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Sep. 15th, 2016

devil duck

The Trump Strategy

For over a year now, people have been exclaiming at the latest Trumpism "OK, this really is a step too far; this will finally destroy his chances at the Presidency," and for over a year, it hasn't been true.

Also, for over a year now, Trump has made sure he's in the news every single day, even if it takes a more-outrageous-than-the-last tweet or public statement.

Originally, I thought these were disconnected phenomena: the first was because he has magic Teflon pixie dust, and the second was an expression of his desperate need to hear his name, and perhaps an ultimate goal of not the White House but 120% name recognition in every country in the world, to further his business (which, for the past ten years, has been not buying and selling real estate but buying nothing and selling the Trump name; see Newsweek article).

On further reflection, however, I think the second phenomenon is a conscious strategy to bring about the first -- a sort of immunization.

Consider this: if you needed to complete the sentence "Hillary Rodham Clinton is unfit to be President because...", there would be three or four things to fill in: servergate, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation while she was Secretary of State. (You might not know much about the specifics of these scandals, or whether she actually did anything wrong in any of them, but you know they were scandals associated with her.) Lots of other things have been thrown at her over the past thirty years, but those are the ones people have mentioned in recent months, and almost the only things Matt Lauer could think of to ask about in the recent "Commander In Chief Forum". It's a relatively simple story line: "Hillary is corrupt and can't be trusted because X, Y, and Z."

OTOH, if you needed to complete the sentence "Donald Trump is unfit to be President because...", where would you start? It's like asking "Is there a good place to eat in New York City?" Things Donald said 50 weeks ago that should have disqualified him have long since been forgotten in light of things he said 49 weeks ago, which have already been forgotten in light of... you get the idea. And since there are no one or two problems that stand above the rest, the cognitively simple story is there's no one or two problems, full stop. The human mind cannot grasp such a YUUUGE collection of outrageous statements and actions, so it's left with only a vague cloud of outrage. And Trump supporters can easily dismiss each weekly expression of outrage from his opponents by saying, correctly, "Yeah, that's what they say EVERY week. The elites keep trying to tear him down, trying something different every week."

Trump benefited, of course, from running in a huge Republican primary. Everybody hated him, but there was never one clear alternative to him. He concentrated his early efforts on Jeb, his closest competitor for name recognition, then went after the other relatively-sane candidates one by one until he was left with only the equally-despised Ted Cruz as competition.

There may be something analogous -- not with other candidates but with issues and opposing groups -- going on now. Trump says A, which outrages group X. The next day he says B, which outrages group Y. The next day he says C, which outrages group Z. And so on through several alphabets. The result is a whole lot of groups of people, each with their own reason to be outraged and offended, but no single, clear story about why he shouldn't be President; instead, he can paint himself as the noble stag beset by lots of little hunting dogs.

He really is a master of the mass media, and this election is a win-win for him. If he doesn't win the Presidency, he'll make enormous amounts of money by selling his now-even-more-valuable name. If he does win, he'll leave the job of actually running the country to his Vice President except when it affects his business connections, and he'll make enormous amounts of money by manipulating U.S. policy to benefit those connections.

Jul. 28th, 2016

devil duck

minimum wages

So a month or two ago, Hillary officially joined Bernie in calling for a nationwide $15 minimum wage, on grounds that it'll reduce inequality and the "corporate welfare" phenomenon whereby McDonald's and Walmart can assume the Federal government will keep their low-paid workers alive. Republicans consider a $15 minimum wage -- or any minimum wage -- a job-killer, on grounds that when you make something (including labor) more expensive, people buy less of it.

Both are right, in a way. The Republican argument that a $15 minimum wage would eliminate all the jobs currently getting paid less than that is simplistic, ignoring the fact that when you put more money into low-income people's pockets, they spend it and stimulate the economy. And it seems harmless to take that money out of the pockets of large corporations that, for want of good investment opportunities, have been just sitting on it for eight years. But I think it's also dangerous to completely discount the job-killing potential.

Let's start with a reductio ad absurdum: if a $15 minimum wage is good, why not $20, or $30, or $50, or $100? At any given minimum wage level, workers whose value to their employer is less than that will be unemployable. With a $100/hour minimum wage, either (a) the majority of working Americans lose their jobs, or (b) inflation devalues the $100/hour until it matches their job productivity. Now, a certain amount of inflation would be welcome in the current economy (by everybody without a large bank account), but betting that the inflation would kick in before the unemployment did sounds risky to me. Anyway, it seems clear that above some level, a minimum wage will cost jobs; the question is whether we're currently above or below that level.

This is now a quantitative, empirical question, not a qualitative matter of principle, and its answer probably depends largely on geography and the local cost of living. $15 in New York City is a lot less money than $15 in rural Iowa, which is in turn a lot less money than $15 in Puerto Rico. A $15 minimum wage in New York City would be almost adequate to live on, and stimulate the local economy; the same wage in Puerto Rico would be comfortable for the people who got it, and could well devastate an already-struggling local economy by making many people unemployable.

So what would be a better solution? We can reasonably consider both a government solution and a free-market solution. The government solution is to set minimum wages based on the local cost of living (although finding the right formula to appropriately weight local factors against non-local factors would be tricky). (I guess another option would be setting minimum wages at the state level, as at present, but that predictably produces a "race to the bottom" effect.) The free-market solution is for workers and their employers to negotiate geographically appropriate wages. But we all know that when an individual, non-superstar worker "negotiates" with a multi-national corporation, the latter is in a much stronger bargaining position and will probably pocket almost all of the worker's productivity. The obvious counterbalance to this is unionization: if we still had strong unions in this country, we might not need a minimum wage law at all.

In short: if you don't want to see a nationwide minimum wage law, encourage your workers to unionize instead.

May. 31st, 2016

devil duck

How we feel about people with different politics

Followed links from this post to this WikiPedia page to this 2012 research paper, which reports on a study in which self-described liberals, moderates, and conservatives were asked to answer a series of moral questions as themselves, as "a typical liberal", and as "a typical conservative". The questions are premised on the "moral foundations theory" that people make intuitive moral decisions based on a handful of fundamental principles (e.g. Care vs. Harm, Authority vs. Subversion), but different people weight those principles differently. The results are fascinating and sobering:

  • Participants of all stripes agreed that liberals are more concerned with "individual-focused" principles such as Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, while conservatives are more concerned with "group-focused" principles such as Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. The perceived dichotomy appears to be true -- at least, people's answers "as themselves" match their self-reported political leanings in this way.

  • Participants of all stripes exaggerated these differences between liberals and conservatives, overestimating both their own group's and the "opposite" group's adherence to the above dichotomy.

  • Participants of different political leanings had different degrees of accuracy:

    • Conservatives were most accurate in describing how people of various stripes felt about "individual-focused" principles, and liberals least accurate. The latter overestimated how important these principles actually were to liberals, and underestimated how important they were to conservatives.

    • Moderates were most accurate in describing how people of various stripes felt about "group-focused" principles, and liberals least accurate. The latter overestimated how important these principles actually were to conservatives, and underestimated how important they were to liberals.

    • Liberals perceived more-dramatic differences between liberals and conservatives than moderates or conservatives did, which in turn was more dramatic than reality.

The lesson for Liberals Like Me (tm): yes, conservatives really do think differently, but by and large they're neither as heartless nor as authoritarian as you think they are. Your fellow liberals aren't quite as individualistic as you think they are. And conservatives might understand you better than you understand them.

ETA: Of course, all of that applies to conservative people, not elected officials (since the study was based on data from ordinary people, not elected officials). Elected officials who are Republican first and conservative second probably are just as spiteful, destructive, heartless, and authoritarian as you think they are. This study doesn't address them.

May. 21st, 2016


A liberal's discomfort with trans-gender

Unlike some people bothered by the trans-gendered, I wasn't raised in a "Mad Men" world, and I don't pine for it. I was raised in the feminist backlash against a "Mad Men" world: we watched "All In the Family" after dinner, and I nearly memorized the album "Free To Be You And Me". I was brought up to believe that your physical sex should have no bearing on your choice of toys, occupations, social and economic roles, clothing, etc.

Which leaves me puzzled when I hear of people who decide they "should have been born male" or "should have been born female". Why should it matter, for any purpose other than excretion and sex? (Two activities in which, combined, I expect to spend perhaps 1% of my life, leaving 99% for activities that have nothing to do with the shape of my sex organs.)

I took Home Economics in junior high school, because I liked cooking and wanted to do it better, and because I didn't know much about sewing but thought a competent person should. I knew I would be teased for it -- I already got a lot of abuse, and accusations of being "gay", for the twin crimes of being small and smart -- but I thought it was the right and brave thing to do. If I were in junior high school today and made the same choice for the same reasons, would I be diagnosed with gender dysphoria and advised to consider hormone treatment or even surgery? If, furthermore, I were exploring my teen-aged sexuality and found some attraction to other boys, would that seal the diagnosis? I certainly hope not!

When trans people win the battle to change their sex and be accepted in society as their new sex, it tells me we lost the war: your physical sex does determine your role in society after all. The trans movement seem to me to be working very hard to escape from prison... so they can check themselves into a different prison, when I would have preferred to raze both prisons to the ground.

To use a different metaphor, gender reassignment strikes me as a hardware solution to a software problem. I have a spreadsheet program and need a Web browser, so instead of installing a Web browser, I change the CPU to one which interprets the instructions of a spreadsheet program as those of a web browser. It just seems terribly inelegant and inefficient.

Mind you, I'll fight vociferously for your right to declare yourself male or female, and be treated as such; see here and here. But I'm deeply disappointed at your need to do so.

Comments, particularly from transgendered people and their loved ones, are welcome: I don't understand the motivations, and I really want to.

May. 13th, 2016


Bathroom laws again

So "bathroom laws" are in the news again, with the Obama administration's announcement that what it's been telling North Carolina to do also applies to public schools everywhere in the country.

We all grew up with a simple rule for bathrooms: in public places, you use the bathroom corresponding to the sex you look like when fully clothed. And even if North Carolina's HB2 went fully into effect, that would still be the rule in practice: nobody's going to hassle you for going into a women's room if you "look" female when fully clothed.

For most people, most of the time, the sex you "look like" (not only physiognomy but clothing and hairstyle) corresponded to your chromosomes which corresponded to your physical sex organs which corresponded to the sex written on your birth certificate which corresponded to what kinds of toys you liked to play with which corresponded with your occupation, so the choice of criterion didn't matter for most people. But if you looked male and walked into a women's bathroom, you would get funny looks, at the very least.

North Carolina's HB2 changes this century-or-two-old practice: they no longer care what sex you "look like", but rather what sex is written on your birth certificate. It wouldn't be a significant change if we lived in a world in which those two criteria always matched, but we don't and it is. The law is a toddler's tantrum of protest against the world's unfairness by closing our eyes and resolutely pretending we do live in such a world.

Whenever you pass a law, you have to think about how you'll enforce it, and whether in fact you can enforce it at all. If not, passing the law is a political exercise, not a good use of taxpayer money.

NC-HB2 is unenforceable. Most people view me as male, so if I walked into a women's bathroom in North Carolina, a police officer could reasonably stop me for violating HB2. At that point, however, they know only that I look male when fully dressed; if in fact my birth certificate says I'm female, I am doing not only what the law allows but what the law requires. The burden of proof is on the police officer to show probable cause, and on the state to show guilt, not on me to show the reverse. The officer could ask to see my birth certificate, but I don't routinely carry it with me, and surely the North Carolina legislature didn't intend to require me to do so. The officer could, with sufficient probable cause, conduct a strip search, but that shows only whether I have a penis, not whether my birth certificate says I'm male. The state could subpoena my birth certificate, but if I honestly don't know where it is, I cannot comply with that subpoena; surely the state didn't intend that people without birth certificates can't use public bathrooms.

In practice, the law will inevitably (as it was intended to) be applied discriminatorily -- not only by law enforcement but by vigilante justice. If you look male but your birth certificate says you're female, you have a choice between breaking the law every time you use a public bathroom, and being accused of breaking the law every time you use a public bathroom. If your fully-dressed appearance matches your birth certificate, on the other hand, you can cheerfully obey the law without being hassled. If your fully-dressed appearance is sexually ambiguous (by local community standards -- it could include a man in a kilt or a woman with a shaven head), you don't even have a choice: you're likely to be accused of breaking the law no matter what you do. The real effect of the law (aside from whipping up "the base" in an election year) is to officially authorize harassment of sexually-ambiguous-looking people: they need to be punished for causing us cognitive dissonance, because their existence demonstrates that we don't live in a neat and tidy world.

May. 4th, 2016



I was in Indiana yesterday. It being primary-election day, I found myself in conversation with a Friendly Native about matters political (and trying hard to avoid giving offense). While assuring me that she hadn't voted for Trump, she also complained about Obamacare: apparently the last time she tried to renew one of her more-expensive prescriptions, the claim was denied on grounds that, as a sexagenarian without employment-for-pay, she's "no longer a productive member of society." As it turned out, her doctor called the drug provider and negotiated a deal whereby she gets the drug for free, so she's not suffering and dying without her drugs, but she's pretty certain the claim wouldn't have been denied this way before Obamacare instituted "essentially a national health care system."

Realistically, no Federal government bureaucrat made this particular claim-denial decision, nor ordered the insurer to make this individual claim-denial decision; even if they wanted to, there aren't enough Federal government bureaucrats in HHS to do that. And insurance companies were freer to deny claims ten years ago than they are today. So Obamacare cannot have directly caused this claim denial (although it's conceivable that an insurance company might say "we make less profit in area X because of Obamacare, so we have to deny more claims in area Y to make up for it.")

I find it unlikely (though not impossible) that any insurance company has a "productive member of society" criterion for fulfilling or denying claims. Even if they did, I find it completely unbelievable that any insurance claims adjuster would say to a customer "we're denying your claim because you're not a productive member of society." Perhaps the most plausible explanation, then, is that Friendly Native, already believing that Obamacare somehow involves government death panels, mis-heard something and interpreted it as "the death panel has heard your case and found you undeserving of life."

Of course, I didn't say at the time "that's impossible; you must have mis-heard something," because that would have been interpreted as an attack, and forced Friendly Native to defend and double down on her belief. So I just said "that's bizarre" and let the conversation go on to other topics.

But I'd like to understand what mindset leads to this kind of conspiracy theory seeming plausible. The ostinato repeat for eight years that Obamacare is "a government takeover of the health care system" would lead a reasonable person to ask why government would want to "take over" the health care system; if in addition one thinks of government as "them" rather than "us", then the "government takeover of health care" must be intended to benefit "them" at the expense of "us" -- specifically, to save money for "them" by skimping on "our" health. (I don't know why the same reasoning doesn't apply to insurance companies, which actually have spent decades unapologetically saving money for "them" by skimping on "our" health.)

Government is the enemy. Government (even a democratically-elected government) is "them", not "us". "Government doesn't solve problems; government is the problem," as dear Uncle Ronnie told us almost forty years ago. There was never any evidence that the statement was true, but it was a terrific sound bite, making the speaker sound cynical-worldly-wise, and Republicans have been repeating it ever since. They've made it an article of the faith that government can't do anything right: if government tries to do something right, they'll sabotage it in order to protect the faith; if government succeeds in doing something right, they'll deny the evidence in order to protect the faith; if you suggest that government might potentially do something right, you're excommunicated from the faith.

Apr. 24th, 2016

devil duck

Not dead yet...

Apr. 13th, 2016

devil duck

PSA: Google on Freedom

Some days I'm proud of my employer. This afternoon I attended a talk by the "Jigsaw" team, whose mandate is to use Google technology to promote freedom and protect the vulnerable around the world, and I thought I would mention three services in this category. If you have friends or family living under the control of an oppressive government, make sure they know about this stuff. Most are joint projects between Google and one or more other academic institutions or NGO's.

  • uProxy, a free browser plug-in which enables anyone to create a proxy Internet server that people in high-censorship places like China and Korea can use to get to uncensored Internet content. (A joint venture between the University of Washington, Google, and I don't know who else.)

  • Project Shield, a free service protecting independent journalism servers from DDOS attacks, including attacks by their own governments.

  • Unfiltered.news, a Web site to show you what topics are being reported on by journalists in various countries. Check out the list of "topics underreported in your country" (relative to other countries' coverage of that topic), then follow the links to see (either translated or in the original language) recent headlines about those topics in various other countries. Slide the "date" bar to see how popular this topic was, and what was being said about it, on various recent days. (It's interesting to note which countries had remarkably little coverage of the Mossack Fonseca "Panama Papers" leak last week....)

There were demos of some other neat services like this, but they haven't been announced publicly yet; you'll just have to wait :-)
Tags: ,

Apr. 2nd, 2016

devil duck

Bathroom laws

First, let's make clear that the commonly stated reasons for anti-trans bathroom laws are nonsense. "Lawmakers [in North Carolina] had said that they were trying to prevent men from dressing as women to enter bathrooms and commit assaults." (NY Times) Never mind the lack of evidence that this has ever been a significant problem; does anyone seriously expect that somebody who's willing to cross-dress in order to sneak into an opposite-sex bathroom in order to commit a serious felony will be stopped by a local ordinance or a misdemeanor law against entering that bathroom?

That said, there is a taboo in our society against men (by whatever criterion) in women's bathrooms, and women (ditto) in men's bathrooms; why? It's not an Ancient And Honorable Tradition: I haven't done a lot of research on it, but I suspect there was no such thing as a multi-user, single-sex bathroom until a few hundred years ago, and most of those were single-sex by virtue of being in single-sex religious or educational institutions; the opposite sex weren't supposed to be in the building, so there was no need to exclude them from the bathroom. The notion of multi-user, single-sex bathrooms in public places, I'm guessing, dates back maybe 150 years. The taboo doesn't apply at home, where most people have single-seaters that serve whoever gets there first. Some people are bothered by excreting in the same bathroom where an opposite-sex stranger has been recently or might be soon; others aren't. Some people are bothered by excreting in the presence of someone they know, even a sexual partner; others aren't. What really bothers people is being in the same room with a stranger of the opposite sex at the same time while one or both of you is excreting.

So why does "of the opposite sex" matter? One answer is "I don't want someone who might want to have sex with me to see/hear me more intimately than I have offered." Related but distinct: "I don't want someone I might want to have sex with to see/hear me more intimately than I have (yet) offered." In both cases, the "opposite sex" part follows only under the assumption that everybody is heterosexual. If you accept the fact that a substantial percentage of the population is sexually attracted to people with the same-shaped sex organs as themselves, no sex-organ-based or chromosome-based bathroom law will ever protect you from these concerns; the only safe solution is single-seaters. (Multiple well-insulated stalls sharing a sink is a possibility, and my employer has some of those, but many people seem to object to it on the slippery-slope theory.) So in a way, bathroom laws are just another way of desperately clinging to the fantasy that homosexuality doesn't exist and that "gender" is a nice clean concept in which chromosomes, physical sex organs, other physical and emotional attributes, clothing, social and economic roles, and interest in other people's sex organs all correlate perfectly.

I guess another answer would be "to prevent children seeing a kind of genitalia they haven't already seen on themselves." I'm not sure what end that is supposed to serve, unless you subscribe to the theory that the sight of a female body turns adolescent boys into volitionless rape machines, but realistically, anybody over the age of eight today who hasn't seen at least pictures of opposite-sex genitalia isn't trying.

An argument could be made specifically against men (physically larger and stronger, on average) in women's bathrooms, on grounds that they're low-visibility places where one might commit rape without witnesses. Of course, such a law won't prevent male-on-male rape (less common) or female-on-female rape (even less common), so at best this is only a crime reduction argument; to really prevent public bathrooms being used as safe spaces for rape, you need either single-seaters or high traffic. And, as mentioned before, the laws try to prevent a felony by wrapping it in a misdemeanor, which seems unlikely to have much effect.
devil duck

News flash: The Donald says something indisputably true

"The laws are set now on abortion and that's the way they're going to remain until they're changed."

NY Times

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