What I’d been Reading Lately…

I just came across two articles, one interesting and thoughtful, the other trite and uninteresting.

There is an extremely thoughtful article by JD Vance, which, unfortunately, will get downplayed because it is in the National Review.  

Then there is a terrible article in the New Republic which hopefully will be similarly downplayed because it explains to “explain” something but really doesn’t beyond repeating the conventional prejudice.

The core of the Vance piece is that, in an era of economic inequality and polarization, the talk of “white privilege” becomes misleading.  The changes in the economy hit the underskilled, undersocialized, and undereducated workforce of all races hard.  Have the white subset among these folks been hit less hard than others?  It is perfectly possible, and probably even probable–and that might be construed as a form of “privilege” in a statistical sense.  However, it is disingenuous to insist that people who have been suffering grievously that they are enjoying some kind of undeserved “privilege” that they should be ashamed of and deprived of.  They are already miserable, distressed, and, in many cases, literally dying.  So they should be more miserable, more distressed, and dead, in the name of “social justice”?  It smacks of a frightening line delivered with such enthusiastic gusto by Richard Holbrooke in defense of US “humanitarian” interventions abroad:  “bombs for peace.”

Vance’s commentary is hardly unique:  a similar analysis was offered by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books about the distribution of political support for Brexit.  Both are equally right that neither Trump nor Brexit offers anything like realistic solution for the problems underlying these phenomena.  But, in a sense, both political movements are fully “rational” in the sense that they see the campaign that at least recognizes their existence as preferable to those who fail to see that they even exist.    I’m not going to reiterate Vance’s seemingly obligatory pandering to “conservatives” (he is writing in the National Review after all.)  What Trump (and Sanders) did right, and what the campaigners for Brexit did right, in the end, was simply to recognize that large swaths of voters exist who are not being served by the status quo.  This brings back the attention to the potential problems of inequities and other distributional (in both economic and statistical senses) of the current economic situation that the present status quo has been eager to ignore, which is to say that, while the average may be relatively high, the variance is enormous–many win big, while many fall through the cracks.  The solution may not be apparent immediately, and perhaps no “good” solution may exist, but the problems are big enough and those who suffer from them are aware of it and will not expect immediate and efficacious solution thereof as long as the attempt at addressing them is serious and sincere–at least in the medium term.  This, I think good politics can deliver.

What makes Anson’s piece irritating and infuriating is that it steadfastly refuses to recognize that those who see the economy differently might actually be seeing different things, rather than conjuring up different figments born largely of their imaginations (the alleged “motivated reasoning.)  One useful illustration comes from the following diagram that I just stole from a wikipedia article, specifically the skewed distribution with fat tails (the purple dotted line one):


The mean, mode, and median, are all very different for this distribution.  Which is the “right” summary of this distribution?  This is a rather stupid question, that presumes that a single simple answer exists and is sufficient to describe the distribution in full.  The correct answer is that all three are “correct” but incomplete answers.  The distribution is more complex than others, manifested by vastly different values for different measures of the central tendencies.  In order to make sense of just different this distribution is, it is necessary to see how these different measures are from each other–and what each of them really measures.

There is a reinforcing tendency from preexisting biases, of course:  you are willing to trust a measure that comes closer to the world that you can see.  We are, after all, Bayesians (in the practical sense, at least) in that we evaluate the new information on the basis of what we (think we) know already.  To those seeing a crapsack economy around them, the news that the economy in fact is not so bad might appear less than credible or worse–are they calling me a liar?  But they are (probably) perfectly willing to entertain the notion that their view of the economy is limited and myopic, if the information can be delivered in a manner that is credible and believable to them, by recognizing that they are indeed seeing a sliver of the truth–even one that happens to be just a small part, not the whole.  This, of course, repeats what I mentioned above, and the strength of variance-based, rather than mean-centric thinking:  (extreme) deviations from the mean really do exist, and sometimes, are quite common.  They too are valuable part of the data which you ignore at your peril–potentially.  But this requires seeing the whole distribution, not forcibly summarizing them to a single measure, like the mean, and declare that the median must be wrong because it is so far from the mean.

In an odd way, Vance’s and Anson’s pieces intersect.  Sometimes, an elephant is both a spear and a trunk.  The key is not to dismiss one or the other as being wrong, but to understand both answers (and a lot more) are right.

PS.  One of my friends pointed to this article that appeared in the Mother Jones, that definitely falls into thoughtful category.  The bottom line is pretty simple:  there are plenty of people who could use a lifeline in their life, whose lives are precarious enough that they could use occasionally helping hand.  But receiving help, in most cultures, is taboo in the first place (for good reasons–you don’t want free riders in any society) and that has become the subject of much anathema from the toxic alliance between the conservative free market types and the neoliberal consensus.  There is an inexplicably broad consensus that lifelines are bad and their numbers should be cut.  The “white privilege” enjoyed by the white precariates is that they had been given a readier access to the lifeline so far.  In the name of “social justice,” the “very serious people” want to reduce their access to lifelines, and it is not shocking that they should be resisting tooth and nail.

The answer should not be about who deserves the lifelines, with the presumption that there can only be so few of them.  This brings focus to whom to cut–with the inevitably bitter and ugly conflict accompanying the debate.  Rather, there should be a recognition that, in an era of great inequality, there need to be more lifelines so that the coalitions can be made more inclusive.


2 thoughts on “What I’d been Reading Lately…

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