Today is full of questions. In “Does Decision Making Matter?” Bobo has a question: Why are you interested in the things that interest you? Prof. Krugman also has a question in “The Populism Perplex:” What does the white working class want? Here’s Bobo:
Danny Kahneman grew up Jewish in occupied France during World War II. Once in Paris, after curfew, he was nearly captured by an SS officer. His family traveled from town to town through rural France, hiding and hoping people wouldn’t recognize them as Jews. As Michael Lewis writes in his forthcoming book, “The Undoing Project,” Kahneman survived the Holocaust by keeping himself apart.
The family moved to Jerusalem. The army assigned him to a psychological evaluation unit and Kahneman became a psychologist.
Amos Twersky was born in Israel, to a mother who ignored him for long periods so she could serve the nation. He became a paratrooper in the war of 1956, and received one of the nation’s highest awards for bravery after he rescued a man who’d fainted on a torpedo just before it exploded.
Twersky was idiosyncratic. “Amos thought people paid an enormous price to avoid mild embarrassment, and he himself decided early on it was not worth it,” a friend told Lewis.
If he felt like going for a run, he stripped off his pants and went in his underpants. If a social situation bored him, he left. Twersky wasn’t sure how he drifted into psychology. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life,” he once said. “The big choices we make are practically random.”
Kahneman and Twersky began to work together. They would lock themselves together and talk and laugh, year after year. If they were at a party, they would go off and talk to each other. “When they sat down to write, they nearly merged, physically, into a single form,” Lewis writes, hunched over a single typewriter.
“Their relationship was more intense than a marriage,” Twersky’s wife recalled. When they wrote a paper together they lost all track of who had contributed what. They scrambled for research topics that gave them an excuse to be together, and completed each other’s sentences.
“The way the creative process works is that you first say something and later, sometimes years later, you understand what you said,” Kahneman recalled. “And in our case it was foreshortened. I would say something and Amos understood it. It still gives me goose bumps.”
It was a mystical alchemy that revolutionized how we think about ourselves. Kahneman and Twersky are like a lot of the characters who appear in Michael Lewis’s books, like “Moneyball” and “The Big Short.” They are intellectual renegades who are fervently, almost obsessively, determined to see reality clearly, no matter how ferocious the resistance from everybody else.
While most economics models assumed people were basically rational, Kahneman and Twersky demonstrated that human decision-making is biased in systematic, predictable ways. Many of the biases they described have now become famous — loss aversion, endowment effect, hindsight bias, the anchoring effect, and were described in Kahneman’s brilliant book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” They are true giants who have revolutionized how we think about decision-making. Lewis makes academic life seem gripping, which believe it or not, is not easy to do.
My big question is: How is the world they describe reflected in their own lives? Kahneman and Twersky write about the kind of decisions that you might call casino decisions — in which people confront various probabilities and try to calculate which course will be best.
But over the course of their lives Kahneman and Twersky don’t seem to have actually made many big decisions. The major trajectories of their lives were determined by historical events, random coincidences, their own psychological needs and irresistible impulsions. In the course of the book there’s only one big formal decision point — when Twersky decides to move to the U.S.
Their lives weren’t so much shaped by decisions as by rapture. They were held rapt by each other’s minds. They were fervently engaged by the puzzles before them. They succeeded not because they were master decision-makers but because of their capacity for zealous engagement. They followed their interests step by step.
And this is my problem with the cognitive sciences and the advice world generally. It’s built on the premise that we are chess masters who make decisions, for good or ill. But when it comes to the really major things we mostly follow our noses. What seems interesting, beautiful, curious and addicting?
Have you ever known anybody to turn away from anything they found compulsively engaging?
We don’t decide about life; we’re captured by life. In the major spheres, decision-making, when it happens at all, is downstream from curiosity and engagement. If we really want to understand and shape behavior, maybe we should look less at decision-making and more at curiosity. Why are you interested in the things you are interested in? Why are some people zealously seized, manically attentive and compulsively engaged?
Now that we know a bit more about decision-making, maybe the next frontier is desire. Maybe the next Kahneman and Twersky will help us understand what explains, fires and orders our loves.
Ahhh… It would appear that Bobo is still in the throes of his midlife crisis. It hasn’t been pretty… Here’s Prof. Krugman:
Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million, and she would probably be president-elect if the director of the F.B.I. hadn’t laid such a heavy thumb on the scales, just days before the election. But it shouldn’t even have been close; what put Donald Trump in striking distance was overwhelming support from whites without college degrees. So what can Democrats do to win back at least some of those voters?
Recently Bernie Sanders offered an answer: Democrats should “go beyond identity politics.” What’s needed, he said, are candidates who understand that working-class incomes are down, who will “stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
But is there any reason to believe that this would work? Let me offer some reasons for doubt.
First, a general point: Any claim that changed policy positions will win elections assumes that the public will hear about those positions. How is that supposed to happen, when most of the news media simply refuse to cover policy substance? Remember, over the course of the 2016 campaign, the three network news shows devoted a total of 35 minutes combined to policy issues — all policy issues. Meanwhile, they devoted 125 minutes to Mrs. Clinton’s emails.
Beyond this, the fact is that Democrats have already been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward.
Consider eastern Kentucky, a very white area which has benefited enormously from Obama-era initiatives. Take, in particular, the case of Clay County, which the Times declared a few years ago to be the hardest place in America to live. It’s still very hard, but at least most of its residents now have health insurance: Independent estimates say that the uninsured rate fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016. That’s the effect of the Affordable Care Act, which Mrs. Clinton promised to preserve and extend but Mr. Trump promised to kill.
Mr. Trump received 87 percent of Clay County’s vote.
Now, you might say that health insurance is one thing, but what people want are good jobs. Eastern Kentucky used to be coal country, and Mr. Trump, unlike Mrs. Clinton, promised to bring the coal jobs back. (So much for the idea that Democrats need a candidate who will stand up to the fossil fuels industry.) But it’s a nonsensical promise.
Where did Appalachia’s coal mining jobs go? They weren’t lost to unfair competition from China or Mexico. What happened instead was, first, a decades-long erosion as U.S. coal production shifted from underground mining to strip mining and mountaintop removal, which require many fewer workers: Coal employment peaked in 1979, fell rapidly during the Reagan years, and was down more than half by 2007. A further plunge came in recent years thanks to fracking. None of this is reversible.
Is the case of former coal country exceptional? Not really. Unlike the decline in coal, some of the long-term decline in manufacturing employment can be attributed to rising trade deficits, but even there it’s a fairly small fraction of the story. Nobody can credibly promise to bring the old jobs back; what you can promise — and Mrs. Clinton did — are things like guaranteed health care and higher minimum wages. But working-class whites overwhelmingly voted for politicians who promise to destroy those gains.
So what happened here? Part of the answer may be that Mr. Trump had no problems with telling lies about what he could accomplish. If so, there may be a backlash when the coal and manufacturing jobs don’t come back, while health insurance disappears.
But maybe not. Maybe a Trump administration can keep its supporters on board, not by improving their lives, but by feeding their sense of resentment.
For let’s be serious here: You can’t explain the votes of places like Clay County as a response to disagreements about trade policy. The only way to make sense of what happened is to see the vote as an expression of, well, identity politics — some combination of white resentment at what voters see as favoritism toward nonwhites (even though it isn’t) and anger on the part of the less educated at liberal elites whom they imagine look down on them.
To be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment. In particular, I don’t know why imagined liberal disdain inspires so much more anger than the very real disdain of conservatives who see the poverty of places like eastern Kentucky as a sign of the personal and moral inadequacy of their residents.
One thing is clear, however: Democrats have to figure out why the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests, not pretend that a bit more populism would solve the problem.