Tag Archives: evidence

We Should See Clearly Now…

In the wake of the 2016 election, I was criticized by some very nice people for claiming that Trump’s win was all about racism. Those nice people–and they are nice people, I’m not being sarcastic here–were shocked that I would tar all Trump voters with such an accusation. But as my youngest son pointed out, Trump’s own racism was so obvious that the best thing you could say about his voters was that they didn’t find his bigotry disqualifying.

Conclusions of academic researchers following that election have been unambiguous. “Racial resentment” predicted support for Trump.

After the insurrection at the Capital, Americans simply cannot pretend that the profound divisions in this country are about anything but White Christian supremacy. We are finally seeing  recognition of that fact from previously circumspect sources.

Here’s what the staid numbers-crunchers at 538.com. wrote:

Much will be said about the fact that these actions threaten the core of our democracy and undermine the rule of law. Commentators and political observers will rightly note that these actions are the result of disinformationand heightened political polarization in the United States. And there will be no shortage of debate and discussion about the role Trump played in giving rise to this kind of extreme behavior. As we have these discussions, however, we must take care to appreciate that this is not just about folks being angry about the outcome of one election. Nor should we believe for one second that this is a simple manifestation of the president’s lies about the integrity of his defeat. This is, like so much of American politics, about race, racism and white Americans’ stubborn commitment to white dominance, no matter the cost or the consequence. (emphasis mine)

How about Darren Walker,  President of the Ford Foundation?

I have long believed that inequality is the greatest threat to justice—and, the corollary, that white supremacy is the greatest threat to democracy. But what has become clear during recent weeks—and all the more apparent yesterday—is that the converse is also true: Democracy is the greatest threat to white supremacy.

This explains the white backlash that has plagued American politics from its beginnings and throughout these last four years. It also casts a light on what we witnessed yesterday: A failed coup—an insurrection at the United States Capitol.

In his statement, Walker made a point that has been made repeatedly in the aftermath of that assault: If these had been protestors for racial justice–no matter how peaceful– rather than a violent and angry mob exhibiting “white pride” and grievance, the use of force by law enforcement would have been very different. 

Walker is correct: democracy–the equal voice of all citizens expressed through the ballot box–threatens White supremacy. That’s why, as demographic change accelerates, the GOP– aka the new Confederacy– has frantically worked to suppress minority votes, why it has opposed vote-by-mail and other efforts to facilitate participation in democratic decision-making.

Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been glued to reporting and commentary that has tried to make sense of what we saw. One of the most insightful was an article from Psychology Today that explained epistemic knowing.

After noting that “claims that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was illegitimate are widespread in Trump’s party,” despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the author   focused on why people who should know better nevertheless choose to believe those claims.

He noted that he’d recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird. As he reminds us, the book is about a black man being tried for rape in a Southern town. It becomes obvious during the trial that the accused didn’t do it–in fact, the evidence of his innocence is overwhelming. Yet the jury convicts him.

 The jury convicts Robinson of rape because at the heart of the case is whose word is believed: that of a white woman or that of a black man. In Lee’s Maycomb, it is important to the population that the word of the white woman be upheld as a more respected source of knowledge, even when this goes against the facts. What was at stake was not just this one particular case, but a larger principle: whose claims need to be respected….

When interpretations differ, people need to understand who to trust. They may choose to only nominate certain people, or certain kinds of people, to be worthy of giving interpretations worth trusting.

This is an illustration of “epistemic entitlement”–the choice of who is entitled to occupy the role of “Knower.” Who gets to say what’s true and false, what’s real and fake? 

Far too many Americans choose to believe White people over facts, evidence, and their “lying eyes.” 

A Depressing Analysis

Despite overwhelming relief at the victory of the Biden/Harris ticket, those of us horrified by Donald Trump and his enablers are still coming to terms with the fact that some 70 million people voted for four more years of the disaster we’ve just experienced.

Unlike those Republicans who continue to insist that up is down and Trump was somehow cheated out of a win, we live in the real world. We recognize that those 70 million votes were cast. The question is: why?  Trump’s hardcore base is demonstrably racist, but surely, America isn’t home to seventy million racists willing to dispense with functional governance so long as dark-skinned people and “foreign elements” are kept in their place.

Will Wilkinson considered that question in a recent column in the New York Times. He identified three factors that made the election difficult for the Democrats: partisan polarization, obscured by the inaccurate polling; the strength of what he labeled the “juiced” pre-Covid-19 economy; and the success of Mr. Trump’s denialist, open-everything-up nonresponse to the pandemic.

How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy’s throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn’t occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.

When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can’t render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share.

Wilkinson looked at Trump’s war of words against governors and mayors — especially Democratic ones — who refused to risk their citizens’ lives by allowing economic and social activity to resume, and to Republican messaging that defined the contrast between the parties’ approaches to the pandemic as a battle between individual freedom and over-reaching government.

The Republican message couldn’t have been clearer: Workers should be able to show up, clock in, earn a normal paycheck, pay the rent and feed their kids. Democrats were telling the same workers that we need to listen to science, reopening is premature, and the economy can’t be fully restored until we beat the virus. Correct! But how does that help when rent was due last week?

Make no mistake, it was unforgivably cruel of Republicans to force blue-collar and service workers to risk death for grocery money. Yet their disinformation campaign persuaded many millions of Americans that the risk was minimal and that Democrats were keeping their workplaces and schools closed, their customers and kids at home, and their wallets empty and cupboards bare for bogus reasons.

Democrats fell into the trap Republicans set with their dogged refusal to do anything about the uncontained pandemic. Wilkinson concluded that the “spell of polarization” turns every issue into a clash of political identities. As a result, “real” Republicans largely dismissed the pandemic as a hoax, a dismissal that conveniently excused the President’s manifest failure to deal with it.

This rings true to me–so far as it goes. But political polarization alone does not and cannot explain why millions of Americans chose to occupy an alternate reality and to dismiss evidence that was staring them in the face.

Constructing a world where the deaths of one’s neighbors are attributed to something–anything– other than COVID, a world in which a President’s too-obvious-to-ignore lack of competence is a sign that he’s being hobbled by the “deep state,”a world  in which that President’s lack of humanity is explained away as “telling it like it is,” a world where science is “elitist” and warnings from doctors are politically-motivated efforts to diminish the President–such a  world requires a media infrastructure.

There are multitudes of alternate reality purveyors:  websites and cable channels and talk radio hosts willing to confirm the accuracy of your preferred “facts” and the superiority of your chosen tribe.  Trump will go, but that media infrastructure will stay.

I think I need a drink.

 

 

 

Pesky Data!

Andrew Yang’s campaign for the Presidency introduced the UBI , or Universal Basic Income, to millions of Americans unfamiliar with the concept. He put that policy debate “on the table”–following which policymakers have ignored or ridiculed it.

In previous blogs about the UBI, I have acknowledged how unlikely it is that contemporary American lawmakers would pass, or even consider, such a program. But research suggests a high probability that  millions of jobs will be lost to automation within the next 15-20 years– a probability that will present a daunting challenge that America’s current inadequate and bureaucratic social safety net is clearly unable to meet.

The right-wingers who believe that taxation is theft, and the contemporary Calvinists who believe that poverty is the result of sloth and/or moral defect, respond to UBI advocacy with horror: those sluts who are producing babies in order to get added welfare payments of a munificent 150/month would obviously become an even greater burden on the “makers.”

Pilot programs and academic research continue to crank out evidence to the contrary. Those programs continue to multiply:the latest effort is in Germany, where a Basic Income Pilot Project will start next spring and will send 122 people €1,200 ($1,422) per month for three years. No strings attached. The study, initiated by the German Institute for Economic Research and My Basic Income, a Berlin-based nonprofit, will investigate the effects of an unconditional basic income.

Recently, a new multi-agency report backed by the United States Agency for International Development reported on a project to compare the effectiveness of workforce training programs with direct cash transfers. It found a “marked increase in entrepreneurialism, well-being and productivity within the cohort that received only cash.” Other experiments have found that unrestricted cash payments went for food, medicine and education, and did not–as cynics warned– increase joblessness or substance abuse.

Our policymakers, of course, prefer ideology to pesky evidence…

There actually is substantial data showing that, contrary to Americans’ deep cultural disdain for social welfare programs, a UBI would be both efficient and socially unifying.  Universal programs escape the stigma of benefits targeted to the poor.

Aside from the ideologically-grounded and empirically dubious belief that “handouts” encourage sloth and vice, the major objection to a UBI is cost. My own proposal for finding the money to pay for such an expensive program would begin with ending fossil fuel and other subsidies that have long since outlived any usefulness they may have had, and curtailing our bloated military expenditures–all measures that are overdue in any case. But there are several other approaches.

A while back, William Gale of the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project made a persuasive case for coupling a UBI to a tax that would pay for it– a 10 percent Value-Added Tax (VAT).

As he pointed out, a VAT is a national consumption tax—like a retail sales tax but collected in small bits at each stage of production. It raises a lot of revenue without distorting economic choices like saving, investment, or the organizational form of businesses. And it can be easier to administer than retail sales taxes. The big problem with such a tax is that it is usually regressive–but interestingly, not when combined with a UBI.

As I explained in an earlier post,

The Tax Policy Center estimates that the VAT in conjunction with a UBI would be extremely progressive. It would increase after-tax income of the lowest-income 20 percent of households by 17 percent. The tax burden for middle-income people would be unchanged while incomes of the top 1 percent of households would fall by 5.5 percent.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the VAT functions as a 10 percent tax on existing wealth because future consumption can be financed only with existing wealth or future wages. Unlike a tax imposed on accumulated assets, the VAT’s implicit wealth tax is very difficult to avoid or evade and does not require the valuation of assets.

Assuming that Gale’s numbers are sound, a VAT would generate more than enough money to pay for a UBI. Meanwhile, a growing body of research confirms the benefits of the UBI approach to social welfare.

But this is America, where Republican senators are climate change deniers. America, where Republican governors dismiss overwhelming evidence that mask wearing helps abate a pandemic. America, where lawmakers reject the very idea of implementing the sort of national healthcare programs that work well elsewhere.

America–where our lawmakers pay absolutely no attention to evidence contrary to their preferred beliefs.

 

The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.

 

 

 

Minimum Wage Again

It has long been a GOP article of faith that raising the minimum wage is a recipe for disaster–that businesses will fire some workers in order to raise the pay of others, and that the increased wages will be passed along to consumers and that the higher prices will depress demand.

That last warning has been especially shrill when the effort to raise the minimum wage has focused upon food service workers. (Five cents more for a McDonald’s hamburger? No one will buy it!)

It doesn’t matter that in places that have ignored the naysayers and raised the minimum wage, these disasters have failed to materialize– ideology ignores evidence. (There’s an analogy between the hysteria over raising the minimum wage and the equally fervent belief that cutting taxes on rich people will generate job growth, despite the fact that it has never, ever happened.)

A recent article from Business Insider–not one of those “socialist” publications–confirms the hollowness of these economic chestnuts.

New York City restaurant workers saw their pay increase by 20% after a $15 minimum-wage hike, and a new report says business is booming despite warnings that the boost would devastate the city’s restaurant industry.

As New York raised the minimum wage to $15 this year from $7.25 in 2013, its restaurant industry outperformed the rest of the US in job growth and expansion, a new study found.

The study, by researchers from the New School and the New York think tank National Employment Law Project, found no negative employment effects of the city increasing its minimum wage to $15.

The article noted that numerous restaurant workers saw a pay increase of 20% to 28% as a result of the raise in the minimum wage, and that it represented the largest increase for  low-wage workers since the 1960s. New York’s decision to raise the minimum wage had been met with considerable skepticism and warnings of dire consequences.

Across the US, the restaurant industry has the most to lose from a $15 hike. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2016 the food-preparation and serving industry employed the most workers paid at or below the minimum wage, at 1.1 million. Sales, the industry with the next-highest low-wage workforce, employed 200,000 such workers.

“New York City’s restaurant industry has flourished overall,” the study said.

Excuse me while I repeat–once again–my mantra: public policies should be based on evidence. Theories are fine–they’re even necessary–but when evidence demonstrates that a theory is flawed, the evidence should prompt revision of the theory.

Apparently, however, that’s just too painful…..