Tag Archives: politics

An Open Letter to Trump-Supporting Loved Ones

Dear Trump-supporting family and friends,

These days people keep asking me, “Why aren’t you blogging? I need your help now more than ever processing these strange political times in your always brilliant and delightful way.” They say it with their eyes perhaps, but I get it.

Seriously, despite so much political news to process, having stronger opinions then ever, and the historical momentousness of the times (and I don’t say that lightly), I’ve held back for one huge reason: you. About 80% of my nuclear and extended family, as well as most of my childhood and college friends, are pro-Trump folks. I cherish my relationships with them. Many read my blog. And my opinions alienate them. I’ve seen it on your faces at get-togethers. It makes me deeply sad.

But, at the same time, over the last year I’ve been an ass and a hypocrite-I’ve felt a genuine and deep sadness and constant guilt–for not speaking up on issues I care about. Millions of Americans on both sides of Trump have a similar problem:

As mature humble adults go through life, we make moral space for serious disagreement with others. We have to. Good, smart, respectable people disagree all the time. However, that moral space has to end at some point, otherwise we have no morals. But when does it end? When do we put our feet down, make things super awkward, and say, “Forgive me, I can’t just politely disagree anymore. Wake the fuck up—what you are doing is immoral.”

This post is an attempt to save relationships and my integrity—wow that sounds obnoxiously dramatic. To do that, I need to say two things that do not negate the other.

First, to cousins, uncles, church friends, professors, college friends, and friends I grew up with in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and other loved ones who support Donald Trump: I love you. I always will. Nothing will change that.

Second, to the same people, forgive me, I can’t stay this quiet or politely disagree like what is happening is normal. It’s time to wake up. Supporting Trump is not like supporting other politicians. Its not ok. Either you’ve been conned or you are doing something immoral and, based on my view of the Bible, sinful. (I’m not trying to change your mind right now. We can get into reasons later. I’m merely relating where I am.)

So what do we do? What do friends and family do who disagree so fundamentally about sin and morality? Not talk? Drift apart with mutual disaffection? I completely understand why that tempts us. My views, though loving, are not welcoming, and you may likewise see my lack of support for Trump as beyond the moral pale too.

But I have hope: though I hate that you support Trump, I don’t hate you and I don’t think you hate me either. In fact, I’m convinced we both hate thinking poorly of each other. We hate feeling our loved ones are at odds with our beliefs and values.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Lincoln, 1861

So where does strained but unbroken bonds of affection leave us? I think I need to try to speak up more about what I believe and participate in the democratic process. I hope you can remember my affection for you and what I say won’t alienate you too much. I also look forward to seeing you at the next reunion or get-together and hearing about your life. I hope you will want to see me too. Please reach out out for a call too for any reason. If you are in the Philadelphia area, and itooks like Alicia and I will be hear for two more years as I finish my PhD, please drop by! We can stick to small talk and go deeper as we feel comfortable. No pressure.

With continued affection,

Jer

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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!  


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.  


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)


Political Jedi Master: Bush Tax Cuts & Romney’s Returns

Politics is intellectual football.  Here are two recent and brilliant Obama plays.

#1 Extending the Bush Tax Cuts in 2010

I was pretty upset in 2010 when Obama let the Bush tax cuts be extended without much of a fight, but it was genius.  Not only did it coax a little more stimulus out of the Republicans for an insipid economy, money he could not have gotten for anything but tax cuts, but Obama timed the new expiry date for the extension perfectly.  Right before the 2012 election the Republicans were going to publicly position themselves against the middle class: “if we can’t cut taxes for the wealthy, than nobody gets a tax cut.”  And here we are!

Early on Obama’s team had to know, as all political operatives do, that re-election prospects would most likely be tied to how quickly the economy recovers, and how good the Republican candidate would likely be on economic issues and  related experience.  Even if the economy did poorly, an economy-deaf candidate like Mccain would likely mean an Obama victory.  If the economy did well, Obama’s broad like-ability would mean an Obama victory too.  Foreseeably, the only possible way that Obama could lose a 2nd term is if the economy continued to stagnate and an economic “can-do” Republican was nominated (I think this is why Herman Cain ran).  So, in 2009, what economic “can-do” guys were out for the Obama team to worry about?

In 2008, it was obvious to everyone Romney was that man and that he was going to run again.  In fact, I told people at back then, not because I am brilliant but because it was blindingly obvious, that Romney is likely the only Republican candidate who could seriously have a chance at beating Obama, because he could win on Obama’s only serious weak point.  Afghanistan was not likely to become a big enough problem.  ObamaCare riles Republicans, but not many others.  Pro-life or anti-gay issues?  No way.  That is a losing demographic battle.  Obama’s team was only worried about a Republican economic guru; and a guru happened to be the frontrunner at the time.

So how do you neutralize Romney’s economic bonafides?  Simple: by making him and his party look more like robber barons than Mr. Fix-It.

So, in addition to timing the debate, the 2010  Bush tax cut extensions was a brilliant move by Obama for another reason: while Republican Party holds middle-class tax cuts hostage to upper-class tax cuts, but the standard-bearer for the party, Mitt himself, is one of those wealthy individuals for whom his party is sacrificing the middle-class.  Do you think this debate would be as big of a deal if Rick Santorum was the nominee? If anything, a middle-income standard bearer would give this fight for the wealthy some integrity (though a middle-income standard bearer also would probably not have experience in the economy making millions of dollars).

Finally, while health care was a major campaign issue in 2008, Obama needed a new issue to excite his base.  The obvious alliance between the Republicans and wealth was ripe for political exploitation.

Well-played sir…well-played.

#2 Having Harry Reid Accuse Romney of a Decade of Tax Evasion

According to Harry Reid, a Bain investor called his office and told him that Romney has not paid taxes in 10 years.  Reid then said as much in an interview last week with the Huffington Post and then in a speech on the floor of the United States Senate.  Republicans have gone postal, demanding “dirty Harry” take it back, and have attacked the Obama Team for not denouncing this unsubstantiated claim.

But the Obama team has played it super cool and asked, why doesn’t Romney take 10 seconds, reach into his filing cabinet, and cough up some tax returns to the nearest reporter.  He could prove Reid a liar in seconds; why would he not want to so easily discredit the 2nd most powerful Democrat in the country?

If Romney does not release his taxes, then he, the richest man ever to be a major party nominee, as his party fights for his tax cuts, is seen as hiding something (especially because, between the precedent set by his dad and Nixon, and every presidential candidate for the past 50 years of releasing 8 or so years of returns, he already looks like he is hiding something).  But, if he does release his tax returns, then the media gets to tell lots of stories about how rich he is and how he got his wealth.  (He did not create a conventional business from the bottom up, like Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford.  Instead he bought and sold businesses themselves, often after lay-offs, re-organizing, and ‘stripping them for parts,’ though admittedly it is more complex than that.)

Now, I have no evidence for this, but I find it hard to beleive that Reid, an early supporter of Obama who initially encouraged the man to run for President in 2007 when everyone thought Hillary had the nomination locked up, who depended on Obama for his own re-election campaign in Nevada, who is Obama’s staunch ally, would get this phone call from a Bain investor and unilaterally take it straight to the Huffington Post and put it in a speech.  Assuming he got the call at all, he probably g-chated Obama immediately and asked,

Harry_#1Senator:          What should I do?”

Ice.cold.Obama:            Do what you think is best ; )

Well-played sir…well-played.


Adams vs. Jefferson Repeat in 2012

In 1800, John Adams was accused of being an out of touch, arrogant, elitist while his opponent, Jefferson, won with the image of a real American, a man of the people, and a champion of liberty.  For example, in a well-publicized national discussion, when the new republic was trying to decide what to call the president, Jefferson pushed for the title “Mr. President” while John Adams was willing to call him “His Excellency” or something that lent the position more gravitas.  Adams, spending years abroad in England and France, was viewed as having been poisoned by aristocratic and foreign sensibilities and communism was to Joe McCarthy’s USA as monarchy was to Jefferson’s.  As part of the Federalist Party, albeit a reluctant member, Adams wanted to consolidate government power while Jefferson, of the people, by the people, and for the people, had spent his whole life in America and was the people’s man.  He wanted their freedom and saw the small-holding farmer, as opposed to industry, as central to American life.

But biography is ironic.  Jefferson was the son of a rich plantation owner.  At age 21, he inherited 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land, 52 slaves, livestock, his father’s notable library, and a gristmill.  In 1768, he used his slaves to construct a neoclassical mansion known as Monticello.  In 1773, the year after Jefferson married a young widow, her father died. She and Jefferson inherited his estate, including 11,000 acres and 135 slaves.  With these additional slaves, Jefferson became the second largest slaveholder in Albermarle County with one of the biggest estates. The number of slaves from this time forward would fluctuate around 200.

Jefferson enjoyed an enormous income for his entire life, yet was almost always deeply in debt.  He spent lavishly and was constantly remodeling Monticello for no particular or practical purpose.  He spent great sums of money while abroad, especially in France, where he enjoyed the French aristocracy and their way of life.  He loved fine wine, expensive furnishings, and speculation, and died 1-2 million in debt.

Adams, on the other hand, was raised by a farmer who farmed the land himself.  Young Adams loved farming and he ran a farm his entire life, which he worked whenever possible, shoveling manure and plowing fields without the aid of slaves.  (Adams thought the only sensible investment was in land.)  As a boston lawyer, he had trouble making ends meet, and had to farm.  He hated taking cases without merit.  In fact, he took the case defending the British soldiers at the Boston Massacre, the case that launched his public career, in part because he was having trouble finding work.

Throughout his public career, Adams was frugal with his modest income, especially while serving abroad in the company of high socieity, which, unlike Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, he hated.  He could not stand the theatrics, the sleaziness, the politics, the make-up, the decadence, or the rich food; it disgusted him and he never fit in.  In fact, Franklin had the Continental Congress recall Adams against his will because he was too blunt and impolite; he was a “bull in a china cabinet.”

Nonetheless, for decades, no matter what he did, Adams could not shake the public image of an elitist snob who had been poisoned by foreigners, and Jefferson won the 1800 election.

Barack Obama has also been called an out of touch, arrogant elitist.  I hear it daily.  Indeed, he has given some fodder for this charge.  During his 2008 campaign, he mentioned that rural Americans can “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”  He called the economy “fine” a few weeks ago.  He spent some parts of his life in foreign countries.  Maybe he is out of touch with real America?

But Obama, we must remember, was raised by a single mom who worked for non-profits.  Mitt Romney’s dad, George Romney, was a successful businessman, a multi-millionaire, Governor of Michigan, Sec. of HUD, and ran for President against Nixon.

Obama finished paying off his school debt in 2004 and, though he is a millionaire now, only became one from book sales after his 2008 campaign picked up.  Romney, on the other hand, is worth over $250 million, making him the richest man ever to run for president — he always has been the 1%.

Obama was a community organizer working closely with underserved populations in Chicago before he became a lawyer, professor, state senator, Senator, and then President.  Mitt Romney worked as a Mormon missionary in France, a high-powered business consultant, a wildly successful venture capitalist executive for 14 years with an initial $37 million, chaired the 2002 Winter Olympics, became governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007, and has been running for President ever since.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what “out of touch” is supposed to mean.  Everyone is “in touch” with something.  As for me, I like Obama because he, like me, is multi-cultural and has been exposed to poverty.  Like me, he knows what it is like to worry about school debt and making ends meet since the majority of his life he paid close attention to electricity bills, travel expenses, and food prices.  He understands why they are important.  Romney seems like a good guy, but he has been enormously wealthy nearly his entire life.  Romney is Wall Street to Obama’s Main Street.

Did you hear about the $12 million expansion to his Ocean Front property in San Diego?  It includes a car elevator.  But car elevators can be super cool right?  Romney could be just a rich guy having everyman fun, like Obama when he enjoys the perks of bringing the musicians he loves to perform in the White house, or flying up to NYC for a dinner and a show with Michelle.  But surely all excess does not signal everyday humanity.  Maybe some excess is just excessive, such as the time and ink spent on this whole discussion of who is more ‘out of touch.’

So, vote for Obama?  It’s not really my point.  Instead, let’s just all try mightily not be as out of touch as the electorate in 1800.


I Was Wrong…

…the American Civil War was not about states’ rights, but about the South’s desire to keep slaves.

As you may be aware, I take a bit of pride in my knowledge of U.S. history, especially in knowing more than most ‘real’ Americans.  Getting a perfect score on my AP US History exam in high school, and my Mother teaching me thirty or so American songs like the Caisson Song, Goober Peas, and all 6 verses of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, guaranteed me deep insight and a place in respectable society.

Seriously, before a week ago I thought that the Civil War is more aptly called the War of Northern Aggression and that, instead of slavery, it was really about states’ rights.  My Uncle, a retired Virginia State trooper, explains that throughout our history, the United States has generally encouraged the liberation of peoples rebelling in favor of self-rule, but only when they rebel in other countries.  Good point.  And, after all, as my friends and old neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia might point out, the South did not invade the North; they would have been happy to leave the North alone.  The North were invaders and then occupiers.  They could not stomach peaceful secession.

Also, I thought that slavery, rather than being the reason for war, was merely the catalyst for it; it could have been any number of other issues that would have challenged the Constitution’s lack of clarity on whether or not a state was allowed to secede from the Union.  The incidental issue of abolition, though morally upright, happened to be what the North was trying to ram down southern throats.

So I have held my nose up at those simple-minded people who read today’s morality into the motivation of the North—who don’t really know history.  Most Unionists were as racist as most Southerners, and still are.  Yet, while I still think there is good reason to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression,” I no longer think the war was really about states’ rights for three reasons.

First, in the compromise of 1850, the North sought and passed a provision guaranteeing that the North would help return slaves discovered in its territories.  This amounted to free states, that had passed laws banning slavery, who thought slavery was wrong, being forced to abide by the rules of another State that they strongly disagreed with.

(This also had the effect of generating a backlash of anti-slavery sentiment among Northerners who, though racist and quite willing to allow the institution of slavery to exist if out of sight, were not comfortable with the immorality that was being paraded in front of them.  I see striking similarities to the spread of pro-LGBT laws in America, which could cause a backlash if imposed on populations not yet ready it.)

Secondly, the South was unwilling to allow new states to decide for themselves, when entering the Union, whether they would be slave or free.  Because of the even balance of power in the Senate, slave states pushed the United States to mandate some territories to become slave states, even if they did not necessarily want to be.  At the time, the South argued that this did not violate states’ rights because a territory is not yet a state, but that is misguided for two reasons.  First, after a territory becomes a state, it would then need to acquire the rights of a state, which should include the power to decide whether it wants to change to a slave or free state.  Secondly, at the core of the ideology of states’ rights is the principle of self-rule—it should not matter if the area is a territory or a state, they still should have the right to self-determination.  This was violated in many ways.

In the Missouri Compromise, all land below the 36°30’ parallel (southern border of Missouri) was guaranteed to become slave states.  Because of this, efforts were made to annex foreign land and make them slave states.  Unsuccessful plans included annexing Cuba & Nicaragua.  Successful plans include the Mexican War, which was fought in large part by James K. Polk as a land-grab, not just for the United States, but for the slave-holding South.  Finally, the South wanted Kansas, when it joined the Union, to become a slave state, though in main its people did not want slavery.  Eventually it would become a free-state, but only after wrangling in Congress, bloodshed (150 killed or injured), and a raft of Missourians coming over the state line to vote illegally for pro-slavery constitutions.  Of course, this also broke the South’s compromise with the North: Kansas was above the 36° 30’ parallel.

What drives this point home for me, that the South was not really interested in States’ Rights, is that the Democrats, the only truly national political party at the time, with deep roots in the South and pro-slavery policies, tried desperately to hold together a national coalition by appealing to self-determinination: a middle ground which guaranteed the rights of states and territories to decide for themselves.  Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in 1860, was fighting for states’ rights.  But the South would not have it.  So, while 14 out of 15 slave states had voted Democrat in 1856, Douglas only got one in 1860.  Instead, Southerners opted for John C. Breckenridge, a pro-slavery candidate, who won 11 out of 15 slave states.  But Lincoln swept the North and became president.

The final reason why the Civil War was not really about states’ rights has to do with the South’s reaction to Lincoln’s victory.  What must be understood is that, since George Washington, only moderate and pro-slavery presidents had been elected. In fact, of the 15 presidents before Lincoln, five did not own slaves and 10 did, most of them Virginians and southerners.  Of those 10, eight owned slaves while they served as president.  Of the five who never owned slaves, two were John Adams, a practical moderate, and his son, John Quincy, who was powerless.  The other three directly preceded Lincoln: Buchanan (Dem), Fillmore (Dem), and Pierce (Whig).  They were picked in large part because of their acceptance of slavery.  (Source cited by factcheck.org is here.)

In other words, for years, abolitionists had been losing elections and accepting them anyway.  This, after all, is the essence of democracy.  But, when the abolitionists had won, the South could not accept the outcome.  They did not wait for their cherished states’ rights to actually get trampled on.  Seven states seceded before Lincoln even took office.

Ironically, Lincoln was a clear-eyed pragmatist who would have probably been quite reasonable and measured in his policies.  His Emancipation Proclamation is rightly understood as a war measure, meant to weaken the economy of states that were in rebellion, and to muzzle any possibility of France or England, both having already abolished slavery, coming to the aid of the confederacy.  Also, the Proclamation did not free slaves in Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware, and specifically excluded numerous counties in some other states.  Lincoln did this so as to not push border states to join the Confederate cause.  As a result, some of these states did not ban slavery until they ratified the 13th amendment over three years later—6 months after the war was over.  This points to the likelihood that while Abraham would have certainly applied pressure with an aim to end slavery, he was not prone towards ideological or drastic measures.  But the south took their marbles and went home, before their states’ rights were even infringed on, but after it was clear that their power in the federal government to protect the institution of slavery was waning.

After listening to about 30 lectures detailing the first 80 years of American History (6 part Heritage Series), it is difficult for me to see this era as being dominated by a burgeoning crisis of states’ rights—of the majority of states forcing their will on the few.  Rather, we are witnessing, primarily in the South, increased racism, increased dependence on slavery, and increased fear that necessitated the preservation of their power so that they could continue and spread the institution of slavery.

But of course, “the American Civil War was about the South’s desire to keep slaves” is a sweeping historical statement.  There were many other factors involved, economic and otherwise.  In the end, it is probably only mostly true—I’d say about three fifths.


Part II: Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

Prison life is bad for many reasons.  This post will explore three that receive inadequate attention.   

First and most obviously, when folks are in prison, they are not in their communities.  For instance, 1 in 3 black baby boys can expect to spend part of his life in prison.  The absence of these black convicts, criminals, inmates, “low-lifes,” (aka fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters) can damage black communities, especially low income neighborhoods in inner cities.

The second reason why prison is bad has to do with how the presence of convicts in other districts takes power and money away from a convict’s own community, who often need it more.  Allow me to explain: remember how the constitution originally did not give black slaves the right to vote, but allowed them to be counted as 3/5 of a person in census data?  This constitutional law, in addition to disenfranchising people, gave slave-populated states and slave-populated counties greaterand unproportional representative power in state and federal governments.  In the same way, prisoners count as a person when it comes to districting and funding, but most often they also cannot vote.  In this way, displaced inner-city prisoners bolster the voting power of rural districts, where prisons are located, while being unable to vote themselves.  Rural whites, ironically, are statistically the most punitive demographic, and the power and money that would be allocated to inner-city, minority communities, often flows to the very districts that tend to advocate for harsher sentencing.

The third issue I want to mention in regards to prison life is rape.  In 2008, the Justice Department estimated there were 216,000 victims of rape in the prison system that year–nearly 10% of all inmates (my own calculations 216k/2.3 mil).  This was up from 140,000 rape victims in 2001 (as estimated by the Human Rights Watch).  These victims are often assaulted multiple times over the course of the year.  Consider this story:

“Roderick Johnson, a petty thief who was attacked by his roommate shortly after arriving at a Texas prison. Johnson asked to be transferred to a different section of the facility, and got his wish. But news of Johnson’s physical availability had spread throughout the complex—after you’re raped once, you’re marked—and he was soon enslaved by a gang. In addition to passing Johnson around among themselves, Johnson’s new overseers sold his ass and mouth to a variety of clients for $3 to $7, a competitive enough price that it resulted in multiple rapes every day for the eighteen months that Johnson spent in prison.”

Because of a trend of sexual slavery, 216,000 victims of rape a year might translate into exponentially more actual instances of rape.  Yet, amazingly, there were only 935 confirmed instances of sexual abuse in 2008. I am no expert, but this mind-blowing disparity only makes sense to me if victims feel that the only thing worse than getting raped is getting raped and seeking help.  By allowing this ridiculousness to continue it seems to me that society, that is you and me, is making a clear and icy statement: crimes against criminals don’t count.

Fun fact: it is very possible, even likely, that the majority of all rapes in the United States in 2008 were committed against male victims, making the United States the first country in the history of the world where men are getting raped more often than women.  Consider these premises:

  • There are around 208,000 victims of rape outside of prisons per year.
  • The substantial majority of prison rape victims are men and the vast majority of non prison rape vicitms are women, though estimates vary.
  • Imprisoned rape victims tend to be raped more often per year than non-prison rape victims, though estimates vary.

The next post will explore issues related to life after prison. 


Politics is Intellectual Football (I’m a Confirmed Idiot #1)

Sometimes I have thoughts worth sharing, but I don’t share them because they are in various ways self-congratulatory.  If subtexts had vocal chords they might scream, “See!  Aren’t I great?”  Don’t get me wrong.  That’s a wonderful message which the world needs to hear.  It is just problematic when it is so obviously preached by me.  So sometimes I avoid ideas and messages worth sharing, things I believe in, that may help people, in the pursuit of looking like a nice guy.  But no longer!  I am starting a blog series called “I am a confirmed idiot.”  Basically, I am requiring myself to start any post containing obviously self-congratulatory subtext with a formulation in which I confess a unrelated humorously humiliating personal act.  This frees me to make my points with righteous passion, holding nothing back, for, as it says in Leviticus 27:35, “If you are humble for a moment, feast on the joy that comes from being full of yourself the rest of the time.”  Specifically, I will start these posts by saying, “I am a confirmed idiot.  After all, I once….” then I’ll tell of my stupidity, and I’ll end with “…however…”and then state my idea.  For example: 

I am a confirmed idiot.  After all, I once hit my friend in the head with a brick after excitedly bounding over to show her how high I could throw bricks.

However, unrelated to that, I do treat serious topics, like politics, the way that they should be treated, with marked levity.  Politics, for instance, is no fun unless you watch it like intellectual football, which I do, which is why I stay informed and will continue to stay informed.

I was talking to a friend today.  She’s smart, she cares about the world, and she wants nothing to do with politics because it is so depressing.  I feel like I talk to a friend like this once a week.

This is horrible.  We can’t be losing the attention of smart and loving people.  All we will have left are the angry, jaded, and unintelligent people.

Instead, we gotta make jokes and relish the clever games that politicians play.  We need it to be fun.

“But real lives are at stake,” they tell me.  “Exactly,” I respond, “that’s why we gotta enjoy the crap out of it.”

Alternatively, we can pay attention to non-depressings things that do not matter.  On Tuesday I had lunch with a fun group of African American ladies and a few of them got into a friendly and spirited discussion about the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons.  After some fightin’ words, and laughs, and more trash talk, I remained conspicuously silent.   Finally, I blurted it out, “I must confess.”  They stopped and stared as I paused and lowered my head, “I don’t watch football.”  They laughed their heads off.

Football is interesting.  There are personalities involved.  Sneak plays.  Talent.  Vanity.  Cleverness.  Aspirations.  Competitions.  Macho-ness.  Smackdowns.  Sometimes, when an enemy quarterback gets run over, you can’t help but bite your knuckles in delighted surprise.  Sometimes, a penalty gets called that you stand up from the couch to “boo,”  but when you see the instant replay close-up that shows your favorite lineman doing something very naughty, you also bite your knuckles in delighted surprise.

It’s a moment when my Honduran friend might rase his hand and say, “No [SNAP] he [SNAP] didn’t [SNAP]!”

Those ladies loved their football, even though football doesn’t matter.  What mattered is the entertainment value, and nobody is above that.

Fortunately, politics has all the drama of football, except it is more interesting because, obviously, something is at stake.  Like football, the smack-downs are usually obvious and well-reported.  For example, when Gingrich told Romney on last week’s ABC debate that the only reason he was not a career politician is that he lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994–good smackdown.  But here are two political plays that really made me bite my knuckles in glee (the best are always sneak plays):

Perhaps you saw it.  Last Tuesday, Newt Gingrich had a one-on-one debate with Jon Huntsman.  At first, Newt’s choice puzzled me.  Why would the frontrunner choose to elevate one of his opponents?  Ahhh… he wanted to elevate Huntsman because a Huntsman rise is likely to chip into Romney’s numbers rather than his own, and Romney is of course the bigger threat.  Did you see the new poll that came out today in New Hampshire?  Newt’s play picked up a couple of yards for him (and Huntsman).

Nice…I bit my knuckle with glee.

Perhaps you saw it.  Mitt Romney is running a TV spot in which he talks of debt reduction as a moral responsibility.  Ok.  No big deal, right?  Wait…am I crazy, or is this commercial really about Newt’s infidelity and two divorces?  (Note the happy couple at the end who have been married for an often mentioned 42 years.)  Without being negative, the ad turns personal morality into something which actually makes one better at fostering a good economy.

Oooh… well-played Mitt.  Well-played.

I am sure some of my readers will find these “sneak plays” depressing.  Some of those people might also be disgusted at me for how I find so much glee in them.  But I am more disgusted in their disgust than they are disgusted in me.  Enjoying the serious topic of politics as intellectual football is the only moral choice I know of that a loving and smart person is able to make.

So grab the popcorn, don your favorite candidate’s hat or over-priced t-shirt, gather some happy loud-mouth friends, and turn on the news.  The game never stops.


The Debt Ceiling Debacle and the New Political Order

In debacles of this sort there is usually plenty of blame to go around, but, this time, the majority of the blame is uncharacteristically concentrated.

Since 1917, the debt ceiling has been raised 102 times.  From what I can tell, these raises have been more or less bipartisan and routine.  More recently, both sides have flirted with playing chicken with the debt ceiling.  Indeed, Reid’s, Durbin’s, and Obama’s voting records in the Senate were nearly perfectly partisan, as they voted against raising the debt ceiling when Republicans controlled the Senate, and for it when Democrats were in the majority.  Shame on them!

However, the Democrats as a whole never really came close to stopping a debt ceiling raise except for a couple times under Bush (under whom it was raised seven times) when the votes were close.  Overall though, it is fair to say that debt ceiling nay votes were cast on both sides of the aisle nearly exclusively to make a political point.

This changed in 2009.  Here’s some numbers: 55 republican senators in 1997 voted for a debt ceiling increase, then 31 in 2002, then 50 in 2003, then 50 in 2004, then 51 in 2006, then 26 in 2007, then 34 in 2008, then 33 again in 2008.  In 2009, 2 Republican Senators voted in favor of it.  For the second time in 2009, there was 1.  Finally, in 2010, there was 0.  This is how things stood when Republicans took back the house and a showdown was set.  Furthermore, the Republicans returned to power in large part because of the rise of the Tea Party, the majority of which, and please correct me if I am wrong here, see compromising as unprincipled behavior.  No longer were the days when a few errant politicians used the debt ceiling to make a point.  Now it was, “give us what we want or we’ll blow the country up.”  Certainly, both parties were headed in the direction of giving this ultimatum, but the Republicans got there first.

This put the Democrats in the position where they would have to choose between default or letting the Republicans take control of government.

What would you do?  The Democrats, from what I could tell, mostly gave in to Republicans, but they did it too late, so we still had a credit downgrade.   If I was President, maybe I would have fought crazy with more crazy and said, “The debt ceiling is sacred.  If you attach any conditions on raising the debt ceiling, even if it is one lousy $25 appropriation for free Fritos at a movie night for disabled children of veterans who also happen to be Hurricane Katrina survivors, I will veto it.  I do not care.  Don’t f#ck with me.”    But who knows if that would have worked.

What all of this does reveal is what I see as an ongoing fundamental shift in contemporary politics.  While Republicans are being monopolized by their extreme right wing, especially the Tea Party, the Democrats are not being monopolized to the same extent by the extreme left.  What this means is that every moderate in America is now left with a choice: Am I a Democrat or not?  Regardless of your answer, moderates will be Democrats practically, but will bolt as soon as the Republicans uncrazy themselves.  Indeed, I am proud to be one of these reluctant Democrats.  With this perspective, I start to feel sick watching a slew of “I told you so” grins on the faces of 2012 republican presidential candidates.  You get the sense that, after breaking the government, Republicans are claiming, “See, government doesn’t work, so we should make it smaller.”

Yet Obama seems to be getting most of the blame, even from Democrats.  Sometimes it makes me think I am taking crazy pills, “Why do people hate this guy so much?”  and it gets me thinking that maybe I should hate him too.  Why doesn’t he stick up for himself more?  Why isn’t he as disappointed with this process as I am?  Why is he so quick to compromise?

And as I lie here, asking those questions, and thinking about the 2012 election at 7AM, I found this video and I realized this: Obama is still the man.    Seriously, watching it was a spiritual experience.

My conclusion: I need to calm down.  Everyone needs to take a breath.  It’s going to be OK, and we all need to keep compromising.

“Compromise” shouldn’t be a dirty word.  Alicia and I compromise with each other when we disagree.  If we do not, we jeopardize our marriage.  If politicians do not compromise, they jeopardize the country.  But, if they do, for many of them, they jeopardize their job security too, and this gets back to my point about the new political alignment: Republican politicians are dependent on people who think compromise is villainous, and that’s why, right now, all moderates are Democrats.