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.