Cog Diss

My wife and I are kinda fans of the TV show America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s a show where people send in their home videos of friends and family members biffing.  Essentially the entire show is a continued demonstration of Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that a body in motion will remain in motion until something hits it in the crotch.  My favorite moments are when someone elaborately builds, like, a bike ramp or something, then tries it out, and you see this guy riding his bike towards this plywood-leaning-on-my-brother’s-red-wagon ramp thing and you think, “that’s not going to go well.”  And inevitably, he biffs. Crashes spectacularly.  Face plants. You feel kind of terrible laughing at it, but it’s also pretty funny. It reminds me of the old joke: ‘what are the final words of a redneck? Hey, guys, watch this!’

In other news, there was an election on Tuesday.

And the internet blew up.  Especially, Facebook blew up.  O  M  G.

And reading the comments on Facebook about how this was the end of the world and the death of American values reminded me of the look on the face of that guy on that bike as he’s hurtling through the air.  What happened?  This wasn’t supposed to happen!

Nate Silver, of 538.com, turns out to be the real hero of this election.  Five Thirty Eight called it, not just the Presidential race, but also all the Congressional races and Gubernatorial races and all the citizen’s initiatives and constitutional amendments; Nate Silver nailed it.  He got ’em all, right on every major race except one Senate race in North Dakota.

In fact, I find myself oddly relieved by that North Dakota Senate race, honestly.  I find it comforting theologically.  If God is actually omniscient, if God really does quite literally know everything, then He obviously knows everything we’re going to do before we do it.  And if that’s the case, if God really does know everything, if we literally cannot surprise him, ever, at all, then in what sense do we have free will?  In what way are we free to choose?  If Nate Silver’s polling models really are this good, if he knows how we’re going to vote before we actually step into a voting booth, then in what sense is it a free election? Thank you, Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, for restoring my faith in agency.

Before the race, though, Nate Silver was a hiss and a byword.  Since his models showed Obama winning, he had to be a partisan hack trying to sway the electorate; he had to be one of those nasty liberal media types oversampling Dems to create the false impression of an Obama majority. We saw it again and again; Romney’s going to win, the polls are wrong, they’re oversampling, Romney’s got momentum, I can feel it in the air, Romney landslide!  Yay!

Think about that for a second. What Nate Silver has to sell is accuracy, a model that works.  If he’d been that wrong, it could put him out of business.  That doesn’t mean he couldn’t be wrong, but it does mean that he had no incentive to try to be wrong, to falsify data or something.

No, what we were seeing is good old fashioned cognitive dissonance.  Two ‘facts’ at odds: Conservatism is right and shall prevail!  Mitt Romney is behind in the polls!  Are those positions irreconciliable?  Then one of them must be dealt with.  And conservatives have their all-purpose CogDiss reconciler ready to hand; liberal media bias.

Look, I’m a liberal Democrat, I’m not a conservative; I thought Tuesday night was awesome.  But I spent yesterday reading Facebook posts full of pain, and I felt bad for my conservative friends; and I do genuinely have lots of conservative friends.  And cognitive dissonance can be a bitch.  It does require, eventually and finally, a reckoning.

Or not.  And amid all the people who want to move to Europe because America’s getting too socialist (like moving to Alaska because Arizona’s too cold), the reality-deniers were particularly poignant.  Romney lost because . . . too much of America doesn’t share American values. Because Americans Rejected Righteousness. Because too many poor minorities like getting free stuff from Uncle Barack.

But this whole election has been, in many senses, about denying reality.  It was Todd Akin saying, preposterously, that women who are raped can’t get pregnant because the female body has ways of shutting all that down.  And all the rest of it, the whole conservative response to modernism.  Evolution isn’t true.  A six thousand year old earth, created in six days, ex nihilo. And climate change isn’t real and isn’t caused by human beings.

I worry about conservatism.  I worry about a party that includes Paul Broun, R-GA, saying “evolution and embryology and the Big Bang theory, all that is just lies from the pit of hell.” Broun serves on the House Committee on Science Space and Technology.  Also on that committee, Ralph Hall, R-TX, who thinks global warming and global freezing are the same thing, and God’s will.  And Dana Rohrbacher, R-CA, who thinks cutting down trees reduces the greenhouse gases they absorb, and Mo Brooks R-AL, who calls global warming is a scare concocted by scientists worried about their funding and Dan Benishek, R-MI, who says ‘contemporary research is all a lot of baloney.’ That’s right; the House Science committee is full of Republicans who don’t believe in science.  Scary?

Where I really saw cognitive dissonance was in the reaction to Romney’s economic plan; Romney’s 20% across-the-board tax cut, a tax cut that would have disproportionately helped rich guys, because they pay the highest taxes anyway.  Woulda cost 4.8 trillion over ten years, paid for, Romney said, by closing tax loopholes, unspecified.   The Tax Policy Center is scrupulously non-partisan–if anything, a little right-leaning. In August, they completed a rigorous study of Romney’s economic plan. The TPC report said it wasn’t possible.  It would increase, not decrease, the deficit. The numbers just didn’t add up.

I read the Tax Policy Center report, and disagreed with it. I thought they were much too lenient towards Romney’s plan. They bent over backwards to accept Romney’s underlying assumptions; that the tax cut would stimulate economic growth. That idea, about the stimulative value of tax cuts, is what Paul Krugman calls a ‘zombie idea.’  An idea, in other words, that has been killed repeatedly by barrages of facts, but which keeps getting up, shambling forwards, trying to eat our brains.  There is simply no evidence to suggest that Romney’s tax cuts would have had any stimulative value whatsoever.  Tax cuts do have some stimulative value in times of high inflation and high interest rates, when tax cuts do free up some investment capital.  That is absolutely not the situation in which we find ourselves right now.

So here you have a respected, non-partisan group of very respected economists saying that the Romney numbers don’t add up. The response on the Right was to say that the TPC was . . . ideologically biased.  More ‘liberal media bias.’  And Romney, in the debates, cited 7 other studies that said his numbers did add up.  Those studies, turns out, were op-ed pieces written by his team and planted in conservative papers.

It is certainly true that five Nobel laureates came out in favor of Romney’s plans. Some economists think that the highest national priority should have been deficit reduction, and they tended to support Romney, and some think we should prioritize job growth, and they favor the President. And yes, it’s also a debate about micro-economics v. macro-economics, and who can sort that out.

But my problem with the Republican response to the Tax Policy Center report wasn’t that they disagreed with it, it’s that they refused to engage with it.  What I didn’t see was anyone making specific economic arguments, supported by data, in defense of Romney’s position. What happened instead was the same tired old ‘liberal bias’ nonsense.  And in the debates, Romney’s entire pitch: “Trust me.”

Cognitive dissonance can be a bitch.  And the way out of dissonance is the proper deployment of cognition.  Stephen Colbert was obviously joking when he said that reality has a liberal bias, but in this election, what was remarkable about the Republican campaign was its willful rejection of evidence, of science, of facts and math and reality.  The Republican party built a bike ramp out of plywood, and suddenly found itself flying through the air wondering what happened.

Democrats do it too, obviously. Cognitive dissonance is non-partisan.  When liberals insist that George W. Bush literally ordered explosives to be planted in the World Trade Center, so when it blew up he could blame terrorists and get his war in Iraq, then as a liberal, it’s my obligation to say ‘that’s crazy.  That’s nuts.  That did not happen, and it’s a contemptible suggestion.’  I honor the Fox News folks who called out the birthers in their midst, who said forthrightly that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii and therefore legitimately American.

But if the Republican party wants to win elections, they need to embrace guys like Jon Huntsman and not guys like Herman Cain.  They need to embrace evidence, they need to support their arguments with facts, they need to practice an economics that can be supported with math.  They need to build a better bike ramp.  Or they’re going to continue to crash.

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