Saturday, February 22, 2014

Partisanship, Global Warming and Immigration

I have been involved in a number of recent online threads on global warming. An interesting and depressing pattern is the way in which the arguments are dominated, on both sides, by partisanship.

One example is the way in which, if anyone posts anything critical of the conclusion that we ought to be taking strong action to slow warming, he is promptly labeled a "denier" and accused of denying that warming is happening. Those responding are lumping everyone who disagrees with them together, assuming that any argument made by anyone on the other side must be supported by everyone on the other side.

A second example is the way in which threads on climate tend to morph into disagreements on other and unrelated issues, with each side seeing the other not in terms of their view on the subject being argued about but as part of a broader enemy—very roughly speaking, "left" vs "right." In at least one case, people on both sides turned it into atheism vs Christianity, in others liberal vs conservative.

None of this is surprising, only depressing. Humans seem to have a strong, probably hard wired, tendency to see the world in terms of us and them, ingroup and outgroup.

For a still more striking example, consider arguments about immigration. One common argument for restricting it, usually coming from people who think of themselves as egalitarians, is that a flood of poor immigrants would depress the wages of the present poor. That conclusion may or may not be correct. But if it is, that means that people who think they are in favor of equality are willing to block an enormous improvement in welfare for people who currently live on  less than a dollar a day—the foreign poor who would come—in order to avoid a smaller decrease in the welfare of people who currently make about eight dollars an hour.  That is explainable only on the grounds that the foreign poor, being members of the national outgroup, don't really count in moral calculations.


At 3:28 PM, February 22, 2014, Anonymous Tom Bridgeland said...

Re egalitarians and immigration, an alternate view might be that they see that mass immigration would change the character of the country in a negative way, such that the country as a whole would be made poorer, killing the goose. If a country that had the habits and customs that allowed capitalism to thrive, were to accept a large percentage of foreigners in who were anti-capitalist, these people could create an economic climate that caused total poverty to increase. Argentina might be an example of a rich capitalist country taken over by egalitarians, though I don't know if immigration played a part. Certainly large numbers of Italians did immigrate there.
I don't actually think egalitarians in the US think this way; in my experience self-identified egalitarians tend to be leftists themselves, who don't mind if immigrants are anti-capitalist. In general it is the Right that makes this argument.

At 3:43 PM, February 22, 2014, Blogger Ayrton P said...

I'm currently enrolled in a Criminal Justice class taught by a self-proclaimed socialist. The thrust of the class has been that corporate crime is a bigger threat to the average person than street crime (''the crimes of the poor'').
Leaving that question aside, it's been a learning experience for me to see that, even though he's a socialist, he's more than willing to admit that governments are capable of great harm. Similarly, I think he was surprised to learn that, even though I'm a libertarian, I'm more than willing to consider many corporate externalities as criminal (I just think government intervention is a poor solution).
My point is, we'd both put the other's ideology into a little box, and were pleasantly surprised to discover we actually have a lot in common.
It's an experience I hope everyone can go through at least once.

At 5:26 PM, February 22, 2014, Anonymous Bruce said...

>This is explainable only on the grounds that the foreign poor don't really count in moral calculations."

"'Nothing but' is never right." It's not impossible to believe that Democrats back semi-legal immigration on the grounds that it gives Democrats a suitably abject client base. It's not impossible to believe Republicans back semi-legal immigration on the grounds that it provides a suitably abject low-wage working pool which will lower everyone else's wages as well.

It is possible to believe our local crooks will end up helping some of the foreign poor in passing. It is possible to believe this help is not worth further impoverishing the US

At 9:22 PM, February 22, 2014, Blogger Joey said...

Republicans back semi-legal immigration on the grounds that it provides a suitably abject low-wage working pool which will lower everyone else's wages as well.

Are you confusing real and nominal wages? Sure, all else equal, more people means fewer dollars per person. But in real terms, on average we'd be richer.

And even if real wages would fall, the claim that Republicans desire that "everyone" has low wages is pretty ridiculous.

At 4:11 AM, February 23, 2014, Anonymous Christopher Chang said...

"One common argument for restricting it, usually coming from people who think of themselves as egalitarians, is that a flood of poor immigrants would depress the wages of the present poor. That conclusion may or may not be correct. But if it is, that means that people who think they are in favor of equality are willing to block an enormous improvement in welfare for people who currently live on less than a dollar a day—the foreign poor who would come—in order to avoid a smaller decrease in the welfare of people who currently make about eight dollars an hour. That is explainable only on the grounds that the foreign poor, being members of the national outgroup, don't really count in moral calculations."

This misses some important possibilities.

A national government's foremost responsibility is to its own citizens; that's why it's a national government, rather than an international one. There is room for debate re: what stances toward foreigners are reasonable; we have gotten to the point where open demands for tribute or outright invasion are normally considered unacceptable, and are closer to at least a weak form of "avoid net harm" than has been the case through most of human history. But attempting to go further than that is not always game-theoretically stable.

Instead, when it comes to helping the foreign poor, I think it is wisest to respect the subsidiarity principle and prioritize improvement of conditions in their home countries. This is trickier, since we have much less control, and it is necessary to steer clear of the abuses of imperialism. But when good strategies for this are found, they can be expected to be far more efficient than brute-force absorption of immigrants. And I think the US succeeded in implementing at least one such strategy: David Brin is not an economist, but "How the US saved the world by buying vast amounts of stuff" sounds mostly correct to me.

So I think your criticism is valid for professed "egalitarians" who *also* want to seriously curtail free trade to "protect American workers". But my own position is that, for the political cost, promotion or defense of free trade is much more efficient than promotion or defense of (at least low-skill) immigration when it comes to helping foreigners. I believe this passes your critique with flying colors.

At 5:40 AM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

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At 5:47 AM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

The main topic: This cannot be repeated enough. The most depressing thing to me is that I sometimes observe myself thinking along the partisan lines. Well, at least I am trying my best to avoid it when possible, or at least I would like to believe that :) Sadly, that still is probably more than most people do.

You can also observe this when discussing some austrians. If you try to argue that empirical methods can be sometimes pretty useful as well, the reaction is something along the lines of "oh, so you like Krugman" or "so you want to order other people what to do based on some data and statistics".

Anti-immigration egalitarians: This is a rather unusual combination to me. Perhaps it is US-specific? It seems to me that in Europe, the people who are against immigration are mostly either nationalists or "conservatives" (in the political sense of the word), people ranging from Le Pen (French nationalist) to UKIP (that is a UK party that sometimes likes to present itself as libertarian but strikes me as closer to "conservative"). Most egalitarians in Europe go to the other extreme - actually trying to subsidize immigration and particularly immigration of some ethnicities or nationalities.

Tom: I have encountered this argument a couple of times and I don't find it very persuasive...or rather it depends on the circumstances. If you have a huge welfare state and a free immigration, then you will see a lot of welfare motivated immigration to take place. People will come in to get welfare and it is in their interest to broaden it even further. And even those who do not come for welfare might easily end up on it too, since an excessive welfare state also means high taxes and most welfare states have also heavy work regulation...which means tough luck for immigrants who actually want to work. On the other hand, if you have minimal or no welfare programs, low taxes and regulation, a very different kind of people will come to your country (or perhaps even the same people, but with very different incentives). People will see it as a place of opportunity where they can work and reap the benefits of their work without being troubled by too much regulation and high taxes. Why would they vote for more welfare in this (currently sadly rather hypothetical) country when they can instead move to Norway and start living on welfare right away? In a country like that, I think, immigration could very easily lead to less regulation and more capitalism.

They had a national poll in Switzerland recently about immigration and limiting it (including immigration from EU, which of course was met by a hostile reaction from EU authorities). It ended up very close in favour of restricting immigration (I think it was 49.6% against 50.4% of the votes...kind of close to an error in counting the votes). I believe that in a way, both sides were right and wrong. The problem is that while you have a generous welfare state, you cannot have free immigration, because people will simply start moving in to get it. I don't see it as an argument against immigration though, rather as another argument against the welfare state. But cutting rents is a hard thing to sell even in a country like Switzerland and given that in the short term you can't probably do much about the welfare state, it might even be wise to restrict immigration. Still, I would have either voted against that or abstained had I been Swiss because laws are usually much harder to abolish than to legislate. Also, I think closing down the borders can at best slow down the negative effect of welfare subsidies to grow but not eliminate them.

At 10:00 AM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Power Child said...


You write that you find our species's hard-wired tendency to see the world in terms of ingroup and outgroup (a.k.a. tribalism) depressing.

But if I remember right, you're a believer in evolution. I am too. Most believers in evolution recognize that tribalism is an evolutionary adaptation, and a very important one that was--and still is--critical to our survival. Why find it depressing?

One could take your statement to the opposite extreme: that it's depressing how we favor humans as an ingroup over animals as an outgroup. Or the animal kingdom as an ingroup vs. plants as an outgroup. Or multicellular organisms as an ingroup...

My point is, unless we start from the premise that morality needs to be applied 100% consistently across everything in the universe, then there is no need to be depressed by tribalism.

At 10:21 AM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child: Evolution is basically adaptation to circumstances. And a specific one at that. One that leads to best reproduction success. So there is no reason why some of its features could not be deemed depressing :)

Also, unfortunately, there is a lag, since evolution is a quite slow process (slow in human terms, not so slow in geological terms :) ). We are adapted to the environment in which our ancestors lived several thousands years back. With no technology more advanced than fire and a flint spear, almost non-existent trade and division of labour the environment was very different from our own. And while tribal sentiments were likely important for survival back then (as they are in other pack animals), they are rather a source of trouble nowadays...or fun. Tribalism is what makes collective sports and other such activities entertaining. The trouble is when it also affects important decisions and judgement.

At 1:40 PM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Will McLean said...

It seems to me that there is a valid, non tribalist argument to be made. If you believe, for example, that the left in your country has, on the whole, worse policies than the right, then it's rational to put effort into getting other people to vote against them, and vice versa, even though you use arguments that drift from the original subject of discussion.

At 2:43 PM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Will: The problem with that approach is it rarely leads to any conclusions. Topics such as global warming are complex as it is. If you don't keep the discussion focused, you never get anywhere.

Also, this is worse than changing the topic. The discussion often simply turns into an argument where the goal is no longer to find out why you disagree and what reasons the other guy has. The goal now is to show that the other bastards are evil and/or stupid and at that point the discussion is no longer meaningful.

Tribalism has this bad effect that clusters some kinds of opinions and beliefs together in people's minds. That is, if someone like David is going to criticize current mainstream climatology, the tribal instinct of his opponents may be to label him as something they don't like (e.g. a Christian fundamentalist if they don't like those) and attacking this imagined part of his persona instead of dealing with his arguments about global warming. And of course one could think of a similar example that goes the other way. In any case, the main effect is that tribalism can seriously harm a discussion. My observation is that this is more common online and also whenever there are more people around (which is common online). If you are sitting in a pub (maybe not the best place for a serious discussion, but a pleasant one :) ) with a friend or even with an acquaintance who holds different views, you are much less prone to such a knee-jerk tribal reaction.

At 3:11 PM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

"So there is no reason why some of its features could not be deemed depressing."

Of course you have the right to find anything depressing if you choose--beautiful sunsets, puppies, an excellently prepared meal--but generally when people say something is depressing they mean something that should have turned out better but didn't for some stupid or improbable reason--or some reason they created themselves due to hubris.

Tribalist tendencies are not only probable, but basically certain; the reason for this is evolution--nothing stupid about it: it's the mechanism by which individuals as well as societies survive; and it's not hubris, either: tribalism even today can keep you from getting mugged or taken advantage of.

I agree that evolution is slow and contains some lag, but I don't think it's as slow or contains as big a lag as is commonly believed. Consider, for example, that the Friedmans were able to breed musicality into their family in only three generations!

At 3:20 PM, February 23, 2014, Blogger Will McLean said...

Not that there isn't a lot of nonconstructive tribalism going on. For example: "(The political belief of the other side) truly is a mental disorder".

The only people who will view this positively already agree with you. Everybody else, not so much.

At 4:48 AM, February 24, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child: Eventual destruction of Earth when the Sun explodes into a red giant is also a certainty. Still, it is in a way depressing :) (however not that much as the time it will take it to do that is so long that it is pretty much incomprehensible by human mind anyway)

To me, the really depressing things are those bad things that not something that can change easily...or at all. Perhaps depressing is a strong word since I am not constantly depressed about them as that would be rather futile. Still, I cannot think of a better word.

And selective breeding and evolution are not quite the same. As long as you are not going to administer world government and forced eugenics (which would however probably lead to even more selection for tribalism), the evolution will be much slower than individual selective breeding. At the same time, almost everyone survives in the modern societies and almost everyone of those who do has a chance at reproduction. So evolution in humans (although it is actually closer to intelligent design) can be renewed only by genetic engineering I think. Or by some turmoil which makes survival or reproduction chances slimmer again, but that will hopefully not happen.

At 6:39 AM, February 24, 2014, Blogger Jonathan said...

It still amazes me the way that climate change is regarded as a political matter in the USA; on which people have strong opinions depending on their politics.

As far as I know, in most of the rest of the world, it's regarded as a scientific matter, on which only scientific specialists are competent to have strong opinions.

What (if anything) to do about climate change is a political issue; but what is happening to the world's climate and why is a purely scientific issue. As I'm not a specialist in the subject, how should I know?

Of course, specialists are human and fallible, and not entirely reliable. But at least they presumably know more about the subject than I do.

At 9:20 PM, February 24, 2014, Blogger Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Basically all breeding is selective breeding. That was my point, though I made it jovially: we evolve incrementally every time we choose a mate based at least in part on inherent traits. Our desire for those traits is dictated at least in part by our circumstances. Thus, evolution is happening constantly right under our noses.

Egalitarianism has been around for a long time, but let's say for the sake of argument that it's only a few generations old. How many more generations before we should expect to see babies born without a tribal impulse?

I'm not holding my breath. It's not because I think tribalism is hard-coded out of reach of random genetic mutation; it's because I think tribalism is still beneficial for survival and reproduction.

At 12:05 PM, February 25, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child: I have not claimed it is out of reach of a random genetic mutation. As far as I understand it (read "poorly"), no part of the genome is.

Also, most of the evolution in species that reproduce sexually is not done by mutation, but by selection and recombination.

But the point is that today there is little to no force (in modern advanced societies) which would increase (or reduce) your reproduction success based on your genes. That is of course, as long as you don't have the bad luck of being born infertile or seriously crippled or mentally handicapped or something that would still sharply decrease your chances at reproduction. So while people have some hard-coded tribal thinking in them (which I believe we do), they will by and large keep forwarding it to their offspring. By and large because of the effects of mutation and recombination and because some people might try to eliminate it in their offspring by seeking mates who they think exhibit lower tribal tendencies than other people. Anyway, whether it is good or bad for functioning in a society, it is here to stay.

I guess it can be good in some ways...for example, if a country attacks yours and you need to defend, tribal tendencies may mitigate the problem that defence is a public good. But at the same time, they increase the risk that the other guys will actually attack :)

At 12:34 PM, February 25, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Jonathan: I disagree. I don't know how people see it in Spain (or Britain), but in the Czech republic this is a very political issue.

In fact, the former president (Václav Klaus), who criticizes environmentalism pretty often, wrote a book (while he was in the office) called "The blue, not the green planet" where he argues against the environmentalism and the occurrence of global warming. I don't know how good a job he does having not read the book, but the fact is this is a very political topic, although there is a bit more complicated division than in the bipartisan US system.

I am afraid that Klaus helped it to change into a political subject because he does that with everything and is a person who divides the society a lot. He mostly a proponent (at least in rhetoric) of free trade, but at the same time he is very arrogant and surrounds himself with very strange people (one of his advisors when he was in the office was a guy who is a creationist, a fundamental christian and also believes that 9/11 was an inside job) and for some reasons seems to support Vladimir Putin (probably because he does not like the EU and believes in that old saying about the enemy of the enemy). So often a discussion about global warming (or EU or to some extent the free market) turns into left vs. right or Klaus vs. not Klaus. So instead of arguments related to the discussion, you are presented with something like "Klaus did this or that, how can you be on his side?" while the other person assumes that while you seem to have something in common with Klaus, you are his supporter. It is of course a convenient way to dodge actual arguments.

And then there was a government program which heavily subsidized solar power plants to a point of making quite an impact on the deficit (and the price of electricity) which of course also turned into a big political thing. And as far as I know, the so called "biofuel" which has to be added to all gas sold in the EU is still mandatory (and again increases the price of gas and there are a lot of related subsidies) while all of these are theoretically ( often not so much practically) related to the existence or magnitude of global warming. Or net positive or negative effect, but usually it is just assumed to be negative without examining in...So I can't imagine that it does not turn at least a bit political pretty much everywhere, especially in the (rest of the) EU.

At 6:46 PM, February 25, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Evolution doesn't happen only when "less fit" individuals die before they can pass on their genes. Evolution also occurs as a result of mating patterns. Like you said, "selection and recombination."

Tribalism is genetic, so for tribalism to be bred out, either tribalist people would have to die out before they can reproduce (we agree this is no longer a likely for just about any group), or non-tribalist people would have to mate exclusively with each other until they've produced a breed of non-tribalist descendants. (And then those descendants would have to somehow not be killed off by their tribalist cousins! Any suggestions as to how they would do that?)

Apparently, tribalism still is seen as an attractive quality in a mate (or at least not seen as an unattractive quality). Why do you suppose?

At 4:34 AM, February 26, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child: Yes, that is why I only said by and large and not entirely.

I think that for most people, it is simply not an important issue or even something they acknowledge much. Which one could use as an argument that it is not a big deal then after all. And in a way it is not...Not for personal happiness, I guess. At least not directly.

But I don't really think we need to "clean our genes". All that is needed is to be aware of this and try to watch for when you are slipping into this pattern of thinking. And as I said - it is what makes collective sports and other such activities fun, so that is a way to "ventilate" those instincts without negative side effects (other than rowdies). And as I mentioned - there can be positive effects as well - like the one with national defence (unless it is outweighted by national agression caused by the same sentiments)

At 7:23 AM, February 26, 2014, Anonymous Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

Yes, I didn't mean we should try to breed out tribalism--quite the opposite, I think it is a healthy impulse that progressive egalitarian types, as well as libertarian utopianists, have successfully given a bad name.

They've been so successful that I have to be aware of when I'm slipping into the pattern of not being tribalist enough!

At 3:29 PM, February 26, 2014, Blogger Tibor said...

Power Child:

But wouldn't you agree that in some situation it has clearly negative effects? If discussions turn from "this argument against this argument" into "US versus THEM" then it is definitely bad not only because it is annoying, but because it makes finding out the truth or at least its best approximation all the harder.

Whether the overall effect is on net positive or negative, I cannot tell. It would be nice if you could somehow make the tribalism more selective in what it affects :)


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