Restore Sanity? II

At about the 8:30 mark in John Stewart’s closing speech at his rally last Saturday, he starts a segment with:

We do impossible things, only made possible by the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

He then shows video of cars in traffic and describes the individuals in each car.  For example, “that car has a lady who’s in the NRA, loves Oprah.”  He describes several more individuals like that and then the video pans out to show the traffic merging into a couple lanes to get through a tunnel carved under a river, “carved, I’m sure, by people who had their differences.”

Back to the merging cars…

…and they do it concession by concession.  You go, I go.  You go, I go.  Sure, there’s some selfish jerk that comes along and cuts in, but that individual is rare and is scorned…

I found this segment interesting for a few reasons.

1.  It shows an example of a zero sum game.

I won’t pick on this point too much.  I know the idea was to show an easy visual of people cooperating.  But, I think the visual happens to represent how folks like Stewart view things — as a zero sum game.  There are only so many lanes in the tunnel and we just all have to share.

However, a broader visual with a time series would provide a truer example of how our getting along results not in a zero sum game, but a positive sum game where things can get better for everyone.

For example, a time series video may have shown how folks crossed the river before the tunnel was made and how the tunnel improved things by adding to the existing options of crossing the river.

Also, a broader picture might have included technology or new construction that saves people from ever entering the traffic jam, like a telecommuter working from home over a high speed internet connection or new apartments on the side of the river everyone wants to get to.

2. Stewart recognizes that people who disagree on some things generally get along for some reason, though I’m not sure he knows that reason.

Number 2 occurred to me when he made the remark about the workers coming together to carve a tunnel under a river, “even though they may have had their differences.”

This strikes at what I think is one of the most fundamental attributes of free markets and is overlooked or discounted by free market skeptics: the mutually beneficial, voluntary trade.  That mutually beneficial trade is the most effective way to align our “differences”  so that something good for everyone results.

For example, I buy my coffee from a dude who I may not agree with politically, because I want my coffee and he wants his paycheck.  To Stewart’s point, I compromised and he compromised.  I didn’t try to convert him to my way of thinking before I bought a cup and he didn’t qualify the sale of the coffee on my politics.  And we both came out ahead in the trade.

So, why do people with differences work together to carve a tunnel beneath a river?  Adam Smith explained it in this quote:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

The people working on the tunnel didn’t build the tunnel out of kindness.  Nor did they refrain from imposing their beliefs on their co-workers because they’re nice people.  They wanted a paycheck and they wanted to remain employed, so they supplied their labor and got along with their co-workers.  There’s nothing wrong with that and something good and useful resulted.

The problem is so few people understand the underpinnings of the human interactions that brought about many of the things that make our lives better.

3.  Stewart recognizes why people make concessions in traffic and why jerks on the road are rare:  accurate, clear and direct feedback.

One of my pet theories is that any problem can be traced to problem in the feedback loops.  There are few jerks on the road because we have several methods of providing clear and direct negative feedback.  One  feedback, as Stewart points out, is scorn (btw, Don Boudreaux mentions this in the video of his I posted recently on the law).  That might show up as honking horns, finger signals, yelling, shaking heads, risk of road rage or not receiving favorable treatment by other motorists at the next merge.

Even the most stubborn jerks have a difficult time not modifying their behavior with all of that clear and direct feedback, so jerkish flare-ups are usually squelched quickly.

The leap in the thinking that Stewart doesn’t seem to have made yet is why these concessions that are so clear and direct in traffic are not so apparent or strong in political discourse.  If he made that leap, he might better understand why the “24/7 politico conflictinator” exists.

Let’s go back to my feedback theory of everything.

Correct feedback on political ideology is unclear and indirect.  When I accidentally cut someone off in traffic I know right away by the accurate feedback I receive.  I learn and take care not to do it again.

Consider a political ideology that supports policy touted at helping poor people.  What feedback do I receive if the policy works or not?  It’s unclear and it may not be accurate.  It’s certainly not as clear as someone giving me the one-finger salute in traffic.

If I question the effectiveness of the program, I might receive clear feedback.  “You’re stupid and heartless if you think this great program hurts!” But, that may not be accurate feedback.  Notice, that’s a name-call and it doesn’t give me any information as to whether the program works or not.

Stewart himself is guilty of feeding this monster. He has the sanctimonious, authoritative, thou-shalt-not-question-my-superior-judgment, let’s-all-just-get-along (as long as it matches what I think) act down pat.  It puts food on his table.  It also prevents him from learning that he might be wrong.

If I question a policy’s effectiveness, I might also get  feedback from less biased sources.  A group of economists might tell me why it helps and another group may tell me why it hurts, and I’m left sorting out which group I think is right and why.  I think that’s better than being bullied into not questioning the policy, but it’s still not as clear and accurate as traffic signals.

4.  After listening to Stewart’s rally closing and also to Beck’s, I think there’s one big message missing from each: It’s okay to not know, to ask questions, to be wrong and to learn.

I’m reminded of Steven Landsburg’s advice, delight in losing arguments because you’ve learned something.

Somehow, somewhere in our society we’ve lost the idea that it’s possible that we could be wrong and that it’s okay to lose an argument.  I can empathize.  It took me a long time to get past that and sometimes it still gets in the way.

But our betters tell us to get out, vote and let our voices be heard.  They should know better.  Instead they should encourage us to get out and lose some arguments so that we’ll be better informed. And when you lose an argument, say thank you.

We’re not afraid to ask an electrician for help in wiring stuff up.  We know that if we do it ourselves and screw up, the consequences can be deadly.  So why are we afraid to let people know that we don’t know much when it comes to politics?

Is it because politics is a bit more like a religion than wiring skills?

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2 thoughts on “Restore Sanity? II

  1. Seth:

    Agree with your zero sum thinking observation. Also agree with your observation regarding mutually beneficial voluntary trade (aka mutual self interest). Direct and indirect reference of the concepts can be seen in the following Milton Friedman quote: “Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another”.

    Here is a thought for you to consider: when presenting a debate, some purposely use zero sum thinking and as well as purposely by-pass mutual self interest. Why would someone purposely use zero sum thinking and by-pass mutual self interest? When your purpose is to sell collectivism through central planning.

    • Hi W.E. – Thanks for the comment. I agree some purposely use zero sum thinking and bypass mutual self interest to sell central planning. I also think there’s a good portion of people who aren’t as calculated. They think in these terms simply because it’s easy to grasp and is intuitive, while positive sum thinking and mutual self-interest is subtle and less intuitive.

      I think Dr. Landsburg did an excellent job of explaining this in his book, “The Big Questions.” I excerpted it here.

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