Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Asymmetric Stupidity

Paul Krugman asked an interesting question about objectivity and subjectivity in politics the other day, though I doubt he saw it in those terms. Here are his original words, as tweeted:

There are two parts to this: the unreasonable suspicion that liberals despise "ordinary folk" for their ignorance and the tendency of the working class to ignore or discount collective insults levelled at it by conservatives. In fact, this behaviour is quite rational, if subject to cognitive bias. The first thing to note is that the ruling ideology, shared by liberals and conservatives, equates intelligence with the possession of qualifications. If you have a college degree, you are assumed to be more intelligent than someone with only high-school certificates, and if you have no formal qualifications, you are assumed to be probably less intelligent. In aggregate this isn't unreasonable, but at the level of the individual it is obviously problematic. We've all met people, usually from a working class background, who left school with no qualifications and enjoyed subsequent success, and most of us have probably met an upper-class idiot with a degree.

As the owner of not only a PhD but a Nobel Prize, Krugman is perhaps a little obtuse on this point. I don't get the sense that he is a condescending snob, but from the perspective of a working class Midwesterner who couldn't afford college, Krugman is part of the coastal elite and therefore more likely to be a snob. It might be personally unfair, but it is no worse a "rule of thumb" than assuming the unqualified are unintelligent. This prejudice also reflects a pragmatic recognition of the narrowness of "book-learning" - that there are more types of intelligence than are recognised by formal qualifications - and that certain types of high-status education are designed to be exclusionary. It's also worth noting that working class people don't undervalue education, as is often claimed, they simply have a greater pessimism that their possession of qualifications will translate into economic power. In other words, they understand that class bias (differential access to top colleges, the leverage of social networks etc.) works to devalue qualifications. There is a lot of rationality at work here.

Educational qualifications are tokens. You either have them or you don't. In contrast, there are no qualifications handed out for industriousness. What we do have are social cues, but these are notoriously unreliable: "curtains drawn in the daytime" can suggest indolence, but it's just as likely to indicate shift-work or illness. Subjective bias means that few of us will readily admit to being lazy (and even those few that do may actually be hinting at other problems that deserve sympathy), but we're only too ready to suspect laziness in others, and that includes friends and family members as much as casual acquaintances or strangers. When the "Britannia Unchained" group of Tory MPs announced a few years ago that UK workers were idlers, there weren't many people who replied "They've got a point, I'm always swinging the lead", but there were plenty who said "They've got a point, next-door is a right shirker".

Dividing society into virtuous sheep and vicious goats is the foundation of conservative rhetoric. Since the rise of democracy, the trick has been to avoid defining the two groups in objective terms but to instead rely on subjective virtues that the majority believe they already possess or can justifiably aspire to. You can tell a lot about the current government's naivety in the coining of the acronym "JAMs". Most political commentators have wearily greeted the "just about managing" as simply this year's version of "hard-working families" or "alarm-clock Britain", but this misses the point that by defining the group in terms of its economic power (i.e. income), the government is dangerously close to admitting that what divides us is output (wages) rather than input (labour). They'll no doubt try and emphasise the appropriate behaviours over the coming weeks, but what has lodged in the public mind is "managing", which is a matter of resources rather than virtue.

So the answer to Paul Krugman's questions is quite simple. On the one hand, the population with no or limited educational qualifications reason that liberal elites look down on them because of the neoliberal insistence on the primacy of formal education in the economy. On the other, they tend to assume that conservative rhetoric about lazy proles, particularly if presented in the lurid terms of dissolute crackers and chavs, is directed at other people. To put it another way, liberals make explicit the idea that society is a contest, but do so in a manner that immediately condemns a large part of the population to the category of losers. Conservatives suggest an even more unforgiving struggle, with the hint that a lack of virtue is congenital, but they allow most of the population to imagine they are in the category of current or future winners. The failure of liberals to see this asymmetry explains much of their bewilderment in the face of "post-truth" politics.

Since the 1990s, conservative rhetoric has modified its vocabulary but it has remained largely unchanged in its focus on virtue. Race-inflected terms like "welfare queens" and "super-predators" have given way to "takers" and "skivers", but they are still recognisably the goats of old. In contrast, the correlation between education and inequality has become ever more pronounced, leading to class becoming increasingly associated with qualifications. The "haves" and the "have nots" obviously referred to material circumstances, but the voguish dichotomy of "cosmopolitans" and "left behinds" clearly implies different social capital. This in turn winds up the non-graduate, suburban middle-class who are economically secure but status-anxious. If Fascism in the 20th century got its oomph from the precarious petit bourgeoisie rather than the immiserated proletariat, conservative authoritarianism today relies on the financially comfortable rather than the downwardly mobile "white working class".

The traditional liberal or left attitude towards education was that it was an enabler of social mobility and aggregate growth, but that it wasn't the only route out of poverty or the only contributor to social advance. Becoming a skilled mechanic or nurse was good for you and good for society, and of course there were many in the working class who considered education a good in itself rather than just a ticket to prosperity. During the neoliberal era, education came to be seen as the sine qua non of economic growth, but this happened at the same time as the field of education became socially narrower. The varied ecosystem of the social democratic era, from polytechnics through apprenticeships to the WEA, has been flattened. We have many more colleges now, but they're all doing fundamentally the same thing. Many more kids go through further education today, but they usually end up with interchangeable degrees that get them clerical jobs. Education has become a transactional marketplace and that has amplified the role of qualifications as a class identifier.

This development has also reduced heterogeneity in the normative role of education. In other words, there is less plurality of values, which partly explains the perception of a "closing of minds" on campuses. One value that does remain dominant is the virtuousness of education. It isn't hard to see how this encourages elitism and a sense of privileged entitlement among the beneficiaries, and resentment and a sense of being looked down upon among the rest. There are two lessons here for liberals. First, stop over-determining education as a fundamental social divide. Analyses that claim educational differences explain Brexit and Trump are useless unless the plan is to disenfranchise non-graduates. All they do is reinforce the idea that unqualified equals stupid. What's needed is a sociological understanding of what education represents. Second, understand the difference between insult and identification. Christian Parenti writing in Jacobin put this particularly well.

At almost every turn the liberal pundits misunderstood, or did not hear, what Trump was saying. After his win in the Nevada caucus Trump said: “We won with highly educated, we won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated! We’re the smartest people, we’re the most loyal people.” Liberals lampooned him, assuming that he had insulted part of his base.

A different interpretation translates those comments as: “Trump understands that it’s not all my fault that I couldn’t get an education. He understands that even people who don’t have advanced degrees can make good decisions and are worthy of respect.”
Paul Krugman isn't stupid, but he exists in an elite bubble that encourages a lazy intellectualism in which liberals and conservatives are reduced to homogeneous tribes or personality types in the manner of Jonathan Haidt. Consider this from a column he wrote in April, 2014: "People want to believe what suits their preconceptions, so why the big difference between left and right on the extent to which this desire trumps facts? One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people — that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting — even self-doubting — frame of mind; 'a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument'." What he fails to see is that most people without college degrees are each a mix of liberal and conservative but that they are asymmetric in their scepticism. They are more suspicious of liberals because liberals have given them grounds to be. Krugman's column piece was entitled: Asymmetric Stupidity.


  1. A couple of things.

    "Educational qualifications are tokens."

    Not only that, they are *measurable* tokens - something you touch on later in the piece. So very suitable for lazy politicians and lazy journalists to use, without wasting their time on any underlying complexity. It also suits the McKinsey-type managerialists, who are obsessed with measuring things.

    "Many more kids go through further education today ..."

    Something omitted from the analyses of voting on both sides of the Atlantic, when pundits are trying to prove to each other whether the prime reason for the vote is age or education. Young people naturally have "more education", as they have more qualifications, because they've had the opportunity to gain them. So any analysis involving different generations or educations needs to take this into account.

  2. So in summary conservative rhetoric directs resentment at immoral, liberal rhetoric directs it blindly at itself. Do you agree with George Lakoff that this difference reflects the way neuronal pathways are created during childhood, locking us into this struggle for the meaning of virtue, or can the left defeat ressentinent without scapegoating any particular social group ??

    1. I'm not a fan of "hardwiring", whether due to nature or nurture. I believe that people are more amenable to reason that is commonly supposed, and that much that is classed as irrational (e.g. "voting against their own interests") is actually rational, albeit within the bounds of limited information.

      Many claims of irrationality are indicative of one side (those who claim to be rational) refusing to engage with the rationale of the other, e.g. US liberals trying to deny that economics has anything to do with voters deserting the Democrats.

      The paradox is that modern liberal rhetoric is status-conscious while conservative rhetoric appeals to a positive view of the self. In other words, the rhetoric is the reverse of the ideology.

  3. Sorry, typos should be immorality in line 2 and ressentiment in line 9

  4. You see this in the bone fides read out before each guest on a heavy radio 4 discussion programme. It's visiting emiritus professor this, holder of the professorial chair that and author of the prestigious award winning the other. Then reintroduced after the weather. Good job there's not any ad breaks. Usually nothing about their political or philosophical hinterland, the most pertinent bit.

  5. Herbie Kills Children24 November 2016 at 17:55

    It is ok to articulate why people do not vote for liberals and in a way liberals are easy targets. They want to reform a dog eat dog, grab what you can system into something nice and cuddly, or at least they present it in this way. In reality liberals are as oppressive as conservatives. The liberals are as big on war mongering as the conservatives, and have said next to nothing about mass surveillance etc. To all intents and purposes we are in post democratic and post free world. We are at the beginning of totalitarianism and the liberals don't seem to give a toss.

    One good reason for this is that liberals are as totalitarian as you get. They are most concerned by internet trolls, they are most concerned about political correctness, they are most concerned about what people think and say. Liberals have an alert button that if anyone says anything that seems offensive they bleat how something should be done.

    The liberals are an oppressive force to particularly white working class men who see liberals telling them what to think and what to believe. The refreshing thing about Trump, to them, is that he was outrageous and said anything crock of shit that came into his head. For people on the receiving end of liberal concern this appears highly liberating. Many women were also liberated by Trumps 'careless' talk.

    People are therefore not only suffering under the suffocating hierarchy of society they have to put up with liberals telling them what they should and shouldn't think. The thought police.

    But we should also ask the question, why after 100 years of state education, are people generally so lacking in analytical skills? In other words why are most people so dim? i think this is a legitimate question and not one only the liberal elite are asking!

    I don't think the media help in this regard. The media have an endless stream of people giving opinions on things they know nothing about. Personally I would ban opinions in the media and make everything analytical. And if that means only professors get in the media then at least we know these people have spent some degree of effort on understanding the problem.

    Katie Hopkins on the Syrian refugee crisis, do me an effing favour! Simon Fanshawe discussing the pros and cons of leaving the EU, do me a favour! BBC breakfast, a news programme, like hell it is!

  6. Do you think there may be some genuine hostility among the working class to higher education, due to its being seen as detrimental to family ties (either because of students having to move away to go to university, or due to the eresulting qualifications only having economic value in big cities)?

    1. Yes, there is an element of this. I'd also suggest that the fear of estrangement concerns culture as much as geography, which is why tales of campus weirdness find an audience in the tabloids.