Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 2)

Congressional Problems, Our Problems (Part 2)

Last time I discussed pressure to do something even if it’s wrong, and stage one thinking. Those problems affect all of us but especially congress. Now let’s move on to a couple of other problems.

A third congressional problem is that there is seldom any motivation for congress to fix the problems it creates. Just look at the mortgage issue for example. People who should never have qualified for mortgages were able to do so because of pressure on lenders and because of programs to allow them to get loans with no down payment. It should have been no surprise that many subsequently defaulted on those mortgages. So has congress cracked down on the problem? Of course not, that might cost votes. Instead we now have a program of mortgage subsidies that allows the subsidy to be used for the down payment. I'm afraid the results will be predictable.

In our own lives we are also tempted to stick with bad decisions long after we should recognize that they are bad. This is a natural human tendency, based on something that has benefited the race for eons. When a child misbehaves we usually do not immediately decide that having a child was a mistake and abandon that child. That is a good thing when it comes to children, but not with investments or most other bad decisions.

We all make mistakes. The wise learn from those mistakes and correct their problems. The unwise persist with their bad decisions, to their detriment. (In fact the truly wise learn from the mistakes of others.)

A forth problem is accessibility bias, the tendency to be unduly influenced by most recent or most noticeable events. The cognitive psychologists have done experiments demonstrating that what we have recently seen, or what is spectacular, tends to overwhelm the less spectacular things or those in the distant past. In one experiment, subjects spun a wheel giving numbers up to 100. Then they were asked to guess how many African countries were in the UN. There was an amazing correlation between the number they saw on that wheel and their guesses about UN countries. The number accessible in their minds unduly influenced their guesses on an unrelated topic.

Think of how this affects congress. Who gets most of their attention? Clearly not the guy working in a factory or on a farm trying to keep up with the needs of his family. No, there are union and business lobbyists, “public interest” groups with an ax to grind, and others twisting their arms or convincing representatives of their viewpoints. All that attention provides accessibility bias toward meeting the demands of those groups at the expense of good citizens who haven't time to camp on the representative's doorstep. The result is that congress has a distorted, one-sided view of reality.

Of course accessibility bias affects us all. The memorable advertisement, the spectacular and bloody news story etc. all cause us to view the world differently than we would otherwise. Without conscious effort to avoid distortion we will not have a good picture of the world.

I’ve mentioned four problems here:

Pressure to do something, even if it’s wrong,
Stage one thinking,
Failure to learn from and correct previous mistakes, and
Accessibility bias

Those four problems affect us all. However the nature of congress causes them to have more effect on that body than on most of us. We see the reason every time we look in a mirror. As Pogo said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” Voters continue to demand action, even if wrong. Voters demand superficial solutions and fail to demand evaluation beyond stage one. Voters fail to demand that congress correct past errors or look beyond the lobbyists when making decisions. Until that changes, congress will not change.

What can we do? As voters we can demand that congress do better in these areas. More importantly, we can look at ourselves, how we vote and the things we ask of our representatives. However, beyond that we should encourage a return to a limited, constitutional government. We need to get away from the whole idea of government as a paternalistic solution to all our problems. The power to solve those problems is also the power to take our freedoms and create new problems.

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1 comment:

OregonGuy said...

I agree.

But what I refer to as the popular media maintains their silence.

Deconstruction of beliefs held under the thrall of bias is a risky proposition. No one willingly lets go of beliefs held prejudicially. And I don't believe that men are made such that examination of prejudicially held beliefs will ever be easy subjects for deconstruction.

If the popular media were to begin relating to their users that many of the popularly held beliefs--and prejudices--were simply held in error, there would be great risk i that confronting others' expectations usually results in frustration, if not eventually, anger.

Or, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.