Bourgeois False Consciousness

May 28, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives get upset when rich people push for policies that will help the poor and the less privileged.  But why? 

It might be the threat to solidarity.  It’s one thing if traditional opponents attack from the outside. But one of our own switching sides adds the insult of rejection to any injury.  Besides, the defector’s actions and judgments can’t be dismissed as mere ignorance. He is an insider, he’s been there. So while we treat prisoners of war decently (they were just playing their part in the game), we get really upset at turncoats.  Desertion and treason are punishable by death.

In the 1930s, FDR was “a traitor to his class.”  In more recent years, the conservative tone in these matters has changed from anger over betrayal to a kind of bemused condescension and questioning of motives as in Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.”  But whether the heretical rich are “traitors” or whether they are “limousine liberals,” the underlying assumption is the same: Rich people should pursue policies that help rich people. They should not make common cause with political movements created by and for the less privileged.

Conservatives here are hauling out the old Marxist concept of “false consciousness” and applying it to the bourgeoisie rather than the proletariat.  If these wealthy people had true class consciousness, they would remain true to rich people’s movements.

The latest version of this reaction came yesterday in an NPR story  about a meeting in London, a meeting of the very, very, very rich – 250 invited guests (including Prince Charles) – to talk about “inclusive capitalism.” Among things such capitalism might include are attention to the environment, to inequality, and to working conditions.

LYNN FORESTER DE ROTHSCHILD: We have $30 trillion of assets under management in the room. So if this bulk of capital decides that they are going to invest in companies that aren't only thinking about the short-term profit, then we will see corporate behavior change.

It’s hard for conservatives to blatantly oppose those goals. Instead, their strategy is to belittle. The NPR story asked Scott Winship for his reaction. Winship, works for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank (they get their money from Koch, Scaife, et al.). Winship’s statements are usually sensible and data based, but his contribution to the NPR story is just snark.

SCOTT WINSHIP: I suspect the return on investment in this conference is astonishingly low.
It sort of surprises me, I think, that you have a bunch of people in the investment community who apparently are viewing this as having a significant return on investment, in some way, whether the return is in people kind of patting them on the back and saying, thanks for caring about us, or in actual changes to policies.

Winship’s guiding principle here seems to be: If you can’t say something nasty, don’t say anything at all. Since he can’t demean the goals, he dismisses the participants’ motives (they are insecure egotists who want to be patted on the back) and says that for a bunch of investors, they’re making bad investment decisions – investing all that effort to get very little return.* Apparently, it’s better to do nothing than to try to ameliorate real problems.

Better still to devote that effort to making themselves still richer. At least that way, they’ll have conservatives patting them on the back and thanking them for being “job creators.” 
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*Maybe the NPR interviewer had prompted Winship to be critical. Maybe Winship made more substantive comments that were edited out of the piece. I certainly hope so.

Sell It! – American (Psychology) Hustle

May 23, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Rangers crushed the Canadiens convincingly in game one:  7-2. The question was whether that result could be replicated . . . three more times.

Replication is hard (as the Rangers and their fans discovered in overtime at the Garden last night). That’s true in social science too.  The difference is that the results of the Rangers’ failure to replicate were published.

Social psychologists are now paying more attention to the replication question. In the Reproducibility Project, Brian Nosek and others have set about trying to replicate most of the studies published in three top journals since 2008.  The first round of results was encouraging – of thirteen attempts, ten were consistent with the original findings. In one case, an “anchoring” study by Daniel Kahneman, the effect was stronger than in the original.

What failed to replicate? Mostly, experiments involving “priming,” where subliminal cues affect people’s ideas or behavior. In the best known and now most controversial of these, participants were primed by words suggesting old age (wrinkles, bingo, alone, Florida). They were then surreptitiously timed as they walked down the hall. In the original study by John Bargh (the priming primus inter pares), participants who were primed walked more slowly than did the controls.*

Many people have tried to replicate this study, and the results are mixed. One problem might be a “Rosenthal” effect, where the experimenters unintentionally and unknowingly influence the participants’ behavior so that it conforms with their expectations. Double-blind experiments, where the experimenters don’t know which participants have been primed, do not produce significant difference. (More here.)

I had a different explanation:  some guys can prime; some can’t. 

Maybe John Bargh and his assistants are really good at priming. Somehow, when they give participants those words mixed in among others, the sujects get a strong but still subliminal mental image of wrinkled retirees in Miami. But other psychologists at other labs haven’t got the same touch.  There’s no independent measure of how effective the priming was, so we can’t know.

I was delighted to see that Daniel Kahneman (quoted here ) had the same idea.

The conduct of subtle experiments has much in common with the direction of a theatre performance . . . you must tweak the situation just so, to make the manipulation strong enough to work, but not salient enough to attract even a little attention . . . .Bargh has a knack that not all of us have.

Many social psychology experiments involve a manipulation that the participant must be unaware of. If the person catches on to the priming (“Hey, all these sentences have words with a geezer theme,”), it blows the con. Some experiments require more blatant deceptions (think Milgram), and not all psychologists are good deceivers.

What reminded me of this was Eliot Aronson’s memoir Not by Chance Alone. Aronson is one of the godfathers of social psychology experiments, and one of his most famous is the one-dollar-twenty-dollar lie, more widely known as Aronson and Carlsmith, 1963.  Carlsmith was J. Merrill Carlsmith.  The name seems like something from central casting, and so did the man –  a polite  WASP who prepped at Andover, etc. 

In the experiment, the subject was given a boring task to do – taking spools out of a rack and then putting them back, again and again, while Carlsmith as experimenter stood there with a stopwatch pretending to time him.  The next step was to convince the subject to help the experimenter.

[Merrill] would explain that he was testing the hypothesis that people work faster if they are told in advance that the task is incredibly interesting than if they are told nothing and informed, “You were in the control condition. That is why you were told nothing.”
At this point Merrill would say that the guy who was supposed to give the ecstatic description to the next subject had just phoned in to say he couldn’t make it. Merrill would beg the “control” subject to do him a favor and play the role, offering him a dollar (or twenty dollars) to do it. Once the subject agreed, Merrill was to give him the money and a sheet listing the main things to say praising the experiment and leave him alone for a few minutes to prepare.

But Carlsmith could not do a credible job. Subjects immediately became suspicious.

It was crystal clear why the subjects weren’t buying it: He wasn’t selling it. Leon [Festinger] said to me, “Train him.”

Sell it.  If you’ve seen “American Hustle,” you might remember the scene where Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is trying to show the FBI agent disguised as an Arab prince how to give a gift to the politician they are setting up.



Aronson had to do something similar, and he had the qualifications. As a teenager, he had worked at a Fascination booth on the boardwalk in Revere, Masssachusetts, reeling off a spiel to draw strollers in to try their luck.

Walk right in, sit in, get a seat, get a ball. Play poker for a nickel. . . You get five rubber balls. You roll them nice and easy . . . Any three of a kind or better poker hand, and you are a winner. So walk in, sit in, play poker for a nickel. Five cents. Hey! There's three jacks on table number 27. Payoff that lucky winner!

Twenty years later, Aronson still had the knack, and he could impart it to others. Like Kahneman, he thinks of the experiment as theater.

I gave Merrill a crash course in acting. “You don't simply say that the assistant hasn’t shown up,” I said. “You fidget, you sweat, you pace up and down, you wring your hands, you convey to the subject that you are in real trouble here. And then, you act as if you just now got an idea. You look at the subject, and you brighten up. ‘You! You can do this for me. I can even pay you.’”

The deception worked, and the experiment worked.  When asked to say how interesting the task was, the $1 subjects give it higher ratings than did the $20 subjects.  Less pay for lying, more attitude shift.  The experiment is now part of the cognitive dissonance canon. Surely, others have tried to replicate it.  I just don’t know what the results have been.

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* An earlier post on Bargh and replication is here
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Health Execs – Doing Well by Doing Well by Well-Point

May 18, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

When my primary care physician, a wonderful doctor, told me he was retiring, he said, “I just can’t practice medicine anymore the way I want to.” It wasn’t the government or malpractice lawyers. It was the insurance companies. 

This was long before Obamacare.  It was back when President W was telling us that “America has the best health care system in the world”; back when “the best” meant spending twice as much as other developed countries and getting health outcomes that were no better and by some measures worse. (That’s still true). 

Many critics then blamed the insurance companies, whose administrative costs were so much higher than those of public health care, including our own Medicare. Some of that money went to employees whose job it was to increase insurers’ profits by not paying claims.  Back then we learned the word “rescission”  – finding a pretext for cancelling the coverage of people whose medical bills were too high.   Insurance company executives, summoned to Congressional hearings, stood their ground and offered some misleading statistics.

None of the Congressional representatives on the committee asked the execs how much they were getting paid. Maybe they should have.

Health care in the US is a $2.7 trillion dollar business, and today’s Times has an article about who’s getting the big bucks.  Not the doctors, it turns out.  And certainly not the people who have the most contact with sick people - nurses, EMTs, and those further down the chain.  Here’s the chart from the article, with an inset showing those administrative costs. 

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

As fine print at the top of the chart says, these are just salaries - walking-around money an exec gets for showing up.  The real money is in the options and incentives.
In a deal that is not unusual in the industry, Mark T. Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, earned a salary of about $977,000 in 2012 but a total compensation package of over $36 million, the bulk of it from stocks vested and options he exercised that year.
I’m sure that there is some free-market explanation for these payment inequalities, and that all is for the best in this best of all possible health care systems. The anti-Obamacare rhetoric has railed against a “government takeover” of medicine. It is, of course, no such thing. Obama had to remove the “public option”; Republicans prevented the government from fielding a team and getting into the game. Instead, we have had an insurance company takeover of medicine. It’s not the government that’s coming between doctor and patient, it’s the insurance companies. Those dreaded “bureaucrats” aren’t working for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. They’ve working for Aetna and Well-Point.

Even the doctors now sense that they too are merely working for The Man.
Doctors are beginning to push back: Last month, 75 doctors in northern Wisconsin* [demanded] . . . health reforms . . . requiring that 95 percent of insurance premiums be used on medical care. The movement was ignited when a surgeon, Dr. Hans Rechsteiner, discovered that a brief outpatient appendectomy he had performed for a fee of $1,700 generated over $12,000 in hospital bills, including $6,500 for operating room and recovery room charges.
That $12,000 tab is slightly under the US average. (For more on appendectomy costs, and especially if you remember Madeline, see this earlier post – here.)

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* Northern Wisconsin includes three blue counties (they voted to recall Gov. Walker). The doctors, like the majority of citizens there, may have been contaminated by their proximity to liberal places like Minnesota and Canada.

Durkheim at Commencement

May 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

All these commencement speakers withdrawing because of student protests.  Condoleezza Rice is the best-known, but in his Times op-ed today (here), Timothy Egan mentions several others. The title on Egan’s piece is “The Commencement Bigots,” but Egan’s name-calling doesn’t end at “bigots.”  There’s “fragile,” (overly) “sensitive,” “strong-arm tactics,” “bully,” and “pressure tactics designed to kill opposing views.” That last one is a bit long for playground shouting, but I guess “poopooheads” wouldn’t pass the Times stylesheet, though “kill” is a nice touch.

Egan concludes:
 the lefty thought police at Smith, Haverford and Rutgers share one thing with the knuckle-dragging hard right in Oklahoma: They’re afraid of hearing something that might spoil a view of the world they’ve already figured out.
Other commentators take the “I’m rubber and you’re glue” approach saying that it’s the speakers who are the cowards.  They’re the ones who chickened out. As Egan says, almost in contradiction to his argument about who it is that’s afraid, Rice “canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university.” Brave Condi, who stood up to Saddam and other brutal tyrants, unwilling to speak to an audience that might have small knot of protesters. 

Durkheim would have had so much to contribute to this discussion, but alas, he has not been invited to speak.


Commencement is a ritual. It takes place in the realm of the sacred, apart from the everyday, “profane” world of getting and spending, debating and politicking. In the sacred world, we emphasize unity, solidarity, and similarity.  That’s the symbolism of the event.  No individual fashion statements, just everyone wearing the same plain caps and gowns. The stadium or auditorium or whatever is festooned with the school colors, the colors that represent all of us. The message is that we’re all here together, members of the Our Uni* community.  There’s a time and place for provocative, challenging, and divisive speeches, preferably a setting where people can respond and ask questions. Graduation ain’t it. 

We accept this restriction at other rituals. At a funeral, we do not want the eulogist to challenge our positive views of the deceased. At a wedding, surely there are reasons to worry about fault lines in the terrain the couple is standing on, but we don’t want the best man, in his toast, to point out any inconvenient truths. 

Read Egan’s column and note the speakers he selects as some of the best from the recent past – Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Stephen Colbert.  None of these, to judge by the key quotes Egan selects, had a political edge or promoted one side of a controversial issue.  They all offered something that the seniors could admire together, ponder philosophically together, or laugh at together. 

Since rituals are about group solidarity and the symbolism of unity, what the speaker says may be less important than who the speaker is.  The university is not just asking someone to make a good speech, it is bestowing an honor. The question is not whether the person should be heard, it’s whether the university should honor that person on behalf of the entire community.  As Egan says,
The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush — two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States — was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal.
Rutgers students, if they are interested, can read her book or transcripts of her lectures. But surely we can understand why many graduates – maybe even more than a small knot – might not want their graduation ritual to extend her its benediction.

For our graduation speaker this year, the administration chose author James Patterson. 


I have heard some grumbling, especially among faculty in the English department. Their complaints have nothing to do with what Patterson might say. Instead, they are concerned that the school is honoring a writer whose presence would never grace their syllabi. (On a campus discussion forum, one contributor referred to him only as Paperback Writer.)

Of course, there are worse things for graduation than a divisive speaker or an airport paperback author. Egan mentions “broiling sun.” Cold and rain, our fate last year, can be just as bad.



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* In My Freshman Year, Rebekah Nathan (aka Cathy Small) gives her school the pseudonym Any U, echoing its true identity, NAU (Northern Arizona University). My favorite made-up name for a generic school comes from Montclair prof David Galef: U of All People.