Saturday, October 16, 2010

Does Australia also have a ruling class?

In his article, ‘America’s ruling class – and the perils of revolution’, Angelo Codevilla suggests that Democrat and Republican office-holders in recent governments in the United States ‘show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits and opinions ... than between both and the rest of the community’. He claims: ‘They think, look, and act like a class’ (‘The American Spectator, July-August 2010).

I think the article provides a good explanation of why Americans who normally support the Republican Party are currently so disenchanted with it. Perhaps Australians should be thinking about possible implications for politics in this country.

Characteristics of this class identified by Codevilla include the following:
• ‘Its first tenet is that “we” are the best and brightest while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained’.
• Its only standard of truth is consensus among its members. It does not take seriously the views of anyone - irrespective of professional competence, academic achievement, wealth or office held – unless they are members of the class. Like a fraternity, the ruling class requires its members to share the manners and tastes of the class.
• It views the common people’s words as ‘like grunts, mere signs of pain, pleasure and frustration’.
• It stakes its claim to power through intellectual-moral pretence but holds power through patronage – increasing the power of government to increase its own power and reward its supporters.
• It includes among its number people who have been chosen by government to be the true representatives of various sectors of society and who have been empowered to represent those sectors in elaborating laws and administrative rules.
• It seeks to make itself the arbiter of wealth and poverty by making economic rules dependent on the discretion of office holders who are members of the ruling class.
• It redirects the people’s energies away from satisfying their own desires – toward living more densely and closer to work, driving smaller cars, using less energy, improving their diet etc.
• It assumes that what it mandates with regard to education and welfare of children must be correct ipso facto, while what parents do is potentially abusive.
• ‘Its principal article of faith, its claim to the right to decide for others, is precisely that it knows things and operates by standards beyond others’ comprehension’.
• It identifies science and reason with itself and pronounces definitive scientific judgment on whatever it chooses. Aggressive, intolerant secularism is the moral basis of its claim to rule.
• It interferes in the affairs of foreign governments that are not the enemies of America.
• It favours ever higher taxes and expanding government.

Before I go further, I think a confession may be in order. Some of those points describe attitudes I held 40 years ago. I’m not proud of that, but at the time I thought that Commonwealth public servants were the best and the brightest in the land and that they should have more power.

Another point I should make is that it is important to distinguish between opposition to ruling class attitudes and support for populist attitudes. In my view the words of non-experts on complex economic issues do have little more value than a grunt. Whether we are talking about economic policy, brain surgery or plumbing, I think it should be self-evident that the views of experts count for more than those of non-experts. The problem with the ruling class is not its lack of regard for the views of non-experts, but its lack of regard for the views of experts who do not accept that it has a right to interfere in the way citizens live their lives.

Coming to the question I posed at the beginning, it is obvious from what I have already written that I think Australia does have a self-appointed ruling class as described above. This ruling class is identified most closely with the public service and the political left, including the Greens as well as the Labor Party.

However, I don’t think the conservative side of Australian politics is as closely identified with the ruling class as in the US. When he came to office, John Howard was viewed as an outsider by the ruling class. This antipathy remained until his government was voted out of office, even though his policies were by then virtually indistinguishable from those of the ruling class. Tony Abbott, the current leader of opposition, seems to want to maintain distance himself from the ruling class rather than to disempower it. His recent book, discussed here, is a strange mixture of support for traditional family values, classical liberalism and espousal of ruling class attitudes toward centralization of power in Canberra.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What distribution principle would you choose behind a veil of ignorance?

A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition (Belknap)In his book, ‘A Theory of Justice’, John Rawls considered what principles of justice would be agreed upon by all behind a veil of ignorance in which no one knows their place in society - their wealth, their class position or social status, their intelligence, strength, state of health etc. One of the principles that Rawls argued would be agreed upon is the ‘difference principle’ – that social and economic inequalities should exist only insofar as they benefit the least well off members of society.

I think the veil of ignorance thought experiment is useful to consider public policy issues from a perspective that is broader than my own perceived interests. When I do this thought experiment, however, I don’t endorse the difference principle (sometimes referred to as the maximin principle). The principle I come up with is to maximize the opportunities of any person chosen at random, subject to provision of a safety net to protect the well-being of the least well off members of society. I expect that some critics would say, however, that I get this outcome because I am not doing the thought experiment properly.

A study undertaken by Hörisch Hannah a couple of years ago does not seem to have the same potential for personal bias to influence the results obtained. Hannah implemented the Rawlsian veil of ignorance in a laboratory experiment using variants of the dictator game (see: ‘Is the veil of ignorance only a concept about risk? An experiment’, Munich Discussion Paper No 2007-4). In the first experiment, one player, the dictator, decides how much of the pie will be received by the other player, given an efficiency loss of 50 percent for units that are transferred from the dictator to the receiver. The veil of ignorance is implemented by requiring each player to decide how much to give to the other player before being assigned the role of dictator or receiver (with equal probability). The second experiment is the same as the first except that the role of receiver is not actually assigned to a person so the outcome can be interpreted as a self-interested response to risk.

Only a minority of subjects opted for the maximin principle under either experiment. The vast majority of male participants perceived the veil of ignorance as introducing only risk. Among women participants, however, impartial social preferences were a second significant motivation that induces stronger concern for equality.

Although I think the results of the study are extremely interesting, they can hardly be presumed to reflect universal values. The study is quite small, with only 167 participants (all university students). There may be potential for bias because about two-thirds of respondents have studied some economics. It would be interesting to see results for similar studies, for people of different ages and backgrounds in different countries.

It would also be interesting to know whether there is any link between the values that people display when they play this game and their political views. Are the views of individual voters strongly influenced by principles that they support irrespective of their own perceived interests? If so, then perhaps politicians are whistling the wrong tune (or whistling to the wrong dog) when they are seen all the time to be responding to rent-seeking by narrow interest groups.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Difficult questions Part V: How effective is anti-drugs advertising?

In a recent post I discussed the question of whether identity economics might help to improve understanding of teenage drug use. I have been discussing this question with Ruth, a nurse who has cared for drug users in psych wards. In this post Ruth comments on the effectiveness of anti-drugs advertising.

I kicked off the discussion by suggesting that one possible implication of identity economics is that anti-drugs advertising would not be likely to make much of an impression on kids unless they see the story it is telling as being relevant to people like themselves.

Ruth comments:
Anti drug advertising has failed miserably and may have been counter-productive. I say this because many teens see these ads and it simply reminds them of what they imagine their friends to be doing right now and sets up the desire to be with those friends and partaking in their shared drug taking – a mostly enjoyable activity. It's like advertising positively for things like chocolate or a holiday destination – you see it, you want it.

The words are heard as nagging noises and are ignored. The images incite memories that are attractive.

No-one sees an ugly person suffering on TV and relates the image to themselves – kids see the ugly person as a looser, not like themselves at all. This is particularly so when the ad comes on TV, interrupting unpleasant thoughts or conversations previously going on for the teen.

The Australian anti-drug advertising that Ruth is talking about can easily be found by searching on Google for ‘anti-drugs advertising Australia’. Such a search also provides references to research supporting Ruth’s view that anti-drugs advertising may have been counter-productive.

When I looked again at the advertising my first thought was that showing kids the bad things that could happen if they take drugs must have some impact. The message, ‘You don’t know what drugs will do to you’ is the kind of message I would like teenagers to think about. I must admit, however, that I would not be discouraged from drinking alcohol by the message, ‘You don’t know what alcohol will do to you’, accompanied by images of alcoholics. The message would conflict with what I perceive from my own experience to be likely to happen to me if I continue to engage in moderate drinking.

Ruth concludes:
I've never found a drug user – social user or not – who relates to the characters in those ads, nor have I found anyone who sees themselves as a potential for the advertised risk. Even if they are in it over their heads already. Those who cite the ads as incentives for getting off the drugs state things like 'I saw that happen to my friend and I want to get off for his sake' or 'I know they say that could happen to me, but it won't. I'm smarter than that'. I've always found it interesting that drug users (and dealers) use terminology about their intelligence when defending their position.

The discussion continues here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Difficult questions Part IV: Do people suffering from DIP have identity issues?

In the preceding post I suggested that identity economics may help us to understand teenage drug use. Ruth, a nurse who has worked in psych wards has responded with some encouraging comments about the potential for identity economics to help in exploring the drug-using phenomenon.

Ruth writes:
In my experience there are different aspects involved.
Some use drugs to escape their thoughts. (I suspect this is the largest group.) Those thoughts invariably include memory (what went before) and fantasy (what may come). The nature of those thoughts are hugely varied and may or not be based on shared experiences. They are not the same as delusions. Instead they are the result of a person trying to explain where he fits in his world, within the (limited) knowledge he has accrued in his life thus far. And the results are a distorted view of what's so, of where they fit, of what they mean to others, of how the world around them works, of the possibilities still awaiting them in life. The younger kids are when they start taking drugs, the more limited this knowledge is likely to be. The thoughts these people experience are particularly painful and cannot be mitigated easily through the usual counselling techniques.

A second group identifies their personalities as predominantly risk taking and therefore actually experience the need to arouse angst in those closest to them. This provides the sense of being cared about by those people. The more they upset the people around them the more evidence they have that they are loved - which of course sets up the adrenaline response very frequently (with every associated thought). Adrenaline in itself is a highly addictive drug - one that many very healthy non drug users like me are quite unashamedly addicted to.

Another group simply start experimenting with 'soft drugs' and end up with physical addictions requiring servicing at every opportunity. These people are the easiest to help as they are generally most motivated at the emotional level.

Ruth continues:
I think it's easy to get mistaken between the view looking in and the view looking out. Those close to the problem emotionally don't see through the same lens as those with an objective (professional) filter. The greatest mistake I see day in and day out is people - sufferers, family, researchers, medics, friends, observers - categorising the problem and therefore the sufferer.

The real answer - in my experience - is to take one person at a time and simply listen to them for quite some time before even attempting to think or consider what to do to help. The person themself inevitably can reveal the true cause of the problem and only then can a useful - long term effective - solution be proposed.

Short term solutions that deal with immediate symptoms such as aggression, depression
and side effects of drugs must of course be dealt with. But it is in the listening that the true cause of the problems are found. And listening is such an underrated skill; it hardly features amongst the more 'sophisticated' skills.

True therapeutic listening puts the practitioner in a place of nothingness, conscious only what is occurring in the room in each moment as it transpires. As the person speaks, the truly listening 'other' feels the person's psyche and is able to communicate in such a way that the person actually experiences a healing feeling without any recommendations or solutions or questions being offered. This is the beginning point for the journey to wellbeing for everyone. It is especially important for kids using drugs.

Ruth obviously feels passionately about therapeutic listening. Her views on this seem to me to make a lot a sense (but I can’t claim any expertise in that area). I would like to round off this discussion by pointing to possible implications of Ruth’s observations for use of identity economics to understand teenage drug use. The important point is that the people who end up in hospital as a result of drug taking do seem to have some particular identity characteristics that may help to explain why they got involved with drug taking in the first place. Ruth sees people making mistakes when they look in from the outside and attempt to categorize individuals. This suggests to me that there may be a need for better research instruments that will enable researchers to get a better understanding of individual behaviour by learning how individuals categorize themselves. In other words, if we are to understand the choices that the person makes it might help to know why the person perceives himself or herself as the kind of person who would obtain satisfaction from that kind of behaviour.

To be continued.