Why your morality dictates your politics
The excessive degree of partisanship, even bias in political coverage and debate, are signs of immaturity rather than the opposite.
The reason is a lack of appreciation of why people take different political positions and the desire to see every issue through a “we’re right, you’re wrong” prism.
Much light is shed on this topic by a book I’ve mentioned here before, The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
It has become the most-discussed book of the year since its release a few months ago. It has also been raised in political discourse by Sunday Star Times columnist Anthony Hubbard, who used it to analyse Winston Peters’ continuing appeal.
But its thesis has largely been ignored by most others in the media and is the reason why coverage of government decisions and motives are largely detached from the way people actually make their political choices.
This is because news is generated by a right-wrong axis and assumes only one side can be right – the opposition to the government selling some of its business interests, for example.
Each side assumes the worst of the other side without realising their positions are more likely to be based on deep-seated moral attitudes that are largely instinctual and conditioned by upbringing.
Haidt intends his findings to lower the temperature of political discourse by making people listen more to others’ viewpoints and accept their differences are rooted in psychology rather than objective assessment of the facts.
It is a side issue that Haidt, who describes himself as a committed Democrat, an atheistic Jewish and liberal on social policy, has found most support among conservatives.
This is because he faults the Left for failing to appreciate the full range of social values, not just ones associated with caring and fairness.
Conservatives like these values, too, he points out – but they also have a range of others, such as loyalty, authority and sanctity.
This makes them more likely to uphold civilised behaviour and institutions such as marriage, churchgoing and assimilated communities.
What the Left has yet to learn
Haidt points out that many positions favoured by the Left – such as welfare programmes that substitute for self-reliance and family responsibilities, multiculturalism that undermines tolerance, and causes that challenge authority and the law – are contrary to values held by a lot of people across the income, age and class spectrum.
It is why support for Mr Peters remains high, as Hubbard has explained, and why National can easily work with Act, the (post-Mana) Maori and a party such as Colin Craig’s Conservatives.
These parties, in Haidt’s view and as Ronald Reagan put it, fit into the description that “politics is more like religion than shopping.”
So, too, do the Greens and President Obama, who appealed to higher values than just a list of policies based on self-interest.
As it happens, Haidt is disillusioned with Obama – like a lot of people who voted for him – because he succumbed to the range of interest groups and outmoded “sacred” policies held dear by the Democrats.
Haidt has urged the Democrats to give up their defence of quotas, union favouritism and welfare programmes; instead, he urges them to create a new set of principles that can equal the pulling power that limited government and free enterprise give to the right-wing parties.
But nor does Haidt see a future for the Left in the Greens’ philosophy based on alarmist claims about global warming and opposition to most forms of economic development.
Just as Haidt sees a need for his Democrats to change, in light of his findings, the party most affected in New Zealand must be Labour.
It has to find a new voice that asserts its commitment to positive social and moral positions rather than continue to back irresponsible fiscal and welfare policies.
You caused it, now fix it
Most commentators, right up to the International Monetary Fund, now say the future of the eurozone – and the US for that matter – is now over to the politicians rather than the markets.
Traders in shares and bonds seem to have given up on getting the message across that some of the solutions are not that hard to grasp.
These include, the latest IMF report says, structural changes that will boost economic growth.
It also emerged this week that the European Central Bank’s edict that it would no longer pay interest on deposits has resulted in the rare phenomenon of negative rates, a measure meant to prod bankers to lend rather than seek shelter.
In the US, politicians are grappling with the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of tax increases and spending cuts worth more than $US600 billion that are legislated to take effect in 2013, regardless of who wins the presidential election.
One calculation is that this amounts to a fiscal contraction equal to 4% of GDP, which would be the biggest in four decades.
Amid the gaggle of commentators on these issues has come a contrarian view from a French economist, who says there is no “euro crisis.”
His notion is that the euro itself is not in trouble – just as the dollar isn’t in “crisis” when a state in the US has a debt problem.
To the contracy, Professor Emeritus Pascal Salin accuses politicians (again) of engineering a “crisis” by linking excessive borrowing by some governments with the common currency.
He rubbishes attempts by politicians to pass their self-imposed problems on to someone else (or country):
"The real solutions to Europe's debt problems lie in tax cuts and deregulation, and it's here that national politicians should turn their attention."
Talking to the Fed
The other great financial scandal of the past few weeks could fade sooner than you think.
Even at the time, some observed that Barclays’ admission it manipulated the Libor rate for interbank lending may not be as egregious as painted – if only because everyone was in on it to one extent or another.
Despite assertions to the contrary, nothing has emerged from other parties, except the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
In memos published on July 13, covering Libor relation issues in 2007-08, plus some leaks from the Department if Justice, it appears regulators knew what was going but weren’t too worried.
The memos, which are transcripts of conversations between Fed officials and Barclays traders, are about Barclays’ suspicions that other banks’ borrowing rates were unrealistically low. No called “fire” or the cops.
All because, as the Barclays people told the Fed, “…we are doing it [misquoting rates], because, um, if we didn’t do it…it draws, um, unwanted attention on ourselves.” (The transcripts are full of ums and hmms, though expletives are dleted.)
It also transpired that when the Financial Times compared Barclays’ Libor contributions with other banks, it inferred a problem in raising money in the interbank market, resulting in a share price slump.
Great conspiracies and crime are unlikely to surface from such desultory conversations between traders and regulators.