26 April 2016

Inequality and voting

Bernie Sanders made a hilariously poorly framed statement. Effectively blaming the lack of poor people voting for why his campaign has faired relatively poorly (or at least, isn't winning). One obvious problem with this is that Sanders has not done any better among those voters who are poor and have shown up to vote. There are reasons for that.

I propose that this was a fundamental flaw all along with his campaign. That it was unlikely to appeal to many people who are among the poorest Americans. The reason, to me, was that he was not running a campaign based on the issues that matter to such people. He was running a campaign based on issues that matter to relatively well off white middle class voters. Of the sort one encounters in Vermont.

For example. Most of the poorest Americans live in fairly awful school districts for K-12 primary education. A campaign which promises free college tuition is meaningless to most of these people as their children would not be provided with basic skills and knowledge necessary to be modestly successful at navigating through college and graduating in the first place. The problem of inequality as it relates to college is that a high school diploma has become economically useless, and the reason is that the perception is that most such schools are poorly qualified at providing useful skills to employers. There are lots of ways to try to fix that, some of which may even help and work to improve education and even the possibility of college and a decent living for hundreds of thousands of children. Paying for the college educations of legions of already reasonably well educated suburban children isn't one of these. It is not surprising that it is popular (among recent college graduates, and some professors). But it has little relevance to the problems of the majority of Americans suffering from poverty. It should not be surprising it doesn't catch on as a special message for the poor.

This problem continues throughout. Sanders has made considerable claims about the fairness of campaign funding. But the actual problem for poorer Americans is liable to be ballot access. They can't take off work to go vote (on a Tuesday). If they even can vote (if they have been removed from registration, or have a criminal record, for example). Various states have made it more and more difficult to vote early, or to vote by mail, or even to register to vote. Politicians may certainly be swayed by money and influence, but they're mainly swayed by votes, on the theory that they would like to remain in office. If legions of poorer voters were to show up or be able to show up and vote, one expects this may influence the behavior of some political figures. Middle class voters may wish to feel like their smaller sums may fund better campaigns, but the actual and immediate problem is ballot access, not influence access.

Meanwhile there is not much evidence that more people voting or more access on campaign funding via semi public methods or funds matches has any noticeable effect on the progressivism of governance voters receive. Maine does some of the stuff Sanders seems to like. Maine also has one of the few people in America possibly more insane than Drumpf as its elected and currently serving governor. There may be other good reasons to amend how elections and lobbying are funded. But the formation of some kind of "progressive revolution" is not one of them. Voters who don't vote aren't very progressive (except on economics, where they are often socialistic), and are apt to endorse all manner of biases and prejudices that we probably don't want or will have to fight in court. This is the messy business of democracies is that voters have wacky ideas. Some of them are wrong via prejudices or at best woefully misinformed. This is not necessarily their fault (in some cases), as they have little reason to become well-informed. Non-voters are typically even worse on this score, as they have had even less reason to become well-informed. We should not expect that merely getting more people to vote will have mainly predictable and beneficial outcomes for our society and its civic virtues. This is a silly belief in the rationality of voters toward voting in their self-interest. Something many of them do not in fact try to do. Many people vote out of a sense of civic virtue and simply do not agree on what would best create a better and more prosperous society. Often resulting in what we have as governance. This is not fixed by encouraging more people to vote and having to resolve more of these disagreeable notions.

Railing about bankers and the rich as Sanders often does has its amusing charm I'm sure, but it offers little sustaining fuel for what comes next, and it often rejects things bankers and rich people want on the grounds that it is bankers and rich people who want it. This is not sensible. But it also isn't the variety of inequality which seems to preoccupy most people. Most people have no idea how Bill Gates lives. Or Jamie Diamond. Etc. This does not violate some sense of fairness or attainable goals as a result. They do have some idea how their friends and neighbours and former classmates and co-workers live. The sort of inequality which dominates most people's time and attention and energy is "am I keeping up with my peers"? "Am I able to live in accordance with my perceived shared values?" This is difficult to make into a policy, much less a stump speech. But I suspect it occupies more of daily concern and thought for most people. There's clearly some sense that the game is being rigged, but it is many millions of miles away from our lived experiences in many cases. It is an abstraction, often involving complex legal and regulatory schemes. Our friends, or some random people we know across town doing much better than us, or seeming to via facebook, is a much more accessible emotional problem. I don't understand this variety of envy as naturally sensible, and it obviously affords little comfort in the form of government intervention. But I also don't understand concern over extremely wealthy people necessarily either. Unless we have clear evidence that they are gaining that wealth through misbegotten strategies and tactics at the expense of others, and there are cases that this would be (US sugar or corn farmers for example), I'm not really concerned that some people are outrageously successful. This is not by and large something that deeply disturbs many Americans that some people can get very rich, even among people who are pretty poor. For Sanders, it appears to be. This is not likely to be a connection people will make readily as a result.

A final problem. Perhaps the main one ultimately. Sanders has had difficulty making inroads with minorities, particularly African-Americans. I have read more times than I can count over the last few months that his policies would be of tremendous benefit to such people and why don't they like them or vote for him, as a disturbing example of whitesplaining I suppose. There are a litany of problems with this variety of statement, but a simple objection suffices: the things Sanders and his fans seem most animated about aren't the priority of this community to fix and address. The priority might be something like "we want a police force that doesn't brutalize and kill us and feel like an occupying army in our neighbourhoods". Or "we want the ability to start a business and get a fair loan to do so". "We want our children to be able to go to a decent school to prepare them for their future". There are basic forms of survival and prosperity which have gone unmet and are in need of serious improvement, and these problems cut beyond some version of class warfare that Sanders believes is necessary; they have ethnic and historical roots that are not merely the behavior and intentions of rich people to put in place and accost people for. The prejudices are deeper and broader than that. These issues are as a result often very disconnected from the types of policies and politics which Sanders and his supporters have put forward most often and most readily. Certainly it seems unclear that Clinton offers policies that may adjust these situations in a positive way. She has not endorsed many Black Lives Matter positions as part of her platform, and has a track record that is sketchy at best where race and criminal justice are involved. But neither does Sanders offer some version of an improvement on many of these questions (a possible exception is the drug war, which he seems slightly less enthusiastic about continuing to wage). In that instance, people may go with the devil they know.

One way to look at these questions however is to say that often inequality as a political issue does not seem well connected to inequality as a social issue. It therefore does not resonate the way a political figure believes it will when they talk about it. The reason is fairly simple. Most political figures do not know very many poor people. Or many people from ethnic or religious minorities. This makes it more complicated for them to connect their message in a way that actually feels like it would impact the plight of people who are marginalized and not well off economically. Much policy is then crafted almost entirely in the absence of asking how it would actually impact the people involved, or whether it actually addresses their needs and concerns. A paternalistic "we know better than they what they need/want" attitude also pervades these conversations with notions of "people voting against their self-interest" and the like. Little of this probably feels like it relates to the lived experiences of actual people who are poor.

A note on bathrooms

Much fussiness has arisen over who gets to use which bathroom. This seems incredibly paranoid and silly at best, but mainly doesn't seem like something that requires laws. Which is to say: transgendered persons have been using bathrooms of their choice and intention for years without much in the way of public complaint or incident. Nobody really noticed or cared. Why this arises now? Most probably because anti-gay bigotry is less popular to express, but some version of it still demands expression. This is as close as some people can get. Laws restricting the behavior of homosexuality are unenforceable and unlikely to pass muster in courts. Trans persons are a relative unknown, very few people know much about the biology involved (and people's eyes will glaze over when you try to explain the available neuroscience to them), and they represent an even smaller minority that is thus easier to pick on. Any legal fight is still perceived as uncertain.

What we are seeing is that there is a strong cultural fight ongoing, where businesses and liberals and progressives are (generally) allies, social conservatives are off on a strange island, and there is some number of people in the middle who don't yet know what to think of any of this and perhaps harbor vaguely creepy and uninformed notions about who or what transgender means in society and as a set of behaviors. As with abortion, this physical and moral uncertainty (and even fear) can sometimes privilege very restrictive legal actions that are inappropriate or unnecessary, even as an intention to alleviate some alleged social or health related problem. To be clear, I feel I know very little about this subject myself. I've written about it before with some circumspection. What I do know suggests very little of the public debate has had anything to do with the behavior of transgendered persons, the reasons for it, the norms enforcing that behavior, or really much of anything with respect to the actual fears of people involved.

There are pretty strong norms about bathroom use; that someone going into the women's restroom should look like they belong in that space for example. But even these allow for some things like a parent taking small children into the "wrong" bathroom, or women using the men's room stalls at large events (sports or concerts), and so on. Creating laws which might rigidly define who can use what bathroom seems typically unnecessary. Social conventions are quite capable of handling this question in a "common sense" way without messily involving the law and its blunt instruments of gender assignments. And the implication of law is that somehow we must be enforcing these restrictions. Using what methods? This is a question generally left unexamined. Would we punish women who look insufficiently feminine for using the "wrong bathroom"? How would we even tell someone who has had sex reassignment therapy or surgery is in the "wrong space"? Is someone going to be assigned to check IDs? Or check people's bits? Again, social norms will tend to enforce these conventional situations more than adequately without these mixed up scenarios.

The creepy "men will get dressed up as women to watch women peeing" or some such narrative pushed by many men on this point makes no sense in relation to this subject. Men can already do this. They generally don't. In large part because social norms and (yes) laws will punish such behavior. And in any case, there's plenty of this rather odd sexual fetish available relatively freely on the internet (presumably including varieties where men have dressed up as women). Mostly this suggests something is wrong with the person making this argument, that they think this is something people would suddenly start to do that they somehow cannot right now. It has little to do with what makes someone transgendered that someone "decides" to use a "different" bathroom, much less for the purpose of creepily staring at women or children. Such a conversation is like speaking a different language with an alien species and rarely amounts to productive conclusions.

There isn't in fact very much danger in public restrooms for sexual abuse. Upon women or children. Think about what this argument suggests for a moment. A random stranger, someone totally unknown to a woman or child, will sneak into an inappropriate bathroom where there may be an unknown quantity of persons within, often doing so in full view of store security or video surveillance, and most likely with a guardian, friend, or parent nearby to the person they wished to target for abuse, who then will have ample opportunity to resist and to call for help in a public location where other human beings might hear them and assist. There are many reasons that sexual abuse is nearly always perpetrated by someone known to the victim (for children, the percentage of known abusers approaches 95%. Random assaults or even kidnappings are vanishingly rare). But these are all pretty strong arguments against the fear of random strangers in public bathrooms, not arguments in favor of laws relating to who can use what restroom. We are imagining a fear that doesn't actually exist, and not creating a new scenario that didn't already exist by allowing people to use the bathroom in which they are personally most comfortable. More to the point, rates of sexual assault itself have been declining. The actual danger being identified, a risk of something untoward happening while someone is in the vulnerable position of relieving their body of physical waste, is already unlikely, and is in a category of crime that is itself less and less likely.

One problem I have been seeing is that comparisons are being made to demand laws or stronger social efforts to punish sexual offenders (instead of these kinds of silly laws regarding restrictions on transgendered bathroom selection). We already have a vast infrastructure of laws punishing all manner of lewd and inappropriate behaviors, sometimes severely, in addition to laws punishing sexual assault and rape and other more morally reprehensible crimes. Thousands of people are required in most US states to register as sex offenders, to be restricted on where they may live, contact with family members is often heavily restrained (assuming their offense was not involving such, family is often a key method of reintegration to society as it provides a basis of support), to have social stigma attached to them from neighbours who often wrongly infer their actions make them a threat to their children, job restrictions on where they can work or what kind of work they can do, and so on. The vast majority of these people did not go around molesting children, raping women, or other heinous actions of sexual predators. Therefore I would submit that the idea that we should punish sexual offenses more severely or more readily is already an idea we have taken to heart and practiced as a society. We already do it at a prodigious rate.

To be sure, there are still problems in how many people, including some police and prosecutors and judges, perceive rape and sexual assault, and the methods of adjudicating claims thereof are still often fraught with he-said-she-said difficulties, and problems in how swiftly and readily evidence is processed for criminal convictions (or as proof of innocence). And there are serious questions of sexual consent (and communication regarding sexuality in general) that are still awkwardly worked out for many young people in a way that disadvantages them from the healthy and consensual enjoyment of the human form. But our eagerness to punish sexual misbehavior reaches far beyond these questions and often ends up vigorously criminalizing (generally natural) sexual exploration by teens, drunken stupidity like public urination, and on down the list. This is where we go when we want to punish sexual misconduct as a society. And not toward more violent and non-consensual criminal actions. We should be careful to look at an imaginary danger, some vast looming threat posed uniquely by transgendered persons using the "wrong" bathrooms in public, and not replace it with other imaginary dangers in the effort to dismiss the former.

20 April 2016


Sadly. This is not a post about the virtues of not having to wear socks for months at a time.

During a digression on sexism and politics, one of the constant refrains that emerged as a "factual issue" of concern and note was the concept that a politician's word on some issue cannot be held to trust and account because they have changed their position on some given issue. Sometimes in the last week. Sometimes from a position they held 20 years ago.

Leaving aside for a moment whether this is indeed a salient feature of how to evaluate specific political figures (I do not think it is very useful at all), the nature and presentation of it itself proceeded along the same sexist lines. One political figure who has so famously flip-flopped so often that Colbert does a late-night segment where he debates himself (as a formidable opponent no doubt), is described as "honest" and receives a pass (Trump). Trump "changed his mind" on abortion only a few weeks ago about 5 times in one weekend. Some things he's changed his mind on in the same press appearance. Clinton meanwhile, received no such pass for views that have "evolved" over several decades. If one is going to apply this as some form of rigorous standard, that politicians should mean what they say and explain their evolutions to us when they occur that they have to change their minds, one should do so "fairly", without a prism of sexism to blind people to one form of doing so as excused or ignored, and painting a huge target on someone else for doing the same thing.

The question then becomes whether this is a useful metric for measuring the probable performance of someone in public office. This is I think much more mixed. There are a number of problems with holding it up as a high end value assessment. Pretty much everyone changes their minds at least some of the time. Especially in politics. This is, in most walks of life, a virtuous element of their character, that people apportion their beliefs to evidence and values that have changed and adapt accordingly. "New shit has come to light, man", and one should naturally follow along to see where it goes. Politician's difficulty is typically in explaining why, not the what, in a way that satisfies their partisan fellow travelers and opponents alike (this is not often possible). But we should expect political figures to have changed their positions on a number of topics over a career in public service, even within the last few days or weeks. What exactly we are holding them to account for is not that they have changed their minds, but something else.

People who don't change their minds in politics based upon changing conditions, values, and evidence, are typically called ideologues. And they are usually dangerous people when given public office and public powers. Or at least, they tend not to perform an executive office very well. This is because such people are too confident in their own mental faculties and too unwilling to rely upon the advice of others on the probability that they might be wrong. Someone like Sanders comes up obviously to this view, that he seems very unwilling to respect points of view indicating he might be wrong in either his diagnosis of a problem or his probable solutions. Someone like Trump comes to this problem from a different perspective, but the same effect: poor quality advice is likely to occur because the only advice he will want is what he already wants to hear. These are the risks of people who don't appear to change their minds, or people who rely too closely on their own minds to make their assessments of what they should or should not do in public office. It is not simply the case that we should want "honest" and steady figures, because such figures do not historically have a track record of providing quality governance and provide glaring flaws as to why this might be the case.

This does not mean that public officials changing their minds is of no consequence. What we are actually assessing is something about their method of making judgments. Someone who appears too quick to jump ship may be of concern to people with particular ideological and policy issue commitments they wish to see fulfilled. This would require people to be pretty activist and informed about some particular policy issue. Which is not the case for most people that they are deeply committed to a platform of ideological goals and aware of the policy levers that are being pulled or ignored that could help further those. Most people therefore aren't making this complaint when they complain about flip-flopping. Someone who appears unwilling to stick to a decision might be a concern in a crisis (this is a common argument made against FDR's first two terms and his handling of the Depression, with a lot of meddling going in different, sometimes contradictory and counterproductive directions. I honestly don't think he would be regarded as a great President without the third term and "The War" to rescue his reputation). This might be closer to the truth of the matter that we would want to know there is a level head trying to make decisions in terrible situations, someone who won't panic or make poor decisions. I still think it grants too much to the motives of voters however for why this occurs as an issue in politics.

We are trying to assess how and why someone has changed their minds. This will not always be clear, as any change would be internal. We can assume it will be for craven political calculus, for example to follow the national mood on some issue or another, being for or against something because it is politically expedient. This appears to be what many do. Cynically I am inclined to agree this is often a feature for why political figures decide one day to stand up, when they usually remain seated, but this does not explain our behavior that well as voters standing in judgment. It does not explain why we fix on some candidates over others for this flaw. We can assume it will be because they have become personally moved on this issue. In many cases I am willing to grant this may be the case, simply because politicians are often as ignorant of the many subjects on which they are often called upon to legislate as we are in the general public. But many others are not so forgiving. This would all be acceptable behavior. If it went on that often. What most people seem to do instead of these options however is cognitive dissonance of a partisan or tribalistic nature. They ignore or minimize changes to positions for their favored candidates. And they highlight those of candidates they are not disposed to like (people from the other party, or the other candidate in a primary cycle). This then is actually why we are doing it: "Our team is noble and pure. And the other people are all hypocrites."

As someone who has observed from the outsider status the nature of politics and political arguments, who doesn't much like any of the tribes involved (even the one I am nominally leaned toward on some policy grounds), I am here to say "you are all full of shit". That's an amusing game I'm sure, but it isn't very satisfying or convincing that any of you are right about what you want, what policies we should or should not pursue, even about what political figures can best advance or deter such policies. Calling people out for lying is something you can do as a political counting game, perhaps to encourage an honest and fair accounting of the achievements and goals of political figures when we try to decide which ones to elect or not. I do some of it myself where there is little clear goal or purpose behind a particular agenda (re: the recent wave of attempts to pass anti-transgender laws and the often creepy and ignorant statements by political figures in support of them). But it does little good when people aren't willing to look in the mirror, ever, to call this an imposition of honesty. Honesty is not part of this game. It never has been. It never will be. The essential point of politics as government should be something on the order of: "what are our goals and how can we best serve them". Deception is a part of that. People don't sit down at a poker table and only play the hands they get and expect to have won money when they get up. Same thing in politics. I expect the political figures involved to learn how to bluff better, to avoid sounding like they are prevaricating or if they are uncertain, to simply say they are uncertain and that they are seeking more information. And while that's a flaw that some political figures (Clinton for example) have had difficulty escaping (she is not a natural politician, her husband was a very gifted figure in this regard), it's not one that tells me they are bad at every other facet of the game we are asking of them. It isn't very informative. It offers little advice on policy what we should expect. If someone has a bad poker face, but always has drawn good cards, why should we care? We should focus our attention there instead. Do they even have good cards? Do they offer good and effective policies? Have they a decent understanding of the scale and scope of our problems as a nation (or a planet in the case of foreign policy, or climate change)?

If we aren't asking those questions, we can't really evaluate whether or not they are being honest in the first place because we don't have any idea why we should care if they are or not. Maybe because you have some goal you really care about, bully for you if so. Maybe because you don't like someone and are searching for a better sounding answer than "I don't like her attitude". And so on.

19 April 2016

NBA awards season

I have to confess a considerable amount of confusion at one award in particular (so far): 6th man.

For some reason it went to Jamal Crawford. This was a defensible (if flawed) pick two years ago. It is insane this season. He's no higher than 20th in any metric of analysis for overall quality of a bench player in the entire league, not even close to what should be given consideration as an award. He's a respectable volume scorer who doesn't play defense.

Examining the options for how this happened:

1) Voters pick someone who scores a lot off the bench. Will Barton scored more (and got rebounds and steals) and shot more effectively to score that much. Ryan Anderson scored more in fewer games. So there are better options available as "player who scores points off bench".

2) Voters pick someone "who scores a lot off the bench for a good team". Assuming that Denver and New Orleans had their bench players excluded because their teams were awful this season, that then leaves playoff quality reserve players. Which then means Enos Kanter is an option from Oklahoma City. And a superior one, well to Crawford at any rate. Since he actually gets rebounds alongside scoring points, and he shoots at a far more effective clip (as one should expect closer to the basket). He still fulfills the "doesn't play defense" requirement to boot. Kanter finished third in the vote, suggesting voters were aware of his existence as a suitable alternative.

3) Voters ignore someone who doesn't score. Tristan Thompson appears to have had the best season off the bench (he started a chunk of games but came off the bench for a majority). This is because he's a rebounding machine and a monster on the offensive glass. But he does not score points himself at a noticeable rate. Ed Davis on Portland seems to have suffered the same fate. This theory does not work because Iguodala finished second in the vote. And he doesn't score either. He's mainly a glue guy/defensive stopper in his role on the Warriors now.

4) Nobody really stood out so voters simply picked whoever's name was familiar and readily at hand and appeared to have a decent season (on a good team).