Placing Blame Rather Than Working Toward a Solution

I like to think deeply about public policy. I think there are very interesting structures and ideas that we could put in place which would help us to achieve better outcomes in our societies. The challenge, however, is that the outcomes we want to see are based on value judgement. As in, I think the world should be more this way or that way. When we use the word should we are expressing a judgement that represents some type of value that we hold, which other people might not hold. That means that our political structure is ultimately based on opinion and preference rather than rational cold hard facts.

 

But we don’t really see our world of politics in this way. We see the world of politics differently, believing instead that there is a clearly preferential best answer that can be empirically determined, and arguing as if we know what that perfect answer is. The result from this in the United States, where we have a two party system, seems to be polarization and contempt for the people on the other team. Across the globe, this tends to result in blaming others for bad things that we see around us, and voting for politicians who make us feel warm and fuzzy and rationalizing our support for them even if their ideas might not actually make sense when fully implemented.

 

In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes about this phenomenon, “Elections these days often seem more about who is to blame than who is to govern.” We don’t think deeply during an election about the governable skills that someone has. We discuss policy, but the reality is that almost none of us understand policy in a deep way, and if we do, we only understand one narrow policy space. We are not all economic experts across the board, we are not all education experts, and we are not all medical experts. But we have vague senses about what would be in our interest and what types of views we should hold to fit in with other people like us. As a result we fall into a blame game where we criticize the other side for bad things and put blinders on to ignore the governance shortcomings of our own team.

 

Cowen continues, “Voters are less inclined to see their selection as a long-term contract with a candidate or party and more likely to see it as resembling a transaction with a used car salesman.” This is not surprising if you consider that no one is actually a policy expert. We want to see people like us do well in society, so we align with whoever seems to be best positioned to do that. We don’t really know what will lead to good outcomes, but as long as the politician or party says that people like us are good, then we know to align with and vote for.

Take a Close Look at What Feels Right

A topic I am fascinated by and plan to dig into in the future is motivated reasoning. We are great at finding all of the reasons and examples for why the things we do are overwhelmingly good and justified, while finding all the flaws in the people and things we dislike. Our brains seems to be wired to tell us that what benefits us is inherently good for the world while things that harm us are inherently evil. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “What feels, to each of you, overwhelmingly right and undeniably true is often suspiciously self-serving, and if nothing else, it can be useful to take a step back and reflect on your brain’s willingness to distort things for your benefit.” This is the essence of motivated reasoning, and we often don’t even realize we are doing it.

 

We each have a particular view of the world that feels like it is foolproof. We have our own experiences and knowledge, and the way we see the world comes out of those factors. It will always feel right to us because it is directly dependent on the inputs we observe, recognize, and cognitively arrange. But, we should be able to recognize that the worldview that we hold will always be an incomplete and ineffective model. We can’t have all of the experiences in the world and we can’t know all of the information about the universe. We will always have a flaw in our opinion because we can’t have a perfect and all encompassing perspective. There will always be gaps and there will always be inaccuracies.

 

When we train ourselves to remember the reality that we don’t have all the information and all the background experiences necessary to fully understand the world, we can start to approach our own thoughts and opinions with more skepticism. It is easy to be skeptical of the out of date baby boomer advice you received and it is easy to discount the political views of someone in the other party, but it is much harder to discount something that feels overwhelmingly accurate to yourself but might be wrong or only marginal, especially if you stand to benefit in one way or another.

 

At the end of the day we likely will have to make some type of decision related to our incomplete and inaccurate worldview. Even if we step back and observe what is going through our mind and where we might have blind-spots, we may find that we reach the same conclusion. That is perfectly fine, as long as we understand where we may be wrong and work to improve our understanding in that area. Or, we might acknowledge that we don’t know it all and be willing to accept some type of compromise that might slightly diminish our self-interest but still hold true to the underlying value at the heart of our decision. This is likely the only way our fractured societies can move forward. We must admit we can’t know it all and we must be willing to admit that sometimes we act out of self-interest in favor of our own personal values rather than acting based on immutable truths. From there we can start to find areas where it makes sense for us to give up a small piece and be willing to experiment with something new. A disposition toward this type of thinking can help us actually develop and make real progress toward a better world.

What Reality Ought To Be

The universe is filled with paradoxes, but often times those paradoxes seem to be the result of how our brains and thinking work. Amanda Gefter addresses this in her book, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. In the book Gefter describes how she found her way to a career as a science journalist, something she never set out to do directly, and at many points never believed would be possible for her. Her descriptions of science and physics are as much a description about the progression of human life that we all share, and it is a perfect opportunity to reflect on paradoxes within our personal lives and within areas like science.

 

Gefter describes the challenges of quantum mechanics and the reality that we can measure some parts of the universe one way, but get a different result if we measure them a different way or at a different time. Also, with quantum particles, we seem to be a able to measure with incredible precision a particle’s position or its momentum, but not both. We can accurately look at where a particle is, but in doing so we can’t describe where it is going. Alternatively, we can look at where a particle is going and how it is moving through space, but we can’t actually then pinpoint where in space it is. This measurement paradox is challenging and creates a lot of problems and further questions for scientists. Describing the way we are challenged by measurements and observations and our inability to separate ourselves from the measurements and observations we make, Gefter writes the following:

 

“There’s no normal reality lurking behind the quantum scene, no objective Einsteinian world that sits idly by regardless of who’s looking. There’s just the stuff we measure. The whole thing reeked of paradox, but as Feynman said, ‘The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be.’”

 

I think this idea extends well beyond physics throughout our lives. A paradox is something that sounds like it would be correct and obvious, but leads to a conclusion or reality that could not possibly exist. Paradoxes are contradictions that break our expectations and are outcomes that run counter to our intentions. With this framework, we can begin to see that Feynman’s description of paradoxes extends beyond the world of science into any aspect of our lives today.

 

The physical universe and the ever confusing and challenging world of particle physics is under no obligation to act in ways that our limited brains and current extent of mathematical and scientific understanding would expect. We make predictions based on observations, but we are never playing with all the data and never have a complete set of all possible observations when we make our predictions. Our ideas of what should and should not be possible are shaped by our experiences and by all the information we can hold in our head, and that information is astoundingly limited compared to the vastness of possibilities within the universe.

 

Looking at our actual day-to-day lives, we can see that this concept translates into the expectations, generalizations, and predictions we make about our futures and desires. I live in Reno, Nevada, and at the moment housing prices in Reno have increased dramatically as the number of homes and quality apartments has remained level while economic development and population growth have occurred. One result of a stronger economy and a lagging housing infrastructure is increased home costs, and fewer living accommodations for those who want to live on their own. I was recently running with a friend of mine who stated that an individual graduating from college should be able to afford a starter home if they are in an introductory position and have a solid and stable job. My friend is not wrong to say this, but his statement is simply a value judgement based on the experiences of his family and expectations that have been shaped by where he has lived and what he has been told he should do to be successful. Whenever we begin talking in terms of how things should be, we need to recognize that we are making value judgements, and that we are expressing only our ideas of what reality ought to be. The conflicts this creates and the paradoxes it leads us to are not paradoxes that actually exist in the universe, they are just situations where the real world does not align with the way that our brains comprehend our experiences.

 

The set of possibilities within the universe is virtually infinite as far as the human mind is concerned, and thinking that we know how things should be is to some extent arrogant and irrational. The world and universe in physical terms and in terms of our social ordering can have many forms, and if we try to force the universe to be the way that makes sense from our perspective, we will simply be frustrated and confused in a spiral of paradox. When we take away our opinion and think through our expectations, we can begin to see the world more clearly and better react to and adjust to the actual realities of our world. When we take away the expectations of how the world ought to be, we can live in the world we actually have and learn and adapt with greater skill.

Automatic Polarization

I am a Masters in Public Administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I am constantly thinking about politics in terms of how systems operate and what forces shape the decisions being made. I am interested in the decisions themselves, but I find the forces and factors that shape how we arrive at those decisions interesting and equally important. Being able to take a deeper look beyond the headlines and beyond the reactions to policy helps us see something important about how we as a society have come together as a group to attempt to solve complex and challenging problems.

 

In their book, Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which racial attitudes and biases impacted the decisions our country made during the 2008 election and in the first few years following President Obama’s election. Their argument throughout their book is that the election split the nation along racial lines, with forces that operated below the surface and beyond many people’s conscious thought, driving behaviors. In the time following the election, Tesler and Sears write, “any issue Obama takes a public stance on might soon become polarized according to racial predispositions.” What the authors found from the data they reviewed is that the issues that President Obama openly endorsed or opposed became split along party lines in public opinion across the country. What we were split over however, was not the policy or the particular approach that the President took, but rather who the President was. During the eight years that President Obama served, one of the key drivers of this split was his race, operating in a way that had not been seen in our politics for quite some time.

 

When people openly embraced a strategy of non-cooperation and a public image of fighting against President Obama at every step, an atmosphere developed that was toxic and dangerous for our country. Policy and analysis fell behind tribalism, and our country’s problem with political polarization worsened, becoming a problem not just between conservative and liberal,  but a problem between races. Until the 2016 election the racial dynamics were shrouded behind phrases and ideas that appeared race neutral. Tesler and Sears do a great job cutting behind the veil to see the influence of race on public opinion by studying changes in public opinion with demographic date following the election of President Obama.

 

What worries me today is that we elected President Trump after he openly embraced racist stances and created an atmosphere that fostered racial divisions. He embodied a reaction more than a policy or party. What many have said, I think very correctly, is that President Trump is more of a backlash against a black president than anything else. In this sense, the polarization over race that began under President Obama has been heightened and maintained after his term. We have continued to see a split where anything publicly stated by President Trump is vehemently opposed by the Democrats who have come to stand for racial equality and the Republicans who have come to embrace ideas of whiteness. To move beyond this stage in politics requires a recognition of how our innate senses of tribalism have split us in our thoughts of otherness. We must recognize when we are acting on tribalism and when we are truly thinking more deeply about our policy stances.

 

Most people do not think deeply about a specific policy, but fall back on a few generalizations that I believe are easily opened to hidden motives that allow for tribal influence. Personal responsibility, work ethic, and deservingness are vague and hard to pin down, which allows for tribalism and implicit bias to shape our opinions. Understanding how those factors can be hijacked and controlled by racial predispositions is key if we want to think more deeply and move beyond our current polarization.

Benevolent Toward All

Throughout Meditations Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius encourages us to maintain an even temperament, especially in our interactions with others. He focuses on the idea that we will see the world as we choose to see it, with positives and negatives projected onto the world by our own mind.  Aurelius believes that our opinions shape the reality of the world around us, and he writes about ways that we can take control of our thought process to change our opinions and perspectives.  This is clear in his writing of other people and our interactions with others,

 

“Suppose any man shall despise me. Let him look to that himself. But I will look to this, that I be not discovered doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.  Shall any man hate me? Let him look to it. But I will be mild and benevolent towards every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly.”

 

In this quote he is showing how important it is to look toward all people  with an attitude of brotherhood and unity. When we accept and recognize that we are all connected then we see that the best way to move forward would be to work together and to lift everyone in our actions. Looking for the negative and hypocritical in others is not productive, but developing into the person who can lead a group with clear focus will help guide the change we want to see.

 

Aurelius is encouraging us to abandon our reliance on the opinions of others and to develop strong personal thoughts about ourselves. He is not simply encouraging us to be self-confident or even to hold fast to our opinions, but rather to let other people’s opinions of us remain separate from how we act toward others. By treating everyone well and avoiding grudges we can be more open toward those around us. Constantly checking to see if we have been harmed by another will be exhausting, and will also build barriers between us and people in our lives.

Obstacles and Opinions

In his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about overcoming obstacles by changing our perspectives and judgements surrounding the difficulties that we face.  In his view, we are not directly affected by challenges and obstacles in our lives, but our mental state determines how we are limited or impacted. For Aurelius, how we will respond to and handle the obstacles that we do encounter is entirely up to our own decision making power.  We choose to see something as negative and detrimental to us, and we react accordingly. In Meditations he writes,

 

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it.  And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now.  But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost though not rather act than complain?”

 

This quote speaks to me because it becomes so easy to complain about or lives or parts of our lives rather than to take action to change our behavior or thoughts.  What Aurelius is reminding himself in this passage is that we have the power to determine what our outcome will be when faced with a challenge, and we can take steps to achieve what we would like during struggles rather than complaining about what is in front of us.

 

We may not find the perfect solution to every problem and it may not seem that we are much better off after any particular challenge, but we can always grow and learn from our difficulties.  Shifting our perspective helps us better understand the obstacles we face and gives us the ability to see the ways in which obstacle can help us grow.  It is in our power to see what we do not like and to take steps to improve it.  We can choose to complain and become cynical, or we can move forward, leaning into the obstacle and using it to help propel us in the direction we want.

Influenced

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius focuses on the power of our minds and how we can change our thoughts to improve the way we move through the world.  He focuses on self-awareness and the importance of recognizing how we behave and react to things and events in our lives. By taking control of our thoughts and actions we give ourselves the power to guide our life in a way that is the most productive and helps us be the best possible version of ourselves.

 

When it comes to our behaviors and reactions Aurelius writes, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul, for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements” (emphasis mine).  What Aurelius is saying in this quote is that we can decide how we will react to events in our world and that we shape the way that our lives play out. In the general course of our lives we can change the way we think about and perceive events that we deem to be negative if we can refocus our thoughts and find a positive perspective.

 

Changing our thoughts means that we have to recognize that no event and no thing has power over our individual faculties of mind. We always have control over our mind even if we have lost all else.  Certainly this is a great challenge during major life challenges like illness, foreclosure, and death, but recognizing your own ability to control your faculties of mind can help give you a stillness during the tempest, and return power to your situation.  Aurelius argues that this ability allows us to abandon the idea that something is either good or bad, and gives us the skill to evaluate the world in a more complete manner.  It is in our power to decide whether we think something is good or bad, an it is up to us to determine how any event or item impacts our life.

Transformation and Opinion

In many sections of his writing in, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius comments on how we react to things around us, and how we can recognize that the outside world does not truly affect who we are, but that our reactions and thoughts are what shape us as human beings.  Aurelius writes,

 

“But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two.  One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within.  The other is that all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes though hast already witnessed.  The universe is transformation; life is opinion.”

 

In this quote Aurelius is explaining the stoic idea that we can chose how to react to the world and events around us, and that we can control our emotions to better behave and think throughout our days and lifetime.  There are few things which truly change the brain and shape the way in which the brain functions, and for the most part, how we experience life will be determined by the decisions we make, and how we allow our choices and experiences define us.  We can label things as good or bad, but nothing truly is good or evil unless we decide in our mind that it is.

 

Aurelius is also speaking about the brevity of so many of our experiences in life.  It can often be hard to imagine being someplace else, or having different experiences, but whatever our current state is, we likely will live in a massively different state in the future. There are things such as chronic disease or the loss of family which will be permanent and unchangeable, but the way that those things affect us can be temporary and bearable.  Aurelius is reminding us that good or bad, we can change our lives and how we experience life through our thoughts and opinions. When we chose to bring a better perspective to our lives we can shape the lens through which we perceive our experiences, and we can chose whether things have positive or negative outcomes for ourselves.  Recognizing that things don’t shape us as much as our own mind shapes us shows the importance of mental fortitude, and remembering how quickly life transforms helps us build the grit needed to maintain our thoughts and positivity.