Asymmetric Delusions and Pragmatism

Sometimes I joke that to conservatives, the solution to every problem is to cut taxes; to liberals, the solution to every problem is to eat local.  Of course, purported panaceas on both the left and right are snake oil, even if peddled by true believers.

So, the other day I picked on my own tribe: foodies.  To be frank, I have a love-hate relationship with the movement.  It has thin and oftentimes paranoid underpinnings.  But while a lot of things advocated by the movement are illogical or scientifically baseless (like the dangers of GMOs), the movement also strikes me as mostly harmless, and sometimes even beneficial.  There are some important and disastrous exceptions, like the movement to kill golden rice, which could save the lives of millions and save millions more from blindness.

But for the most part, the movement to "eat local," and all it's offspring, doesn't strike me as particularly harmful.   Here in Hawai'i there are delusional ideas that we ought to stop importing food and go back to the traditional ways of living off taro.  Obviously this isn't going to happen.  Even though they banned GMOs on some of our islands, exceptions were made for key crops actually grown.  Still, the movement does seem to be strong enough to help protect cultural heritage, an important public good.  It also cultivates a food culture that breeds great restaurants and fresh local produce.  After all, wasn't the whole movement inspired by my former Berkeley neighbor, restaurant extraordinaire, Alice Waters? (I never met her, but lived two doors down, in an in-law studio during grad school)  The movement isn't going to save the planet or feed the world, but it sure makes my privileged little world a lot nicer and a little healthier.

What about delusions on the right?  Front and center would be climate change denialism.  Not far behind would be anti-Keynesianism, or the austerity movement.  As Paul Krugman reminds us every day, quite persuasively in my view, these delusions have hardly been harmless.  And in contrast to foodies, the radical right has a whole lot of power, controlling both houses of Congress and rich backing by Wall Street, the Koch brothers and friends.

So, while reasoning and herd behavior on both extremes seems equally delusional at times, the delusional right strikes me as more destructive and much more powerful.

But then, speaking honestly, I identify more with the left than the right.  So am I being too soft on the lefties?  I don't think so, but feel free to weigh in. I think the lefty culture tends to be a bit more introspective by nature than the right.  The right doesn't tend to tease their own quite like I did the other day, not without swift excommunication.  And I think lefties, by their nature, are a little bit more susceptible to evidence and persuasion.  They also, by nature, possess visceral independence and eschew the party line.  Maybe that's what I was doing the other day.

Given the real political asymmetry here, I do feel a little guilty for picking on foodies.  But not too much.  I don't really want to go out and do a lot of research on the topic of food waste to prove how silly this stuff is, or to prove that while GMOs can have some undesirable side effects they aren't Frankenfoods. For the most part this is a fight that isn't worth fighting.  I figure it's better to focus on the things that really do matter.

But I figured it was worth a blog post, because I think we all do better when we eschew our innate tendency toward tribalism, try to figure out what's really going on, and find the most pragmatic solutions to real problems.


  1. There's been a lot of ink spilled on this topic elsewhere. Chris Mooney (now at WaPo, I believe) and David Roberts (Grist) have written blog posts on this. Here's a good primer from Dan Kahan (Yale):

  2. Thanks Joe. I've seen some of this, obviously. The main asymmetry I see here is not so much nature and extent of the tribal delusions, but the amount of damage that tribal delusions of the day seem to cause. But maybe that's just my tribal brain malfunctioning ;-)

  3. eightnine2718281828mu5February 1, 2015 at 3:32 PM

    What about delusions on the right? Front and center would be climate change denialism.

    Nope. Front and center would be the notion that making rich guys richer will raise median incomes. (trickle down)

    Apple made $200k in profits per employee last quarter, but Jobs conspired with Google, Intel, etc., to hold down wages.

    WRT profit, too much is never enough.

    1. Okay, you got me there. Trickle down and supply side economics probably does beat climate change. But I did mention anti-Keynesianism, which is close...

    2. Trickle-down beliefs won't destroy our species. Climate denialism will.

    3. Ah, but I think this is abating, slowly.

      The worse things become, the more climate change action will happen, with or without Republicans. Indeed, it's happening!

      And "destroy out species" is quite a bit overstated, don't you think? I don't see any plausible scientific basis for so strong a claim. However, many, many other species will go extinct, and impacts could be considerable. The rational basis for strong action comes from (a) low costs of greenhouse gas abatement; (b) well-documented of impacts that are potentially sizable; and (c) real risk of catastrophe, even if our extinction looks remote.

  4. It's important to read Kahan carefully. What he says is that he believes that people of all stripes have an equivalent tendency to read any evidence as supportive the perceived beliefs of their tribe (as determined by their tribal elders). This of course leaves the door completely open for tribal elders to be more or less guilty of distortion / deception. Why might tribal leaders of the right be more guilty? Well, a few decades of power certainly leaves greater room for it.

    I think this is another slant on your observation of the damage done. Power gives greater opportunity for doing damage.


    Who's delusional?

  6. Hello Anonymous? Why not leave your name, especially if you think the work you've cited sits on solid ground?

    Anyhow, way, way off topic, though interesting, but I'm skeptical. Places that saw the largest cuts in unemployment benefits were also the most depressed, and thus had the most room to grow as the economy continued to expand. It's easy to see a lot of bias creeping into their identification strategy. But hey, I gather some would like to see this published, and it probably will be, given the increasing politicization of our discipline.

    In the meantime, here's a different take by Dean Baker

    1. I don't think it's off topic. It's a delusion to think that these policies do not have negative effects on employment (the magnitude is debatable, but surely negative). Moreover, agreeing with statements such as:
      "Nope. Front and center would be the notion that making rich guys richer will raise median incomes. (trickle down)..."

      Shows where the delusions really are. Do you truly think that Apple making "high" profits is a bad thing? Do you think this has any negative effects on the economy? Would we be better off without Apple? Believing that this matters at all is delusional.

    2. Uhm, supply side economics and trickle down were considered fodder of "charlatans and cranks" when Reagan was selling them in 1980, even among conservative economists. And history--the huge spike in inequality and stagnating wages--has been less kind to these ideas than even the cynics probably suspected. So, yes, these are front and center for delusions on the Right, with climate change right behind. Front and center for delusions on the left are the dangers of GMOs.

      Apple, profits, huh? Are you on the right thread?

    3. Sorry, I didn't make it very clear. I was commenting on one of the comments that read:
      "Nope. Front and center would be the notion that making rich guys richer will raise median incomes. (trickle down)..Apple made $200k in profits per employee last quarter, but Jobs conspired with Google, Intel, etc., to hold down wages. WRT profit, too much is never enough."

      Do you really think that Apple making "200k" per employee is bad for economy? I'm surprised that you replied to this comment with: "Okay, you got me there..".

      Regarding supply side economics, do you consider Lucas a charlatan or a crank? He's one of very few economists that deserve more than one noble prize (another is Krugman for his work on geography). See:
      "Taking U.S. performance over the past 50 years as a benchmark, the potential for welfare gains from
      better long-run, supply-side policies exceeds by far the potential from further improvements in short-run demand management."

      Here's a link for your edification:


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