When I look at the news and opinion pieces I've linked over the past couple of days, I am struck by the number of articles that speak to our intrinsic inability to “face facts.” It is easy enough to write off some of the actors in these stories as craven or crazy. Yesterday, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the mother of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, claimed that that the bombing “was staged, that the bombing was fake.... There was no blood, she said. It was paint.” Tsarnaev may not be the typical mother of a miscreant (or, in her case miscreants) who claim their mass-murdering son “was always such a good boy”; she is allegedly something of a miscreant herself who fled to Russia, perhaps to escape the “2012 felony charges of shoplifting and property damage in Massachusetts.”
But what do we make of a President of the United States, one George W. Bush, who not only confused Sweden and Switzerland, but refused to even consider that he might be wrong? (Evidently a staff member privately corrected Bush because a few weeks later he admitted he was wrong.) Or how about Dubya's equally-brilliant successor in Texas? “Gov. Rick Perry said Monday that spending more state money on inspections would not have prevented the deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. plant that was last investigated by Texas environmental regulators in 2006. Perry told The Associated Press that he remains comfortable with the state's level of oversight....” He added, “(People) through their elected officials clearly send the message of their comfort with the amount of oversight.” Or what about PretendDem Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who, when “asked about polls showing more than 90 percent of voters supporting expanded background checks, including back home..., doubted that was truly indicative of public opinion"?
As Paul Krugman has been pointing out for years now, it isn't just a few so-called leaders who can't get their heads around facts and fact-based data. As he remarked – again – in his column in today's Times, “... the dominance of austerians in influential circles should disturb anyone who likes to believe that policy is based on, or even strongly influenced by, actual evidence.” Krugman posits several likely motivations for politicians' unwillingness to accept reality, but once you get past their dubious claims about the immorality of public debt in a time of recession, it comes down to this: their reality is different from our reality: “The austerity agenda looks a lot like a simple expression of upper-class preferences.... The wealthy, by a large majority, regard deficits as the most important problem we face. And how should the budget deficit be brought down? The wealthy favor cutting federal spending on health care and Social Security – that is, 'entitlements' – while the public at large actually wants to see spending on those programs rise.”
Lawmakers' preference for policies that help the wealthy was demonstrated again yesterday when House members didn't believe economists “from across the political spectrum” who argued before them that the mortgage interest deduction “is wasteful and does little to spur home ownership.” Why refute the economists' expertise? For one reason, the mortgage deduction is popular among voters, and for a second, it most “helps those in the highest income brackets.” Now, I am not suggesting members of Congress should not challenge “experts.” They should. But here's what Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a (former?) real estate agent, told the economists: “Never once did I have a client say to me, 'I want to buy this house because I can get a higher mortgage interest deduction.'” That's just stupid. Most people try to qualify for the highest mortgage they can get, even if they don't always decide to buy the priciest house. Their banks, in calculating their incomes, takes the anticipated mortgage deduction into consideration, and savvy home purchasers know this. Just like loan officers, these potential homeowners see the mortgage tax break as a boost to their annual disposable income. Because it is. So nobody told Tiberi this? I guess they thought he was smart enough to know. Their mistake.
Every one of us has experienced the cognitive dissonance associated with challenges to our long-held beliefs. For most of my life, I thought Tommy-guns were British-made and were so-named because British “Tommies” carried them. I only discovered, in writing about Tommy-guns as an aside to a long piece, that the Thompson submachine gun was American-made and named for its American inventor, Gen. John T. Thompson. This is a small thing, akin to Bush's confusion of Sweden with Switzerland, and it was easy to adjust my mistaken belief in the origin of the Tommy-gun.
But we all also have experienced more substantial cases of cognitive dissonance – such as when a trusted friend, relative or spouse betrays us. Our first instinct is probably confusion. We're likely to blurt “I can't believe you did that.” But even with events that shatter our lives, we eventually do “believe you did that,” and we adjust, sometimes finding clues in past behaviors we ignored. That is, we “reduce dissonance,” as behavioral scientists would say, “by altering existing cognitions” or “adding new ones to create a consistent belief system.”
There is a third way to “reduce dissonance.” That is to “reduc[e] the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.” This is pretty much the crazy person's way of dealing with unpleasant realities that conflict with our beliefs, dreams and fantasies. People who take this approach “can't handle the truth.” So they don't. This is the methodology employed by our so-called leaders when they dismiss out-of-hand facts and fact-based assertions that conflict with their own preconceived notions. They are, for instance, amenable to Reinhart and Rogoff's thesis, so when Krugman says Reinhart and Rogoff got it wrong, they “reduce the importance of” Krugman. Their excuses are myriad. A while back I heard teevee blowhard Chris Matthews say, “We all know we have to reduce the deficit. Krugman is just an economist; he doesn't have to govern.” (Paraphrase.) Matthews' point was that Krugman lived in an ivory tower, not the real world – the Real World being the Washington of the Very Serious People – and therefore, Serious People were right to dismiss Krugman's fried-egghead musings. Charts and graphs? Pffft. We all know we have to reduce the deficit.
Frankly, there is little difference between Zubeidat Tsarnaev on the one hand, and politicians like Rick Perry on the other, when it comes to their methods for reducing their own cognitive dissonance. As Todd Robberson of the Dallas Morning News: wrote, "Perry made up, out of whole cloth, a supposed preference among Texans for freedom from regulation over being safe from industrial explosions and other disasters.... Never mind that the company had stored 540,000 pounds of highly explosive ammonium nitrate on the site without informing residents of the extreme danger and without informing the Department of Homeland Security – as required.” Really? Are Texans really “comfortable” with that? Even before the explosion that killed and injured so many, I doubt many Texans would agree that businesses should have the “freedom” to store huge amounts of explosives next-door to private homes, a school and a nursing home. The vaunted “free market” does not come with a license to kill.
Too many elected officials are operating under the same cognitive rules as the unstable mother of presumed terrorists. Now would be a good time for these political leaders -- and commentators -- to reacquaint themselves with reality. Now would be a good time for them to reduce their incidences of cognitive dissonance by "altering existing cognitions"; that is, by accepting, for instance, the vast scientific evidence on the man-made causes of climate change and the extensive sociological data on gun violence. As long as politicians routinely resort to insane denials of well-known facts, there is little hope we can reduce the problems we face.
We expect distraught mothers to be crazy. We should expect legislators and other political leaders to deal realistically with facts, however disturbing they find those facts.