The Hitler rule is that the first side to bring up Hitler in a debate automatically loses. Chris Suellentrop, in a desperately shallow column last week, tried to expand the Hitler rule to include all references to WWII. (Some thoughts on that piece of silliness here.) I started thinking about other Hitler rules--well not about Hitler rules, per se, but about political statements and modes of argumentation as signals. Some statements communicate little in the way of direct information but speak volumes about those who make them.
Who buys books like "Stupid White Men" or "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right"? There is evidence that consumers do not purchase these books for information. If the buyer's intention were to become better informed, the buyer would read authors from both sides. But no one does. Valdis Krebs has shown that in their Amazon.com purchases, virtually no one buys both a crass right wing bestseller and a crass left wing bestseller.) People buy these books to feel good about what they already believe, not to learn more about other perspectives.
Gary Becker has an entertaining model in which agents acquire knowledge of fine art in order to signal that they are "high status" types. Low types want to appear to be high types but the cost of acquiring artistic knowledge is higher for low types. (If I recall the model accurately, it is costly to acquire knowledge of the arts and low types have lower endowments.) No one really "cares" about art in this model. But in equilibrium, acting as though you care about art signals your high status.
And so it goes.
If an agent considers his or her fanatical political ideology to be an essential component of his or her identity, then it might be important to identify other fanatics and to let others know of his or her own fanaticism. It can take a long time to get to know someone's true political views. Moreover, political preferences are easy to falsify. (Politeness often dictates that we keep these opinions to ourselves.) A good way to communicate one's "type" is to spout some obscure piece of ideology that only true believers would ever think to express. Knowing what Michael Moore has to say, and perhaps repeating it in casual conversation, signals your type at minimum cost. Moreover, no one need fear that you have engaged in preference falsification. The time cost of reading a Michael Moore book--to an evenhanded, truth-seeking person--is prohibitively high: hours wasted on shallow illogical hypocrisies (and quite possibly a few brain cells destroyed). Learning obscure conspiracy theories about Vince Foster's suicide served a similar purpose for right-wing types, a few years back.
As I recall, when the phrase "politically correct" first made the rounds, it was meant as a compliment. "Jack? Oh, yes. He's a good fellow. Dresses well. And politically correct, I might add." It was too difficult and time consuming to describe someone's political views in detail so cultured academic types began saying "politically correct" to convey that someone's views conformed to the unspoken orthodoxy. Only later did it become an insult--the label for brainless, intolerant group-think.
Labels, it seems, can be redefined by one's enemies. Thus, there are better ways to signal one's fanatical loyalty to a party or subgroup. I've mentioned Vince Foster conspiracy theories during the Clinton era. My favorite example from the present era has to do with references to Halliburton. There is much to criticize in the Bush administration, but anyone who mentions Halliburton communicates instantly his or her adherence to a set of entertainingly paranoid fantasies, e.g., oil companies are evil, the invasion of Iraq was about oil and corporate greed and took place because Halliburton wanted some contracts.
Debunking these claims is hardly worth the space, as they are closer to emotions than to assertions of fact. If anything, the Iraqi invasion loomed as bad news for the oil industry as a whole. It meant the end of sanctions and the prospect of price decreases as Iraqi oil came back online. (Prices haven’t fallen, of course. There has been increased demand from China and other developing countries). Heightened anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world makes it harder for oil-related companies to function there. And there’s no evidence that Halliburton has received a disproportionate share of government contracts or that it has made large profits from contracts in Iraq.
For those who haven’t worked in the oil industry, Halliburton is a mysterious company. But for those of us who’ve spent some time in the industry, Halliburton is like J.C. Penney’s. Not flashy. Not glamorous. Blue collar. One of a handful of big companies that provide services for oil wells. Listening to people rave about Haliburton is a bit surreal. It is as though a portion of the country woke up one morning and started insisting that J.C. Penney’s was out to take over the world by selling khaki pants to everyone. I sometimes wonder what people would be saying if Cheney had been C.E.O. of, say, Baskin Robbins. (The U.S. invaded Iraq because Cheney knew it was hot and the troops would want ice cream?)
The mere mention of Halliburton in casual conversation connotes shady Republican machinations. In one of the worst expressions of the “Cheney+Halliburton=Evil” meme, the cover of Paul Krugman’s book (UK edition) portrayed Dick Cheney with a Hitler mustache made of oil. Krugman said he didn’t remember seeing the cover until prepublication copies were sent to reviewers, but this strains credulity (as others have already pointed out.) This is an economist’s mantra. Integrity is a superstition. If it helps me sell more books in the U.K. and people in the U.S. won’t notice it, then keep the cover and who cares what it means!
One shouldn’t complain, though. Halliburton conspiracy theories perform a vital service by saving time for the politically extreme, allowing them to signal their beliefs and screen for the like-minded at minimal cost.
Would that dating services worked as well.