Hudathunkit? Dep’t.: Bundy’s racist rant and the partisan asymmetry in motivated cognition

Cliven Bundy, right-wing hero, is a howling racist.

Good to watch Rand Paul and Greg Abbott backpedaling now. But wasn’t it enough that Bundy denied the jurisdiction of the government of the United States and organized an armed mob to threaten federal officials carrying out lawful court orders? It should have been.

This just illustrates the point of Ezra Klein’s sophisticated take on Dan Kahan’s work about motivated cognition. Yes, human beings divided into feuding factions tend to act less intelligently than those same human beings would in a less polarized context. But all factions are not alike on this crucial dimension. Some track reality – and encourage their followers to track reality – pretty well, some not so well, and some abominably. The Red faction, where the fringe has become the base and where no adult supervision is allowed to interfere with the dissemination of pure lunacy, is radically more detached from reality than the Blue faction. Of course there are Blue lunatics, but they aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of debate. (When you hear a Blue thinker accused of “hippie-bashing,” that often means he or she is doing the job of keeping the team tethered to consensus reality by calling out fringiness. And yes, there’s a hyperactive form of this where perfectly sensible proposals and statements supported by good evidence but that don’t yet have widespread public support get dismissed as “loony left.”)

Tracking reality maps, albeit imperfectly, into acting with decency: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” It’s not by accident that the party of global-warming denial and poll unskewing is also the party of torture.

No patriotic American should be pleased that our republic no longer has two political parties either of which can be safely entrusted with the task of governing. But wishing that fact away will not make it disappear. What the republic needs right now is a public awareness of how sick and twisted the Red team actually is, leading a series of devastating electoral defeats for the Republicans sufficient to shock them back into contact with consensus reality.

Footnote Since I’m claiming that there’s a factional difference, let me illustrate by criticizing Harry Reid’s rhetoric in the Bundy case. If you want to call his followers seditious, the dictionary is on your side. If you want to call them unpatriotic, by my guest. If you want to say that they are advocates of lawless violence and therefore enemies of the project of free government, I’ll join the chorus. But “domestic terrorist” is not only inflammatory but simply wrong.

Abortion-clinic bombers are terrorists. So are some of the animal-rights and eco-fringe groups. The Klan was a terrorist organization.

Militas, by contrast, are rebels, or at least cowardly rebel-wannabes. There’s a difference. Even the assassination of officials – which of course is deplorable in a republic – isn’t terrorism. Neither is simple crazy violence, even if the person carrying out the crazed violence embraces some crazy ideology as well. Terrorism is an organized effort to use violence to spread fear in the general population for political purposes.

Right now, the U.S. suffers from the threat, and sometimes the actuality, of right-wing violence, but to my knowledge there is no right-wing terrorist activity, or even any lively threat of such activity. So let’s call Bundy’s armed mob what it is – which is plenty bad enough – and not what it is not.

In criticizing a politician I generally support for making a statement that I think isn’t factually or logically sound, I’m acting like … a liberal. No doubt other liberals will disagree with me on the substance or think that, with Reid standing almost alone against Bundyism, it’s impolitic to criticize him. But all of that is perfectly normal, on my side of the great divide. On the other side – with, of course, honorable exceptions – not so much.

Why We Struggle to Accept the Dual Nature of Addicted Criminal Offenders

An elderly man is found unconscious at the wheel of his idling car in the median strip of a busy interstate. Miraculously, he struck no other vehicle when he careered off the highway. When roused by the police, he blows a blood alcohol level of .18, leading to his third DUI arrest.

A young meth-addicted woman thinks her reflection in a store window is watching her, so she hurls a brick at it. A terrified customer calls the police, who arrest her for shattering the window and spraying the store’s customers with glass shards.

In some people’s eyes, the millions of people like the above examples who come into contact with the criminal justice system each year are dangerous monsters who should be sent away for long prison terms. Others view these same people as helpless and hapless, innocent victims both of a disease and a cruel criminal justice system. From this it follows that the legal system should back off entirely and let health care professionals offer needed treatment.

These two camps argue with each other endlessly, usually in debates about whether society should respond to addicted offenders with punishment OR treatment, whether intoxicated violence should result in accountability and monitoring OR immediate forgiveness and therapeutic support, and whether substance dependence is a public health OR a public safety issue. My own view is that both sides lose every one of these debates, because they have framed the question is a way that makes both permissible answers wrong. People addicted to alcohol and other drugs do indeed suffer terribly; they also do physical and emotional harm to millions of other people each year. Trying to decide whether this population needs help OR whether the rest of us need protection from them is as sensible as trying to decide whether to provide your child love OR limits.

I have long wondered why many intelligent people — even people who have seen the population of interest up close — are so strongly committed to seeing addicted offenders either as villains or victims rather than as a mélange of both. Cognitive psychology research suggests that it may have something to do with the impact of emotion on perception and reasoning. Continue Reading…

Some actual bipartisan legislation to help people living with disabilities

My latest at Wonkblog.


Veronica Perrone Pollack and Vincent Perrone, blowing out the birthday candles.

The Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act would allow people with disabilities and their families to establish 529-style accounts for education, transportation, and other expenses. Identical versions are co-sponsored by seventy senators and by 359 members of the House. It’s amazing to see Senators Bernie Sanders, Jay Rockefeller, Mitch McConnell, and James Imhofe co-sponsoring the same bill.

In an era so disfigured by mean-spirited and polarized gridlock politics, this is no little thing. More here.

Thomas Piketty’s other book

Americans think the French don’t work hard. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the XXIst Century has 970 pages in the French edition before me. That’s with merely a table of contents. Following the annoying and backward French habit, there’s no index. The scholarly apparatus – bibliography, data tables, and more – is shifted to a website. You can download the lot in a zip file of a mere 13 MB.


It matters that Piketty has written a doorstopper not an article. The book is very accessible to the general reader with stamina; in fact it’s too leisurely and repetitive for my taste, more appropriate to the series of lectures on which it is no doubt based. But it is massively learned. My heart warms to a writer who takes Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac as serious and acute witnesses to the economic life of their times. His interest in social history is not that of a dilettante like me. He has done primary research in the Paris city archives on the inheritance patterns of the bourgeoisie of the Belle Epoque. His research style owes a lot, explicitly, to the Annales school of historians like Febvre, Braudel and Bloch, who were not afraid of the challenge of understanding entire complex societies over long sweeps of time.

Freshwater economists will not be able to challenge this historical depth simply by fanning their vapours with elegant DGSE models. Jane Austen is outside their professional frame of reference. Piketty has restored economic history to its rightful place as the test of large-scale theory, as Milton Friedman accepted. Graduate students in economics are I hope heading for the history departments to learn about the methods. With luck, Piketty may shift the paradigm of economic science in a good direction, with more humility and a willingness to use all the evidence.

Beyond simple praise – read the book! – there are three ways to criticise a magnum opus like this. Niggles: e.g, in his long time-series charts, he often shifts the horizontal scale half-way without flagging it. This sort of thing would be useful in quantity, but requires real work. Frontal attack: the theory is wrong because. Piketty is out of my league and anyway it looks pretty convincing to me. Finally, there’s complaining that the author should have written a different book. That’s my line. It has the additional advantage that I don’t need first to finish the one he wrote.

The book he didn’t write is about innovation. Continue Reading…

Talking cannabis: Kilmer, Sterling, DuPont, Volkow

Beau Kilmer, Eric Sterling, Robert DuPont, and Nora Volkow discuss cannabis legalization on the Diane Rehm show. Volkow’s presentation is a masterpiece of jumping to conclusions. She assumes that the net effects of cannabis legalization are negative, without even mentioning the costs of prohibition (arrest can be hazardous to your health) or the possibility that cannabis might substitute for alcohol. DuPont jumps from the correct obsevation that alcohol use and cannabis use are positively correlated across individuals to the unjustified conclusion that they are complements. Kilmer is much more judicious.

Soft Signs of Economic Revival in the Developed World

2013 was a painful year for developed economies, particularly those in the Eurozone. Finland, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain all saw their GDP shrink. France and Germany just barely avoided the same fate. But the latest International Monetary Fund projections for 2014 economic growth are better news for those ailing economies, as well as for the non-Eurozone G7 nations. The chart below ranks these countries from greatest projected 2014 growth (The United Kingdom) to worst (a tie between Finland and Slovenia). Although none of them has a red-hot economy, neither is any of them projected to contract.

IMF Growth Projections for 2014

The biggest projected turnaround from 2013 is long-suffering Greece, whose economy shriveled by a ghastly 3.9% in 2013. The Greeks must also feel relieved that investors seem willing to lend them money again. However, the end of economic contraction does not necessarily mean an end to misery for most people in an economy. Ryan Cooper glumly points out that Greek unemployment is at 27%! That grim statistic underscores how far Greece remains from a healthier economy like the U.K.’s, where respectable economic growth is being projected concurrent with a 5-year low in unemployment.

Still, as a whole, the developed world seems poised to move ahead economically in 2014. That’s encouraging news for the millions of its people who spent 2013 hanging on by their fingernails.

p.s. In case you are wondering why I use “Holland” instead of “The Netherlands”, it’s because Holland is an ancient Dutch word that translates roughly as “Name for our country that fits on a PowerPoint slide”.

Cannabis use and problem drinking: NORML tries a fast one.

Sometimes b.s. science in support of drug policy advocacy reflects the choices of the scientists. Sometimes it reflects the choices of the advocates.

I got a note from a friend about a report that frequent cannabis users consume less alcohol. Of course, it would be fabulous news if cannabis use actually substituted for heavy drinking; to my mind, that would make the case for cannabis legalization a near lay-down, and the case for high taxes and tight restrictions rather dubious.

The note was based on a NORML press release with a very encouraging headine:

Frequent Cannabis Consumers Less Likely To Engage In Problematic Alcohol Use

And the lead paragraph was consistent with the headline: “Those who report consuming cannabis two or three times per week are less likely to engage in at risk drinking behavior, according to data published online in The American Journal of Addictions.”

So I rushed to read the actual paper. Yes indeed: frequent cannabis users were less likely to engage in problem drinking compared to occasional cannabis users. Ooops!

Here’s the summary by the sciencists, right at the top of their paper:

Cannabis users were more likely to report hazardous alcohol use, use of other illicit drugs, and unauthorized use of prescription drugs than were non-users. Within the group of active cannabis users, frequent cannabis use, compared to occasional use, was associated with the use of other illicit drugs and negatively associated with hazardous alcohol use.

[emphasis added]

In fact, if you compare heavy cannabis users (here defined as 2-3x/week or more with non-users, they’re slightly more likely to engage in problem drinking. It’s just that they’re better off in that regard than occasional users.

So the accurate summary of the paper would be: cannabis smoking in Sweden is associated with problem drinking, but less so among frequent smokers than among occasional smokers.

See how it’s done? Simply by omitting the crucial qualfier, you can convert a finding that’s unhelpful to your cause to a finding that’s extremely helpful. Now kids, these are trained PR professionals; don’t try this at home.

Pot-smoking in Sweden is fairly rare; only 2.7% of the weighted sample reported any use. (The comparable figure in the U.S. would be more like 15%.) Of those, more than 90% were categorized as occasional users: remember, that’s the group with more alcohol abuse. Only 9.7% (weighted) were in the frequent-user group. So the possible protective effect applies to something less than half a percent of the population. At that rate, cannabis isn’t likley to contribute much to alcohol-abuse prevention, even if there’s a real effect, which of course we don’t know. The study is purely correlational, leaving the causal relationships utterly undefined. A response rate of under 30% further complicates interpretation. Nor do we know what happens over time; what’s the effect of heavy cannabis use at time T on problem drinking at T + 1, T + 2, …?

Even so, the negative correlation between cannabis frequency and heavy drinking isn’t what I would have expected; this is a finding the calls for follow-up research.

But the main thing I learned is not to trust NORML press releases.

Several people have noticed that my usually sunny disposition turns a bit more stormy when I participate in drug-policy debates. Is it any wonder? I think I deserve some credit for not having actually strangled anyone.

Update The author of the press release replies:

Yes, you are correct. This is what the paper said. I believed this point was made clear in the press release here:

“Researchers reported that frequent cannabis consumers (defined as having used cannabis two or three times per week) were less likely to engage in hazardous drinking practices compared to infrequent users (those who reported having consumed cannabis fewer than four times per month).”

They concluded: “Among cannabis users, frequent cannabis use is associated with a higher prevalence of other illicit drug use and a lower prevalence of hazardous alcohol use when compared to occasional cannabis use.”

The conclusion that the heavier cannabis users reported less incidences of hazardous drinking compared to ‘infrequent users’/’occasional users’ is made clear in the third and fourth paragraph using those exact terms. Your summary implies I never made this point clear at all and that is simply untrue.

In hindsight I agree that I arguably should have also made this point more clear in the lede, but I did make it explicitly clear the third paragraph and also quoted the paper’s authors in the fourth graph. The summary of the paper itself was only four paragraphs. (The fifth graph refers to a separate paper.) I would hardly call this a ‘fast one.’

It seems to me that failing to mention that both cannabis users over all, and even the heavy users, were more involved with at-risk drinking than non-users was a serious problem. But your mileage may vary.

The very political neuroscience of cannabis

If you were a neuroscientist and discovered that there were, on average, measurable anatomical differences between (1) the brains of 20 young right-handed people who smoke an average of a little more than 11 joints per week and had been consuming cannabis for a little more than 6 years and (2) the brains of an age-sex-chirality-matched group, and that those differences persisted even after controlling for alcohol consumption and were accentuated among those who use more cannabis, you’d probably say, “Hmmm … that’s interesting. I wonder what it means.”

After all, it might mean:

1. That using cannabis at that level causes changes in the brain.
2. That something else correlated with cannabis use – for example, use of other illicit drugs – causes changes in the brain.
3. That something about having that kind of brain makes cannabis use more attractive to people to have it than it is to people who don’t.
4. That the brain differences and the cannabis-use differences between the two groups are the product of some unknown third factor.

If, on further study, it were to turn out that the differences were the result of cannabis use, then you might ask, “What are the consequences – if any – of those differences?” After all, various learning tasks are known to change brain anatomy: London cabbies, who are required to learn London in astonishing detail, have larger-than-normal anterior and posterior hippocampi, and visual artists also have brains that are structurally different from non-artists.

Now, if you’d started out with already-known measured deficits in cannabis users and found brain changes independently known to lead to such deficits, that last question wouldn’t be so hard to answer. Of course, that’s hard, because the most recent meta-analysis found “no evidence for enduring negative effects of cannabis use” on neurcognitive function. (The Dunedin 8-IQ-point finding is about people with chronic substance use disorder.)

Overall then, if you were that neuroscientist, you’d write a paper saying “We studied cannabis users and non-users and found the following brain differences. Here’s the next study we plan to do, addressing the questions of causation and possible impact.”

That’s assuming that your goal was informing your readers about the content of your findings. If instead you wanted to score points in the culture wars, push your political agenda, and perhaps please your sponsors at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Office of National Drug Control policy, you’d behave differently. Continue Reading…

Quantitative Easing Explained

As developed economies show more signs of life, many observers wonder whether it is time to end quantitative easing. The discussion would be much more informative if more people actually knew what QE is. This is the best short explanation I have seen.

If this White House event didn’t exist, Thomas Piketty would have to invent it

This White House event, chronicled in the New York Times, seems both politically astute and more than a little sickening.

From the fashion section, naturally

Blame the game, not the players….

Maybe my favorite part of the story comes from the reporter:

(Disclosure: Although the event was closed to the media, I was invited by the founders of Nexus, Jonah Wittkamper and Rachel Cohen Gerrol, to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.)