Category Archives: Uncategorized

Just how socialist are Biden’s spending plans?

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell recently characterized President Biden of pursuing a “sweeping socialist legacy” with his budget proposals. Florida Senator Rick Scott has said that Biden is pursuing a platform of “systemic socialism.” How fair are these characterizations? In my view, they’re not, at least if the term “socialism” has any legitimate meaning.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the key difference between American-style “liberal democracies” and European-style “social democracies” in the 21st century is basically the size of the country’s welfare state and how much of the country’s GDP is spent by the government. Since the Cold War ended, “socialist” countries are basically capitalist liberal democracies that spend and tax more. (Not to be confused with authoritarian communist countries like Cuba or North Korea.)

This OECD chart shows that America’s total government output as a percentage of GDP has been around 38% over the past decade or so (pre-COVID; see below). We can also see that “socialist” (i.e. social democracy) countries like France, Belgium, and Scandinavian countries are more in the range of 50-55%.

When looking just at “social protection” programs, the difference is even starker; the U.S. spends around 8% of its GDP on social insurance programs compared to around 20% for France and Scandinavian countries.

This chart compares U.S. and European social democracies in terms of % of GDP spending on all “individual consumption” social programs like healthcare, housing, education, etc. Once again, the U.S. is far below comparable social democracy countries, 6% vs. 16%-20%, respectively.

The centerpieces of President Biden’s 2022 budget proposals are a pair of significant spending bills called the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. According to the White House’s budget proposal, these would cost 0.18 trillion dollars and 0.05 trillion dollars in 2022, respectively (I use trillions because it’s easier to convert and compare to GDP which is usually expressed in trillions). Right now the GDP is around 22 trillion per year.

If Biden’s plans were to pass in full, it would cost about 0.185 trillion dollars (before tax offsets) in 2022, which is about 0.008% of current GDP. (The highest proposed year of spending for these two plans is 2024 where it would cost 0.453 trillion before tax offsets, around 0.02% of GDP annually.)

In other words, Biden’s spending plans would raise government spending by about one-hundredth of a percent of GDP. This is nowhere near what would need to be spent in order for the U.S. to reach European-style social democracy social spending levels. It barely moves the needle.

Actual socialist commentators have opined that Biden’s proposed spending “will still leave the measly US safety net well behind even the least generous European welfare states.”

In contrast, President’s Trump’s 2020 COVID rescue relief packages (including the CARES Act) cost a total of 3.7 trillion dollars (17% of GDP) and President Biden’s Rescue Plan package cost 1.9 trillion dollars (8.6% of GDP). (As far as I can tell, these were meant to be spent immediately and not intended to stretch over a traditional 10-year budgeting period.)

Collectively, the COVID relief packages provided a temporarily increase of our spending-to-GDP ratio by about 26%, or well into European-style social democratic spending territory. Note, though, that two-thirds of this spending was signed into law by President Trump, hardly a proponent of European “socialism.” Further, this is a one-time spending infusion, not a permanent social spending program.

In sum, Biden’s proposed increases to the U.S. federal budget would be less than a drop in the bucket of our total U.S. government spending, and nowhere near approaching levels seen in European social democracies.

If Biden’s proposals are “socialist” then the word simply means “government spending on social welfare programs” and every country in the world is socialist.

Note: this represents my best efforts to at a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Any errors are my own; please reach out of there are any significant oversights or misinterpretations in the budget calculations.

The varieties of racial bias: a brief overview of academic definitions and concepts

The events of the past week have intensified the ongoing and much-needed discussions about racial prejudice and racism in American society. From my vantage point as a social scientist who studies public attitudes and behavior, I’ve frequently noticed that these important conversations are stymied by differing ideas of what “racism” means and in which contexts. Here I briefly define and discuss some of the most common definitions and conceptualizations of racism used by academic social scientists. Of course these are not the only ways to think about and define racism, but they’re the ones most commonly used by political scientists and sociologists who study individual-level public attitudes.


First, “old-fashioned” or “Jim Crow” racism is the belief that blacks are simply inferior to whites due to an in-born deficiency or difference. Social scientists measure this type of racism with questions like: “Do you think there should be laws against marriages between blacks and whites?” or “On average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most blacks have less in-born ability to learn?” Whereas this type of racism was common in the United States through the mid-20th century, it has steadily decreased to where now less than 10% of the American population indicates agreement with statements like these (see links).

On one hand, we can look at these patterns and be glad that “old-fashioned” racism is relatively rare compared to half a century ago. On the other hand, that somewhere between 5% and 10% of Americans (tens of millions of people) continue to say “yes” to questions like this helps explain why we still see thousands of hate crimes every year in the United States.


Second, “modern,” or “symbolic” racism is a type of resentment toward blacks (or other racial groups) on the part of whites. In this sense, “resentment” means “anger over a perceived disadvantage due to someone else’s advantage.” Racial resentment, then, means being bothered by a perceived unfair advantage or consideration given to blacks to compensate for past or present discrimination.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, based on dozens of interviews with white folks in Louisiana, thought it best described in terms of a “deep story”:

Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls]. Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly.

This type of racism is generally measured in public opinion surveys by agreement with survey questions like these: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” or “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Why is this defined as a form of racism instead of a principled belief in the importance of hard work and fairness? It is because it manifests in a stereotype being applied systematically to an entire group.

According to the 2018 American National Elections Study survey of over 50,000 Americans, somewhere between 50%-60% of white Americans possess at least a moderate degree of symbolic racism (i.e. either “somewhat” or “mostly” agreeing with statements such as those above). This includes sizeable proportions of just about every demographic and political group.


Third, “implicit racism” or “implicit bias” is a type of racial bias that manifests itself unintentionally, unconsciously, and uncontrollably. Others have described it as negative “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.” Implicit racism is often formed at a young age based on the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in which usually tend to line up with existing social hierarchies.

Social scientists measure implicit bias using an “implicit association test” or (IAT) (which you can try out for yourself here: and research has revealed that somewhere between 50% and 70% of Americans have a moderate or strong degree of implicit racial bias (depending on the study). A 2015 Pew study found that about 50% of white Americans have an implicit bias for whites over blacks (but interestingly, so do about 30% of blacks). Conversely, only about a quarter of both whites and blacks have no strong implicit bias toward one group over the other.

It is easy to be defensive when someone suggests that we might have an “implicit bias” against this group or that, but we should remember that by its very definition, this is a type of bias that we are not consciously aware of. Every human on the planet has implicit biases toward some groups and against others: it’s how our brains are hard-wired. That said, these implicit biases exert a significant effect on our social attitudes and behaviors, most often without us even realizing it. To the extent we can become aware of it, then, we can consciously do our best to acknowledge and reduce it when we’re making decisions or forming opinions.


This type of racism isn’t an individual-level attitude, but rather a bias that is produced in societal and political systems. This type of racism “includes the policies and practices entrenched in established  institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated  groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary. It manifests itself in two ways: institutional racism, or discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society, and structural racism, or inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions” (source).

This type of racism manifests itself in societal patterns like:

  • Blacks are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite roughly equal levels of use between the two groups (source).
  • “Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds” (source).
  • “The infant mortality rate for Black women’s babies was more than twice that of all races … and Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared with their white counterparts” (source).

This is called “structural” racism because when comparing people in the same economic and social position, blacks still consistently have poorer outcomes. It’s not “individual” racism because it’s not usually the result of one racist person saying or doing a racist thing, but rather a result of the collective biases that have been baked into our economic, health, educational, religious, and political structures over the course of many decades and centuries.


It is extremely important here to note that while these four types of racial bias are related, they can exist independent of one another and in different degrees in different people. Someone who sincerely abhors old-fashioned racism can still have high levels of implicit racial bias operating outside their conscious awareness. Someone with low levels of symbolic or implicit racism can still contribute (unintentionally or otherwise) to a racist structure or institution.

I’ll also note that “symbolic racism,” “implicit bias,” “structural racism,” etc. are academic “ivory tower” definitions of different types of racial bias. In talking about these different types of bias among individuals and society, it’s often helpful to be able to briefly clarify a concept in non-technical language before getting too far into a conversation.

In my experience, many (but certainly not all) debates over racial issues in contemporary society and politics are often one long exercise in people talking past one another due to a different default idea they have of what racism means when brought up in conversations.

Example: I’ve seen people labeling something as “racist” when referring to structural racism (“look at the racist health care system we have!” when they mean “wow look at the way that the health system consistently produces these disparities in outcomes for black women!”), but then their conversation partner assumes this is an accusation of old-fashioned racism (“are you implying that that doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals all have secret swastika tattoos?” instead of assuming one of the other forms of racism based on the conversational context). “No, of course not!” “But you said the health care system was racist!” “It is, even if individual doctors aren’t!” “What!?” And so it goes.

This is, in my experience, why many conversations fall apart: people have different ideas in their minds of what is meant when the word “racism” is used in important discussions and conversations. If there’s no agreement on definitions, it’s hard to make any meaningful progress. This is why it’s important to have an understanding of the different types of racial bias and racism and how they manifest in different situations, especially as we work toward our goal of a society where all forms of racial bias are eliminated.


Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals by Kinder and Sanders

Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America by Sears, Sidanius, and Bobo (eds)

Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era by Tesler

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Banaji and Greenwald

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Rothstein

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Alexander

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Baradaran

Sabbatical reading summaries: political science and sociology books

As part of my Fall 2019 research sabbatical, I was able to get caught up on some of the more popular and influential political science and sociology academic books published in the last two years. Here are some highlights from several of them:

Uncivil Agreement by Liliana Mason: a basic overview on how partisans are sorted and the social psychology behind it (social identity theory, affective partisanship, etc.) as well as some ideas on how to fix it. Good for undergrads at intro level.

The Great Alignment by Alan Abramowitz: an update of his 2012 book Polarized Public, but the argument is mostly the same. Partisans are sorted and polarized and this drives elite polarization. It’s about ideology, race, religion, and geography. Includes a chapter on transformation of New Deal coalition to now and another on the 2016 election and the role of racial resentment.

Neither Liberal nor Conservative by Donald Kinder and Nathan Kalmoe: basically, Converse is still right and most Americans don’t think in ideological terms. They don’t well know the difference between the two. A quarter ID as nothing and half say they’re moderate. Ideology has little effect on voting or other attitudes after PID is controlled for. Instead, Americans think in terms of groups and attachment to groups.

Do Facts Matter? by Jennifer Hochschild and Einstein: an examination of the normative importance of knowing right information and acting on it for democratic citizenship. Relies on about ten different case studies of both Democrats and Republicans getting wrong information and not caring or doing anything about it. Better for graduate students or advanced undergraduates.

The Increasingly United States by Daniel Hopkins: people used to behave differently at the local than national level. Over the last several decades local and state parties have increasingly come to mirror the national parties and also voters tend to vote much more consistently along party lines. So now there are few split ticket voters. Why? Nationalization of media, decline of local news coverage, etc. Also has worrying implications for democratic responsiveness at the local level. Great text for a class on federalism or local politics.

Democracy in America by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens: their key argument is that government is responsive to wealthy and interest groups but not average Americans due to the influence of money and time and making it hard for people to come into the system. First part: covers realities and contexts of economic inequality. Then they make several policy recommendations; then argue for a mass movement to achieve it. Good for presenting an economic explanation of inequality and American gridlock and polarization. Good to consider for those skeptical of inequality.

Democracy for Realists by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels: basically, a big test of how democracy is “supposed” to work according to romantic visions, then an account of how it actually works.
1. Most Americans don’t think ideologically (Converse)
2. Most Americans are uninformed
3. More opportunities for democratic participation won’t be taken advantage of: most people just don’t want to participate
4. Retrospective voting
5. Voters don’t assign blame very well, making it hard to be accountable
6. Voters do economic voting, but only in the few months before an election
7. More assault on retrospective voting theory
8. Better model: group attachment. Group loyalties drive politics
9. Survey of group behavior 1960s-present
10. Our view of reality is shaped by these partisan lenses
11. View for the future
This is a great book for a voter behavior upper-level course. There is a LOT of classic texts and concepts that would otherwise be in a standard textbook, except it’s better written.

The Polarizers by Sam Rosenfeld: the narrative story of the emergence of American polarization from FDR through 2000. Focuses on people, parties, historical development, etc. Very little about time from 2000 onward. This would be good if a good historical narrative were called for.

From Politics to Pews by Michele Margolis: how politics is affecting religion in American society. Lifecycle effect: most kids drop out of religious participation in early adulthood or adolescence. If they get married and have kids, they usually drop back in, and their choice of congregation will be based on their political views, not vice versa. Moreso the case for better educated people; doesn’t happen as much with blacks; happened in 1960 election.

Uninformed by Skip Lupia: this is a how-to manual on how to increase teaching effectiveness when it comes to civics. Highlights include: 1) attach information to core concerns and perceived needs of students for desired skills, 2) you’re more efficient if they perceive your goals as similar to theirs. Show them how your interest in the material aligns with their interests. Try to emphasize shared in-group status. 3) frame the information in a way that aligns with student’s core values – it’ll be more likely to succeed, 4) cues and shortcuts are efficient and okay! 5) offer information that is helpful to increase a knowledge that the student views as valued and that they view as helpful to attain a goal. 6) focus on skills of citizenship over factual recall. 7) information is valuable to the extent to which it can be used. So… what information is valuable to produce usable knowledge in the skills we hope to promote with our students? What do we want them to be able to do?

Unequal and Unrepresented by Kay Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba: an overview of how political voice is distributed in the U.S. There is a persistent class bias both in participation and responsiveness. Interest groups don’t correct for that. And current inequality sometimes makes things worse but sometimes not. And most ways to fix it usually don’t work, so the class bias seems to be a core feature for now.

Anti-Pluralism by William Galston: written by a non-polemic conservative, an overview of what liberal democracy is and why it’s important, what the major threats are today, and an assessment of the U.S. and Trump. Focuses on both cultural and economic factors. And spends time at the end on “great man” leadership and character (something conservatives are generally responsive to).

Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg: first 2/3 is his version of Sapiens by Yuval Harari, the grand meta narrative of evolution and civilization and politics through the modern age. Last third is his critique of modern politics — welfare state liberals, identity politics liberals, populist Trump conservatives, etc.

The People vs Democracy by Yascha Mounk: really good overview of the rise of populism and the threat to liberal democracy. Defines liberal democracy really well and also focuses on illiberal democracy as well as undemocratic liberalism (European technocracy) and how they’re both problematic. Gives a fair shake to immigration, free speech, identity politics, etc. No sympathy for Trumpism. More detailed than Galston book and written by a non-native American and so there’s a strong comparative element.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: they are comparativists who study democratic consolidation and deconsolidation. They give a comparative overview of illiberal democratic leaders and trace Trump’s similarities. Their BIG lesson is that democratic norms are key: 1) recognize legitimacy of opposition, 2) let them take a turn at governing when they win, and 3) don’t use all the tools at your disposal to handicap them/be willing to exercise restraint.

The Despot’s Accomplice by Brian Klaas: despite lofty American rhetoric, we’ve often enabled and supported authoritarian regimes around the world. We often do it for strategic interests (oil, stability, etc.). At the same time, the U.S. and the west have been a force for good and freedom and democracy. So here’s what works, what doesn’t, how to promote democracy effectively, and why it’s important. (Fairly harsh on both Democratic and Republican presidents)

The Despot’s Apprentice by Brian Klaas: Trump isn’t a despot, but he wants to be; the book details the various ways that Trump meets the authoritarian playbook. Focuses on democratic rules and structures, standard policies like taxes, etc. Conclusion: democracy is worth the fight. Let’s do it!

The Great Revolt by Salena Zito and Brad Todd: this is a series of qualitative interviews with Trump voters. It’s more journalistic than scholarly but helpful to learn trends. They say that the Trump coalition is basically those who feel that the coastal liberal educated elite disrespects them, thinks they’re stupid, and thinks they’re barbarian racists. This even former Democrats who felt like national Democrats were mocking people like them. They distrust institutions, including global institutions, and so want to keep things decided as local as possible.

The Left Behind by Robert Wuthnow: ethnographic qualitative overview of the values, priorities, and worldviews of people in small rural towns. More sober than the Zito and Todd book, but also less politically relevant and less detailed.

The New Minority by Justin Gest: an academic empirical book that combines qualitative and quantitative research, half looking at Britons and half at the U.S. Focused on east London and Youngstown, OH. Same basic findings: white working class see themselves as in a bad spot economically with the decline of factory and other work. They think the government did it to them and hasn’t looked out for them since. And they resent when they see poor people on government assistance or minorities get what they interpret to be an unearned advantage over them despite not working hard enough.


If I were to pick one book to recommend to friends to explain contemporary American politics that was as comprehensive and sophisticated as possible, I would recommend Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels.

For introductory-level political science courses on the topic of contemporary American polarization and political behavior, I would recommend Uncivil Agreement by Mason.

For the best overview of the current populist moment around the globe and its threat to liberal democracy both at home and abroad, I can easily recommend The People vs. Democracy by Mounk.

For the best discussion of economic inequality and its effect on democracy, I would recommend Unequal and Unrepresented by Schlozman, Brady, and Verba.

For the best book to understand the Trump phenomenon in the last five years in the U.S., I actually would recommend The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine Cramer as I think it does a better job of any of those I read this fall listed above.

For anyone interested in state/local politics, I can easily recommend The Increasingly United States by Hopkins.



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.


[image credit]

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.