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What Makes Us Think We Are In Charge?

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We want to find more intentionality than diverse actors will allow. The culprit is the pronoun “they,” which over-simplifies our world and catches us in traps of our own making.

As humans we are hardwired to look for motivations behind human behavior.  It’s our destiny to think in story-like structures, which usually include answers to the “whys” of any action. Give stage or film actors a line or a specific movement, and they are likely to ask a director for the motivation behind it.  Like them, we are all actors.

We are usually right to assign responsibility for conduct to a fully functioning adult. It is not unreasonable to assume that individuals can make decisions from an array of available choices.  Notwithstanding some neuroscientists who want to reduce human conduct to chemistry, most of us make the reasonable assumption that people really do have intentions. They act on their beliefs, habits and preferences. Notwithstanding myriad sources influence, they are still capable of choosing between on specific choices.

But this simple logic is where things drift to complications. This pattern of thinking can easily be overextended when assigned to individuals or groups. It is sometimes a considerable stretch to have the insight to know the causes of conduct.

Take the case of individuals first. A simple example: a friend who is a geriatric psychotherapist frequently complains that staffs in nursing facilities usually assume that a patient is “acting out” when they are unkind or manipulative. In our language these kinds of descriptions usually imply volition: the patient intended to behave in a certain way. The problem, of course, is that most of these folks have dementia, which robs them of the essential gift of agency. Their behavior is not necessarily what they would have done if the neural pathways once available to them were still intact. The result is sometimes to punish the patient rather than to acknowledge that their behavior is not easily overridden.

We can’t easily scale up the idea of purpose to large and diverse groups.

In cases of groups, assigning intentionality can easily drift into fantasy. A while back a guest newspaper column by Max Boot also caught my eye because of this problem. He criticized the Republican Party for carefully nurturing negative attitudes about scientific research and serious intellectual inquiry.  In effect, he made the Party an agent engaged in a concerted effort to dumb-down complex problems such as climate change, immigration reform and a sometimes-sluggish American economy.  On the other side, we have heard members of the GOP make the absurd claim that Democrats are trying to “groom” children to accept an alien social identity.

The problem is that individuals—even in groups—rarely have the same reasons or motivations for their actions. Boot is right that many in the GOP are suspicious of reasoned arguments based on solid science. My doubts extend only to attributing a clear purpose to the party itself. The problem with his assertion is that political groups in the United States are almost never well organized. “Members” see things from their own unique perspectives.  And most have only paper-thin levels of loyalty. Maybe the military or any tightly run corporation may have “intentions” or “missions,” but parties: not so much.

The same mistake is often made about the President, who is supposedly able to control of a dizzying array of national challenges. But the real story is that we also assign too much agency to the Presidency. For example, most economists believe the chief executive cannot significantly change the course of the economy. We may want to think of the American business cycle as under the thumb of the White House. A more accurate view is that our multifaceted economy is an engine without a single engineer.  Indeed, most presidents would welcome the chance to be as powerful as is widely believed.  The norm for these leaders is to leave office frustrated at how little influence they were able to exert over the many far-flung agencies of the federal bureaucracy.  F.D.R., for example, complained that he couldn’t even get fundamental changes in the Navy, even though he was its Commander and once served a stint as the Navy’s Assistant Secretary.

The prime rhetorical culprit here is the pronoun “they.” The English language invites us to singularize responsibility under the umbrella of this term.  But a better reading of the world as it is usually means that we can’t scale up the idea of purpose to large and diverse groups. The pronoun over-simplifies our world, catching us in traps that sacrifice accuracy for a degree of unearned clarity.


How we assign motives to others is a fascinating subject.  For a more systematic account from the writer about this process see The Rhetoric of Intention in Human Affairs (Lexington, 2013).

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Public Wealth and Private Squalor

At this point most Americans would settle for a federal government that might work at least as well as the local Costco, food pantry or grocery store: setting reasonable safety rules and providing most of what people need.

These are tough times for the twin ideas that the United States is a “can do” nation and beacon of individual rights. Rather than serving as a model for the rest of the world, the aggressive federal response to protests in Portland and regressive efforts to deal with the wildfire-spread of Covid-19 surely creates more pity from other populations than envy.

Our inability to put reasonable controls on individuals to deter them from spreading the virus has made an American passport partly useless. Our neighbors to the north and south don’t really want us to come across their borders: a denial of visiting rights that extends to many other nations as well. And who can blame them? Leadership from the federal government mostly lacks the will to use its powers on behalf of the safety of its citizens: the most basic kind of malfeasance. The withering of a federal response to the pandemic has left the task of guaranteeing access to even the most elemental of services to many ill-prepared states and cities. This doesn’t necessarily describe all government employees or members of Congress.  Instead, the problem is with too many passive leaders at the top. And so—with some exceptions–we still lack timely virus testing, income maintenance for many workers left unemployed, protections for small businesses, and too little help for families on the edge of homelessness or caught in the grip of poverty.

Kids are now the political instruments of choice for an administration that craves the appearance of normalcy.

Even so basic a process of guaranteeing citizens an education comes down to a non-nuanced policy that simply says “open your doors,” even though many parents and communities are struggling to keep their families safe. Kids are now the political instruments of choice for an administration that craves the appearance of normalcy. At this point most Americans would settle for a federal government that might work at least as well as the local Costco, food pantry or grocery store: setting reasonable safety rules and providing most of what people need.

Another contagion has also spread through the country from the Trump administration or its followers: dangerous health advice and semi-official conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, the presence of allegedly corrupt voters, unpatriotic activists, “fake news” Democrats, “the media” and even the federal government’s own experts.  Reasonable evidence-based judgments are too painstaking and exact for the frail intellects that now populate the ranks of political appointees in Washington and some of the states. What some leaders want to believe now easily out distances what the facts should oblige them to accept.

Of course, the very wealthy are going to be ok.  Having abandoned city houses for second homes, many are prepared to hire private tutors in lieu of sending their children into harm’s way. The ability of some of us to buy our way to safety is a reminder of economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous observation about the United States: that it tolerates private wealth even in the presence of public squalor. His description perhaps explains why so many Americans like to visit Europe, where the costs of functioning health care and public services are often built into the tax structure. We love cities like Amsterdam or Stockholm because fundamental infrastructures are in place, more or less, for everyone. Even through this pandemic some countries have worked to secure the future viability of schools, small businesses, arts organizations, public broadcasters and universities. In terms of similar cultural cornerstones here, we have yet to see how bad the American retreat from the core obligations of a civil society will be.