Scott Alexander has a new post out about Trump, and it’s everything this blog is not. (I.e. it’s intelligent and non-hysterical)
A commenter on here the other day quoted an Atlantic article complaining that “The press takes [Trump] literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally”. Well, count me in that second group. I don’t think he’s literal. I think when he talks about building a wall and keeping out Muslims, he’s metaphorically saying “I’m going to fight for you, the real Americans”. When he talks about tariffs and trade deals, he’s metaphorically saying “I’m going to fight for you, the real Americans”. Fine. But neither of those two things are a plan. The problem with getting every American a job isn’t that nobody has been fighting for them, the problem with getting every American a job is that getting 100% employment in a modern economy is a really hard problem.
Donald Trump not only has no solution to that problem, he doesn’t even understand the question. He lives in a world where there is no such thing as intelligence, only loyalty. If we haven’t solved all of our problems yet, it’s because the Department of Problem-Solving was insufficiently loyal, and didn’t try hard enough. His only promise is to fill that department with loyal people who really want the problem solved.
I’ve never been fully comfortable with the Left because I feel like they often make the same error – the only reason there’s still poverty is because the corporate-run government is full of traitors who refuse to make the completely great, no-downsides policy of raising the minimum wage. One of the right’s great redeeming feature has been an awareness of these kinds of tradeoffs. But this election, it’s Hillary who sounds restrained and realistic, and Trump who wants the moon on a silver platter (“It will be the best moon you’ve ever seen. And the silver platter is going to be yuuuuuge!”)
Read the whole thing.
But this post is not about Scott Alexander and Trump; it’s about cognitive illusions involving numbers. This appeared in the same post:
If Trump fails, then the situation is – much the same, really, but conservatives can at least get started right now picking up the pieces instead of having to wait four years. There’s a fundamental problem, which is that about 30% of the US population is religious poor southern whites who are generally not very educated, mostly not involved in US intellectual life, but form the biggest and most solid voting bloc in the country. If you try to form two parties with 50% of the vote each, then whichever party gets the religious poor southern whites is going to be dominated by them and end up vulnerable to populism. Since the religious poor southern whites are conservative, that’s always going to be the conservative party’s cross to bear and conservatism is always going to be less intellectual than liberalism in this country. I don’t know how to solve this. But there have been previous incarnations of American conservatism that have been better at dealing with the problem than this one, and maybe if Trumpism gets decisively defeated it will encourage people to work on the problem.
This isn’t accurate. I don’t know the correct figure, but the following explains how my brain works. Without looking up any of the numbers, here’s what I’d guess:
1. About 14% of Americans are poor.
2. About 7% of Americans are poor whites. The rest are poor blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans.
3. About 3% (at most) of Americans are poor white southerners. The rest of the poor whites live in the East, Midwest, or West.
4. About 2% of Americans are religious poor southern whites.
There’s a big difference between 2% and 30%, and this affects Scott’s argument. There’s a tendency (which I sometimes fall into) of assuming that the most distinctive characteristic of a candidate’s supporters is also the majority of the candidate’s supporters. The whites of West Virginia form a more distinctive part of Trump’s base than the whites of affluent suburbs in Southern California. But Trump will win far more votes in suburban Southern California. He’ll get more votes from college grads than high school dropouts, even while being the first GOP candidate in ages to (narrowly) lose the college vote. I have commenters who are extremely intelligent, and plan to vote for Trump.
A conservative might argue that the 2% of religious poor southern white voters who are mindlessly supporting the right is offset by an equal or greater number of poor black and Hispanic voters who mindlessly support the left. Those two groups don’t decide elections. If Trump wins, it will be because millions of highly educated professionals also voted for him. Let’s not blame “stupid” poor people.
PS. Even if you define “poor” more generously, assuming that Scott meant to also include lower middle class workers, you still don’t get past 10% of the electorate, probably not even 7%.
PPS. Keep in mind that “the South” includes millions of affluent whites in the vast Texas triangle of metro areas, and Florida (which has more people than New York State), and the triangle region of North Carolina, and the Virginia suburbs of DC, and the affluent Atlanta suburbs and lots of other areas like that. I’d guess there are more “atypical southern areas” than typical southern areas.
PPPS. Tom sent me a great youtube of Sam Harris discussing Trump’s mind. Trump’s suggestion that we should have taken Iraq’s oil has been weirdly overlooked. If it’s not the most disgusting thing said by a presidential candidate since the Civil War, it’s surely in the top 5.