Archives: 07/2006

Pardon Me, Congressman, Is That a Log in Your Eye?*

China hawk extraordinaire Rep. Steve Chabot had a piece in the DC Examiner last week calling for a “fresh review of America’s interests in Asia.” For one thing, Rep. Chabot loudly protested China’s “enormous and ever-growing militarization program.”

For advocates of Taiwan independence like Rep. Chabot, the PRC’s military modernization program is no doubt worrisome. But the United States is in no position to protest any other country’s allegedly “enormous and ever-growing militarization program.”

US defense spending is more than $400 billion annually, not including the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US has the largest blue-water navy in the world, with 12 aircraft carriers. We can project naval (or other) power anywhere in the world in a matter of days.

Chinese defense spending is hard to pin down, precisely, but experts generally center around a median estimate in the neighborhood of $50 billion. China has 0 aircraft carriers, and thus is unable even to protect its precarious supply of energy that comes from the Middle East through the Strait of Malacca.

China looks at things pretty simply: The United States could militarily impose its will on issues that China perceives as life-or-death concerns: the future of Taiwan, the balance of power in East Asia, and the security of China’s supplies of energy. It would be like if China were the dominant military power in the Western hemisphere, and then started squawking about America’s attempt to build up its own military.

For Rep. Chabot (or Secretary Rumsfeld) to think that the United States has any position to protest anybody’s “enormous and ever-growing militarization program” is a bit ridiculous. At a time when we’re engaged in two wars halfway ‘round the world, spending nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, it’s a shaky line of reasoning that says that China’s attempt to bring a 1950s-era military into the 21st century is anything that we are in any position to protest.

As Martin Wolf noted in the FT last September (sub. req’d),

the Chinese can justifiably react by asking why the US needs to spend as much on its military as the rest of the world put together. With Canada and Mexico as its neighbours, why does it feel so threatened? To this the US would respond that it has special responsibilities as guarantor of world peace and, in any case, threatens no other nation. China, in its turn, could then ask who elected the US global policeman and why, given the public debate in the US about whether and how to curb its rise, it should trust its security to the US.

Just so.

* For an explanation of the title, go here.

A Declaration of Cognitive Independence?

Michael Shermer has a nice piece in Scientific American on confirmation bias, the process “whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence.” New neuroimaging studies are revealing exactly how it is that we avoid actually thinking about politics. Psychologist Drew Westin says:

Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.

I think this process is especially fascinating to libertarians like Shermer and me who stand on the sidelines of partisan political tribal warfare. Not that libertarians aren’t guilty of confirmation bias—everyone is. It’s just that less is at stake for libertarians; we don’t have any power to lose. Reinforcing and encouraging this specific kind of unreason is one way political coalitions assure their integrity and survival. The day-in-day-out work of partisan political magazines is to explain to its loyal readers why there is basically no reason to take the other side’s so-called arguments seriously. All you need to know about the minimum wage, say, is that there is someone good at math at Princeton who thinks it’s good, and that everyone who dislikes it secretly wants to send the poor to forced labor camps. Or all you need to know about people who oppose the war is that they are flag-burning America-haters whose pusillanimous “post-modern” sense of moral equivalence leads them to secretly crave the reign of jihadist overlords. Etc.

As the scientists show, when confronted with a position contrary to our own, we don’t even think, we just feel our way to our dogmas, and we feel good about it. In a country, like ours, where there is actually a rather surprising broad consensus surrounding a great number of issues, survival as a distinct political coalition with a distinct identity may require getting the most polarizing mileage possible out of people’s tendency toward confirmation bias. That may not be ideal for democracy.

But confirmation bias matters not only because rationality matters, but because autonomy matters. Last week I attended an Institute for Humane Studies seminar at Stanford, and philosopher David Schmidtz gave a talk about psychological freedom—freedom from internal contraints. He remarked that there is something pretty depressing about the fact that what we believe is largely a function of the order in which we encountered new ideas—that our commitments are highly path dependent. But the fact that we can know that holds out hope for a kind of liberation.

So, this Independence Day, why not pick up a political book you know you’ll disagree with. Or write a short essay giving the best argument you can think of for a position you find abhorrent. Or really listen to what your annoying brother-in-law thinks about the war at the family picnic. We could all be a little more rational, and a little more free, if only we really wanted to be. Dogmatic, whole-hearted commitment does feel good. But there is more to life than feeling good. There is truth, for one thing. And there is freedom—self-command. We’re all jerked around by our own minds. But we can be jerked around less.

Shermer concludes, “Skepticism is the antidote for the confirmation bias.” Now, we don’t all need to be like Socrates, claiming to know about nothing at all. But a little intellectual humility goes a long way.

Topics:

Money Packs

Perhaps because it’s what most Americans grew up with, we tend to assume that “public education” must mean public entities building and controlling schools, and students going wherever they are assigned by their home address. It’s a system that has failed us for decades, yet many people can imagine nothing else. Thankfully, public education doesn’t have to be this way.

In today’s New York Daily News, Fordham University professor Bruce Cooper introduces a simple but powerful way to reinvent public education: Attach funding to children, not schools and districts, enabling parents to choose their children’s schools and forcing schools to compete for students.

Unfortunately, Professor Cooper’s proposal would only let kids take their new “backpack[s] of education funding” to different public schools. But there is no compelling educational reason for such a restriction. Instead, we should give parents maximum educational freedom by letting them send their children to any schools they want—public or private—with their new money packs attached. Do that, and we might finally have a system of public education worth keeping around for decades.

Our “Pig in a Poke” Farm Subsidies

Not content to lavish federal subsidies on farmers and landowners just because they grow certain agricultural crops, Congress is also in the business of subsidizing them even when they do NOT grow those crops. In a major expose, the Washington Post reports that the federal government pays out billions of dollars in subsidies to landowners based on past production of certain program crops, such as rice, even when the land is no longer used to grow the crops. As a result, federal farm subsidies are being paid to landowners who have no interest in farming. As the Post reported yesterday:

Nationwide, the federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all, according to an analysis of government records by The Washington Post.

Some of them collect hundreds of thousands of dollars without planting a seed. Mary Anna Hudson, 87, from the River Oaks neighborhood in Houston, has received $191,000 over the past decade. For Houston surgeon Jimmy Frank Howell, the total was $490,709.

Other federal farm programs offer “loan deficiency payments” to corn growers in Iowa and elsewhere when the price of corn falls below a certain minimum. Farmers collect the payments even if they eventually sell their corn at a higher, profitable price. According to a Post story today, the program has cost American taxpayers $4.8 billion in the current fiscal year, and $29 billion since 1998.

Federal farm subsidies are not only costly to the U.S. Treasury but they also distort global agricultural markets by encouraging overproduction. Those subsidies contributed to the demise of the current round of trade negotiations in the World Trade Organization. A Cato Institute study last year, titled “Ripe for Reform,” documented the many ways Americans are hurt by our own farm programs.

Of course, members of Congress from farm states refuse to give up these costly programs unless other countries agree to reform their own farm programs. As today’s Post story concludes: “Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has warned U.S. trade negotiators not to bow to foreign pressure unless they win major concessions for U.S. agriculture. ‘We’re not going to buy a pig in a poke,’ he said.”

“Pig in a poke” sounds like a fitting description of our own farm programs.