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May 24, 2013 4:40 PM A Memorial Day Weekend Reflection on Political Memory

By Keith Humphreys

Happy Memorial Day Weekend! Do you think you have a good political memory? Try this little five question quiz.

Which US President dramatically cut federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession, was a forceful advocate for expanded food stamps and affirmative action, and worked closely with Congress to create the Environmental Protection Agency?

(a) John F. Kennedy
(b) Lyndon Johnson
(c) Jimmy Carter
(d) Richard Nixon

The share of GDP devoted to social spending increased from 22% to an unprecedented 26.7% in just the first three years of what UK Prime Minister’s Rule?

(a) Clement Atlee
(b) Ramsay MacDonald
(c) David Lloyd George
(d) John Major

As governor, he signed a bill that expanded access to legal abortion, over two million of which subsequently occured on his watch. He also passed the biggest tax increase in the history of his state. Who was he?

(a) Mario Cuomo
(b) Patrick Lucey
(c) Terry Sanford
(d) Ronald Reagan

As President, he delighted the wealthiest Americans by pushing for a decrease in the top income tax rate from 91% to 65%

(a) Ronald Reagan
(b) Gerald Ford
(c) Calvin Coolidge
(d) John F. Kennedy

After their election in 2010, the UK Conservative-LibDem coalition inherited a record annual government spending level of about 670 billion pounds. They introduced what was widely termed “austerity” fiscal policy, with government spending in the first year doing what?

(a) Decreasing by about 70 billion pounds
(b) Decreasing by about 40 billion pounds
(c) Decreasing by about 10 billion pounds
(d) Increasing by about 20 billion pounds

Answers after the jump.

The answer to all 5 questions is (d). Seriously. The “heartless” Richard Nixon wanted to end hunger among the poor, and the “liberal champion” John Kennedy was the millionaire’s best friend. “Tight-fisted” British Tories have expanded social and other spending and conservative icon Ronald Reagan signed off on big tax increases (and not just as governor) and expanded access to abortion.

Many people’s memories of politicians erase the contradictions, complexities and compromises of governance that are invariably characteristic of elected leaders. Often this is in the service of current political agendas (e.g., “Ronald Reagan never raised taxes so let’s not betray his legacy by doing it now!”) or emotional needs (e.g., the desire to see one’s own “team” as perfect or the other “team” as thoroughgoing monsters).

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman might add that our inherent cognitive laziness also plays a role. Not really knowing a specific fact such as John Major’s record on social spending, many people substitute in their mind something they do know (Major was a Tory and Tories often oppose social spending) and become confident that they recall an event or policy that in fact never happened.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Comments

  • Blue streak on May 28, 2013 8:51 PM:

    I don't know how this fits into your thinking about cognitive framework, but the setup of the quiz alerted me to the possibility that the answers would be counterintuitive.

    Plus I really do remember that Nixon created the EPA, and that JFK ended the Eisenhower tax rates.

    Good exercise, though, thanks for pulling it together.