Wednesday, July 31, 2013

2 Possible ASET books

Jonathan Levy's Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (Harvard University Press, 2012) garnered several major book prizes at this year's Organization of American Historians meeting. Levy's work was the recipient of the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, the Avery O. Craven Award, and the Ellis W. Hawley Prize. Readers can find a review of Freaks of Fortune by Kim Phillips-Fein at Public Books, and listen to Levy discuss the book during a HUP podcast.

At the same meeting, the OAH presented the Merle Curti Award for the best book in American social history to Angus Burgin of Johns Hopkins University for The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Great Depression (Harvard University Press, 2012). Readers can find a video of Burgin discussing the book, as well as links to various other interviews and reviews, at the HUP website. Burgin's book has also been awarded the Joseph J. Spengler Best Book Prize by the History of Economics Society.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Jonathon Haidt on The Righteous Mind

Worth a listen, if you haven't read this book. Haidt has a talent for highlighting moral psychology and the moral sense in a memorable manner - for example, is it immoral to have sex with a dead chicken?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Excerpts from "The Righteous Mind", Part 1

Today we present the first of two sets of excerpts from the book, which The Guardian called "a compelling study of the morality of those on the left and right [that] reaches some surprising conclusions." Haidt, by the way, describes himself as a life-long liberal whose research has led him to respect the values of social conservatives.

•We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

•If you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.

•If you are trying to change an organization or a society and you do not consider the effects of your changes on moral capital, then you're asking for trouble. This, I believe, is the fundamental blind spot of the left. It explains why liberal reforms so often backfire and why communist revolutions usually end up in despotism. It is the reason I believe that liberalism — which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity — is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

•Liberals stand up for victims of oppression and exclusion. They fight to break down arbitrary barriers (such as those based on race and, more recently, on sexual orientation). But their zeal to help victims, combined with their low scores on the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, often leads them to push for changes that weaken groups, traditions, institutions, and moral capital. The urge to help Hispanic immigrants in the 1980s led to multicultural education programs that emphasized the differences among Americans rather than their shared values and identity.

•Liberals score higher on measures of neophilia (also known as "openness to experience"), not just for new foods, but also for new people, music, and ideas. Conservatives are higher on neophobia; they prefer to stick with what's tried and true, and they care a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Is this possible?

The crucial point is that under current conditions, the government is not, repeat not, in competition with the private sector. Government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused.

Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity.

It would seem to me this is a reasonable question, given the evidence we are currently seeing in the EU, particularly the southern economies - Greece, Spain, etc. and the very recent history of the US. So, perhaps this is both an important and empirical question.

The recent debate/discussion over Rogoff and Reinhart does point out the challenge of determining causality v correlation and the pitfalls of policy making. Krugman is making a very important policy assertion that is predicated upon an empirical assertion.

That said, there is a time consideration here - short term or immediate demands for action (perceived benefits) v. long term costs - the impact on growth from deficits and debt levels.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Moral Capital

Haidt's definition of moral capital in The Righteous Mind.

"The degree to which a community possesses interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies ... [that] enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Righteous Mind

As I move on to part 2 of Haidt's book, I am struck by the similarities in his reasoning to Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Dan Kahenman in Thinking Fast and Slow. A recent Café Hayek post on perspective also evokes Haidt's argument:

Perspective. It’s among the treasures of insights that wise people bring to their analyses and to our discussions. McCloskey brings it here, in the manuscript from which this quotation is drawn. Tyler Cowen brings it here. Johan Norberg brings it here. Matt Ridley brings it here. Adam Smith brought it here (in particular, at the end of paragraph 32). Julian Simon brought it here. Perspective is evidence of maturity, of sound and sober judgment, and of a disposition to avoid indulging in the often emotionally satisfying weakness of hysteria.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Another view of The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind asks us all to get along. The problem is that the heat of moral discourse makes that less likely. Very soon politics becomes about tribal win or lose rather than pluralistic respect. Haidt’s moral foundations theory gives us a deeper understanding of the way we function as (in part) moral animals. But shouldn’t practical experience alert us to the all too regular dysfunction of overtly moral politics? Rather than forcing us to consider how we can work together, it is more often a case of one group imposing its will on another. A co-operative politics requires rather less temperature.

If you want to understand the way the moral mind works then read this book. If enough people do we may find some way of having moral conversations that don’t descend into hatred and abuse. Until then, let’s not always reach for morality to bond as a society. It is generally counter-productive. Jonathan Haidt closes his book with the line: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.” I agree. It beats “get over it” anyway.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On The Righteous Mind . . .

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, is extremely valuable for understanding these matters. I recommend it highly. (For a very good review in the New York Times, click here.)

Haidt is trying to explain the “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude. I’ve noted previously a whole genre of books by left wing intellectuals diagnosing conservatism as a form of mental illness, or delusion, or selfishness. Haidt acknowledges this too, confessing that he began as a typical academic liberal thinking that way. But the intellectual journey resulting in this book brought him to a very different place.

Start from the notion that our views are the product of reasoned thought. Haidt introduces the metaphor of an elephant and rider. The rider is your conscious rational mind, which you may believe is in charge. But the elephant is your unconscious thinking, your intuition, which is far bigger and stronger. The rider is really the elephant’s servant, whose job it is to come up with rationalizations justifying the elephant’s movements.

This is particularly true in the realm of moral thinking. Again, we may think we’re reasoning. But it’s usually the elephant answering the questions, with our conscious rational minds producing explanations to fit those answers.

The book is mainly about the moral foundations underlying political proclivities. Haidt is a psychologist, and his research centered upon detailed questionnaires filled out by thousands. Their answers showed that our moral thinking utilizes six distinct modules that Haidt analogizes to taste receptors (sweet, sour, salty, etc.). They are: caring (versus harm); liberty (vs. oppression); fairness (vs. cheating); loyalty; respect for authority; and sanctity (vs. degradation).

Monday, July 8, 2013

NTimes Review of The Righteous Mind

In “The ­Righteous Mind,” Haidt seeks to enrich liberalism, and political discourse generally, with a deeper awareness of human nature. Like other psychologists who have ventured into political coaching, such as George Lakoff and Drew Westen, Haidt argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational. If you want to persuade others, you have to appeal to their sentiments. But Haidt is looking for more than victory. He’s looking for wisdom. That’s what makes “The Righteous Mind” well worth reading. Politics isn’t just about ­manipulating people who disagree with you. It’s about learning from them.

Haidt seems to delight in mischief. Drawing on ethnography, evolutionary theory and experimental psychology, he sets out to trash the modern faith in reason. In Haidt’s retelling, all the fools, foils and villains of intellectual history are recast as heroes. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher who notoriously said reason was fit only to be “the slave of the passions,” was largely correct. E. O. Wilson, the ecologist who was branded a fascist for stressing the biological origins of human behavior, has been vindicated by the study of moral emotions. Even Glaucon, the cynic in Plato’s “Republic” who told Socrates that people would behave ethically only if they thought they were being watched, was “the guy who got it right.”

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Another review of The Righteous Mind

What makes the book so compelling is the fluid combination of erudition and entertainment, and the author's obvious pleasure in challenging conventional wisdom. One minute he draws on psychological experiments to defend Glaucon, the cynic in Plato's Republic who argued that people behaved well only because they were scared of being caught. (Here Haidt gives dishonourable mention to Britain's MPs, so happy to abuse expenses when they thought no one was looking at their moats and duck ponds.) The next he is enlisting the Scottish philosopher David Hume to challenge our "rationalist delusion". He asks a series of strange questions – is it wrong to eat your dog if you run it over by accident, or to perform sexual intercourse on a dead chicken? – to prove how people rely on intuition to find answers, then produce reasons to justify them. Transcripts show how people tie themselves in knots arguing against incest, however much their arguments are torn apart. Reason, he concludes, is like a government press secretary, there to defend your decisions to others. "Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason."

While our ASET book club will focus on part 1 of Haidt's book, the entire text is well worth a read.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

A review of The Righteous Mind

I am grateful that my colleague Al Deserpa pressed for this book as the basis for our Sept. 2013 ASET book club. The first part of this three part text evokes Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Danny Kahnman's Thinking Fast and Slow and all of David Hume.

But don't mistake "The Righteous Mind" for yet another guide to how liberals can revive their rhetoric and electoral appeal. Mr. Haidt is not a partisan with an agenda. He is a social scientist who appreciates America's tribalism, our "groupishness." He worries, though, that our divisions are hardening into mutual incomprehension and dysfunction. His practical aim is modest: not to bridge the divide between left and right, atheist and believer, cosmopolite and patriot, but to make Americans, in all their diversity, more intelligible to one another.

Mr. Haidt describes at length the fascinating research that he and his colleagues have carried out through a website called The site asks visitors to state their political and religious preferences and then poses a range of questions meant to elicit a moral response. Participants might be asked, for example, if they agree or disagree with such statements as: "One of the worst things a person can do is to hurt a defenseless animal"; or, "It is more important to be a team player than to express oneself"; or, "In the teenage years, parental advice should be heeded."

Friday, July 5, 2013

Our Sept. 2013 ASET bookclub book

Looking forward to our discussion of The Righteous Mind, part 1 at our Sept. 2013 ASET book club.

Table of Contents


Part I Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second

1 Where Does Morality Come From?

2 The Intuitive Dog and Its Rational Tail

3 Elephants Rule

4 Vote for Me (Here’s Why)

Part II There’s More to Morality than Harm and Fairness

5 Beyond WEIRD Morality

6 Taste Buds of the Righteous Mind

7 The Moral Foundations of Politics

8 The Conservative Advantage

Part III Morality Binds and Blinds

9 Why Are We So Groupish?

10 The Hive Switch

11 Religion Is a Team Sport

12 Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?


Acknowledgments Notes References Index

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Michael Spence writes . . .

Our ASET bookclub read this nobel winners book - The Next Convergence.

He ends this May piece from Project Syndicate:

If current trends continue, with the US economy recovering slowly but steadily, the pattern of convergence with China will continue. East Asia as a whole will surpass the US in terms of aggregate GDP by 2015, with China contributing the highest proportion of the total. China’s GDP is projected to catch up to that of the US and Europe in 10-15 years, at which point (if not sooner) both Chinese and US real GDP will exceed $25 trillion (in 2012 prices), more than three times China’s current GDP. Each will account for approximately 15% of global output.

And yet this shift will be accompanied by very substantial global economic challenges and uncertainties, underscoring the importance of Sino-US cooperation. A constructive, cooperative relationship can make a significant contribution to both countries’ efforts to adapt their policies and institutions to achieve sustainable, inclusive growth patterns. Beyond the bilateral benefits, the rest of the global economy is dependent on Chinese and US leadership – both in terms of growth and in matters concerning global economic governance and coordination. Trade and economic openness, financial stability and regulation, energy security, climate change, and many other issues confront the world collectively. It is very difficult to imagine successful global rebalancing and progress without China and the US taking a leading role in the process. Read more at