On intellectual humility

So, back when I was first chosen to be a Park Faculty Scholar I knew that something I really wanted to try and instill in this group of incredibly bright and motivated students was intellectual humility– a trait that, I believe, does not exactly come naturally to most of the bright and motivated.  There’s actually a pretty good social science of the subject, but most of my ideas come from learning it the hard way.  It’s my contention that if you are going to be a successful academic, you better have a heavy dose of intellectual humility.  Most of the research that you submit will be rejected the first time.  Even when it’s not rejected, smart people take it apart and find every last flaw.  You have to use that to make it better; not just complain that people don’t understand your brilliance.  Furthermore, unless you are truly exceptional you are surrounded by a lot of other really smart people– some/many of which will be smarter than you.  And even if they are not necessarily smarter, you are going to be surrounded by people who know a lot more than you about subjects very close to your area of expertise.  So, to thrive, you need to be ready to be wrong– a lot– and to learn from that.  I was decidedly lacking in intellectual humility in my college years and I hope I can make at least a modest difference for the Park class of 2022 (and, actually, a small difference for all my students), which started by assigning them Success and Luck to read before they even came here.

Anyway, I recently came across this cool site from the Templeton Foundation that actually summarizes the social science research on Intellectual Humility.  Cool!  Here’s the official research-oriented report.  Here’s the brief summary from the website:

In a nutshell, intellectual humility helps us overcome responses to evidence that are self-centered or that outstrip the strength of that evidence. This mindset encourages us to seek out and evaluate ideas and information in such a way that we are less influenced by our own motives and more oriented toward discovery of the truth. When we discuss important, controversial issues with others, our initial responses to their arguments tend to be shaped by our preferences, identities, and prior opinions. Intellectual humility buffers against those responses so that we can become more “truth-oriented.” It helps us overcome our self-centered inclinations in discussion and learning, making us more likely to follow the evidence where it leads and positioning us to better understand the truth.

I actually like to address this through all my classes by starting out every single class with Ezra Klein’s “How Politics makes us stupid” and repeatedly refer back to it.  I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but finally got around to it due to inspiration from another Vox piece, where David Roberts gives advice for wannabe explainer journalists:

Then there’s fairness, which is what I think most people (of good faith) are grasping at when they talk about “bias.” One thing you notice when you learn more about a subject is that it’s more complicated than you thought it was — for any value of “it.” There’s always more to it than you thought, no matter how much you thought before you started looking.

Though social media might lead you to believe otherwise, there are ambiguities and good-faith arguments to be found in and around any subject. Even on matters where you think the correct answer is obvious, you will understand the answer, and your own thinking, much more clearly if you understand the best argument for the other side.

Fairness does not mean refraining from conclusions. (What are you being paid for, if not to look into things and figure them out?) But it does mean doing your best to get in the headspace of a reasonable opponent, trying to articulate the best argument against your conclusions.

And it means acknowledging doubt and uncertainty. Which brings us to humility.

Humility is perhaps the most difficult thing of all in the social media age, which endlessly rewards the sharp, clear take, the one that might go viral.

I’ve written plenty of those myself — hundreds! — and obviously don’t see anything wrong with it. The key, in journalism as in any truth-seeking pursuit, is to try your best to keep all your beliefs and conclusions at arm’s length, at least somewhat provisional. Don’t get your identity mixed up with your beliefs or you’ll end up defending them come what may.

Even if you get above the 90 percent knowledge threshold on a subject, there’s plenty of climbing to do, and each increment gets more steep. We are all of us in this business dancing at the edge of what we know, so it pays to be open to correction or revising your conclusions.

That is, of course, easier said than done. I’ve changed my thinking on plenty of things over the years, but not always with grace. Listening and being willing to revise your beliefs is rarely rewarding in the short-term, especially give the tribal incentives of social media. But it is worth it in the long run. You will be more interesting and more useful, for longer, if you cling to your curiosity and humility.

Good stuff!  I know I am far from perfect on the matter.  But I’m a firm believer that intellectual humility is a mindset that can and should be cultivated.  And, honestly, it’s all the more important for the academically successful.  And, the readers of this blog.

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College is expensive

So, I had a college-level meeting scheduled this week where we were going to learn about “postvention.”  Well, that’s a new one for me, so I looked up the university administrator who was going to educate us on this.  Nothing against any of these particular people– and the only one them on this page I have worked with is very competent.  But this is why college is so expensive.  This is a lot of very-well compensated (it’s public record) administrators who don’t really have anything to do with the university’s core missions of teaching, research, and extension.  Listen to the job description of the Vice Chancellor leading this division:

Dr. Mullen provides leadership and vision for over 50 departments and administrative units in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs. Responsibilities include oversight of a $120 million budget, 570 faculty, professional and administrative staff, and approximately 2,500 student employees. In this role, Dr. Mullen is responsible for curricular and co-curricular programming and support services that contribute to the success of all 35,000 students at NC State.

I’m not at all arguing that we should eliminate student affairs.  But that’s a lot of people and a lot of money.  University administration has grown way faster than other elements of the university and that’s a major driver of costs (nice summary here).

Anyway, you look at any one of these administrators and it probably seems pretty easy to justify their role.  And again, as far as I know, everybody at the page I linked is a good person doing a good job.  But, overall– college is too expensive and this is undoubtedly part of the problem.

Really stupid (Republican) policy, IRS version

Pro Publica has a great feature on the Republicans gutting the IRS.  This is bad on so many levels.  What you are doing with this, more than anything, is literally incentivizing tax fraud.  But, I guess Republicans think that’s okay as long as the cheats are the rich people.  Here’s a key summary set of graphs:

Not quite a TLDR, but a nice take from Drum:

On the left, you can see that the IRS enforcement budget has been slashed since 2010. But it’s the chart on the right that shows exactly what effect that’s had. Poor folks have seen a small decline in audits of their little annual EITC payments, but that was always peanuts anyway. The real revenue-loser is in the green line, showing that audits of rich people have plummeted from 8 percent to 2.5 percent. If you’re rich, the odds of being audited has gone down by two-thirds over the past decade or so.

This GOP war against the IRS has been going on since the mid-90s, when Republicans first started describing IRS agents as jackbooted thugs knocking down doors at midnight and scaring the women and children. But in 2010 Republicans won control of the House. Finally they could really do something to help their donors. And they did. They trashed the IRS enforcement staff and cut the revenue from audits by more than a third, from $23 billion to $14 billion. [emphasis mine] Mission accomplished.

This is stupid, stupid, stupid.  By spending more money going after rich tax cheats, you actually raise revenue for the government.  And, you encourage a more fair tax system.    Both good things.  Instead, we get the opposite.  The more people are allowed to cheat, the more all of us honest people pay unfairly.  And no, poor people shouldn’t cheat on their taxes, either, but like bank robbers, the IRS should be going where the money is.  And that’s the rich people.

Asymmetric polarization in chart form

Everybody (smart journalists and political scientists aside) so want to just see the Democrats and Republicans as the mirror opposite of each other.  In some ways, sure, e.g., we are all of us quite susceptible to motivated reasoning.  I’m not entirely the biggest fan of this question from Gallup, but I think it nonetheless illustrative:

Circle graph. U.S. Republicans generally prefer a more conservative party; Democrats, a more moderate one.

Whow! Quite a notable difference there.  Personally, I think I’d go with “more liberal” but pretty tentatively so.  It depends, as us liberals like to say.  But, damn, the last thing the Republican party needs to be is more conservative.  What’s that, going door-to-door to take food from poor people?  Certainly, giving rich people even larger tax cuts.

Cruelty makes for really stupid policy

But, alas, Republicans seem more interested in cruelty than they are in good policy.  Catherine Rampell on the moral and policy fiasco that is Arkansas work requirements for Medicaid:

This summer, Arkansas became the first state to require poor people to prove they’re employed to receive Medicaid.

Critics say the state is trying to save money on the backs of the poor. That’s nonsense, Arkansas officials reply. They want to help  the poor. Backed by the Trump administration, they are inspiring slackers and moochers to climb the economic ladder…

Consider Adrian McGonigal, who is challenging the policy in federal court.

McGonigal, like most non-disabled, nonelderly Medicaid recipients, had a job. Full time, too, at a chicken plant. The plant’s chemicals sometimes aggravated his COPD, a chronic lung disease, but his employer accommodated the condition by moving him from processing to shipping.

More important, McGonigal’s prescription medication — funded by the state’s Medicaid expansion, since his job didn’t come with health insurance — kept his symptoms in check.

McGonigal was unclear about what he needed to do to report his work hours, or if he had to report at all. The new policy applies only to Medicaid expansion enrollees, but even most people in that group don’t have to frequently check in with the state (because of age, disability, state already has work information on file, etc.). Like many I spoke with, McGonigal says he got confusing and sometimes conflicting information from the state’s Department of Human Services, which told him to report online. He doesn’t have a cellphone or computer, so he borrowed his sister-in-law’s smartphone.

“I thought that everything was good,” he told me in an interview for The Post and “PBS NewsHour.” “I thought it was just a one-time deal that you reported it, and then that was it.”

It wasn’t.

The state wanted him to report  monthly . He learned this only when his pharmacy told him his insurance had been canceled. After that, he couldn’t afford his medication. His COPD flared up and he landed in the emergency room. And he missed lots of work…

In other words: A policy intended to help people get jobs instead cost McGonigal his. 

This was predictable. A Hamilton Project report found that the preponderance of evidence suggests Medicaid has little or positive effects on labor-force supply. For many families, safety-net services support work, rather than discourage it.  [emphasis mine]

Exactly, this is no, “oh, my, how could we have seen it coming” unintended consequence.  This is an entirely predictable consequence.  It’s almost as if Arkansas Republicans don’t want the working poor to have health insurance.  Let’s save that for old people and Wall Street Bankers, etc.  Ugh.  Just so frustrating when a policy is so willfully cruel and willfully misguided at the same time.

Rampell also has a follow-up where she considers whether maybe the idea is okay, but Arkansas is just implementing it very poorly.  Well, the latter is true, but even then, it is just stupid, stupid policy:

Could you then formulate a policy that wouldn’t be so dysfunctional or cause so much accidental hardship? Could you have a compassionate, thoughtful system that truly punishes only the lurking shirkers?

Only if you want much bigger government, which conservatives generally don’t.

Most nonelderly Medicaid enrollees are already working, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. Almost all of those who aren’t working have a pretty reasonable explanation for why not, such as disability, family obligations, school attendance or no work available.

Finding, documenting and ultimately punishing the tiny minority of Medicaid recipients whom officials target as “undeserving” would therefore require a major, costly expansion of the administrative state. And, in fact, Arkansas already knows this. That’s why officials made the reporting system online-only, after all, and presumably why they didn’t bother to bring its database software into the 21st century: to save money.

This, this, this!!!  Conservatives are always ignoring these very real monitoring costs.  Yes, we should prevent obvious fraud and abuse, but if you want to catch every last fraudster you reach a point where the monitoring costs become prohibitive and entirely counter-productive.  And you fully ensure that many worthy people will not receive the service for which they are entitled.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.

On a personal note, my son recently received a Medicaid waiver (after 11 years on the waiting list) for certain services due to his lifetime disability.  My wife has 1) a PhD, and 2) time to get stuff done during the day.  And, yet providing all the documentation to ultimately receive the waiver was absurdly confusing and incredibly onerous.  And, again, this is a very smart person who had the free time to dedicate to it.  Imagine a poorly-educated person who is spending all their time just trying to get food on the table and keep their head above water.  People like that, often end up without the services they are qualified for.

Here’s the simple reality as I see it.  If there’s any government program people will always try and cheat the system.  And here’s the trade-off, the harder you make it for the cheaters, the harder you make it for the deserving beneficiaries.  Sure, I don’t like the cheaters, but I accept that as a simple, but unfortunate, cost of helping those we want to help through the program.  Sadly, many Republicans are so intent on stopping the cheaters that they create the cost of not helping the people who need the help.  Then, of course, they deny that’s what they are actually doing.  This is why so much social welfare policy in America is so messed up.  Yeah, people cheating the system sucks.  But what sucks worse is people needing help and not getting it.

The John Kelly myth

John Kelly may have been the “adult in the room” around Trump (low bar!) and insisted on a little more discipline than we might have otherwise gotten.  But that in no way makes him a good person who was fighting the good fight against the worst excesses of Trumpism.  Really like this pushback to the consensus media narrative from Yglesias:

No person’s entire career can be summed up in a single quote. But ousted White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s defense to the charge that the Trump administration’s child separation policy at the border was cruel deserves to be etched into his tombstone.

“The children,” he said, “will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.”

That is roughly the degree of thoughtfulness and consideration that was put into the policy. And it properly reflects Kelly’s true legacy as chief of staff… [emphasis mine]

But the emphasis on times when Kelly could rein in Trump ignores the extent to which the two men were genuinely like-minded, and the many crucial moments where Kelly exacerbated Trump’s worst instincts.

Kelly intervened to scuttle a potentially sensible Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) deal while mocking large numbers of DACA-eligible youth as “lazy.” He slandered Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and then for no real reason refused to apologize. He attempted to orchestrate a cover-up of White House aide Rob Porter’s alleged domestic abuse

Coverage of Trump and Kelly’s relationship has, from the beginning, been a little bit oddly dominated by the question of Kelly’s ability (or lack thereof) to constrain Trump’s bad tweets. As someone who’s gotten in trouble at work for bad tweets myself over the years, I always appreciate focus on this critical topic.

But in the specific context of Trump, the extraordinary thing isn’t his bad tweets but the fact that he has no substantive command of any policy area. He desperately needs a capable chief of staff. Instead, he had Kelly…

It’s true that, next to Trump, virtually anyone looks good. It’s also true that any chief of staff is bound to try to undercut Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s influence, which will almost automatically make you a sympathetic-seeming figure in comparison.

But the fact remains that Kelly was a true believer in some of Trump’s very worst ideas, echoed several of his very worst influences, failed completely to compensate for Trump’s most significant personal deficiencies, and intervened at key moments to make things worse. Good riddance.

Yep.  It’s seems like we have largely forgotten the moral abomination that was Trump’s family separation policy.  But we shouldn’t.  And we shouldn’t forget John “foster care or whatever” Kelly’s role in this.

The Republicans’ generational gamble

As I’ve been saying for a while now, Trump is basically toxic to young voters.  As Obama drew in a generation of young voters, Trump is now pushing the next generation away.  Ron Brownstein looks at the latest data in light of the 2018 elections:

The sharp turn against the Republican Party by young people in the 2018 election may be only the overture to an even greater political risk for the GOP in 2020.

Both historical voting patterns and underlying demographic trends suggest that the biggest difference in the electorate between this election and the next one is that relatively younger voters will cast a greater share of the votes in the presidential year — perhaps a much larger share. Even with much higher than usual turnout among young voters this year, voters 45 and below are likely to increase their proportion of the total vote from just under three-in-ten this year to something closer to four-in-ten by 2020, historical trends suggest.

“They will certainly be a larger percent of voters than they were in 2018 given presidential versus midterm trends,” says Yair Ghitza, the chief scientist at Catalist, a leading Democratic voter targeting and election modeling firm. “The question is to what extent the [higher] engagement we saw in 2018 will continue and be better than in 2016 and other presidential years.”

A rising participation level could threaten Republicans at a moment when younger voters, who have consistently expressed preponderant opposition to President Donald Trump in polls, provided Democrats their largest margins in decades during last month’s election.

“Voters under 45 moved decisively and overwhelmingly toward Democrats, and I don’t know how you take it as anything other than a total rebuke of Trump and what’s he done,” says Democratic pollster Andrew Baumann, who has extensively studied younger voters.

Despite Democrats’ emphatic gains among younger voters, Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, author of The Selfie Vote, a book on the Millennial Generation, says the GOP shows no signs of grappling with the shift. “Even though the election, especially on the House side, was not good for Republicans there has not been an appetite for a course correction or a change in approach,” she says. “So it would surprise me if there was a concerted effort to try win over more young voters between now and the 2020 election.”…

But while the GOP’s difficulties with the Millennial Generation predate Trump, there seems little doubt that he has compounded them. From the outset, many millennials viewed Trump’s belligerent language on race and immigration, and his belittling comments about women, as an explicit counterrevolution against the ideal of a more inclusive and tolerant America that most of them say they support. In a summer 2016 ABC/Washington Post survey, two thirds of voters under 40 said they considered Trump biased against women and minorities.

In this election, Trump faced a withering verdict from younger voters. In the exit polls, 66% of voters aged 18-29 and 62% of those aged 30-44 said they disapproved of his performance in office. In each group, just over half said they strongly disapproved of Trump’s performance, significantly more than the share of older voters (just over two-fifths) who said they were so strongly disenchanted with him.

“The disapproval of Trump, and the views of him as being a racist and sexist that we saw [among young people] in 2016, was somewhat muted by not loving Hillary Clinton,” said Baumann. “But it just got amplified after him being in power for two years. One of my theories coming out of 2016 was that Republicans by embracing Trump were at risk of losing a generation of voters, and it sure seems like that is coming to the fore now.” [emphasis mine]

Sure, some of these young people may end up moving towards Republicans, but the notion that people naturally become more conservative as they age is a conservative myth belied by actual data.  When we finally get some notable progressive victories in 15-20 years, you can thank Donald Trump.

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