The Science of Politics

There are possibly still a few hundred people in America who still start the day with coffee and the morning newspaper, or maybe more, but they’re old and seem to like print. Everyone else seems to have moved beyond that. If you want to know what’s going on in the world Fox News is always burbling along in the next room. You can glance at that. And if you want to know what’s going on in your city or town – a high-speed car chase or a heart-warming puppy story – you can switch to the local Fox affiliate. That’s the farm system for big leagues of news, the national desks in Manhattan. But at least you’ll feel you have a grasp of things. And your teenage kids are texting back and forth – that’s how they know what’s going on in the world.

As for depth and detail – if you want that, which few people do – you can watch the early evening political talk shows on cable – angry pundits shout and sneer at each other. You can decide which flavor of shouting and sneering you’ll adapt if anyone asks you a question about any of the hot issues these days. That’s been modeled for you, down to the posture and gestures. It looks easy enough, and then no one will be able to say you’re a clueless dolt who has no idea what’s happening these days. We can’t have that, can we? And most American males use ESPN the same way – you too can mutter that the Steelers are overrated or some obscure hockey player from Estonia is brilliant or the Iditarod dog-sled classic this year was a bit disappointing. It’s using the news, and ESPN, as a sort of Cliff Notes for a big exam in a subject that actually bores you. You cram, and then you pass – and then you forget it all. No one will know the difference. You’ll look good.

It seems absurd – you don’t know much of anything – but, if you think so, you watch Stewart and Colbert before you nod off, or Rachel Maddow earlier in the evening. That will confirm how odd all this is. And you don’t get extra points for watching CNN – less shouting and sneering does not necessarily mean you know any more. CNN brutally simplifies too. They just choose to carefully avoid making it entertaining, much less compelling. But the sad fact of the matter is that if you want to know what’s going on you probably have to read a lot – in that morning newspaper, or online. But who has time?

And sometimes you can’t trust the news, mostly in the science stories. There’s a new drug that’ll cure what ails you, and a few weeks later there are all the articles on how it doesn’t work at all. Oops. Or you read coffee is good for you, and then it isn’t, and then it is. Red wine will help you live to a hundred and alcohol will kill you dead, fast. And hey, NASA discovers a new life-form, based on arsenic, and then it seems they misread the evidence. And Einstein was right about space and time and matter and energy all along, and then he wasn’t, and then he was. And just where is all that Dark Matter? And by the way, Pluto isn’t really a planet after all – sorry about that. It’s no wonder people don’t believe anything about global warming and how we’re screwing up the planet. They’d prefer to wait. A lot of media coverage of science and research seems to report speculation. And people only find it interesting when it confirms something they’d really like to believe – that broccoli is actually bad for you or something like that. And we’re all waiting for the study that shows bacon, in copious amounts, is necessary to a healthy and vigorous long life, and daily exercise will kill you.

That’s why, on Wednesday, December 29, this story was getting linked all over the place:

Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.

On the other hand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area at the front of the brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life.

The “exciting” correlation was found by scientists at University College London who scanned the brains of two members of parliament and a number of students.

They found that the size of the two areas of the brain directly related to the political views of the volunteers.

However as they were all adults it was hard to say whether their brains had been born that way or had developed through experience.

Ah, that confirms it – conservatives simply have organic brain damage, or at least have abnormal brains. With them it’s all fear and the lack of courage to deal sensibly with those fears – and it’s hardwired in. It’s no wonder they’re hysterical about everything – about gays and getting gay cooties, and black people and brown people, and Obama out to take their stuff, and their guns. And you do know Obama is openly planning to give all of the United States back to the Indians – and not the ones in Cleveland or the ones just south of China. This explains it all. It’s brain damage.

Liberasl, or progressives if you wish, loved this science story, even if the scientists just weren’t sure whether the possessor of those odd brains had been born that way or had developed through experience. Amanda Marcotte at wasn’t so sure this was what it seemed:

I’m not a scientist, but I do read up on this kind of thing, and I’m inclined to think the latter – or at best, a combination of the two factors – is the more likely explanation. Because there’s no real evidence that political beliefs are genetic. Yes, they’re highly heritable, but that’s because the people who raise you instill their values in you. From what I understand, there’s a lot of evidence to show that your environment dramatically shapes what your brain looks like on those FMRI machines, so it makes sense that people who are conservative and therefore obsess constantly about who they hate and who is out to steal their privileges would have brains that reflect that obsession more than people who think in more generous, relaxed terms. Of course, a snapshot of the brain doesn’t tell you how it got that way, which is why some folks are critical of these FMRI studies that get a lot of press – the problem is that there’s a tendency to think that what you see on the screen is not influenced by environment, but is “hard wired.” And while the article itself is neutral on this subject, the headline (which, to be fair, is almost never written by the reporter) is not – “Political Views Hard-Wired into Your Brain.”

And she maintains that’s a dangerous view:

This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves. While it gives us a temporary thrill to think of conservatives as just being kind of broken, the implication of this is that they can’t help themselves. And I strongly disagree. I think the people who, for instance, are scrambling around screaming their heads off about “Obamacare” and a mosque in the financial district of Manhattan need to be held responsible for their lies and their unwillingness to engage the issues like fully grown citizens. Writing it off as a product of “hard wiring” – especially when there’s no evidence that a brain scan shows any such thing – is giving in to the same tendency that allows conservatives to believe any fool thing someone tells them because it confirms their prejudices.

She has a point there, but of course the conservatives were none too pleased with this. See W. C. Varones:

This is why liberals suck at diplomacy and budgeting. They think you just have to be nice to bad guys and money grows on trees. Their underdeveloped amygdalae are a bug, not a feature.

That’s being proud of the brain damage, recasting it as a useful adaptation. Diplomacy is screwing the other party, and shaming them. And budgeting is all about cutting, not spending. Everyone knows that.

But there is much to be said for forgetting the brain scans and thinking about how environment matters more. If there are organic changes in brain structure it might be more useful to consider how they were induced, making them an effect, not a cause of whatever basic philosophy is in operation. This is not a Woody Allen movie (the kid, Scott, is cured of his extreme Weekly Standard sort of Republicanism when emergency surgery allows more oxygen to reach his brain).

And if your environment dramatically shapes what your brain looks like, consider this from Steve Benen:

In my circle of friends growing up, I can think of quite a few folks who, between the ages of 16 and 22, briefly fell under the spell of Ayn Rand. Someone loaned them a copy of Atlas Shrugged; they were convinced it was brilliant; and for a while, they were evangelists for the Randian cause.

Fortunately, this is just a phase some folks go through, and most of them feel embarrassed later.

Some, however, never really grow out of it. Take Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for example, who’ll become chairman of the House Budget Committee next month. Ryan, Christopher Beam notes in an interesting new article, “requires staffers to read Atlas Shrugged, describes Obama’s economic policies as ‘something right out of an Ayn Rand novel,’ and calls Rand ‘the reason I got involved in public service.'”

Benen notes that this prompted Jonathan Chait to flag a piece he wrote in March about Ryan and “his borderline-creepy devotion” to the philosophy of Rand:

Ryan would retain some bare-bones subsidies for the poorest, but the overwhelming thrust in every way is to liberate the lucky and successful to enjoy their good fortune without burdening them with any responsibility for the welfare of their fellow citizens. This is the core of Ryan’s moral philosophy:

“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand,” Ryan said at a D.C. gathering four years ago honoring the author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”

And there’s this:

At the Rand celebration he spoke at in 2005, Ryan invoked the central theme of Rand’s writings when he told his audience that, “Almost every fight we are involved in here on Capitol Hill is a fight that usually comes down to one conflict – individualism versus collectivism.”

The core of the Randian worldview, as absorbed by the modern GOP, is a belief that the natural market distribution of income is inherently moral, and the central struggle of politics is to free the successful from having the fruits of their superiority redistributed by looters and moochers.

That’ll distort your brain, and Benen adds this:

I mention this, not because I find it bizarre that the House Budget Committee chairman forces his aides to read bad fiction, but because there’s a larger takeaway about how the parties will get along in the next Congress – or in this case, won’t.

Talking to various aides on the Hill, I get the sense that Democrats tend to look at Paul Ryan as the kind of Republican they can at least talk to. Unlike so many GOP leaders, the far-right Wisconsinite appears to have read a book and learned how to use a calculator. When he speaks, Ryan tends to use complete sentences, and tends to resist at least some partisan bomb-throwing.

But there’s a catch: the guy is a crackpot – a polite crackpot who, by contemporary Republican standards, takes his beliefs seriously, but a crackpot nevertheless.

And that leads here:

Ryan doesn’t want to search for common ground with Democrats; he’s hopelessly convinced that Democrats are radicals, intent on destroying modern capitalism. He considers the very ideas of charity and sacrifice deeply offensive. His entire worldview is so bizarre it has no meaningful place in the American mainstream.

Matt Yglesias recently noted that Ryan “is a dangerous madman,” and the description doesn’t seem especially hyperbolic.

Is he mad, or brain-damaged? Of course longtime Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was a Big Randian from back in the day. And Alan Greenspan, the most influential and powerful central banker of them all, wrote this as a young man:

“Atlas Shrugged” is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.

Ah, it’s those deadly parasites. They’re everywhere. And see Matt Taibbi:

Greenspan met Rand in the early fifties after leaving Columbia, attending meetings at Rand’s apartment with a circle of like-minded jerkoffs who called themselves by the ridiculous name of the Collective and who provided Greenspan the desired forum for social ascent.

These meetings of The Collective would have an enormous impact on American culture by birthing a crackpot anti-theology dedicated to legitimizing self interest – a grotesquerie called Objectivism that hit the Upper East Side cocktail party circuit hard in the fifties and sixties.

It is important to spend some time of the seriously demented history of Objectivism, because this lunatic religion that should have choked to death in its sleep decades ago would go on, thanks in large part to Greenspan to provide the entire intellectual context for the financial disasters of the early twenty first century.

Brain damage leads to fear of imaginary parasites, which leads to economic collapse. But the brain damage was induced, and developed over time.

And see Stephen Moore’s comments on Ayn Rand in the Wall Street Journal:

Some years ago when I worked at the libertarian Cato Institute, we used to label any new hire who had not yet read “Atlas Shrugged” a “virgin.” Being conversant in Ayn Rand’s classic novel about the economic carnage caused by big government run amok was practically a job requirement. If only “Atlas” were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I’m confident that we’d get out of the current financial mess a lot faster.

Many of us who know Rand’s work have noticed that with each passing week, and with each successive bailout plan and economic-stimulus scheme out of Washington, our current politicians are committing the very acts of economic lunacy that “Atlas Shrugged” parodied in 1957, when this 1,000-page novel was first published and became an instant hit.

If there were such a thing as political epidemiology we can see where the deadly epidemics, which lead to so much brain damage, started.

And the damage is real. Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney in this item examine what the world would be like without, say, Social Security. And David Dayen comments:

It isn’t too hard to imagine – you just have to dive back into the pre-1930s history books. And you will see the world of the poorhouse, the last refuge for the elderly and the infirm, the farms run by private charities which provided a dour and often cruel existence for those on the edges of society.

And Grim and Delaney begin with an example of someone bound for the poorhouse back in 1896:

The woman “could not give street and number, but could ‘fotch’ the agent to her place,” according to a case study labeled “Aunt Winnie” in one of the organization’s annual reports from near the turn of the century. “Old age, with a heavy load on top and a strong wind blowing, made the walk a trying one. At last the 8×10 cabin was reached. In it was a stove in many pieces held together with wire, a bedstead with rags for mattress and rags for covering. From the leaky roof the floor was wet through and through.”

Aunt Winnie, the report said, had no income save the 50 cents she made every two weeks for taking in the wash. In summertime she raised herbs and greens, but in winter she “suffered for food and fuel.” Her children had all been sold away to slavery, and a nearby niece was too poor to offer any support. Her neighbors helped, providing money for the stove and cot, and a “colored-friendly visitor was found to carry broth and other comforts to her.” The neighborly charity wasn’t enough to persuade the agent, who was essentially a private sector version of a social worker, that the old woman should be on her own.

Dayen continues:

This was a common occurrence in the days before Social Security, which basically wiped out extreme elderly poverty in America. But to a growing number of conservatives, this Gilded Age era represented the salad days, where people rose and fell on the basis of their talents without big government propping them up. They long for a return to a nation without a safety net, where private charities possibly pick up the slack, and where rugged individualism rules the day. To them, there’s no greater government than one which refuses to help people.

During the Great Recession, we’re sadly seeing a slow return to those Gilded Age pre-New Deal policies, as what remains of the safety net staggers along. Social Security is under attack from deficit frauds like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Unemployment insurance, food stamps and welfare have weathered blows for years, especially as their costs rose when demand for their services increased. A new Republican Congress will demand more cuts, squarely on these and other social programs, or will threaten to destroy the full faith and credit of the US government.

And you cannot let those whose brains have been damaged win on this:

It’s important to look to history to see the inevitable consequence of these backslides. If Democrats follow Republicans down the deficit rabbit hole, especially if they break faith on the bedrock promise of Social Security, we’re sure to see a return of the poorhouse, and the cruel belief that the people contained therein are somehow inferior, somehow given to rejecting self-sufficiency, somehow lazy, somehow defective. That belief has already crept into discussions about the 99ers, or the long-term unemployed.

How did that happen? It might have been that a good number of brains have been scrambled. People really weren’t hardwired that way to begin with, but over time, just as some muscles atrophy and others swell in strength, such things happen. The science is clear, even if the etiology can be misinterpreted.

But it’s just a science article. Wait. There will probably be other findings. And most people don’t even read such things in the first place.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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