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Thoughts on the January 2019 Border Wall Shutdown


There are no shortage of opinions on this issue. Here are mine:

  1. In a democratic political system, elected officials ought to try to accomplish the things that they campaigned on. This is an important part of democratic responsiveness and accountability: candidates have platforms and when elected, they should try to enact their platform as best they can so as to be responsive to the voters who elected them which (most of the time) are a majority of the electorate. Thus, from a democratic theory perspective, it is not completely unreasonable for President Trump to try to get his Border Wall using the mechanisms that he has available to him, as it was a central part of his campaign.
  2. Important caveats include: 1) President Trump was not elected by a majority (or even a plurality) of voters, and thus from a democratic theory perspective, to enact his platform would be to some degree unresponsive to the electorate. That is not the president’s fault, though, but a feature of the Electoral College system that distorts the link between public preferences and government policy/representation, and 2) An important part of President Trump’s presidential campaign was promising that Mexico would pay for the Border Wall, not the U.S. taxpayer. Despite his dubious assertions about the NAFTA renegotiation effectively paying for the Wall, to turn around and require that American taxpayers pay for the Border Wall would also not be in harmony with democratic responsiveness.
  3. Back to Point 1, the Democratic House majority was also arguably elected in part as a negative referendum on President Trump’s administration and policies. Thus, it is also not unreasonable for the Democratic House to try to oppose the president’s Border Wall through the mechanisms that they have available to them, especially given that the president explicitly promised multiple times during the campaign that funding the Wall would not be the responsibility of American taxpayers. In essence, House Democrats are helping keep the president accountable to the specifics of his campaign promises when it comes to Border Wall funding.
  4. Generally speaking, governing by shutdown is not a healthy way for democracies to go about their business. In my view, funding basic government services should take place separately from other issues such as this. If President Trump wants the U.S. taxpayers to pay for the Border Wall, he should ask Congress to introduce and pass a bill separate from bills required to fund basic government services. During the first two years of the Trump administration, the GOP Congress regularly declined to pass a bill to fund the president’s Border Wall. Very few of them, including Congressional Republicans, wanted to move on it. Of course, it is common for presidents to look for creative ways to circumvent the legislative process when they are not able to accomplish their goals (Obama did this on immigration, Bush did it with a variety of executive orders and signing statements, etc.). President Trump is currently choosing a route that ties the fate of his Border Wall to the livelihoods of nearly a million federal workers. I simply disagree that the federal workforce should be the victim of the president’s efforts to achieve his Border Wall proposal.
  5. President Trump recently offered a compromise of Border Wall funding paired with a DACA extension. I agree with those who say that this is a pittance compromise gesture instead of a sincere compromise attempt. Nonetheless, I’d recommend to House Democrats that instead of ignoring it, they respond with a counter-offer, perhaps agreeing to the DACA question and saying “we’ll give you 5% of what you’re asking for the Border Wall,” and then continuing to negotiate from there. How much would Trump be willing to give up for even a portion of funding his Border Wall goal?
  6. There is a massive amount of evidence that most undocumented immigration to the United States currently comes from visa overstays from people coming from Asia by plane, not border crossings by people coming from Latin America. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the Border Wall is a solution in search of a “problem” that is arguably a very small piece of the national security picture.
  7. Reasonable people can disagree over the motives of those who support Trump’s Border Wall. I do not believe the evidence persuasive that support for the Wall is exclusively the result of racial/ethnic animus toward our neighbors to the south. That said, I think it also disingenuous to argue that support for the Wall is not motivated by racial prejudice and cultural anxieties for many, if not most, Wall supporters. That has to be factored in to the picture.
  8. Symbols and optics aren’t everything, of course, but they matter and are important. What does the Wall symbolize? Nothing that I believe to be in harmony with American values and ideals (as imperfect as America is at embodying its own ideals throughout its history).
  9. From a personal perspective, I have spent a good portion of my life working and associating with Spanish-speaking immigrants. I did mission work with Latino immigrants in the U.S. during college. My family and I lived in Mexico for a year and have many good friends there whom we love dearly. Much of my professional research has focused on the contours of immigration policy attitudes in the United States. Policy and politics aside, my heart aches that one of the top priorities of the chief representative of my country’s values is to pursue a political symbol of antipathy and hostility toward my dear friends.

In sum, while I strongly disagree with the Border Wall from both a policy and moral perspective, the president’s persistent attempt to enact one of his central campaign platforms is not entirely illegitimate from a democratic theory perspective, but neither are the efforts of House Democrats to oppose it. Regardless of the legitimacy of the attempt, I disagree with the president’s chosen method to pursue his campaign platform as governance by shutdown (especially when federal workers are bearing the brunt of the cost) is not a healthy way to pursue public policy goals in a democratic political system.


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The Weekly Standard is closing: that’s a shame

The Weekly Standard is closing.

I have often pointed my students to the Weekly Standard as an example of robust conservative political thinking that resisted the slide toward illiberal populist Trumpism. The writers and thinkers of the Weekly Standard were good models to these students on how they can best promote the conservative ideals they believe in and how they might help influence their party away from its current endorsement of Trump and Trumpism.

I have also included the Weekly Standard in my own social media feeds the last several years to help me get exposed to a diversity of perspectives as well as a way to help me check my own biases.

As someone who thinks that a strong two-party system, with each party committed to the ideals of liberal democracy while disagreeing over how to best realize those ideals, is a *good* and healthy thing for our political system, I am sad to see this happen.

“The Beginning of Infinity”: David Deutsch on knowledge and human progress


I recently finished The Beginning of Infinity by physicist David Deutsch. Here are a sampling of ideas that I thought were noteworthy or compelling:

  • A key driver of human progress is the search for better explanations. “There is only one way of making progress: conjecture and criticism” (203).
  • “Scientific truth consists of correspondence between theories and physical reality” (39).
  • He rejects the idea that knowledge is bounded, either by the methods of finding knowledge or the capacity of the human brain. “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.”
  • Consciousness and free will are emergent phenomena, but that doesn’t mean they are not real. 
  • “If you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it” (154).
  • Societies can either be static or dynamic (or something in between). Static societies are dominated by memes (ideas) that resist change. Dynamic societies promote memes that foster criticism and critical thinking. Of the two, dynamic societies progress and discover knowledge. In contrast, static societies by and large perpetuate human suffering, ignorance, and misery. 
  • The human species made progress because it became able to internalize and reproduce memes (similar to Yuval Harari’s “imagined stories” argument). Through most of human history, memes were static. But the Enlightenment shifted the scales toward dynamic memes and has resulted in the fastest period of progress and advancement of knowledge ever in our species.

It caused me to reflect on a variety of questions, including:

  • What are some key things that humans want to do that are 1) not forbidden by the laws of nature but are 2) simply waiting for the appropriate knowledge to be discovered?
  • What “static memes” are reflected in my ideas and behavior? What are the consequences of this? What can I do increase the proportion of dynamic memes that I employ?
  • What are occasions in which “static memes” are beneficial to humans and societies? How does one determine what is “beneficial”?
  • What explanations do I have about my own behavior or those of other important phenomena? What am I doing to test the validity of those explanations? 

My soapbox thought for Election Day

For most of human history people have been ruled by kings, caesars, popes, and emperors. These authorities often claimed divine sanction as the source of their political legitimacy. Some used their power to try to ensure peace and stability for their people, but very few willingly shared power with those over whom they claimed authority. Even more used their authority to exploit and oppress in order to further their personal interests and maintain or increase their power.

Democracy is a relatively recent experiment in the long view of world history. It’s incredibly messy and often frustrating. Oftentimes our preferred candidates don’t win. Fear is often a strong motivator, unfortunately.

On balance, however, I am sure grateful to live in a time and place in world history where I have the opportunity and freedom to be able to participate in choosing my leaders rather than having them imposed on me by unaccountable authorities. I am glad that the arc of history over the last few centuries has been toward more, rather than less, democratic participation and governance throughout the world not only in our political communities, but other social and voluntary organizations as well.

As messy as democracy is, it sure beats the alternative that we’ve had through most of human history. I try not to take it for granted, regardless of the outcome of our elections.

My reactions to 2016’s first presidential debate

Since people ask, here’s what I think about the debate last night:
1. “Who won?” is not a very interesting question because it’s highly subjective and borderline irrelevant to wider questions of the effect of debates on the attitudes and vote intentions of potential voters.
2. Obviously, Clinton was better prepared and Trump is easily flustered. No big surprise there.
3. Like debates in previous years, the performance style and “gaffes” of the candidates overshadow the discussion of specific policies and priorities.
4. That being said, in this particular election I think it’s fair to give disproportionate attention to the character and temperament of the two candidates and it arguably makes a bigger difference this time around.
5. On that same note, debates are poor venues for serious policy discussions anyways and are better measures of how candidates perform in situations of intense pressure. I agree with the widespread consensus that Clinton showed that she can perform better under pressure than Trump. Again, no big surprise.
6. I know there are haters out there, but I really like the new debate format that allows for a freer exchange between the two candidates with less regulation from the moderator.
7. Even though debates rarely “move the needle” enough to make a substantive difference in presidential election outcomes, there’s some evidence that they *can* move the needle *a little*, especially if the performance is disproportionately good or bad in one direction or another. Nate Silver is predicting today a small bounce for Clinton given last night’s performance.
8. There are very, very few Clinton supporters who likely decided to support Trump as a result of the debate and even fewer Trump supporters who decided to support Clinton as a result of the debate. I’m more interested to see how many Trump or Clinton supporters move into Gary Johnson’s column and vice-versa. I’m guessing there won’t be very many, though.
9. I’m excited to see the remaining three debates.
10. If you feel like it, read my post from 2012 on the advantages and disadvantages of the modern debate format.

Don’t blame the NRA. Blame the filibuster and primary election voters.

Yesterday the Senate voted down four gun control proposals. This morning there is a good deal of venom directed at the NRA by those who supported these proposals. Many in both the Senate and public are arguing that these bills failed because of the “vice-grip” that the NRA has on members of the Senate. This implies that those individuals who received NRA money would have supported the proposals in the absence of their contributions.

As I’ve written before, political scientists have found very little evidence that interest group contributions directly translate into votes. Instead, interest groups selectively contribute to politicians who are likely to support their causes regardless. This helps explain the strong correlation between interest group contributions and voting patterns. But correlation is not always causation.

Think of it this way: if the NRA could simply buy votes with campaign contributions, wouldn’t they donate to every Democrat as well as every Republican? Then they’d get unanimous bipartisan support of all of their priorities.

Those who support gun control measures should instead blame the Senate filibuster and primary election voters.

Of the four measures that were voted on yesterday, two actually received a majority of the votes in the Senate (53 to 47). But because of the filibuster in the Senate a super-majority (60 votes) are needed to pass anything controversial. For those supporting gun control legislation (or pretty much any kind of legislation at all, really), I would recommend directing your efforts at weakening or eliminating the filibuster entirely.

Many have also pointed out that a variety of gun control proposals have a majority of public support. While this is true, individual Senators are not elected to represent the entire country. They represent their constituent states. And they are responsive primarily to those who show up to vote in their party’s primary elections. Primary voters are, on average, much more motivated, informed, and ideological than the general public. Thus, a majority of the public in the aggregate may support several of these proposals, but a majority of the Republican primary base in the various states oppose these proposals and they routinely threaten to run an ideological primary challenger to any sitting elected official who goes against their wishes.

Given that option, Republican Senators are strongly incentivized to vote as the Republican primary base in their states desire, and they oppose gun control proposals. For those who support gun control legislation, I would recommend directing your efforts toward figuring out a way to motivate more ideological moderates to show up and vote in party primaries in your state to balance out the ideological extremists who currently make up the majority of the primary electorate.

The NRA is undoubtedly a factor in this story, but in my view is not the key player.


What I will do in response to the Orlando shooting.

There’s a lot of conversation this week about the usefulness of “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedies like the Orlando shooting. I personally think that thoughts and prayers are appropriate… but I also think that they are an insufficient response.

The reality is that there is not a whole lot I can personally do to prevent similar tragedies in the future. After thinking about it a few days, however, here are some actions that I have decided to take within the small realm of influence that I have:

1) Make a financial donation to gun safety organizations who have far more resources and organization at their disposal than I do.

I fully acknowledge that there is a reasonable spectrum of opinions on the appropriate balance between freedom and safety in a society when it comes to gun ownership. I also am aware that the empirical evidence is clear: whether at the local, state, national, or global level, more guns are associated with more homicides and more gun control is associated with fewer homicides. There is no controversy on this relationship.

2) Contact my elected officials who have power to do something about it and let them know my preferences on the relevant issues. It’s a drop in the bucket, but it’s something and is better than nothing. I’ll also commit to pay more attention to candidates’ positions on gun issues in choosing between various primary and general election candidates in the future.

3) Make a financial donation to LGBT advocacy/support groups such as the Human Rights Campaign or Affirmation (an LGBT support organization within my home religious community).

4) Continue to offer thoughts and prayers as best I can.