More About Good People vs. Bad, and (Gottschall) the Ubiquity of Conspiracy Theories

Slate, June 26, Jordan Weissman: The GOP’s One Big Excuse for Cutting Off Unemployment Benefits Isn’t Even True

This topic echoes comments in recent posts about whether people are generally good or generally bad; conservatives presume the former (in particular, that recipients of welfare and unemployment insurance are lazy mooches), and religious conservatives take the matter as an article of faith because it justifies their theology; if people aren’t necessarily bad, and need fixing, the premises of their faiths evaporates.

Republicans in Congress have a simple excuse for why they don’t want to extend the $600-per-week federal unemployment benefits that are scheduled to expire at the end of July: The money, they say, will discourage Americans from going back to work, and slow down the country’s reopening, since businesses won’t be able to rehire staff.

On a moral level, this position is mean-spirited at best, since it implies that we should be forcing low-wage service workers back onto the job and risk lung death in the midst of a pandemic that is presently exploding out of control across the entire Sun Belt just so they can make rent. From a macroeconomic perspective, the argument is dicey as well, since pulling the plug on aid would hurt consumer spending and potentially put millions of jobs at risk. (I mean, if you want people to go out to the Galleria to shop, they need money. That’s science.)

Data and a graph on how unemployment (UI) payments affect the job market. Conclusion:

The most obvious explanation is that, for the moment, labor supply isn’t really a problem for the economy; labor demand is. Businesses are hiring slowly, because the coronavirus is still ripping through the country and they are only able to partially reopen.

But in the end, there just isn’t good empirical evidence that unemployment benefits are much of a drag on rehiring at the moment, and for every saltwater taffy shop owner who says he can’t find enough staff, there seem to be plenty of everyday examples of employees who’ve gone back to their old jobs even though it meant a pay cut.

What this means is that the argument against extending the CARES Act’s unemployment benefits is supremely weak.


After writing up notes on the Gottschall book a couple days ago, I realized that his comments about the ubiquity of conspiracy theories are more significant than I acknowledged. There are the big ones, about JFK, 9/11, and so on, but there are millions more. I’ll quote the book, pages 113-114:

You will find that there is a conspiracy theory for just about everything. There are the big classics, invoking evil cabals of Illuminati, Masons, and Jews. there is a conspiracy theory for any major entertainment or political figure who dies young: Marilyn, Elvis, Biggie, and Tupac; Prince Di (murdered because she had an Arab baby in her womb); RFK, JFK, and MLK (all killed by the same Manchurian candidate). there are conspiracy theories about Hurricane Katrina (government operatives dynamited the levees to drown black neighborhoods), fluoridated drinking water (a means of mind control), aphrodisiac bubble gum (Israelis use it to turn Palestinian girls into tarts), jet plane vapor trails (they spew aggression-enhancing chemicals into minority neighborhoods), Paul McCartney (long dead), John Lennon (gunned down by Stephen King), the Holocaust (didn’t happen), Area 51 cover-ups (happened), moon landings (didn’t), and so on.

And if writing now, he might well have added Flat-Earth conspiracies, which to be true would require the involvement of *millions* of scientists, sailors, astronauts, and jet-airplane pilots, over hundreds of years.

What does this mean? I think, that there is a mindset among many people to see shady forces behind *everything* unusual. That need, again, for everything to “make sense” in an intuitive way. I also think, frankly, that it reveals the divide between the educated classes — those who know something about physics, chemistry, engineering, as well as psychology, even politics — and those who lead lives that don’t involve such knowledge, knowledge that is generally about how the world actually works. I think of the quote from Equus here on my blog in 2018. For most of us there is no need to debate the particulars of any one conspiracy theory; that’s not the point.

I wish I could find the reference, but a key comment about this, that I read several years ago, was about some junior congressman who came to Washington DC: (paraphrasing) “After two weeks of seeing things really work here, how inefficient it is, I’ll never believe any conspiracy theory ever again.”

I had my own encounter with a casual believer a few years ago, after we moved to Oakland. It was the lady gardener next door to us, who (still) comes about once a month, in her big beat-up old pick-up, to spend three or four hours trimming my neighbor’s shrubs and trees. (As an aside, we’ve never met this neighbor; she’s apparently a surgeon at some hospital and works crazy hours, but even on the rare occasions I’m outside and see her getting into or out of her red Mercedes SUV, she doesn’t acknowledge my greeting. We’ve never spoken.) Anyway, the first time I met this lady gardener she ask me if I understood about chemtrails. I think there was a passenger jet flying overhead at the moment, leaving a contrail. I made demurring noises. She explained, and I probably raised my eyebrows but said nothing, and she thanked me for listening. We still say hi once in a while, and that’s all.

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