Archive for the Category Social trends


Nationalism vs. cultural appropriation

Ian Buruma has a new book out about his experience in Japan during the 1970s—a sort of bildungsroman.  He begins with a quote from the great Simon Leys:

Cultural initiation entails metamorphosis, and we cannot learn any foreign values if we do not accept the risk of being transformed by what we learn.

Imagine for a moment a couple of Americans who spend a year in Korea, but in very different ways.  One is in the military, and spends almost all his time on the base.  He can’t stand the smell of kimchi, and is rather contemptuous of Korean culture in general.  He talks too loud.  The other spends a year at a Korean university.  She becomes a big fan of Korean culture.  She starts cooking Korean food, dressing in Korean fashion, and adopting Korean hair styles.  She learns the language, and learns how to write in Korean.  Let’s say she’s a Chinese-American, so she can blend in a bit more easily once she becomes fluent in the Korean language and culture.

When I was young the first guy was viewed by people on the left as “the ugly American.”  The woman was viewed much more favorably.

Today?  I really don’t know what’s going on in the world.  Is the woman engaged in cultural appropriation?  Is the view that we Americans should stick to good old American culture a Trumpian right wing idea, or is it the new left?

Is the view that Asian-Americans have the wrong personality a Steve Bannon idea, or is it a Harvard idea?

Is the view that people in Hollywood should be blacklisted for holding abhorrent political views a right wing idea from the 1950s, or a left-wing idea from the 2010s.

Is the view that flashy pimps accused of multiple rapes make great elected officials a theme of gangster rap, or the view of today’s Christian fundamentalist voters?

I’m confused.  Can someone help me out here?

Religion plays almost no role in politics

I suppose some people were surprised to see heavily Catholic Ireland vote overwhelming in favor of legal abortion.  But they really shouldn’t have been.  Religion plays almost no role in politics, in Ireland, in America, and in Saudi Arabia.  It’s simply not a factor.

Readers of the Washington Post should not have been surprised to learn that White Evangelicals are the least likely group to support providing shelter to desperate refugees from troubled countries:

In February 2017, as debate raged nationally over President Trump’s decision to curtail immigration to the United States, the conservative Christian Broadcasting Network dipped into the Bible to share what that sacred text said about refugees.

“Treat refugees the way you want to be treated,” it said, quoting Leviticus. “Invite the stranger in” (Matthew) and “Open your door to the traveler” (Job).

The first comment in reply to the article captures the tone of the rest of the feedback the site received: “Shame on CBN for this very poorly written article full of political rhetoric. This is not a Biblical issue.”

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 2.26.56 PMNor should people be surprised to learn that the leader of the conservative Southern Baptists was a strong supporter of abortion rights, back in 1970.  Why shouldn’t he have supported abortion rights?  After all, religion plays no role on politics.

Some readers may still have a nagging doubt about this claim.  What about Saudi Arabia?  It is a conservative Muslim country that does not allow women to drive.  Except now they do allow women to drive.  Is that because Saudi Arabia is no longer Muslim?  Is it because of what the Koran says about women driving?  Probably not.

So why are people confused on this point?  Perhaps because they confuse “religion” with “cultural beliefs held by religious people.”  And cultural views do play a big role in politics.  In 1970, it was culturally acceptable to walk down the street in Tehran or Kabul wearing a miniskirt.  Now it isn’t.   In 2050?

OK, so why is my distinction important?  Am I just splitting hairs? Even I agree that the cultural views held by religious people are an important factor in politics.

I would argue that if you think in terms of culture, rather than religion, it makes it much easier to understand poll number such as the following:

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 2.34.13 PMIf you naively thought that the political views of people reflected their religion, then you might be surprised by these numbers.  Why would White evangelicals change their views so dramatically, in just a period of 5 years?  Why would they have been horrified by the behavior of Bill Clinton, and then in 2016 suddenly decide that it didn’t matter if politicians had a sleazy personal life?

In my view, these pollsters are wasting their time.  They are trying to ascertain the views of voters on certain issues of principle, whereas most voters actually have no fixed principles.  (I mean political principles, they may well be otherwise fine people.)  They are guided by convenience, by expediency.  However you wish to define religion, it’s certainly not supposed to be about convenience and expediency.

In this post, I’ve focused on conservative religious groups, but in this excellent Freddie deBoer post we learns that Social Justice Warriors are no different—lacking in principles.  It would not surprise me in the least if 40 years from now conservative Christians are overwhelmingly pro-choice, supporters of “Me-Too” and welcoming to refugees, and SJWs are the exact opposite.

PS.  The deBoer post (especially the second half), is also a brilliant explanation of the internal dynamics of China’s Cultural Revolution–and he doesn’t even mention China.

PPS.  I’d like to see a Venn Diagram of the overlap between people who:

1. Agree with Jordan Peterson on the importance of character

2. Actually like Trump

PPPS.  Ramesh Ponnuru makes a very persuasive case that someone in the Trump Administration is out to get him.

PPPPS.  Some commenters recently suggested that the FBI had spied on the Trump campaign.  If so, this is really odd:

Meanwhile, Democrats who attended a classified briefing about the informant with top DOJ officials last week said they saw “no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign.” Top Republicans who also attended the briefing have remained silent, however.

The poor, the sick, the sad, and the lonely: Blaming the victims

Most people will want to skip this post, but it’s something I need to get off my chest. One unfortunately aspect of the internet is that it lifts off the lid, and exposes all the dark sides of human nature. One of those dark aspects is the urge to blame the victim.

1.  The sick

If you follow sports, you will eventually come across a case like Derrick Rose, or Kawhi Leonard. These are players that suffered severe injuries, and had trouble getting healthy again. At some point medical science is no longer able to identify the problem. They look healed but they still felt pain, which got worse when they played. When that happens, sports reporters start whispering that it’s a mental thing, that these players are weak. This despite the fact that when healthy, these men were among the toughest in the league, willing to mix it up with much bigger players under the rim. We get frustrated that they aren’t healed yet—and that the problem cannot be identified—so it’s their fault. (This year it’s Markelle Fultz who is being picked on.)

Medical science may be impressive, but there is still a great deal that it doesn’t understand. If you go to the doctor and complain about chronic intestinal pain, there’s a good chance that he or she won’t be able to pinpoint the problem. Indeed there are lots of things that cannot be identified in X-rays or blood tests, including severe back pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine headaches, and dozens of other illnesses. We get frustrated with people who have these hard to pinpoint problems, and label them “hypochondriacs.” Or we say they have a low threshold for pain—as if anyone knows the pain felt by another person. Yes, it’s true that the pain is “all in their head”, but that’s equally true of someone suffering pain from a “phantom limb”, and someone who has their hand on a hot stove. Where else would the pain be?

2.  The sad

It’s even worse with mental illnesses. People suffering from depression are told to just “snap out of it”, or think positive thoughts. They are viewed as losers.

3.  The lonely

There has been recent discussion of “incels”, people who are celibate but who would prefer to be in a romantic relationship. The non-lonely often tell them to just “lower their standards”, as if they had never thought of that. Or join a church. Please, just stop. Even worse, one prominent pundit implied that tech firms might want to get rid of these awful people. After all, one incel in Canada murdered some people.

4.  The poor

Like you and I, indeed like almost everyone, poor people often make bad choices. But the last thing they want to hear is someone telling them what they did wrong. Consider a young woman at the bottom of society (in terms of looks and education). Her life is pretty bleak, with only a few men to choose from. Having a child would provide some meaning to her life. She finds the best man she can, but in the end he walks out on her, leaving her a poor single mother. Or maybe he beat her and she walks out on him.  Sure, she might have been able to stay slightly above the poverty line by becoming a low wage, childless, “incel” worker with nothing in life to look forward to; but not everyone can live that way. Yes, poverty is bad, but being physically ill, mentally ill, or lonely might well be worse.

I understand that there are people out there who are deserving of blame. Think of the famous case of the worker who is on disability for a bad back, but is discovered out skiing. (Or Trump with his “bad feet“.)  These people exit. But unless you have clear evidence pointing in this direction, do not blame victims for their plight. Just don’t do it.

If I were to generalize, I’d say that the biggest mistake made by conservatives is to view the unfortunate as “losers” who are to blame for their plight. In the case of incels, both the left and the right piles on.

On the liberal side, the biggest mistake pundits make is to rank people by how much sympathy each victim deserves. Don’t tell people that their suffering is less bad than someone else’s. YOU DON’T HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE IN THEIR SHOES. For all we know, the most miserable person in America might well be a billionaire. These pundits base their opinions on social science, whereas they ought to spend more time reading great literature.  There’s more to life than money.

HT:  Scott Aaronson, who has a much better post.

The truth that dare not speak its name (or perhaps two truths?)

There’s a very good new post by Benn Steil and Benjamin Della Rocca that explains why the BOJ does not emphasize the exchange rate channel in their monetary stimulus:

In September 2016, the Bank of Japan adopted a new strategy to boost the flagging Japanese economy: “yield curve control,” or YCC. The aim was to widen the gap between long- and short-term interest rates, by keeping shorter-term (10-year) government bond (JGB) rates at 0%, as a means of encouraging bank lending. . . .

BoJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda has trumpeted the policy’s success in boosting lending. As shown in the bottom left figure, though, lending did not increase because of the mechanism underlying YCC—that is, a widening of the gap between what banks pay to borrow funds short-term and what they receive from borrowers longer-term. . . .

What happened, then? After YCC was announced, the BoJ’s pledge to hold 10-year JGB rates at 0% pushed bond investors to find yield outside Japan. . . .this caused the yen to fall sharply, which boosted exports. . . .

[S]hortly after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office, the Obama administration admonished Japanese authorities for public statements calling for yen depreciation. Abe and Kuroda learned the important lesson that one may only target the exchange rate if one does not speak of it.

Off topic, I don’t often blog on the Lucas Critique.  I wonder if anyone has commented on its applicability to the concept to sexual harassment.  Suppose that over a period of decades society does not take charges of sexual harassment very seriously.  In that environment, there may well be very few false claims of sexual harassment.  However if policy changes in such a way that accusations are presumed to be true, and also result in severe consequences, then the Lucas Critique predicts a sizable increase in false accusations.

That does not mean that harassment charges should not be taken more seriously than in the past, and also result in serious consequences.  (On balance I think they should, despite the Lucas Critique problem.)  Rather it suggests that this is not an easy black and white issue.  There is almost certainly some degree of presumption of guilt that would be counterproductive.  Imagine a world where everyone (and I’m including men, as this group is also sexually harassed fairly frequently) could destroy the lives of anyone they disliked.  No one would want that kind of world, which means that no one who claims that accusations should always be believed is telling the truth.  We are all skeptics, it’s just a matter of degree.

The world (and especially the internet/media) is like a giant high school, where we are all expected to conform to popular belief.  When that consensus changes, we are expected to dutifully fall in line.  I transferred from that high school to utilitarianism when I was in my 20s.

PS.  Here’s Scott Alexander:

About 30% of the victims of sexual harassment are men.

It’s too late Mitt

Here’s the latest

The Republican National Committee is following in the footsteps of President Donald Trump and supporting Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, according to an RNC official.

Gee, I wonder why they changed their minds?

And here’s Mitt Romney:

Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.

It’s too late Mitt.

Meanwhile the President’s press secretary is asked whether Trump thinks Muslims should be banned from Congress, and is unable to answer the question.  She doesn’t know the answer.  Let that sink in.  Too bad they didn’t ask her whether Trump thinks gays should be put in prison; I’d guess she doesn’t know the answer to that question either.

PS.  Steve Bannon opposes immigration from Asia because he believes it might change our culture, by which he means white culture, not American culture.  (Blacks and Hispanics don’t count to white nationalists).  Even before the election we can be pretty sure that a large majority of white Alabamans are going to vote for Bannon’s preferred Senate candidate, a guy who has said that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress and gays should be put in prison.  I know quite a few Asian immigrants, indeed each Saturday morning I hang out with about 40 of them.  And I can confirm that they do not share the culture of whites living in Alabama.  Unlike Bannon, I see that as a good thing.  I am happy that Asians keep pouring into the country.  I look forward to our culture changing.  And there’s nothing Bannon can do to stop it.

PPS.  The deficit is about to get much bigger:

The deficit will hit $1.05 trillion in 2019 and $1.1 trillion in 2020, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, if Congress passes the tax cut legislation it’s currently negotiating, along with disaster relief and other measures meant to avert arbitrary limits on spending established several years ago. The tax cuts alone would add about $150 billion to the deficit each year, on average, with other likely changes pushing that up by another $25 billion per year, or so. Deficits will only get larger, unless there are major cutbacks in spending or new taxes in the future.

I can’t wait to see the GOP bring about “major cutbacks in spending”.  The deficit was $585 billion in Obama’s last year in office.  Recall how the GOP insisted that Obama’s deficits would bring down our economy?  Now the deficit is about to explode during a period of economic expansion, when deficits usually fall.  Hey, what could go wrong?