Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” pt. 3: Trump

Another in the series of posts applying Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit”. If you haven’t yet read it, I recommend it.

Every week or so Donald Trump tweets something ridiculous, outrageous, or just plain trollish, and it drives people crazy. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to find these messages distasteful, and I usually do, but the reaction is usually way out of proportion. You could pick many examples, but the big one at the moment is this:

One of the reasons Trump (intentionally) drives people crazy with this kind of tweet is simple: he’s bullshitting, but they’re taking take it seriously. He knows how burning the US flag is constitutionally protected, and how successfully implementing this idea is completely infeasible. He’s a blowhard, not an idiot.

To recap what Frankfurt means by bullshit, it’s speech unconnected to truth value. A liar is still concerned with truth value. He wants his statement to be taken as true when it should not be. A bullshitter isn’t concerned with truth value one way or the other. (Note: bullshit is not necessarily always a bad thing. It depends on context. A lot of pleasant bonding conversation we engage in is bullshit, because in that case conveying truth is not the point and we don’t count on it. I think of how many amusing tall tales I’ve heard in bars through the years.)

Trump’s opponents get so riled up because they think he means what he says. He does this to agitate them, and it works. He’s both a lot more clever and a lot less ideological than they think. People will be able to respond more effectively when they realize he’s not serious about every bad idea he suggests.

It’s unbecoming and improper of a president-elect to bullshit on so grand a scale. Politicians bullshit frequently. They have to talk about a lot of things they aren’t experts on. It comes with the territory. But they shouldn’t go out of their way to do it. Trump is about to become the most powerful man in the world. That is serious business. He should not be trolling on Twitter. But his opponents have enough to be concerned about—his bullheaded rejection of the clear economic consensus about trade, his total lack of understanding of international relations, etc.—without adding nonsense to the pile.

It’s not just Twitter. During his campaign he said a lot of outrageous things. It’s not likely most of his supporters really thought he would impose a blanket ban on Muslim immigration, as if that were possible to get past Congress and the courts anyway. They knew that was bullshit. His opponents didn’t seem to. Merely suggesting it is a very bad and un-presidential thing to do and the fact that he did should worry us. But don’t think he’s going to do it. Focus on the things he can do.

This will be an especially difficult year for the media. The media model is designed for reporting news, and is not well-equipped to deal with bullshit. Presidents have told the truth and have lied, and the media can cover these things straightforwardly. A politician talking through his hat so consistently is confusing. Do they report it straightforwardly, taking the statements at face value when large parts of their audience know better? Do they ignore the more outlandish claims? Do they tell the reader “He said this but nobody could seriously think he meant it so let’s stop here”? What will rival outlets do? Sponsors pay for readers and viewers, not maturity. I said an especially difficult year because I expect they’ll adjust eventually. This assumes he doesn’t start acting presidential soon, although I would love to be wrong on that assumption.

So I’m not accused of ignoring the harm of inflammatory rhetoric, yes, even the mere fact of suggesting these kinds of policies, however unrealistic, is an antisocial thing for a person in his position to do that could give aid and comfort to the even more antisocial fringe. The point is that with better bullshit detectors we could stop being kept off balance by nonsense like this flag burning tweet, and focus on the times when he means it.


UPDATE: A little extra from a Washington Post article about a forum of campaign people, quoting Trump’s first campaign manager:

“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

The reports of the NFL’s death are greatly exaggerated

I keep seeing the meme all over sports media that NFL television ratings are down, as if this is a big deal, tied to scandals and hypermasculinity. I have little use for that line of thought, and there’s a better one.

In a recent interview with Peter King, Brian Rolapp, Executive VP of Media for the NFL, offered a few reasons for the ratings drop. First, presidential election years always have a dip in ratings. This is fascinating! Maybe the explanation is people getting serious once every four years, but I doubt it. The explanation that fits with my priors (and thus the clear frontrunner, right?) is that politics and sports are substitutes. Politics deals with serious issues, but many people consume it as entertainment. They pick teams and get invested in them in the way they do with football. This election was pretty unusual, too, which almost guarantees getting more eyeballs, even for neutrals, which means less attention left over for football.

Another point I thought was interesting was that the number of viewers hasn’t declined, they’re just sticking around less. This makes sense too. If the games are not fun to watch—neither is your team, the outcome is not in doubt—there are a practically unlimited number of alternative things to watch without moving out of your spot. The random variation in game quality week-to-week and year-to-year isn’t under the NFL’s control anyway. This is a big challenge for the NFL, and indeed for any media enterprise. By the way, college football ratings are not down. I think the identification people have with college teams is a lot stronger than with NFL teams, and the markets are not the same. There is a lot less parity in college football anyway, and there always has been, so bad games don’t turn people off as much.

The London games don’t help with domestic viewership either. Obviously they help with European exposure, but there’s only so much football a viewer can watch in a day. If your team plays in London (at 9:30am Eastern time/6:30 am Pacific time) you’re not likely to watch the rest of the games, and if your team doesn’t play in London you’re not likely to watch that game.

One year does not make a trend. I know media people have to talk about something, but we don’t have to take everything at the same level of seriousness.

Election 2016 thoughts

A presidential election is surely big enough to merit comment, so here’s what I’m thinking so far. I’m still digesting it. Consider it a public notebook. All of this is from a non-partisan standpoint. I drafted this a few days ago, didn’t add much, and finally figured it was time to pull the trigger.

First, I believed there were more “closeted” Trump voters than the polls showed—social desirability bias is real—but I was still surprised when Trump won. I thought it would be Clinton by a hair.

An explanation I’ve been telling myself for a few months now, I don’t know how seriously, was that Trump decided to run on a lark, probably just to promote his brand, and after winning a couple primaries by tapping into something began to see how far he could ride it. I don’t think he has a coherent mental framework that motivates his support for various policies. For all the fear of what his administration will mean for various groups, I doubt he has a lot of ideas he takes seriously one way or the other. I can’t imagine the day-to-day reality of being president will suit him, nor can I imagine voters giving him a second term, even calibrating for the fact that he won a first. There are secular economic trends at play that nobody is going to stop. Overturning Obamacare will be difficult with only 51 Republican senators. The mid-term elections could put more Democrats back into Congress. And it remains to be seen how much the Republican Party establishment will want to cooperate with the newcomer.

One of the biggest points is the protest vote against elites. It’s not part of the left’s self-image that they are a big part of “the system”. They tend to identify with underdogs. But Hillary Clinton is as close to royalty as the US has. The entire Democratic Party leadership treated the 2016 campaign as her obviously due turn. All living former and current presidents opposed Trump, as did the rest of the Bush clan, the Beltway Republican class, Hollywood, a sitting Supreme Court Justice, etc. At a broader level, the left controls so much of the cultural narrative that it’s like the air they breathe, no longer noticeable to them. The elites range in opinion from ignoring the rubes in flyover states to white hot contempt, and it came back to bite them when somebody at least pretended to take them seriously. I note with disappointment the first round of reaction articles doubling down on the contempt. It may be emotionally comforting, but will not help.

I can’t speak to Wikileaks’ end game (if they have one), but the inner workings of the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and the Clinton Foundation were not pretty. Maybe everything at that level runs that way, and maybe in the grand scheme of things that’s acceptable, but there’s no hiding how distasteful it is to the average person.

It was obvious that the media were all-in for Clinton, and this ended up hurting her campaign. Most minds were probably made up when the news broke that Donna Brazile passed debate questions from CNN to Clinton’s camp ahead of time, but that was very illustrative. Trump did and said plenty of things to jump on fairly, but I know the man on the street saw it as much more than that. There were hints that Texas might have been competitive, for example, that were unbelievable and undermined media credibility. He said rude things to Alicia Machado, but when voters got a deeper look at her and it wasn’t helping she was dropped. It looked like they were out of touch at best and propagandists at worst. Plus, Hitler comparisons in the less-serious media, the kind that get shared all over Facebook, stop working when applied to, say, the relatively moderate Mitt Romney. You can only cry wolf so many times.

Trump’s understanding of economics is woeful, but it’s fairly common across the political spectrum. Honest-to-goodness free trade has very few supporters (outside of economics departments), and the insincere appeals to its merits by cronyists might be worse than no support at all. Politicians of all stripes are guilty for setting this stage.

Trump has some nightmarish supporters, no doubt about it, but lumping all of his supporters in with the fringe only made them angry and blunted the power of further smears. Nobody was going to reach my immigrant grandmother by telling her she was a misogynist xenophobe in voting for Trump, not the clever people at The Atlantic, and certainly not the hacks at Slate. I don’t deny racism and misogyny exist and motivate some people, but I think most Americans are not racists or misogynists and resent being labeled as such. Trump’s leaked comments about women were incredibly crass, but running against a Clinton took a lot of the power out of that angle. His statements about Muslims were shocking but were gradually walked back, and those plans were impossible anyway.

At the very least I’m glad the campaigning is done.

QOTD

A statesman can succeed only insofar as his plans are adjusted to the climate of opinion of his time, that is to the ideas that have got hold of his fellows’ minds. He can become a leader only if he is prepared to guide people along the paths they want to walk and toward the goal they want to attain. A statesman who antagonizes public opinion is doomed to failure. No matter whether he is an autocrat or an officer of a democracy, the politician must give the people what they wish to get, very much as a businessman must supply the customers with the things they wish to acquire.

– from Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History, p. 187.

The facts of life, political edition

The New York Times has a great piece by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels about how support for a candidate and support for the candidate’s policy preferences don’t necessarily align. It’s specifically about Bernie Sanders, but the principles are universal. Sample:

Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.

That is one key reason contemporary American politics is so polarized: The electoral penalty for candidates taking extreme positions is quite modest because voters in the political center do not reliably support the candidates closest to them on the issues. (Mitt Romney is just the most recent presidential candidate to lose despite being perceived by most voters as closer to their ideological views than his opponent on a spectrum running from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.”)

People who study public choice and political science (or at least take them seriously) often seem glum or snarky to others, if personal experiences on social media are any indication, but facts are facts. From the inside it seems incredibly important for anybody who cares about good governance to acknowledge these basic points about the system we have.

The major parties and their extreme wings

This is an interesting election year for a number of reasons. Here’s one of today’s headlines: “New York’s strict voter registration rules frustrate Sanders supporters”. The story is that some voters showed up to vote in the primaries only to find out the deadline for registering with a party, and hence for being able to vote in that party’s primary, was October 9.

One of the people quoted:

“I voted in 2008 [in the general election] with just my driver’s license and assumed it would be fine again,” said Tania Staykova, a 40-year-old Sanders supporter in Tribeca, who is head of production at an advertising agency.

“I was at the polling station at 9am, second in line, and it was only after I spoke to the fourth guy that he explained I needed to register as Democrat when I renewed my license. At no point before that was there any warning.”

“When I was at the DMV renewing my license last year, I just didn’t want to affiliate with the Democrats at that point,” added Staykova. “It doesn’t feel at all democratic to me.”

One imagines this affects the vote totals for all of the major-party candidates, but the article frames it, probably correctly, as especially a concern for Sanders supporters who were nominally independents. This is one of the reasons the Sanders campaign seems hopeless by the conventional metric, i.e. winning the nomination. Hillary Clinton has the support of the party leadership, its superdelegates, and its core bloc of voters. Sanders gets a lot of support from left-wing independents; indeed, he himself was an independent from 1979 until late 2015. I understand the frustration of Sanders supporters but this is how the game is played. Whether it should be this way is a worthy but separate question.

The larger narrative is how both parties have left room open for large parts of their prospective voter bases to be filled by outsider candidates. What’s confusing is how we are supposed to live in an era of unprecedented partisanship between the rank and file of both parties—with ample data to support this hypothesis—while “extreme” candidates are polling very well. If the parties are so widely separated from each other along the left-right spectrum, why are the outsiders viewed as even farther out? Is there no center remaining?

Rubio prediction: incorrect

Three years ago I predicted Marco Rubio would be on the 2016 Republican presidential ticket. Last week he ended his campaign after losing the Republican primary in his home state of Florida. In simple yes-or-no terms I predicted incorrectly, but how close was it?

I thought this would be the result of heavy support from Republican Party strategists and insiders. It turns out they did support him quite a bit, but only after it was too late, and more for his willingness to play ball than for other factors. I thought offering the first major-party Latino candidate would be too much to resist given the near certainty Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic Party’s nominee. (As of this writing the Bernie Sanders campaign is all over but the cryin’—unless she’s indicted soon.) Shortly after Obama’s second term began the Republican Party’s lack of engagement with Latinos was a significant theme but it’s been dropped from public discourse in the meantime. This is partly because American culture keeps evolving, partly because all political topics are ephemeral, and perhaps because Ted Cruz is another Republican candidate and Rubio didn’t seem special on account of his ethnicity anymore. Not to ignore the elephant in the room, the Trump campaign is the major reason, which nobody saw coming, and which was dealt with in an earlier post.

The Republican Party ran into a bigger problem than how to court (or at least how not to ignore) Latino voters: how to appease the base it already had. Their failure to do so, for whatever reasons, paved the way for what appears now to be the unstoppable Trump campaign. I expect Rubio to stay somewhat near the national stage for now; a Trump administration would have little use for him but as he’s not really a Republican most of them will be on the sidelines this round, gathering their strength.

Just why the issue of Republican engagement with Latinos went away as a major topic I don’t know yet, but it would surprise me if it stayed dormant more than a few years.

The Bigger Bully hypothesis

Warning: contains discussion of current political matters. I know, I’m not happy about it either.

Just like most Americans I’ve been watching the Donald Trump campaign with stupefied curiosity. Surely this is a joke, right? It’s going to end soon? And it keeps not ending. There’s a very real chance he could be the next president. What is happening?

While I was still trying to make sense of it all I came across a Daily Beast article that I thought was the best take I’d seen: How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump. Excerpt:

It’s pointless to try to explain Trump in terms of political platforms because Trump himself is too stupid and too incoherent to have any kind of consistent political views about anything beyond hating minorities and immigrants. Nuclear weapons? “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Drugs? “That whole heroin thing, I tell you what, we gotta get that whole thing under control.” A random word generation program could do better.

To understand Trump’s seemingly effortless seizure of the public spotlight, forget about programs, and instead zero in on the one complaint that seems to unite all of the disparate angry factions gravitating to him: political correctness. This, more than anything, is how the left created Trump.

The extremist adherents of this new political correctness have essentially taken a flamethrower to the public space and annihilated its center. Topics in American life that once were the legitimate subjects of debate between liberals and conservative are now off-limits and lead to immediate attack by the cultural establishment if raised at all. Any incorrect position, any expression of the constitutional right to a different opinion, or even just a slip of the tongue can lead to public ostracism and the loss of a job. (Just ask Brendan Eich.) There is a huge vacuum left by this leftist attack on speech, and Trump is filling it.

There’s more, and it’s worth reading, but I’ll cut it off there. I admit it’s an oversimplification, I don’t endorse it 100%, but it was the first thing I read that made any sense of the campaign’s success, and it was one of the first from a decent-sized media outlet that didn’t try to condescend as much as possible to its subjects—that would have been satisfying, perhaps, but not very useful. It led me to my current working hypothesis: Trump supporters feel bullied, so they rally around a bigger bully.

People will disagree with the statement that they are actually bullied. As with any social phenomenon it’s complicated: I think their belief is justified on some margins and unjustified on others. But that’s not even the relevant point. The point is they feel bullied. I can already see the reaction “Good, they should feel bullied.” That, too, is orthogonal to this discussion.

Let’s use an example that in news cycle time is ancient, but happened less than a year ago: the episode with the Indiana pizzeria whose owner’s daughter said it would refuse to cater a gay wedding. Remember that?

Kevin O’Connor, who owns Memories Pizzeria in Walkerton, Ind., with his two children, spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, shortly after his daughter’s comments to a local television reporter went viral and made his restaurant the latest battleground in the national dispute over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Critics have denounced the legislation, calling it an invitation for business owners in the conservative state to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Although he supports the legislation, O’Connor told The Times he did not make a public decree that he would not serve same-sex couples, nor did anyone ask him that question.

But in the television interview, which led thousands to attack his business on Facebook and on Yelp, his daughter Crystal said she would flat-out refuse service to a gay couple who asked to have their wedding catered.

You might remember the storm of criticism, calls for boycott, and threats made against the place. You’re less likely to remember the flood of donations the place got in response to the criticism. I bet Trump is picking up support from a lot of these donors who felt that a very common belief about the traditional Christian faith of their country was now under attack.* Again, I know a lot of people think this belief should be under attack, that religion is no cover for discrimination, etc. The trouble with governance is you have to work with the people you have, not the people you wish you had. Sometimes they need a push, but be careful lest they push back.

Moreover, opposition to gay marriage was very recently the Democratic Party’s position as well, and hardly any member of the left argued that President Obama early in his term deserved to be excommunicated from polite society for it. It’s like the mass of the cultural left thinks the cultural right doesn’t remember anything.

It’s not just gay marriage. I doubt Trump ever had strong feelings about it either way, though as a wealthy New Yorker who was at least nominally a Democrat he probably wasn’t dead-set against it. (Thankfully that’s a settled issue now anyway. Also, a surprisingly large percentage of its opponents several years ago supported civil unions, for what it’s worth.) It’s many things, but really it’s a feeling. That’s why the Trump campaign is so light on substance, even lighter than the usual fare for national political campaigns: they know substance isn’t the issue. The attitude that the candidate will speak his mind, no matter how stupid the rest of the world thinks it is, no matter what the actual question was, that’s the appeal. It’s why media takedowns of his ridiculous rhetoric don’t hurt his poll numbers. Of course the media would say that, his supporters think.

I can already imagine a reader responding that some things are bad and should be driven out of society. I agree. But the process matters. I’m sure if Georges Clemenceau could have seen the future he would have pushed for a less punitive settlement after World War I than he did. Fiat justitia ruat caelum is for the very, very exceptional case, not a recipe for ordinary governance.

I know this isn’t the complete explanation but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Hopefully I won’t have to keep developing it for too much longer.


* Whether that belief about the Christian faith, that having said faith obligates one to oppose gay marriage, is true or not is a separate issue, although it certainly didn’t help that many non-Christians were at their condescending best explaining to Christians what their own faith really meant.

Housing supply and demand in New Zealand

Via the Radio New Zealand podcast, I just heard a story about the “catastrophic” condition of New Zealand’s housing market. The piece referred to a report claiming New Zealand’s housing market is the least affordable of the 22 countries it analyzed. My attention: you have it. This article is a shorter version of the radio piece.

The presenter maintained neutrality about the cause, but thankfully Property Countil chief executive Connal Townsend spelled it out for listeners:

It’s a catastrophic regulatory failure.

Decisions were made years ago to artificially constrain the availability of land and it’s the golden law of economics that when you, through regulation, constrain the supply of a commodity it drives the price up.

Prices are signals about resource allocation. In rising they signal to producers to increase production. If they don’t respond, there must be a reason.

I can’t remember the name of the Green Party spokesman who presented the other point, and it’s not included in the web version, but he suggested the problem was…wait for it…a lack of government action.

If I can be forgiven for using Thomas Sowell’s phrase “a conflict of visions” for my own purposes, it’s the perfect phrase here. The rational choice worldview that considers incentives has a very elegant and empirically-supported answer. The social creationist worldview imagines the whole thing to be the result of society’s inability to adjust itself, for mysterious reasons, which planners must counteract by conscious effort.

New Zealand readers may object that I know nothing about the specifics of the situation. They’d be right. I’m not from New Zealand, have never been there, and mainly listen to the podcast for the great accents while I do Saturday morning chores. But there are constants in human behavior. People in New Zealand, like people everywhere, respond to incentives unless prevented from doing so.

It may be that land use restrictions intended to minimize the impact of humans on New Zealand’s famous natural beauty are at the same time 1) the culprit in the housing price situation and 2) justified anyway for other reasons. That’s a reasonable position to hold—as long as you acknowledge the cost.

Bonus question: which segments of New Zealand society are worst off in this situation?

Wednesday nexus

1. R.I.P. Douglass North, 1993 Economics Nobel laureate, 1920–2015. Bio here; New York Times obituary here.

2. Alex Tabarrok tackles a persistent meme about refugees.

3. Don Boudreaux on trusting political leaders:

In short, when the subject of discussion or the object of action is the economy, politicians and their deputies typically sound and act as if they are imbeciles (or as if the audiences they aim to please are made up largely of imbeciles). So why should I trust that these same politicians and their deputies, when they discuss and act on matters about which I know far less than economics, are not imbeciles? Why should I suppose them to be any more informed, reasonable, and wise – and less politically motivated – than they are when they discuss economics?

4. Two can play this game: How Democrats Suppress the Vote. I’m kicking myself for never having thought or read about this before, though in fairness I suppose very few people have.

Scheduling local elections at odd times appears to be a deliberate strategy aimed at keeping turnout low, which gives more influence to groups like teachers unions that have a direct stake in the election’s outcome.

The article draws largely from a book by political scientist Sarah Anzia that I guess I’ll have to read now.

5. And some levity: The 12 coaches rumored for every college football job opening ever. Teaser:

1. The Back The Truck Up dream coach you deserve: This is [your university], dammit. Before you even think of calling any of these other candidates, you get out that dang checkbook, you sit down in front of the most accomplished and least interested NFL or college head coach, and you make him say no.