Height advantage in hiking

For an outdoorsy, not-so-tall girl, it’s not uncommon to wind up at the back of a pack of significantly taller, male hiking companions. Sweaty and panting, I watch their backpacks recede further away up the trail, and even the sweep guy might abandon his role to bolt around me. In an endurance situation, mental fatigue sends the foggy brain into rhythmic, ineffectual loops. Unable to do mental arithmetic while moving, one can only see that the negative space triangle formed by others’ legs is larger for taller people, and imagine that this reflects some advantage… but how much advantage?

Later, off the trail, pen and paper in hand, one can focus on calculating the magnitude of how much this height advantage adds up to, in terms of explaining how a physically fit person might lag so far behind:

Height of the taller person inches
Walking cadence steps per minute
Stride angle (angle between legs at full extension point) degrees
Height of the shorter person inches
The taller of the two hikers, being inches tall, has an assumed leg length (measured from hip joint pivot point) of inches. Given his stride angle of degrees, he takes steps that are inches long. At his walking cadence of steps per minute, he thus hikes at the rate of miles per hour.

Meanwhile, the shorter person has an assumed leg length of inches. Despite using the same stride angle and walking cadence as her companion (i.e., putting in the same amount of effort), each of her steps is smaller and she therefore covers ground more slowly...merely due to being shorter!

In order to keep up, the shorter person must work harder, by either:
(a) making her small steps more rapidly, at a faster cadence of steps per minute; or
(b) matching her companion's same walking cadence, but making each step longer by using a wider stride angle of degrees. (As efficiency-conscious runners well know, increasing step length beyond what is optimal for one's height has a dramatic effect on tiredness.)

Alternatively, if the shorter person exerts only the same effort as her taller companion, she will fall behind miles per hour of hiking. In such case, the taller person will have to wait (and get to rest!) minutes every hour, while waiting for the shorter person to catch up.

[Note: We’ve made the simplifying assumption of leg length as a fixed proportion (45%) of overall height – a reasonable constant, given that average ratios of leg length to height, and step length to leg length (a function of stride angle, which correlates positively with speed) enable trackers to infer height from footprints.]

Other factors driving differential physical effort between two companions are undoubtedly afoot during a hike: aerobic fitness, anaerobic endurance, strength-to-weight ratio, movement/form efficiency, backpack contents, stomach contents, sufficiency of recent sleep, injuries, performance of clothing/gear, and who’s chatting more than listening. Still, the point here is that leg length alone has a substantial impact on rate of travel. Regardless of which physical issues contribute to the exertion asymmetry, the optimal solution for both hikers (assuming they value fairness and social interaction) is to “put Herbie in front” — i.e., have the disadvantaged hiker set the pace.

Eli Goldratt’s 1984 classic The Goal vividly illustrates this principle of operational efficiency with….a hiking example! Herbie (the fat kid in the book; in our case, the short hiker) is the bottleneck. When the fast kids hike at their own pace with Herbie in the back of the single-file line of boy scouts, Herbie falls behind. They impatiently wait for him at trail intersections, but only to immediately take off hiking again as soon as he catches up and before he catches his breath. Herbie gets more and more tired, and thus even more physically disadvantaged, since fatigue initiates a negative feedback loop in terms of physical performance. Meanwhile, the fast kids get periodic rest, and so the effort differential increases from both directions. Putting Herbie in the front of the line — combined with distributing his backpack load among the fast kids — ensures that the hikers stay together and evenly spaced, and that the physical effort difference is somewhat lessened. (The effort saved by fast kids hiking slower than their capabilities is less than the effort saved by Herbie avoiding being in chronic, desperate catch-up mode.)

Posted in Interactive calculators, Main, Math is everywhere!, [All posts]

Kiteboarding and climate change

3 min read

Colorado’s traditional 4-month snowkiting season on Lake Dillon only lasted 2 months this year.  It started late, and it just ended last week in mid-March — the time of year we typically consider peak winter in the High Rockies.  Decent snowfall this year may have temporarily quelled ski resort hand-wringing about shortening seasons; but, snowfall on an exposed frozen lake can’t withstand record-setting winter heat.

A few months ago, I also discovered the kiteboarding mecca of South Padre Island, Texas, to be in decline due to rising sea levels and shifting wind patterns.  In the 5 years since my last visit, the northwestern Gulf of Mexico sea level has risen about 2.5 inches.  On flat gradient tidal flats of the Laguna Madre, that translates to the barrier island’s coastline creeping some 50 feet further inland in many spots. 

Soundside beaches where kiters used to park cars are under water.  Disconnected dry fingers of land can only be reached by sacrificially driving through corrosive water three times the ocean’s salinity.  Historically, many dozens of kiters concentrated on one expansive, socially-vibrant beach.  A solo kiter could easily make friends.  There were plenty of people to launch and land kites.  Now, the scarcity of dry land between dunes and water forces dispersion of kiters into small clusters strung out along several miles of coast.  It’s a quieter, more cliquish experience.  There’s no longer any way to even figure out who’s on the island.  The pressure-cooker of disappointing conditions pits grumpy vacationers with stereotypically “first-world” challenges against one another.  

In addition to the disruptively high water line, wind patterns have shifted meaningfully over the past few years.  Data shows that the peak fall and spring windy seasons are each about one month later than they used to be.  However, not all visitors know this, nor are able to adjust their annual pilgrimage schedule.  More kiters are getting skunked more often.  They return home with a bad impression and spread word quickly through the interconnected kite community.

As a result, kiteboarder visitor volumes on the island are way down.  After all, there are plenty of other cool places to kite, and one of the main selling points of SPI seems to be gone.  Marketers know that a tiny change in product features can cause a huge falloff in demand when there are many competing products to choose from. 

The island’s two kite shops have tracked the trend numerically and feel the economic pinch.  New beach access charges aim to replace lost revenue, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough livelihood to go around anymore.  Fewer kiting instructors can subsist in town.  Economic stress brings out the worst aspects of human nature – including competing kite shops vandalizing one another this fall in a turf war. 

The South Padre Island situation is just a minor case study of the mechanism by which rising seas and changing weather patterns can cause social disruption.  Direct consequences of global warming include more frequent and intense storms, floods, and droughts.  Those phenomena are already causing wildlife habitat loss, species extinction, lower crop yields, and expanded disease transmission.  But then there are the hard-to-anticipate, butterfly-type effects on human interaction and commercial activity.  American kiteboarders wrecking car undercarriages in sub-tropical salt flats and slogging across slush-surfaced high-elevation lakes, channeling their frustration into petty but painful interpersonal conflict, and leaving already-marginal businesses scrambling as leisure spending moves elsewhere… That’s just the relatively innocuous beginning.  Climatic instability threatens global economic, social and political instability.

The US military long ago concluded that anthropogenic climate change constitutes a national security risk.  Despite being an appointee of our Science-Denier-in-Chief, the new Secretary of Defense unequivocally reiterated this precautionary position to the Senate Armed Services Committee and to the public.  Perhaps that warrants hope for political change about climate change.

Posted in <5 min read, Environment, Kiteboarding, Social issues, [All posts]

Voce clamantium ex vacuo

7 min read

A personal case study in post-truthism:

Two strangers are about to leave our weekend mountain cabin to go backcountry skiing on the Colorado continental divide.  They’re from out of state, have never lived in Colorado (where our distinctive snowpack is more lethal than elsewhere), and lack the avalanche certification that we Colorado backcountry skiiers usually demand of one another to head off piste.  One of them has never been backcountry skiing before.  Neither of them owns safety gear (beacon, shovel, probe).  It’s noon, and they’re only now planning to head outside.

My friend, who invited everyone (including me and those two prospective skiers) to this group weekend retreat asks me what I’m doing on my phone.  I’m reading the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecast.  We’ve had a major storm over the past few days.  Risk is moderate today in this region – the risk level at which most deaths occur historically.  Her guests don’t seem to have checked the forecast, and I am checking the forecast out of concern.

As my friend knows, I have been backcountry skiing for many years, have a full set of safety gear with me, and am familiar with Colorado snow from having lived here for 4 years, 2 of them up in the mountains.  I’m not planning to ski, due to last night’s storm as well as the lack of people in the group to partner up with. 

So far, this scenario sounds like the ominous preamble to an obvious point:  Those with information/experience are ethically bound to advise the uninformed/inexperienced.  Those without facts ought to want facts, and be receptive to facts when proffered by knowledgeable people.

But here’s the twist: my friend gets angry at me.  She admonishes me to not “interfere” with her friends’ ski plans, since “they know exactly what they’re doing”.  Confused by her reaction, I lay out the above facts – to which she retorts that those two are “experts” and don’t need any help or information.  What about the high frequency of avalanche tragedies in Colorado, often in exactly this situation of under-prepared, out-of-state newbies venturing into risky post-storm conditions?  “A few dozen deaths a year?  That’s not that many.” 

I’m ashamed to say that the already-uncomfortable politics of the group situation in the cabin convinced me to rationalize refraining from interjecting a friendly warning to the unknown skiers.  I didn’t have the energy to withstand such ire.  (An important added layer is that I’m female and the two skiers were male.  Self-censoring when gender power dynamics are in play is often the practical path.)  So, the two skiers departed, and, thankfully, returned in the evening.  But this scenario remains just as troubling as if it had gone horribly awry.  

This is a classic “bad decision that turned out well” — not a “good decision”.  (Confusion between decision quality and decision outcome is another pervasive problem…for another essay.)  Of course, the friend in question may have been having a bad day or perhaps aware of other information unknown to me.  None of us should be judged on our worst days or single conversations.  But the interaction is nonetheless too instructive to resist using as an example here.

The above scenario has become commonplace in our culture:  irrational skepticism of experts, indignation regarding inconvenient facts, bravado overriding knowledge, preference for superficial harmony over constructive dialogue.  Everybody is an expert.  And, expertise no longer requires experience, credentials, or factual information.   


Democratization of post-truthism

The anti-empirical, anti-intellectual, anti-rational posture of our country’s loudest political voices has been extensively discussed in the media.  Skepticism of authority — already at high levels in America’s founding culture of individualism — has lately been taken to an absurdist extreme by Trump’s repudiation of experts on national cybersecurity, foreign policy, nuclear armament, education metrics, trade economics and climate science.  It’s not new… but it’s newly, exceptionally dangerous.

Moreover, nowadays the problem is so diffused through society that the same individuals who ridicule post-truthism in politics also participate in it.  In that same circle of left-leaning, college-educated hipsters, I recently fielded a counter-factual rant about how dumb poor people caused the 2007 real estate crisis, and a vague diatribe against international trade shouted with absolute conviction by someone who had never heard of non-tariff barriers or comparative advantage.

Sometimes people knowingly revel in their own provocative ignorance.  Sometimes they confuse their own ignorance with that of their opponent.  In response, I often find myself skipping the slow build of empirical arguments in favor of a shortcut appeal to my own authority (e.g., advanced degree in economics), and nonetheless still failing to persuade – even when I’m trying to convince someone not to acknowledge a particular point of view, but to engage in a fact-based dialogue.  Many educated people struggle to distinguish meta-level from object-level, opinion from fact, and listening from agreeing.

Trump is fond of saying that “nobody knows what’s going on”.  And, so, too, are progressive hipsters on a weekend ski trip.  My purportedly liberal friends un-ironically quote their political nemesis, as a retort to anyone who challenges an opinion in which they are emotionally invested.  People who used to end conversations with a dismissive “whatever” (i.e., I don’t care to discuss this issue) now say “nobody knows” (i.e., I don’t believe this issue can be discussed).  They abrogate discussion before asking questions or ingesting facts.


Blame the Protestants

The 2nd-century gnostics famously valued private revelation over formal study.  This idea of theirs also crops up in the New Testament – though gnosticism was soon deemed heretical and disappeared for 14 centuries until the Protestants re-upped some of its philosophy using different vocabulary.  The 16th-century Protestant Reformation disintermediated Christianity, valuing the capacity of individuals to interpret scripture.  But it did so with ponderous intellectualism that didn’t abandon empiricism.

The Reformation set the stage for the 18th-century Enlightenment, and in turn for late 20th-century postmodernism and its pop-culture simplification into absolute relativism.  If everything is relative, then nothing is knowable, and all perception is embedded in a questionable paradigm that obscures true reality.  Hence the ubiquitous conversation-ender common today among millennials: “Well, we can’t really know”.  Shrug.

Another personal anecdote:

A friend jumps down my throat when I mention that the Colorado Front Range region has the biggest aerospace business cluster in the country.  “I’m sure lots of cities could say that in some way.”   But, no, they can’t say that.  Facts about number of employees, investment dollars, and company valuations show that the Denver-Boulder-Colorado Springs metropolitan area has the most aerospace activity.  The state of California also has a lot, which is split between the Bay Area and LA-San Diego. 

The truth is that sometimes there just isn’t room for subjectivity.  But, postmodernism’s legacy of logical nihilism provokes uncritical thinkers to arbitrarily assert subjectivity to discredit inconvenient facts.  People do this even (as in the above case about industry clusters) when the stakes are trivial and the facts innocuous.  The contrived, pseudo-intellectual affect that asserts subjectivity to quash dialogue is what increasingly passes for critical reasoning.

The 20th-century American-made invention of Christian fundamentalism (which we exported globally similarly to how we spread Coca-Cola and American pop culture), took the Protestant spirit of interpretive disintermediation to an absurdist extreme.  The loud voices of the fundamentalist-influenced political right and alt-right have successfully promulgated and normalized apologetics, harmonization, decontextualization, cherry-picking, circular reasoning, and general sophistry throughout our culture.  Now the most powerful head of state on our planet is overtly proffering “alt-facts”.  His representatives insist that the proverbial emperor is wearing clothes — and much of the public is willing to agree, even as they behold a plainly naked emperor. 

So today, we rational intellectual empiricists living within the American Protestant Christian paradigm ironically find ourselves longing for the magisterium – to bound the sea of sub-rational tribespeople clamoring with self-serving and inconsistent demands.  Our 2500-year-long Judeo-Christian framing vision of one voice in the figurative wilderness, pointing out the path of peace and righteousness to humanity, has been supplanted by a cacophony of voices screaming out from a vacuum.

Those gnostics also said ignorance is a nightmare and knowledge brings salvation.  That worldview heavily influenced Paul, whose writings account for 17% of the New Testament word count (the most content from any one author).  Willful ignorance is not a Biblical value.  Yet, it is clearly a value of the heavily-Christian, American political right.  Distressingly, it has also become a value shared by anti-empirical, anti-expert, anti-rational voices of the political center and left.   



The ubiquity of smug, self-congratulatory reveling in ignorance means that (at the risk of smug, self-congratulatory reveling in obscure knowledge on my part…but I’ll sacrifice intellectual fairness to make this point) I know few in my own acquaintance circle who would recognize (or, most importantly, show interest in) any of the layers of meaning in the title of this essay.  How many would recognize the original Latin phrase (vox clamantis in deserto), or know what that means in English (a voice crying out in the wilderness), or what it’s a quotation of (Isaiah 40:3), and what it meant in that first context (God shows us the way), or where it was cited a few centuries later (Gospel of Mark 1:2-3) and a half century later again (Gospel of John 1:22-23) and reinterpreted to mean at that point (John-the-Baptist setting the stage for Jesus).  Who would be intrigued by how Bible text excerpts like this have been re-purposed over time to disparate ends (in this case, to endorse feudalism, religious devotion, environmental activism)?  How much recognition value is there regarding where the phrase is used today in America (headlines by pun-happy journalists; Dartmouth College motto), or know what it has been intended to mean in that latter context, either at first (hegemonic schooling of Native Americans in the colonial New England wilderness), or at present (education as triumph of reason over ignorance).  

Posted in 5-10 min read, Religion, Social issues, [All posts]

Fertility probability and age

4 min read

Men and women alike often have an astonishing misapprehension of fertility probability.  

Part of the problem is our society’s anti-scientific cult of optimism (e.g., “I’m baselessly certain your serious problem will magically turn out fine. Shut up and stop making rational plans based on empirical data.”).  Part of the problem is also a curious lack of well-presented, easily-digestible data. 

Charts of Monthly Conception Probability by Age are readily available online.  But, that raw data is not very useful.  One really needs to understand the Probability of Healthy Birth by Age. 

To figure that out, you’d have to do the following calculations:

  • 1 – Monthly Conception Probability by Age = Monthly Failure Rate by Age
  • 1 – Monthly Failure Rate by Age ^ # of Months Tried = Theoretical Probability of Conception by Age
  • Multiply by the Probability of Male Infertility
  • Multiply by the Probability of Female Physiological Fertility Barriers
  • Multiply by the Probability of Miscarriage by Age
  • Multiply by the Probability of Chromosomal Abnormalities by Age

The vastly more useful result:
Conclusion #1:  Fertility begins declining at a younger age than most people think. 
Conclusion #2:  Rejecting one woman in favor of a younger one for the sole reason of presumed fertility is a risky wager.  Test this out yourself in our handy calculator:

Fertility probability calculator
Woman A
Woman B
Age today
Please input an integer from 20 to 48
For Woman B, please input an integer from 20 to 48 that is equal to or less than your input for Woman A
Probability of live healthy birth within 33 months from today (24 monthly attempts with a man of unknown fertility status) 30% 71%
Probability that it's a MISTAKE to reject Woman A in favor of Woman B purely due to age-based fertility assumptions. 60%

Yes, you increase your odds with a younger woman.  But the probability you’ve made a mistake is often quite high.  Why is it so often a bad wager to reject the older woman for the younger one?

  1. Infertility of 30-something women is higher than most people think. You’re not trading up in probabilities as much as you might think.  (Conclusion #1 above)
  2. Infertility rate of men is not zero.  If the man is infertile, then the woman’s age never mattered.  (Therefore, men should test themselves BEFORE they ever form any fertility-related age preferences for their mate search.)  
  3. Though far lower than most people think, the fertility rate of 40-something women is not zero. Note that Trump had only a 5-20% chance of winning the election, and yet he won.  If there’s a 20% chance of rain in the forecast, you probably bring a jacket.

Other points that surprise many people:

  • Any birth after age 45-ish probably used a donor egg (or the woman’s own previously frozen eggs). It shouldn’t be surprising that new parents don’t often volunteer their use of donor eggs.  Also, for every miraculous older woman birth you read about in US Weekly, there are hundreds of cases you don’t hear about where it wasn’t possible.
  • Sterility often occurs 5-10 years before menopause. Menstruation in a 40-something doesn’t necessarily mean she can conceive.
  • IVF doesn’t change the odds unless you use a donor egg or donor sperm
  • Male infertility doesn’t appear to be age-related (though chromosomal abnormalities may go up with older fathers)
  • For ~15% of unable-to-conceive couples, the cause is not age.  The man’s fertility is the culprit, and/or a physiological problem in the woman’s body.  
  • Overcoming fertility challenges is prohibitively expensive for most people. It’s all out-of-pocket.  It’s not unheard of to have a $300,000 baby.  New parents don’t tend to volunteer the true all-in costs:
    • Fertility testing: ~$1k
    • Freezing eggs: ~$12k
    • Insemination with donor sperm: ~$2k
    • IVF and implantation
      • own previously-frozen egg: ~$15k
      • donor egg, own womb: ~$30k
      • donor egg, surrogate womb: ~$100k

This is yet another case where math literacy concretely impacts people’s lives.  Innumeracy of the general population combines with poor data presentation by experts to cause real harm.  People routinely cheerlead 30- and 40-something single women with false platitudes that they have plenty of time to find a mate and have biological children.  People also routinely hand-waive away women’s known fertility test results with non-representative and irrelevant hearsay accounts of middle-aged births.  Logic and data are sacrificed to preserve the unaffected party’s comfortable emotional disengagement.  Once well-meaning people let go of data-blind optimism regarding biology, they often persist with the related, second-order “you can always adopt” platitude – though that, too, often proves false (for legal and financial reasons) for would-be mothers.

Posted in <5 min read, Decision quality, Interactive calculators, Sex and relationships, Social issues, [All posts]

How representative is your group?: Statistical identification of selection bias

How representative of the US population is your group:  your friends?  your employees or work colleagues?  your classmates?  your dating history?   

This calculator is a starting point for thinking about this topic.  It’s difficult to know how proportionally representative a group of people is, because (a) we don’t usually know the overall population proportion numbers offhand, and (b) most of us don’t know how to mathematically determine whether a difference in two percentages is statistically significant, i.e., whether it is unlikely to be due to random chance.   

The default numbers entered below reflect the men I phave dated.  I built this calculator in response to the January 2016 Muslim Ban (which I fervently oppose).  I wanted to see whether my history of never having dated a Muslim man implies unconscious bias on my part, based on the numbers.  It turns out the US population of Muslims is too small to answer this question definitively – so it remains solely up to my own introspection to assess the possible causes, and whether they are acceptable or whether they should motivate change.  Note that, in contrast, though the US population of Jews is similarly small, we can calculate an answer because it’s over-represented in my dating pool.  Additionally, it is very telling that non-whites are not actually over-represented in my group, despite the vocal criticism I field in conservative Colorado for “always dating brown guys”.  Perceptions are so often corrected by looking at hard data!  

What to do:  (1) Identify a pool you want to test.  (2) Enter the total number of people in the group, and also the number of people fitting each category.  Note that people often fit into multiple categories, and not every category needs to be filled.  (3)  Take note who is under- and over-represented in your group!   I’ve used an 80% confidence level to define significance here.

For further consideration:  

  • How would your group under-/over-representation results change if you compared to your city, instead of the whole US population?  What is the appropriate reference group for your case?
  • Do the under-represented categories reflect a known source of selection bias?  Is there another partial explanation for why the group doesn’t exactly reflect the population at large?  Is that explanation an ethically defensible one?
  • Is over-representation necessarily a good thing, meaning a lack of bias?  Who is being squeezed out by the over-represented category?
Proportional representation of identity groups in a pool of people
  Number of people in my group United States population My group Number of people over/(under)-represented by my group Likelihood that the difference is due to random chance
Women 51% % %
LGBTQ 4% 2%% (1) 41%%
Muslim 1.0% 2%% (1) 46%%
Jewish 1.4% 7%% 3 0%%
Black 14% 7%% (4) 15%%
Hispanic 17% 15%% (1) 63%%
Non-white (Asian, Indian, black, native) + Hispanic 37% 36%% (0) 92%%
Born outside US 15% 33%% 10 0%%
Military/veteran 9% 2%% (4) 6%%
Disabled 19% 0%% (10) 0%%
English not dominant language 21% 22%% 0 88%%
White-collar career 40% 87%% 26 0%%
Redhead 2% 4%% 1 39%%
Alcoholic 7% 5%% (1) 65%%
My group UNDER-represents these people:
My group OVER-represents these people:
Posted in 5-10 min read, Interactive calculators, Social issues, [All posts]

Skip the eyeliner, save the world

5 min read

Attired in a standard-issue, form-fitting sheath dress at a corporate networking event.  Shifting uncomfortably in the lowest heels that don’t make me look unpolished, and the highest ones that don’t cause teetering, uncertain body language.  I am conscious of the mental “bandwidth poverty” caused by needing to suck in my stomach, stand tall, and keep my shoulders back. 

I once learned from modeling that even anorexic-thin bodies produce unsightly folds and lumps when hunched and slouched.  High-end women’s clothing mandates self-monitoring.  Wear anything other than a muumuu, and a portion of your background processing must be allocated to posture maintenance.  Stick your abdomen out (or wear something triangular so it doesn’t matter), and you’re one step closer to dismissible old lady and one step further away from boardroom-worthy peer.  

Studies show that businessmen listen better to female co-workers who are attractive, fashionably-dressed, coiffed, poised, and large-breasted.  Our visual appeal at an event like this is a qualifying hurdle, a non-trivial determinant of how much we’ll be included, how much value we get out of the evening.  Not that men’s maximally-inclusive behavior is that inclusive.  Conversations hush when the first woman walks up to a circle of suits.  Men change their demeanor, tone of voice, gaze.  Women’s ideas are axiomatically challenged.  All women are presumed to be on a Marketing or HR track until otherwise defined.  

Ideally, we’d all just be brains on a stick.  And the stick would be irrelevant.  We ought to agree to maximize comfort, so there are no distractions from the content of work at hand.  I’d rather not spend office time re-tucking in an uncooperative shirt, managing my voluminous hair because it’s un-ponytailed for formality, modestly pulling a shirt down over my butt every time I stand up, adjusting the wrong camisole that I wore with a shirt that’s consequently too revealing when I lean over a spreadsheet to make a point, or fiddling with cuffs of a blouse that’s confusing my touchpad.  Much of the reason I’m tired at the end of a workday is that I’m tired of wearing non-stretchy, high-maintenance, executive-appropriate clothes.  The minute I change into yoga pants at home, I’m rejuvenated.

If I could wear yoga pants, sweatshirt, and ponytail to work, I’d be more at ease, focused, vocal, and generally more myself.  That’s my personal “Star Trek outfit” (i.e., appealing to wear all day and then sleep in).  It’s the ensemble that would be most invisible to me – like the temperature of water at which you can’t tell if your arm is below or above the surface.  Someone else with a different body type and personal preferences will have their own optimal outfit.

The capsule wardrobe concept developed for this purpose: to minimize decision fatigue.  Eliminate distracting low-value decisions, and free up mental bandwidth for what really matters.  But, the capsule concept first popularized by Silicon Valley men doesn’t work as well for women.  Women adopting the male executive’s same capsule look report being criticized as unprofessional, treated as less authoritative, and mistaken for a lower level than their titles.  The race-based clothing double-standard is perhaps more widely familiar: a black person entering a store in workout gear is perceived as threatening, while a white person in the same outfit is not.  It’s a racial privilege to expect respectful treatment while shopping in gym clothes, and it’s gender privilege to expect meritocratic treatment while working in jeans and a hoodie.

In a corporate setting, women also have to wear makeup and keep our hair tamed.  This holds true even in casual dress workplaces.  Strategic makeup makes a face look awake, alert, and authoritative.  If I don’t do basic makeup, I often get told I look “tired”, “unhappy”, or “unwell”.  If my naturally-boisterous hair is a bit messy, I’m asked “what happened”.  We’ve all been culturally conditioned as to what an alert, happy, controlled female countenance looks like – and it’s one enhanced by a moderate amount of makeup, framed by a small volume of smooth hair.  Unless everyone suddenly were to drop their pencils at 2:10pm on the dot, any rogue one of us deciding to foreswear makeup is adversely judged in light of the cultural norm.  It’s rational to capitulate.

Then there’s the efficiency loss from how men respond to us in professional environments, regardless of our aesthetic self-optimization.  Having a male email identity dramatically increases the velocity and efficacy of business interaction (as was acknowledged by the stunned man and unsurprised woman in an accidental social experiment of gender-swapping email signatures that went viral recently).  Imagine if we could remove gender-based inefficiencies in the other communication interfaces besides email.  It was many years ago when academic research first demonstrated that male-identified resumes get a vastly higher response rate.  When professional effects artists temporarily transformed a woman into a believable man, her experience passively walking down a city street felt ineffably and substantively easier.  How tantalizing to walk unapologetically through the world, to take up more space, to experience even a tiny bit more ease in each mundane moment.  These are the testable scenarios.  What of the untestable ones of in-person interaction?  The aggregate efficiency loss experienced by businesswomen is staggering. 

Bias is, by definition, invisible to those who are biased.  Progressive men self-congratulatorily and glibly tell women to “not worry” about makeup.  But, there is plenty of evidence that they, too, subsequently judge us unkindly for lack of makeup.  So, it’s a necessary evil step – a step that costs me about 30 minutes per day, and costs men nothing.  Women publicly minimize how much time it really takes them.  Effortlessness is a sacred value in our culture.  In the case of a low-maintenance minimally-compliant woman like myself, 30 minutes is a conservative estimate.  Thirty minutes per day for the gender-specific add-ons to workday morning mobilization and nighttime decommissioning.

I won’t elaborate here on all the other time ambitious businesswomen must spend on image maintenance:  drying and styling hair, at-home and dermatologist-office skin treatments, nail care, waxing, eyebrows, wrinkle abatement, covering gray hair, etc.  It adds up to a handful of hours every week (3 hours on average, per my informal poll of middle-aged corporate businesswomen).  More the older you get.  More in certain industries.  Moreover, we spend thousands of dollars annually for self-care products and aesthetic services.  But, the bigger cost is the value of that time lost to image maintenance only required of women.  It is an enormous amount of time, which our male peers use for sleep, recreation, and work.

What if I had back that time: 30 minutes a day and 3 hours a week?  That adds up to 7.5 full-time work weeks annually.  And what if I also didn’t need to allocate mental bandwidth to background self-monitoring processes?   And what if I didn’t suffer the myriad efficiency losses of how men respond to me?   If I could only somehow just inhabit a male body….pure mind applied to problem-solving.  What amazing things might I be able to do with that windfall of time and with that more powerful platform – things that could change the world?

Posted in <5 min read, Business topics, Social issues, [All posts]

Macroeconomics versus Trump

12 minute read

When a new American president took office this winter, he was handed an American economy in decent shape.  It’s a mixed situation of a positive historical trend (the long growth period under Obama), positive current conditions (full employment), and worrisome future risks (high trade deficit; inevitable end of current business cycle).

Economies go through cycles.  They don’t grow monotonically forever.  Because the US economy is in a longer-than-average period of expansion, after the 2008 Great Recession, at some point soon, output will slow down or contract.  At the same time, the US trade deficit is unpalatably high relative to GDP.  But, it’s hard to export more when the US dollar is high against other currencies. 

It’s a tricky, liminal situation.  Not the best time in economic history for a reckless ideologue to come on board.  And, economists expect the situation to get trickier.  

Most worrisome to economists is the prospect of collapse of the Yuan’s value when China stops artificially propping up its currency.  Economists anticipated a capitulation in 2016, so today in early 2017 it’s that much more imminent.  When the inevitable happens, Chinese products will suddenly get a lot cheaper for Americans, and the trade deficit will ratchet further upward.

Trump already had a deleterious impact on the economy before taking office.  His xenophobic rhetoric is responsible for the 20% Mexican peso depreciation in 2016 — including the dramatic and nearly unprecedented single-day decline on the day after the presidential election.  If you visit Mexico this spring break, you’ll only pay US$2.40 for the margarita that cost you US$3.00 last year.  But it also means that jobs are more likely than ever to move to Mexico, where labor is now also 20% cheaper than it was before Trump announced his candidacy.


Trump’s economic plan

Trump advocates expansionary fiscal policy – something typically used to get out of a recession, not to prevent one.  He intends to cut corporate income taxes, cut personal income taxes for high-income people, and simultaneously increase government spending.  Doing this requires increasing government debt. (The debt amount is what “expands” in “expansionary” fiscal policy).  More money going out plus less money coming in equals needing to borrow the difference (like if you switch to a lower-paid job but move into a higher-rent apartment, you’ll have to fund those decisions with a growing credit card balance).  

This part of Trump’s proposal is a valid, historically-proven strategy to get out of a recession.  But, we’re not in a recession. The economy is healthy and stable at the moment.  Using expansionary fiscal policy to prevent recession or boost growth is a gamble… a gamble unacknowledged by its proponents…and a gamble made riskier by the other components of Trump’s plan.

At the same time, the anti-tax Trump also wants to impose a new tax: a “border tax” on imports.  The economically-questionable theory is that such a tax would help pay for the proposed income tax cuts and spending increases, thus limiting the consequent debt increase.  Nobody, particularly Republicans, wants to be responsible for increasing debt; so, the motivation for a border tax, though economically misguided, is politically understandable.  It would also artificially reduce the trade deficit by keeping some imports out – thus giving the administration some optically-positive numbers to feed voters seduced by nativist rhetoric.   

An import tax transfers tax burden from higher-income to lower-income Americans, by increasing the price of otherwise-cheap imported goods.  Consumption taxes (of which an import tax is one example) disproportionately impact lower-income people by definition, since lower-income people have to spend (versus save and invest) a much higher portion of their wages on necessities than high-income people do.  (With an import tax, the stuff you buy at Walmart gets more expensive.)

Trump presumably believes that the import tax would also create a disincentive to move US jobs to low-wage countries – not unlike the hope and inevitable folly of putting a dam in front of water running downhill.  The theory is that a US company’s Mexican factory’s low labor costs would be partially erased by lower selling prices and/or lower sales volumes in the United States, thus making a new Mexican factory less financially attractive for that US firm. 

But, ironically, it is Trump himself who strengthened the incentive for US companies to move jobs to Mexico – by substantially driving down the Mexican peso’s value through his inflammatory rhetoric.  The import tax is Trump’s cure to a disease partly of his own making.  One is reminded of Montsanto’s famously brilliant pairing of Round-Up herbicide with Round-Up-Ready seed:  create a problem (seeds genetically-resistant only to Round-Up, which produce sterile crops, requiring new seed purchase every year) that only you can solve (selling Round-Up herbicide to enable cultivation of those seeds).  Christianity, too, has often been described as offering “the disease and the cure”.  It’s an effective tactic in many domains.

Simultaneously, while proposing expansionary fiscal policy, Trump also asserts he intends to deport 6%-8% of our labor force.  With the labor market already tight, such action would create more upward inflationary pressure.  It’s unclear if the administration – blinded by xenophobia and nationalist ideology – has connected the dots between immigration policy and economic performance.  Consumers could face both higher real prices due to the import tax, plus higher nominal prices due to inflation – while we watch the wealthy enjoy tax windfalls. 


Economists’ critique of Trump’s approach

  1. In our economy’s current situation, tax cuts lead to more job losses to other countries. Economists explain the potential chain reaction as follows: 
    1. Tax cuts require additional government debt. (This is just arithmetic: Less money in + Same/more money out => Borrowing the difference)
    2. More government debt is a recipe for inflation. (Increased government spending on top of tax cuts exacerbates this effect. Deporting immigrant labor exacerbates it further.) 
    3. Inflation drives up interest rates. Inflationary expectations force the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates, in order to maintain monetary equilibrium.
    4. Higher interest rates strengthen the US Dollar against other currencies. People want to invest where interest rates are higher, so they buy dollars.  Dollars are in demand, so their value goes up.  (And, a new import tax exacerbates this strengthening of the dollar — or at least fails to offset it as much as advertised.) 
    5. A stronger dollar increases the already-too-high trade deficit. This accelerates job losses to overseas markets, as jobs by definition move from net importers like the US to net exporters like Germany, Mexico and China.  Meanwhile, China’s currency value could crumble at any time, making the job-flight impact more pronounced. 
  1. Tax cuts don’t drive long-term growth. Supply side economics and the “trickle-down” theory was debunked under Reagan.  This has been settled science in economics for decades.  Trump is gambling on a short-term kick (ignoring the long-term adverse consequences), plus generating talking points to satisfy the 90% of the electorate who has never taken a macroeconomics class.
  1. In the current situation, expansionary fiscal policy could trigger a recession. Temporary tax cuts plus deficit spending has been used successfully in the past to reduce unemployment and end a recession.  For example, remember how President Obama did that to get us out of the worst downturn since the Great Depression?  Thanks in part to Obama, today we’re not in a recession; in fact, we’re in month #91 of recovery and fast approaching the longest recovery in American economic history (which was the one presided over by Bill Clinton).  The economy is considered to be at full employment.  However, Trump’s domestic policies could trigger a recession, or make the inevitable business cycle ending worse than necessary.  The probability of recession goes up in the event of any additional shocks, such as:  decreased consumer spending (if Fed is compelled to raise rates sharply; if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, driving up living expenses for the most vulnerable population segment), increased trade deficit (due to economic changes inside major trading partner countries), decreased productivity (e.g., due to higher oil price).  Today’s high business and consumer confidence is a mitigating factor in the likelihood of Trump’s plan steering us into a recession — but unabated reckless behavior in the Oval Office will eventually erode that.

At best, Trump’s “plan” amounts to a contrarian gamble.  It’s unclear how consciously he’s placing the bet, especially given his habit of signing things whose legality and implementation consequences were not considered.  If he and his advisors do comprehend the implications, why do they proceed?  Ideology.  Plus, obsession with short-term ratings and tweetable “wins”.

In sum, economists (those who are not ideological apologists) project that Trump’s approach will likely yield the following outcomes:

  • Higher government debt
  • Larger trade deficit
  • Higher un-/under-employment
  • Higher tax burden on lower-/middle-income people
  • Higher healthcare costs for people without employer group insurance, the poor, and the elderly, due to repeal of the ACA
  • Higher interest rates (This would normally have one positive feature of increasing the household savings rate – but not in this scenario where prices go up.)
  • Higher stock market prices, due to rising interest rates (This one is good news for a few, but the 50% of Americans with zero stock market exposure gain nothing.)
  • Greater income inequality (as a net effect of the above)

We can imagine economic situations that are relatively insulated against misdirected impulsivity at the helm, where the fundamentals make for resilience to bad policy.  This is not one of those situations.  We’re near the end of a growth cycle, with debt and the trade deficit already high, and our currency too strong.  Donald Trump’s ideologically-driven defiance of economic best practices threatens to make the cyclical slowdown worse than necessary.


What should the administration do instead?

At this point in the economic cycle, the traditional recipe is to increase government spending without cutting taxes.  Ideally, Trump would also cease his shooting-ourselves-in-the-foot rhetoric that has depressed the Mexican peso’s value.  The legislature should refrain from deporting existing immigrant labor, and enact immigration reform that both gives our existing labor force a path to legitimacy and also tilts new immigration toward higher-skilled population. 

We need our existing workforce to support real GDP growth.  It is economically possible that an economy can achieve GDP growth that causes inflation and thus negates itself (like if your employer gives you a raise but increases your health insurance contribution by the same amount, so your monthly paycheck is unchanged — but your employer claims it helped you out, and out of ideological loyalty you accept that alt-fact without doing the math…).  

As Hillary Clinton smartly said regarding Bernie Sanders’ economically-unviable headline-grabbing proposals: “It’s easy to diagnose the problem; it’s harder to do something about it”.  So, too, it’s easier to diagnose the problems with such an obviously risky gamble as the Trump “plan”.  The economists’ recipe for what should instead be done at this juncture is less headline-worthy than what the administration is doing. 

Good solutions to complex problems typically involve numerous small, complementary measures, none of which reduces easily to a late-night 140-character rant.  Economists, including those at the Federal Reserve, advise that Trump should focus on “domestic policy to improve productivity”.  What does that mean?: 

  • Investment in infrastructure
  • Investment in job retraining programs (not retrenchment regarding dead industries)
  • Incentives for energy efficiency (not incentives for energy inefficiency, such as coal subsidies)
  • Universal, affordable access to healthcare (not increased healthcare expenses and reduction in the insured population, from repealing the Affordable Care Act)
  • Higher minimum wage
  • Elimination of discriminatory hiring practices (not directing the Justice Department to soften enforcement of civil rights law, and not normalizing misogynist and racist behavior by example of the Oval Office). Fully leveraging our best talent — regardless of gender, age, race, disability, or sexual orientation — is critical not only on a moral basis considering the impact on individual lives, but also on an economic basis.  For example, every individual under-employed female MBA stuck in low-paid work outside her field equates to a “productivity loss” in macroeconomic terms – and all of those losses add up across the economy as a whole.
  • Support for new technologies and startup enterprises. In order to want to work in risky new technology and startup ventures, workers must be incentivized to bear that risk – including with affordable healthcare and generous government unemployment benefits.
  • Reduction of barriers to growth, such as unnecessary regulation (not eliminating necessary regulation by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Environmental Protection Agency, which protects Americans from personal financial crises, medical problems, and property losses)

Presidents get too much credit for good outcomes and too much blame for bad outcomes.  Obama, for example, took the reins partway through the worst recession since the 1930s.  It was a crisis not in any way of his making, and one which a president has limited power to fix.  That limited power was deployed in manner lauded by economists: a massive stimulus program of government spending put a floor under the crash (combined with temporary tax cuts in an expansionary policy that was appropriate given high unemployment at the time).  We got back to full employment relatively quickly and have since had continuous GDP growth for 7.5 years.  Obama’s leadership made the economic crisis he inherited less painful than it otherwise would have been.  Similarly, Trump has power to impact economic performance…but Trump’s leadership appears likely to make the economic future more painful than it otherwise would be. 

There is also blame for current and future problems to be placed at the feet of the American people: our cultural obsession with cheap consumption.  Retaining manufacturing jobs and keeping prices low are fundamentally opposing macroeconomic processes.  We can’t have both.  Our decades-long flight from quality has helped drive manufacturing jobs out of this country.  (Economists explain that this phenomenon cannot be reversed.  Those jobs are gone for good.)  Every time you order cheap crap from southeast Asia off Amazon…every time you reflexively whine about how high-quality furniture or well-constructed clothing is “expensive”, rehearsing the now-fashionable anti-elitist rant about how regular people can’t afford to care about quality, functionality, longevity, lifetime operating cost – you are aiding and abetting the ever-deepening trade deficit.  Nowadays, people often don’t consider the price/quality ratio of goods, but focus on price alone; it doesn’t seem to matter that they’re buying disposable stuff they’ll have to replace, that their purchases have a higher lifetime cost.  In economics-speak, contemporary Americans have an astronomically high discount rate, when it comes to spending decisions.

Any way you cut it, President Trump will preside over the end of this business cycle, since business cycles are inevitable and this one is already longer than normal.  Reasonable people hold out hope, however faint, that he’ll abandon (or that his incompetence will foil successful implementation of) the party-over-country, ideology-over-evidence arguments that constitute a recipe for making America’s economic future worse than necessary. 

March 1, 2017

Posted in >10 min read, Business topics, [All posts]

Obesity is not a choice: The cruelty of pseudo-libertarians

5 min read

Obesity isn’t a “choice”:  it’s neither rational nor conscious.

The late 20th -century revolution of behavioral economics enlightened us to the fundamental ways in which the human brain fails to respond rationally or consistently to information.  We came to a radical new understanding that “free will” isn’t actually free.

We also realized that “unregulated markets” are not “free markets”.  First, economists realized that unregulated markets give rise to the ills of monopoly power, barriers to innovation, widening income inequality, volatility, and the ability of a few individuals’ errors to trigger economic cataclysm (e.g., LTCM hedge fund collapse, 2007 mortgage securities crisis).  Second, economists realized that individual consumers – and therefore aggregate groups of consumers known as “markets” – are guided by intrinsic human irrationality. 

Thus, libertarianism definitively died decades ago among trained economists, becoming a theoretical curiosity in the history of social science.  However, as is always the case with scientific discoveries and academic research consensus, there’s a long delay between a realization in high culture and its gradual diffusion into popular/low culture. 

Consequently, libertarianism remains trendy among non-economists.  These pseudo-libertarians claim to advocate for unfettered free markets, ignorant of the settled science that removing governmental oversight and intervention often contravenes their own stated objective.

Let’s take the obesity epidemic as an example.  

Half of American schoolchildren are medically obese.  As they grow up, the adult population is getting more obese as well, and suffering costly and tragic health consequences like diabetes.  And, the problem has expanded beyond America to become nearly global.  Despite the vast population affected, it’s not uncommon to hear skinny and privileged American pseudo-libertarians sanctimoniously and counter-factually dismiss the obesity issue as one of “individuals making bad choices”.

What do we know about the causes of obesity?

  • Childhood obesity.  Default body size is set in childhood, when one has no autonomy over food choices.  Adults almost always revert to their childhood body type, regardless of short-term impact of exercise and nutrition programs.  (e.g., Even with infinite financial resources, professionally-optimized nutrition, a relatively non-sedentary job, and strong psychological/social incentives, Oprah Winfrey’s body always reverts to its adolescent, unhealthily-large size.)
  • Parental obesity.   The size of one’s parents impacts whether you will grow up to be obese yourself (both through overtly controlling your childhood nutrition and exercise, and through subconscious modeling of behavior).  
  • Obesity of your friends.  Behavioral economics research shows us that, if just one of your friends gains weight, your likelihood of gaining weight goes up.  (Even if one of your friend’s friends gains weight, your likelihood of gaining weight goes up.)  This creates a positive, self-reinforcing feedback loop outside of conscious control.
  • Lower metabolic rate, caused by:
    • Changes to our microbiome.   The bacteria colonies inside us that account for a few pounds of everyone’s body weight are newly suspected as an important factor (requiring more research to pinpoint).
    • Desk jobs.  Sitting is the new smoking.  Most desk jobs don’t yet support the recommended frequent breaks, walking meetings, standing desks and reasonable hours required to keep activity levels high.  Exercise is expensive and relatively unavailable to low-income people.
    • Time of the month relative to payday.  The metabolic rate of people living paycheck-to-paycheck actually decreases prior to payday, to conserve energy and store fat.  (Then, after spending a week in constant, uncomfortable hunger, they may overeat when cash becomes available.)
  • Overeating, caused by:
    • The number of people you eat with.  Kids who eat in larger groups at school eat more calories than kids who eat in small groups, given the same meal offered.  
    • The size of the plate.  We eat more calories when the same quantity of food is presented to us on a large plate, compared to a small plate.
    • Carbohydrates are the cheapest food (both per calorie and per unit of satiety).  If you’re poor and you’re hungry, it’s rational to eat bread, ramen and sweets.
    • Branding and marketing.  When you walk into a grocery store you relinquish any remnants of free will regarding food choices.  Food producers use teams of brilliant minds to spend enormous sums of money on manipulating your purchase behavior.  They use color, packaging, shelf position, and price.  And, those features don’t have any correlation with nutritional value – in fact, low-nutrition prepared foods have the highest margin and are manufactured by the largest companies, who thus have the resources and motivation to get you to buy those products.  Who are you to withstand the onslaught of subconscious influences?
    • Cultural norms.  Kids and adults unconsciously prefer the taste of foods they believe are unhealthy.  Our controlling cultural paradigm often guides our preferences away from nutrition.
    • Office policies.  Visibility and accessibility of food definitively drives consumption of more calories.  If your well-meaning office puts out trays of food in meetings and at birthdays, you have little defense against unconsciously consuming more calories than you otherwise would.
    • Lack of data to support nutritious choices.  Consumers don’t usually know which food choice is the least nutritious.  A pasta dish can have more sugar than a handful of cookies; a salad can have more carbs than a plate of meat and potatoes.  
    • Unclear definition of nutritionally-optimal choice.  Is added sugar the real culprit?  Total sugar, including natural sugars like in fruits?  Carbohydrates?  The latest science isn’t yet reflected in nutritional labels, the governmental recommendations are confusing, and good information is drowned out by the noise of pseudo-scientific theories.
    • Bandwidth poverty.  Even if we had the right data about food content, and a clear definition of optimal nutrition decision-making, an individual doesn’t have the time to research and scrutinize every micro-decision made in a day.  That’s precisely why we have consumer protection and labeling laws (which need to be vastly improved regarding grocery and restaurant foods).  Bandwidth poverty is highest among low-income people, who have been shown to actually make more daily decisions than corporate executives. Corporate executives get to reduce their decision fatigue with capsule wardrobes, personal outsourcing, and punting on many smaller decisions they can afford to make sub-optimally – leaving them more luxurious mental bandwidth to sift through complex nutritional choices.  Poor people don’t have that luxury.

Notice that none of these obesity drivers are under the conscious control of an individual.  So, we see that the free market ideal of informed consumers making conscious, rational decisions is entirely absent with respect to the obesity issue.  It is not a choice.

Posted in <5 min read, Decision quality, Social issues, [All posts]

Think a Muslim ban is irrelevant to you?

7 min read

An indignant acquaintance demanded to know “why” I (“of all people”) am so upset about the latest of Trump’s outlandish executive orders.  That person didn’t voice objection to my participation in the recent Women’s March, but is befuddled by my response to what is effectively the beginnings of a Muslim Ban.  Here is my answer.

I shouldn’t have to recite my degrees of separation from how this “personally” affects me.  Perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t.  (Nonetheless, it’s important to note that – even as a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, upper-middle class, graduate-educated woman – only an uncritical mind could simply assume it doesn’t affect me personally.)  I decline to recite any so-called personal reasons, since personal impact shouldn’t be the primary litmus test used to determine policy stance.  

The policy is a bad one on its own merits, on an empirical basis: 

  • Doesn’t accomplish it’s stated goal.  This is a major windfall to terrorists.  
  • Appears to be commercially-influenced.  Where’s Saudi Arabia, home of the 9/11 hijackers?  Why does the country list align with Trump’s business interests and not with US intelligence assessments?
  • Hurts our diplomatic and economic interests.  Reciprocity of banning individual Americans is only the beginning of how other countries will respond.  
  • Violates our nation’s moral principles.  So much for religious freedom.  Thomas Jefferson, who kept a Quran by his bed, weeps in his grave.
  • Expensive redundant regulation that should enrage small-government apologists.  We’re already doing extreme vetting of asylum-seekers.  US residents were already vetted in order to get their green cards.
  • Statistics and Skittles.  We’re more at risk from European passport-holders.  And the Trump family’s dehumanizing Skittles analogy was debunked last year with a dump-truck pile of colorful, fruity candies.
  • Experts across the political spectrum also think it’s empirically misguided.  Dick Cheney and Madeline Albright are outraged.  The ACLU quickly won in court against the poorly-worded, sloppily-conceived executive overreach.

Like most of Trump’s campaign promises and first-week executive actions, this one preys upon our irrational fears and reduces us as a people.  

Instead of thinking through the above points, people commonly define their stance based on whether the issue affects them.  That selfish evaluation mechanism passes for a socially-acceptable method of arriving at one’s political opinions.  Case in point: the weekend before last, a self-proclaimed liberal millennial spat out this red-faced proclamation to a gathering of his left-leaning friends: “My life won’t change one bit under Trump. It will never touch me personally, so I don’t care”.  His stunning lack of self-awareness, compassion and insight was only mildly rebuked.  Narcissism is now a political ideology. 

The politics of narrow self-interest engendered, for example, the Frankenstein phenomenon of Bernie-fanatic, big-government Libertarian, pro-trade isolationist, anti-science Musk-worshipping “benevolent” misogynists who label themselves as “politically progressive”.  Here in Denver, I’ve seen those people spend the past year-and-a-half articulating distaste for Trump and the alt-right… by unironically using Trump-style logic and rhetoric. 

Among the many morality lessons Trump offers us is a large-scale demonstration of what the politics of narcissism produce:  He’s on logically inconsistent sides of issues, appears to not think through consequences, proposes policy counterproductive to his stated goals, obsesses about ratings, makes quick enemies of would-be allies and is already perceived by the world as a petulant child (and is allegedly having tantrums like one).  If you can’t see why a Muslim Ban is bad without feeling affected yourself, or knowing someone affected, or knowing that I know someone affected, then you fundamentally share some of Trump’s worldview.

“First they came for…” is a moving argument.  Self-interested complacency will eventually violate your own self-interest.  But, it’s not persuasive to many today.  (And, it’s not widely known. Nobody I’ve asked in Denver since November 9 is familiar with that famous poem by an anti-Nazi German pastor whose activism sent him to a concentration camp.)  Too many people can’t imagine the logical succession that leads from attacks on Others to attacks on themselves.  They seem incapable of grasping that that we’re all sitting at the bottom of a slippery slope, no matter our perceived current level of comforting privilege.  

People don’t see when they are already being adversely affected (hence the common practice of unwittingly voting against one’s self-interest). They don’t consider effects on their family members, friends, and colleagues when they decide if something affects them (hence the common practice of not advocating for rights of other genders, races, religions, etc).  “Me” is literally only me — not me plus people who affect me and matter to me.

Last year, millions of millennials (and tens of millions of people overall) were vociferously certain that voting in elections doesn’t matter – because they couldn’t fathom how any presidential, congressional, supreme court or other judicial, regulatory agency, gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral or city council actions would ever impact their lives.  That is both an error of not realizing that they will indeed be adversely affected, and also an error of not caring that people they know will be adversely affected.  Therefore, it’s not a great argument to ask people to realize that they could be harmed personally by a Muslim Ban, or to expect people to care that they know other people who are harmed by a Muslim Ban.  Waiting for such epiphanies is like waiting for “demographics” to organically eradicate right-wing extremism in America.  

We can’t wait for that, because, for example:

  • A white hippie guy just posted on Facebook that he’s finally speaking out against Trump because the temporary ban on arrivals by citizens of 7 countries “directly affects people” he knows.  However, though he has many women friends, a mother and a sister, he hasn’t felt outraged to speak against Trump’s anti-women rhetoric and policies.  (Error of inconsistent recognition that policies harm people you know.)
  • Lots of women voted for Trump, and though many undoubtedly already have a pit in their stomach about that decision, many didn’t see the post-inaugural Women’s March as relevant, because they “feel equal” (though, empirically, they are not equal – in terms of healthcare, safety, wages, legal protections, etc).  And, failing an accurate self-assessment, it still wasn’t motivating enough to them that their female and male friends do experience and observe gender inequality and thus chose to march.  (Error of not realizing that you are harmed.  Error of not caring that people you know are harmed.)
  • A white woman whose politics should make supporting Black Lives Matter axiomatic hasn’t supported that cause because the one black person she knows is the ex-husband she resents.  (Error of not caring that people you know are harmed.)

We can’t wait for people to realize that an issue does indeed affect them “personally”.  We can’t wait for people to recognize that they do know people who are “directly affected”.  We can’t wait for people to cross paths with individuals in an at-risk group and deem them likable enough on an interpersonal level to warrant concern.  On that last point:  We can’t demand support of women’s rights because women are sweet, or racial equality because we like hip-hop …. or religious freedom because we enjoy the family-owned Syrian falafel restaurant downtown. 

In the above cases, we could explain how this policy could eventually “personally” affect the now-indifferent person.  We could try to awaken them to recognize the link, to draw their boundary of self a little wider.  But such politics of narcissism leads to conclusions as unstable as the status of our personal relationships and our ever-shifting senses of identity and allegiance.  Moreover, it simply shouldn’t be necessary.  It should be sufficient that the policies hurt anyone, lack integrity with our values as a nation, and contradict empirical evidence.

So, in answer to your question:  No, I won’t satisfy you with my “personal” reasons for sorrow and outrage at what happened at our airports over the weekend.  It requires no justification other than I’m a human being who thinks critically.  Reciting my personal association with the issue would be a capitulation to your politics of narcissism – arguing my point on your parochial, self-interested terms.  

Men should attend women’s rights marches.  White, Asian, and Hispanic people should rally for Black Lives Matter.  Straight people should protect gay marriage.  Those not of child-bearing age/gender should defend access to contraception and reproductive choice.  Rich people should vote against taxes, tariffs, and program cuts that burden low-income people.  Millennials should care about losses to Medicare if the ACA is repealed.  Retired people should favor better public education.  Humans today should mobilize to mitigate climate change’s harm to future generations.  Those who don’t happen to live on the Standing Rock Reservation should care about the Dakota Access Pipeline.  Non-Arab, non-Muslim US citizens should be outraged about passport-based travel restrictions on US residents and visitors.  “Period.”

Denver, January 29, 2017

Posted in 5-10 min read, Decision quality, Religion, [All posts]