Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Selective Amnesia

For those of us who tend to follow and care about political discourse, it may seem bizarre and depressing how quickly people can forget lessons we've learned as a society. Progressives face-palm whenever they hear Conservatives complain about too many regulations, and Conservatives cringe when they hear Progressives talk about providing additional services to the poor and needy.

Before we continue, here's a quick poll to get a sense as to why you think the above happens: 

Why do Progressives face-palm when hearing about regulations hurting the economy?
Because they love regulations and like slowing down economic progress
Because they remember what happened with the misdeeds that lead to the housing crisis, the Wall Street bail-out, Enron, etc.

Why do Conservatives cringe when they hear Progressives talk about providing additional services to the poor and needy?
Because they don't care about the poor and needy
Because they remember failed "big government" social programs like urban housing projects and a welfare system that turned people into victims.

As the quick poll suggests, each side remembers failures of programs and strategies that they don't believe in more acutely than they remember the successes. This is a phenomenon that psychologists call confirmation bias. We continually seek to re-affirm our worldview so that we can proceed more confidently in our personal life navigation.  Any information that challenges our worldview could make us question our principals, values and even our confidence. Our egos prefer to be fed with never-ending confidence boosts, so our egos hijack our cognitive activity to keep us safe and strong.

While there is a clear evolutionary reason for confirmation bias on an individual basis, it doesn't serve us nearly as well as a society and culture. A successful society requires that we trust in things beyond our control and narrative in order to achieve broader peace and prosperity -- which frees each of us up to be more productive and constructive with our lives.

In other words, what we give up in personal control and ego satisfaction is directly correlated to our ability to direct our individual energy in talents that improve the greater good.  

This is why societies (and therefore, governments) have an agenda that works against personal freedoms and personal egos. Any great society must convince its population -- through stories, narratives and sense of purpose -- that adhering to a shared narrative and a shared history makes the country stronger, more cohesive and more functional. Conversely, this is why individuals (especially libertarians) don't trust governments -- because they know that the agenda of a government is to reduce the individual ego in exchange for a national ego.

In America's current body politic, the increasing distrust in government in conjunction with confirmation bias has created two sub-cultures -- a progressive/liberal culture and a conservative/libertarian culture. Our free-market system is very efficient at serving people's preferences, so media outlets have sprung up to serve these sub-cultures and have as a result created echo chambers of sub-cultural context for every current event, as well as selective amnesia around prior events.

Increasingly, America is not a country of a shared history. We are increasingly a culture of conflicting accounts of history. Even the Civil War is still widely considered the War of Northern Aggression.

So it should be of no surprise to the politically savvy that each political side recalls only the best of their favorite policies and the worst of their opponents' favorite policies. However, in an effort to improve our body politic, I request and submit that we should all at least acknowledge that we may all fall prey to selective bias, and perhaps consider that each and every policy has a good side and a bad side. 

No policy that does anything substantial can only be good, or only be bad. Rather, the right policy at the right time solves a certain set of problems at the expense of what are deemed to be lesser problems. That's all we can ask for. And that's all that we should expect. For instance, increasing spending during a recession has historically been deemed the better approach to recovery than to implement austerity measures. That may seem counter-intuitive to the layperson, but this policy is an example of solving a bigger problem (i.e., citizens suffering, economy shrinkage, lack of liquidity in the markets) at the expense of what are deemed smaller problems (i.e., debt, inflation, currency devaluation). With this policy, the argument can and should be about which problems are more important than the other.  But it should not be an argument over who is socialist and who is a real American.

I will now close with non-selection-biased answers to the opening remarks:

Regulations are natural government responses to problems that occur in free markets.  Freedom is great, but unfettered freedom can be dangerous. Sometimes, we need our government to protect us from ourselves, because we will innovate our way into oblivion if we aren't measured and strategic with our innovation. To put it another way, cell multiplication is a great thing when you want to heal a wound, but without regulations, that very multiplication process can turn into a deadly cancer that will destroy the larger organism.

That said, regulations also solve a particular problem at a particular point in time.  Over time, problems evolve, and the existing regulations become less and less relevant over time.  Similar to a patent.  As a result, many regulations are truly destructive for business and innovation (again, like patents).  In addition, regulations are defined by lawmakers and not industry experts, so many regulations may not truly address the core issue, and create unnecessary headaches while still not truly addressing the issue it was intended to resolve. 

Social services are, similarly, natural government responses to socioeconomic problems that occur in a free market system. Freedom to hire and fire makes our economy robust, efficient, flexible and more business-friendly. However, the downside to this freedom is when businesses no longer give back the same value to our society that they prosper from by simply being in America in the first place. Ultimately, in a civil society, we've determined that we will take care of people truly in need.  And that has a cost that we all chip into in exchange for the system working relatively well for those who can chip in.

That said, social services like the housing projects of the 1960's and 70s, and the pre-Clinton welfare state were blunt, naive and ultimately ineffective methods to solve these problems. They may have successfully put a band-aid on the problem, but the band-aid never helped heal the wound. It just left the wound there to fester and provided no on-ramp to a better, more fruitful life.   However, we must also be aware that there will always be a certain percentage of the population that will require life-long social support due to biological capacity, derangement, etc.  But the housing projects and old welfare policy did a poor job of distinguishing between life-long assists and temporary assists.