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Mixing Science and Politics (and Economics)

So many of you have taken the time to respond to my blogs thoughtfully that I feel I should comment in kind. In looking through the many comments, however, I see that most of what I would say has already been said by people who responded to my critics. Nevertheless…

First of all, why is it okay to mix science and religion (with atheists eagerly do in debunking religious claims) but not okay to mix science and politics/economics? Why is it okay for liberal atheists to stick it to religious believers and twist the knife slowly, but when it comes to getting your own (political/economic) beliefs challenged, that’s off limits — NOMA (nonoverlapping magisterial) for science and politics? I don’t see how they are different in principle. Skeptic is a science magazine, not an “atheist” magazine; nevertheless, we routinely deal with religious claims and no one ever complains about that. The closest we have come to political/economic issues is environmentalism (Vol. 9, No. 2 — sold out), overpopulation (Vol. 5, No. 1), and global warming Vol. 14, No. 1). For all three we published several articles; in Vol. 14, No. 1, for example, we published articles both skeptical of global warming and accepting of global warming. So I don’t see what would be wrong with publishing articles pro, con, and neutral on political and economic claims.

One person wrote me a private email that said he thought of me as the next Carl Sagan, but now that I’ve gone to the dark side (turning Right, although I’m as critical of the Right as I am the Left), because Carl was “apolitical.” Carl Sagan was many things, but apolitical was not one of them. Carl was a Liberal and proudly wore his politics on his sleeve, such as when he marched in protest at nuclear sites or testified before Congress about the dangers of nuclear winter. I admire him for having the courage of his convictions, which intimately blended his science and (Left) politics. If you think Sagan was apolitical it is because you happen to agree with his politics and so those ideas seem simply correct, not political. If you don’t share his politics (I share about half of them), then it’s obvious that Sagan was not apolitical.

The liberal bias in the skeptical community was identified by many people in the comments section of my blog, for example by “DR,” “James,” and “Devil’s Advocate”:

… Sadly, there is a lot of hatred toward libertarianism at JREF [he means TAM]. I can be an atheist, believe gay marriage is ok, think nothing of smoking pot, and I won’t get half as much grief from a conservative that I do from an American liberal who reels and squirms when I say that the welfare state is immoral or that free trade and voluntary transactions in capitalism promote fair and just outcomes. It’s like the only reason why I have rationalized this set of morality is because I’m a supremely evil person and must be wrong… —DR

… I’m disappointed, but not surprised by the large group of liberal skeptics. I’ve talked to too many Democrat-card-carrying skeptics that spout the same unoriginal, canned rhetoric and continual spewing hatred of Republicans. For a group that supposedly supports tolerance, they’re anything but tolerant …
—James

I’ve three times over twenty years joined local skeptic groups and all three times there was a presumption that if I was a skeptic, then of course I’m also liberal in my politics. Two times I tried to be what I am but was marginalized, treated like a Goldwater (or Reagan, or Bush) mole. The third time I tried to avoid political discussion, but it was not possible, so, unwilling to lie, I left. My refusal to come over to pure liberalism clearly wasn’t going to be tolerated. All I wanted to do was examine UFO claims and crop circles, but… —Devil’s Advocate

Another critic named John D. Draeger makes a good point that I wish to acknowledge: “He [me] does NOT believe that political persuasions and different economic models for how societies should be run are moral value judgements…. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done. Social services can be paid for in different ways, and in a democratic society it’s up to the majority to define how that is done.” That’s true, in a democracy the majority rules how to divvy up public funds for social services, and that tends to be more of a value judgment than a science. But as someone else wrote just below that, quite cleverly I think…

First of all, democratic societies can still be evil, as the famous saying goes: “democracy is two wolves and one lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” And then in another famous quote (attributed to several), “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. Thus our founding fathers gave us a republic … if we can keep it.

Even this is a value judgment, I agree, but surely we can apply some forms of social science to inform our value judgments. For example, we may as a society make the value judgment that it would be good if every child received a basic K–12 education. I agree with this value judgment, and would add to it the value judgment that it would be equally important for every child to have a computer and Internet access because that is the future of education. So we share that value judgment. However, the next question is a pragmatic one: who is going to pay for this education (and computers/Internet)? Parents? Churches? NGOs? Charities? Government? If the latter — the value judgment we have made — then do parents get to choose among the various government schools of where to send their children? (No.) Do parents who choose to send their children to private schools have to also pay for government schools? (Yes.) Is that fair? You make that value judgment. I don’t think that it is fair. To be consistent, if you are pro-choice on abortion you should also be pro-choice on education. The deeper value judgment here is being pro-choice about everything. Choice = freedom.

Some correspondents hated the political diagram because it seems to elevate libertarianism above the traditional left-right spectrum. Okay, then you come up with something other than the left-right linear spectrum to visualize where someone would fall on that line who is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. You draw it and I’ll publish it in a future blog.

Some people hate the word “libertarian.” I’m not crazy about it either, but haven’t thought of a better label. Labels are useful because they enable people to take cognitive shortcuts, but they also lead to shortcuts to nuanced thinking about what someone believes. “Oh, you’re one of those…” full stop. We all do this, of course, but I call myself a libertarian for the same reason I call myself a feminist, an atheist, and a pro-choicer — because it is the accepted language and we have to communicate ideas with language. But I much prefer to be assessed on specific issues.

Several of you said that I am a victim of one of my own central tenets of baloney detection: the confirmation bias, where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore the disconfirmatory evidence. Yes, I will admit, I do this. Everyone does, and we must guard against it, especially when it comes to religion, politics, and economics. To combat this problem, I read the conservative Wall Street Journal and the liberal Los Angeles Times. I listen to such conservative talk radio hosts as Hugh Hewitt and Dennis Praeger as well as the very liberal Bill Maher. I have read Karl Marx’s books as deeply and carefully as I have read Adam Smith’s books. I have read a host of books from liberal and conservative and libertarian authors on the current economic meltdown. And although I have a few libertarian and conservative friends, because I work in the sciences and in publishing, the vast majority of my friends, acquaintances, staff, co-workers, and colleagues are liberals who I can assure you are never shy about letting me know where they think I’ve gone off the political or economic rails.

Finally, let me add that one of the appealing things to me about the libertarian worldview is that it is optimistic, uplifting, and most importantly (to me) anti-elitist. I’m in favor of doing whatever we can to allow the little guy to succeed and to break up power blocs that prevent the average Joe or Jane from reaching their full potential. The Constitutional divisions of power in our Democracy — emulated by many others around the world — are a huge improvement from centuries past that allowed or enabled some to succeed at the expense of others. That was a zero-sum world. Over the past 200 years the spread of democracy and capitalism has done more toward achieving a Nonzero world than anything else — more people in more places more of the time have more power and liberty and wealth than any time in the previous four millennium. Therefore, the more we can spread democracy and capitalism the better off more of us will be more of the time.

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Evolutionary Economics

On Thursday June 4, I attended the Cato Institute half-day conference in Century City, California, which started out with a lecture by U.C. Santa Barbara evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides, one of the founders of that science along with her husband John Tooby. Cosmides’ talk was on the evolution of cooperation, but for this audience she tailored her lecture toward politics and economics (Cato is a libertarian think tank in D.C.), by asking “Why do free societies arise so rarely and with such difficulty?”

Unfortunately, Leda tried to squeeze about two hours of material and powerpoint slides into a 35-minute talk, and so she was necessarily brief as she blasted through slide after slide, each up on the screen for only seconds, making note taking impossible. That’s too bad because there was a lot of data slides that I think the audience would have liked to absorb (I know I would have). Nevertheless, Leda’s central point was this: our brains evolved for solving specific problems in the EEA (the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation — the Paleolithic), and so we have domain specific programs that help organize our experiences. The problem is that the modern world is so different from the EEA that it causes conflicts. For example, most hunter-gatherer societies are egalitarian because they live in relatively resource-poor environments and are often unsure about their safety and nourishment, and so we evolved many cognitive instincts for cooperation, food sharing, and group cohesiveness, because everyone in the group was either related to you or you know very well, so as the political saying goes, we must hang together so that we don’t hang separately. But the modern world is nothing like this.

I’ve written about this problem in my book The Mind of the Market, which focuses on evolutionary economics, whereby the world in which we evolved of small bands of egalitarian hunter-gatherers is radically different from today’s world that is resource rich and with vast disparities of wealth between the richest and the poorest. Thus, we have a natural tendency to resent wealthy people, distrust free markets, and misunderstand the bottom-up process of modern economies and try to control them from the top down, usually with disastrous consequences (e.g., Alan Greenspan and the Fed’s constant manipulation of interest rates sent false signals into the market for the price of money, leading to artificially large bubbles that then burst).

Leda noted the difference between hunting and gathering in terms of risk and uncertainty: Hunting meat is highly variable, success is as much due to luck as it is skill, and 4/10 times the hunter comes home empty-handed. Thus, hunter-gatherers must pool risk to deal with frequent reversals of fortune through food sharing. By contrast, gathering foods is a low risk process that depends on effort, not luck, and the results are mostly shared only within the family and trusted partners, but not to the group at large. Cosmides explained that this evolved psychology can be seen today in which we make distinctions between people in need of our help because they were unlucky (as with the hunters who return empty-handed) versus the gatherers who don’t bring home the vegetables because they were lazy and were loafing on the job. We are inclined psychologically to want to help the former but not the latter.

The political and economic consequences of this evolved psychology can be seen today in debates about healthcare, welfare, social security, etc., which are all attempts to pool risk among everyone in society, but without any distinction between those who suffer because of bad luck versus those who suffer because of laziness or lack of ambition. Modern political states are in the business of redistributing wealth from those who have it to those who do not, and since there is no attempt to discriminate between those who were unlucky from those who were just lazy, the people who earn that money through hard work and talent who then have it confiscated by the government and given to people they do not even know, naturally feel resentful, even though statistically the wealthy are extremely generous in giving to private charities that they voluntarily choose.

Cosmides also noted the psychological difference between working land that you own versus working land that the government owns: the agricultural policy of the USSR allowed 3% of land on collective farms to be private, and it turned out that between 45% and 75% of all food in the USSR was the product of that 3% of private farms.

So, in conclusion, Cosmides noted that there is a mismatch between the ancestral and modern worlds, our minds evolved to navigate family and friends and small groups, certain laws and institutions satisfy the moral intuitions these programs generate whereas other laws and institutions regularly fail in the modern world. Cosmides concluded: “Liberty provides the solution to most social problems, but few appreciate it because of our evolved minds.”

The second talk of the day was by Dan Mitchell, the Cato Institute expert on tax reform, supply-side tax policy, the flat tax, and tax competition. His talk was titled: “America’s Looming Fiscal Meltdown.” We are shifting to a European size welfare state, he noted, dolling out blame to both Democrats and Republicans, starting with George W. Bush, who Mitchell noted in his eight year term increased the Federal budget from $1.8 trillion to $3.5 trillion budget, and then noted Obama says he wants change to even more government, adding another trillion dollars to the budget in his first term, if not more. Mitchell also busted the myth that Bush increased the budget for natural security after 9/11. Not true, he said: most of it was for pork projects for his political cronies.

Mitchell then noted that Keynesianism is bad theory: borrow money and then give it to people so they will spend it — but moving money from the right pocket into the left pocket does not produce more wealth; it’s just redistribution. It does not increase wealth. Only free markets can do that. And in any case, where does the government get the money to redistribute? From us! But they take their cut as the middleman, and therein lies the problem. Bigger government did not work for Hoover or Roosevelt, and all that federal spending to get us out of the depression did not work: we did not get back to 1929 GDP levels until WWII. Neither did federal stimulus plans work for Presidents Ford or Bush I during their recessions, and Keynesianism failed utterly in Japan during the 1990s, when its national debt went from 60% of GDP to 150% of GDP. I.e., Keynesianism does not work, and yet politicians on both the right and the left insist that the only reason it doesn’t work is because: “government isn’t spending enough.” Wrong!

We are on the road to serfdom, says Mitchell, as our federal spending is projected to jump from 22% of GDP today to 45%–55% of GDP in the coming years (mostly because of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). Unless our GDP doubles along with federal spending (it won’t) the collapse is coming. Well, not a collapse, per sey: America will not become Argentina or Zimbabwe. But we will become France: instead of growing 2.5–3% a year, we’ll grow 1–1.5%, a difference that has enormous long-run implications, lowering per capita GDP 30–40% below what it otherwise would be. More spending means more taxes: more income taxes, payroll taxes, death taxes, double taxation of dividends and capital gains. And this doesn’t work. In 1980 Ronald Reagan cut the top tax rate from 72% to 28%, and between 1980 and 1988 the number of rich people (millionaires) rose from 116,800 to 723,700, and their share of paying for the federal government rose from $19 billion in income taxes to $99.7 billion in income taxes. In other words, lowering taxes on the rich generates more revenue for the federal government, which is counterintuitive.

In the end, however, there are moral consequences to such economic decisions. Mitchell: “Today there are over 2 million people in America who completely depend on welfare: prisoners; well, the welfare state is a prison for the human soul.”

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Money, Markets & Morality

Are markets moral? Is our hunter-gatherer brain geared for modern capitalism, and do economies work like evolutionary organisms? The rise of neuroeconomics, the extinction of Homo Economicus and more…

Those were the topics discussed in last week’s ABC Radio National show All in the Mind, a debate recorded for National Science Week in Australia, with outspoken founder of the Skeptics Society, Dr Michael Shermer, and shareholder activist and Crikey founder, Stephen Mayne.

LISTEN to the debate

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The Mind of the Market

Evolutionary economics explains why irrational
financial choices were once rational
magazine cover

Since 99 percent our evolutionary history was spent as hunter-gatherers living in small bands of a few dozen to a few hundred people, we evolved a psychology not always well equipped to reason our way around the modern world. What may seem like irrational behavior today may have actually been rational a hundred thousand years ago. Without an evolutionary perspective, the assumptions of Homo economicus — that “Economic Man” is rational, self-maximizing, and efficient in making choices — make no sense. Take economic profit versus psychological fairness as an example. (continue reading…)

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Why People Don’t Trust Free Markets

The new science of evolutionary economics offers an explanation for capitalism skepticism

In his magnum opus on the power of free markets, Human Action, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises noted: “The truth is that capitalism has not only multiplied population figures but at the same time improved the people’s standard of living in an unprecedented way. Neither economic thinking nor historical experience suggest that any other social system could be as beneficial to the masses as capitalism. The results speak for themselves. The market economy needs no apologists and propagandists. It can apply to itself the words of Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph in St. Paul’s: Si monumentum requires, circumspice.” If you seek his monument, look around. (continue reading…)

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