Archive for the 'Politics' Category

How the Electoral College affects the psychology of voting

Recently, an online petition circulated demanding that the electoral voters voting for Trump change their vote to Clinton. One argument made was that the electoral voters should do this because Clinton won the popular vote by handy margins.

The counter argument to this was that Trump could say, “Look, I pursued a specific campaign strategy to win this election and that stategy was to win the electoral college. If you now say I needed to win the popular vote, you are changing the rules after we all played the game.” And it would be a fair point.

Now there’s currently a bit of rumbling from some Democrats that the country should get rid of the electoral college. And they’ve got a legitimate grievance. Twice in 16 years a Democrat has won the popular vote but lost the electoral college. It would seem that getting rid of the college would benefit Democrats, no?

But it may not be that simple. We realize that all of a state’s electoral votes go to whoever wins the majority vote in that state. (There are rare exceptions to this.) And certain states reliably swing one way. My state of California is a good example; it always swings towards Democratic candidates. As a result, Republican voters in this state are disincentivized to vote—why vote for your guy when you know he or she has no chance of getting your state’s electoral votes?

However, if we switched to a popular vote, that disincentive disappears. Suddenly a lot of people who might not be that eager to vote have a reason to do so. Suddenly their vote does count. And suddenly political parties have a lot more reason to actively pursue those votes. (Right now, I suspect a lot of Republicans don’t even bother with California.)

Now, does this mean the popular vote would swing more Republican? Obviously there are plenty of Red states where, under a popular vote system, Democratic voters might be more incentivized to vote. The only way to really figure this out would be to examine the populations and voting tendencies of each state and take some educated guesses. I did look up the voting tendencies of the current US population and it’s about an even split between Dems and Repubs. (There are more registered Democrats, but independents tend to slightly swing Red which evens it out.) So it’s hard to really predict what the results of a popular vote would be.

The larger point here is that you can’t make predictions about one system based on the results from another. Or, more boldly, don’t fuck with shit unless you really know what you’re doing.

Now, of course, there’s a reasonable, non-partisan argument that we should just switch to the popular vote system because it is more democratic.

Is Kanye West a fan of Scott Adams?

I’m currently working on an acid logic piece taking a look at Scott Adams’ predictions about Trump and seeing how they stand up to the election results. Obviously Adams was right on his main prediction that Trump would become President.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of Adam’s arguments. One comment he makes often is that reality doesn’t exist. Physical reality like molecules might exist (though Adams is at times dubious of that; very Buddhist of him) but social reality and political reality are not real. Trump, I think Adams would say, created a new political reality via masterful powers of persuasion. People who clung to the old reality, who did not see how Trump was changing the rules of the game (I might fall into this category) got played.

I just stumbled across an article about rapper Kanye West going on a long political rant onstage in Sacramento. He make comments that sound Adams-esque.

During his rant West said: “If your old a– keeps following old models, your a– is going to get Hillary Clintoned. You might not like it, but you need to hear it.”

Frankly, that would be a great motto for the Democratic Party going forward.

West, it should be noted, states he is going to run for President in 2020. Before the Trump victory I would have presumed the likelihood of this actually happening to be low. Now I’m not so sure.

The zeitgeist is changing too quickly

I can often be founding complaining in this blog about the speed of modern life. The constant assault of news, media, texts, emails, and even entertainment turns us into distracted, annoyed and un-focused creatures.

I’d like to further argue that the speed of modern information does more than just upset our personal equilibrium. It upsets the zeitgeist—the shared context the pervades the cultural moment.

Zeitgeist is a deliberately vague word (despite being German) but we all have some familiarity with it. It’s whatever makes the culture of now feel like the culture of now. It’s the hit songs on the radio, it’s the shows on Netflix (not so much TV) that people are talking about, it’s the news stories that fill the air, and on and on.

I think in the past, we had a bit more time to acclimate to the zeitgeist. Trends would rise and they would sit there in the air a bit before wafting away. To use an example, hair metal, the genre of heavy metal popular in the 1980s, lasted a good 2-3 years* before being usurped by grunge, which itself lasted even longer. I don’t think that’s the case now. Musical genres seem to rise and fall rather quickly.

* If one wants to gets picky about it, one could really identify two periods of hair metal in the 80s. There was the early 80s period that brought about groups like Motley Crue and Quiet Riot, and the later period kicked off by Guns-n-Roses which led to a mass signing of hair metal bands to record labels.

Another example: I was just listening to some podcast where an interviewee was bemoaning the loss of power experienced by magazines like The New Yorker and the Atlantic. These magazines are still around, of course, but the guy was complaining that they no longer “drove the conversation.” These magazines no longer define the zeitgeist in the way they used to.

There’s also a political and intellectual zeitgeist happening at any moment. (Clearly the political zeitgeist just had a massive change with the election of Donald Trump.) This zeitgeist is defined by the topics and policies under discussion, the books being read, the blog posts making the rounds, the ideas about politics, policies and ethics defining the spirit of the times. And I think that zeitgeist too is moving much quicker.

How do I know? Well, Trump is a good example. The media—the guys who should control the zeitgeist or at least have some insight into it—got him wrong at the beginning and then continued to get him wrong. At the start, they, like me, thought he was a joke. Then they predicted his political implosion five thousand times. Then they predicted, armed with lousy polls, that he would lose the election. And yet here we are.

The media aren’t controlling the zeitgeist. They’re playing catch-up with it.

I’ll give an example of my personal failure to feel the zeitgeist. When Bernie Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination, I figured he’d last about two days. The “socialist” moniker was going to kill him, I thought. Instead, he had a long run and a case can be made that he would have defeated Trump had he been given the spot. What did I get wrong?

I think it’s that the term “socialist” just doesn’t carry the negative connotation anymore. I grew up in the 80s during the chill of the cold war when “socialist” wasn’t that far from “communist,” and the communists were the guys with a billion nukes pointed at us. We feared them. But someone who is in their twenties today (and many of Sanders supported were young) would have never experienced that fear, at least not directly. For them, the power of these terms has changed, and thus so has the zeitgeist.

Is free trade a trolley problem?

This is my first post-election post and while I do feel like I’ll have plenty to talk about down the line, for now I want to touch on a single thought that jumped into my head.

We understand that part of Trump’s appeal was that he is anti-free trade. He wants to undo free trade agreements like NAFTA, TPP etc.

(I’ll note here that I generally favor free trade though I don’t have particularly thought out reasons for this. I generally like simpler rule sets for things and nothing is simpler than “free.”)

Let’s also revisit the moral thought experiment called the trolley problem. Philosopher Joshua Greene describes this in his book “Moral Tribes”



A runaway trolley is headed for five railway workmen who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. You are standing on a footbridge spanning the tracks, in between the oncoming trolley and the five people. Next to you is a railway workman wearing a large backpack. The only way to save the five people is to push this man off the footbridge and onto the tracks below. The man will die as a result, but his body and backpack will stop the trolley from reaching the others. (You can’t jump yourself because you, without a backpack, are not big to stop the trolley and there’s no time to put one on.) Is it morally acceptable to save the five people by pushing this stranger to his death?

Fundamentally, the trolley problem asks whether it is all right to sacrifice one person to save five, or, more broadly, whether the interests of the many outweigh the interests of the few.

The complaint from a subset of Trump voters is that free trade agreements took their jobs away. This New Yorker article examines some of the details of all this.

“…economists agree almost unanimously that free trade boosts a nation’s overall welfare. In March, 2012, when the University of Chicago Booth School of Business polled a panel of economic experts, fifty-six per cent agreed and another twenty-nine per cent strongly agreed that “Freer trade improves productive efficiency and offers consumers better choices, and in the long run these gains are much larger than any effects on employment.” But even within the precincts of orthodox trade theory (which is not, I am told, the whole of economics), free trade is acknowledged to have a downside, too. In June, 2012, half of the same panel of experts agreed and another thirty-three percent strongly agreed that “Some Americans who work in the production of competing goods, such as clothing and furniture, are made worse off by trade with China.” The professional consensus among economists, in other words, isn’t that free trade helps everyone; it’s that free trade so benefits the country as a whole that the government should find it easy to compensate the subset of citizens hurt by it—those who lose their jobs because workers abroad displace them.”

So, free trade is good for society as a whole, but there’s definitely a group that it screws. If no meaningful help is offered to people (and little is according to the article and others I’ve read) it should be no surprise that they will demand change.

What intrigues me here is that this election seems to drag a boring thought experiment out of the halls of academia and into the real world. The trolley problem asks about the morality of sacrificing the welfare of a few for the welfare of many. And that’s exactly what we face with the issue of free trade.

Of course, it’s more complex than that. How do we measure these benefits to larger society or these deficits to smaller groups? How do we measure economic pain? Merely in dollars and cents? Or do we try to factor in ethereal elements like dignity, pride and self-worth and even unintended consequences? Some liberals are doubtless now feeling that if free trade means that the people you sacrifice then vote in Donald Trump, it’s not worth it.

(Another point to keep in mind here: Democrats did have an anti-free trade candidate, Bernie Sanders, and there’s a lot of evidence that he could have bested Trump.)

On a final tangent, in a later paragraph, the New Yorker article argues that merely throwing money at Americans screwed by free trade doesn’t solve the problem.

Even if a welfare program like the Trade Readjustment Allowance were amped up, it’s not likely that this population would become meek and grateful. They’re aware that the socioeconomic élite—lawyers, financiers, and consultants—profited mightily from the economic changes by which they were dispossessed over the past couple of decades, and I suspect that they don’t want to be the objects of such people’s charity. They want their dignity back. They want to be what they once were: workers, an independent source of economic value, ambivalently regarded by and even somewhat menacing to the upper class.


This struck me as it’s very similar something I wrote many months ago in a post entitled “Explaining the Appeal of Donald Trump.”

The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities.

Had Hillary Clinton read my blog post and integrated its wisdom, I suspect she would be President right now.

Has Portlandia sold out?

Discerning readers may know that there’s a show called Portlandia out there. It’s a sketch comedy show set in the Oregon city of Portland (duh!) and it seems to both cheer and ridicule the alternative/hipster culture of the city.

The show stars Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live and Carrie Browstein, singer/guitarist of the riot grrl group Sleater-Kinney. Brownstein is probably a big part of why it took me a while to watch the show and I’ll tell you why.

Years ago, in the early 90s, I lived in the town of Olympia Washington for a year. Oly is where Sleater-Kinney formed (indeed, I actually lived on the street from which the band takes its name.) Oly was, at the time, a hot bed for a certain type of punk rock generally affiliated with anti-establishment thinking, feminism, anti-capitalism and the usual stuff. The scene there also hated the heavy metal music I’ve always been a fan of and therefore they were my enemy.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I had plenty of friends in the punk community there and probably went to shows at the various punk clubs two or three times a week.

That said, I did have enough interactions with the more self-righteous elements of that scene to conclude one thing: they did not have a sense of humor. So, when I heard that an icon of that scene, Brownstein, was involved in a comedy show I just presumed it couldn’t be funny and I ignored it.

Eventually, however, I did watch Portlandia and discovered that it actually is quite funny; a lot funnier than Armisen’s alma mater, SNL, is these days. Not only is it funny, it tends to use the same self-righteous punk rockers and ultra-liberals that I detested in Olympia as its targets.

(I should note here that I’ve softened a bit in my hatred of these types and am willing to concede they have some legitimate points in their criticisms of mainstream culture and American foreign policy. But that’s another blog post.)

As I watched Portlandia, however, I became a bit curious at how Brownstein, who, as far as I can tell, is neck deep in the very culture the show lampoons, justifies the show’s attitude. And I suppose I could get on the web and figure this out, but I’m not that curious. Nonetheless, this general thought popped into my head when I came across the following link.

Feminist bookstore from “Portlandia” cuts ties with show

The bookstore In Other Words, featured on “Portlandia,” announced on Wednesday that it has cut ties with the show, CBS affiliate KOIN reports. 

The bookstore said filming the show left its business a mess, staff mistreated and neighboring businesses sometimes forced to close for a day “without warning.”

The Portland store, In Other Words, initially enjoyed the publicity, reports the Associated Press. The 23-year-old nonprofit has faced financial struggles and is currently running a fundraising campaign to help stay afloat.

“It was also a direct response to a show which is in every way diametrically opposed to our politics and the vision of society we’re organizing to realize. A show which has had a net negative effect on our neighborhood and the city of Portland as a whole,” the bookstore said, according to KOIN. 

On the show, the book store serves as the setting for a similar store run by two humorless lesbians who inadvertently deliver laughs. It’s a great example of how the show, to my mind, makes fun of the very culture Brownstein is from.

A little more digging revealed a story covering the controversy generated when Armisen and Brownstein had made an ad for clothing company Old Navy. Some of the comments responding to the article include…

Old Navy is about as un-riot grrrl as you get. Sad. She just shit on her legacy for a paycheck. I guess she doesn’t care about grrrls in Chinese sweatshops.

Carrie & Fred officially off the artistic role-call. What, Portlandia wasn’t making you enough to live on, had to become corporate shills too? You f#cking whores…how very “Punk Rock”.

Now, these comments deliver all the self-righteous fury I associate with the north west punk scene. That said, I can’t help feeling they have a point. Brownstein’s actions do seem at odds with her ethics. (Not Armisen, who to my knowledge has never claimed to be anti-capitalist etc.)

It should be said that humor is complex. You can applaud a culture or idea while simultaneously holding it up for ridicule. And “Portlandia” may not be making fun of the ultra-stringent ethics of certain Portlanders, as much as it is the stern seriousness with which they apply those ethics. It’s perfectly reasonable, in my view, to have the attitude that we’re all figuring this life thing out and maybe we should be willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Exactly what punk rock puritans don’t do.

Anyway, that’s my take. We just started watching the new season of the show on Netflix and it feels like one of the best ever.

Terrorist Drones

I continue to track Scott Adams’ blog to view his predictions about Trump. But today he tackled a different subject and he made note of something I’ve thought about myself.

Another key part of my prediction is that the Caliphate will start to weaponize hobby-sized drones for attacks all over the world.

Drones, these little miniature helicopters that are popping up all over the place, seem the perfect vehicle to lob explosives into crowds of people. I’m not talking about the rather small drones you see at the park, but the kind of drones that can have cameras mounted on them, or the kind Amazon is testing for deliveries. If it can carry a package it can certainly carry a bomb. And if the sky is awash with Amazon drones how will we tell the legal drones from ones delivering death? (There may actually be a way, in fact, I presume there is, but it complicates things.)

I think the bigger picture here is this realization: for every new technological advance from now on, we need to ask: how could this be employed by terrorists? Certainly robots and drones have obvious implications for terrorists. So too do advances in the biological sciences like the designing of virus in a garage laboratory. And what can people create with 3d printers?

On a side note, recall that it was the Japanese in WWII who first utilized drone bombs.

The immigration question

So, not long ago I used the topic of immigration as an example of a political debate that was very hard to unravel. Is immigration (illegal or otherwise) good or bad for the U.S.? I read a bit on the topic (for about an hour) and discovered a dense mush of opinions. It was very difficult to get a straight answer.

Today I stumbled across an article that claims to have an answer. The author claims that immigration does hurt low income workers who compete with immigrants for jobs, but benefits employees who can press for lower wages.

Here’s a key paragraph.

The fiscal burden offsets the gain from the $50 billion immigration surplus, so it’s not too farfetched to conclude that immigration has barely affected the total wealth of natives at all. Instead, it has changed how the pie is split, with the losers—the workers who compete with immigrants, many of those being low-skilled Americans—sending a roughly $500 billion check annually to the winners. Those winners are primarily their employers. And the immigrants themselves come out ahead, too. Put bluntly, immigration turns out to be just another income redistribution program.

Do I buy it? It’s definitely the clearest documents I read on the subject. I suspect there’s more to the quagmire (and the author has a whole book on the topic) but maybe it just got a bit more transparent.

Has Adams lost it?

For about nine months or so I’ve been commenting on Scott Adams’s blog posts alleging that Donald Trump has achieved his political success by being a master persuader. By Adam’s descriptions, Trump has a learned or intuitive sense of exactly how to push people’s buttons and get their political support. The term hypnosis has occasionally been thrown around though not in the “woo-woo” carnival side-show sense.

To some degree, Adams must be on to something as Trump’s rise really was unanticipated by almost all of the “serious” political pundits. Adams’ writing on this topic has caused me to reflect on why I make the decisions I do and I’m starting to see how ethereal those reasons can be. I do think the subconscious can be prodded to lead the conscious mind to make decisions, sometimes stupid or bad ones.

That said, currently Trump really is looking weak as a presidential contender. Clinton has a healthy lead in the polls even with two third-party candidates – Jill Stein and Gary Johnson – taking some votes that would otherwise go to Clinton. (I’ve always presumed a Libertarian candidate like Johnson would take votes from the right, but I read something the other day that argued otherwise. Who really knows?)

Despite all that, Adams continues to insist that Trump will win in a landslide (though he has given the Clinton team credit for improving their persuasion skills, mainly by setting Trump up as a figure to be feared.) Here’s Adams today arguing in favor of Trump. (One of Adams’ most annoying predilections is his insistence that he supports Clinton when he clearly is in the Trump camp.)

To many people – if not most – Donald Trump looks like the type of candidate who would become a “strongman” president, ignoring the advice of experts and the opinion of the people. That’s the persuasion framework that Clinton has created in your mind, probably with the help of the Master Persuader I call Godzilla.

But does the evidence support that view? I see the opposite.

Months ago, when Trump stumbled on his answer about criminal penalties for women who seek illegal abortions, the public went nuts, and Trump immediately corrected his position. That’s direct democracy. Trump heard the opinion of the majority and instantly adopted it.

Consider Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration. The public felt his position was too extreme, and let him know. Eventually, Trump softened his stance to talk about countries of origin, not religion. The public still wasn’t pleased, so Trump softened again to his current position of “extreme vetting.” That evolution in policy looks like direct democracy to me. The public told Trump what it wanted, and Trump evolved to it.

Likewise, we found out this week that Trump’s plan to deport 11 million Mexicans living in the United States illegally has some wiggle room. Maybe there won’t be so much deporting after all. Because the public doesn’t want it.

Consider also Trump’s public persona. We witness that he is using the teleprompter (as advised) and crafting a friendlier version of himself, which is exactly what the public asked of him.

One interesting point: Adams alleges that the “Master Persuader” in Clinton’s camp is none other than Robert Cialdini who wrote the book “Influence” that I recently commented on.

So what to make of all? Certainly it seems like Trump is softening his positions, but months after he should have. Can he possibly pull out of the spiral he’s in?

My suspicion is no. But I’ve been wrong before. And Adams isn’t the only one on this page. Here’s a CNBC article I just stumbled across.

Donald Trump still has an uphill battle in this election. But when it comes to controlling the news cycle in this election, he’s running unopposed.

Consider the recent pivot in the Trump campaign. It began with a speech expressing his regrets for his past hurtful comments, followed by a visit to flood ravaged Louisiana. And it continued this weekend with a meeting with Latino supporters where he signaled a desire to temper his immigration policies and shift away from his previous support for mass deportations.

Trump’s recent pivots won’t convince any of his most ardent detractors and Clinton’s biggest fans to change their minds, but there are still a good number of undecided voters out there who might. And then there’s the traditional Republican voters who have been a little embarrassed by Trump, who will now be able to point to the plausible excuse of Trump’s “maturing process” to vote for and more publicly support him.

This article is basically saying that Trump is doing what Adams has been saying Trump will do—creating a “third act” in the story of Trump’s rise, an act characterized with deference and humility. Is it in time to win over voters?

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, a lot of people don’t like Hillary. If the third parties suck up enough of her votes and undecideds and “embarrassed” Republicans swing towards Trump, I suppose it could happen.

Trump’s true nature?

For months now, I’ve been viewing Trump through the lens that Scott Adams has presented, one that views Trump as a master persuader who knows how to trigger behaviors in people (in the case of Trump’s supporters, the behavior of voting for him.) In lieu of Trump’s recent political disasters—his spat with the Kahn family and drop in polls—it’s hard to see this view as accurate. Trump seems too impulsive to really be a calculating genius.

Nonetheless, this New Yorker piece—essentially an interview with the man who co-wrote Trump’s successful tome “The Art of the Deal”—provides some insight into how Trump’s mind works. Consider this passage:

“He was playing people,” Schwartz recalls. On the phone with business associates, Trump would flatter, bully, and occasionally get mad, but always in a calculated way. Before the discussion ended, Trump would “share the news of his latest success,” Schwartz says. Instead of saying goodbye at the end of a call, Trump customarily signed off with “You’re the greatest!” There was not a single call that Trump deemed too private for Schwartz to hear. “He loved the attention,” Schwartz recalls. “If he could have had three hundred thousand people listening in, he would have been even happier.”

Note the phrase, “in a calculated way.” The sense I get from combining the New Yorker piece with Adam’s arguments is that Trump is probably a sociopath, someone unresponsive to the self-imposed limits one is supposed to observe as a member of decent society. Rather, Trump has learned all the secrets of manipulation and applies them with impunity. It’s an odd combination of genius and total lack of restraint.

I have a hard time envisioning how Trump can pull out of the spiral he’s in, but the guy is nothing if not full of surprises.

Explaining the appeal of Trump

I, like most people, never saw the rise of Donald Trump coming. I figured he would wipe out in the Republican nomination process the same way he did in 2012.

So what happened? Part of what I didn’t understand, I think, is that there was a real sense, especially on the part of people in the midwest, that they got screwed by trade deals like NAFTA, as well as the lack of policing against illegal immigration. Is this correct? I dunno… I talk a bit about it in my current acid logic article, but in the end it’s hard to really determine what the statistics on these topics tell us. Regardless, people feel it’s true, and Trump, and to some degree Sanders, have been talking about these issues a lot.

Yesterday I stumbled across this interview with the author of a new book called “Hillbilly Elegy.” He argues that the people of poor white America, particularly in the midwest and the south, are really struggling. Drug use is an epidemic and poverty is taking a disastrous toll. And I have to concede that this bleak picture is, again, news to me.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.

The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades.  From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank (more on that below).  Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.  

From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth.  Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth (and I believe there are many), the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis.  More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.


I think he touches on a point I’ve addressed in the past. The standard liberal nostrum for economic poverty is basically handouts. And many on the left feel exasperated that the very people they are trying to support are fans of Trump. What I think the left doesn’t get here is that people take their definition of self very seriously. They don’t want to think of themselves as peasants begging the system (who would?), they want to think of themselves as self-sustaining entities. Thus, when Hillary Clinton says something like she’s going to put a lot of coal miners out of work, coal miners get pissed—this is their livelihood she’s talking about. (It should be noted that Clinton’s comment was taken out of context.)

Now, I don’t think Trump really has any answers here. He has some vague talk about negotiating better trade deals and building a wall, but I doubt that will really do much (especially as I’m unconvinced whether bad trade deals or immigrants are the source of the problem.) But I can understand the appeal of Trump here, to these people.

Anyway, the whole article is worth a read.