Monday, March 28, 2016

Emotions trump logic

It is not unusual for a couple of students every term to bring up the issue of trade deficits and the government debt and, therefore, the compelling urgency to get rid of the welfare programs.  I would try to explain to them that we need to systematically parse all those in order to begin to understand if there is any causal relationship among them.  But, I almost always lose them even as I start going down that path.

Logical understanding of issues involves hard work.  Even if the world's best expert is there to answer the question, the listener has to think along as well.  And when that audience completely shuts off, even Einstein can't win them over.  

At least in my classroom, I have a captive audience that I can work on.  But, when those topics, and more, are discussed as hot political issues, the ongoing campaign season is fully exposing a deep flaw in the democratic process--logic be damned; it's about the voters' emotions!

Consider the case of the trade deficit.  Of course, the US runs deficits with a bunch of countries.  But, does it matter and, if so, why?  Before we can even begin to lecture about this, the frontrunner of the party--which the "local" and the "foreign" frequent commenters ardently support--has staked out his position:
Donald Trump believes that a half-trillion-dollar trade deficit with the rest of the world makes the United States a loser and countries with trade surpluses like China and Mexico winners.
“They’re beating us so badly,” he has said. “Every country we lose money with.”
You think that the nearly forty percent of the party faithful who support Drumpf care about parsing through that claim about winning and losing?  You think they will patiently scroll through the multiple screens of explanation?  Imagine sitting them down and saying, "let me explain to you the Triffin dilemma."  

To re-work an old campaign slogan that worked to elect the man whose wife is now--for now--the front running candidate in the other party. it's the emotions, stupid!

The trouble is that decisions based on emotions will likely cause way more problems than thoughtful decisions can.  Especially over the long haul.  But, almost always, emotions trumps logic.  Which is why even a significant percentage of evangelical voters have favored Trump thus far, even though the thrice-married guy has a long track record of pooh-poohing the very religious values that evangelicals supposedly hold dear.  If it comes down to Trump v. Clinton in November?
GOP-registered evangelicals will not vote for Hillary. You could make a very good argument that Hillary is much more a person of faith and closer to evangelicals on her understanding of God than Trump. But voters aren't moved by logic; they are moved by emotions.
Talk about strange bedfellows! 

Of course, intellectually we have been aware of voting as an emotional act.  What is new is how that visceral nature has been fully exposed this time around.
 Imagine a world in which ideology was ruled by rationality without any biases. In such a world there would be little room for political debate among intelligent people. If we were all exposed to the same facts we would end up reaching the same conclusions. We would still need parties and elections since our interests are not identical. But we would never remain split over questions such as which economic policy would benefit most British people, or which policy would be most effective for tackling terrorism.
The fact that we continue to debate these issues endlessly, and yet never seem to agree, suggests that there is something in ideologies far beyond rationality. This other thing is subjective taste, which, to a large extent, is shaped by our emotional being. De gustibus non est disputandum (In matters of taste, there can be no disputes), as the Latin idiom goes
Meanwhile, there is a petition drive "for allowing the open carry of guns at the Republican convention this July in Cleveland."   It might have started as a satirical statement, but has gained serious attention from Drumpf:
While proclaiming himself "a very, very strong person for Second Amendment," the Republican front-runner told ABC's This Week that "I have not seen the petition. I want to see what it says. I want to read the fine print."
Surely combining emotions and guns in a crowded and contested convention will be uber-rational!

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