Thursday, August 17, 2017

Then and Now

I am not a student of American history. I took the classes that I needed to in school, and here and there I've read some nonfiction about this or that period, but I don't seriously study the history of the United States. There are only so many hours in the day, and they're often occupied by other things - like writing this blog, for instance. And so my understanding of things tends to be shallow, the sorts of things that either everyone knows, or are easily picked up by paying attention to everyday sources.

A few years back, I was in an online debate with a man who claimed that the Presidency of Barack Obama marked the end of the American commitment to the values of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Falling back on my limited grasp of American history, I offered up the examples of the attempted extermination of the American Indian, the internment of the Japanese and the Chinese Exclusion Act as historical examples of American failures to live up to those ideals. And I stressed that these were things that happened in the past, and that in moving past them, the United States showed that as time went on, it grew more committed to those ideals, and that nothing in the policies of President Obama could be seen as serious moves back to that past.

And this is my standard pattern with such historical events. I tend to leave out the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow and the like. Mainly because I think that pretty much everyone already knows about them. But also because I don't want to focus on the negative aspects of "my own" history. I see no reason to constantly harp on what happened to "us," as it were. There was enough of that when I was growing up, and a side effect of it was a lack of empathy towards others and a certain need to always win at Misery Poker. And here's the thing about Misery Poker - you have to be miserable to win. And somewhere along the line it occurred to me that I didn't want to always be miserable, just so I collect whatever dubious prizes that Misery Poker offered.

The other day, an acquaintance of mine was holding forth about how terrible it was that someone dared say that the treatment of the Irish in days past (the 1840s being perhaps a good example) was worse than the treatment of Black people today. My acquaintance, and a number of their online friends, didn't even bother with laying out the hands of Misery Poker, but rather decried how anyone could say that anyone but the Black community would win. But being an indifferent student of American history, it seems to me that perhaps, given the choice to be Black today or Irish in 1845, I'd choose to be Black today. (I am, after all, rather enamored of automobiles, air conditioning and the Internet.)

Because here's the thing: The fact that it may have been worse to be nominally White at some distant point in the past does not mean that it is perfect to be Black today. And the commenter hadn't made the point that being Irish in the past was worse than to be Black at that same time - merely that the Black population of now is better off than the Irish population of then. And in so doing was pointing out the very thing that I had done some years back - noting the growing commitment of the United States to its ideals of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Now, to be sure, I'm not a naïf. I understand, given the context of current events that the commenter likely meant to minimize the situation of today's Black Americans in the service of painting us as undeserving of the accommodations granted to us. But be that as it may, it still may be true that the modern United States treats its marginalized better than the pre-Civil War United States treated those much closer to the mainstream, but still unfortunate enough to not be within it. A truth put to an unjust end is still true, and should be judged on its merits, not those of the speaker.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Among the definitions of "rationalize" put forth by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary are: "to attribute (one's actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of true and especially unconscious motives" and "to provide plausible but untrue reasons for conduct." And this fits in with the way Americans normally speak about rationalizing something. In common usage to "rationalize" is seen as a variety of deceptive self-justification; a way of taking an action that one understands to be wrong and filing off the rough edges until it fits (even if this takes some effort) into the slot labelled "Right."

Overall, the general understanding is that rationalization is a bad thing, leading, as it does, to people convincing themselves that wrong is right; accordingly cautions against it are not difficult to find.

[Art] Caplan draws a wise lesson from the Nazi doctors: Beware the human weakness for moral rationalization. But part of that weakness is the illusion in each of us that we have escaped it.
William Saletan ("Natural-Born Killers" Slate Magazine, 4 April, 2005)
But part of the knock on rationalization is the assumption that people are capable of creating workable moral and ethical frameworks that are 100% objective constructs and need have no recourse to a person's understanding of what it should look like. Given that people tend to resist purely mathematical expressions of morality and ethics, this strikes me as a standard that few, if any, will reach.
Now, normative cultural relativism might sound pretty good to you; it does at first to a lot of people. Because it seems like it’s all about inclusiveness and tolerance. Who am I to tell other cultures how they should live, right? But this view actually has some pretty big flaws.

If every culture is the sole arbiter of what’s right for it, that means no culture can actually be wrong. It means Nazi culture actually was right, for the people living in that culture. A dissenting German voice in, say, 1940, would have just been wrong, if it had claimed that Jewish people deserved to be treated the same as other Germans.
Hank Green "Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32"
Mr. Green's statement that normative cultural relativism "has some pretty big flaws" due to the fact that it allows Nazi culture to right, at least as far as the Nazis themselves were concerned at the time, could also be understood to be a form of rationalization. After all, Mr. Green was teaching a course on Philosophy, and not is own personal understanding of right and wrong. Yet he allowed himself to challenge the concept of normative cultural relativism, and by extension, all of the Moral Antirealist stances, not based on the some inherent contradiction that he noted in them, but because they didn't automatically condemn the Nazis as wrong, and in doing so, he allowed himself to work backwards from the desired endpoint of Nazi wrongness to a moral viewpoint; selecting one for himself that agreed with the preconceived notion that some acts are inarguably wrong.

And I'm okay with that, leaving aside the fact that it's poor form as teaching. Because for many people, this is how moral and ethical viewpoints are reached. People understand what they want to be inside and outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior, and they select a moral viewpoint that comports with that. And it's possibly this habit that Mr. Green had in mind (whether he was aware of it or not is a different story) when he confidently told his audience "most people you know – including yourself – are committed to some form of moral realism."

The idea that some items are morally wrong simply as a matter of moral fact can be a comforting and useful one. But there may be some value in the idea of an individual actually deciding to elevate themselves to the post of moral arbiter, rather than outsourcing that to nature, a society or an institution.

In this cartoon, the left-hand speaker, acting as an author avatar, decides that the simple act of holding a flag from Nazi Germany should be considered a form of incitement, and thus ineligible for free speech protections, based on little other than their own moral intuitions. The person holding the flag has no dialog within the graphic: they never speak and we, as the audience, are never let into their thoughts. Likewise, we never see the flag acting as an incitement, there is no one to respond to it. The two interlocutors who observe it, however, are clearly not at all inspired to recreate the Third Reich - outside of wanting to punch the flag carrier in the face and strip them of free-speech rights, they are not moved to action. In the end, the character with the flag may as well simply be a statue or a projection; they're static and show no impact on the world around them. We are meant to infer the evidence against them from real-world events, which are themselves not referenced.

Because of this, the incitement argument strikes me as a rationalization, and that rationalization is born of the fact that effectively saying "I find would-be Nazis so awful that I think the rules shouldn't apply to them," is somehow off-limits, despite the fact that loudly proclaiming that one would simply punch them in the face is often considered acceptable. The number of people in my social media circles who have done so is substantial. Rather than putting time and energy into a mental gymnastics geared towards finding would-be Nazis to always be guilty of incitement so that acts against them may be reasonably judged self-defense, it seems more constructive to simply declare them persona non grata for being deplored, and when challenged, simply trust in the accuracy of the moral sentiment in question.

Because that appears to be what's actually going on. And its what always goes on. In part because American society always manages to convince itself that it should be above such things. But that's not how people work. I suspect it's better to be okay with that than it is to hide it under a pile of unnecessary rationalizations. To the degree that people trust their moral intuitions, let them trust them. We'll have a more honest society for it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Picking Sides

Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer who ran as an independent against Trump in 2016, had among the strongest condemnations of Trump’s statement of politicians on Twitter, saying Trump’s vagueness about who is to blame signals “positively to the white supremacists whose support he enjoys.”

Trump has been heavily criticized in the past for not doing more to condemn the hate groups that support him, including [former Grand Wizard David] Duke and the Ku Klux Klan, which endorsed him during the campaign in 2016. And his presidential campaign was bolstered by the resurgence of the so-called alt-right and characters like white-nationalist Spencer.

Indeed, Duke later responded to Trump’s statement on Twitter, telling him, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”
The Hidden Meaning of Trump’s Charlottesville Remarks
The older I become, and the more I come to understand how politics works, the more sympathy I have for politicians. Donald Trump has already admitted to finding the job itself more difficult than he expected it would be. I suspect that he has also learned (even if he has been less forthcoming about it) that the Faustian bargains that one makes in campaigning come with more difficulties than he’d initially come to believe.

As we move farther from the actual election, the fact that President Trump won the Electoral College but lost the overall popular vote becomes less salient, except perhaps to President Trump himself. But as a continuing political matter, it’s still front and center, and not simply because the needling of his Ego prompts the President to look for ways to re-litigate the election via repeated accusations of comically-mistargeted “voter fraud.” White supremacists don’t have to be a particularly large segment of the population to have been the coalition partners who put the President over-the-top in one or more of the states he carried. And while it’s entirely possible that had they all stayed home, Candidate Trump would have still carried the day, David Duke seems to think otherwise; and the President just might agree with him. In which case, he may not enjoy their support at all, but he needs it. Coming out and laying the blame for the events of Charlottesville, Virginia squarely at the feet of White hate groups, or even simply publicly labelling them as hate groups, may mollify some of the President’s critics for a time, but runs the risk of alienating the people who form the spine of much of whatever leverage that the President has left at this point.

Given that President Trump has embarked upon a policy of being the President mainly for people who will directly support him, his fortunes are, at least in the short term, tied to the strength of that support. Accordingly, there’s little benefit for him to undermine that support by agreeing with not only his critics, but his supporter’s critics.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Tolerably Intolerant

With the induction of "intolerant" into the American arsenal of low-grade pejoratives, the term is bandied about with a fair amount of regularity, having settled into an ironic definition of "a person or group of people, who due to their unjustified closed-mindedness, can safely/should be ignored." And when another random argument/shouting match about who qualifies as genuinely intolerant pops up, I'm reminded of this David Horsey cartoon from his days in Seattle.

Political/social arguments about tolerance tend to seem like challenges to a game of Russian Roulette, with each side claiming that the other is intolerant for not cheerfully accepting ideas that can be generally considered as directly aimed at undermining their worldviews, legitimacy and leadership. It's worth noting that this isn't always intentional bad faith. Political rhetoric can be remarkably layered and nuanced, and to those who aren't interested in peeling all of the layers of the onion, the fact that a topic is apparently off-limits may seem arbitrary, rather than serving a purpose. Bad faith abounds in politics and society, however, and so is the basis of many a sneering critique of the opposition's tolerance.

Generally speaking, in American politics, the Left holds to tolerance, which may perhaps be described as a mix of social, political and religious laissez-faire ("If it harms none, do as you will."), as an affirmative virtue. It comes across less valued on the American Right, except as a defense against the pejorative description of the right as intolerant. And what appears to drive many arguments about tolerance is a basic disconnect between what the sides themselves understand as harmful, and what the other side is willing to understand is harmful.

To use Mr. Horsey's cartoon as our example again, a stereotype of the American Right is that they find abortion, alternative sexuality, non-Christianity and Socialism to all be active harms of one sort or another. And while they may concede that these things exist and are unlikely to go away, the stereotypical Right-leaving echo chamber holds that support for these marks a person as perverse to one degree or another, and that if allowed free reign, their agenda will eventually erode the foundations of civil society. Likewise, a stereotype of the American Left is that they find homophobia, militarism and religious fundamentalism/zealotry to all be active harms in their own right. And therefore, the stereotypical Left-leaning echo chambers holds that these items are the marks of a perverse and harmful agenda.

Of course, since, in the end, each seeks to supplant the other, each stereotype sees its own viewpoints through a lens that carries very stringent and narrow understandings of "harm," and doesn't allow for simply undermining the other side to count. If it's not making the streets run red with blood, then it does no real harm to anyone. By the same token, as each stereotype sees itself as a affirmative good for society, work and ideas designed to undermine it, do come off as harmful. The stereotype of the American Right sees religious pluralism as a path to a world lacking in any moral constraints; while the Stereotype of the American Right sees the hegemony of one faith as a prelude to the end of free thought.

It's unlikely that either side will refrain from casting tolerance as the other showing a lack of commitment to what they consider "Truth," anytime soon. Nor will they concede the risk that they demand the other take. Because these things are all part of the script now. And more than anything else, the Stereotypes always stick to the script.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Time Marches Slowly

So the firing of Google engineer James Damore for his lengthy treatise challenging Google's diversity programs and the echo-chamber/code of silence that's built up around them has been all over the place this week. And in one (non-public) social media post I was reading on the topic, one of Damore's defenders claimed that "since the seventies" we'd effectively traded one form of discrimination for another, and asked when would it stop?

So - in the 1970s, my mother applied for a teaching position in the town I grew up in - a distant suburb of Chicago. She was rejected, because at this point in the early 1970s, they weren't hiring Black teachers. I hadn't quite started school at this point. I didn't have any Black teachers until college. Because what were the schools going to do? Fire some of the teachers they already had to make room for the people they hadn't been hiring previously? Unlikely.

But it's interesting. Because many the kids I went to school with looked at the world in the same way, even if it was over a much shorter timeframe. When I was a freshman in high school, the senior class were mostly of an age where they were born in 1964. As in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The number of my classmates who felt that in less than 20 years, all vestiges of racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States has been wiped away was astonishing. And this idea, that things outside of our own living memory don't matter, takes some maturity to get rid of.

Because would you expect that an organization that started off with no non-White employees would now have an employee makeup that matches the community around it without some continuing measures? Especially given that numerical quotas were not allowed? A new teacher who started working in the public schools of my hometown when I was in first grade could conceivably still be working there. I know that some of my high-school instructors are still with the school (although they've moved up the hierarchy in the meantime). When would you think the last school administrator who was an active participant in "no Black teachers" finally left the district? 1975? 1985? 1995? And let's not forget the last teachers hired under that rule. And in that timeframe, how many people do you think they influenced? There is an idea that in order to harbor negative stereotypes about one or another group of people, you have to be a snarling bigot, with a pointy hood folded up in the bottom dresser drawer. And that to be influenced by such people, one has to live in a place that modernization took a pass on. It's a convenient stereotype, but not an accurate one. There is a tendency to see people as immune from being influenced by bad ideas unless they somehow show themselves to be monsters. And to the degree that the monsters are viewed as relics of the past, the bed ideas are often assumed to have died with them. Even though it's understood, for example, that there are still people who believe that the Earth is flat... And in my own life, I have been much more likely to encounter people willing to share (and attempt to sell me on) the idea that people's life outcomes are shaped, wholly or mostly, by nature than the idea that the South Pole is a hoax.

In the end, the problem with diversity may be that it's not attempting to solve the right problem, because it takes, as a starting point, the intractability of scarcity. If you view various "isms" as responses to scarcity that take on lives of their own after being allowed to take root deeply enough, then it seems that the best way to combat them is to do something about the scarcity. And that's a difficult thing to tackle because so much of our culture is designed to run on scarcity.

Sunday, August 6, 2017


But Mark Zandi, Moody's chief economist, who has advised John McCain and donated to McCain and Hillary Clinton's campaigns, told Politico the plan is a "mistake" that will cause the labor force to come to a "standstill" in the next decade. "It is hard to imagine a policy that would do more damage to long-term economic growth," he said.

As NPR's Brian Naylor noted, economists believe the country's low unemployment rate (4.4 percent) coupled with retiring baby boomers will result in a labor shortage in the coming years.
FACT CHECK: Have Immigrants Lowered Wages For Blue-Collar American Workers?
And if you're an American worker, high enough demand for labor that employers have to compete with higher wages and benefits, you may be selective about which jobs to take and people who have been traditionally locked out of the labor market now have an in, is bad exactly how? After all, the internet bubble caused a serious labor shortage until a) companies started failing and b) internet infrastructure became robust enough that overseas remote work became widely viable. I don't remember that as being damaging to long-term growth. Not to say that it wasn't, because it could have been. But I have yet to hear an explanation of "The Great Recession" that says that the ultra-low unemployment rate (and high participation rate) is the culprit.

There's a saying that says that many people don't understand how something works by reading about it in its idealized form in a book somewhere - they learn about by watching it in practice on a day-to-day basis. And this sort of thinking, that what's good for people who work is bad for "the economy" as a whole, appears to be coloring many people's understanding of the purpose and goals of Capitalism. Personally, I would tend to call this Capital Primacy instead - the idea that whenever there is a conflict between the interests of Capital and Labor, that Capital must always be priviledged. And therefore a situation like a labor shortage, which makes Labor more dear than Capital, and therefore able to command a higher share of the resulting profits is bad, because what's bad for Capital is always bad for everyone. And while this doesn't result in a wholesale failure to consider the problems of Labor, no solution that results in greater benefits for Labor than Capital will receive serious consideration.

And I think that, despite the idea that the Average American isn't very sophisticated about economic topics, there is something of a realization that Capital must always benefit, and this is labelled "Capitalism." And therefore people come to perceive Capitalism as a system that is stacked against them. And if they're not going to benefit from that being the ways things are done, why support it? Why back a system in which the best-case-scenario is that a general status quo is maintained? Why back a system in which making up any of the ground lost to the people at the top of the pyramid is considered damaging, and not seriously questioned. NPR is largely considered to be left of center, yet Mr. Zandi's comment is allowed to go completely unchallenged. And this isn't to say that Mr. Zandi is incorrect. It may be precisely that making it more difficult to grow the economy over the long term. But that's something that deserves some level of explanation, rather than simply be asserted as truth and allowed to stand.

Perhaps the most corrosive piece of what we commonly term "élitism" is that the non-élites don't know their own best interests and/or the value of short-term pain for longer-term again. And therefore, there's no value in attempting to bring them on board with a plan that impacts them. I'm going to digress for a moment here, and blame a lot of this in the common perception of King George. I know, I know, bear with me for a moment. Because the American Revolution is commonly taught in grade-school social studies/history, it tends to come off as something of a morality play, with clear cut good guys and bad guys. And since King George is the Bad Guy in Chief, he's seldom given rational reasons for not allowing the American colonies to have seats in Parliament. And because terms like "tyrant" and "dictator" have exclusively negative connotations in modern parlance, people who understand that they know better than everyone don't see themselves in that sense, since King George's crime became one of being an abusive ruler, rather than one of shutting the colonies out of the legislative process. And to the degree that "élites" (which has become a pejorative itself) see themselves as benevolent parents; the "adults in the room," as it were. And just like one doesn't let the kids vote on what's for dinner until they don't say "cake" or "ice cream" anymore, "élites" (or "élitists") may feel that the citizenry is too childish (and I've seen it put just that way) to participate in their own governance.

Of course, the citizenry may become resentful of that, in the same way that anyone might become resentful of being spoken down to. The whole point behind a representative republic is to allow people to participate (albeit indirectly) in making decisions the outcomes of which they're going to have to live with. A presentation of Capitalism that seems to be stacked against them by design is going to lead to people choosing to back something else instead; something that they feel is more "fair" to them. They might wind up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but the way to prevent that is to be more precise in the use of language, and to explain the counterintuitive, rather than simply state it.

Different Understandings

Abigail Cooke: There's some evidence that native-born workers who don't finish high school do compete with low-skill immigrants for the same jobs - in some cases. And when that happens, some of those people lose their jobs, their wages don't go up over time if they're having to switch jobs. But the size of this effect is really small. And one of the other things that happens, at least as often, is that those native-born workers are prompted to find new jobs doing maybe slightly different things. And often, those end up being slightly higher-skill jobs that come with higher wages.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Oh, like what?

Abigail Cooke: Back of the house versus front of the house in restaurant service, even sometimes, you know, bumping up to a sort of lower management level, or something where you're required to have a bit stronger English skills.
Does Data Back Trump Administration Plan To Cut Legal Immigration In Half?
I'm not sure that this is the sum total of the effect in play here. Ms. Cooke implies that the very same workers who are displayed from low-skill jobs find themselves in higher-paying, higher-skill jobs, and elsewhere in the piece implies that those new jobs exist partially because of the influx of immigrant consumers. But then at the end of the piece, she makes this point:
But I also think it's easier to point the finger at people who seem different than it is to really think about how the structures of our economy are really not helping a lot of low-skilled, low-wage people in this country. So I think there's a little bit of scapegoating going on.
So... the presence of immigrant workers in the United States does nothing to most workers, and for every worker for whom there's a direct negative or neutral impact, there's a another worker for whom there's a direct positive impact. But the economy isn't helping low-wage workers, and so they're taking it out on the very immigrant communities who are the rising tide that's lifting their boats. Hmm.

Part of this is the simple fact that you can't really get into the nitty-gritty of the economics of mass migration and the human psychology that accompanies that in four minutes. And so you wind up only briefly touching on topics that turn out to be very important - such as do low-skilled immigrants to a country, in their role as new consumers, spark enough demand for goods and services that they themselves cannot provide that they take more slack out of the labor market than they put into it? Do any front of the house restaurant jobs or low-level management jobs that are created genuinely go to the same people who were ousted from the back of the house or individual contributor jobs that the immigrants now hold, or do they go to other people whose skills or a more immediate match?

One of the recurring factors of the immigration debate is the disconnect between personal anecdote and aggregate data. And this allows the who side to both be right, and to talk past the opposition, due to the different level of granularity. It does seem strange that not-quite lowest skilled workers who found themselves pushed up the employment hierarchy by immigrant labor would be complaining about that fact. And so I suspect that that the new "native-born" waiters in a restaurant that uses immigrant labor in the back of the house aren't the same people who would have been hired for the back of the house had the immigrants not been there. And it's a safe bet that the people who are displaced from the sorts of jobs that lower-skilled Americans often complain have been lost to immigration - things like food processing and low-skill manufacturing jobs - haven't found themselves in the role of supervising those new hires, or being liaison to English-speaking upper management - a job for which a knowledge of the immigrants' language is just as important as "a bit stronger English skills."

If you're a person who has never studied economics, let alone only a high-school graduate (or dropout, for that matter), it's likely that a simple understanding of "supply and demand" is all you've ever been taught. And Ms. Cooke is right that the actual economy is more complicated than "when the supply of labor goes up the price of labor goes down." But it's not helpful to presume that this knowledge is widely-available, yet being ignored, when it's somewhat difficult to find explanations of what's actually going on that are accessible to laypersons.

Whether or not low-skilled workers born in the United States are competing with low-skilled immigrant labor for the same jobs is a matter of individual's experience and perception of the world. To the person who was turned down for a job at particular employer, who sees people who look like immigrants going to and from that workplace on a daily basis, and has had to settle for a job less to their liking or less closely-matched to their skills, an academic saying that someone like them might be supervising those workers is cold comfort. And telling them they should blame distant and impersonal "structures of our economy" doesn't give them any actions they can take to better their circumstances in the here and now.

This isn't to say that the aggregate data about how immigration impacts the country overall isn't important. But in a representative republic, studies that tell the people who are suffering that they're a small enough segment of the population that they can be safely ignored (which while likely never the intent, is often the result) simply reinforce the idea that they've been forgotten - or are being deliberately sacrificed.
Immigration undoubtedly has economic costs as well, particularly for Americans in certain industries and Americans with lower levels of educational attainment. But the benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh their costs, and smart immigration policy could better maximize the benefits of immigration while reducing the costs.
An Open Letter from 1,470 Economists on Immigration
And that leads them to vote for people who will confirm their understanding of the world and offer to help them with it. If that's a problem, it's time to start doing something about the problems that are creating it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Sunset Comes Early

The sky has not been quite blue this week. And the Sun fades to an ember before it reaches the treetops, although there is still some distance to the true horizon.

British Columbia is burning, and the smoke has blanketed the Puget Sound region in a haze that has prompted warnings about the air quality for the young, the ill and the elderly. But it has had another effect, one less talked about, but perhaps no less important. It's been very warm in Seattle for the past few days, but the haze has tamed the heat somewhat. Records were met, but all-time highs didn't materialize, and the evenings cooled more rapidly than is normal. The heat is fading, but not gone, and the haze should have a few more days. And then things will return to normal. For a time, anyway.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


I think I may try to teach myself how to shoot still life this summer/autumn. Not because I want to be a food photographer, but just because it seems interesting.