Monday, July 18, 2011

Cognitive Biases Used in Propaganda Framing Deficit Debate and Wall Street Handout

Everyone likes to think that they are smarter than the average person. After all, how many of us would be ready to admit that they were in some way, shape or form inferior. Even those friends of ours from high school, and most of us who did not attend private boarding schools know these people, who accorded themselves “street smarts” while telling others that they were merely “book smart,” claim to be better at some things than the average. We all want to feel that we are good at something and even if this is not necessarily the case, we hold on to the illusion that we are somehow more skilled than the average Joe or Jane. Let us call this concept overconfidence.

In the academic literature it is called the overconfidence bias. Cognitive and behavioral psychology as well as behavioral finance and behavioral economics study the concept at length and in depth. Classic examples include asking everyone in a class to rate their driving ability as average, below average or above average. In study after study between 80 and 90 percent of respondents rate their driving ability as above average, which cannot be the case, since only slightly less than half can be above average. Other studies have repeatedly shown that when asked to rate our confidence interval in our statements, we are much more likely to state a much higher confidence level than our accuracy. Most of us like to think that we are smarter than the average, and do not wish to accept that, truthfully, we are probably by definition just about average in many of those attributes that are indeed normally distributed. Some of us might be better at some things than others, obviously, but we are not as superior as we would like to think. Nonetheless, this feeling of being superior, this confidence in our abilities, this sense that we will do better than most everyone else can lead us to take risks we normally would eschew, were it not for the nagging near-certainty that we are better, smarter and more insightful than the others, and that this time, for us, contrary to all evidence and history, things truly will be different, be it in business, investment, games or any other of the myriad activities we engage in where we are in it to win it. Think of housing and stock market bubbles, when real estate speculators and traders or money managers no doubt thought that they would be able to time the market and get rich quickly because of their superior skills and knowledge.  

Standardized testing reinforces this bias by inflating the egos of those whose scores are in the upper percentiles. These are the people who get accepted to the best universities, who go on to graduate school because they had GMAT or GRE tutoring classes, and some of these people think that they are the true producers and “value creators” of society, deserving six or seven or eight figure remuneration because of their superior natural or god-given abilities. Everyone else who is not as successful is either morally deficient or intellectually limited and their plight or poverty is therefore deserved and just.

The fundamental attribution error states that the successes of one’s group, class, clan, or tribe, generally called the in-group, are due to internal factors, such as talents, morality, hard work and intelligence, while failures are due to external, uncontrollable causes; with the mirror image being perceived as the reasons for the failures of the out-group, the others: inferior intelligence, lack of talents, or simply laziness, and with the out-group’s successes being consequently simply a matter of luck and often undeserved. So the fundamental attribution error is to attribute success to internal and failure to external factors for oneself or one’s in-group, and the opposite for those in the out-group.

Nowhere is this phenomena more prevalent and on display than in the United States of America, where the current culture war is further being waged on behalf of the top 1%, or was it 0.1%, or 0.01%, who not only receive most of the income but also own most of the wealth in the country. The current battle about “unsustainable” government spending, government needing to live within its means, and ever-present deficit reduction hysteria, is nothing more than an ideological battle being waged by those with means who believe that they should not have to pay any money for those without means, whom they consider shiftless bums and welfare queens who refuse to work and expect “handouts” from the government. Whatever the percentage of poor who do abuse the system, however large, small or inconsequential it might actually be, this discussion is not about them, it is only being framed in this manner. Framing effects arise when different responses are elicited based on whether the information is presented in a positive or a negative frame. Is the man or woman in dire straits because they were laid off due to downsizing, outsourcing, or company or business failure; or is the person unemployed because they are lazy and want free money from the government. By framing the narrative to portray the less well-off, the unemployed, and the poor in general in the latter manner, stereotypes are being created and reinforced. This is a further cognitive bias at work, the representativeness heuristic, which asks to what extent does A represent B, so to what extend do the poor and unemployed represent my stereotypical image of them. The representativeness bias is thought to be an innate and omnipresent trait, presumably brought about as a function of evolution. The manner in which it is being abused, though, is that through propaganda -- there is no other way to put it -- the unemployed are portrayed as lazy, shiftless, and not wanting to work, but expecting handouts and being able to sit at home drinking or drugging on the taxpayer’s dime. If you work and pay taxes, you are being led to believe that your money is not being spent on military armaments so that the US military can continue blowing up brown people somewhere to make the area safe for liberal capitalism and Halliburton and Bechtel; or that your money is going to bail-out Wall Street; rather, the public is told that taxpayers’ money is going to pay for the immoral and lazy who do not want to work. It is forgotten that the financial system brought about a collapse of the economy bringing along the unemployment that comes with recession and depression. But by reiterating this narrative that the poor and unproductive are unjustly taking money from the rich and productive, powerful interests serving right wing wealth -- see Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes along with the Koch brothers, for example -- are framing the discussion to serve their interests, which are to roll back any and all social programs since the New Deal and the Great Society, to take us back to a time when capital was king and the government did not dare tax the hard earned millions or billions of robber barons, when workers knew their place, and corporations would be unhindered in their pursuit of the bottom line, the environment, and the public be damned. Some might say we are already there.

Besides always having been a right wing ideological dream, one could call it Milton Friedman’s “wet dream”, to demolish the social welfare state, to “drown it in a bathtub” as per Grover Norquist`s wishes, currently the unemployed, unions public or private, those on welfare, and all those whose lifetime of work and paying into a system of social security in the expectation of receiving benefits when they retire have seen any government program suddenly become “unsustainable entitlements.” In unison the scream is: “We must cut all social programs or we will go bankrupt,” some louder than others, but all of them singing the same song: the Tea Party, the Republicans, some Democrats, and the President himself, at first unbelievably and unfortunately, but currently obviously and to be expected now that it has become perfectly clear that Obama stands to the right of most civilized conservatives on many issues.

The most insidious lie, however, is not only that the US is going broke because of social welfare programs, but that the US government can go bankrupt at all, after the surreal demonstration of money creation to hand over to an insolvent financial system and their investors and creditors. If one looks at the fact that a sovereign government which is in charge of its own currency can never go bankrupt, something that has long been explained and propounded by Professor L. Randall Wray, Marshall Auerback, Professor Bill Mitchell, Warren Mosler, and many others who understand modern monetary theory; and stunningly admitted by none other than “Helicopter Ben” Bernanke himself, who did indeed drop staggering amounts of money into the laps of the financial sector; and if one finds out from the report of the Special Inspector General of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP report here) presented to Congress by Neil Barofsky, who was in charge of SIGTARP, that up to $23.7 TRILLION were created in guarantees, equity injections, and toxic asset purchases, along with an extensive alphabet soup of programs ostensibly created to bring the US economy back from the brink of Depression and financial Armageddon, then any talk of budget constraint and the US running out of money is ridiculous and disingenuous.

The TARP; regulatory forbearance, which simply means that we will forget a while about bankruptcy rules which state that when you go bankrupt you are out of business, management gets fired and your assets get liquidated to pay your creditors; along with changes in mark-to-market accounting rules which allowed many to get obscenely rich during the bubble years but are now allowing insolvent institutions to hold worthless assets on their balance sheet at inflated prices, further kicking the can down the road in an exercise of extend and pretend; and letting the banking system finance itself at interest rates at 0.25%, money which is then promptly lent back to the government at several percentage points higher, might just strike informed observers as being simply gifts not only to the executives of too-big-to-fail banks for doing such a fantastic job of running their companies into the ground and helping the US economy come to the verge of Depression, but also a bailout of these companies’ bondholders and shareholders, since risk in finance was just a joke, and does not really exist due to the “Bernanke and Uncle Sam put”. “Profits are privatized and losses are socialized,” and everyone should read Yves Smith for her unmatched analysis of the events of the past years.

Once one realizes that for the US government money can simply be created and does not need to be borrowed, and that of the trillions that were created much was simply given away to the US banking and finance sectors and their bondholders, shareholders and creditors, which incidentally also bailed out a lot of foreign banks, then one might realize two things: that free market capitalism no longer exists, if it ever did anyway, when the government selectively chooses whom to rescue and how much money to give away, and that it is not the unemployed, sick and poor who have brought the country to the brink of ruin, but rather an extractive and predatory financial system that has co-opted the government to cater to its needs and not to those of the people. There is a reason it is called “Government Sachs”.

Because people are easily manipulated and susceptible to cognitive and behavioral biases, and because they have a short attention span and are more concerned with celebrity gossip than their own lives, not realizing that they are giving away their life energy to illusions created to keep them docile and distracted, highway robberies and sleight-of-hand such as TARP et. al. can brazenly be pulled and the biggest robbery in history does not concern citizens whose governments now have any protesters beaten bloody by riot police with batons and teargas. It is “bread and circuses” as it has been for most of human history. But when either the “bread” or the “circus” are missing, then people are forced to think about their own existence and maybe, just maybe, see through the corporatist fascist propaganda and wake up enough to become informed, indignant, independent and irrepressible.  

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