How to Make America Great (An 8-Point Plan)

Make America Great

#MAG

My optimism stems largely from a belief in progress. Progress is the inevitable outcome of accumulated knowledge and enlightenment. As we understand the world better, understand ourselves better, we come to understand how to improve the world and our place in it.

The Progressive approach is guided by reason and virtue. In many regards (hunger, poverty, human rights) the world is in a better place than it’s ever been, and this is largely the result of people who utilize our scientific and intellectual advancements wisely.

At the same time, the world remains awash in fucked uppedness. With climate change, the cracks in the levy are rapidly becoming fissures, which promises to exacerbate all kinds of fucked uppedness unless we get somebody to stick their thumb in it, right quick.

Make America Suck Again

Here in the United States, we would only be so lucky if the Trump administration were merely fiddling while Rome burns (to mix metaphors slightly); instead, they’re throwing their fiddles and whatever else they can find onto the fire, whipping it into an inferno.

Long before Trump, though, the Regressives in this country, led by plutocrats, have been crapping on democracy. In addition to buying (or becoming) politicians, Regressives sow division, disinformation, and dysfunction, as they reap a bounty in the wake of discontent deflected away from their devious designs.

Put more concretely, certain Regressive elites in this country (present President included), primarily in an effort to entrench their power and wealth, have endeavored to:

  • Divide Americans:  From the Southern Strategy to welfare queens to Willie Horton to Donald Trump, Regressives (in this case, primarily Republicans) have been stoking white fear and anger toward people of color. Misogyny, xenophobia, and homophobia are other tools in the divisiveness toolbox. And among whites, Regressives promote tribalism via Fox News (Liberal Elites vs. Real Americans), the NRA, religion, etc. Here it must be said that liberals and Democrats are also guilty of regressive tribalism when they ridicule and show disdain for poor and rural white folks.1
  • Spread Disinformation: There’s a certain element of my news feed that’s tragicomic. Stories from Fox News2 seem to focus on either the crookedness of Hillary Clinton, tabloidy bullshit, people of color and immigrants doing bad things, or female teachers having sex with their male students.3 When there are stories that make Regressives look bad, they are downplayed or ignored; when the stories make liberals look bad, they are pounced on. The tabloidy crap serves to distract people from real issues. Fox is a pusher of the Regressive ideology. Limbaugh, Breitbart, The Blaze, and InfoWars follow the same playbook (to varying degrees of insanity). It’s funny how people of this ilk rail against the mainstream media, claiming it has a liberal bias. Well, to the extent that some mainstream media believe in facts and reason, I guess that would make them appear more progressive – that said, in the interest of appearing balanced, I still think mainstream media give too much credence to regressive ideas. Fair and balanced, indeed!
  • Create Dysfunction: Defund public education, diminish access to health care, destroy unions, deter people from voting, drown government. Weaker public education leads to a less enlightened populace, and has the added bonus of empowering for-profit education, which primarily benefits the wealthy. Reduced access to health care, lack of unions, and poverty in general distract people from political engagement (and of course create more wealth for the elites). Voting restrictions and gerrymandering, combined with artificially divided Americans, disinformation, and ignorance, help keep Regressives in power, even though their interests are aligned with a tiny minority of the population. When they do attain power, they follow the advice of Grover Norquist and try to drown government in a bathtub. A shittily functioning government works perfectly for Regressives: See, told you government sucks! Discontent and ignorance breed yet more Regressives.
  • Promote Plutocracy: All of this division and disinformation and dysfunction is made possible by a government that is easily bought, thanks to Citizens United and other systemic failures that allow money to infiltrate our government. Since money equals free speech in this country, the loudest voices don’t belong to you or me. Thus we have the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, where the only “jobs” being given are to the Republicans’ wealthy pimps.

What could be more unpatriotic, more un-American, than the way these Regressives defile democracy?

What Do Americans Want?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that the doctrines of Epicurus (which he described “as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us”) included the moral that:

  • Happiness is the aim of life.
  • Virtue the foundation of happiness.
  • Utility the test of virtue.

From the Koch brothers to Rush Limbaugh to Donald Trump to Grover Norquist to my in-laws, what the Regressives have failed to grasp is that their own happiness is integrally tied to virtuous action.

Wealthy Americans (I include myself in this category) have been afforded, whether we realize it or not, enormous opportunity by virtue of living in this country. Isn’t it our patriotic duty to ensure that all Americans receive similar opportunities? Premium taxes in return for premium opportunities.

Ultimately, I believe most Americans, most people, want a system that provides opportunity and fosters happiness (in the fulfillment sense). While the system is necessarily quite complex, there is precedent for what works and what doesn’t to achieve happiness and prosperity.

The Regressive way seeks to destroy; the Progressive way seeks to build.

Make America Great

So now let my lamentations and railing give way to an optimistic, Progressive path forward. Here’s my 8-Point Plan to Make America Great:

1. Return Government to The People

  • Enact campaign finance and lobbying reform that gets big money out of politics
  • End gerrymandering
  • End voter suppression

At a time when politicians brazenly pander to their big donors rather than their constituents, we are in dire need of substantive Campaign Finance Reform. Other than the small minority of Regressives, who wouldn’t agree that politicians should be focused on the vast concerns of their constituents, not just the concerns of a few large donors? Something like the Fair Elections Now Act would address this.

Gerrymandering is some of the most Un-American bullshit out there. Both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of drawing districts that favor them over the years, but Republicans have taken it to new lows of late, with state and federal houses across the country receiving disproportionate representation by Republicans due to partisan gerrymandering. Soon, the Supreme Court will decide Gill vs. Whitford,4 a case that could provide a metric for what constitutes partisan gerrymandering. If we believe in reason and virtue, districts should be drawn using a nonpartisan metric that most accurately reflects the will of the people, not partisan manipulators.

One other strategy that Regressives use to stay in power is voter suppression. If your interests only align with a few wealthy elite, then, aside from those you’ve duped into voting for you, you want to ensure that less people have access to vote. You do this through restrictive voting laws, making it onerous (or impossible) for people to register or vote. As people who believe in facts understand, voter fraud is negligible. Rather than extinguishing it in the gutter of voter suppression, we should light the beacon of democracy by making voting as simple and straightforward as possible.

2. E Pluribus Unum

  • End divisiveness and promote a vision of unity in which all Americans are working to attain the same goal: a happy and prosperous society
  • Re-establish that knowledge, science, facts, truth are attainable, and that they should guide policy
  • Reach out to different demographics (rural, urban, black, white, Latino, conservative, liberal) to better understand their concerns5
  • Work with local community leaders to disseminate information about the benefits of a Progressive platform
  • Spread the message that purveyors of divisiveness and hate are undermining American values

In case you didn’t know (and you’re not a true patriot!) E Pluribus Unum is a motto of the United States, meaning “out of many, one.” The Regressives seem bent on a mission that would change that to E Pluribus Pluribus. Here’s a real quote I found in the comments section of an anti-Obama piece after he won the 2012 election:

I seriously think dumbocraps have at least 50% less brain power than normal people. Otherwise how can they continiously over look the damage that he’s already done, not see it, and want MORE of it????

Aside from the comical placement of the “sics,” the troubling thing about this statement is how emblematic it is of the tribalism that has done, and is doing, so much damage in our country. I actually agree with the commenter that far too many people on the left aren’t informed consumers of media. But far more pervasive than this ignorance is the disinformation and divisiveness spread by Regressives,6 of which this guy is an eager adopter.

Dumbocraps is a new one to me, but we’ve all heard of libtards and snowflakes, and from the other side, rednecks, white trash, Bernie Bros; all of these are Regressive pejoratives meant to divide. And of course, playing on people’s fears via racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia further divides us. As mentioned above, it’s a Regressive tactic to pit people against each other who would actually benefit from working together. The Regressives will be shitting their slacks when the rest of us figure this out.

Conservative rural voters feel under siege by liberal elites, and I think they’re right to feel abandoned by Democrats, who have mostly ceded this bloc to Republicans (who pay lip service but not much else). A true Progressive platform (not all dumbocraps) encompasses the needs of rural whites as much as it does those of urban blacks, or liberal elites, or the working class, or poor folks. 

Not to get all kumbaya-y or anything, but Progressives need to make it abundantly clear that our policies are inclusive of all working class folks (defined as anybody who works for a living, wants to work for a living, can’t work for a living, is retired, or is a child). In other words, E Pluribus Unum.

3. Invest In Us

  • We are a big country – we need big government to administer equal opportunity
  • Ensure that our big government runs smoothly and efficiently
  • Enact fair regulations that ensure government, businesses, and individuals work for the benefit of society
  • Incentivize businesses to empower and reward employees
  • Establish that taxes are investments in the happiness and prosperity of our country and its citizens
  • Publicly account (via a simple website) for how our taxes are spent – our investments should pay dividends in the form of safety, security, education, health, convenience, and sustainability
  • Make filing taxes free and easy on a government website

According to the 2017 Happiness Report, Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world (#2 after Norway). Danes pay 41-56% income taxes. For this, they receive free health care, education, and a financial safety net. They work less than 40 hours a week and get at least four weeks of vacation a year. Between them, parents get over 50 weeks of parental leave when a child is born.

Among advanced economies, the United States ranks 2nd highest in net income inequality. Out of these same 30 countries, the U.S. is 13th in happiness. They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but with about 40% of the world’s total wealth, it seems like we could be doing better.

Wagner’s Law states: “The advent of modern industrial society will result in increasing political pressure for social progress and increased allowance for social consideration by industry.”

In other words, wealthy nations have a tendency to provide more opportunities for their citizens over time. So, why, while much of the rest of the wealthy world (including Denmark) moved toward greater opportunity, has the U.S. remained relatively flat in that regard? Why, it’s those pesky Regressives, convincing people that what we really need is smaller government and less regulation – meanwhile, even as production increases, the Regressives have concentrated more and more of the resultant wealth among themselves at the top.

4. Invest In Education

  • Provide equal opportunity for all public schools by increasing and equally distributing funding among schools
  • Promote excellence in education by properly valuing and incentivizing teachers
  • Reward innovative and effective curricula that energize students
  • Integrate schools and communities more closely – many learning projects (gardens, food, building, service, technology, research, etc.) can also benefit the community
  • Use evaluative procedures that aren’t one-size-fits-all and that don’t force schools to teach to the test
  • Provide free preschool and college
  • Institute a year or two of mandatory national service after high school in which students work on national or international projects (military or civilian)

Preach a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.

This is Thomas Jefferson again. Note that one could substitute “Regressives” for “kings, priests and nobles.” Sadly, it seems that the Regressives have used this quote prescriptively: Hey, if we crusade for ignorance, we should be able to rise up among the people!

Of course, Jefferson didn’t mean for this to be a recipe for plutocracy, but rather against it. His prescription was that we must invest in education to enlighten the common people so that we may be informed participants in democracy.

5. Invest In Health

  • Enact universal health care
  • Establish a network of health advisers who work with individuals to promote preventive health care through healthy lifestyles and preemptive diagnoses
  • Regulate standard rates for various procedures and prescriptions
  • Regulate the ability of pharmaceutical, hospital, and other medical institutions to influence research, doctors, and hospitals
  • Provide adequate funding for impartial scientific research on health, medical procedures, and pharmaceuticals
  • Create a national database that tracks health issues to provide researchers with data to establish cause and effect for both illnesses and their cures (or prevention)
  • Include DNA, microbiota, and environmental information in this database
  • Focus more resources on determining the causes, prevention, and cures of mental illness, as well as creating more opportunities and better care for the mentally ill
  • Provide better detection, education, counseling, care, and monitoring for people with unhealthy or dangerous sexual or violent tendencies
  • End the war on drugs and utilize the resources saved (as well as taxes from alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana) to regulate dangerous drugs, and provide education, counseling, and care (not punishment and prison) for those who are addicted
  • Educate people better about diet and exercise, and properly regulate and tax unhealthy foods
  • Promote measures that will reduce traffic deaths – such as less reliance on vehicles, better urban design, and self-driving vehicles
  • Recognize that guns, like vehicles, can be much better regulated to promote safety

6. Invest In America

  • Rebuild infrastructure to make it smart infrastructure, geared toward a sustainable and lower-impact 21st century America
  • Design urban space that promotes community, civic pride, safety, enjoyment, and of course happiness and prosperity
  • Create nationwide, public internet access
  • Research and reward smart and sustainable agricultural practices
  • Regulate and reward businesses and cooperatives that foster positive community and societal ideals
  • Provide amnesty for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants living in this country
  • Establish fair and effective immigration laws, and work with Mexico and other countries to establish worker exchange programs that benefit both those countries and the United States
  • Maintain and create more open space and wilderness
  • Recognize that equality of opportunity makes a stronger society

7. Invest In The World

  • Recognize that the United States has had a huge, often negative, impact on the rest of the world, especially through our outsized use of resources, but that we can also have an outsized positive impact
  • Invest in developing countries to help them develop in a sustainable manner – more than just altruism, these investments are repaid in the form of greater security, climate change mitigation, and ultimately more prosperous nations with which to cooperate
  • Work with the United Nations to strengthen its mission of maintaining world peace and security
  • Change the Department of Defense to the Department of Global Development, with the primary mission of advancing peace around the world7 – the vast resources afforded to our military could be better spent by fostering goodwill toward the United States
  • Create a leaner, smarter, stealthier military, ready to step in when power is needed
  • Work with countries to establish fair trade

8. The Environmental Moonshot

None of the above will ultimately matter much if we don’t address climate change now. Luckily, there are multiple economic factors involving renewable energy, battery storage, electric vehicles, lighting technology, agricultural practices, and other innovations that are increasingly making it more feasible for the world to drastically reduce its carbon footprint.

What we need now is the moral leadership and vision to accelerate into this new sustainable age. This could also be an effort that galvanizes our country around an existential cause (similar to the war effort during World War II, but with some of the energy and excitement surrounding the Apollo Mission). This environmental moonshot can and should be a massive jobs creator, and a boon to the U.S. economy as a whole.

  • End subsidies for fossil fuel and other polluting industries
  • Provide training to help people in these industries shift to new ones
  • Enact a carbon tax, with proceeds going toward sustainable energy innovation and endeavors
  • Become the world leader in green energy technology and goods
  • Shift to primarily electric transportation
  • Shift to an integrated and sustainable agricultural system
  • Work to restore and preserve biodiversity nationally and internationally
  • Work with impoverished, environmentally degraded communities to rebuild sustainably
  • Become a zero-waste nation by 2035
  • The Moonshot: become a 100% renewable energy nation by 2035

America, Fuck Yeah

I can hear all the naysayers laughing at my idealism, calling me Pollyanna. But this is ‘Merica, dadgummit, and when we want something, we take it! Many of the above ideas are already underway, if not here, then in other nations. We can see the success that they’re having – we can emulate and improve upon it.

Who would’ve thought in 2010 that, in just a few years, the Supreme Court would find that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry under the Constitution, or that pot would be legalized in multiple states? When there’s a good Progressive idea, the dominoes often fall pretty quickly. And, of course, many of the above ideas work synergistically, amplifying the domino effect.

Maybe it’s time to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of the world and show them what American exceptionalism is really about. Instead of internecine fighting, Americans need a common enemy we can unite against… the Danes, of course – fuck the Danes! We need to knock their shiny happy asses down a peg or two. Too tribal? Fine, then let’s just unite against Regressive thinking and fight for a Progressive America.

 

Donald Trump Is My President: An Analysis of What the Fuck Just Happened

trump analysisHere at the Cottage, my family and I, like most of the world, were shocked/stunned/surprised (dumbfounded, flabbergasted, stupefied, blindsided, bewildered, nutpunched?) that Donald Trump was elected president earlier this month. As what was supposed to be celebratory wine turned to bitter anodyne, a tumultuous fracas erupted in my head. My id, assholish as always, battled with my schoolmarmish superego, while my ego tried to find reconciliation. The battle raged for days, and continues to this day, although the three parties are moving toward détente. Following is our analysis of the election and what it portends.

The Election

Id: What the fuck just happened? We The People just elected a narcissist/psychopath/fascist/liar, not to mention misogynist/racist/xenophobic/anti-intellectual bully. Donal Trump is NOT my fucking president. I’m moving to Canada. Orange Qadhafi is not going to tell me what to do. Fuck it, I’m just going to shut out the outside world and focus on me and my family, maybe do some gardening. Fuck fuck fuck. I want to burn something. Fuck.

make america grateful, dump trump

Yes, those are narcissus flowers

Superego: Hold on a sec, it’s not that bad, it’s not the end of the world. We need to give this guy a chance. Maybe he will do the opposite of everything he said during the campaign. Maybe he actually cares about women and Mexicans and Muslims and black people and working class folk and the environment and the good old U.S. of A. Maybe he wants to cancel the Paris climate change agreement so he can enact something even more fantastic, like a carbon tax. Maybe he didn’t release his taxes because he’s so humble that he didn’t want people to see the gobs of money he’s been giving to malnourished children around the world. Maybe he’s just stringing along Giuliani and Gingrich and Christie and Bannon (the real deplorables) as part of a master plan to mortally embarrass them for all their cheating and lying and underhandedness and vitriol. Maybe he meant he likes to grab kittens, to save them when they get stuck in trees. In fact, maybe this whole thing was just an act and Trump is secretly a progressive in the vein of Bernie Sanders. Regardless, we need to give him our full support, because he’s OUR president now.

Ego: Id, I totally agree with your first sentiment, but then you go off the deep end (which I guess is kind of your thing). As much as I hate to say it, Donald Trump IS my president. He won according to our rules (although I think some of those rules are flawed). But, when I say he’s my president, that doesn’t mean I’m going to get all Stockholm Syndrome-y and fall in love with the guy who kidnapped my country and is about to resume torture (figuratively and literally, if he himself is to be believed). I can already see the normalization of Trump going on in the mainstream media.

Trump may try to do some good things, like invest in infrastructure projects – that will create jobs and spur the economy. That’s something Obama tried to do, but was, as usual, stymied by Republicans. Maybe Trump can make some headway where Obama failed. Hey, maybe he will just rebrand Obamacare as Trumpcare – it was based on a Republican plan anyway (then all those people that hate it but need it might realize they love it).

But Trump is also planning to do some terrible things, according to his 100-day plan. Will he be able to follow through on all his crazy campaign vomitus? No, thank God/Allah/Flying Spaghetti Monster (trying to be inclusive here). But, in addition to the potential civil rights catastrophe that could occur under Trump, I’m most worried about the setback this represents to efforts to curb climate change; delays at this point could have disastrous consequences for billions of people and the planet.[1] Make no mistake, Superego, some bad things are coming down the pipeline.

I am a white guy, so I can only imagine the anxiety that many people of color, immigrants, American Indians, and women feel.

Incidentally, Superego, about 40% of working class folks are people of color. And, to all working class folks, including all those white ones that voted for Trump, I fear that most of Trump’s policies will set you back even further[2] – we’ve tried trickle down, but all that cash only tends to trickle up.

trump i don't want you

So, Id and Superego, we’re not moving to Canada – this isn’t a time for complacency. It’s a time to stand against terrible regressive ideas and policies. And it’s a time to redouble progressive efforts to stand with the working class and the poor and women and people of color and LGBT folks and immigrants and the environment and, yes, white guys.

What The Fuck Happened?

Id: I hate white people. Why are we so dumb? Why do we vote against our own fucking interests all the time, and then get mad when things don’t get better for us? Why do we think that anything that helps other groups is automatically bad for us? Hey, white trash redneck hillbillies, wake the fuck up and realize that Republicans tricked you into trading your livelihoods for automatic weapons without background checks. They are tricking you into thinking that the bad guys are immigrants and black people and brown people and women and gays and, yes, liberals, when really those are the people you should be in league with to fight the real bad guys: greedy regressive oligarchs… like Trump. I’m with Bill Maher: “White men [are] weeping like they just won some long, hard-fought civil rights battle: ‘Move over women and gays and minorities, it’s our turn now!’” Whatever happened to “Ask not what your country can do for you?”

White women, what the fuck?

And black people, did you not see this guy during the campaign?

This is the guy that continually turned away potential black tenants from his properties; now he’s hanging the “No Vacancy” sign on American prosperity. Where were you when it was time to vote? Milwaukee, if you had come out to vote like you did for Obama, Hillary would’ve won Wisconsin. Same deal in Michigan and Pennsylvania, which would’ve given her the election. And Latinos, remember this fun moment?

Yet about 30% of you voted for this guy.

orange trump

Well, at least we can say we now have our first Orange-American President

James Comey, what the fuck?

Electoral College, what the fuck?

The media is a giant pile of crap. While systematically dismantling the real change candidate, Bernie Sanders, in favor of their establishment darling, Hillary Clinton, they continually treated the Trump candidacy as a funny joke (but, hey, it was great for ratings):

Where was the substantive talk about the actual policies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? You know things are fucked when the most substantive debate was hosted by Fox. Actually looking at their policies might’ve revealed Trump as the snake oil salesman he is. Donald Trump won’t be able to bring back coal mining jobs and he won’t give a fuck about miners once they’re out of work – Hillary Clinton’s proposals would go a lot further toward helping those miners find new jobs (this is a real fucking plan – did you ever hear about it from the media?).

But, Hillary Clinton, you suck. You are uninspiring and you are too beholden to Wall Street and all those other establishment elites. Barack Obama, you suck too – why didn’t you fight harder for real universal health care and other progressive policies that would have done so much more to lift up America’s poor and working class families? When it comes to the working class and poor, Democratic policies from the Bill Clinton era to the Obama era were Republican Lite establishment blowjobs; would Clinton II have been any different? If we really wanted to blast the shit out of the glass ceiling, we needed a firebrand like Elizabeth Warren. Still, Hillary, you were a million times better than the orange hemorrhoid that now resides on our collective asshole. Fuck.

Superego: What is with all the fucking swearing, Id? You’re going to have an aneurysm. First, I think we need to have some empathy for white folks who feel like they haven’t been heard. Republicans have used them, and Democrats seem to have forgotten that they exist. Republicans realized in the 1960s that they were going to start losing the demographic battle for votes if they didn’t do something drastic. Starting with the Southern strategy, which stoked white resentment about black people gaining civil rights, Republicans began a movement that tied a number of social issues (the whole God/Guns/Gays thing) together with their economic policies that help only the wealthy elite. When these policies go into effect, they make conditions even worse for those at the bottom, which creates more resentment and, perversely, redounds to the benefit of Republican politicians.

Democrats, on the other hand, realized that the Republican strategy was starting to falter, because the demographics are changing: there are less white rural voters out there compared to the Democratic urban base. With that in mind, Democrats could just say “fuck ’em” regarding the white rural folks, since they didn’t really need their votes anyway. Meanwhile, Democrats got people of color and white liberals so locked up that they could, kind of like the Republicans (but not nearly as insidious), stop paying attention to many of their constituents’ wants and needs. Why should Democrats care about unions if they no longer need union voters? And as unions have waned, so too has the voice of Labor (in the form of campaign contributions). Democrats, who used to get much of their support from Labor and non-business interest groups, are increasingly being funded by the same big business that funds Republican campaigns.

Michael Lerner in a recent NY Times op-ed, said: “Democrats need to become as conscious and articulate about the suffering caused by classism as we are about other forms of suffering. We need to reach out to Trump voters in a spirit of empathy and contrition. Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.”

There are a lot of smart, hard-working white folks out there, but they no longer have a true champion in government. Admittedly, though, choosing Trump over even an establishment Democrat is like choosing to eat a dead rat you found in the street because you didn’t like the stale bread alternative.

Regarding voter turnout, you can’t blame it on African Americans. In conjunction with their Southern Strategy, Republican politicians have made a concerted effort to disenfranchise voters, culminating in the Supreme Court decision in 2013 that gutted the Voting Rights Act. Voter suppression is targeted at minorities and the poor, and gerrymandering has turned our country into a kaleidoscopic nightmare that favors Republicans in federal and state legislatures.[3] Voter fraud is statistically zero, but voter ID laws and the like that are purported to stop fraud instead end up disenfranchising hundreds of thousands. Yes, voters in Milwaukee didn’t come out like they did for Obama, but Wisconsin’s voter ID law had a lot to do with that. The huge voter suppression efforts of the last few decades, almost solely perpetrated by leaders on the right, will be seen by history as one of the most shamefully anti-democratic agendas of this era (second only to the unfettered access corporations and wealthy individuals have to buy our politicians). Shame on anyone who tries to silence the voice of the American people.

Ego: I hear you, Superego, and agree that Id needs to ease up on the vitriol. Do you think that calling white rural folks rednecks and hillbillies and white trash is a good way to convince them we’re on the same team? Personally, I’m going to put a moratorium on those words.[4] When it comes to poor white folks, liberals generally still find it acceptable to paint an entire group with the same brush. Yes, certain demographics may be more prone to misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, but we become classists if we accuse everybody in a certain group of those ills.

As near as I can tell, from reading lots and lots of articles, Hillary lost the election because of disaffected white people… or misogyny… or racism… or voter turnout… or the media… or conservatives without a conscience… or her own suckiness… or James Comey… or voter suppression… or the electoral college… or a repudiation of the establishment… or the Russians… or because Democrats suck… or because people want a Pussy Grabber in Chief…

trump grope

The Audacity of Grope

In truth, I think it’s some of all of the above (except for maybe the last thing). But I think the primary takeaway is that there were a lot of angry white voters out there who didn’t feel like they were being heard, and this was their Fuck You to the establishment. Thanks for your input, Id and Superego; I’ve taken that into account in coming up with this list of reasons that Donald Trump was elected our 45th president:

  1. Republicans Voted Republican: We can talk about all the things that tipped the scales this way or that way in the election, but the Republican base pretty much did what they always do, which is vote for a Republican.
  2. White Working Class Voters: In hundreds of counties throughout the so-called Rust Belt, white working class voters switched from Democrat to Republican between 2012 and 2016. trump vs romneyIn many of the rural midwestern counties that went more heavily for Trump, voter turnout was higher (a much higher proportion of nonvoters from 2012 became Trump voters in 2016). Previous nonvoter turnout for Trump, combined with hundreds of thousands switching parties, is, I think, the big story of the election. Some of this undoubtedly had to do with Trump’s message; Chris Offutt, in a recent Harper’s Article, wrote that Trump’s “real achievement is tapping into the frustration of people who feel ignored.” Another reason for the shift is the natural cycle of change – many of these people voted for change when they voted for Obama, and now they’re voting for change with Trump. And maybe part of the reason these people keep hoping for change is because they keep getting the shaft. Robert Reich argues that this vote was not a vote for hatefulness, but a vote to repudiate the American power structure. I largely agree, although I do believe that misogyny (and xenophobia and racism) played a role for many voters. But it’s hard to separate that from Hillary Clinton’s lack of engagement (how would Elizabeth Warren have fared with these voters?). To be sure, Clinton and the Democrats’ platform[5] is far more friendly to these voters than the Republican Platform. But lip service only goes so far, and there wasn’t even much of that from Democrats. Unions used to hold some authority with the white working class, so of course their votes went to the party that fought for workers. But unions aren’t what they used to be, and white workers sure don’t want to be told what to do by the urban liberal elite (which includes the mainstream media), who seem to ridicule them as bumpkins at every turn. To quote Chris Offutt again, on angry white rural voters: “The only good thing to come out of Trump’s candidacy may be an increased national awareness of this population.”[6]
  3. Voter Suppression: If the Voting Rights Act hadn’t been gutted, if Republican politicians hadn’t actively worked to deny people the right to vote, and if voting were easier, might the outcome have been different? We probably won’t know, but restrictive laws in some swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina deterred many potential voters.
  4. The Media: A lot of people are up in arms about how the polls flat out missed the mark. I’m less concerned about that and more concerned with the fact that, as Superego mentioned, the media forgot to cover the actual news; in an election, doesn’t the media have a responsibility to provide citizens with facts about the candidates and their stances so we can make an informed decision? That isn’t to say that information about a candidate’s temperament or personality or improprieties isn’t relevant, but it shouldn’t be the only thing on the table. That said, citizens also have a responsibility to inform themselves, and Facebook and Infowars (and Fox) might not be the best sources.
  5. The Electoral College: If Trump had won the popular vote and Clinton had won the Electoral College, guess who would be having a fit about the riggedness of the Electoral College? Trump and his supporters would be going batshit. Depending on which side you’re on, it doesn’t seem fair. But, the way things are going in places like Texas and Arizona, the Electoral College will soon be a huge boon to Democrats – what will Republicans do when not only New York and California and Illinois are solid blue, but Texas tips that way? I think the Electoral College is flawed, but what kind of unintended consequences would ensue under a popular vote? Wouldn’t the concerns of people in less populous states instantly be wiped out? I think we need to do some detailed analysis before we go there; maybe we need some sort of a hybrid system similar to the way Representatives are proportional to a state’s population but each state gets two Senators, no matter how small (the state, not the senator).
  6. Other Stuff: Maybe James Comey and the Russians and Wikileaks played a role in the outcome, but I think they’re far outweighed by the other issues listed above. Which isn’t to dismiss their actions out-of-hand.

What Now?

Id: Every day brings more revelations about how shitty this guy’s going to be. If his Cabinet picks are any indication, we’re in for a long ride on the Crazy Train. It’s a very diverse group: you’ve got your racists, your misogynists, your anti-semites, your nationalists… oh wait, that’s just Bannon… aside from him, you have your racists, your misogynists, your xenophobes, your nut jobs – altogether, a well-rounded group of old white guys.

What we have to do is what the Republicans do every time a Democrat gets in office: obstruct, delay, sabotage, cheat, lie, destroy by any means necessary.

No matter how good their policy is, we attack it. No matter how good their nominees are, we reject them (or refuse to hold hearings). Any chance we get, tie them up in legal red tape. Put a noose around Trump’s balls so tight that any move he makes is filled with excruciating pain. Make our whole country feel this pain to ensure they’re so sick of Trump after four years that they’re begging for change (literally and literally).

Another thing we can do is call Trump what he is: a shill. He’s a shill for moneyed interests, a shill for big oil. If we accuse him of that enough, his fragile psyche will react so defensively, he might even back off on some of his stances. “Don’t call me a shill, it hurts my feelings! Waaa, waaa.” Shill, baby, shill!

Superego: I agree that Trump’s picks thus far look pretty bad on paper, but again I think we need to give them a chance, wait and see what actions they take. I still have hope that the gravity of their positions will lead them to make much more rational decisions.

What would have happened if Clinton had won? The Democrats probably would have continued down the same establishment path, the anger would’ve continued to boil over in half the country (if they didn’t foment a coup in the meantime), and Paul Ryan would’ve become our next President in four years, bringing a plan that in some ways is more dangerous than Trump’s disjointed jackassery. Eight years of Ryan could have ushered in another major recession and might’ve tolled the death knell for measures to stop climate change. Maybe we’ll squeak through the Trump years without too much damage and we’ll end up with a true progressive to shine the light of never-ending prosperity on our beautiful country.

But if the Trump years do get pretty grim, at least it won’t affect me personally that much. I mean, maybe all those people that voted for him will get what they deserve.

Ego: That’s the kind of liberal elitism that alienates everybody outside of our bubble, Superego. What about all those people that didn’t vote for Trump that are going to be hurt immensely by his plans? What about the planet? And, even for those that did vote for him, we want their lives to be better, too. Going into a shell isn’t going to move us forward.

As for you, Id, you kind of sound like Trump (maybe he’s all id). What a cynical way to behave, to basically shut down government to the detriment of all, simply for political gain. What could be more unpatriotic? I’d go so far as to say it verges on being traitorous. That is truly going low, and that is not the path for progressives.

In fact, I think we need to come up with some new terminology here. We’ve mentioned the word regressive a few times. I’d like to distinguish between conservatives/Republicans and Regressives. I think it’s fair to say that most conservatives/Republicans want what they think is best for our country and the world. In contrast, Regressives want a world that is better for them personally, and if that gain is at the expense of the world as a whole, they’re OK with that. The average Republican voter is not a Regressive, but when it comes to their party, it has been hijacked by Regressives. Power and money corrupt, and although it may not be as overt as it is in some countries, corruption is rampant in Washington. Lest Democrats think they’re off the hook here, the Democratic Party is also being hijacked by Regressives, as money from greedy oligarchs pours in… oligarchs like Trump, for instance, as revealed in The National Review (not exactly a liberal rag). In fact, Trump even bragged about how he was able to buy politicians, outlined in another National Review article: “I give to everybody. When they call, I give.” Trump is, in fact, the quintessential Regressive – a guy that has always put himself first, ahead of other people, ahead of his country, ahead of the world. Will it be different now that he’s the head of the world?

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I think, in contrast to Regressive thinking, fundamentally most of us want a Progressive world – one where we have more opportunities, better schools, better health care, more security. We may differ on the best path forward, but we can mostly agree on where we want to go.

Regressives are like Sisyphus in reverse, rolling boulders down the hill, destroying whatever gets in the way. Regressives are masters of entropy, chaos. Sowing division and hate makes it easy to distract people from the path forward. It’s a lot harder to push that rock uphill, but that’s what Progressives do. Progressives can empathize with anger and fear, but don’t accept hate as the logical outcome to this anger and fear.

Id: If I could just interject, Ego, you’re getting a little platitudinous.

Ego: Sorry, the point is that most of us want the same things, so we should be able to form a broad coalition to fight against Regressive thinking. This coalition includes the poor, the entire working class (white, brown, black; women, men; immigrants, American-born), the middle class (who, incidentally, also work, right?), and anybody from the upper classes who isn’t solely interested in adding to their own wealth. It includes liberals and conservatives, urban elites and rural farmers, gay and straight and transgender folks, seniors and children, cowboys and Indians, homeless and blue bloods, cops and Crips, Muslims and Christians, atheists and Mormons, veterans and fraternity brothers, gun owners and kale shake drinkers, Packers fans and Bears fans.

Progressives need to stand up to Regressives in places like Standing Rock and Flint and Cleveland, but also in Appalachia and Mississippi and rural Michigan. We need to recognize that our systemic failures are affecting all Americans.

The “We” in We The People has never included all of us, but I think, now more than ever, we can all be We. One way to bring all these disparate groups together is by coalescing around the idea that we need to get money out of politics.

Follow The Money

Id: Lobbyist pigs in Washington are already jostling for room at the Trumpian slop trough. With Republicans in control of all three branches of government, this could represent a power grab by the moneyed elite such that we’ve never seen before. The pigs will rejoice with the foxes, who Trump will appoint to guard the henhouse. It’s always good to have the guardians of our democracy come from the very industry they’re supposed to be regulating: “Let’s see, head of the EPA, how about a good strong oil man who doesn’t believe in climate change? For the SEC, how about one of those old fuckers from the banking industry who thought sub-prime mortgages were a good idea?” Yes, our henhouse will be well-guarded – and guess who the hens are?

Superego: Hold on, Id, in Trump’s 100-day plan, he talks about cleaning up some of this lobbying mess. Trump, despite having utilized the system to his advantage, recognizes that it is flawed. Members and candidates for Congress spend 30-70% of their time raising money. Less than .03% of Americans gave the maximum contribution to candidates in 2012. Almost half the money donated to presidential candidates in 2016 came from 158 families (138 of whom support Republicans). The Koch brothers alone promised to spend $900 million on the 2016 election.

Ego: In 2016, Clinton actually raised a shit-ton more money than Trump did.[7] But overall, most business funding goes to Republicans. What can we do about it? Trump has discussed “draining the swamp” in Washington, so changing lobbying and campaign finance rules may be one area where Progressives could make some inroads under a Trump administration. We should support Trump’s proposals to limit lobbying, and push for even stricter limits. Progressives can also fight to overturn Citizens United and Buckley v. Valeo, two Supreme Court decisions that have allowed corporate money to influence our elections. Given that many of his primary opponents, as well as Hillary Clinton, received much more of this outside money than he did, Trump may be amenable to changing the system. One proposal that could have an impact is the Government by the People Act, which could effectively close some corporate tax loopholes. Need some more motivation about changing our corrupt system? Watch this:

If we want a system that benefits 300 million-plus people, we can’t let 158 of them decide who will represent us.

Make America Great

Ego: When was America Great? Nobody really thought to ask Donald Trump this question, or what this Greatness entailed. My theory is that, for Trump and his followers, the post-World War II era was when America was Great. Income inequality was relatively low, prosperity seemed imminently attainable, and white Americans felt safe and secure. Then came all the unruliness of Civil Rights and Vietnam War protesters and scary naked hippies dancing in the mud. The world became a much more complicated place when, on paper at least, everybody was supposed to have equal opportunity. Meanwhile, in the background, more and more of the wealth created was flowing to those at the top.

The myth of this golden era is that America was Great for everyone. In most ways for most people, it’s better today than it was in 1950. We are the wealthiest nation in the world, but that prosperity isn’t accruing to everyone, and by many metrics (income and wealth inequality, health, education, poverty, life satisfaction) we are falling behind much of the developed (and in some cases, developing) world. As the wealthiest nation, shouldn’t we be leading the world in most of these areas? Shouldn’t we be showing the rest of the world the way forward?

If Donald Trump really wants to fix America, he needs to move our government toward a system that is not beholden to the wealthy few, and invests in equal opportunity for all. He needs to recognize that division and hatred aren’t the way forward. I don’t have high hopes that he will suddenly have this revelation. But I do believe that We The People will continue to recognize more and more that together we can all prosper.

Id: Kind of cheesy, Ego, but hear! hear!

Superegosigh

love trumps hate

 

[1]If nothing else, maybe Trump will realize that climate change is going to affect him personally, since his Mar-a-Lago resort is likely to be inundated by rising sea levels if he doesn’t continue efforts to curb climate change. My last post, though, was about how the new president needs to be open to science – Trump is anything but. [Back]

[2]According to Wall Street executive Steven Rattner, if Trump “follows through on his ideas, we could face higher prices on imported goods, rising interest rates, substantial inflation and a further shift of wealth to the upper classes.”

According to the Tax Policy Center, Trump’s tax cuts would go primarily to those at the top. By 2025, the bottom 20% would see 0.8% of the tax cuts, or about $120, whereas the top 20% would see 82.8% of the tax cuts, or about $24,440. Within the top 20%, the top 1% would get 50.8% of the tax cut ($317,100 each) and the top 0.1% would get 24.5% of the tax cut (almost $1.5 million each). Trump’s tax cuts would also precipitate a ballooning national debt, adding almost $1.5 trillion to our current debt by 2025 – now that’s fiscal conservatism for you. Finally, by doing away with many of the regulations that protect non-elite Americans and the environment, there’s a good chance Trump will usher in another Bushian recession (remember that, remember when Bush did all the tax cutting and all the war spending and all the deregulating that brought us the Great Recession, the one that put all those people out of work, the one that made all those poor out-of-work white people angry and scared, scared enough to vote for a crazy person who will make their lives even worse?). [Back]

[3]In encouraging news, a panel of federal judges recently found Wisconsin’s 2011 redistricting unconstitutional. In a measure of how bad it is there, in 2012 Wisconsin Republicans won 48.6% of the vote, but ended up taking 61% of Assembly seats. Using a new measure called the efficiency gap, it is now fairly straightforward to see the level of gerrymandering. If the Supreme Court upholds this ruling, it could spell the end of partisan gerrymandering. In fact, when districts are redrawn in 2021, they should be required to use the efficiency gap metric to ensure fairness. [Back]

[4]Really, I’m going to banish those words from my lexicon. There’s no utility to calling a whole group of people something derogatory. If an individual is racist or misogynist or ignorant, I’ll call them out on that. [Back]

[5]Note that the first item of the Democratic Platform is raising workers’ wages. The Republican Platform, in contrast, begins with a vague idea of creating jobs that seems to rely primarily on the premise that people just need to work harder. [Back]

[6]This article provides more in-depth analysis on why white voters are leaving the Democratic Party. [Back]

[7]According to Open Secrets, the total amount raised by presidential candidates was $1.3 billion. Of this, Hillary Clinton raised $687.3 million ($497.8 directly to her campaign plus $189.5 million to outside groups supporting her), and Donald Trump raised $306.9 million ($247.5 million for his campaign plus $59.4 million to outside groups). Clinton raised more money from almost all industry sectors than Trump, as well as from Labor and Single Issue groups. Notably, though, Republican presidential candidates as a whole (Trump and the primary candidates) dominated fundraising from most business sectors, whereas Democrats received the majority of funding from Communications/Electronics, Defense, Health, Lawyer/Lobbyists, Labor, and Ideology/Single Issue groups. [Back]

Scientific Policy

science president

One of these guys is doing his own thing (i.e. ignoring facts and science) – OK, maybe two of these guys are…

What kind of world would we live in if politics were largely guided by science rather than greed or special interests? Under new prime minister Justin Trudeau, Canada is revamping its environmental policy to “ensure that decisions on major projects are based on science, facts, and evidence.” Funny that this is, in the words of Science magazine, likely to fuel fierce debate: “What’s with all the facts and science when we’re trying to make policy decisions, eh?”

In the U.S., where money is far more entrenched in politics than it is for our friendly northern neighbors, facts often take a back seat to feelings. If you believe something enough, it must be true. John Oliver thought this was the main theme of the Republican Convention in July.

Facts, science, and knowledge are routinely ridiculed on the far right. Which isn’t to say that people on the left don’t fall victim to fantastic thinking as well. But in order to push a conservative agenda that is almost entirely beholden to big-money special interests and in no way helps the vast majority of those whose votes they need, the conservative demagogues must push an agenda that requires the suspension of disbelief.

It is one week from the U.S. presidential election, and Science magazine has compiled a list of six areas of science in which the new president will need to be well-versed in order to lead our country down the right path.

  1. Pathogens: In the U.S., 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections. Globally, drug resistance is increasing for a number of deadly diseases. And new pathogens have the potential to reach epidemic or even pandemic proportions. Policy needs to fund tracking and safe research on these pathogens, fund new drugs and approaches to combat them (these drugs are not very lucrative, so free-market capitalism will not fill the void), and regulate the overuse of antibiotics that leads to resistance.
  2. Gene Editing: Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – that’s what it’s all about. CRISPR, as it’s called (because nobody can remember what it stands for (I will forget by the end of this paragraph)), is a new innovation for editing genes that has vast implications, from creating higher yielding crops to combating genetic diseases to resurrecting extinct animals to making super-human genetic freaks that can fly and breathe underwater. Regulations will be needed to harness what is allowed, both ethically and pragmatically (e.g., curtailing the production of flying humans). And funding will be needed to realize the enormous potential of this technology. Imagine a world without cystic fibrosis and other genetic diseases.
  3. Sea Level Rise: I know I’m not supposed to call climate change deniers idiots (because they will stop listening to me), but can I call them something more endearing, like nincompoops? Climate change isn’t theoretical; it’s here. Sea level has already risen a few inches in the last two decades, and if current emissions trends continue, it could rise another couple feet or more by century’s end. In the U.S., the rate of sea level rise on the East Coast is double the average. This is already threatening communities and ecosystems. Globally, displacement from sea level rise will lead to civil unrest and increased immigration (we will have a lot more wall-building to do to keep these tired, poor, huddled masses from breathing free on our shores*). If a president refuses to believe in climate change, will he also refuse to believe it when his people are being inundated by yet another flood? Policy-wise, we need a president who will act globally for prevention and locally for mitigation. The president will need to act to strengthen climate agreements like the Paris Agreement (not “cancel” it), while simultaneously coordinating and funding local and regional efforts to mitigate the effects of rising sea levels.
  4. Brain Health: Most of us use our brains a fair amount, so it’s a tragedy when they’re affected by things like autism, mental illness, and dementia. In 2016, treatment for people with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia cost $236 billion, two-thirds of which was paid for by government health programs. Mental illness is a major factor in homelessness, drug addiction, and crime. One in 68 kids has autism, which costs an average of $60,000 per family per year (which, if my math is correct, means families spend over $65 billion per year in the U.S. on autism). In short, hundreds of billions of dollars is spent on treatment, law enforcement, prison, and other programs each year because of problems with people’s brains. This doesn’t even take into account all the suffering and lost productivity because of these issues. So putting more funding into understanding the causes of brain maladies could ultimately lead to cures that enrich our whole society immensely (or should I say “bigly”?). Many brain diseases also have a genetic component, so, using CRISPR, we may one day stop them before they start.
  5. Artificial Intelligence: Advances in AI, and technology in general, are moving so fast these days that it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on. As someone who worked in the electric vehicle industry for a few years beginning in 2008, I witnessed firsthand the dizzying rise of battery technology. In addition to electric vehicles and lithium batteries, solar power has undergone amazing innovation and price drops, and LED lights have revolutionized that field. Self-driving cars and trucks are here now, and will soon be much more widespread. More automation in production has already led to increased productivity (far outpacing the rise in workers’ wages) and the loss of many jobs; as this automation increases, many workers will become more and more obsolete. And, if many of the smartest people in the world are to be believed, artificial intelligence will soon reach a point where computers are much much smarter than humans, which has the potential for unlimited unintended consequences (for a fun, and slightly terrifying, disquisition on this, see Wait But Why’s post “The AI Revolution”). So, the next president will have to be adaptable and willing to listen to a team of nerds that can keep her apprised of what’s going on in the tech world. As innovation effects rapid change, policy will have to keep up to avoid becoming outdated. What will we do when much of our workforce is replaced by machines? As production increases due to automation, most of the extra rewards flow to the owners of production, and this trickle up economy has already begun to increase inequality in the U.S. One way to stem this is to tax the beneficiaries of this automation so that we can spread the bounty among the general population; some have even proposed a universal basic income of, say, $1000 a month, which would allow people to pursue their interests rather than driving a Budweiser truck around the country (see self-driving truck above).**
  6. Gut Instinct: And this is kind of what this whole post is about. Our guts are often not the best place to do our thinking (even if they do have some neurons). We often miss when we shoot from the hip. Risk assessment isn’t about how you feel, it’s about what actually is. For example, immigrants pose very little, if any, risk to American jobs. Violent crime is down significantly over the past 20 years. Terrorism deaths are a tiny fraction of those due to heart disease. We may feel that immigrants and violent criminals and terrorists pose an increasing risk, but the fact is there are other concerns that are much more pressing; which isn’t to say that immigration and violent crime and terrorism shouldn’t be addressed at all, but we should address issues based on actual risks. If special interest groups and their puppet politicians do enough fear mongering about smaller issues (or non-issues), it’s easier to dupe people into ignoring the giant, flatulent elephants in the room: elephants with names like climate change and big money that have major negative impacts on public health, happiness, and the environment.

One picture that emerges here is that we need BIG government – we need big government because we need an institution that coordinates massive efforts. We need to pool our money to invest in things that don’t fit in to the supply-and-demand scheme of free-market capitalism (hey, maybe we could call this pooling of money “taxation”). We need smart regulation because, without it, laissez-faire might as well mean “let us be assholes.”

Looking at the list above, which of our presidential candidates is least likely to turn the Oval Office into an utter shit show***? Of course, science can’t answer all our ethical questions. But being armed with facts helps guide us as we make ethical decisions that lead to policy. If we know the direction we want to go (a cleaner environment, a healthier society, more freedom, more prosperity, fewer abortions, less violence, happier people, a Greater America), applying science and knowledge is the best way to help us get there.

 

*To continue the metaphor from The New Colossus sonnet that graces the Statue of Liberty, many of these people will be literally “tempest-tost” from their homes. Rather than raising a lamp to them, too many of us want to get out the torches and pitchforks.

**To many, this will sound far-fetched, but in a way it’s not unprecedented. If we think of technology as a resource that belongs to us all, it could be compared to a physical resource, like oil, that exists in the ground beneath our feet. When we tap it and sell it, the profits can be shared. This has been occurring for decades in Alaska, as Alaskans receive distributions each year for their shared oil riches. And this is why Alaskans are of course so sympathetic to socialist and left-wing politicians like Sarah Palin and Don Young (bunch o’ commies!).

***Many of you will be reading this after the election has taken place, so perhaps the shit show is already underway? [Update 11/10/16: The shit show is underway]

Poppa’s Internet Fuckwad Theory

There’s a popular equation about internet trolling called the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT):

general internet fuckwad theory

 

I like the sentiment of this theory, but I think it’s missing a wee little detail. You see, before Al Gore invented the internet* there were these things called bathroom stalls, and that’s where trolls used to find release (sometimes literally) before the internet. I conducted an informal study of bathroom stall walls for a few years in the 1990s. One of my findings was that swastikas and KKK scratchings were rampant, not to mention a scourge of other racist and misogynist and homophobic drivel (along with pictures of penises). Now, if we go back to the Fuckwad Theory, it posits that the spewers of this fuckwaddery are otherwise normal people. Really? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had the urge to bust out the Sharpie and draw a swastika while my cheeks are a-flexin’.

Of course, swastikas and KKKs are pretty extreme and hateful examples but, in a way, that’s the point. Trolls can be incredibly hateful, urging people to kill themselves, laughing at people who have killed themselves, telling people they deserved to be raped. There is no “normal” there – there is something quite abnormal about someone who posts “She wasn’t bullied for being a rape victim, she was bullied for being a slut, which she was” on the Facebook memorial page of a girl who hanged herself after a picture of her being gang raped was posted online.**

As with many things, there’s a trolling continuum. The above example is at one extreme. At the other end, trolling may even be mildly funny at times. But mostly it just detracts from what could be meaningful discussion and information on the internet.

I would guess that the vast majority of internet users are interested in having a civilized discussion about topics,*** but a small minority of trolls can quickly disrupt that. So here’s Poppa’s Internet Fuckwad Theory:

poppas internet fuckwad theory

Now I’m going to delve into some wild speculation to complete my thesis. Most, but not all, of these Fuckwads are dudes. As with our theory of assholery, men are the worst perpetrators of antagonism toward other humans. Humans are products of evolution, and men are particularly predisposed to aggressive competition for mates. My cousin once laughed at me when he noticed that I lowered my voice while speaking with a Blockbuster employee (Blockbuster was a store where you could rent these things called DVDs to watch movies). Why did I do that? Was the skinny pimply kid at the Blockbuster counter a threat to my manhood, a competitor in the primeval desire for a cavewoman? Maybe all our testosterone predisposes us dudes to more aggressive behavior, including writing “Fucking gay!!!” in the YouTube comments section.

But we are not just products of evolution; we’re also products of our environment. There aren’t a lot of great data on trolls, but many speculate that trolls are often products of fairly shitty environments. In general they may be more lonely, depressed, angry, wary, repressed, and have lower self-esteem. Which isn’t to excuse their behavior. If they had read Climbing the Totem Pole of Magnanimity, they would realize that sowing hatred does not actually make one feel better, and that, no matter your circumstance, you can always try not to be a dick (Wheaton’s Law).

In a societal sense, a society that fosters creativity, critical thinking, and civil discussion will harbor less trolls under its collective bridge. A society that builds community, broadens equality, and promotes a sense of civic duty will be riddled with fewer fuckwads.

But until that utopia unfolds, what are some practical means to curb internet hate and drivel? I think it comes down to the owners of sites (from the big players like YouTube to the news outlets to individual bloggers) to come up with policies that work for their users. Some people recommend getting rid of anonymity for commenters.

Personally, I like the idea of having a moderator for comments, separating the wheat from the chaff. That may not be practical for sites and videos that receive thousands of comments, but the New York Times seems to do a decent job. Moderating comments can also be crowdsourced. If enough people mark a comment as bullshit, it gets removed. If a particular fuckwad keeps trying to spread his bullshit on a particular site, he gets banned from commenting. Having a good commenting policy also helps.

YouTube is particularly debased when it comes to the comments section. Imagine if the Harper’s magazine letters section were like YouTube. Instead of “As Cockburn demonstrates, fundraising takes up an enormous amount of a candidate’s time…” you might have “Cockmonster!!!”

But as an owner of a blog and a YouTube channel, I have the option to moderate the comments that are displayed, and I do. Most of the comments (after weeding out spam, which YouTube does automatically) are constructive or encouraging, but some are just useless, so they go in the trash bin. One guy, after watching my concrete sink video, said that if he were in my house, he would have to bite his tongue to avoid saying how crappy my sink looks. Well, you are in my house when you’re on my channel, so bite your tongue. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t publish any kind of criticism, but it has to be constructive.

My buddy Mr. Money Mustache, who has a blog with millions of followers, put it this way to a rude commenter:

You’re right that I did ban you from future commenting, and here’s why. The blog is not a public space, it’s my living room. People are there to be entertained, and if I’m lucky, occasionally learn something. But in this case, you barged into my living room and started being a big fucking asshole.

I recently posted on the site of another blogger friend, Mr. 1500 Days, and his commenters must be some of the pleasantest people on the planet. But even Mr. 1500 gets occasional dipshit comments (“U R COCKMASTER!”), which he promptly flushes down the toilet.

Ultimately, there are companies or institutions or individuals who run websites, and it’s up to them how they want those sites to be perceived. Troll-filled sites take on the taint that their trolls tarnish them with. A little vigilance from the people who run websites will go a long way toward vanquishing trolls and providing a better service for all internet users.

And, lest you get the feeling that the world is full of bad guys, I’ll leave you with a take from John Oliver, one of the best guys in the world (if nothing else, forward to the parody of a 1995 AOL ad at about 14:40):

 

*Poor Gore got excoriated for this nonexistent claim, when in fact he was largely responsible for facilitating the unveiling of the internet.

**And women seem to be especially targeted by (mostly) male fuckwads, as is poignantly brought home in this YouTube vid about what some female ESPN reporters have experienced. Scrolling through the comments of the video, you can see that the fuckwads are out in full force.

***Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be a place for humorous irreverence (see every post on this blog).

Intentional Encumbrance

scottish bridgeThe last time I wrote a post, I was getting ready to embark on an 11-day trip to Scotland to film a movie with my brother and a friend. As it turns out, shooting a feature-length film in 11 days in a foreign land is challenging. But it was also an incredible experience, which I’ll document in greater detail in a future post. Now we can look forward to months of post-production – hopefully we’ll have a viewable film sometime in 2016.

Meanwhile, back in Longmont, the casket and painting businesses, along with a plethora of other projects and ventures, have kept me busy. At the moment, I feel like I’ve got a few too many plates spinning, on top of all those irons that are overheating in the fire – maybe I can’t see because of the various hats adorning my noggin.

Here’s a synopsis of some of the projects and endeavors I’ve been involved with:

  • I sold a rental condo in Fort Collins in July. To complete a 1031 exchange, I had to have a new property picked out by mid-August. A week before the deadline, I found this place:
    atwoodAfter years of neglect, this old house (built in 1890) needs a fair amount of work. The original plan was to do a bit of cosmetic fixing up, but that quickly evolved into rewiring the whole house, replacing the furnace and adding new ducting,* redoing the bathrooms and kitchen, and ripping out a few walls – and that’s just the inside. So it looks like I’ll be busy with this for a few months. I love the place, and I hope to document some of the changes we’re making in a future post.
  • Along with a couple high school friends, I started a t-shirt biz, Cheesy or Die. We’re still in the throes of working on designs, tightening up the website, finding the correct platform for selling our schwag, marketing, and hopefully ensuring we don’t get sued or end up in jail for copyright infringement or slander or counterfeiting.**
  • A year ago, I wrote a post about practicing unhygiene, in which I posited the idea that I might spend some time taking dirt showers. Well, I did just that for a week in September, much to my wife’s chagrin.*** dirt showerAnd, to stamp some officialdom on this project, I took DNA samples of the microbiota of my pits before and after the dirt showers, as well as of the dirt I used – results will be forthcoming in the next year or so (they’re a bit backed up at the gut microbiota lab – speaking of which, my gut microbiota results are in (future post)). Preliminary results: I didn’t stink too much, my hair didn’t get greasy, I didn’t die of some strange amoebic infection or leishmaniasis.
  • In addition to those fun projects and the painting and casket businesses, my old knees are well enough that I’ve begun playing indoor soccer again, as well as helping to coach my son’s team. I’m also working to keep my cricket and mealworm farms alive in the basement for future consumption, and I’m still selling occasional Simple Brew Kits (in fact, I have to get one shipped this morning). Even the old greeting card business brought in an order for 500 cards this week.
  • In addition to this blog and post-production work on the film, I’ve had to move a few other projects to the back burner. I was hoping to get my golf game closer to bogey golf by the end of the year. Well, I haven’t been able to get out very much, and it showed when I busted out something around the mid-100s at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin last weekend (I did a little better at a much easier course in Green Bay). So next year is the year I shoot for bogey golf. I had also hoped to achieve the fairly modest goal of benching 225 by the end of the year. I’m still going to give it a rip, but considering that I haven’t lifted since pre-Scotland, it could be a dicey proposition. Maybe I need to bring the weight bench to the remodel project.

To a certain degree, I’ve fallen victim to one of the pitfalls of eclecticism: the triage protocol is in effect, and this blog was one of the casualties (but maybe a few pounds on the chest can get its heart ticking again).**** I like being busy, but when one suddenly realizes one has forgotten to breathe for a while, one may need to slow it down a bit. Eclectics have a tendency to intentionally encumber ourselves, but it’s important to find some balance in how many projects we take on. Yes, this is absolutely a Rich Person Problem – I’m grateful that I have all these opportunities available to me.

Still, I’d like to have less plates spinning next year. I’d like 2016 to be the year of the rose, where I’ll have enough time to smell those proverbial flowers. Of course, too much time among the flowers can have an opiate effect; there’s still shit to be done, hopefully just less of it. Maybe 2016 can be the year of the rose, and some shit. In 2016, I can tie up some loose ends on the homefront, smell the roses, finish the film project, smell some more roses, write more posts, roses, focus on a few art projects, roses, think a little more globally, and of course spend more time with my family.*****

 

*None of the bedrooms have heat – apparently back in the old days, people shivered themselves to sleep.

**Part of our marketing strategy involved getting a group of Madison East Class of 90 brothers to join us at Lambeau to watch the Packers take on the Rams – we enlisted our fellow Purgolders (yes, I know, it was a pretty lame mascot) to wear our shirts and make it rain by passing out Packer Bucks:
Packer Buck

 

 

 

***I think I’m going to make a post category called “Much To My Wife’s Chagrin.” Then again, pretty much every post would be in it.

****In fact, the blog has been in an induced coma. I’ve still been feeding it new info for future posts – it just hasn’t had any outward signs of life.

*****Speaking of family, it turns out my daughter is a burgeoning eclectic herself. She has projects scattered about the house. And she even wanted to build a playhouse the other day – I told her she couldn’t even put the damn tent together (she left it strewn across the basement for me to clean up), so she’s got some work to do before she’s ready to start building a playhouse. I did teach her how to use the dremel, though, and she’s been busy carving things in wood. She is currently clandestinely filming me writing this post.

Check Yourself

good mood

I’m outside, I’m with my brother, I’m drinking booze, it’s evening: I must be Happy!

2014 was the year of self-tracking for me. I created a mood tracking spreadsheet (download it for free), to which I also added my data from MyFitnessPal. Now the results are in, and what they reveal will shock you (not so much).

The primary purpose of building my mood tracking contraption was to see which variables in my life have the largest effect on my mood, happiness, energy, creativity, stress, grumpiness, day-to-day satisfaction, and life satisfaction (we’ll call these the affects, in the psychological sense). Some of the variables I looked at were food, booze, sleep, activity, time outside, weather, season, money stress, and family time.

There was a time when I used to be able to do some simple statistical analyses, but those days are (thankfully) gone.* So in this case, I plotted some of my variables versus certain affects and looked at the trendlines for simple correlations.

Results
Happiness, day-to-day satisfaction, and mood were strongly correlated, possibly because I didn’t do a very good job of distinguishing between them. Thus, the results were similar for all three, so I lumped them together under “mood” below. Note that all results are correlations, so the variables aren’t necessarily causal – although they could be.

  • my mood (and happiness and day-to-day satisfaction) gets slightly worse the more I weigh (I fluctuated from the low 160s to the low 180s), with more tv, and with more driving
  • my mood is worse with more sleep and more stress (go figure)
  • my mood is not changed with strength training, on vacation, and with different forms of work
  • my mood improves slightly with more family time, new activities, and more booze
  • my mood improves with more cardio exercise, golf, more time outside, and more food
  • my mood gets better as the day goes on
  • my mood is best in the spring and fall, and worst in the winter
  • my creativity decreases with booze, time spent outside, more driving time, and more tv time
  • my creativity increases slightly with more sleep and more calories
  • I’m most creative in the winter
  • I have slightly less energy with more calories
  • I have less energy the more I weigh and the more tv I watch (or, more likely, I watch more tv when I have less energy)
  • I have more energy in the spring and fall
  • I had 10 moments of feeling bliss/euphoria over the course of the year
  • My life satisfaction was very steady

The design of my mood tracking spreadsheet is pretty rudimentary, and there are endless areas for improvement (go ahead and add your own tweaks to make it better, and share it with the group). Nonetheless, it was a good tool for me to learn more about how I operate.

Over the years, in conjunction with less valleys, the peaks in my mood aren’t as lofty, kind of like an attenuating sine wave:

attenuating sine wave

 

 

 

 

Maybe in exchange for more stability, one sacrifices the intensity of one’s moods, both on the down- and upsides. Maybe in my more volatile days I felt a greater sense of relief after being in those deeper valleys, resulting in a more intense joy and excitement about having left the valley.

Lessons
So what did I learn from The Year of Tracking?

  1. Tracking oneself is onerous. Overmonitoring and spending too much time trying to be perfect can also cause stress. It’s been a few months since I stopped tracking stuff, and now that I’m just L-I-V-I-N,** I generally feel more relaxed and, well, happy – albeit fatter…
  2. Tracking my food intake does help me lose weight. Tracking can help one be more disciplined.
  3. Tracking teaches one certain things that can be carried beyond tracking. Because I’m more attuned to many of the variables that affect my mood, I probably do a better job now of avoiding negative actions and doing more positive things (without obsessing about them).
  4. Overmonitoring oneself and obsessing about one’s every action can be somewhat self-centered. Worrying about tiny fluctuations in one’s mood is a Rich Person Problem. Self-improvement is fine, as long as it’s a vehicle for virtue.
  5. Stress can be a good thing. Some of the day-to-day stress I experience (solving a difficult work problem, putting in a physically exhausting day, cleaning roots and shit out of a tenant’s backed up sewer, writing a time-consuming post) leads to highly rewarding feelings (and higher peaks on the old sine curve).
  6. Although not having enough food or sleep affects my mood, stressors like money, conflict, and other real-life issues ultimately have a more pronounced and lasting impact on my mood.***

In fact, a 2010 paper by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton indicates that the less one’s household income is, below about $75,000/year, the more money stress exacerbates other issues, and affects one’s happiness (or emotional well-being, as the authors call it). Above the $75,000 threshold, people generally don’t experience greater happiness. But people’s life evaluation (similar to what I call life satisfaction here and fulfillment in other posts), continues to rise with household incomes above $75,000. Certainly this varies with different circumstances in different households, but it’s an indication that money woes may be one of the primary issues affecting people’s happiness.

So it’s as simple as making $75,000 a year to be happy, right? Or maybe it’s about learning to live a more frugal and less consumer lifestyle to avoid the stress associated with living on less than $75,000 (this guy did it on $7000 a year). Probably it’s some of both: paying people a living wage while simultaneously working toward a less consumerist society.

Beyond the obvious stresses associated with money, doing a little tracking to figure out which variables most affect your mood can be a growth exercise. Download the spreadsheet, tweak it to fit your needs, and let us know what you come up with.

 

*If there’s somebody out there who loves to play around with SAS and wants to do a real analysis of my data, let me know.

**This is Wooderson’s sage advice, coming from a twentysomething-year-old guy who still hangs out with high schoolers (“I get older, they stay the same age”). If the sequel to Dazed and ConfusedDallas Buyers Club, is any indication, Wooderson’s advice didn’t pan out too well (Leto’s really good as Slater, though).

***And of course genetics plays a role in our moods, too.

You Are What You Say

How much does language shape culture? Does English lead to more efficiency because of how precise it can be (with, by some estimates, more than twice as many words as the next verbose language)? Or does English delay learning because of its Byzantine and vermicular rules?* Is Spanish the opposite because of its relatively straightforward structure?

Of course there’s some chicken and egg stuff going on here. Culture undoubtedly shapes language, which then in turn shapes culture – if you live in an area with lots of snow, you may need a few more words for snow, and if you have a few more words for snow, you may have a better grasp of how snow works.

According to a new study, language has a built-in positivity bias, meaning we have a tendency to remember things in a positive light and this is reflected in our language having more words with positive associations. And different languages have different degrees of positivity bias, with Spanish coming out on top (at least in the ten languages the study examined). It’s yet to be determined whether this actually has an impact on happiness.

Interestingly, this study is another example where broad scale crowdsourcing can lead to previously unstudyable (there’s gotta be a word for that – it’s English) variables; the internet continues to weave its magic in unforeseeable ways.

Another recent study purports to show that one’s language does influence how one perceives the world. I wonder if anybody’s tried to tease out how much of this is cultural by studying how different cultures that speak the same language differ compared with two cultures sharing another language. For example, are there certain ways of perceiving the world that the French-speaking inhabitants of Saint-Martin share with people from France that differ from those that Dutch-speaking inhabitants of Sint Maarten (same island) share with people from the Netherlands?

 

*How many ways are there to pronounce “ough”? Tough, cough, through, thought, drought…

Reflux Redux

It appears the folks at the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have been frequenting Poppa’s Cottage, and taking our advice to heart (so to speak). Their new guidelines have finally eased some of the former restrictions on fat and cholesterol, and have more harshly implicated simple carbs and sugar (a.k.a. yayo) in our growing (literally) health issues. Incredibly, we Americans average 22-30 teaspoons of sugar a day, half of which comes from soda and other sugary drinks (yes, juice is one of them). These guys are saying we need to cut it down to 12 teaspoons or less – hey, it’s a start.

The new guidelines may not be perfect (sat fat probably still gets too much of a bum rap), but they’re moving in the right direction. In shaping our schools’ menus, these guidelines will begin to undo decades of devastating advice to move to lower fat diets – which led to people eating more refined carbs, which is a big reason for our obesity epidemic. Now we have to prepare for the Attack of the Sugar Lobbyists: Mountain Dew, it’s not just for breakfast anymore.*

 

*Holy shit, I just made this up, but apparently Mountain Dew beat me to the punch with their breakfast drink, KickStart (a.k.a. death in a can).

Tabula Plena

Blank Slate“I think we have reason to believe that the mind is equipped with a battery of emotions, drives, and faculties for reasoning and communicating, and that they have a common logic across cultures, are difficult to erase or redesign from scratch, were shaped by natural selection acting over the course of human evolution, and owe some of their basic design (and some of their variation) to information in the genome.” -Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s slate has a lot more written on it than most of our slates do – his tabula is far from rasa. That’s part of the reason I racked up some library late fees when I checked out The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. I’ve been arguing the importance of human nature for years with anybody who seems to lean too heavily on the pillar of nurture (gender is just cultural, we’re all born with equal capacity to be smart, anybody could beat Usain Bolt if they just tried harder). Unfortunately my ability at persuasion was generally lacking, and most of these debates would end with that incontrovertible forensic coup de grâce: “Because… because I said so.” Along comes Steven Pinker and The Blank Slate, with some actual evidence for the importance of human nature; lots and lots of evidence, which meant I took lots and lots of notes (32 pages, and I write small), which meant I needed the book for a few extra days (sorry, Longmont Library).

It’s a thick book, so here are the Cliff Notes of the Cliff Notes:

No matter how much nurture you give your child, he or she will not become the next Shaquille O’Neal.*

Put another way:

Our brains, just like the rest of our bodies, are evolutionarily adapted – pre-wired – to help us survive and thrive. This doesn’t mean that who we will become is completely predetermined – natural selection also built some plasticity into our brains. It also doesn’t mean that, just because we’re all born with different capacities, we are not equal as human beings.

As my daughter would say, “Guhdoy!” Isn’t this, or shouldn’t it be, obvious? We are incredibly complex machines, shaped by random trial and error to fit into our environment. And we come in innumerable genetically programmed shapes and sizes. Why should our brains be any different?

I like to think of each human trait as falling along a continuum. According to our genetic programming, each of us has a certain range along that continuum where a trait may be expressed. The range is determined by our genes, but where we fall within that range is determined by the environment. Some traits have more plasticity – with a larger range on the continuum – than others, and thus the environment (nurture) has more of an effect. The totality of our traits, programmed by our genes but precisely honed by our environment, is known as our phenotype.

Here are a few examples:

Height Continuum

Introvert Extrovert Continuum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hirsute Continuum

 

 

 

 

 

 

If it’s fairly intuitive that we come pre-programmed with various differences in our appearances, why is there so much resistance to the idea that our brains are also innately variable? Pinker thinks the culprit is an over-correction; in centuries past in much of Western society, the aristocracy upheld a caste system that predetermined your rank (and worth) – with slavery at the extreme. John Locke and others combatted this idea with the notion that we are all born equal, with Blank Slates for minds. This notion may have served to implant the idea that things like noble birth and slavery might not be all they were cracked up to be. But in the 19th, 20th, and even 21st centuries, Pinker says, social scientists took the Blank Slate as manifest, insisting that we are purely creatures of socialization (I suspect that Pinker employs the straw man here, and a bit throughout the book). He goes on to cite various examples of social scientists, anthropologists, and biologists trying to fit square pegs into the round hole that is the Blank Slate. Newer disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology have provided proof that there is no Blank Slate, thus nicking some corners into that round hole – and now the peg fits a lot better.

In addition to the Blank Slate, Pinker cites the associated fallacies of the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. The idea of the Noble Savage is that pre-industrial societies were generally peace-loving, harmonious cultures. In fact, Pinker notes, violence and warfare are virtually universal among cultures. In Western society, murder rates have dropped ten- to a hundredfold in the last millennium (in pre-state societies 10-60% of men were killed by other men). Violence, especially in men,** is an evolutionary adaptation – part of survival is protecting your resources in uncertain conditions. But conflict resolution is also universal – if the best course of action is to resolve a situation without conflict, we can do that, too.

As Pinker points out, understanding that violence is at least partly innate, and understanding how it evolved, can help us enact mechanisms and institutions to mitigate it. Many pre-state societies fall into a Hobbesian trap – the idea that you have to preemptively kick your neighbor’s ass before he kicks your ass. Lex talionis – letting it be known that you will severely kick somebody’s ass if they try to kick yours – is one way out of the Hobbesian trap. But a better way, which most of the modern world (aside from anarchists and extreme libertarians) favors, is the rule of law. The idea here is that you have rules, along with an ostensibly impartial enforcer (police), and consequences for rule-breakers.*** So you can rest easy that your neighbor generally will not kick your ass, because there’s a societal agreement that a third party will kick his ass if he does. On a larger scale, this seems to make a good case for a stronger, toothier United Nations.

The Ghost in the Machine fallacy is the idea that the mind is separate from the body.**** There’s a little fairy that makes us conscious. A soul that lives on after our body is gone. This is a fun idea – I’d like to float around and see what’s happening in the world long after my body is gone. But, as Pinker argues, “The doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on this earth.” Our minds are beautiful, elegant contraptions – even moreso because they are not endowed with some magical force.

Here are some other ideas from the book:

  • Hundreds of traits are universal across cultures.
  • A partially pre-wired brain doesn’t preclude plasticity. Despite some programming, and partly because of it, we have the capacity for infinite thoughts and behavioral choices. We have free will.
  • Most effects of genes are probabilistic, leading to further plasticity.
  • E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, which proposed that much of human behavior is grounded in evolutionary biology, was attacked because many thought it locked people into castes. But, in fact, it promoted the idea that there is a biological basis for human complexity and flexibility, and for altruism.
  • Humans are born with different capacities for intelligence, personality, behavior, learning, morality, etc. This makes us different from each other, but just as we remain equal after nurture has further tweaked these capacities, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be considered equal at birth. In fact, if intelligence is largely due to the luck of the draw, maybe people will see this as a privilege rather than a testament to their superiority.
  • There is more genetic variability within races than among them, but there may be some broadly overlapping differences among races.
  • Humans have the capacity for both good and evil, selfishness and selflessness. Understanding these better can, without erasing all selfish motivations, at least overcome them via better cooperation. Cooperation has evolved because it can benefit both sides.
  • In spite of predilections for certain kinds of actions and behavior, humans are too complex to be pigeonholed into a deterministic model. A better understanding of human nature can help us overcome certain negative predilections and nurture more positive ones.
  • Morality has evolved and resides within us; we need not fall into nihilism just because morality wasn’t bestowed upon us by some outside agency. Pinker, referring to a Calvin & Hobbes comic, says “Since one is better off not shoving and not getting shoved than shoving and getting shoved, it pays to insist on a moral code, even if the price is adhering to it oneself.” Take that, anarchists!
  • Although we have an imperfect perception of the world, an objective reality exists, and our brains are pretty darn good at figuring it out. Even many of our stereotypes have a basis in reality.
  • Our brains are generally pre-wired to understanding intuitive physics (objects), intuitive biology (living things), intuitive engineering (tools), intuitive psychology (people), spatial sense, number sense, probability, intuitive economics, logic, language, danger, contamination, and morality. Our brains don’t have innate understandings of modern physics, cosmology, genetics, evolution, neuroscience, embryology, economics, and higher math.
  • Our sense of morality is prone to error. Sometimes we conflate impurity with sin, and on the flip side sometimes we conflate prestige with morality.
  • Liberalism and conservatism are largely heritable. Conservatives tend to be more authoritarian, conscientious, traditional, and rulebound than liberals.
  • The new sciences of human nature vindicate the view largely held by those on the right that humans are limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and that society itself is limited in its capacity for improvement.
  • Men and women are different physically, mentally, and emotionally (with varying degrees of overlap in most traits). These differences stem from different evolutionary roles. In terms of overall intelligence, men and women are very similar.
  • There are three laws of behavioral genetics: 1. All behavioral traits are heritable. 2. Genes have a greater effect on behavior than being raised in the same family. 3. A large portion of behavioral traits isn’t accounted for by genes or family. The missing portion (~50% of the variation seen), could be the result of peer groups, as well as simple chance (especially in our early development).
  • Postmodernist art sucks.

I think that last bullet fairly sums up Pinker’s final “Hot Button” chapter. This incongruous and not fully developed chapter on art could have been left on the cutting room floor. But it’s indicative of a broader problem with Pinker’s thinking (Pink Think?); he, too, is occasionally guilty of trying to hammer pegs into the wrong holes, as it suits his needs (a form of grotesquerie). Is the sole purpose of art beauty, as he seems to contend? Is our perception of beauty simply an evolutionary adaptation, easily defined and delineated? Though there’s undoubtedly an evolutionary basis for how we perceive beauty, our cultural interactions with this foundation are too complex to easily encapsulate. And our perceptions of beauty evolve (in a cultural sense) – I’ve heard it said that people didn’t get much of what Coltrane was doing when he did it, but he changed their perceptions of what was beautiful. And what about Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, when he takes the guitar too far into the future at his parents’ high school dance?

 

I picture Pinker’s slate kind of like the chalkboard you often see in movies in the background of a math professor’s lab, full of complex and incomprehensible (to us) equations. It’s a beautiful, exceptional mind, one that easily sees patterns that the rest of us miss. But it’s not infallible. As mentioned, Pinker sometimes employs what I suspect to be straw men, and adds a dash of grotesquerie to make his point more forcefully. But I also think he occasionally misses important information. In another “Hot Button” chapter focusing on children, he cites behavioral genetics studies (outlined in the bullet above) to make the point that parents (the prime nurturers) don’t have much of an effect on how their children turn out. Having previously heard of some of these reports, I was on board with this idea, but after reading this chapter, I have more questions about the effects of parental nurture. The behavioral genetics studies cited by Pinker measure intelligence, personality, and life outcomes, and find that about half the variability seen in these traits is heritable, less than 10% is from a shared environment (largely the home environment), and the other 40-50% is from peer groups or chance (sounds like an area for further study). Intelligence and personality are largely heritable, and we as parents have very little impact on those traits in our children – I’m down with that. But are there other traits, not necessarily measured in these studies, that parents can instill in their children? What about courtesy, caring, empathy, common sense, fiscal responsibility, love of learning, a sense of justice, wisdom, morality? And what about short-term versus long-term behavioral effects? Did Veruca Salt’s parents have nothing to do with her entitled temper tantrums?

 

Pinker argues that the science of human nature has poked large holes in the liberal view that humans are infinitely malleable and that utopia is achievable through some sort of massive spiritual awakening. But, although this view may be held by some on the far left, is it really representative of liberalism in general? I would guess that most liberals, or progressives, take a more pragmatic view of the world than the one Pinker portrays. The science of human nature, rather than representing the final nail in liberalism’s coffin, is actually entirely compatible with a progressive outlook. In contrast to the fatalist view of conservatives that our system will always be imperfect so there’s no need to change it (that’s my straw man), progressives recognize that there’s always room for improvement, even if perfection will forever remain out of reach. There’s something Lamarckian about supposing that we can completely alter our genetic programming, but, as Pinker himself says, we have enough built-in plasticity that we are capable of broadly varying behaviors, even if these are somewhat constrained by our biology. Harnessing what we know about human nature, we can (as Pinker acknowledges) design systems that lead to more egalitarian outcomes.*****

And that, ultimately, is the great contribution of this book. The science of human nature doesn’t diminish our humanness at all – rather, it exposes and illuminates our common humanity, verrucas (warts – yes, really) and all, and provides a blueprint for designing a better world. It would, in fact, be illiberal to deny the science of human nature.

 

*If you don’t know who Shaquille O’Neal is, he’s a famous Irish poet: “I got a hand that’ll rock your cradle, cream you like cheese, spread you on my bagel.”

**Men kill men at 20-40 times the rate that women kill women, and most killers are young men (age 15-30). All of these numbers are cited in The Blank Slate. I didn’t personally research each citation. Could Pinker be doing some cherry picking to support his case? Possibly, but if you’re going to refute his data, it would be a good idea to have some of your own.

***This isn’t to say that the rule of law always works smoothly or isn’t corruptible in numerous ways.

****Our good buddy Descartes came up with this. I think, therefore it doesn’t matter if I am?

*****As an example, Pinker points out that some behavioral economists (Richard Thaler among them), have shown that humans – because of evolutionary adaptations to get while the getting’s good – are not necessarily rational actors when it comes to financial matters, therefore taxes and regulations are necessary to help guide our decision making.

Awe-full

The Universe

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them – the starry heavens above and the moral law within.” -Immanuel Kant

Have you ever been awestruck? It’s a truly palpable feeling, hence the bolt-of-lightning idiom often associated with it. Awe is often accompanied by physical changes, such as piloerection (aka goosebumps). I remember experiencing awe only a handful of times, and for me it’s always been associated with attempts to contemplate the vastness of the universe. This usually occurs in conversation; as I try to expand my understanding outward, I reach a point where I can’t fathom anything larger, where I reach the limits of my comprehension. At that moment, my mind does a pleasurable resetting, and I land back on Earth. Interestingly, though, it takes more to reach that state of confoundedness in subsequent musings on the vastness of the universe. Maybe each experience of awe entails an expansion of one’s comprehension, resulting in the need for even greater stimulus to achieve it the next time. It’s been over a decade since I last experienced awe.

It was only recently that I discovered that this sensation is called awe. Previously, because I didn’t have a better way to explain it, I called it an epiphany. In a 2003 paper, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt review the literature of awe and attempt to imbue it with some defining characteristics. Awe, they say, must involve two central themes:

1. Vastness – Experiences that are much larger than the self. The universe is hard to beat, but vastness can also include non-physical size, as in social structures such as fame, authority, and prestige. Vastness is often associated with power.

2. Accommodation – Adjusting one’s mental faculties when one can’t assimilate a new experience. This can either lead to a better understanding (enlightenment, rebirth), or increased confusion (fear, disorientation).

Five additional themes affect how we experience awe: threat, beauty, ability, virtue, and supernatural causality. We may experience some of these emotions, though, without experiencing awe. It’s only when we experience both vastness and accommodation in conjunction with one of these themes that we truly experience awe. If we only experience one or the other of the two central themes, then we should label it something other than awe. For example, witnessing exceptional ability in another may trigger accommodation, but if it doesn’t also trigger the sensation of vastness, it should simply be called admiration.

Likewise, elevation is a sensation that usually doesn’t involve vastness but does involve accommodation. Elevation occurs when we witness actions of virtue or moral beauty that inspire us to become better people.*

In an evolutionary sense, K and H say, awe may have arisen to maintain hierarchy in human societies: lower status individuals exhibit a primordial awe toward leaders. This is opposed to learned, or elaborated, awe, which has primordial awe as its basis. We experience elaborated awe in response to culturally subjective variables like famous people, art, nature, and even grand ideas (interestingly, epiphanies are a kind of awe).

I wonder about some of these assertions. Might awe at the vastness of nature be the primordial evolutionary adaptation? It’s a wide world and our ancestors did well to both fear and respect it. The paper asks more questions than it answers, and this seems to be part of the point: to stimulate more discussion and research about awe. The authors suggest that, with a better understanding of awe, we may be able to harness it and utilize it to improve our lives. I’ll give it a shot…

There are 200-400 billion stars in our galaxy. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe. But what’s outside the universe? Infinite nothingness seems unlikely. Maybe there are more universes. What’s beyond that? More universes, ad infinitum? That would mean space and matter are infinite; would everything that exists exist in infinite numbers? Maybe we’re just an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, which is itself an infinitesimal speck in a larger universe, ad infinitum.

 

*I’m a sucker for this in movies. Hollywood has become pretty good at including elevating themes in their movies (White Chicks notwithstanding), as cheesy and Manichean as they usually are.