Thursday, September 18, 2008

The political science of the future is neuroscience



Have you been wondering about why both presidential campaigns have been trafficing in dishonest allegations and pseudofacts? Why does such blatant lying work when both sides keep getting caught at it? Have you been wondering why Obama never accepted McCain's request to have ten town-hall face-offs?

Have you been wondering why American politics seems to be so insane?

Neuroscientists have been asking themselves these kind of questions too and there are all sorts of neuroscientific studies out there edging toward an explanation of how emotion and reason are activated by political stimuli. This nytimes.com article points to one difference between the brains of liberals and conservatives, the study reported on indicates that liberal brains have, on average, more active amygdalas than conservative ones. It matches some stereotypes about liberal values: an aversion to human suffering, an unwillingness to rationalize capital punishment and military force, a fondness for candidates who like to "feel our pain." You can see it in how most Hollywood and music stars tend to be liberal Democrats, those are people who make professional use of their amygdalas.

This little factoid might also help explain why Obama and McCain's negotiations over the townhall face-offs failed and why Obama ultimately prefers to just do his speeches solo. It's a little odd that Obama, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and was editor of the Harvard Law Review, would not want to debate McCain who graduated with a low class rank (894 of 899) from the United States Naval Academy.

You'd think that Obama could wipe the floor with McCain considering their educational differences. However, it's more important to Obama to go after the heart (the amygdala), he knows how he got where he is. He knows he has performed best at massive, emotional rallies drawing tens of thousands of people. He knows that the reaction he got there is something he wasn't able to do during the debates during the primaries.

In every presidential campaign bargaining over debates happens and both sides try get a PR edge by seeming to offer more interaction yet protecting themselves and favoring their own strengths. McCain offered 10 town-hall debates, but Obama only wanted 1 so talks stalled over disagreements. They squabbled over format with McCain wanting an intimate town-hall format that would feature interaction with voters and would be more revealing than formal debates. It also would give him free media attention alongside the better-funded Obama. However, Obama clearly sacrificed that PR edge and selected to do minimal debating. McCain is now using that failure to claim that he’s ready to engage any time, any place and that Obama isn’t. The Obama camp seemed chicken. Why wouldn't they be, polling was favoring them at the time.

An aggressive McCain might have dominated the more cerebral and gentle Obama in such debates if they were too informal. And then there is Jonah Lehrer's blog post, "Why the Facts Don't Matter in Politics," which quotes a Washington Post article, "The Power of Political Misinformation," that seems to indicate that most of voters are just partisan hacks:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar "backfire effect" also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might "argue back" against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research.

While conservatives do seem to have more rigid, fact immune, views than liberals do, it should be noted that Obama has been caught using his own distortions. For example, this cbsnews.com article shows how Barack Obama's charge that John McCain wants to tax the health insurance benefits that Americans buy through employers is a bit of distorted fear-mongering. Also, this abcnews.com article, shows how Obama was equating McCain with Limbaugh on the issue of immigration. McCain is less hostile to the plight of illegal immigrants than Rush Limbaugh.

You may not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals have such misinformation corrected, but Obama knows he can get away with it because McCain has already done worse when distorting Obama's record. You can't abandon Obama in favor of McCain to punish him for lying because then you'd only be endorsing a worse liar.

In the end voters on both sides think that they're thinking, but what they're really doing is rationalizing and ignoring facts so that they can explain decisions they've already made. Once you identify with a political party, the world is edited so that it fits with your ideology. We see the same effect with any religion or world view. We all tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe.

Something like McCain's town-hall meetings might have undercut the cumulative effect of all these invented facts and ignored facts on both sides that explains why Republicans and Democrats seem to live in two different realities. However, merely knowing more about politics doesn't erase partisan bias because the world of politics is too complicated to hold in a single human brain. If a piece of information doesn't follow your party's talking points, then the information is conveniently ignored. Another example:

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels analyzed survey data from the 1990's to prove the same point. During the first term of Bill Clinton's presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What's interesting about this data is that so-called "high-information" voters - these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress - weren't better informed than "low-information" voters. (The sole exception was Republicans who are ranked in the top 10 percent in terms of political information. As Bartels notes, it's only among these people that "the pull of objective reality begins to become apparent.")

Clinton's deficit reduction didn't fit the "tax and spend liberal" stereotype so the majority of Republicans never managed to absord that fact.

This doesn't let Democrats off the hook, of course, while less rigid than Republicans, Democrats are also adept at ignoring facts according to the brain scans.

When people were asked, in 2004, to evaluate statements by Bush and Kerry, both Republicans and Democrats ignored information that could not rationally be discounted. That kind of psychological blind spot is going to require more than a lot of McCain's town-hall meetings. The intimate format with voters won't cut it. You'd really want experts to help cut through the spin.

Whatever fix we might imagine being enforced on the political process I would want to test it against the emerging neuroscientific political theories so that we can all benefit from an increased understanding of the neural processes involved in value-laden information processing. The goal would be to minimize distortions and the repression of inconvenient facts. I would like to see fact checking happening while the candidates debate. I would like us build on studies in consciousness, theory of mind, and social cognition to construct ways of dealing with neural response to political information and then use that information to force voters to deal with real facts.

Monday, September 15, 2008

You should have expected the Spanish Inquisition



Andrew Sullivan has noted, in Southern Evangelicals And Torture, that a poll commissioned by Faith in Public Life and Mercer University has found that nearly six in ten, or 57 percent of, white Southern evangelicals believe torture is justified. They are the core supporters of Bush's torture regime and 65 percent of them support the now pro-torture candidate, John McCain. They think torture can sometimes justified to gain important information from suspected terrorists and only balk at torture when they are reminded that this could come back to hurt Americans or if reminded of the golden rule. Only thirty-eight percent said it was never or rarely justified. Most of them, 53 percent of white Southern evangelicals, know that George W. Bush is a liar on torture. They think the government uses torture in its anti-terrorism campaign, despite claims to the contrary. Only one-third, or 32 percent, said the government does not use torture as a matter of policy.

It is not that historically surprising for Christians to endorse torture, remember Spanish Inquisition? What else would you expect from a religion with a doctrine of Redemptive Suffering? The Cross is a symbol of excruciating death and it highlights the sadomasochistic glorification of pain at the core of Christianity. People who suffer are ennobled and find the need for Jesus and God (or at least a delusional escape from reality) and appreciate the suffering Jesus underwent when he sacrificed Himself for the Sins of Mankind on the Cross.

Of course, Andrew Sullivan isn't the kind of Christian who would see the connection between a doctrine of Redemptive Suffering and Bush's torture program, but he sure has been relentless these last two weeks, posting morning, noon and night, weeks and weekdays, exposing the lies of the McCain-Palin campaign. Yet, even while he highlights their unfitness for office in terms of competence, decency, intelligence, and experience, the Palin bounce seems to be holding and polling suggests that McCain is gaining ground.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

My John McCain music





I chose the one that spelled out the lyrics because they were important, but there's a nice bit of visual imagery in the video here.

I heard this song years ago when it was on MTV, I liked it, but then it just sank into forgetfulness and laid there quietly for years until recently when bits and pieces of the lyrics began surfacing again after seeing some of John McCain's ads. So, I typed in the lyrics I could remember into Google, "I am just a worthless liar," and "Trust in me and fall as well." And that gave me the name of the band and the title of the song and from there all I had to do was go to YouTube and look it up -- finding several versions.

This is how John McCain should feel when this election is over, win or lose.

There's a shadow just behind me
Shrouding every step I take
Making every promise empty
Pointing every finger at me

Waiting like a stalking butler
Who upon the finger rests
Murder now the path called "must we"
Just before the son has come

Jesus, won't you fucking whistle
Something but the past and done?
Jesus, won't you fucking whistle
Something but the past and done?

Why can't we not be sober?
I just want to start this over
Why can't we drink forever?
I just want to start this over

I am just a worthless liar
I am just an imbecile
I will only complicate you
Trust in me and fall as well

I will find a center in you
I will chew it up and leave
I will work to elevate you
Just enough to bring you down


Mother Mary won't you whisper
Something but what's past and done?
Mother Mary won't you whisper
Something but what's past and done?

Why can't we not be sober?
I just want to start things over
Why can't we sleep forever?
I just want to start this over

I am just a worthless liar
I am just an imbecile
I will only complicate you
Trust in me and fall as well

I will find a center in you
I will chew it up and leave
Trust me Trust me Trust me Trust me Trust me


Why can't we not be sober?
I just want to start things over
Why can't we sleep forever?
I just want to start this over

I want what I want
I want what I want
I want what I want
I want what I want



Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Can McCain be redefined as a crook?



When the Federal Government announced the bailout of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, did it remind you of anything? Did it remind you of another bailout that cost taxpayers billions of dollars? Did it remind you of something that happened about 20 years ago, in a time of similar economic doldrums? Did it remind you of when the government bailed out the S&L industry? The Lincoln Savings and Loan scandal of the late 1980’s-early 1990’s?

How many of you remember the Keating 5 Scandal? Senator McCain was one of the Keating 5 and back during the 2000 Republican Presidential Primaries Slate ran an article about McCain and his role in the scandal.

In the early 1980s, under the Reagan/Bush administration, the Savings and Loan industry was deregulated so much so that abuse and misuse of funds became easy, rampant, and went unchecked. The S&L scandal was the largest theft in the history of the world and it was US tax payers who were robbed. The cost to tax payers was over $1.4 TRILLION dollars (about one quarter of our national debt).

Charles Keating owned a savings and loan and he was illegally using the bank’s customers money to give loans to himself and friends, loans they didn’t have to repay. They speculated on risky real estate investments, (forbidden by law because it was one cause of the Great Depression) and McCain’s wife, Cindy, and her father, made a $359,000 investment in retail property owned by Charles Keating in 1986, a year before John McCain first met with federal regulators on behalf of Keating. Years later, Cindy McCain sold her investment for $15,000,000. Keating blew $3.4 billion through illegal personal loans and bad investments, and the FDIC had to reimburse Keating’s customers who had been ripped off.

When the feds first started investigating Keating, he wined, dined, and lavished on five U.S. Senators hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations and personal gifts. McCain filed false income tax returns to hide the thousands of dollars in gifts that he got from Keating. Keating was influence peddling, contributing heavily to the election campaigns of these senators. The five senators met with federal banking regulators and allegedly lobbied for favorable treatment for Lincoln Savings and Loan. When the IRS found Keating’s company had written off the gifts as business expenses (influence peddling is tax deductible?), McCain admitted to filing false returns and then he leaked information about the Keating Five to the press in an effort to appear above the other Senators in the scandal. A 1989 article was titled, "McCain: The Most Reprehensible of the Keating Five."

Keating had asked the five Senators to influence the feds, and the Senators, the Keating Five, met with federal investigators and pressured them to stop investigating Keating. They bought Keating some time, but the feds still nailed Keating. He was convicted on 73 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and other crimes.

Keating wasn’t the only Savings and Loan owner who committed fraud, about 20% of the S&L’s that failed during that time were caused by fraud and/or insider trading. The failure of the Lincoln Savings and Loan and other S&L’s pushed the country into a recession, costing the U.S. government $126 billion dollars in FDIC insurance payouts to investors. This happened during George H.W. Bush's term and he pushed through the S&L bailout and then his son Neil Bush was charged with criminal wrongdoing in the case of Silverado S&L. He was sentenced to 3.5 years in jail for pleading guilty to $8.7 million in theft. (You'd get more jail time for holding up a gas station for $50.)

John McCain was formally rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for exercising “poor judgment” for intervening with the federal regulators on behalf of Keating, but because McCain accepted Keating’s gifts of travel and vacations to Bahama while McCain was a member of the House of Representatives the Senate claimed they had no jurisdiction to censure McCain at that time.

McCain has successfully defined himself as a war-hero and a maverick reformer, but using material like this he could easily be redefined as a crook. McCain lobbied for a crook to get him favorable treatment and helped him perpetrate his fraud. McCain claims he wants to eliminate pork and wasteful spending, yet he helped these S&L guys steal millions from the taxpayers in a scandal that cost billions overall. That costs us more than all the pork McCain might have ever saved us from. Keating was essentially stealing money from the government because the savings and loan funds were federally insured deposits.

Considering the lying 30-second TV attack ad used against Obama's record on education, saying that Obama backed legislation to teach sex education to kindergartners with an announcer saying, "Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family," I think Obama ought to fight back with an ad featuring McCain as one of the Keating 5.

UPDATE:
I read through another article: "Both McCain and Obama have ties to loan giants," from the Herald Tribune.

It notes that for all the outrage they express, neither Obama, with less than four years in the Senate, and McCain, after a quarter-century in the House and Senate, has a record of directly challenging the companies. All the more reason for Obama to make an ad in which he promises to insist on proper regulation.

Other useful factoids from the article:

1) Obama did warn publicly of a coming housing crisis in March 2007, five months before it erupted and the government first took action.

2) McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, a longtime lobbyist. Davis previously was head of the Homeownership Alliance, a coalition of banks and housing industry interests led by Fannie and Freddie to stave off regulations. McCain's confidant and adviser Charlie Black, whose firm worked for Freddie Mac for several years ending in 2005, and the deputy campaign finance chairman, Wayne Berman, a vice president for Ogilvy Worldwide and a former Fannie Mae lobbyist.

3) Six members of the Republican lobbying firm Fierce Isakowitz & Blalock, all Fannie Mae lobbyists, have given McCain $13,250.

4) The New York investor Geoffrey Boisi, a member of Freddie Mac's board, contributed more than $70,000 to McCain and Republican Party committees working for his election. Both he and Richard Hohlt, a Fannie Mae lobbyist, are among the McCain "bundlers" who have raised $100,000 to $250,000 from others, according to the campaign Web site.

UPDATE 2:
They did it:



The Obama camp released this 30-second trailer for a 13-minute video highlighting McCain's connection to the scandal that will be released in full soon on the website keatingeconomics.com:

http://www.keatingeconomics.com/