Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Not Ready For That

My son Chris, who is studying to become an economist, recently gave me a book by Joseph Stiglitz called The Price of Inequality. A few years ago he gave me John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Last year it was The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek, who was pretty much at the opposite end of the capitalism/socialism spectrum from Stiglitz and Galbraith. My sympathies tend toward Stiglitz and Galbraith, but then again I’ve never lived under the kind of totalitarian political regime that shaped Hayek’s thinking. One thing I’ve learned from my economics tutorial is that the more I know the more I realize how much I still have to learn.

I wonder sometimes what kind of man I would be if I’d lived in an informationless age. The printing press wasn’t invented until 1439. The telegraph didn’t go into service in America until about 1840. The first commercial radio broadcast here was in 1920, television in 1928. In the last hundred years--and really only in the last hundred years--information has begun to flow like water. Our thirsty minds have drunk it up.
In the early years, and for a long while, what was broadcast on national radio and television was, broadly speaking, the truth. The networks prided themselves on communicating the facts. Newspapers have always had a more local flavor, with political biases frequently on display. I suppose you could say that local newspapers, with their pluralistic perspectives, were the true progenitors to the Internet, where today every opinion is available for easy consumption. Indeed, every version of the facts.
For millennia people were ignorant because they could not get information. Now, with information ubiquitous, we are ignorant because we choose to be. I’ll admit it can be hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, but it seems to me that too many of us aren’t trying very hard. It would be understandable if, overwhelmed by conflicting opinions and data, we just threw up our hands and said, “Who knows?” But that’s not how we’re acting. We’re acting like we know. In fact, we’re acting like we’re damned certain.
This is especially true in politics, which deals with questions that intimately impact us. The taxes, regulations and impositions on personal liberty that so irritate libertarians. Or food stamps and health care for the poor, which are, depending on your perspective, either our humane duty to one another or takings from hardworking citizens to subsidize freeloaders. There are opinions out there to support almost any point of view. Facts too, it seems.
Not all facts are created equal, though. Some come from scientists who’ve made finding the truth their lives’ work. They’re not always right, but they give us the best knowledge they have at the time. Then there are facts that come from those who have an agenda. These famously include studies funded by tobacco companies to show that smoking was neither addictive nor harmful. More recently, there is the dubious climate science funded by coal and oil companies. Or data supporting the bedrock Tea Party doctrine that the worst thing we can do for the poor is enable their laziness by extending unemployment benefits.
You would think that “facts” sponsored by people and organizations with obvious axes to grind would be viewed skeptically. But often we embrace them; we chose them. I suspect that what we are doing is choosing among competing narratives, competing ways of telling ourselves the story of how we are living on the planet and with one another.
Many things can cause us to be predisposed to a particular point of view. How and where we are raised. The tenets of our faith. Despite the fact that scientists view the theory of evolution as incontrovertible, it is not accepted by many who have been raised on the belief that their god created heaven and earth in six days a mere six thousand years ago.
These predispositions are part of us. Over long periods of time we may change our views, but we tend to turn away from knowledge that comes at us too fast, especially if it is disruptive. The severity of climate change, and mankind’s contribution to it, are, as Al Gore famously put it, inconvenient truths. According to Nicholas Kristof, more people believe there is evidence of aliens having visited the earth (77%) than that man is responsible for global warming (44%).
There are whole branches of psychology, anthropology and cognitive and social science devoted to why we resist change. Businesses cling to the commercial environment in which they have historically made money. Individuals hang onto ways of living and thinking that have served them well in the past, that are comfortable and seem safe. This made sense when our habits developed slowly and organically out of our interactions with one another. What worked was kept; what didn’t was left behind.
We are programmed, it seems, to go slowly with change to protect the species from hastily made bad decisions. But now the opposite is happening. We are changing our habitat and social order so fast, and on such a large scale, that the risk of harm is now less from taking imprudent risks than from failing to understand and respond to the consequences of our habitual ways of doing things.
We are not entirely to blame. Not only are we hardwired to be skeptical of change, the growing fog of obfuscation makes what is actually happening harder to detect. It hasn’t been that long since, at least as to existential risks, we knew what was happening. If your village was attacked, the threat was clear and immediate. You fought as well as you could, and if you lost you adapted to survive. Today, with risks like global warming and the increasing gap between rich and poor, we are more like frogs in the proverbial slowly heating pot of water. The changes are accretive, and the consequences seem unreal, or at least far off. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. Enjoy the warm water.
We all know the story of how Microsoft developed the dominant computer operating system and, when we were all using it, employed every trick in the book to keep us from changing to another. When threatened by Netscape’s Internet browser, Microsoft, to raise fears of system incompatibility, programmed random error messages to pop up on any computer with Netscape installed. “FUD,” Joseph Stiglitz calls the strategy: fear, uncertainty and doubt. In so many policy areas today--taxes, food stamps, ethanol subsidies--there are committed legions out there flashing error messages.

When the Catholic Church jailed Copernicus for his heretical view that the earth orbited the sun, rather than the other way around, all that happened was that Copernicus had a bad few years in prison and human knowledge had to wait for the truth. Waiting didn’t matter. What we thought or did wouldn’t change the natural order things. But what we think and do matters now. We are changing the natural order of things by warming the planet and creating billions of economic refugees. And while we dither and rationalize, the water is heating up.

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