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laureth's avatar

Politics/Economics: How would you know if you were wrong?

Asked by laureth (27133points) August 28th, 2011

It’s human nature to want to be right; in fact, our brains seem to need it. As a result, it’s a very natural response to grant ourselves a great amount of leniency when we’re wrong (or to rationalize it away), whereas we like to nitpick our opponents in ways that magnify their mistakes. (I was only ten minutes late to the appointment! Geez, why was she so mad? ... Hey, why is that idiot doctor keeping me sitting here ten minutes, the bastard?!)

However, rationalizing mistakes away in the political and economic arenas doesn’t seem to be the best course of action, when lives and livelihoods are at stake. How do you fight against the human urge to sweep mistakes under the rug when it comes to your own misinterpretations of fact, or those of the authorities you most follow?

This also happens in Religion, for example, but I’d like to stick to areas where assertions are a little more measurable. For instance, we could go ‘round and ‘round on whether or not this interpretation of the recent East Coast earthquake is correct (although it’s an interpretation that serves the speaker). A better example of what I mean is an assertion that the Reagan tax cut in 1981 is what spawned the dot-com boom of the late 1990s (and not, actually, advances in computer technology such as the small PC and TCP/IP). Going to such great lengths to rationalize apparently unconnected events to enhance one’s own political or economic goal is much easier than admitting your idea or pet dogma ended up being hooey.

How do you keep yourself in line and away from illusion? In short, how do you know when you’re wrong, and not “right” for a BS reason because of your brain’s need to feel good about itself?

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26 Answers

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

Immersion, as often as possible, in wider data sets and analysis thereof.

When someone tells me a statistic that supports my belief set, I look to see if I can find a contrary data set before I accept the statistic as true.

With the social sciences (politics, economics) I study history whenever possible for this purpose.

It is not perfect, I simply have yet to find a more suitable means.

I know I am likely wrong by my emotional investment in being correct. If I am just so damn sure and angry at a person who has an opposite opinion, I take a moment to consider whether I am still thinking clearly,

Londongirl's avatar

It depends on what objectives you are seeking to find out. If data and statistic is the best way to predict future events then it would be the most scientific way to apply. However, social science and other more emotional events may not be explained by data, therefore, you may need to apply other methodologies. There is no right or wrong answer I think.

YARNLADY's avatar

The outcome is the best way.

Cruiser's avatar

I keep myself in line in very simple ways. The amount of money in my bank account, the number and size of pot holes in my streets and comparing the number of vacation days the people in office get to mine. If there are sizeable differences in any of them then I know it is time to make a few phone calls.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

It took the logic of others and hearing different view points to learn that life’s answers were not black and white. It took learning that admitting I was wrong didn’t lower the respect level that someone else had for me. And probably the most important lesson was learning when to pick the battles that were most important to me and when to let others go.

ratboy's avatar

I have no investment whatsoever in learning that I’m wrong.

CWOTUS's avatar

Excellent question.

The fact is that we don’t always know when the choices we make “for others” are right for them. The only choices I have any degree of certainty about – and many times I’m not even certain then – is “what is right for me?”

You know if you’re honest with yourself that you don’t even know the answer to that question with absolute certainty. You can know what a preference of the moment is. You can even know what a lifetime ambition is, and pursue that, or choices that direct you to that end. But you don’t even know with absolute certainty that your “lifetime ambition” is right for you. It’s just what you want… now… and always have wanted up to now. You might find when you achieve it that it’s not all you imagined it would be. That happens with disturbing regularity.

That’s why the political and economic choices that I prefer are the ones that allow the greatest freedom of choice for the greatest number of individuals. I abhor “mandates”: though shalt contribute to Social Security; though shalt retire at such-and-such an age; though shalt participate in mandatory public / military service; though shalt wear seat belts at all times, or motorcycle helmets, or lifejackets, or safety harnesses or hardhats or whatever. (People should have rights to foolish behavior – in a personal sense – or to take risks when they involve only themselves.)

That’s also why the most far-reaching government programs are also the worst, because they have the most unintended (and astonishingly weighted to “bad”) consequences. And when they fail, we just do “more of the same”.

Free markets tend to work, as well as could be expected, because they involve all players in the market making choices based on their own self-interest, their families, their groups (as they choose to associate). I don’t know what’s best for me. But I’m the best one in the best position to know, and I’ll take the responsibility for my own choices. That’s how I roll.

ETpro's avatar

Strong commitment to ideology, as is often encountered in highly partisan individuals, makes it nearly impossible for them to ever see that a policy they “believe” in isn’t working. No matter how many times they see it implemented only to blow up in their face, they will remain convinced their belief system i perfect, and the only reason it didn’t work this time is some bastard in the other party screwed it up. I don’t know how you ever break through confirmation bias that strong. About all you can do is marginalize the extreme ideologues no matter what their partisan leaning, and let ratinal people who actually think things through and measure results instead of searching for excuses do the managing.

martianspringtime's avatar

I think it’s nearly impossible to know if anyone is right or wrong in terms of politics since it’s incredibly unlikely anyone is getting the straight facts, even if they’ve spoken to (or especially if they’ve spoken to!) the folks that directly have to do with politics.

Whenever I think I’m right, I think I’m right considering so-and-so. I may be wrong considering the way things ‘actually are’, but considering the specific facts that I am aware of, I conclude that I’m right and someone else is wrong, or that I’m wrong and they are right. Much like the philosophical theses approach: you start off assuming that the stated is true, and then draw conclusions from that.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Sweet holy moly, I think in the arena of economics, or commerce you just have to watch and see what the outcome is. If someone or a governing body thought, for instance, if there were tougher laws or sanctions to keep undocumented workers out of the work force with the idea that unemployed citizens would fill the ranks, the out come will say if that assessment was correct or off. If they manage to curtail undocumented workers, or made them less desired to hire by businesses, if the amount of citizens didn’t fill the ranks causing some businesses to go under, and other having to raise prices, because the citizen worker would not work as cheap as the undocumented worker. The proof would be easy to see somewhere down the line.

With government, it is harder because there are so many scapegoats to pawn it off on. I also feel that a great many people in government are there for the power, position, and prestige. There are some who really live up to the motto of public servant, the others are just angling for a higher office or staying in the office they won. As a group, parties tend to stick together even when there are flaws in the plan, such as the war in Iraq. If the GOP, and maybe some Democrats too, would have taken a look back in history one could see those who have the home field advantage are more difficult to beat. They know the area, it is there people, their nation, and their home. If they fight a guerrilla style campaign, it is even tougher. Even as far back as the Roman Empire they knew that.

laureth's avatar

Perhaps an example outside of politics would better illustrate what I mean.

Let’s say Sally’s husband is cheating on her every week with some bar floozy. Now, Sally’s sense of security and self worth would be in the toilet if she realized what her husband was doing when he says he’s working late. And even though she has a few clues (the mysterious answering machine message from “Lisa,” the way their friends can’t really look at her, the lipstick on his collar), she cannot admit to herself that he’s a dirty dog. It would be too much.

So Sally MUST, for her own wellness, believe that her husband is honest. Every clue that she has that something is wrong, she pins to something else. The “Lisa” on the answering machine must be a colleague from her husband’s work. She has talked herself into not noticing the way their friends (who know about the affair) act around her. And he must have gotten that lipstick on his collar from when he hugged his mom (although she’s 81 and doesn’t wear lipstick) or maybe at the makeup counter at the mall, when he was buying her a special present that he just hasn’t told her about yet. No matter what clues to the affair she finds, she rationalizes each one away, because of her solid need to believe that her sweetie is in no way playing her for a fool.

Now. How would Sally ever find out that she was wrong about her husband? Someone who is not so tied to their dogmatic belief (that husband is honest) would see the clues and add it up. But when Sally’s belief is so “true” that she turns every clue on its head and sees it as proof that he really does love her (after all, he must have bought her a present at the mall! The lipstick on the collar is proof of that! And his colleague Lisa must have driven him to the mall, because she said she was happy to do him that favor after work, being all secretive to keep the surprise, of course!), she is blinding herself to the truth.

How would Sally ever learn that her husband is foolin’ around when she’s worked so hard to blind herself to the truth, and believes in her husband so strongly that she will not allow herself to think any other way? That’s what I mean here.

If you accept your political or economic belief so strongly that you turn every clue that you’re wrong on its head in an attempt to prove that your belief is right, because your belief cannot possibly be wrong, how would you be able to learn that you were, in fact, incorrect?

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

In the case of Sally she just plain wants to ignore the facts, because they logically lead to a reality she do not want to have. Her emotion, or the avoidance of bad emotion, causes her to invent a logical reality where there likely is none. He could have been trying to buy her a lipstick, and smudged his own collar unknowingly; or the clerk at the counter did. The late night call from Lisa could have been to create a secret vacation getaway for them both. Maybe the strange perfume or any erroneous charges on the credit card bill can have a legit reason. Those things are plausible, but highly improbable. The clues logically point to an affair, even though it might not be an affair, the only way she will know is to test it and see if the logical conclusion is right, or it was just a bunch of random occurrences, that painted a picture that was incorrect.

Sally should know in the back of her mind, especially if these types of things have been on going for months or longer that he is logically having an affair. Even as she is working hard to cover up the obvious logic with made up logic to explain it away it has to be eating at her. The only way to have some peace is she has to convince herself that her husband is honorable and not some cheating scum. If he is a cheating scum that might somehow play to her ability to pick men. If she picked the wrong man, what does it say about her? What does that say about her picking another man if she left him? To not have to face that she possibly made a mistake, or wasn’t smart enough in choosing, and it could be he just changed, she has to defend him even with gonzo logic because she de facto defends herself.

laureth's avatar

HC, I agree with much of that. And I see it going on in the political and economic arena too. People have their pet dogma, such as “The government can’t create wealth,” and they stick to it in the face of evidence. If they are shown government-created wealth, they say it came from somewhere else. Or it can’t exist. Or that it was really a product of the Reagan tax cut. Or any other thing except that the wealth was created because of government policy, which there’s not room for in their worldview. How would that person ever know that they were wrong, if their dogma demands that “the government can’t create wealth,” and the evidence is always viewed in a light (however gonzo) that supports that dogma?

CWOTUS's avatar

If you believe this, then perhaps you can explain or demonstrate how “the government creates wealth”. I will agree that government can foster policies that will enable or disable wealth creation, but wealth originates in production of some kind, an activity that governments typically do not attempt. So, if you know better, perhaps you can enlighten us. I think that you’re the one clinging to dogma and false hope here.

laureth's avatar

If a rent-a-cop creates wealth by creating security, then so does a police officer. If a teacher in a private school creates wealth by improving human capital, then so does a good teacher in a public school.

But mostly, the government invests in a society, making it easier and more likely for more of us to create more wealth than we would without it. Having a government provides for the foundation for us to attain the standard of living that we have. I pay my taxes, the EPA is funded, I don’t breathe so much soot, I don’t have respiratory problems, I can go to work and create wealth. Or, I pay taxes, roads are built, my car doesn’t fall apart from potholes, I can go to work. Or, I pay taxes, drug-rehab programs are funded, I don’t get robbed or pay as much in insurance, and I prosper. Saying that the government doesn’t create wealth is to not see the forest for the trees: it’s there in the background, giving me things like rule of law, subsidized food (farm bill), a cheaper education, clean water to drink through testing and regulation, all things that I need to be able to create my own wealth. And it recoups this when I am able to prosper enough to pay taxes.

If I can “create wealth” by providing venture capital to a business, the government creates wealth the same way, by investing in its citizens.

But, unlike my Facebook wall, Fluther tries to stick closer to topic. In this case, this is not about how the government (directly or indirectly) creates wealth, it’s about how (or if) we can perceive a faulty dogma, when our belief in its infallibility makes us blind to the notion of our own mistakenness.

CWOTUS's avatar

Sometimes it helps to deconstruct an argument and take it back to first principles to find out its truth or falsity.

Using your own example, for instance, I would agree that “security” and “education / knowledge” are not valueless. They have real worth. But go back to something even more fundamental. Security and knowledge won’t help a starving person who is dying on the street. Governments do not “create” food and shelter. They may occasionally provide it (via taxpayer funding), but they don’t create that wealth. That wealth is much more important in a very basic sense than “security and education”. And building up from there, if the EPA, for another example, provides “regulation” and even “inspectors” to ensure that air quality is kept at healthy levels, that only occurs because the people / companies running processes that create pollution in the first place (as a byproduct of whatever wealth-producing enterprise they are involved in) have the wherewithal to invest in pollution control equipment and processes provided (generally) by other for-profit enterprises who invent, design, produce and market those products and services. None of that occurs simply on the say-so of a regulator.

If we could regulate and legislate our way to wealth, then it would be almost impossible to not be wealthy.

laureth's avatar

Compared to many other countries, we are wealthy. Some folks say we’re the wealthiest country in the world. How are we not wealthy?

Imagine a gardener. She wants to plant crops and harvest the resulting grain and vegetables, which we’ll call “wealth.” If she just leaves the garden alone, some veggies will make it, but many will succumb to pests, under watering or too much flooding, not enough nutrients, or some other problem, and the harvest will be lackluster. However, if she manages it, spreads manure and compost, makes sure there’s enough water, cuts back the encroaching woodland to provide sunlight (and just the right amount of shade to plants like lettuce), then she harvests much more wealth at the end of the season.

In the same way, without the background services that the government provides, we wouldn’t do so well. Or, we’d have a much scarier situation where some vicious people have all the wealth, and many, many more live in dire poverty. (Think of Somalia, which hasn’t had a government in quite some time, and how it’s run by the Warlord of the Month club.) Somalia is like the untended garden, and by any stretch, we’re better off and wealthier.

If the company creating pollution doesn’t have the wherewithal (wealth or desire) to clean up their mess, maybe the wealth they’re producing is an illusion. They can’t pay their bills, so to speak. That’s not the sort of enterprise that ought to be making a go of it. And in a more laissez-faire system, profit would be the main concern, pollution be damned. The government steps in on behalf of all of us and compels that polluting business to clean up. And if they can’t clean up their mess, they should go out of business.

By managing (“gardening”) the economy, making sure everyone gets an environment where they can build their own wealth in relative safety, we prosper. And like our gardener that harvests the cabbage and makes compost for next season, we pay our taxes, to keep the garden going. If you pile all the manure in one place, the grass gets burned and the spots without it will fail to flourish – but by evening out the nutrients to some degree, your “starving person on the street” can also get a bite to eat, some subsidized housing, rule of law, and maybe some business counseling to set the stage for his own wealth-building effort.

Make sense now?

CWOTUS's avatar

Sorry, no. The example you gave is not germane in the least. “The gardener” in your example is not the federal (or any other) government that I know of. Gardeners are the people and institutions who produce wealth. In your example, imagine the gardener having to read new directives from Washington every day about how much water should / must be applied, when and how watering can be done, the methods to control pests, specifying the composition and quantities of fertilizer, compost and mulch to be applied, and setting a price that the produce can sell for. Also, of course, a bill from the government – payable in produce – as compensation for all of the “good advice”. That’s a more realistic description of our relationship to government. Perhaps the gardener needs the advice, follows it carefully and isn’t unhappy with the results or the cost. Maybe so. But if he has a different idea or Washington’s appraisal of his climate, his land and resources or his skill is incorrect, then he’s hamstrung by the requirement to “follow procedures”, whether or not they work for him.

To imagine that the federal government in any way actually “manages” the American economy is quite absurd. The government does attempt to tweak aspects of the economy by making the money supply rise and fall, which it does by controlling interest rates at the Fed, among other things, but it surely does not – could not hope to – “manage” an economy like ours. The results have been viewed in the Soviet Union. (One reason why the Chinese economy works as well as it does is that the Chinese have learned not to attempt to “manage” that very much, other than a few state-owned companies that they sell as quickly as they can. All they do is suppress political dissent – for now.)

I wish that statists would avoid trotting out the idea of Somalia as some kind of libertarian paradise. If you find an anarchist in Fluther, perhaps you can have that argument with him. For me, I have no problem with the US government that has been outlined in the US Constitution. I appreciate having enumerated powers for the federal and state governments. I like our court system, for the most part. I believe in certain laws governing “right conduct” between and among us all.

That doesn’t mean that I think the government needs to direct-hire the police, however. Or the teachers, either, for that matter. I think “some of the things that government does” could be better done – and more cheaply – by private enterprise. Starting with schools, for example, as we’re starting to learn – so slowly, because the teachers’ unions are some of the strongest. “Civil service” functions could nearly all be produced by others. For example, I like the idea of auto registration and driver licenses being handled by insurance companies. Goodbye, DMV! There’s no reason why “highway maintenance” has to be a government job. (In more and more places now, it isn’t.)

What has happened lately – on both Bush’s and Obama’s watches, so there’s blame aplenty to go around – is that government “stimulus” to “save” the economy is exactly what got us into the mess we’re now in. It started before the turn of the century, in fact, and every new “stimulus” – in whatever form – simply makes available free money to a few connected people and companies who then create a new bubble in a new commodity du jour, and leave us holding the bag – again – a few years later, with a new Administration around to “save us” once again. I don’t say “government is all evil all of the time; there’s no place for government”. I have strong arguments for anyone who makes that claim. But I do say that we have “too much government that costs too much and does not make things better”. I’m very happy when the President and Congress take vacations. I think they should do it more often, and for longer.

I’m not going to patronize you by asking if this “makes sense now”, because I know that it does. I know that this is the reality of the way things are – and not in an ideological sense, either. Whether you understand or agree is beside the point.

It’s a good thing that you asked the question, though, and a good question to start the thread. It’s something you should definitely think about.

laureth's avatar

A few points.

1. The stimulus didn’t bring us completely back up to speed because it was too small, much smaller than the Keynesian types who advocated for a stimulus said would work, and it has been spread out over too long of a time span. It’s best to try the idea as intended, before saying it’s a failure. If I want us to go to the grocery store, and you put half as much gas in the car as it takes to make the trip, why is it a failure? (It’s not because a grocery trip is a bad idea, it’s because the trip was sabotaged with underfunding.) Still, I believe our economy is not as bad as it would have been without some stimulus. Here’s a chart.

2. The gardener herself doesn’t produce wealth. The plants and animals on the farm produce the wealth. The gardener orchestrates the application of nutrients, etc. to make it all happen.

3. I’m sorry if I indicated that Somalia is a libertarian paradise. The intent was to paint it as a horrible place to have to live.

4. One reason that we look to government to do some things that the private sector could do, involves economies of scale. It’s like buying at Sam’s Club – you get a bulk discount. Could regular grocery stores taking individual orders do the same thing that a warehouse club does? Sure they could. But if we all buy in together, it covers more people. I’m not saying everything works better this way. But for some basic things we all need, sure.

ETpro's avatar

@CWOTUS The examples @laureth are absolutely to the point. And your methos of analyzing thrut is to ignore facts and reason, and rather rely on whether, when reduced to its lowest common denominator, a policy jibes with your ideology. That is the definition of an ideologue. And whether they be fr left or far right, ideologues are notorious for applying that method to prove that policies will work when in fact they always explode in their faces when applied. When the explosion comes, they simply trot out the no True Scotsman defense, claiming that elements not in line with their ideology caused the failure. Ideologues NEVER know if they are wrong. It is impossible for them to assess it, because their ideoogy trumps all else.

CWOTUS's avatar

That describes every argument that you ever make.

ETpro's avatar

@CWOTUS Good that we understand each otehr. I argue with ppeals to reason and fact. As you said, you reduce things to their simplest possible form and see if they agree with your precnceived notins of truth, your ideology. It’s small wonder we generally disagree.

CWOTUS's avatar

You’re wrong – again. We never understand each other, and you failed again to understand a simple statement of mine. Every argument that you’ve ever made to me rests on your apparent supposition that “everyone who argues with me is an ideologue”.

ETpro's avatar

@CWOTUS You are heavily generalizing. I can show you denate after debate here where I disagree with someone, but don’t thank they are an ideologue or say they are. The thing is you defined yourself to be an ideologue above. Maybe you were joking, or just putting us on. But given the vitriol in your rebuttals; “You’re wrong – again.”, “Every argument that you’ve ever made…” I don’t think that’s the case. I think we can take you at your word.

CWOTUS's avatar


I’m going to take Mark Twain’s excellent advice about arguing with fools. You have a great day now.

ETpro's avatar

@CWOTUS Actually, except for a bit of brow beating from a clinet who wants her work pushed to the front of the line, I did. And I wish you the same.

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