David L. Martin

in praise of science and technology

Archive for the month “January, 2018”

Our National Disgrace

In the summer of 2016, General Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State, wrote something in an email that he never intended to be made public.  But it was, and it very succinctly sums up this moment in American history.  He wrote:  “Donald Trump is a national disgrace.”


Of course, that was months before Donald John Trump became President of the United States.  Regardless of what happens in the years to come, America has disgraced itself, and will never fully recover its former dignity.  One gets a sense from the media that most of them think there will be a Democratic surge this year, that women and brown Americans are finally beginning to turn the country around, and that somehow this will erase the stain Trump has left on America.  It won’t.  America may well begin to move forward, after years of stagnation.  But the stain will never completely disappear.

The election of Trump has reinforced for me how insular establishment politicians and media elites are from a huge swath of America.  Every few days there is another head-scratching article published by one of them, wondering aloud how anyone with any decency could still support the moron-in-chief.  Although his approval numbers are historically low, almost 4 out of 10 Americans still approve of Trump.


For every one of us who are disgusted and repulsed (including many Republicans) by his misogyny, racism, infantile pettiness, and utter disdain for the very notion of objective truth, there is (almost) another American who is cheering him on.  This does not surprise me one little bit.  Trump represents an enormous block of Americans, most of whom never get air time on national television.  The media often wonders why Hillary Clinton is so hated by so many.  25 YEARS AGO, working on construction sites, I heard plenty of dirty, sexist jokes about Hillary Clinton.  I heard plenty of racist jokes.  One of my uncles said that Nicole Brown deserved what she got because she married a black man.  (No, he didn’t use the phrase “black man.”)  He was a deacon at the largest Baptist church in a city of well over 100,000 people at the time.

Decency, in the sense of genuine respect for non-family, has no value for large numbers of Americans.  MANNERS have meaning for them, but only as a self-promoting façade.  Life is all about advantage for them, and Trump is carrying their banner.  His misogyny, racism, and xenophobia are not flaws for them – they are strengths.  They are fascists, and always were.  Yes, that’s what I’m saying.  A huge swath of the American public consists of fascists.  The political elites like to argue about whether Trump himself is a fascist, quibbling over fine details that have meaning only in dry, academic circles.  In real life, fascism boils down to this – I’m better than other people, and I belong to a group that’s superior to other groups.


I wonder how many Americans even know what the title Mein Kampf translates into.  (I wouldn’t mind seeing a poll.)  It means “my struggle.”  Hitler absolutely believed in social Darwinism.  He felt that notions such as “love thy neighbor” were Jewish inventions that brainwashed and weakened individuals and societies.  Life is a struggle for survival to a fascist.  There is no such thing as win-win, and since I’m superior to others, I should win.  Since my group is superior to other groups, my group should win.  This is what millions of Americans have been taught by their parents and their peers.

It’s easy for media and political elites, most of whom have never had to struggle for the basics, to overlook these people, or be mystified by them.  They are no mystery to me.  I grew up with them.  They are my cousins, my neighbors, my co-workers.  Life is all about struggle for them.  All about advantage and disadvantage.  All about survival of the fittest.  They don’t think of such a society as barbaric because they can’t conceive of anything else.


All of the indecency, the sliminess, the barbarity that Trump exhibits, is nothing more or less than everyday life for these people.  Just last week, yet another high official in the Trump administration was booted out, because the media discovered despicable comments that he had made on many occasions.  His name is Carl Higbie.  He was Chief of External Affairs for the Corporation for National and Community Service.  Here are a few choice quotes:

“You know, I don’t like gay people. I just don’t.”

“Go back to your Muslim shithole and go crap in your hands and bang little boys on Thursday nights.  I just don’t like Muslim people.”

“Well people are like, ‘well, you can’t hate somebody just for being Muslim.’  It’s like, yeah, I can.”

“We’re promoting birth control to a black woman because of the incredibly high rate of children born out of wedlock that are under-cared for or not cared for at all. The taxpayers are tired of supporting government checks going to these people who think that breeding is a form of employment.”

“What’s so wrong with wanting to put up a fence and saying, ‘hey, everybody with a gun, if you want to go shoot people coming across our border illegally, you can do it fo’ free,'”

This person was appointed to lead our country’s national volunteer service programs.  His comments are tame compared to what is said every day by Trump supporters, in shops, in bars, in cafes, and at construction sites.  The national media focuses on those who go to white supremacist rallies and post on alt-right sites.  But for every one of those people there are a dozen who are different only in their political zeal.  They don’t go to rallies, they don’t post on-line, they don’t get appointed to senior positions by Trump – but they do vote and respond to polls.


Higbie is a fascist.  Period.  He believes that he is better than other people, and that he belongs to a group that is superior to other groups.  He believes that life is a struggle, and if someone else is winning, he’s losing.  For every Higbie there are a dozen more.  The media elites choose to ignore them, or rationalize away their attitudes.

America has disgraced itself, and that disgrace is intimately tied to social Darwinism.  I believe the problem lies in the fact that our political and media elites have never taken survival seriously, the way millions of struggling Americans do.  If a senator gets voted out, or a news anchor loses his job, almost never is his basic survival at stake.  If an auto mechanic or coal miner or steel worker loses his job, it’s a different story.


Our media and political elites promote competition as the bedrock of the American economy.  As long as you don’t think of competition as a zero sum game, there’s nothing wrong with that.  They certainly don’t.    They don’t have jobs.  They have CAREERS.  The worst that can happen is that they get booted out of the Washington power-brokers club.  But for someone who spends their whole life worrying about the basics, the message they receive from this talk about competition is survival of the fittest.  If they lose the competition, that loss MUST happen because someone inferior was given an advantage they didn’t deserve.  And more importantly, before it even comes to that, if someone who’s the “wrong” gender or the “wrong” color is doing well, it MUST mean that they themselves have been betrayed.

This is the essence of Trump’s thinly veiled message to the white working class.  It is the same message that has been fed to them by business leaders for more than a century.  They don’t give a rat’s anus about decency or respect.  They see non-white faces at America’s colleges.  They see America turning brown.  They hear talk about white privilege, but they don’t feel privileged.  They feel threatened.


Many Americans would like to throw these people away.  Many of the same people who would call an African-American who robbed a store a victim of institutional racism (perhaps with justification) will often have no sympathy for a white, uneducated coal miner who thinks he is better than the best black person.  They miss the point.  The disgrace that America now endures is precisely because we have ignored the fascism in our midst.  It is precisely because our educational system and our media system have failed.  Who has been there, explaining to that coal miner, that life is not all about struggle, that there is such a thing as win-win, that we all have to pull together to make things better?  Without a message to counter the fascism that he has been raised with, what should we expect?


Some, of course, are hopeless cases.  Our moron-in-chief for example.  He has been insulated from genuine criticism virtually all his life, and will now be well taken care of by the state until he dies.  But most fascists are salvageable.  They are fundamentally no different than the African-American languishing in jail, or the Palestinian jumping up and down yelling “Yankee go home!”  The German people turned firmly away from Nazism.  It’s all a matter of education and social support.

The Lure of Tribalism

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist, a writer, a mother, and a very thoughtful person.  She has made contributions to media outlets such as Huffpost, Salon, and The Humanist.  She maintains a blog of her own, often devoted to issues of patriarchy, reproductive rights, and religiosity.


Recently, Tarico posted a series of musings entitled “Beyond Fear and Fury,” about the recent surge of public reports of sexual harassment and assault, and the #metoo movement associated with this.  Like many women, Tarico has her own history of sexual assault, and she’s not shy about discussing her bitterness concerning our misogynistic culture and the aura of male sexual entitlement it continues to spawn.  What is so interesting about Tarico’s post is its honest, soul-searching examination of political tribalism, conservative and liberal.

As a psychologist, she understands very well that human beings are not blank slates.  We carry plenty of baggage and lots of subconscious motivations.  In fact, she cites fellow psychologist Jonathan Haidt:  “The conscious self is simply a rider on an elephant.”  And one of the strongest subconscious motivations is the desire for power – especially if we’re coming from a place of relative powerlessness.  Human beings are social beings, and tribalism is an easy road to power.


“Tribalism is ascendant on both left and right, the difference being that the right rewards and seeks to protect the old social order while the left seeks to upend it. Either way, the temptation to play the identity card is almost irresistible,” Tarico points out.  And she goes on:  “Liberal activists are as driven by moral instincts and emotions as any street preacher, and it is moral emotions that drive how we use the growing power associated with victimhood: Moral indignation, disgust, outrage, vindictiveness, empathic anguish, protective nurturing, love—and, of course the sweet, sweet sensation of righteous superiority; we are only human after all.”

Are we liberating ourselves from old tribalisms, only to fall into the embrace of new ones?  The pattern is all too familiar, and in the short term I fear that we will merely see another swing of the pendulum.  The injustices of conservatism will be replaced by the injustices of liberalism, leading to yet another backlash, and another.  As Tarico points out, the new dogmas, intolerances, and reprisals against heretics have already begun.


Justice is not the trading of one injustice for another.  A truly civilized society is one that has moved beyond tribalism.  One that genuinely respects the dignity of the individual.  I believe we will get there.  But it will take a lot more than anti-conservatism, anti-racism, or anti-sexism.  It will take a massive educational effort, one that really gets serious about exposing the elephant each one of us is riding – our evolutionary baggage, our deep-seated, often unconscious motivations, our propensity to be manipulated by our own desire for acceptance and power.

We are entirely capable of reason, and evidence-based decision making.  But without assiduous, painstaking nurturing that exposes us to our own flaws, and gives us the skills to stop being our own worst enemies, we cannot hope to heed the call of the better angels of our natures.  A commitment to ideology and a commitment to critical thinking are incompatible.  We don’t need any more ideology.  We need pragmatism.  The way to break out of the endless swings of the pendulum is to reject ideology entirely, and focus on evidence.  What actually works?  What increases human happiness?


There’s nothing wrong with having beliefs.  There’s nothing wrong with having deeply held beliefs.  As long as every single one of them is questioned.  The greatest progress our civilization has seen has been scientific, and every inch of it has happened because of a commitment to question dogmas.  Yet social progress has always tended to lag behind, often nudged forward only by scientific and/or technological progress.  I believe that a truly civilized society is one that holds nothing so sacred that it can’t be subjected to close scrutiny.  Any idea that has merit can stand up to ruthless, soul-searching, gut-wrenching questioning.  If it can’t, GET RID OF IT.  What is the point of attachment to an orthodoxy?  Only that it gives us a sense of belonging to a tribe, which equals power over others.  Then follows exclusion, discrimination, pathological competitiveness.  Pain, suffering, oppression.


Us and them.  It’s the hallmark of barbarism.  It won’t last, because it can’t.  We will either move forward, or destroy ourselves.  I believe it will be the former.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein


Truth Decay

Recently, the Rand Corporation published a study entitled Truth Decay:  An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.  In the summary, they state that over the last 2 decades, there has been increasing disagreement about facts and the analytical interpretation of facts, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, an increase in the relative volume of opinion and personal experience over fact, and reduced trust in formerly trusted sources of information.


They cite 4 causes for this trend:  1) basic characteristics of human cognition, 2) changes in the information system, including social media and the 24-hour news cycle, 3) diminished time in the educational system spent on media literacy and critical thinking, and 4) political and demographic polarization.  Access to the actual study carries a rather hefty $36.80 price tag, and I haven’t read it.  But it’s encouraging at least that some organizations are noticing these trends and looking for solutions.

The truth is, there has long been an anti-intellectual strain running through American society.  It was suppressed somewhat during the years of the space race, when there was fear of Soviet dominance in space, and large numbers of baby boomers went to college.  But those years were an anomaly in American history, and America has since returned to its old anti-intellectual habits.  And something important is happening that many observers have failed to notice – the demographics of college have changed dramatically.


Those baby boomers who were going to college during the years of the space race were overwhelmingly white, and most were male.  In 1970, 52% of American college students were white and male.  Today, a whopping 58% of college students are female.  Only about 24% of college students are white and male.

In 2017, in a Gallup poll, a remarkable 58% of American Republicans and Republican-leaning independents reported that colleges and universities have a negative impact on where things are going.  This kind of anti-college sentiment is unprecedented in America, but it is a predictable outcome of trends in the Republican party over the last 40 years, as college has become increasingly multi-ethnic and less male-dominated.  At a national level, the Republican party has lost most of its moderates, and is increasingly the party of rural, poorly-educated voters – voters who have never thought much of science or intellectuals.


The role of religious fundamentalism should not be underestimated.  During the years of the space age, religious fundamentalism was marginalized in America.  Mainline churches had long since abandoned young-earth creationism and Biblical literalism in favor of science.  But young Americans began to abandon these churches, and especially in the 1970’s, fundamentalist churches, especially those preaching a prosperity gospel, stepped in.  Conservative politicos with lots of money behind them joined with fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell to create powerful political advocacy groups.

Religious fundamentalism has always rejected higher education and intellectualism.  But the changing demographics of higher education increasingly feed this.  Large numbers of rural, white Americans now consider college to be the province of male-hating feminists and America-hating professors.  And more importantly, they increasingly reject science and mainstream media reports.  Pressure on educators to avoid offending religious sensibilities has led to a tremendous watering down of basic science.  And because so many rural Americans are tied to old economy extraction, such as the fossil fuel industry, the inconvenient realities of global warming give them a perfect excuse to mistrust science in general.


What about the other side of the coin?  It isn’t just rural, conservative Americans that are ignorant about science, is it?  Large numbers of urban liberals also demonstrate their lack of understanding of the basics.  A few years ago, the National Science Foundation took a survey of Americans’ knowledge of some basic science.  Only about half of Democrats knew that the earth orbits the sun AND that it takes one year to complete an orbit.  But there’s a difference.

Martin Luther King once said, “There is nothing more dangerous than willful ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  It’s one thing to be scientifically illiterate.  It’s quite another to turn that ignorance into a badge of honor.  Recently, Wisconsin Republican Jesse Kremer stated on the floor of the state legislature, “Yes, the earth is 6000 years old, that’s a fact.”  Kremer is a Lutheran, but like almost all mainline American churches, the Lutheran church has split into fundamentalist and moderate wings.  30% of Lutherans believe that every word of the Bible is to be taken literally.  Meanwhile, 23% believe that the Bible was written by men and is not the word of God.


This illustrates that the real divide in America is not so much religious as it is cultural.  In fact, Kremer has authored bill after bill that is red meat for conservative culture warriors.  A bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.  A bill to put gender restrictions on school bathrooms.  A bill to allow people to carry guns on school grounds.  A bill to require photo ID’s on food stamp debit cards.  A bill to prohibit city officials from blocking police officers’ inquiries about people’s immigration status.  What do guns, food stamps, and immigration have to do with the Bible?  Nothing, inherently.  Everything, culturally.  It’s a package.  White Protestant culture.  Protestant fundamentalism.  White male supremacy.  Militarism.  Homophobia.  Xenophobia.  The individual components are merely markers, guideposts for what is really important – the culture, the tribe.

Kremer himself has stated that he is simply representing his constituents.  His district is overwhelmingly conservative.  It is rural and overwhelmingly white.  New Holstein, Wisconsin, is a typical city in the district.  Its population is only about 3000.  It is 96% white.  Almost a quarter of them are over the age of 65.


Some might argue that Kremer is an anomaly, an extremist who doesn’t actually wield that much influence.  It’s true that most politicians do not make such openly anti-scientific statements.  But the kind of populism Kremer represents is clearly a force to be reckoned with in American politics.  White rural America has been catered to for years by conservative politicians and media personalities.  Now it demands that they completely embrace the entire package, which includes willful ignorance and anti-intellectualism.

Of course, it’s doomed.  These very parts of the country are slowly depopulating.  The old economy extraction industries are slowly disappearing or becoming increasingly automated.  Even conservative politicians are peeling away from willful ignorance and attacks on independent journalism.  But the inherent advantage rural America holds in our political system, and the simple fact that older people tend to be more politically active, will give rural white Americans a great deal of influence for years to come.


Where does that leave us with anti-scientific attitudes and truth decay?  Again, the trends are unmistakable.  Young America is increasingly going to college.  Young America is increasingly non-religious.  Young America is increasingly non-white.  Some version of populism may survive, but without white Protestant culture to maintain willful ignorance and conscientious stupidity, American social conservatism as we have known it will collapse.  Gay marriage is only the beginning.

Even more significant is the acceleration of automation, and the rise of sophisticated artificial intelligence, that will revolutionize our society.  Our already-obsolete economic system will not survive this.  Our absurd, outdated notions of competition are headed for the trash heap, along with our attachment to infantile religiosity.  We can already see our future in countries like Norway and Denmark, countries with large numbers of women in positions of power, and in which strong social safety nets have led people to throw away the crutch of religiosity.


Whether large numbers of Americans will actually embrace education and self-improvement, or simply become lazy-minded dependents of the state, remains to be seen.  Perhaps society will split into the restless explorers, constantly looking for ways to improve themselves, and those who are content to sit back and play virtual reality games.  One thing’s for sure.  All of us will have to find something to do with our time.

Can happiness really be measured?

Most people would agree, I think, that people generally want to be happy.  But happiness can be difficult to define, and even more difficult to achieve.  The old saying “Be careful what you wish for” is a reflection of this.


In the old Star Trek series, Spock willingly gives his bride, from an arranged marriage, to another Vulcan.  But in doing so, he admonishes his rival, “After a time, you may find that having is not so desirable a thing after all, as wanting.”  Studies have shown that when people win big lottery prizes, they are often ecstatic at first.  But within only a year, many of these people return to their previous levels of satisfaction.

It seems that the one thing we can never abide is stagnation.  Imagine yourself having all of your basic needs met.  You have plenty of food to eat, you’re not too hot or too cold, you’re taken care of when you’re sick.  But every day is exactly like the day before.  Nothing ever changes.  Nothing new ever happens.  I think it’s a safe bet that you’d consider it far from paradise.


Of course, if your basic needs AREN’T met, chances are you’ll be even more unhappy.  You’ll always be struggling, always anxious, never really free to enjoy whatever opportunities and privileges come your way.  There is a difference between pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, satisfaction and misery, sickness and good health.  I don’t know of many people who like being in a hot, stuffy room, eating scraps of food out of the garbage, or drinking water out of a filthy ditch.

In 2011, the U.N. General Assembly invited its members to try to measure the happiness of their peoples.  In 2012, the U.N.’s Sustainable Solutions Network published its first World Happiness Report.  It may seem like measuring happiness is a very tall order.  Isn’t happiness very subjective, subject to all kinds of distortions of reality?  After all, a group of cult followers about to commit suicide, because they think they are on their way to paradise, might be very happy.


It might seem that trying to measure happiness is kind of like trying to measure freedom.  Well, there are organizations that try to do that too, like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.  And they seem to do a pretty good job.  When I see that the Cato Institute ranks countries like Iran and Syria very low on human freedom, while ranking countries like Turkey and Mexico in the middle, and countries like New Zealand and Denmark very highly, I have to say they’re on to something there.  Since freedom is not a simple thing, the way they go about measuring it is not simple either – 23 separate factors go into the calculation.


Similarly, happiness is not a simple thing, and the SSN’s approach to it is not simple.  Since their first Happiness Report in 2014, they have refined their methods.  Early on they realized that life evaluations and emotional experiences are not the same thing.  It turns out that emotional “happiness” (what they call positive affect) doesn’t vary all that much from one country to another.  But life evaluations do, and the things that influence positive affect seem to influence life evaluations the same way.  So life evaluations give a clearer picture of international differences in happiness.


Importantly, they have collected massive amounts of data on the degree to which objective measures that might affect happiness, such as per capita GDP and life expectancy, correlate with subjective reports of happiness.  These are combined with personal evaluations of such things as social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption, to produce an overall life evaluation.  In other words, both subjective and objective measures go into the calculation.

Using such methods, it becomes clear that material wealth, measured by per capita GDP, and social support are the 2 most important factors in determining life evaluations.  Life expectancy is third.  The other factors, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption all contribute.  Their effect is quite modest compared to these big 3, but the combination of all 4 personal evaluations often exceeds the effect of GDP and life expectancy.  These social factors can make or break a country’s ranking on the Happiness Index.  Saudi Arabia, for example, has very high per capita GDP.  Yet it doesn’t even come close to countries like Denmark and New Zealand when it comes to reported happiness.  The reason is that Saudi Arabia’s people tend to give the country low values for things like generosity and freedom to make life choices.


Western European countries tend to rank highly on the Happiness Index – Norway is at the top, with Denmark and Iceland right behind.  All 5 Scandinavian countries are in the top 10.  America is 14th.  Not a single oil-rich country outside of Scandinavia is in the top 20.

The top 10 countries, in descending order, are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden.  Every one of these has universal health care.  Every single one has big, transparent government.  It’s worth noting that most of these countries rank below America in per capita GDP.  Finland, for example, at number 5, has a per capita GDP 25% less than that of America.


It’s also important to note that the rankings on this Happiness Index agree pretty well with rankings on other international measures of human well being, such as the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, and the U.N.’s Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index.  So it seems like the Happiness Index is on to something important.


Human happiness by country does seem to be tied to material wealth, but social factors such as support and freedom also play a huge role.  Money alone is not enough.  Compared to most of the world, America does rank highly on the Happiness Index – well above many poorer countries like Nicaragua and Algeria.  But it also ranks below some countries that have considerably less wealth, like Finland and Costa Rica.  Happiness does seem to be measurable – it’s about economic development AND social support.


Human beings have an amazing ability to rationalize.  If you doubt this, take a look at flat earth literature some time.  That sophisticated, convoluted arguments can be brought to bear on something so straightforward and obvious is a testament to human imagination and wordsmanship.


The skills of debate are a marvel to watch.  In the classic story The Devil and Daniel Webster, the famous lawyer takes on Satan himself, who has obtained a man’s soul quite legally.  Webster faces a jury of notorious figures – traitors, pirates, and other evil-doers.  But all had played important roles in the history of America.  Failing to challenge the Devil on legal grounds, Webster finally turns to the jury and delivers an impassioned defense.  He starts by extolling the virtues of simple things.  He speaks of the freshness of a fine morning, the taste of food when you’re hungry.  He speaks of how wonderful it is to be human, and to be an American.  He acknowledges the wrongs done over the course of American history but insists that something wonderful came to fruition.  And he tells them that everyone played an important role in the great story, even them.

The jury finally lets the defendant go.  “Perhaps ’tis not strictly in accordance with the evidence,” they tell Satan, “but even the damned may salute the eloquence of Mr. Webster.”  Of course, it’s easy to sympathize with someone when they’re up against Satan himself.  But what about truth?  What about the facts of a case?


The old Star Trek series takes place in the late 23rd century.  By this time, lie detectors have been perfected.  This of course has revolutionized the practice of law.  The facts of a particular case are no longer in dispute.  Only intentions and interpretations are litigated, among people of good faith.  And this is how it is in science, by and large, in the 21st century.  The skills of persuasion will not suffice in the face of clear evidence (or lack thereof).  An idea must have support from the data.  This is exactly why things like the flat earth, creationism, and astrology do not qualify as science.

The same approach can be applied to everyday life, and to larger issues of society.  All of it comes down to decisions.  And facing any decision, we can ask, “What evidence can be brought to bear?”  Of course we usually have incomplete evidence, and there are lots of experiments we can’t do on human beings (thank goodness).  But the APPROACH is perfectly sound.


Suppose I’m in an unknown area, with no map, and I come to a fork in the road.  One road is a shortcut, but it’s dirt.  The other road is much longer, but it’s paved.  I decide to take the dirt road.  I end up getting stuck, and have to walk miles to call for help.  Clearly, my decision was based on incomplete information.  It wasn’t really an irrational decision, it just turned out to be a bad one.  But notice that I’m VERY unlikely to make the same mistake twice.  I’m not going to sit there and rationalize the mud I was stuck in.  If I screw up again, I will pay a big price, one that’s obvious and very direct.

Now if someone is there when I come to the fork a second time, trying to persuade me to take the dirt road, I’m probably going to be highly skeptical.  “You just need to have faith, brother, that the road is okay now.”  “You probably just happened upon the road right after a heavy rain last time.  I’m sure you’ll be fine this time.”  Yes, you can rationalize away the evidence.  But you also know that there’s a big price, one that’s obvious and very direct, if you repeat your mistake.


On the other hand, when we make political decisions, the consequences are often very indirect.  There may be no significant effect for years.  So it’s much easier to for someone to persuade us with rationalization and clever wordsmanship – ESPECIALLY if they’re telling us what we want to hear.  Promises, promises, promises.  Everything you want is possible, and it won’t cost a thing.  It’s gonna be beautiful and awesome and spectacular and wonderful.  And last but not least, great.

If everything doesn’t turn out to be beautiful and awesome and spectacular and wonderful, this can always be rationalized away, as long as things aren’t too bad.  As long as I really, really want something to be true, I can give it my best shot of willful ignorance and self-deception.  I can be distracted and propagandized and flattered and manipulated – up to a point.


It wasn’t beautiful and awesome and spectacular and wonderful?  Not to worry!  I’ll just rationalize away the details, then it will be!  Still losing your good-paying job in the coal industry?  Not to worry, I’ve cut taxes on the wealthy, so everything’s great!  Still worried about losing your life savings if you get sick?  Not to worry, I’ve given you the “freedom” to not get health insurance, so everything’s great!  In debt up to your eyeballs with no real retirement prospects?  Not to worry, I’m taking the yoke of government regulation off business, so everything’s great!  Want America to be great again?  Okay, it’s great.  Merry Christmas!  Remember when that last president issued a decree against that?  I do.  I saw it somewhere.  Or heard it somewhere.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter, you WANT it all to be true, right?  So it is!  We’re great again!


Of course, in the long term, it won’t work.  Reality intrudes.  Putting syrup on shit doesn’t make it a pancake.  But the ability to distract, manipulate, and bamboozle can gum up the works of progress a great deal.  This too shall pass.

America the Anxious

One of my main motivations in creating this blog was to educate its readers about the ways in which science and technology have improved our lives.  It continues to amaze me how the average American takes so much of this for granted.  And even more amazing is the pessimism and anxiety of people who enjoy a lifestyle far better than that of a wealthy American of 2 centuries ago.


Perhaps it would help if people could be transported back in time to live as people lived in decades and centuries past.  No indoor plumbing.  No chlorinated water.  No air conditioning.  No electricity.  No refrigeration.  Constant threat of diseases like cholera and tuberculosis.  Large numbers of women dying in childbirth.  And large numbers of children dying before the age of 5.


Even I remember a time when many buildings were not air conditioned – hot houses, hot stores, hot school rooms.  Few Americans experience something that is very common in the third world, especially in the tropics – lots of insects and other little critters in your home, even in your bed.  The propagation of mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and yellow fever has everything to do with the lack of air conditioning.  Kissing bugs bite people in their sleep and give them Chaga’s disease.  Flies transmit all kinds of disease.


In America we have largely defeated diseases like malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and measles.  How?  Science and technology.  Chlorinated water.  Sewerage treatment.  Mosquito control.  Vaccines.  We have extended the average life expectancy by decades.  We have created a magnificent infrastructure, providing us with an excellent power, transportation, and communication system.  We have access to an incredible variety of food products from all over the world.  We have home entertainment systems that provide us with thousands of programs and musical offerings at the touch of a button.  We have superb weather prediction and warning systems that keep us from being at the mercy of the elements.

I could go on and on.  Why don’t we appreciate all of this?  Why are so many of us so pessimistic and anxious?


Is it because life isn’t so simple as it once was?  Do many of us long for a time when we didn’t have to juggle so many different things, when we could focus on a few essentials?  I don’t think so.  The reason I don’t think so is that the people who are most anxious, most pessimistic, tend to be those whose lives are simplest.  They aren’t the hedge fund managers, computer programmers, or electrical engineers.  They are the sales clerks, grocery stockers, and hamburger flippers.  They are the people who are poorly educated and poorly paid.  They are the people who are most vulnerable.

In a previous post, I discussed the way religiosity and apocalyptic thinking decline as you move up the scales of education and income.  Of all the major religious groups in America, evangelical Protestants are the most poorly educated and most impoverished.  They are also, far and away, the most likely to believe in an imminent apocalypse.


But even these folks, as a rule, enjoy a 21st century lifestyle that almost anyone from the 18th century would envy.  Why don’t they appreciate it?  I think the reason is that they realize they might lose most of it.  Many of them are already in debt up to their eyeballs just to maintain what they have.  They could lose their homes and end up on the street.  Most of the benefits of modern technology I have mentioned – electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, and so on – they disappear there.  They could be burglarized or assaulted and lose their lives or their valuable property.  If they’re old and have spent a lifetime building up a modest savings, they could lose it all if they get sick.  And even if they don’t, the prospect of old age is one of impoverishment for many.


It’s true, I think, that people take for granted the amazing fruits of science.  I am always struck by the fact that a child can pick up a smart phone, something that didn’t exist a few decades ago, and start using it as if it’s no different than a stone tool or a spear.  But mostly Americans seem to live in fear of losing what they have.  They know that the safety net in America is far from perfect.


I have lived in 30-foot long travel trailers and bicycled 2 miles to work.  There have been times when I ate nothing but baloney sandwiches for a week, or sold plasma, to get by.  There have been times when I was cold in the winter and hot in the summer.  But I always had my education to fall back on, knowing that my options were many and my prospects good.  Many Americans have no such peace of mind.  In America, in 2017, many still don’t feel like they can count on the basics.  And if they can’t count on the basics, the privileges mean very little.


America is a young country, with a recent frontier.  Growing up is always painful.  But America will grow up.

America the Diverse

America as a country is becoming increasingly diverse, religiously and ethnically.  Today, 27.6% of the population is non-white.  32% of the population is non-Christian, and less than half are Protestant.  Those who describe themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” now constitute 24% of the population.  More than half of all Americans over the age of 16 are single, and this percentage is growing.  About 66% of the population is under 50.  And of course a little over half the population is female.


The halls of power are another story.  The U.S. House of Representatives is only 22% non-white.  The Senate only 10%.  Only 19% of the members of the House of Representatives are female.  In the Senate, only 21%.

And when it comes to religion, the divide is just as stark.  The 24% of Americans who describe themselves as unaffiliated have virtually no representation in Congress.  Only 1 of the 435 members of the House, and no Senators at all, are unaffiliated.


About 86% of the members of Congress are married.  45% are over the age of 60, and 77% are over the age of 50.

In other words, a large percentage of America is female (51%), single (51%), non-white (28%), non-Christian (32%), or under 50 (66%).  These people are highly underrepresented in the halls of power in Washington.  Instead, married (86%) older (77%) Christian (85%) white (80%) males (80%) predominate.


Given these patterns, it’s not too surprising that the policies coming out of Washington tend to favor older white married Christian men.  But why aren’t the religiously unaffiliated better represented?  After all, Catholics are actually a bit overrepresented in Congress.  They represent only about 20% of the population, yet comprise about 33% of the House of Representatives, and about 24% of the Senate.  Jewish Americans are even more overrepresented.  They are only about 1% of the population, but about 5% of the House of Representatives, and a whopping 8% of the Senate.

The absence of the unaffiliated in Congress says a lot about American politics.  And it speaks volumes about how culture, religion, and politics intertwine.  Religion in politics is less about religion per se than about culture.  In every major religious denomination, there are liberal congregations and conservative congregations.  Being “Baptist” or “Catholic” says very little about your political leanings.  Some devout, church-going Americans vote very Democratic.  Others vote very Republican.  What predicts voting patterns are things such as gender, marital status, education, and ethnicity.  Single women tend to vote much more Democratic than married women.  Married women tend to vote more Democratic than married men.  And whites consistently vote much more Republican than non-whites.


The most recent presidential election demonstrated these patterns clearly.  Only 41% of male voters voted for Clinton, compared to 54% of female voters.  Among non-married women, a whopping 62% voted for Clinton.  But only 49% of married women voted for Clinton.  And only 37% of married men.  Among college graduates, 49% voted for Clinton.  But among NON-WHITE college graduates, a whopping 71% voted for her.

Among the religiously unaffiliated, 68% voted for Clinton.  71% of American Jews voted for her.  It isn’t about religion per se.  It’s about culture.  Take married, white Protestant men over the age of 50.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how they voted.  But just change one of those adjectives – How did married, non-white Protestant men over the age of 50 vote?  The difference is like night and day.  Whiteness is absolutely key.  The other cultural identifiers, such as Protestantism, are important, but only as markers.  The most important marker, by far, is whiteness.


Whiteness isn’t just about skin color either, although skin color is obviously important.  It’s about things like the sound of your name, how you use language, how you wear your hair, how you dress, what music you listen to, how you decorate your car and your home.  For decades, non-white Americans have assimilated by Anglicizing their names.  This process continues today.  Former Louisiana governor “Bobby” Jindal’s birth name is not “Bobby.”  His name is Piyush Jindal.  Similarly, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was born Nimrata Randhawa (in fairness, her married name is indeed Haley).

My point is that there has been, and continues to be, tremendous pressure to assimilate into what is perceived as the dominant culture in America.  That culture is in fact white American ethnicity.  You can assimilate by speaking “white,” listening to “white” music, decorating your house and car the way “white” people do, and so on.  Of course, you can’t do much about your skin color, but that can be overlooked, as long as you assimilate in other ways.  In previous generations white ethnicity was promoted officially, without apology – white supremacy was openly advocated, students were forbidden to speak non-English in school, non-white ethnic stereotypes were promoted.


To this day many dress codes are centered on an ideal of whiteness – short hair for men, no dreadlocks, no visible tattoos, and so on.  Sometimes even elements of dress that have little history are discouraged, simply because they are associated with non-white ethnicity – wearing a cap sideways, for example, or wearing baggy pants.

The pressure to assimilate continues, and language is a big part of it.  Even when people are speaking English, accents and slang often make them targets of marginalization.  And the degree to which an ethnic group is distinctive in America is exactly the degree to which it its members are treated as second class citizens.  Our society demands conformity in all kinds of ways, many of which we hardly notice – unless we happen to be among the non-conformists.

Amongst candidates for public office, the pressure for conformity is that much stronger.  Are you female?  That’s one strike against you.  Are you brown?  2 strikes.  Are you single?  Are you a non-Christian?  You’re racking up the negatives – before you’ve even stated your political positions.  American politics is winner-take-all, and whites are still an overwhelming majority of the population.  Increasingly they are voting Republican, even in formerly blue states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.  Here is a map of “whiteness” in America – the darker a county, the higher the percentage of white residents:


As you can see, the northern counties of America tend to be very white.  The exceptions are big urban centers like Chicago, Detroit, and New York.  Non-white Americans have been voting Democratic for decades now.  But white America has been split until recently.  Here, for example, are the results of the 1996 presidential election (Bill Clinton versus Bob Dole):


Notice the swaths of blue running across the Northeast and the center of the country.  West Virginia is predominantly blue.  Compare this to the 2012 election (Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney):


The Midwest has largely gone red, and even the rural areas of Pennsylvania and New York are heading that way.  But keep in mind, Obama won this election easily.  And then there’s the last election, in 2016:


States like Wisconsin and Michigan are getting very red, and even rural parts of New York and Maine are no longer voting Democratic.  West Virginia, the whitest state in the country, is now solidly red.  The urban centers are still solidly blue – but these areas have large non-white populations.  Rural America tends to be very white – and rural America is voting increasingly Republican.

Of course, it’s possible that many of these white voters will vote Democratic in the future.  But it’s striking that the reddening is so consistent across states.  States like Alabama, Michigan, and New York have little in common – yet white rural voters have moved toward the Republican party in all 3.  White rural Americans are beginning to vote Republican as a bloc, just as non-white urban Americans have voted Democratic as a bloc for decades.


Will this usher in years of polarized politics, with Democratic cities but Republican states?  No.  Because the white rural population is slowly disappearing.  Huge swaths of middle America are hollowing out.  And it’s important to remember that Trump didn’t actually get more votes, or even come close – he lost to Clinton by 2.8 million votes.  In fact, amongst the last 5 presidential elections, the Democrat has gotten more votes than the Republican in 4 of them – and when not running against an incumbent, the Democrat has gotten more votes EVERY SINGLE TIME since 1992.

A sobering reality is hitting white rural America hard, and will hit it much harder in the near future – accelerating automation.  Much of the economy of rural America is built on extractive industries such as farming, timber cutting, mining, and drilling.  But these are the very parts of our economy that have seen the most automation, and this is nothing to what is coming.  There just aren’t going to be that many jobs in rural America.  This will accelerate the hollowing out of the rural population.


Notice the loss of population particularly in the rural parts of Michigan, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania – some of the very places that voted heavily for Trump in 2016.  There just won’t be enough white rural voters to give Republicans the advantage in the future – and it’s only because of slim majorities in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania that Trump managed to capture the presidency.  America is becoming increasingly urbanized – and urban areas, even in the South, tend to vote Democratic.

There is also the fact that young America is increasingly educated, with young women particularly becoming increasingly educated, and these people are voting very Democratic.  In 2015, 55% of millennials identified themselves as Democrats or leaning Democratic.  A strong majority of all American voters under the age of 40 voted for Hillary Clinton, and 56% of voters aged 18-24 did so.  A whopping 63% of millennials either somewhat disapprove or strongly disapprove of Trump’s performance.


At some point there will be a sudden shift.  A critical mass of young, non-white voters will be reached and Republicans will start to lose elections in a big way.  It may happen in the next 3 years.  But it will happen, because the trends are inescapable.  No amount of gerrymandering is going to stop it.  As rural areas hollow out, urban centers will express their political will in statewide and national elections.

It is entirely possible that a third political party will emerge to capture the millennial vote.  In a recent poll, a whopping 71% of millennials said that a third major political party is needed.  This party would have to embrace multiculturalism, homosexual rights, and support for higher education – all positions widely seen among millennials, and unlikely to change significantly as they age.


Today, California, the most populous state in the country, is less than 40% white.  Texas is only 44% white.  In many urban areas the percentage is much smaller – Houston, for example, is only about 26% white.  Within 12 years, less than half of all Americans under the age of 30 will be white.  This numbers carry an irresistible momentum.

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