Path to a New World Order: How to Value Work?

The hullabaloo over one Google engineer James Damore’s leaked internal memo and consequent firing would have been far more amusing if such scenes hadn’t played out dozens of times before. As in the prior instances, what primarily set people off was Damore’s suggestion that there are certain tasks men tend to be better suited for and, more importantly, desire to do more than women. Damore’s piece had quite a lot going on within it, some of which I disagreed with, but the core issue underlying his screed is worth touching upon: the true value of work.

The consumerist, pseudo-market-worshipping nature of our current world order completely misses the point when it comes to work. Markets tend to be inefficient, which cannot be forgotten, even if they are still the least worst system humans have been able to devise. But it is very easy to forget that when we assess the value of work.

Such valuation necessarily depends upon the nature of the occupation. And therein lies the rub and relation to Damore’s piece, as many grew infuriated when they read his piece and rushed to their keyboards to denounce what they perceived to be his subtle contention: Men are simply better at many of the engineering tasks – in Damore’s line of work as he saw it – than women, and it would always remain that way as long as biological differences and accompanying tendencies remained intact.

The key issue here is that the nature of the occupation is what many failed to remark upon. Namely, I suspect many only grew so infuriated because his job is what is perceived currently to be very high status and demanding, with a consequent scarcity of supply, lucre resulting. If a janitor had written such a take, I highly doubt many would be up in arms (although it seems people are looking for more ways to gripe than ever before nowadays). And thus, to those same folks, the importance of ensuring equal representation of women in such roles and clarifying that women are fully capable of what Damore does was paramount.

Such intrinsic equality of capabilities between men and women is obvious. The proportion of such abilities amid populations that results in sector skew is not the scope of this piece; rather, what I find absurd is that inherent even in so many critiques of Damore’s piece was an implicit suggestion that unless women WERE doing the type of work Damore was doing, their work was of less value.

The true value created by any given occupation is difficult to measure. Is the cumulative psychological wellbeing created by an efficient therapist equivalent to, say, the peace of mind generated by a small business owner employing a dozen people? To return to my point about labor markets, they simply can’t go beyond the most basic of schema: supply and demand curves. Consequently, they perform rather horribly on any sort of long-term horizon – hence the curious occupation of motherhood, which may be the most important job in the world, hallowed by many and yet completely beyond the purview of labor markets – and also are very affected by biases.

With such imperfect measures, it is simply not safe to keep on ascribing more cachet and “value” to the hundreds or thousands of lines of code that an Amazon software engineer creates than the thousands of square meters of floor a janitor scrubs, predicated solely on the differing economic values assigned to that labor by the market. What must be done is to only compare the efficacy of their work in their respective occupations – how well they actually do their job.

Why? Because that is the crux of the problem, is it not? James Damore opines that women simply don’t wish to do his type of work in the same numbers to ever ensure equal representation among the sexes – and understandably there is a frenzied response to the contrary, but both arguments take it for granted that whatever else many women are doing that isn’t such a tech job simply isn’t as worthwhile. And that is not true at all. It may not create as much value – a graphic designer may not be paid as well – but what truly matters is how well someone does their job, however “lowly” it may be rated by the market or by popular opinion.

That sense of mutual respect may never have been as rampant in society as typical human nostalgia would like to think, but in times of heightened income inequality and increasingly pervasive mass media – without any ameliorating religious influences – it is only scarcer than ever before. And without it, furor over representation in sectors and occupations and C-suites will only continue, with likely increasingly negative consequences. Hopefully some positive effects may occur – namely, one major point Damore hinted at but did not make was that the traits in which women tend to best men could very well be highly needed but not perceived to be needed as of yet in certain areas. For example, would more women UI/UX designers contribute to the advent of responsible design, as we seek to wean consumers and companies off of the currently addictive nature of notification-based apps? Surely the uglier side of male-dominated cultures such as that of Uber would be mitigated.

Whatever those outcomes may be, it is clear that in an era of increasing income inequality, with no end in sight, emphasis of the intrinsic value of quality of work, whatever kind of work it may be, is important. Recognizing that whatever work someone chooses to do, as long as they do it well, is valuable in and of itself, will remove the implicit judgments underlying much debate about equal representation. Consequently, we will be able to better determine the actual necessity and value of improving diversity with regard to gender, race, viewpoint and more in every facet of life.

Path to a New World Order: Immigration As the Solution to Demographic Crises

It’s not so much that the old post-WWII order is crumbling irretrievably that it almost immediately started declining in certain niches – effective representation of newly formed nations – and thriving in others – establishing frameworks for global trade – from the moment it was birthed. Signposts such as the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement to the gradual evolution of healthcare within developed nations into an entrenched, innovation-resistant monolith challenged by politicians at their peril to the inexorable rise of China on the strength of its hybrid of Communism, state-sponsored capitalism and demographics have marked the way over the past several decades. Every human institution experiences such cycles, with evidence of their status masked in part by sheer size. Accordingly, even as the inefficacy of institutions such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund in many areas grows even more glaringly apparent, they will still be able to make significant advances in others.

Meanwhile, the roles of global powers will continue to be recast, slowly but surely. Soft power will swirl nebulously among the formerly prominent Western European countries of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, even as their hard power primarily exists in concerted form. They should not be counted out just yet – the European bloc can never quite be counted out unless the timescale is stretched out into that of centuries – but the global world order will no longer be influenced by the American-European coterie.

This is nothing new, as many pundits have predicted a shift in power to center somewhere in the Pacific near to China, as the United States remains the only true superpower yet China and India boast multiple advantages ranging from demographics to trappings of democracy disguising currently more-cohesive political systems. But the path to this new world order is more complex than many suppose, and moreover, it is far too soon to count out the United States’ resiliency even amid the very public airing of all its current issues. In this inaugural post, I outline one prominent issue that is fairly well discussed but usually from all the wrong angles: demographics.

Demographics As Destiny

For better or worse, our world is run by its apex species, homo sapiens. Whichever vaguely drawn boundaries of nation-states contain clumps of people primed to produce talented individuals generally tend to perform better in the long run. Historically, the greater the population, the greater the pool of laborers and consequently prosperity (if frequently accompanied by famine). Although the role and economics have shifted, the basic principle can often remain the same: More people under one political system can lead to more economic growth powered by consumption and potential productivity as well as the greater probabilities of individuals of merit rising to the top. This is mainly predicated on the particular attributes of a given system, to be fair, as well as technological levels.

In addition, however, the diversity of a given population pool in terms of age, race and culture, among other attributes, can end up resulting in a net positive. In these times, racial and cultural disparities prompt the most skepticism from both sides of the political spectrum, with some claiming it is impossible to reconcile some tribal identities and others prioritizing the supposed equality of all tribal identities above all else, or rather, to the detriment of all else. Both sides are wrong – as annoyingly is often the case, the golden mean lies in the middle. Too much cultural disparity can produce havoc, while racial disparity only usually matters as much as people ascribe meaning to said race, but both are trumped by and large by a commonly accepted rule of law, however perverted the law can be by prejudice. Multiple historical cases such as the Roman empire’s golden age, the late medieval period in Andalusia and more testify that cultural and racial disparities can be trumped by common economic interests. It is a delicate balance, to be sure, but it can be achieved nonetheless.

When it comes to age and overall diversity in terms of background, it isn’t the demographic-predicated social welfare programs common to most wealthy Western nations that only matters. It simply is a measure of an ecosystem’s health, and whether we like to think it or not, humans’ reality as biological animals entails that what we create and live in is an ecosystem, however advanced. The health of an ecosystem is frequently an uneasy balance between the aged and the young, the native and invasive species, the predators and prey. All health is derived from conflict between players of relatively equal terms should all go well, in the end.

Consequently, maintenance of diversity within an overall homogeneous structure – think the vast variety of Caucasian tribes within the Anglo-Saxon strictures that was the original 13 colonies founding the US – is what best forms a thriving ecosystem, at least as far as ecology and biology can tell us thus far. All factors must be balanced to at least some degree, though perfect harmony won’t ever be achievable. Race remains a topic few wish to discuss in perfect amity, because in the most discourse-laden nation, the US, it is probably the most divisive topic given American history. After all, the unique tragedy of America, its true original sin, was the attempt to classify an entire race as sub-human in order to defend the institution of slavery. From that stems the entirety of America’s unique racial order, and its attending, massive misery. But nobody wants to talk about that, because it is a problem that can’t really be solved, only acknowledged and imprinted in memory as an example to avoid, with a consequent timeline to rectify matters long enough it can make anyone quail.

Hence the most attention has been paid to the discrepancy between rich nations growing older in aggregate as opposed to developing economies, although that shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone who studied human nature and knows that procreative instincts are often most pronounced in those who value life the most intensely given their proximity to want.

The coming demographic crisis in several advanced Western nations – which will be even more severely pronounced in China – is therefore often analyzed and proclaimed as a coming doom. Amusingly, few seem to propose the obvious solutions. Stipends for parents such as occur in Russia aren’t enough to persuade people to procreate, primarily because procreation is nearly entirely tied up in cultural beliefs. Sadly, cultural beliefs are very, very hard to change, and even if you do succeed in exerting change, they are very slow in shifting. In fact, the more you attempt to persuade people their culture is erroneous in even some degree, the more you will incite them to push back against you, whether or not they are actually in the wrong. As this mental bias is common to all humans, one can hardly judge any other for doing so.

Immigration As Solution

So if one can’t change culture, what can one do? The obvious solution is to implement an immigration policy that is both restrictive and welcoming. This isn’t a contradiction in terms – it is simple common sense. Import those whose native culture promotes diversity within your extant ecosystem, in order to induce enough of a change, while at the same time doing one’s best to promote change based on either demographic or meritocratic or racial or social inequality to contribute to diversity. Prioritize whatever criteria you wish – but the catch is that the criteria can’t exclude any type of diversity, only prioritize some over others.

You could try to embrace a truly meritocratic approach and prioritize immigration only by those who score highly enough on aptitude tests, but then you would have to determine what aptitudes truly matter. People with very high IQs often fail to produce any meaningful value to society, after all. But one can’t blindly promote pure diversity and seek to admit only those of cultures and races differing from the majority of the host nation. In addition, relying on the fact those who apply may be more determined to succeed isn’t enough, given the potential appeal of a perhaps safer socioeconomic system and/or welfare safety net. Frankly, it comes down to a mix of multiple elements, with merit being the primary. How best to measure merit? Assign weighting to academic credentials and job history, with an allowance regarding socioeconomic status and age. Prioritize entire families, not merely out of common human decency but because frankly families are the stable, basic building block of human society. Tribalism can be a useful instinct to tap when it comes to immigration – after all, the age-old tradition of some immigrants coming to, say, America and saving up to bring relatives over is a highly useful trait to promote. From there, it is difficult to assess allegiance to a particular governing rule of law or cultural mores, but the degree of allegiance doesn’t really matter once conduct is sufficiently established over a fair duration.

Especially as declining fertility rates and advancing median ages will be far more of a problem in coming decades than many anticipate – few have calculated beyond the simple math of the additional burden welfare programs will have to bear – immigration policies that can shrewdly induce a greater influx of immigrants prepared to embrace the mores and advantages of the host nation will be a hallmark of those states best prepared to thrive. It isn’t enough on its own – there has to be enough of an extant system for newcomers to strike out on their own as opposed to subsist on welfare, which will be the topic of my next post in this series.

Bluntly speaking, humans aren’t as special a species as we like to think when it comes to the evolutionary churn of competition. We all benefit from exposure to different individuals, and resulting competition. But it is not a zero-sum game, which is the most common fallacy about immigration. Welcoming those who wish to do well and are more willing to sacrifice what it takes to do so than those who have enjoyed the largesse of a wealthy nation their entire lives is not popular politically, but can be presented as canny by those savvy enough to nail the narrative.

Should the US Immigration System Be More Meritocratic?

(Full disclosure: I am writing this to avoid doing my decision tree programming assignments on Coursera because doing something else that has been on your to-do list for some time instead of what is due is one of the best ways to procrastinate. Plus I’m pretty bad at programming, so, you know, play in the area where you have an edge.)

Every few years, the US immigration system seems to become a locus of attention, a hot topic/hot-button issue, for at least a few months, before it fades back out of media cycles when something more pressing takes over. That may not happen with Trump as president, but I’m willing to bet it is likelier than not, unless, God forbid, another terrorist attack happens in the US. Much of the time, the discussion around immigration is based on poorly drawn party lines or already-extant policies, many of which don’t really seem to address the complex realities of immigration as it has evolved in the post-9/11 era. Republicans mostly toe the line and trumpet dire warnings about insecure borders and ISIS jihadists hiding amid inflows of refugees; also toeing the line, Democrats proclaim diversity and (occasionally) moral duties to assimilate the “poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Many on both sides make good points, but given how polarized politics are nowadays, and how far apart the two primary positions seem to be, it seemed timely to delve into whether a moderate stance can be staked out. (I already have pretty established ideas around the US immigration process, but before I sketch out my argument, let’s provide some background.) Moreover, it seemed a good time to actually learn more about current US immigration policies as, frankly, I doubt many know much about it.

US Immigration 101

Using the American Immigration Council as a source, here’s my summary based on some time spent reading through multiple documents today:

1: In general, US immigration is based on a few principles: family reunification, admission of skilled immigrants, protecting refugees and promoting diversity.

2: Essentially, adult children and brothers and sisters of US citizens, plus spouses and unmarried children of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) all fall under that first principle (occasionally the second) and thus make up the majority of migrants (based on 2014 data).

Those preferences should be noted carefully, by the way.

3: Things get considerably hairier when you consider people who are here based on their employment. There are over 20 types of visas for temporary nonimmigrant workers, for starters. Some of the more popular ones: H-1B and H-1B1, with more detailed here. In 2012, close to 612,000 temporary foreign worker visas were issued, according to Brookings. Meanwhile, when you consider permanent immigration, there are five preferential categories:

4: There are also per-country ceilings, with the key provision here being that no group of permanent immigrants (family or employment-based) from a single country can exceed 7% of the total amount of people immigrating to the US in a single fiscal year.

5: In regards to refugees, the strictures are quite interesting. From AIC: “Refugees are admitted to the United States based upon an inability to return to their home countries because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to their race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin. Refugees apply for admission from outside of the United States, generally from a “transition country” that is outside their home country. The admission of refugees turns on numerous factors, such as the degree of risk they face, membership in a group that is of special concern to the United States (designated yearly by the President of the United States and Congress), and whether or not they have family members in the United States. Each year the President, in consultation with Congress, determines the numerical ceiling for refugee admissions. The total limit is broken down into limits for each region of the world as well. After September 11, 2001, the number of refugees admitted into the United States fell drastically, but annual admissions have steadily increased as more sophisticated means of conducting security checks have been put into place. For FY 2016, the President set the worldwide refugee ceiling at 85,000…”

Asylum has no limits, but you have to be a person already in the US seeking protection under the same criteria as refugees. There’s no limit on the number of individuals who may be granted asylum, however. Plus, refugees and aslyees are eligible to become LPRs one year after admission to the US.

6: The last notable feature of US immigration policy to mention is the Diversity Visa lottery, wherein each year 55,000 visas are allocated randomly to nationals from countries that have sent less than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the previous five years. To be eligible you must have a high-school education or equivalent, or have, within the past five years, a minimum of two years working in a profession requiring at least two years of training or experience. Spouses and minor unmarried children may also enter as dependents (in fact, dependents present a whole other set of issues that some friends of mine are currently working through, and which are admittedly too complex to go into here).

7: There are other programs and categories that fall under humanitarian relief or what-have-you but by and large, we can cut to the chase and get to how you become a US citizen: In order to qualify for US citizenship, an individual must have had LPR (green card) status for at least five years (three if you got it through a US-citizen spouse), be at least 18 years of age, demonstrate continuous residency, demonstrate a good moral character, pass English, US history and civics exams, and pay an application fee. (There are, of course, some exceptions.)

Whew, made it this far.

Is It a Good System?

It’s interesting to examine the above criteria and see how the current policies evolved in response to American history, but the most pressing question to ask right now, of course, is whether the above is actually a good system. While noting ruefully that there is no such thing as a perfect system where humans are involved in the design, there must be kudos given to some aspects of the current system.

  • When it comes to adults, the US citizenship requirements are sound.
  • The Diversity Visa lottery system’s randomness and focus upon countries with otherwise low rates of immigration to the US is appealing in terms of augmenting diversity as well as potentially providing avenues of escape to those in nations that may have difficulties otherwise in obtaining green cards.
  • Likewise, the shuffling between any one country can ostensibly make sense, unless, of course, one nation is experiencing significant trauma – but more on that later.
  • In essence, it covers most of the basics of what an immigration system ought to have…and by that I mean it addresses most of the basic issues, not that it addresses them well.

However, it is clear that the system has significant flaws, among which are:

  • There aren’t that many ways for an illegal immigrant to become a citizen in a realistic fashion given the volume of illegal immigrants within the US.
  • All the caps – those of the H-1B visa types in particular – are set at what is likely far too low a level, given the record number of applications received in recent years. Hence the recent reintroduction of the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, a bill sponsored by Chuck Grassley and Jim Durbin, that would basically attempt to set up a preferential system for foreign students educated in the US, on top of numerous proposals to increase the caps.
  • It can disproportionately favor those who have obtained degrees over individuals of otherwise significant abilities.
  • The extant visa programs definitely allow room for potential abuse, such as outsourcing labor to cheaper foreign workers rather than prioritizing American citizens in job hunts first.

Key Considerations

To take a quick step back before I outline some specifics that I think would improve the US immigration system, let’s detail key considerations when it comes to immigration in general. Given human nature, secure borders to a nation-state are necessary to preserve the rule of law and the appeal of citizenship, not to mention delineate relative advantages. Immigration is equally necessary to the vibrancy and vitality of any developed country with sufficient wealth that the natural birth rate is below the replacement rate, resulting in aging demographics (simply because as people get wealthier, they tend to have fewer children on average). Furthermore, there is often a moral component to immigration, hence clauses and categories addressing the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Beyond even that, when it comes to the US – a truly unique state in the course of human events – there is a distinctly American ideal of a playing field at least partially based in merit. Even if it is over-romanticized and not wholly realistic much of the time, the uniquely American vision of a nation wherein any person willing to adhere to democratic republican values, work hard and contribute as a citizen should be given a fair chance to do so. Just because it is an ideal that may seem illusory much of the time doesn’t mean it should be abandoned – that’s the exact point of an ideal.

One very important and potentially controversial note: Does birthright citizenship really make sense when it comes to favoring certain people for certain jobs over others? Although I am not quite settled in this conclusion, I don’t think it does unless it directly impedes your ability to perform well. If a worker from Mexico is hired by Amazon as a software developer because he or she does a job well, as good as or better than American citizens, and moreover is willing to accept a fair but lower wage, then what really matters is whether that person complies with all the requirements of a US citizen while they are here, such as paying taxes, obeying laws, etc. and most importantly their DEMONSTRATED INTENT to become a citizen. Just because you were born somewhere by a matter of sheer luck doesn’t mean that you should get preference over other workers IF they also wish to stay here permanently and are simply undergoing the process to do so. I unpack this viewpoint further below, as I think it is key to a more meritocratic approach to immigration.

A More Meritocratic Approach

But that isn’t to say that a more meritocratic approach to building our society isn’t to be broached. And especially when it comes to America’s unique place in the world, there’s a lot in favor of making our immigration system far more meritocratic. Why? Let’s run through a few reasons. One, to uphold that core American ideal of establishing a playing field for those willing to compete; two, America is a nation of immigrants, pure and simple, that has by and large achieved its current status in defiance of the usual issues that afflict rich, developed nations because of a constant, healthy influx of fresh talent in many spheres; and three, the current system is not a market designed to attract individuals of ability or accommodate those of potential ability.

So how would we go about making the US immigration system more meritocratic?

1: Abolish caps on H-1B and similar temporary worker visas. Instead, a preferential system with flexible limits would be introduced that would prioritize applicants on several key criteria: intended duration of residency, type of occupation, employer sponsorship, willingness to take general and occupation-specific aptitude tests and consequent scores, educational attainment (especially in the US), number of dependents, experience and proof of moral character.

This system could be broken down into maximum points per category, somewhat similarly to Canada’s, and instead of having a cap for total eligible participants instead there would be a very high bar of necessary points to essentially accomplish the same purpose. (A cap could be introduced as well, but it’d have to be much higher than current levels). For example, a married woman with three children who has a college degree who intends to stay in the US for a decade should be prioritized over a younger single male with a college degree who intends to stay only for a few years before returning home. (After all, the entire purpose is to see who will generate the most value to the US while they are present, right? In that case, those who are going to pay more in school fees and taxes, as well as live longer in the US and thereby are likelier to culturally assimilate more, should be preferred.) Furthermore, by making the criteria that much more rigorous and giving preference to those who are not only willing to compete in all categories but also perform highly, the actual volume of applicants that would make it far enough to generate a fair amount of work will definitely shrink.

Is such a system more meritocratic? Yes. Is it fair? I think it’s fairer than the current system, and in fact is more aligned with the demands of real life. Each category could be weighted differently, and the preferred types of occupations (given what is most necessary to augment the US labor pool at that time) could also shift.

2: For illegal immigrants in the US seeking pathways to citizenship, a similar system could be used, with actual duration of stay utilized instead of intended duration of residency. Again, in the case of illegal immigrants the weights of the system would shift, with experience perhaps prioritized over type of occupation.

3: The current preference system for families of US citizens isn’t too shabby, but again, optional expediting of green card processes based on proven ability should be utilized, as written out in more detail below.

4: Last but definitely not least, the pathway from H-1B visa to green card should be prioritized on not just employer sponsorships but an optional, even more rigorous battery of aptitude or occupation-specific tests as well as demonstrated residency in the US (physical presence prioritized, similarly to naturalization), plus, of course, any and all employers of visa holders. For example, H-1B visa holders with engineering degrees that pass the FE or PE engineering exams in the US should be prioritized over those when it comes to obtaining a green card. Most importantly, the Department of Labor certificates that there are insufficient US workers available for such a position should no longer be required, but ONLY if the applicants are applying for permanent green-card status, with those looking for citizenship prioritized.

Concluding Thoughts

This last one is probably one of my more controversial opinions, and to be frank, I am not even completely decided on it thus far. However, it’s never quite made sense to me, in light of American ideals, that workers born in America should be preferred over those seeking to become permanent residents, if in all other areas the latter is superior. If the immigrant wants to become a citizen and is equally skilled, and then is only differentiated by his or her willingness to accept a lower wage, well…in a market economy, it’s simply unfair to begin mandating minimum wages for every single occupation at even skilled levels. It’s up to the individual to protect his or her own best interests, and if they are willing to live on less in order to get a job that will allow them to get citizenship, then they should be allowed to do so. The key items here are first the INTENT and then DEMONSTRATION of permanent residency. That’s how to level the playing field – if at any point the applicants fail to qualify based on the already standing residency requirements, then their visa status is invalidated.

I imagine there will likely be plenty of responses detailing how incomplete and flawed my proposals above are. They may well be – but at the same time, their emphasis on individual intentions and more opportunities for demonstrating ability, plus prioritization of those who seek to live longer in the US and raise families therein, begin to address the root of the issues with US immigration. Whether or not my mechanisms would work, giving willing applicants more ways to demonstrate how committed and talented they are, and consequently how much more value they would create in the US, should be the ultimate goal.

Stray Notes

Existing aptitude tests that could easily suit my purposes already exist, e.g. CFA, GMAT, GRE, general IQ tests, etc. The applicant will bear that extra expense in exchange for moving up in priority and actually qualifying. Also, one could suppose that the aptitude tests would be already be factored in by employers’ willingness to sponsor a given person. Potentially, but even so, I think that federal criteria for citizenship should take the fact an individual is motivated enough to undergo additional tests to prove ability into account…not administer or develop new tests itself.

Looking forward to the good fight in 2017

In the meme-ification of much online discourse, it was inevitable that 2016 would be encapsulated by juxtaposed images, such as the below:

And in the interests of transparency, it’s good for people to proclaim loudly how they felt about the year overall. It’s good that people are still protesting President-elect Trump, or, like exemplar Garry Kasparov, continue calling out Putin for the tyrant he is. On the flipside, it is also good that those such as Bill Mitchell continue to lionize Trump, or, like Nassim Nicholas Taleb, point out how Assad might actually be a better option for Syria. (Not that I agree with either.)

The health of any ecosystem is almost a measure of just how well-balanced its conflicts are. No one apex predator should reign supreme; no one species should exist without its natural enemy. Consequently, the level of discourse online should tilt back and forth between the left and the right ends of the political spectrum, with, hopefully, not too wide of a gap in between. It will never resolve, and it shouldn’t. Much like the world at large, conflict will never entirely cease, in any of its manifold forms.

That’s a bit depressing of a statement to start 2017 off, one might say. But is it? Struggle is the essential paradox at the heart of the human condition. Why should it be feared or ignored? Rather, it should be embraced, dare I say it, joyfully. Learning something new is painful until you can develop it into a habit…and even then, new habits remain painful to inculcate. Becoming fit is painful – you literally tear your muscles to rebuild them – but few would argue it isn’t worth it. Embracing “the good fight”, as St. Paul would have us do, is our duty as humans, in the end.

What’s immeasurably difficult for me, as I embark on this new year, is grappling with the fact I’ll have to embrace that good fight every day for the rest of my life, without perhaps ever achieving closure on some of my biggest ambitions. But until I pass away, who’s to say I shan’t? Plus, it doesn’t help that I’m young and still overly cocksure (some would say pretentious, given my love of esoteric words, but I refuse to apologize for a diverse vocabulary). For that matter, who’s to say you won’t achieve your ambitions? One of the principles I hold dearest even though I am well aware it may not be true is that everyone wants to be the best version of themselves (even if someone is deliberately being bad by their own standards, I’d contend they wish to be the worst, i.e. the best at being their version of bad).

View post on imgur.com

So, looking forward to that good fight in 2017, I would like to think we can embark on the new year by idealizing that best version of ourselves. In this coming year, there’s no reason we can’t make some strides forward to becoming that person. To misquote one of my favorite Twitter personalities: “In order to get what you want, you have to become someone who deserves to get what he/she wants. Nobody talks about this.”

It won’t be easy. People don’t really change that much, if ever – Mad Men in particular was absolutely genius at demonstrating that very clearly – and if they do change, it’s at a glacial pace. But it’s better to strive than not to strive at all. As was shown very starkly in 2016, people who feel they haven’t had a shot in years at making a living will embrace any kind of striving, whether it is voting in a con man (Trump) or trumpeting pseudo-socialist political initiatives (Sanders). It was clearly an act of desperation – whenever people reject the status quo it usually is symptomatic of desperation given how our brains are hardwired to avoid loss.

Whether you are one of those desperate individuals or not, part of the good fight will be embracing what they have to say and seeing how we can address their very real concerns. You won’t like it. It will be painful for me to listen to many of my nearest and dearest either slowly being to normalize Trump or drift further leftward, without acknowledging the hollowness of both the ever-encroaching federal bureaucracy or the kleptocratic grifting the Trump administration will primarily engage in (although, because few things are entirely bad, they may well pull off some good things). But we must shut up and listen, and continue to strive to voice what we believe to be true, because that is, in essence, the good fight. It’s part of being a full-fledged adult who is privileged to live in a republic. That republic, the good old U.S. of A., has always been in danger of some sort, and now, in the early 21st century, it’s simply in a mix of confusion resulting from threats both old – the dying gasps of a certain kind of Russian aggression, high levels of inequality, cultural polarization – and new – the bloody incoherent, inchoate mess that is the demise of traditional kingdoms and autocracies in the Middle East, the structural shift away from economic growth being powered by the making of certain classes of things.

My friends and family have heard me say this sardonically, but to be frank, I am actually serious when I say that it is a wonderful time to be alive. (For us professionals in North America, it definitely is the best time to be alive in human history, so we better damn well be grateful.) Not because it will be easy, but because in any time of upheaval, when you are finally old enough to make more of an impact with your dollars, vote and voice, it should be exciting to effect change.

One last note: Let’s not forget all the lovely, brilliant, exciting things happening around you despite the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of mainstream media. In 2016 my best friend and his long-time girlfriend got engaged. Many of my colleagues experienced significant professional success. My older brother and his wife had my second nephew, Rune aka Rambo. Somehow, I got a lot done at work…a scary amount, actually, as dozens of thousands of people read analysis I put together. I’m not great at celebrating what’s already happened, as it already seems in the past, but that’s a very pernicious route to insecurity. So don’t fall into that trap, I will tell you, as I stand in it myself.

In short, there’s a lot of little greatness occurring all around – it may not seem big, but history is composed of little happenstances. Life is marked by little acts of kindness. So let’s look forward to 2017.

 

Why I’m Writing In a Candidate for President in November

Nationalism never quite made sense to me. Strong devotion to a country per se doesn’t really exist, to my mind – what people term patriotism or nationalistic fervor is actually devotion to a particular culture and/or set of people, or, at its most abstract, an array of ideals associated with a particular place and/or people. So when I say that I’ve always been proud to be an American, it’s not that I think the US is the greatest country in the world, as I don’t really think one can rank countries so crudely. Instead, what I’ve always loved about the US are the best of the its ideals: the freedom to self-govern, the separation of church and state, the dedication to equal opportunities for every person, the recognition of inalienable personal rights, etc.

The depth of my love for or pride in America isn’t particularly impressive. But as this election cycle has revealed, it definitely ran deeper than I suspected. The 2016 US presidential election has been uniquely infuriating to me. It’s easy to summarize my frustration with “Both candidates are unacceptable” as many of my fellow Americans already have or still do, but it’s worthwhile to explain in greater detail precisely why that is so.

Let’s take the easy case first: Hillary Clinton. It’s not so much that her level of competence is actually not as high as many suppose – as exemplified by an absence of any significant achievements in foreign policy during her tenure as Secretary of State, poor regard for security measures, and more – but that she will pursue policies that will, at best, maintain the status quo. Particularly on matters regarding abortion, that is unacceptable to me. Furthermore, the status quo has treated those like me – college-educated, working in an industry that wasn’t hit that hard by the recession, significant safety nets – pretty well, so I can understand a decent margin of support. But by and large, the status quo is only deepening inequality and exacerbating current handling of issues ranging from long-term sluggish growth to a critical lack of investment in infrastructure to climate change. Frankly, neither major political party in the US is addressing or will address the necessary array of issues in tandem, rather choosing to cherry-pick certain topical matters that will result in plenty of pork to dish around, or, at best, simply bringing more and more functions under the aegis of the federal government, whether they are best suited for that purview or not.

As president, Clinton could, perhaps, address some matters, perhaps by introducing a carbon tax. But it’s unlikely that she will accompany such a carbon tax with the necessary actions to make it less restrictive to economic growth, such as lowering the corporate tax rate. (Shocking, I know, but there’s a reason why so many US companies park their money abroad.) That’s just one example, and again, perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t think so. At her worst, Clinton could be semi-competent and semi-corrupt in terms of just governing more in terms of dispensing favors than anything else. I should point out that I am not naive – that is precisely how many presidents have served their terms, to varying degrees. So again, she wouldn’t be that much of a change from prior presidents. In all likelihood (as she will probably be the next president), she will end up being an intriguing blend of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and even George W. Bush, failing to grapple with the realities of intractable conflicts in the Middle East, climate change, an aging population saddling the US healthcare system with nigh-insurmountable burdens, bloated federal government programs, and more.

All in all, that’s unacceptable to me, which is why I can’t vote for her. But now I get to her opponent, and if you polled my friends and family and asked them what has infuriated me the most over the past year and a half, the answer would be clear: the political presence of Donald Trump.

The man himself wouldn’t be more than a fly on the windscreen of my life had he not, through some bizarre confluence of a ratings-hungry media, negligent Republican officials, shrewd showmanship, an angry portion of the American electorate that has been underserved or ignored for years and, frankly, some of the darker impulses that run through the human psyche, ended up where he is now. But somehow, in a manifestation of precisely the same phenomenon that Madison and Hamilton warned of in The Federalist Papers, wherein democratic processes are hijacked by an angry minority that choose to disbelieve whatever sources may indicate in order to prioritize what they view as their best interests, we now have GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.

And, less than a month out from the general election, he is now embroiled in yet another scandal, this involving vulgar comments more akin to those made by a rich, power-hungry, narcissist with sexually predatory appetites than anything else. Those comments were just the latest in a long litany of vulgarities, obscenities, inept, pandering, idiotic trash he has been spewing for months and months now.

Long before any of those comments, I was already angered by how seriously many seemed to be taking the clownish Trump, given his clear incompetence as a businessman, ineptitude as a leader capable of inspiring respect, and inability to negotiate any deal without buffoonish braggadocio (yep, had to say it). Since, the still-considerable media coverage and the tone of its narrative (only now shifting to overtly negative), but, primarily, the array of spineless politicians who endorsed him are what have enraged me. His sexism, racism and ignorance are all easy targets – in fact, he may not actually be any more racist than any other lucky, well-off, elderly man from his era who is accustomed to living in a bubble, but rather is playing to the nativist elements he knows he has been quite successful in attracting.

What is saddening since is that, given his nomination by a cowardly GOP, many people I know have been struggling to reconcile their championship of certain conservative values with the outright hypocrisy and contradictions he embodies or proposes. Some are worried about the appointment of Supreme Court justices who will loosen restrictions on abortion; some are convinced Clinton will enact further growth-dampening policies; and some are frankly pinching their nose and gazing solely at Mike Pence, hoping that his selection signifies how Trump simply won’t do anything as president but rather hand over all governing to associates. (Of course, he’d appoint other cronies or toadies, much like, well, Clinton probably will.)

Seeing good people try to contort lifelong beliefs to this shocking new reality has been rather disheartening. Many may read this and find it hard to believe that you could even accept Trump at all, but let me point out that JFK and LBJ were likely just as sexist as Trump, only shrewder about it and probably less overtly captivated by the prospect of power in both the bedroom and the boardroom. (That, by the way, speaks volumes about Trump’s overall psychology.) Furthermore, it’s not that anyone is enthusiastic about Trump, but rather struggling against the loss of hope at all. Should they be that despondent? Does Clinton really represent something that bad? To them, perhaps. After all, most of the people I have spoken to who support Trump do so either in vain hope of perhaps maintaining some ground on their religious values being promulgated more publicly, or because they belong to the many segments of the American people that have been neglected by politicians for years and years.

(Quick aside: the opioid epidemic is very, tragically real. Economic depression and government neglect of rural areas are equally tangible, pressing issues for many that those of us in urban, coastal environments working in high-tech industries simply cannot really relate to. It’s not that anyone is that enthusiastically FOR Trump, it’s that he’s provided an outlet for anger or at the least a way to blame others, through tapping into the nastiest of human elements – fear of the alien, the outsider, whether they be minorities or immigrants. Read this excellent tweetstorm by Chris Arnade for clarity.)

Regardless, supporting Trump is ultimately indefensible to my mind. Clinton is marginally more palatable, I suppose; she is more in the normal historical range of candidates (toward the lower end) when all is said and done, whereas Trump is an outlier of inadequacy. And, to cap off this half-rant, half-musing, I will state that I don’t believe writing in a candidate is handing the election to either candidate. Some compromises can be made – but this election poses one that is impossible to reconcile with my principles and, frankly, the best of American ideals. Clinton represents the ongoing mutation of the US into some unhealthy hybrid of an ever-encroaching federal government and stultifying, navel-gazing cultural impulses that will result in greater inequality and an increasingly stagnant society. Trump, however, represents the absolute worst of both political parties, where inherited, unearned wealth generates a bubble wherein boorishness goes unpunished, ruthless behavior is rewarded, tax loopholes are created to curry favor, narcissism runs amok, and hypocrisy is a way of life.

I can’t accept either realities. Neither represent the best of the US, and could only hope to capture some semblance of what makes the US great.

 

P.S. Trump’s behavior has been so erratic this whole election cycle that I still stand by a prediction I made to my colleagues months ago – he will drop out before the general election as he never wished to govern in the first place and instead was either trying to augment his few, fading business alternatives or was frankly paid off to run. Alternatively, I’ve misread his psychology and he actually thinks he can win or, at some point, wished to win, and now doesn’t really wish to do either, but is trapped into his self-constructed image of never being a loser.

The Importance of Culture Is Underrated

Everyone likes to belong. Whatever it is that you want to belong to, identifying as part of a group is one of the key human traits. Some primarily identify as a member of their family – probably the strongest and most common expression of this tribal instinct in humans – others as a member of certain cultural groups, still others as members of various societies or clubs. Identifying as a member of a culture, however, is currently the most interesting type of this phenomenon, particularly in light of recent reading. Mostly because the presidential election of 2016 has given me much food for thought as regards divisions along cultural lines as opposed to demographic or socioeconomic, I’ve recently delved into two works that treat upon cultural/sociological issues: American Nations and Black Rednecks, White Liberals (finished the former, working through the latter).

These books are written from two very different places, judging by their authors’ tone or unconscious/conscious biases, but oddly enough arrive at some similar conclusions. For example, American Nations is one of the few, recent books I’ve read by an explicitly liberal or even democratic socialist author who admits to the importance of cultures, while Black Rednecks, White Liberals also heavily underscores the role group cultures have played in American history. But where American Nations explores the fascinating impact of the group of Scottish/Irish Borderlanders arriving in Appalachia and parts of other regions and how their fierce independence and revulsion or mistrust of authority have swung either to one side – in fighting with the North during the Civil War – or to the other – their role as key production sites of booze in Prohibition – Black Rednecks, White Liberals takes it a step further, identifying the redneck culture as originating among that group and being passed on to certain segments of black populations in the area, and then being transplanted to Northern ghettos and contributing to the birth of black ‘gangsta’ culture.

(Sidenote: I also have somewhat of a personal stake in this as I’ve been rather intrigued by my own family’s colliding/contrasting origins, given my maternal ancestors are all Swedish, while my paternal ancestry is almost exclusively Scots/Irish/Welsh i.e. Celtic mutt and the mishmash of Appalachia and Scandinavian traits make for a fascinating cocktail to deal with.)

Now, as is common with most such books, I fear that both authors get a bit carried away with what one could call the Gladwell syndrome, where contrarian ideas are stretched too thin to accommodate outlier trends and facts, but the notions presented are useful, and, furthermore, address a key problem I’ve struggled with in many environs: a relativistic attitude toward cultures.

I’m a fan of political civility, one kind of P.C., but not the other, political correctness. I don’t think correctness is very common, particularly when the subjects are human beings. The latter kind of P.C. culture nowadays is producing quite a few problems, as many have noted in diatribes against the wimpiness of current college students or in the sadly frequent backlashes against movements like Black Lives Matter. But perhaps the rather more controversial issue is that nowadays many are encouraged to think of cultures as being relatively equal, or, rather, all different cultures are to be respected.

This is usually generated by a P.C. approach to avoiding clashes about ethnicities or confrontations about behavior but it’s deeply counterproductive. Cultures are nebulous yet very real things, herein defined as a set of traditions and associated values that guide behaviors adopted by a certain group, often related along ethnic or religious lines. And being able to make value judgments about cultures is difficult, since they are often associated with value judgments of ethnicities or religions.

But let’s start off with the base assumption that each individual human being is intrinsically equal in worth, regardless of what extrinsic value – whether economic, social, moral, etc. – they are perceived to or actually possess. Then one can hopefully proceed to recognizing that different groups of individuals that associate along similar cultural lines will tend to adopt behaviors resulting from the shared cultural values that, while in no way changing that intrinsic worth. And then you can arrive at what everyone recognizes even if they don’t acknowledge: certain cultures tend to possess concentrations of more productive and desirable traits than others. Relevant historical examples include the tendency of Jewish cultures – technically sub-cultures – in producing stable families that achieve high levels of education, occasionally material wealth and often many impressive achievements in various fields such as mathematics or science.

It’s not rendering judgments on a whole culture – it’s simply observing some tend to be more productive on average than others in promoting desirable traits. Although broader and shifting from ethnicity to ethnicity, immigrant culture in the U.S. tends to be the same, with determined individuals starting off with little often climbing socioeconomic ladders relatively quickly. In Black Rednecks, White Liberals, the author Thomas Sowell identifies Jewish, Koreans, Chinese, Mexicans, Polish, etc. all as examples of the former, although he ventures to state that the Irish, for example, tended to succeed more in athletic or entertainment endeavors while the Jewish excelled in academic fields more often.

I doubt I would go that far, without more closely scrutinizing the underlying data. But I will say that making value judgments of relative cultural values should be more encouraged nowadays, rather than repressed. In dismissing cultural comparisons, it’s too easy to fall back into “walled gardens” of thought and lazily condemn, say, Trump supporters as ignorant rednecks when in fact many savvy and well-educated people support him for a variety of reasons. When you consign criticism of cultures to the realm of controversy, you are refusing to grapple with the messiness of cultures, which contributes to misunderstanding the good and bad sides of every culture that people consciously or unconsciously identify with, and which has consequently shaped their actions. Analysis of culture is an excellent heuristic for grappling with problems of people and policy, and doing so in all honesty rather than avoiding the chance of uncomfortable confrontation will only help in the future.

Wise as serpents, innocent as doves, resilient as water bears

Recently read an interesting piece in The Atlantic and came across an excerpt that, to me, was one of the more striking things Obama has said (if he did, in fact, say it):

In private encounters with other world leaders, Obama has argued that there will be no comprehensive solution to Islamist terrorism until Islam reconciles itself to modernity and undergoes some of the reforms that have changed Christianity.

Now, having heard many opinions on this very same topic, given my background and experiences, I can relate that some would argue that Islam, being a Christian sect of sorts in some views, will never cease being prone to exploitation by militaristic, fringe elements, simply because it is a sect that is irrevocably shaped by its own history and explicit association with military conquest. Much like some versions of Communism, so this argument goes, Islam can only succeed via expansion, typically military.

Being neither a theologian nor a deeply learned historian, I can offer the highest cultural and scientific achievements of primarily Islamic states – e.g. the Golden Age centered in Andalusia – as a counterpoint to that view. Others would go further, and argue that primarily Islamic countries could be no different than, say, Protestant England, and consequently could overcome tribal divisions and end the sectarian warfare, eventually, that characterized England prior to unity as Great Britain.

Frankly, in my never-ending quest to please no one, I think both arguments have good points, but I have to admit that, much like the Obama depicted throughout that Atlantic piece, I lean toward the realistic approach that in the end, countries afflicted with such tribal divisions and resulting sectarian violence will have to, by and large, sort it out themselves.

The role of America is not to bring peace, necessarily, unless atrocities on a large enough scale are occurring, but help foster the conditions for peace to flourish. Additional violence is unlikely to bring that about. But that view must be tempered by the fact that self-defense begins not at home, but abroad. Obama is accordingly employing drone strikes, which I am still deeply ambivalent about. I am a Catholic, after all, and one of the clearest commandments is about killing. Such unilateral actions as drone strikes really seem to me to stretch the boundaries of what can be constituted as legitimate self-defense. The sad truth is that drone strikes are an improvement over, say, sending in American troops or even an assassin. And an even sadder truth is that it’s simply not feasible to extract people determined to foment terrorism and imprison them somewhere, as opposed to simply offing them.

But continually questioning whether or not drones should be used is what is crucial. It goes hand in hand with the only way to prevent processes and strategies from falling into ruins – continual tinkering, updating, refreshing and critically examining what is working, what hasn’t, and what can be improved. American foreign policy all too often swings like a pendulum, as the article illustrates, and even if we are in a period of retrenchment right now, especially when we consider Donald Trump’s isolationist, xenophobic rhetoric, we must not abandon being open to helping other nations and groups within nations.

As stated in the article, exertion of military power is actually a sign of weakness. The essence of power is to be able to get what you want without having to strive for it, after all. I agree with a greater focus on Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, as Obama calls for in the article, particularly as economic alliances, shrewd investment and fostering of relations (e.g. increased student visa allotments, tax breaks for multinationals investing in infrastructure, etc.) are precisely the kind of soft power that Americans don’t necessarily seem to focus on nearly as much.

Fear is dominating headlines because, well, that’s what we’re hardwired to respond to by evolution. Accordingly, we focus on military action to the detriment of adopting more dovish policies whenever possible. Don’t get me wrong, I do think it is necessary for the U.S. to have the most powerful military in the world simply because it’s the world’s best bet for peace (unless someone like Trump gets elected), but the hyperfocus on where and when to conduct military actions and/or the agonizing over our current, long-running wars is damaging as it skews perspectives.

By nature, being an irrepressible optimist, even if deeply pragmatic, colors my outlook. But, as I’ve seen in the course of my travels and reading, my counterparts abroad have wondered where, exactly, ordinary Americans seemed to lose the sense of optimism and resilience that characterized us in both our own national narratives and our depictions abroad. Was it 9/11? Or was it the ensuing decade of neverending warfare and a brutal economic crash? Probably both, but if any one people in the world can and should reclaim that sense of ourselves, it’s Americans. It is difficult, in the face of increasing income inequality, and a growing sense of helplessness, particularly as fringe veins of rage and racism rear their ugly heads again this election cycle, but it is imperative that we do so.

Being the leader of the free world isn’t just about what elected officials in D.C. do. In an increasingly hyperconnected world, it’s about what we, as individuals, can do. It’s about engaging even on a personal level, or a local level, much like James Fallows shows in another Atlantic piece. It’s tough, and I, for one, am all too often about finally finishing the latest House of Cards season, instead. But simply participating in local elections, or seeking to stay informed in civic discourse, being unafraid to debate in a courteous fashion, is all crucial, particularly as Americans. The best of the ideals this nation was founded on are comprised of those key notions, after all.

Striving for Diversity in a Polarized World

Many others have already expounded on the potential dangers of a Trump presidency. Louis C.K.’s is one of my favorites. Others, like Robert Reich, have also written on what the campaigns of both Trump and Sanders portend for the “establishment”. In short, most of what I would say on those two topics has already been said, but they lead me in a roundabout fashion to, once again, the subtle, insidious curse of modern media consumption and centralization, which is directly contributing to the political polarization which has helped produce both Sanders and Trump.

The funny thing about the nigh-unlimited array of content anyone with an Internet connection can now consume is that it’s 1) very limited in ownership and 2) very likely to produce choice paralysis, a peculiar kind of pain.

To address the first point, it’s common for many to decry how few corporations control so many media outlets, and they have a fair point, in that if those who own such companies could agree on subtly altering people’s perceptions of issues, they could very well exert a huge influence on what you or I think. (Maybe this is happening – I’d argue in some ways it is.) I wouldn’t go so far as to cry Big Brother just yet, as instead these companies simply wish to attract more attention leading to advertising revenue, hence the sensationalism or easily palatable content that dominates nearly the entire web paired with ever-more clever algorithms that track every online path you take and try to present you with what you would like the best, based on your search and/or purchase history.

(Quick aside: it needn’t be all sensationalist content, of course, as, say, the Financial Times is just as likely to send ads your way about behavioral science seminars if you’ve shown an interest in longer, more rigorous pieces. But even if slightly more middle or high-brow, what they want to sell is narrative, not necessarily fringe, so there is an unconscious impetus for the messiness of reality to be smoothed over, which, when exacerbated, can turn into something as bad as the media cycles in presidential election years, which gloss over far too many truths and peddle half-lies to serve things that cohere with what you already believe…avoiding antagonizing you much. Okay, maybe not that quick an aside after all.)

The problem is that when you take that barrage of attention-courting content, you get choice paralysis, which people naturally sort by gravitating toward either what their friends like (as many people now consume content through their social media feeds) or by finding what’s most comfortable. Discomfort is pain, after all. Why endlessly scroll through a feed dominated by opinions you find distasteful, confusing, hard to understand or unfunny?

Well, the unfortunate reality is that doing that at least part of the time is the only way I know how to prevent personal polarization of the sort that’s helping create the political environment of today. I don’t like to read anything that is pro-Trump, but in order to even begin to understand where his supporters are coming from, I have to delve into not only his speech transcripts but also his supporters’ Twitter feeds. Many do not approve of my positions on drug decriminalization or abortion, but if they want to see where I am coming from, they will have to dialogue with me.

A diverse diet is crucial to bodily health; a diverse diet of content is essential for mental balance as well. Seclusion within, say, my circles of Catholic, somewhat socially liberal, somewhat fiscally conservative friends would make my life easy and mental stress (from defending my opinions) negligible. But how does someone like Trump even get to where he has gotten? A lack of honest dialogue between opposing camps that hesitate to venture outside the comfort of their own circles, where rural blue-collar workers feel increasingly disenfranchised and traduced by coastal elites who sneer at their religious beliefs and social customs, or, in turn, where tight-knit societies maintain prejudices for decades, relating immigration to their own economic circumstances.

This really isn’t anything new. We aren’t different from our forefathers, who ran political campaigns in the early 1800s that were as vicious, maybe even crude, as anything we see today. We have different prejudices drawing from different fears, perhaps, but otherwise, we simply have the ability to cultivate exactly what we see and hear to an extraordinary degree, and too often take it.

I do that all the time, just scanning my curated Twitter feed rather than seeking to challenge myself. When I’m being somewhat better, I read The Atlantic, New York Times, Salon, National Review, Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, Economist, Financial Times, Reason, Al Jazeera and a few others throughout the week. What’s even better is when I don’t pay as much attention to daily or even weekly news, but rather go back to books. The sheer volume of daily content is exhausting to try to keep up with, and, moreover, perverts your focus away from more accurate forecasting of longer-term trends. Sometime’s it’s good to take a step back, and see how much the daily dribble of news has shifted your long-term focus, and what your long-term beliefs have been…that’s another insidious facet of polarization nowadays, as you don’t notice how much your opinions change when they shift only every little bit.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

A final note: One interesting side-effect produced by polarization is that either you withdraw into tighter and tighter circles, if you like to air your opinions vehemently, or you suppress to some extent, if you still wish to engage with wider circles (there are other options, of course, but those seem to be the main ones I see). Potentially, the latter can lead to the type of explosion that we are seeing evidenced in, say, Trump and Sanders. The latter seem more vocal, at least in the circles I frequent, given that I live in Seattle. But I’m willing to bet there are quite a few people I know who may never admit it, but who are somewhat rooting for Trump. They don’t feel comfortable doing so in any of their circles – an odd aftereffect of social media’s promotion of a lack of diversity as it offers many avenues for exposure, for people to pounce on “the other” and, unwittingly, succumb to the same types of nativist fear that they may well decry in those who denounce immigrants.

A return (hopefully) to more regular posting: The pandering primary season

Man, it’s been quite a while since I wrote a post here. Reasons why range from the fact my job got considerably more intense (and, as my job is very writing-intensive, I preferred to devote my spare time to practicing guitar) to my increased activity on Twitter in the hope that such micro thoughts would serve the same purpose as my brief posts here.

But they don’t. Sometimes, ideas need more than what could end up being 10,000 characters (although, if TWTR does end up doing that, who knows what hell will break loose on that platform). And one of those ideas that I have been kicking around in vague form recently was how this U.S. primary season has seen even more pandering than, well, the last primary season (which looks like Bernard Shaw in comparison).

This image kinda contradicts what I’m about to say below but I just love Futuram a bit too much to not use this.

The political pandering has been on both sides of the aisle, by nearly all candidates. To save time, I’m going to go after the usual suspects. So many bytes have already been devoted to laying out how Sanders and Trump are both tapping into what veins of populist anger remain in the U.S. that I don’t need to do that. What I do need to add is that since neither candidate has produced anything in the way of detailed policy proposals that are either realistic (Sanders) or, in actuality, serious (Trump), and one of those two has almost nothing in the way of actual political experience, it’s clear they are pandering to the general populace.

Now, this is where many people, including myself, often fall on nonsensical self-congratulatory mental pats on the back that range from “Well, maybe other people will get fooled by that” to “Of course it will work on some, but us better-informed voters know what’s really going on”. Truth is, everyone is biased and has their own particular interests to defend. Rural blue-collar voters may well benefit, in their view, from Trump’s policies, while young urbanites may deem the “democratic socialism” proposed by Sanders more reasonable and just than the status quo. Regardless, many have entirely legitimate grievances and, accordingly, are expressing them by flocking to either Trump or Sanders. Whether that’s wise or not, well, that’s not definitively for me to say.

However, I don’t think that anyone is really fooled, at least all the time, by the realities of what Sanders and Trump are proposing (or vaguely sketching out, with air quotes). Maybe some are actually fooled or I am missing something, but I think that the storyline of this primary season is that people are willing to take being pandered to over being ignored, which is what I’m guessing a fairly sizable amount of the U.S. population feels happened in 2012. Primaries are the season to pander, after all, as can be seen by the rhetorical lurches from flourishes suiting New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and Iowa. It’s one of the weaknesses of election cycles in the current evolution of mass media that such pandering feeds into ever-strengthening narratives that, fairly or unfairly, can come to exert an outsized influence on campaigns. Let’s take Jeb Bush as an example of someone who many say just stood no chance against Trump, when it comes to political instincts. Maybe that’s true, but I also think that since he was unwilling to pander, or at the very least bad at it, Jeb didn’t stand out enough to survive media narratives that were all too eager to court Trump’s increasingly ludicrous statements. (Quick shout-out to an excellent Slate article about Jeb, and one of the reasons I was quite sorry to see him go.)

The question is, will such pandering survive beyond the primaries? Will, this time, given the craziness of the cycle thus far, voters be assuaged by the eventual clumsy shifts back to the middle? Some idealized middle where the expansion of the insured population under the Affordable Care Act can be reconciled with Republican animosity toward it (in some cases, justified, given the ACA’s flaws), to take just one issue?

I frankly have no idea as of yet, because even though the pandering schtick will get old, the apparent ideological divide between the two poles of the political spectrum has rarely been wider. If I had to bet, there still is room for a moderate (which is what Kasich and Rubio and Clinton are hoping to fill) compromise. Given what’s happening in the world at large, depending on how vigorously the U.S. economy remains the bright spot in terms of growth, the divide could widen, leaving more room for a moderate to stake his or her claim.

Belgium 2014: To the Family at Home

Hey family currently celebrating Thanksgiving at Aunt Gwen’s,

Hope your afternoon is going splendidly!

I apologize in part for not posting more (getting back rather late as well as Jamie’s lack of an SD card to send me relevant pics have contributed to delay), but mainly for not being present to shoot the breeze with y’all and enjoy your company and delicious foodstuffs. Despite all that Belgium has to offer (thus far: a surfeit of beers, misty cobblestoned alleys winding adjacent to gently rippling canals, cuisine based mainly on meat and potatoes, gorgeous Gothic architecture, etc. (I hate to enumerate the boons of being here but it would be dissembling to convey otherwise)), it still doesn’t quite make up for the absence of the whole family. I wish y’all could be here, and regret not joining you. If bi-location were an option, I’d select it in a heartbeat. So please drink up, be merry, and indulge in all the jokes and razzing at my expense you wish (except for that one about that thing, because it still is too hurtful), and have a great Thanksgiving. I’m extremely thankful for all of you.

Love,

A mostly sober GJB

P.S. St. Bernardus 12 is much easier to get than Westvleteren 12 (aka the best beer in the world, according to some). Highly recommended.

P.P.S. Beer reviews will be going up shortly. The list may be incomplete – some incompetent managed to forget to enter a few, for some reason.

P.P.P.S. Also, not a single item of Belgian cuisine has managed to beat most of the grub y’all will be consuming in a few short hours, so I remain rather envious.