Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Deadlock or not?

It can be a daunting task to understand the implications of political decisions. What does healthcare reform really mean for me or should we invade Iraq or should we now leave Iraq once we have gotten there? Most people elect politicians they believe will represent their interests but unless you are voting for a county commissioner who has promised to fix a pothole in front of your house it can be extremely difficult to know just what is in my best interest. This self-interest is at the heart of democracy but it is also one of democracy's great faults. A professor once told me that democracy works great until people discover that they can vote themselves rich. This is basically what happened in several European countries like Greece where a majority of the people elected the politicians that promised the most benefits.

In order to simplify things we get on various bandwagons and buy into entire ideologies so that we don't have to think about individual questions that are very complicated. How could it be that highly educated people on both sides of important political decisions have such different opinions? The easy answer, if you are a member of one bandwagon or the other, is simply to draw the conclusion that the other guys are either idiots, fundamentally evil or in cahoots with someone somewhere (like big business). While any or all of these may be true and certainly are true to some extent the primary driver of dissention on important issues is the sheer complexity of the issues. It just isn’t easy!

The problem isn’t an easy one nor is the solution. A peek into the world of psychology might help us understand some of the phenomena at play in politics that cause the most damage.

There are many studies in the world of psychology that demonstrate that most people will take a benefit for themselves most of the time and not give it to another person. This is especially true if the other person is not known by the test subject or does not know who the other person is. Suppose that a generation of people in a country decide to give themselves retirement benefits that exceed the funding that they actually put into the retirement system. The rationale behind such a system might be that things will always get better and economies will always grow. In essence, no matter how you look at it one generation of voters gives themselves a benefit at the expense of coming generations. Those who will foot the bill are either too young to vote or not even born at the time the decision is made. These kinds of decisions occur all the time.

Let’s take another example. At any given time most voters do not have children in a public school system. If we say that in the USA public school is 12 years and the average life span is around 80 years and voting age is 18 then an average voter might have children in school about one fifth of their voting life. By the time the individual is old enough to vote their public schooling is over. Also consider that changes and improvements in school systems tend to take a long time so the closer a voters children get to the end of their schooling the less likely they are to be interested in investments in the public school system. It may already be clear to you what I am getting at here. Most people are going to opt for political candidates whose policies will give them the most benefit in the shortest time. Investing in school systems will tend to get a lower priority from voters than say retirement programs. And the closer you get to retirement age the more likely you are to vote for candidates who offer good retirement benefits. Voters in the middle of their lives will be more interested in policies that help them immediately. People with reasonably stable jobs with decent pay and good benefits will be more interested in tax reductions since they view taxes as a necessary evil. Something they pay for but don’t get much benefit from. Even people who don’t have stable jobs with decent pay and good benefits but who believe that they will in the near future will tend to opt for lower taxes and less benefits for other people.

Now here is the catch, most of us, will not and probably cannot, admit to being so selfish. We wrap all this seeming selfishness up in rhetoric about the American dream or that using tax money to help needy people incapacitates the needy. As it turns out it is not tax dollars that incapacitate the poor it is how they are applied.

The American dream while decidedly American in its expression is not unique to the USA. In most, if not all countries of the world things tend to go better for those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Those who can and do take control of their fates, educate themselves and struggle up the ladder tend to do better in life, at least materially, no matter where they live. It should not go without saying that if you invade a fertile continent, rich with natural resources and run off or kill the people who were already living there your chances of building wealth are much better than if you had stayed back in Europe working as a farm hand for a wealthy land owner. That said although most have heard about the American dream many Americans have never actually gotten a glimpse of it.

Once we have decided where we stand on various political issues based primarily on our own short-term interests the cognitive dissonance kicks in and we start seeking out information, arguments and analogies to confirm our beliefs. Once we have found enough “evidence” to confirm what we already had decided was true we then enter the phase of overestimating our own abilities and judgment and underestimating the views of people with divergent ideas. Since those other people are also entrenched in their own narcissistic trance of cognitive dissonance they also believe their views to be best. In the end any attempts at communication between the groups ends up in a verbal fistfight (which is about what American politics has become).

In order to navigate in a complex world we learn to generalize. At one level generalization is extremely important helping us to quickly draw conclusions about whether or not a situation is dangerous or safe, whether a berry is edible or not, or if a particular animal is food for us or if we are food for them. The problem occurs when we let these generalizations become facts and let them guide our judgment and behavior too much. Most snakes are not poisonous and most of the poisonous ones don’t want to bite us. Far fewer people are killed or injured by sharks every year than by bicycles. We have irrational judgments that cause us to fear things that are relatively safe and not to fear other things that are actually quite dangerous.

The same thing happens in politics. We tend to make broad generalizations based on our firmly held beliefs and come to conclusions that while they may sound logical are really only fantasies in our own heads. I hear republicans express genuine fear of President Obama and his policies. The same fears I heard expressed by democrats while George W was in office. It may be true that one of them was or is more dangerous than the other but the problem is that most people who have decided that Obama is dangerous for our country are not really open for discussion on the topic.

So what’s the solution? I will be the first to say I don’t know but I do have some general suggestions. As with any problem we need to begin by acknowledging that the problem exists. The problem is not “other people”. T he problem, or problems are significant and complicated and will not be resolved by platitudes and political rhetoric. Our only chance is to put our brightest minds to work across party lines. Will this happen? Short-term I doubt it. If history is any kind of teacher we will probably have to see things get much worse before the party politicians will bury their battle axes and focus on the issues facing our nation. It is not all the politicians fault. They do what they think they need to do to stay in office. They do what they think we want them to do. We need to give them a mandate to do what needs to be done and that probably won’t happen till things go to hell a bit more.