Saturday, July 24, 2010

If It Feels Good, It Must Be True

One thing I know well nigh for sure is that it’s all but impossible to know anything for sure. Of course there are some things so self-evident that we might as well say we know them for sure. One is that Noah did not carry two of every animal on his Ark in order to repopulate the world after the flood and another is that “free markets” are neither self-regulating nor really free.

If the Noah story is so obviously bogus, why do throngs of the faithful believe it? I think it’s largely because people accept it as part of the religious tradition handed down from their parents – parents whose hearts would be broken were the child to move away from the sacred tradition. I’m guessing that Noah’s Ark believers are born, and almost never made. Most likely not many people start out with a scientific understanding of the natural world and then later decide, “No, Darwin’s idea doesn’t explain anything – I think Noah’s big damn old boatload of heterosexual animals makes more sense.”

To a lesser degree inherited belief also explains the prevalence of the “free market” fantasy. I’ve seen evidence of this among my students and other Generation Y youth over the decades. Someone will argue fiercely and with deep certainty that free markets can solve all our economic problems, and when the origin of their ideas is probed, it turns out that they almost always came from Daddy. One young lady, whom I will call Roxanne, stands out particularly clearly in my memory. I had met her father and found him to be a domineering and rather self-important business executive. His daughter, following in Dad’s footsteps, spent a good deal of time trying to convince me that free markets need no regulation, that Fox News was no different from other networks in its biases, and that rich people were rich because they deserved to be rich. This in spite of the fact that she was one of the richest people I have ever known though she had done nothing in particular to deserve her wealth.

I didn’t harbor any personal animosity toward Roxanne though I admit it was a little annoying to hear her father’s words pouring out of her mouth on topics she herself had not thought about carefully. But this is not an unforgivable sin. However, listening to her brought to mind the principle I’m talking about here: Young people with strong political views almost always hold tightly to these views because of the influence of one or more of their parents, often a parent of a domineering or otherwise persuasive personality. What they seem to lack is the capacity to let go of their inherited beliefs and accept the possibility that their loving parents inadvertently misled them.

The ones I run into are overwhelmingly conservative, and this probably reflects the surge in the 1980s of mindless conservatism led by Ronald Reagan.

And now it’s time to point out some of the other trends we’ve seen since the 1980s, particularly the unraveling of the socio-economic fabric that had held the country together for fifty years. It was in the 1980s that the rich began to take ever more of the nation’s wealth for themselves and institutions like savings and loan corporations wreaked unregulated havoc on the economy, while helping to line the pockets of a few already wealthy insiders. The financial collapse of 2008 is the culmination of the pro-free market, deregulatory fever that President Reagan inspired. But don’t try to tell Roxanne that – she’ll just dig in her heels and insist that it was Clinton’s fault, or Karl Marx’s. Maybe she is so attached to her father that she simply cannot muster the courage to see things clearly; that would put her in conflict with him and his fearsome convictions.

One well known individual (not a particularly young person!) who moved away from the bogus “free market” myth is Steve Eisman, an investor described in Michael Lewis’s "The Big Short." Eisman shifted his politics from strident Republican to become “the financial market’s first socialist.” His experience on Wall Street eventually led him to say, “I now realized there was an entire industry, called consumer finance, that basically existed to rip people off.” But Eisman, besides being very smart, is also an unusually bold and self-assertive individual. Would there were more like him among America’s youth – though I wouldn’t necessarily want them to be as abrasive as he is.

None of this is really new, of course. It’s just another version of the truism that both social psychology and common sense tell us: Most people prefer emotionally satisfying conclusions to realistic ones. Cherished beliefs often trump troubling truths, and this is especially so in cases where those beliefs are wrapped up with vital emotional bonds.






Darwin or Noah? Where did we come from?

   




Elephants in Tanzania, May 2008