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Why Ayn Rand Won’t Go Away

October 2012

Atlas Shrugged, Part 2
and the Motor of Moral Psychology

This article was originally published on HuffingtonPost.com on October 12, 2012

Atlas Shrugged, Part II (theatrical poster)

After seeing the Los Angles premiere of Atlas Shrugged, Part 2, the film that opened October 12 based on the 1957 novel by Ayn Rand (and with an entirely new cast and higher production values a vast improvement over Part 1), a question struck me as I was exiting the theater surrounded by Hollywood types most commonly stereotyped as liberal: Why don’t liberals admire Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism, so forcefully presented in this book and film?

It is not a mystery that the woman who called herself a “radical for capitalism” would be embraced by some conservatives such as Paul Ryan and Ron Paul, but why do liberals not recognize that Rand was also a champion of individual rights, was outspoken against racism, bigotry and discrimination against minorities, and most notably was ahead of her time in championing women’s rights and demonstrating through her novels (and films) that women are as smart as men, as tough-minded as men, as hard working as men, as ambitious as men, and can even run an industrial enterprise as good as—if not better than—men? In the teeth of a 2010 study that revealed Hollywood still discriminates against women when it comes to roles in films, most notably the number and length of speaking parts and the continued blatant sexuality in which women show far more skin than men but speak far less, the hero of Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggert (played by Samantha Mathis in the new film), has the most speaking roles (and shows almost no skin), runs her own transcontinental railroad, handles with ease both seasoned male politicians and hard-nosed male titans of industry, and embodies courage and character deserving of respect and admiration from women and men, liberals and conservatives.

An answer may be found in the fact that American politics is a duopoly of those who tend toward being either fiscally and socially liberal or fiscally and socially conservative. Rand’s fiscal conservatism and social liberalism fits into neither camp comfortably (and is mostly commonly associated with the Libertarian party). As well, the moral psychology behind the political duopoly leads people to either believe that moral principles are absolute and universal or that they are relative and cultural. Rand’s implacable absolutism on moral issues, especially her seemingly cold-hearted fiscal conservatism, more comfortably fits into the conservative camp, but even there only barely.

Consider a few correlations from my dataset of 34,371 Americans who took “The Morality Survey” (you can take it yourself), constructed by myself and U.C. Berkeley social scientist Frank Sulloway and analyzed by my graduate students Anondah Saide and Kevin McCaffree: (1) We found a significant correlation (r=.29) between social conservatism and the belief that moral principles are absolute and universal (and between social liberalism and the belief that moral principles are relative and cultural), so Rand’s philosophy does not match that of most Americans. (2) We found a significant correlation (r=.24) between fiscal conservatism and the belief that moral principles are absolute and universal (and the reverse for social liberalism), so fiscal liberals will not embrace Rand here. We also found a correlation (r=.27) between belief in God and belief that moral principles are absolute and universal, and here again Rand is an outlier as an atheist who firmly believed in absolute and universal moral principles (discoverable through reason, she believed). So for liberals, Rand’s fiscal conservatism and moral principle absolutism trumps her social liberalism, and even for many on the right her atheism and rejection of faith calls into question her conservative bona fides.

Our duopolistic political system also explains why third parties in American politics—from libertarians and tea partyers to progressives and green partyers—cannot get a toehold. Despite Romney’s 47% gaffe, in point of fact both candidates know that each will automatically receive about that percentage of the vote, leaving the final 6% up for grabs. Why are we so politically divided? One answer comes from the 19th century political philosopher John Stuart Mill: “A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.”

But why would our political life be so configured? A deep evolutionary answer may be found in the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind, in which he argues that, to both liberals and conservatives, members of the other party are not just wrong; they are righteously wrong. Their errors are not just factual, but intentional, and their intentions are not just misguided, but dangerous. As Haidt explains, “Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship. But at the same time, our righteous minds guarantee that our cooperative groups will always be cursed by moralistic strife.” Thus, he concludes, morality binds us together into cohesive groups but blinds us to the ideas and intentions of those in other groups.

Third parties and outliers like Rand fall into neither group and so are not even taken seriously. But why only two parties? According to Haidt, the answer is in our moral psychology and how liberals and conservatives differ in their emphasis on five moral foundations:

  1. Harm/care, which underlies such moral virtues as kindness and nurturance;
  2. Fairness/reciprocity, which leads to such political ideals of justice, rights, and individual autonomy;
  3. Ingroup/loyalty, which creates within a tribe a “band-of-brothers” effect and underlies such virtues as patriotism;
  4. Authority/respect, which lies beneath such virtues as esteem for law and order and respect for traditions; and
  5. Purity/sanctity, which emphasizes the belief that the body is a temple that can be desecrated by immoral activities.

Sampling hundreds of thousands of people Haidt found that liberals are higher than conservatives on 1 and 2 (Harm/care and Fairness/reciprocity), but lower than conservatives on 3, 4, and 5 (Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity), while conservatives are roughly equal on all five dimensions, although slightly higher on 3, 4, and 5 (you can take the survey).

Obama’s emphasis on caring for the poor and fairness across all socioeconomic classes appeals to liberals, whereas conservatives are drawn toward Romney’s reinforcement of faith, family, nation, and tradition. Libertarians split the difference in being fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but their one-dimensional emphasis on individual freedom above all else (as in Rand’s philosophy) leaves them devoid of political support.

So when you see Atlas Shrugged, Part 2, remember that this is far more than a film or a story about a railroad and a mysterious motor. It is a vehicle to get us to think about which moral principles we value the most, because as Ayn Rand believed, it is ideas that move the world.

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Chopra asks Shermer: Who Are You?

October 2012

Deepak Chopra interviews Michael Shermer as part of his “soul profiles” series. Some of the questions include:

  • Who are you?
  • Do you have a life purpose?
  • Can you identify any peak experiences in your life?
  • Who are your heroes?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • Do you have a soul?
  • What does death mean to you?
  • Are you a noun or a verb?

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Politically Irrational

October 2012
Subliminal influences guide our voting preferences
magazine cover

WITH THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION looming on the horizon in November, consider these two crucial questions: Who looks more competent, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? Who has the deepest and most resonant voice? Maybe your answer is, “Who cares? I vote for candidates based on their policies and positions, not on how they look and sound!” If so, that very likely is your rational brain justifying an earlier choice that your emotional brain made based on these seemingly shallow criteria.

Before the election, I urge you to read Leonard Mlodinow’s new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon). You will gain insights such as that higherpitched voices are judged by subjects as more nervous and less truthful and empathetic than speakers with lower-pitched voices, and that speaking a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume leads people to judge someone to be energetic, intelligent and knowledgeable. Looks matter even more. One study presented subjects with campaign flyers featuring black-and-white photographs of models posing as Democrats or Republicans in fictional congressional races; half looked able and competent, whereas the other half did not, as rated by volunteers before the experiment. The flyers included the candidate’s name, party a!liation, education, occupation, political experience and three position statements. To control for party preference, half the subjects were shown the more suitablelooking candidate as a Democrat, and the other half saw him as a Republican. Results: 59 percent of the vote went to the candidate with the more capable appearance regardless of other qualifications. A similar study in a mock election resulted in a 15-percentage- point advantage for the more authoritative-looking politician. (continue reading…)

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What is a “Fair Share” in Paying Taxes, Anyway?

September 2012

In 2011 Mitt Romney paid $1,935,708 in taxes and made $4,020,772 in donations to charity, presumably most of it to the Mormon Church. Did Mitt Romney pay his fair share of taxes? That depends on how one defines “fair,” which we can think of in two uses: (1) fair value for services rendered; (2) fair percentage of earned income.

  1. Fair value for services rendered. For what amounts to roughly the same services rendered by the government that I received in 2011 (military, police, fire, roads and infrastructure, courts, and other essential services, along with future promises we both hope will be honored—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), then Mitt paid almost two orders of magnitude more in taxes than I paid. And, presumably, I got everything from the government that Mitt got (except for Secret Service protection because I’m not running for President), or at least in the ballpark. So, by this definition of “fair,” it seems not unreasonable to ask: why should Mitt pay so much more than me when he doesn’t get additional police and fire protection, better roads and bridges, superior courts, and the like, than I receive for my much lower taxes? Almost no one accepts this definition of “fair,” but it’s worth thinking about as an exercise in critical thinking about how society should be structured. If Mitt and I lived on the same block why should he have to pay so much more for the same road on which we both drive? Is Mitt’s house going to get extra special fire protection from the local fire department because he paid more than I did? If we both sent our kids to the same public school, do Mitt’s kids get two orders of magnitude better education than my kids? The answer to all of these questions is obviously “no,” but why are we not asking these questions?
  2. Fair percentage of earned income. Mitt paid about 15% of his income in taxes. I paid about double that amount. Here we can turn the above questions around and ask why Mitt should only pay half of what I’m paying in percent of income for those same roads, schools, police and fire departments, courts, and the like? I’ll admit, it irritates a little that I’m paying so much more in percentage than Mitt, but I must also confessedly note that knowing Mitt paid almost two million in taxes attenuates that irritation considerably. Two million bucks is a lot of dough to hand over to bureaucrats in hopes that they do something useful with it.

So this entire topic turns on a simple definition of what we mean by “fair,” and that, in turn, seems to turn on what our goals as a society should be: equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Equality of opportunity would seem to favor the position that we all pay our fair share of taxes in raw numbers. Equality of outcome would push us toward the position that we all pay our fair share of taxes in percentage. Given the messiness of politics it seems a foregone conclusion that we’re never going to get close to achieving either one, but if I had my druthers I suppose I would prefer that the system be designed to insure equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes. I would prefer we try to protect people’s freedom to do what they want without restrictions because of race, creed, color, religion (or not), birthplace, disability, etc. In other words, I strongly favor strong laws against discrimination. Thus, I’m not anti-government across the board. We need government for lots of important things. But making sure that outcomes in life are roughly equal for everyone is not one of them. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates changed the world in their own way, and now Gates is investing his billions in charitable causes to insure that people around the world at least have the basics in life (water, toilets) so that they can have a shot at approaching an equality of opportunity. Gates will do more with his hundreds of billions than the government ever will ever accomplish with trillions of dollars of our tax money, most of which is wasted in inefficient allocation processes that Gates would never stand for. Look what he just did by funding a prize for a $100 toilet! Can you imagine what it would cost for a government agency to design a new toilet? Or, can you imagine what Bill Gates could accomplish with a trillion dollars?

The Mind of the Market (book cover)

Some people resent the rich for evolutionary and historical reasons I outline in my book The Mind of the Market:

  1. Evolutionary egalitarianism. Humans evolved in small groups of a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred individuals in hunter-gatherer communities, in which everyone was either genetically related or knew one another intimately, most resources were shared, wealth accumulation was almost unheard of, and excessive greed and avarice was punished. Thus, we naturally respond to a free market system in which conspicuous wealth is paraded as a sign of success with envy and anger, and the expectation is that someone or something more powerful than those greedy individuals should implement corrective action.
  2. Resentment of historical inequalities. Throughout most of the history of civilization, economic inequalities were not the result of natural differences in drive and talent between members of a society equally free to pursue their right to prosperity; instead, a handful of chiefs, kings, nobles, and priests exploited an unfair and rigged social system to their personal benefit and at the cost of impoverishing the masses. Thus, our natural response is to perceive such inequalities as ill-gotten gains and to demand controls from the top down to limit the amount of wealth accumulated by any one individual. Whenever anyone says, “they should do something about it,” the they that is invoked is inevitably the social institution with the most power: in our case, the government.

To this I add the fact still today, with all the checks and balances allegedly in place to keep the system fair, some people are still able to rig the system in ways that we regular folk cannot, and these are often rich people. Crony capitalism is a very serious problem, which is why I recommend my friend John Mackey’s forthcoming book, Conscious Capitalism, as a significantly more humane form of market capitalism that also has the virtue of financially rewarding truly moral behavior.

I know in this forum that readers turn apoplectic at even a whiff of libertarianism, which is almost always mistakenly conflated with anarchism or minarchism or anarchocapitalism, or something else that implies a dramatic curtailment of government. So let me state for the record that I fully recognize that we need a Leviathan state to protect our freedoms and insure our liberties through laws applied equally to everyone. And that includes very strong laws governing Wall Streeters, who will cheat worse than doping athletes if given the chance.

And while I’m ranting…Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race (which I wrote about in my last blog), reveals that Lance Armstrong made positive drug tests “go away” by calling the president of the governing body of the sport (the UCI) and making donations to their drug-testing agency (WADA). This would be like Barry Bonds making a donation to Major League Baseball’s steroid-testing agency during his playing years, and them accepting the money and withdrawing any further investigation of his steroid use. That level of corruption is a microcosm of what goes on between government and the rich. The problem isn’t rich people, any more than the problem is that some athletes like Lance Armstrong are incredibly successful. It is that the system can be hacked and rigged and cheated. There is nothing wrong with Lance (or Romney) making lots of money through hard work. The problem is what the system allows them to do with that money that is unfair to those who want to compete fairly. According to Hamilton, Lance’s money bought him the best doping doctors to the exclusion of other cyclists. The rich can buy politicians in the same way. The problem is not the money, it is that “we” (Congress) allows the money to be used to buy politicians.

The solution is to fix the damn system, not get rid of gifted athletes or entrepreneurs.

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What is Seen and What is Unseen

September 2012

The Hidden Price of Immoral Acts

I’ve been reading Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, a journalist and author with considerable literary talent. It’s a gripping story about how Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, and all the other top cyclists have been doping for decades, using such advanced scientific programs of performance enhancement that estimates show the benefit could be as much as 10%, in races won by fractions of 1%. After nearly two decades of racing with both dope and no dope, Hamilton concludes that although a clean rider might be able to win a one-day race, it is not possible to compete in, much less win, a 3-week event like the Tour de France.

The lengths these guys go to win are almost beyond comprehension. All you do is train, eat, and sleep. And dope. The drug of choice is (or was—now that the drug testers have caught up riders use other drugs that have similar effects) EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, a life-saver for anemic patients undergoing chemo or suffering from other long-term ailments. Also on the menu is testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids (for injuries, not bulk, since cyclists get as skinny as they can), and others. Tyler nicknamed his EPO Edgar, as in Allen Poe. The drugs worked, he says, but only if you do everything else necessary, including logging in 5–6 hour daily training rides, reduce your body fat down to 5% or less, and program your entire life to doing nothing but racing bikes. If you are not riding, rest. Don’t walk when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down. And don’t ever climb stairs. You are either a bike rider or a couch potato. If you are genetically gifted, train your ass off, starve yourself down to a skeletal frame with bird-like arms and Schwarzenegger-size legs, can ride as fast as the wind, and get on a professional team invited to the Tour de France, then and only then will the drugs give you the edge to boost yourself from barely finishing stages to contending for a top finishing spot. From what Hamilton (and others) write on this topic, I estimate that doping is worth somewhere between 50 and 100 places in the Tour de France. Yes, you might survive the race on “pan y agua” (bred and water—the riders’ euphemism for non-doping diets), but if you want to feel better than death you have to take the drugs.

Okay, so everyone does it and the playing field is level, right? Wrong. First, there’s a serious science behind proper doping, and if you don’t have the dough to hire the best dope—and doping doctors—you’re left fumbling around with dosages and frequencies and wondering if the needle or bag of blood is contaminated, or if you screwed up and overdosed and thus are still “glowing” when the drug tester pops in for an out-of-competition surprise drug test. The top pros pass hundreds of drug tests because they have the top doping docs to show them how to do it properly. According to Hamilton, the top doping doctor in the world, Michele Ferrari, was at one point paid by Lance for exclusive services. Hamilton says he spent anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year for doping products and services. Most riders in the peloton cannot afford anything like such a specialized and professional doping program. So, I estimate that at most 25% of the peloton are doping professionally. Another 50% or so are doping unprofessionally; that is, procuring their doping products catch as catch can, guessing at the proper dosages and frequencies, and hoping they got it right, which they often did not. The rest of the cyclists are riding pan y agua, and suffering beyond belief. Not a level playing field. The moral equivalency argument on Lance’s behalf that, “the best guy won anyway because they were all doping” (an argument I’ve made myself) is bullshit. We have no idea who the best riders were in those seven tours (or the equally doped up tours before and after). What is seen are the champion dopers. What is unseen and forever unknown is whoever the best athletes might have been.

This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers. We’ll never know how they might have done against the very best in the business because the best cheated to get there. Could Cyclist Joe from Hannibal, MO beat Lance Armstrong from Austin, TX? We’ll never know. Cyclist Joe is now Joe the Plumber, Mr. Everyman, while Lance is still glowing.

It’s so easy to be the hero when you’re the champ. All the accolades flow to you, along with media coverage, paid endorsements and speaking engagements, private jets and celebrity dinners, and lots and lots of money. It is so easy to be generous to others when you’re on top, funding your own and others charities, becoming the good guy who is going to defeat cancer. It’s all so glamorous when you’re on top. This is what is seen. What is unseen are the non-dopers, the moral ones who were robbed of the possibility of being champ, of starting their own charities, of being generous and inspirational to others, of basking in the glory, of being the hero. They will never have the possibility of that experience because it was taken away from them by the cheaters.

This is the problem with cheating across the moral landscape: it’s robs others of their possibilities. The Wall Street inside trader who drives in limos and flies in private jets is what is seen. What is unseen are the little investors who play by the rules and as a consequence of the cheater drive crappy cars, fly commercial coach, and watch their 401K’s shrink. We can see the deceptive co-worker who pinches the company here and there; what we don’t see is how those limited resources might have been allocated toward the benefit of honest employees. The cheating spouse is seen, the possibly unfulfilled dreams of the children of broken homes is unseen. The corrupt politician who wrangles a deal to extract taxes from a general fund to build a bridge to nowhere in his district stands for photo ops and basks in the glory. He gets to be the hero. What is unseen is where our money might have been spent otherwise, as we see fit. And, finally, on the grandest scale of all, wars and terrorism steal the possibilities of what might have been for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. What is seen are flag-draped coffins and flower-strewn graves. What is unseen are unfulfilled relationships and the unborn children of the soldiers and victims, those who, with a nod to Neil Young, “will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”

What is seen are immoral acts. What is unseen is the hidden price of those acts. What is seen are the champions and the cheaters. What is unseen are the honest ones who had the courage and the character to walk away with their morality. This is the larger lesson of cheating. It robs everyone of what might have been. With cheating, what might have been is now what never was. It erases history. What is prologue is past.

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