Category Archives: Politics

Is this the story a more thoughtful Trump would tell?

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Some try to explain Trump’s rise by citing local causes like Hillary or the wall.  But there’s something  happening all over the world.  Why?  And why now?

Once upon a time, there was a planet named Terra that teemed with life.  These life forms lived by a particular philosophy on how to interact with each other called the “Right to Oppress.”  Under this egalitarian philosophy, every creature had the right to oppress other creatures because all creatures were committed to the rule of oppressing other creatures if given the chance.  In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians sum up this philosophy in 431 B.C. while explaining to the Milesians why they are attacking their neutral city and wanting to kill the men, enslave the women and children, and take their possessions.

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences…since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As millennia went by, one Terran life form grew more intelligent, more collaborative within their groups, and began to dominate the rest, and also sought to dominate each other.  For thousands of years, they organized themselves into ever larger and larger tribes to protect themselves from other groups.  Eventually these very large tribes were called “nation-states” the role of which was two-fold: to actively protect a population of millions within a geographic boundary and to actively protect and promote the culture of the majority (i.e. way of life).

Following the “Right to Oppress,” many nation-states rose and fell over the centuries as they tried to enrich and profit themselves at the expense of others.  Famous examples include nation-states Terrans call “the Romans” and another called “the Mayans.”  But one group of nation-states, often called “Western” nation-states, happened to be the ones particularly strong at a moment of two big changes in Terran history.

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Western colonial empires covered most of the world.  

First, unprecedented planetary war.  War was normal, but the scale of this war was not.  All the most powerful nation-states on Terra devoted their resources to destroying each other.  One generation later, another global war took place, this one more devastating.  Afterwards, though Western nation-states remained strong, they were not quite strong enough to continue the “Right to Opress” philosophy as usual.

Secondly, they didn’t want to.  Under their feet, the “Right to Oppress” had been declining in popularity for some time, dating back to what the Terrans called the “Enlightenment,” which was birthed in Western nation-states.  This new philosophy held that creatures did not have a right to be oppress.  Instead, the opposite was true.  Creatures had the “Right to Not Be Oppressed.”   This included rights to be free of things like unfairness and coercion.  In this view, people had the right to keep private property no matter who was in power, say outwardly what they thought inwardly, and be able to freely enter into contracts with each other as each individual saw fit.  This new “Right to Not be Oppressed” philosophy spread rapidly across Terra and became the general expectation of the governments of nation-states.  Moreover, most judged their ancestors who lived under the previous philosophy as barbaric and pathetic.

Because Western nation-states where those most recently “winning” under the now discredited set of rules, they were scorned by others and, more tellingly, by themselves.  They felt guilty for their old colonial empires and oppression.  At the same time, they did not feel that their culture was currently especially threatened.  Indeed, their language and customs was relatively dominant and they were still by and large the most powerful nation-states on Terra.  As a result of this, many Western nation-states became merely “states.”  These states saw their sole role as protecting a people within a geographic boundary but not actively promoting the culture of the majority.  They didn’t want to.  It also seemed immoral under the new philosophy of “Right to Not be Oppressed.”

But other Terran nation-states did not feel this guilt.  They remained keenly interested in promoting and protecting national culture and identity.  Consider, for example, the issue of naturalization, the process in which members of one nation-state becoming members of another nation-state.  Though the issues is more complex, limiting naturalization is an important way that nation-states protect the identity, cultural norms, and values of their nation.

For comparison, consider the European Union, which was a collection of Western states with a total population of 510 million.  They naturalized about 800,000-900,000 people a year between 2009-2014.  In 2014, 2.6 new members were naturalized for every 100 non-new members.  The United States was another collection of Western states, though more unified by history and language, with a total population of 320 million.  They naturalized 600,000 to 1,000,000 a year during the same time period.  In 2014, there was about 2 new members naturalized for every 100 non-new members.

This can be contrasted with naturalization rates in non-western nation-states such as Japan and China.  Japan, home of 127 million, naturalizes 10,000 people per year, or about .1 people per 100 (5% of the United Sates 2014 naturalization rate).  China has 1.3 billion people, the largest nation-state on Terra, yet it only has a total of 1,448 naturalized citizens in total.  If we divide that total across 50 years of naturalization, this means China naturalized on average a mere 29 individuals a year or .00002 new members per 100 non-new members (.001% of the United States 2014 naturalization rate).  Furthermore, in many non-Western nation-states, governments actively promoted it’s national character by, for example, banning foreign influences by excluding certain media, monetarily supporting efforts to revitalize and expand traditional culture and values, and even promoting cultural ways of doing everyday things like eating food.  In these Nation-States, the “Right to Not be Oppressed” came to also mean the right to live in a state that actively promotes your own values and the general sense of feeling at home and welcome in one’s own country.  In these countries, a priority of the government is protecting a certain way of life.

Furthermore, dovetailing with expansive naturalization policies among Western states, new technologies allowed growing communities within Western states to keep their own national identity.  They could eat their foods that tasted foreign to locals, build their own buildings that looked foreign to locals (see how Swiss and German nationalist movements pursue minaret ban), interact with those back at home via a worldwide communications network so they made fewer local connections, etc.  Furthermore, many states worked diligently to make sure that these communities were given equal resources and treatment, removing power dynamics that typically assist a homogenizing process

The result was unprecedented intermixing with much less homogenization.  Many members of western states welcomed and celebrated this new diversity, and in a way welcomed the eroding of the dominance of their culture, which they themselves associated with oppressiveness.  Many others, however, felt that though they were truly warm and welcoming of other people into their homeland, and had nothing against their way of life specifically, they resented when these guests were not willing to adopt their host culture.  Instead, they found that many of these new members wanted to create mini-nations within their own.   They were witnessing, in other words, small, ongoing, lawful, and peaceful invasions by foreign groups into their territory.  They felt that their government was keeping them safe, but not keeping their way of life safe.

These frustrations built for about 50 years until Terran history reached another tipping point, though this tipping point was less important and it only happened within Western states.  In short, many decided they wanted to be nation-states again.  They wanted their government to actively promote their cultural norms and values and they did not want to feel guilty about it.  New generations of Terrans no longer felt colonial guilt to the same extent, as those sins became increasingly associated with the work of ancestors than family members.  At the beginning of the 21st century, Western states en masse made democratic decisions to close borders, promote traditional values, and make their homeland more distinctively their’s.  To those who lost these surprising elections, it seemed like a return to racism, bigotry, and the “Right to Oppress,” and that narrative was not entirely false either.  Many were racist.  But for many others, this nationalism was not a nationalism against any particular nation, but a positive nationalism for one’s nation.

Moving forward with this new philosophy, Terrans are then confronted with difficult questions.  Do Terrans in Western states have the right to live under a nation-state that actively promotes their way of life?  Can nations choose to welcome people through their borders only if immigrants adopt the host culture?   Who is to decide what aspects of a culture are important, or which culture to promote in a heterogenous state?  When a nation makes decisions that make it increasingly heterogenous, can they then seek to homogenize at the expense of minority communities that they previously welcomed more unconditionally?  Will Terrans continue to uphold the universal “Right to Not be Oppressed”?  Is the future of Terra to be dominated by states or by nation-states?

To be honest, I’m not sure how to answer most of these questions, but I’m sympathetic to the reasonableness of each side.  Is this the narrative, or something like it, that many Trump folks and Brexit folks are trying to share?  (If it is, please pick a more honest, respectful, and better informed spokesperson next time.  I simply cannot promote a nationalism that exalts a figure that represents to me everything crass, ugly, and materialistic about America.)  If it’s not, should it be?

I grew up as a white kid in Taiwan for the first 18 years of my life.  In Taiwan, it’s really hard to become a citizen, even though I was born there and lived there so long.  A foreigner is not even allowed to buy land and the government spent considerable sums of money on promoting local culture. I assumed that is what nation-states did.  When I came to America, I was surprised to learn about what seemed to me an immense double standard.  I wasn’t surprised that the rest of the world had that double standard–the default disgust mechanism against the loud and powerful is understandable–but Americans themselves had it too.  Many seemed fine with decisions of other countries to protect their own way of life, such as how Vietnam actively discouraged  American-style burgers and fast-food chains in Saigon, but if New York State outlawed burritos, that would have been interpreted as racist.  That doesn’t seem fair to me (or racist, but that’s another post).  While in Taiwan, I also adopted a Chinese name to use with locals.  This was expected of me and I was fine with it.  How could I expect them to remember or pronounce such foreign syllables?   But when I came to the U.S., I assumed that it would work here the other way.  Often it did, often it didn’t, but what was interesting to me was the posture of the Americans I knew, who did not feel comfortable encouraging foreigners to adopt local names.

So is our future a world of states or nation-states?  I’m not sure what the future holds or even what I would wish for.  Both paths seem enlightened in their own way, as long as both firmly resist the old philosophy of the “Right to Oppress.”  Both present starkly different versions of the future that make me excited that I get to live for the next 50 years (hopefully) to find out what happens.

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I was born in Taipei, Taiwan.  My Mommy and Daddy loved me and named me Jeremy.  But that is a super foreign sounding word in Taiwan, so I took a local name too that was easier for locals to remember and pronounce.  It seemed helpful and appropriate to me and I figured that’s the way it worked everywhere.  So it feels strange that I haven’t been able to find an English-speaking culture where the members would feel comfortable having the same expectation of Taiwanese long-term residents that the Taiwanese had of me.  It’s not racism.   It’s just hard to make friends and influence people if they can’t say your name.  


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I also lived in Hong Kong for a while.  My brother (right) still lives there with his family.  Last time my wife and I went to visit, there was a Chinese traditional opera that was performing in the local square.  Apparently the troupe travels around Hong Kong performing for local communities at the public expense.  America certainly does some things that are somewhat similar (e.g. the Smithsonian), but nothing comes to mind quite like that.   Sometimes I wonder about why.  

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In Trump’s World—But Not of It

The morning after the election, I sat down to work, and couldn’t concentrate. Like millions of Americans, I felt strangely ill.  Like fewer Americans, I processed my emotions via essay-writing.  It’s about why this particular election result hurts so stupidly much, and what we can do about it.

Why listen to me?  I’m a politics and history nerd, but no expert.  Mainly, I consider myself a bridge between the Ivy League and rural/small town America. To the former group, I’m too conservative. To the latter, too liberal.  (I’m guessing I’m a centrist Democrat.) I hope these reflections will help Democrats understand themselves and Republicans how to deal with us. To the latter, you will disagree with many premises, but I’m not trying to persuade you.  This post is reflective.  I’m describing what I think is our common dilemma.

For as long as I’ve known who Trump was, I thought he was a buffoon representing everything that was awful about America: wealth, trophy wives, bullying, reality television, loudness, entrepreneurship that feels like scams, sue-happy, uneducated, and self-important.  So, of course, this election result is an unreal-for-the-love-of-god-pinch-me nightmare, but what makes it special? I’m weirdly affected by this. After staying up until 3:30AM to find out Trump won, I could not fall asleep until 8:30AM. Why did I suddenly tear up in the shower this morning? Why do I go to bed each night thinking about it? Why do I care this much? I’ve never done this.

Let’s get some things out of the way: History nerds everywhere can cite a few reasons to not be too too upset. First, regarding the end of the world, be of good cheer. The Republic will stand. We’ve survived worse (e.g. Fascism, Andrew Johnson, the Civil War, the Cold War, etc.). Though the man is much, he is not totally incompetent. That much is obvious. Second, is this a step backwards? Of course! But I remain completely convinced that the arc of history is towards progress and big steps backwards are nothing new. For example, immediately following the Civil War, there were numerous African Americans elected to public office in the South before they disappeared for a century. Our setback yesterday is major and serious, but it is not a precious or unique snowflake. Third, by historical standards, our current problems are small. This is arguably one of the best times in our history to make a stupid presidential choice. Lastly, though shocked by the result of this election and my predictions being so wrong about it, I’m not shocked that we were shocked. Upsets are nothing new. Truman 1948, anyone?

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In 1948, FDR was dead, Truman was up for re-election, WWII was over, and the Democratic party, which had been in power for 16 years, was split three ways, with fringes on both ends mounting independent bids. Everyone thought that if the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas Dewey, was cautious and made no mistakes, he would win for sure. The Chicago Tribune even printed their papers before full results were in. But everyone was wrong.

Let’s get the demographic determinism out the way too: I’m very white, very man, very heterosexual, and very safe all around. I have great health care through my employer. I have job security. I’m not afraid of being deported or otherwise being personally impacted in some specific way.

Let’s get the policy out of the way too: a great many people are posting that this election being tragic because of what it means for the environment, foreign policy, immigration, taxes, gender equality, you name it. But, painful as it may be, “this is (exactly) what democracy looks like.” Losing any election entails direct hits to policies and issues you care about. Nope! That’s not what makes this election result special.

So what is it? The diagnosis of my malaise, and I suspect of Democrats across the country, is much more simple, immediate, and personal. We are in a moral dilemma and don’t know how to move forward with integrity. We have two competing values. They put us in a bind. It’s new to us. It’s confusing. It’s what makes this especially hard.

On the one hand, we believe in respecting the will of the people. We believe in coming together. We believe that, in a democracy, sometimes you lose. We believe that we are Americans first and Democrats second. This drives me to embrace the winner on the other side. I’ve lived long enough to know that, in my own life, this drive is real and not lip service. For example, at the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I (with Hillary) supported W. I figured he was President, he was in the best position to make this hard choice, and we should follow his lead. Though it ended up being the wrong choice, I don’t regret my inclination to be supportive. Knee-jerk antagonism towards our leaders is a failure of patriotism, regardless of who is in power. Even if we see the opposing winning candidate as having no experience, the wrong policies, little knowledge, poor wisdom, and a bad temperament, our civic duty remains clear: respect the people’s choice. Elections matter and they should alter our attitudes. This is what Trump said the first night, and what Clinton and Obama said the first morning.

But I’m not feeling it. Why? Because elections don’t and can’t change my sense of right and wrong. Morality stays the same. For example, calling people names is not OK with me, and never will be. Discriminating on the basis of religion is not OK with me, and never will be. Sexual assault is not OK with me, and never will be. Not being committed to the peaceful transfer of power unless you win is not OK with me, and never will be.

These sorts of moral issues, you might say, our first-order concerns. Though I care enormously about experience, policy, knowledge, wisdom, and temperament, these are “just” second-order issues. I expect election results that go the other way to be painful on any or all of these points. What makes this election result so hard is that many of us have never dealt with first-order concerns before and don’t know how. I guess I didn’t think I’d ever have to. Unlike some other Dems maybe, I could have fairly easily united behind McCain, Romney, and clearly did for W. These people were obviously fundamentally decent human beings. I can’t stress this enough: McCain and Romney are good people.

But Trump is not. I’m sorry. I want to unite! But this is one those Martin Luther “here-I-stand-and-can-do-no-other” sort of things. I can’t both embrace the “let’s unite” instinct and also see myself as a good person. Many Democrats, myself included, have not been lying when saying for months that Trump is a different sort of Republican in our eyes. I think we used words like “temperament” and “unfit for office,” but what we have really meant is that our honest opinion is that he’s a deeply immoral human being and that we would be unable in good conscience to be supportive.

So, where does that leave us? Civil war? Obviously not. Nothing remotely that drastic. At the moment, three things are clear:

First, Trump won an open and free election. Violence is not justified at all. I went to a protest last night in Philadelphia and found myself disgusted and alienated by “not my president” chants. He is my president—for all of us. To reject this decision is to reject democracy. Like it or not, the Trump/Tea-Party/former-but-really-still-a-little-birther wing of the Republican Party is stunningly triumphant. They won fair and square. Seriously, I would personally enlist and fight in a war to defend this national choice. Trump is our legitimate President. That must be accepted and supported.

Secondly, we must not light the house on fire to burn Trump. After Obama won in 2008, Republicans did this to Obama. For example, Obamacare, very similar to plans proposed by Gingrich and implemented by Romney, was designed to work through and expand the private insurance industry. Of course, there was room for criticism—that’s necessary and helpful—but none for demonization, lies, “death panels,” etc. So, yes, let’s work with President Trump to get as much done as possible. We can’t help others less for the sake of soothing our own self-righteousness or gaining political advantage by denying Trump political victories. We must be bigger. I’m glad to see Warren and Sanders make statements to that effect.

Lastly, and I’ll get to details on how we might do this in a second, we absolutely must deny Trump any claim to moral leadership. He’s an immoral man and we have to say it, and keep saying, to our kids, outsiders, and each other. Why exactly? Many reasons.

The biggest one: we cannot allow morality to be redefined for the next generation. We must tell our kids that it’s not OK to be a bully. We must tell our less-than-large breasted daughters that they are beautiful. We must tell our sons it’s not OK to insult a woman’s looks (or anyone’s looks for that matter). We must tell our kids its not OK to lie to get ahead in life. We must tell our kids that apologizing is a sign of strength, not weakness. We must tell our kids that its not OK to view people that look different than you as worse than you. We can’t budge on this.

More practically, we must distance ourselves for the sake of stopping violence against Americans abroad. One of the things that annoys many Americans about Muslims is that they spend too little time and energy condemning fringe elements that call themselves Muslims who support terrorism. Of course, the analogy is far from perfect in both directions (Trumpism is definitionally not fringe; his immoral behavior is nothing in comparison to terrorists). Still, a broad point stands: without Muslims seeing Americans very active in condemning the immoral behavior of other Americans, they will assume they condone it to some degree. In particular, the Trump win represents a stunning recruiting opportunity for ISIS. This logic has not changed. His election confirms their suspicions that Americans are ignorant, loud, immoral, bullies, whose religion is fame, wealth, and worldly pleasures. The brief inter-culturalism of Barack Hussein Obama can be construed as an aberration. We must do whatever we can, therefore, to isolate Trump as a moral leader and any claim to representing American values. (In fact, Trump might make a speech to that effect and pacify a few people.)

And let’s not focus only on enemies. Canadians, Europeans, Mexicans and others are freaking out. Some of them Trump has openly insulted and threatened. In particular, we must tell the Mexican people that we are ashamed of Trumps comments and policies. We have to assure them that, despite losing this election, he doesn’t speak for all of us.

We must also tell the world that it’s not OK to lie about elections being rigged as a tactic for winning them, seek to jail political opponents (or give the impression that that is appropriate), or malign judges for personal expediency. That’s the strategy of 3rd world dictatorships and threatens to undermine peace and order.

Finally, we we need to affirm our moral code to each other, to people within our country that are afraid, and anyone afraid or happy that there is a new standard for what is right and wrong. There’s not.

So how do we reject Trump as a moral leader? It’s starts by being moral ourselves and accepting the election results. But it must include some ongoing form of visible protest that the world can see everyday. What exactly? We #neverTrump people will continue to reflect on how to do this. As I’ve said, moderates like me are new to more extreme political action and need time to figure it out. However, a few ideas are emerging.

First, screw snarky tweets, angry Facebook posts, or being passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive dicks to our friends and family for four years. We can do things more helpful to others and ourselves.

One thing we must do is draft a moderate declaration that condemns some of Trumps worse behaviors, articulates moral values, and gets 50 million signatures. That’s a start.

A second thing we can do, and this one excites me, is commit to a visible and non-violent four-year Trump protest. It’s purpose? Remind ourselves and each other of the simple point: we are in Trump’s world, but not of it.

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Paul wrote his most seminal, intentional, and structured epistle to the Romans, the most dominate (and some thought decadent) nation on earth. He gives an exhortation on how to live in their world.

Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2)

For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world.  (1 John 2:16)

Dear friends, I warn you as “temporary residents and foreigners” to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against your very souls. Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God.  (1 Peter 2:11-12)

For me, the Christian teaching “Be in the world, but not of it,” expresses exactly my belief that Trump is both legit Caesar and legit unethical, and I won’t conform.

So what do we do exactly for our four-year protest? Ideally, all of us would do the same thing. Wear black? Too sad. Arm bands?  Too fascist. We also want to draw attention, but not so much it defines life. It should be inexpensive, not time-consuming, and easy as possible to implement as we’ll have to do this a lot. What should we do?

One thing that spread after Brexit was wearing safety pins as a sign to refugees, minorities, and other groups afraid and facing increased rates of assault. The message was simple: you are safe with me. I’m surprised by how much I like this. It’s simple, beautiful, and inexpensive. I also love it’s not just anti-something. But there’s 2 small problems. First, it’s not as visible as we’d like: it would be impactful if we could see them everywhere on a busy street. Second, it takes work, even if it’s just a tiny thing. People would have to pin them to their shirts everyday, and I would just forget about them, wash them, and ruin my shirts. I’m ethical and all, but there are limits.

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The safety pin protest is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about and it’s already picking up steam.

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This is a selfie of my wife she just put on Facebook. Her caption: I am a safe place. #safetypin #ally In the words of my dear friend, Brent Chamberlain, I wear this pin “to represent safety not just for the minorities with whom I feel solidarity, but also the majority whose too-often legitimate feelings of fear have led to this climate. No one is alone, not the steelworker in Ohio, nor the child of illegal immigrants in New York.”

I love it though. If that’s what we all decide to do, count me in! I’ll wear my ruined shirts with pride. However, I’m toying around with something else: pink socks–they always change the world. Seriously, I want to buy 25 pairs of bright pink socks and wear them for 1,460 days; from January 20, 2017 until January 20, 2021. I think this strikes that balance of visible but not too visible. I’d also actually do it (just put your other socks away). It’s a tad pricey, but it’s also not wasteful. I’d get four years of sock use! Anyway, I’m not ready to commit to it, but the point is “Do Something!” All of us in this ethical dilemma must express that we are both in Trumps world but not of it. If you are doing something else, I’d love to hear about it! Maybe we can all do your idea! For me, I picked pink partly because it’s distinctive, but mainly because I think women and girls are doubly hurt by this election, and it breaks my heart.

Finally, on the right or left, if you are distraught by this election, if you see productive public discourse as important, if you are depressed, if you feel the need to act right now but don’t know what could possibly do any good, there actually is something concrete you could do in the next five minutes.

Search for Common Ground is the largest dedicated peace-building non-profit in the world. They work in 49 countries on everything from high-level diplomacy to community engagement. One thing I love is that they set up discussion groups between individuals of opposing political and ethnic groups and mediate weekly discussions over 10 weeks that cover increasingly divisive topics. This shit changes lives. Unfortunately, they have virtually no grassroots presence in the United States. Why? Money. Yay! A solvable problem! Go donate $10. It will help America heal and help you feel better. It did for me. Also, I’ve got science: we know that supporting causes you care about contributes to mental health. Seriously, you’ll feel better.

My goal in this essay was to articulate what makes this election result especially upsetting for me and others, and what we might do about it. I wanted to close, however, with an apology to Republicans.

I’m super angry with you, don’t get me wrong. Policy aside, you forced an immoral person on all of us. Really? Kasich would have killed you? I’m super pissed at you. However, however, however, I’m also painfully aware that, had the election gone differently, many of you, policy aside, would feel the same about Hillary.  I apologize for forcing you to decide between someone you found morally reprehensible and Donald Trump. It was wrong of us.  I’ve realized we shouldn’t want nominees with cross-party appeal for only electability reasons. We want them for wellbeing reasons. Good rule of thumb for future primaries: If my guy wins, will the other side hate their lives for four years? This time, it’s moderate Dems like me who feel ethically bound to purse new and radical things like four-year protests. Next time, it might be you. Moving forward, I hope to be more like we were in 2008 and 2012, and nominate people universally acknowledged as morally upright to champion our different views.  Lesson (painfully) learned.

In future posts, I hope to get into more details about the ramifications of this win, why it happened, and process what it might mean for the future. There’s a lot of reflecting to do! Also, I’m a guest blogger on Huffington Post now, so feel free to make suggestions about how to make this better and shorter for that venue.  Thanks!

Disclosure: I have a super big conflict of interest about Search. My wife works there and I will do whatever’s neccessary to get into her pants. Please note: she’s super talented and could work anywhere, but she chose Search because she believes in it. I also know the organization pretty well and I think it’s a good one (and I’m a serious non-profit snob). Seriously, go donate $10. You’ll feel better.


What Reality are Trump People Living In?

If you are anything like me, you don’t quite understand what to make of the Trump phenomenon.  Sure Hillary is winning, but what is more interesting to me is that over a third of Americans still plan to vote for this guy.  Why?  I’m bored with demonizing Trump and Trump supporters.  I want to understand the world they are seeing because I don’t get it.

As luck would have it, I happen to be a researcher at Penn who studies the impact of primal world beliefs, which are beliefs about the nature of reality writ large such as “the world is fascinating.”  Primals are the most super simple, essential, and general beliefs we have.  As of a few months ago, we can now measure 28 primals (yay!).  To give away the results, 24 of them mostly collapse into three big ones (Safe, Enticing, and Alive) and these in turn collapse into 1 big one (Good, defined hedonistically).  Currently, I’m trying to publish all these measures and look at psychological correlates (super happy…lots of big effect sizes and highly significant findings… primals predict depression, wellbeing, life satisfaction, etc.), but I had some data on current politics and, in this season of absurdity, I thought some people might find it interesting.  I’m also learning how to report and conduct these analyses, so it’s good practice. What follows is a summary and an appendix with all the numbers.  Keep in mind that all findings below come from one online sample of 533 people [so place grain of salt here].  Eventually, I plan to publish a peer-reviewed journal article with much of this information.

What reality are Republicans and Democrats living in?

So I had this fantastic theory that Republicans would see the world as way more dangerous than Democrats.  I though that might explain Republicans’ “irrational” a) fear of criminals which manifests as interest in law and order and support for mandatory minimums, b) fear of ISIS, c) fear of Mexicans, d) fear of people coming to take their guns, e) fear of government, and f) fear of out-group members generally.  At their last convention, and indeed for every single Republican debate, it seemed like candidates were always trying to out-terrorize each other (“No, I understand the great peril we are in!”…”No, no.  I understand it better.”)

However, this theory was wrong.  True, Republicans see the world as slightly more dangerous, but way less than I thought.  It’s a small relationship.

Furthermore, both parties see the world as about more or less equally good, revolving around them, abundant, acceptable, beautiful (Dems were slightly higher), changing, pleasurable, improvable, improving (Dems were slightly higher), interesting, meaningful, needing them, fragile, understandable, and against them.  There were so many similarities!

Ok.  So where do they differ?  Republican reality differs from Democratic reality in 9 ways, 4 small, 4 medium, and 1 big.  Let’s get the small ones out of the way first.

  • On average, Democrats see the world as less competitive.  That is, on average, their honest opinion is that collaboration, and not competition, makes the world go round.  In turn, this would make sense of why Republicans tend to see Democrats as more naive “kum-by-ya-ists,” and Democrats tend to see Republicans as more merciless cutthroats.
  • On average, Republicans see the universe as more atomistic while Democrats tend to see the universe as more of an interconnected whole.  Perhaps this helps Clinton’s slogan of “Stronger Together” have traction among those with a worldview in which deep interconnection and cooperation is more of a felt reality.  Perhaps this allows the issue of climate change to find more fertile ground among Democrats.

I predicted the two above.  They make sense of Republicans emphasizing free markets and American exceptionalism, among other things.  I did not predict the two below:

  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny.  Republicans tend to think that funny things are fewer and farther between.  I wonder if this partly explains why virtually all comedians and entertainers are Democrats.
  • One of the primals I measured is what I call “Characterizable.”  Basically, do you think the world has an overall nature or not?  On average, Republicans tend to think it has a nature while Democrats do not.  Again, however, these are all fairly small differences.

Moving on to the 4 differences that are a bit bigger:

  • On average, Republicans see the world as more alive, which means they see the universe as more imbued with intention and that the world is interacting with them personally.  However, these sorts of views correlate with increased religiosity, so I’m not sure if seeing the world as alive is relevant to political views or just a side effect of religion.  My intuition says it’s probably more of a side effect, so I don’t talk about it as much in the analysis below.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as less worth exploring.  This is essentially a gut level sense of return on investment for the worthwhileness of exploring or learning more about any given thing, place, or person.  Democrats do not necessarily actually explore their worlds more; it just means that they think most everything is more likely to be worth exploring.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more just.  Does the arc of life trend towards justice.  Does life find a way to reward those who do good and punish those who do bad?  Is the world a place where working hard and being nice pays off?  Republicans tend to say ‘Yes,’  and Democrats say ‘No.’

    Demi are top. Reps are bottom.

    Dems (top) tend to see reality as unfair and Republicans (bottom) tend to have the honest opinion that life will find ways to reward those who work hard and help others.

  • Finally, the second biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans live in a reality marked by decline, and Democrats think the world is getting better.  On the one hand, this makes sense of why such vague rhetoric as “We don’t win anymore” appeals to Republicans and not Democrats, because even though it’s a super vague statement, it corresponds to a primal world belief that distinguishes these groups.  On the other hand, this distinction between Reps and Dems might be to some degree an artifact of who’s in the White House.  I imagine that when Bush was in charge, Republicans might have seen the world as in less decline and Democrats’ views would have changed a bit too.  Still, I doubt this distinction would disappear.

All this, however, except for decline, is relatively small potatoes.  Let’s talk about the biggest difference, because it both makes sense and doesn’t make sense: hierarchical.  

hiear

Democrats are on top, and Republicans are below. As you can see, despite plenty of overlap between the two groups, there is a striking difference.

What the hell does “hierarchical” mean?  Out of all the primals we have identified, this one is the least intuitive.  For me, it was also super fun to see it “pop” in relation to politics because Hierarchical wasn’t related to depression, anxiety, optimism, curiosity, income, education, or really any of the other variables I looked at.

The “hierarchical” primal concerns the nature of differences.  Namely, does difference imply that something is better or worse?  For those who believe that reality is hierarchical, if two things are different that usually implies that one is better than the other.  Likewise, for those who see reality as nonhierarchical, differences are likely surface and meaningless distinctions and probably distractions.  Under the latter view, any attempt to organize the world into “better” or “worse” things will either fail or be inaccurate and superficial.  However, for folks who see the world as hierarchical, most things can be fairly usefully ranked and ordered from better or worse.  This includes objects, from knives to landscapes, and people, from individuals to ethnic groups.  The biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans, on average, see the world as more hierarchical, or, to put it a different way, Democrats gloss over differences.

Are Trump supporters particularly strange Republicans?  

In a nutshell, no.  Trump people, as opposed to old Cruz and Kasich people, as well as independents, are fairly similar on every primal except 4.  Trump supporters out-Republican their Republican peers by seeing the world as even more Alive, Just, and  Hierarchical.  Also, Trump people think the world isn’t changing quite as much.

just2

All Republicans/independents on top. Trump folks on the bottom.

So what does this all mean? 

I’ve been trying to wrap my head arounds what this means, but it is starting to make some sense.  I’d love input:

  • Those who see the world as hierarchical and just will tend to assume in small ways that successful people are better people.  This suggests susceptibility to infatuations with billionaires.
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then political correctness appears foolish.  PC culture is a real problem because it glosses over differences that really matter.  This might explain a deep frustration on the Right about political correctness that the Left just doesn’t get.
  • I’ve often been confused by why Americans need to talk about their country like it’s the best country in the history of the world.  But, if we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, and America is the most powerful country in the world, then it stands to reason that America is also the best.  It would feel false to say, “America is unique” without also saying, “America is the best.”
  • If we assume that the world is hierarchical and just, then we will have more difficulty mixing with and including out-groups.  Obviously, hispanic or African American culture is different than the culture of small-town white America where, according to Haidt, sanctity concerns matter more.
  • Jon Haidt identifies 5 political values: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, & sanctity/degradation.  Democrats score higher on two–care and fairness–while Republicans score more equally on all of them.  It may be useful to understand how primals interact with these values.  For instance, if, like many Republicans, you see the world as more just, then pursuing fairness should be less of a priority.  Likewise, if you see the world as hierarchical, then it is natural to value authority and submit to it.  Indeed, investigating the relationship between the values and primals of political ideologies could be a fascinating line of research.
  • The difference between Dems and Reps regarding Worth Exploring may be merely a manifestation of the much bigger difference on Hierarchical.  For Dems, the tendency to assume that differences don’t speak to value may be a tendency to gloss over differences in how worth exploring things are too.  In turn, for Republicans, seeing the world through the lens of rankings and hierarchies can’t allow every thing to be equally interesting because some things got to be boring.
  • Finally, the very definition of conservatism entails conserving something.  This is not an urgent priority for someone who sees reality as improving.  But, if the world is going to the dogs, then we need to hold on to the more just hierarchy of yesterday.

Ok.  Pretending this makes sense for a second, where do these primals come from?  

We don’t know.  I speculate that they come from many sources, including religion and numerous life experiences.  But what seems promising for explaining Hierarchical is simply where one lives.  Ask yourself, if you wanted to design an intervention that encouraged people to see the world as less hierarchical, what would you do?  Well, we would want to expose people to many different types of people and things that were quite different from each other, but not necessarily better or worse.

Where better to do that than in cities?

With all the talk about red and blue states, we forget that the political divide in America is likely better described as the rural-urban divide.  Check out the map below of the 2012 presidential election results by county.  You will find, of course with plenty of exceptions, that rural areas are red and urban areas are blue.  For instance, Oregon is a reliably blue state, but what’s really happening is that a redder countryside surrounds Portland and Eugene.  In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown, and Harrisburg are blue dots in a mostly red state.  In Texas, Dallas (up there on its own), Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and Beaumont are particularly striking.  This seems to hold for Florida, Georgia, Virginia, and others.  Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.  If I remember correctly, Oklahoma City is particularly conservative.

2012-usa-election-map-by-county-nyt

In other words, belief that the world is nonhierarchical could be a side-effect of urban life.

Could Democrats or Republicans use my data to help win this election or future elections?  

I think so, but should we?  Full disclosure: as a missionary kid who grew up overseas and is quite intercultural, I see the world as deeply nonhierarchical.  Adopting the lens of hierarchy does not come naturally to me, and of course I’m very much a fan of making everyone more like me.  Woohoo! Let’s do it!  Further, as a scientist, we’ve discovered no evidence so far that seeing the world as hierarchical helps or hurts wellbeing that much (though that’s not saying much… we’ve just started looking at this).

However, for a Democrat, I’m also a bit of an outlier on the belief that the world is just.  I tend to assume that life finds ways to reward those who work hard and do good.  As a scientist, I should note too that belief in a just world is the most studied primal to date.  It is connected to wellbeing, being more productive, being kinder to those around you, and numerous other good things.  Unfortunately, it’s also tied to blaming victims for their misfortunes, whether the victim is poor, sick, or disenfranchised.

What about Decline?  Way before I got into primals, and as a history super nerd (seriously friends, audiobooks and lectures on history are almost exclusively what I listen to in my spare time; I’m currently working through 3 books on medieval England), I have had a strong view that the world, in almost every way, is improving.  For example, Harvard’s Steven Pinker makes a case that violence has declined over human history.  Reasonable people can disagree, however, including Democrats like my wife, who happens to be much smarter than I am!

So, though I’m personally not down for changing Just beliefs, I could get excited about changing Declining and Hierarchical.  For the former, I would suggest that, in school, we study social history more and the history of those in power less.  Much of the improvements across the ages have been in such things as health, how we treat the mentally ill, women’s rights, human rights, legal systems, etc.  In my view, the facts speak for themselves (but that, I suppose, is how all of us think about all of our primals).

For Hierarchical, the big trick, as implied above, seems to me to be exposure.  One could seek to expose individuals to very different people, places, and things.  The logic being that this is why going to college, immersive overseas travel experiences like the Peace Corps, and moving to big cities tends to manufacture liberals (nothing new here).  These sorts of activities expose us to gays, jews, jesuits, rich, homeless, etc.  They become our friends, and we realize that the differences between us are very visible and fairly superficial. Who knows?  Maybe the DNC should think about supporting reality TV shows like Wife Swap (I’ve never seen it).

Finally, assuming we (Democrats) want to get more Republicans to vote for Hillary by capitalizing on primals already in place–to appeal to primals for political purposes without changing them–it seems that the Clinton folks were right to seize on how the Trump convention was pessimistic about America and then, at the Democratic convention, do more than the usual “America is the best” fanfare.  In other words, in order to appeal to those who see the world as more hierarchical, just, and in decline, it may be useful to be seen, to some degree, as the party of and celebrating the successful in-group.  I’m not sure if it’s worth it though.  It could alienate all those Dems who see the world as unjust and nonhierarchical.

In the meantime, I think it is important to not be condescending.  My original hypothesis had been that Trump people are essentially scared children, and that drove them, their politics, and their party into the arms of a demagogue.  This paternalistic theory was wrong.  The major difference between me and Trump supporters is more interesting and, hopefully, more useful.

Appendix

  • On average, Republicans see the world as a tad more dangerous.  There’s a small difference between Republicans (M=2.31, SD=.96) and Democrats (M=2.53, SD=.92), but it’s barely significant t(321)=1.96, p=.05; g=.24.
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more Alive than Democrats (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.42, SD=.86; t(321)=-2.67, p=.008; g=.32).  This means they live in a reality more imbued with purpose and intentionality (M=2.63, SD=.91; M=2.2, SD=1.01; t(321)=-3.7, p=0.0003; g=.45).
  • On average, Republicans see the world as more easy to characterize than Dems (M=2.86, SD=.72; M=2.55, SD=.74; t(321)=-2.36, p=.019; g=.29).
  • On average, Dems see the the world as less competitive than Republicans (M=2.74, SD=.9; M=2.5, SD=.9; t(321)=2.2, p=.029; g=.27).
  • On average, Dems see the world as more funny than Republicans (M=2.88, SD=.91; M=2.66, SD=.93; t(321)=1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Dems see reality as more interconnected (M=.303, SD=1; M=2.74, SD=.91; t(321)=2.43, p=.016; g=.29).
  • The 2nd biggest difference is that, on average, Republicans see the world as more just (M=.2.58, SD=.84; M=2.86, SD=.93; t(321)=-2.78, p=.0057, g=.34).
  • When it comes to primals, the biggest difference between Republicans and Democrats is that whereas Republicans on average see reality as full of things that are meaningfully distinguishable from each other, Democrats tend to see all differences as not better or worse, but just different (M=2.73, SD=.82; M=2.17, SD=.91; t(321)=-5.23, p<.0001, g=.63).  You can think of this as “hierarchical.”  Republicans on average see hierarchy as more natural.  Everything is different from each other in ways that can make the object or person truly better or worse.  Democrats see hierarchy as more unnatural because the differences between things are not typically good or bad.
  • On average, Democrats see the world as more worth exploring (M=3.35, SD=.8; M=3.05, SD=.1.16; t(321)=2.8, p=0054, g=.34).
  • On average, Republicans tend to see the world as in decline (M=2.66, SD=1.32; M=2.12, SD=1.15; t(321)=-3.73, p=.0002, g=.45).
  • Compared to other Republicans/independents, Trump supporters see the world as equally good, safe (not even a little different), enticing, scarce (not even a little different), acceptable, beautiful, characterizable (Trump people see the world as slightly more characterizable), competitive (Trump people see the world as slightly more competitive), pleasurable, funny, improvable, improves, interesting, interconnected, meaningful, needs me (Trump people think the world needs them a little bit more), fragile, harmless, understandable, worth exploring, against them, and declining.
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more Alive (M=2.69, SD=.76; M=2.38, SD=.91; t(303)=-2.94, p=.0036; g=.36).  And thus even more intentional (M=2.77, SD=.91; M=2.4, SD=1.12; t(303)=-2.9, p=.004; g=.36) and about them (M=2.22, SD=.84; M=1.96, SD=.83; t(303)=-2.57, p=.011; g=.31).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more hierarchical (M=2.62, SD=.9; M=2.31, SD=.9; t(303)=-2.85, p=.005; g=.35).
  • On average, Trump people see the world as even more just (M=2.77, SD=.94; M=2.54, SD=.93; t(303)=-1.99, p=.047; g=.24).
  • On average, Trump people don’t think the world is changing all that much (M=2.99, SD=.81; M=3.18, SD=.71; t(303)=2.12, p=.035; g=.26).

Note: After this post got approximately a bazillion more views than I expected (actually just 15,000), I thought I would double-check my analysis.  So, FYI, the above has been updated in light of a further review of effect sizes.  


Bombs Nationalize Patriots’ Day

The Boston Marathon, begun in 1897 with 18 contestants, is the world’s oldest annual marathon and likely the most prestigious.  These days about 500,000 people come to watch between 20,000 and 35,000 contestants each year.  The race starts at noon on the third Monday of April, which is Patriots’ Day.

Patriots’ Day is an obscure Massachusetts holiday.  No one else knows about it or cares  much (Maine celebrates it too as they used to be part of Massachusetts, and a few people in Wisconsin and Florida take a day off I think), and it is mainly an excuse to get hammered (source).  Officially, it celebrates the the battles of Lexington and Concord, which happened 238 years ago.  In these battles 49 Americans and 73 British were killed.  It was the first (minor skirmish really) of the American Revolutionary War.  It is, essentially, a local holiday and unknown.

So why the hell was the Boston Marathon targeted?  It’s a marathon!  This is people at their best.  People are running, disciplining themselves, losing weight, building relationships, etc.  Moreover, runners start between 10am and 10:40am, and the bombs went off at 3pm.  Everyone who is a super good runner would be done by then.  If you started at 10:30am and ran 9 minute miles, you would finish around 2:25PM.  The top runners are starting to finish at 12:15.  These people are the fast ones who are kicking ass and taking names—the professionals some might say.  So these bombs targeted the slower ones, the 10,000 or so who did not cross, I read in one report, were dads and moms and their families who showed up to cheer them on. They never got to finish.   This runner was knocked down yards away from the finish line, and he is 78 years old.  Kudos.  I wish I am in that great of shape when I am 78.  My apologies for running 26.19 miles and not being able to finish.

boston-marathon-bombing-bill-iffrig-fallen-runner-the-boston-globe

The bombs, it seems, were made to hurt people; they were packed with nails and shrapnel to do maximal damage to soft tissue.  CNN says 176 people were injured, and so far 3 are dead, about a dozen or so remain critical.  Among those killed was 8-year old Martin Richard, who came to cheer on his Dad at the finish line who had yet to cross.  His mother and sister are seriously injured.  Pray for them.

130416062627-martin-richard-boston-victim-story-top.png

So, did I miss something?  Is jogging ruining the world?  Are families cheering on non-professionals crossing the finish-line a threat to anyone?  Is Patriots’ Day a symbol of American greed and exploitation?  Is it a recognizable symbol?  No.

9/11 was different.  Obviously it had more death and destruction, but at least the target  made some tenous degree of sense.  I do not want to overstate here (and of course am not endorsing it by any means), but it seems that anyone who knows anything about how multi-national corporations function around the world can understand some anger towards the capitalist system and the symbols of that system, such as the twin towers.  Also, people who worked in these towers might be presumably (from the terrorists’ perspective) part of the system.  Finally, targeting the World Trade Center did not imply targeting children explicitly.

The Boston Marathon attack, however, is an attack on baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie.  It is an attack on American-ness, or even worse, an attack on Americans living out healthy lifestyles.  Supportive families, including children, were targeted.  This, much more than 9/11, gives some degree of credence to the bizarre phrase, “they hate us for our freedom.”

So I do not know what to make of this.  I am distraught, angry, and if this is international terrorism, then it seems like an idiotic target.

Obviously, I know nothing.  I do know, however, that this is exactly the wrong way to fight America.  Historically, Americans will leave you alone if you leave them to baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie.  We are isolationists at heart.  Even if we currently have a far flung system of military bases, we do not like it, came to it reluctantly, and we will tire of it if you stop bothering us (or invading Poland).

But this is not the way to make us tire.  This unites us and gives us energy.  My prediction: about 200 million Americans will be joining Massachusetts in celebrating Patriots’ Day next year on Monday April 21, 2014.

Mark your calendars.  I’m ordering kegs of Sam Adams Boston Lager now.  Go Paul Revere!  Go America!  U-S-A!


10 Saddest States all Republican?

As you may have heard, I am getting a degree in well-being, the psychology of optimal human flourishing, and all that jazz.  So I found myself perusing Gallups new data on well-being which compares the 50 states.  Each receives a score averaging six categories: life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access—a reasonably holistic assessment methinks.

blog chart of states wellbeing

As I perused the state rankings, I found myself thinking about red and blue states, and correlating political affiliation with these well-being numbers.  So I downloaded the data, color coded the states according to how they voted in the 2012 presidential election (blue democrat/red republican), and then took a look at the swing states according to Politico.  Some items are worth sharing.

First, of the 10 happiest states, seven are democratic states and three are Republican.  However, if we take out the swing states, it is five and five.  Which tells us little it seems.

The states in the middle seem fairly mixed, there are just more Democratic ones (these days).

Rhode Island is striking for being a solidly blue state so low on the list.  Its geographical neighbors are much higher, and the other blue states near it on the list (Nevada, Michigan, and Florida) are in truth pretty nominally blue.

It is also worth noting that Hawaii is not just on top, but 1.4 points away from #2.  Likewise, West Virginia is not just at the bottom of the pile, it is, somewhat strangely, also a  full 1.4 points away from #49.  This is huge: all 48 other states are packed into a band from 62.7 to 69.7; only a 7-point range.  West Virginia and Hawaii are major outliers.

Finally, by far the biggest takeaway here is the mass of red at the bottom.  Of the 10 saddest states in the union, 9 are Republican.  In fact, these states might be appropriately described as “uber” Republican.   The only democratic state is Ohio, which is very much a swing state.  If we take out all the swing states, all 10 slots at the bottom of the well-being pile go Republican.  However, 8 of these 10 are also southern states, which means this might be a regional thing over and above a Republican thing.

So what do we make of this?  Is there a correlation between one’s political views and subjective well-being?

I am not sure, but I spent some time this afternoon thinking about it.  Here is the same Gallup well-being data from a geographic perspective:

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access.

I noticed that having “very religious” people seemed to correlate negatively with well-being (the more religious people in your state, the less happy our state is).  Of course, there are marked exceptions, especially Utah.   Also, West Virginia is not the most religious, nor is Hawaii the least; religion is not super relevant.
The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior, work environment, and basic access.

The percentage of state residents who say religion is important in their lives and say they attend church weekly or nearly weekly

I also looked at a number of other factors.  Underemployment did not seem to correlate at all, neither did hiring rates, or firing rates.  Economic outlook did seem to correlate a bit, except for the incredibly obvious exception of Wyoming.

Gallup's Economic Confidence Index is based on state residents' views of economic conditions in this country today, and whether they think economic conditions in the country are getting better or getting worse.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index is based on state residents’ views of economic conditions in this country today, and whether they think economic conditions in the country are getting better or getting worse.

So, after this afternoon’s intellectual adventure, I do not have an answer for you: I do not know why the 10 saddest states in the Union are all Republican.  I set up a question, I explored it, I brought you to the stream to drink, and the stream is dry.  What a cruel thing to do!

I wanted to still post this not only to point out an interesting data point I observed (the 10 saddest states are Republican), but also to say that I do not have all the answers and continually look for them.  I think that is why many of you read my blog; my mind is not made up and I do my best to treat the data honestly.  I am constantly playing with live fire because I really do believe I can change my mind at any point as I go about learning more about the world.  Which means you can change my mind too.  A malleable worldview makes intellectual adventures more fun.

In other news, I just finished a Yale lecture series on the Ancient Greeks and am now working through another Yale series on the American Civil War.  I want to post on my masters thesis topic, a speech I want Obama to give, and also my buddy Whit has one more post on gun control.  Looking forward to reporting on these ongoing intellectual adventures!  Thanks for reading everyone.  You rock!  


2nd Amendment—What’s it really about?

What gun-rights does the 2nd amendment really protect?  When I studied the amendment itself, I was shocked to discover that much of what I thought it meant was bullshit.  In fact, its an amendment only a Democrat could love.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This is, undoubtedly, a strangely worded sentence.  I am not sure if the second comma means “and” or “which is.”  Regardless, for the last few decades (Zakaria), the understanding of this amendment has come to mean that it protects an individuals right to bear arms. However, it seems more likely that this amendment is meant preserve the power of the states and other communities in the face of federal overreach.  Washington DC, in other words, can take away the guns in your closets, but not the guns in your community armory; it can potentially take away your handguns, but not your well-regulated militias.

I want to explore some of these terms to better put us in the historic context.

Militia – In 1787, there was no standing federal army.  For years, any attempt to create one was considered suspect.  When Washington called one up to crush the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, it was a highly contentious move.  Most of the colonists wanted to keep federal military might to a minimum (they would be appalled at the size of the federal armed forces today); if a war was necessary, the militias should be called up, not a federal army.  Of course, a federal army was eventually created, but the thought was that state and local militias would always serve as a deterrent to federal power.  The single individual, one should note, was never thought of as a militia.  Militias were always formed via a geographically bound cooperative—state, municipal, county, etc.  After all, what could one man do with one musket?  On their own, individuals had no ability to check federal power.

well-regulated –  Militias, and individuals, were always seen as potentially destructive groups that could quickly turn into roving bands, plundering lands far from their own homes while unsympathetic commanders looked the other way.  Indeed, the founding fathers loved democracy and feared the people at the same time.  This was the rationale, for instance, behind the creation of the electoral college.  It is also why we have a representative democracy, and not a true direct democracy like Ancient Athens, where we, as a people, would vote directly on policy (i.e., should we invade iraq?).  With this fear, colonial Americans of all stripes expected that militias themselves would always be accountable to some sort of local government.  In other words, there was no such conception as a “private militia.”  The individual or group was not supposed to take the law into their own hands.  They had to be connected to local government and subject to it.

being necessary for the security of a free State – The point of having militias, according to the second Amendment, is the security of a free State.  Free states, in other words, required well-regulated militias that were more loyal to them than to the federal government.  The whole Bill of Rights, after all, was an attempt to limit the power of the federal government; Washington must not be allowed to limit the states ability to arm themselves with responsibly-regulated militias.

the people – Is the right of the people to keep and bear arms an individual right or is it a group right?  If “the people” is Joe and Ted, then yes, the 2nd amendment might guarantee Joe’s right to keep and bear arms at his house.  But this is unlikely, considering the context of the first few clauses and how “the people” is used throughout the Constitution.

The phrase, “the people,” is used 9 times in the Constitution.  It is mainly used to describe one enormous will—some sort of collective being even.

  1. In the preamble, “We the people  of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  It seems absurd to think that the people here refers to Joe and Ted.  Certainly some Joes and Teds were not a fan of the creation of the federal government.  Rather, the majority of the people were speaking through their representatives, and their representatives were in turn speaking together, with one voice.  That voice is the people, and the wishes of “the people” is not the same as the wishes of every single individual.
  2. Article 1, Section 2: “The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the Several States.”  Obviously, “the People” here cannot refer to individuals, but the will of the majority—house members do not have to be unanimously approved by every individual.
  3. In the first Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  In this instance, “the people” has the right to act as a group which assembles and petitions government.  It is also noteworthy that in prohibiting free exercise of religion and condemning speech, or the press “the people” is not mentioned, which might mean that they are supposed to be individual rights.
  4. In the 2nd Ammendment, it is mentioned in the context of groups, i.e. militias, but of course I cannot use this instance of “the people” to prove my point.
  5. The fourth Amendment:  “”The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”  This appears to be an exception to my interpretation of “the people.”  Here, it likely means “all individuals.”
  6. The 9th amendment, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”  I am not sure about this one.  Could go either way, but there is not much to go on.
  7. The 10th Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  This one implies that “the people” are smaller than states.  That might mean individuals, but it also might mean counties, townships, etc.
  8. The 17th Amendment: “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people.”   Like the second instance, “the people” cannot mean to refer to “all individuals.”
  9. Again in the 17th Amendment: “…the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.”  Like the second and eighth instance, “the people” here cannot refer to “all individuals.”

So of the 9 instances where “the people” is used in the Constitution, 4 must be referring to collectiveness, 2 are likely referring to collectiveness, 1 is entirely unclear, and 1 is likely referring to individual rights, and 1 is definitely referring to individual rights.  I conclude that the Constitution uses “the people” differently.  Though usually it refers to groups speaking with one voice, context is king.  Because the 2nd Amendments emphasis on militias, I think it highly likely that “the people” here does not refer to all individuals.  Therefore, I cannot say that the right of “the people” to keep and bear arms is an individual right to own arms.

Arms – Today, you and I cannot imagine the advancements in technology that will be in place 226 years from now.  Even 26 years ago, this was a phone:

This phone was built and in use in 1987.

This model was built and in use in 1987.

Today’s “phone” has a bit more uses:

iPhone with rotary phone app.

iPhone with rotary phone app.

Do you remember when phones only made calls?  I remember the old rotary phones.  Of course, they, like iPhones, were called “phones.”  But it would be absurd to think that all thinking about rotary phones 26 years ago applies to the iPhone of today.  Imagine where “phones” will be in 226 years?

In other words, technologically-based concepts like “phones” are plastic; they stretch and change enormously across times.  So too, is the term “arms.”  226 years ago, when the 2nd Amendment was written, this was an ‘arm’:

Revolutionary war-era musket

Revolutionary war-era musket

These muskets were accurate about 30-40 yards out and trained individuals could fire 3 rounds per minute.  Pistols, likewise, had to be loaded the same way.  After the civil war we slowly got automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  And, of course, with the modern sniper rifle, scopes, etc., an “arm” has enormously more destructive power.

The AR-15 is a weapon protected as an “arm” under the 2nd Amendment.  The Colorado shooter legally purchased one before shooting 70 people in the summer of 2012

The AR-15 is a weapon protected as an “arm” under the 2nd Amendment. The shooter legally purchased one before shooting 70 people in a Colorado movie theater in the summer of 2012

The AR-15, for example, shoots 800 rounds per minute and has an effective range of 400-600 meters.  226 years ago, the founding fathers would have been entirely unable to imagine that this was possible,  they did not know about handguns (revolvers did not come for another 50 years), tanks, bomber aircraft (or any aircraft), and of course the atomic bomb.  They were as clueless then as we are when we try to imagine what arms will be like in 226 years for today, in 2239 A.D.

If not now, at some point, shouldn’t we rethink what an “arm” is and what sensible rules around “arms” might be?  Fortunately, the right to amend our constitution is a constitutional right too.  In fact, Jefferson though that we should have a new constitutional convention every four years, and re-write the thing completely if necessary.  He thought it was tyrannical to subject future generations to laws or systems that might no longer make sense, and that they themselves were not a part of creating.  Prescient, but I would not go as far as re-writing the constitution.  It has been and will be an extraordinary document for centuries to come.  In fact, we do not need to change the 2nd amendment at all.  We simply need to recognize what the Amendment protects and what it does not.

Based on my research, this what I have concluded about the 2nd Amendment:

  • The 2nd Amendment stops the federal government from disbanding well-regulated militias.  States and local governments can form, equip, and train, and must strictly control, groups of individuals who are subject to the authority of local government and act on its behalf.  The local government can arm that group with all the arms necessary for the security of the state.
  • However, if that group is not well-regulated, or is not a group at all, and is not subject to local government, the 2nd Amendment does not offer protection.  Specifically, the 2nd Amendment does not protect the individual right to handguns, automatic or semi-automatic weapons of any type, conceal and carry, grenades, and especially not a basement arsenal.  All “arms” must be used in the context of a well-regulated militia, or, in a word, community.
  • The is my conclusion on what the 2nd Amendment means, but not on what it should mean.  That is another debate entirely, a policy debate, in this blog I have  been attempting interpretation only.

Wars, in 1791, were fought by muskets and cannon, and that is all they knew.  By allowing militias to use muskets and cannon, the founding fathers wished to ensure small communities would be free.  Of course, this is no longer a viable defense when the weapons of war are so expensive (one F-22A fighter costs $150 million).  We have to rely on larger and larger communities to be able to create serious security forces.  But we forget that even muskets were very expensive for American farmers in the 1790s.  Many did not own one.  For this reason, the local township often kept an arsenal which they would use to supply its citizens in the case of, for example, native american raids. Armories, therefore, served an important function of providing a militia with weapons of war yet also controlling their use.  Those who bear arms had to be supervised, trained, and made subject to the authority of the community.

This seems brilliant to me. Crazy people, like the Aurora shooter, would never have gotten guns if he had to participate in a community in order to gain access to them.  So, I suppose you might say I am a supporter of 2nd Amendment rights, but my interpretation might be a little different.


I Love Fox News

This picture, connecting Hillary to Benghazi, ran above the headline.

This picture, connecting Hillary to Benghazi, ran above the headline on Fox’s front page.

I love Fox News.  Reading it helps me stay in touch with my conservative roots, and observing their bias allows me to relish in enjoyable levels of contempt and self-righteousness.  Today, I found gold.  I would like to bond with all of you by collectively pointing at Fox News, shaking our collective heads, and smirking.

As you might have heard, Hillary Clinton fainted and suffered a concussion today.  Fox News ran this headline on their main page,

BENGHAZI HEARINGS: Clinton will not testify before Congress on Libya, purported concussion cited

Nothing is false, but you should read the article for laughs.  After stating what was reported about Clinton’s fainting, the article states eerily, “However, the agency did not say when the fall occurred.”  The rest of the article is about how she really needs to testify and that John Kerry is letting her off the hook.

There is absolutely no evidence that Clinton’s fall is merely purported, or had anything to do with Benghazi, yet “Benghazi Hearings” appears on the front page of Fox News, bold and in all caps, which has the well-understood framing affect of implying that the rest of the headline has to do with the Benghazi hearings.  This is a strategy that people use to, for instance, sell you stuff you do not need—a classic trick.  In this case, the title states and implies that the Benghazi hearings caused Hillary to pretend to faint and have a concussion.  It is true that the concussion is “purported.”  The media did not see it. However, by saying it is “purported,” they imply that it is not true.

CNN’s headline was “Hillary Clinton Faints, Has Concussion.”   ABC News said “Hillary Clinton recovering after fainting, suffering a concussion.”  Politico stated what the fallout of the concussion would be by saying, “Hillary Clinton won’t testify on Benghazi after fainting, concussion.”  However, Politico did not imply the hearings caused fake concussing, or caused the fainting at all, or implied in the article that Clinton should get her shoulder pads on and push through the pain.  Also, Politico reports how news affects politics; it’s their job to discuss the political fallout of school shootings, wars, terrorist attacks, etc.  Finally, all of these articles talked about how Clinton’s concussion would affect her work, including Benghazi hearings.  Fox news was the only one to imply without any evidence that Clinton’s ideology may have caused the news—and to do so in the title and story image.

Does anyone know if studies have been done trying to objectively measure the bias at Fox News?  It seems that it would be fairly easy to demonstrate, but it would take some money to run the study.  Why don’t liberal think tanks or super pacs do that?

I have not seen the video of my very very short interview on Dr Drew’s Show yet.  My connection was cut off for a second and I did not get many words in.  But they are sending me a video, which I will post soon with my extended comments.  There are also a ton of other topics and cool ideas that I want to discuss on my blog.  Thanks for all of your wonderful comments on Why Wars Start and Positive Theology Will Change the World.  These are two of my favorite ideas/projects lately and I am pleased how much excitement they have generated.  Thanks for reading!  I love your comments and try to respond to all of them.  


The Rich Get Richer

Duckworth developed the “Grit Scale” and has found that a person’s grit score is highly predictive of achievement under challenging circumstances.

In this post I will employ a statistics-based argument  that money begets money.  Don’t worry, I’ll get back to blathering unquantifiable bullshit soon, but this is worth it!

Angela Duckworth is a world-class research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is famous for her work on grit (perseverance and determination).  When she is not traveling around the world giving hilarious lectures, she is my statistics professor, which is pretty awesome for me.

In our last class, she was describing what you can learn about data just by looking at its shape on a graph.  For instance, why is the “normal distribution” important?  What causes the curved shape that you see below to come about?    She showed us this 6 second video in which thousands of little beads are poured over a bunch of nails.  When a bead hits each nail, 50% of the beads will go right, and 50% will go left.  There are many more paths to get to the center of the distribution, and those on the wings have to be really un/lucky and get bounced the same way each time.  And, because there are so many beads and so many factors involved, they tend to balance themselves out and by the end you get a perfectly normal distribution—the bell curve.  In other words, the normal distribution is a result of a bunch of unbiased factors that sort out any given population.

So, I wondered, what is the pattern of income distribution in the United States?  If it was a normal distribution, that would mean the top of the bell curve would be  $51,914, the median income of the country (2011 US Census).  Within one standard deviation (the average distance from the median income), you would find 68.2% of the country, as we did in the graph above and in the probability machine video.  That majority would be flanked by 27% on the sides with about 4% in the extreme wings.   In general we would want the standard deviation to be small, as this would point to greater income equality; people’s incomes would be closer to each other.  As you can see in the graph below, more of the population is in the wings for the dark blue line, which would mean incomes would be further away from each other.  The light blue line would be preferred, where people have less disparate incomes.

But what we see in the United States today is not close.

The data is skewed left.  I scoured the internet for a graph that was 100% representational of our income distribution, but that proved to be as likely as finding a to-scale model of the solar system: it’s just too big.  Those big bars on the right need to be spread out like the rest of the graph all the way to casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson who made about something around 7.2 billion this year (Forbes).  Which means this graph is only representational of 0.0027% of the US household income distribution curve.  In other words, if this graph spans 6 inches across your screen, you would need a computer screen 18,000 feet wide to see the full distribution (0.5ft/0.000027).

Sheldon Adleson is the chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, the parent company of Venetian Macao Limited which operates The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino and the Sands Expo and Convention Center. He also owns the Israeli daily newspaper Israel HaYom.  He made $21.6 billion in the last three years.

What does this mean?

Let’s go back to the youtube video and the beads bouncing off the nails.  From the basic statistics that I understand, radically skewed distribution implies that the history of beads matter.  If the the bead had bounced lucky last time, it was more likely to bounce lucky again, and vice versa.  This makes sense to me.  It is much more difficult to go from an income of $30,000/year to $40,000/year, than it is to go from $1,000,000,000/year to $1,000,010,000/year.  In other words, the further down the road to wealth you are, the more likely you are going downhill.

So, I have advice for those looking to make more money; the first step to making money is having money.  The rich get richer.  Of course, there are plenty of exceptions.

I am sending this post to Professor Duckworth and my assistant professor, Peggy Kearn.  I want to hear what they think and see if there are any other conclusions we might draw from the shape of income distribution in America.  


Flat Tax is Progressive and Insufficient

Obviously, a flat tax based on a percentage of income is already a progressive tax.  Assuming a 10% flat tax, the Trumps making 30 million a year are paying 1,000 times the amount in taxes as the Browns making $30,000.  However, this is still insufficiently progressive and makes me think about a passage from the Bible.

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses (emphasis added) and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:38-44, NIV)

What I take from this example is that the cent we might tax from the widow is worth more to her than $1,000 from the Browns, which is worth more to them than $10 million from the Trumps.   If we tax the widow, she starves.  If we tax the Browns making $30,000 a year very much at all, it makes it entirely likely that the daughter cannot take piano lessons, the son cannot go to college, they cannot afford to have a vacation that year, and perhaps the father cannot start a business.  For the Trumps at $30 million a year, even taxing them at a rate of %90 would not threaten their ability enjoy any of these opportunities, and they certainly would not starve.  They would still have $3 million a year; dad can start a business, son can attend the ivy league, and the daughter can take lessons from Vladimir Ashkenazy if they want.

I am also reminded of this dynamic as I live in Sri Lanka.  For example, a typical taxi fare in a Tuk Tuk is 50 rupees per kilometer, which is the same as $0.62 per mile.  A 15 minute trip can cost $1 and people can haggle for 10 minutes over 25 cents.  Clearly, not all 25 cents are equal.  It depends on where it comes from.

In the Great Leap Forward, Mao Tse Tung quite famously required his people to fill quotas for mining iron, with the result that many peasants simply had to bring in their pots, pans, and plows to be melted down.  Obviously, this is an extreme example, but the point remains: if our tax policy and economic system threatens the Browns’ opportunity for education, advancement, of building up savings, of pursuing dreams, we will certainly have more iron ore, but at great expense.

The deficit does not care who pays it—a dollar from the Browns is no better than from the Trumps.  Perhaps we should consider, among other important considerations, using the least costly money whenever possible.


Mr. Darcy & American Aristocracy

So apparently Romney pays around 13% a year in taxes on an income of over 20 million dollars.  Paul Ryan paid 20% on $323,000 in 2011.  And many of the most wealthy people in the United States, billionaires even, are paying less than 10% (CNN).

This is because wealthy individuals gain most of their income through return on investments, quite often in the form of capital gains which is taxed at a lower rate.  This is because not all real income is real income.  Some of it cannot be spent on whatever the new owner of fake income wants to buy.  And much of it cannot be deposited in a savings account because it can spontaneously combust.

Lately I have had a strong sense that I live in an immoral society—tt assails me like a stiff wind—not because everything about America is awful, indeed I love my country, but because we are thoroughly corrupt in at least this respect: as a society we have decided to favor, and to create, an upper-class.

Until quite recently, the English aristocracy was alive and well, and dominated English society.  I love Victorian movies and books (I’m still a hardass though!) and recently my curiosity was piqued by the constant discussion of income, “Mr. Darcy has 20,000 pounds a year!”  Do they mean wages, capital gains, or what?

I looked into it, and it turns out that to be an English aristocrat you usually had to make over $3 mil. a year (adjusted for inflation).  They did not acquire this income through business ventures, mercantilism, wages, or through any great talent on their part really.  It came from speculation, investments (most often chosen by others), and rents from large estates and tracts of land — it came from pre-owned wealth.   The Duke of Marlborough, one of the richest aristocrats of the time, pulled in $52.5 mil annually.  To put that in perspective, Warren Buffet pulled in $62 mil. last year, also from pre-owned wealth (admittedly cleverly invested wealth, likely more cleverly I imagine than the Duke of Marlborough).

But Victorians considered the Duke’s income as real income while we pretend it is not, at least not as real as income made from wages.  Indeed, wages, the money received based on time, skill, expertise, and effort, should be taxed heavily.  That stuff simply should not be incentivized.  Don’t these people know they should already have wealth to invest?  Rather, aristocrats sitting on pots of gold and passing it down to their children…that is the stuff civilizational dreams are made of.

So if you love this American economy
Than vote for Mitt Romney
And I won’t forget the men who died
So I could make money,
And I’ll gladly stand up
For freedom
To speculate at low tax rates
Cause their ain’t no doubt I love this land
God bless the USA

(Based on the chorus of Proud to be An American)