Awesome people


The first Democratic primary debates are tonight, and in the midst of a very very crowded field it’s worth asking: beyond “anyone who will win,” who are the stronger candidates and why? I want to focus particularly on the second aspect of that question: why are we drawn to certain candidates? In that context, I’d argue that we – as in, the electorate, when determining what candidate to vote for – focus too much on personality and not nearly enough on executive/administrative skill.

In any election, people typically can choose between an incumbent and a number of challengers. When it comes to the Democratic candidates for 2020, we’re only looking at challengers. People often take the present state of the economy or their overall living situation when considering the incumbent – blaming or passing the President in office, rightly or wrongly, for their current standard of living. But with only challengers in the field, I’d say that people are drawn to specific candidates for some combination of personality and policy.

The appeal of personality

The first one, personality, is the most significant, even for many policy wonks who’d like to think they are immune to it. Under the bucket of personality, I’d put things like how relatable a candidate is, trust, scandals, etc. Consider Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton. There were some meaningful policy differences between the two of them in 2008 – especially when it comes to foreign policy – but people fell in love with Obama because of what his personality represented. Were Obama’s policies all that much different than a John Kerry, Joe Biden, or Lincoln Chaffee? Obama was not a once-in-a-generation political talent because he somehow whipped up a portfolio of mind-blowing policies that no one had ever thought of. In fact, there was notably a huge overlap between the economic advisors during the Bill Clinton administration and Obama’s. Nor did people fall in love with Obama because of his incredible experience. He had spent a little time as a state legislator in Illinois and a couple years in the Senate before he ran for President. He was criticized during his 2008 run for having had little more career experience than “community organizer” under his belt.

With the obvious caveat that Donald Trump and Barack Obama are complete opposites in almost every meaningful way, one could argue that much of Obama’s initial appeal/criticism came from the same root of human motives as those for Donald Trump. I think people fell in love with Obama because he represented the America they aspired to have: he was the hope candidate, a multiracial cosmopolitan law professor who would bring back technocratic thinking to the Presidency after George Bush and project tolerant liberal values abroad. But to his critics, he was an out-of-touch elitist who was “weak” and had never experienced the real world. As one of my friends put it, there were a lot of people who loved or hated Obama for the same reason: he was a cool black guy.

The disdain for Trump goes deep and for many reasons. But I find his supporters are much more drawn to what his personality represents to them than any of his actual policies. The flip flops of Republican voters on policy preferences during his Presidency are noted and remarkable. Farewell to support for free trade, cutting deficits, or any semblance of free markets and individual liberty. Hypocrisy of elected officials aside, I think what drew Republican voters to him was the idea that he – believe it or not – represented the kind of dude they want in the White House. The same reasons that his critics can’t stand his personality – toxic masculinity combined with a desire to reject all technocratic advice and unashamedly bulldoze through anything close to norms – are the reasons his supporters love him. Trump is an alpha male. He cheats on his wife with porn stars. He says racist things – or “politically incorrect” depending on your viewpoint – unapologetically. He likes big strong tough American things like steel, coal, and #business.

When I think about which of the Democratic candidates I am drawn to, I must admit I fall into a similar framework of seeking out a candidate’s “vibe” more than anything else. As Ezra Klein spelled out in a couple podcast episodes he did, Democrats love the idea of “the professor” or the “educated multicultural person.” They’re itching to have an academic back in the White House so that reality can be as close to the West Wing as possible (something Emily VanDerWerff has also described in a podcast episode). When I look at the 23 (24? 25?) candidates vying for the nomination, many of their policies blend together. Yes, there’s a substantial difference between a Joe Biden and a Bernie Sanders. But what about between a Corey Booker or a Kamala Harris?

The reality is that we judge the value of these candidacies by their personality, their “vibe.” Ezra also point out in his interview with Pete Buttigieg how Mayor Pete seemed to strike at the heart of the West Wing-minded people of the Democratic party. The guy learned Norwegian so he could read a book he liked, for heaven’s sake. Outside of Biden and Sanders (and potentially Warren), few candidates have enough name recognition to really have convinced the electorate of their meaningful differences. Because of this, Kamala Harris is “the Senator who badgered Kavanaugh but also used to be an overzealous attorney.” Amy Klobuchar is “the nice Senator from Minnesota who throws her binders at staffers.” So which vibe do people most relate to? Which person do you see as someone you’d love to have represent you and America abroad?

My gut reaction – after of course “whoever will beat Trump” – is towards Buttigieg. I can’t give you firm answers about questions regarding his policies, his young age, or that he’s never been elected to statewide of Federal office. He just seems to have that vibe that I like. He was a Rhodes Scholar, he’s a midwesterner, and he spontaneously played a Spoon song on piano. I recognize that even as someone who loves reading about policy nuances and claims to value “substance” entirely over “style,” I still make my choice in a crowded field towards the guy whose #vibe I like the most.

Now maybe personality at some point manifests itself into actual substance. Could Obama’s likability have been a strategic asset abroad? Is Trump’s unpredictability and toughness actually going to get countries to the negotiating table? It’s possible, but it still needs to be put into the context of everything else.

Where is the place for policy?

As a generalization, the parties’ constituents and representatives can be divided into their “moderate”/”establishment” sections and their “populist” wings. Trump is the rightwing populist, maybe a Mitt Romney is the establishment Republican, Biden is the establishment Democrat, and Bernie is the populist lefty. There are definitely differences in the policies of Biden versus Bernie. In fact, even between Warren and Sanders – both people I would consider as being a part of the left-populist group – there are big policy differences. I think many primary voters will keep these in mind, but only as far as it extends to how it feeds into the personality/vibe. Warren and Sanders both want to burn the place down and take out Wall Street. Biden and Harris want to tinker with the 2015 system rather than throw out the baby with the bath water. There are policy-lovers that will look at specific policies once the crowded field narrows, but I still think that for the vast majority of the general primary voting population, personality wins out.

In the current state of affairs, it’s worth pondering how much policy preferences will matter, and in what ways. Obamacare passed with 60 Democrats in the Senate and is still being challenged legally in the courts. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think the ACA changed the previous system all that much compared to current 2020 proposals and still it is constantly being challenged. With Mitch McConnell running the Senate, or at the very best Democrats having a majority that doesn’t reach 60 votes, not many if any of the Democratic dream legislation will have a chance at passing.

Proposing Medicare for All or a Green New Deal may not pass now, but maybe it will shift the Overton window? Republican voters have suggested openness to expanding the social safety net, contingent on its branding. Could it be that entering these proposals into the national discussion will in itself advance their likelihood of passing down the line? I don’t discount it totally, but there’s so much uncertainty with that line of thinking. And blowback effects seem just as likely for radical legislation that could actually be counter-productive.

There are aspects where Presidential policy differences do matter of course, outside of Congressional representation. The Executive branch has huge control over regulation, as we have seen with Trump. As the arbiter of enforcing laws, the President can effectively choose how hard they will uphold the laws that Congress has passed. Where does each candidate stand on financial, environmental, and commercial regulation? Furthermore, the President appears to be able to unilaterally dictate foreign policy under the status quo. The differences on foreign policy between the primary candidates should thus be taken much more seriously. But with economic issues at the forefront, the only buzz I’m getting from many Democrats about foreign policy is “not as aggressive as Trump, and don’t be friends with North Korean dictators.”

Executive/administrative skill

The aspect of a candidacy that I don’t think gets nearly enough attention is the administrative skill level. There was some appeal to Trump for his supposed business acumen, but people don’t seem to take into account enough the fact that the President is the head of an Executive branch that employs millions of people. In fact one of Trump’s biggest incompetencies is his ability to effectively administrate all of those who technically report to him. His incompetence seems to be a blessing disguise for many of his critics, as his most disastrous policies often hit roadblocks and aren’t enacted because he’s so bad at the chain of command. This is where someone like Hillary Clinton would have really been exceptional. Her experience would have given her an unprecedented ability to manage the bureaucratic machine that makes up the Executive Branch. I also think that Obama was caught flat-footed in his first term, though eventually found his way in his second term very effectively.

Being President is tough and the oft-spoken cliche is that everyone has no experience being President until they’re elected. But there are also people who are quicker to learn and are quicker to apply their executive experience to the role. Governors – maybe mayors? – or people who have had executive experience are thus undervalued to me. Or at least trying to find out what their executive skills would be. Can you see Bernie being able to manage millions of people? I can see him coming up with a cohesive political philosophy and inspiring lots of people, but I can’t see him pulling the strings to get things done. Elizabeth Warren? Much more so. It’s hard to tell (for non-incumbents) how people will perform in this regard before they actually become President. But not enough voters/commentators are even asking the question.

495 days

As I write this, there are 495 days until the 2020 Presidential general election. The Democratic nominee will be decided 6 or so months before then. I’m eager to see how the debates and ensuing campaigning change my view of which candidates to favor. As the field narrows, I think the differences in policy, demeanor, and executive capabilities will become more clear. Until then, I’ll admittedly be over-relying on the perceived personalities of the candidates to make my evaluations.

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I have another piece in the LA Review of Books, this time a review of Tyler Cowen’s book Stubborn Attachments.

The end blurb:

Stubborn Attachments is short and intentionally vague on many dimensions. Respecting human rights is an admirable pursuit, but what is the definition of human rights? At what point do income transfers become so excessive that they make immigration untenable? How exactly can we be sure to establish institutions that lead to higher sustainable economic growth? Cowen knows these are important questions but instead chooses to emphasize the need to rethink our big-picture goals. How we get there is still up for debate, but Stubborn Attachmentspresents a compelling case for redefining our long-term priorities in favor of more sustained economic growth and a greater respect for human rights.

What follows is the seventh installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 5, Chapter 3 of Wealth of Nations.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Adam Smith is the idea that he believed unregulated free markets were perfect and ideal. While he believed the market system to be the best way to fight poverty and increase the produce of a nation, he knew that market economies were not without their faults. Specifically, Smith observed that the specialization from division of labor, while allowing the flourishing he saw in Northwest Europe at the time, has the inevitable consequence of intellectual atrophy. From this, he justified a public provision of education to promote a well-informed electorate and prevent superstitious ignorant beliefs.

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too are perhaps always the same, or very nearly same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention…He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…the uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard, with abhorrence, the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier.

The worker whose entire life is devoted to one tiny task in the pin factory will cease to exercise the vast majority of his or her brain. This mind-numbing life is accompanied by a decrease in “marital spirit” – the desire to go to war for one’s country. Smith contrasts all of this with the people in less economically developed societies.

It is otherwise in the barbarous societies…of hunters and shepherds…invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people. In those barbarous societies, as they are called, every man, it has already been observed, is a warrior.

These societies that have yet to reach commercialization and industrialization require every person to be a jack-of-all-trades, stimulating the parts of their brain required for war, cooking, navigation, etc. It is by necessity that these people lead well-rounded lives and are always ready for battle.

In addition to the decrease in martial spirit, Smith noticed the harm this intellectual atrophy would have on society. The population would be prone to superstition and ignorance, with detrimental effects on civil institutions.

The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.

A base level of education is necessary to mitigate the dumbing effects of division of labor. (though his idea of public education is a little different than how we imagine it today). Marx even picked up on this in his description of the alienation of labor.

The complete lyrics to The Dumb Specialist:

Through division of labor, so improved and refined
With so much variety of goods I can try
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

And from this mindless employment, I’ll avoid and abhor
The life of a soldier, I won’t go to war

Will I forget how to read? My intellect atrophies
I’m drawn to superstition from the routine of my trade

For the hunters and shepherds, though their state is so rude
Every man is a warrior, industrious too
And all that specialization at the cost of my mind
A few operations take all my time

Mental invigoration, can I be saved? Ten years of education, I’ll be ok

 

Check out my latest post at Novel Stance about how economists need to incorporate sympathy more into their models. Here’s a bit:

Economic models’ overreliance on rational self-interest as the basis of human nature made their conclusions appear selfish and out of touch with reality. By not embracing a more nuanced view of human nature, economists lack a full understanding of how people behave and risk losing more credibility with the general public.

Read the whole thing here.

What follows is the sixth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Section 1, Chapter 1 of Wealth of Nations.

The reason why certain nations get rich and others don’t is from a country’s ability to utilize the gains from specialization and division of labor. If we are all left to independently grow our own food, tend to our own wounds, or build our own airplanes, we’d all have a material standard of living dramatically less than what we have by participating in a commercial society. The “Robinson Crusoe” scenario is an extreme example showing how much we gain by having people focus on fewer tasks and work together to produce more with this same amount of inputs.

Smith was inspired by this picture in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedie that showed the different stages of pin production.

1762_Diderot's_Encyclopedie,_Epinglier_II

Even in such a seemingly trifling trade, the tasks are split up between all the workers in a pin factory to significantly increase input.

One man draws out the wire; another straightens it…it is even a trade by itself to put them into paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operation, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands…

Within a firm, division of labor increases output. Twenty people trying on their own and separately to do all tasks needed in pin production will surely turn out fewer pins in a given day than when they work together.

…But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them, have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the…what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

And within a society, specializing and utilizing division of labor increases output even more. A brain surgeon’s time is too valuable to force him or her to grow their own food and learn to program their computer. Instead, the brain surgeon goes to the supermarket where specialists in food production sell their services and resources. Or buys the iPhone that was programmed by the people who studied computer science.

It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.

The complete lyrics to Pin Factory:

From wire drawn until the straightening, pass through eighteen distinct hands
Ten people now could make more in a day than if left to do on their own
Cut then before put into paper, the pin comes out in completion
What seemed at first to be a trifling trade is revealed to greatly improve

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy

And the master of a family knows this truth
That you don’t make at home what it costs less to buy

What follows is the fifth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 3, Chapter 3 of Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Despite our tendency to engage in sympathetic fellow-feeling, it’s abundantly clear that this is not infinite. We do not feel equally connected to everyone across the world. In Smith’s view, this is limited in part by our ability to put ourselves in the situation of others.

He tells us to consider a scenario where, as a Scottish person in the 1700s that hasn’t travelled much, you hear that an earthquake has happened in China:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake…[a man in Europe] would, I imagine express very strongly his sorrow and misfortune of that unhappy people…he would too, perhaps, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe.

So after saying “aw shucks, that’s so sad,” one would go on to thinking about how this might affect the commerce of Europe – in other words, how would it actually affect me? At the end of the day, this Scot wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over this tragedy. Contrast this to a scenario that is clearly less severe than an earthquake swallowing up tons of Chinese people:

The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren.

Philosophers over the ages observed this pattern in human nature and thought of a variety of remedies to correct this tendency. One group Smith mentions – the Stoics – believed that we should bring down our own feeling of pain and happiness to the level at which we naturally consider those of the anonymous humans we hear about across the globe. Another group – unnamed but implied to be Catholics – suggests that we should feel for others the same way we feel about ourselves; in other words, feel lots and lots of suffering. But Smith thinks neither of these methods gets the point, and is able to rationalize our asymmetric emotions towards our pinky finger and the millions of Chinese people. In his scenario, the Scot has likely never met a Chinese person, never been to China, and only knows vague stories about the country thousands of miles away. To the Scot, hearing of suffering in China is such a distant concept because the Scot finds it nearly impossible to put themselves in the shoes of a Chinese person and understand how this tragedy makes them feel.

Think of the saying “this really hits close to home.” It’s a suggestion that we feel stronger about intense events that happen to those we love, those that live near us, and those that we can relate to better. When a terrorist attack happens in Paris, American social media reacts much differently compared to when a terrorist attack happens in Jakarta. Of course these events are equally tragic in a human sense when lives lost are the same, but Americans are much more likely to know French people, have been to Paris, be ethnically French, or have studied in Paris than to have experienced similar things with Indonesia. If you hear of a school shooting in Iran, how does it make you feel compared to a school shooting in your town?

So maybe reacting to the terrorist attack in Paris differently than the attack in Jakarta can be rationalized by Smith’s conception of a finite level of fellow-feeling, but can we really consider it ethical? Well, here the Impartial Spectator comes back in. Given the tradeoff between our pinky finger and millions of Chinese lives, we would never pick our pinky finger.

“…would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them…human nature startles with horror at the thought…It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power…the inhabitant of the breast, the man within…calls to us…It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the nature misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of the impartial spectator…it is a stronger lover, a more powerful affection, which generally takes place upon such occasions; the love of what is honourable and noble…

The Impartial Spectator thus tempers the absurdity of our self-love and makes us recognize that, although our instinctive fellow-feeling may make the loss of a pinky more intense at first, the honorable and noble thing is to care more about these millions of Chinese lives.

The complete lyrics to Chinese Earthquake:

Far away from where I’m sleeping, tragedy shakes the earth
Myriad of its inhabitants, the Chinese empire swallowed whole
Annihilated in a moment, reflect upon misfortune
But what for European trade? Return to pleasure all the same

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

But if you told me that tomorrow, my little finger would be gone
I’d lie awake in real disturbance, do you tremble at the thought?

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

He calls to me, the man within, showing a powerful reflection
What’s honorable, neighborly love, my fellow-feelings’s just so limited

 

What follows is the fourth installment in a series explaining the context and deeper meaning of all eight songs on my band’s album all about Adam Smith “Silent Revolution.”  Listen to the entire album with audio commentary/explanation here. This song is inspired by text found in Part 1, Chapter 2 of Wealth of Nations.

The book commonly referred to as “Wealth of Nations” is actually an abbreviation of its full-length title “An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.” The question at this time was why, amidst millennia of abject poverty and subsistence-level living, a few countries mostly in the northwest of Europe had started to have a significantly better standard of living. For some, the answer was obvious: the farther from the equator you were, and the whiter your skin was, the more superior you were. For others, it was a country’s ability to hoard gold or other fine metals. Or maybe it was that good-ol’ Protestant work ethic? Smith rejected all of these explanations and instead used Wealth of Nations to argue that a nation’s standard of living is determined by its ability to utilize specialization and the division of labor.

Smith went farther than just rejecting the racial explanation as a determinant of wealth. He saw all humans as essentially equal in worth and dignity. What we perceive to be inequalities is actually the result of, and not the cause of, the division of labor.

The difference of natural talents in different men, is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labor. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came in to the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any remarkable difference.

Smith uses the comparison of a street porter and a philosopher as extremes of social standing. One is near the lowest status of society as far as prestige and perceived skill level, the other considered to be a wise and distinguished profession. But before they enter into schools or the labor force, their skills are basically equivalent. Through different levels of education, parenting, and circumstance, these previously-indistinguishable individuals end up working two jobs with incredibly different reputations in society. Yet deep down the two people are not so different.

By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter.

This is a radical contrast to any “nature” arguments in a “nature versus nurture” debate. This specifically departs from Aristotilean thinking that certain people like the Barbarians were meant to be slaves (thus explains our lyric “so Aristotle was wrong about the slaves”). The commercial economy, in addition to giving us the capability to innovate and flourish, also gives us deep material inequality that deceives us into thinking we are less equal in worth or dignity than we actually are.

It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.

Just as with Smith’s conception of sympathetic fellow-feeling, this propensity to engage in commerce is universal across people. In fact, it is what separates us from other animals. Unlike dogs, for example, humans are able to engage in trade and specialize.

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any species of contracts…The strength of the mastiff is not in the least supported either by the swiftness of the greyhound, or by the sagacity of the spaniel, or by the docility of the shepherd’s dog.

So the next time you go down to your corner store to buy a pack of gum or toothpaste, think to yourself, “damn, it feels good to be human.”

The complete lyrics to “The Street Porter & the Philosopher“:

Well at six years old we seem to be
In ability nearly the same soon changed by modernity
And our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

But the fellow dogs separately
Can’t utilize their different skills: strength, swiftness or docility
From no innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

Whether you’re paid to think or move on street
Your disposition and genius were made in equity
In isolation they’d appear the same
Still that philosopher remains so vain

It’s our innate desire to truck barter or exchange
And you’re not any higher in worth or dignity

 

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