Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Try Everything: Hegelian dialectic, Shakira, and American politics in the Age of Trump

Sometimes it's good to take a step back from the day-to-day craziness of 2018 politics and think big. Instead of asking what we should think about the latest insane think Trump just did, or whether the Democrats have a shot at taking back the House, we could ask: How does human history work? 

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said - paraphrasing an 1853 sermon by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker  - 

 The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

That's a nice thought - especially in 2018 - but is it true? Is there a "direction" to history or is it just "one damn thing after another?" And if history is "bending" towards justice or freedom, how exactly does that happen?

This may sound like pointless philosophical speculation, but it's not. Or, at least, it's not pointless. Because whether you are conscious of it or not you have your own "story" about how human history works, and you use it every day to help you know what to think every time you see a new piece of news about Trump, the stock market, the war in Syria, of the Democrats' chances in November.

I don't know for sure, but my guess is that your story goes something like this:
  • In history there are good guys (people like me) and bad guys (the people who don't like people like me). 
  • Politics is about the good guys and the bad guys fighting
  • When the good guys win, that's good, and when the bad guys win, that's bad. 
Every day, when you scroll through social media or listen to the news your brain is trying to fit different pieces of the news into your "story," to tell you who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and whether you should feel good or bad when a candidate wins or looses. Whether things are getting better or worse.  This story is simple and intuitive. And it might even be right. But it's not the only story that makes sense.

Monday, December 18, 2017

There's no "real" reason that Roy Moore lost

On Tuesday Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore to became the first Democratic Senator from Alabama in a quarter of a century, and political pundits are eager to give their two cents on how he pulled it off.

Some of them claim that Jones’s victory was due to the high turnout of Black voters, and Black women in particular

Others say it was due to those GOP voters who refused to back an accused child molester who had twice been kicked off the state supreme court

While others think that the credit should go to Doug Jones himself

When something momentous happens in politics there’s nothing the media loves more than fighting about what “the real reason” for it was. But these debates are always kind of dumb, because in reality political events never happen for just one reason.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Bitcoin, Blockchains, and Bubbles: Why We Might be Headed for a Crash.

Right now the US economy is doing pretty well. Unemployment is around 4%, and our economy has been growing at around 2% per year. These relatively good numbers are why Trump's approval ratings aren't even lower than they are. But the good times may not last much longer.

Predicting what the economy is going to do is notoriously difficult. But without getting too tricky, we can see that the US goes through some sort of economic crisis/recession thing every 10 years or so.

Here were the last six big ones:

  • 1960 - unemployment at 6.1%, 10 months of recession
  • 1973 - unemployment at 7.8%, 1+ year of recession
  • 1981 - unemployment at 10.8%, 1 year or recession
  • 1990 - unemployment at 7.8%, 8 months of recession
  • 2001 - unemployment at 6.3%, 8 months of recession
  • 2007 - unemployment at 10%, 1+ year of recession

Now it's 2017, about 10 years since the 2007 recession. So we should be at least a little concerned that another recession might be around the corner.

Another reason we should be worried is that the last two of these recessions coincided with the bursting of a “speculative asset bubble,” In the mid to late 1990s this was the dot com bubble, and in the mid to late 2000s it was the housing bubble. When these “bubbles” burst, it didn't just hurt people who bought tech stocks or mortgage bonds, it triggered a recession in the entire economy.

And we're in another one of these bubbles right now.

Monday, November 13, 2017

President Trump's Popularity Depends on the Economy - But it Probably Shouldn't

As of November 13th, somewhere around 38% of American have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump, and around 56% have an unfavorable opinion of him. Right now, Trump is less popular than any past president at this point in their term. The possible exception is Gerald Ford, who had just pardoned Nixon. In fact, it's good to keep in mind that, on the day he resigned in disgrace, Nixon's approval rating was still 24%. Partisanship - as they say  - is a helluva drug.

But given that Trump's presidency has been a long sequence of scandals, FBI  investigations, offensive tweets, bone-headed gaffs, staff turnover, and legislative failures, we might still wonder why he's not even less popular. After all Trump has done (and failed to do!) how can 40% of Americans still approve of what he's doing?

Well, aside from partisanship, a big part of Trump's continued "popularity" is the fact that - as of early November, 2017 - the US economy is doing pretty well. Now, the economy may not feel all that great to all of us, but the US unemployment rate is only 4%, and the stock market is breaking records:

So even though Trump has done a lot of dumb or evil things, many Americans who supported him are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as long as the economy keeps doing well.

In other words, if the economy were to take a sudden dive - and it very well mightwe'd expect Trump to become even more unpopular than he is.

In US politics we have tended to support the current President when the economy is doing well, and attack him when the economy goes south. This is a really important thing to understand  But it's also important to understand that it's kind of dumb.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Science vs Conspiracy Theories

Pizzagate. Seth Rich and Wikileaks. The evil (reptilian?) “deep state” plotting a coup against Donald Trump.

Never before have baseless conspiracy theories played such a big role in American politics. At the same time, we're seeing more and more evidence that there really was some sort of “conspiracy” by Russia to influence the 2016 election.

How do we tell the difference between an honest-to-goodness conspiracy and a bogus conspiracy theory? It’s easy to say “just look at the evidence,” but if you’ve tried to argue with a conspiracy theorist before, you know that doesn’t usually work.

People who believe in these crazy theories will come at you with an endless parade of “facts” and “data” that they say prove they are correct:

If you try to point out that these “facts” are made up or wrong, they’ll just say the same thing about the “facts” you get from the “mainstream media”

The crazy thing is that they’re not (totally) wrong about this! The “mainstream media” does get things wrong, and sometimes it does have a liberal bias. How can we be sure that we’re not falling victim to the same “brainwashing” as the people we’re arguing with?

The best way to separate the bogus conspiracy theories from the real ones isn’t by trying to get better data, but by using the scientific method.

That may sound lame, but when they taught you about the scientific method in school, they left out the weirdest and most important part - in science you have to start by assuming that you are wrong.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

We're All Wrong (About Something)

Political disagreements are nothing new. But in 2017 we don't just disagree with our political opponents, we loathe them.1

We’ve never been shy about telling people they’re wrong about about politics, but these days we often go further. Our opponents are not only wrong, they're evil. They shouldn't just be defeated, they should be punished. We shouldn't just prevent people from believing what they say, we should prevent people from even hearing what they say.  And forget about actually talking to them - that would just make us complicit in their evilness.

I totally understand this. After all people are saying some really crazy, evil things in 2017, and we certainly don’t want the rest of America to forget how evil and crazy those things are.

At the same time, there’s a lot of evidence that, if we want to make things in America not suck quite so much we’re going to need to get some Americans to change their minds about politics, and to do that we’re going to need to talk to them.

But how can we have a genuine conversation with people who are so obviously wrong?

Of course, they think the same thing about us. And you know what? They’re right.

But so are we.

The truth is that in 2017, both sides are almost certainly wrong about something.

We know this because 100 years ago both liberals and conservatives believe things that, in 2017, we all believe are not only obviously wrong, but as evil as anything our opponents are talking about today.

So it stands to reason that, 100 years from now, people will be saying the same thing about all of us right now.

Don't believe me? Let's take a trip back in time to 1917.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Democracy, Ideological Purity, and Getting Stuff Done: Pick Two

After the 2016 election, Republicans figured that they could have a bill repealing Obamacare on President Trump's desk by inauguration day. Nine months later they still haven't done it.

If you're a Democrat, this is all pretty fun to watch. Schadenfreude is a hell of a drug. But politics is cyclical, and one of these days, Democrats are going to be back in the majority, trying to pass their own big piece of legislation. Maybe it's a single-payer health care plan, or a progressive re-write of the tax code, or something else entirely.

When that happens, we don't want what just happened to the GOP to happen to us. So we should take a look at why exactly the GOP couldn't get their act together, and try and learn from their mistakes instead of just laughing at them.

There are a number of  lessons we could draw from the GOP’s legislative faceplant.

For example:

"Don't make impossible promises to the American people, because someday you'll be asked to keep them."


"Don't try and use parliamentary tricks to railroad through an awful bill in the name of 'getting a win,' because some of your members might actually care about the dignity of the legislative process."

These are good lessons, but I want to focus on what we can learn from the actions of Senator Rand Paul.

Rand Paul teaches us that, in a democracy, you can refuse to compromise and stand for unyielding ideological purity, or you can get stuff done, but you can't do both.