Why I am not a meat eater

I often find it interesting to find points where people (whether myself or others) want to hold on to two conflicting ideas. One such conflict is apparent in the views Americans hold toward eating meat. On the one hand, 89% have a diet that includes meat. On the other, high majorities oppose the cruelest practices of factory farming, such as breeding chickens that grow so quickly they become crippled under their own weight. 

These two views don’t necessarily need to contradict. It could be that someone thinks it’s ok to eat meat but that they should always avoid eating meat raised under horrific factory farming practices (this applies to fish too).

In fact, this was something I still believe in theory and used to try to practice — buying grass-fed, organic, cage-free, and humanely raised meat and animal products. I thought that this was enough to entirely reconcile my disgust for factory farming with my desire to eat meat. But I began to realize that this was not the complete solution I had hoped for. 

First, because I still labeled myself a “meat-eater,” I felt this label gave me a license to eat meat and animal products at restaurants or as ingredients in other products. This was despite having no idea where their meat came from. Given that 99% of animals are factory farmed, it’s safe to assume that the animals I was eating were very likely farmed that way. 

Second, I didn’t really understand what most food labels meant. But, as this informative Vox article goes into, these labels don’t guarantee the ethical treatment of animals.

For example, these are free-range chickens…

Third, many US States have introduced ad-gag laws, which make it illegal to document practices at factory farms, even if such practices would be considered animal abuse off the farm. This means that it is extremely difficult to properly document the extent of the problems on farms of all types. 

Therefore, it seems rational to believe that the default option for most farms, absent public oversight or scrutiny, is to ignore animal welfare concerns in a simple desire to reduce costs. In the long run, any farm that doesn’t do that is more likely to be overtaken by a farm that does. Further, without good evidence to the contrary, one’s default assumption should be that any meat they buy comes from a farm following the default option: one that follows the same cost-cutting, cruel, factory farming practices that exist throughout the country.

This is why I am not a meat-eater.

However, I know my concern for animals isn’t exclusive to me and people I know who don’t eat meat. Many meat-eaters make a point to tell me this. 

But I often find them living a performative contradiction. I know very few meat-eaters who don’t eat meat at restaurants. I know very few meat-eaters who understand what the labels on their food actually mean. And I don’t know any meat-eaters who go out and research the conditions of the farms they eat meat from.

These are just anecdotes, but I’d bet almost all ethically concerned meat-eaters, end up supporting factory farms anyway because of these factors.

I don’t eat meat and try to avoid animal products in general, because I know I’ll eat factory-farmed products when I do. This isn’t to say that prioritizing eating ethically raised meat doesn’t make a difference, but with the current seemingly omnipresent reality of factory food production, eating animal products at all usually ends up perpetuating the problem of animal suffering.

However, it’s important to note that immediately becoming vegan is not the only way to help improve animals’ lives. It also should be said that excessive guilt is not healthy either. I do not eat vegan meals all the time and understand the difficulty of making animal welfare a priority.

That being said, there is a range of actions that one can take to help animals. This includes: not eating meat if you don’t know its source, cutting the worst raised animals from your diet (chickens and eggs first), going vegetarian, or donating to animal welfare charities (you can see this video for ideas).

Also, if you eat meat you could ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I know where my meat comes from? 
  • Have I seen any or read about any of the farms where the animals I eat are raised?
  • Are the animals I eat being raised and killed in a way I’m ok with? How could I find out?
  • What measures could I take to ensure I don’t eat factory-farmed products or reduce the amount significantly?

Note: I am trying to grow the readership of this blog. You can help by forwarding this to friends and family or anyone you think might find it interesting.

Thoughts on gratitude

Over the last several years, I have often reflected on the high levels of cynicism in my adolescence. This cynicism seemed to be a poor psychological response to being confronted with general insecurities and academic challenges in high school. I now find that emphasizing the cruel and capricious parts of reality is not something that demonstrates strength or coolness, but usually is a misallocation of attention.

This has occurred as I have begun to read and hear more about the power of gratitude. It turns out fostering a gracious and thankful mind is one of the best ways to battle depressive thoughts and feelings. It positions you to see the world in a way that emphasizes the positive aspects of life and experience more of the great things the world has to offer.

This is one thing that troubles me about the polarized, combative, and extreme media we consume today. It has almost become a cliché to say that we are being pulled, as a society, and by the current state of media incentives, to be less grateful, angrier, and less mentally stable. I have counteracted this in my personal life by focusing my attention on people who themselves focus their attention on the positive aspects of the world while remaining educated and realistic. Such figures include Tyler Cowen and Will MacAskill. This is no universal remedy, but something I recommend every infovore to do themselves.

However, as much as I would like to say that I have left the cynic behind, I still feel his grasp, pulling me back to my younger years. The most convincing idea that he left is the notion that I will inevitably miss certain parts of reality if I fail to fully grasp the terrible aspects. And to fully grasp the terrible aspects of life, I must experience misery myself. If not, I will remain ignorant and naïve.

Perhaps there is some truth to this, but the role of the cynic as a truth-seeker is easily overstated. I must understand that this part of my mind is in competition with all the other unique sub-personalities and thought patterns floating in my mind.

Furthermore, so long as I exist in this world, I will have the emotions of sadness, anger, fear, and grief to show me the negative side of reality. But this does not mean I should prioritize the negative and positive emotions equally. There are some experiences that are better than others, and many experiences worth being ignorant of. Knowledge, as it turns out, is not a master virtue that lies above all other considerations.

This Thanksgiving, I will remind myself again that gratitude is one of those “better experiences”, not only in the moment you experience it, but because of all of its positive externalities too. I wish you all the best of luck harnessing its power in your lives as well.

-Alexander

Book Notes: Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein

*Book notes are a chapter by chapter summary of each key point. To read the Why We’re Polarized book review click here.*

Introduction: What Didn’t Happen

Klein begins by describing the anomaly of Trump’s election, augmenting the title of Hillary Clinton’s unique book for a presidential loser. Several factors led to Trump going from a loss to a win within the rundown to election day (Comey letter, emails, sexism), but the better question is why was Trump close enough to win. Larry Bartels says that 2016 makes perfect sense when compared with previous elections and assuming similar demographic voting patterns and party partisanship. The evidence suggests as much.

This book is described as being about systems, not people as individual actors. Stories of political actors are moving, and common in news, but are less useful in understanding the broader picture. Things can succeed by their own logic even when failing what people assume their goal to be i.e. rational actors can act in understandable ways to create a dysfunctional system as a cohesive unit. Two “forms of knowledge” are best used in combination to understand American politics: 1) first hand accounts from political actors and 2) analyses by political scientists looking at the system as a whole. The “logic of polarization” is the primary driver of political action and produces a feedback loop of political institutions appealing to polarized public who polarizes, further continuing the cycle.

Additionally, identity is key to understanding polarization, particularly political identity. Identity politics has been captured by people legitimizing minority groups for acting under its supposed unique influence there. All politics is influenced by identity politics, including Christian, guns rights, abortion, etc.. The interaction between politics and identity is difficult to describe and zero-sum when viewed as a contest between identity groups.

Chapter 1: How Democrats Became Liberals and Republicans Became Conservatives

Since 1864, Republicans and Democrats have dominated American politics, but the parties themselves have shifted dramatically and repeatedly since then. In 1950 APSA (American Political Science Association) published a report admonishing the parties to differentiate in order to create a more polarized party system that would give voters a better understanding of what their vote meant. Political parties, as extremely broad choices, could be hard to distinguish from one another. Some, including Dewey and Nixon disagreed with the APSA report saying that the Republican and Democratic parties similarities offered great strength in allowing continuity of action even as people shift who they vote for. Robert Kennedy thought that there were already so many divisions (race, class, etc.) that horizontal party polarization would be dangerous.

Intra-party division, it was thought would get addressed through suppression or compromise, while inter-party division would get met out via conflict. Barry Goldwater’s candidacy explored the idea of mapping ideological difference onto party lines (as a conservative Republican), but he had to fight his party in the convention to do it, and was criticized mightily after his loss. Up to the Carter-Ford election, only a slight majority thought Republicans were more conservative and 30% said there was no ideological difference at all between the parties.

While in the past split ticket voting was relatively common (correlation between Democratic House vote and presidential vote was .54 between 1972 and 1980 and had risen to .97 by 2018). Now independents are more predictable voters than strong partisans of the past and our views of the opposite parties have fallen dramatically. While independents have risen, negative partisanship has ballooned, meaning both sides dislike the other much more than they did.

Partisan is a pejorative word, and partisanship was warned against by Washington and many others. We trust centrists and independents more than partisans and yet the logic of partisanship makes perfect sense, especially as differences grow, which they have in surveys (eg. share of democrats thinking poor people have it easy from gov’t help has shrunk dramatically since 1994, but stayed relatively similar among Republicans). This means that from a purely rational perspective, the other party is more of a “threat to your vision of a good society” than it used to be. Presidents of the past did many things that are anathema in today’s parties (eg. Reagan tax raising, Clinton’s passage of NAFTA and immigration views). Medicare, a profound gov’t expansion received bipartisan support in the 1960s, and both parties used to be a home for Pro-Life and Pro-Choice candidates alike. Now parties represent an obvious choice between two visions and threaten the opposition much more. So, Klein asks, what changed?

Chapter 2: The Dixiecrat Dilemma

In 1957, relatively weak Civil Rights legislation was filibustered by Sen Strom Thurmond, who spoke for over 24 hours, the longest in history. Yet it was ineffective and broke a promise built on compromises between southerners and northerners, as a stunt for Thurmond to appease segregationists. He was one of the most conservative Senators of his time, yet was a Democrat until after 1964 with the Civil Rights bill passed by LBJ. This lies in the fact that the Southern Democrats was a patrimonial mess of different ideologies unified in promoting southern causes against the rest of the country and maintaining white supremacy. They staged coups, lynched blacks, and engaged in incredible corruption to maintain power.

In the 1940s southern Senators bragged about using lynching as a tool to maintain power, and were protected by other Democrats and shatter black political ambition and ability to vote. The corruption removed Republican ambitions in an attempt to maintain Confederate political hierarchies, pairing transactionalism with white supremacy. The national Democratic party, eager to pass bills with their support ignored much of this, and through the New Deal era ignored Civil Rights legislation to pass the programs expanding government.

Southern democrats made the majority of the total Democratic House and Senate for much of the early 20th Century and controlled vital committee assignments well into the mid and late 20th. However as prominent Democrats(eg. Truman, LBJ) came to embrace civil rights and desegregation, the pact was broken. This to some extent was natural, due to progressive worrying about black poverty, and Republicans by contrast worrying about too many federal actions in general (including those to end poverty). Still, the mantle of Civil Rights could have gone to Republicans, as they actually made a majority of the legislators voting yea on the 1964 bill. But Goldwater shaped the view of Republicans being against Civil Rights.

What is Polarization? Klein argues that it is largely sorting (a version of polarization). Sorting is simply an alignment of certain parties (or other groups) by certain issues or identities. The polarization of issues and identities feeds of one another, but is still separate from extremism (eg. Medicare, a radical increase in gov’t health spending got votes from both Republicans and Democrats while Obamacare, a less extreme policy tried by a Republican Mitt Romney got no Republican votes when introduced by Democrats – how extreme the bill was matters less now, even when polarization is way up).

The mid 20th Century was a low point for polarization but a high one for extremism playing out in the mainstream (assassinations, riots, segregation, authoritarianism in the South). Now, in a polarized environment so-called-moderates are usually more extreme than liberals or conservatives, simply because they’re unsorted but hold select extreme views. Now, we have sorted but not necessarily more extreme than in the past.

Another effect of the Civil Rights legislation was the expansion of non-whites as a consistent block of Democrat voters, which didn’t occur in the Republican party. Sorting has also occurred over religion, with Democrats becoming much more secular (polarization over race and religion is a warning sign for increased hostility identified in How Democracies Die, by Levitsky and Ziblatt).

But the sorting has occurred on the geographic level too, with fewer, but higher population, counties voting Democrat, and more counties overall becoming landslide (where one side winning big) counties. People are continuing to move in ways that fit their preferences, and live with people “like them”. This is increasing the sorting by geography, and amplifying divides in politics. Where B. Clinton won almost half of all 3100 US counties, H. Clinton won fewer than 500, still winning the popular vote and winning areas representing 64% of US GDP.

This movement can be explained by personality psychology (and the Big Five personality traits openness, neuroticism, extroversion, conscientiousness and agreeableness), where people high in openness are more likely to be Democrats, and high conscientious folks more likely Republicans. This can play out all over the place, including food, where Whole Foods tends to attract high-openness individuals (often Democrats) and Cracker Barrel specializes in homey foods attracting high conscientious individuals. Democrats represent 78% of districts with Whole Foods and only 27% with Cracker Barrels). Ideas sort people too. “Hope” and “Change” bring along high-openness people, while more fearful people, or those emphasizing tradition and security, might see it as a threat.

While these psychologies might have been evenly split by party in the 1960s, and perhaps early 1990s, now the divide is clear (at least among white voters) where fixed (resistant to or fearful of change) and fluid (opposite) voters are both strongly sorted by party.

Chapter 3: Your Brain on Groups

In 1970, Henri Tajfel published a paper showing that our loyalties and prejudices were not rational but deeply emotional and instinctively tribal. Identity was what had motivated the genocidal impulses in the Holocaust he survived by pretending to be French rather than Jewish. He studied groups of boys divided on arbitrary lines (first counting clusters of dots and then later random splitting). They were given money to allocate among their respective groups. Even when it meant getting less money to their own group overall, the boys always emphasized giving more money to their group than the opposing group. He concluded that “Discriminatory intergroup behavior cannot be fully understood if it is considered solely in terms of ‘objective’ conflict of interests.” But this is not just a phenomenon among boys.

While Klein is not a sports fan, though he has tried, sports riots suggest that sports is fascinatingly tribal. People burn their cities when their teams win and certain rivalries provide meaning to people like little else does (eg. To Hate Like this is to Be Happy Forever). This is perfectly understandable from an evolutionary perspective: humans would die quickly without their group in nature, and even now loneliness creates real measurable physiological health problems and induces immense stress on us. We need groups to survive

We have also created social structures that radically exceed what we were evolved for. This has forced us to reprogram ourselves into thinking we are still living in small groups by attracting ourselves to sports teams and nation-states that give us camaraderie.

Politics is driven by similar group identities. Strength of partisan identity creates rivalry and increases in negative partisanship, which further causes us to act politically (donating money, voting consistently, etc.). Identity even trumps self interest, and explains why working class people will vote for Republicans who support cutting taxes on the rich. Negative partisanship further explains why candidates can be extremely popular when running against opponents and fall apart in primary elections (eg. O’Rourke in 2018 vs 2020).

Obama in 2004 made a historic speech in which he tried to make an impassioned case for unity. Our common identities, our American identity, is strong, and fundamentally stronger than all that divides us. Identity, which can be stronger or weaker, can emerge from countless angles, but the problem with Obama’s view, to Klein, is that the non-political identities are too weak to supplant political identity. Our political identity has become a proxy for many other things: religion, race, gender, neighborhood. This stacking of identities creates a mega-identity that is hard to break free of and creates more partisanship. After QB Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem, even the NFL was not able to avoid becoming polarizing and its favorability among Trump supporters fell drastically.

Our identities can be bridges as well as moats that make it easier or harder to support or agree with certain people. A white, Christian, male, Democrat might find George W. Bush less threatening than a secular, black, lesbian, who might see Bush as “a genuine danger to her life”, and act accordingly. In fact, civil wars are much more likely when ethnicity intersects with another fundamental identity like religion. However, our conservative or liberal identities do less to predict our liberal or conservative views than how much we align with the views of the Republicans or Democrats in power.

Political identities have become an expression of our political hostility. We don’t want our children to marry people from the opposite party, and we are more likely to care about the party when picking the best resume than GPA or discriminatory variables such as race! We find it socially acceptable to disgrace others or discriminate based on party.

Chapter 4: The Press Secretary in Your Mind

The individual mandate was originally proposed in 1989 as a conservative alternative to the single payer system supported by Democrats. It was supported by a large bipartisan group of senators in the late 2000s. Yet when it was adopted by Obamacare it immediately became disliked by Republicans. This occurred with Cap and Trade and other policies. For many policies, politicians support them in theory, but oppose them when the other side proposes them. While the Enlightenment view might suggest people are rationally coming to a different view or rationally calculating that they must lie for political reasons, group identity makes much more sense of this behavior.

We cannot reason properly in groups without becoming swayed by what the group says, as Soloman Asch’s famous experiments demonstrate (where if people in a group see that others say that certain lines are the longest, they go with the group even when it is clearly not true). Additionally, whether we support policies is much more modulated by whether or not it is the Democratic or Republican position than what the actual policy says; even if the subjects are students with an interest in the underlying policy: welfare in one case). This makes sense, as we have to outsource our thinking to the group, to avoid being overwhelmed. A “more information” hypothesis suggests that giving people better information will allow them to make better policy decisions. But as Kahan demonstrates, people given a political math problem were much less likely to get the right answer than if it was a neutral math problem, and the partisan people also good math were affected the most. That is, partisans use what reasoning they have precisely to get the wrong answer because it must align with their politics.

This is demonstrated all over the place, in conspiracies who use facts and figures as well as Climate Science denialists. Of course in politics we see this too: informed Republicans and Democrats in the Clinton and Reagan years respectively, thought the economy got worse, when it got better. To Kahan this makes sense: why would we expect rational people to go against the people they have respect for and lose credibility, when the alternative is making a mistake or ignoring certain evidence.

The individual mandate, when passed through Obamacare, was thought to be impossible to bring down in courts, as case law post 1937 would all support it. But Republican appointed judges repeatedly ruled against it. When the Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional, few changed their mind about it. This sort of reasoning makes sense from the press secretary view of reasoning. No matter how bad a policy, our rational mind will come up with reasons to justify it (from Haidt’s Righteous Mind). We are all impacted by the phenomenon of motivated reasoning. Truth matters less to us than identity.

Chapter 5: Demographic Threat

America is changing fast, as represented by the demographic support of the Obama and Trump candidacies, between which, white Christians became a minority. Soon America will be a racially majority-minority country and is shifting as we speak; becoming populated by more immigrants, secular folks, and college educated women. As James Baldwin states, the presence of a stranger makes “you the stranger, less to stranger than to yourself.”

However, demographic change shapes political behavior. Learning that whites will become a minority group makes whites more conservative as does hearing Spanish spoken in public settings. The Obama (racially diverse) coalition represented a shift away from the power of white voters. Yet voters and the political power are not representative of the current demographic state. White rural voters hold much more power based on the structure of the House districts, Senate, and electoral college. This is happening even as culture and business moves forward to appeal to a younger diverse population. The dialogue of Rush Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and other popular conservative commentators have consistently been fearful of this demographic change.

A sense of racial solidarity grows when a group feels under threat, and white identity is a political force among a meaningful percentage of voters worried about losing power. Identity alters how we perceive things such as the economy. Rich Republicans were less satisfied with the economy than Democrats in the lowest income quintile during the Obama presidency. This flipped months into Trump’s presidency. One reason right wing populists have been succeeding globally is the influence of migration, and economic anxiety does not explain our political divide well by itself.

Issues of political correctness have become political hotspots because they are questions about who has the power to control discourse, and this power is shifting, and causing more discomfort among groups used to having the discourse designed around their comforts. This is articulated through Bret Stephens, a NY Times columnist, objecting on Twitter to language used against him, and sought to punish those who would insult him online (eg. a professor joked about him being a bedbug in the Times office and Stephens sent the message to the professor’s University Dean). Past columnists might have been removed from the direct line of communicative attack Twitter and social media offers, but not today.

Certain changes rooted in a demographic shift can be seen in comparing how B. Clinton’s immigration platform is similar to Trump’s, and radically different than H. Clinton’s. The Democratic party has had to grow concern for its Black and Latino base, and a “great awokening” has occurred among its college-educated, often white, supporters, who are further to the left than much of the rest of the party. Attempts to diversify leadership gets called identity politics, but much of it is an attempt to shift away from white identity politics of the past. This process is changing the way campaigns run (Sanders was more race-conscious in 2020), but still creating a meaningful feeling of loss among people who feel the power is being lost by a new diverse coalition.

Interlude

The first half of the book, Klein says, was an attempt to show the natural, psychologically normal, ways in which American politics has become polarized. The civil rights era prompted a collapse of the Dixiecrat portion of the Democratic Party, and ushered in a sorting of the two parties by certain identity groups which have stacked on top of one another. But polarization is not only in the past and is still going on. 

Chapter 6: The Media Divide beyond Left-Right

People largely follow politics as a hobby, so journalists have to compete with literally everyone else on and off the internet drawing their attention. While certain theorists thought the internet would create more informed voters, the internet drastically increased distractions at the same time. At the same time, research by Markus Prior showed that how much people were interested in consuming political information better predicted their political knowledge than their level of schooling. All this suggests that the divide between the polarization in interest vs. no interest in politics is a feeder of political polarization in the internet age; where what you want can be fed by content targeted specifically for you. 

The modern opinionated press is actually a return to that found in the past: in 1870 only 13% of daily newspapers were independent from a political party. The market used to incentivize broader readership when a newspaper could dominate a market. When choices expand, people can pick the angle they want, and so “to be interested in politics is to choose a side.” 

The level of inter-party animus is growing quicker than demographic differences. This can be explained by the fact that more partisan media consumption creates a more stereotypical understanding of the other party. This occurs as Nielson numbers for TV and Chartbeat for online news media incentivizes journalists to seek higher ratings, often through polarizing content, further continuing the cycle.

Online entities capitalize on using identities to draw attention to their content (eg. Buzzfeed articles: only 90 kids will understand X). The internet is made for grouping identities, not simply interests. However, identities are malleable and can be strengthened or weakened (eg. the youtube algorithm is notorious for creating rabbit holes to more extreme content, leading to more extreme identities).

There leads to an echo chamber theory of polarization expressed by Obama. Paying people on Twitter to follow people of the other side, however, did not make them more moderate, and actually made conservatives more polarized. This could be because most political media isn’t designed for persuasion (Ross Douthat is the exception, not the rule). Forcing people to watch certain political media can polarize them in the opposite direction (Johnson, Arceneaux study). Politicians and the politically engaged are siloed into polarized informational media-ecosystems and are forced into specific actions based on that (eg. Fox News prompting Republicans into gov’t shutdowns). 

Those who pay the most attention and have the most power drive politics. These are the most polarized people. This is driven by the media choosing what is newsworthy based on ratings (eg. CNN helping Trump by giving him lots of attention early on; more than other front runners of the past or present). Newsworthiness is some combination of important, new, outrageous, conflict-oriented, secret, and interesting. What fits this category is contagious, and social media virality can lead to next day news (eg. Covington kids video)

Chapter 7: Post-Persuasion Elections

Modern politics has seen the end of the persuadable voter, meaning base mobilization has become more important. (eg. the Bush victory in the 2004 election and further in the Obama and Trump victories). The choices have become much clearer, illustrated by comparing H. Clinton vs Trump and B. Clinton vs H.W. Bush. 

We have entered the age of weak parties and strong partisanship (Julia Azari); where someone as hated by party elites and other candidates as Trump was, can end up winning a nomination (which was impossible 50 years ago).  The convention system used to keep demagogues out, but parties have now lost the legitimacy to wield power, and primaries have become more threatening (eg. Eric Cantor’s loss). 

Now, politicians get rewarded for disrespect aimed at the opposite party, as is demonstrated by Joe Wilson calling Obama a liar during an Obama speech and greatly increasing his fundraising and national presence as a result. Campaign finance has exacerbated this, by not reducing the amount of money getting into the system, but shifting where it goes. More money is given to individual candidates and 3rd parties than the relatively moderate parties themselves. Parties, meanwhile, prize moderation in general, even in safe seats.

Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign led the way in online donations, but the campaign was too optimistic about the consequences of this. Small donor contributions have increased by more than 10x since 2000 to 566,000 in 2016 and have also fueled the rise of countless populist, extremist, and contrarian voices. Furthermore, elections have been nationalized (Senators drive turnout better than Governors), and money can come in from anywhere in the country.

There are two broad tracks that money follows as it flows into politics. 1) large donations going to PACs seen as an investment to pass or influence less known bills or provisions in bills that benefit certain business interests or specific projects of large donors 2) small donations used as identity expression to assist politicians that they resonate with. Because most legislation isn’t heard of, there is a vast space for transactional politics which does not make it into the mainstream polarized political discussion that impacts every well known bill. But, so long as politics runs on private donations, there is a persistent problem of different donors wanting radically different things. 

Many predicted that Trump’s polarizing candidacy would follow in Goldwater’s and McGovern’s tradition of these candidates losing. But partisanship, and particularly negative partisanship against Clinton was enough to lead Trump to win. Extreme candidates drive turnout in the opposing party. Even Nat’l Review, which published an Against Trump issue, came around to supporting him over a Democrat that opposes most of the issues they believed in. However, Trump opens a way for a disciplined demagogue, a more nefarious threat.

Chapter 8: When Bipartisanship Becomes Irrational

After Scalia, a figure widely popular among conservatives, Obama nominated Merrick Garland in an attempt to compromise with them. Orrin Hatch had said he was a great pick in 2010, but in 2016 Republican Senators did not even hold a hearing for him. This was an unprecedented maneuver for McConnell that paid off when Trump won. 

Juan Linz’s critique of America’s political system from 1990, free of the reverence Americans give the founding documents, said having a president elected independently from the legislature was extremely problematic: when different parties win these respective elections who gets to speak for the majority? When tried elsewhere, the system often fails, and wasn’t tried in the countries America reformed after WWII (Germany, Italy, Japan).

Yet the system, which seemed to function when parties were diffuse, is breaking down. McConnell could be said to have used democratic legitimacy from the 2014 election to block Obama’s (elected in 2012) Supreme Court nomination. The lack of ideological mixing in parties is making gov’t dysfunctional. 

The way American gov’t used to operate, often with politicians trying to strike deals that benefit the place they represent (eg. Bill Nelson, Democratic Sen from Nebraska, getting a better deal on Obamacare, but getting butchered in conservative news and not running for reelection in 2012) is breaking down as politics is nationalized. People now identify more as Americans than with their state (since 1968) and national news is growing, fueling nationalized politics, which further fuels a more partisan politics. The conception of behind the scenes dealmaking among the parties is more often thought of as a corrupt or ideologically compromised practice. 

Another cause of polarization is due to less competition. Most of American politics has seen the dominance of one party (Republicans from late 19th Century until 1930s and Democrats until the late 20th Century). Shifts in political power used to not be speculated on by the Nytimes every election. With a dominant majority, both sides don’t have to worry about who will become the majority party, and can focus on governing instead. Close competition breeds lack of cooperation by the minority, as they don’t want to build the case for reelection of the majority party.

America is unique in that shared power and obstruction are more available. The filibuster, which accidentally originated following a speech by Aaron Burr in 1805 in which shifting Senate rules removed the ability to cut off debate. Ending a filibuster was made possible with first a ⅔ majority, and then a 60 vote majority in 1975. However this was exceedingly rare until the 2010s under Obama’s presidency. 

Crisis looms with the the debt ceiling, which if not raised, can cause a financial collapse when the US actually defaults on its debt, blowing up the value of Treasury bonds. US debt has been downgraded by Standard and Poors after the Tea Party demanded spending cuts in order to raise the ceiling. Even with both sides acting rationally, in terms of demanding their interests be met, threats lurk.

Chapter 9: The Difference between Democrats and Republicans

Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two widely respected, bipartisan journalists, published It’s Worse Than It Looks in 2012, claiming the Republican Party had become ideologically extreme and conflict oriented to a much greater extent than the Democrats. Despite the criticism, the 2016 election, if nothing else, suggested that their thesis was correct after Trump’s nomination. To further illustrate this, Republicans forced two Speakers of the House out in the 2010s, while Democrats maintained their leadership from 2006. 

This is partly due to the fact that Democrats are a much more diverse party and have to work harder to maintain their coalition. Conservatism, when measured, seems to be a measure of agreement with leaders of the conservative mantle more so than certain ideological commitments. Liberals trusted and followed a wide variety of media sources while conservatives followed few (47% Fox News). Conservative media ecosystem, furthermore, is not rooted in objective journalism, and constantly suggests the other side is unbalanced in its reporting or is now: “fake news”. 

Republicans can rely on partisan media, because they don’t need to rely on the majority of votes to win the Senate, White House and (with gerrymandering) the House. The Republican strategy encourages partisanship while the Democrats doesn’t. This manifests at the highest level, where conservatives, such as AG Bill Barr, preach apocalyptic doom about impending progressive control of life. 

This works because the Republican voter has more power in American electoral politics, but can feel it slipping as the country changes demographically. Their voters want their party to become more conservative, while Democratic voters want their party more moderate. 

Chapter 10: Managing Polarization – and Ourselves

Polarization isn’t inherently a problem, and worse problems can exist with a non-polarized system (eg. 1960s assassinations and riots). Furthermore, polarization is logical, and incentive driven within political systems. However, it is still problematic in our institution, and there are certain measures that can lessen its harm (despite this not being a book primarily about solutions, or even wanting to discuss them much at all because it is harder to fix than describe a problem). 

We should:

  • Bombproof our political systems by removing things such as the debt ceiling, automating budgeting processes, and introducing economic stabilizers (like unemployment insurance) that kick in during recessions.
  • Democratize the country by removing the electoral college (perhaps via the Nat’l Interstate Popular Vote Compact), introducing proportional representation in the House of Representatives, opening room for more parties, removing the filibuster, providing statehood for DC and Puerto Rico (Republicans can liberalize and compete even there eg. Larry Hogan). If this doesn’t happen, there will be a growing legitimacy crisis as parties can win consistently without winning the majority of votes. 
  • Balance the power between parties rather than between states (the founders thought about balance of state power and designed the constitution for this). Our conflicts, and partisanship is not defined by state but by party. Perhaps allow for 5 non-partisan judges on the Supreme Court, picked unanimously by 5 liberals and 5 conservative picked judges (Daniel Epps and Ganesh Sitaraman).

Beyond these, we as individuals should become mindful and aware of our identities and strengthen the ones we actually want to have. We should rediscover a politics of place, and follow local and state issues where we can have much more impact and feel more connected. Only 557 out of the 500,000 elected officials are national. Finally, we should understand that the past in so many ways was worse, even when polarization between the parties was much reduced. Jim Crow existed in times of low polarization, and as polarization has increased we have become much more democratic as a nation. Today’s political institutions are a great improvement on those of the past, no matter how much Trump’s outbursts seem to matter.

A Pledge

My Plan for Charitable Giving in 2020 and Beyond

Comparing people with wildly disparate goals and belief systems reveals something peculiarly admirable about those hold strictly to their ideals. This trait, sometimes called having the courage of your convictions, essentially a firm commitment to some set of values or beliefs, is present in the individuals I most admire. Naturally, when deciding what sorts of goals to pursue and thinking of what sort of person I wish to be, it is this trait that often dominates my mental bandwidth. A new decade has emerged, and for me, a recent bachelor’s degree recipient, an ideal time has come to make commitments that align with my values. Yet instead of picking and choosing seemingly worthwhile commitments at will, I believe I should better understand what I think is most worth committing to. This pledge is an attempt to undergo that process.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that a surface level understanding of the consequences of commitment hides a dark underbelly. Extreme courage to extreme convictions is not without terrible consequence. I have little doubt that Abu Bakr al Bagdhadi maintained a profound and inexorable commitment to the ideology of the Islamic State up to the point that he detonated his suicide vest. Likewise, the historical figures regarded as stereotypically evil were almost unimaginably dedicated to their respective ideologies. If you read much about figures including Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and al Bagdhadi, you find disbelief and a prevented sense of awe at the extent of their ideological commitments. This odd mental exercise is informative for at least a couple reasons. First, it clearly demonstrates how commitment and courage are not proxies for validity or morality. Second, as Aristotle articulated more than two millennia ago, possession of a single virtue does not create a virtuous person and an improperly balanced virtue itself turns to vice. So, not only is the content underlying a commitment to a cause crucially important, the commitment itself should not be such that it blinds one to the world around.

However, one need not be taken in the morally bankrupt ideologies of Fascism, Communism, or Wahhabism to transform their convictions into an actively harmful endeavor. One salient example is the rise and fall of PlayPumps, as described in Will MacAskill’s book Doing Good Better. PlayPumps were designed as a device that simultaneously served as a water pump and merry go round, providing a play space for children and clean drinking water for the community. Garnering global attention, and millions of dollars, the PlayPump manufacturers achieved a significant impact. But, as you might surmise, there is a catch. PlayPump was a misnomer. Most were difficult to push and using them was more of a chore than fun – not your typical merry go round. They were mainly used by women who bore the indignity of pushing a colorful, inefficient, merry go round for their water. To compound these problems, they were expensive, broke down easily, and were difficult to fix. In theory, they could function well, but required large amounts of water extremely close to the surface.

Obviously, the success imagined by the donors to PlayPumps and those working on the project did not bear out. However, even as I sit here criticizing those involved, I must respect most of their values. Those involved in PlayPumps International – the non-profit which installs and maintains these pumps – had a commitment and dedication to provide complete strangers drinking water and a play space. This motivation is not something I can critique. What this example does suggest, however, is that even in a case where your convictions are directed at a what you see to be a certain good, the means by which you act must be empirically persuadable. Otherwise, the amount of good you want to achieve will almost certainly fail to materialize. Before setting out to achieve a goal, then, you should do significant research to reasonably predict the impact of potential actions. And crucially, once the evidence rolls in from your own endeavor, your goals must be reassessed and changed accordingly.

Any worthwhile commitment must try to avoid these pitfalls discussed above: 1. Substituting a high degree of commitment and courage for presumed connection to truth and 2. Failing to properly respond to evidence. Therefore, if I want to do more good with my life, my commitments should be grounded in non-dogmatic thinking. Obviously, though, the mere idea of commitment is amorphous, so now I will proceed by outlining a type of commitment that is best capable of surviving moral scrutiny but remains actionable.

If there is nothing else people should agree upon, it is that needless suffering and death should be avoided. Searching in your memory, it isn’t difficult to recall the plethora of intensely negative experiences present during the last debilitating illness you had (and if it is difficult to do then you are very lucky). If you are human, it should seem apparent that such needless pain serves no real purpose, and the world would be better devoid of such pains.

Yet, while wishing that people avoid suffering and dying from illnesses isn’t controversial, spending time reflecting on such topics seems rare. When I compare what I have experienced to other people, my suffering is obviously just the tip of the iceberg. Purposeless suffering is shockingly widespread if you spend time trying to think about the conditions of 7.8 billion humans. Millions of individuals are born with or develop physical conditions that cause great pain and discomfort over a lifetime. An even greater number have debilitating psychological conditions (from the 264 million suffering from anxiety disorders to the 20 million with schizophrenia) that preclude them from acting in the world as they wish and torment their minds.

Globally, the most common causes of death, including hearth disease, stroke, chronic and infectious lung diseases, include a mix of progressive noncommunicable diseases, communicable diseases, and road injuries.

The data also reveals a global disparity in susceptibility to certain forms of suffering and death. In lower income countries, more than half of deaths are caused by communicable illnesses that have been eradicated or largely diminished in the United States, where I have the privilege of living. Furthermore, these illnesses prey upon a wider range of ages and kill a larger proportion of children than non-communicable diseases. These include: Malaria, with 216 million cases per year leading to >400,000 deaths a year, Tuberculosis with approximately ¼ of the world latently infected leading to >1 million deaths a year, and parasitic intestinal worms which actively harm over a billion individuals.

By mere luck of birth, I have not had to suffer or worry about most of these illnesses and conditions that currently degrade human welfare. While one may infer from the broad descriptions of suffering discussed above that such problems are intractable, a surface level examination of the topic suggests clear ways to make measurable positive impacts. As we have seen, most deaths are caused by non-communicable deaths that rich and middle-income countries are wrestling with. In terms of generally reducing illness and death, however, the most effective donations go internationally to the poorest countries in the world (where money goes the farthest).

Most people have at least some conception of the how the luck of birth plays into their lives, but fewer seem to be swayed to action by a combination of the moral imperative and immense opportunity it provides. The fact that I am relatively wealthy globally speaking, opens up room for Peter Singer’s arguments that have deeply persuaded me since I first encountered them. Singer’s shallow pond, perhaps only behind the Trolley Problem, is one of the most vivid and influential thought experiments in moral philosophy.

Imagine you are walking next to a shallow pond where a young girl appears to be drowning. Is there a moral imperative to save her? Yes. Should the discomfort of having to jump into the water and the fact that you might ruin expensive clothes and shoes weigh into this consideration at all? Almost no one would say yes. But, now replace the shallow pond with a disease in another country and diving to save the child with paying the same value as what would be lost by ruining your clothes or shoes. Is there any moral reason not to pay such a value? Answered succinctly by Singer, “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” 

Such arguments have always resonated with me and prompted me to value donating to charity higher. Yet despite being persuaded, they have not driven me to significant action until now. Partially, this is because I was a student and earned little, but it is also because I simply didn’t want to think about it. Much of the credit for the mindset behind this pledge goes to the Effective Altruism movement, and Will MacAskill in particular. I take his career and philosophy as an inspiration on how to best combine a meaningful career with a positive effect on the world. His pledge to donate everything he earns above £24,000 (around $30,000) made me reevaluate what living a successful and fulfilling life looks like.

This leaves open the questions concerning how much and specifically where I should donate to. The best estimates I have seen suggest that averting the death of a child under 5 years old from malaria with bednets costs less than $4000. Rougher estimates suggest that providing positive outcomes, perhaps as good as that of saving the life, such as widespread deworming (removing intestinal worms), can cost as low as $480. This fact does two things for me. It reminds me again of the extent to which terrible suffering that I have never experienced exists in the world and simultaneously shows me an avenue by which I can be part of the solution. Altogether, the process demonstrates more clearly for me how giving needn’t be viewed solely as a moral obligation, but a source of meaning and motivation in it of itself.

So, what exactly am I stating I will do? Simply put, I am making a commitment to donate a portion of my income over the next year to effective charities while maintaining a capacity to improve my life or necessitate living with great discomfort, which I will discuss in greater detail below. Assuming all goes well, I will extend the pledge at the end of this year to include 2021 and see where it goes from there. Right now, I am planning to donate my money to GiveWell’s Grants, which go to the “highest-value funding opportunities“ among their top-rated charities. But this is not set in stone. If I discover strong reasons showing why I should be donating elsewhere, I am open to changing where my money goes.

I admire the work done by Givingwhatwecan.org and hope everyone reading this considers going to the site to pledge to donate 10% of their income to organizations that they think do the most good. It is tremendously useful to clarify the donation process by picking and sticking with a reasonable rate of charitable giving. The mere simplicity of that percentage has an appeal in it of itself (hence its unique name). My first step was to sign this pledge and I have thought of it as a useful benchmark to measure and appreciate my impact. However, in observing my willingness to spend time thinking about my impact, I wanted to develop a more sophisticated donation strategy where the exact percentage of income donated varies depending on income rather than resting at a static rate. Thus, I have spent time developing an individual rate of donation, that is progressively scalable with increases in income.

After examining tax rates at certain income levels for a single filer in Austin, TX, USA, I have decided to make the marginal donation rate a logistic function of disposable/post tax income. This yields an effective rate that begins at 30% of disposable income, rises to ~45% at $50,000 (~$60,000 gross income), ~65% at $100,000 (~$135,000 gross income). before slowing forming an asymptote at 90% at much greater disposable incomes.

To see more details, I have compiled most of the calculations and charts on a Google spreadsheet.  

I certainly believe that there is a large amount of naïveté present in this pledge. To start, I am only 22 years old, do not pay for my health insurance, and live at home. These facts might make it difficult for individuals with more life experience to take this pledge seriously. But I don’t feel they should discourage my efforts here. Rather, these facts encourage me to acknowledge and account for as many of the barriers to continuing this pledge in the future as possible. I see my current circumstance as giving me the freedom to plan for a future where financial requirements are increased, and open-mindedness is reduced. Finally, whether or not this pledge fails, I feel my life will be better for having tried.

To avoid failure though, requires an understanding that life comes with numerous competing interests and is by no means static. Questions of financial independence, children, medical emergency, divergent personal motivations, and countless other factors have the capacity to dent or destroy even the most foolproof plans. Considering this, I think it is fair to stipulate that the financial elements of this pledge will make exceptions for medical issues and other life emergencies, should they arise. That is, this pledge waives any one year’s donation requirement if a medical, family, or other emergency occurs.

Additionally, the notion of growing financial independence will make it difficult, both psychologically and practically, to maintain this charitable endeavor as I grow older. Thus, alongside these stipulations, I shall try to account for the psychological barriers to donation that will be created by future costs including rental, health care, and other necessities. To do this, it is important to make a rough prediction about what such necessities might look like in the near future. For an individual like myself living in Austin, TX, it is perhaps reasonable to plan to pay between $600 and $1,000 per month on rent (based on information from apartments.com, trulia.com, and peers) in the next few years. Likewise, if I am unable to find a job with employee sponsored health care plan or employee subsidized health insurance options, I will have to buy out of the health insurance market for healthcare after I turn 26 (as I am currently blessed with access to my parents health insurance). This could cost over $400/month in the Austin healthcare market before possible government subsidies (which might drop it by $200 depending on my income level). Other costs include food, transportation (car, bike, gas, bus etc.), automobile insurance, cell/internet service. These have a wider range in variability but could be estimated as costing at least an additional few hundred dollars a month.

To smooth the transition to increased financial independence, I shall employ the following measure. I will calculate every dollar I save by relying on my parents and formulate a plan to reasonably reduce that number to 0 over time, gaining financial independence. Until that time, at least 80% of my post-donation, discretionary income will be saved as well. These will go to my retirement savings account (my Roth IRA and/or a traditional IRA) and other savings accounts and investments I have.

All in all, this process will require me to think about how to balance competing interests that might get in the way of future charitable giving. This will allow me to gain budgeting experience and force stricter limits on personal expenses. Additionally, savings provide more leeway to meet financial requirements in the future. However, even with savings as a backup, my goal is to limit the extent that I will need to draw from savings and instead use my budgeting skills to establish sustainability over time.

While obviously impossible to account for every factor, it is still crucially important to attempt to think ahead. At the very least this will show me how accurate my assumptions about what is personally or financially feasible turn out to be. This year will be a learning experience and I hope to be able to report in December 2020 not simply a statement that I stuck to my pledge, but a set of experiences, problems, and solutions to living a more charitable life.

No matter whether this project fails miserably or serves as a successful model for how I (and perhaps others) go about donating money for the rest of my life I want this document to get out into the world. Something clicked in the past few months and forced me to fuse together thoughts that had been festering for years in my mind. A certain portion of it is becoming more familiar with the Effective Altruism movement, but there is a deeper psychology to it as well. For most of my life I have wondered how (not if), to make it cliché, I was going to do something special. In the past, thoughts racing through my mind have always returned to the notion that if I was unable to make a great discovery, found or lead a historically prominent organization, or otherwise conjure some profound influence on the shape of humanity in my lifetime, I will have failed myself and life itself. No matter how many times I would tell myself this was unreasonable, and despite rejecting cosmic notions of fate or divine guidance early in my life, this feeling persisted.

Somewhere along the line, the distractions of life (particularly as an adolescent and young adult in the age of smartphones and the internet) forced me away from having such thoughts at all, at the expense from thinking much about my future at all. But life constantly poses questions, and this year more than ever before, I ran out of default answers and had to find a more reasonable conception of what to do with my time on earth and how to evaluate it. Today, I would not characterize myself as having an inextricable belief in the binary of grandeur or failure; historical significance or miserable existence. What remains in my mind is the deep desire to do great amounts of good in this odd world in which I find myself. This, I believe, starts by following my conviction to spend what I can to most reduce the suffering and death that plagues this world.