Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Fact, Theory, and Time

I've been harping on the different values liberals and conservatives place on time. As I mentioned before, Keynes famous line "In the long run, we're all dead." Pretty much sums it up on the economic front. But this stuff also ties into empiricism and I've been trying to wrap my head around it. Sorry if I'm repeating myself.

First, let's look at foreign policy. I once said that liberal realists are really pacifists in disguise. My theory is that liberal realists worry about causing death now. Conservative realists worry about ability to fight future wars. Two different time values, often same conclusion.

But we can look at two current conflicts and see some of this. As I've said before, you can take the view many liberals have that if Iran gets the bomb, then Iran gets the bomb. Some on the left believe this based upon the logic of "who are we to say who gets the bomb?" I'm less interested in this argument. Many serious liberal thinkers based their conclusion on the idea that we can contain Iran.

Conservatives respond with a variety of rebuttals, including Iran isn't a rational actor. My concern is that Iran going nuclear will demolish, oddly because I'm so cyncial about international law and norms, the nonproliferation regime and that it will domino into a nuclear broader middle east.

The liberal idea is basically this: If we attack Iran we will without a doubt cause death and destruction. This death and destruction is higher and more certain than the death and destruction following directly from an Iranian bomb.

The conservative idea is this: Some death and destruction now is better than possible larger amounts later from either the Iranian bomb directly or other conflicts or consequences of proliferation in the Middle East or generally.

To look at this empirically:
The lead up to the Iraq War was largely based on the theory that Saddam had weapons and that there's no reason to believe he got rid of them. Empirically, and in hindsight, there was no reason to believe that he still had them. In this case, conservatives, and even people on the left, based their position on the war on the reasonable assumption that Saddam had no reason to get rid of his weapons and every reason to hide and keep them, so he must have them. This was wrong.

Chastened by this error, the intelligence community began focusing on provable, demonstrable facts. This lead to the 2007 NIE, which Alan likes to reference, saying that they believe Iran stopped development of its nuclear warhead program. While it sounds stupid, but provable facts aside, there is little, but not exactly zero, reason to believe Iran wants a peaceful nuclear program. Nobody really believes it, not because of provable facts but simply because of common sense based upon their actions.

What's odd, at least to me, is that both approaches have turned out to be wrong. I think intelligence is one of those messy businesses where you gather as many facts as you can, but you'll never have them all and sometimes you just have to use common sense and your gut. Sometimes the facts will back you up, sometimes they'll disprove you, but it's difficult to know.

Moving onto Afghanistan:
People who want to pull out fall into two stripes: Liberals who abhor death and destruction occurring now and want it to stop because we don't see any benefits currently. And conservatives who fear that Afghanistan is a wasteful use of our limited resources, which we need to harbor for future and potentially more important conflicts.

I realize that there are exceptions, but I do think this is generally this case.

Likewise on domestic policy:
With respect to the deficit, not only conservatives but many moderates are concerned about the ballooning deficit. Krugman and Yglesias are saying there is no evidence that the deficit is concerning the market. This demonstrates that short-term, empirical bias that I'm talking about. There is no evidence right now that the markets are spooked by the deficit. However, there are reasons to believe that the market won't react gradually, but all at once. To put it simply -- if the market reaction is a train, we might hear it until it is already on top of us. So, it might be wise to pick our heads up and look out, but Krugman and Yglesias are saying I don't hear anything, no reason to look up.

Similarly on health care:
Many on the left we're apoplectic and confused by concerns over death panels by the right. No such thing is in any version of the bill, they said. Conservatives are creating monster to scare themselves.

And this, I think, is one of the fundamental conceits of the left. The rational, intelligent, nuanced understanding of issues versus superstition and irrational reactions by the right. The left makes rational decisions based upon facts. The right looks to stories in old books. And they are partially correct, but they also have a huge blindspot. As I wrote before, they have their heads down and don't realize they aren't looking up.

Whether death panels were in any of the bills is almost irrelevant to conservatives. The issue is that when you start talking about lowering costs and government involvement, then there is a huge incentive to create something akin to death panels. Likewise, just because we don't see quantitative, incontrovertible evidence that the market is spooked by deficits at this moment doesn't mean we shouldn't worry because when it does get spooked it may be too late. Last time the market got spooked by debt, something called subprime, you might remember it, everything went to shit in a big hurry.

I think this myopia is a natural limitation of the human mind. We all create shortcuts to process the world around us. Conservatives look at big picture, long-term type things. They focus less on the details and facts of the present situation, and draw more lessons from history. Liberals are the opposite. This isn't to say that there aren't big picture liberals who are focused on history or detail-oriented conservatives, but that the biases are evident.

To provide an example -- Social Security.

Social security is one of those things that liberal say it's worked for decades and helped millions of people. Conservatives look at the same thing and say it's a pay-as-you-go system based on assumptions about demographics that aren't sustainable in perpetuity. They're both correct.


Withywindle said...

Just to repeat an old point: Hussein's behavior, destroying his chemical weapons but not saying so to anybody, was bizarre and pretty darn unpredictable.

The Ancient said...

The conservative idea is this: Some death and destruction now is better than possible larger amounts later from either the Iranian bomb directly or other conflicts or consequences of proliferation in the Middle East or generally.

See, for example:

FLG said...

The Ancient:

That's a very interesting post. I've never read Belmont Club before. I'll have to add it to my Google Reader.

I must ask, did you recently have dinner with Richard Fernandez too?

The Ancient said...

FLG --

Never met him, never corresponded with him, never posted on his blog.

(Besides, we dine in very different time zones.)

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