Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On intellectual inconsistency

In yesterday's Quote of the Week, I presented a line from actor Craig T. Nelson that displayed a stunning lack of self-awareness, a trend that's seemingly everywhere in our country these days. I had previously discussed this dynamic in a post on "blind spots", which hold the potential to swing elections (and the political and economic future of our nation).

In that post—which focused on a graphic that revealed that a significant percentage of recipients of government welfare programs did not consider themselves to be government beneficiaries—I wrote:
To fully appreciate the importance of these blind spots, I think it's useful to attempt to put these numbers into context. Using just the final line item, "Food Stamps"—which I think is a fairly clear and unambiguous example of a "government social program"—we see that 25.4% of food stamp (pardon me, SNAP) recipients do not consider themselves to have benefited from a government program. This is certain to impact the way they view national issues in federal (especially Presidential) elections, especially when debt and deficits are as large a story as they have currently become. 
Recall next that in several states, food stamp usage covers close to (or more than) 20% of the total population (nationwide, food stamp usage rates are at 14%). If a full 25% of people in these states do not think that they benefit from our "big government", that leaves us with 5% of that state's population—easily a big enough group to decide just about any Presidential election—believing something that is patently false.
Simply put, how can we expect voters to make intelligent and informed decisions about their political leaders when they have such blatant and vicious blind spots obscuring their view of the world (and their role in it)?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this issue has been coming up quite a bit lately, most recently in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker found himself in a bit of a weird spot with respect to the NFL's disastrous replacement referees.
Nothing brings political enemies together in Wisconsin like the Green Bay Packers. 
Following a controversial game-ending call by replacement referees that cost Green Bay a win over the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football, Wisconsin officials from across the political divide united behind the Packers. 
Even Gov. Scott Walker and a Democratic state senator who were bitter opponents in the 2011 battle over Wisconsin public workers' collective bargaining rights found themselves on the same side Tuesday. 
Walker, whose union-busting efforts have made him the darling of fiscal conservatives, posted a message on Twitter calling for the return of the NFL's locked-out unionized officials. 
"After catching a few hours of sleep, the #Packers game is still just as painful. #Returntherealrefs," Walker tweeted early Tuesday... 
Walker's spokesman, Cullen Werwie, tried to spin the governor's post on Tuesday, saying it wasn't meant as a pro-union political statement. Walker's tweet was being widely mocked on Twitter in light of his push last year that effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers, nurses and most other public workers. His proposal didn't affect private sector unions. 
"I don't think this anything to do with unions, but has everything to do with refs making bad calls," Werwie said.
To be fair to Walker, there's an important difference between the role and operation of public-sector unions as opposed to private-sector unions, a difference that even FDR recognized and appreciated. Nevertheless, the more we dig into this issue, the more inconsistent Walker's analysis seems to be.

According to Sports Illustrated's Peter King, there are some fairly significant parallels between this case and the Wisconsin (or Chicago, take your pick) teachers' case:
One of the emerging and major reasons why a deal has been so elusive... is that the NFL is insisting on getting some control of the officials back that it has ceded in past negotiations with the NFLRA. This includes the league's desire to have three seven-man officiating crews in reserve with the ability to replace—either for a game or longer—underperforming current officials. 
Another source with knowledge of the locked-out officials' position said Tuesday that the NFL would not guarantee that they would work at least 15 games in a regular season. Currently, other than due to injury, an official that starts a season works the full season. The officials source said that this is the main crux of what the NFL is trying to do in these negotiations: wrest back control of the officials' performance week to week in an NFL season. I've been told that the NFL is insisting on being able to make in-season changes to crews based solely on performance of individual officials... 
There's also still the matter of the league trying to roll back the officials' pension. Over the last five years, the league has contributed, on average, about $5.3 million per year to the officials' pension plan. The league, in keeping with the current cost-cutting practice of corporations across America, no longer wants to guarantee how much each official would get in retirement, but rather tie the contributions to a 401(k)-type pension.
The ability to fire underperforming workers? Questions over the funding (and fundability) of workers' pensions? You know, this situation is starting to sound pretty familiar, which of course makes Gov. Walker's support of the referees in this situation that much more ironic.

But then, intellectual inconsistency and self-justifying behavior has become the norm in this country, especially since the financial crisis of 2008-09. As I wrote in this blog post last summer,
In the housing crisis, there were some who blamed the borrowers (i.e. homeowners) for irresponsibly using debt to live beyond their means, but the vast majority felt that the real story of the crisis was one of overly greedy and predatory bankers taking advantage of borrowers, originating loans that were destined to fail. This "blame the lenders" dynamic ultimately became the "winning" narrative in the aftermath of the crisis, hence the incredible vitriol directed at banks today. 
In today's [global sovereign debt] crisis, though, that's far from the case. Instead, we direct our ire primarily at the irresponsible borrowers, blaming the nations in question (rather than the enabling lenders) for their predicament. Instead of blaming China for consistently purchasing our national debt time and time again over the past few decades, we blame our own government for its irresponsibility (which is probably fair, just noticeably different from how we viewed the housing crisis). 
After watching the strange theater of the forced "austerity measures" in Greece this week, I tried to imagine the proper analogy in the housing crisis. What if, instead of foreclosing on a home, banks and mortgage companies came to an individual's house and demanded that they cancel their phone service, cut down on their food intake, and sell their cars in the name of "austerity" and improving the chance that they repaid their mortgage? That sounds completely ridiculous, right? And yet, that's exactly what we're seeing here. 
Ultimately, I think that the differing responses to otherwise similar stories derives from our pre-existing notions of who is the more sympathetic party, rather than the facts of the matter. In the housing crisis, it was far easier (and incredibly satisfying) to blame the big, evil banking institutions than it would have been to accept the blame ourselves, as homeowners. 
In the sovereign debt case, it is far easier to blame one or two basket-case governments (especially when it is so fashionable right now to blame governments—in this case, THEY are the big, evil corporation relative to the smaller banks) than it would be to place the blame on the lenders, who span everyone from the European Central Bank to nearly every American who places money in a money market fund
It's hard to trust ourselves when we try to analyze complex situations like these, simply because our reactions are so utterly inconsistent with regard to the actual facts of the case. We all approach situations in life with inherent, trained biases, and it's exceptionally difficult to get past these and assess problems at face value.
We all like to view the world as a universe full of simple narratives, with clear villains and heroes and obvious lines of culpability when things go wrong. But the truth is always somewhere in between—both heroes and villains share some of the blame, and sometimes the heroes in one situation are in fact the villains in another. Because this doesn't fit well with the way that we like to view the world, we instead end up with bizarre and contradictory approaches to what are in fact similar situations, based simply on the role in which we place ourselves.

As a nation, if we are ever going to be able to engage in an open and honest conversation about the issues that plague our country's political and economic systems, we must first start by appreciating our own biases and blind spots, and approach these complex situations from a more detached (and less emotional) standpoint. If we can't do this, then we'll be forever destined to make poor and inconsistent decisions, and we'll all end up in an awkward spot, just like Gov. Walker.

But hey, breaking news, looks like the NFL's "real" referees are on their way back to work, after all. That's great news.... isn't it?

[Sports Illustrated 1]
[Sports Illustrated 2]

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