Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The conversation

A few pieces I read over the last few days juxtapose nicely on the state of America today.

On Saturday, Orrin Hatch, writing in the Wall Street Journal,
"America’s culture war has reached a tipping point. While our politics have always been divisive, an underlying commitment to civility has usually held citizens on both sides together... 
To be clear, I am not calling for an end to the culture war. Indeed, it can and must be fought. Intense disputes over social issues are a feature, not a flaw, of a functioning democracy. 

 I am, however, calling for a dramatic reassessment of tactics. We need a d├ętente in partisan hostilities, an easing of tensions that can be realized when both sides adopt certain rules of engagement—norms to rein in the worst excesses of the culture wars.

Foremost among these norms should be a commitment to preventing communal spaces from becoming politicized. Even in our most divided times, there have been places we could go to escape the partisan clamor—places where we could leave politics at the door and come together as one, including restaurants, theaters, sports arenas and houses of worship.... 
The assault on communal spaces is a subset of the politicization of everything—the culture war equivalent of a scorched-earth policy. It is an attempt to burn away the last vestiges of civility and common cause along the march to political domination. 
Everything—from chicken sandwiches to prom dresses and even cartoon frogs—can be weaponized for political purposes... 
In similar fashion, our society could benefit from adopting certain conventions to limit the scope and severity of the culture wars... 
First, we must agree on the need to shield communal spaces from politicization... 
Second, we must work together to resist the politicization of everything.... 
Third, we must discourage harassment of public figures and incursions into their private lives... 
Fourth, liberals and conservatives alike should commit themselves to rhetorical disarmament... 
In a culture war, in which words are weapons, both sides need to ease their inflammatory language. 
 By working together to instill these norms, we can revive civic life and set our nation on a path to health and healing. "
On Sunday, I read the New York Times. (I also read the New Yorker. I like well-written opinion from all views.) Frank Bruni, normally one of the Times' more sedate writers:
"There are problems with impeaching Donald Trump. A big one is the holy terror waiting in the wings. 
That would be Mike Pence, who mirrors the boss more than you realize. He’s also self-infatuated. Also a bigot. Also a liar. Also cruel. [My emphasis]
To that brimming potpourri he adds two ingredients that Trump doesn’t genuinely possess: the conviction that he’s on a mission from God and a determination to mold the entire nation in the shape of his own faith, a regressive, repressive version of Christianity. Trade Trump for Pence and you go from kleptocracy to theocracy."
Notice the phrasing. "Is an x" is a schoolyard insult, not a fact. "Said something untrue" is, potentially, a fact. "Told a lie" requires knowledge of intent, which is awfully hard to document. "Is a liar" is just an insult. What's next, dear Times,  Yo' Mama jokes?  This kind of phrasing has been oozing from Krugman columns for a long time, and now seems to have infected the rest of the Times. This is only one small example, but it came just after reading Hatch so it struck me more than usual.

Maybe we should add to the Senator's Rules of Etiquette, "Don't write insults in national newspapers." Maybe just "don't write insults," actually.

(Yes, Bruni was characterizing the views of a book he reviewed. But these are not direct quotes, they are his words summarizing the book. The insult was not necessary.)

From the other side of the spectrum, I enjoyed an essay from my Hoover colleague Victor Davis Hanson, in National Review, "The origins of our second civil war," which is the issue here. I usually disagree with about half of what Victor writes, and in this piece too, but he too writes well, thoughtfully and persuasively. (And politely, if forcefully.)
"How, when, and why has the United States now arrived at the brink of a veritable civil war? 
Almost every cultural and social institution — universities, the public schools, the NFL, the Oscars, the Tonys, the Grammys, late-night television, public restaurants, coffee shops, movies, TV, stand-up comedy — has been not just politicized but also weaponized. 
Donald Trump’s election was not so much a catalyst for the divide as a manifestation and amplification of the existing schism. 
We are now nearing a point comparable to 1860, and perhaps past 1968. Left–Right factionalism is increasingly fueled by geography — always history’s force multiplier of civil strife. Red and blue states ensure that locale magnifies differences that were mostly manageable during the administrations of Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, and Clinton."
The last point strikes me as worth reinforcing. I live in a bubble, where you can't order a Pizza without getting sympathy for how terrible life is under Trump, now would you like the shaved Manchego on top of the Arrugula? Nobody here has ever met a Republican, let alone imagines that the person they are serving might (gasp) be one. If they were, I suppose, they would get the Sarah Sanders treatment. I travel to parts of the country where the opposite is true. The normal force of politeness nudging people to civil discourse is vanishing.

Victor finds economic causes in globalization that I (politely!) disagree with, which is a topic for another day. But he is good on empathy for, rather than disdain of, middle Americans, and how their troubles feed the problem
"... a radical ongoing restructuring in American middle-class life, characterized by stagnant net income, family disintegration, and eroding consumer confidence. No longer were youth so ready to marry in their early twenties, buy a home, and raise a family of four or five. Compensatory ideology made the necessary adjustments to explain the economic doldrums and began to characterize what was impossible first as undesirable and later as near toxic. Pajama Boy sipping hot chocolate in his jammies, and the government-subsidized Life of Julia profile, became our new American Gothic. 
... the lifestyles of their ancestors were eroding. The new normal was two parents at work, none at home; renting as often as buying; an eight-year rather than three-year car loan; fewer grandparents around the corner for babysitting or to assist when ill; and consumer service defined as hearing taped messages of an hour before reaching a helper in India or Vietnam. 
...If in 1970 a nerd slandered one on the sidewalk and talked trash, he might not do it twice; in 2018, he did it electronically, boldly, and with impunity behind an array of masked social-media identities."
As you might imagine he is not a fan of the modern university's role in this emerging civil war
"Universities grew not just increasingly left-wing but far more intolerant than they were during the radicalism of the Sixties — but again in an infantile way. Speakers were shouted down to prove social-justice fides. “Studies” courses squeezed out philosophy and Latin. History became a melodramatic game of finding sinners and saints, rather than shared tragedy. Standards fell to accommodate poorly prepared incoming students, on the logic that old norms were arbitrary and discriminatory constructs anyway.
The curriculum now was recalibrated as therapeutic; it no longer aimed to challenge students by demanding wide reading, composition skills, and mastery of the inductive method. The net result was the worst of all possible worlds: An entire generation of students left college with record debt, mostly ignorant of the skills necessary to read, write, and argue effectively, lacking a general body of shared knowledge — and angry. They were often arrogant in their determination to actualize the ideologies of their professors in the real world. A generation ignorant, arrogant, and poor is a prescription for social volatility. [My emphasis]
... The result was the rise of the stereotypical single 28-year-old — furious at an unfair world that did not appreciate his unique sociology or environmental-studies major, stuck in his parents’ basement or garage, working enough at low-paying jobs to pay for entertainments, if his room, board, and car were subsidized by his aging and retired parents."
The Red Brigades and the 9/11 terrorists were university graduates of the same sort. Social volatility does often come from this class.

Victor is right, but his view reflects a bit too much what's going on in the quickly disappearing humanities, and the troubled social sciences. Most students at Stanford duck, shut up, and head off to the science and engineering classes.

Victor's thoughts on "What Might Bring the United States Together Again?"
A steady 3 to 4 percent growth in annual GDP would trim a lot of cultural rhetoric. ...
Measured, meritocratic, diverse, and legal immigration would help to restore the melting pot.
Victor and I spar most often on immigration. I am delighted to see such agreement. The problem with our immigration system is not the amount, it's who we let in and how. I think we would only disagree now on just how "measured" it has to be.
Reforming the university would help too, mostly by abolishing tenure, requiring an exit competence exam for the BA degree (a sort of reverse, back-end SAT or ACT exam), and ending government-subsidized student loans that promote campus fiscal irresponsibility and a curriculum that ensures future unemployment for too many students.
Sadly, universities including my old home at Chicago, are moving in the other direction, eliminating the SAT which allows students to demonstrate actual competence, but draws lawsuits because it lays bare the University's scandalous discrimination against Asians and Americans of Asian background. The Obama administration, in its crackdown on private universities, attacked their employment rate. "If you're going to take Federal money, your students have to pass this exam" -- maybe the GRE-- is an interesting concept.

Civility is the backbone of Civilization. We should always think about who is in the room, including the electronic room, and if they might take offense at what we say. Don't attack motives (unless you have really clear evidence). A person can be wrong but not evil.  Don't necessarily shut up, but phrase what we say in just a little more polite way. I try, though I probably fail too often. And, as Hatch suggests, call out incivility especially by those you agree with on substance when you see it.

It's not a small issue. "Cultural" wars have become political wars, and the tactics are scorched earth. Not even small commonsense reforms can make it through our political system. The country will really fall apart otherwise.


My colleague Russ Roberts has a good essay on this subject, "The Outrage Epidemic" on the and as an Econtalk Podcast here. Some excerpts:

The political atmosphere in America seem to have deteriorated a lot in the last few years. A lot of yelling. ... And a lot of trusting of stories that are literally not true. 
People don’t just disagree with each other. They can’t imagine how a decent human being could disagree with their view of immigration or the minimum wage or President Trump. 
...Being a member of the virtuous tribe means not only carrying the correct card in your wallet to reassure yourself. You have to also believe that the people carrying any other card are fools or dupes, or worse — evil. This means an end to not just civilized conversation, but often to any kind of conversation at all. 
This is dangerous. When you can’t imagine that your political opponents might possibly be right it dehumanizes them. It justifies the worst atrocities human beings are capable of.
Russ finds a root cause in what the internet has done to media. A few newspapers and TV stations used to serve everyone and had to find balance. The economics are media are now that you either serve the polarized self-confirming tastes of customers or you go out of business.

I have heard this in many places. Occasionally I have chided a few people at the New York Times about their style (see above for an example). After a while the conversation comes back to, well, that's what we have to do to survive today. He whose name cannot be mentioned gives us a lot of clicks.
Who is CNN’s biggest competitor? You’d think that would be Fox News. But their competition is really MSNBC and the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos and people on twitter who give people what they want. People and sites that cater to those who lean to the left. The biggest competitor of Fox News isn’t CNN — it’s Breitbart, and Rush Limbaugh and sites that cater to the right. 
To get more views, you need to be a little bit louder in favor of the home team and a little less nuanced. You can’t just politely disagree with the other tribe. You need to vilify them. Outrage sells when competition is this intense.

His advice:
So think about yourself. What do you want to watch? What grabs your attention when it comes to news and politics? 
If you’re like most people, you have a tendency to read what makes you feel good about yourself. Hard to read things that challenge your preconceptions and that are charitable to the other side. 
How many stories have you read that turned out to be wrong? Do you know? How much time do you spend making sure that what you believe about some policy issue — immigration, or trade, or the Middle East, is really backed up by the evidence and the facts?
Well, at least he makes me feel better about my habit of reading the New York Times, and the New Yorker. OK, I slam down my coffee cup and get the nickname "Grumpy Economist," but at least I'm listening!

His best suggestions are personal
And while there is always an incentive to yell and exaggerate as a way to draw traffic, I can imagine a cultural norm emerging that would frown on such behavior even when it pays. Each of us can help push us in the direction of creating that norm by our own actions and choices. I encourage all of us to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Reading these pieces, and writing this post, has made me nearly panic, reviewing my own writings mentally -- Have I done this? Have I treated people unfairly, insulted them (rather than their bad ideas)? Even if I have not, is there something I have written that could be taken this way? Will some commenter or twitterer scream "Gotcha!" Probably, yes. And this is the kind of panic we should probably all have more often! 


  1. Excellent and well-written post (not that most on this blog aren't...)--thanks so much for sharing!

  2. It is good that Senator Orrin Hatch of 2018 calls for more civility and less divisiveness on "cultural" issues. I like that guy much more than Senator Orrin Hatch of 1977, who stated in front of a university student audience that he would not want to see homosexuals teaching school any more than he would want to see members of the American Nazi party teaching school.

    Like today, there have always been "civil" arguments, dog-whistle phrases and evasion being used for furthering the purpose of denying a group equal treatment or basic human rights. For example, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia was nothing if not rhetorically civil in his lifelong campaign against civil rights legislation, which was based on his racist beliefs. I am not sure it would have been much worse, had he used coarser language to same end. Maybe it would be best to discount the rhetoric - civil or otherwise - and focus on assessing the merits of the underlying arguments. Which is not to say that dehumanizing rhetoric aimed at one's opponents is not also a serious issue -- it definitely is, and relatively recent conflicts in e.g. Rwanda and the Balkans provide cautionary if extreme examples. Against this, it is baffling (unless one is cynical about it) that so few Republicans are willing to publicly voice their disapproval of Trump's utterly inappropriate rhetoric and ongoing efforts to publicly undermine the core infrastructure of checks and balances and due process of the American government.

    1. It is unclear how the reference to comments by Orrin Hatch in 1977 has anything to do with the current post—presumably he evolved. As did President Obama on the issue of gay marriage, for example.
      While I completely agree that Trump’s rhetoric is utterly inappropriate, not to mention erratic it is absurd to elevate this to the level of being a danger to democracy. The checks and balances of the American government appear to be alive and well. And separately, as baffling as the few Republicans willing to speak out against Trump, are the even fewer Democrats willing to speak out against those unwilling to accept the outcome of the 2016 elections. As a fiscally conservative, socially liberal moderate who did not vote for Trump, I am genuinely appalled at the attitude that liberals are taking to the outcome of an election that was conducted in exactly the same fashion as every other election in American history. I disliked the outcome, but not accepting it is what is dangerous to both the institutions and the democratic values of America.

    2. I’d say Republicans have publicly disapproved of Trump far more than any other group has disapproved of their same-party President in as long as I can remember.

  3. As a Spaniard, what strikes me the most is that, no matter how hard several media groups have tried to do the same in Europe, it doesn't seem to be working. Maybe your own media magnifices the issue, but, in spite of all the hardship that Europe has been through in the last decade, public discourse and the general "feel" (if you know what I mean) you get when you interact with people in European countries are all still within the realm of normality - even in a country as Spain, traditionally full of people intent on stabbing each other in the back.

    We Europeans have our own racist politicians, our own demons, an increasing amount of social problems - but there seems to be something saving us from the depths your society sadly seems to be drowning in. Here's hoping that you manage to get out of it safe and sound!

    1. Actually interacting with people is the USA is still FAR more civil than the media would have you believe and is also far more civil than online interactions.

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  5. Thank you John. Civility is so important. Its erosion is so sad to see.

  6. From the safe distance of Canada it seems to me that the American "culture wars" are not about university programs and they are not really about culture: they are about race and sex. Sex in the sense of gay rights and the autonomy and treatment of woman.

    You have a President who openly panders to racists and whose attitudes to women are well known. You have a Republican Party base who wanted to put marginalized, vulnerable racial and sexual minorities in their place. A Republican Party that felt itself so aggrieved that supporters would say the best part about being a Republican supporter was that it moved American liberals to tears. And what those Republicans forgot was that a lot of their marginalized and vulnerable victims had friends, relatives and co-workers who were neither marginalized nor vulnerable. Did the Republicans really believe that there would be no push back? The first lesson of being a school bully is: does my target have an older, bigger brother. Apparently the Republicans never learned that.

    Orrin Hatch is unhappy that the people who are trying to normalize Trump, who cover for and enable Trump every day are getting push back in public from the public. Too bad. It is the Republicans who have brought Trump and the policies he represents into the "public spaces" and now they are reaping what they sowed.

    1. I only let this through because it so epitomizes the problem. "It's all the fault of those racist homophobic Republicans!" "It's all the fault of those trigger-warning shout-them down progressive democrats!" No, it's all the fault of this kind of language. How are you ever going to sit down in a room with a real Republican and agree to order a Pizza? Let alone keep a functioning democracy going?

    2. I'm all for civility. As someone involved with housing politics in a fairly purple place, I've sat down and chatted with various people who I don't have a ton in common with ideologically, and it's gone fairly well.

      Be careful of the 'both sidesism' though; sometimes there's one group that is wrong, or doing worse things, even if the other side is less than perfect.

      A silver lining to the Trump disaster is that - as a fairly liberal person - it has made me see some conservatives in a newer, more positive light. They got control of everything, and it'd be easy to just go along with it, but the group of 'Never Trumpers' don't. I still don't agree with them about many things, but because they're willing to go against their party, it makes me think they're worth listening to on other topics as well, even if I may still disagree strongly with their conclusions.

    3. I would say that Trump's election was as much the fault of the Democrats as of the Republicans--because the Democratic party gave Clinton the nomination when there was strong evidence that Sanders had more popular support. I think many voters who voted Republican in 2016 did so not so much for Trump as against Clinton. I'm no fan of Trump, but the undercurrent of strong dissatisfaction with the establishment (and Clinton was nothing if not a creature of the establishment) that Trump is tapping into is real and has real reasons behind it.

    4. Professor Cochrane - that depends entirely on your definition of a "real Republican". In the Canadian context I'm moderate center right. In American context I would be center left. I believe in centrist policies, leaning right on economics and leaning left on social issues. If your definition of a "real Republican" is Donald Trump, Paul Ryan or any member of the Freedom Caucus then you are right I could not usefully sit down with them (although for differing reasons). If your "real Republican" is David Frum, I expect that I would have no trouble having a respectful exchange of views on a wide range of topics.

    5. @Peter Donis - Clinton won the popular vote. Republicans blaming the Democrats for Trump's election seems "odd".

    6. Absalon - Winning the popular vote isn't how you win the Presidency. The electoral vote wasn't close. I think Sanders would have won more of the popular vote than Clinton, but more importantly, I think he would have had a much better chance of winning enough states' electoral votes to win the election.

      Also, who said I was a Republican?

    7. @Absalon why are you lumping Paul Ryan in with Donal Trump?

  7. As another Canadian at a safe distance, Pax Americana and American exceptionalism have been the greatest forces of good the planet has ever seen. For all it’s shortcomings, failures, and disappointments, the United States has made the world a far better place for all of humanity.

    I wonder (or at least hope) that we are all being a touch over-dramatic about the nature of our times. The United States torn itself nearly in two with the Civil War and uneven Reconstruction, and then faced: World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the threat of Soviet nuclear annihilation, the civil unrest of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, stagflation, the 9/11 attacks, and the financial crisis and yet it’s still the most creative, most innovative, and most hopeful place on Earth. Yes the problems today are real and I don’t want to sound dismissive of the high levels of partisan rancour and incivility in public discourse, but at the same time I have a feeling that the United States is going to be just fine. Maybe that’s naive, but history seems to bend in America’s direction.

    1. I'm inclined to agree. Not only have we had these quite extreme levels of social and political unrest in the past, we've had presidents within the past century who interned mass quantities of US citizens in concentration camps based solely on their ethnicity; ordered military attacks on civilian populations, knowing - as I understand it - that there were no meaningful military targets there and that tens or hundreds of thousands of noncombatants would be killed; seriously threatened to pack the Supreme Court if it did not bend to the president's will, despite having sworn to protect and defend the US Constitution; started or expanded major wars on the basis of a) a military attack on US vessels that didn't actually happen, or b) stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction that didn't actually exist; apparently used the IRS and/or other agencies to harass political opponents (and here, the allegations have been made about more than one president); had the Department of Education instruct the nation's universities to deny due process rights to students; was associated with political espionage by burglary; claimed the right to assassinate US citizen expats solely on presidential order; the list goes on. Whatever I may think of our current president's manner and tactics, he has not done anything of this magnitude (yet, at least). He's demonized by his opponents; many of these other presidents are now seen - widely so - as Great Men.
      The problems are real, but the historical significance being attributed to them does seem overblown.

    2. Thank you for your kind words, anonymous Canadian! Allow me to suggest that the root of all the good the United States has done for its people and for the world is our magnificent Constitution, and the strong protections it provides for the freedom of speech and of conscience. If that freedom is sufficiently eroded, as has been and is being attempted by certain activist judges, we may bid farewell to the prosperity and peace that has thus long endured.

  8. "An entire generation of students left college with record debt, mostly ignorant of the skills necessary to read, write, and argue effectively, lacking a general body of shared knowledge — and angry."

    So it's not OK for Frank Bruni to characterize a single person with unfounded statements, but it is OK Victor to characterize an entire generation (or at least major). Maybe you have some blind spots when it comes to scrutinizing the civility of others?

    1. You can be critical and still be civil. Student debt is a fact - nothing uncivil about that. Students lack a shared body of knowledge because of hyper-specialization of courses and degrees - not an insult really to students or uncivil. That students are angry - it might be wrong but hardly uncivil. That students are ignorant of certain skills is honestly more a criticism of teachers and the education system than of students. While that might be an unpleasant thought to entertain, the language again is not uncivil.

    2. I'll grant that he uses somewhat softer language. But calling an entire generation "ignorant, arrogant" is insulting, unfounded, and meets much of the criteria that Cochrane uses when judging the incivility of those on the left.

      Victor is extrapolating from a stereotype, instead of carefully observing reality with an open mind. The former process leaves us stuck in a stalemate where neither side will understand the other.

  9. I agree that things are not good. And I agree that the internet has done a lot to promote asininity. I am all in favor of banning Twitter, which I regard as a device of the Devil.

    But, 50 years ago in 1968 things were worse. A lot worse.

    I am ten years older than our esteemed host. In 1968, I lived in his neighborhood. I remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the riots that followed it. I remember, the assassination of Robert Kennedy. I remember the riots at the political conventions that summer. (I knew enough people who were up to no good to have gotten into my clapped out Chevrolet in August 1968 and driven to Florida). I remember the Weathermen and their reign of terror.

    The main point is that the Republic survived all of that, the Vietnam War, and some true economic chaos in the years that followed. Not only did it survive, it thrived. The current mood doesn't put a patch on 1968.

    I think we will get through this. I do not discount that we have real challenges in our institutions and our finances. But, I am confident that the United States will survive and thrive.

    This is still the best and greatest nation in the history of the world. I truly believe that it will continue to be so for very many years.

  10. Another great post, John. A consistent reading of you is always rewarded.

    I am running for the US House as a Libertarian. The third of my campaign promises is "A Federal government so small that we don't have to fight over it." This embodies what I think is a necessary, but sadly not sufficient, condition of toning down the culture wars: both sides have to stop trying to use the government to impose their views on the others. We have weaponized the Federal government and now we have to disarm. Among other things, a strong focus on the 10th Amendment and local government will help solve this problem. It is harder to demonize the people, and the politicians, that you see weekly in the local grocery store.

    You want to avoid fights over what is taught in schools? Well, charters and vouchers will allow each parent and child to choose.

    You want to minimize fights over abortion? Well, respect a woman's right to choose but don't subsidize those choices with Federal money.

    You want to reduce the fights over gay marriage? Then get the government out of the marriage business and recognize that, where there are plenty of alternative suppliers, there is no reason to force bakers to act against their conscious.

    Etc., etc., etc.

    Like I said, necessary but not sufficient. But at least it's a start. What do you think?

    1. "You want to minimize fights over abortion? Well, respect a woman's right to choose but don't subsidize those choices with Federal money."

      Isn't that more-or-less the current state of affairs?

    2. I'm curious why a candidate for the House is posting as "Unknown". Seems like you might be missing a chance to get support from people who read The Grumpy Economist. Of course, you also avoid a few eggs and tomatoes which might fly your way, but still...

  11. For whatever it's worth, the two changes I've (anecdotally) observed are as follows: (1) there are now far more hyper-partisan politicians in leadership roles, and (2) aggressive political debate now finds you, rather than being something you must actively seek out.

    The cause of item (1) is well-documented: campaign managers once believed moderate votes were important in close elections, but improvements in polling and data science have revealed this to be 100% false. Turn-out rates among the most heavily indoctrinated actually decides who wins. The result of this has been exactly what you'd expect: only politicians with retirement in sight (e.g., Hatch) can be a voice of reason.

    Item (2) is more subjective, but I feel like "back in the day" I had to seek out any sort of meaningful political talk. It was certainly there to be found, it just required fiddling with the AM dials or, later, visiting less popular internet discussion forums. Now I feel the opposite is true: hyper-partisan content finds you, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. I suspect this is, at least in part, driven by item (1) but who knows?

    I do think there's reason for optimism though: as Fat Man points out, these things do tend to be cyclical. Heck, even in 2016 you saw a tiny sliver of hope, with the untalented-but-moderate and likable Rubio staying competitive longer than most would have guessed.

  12. I think the Orin Hatch comments in 1977 to 2018 are telling. In 1977, he was comparing a homosexual to a Nazi. I am struck by the recent Vox post by Ezra Klein about how some people have always been forced to be uncomfortable, but now that discomfort has extended to previously unbothered groups...

  13. I read the Medium article. I don't buy it. There are a lot of assumptions and holes in the argument.

    1) Is there evidence that people are less informed about facts then they were 30 years ago? Put another way, is there evidence that people believe in (note that this is different from having opinions on) things that are demonstrably not true compared to 30 years ago?

    2) Is there evidence that most disagreements are over facts as opposed to beliefs? Relatedly, is there evidence that being exposed to new facts can change beliefs?

    Gay marriage, for instance, is not about facts. Even views on something like free trade can be formed irrespective of facts.You can think that free trade is good, because it increases overall welfare, which need to be proven with empirical facts. You can also believe that trading with whomever you want is a fundamental human right, irrespective of whether it's good or bad for the economy.

    On the second point, you mentioned that you read the NYT. What fundamental opinion/belief have you changed as a result of reading the NYT that you would not have otherwise?

    3) Is there evidence that polarization of opinion is bad for democracy? Will it inevitably leads us to a "dark place" as the article suggests?

  14. My take is that the "cram it down your throat" approach to many things has made many folks resist "acceptance" of what is being crammed down their throat.

    As various groups have claimed some sort of position or "right" to exist...some of those groups appear to have felt that those outside of their group needed to acknowledge their existence and their claim. When the acceptance or affirmation was not made public...those groups felt the need or urge to make a statement, change laws, march or force upon others their needs and views.

    Most folks want to simply live their lives...and let others do the same. When we, as a society, started to see the proliferation of more aggressive "cram down" tactics of various groups...and forced societal acceptance of those groups claims...then that is when politics became the weaponized vehicle for achieving the forced acceptance from a legal perspective.

    As the political rhetoric became more course, combined with one sided debate (think global warming) the outcome was necessarily going to involve forcing some sector of our society to accept things that they really would rather not. Many folks don't have the time or desire to acceptance, forced or otherwise, was the outcome. Eventually laws requiring the quiet majority of voters to accept things, modify behavior...or to pay more (in taxes)for that acceptance. The outcome was obvious...resentment.

    Today, conversations are based on the resentment of being told how to be, that acceptance of those things are the "correct" way to exist...and that society is better off, even if you don't believe that it is. The press played a roll is escalating the polarity of the various groups...and fed the resentment (for profit or economic reasons). The discourse today has no chance of being calm...resentment usually leads to divorce...which is what seems to be happening today. Your reference to the content of the Russ Roberts article is a good analogy in which he demonstrates that condition.

    The country is divided...until the resentment of the "other" position is either diminished or accepted...reconciliation is not possible. We got Trump for a reason.

  15. I experienced this incivility first hand for the first time in 2009. I was attending an outdoor program touring unique trees in my county. The program ended at a city park. At the same time, a Tea Party Event was taking place and breaking up at the same time our tour was concluding. I was approached by a Tea Party participant and asked if I want a Tea Party sign. I told him I wasn't there for the Tea Party Event, but he said, "that's okay, you can still take a sign and some literature" So, upon leaving the park, I'm carrying this sign across the street, and all it said was "Tea Party," nothing else. A passenger in a vehicle at the traffic light, rolled down his window, yelled an epithet at me, and gave me the finger. That was a turning point for me. Wondering what kind of hate would trigger such incivility, I began researching the Tea Party and became much more politically attuned. I never joined the Tea Party but I identified with their slogan, Taxed Enough Already. The next remark was made by President Obama referred to these folks in a very disparaging way, calling them by a crude sexual term, tea baggers. This was the second time he used inappropriate language when disparaged to Pennsylvania's working class, saying we "cling to God and guns."

  16. Well, of course, I agree with this post. We should be civil.

    Still, are there grey zones. Lately I have wondered if "global free trade" actually works for the US economy.

    But to even express skepticism about the benefits of "global free trade" is to be dismissed, and in print and publicly, as an "ignoramus."

    This happened to me!

    I fall in the "old turtle" category, so no harm, no foul. I will go my way.

    But such treatment may disincline others to express their views.

    Orthodox macroeconomists tend to regard their views as nearly equal to laws of physics. Well, maybe less mutable as new evidence emerges.

    I was recently heartened to see John Cochrane look at the Phillip's Curve, and report that after 50 years of observations, the sound theory of the Phillip's Curve…doesn't really seem to hold water.

    Is embracing "global free trade" really the best policy for the US?

    Has the Far East developed by embracing "global free trade"…or through a heavily manipulated participation in global markets?

    Which policy produces the best results?

  17. While many calls for civility are sincere (at least in the moment), I find myself cynical about the repeated calls (usually from conservatives) for "more civil discourse". It's easy to say "if only the world were nicer" but most "civil discourse" proponents do remarkably little to advance the cause.

    Take Mr. Hatch for example - not just his early-days homophobic comments, but in 2018 he has had a nasty habit of referring to the views/tactics of his political opponents as "dumb ass":

    More generally, the character of the "civility" debate only serves to deepen my cynicism.

    First - calls for "civility" are almost always deployed asymmetrically. Consciously or not, the aggressiveness of those we agree with is justified while that of our opponents is doubly insulting. While I might find much to agree with in the specific arguments of a Ben Shapiro despite diagreeing with him, a big part of his (and many other conservative commentators) approach is to drum up notoriety with an "own the libs" attitude. It might be nice if college students were not be so easily "triggered", but a civil discourse would also benefit from less baiting behavior. Calling out BOTH sides is necessary to move towards a civil discourse, otherwise you're just asking your opponents to shut up (this is my view of Orrin's call for civility). Indeed, I suspect that one downside of baiting behavior from one side is that it induces opponents to drown out all views especially the reasonable ones.

    Second - civil discourse proponents implicitly ask people to lower the stakes of the discussion. Civility of discourse is not an absolute value - there are actions that are beyond the pale and should be called out as such. What is the civil or polite way to talk about the rampant and willful disassociation with facts that the president and his administration deal in? I think at this point anything short of calling the president himself a liar is just silly; he has richly earned the title. When (to my mind) blatantly inhumane and racist policies such as the travel ban and family separations at the border take place, I think its necessary to trade off civility for a simple and plain description of my views. This, however, gets to the crux of the problem - many of our debates are elevated to the highest emotional registers (indeed inciting these emotions benefits media personalities, media businesses, politicians, activists, etc.) that the stakes tilt the balance away from a commitment to civility.

    One might ask - are the stakes really that high? The idea of political correctness and the call for micro-political action (i.e. the politicization of everything) together with a toxic media environment certainly help to make us fell that way. How do we move away from this? Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be an easy option. Though its not a perfect guide, I am often drawn to the David Foster Wallace piece on technocratic authority as a guide on the standard we should hold public intellectuals to (and ourselves in general).

  18. I agree entirely, so far as it goes, but I rather doubt that exhortations to personal reflection and growth will change anything. The first step to a solution is a model of the problem: can you suggest an economic analysis of what is going on, which might lead to proposals for institutional change?

    Here’s my take, which is probably not very original. Most discourse is value signaling. People have a variety of personal values (whether genetic, cultural, learned), but group membership is at least as important as expressing our personal values. We normally want a group of up to 150 friends (Dunbar’s number). If your pool of potential friends is ideologically diverse, then value signaling and the drive for group membership are at odds, and you have to tone down value signaling for the sake of friendship. The pool will be diverse if it is small (relative to 150) and more or less randomly selected in relation to political views. (My main circle of friends is though mountain biking, in a fairly small town, and no one ever talks politics.) If the pool is biased eg by geographic clustering (as mentioned), or if the pool is large (as a result of the internet), so that you can select 150 friends with similar views, then we can indulge our inherent values as a means of group membership. In that case, the drive to value signaling and that to group membership are reinforcing, because value signaling becomes a method of signaling membership. But if clustering and the internet are driving factors behind increasing divisiveness, I don’t really see a solution.

  19. Dear Professor,

    As someone from Europe, I fully agree that the growing lack of civility and common understanding in the US between left and right is frightening. And I am very far from sharing all of the progessive's latest ideas and ideals.

    However, I think mainstream, moderate conservatives like you have a share of responsibility in this. There was a time when the Republican party rejected the extremism of Senators Taft and MacCarthy. Today's Republican party is still pushing for creationist/intelligent design textbooks accross school districts on half of America. Today's Republican party has embraced climate change denial. When the Koch brothers deny climate change, is that saying something untrue, or is it telling a lie, or is it being a liar?

    All the moderate conservatives who now despair in the lies (or untrue assertions) coming from the White House, why did they keep silent against climate change denial, against waterboarding, against the alleged weapons of mass destruction and following cover up?

    With such a record of excusing blatant lies (climate change, Iraq, Kerry's swiftboat veterans, McCain's wedlock's daughter) as mere free speech and honest disagreement, it is no surprise that some genuine free speech and disagreement becomes a bunch of lies in the others' eyes.

  20. Professor, I don't want to clog your thread or outstay my tenuous welcome but it seems to me that everything in American politics has to be judged in the context of a President who would send tweets like this:
    "Donald J. Trump
    ‏The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust. They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!

    4:38 AM - 5 Aug 2018"

    Donald Trump is the reality that the right and the left have to deal with.

    1. You've missed the point of the article. To draw a needlessly extreme* analogy in an attempt to explain: chemical warfare was not banned in WW2 because the combatants viewed the opposing side more favorably than they did back in WW1. Instead all parties agreed that a few minimal rules of engagement would be mutually beneficial, even in the context of (literally) slaughtering one another. This article was suggesting the same underlying logic could apply to U.S. politics. You seem to have misinterpreted the question as "who started it?" or "which side is right?"

      So yes, we all get it, you think the opposing side is very terrible indeed. But that does not answer whether adding a few ground rules to the "culture wars" would be a good idea. If you have an opinion on THAT question, it'd be good to hear.

      *I think war tends to be a poor analogy for most anything else, but that seems to be how we've decided to talk about this, so I'll just go with it.

    2. "But that does not answer whether adding a few ground rules to the "culture wars" would be a good idea."

      I think it would be helpful to articulate exactly what is that you mean by the "culture wars". What issue is it that you think is the most important issue that divides the sides?

      From Canada it seems to me that you have three broad issues: (1) should gays have legal rights to, for example, marry; (2) should women have a right to abortion; (3) should the United States make collective efforts to fully integrate African Americans into your society. It also seems to me that the "culture war" consists of straight white men (I'm a grumpy old straight white millionaire) trying to deny gays, women and blacks those freedoms which are important to gays, women and blacks but broadly irrelevant to straight white men.

      So - don't try to circumscribe the debate by imposing rules on how the debate is to be conducted. Rather be honest about what it is you are really arguing over and go from there.

  21. President Trump on the economics of tariffs:

    "Donald J. Trump

    ....Tariffs will make our country much richer than it is today. Only fools would disagree. We are using them to negotiate fair trade deals and, if countries are still unwilling to negotiate, they will pay us vast sums of money in the form of Tariffs. We win either way......

    12:58 PM - 4 Aug 2018"

    1. Hmmmm... don't we pay the tariffs?
      Does that make me a fool? Or T a liar?

  22. I wonder if the resistance in pre-Fascist Germany in the 1930s were a bit too civil with their growing brown shirt movement.

    1. Not the resistance. The majority of the people were too deferential to the brown shirts.

  23. 'This kind of phrasing has been oozing from Krugman columns for a long time, and now seems to have infected the rest of the Times.'

    'Maybe just "don't write insults," actually.'


  24. "Reading these pieces, and writing this post, has made me nearly panic"
    Don't be so anxious. It is not politeness, pedantic attention to carefully crafted wording, or "political correctness" that defines civilisation. People generally cooperating to help each other, without precondition of friend-loyalty, is civilisation. Members of cohesive teams insult each other freely. It is a way of affirming that their cooperation is genuinely intentional. The "Good Samaritan" story, along with the host of other Jesus sayings, is an illustration of behaviour that makes for a good, civilised, world.


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

Thanks to a few abusers I am now moderating comments. I welcome thoughtful disagreement. I will block comments with insulting or abusive language. I'm also blocking totally inane comments. Try to make some sense. I am much more likely to allow critical comments if you have the honesty and courage to use your real name.