As everyone now knows the UK voted to leave the European Union today. I happen to be in London this week and so have been paying close attention to the vote and having many conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about how it came to this and what it means for the future. I’m no economist or pundit, so I’ll leave those takes to the professionals, but I wanted to take a minute to share a few thoughts on the obvious parallels between what’s happening here in the UK and with Trump in the US.
The two most enlightening things I’ve read about Trump happen to come from FiveThirtyEight. The first, published at the end of April, spells out the difference between what we think of as “normal America” and what the reality actually is:
We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America. But the large metros that today come closest to looking like 1950 America are Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Ogden and Provo, in Utah; and several in the Midwest and South.
Normal America, the article explains, is actually best represented (by similarity to American population across “age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity”) in cities like New Haven, Connecticut or Tampa, Florida. That means when people say that politicians or elites are out of touch with normal America, it may be true, but that’s not because normal America is still small-town America. We are a more diverse, older, and more educated country than we were 50 years ago.
The second bit, also from FiveThirtyEight, is about why Hispanics and other minority groups are more optimistic about America than average Americans:
But for many non-whites, the pattern [not very concerned about the present, pessimistic about the future] is the opposite: They are concerned about the present but optimistic about the future. In the Pew poll, Hispanics were sober about their immediate financial circumstances — 40 percent said their finances were in good shape, compared with 43 percent for the public at large — but they see brighter days ahead. More than 70 percent expect their children to be better off than they are. Previous polls have found similar results for other minority groups: According to 2014 data from the General Social Survey, three-quarters of blacks and Hispanics expect their children to enjoy a higher standard of living than they do, compared to just half of whites. A poll commissioned by The Atlantic last fall found that blacks, Hispanics and Asians were far more likely than whites to report that “the American Dream is alive and well.”
Put those things together and what you get is clear: “Make America Great Again” actually means make America look more like it did in 1960. The problem, of course, is that America was a pretty bad place for a lot of Americans at that point (women, minorities, and LGBT to name a few). But most people don’t remember that, because nostalgia is broken and doesn’t work that way. From a 2013 New York Times article on nostalgia:
Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.
But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others. Some white people recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them because she couldn’t be available to her children.
Put it all together and you have a confluence of circumstances that tells a pretty good story for how both the US and the UK have gotten to now and what it really means to make a country great again. Of course, like others, I don’t have answers of how to combat this, but understanding what we’re up against is the first step.
I never finished Taleb’s Black Swan, but I vividly remember a point from the opening chapter about what would have happened if a senator had pushed through legislation prior to September 11th to force all airlines to install locked cockpit doors. That person would have never recieved attention or recognition for preventing an attack, since we never would have known:
The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors gets no statuses in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. “Joe Smith, who helped avoid the disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease.” Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, the public, with great help from airline pilots, might well boot him out of office . . .
I was reminded of this as I was reading Tim Harford’s Adapt and this point about how we interpreted the US domination of the first Gulf War:
Another example of history’s uncertain guidance came from the first Gulf War in 1990–1. Desert Storm was an overwhelming defeat for Saddam Hussein’s army: one day it was one of the largest armies in the world; four days later, it wasn’t even the largest army in Iraq. Most American military strategists saw this as a vindication of their main strategic pillars: a technology-driven war with lots of air support and above all, overwhelming force. In reality it was a sign that change was coming: the victory was so crushing that no foe would ever use open battlefield tactics against the US Army again. Was this really so obvious in advance?
In what I assume is a response to this article that was floating around about placebo buttons (buttons that are there to make you feel better, but don’t do anything), William Gibson tweeted this:
I love the internet. That’s all.
I can’t remember exactly where, but right after the DOMA decision I read an article that basically said part of the reason this happened so quickly is that people in political power were able to relate to the plight of LGBT since there is a chance their son or daughter is gay. On the contrary, as the article pointed out, a person in congress is unlikely to have someone poor in their family.
As I read Obama’s comments about the Travyon Martin decision it struck me how interesting it is to have a president who can actually say something like this:
There are, frankly, very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often. And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida.
However you feel about the decision, it seems that the law in Florida favored the last man standing and the jury made a decision that fell squarely in the bounds of the law as it was written. That doesn’t make it any less sad to see what happened or any more right that George Zimmerman decided to move towards a situation that he could have easily walked away from, but it does bring into focus the gap that exists between the people that write laws and the citizens those laws are meant to serve.
Overall, though, this feels like part of larger state of American politics that leaves people feeling shocked, while at the same time struggling to find the any individual situation shocking. I feel the same way about everything have to do with Prism, the NSA program to spy on citizens that we’ve all heard lots about at this point. I’ve been asked what I thought of it a few times and my general reaction has been exactly the same as the Martin case: Shocked, but not shocking. I’m not surprised our government is spying on its citizens and I believe Snowden should be treated as a whistleblower as long as he doesn’t release any details about America’s spying on foreign governments (not that I doubt they are, but I do think that’s a line where things become dangerous).
My big issue with PRISM and the culture around it is that it’s part of a larger move that allows constitutional decisions to be made outside the Supreme Court. As the New York Times reported a few weeks ago:
The rulings [of the secret surveillance court], some nearly 100 pages long, reveal that the court has taken on a much more expansive role by regularly assessing broad constitutional questions and establishing important judicial precedents, with almost no public scrutiny, according to current and former officials familiar with the court’s classified decisions.
I don’t have any problem at all with the government spying on people it thinks are bad guys, I just think it should be done within the framework of the law. For all the flaws of our government, the three-branch system the Constitution laid out is still a pretty good way to make sure no one party can consolidate too much power. What PRISM (and Guantanamo and lots of the other stuff that happened after September 11th) allow for are decisions that happen outside the system, and, judging from the experiences thus far with Guantanamo and PRISM, when that happens some basic Constitutional rights get trampled.
If there’s a bright side to all this it’s that we’re not so deep into this that I don’t think we can turn things around (at least on the PRISM/Guantanamo stuff, Travyon Martin and American political racism is a different story). The reality is that even though the world has certainly gotten more complex, we’re only 12 years into the meat of the movement to erode the system of checks and balances. I hope that the outing of PRISM and, ideally, the closing of Guantanamo will help apply some breaks to that trend. The goal, as odd as it may sounds, is to return to a time when finding out the government is spying on its citizens or throwing people in jail without telling them the charge, will once again be shocking.
Over at the New Yorker Adam Gopnik draws an interesting paralell between drunk driving and guns:
If one needs more hope, one can find it in the history of the parallel fight against drunk driving. When that began, using alcohol and then driving was regarded as a trivial or a forgivable offense. Thanks to the efforts of MADD and the other groups, drunk driving became socially verboten, and then highly regulated, with some states now having strong “ignition interlock” laws that keep drunks from even turning the key. Drunk driving has diminished, we’re told, by as much as ten per cent per year in some recent years. Along with the necessary, and liberty-limiting, changes in seat-belt enforcement and the like, car culture altered. The result? The number of roadway fatalities in 2011 was the lowest since 1949. If we can do with maniacs and guns what we have already done with drunks and cars, we’d be doing fine. These are hard fights, but they can be won.
Like many, I’ve been reading everything I can find since I heard that Aaron Swartz had committed suicide. He’s not someone I knew, but certainly someone I paid attention to and read pretty frequently. He also had one of the best definitions of blogging I read:
So that’s what this blog is. I write here about thoughts I have, things I’m working on, stuff I’ve read, experiences I’ve had, and so on. Whenever a thought crystalizes in my head, I type it up and post it here. I don’t read over it, I don’t show it to anyone, and I don’t edit it — I just post it. … I don’t consider this writing, I consider this thinking.
Anyway, of all this stuff I’ve been reading about the case, his impact on the world and everything else, I found this description of where he, and more broadly cultural activist hackers, fit into the historical context very interesting:
I knew Swartz, although not well. And while he was special on account of his programming abilities, in another way he was not special at all: he was just another young man compelled to act rashly when he felt strongly, regardless of the rules. In another time, a man with Swartz’s dark drive would have headed to the frontier. Perhaps he would have ventured out into the wilderness, like T. E. Lawrence or John Muir, or to the top of something death-defying, like Reinhold Messner or Philippe Petit. Swartz possessed a self-destructive drive toward actions that felt right to him, but that were also defiant and, potentially, law-breaking. Like Henry David Thoreau, he chased his own dreams, and he was willing to disobey laws he considered unjust.
As I was digging through my old Instapapers while I was away (I read like a madman and hardly got through any), I came across this article about Obama from 2010. This little story about trying to make fewer decisions really struck me:
Rahm Emanuel tells a story. The time is last December, when the White House was juggling an agenda that included the Afghanistan troop surge, the health-care bill, the climate talks in Copenhagen, and Obama’s acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize that threatened to do him more political harm than good—one issue on top of another. It got to the point where Obama and Emanuel would joke that, when it was all over, they were going to open a T-shirt stand on a beach in Hawaii. It would face the ocean and sell only one color and one size. “We didn’t want to make another decision, or choice, or judgment,” Emanuel told me. They took to beginning staff meetings with Obama smiling at Emanuel and simply saying “White,” and Emanuel nodding back and replying “Medium.”
It’s especially interesting when you add this nugget from Michael Lewis’s October piece on the president (which I haven’t read yet, but this quote came across my internets somehow):
“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.”
This New England Journal of Medicine editorial has a really interesting stat I haven’t seen anywhere else about how gun owners feel about gun laws:
These proposals enjoy broad support. In fact, public-opinion polls have shown that 75 to 85% of firearm owners, including specifically members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in some cases, endorse comprehensive background checks and denial for misdemeanor violence; 60 to 70% support denial for alcohol abuse. (It is deeply ironic that our current firearm policies omit regulations that are endorsed by firearm owners, let alone by the general public.)
Unfortunately there’s no citation, but I’d be really interested to know how aligned gun owners are with the NRA.
Felix Salmon gives his take on what really made Nate Silver such a phenomenom: First, he can explain complicated math simply and second, he gave people fodder for conversation. Felix explains:
The thing that Silver and the Obama campaign have in common, then, is that they used their databases to tell stories. Or, more to the point, their databases and models were used so that Americans could tell stories to each other. Silver’s site became a virtual watercooler, especially towards the end of the campaign — a place where people would gather to talk about what was possible and what was likely. Nate’s voice helped to guide the discussions, but the real reason that he got such astonishing traffic was not that people wanted to read what he was writing, so much as that people were using his model as a framework within which to hold their own idiosyncratic discussions.
Now I’m not sure that this is really unique. People consume, at least in part, to talk about what they read. This is especially true in the realm of politics as evidenced by the nonstop conversation over the last three months. But I still think Felix is very right and it’s interesting to think about the role of statistics here. Are statistics actually better conversational fodder than punditry because they still allow the reader to make observations and decisions? Not sure, but I like the thought.
Paul Krugman wrote an interesting little post on the use of language by liberals and conservatives over the last few years. His basic argument is that while conservatives complained of “political correctness” from liberals, they’ve now taken on the strategy to a frightening degree: “Thus, even talking about ‘the wealthy’ brings angry denunciations; we’re supposed to call them ‘job creators’. Even talking about inequality is ‘class warfare’.”
It’s an interesting way to think about it, but it’s not actually what I wanted to share. He ends the post with this story of how science fiction worked in the Soviet Union:
The author — if anyone remembers where this came from — noted that most science fiction is about one of two thoughts: “if only”, or “if this goes on”. Both were subversive, from the Soviet point of view: the first implied that things could be better, the second that there was something wrong with the way things are. So stories had to be written about “if only this goes on”, extolling the wonders of being wonderful Soviets.
Not sure what to say about this VERY long New Yorker article about William Morgan, an American solider in the Cuban revolution, other than it’s incredibly detailed a well-written. Give yourself plenty of time to get through it, though, as it’s a good 20 pages long. Here’s a quick paragraph to give you a taste:
Menoyo cursed under his breath as both sides began shooting. Bullets split trees in half, and a bitter-tasting fog of smoke drifted over the mountainside. The thunderous sounds of the guns made it nearly impossible to communicate. A Batista soldier was hit in the shoulder, a scarlet stain seeping through his uniform, and he tumbled down the mountain like a boulder. The commander of the Army patrol retrieved the wounded soldier and, along with the rest of his men, retreated into the wilderness, leaving a trail of blood.
Slate has an interesting explanation for why train systems in the US look the way they do:
The existing rule, sadly, evaluates proposals almost exclusively on the basis of how much time a new rail line shaves off commutes. But taking a train station-to-station rather than driving a car door-to-door is guaranteed to be slower unless traffic jams are severe. This has biased new mass-transit construction in favor of a very particular kind of project: First identify a highway that’s already extremely congested and where widening it is either politically or logistically impossible. Then build commuter-rail tracks in the highway median. Put the stations far apart from one another so that trains can cruise at maximum speed for a long time. Surround the stations with parking lots. Driving your car to a park-and-ride station and taking the train downtown is now cheaper and perhaps faster than the average trip on the congested highway.
Interesting piece from Mediaite on Buzzfeed Politics: “Buzzfeed’s coverage of the Presidential race is deliberately non-traditional, and likely wouldn’t work as well with an issue that couldn’t presume the same baseline of knowledge from its audience. Nor will it take long for other outlets to mimic what they’re doing; campaign coverage moves and evolves quickly. But Buzzfeed has a head start – smart reporters, savvy infrastructure.” I haven’t spent too much time there yet, but the concept certainly sounds different.
Good perspective on why posts like “it’s time for Congress to learn about the internet” aren’t actually helpful. “If Congress is complaining that they don’t know about something that you care about, the right answer isn’t to tell them to go get educated. The right answer is to educate them. Congress mentioned the word ‘biologics’ 75 times in a month because a lobbyist spent a long time doing their job: educating members of Congress on the needs of its industry.” Generally I like these sort of things because it’s easy to spout off about how things should change, but more interesting to understand how to actually change them. But there’s something else here I really like: When someone doesn’t understand something you should try to make it easier to understand, not lambaste them for not getting it. Not that I think Congress doesn’t need to brush up on some web stuff, but we, as the web, also need to brush up on our explanations of why it matters and how it works (without all the hyperbole normally attached to it).
I’ve been taking some time over the Thanksgiving break to catch up on my Instapaper queue, so I’ll probably be posting links to some older articles over the next few days. The first comes from a SocialFlow blog post about how the Osama Bin Laden death news spread across Twitter. While the particulars are interesting, I especially liked the points they made about how impossible it would have been to predict the players actually responsible for spreading the message. The post explain, “Before May 1st, not even the smartest of machine learning algorithms could have predicted Keith Urbahn’s online relevancy score, or his potential to spark an incredibly viral information flow.”
They then conclude with a deeper message for how we think about social influence that I completely agree with:
As we build out digital social spaces, we must not get derailed by metrics of status affordances that have taken center stage. Just because we have easily accessible data at our fingertips doesn’t mean that we have the capacity to model and place a value tag on human behavior. Followers, friends or likes represent an aspect of our digital status, but are only a partial representation of our general propensity to be influential. Keith Urbahn wasn’t the first to speculate Bin Laden’s death, but he was the one who gained the most trust from the network. And with that, the perfect situation unfolded, where timing, the right social-professional networked audience, along with a critically relevant piece of information led to an explosion of public affirmation of his trustworthiness.
Just in case you weren’t sure of just how much people like congress, here’s a shortlist of the organizations, ideas and individuals that beat them: The IRS, airline industry, lawyers, Nixon during Watergate, banks, the oil and gas industry, BP during the oil spill, Paris Hilton, US going communist and Hugo Chavez. Luckily, congress can sleep tight knowing they’re more popular that Fidel Castro was in 2008. (Two politics links in a row. Crazy.)
Congress is fighting back on school lunch nutrition guidelines: “The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. USDA had wanted to only count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less than that.” To some extent I understand the worries about government dictating personal choice, but we’re talking about public schools. Is it any wonder that obesity is a problem if we’re teaching kids that pizza is a vegetable?
Back in 2009 Obama famously choose to employ some behavioral economics strategies in distributing the stimulus to citizens. The administration choose to dole out payments in small pieces over an extended period instead of delivering it in one lump sum. The logic went something like this: “By giving people the sense that their incomes had grown, doling out the money paycheck by paycheck was supposed to make recipients more likely to spend it, thereby lifting the economy.”
Except it didn’t exactly work that way and it now looks like lump sum payments work better than the slow drip. A serious blow to behavioral economics? Not exactly …
Traditional economic theory predicts that the design of a tax credit like Making Work Pay should have no effect on its efficacy: A tax cut is a tax cut, whether it comes in a check, reduced paycheck withholdings, or, for that matter, a briefcase full of cash. How money is delivered should have no effect on whether people spend or save.
So the failure of the program actually proves that people are not perfectly rational about the way they spend, otherwise it would have made no difference. A real failure would have been if the Obama approach had the exact same outcome as lump sum.