Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Theological Aside on Modern Liberalism and Christain Platonism

This is a subject that I hardly consider myself an expert on, but I do have a strong interest in religious history. I don't really consider myself religious, but I do take it seriously. And the main reason I take it seriously is that I have trouble understanding how we could have gotten from the slave holding, hierarchical, and patriarchal culture of the Greeks and Romans to modern western liberalism which takes as its guiding principle that all individuals deserve to be acknowledged as being morally autonomous, to be acted upon only with their own consent, and to be able to hold accountable those that act upon them without the Christian religion. Admittedly, we still have have a long way to go to disassemble those institutions that date from our wicked past but, despite some set backs, I look at the good so many people are doing today and see hope for the future.

Now, since my own faith is deeply tied up with the recognition that modern society has, for the first time, made a real effort to embody Christ's principles, primarily the golden rule (love they neighbor as thy love thyself, also I realize the term golden rule is non-Christian in origin and basically universal) but also other common biblical themes, such as our support for the poor, emphasis on non-violence, and recognition that we are each alike created in the image of God, I find myself particularly troubled that so many who claim to speak with a Christian voice see us as so fallen in comparison to past ages. Admittedly, we don't do so well on piety, but other eras were pious but fell far short of us on just about every other aspect of Christ's teachings. I am especially troubled to see so many claim that the modern concept of consent is non-Christian, for if one does not take consent seriously how is one to love one's neighbor? If one does not take another's autonomy seriously how is one to take seriously the idea that we are all created in the image of God? Accountability has less direct ties to scripture, but indirectly we see throughout the Bible Christ questioning the authority of those that claim position and wisdom in the ancient world. Without these hierarchies how can we organize ourselves without accountability?

So, in my view I see modern liberalism as congruent with Christ's teachings. Not to say there are not some difficult passages, but it is surely easier for us to approach scripture than it was for the Greeks and Romans. Our culture, while not an end point, is surely one that has been worked upon by Christ's teachings.

I should pause for a moment to make explicit my approach to Scripture since it is not fully orthodox. My assumptions are as follows:

1. Free will - while I have read many arguments against it I am not convinced that these discussions matter in its absence, so whether or not it is a defensible doctrine it is best to assume it and move forward

2. Context matters - God does not do things by accident. Christ was made man for a reason, we should take this seriously; not just through a spiritual perspective but as a hint at how we are to approach his teachings. He was made man in a specific time and place and his teachings are tied to it. We must understand that relations between his teachings and the culture of the time and place that he was teaching. To read his teachings as if he spoke these things today is to trivialize his incarnation.

3. Christ's is a living word. The gospels have acted on men throughout history individually and through them have reformed, to some degree, a sinful world. This is an ongoing process, but to take God seriously we must acknowledge that his Word has changed this world according to his plan.

4. God created a good world - While man can be evil, and throughout history has taken efforts to dominate others, deny the moral autonomy of others, and remove choice and consent from others, the actual world God made is good. God's world is congruent with God's teachings, it is the desire to place man over man, rather than God only over man, that leads to evil. If an interpretation of Scripture is at odds with our observation of the world, and with history, we must very carefully consider whether we are in error in our interpretation of either Scripture or of God's world.

Flowing from these assumptions I often find it difficult to stay silent when I hear those invoking God's name in support of ideas that I find antithetical to what I understand to be Christianity. Often, I have heard so called traditional Christians defend ideas that seem to me to be rooted in Roman paganism rather than Christianity. A recent post by Rod Dreher gave a specific form to this general impression. He quoted an essay by Michael Martin, the key sentences for me read thus,

"Indebted to Plato and his Christian Neoplatonist interpreters, realism affirms the existence of universals: abstract, general concepts possessing objective reality anterior to particulars. For realism, universals, that is, are real things (res). The ideas of ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ for instance, precede and inform the actualities of particular women and men."

Dreher goes on to say

Opponents of traditional Christians think we’re talking about morality when we talk about gender and sexuality, which, yes, we are. But more deeply, we’re talking about ontology. This may sound like philosophical jibber-jabber to you, but if you have any interest in being fair, and in understanding your opponents’ point of reference, you should explore this idea. 

I went through a period of a few years where I was somewhat rabidly anti-Christian. It was specifically because orthodox doctrine relied on these ontological concepts. However, after reading a great deal more history, then specifically Christian history, and finally reading more of the Bible I came to realize that Christ was specifically criticizing this ontological viewpoint. One must love God, and love one's neighbor, and recognize that we are all created in the image of God. This is antithetical to the idea that there is a universal abstraction of man or woman, within Scripture there are men, women, and those that are "born eunuchs." (Matthew 19:12). This isn't exactly a modern formulation, but it is clear enough that Christ recognizes that male and female are not a Platonic duality and it follows from observing God's creation that intersex people as well as people of diverse sexual presentations and gender actually exist.  God's creation doesn't fit neatly into Platonic categories, God's creation shows a continuum, not a duality, and while Scripture generally does not go out of its way to challenge pagan dualism and patriarchy regarding gender it doesn't explicitly deny the existence of a continuum and does, at least in places, specifically acknowledge the existence of those that do not follow the pagan formulation of sex and gender as universals.

Now, I get that orthodox theology borrows heavily from Platonism and Aristotelianism. But, once I read enough to consider the subject, it seems obvious why the effort to reconcile these doctrines with the Bible was so difficult, they aren't really compatible. Theology rooted in them must go to the same lengths to create a workable moral philosophy that Ptolemaic astronomy, with its Platonic roots, did to create a workable predictive astronomy creating a complex array of indirect relations to arrive at a workable system. However, abandoning the Platonic assumptions leads to much simpler solutions, such as the Copernican system.

This does mean that the reliance of the church on these philosophical doctrines need to be explained. But that is easy to do. Platonism and Aristotelianism play such a prominent role because it was necessary in order to convert people in the Graeco-Roman world to Christianity, in the same way that missionaries developed the Cyrillic alphabet, or adapted local stories to get people in them to take Christianity seriously. I just finished listening to Augustine's Confessions on audio book, something that struck me is that he specifically wrote about how important it was that Christianity was able to explain his world in a way that Manichaeism could not, something it could not have done if it did not adapt to the local philosophy. But I see this as being all it ever was.

Once people began to again explore God's world, rather than relying on the teachings of Aristotle, they found that God's world did not correspond to Aristotle's ideas. At this point, science has thoroughly refuted the Aristotelian and Platonic philosophical systems, if they could not explain the world, which they could directly observe, how is it that we should consider them experts on metaphysics? I am unable to believe that God would have so created a world that would actively deceive those that seek truth in it. It seems obvious that given a choice between believing in the reality of God's creation or the reality of a pagan's word that the choice for a Christian is obvious.

Now, to get back to the topic of sex and gender that gets so called traditional Christians so worked up, I would also note that at least most, I don't claim sufficient knowledge of the Bible to say all, instances where Christ addresses marriage and gender roles that Christ expands women's roles and autonomy relative to the practice of the day. I would note particularly 1 Corinthians 7:4
"The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to the husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife." Read in the context of the Roman world of the first century A.D. it is notable that a man already would have authority over his wife in this way, as would a father over his daughter. What is new is that this is being made reciprocal. Similar to much of Christ's teaching this seems to be simply applying the notion that one should love one's neighbor, or in this case, one's spouse, as they love themselves to a specific case. Also, it follows that using the Bible to restrict women's rights and autonomy is very different from using it to make the restrictions that women legally suffered under in Christ's day apply to men as well.

I really don't see the problem with applying this principle more generally, in my read of the Gospels the specific rules generally seem to be particular applications of Christ's general principles. Since this is an extremely unequal world, with hierarchy and the exercise of power justified by false doctrines such as Platonism and Aristotelianism the application of these rules often seems strange to us. But it is the Roman world that sees marriage as solely between that of a man and a woman, since Christ did not seek to reform laws but to reform men there would be no need to specifically address a legal situation that did not exist in his day. But it is easy enough to apply Christian principles to modern problems, we need only consult Scripture for an analogy. Where I see error occurring is when we take the laws and institutions that Christ is denouncing as models for today rather than seeing Christ's message as the application of Christian principles to evil institutions to advise his followers on how to live within a fallen world.

So I have great difficulty with granting Dreher his request to respect his ontology. I believe firmly that to love one's neighbor as thy love thyself requires recognizing another individual's moral autonomy, that they too are created in God's image, and that I must be accountable to them and ask their consent before I take any action involving them. In practical terms this means that I must recognize that I do not have the right to judge others, as the Platonic ontology seems to demand.

Religious liberty requires recognizing others moral autonomy, I do not get to judge for them what is sacred, I can only judge this for myself. I do not get to demand of others I can only seek their mutual consent and recognition. My, and their, religious liberty requires that we each accept the others autonomy and that we fulfill the roles given us in our common society, when we are in a role of power we must be accountable to those who are not. Christ consistently teaches that we have no right to exercise power over another, when society puts us in this position we must be as a servant and accountable to others. So a merchant, an official, or a business owner, is bound to respect the individual moral autonomy of their customers, citizens, or employees, they have no right to deny them their autonomy of moral choice and must fulfill their roles in a neutral fashion. In turn, when they are under the power of another, they too can claim that their autonomy be respected. So a merchant cannot deny their services to another of different beliefs, whether this is for a gay wedding or if it is a gay individual being asked to print a church missal. An official or business owner is likewise bound, being in a position of power they are the servant and must respect those they exercise authority over. Of course, within the church itself it is valid to demand that those who claim membership act in accordance with its teachings, so if a denomination does not recognize something as sacred, such as marriage between two persons of the same sex/gender, it is valid for a minister or priest to deny the sacrament as marriage since this directly involves the priest or minister acting in a sacred capacity as part of a church. But this is an easily distinguishable case from that of a business person interacting with their customers in a non-sacred capacity. Even if the customer believes something is sacred that the business person does not it follows only that the business owner treats this as non-sacred and acts in their normal capacity as a business person.

To wrap this up, I am somewhat chastened by remembering that Augustine did say in his confessions that we should recognize that others can have just as valid an interpretation as we do, and thus it is hard to deny Dreher's ontology. The problem I have with this, however, is that the Platonic ontology seems to foreclose on mine, by holding up ideas such as male and female as abstract, general concepts seems to be directly contrary to mine. They talk often of rigor and how difficult it is to adhere to these teachings. But this dismisses the rigor that comes with taking other people seriously and acknowledging their equal moral autonomy. There is a rigor in accepting that we must respect others autonomy, that the obligations that matter are those that are mutual and reciprocal, and that whenever we judge or exercise power that we must in turn be accountable to those we act upon. They seem to fail to understand that modern philosophy is not some kind of solipsistic worship of the self, rather it is about taking others seriously. And we could use the help of more religious moralizers, far too many are adrift through not having any authority figures to look up and teach them about how to apply modern liberalism in Christianity and in their daily lives.

So how can these doctrine's coexist? As religious conservative's keep pointing out, my belief that people must be treated as morally autonomous forecloses on their right to judge us upon our adherence to Platonic doctrine. By denying the right to judge, we do in fact judge.

Ultimately, I have to say that I do judge, I see throughout scripture the refutation of the Roman world that has come to dominate the land of Jesus's birth. I see nothing in the Scriptures that lead me to think that he does not include Platonism and Aristotelianism in this. As a historical matter reconciling the gospels to these doctrines was necessary. But this is so that Christ could be understood in native terms, there is no particular reason to think their systems of moral reasoning have any pride of place, rather the opposite. It is a simplification, but in general Medieval scholasticism sought to reconcile two things that were known to be true, the gospels and Aristotle's teachings, Aristotle was considered so important because he was thought to understand God's creation. But, once the scientific revolution refuted Aristotle the rationale for interpreting the Gospel's through an Aristotelian lens collapsed. I often hear conservative Christian's wonder why so many have turned from Christianity. I believe this is the answer, we are not Romans. Why would any modern person be convinced by a Christianity filtered through Graeco-Roman philosophy? Instead, the task still stands, to interpret Christ's teachings through the world that God has made. If the goal is a more Christian society this is the task that is set. Aristotle and Plato distract from this task, moreover, with people as transformed as they are it actively drives them away. Modern people see Platonic and Aristotelian reasoning as something wrong and repugnant when they encounter it. And they should! We are an improved people because of Christianity, it is not right that we fall back on these evil times. To misapply a Biblical quote, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mathew 22:21). As Caesar is dead it is time to bury his philosophy along with him. It is time to interpret God's Scripture through God's creation rather than through that pagan philosophy whose truth has been denied.

[Edited to correct some minor errors]

Monday, January 23, 2017

My Trump Nightmare

I've seen a number of posts recently trying to show some humility regarding Trump being a disaster and giving some boilerplate regarding hoping he does make things better. I had my own moment of this right after the election. Most of this seems to hinge on Trump using relatively traditional tools to enact economic and social policy. Now, if Trump backs away from everything he has said, I guess I have no problem with this position.

But, after some reflection, my thoughts are that I hope Trump doesn't succeed. Even in its mildest form a Trump success has the potential for people to associate racism and misogyny with economic success for a long time to come; this isn't a price I'm willing to pay for a bit of GDP growth.

My nightmare scenario comes from remembering that Hitler ushered in a pretty good economy for Germany before military reverses began to bite. While I don't think Trump will be another Hitler this has made me consider that there are a number of polices that are long term destructive that could let Trump meet some of his promises in the short term.

The first scenario would be a policy of explicitly targeting his supporters and screwing over everyone else. This isn't that uncommon in one party states. Given the level of support Trump received in rural areas, small towns, and small cities it seems not impossible for Trump to reallocate funds to benefit these areas at the expense of America's urban areas. Think the Japanese LDP's bridges and highways focused in rural areas.

To make this scenario a bit worse, imagine if Trump funded programs targeted to his supporters through discriminatory taxation policies. On a small scale this could be Federal excise taxes on things urban dwellers are more likely to buy, such as Uber rides, or it probably wouldn't be impossible with a unified House, Senate, and Judiciary to cut off funding for liberal states while leaving it in place for conservative states provided some paper thin justification is given. Simultaneously, we could see an income tax surcharge on immigrants followed by making it more difficult to gain US citizenship. Trump could also balance the budget in the short term by selling off assets such as Federal land. In a real pinch he could even resort to tax farming to recognize multiple years of tax receipts during his time in office, like the city of Chicago did when it gave the rights to collect parking meter fees to a private firm.

To continue my trip into economically successful nightmare, imagine if Trump started using forced labor. Detained immigrants could be leased to companies for below market wages. Prison work programs could be expanded. Welfare programs, including food stamps and Medicaid, could have work requirements added complete with a waiver for the minimum wage for these workers. To add to these, new laws, beginning with anti-press legislation, could be drafted which would provide legal mechanisms to seize companies that offend Trump and sell them off to the highest bidder.

To complete my decent into nightmare, Trump could also embark on a campaign of outright plunder. He has brought up Iraq's oil more than once. I believe it seems obvious to most people that war costs more than it could possibly return, but remember that Trump also seems enthralled by our nuclear weapons. While it is far too costly to hold large population centers, a complete monster could simply nuke these and then embark on ethnic cleansing to clear out any remaining people in the area that has the oil. This would be rather economical and help Trump to hit his impossible growth targets.

Very little of this is stuff that I think has any chance of happening. However, when people write that they hope a racist, misogynist, authoritarian warmonger succeeds economically they should be stopping to consider that such a person will not feel restrained by liberal democratic norms. We have seen many dictators in the third world that managed a few economically successful years as a result of policies that we find highly distasteful. This isn't good for these countries in the long term but if you have no respect for others it is not difficult to post good economic results for a few years by simply taking what others have.

So I hope he fails, if a racist succeeds in his policies it opens the way for the next one to do something worse, this is a script we have seen before. The only path to long term growth lies through inclusiveness but Trump reminds us that we can achieve personal success through hate and divisiveness. I don't want to see this extended into the economic sphere, this creates a world whose horror we haven't seen in decades. Again, none of the above seems likely but I think it needs pointing out that economic success over two or four years can be obtained through policies that are horrible to contemplate; judging Trump solely on economic performance just isn't enough.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What If A Real Populist Had Run?

My second take on Trump, which I never got around to writing, boils down to the observation that Trump offered rural whites an explanation as to what has caused them to fall so far behind and a way to reassert control over their own lives. While his explanation is bullshit, it's at least an explanation. Democrats offered concrete policy improvements but they didn't offer what mattered to voters, an explanation, a solution, and most critically a way to have some control over their lives, such as whether or not their local plant closed. My impression is that rural voters are a lot less worried about wages than they are about the mere continued existence of their jobs; in low wage, less urbanized areas a higher wage through policies such as a minimum wage hike could often be seen as a threat to the continued existence of the crap job that's at least a job.

But what if Democrats had offered something more concrete then the 30 second hate offered by Trump about devious, cheating foreigners stealing our jobs through some magical, unspecified mechanism? The following is a brief outline of the dream speech of my idealized next populist candidate. Warning, it's NSFW, I believe that a key way to connect with low information voters is to violate elite norms, swearing like a sailor is a norm violation that doesn't involve racism and misogyny.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What if Politics Can't Deliver What Americans Voted For?

While I don't agree with it, part of the purpose of the electoral college is to prevent "tyranny of the majority" and to make sure that a President takes into account a strong, unified minority. That seems to have happened with this election.

While we are still waiting for more data, my first take on this is that the much wider margins in rural voters was a key point. I am sure we have all read far too many articles about how rural voters feel ignored and that policy isn't responding to them.

If you can excuse my strong language, while the feeling is obviously real, this is complete bullshit. As long as I've been conscious of politics we've been deluged with articles about real Americans. Small town citizens have been shown as the quintessential American for most of my life; though I think this has begun to change over the past few years. The Federal governments spends at least as much on rural citizens as it does on urban ones; though the exact ratios depend on if you only count direct subsidies, which according to some analyses are slightly lower for rural citizens, or if you also count the siting of Federal facilities, such as prisons and military bases, whose sites are often chosen partly for consideration of the jobs they bring.

Now, this doesn't change the fact that rural areas are suffering, both in absolute and comparative terms. I've written before about slow income and job growth in rural areas and there is a great deal of evidence that rural areas have been growing slower than urban areas and losing relative, and in recent years, absolute population.

While I ultimately have to agree with Chris Dillow that we have to hope that Trump succeeds in helping these areas to recover and grow, angry people are likely to stay mobilized and vote against progressive reform, I don't believe that there is any real chance of his policies succeeding.

But not just his policies, I don't think there are any policies that would help rural areas catch up to urban. Clinton had numerous policies that would help rural communities and constituencies that they particularly care about, like veterans. It would have helped if the press had covered actual issues and policies, but it is notable that Obama has tried to do a lot for these communities as well. But the new policies proposed seem far too minor to close the gap, and the policies that have been enacted obviously haven't done the job.

To me, the deeper issue is that there is no political solution to their relative decline. Something I gathered from my MBA courses is that the advantages to density, human capital, and diversity are becoming much more powerful forces in modern society. A modern business needs a diverse set of specialists to succeed, it needs an accounting group that can use a modern ERP system that can interface with major vendors, it needs people that can properly use CRM systems, management that can integrate all of this additional information, and IT personnel that can keep it all running. In an urban environment a small business has a decent shot at cobbling this together through a combination of outsourcing and strategic hires. 

However, there just aren't that many urban professionals that want to move to rural areas. It doesn't help that most of these rural areas or small towns have businesses that attempt to specialize in the low cost sections of the market. Back when I was looking for a job I would see insanely low wage posting week after week asking for someone with good educational credentials and experience to come work in these areas, it didn't look to me like many of these ever got filled. While there are a lot of young graduates looking for work, the problem is that most of these small businesses needed someone that could function as the entire department themselves, this required someone with experience. And someone with experience would only move for a huge premium, like what my wife sees when she looks at rural medical jobs paying 2 to 3 times the salary of what we can make in a metro area.

So, the bottom line to my mind is that the problem rural areas are facing is due to changing economies of scale and to competitive pressures changing businesses from being organized around production to being organized around processing information.* My fear is that Trump's policies will fail, likely making the situation worse, and that Trump's supporters will simply become further enraged by the political system's inability to restore what they feel the natural order is. 

What happens after this I don't know. I don't think there is any set of policies that can win over Trump's supporters because I don't think there is any set of policies that will work or even seem plausible to them. But it seems difficult to get urban and inner ring suburban voters to turn out in the necessary numbers to win elections against united white, rural opposition. My only small consolation is that myself, and most of my friends and relatives, are well off enough to be sheltered by the direct negative consequences of this election. But I worry a great deal of what happens over the next several years.

*This needs some explanation. Basically, my view is that with capital so abundant there are too many concentrations of capital able to produce goods chasing too little demand. What distinguishes businesses is their ability to process, and act on, information. So no matter how good of a product you make and how hard your work force works it isn't worth anything if you can't gather, analyze, and act on timely market information. And that process relies on people that just don't want to live in rural areas.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Trump, Trust, and Our Political Divide

I was reading an article about trust today and it made something I've observed both anecdotally and in articles about the election click for me. Something I've noticed in sales meetings and some other interactions is that, very broadly speaking, there are two essentially different ways that people go about establishing trust (there are many potential other ways to divide this phenomenon, my interest here is in this one particular divide). One is to establish that you have something in common with each other, often through actions with cultural significance such as a firm handshake or bringing up a controversial subject and seeking agreement (such as "locker room talk"). The other way is to simply stay focused on the goal of the interaction, establish the framework of rules that govern it, and to build out from there.

While some people function well in both worlds, in my experience it's not that uncommon for people to have very strong feelings one way or the other. The most awkward professional interactions I've been a part of have a resulted from the clash of these two sets of expectations. A couple of examples would be someone who harangued several people, rather loudly, about the most recent book they read denying global warming and someone who had everyone, including a couple of people who were non-Christian, to say grace at a work lunch. There are lots of smaller instances, but the attempts to establish rapport through these methods can fall very flat and make everyone awkward. I am sure that someone else could have examples from the other side, I've experienced some push back from being more standoffish and not wanting to get too personal, but my preferences are pretty strong towards formal structures so I can't speak for the other side.

What this has to do with Trump and the election is that I think this represents a fairly fundamental divide in outlook, as well as something that at least a portion of Trump supporters feel they stand to lose. Their frequent complaints regarding political correctness remind me of this, opening a professional interaction with an off color joke or controversial topic is something I've run into enough to realize this is a real problem for many people. But my experiences have also led me to believe that it is generally meant to be friendly, they're doing this to establish rapport. But instead of gaining trust with strangers they are instead met with hostility. From a liberal perspective there is a sense that you can't work with someone if they don't take the time to actually listen and understand you, someone that charges in with an off color joke marks them as someone that will be difficult to work with. From the other side, the formalism liberals insist on is often off putting, an attitude I've run into is that the formalism and paperwork is somehow being used to hide things or trick them (how disclosure is supposed to hide something that could instead be sussed out with a firm handshake, a drink after the deal is made, and some non-pc bullshitting is beyond me but I have met people that feel this way).

My observation is that these people are growing increasingly enraged at the increasing dominance of formal structures and at the corresponding narrowing of their world. They come from a culture which sees their habits as being strong positives, they are surprised and upset when the joke that was well received back home makes them pariahs at a national sales meeting or conference. Then, when they get home they are left feeling that godless liberals hate Christians,* never considering how their actions look to the diverse crowd they are interacting with. At the same time, when they are at these events they often express scepticism, they often express doubt regarding the presenter and this leads them to doubt the rest of the presentation, whatever the facts presented are (I admit I am stereotyping from a few anecdotal observations, but it is consistent with what I've read about the far right's attitude towards a number of subjects).

Something these experiences have led me to realize is that navigating the more formal structures involved with interacting with diverse people is a learned skill. It is second nature to people that have lived in diverse areas, it just seems natural to pay attention to how another person is acting and what they are saying to discern how it is best that we interact. But I've realized this isn't natural for everyone, some people just barge ahead and act the same way towards everyone, often in a way that someone else will find offensive. It reminds me of the article that was talking about rural Trump supporters and describing how they felt like they were doing everything right but that others were cutting ahead of them.

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems like these people think that there should be a certain way that you act and then you're OK; they just don't get that doing everything right means recognizing the agency of others and actively involving them in building up discussions and ways of doing things. Instead, they want there to be a set of rules that they're OK if they follow and that they can judge others for if others don't follow. But this is the anti-thesis of modern liberalism which demands that others be given respect, which means actually involving them rather than just judging them. And people are enraged that they're being asked to adapt to a world that they never learned how to interact with; especially since it's one that doesn't recognize their rules and that keeps calling what they call right, wrong.

Given the very different conceptions of what it takes to build trust, and right and wrong more generally (since I somehow ended up there), I don't find it surprising that both sides are talking past each other. But I don't see how this is resolved either, treating other people as having agency inherently means that you can't simply hold people up to a code,** and vice versa. There simply isn't a possible compromise, these moral positions are mutually exclusive.

*I have heard people say that Christians are disliked a few times. I have never seen or heard anyone make an anti-Christian comment about someone that professed religious belief or did something like cross themselves and say grace over their lunch. What I have heard is outrage when someone doesn't bother to try to be sensitive to people around them, it's really rude to just assume that other people share your beliefs and to make them say grace with you. YOU ARE MAKING THEM TAKE THEIR GOD, AND YOUR GOD, IN VAIN!!!! In my experiences these actions are well meant, the person is just so sheltered that they can't really conceive that they are surrounded by people who hold different deeply held beliefs. But it really shows that you don't really care to learn about the people around you, respect their beliefs, or to involve them in deciding even the little things, like how to eat their lunch.

** Well, beyond a minimal code like respect others, be tolerant, and follow rules once established. This means, of course, that just about the only thing that can't be tolerated is intolerance or attempting to wield power over someone else without accountability and consent. But traditional morality is largely about assigning roles, thus removing agency, and about stipulating who has power over whom. So about the only rule that the liberal perspective has is at the core of the more traditional culture. Another area where compromise seems defeated at the start.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Trying to Wrap My Head Around Trump 1st Take

This is my attempt to wrap my head around the appeal of Donald Trump. I have two different takes on this dealing with what I think are distinctly different sources of support. I'm going to be tying my anecdotal experiences to what I've seen of Trump on TV and what I've read in the news.

My first take on Trump comes from a certain type of business owner I've run into frequently in sales, both in person when I worked in Toledo and around the country when I've worked the phones. This is the type of guy that is going to buttonhole anyone he can to spout right wing propaganda and decorates his office with Ayn Rand books, Republican calendars, and Gadsden flags. Not to mention some of the more unsavory racist stuff I've heard a few of this type spout.

Something I've noticed in doing business with these types is that they always seem to make business very personal. Their business approach emphasizes personal relationships and doing business locally. They're the kind that prefers to do business with a handshake and dislikes the paperwork and formality associated with modern business. They're not the kind to have up to date ERP or CRM systems that are able to extract the maximum value from their knowledge base and business operations. Instead, their approach, which I personally find unprofessional and off-putting, is to try to establish a bond with the people they're interacting with. Their message is always that we're just like each other, sharing similar beliefs, political views, etc. and establishing the bond of being minor common criminals together through expressing anti-PC views, usually tinged with racism and sexism.*

In working with these folks, something I've often heard is how under threat they feel from big business. They often see the competition as unfair, they're firmly grounded in their communities and see the outside competition as an interloper. And they don't know what to do about it; they simply don't have the skill sets necessary to add value to their business beyond their personal relationships and their capital. But they don't see it this way. Instead, for all their talk about free markets, they seem to see business through a prism of personal relationships, while they may feel that they're a pillar of the community locally they seem to assume that all of business runs this way and that they're simply closed off from the important networks and that they'd be a smashing success if only they could get the right contacts.

Trumps rise has strongly reminded me of this kind of person. Trump seems to be this kind of small time operator scaled up massively. For this kind of person I think he confirms their view of business, it isn't the impersonal transactions of the market, using technology to leverage information, or efficiencies gained through careful planning that matter, instead it's the mano-e-mano cut and thrust of one on one deal making and the relationships made through a life time of business that matter. Trump confirms for them that they're right about how the world works, Trump knows the best people and he's successful because of his personal qualities, not because of running a tight business organization. Given these assumptions he must confirm for these folks what they "know" deep down, that they are falling behind because coastal elites have reserved the important networks for themselves and locked people like them out. They're pissed off because they see programs like affirmative action providing an alternate way into these networks that are closed off to them. They want access to these networks and they see Trump shaking things up enough that there might be some openings. Especially if trade is reduced, then those business elites will have to do business with them because they can't turn to Europe or China for suppliers and will have to turn to the small businesses in the US.

Just to make sure it's clear, I don't see all or even most small business owners as thinking this way. In truth, many of them are finding valuable niches in the modern economy. But these businesses are nothing like what I've described above. They tend to be professional, have skilled people able to leverage low cost technology options, and are able to work with people that aren't like themselves. One particular example I remember was a four man shop I walked into that specialized in doing custom work for China. These folks were the polar opposite of the kind of guy that would buttonhole me to talk about whatever Limbaugh has been going on about that day. So it isn't a small business thing, but if you're going to try to build your business on nothing but relationships with people like you its a given that you're never going to be anything but small. We live in a world that big or small you just can't get by acting like a Trump style business; our world no longer has a place for these people. And there's a lot of them and they're really, really mad about the fact that the world has changed to favor people that know how to work in an environment where trust is established through formal agreements rather than through bullshitting in a smoky back room.

Monday, March 14, 2016

What Are Their Self-Interests Anyway?

It has been a long time since I wrote a post. I started a new job as an auditor and that has been leaving me sufficiently occupied to not feel the bug to write. It has also meant this has taken a rather long time to finish writing, I have retained references from before it was obvious Trump would dominate the Republican primary. I must also note that I am not trying to explain Trump here, his appeal does not appear to differ significantly between rural and urban areas, but rather to look at how the Republican Party as a whole may be representing the interests of the people that vote for them and not just the donor class.

However, I have been bothered by the re-emergence, more so in comment threads than in articles or blog posts, that right wing voters do not recognize or vote for their own best interest. I have read some excellent writing on how class and race play into this to define interests beyond income but what really jumps out at me regarding the identify of the right wing are maps like this which shows how concentrated Democratic voters are, primarily in urban counties, though the northeast and some other areas are exceptions:

2012 Presidential Election by County.svg
"2012 Presidential Election by County" by Kelvinsong - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons.

This leads me to believe that to understand what is happening in the right wing, and with political polarization more generally, we need to look through the lens of rural vs. urban America. The lenses of class and race, while relevant to these problems, miss many aspects of the urban and rural divide.

Looking through this lens we see very different lived experiences. While Obama could rightly state during his State of the Union Address that the US unemployment rate has been cut in half during his presidency this likely rang hollow to many rural voters. While US urban employment had risen above its pre-recession level by 2014, rural employment remained 3.2 points below its pre-recessionary level in 2015 (page 1 and 2). Furthermore, the period of 2010-2014 marks the first time that rural America as a whole has faced population declines, with a loss of 116,000 people over this period. While overall poverty rates are comparable with past history in rural areas, the poverty rate for children living in rural areas has continued to climb through the recession and recovery, from 21.9% in 2007 to 24.2% in 2009 and to a further 25.2% in 2014 (page 3). Poverty in working age adults has risen from 14.6% in 2007 to 17.6% in 2014 (page 3). This was offset in declines in poverty rates among seniors. (both links in the paragraph are to USDA Rural America at a Glance report)

These statistics reflect a reality that many liberal pundits are missing when they react to Republican statements such as Bush's "The idea that somehow we're better off today than the day that Barack Obama was inaugurated president of the United States is totally an alternative universe," or Kasich's "In this country, people are concerned about their economic future... And they wonder whether somebody is getting something to — keeping them from getting it." A few hours outside their urban liberal bastions lies an America a few hours outside of urban America which has a declining population, job numbers that haven't recovered to pre-recession levels, businesses permanently closed, and at least in some areas (my knowledge is anecdotal) property values which continue to decline. (quotes from MotherJones, also see MSNBC for another liberal article striking the same theme) While these statements do not reflect America as a whole, I have little doubt that many conservative politicians are hearing from supporters who feel everything is getting worse for themselves and for just about everyone like them. They aren't sharing even in the little bit of prosperity being experienced in urban and suburban areas, instead they are in both absolute and relative decline. They feel that people not like them, and from the rhetoric I think this would include urban hipsters and pundits as well as other groups, are receiving all the gains and that they are being left out. In their view, they want to be listened to and important, like they were through most of America's history, and resent being left behind.

In addition to this recent decline, liberals should consider that rural areas, particularly in the south, had very different experiences in the past as well. Liberals tend to hold up the high wage, high security union jobs in the rust belt cities as an ideal to go back to, however, much of the initial de-industrialization came from competition from more rural, and particularly southern and western, areas where companies could pay lower wages and labor had more difficulty organizing. The experiences of these areas was that union-busting and long, hard work for less saved towns and small cities that seemed doomed due to declining employment in agriculture and other resource extracting activities. Many corporations and businessmen who would be decried by liberals for their labor practices are looked at much more positively by people that depend on that plant for the survival of their town.

This translates into support for policies that liberals consistently claim is not in these people's best interests. However, if your interest is in preserving your community, your property, and your way of life it may be entirely consistent to support low taxes on the rich, low wages, and low regulation; after all, these are the policies that attracted to the local factory to your town in the first place. It may seem very likely in these cases that supporting more of the same is the only path forward that would preserve the things these people value most.

Now, we can recognize that this was always an unstable equilibrium. In practice companies used these areas as leverage to lower labor standards, environmental regulation, and wages throughout the U.S.; for instance 25 states now have right to work laws removing the comparative advantage that states gained by pioneering these laws. Wage growth has been slow for decades eroding the cost differences between states for low skill manufacturing jobs. Furthermore, international competition has left a very small gap in which these companies can exist, there has to be a reason for these companies to stay in the US rather than seek even lower wages elsewhere but not a need for them to locate in a higher productivity area with more access to specialized skills. For the US as a whole, trying to be a low cost competitor means pay cuts and a much worse quality of life to most of us, but it may be entirely consistent that pursuing this strategy would be in the interest of rural communities having trouble competing in the modern economy.*

But what alternative do rural areas have? Even in the best days their low wage, low tax strategy meant that they never had the revenue necessary to build up the infrastructure, institutions, and human capital necessary to be competitive in the knowledge economy. Due to these deficits in investment as well as the disadvantage of low population density, these rural communities lack the diversity of skilled professionals needed to staff a well managed business as well as lacking the close proximity to related businesses and customers that fosters innovation. A movement back towards unionization, higher wages, and stricter regulation on a nationwide scale threatens the only business model available to these communities, in these conditions what business would choose not to locate near an urban area?

These concerns also tie in with the cultural issues that have become so prominent in Republican rhetoric. This subject deserves a full post on its own, which I may or may not get around to writing, but reading a lot of Rod Dreher ( and Ross Douthat ( has caused me to reflect on how modern values are causing great harm to some communities. However, their perspective runs into the fact that, in aggregate, kids these days are doing better on pretty much everything (see Healthcare Triage for the most recent thing I've seen on this). In aggregate, adults are doing better too, crime rates are down and marriages are more stable. My view on this is increasingly shaped by an urban vs rural divide, traditional morality taught how to live life in a small, rural community. The modern norms we see developing through campus protests and other forms of activism are about how to live in a modern, urban setting. But only one of the two sets can be normative across a society as a whole, and as urban and suburban views become more dominant people that live in and prefer small town and rural life naturally feel dislocated and marginalized.

These issues have created a large minority who are left feeling that no one is responding to their problems. Despite net income flows to their communities from government they see the communities they live in crumbling around them. They grew up with an image of small town America being America's true self, they feel dislocated in a country that is increasingly presenting a suburban and urban face to the world. They don't see either government or business responding to their concerns, and they are very, very angry about this especially because they see their version of America as being the true America, and they can point to support going back to Thomas Jefferson for this view. They are looking for someone to blame for their fall from influence, it appears that it has become easy to focus this on outsiders but they also cast blame on moochers in their midst, such as those receiving government assistance. It would be hard for them to admit that there is simply no way to develop these areas and that many of those on government assistance are likely those who feel too closely tied to their community to look elsewhere for work.

This leads to the deep problem however, there is no plausible policy path within US political traditions to help these regions. A report by the St. Louis Fed finds that convergence to the national average income across people is driven by urbanization, they find that non-metros areas converge to a lower income. They state the prospects for non-metro areas very bluntly, "Our results provide evidence that the idea of preserving rural economies while achieving significant gains in per capita income (or slowing divergence) in the long run appears to be far-fetched." (Income Convergence and in the United States, page 12) It is worth noting that things have only gotten worse in rural areas since 2008 relative to the rest of the United States. Most policy paths that could have helped are now no longer possible, I remember back when I was an undergrad taking economics courses hearing about how terrible the employment preserving European Common Agricultural Policy was compared to our efficiency focused policies; however, as I grow older I am forced to reflect on the fact that an awful lot of people desire to live in rural communities and that it is rather peculiar that our socio-economic system has little way of prioritizing how people want to live but instead only what they want to purchase. People feel the political system has failed them because it cannot preserve their communities, they are enraged because they see that the political system is helping many people build and maintain stable communities in urban areas; communities they do not desire to be part of. Ultimately, however, I don't see how the system can respond to their desires. Even a Japan style massive building program would be temporary and it wouldn't stop the kids from wanting to leave. Government can help stabilize urban communities because they ultimately have the density to support the modern, highly complex production process that businesses require to be competitive. Rural areas don't so there is no political fix available.

You can get mad and you can block responses to the problems of an increasingly urbanized America trying to adapt to the dominance of multi-national firms, but there just isn't anything to bring back a country dominated by small towns and small businesses so there is nothing for a political party focused on America's small towns and rural areas to do but block and obstruct. The problems these areas face aren't fixable so the party that does nothing is acting in the interests of their constituents by doing the only thing they can, holding back everyone else so they at least lose slower than they would if America's problems were addressed. And with no prospect for better wages in an area whose competitive advantage is low costs, a tax cut may represent the only chance for an increase in real take home pay, so there's some small prospect of improvement there.

*I don't mean for it to sound like all rural areas are suffering. Rural areas blessed with outdoor amenities are doing quite well. In addition to attracting tourists they also attract well educated individuals lucky enough to have jobs that they can do remotely. However, this does nothing for an old coal town or agricultural community, instead it generally means the growth of new areas and the growth of these new communities is likely masking an even sharper decline in the health of older rural communities in the aggregate statistics.