Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Heart and Head

I'm not sure, but I think that I may have been the cause of another post at Cafe Hayek. As a result, I've written the following letter to the blogger there...

Dear Professor Boudreaux,

I'd like to explain in more detail than is plausible in the facebook commenting section on your blog about what I meant when I asked, "Can you really not see why folks like Jim thinks that a fair amount of your writing shows "contempt" for the common American people?"

But first I want to start with a brief (true) story about your ex-co-blogger Russ Roberts and my eldest daughter. Once upon a time, Russ wrote a book called "The Invisible Heart." I read it to my daughter ten years ago when she was nine years old. It's a wonderful love story where the main character just happens to be a high-school economics teacher and a few economic concepts are introduced in the book by that character. My daughter really liked the book but I had no idea whether or not she really grasped the economics concepts or not or whether she would remember them even if she did get them in the first place. But three months later, after Halloween trick-or-treating, she and a group of friends traded candy with each other - each would trade away what they didn't like for what they did. After the other kids had left, my daughter said to me completely unsolicited, "Daddy, it was just like in the book 'The Invisible Heart' - by trading our candy we all became better off!" So not only did she get at least the concept of the benefit of trade, but she remembered it and was able to apply it to a real world situation in her life many months later.

Russ Roberts reached through the heart of a nine-year-old girl to place some fundamental economic concepts in her head. Talk about the power of the pen!

What I learned (eventually) from this story and other experience is that the only way to nearly everyone's head is through their heart. Before that, I'd often encounter nonsensical arguments and think, "Oh! All I have to do is point out the mistake in their reasoning and/or facts and/or evidence and they'll see things correctly!" Of course, I'd always be disappointed because they weren't putting forward rational arguments of the head. They were putting forth arguments that they believe in their hearts, things that are "true" in their hearts. In my experience, for most people, belief and faith trumps rationality every time; the heart trumps the head every time. The most important things I've learned regarding this is that if I make statements that contradict what's true in their hearts, folks will reject it out-of-hand, the debate is instantly shut down, and I've lost, pretty much every time. And if I'm not very careful, they will feel that I have contempt for what they know in their hearts to be true.

Let's take an example. Consider the following statement that might be similar to one made by a minimum wage advocate:

We must collectively do something about burger flippers making such a low wage and since the Card and Krueger study shows no adverse effect on employment a reasonably high minimum wage is a good way to address this low wage problem.
Since you've addressed similar statements with about a hundred posts in last couple of years, we both know exactly how you would answer it. I could almost write the respnse for you out of a synthesis of other ones.

Someone who writes something like the above statement is probably not trying to write a rational statement. They are writing a statement of the heart. Responding with rational arguments without first reaching for and accessing the heart is counterproductive in my experience. For example, telling them about all the counter studies, meta studies, etc. that show the opposite of Card and Krueger is probably pointless. Telling them that economic theory is at odds with Card and Krueger is meaningless to them. As soon as you write the word "monopsony" they run for the exits. Pointing out the problems of collectivism and waxing eloquent about liberty for liberty's sake is generally going to fall on deaf ears unless you can make it felt by the heart; in other words, being anti-collective or anti-government is not usually a winning argument with most people.

The question is how to respond to such statements. I don't necessarily know, but here is a response I've given to statements like the above that actually does seem to have a positive effect and seems to open the door to rational debate (or at least not close the door): "Well, my concern about a $15/hr minimum wage is that at one point I was thinking about being a musician instead of a computer guy and I would never have been good enough at music to be worth $15/hr. But you've heard my music and it's pretty decent, right? And if I had dedicated myself to music professionally it would've been even better. And if I had chosen that path, I would've been happy enough making $5/hr and that's all I would've been able to get. And if that door was closed I would've ended up being stuck flipping burgers at $15/hr which, as I'm sure you can imagine would've been a far worse option for me even though it paid more. And how about my cousin who worked for that private charity that helps disabled kids. They were only able to pay her $5/hr because that's all the money they could raise from donors and the government. Should they have to fire her and prevent her from helping disabled kids because they didn't have enough money to pay her more?" And so forth. Lots of statements directed at the heart.

I suspect you're horrified by the above paragraph. But is it really so terrible? Is Russ's Invisible Heart really so terrible? Building a narrative that constantly pulls at heartstrings and then slipping in an occasional rational fact? Is it so bad?

Now let me give examples of why I can imagine people reading your writing might think that you have contempt for them. Note the the "your" and "you" are plural and include not only just you but also Bryan Caplan and others.

First consider the post that "Jim" commented on. Bryan self-quotes, "The median American is no Nazi, but he is a moderate national socialist..." Oh, so only a milque-toast Nazi, not a full blown one. Certainly not a complement for the typical ("median") American and the statement rather reverberates with contempt for anyone who considers themselves a typical American, in my opinion.

Caplan then goes on to say that Americans basically all have ADHD; that is, they are mentally ill or mentally deficient. He basically says thanks heavens for that, otherwise our policies would be even worse, yet at the same time writes, "I look down on the public's ADHD." The phrase "I look down on" is very close to synonymous with "contempt," no?

While you didn't explicitly endorse Caplan's post, the fact that you referred to it might seem to indicate you're at least sympathetic with it and the possible contempt that could be associated with it.

Furthermore, Caplan has written a book "The Myth of the Rational Voter" which you've referenced at least a few times. Many people believe in their hearts in democracy, believe in their hearts in the democratic process, believe in their hearts that they are good citizens, and believe in their hearts that their votes are rationally based and important. To at least some of those people, that very title drips with contempt.

Do you not have contempt for virtually all politicians? For example, you've written:
"As regular readers of this blog know, I’m allergic to almost all politicians – and my allergy is non-partisan. So on those occasions when I single out a politician for ridicule, I must not be interpreted as believing that he or she is uniquely scurrilous and contemptible."
Does this not say you have contempt for all politicians? Can you not see how if someone reading this believes in the democratic process and feels some level of responsibility for electing those politicians that they could possibly feel you have indirect contempt for them as well?

You also wrote, just yesterday:
"It’s true that I do hold in very low regard – in, indeed, contempt – the “economics” expressed by many non-economists and by the politicians and pundits who cater to economic ignorance."
Are they catering to economic ignorance? You clearly think so, but I think not. Man is a political, social, emotional, and moral-believing animal, and I think that the "economics" expressed by these "non-economists" is neither economics nor rational but is catering to the political, social, emotional, moral-believing nature of man; in other words, it's aimed at the heart. And, much to many economists' frustrations (such as yours?), the statements hit their mark.

Then you reply with rational economic analyses that miss the heart by many light years and, as a result, look to me to have little positive effect. Even worse, you do admittedly view these beliefs of the heart with contempt when held by the speaker or the listener or both, no?

So that's why I think the writings of you and others such as Bryan Caplan can be easily interpreted as "illustrating the contempt with which the American elite view the common American people" per Jim's comment.

Have you read Russ's Invisible Heart? You may not much like it, but a nine-year old girl did and it helped her form a rational understanding of economics.



erp said...

Bret, you are right about children's literature, heroes, fairy tales, fables, etc. Embedded in them are lessons kids learn and take to heart which served us well. Your daughter, obviously a smart cookie, remembered what worked in the story and used it in a real-life situation. I, personally, am still waiting for those fairy tale elves to come around at night and do some chores I put off. :-)

As we got to be adults, the movies taught us about manners, ethics, morals, etc. because the bad guys always got it in the end, crime didn't pay, the good guy, not the Lothario got the girl, etc.

None of the above is the case anymore, now we have moral relevance and pitting one manufactured group against the other.

I tried reading Cafe Hayak, but found it off-putting without any real reason I could name.

Wages like everything is ruled by the Law of Supply and Demand, not by mushy-headed lefties who've never risked any of their own time or treasure, but have fed at the trough of institutions that don't have to -- horrors -- make a profit.

erp said...

Love it!

Clovis e Adri said...


None of the above is the case anymore, now we have moral relevance and pitting one manufactured group against the other.

I say it is worse than that, Erp.

The idea of good and evil is almost abolished in most of the popular fiction sold out there.

A very representative case study is "Game of Thrones". It is evil versus more evil, soaked up in corrosive cynicism - not to mention with absolutely unworkable concepts of economy and warfare (but then I agree I am asking too much).

Clovis e Adri said...


Nice letter, and a great post.

I happened to witness those exchanges at Cafe Hayek. If Prof. Bordreaux hadn't that Facebook requirement in place, I would've commented that he quite misses the point when comparing "bad economics" with engineers trying a cotton-candy bridge.

Contrary to economics of the minimum wage, there is a pretty obvious agreement in the literature, among engineers, that a cotton-candy bridge may not be a good idea.

Now a layman reading Economics could pay a visit to, let us say, Krugman's blog and see a Nobel prize in economics, no less, defending that it is not a bad idea at all (at least at present levels of wages, he often remarks).

Than he would flip to that alternate universe, Cafe Hayek, and read the good Prof. Boudreaux, ending up with the feeling he implies Krugman to be worse than a cotton-candy bridge engineer.

If said layman has no prior knowledge to decide and judge for himself the technical arguments, and no time to read the many papers and counter-papers on the subject, he will - IMHO - to be quite excused to ignore both and go with what his heart tells him.

erp said...

Clovis, you are right about entertainment today. That's why we rarely watch any television other than my husband's sports and my decorating and fashion reality shows and reruns of the Big Bang Theory. No matter how many times I see an episode, there's something new to make me laugh.

We haven't been to a movie since the last Harry Potter movie came out and we watched it with our granddaughter, now 18. Sorry, correction, we took our two grandsons to see the latest Mission Impossible movie last summer in San Francisco. It was preposterous, but not too gory.

Concepts of right and wrong are judgmental, doncha know.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "Nice letter, and a great post."

Thank you!

Clovis wrote: "... he quite misses the point when comparing "bad economics" with engineers trying a cotton-candy bridge."

Probably. I didn't bother to point that out for two reasons: (1) the letter was long enough already; and (2) having read Don's writings for this long there's some chance he was thinking something like the following - cotton candy is something like a million times weaker than steel and if you raised the minimum wage by a factor of a million to approximately $10,000,000 per hour it would be equally devastating to the economy as a cotton candy bridge would be to a car trying to cross it.

Clovis wrote: " be quite excused to ignore both and go with what his heart tells him."


Peter said...

Well done, Bret. It seems Prof Boudreaux and certainly Caplan have their own libertarian version of What's The Matter With Kansas?