Saturday, September 17, 2011

True Believers

The GOP debate in Tampa last week produced a number of memorable moments, but for my money the most unforgettable of these came when shouts of “Yeah!” burst from the crowd as Wolf Blitzer asked Representative Ron Paul if an ailing individual with inadequate insurance should be allowed to die.

This incident may not exhibit the level of bloodlust that could be heard in the full-throated Republican roar that erupted when, in an earlier debate, Brian Williams pointed out that Governor Rick Perry had overseen 234 executions in Texas, a number that makes the governor an all-time death sentence champion.

Why are Republicans so enthusiastic about death? I’m pretty sure that part of the answer is that the people cheering and shouting over someone dying are not imagining the dying to be in their circle of family and friends.

Let me bolster this point with a thought experiment: Imagine that Wolf Blitzer had addressed one of those cheering Tea Party individuals with this question: “Suppose you and your spouse lost your jobs, found yourselves too poor to buy insurance, and then suddenly discovered that your daughter had an illness that would require hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical attention to save her. Should she be allowed to die?”

Faced with a question like this, I don’t believe even a hard core Tea Partier would blurt out an enthusiastic “Yeah!”

But perhaps I’m na├»ve.

The fundamental sin of these conservatives, in my opinion, is not just their tendency to imagine that “other people” will be the ones who suffer under the policies they favor, but their outright abandonment of reason. They seem to have given up on rational thought to the point where they are starting to look like a cult.

I think of a cult as a social group with a set of beliefs that are designed to coerce allegiance from group members and to do so by promoting ideas that are irrational but that are made to seem reasonable through being constantly repeated by influential figures – the cult leaders.

One of these irrational beliefs is those executed by the government (the government!) are almost always guilty of the crimes for which they are convicted. This has been proven false by any number of scientific studies. For an interesting and disturbing example of Texas’s death penalty in action, see Errol Morris’s classic documentary The Thin Blue Line. But from the GOP right we get, “Damn the facts and keep the lethal injections coming!”

The Thin Blue Line by the Great Errol Morris

Another irrational belief is that taxes are bad because government is bad (except, I guess, when it is killing people), and that Congress should never, never, never raise taxes, period. This, of course, is the brilliant notion that pushed the government to the brink of default last month, and that threatens to strangle any possibility of an economic recovery in the near future.

One way to put a spike in the heart of this anti-tax fanaticism would be to survey a dozen economists, asking them whether or not they thought it made sense. From my own informal survey of my colleagues in economics, I’d guess that somewhere between 95 and 100% of economists would reject this belief as ridiculous.

But then, why listen to economists? What do they know about economics? Or so a cult believer is likely to say. If a claim is made by someone who is not in the cult, it can be dismissed as propaganda, and not part of the true believer’s belief system.

The Tea Partiers apparently only believe those who don’t criticize or otherwise threaten the true belief system - the system that says, for example, the death penalty only condemns the guilty, taxes should never be raised, undocumented aliens should be treated with contempt and government should never involve itself in the economy.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider that last point – government involvement in the economy is always bad.

China offers an interesting test case. In China, where the economy has been growing at close to 10% per year for decades now, the government has recently been orchestrating the development of green technologies that will dominate the 21st century and by doing so has gained significant advantages over American industries. Of course, China is a country whose government is entirely too intrusive in the lives of ordinary citizens. But it is also a country whose economic growth proves (as though this were necessary) that carefully planned government action can be very good for the economy and for the long-term economic well-being of its citizens. What is keeping the Tea Partiers from seeing that?