This post is not about movies, but Monebyall is a pretty good movie. And, that’s coming from a guy who is not a big commercial movie fan and not a traditional American sports fan; example, I’m not big on the Transformers franchise and I didn’t watch the Super Bowl a couple days ago. Moneyball is about baseball, but that’s only incidental because any story is about conflict. (There are no great stories about friends who get along and nothing happens.) There are plenty of conflicts in Moneyball: a team general manager who battles almost his entire crew and boss on everything from money to batting lineup. And there’s one conflict in particular, really the driving plot line, and that’s the conflict between heuristics and reliable statistical evidence. The setup of this conflict in the movie is Brad Pitt’s character is faced with finding new recruits to his baseball team, the Oakland A’s. He has a staff of a dozen old baseball scouts who are picking new players based on an “athletic look,” whether the player’s girlfriend is pretty or not, and other factors that have exactly nothing to do with baseball. Pitt’s character doesn’t believe this is the most efficient method of picking players, but he can’t point to any other method. This is when he meets Jonah Hill’s character and even if you only seen the previews you know that they put a team together and play them using statistical evidence. (I won’t ruin anything else for you, the rest of the movie is dramatic and funny with peppy dialogue and superb acting from Pitt and Hill and a dozen others.)
(I assure you this is not about movies. I have a point to make. Coming up!)
This central conflict to Moneyball is heuristics vs. evidence. (Michael Lewis, the author of the book Moneyball, stumbled upon this concept after he wrote the book and compiled a nice article for Vanity Fair about it.) Vanity Fair sums up heuristics vs. evidence as:
Plainly put, a “heuristic” is a tool we use to simplify the decision-making process. For example, if you’re driving in the United Kingdom for the first time and don’t know the traffic laws, heuristics might help you correctly assume that a green light means go and a red light means stop. By applying what you already know about driving in America, you won’t have to waste hours reading up on England’s traffic laws. However, that same heuristic could prove harmful if you start driving in the right-hand lane, against traffic … By nature, heuristics are both useful and inaccurate; our minds have developed them to deal with a wide-ranging set of problems.
You can see how we developed this in our brains for survival. This bit of evolution probably helped primitive versions of ourselves find food, water, shelter and without the countless hours of studying the migratory habits of birds or measuring the annual rainfall. (The term “useful and inaccurate” bears repeating.) Psychologists call our heuristic minds “system 1.” In that we use incomplete information to form a hasty assessment to get through most of our day. The analytical, rational mind we use to study complex problems psychologists call “system 2.” You can also see how an entire domain of thought can arise in baseball that’s driven by wrong-headed ideas such as “slumps,” “confidence,” and “momentum,” that come from correlating a few statistics and mentally filling in the blank spots. In the movie, teams were throwing millions of dollars at baseball players solely on these mythical factors.
Now let’s extrapolate that to our political system. The race between Democrats and Republicans this year may cost (adding both parties’ current treasure chests up) just under two billion dollars. And that’s before we add in the costs of holding a primary and general election: the voting booths, registrars, ballots and everything else involved. There is nightly punditry (hours of it) devoted to how an electorate picks its candidate. The same terms and intangible factors are used to pick baseball players as they are to pick the president: looks, confidence, momentum, slumps, their wives, their dogs, their vacations and any other point of the compass except an actual scientific and statistical evaluation of where our country should be and how we get there.
As Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, the electorate believes that Republicans are the religious party and that the Republican candidates are the religious candidates. On her show she discussed that on the same day that Barrack Obama gave a speech that urged the audience of a prayer meeting to help the poor, Rick Santorum defended the profits of a drug company against a poor family that couldn’t afford their medicine. Rachel rightly divines that the system 1 way of thinking is that Rick Santorum is the pious choice and in popular culture Obama is a godless heathen. She wants you to ask yourself which is more like the teachings of Jesus: defense of drug companies or helping the poor. I want to ask Rachel (and everyone else!) what one very rich person’s religion has to do with a damn thing at all? Because to me, it looks as if we are arguing whether a player has an “athletic look,” instead of asking what kind of rational approach to governance can we use to take the resources we have and achieve a goal that we want. Is Barrack Obama an intelligent man? Yes. Are the 435 members of Congress intelligent people? (All partisan bickering aside) Yes, I think so. Is it worth billions of campaign dollars to place them at the head of our nation and let them use trillions of dollars to fund initiatives they want? I doubt that.
In an interview on the Daily Show, Brad Pitt summed up the way we are entrenched in system 1 vs. system 2 thinking with a metaphor of the car. To paraphrase Mr. Pitt, “If we invented the car today, would we use a finite fossil fuel, use an enormous amount of our GDP to buy that fuel, and billions of dollars and our military force to secure that resource, and invent a car that will pollute our environment?” In short, we absolutely would not.
And I ask this question that is similar to Mr. Pitt’s: If we were to invent a society today, would it look like ours? If we were to invent government today, would we have 435 members of two Congressional houses, a president, vice president, an electoral college, and nine members of a “Supreme Court,” that (not to be too glib) still wear long black pleated robes?
And that is just the federal level. In San Diego, California, where I live, the City Council, mayor, city attorneys, business associations, judges, labor board members, and (I’m not sure why we’re consulting some editors and writers, but) a newspaper are all fighting over control of a huge chunk of taxpayer money that they each want in order to build a new convention center, and possibly a football stadium. From 1995 to 2004, San Diegan taxes bought any remaining Chargers tickets of any game, thereby guaranteeing that every game sold out. We didn’t get to see those games, we couldn’t use those tickets. Our tax dollars just ensured the profits of the San Diego Chargers. The owner of the San Diego Chargers is a man named Alex Spanos. Alex Spanos is a billionaire. And after we guaranteed his profits for nine years, now he wants us to buy him a new football stadium.
Meanwhile, affordable housing advocates have declared San Diego to be in a crisis. Estimates for San Diego homelessness hover between 8,500 and 10,000 people. Our city council, mayor, and city attorneys are right now debating how to spend billions of dollars to expand our convention center and build a football stadium for Mr. Spanos.
I don’t want to get too far into this, because my larger point is not about the specific issues of homelessness or public subsidy for private wealth, my larger point is: would we do this again if given the chance? If given the chance to break free of our system 1 thinking of government, would we institute the same practice of holding elections for city council, and mayors, and city attorneys and the microcosm of campaign laws that allow for donations from this sort of group and limit the funds from a specific second type of group? Would we re-institute first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting for city representatives that take our money and spend it? And what is the legitimacy of this theft? A piece of paper called a city charter that was written 150 years ago.
And tunneling back through the legitimacy and authority structure and hierarchy we go through the California State Constitution and we arrive at the US Constitution.
Unfortunately, we’re locked into how we can operate our government by the laws we’ve written. And the laws we’ve written are bedrock-foundationalized by the Constitution of the United States of America, which is infallible. Or is that system 1 thinking? Let me rephrase this point: a group of people found this land and established a colony, essentially taking the land from the people who already lived here. The established colony revolted against its tyrannical government, fought a war, and declared itself a new country. A very tiny fraction of the population that owned land wrote a document on parchment with ink legitimizing themselves as the new rulers of the land. The parchment states that most of the government will be appointed, namely the Senate, Electoral College, and federal judges. The rest of the government will be made up of elected representatives, but only white landowning males get to vote for their representative. This piece of parchment was drafted up by 55 people. The 13 Colonies at the time had an estimated population of about two and a half million (2,500,000) people and 55 of them got a piece of parchment and wrote themselves up a document that stated they were in charge of the rest of the people here. This parchment also declares the 55 landowners to be able to collect money from the other 2.5 million people, send them to war or imprison them. It’s sealed in a glass box in Washington, D.C. You can visit the “archives” and look at it.
A piece of parchment written and signed by 55 landowners, in a small agrarian society 225 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, before the Information Revolution, and before the scientific discoveries and engineering advancements of; evolution, plate tectonics, flight, DNA, tractors, or even electric light, is the basis for how we run our country today. Unflinchingly, we’ll declare something “Constitutional” or “Unconstitutional,” which is a way of saying “according to a piece of paper,” or “that’s not according to the piece of paper!”
Let me ask you, does that seem like system 1 or system 2 thinking?
It is largely believed that drug laws are “Constitutional.” If your friend is smoking a very specific type of cigarette, and another citizen who dresses in blue and has a brass badge sees him smoking that cigarette and kidnaps your friend and holds him in a concrete and steel cell until you (or your friend’s family) pay a ransom for him, this is thought to be within the law. Even though that law was written before you were born, hell, it was written 20 years before any of our “elected officials” were even born and they had a chance to vote on those laws, the kidnapping of your friend is “Constitutional.” The weird thing is: we pay for this service. We pay for the representatives, the police, the judge, their cars, their houses, their offices, handcuffs, and shotguns they use on us.
I can tell you this, this is not system 2 thinking. What is the solution? I’m not sure. I have some ideas that I’ll write up another article on what they are, but for now, please examine what we do in our everyday lives, please watch news channel punditry on “What Rick Santorum’s victories in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado, really mean,” and think (system 2-type think!) about what it really(!) really(!) means. Because they are not the same things.