How Not to Think About Motivated Reasoning

The New Yorker recently published a small piece on motivated reasoning and evolutionary psychology titled Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. Motivated reasoning (“MR”) is a pet interest of mind – *ahem* Intellectually Honestest – and every so often it gets some run for wider audiences (like the New Yorker). The specific impetus in this case seems to be a new book that tries to answer why we like our preexisting biases so much:

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber  . . . point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision.

Cool. I like evolutionary psychology. I tend to think more in economic frameworks, e.g. incentives, and don’t worry so much about the “why,” but all ideas are welcome.

But . . . the New Yorker can’t help itself and eventually tells us why it’s really interested in motivated reasoning. Because, Trump, obviously:

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.

I don’t want to write-off the article completely because it does a good job describing the overriding tendency for reason to (a) favor certainty and conviction; (b) favor what is already assumed to be true; and (c) make us feel good when both (a) and (b) are accomplished.

But I agree with Arnold Kling that the New Yorker mostly succeeds by demonstrating the thing it purports to describe: “Don’t worry loyal readers, motivated reasoning is why the roughnecks and uncredentialed don’t get us. They just haven’t fully evolved from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Amiright?! High Fives!”

As Kling puts it:

Kolbert and her New Yorker readers are reassuring one another that they are right to be contemptuous of President Trump . . .

Suppose that I were to apply the illusion of explanatory depth to the response to the financial crisis, including the bank bailouts. The elites in this country believe that they understand the causes of this policy (too much deregulation) and the consequences of this policy (saved us from another Great Depression). They hold this baseless belief because their fellow elite-members hold this baseless belief. And one could argue that the Trump Administration is a consequence of the fact that the elite view is not convincing to the rest of the country. (Note, however, that I do not claim to understand last year’s election. I am just suggesting that elites can be just as shallow as Trump supporters. I would go further and suggest that flattering yourself because you hate Trump is itself a sign of intellectual shallowness.)

And therein lies the problem with evangelizing concepts like motivated reasoning. Demonstrating that bias is more pervasive than we give it credit for very quickly becomes someone else’s bias. It’s just further evidence that, seriously, we were right all along.

MR: We’re incredibly good at convincing ourselves that we were right all along and that our team is way better.

Person: Yeah, other people are totally like that. It explains why I can’t convince them that they’re wrong — even when I’ve got charts and videos that totally prove I’m right.

MR: No, everyone. That means you and me too. For example, I’m constantly looking for evidence to confirm my belief that people are motivated reasoners.

Person: Yeah. I agree. Other people are totally biased. It’s a problem. How do we fix them?

It’s part of what makes the behavioral economics policy crowd so troubling. It’s a great insight to realize that decision-making is highly contextual and that the “right” thing is often reverse-engineered from “best thing for me and the things that make me feel good and care about.” The problem is that it’s everyone else that needs “nudging,” but never them. The thought doesn’t even cross their minds.

Whatever institutional, social, neurological or game-theoretic constraints that apply to ordinary citizens and justify all kinds of paternalistic interventions apparently suspend in time and space when you become a policy-maker. Back to the dialogue (and pardon the self-indulgence):

Technocrat: “We need federal agencies to help people overcome their biases and make better decisions.”

Humble Blogger: “Well, what if the federal agencies are also biased in the exact same ways?”

Technocrat: *Blink* “Did you read the New Yorker on Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds? You totally should — I think it would help you a lot.”

Humble Blogger: “No, but seriously. There’s a ton of research on this – it’s called Public Choice and it’s been around a long time. Incentives for public officials make them do all kinds of things that are mostly good for public officials. It turns out they’re human too. In general, technocracy has a really bad track record, relative to trade-tested trial-and-error, but that’s my bias.”

Technocrat: “Oh, you’re just a paid shill for the Koch brothers. Stupid, profiteering, one-note ideologue. Good luck with the Gilded Age and the Great Depression and the Racism and the sweatshops and the financial crisis and the Super PACs and all the things that we technocrats totally fixed.”

Humble Blogger: “Yeah, have you ever wondered how that account of history became so prevalent?”

Technocrat: “Triumph of reason. Obviously. Have you seen this one chart that proves it all?”

If it seems like I’m doing the same thing to the technocrats, you’re not wrong. There is too much uncertainty, particularly when it comes to something as complex and uncontrolled as human civilization, to be overly certain about anything. Reasonable doubt is reasonable, and it allows all teams to say: “It would have worked, it just wasn’t [socialist/capitalist/conservative/liberal] enough — if only it had been more [regulated / de-regulated / redistributive / libertarian] then you’d see I’m right.”

Granted. But to my mind, the fact of uncertainty strongly favors less prescription, and not more. It also favors weight-of-the-evidence approaches, rather than anecdotes, and marginal changes, rather than one-size-fits-all.

By all means, start your commune, just don’t force anyone to join.

Good Bannon Profile

The New York Times deserves credit for hosting Christopher Caldwell’s (Weekly Standard) profile of Bannon. It’s measured, thoughtful and informed. Caldwell paints a picture of Bannon – that he concedes may be incomplete – as an “intellectual in politics excited by grand theories.” As Caldwell mildly puts it, that is “a combination that has produced unpredictable results before.”

Some interesting bits:

Standard bearing for the party of ideas?

Perhaps because Mr. Bannon came late to conservatism, turning his full-time energy to political matters only after the Sept. 11 attacks, he radiates an excitement about it that most of his conservative contemporaries long ago lost.

 Quoting Evola does not equal fascist:

There may be good reasons to worry about Mr. Bannon, but they are not the ones everyone is giving. It does not make Mr. Bannon a fascist that he happens to know who the 20th-century Italian extremist Julius Evola is. It does not make Mr. Bannon a racist that he described Breitbart as “the platform for the alt-right” — a broad and imprecise term that applies to a wide array of radicals, not just certain white supremacist groups.

Back to that party of ideas thing . . . although a little old-fashioned:

Where Mr. Bannon does veer sharply from recent mainstream Republicanism is in his all-embracing nationalism. He speaks of sovereignty, economic nationalism, opposition to globalization and finding common ground with Brexit supporters and other groups hostile to the transnational European Union. On Thursday, at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, he described the “center core” of Trump administration philosophy as the belief that the United States is more than an economic unit in a borderless world. It is “a nation with a culture anda reason for being.”

More ideas, but good ones (aka ones I agree with), although I could do without the quotations and pejoratives. Also, I’m genuinely impressed (and saddened) that the MSM (and everyone “outside the hall”) still slavishly eye-rolls critiques of the administrative state:

But Mr. Bannon, unlike Mr. Trump, has a detailed idea, an explanation, of how American sovereignty was lost, and of what to do about it. It is the same idea that Tea Party activists have: A class of regulators in the government has robbed Americans of their democratic prerogatives. That class now constitutes an “administrative state” that operates to empower itself and enrich its crony-capitalist allies.

When Mr. Bannon spoke on Thursday of “deconstructing the administrative state,” it may have sounded like gobbledygook outside the hall, but it was an electrifying profession of faith for the attendees. It is through Mr. Bannon that Trumpism can be converted from a set of nostalgic laments and complaints into a program for overhauling the government.

Even more ideas, although, back to the slightly head-scratching and perhaps troubling:

Mr. Bannon adds something personal and idiosyncratic to this Tea Party mix. He has a theory of historical cycles that can be considered elegantly simple or dangerously simplistic. It is a model laid out by William Strauss and Neil Howe in two books from the 1990s. Their argument assumes an 80- to 100-year cycle divided into roughly 20-year “highs,” “awakenings,” “unravelings” and “crises.” The American Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, World War II — Mr. Bannon has said for years that we’re due for another crisis about now. His documentary about the 2008 financial collapse, “Generation Zero,” released in 2010, uses the Strauss-Howe model to explain what happened, and concludes with Mr. Howe himself saying, “History is seasonal, and winter is coming.”

Even, even more ideas, with a little does of heterodxy, some tastes for the Bernie Trumping crowd, and there it is again, the old timey ‘Judeo-Christian’ paleo stuff:

Mr. Bannon’s views reflect a transformation of conservatism over the past decade or so. You can trace this transformation in the films he has made. His 2004 documentary, “In the Face of Evil,” is an orthodox tribute to the Republican Party hero Ronald Reagan. But “Generation Zero,” half a decade later, is a strange hybrid. The financial crash has intervened. Mr. Bannon’s film features . . .  investment manager Barry Ritholtz . . . [who] says that the outcome of the financial crisis has been “socialism for the wealthy but capitalism for everybody else.”

By 2014, Mr. Bannon’s own ideology had become centered on this distrust. . . . “Not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis.” He warned against “the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism,” by which he meant “a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people.” Capitalism, he said, ought to rest on a “Judeo-Christian” foundation.

The allusions to paleos are no accident — that’s the (somewhat over-determined) picture Caldwell is trying to draw:

It was Pat Buchanan who in his 1992 run for president first called on Republicans to value jobs and communities over profits . . . By 2016 his views on trade and migration, once dismissed as crackpot, were spreading so fast that everyone in the party had embraced them — except its elected officials and its establishment presidential candidates.

And of course, if you’re talking about a culture war, you’ve got to mention THE ISLAM. No, Caldwell deserves credit for drawing a distinction between Islamism and the Islamic world generally, even if he simplifies the history a bit:

Mr. Bannon does not often go into detail about what Judeo-Christian culture is, but he knows one thing it is not: Islam. Like most Americans, he believes that Islamism — the extremist political movement — is a dangerous adversary. More controversially he holds that, since this political movement is generated within the sphere of Islam, the growth of Islam — the religion — is itself a problem with which American authorities should occupy themselves. This is a view that was emphatically repudiated by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.

Caldwell resists the temptation to drop Bannon in a neat ideological box, or even any box that makes him purely an ideologue. But Bannon’s “respect for duty” still comes across as a bit romantic:

But Mr. Bannon’s ideology, whatever it may be, does not wholly capture what drives him, says the screenwriter Julia Jones. Starting in the early 1990s, Ms. Jones and Mr. Bannon began writing screenplays together, and did so for a decade and a half. She is one of the few longtime collaborators in his otherwise peripatetic career. As Ms. Jones sees it, a more reliable key to his worldview lies in his military service. “He has a respect for duty,” she said in early February. . . .

I would 100% watch this mini-series:

For two years, according to Ms. Jones, the two of them worked on the outline of a 26-part television series about seekers after the secrets of the human self, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Nietzsche to Madame Blavatsky to Ramakrishna to the Baal Shem Tov to Geronimo. “It was his idea,” she said. “He assembled all the people.”

But the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Jones says, changed him, and their collaboration did not survive his growing engagement with politics. Speaking of his films, she says, “He developed a kind of propaganda-type tone of voice that I found offensive.” Ms. Jones is a literary person, left-liberal in politics. She regrets that Mr. Bannon “has found a home in nationalism.” But she does not believe he is any kind of anarchist, let alone a racist.

Caldwell wraps things up with a measured insight into why Bannon may actually be cause for concern:

He is a newcomer to political power and, in fact, relatively new to an interest in politics. He is willing to break with authority. While he does not embrace any of the discredited ideologies of the last century, he is attached to a theory of history’s cycles that is, to put it politely, untested.

Including, by far, my favorite line:

Most ominously, he is an intellectual in politics excited by grand theories — a combination that has produced unpredictable results before.

Caldwell reminds us though that Bannon is not unique as an “intellectual in politics” even if he is a different kind of intellectual:

We’ll see how it works out. Barack Obama, in a similar way, used to allude to the direction and the “arc” of history. Some may find the two theories of history equally naïve and unrealistic. Others may see a mitigating element in the cyclical nature of Mr. Bannon’s view. A progressive who believes history is more or less linear is fighting for immortality when he enters the political arena. A conservative who believes history is cyclical is fighting only for a role in managing, say, the next 20 or 80 years. Then his work will be undone, as everyone’s is eventually.

Misreading Political Tea Leaves

On the political will to repeal/replace the ACA, Kevin Drum (Mother Jones) gets it exactly wrong. Drum quotes a New York Times story about how political “intensity” now favors “Save Obamacare” as opposed to the “Repeal/Replace” rallies that were so prominent during Obama’s tenure.

According to Drum:

So reality has set in for everyone. The Republican rank-and-file has finally figured out they never really cared all that much about taxing the rich an extra three points to provide health care for everyone. The Democratic rank-and-file has finally figured out that Obamacare is a pretty good program and it’s worth fighting for.

No. 100% wrong. This is has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with political economy.

The rank-and-file of either party is no more or less informed about the (de)merits of Obamacare than they were before. Drum’s mistake is to think that political intensity has much to do with policy at all. To the contrary, it has far more to do with status and rivalry -our team versus theirs- and risk/reward for elected officials.

First, the status issue:

The fight against Obamacare was a fight against Obama. That campaign was successfully concluded with the election of Donald Trump. Without an actual Obama to rail against, railing against Obamacare (and all those complicated details) is a lot less fun. Plus it was exhausting. Likewise, the fight for Obamacare is now a fight against Trump, which wasn’t really possible until Trump became president. When Obama was president, by contrast, fighting for the status quo just wasn’t that inspiring. “Status Quo You Can Believe In” might have been Hillary’s campaign slogan.

What should be obvious is that people (especially the sorts of people who have the time to show up at rallies) have no real idea about how Obamacare works–not now, not before, not ever. Not even the “experts” can really agree on how Obamacare works because health insurance is a really complicated thing (really many things) with a zillion different moving parts that all interact with each other in unpredictable ways. Policymakers are guessing, just like everyone else that designs a product or makes an investment, etc. [The only difference is that policymakers get to offload the costs of their failures to someone else . . .]

Other than special interests (more on them below), the people who show up at rallies are just rallying against their diminished status as members of the losing team. Policy is besides the point.

Second, political economy:

The reason the GOP is having hard time repealing the ACA is because it’s hard to pass law generally – Congress is highly deliberative and there are a lot of mouths to feed. It’s especially hard to repeal entitlements because costs will be glaringly obvious – even if relatively small – while the benefits will be obscure – even if relatively large. For politicians, that’s a losing strategy. They favor small but obvious benefits with large but obscure costs.

Consider the political economics of repealing a subsidy: when you take a subsidy away, the loss is localized, salient and immediate, while the gains are dispersed, subtle and down-the-road. For example, if repeal will save 100 million people $1 each ($100,000,000) and will cost 1,000 people $100 each ($100,000), it’s almost certainly a great idea ($100,000,000 > $100,000) . . . but it will still be exceedingly hard to accomplish. The 1,000 people will holler “why us?! we’re so sympathetic!” and the 100 million people will be too busy to complain much about $1. That’s especially true when they’ve got so many other $1 charges on their bill it’s hard to pick just one. The only way the 100 million repealers will match the “intensity” of the 1,000 savers is if 100 Obamacares were all repealed at once. That’s a hell of a coordination and marketing problem – and again, it’s really hard to pass a law, let alone 100 laws.

Politicians live for this kind of stuff – spreading (future) costs widely and distributing (immediate) benefits locally – because that’s how elections are won. It’s also why elections create really bad incentives for politicians. Winning elections encourages a policy of death by a thousand cuts. Politicians are eager to take credit for a subsidy – 1,000 very happy voters – but when the total costs get too high, a politician can always say “my policy only costs you a dollar – blame the other 99 politicians for the high tab.” Credit is easily attributable, but blame is not.

It’s like hundreds of different credit cards all linked to the same account (paid for by millions of unrelated and exasperated parents). Each elected is eager to show off his/her shiny new purchase, but making a return will only be a drop in the bucket for the taxpayer . . . that all the other electeds will probably take credit for (without returning their respective shiny purchases).

For something like Obamacare, it’s even worse because some of the costs are sunk costs, i.e. no refunds. Shifting your business model around, building new products, and devising and implementing new policies and procedures is all really expensive. Shifting everything back will also be really expensive, and none of the money from the first shift is coming back.

When you hear people argue against repeal because repeal would be too “disruptive” that’s more or less what they mean. Of course, if something is going to be too expensive to fix if it goes wrong, then it’s probably a terrible idea to try it in the first place, unless you’re really sure it’s going to work. It’s even dumber to force everyone to try your little experiment all at once . . . because then it’s going to be really “disruptive” to clean up the mess you’ve made.

Saying repeal is “too disruptive” only demonstrates that it ought never to have been passed in the first place (which is all the more reason to repeal it). If repeal fails, Democrats will surely crow, but they’re really dancing on their own graves. If a policy as costly, disruptive and dysfunctional as Obamacare can’t be repealed, it’s just further evidence that elected officials lack the incentives to serve the public-at-large, as opposed to discrete interests. “Hooray! We’re just as harmful as you said we were!”


Status Games

Lots to like from Prof. Glenn Reynolds a/k/a/ InstaPundit (a higher brow version of Jon Stewart, but from the Right):

Donald Trump has been president for a month now, and it’s been months more since he was elected. But the division over him, and his presidency, hasn’t settled down. If anything, it’s gotten worse. But why?


As I’ve pondered this, I’ve gone back to Tyler Cowen’s statement: “Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status.

Politics is in large part a status game with winners and losers. Trump and his ilk were not supposed to be allowed to play, let alone win. Everyone can vote because democracy . . . but govern?! Let’s leave that to our credentialed betters. Trump went ahead and made his own better club and the management committee is pissed.

An election’s turn might see some moving to the private sector — say as K street lobbyists or high-priced lawyers or consultants — while a different batch of meritocrats take their positions in government. But even so, their status remained unchallenged: They were always the insiders, the elite, the winners, regardless of which team came out ahead in the elections.

The one thing the Establishment agrees on is that they are the scientists and the rest of the country are the experiment. When the experiment goes awry, it just means that it’s time for the scientists to switch places with each other, right? Maybe not so much:

But as Nicholas Ebserstadt notes . . . For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then — and broke down very badly.

“The warning lights have been flashing, and the klaxons sounding, for more than a decade and a half. But our pundits and prognosticators and professors and policymakers, ensconced as they generally are deep within the bubble, were for the most part too distant from the distress of the general population to see or hear it.”

Well, now they’ve heard it, and they’ve also heard that a lot of Americans resent the meritocrats’ insulation from what’s happening elsewhere, especially as America’s unfortunate record over the past couple of decades, whether in economics, in politics, or in foreign policy, doesn’t suggest that the “meritocracy” is overflowing with, you know, actual merit.

Eventually people get tired of being a social engineering experiment for their self-appointed betters.

The betters have not taken it well, confirming what ordinary folks have felt all along:

In the United States, the result has been Trump. In Britain, the result was Brexit. In both cases, the allegedly elite — who are supposed to be cool, considered, and  above the vulgar passions of the masses — went more or less crazy. From conspiracy theories (it was the Russians!) to bizarre escape fantasies (A Brexit vote redo! A military coup to oust Trump!) the cognitive elite suddenly didn’t seem especially elite, or for that matter particularly cognitive.

In fact, while America was losing wars abroad and jobs at home, elites seemed focused on things that were, well, faintly ridiculous. As Richard Fernandez tweeted: “The elites lost their mojo by becoming absurd. It happened on the road between cultural appropriation and transgender bathrooms.” It was fatal: “People believe from instinct. The Roman gods became ridiculous when the Roman emperors did. PC is the equivalent of Caligula’s horse.”

It’s hard to solve market failures, human imperfection, selfish, irrational and impulsive behavior and general stupidity, when you’re *surprise* just as afflicted as anyone else.

The rage of our privileged class is thus about loss of status. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t dangerous. Nations have blown up over less . . . .  ‘If Trump is overthrown by the Deep State in a year, he’s unlikely to be the last. If neither faction will suffer itself to be governed by the other, whoever succeeds Trump can expect his term to be short . . . That will be good news for the Barbarians, waiting at the edge of the Baltics, in the South China Sea, and on Europe’s borders, ready to move in. Rome’s Third Century crisis did not end well. The new normal was not a return to the Golden Age, but the end of it.’

Strong nations can fail when their leadership class, or a part of it, succumbs to pettiness, and places its narrow factional interests above those of the nation. Americans have often assumed that we are immune to such things. Perhaps earlier Americas, with a more disciplined, more patriotic ruling class, were. But today’s America is not. Beware.

Small Update on Cost Disease

ZeroHedge rants eloquently about the “criminalization” of healthcare practice and the accompanying administrative overruns:

Screenshot 2017-02-21 at 11.40.12 AM.png That’s a scary looking chart. It’s what happens when various and uncoordinated government agencies run around putting out each others’ fires (and blame everyone but themselves).

Again, if one part of the government does everything in its power to “protect” patients from doctors, it’s going to make the practice of medicine considerably more expensive. That increases pressure on insurance companies to ration coverage and encourages consolidation (and reduces competition).

More rationing and less competition is an invitation to another part of the government to claim “market failure” and demand even more subsidies and oversight.

More subsidies, rationing and oversight is an invitation to even more consumer and taxpayer “protection” and around and around they go . . .

The Lyin’ Biased Sports Media

Bryan Curtis of The Ringer asks (and answers) the question: How Sportswriting Became Such a Liberal Profession?

The piece is interesting both for its open admission of journalistic bias – Curtis himself identifies as a “liberal” i.e. a Progressive, who approves of the takeover – but even more so for the question it doesn’t ask: what took so long?

For Curtis, sportswriting became progressive basically because everyone else was doing it. Curtis’s self-assurance is remarkable (to me) though because the sports world challenges every thread of the Progressive narrative, from race to economics to governance and to values. It’s amazing that sportswriters (like Curtis) could become so unapologetically “liberal” despite, y’know, sports.

Curtis is emphatic that sportswriting skews way Left:

Today, sportswriting is basically a liberal profession, practiced by liberals who enforce an unapologetically liberal code.

It’s not an accident; it’s what the folks doing the hiring want to see:

There was a time when filling your column with liberal ideas on race, class, gender, and labor policy got you dubbed a “sociologist.” These days, such views are more likely to get you a job.

Bias has gotten so pervasive, it’s actually become difficult to find commentators that don’t repeat the Progressive party line:

Last year, Slate’s Josh Levin went searching for the voices who were dinging Colin Kaepernick for his national anthem protest. Levin found conservatives like Tomi Lahren and a couple of personalities from FS1. In the old days, such voices would have filled up half the sports columns, easy.

[Update: I’m not entirely convinced that sportswriters are all that biased. I agree that they’re generally more skewed Left than their audience (or the population at large) and that thinking the wrong stuff gets people fired (Schilling) and suspended (Clevinger), but sportswriters are better than politics or economics writers when it comes to even-handedness, perhaps for the reasons set forth below. But it’s Curtis’ story that I’m responding to specifically, so I’ll give him the floor.]

Later in his column, Curtis offers a number of reasons why things have changed – social media, Obama, evidence-based reasoning(!) – but I won’t go into them at length because (a) that’s what Curtis is for; and (b) my interest is that they are all iterations of the same basic point:

there was once a social and professional price to pay for being a noisy liberal. Now, there’s at least a social price to pay for being a conservative.

Bear with me while I editorialize a bit, but Curtis’s argument is essentially that sportswriting became progressive because the cultural elite wouldn’t tolerate anything else, and in the era of Obama’s Progressive triumphalism, they didn’t have to. (Curtis fondly notes that the “Obama administration was a dream time for liberal sportswriters, who had a president who talked about sports like they did“.) As Curtis himself proudly puts it, sportswriting became progressive because:

revolutionary ideas [became] a ruling philosophy  . . . [and] the former insurgents g[ot] the run of the place.

Well then.

According to Curtis (sort of), the president and social media gave progressive sports journos the assurance that they were not alone in their moral superiority. The long arch of justice required that rigid ideological commitment should be rewarded – nay, demanded – of athletes, fellow writers, league executives – whomever – on pain of social, professional and legal censure. Just ask back-up no-name catcher, Steve Clevinger, what happens when you speak improvidently of the wrong protesters or president.

That Curtis proudly wears his Thought-Police Badge, while celebrating the ideological purge of his industry is sadly unremarkable (but that won’t stop me from remarking). It’s (yet another) testament to the toxicity and power of Progressive cultural ascendancy, but that’s a given at this point.

What’s really amazing is that sports itself is so un-Progressive, but that still didn’t (a) stop the purge; or (b) dampen Curtis’s victory dance in the slightest.

For example, sports suggests that everything Progressives tell us about race is wrong. Minorities are wildly “over represented” relative to the population. Black athletes somehow overcame outright bigotry to become not only wildly successful, but globally iconic (even in flyover country). Indeed, sports shows that naked self-interest and a desire to win (and profit) are highly effective at overcoming racial animus. A sport like hockey also demonstrate that racial disparities can involve self-selection and culture, and not necessarily racism.

Hell, sports is one of the last true bastions of viewpoint diversity where country-boys meet the city kids and city kids meet the religious kids and the religious kids meet everyone else. Athletes know something about the world outside their upbringing, and they understand how having money can make you a target (and not necessarily a bad person). Athletes emphatically understand that the Press is not your friend.

Sports is meritocratic, hard-working and winner-take-all. To the determined and talented go the spoils and only losers blame bad luck. There is no shortage of physically gifted flameouts that never put in the time or effort to play past their rookie contracts. Sports celebrates strength, achievement, fair play, rule-following and most of all *gasp* fierce and unrelenting competition. Dum dum dummmm.

Even some of the examples that Curtis cites of an emerging Progressive consensus are in fact free-enterprisey (i.e. very un-Progressive). Underpaid (and unpaid) athletes? That’s what happens when a cartel controls a labor market [or any market], dummies. Sports drafts as something akin to slavery? Well, that’s how the medical profession and the academy operate . . . say no Progressives ever. It’s not A-Rod’s fault for signing with the highest bidder? No shit, comrade.

Curtis himself notes the conflict between the Progressive desire to condemn and destroy the scourge of sexual assault at any cost, and their desire to protect young Black men from the living hell of criminal prosecution. Goodness it’s confusing when you’re confronted with consequences that aren’t supposed to exist. Pondering the two outcasts, Michael Vick and Ray Rice, Curtis wonders:

And there’s another liberal ideal at stake here: that criminals who’ve paid their debt to society ought to have a chance to re-enter it. In 2010, Barack Obama congratulated the owner of the Eagles for giving Michael Vick a job after he was released from prison. Rice’s bad acts were very different from Vick’s. But say Rice got another NFL job after his apology tour. Would a sportswriter have written an encomium to the owner who signed Rice? Should they have? It’s an awfully tough question.

What’s even more astonishing is that sportswriters could go so Whole-Hog Progressive even though they’ve been remarkably good at separating narrative from evidence – at least as journalists go. There are still some holdouts, but the blogger nerds with their spreadsheets long ago showed that virtues like grit, veteran leadership, clutchness, hot handedness, hard-fistedness, etc. were often, if not exclusively, supported with anecdotal evidence and whole lot of myth-making (confirmation bias, recency bias, etc.). They also demonstrated how statistics can be used very badly, if for example the thing they count is not all that meaningful in real life, like batting average or ERA.

Curtis describes sports journalism’s predilection for data as follows:

If liberals have a long-standing delusion, it’s that the presentation of hard data (about everything from climate change to “voter fraud”) will win the masses to their cause. But within sportswriting, this is actually true.

I’m biased, but I think it’s more accurate to describe the Progressive “delusion” as the same one that afflicts the Old School sports guys who insist that “hard data” like Saves and Wins tell you something interesting about the quality of the pitcher. Sportswriters have been hard on the Old School types, so it’s surprising that sportswriters wouldn’t be more skeptical of Progressive statistical claims made about wagespolicing or rape culture.


I suppose one thing that sportswriters and Progressives (and ALL political parties) have in common is that they both sell team sports. Electoral politics and sports reward dedicated coalitions of single issue customers. If you’re a sports fan, just listen to the home broadcast of the opposing team. It’s like Fox News to the MSNBC crowd – the announcers will be describing the same game you’re watching, but it won’t sound the same. Politics and sports also involve zero sum, winner-take-all games, where increasing your own stature (offense) is just as beneficial as reducing your adversaries (defense). Both sports and political fans root for their team and genuinely loath the bad guys. It’s weird and tribal.

But that’s always been true, so I’m going to agree with Curtis that the overriding power of the Progressive cultural war is what ultimately forced sports journalism into the herd.