or have insufficient basis in fact. The definition of spin is broad because the goal of spin, to win policy or ideological arguments, influence or power by deceit, is broad. Any rhetorical or other tactic, honest or dishonest, pleasant or vicious, can and will be employed if the advocate thinks it will help more than hurt. That is the reality of political speech, not an unsupported opinion. Partisans on each side might agree that this applies only to the opposing side. To the extent that is true, it is evidence that the allegation of spin applies to both sides. In DP opinion, both sides are correct when they accuse their opposition of usually or always spinning.

2. Two examples illustrate the point. First, in 2008 Barack Obama ran on a platform of hope and change and "Yes we can". Mr. Obama did not define what he meant by hope or change or what 'Yes we can' meant. Millions of voters simply read into him what they wanted or needed to see or hear. Many liberals thought he would be a hard core liberal once in office. Moderates thought he would be pragmatic or moderate. Many who voted for him hoped Obama would fundamentally alter the nature of two-party politics. Many of those voters now see him differently. Regardless, the "hope and change" and "Yes we can" tactics were brilliant and highly effective. Mr. Obama played on how the human brain, when faced with insufficient information to truly assess something, for example, what hope and change really means, tends to see or hear what it wants. Second, in running for his second term in 2004, president Bush was trailing in the polls until he changed his rhetorical focus to attacking his opponent as soft on terrorism and a danger to the American homeland and public. Mr. Bush did not explain exactly how his opponent would let hoards of terrorists into the U.S. so that they could slaughter innocent babies in their cribs or whatever horrors were implied or stated. Nonetheless, enough voters read into president Bush's comments a sufficient basis to generate the perception of fear and that fear led to his re-election. The tactic was, again, brilliant and effective. Mr. Bush played brilliantly on how the human mind fills in knowledge gaps. Re-election was his reward for understanding how humans think and using that knowledge to manipulate voter perceptions. Assuming that these two examples fairly and accurately represent reality, and they do, it is easy to see how high the stakes are for politicians and partisans who can exploit knowledge of how people perceive reality and think. Obviously, partisans on each side will reject this analysis as wrong when applied to themselves, i.e., it's just honest free speech when their own side does it. By contrast, partisans will see this critique as reasonably fair and balanced as applied to their opponents, i.e., the opposition uses deception and lies. This game generally works to the advantage of most special interests who win, but not necessarily the public interest.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why non-ideological fact and reason trump ideology

Like religions, there are probably hundreds of political ideologies with various levels of public support. Those ideologies compete against each other. They espouse and rationalize everything from mainstream conservatism, Libertarianism and evangelical Christianity to anarchy and Fascism to socialism, communism and mainstream liberalism. One could argue that if all possible points of view are already represented, then why even consider yet another? Existing ideologies provide the basis on which all political debate and policies are perceived and assessed. According to that perception of reality and logic, anything calling itself new is actually old and falls within one or more of the existing ideologies.

Fortunately, both the perception of reality and the logic are wrong. There is something different in politics. There is no constitutional authority that demands politics to be based on a traditional, commonly accepted or any other political or religious ideology. Politics under America's two-party system is portrayed and perceived to be a competition between competing ideologies, mainly conservative vs. liberal vs. religious vs. secular. Essentially everyone among the public more or less sees it that way. Despite that overwhelming vision of U.S. politics, there is another vision of politics that very few people, if any, have overtly espoused.

And, it is profoundly different. Facts and logic that conservative sees is usually very different from facts and logic that liberals see. That is a fact, not an opinion.

Dissident Politics posits politics as a competition, not between ideologies, but between competing special interests and the public interest. According to that point of view or framework, special interests argue for influence, advantage, power and money among themselves. Special interest arguments are typically grounded in an ideological rationale and, usually, rhetoric asserting that the special interest favors serves the public interest better than the alternatives. That ideological grounding masks the real nature of politics and the fact that the competition is one or more special interests against the public interest. Special interests can and do compete against each other, but some or all of them can still be competing against the public interest. Often the competition is special interest vs. special interest vs. the public interest.

If that doesn't seem to make sense, consider an example based on real politics. A conservative state governor can assert that when he and the legislature takes away most collective bargaining rights for unionized state employees, that best serves the public interest. Obviously, most liberals and the state employees would argue that that harms the public interest. The fact of the matter is that the new law could, on balance, help, harm or be neutral toward the public interest. That fight is framed in ideological terms. Assuming anyone asks the question, a rare event, and that the people involved are willing to give an honest answer, even rarer, both sides would vehemently assert that their vision serves the public interest while the opposition's position harms it. Both sides can't be right, but one or both could be wrong. How could both be wrong? It could be the case that instead of wiping out bargaining rights, a compromise would in fact have worked better for the public interest than what either side wanted.[1]

It if fair to ask why anyone should care if politics is grounded in ideology since ideologies frame and represent all possible points of view and rationales? That is the best that can be done, right? The simple answer to that is that those assertions supporting ideologies are all wrong. One can argue that the role of standard ideology in politics is harmful, maybe even lethally toxic. Although most, maybe 98%, of people with strongly held ideological beliefs will reject that this aspect of human nature applies to themselves, it is scientific fact, not opinion, that strongly held ideology of any kind can and usually does subtly but powerfully distort both facts (perceptions of reality) and logic. The evidence of that aspect of innate human nature is overwhelming and painfully obvious.[2]

Unfortunately, many or most Americans would reject that fact because the ramifications are very uncomfortable, to say the least. When someone or some thing, e.g., modern social science, discovers  a biological basis to question the nature and adverse real world impacts of ideology, that is usually tantamount to questioning their personal values and identity. That kind of inquiry, backed by science or not, doesn't sit well with hardly anyone, ideologue or not. Regardless of discomfort, it is fair and defensible to argue that ideology in politics causes more harm than good. That is one reason that the core validity of two-party politics as usual is open to question and critical analysis.

One key question that Dissident Politics is raising is whether there is a segment of the U.S. public willing to consider the possibility that two-party politics primarily serves the two-parties and the system they built at the expense of the public interest. That system arguable imposes adverse effects or costs on most average Americans. It is probably the case that at least some of those costs are unnecessary and detrimental to the public interest. The rise of independents (43%) over democrats (30%) and republicans (26%) suggests that there could be a slice of independents in the U.S. population who is willing to at least consider a new way of thinking about politics and who or what it actually works for.

Independents are just beginning to fight for their rights against the two political parties, so there may be some sympathy there for rethinking politics. It is unlikely that more than a small few, maybe 0.5%, who are hard core liberal or conservative ideologues would even accept the possibility that their ideology and its impacts on their views could possibly be detrimental to the public interest in any way. It is hard to know how most average or moderate supporters of the two parties would feel about these questions. Of course, partisans on both sides would assert that the other side's ideology does, on balance, harm the public interest and both sides could very well be right about that. The opinion here is that they are both right about it.

1. That argument can be validly criticized as too squishy since the "public interest" is defined to mean what each side wants it to mean, i.e., getting what they want. For the argument be be meaningful, the public interest has to be defined. That definition is the topic for a later post. Not everything asserted here can be explained in one post.

2. Ramifications of ideological impacts (innate biases), i.e., distortion of facts and logic, have been studied for decades. Some groups, mainly independents, are beginning to raise questions about adverse impacts of ideology (bias) on politics. What is raised here, while maybe rare, is not unique. The science has matured to the point that it is time to raise direct questions about every aspect of the two-party system. There is even solid evidence that science-driven politics in at least some arenas is effective in serving the public interest. The questions this raises include who or what the two-party system, i.e., both parties and their politicians, pundits, major campaign contributors and most or all of the mainstream press or media, is primarily working for. Itself or the rest of us?