Arnold Kling on the Three Languages of Politics
Jun 3 2013

Arnold Kling, author of The Three Languages of Politics, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in the book. Kling argues that Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians each have their own language and way of looking at the world that often doesn't overlap. This makes it easier for each group to demonize the others. The result is ideological intolerance and incivility. By understanding the language and mindset of others, Kling suggests we can do a better job discussing our policy disagreements and understand why each group seems to feel both misunderstand and morally superior to the other two.

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EconTalk host Russ Roberts does a monologue on how political discourse seems to have deteriorated in recent years and the growth in outrage, tribalism, and intolerance for those with different views from one's own. Roberts suggests that part of the...
Arnold Kling on the Three Languages of Politics, Revisited
Economist and author Arnold Kling talks about the revised edition of his book The Three Languages of Politics in front of a live audience at the Cato Institute, recorded in September of 2019. Kling talks about the changed political landscape...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Jun 3 2013 at 7:37am

American Conservatives want to Conserve the values of the American Founders BECAUSE they have liberated the oppressed and prevent coercion. It is the best set of ideas to accomplish the stated goals of both the progressives and libertarians.

Jun 3 2013 at 8:33am

Someone will think, “What about slavery?” The best arguments against slavery and Jim Crow were found in Judeo-Chrisitan ethics and the Declaration, American Conservatism. Oddly, the Constitution with it’s 3/5ths ‘compromise’ was accomplished based on the argument that slaves were men and merited representation, regardless of how the representative power was later doled out. Lincoln noted that emancipation was just fulfilling America’s Founding ideals, it wasn’t a progressive notion.

Jun 3 2013 at 10:48am

Skepticism about climate change is something that has crept in along the side lines in a number of Russ’ podcasts. If this is to continue, I think Russ has more or less an obligation to inform himself about the scientific concensus in exactly the non-biased way that Arnold was promoting for other issues.

My own impression is that geologists and climatologists are essentially not in doubt that climate change is real and certain components of it are man-made. This does not mean the end of the world, the end of humanitiy, or the end of capitalism. It does mean that the behaviour of certain people (e.g. those who fly planes) creates negative externalities which will be imposed on other people (e.g. those who live in coastal areas) without there consent. The correct response to internalizing such externalities is of course a complex question.

Marvyn Bragg conducted the following very sober presentation of polar ice; it focuses %97 percent on the bare facts, and only touchs on the political angle very lightly.

Jun 3 2013 at 10:56am

Russ, great podcast. I find “how people think” is much more compelling than “what people think about.”

However, I do somewhat question pinning conservatism as a balance of civilization versus barbarism. It seems most conservatives are more keen on upholding tradition and morality, versus those who deviate from societal norms (gay marriage, drugs, etc.). While there’s certainly much overlap between this and Kling’s interpretation, traditionalism seems more fitting.

Mads Llindstrøm
Jun 3 2013 at 11:19am

Oppressed versus oppressor. But that begs the questions, who is the oppressor? Who is the oppressed?

Among the left, it almost always seems to be divided on economic lines. The rich are the oppressors, the poor are the oppressed. I find that distinction quite unintuitive, as rich do not imply bad, and poor do not imply good.

I am not saying that the left roots for criminals, but the left always seems to find understanding and sympathize for common criminals. However, no such sympathy is found for Bernie Madoff. Personally, I do not have much sympathy for either group.

Jun 3 2013 at 11:22am

Just a small anecdote that I think drives home much of Kling’s point:

My uncle was chief of staff for a few congressmen back in the ’80s. A common question they would ask him when presented with new legislation is, “What’s the most conservative way to vote on this bill?” As if that had any bearing on the bill’s merits.

Growing up I thought those congressmen were voting at best lazily and at worst scandalously. Later when I worked for several politicians, I learned firsthand how heavily incentivized legislators are to vote strictly on blind ideological grounds. Most voters (or at least the loudest ones) are only interested in where a bill rests on their respective ideological axes. It was fruitless to argue a bill’s projected effectiveness, estimated costs, or other unseen consequences.

This is exacerbated by the media, as it only presents soundbites and sensationalism, as opposed to objective analysis. But ultimately, as Russ is fond of saying, “We get the government we deserve.” I think the same is true for media as well.

Jaime de Sa
Jun 3 2013 at 1:19pm

I don’t agree with the interviewee’s claim that we should understand someone else’s point of view in order to better discuss policy differences and somehow work them out.

First of all, show me the research that proves it works. How does someone look through the point of view of Congressman Shimkus when he claims that god will end the world not global warming and quotes the bible during a meeting about global warming?

What part of his point of view do I have to understand? He’s claiming that a 2,000 year old book should determine policy on managing global warming? Really?

What about the Congressmen who are against GMOs? They are completely anti-science. How do I go about understanding that?

Of course someone will look at things through their axis. That’s the entire point of the various political parties.

It should come down to simple evidence. If a congressmen has a point of view than the burden of proof is on him to prove why his policy makes sense and is to the benefit of the greater society.

Jun 3 2013 at 2:18pm

Can I purchase the book in a PDF format? I haven’t entered the Kindle age.

Maribel Tipton
Jun 3 2013 at 2:43pm

Jaime de Sa:The fact that you’re focusing on the extreme is telling. You can always find extreme points of view in all camps. If you chose to argue against those view points, well it’s pretty easy to believe you have the right view point on the issue. I try to look for the smartest and most sophisticated explanations of views that oppose mine. Since all sides usually try to argue against the weakest form of arguments is hard to come by enriching discussions. I agree some of the views about GMO’s and global warming are pretty crazy (uninformed and emotional). On most of the substantive issues there are very smart people arguing for different courses of actions using more nuanced and sophisticated explanations. I am a consequentialist libertarian, would put myself in the Friedman, Hayek camp. I think consequentialist libertarians should have a separate axis of how we tend to explain things, than non-aggression principle libertarians. Consequentialist libertarians focus on outcomes, and the other on morality, I understand there is overlap, I am not saying consequentialist libertarianism is value free, obviously not, but more in terms on how you defend or explain your position. Maybe we need a 4th axis?

I remember trying to discuss Obamacare with a family member, a law he supports, and I was trying to present an argument against it. I began trying to establish common ground and said OK: “We all want the poor and everyone to have access to healthcare”. I assumed he understood a lot of people that oppose Obamacare, care about poor people and everyone having access to healthcare. Even on this very basic assumption, he responded: “ Well I am not sure I could say that, there are a lot of Social Darwinist out there”. This kind of caught me off-guard, he is a very reasonable man and I thought he would grant the benefit of the doubt to people with opposing views. Well he didn’t. Maybe it changed with time, but at that moment he framed the argument as Social Darwinist vs People that care for the poor.

Another example of this came from listening to a George Soros, Bruce Caldwell, Richard Epstein discussion of Hayek presented by CATO Institute, you can find it on YouTube. They all had very interesting points to make on weaknesses and strengths of Hayeks’ views and approach. I was a taken aback by George Soros argument for putting Hayek in the Market Fundamentalist camp, his argument? This kind of free-market view of efficiency and equilibrium prices relies on Perfect Competition and Perfect Rationality, which is demonstrably wrong, I mean a lot of what he was saying fundamentally contradicted Hayek’s actual views. A little reading of Hayek would make that evident. It just seemed a bit shocking to me that a smart and well-known figure like George Soros wouldn’t grant Hayek the respect of trying to understand his views in some depth prior to going and discussing his contributions or errors in thinking. I would really like to see him argue against Hayek’s actual views, I am sure that would be more intellectually stimulating.

Listening to people that agree with you is certainly music to your ears and I do a good amount of that. But at the same time a try to find good debates, or discussions of smart people that disagree, it can be hard to come-by sometimes. As painful as it can be to find out something you strongly believed is not really true, especially after spending so much time trying to figure stuff out, I still usually manage to push through. I really think some people care more about certain truths than others. You can see the commitment when you talk to them and how they react when challenged. “The Myth of the Rational Voter” by Bryan Caplan kind of looks into possible explanation for this, there are costs, time and pain, involved in changing your views, and what are the benefits? I happen to have a terrible fear of being stuck in a false belief, for some reason I think it matters what I believe, I fear that out of ignorance I can contribute to pain and suffering around the world, this is a huge drive for me to seek the truth wherever it may take me.

Greg McIsaac
Jun 3 2013 at 5:05pm

I enjoyed the discussion. The topic is of interest to me as I share Mr. Kling’s concern about the tribal nature of policy discourse in recent years.

I am interested in reading the book but not bad enough to purchase a Kindle in order to do so. If other formats become available, I’ll appreciate hearing about it.

Jonathon Haidt covers some similar ground in various essays and his book “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion”. Haidt and some of his collaborators have developed a web site that identifies resources for promoting more civil political discourse

Perhaps “The Three Languages of Politics” belongs among the resources promoted by

Greg McIsaac
Jun 3 2013 at 7:07pm

It is interesting that Mr. Kling was willing to pick on Paul Krugman and Elizabeth Warren by name, but the conservative economists who favorably cited the flawed Reinhart-Rogoff statistics remained nameless. I suspect he was referring to Glenn Hubbard and Time Kane:

Was the alleged “firestorm” of criticism of Reinhart and Rogoff’s spreadsheet error legitimate or exaggerated by liberal bias? I don’t know, I suspect it is a matter of opinion, but the use of the terms “firestorm” to describe the criticism of Reinhart and Rogoff and “teflon coating” to describe liberal academics seem to be examples of the allegedly problematic tribal language that Mr. Kling is attempting to raise awareness about.

The original Reinhart and Rogoff 90% tipping point was cited in some high level policy settings, such as by the Honorable Paul Ryan, serving as House of Representatives Chair of the Budget Committee. Undoubtedly R&R was not Mr. Ryan’s only rationale for his policy positions, but he considered it important enough to mention in a prominent public statement. When the basis for the statement turns out to be false, some equally prominent acknowledgement seems warranted.

Jun 3 2013 at 7:33pm

Wow, the comments are really sort of ironic today. In the podcast, Arnold Kling talked about how pundits play to “their” axis to demonize those who hold other viewpoints and unify their own crowd.

Then we have commenters proclaiming that the convervative viewpoint is the correct one, that the left “sympathizes with common criminals”, and that Russ Roberts needs to read up on climate science.

I guess this is all proof that Kling is on the right track with this model.

Jun 3 2013 at 9:48pm

I was making that point that conservatism (little c) is not the same everywhere. After progressives controlled the house, senate and the executive branch and subsequently controlled the debates on issues, they were then conservatives in power fighting off the barbarians, using Klings terminology. I’ve seen Milton Friedman interviews from the 1960s and 70s in which he argued he was a radical because he opposed the prevailing progressive ideas in Washington, DC.

European conservatives hearken back to strong statist government. American Conservatives want to preserve the Founders’ deliberate opposition to those European statist tendencies. American Conservatism is a different species of ideas.

One problem with Kling’s argument is that the labels are too broad. They don’t capture the specific American soup of political ideologies. The American Founders were true liberals, not the modern American Liberals (progressives). Thus, an American Conservative is a true liberal. Very different from a European conservative.

There needs to be, at the beginning of discussions like this, a defining of terms and some consensus on their appropriateness. It’s frustrating to be tossed into the same category with European statists (literally the opposite of American Conservatism) just because the words in America have a different meaning. If I were to say Libertarians are Anarchists I’m sure there would be objections.

Jun 3 2013 at 9:58pm

I just went to Amazon looking for the book in something other than Kindle format. My search brought up only Kindle, but listed in the search results, The Klingon Dictionary. That’s funny, especially given Russ’ comment, “I don’t know what axis I was on–Mars.”

HAL 9000
Jun 3 2013 at 10:47pm

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

Jun 4 2013 at 3:52am

There are a couple comments upthread that indicate people think you need a KIndle to read Kling’s ebook. You don’t. Amazon offers free downloads to read the format on personal computers. Google Whispersync.

Jun 4 2013 at 4:13am

“Guest: … And finally, many Libertarians talked about, were very critical of the lockdown in Boston; said, this is a police state, there are tanks in the street, all this stuff. And I think Libertarians may have some very valid points going forward about how society reacts. You know, there may be a lot of unnecessary and civil-rights-reducing kinds of surveillance and limitations of people put on as a result of this. I’m not saying Libertarians don’t have anything to worry about. But I think that the focus on the lockdown and the actions of the police might very well be inappropriate, and it certainly is not going to win Libertarians any friends, because I think most people’s reaction to the police after the bombing–I mean, before the bombing you can argue that some dots should have been connected that weren’t–but afterward that their conduct was pretty brave and pretty effective. I think that’s what most people would say.”

Dunno about most people, but my objection to the Boston lockdown wasn’t that the police weren’t brave. It was that shutting down a city of MILLIONS in reaction to the existance of a single terrorist armed with small arms and pipe bombs, never mind that he was lying wounded in the bottom of a boat, was insanely cowardly, and the person responsible was the Governor, not the police. In what way was this action “effective”, except to CYA Deval Patrick? And what could possibly be “inappropriate” about my saying this? “Inappropriate”??? What on earth is Kling thinking? Or Roberts, letting that pass?

Jun 4 2013 at 11:40am

I really enjoyed this week’s podcast. Kling’s theories provide an intriguing, thought-provoking framework to a classic problem in our culture. It’s quite rare that after listening to a podcast, I spend the better part of a day mulling over the ideas presented. It’s also quite rare for me to be moved into posting a comment, yet here I go.

So personally, I didn’t fully relate to any particular one of Kling’s axes as I share some sympathies with all three, but I had the most trouble relating to the libertarian dimension. When I do tend towards a “libertarian” idea, it’s generally not a freedom/coercion argument that moves me. It’s usually just the Hayekian belief that a centralized government has trouble making optimal decisions for complex problems. I’m not worried about my freedom; I just hate seeing inefficient policies squander our resources. If it’s a policy that I think makes sense, I don’t mind the coercion. For example, the government compels us to drive the speed limit. Although I like to drive fast, I’m not troubled by having this particular freedom curtailed as I think it makes society a safer place for all. Same for Social Security; I’m happy to pay into that aspect of FICA as I think it’s an efficiently run system that provides a needed safety net that lowers poverty among seniors. Medicare is a different story for me. Although I support the idea of universal healthcare for seniors, I feel that the program is not so well run and has perverted our healthcare system leading to many poor choices in terms of resource allocation.

While there are certainly some libertarian ideas where I am moved by a simple freedom/coercion argument, at least for me those would be the minority. More frequently I’m drawn to those ideas because of a bristling at the government’s pretense of knowledge.

Anyway, just my two cents. Again, great podcast Russ.

Greg McIsaac
Jun 4 2013 at 11:46am


thanks for the info. I was able to download a free Kindle app for reading on a PC, although googling “Wispersync” was not all that helpful.

For other people unfamiliar, googling “free Kindle reading apps” might be more direct. Or go to this page:

Jun 4 2013 at 1:20pm

Ralph – Do you have a smartphone or tablet? Chances are that you can get a Kindle app for it for free. Check your app store.

John Berg
Jun 4 2013 at 2:33pm

A most stimulating podcast and my thanks to prof. Kling for the “kick in the imagination” he gave me.

It nailed down my thinking on “Diversity” and how it is practiced at Harvard, et al. If one picks profs for a school and uses a protestant, catholic, jewish, mormon, black, asian, rich, poor, and muslim liberal for the staff, one is not providing intellectual diversity but covering his ass with “measurable” candidates so he can claim diversity.

There once was a elementary school teachers meeting to introduce a new subject. An elderly teacher gasped, we can not offer that to our parents because, unlike reading, writing, and arithmetic, it can not be measured objectively.

The newest teacher noted, “Nor can we be held accountable!–Let’s do it.”

As much as I like the insight of Kling’s axes, I would like to suggest also applying the Watergate admonition to them, “Follow the money.”

John Berg

Jun 4 2013 at 8:50pm

I think it is important to remember that Kling is not trying to suggest that the 3-axes model can explain why people do what they do or why they believe what they believe.

Rather, he is suggesting that the axes come to play in political discourse… when pundits, politicans, etc. will appeal to their base by demonizing the opponent along “their” axis. Coercion is bad, oppression is bad, barbarism is bad. It’s a code used to appeal the base. Kling even says:

“In some ways it’s almost intentional miscommunication. I’ve used the analogy of a football quarterback in American football calling an audible, [b]where the intent is for his team to understand it and for the other team not to understand it.[/b] I think some of the political discourse almost goes to that level, where you are sending, by using the axis of your tribe, you are sort of signaling that you want to raise your status within the tribe and that you don’t really care what other tribes think.”

There are some issues that fit appropriately along a particular axis, and others that do not – but either way, they will be framed that way for the purpose of rallying the base and demonizing the opposition.

A conservative can’t favor be pro-barbarism, so no matter what an issue is, an appeal to conservatives will frame the opposition as barbaric. A progressive opposing Jim Crow laws will (appropriately) frame the issue around oppression, but a progressive opposing Wal-Mart will (inappropriately) use the exact same framing. I don’t think people who lean libertarian are all in 100% in agreement on what is and is not coercion (Ron Paul and Scott Sumner for example have very different views), but in an appeal to the base they will frame policies they oppose as coercive.

I think there’s a lot of insight in this model. Like any model it’s not perfect, but as long as we know that there’s a lot to learn from this – I’m going to buy the book.

Jun 5 2013 at 5:28am

The problem with the axis concept is that axis doesn’t define an ideology, just a mind-set or perspective that is temporary. When not in power you fall into the oppressed/oppressor or freedom/coercion axis, and when in power the civilization/barbarism axis.

There is no value judgement involved – no way to distinguish best choices. It’s really a classification technique for framing arguments rather than an explanation of ideas.

I’m sure everyone feels that their own personal ideology was inadequately represented by its assigned axis.

Any ideology can be placed within any axis depending on the current power structure or context. Ask an audited Tea Party supporter if he feels oppressed or coerced. Ask a member of the embattled Obama administration what they think of their current situation. When a progressive is on a panel at Fox News, or an American Conservative at MSNBC, what is their axis? How about when the context is reversed?

Jun 5 2013 at 6:05am

If you go back and carefully read the news reports after the Boston bombing, you’ll see that that the “lockdown” in Boston didn’t find the terrorist. Law-abiding citizens were searched and turned out of their homes, while the terrorist hunkered down in hiding OUTSIDE THE LOCKDOWN PERIMETER. The lockdown and search were never going to find him.

They actually held a press conference and called off the search without finding the terrorist. Then, when the lockdown was lifted and the people were allowed to move freely, a guy went outside to smoke and look at his boat and found the terrorist.

Read about halfway down in this news example:

Jun 5 2013 at 6:22am

Editor: Please address that last comment to Gandydancer with thanks for the Kindle PC software information. Thanks (And I won’t post anymore this week – I swear!)

Jun 5 2013 at 8:27am

This podcast is very naive stuff. It of the genre that politics is all in the mind, and we only need to be more empathetic. In fact, politics is a struggle for power and money. The Democratic party supports amnesty for illegals because poor and uneducated voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic. It’s in their self-interest to do so; those at the bottom of the pyramid have an incentive to plunder those at the top. The poor, uneducated, and dis-functional also provide the justification for the welfare state, whose workers are the core of the Democratic party. If the population of the US were ever to become totally self-sufficient it would spell the end of the Democratic Party–no more welfare state needed!

Russ Roberts
Jun 5 2013 at 8:55am


I responded to your comment on EconTalk’s Facebook page. Feel free to comment there if you wish.

Jun 5 2013 at 9:39am

A very interesting podcast, though I fear the major points were lost on some of the commenters.

I would argue that a more the axis on which conservative&libertarians differ from progressives in on Good of the Many vs. Rights of the few. Conservatives and Libertarians differ on their definition of Rights of the few, possibly on Freedom vs Order.

In any case, great podcast.

Jun 5 2013 at 10:06am

Very interesting and insightful observations… Of course, this first thing that came to my mind (and suprised Russ didn’t mention it) is that this is basically the same framework Hayek constructed in “Why I am not a Conservative”… Hayek’s analysis obviously went into much greater depth, and on that basis, he concludes that the Classical Liberal axis is the only one that allows for spontanteous order to form and renew… But Hayek, while an advocate for liberty, also implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) defended the tendancy of the conservative to defend the traditional – not on the basis of reason, but simply because is was…

Russ Roberts
Jun 5 2013 at 12:15pm


You write:

Skepticism about climate change is something that has crept in along the side lines in a number of Russ’ podcasts. If this is to continue, I think Russ has more or less an obligation to inform himself about the scientific concensus in exactly the non-biased way that Arnold was promoting for other issues.

Interesting point. The issue came up, for example, in the recent EconTalk episode with Jeffrey Sachs. There, I asked him about the lack of global warming over the last 10-15 years and he replied:

The last decade has been the warmest decade in instrument history. What is true is that 1998 was exceptionally warm because it was a very strong El Niño year. So a lot of people that play up this–mainly for propaganda reasons, in my view–say, well look, 1998 was the peak and then if you draw the line from 1998, you just don’t see all that much. But what we do see is that if you strip away these seasonal and inter-annual phenomena of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, if you take into account the decadal ocean temperature trends and so forth, what we face right now is very, very clear. And that is a greenhouse gas-driven warming of the planet that is both highly significant, very dangerous, continuing at a rapid rate;

The implication is that 1998 was an outlier. But if you look at the raw data, 1998 is not an outlier. There is basically no trend at all over the last 10-15 years. Global temperatures are flat. That is a bit strange given that as I understand the data, carbon dioxide has increased 50% over the last decade or so. That’s a massive increase. Sachs is implying that the forecasted increase in warming is zero because of the ENSO cycle and ocean temperature trends offset the carbon dioxide. Is that right? I don’t know. I’d be happy to read a thoughtful article.

My view on global warming is skepticism about any of the precision and our ability to understand the underlying causal mechanisms. Climate is complex. I’m pretty confident we don’t understand it well enough to make precise predictions. So when people claim to be able to do so, I get suspicious.

Part of my problem is that there is also a consensus in economics that Keynesianism is the right way to understand business cycles. So when models mis-predicted the impact of the stimulus of 2009, people said there were other factors at work, factors that were not included in the 2009 predictions. No doubt there were missing factors. But that proves little or nothing.

You suggest that I should read more or educate myself. But it’s very hard to do in the area of climate just as it is in economics. If someone asked me what to read to really understand what is going on the economy, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out how to do that. I’d have to give them Krugman and Taylor, Blinder and Barro. And when they’d be done, they would still struggle to know whether the mainstream consensus is correct or whether the challenges to that consensus is correct.

Dave Hamilton
Jun 5 2013 at 12:21pm

Greatly enjoyed this and am looking forward to reading the book. In my opinion he was very accurate particularly on those I know on the left. I always watch them struggle when they are confronted with an “oppressor dilemma” that is one oppressed group (say woman) being oppressed by another oppressed group (say Muslims). It’s entertaining to watch them squirm (although I probably shouldn’t enjoy it so much).

I think myself I bounce around from the libertarian axis to the conservative axis. I don’t know that this is good information to make your argument better but it is something to be aware of as we talk to each other and confront those with whom we disagree. Maybe we should follow Russ’s advice and be more charitable to our opponents.

Jun 5 2013 at 2:58pm

Russ Roberts wrote:

“My view on global warming is skepticism about any of the precision and our ability to understand the underlying causal mechanisms. Climate is complex. I’m pretty confident we don’t understand it well enough to make precise predictions. So when people claim to be able to do so, I get suspicious.”

Even as a believer in global warming, I’m sure this statement is true.

It does leave us with the problem of what actions should (or should not) be taken, given our limited information. It IS possible (even likely perhaps) that by the time we have amassed enough evidence to achieve a consensus, irreparble damage will have been done. On the other hand, that’s a dangerous line of thinking that could easily be used to justify all sorts of bad and ultimately destructive policies (corn ethanol). What is the right approach to problems such as this, whether global warming or any other problem where we have limited information and understanding?

I can buy the argument that we will eventually see market-based solutions to the energy problem – that is, rising prices of currently used energy sources will lead to the discovery/development of new sources. It’s a little harder for me to imagine that kind of solution to global warming.

Charles Bourassa
Jun 5 2013 at 4:15pm

Dr. Kling should have a look at work by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt has reported a lot of work that looks at pretty much the same issues that Kling is interested in and reaches conclusions similar to Klings. Haidt suggests 5 or 6 axis, so Kling’s view is kind of a Haidt lite.

Greg McIsaac
Jun 5 2013 at 4:57pm

Russ Roberts wrote:

“But if you look at the raw data, 1998 is not an outlier. There is basically no trend at all over the last 10-15 years. Global temperatures are flat. That is a bit strange given that as I understand the data, carbon dioxide has increased 50% over the last decade or so. That’s a massive increase.”

CO2 **EMISSIONS** have increased by about 50% since 1997. Atmospheric CO2 CONCENTRATIONS have increased about 8%. (see NOAA data here)

It is the concentration in the atmosphere that contributes to warming. Emissions contribute to atmospheric concentrations, but much of the CO2 is absorbed by the oceans, and that is contributing to a problem of ocean acidification. As the ocean becomes more acidic, it will absorb less CO2 and more of the emissions will remain in the atmosphere.

Jeff Sachs’ response was a bit out of date, but 1998 was unusually warm due El Nino activity. It is the abrupt peak prior to the plateau in the graph you point to, which by the way is not raw data. The unusual nature of 1998 may be more clear in this graph which is a product of Dr. Roy Spencer, a atmospheric scientist who is a skeptic of the IPPC consensus.

The unusual warming of 1998 contributed to relatively rapid warming in the 1990s, and probably too much of that warming had been attributed to greenhouse gases, rather than El Nino activity. But since greenhouse gases were rising along with El Nino activity, it was difficult or impossible to disentangle the two factors without the subsequent data which is now available and refining our understanding of climate sensitivity.

Yes, there are complexities, and uncertainties, but there are also high stakes involved.

Jun 5 2013 at 6:00pm

“But Hayek, while an advocate for liberty, also implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) defended the tendancy of the conservative to defend the traditional – not on the basis of reason, but simply because is was…” -bartoma

Maybe Hayek realized that just b/c he didn’t know the reason for the traditional, didn’t mean there wasn’t good reasons for it. After all, the traditional withstood the evolutionary tests for some reason.

Reminds me of a story I heard once of a young couple who just purchased a house. They wanted to open up the floor plan on the first floor so they demo’d some walls. They came back the next day to find the house had caved in. Just b/c they didn’t understand the concept of load bearing walls didn’t mean that there wasn’t good reason to have them.

Greg McIsaac
Jun 5 2013 at 6:01pm

Russ Roberts wrote:

You suggest that I should read more or educate myself. But it’s very hard to do in the area of climate just as it is in economics. If someone asked me what to read to really understand what is going on the economy, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out how to do that. I’d have to give them Krugman and Taylor, Blinder and Barro. And when they’d be done, they would still struggle to know whether the mainstream consensus is correct or whether the challenges to that consensus is correct.

I’m not sure the disciplines are all that analogous. On climate change, you could start reading, for instance, the relatively brief statement of the American Meteorological Society here. And then could move on to the information provided by the National Academy of Sciences here, some of which is produced for a general audience.

Does any consensus in economics rise to the level of being endorsed by organizations that are roughly equivalent to the American Meteorological Society or the National Academy of Sciences?

Jim Feehely
Jun 6 2013 at 1:29am

Hi Russ,

As a congenital contrarian to most ‘conventional’ political and economic views, I have to confront the problem of conformation bias less than many.

I venture that ideology is the core problem with all debate. The adoption of an ideology is an intellectually lazy short cut or heuristic to avoid working things out for yourself, from evidence. A heuristic is only useful if you know that the application of the heuristic will not have irreversible adverse consequences. However, the various ideological camps that Arnold Kling discusses all apply the ideological heuristics without regard to any evidence of the benefit or harm they cause.

And that produces the problem that Arnold Kling was discussing. Here we are, 400 years into the Enlightenment and the intellectual freedom fostered by the Enlightenment is now destroying rationality. It is now more politically relevant what people believe than what the rational facts are. Hence the vacuous ‘debate’ about climate change. However, I do not subscibe to overly rigorous rationality because I do not delude myself that I do know, or even can ever know, all the relevant facts to always be rigorously rational.

The irrefutable facts IS that excessive carbon in the atmosphere IS a dangerous pollutant. But the debate is all about whether people believe that predictions about various levels of pollution will, or will not, produce certain outcomes. Society should ignore predictions and do something about pollution we absolutely know now is harmful. To back the other approach is to gamble with ecological Armageddon.

Nassim Taleb has hit the nail on the head in ‘Antifragility’. All prediction is bunk and very often dangerous. What we can identify is systems that are fragile to shocks we know, or can imagine, will irreversibly harm that system and ‘antifragilise’ the system by building in protections NOW that will at least robustify the system. But the debate about climate change is uselessly all about whether it is necessary NOW to do something meaningful about pollution we NOW know is harmful.

Science is currently as sure as science can be that the world’s ecology is not robust enough to withstand the pollution, environmental degradation, habitat and species loss to which we are collectively submitting the environment. But knowing this near certainty is apparently not enough for the zealots of market Capitalism. They want to bet that predictions are wrong under the religious belief that Capitalism will somehow fix the problem that the pursuit of endless growth has produced and is, on all the evidence available to science is producing now.

For me, Mr Kling undid a lot of the good he did in this discussion with one aside –

‘I wouldn’t be because I’m not a climate-science believer–don’t tell anybody.’

So I therefore take it that all Mr Kling’s book is about the battle of beliefs, not about theories that can be subjected to experiment and correction.

Jim Feehely

John Berg
Jun 6 2013 at 4:58pm

Now having watched the comments turn to the discussion of the author’s and Dr. Roberts off-hand remarks about global warming, I may observe that besides the stimulation of a new way of looking at a discussion that has consumed more of my time than many others, Dr. Kling’s model has introduced me to Amazon’s Kindle on a PC app with which I now have collected the subject book (and read it in a day)as well has three other free books which I value, I am grateful to the podcast and its participants for another reason. The Kindle software also has enabled me to collect two or three functions that I had created for myself into a much nicer integrated program. However, now that I can Highlight content and post in situ notes as I read, I find I can not print the result (the column of data on the left) for my use. Can anyone help me with that info–I can not find a way to ask Amazon this question.

Returning to Dr. Kling’s concept of three axes orthogonal to each other seems rather useless. The continuums of each axis has no successor function nor any valid interpretation of the zero point (nor of the zero point common to all three axes). Some paradigms found an interpretive use for the quadrants which shared two of the axes but I see none here.

Dr. Robert’s suggested an analysis technique I have used in the past: See if the author has used his ideas on this work we are examining. (Did an author suggesting the use of action verbs to improve my writing use action verbs in his writing consistently.) I found Dr. Kling in his book uses “evolve” to suggest that evolution is consistently progressive and not a random walk. Dr. Kling likes some of the ideas from emergence to suggest “signals” can direct positively actions by creatures with free will.

John Berg

Jun 6 2013 at 5:55pm

Overall I thought it was a great podcast with a lot of interesting insights.

A few points:

1. There’s a group missing: people that view “naturalness” as the trump in an argument. One might call it “natural v. industrial”. I think this is fundamentally different than “oppressed v. oppressor”, but they are often lumped together as “lefties”.

2. I agree that “civilization v. barbarism” is often used, but I’m not sure it can be a legitimate rationale on broader questions.

3a. I don’t like the terms “oppressed v. oppressor” and “freedom v. coercion”, they sound too similar. Don’t oppressed people lack freedom? If you coerce someone, aren’t you also oppressing them? This is one thing, not two.

3b. Obviously there’s a difference between libertarians and progressives. I think it’s who they are worried about doing the oppressing/coercion. On economic issues, Libertarians are primarily worried about the government, while progressives are primarily worried about broader socioeconomic factors that limit freedom (e.g. poverty).

3c. Because of this difference in focus, it’s hard to get libertarians and progressives to even agree on basic facts. To a libertarian every success is ‘the free market triumphing over government intrusion’. To the progressive every success is ‘democratic movements taming destructive capitalism’. The reality is that each view is usually half-right.

Arnold Kling
Jun 6 2013 at 6:07pm

Some general responses:

I appreciate that some commenters point out that I do not seek to summarize or explain the ideologies of conservatives, progressives, and libertarians. Rather, I seek to summarize the heuristics that they use in trying to process news events and communicate their opinions.

Many of the critical comments, on the other hand, seem to me to be writing as if they were expecting me to try to explain why people believe what they believe or to try to boil down the viewpoints to simple terms. That is not my goal.

On climate change, I think that the fact that people so often invoke “the scientific consensus” is a symptom of weakness, not strength. When a proposition is clearly true, it is clearly true, and you do not need to invoke the argument from authority. In the case of global warming, I think it is correct to say that water vapor is by far a more important greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. What that leads me to believe is that the predictions about global warming are sensitive to decisions made by modelers, just as in macroeconomics the decisions the predictions about the effects of fiscal policy are sensitive to decisions made by modelers. In the case of macroeconomics, I know this means that supposedly definitive “model results” are simply the baked-in opinions of the model-builders. I worry that climate modeling is similar. Having said that, my agenda in the e-book has nothing at all to do with my admittedly outlier views on climate change.

Todd Rogers
Jun 7 2013 at 12:10am

Russ: This is among your top discussions. I’m doing a double-take tomorrow.

Jun 7 2013 at 1:03am

Russ, is there anything in the field that you are an expert on (Economics) that has a 97% consensus in the peer-reviewed literature over the past few decades?

I am a Computer Scientist. I know a lot about CS. When I encounter other issues that hinge on sciences that I do not know a lot about (econ, climatology), I tend to cross-read as much as possible, and in the end go with the consensus. In the case of man-made global warming, well… the debate is over: 97% of climate scientists and peer-reviewed articles believe that it is “real” and that it has (among its causes) the activities of humans. I really don’t see how anyone so enamored with good data can continue to doubt it.

Greg G
Jun 7 2013 at 7:32am

Professor Kling,

I thought the essay and the interview were both very helpful in understanding why so many people talk past each other in these discussions so thanks for that.

You say that you have outlier views on climate change but your views on the subject are quite conventional for a libertarian. It is almost as if climate change is another one of these axes. I suspect the deeper underlying axis is the extent to which people believe government action is justified.

It is quite startling that you think that, to “invoke the ‘scientific consensus’ is a symptom of weakness, not strength.” Would you feel like you were in a weaker or stronger position if the scientific consensus did support your beliefs?

Of course nothing is necessarily true because the scientific consensus supports it. It sure does improve the odds though.

Jun 7 2013 at 10:56am

I’m a first-time commenter who is not an economist and who self identifies as a libertarian (mostly). I enjoy all the podcasts, but this one was especially meaningful for me because I work in an arena (public sector university) where the prevailing assumption on all issues is that “there are no objective measures.” This leads to the opposite of its intention: great injustice in evaluations and thus extremely bad morale. And this is the implication I take from Dr. Kling’s approach, particularly his comment, late in the discussion, “You really have no business pronouncing someone else unreasonable. The only person you are qualified to say is unreasonable is you.” What is the point of scholarship if one cannot learn the difference between being reasonable and unreasonable and therefore expect such reasonableness from those with whom one debates the big issues? Surely the only consensus to be had derives from objective measures, does it not? I appreciate Dr. Kling’s motives, and his obviously kind sensibility, but I don’t see his view being taken up by others, most folks wanting to win rather than communicate.

Jun 7 2013 at 1:12pm

The three axes are a useful construction. As a progressive, the idea made me think of this Lincoln quote:

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”

Unfortunately, this guest badly tarnished his credibility with me by throwing in that aside about climate science. We’re going to be up to our ankles in rising seawater and some ostensibly thoughtful people will still be making snide remarks… I like Russ but I’d like him to show some spine on this issue.

Greg McIsaac
Jun 7 2013 at 9:42pm

I read “The Languages of Politics” and I appreciated many of its insights as well as the clear focus and concision. I hope that it reaches a wide audience and has the intended impact of helping people communicate more effectively and to reason more constructively.

Mr Kling relies heavily on the notion of status seeking as an explanation for why people develop insider tribal languages. I suspect status seeking is an important factor among politicians, pundits and opinion leaders, but I doubt it is as important among the general population. Many readers might dismiss your argument because they do not view their actions as status seeking but as a matter of standing on principle. I wonder if the argument might have broader acceptance if a wider range of reasons for developing insider tribal language was discussed.

For instance, I think some of the reason for the development of insider language is simply to avoid repetition. When we recognize that we are communicating with people with whom we share some background knowledge or opinions, we recognize that it would be dull and boring to recite the shared values or make every point by starting from universal first principles, so we develop short hand that refers to the shared information, principles, or heuristic and go from there. I think this may be a time or space saving device as much or more than a status seeking device.

I am not a Libertarian or Conservative, but I enjoy listening to Econ Talk because the conversations are civil, informative and substantive, but I have noticed that when Russ Roberts is interviewing someone closely aligned with his views, he is more likely to engage in an insider speak, but I don’t think it is a process of status seeking. I think it is more likely a process of getting caught up in a conversation of mutual interest.

As much as I hope your book reaches a wide audience, I doubt it will change the minds or behaviors of such opinion leaders as Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter who have profited from books titled: “Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism”, “Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America”, and “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans”. These authors and their books are very popular among certain right wing audiences. I hope your book also appeals to these audiences, but I suspect they have more of an appetite for demonization than constructive reasoning. Thus, I think it is important to understand why demonization has gained such a wide audience in recent years.

Paul Gray
Jun 7 2013 at 11:57pm

A comment from Australia. I enjoyed Russ and Arnold’s conversation very much. The recurring thought as I listened was ‘what about the gun control versus right to bear arms debate?’ This seems a raw emotional issue. As an outsider I sympathise with the Giffords position more than the LaPierre position. I guess many Americans will be found on either side. But I wonder how it might be lined up along the three axes analysis: liberty versus its enemies, civilisation versus barbarians? And will doing so help move towards some kind of solution? This looks to me the very hardest question of all to negotiate: even more so than the response to terrorism one.

Jacob Mustoe
Jun 8 2013 at 2:02am

Since we’re on the subject of the distinctive attributes of Libertarianism I will finally rouse myself from apathy to speak. As a faithful Econtalk listener (every single episode ever), a card-carrying Libertarian and a New Mexican a single simple request Russ. If you can find it in your schedule and heart to interview the 2012 Libertarian candidate for President Gary Johnson, I would be extremely grateful.

Jacob Mustoe
Jun 8 2013 at 2:36am

And I’ll confess I am perhaps not the most eloquent member of the thread. Anything I have resembling a higher education is the result of being a massive open online courseware autodidact. But I am the quintessential Libertarian. I am currently drinking Utah micro-brew beers listening to the Israeli cold-wave band Minimal Compact, wondering how I will finally master Drunken Tofu because I am a vegetarian and really upset that everyone seems to be coming out the closet in suppport of the domestic surveillance program. Given that we are ruminating on Mr. Kling’s father’s view of how the political system really works you may say to yourself ‘master the art of contemporary political discourse before you begin droning on about Libertarian shibboleths and furthering our image as a fringe movement’. But I do try. I also faithfully read the Council on Foreign Relations flagship magazine ‘Foreign Affairs’. At this point even if your are convinced I am completely crazy, please still take Gary Johnson seriously. He received the most votes of any Libertarian candidate in history. That is worthy something, I think.

Jun 8 2013 at 7:55am

Key Kling quote from the podcast: “all of the storm and fury along the three axes is just for show to, you know, give people a sense of ownership in the process and meanwhile the sober, rational people are in the backrooms dividing up the goodies”

Lauren [Econlib Editor]
Jun 8 2013 at 9:00am

Hi, Jacob.

Thanks for your recommendation to interview Gary Johnson:

If you can find it in your schedule and heart to interview the 2012 Libertarian candidate for President Gary Johnson, I would be extremely grateful.

It’s unlikely that EconTalk can do that. First, note that the tax status of our not-for-profit sponsor, Liberty Fund, precludes our taking a political stance. If we interview one candidate for office, we would probably have to interview all candidates and give them equal time. Plus, as an educational organization, we cannot allow any candidate to speak politically. That’s a tricky line to hoe, but it likely would deter any candidate for office to hear that we are going to stick to it.

Second–and this may actually be the more substantive reason–EconTalk reflects Russ’s and our goals to educate about economics, specifically about cutting edge economic thought as a general matter. It’s not clear that any political candidates have that kind of educational, cutting edge contribution as their primary goal or as a topic on which they can add anything to the discussion by discussing their own research or independent ideas. Even when some might claim to be able to provide that, it’s rather suspect, and would have to meet an even higher standard than usual to be compelling as objective intellectual or educational thought as opposed to being motivated by achieving political office.

Finally, please remember that there are substantive differences between the thought and ideas of being libertarian and the party platform of the Libertarian Party. EconTalk guests who discuss the meaning of being libertarian are speaking to the ideas of being libertarian, and are not to speaking to the platform of the similarly-named Libertarian Party. Analogously, EconTalk guests who speak about being progressive or conservative are speaking to their ideas, not to any specific party platforms, similarly named or not–to which parties they may or may not belong.

don rudolph
Jun 8 2013 at 4:53pm

I remember having a discussion on immigration with two self described conservatives. I stated that while most progressives were for a looser approach to border security I opposed this approach.

My concern was that allowing unskilled labor into the country would tend to suppress the wages of the poor and make our society more unequal. To go in the other direction and make society more equal we should have a policy that lets in high skilled labor.

The response was not what I expected. They said greater equality was not a goal that had any value, and I was wrong in valuing it. I realized how different our mind sets were. I could conceive of many arguments that could be made against my position but this one baffled me. They could argue that something I put a high value on they put a low value on. To me it seemed as if they were saying red is a better color than green and if I like green better I was just wrong.

Jun 8 2013 at 5:08pm

Russ Roberts wrote:

My view on global warming is skepticism about any of the precision and our ability to understand the underlying causal mechanisms. Climate is complex. I’m pretty confident we don’t understand it well enough to make precise predictions. So when people claim to be able to do so, I get suspicious.

This is a totally fair statement that most serious climate scientist would agree with. It’s the type of thoughtful skepticism that EconTalk fans love.

Where people are taking issue, is in the actual episode. The comment came across, not as thoughtful skepticism, but as dismissive.

On the other side, I think climate scientists have a hard time talking about the true uncertainty of these measurements. The main reason for that is that it’s a highly politicized issue and if a scientists says “we are 99% sure climate change is primarily caused by humans”, the conservative takeaway is, “they aren’t even sure humans are the cause!” In this way, I think the issue is very similar to lots of the communication challenges discussed in this podcast.

Don Rudolph
Jun 8 2013 at 5:13pm

One area in which I have changed my position since listening to this podcast is in the idea of large versus small government. It is not so much a matter of principle as I think it is with Russ but more a matter of probable outcomes. Giving money to government would be like going on vacation and giving money to my son back when he was a teenager. In the best scenario he would budget himself and spend it wisely. In a more likely scenario he would throw a big party, spend it in a day, and leave our house trashed. Big government could be a force for good (for my values), but chances are it will only be a source of waste or even promote values I oppose.

So while Russ hasn’t gotten me to change my values, he has shown me there may be a better way to achieve my values.

Jun 8 2013 at 5:49pm

Full disclosure: I’ve not read the comments, so feel free to direct me to a relevant comment if it addresses my question.

My question is this: what are we to take from Kling’s response to Russ’s question about whether and in what way economists “argue along the axes” rather than argue in economic terms? Is it that economists of all three ideologies find themselves on their axis from time to time, but libertarians least (that is, libertarians are most inclined to talk of controversial public policy issues in economic terms)?

Krzysztof Ostaszewski
Jun 8 2013 at 7:18pm

One of the best EconTalks ever, IMHO.

The public education question from Russ was most interesting. What is the essence of public education? — did you think coercion?

I thought: Trabant.

Brad Hutchings
Jun 9 2013 at 3:16am

I’d like to note that the typical global warming worrier who invokes, “the stakes are so high we need to give worst case thinking the benefit of the doubt” likely laughed when George Bush invoked the same scare tactic on Iraq WMDs.

Kling seems right enough on the language we use to talk past each other on issues, but it is comforting that we all might share common ground on tactics. And the cons and libs aren’t even the worst offenders. Look at how libertarian debt hawks and gold bugs package their arguments.

There is a good economic history to be written about the banning of CFCs, 25 years in retrospect. The Montreal Protocol was sold to world leaders including Reagan and Thatcher as necessary to save the world. It drove the cost of mobile cooling through the roof. Tens of thousands of old French people, for example, died in fairly but not ridiculously hot summer heat waves in the 1990s, primarily because the cost of keeping them cool was prohibitive. 25 years later, I can’t get a Big Mac home 1/2 mile from the drive thru before it gets icky room temperature. Anyone with a half a brain could have anticipated these kinds of costs. Well, they actually did, if my memory serves. But the stakes were so high, none of that mattered.

I often feel like I have a 6th sense, like when a fire alarm would magically go off before a final exam in high school. Never a fire. Always someone using disproportionate drama to get some minor outcome that nobody would notice. I pretty much always see that when someone talks about how high the stakes are, as if that’s even germain to the issue at hand.

Jun 9 2013 at 10:34am

Owen quoted Lincoln as saying, “The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of liberty.”

Isn’t the shepherd just a bigger wolf in this parable?

Graham Lawlor
Jun 10 2013 at 10:37pm

I don’t think the three worldviews/perspectives are equivalent because I don’t think the three axes are equally measurable.

Freedom can be measured. A perfectly free market is one with zero transaction costs. A perfectly coercive market has infinite transaction costs. All real-world markets are somewhere in between, and measurable, at least in principle.

Who is to say what “oppression” is in a given circumstance? In the example are “the people who have crossed the border from Latin America” equally oppressed? Carlos Slim, a Mexican, is the worlds richest person, according to Forbes. When he crosses the border, would Progressives claim he’s “oppressed”? What about middle class Mexicans? Is there a particular income level below which Latin Americans crossing the border can be considered oppressed? Or an education level? Or a wealth level? It’s impossible not to be arbitrary.

The same applies for the civilization/barbarism axis. Would conservatives claim Carlos Slim is a barbarian? Middle class Mexicans?

In principle, freedom is measurable. There is a cost to crossing the border in various ways (being smuggled across, getting an education visa, a work visa, an entrepreneur visa, a family reunification visa, etc).

Why is measurability important? Because it’s the basis for science, positive economics, predictions, arbitrage, and objective question settling.

Arbitrary, non-measurable, subjective standards like “civilization” and “oppression” are the basis of partisan rancor, tribalism, and bigotry.

The libertarian “freedom/coercion” axis is fundamentally different.

David C
Jun 12 2013 at 12:03pm

I was struck by the irony that after a conversation about how important it is not to be get stuck on one of the three axes, Arnold accuses Krugman of being a barbarian destroying the civilized profession of economics, a beautiful example of a person stuck on the conservative civilization/barbarian axis.

mort dubois
Jun 12 2013 at 1:01pm

I very much liked the idea of the axes, and one can clearly see them in the media. One thing that I wish had been discussed is why the producers of content have moved themselves to the ends of the axes, and why there isn’t an economic reward to being in the middle. What is it about our modern age that discourages reasonable centrist opinion, while there is apparently healthy cash flow associated with the extremes? After all, the punditry (and the thinking classes in general) all have mortgages to pay and kids to put through college, so it’s only natural that they would start to say whatever line of chatter brings the biggest reward. Advertisers seem very willing to support extreme political opinion, via Fox, MSNBC, and their ilk. Presumably the vast majority of potential media consumers like somewhere in the middle, and yet that group doesn’t seem to be a market worth catering to. Why? Are they so happy and distracted that they simply don’t care about politics?

Walter Clark
Jun 14 2013 at 12:34pm

It is satisfying to be detached rather than involved, but when it comes to making the world a better place, don’t forget that:
–freedom vs. coercion won’t use the state
–oppressed vs. oppressors justifies the state
–barbarian vs. civilized justifies the state
How can there be any hope for liberty if we are so gawd ahm open minded?

Wade baker
Jun 22 2013 at 5:42pm

I agree that we shouldn’t be so quick to cast our politician opponents are evil. However, i would say it is a miscalculation to ignore the idea that there is evil in the world. And further less scrupulous people can take good things and use them to achieve nefarious ends.
Yes I classify myself as conservative. And there are barbarians at the gate. But I don’t think everyone who disagrees with me is a barbarian.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
 [N.B. The words 'Progressive', 'Conservative', and 'Libertarian' are capitalized for clarity on this page. They refer to groupings of ideas and systems of thought, not to political parties with the same names.--Econlib Ed.]
0:33Intro. [Recording date: May 9, 2013.] Russ: We're going to be talking about his new Amazon single, an extended essay in digital form, called The Three Languages of Politics. I love your book. It's only about 50 pages, by the way, and it's only $1.99--just want to set people's minds at ease. It's a bargain at twice the price, I would say. The main theme is that when we talk politics we often talk past one another because we have very different frameworks or lenses for how we look at the world. And you identify three different axes, or lenses, or heuristics, as you call them, for seeing the world. What are those three? Guest: Okay, so there are three things that set aside oppositions, or the good and the bad. So what I claim is that Progressives organize the good and the bad in terms of oppression and the oppressed, and they think in terms of groups. So, certain groups of people are oppressed, and certain groups of people are oppressors. And so the good is to align yourself against oppression, and the historical figures that have improved the world have fought against oppression and overcome oppression. The second axis is one I think Conservatives use, which is civilization and barbarism. The good is civilized values that have accumulated over time and have stood the test of time; and the bad is barbarians who try to strike out against those values and destroy civilization. And the third axis is one I associate with Libertarians, which is freedom versus coercion, so that good is individuals making their own choices, contracting freely with each other; and the bad is coercion at gunpoint, particularly on the part of governments. Russ: So, let's apply it to one example you do in the book, which is immigration. Talk about how the three different languages would work with that very sensitive political issue. Guest: Okay, so in the United States today, a Progressive might think of the people who have crossed the border from Latin America as an oppressed group, and native white Americans who are hostile to the immigrants as oppressors. And so they would be favoring allowing these immigrants to come in. With one sort of caveat, in that they also think that, would classify low-skilled working Americans as among the oppressed group and they wouldn't want to create conflicts where bringing in more immigrants hurts low-skilled Americans. For Conservatives looking along the civilization/barbarism axis, I think that having a border, and a well-defined border, and a well-defined population is part of civilized values. They would worry that if you allow immigration that you might undermine that, and they would feel very strongly that people who have crossed the border illegally have, by definition, carried out an illegal act and therefore certainly ought not to be rewarded for it and perhaps ought to be punished for it. Finally, Libertarians don't like the idea of government coercion at all, and don't see why political borders should have any significance, and so they would tend to favor open borders. So that they would see this as a freedom versus coercion issue. I should probably say that I don't think of these axes as some kind of fundamental explanation of why people think what they do. More, it predicts how they will be most comfortable expressing their points of view. So, a Progressive will be most comfortable expressing their point of view on immigration, whatever it is, in terms of how it deals with oppressed groups. Conservatives will be most comfortable talking about it in terms of how it affects civilized values versus a tax on civilized values. And Libertarians will be most comfortable talking about it in terms of freedom versus coercion. It's how they feel most comfortable talking about it, not necessarily an explanation of why they believe what they believe.
5:56Russ: And as you argue in the book, and it's certainly part of my life experience, which is that people like to hang out with certain types of people that are like themselves, typically; a certain tribalism that is true of religion; it's true of politics, too--although people don't like to think of it that way, but I think it is a good way to think about it. So we get into the habit of talking to our inside group. And then when we take that language and confront someone who is on the other side, it's extremely ineffective. And they don't get it. Guest: Exactly. So, Libertarians feel like they've played the trump card when they've said, when they've talked about freedom versus coercion; and other people just don't think of it as a trump. And similarly the Conservative, when they say, when they've described an issue in terms of civilization versus barbarism, they think that trumps; and other people disagree. So, you get exactly that kind of miscommunication. In some ways, it's worse than that. In some ways it's almost intentional miscommunication. I've used the analogy of a football quarterback in American football calling an audible, where the intent is for his team to understand it and for the other team not to understand it. I think some of the political discourse almost goes to that level, where you are sending, by using the axis of your tribe, you are sort of signaling that you want to raise your status within the tribe and that you don't really care what other tribes think. Russ: And as a result, because we have trouble seeing the arguments of the other sides, we dismiss them as obviously misguided, foolish, wrong, evil, immoral. It explains one of the things that I always find very troubling about policy discourse, which is: Not only am I wrong, and not only are you wrong, but I'm a better person than you are. Which is a bizarre outcome for political discourse. But it is the, I'd say it's sort of the default right now. Guest: Yeah. And I think part of the use that people make of the axes is that they ultimately come to think of their opponents in those terms. Like, one of the things that I read that started me thinking along these lines was a book, I think it's called something like In Defense of Libertarianism, or something like that, by John Brennan. [Jason Brennan? Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know?--Econlib Ed.] I forget the--there are many books with 'Libertarianism' in the title. At one point he says: Well, there are two alternative points of view to Libertarianism--one of them wants a nanny state, and the other one wants a police state. And what he's in effect doing is saying that people who disagree--he doesn't look at them along their own axis. He looks at them solely along the freedom vs. coercion axis, and say they want coercion. Whereas, they wouldn't describe themselves that way. Similarly you'll hear people say about Libertarians, you know, they just want to see people starve. They want to let people suffer. And again, that's not how they would describe themselves; that's not how they arrive at their position. But if you are trying to simplify the world into oppressors and oppressed, then it simplifies your world to describe your opponents, whether they are Conservatives or Libertarians, as oppressors. And then you've kind of simplified the problem and made them demons. So, people demonize their opponents along these axes. And you'll see Conservatives say that Obama's actually just a barbarian--he's really on the side of the terrorists. Russ: He's trying to destroy the country. His goal is to destroy the country. Guest: Yeah. And they'll say that Libertarians are doing the same thing, by advocating, eliminating drug laws and not doing enough to support the family through government, and so on. But it really goes to the point of deciding that people who disagree with you don't disagree with you legitimately, but because they are on the opposite end of your preferred axis. Russ: Which is a place they would not put themselves. But your claim is we have this natural habit of dividing the world into one axis, really, with one end that's good and one that's bad; and to shove people into the--they disagree with us, they must be at the other end. But they are orthogonal to us, it turns out. Guest: Yeah. And I think it's part of a process of reaching what some psychologists used to call 'closure'. You feel that everything is settled when you can dismiss anyone who disagrees with you by just saying, oh, they are just on the opposite end of my axis; they are actually just bitter opponents to everything I stand for. Russ: They are evil.
11:21Russ: So, I have often--you don't sell the ideas in the book this way, but I have often suggested that something along these lines--I don't think of it the same way, obviously--that if you want to get people to agree with your world view, I think that most people think the way to do that is you just prove they are wrong. And then they'll just throw up their hands and say, Oh, I'm sorry; my whole life's been a lie. And that doesn't work. It doesn't work in proselytizing for religion; it doesn't work in proselytizing for ideology. And so what this book suggests--this is the part I think you talk about explicitly--but it implies that if you want to encourage someone to think the way you do, you ought to put yourself in their shoes and use their axes. Guest: Yeah. Or at least understand the legitimate side of their argument, rather than try to characterize it in the most illegitimate way. I really want to fall short of claiming that you can, sort of--it's called The Three Languages of Politics, and I want to fall short of claiming that by learning to translate into someone else's language you can suddenly persuade them that you are right. I wouldn't promise that at all. I do think you have a better chance if you understand them. But I think you also take the risk, if you understand their language, that they may persuade you. Russ: Ooooo. Guest: And my guess is if you are not willing to take that risk then your chances of persuading someone else are probably less. Russ: But you'll have a better marriage, if your marriage is someone whose axes aren't the same as yours. I mean, my claim--again, mine's a simpler claim that I've made in the past, which is that you should be empathetic. And you should consider whether your opponent can possibly be right. And by doing so, you could actually learn something and understand better how to think the way they do. And my other benefit is, it's the right thing to do. You are a nice person. Why would you enjoy treating your ideological or religious enemies as evil? Or even misguided--is also disturbing way to treat another human being. They're smart, thoughtful, nice--most of them, not all of them. Some of them are monsters, you're right; but a lot of them are just like you. They have a viewpoint and they've crammed a lot of facts and studies into that viewpoint to convince themselves that they are right--just like you do. Guest: Yeah. I guess that's a difficult way for people to think. So maybe one of the benefits of reading the book is it will make it easier for people to think that way.
14:11Russ: So, how did you choose the axes? The idea that there are different worldviews is not a unique idea. What's I think particularly thoughtful about the book, and thought-provoking, is the axes make sense to me. Now, I, of course--you can't more or less--I'm in the L-camp, the Libertarian camp, the freedom/coercion camp mostly. So maybe it's just natural that they would make sense to me. But I do seem to see them around me, those different, the axes of people who don't agree with me. So, how did you come to that idea? Guest: Well, maybe at some point in my life I've sympathized with all three points of view. So I kind of was thinking: What did I think back when I was a New Left, Anti-Vietnam War liberal, progressive; and what did I think when I was thinking that George Bush was a good president for how he was reacting to 9/11--so maybe I was focused on civilization/barbarism? And by the way, when I think about terrorism, it's pretty hard for me to not think about civilization vs. barbarism on that one. So, as a Libertarian, I'm certainly familiar with how Libertarians speak. And I just sort of--and I was asking myself--I had this insight about a year ago, maybe a little more, that it seems like so much punditry, if you step back and look at it, is an attempt not to open the minds of people on your own side, or even to open the minds of people on the other side, but it looks like the real purpose is to close the minds of people on your own side. So then I started asking myself: Well, how would you go about closing the mind of someone on your own side? Well, if I were a Progressive, how would I try to close the minds of my fellow Progressives on issues? Well, if I could frame this as oppressors and oppressed in a convincing way, then that would make them shut out all disagreement. And similarly with civilization/barbarism, for Conservatives. Once I frame that issue that way, a. they'll think I've been really smart, and b. they'll feel even more closed on the issue, more settled that they are right, if I can frame it along that axis. I was looking--it's also like my own experience. To the extent that I phrase something in freedom vs. coercion terms, I would get this tremendous applause from people on the Libertarian side; and the opposite from people coming from different points of view. So, it was those types of things that led me to think that those were the axes. Russ: So, your examples, in that little mini-history reminds me of something I don't think you talked about, which is that occasionally there is an issue of oppressed vs. oppressors, for everybody. Or, civilization vs. barbarism, for everybody. The terrorism issue is a great example. A lot of people across the political spectrum worry about terrorism. Might react to it differently; they might react differently to what policies are justified or should be put in place to stop it. Guest: Well, let's look at that. I don't want to interrupt too much. But let's take the Boston Marathon bombing that took place recently. Russ: Okay. Guest: So, let's look at the reactions to it. The Weekly Standard, I think this was a cover piece or lead editorial, was entitled, exactly, Civilization and Barbarism. They felt like this was right in their wheelhouse, and this is exactly how you'd have predicted they would react. I think others had great difficulty with it. It had this infamous column in Slate Magazine, before the bombers were identified, saying, boy, I hope it's white male. It's like, I hope it's somebody that's certified from the oppressor class. You had President Obama referring to--what was the term--self-radicalizing terrorism. As if you or I could walk down the street and all of a sudden, poof, we self-radicalize. Russ: It's like a virus. It just gets in your bloodstream and then you are stuck, you are off the track. Guest: Yeah. Which seems to me like an attempt to avoid talking about it in civilization/barbarism terms. And finally, many Libertarians talked about, were very critical of the lockdown in Boston; said, this is a police state, there are tanks in the street, all this stuff. And I think Libertarians may have some very valid points going forward about how society reacts. You know, there may be a lot of unnecessary and civil-rights-reducing kinds of surveillance and limitations of people put on as a result of this. I'm not saying Libertarians don't have anything to worry about. But I think that the focus on the lockdown and the actions of the police might very well be inappropriate, and it certainly is not going to win Libertarians any friends, because I think most people's reaction to the police after the bombing--I mean, before the bombing you can argue that some dots should have been connected that weren't--but afterward that their conduct was pretty brave and pretty effective. I think that's what most people would say. Russ: I agree with you, and that's a great example. The only point I was trying to make is sometimes there are actual issues where the axes apply absolutely directly; you don't have to stretch to make them fit. And in those cases sometimes people drift into different categories. So there are Libertarians and Progressives who were initially in favor of the response to 9/11, who supported the war in Iraq because they thought it was a blow against barbarism. I think. Or maybe just public safety. But I think a lot of people were accepting the Conservative axis temporarily at least, or not temporarily but for this issue. And temporarily, as it turned out. Guest: Yeah. Russ: And similarly, when there is a case of oppressor and oppressed, there are Conservatives and Libertarians who will spring to emotional reactions to those issues. I think what makes the paradigm so powerful is that for most of us, we wedge every issue into these categories, our respective categories. I think that's what makes it powerful. Guest: Yeah. I think that putting them in those categories when it's appropriate--when it's something like using the oppressor/oppressed axis to describe the fight against Jim Crow laws, I think is perfectly fine, and you could understand why anyone would do it. But it's when--it's really noticeable, as you say, when people force issues into that mode when there's--most typically when there are just a lot of nuances to the issue, and that if you are really going to think about it carefully you can't reduce it to those simplistic terms.
22:35Russ: And besides the fact that it's nice to think of your intellectual or ideological opponents as decent human beings, in many ways for the book is a calming influence. So, when you see a column or a pundit saying something that drives you nuts--because of course it goes against your axis--instead of saying, what a jerk, what a fool, he's evil--it's interesting to say, well, you know he's got his own little goofy way of looking at the world and he sees everything as related to his issue. And--pity is not the right word. You understand it. It's not as offensive as it is if you think they are just crazy. Or, against your view, which is even more maddening. Guest: Yeah. Although, what I end up being offended by, then, are people who--not because they look at an issue in a particular way, but jump to presuming that the other side is evil. David Brooks had a column about a week ago that I was very sympathetic to, where he talked about a detached point of view versus an engaged point of view. That a pundit who is engaged, it's just like they are in the battle zone and throwing punches as fast as they can. And detached, is actually observing and trying to see the point of view of both sides. The goal--I think Brooks is arguing--at this point we've certainly got plenty of engaged pundits. We might be able to use a few more detached ones. I would be making a similar point. And again, a goal of the book is to enable you to have some sort of detachment. Russ: It reminds me a little bit of the earlier insight of yours that for some reason I associate that you had from your father, the insider/outsider aspect of politics, that insiders invest a lot of time and energy, know what they are doing, and they are able to make the system work in their direction; and the rest of us are just watching them on the outside, not really paying attention so much. When you think of the world that way, again, for me, it's kind of like: What would you expect? That's the way it's going to turn out. And it's not plausible that our side wins every time or the good policies prevail. Guest: I think, if I could try to imagine what my father would say, it would be that all of the storm and fury along the three axes is just for show, to give people a sense of ownership in the process; and meanwhile the sober, rational people are in the back rooms dividing up the goodies. So, for instance, if you look at labor unions, so one side looks at it from an oppressed/oppressor point of view; another view says these unions are like thugs, so it's a civilization/barbarism issue; and meanwhile in the back room the unions are raising wages and the firms are raising prices and everybody else is kind of getting less to take as a result. That would be kind of the classic insider/outsider story. All the ideological stuff is just to keep the outsiders entertained and distracted. Russ: It's the window dressing. It's circus.
26:45Russ: You make an analogy between your three kinds of language and the Myers-Briggs test. Now, explain that analogy. Explain what Myers-Briggs is for people who don't know what it is. Guest: Myers-Briggs is a personality test that's always been more popular in the business world than in sort of academic psychology. So, I've got to put that caveat out there. It tests your propensity on things like introversion versus extroversion, or intuition versus facts, and things like that. The use that is made in the business world is, in a business, complex organization, you need all sorts of people. You need detailed people, you need big picture people; you need people who like to mull things over; you need people who want to see decisions made and made quickly. You need these different types of people, and they often don't get along. Somebody who is very intuitive doesn't have the patience for somebody who is very detailed; somebody who is very detailed doesn't respect the person who is intuitive because they just can't follow their crazy leaps and they see all the mistakes they make with details. So, these people, their natural tendency is to not get along. And the idea of the Myers-Briggs training is to first of all, you take a test and you see where your tendencies are. And then you learn insights into other people's tendencies and you become more tolerant of them. That's kind of the long story. The analogy with the book is that I'm hoping that if you can see which tendencies you might have and understand the tendencies of other people that it would be easier to get along with people who have different tendencies. Russ: Well, I think it's true. And I think the personality difference--I know it's not "scientific"; I'm putting "scientific" in giant quotes because very little is scientific in my mind. So I don't make that big a distinction between Myers-Briggs and academic psychology. But the idea would be that somebody who is obsessed with getting their to-dos checked off, versus somebody who doesn't keep a to-do list and sort of is always flying, doing things at the last minute and doing things on the fly--and each of those people looks at the other one like they are crazy. You don't keep a to-do list? How do you get your tasks done? Oh, well, some things fall through the cracks. What? And the obsessive person--which is a slightly derogatory term--the detail-oriented person, the person who is focused on the tasks, can't understand that other person; the other person thinks, what's wrong with that person? All they care about is their little to-do list. They don't have time to think and ponder and do the big-picture stuff. And when you think about how that challenge of interacting, especially if you are doing a project together, which is why business care about this stuff and organizations care about it. And the political thing is not that different. It's very similar. And I've noticed in a lot of organizations, political attitudes spill into personality traits and, you know, organizational policy. Guest: Wow. It's been a while since I've been in a big organization, but I do see alarming signs of politics taking over things--maybe it's just me, but more Facebook posts I see--and these are from people I don't think of as being in my sort of academic/political circles, they are all political posts on Facebook. Russ: Meaning that they are just more politicized? Guest: Yeah. It's Facebook. Stereotypically it should be people putting up pictures of themselves drunk at parties. Of course, the people I'm friends with are too old for that. It's still--in some ways this is worse. Russ: I don't think--I think that stereotype of Facebook and Twitter is not true. I think it's just a different blogging platform, and people who normally wouldn't even bother starting a blog are using their Facebook and Twitter accounts for their blogging.
31:51Russ: Moving on. One thing I thought of as I was reading the book was Thomas Sowell's book, A Conflict of Visions, which is a fabulous book. And you refer to it, when you are talking about other similar viewpoints. Talk about Sowell's vision in that book and how it relates to yours. Guest: That's a good question. So, the terms that stand out are 'unconstrained vision' and 'constrained vision.' So, in his view, a Conservative has a constrained vision, very aware of the limits of human nature, the limits of resources, and things like that. Russ: The limits of reason, the limits of experts, the limits of lots of things. Guest: Yeah. You might very well do a better job than I could of summarizing that. And the unconstrained vision just says in some sense--this quote that I'll probably get wrong from Robert Kennedy: some people see things as they are and ask why; I dream dreams that never were and ask why not. That would be sort of an unconstrained vision, dream dreams that never were and ask why not. Russ: Utopian. Guest: Yeah. Having said that, a difference between Sowell's view and my view is Sowell, I think, is really trying to get at why people believe what they do. Why do Progressives believe what they do? And he would say it's because they have this unconstrained vision. And Conservatives believe what they do because they have this constrained vision. I very much am not claiming to explain why people do what they do. That is, it isn't because you focus on oppression and the oppressed that you have your Progressive point of view. I'm saying that it's part of the process of how you believe what you believe, or how you process your beliefs. How you express them, and how you respond to the way other people express beliefs. I think that Conservatism, Libertarianism, Progressivism are all very complex belief systems and there's just a lot more going on than just these three axes. But I think that the three axes are kind of what people use, like magnetic poles, to kind of line up their side versus their opponents. It's like a set of cheers or taunts that they use to whip up tribal solidarity. Whereas I think Sowell is attempting to explain why people believe what they do. I'm talking more about the process by which people push for tribal solidarity in what they believe. Russ: So, in the back of the book you have an appendix where you go through some pundits and try to see how well the theory, the model, the idea explains what they write about and how they write about it. It strikes me that maybe another interesting way of examining the usefulness of the model would be to look at political conventions, particularly the non-prime-time people, which I occasionally watch as a source of humor and I don't know--academic interest in how easy or hard it is to motivate a large group of people. I find it interesting to see how well and badly people do at that. But my thought would be that when you look at the two major parties, a lot of that would be their warm-up acts for the keynotes, operate along your axes. I think that would be an interesting thing to look at. Guest: Yeah. I hadn't thought of that but that would be, that sounds absolutely right. That would be a situation where your main goal is kind of whipping up the tribe, sort of like the locker room speech for a football game. And that's when you would expect people to really use these axes the most. So that would be a good test of this.
36:46Russ: So, why did you write this book? Was your goal--I mean, obviously there are many goals. But was your goal simply to--you suggested a minute ago it was to improve political discourse and tolerance. Is that your goal? Guest: Good question. I think that some of it, I think part of the motive is to get people to back off from the point of demonizing those who disagree as if they were on the other side of the preferred axis. So, if we could get Libertarians to stop thinking of Conservatives and Progressives as wanting coercion, loving power, that kind of thing. Russ: But Arnold, they do. That's what they're about. It's sometimes hard to keep out of that. Sorry. Just kidding. Guest: And similarly to get Progressives to not think of Libertarianism as a dog whistle for racism or whatever they accuse it of being. Russ: No, Libertarianism is for rich people. It's to help rich people get really rich and stay rich. That's what Libertarians are in the Progressive world view. Guest: Yeah. So, you get the point. If we could just reach the point where we don't automatically demonize people then I think the book would have accomplished something. Russ: Of course one thing that runs through the book is confirmation bias, which we all suffer from. And I was reminded of the Richard Feynman quote, which is: The most important principle is not to fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. It strikes me that we fool ourselves a lot along these lines, and cherish being fooled, because it's a good cozy feeling to be part of the tribe. Guest: Yeah. I think that the book discusses a number of findings in the psychology of political beliefs, including confirmation bias, which is a very important one, that I think are reasons to be aware of the three axis model, because I think people use these axes in ways--I think it promotes biased thinking. There's a lot of--everyone wants to talk about predictable irrationality, thinking fast and slow, all these findings that suggest that we cannot reason very well. And I have this faith that we have something that I call constructive reasoning, where we can actually look at things objectively and not from entirely biased point of view. And I call that a 'faith' because the psychology seems to always go the other way. And I think people can reason more constructively if they can not automatically react along these axes. Russ: I guess I could accuse you of having a somewhat unconstrained vision. Right? Guest: Yeah. Right. Russ: There's not much more quixotic than trying to improve political discourse. Guest: Um, yeah, that's true. I'll grant you that.
40:45Russ: Let's turn to our home team, not the Libertarian part of it, but the economist part. We're both trained as economists, and I am particularly disturbed by the nature of economic political debate, or political economy debate--whatever you want to call it. The policy debate that economists are engaged in. How do you see your axes playing out in economic policy among economists? Guest: Wow. That's a good question. I'll probably have an excellent answer a few hours from now after I've mulled it. Russ: You can blog on it; we'll put a link up to it when we run this in a couple of weeks. So, you have a couple of weeks to mull on it. But give us your quick thought. Guest: The off-the-cuff story. I think that one thing that the three axes might enable one to do is to recognize an economic argument from an axis argument. So, if a Progressive economist starts writing in oppressor/oppressed terms, you can say: okay, you are entitled to say that, but at that point you are speaking from outside the economic paradigm, because that's not really the economic paradigm unless you are actually a literal Marxist, which I don't think any real pundits genuinely subscribe to that. And similarly if a Conservative economist starts to write along civilization/barbarism terms, that's a sign that they've sort of vacated their economic thinking for a moment and have switched to something else. Maybe that would be one application of the model. Russ: I noticed you didn't say anything about the Libertarian economist. Guest: Well, actually the Libertarians are more often slipping into their axis than anybody else. Right? Russ: We're talking about government intervention, so once you do that-- Guest: Yeah. So, when a Libertarian makes a sort of Hayekian argument about lack of information or a Friedman argument about people making better choices for themselves than the choices they make for others, those I think are economic arguments. But you can see a Libertarian economist sort of put on his full Libertarian clothes and start talking about, this is taxes collected at gunpoint; at that point they've taken off their economic clothes. Russ: I thought you were going to say that that example of Friedman was an example of the axis. Because it's hard to distinguish between people spending their own money on themselves and people spending other people's money on other people from the freedom/coercion argument. But maybe. Guest: Well, if you think of it as choices, where do the choices get made? Without saying it's freedom versus coercion--you can say that: I voluntarily have government tell me which side of the road to drive on. You know, no problem there. Then, just as easily could say: I voluntarily have government decide how to educate my children. You can certainly say that the essence--I don't think most people other than Libertarians wouldn't say that the essence of public schools is coercion. That's not the essence of them. And most people, including Milton Friedman even, would say what fundamentally is wrong about the way our public school system works isn't so much the coercion--it's the monopoly. It's that if people had more choices and could, to use the familiar exit versus voice terminology, if they had more opportunity to exit, that would lead to better schools just as it leads to better grocery stores when people have the option to exit there. So I see that as something that's grounded in economics. Whereas saying, if you say public schools are just tools of the state to get the state to have obedient citizens, you may or may not be right about that, but you are not making an economic argument. Russ: I think it's interesting, for people who are listening at home, or wherever you are, how often when Arnold said that when coercion isn't the essence of the public school system, did you think to yourself: oh, yes it is? In which case, maybe you've learned something about yourself. It could be true, by the way. I don't want to suggest that it's false. But what I find fascinating about these issues is how hard it is, how difficult it is to step outside your own paradigm. And how easy it is to see the world through your particular kind of glasses, the kind of glasses that we've become accustomed to wearing. I find that fascinating. Guest: Yep. It will be interesting to see people's reactions to some of that stuff.
46:43Russ: Let me give you another application of where to think about it with economists. When I asked you this question, you said, well, you'd have to look and see do the economists, do they step into the axis, meaning they take off their economist hat more or less. But of course, the temptation is to do that. If you only talk the economics, you are not going to get any fans. If you want to get the crowd cheering for you, if you want to get your tribe riled up and you want to be carried around the arena on their shoulders, if you just say things like: Well, I think the elasticity of demand for labor is .7, not .75, or more accurately, not 1.3, but what you do is take your economics argument and you shove it into one of these paradigms, and that's what makes you popular. Guest: Well, sad to say, I think there's a lot to that. I think one of the things about if you discipline yourself never to leave the economist camp and to never rely on these axes, then I think your ability to have high status within a camp will be diminished, or just won't be there. That's why I think someone like Gary Becker, someone who writes well, writes on policy issues, has a blog--I don't know how many followers it has but probably he has 1/100th of the followers of Paul Krugman; and yet they are both Nobel Prize winners. I'd say if anything, Becker does more economics on his blog. But I don't think he is as willing to play to any of the axes as Krugman. Russ: Yeah, without picking on particular people, I do think that there are folks who, as you say, have a lot to say and you can learn from, if that's your goal, who aren't as prominent. Of course, that isn't always our goal. Sometimes our goal is just to get a good cathartic read and feel good about ourselves or bad about the other side, and that's a different product. Guest: I think that, to me, I really care about style. So I really appreciate most the economists who try to stay away from arguing along the axes. And I will pick on Krugman because I think he sets a horrible example in that regard. And his success, I don't think it has been a healthy thing for economists. It gives you an impression of how to succeed that I think takes you away from talking like an economist. Russ: So, when I think about that, about the incentives that we face--and of course, you and I are in this market in a very modest way. We blog, we write policy books, we appear on podcasts. And when I think about what to do about it, I think the incentives all work toward, what I said a minute ago, toward playing to the crowd and the axis and finding a home along an axis that is pleasant and comfortable. It's hard to imagine that this is going to change. And I see your book mainly as a self-help book, as a way to improve the way you think about yourself and to some extent maybe to help some others. There's always a tendency to say: Well, I don't have this problem; here, you need to read this book. I'm fine. Guest: Right. I agree with the self-help notion. One of my lines in the book is you really have no business pronouncing someone else unreasonable. The only person you are qualified to say is unreasonable is you.
51:34Russ: When we think about what's going on in economics in the last few weeks, we had this little problem where a couple of researchers left a line out of a spreadsheet. That was their main error. I'm talking about Reinhart and Rogoff, of course. They have written a paper about the relationship between public debt and GDP growth, and when some scholars tried to replicate their work, they couldn't do it; and one of the reasons they couldn't is they had forgotten a line. And when they included the line in the spreadsheet, it changed the results--not a trivial amount, but it didn't overturn the results. But it did reduce their impact. And the firestorm that followed was really extraordinary. What was your reaction to that? Guest: Well, I think that--and this may sound whiney, but I think that Conservative scholars are given much less margin of error in the world. If you take Elizabeth Warren's research, which I think would embarrass some undergraduates, she gets a free pass or praise in the media. Maybe I'm being narrow, but I think that it's amazing to me how many of these firestorms seem to involve people who stray from left-wing orthodoxy. And that people who subscribe to left-wing orthodoxy seem to have a teflon coating in the media. It's a paranoid point of view, and maybe if I watched Fox News's take on climate scientists or something, I would be paranoid from that point of view. Actually, I wouldn't be because I'm not a climate-science believer--don't tell anybody. Russ: Don't worry--nobody listens to EconTalk, Arnold. Your secret is safe with me. Guest: Good. That was the main impact. Part of it is that 90% thing, when I first saw it in Reinhart and Rogoff was--oh, no. Russ: Explain that. Guest: So, the way it's been read in the media--and maybe they intended this, and if they did, they deserve some opprobrium for that regardless of the spreadsheet error--but in interpreting of the media it made it sound like, well, you can run a debt to GDP ratio that's pretty high, but once you get to 90% you are going to have really bad impacts on economic growth. It's like there's this speed limit of 90% debt-to-GDP ratio. And that looked to me to be in a class of statistical findings that are just highly suspect. It's just not a good way to think about that issue. So, I reacted to that negatively when I first saw it. So, maybe I just assumed that other people didn't make a big deal out of it. But other people clearly did. I just opened up a book the other day where on p. 5--these are Conservative economists and they pound on that 90% number: Reinhart and Rogoff have shown that if the debt-to-GDP ratio hits 90% then-- Russ: research shows-- Guest: horrible things happen. Again, for me, that's the class of findings that I wouldn't have trusted from the get-go. It's not even a good way to think about it. So, maybe this controversy in some sense is legitimate. Maybe there were Conservatives who really did base all of their policy arguments on this. But I have a hard time seeing that because I don't think I've ever cited that number. Russ: It's bizarre. But on the flip side, I just interviewed Austin Frakt on the Oregon Medicaid Study and he said it seems to me that we are having a similar blogosphere explosion overreacting to one study; therefore, the Reinhart-Rogoff thing is wrong so any kind of debt is allowed; it doesn't matter what it is now, because they are wrong. Guest: Yeah. There is no limit to how much debt you can have-- Russ: because they are wrong. Because they made an error. Although it's interesting--no one has accused them of deliberately making an error. They have accused them of negligence but not malfeasance. Not fraud. But the Medicaid thing is similar. There are some results for the pro-Medicaid side; but most of the results are for the anti-Medicaid side. So now it's: Well, Medicaid doesn't have any effect; okay, we can eliminate it. A little bit of an overreaction. Guest: Yeah. It would be nice if you could get some kind of--I think you could get some kind of a sober consensus that--to me, the significance of the Medicaid Study is that a lot of people will argue that the reason you want to have comprehensive health insurance is that the small procedures that you subsidize will, down the road, save you money because people will have taken better care of themselves. And that is the argument that I believe is threatened by the Medicaid Study. And I think for people to have a sober discussion about whether comprehensive insurance is the only legitimate form of insurance or whether catastrophic health insurance would be better. I think Kathleen Sebelius, the head of Health and Human Services (HHS) was quoted a few weeks ago to the effect of saying that people who--catastrophic health insurance is just an evil; people need comprehensive. And I would hope that any economist would at least look at this and say, well, it did not support one of the main arguments for comprehensive health insurance, which is that subsidizing people to spend on the little things will cause them down the road to have less long-term expensive illnesses. Russ: But it doesn't refute that. I mean, it was only a two-year study. It's suggestive; it didn't confirm that view. Guest: Right. I don't want to overstate what it accomplished. But they did focus a lot on people who had these chronic illnesses, like diabetes, to sort of see in particular whether it made a difference there. And then you also have to look at it in the context of lots and lots and lots of studies showing different groups of people with different levels of health care spending and not different outcomes. If this were the only study that found that, I think you would just throw it out as an outlier. But in fact, it's what every study shows. There's that great paper by Robin Hanson that just walks through all of them. And even since Robin wrote his paper--Amy Finkelstein did a study of the introduction of Medicare, looking at different states, because some states already in 1965 already had coverage for the elderly; others didn't. She finds the same thing--no difference in outcomes. I think it's in that context that you have to see the study as one more straw.
1:00:50Russ: Well, to come full circle, I was once speaking to a group of journalists, and we were talking about health care in a very general way--this was years ago, well before Obamacare. And I think I was probably saying something like: Don't we care more about health care, health insurance--something like that. And somebody challenged me and said: Didn't the RAND study show--what the RAND study showed was that different levels of subsidies people who got a bigger subsidy to health insurance for health care purchase used more health care but their health care outcomes weren't much better. No difference. So I just mentioned that: That's interesting; I'm not a health care economist, it's just something I knew about; it seemed interesting. And he got furious. Really. He started yelling at me: The RAND study. And to him--he probably said this literally: Those are code words; that means you don't care about poor people getting health insurance. That's really what the point of your book is: he's on that axis, and I was on some other axis. I don't know what axis I was on--Mars. But I'd offended him. He didn't just go: Oh, that's interesting; maybe I should rethink my position. Strangely enough he didn't think that way. He got mad. Guest: Yeah. One of the studies I cite in my book--it's sort of a controversial study and maybe it needs to be replicated in a lot of different ways before it deserves to be cited; it's probably been cited a lot more than it's been replicated--says that if you take two people who come into a position with a strong viewpoint and you show them the same facts, each of them strengthens their own viewpoint. Russ: That's too sweet, isn't it? It makes you wonder whether it's true. But it's delicious. Guest: So that's certainly frightening. And that's consistent with some classic political science research which says that elites, political elites, are more polarized than political masses. So, the more informed you are, the more polarized you are. And that might be an intuitive position, but you can see that being a counterintuitive position. That is, wow, you'd think that as people learned more, they would converge. But there's a correlation between level of knowledge and degree of polarization. And that's been true--that was first discovered in the early 1960s. I think the problem is now--they're more informed. Russ: Yeah, it's even worse. More polarized.