Monthly Archives: January 2016

One of the reasons I spent so much time yesterday focusing on Scott Alexander’s post, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” is because I see social behavior as having a greater and greater role in our political behavior. In fact, I suspect that Alexander is at least ten years younger than I am, and probably more like a dozen or fifteen years younger, because these “tribal” cultures and their associations with specific political parties have become closer than they were when I was young. Even the tribes themselves, or at least the stereotypes of their members, have become more solidified. Furthermore, I don’t think they would have been as strongly associated with someone’s identity in the past. The stereotypes are so strong that sometimes it feels, when watching the media, that people who don’t conform to one or the other of them barely exist. Yet I know in my own personal life, the reality is quite the opposite. Very few people actually fit them well.

It would be an interesting thing to trace the emergence in the popular imagination of the Red and Blue Tribes. I imagine it would probably result in a book not unlike David Sirota’s Back To Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now. A Wall Street Journal review of the book concludes:

Most egregiously, Mr. Sirota ignores MTV: There’s really no point in writing about ’80s pop culture without addressing its single biggest engine of influence. All you really need to know to understand the 1980s happened during two glorious cable-televised hours in July 1984. “Purple Rain” premiered. Prince welcomed Lionel Richie, John “Cougar” Mellencamp and Weird Al. Eddie Murphy wore a leopard-skin blazer. It was awesome. And David Sirota missed it.

It shows the great difficulty in trying to understand the origins of how we see ourselves. Which popular culture examples are salient? It remains, however, that our own personal contacts are too few, limited and diverse to be useful in generalizing about larger cultural trends. The sense that there are categories like yuppies, metrosexuals, rednecks and so on comes in large part from popular culture. As I never tire of trying to explain to people outside the U.S. who think we have preachers on every corner, if I had to rely on my first hand experience, I’d think evangelicals were a strange curiosity, and I’d only know of them because one of my mother’s friends sons converted. He’d just be a weirdo with some highly unconventional religious beliefs. It’s only due to the fact that we can get news from other parts of the country that we know that there are others like him and his beliefs are not unusual at all.

Off the top of my head, I see two things as the driving forces behind the tribalization of politics. The first is the role of modern marketing techniques in political races. The public first became aware of the work of advertisers in modern political campaigns when Joe McGinniss’ book The Selling of the President appeared. Advertisers sell their products based on associations and emotional appeal. Creating a stereotype of the audience is part of the process. This stereotype must have enough connection to reality to be useful.

If the rise of mass communications, especially television, created the methods for selling candidates that were brought to light by McGinniss, the rise of social media needs to be taken into account regarding the current situation. The ability to tweet one’s support of a candidate or a position, or post a comment on Facebook, brings social pressure to bear on one’s political views in a way it did not in the past. I suspect that this will lead to a greater homogeneity of political views within social circles.

Within the past few weeks, I’ve found myself growing distrustful of statements like, “I’m a conservative,” or “I’m a liberal.” What are we really trying to say? Are we summarizing our political views, or indicating tribal allegiances. I like to think that I’m a liberal because “liberal” is a useful term which can give a person a general notion of my political views without having to give a long-winded explanation of what my positions are on a variety of contemporary issues and the ideology that caused me to arrive at those positions. The positions come first and the label “liberal” is a conclusion. It would be mistake to first decide that I am a “liberal” and then afterwards form my beliefs to conform to that self-image. However, with this Red Tribe / Blue Tribe identity and the rise of social media, I’m afraid many people are doing just that.

The first thing we need to do is to divorce our social identities from our politics. To give one example, there is no reason that someone who enjoys listening to country music needs to hold specific political positions. The link between the musical elements that characterize the form and particular positions, let’s say laissez-faire economics, are entirely circumstantial and not inherent in the music.

As someone who would like to see the political positions about which I am most confident be reflected in our politics and our government’s policies, I need to convince a large number of my fellow citizens that these are good positions. Dividing them from me by fixating on superficial differences of tastes will not achieve that. If I want to, let’s say, keep religious influence out of schools, I need to reach out to people who are not like me, who drive sedans, who listen to treacly pop, who eat hamburgers and drink Bud. Or drive muscle cars, listen to heavy metal and eat… well I don’t know what food is associated with metal heads, but I think you get my point. I advocate keeping religion out of schools, not simply because it is my personal preference, but because it is a good policy for the country as a whole.

I intentionally try to keep some of these personal issues out of comments I make about politics. I am just as fond of the next person of my own little tastes. I will be very happy to argue, heatedly, about what movies are best, what books to read, what music to like, what clothes look great, why living in New York is better than the suburbs, but I want to divorce that from my politics. The government needs to serve the entire country, not just people who are like me.

A few weeks ago, I came across a very interesting post about identity and politics by following a link that someone I no longer recall put in a comment. At the top of the post it says “Try to keep this off Reddit and other similar sorts of things.” I assume this is to keep his blog from being inundated with hyperventilating crazy people. I have far too few readers for my drawing attention to the post to be an annoyance, especially since the post was first put up in September of 2014 and currently has 1,170 responses. Also in the little “content warning” at the top of the page he writes, “This isn’t especially original to me and I don’t claim anything more than to be explaining and rewording things I have heard from a bunch of other people.”

I’m going to start by summarizing the post, however I highly recommend anyone interested in the subject go to the original. It is quite long, but well put and I am surely doing it a disservice by shortening it. Then I will add a few notes of my own.

The author of the post is Scott Alexander who writes on his own blog, “Slate Star Codex.” I know next to nothing about him beyond this post, called “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.”

He begins by noting, via G. K. Chesterton’s The Secret of Father Brown, that, while pardoning sins is virtuous, pardoning sins you don’t really think are sins isn’t, although you might deceive yourself into thinking it is.

To borrow Chesterton’s example, if you think divorce is a-ok, then you don’t get to “forgive” people their divorces, you merely ignore them. Someone who thinks divorce is abhorrent can “forgive” divorce. You can forgive… something you find abhorrent.

…from a utilitarian point of view, you are still doing the correct action of not giving people grief because they’re a divorcee. You can have all the Utility Points you want. All I’m saying is that if you “forgive” something you don’t care about, you don’t earn any Virtue Points.

This is similar, in my mind, to the notion that it’s no virtue to resist sinning if you are not tempted, a commonplace observation.

Alexander goes on to point out that a similar dynamic is at work regarding tolerance. Alexander defines tolerance as “respect and kindness toward members of an outgroup.”

I discussed this essay with someone who did not understand the concept of “outgroup.” This is important because the first comment beneath the post is about how tolerance isn’t a virtue. The commenter seems to be using a different definition of “tolerance.” It should be noted that Alexander is using a specific concept. The terms “in-group” and “out-group” arise from social identity theory. (Alexander is a psychiatrist.) From the website Simply Psychology:

Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).

…the groups… which people belonged to [are] an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.

In order to increase our self-image we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. … We can also increase our self-image by discriminating and holding prejudice views against the out group (the group we don’t belong to). …

Therefore, we divided the world into “them” and “us” based through a process of social categorization (i.e. we put people into social groups).

This is known as in-group (us) and out-group (them). Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image.

The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image.

“Tolerance” in this case is declining to enhance our own self-image by discriminating against an “out-group.” I apologize if I’m belaboring the point, but since the essay is about how this aspect of social psychology manifests itself in the political realm, it is important to get our terms right. We are talking about in-group and out-group dynamics.

Alexander adds to the concept of out-groups. “I want to avoid a very easy trap,” he says, “which is saying that outgroups are about how different you are, or how hostile you are.”

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

This is a little simplistic but I’ll elaborate on that later. Still, the point remains that it is not difference alone that creates an out-group. He also adds that strategic alliances can create unusual in-groups.

In other words, outgroups may be the people who look exactly like you, and scary foreigner types can become the in-group on a moment’s notice when it seems convenient.

The next point Alexander makes is, in the U.S. where we have two political parties, we are socially isolated from members of the other party. This is not a weak tendency. He gives his own life as an example. Noting that 46% of Americans are creationists, he says:

And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.

He creates an amusing analogy that it’s as if conservatives are make of dark matter.

People like to talk about social bubbles, but that doesn’t even begin to cover one hundred quintillion. The only metaphor that seems really appropriate is the bizarre dark matter world.

He continues:

I inhabit the same geographical area as scores and scores of conservatives. But without meaning to, I have created an outrageously strong bubble, a 10^45 bubble. Conservatives are all around me, yet I am about as likely to have a serious encounter with one as I am a Tibetan lama.

(Less likely, actually. One time a Tibetan lama came to my college and gave a really nice presentation, but if a conservative tried that, people would protest and it would be canceled.)

So, how does this extreme segregation occur? Using himself as an example again:

Well, in the same way “going to synagogue” is merely the iceberg-tip of a Jewish tribe with many distinguishing characteristics, so “voting Republican” or “identifying as conservative” or “believing in creationism” is the iceberg-tip of a conservative tribe with many distinguishing characteristics.

A disproportionate number of my friends are Jewish, because I meet them at psychiatry conferences or something – we self-segregate not based on explicit religion but on implicit tribal characteristics. So in the same way, political tribes self-segregate to an impressive extent – a 1/10^45 extent, I will never tire of hammering in – based on their implicit tribal characteristics.

He then goes on to describe what he calls “two and a half” tribes. Using the red and blue symbolism that arose accidentally during the 2000 election, Alexander describes the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe.

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country”.

Alexander suggests that it is these tribal characteristics which result in the unusually strong bubbles in which people live, effectively creating parallel societies which occupy the same space but rarely interact.

Something clicked for him regarding the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Margaret Thatcher. In his social circle, people insisted that it was wrong to feel happy about the death of bin Laden, that, although he was a bad person, he was still a human being and feeling happy about the death of another human being is wrong no matter who that person was. A few years later, many of those same people were celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher, often with the song “Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead.”

I started this essay by pointing out that, despite what geographical and cultural distance would suggest, the Nazis’ outgroup was not the vastly different Japanese, but the almost-identical German Jews.

And my hypothesis, stated plainly, is that if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

An implicit association test is a test that attempts to detect a person’s automatic association between categories. For instance, it might try to see the associations a subject makes between black people and white people and good and bad. It is often used to demonstrate unconscious prejudice. In 2014, researchers at Stanford conducted a study to use the same types of tests to detect for prejudice based on political parties. They found that “partyism” was stronger than racism.

The same researchers tried other studies which have been used to test for racial bias in the past using resumes and again found that “partyism” was greater than racism.

But if we want to look at people’s psychology and motivations, partyism and the particular variant of tribalism that it represents are going to be fertile ground.

Now, we’re getting to the core of the essay, and why I found it so interesting. He describes how “liberals,” or the Blue Tribe, love to talk about how awful the United States is. Regarding the criticism he says:

All of this is true, of course. But it’s weird that it’s such a classic interest of members of the Blue Tribe, and members of the Red Tribe never seem to bring it up.

He follows that with a couple of parallel examples of criticism conservatives could make.

My hunch – both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify “America” with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically “American” things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics – guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism.

That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about “their” country, and the Blue Tribe feels like they’re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory.

This is where it gets really interesting. He names the titles of several popular pieces on “major media sites”: America: A Big, Fat, Stupid Nation; America: A Bunch Of Spoiled, Whiny Brats; You Will Be Shocked At How Ignorant Americans Are; Blame The Childish, Ignorant American People.

Needless to say, every single one of these articles was written by an American and read almost entirely by Americans. Those Americans very likely enjoyed the articles very much and did not feel the least bit insulted.

And look at the sources. HuffPo, Salon, Slate. Might those have anything in common?

On both sides, “American” can be either a normal demonym, or a code word for a member of the Red Tribe.

Likewise, he lists the title of a number of articles critical of white people.

And on a hunch I checked the author photos, and every single one of these articles was written by a white person.

He suspects that “white” is like the word “American;” it’s a code word for the Red Tribe.

…when an angry white person talks at great length about how much he hates “white dudes”, he is not being humble and self-critical.

It’s contrary to what we know about social psychology that millions of people would conspicuously praise “every out-group they can think of” while “condemning their own in-group.” But, remember, the “out-group” is not the people who are very different, but the people who are very similar.

The outgroup of the Red Tribe is occasionally blacks and gays and Muslims, more often the Blue Tribe.

The Blue Tribe has performed some kind of very impressive act of alchemy, and transmuted all of its outgroup hatred to the Red Tribe.

Once the Blue Tribe was able to enlist the blacks and gays and Muslims in their ranks, they became allies of convenience who deserve to be rehabilitated with mildly condescending paeans to their virtue.

And so how virtuous, how noble the Blue Tribe! Perfectly tolerant of all of the different groups that just so happen to be allied with them, never intolerant unless it happen to be against intolerance itself. Never stooping to engage in petty tribal conflict like that awful Red Tribe, but always nobly criticizing their own culture and striving to make it better!

Sorry. But I hope this is at least a little convincing. The weird dynamic of outgroup-philia and ingroup-phobia isn’t anything of the sort. It’s just good old-fashioned in-group-favoritism and outgroup bashing, a little more sophisticated and a little more sneaky.

At this point, Alexander gets insightful about himself.

I had fun writing this article. People do not have fun writing articles savagely criticizing their in-group. People can criticize their in-group, it’s not humanly impossible, but it takes nerves of steel, it makes your blood boil, you should sweat blood. It shouldn’t be fun.

He admits, he’s not really a member of the Blue Tribe. He’s a member of that “half” part of the “two and a half” tribes, the Gray Tribe.

That means that, although my critique of the Blue Tribe may be right or wrong, in terms of motivation it comes from the same place as a Red Tribe member talking about how much they hate al-Qaeda or a Blue Tribe member talking about how much they hate ignorant bigots. And when I boast of being able to tolerate Christians and Southerners whom the Blue Tribe is mean to, I’m not being tolerant at all, just noticing people so far away from me they wouldn’t make a good outgroup anyway.

Earlier, when he described the Red and Blue Tribes he also wrote in parentheses:

(There is a partly-formed attempt to spin off a Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk – but for our current purposes this is a distraction and they can safely be considered part of the Blue Tribe most of the time)

At the point when he reveals that he had fun writing the post, it occurred to me that I had too much fun reading it. You see, I’m not really a member of the Blue Tribe. I’m a member of the Gold Lamé tribe, more libertine than libertarian. Ultimately, we oppose any group that tries to limit our “liberty”, aka fun. In the U.S., that has generally been from the right. However, when the left becomes puritanical, and it can, we opt out. We’re generally apatheists, but some of us will attend religious services that focus on how fabulous the world is, without demanding anything specific. While we don’t exactly love capitalism, we make really bad Marxists and worse Stalinists. We wring our hands that the focus on gay marriage has destroyed gay culture. We like to pretend to eat caviar and drink Champagne, but if truth be told we don’t really have the money. Our favorite competitive sport is flirting. We get conspicuously upset over New York City’s Cabaret Laws and sex toy bans. I imagine that we listen to anything danceable. Like the Gray Tribe, the Red Tribe is so far away from us they don’t make a particularly good out-group. I spend far more time fuming over people that want to make me practice yoga and eat kale, good Blue Tribe people one and all.

In a way, Blue Tribe and Red Tribe might both be larger tribes with many smaller, affiliated, tribes within them. As the puritanical SJW Tribe becomes louder, it feels like the center of gravity is shifting within Blue Tribe. I wonder how the coalition with hold up.

I usually view politics more in terms of theory and ideas, so it was interesting to see it viewed in terms of psychology. I’ve noticed that other characteristics seem to accompany political positions, but I’ve never worked them out. I’ve often been critical in the past of the way people on the left bitch and moan about how awful “Americans” are. However, I saw it differently. That they were somehow bolstering their ego by showing how they were better than their countrymen, and the worse they make their countrymen look, the better they look by comparisons. “Americans are racist, but somehow out of my own sheer brilliance I rose above my upbringing. Aren’t I special!” I still think there is some element of that going on, but the tribal associations make a lot of sense. In both cases, people are making themselves feel better by putting others down, but I didn’t see the group aspect of it.

There are a few other things, but this post has gotten so long, I’ll have to leave them for another day.

William Voegeli, writing in the Claremont Review of Books recently, had a very important article regarding Donald Trump, “The Reason I’m Anti-Anti-Trump.” I immediately liked the title. I am someone who is temperamentally disinclined to like Trump. However, there’s a certain sort of group political behavior which has always given me pause. It seems almost de riguer these days for everyone to write a piece decrying, in terms louder and more hysterical than the last person, how thoroughly awful Donald Trump is. Many of these writers must have read the previous pieces, so I’m not quite sure what they think they are bringing to the conversation. Therefore, I’ve been pleased to see a small number of people writing about the subject in a more serious way.

Voegeli begins his article quoting several of those breathless denunciations including Damon Linker of the Week.

Trump’s supporters are the “culturally alienated, conservative white male voters” who have “been manipulated … into a perpetual state of aggrieved indignation” by right-wing talk-radio…

Voegeli responds to that characterization by noting that:

To say, however, that Trump’s voters have been manipulated into aggrievement implies that their dissatisfactions are either spurious or, if genuine, illegitimate and indecent.

It should be noted that trying to understand political opponents is not a new subject for Voegeli. In and interview, explaining why he wrote about the politics of compassion, in Salon in 2014 he said:

I thought for a conservative trying to understand liberals as they understand themselves it seemed necessary to go there, because it’s a big part of the liberal self-identity.

From the liberal side of things, I have long argued for the same behavior on our part. It is of little theoretical utility to simply mock and castigate people who advocate policies different from one’s own. It is intellectually lazy to presume negative motivations on the part of people with whom one disagrees. It helps in both developing better positions and better persuasion. I believe Voegeli is quite right to say:

The fact that Trump has become a credible contender despite, or even because of, his obvious faults argues, however, for taking his followers’ concerns seriously rather than dismissing them. It is not, in fact, particularly difficult to explain the emergence of Trumpismo in terms of legitimate concerns not addressed, and important duties not discharged. That such a flawed contender could be a front-runner tells us more about what’s wrong with the country than about what’s wrong with his followers.

If you are a Democratic politician, work for one or are employed by the Democratic Party, then you may find the chaos into which Trump has thrown the Republican Party something to mine for your own personal advantages and shouting about how awful Trump is might make some sense. However, if you are a private citizen who happens to find himself or herself aligning more frequently with Democrats because you think they advocate better policies, then looking at what concerns Trump’s supporters have is something we should do.

The strange thing about the fact that the leftist and liberal pundits’ inability to take the concerns of Trumps supporters seriously is that some of their concerns align with the concerns that the left claims to represent. A year or two ago, a study came out from two professors showing that rich individuals and large businesses drive public policy and the views of ordinary citizens have no influence at all. From The Hill:

The analysts found that rich individuals and business-controlled interest groups largely shape policy outcomes in the United States.

The study also debunks the notion that the policy preferences of business and the rich reflect the views of common citizens. They found to the contrary that such preferences often sharply diverge and when they do, the economic elites and business interests almost always win and the ordinary Americans lose.

This study was widely reported in the progressive press at the time. It should be noted, however, that this is a bi-partisan indictment. The Republican Party has been less shy about its support of big business, but a recent headline in the Washington Examiner read, “2015: The year the Democrats fully embraced corporatism.”

Democrats have long been purveyors of patronage and corporate welfare, but forever they’ve gotten away with pretending to be populists.

The article goes on to assert that for decades the Republicans have done the Democrats’ “dirty work.” “Democrats have always relied on corporte welfare,” it says.

But as long as Republicans were willing to take the lead on “pro-business” policies, Democrats were happy to play a mere supporting role. This always gave Barney Frank and Obama great ammunition with which to attack Republicans as hypocrites — opposing welfare for the poor, but favoring it for corporate America.

The article then goes on to credit, incorrectly I believe, the end of the charade to the rise of the Tea Party and an “anti-cronyism movement” on the Right. I say incorrectly, because if the population felt that elected Republican politicians were responding to the needs of the people we wouldn’t have Trump. Trump’s supporters would be thronging Senators Rubio or Cruz.

The Examiner article mentions the Import-Export bank and the financial troubles of health insurers. It specifically mentions Marco Rubio.

In late 2014, Marco Rubio passed a measure capping Risk Corridor payouts to struggling insurers, thus protecting taxpayers.

Marco Rubio is not at the top of the polls because most people don’t see him as fighting for the average American due to his position on immigration. It’s no secret what issue catapulted Trump to the front of the Republican field. It’s immigration.

Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum analyzes the “internal class war” taking place in the Republican Party.

These populists seek to defend what the French call “acquired rights”—health care, pensions, and other programs that benefit older people—against bankers and technocrats who endlessly demand austerity; against migrants who make new claims and challenge accustomed ways; against a globalized market that depresses wages and benefits. In the United States, they lean Republican because they fear the Democrats want to take from them and redistribute to Americans who are newer, poorer, and in their view less deserving—to “spread the wealth around,” in candidate Barack Obama’s words to “Joe the Plumber” back in 2008. Yet they have come to fear more and more strongly that their party does not have their best interests at heart.

In this context, immigration is representative. The oligarchs and their elite mouthpieces in the media characterize the populace they rule in this undemocratic democracy as racist or xenophobic. Yet, no one is fooled about why the oligarchs want a high level of immigration. They want cheap labor. We all know this and no one is fooled. Those accusations of xenophobia are just a smoke screen to avoid talking about the real problem, summarized in Fiscal Times headline from last September, “For Most Americans, Wages Aren’t Just Stagnating — They’re Falling.”

The people working in the oligarch’s think tanks often point to studies that are reported to show that immigration does not reduce the average wages of or U.S. born workers. I don’t think the average person trusts these studies. I’m not particularly paranoid and don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories. I think bias exists, but it is the result of more subtle forces, not grand conspiracies. Still, I, along with large portions of the American people, have difficulty swallowing the argument that large-scale immigration somehow helps the living standards of people who are already U.S. citizens.

Secondly, there is the question of democracy. If voters time and time again vote for a lower level of immigration, and their elected officials continue to advocate policies that are the direct opposite of the wishes of the voters, and in line with the wishes of the wealthy and big business, then this is an excellent example of that very lack of democracy noted in that study about how the wishes of ordinary citizens have zero effect on the actions of politicians. In that regard, it should be unsurprising that immigration has become a flash point.

As David Frum relates the disconnect between the Republican Party and the people the purport to represent:

As a class, big Republican donors could not see any of this, or would not. So neither did the politicians who depend upon them. Against all evidence, both groups interpreted the Tea Party as a mass movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. One of the more dangerous pleasures of great wealth is that you never have to hear anyone tell you that you are completely wrong.

During the 2012 Republican primary, Mitt Romney supported the interests of big business.

The rank and file did not like it. But they could not stop it. The base kept elevating “not Romneys” into first place, and each rapidly failed or fizzled; Romney, supported by a cumulative total of $139 million in primary funds by March 2012, trundled on.

Frum explains how immigration fits into the picture:

Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.

According to Frum, Trump promised the working class supporters of the Republican Party four things on which they felt betrayed by the rich: to protect their pensions from austerity, to avoid another war in the Middle East, to campaign without the influence of monied interests and to “protect their wages from being undercut by Republican immigration policy.”

Frum concludes:

What happens to an elite whose followers withdraw their assent? Does it self-examine? Or does it take refuge in denial? Does it change? Or does it try to prevent change? Does it challenge itself to build a new political majority? Or does it seize the opportunities the American political system offers to compact and purposeful minorities? When its old answers fail, will it think anew? Or will it simply repeat louder the dogmas that enthralled supporters in the past?

“What happens to an elite whose followers withdraw their assent?” Indeed. This is what I believe fuels the hysterical denunciations of Trump.

The anti-democratic tone of many of the anti-Trump articles disturbs me as a person without connections or influence. In this context, I couldn’t help but take note of a Vox article which said that “most millenials don’t think it’s essential to live in a democracy.” An interesting detail was that support for authoritarian government was growing most quickly among the wealthy.

As inequality is rising, and the wealthy have more to lose from economic policies that would favor the bulk of the population, they are growing increasingly impatient with democratic institutions. The number of wealthy Americans who want a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections, for example, has sharply increased since 1995.

People who are against Trump should not view him as a cause, but as a symptom. For decades, people have been voting for mainstream candidates in hopes that they would represent their interests. Time and time again, they have been betrayed. The concerns of the citizenry are well-known. The fact that our politicians are entirely incapable of even beginning to address those concerns shows how beholden they are to the wealthy who pull the strings. I believe it is disingenuous to get all riled up over Trump if you are not even more riled up over the moral corruption that pervades our political class.

A few months ago, a real event struck me as having the potential for a good story. However, the story did not have a happy ending. The “hero” was very flawed and perhaps would be more accurately called the “protagonist.” A flawed hero, an unhappy ending – of course there’s a classic literary form which can accommodate those elements. It’s called tragedy, and it’s been around a long time.

Then it hit me. We don’t watch tragedy anymore. I’m not sure we read it that much either. We have “drama” and we have “melodrama,” but we don’t do sad endings, and our heroes are only flawed in the most superficial ways. They’re not deeply, morally flawed in a way that causes their downfall, like in classic tragedy, or even in serious dramas of the past.

I wonder what that says about our culture.

“The Big Short” is an interesting movie in this context. Considered purely as entertainment, it works remarkably well. The story follows three groups of underdogs in the run up to the housing crash and subsequent destruction of the economy in 2008. The three groups are unrelated. The first group is an independent subdivision within the large investment banking firm of Morgan Stanley. Although within the larger Wall Street institution, the film establishes this group, lead by the character of Mark Baum, played delightfully by Steve Carell, as somehow different from the rest of the firm. The second group, mainly one person in this case, is a smaller investment firm, Scion Capital, located in California and run by a numbers obsessed physician, Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale. The third group is two young men, Geller and Shipley who are attempting to start their own hedge fund. What all these groups have in common is that they not only recognize that there is a bubble in the housing market but they figure out how to profit wildly off of it. As a story about outsiders who succeed for exactly the same sort of reasons that they are outsiders in the first place, it works remarkably well. Moreover, it is extremely funny. As pure entertainment, it’s great.

However, it is a movie with a point and a moral, and that is where it gets a little bit into trouble. It’s produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B. I haven’t had time to read the book by Michael Lewis on which the movie is based, so I don’t know if the morality play comes from the book or was imposed on the story by the people who chose to produce this book. As I’ve said before, my ideal way of doing this would be to see the movie, form an impression, make some preliminary notes, do research, then see the movie again. When a movie is based on a true story there are really two things to review, the movie as entertainment and the movie as reportage.

As entertainment, “The Big Short” works wonderfully. It’s much funnier than you might expect. Actors turn and speak to the camera quite a bit, which worked for me, although people who never like it will still be annoyed. Despite this technique, which I assume was necessary for communicating the large amount of information needed to understand the story, the movie tries to follow the dictum, “show, don’t tell,” as far as that is possible. Again, your tolerance for contrivance will be tested. Gillian B. White, who writes for The Atlantic, said:

…I was annoyed by the premise of someone actually bringing a Jenga set into a meeting (and in fact, all the finance people in my theatre audibly groaned along with me), I did think that the use of the structure was probably a visual tool. Essentially, Gosling uses a Jenga tower to show how tranches work: that even top-rated securities couldn’t withstand the failure of lower-rated securities, on which the tower and many CDOs were built.

No one groaned when I saw it. If you’re too sophisticated to enjoy a movie, then I guess it won’t work for you. At one point the group from Morgan Stanley takes a trip to Florida to see a new development of virtually uninhabited McMansions that were bought with the easy credit. Walking around one empty house, the characters get a cute little symbolism of the danger when an alligator emerges from the water of a swimming pool and snaps at them. That probably wasn’t how it happened either, but it was an amusing moment. Also, when they talk to someone who is holding several properties bought with adjustable rate loans, that someone is a stripper. The someone in real life I knew like that was a social worker, but that doesn’t make for a fun visual and also doesn’t emphasize that the loans were being bought by people who couldn’t pay them. Ironically, White had no problem with that particular contrivance.

I also thought that the Florida trip did the best job of showing the human side of the crisis, which was sorely needed. When Carell heads to a strip club to talk to a dancer who has bought a house (or five!) he explains to her that her adjustable-rate mortgage payment could increase by 200 percent once her teaser rate ends. And because her home hadn’t increased in value, there was no equity and she couldn’t refinance like she’d been promised. She promptly (and appropriately) freaks out.

There were less provocative scenes that were important too: A family renting a home that an owner had put under his dog’s name, a tenant finding out that his landlord took their rent money and didn’t pay the mortgage on the house they’ve been renting—leaving them out on the street. And immigrants who were duped into signing mortgages that they couldn’t possibly stay current on. It was heartbreaking, and that is the reality of the crisis: actual devastation to people’s lives and livelihoods.

It’s not really apropos to the movie review, but I find it telling about our current society that the elites who write for our national publications are too sophisticated to go with the flow over a Jenga set, but thought that the Florida trip was “sorely needed.” Most of us need the Jenga set and we already know people who were affected in a negative way by the crisis. In fact, I saw the overweight, tattooed renter and the stripper as exemplifying the way our elites negatively stereotype the working class they rule over. Still, although it was a cartoonish, and unsympathetic, illustration of what was happening to ordinary people at the time, it was done with a light tough and was basically amusing.

There were three celebrity asides to explain the financial instruments involved. Again, quoting the Atlantic discussion, this time from Bourée Lam:

I found the cutaway explainers less strong: the Margot Robbie bubble-bath scene where she explains mortgage-backed securities was funny, but ultimately a bit confusing. The Anthony Bourdain scene about fish stew and collateralized debt obligation sort of worked. And I never thought I’d see behavioral economist Richard Thaler and Selena Gomez in the same room, but I actually thought they explained synthetic CDOs pretty well.

Actually, the bubble-bath scene was just stupid and irritated the feminist side of me in the way I usually try to not mention so I don’t feed the notion that feminist are all a bunch of prudish jerks. (Strangely, the stripper scene bothered me more due to the assumptions about class than due to the use of a little t and a to decorate an almost exclusively male movie. Shortly after the crash I remember having a dinner with a man in finance who referred to the bubble being created by lowlifes who were buying plasma televisions on credit. The notion that the crash was somehow caused by the undeserving lumpenproletariat is an important part of how our financial elites emotionally justify their anti-social behavior.) Unlike Lam, I don’t think the fish stew explanation worked. Again, and I know I’m going off on a tangent, I think it shows the writer’s distance from the average person. Taking your leftovers and using them in another dish the next day is just a normal person’s notion of household economy. Sure, it might be a rip-off if you’re in a fancy restaurant and they charge you a lot of money for it, but I kind of like fish stew, it’s part of a normal person’s behavior and, most importantly, it won’t hurt you. So the fish stew analogy only makes sense to the class of people who throw away perfectly edible food. The Selena Gomez bit worked well.

Neil Irwin in The New York Times wrote an article called, conveniently, “What ‘The Big Short’ Gets Right, and Wrong, About the Housing Bubble.”

“The Big Short” makes a big deal of its protagonists realizing that there was a giant housing bubble in the middle of the last decade at a time no one else could see it. But that’s not quite right. When no-money-down home loans were commonplace and home prices were soaring, there was widespread discussion of the possibility that the United States was experiencing a housing bubble.

I remember that time period well and I can second Irwin’s statement. For me, it was when I found out that one of my mother’s social worker friends with a disabled husband was buying property in Florida. Shortly afterward, I went to visit a friend in New Hampshire and a couple of other New Yorkers who had similar anecdotes were there and I distinctly remember a conversation worrying about this. This would probably have been the summer of 2007, although it could have been 2006. However, none of us made a ton of money. As Irwin correctly notes, “there’s a big difference between identifying at the macro level that something is going on, and understanding the financial plumbing that would allow a person to profit from that insight.”

Irwin continues:

What the characters portrayed in “The Big Short” figured out… was how the rot from bad mortgage loans that helped fuel the housing bubble had come to permeate supposedly safe securities. There were billions of dollars of highly rated bonds floating around that were in fact worthless….

The key transmission mechanism that turned a simple correction in the housing market into a global financial crisis were those bonds. Global banks had loaded up on these supposedly safe securities, and were at risk of becoming insolvent when their true value became known.

That “transmission mechanism” brings us to Yves Smith’s evaluation of the movie, which is essentially a reposting of her opinion of the book, which she called “fundamentally misleading.” She writes:

Absent the actions of the subprime shorts that Lewis lionized, the US would have suffered a S&L-level housing crisis (which at the time was seen as a serious blow to the banking system and the economy), not a global financial crisis that came perilously close to taking down systemically important capital markets firms around the world.

She criticizes Lewis, the author of the original book, for focusing on personalities and having a Manichean worldview with good guys and bad guys. The movie’s main character, Mark Baum, is based on the real life person Steve Eisman.

The anchor is Steve Eisman, a blunt, unintentionally abrasive curmudgeon and money manager, who in his former life as an analyst put sell ratings on all the Gen One subprime lenders of the 1990s. Not only does most of the description of market chicanery and cluelessness come through him, but Eisman also serves as the main vehicle for depicting the shorts as noble opponents to a feckless industry.

Eisman’s realization that the industry he once covered, consumer finance, was out to “fuck the poor”, led a boyhood Republican to become, per Lewis, “Wall Street’s first socialist.”

Smith adds an important point:

Lewis completely ignores the most vital player, the one who was on the other side of the subprime short bets. The notion that “it’s a CDO” is daunting enough to stop the non-financial reader in his tracks. The author is remarkably uncurious about who the end investors were for CDOs.”

She quotes from Lewis’ book “German banks, Taiwanese insurance companies, Japanese farmer’s unions, European pension funds, and in general, entities more or less required to invest in AAA rated bonds” and summarizes this as “the international equivalent of widows and orphans.” (She adds a gratuitous, and I believe inaccurate, aside that “because they are exotic, presumably elicit less sympathy.” I haven’t noticed our elites displaying any sympathy for domestic widows and orphans lately.)

So what does Eisman do, our hero, vocal advocate of the poor and exploited, who now (along with Lewis) indisputably knows that he is an integral part of the problem?

“Whatever that guy is buying, I want to short it.” Lippman took it as a joke, but Eisman was completely serious. “Greg, I want to short his paper. Sight unseen.”

“Eisman recognizes that the subprime market is a disaster waiting to happen, a monstrous fire hazard that, once lit, will engulf the housing market and financial firms. Yet he continues to throw Molotov cocktails at it. Eisman is no noble outsider. He is a willing, knowing co-conspirator. Even worse, he and the other shorts Lewis lionizes didn’t simply set off the global debt conflagration, they made the severity of the crisis vastly worse.”

The movie does not entirely ignore Irwin’s and Smith’s points. Irwin himself notes that one of the central figures, Murray, the doctor in California, has difficulty retaining his investors. As Irwin recounts the episode in the movie:

“I may have been early, but I’m not wrong,” says one character, the hedge fund manager Michael Burry as portrayed by Christian Bale. “It’s the same thing,” a skeptical investor retorts.

Regarding the morality of profiting from other people’s misery, at one point, Baum/Eisman’s wife, played by Marissa Tomei, says, “You’re not a saint. Saints don’t live on Park Avenue.” And as the two young characters towards the end start dancing around happy to have made money, Brad Pitt’s character, an insufferable prig, gives them a lecture about how every time the unemployement rate goes up x number of people die, reminding them of the larger societal consequences. In the wake of the movie, the Financial Times quoted Brad Pitt as saying, “I get enraged when people start telling other people how to live their lives.” Unfortunately, the character he plays has no such reticence.

Still, these are just lines and the overall emotional effect leaves the viewer walking away feeling that these guys are somehow heroes, in the vernacular, not literary, sense of the term.

So, while I highly recommend the movie- the performances are all solid with a couple of notable ones, it moves more quickly than you’d expect, it’s funny, lively and gives you a sense of what happened during the economic crash of 2008- take the story with a very large grain of salt. As Paul Krugman has said, “economics is not a morality play.”

It’s not a happy story in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. The market economy is a system for organizing activity — a pretty good system most of the time, though not always — with no special moral significance. The rich don’t necessarily deserve their wealth, and the poor certainly don’t deserve their poverty; nonetheless, we accept a system with considerable inequality because systems without any inequality don’t work.

Lately, I’ve started to grow annoyed with the way everything in the world has been not only politicized, but politicized by people who think they’re battling evil. In that context, which is related, I suspect, to our current disinterest in tragedy, I’m not entirely comfortable with the message of this movie. If Brad Pitt wants to improve the world by telling stories, I would suggest that he tell stories that are more complicated in their morality.

Update: I owe an apology to Brad Pitt. My sister, who is planning on seeing “The Big Short” tonight, asked me what the last morally movie I saw with a morally flawed protagonist. I said, “True Story.” It turns out that Brad Pitt was one of the producers. It’s also worth noting some of the other things I said to my sister about that movie. I mentioned that while it was very interesting and well-acted, it was not emotionally satisfying. The true crime drama is perhaps a little too true. Real life doesn’t come in neat little packages and moral lessons are not always clear. Because it was so unsatisfying, it can’t really recommend it, but I appreciate the fact that the actors, director, and others, including the producers, made the effort and I’m glad that I chose to watch it.

We like to disdain “Hollywood endings,” but Hollywood endings and classic formulas are popular for a reason. They provide an emotional jolt which is one of the reasons we like stories in the first place. If we reach out beyond tried and true formulas, we will fail sometimes, but it is a noble failure.