Monday, October 31, 2016

What do voters think?

There is a popular video on YouTube right now, a skit from Saturday Night live about a game of "Black Jeopardy."  If you haven't seen it, you should, both because it is funny and because I think there are a lot of things about race relations in America to learn from it (though perhaps not always the things that most people take from it).

But I don't want to talk about race relations; I want to talk about politics.  At one point, Tom Hanks's character responds to the Jeopardy "answer" "They out here saying that every vote counts" with "Come on, they already decided who wins even before it happens."  And in the skit, it is axiomatic that this is a standard view of blacks in America, as well as an assumption shared by many whites.  This strikes me as extraordinary.

I say it is extraordinary, although I grew up among people who thought along similar lines.  What is extraordinary is that no political analysts that I am aware of ever discusses this segment of the electorate.  No politician aims campaign ads or slogans at people like this.

Still, there are people who believe this.  Not just a few members of fringe groups, but relatively large swaths of potential voters.  Wouldn't some smart political strategist want to tap into these voters?  I suspect that there are many who are aware of them (how could they not be?), but they don't dare on the grounds that news agencies and pundits would mock them out of contention.  You are supposed to stick to serious points, and how do you appeal to paranoid voters with serious arguments?  Or at least, with arguments that pass as serious among the cognoscenti?  So to the extent that politicians try to appeal to these voters, it is indirectly, by implying things:  we're going to clean up Washington, we're going to end corruption, etc.

It is probably obvious that this description closely fits Donald Trump's campaign.  Trump has few specific things to say, but he has been emphatic that he is an outsider and he is going to fix the corrupt political system.  The fact that reporters and other politicians hate him increasese his appeal among voters who think things are rigged.  And the fact that he thumbs his nose at these other people and insults them feeds the image that he is different.  Only someone who is truly not a career politician can make a credible claim that he is going to do things differently.  Reagan had something similar going; although he had been governor of California, he had never been an official in Washington, and the elite looked down their noses at him.  Of course, Reagan was very educated about politics, had thought deeply on the issues, and had a much more moderate approach, so his campaign was much different in tone than Trump's.  One of the advantages of Reagan's approach is that he alienated few people, and therefore was very successful.  Trump has alienated as many voters as he has attracted, but his supporters are even more emphatic because they know their man will not mix with the existing political class on any terms except his own.

Trump's two signature issues, immigration and trade, are symptomatic.  I have said for many years that politicians could win great support by pushing a hard line on these two.  (For the record, I agree with enforcing existing laws on immigration, but I oppose tariffs or other restrictions on foreign trade.)  I'm glad trade restrictionism has never caught on in my lifetime, but I am continually surprised that no one has pushed for stronger action on immigration.  Sure, some politicians on the Republican side have campaigned for tougher immigration laws, but no one has made it a signature issue.  And there is that odd phenomenon that even those who do make a point of supporting immigration enforcement, such as Marco Rubio, seem to melt when it comes time to craft actual legislation.  It is so frowned upon in the public square that no one dares to risk his political career arguing for a point that, in my opinion, is a sure electoral winner.

Someone like Tom Hanks's character in Black Jeopardy, as well as many others of his ilk -- and we have to include a lot of blacks in this group -- are going to support Trump because they think the system is rigged, and any politician who says he is going to fix it is too much a part of the system to be truly credible.  There is no way to paint Trump as part of the system, and that makes him exactly what these voters are looking for.

Stepping back a moment, however, from specific candidates and elections, I would like to ask why we don't discuss these voters on a regular basis?  And by "these voters," I mean not just those who think that elections are rigged, but anyone holding views that would never get accepted in national journals or newspapers.  Some of these views are, of course, odious, but I don't think it does any good just to dismiss the people who hold them and pretend they don't exist.  This ties back to my last post about "realms of ignorance":  vast portions of the electorate simply don't think about politics that much, and therefore have very unsophisticated, and sometimes stupid, views.  But that doesn't mean they are stupid people.  Perhaps they do have a point if there are elections every two years but nothing ever seems to change from their perspective.  What a revelation it would be if politicians started talking about issues in terms that mattered to these people rather than debating ever more obscure policy points.  Obviously, we need people who understand the finer points of policy; that's how good laws get made.  But we also need an electorate who has a reason to care about different policy choices, and if little or nothing that the government does resonates with them -- if they feel that everything is more or less fixed and their vote counts for nothing -- then we need to address that, too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Realms of Ignorance

That grandiose title is simply meant to convey that people can be stupid about some things and not others.  I enjoy a good collection of people saying stupid things on the internet as much as anyone; this one, for example.  All of these are cases of people being too ignorant for most people even to fathom, but let's consider how they are being ignorant for a moment.

Several are, of course, about spelling, or knowing the sound of a word without thinking of what it really represents:  "hall of cost" for holocaust, "meaty oaker" for mediocre (that one gets me every time), "flaming young" for filet mignon, "synonym rolls" for cinnamon rolls, "Rosetta Stone" for Rosa Parks.  Although they evince terrible spelling, in none of these cases is the person getting the meaning wrong because of misunderstanding the root.  The last one is not so much spelling as a person who has heard a name getting it mixed up with something that sounds similar.

Some do show a real misunderstanding of the concept, such as thinking that chicken and turkey are the names of meats without knowing that they are also animals (I know, how is that possible?), thinking squirrels and/or dolphins are reptiles, referring to a "morning sunset," or thinking that "rotating tires" refers to the same kind of rotation that happens as you drive.  All of these are people who probably would know better if they thought about it, or at least would recognize how silly they sound once it was explained.  It's not hard to see how someone might slip and write "morning sunset," and although it's hard to see how someone could think squirrels or dolphins are reptiles, it's probably a case of someone trying to come up with what group both animals are in and not stopping to think that the first thing that occurred to him was a very bad answer.  The mistake about rotating tires is perfectly understandable if you have never thought about the subject before.  The mistake was to think that there wasn't some other meaning to the term:  if it seems ridiculous to pay someone to rotate your tires because they constantly rotate themselves, yet people seem to do it, you're probably not understanding something.  This is one of the most common mistakes I have noticed, and it is particularly noticeable among comedians.  They pick something that seems silly on the face of it and treat it as though it really is as illogical as it appears.  Sometimes, I know, they say these things in mock ignorance, but there's no doubt that a lot of comedians think they have really hit on something insightful when they make these jokes.  That's why I'm wary of political comedians:  because political issues are usually complicated and, like anything relating to people's collective behaviour, have a lot of subtlety and unspoken assumptions behind them, they can be easy targets.  However, the simplified version you get from a comedian is probably missing out on a lot of the key issues, so this dumbs down the debate.  I'd rather people stop and think about the problems that aren't obvious than that they learn a quick quip with which to cut down their opponents without really saying anything useful.

Enough of that rant.  Some of these dumb statements show a lack of common sense.  The classic case is the person who falls for the idea that he can recharge his cell phone in the microwave.  There are a lot of things that aren't intuitive about technology, so you can't really blame this person for not being sure that it wouldn't work.  The problem is more that he didn't stop to consider the likelihood that someone was trolling him and double check before risking his phone in an experiment.  From a few old wives' tales we now have a huge collection of "urban legends," many of which, I'm sure, start out with people deliberately trying to confuse the issue.  There is a lot of useful advice on the internet, but you should stop and think about any of it before proceeding.  If you're not going to double-check, at least consider the possible consequences of being trolled.  It's not too bad to have your time wasted on something useless, but losing a phone to a prankster is frustrating.

One person asks if it takes 18 months for twins to be born.  You would think that a brief consideration of what's going on inside the womb -- the developement of a fetus -- would show you that two babies develope at the same time and not one after the other.  It's a silly mistake, but not so silly that it is inconceivable that someone might wonder.  Remember this when they tell you there are no such things as stupid questions.  (Hint:  they don't really think that.)  Another person asks if styrofoam earplugs are rubber bullets.  Heck, if I didn't recognize them as earplugs, I might think they were rubber bullets.  If a person hasn't seen them in context before and just finds a few on the street, how would he know better?  The same logic goes for the person who thought "Titanic" was a movie rather than a re-enactment of an historical event.  Sure, we've all heard of the sinking of the Titanic...or maybe not all of us have.  Is it really a sign of such great ignorance not to know this relatively minor piece of history?  I've seen movies before where I looked up to see if they were historical or not.  They weren't as well-known as the Titanic, but someone could easily think I was ignorant for not knowing the history.

What I'm trying to get at here is that, while these statements all seem literally unbelievable, the people who made them may not be as clueless as they seem.  I have huge blind spots about some things, and I'm sure I've come off as equally ignorant.  The first wedding I ever attended on my own, I didn't realize I was supposed to get a present for the couple.  I had never been to a wedding where my parents hadn't taken care of that detail, and it never occurred to me.  It is reasonable to think that someone would pick up that knowledge by age 20, but it doesn't require great stupidity not to learn it.  We all have limited amounts of attention to spend on learning things, and we all have different interests and strengths.  With such a broad scope to "common knowledge," it is hardly surprising that people don't pick up one aspect or another of things that most people take for granted.  Sure, if you stop to think about something, you might realize that the ideas you have been harbouring for years are dubious, but the whole point is that we don't stop to think about everything.  We can't, even if we wanted to.  And social media lends itself to rapid, instinctive responses.  You would rarely see these comments in a book, or even an article, because they would have to go through a process to get published.  When someone blurts out the first thing that occurs to him, you're bound to end up with some mistakes that sound really silly.  But as you're laughing at them, don't forget that you could sound equally silly on some subject that you haven't had occasion to post on social media about.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Disadvantages for Conservatives of a Trump Victory

This election is going to be bad for conservatism no matter what the result.  I think the tendency is for conservatives, even those who don't like Trump, to think that a victory for him would still be marginally better than another Democratic presidency.  That may be -- but then again, it may not be.  I know the primary reason for this feeling is that it is the only hope of keeping the Supreme Court from being completely liberal.  This is true, but I'm not sure this is a winning battle in the long run.  Conservatives hope the Supreme Court won't invent new "rights" and entitlements that further expand government and limit freedom, but liberals have little to fear from an activist conservative court because conservative justices are, on principle, opposed to activism from the bench.  Moreover, the court system as a whole is so filled with liberal judges that conservatives often need the Supreme Court to overturn lower court rulings that have already been made and set a precedent.  Unless something is done about this systematically, it seems like conservatism only stands to lose in the long run.

But let's assume that appointing a conservative justice or two would be important victories, and let's assume, further, that Trump would actually appoint the justices he says he would.  That still leaves a lot of areas for him to mess things up.  We already know he is opposed to free trade, and there is hardly any way to hurt the country's economy more quickly than throwing up trade barriers.  He has taken a strong stand against illegal immigration, which could be a benefit although his way of talking about it often reinforces liberals' worst stereotypes about conservatives.

Apart from those issues, it's hard to tell exactly what Trump believes.  He has taken a conservative stance on most issues, but he has held other views for much of his life.  (His views on immigration were apparently different just a few years ago.)  Whether he is pro-life or not I don't think is particularly salient, because there is little that can be done at the national level relating to abortion, and most of what can be done is in the purview of Congress rather than the President.  I don't know if Trump is strongly pro-2nd amendment, but he certainly doesn't seem to be strongly in favour of gun control, which means we would not normally expect any major initiatives from him to upset the existing situation (which is, on the whole, favourable to 2nd amendment supporters).  My sense is that his views on government as a whole are decisively not in favour of smaller government.  His rhetoric is that he wants to make government work better, not that he wants to limit its role in society.

Here's a crucial point:  the worst government expansions occur under Republicans, because they bring half the Republican party with them.  I supported George Bush, but in retrospect his domestic policy was a huge step backward for those favouring individual action and less government interference.  And then Republicans have nothing to complain about when a Democrat does the same thing.  A Trump presidency would be Bush 2.0, only worse, I fear.  After pushing Bush into the presidency, I cannot back another candidate who is not decisively in support of smaller government.

Then there is the problem with Trump's personality.  I can hardly conceive of all the off-the-cuff things he is likely to say in four years at the top of the government, many of which will be offensive and/or hint vaguely (or not so vaguely) at threatening his opponents, which I expect to include many Republicans as well as Democrats.  All of this will reflect very badly on the Republican Party in whose name he ran for office.  The next Republican presidential candidate after Trump will have to spend an inordinate amount of effort proving that he is not Trump, which will detract from his main message.

Some of this is true already, of course:  even if not elected, Trump will loom large in the next election.  But imagine how much larger he will appear if he has served in the highest office for four years (or eight).  One of the reasons that I refuse to support him is that I will not be making excuses for the party for his behaviour in the future.  I will, of course, support any conservative candidate nominated, but if anyone starts an argument with "What about Trump?...," I want to have a clean conscience so I can say I didn't support him and do not take responsibility for any actions he takes.  No candidate for president is perfect, as we all know, but there is a difference between electing someone who makes mistakes and one who is known to act in a certain way as a matter of habit.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Reality and Simulation

I read a few weeks ago that Elon Musk, and apparently a lot of other people, think we are very likely living in a simulation.  His argument goes like this:

The strongest argument for us probably being in a simulation, I think, is the following: Forty years ago we had Pong--two rectangles and a dot. That is what games were.
Now 40 years later we have photorealistic, 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously and it's getting better every year. And soon we'll have virtual reality, we'll have augmented reality. If you assume any rate of improvement at all, then the games will become indistinguishable from reality.

Although this seems to be a popular view among the technological elite in San Francisco, there are people who disagree.  Some people think it is more likely that humanity will destroy itself before we get to the level of simulations required.  Another line of argument is that the technology is harder than Musk is giving it credit for.

I tend to agree with the latter criticism.  I am not a connoisseur of VR games, but I am sceptical whether we have anything today that suggests a future where "the games will become indistinguishable from reality."  Musk seems to be committing the basic fallacy of projecting technology in a linear fashion.  He's not literally saying that technology will continue to progress at the same rate -- he even argues that it could slow significantly -- but rather than the developement of better and better simulations will be a matter of simple progress, the way video games have progressed to this point.

There are two things that I would object.  The first is that efficiency tends to drop off rapidly as you approach extremes.  A person projecting the future of travel in 1950 might note that we had gone from horse and buggy to cars to airplanes to jets in a short time.  Why wouldn't we have flying cars now?  Why not travel around the world in minutes rather than hours?  Why not commercial space travel?  Maybe those things will happen eventually, but there are limits to physical laws of weight and inertia that make the leap to air travel more plausible and more efficient than some obvious next steps.  With computers, we may be able to overcome the physical limitations (although I consider that problematic), but the programming requirements seem even larger.  Who is capable of creating a completely realistic world for VR?  Even if we started with a very basic physical universe -- say, the Big Bang -- and let everything evolve from there, so that no one would have to program in all the data points in our present world, there are other issues.  One obvious one is that we don't know all the physical laws of the universe, and any attempt to simulate our universe starting from the very beginning would end up with some very odd results if we got them wrong.  And then, if the simulation really did start with the Big Bang, the chance that it would end up with anything like our present world are virtually zero.  Musk posits billions of VR machines, any one of which we could be in; but even billions of simulations would have virtually no chance of producing us at random.  That even assumes the fact that we could build a machine that could keep track of all the particles in the universe, which would seem to be impossible on the face of it:  how could a machine in the universe have enough memory to keep track of the whole universe?  But anything less than that would imply that someone would have to program in some incredibly detailed parameters to set up our world, in a way that no one could possibly do even if he could somehow access all the data.

You would think that our inability to construct a basic word processor without bugs would be a problem for a completely realistic simulation, but not Musk.

People have come up with other, you know, more exotic ideas, looking for glitches in reality, sort of like in The Matrix when the black cat walks by twice. Remember that scene with Neo? So, looking for mistakes. I don't buy that at all because a very clever error-correcting simulation could simply wipe clean the memory of any such glitch after correcting it.
Maybe a "very clever" error correction algorithm could do that, but I haven't seen any evidence of such a thing in our present world that would lead me to believe that it could happen in a simulation.  Moreover, it's not even clear how the simulation could detect an error.  How would it know what an error means?  We check errors now by doing things like checksums to validate that a file is the same after it has been copied, but a violation of the physical laws of the simulation would imply that the program could keep perfect track of its own rules and note when something violated them.  More likely, it would not notice a violation because it would be due to a bug in the fundamental simulation code.

At base, I think the idea that we're living in a simulation is pretty silly, and I think the evidence Musk gives for it is strikingly weak.  One thing he doesn't address (at least not that I have noticed -- maybe he has elaborated elsewhere) is what exactly we're doing here.  Is he saying that we are "non-player characters" who have been programmed with our own consciousness?  Because that seems about the most implausible of all:  it implies that the programmers have unlocked the key to consciousness to the point where they can not only create a conscious computer, but even conscious elements within a computer. 
Or perhaps we are supposed to be game elements that have evolved consciousness? Again, that seems unlikely. What I thought he meant at first was that we were players in a simulation, physical people who are so absorbed in the game that we don't realize any more that it's a simulation. But how could we possibly become so divorced from our own physical bodies that we could no longer feel them or tend to their needs? Or are we all, like in the matrix, being kept alive by computers while our minds are permanently locked into virtual reality?

There is an old philosophical question that asks how we know we aren't dreaming. I believe a Taoist phrasing of it is, how do we know we're not butterflies dreaming we're humans? Well, it seems pretty unlikely that butterflies could have such a vivid imagination of human lives, but there really doesn't seem to be any way to prove that we aren't humans in a dream state. A more modern formulation is to ask how we know we are not just brains in a vat, being kept alive artificially, all of our perceptions being simulated by some scientist. The simulation hypothesis seems like another variation on this, except for Musk's confidence that his computer simulation theory is extraordinarily likely to be right. I suppose there is no way to disprove it, or any other similar theories, in a definitive fashion. However, I am confident that we will continue to behave as though our physical world is very real, and we will continue to treat those who think it isn't as insane.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Advantages for Conservatives of a Clinton Victory

For conservatives, this is a sad election any way it turns out, but there are advantages as well as disadvantages in every situation.  I haven't gotten the sense that either major candidate has a big advantage to this point, but it seems that the edge is to Clinton.  If that happens and we do find ourselves with a third consecutive Democratic win in a presidential election, obviously that wouldn't be good for conservatives on the whole.  On the other hand, a Trump win might be even worse, so let's consider the possible advantages that might accrue to conservatives from a Clinton victory.

The one thing that everyone is concerned about is the Supreme Court.  It is almost inconceivable that Hillary Clinton would not appoint a very liberal justice to fill Scalia's spot, and there may be two or more retirements in the next four years as well.  The Supreme Court, which has been pretty tightly balanced for years now, would become (barring unprecedented rejections on the part of the Senate) dominated by liberals.  There could be a bright spot even in that disaster, however, and it could happen in one of two ways.  One is that the liberal justices, not wanting to be seen as dictating court policy over the objections of their conservative colleagues, might moderate their own opinions.  I think this is more likely to happen on less important cases, but sometimes cases that appear minor at the time take on major significance later.  The other possibility is that Congress (presuming it remains Republican) might finally react against an assertive Supreme Court and initiate legislation to rein it in.  It is unlikely, but I could imagine its happening, especially if the court made a few reckless rulings that were both out of touch with majority sensibilities and without clear Constitutional backing.  I'm not really sure what "reining it in" would look like.  I have thought of setting up a possible Congressional-Presidential override of a Supreme Court decision when a supermajority agrees; setting up some other body to review Supreme Court decisions; or appointing more justices.  The last seems the least likely to help, but the most likely to pass.  At least it would change the dynamic of Supreme Court appointments so that there was less riding on each one.  A single justice who sits for an unusually long time or rules in an unorthodox way can swing the court's decisions dramatically, and with only 9 members, every appointment is potentially crucial.

It is almost always the case that a Presidential election brings success in Congressional elections to the winning party, and I don't expect that to change.  (In fact, it is possible that Trump could break the trend by winning the election but standing so far from other Republicans that they actually lose seats.)  Unless it is a landslide, however, the mid-term elections might well undo the results of 2016 in Congress and go even further in the other direction.

The best thing that seems likely to come of this awful presidential campaign is that the next Republican nominee would be far stronger.  I would think that Ted Cruz has positioned himself awfully well as both the last man standing before Trump sewed up the nomination and a person that showed he was willing to stand up to Trump at the convention.  His endorsement a few weeks ago seemed like it might be a great move:  he had shown his independence, but ultimately he backed Trump like a loyal party member.  But after the video's release, now it is looking like Cruz's timing could not have been worse.  If he had not endorsed Trump, he could say, "I told you so!"  Now if he reverts to opposing him, he will just look inconsistent.

Regardless of whether the next nominee is Cruz or someone else, I think the Republicans will probably choose a strong party member (I expect them to change their rules to prevent another fiasco like this year).  I also think that Democrats will be in an especially weak position in 2020, although  that remains to be seen.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Vice-presidential Debate

Typically, the vice presidential candidate is viewed as an attack dog:  someone who can make edgy attacks on the other side while the presidential candidate remains dignified.  This is exactly reversed in the Trump/Pence ticket.  Trump says edgy things all the time; Pence is a stabilizing influence who pooh-poohs his running mate's wilder attacks.

We have never had a president who wasn't an avowed Christian.  I was struck by the fact that both Kaine and Pence seem to be serious in their faith, unlike many politicians who are Christian mostly because it is a political disadvantage not to be, at least nominally.  But we will have an atheist president soon, I would venture.  Kaine and Pence grew up at a time when most Americans were raised Christian as a matter of course.  I think the next generation contains many more people who were raised either indifferent to religion or hostile to it.  I would be surprised if we didn't have an atheist or agnostic president in the next 20 years.

I typically hate watching debates because I find the candidate that I support saying things that embarrass me.  Sometimes the content is bad, sometimes the delivery, but whatever it is I seem to experience the debate vicariously as though I were on the stage.  This is one of the very few debates when I haven't felt that way about the Republican candidate.  Pence was astonishingly calm and cogent.  I'm trying to think back if I can recall another Republican candidate who was so composed, but I can't think of any since Reagan.  I didn't always agree with Pence, and there were certainly times when I wanted to step into his shoes and deliver a more pointed response; but he was never embarrassing.  The fact that he has not been a serious presidential candidate is interesting.  Obviously, debating demeanour is not the only criterion, or even the most important.  Pence hasn't run, of course, but if people thought his debating skills could get him elected, he would probably have generated more interest and perhaps thought about it.  Anyway, I was surprised that someone as comfortable as he was in the debate did not get more consideration as a presidential candidate.