What are some alternatives to the Welfare State?

In case it’s not abundantly obvious to the reader, the welfare state has been an unmitigated disaster. Despite almost a hundred years of promises that we will use the power of the government to lift people out of poverty, it has never worked. As Reagan once said:

For… decades, we’ve sought to solve the problems of unemployment through government planning, and the more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.

Barack Obama is fond of the pseudo-quote: “The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over expecting different results.” Socialism and progressivism has never solved the problem of poverty and never will. These programs, in ever shifting forms, have existed since FDR and we still have poor people.

There are a lot of problems with the welfare state in its current form. Part of the issue is that, for purely political reasons we have to make sure that only “deserving” people get help from the government. Never mind the fact that we waste billions of dollars a year trying to figure out who is “deserving” and still get it wrong.

Let’s make an analogy: two men are before you, begging for 5 dollars. One is a con artist. The other really needs it. So you pay a third guy 5 dollars to help you figure out which one of these guys is which, so you only give out the 5 dollars to the one who needs it.

Does that make any sense? Obviously not. It’s an enormous waste of human effort. I understand the purpose and intent, but it is a fool’s game to think that we will ever be able to figure out who really “deserves” help on such a massive scale. There will always be fraud and there will always be abuse of the system. To imagine otherwise is to fantasize that we have powers of prognostication that we do not, in fact, have.

Because who really deserves it? The lazy? The incompetent? How disabled is “disabled enough”? Who are you, or I, to decide that? What if a person had a bad business deal fall through, should they get assistance? A single mother of two? What about a woman who has a baby so she can get extra welfare? How do you distinguish between them?

Obviously any attempt to distinguish will be imperfect. So some who are undeserving will get help and some who deserve it will be missed. The waste of administering these programs is enormous.

But I wanted to talk about solutions, not just problems. I will point out that few of these ideas would work, but we don’t know unless we discuss them. Even fewer would have political traction, but then again, 200 years ago income tax wouldn’t have had political traction.

1. Hire people to haul rocks from one end of a field to the other. Sure, it’s a waste of time and energy, but if we really need jobs, at the exclusion of all else, we could just hire people to do this. If you really need money, and you don’t have the skills or ability to do anything useful that someone is willing to pay you for, we could just hire them for some menial terrible task that no one wants to do. If they can’t haul rocks, let them bend paper clips. I mean, if you can find something useful for them to do, have them do that, but at least have them do SOMETHING for the money they get.

The advantage to this approach is that no government agency decides whether a person deserves help. The person just comes and gets the terrible job. They get enough money to live on and if they decide its not worth the effort then we don’t have to kick them off welfare. No one could complain that we are subsidizing the lazy. There would be less fraud because people would actually have to show up to work to get their money. They couldn’t be doing something else on the side while collecting benefits. Anyone who is currently employed in administering benefits could instead haul rocks alongside the rest of them.

This isn’t ideal, I know, but its a million times better than simple transfer payments.

2. UBI. If the problem is that poor people don’t have enough money, why not just give them money? UBI stands for Universal Basic Income. Imagine if every American citizen got 1000 dollars a month, not taxed, just for being alive and over the age of 18. This would stop poverty for a lot of people. Add that to a part time job making 5 dollars an hour and you have ~20k a year. We could drop the minimum wage, which would increase incentives for companies to move manufacturing back to the country, creating more jobs. People might move to more rural areas, seeing that the cost of living is so low, and they don’t have to live in fear of how they might support themselves. In general, you’d see a lot more mobility. If someone wants to pursue a new venture that may or may not pay off, they have a solid foundation on which to do so. They may not be rich and happy, but they will not starve in the streets. If someone wants to just make music that never enriches them, that is a possible road they can travel.

It may seem like this would be impossible to fund, but it would actually be cheaper than what we currently spend on various transfer programs. And even if it were a little more expensive, at least this would actually just flat out end poverty. We could stop talking about the poor and people who need our help and move on to other problems. If it meant a 5% increase in my taxes to really, actually seriously end poverty, I would be down for it. But realistically it wouldn’t need to cost me so much.

I actually should write a whole article on this, because there are good reasons to think our economy would boom under a UBI, making it even cheaper to implement in terms of tax rates. It would also stop much of the illegal immigration problems, since the UBI would only be available to citizens.

3. Forced charitable giving. Okay, so much of the taxes we pay is to pay for other people to live who are, for whatever reason, unable to support themselves. So instead of terrible government initiatives to help the poor, provide education or health care, etc, why don’t we just make all charitable giving apply as a non-refundable tax credit. If you already give to the poor through charity, why does the government need you to give more to the poor through them? It’s obvious that charitable organizations do more good for people than the government ever did on a per-dollar basis. They actually know what they are doing. There would be some competition for those charitable dollars. If you thought the charity was wasting your money on useless crap, then you could give your money to someone else.

The way this would work is, if you have to pay 30k in taxes, you could instead choose to give 30k to charity and pay no taxes. I mean, you have done your part for the poor, right? What’s the problem there? The obvious concern would be that some of these charities might not spend the money well, but we KNOW that the government doesn’t spend the money well, and we’ve been living with that for years! Why not give people the option to opt out?

I’m sure there’s tons of different approaches that we could take to the welfare state. Some of the ideas will work well, others will fail miserably. Why not give something else a chance? Of course, we all know that the real answer is corruption. Seriously, is there a doubt in anyone’s mind that the reason we have such a big welfare state is because 4 trillion dollars a year flows through Washington and everyone wants their taste? Whether its the insurance companies that, under Obamacare are following the Fannie Mae model of “privatize the gains, socialize the losses” or the sugar farmers who benefit from the sugar quotas, everyone gets a little bit of your money. So little of it really filters down to the truly needy. It’s no wonder that the government has failed, time and again, to end poverty.

Now I’m sure you can find idiotic articles that claim we spend very little on welfare. But I challenge you to look at the federal budget. Social Security is a form of welfare. That’s ~2.5 trillion right there. Medicare, Obamacare, most education. A lot of scientific budget ends up just paying people who are studying something that is politically advantageous. Food and Agriculture, Housing. These are all indirect, but they are still a form of welfare. It is still redistributing money or goods.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these people don’t need help, or deserve it. I’m not saying welfare is inherently wrong or bad. I’m saying the way we are going about it flat out does not work.

I’m going to end this post with a great quote from Buck Sexton, a podcaster and radio host I like:

These people that think that Hillary Clinton is gonna do all these amazing things for them… she’s not gonna make their lives any better. She’s not gonna really help them. I mean, a slightly more generous welfare benefit is not gonna dramatically improve anyone’s life. Pushing Obamacare further down – is gonna make people’s healthcare worse actually for the most part, right? It’s gonna create shortages in the system which leads, in one form or another to rationing. Then you just have to get private care and now your “healthcare” is not really worth anything because only crappy practitioners are in it… Never mind Bernie Sanders [who just says] “these millionaires and billionaires, we gotta stop them!”… How do they – that doesn’t – that doesn’t affect your life one whit one way or the other. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t affect you, it’s nothing!

It’s a distraction. It’s just worthless demagoguery. It’s stopping the rise of the seas. It’s “hope and change”, it’s nothingness. It’s really almost a form of nihilism because nothing comes from any of this. I feel bad for a lot of these people who stand up for these democrats and say “Oh but… they’re gonna do this amazing job, they’re gonna do all this great stuff. They’re gonna do all these amazing things for us.”

No they’re not! They’re really not! What amazing stuff did Barack Obama do for all of us?

Conservatives don’t hate poor people or black people or anyone. We just have looked at the ridiculous awful idiocy and come to the only reasonable conclusion. It. Just. Doesn’t. Work. It can never work.

Let’s get our brains together and try to think of something that will.

What’s the danger in identity politics?

One of the most enduring and concerning aspects of our culture today is identity politics. The way I choose to define identity politics is from Wikipedia:

Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the interest and perspectives of groups with which people identify.”

In particular there is a focus on “Women’s issues”, “LGBT issues”, “Black issues”, “Lower Middle-Class White America issues”, or any other way that you might choose to group people. This sort of broad brush-stroke painting is inherently a little prejudiced, in that it assumes that all (or the vast majority) of these groups share these concerns.

This reminds me a bit of Dungeons and Dragons. I’m gonna nerd out here for a minute. If you ever read an older D&D guide when they talk about the different races (Dwarves, Elves, etc) they tend to define those people in the ways that they are different than humans. Even when they separate them out into sub-races or cultures, you see major strains of similarity between types of Elves or types of Dwarves. They do not have nearly the same level of cultural nuance as humans.

The same effect happens in American politics. White, striaght males are perceived as having nuanced opinions about a lot of different topics, where other groups are seen as a monolithic whole that is defined by a particular perspective on a handful of issues.

One of the big stories of this election has been about Trump’s supposed alienation of Latino voters. While it may be true that many Latinos do not like Trump for various reasons, to imply that immigration is the issue that Latinos put above all other concerns is crazy! Latinos are a huge and incredibly diverse group of people and they have a wide range of opinion about economics, social issues, and yes, immigration.

Trump’s rhetoric is questionable at best, but the idea that cracking down on illegal immigration is immediately going to lose you the Latino vote is insane.

But the political parties, to a greater or lesser degree have gotten very good at playing identity politics. You may be saying to yourself, “Look at the polls Jason, Latinos support amnesty, by and large.”

But is amnesty the overriding issue for most Latino voters? Probably not. Maybe in some states it is more of a concern than others, but immigration is only one of a host of issues. If I disagree with Democrats on a hundred things but agree with them on immigration, is a foregone conclusion that I will vote Democrat? Of course not! Why should it be any different for Latino voters?

But it does seem to be different doesn’t it?

I think the reason that it is different is not because of any difference between myself and a Latino man with similar views. At least not constitutionally. It is a difference of worldview and perspective. The overwhelming narrative is that opposing illegal immigration is de facto racism against Latinos. If you have heard it portrayed that way, and if blowhards like Trump say stupid things about Mexicans to corroborate that line of thinking, then it may very well start to look like that is the case.

And no matter how much I disagree with Democrats, I’m not going to vote for a party that is racist against me.

And that’s the magic of identity politics, and Democrats are not the only guilty party here. The trick is that you paint a picture that the only reasons a person might hold a particular viewpoint is because they are bigots. Specifically they are bigots against you. Therefore you cannot support people that hold that viewpoint, no matter what else they say that you might agree with.

Take a look at the recent Caitlyn Jenner controversy. She’s been attacked from all sides for believing that someone’s opinion about the economy is more important than their opinion about bathroom access. Note that she specifically goes out of her way to point out that Cruz is not good on transgender issues, but claims that other things are more important.

The article I linked you to has the premise that trans-gendered people would not be helped by Cruz’s policies because the problem for trans-gendered people is that they are discriminated against. The line of reasoning goes that nothing can help them until they deal with the stigmas and such. There is NO POINT in talking about economics until we resolve the social issues.

There are a lot of problems with this. For one thing, there are reasons why a person might be opposed to bathroom laws other than bigotry. Yet that is how Cruz’s position is painted.

So there are two premises: 1) trans-specific issues are so overriding in their importance that you must side with the group that does the best on those particular issues no matter what else they say; and 2) people who are opposed to certain policy positions that you support are bigots and they hate you and want to see you die.

If you buy into those two premises, then the other side has you! They have you as a life-long supporter!

If you pick out a bunch of groups: women, black Americans, Latino Americans, gays, etc, and you sell them all some variation of the above, you can push whatever agenda you want, using this coalition as your base of supporters, even if any one of them only supports a handful of your policies.

So that is why politicians like identity politics. So how do they keep it up? They blow problems way out of proportion, claiming that bigotry is crushing your particular identity group. They drive deeper and deeper divisions into the heart of man. I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist, but it is being sold as though no progress has been made since Depression-era Mississippi.

And the worst part about all this is that the side that uses this sort of thing can’t actually do anything about it. People say stupid things like “I will put an end to institutional racism.” How? How can you or any law possibly get rid of racism? How can any law make it so people aren’t looking weirdly at trans-gendered people?

So they play up our differences, make vague promises to fix issues that they do not have the power to fix, then stay in power by promising that you’ll be worse off with the other guy.

And like I said before, it’s not just Democrats. Trump has been doing this with lower-income whites. They think he’s gonna bring prosperity in manufacturing back to the Midwest, but that is not within his power to do. And he’s painting their identities in such a way that they perceive this Utopian dream as all that matters to them. They vote for him in hordes because they have bought his promises. And when they don’t get it, he’ll get re-elected by “reminding” them that the other side hates the white poor and they’ll definitely be worse off with the Democrats.

This is disunity. This is tearing apart the fabric of America. And sadly, its done in the name of inclusion and fighting bigotry. I sometimes get the feeling that the only real bigots are the ones who run around calling everyone else a bigot. There is more connectedness and unity in America than we have been led to believe. We are being manipulated by the political elite and by the media and by the cultural currents into believing that there are deep divides of hatred where there are really deep divides of opinion. And this is extremely dangerous not just because it creates antagonism against people who are different than you, but also because it then becomes harder to identify true racism and bigotry. I leave you with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

If the whole picture is painted black there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals for distinction from their fellows. Such painting finally induces a kind of moral color blindness; and people affected by it come to the conclusion that no man is really black, and no man really white, but they are all gray.

Image used under Creative Commons. Posted on Flickr by DryHundredFear

Why don’t people who want a $15 minimum wage just move to Seattle?

This is actually more of a question that I have for other people. I’ll do my best to give my thoughts on the subject, but I have yet to hear a good one.

So my thought on the subject is that local and state governments don’t need the federal government’s permission to raise the minimum wage. So if you, as a citizen think that is brilliant, why not just move to the city that’s already done it? What are the downsides?

Actually maybe it would be more interesting to start with the arguments for a minimum wage. Here’s a Huffington Post argument for raising the minimum wage in general.

  1. Seven Nobel Laureates in Economics endorse the higher minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016, saying it does not lead to lower fewer jobs.
  2. Job losses from raising the minimum wage are negligible.
  3. It is a myth that small business owners can’t afford to pay their workers more, and therefore don’t support an increase in the minimum wage. In fact, a June 2014 survey found that more than 3 out of 5 small business owners support increasing the minimum wage to $10.10.
  4. The value of the minimum wage has fallen dramatically. Since the minimum wage was last raised in 2009, the price of apples went up 16%, bacon 67%, cheddar cheese 21%, coffee 27%, ground beef 39%, and milk 21%. The minimum wage went up 0%. Plus, in the 1960s the minimum wage was essentially half the average wage. If that was still the case it would be $12.50 an hour.
  5. Saying we have a “free market” that will take care of workers is a myth. No corporations rely on the mythical “free market,” why should workers?
  6. In fact, one way to look at this is that low minimum wage laws are government subsidies to low wage businesses.
  7. There is widespread religious support for living wages.
  8. Worker productivity has gone up much faster than wages.
  9. It is a myth that the minimum wage is only for teens and entry level workers.
  10. There is widespread bipartisan support for raising the minimum wage. In a2015 poll, “75% of Americans, including 53% of Republicans, support raising the minimum wage to $12.50” by 2020.
  11. You know the minimum wage is too low when….WALMART announces it will raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour by February next year.

This sounds pretty compelling on the surface. There’s a lot to consider here. This makes it seem like being opposed to a minimum wage hike is borderline insane. Could it be true that there’s nothing but upside to the minimum wage going up? It’s not going to damage job growth (1,2), businesses can afford it if they wanted to (3,8,11), the people need the government’s protection from greedy business owners (5,6), and everyone else is doing it (4,10), so why shouldn’t we? Plus it’s just the right thing to do (7,9).

Well, we can! For example, Detroit has been run by nothing but liberal Democrats for over half a century. Why don’t they just raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour so that this utopia will displace all the horrifying urban decay that they preside over? No one could stop them from doing it. The government hasn’t instituted a maximum wage.

Or forget waiting for our cities to listen to reason, we can all just move to Seattle and as the nation sees poverty disappear, job growth remain stable and everything flourish there, we will see states and cities tripping over themselves to do the same.

My guess is that you’re thinking that would never work. But ask yourself, why do you think so? It sounds like there’s no downside to raising the minimum wage, so why shouldn’t we all just move to Seattle?

Okay, so having 300 million people move to one city probably won’t work. I can understand that much. But ask yourself, “Why don’t YOU move to Seattle?”

I bet the first thing that crosses your mind is that it will be hard to find a job. No matter what links 1 and 2 say up there, I think we all have an intuitive sense that if we are demanding more money from someone they are going to be more reluctant to give it to us.

But ignore that little voice. The Nobel laureates have spoken. Do you think you know better than them?

Friends and family? Get them to move with you! Job growth is fine there. It’s a bustling city! There’s no reason it couldn’t take in a small community of (if you’re lucky) 100 people!

This is where I run into a wall. Given the kinds of arguments put forth by outlets like the Huffington Post, it seems insane that every liberal state and city government wouldn’t be doing exactly the same thing as Seattle and anyone who was unfortunate enough to be locked into a ‘red zone’ wouldn’t be high-tailing it out of there.

Of course, I don’t think the arguments hold up to scrutiny. With the recent discussion of Trump and Bernie talking about companies going overseas for their manufacturing needs it should be obvious why they are doing so. Because labor is cheaper over there. They can get more done for less price. That means they can charge less for those goods, which allows them to out-price the competition.

Now, to be clear I want to raise the points made by 3 and 11 up there. No one is saying that higher wages holds down growth or productivity. No one is opposed to higher wages in general. The problem is not with someone giving their workers better pay, it is with dictating that they must give their workers better pay. Ask yourself, why don’t the workers just ask for more money? Because there is someone willing to do it for less. If no one came to work for you because you were only offering minimum wage, you’d hike it in a hurry. It doesn’t take a law, it just takes more jobs. If everyone in town needs a high schooler to work for them, and there’s not enough high schoolers to go around, you can be certain that they will start out-bidding each other for the labor. They will be willing to pay higher than the minimum wage. If wages go up naturally, that’s fantastic! When they go up because of force, you are risking all sorts of side-effects that may be difficult to predict but are certainly going to happen.

So should we move to Seattle? I don’t think so. I don’t know what the effects will be long-term. There are far too many variables to even know what to look for. This is not a controlled experiment. I think the incentive for business owners is to reduce their costs, which means reducing labor, maybe through automation. If it’s cheaper to buy robots than to pay workers, you can be certain that people will buy the robots, which may, paradoxically, provide jobs in robot engineering, maybe even in Seattle.

I think we’ll see less jobs and higher prices than we would have otherwise. That phrase is important. It’s possible Seattle, due to factors other than minimum wage, will continue to add jobs. The question isn’t “Have jobs gone up or down?” but “Would jobs have gone up more, or down less had there not been a minimum wage hike?” This is why it is dangerous to rely on broad statistical measures to define the success or failure of policy decisions like this.

Which News Outlets Can Be Trusted?

The short answer? None of them.

That’s not really very fair, of course. Most news outlets will not flat out disregard truth. The events that they mention generally have really occurred. The problem is not so much that they lie, but that they contribute to a particular worldview using certain tricks.

For example: what do they report on? There was a story recently: Four Catholic Nuns Killed. I try to expose myself to a fairly wide range of news, but this didn’t come up for me until a while after it happened. Why not?

I hesitate to speculate as to why this wasn’t considered newsworthy, but the selection of news that we are exposed to subtly guides our worldview and perspective on current events.

Another trick: careful arrangement of the facts: Potential Housing Crisis. The opening lines of the article are:

Chairman Janet Yellen says the Federal Reserve is delaying hiking interest rates. That could mean the rapidly inflating real-estate bubble is headed toward another crisis.

They mention a lot of facts in this article, many with some sort of editorial about how the fact contributes to a housing bubble burst. There is no attempt to show another perspective or viewpoint, so you might be inclined to believe that no other exists. Real Estate related news outlets don’t sound so gloomy. I’m not an expert, but I didn’t see any of the facts in the real estate market summary mentioned in the Breitbart article.

I guess fear sells though, so I can’t blame most news outlets for not printing cheery news. This does, of course, fit with the Breitbart narrative that our financial system under Obama is nearing collapse.

One disclaimer: the nature of news is primarily persuasive. Articles that are bare facts tend to be dry and uninteresting. It’s a journalists job to interpret and present the facts in such a way that it establishes a compelling narrative. Unfortunately, if you buy into the narrative too much, you can start to see the narrative as the truth, when it’s often just one of many interpretations of the facts.

Another trick is to sell your worldview by mentioning it as an assumption upon which we all agree. Take for example the worldview that Republicans hate the poor. If you look at the article, it is about “Why do Republicans hate the poor?” What is the assumption? That “Republicans hate the poor”. If Republicans do not hate the poor, then the whole article doesn’t make sense. So, while they never assert or give reason as to their belief that Republicans hate the poor, they make a tacit argument that this is true just by publishing the article in the first place. I don’t know whether this is on purpose or just an accident, but the trick is “assume what you want the readers to assume”. Then just argue some repercussion of that assumption.

Editorials are also dangerous. They seem like news, but are even less fact-filled than most news stories. These are entirely dedicated to establishing a narrative. Editorials and Opinion articles are actually useful in that they help you understand what the narrative of the publication is, but be wary of accepting them as fact.

Take this article on Merrick Garland. It has very few facts; instead it is almost entirely a discussion of who belongs on the Supreme Court (the underlying assumption is, Garland doesn’t).

Conservatives should not accept an extreme left-wing judicial activist. They should not accept an extreme right-wing judicial activist, if there were such a thing. They should not accept a moderate judicial activist, for the same reason that they would not shoot themselves in the foot with a firearm of moderate caliber. Litmus tests may be in bad odor with our self-proclaimed sophisticates, but here one is very much in order: The law is the law is the law, and it isn’t anything else. Those who believe otherwise do not belong on the Supreme Court any more than moderate phrenologists belong on medical-school faculties or moderate foxes should be assigned guard duty at the henhouse.

Do you see any discussion of what Garland’s position is? No, because this article is not really about the facts, it is about the perspective that the author holds on what is appropriate for the Supreme Court. This is not without value, but it is persuasive in nature, and that should be taken into account when reading it. It is not “news” in the sense of reporting bare facts of what has occurred, but is almost entirely interpretation and opinion. Do not mistake it for truth in some absolute sense.

One last trick is to flat-out misrepresent the facts. Make sure you check sources, at least every once in a while. A lot of times the sources have been twisted or bent in a particular direction where the statements may not be completely false but are certainly misleading.

I’ll give you an example: Ted Cruz’s flat tax. The centerpiece claim of this article is that essentially the plan is raising taxes on the poor.

The Republican presidential contender’s plan would also deliver the top 0.1 percent of earners in the U.S. average annual tax savings of about $2 million. Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent of earners would net $46, even as the plan put downward pressure on wages, according to the detailed analysis of the plan conducted by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.

If you look at the actual study mentioned in the Fiscal Times article, you will notice a few things. They have assumptions about the way wages will be impacted that play into their claims.

Their tax increase arises primarily from the depressing effect of the VAT on gross wages (because they are no longer deductible expenses), which more than offsets the average benefit from the higher standard deduction. 14

Notice that 14. It’s a footnote. Let’s look at the footnote.

See Appendix B for further discussion of the effect of the business flat tax on compensation.

*Sigh*. Okay, let’s look at Appendix B.

Take home pay would decline by 2 percent for our middle-income worker and 7 percent for the high-income worker.

That sounds pretty bad. Oh wait:

As a result, cash wages and take-home pay before income taxes would decline under the Cruz plan. [Emphasis added]

Ah. Well of course, this isn’t what is usually meant by “take-home pay”. Usually I would think you mean “what you actually take home”, not “what you would be taking home if there were no such thing as taxes”.

The final line of Appendix B says:

Overall, after-tax income would increase for most taxpayers.

So, how exactly does this support the idea that you would pay more under this plan? This is the footnote that was referenced. This is supposed to support their claim.

Well they didn’t deal specifically with the lowest quintile of earners, so maybe the calculations are different for them. Who are these people exactly? Let’s look at what’s my percent?.

Turns out the lowest quintile of earners is people who make $8294 a year. Before taxes. This means they work 22 hours or less a week at a federal minimum wage job. If you thought this meant you, it probably doesn’t.

To summarize:

  • Taxes in nominal terms will go down.
  • The larger portion paid by employers will presumably affect how much they pay their employees.
  • Because of this, you will see a tiny (0.6%) decrease in (actual, real) after-tax income for people who make $8294 a year or less, assuming that the effect on wages compounds over the next decade (a total of $46 dollars for the highest of these earners).
  • BUT WAIT! Let’s ask another question. How are they going to reduce the wages of workers who are already working part time at MINIMUM wage?

Well I don’t have an answer to that one. Maybe they assume Cruz will also do away with the minimum wage, but that seems like a big unspoken assumption for what is supposed to be a study of his tax plan.

So you see, news outlets on both the left and the right are subject to these sorts of subtle creation of the narrative. Sometimes this is fair, and is an essential part of the job. Other times this is a fabrication, or perhaps just a misreading of the facts in such a way that corresponds to their narrative.

My advice? Know the worldview of your news outlets. Remember that the narrative and the interpretation of the facts is not “truth”; it is opinion. Take the facts for what they are, but check them if they seem a bit too convenient. Learn your news’ outlets biases; they all have them.

Photo copyrighted by walknboston. Available under Creative Commons.

Why is Donald Trump so popular?

Since you guys probably don’t know me very well yet, I should go ahead and point out that I did not vote for, nor do I support Donald Trump for president. Maybe I should even write a blog post entitled “Why is Donald Trump so unpopular?” so you can get a handle on my style.

This question has essentially taken over the news cycle for the last few months. I think many people look at him and his bombastic style, his vulgarity and general irreverent tone toward everything and are really grossed out by it. To these people it raises the question, “How could anyone listen to this guy?”

So let’s walk ourselves through some answers.

A post here: Washington Post: The real reasons Donald Trump’s so popular tries to get at it from a left-wing perspective (if you didn’t know, the Washington Post is a pretty far-left newspaper). Their reasons are four:

  • Trump has simple answers for everything
  • A lot of people dislike immigrants
  • People are sick of the political establishment
  • He says things that people have been afraid to say

There’s some good stuff in here, mixed in with the bad. The first two reasons are essentially saying that Donald Trump’s supporters are racist and simple-minded. I don’t think that’s true. These sorts of accusations are an easy way to caricature your opposition and they fail my test: “If you think the only way people could hold a view is through stupidity or moral blindness, you probably don’t understand their viewpoint.” (I need some kind of shorthand for this. I’m guessing it will come up a lot.)

I might spend some time debunking those assertions, but I’d like to focus on the second two, since I think that they have a little more heft to them.


“People are sick of the political establishment.”

Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. There are a lot of people out there who feel like their voices are falling on deaf ears in Washington. I think most people look at the issues that really concern them and see the Congress and President as ignoring what matters to them. A really interesting quote came up in an article on the Federalist (a pretty far right news outlet, for those keeping score):

While communities like mine face suicide clusters and drug addiction, Yalies wept over the possibility that someone might dress up like Pocahontas. It became clear to me that places like northeast Wisconsin could not look to elites in places like New York or DC for help with our problems; we would have to rely upon our own community and resources.

It should not come as much surprise that these people in rural America feel ignored by the urban, highly educated (and often very wealthy) elite. It should come as less of a surprise that they are uniting behind a candidate that acknowledges this. This is not to say that Trump really has their interests at heart or, even if he did, that his plans would do anything to help them. Merely the acknowledgment that they have been ignored and that their very serious problems are not getting the attention that they deserve is enough to win their loyalty after decades of the opposite being true.


“He says things that people have been afraid to say.”

This also has a ring of truth to it. Many people feel like they have been living under a watchdog, Big Brother-style regime. Whether we agree with it or not, we all know that there’s a spectrum of allowable opinion and perspective. It’s been sold to us as tolerance, plurality, ecumenicism. To quote an article on teaching tolerance:  “tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.”

This sounds beautiful doesn’t it? In broad strokes, I think this is an admirable perspective to have. In fact, I don’t know very many people that would disagree with this.

The problem comes in how it works itself out. If your perspective is labelled as “intolerant”, it becomes okay to be intolerant to you. You are no longer in the circle of “good people” who deserve respect. By not having “respect, acceptance and appreciation” as it is defined by people who hold to this, you are no longer worthy of the same. This is an understandable development of the essential idea expressed in the above. I used to say, as a teenager who thought he had a good grasp of irony: “I’m prejudiced against Nazis”.

But then it becomes easy to start finding reasons to dismiss groups and viewpoints. As soon as you have a criteria by which someone is no longer included in your umbrella of protection, all you have to do is characterize their viewpoint in that way and you can let loose with all the hateful vitriol you wish. Incidentally, that is what is being done with the Washington Post article, when they claim that Trump supporters don’t like immigrants. If they hate immigrants then they don’t deserve the respect and we can be as nasty as we like toward them.

I think it’s clear how hypocritical this is.

But we’re terrified, as a people, of being seen as outsiders in the culture of inclusiveness, so we steadfastly avoid saying anything that could get us thrown out of the circle of respect. We self-censor in the workplace and in our social lives, afraid to voice unpopular opinions or perspectives. We are afraid to ask certain questions for fear of being labelled as a ‘hater’.

And let me be clear: this is not a matter of only avoiding saying things that offend others. Lots of offensive things get said by people on the inside. It’s just that the offense is toward people who “deserve it” or who are themselves “offensive”. You can say that Westboro Baptist is a vile nasty place that’s vicious and ugly and a stain on our American conscience. (I tend to agree with this. I bring it up just because it is an acceptable target of speech that would certainly offend any members of that church.) And while we have no problem when people say stuff like this when we agree with them, you can get fired if you target a group that is within the circle of “respect”. You will lose friends if you go on Facebook and speak against certain groups of people.

The fear of saying what you think and the feeling that we are not free to speak our minds is suffocating to many people. Trump gets out there and offends a lot of the “insider” group. Whether people agree specifically with what he’s saying or not, they love watching him stick it to the people that they see as oppressors in this culture of “tolerance”.


There are many more reasons why Trump is popular with different people, but this is a good start.

The photo used above is copyrighted by Matt A.J. , made available under Creative Commons.


What is the value of questions?

Politics, culture and religion are changing at an incredibly rapid pace. I think it is obvious that much of this is due to the nature of the internet and the ease at which we can exchange ideas. Learning about any topic has never been so easy and yet it seems like ignorance has never been so widespread.

I think part of this is that many of us have simply checked out of the marketplace of ideas. For various reasons we think it is not worth contributing. We do not challenge ourselves with new input, we think it is pointless to be involved, that the world will change at the whim of the masses and that we are not able to have an impact. It is easier and more amusing to watch animal videos on YouTube than it is to read a book on a topic you know nothing about.

Another part of this is that with such a mass of people to interact with, it becomes easy to conform to an ongoing flow of thought. You join your voice in tiny ways to a particular worldview and that becomes, with the power of millions of tiny voices, a deafening roar of opinion. It seems monolithic and unstoppable. It seems so obviously true that no one could deny it. The sheer cacophony is mistaken for truth.

Worse, there is an increasing sense of moral outrage at those who do not share your opinions. There are examples of this from every sector of opinion. Members of political movements, religious leaders, secular historians, scientists and sociologists all have been guilty of defaming those that disagree with them; not seeking a mutual understanding, but rather crying out in virulent diatribe against the people that dare to disagree.

The value of questioning is that you slowly develop an understanding of your own views, as well as the views of others. One should always question one’s own assumptions, as well as the assumptions of others. How can we come to mutual understanding without questions? How can we move forward if we dare not explore the depths of each other’s understanding in a constant quest to improve our own? I have been a fool many times before, and I’m sure I am wrong in much that I think now. I have been guilty of holding views that do not conform to reality and blindly following rhetoric instead of logic.

The defense against this is my questions. I never stop questioning myself and those around me. This keeps my mind nimble and adaptable, ready to accept truth as it presents itself, but able to defend the truth I know against the shallow attacks of fallacious and outrageous opposition. I know many of the attacks against my beliefs because I attack my own beliefs regularly. And every once in a while I ask a question to which the answer is so good, or so bad, that it helps me to see a new perspective that further refines my view of the truth.

I haven’t been able to find it, but Thomas Nagel had a line that I try to keep to the essence of. I am paraphrasing, but the heart is: “If you believe that others’ viewpoints are merely the result of stupidity or moral ignorance, you probably do not understand why they hold them.” I want the goal of my life to be understanding the views of others and seeking toward the truth.

I’d like this blog to be about questions. These will be tough questions to which there perhaps are not good answers. I want to explore these thoughts and share my questions and whatever insights I might find with the people who read it. I want to challenge status quo thinking wherever I find it. If it holds up to scrutiny, that is bedrock. If it does not, it should be done away with, regardless of the consequences. A house built on a rotten foundation will crumble in time.

I also want to have respect for the views of people who disagree with me. I may think they are wrong, but I know they have reasons for what they think. I also know that on some level we all want to know the truth. We should unite in this quest, rather than fighting one another. I have nothing to lose if my views are wrong. If I learn that I am wrong, it only makes me better equipped to handle life going forward. I’d rather be exposed as mistaken than live my life in blindness.

Feel free to send your questions to mail@constantlyquestioning.com or post here in the comments.