Ignorance, Bliss, and Political News

March 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I can’t listen to the news anymore,” I said, “It’s too depressing.” The guy I said this to has been in journalism most of his adult life, so I’m sure he hasn’t cut back. If anything, h’s binge newsing these days. But I’m not alone. Google “news depressing” and you get nearly 40 million pages to choose from.


(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Arthur Brooks thinks so too in his Times op-ed today.

in the past couple of years, I have noticed a happiness pattern that relates to politics. Namely, the people most in the know tend to be unhappier than those who pay less attention.

Does an interest in politics lead to depression?  Is political ignorance bliss? When Arthur Brooks thinks what I think, I have to check my personal reactions and impressions against better information. Brooks provides some.

. I analyzed the 2014 data from the General Social Survey. . . The results were significant. Even after controlling for income, education, age, gender, race, marital status and political views, being “very interested in politics” drove up the likelihood of reporting being “not too happy” about life by about eight percentage points.

I went to see for myself. I didn’t control for all those variables – I figured the cell sizes would get very small. But the overall picture I got from the GSS was very different from what Brooks said.



(GSS respondents have three choices on the Happiness variable: Very Happy, Pretty Happy, Not Too Happy. I have left out the middle group.)

I don’t know why I didn’t find what Brooks found. Nor am I not sure what to make of the results. Unhappiness is highest among both the most interested and the least. Does this suggest “moderation in all things (or at least all things political interest)”?

Maybe 2014 was a strange year. The GSS had asked a similar question about political interest in three previous years. The sample size is larger, and the data spans sixteen years.


This time the trend is clear, and it clearly contradicts Brooks. As political interest decreases the percent who are “not too hapy” increases, and the percent who are “very happy” increases.

But even if the correlation went the way Brooks thinks it does, his explanation makes a huge leap of logic. The news is depressing because it shifts our “locus of control” from internal to external. It creates “a belief that external forces (such as politics) have a large impact on one’s life.”

An external locus of control brings unhappiness.. . . . An external locus is correlated with worse academic achievement, more stress and higher levels of depression.

To be sure, an external locus of control is not necessarily inaccurate. . . . However, the external locus of control can also be based on an illusion that something affects us — meaning that the resulting unhappiness is unnecessary.


Brooks assumes that what news junkies get from the political news is information about things that will affect their lives. That’s a big assumption. My impression is that for many news watchers, the political news is like sports. They root for their preferred politicos and policies in the same way they root for their team– not because a victory directly affects their lives but just because they want their side to win. The support for banning Muslims in order to keep America safe from terrorism is strongest in places where people’s lives are least likely to affected by a terrorist attack.

Unlike sports news, political news often has a moral component. We want to see our team triumph not just because winning is fun but because in this case it is morally right. People might hate the Yankees or the Cowboys, but nobody is chanting for them to be locked up for their sins. The partisan news shows specialize in stories that provoke moral outrage, and these are the shows most likely to be watched by those with a strong interest in politics.

But even if Brooks is wrong about the data, and even if he is wrong that paying attention to the news shifts our locus of control to external, his advice about locus of control seems sensible.

Get involved in a tangible way — volunteering, donating money or even running for office. This transforms you from victim of political circumstance to problem solver.


How Do You Solve a Problem Like Murray . . . uh?

March 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do you do when someone like Charles Murray is invited to speak at your college? By “someone like Charles Murray,” I mean, well, let me quote a letter signed by more than 60 Middlebury faculty and sent to the college president. (The “as you know” in the second paragraph is a nice touch.)


Dear President Patton,

We the undersigned faculty respectfully request that you, as our president, cancel your introductory remarks at the Charles Murray event on Thursday.

Mr. Murray is, as you know, a discredited ideologue paid by the American Enterprise Institute to promote public policies targeting people of color, women and the poor.

Some students went further than requesting that the president cancel her intro. They went to the lecture and excercized the “heckler’s veto,” shouting and chanting so loudly and continuously that Murray could not be heard. The protestors had in effect cancelled the lecture. (InsideHigherEd )

As I’ve said before (here and here), these protests are not about being afraid of hearing objectionable ideas and arguments. If a professor put Murray’s Coming Apart on the syllabus, I doubt that students would protest. They’d do the reading, and on the exam they’d write a snappy critique. I also doubt that the students were really worried that Murray might persuade some of their peers with his seductive message.

For the students involved, it’s not about ideas, it’s about evil – the presence of evil on campus. The great thing about labeling something as evil – e.g., Saddam Hussein, the axis of evil, ISIS – is that it allows you to ignore all the usual restraints and rules.  After all, you’re not just fighting an enemy. You’re fighting evil. 

The campus left doesn’t toss around the word evil, but a similar absolutism often attaches to racism. If you can label someone a racist, you can jettison the usual liberal principles. “No free speech for racists” (also fascists). Fighting racism (or whatever evil) by whatever means is a moral imperative.

But how much ground will you gain in that fight by shouting down a speaker? My own view is: not much, certainly not enough to justify violating principles of free speech. But although the heckler’s veto may not do much to further the cause, it can bring a feeling of having done something against evil. The effect is not practical – helping to bring some desired change in the external world; it’s emotional – bringing a sense of righteousness to the heckler.

The question is why students attribute so much importance to a campus lecture – why, in Jonathan Haidt’s inelegant coinage, they “catastrophize.” Is Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury of world-shattering importance? Well, yes, if the Middlebury is your world. And for students at residential, somewhat isolated schools, the campus is their world.* They don’t get out much.

Of course, even at schools like Middlebury, “no free speech for. . .”  is a minority view. College students generally favor free speech, even if that includes ideas that are “offensive and biased.”  Here’s the full Gallup question:

If you had to choose, do you think it is more important for colleges to
  • create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people, (or to)
  • create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

College students went for free speech more than did the average American.


The General Social Survey gets similar results on its item about banning a racist from giving a speech in the community. The college educated are more liberal than others. The percent who would ban a racist speaker his risen somewhat in the past four decades from about 22% to about 27%, but the overwhelming majority favor letting the racist speak.


It’s a mistake to think that the dominant view on US campuses favors political correctness over free speech as some handwringing writers on the right seem to think. (Catastrophizing is not the exclusive province of the left.) But a handful of students, representing a minority view of free speech, can still make enough noise to cancel a speech and make headlines.

----------------------
* Not all schools are like Middlebury. Here at Montclair, many students, most perhaps, live at home and commute. Even the ones who live in the dorms go home on weekends. (The weekend begins roughly at 2:00 on Thursday.) They have jobs. They hang out with friends (including boyfriends and girlfriends), from their home towns or other non-campus places.

Church of “La La Land” Saints

February 26, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why is “La La Land” so popular among Mormons?

The New York Times (here) has maps (chloropleths, if you want to show off your vocabulary) showing the popularity of the nominees for best picture. The maps look like different countries. “Fences,” for example, did best in the Southern swath from Louisiana to North Carolina but nowhere else except for Allegheny County, PA (it was filmed in Pittsburgh, where the story is set). In those same areas, “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea” basically don’t exist. The maps of “Fences” and “Arrival” look like direct opposites.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The map that puzzled me was “La La Land.” It’s big in LA, of course (like “Fences” in Pittsburgh). But its other strongholds are counties with a high proportion of Mormons: Utah plus Mormonic counties in neighboring states – Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada.





The maps match even for distant counties in Missouri and Virginia, where those dark spots on the map might indicate only 5-10% of the population. Most counties in the US are below 3%.

How to explain the “La La Land” - Latter Day Saints conncection? The movie is rated PG-13, but so are “Fences,” “Arrival,” and “Lion.” And “Hidden Figures” is PG. But then, the cast of “La La Land” has very few non-Whites and zero aliens. That might have something to do with it.

Or maybe it’s just because Ryan Gosling grew up with seriously Mormon parents. He is no longer a Mormon and says he never really identified as one. He has long since left the church. He is neither a singer nor a dancer but has to sing and dance in this film. His character is supposed to be a jazz purist, but the music he plays is what you might call Utah jazz (one of the great oxymorons of our time). But those minor quibbles mean little compared with the fact the for the first years of his life, he was raised as a Mormon.

Health Care as a Positional Good

February 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Which job would you prefer.

Job A: your risk of serious injury is 10%; everyone else’s risk is 15%
Job B: your risk of serious injury is 5%; everyone else’s risk is 2%.


You’d probably take Job B, even though your risk relative to others is greater. With income, relative position carries more weight – $100,000 in a world where everyone else makes $85,000 might be more attractive that $125,000 in a world where everyone else makes $200,000.

Income is positional; safety is not.  (See the previous post for more on positional and non-positional goods.)

Health care too should be non-positional – more is better, and less is worse.  But then why would people whose healthcare had been substantially improved under Obamacare vote for the candidates and party who promised to eliminate it? That’s the question Vox’s Sarah Kliff took to Kentucky. The state had done a very good job of implementing the Affordable Care Act – expanding Medicaid and getting people to sign up on the exchanges.

But Kentuckians voted overwhelmingly for Trump and the Republicans – the people who had promised to end Obamacare. Kliff had to go back to Kentucky to find out why.

Kliff had gone there in 2016 and talked to people who, thanks to Obamacare, now go to the doctor when they were sick or injured. She talked to enrollment workers – people whose job it was to sell the program to Kentuckians, advising them of its benefits. They all voted for Trump, and after the election Kliff went back to find out why?

Some said that they didn’t think Trump really meant what he said.  Others thought that the Republicans would replace it with something better. Many had been soured by the increases in the cost of their health plans, especially high deductibles.

But many people seemed to see their own health and healthcare as a positional good. Its value depended on what others had.  “Part of their anger was wrapped up in the idea that other people were getting even better, even cheaper benefits — and those other people did not deserve the help.”

[A 59-year old woman] sees other people signing up for Medicaid, the health program for the poor that is arguably better coverage than she receives and almost free for enrollees.

“They can go to the emergency room for a headache,” she says. “They’re going to the doctor for pills, and that’s what they’re on.”
       
She felt like this happened a lot to her: that she and her husband have worked most their lives but don’t seem to get nearly as much help as the poorer people she knows.

She has changed the terms of the discussion. It’s no longer about health, even one’s own health, it’s about morality. And apparently many people are willing to sacrifice their own health to punish the undeserving poor. 

Oller, the enrollment worker, expressed similar ideas the day we met.
       
“I really think Medicaid is good, but I’m really having a problem with the people that don’t want to work,” she said. “Us middle-class people are really, really upset about having to work constantly, and then these people are not responsible.”

This one really puzzled me. Medicare had helped her in a time of need, and she felt that she deserved to the help it offered. Still she was willing to have it repealed because “those people” were getting a better deal.


“It’s made it affordable,” Mills says of Healthcare.gov. This year, she received generous tax credits and paid a $115 monthly premium for a plan that covered herself, her husband, and her 19-year-old son.

Earlier this year, Mills’s husband was diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. He is now on the waiting list for a liver transplant. Obamacare’s promise of health coverage, she says, has become absolutely vital in their lives.

[She asked me] a few questions about what might change and whether the coverage she would sign up for in a few minutes would still be valid. I didn’t know what would happen.

Our interview began to make her a bit nervous.

“You’re scaring me now on the insurance part,” she said. “I’m afraid now that the insurance is going to go away and we’re going to be up a creek.”


That righteous vote to punish the undeserving poor may have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the protests at town meetings this week suggest that she might not be alone in her buyer’s remorse. In the abstract, health care may be a positional good. But when you really need medical treatment, you might not be so concerned about what other people are getting.