What We Learned from This Morning’s Newspaper

Robert H. Frank, Molly Worthen, Anthony Doerr, and Nicholas Kristof on cutting taxes for the rich, rejecting Roy Moore-style evangelicalism, how even the conscientious among us react to warnings of climate change, and how Blue States do better at practicing the family values that Red States preach.

Robert H. Frank: How Cutting Taxes Makes Life Worse for the Rich.

This speaks to the known cognitive error whereby we evaluate our good fortune not to any absolute or historical standard, but to a relative standard in comparison to those around us.

It is perfectly natural, of course, to believe that extra cash will help them buy the special things they want, such as more spacious homes or better performing cars. But that belief is a garden-variety cognitive error.

The mistake occurs because “special” is an inescapably relative concept. A spacious home is one that is larger than most other homes. A high-performance car is one that outperforms most other cars. Successful bidding for such things depends almost entirely on relative purchasing power. Taxes affect absolute purchasing power, not relative purchasing power. The upshot is that the ability of the already rich to bid successfully for special things is not enhanced by tax cuts.

Little wonder, then, that context shapes our evaluations of virtually every purchase we might consider. The standards that define “special” are therefore highly elastic. When everyone buys larger houses and faster cars, or stages more elaborate wedding celebrations, standards adjust accordingly.

Failure to appreciate that reality has also contributed to the tax resistance that has made it so difficult to restore America’s crumbling public infrastructure. Even proponents of minimal government concede that private cars would be of little use without public roads. And although it’s difficult to reach agreement on the best mix of public and private spending, studies show that the current mix in the United States is strongly biased against public spending.

The irony of his discussion is that if the wealthy can buy even more expensive high-performance cars, they won’t be able to use them if the infrastructure supported by taxes deteriorates.

Suppose that the Ferrari would universally be judged better if both cars were driven on good roads. But since the Porsche already has every design feature that affects performance significantly, the Ferrari’s edge would be tiny at most. No one could reasonably claim that the Ferrari would be more pleasing to drive on pothole-ridden roads than the Porsche on well-maintained ones.

Yet, among the super-wealthy, the actual quality mix of cars and highways in the United States more closely resembles Ferraris on potholes than Porsches on smooth asphalt. That’s puzzling, since the latter combination could be achieved at much lower total expense.

What Frank doesn’t note is that this observation won’t change the dynamic of how Republicans will try, for any reason whatsoever, to cut taxes for the wealthy, because the wealthy are their biggest contributors. The wealthy, like all of us, always want more; and they can afford to buy politicians.


Molly Worthen (author of The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism): How to Escape From Roy Moore’s Evangelicalism.

The writer considers an evangelical woman with a “sterling pedigree” at Liberty University and other places, who is troubled by evangelical support for Roy Moore.

This “liturgy” is the nightly consumption of conservative cable news. Liberals love to complain about conservatives’ steady diet of misinformation through partisan media, but Ms. Schiess’s complaint is more profound: Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aren’t just purveyors of distorted news, but high priests of a false religion.

“The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing that people do every night,” Ms. Schiess told me. “It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America. This is convincing on a less than logical level, and the church is not communicating to them in that same way.”

With discussion of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” — the idea that Christians should withdraw from modern society and live in a kind of permanent cultural bubble; another woman who tried that idea before it became trendy; and her reaction.


Anthony Doerr (a novelist): We Were Warned.

Twenty-five years ago this month, more than 1,500 prominent scientists, including over half of the living Nobel laureates, issued a manifesto titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” in which they admonished, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

Since then, he describes, even those of us conscientious to this warning have found it hard to act in way that would reverse this trend; try as we might, it’s difficult to make sacrifices in behavior that would truly make long-term difference.

Since the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” humans have done extraordinary things. We stabilized the stratospheric ozone layer; we connected people in instantaneous and previously unimaginable ways; we landed a golf cart on Mars and drove it around. We even got every nation-state on earth (except ours, apparently) to agree to try to achieve net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by midcentury.
But we’ve also removed enough forests to cover Texas nearly twice, pumped almost half of the carbon emitted in human history into the atmosphere, grown the population by over two billion and cut the number of wild animals on earth by something close to half.

And now there’s a new warning. He concludes,

For decades science has been warning us that we are compromising earth’s systems, and that none of us will be immune to the consequences. Everywhere you look, people are trying: adopting renewable energy, working to guarantee women control over their reproductive decisions, fighting food waste, shifting to plant-based diets. Maybe the most important thing the rest of us can do is take our fingers out of our ears and join them.

Needless to say, the evangelicals and the current US administration are not helping; they are aggressively making the problem — the survival of our species — worse, by the day.


Nicholas Kristoff: Blue States Practice the Family Values Red States Preach

[I]f one looks at blue and red state populations as a whole, it’s striking that conservatives champion “family values” even as red states have high rates of teenage births, divorce and prostitution. In contrast, people in blue states don’t trumpet these family values but often seem to do a better job living them.

Red states have higher rates of teen pregnancies, shotgun marriages, lower rates of average age of marriage and first births. And higher rates of divorce. And of adultery and prostition. The big exceptional group: Mormons. Kristoff concludes:

More broadly, conservative values don’t directly lead to premarital sex or divorce. Rather, statistical analysis suggests that religious conservatives end up divorcing partly because they marry early, are less likely to go to college and are disproportionately poor.

So the deeper problem seems to be the political choices that conservatives make, underinvesting in public education and social services (including contraception). This underinvestment leaves red states poorer and less educated — and thus prone to a fraying of the social fabric.

So let’s drop the wars over family values. Liberals and conservatives alike don’t want kids pregnant at 16, and we almost all seek committed marriages that last. It’s worth noting that Bible-thumping blowhards like Roy Moore don’t help achieve those values, while investments in education and family planning do.

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