Being wrong isn’t bad

I listened to two podcasts in row that happened to touch on the subject that inspired me to start this blog — changing one’s mind.

I’ve always been fascinated by events, arguments, rhetoric, conversations and observations that get people to reconsider their previous ideas on how things work and possibly change their minds.

The first podcast was a Dennis Miller Show podcast of his interview with David Horowitz from September 28.  Miller and Horowitz were discussing the liberal mindset and Miller makes what I think is an apt description of folks who have difficulty changing their mind (and not just liberals).

Miller says (emphasis added):

I don’t view it as a craziness. People are too easy on them when they say they’re crazy. I view it as an obstinacy, a non-curious obstinacy that infects their lives.

I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, ‘how could you work with O’Reilly?’  I go, ‘You ever watch the show?’  They go, ‘No! I wouldn’t watch that show!’

Non-curious obstinacy.   I like that description and I like Miller’s example.

When you encounter folks with a non-curious obstinacy, it’s not worth discussing whatever it is they are going on about beyond asking if they’ve ever given it a try or if they can describe specific examples on which they’ve based their conclusions.

More often than not, the answer is ‘no.’   If so, you can respond, ‘let me know when you can provide specific examples and I will be happy to discuss it then.  Now, let’s talk about something else.’

The second, a Freakonomics podcast, The Folly of Prediction.  The show host, Stephen Dubner was speaking with guest, Phil Tetlock, psychologist at Penn.  Tetlock has extensively studied folks, especially ‘experts’, who make predictions about things ranging from the economy, the stock market, politics and sports outcomes.  Dubner asks:

  …we’re getting into the nitty gritty of what makes people predict well or predict poorly.  What are the characteristics of a poor predictor?

Tetlock answers (after a brief pause):

Dogmatism.

I think an unwillingness to change one’s mind in a reasonably timely way in response to new evidence.  A tendency when asked to explain one’s predictions, to generate only reasons that favor your preferred prediction and not to generate reasons opposed to it.

Dogmatism (def. The tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others).  That’s another word for non-curious obstinacy.

Folks don’t like to be wrong.  I didn’t like to be wrong, though I have gotten better in this respect.  I still don’t like it sometimes, but I get over it.  We’re trained from a very young age that being wrong is not a good thing.

But, I’m not sure why.  Being wrong shouldn’t be a bad thing.  Just about all learning in life is done based on trial and error.  That is, we try something based on how we think it should work, and then we find out that we were wrong.  We then try it differently, until we find something that does work.

We tend to learn these lessons best where we pay the costs or consequences for being wrong.  I’ve only turned the wrong way down a one way street once or twice in my life.  Now I’m pretty good at checking the signs and flow of traffic before I turn.

We tend not to learn the lessons as well when we don’t pay the direct costs or consequences for being wrong.  Politics is a good example.  I can vote for someone because I like the way they dress or speak, or because he’s ‘better than the last guy’, or because he’s cool, or I better identify with the others who are voting for him.  And, if I’m wrong, I don’t really care.  We were all wrong.  But, we don’t really even have to admit that.  There are plenty of ways for us to explain it away…”things were worse than we thought,” or “at least we had good intentions, we were trying to help, unlike the other side who is only for the fat cats.”

Ron Paul is not an isolationist

Rarely do I defend politicians.  I’m not sure this is a defense.

It’s more of a correction, or maybe clarification on one distinction between conservative and libertarian thinking.

I’ve often heard Ron Paul’s “foreign policy” referred to by conservatives as “isolationist“.   My local conservative talk show hosts are guilty of this charge.  I’ve heard Dennis Miller do it repeatedly — even though he often interviews Ron and Rand Paul on his show and each time Miller calls Paul an isolationist, they correct him.

I’ve heard that exchange now three or four times in the past year, with the latest being Miller’s interview with Rand just before the Iowa debates (I believe it was around August 10, available on iTunes).  I listened to it today.

Miller said:

He’s a little isolationist for me, but on everything else he makes a lot of sense.

Rand Paul replied:

The foreign policy isn’t isolationism, it’s just that we should not go to war without declaring it formally, you know, like the Constitution intended.

I’ve also heard Ron tell Miller that he is not isolationist.  He said he support individuals trading with other individuals in other countries.  He just doesn’t think we ought to use our military beyond what it was meant to do — defend us.

I’m waiting for Miller to stop the flow of the show for a minute or two and ask one of them, Okay, maybe I have it wrong.  Can you explain to me how it is that you are not isolationist?  I’m not sure that has occurred to him to do that yet.  I’m also not sure it has occurred to Miller that perhaps he doesn’t know what isolationism is.

I’ve heard others do it. (Full disclosure: I might have done it a few years ago).

I think part of it is the conservative way to discount Paul and distance themselves from appearing to agree with a fringe candidate (we had this same struggle with identity when we went from liberal to conservative).

I think another part of it is, like Miller, conservatives don’t know what isolationism is and they haven’t thought much about when we should use our military and what the Constitution says about that.

Miller, and other conservatives, would do themselves a big favor if they read a blog post from George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux entitled, A Conflict of Visions Different than the one Sowell Identified, from March of this year.    The post is a copy of a letter Boudreaux sent to the Washington Post in response to George Will’s Column, Is it America’s duty to intervene wherever regime change is needed?

Here are Boudreaux’s key paragraphs:

Most modern “liberals” believe that domestic economic problems are caused chiefly by unsavory characters – “business people” – who impose their destructive rule on masses of innocent workers and consumers yearning for more prosperity, and that the best solution to these problems is government force deployed using armies of regulators to subdue these bad guys and to keep close watch over them and their successors.  Failure to intervene is immoral.  These same “liberals,” though, believe that foreign problems are typically the result of complex forces that can be understood only poorly by American-government officials; it is naïve to suppose that even well-intentioned foreign intervention by Uncle Sam will not have regrettable unintended consequences.

Most modern conservatives believe that domestic economic problems are typically the result of complex forces that can be understood only poorly by government officials; it is naïve to suppose that even well-intentioned economic intervention by Uncle Sam will not have regrettable unintended consequences.  These same conservatives, though, believe that problems in foreign countries are caused chiefly by unsavory characters – “dictators” or “tyrants” – who impose their destructive rule on masses of innocent people yearning for more democracy, and that the best solution to these problems is government force deployed with armies of soldiers to subdue these bad guys and to keep close watch over them and their successors.  Failure to intervene is immoral.

Effective Visual

On the Dennis Miller Show, columnist Jeff Jacoby provides a good illustration of what it means to him when he heard President Obama say he wants to freeze government spending for the next five years.

I was envisioning a guy going to the doctor.  The doctor says, Tim, you’ve been overeating, ridiculously. You are grossly obese. You weigh 300 pounds more than you ought to.  So we’re going to freeze your diet and weight at the point it is now.  You’re not going to gain any more weight.

That guy is still going to die of a heart attack in the next three years.

The podcast of the interview is available on iTunes.  It was released on January 26.  This part of the conversation is about 8 minutes in.

Jacoby exposes one of those sleight-of-hand tricks that politicians use to make unreasonable things sound reasonable.   Saying that you are going to freeze spending, sounds really good to folks who don’t pay too close attention.  It sounds responsible, almost austere.  We’re making adult decisions here.

But, it’s not that remarkable at all when you consider that government spending today is 67% higher than it was when W ran for re-election.

Sowell Podcast

There’s an excellent interview with Thomas Sowell on The Dennis Miller Radio Show available as a free podcast on iTunes.  It was released on January 14 (or search for Sowell Dennis Miller in the iTunes search box).

Sowell should get more media time.

Last Call!

In a recent interview with Dennis Miller, Tim Pawlenty offers a great illustration of how incentives matter.

All you really need to know about what we need to do with government is go to two weddings.  Go to one where there is a cash bar, go to one where there’s an open bar and you’ll see very different behaviors.

And the government has been running itself like an open bar.

If you run systems and programs where people have no idea what the price is, no idea what the quality is, the only measurement is how much they consume, and the provider of it has the measure of how much volume they can provide and the fiction is created that the bill goes somewhere else, that system is doomed to fail.

Unfortunately, that’s most of what we have in government, we’ve been running it as an open bar mentality.  The party needs to come to an end in that regard.  We got to switch to people being in charge of more of their own money, give them good information about price and quality and to the extent we can afford it, give them help, but give it to them directly.  Don’t run it through a big bureaucracy based out of Washington DC.

Sometimes the answers are hiding in plain sight.  The open bar analogy is perfect.  We can all identify with it.  I’ve had some rough nights after an open bar.  Not so much with a cash bar.  We all respond to incentives.

Yet many people unrealistically want to believe that we can have an open bar and somehow control behavior to prevent the downsides that causes.

Rand Paul on Dennis Miller Show

Here are Rand Paul’s top five issues from the interview he did on the Dennis Miller Show last week:

  1. Deficit is a big issue.  Need a balanced budget amendment.
  2. We need term limits.  They [politicians] go and stay too long and they become corrupted by the system.
  3. I think they should read the bill before they vote on them.  They should wait one day for every 20 pages and that will keep them busy for a while.
  4. Every bill should point to where in the Constitution they get the authority for the bill.
  5. They shouldn’t pass any laws that they exempt themselves from.

I’m not sure I care much about #1.  I think it can have some bad unintended consequences.  For example, tax cuts are passed with a sunset date because of the current balanced budget rules.  I think this is bad because it just loads the hopper for political power.  “You want me to vote to extend your tax cut, then sign my bill.”

#2 sounds good, but I’m not sure that will solve many problems.

I do like #3 through #5.

Dennis Miller Show Podcasts

Here are two quotes from the Dennis Miller show last week.  The first came in an interview with Michelle Malkin and it was in reference to Malkin’s new book title, Culture of Corruption: Obama and His Team of Tax Cheats, Crooks and Cronies.

While reading the title, after “Tax Cheats” Miller inserts this:

People say, ‘oh that’s such an incendiary title’.  Geithner DID NOT PAY TAXES.  We live in a time when you can point out an accuracy and be deemed to be incendiary.

I agree. I often find that the other side doesn’t mind being incendiary.  They often drop bombs not based on reason or fact and they want to be able to get away with that without a response.  When I start to respond, usually by simply asking them  the reasons or facts behind their statement, they shut down the conversation with something like,  “Oh, I don’t feel like talking about that,” “I just know,” or “that’s just how I feel and you aren’t going to change that.”

Miller also interviewed author Arthur C. Brooks, who made some excellent points.  Here are a couple of those.

In regards to Greece and the U.S.:

Here’s the great contrast [between Greece and the U.S.].  And the question is, what are their protesters protesting?  They’re burning down their own buildings because they want more lavish pensions, they retire at…what do they retire at, like age 21?   They want to have their salaries paid by their fellow Greeks in the worst recession in 50 years.

In the United States we have protesters too.  The tea party guys who are protesting against exactly what the Greeks are demanding.  That’s an example of what’s best about America as far as I’m concerned.

Miller then went on to say:

It amazes me, all the old hippies who warned you about The Man, the Jerry Browns, the Bill Ayers, now they’re perpetually on the government teat all the way to the death rattle.  It’s unbelievable.  Do they not see the irony that they have become an insipid version of the man they so decried in their fiery youth.  It’s unbelievable, isn’t it Arthur?

Brooks’ great response:

Actually, it’s kind of believable.  People who love liberty, love liberty all the way through.  But people who simply [protest] because somebody has power and they don’t, you know that pretty soon they’re going to be able to get their hands on the reins and things are going to be even worse than they were when they were protesting.