Arnold Kling  

Civil War Watch: Sentences to Ponder

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Think Tank Rumors... Coming Apart Watch...

John Mauldin writes,


some people get so angry when you challenge their beliefs. You are literally taking away the source of their good feeling, like drugs from a junkie or a boyfriend from a teenage girl.

Keep that in mind as you watch the political process unfold over the next several months. In fact, I believe that the result in experimental psychology is that people get "high" from rejecting beliefs that they do not like. As opposed to getting high from, say, weighing alternatives and looking at things from a new perspective.

James Hamilton proposes that Mitt Romney back away from strong partisanship, with President Obama to follow. Hamilton describes this as a "suggestion for both presidential candidates-- or call it a dream."

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports,


Fourteen years ago, The Post, along with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, asked people to assess the strength of their allegiance to the parties. At that time, 41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they considered themselves "strong" partisans. In the new Post-Kaiser survey, those numbers have shot up to 65 and 62 percent, respectively.

So the trend seems to be for the two parties to attract fewer supporters, but for those supporters to be more partisan. In my view, this creates among party leaders a sense of entitlement to engage in demagoguery, regardless of long-term consequences. As Tyler Cowen puts it, Solve for the equilibrium.

Mark Thoma writes,


I wish I could believe this: [Vice President Biden's promise that there will be no changes to Social Security]...But the first time Republicans offer a trade ("tell you what, if you cut Social Security, we'll stop cutting taxes"), will the administration take it? I'm afraid they will.

So, raising the age of eligibility to take account of greater longevity should be off the table. Means testing Social Security to make it more progressive should be off the table.

I could note that at this point in history Social Security is a regressive income transfer. I don't have figures, but my bet is that if you measure affluence by the annual consumption that one's resources can support, then the median person paying into the system is worse off than the median person getting money out of it. Note that there are one or two other things on which people think that government should be spending more money. Note that if the government runs out of willing creditors, the consequences for Social Security and a lot of other things that government does could be dire.

Above all, I could note that in the past these considerations have mattered to people on the left. The difference is that today any reform of Social Security that is designed to shore up its finances is treated by the left as a threat to their self-esteem, or to their "source of good feeling," in Mauldin's terms.

Solve for the equilibrium.


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The author at Eli Dourado in a related article titled The United States is not an Optimal Cultural Area writes:
    Arnold Kling is worried that political polarization has gotten so bad that it could lead to a civil war. While I think an actual war is unlikely, life among the culture warriors can get pretty tiresome. At least in a war, the true believers would get k... [Tracked on August 21, 2012 2:05 PM]
COMMENTS (13 to date)
Peter St. Onge writes:

Fewer but stronger partisans should lead to more aggressive proposals ("playing to the base"). This could create a feedback loop, driving more and more people away from parties, leaving a hard-core.

Whether violence comes next depends, I believe, on symmetry of suppression. Weimar judges took sides in the paramilitary battles, but they took the militarily weaker side.

I think the situation in modern US is reversed; offialdom has long indulged the left and hunted the right when it comes to paramilitary violence. If the judges are scale-fingering for the dominant paramilitary, only the true idiots on the right would take up arms.

Whatever violence comes, therefore, would look more like a massacre or purge than a civil war. Most likely it would just fill Guantanamo with English-speakers. I guess you could call that a very short civil war.

Open question how the 'silent majority' would feel if a lot of blood were involved, but assuming it was mostly idiots dying, it'd be easy to sell as domestic counter-terror.

John Wilkins writes:

How could the situation "if the US runs out of creditors" be dire when the dollar is a fiat currency that the United States government has the sole power to create" The US can never "run out of money" or go involuntarily bankrupt. It can always create the money it needs with the sole limitation of inflation. Selling bonds is a completely self-inflicted activity. There is absolutely no reason the law could not be changed and stop selling bonds. There is no operation reason the Treasury cannot spend and the Fed add that to excess reserves, which is not counted as debt.

E. Barandiaran writes:

In 1921, James Harvey Robinson wrote

"A third kind of thinking is stimulated when anyone questions our belief and opinions. We sometimes find ourselves changing our minds without any resistance or heavy emotion, but if we are told that we are wrong we resent the imputation and harden our hearts. We are incredibly heedless in the formation of our beliefs, but find ourselves filled with an illicit passion for them when anyone proposes to rob us of their companionship. It is obviously not the ideas themselves that are dear to us, but our self-esteem, which is threatened. We are by nature stubbornly pledged to defend, our own from attack, whether it be our person, our family, our property, or our opinion."

http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/On-Various-Kinds-Of-Thinking-By-James-Harvey-Robinson.htm

John Thacker writes:
So the trend seems to be for the two parties to attract fewer supporters, but for those supporters to be more partisan.

Another way of putting it is that the weakly attached are more likely to call themselves Independents. Yet, at the same time I believe other studies demonstrate that a lot of the newly Independent consistently vote for one part or the other and are not swing voters.

True, though, that all their independence may have done is decrease their power over nominations.

Ken B writes:

I don't think anyone here denies the ratcheting up of rhetoric. But that won't lead to a civil war as it isn't evidence of a divided angry electorate. It is an increasingly irrelevant chattering class seeing their influence and perks wane. (If I were wicked I'd call these Bryan Caplan's more informed, more engaged, and superior voters.)

What we are seeing is also a natural effect of the explosion of nihes in the mas media. In 1965 a partisan crank-fest like CNBC could not survive. Now there are enough cahnnels, and enough audience for such things. CNBC can cater to that samllish segment who get high hating on republicans. This is in a sense a throw back to the days when every town had a dozen partisan papers. (I am aware that references to the eantebllum time bolster Arnold, but as another commenter noted, we have had a Great Moderation in the populace.)

Mercer writes:

"any reform of Social Security that is designed to shore up its finances is treated by the left as a threat to their self-esteem,"

What do you think of the right when they reject letting the Bush tax cuts end? Or if anyone suggests that cutting taxes does not lead to higher revenue?

"people get "high" from rejecting beliefs "

Read Caplan's posts on immigration for an example. He posts frequently about the moral righteousness of open borders but does he ever engage in the arguments of immigration critics like George Borjas?

The Sheep Nazi writes:

You are literally taking away the source of their good feeling, like drugs from a junkie or a boyfriend from a teenage girl.

Let me suggest, respectfully, that this trivializes a fundamental human problem. Ideologies or religions or systems of political belief, call them what you may, but bodies of ideas, are all that stand between our selves, and our deaths (and our lives, life being a thing just as terrifying.) If the human condition is at root one of fear, against which there is no real defense, then it ought not to surprise anyone that people do not really wish to think too deeply. We go into that cold black water, bottomless and boundless, and we swim until we drown, and we cling to anything that floats.

Michael Rulle writes:

A) Your increased use of the term Civil War is disturbing, not humorous and not accurate.

B) Approximately 1/3rd of the registered electorate are divided equally among independents, democrats and republicans (ballpark using Rasmussen and Gallop). 30% of voting age people are not registered. By multiplying .7 total adults registered voters times .666 registered GOP/Dem voters times .333 registered independent voters times .20---change in those self identified GOP/DEM voters as more partisan---one gets 3% of the adult voting age population as more partisan.

Hardly evidence of "Civil War"

C) This country has borrowed so much, people are starting to realize we are less wealthy than we thought---not destitute, not poor, not bad off, just less wealthy. So of course we will argue over who takes the bigger hit. Thats called politics.

Not yet in Civil War state.

D) You are blaming the wrong people on Social Security. Everyone has paid into the system. Yes, cost of living increase in SS is too high, but not so high that a 401k style program would not have been better. The Government/politicians misdirected (or whatever term you prefer) SS taxes to other junk to the tune of about 4.5 trillion and call it a "Trust Fund".

Again, politics will determine how this loss gets wacked up. Expect the unborn to get the biggest piece---offset by increased productivity somewhere down the line.

Still no Civil War.

Emily writes:

Bryan's outlined a great way to deal with these scenarios: instead of talking vaguely about the possibility of civil war, define civil war, tell us what you think the probability of it occurring is, and take bets. In addition to showing the seriousness of your beliefs, it allows you to insure, shifting utility from the good state of the world to the bad state.

Floccina writes:

And yet as far as I can tell in this election both parties are trying to the party of medicare.

Joe Cushing writes:

The people who are capable of critical thinking have all left the two parties and the people who belong to a political party they way they are fans of a sports team, have stayed. More and more people are waking up and leaving. This leaves radical loyalists in the parties. I thought I was a republican in 2000 when I heard how they wanted smaller government, no nation building and less taxes. Later I learned that government gets bigger, they build nations, and taxes are a product of spending and not the other way around with republicans--I lost any sense of party interest.

shecky writes:

Do I detect a hint of hope with every civil war post Kling makes?

fwiw, it doesn't get more hopeful than this:

"[Obama]'s going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the (United Nations), and what is going to happen when that happens?," [Lubbock County, TX Judge Tom] Head asked the station during a Monday interview. "I'm thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we're not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we're talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy."

But don't worry, liberal officials and Mark Thoma do it too, amirite?

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