Ohhhh, South Carolina

No matter the trouble in North Carolina, we can always look to our neighbor to the South and say “at least we’re not South Carolina.”  I was reminded of this by a Knowmore post nicely titled, “Breaking: The Civil War was about Slavery.”  Apparently, word has not made it to South Carolina:

Question for South Carolinians and others… what exactly were these “rights” states were fighting for?  Just maybe something about the right to own slaves?

Photo of the day

Love this composite image via Phil Plait that shows what the Andromeda galaxy would look like in our sky if it were brighter.  Awesome.

Moon and Andromeda

Composite photo by Tom Buckley-Houston

Krugman on NC unemployment

President Obama is coming to campus again today (you can get about 6 seconds of my sage thoughts on this before the fact here).  Hooray.  I suspect he’ll be talking about extending unemployment benefits, among other things.  Thus, I thought I should highlight Krugman’s recent blog post that looks at the effect of NC cutting our unemployment benefits:

But then came the Republican wave of 2010, and NC was taken over by right-wing radicals, who have — among other things — taken the nation’s hardest line in cutting benefits to the unemployed.

So how’s it going? Not well. Others have taken this issue on before me, notably Evan Soltas here and here, but I wanted to put up my own version for future reference.

The idea behind cutting benefits is that we are “paying people to be unemployed”, and that tough love will force them to go out and create jobs. It’s never explained exactly how greater desperation on the part of the unemployed will, in fact, lead to higher overall employment. Still, you could imagine that an individual state might gain some competitive advantage against other states by cutting wages. What you actually see in North Carolina, however, is nothing — employment growth tracked the national average both before and after the benefit cuts:

The unemployment rate did fall — but this was due to a large drop in the labor force, as the number of people looking for work fell. Why? Well, a likely explanation is that some of the unemployed continued to search for work, and were therefore counted in the labor force, despite low prospects of finding a job in a depressed economy, because such search is a requirement for those collecting benefits. Take away the benefits, and they drop out. Now, labor force participation has fallen nationally as well as in North Carolina, and the state’s labor force began dropping before the benefit cuts, so that the case for claiming that reduced benefits actually reduced job search isn’t ironclad. Still, it’s worth emphasizing just how extraordinary the changes have been. North Carolina’s labor force drop has been much larger than the national change:

Again, if there were anything to the theory that cutting unemployment benefits encourages job search and somehow translates into higher employment even in a slump, harsh policies should work better at the state than at the national level. But there is no sign at all that North Carolina’s harshness has done anything except make the lives of the unemployed even more miserable.

In my N of 1, I also asked my conservative Republican friend who has been without a job since October and looking hard if her unemployment benefits had kept her from looking for work.  Not surprisingly, no.  These benefits are a great lifeline, but they definitely don’t replace an actual job.  And there’s just no evidence– despite Republican claims to the contrary– that people choose to stay on these benefits instead of working.  It just means when you cannot find a job, life doesn’t suck quite as much.

Is it so easy to reject tribalism?

Bill Ayers (I really like to say “not the domestic terrorist!” when I link to him) likes to blog a lot about tribalism in politics.  I really like what he has to say.  This time, though, I think he’s a little too optimistic about human nature:

But just as I was getting ready to go through that scandal, I read this piece from Ezra Klein in the Washington Post:

The depressing psychological theory that explains Washington

And he’s right that it is depressing, at least from a certain point of view. One of our myths about ourselves and our politics is that we have somehow evolved above all of this kind of barbaric your-tribe-vs-my-tribe stuff. But in fact, we haven’t. Those of us who study politics have known this for a long time. I tell my students, only half-joking: if I’m not depressing you, I’m not doing my job.

I find the tribal tendencies of politics only partly depressing, however. There is in fact an antidote – it just lies outside the political system itself. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have the answer – indeed, they don’t WANT they answer because they profit from the system that tribalism builds. Asking either party to fix American politics is like asking Bernie Madoff to strengthen your finances: the result will be predictable, but it won’t be what you want.

The answer, at least psychologically, is a rejection of tribal loyalty. I actually know a goodly number of people who have, without any superhuman effort, achieved this. They can evaluate the ideas and positions of both parties with equal weight, think through their logical costs and consequences, and decide which ones make sense (if any do). They don’t think of this process as an explicit rejection of one party or of the system as a whole; they just think of it as thinking.  [emphasis mine]

Those of us in higher education who like to talk about “teaching people how to think critically” – what we do is more important than we know. And I’m not at all convinced that we aren’t reasonably good at it – as I’ve said before, I don’t know how many non-tribalists there are in America. It may be that we’re the largely silent majority. Sounds like a research project for some up-and-coming grad student.

Ehhh, I’m not so sure.  I like to to think this is true of myself, but I feel like I know enough psychology to know I’m just deluding myself on that score.   I’d suggest my highly trained mind (seriously, I am aware of pretty much every psychological bias and I’ve spent decades trying to think like a political scientist instead of a partisan) is 80% or so less tribal when thinking about politics, but realistically to think that anyone with a partisan attachment truly evaluates ideas, logical costs and consequences, etc., with truly equal weight strikes me as a stretch.  For my purposes, what I’d call “thinking” is just being aware of this bias in yourself and reducing your deviation from equal weight by some decent percentage.  I don’t think there’s some non-tribal silent majority.  Tribalism is in our human DNA.  And I think the minimal group paradigm is particularly potent evidence for this.

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