Three Thoughts on Iowa

  • I made a series of predictions on the eve of the caucuses that turned out to be wrong. I predicted that Sanders and Trump would win; I placed some small bets on that basis. I was roundly proven wrong, even though some pundits are calling the outcome a “virtual tie” and a few delegates were apparently allocated by coin flip. I respect the Sanders campaign for trying to spin the loss as a victory, but I don’t get to collect on the bet for a virtual tie for the same reason you don’t get to move in to the White House on the basis of a virtual tie.

Now, I wasn’t really confident in either prediction (I say after the fact). I was swayed by a late poll by Ann Selzer that has had a history of being pretty good. So I’m again struck by the value of making probability forecasts rather than predictions: at best that poll shifted my uncertainty on Cruz/Trump and Clinton/Sanders a little bit towards certainty. But it’s also the case that the right attitude before the event really should have been uncertainty: some outcomes were impossible, but several outcomes were live possibilities. The goal really shouldn’t be to gloat or mope after the fact: the goal should be to update your forecasting abilities, to get better at making future predictions.

  • The caucus format is deliberative. (More so for the Democrats than the Republicans, but still.) That makes polling somewhat less predictive, because polling can only measure pre-deliberative attitudes. We published a really good account of the issues with polling as a measure of “public opinion” in The Good Society a few years back: Liz Turner’s “Penal Populism, Deliberative Methods, and the Production of ‘Public Opinion’ on Crime and Punishment.” Turner argues that surveys produce only one version of the “hypothetical public” which is aggregative, generalized, individualized, and passive. It can (when properly massaged) produce a good prediction about electoral outcomes, since voting ballots, too, have become aggregative, generalized, individualized, and passive. But even mildly deliberative moments like the Iowa caucuses can lead to surprising outcomes because a very different public (no longer hypothetical) is constituted by the caucus form.
  • Finally, the real problem throughout the (Republican) race has been the number of candidates who had some claim to viability. The larger the number of candidates running, the more likely you are to have Condorcet loser (the one who would win the majority of head-to-head ballots) winning the election. Large numbers of (viable) candidates make voting irrational. In Iowa, there were at least six viable Republican candidates measured by delegates, and eleven candidates received at least 1% of the vote. We can see this problem on a much smaller scale with the way that the Clinton campaign planned to use Martin O’Malley as a spoiler, to prevent Sanders from picking up delegates at the margins. That said, I haven’t seen any evidence that this ended up happening, but rather the reverse.

The Symmetry of Rival and Anti-Rival Goods

In DC over the last few days, it was frequently the case that the side-walks were cleared and the roads were not. Yet the roads are plowed by paid contractors driving massive machines while the sidewalks are usually shoveled by residents working for free (or neighbors paid by the residents individually.) What gives? Why do the paid, centrally managed snow removal contractors work so much slower than the the ordinary, non-professional residents?

Put another way, why was I able to convince my neighbors we could (and should) shovel our street out when the plows didn’t come? When they realized that others were doing it, they realized that rather than clear out the whole street, they’d just need to do their small part. They were even willing to shovel the few stretches of homes whose owners didn’t join us, because we couldn’t traverse that territory without helping the slackers.

I’d argue that this is a classic case of common pool resource management. But a shoveled sidewalk is a strange sort of common pool resource: it’s not like fisheries or irrigation where the more one person uses the resource, the less there is for others. That is, it’s not precisely “rivalrous,” one of two conditions required for a common-pool resource to flourish.  In fact, the more people shovel their sidewalks, the better off each individual with a shoveled sidewalk is. This is what economists call “anti-rivalry” and is frequently linked to network effects: the more people use email or Facebook, the more useful email or Facebook are.

Types of Goods

The other condition for a common-pool resource is that the resource must be “non-excludable.” Shoveled parking spaces in DC are frequently protected in this way: a chair or a trash can signals that by dint of shoveling the spot it has become my exclusive property for the duration of the snow.

saved parking

Parking spots are excludable (even if only through threats) and they’re rival: only one of us can park there at a time. Thus, the standard matrix analysis calls them private goods. This is tricky: the street below the snow was a public good, usually, but the act of shoveling seems to give someone the sense that they have a private ownership interest in it. (I mixed my labor with it!) Yet there’s never enough parking spots unless we share them, and short-term visitors are in an especially difficult situation.

You’d think that rivalry and anti-rivalry would be as opposed as that “anti” suggests. But from the perspective of the structures of ownership and distribution, it does seem like anti-rival goods work on the same model as other common pool resources that are rival: thus Lawrence Lessig used anti-rivalry to argue for free open source software, which is how much of the backbone software of the internet was developed. Rather than apportioning a scarce resource, an anti-rival network has to distribute it as widely as possible to realize maximal benefits:

It’s not just that code is non-rival; it’s that code in particular, and (at least some) knowledge in general, is, as [Steven] Weber calls it, ‘anti-rival’. I am not only not harmed when you share an anti-rival good: I benefit.

This continues to produce the standard insider/outside dynamic of a common-pool resource management system, but replaces exclusivity with evangelism. The plow system is just another version of what Elinor Ostrom called “crowding out”:

Citizens are effectively told that they should be passive observers in the process of design and implementation of effective public policy. The role of citizenship is reduced to voting every few years between competing teams of political leaders. Citizens are then supposed to sit back and leave the driving of the political system to the experts hired by these political leaders.

Some of what makes anti-rival goods work is peer pressure: when we were shoveling the street, a few parents came out and confessed apologetically that they couldn’t leave their children alone to come help. The tone of their apologies suggested that there was some guilt involved. But a lot of it was that a simply impossible job became imaginable if each neighbor was able to see that they’d personally benefit: as the shoveled portion of the street expanded, the neighbors in the middle of the block came outside to shovel still farther, since they’d only have a little bit more to do to enjoy the benefits.

The plows came Wednesday afternoon and expanded our cleared lanes. But we had already escaped!

Mead Quote

Partisanship Has Reduced Our Efficacy as Citizens

I’ve been thinking a lot about the new evidence that partisan distrust and even hatred now trumps racial hatred. Consider the now-famous Iyengar/Westwood study, “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” Iyengar and Westwood showed that partisan identification has ceased to be a wholly ideological or instrumental self-description. It’s gone from identification to identity: it’s become an affective relationship that justifies exclusions, bias, and even outright prejudice.

Asked to award a scholarship to fictional high school seniors with equal qualifications, Democrats and Republicans awarded a seniors who had evidence of the opposing party affiliation among their qualifications only 21% of the time. Even when the scholarship candidate from the opposing party was more qualified, Democrats awarded the scholarship to Republican-affiliated high school seniors only 30% of the time, while Republicans awarded the scholarship to more qualified Democrats only 15% of the time! Alongside other evidence from economic games and implicit association tests, this enmity towards now appears like a very serious bias, one that most people almost certainly encounter as a part of their everyday lives.

I just can’t get my mind around the idea that people would feel comfortable privileging members of their party in scholarship competitions. It feels pretty dirty, and it suggests the kind of unwillingness to associate and collaborate that will be a real challenge to democratic public work in the years to come.

It used to be pretty common to remark that racial hatred was cultivated by elites who themselves didn’t feel bigotry deeply in order to prevent the alliance of working people whose interests were closely allied. By preventing workers from developing solidarity, racial mistrust allowed elites to create competition and legitimate violence. And yet everyone seems to have forgotten that lesson now that hatred based on partisan identity is at stake. Elites don’t care about partisan identity nearly as much as ordinary folks now do. Wonks and bureaucrats are partisan but usually get along with their opponents quite well. Technocrats agree on more than we disagree on. But citizens need to be able to work with their neighbors on matters of shared concern even when they don’t agree on federal immigration policy, firearms, or the culture war.

What’s more, partisan identification isn’t even a particularly good guide a person’s ideological positions on those matters. Precisely because most districts are safe districts for one party or another, voters’ experiences of the parties do not necessarily line up with their beliefs about specific policy issues. Ideological consistency of voters has never been particularly strong: it’s growing, but from a very low base.

Even in a world where partisans will deny each other jobs and scholarships, only 56% of Democrats hold mostly liberal views, and only 45% of Republicans hold mostly liberal views. If you expect true ideological consistency from partisans (the sort of thing that political philosophers try to achieve, maybe) then you’ll find partisan identification even less helpful: only 23% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans are consistently or rigorously liberal or conservative. So what justifies the enmity?

I don’t think it can be justified, and I think we need to aim a healthy skepticism at people like Jonathan Haidt who diagnose liberal and conservative brains. What’s left is culture, and our cultures are increasingly trying to justify and legitimate partisan differences in just the same way that they’d justify racial differences or gender differences or class differences. We can’t let that happen.

But what should we do, what should you and I do together, to prevent the growing partisan hatred? Here’s what President Obama–the Citizen-in-Chief–said during the State of the Union:

The future we want — all of us want — opportunity and security for our families, a rising standard of living, a sustainable, peaceful planet for our kids — all that is within our reach. But it will only happen if we work together. It will only happen if we can have rational, constructive debates. It will only happen if we fix our politics.

A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country — different regions, different attitudes, different interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, fiercely, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.

But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice. It doesn’t work if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise, or when even basic facts are contested, or when we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get all the attention. And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest.

Too many Americans feel that way right now. It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better.


So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, whether you supported my agenda or fought as hard as you could against it — our collective futures depends on your willingness to uphold your duties as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. We need every American to stay active in our public life — and not just during election time — so that our public life reflects the goodness and the decency that I see in the American people every single day.

Maladaptive Perfectionism

Most of my readers should also read this excellent, long article on–basically–IQ, conscientiousness, anxiety, standardized testing, and medical school. Maybe the title should be enough to persuade you: “The Stanford Marshmallow Prison Experiment.” But if not, read this:

There’s a type of joke that I think of as the “white people” joke, although it’s rarely funny and it doesn’t have to be about someone who’s white. The joke is about a mid-40’s housewife who is way too well-educated and bored to be a housewife, and so she tries to find the Grail of healthy food (organic, GMO-free, low acidity, one diet after another) and she plants a garden, and she adopts pets, and she joins nonprofits, and she joins the school board, and she reads every novel on NPR’s end of the year list, and she gets weekly therapy and monthly massages (to about the same effect), and she meditates on the present, and she achieves peace with the past, and she contemplates the future, and everything is feng shui, and yet, despite all this, she feels restless, anxious, unhappy, and she dreams of some sort of vacation.

Or sometimes the joke is about an elderly businessman on his second hair transplant and third cardiac stent and twenty-billionth dollar, and his kids all have grandkids and his wife is deceased, and when he goes out he he orders scotch more expensive than houses, but that isn’t too often—he’s seen enough parties, he’s seen enough people, he has no strong affections, and he works round the clock fighting tooth-and-nail for his billions, because he’s not sure what else, exactly, he’s supposed to be doing.

And the joke, which you hear on forums or sitcoms or in crowded sports bars, goes: “Haha, even though these people are successful, they’re still dissatisfied.”

And I’m here to tell you that this joke is totally backwards. It’s because these people have always been dissatisfied that they achieved success.

If you like that, you’ll probably also enjoy The Last Psychiatrist. Whenever I read Zizek (or indeed many of the French inheritors of Althusser) I think that he’s taken us off the path of melding psychoanalytic insights with marxian political economy. These posts strike me as routing around the damage he’s done. This is the direction I wish philosophy was headed, making sense of the problems at the intersection of our lives, our political economy, and our self-deception.

Calm is not Rational

I’ve written a bit before about Tyler Cowen’s idea for a fallacy of mood affiliation, and I generally find something useful in discussions of it. Here’s the basic story:

It seems to me that people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.  I call this the “fallacy of mood affiliation,” and it is one of the most underreported fallacies in human reasoning.  (In the context of economic growth debates, the underlying mood is often “optimism” or “pessimism” per se and then a bunch of ought-to-be-independent views fall out from the chosen mood.)

Byran Caplan offers some reflections on using mood as a credibility heuristic (that are consonant with others things he has said) and so it seems worth discussing where he goes wrong.

On Caplan’s account, evidence is the best way to judge credibility and truth. There we agree. But he adds that using appropriate mood as a heuristic for credibility is a wise backup for discounting some movements or claims. He describes the appropriate moods that environmental activists ought to bring to bear on fossil fuels:

A reasonable person who was convinced that fossil fuels posed a major danger would feel a specific package of moods:

1. Sadness that a crucial resource has terrible side effects.

2. Gratitude for all the wonders the resource brought us in the past.

3. Resignation that mankind must forego many of these wonders.

4. Determination to salvage as many wonders as possible by using the best available substitutes for fossil fuels.

When an opponent of fossil fuels evinces none of these moods, it strongly suggests he isn’t reasonable.

This seems unlikely to be true. On the one hand, I do think those are basically the right judgments about fossil fuels: they are awesome, we should be glad that they existed, and it really sucks that we’re going to be giving them up, but it’s time to take action. That said, it’s not clear why I can’t also feel:

  1. Anger that providence does not supply as good a solution without the costs.
  2. Resentment that those who have profited from fossil fuel extraction are willfully denying the evidence that we must change.
  3. Frustration that scientific consensus does not bind more of my fellow citizens and their elected representatives.
  4. Suspicion of the ways that our current interests cause us to downplay the risks and need for resignation and determination.

Those seem perfectly rational to me, too. And we might not be able to hold all those emotions in our mind at the same time, and thus we find that we’re unable to capture the state of perfectly neutral ambivalence that Caplan here suggests is a prerequisite for being considered rational. Worse, though, Caplan’s account of those prerequisite “moods” mistakes how social movements work with how scholars comport themselves.

  1. For Cowen, mood is about having too much of the wrong sort of alignment within your portfolios of beliefs. So mood affiliation is not about demeanor but about getting your beliefs to support your preferred mood (like the just world fallacy.) Some things are good and some things bad, some things are more certain than others, etc. And yet we tend to adopt similar judgments rather than diversify, suggesting that it’s us and not the world that’s drawing those beliefs together. So Bryan Caplan is not using mood in Cowen’s sense, but rather describing something like demeanor.
  2. Most of the evidence suggests that groups of people actively resisting the status quo fall into group polarization dynamics. This is regardless of whether the status quo is just or unjust or safe or dangerous. This means that they will tend to circulate ideas and attitudes among themselves, developing more extreme and fanatical opposition to it than the overall community could support. Thus a heuristic based on demeanor is basically a pro-status quo heuristic.
  3. Sometimes this polarization is primarily attitudinal, and sometimes it is primarily evidential: that is, sometimes movement members help each other engage in motivated reasoning and skepticism, and sometimes they help each other by egging each other on with a bias for action. The attitudinal polarization is likely to be MORE reasonable than the evidential one. Yet representatives of the status quo can then use those attitudinal group polarization dynamics to depict the resistors as irrational and thus wrong. (We can see this in all sorts of places, not just the standard ones.)
  4. The demeanors of calm and dispassionate analysis are, frankly, overrated by college professors and college graduates. It’s how we signal competence, but it’s not the same as subject-matter competence, rather it’s generally a prerequisite competence in dealing with other college graduates.
  5. Lots of obviously wrong people demonstrate the wrong demeanors. But lots of *subtly* wrong people have the right demeanors. Probably then, we should actually develop enough subject-matter expertise to parse the evidence (as Caplan is doing by reading Epstein) and not rely on demeanor so much as a heuristic.

Basically, where I see Cowen contributing is in allowing us to reflect on the ways that our ideas may be too tightly connected to each other by some overarching mood or partisan affiliation. Disaggregation, decoupling, debundling: these aren’t always smart epistemological moves, but there’s a lot of good reasons to experiment with them, rooted in methodological individualism and the necessities of the scientific method.

Caplan, by contrast, seems to want to use it as a heuristic for discrediting others. I’ll admit a bias here: I really want to bend over backwards to understand the views of others and listen carefully to their arguments in hopes of finding useful insights. That’s my fallibilism talking, a mood that I’m quite sure has its own pitfalls. But still, doesn’t it seem unwise to pretend you can’t hear people just because they are shouting? After all, they’re very likely to be shouting because no one listened when they spoke.