Supplemental: Professors hit it out of the park!


Moral overconfidence, health care spending and us:
Sometimes, the professors really come through!

Consider Professor Krugman’s latest column. Then, consider an important essay in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Krugman has been coming through for years, although to little avail. This morning, he delivers an interesting presentation concerning the benefits of life in little small Denmark.

Krugman’s column is very much worth reading. Sadly, it made us think of his series of columns in 2006 concerning the giant costs of American health care.

In the spring of that year, Krugman wrote a series of columns about an astonishing fact. Here in the U.S., we spend two to three times as much on health care, per person, as all other comparable nations.

Tremendous amounts of money disappear in that bloated spending. Liberal and conservative citizens get looted in the process, red and blue together.

People in the conservative world should be told about these remarkable facts. But almost a decade has passed, and we know of no attempt at liberal outreach to red-state voters on this important matter.

By the way:

“Outreach to red-state voters?” What in the world is that?

To us, that lack of outreach represents a massive liberal/progressive failure—an act of massive political impotence. This brings us to the second professor who really came through—the inimitable Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School.

Nohria’s essay appeared in yesterday’s Outlook section. Cuing off Professor Milgram’s famous electric shock experiments, Nohria explores an important pair of concepts—“moral overconfidence” and “moral humility.”

Milgram’s subjects kept delivering electric shocks to other subjects, even when they believed they were administering dangerous amounts of pain. In fact, no one was actually on the receiving end of the electric shocks, but Milgram’s subjects didn’t know that—and they kept administering shocks in response to Milgram’s demands, even after their fictitious recipients seemed to have lapsed into unconsciousness.

Would you be willing to do the right thing in some similar situation? In this passage, Nohria introduces his basic concepts:
NOHRIA (10/18/15): When I ask students whether, as participants, they would have had the courage to stop administering shocks, at least two thirds raise their hands, even though only one third of Milgram’s subjects refused. I’ve come to refer to this gap between how people believe they would behave and how they actually behave as “moral overconfidence.” In the lab, in the classroom and beyond, we tend to be less virtuous than we think we are. And a little moral humility could benefit us all.
Only one-third of Milgram’s subjects refused to deliver the shocks. But according to Nohria, two-thirds of his students say they would refuse.

Nohria says this “moral overconfidence” can be seen “in politics, in business, in sports—really, in all aspects of life.” We “tend to believe we are less likely than the typical person to exhibit negative qualities.”

This type of moral overconfidence “can lead us astray,” Nohria writes. “We may ignore or explain away evidence that runs counter to our established view of ourselves, maintaining faith in our virtue even as our actions indicate otherwise.”

For the most part, Nohria is talking about the way individuals can get led astray in various walks of life. But as we read the following passage, we thought about the way tribal groups can be led astray—even a tribal group as morally pure as our own liberal/progressive tribe:
NOHRIA: We would see fewer headlines about scandal and malfeasance, and we could get our actions to better match our expectations, if we tempered our moral overconfidence with some moral humility. When we recognize that the vast majority of us overestimate our ability to do the right thing, we can take constructive steps to limit our fallibility and reduce the odds of bad behavior.

One way to instill moral humility is to reflect on cases of moral transgression. We should be cautious about labeling people as evil, sadistic or predatory. Of course, bad people who deliberately do bad things are out there. But we should be attuned to how situational factors affect generally good people who want to do the right thing.
Nohria is still discussing the way individuals behave. But in that passage, we think he’s giving good advice to the world’s various tribes.

Might we state the obvious? We liberals tend to love the practice of “labeling people as evil, sadistic or predatory.” We’re strongly inclined to label tens of millions of people as The Others.

In this way, we’re like other groups all over the world. But our moral overconfidence makes it hard for us to see that we behave this way.

We liberals! All too often, we love the practice of “labeling people as evil, sadistic or predatory.” This instinctive trashing of The Others helps explain our lazy, self-defeating lack of political outreach.

In our main report this week, we’ll be discussing our recent journalistic gong-show concerning Demon Alabama. We’ll explain why we think our behavior, which is tribally pleasing, constitutes a very bad political move.

Our system is built on checks and balances; we keep insuring that we’ll be checked. Do we mainly want to loathe The Others? Or do we want to try to win?

This question rarely occurs to our tribe. Nine years later, those columns by Krugman continue to pile up dust.

“[We]’re not as virtuous as [we] think.” That’s Professor Nohria, not us!


  1. Our focus must be on changing behavior that results in harm, not in labeling people who engage in that behavior. It does not matter to me if the intentions of those inflicting shocks on others are good or bad, or they felt they had no choice -- what matters to me is that people not inflict shocks on other people.

    I agree with Somerby that we cannot change behavior via namecalling or shaming. People get defensive, which is why they have moral overconfidence to begin with. I am also not sure that those others, who we want to label negatively, actually share our values and want the same outcomes.

    Once you dive into the psychological literature, you will find that individuals vary in their capacity for empathy. They are very reluctant to change their attitudes and beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence. They find it hard to use reason and easy to believe in easy, entertaining or folk beliefs when consistent with their own interests. Both tribes are like this, but our "tribes" operate with different sets of beliefs and different values, so how do we achieve consensus even with Red state outreach?

    Somerby almost seems to be arguing for a lack of moral accountability (since there are so few truly evil people) with everything chalked up to situations, leaving people exempt from criticism. I strongly disagree with this approach. If I walked a mile in someone else's shoes and it led me to do wrong things, I would still be wrong and I believe it is that outcome that determines wrongness, not the situation that led someone to commit wrong acts. We cannot abandon our sense that people shouldn't shock each other, no matter how manner people are coerced by Milgram to up the voltage.

    1. I like your post, the last line is certainly true. Bob does strain a bit in using this analogy, but I think his main premise holds true.

      John Stewart (miss that guy) deplored the tribal instinct as expressed by our talking heads, mainly on TV but in print as well. So many people seem to form their opinions based on what they see on TV but as far as political content, it’s a virtual wasteland.

      And rarely, rarely do you see the kind of outreach Bob advocates. It’s them versus us on the news shows, and completely intentional. Edward Bernays would be proud of what he and his ilk have achieved.

      To digress a little I, like Stewart, find that you can engage at a personal level in dialogue with those with whom you disagree, as I find myself often doing. It’s actually kind of fun in a way, because it’s always civil. Animated at times, but civil!

      It’s a shame that the TV networks don’t do more of the same. Where is their moral accountability? Off the top of my head? To Mammon. And boy, does tribalism _account_.

    2. Given a "conservative" movement that has eaten alive two of their own House majority leaders (McCarthy and Kantor) and their own Speaker of the House, exactly what does this "outreach" liberals are supposedly lacking actually look like?

      And how do you think it will change the minds of anyone in the Tea Party caucus? Or a guy like Ted Cruz?

      You really think they are the way they are because liberals weren't nice enough to them?

    3. You wonder what it looks like. But you also think it's only "supposedly" missing.

      That's called hypocrisy, of course.

      I wonder if you're a hypocrite because people weren't nice enough to you?

  2. "This instinctive trashing of The Others helps explain our lazy, self-defeating lack of political outreach."

    Bob, you know all about instinctive trashing, don't you?

    So can you help me out here? I can't seem to think of any group that has been more "instinctively trashed" than liberals themselves. Heck, even the very word is still political poison.

    So there goes your notion that "instinctive trashing" is "self-defeating." Seems to have worked quite well.

    1. You been living in a cave since 1980?

    2. Of course liberals have been trashed. But what's the got to do with the price of tea in China? Nothing. Bob's point is that liberals instinctively discount the ability of Red State citizens to change or reason because they wouldn't fit in at our wine and cheese parties. How does that no make sense?

    3. Gee. I consider myself liberal and I've never been to a wine and cheese party. Good ol' "open-minded" Richard wouldn't ever think of people in stereotypes would he?

    4. Richard the Wine and Cheese LoverOctober 20, 2015 at 12:27 AM

      Oooh, this is fun! Let's play the "I'm offended that your offended" game!

      I like wine and cheese too, bro! I've got actual wine and cheese experience, having lived in DC for 15 years! Alas, the Army moved me to Texas and there was a lot less wine and cheese. My loss. Lol.

    5. I'm not offended at all. I am laughing at good ol' "open-minded" you who think liberals = wine and cheese parties.

    6. Richard the Wine and Cheese LoverOctober 20, 2015 at 12:48 AM

      So if I find -- through my own life experience -- that there is truth in a stereotype, that means that I'm not open-minded? Do I need to break out charts and graphs for you? You're logic is broke dude.

    7. Also, you're grammar. Its broke.

    8. So in a blog entry about why name calling is unproductive and actually makes progress more difficult, you guys start calling each other names. Please discuss.

  3. IMHO there's truth in the aphorism: Conservatives think liberals are good people with bad ideas. Liberals think conservatives are bad people with bad ideas.

    Being considered "good" by oneself and others is particularly important to liberals. For that reason, liberals sometimes support well-intentioned programs that demonstrate their "goodness", even when the programs don't work. Examples:

    1. ObamaCare failed to create universal coverage and is poorly designed to provide efficient care. Yet, support for it proves one is concerned about the poor and about health care costs.

    2. The EPA and California approaches to curb CO2 emissions won't make any appreciable difference in global warming. Yet, support for these programs proves that one is "good", while opponents are evil "deniers".

    3. Gun-free school zones and gun buyback programs don't prevent gun deaths, yet supporting these programs proves one's "goodness."

    1. Well, conservatives were always calling liberals traitors when Bush was President, so I am not sure about the "good people" part.

      In my experience online, liberals seem to think that everybody is bad. It's pop psychology, I know, but what back in college I read a bunch of the "I'm OK, you're OK" type books, and it seems to me they often come from the opposite place where "I'm not ok, you're not ok".

      Thus when they engage in outreach at all, their first instinct is to tell other people "you're NOT ok" Which tends to be a bad way to make friends and influence people.

      However, when it comes to policies which have been proven to NOT work you might wanna take a close look at a little thing called "trickle down".

    2. Great points, "Anonymous at 609pm,"

      Liberals (I am one) too often believe that because they're "liberal" that they are also, per se, "open-minded." I've found the opposite to be true, in my experience. As an 13+ year active duty Army officer, I'm surrounded by supposedly close-minded conservatives. And yet, I often find them more open-minded than my liberal friends. I find my discussions with conservatives in the Army positively refreshing, in fact! Discussions with liberals about, e.g., "assault weapons," not so much... Most liberals couldn't tell you the difference between an AR-15 and a muzzle loader, but they'll act like an expert on gun control. It would be funny if it wasn't so damn tragic.

    3. p.s. On gun control -- I'm not meaning to say that one has to be a gun expert to have an opinion. But if you don't know the difference between a semi-automatic, fully automatic and single shot weapon, you really shouldn't act as if you understand the issue of gun control.

    4. "As an 13+ year active duty Army officer,"

      I call BS.

      "Richard" or whatever your name really is, you should know both about the false appeal to authority and the general rule that on an anonymous forum such as this, the degree of credentials claimed is in inverse proportion to the degree of credentials held.

      Or to put it more bluntly, only blowhards who lack the intellect feel it necessary to inflate their arguments with authority they don't actually possess.

    5. the REAL Richard from Kailua. LolOctober 20, 2015 at 12:38 AM

      You're right. I lied. My first 5 years were as an enlisted Soldier. The last 8 have been as an officer. Lol. I only mentioned it because I thought I have a somewhat unique perspective. Sorry if I pissed in your corn flakes. Lol.

      I'm going to attempt to prove that I'm real, partly because I think this is hilarious.

      Here's me now (I'm the less bald guy on the left):

      Here's me in 2004 (I used to be much more politically active):

      Here's me in 2006:,d.cGU

    6. the REAL Richard from Kailua. LolOctober 20, 2015 at 2:04 AM

      Ooops, this is the right link... to prove... I am... who I... am...

      Also, I'm not saying I'm not a blowhard... I'm Irish, so I'm part of an "at-risk" population for being one.

    7. "The EPA and California approaches to curb CO2 emissions won't make any appreciable difference in global warming. "

      Do you now believe in global warming? Better late than never.
      What finally clued you in? Was it when you realized Exxon knew about it (and that fossil fuels played a large role in it) in 1982 or did Al Gore lose weight?.

    8. Try it this way David: "Liberals think conservatives are stupid people with bad ideas."
      Your list makes us sadly correct.

    9. Tired of BS from DavidInCAOctober 20, 2015 at 9:03 AM

      "ObamaCare failed to create universal coverage"

      I willingly risk accusation of failure to reach out to you, David: YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE.

      You are willing to pretend that "creating universal coverage" is the standard by which ACA should be judged.

      BECAUSE YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE, you are willing to pretend that someone would support ACA only in a selfish effort to "prove one is concerned."

      If YOU were really as concerned as you pretend, you might ask: "What is a legitimate measure of success?," rather than pretending your strawman standard is anything but a sad joke.

      "It didn't provide universal coverage, therefore if you support it that's because you only worry about *appearances* of concern."

      That's the implication you willingly make. Because you aren't intellectually challenged, you know you it's bullshit.


    10. In 6 days, 6 weeks, 6 months or 6 years David will return and say the same thing, "ObamaCare failed to create universal coverage" David in Cal

      That's his story and he's sticking to it.

      As though that was his goal. That's why he votes for repugnant politicians who have no alternative policy proposal except for "health savings accounts" and have wasted years and years going through their ridiculous transparently fraudulent ritual of voting to repeal the ACA.

  4. I am gonna brag about my moral greatness. I notice that Krugman did not write about comparative health care costs until 2006. Yet here I see an email I sent to him on 27 Feb 2004 where I compared per capita health care costs in the US to those in the UK, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Australia and Italy.

    It has been sad for me to see him sometimes in the tank for Obama. Making bad arguments to defend bad policies from Obama. In some cases the CBPP has done the same. Makes them look partisan, just like their critics have always claimed.

    1. All Sentient Life EverywhereOctober 20, 2015 at 9:11 AM

      Paul Krugman didn't reply to your email, random internet commenter?????

      My outrage meter is pinned.

    2. Good for you All SLE. You may one day grow to be like Bob, whose outrage meter got pinned when Rachel Maddow refused to answer his "Say it Ain't So, Joe" internet blog question about a comment attributed to her which even Bob admitted he couldn't say for sure was something she actuallyn said.

  5. David's aphorism is pure bunk. Most conservatives loathe anyone who thinks for himself, while the open minded often talk themselves silly trying to get the truth into conservatives' closed minds in the futile hope they just might respond to facts over dogma.

    1. Unknown 11:18 says conservatives have closed minds and loathe people who think for themselves. That's pretty bad. So, Unknown's comment pretty much illustrates my assertion that liberals think conservatives are bad people.

    2. D in C, you are kind of smug. Unfortunately it is true that many liberals are obnoxious, self-righteous and narrow-minded, I've never seen anything like the venomous, hysterical loathing directed toward Obama and Clinton in the comments in right wing web sites. You even have as the leading GOP candidate a demogogic blowhard who spent months claiming Obama was born in Africa. How do you defend the GOP platform of vastly cutting taxes for the most wealthy; vastly increasing defense spending; building a huge wall on the Mexican border and deporting millions; and balancing the budget? What happened the last time the GOP was in full control? What's the GOP alternative to Obamacare? how do you defend all the juvenile jingoism?

    3. It doesn't matter whether they are bad or good people. Their proposals are bad.

    4. Good questions, AC/MA. Maybe these are rhetorical questions, but I'll answer some of them.

      My view of the federal government is that it's substantially power-hungry, inept, corrupt, or controlled by special interests. I don't think that some magical President or "good-guy" political party can fix this or even wants to fix this. Therefore I don't want the government to increase its powers, because I think it will use any additional powers ineptly, corruptly, or to benefit special interests.

      ObamaCare is an example. It 's no coincidence that it helps special interests. It was written by a group of special interests: plaintiffs' attorneys, insurance companies, hospitals, etc.

      I'm an expert in insurance. My papers are still required reading to become a casualty actuary. The ObamaCare law is enormosly inept. There are too many major faults to list. It's such a bad law that almost any alternative would be better.

      If the Democrats decided to mandate government health care, why didn't they first let the states experiment with different approaches to find out what works and what doesn't work? Or, they could have copied England's single provider system or Canada's single payer system. These systems aren't perfect, but they work reasonably well. Instead, the Democrats created something entirely new and fantastically complex which the people who voted on it hadn't read or understood. Health care is really important. The irresponsibility of undoing our system in this fashion is staggering.

    5. David, you have to know that the Republicans wouldn't allow any of the options listed in your last paragraph.

      Having millions more insured outweighs the fixable flaws of ACA. Can we assume you are supporting Clinton in 2016? She has pledged to improve ACA.

    6. So, if DinC--a conservative himself--couldn't sway conservatives to see the benefits of single-payer healthcare, how in the hell would liberals have a chance to do so?

      BTW, this is all silly schtick by Bob. He's been challenged plenty of times here to put up or shut up about how liberals can sway conservatives through the use of facts and not insults or condescension, by doing so with cicero. He won't even try to prove his thesis. Probably because he's seen others try, and has seen his theory lay in ruins.

  6. Can't much avoid the obvious here: Some Howlers are morally overconfident in trashing liberals. Howler, heal thyself.

    1. It doesn't invalidate Somerby's complaint that it applies to himself too.

    2. That was a lazy and dumb thing to say. And of dubious morals.