Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Is Facebook controlling you?

Much of what I’ve been reading about and thinking about over the past several months has to do with the notion that people are controllable. Scott Adams’ theories on Donald Trump, which I often mention, state that Trump is a master persuader—he uses rhetorical flourishes and various emotional cues to get people to support him. Parts of the Howard Bloom books I’ve been reading tout the idea that everything is social and that creatures, humans in particular, live and die by whether they and their ideas are accepted by those around them. So we have a strong motivation to go along with the crowd and gain their approval. (I talked a bit about this in my recent article “Are You A Hive Mind?“)

The NY Times has a new op-ed piece called “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.” It’s pretty familiar stuff: the web and Facebook in particular reinforce our ideas and shield us from contrary notions. (I’m not sure it’s quite true since I see some arguing on Facebook, but I think the idea holds up.) I can definitely see a lot of pressure to think a certain way emanating from one’s social network, pressure that might be subtle enough to not be consciously detected. And that falls right into Adams and Blooms argument: we can be easily swayed to go along with the crowd. To really fight this you have to examine almost all of your assumptions and who’s got the time for that?

As the article notes:

THOSE who’ve been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones and tablets and laptops, thumbing through favorite websites and scrolling through personalized feeds, we’re pointed toward foregone conclusions. We’re pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I’m talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us. They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

“And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different,” Haidt added. “The Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there.”

Can Trump grab Sanders’ supporters?

Politico has an article entitled “Why Trump Won’t Get Sanders’ Supporters” which makes a seemingly credible case. And yet I find myself wondering if Trump might be able to grab enough Sanders folks to make a difference.

I raise this question partly because of a few choice quotes I’ve seen in news articles from Sander’s supporters who do say their second choice is Trump. And recent polls show Sanders would have a bigger lead over Trump than Clinton would over Trump (making the point that Sanders would be taking Trump voters.) I also note while browsing through facebook that I see a fair amount of people making comments that they are at least considering Trump as their second choice.

You often hear people argue that the left/right divide, as presented by the media, is incorrect. And mostly I don’t buy that—it seems a pretty consistent way of predicting people’s beliefs and voting patterns. But in this case, maybe there’s something interesting going on.

I think that it is true that the media, academic and the political classes definitely missed the very real anger about trade deals that shuttered factories and the influx of illegal immigrants that (may have) cost American jobs. (The reason these groups probably missed this anger is because their jobs were never threatened.) And Sanders and Trump basically share positions on these issues.

The article linked above argues that synchronicity on trade and immigration issues is not enough for Sanders supporters to go Trump. But the media has a pretty poor record on Trump predictions so far.

Thinking about trade agreements

So I was walking along this morning and thinking a bit about an issue you see mentioned during these campaigns: trade. Specifically trade between countries that is regulated by various trade agreements like NAFTA.

Both Sanders and Trump, it seems, are against such agreements and think these agreements have screwed America. Clinton is a bit more complex—I think she was for them before she was against them. (That’s probably a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.) The other Republicans are probably for the agreements though I don’t know for sure.

So what is the right answer? The Sanders/Trump complaint is something like this, I believe, and I’ll use US/Chinese trade relations as an example: The US is letting Chinese products in with few tariffs added on top. The Chinese can keep their prices low because their workers work for little and there are few environmental protections of the sort that American factories have to impose. So Chinese products are cheaper and can compete with US products in local and inetrnational markets.

The Sanders/Trump solution is, I believe, to renegotiate these trade agreements to impose tariffs on these Chinese products. (Sanders would probably lower tariffs if the Chinese added environmental protections, which would, of course, cost money.) As a result, Chinese products would become more expensive and US products would be better able to compete.

So would the Chinese go along with that? It seems they have a couple options. One is to kowtow to the new agreement and keep access to the US Market. Another is to say, “screw you guys,” and focus on other markets like India, Africa, their own, etc. Another option would be to impose tariffs on our products, thus limiting US manufacturers appeal to the huge Chinese market. (The problem there is that while there are many Chinese, a lot of them are poor and thus not able to buy much.)

What would China do? I have no idea. Thinking about this stuff really makes me realize how little I know about it.

But here’s my main thought. This kind of analysis of these is not something you really see in news coverage of the candidates, or in speeches from the candidates and their proxies. Most of the arguments seems to be that this candidate is better than another for some other reason – he or she is more “qualified,” or has leadership qualities, or whatever.

So why is that? I suspect that for some kind of evolutionary reason people are wired towards cult leaders, not dudes who sit around explaining why their approach to trade agreements is better (YAWN!). If anything, we chose the guy we like, then talk ourselves into his ideas on trade agreements. And this would seem another example where our behavior is not particularly rational at all.

P.S. As a side note to all this I reaffirm my belief that the threat posed to Americans workings by fluid trade will be dwarfed by that of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

Robots and Donald Trump

Let’s say it’s 1970 and you’re a man who just graduated from high school. You don’t come from wealth but you can get a job at a local factory, the same way your dad did, and make enough to raise a family. You have a son, and in 1995, he does the exact same thing. Just like his dad, he takes a factory job (or similar blue collar gig) and makes decent living. He has kids, starts a family etc.

Now it’s 2016. Five years ago, the son in that scenario was let go from his shuttered factory. He’s been looking for work ever since. Or maybe he’s given up and become an alcoholic. Either way he feels betrayed. The unspoken promise society gave him was that if he played fair and worked hard he could live a comfortable life and take care of his family. That promise has been betrayed. He blames Mexicans for coming in and driving down wages and trade agreements that close factories on American shores and open them in countries with cheap labor.

This, I suspect, is a Donald Trump voter.

My question is whether things are about to get worse.

First, let’s examine this guy’s presumptions. Are Mexicans and bad trade agreements what screwed him? Well, maybe, I don’t really know. But I don’t think they will be the problems faced by that guy’s kids. I suspect the problem of the future is technology: robotization and advanced software. You could even argue this is the problem of today.

…in a 2014 poll of leading academic economists conducted by the Chicago Initiative on Global Markets, regarding the impact of technology on employment and earnings, 43 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that “information technology and automation are a central reason why median wages have been stagnant in the U.S. over the decade, despite rising productivity,” while only 28 percent disagreed. Similarly, a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund concluded that technological progress is a major factor in the increase of inequality over the past decades.

The bottom line is that while automation is eliminating many jobs in the economy that were once done by people, there is no sign that the introduction of technologies in recent years is creating an equal number of well-paying jobs to compensate for those losses. A 2014 Oxford study found that the number of U.S. workers shifting into new industries has been strikingly small: in 2010, only 0.5 percent of the labor force was employed in industries that did not exist in 2000.

The gist of this argument is that it won’t be Mexicans taking your job in the future (if they ever did), it will be robots.

This is a problem that I don’t really see any of the candidates talking about. Partly, I suppose, because there’s no obvious solution. People often talk about retraining people but as the text above notes, new jobs aren’t keeping up with jobs lost. And I think there’s a psychological component that makes people resistant to retraining. People associate their selves, their identities, with their job (sometimes a job that has run in their family for generations). When someone comes in and says, “OK, throw all that away and train to become a widget manufacturer,” people are resistant. They don’t want to give up their identities.

Democracy blows

As I’ve mentioned many times now, Scott Adams has been making the argument that Donald Trump’s un-anticipated (and controversial) political rise occurred because he is great at the art of persuasion. And persuasion, according to Adams, is not a matter of appealing to reason and logic but rather the emotional brain and people’s sense of identity.

Adams further notes, as does common sense, that Trump is not the only politician to do this. All, to varying degrees, use this kind of persuasion to get elected.

Now, that argument really needs to be unpacked and examined before we can sign off on it. But I’ll say here that it at least feels right. Most political debates don’t have the feel of people arguing about math, they have a great deal of emotional element.

If Adams is right, does this not point to a deep flaw in democracy? Democracy is based on a kind of “wisdom of the masses,” but if the masses are easily manipulated dum-dums, should we not consider a different form of government?

Now, of course, “what is the best form of government?” is a question humanity has sought to answer for centuries and every system of government has had flaws. Monarchy is ok until you get a idiot king. Oligarchy has similar problems. I don’t really know the answer here but I start to find myself suspicious of the ‘rah-rah” approach most take to democracy, as if it’s clearly the superior system.

There’s a point madde in the book “Soul Machine” that ties into this. The author notes that “Locke’s tabula rasa gave philosophical and scientific standing to Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “all men are created equal.”" John Locke had argued that people are born as a blank slate and how they developed was determined by their environment. Put a kid in the right environment and he could be a genius scientist, put him in the wrong environment and he becomes a dull-witted criminal. But at the start, everyone has equal talents.

Now, two and a half centuries after Jefferson’s pronouncement, we know that genes do have some affect on people’s abilities. People are not created equal, some are intrinsically smarter, or more empathic, or intuitive than others. Thus a cornerstone for Jefferson’s case for democracy has fallen.

“Identity” voting

Part of Scott Adams theory on politics is that people seldom vote for logical, thought out reasons, but rather for emotional gut reactions. One gut reaction that drives people towards a candidate, in his estimation, is identity. Essentially people think “this candidate is like me, therefore he or she gets my vote.”

I think we all sort of suspected this and experienced it within ourselves. But as I’ve mused on this idea I start to see examples all over the place. For example, check out this section from a recent Washington Post article on the Clinton campaign.

Would Teresa VanDoorn, 44, a homemaker who had become a familiar face at the Sanders office, support Clinton if she became the Democratic presidential nominee?

“No,” VanDoorn said. “Voting for Hillary would be approving of the status quo and establishment — and I don’t approve of that. I would write Bernie’s name in. I consider Hillary equal to the GOP candidates, to be frank.”

What’s interesting about this comment is that the woman doesn’t exactly say Hillary’s policy positions are the same as the GOP (which, we should note, would be an insane thing to say.) The voter rather argues that Hillary is “equal” to the GOP in some undefined way. Basically, to use liberal academic parlance, this women is saying Hillary is like “the other.”

The point here is that this women, in explaining her lack of support for Clinton, doesn’t list her disagreements with Hillary’s policy positions or attack Clinton’s effectiveness, but rather argues that Clinton is on the wrong tribe, the tribe of the “establishment.”

I’m reminded of a comic memoir I was reading recently by a guy who had a drug problem for years and then became a fiction and comic author. He describes voting for Obama in 2008 and his main reason was something about sticking it to the old white boys club. Again, nothing about policies, but all about identity.

Now, I obviously don’t think policies have nothing to do with why people vote. A candidate’s policies are clearly tied up with the identity they represent. But identity does seem to be a trump card, if you will.

Hobbes, Spinoza and Trump

For a while now, I’ve been highlighting Scott Adams’ analysis of the rise of Donald Trump. He argues that Trump influences his followers by stimulating their faculties for emotions, not so much reason. Therefore, attempting to dissuade his followers by highlighting Trump’s factual errors is folly. Further, Adams argues that humans in general are emotional decision makers, not rational ones. I have at times suggested, half-jokingly, that the fact that people are so susceptible to emotional bias means that democracy is a flawed system. If the masses can be prodded towards un-rational decisions, they shouldn’t be granted the duty of decision-making.

I’ve been reading the book “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind” and it points out how this debate goes back hundreds of years. Specifically to opposing views presented by two famous philosophers…

Hobbes considered the passions wild and uncontrollable and therefore rationalized the need for absolute monarchy. Since Spinoza believed reason could control inner urges and freedom of thought ensured morality, he insisted that the most sound political structure was a democratic republic.

Decartes’ Error and Donald Trump

I continue my mental exploration of the idea that Donald Trump is a master persuader who is using brilliant tactics to convince a needed segment of the population to grant him the Republican nomination (and eventually the presidency.) I’ve mentioned that Scott Adams has been talking a lot about this idea but so have many people interested in the science of persuasion.

It strikes me that this ties in with a book I often talk about: “Descartes’ Error” by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. I’ll quote a description of one relevant point of the book:

A few years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a groundbreaking discovery. He studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are generated. He found that they seemed normal, except that they were not able to feel emotions. But they all had something peculiar in common: they couldn’t make decisions. They could describe what they should be doing in logical terms, yet they found it very difficult to make even simple decisions, such as what to eat. Many decisions have pros and cons on both sides—shall I have the chicken or the turkey? With no rational way to decide, these test subjects were unable to arrive at a decision.

The article continues…

This finding has enormous implications for negotiation professionals. People who believe they can build a case for their side using reason are doomed to be poor negotiators, because they don’t understand the real factors that are driving the other party to come to a decision. Those who base their negotiation strategy on logic end up relying on assumptions, guesses, and opinions. If my side of the argument is logical, they figure, then the other side can’t argue with it and is bound to come around to my way of thinking. The problem is, you can’t assume that the other party will see things your way.

This describes some people’s frustrations with followers of Donald Trump, doesn’t it? Detractors of Trump don’t get how he can blatantly lie and exaggerate and still have fans. But, if you allow that people are not rational decision makers, but rather emotional ones, then the facts (or un-facts) Trump uses are not the relevant factor. Rather it’s the emotions he generates in his audiences.

As I’ve said before, if this is really true—that people are not swayed by facts—than democracy itself is a joke or at least can be manipulated to rather unpleasant outcomes. I return again to the idea that we should nominate a philosopher king to make society’s decisions. I humbly offer myself.

More on Trump the persuader

I still find myself fascinated by Scott Adam’s arguments that Donald Trump, in his attempt to become President, is employing persuasion techniques used by master salespeople and politicians. To quote Adams

As far as I can tell, Trump’s “crazy talk” is always in the correct direction for a skilled persuader. When Trump sets an “anchor” in your mind, it is never random. And it seems to work every time.

(“Anchors” are a particular kind of persuasion technique. See a description here.)

I’m finding that Adams is not the only one making these claims. For instance, here is an article that goes into the subject of what are called triggers. These are essentially switches in the mind that activate specific emotional responses. Once the trigger has been switched, the theory goes, a person’s decision has been made. Any reasons provided for the decision are merely rationalizations to support the emotional decision.

Trump is activating what in neurological terms are referred to as emotional triggers, which the brain uses to avoid the energy and difficulty of analytical thinking. Whether consciously or by instinct, great persuaders tap into the functions of the emotional brain, where decisions are made with great speed and intensity.

One especially potent emotional trigger Donald Trump is clearly activating in the limbic brains of his most ardent supporters is the contrast trigger. Sales and marketing people know the contrast trigger well enough. They use it to varying degrees of success all the time. Differentiation is a well-worn corporate branding trope used to emphasize the importance of distinction — of being different from the other brand or product.

Do I buy this concept? Not entirely, I think the mind is messier and more complex. But I will say that the idea of triggers corresponds to a lot of what neuroscience and psychology have observed in the past 30 years (particularly in the work described in Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes’ Error.”)

Also, keep in mind that these persuasion techniques doesn’t have to have 100% successful to be worth using. A persuasive car salesman doesn’t have to convince everyone who comes on the lot to buy a car, just many people. Trump doesn’t have to convince all voters that’s he’s the best choice, just slightly over 50%.

Another assertion from Adams is that when Trump makes outrageous statements, he is doing so intentionally to capture the public and media’s attention. I see here that even Mario Rubio is wising up to this.

“Look, this is a pattern. This is a game he plays. He says something that’s edgy and outrageous and then the media flocks and covers that and then no one else can get any coverage on anything else,” Rubio said.

Related to all this: here’s an article that argues that Trump is using extreme statements to cover up his liberal past.

The thought of a world in which Donald Trump is president feels more like an apocalyptic nightmare to most reasonable Americans. His bigoted statements regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslims, as well as his hotheaded temper, make him appear especially dangerous for international relations. But given certain evidence, one must wonder whether some of Trump’s behavior is part of a strange but strategic charade designed only to win him the Republican nomination.

I have some complaints about that article but it does correspond to my sense that Trump himself doesn’t believe some of his own touted opinions.

I will say, this argument—that we are not really rational in our own decisions—”feels” right to me and I find evidence in myself all the time. I’m finding myself analyzing everything from why I like the politicians that I do to why I buy a certain brand of beef jerky and I have a hard time coming up with really solid, logical reasons. What I experience is more in the vein of gut reactions that I then have to qualify. Adams blogs on this topic have really got me noticing this.

On a final note: I recognize that Adam’s has planted this idea in my head (an anchor) that Trump is a master persuader. Is that why I take notice whenever I see articles like the ones above that support this notion?

Will Donald Trump actually build a wall?

One of Trump’s most hyped statements has been the idea that he will build a wall across the southern border that separates the United Staes from Mexico. It sounds crazy and very difficult, both in the act of actually constructing it and getting funding from a likely unsympathetic congress. Why would Trump propose such a thing?

I’m going to take a page from Scott Adams’ argument that Trump has a master plan with such outrageous statements. I suspect Trump’s thinking goes along these lines. He knew, before he made this statement, that a certain percentage of Americans are unhappy with illegal immigrants and would like something to be done about it. Those potential voters were observing the solutions other politicians were proposing, all basically variations of “more enforcement with some amnesty.” Then Trump comes out with, “I’ll build a wall.” This is a loud, definitive statement in the opposite direction of the (far more do-able) amnesty proposals. Trump becomes “their guy.” He has branded himself as the anti-illegal immigrant candidate. And he gets a lot of attention from the media in the process. To people who only pay cursory attention to the news, Trump becomes a serious contender. After all, look at all the attention he’s getting.

The moral is: to get noticed, make big, extreme statements, even if they are ridiculous.

But I suspect there’s another reason. I’ve been reading an interesting book, “You Are Not So Smart,” about the various foibles of the human mind. One chapter starts with the following imagined scenario.

You walk into a clothing store and see what is probably the most bad ass leather jacket you’ve ever seen.

You try it on, look in the mirror and decide you must have it. While wearing this item, you imagine onlookers will clutch their chests and gasp every time you walk into a room or cross a street. You lift the sleeve to check the price – $1,000.

Well, that’s that, you think. You start to head back to the hanger when a salesperson stops you.

“You like it?”

“I love it, but it’s just too much.”

“No, that jacket is on sale right now for $400.”

It’s expensive, and you don’t need it really, but $600 off the price seems like a great deal for a coat which will increase your cool by a factor of 11. You put it on the card, unaware you’ve been tricked by the oldest retail con in the business.

The chapter then recounts several studies observing “the anchoring effect” a tendency to value things based on an arbitrary number placed in your head. (Here’s a link to the chapter online.) The chapter closes with…

Remember this study if you are ever in a negotiation – make your initial request far too high.

You have to start somewhere, and your initial decision or calculation greatly influences all the choices which follow, cascading out, each tethered to the anchors set before.

You probably see where I’m going with this. Trump’s initial offer on the issue of what to do about illegal immigrants is way too high—let’s build a wall. People negotiating with him will realize this and will settle for terms they would have considered unseemly had they been negotiating with someone with a more reasonable initial offer. They will pay 400$ for a $300 jacket (originally marked at $1000) so to speak.

Of course, Trump will never get to make that offer if he doesn’t become President. But by proposing his wall he is saying to voters opposed to illegal immigrations, “I will drive a hard bargain on your behalf.” The details of his rather outrageous proposal are not important, the willingness to make it is.

It seems like there’s a lot that could go wrong with this tact. Are there enough voters opposed to illegal immigrants to create a voting bloc? Will such statements turn off a big segment of other voters? Perhaps. But I don’t think Trump, a guy who is not a career politician, had many other options to work his way into people’s minds as a serious contender. He had to think big, and so far it’s worked.