Friday, April 24, 2015

Deception as a campaign strategy

A key criticism that Dissident Politics (DP) has with standard two-party politics is the dominance of spin in rhetoric and debate.[1] DP has argued that the cost of spin in politics is much higher than most people are aware of or would be willing to accept as true. Given the reluctance of people to understand how pervasive spin in politics is, the best way to demonstrate its influence may be by occasional explanation of recent examples of how spin is used to deceive or mislead the public.

The republican immigration policy challenge
On April 23, 2015, The Federalist, a conservative opinion website, published an article describing the "serious immigration challenge" that republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election face. The challenge is that there is a major disconnect between what most republicans want for immigration policy and what most Americans want. Most Americans (54%) favor immigration at roughly current levels and while about 39% want lower immigration. The 39% number is a historic low. By contrast, about 84% of republicans, particularly base or core active voters want lower immigration levels.

The author of the article, summed up the "challenge" like this: "But even if the public at large is less in favor of lower immigration levels, the Republican Party has much stronger views on the subject, and this creates a natural tension between what potential candidates might say to win a GOP primary and what they may do to win over Independents in a general election."

In other words, republican candidates are between a rock and a hard place. Someone is going to have to to be spun, i.e., deceived or misled. The questions are who will be spun and how is it to be done? The article acknowledges the problem: "But all the candidates face a challenge here: they will need to convince voters they aren’t just telling donors one thing while saying something else on the stump. This could prove difficult, particularly if it’s exactly what they’re doing."

In DP opinion, that is an explicit acknowledgment of the need for spin to win elections. Candidates need to tell donors what donors need to hear but they also need to tell voters what they need to hear. Those needs often or usually differ but the needs must be fulfilled, otherwise donors and voters wouldn't be donors or voters for a given candidate. In other words spin trumps truth and being honest with the American people. Winning, not honesty, is what counts.[2] Based on past behavior, campaign rhetoric is likely to not reflect what the candidate really wants to do if elected to office. Independents are the ones likely to get spun (deceived or lied to) the most. There is nothing new about that.[3] The only thing new here is that it is April of 2015. Sophisticated political scheming to deceive the public before the November 2016 election is already well underway.

Sadly, with American two-party politics as it is and spin being constitutionally protected free speech, unspun truth and unbiased logic are rarely employed by candidates.[4] Apparently, they don't need to.

1. Essentially all spin in politics is protected free speech. Spin includes lies, misinformation, withholding relevant important facts or arguments, deceit, eliciting irrational emotions, mainly hate, anger and fear, and subconscious or not, the use of fact and logic that is distorted by biases, mainly self-interest bias and political and/or religious ideological biases. Most of the effects of human biases on fact and logic is subconscious. Many people simply deny that the impact of bias applies to themselves or that ideological bias can create false fact beliefs. That is something that science refutes.
2.  Leon Panetta's opinion on elections and governance: "It's all about winning, it's not about governing anymore."
3. A commentator's opinion about spinning on independents: "After the primaries are over, politicians need the independent voters to win and woo them with attention in November. But once they have their victory or -- to use the vernacular -- get what they want, independent voters are forgotten as quickly as a one-night stand."
4. A commentator's opinion on candidate honesty: "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 accept that most of the things we hear are, at best, poetic truths." Belief by the two sides that the other side routinely lies is fairly common (democrats lie, republicans lie). That is more evidence of the ocean of spin the public has to navigate to arrive at opinions. It is no wonder that many Americans are badly misinformed about most political issues.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Politics, religion, values and intuition

Other than invective, e.g., idiot, traitor, Fascist or socialist, partisans on opposite sides of the endless left vs. right ideological disputes that dominate ‘political discourse’ usually appear to not understand much of what they are saying to each other. Some acknowledge the misunderstanding and occasionally write a book about it. Rationales or logic and facts that one side relies on for policy choices rarely or never changes the mind of anyone on the opposite side. What is going on?

What is going on is normal human cognition and behavior. To some degree or another, human cognition and belief works about the same in politics, religion and all other areas of human activity. One expert, Johnathan Haidt, calls the human cognition machine “The Righteous Mind” and he relies on current scientific evidence to give a reasonably detailed, objective explanation.[1] Left-right misunderstandings in politics arise from differences in how different people perceive reality or fact and apply intuition and values to both logic and perceptions of reality or fact.  

What does any of this have to do with politics?

This has everything to do with politics. It significantly, but not completely, explains why many or most Americans are so polarized and distrustul of government and each other. It explains why many people, particularly ideologues, are perfectly willing to reject both objectively provable facts and the conclusions that unbiased assessment of, or reasoning about, the facts lead to. When the political left and right are talking to each other, much of what each side says undermines the values and intuitions of the other.

When that happens, no amount of objectively true evidence or fact or flawless reasoning can convince the other side that they have any weaknesses in their own perception of facts or their application of logic or reasoning.[2] The two sides simply talk past each other. In this regard, political ideologues treat their political ideology almost exactly like they treat their religious ideology. Neither can be questioned because both are more or less infallible and perfect, even if defending those beliefs means wholesale denial of unspun fact and rejection of unbiased logic or reason. Defense of one’s values and intuitive “truth” is more important for self-respect than accepting uncomfortable or contradictory fact or logic.

In short, for many people, particularly hard core ideologues, politics is little or no different than religion in its awesome power to distort reality and logic. Values and intuition dictate perceptions far more than logic or reason. No matter how sincerely or vehemently ideologues would deny this characterization of the fundamental basis of left-right politics, the science says otherwise.

Dissident Politics has argued that it takes real moral courage to see unspun fact and unbiased logic for what they are. It takes even more courage to accept them for what they are. This post explains some of the scientific basis for that. Fact and logic are often unsettling or discouraging, to say the least. People can accept or reject that as they wish, but denials do not change the reality of the situation.

1. Haidt argues that humans are mostly intuitive creatures and that logic is almost always applied to support intuition, not the other way around. The evidence of that is compelling. Unfortunately, when intuition is wrong, and it often is for political issues, facts and logic are distorted to support the intuition. That phenomenon is usually subconscious and only rarely do individuals wake up and come to see the damage their intuition and ideology have done to fact and logic.

2. Liberals and conservatives are not exactly the same in all of these regards. It is likely that of the two sides, the right or conservatives, manifest significantly more resistance to fact and logic that undermines their political ideology or values. Mann and Ornstein put it this way: “Today’s Republican Party has little in common even with Ronald Reagan’s GOP, or with earlier versions that believed in government. Instead it has become “an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition … all but declaring war on the government.” Conservatives derisively reject this as liberal slander and lies. Despite that, the sentiment has the ring of truth. It accords with successful RINO hunts that have ideologically cleansed the republican party of dissenting opinion, moderates and liberals; republican ideological tolerance has vanished. It also accords with conservative intransigence in governing. For example, regarding the value of “compromise” in politics, John Boehner’s reluctant response was “I reject the word.” The reasons for his reluctance to say that in public are obvious.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Governance failures

On the books federal or public debt is about $18.2 trillion and increasing about $2.27 billion/day. Many or most conservative people and politicians and even some liberals express at least moderate concern over the federal debt and its continued growth. Depending on the estimate and time frame, off the books unfunded federal debt obligations range from roughly $80 trillion to $130 trillion. That seems like a lot of money, but since President Clinton was in office, debt concerns have not powerfully affected competing spending.

Liberals and conservatives agree on essentially nothing, but neither side appears to generally argue that needlessly wasting significant amounts of federal revenue makes any sense or is desirable.[1] When the federal government fails to collect recoverable revenues that are owed to the U.S. Treasury, it arguably constitutes a failure that betrays the American people and a failure of governance by the two-party system. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently published an article that exemplifies an example of such a governance failure.

The WSJ article (September 18, 2014, pages C1, C2 and published online) that described the inability of the Justice Department (DoJ) to collect most of $97 billion from white collar criminals and others. The money is owed from enforcement actions and criminal cases. Some of the debtors simply can't pay, but assuming that if $50 billion of that is recoverable and owed to the U.S. Treasury, one might think that in view of budget constraints and federal debt, it would be worthwhile to try to recover as much of that as is economically reasonable. According to the WSJ article, each DoJ dollar spent to recover uncollected debt, the Treasury gets $3. That is worthwhile, both economically and in terms of vindicating the rule of law. Since this is just a matter of debt collection, maybe some or most of the work could be farmed out to the private sector for an equal or better return than the current 3 for 1. 

Unfortunately, with our ideologically-broken congress, there is no hope of any significant improvement in this situation. "Only" a few tens of billions of dollars are at stake. Since congress knowingly allows tax cheats to steal hundreds of billions per year via tax evasion, maybe $460 - $540 billion for tax year 2014, there is no real chance that our dysfunctional congress will even consider addressing the far smaller DoJ situation. These things are just routine failures of governance.[3]

1. Some conservatives do argue that it is better for revenues that are owed to the federal government to go uncollected than to continue to feed the federal Leviathan's bottomless pit. Maybe that makes sense to some, but from this point of view that thinking completely irrational and indefensible.  
2. IRS data: In 2001, the net tax gap was $290 billion and $385 billion in 2006, an increase of $19 billion/year. At an increase rate of $10 billion/year from 2006 to 2014, the 2014 gap would be $465 billion and $537 billion at an increase rate of $19 billion/year. Congress could give the IRS the budget it needs to collect most of those amounts, but congress refuses to do that each year. Presumably, congress permits the theft as payback for campaign contributors. If that isn't the main reason for aiding and abetting the annual theft of hundreds of billions from American taxpayers, it isn't clear why such an outrageous situation has been allowed to persist for years.
3. There are other areas where tens or maybe hundreds of billions have disappeared. The Department of Defense has not been able to audit its books for decades. Trillions in spending are not fully audited so the size of the losses cannot be known.