Friday, May 12, 2017

Airline seats and the market

A story about airline seats caught my eye, because it tells us something about markets. CNN Money reports:

American Airlines is planning to decrease the front-to-back space between some of its economy class seats by another two inches.
The airline says it plans to add more seats on its coming Boeing 737 Max jetliners. To do that, it will shrink the distance between seats, also known as pitch, from 31 inches to 29 inches on three rows of the airplane, and down to 30-inches in the rest of its main economy cabin.
With the change, American will become the first large U.S. carrier to offer legroom with a pitch that's nearly on par with ultra-low cost carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines. Those seats are an industry minimum 28-inches apart.
By comparison, economy class pitch on Delta Air Lines and United ranges between 30 and 31 inches, while JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines have between 31 and 33 inches.
As the big airlines match each other move for move, the risk is that 29 inches becomes the standard for flying economy in the United States. American has been a bellwether before for the airlines. For instance, it was the first big U.S. airline to introduce bag fees in 2008.
Airlines have enjoyed strong profits and low fuel fuel prices after a decade of consolidation. They're adding seats now to help offset rising employee wages.
"This is one of the best economic environments the U.S. airline industry has seen in decades," said Harteveldt. "There is no need to race to the bottom."
But a race to the bottom is indeed what we have. Interestingly, because humans are really just animals, one way you can see we are getting to "the bottom" is the increasing number of cases of violence that have been breaking out, in airplanes and at airports, as humans are increasingly stressed out by the travel conditions (see recent cases of Dr. Tao, a fight on a Southwest Airlines flight caught on video, fights due to frustration with Spirit Airlines' cancellations, and of course the infamous case of Dr. Dao, about which United Airlines has apologized (and paid compensation).

Airline violence has been a problem in China in recent years, too. According to the SCMP in 2013, Hong Kong Airlines reported that they had incidents of violence on flights between Hong Kong and China an average of three times per week, and so started teaching their flight crew martial arts. 
In China, passenger violence is usually blamed on the "low quality" of Chinese tourists.  Certainly, manners and "education" are important in preventing people from fighting all the time, but the stress of being in crowded spaces, of not having control, and being among strangers, all lower any person's trigger point for overreacting and even violence. (BTW, on the strong reaction to the Dr. Dao United incident in China, see this very insightful commentary).

In the US, there is a religious faith in the power of the market to solve everything. And indeed, market forces have reduced airfares and really created a much larger and more efficient industry. Where flights need to be negotiated by international agreements (e.g. between the US and China), prices are often inflated by the lack of competition. But what we see with airline seats is a market failure. American Airlines discovered many years ago that while consumers overwhelmingly say they want wider seats and more leg room, they are not willing to pay for it. They tried to meet customers' demand, but found that when they went to buy tickets, consumers preferred to save the money. This is especially true now with the internet, where it is very easy to compare prices. Expedia and Kayak and other travel sites all list fights by price; they do not list leg room (known as seat pitch). 

So airlines start charging separately for baggage, and for choosing your seat, so the ticket can actually look cheaper when the customer goes to buy it. To some extent this is the way the market should work: people pay for what they want, and poor people (and students) take the middle seats. 

But the pressure to reduce costs also gradually makes the airlines stuff as many passengers as they can in an airplane. Customers gradually get used to the newly crowded conditions--except those that lash out. Only some sort of industry standard will prevent airlines from continuing to reduce seat space. (I can foresee extra charges if you are fat, wide, or "excessively" tall; that is the natural next step). Congress told the airlines that either they come up with rules or congress will do it for them. 

The problem is that since so many people "believe" in the free market and do not understand that in some cases markets can fail, I don't see this being solved any time soon. A Red State columnist even criticized congress holding hearings on the United incident, predictably claiming any government interference would just raise prices for consumers and not improve service. Congress did hold hearings, and both Republicans and Democrats criticized the airlines, but it seems even this issue will be political, with Democrats calling for regulations and Republicans against regulations. The possibility of a free market with some regulations to set minimum standards is impossible to achieve. American Airlines reducing their seat size right after the hearings in Congress seems to prove that this market failure will not be solved or even addressed any time soon.

Friday, May 05, 2017

Racism and individualism

I heard a very interesting NPR Fresh Air interview withRichard Rothstein yesterday on the podcast while doing errands (transcript here). He has just published a book that shows how US federal government policies during the New Deal (1933-1941) had systematically discriminated against Blacks. He noted, for example, that the term “redlining” referred to government maps that had neighborhoods marked with a red line where government loans were not allowed because residents of those neighborhoods were Black. I thought I had heard him on Fresh Air before, so I googled his name. Sure enough, I found that he was a guest on Fresh Air almost two years ago.

In my google search, I stumbled across a right wing blog by Jack Coleman of the Media Research Center’s “News Busters” (which claims to expose "liberal bias") that has a severely distorted take on Rothstein’s argument, and it—and especially the comments section—show serious lack of understanding of social forces.

First the distortions. Coleman begins by implying that though FDR is an iconic leader for liberals, his record with the New Deal is problematic. He then includes a transcript of sections of the Fresh Air interview, with key parts in bold, to highlight the facts raised by Rothstein. These facts (accurately reported) include:
  • The Public Works Administration of the New Deal had explicit segregation policy, “So public housing policy created racial segregation where none existed before.”
  • The Federal Housing Administration would not give loans to Blacks, so the suburbs that sprang up after WWII were all white.
  • “Public housing became all-black in the inner city. And these two policies -- of public housing and Federal Housing Administration subsidization of suburbs -- are the two major factors that have created the segregation that we know today.”

 Coleman also highlights a part of the interview where Rothstein mentions that George Romney (Mitt’s father and former governor of Michigan) had tried, as Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to only offer federal funds to communities that desegregated, but was blocked by the Nixon administration. He somehow thinks this exonerates Republicans from being charged with racism; seems to me it only exonerates Romney the Elder. Coleman also notes that unions prevented Blacks from joining, and that this discrimination was endorsed by the National Labor Relations Board, so was not merely a local action. Only after 1964 was this reversed. Again, this is supposed to indict all labor unions (American conservatives hate unions), but my take is that racism was deep-seated and made worse by state action, not that racism was somehow inherent in labor unions.

Rothstein’s point is made clear when he notes that for most Americans, homeownership is the main way that wealth was created and accumulated, and since subsidized home ownership was not possible for Blacks, it resulted in much lower levels of wealth for Blacks. While Blacks earn 60% as much as whites, they own only 5% as much wealth as whites. This provides Blacks with less of a buffer, which is why Blacks suffered more than whites from the Great Recession of 2008.

(As an aside, Rothstein repeats many of these points in his 2017 interview, including these 60% and 5% numbers. I checked the transcripts to see if the 2017 interview was not a repeat of the 2015 interview, but it is a new interview, albeit with some repetition. A good interviewee knows how to tell a story and focus on the core message, even if he/she is repeating himself. If I had been interviewed, I might have assumed listeners had heard me the first time, or would be annoyed by my repetition. As it happens, I only vaguely remembered the first interview, so he was right to repeat himself.)

Coleman’s take on all this is to imply that liberals have suppressed this information because it conveniently “perpetuates the myth that the Republicans are solely responsible for racism in this country.” This “myth” is, in fact, a surprise to me. A myth of a myth. While the Republicans are indeed the party of racism today, they were clearly the opposite from Lincoln through to Eisenhower. Coleman displays fake surprise that a Berkeley professor would do such research, and that such a story would end up on “liberal media.” This is rather disingenuous, since it is liberals in general who are concerned with questions of inequality (conservatives assume a free market would reduce inequality; they do not believe Picketty). Coleman likes the story only because he thinks it undermines the ideals and practices of the New Deal, which conservatives love to hate.

Implicit in Coleman’s critique is also the idea that if it had not been for “government interference,” there would not have been any discrimination. That is not how most liberals will take this story. They will see it as a case of how despite the liberal intentions of the FDR administration, Black interests were sacrificed because of racist notions at the time. Liberals will not see this story as undermining the New Deal. But conservatives are right that “good intentions” and government programs have the potential to cause great harm. Of course, not acting can also cause or perpetuate great harm.

The most up-voted comments to Coleman’s blog shows that right wing Americans are intensely individualistic. One comment is a resentful attack against “victimhood”, particularly of “blaming conservatives and Republicans, and whites in general.” Addressing Blacks, he/she says:
Stop blaming whites, stop blaming slavery, stop blaming Jim Crow and segragation [sic] and start taking an independent initiative to make a better life for yourself and your family. Continue to blame whites and don't be surprised to find your children and grandchildren still living in ghettos for generations to come.
 A comment to this comment says:
Until a spotlight is turned on black inner city culture...nothing will change. It's not about race...but it's always been about culture. Getting an education, being married, and bringing up your children to do the same is a large part of the answer. Why can't anyone say that in public today?
Because it is simplistic and wrong?

That writer falls back on the common “blame the victim” argument: Blacks are poor because of their individual behavior, because of their (implicitly) dysfunctional culture. Americans are intensely individualist and ahistorical. These commentators are not interested in how the past affects the present. Interestingly, they are not even following the logic of the blog (and the book), which is that federal government intervention made poverty worse for Blacks. These readers assume that by getting an education, being married, etc., one can single-handedly pull oneself up by the bootstraps, as the expression goes. The institutional factors like redlining that disadvantaged Blacks are completely ignored. While Rothstein is making institutional racism even more dramatically clear with his research, these commentators insist on individuals being Horatio Alger. They are saying, OK, racism happened, but get over it! Move on! If only it were so easy.

There are important individual choices that each person makes that affect their lifecourse. But any basic social science course (by which I mean sociology, anthropology, political science; not economics) will also teach us that we do not make these choices entirely freely. Interestingly, conservatives in Europe are more aware of the importance of institutions and historical forces in shaping our individual choices. American conservatives have perhaps studied too much economics, and reduce everything to the individual. We need better ways of integrating the structural forces of society with individual choices. This has, in fact, been one of the main issues in anthropology over the past 40 years. But there is little hope for the US politically if many people cannot see structural forces, and even misread research like Rothstein’s and think it only means individuals need to make better choices.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A trip to the dentist

I went to see a dentist, since it has been over six months since I saw my dentist in Hong Kong. The experience with the dentist has left me mulling over the differences in medical systems.

We had a great dentist in Hong Kong. My wife’s insurance paid for dental care, and it was not that expensive; the cost was about US$120 per visit. I never understood how Dr. Leung stayed in business (and sent his sons to private international school, and to private universities in the US), since he had an office in Central, and a receptionist plus two assistants, yet he did all the dental cleaning and consultations himself. 

About 10 years ago, he got headphones so you could listen to music while he cleaned your teeth. Then about 5 years ago he got video goggles, and then a video screen, so you could watch videos. I think young people got more hip music, but I got the likes of Yanni. I loved that Dr. Leung explained everything thoroughly, and that he was very conservative. He did not do anything unless it was really necessary, and did not suggest additional treatments or cosmetic upgrades.

In Saint Louis, I had to pick a doctor from a list of doctors provided by our insurer. It took over two hours to find an appropriate dentist, because the list had minimal information and I had to google each one. I eliminated all those that said they had over 35 years of experience—yes, I admit to being ageist, but I recently read an article that recommended doctors with some experience but not too much time away from their training. I also wanted a dentist reasonably nearby. One practice I called only served children—that was not clear on my list or on their website. Finally I found a doctor I will call Dr. Smith. She had about 10 years of experience, and I was able to make an appointment for the following week.
The electronic reader I signed
First thing I noticed was that even to make the appointment, I had to give them all my insurance information. Then, when I arrived and spoke to the receptionist, I was asked to sign an electronic reader three times, even though I was not shown the text to which I was agreeing. I thought this was a bit odd. I always grumbled at the Hang Seng Bank that they made me sign a blank form before they entered my information, and I did not expect to have to sign with no statement in the US. Ironically, one of my signatures was supposed to indicate that I accepted HIPAA, the national privacy rule. I commented to the receptionist on how weird it was that I was signing a privacy release form without seeing the text, and she said they would print a form out for me later. They did. Of course it is four pages long, in small type, so I guess they don’t want people like me to actually stand there and read it.

As an aside, the form says in 13 languages that you can call for assistance in other languages. The line in Chinese is in traditional characters, and seems to be written by some non-thinking bureaucrat. It literally says, “Note: If you use traditional Chinese characters, you can receive language assistance service. Please dial 1-800-XXX-XXXX.” (注意: 如果您使用繁體中文,您可以獲得語言援助服務. 請致電 1-800-XXX-XXXX.) What does "traditional characters" have to do with it?! Why did it not just say “If you speak Chinese…”?! Plus, all mainland immigrants must feel left out, since it is in traditional and not simplified characters! And it does not specify whether the service is in Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other "dialect."

I was then brought into a room for X-rays. They took a panorama of my mouth, and then an image of each pair of teeth, so lots of X-rays. The assistant assured me because the machine is digital and does not use film like they did in the old days, the amount of radiation is less than what I would get from a sunny day. It was a more elaborate process than at Dr. Leung’s.

Then I was moved to a consultation room. When I sat down, someone else’s records were on the computer screen in front of me. Ha! I wonder if that is allowed under HIPAA. The assistant quickly changed the records to mine, and I waited a few minutes until Dr. Smith came in. She told me that my teeth were fine, and that one sensitive tooth is actually fine. Then she said the manager would come to see me. I wondered, why?

The manager came, and then I understood. She used the computer screen to show me what each of my cleaning processes would cost, and was covered and not covered by my insurance. Most bizarrely, the first column was the “list price” and the next column showed the discounted price negotiated by my insurance company. The third column showed what the insurance company would pay, and the fourth and last column showed the portion I would have to pay. She said there were three levels of cleaning, including a top level “laser cleaning” which is not required but highly recommended. The screen showed that for the top level, I would have to pay for it entirely—the insurance did not cover it. Bizarrely, the prices are for one quarter of your mouth, so each procedure is listed four times. Turns out, my insurance only pays for the basic cleaning. How am I supposed to decide whether I really need the laser cleaning? I decided to try it once. But I had to schedule a separate appointment for the cleaning. It had taken an hour for the initial consultation, and it would be another hour for the cleaning. Dr. Leung does the cleaning in 30 minutes. He works and moves very fast. The technician is more deliberate. Not sure which is better. I’m happy with a technician doing the routine cleaning, but I know some people prefer to have the “real” dentist work on their teeth.

Another interesting difference is that both my dentist here and the technician wore a special kind of magnifying glasses with an LED light in the middle of the forehead. They are called dental loops and my technician told me they cost over US$2000. At the same time, and probably because of the LED light, they had me wear yellow safety goggles while they worked on me.

One advantage of being in the US is that it is much easier for me to chat with service personnel, and I enjoy that very much. Hierarchy and language differences made chit chatting more difficult for me in Hong Kong. On the other hand, some of the conversations here are kind of strange. My dental hygienist was shocked that I had lived in Hong Kong, and that I could survive 15 hours in an airplane. She admitted that did not like leaving home, and said that when she goes to Florida for a vacation, she worries something might happen and so as soon as she arrives she begins planning how she would escape. This is not Hong Kong, where people dream of vacations in Thailand. (In fairness, people in Missouri also dream of tropical vacations, but in the Caribbean).

I realized once I had the cleaning done that Dr. Leung charged about $130 for the same process, but just my portion of the bill here was almost $400! The insurance paid another $600. It is not like Hong Kong is a poor country with a lower cost of living. It is hard to understand why the cost in the US is so much higher for medical care.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, who was the NY Times Beijing correspondent for 6 years in the 1990s, has written a book on the medical system. I heard her speak on NPR’s Fresh Air where she talked about the problems of the US’s medical system. She was a physician before becoming a reporter, initially as a medical reporter before becoming an international correspondent. She is very clear about the ways that medicine is not a market like automobiles. She notes that a for-profit health care industry will seek to treat a medical condition, not to cure it. A cure for diabetes would wipe out a billion dollar industry. She also explains how prices will rise to whatever the market will bear, and they never go down (“sticky prices”). The Republican faith that market competition will solve all of the US’s health care problems is simplistic at best. I found the process of finding a dentist and choosing service to be quite time consuming—and I can’t really say I chose intelligently.

Now my dentist has recommended I see a surgeon about a cyst above a tooth. Dr. Leung knew about that tooth and said we’d just watch it. I suspect the surgeon will want to operate. My cousin, who is a surgeon, has told me that surgeons believe they can solve any problem with their scalpel. That’s why they’re surgeons. So if the oral surgeon recommends an operation, is it just a way for him to drum up business? Do I really need this surgery? I may have to ask Dr. Leung.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Hate and the Vice President

Yesterday, I joined several hundred volunteers at a Jewish cemetery, the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, in University City, for a clean-up. Over the previous weekend, 154 tombstones were knocked over in an act of vandalism that may have been anti-Semitic (see video of the damage here). 

I now live in University City, and with all the hate going around, I decided to go to help and to make a political statement against prejudice and hate. Police do not know who did the vandalism. While usually anti-Semitic violence is accompanied by painted swastikas and other obvious messages, there was no such symbolic message other than the overturned tombstones. It could be just the work of mischievous youths, but the large number of vandalized tombstones suggests it might be a hate crime. Police are still investigating.

The cleanup was organized for Wednesday afternoon, and the new state governor, Eric Greitens, was scheduled to speak at 3:00 pm. Greitens himself is Jewish, and it is important for leaders to speak out against such vandalism and hatred.

Anticipating a crowd, I arrived early, at 2:30, and was surprised by the heavy police presence. Then I was surprised that we had to go through security screening. While in line, some started to speculate that Vice-President Mike Pence might be attending, since he was already in St Louis for another event. When I saw that we were being screened by a Secret Service agent, I suspected that might be correct. And when we saw over a dozen police cars arriving, we knew that was likely the case. The Secret Service agent made us remove all our metal from our pockets, and then checked us with a metal detector. Once passed security, we were given a colored sticker: I was in the yellow group, assigned to clean up a drive and clip a hedge at the south end of the cemetery.

Pence and Greitens came from a side entrance; they came to the center of the cemetery and stood on the back of a pickup truck and made some brief comments. (See local newspaper story here) Greitens said that the vandals do not represent Missouri, but that we, the volunteers, did. He also said that he had spoken to President Trump that morning and that he had been told by Trump to thank us for fighting anti-Semitism. Pence also said that the volunteers represent what is good about America. Both were brief and made appropriate and good comments.

The NPR radio report said that Greitens and Pence joined the cleanup and the interfaith ceremony afterwards, but they did not (the longer online article was accurate, so this was no doubt an editing error)[Correction: they did use a rake for a few minutes for a photo op]. They left after about 15 minutes. But I do not begrudge them that; they have more important things to do, and it was already good that they came to emphasize opposition to anti-Semitism and hate.

But I can’t help but feel like Pence was largely whitewashing the Trump administration’s responsibility for the rise in hate. Just last Thursday, Trump refused to answer a question about anti-Semitism from a Jewish reporter, telling him rudely to sit down (see NY Times story here). Two days ago, an article in referred to Trump's "disturbing dalliance with anti-Semitic rhetoric". Trump is largely responsible for the rising climate of intolerance and bigotry that is returning to the country.

The St Louis Post Dispatch article said Pence and Greitens received “resounding applause” at many points, but that was not my impression. I thought it was clear the response was muted, and only a few people were very loud in cheering when Pence introduced himself saying, “I’m Mike Pence, and I’m the Vice President of the United States.” Of course, we were in a cemetery, and it was a somber occasion, so it was not the kind of place where you would cheer loudly. Still, I don’t think most in the crowd were strong Trump fans. And while most people were no doubt happy that leaders were taking this attack seriously, many must have also thought, as I did, that it was a bit late to condemn such violence. After all, Trump stoked white resentment and never spoke up against the KKK and other hate groups. So it is a bit disingenuous now to be surprised and saddened by what he has sown.

As he left, Pence shook hands with many in attendance. He walked right by me, and shook the hand of one of the friends I was with. But I stepped back, as did another friend. I could not bring myself to try to shake his hand. Power attracts, but I felt I would be a hypocrite if I shook hands with this politician who was responsible for anti-LGBTQ laws in Indiana, as well as reactionary economic policies. I’m told Pence is a good person, but I profoundly disagree with him on many issues. While I was glad he finally spoke out against hate, and relieved that this was finally something all could agree on, I still found his administration partly responsible for the environment that makes such hate and vandalism more likely. Maybe I’m just adding to the polarization of the country. But just maybe, sometimes, we have to make moral statements.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Safety and Security in America, and our new house

Photo by Boyd Polkinghorn
We moved into our new house in early December. It is an old house, built in 1909, but well maintained. It is in a neighborhood known as Parkview, which was developed between 1907 and about 1920. There are 255 homes in the neighborhood, and each house had its own architect so is quite different from there others--quite a contrast from new neighborhoods today, where typically homes look similar with minor variations.

In the month before we moved in, two crimes occurred in the neighborhood. In one case, a woman returning home from work at 6:30 pm (in the dark) got out of her car to move a recycling bin and a man with a gun forced her to hand over her car keys. He drove off, picking up two accomplices down the street. In another case, two men in hoodies cut the electricity to a house and attempted to break in, but ran away when the residents raised the alarm. These two incidents worried many residents, because though no one was hurt, they were violent and potentially life-threatening.

In mid December, the neighborhood held a security meeting. Eighty-one residents and ten of the twelve association representatives attended. Police officers said they did not want to downplay the crimes, but reminded residents that the neighborhood is actually among the safest in the county. They also informed us that suspects had been arrested in both crimes.

Security panel, under thermostat
Our house is large, and old, so it makes sounds. The heat is provided by radiators, and the pipes sometimes make a bang as they expand and contract. My wife's company provides, as an employment benefit, a burglar alarm system, which was installed the very first work day after we closed on (i.e. owned) the house. Every window and door has a sensor, so if someone were to force open the door or window, an alarm would go off, and the police would be called. There are also motion detectors (for when we are away), and breaking glass detectors (in case burglars break a window to get in, but do not actually "open" it). We've been using the alarm, especially at night when we are asleep upstairs, and I have to admit that though I'm not very worried about crime, it does feel reassuring to have the alarm on.

On the 4th night we were in the house, the alarm went off at 1:53 am. In addition to a blaring siren, a voice announced "Second floor first bedroom left window open". I groggily went to check the window, but there was no sign of any forced entry. At the same time, we received a phone call from the alarm company. I answered the phone and sleepily told the voice that it was a false alarm. He responded, "Uhh...." Then I remembered, I had to tell him the secret password, to confirm that it really was all OK, and that they did not need to send the police.  The alarm company came a few days later to change the sensor on that window, because they suspected it was defective.

Security company sign, as deterrent
Since then, we've  had no problems, and use it every evening and when we are away. I sometimes even turn it on when I'm in my office up on the 3rd floor, since I cannot hear sounds downstairs very well. When we had family members visiting over Christmas, we did not always turn it on, especially because they had dogs, and I did not want them to accidentally trip the alarm in the morning when they let the dogs out to do their business. I had no trouble sleeping, even though the alarm was off. But the first night all our guests were away, and we used the alarm again, I heard the sounds of the old house, and had to remind myself the alarm was on. It seems that having other people around calmed me, and made me less worried. As the title of the book by Zborowsky and Herzog (about the Jewish shtetl) has it, "Life is with people."

Apparently, there is a long running debate in the neighborhood about whether to seal it off to "outsiders." Some residents want to limit access to the neighborhood, to make it like a gated community, so as to make it safer. Others believe it is safer if there are more people around.

Gate on neighboring street, blocks cars but not pedestrians
St Louis has a system of street gates that I have never seen anywhere else (though I have not really studied this, so perhaps it is not that rare). Many neighborhoods put gates across streets to prevent people from driving through them. The gates are always locked. Parkview, my neighborhood, can only be entered by car from one of four sides, the east. Google maps is actually still not correct on this, showing a Westgate entrance as still open. Parkview is a bit different because the streets are actually not city streets, but belong to the neighborhood association (we have to pay to pave and clean them, too). That is why there are no google street views of our neighborhood. We are actually more like a gated community, in that we control our streets and there is one gated car exit on the west side for which only residents have the gate opener. But even city streets are sometimes gated (and always shut). The gates prevent people from using the residential streets as shortcuts, so the streets are safer for children. But the assumption is also that robbers will be less likely to come because it is harder for them to get in and out--at least by car! As you can see in the picture above, the sidewalk is not gated for pedestrians.

Neighborhood access: black means open, red requires code
My neighborhood, however, has gates with locks (operated by number codes) to keep outsiders from entering the neighborhood. This is because the neighborhood is next to the Delmar Loop, a street with many restaurants and funky shops. (Among our new favorites are Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants, and a pub called "The Three Kings", a reference to Henry VIII, King Kong, and Elvis). The neighborhood is great because it is so close to these businesses, but "we" don't want drunken students to wander through our streets, hence the locked pedestrian gates. I'm told that not everyone agrees to these gates being locked, and in fact, there are three other paths into the neighborhood that are not locked. Two of them are are not well marked (see blue arrow on map). That is the compromise: open, but not off of Delmar Avenue where the bars are.
Blocked gates and the open "secret" path
At the security meeting, there was disagreement about whether to install more street lights. Some believe it will make the neighborhood safer; others point out that they are expensive ($10K each!), and that the big trees in the neighborhood block much of the light anyway. One person said she liked the neighborhood as it was and did not want it to be lit up like a used car lot. Everyone was very polite, but it is clear that with so many opinions (and professors, lawyers and doctors used to expressing their opinions and used to being heard), it is going to be hard to agree on many changes.

As we get used to the neighborhood, and our house, we are feeling more secure and safe. We hang up our paintings, decorate with our things, and gradually make the house our own. The ghosts of previous owners gradually recede to the shadows, where they belong. We are only the fifth owners of our house, but we are very aware of the previous owners when we wonder why that light switch is located there, and why there is that crack in the stained glass window (what happened to crack it?). There is a common tradition in the US (I think) of hanging up old license plates, so I've hung up my old Hong Kong license plate in my garage: a small reminder of my old home in my new (old) home, and a small talisman to shoo away the ghosts of owners past, and make our new house our home, and make it safe.

Icons made by Scott de Jonge from is licensed by CC 3.0 BY
Icons made by Freepik from is licensed by CC 3.0 BY

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Trump Election

A number of friends in Asia have asked me about the 2016 US presidential election, so let me make some comments.

First, on the polls that were wrong. There has been some gloating by people who do not understand math, claiming that polling does not work. That would put into question well over half of social science research! I think the more intelligent position is to try to understand why the polls were wrong, and that will take time. But I do want to point out that Nate Silver and the team did a very good job of emphasizing the uncertainty of the presidential race (see article here). They do not run polls themselves, but they noted that because the polls were so close, and because there were so many “undecided,” they had Clinton only at about 65% chance of winning in the days before the election, and at 71% at midnight Monday night, when their model issued its final answer. The New York Times and many others had Clinton at over 90% in the week before the election (and Huffington Post was at 98.2% on election day), but Silver had warned that though Clinton had many paths to victory (i.e. states she could win, and was likely to win, to get to 270 electoral college votes), because the polls were so close and because states would vary together, she was far from sure to win. In other words, if she did poorly in Florida, it was also likely she would do poorly in North Carolina and other states. And so it was.

Second, on why Clinton lost. There will be many explanations, but I think the issue of branding and symbolic thinking is one that has an anthropological angle. On election day (so before we knew the results), the Washington University in St Louis PR newsletter published a story in which Raphael Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing, noted that

“Clinton’s camp failed to rise to the branding challenge: Instead of giving her a clear, consistent message, it provided messages that were muddled and scattered. Thomadsen contrasted that with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, noting his campaign material constantly backs up that slogan.”

Clinton raised a number of criticisms against Trump, from his treatment of women to his bankruptcies, to his not releasing his taxes, to his temperament. While these all added up to showing Trump as unfit for the presidency for those who decide things “rationally” and for those Democratic partisans who already favored Clinton’s proposals, they did not provide a convincing case for the swing voters.

“Ultimately, Hillary Clinton didn’t effectively brand herself, so Trump did it for her,” Thomadsen continued. “Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ terminology is ubiquitous. In the absence of any coordinated message against this, that brand has stuck.”

This rang true when the day after the election, I heard a voter on NPR say he did not really like Trump but voted for him because Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt politician the US has ever had in Washington. This is an absurd statement, at least in its literal sense. Trump had four business bankruptcies, used questionable methods to avoid paying income taxes, stiffed contractors, changed his positions on issues, had no fixed views andcontradicted himself, was judged by to be lying 68% of the time (19% mostly false, 34% false, and 17% pants on fire) compared to 26% for Hillary Clinton (14% mostly false, 10% false, and 2% pants on fire), and made statements like “Obama founded ISIS” ( ). Clinton’s “scandals” pale in comparison to the adultery (his open affair with Marla Maples), sexual assault, and failure to release his tax returns. The “crooked” person was, from one point of view, Donald Trump, but he somehow managed to get that label attached Hillary Clinton. That is branding at its best (or worst).

This weakness in branding was noted during the campaign; “Bill Clinton complained throughout that [campaign manager Robby] Mook was too focused on the ground game and not enough on driving a message-based campaign,” a Politico article notes, adding that there was no chief strategist like David Axelrod. 

I am among the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, and I am among those who like David Remnick, are horrified and worried about what damage he will do to the world, the country, and to general civility. But I’m also upset that I did not see his appeal. I do not know any Trump supporters, because in America, most people avoid talking about religion and politics in polite society. Obviously, many people I have had dinner with or met in casual encounters were Trump supporters (though they are fewer in the city). Still, I have heard them speaking on the radio, and I understand that most of them are actually decent and good people (the few hotheads and disgraceful types seem to be overrepresented on TV, because they make for a good show).

Clinton appealed to me because she understood that problems are complicated and require careful thinking and balancing different interests. If some people are hurt by free trade, but the nation as a whole benefits, assistance programs need to be made available. Most problems do not have simple answers, or they would have been solved by now. She "won" all three debates, by most measures, and yet that was not enough.

Trump appealed to magical thinking. He claimed to be the only person who can solve the nation’s problems. He portrayed himself as the savior. (Hm, that was true of Obama 8 years ago too.) He blamed economic problems on illegal immigrants, and demonized Muslims. As American Anthropological Association President Alisse Waterston put it in an email to members, “Strong, divisive language gained the most public attention, sometimes escaping the orbit of facts and launching into some parallel universe.”

Part of that “parallel universe” was created by Facebook and Twitter, and there are already questions about what can be done to prevent the segregation and formation of echo chambers that social media create, and also questions about how to deal with false news (see Bloomberg article here). Trump supporters widely forwarded stories that the Pope endorsed Trump and that Huma Abedin could be a terrorist agent, though they are both false.

Some people feel that the media, especially social media, did not do a good enough job of exposing Trump’s flaws (here is one example). But the information was there; Trump supporters chose not to act on it. We need to ask why facts that seem so important to Democrats and people on the two coasts were not important to Trump supporters. It turns out that Trump was a good communicator; he knew how to use symbolic speech. Part of it was the reprehensible scapegoating of illegal aliens (economists do not agree that they “steal jobs” because they do work that native Americans will not do). But what seemed to me to be simply repeating the lie was “staying on message” and building a brand.

That “parallel universe” Trump supporters created is the symbolic thinking we see in every culture. It is clearest in what we label religion, but it shows up in any area where identity and core values are at state. An excellent article on Politico notes that in a change year, it was impossible for Hillary to claim to be a change agent. The Clinton camp thought her age would be the main problem of her campaign, as well as the fatigue that sets in against the incumbent party. Age was not an issue, since Sanders and Trump were both older than her, but they both opponents tapped anger at the “rigged economy and government” which seemed to be used in a literal sense by Trump, but was more symbolically understood by supporters as a system tipped in favor of those with money and power. The problems with the Clinton Foundation (even though no explicit quid pro quo was found) and Podesta’s emails (which mostly just showed the wheeling and dealing of governing, and nothing illegal), fit into the narrative that Hillary was an insider. It was in this sense that she was “corrupt.” She tried to use the argument that Trump was temperamentally unfit to be president, and that her experience was valuable, but she obviously did not convince enough voters. Even mobilizing voters on the ground turned out not to be enough.

To educated people and intellectuals, the truth matters. I respect Obama’s and Clinton’s calm, cerebral approach. They believe in science, and do not deny climate change. Unfortunately, many saw Obama’s cautious and deliberative approach as weakness. I doubt foreign leaders saw it that way. But in Trumpworld, Clinton and Obama were traitors (see here and here, though it is upsetting to read). 

Anthropologists often study people who make fantastical claims. (When it is a foreign culture, we can do so with respect; when it is our own culture, it is often offensive.) Some people we study claim to speak to deities, some say they are able to see ghosts, others claim to have been abducted by aliens. Anthropologists know that often such statements are not literally true, but are understood metaphorically, or express larger truths. Evans Pritchard said the Azande understood witchcraft as a language for speaking of tensions in social relations. And most of Trump’s supporters do not expect him to actually build a wall, let alone to have Mexico pay for it. They understand that as symbolizing his hostility to globalization. Today, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed people who voted for him in Ohio, and one said that even if he does just 10% of what he promised it will be enough, because at least it will be progress. That shows they did not take his words literally. Voters select based on symbols and images, ideals, hopes and fears. They are not rational philosophers carefully weighing the issues, as intellectuals often imagine and want to believe.

This is not the first time that American voters turn their back on the smarter and more cerebral candidate in favor of a popular personality: Adlai Stevenson II ran for president in 1952 and 1956 against Dwight Eisenhower, losing badly in both elections. He was known as a gifted speaker, and the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. said that “to the United States and the world he was the voice of a reasonable, civilized, and elevated America.” Yet, he was dismissed as an egghead. Eisenhower, a war hero with no political experience, won the elections.

Even if Trump had lost, we would need to explain how a vulgar, bombastic, lying, isolationist, racist, misogynistic and thin-skinned candidate could get close to half the votes. It is hard to understand how the leader of the "birther" movement, who then shamelessly blamed it on Clinton, could be taken seriously but millions of Americans. In addition to the power of symbols, there is also the power of celebrity. Just as he can force himself on women and get away with it, he is assumed by many to have power and mana. We do not rationally know whether he actually has billions of dollars, but through celebrity and fame, he has power. 

Now that he has won, there are going to be major changes to US policy that contradict bipartisan consensus. As an Atlantic article from the day before the election shows, Trump has been consistent over almost 30 years in his 1) opposition to U.S. alliances; 2) opposition to free trade; and 3) support for authoritarianism. And I’d really like to understand why Republican voters supported him even though he wants to create a huge $500 billion infrastructure investment program, something Obama tried to do but was blocked by the Republican Congress.

In the end, I agree with Obama that government as incremental. Fortunately, no one person can cause that much damage. Already, it is clear that to rule, Trump has to pick from the Republican talent pool, and hopefully they will moderate some of his dangerous ideas. Plus, he will need to rule through Congress, which even though Republican controlled, has very different ideas about the role of government. (Hopefully they will simplify the tax code.)

I am more worried about the country’s institutions being destroyed by his authoritarian tendencies, not by the country going in the “wrong” decision (deciding the “right” direction is what democracy is all about, after all). I’m worried his isolationism, and his need to show that he is “strong,” will cause unintended disasters. My fear is that Trump’s ignorance and short attention span will weaken or destroy American institutions, but hopefully, the institutions are strong enough to withstand any mischief he might commit. We will soon find out.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Voting and Economists

It took me an hour and a half to vote this morning. Though I got up at 5:45 am to arrive at the polls as soon as possible after they opened at 6:00, by the time we got there at 6:10 there was a long line already. But everyone patiently waited in line, mostly quietly, a few people exchanging greetings with neighbors and friends who passed us to get to the back of the line. We finally finished voting at 7:20, and did not get to our apartment (just across a park) until almost 7:30.

This reminded me of the argument by economists that it is irrational to vote. Steven Levitt, of Freakonomics fame (and whose work I generally admire), has said on his podcasts with Stephen Dubner that he considers voting irrational because his vote does not make a difference, and plus, he is not really interested in politics.

LEVITT: Well, one good indicator of a person who’s not so smart is if they vote in a presidential election because they think their vote might actually decide which candidate wins.

Like most mainstream economists, he thinks people are motivated to vote by individual pleasure:

LEVITT: I think the reason most people vote, and the reason I occasionally vote is that it’s fun. It’s fun to vote, it’s expressive, and it’s a way to say the kind of person you are, and it’s a way to be able to say when something goes wrong when the opponent wins, “well I voted against that fool.” Or when something goes right when you voted for a guy to tell your grandchildren, “well I voted for that president.” So there’s nothing wrong with voting. I think you can tell whether someone’s smart of not so smart by their reasons for voting.

Standing in line at 6:00 am was not fun. I didn’t see others “having fun” either.

Levitt displays a common occupational disease of economics: blind individualism. Levitt is not exceptional; the same Feakonomics episode quotes another economist, Bryan Caplan, at even greater length claiming voting is irrational.  (See also here.

Economists build their models assuming a rational Homo economicus and then see how much that model can tell us about the real world. But often, economists forget that their model is a simplification, and they begin to believe that if everyone were rational, like Vulcans, that the world would be a better place. They often assume that smart people are “rational” and that any other “emotional” (i.e. cultural or “irrational”) decision-making is a deviation from some ideal. But that “ideal” was their own model, not a model that any major civilization or religion has proposed.

Thus, for economists, since my vote (at the margin) does not affect the outcome, I should not bother to vote. I don’t understand why it does not occur to them, or bother them, that if everyone thought like that, then no one would vote and democracy would be impossible.

Economists’ thinking on voting seems to suffer from excessive individualism. Too many economists (and many Americans influenced by this thinking) get upset that their vote does not count. I say the opposite: it is a good thing their, and my, vote does not count much except in the aggregate. Most times, when individuals have had a lot of influence, things have not turned out well (see Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot).

Freakonomics also had a program about whether presidents really can do that much.   They argued, correctly, I believe, that there are strong limits to what the president can do, and though candidates like to take credit for “creating jobs” and for the state of the economy, there are really few things they can do, and they can only influence the economy. This is generally true, although some presidents have made horrible decisions that caused a lot of misery (e.g. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq), and it is also true that Trump’s economic plan could seriously derail the world economy if he started a trade war.

Economists have an overly individualistic view of society. They assume human nature is selfish and individualistic, but human nature is also political, social, and moral (see Wilk and Cliggett). People may vote because it gives them some satisfaction, but they also vote because it is socially expected, and because they want to help make a better world (i.e. moral and altruistic reasons), and because they were taught by their parents and school that it is the right thing to do. Economists seem not to get this. They see society as just a collection of individual preferences, a view that let to Margaret Thatcher’s infamous comment that there is no such thing as society, just individuals.  

The same individualistic assumptions have led many Americans to believe that it will take one person to change the system. Trump has said, “OnlyI can fix it” at the Republican National Convention. Aside from the hubris and braggadocio, the notion that one person can change a whole system is laughable. And this is leaving aside the fact that Trump has no political experience (so would not be able to get legislation he wants passed), and that he has not specified what the new system will be like. His appeal is the classic one of a demagogue.

It is actually a sign of a mature democracy that one individual has limited power. Authoritarian leaders in recent history that have had a lot of power have caused catastrophes. Trump could do a lot of damage to American institutions, and to the world economy, but he would have many brakes on his power. He would be frustrated, but that is a good thing. Obama disappointed many by not revolutionizing America, but he was very clear that his power was limited and all he could do is move the country gently in what he considered a positive direction. The benefit to limiting autocratic power is something many Chinese, Russian, and Philippino advocates for authoritarian government may come to learn.

In the meantime, it is important to vote, even when the system is not entirely fair. No human system is totally fair. Taiwan’s biased elections (biased in favor of the KMT until the 1990s) created a foundation for real democracy. No one person’s vote will make a difference in any election, but collectively, each vote does make a difference. Only economists don’t see that.