In 2008, insurance company AIG had to be bailed out by the American taxpayers to the tune of $182 billion in order to prevent its collapse from kicking off a wave of falling dominoes. Yet in his opening statement at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on the dangers of financial regulation, committee chairman Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican, insisted there was no danger to the system from insurance companies failing, and therefore they did not need to be subject to federal regulation.
That’s some kool-aid he’s drinking.
He also insisted that “it is almost inconceivable that an asset manager’s failure could cause systemic risk,” ignoring the crisis caused by Long-Term Capital Management when it failed in 1998.
Unfortunately, it is not only Jeb Hansarling who is drinking the kool-aid. In 2010, Rudy Giuliani criticized the Obama administration’s counterterrorist operations, comparing the Obama record to that of the Bush administration, about which he said, “We had no domestic attacks under Bush.” He was seconded by Fox News commentator Eric Bolling in 2011 on the Fox show The Five, who stated, “America was certainly safe between 2000 and 2008. I don’t remember any terrorist attacks on American soil during that period of time.”
Hmm. I seem to remember some event in September of 2001. I guess if it’s inconvenient to your argument, it can’t have happened.
Humans tend to cling tightly to their belief systems. Neuroscience points to the way we process stimuli as we go through our lives. “The brain is hard-wired to gravitate toward what produces feel-good feelings for you (physically, emotionally, etc.), and to move away from what does not.” The amygdala processes stimuli in our environment, and unfamiliar stimuli requires a great deal of neural energy to process, because its newness challenges our expectations, and this causes it to be perceived as a threat. Sticking to what you know helps relieve the discomfort of this perceived threat.
On the social psychology side, researchers have identified things like system justification theory, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, cultural cognition, identity-protective cognition, and the backfire effect. We like to think that our world and understanding of it are perfect, and when this is challenged, we resist. We also have strong tendencies to not challenge what our group believes, because this separates us from it. Once we have a belief, we tend to see new information that confirms it, and fail to see that which challenges it. When challenged, we dig in our heels to resist.
Dan Kahan has studied what he calls identity-protective cognition, by which, “As a way of avoiding dissonance and estrangement from valued groups, individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.” But Kahan has to realize that he, too, is subject to identity-protective cognition, and this realization comes with a sense of humility when investigating our own beliefs. We have to decide where we have discovered something factual, or are deluding ourselves. In the political sphere, I suspect that the more extreme the positions one takes, the more one is subject to identity-protective cognition, on both the right and the left. However, in today’s political environment, the more extreme right wing is making itself heard far more loudly and frequently than the extreme left wing, so I see conservatives and Republicans denying the evidence of their eyes and ears in the real world more than liberals and Democrats. Or maybe that’s my identity-protective cognition.
I saw conservative idiocy during the debate over shutting down the government and breaching the debt limit. Those who believe in small government believe that government is mostly unimportant, and couldn’t imagine that shutting it down would have consequences. As Rep. Michelle Bachmann said about the impending shutdown, “We’re very excited. It’s exactly what we wanted, and we got it. People will be very grateful.” More scary to economists and other sensible people were the consequences of breaching the debt ceiling. Asked about it in 2011, Ben Bernanke warned “that failure by Congress to raise the debt ceiling would be ‘a calamitous outcome.’” But in 2013, Rep. Ted Yoho argued that breaching the debt ceiling “would bring stability to the world markets.”
Which brings us to the 2014/2016 election season. In North Carolina a bill is being debated that would make it a crime to publicly disclose the chemicals used by companies doing fracking. Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst insists publicly that there were WMDs in Iraq when we invaded. Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campbell is so sure of the disrepute of the ACA that he said, “Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of manditory sign ups for “train rides” for Jews in the 40s.” South Dakota Republican candidate Dr. Annette Bosworth is so sure of the depravity of welfare that she said, “You know, because feeding poor people makes them dependent on the government just like feeding wild animals makes them dependent on humans.” So sure was he of his following that Harry Riley predicted 10 million like-minded followers would show up in Washington, D.C. for “Operation American Spring” earlier this month; he was roughly 10 million short.
But the issue which currently best exemplifies identity-protective cognition is climate change. Marco Rubio’s shifting statements on climate change converged recently on this: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.” The list of Republicans chiming in with similar statements include Texas senator Ted Cruz, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum. And while that bastian of commie pinko tree-hugging environazism the U.S. Miltary is preparing for the consequences to national security of climate change throughout the world, the Republicans in the House helpfully passed a bill which would prohibit the military from using funds to address climate change.
If the meaning of life is hedonic happiness, I wish I could be drinking the same kool-aid that Republicans are. But if the good life is, as Aristotle notes, to realize the use of that which makes us unique, which is our reason, I shall decline.