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Trust and Honesty

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely (I have earlier posts on his books) was on TV talking about trust and honesty. Trust is assuming someone reliably tells the truth and acts honorably. Ariely put it in the context of a public good, cooperating to benefit the public, He described what he called an experiment on a public good. Ten random people were given $10 each. They could keep it or contribute it to the "public fund." All money in the public fund would grow five time at the end of the day and be divided. On day 1 everyone contributed to the fund and each received $50 at the end of the day. On day 2, one person kept the $10 (likely an economist; the other 9 might consider him/her a sociopath). At the end of the day, each person received $45 except for the economist receiving $55. On day 3, no one contributed to the public fund.

Trust takes time to build and can be lost quickly. Watergate and government justifications for Vietnam were examples of serious hits to public trust. Unlike others (Scandinavians come to mind), Americans are known for self-reliance and opposing taxes. Consequently, it takes effort for supporting government programs. The best example of this was declaring war after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor; virtually everyone was behind it. That trust is gone, and seemingly half of America opposes most policies and whoever is in office. There is media that oppose almost anyone or any policy. Fact-telling is apparently so difficult the fact-checkers at The Washington Post, can't keep up (they do give out pinocchios liberally).

It's an easy segue from trust to honesty, moral character with integrity, truthfulness and absence of lying and cheating. On honesty Ariely started with the Biblical story of Sarah and Abraham. God came to Sarah and told her she would bare a son; she didn't believe because Abraham was so old. God then told Abraham that he would have a son; God told him that Sarah didn't believe because she thought she was too old. God was lying according to Ariely's interpretation. Something of a similar story to Eve and the forbidden fruit; the serpent said she and Adam wouldn't die and they didn't. Ariely thought God prevaricated for their own good. Ariely made the case that Trump could lie in the interest of the broader principles of his supporters, like dismissing global warming or the dangers of the pandemic.

Politicians cannot be honest and get elected--honesty is just not an effective campaign strategy. Case in point is Bengazi. The existence of CIA there was classified. Officials (other than the president) could not mention the role of the CIA. Not great for the idea of full disclosure. Neither side distinguished themselves with honesty. Generally, both sides support trade deals, like NAFTA or Trans-Pacific Partnership. They are great for multinationals and GDP growth, but labor unions and other groups have a conniption fit because they mean lost jobs. Politicians generally oppose them for elections, then make sure they pass, because big business has lots of lobbyists and give major campaign contributions. Plus, its great for the stock market in addition to GDP.

Ariely may have a point about Trump, but the president probably has 25,000 "misstatements and falsehoods," which suggests he lies just to lie or for entertainment purposes. I suppose everyone needs a hobby. The theory is that there should be agreement on facts, then people can have alternative opinions on those. That seems a low bar, but even that does not seem likely any time soon. Incentive structures for discussions on politics to be fact-based do not seem to exist.

Historically, the median voter model (MVM) provided a model: politicians have to move toward the center to get a majority. The opposite seems to occur now. The object is to turn out the base to win, the more extreme the better (with adjustments for state and local interests). Biden is a moderate, possibly suggesting a change in focus. If he is successful, I will consider it a small victory for the MVM (and MVG).


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