Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Interests in International Affairs

One of the members of the studio audience, Anticant, wrote something in a comment yesterday that deserves some special emphasis and development.

The problem we suffer from in democracies is that while all of us quite rightly believe our own personal lives, careers. and interests are more important than politics, except in times of crisis – i.e. that we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness - a majority of the population who are qualified to vote take no interest whatsoever in what is going on in their own country and the world, and this culpable indifference enables the power-hungry politicians, the super-rich, the bigoted religious loudmouths, and the downright crooks, to wield much more power than they are rightly entitled to.

In a sense, all of this is correct. However, this is one of those instances in which I think that it is important to look at some of the details, and to recognize that there are structural problems here for which individuals are not fully culpable.

These details have to do with the degree to which people devote time and energy to their lives, careers, and interests, as opposed to studying what is going on in our country and in the world.

The fact is, it is rational for a person to study those issues where (1) the consequences of their decision will have the largest impact on their lives, and (2) their decision will have a real-world impact on the outcome of events. It is simply not rational for people to come up with a detailed understanding of what is going on in their country and world events because, even though the impact is huge, the probability that they can have any control on that impact is virtually zero.

I can relate a personal story to illustrate this point.

I am very well of the fact that if I were to devote as much time and energy to studying computers that I spend on studying moral and political issues, that I would be far better off financially than I am today. In fact, I have been told as much – that my career is stalled because I do not eat, drink, and sleep computer programming.

There are people out there who have jobs in which they work on computers, who leave their jobs and go home, where they work on computers in the pursuit of their individual interests, who then take what they learned at home and apply it to their work. These types of people become the best computer programmers, they become recognized as such, and their employment status benefits as a result.

The same is true for the person who studies medicine, law, engineering, or who teaches in a university on any subject. They are experts at what they do because they are so interested in the subject at hand that this is where their brain is at 24 hours each day. They even dream about the subject that they study and where their interests lie.

For those who have a family – for those who have children – they have something else in their lives that demands a great deal of attention. It takes a great deal of time to actually study and be aware of the things that are intimately connected to a child’s life – to not only keep the child safe, but to help the child to become an adult who can thrive in modern society.

My interest happens to be in political and social issues. However, I cannot complain about those who have interests that are different than mine.

Of course, it is not the case that people are devoting time and energy only to their careers and their families. People do waste a great deal of time and money. One of the greatest wastes of time concerns the time they spend watching television – watching intellectually vacuous shows such as American Idol or Survivor. One of the greatest wastes of time, money, and resources is sports – a $300 billion per year industry that accomplishes almost nothing. If we are going to have sporting events, can we not at least have events where competing teams actually try to accomplish something useful?

We can rightfully complain about the person who can name a hundred different athletes, but who cannot name their own representatives to Congress. We can rightfully complain about the person who spends $100 and a full day going to the ball game rather than spending the day learning about the economics of foreign trade.

Yet, even if we got rid of mindless television, sports, and similar wastes of time, it would still be the case that people would be smarter to devote that time and energy to their careers and their families than to devote them to national or international politics. The time and energy they devote to national or international politics will still have almost no impact on how the world the world turns out. That requires the cooperation of a huge number of people who have very little incentive to cooperate. Whereas the time and money they spent on their career and family would have an immediate impact on their well-being and the well-being of those around them.

Where things get truly sinister is where there are people who recognize these facts about private incentives, who then exploit these facts to personal advantage. Special interest groups are great filling people’s heads with useful fictions – fictions that are useful to the people who promulgate them, but not to the people who are ultimately convinced.

What these organizations do is spend millions of dollars getting useful fictions placed where people have their attention. They hire marketing companies to wrap their useful fictions into packages that largely disinterested people can easily digest, then they pay millions of dollars to put that information where disinterested people tend to focus their attention. They can afford to pay millions of dollars because, once they convince enough people of this useful fiction, they will harvest hundreds of billions to billions of dollars as a result.

They promote celebrities whose main claim to fame is their ability to make useful fictions entertaining – talk show radio hosts and Fox News broadcasters who will get these useful fictions in front of the general population.

I am not saying that these broadcasters sell their message to the highest bidder. Rather, the people with the useful fictions to sell know that they can gain a lot of mileage selling their message to these opinion leaders. In addition to spending millions of dollars to put advertising up where the disinterested public will see it, they make sure to get the message into those areas where the substantially ignorant broadcast entertainers who are more interested in ratings than in truth would see it.

In short, there is a problem here that Anticant describes quite accurately. The important part that is missing is the fact that it actually makes no sense for the average person – the career and family minded individual – to do anything different. The career and family minded individual will always be able to find something more profitable (to himself and to his family) to spend his time on than learning the details of the conflict in Georgia, or studying the fine print of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the social and political implications of those provisions. Even if he were to become an expert on any of those things, there is nothing that his expertise would allow him to do about the situation. All he would basically acquire as a result of his efforts is a better understanding of just how screwed up things have become.

Unless he is going to make his career in the state department, this information is about as useless to him as baseball statistics or the standings in this season’s most popular reality shows.

So, is there anything that can be done about this, or all we all doomed?

Well, I think that if there are any solutions to be found, we can do a better job of finding them if we accurately understand the problem. A part of the problem is that we are demanding that people spend time and effort on things that do not interest them and are not useful in achieving things that do interest them.

Desire utilitarianism has another way of describing this problem. The problem is that we are demanding that people devote time and attention to things that do not fulfill their desires directly (interest them) or indirectly (useful). The remedy to this would be to devote time and energy into changing their desires, using social forces such as praise and condemnation.

One of the things that we can do is be less sparing in our praise of people who exhibit traits that we have reason to promote, and less sparing in our criticism of people who exhibit traits that we have reason to inhibit. It is particularly important that we express this praise and condemnation in the presence of children who will carry those values into the next generation.

If anybody here were interested in why I am so contemptible of a national motto and a national pledge that puts atheists (those not ‘under God’) in the same company as those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all, they can find their answer in the way that the national motto and the national pledge use praise and condemnation to imbed attitudes in young minds that do far more harm than good.


anticant said...

The flaw in your argument, Alonzo, is your assertion that unless someone is an ‘expert’, or an academic, or headed for a career in the State Department, they are powerless to influence events. This seems to me a counsel of despair. If it had been the Colonial mood of the 1770s, there would have been no United States of America.

Personally, I think the three categories you single out are often the worst informed and the most purblind operators, simply because they imagine they know all the answers. They know them right, or they know them wrong, but they KNOW them. Ms Condoleeza Rice is a prime specimen of this genre.

While it is not entirely true that people get the governments they deserve, if they live in democracies which give them the opportunity to change their governments at intervals via the ballot box without resort to revolution or violence, they are morally culpable if they don’t take sufficient interest in public affairs to equip themselves to cast a reasonably well informed vote.

In any case, your argument about rational behaviour falls apart, because if people live in a rotten political culture where the actions of the rulers and powerful people are such that their private worlds are likely to be destabilised in the fairly near future, the pursuit of private interests to the exclusion of participation in public affairs, or even debate, is the posture of the ostrich and completely irrational.

As you point out, we live in a manipulated society and culture. If, as you say, it really “makes no sense for the average person – the career and family minded individual – to do anything different”, all I can say is that this is a colossal indictment of our political and educational systems.

anton said...

What anticant may be politely alluding to is that US America may be the greatest country in the world for ignorant people to reside. This is not saying that ignorant people are not everywhere. Its just safer to be stupid, or ignorant, in US America while you enjoy its apply pie.

We would ask why America has such a dismal record in educating its masses. Notice, I said masses. There are millions of intelligent people in America. There are also a lot of stupid people who demand, and receive, recognition and acceptance as "equals".

Because so many US Americans do not bother to acurately read the "labels", they consume the product and make the creator of the "false label" successful. We have come to call it the "American Way" where profit trumps truth, morality and logic.

I liken the population's culpability to their purchase of foods labeled "low Cholesteral" when the reality is that "cholesteral content" has little or no bearing on their health. They have been hoodwinked, lied to, and manipulated. And there is nothing in place to prevent it from happening, at the grocery store . . . or at the voting booth.

US America requires persons seeking citizenship to pass a "test" before they obtain citizenship. That is valid. Unfortunately, a very low percentage of voting Americans could pass the test. They don't have to. They don't even consider it a shame that they can't.

Perhaps Noam Chomsky could be enlisted to head up a team to create a "means" test that would need to be passed before a person could vote! Of course, the test would avoid references to religion, creationism, etc. It could not be created to accommodate the "ignorant" or "stupid". Since it would be based on provable truths, it would eliminate the influence of the religios right. Of course, to be of any value, results would have to be published . . . like in the locality where the tested live, and on the world wide web. We couldn't have people hiding just how ignorant they were.

Unfortunately, such an "intelligent means test" would remove "rights" of the ignorant and we couldn't have that, or could we? If you can't get into University without passing a test, why should you influence the nations future if you can't pass an "intelligent means test"? The "right" to vote would take on an entire new meaning, a good one!

If such a test were to be devised, we could witness a dramatic shift in the shape of US America, but then again, I have been known to dream as well.

Sheldon said...

Before I clicked on the comments link, I was moving in the same direction as anticant. And I have had this same disagreement with Alonzo before. The idea that a person has to be a complete expert on a particular social-political-economic topic to come to an informed decision, and take some course of action.

If this is the case, then we might as well live in a dictatorship, which we will be doing if people don't start paying attention. But I prefer some kind of democracy.

It seems as though Alonzo would like to make excuses for people who do not take seriously the responsibilities of democratic citzenship.

No, not everybody can be an expert, nor do they need to be.
What people need are some basic intellectual skills that enables them evaluate various sources, look for the appropriate experts, figure which ones they trust, and come to the best decision they possibly can. Yes, democratic citzenship can be imperfect, but leaving the decisions exclusively to the ruling elites is a worse option.

And really, this dis-engagment may seem rational for some on the short term, but is irrational and reckless on the long term.

"....the probability that they can have any control on that impact is virtually zero."

And Alonzo, where did this absurdity ever come from? Have you never heard of social movements? People are affecting change all the time.

"....in the same company as those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice for all,"

Admittedly, I am taking this statement a bit out of context. But why presume that "rebellion" is a negative that belongs with tyranny and injustice?

With all due respect, the concept of rebellion is a positive that goes along with resistance to tyranny, and the fight for justice.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Of course, the obvious problem with your test is that it would become a test of one's acceptance of certain political or social dogma.

Factions would attempt to manipulate the test to exclude those who reject their particular doctrine.

For example, if you believe that humans have caused global warming, then you will be excluded since you have obviously bought into environmentalist scare-tactics and you have rejected the obvious fact that the earth is just too big for mere humans to influence.

And if you deny the existence of God then you are too much of a fool to qualify to vote.

It is like the test for parenthood that some people defend from time to time. If we were to adopt such a test, then it would almost certainly state that a person who would raise a child outside of a religious faith, who would not teach their child to believe in and obey God, is an unfit parent and would be denied a license to have children.

Tests such as these are not going to do any good.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


What I am describing in this essay is a set of facts that were, in fact, as true in the 1770s as it is today.

It was also the case that the vast number of revolutionaries knew little about international economics, and probably could not name their state's representatives to the Continental Congress. However, they knew that they were paying taxes they did not want to pay, and the people collecting the taxes were giving them no voice in how the money was to be spent. Tax money goes from those who do not have a voice to those who do, since those who do will vote to use the money to fulfill their own interests.

(Note: This is the same reason why we are running such huge deficits. This is modern version of taxation without representation. Future generations do not vote, so we decide that to tax them and spend the money on ourselves.)

One of the issues in the Revolutionary War was the Line of Demarcation - a British rule that said that the land west of the Appelacian Mountains belonged to the Indians and Europeans were not permitted to go there. One of the reasons Americans supported the revolution is because they demanded the freedom to cross the mountains and displace the Native Americans.

What I am describing here is a standard rational dilemma - something like the Prisoner's Dilemma - where choices that are individually rational end up being jointly irrational. This dilemma exists, whether we admit to it or not. The rational choice for individuals is to focus their attention on more immediate concerns - related to their jobs and families. Yet, when people so focused are asked to make national and international decisions, they act substantially on ignorance, are easily manipulated, and often come to disasterous conclusions.

The desire utilitarian answer to this type of dilemma is to change people's interests. Just as people can be made to be interested in useless things such as sports or the plots of television shows, it should be possible (through the judicious use of praise and condemnation) to give them an interest in other things that are equally irrelevant in terms of individual well-being, but less destructive on the national and international level.

The desire utilitarian method out of this dilemma is to promote personal interests that are not as destructive of the

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Nothing in what I wrote suggests that a dictatorship would be any different. Not unless we can find a dictator who is perfectly knowledgeable on all aspects of national and international affairs and perfectly benevolent with no private or personal interests that would adversely influence his decisions.

Please consider the fact that I apply these claims even to myself. I spend a great deal of my time studying these issues - to the degree that I am financially worse off than I could have been as a result. Yet, I cannot make myself informed enough to have an informed decision on all matters of public policy. I do not have the time.

anticant said...

As I understand it, the pre-revolutionary taxes on the Thirteen Colonies were intended to finance their defence against the French and American Indians.

No doubt you have read Theodore Draper's "A Struggle for Power". Another book which gave me much insight into the tensions and sadnesses of the revolutionary years is Kenneth Roberts' novel "Oliver Wiswell".

Sheldon said...

"Perhaps Noam Chomsky could be enlisted to head up a team to create a "means" test that would need to be passed before a person could vote!"

Why do you project your very stupid idea onto your imaginary partner Noam Chomsky? If you had ever read enough of him when he addresses similar questions you would know he would find the idea deplorable.

Alonzo makes some good points why this is a bad idea. You should be aware we already had similar laws and tests in practice here in the United States. They were used in the Jim Crow south to deny African-Americans the right to vote.

And so you want to take us backwards?


I think you misunderstood my comment about dictators. I wasnt suggesting dictatores as an alternative to the problems you outline. I was suggesting that if people don't take their democratic responsibilities seriously then they will lose them.

Again, we are to the problem of imperfect knowledge. But all kinds of people in all kind of different situations have to act on imperfect knowledge.

The question is do we do our best?

anton said...

I would hope that the US has "progressed" to the point where it could create a proper "test" that is not reminiscent of the "Jim Crow" days.

It is not a step backwards to create a fair test for intelligence. You are confusing the act of "testing" with the "corruption" that existed when tests were first used to deprive people of their rights. People were excluded because of their "race, color or creed" and not because of their inability. Those same people fought for their right to be heard and a part of the US American dream and a lot of "bleeding hearts" figured that it shouldn't matter if they could add or read. On this latter point, I agree with them. All they were doing, though, was taking advantage of a condition . . . the people they would exclude couldn't read or write. The problem came when a lot of them learned to "read and write", hence the civil rights movement. And, my friend, a more educated people is your future. Unless, of course, your nations economy continues to enjoy its alleged supremacy because it still has ignorant masses to exploit.

I figure if you can't add 6 + 7 you are unlikely to know who to vote for on economic issues.

If you have to mark your ballot with an "x", you are hardly able to "examine the issues".

If you can't create a test without being "dictated to" by those with "questionable agendas", you really should create a new definition for democracy.

Did you know that the most successful, fair and progressive nations (there are only a few) were ruled by "benevolent dictators"? Traditionally, those countries also had "high taxation" and "free health care" and "free eduction" and a generally high international acceptance as fair and just nations, certainly a lot higher on the scale than the US.

Fears of "creeping socialism" have been used to control and manipulate the US population. Its citizens have been conditioned to consider any nation that has high taxes as a terrible place to be. Have you ever heard of "getting the biggest bang for your buck"?

I have no doubt that Noam Chomsky would find the exercise repugnant, but, I believe he would do a better job of it than any US citizen of whom I know, and would most likely relish the task if his test would get US America on an intelligent, moral course! Yes, Noam would find the exercise deplorable . . . but, would it be that it is because the intelligence level in the US is so deplorably low, or, would it be deplorable because you have to resort to such a mechanism to give validity to the US idea of democracy.

If you eliminated the "creationists", the "booga boogas", the bunch who believe that world is only 6,000 years old, and other "idiots" from the voting pool, you would not have had George Bush leading your nation for the last eight years. And, if memory serves me correctly, he managed to win his first election by denying the vote to the "intelligent" blacks and "hispanics" in Florida who saw him for what he was.

Sheldon said...


The problem is not that so many Americans are that un-intelligent, it is that they don't use their intelligence responsibly or on things of importance.

Your point about education is well taken. We have a culture of vacuity, where many believe that education is only good for making a dollar.

There are many people in America who simply do not vote, because they have no interest in the issues that matter.

Anonymous said...

Anton - There is no such thing as an incorruptable test. Even if it starts out fair, it will become corrupted with time. However a somewhat-corrupted test might still be better than no test at all.

I think the more important principle is that Americans embrace the idea that if the government is going to enforce it's laws upon you and take a percentage of your income, you have the right to have some influence on that government as well. Whether or not you can read or add doesn't change that.

I figure if you can't add 6 + 7 you are unlikely to know who to vote for on economic issues.

If you have to mark your ballot with an "x", you are hardly able to "examine the issues".

This is basically a statement of "stupid people vote wrong" ... or - "anyone who doesn't vote like I do is an idiot." I get the feeling the tests you would be most likely to approve of are those that are most likely to eliminate those with different political opinions.

There are a lot of extremely intelligent people who vote for the party you don't like. Not only can they add 6+7, but then can designed particle accelerators. This didn't stop them from voting for people who condone torture. How do you explain that in your "we wouldn't have this problem if the idiots were kept from voting" theory? What keeps the "idiots" from voting for the party you like? Maybe you'd be losing more votes than you're getting?

Research has consistently shown that the strongest factor in determining who someone votes for is their parents' political leanings. There's some other factors that tweak this, and some outliers of course, but when it all comes down to it, you can correctly predict how anyone will vote 80% of the time simply by knowning how their parents would have voted.

Maybe the test should consist of a single question: "How did your parents vote last election?" and you can pass or fail them based on that.

Anonymous said...

Also, if you deny the ability to vote to a portion of the population, and that portion of the population strongly desires political change, they will have few options available to them. Political violence will become a viable alternative.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, another problem with a test is that if you exclude a portion of the population from political power, then those in power will exploit those who are excluded.

Look at the way we exploit future generations - generations not allowed to vote. We saddle them with huge debts, we destroy their air and water, we harness them with global climate change. And it is not because we have any particular animosity towards this group. They are our children and grandchildren. But, they do not vote, and it is much to easy to tax those who have no voice to pay off those who do.