A recent online thread among people most of whom are usually pretty reasonable concerned, in part, Joe Biden’s claim, some years back, that Donald Trump had advised people to cure Covid by injecting bleach into their arms.1 A number of posters disagreed with my description of Biden’s statement as a lie, which struck me as an example of the unfortunate effect of tribal loyalty. Further thought convinced me that I myself was not immune.
Who do I Want to Win, Us or Them?
Whether to vote for the Republican or the Democrat is a question that comes up every four years; I avoid it by voting for the libertarian candidate when there is one. But the presidential election is a drama, a super sports game played out on a national scale, and it is hard to avoid becoming emotionally involved.
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Who I ought to want to win is a complicated question. One argument against the Republican candidate is that when he talks a free market line but fails to act it, those of us who actually believe in free markets will get blamed for the resulting failures. That, after all, is what happened with the Bush administration. I do not expect the policies adopted by either candidate to succeed; if policies are going to visibly fail I would prefer that they be blamed on someone else. That is an argument in favor of the Democratic candidate, probably Biden this time. On the other hand almost the only thing Trump did right last time, and Trump or another Republican is likely to do right this time, is his choice of judges, which is an argument in favor of the Republican candidate. Add in all of the uncertain issues and figuring out whether the country would be worse off with a Republican or a Democrat in the White House is a hard question, made even harder by the fact that the two most likely candidates this time offer a choice between a president certain to be bad and one who might be terrible.
What I find interesting, looking at my own feelings, is that there are two different answers to what I want. The rational answer is that the worst outcome might be Biden in control of both houses of Congress, the second worst Trump in control of both houses, or maybe the reverse; beyond those two, the order is unclear. The critical question is who is likely to control Congress, since whoever doesn’t will be able to do less damage. A non-Trump Republican with control of the senate but not the house looks like the least bad possible outcome but not a likely one.
If I switch the question from what I ought to want to what I do want, from reason to emotion, the result becomes clearer. I will be happy if Biden loses to any Republican other than Trump, have mixed emotions if he loses to Trump. The reason has almost nothing to do with the rational calculation of what outcome would be better for either me or the country.
Human beings have a tendency, perhaps unfortunate, to view the world as us vs them. Biden's supporters are people whose political views are more sharply opposed to mine than those of his opponents. Insofar as my hardwired instincts are trying to sort political struggles into the categories of friend and foe, it is clear which side they put me on. If I think of the election as a football match I may not be cheering one side but I am definitely booing the other. Biden’s defeat would be a crushing blow for a lot of people I am inclined to disagree with and disapprove of — and a good thing too. That is my gut level response.
This is not the only time I have observed myself reacting in this fashion. I spent time a good many years ago arguing with people in a Usenet group devoted to issues of global warming. One of the things that struck me early on was that although participants represented a range of views on the subject, almost all could be grouped, by behavior if not by views, into one side or other. That was how they thought of themselves.
I was not an exception. My actual view was and is intermediate between the two ends of the dispute. I think it is reasonably clear that global temperatures have been trending up unusually fast for the past century or so and the most plausible explanation I have seen is the effect of human production of carbon dioxide. On the other hand, I do not think there are good reasons to predict that warming on the scale suggested by the IPCC reports for the next century or so will have large net negative effects, a point I have discussed here in the past.2
Although my views put me somewhere in the middle, disagreeing with one side on some questions and with the other on others, that is not how I felt or how I was viewed. I spent enough time criticizing arguments made by the believers in global warming to get classified by them with the skeptics (who they labeled "deniers"). That produced enough attacks from the believers to trigger my built in friend/foe detector. I posted criticisms of arguments on the skeptic side when I thought the argument was wrong and I had something to contribute. But I was happy to see believers post bad arguments, since they could be refuted, unhappy to see critics do so. Emotionally speaking I was a partisan.
The final episode in this particular drama involved a point of very little importance for the question of global warming but considerable for the egos of the participants in the debate. Various people described Michael Mann, a climatologist associated with the IPCC, as a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Other people, myself among them, pointed out that it was not true. The claim was based on the fact that the IPCC won a Nobel peace prize and had sent a letter with a copy of the prize certificate to various of the people who had contributed to its work, thanking them for their contribution to its winning the prize. Mann exhibited his copy online.
The IPCC does not have the power to give out Nobel prizes; the certificate quite clearly stated that the recipients were the IPCC and Al Gore. A heated argument followed.
It became impossible for Mann's supporters to maintain their position after first a representative of the Nobel Committee and later the IPCC provided unambiguous statements that contradicted it. At that point most of those who had argued the position dropped it, in at least one case trying to pretend to never have made the argument. One, but only one, tried to insist that the statement from the Nobel Committee, reported from at least two independent sources, must be a fake.
The part of the story relevant to this post was my reaction. The fact that a prominent supporter of global warming had been inflating his credentials, or at least had them inflated by multiple supporters, implies very little about whether global warming is real, anthropogenic, and dangerous. It was, however, a humiliating defeat for "them," hence a victory for "us," hence a development I enjoyed.
Which is one reason I decided to drop out of that news group and that conversation.
For an example of the same pattern from the other side, consider another old Usenet exchange. Someone had suggested that if Gore had been elected in 2000 he might, like Bush, have ended up invading Iraq. A poster who appears to be a committed partisan of the Democratic party objected that that was nonsense. I offered as evidence that it wasn't nonsense Clinton's cruise missile attack on a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, which was a sort of miniature of the Iraq invasion, responding to a terrorist attack by attacking a nation that had no obvious connection to it with a bogus claim of weapons of mass destruction as justification.
The Democratic poster leaped to the conclusion that I was a Bush supporter, maintained that conclusion even after I explicitly denied it, and went through various contortions in order to avoid conceding that I hadn't said what he claimed I had said—he had converted my "response to 9/11" into "justified response to 9/11." His behavior struck me as particularly odd given that "Clinton behaved just as badly as Bush" is not an argument one would usually expect a Bush supporter to make—quite aside from various other unkind things about Bush I had said in other posts.
The only sense I could make out of it was that I was encountering a tribal view of the world. There are two sides, everyone who isn't on my side is on the other side, hence anyone who says something negative about the Democrats must be a partisan of the Republicans and any evidence to the contrary is to be ignored as experimental error.
Not long after, I heard a radio report about the French government caving in to the demands of demonstrators that they rescind legislation making it possible for employers to fire young workers. Oddly enough, part of my reaction was a feeling of satisfaction. The news implied a further decline of the wealth, power, and status of France, France is part of Europe, Europe was at the time the obvious status rival to America, and I am an American. Speaking as an economist, my best guess is that the decline of the French economy makes me worse off, not better off. But to some part of my mind hardwired by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in hunter/gatherer bands, there is only us and them, and anything that is bad for them is good for us.
Charlie Hebdo, the New York Times, and Tribal Politics
I saw and heard a good deal of talk about the decision by the New York Times not to reprint cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, back when that was an issue. The official explanation was that they do not want to offend their Muslim readers. Their critics pointed out that they have been willing to publish things offensive to other groups of readers in the past and attributed the policy to the fear that publishing the cartoons might result in violent attacks on the Times or its staff. They went on to argue that refusing for that reason is, if not admirable, at least understandable, but that the Times ought to have the honesty to admit that that is what they are doing. I think both explanations were wrong. What was really going on, as I interpret it, was tribal politics.
A considerable part of the U.S. population identifies with either the red tribe (Republicans, conservatives) or the blue tribe (Democrats, liberals), choosing positions and interpreting evidence accordingly. Both tribes are, of course, opposed to Muslim terrorism and the murder of journalists. But the blue tribe version amounts to "Muslim terrorists are bad people, but we should not let their offenses prejudice us against the vast majority of Muslims who are not terrorists or give us a negative opinion of their religion." The red tribe version concedes that not all Muslims are terrorists but sees Muslim terrorism as part of an us vs them conflict, with "us" the west and "them" the Muslim world. The same split shows up in views of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The blue tribe, or at least its hard core members, sees the Palestinians as the oppressed, the Israelis as the oppressors. The red tribe sees the Israelis as part of us, the Palestinians as part of them.
The New York Times is the nearest thing the blue tribe has to an official organ. The Charlie Hebdo case was a red tribe story. The Times could not deny that it happened, could not refuse to cover it, could not defend the killers. But it also could not ally with victims who, from its (unstated) point of view, were on the wrong side of the red/blue split over Islam, deliberately provoking Muslims with their cartoons.
Liberals and Elizabeth Warren
The facts, as best I can determine them, are that Elizabeth Warren put herself on the minority law teacher list in her listing in the faculty directory of the American Association of Law Schools, from the mid-eighties until after she received tenure at Harvard, represented herself as native American to both the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard and was so listed in federal filings by both universities.
When questioned, Warren explained that she believed, from family tradition, that an ancestor had been Cherokee. When the issue arose during her 2012 senatorial campaign, supporters claimed to have documentary evidence that one of her great-great-great grandmothers had been listed as Cherokee. It eventually turned out that the claim was based on an assertion in a 2006 family newsletter—no actual documentation ever appeared — but a later DNA result released by Warren implied a Native American ancestor six to ten generations back.3 For an account from a source friendly to Warren, see this Mother Jones article. For a much more detailed account from a critical source, this web page.
Most of the controversy has been over whether Warren's claim was true but that does not strike me as the interesting question. I not only have no documentary evidence with regard to any of my great-great-great grandmothers or even my great grandmothers, I don't even know their names. And, in any case, what is relevant in evaluating Warren's behavior is not what is true but what she believed.
I will assume, therefor, that Warren really did believe that she had a distant ancestor who was Cherokee. We are still left with the case of a woman who took advantage of preferential hiring policies designed to benefit disadvantaged minorities by claiming to be one in spite of not being a member of a disadvantaged minority in any meaningful sense.
That is not admirable behavior but neither is it, in my view, strikingly wicked; people quite often game systems for their own advantage in one way or another. But then, I am not a supporter of affirmative action. One would expect those who are to see it as a modern version of the proverbial offense of stealing pennies from a blind man's cup, diverting to her benefit resources that were supposed to go to other and worse off people. Yet Elizabeth Warren not only was not ostracized by the liberal community, she remained one of their leading figures.
I can only see two plausible explanations. The less likely one is that most liberals do not really believe in their own proclaimed principles, do not care whether affirmative action policies actually benefit the people they are supposed to benefit. The more likely one is that this is another example of tribal behavior. Warren won back a blue tribe senate seat from a red tribe usurper. That gives her a free pass, the social equivalent of a get out of jail free card. Any evidence against her, however clear, is obviously enemy propaganda to be ignored.
Biden quote: "President Trump says things like, everything from ‘that's crazy stuff,’ then he walks away and says inject bleach in your arm and that's gonna work."
Trump quote: "A question that probably some of you are thinking of if you’re totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting. So, supposedly we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. (To Bryan) And I think you said you’re going to test that, too. Sounds interesting, right?"
Relevant posts are:
The Hockey Stick, Statistical Arguments, Climate Change and Food Supply, A Climate Falsehood You Can Check for Yourself, William Nordhaus, A Climate-Science Textbook , Land Gained and Lost, Climate: Two Metapoints, Climate: The Implication Of Uncertainty, Climate-Change: The Problem Of Sources, My First Post Done Again
Six generations would make her 1.5% Native American. According to Wikipedia: in a sample of 187 European Americans from State College, Pennsylvania, there was an average of 0.7% West African genetic contribution and 3.2% Native American genetic contribution ... . If that result is typical, Warren has at most about half as much Native American ancestry as the average European American.