Locked In

Most families reach a tacit agreement that discussing politics is just not done. It’s pointless. No one is going to change anyone’s mind. And there are other things to discuss at Thanksgiving dinner, or any holiday dinner when those you haven’t seen in a bit suddenly are right there in front of you. A nephew may make fun of Obama and swear by Glenn Beck and say next time around Sarah Palin is going to clean Obama’s clock, or an uncle who misses the sixties may argue it’s about time the fat cats chipped in a bit more so everyone can prosper – but that only leads to a lot of posturing. People do like to show off their beliefs. No one is immune to preening a bit. And it is fun to scoff at others, saying I’m right and you’re wrong, because you’re so damned stupid. And a lot of that taunting is just a continuation of what you were up to with your brothers and sisters growing up. It’s family. You tease each other. It’s fun.

And if you try serious discussion, asking why that nephew thinks all regulation of everything should end, and the governments should do little more than maintain an army to keep us safe and ban abortion and revoke the citizenship of gays and selected minorities – if you ask what the theory behind all that is – you’re probably just looking for a way to say the underlying theory is bonehead-stupid. It works the other way too. If that uncle is asked to explain progressive taxation and Keynesian economy theory – what is behind all that – the nephew will only be looking for an opening, some little edge, just some way to say that stuff is just as bonehead-stupid. There is no serious discussion, just maneuvering. But it does feel good to now and then pretend you’re being thoughtful and open to new ideas, and a good listener and a first-rate analytical thinker. It’s also fun to think that you’re thin and rich and sexy as hell, and that’s your new Ferrari parked in the driveway.

But there’s no Ferrari in the driveway. And there’s no winning any political argument. Everyone is locked into what they believe is true, and right, and wonderful – and they’d love to explain that to you, why they’re right. But what’s the point of listening to anyone say look, I’m right, and here’s why I’m right, and I don’t give a damn what you think? That leads nowhere. Most families discuss other matters – sports, how the kids are doing in school, why it might be time to remodel the kitchen. If someone brings up immigration policy or the relationship of the national debt to inflationary pressure versus stimulating demand in a recessionary economy, well, eyes glaze over. Someone is looking for a fight. Who needs it?

And this is pretty universal. Consider Adam Ozimek on our unwillingness to truly reconsider beliefs that are integral to our self identity:

Think about beliefs that you hold and imagine yourself changing your mind. Literally imagine waking up tomorrow with a changed mind and imagine how you would or wouldn’t discuss changing your mind with people you know. Feelings will be strong for beliefs that are important to our identities or that we value for some signaling purpose, like signaling affiliation with some group. Can you actually imagine yourself with these changed beliefs, or is it unthinkable?

Yes, it’s unthinkable. We all have developed a complex set of signals regarding our identities, and we use them to broadcast just who we are, and which group is our group. Ozimek simply notes that we really are locked in:

Conservatives, could you imagine becoming someone believes that higher taxes and unemployment insurance don’t hurt economic growth or employment? Liberals can you imagine becoming someone who believes that that minimum wages decrease employment and fiscal stimulus doesn’t work? If the answer is no, you should think about whether it’s because holding such a belief would conflict with your identity or affiliations.

Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum argues back:

Maybe these are just bad examples, but neither one of them would cause me much angst if I had to change my mind about them. The minimum wage debate has always been balanced on a knife point, with basic theory suggesting that an increase will hurt employment but more detailed considerations suggesting there are small countervailing effects. It’s hard to imagine the evidence pointing to a large effect in either direction, but if it did, I wouldn’t have a lot of trouble endorsing some alternate way of helping low-income workers. Likewise, I didn’t endorse the 2009 stimulus because I wanted to spend all that money, I endorsed it because I thought it was the best short-term way to boost an economy in big trouble. If there were indisputably a better way, I’d probably endorse that instead. (Though, as with all things, there are issues of fairness and equity that come into play too, not just pure economic considerations.)

But Drum suggests a better example might be beliefs about taxes in general:

There’s an obvious tension between economic efficiency, which suggests that consumption taxes are best, and liberal attitudes toward social justice, which motivate a desire for a fair amount of progressivity. The more evidence there is that high income taxes on the rich are bad for economic growth, the bigger the tension. Luckily for me, that evidence is still fairly slim. But what if it became stronger? It’s always possible to dream up progressive consumption taxes, but there are limits to what you can do with those. So there’s at least the possibility of a fair amount of cognitive dissonance here.

Drum is arguing that evidence matters, and that the jury is out on so many issues. High income taxes on the rich do not seem to be bad for economic growth, historically. Quite the opposite is true. There are decades of evidence to show that, tons of it. But that doesn’t mean it is always so. So theoretically it is possible getting the taxes on millionaires and billionaires back to where they used to be will be the ruin of America – theoretically, as one never knows. But there is abstract theory and actual evidence. If you want to be practical about it you go with the evidence.

And that is where Drum finds himself:

I guess a lot of this depends not just on how liberal or conservative you are, but on how inherently pragmatic you tend to be. I have pretty concrete feelings about social justice, but I also have pretty concrete feelings about wanting policies that work well and produce minimal friction. So far this hasn’t driven me to drink, but I guess there’s no telling about tomorrow, is there?

And he adds this:

I’ve always been a fan of lots of little initiatives to help the poor rather than a few big ones. This is one of the reasons why: If you put all your eggs in one basket, and that basket turns out to be problematic, you’re screwed. If you have lots of little baskets, it’s not too wrenching to get rid of one and simply increase the others a little bit.

Well, that’s reasonable, and that is unusual these days. But it’s not the real world, as Robin Hanson argues this:

In my experience “I believe X” suggests that the speaker has chosen to affiliate with X, feeling loyal to it and making it part of his or her identity. The speaker is unlikely to offer much evidence for X, or to respond to criticism of X, and such criticism will likely be seen as a personal attack.

Damn, that sounds like many a Thanksgiving dinner. And Adam Ozimek takes this a step farther:

In his post Robin argued that people often convince themselves that they truly reconsider their strongly held beliefs, but what they do is false reconsideration with the real purpose of reassuring themselves and strengthening the belief. Before it was just a strong belief, but after false reconsideration it’s a strong belief that they’ve really, definitely, seriously reconsidered. But if you can’t imagine yourself going through the day holding another set of competing beliefs then you never actually reconsidered it.

Ah, you say you’ve really thought about this. And maybe you have, but you probably really didn’t. You were just bullshitting yourself. But you probably gave yourself a pretty good pep talk. Grooms do this sort of thing the morning of the wedding. This is going to be fine, this is going to be fine, this is going to be fine… And brides no doubt do the same thing. But there is a reason for prenuptial agreements.

And this plays out in odd ways in national politics. A few weeks ago, when the House Republican plan to scrap Medicare was just falling apart, attacked by everyone, including most of the registered voters across America, including most Republicans, Duncan Black asked the key question – “What were they thinking?”

No one really knew. These guys really did have to know the seriousness of the risk, and they had to realize Democrats would never give in on such an idea – they’d hang this business of effectively ending Medicare around their necks. This was dead on arrival. They could never pass such a thing. No one would stand for it. So why did they force their own caucus to put their careers and House majority on the line for an agenda that was sure to fail anyway?

Steve Benen wonders about that – and he did consider that Republicans were so stuck in epistemic closure – they could only see what they decided they could see – that they thought their plan would be popular.

But then he came across this:

It might be a political time bomb – that’s what GOP pollsters warned as House Republicans prepared for the April 15 vote on Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget, with its plan to dramatically remake Medicare.

No matter how favorably pollsters with the Tarrance Group or other firms spun the bill in their pitch – casting it as the only path to saving the beloved health entitlement for seniors – the Ryan budget’s approval rating barely budged above the high-30s or its disapproval below 50 percent, according to a Republican operative familiar with the presentation.

The poll numbers on the plan were so toxic – nearly as bad as those of President Barack Obama’s health reform bill at the nadir of its unpopularity – that staffers with the National Republican Congressional Committee warned leadership, “You might not want to go there” in a series of tense pre-vote meetings.

But it didn’t matter. Republicans knew they were inviting a political disaster, but, as Benen puts it, they jumped off the cliff anyway:

So what were they thinking? The report, from Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman, notes that some prominent House Republicans argued against the radical agenda, but those voices were overruled.

According to a top GOP consultant involved in the debate, Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner, ultimately concluded they had to be “true to the people who put us here” – and that meant giving the right-wing base something they, and only they, would like.

And the report has this detail – “Republican sources said Boehner, who has struggled to control his rambunctious new majority, needed to send a message to conservative upstarts that he was serious about bold fiscal reform – especially after some of the 63 freshmen rebelled against his 2011 budget deal that averted a government shutdown.”


The Speaker also came to believe he lacked the political clout with his own caucus to derail the plan, even if he wanted to, so he got on board.

What a fiasco. The party backed a wildly-unpopular plan, reinvigorated Democrats, and the right-wing base isn’t especially impressed anyway. All the GOP has to look forward to are attack ads and severe electoral setbacks.

But when you’re locked in, you’re locked in. And Benen notes there were also the pep talks:

It’s worth noting that the Politico article reports, simply as a matter of fact, that the House Republican leaders intended to “boldly position their party as a beacon of fiscal responsibility.” What the article doesn’t note is that this is absurd – there’s nothing fiscally responsible about the House GOP plan. The numbers don’t add up; the finances are fraudulent; and even the Medicare “savings” would be applied to tax cuts, not deficit reduction. The media really needs to start understanding this.

And Glenn Thrush and Jake Sherman also reported this:

The outward unity projected by House Republicans masked weeks of fierce debate, even infighting, and doubt over a measure that stands virtually no chance of becoming law. In a series of heated closed-door exchanges, dissenters, led by Ryan’s main internal rival – House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) – argued for a less radical, more bipartisan approach, GOP staffers say.

But Camp and others finally agreed to go along with it, even though a tiny minority of Republicans with the Democrats could have easily blocked Medicare repeal if they wanted to:

At a fundraiser shortly after the vote, a frustrated Camp groused, “We shouldn’t have done it” and that he was “overridden,” according to a person in attendance.

And Matthew Yglesias comments:

All put together, it’s a fascinating picture of the emergence of very strong party discipline of the sort that hasn’t traditionally existed in the United States and continues not to exist in the Democratic caucus. In lots of countries the way things work is that once a party caucus has decided on a position, all members vote for it even if in the intra-caucus dispute they didn’t want to adopt that position.

But American parties don’t normally work this way. Camp, however, seems to be saying that the House GOP now does.

Indeed, party decision-making is sufficiently centralized that discipline can be imposed even when the members are well-aware that the line people are being made to toe is unpopular.

And the press should wake up to what is going on here:

One of the unfortunate things about the political media’s commitment to “balanced” coverage is that not only do reporters generally feel impelled to always act as if the two parties are normatively symmetrical, there also seems to be a reluctance to explore the systematic asymmetries between the parties in an even merely descriptive sense. As a result, we know less about the differences in these disciplinary dynamics, their sources, and their implications than we really ought to.

Well, the political media could do that, or just remind their audience that the whole business is just like Thanksgiving dinner, where the grown brothers and sisters taunt and tease each other, calling each other stupid, all in good fun, and not to be taken all that seriously. And these Republican guys do stick together, even if they know their jumping off a cliff.

But sometimes there’s just a real lock-in to something quite stupid. For example, on Meet the Press, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the man himself, continued to defend his plan to end Medicare, arguing this – “If I could put it in a nutshell, we’re saying don’t affect current seniors, give future seniors the ability to deny business to inefficient providers.” And that’s the same thing he said almost word for word the week before his major economic speech in Chicago.

But Jared Bernstein is not kind – “Just because Rep. Paul Ryan keeps saying it doesn’t make it any less egregiously wrong.”

To get why this “market solution” can’t work, you have to understand a bit about how Ryan’s plan changes Medicare. As is by now pretty widely appreciated, including by many in his own party, the plan ends guaranteed health care coverage for seniors and replaces it with a voucher for them to shop for insurance on the street.

Importantly, the value of those vouchers start well below where they need to be to enable seniors to afford coverage comparable to Medicare today (in fact, beneficiaries costs would have to double), and their value falls increasing behind coverage costs over time.

Suppose you send me to the grocery store to buy you a gallon of milk. Milk costs $3.50 a gallon but you give me $2. I spend the whole day “denying business to inefficient providers” – i.e., grocers who all charge more than that – and at the end of the day, bring you back a pint.

Now, instead of milk, where I’ve got the information I need to be a smart shopper, suppose you give me the same under-priced voucher but ask me to bring you back a plan for treating that strange pain you’ve been experience on your left side on humid days.

There’s no “denying business to inefficient providers” in the Ryan plan because there’s no market discipline that average folks with incomplete information armed with an inadequate voucher can enforce on a private health insurance market that’s … well, different.

And Benen puts it this way – “There’s probably nothing Paul Ryan can do to affect the media’s perception of him as a credible, wonky expert, bravely telling uncomfortable truths. But for those who take reality seriously, the man is still little more than a telegenic fraud.”

And see Jared Bernstein on how healthcare insurance really works:

The NYT ran an interesting article about insurance company economics this weekend and I was once again struck by how the business of health insurance is so non-markety… yet another reason why we need to get the health reform plan up and running.

The story goes like this: insurers have been raising co-pays (the amount you contribute out-of-pocket when you get medical treatment) which should make people more cost conscious, and in fact, recession-battered families have been responding by seeking less care – so far, basic Econ 101.

But despite the cost shifting and resulting demand contraction, premium prices have gone up as fast as ever.

The New York Times article offers this:

The companies continue to press for higher premiums, even though their reserve coffers are flush with profits and shareholders have been rewarded with new dividends. Many defend proposed double-digit increases in the rates they charge, citing a need for protection against any sudden uptick in demand once people have more money to spend on their health, as well as the rising price of care.


In competitive markets, sellers can’t typically set today’s prices based on where they expect demand to be in the future. If one of them did so, others would capture their market share by pricing based on current supply and demand conditions.

The dynamic should lead you to be particularly skeptical about plans that depend on private insurers responding to market signals (are you listening, Rep Ryan?). Republicans go on about how once everyone’s out there on their own shopping for insurance in unregulated, private markets, competition will drive prices down.

That’s how it works for bananas. It’s not the way it works for health insurance – folks are locked into plans through their jobs, there’s huge information disparities (their business model is to know who’s risky and avoid them), and most importantly, individuals have minuscule bargaining clout. So if you wanna shop for health insurance by yourself, just make sure your policy covers masochism.

It seems Ryan is full of crap on these matters – but he is locked in, locked into what he believes about free markets, in spite of the evidence. And he has been on the defensive, thinking hard about this. But of course people often convince themselves that they truly reconsider their strongly held beliefs, but what they do is false reconsideration with the real purpose of reassuring themselves and strengthening the belief. Before it was just a strong belief, but after false reconsideration it’s a strong belief that they’ve really, definitely, seriously reconsidered. Didn’t someone once say that?

But then there are people on both sides who are locked into their positions – and they pretend to reconsider things, and then never change their minds. The most votes can do is vote one set of true believers in and the other set out, now and then. But it’s much like that depressing Thanksgiving dinner, when politics come up. What’s the point of listening to anyone say look, I’m right, and here’s why I’m right, and I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks?

It’s no wonder people are put off by politics, as it is primarily sibling preening and taunting and all locked in long ago. And maybe there are no swing voters, just a large group of Americans who are just depressed by it all and flip a coin when it’s time to vote.

But think about beliefs that you hold and imagine yourself changing your mind. It cannot be done. So leave it at that.

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.
This entry was posted in Epistemic Closure, Medicare Voucher Plan, Paul Ryan Budget, Political Deadlock, Political Discourse and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Locked In

  1. James Work says:


    A good summary of the issues, but it would be nice to see more people focus on the moral/value perspectives that are involved. Liberals need to focus on the basic values behind their arguments and less on the issues themselves. George Lakoff has made this point clearly.

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