Thursday, April 21, 2016

The New York Times and Why the Ivy League Won't Fix Socio-Economic Inequality

Last January Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a piece on how many elite colleges are rethinking their admissions processes. You can read the piece in its entirety here; it's informative reading if you have any interest in college admissions at highly selective schools.

Unfortunately, Bruni wants this to be a piece not about the narrow technical world of college admissions, but about the much broader goal of fixing the nation's social and economic inequality problems. In so doing, the article suffers from the myopia typical of everything that the NYT publishes regarding higher education. In Frank Bruni’s world (and, to be fair, that of most of his colleagues), “higher education” means the Ivy League and a handful (no more than 100) of other institutions that actually get mentioned in national newspapers. These are name-brand, prestigious schools - like UNC-Chapel Hill and Michigan (which, along with Harvard, Yale, and MIT, are the only schools he mentions by name). 

It is true that the admissions systems in many of these schools have been pretty messed up for a while, with weird incentive structures that lead prestige-seeking families to sacrifice a lot of money, time, and sanity in a desperate attempt to get their kids into Harvard or Yale. The fact that the families doing so are overwhelmingly upper middle class (and who are likely to read the NYT) reinforces the information flow here, since the Times annually publishes stories about how much harder it is to get into Ivy-level schools today than in the past.

It is also true that the vast majority of the kids who go to these schools are from privileged backgrounds, which does tend to reinforce inequalities in society - but not nearly as much as you’d think. Take the top 80 schools and assume that each one, on average, admits 1000 students per year (some smaller ones, like Williams College, rather less, other larger ones somewhat more). Assume further that those schools could, if they stretched their resources, each afford to give full-ride scholarships to 300 out of those 1000 students (they need varying levels of tuition from the rest in order to keep operating). That’s 24,000 kids from disadvantaged backgrounds per year that will get to go to elite schools (keep in mind, some fraction of that number already does).

That sounds great, and it certainly would be for the individuals lucky enough to hit the jackpot. But in a country of over 300,000,000 people, where the middle class is shrinking, the lower classes are expanding and falling farther behind, and the rate of college degree holding is 35% among adults, how much of a dent is 24,000 going to make? Not much.

So I think there are probably a lot of good ideas in this effort to redo Ivy-level admissions policies. I just don’t think they’re going to matter very much in the grand scheme of things. If higher education is the answer to society’s inequality problems, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton aren’t going to be part of the solution - they’re too small. The real solution lies in public two- and four-year institutions across the country where the vast majority of Americans go to college. In those institutions (my employer included), this conversation about hyper competitive admissions is irrelevant. The real conversation is about funding - states have been de-funding higher ed for many years, and that’s unlikely to change. The problem isn't that people can't get in, it's that we can't afford to provide a good education to as many students as we could serve.

I’ve been frustrated for years that Frank Bruni and his NYT colleagues don't seem to understand any of this. They don't get that the secret to solving the social mobility problem isn’t letting more poor kids into Harvard. If you really want to make a dent, do what we did the last time we had real social mobility in the 1950s and 1960s - make public higher education a serious investment and put resources into it. Tinkering with the way Harvard and UNC admit their students is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

There Are Only Two Ways to Run a Government

Much ink has been spilled during this Presidential campaign cycle about the divisions within American politics. Analyses both sophisticated and mundane have been offered suggesting what divides us from each other. Of particular interest: what separates supporters of one candidate from supporters of another? Why do those people support candidate A, and what makes them different from supporters of candidate B? These are interesting and, to some degree, illuminating questions. But they miss a larger point.

The larger point is this: in the end, amidst all the ideologies and labels about "conservatives" and "liberals" and "progressives" and "tea partiers" and "socialists" and whatnot, there are really only two ways to run a government. All of those labels denote preferences - that is, things that people prefer to see in terms of the outcomes of politics. But as most people who study politics know, it's not about the outcomes so much as it is about the process. And in process, there aren't a multitude of options - there are only two:

1) We recognize that we have different preferences and devise a system in which everyone has a chance to express their preferences and give input. The end result is a weighted average of those preferences, with some bright lines ("rights") established and agreed to ahead of time that cannot be violated no matter what mass preferences are.

2) Political outcomes are decided by threats, intimidation, and force. Whoever has the most power will impose their preferences on everyone else, by threats if sufficient, by violence where necessary. Politics is essentially an extension of combat. Compromise occurs only when opposing preferences have sufficient power to balance each other.

In short, governments run either by a process of rules and agreement, or by a process of force and violence.

The first option, government by process and agreement, is largely but not completely a function of the Enlightenment. It holds up a particular set of ideas, chief among these being that people should not kill each other over political outcomes and that maximizing the welfare of the whole population is something that, as in Kant's Categorical Imperative, everybody should reasonably want.

The second, government by force, has largely been the default mode through much of human history. It can be found in every corner of the world, among every people, in nearly every age. It is so ubiquitous that some have suggested that it is at the heart of the human animal, a part of our very nature.

These are, to some degree, ideal types. Governments have been known to use horrific force against some groups (Jews in Nazi Germany, for example) while those same governments engage in cooperative action to look after the welfare of "their own". It is usually the lure of tribalism (or nationalism, or ethnocentrism, or racism - take your pick) that lures people back from the ideals of a reasonable society for all to a society in which violence against some is OK, even warranted.

Why does this matter? Because we tend to forget that, behind all of the other left/right, liberal/conservative divides that we put up, that there are some questions far more fundamental. We also tend to forget that, at least once upon a time, there was something that we really did all agree on.

I say "once upon a time", because now we have the Drumpf phenomenon.

I have said previously that I prefer not to write about Drumpf, because he gets enough press as it is. What I'm arguing here is not specific to his campaign, or to his followers. The phenomenon that is the Drumpf campaign has simply laid bare the choice that we face. It has also forced us to confront a difficult reality: we may have thought that Americans at least agreed on this, but it turns out that we do not.

What we have been faced with in recent months is a candidate, and his followers, who are clearly in Camp #2. They draw fairly clear lines between "us" and "them", even though members of both groups are what the rest of us would identify as "Americans". And Drumpf and his followers are clearly all too willing to engage in violence - in fact, that's exactly how they think things should be. Compromise, listening to others, following rules - those are for the weak, Drumpf says. And his followers clearly agree.

The Drumpf phenomenon is not alone here. Increasingly, "protestors" have been going to Drumpf rallies and attempting to shout him down or otherwise disrupt the proceedings. One even rushed the stage at an event here in Dayton, although that individual's motives were unclear. And while there has been much talk about free speech rights and their limits, some of these protestors aren't engaged in speech per se - they're trying to force a different outcome. They, too, want to exercise power in order to impose their will on others, if only in a limited way (by disrupting an event).

When faced with force, it is easy to resort to force ourselves. It is tempting to argue that we need to "fight fire with fire". But in a political process, that takes us all down the same road. We're not conducting campaigns anymore, we're simply engaged in a backyard brawl. And every escalation by one side is taken as justification for counter-escalation by another.

For me at least, this is what the Presidential campaign is about. It's not about Democrat or Republican, not about Conservative or Liberal, Socialist or Capitalist. Those are for the most part outcome preferences. This election cycle is really about the fundamental process question: what kind of politics do we want? Will we decide our futures together, as one nation of competing interests and ideas working with each other? Or will our futures be decided by brute force, with the strongest and most brutal winning out?

I know that kind of country I want to live in. I used to think I could take it for granted. I don't think that's true anymore.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Authoritarian Movement, Fear, and the American Soul

If you read nothing else about the Donald Trump (Drumpf!) phenomenon, go read this (somewhat lengthy) article: The Rise of American Authoritarianism.

The article is an excellent distillation of research done, both in the last couple of decades and recently, about authoritarian tendencies within the American body politic. This research produces an explanation not only for the "Drumpf phenomenon" but for a lot of other things in American politics. That explanation includes this observation:
And so the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians. 
And although the latter two groups are presently forced into an awkward coalition, the GOP establishment has demonstrated a complete inability to regain control over the renegade authoritarians, and the authoritarians are actively opposed to the establishment's centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platform.
I've no doubt that this will lead to a whole new wave of political strategizing by both Democrats and establishment Republicans about how to "win" in this new landscape. Democrats are likely very happy with this development, as it tears apart their principal competitor. Establishment Republicans are likely very concerned, as this threatens to split their coalition and lead to defeat not only in this round but for years to come.

This is all interesting in an academic sense, but while I do have preferences among parties and policy positions I largely try not to have a dog in that fight. Parties are going to do what they do regardless of what I think or don't think, say or don't say. I'm more interested in what this means for us, individually and as a people known as Americans.

One of the key observations in the literature cited above is this one:
non-authoritarians who are sufficiently frightened of physical threats such as terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.
Authoritarianism (the tendency to look for "strong man" solutions to perceived problems) is largely driven by fear, either in general (in response to broad social changes, for example) or in particular (fear of specific dangers seen to be near at hand - terrorism, gun violence, home invasion). I've written a lot about fear lately, much of which can be summarized in one of my favorite clips:

All of this raises a very important question to those of us who are not authoritarians and don't want to live in a country ruled by fear: What can we do?

My answer to this question is not political (in the traditional sense of "vote for this person" or "join this party"). Most of the people motivated by this question are going to do those things anyway. But as the Vox article points out, authoritarianism is not about this particular election. It's a significant force, and it's not going to go away no matter who wins in November.

So if you're really concerned about rising authoritarianism changing our identity as a people, I think the best answer isn't political, it's personal. What can you or I do to make our communities less authoritarian?

Answer: interact with people in such a way that they become less afraid.

Without going too deeply into the research on authoritarian tendencies, I will take as given that a portion of the population is authoritarian simply by nature. I'm not going to "talk someone out" of being authoritarian. This is not a subject to rational debate; authoritarianism lives at the gut level - the affective/emotional side of our psyche. There isn't some clever argument or set of factoids that is going to transform someone who is deeply, ideationally authoritarian into something else.

To the extent that some of the authoritarian movement is a response to fears perceived in the environment - as the research above suggests that it is - then we have an opportunity to make a difference. This too is less about arguments and facts, although those can be helpful. But ultimately you can't convince somebody who is afraid of a terrorist attack by telling them that they're more likely to be killed by falling furniture. Statistics don't convince emotionally.

So how do you engage with authoritarianism in ways that might actually move the needle? Not by rational argument, but by relationship. If authoritarians (or those who have been driven to it by perceptions) are driven by fear, show them that the world isn't as scary as they think. That other people (you) can be counted on to be decent, honorable, trustworthy, even if you're different. And above all: show them that you are not afraid. Not afraid of them, not afraid of terrorists, not afraid of the many (largely phantom) menaces that people conjure up in their minds.

Why would this matter? Because more than arguments and facts, people are moved by stories and the way those stories make them feel. You yourself are a story to everyone you meet. The more you interact with them, the more of your story they get to see. If your story is one of peace and love, they may begin to see that fear is not the only option. That other paths are possible.

There's nothing foolproof about this. Some folks are so driven by fear that they will dismiss you as a nut, a loon, an idealistic dreamer out of touch with reality. So may even get angry, because your story challenges theirs. So be it. There is no "formula for success" here. It won't work every time. But it's likely the only thing that will work.

So if you are concerned (as I am) that there is a rising tide of authoritarianism, fear, anger, and hatred in our nation, the answer is not to fight fire with fire. Fear does not dispel fear. Anger does not counteract anger. And snark, while amusing, is not a tool for change. To borrow from the stirring words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
In short: if you don't want to live in a community ruled by fear, then don't. Don't be afraid. And let everyone see you not being afraid. This is the only thing you can do. And if enough of us do it, then we will all be right.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Presidents Aren't Gods

This Presidential election season, it's good to keep things in perspective by reminding us of a very important truth:

We're electing a President. We're not choosing God.

Presidents, you see, aren't nearly as powerful as we seem to want (or need) them to be. The US Presidency, as powerful as it is, is profoundly limited in its ability to influence events both inside and outside the United States. Some examples:

• The course of the civil war in Syria, including the fortunes of Daesh/ISIL, are largely beyond the control of the President. That war follows its own logic and its own path. If we sink enough resources into it, we can alter that path - but not in ways we can control. See, for example, Iraq.

• The economic fortunes of the United States are only loosely tied to what the President does. Much of a President's impact is filtered through Congress. If you think taxes, spending, fiscal policy, etc. matter to the economy, blame Congress, not Obama - you may notice that Congress hasn't much followed what Obama wants in the last few years. If you think interest rates and monetary policy matter, blame the Fed. The best a President can do on his own is tinker at the very small margins by tweaking some regulations here or there. The economy is driven by much larger forces.

• Social change in the US tends to see US Presidents following, not leading. Anybody who blames Obama for the legalization of gay marriage has bought into an illusion. That change was driven by a combination of social attitudes among Americans and legal conclusions reached by independent judges.

• Russia's annexation of Crimea was a function entirely of Russian near-abroad political calculations, immune to influence by Obama or any other US President.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.

It's reassuring to believe that a US President can fix everything we see wrong with the world. It's also easy for people running for that office to blame every ill in the world on the current officeholder. Small wonder that we tend to get more and more disappointed with our Presidents over time - we expect too much, and when they can't deliver we turn to the next person who promises the sun, the moon, and the stars.

So remember this election season: we're voting for someone who will be important, but we are not electing an Omnipotent Being. Your favorite candidate will not turn the world into Utopia. And your least favorite candidate will not destroy it and bring about 1000 years of darkness.

It's just a President, after all.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Who Are We?

Marco Rubio started off his opening statement to Thursday's Republican debate by making an inadvertently profound point. The 2016 President Election, Rubio said, is fundamentally not about this policy or that talking point. It's about who we are as a country, as a society. In his words, it's about "the identity of America".

I don't share a lot in common with Senator Rubio, but on this one point he is absolutely right. One reason why we are so drawn to Presidential elections - despite their being less important than we think they are - is that they represent perhaps the only truly nationwide measure of who we are as a people.

This, I think, is what is currently sustaining attention for, and driving reactions to, Donald Trump's candidacy. (Yes, I know I said I didn't want to talk about Trump. I still don't. But it's impossible to talk about broader issues without bringing him in at some point.) A lot of people see the anger, the hatred, the demonizing, the stratospheric levels of incivility, and they wonder: is this who we really are as Americans?

Vox, rapidly becoming one of the better popular purveyors of actual political science research and expertise, ran this piece a few days ago suggesting that Trump's support isn't demographic, it's attitudinal. In particular, it's predicated on one attitude in particular: authoritarianism, or individuals' inclination to authoritarian behavior and worldviews. Borrowing from the article's author:
People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies.
There is undoubtedly a correlation between authoritarianism and racism, but that can miss the point. In the authoritarian view, racism is simply a part of a broader worldview of people who are inclined to pull inside their tribal walls, circle the wagons, and make sure that absolutely nothing changes. Such people are quite willing to use violence when necessary to enforce the reality they cling to.

At the root of the authoritarian worldview, of course, is fear: fear of change, fear of the other, fear of perceived threats and slights. The Vox article above notes that the other statistically significant predictor of Trump support is fear of terrorism - specifically, fear that you or someone you love might be attacked by terrorists. I've written about fear as a driver too many times to count; here's the most recent.

The thing about fear is that it is a choice. We don't always experience it as such, but people who have grappled with fear understand that we have it within our power to choose whether or not to be afraid. Some fears, of course, are instinctive: if a bear breaks down my front door I'm going to experience fear. But most of the fears being discussed in public - fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants, fear of Islam, fear of blacks (or #blacklivesmatter), fear of impending disasters political or economic - are things we visit on ourselves. Like Jacob Marley, we forge our own chains in life, link by link, until in the end they crush us with their weight.

So this appears to be what our Presidential contest is really measuring. Do we, in the soaring rhetoric of all of our past Presidents (Democrat and Republican alike), really value freedom? Are we really the Americans whom Ronald Reagan invoked when he spoke of the compassion, patriotism, and heroism of everyday citizens? Are we the hopeful, interconnected, idealistic people that Bill Clinton addressed from that same podium? Are we who we want to be, who we know we should be when we are at our best?

Or are we frightened, scared, divided, turning against one another in spite and anger and hatred? Are we mean and petty, denying each other's dignity and humanity and focusing on differences that are largely inventions of the human mind? Do we delight in the pain and suffering of others, because it makes us feel safer and more powerful?

Every great faith tradition, every philosophy, every system of thought in human history points clearly towards one of these poles and away from the other. Pope Francis today reminded us that "Deus Caritas Est" - God is love. Native American traditions have long passed down the wisdom of the "two wolves" - the struggle inside everyone of us. Mohammed referred to the "major jihad", the struggle within for self-control and virtue, as far more important than the "minor jihad" involving outsiders.

In politics, people disagree, sometimes strongly. There are significant differences in how people think our country should be run and what policies our government should adopt - although these differences are often far less than what our "leaders" make them out to be. But those differences are simply the backdrop of our daily lives, a part of the environment we live in. The real question is: how do we respond to difference? Do we feed the wolf of virtue, follow the call of God that is love, struggle within ourselves to be the best we can be? Or do we give in to our fear, allowing it to twist us to anger, jealousy, hatred, and violence?

We don't talk about this as part of the Presidential campaign, because it's easier and sexier to talk about who "won" the latest debate or which candidate is ahead in the polls. But those questions aren't the most important ones. The real question is the same one that faces us very day:

Who are we? And because of what we do today, who will we be tomorrow?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Presidential Bread and Circuses

We are already several months into the process of selecting the next President of the United States, and we've barely started. We've got another nearly ten months of yelling, screaming, and flamboyant nonsense ahead of us before, in November, we finally choose who gets to succeed Barack Obama in the White House. This process will be THE topic of conversation in the United States for the rest of the year.

There's only one problem: none of it matters. We're devoting almost all of our attention to the least important aspect of our national political system.

Put another way, Presidential elections have become the bread and circuses of our time.

This is a contrarian argument, given that we are told every four years that "this is the election that will define our era". Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had been dead for less than 24 hours when pundits began pontificating about how the court vacancy "dramatically raises the stakes" of the election. Donald Trump, who gets more airtime than the rest of the field combined, has repeatedly claimed that everything is terrible.

I've written recently about how a lot of this fear-mongering is patent nonsense. I mentioned in that post that the Presidency is not nearly as powerful as we think it is - that Presidents have to answer to Congress and to a variety of powerful interests, and that the world often stubbornly does what it wants to do despite their thundering proclamations otherwise.

But this is only part of the issue. The larger issue is one I've made reference to from time to time, and which is contained in this article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page. Their bottom line (taken directly from the article itself):

The estimated impact of average citizenspreferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level [when controlling for the impact of economic elites and interest groups]. Clearly the median citizen or median voterat the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. 
The data to reach this conclusion were compiled by looking at policy outcomes over nearly 1800 different policy issues for slightly more than 20 years (1981-2002). This is not an issue merely with particular issues like gun control, where policy seems to stubbornly cling to a particular line despite popular views otherwise. The conclusion Gilens & Page reach is that, taken as an independent force on policy outcomes, popular opinion matters not at all.

The period of time they studied included both Democratic and Republican Presidents, and Congresses controlled by each party and divided between them. Whether we put Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or anyone else in the White House next year, this pattern is not going to significantly change.
To be fair, Trump and Sanders in their own way appear to be the only candidates who make even oblique reference to this issue. Sanders promises a "revolution" to overturn the existing system, though it's not clear how he intends to do that. Trump has no apparent plan to change anything other than to replace "losers" with "winners" - though where the spoils of such "winning" would go is anybody's guess.
If the Gilens & Page analysis is correct - and I believe that it is - then arguing about whether Rubio is better than Kasich, or even whether Hillary is better than Cruz, is entirely irrelevant. Yes, Presidents bring certain tendencies with them that can marginally nudge things in one direction or another. But none of this changes the fundamental character of the system. It just doesn't matter.

Look at this another way: changing from George W. Bush to Barack Obama (a pretty wide ideological swing from one President to another) did not significantly alter the general trend towards the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few. If that change didn't matter, why do we expect a different result this time?

I have no doubt that this view might anger a few people. We want to believe that what we see in front of us is meaningful. We want to think that our choice of candidate is consequential - after all, the candidates and the media all tell us that it is. Moreover, we have such a wide range of choices this year that it's easy to find some that we like a lot, some we sort of tolerate, and some we can't stand. There's something satisfying about that.

This is not to say that people shouldn't develop candidate preferences, or that they shouldn't care about who wins the Presidency. It does suggest that they shouldn't care too much, which is to say very much at all, nor should they expect the outcome to have a substantial impact on either their own fortunes or the fortunes of our country. If what we seek is real change that broadly and systemically alters the direction of the country and the welfare of the population as a whole, we need to stop paying attention to blowhards standing behind podiums at debates and start paying attention to ourselves and each other.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Politics, Theology, and the Destructive Power of Outcomes

To start - if you haven't read the following article from this past Sunday's NYT, I strongly recommend you go do so now:
Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me
The article is beautifully and poignantly written. It makes clear problems in both American culture and the "prosperity gospel" in particular that I could never articulate so well.

I want to use this piece as a starting-off point for a distinction I make all the time, one that explains a lot of frustration I have with the current state of both political and social relations in America. I frequently make the argument that there seem to be two sorts of people: process people and outcome people. I am a process person. What follows is what I mean by that, and why I think it matters.

This distinction, like all such distinctions, is really a matter of degree. Process people do care about outcomes, and a great many outcome people also care about processes. But in general, when I talk about process vs. outcomes what I mean is this:

• Outcome people are focused primarily on goals. How we get there is less important than that the right outcome is achieved. The most important battle for outcome folks is therefore not how we do things, but what it is we are trying to do. Success is understood when we reach the proper outcome, or fail to do so.

Process people are concerned primarily with how things happen. That can lead some folks to be extremely doctrinaire about rules and procedures, but in general this view stems from the belief that how we do things not only influences the outcome we get this time, but casts a long shadow into the future. We therefore need to be careful about how we treat each other in the midst of doing things today to try to achieve our goals, whatever they may be. To borrow a popular phrase, success for process people is a journey, not a destination.

Donald Trump is an outcome person. He knows what he wants, and doesn't care what process he has to follow to get it - he's a "get it done" kind of guy.

Ted Cruz is an outcome person when he talks about "carpet bombing" parts of Syria in order to get rid of the Daesh/Islamic State movement. It doesn't matter how many lives are lost, just so that the final outcome is the removal of the threat.

Most members of Congress, in both chambers and in both parties, are outcome people most of the time. The latest incidence of this comes from individual Senators (including Mitch McConnell) indicating that they will oppose any nominee for the Supreme Court put forward by President Obama. The only outcome that matters is that the next Supreme Court justice be nominated by someone else, presumably on the hopes that someone from a different political party will be inhabiting the White House at that point.

There has been lots of speculation about the "angry electorate" in this year, and you don't have to go far to find polling data indicating that most Americans don't think much of their government. Why is a harder thing to put our hands on, and I won't engage in speculation on that point. I only have an N of 1 - me - and so I can only explain why I find the current political situation so horribly dysfunctional. It's precisely because all politics is now about outcome, not process.

Hypocrisy in Washington has become so ubiquitous that we no longer even notice it. We expect that elected leaders will say one thing when they are in power, and then say the opposite when the other party is in charge. Why do they do this? Because all are "fighting" (I use the term with reservation, because it's a bad analogy) for the outcome they want and don't care what they have to do or say to get it.

This goes beyond lamenting the days when "compromise" was not a dirty word in politics (though I do miss the apparent ability of Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill to not only get along, but actually get things done). I think that the failing is not just political, but moral and spiritual as well.

When we become fixated on outcome, it changes our whole orientation. We come to rationalize our actions and our judgments about the world in light of what we want. We engage in wishful thinking to selectively edit the facts around us to fit with what we hope to achieve. Worse still, we begin to demonize and dehumanize people who have different ideas. We move quickly from seeing such people as competitors to seeing them as the problem. Not for nothing do Roger Fisher and Bill Ury devote nearly 1/4 of their bestselling book Getting to Yes to talking people out of this particular corner.

Once we've demonized those who disagree, fear sets in. We become afraid that we might not get the outcome we now so desperately want. We channel that fear into anger and then hatred towards those who we think are standing in our way. They are "destroying America". They are evil. They must be stopped, whatever the cost.

We see all of this on display especially in Presidential election years, since fear, anger, and hatred are effective tools of political mobilization. Whether they are more or less effective tools we no longer know, because they are all we see. They are the very atmosphere we breathe. Just as the fish cannot tell that it is wet, knowing no other condition, we are rapidly losing the ability to see just how afraid and angry we are.

Although the symptoms of this disease are political, the root cause is moral and theological. The author of the article cited at the beginning carefully traces the extent to which an outcome-based theology (one focused on the accumulation of wealth and the assignment of credit or blame) distorts both the gospel of Christianity as well as individuals' behavior. Here we can bring another noted Christian writer to bear - C.S. Lewis:
"(God) wants men to be concerned with what they do; our (the Devil's) business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them". (The Screwtape Letters)
It is very difficult to hold onto basic Christian theology for long and to simultaneously believe that the worldly outcomes over which we are so highly concerned - who gets appointed to the Supreme Court, what foreign policy we should adopt, what our economic strategy should be, who gets elected President - matter all that very much. It is nearly impossible, in my view, to do so and justify behavior that we would otherwise acknowledge as sinful in the name of achieving this or that thing in the short run. As Keynes famously noted, in the long run we're all dead.

This is not to say that we don't have preferences about things, or that we don't continue to develop our ideas to make them better and to produce better outcomes. In fact, we spend far too little time talking or listening to each other about what better means in that context. So this is not an argument that all Christians should withdraw from the world, or that we shouldn't care at all about outcomes.

It is to suggest, however, that a theological point of view (one which might be shared by adherents of other faiths) demands a different perspective. Nearly all of our moral understandings - the theologies and philosophies developed and refined over millennia - have to do with how we treat each other as human beings. This is ultimately a process issue. Our moral obligations are to our own actions, our own behavior, how we treat others.

This explains why (paradoxically, given what I study) I am so repulsed by modern politics. It is almost impossible to find anyone, of any political stripe, who is not so obsessed with this or that outcome that they are not ready on a moment's notice to discard basic notions of human decency and the obvious realization that, when this round of "fighting" is over we will still have to live with each other. The reactions to Antonin Scalia's death this past weekend - the almost immediate argument at the nomination of a successor - were simply the latest tragic example.

I don't know what the solution to this problem is. I know what it isn't. Our problems will not be solved when we elect the right President, or when the right party is in power, or when the right policy is passed. All of the "solutions" on offer are illusions, snake oil designed to sell the salesman. There is no end of the rainbow where all of the "right people" have won and everything will be "great again".

The only path I see to change for the better is for people - not parties, not institutions, but individual people - to let go a little of their cherished outcomes and to pay a little more attention to process. By which I mean, to begin to consider each other as people, as humans worthy of respect and decency, and to act accordingly. When people adopt this perspective, even imperfectly (for all of us are imperfect), behavior changes. Insults cease, shouting diminishes, snark and distain are replaced with thoughtfulness and listening quiet.

Do I know how to bring this about? Of course not. All I can do is control how I treat people every day. The outcome that is our politics, or our society, or our community is beyond my fixing. But that is precisely the point. Lewis was right - all I can do is concern myself with what I do, and leave the rest to God.