When a Pundit Is a Pundit (and a Scourge)

This was originally written on my Mastodon account. Current circumstances are very good for reminding me of the ephemeral nature of social media, so I’m copying it here.

I’m muting a bunch of pundits around here again, both because of the Twitter migration and because I had to start over with a new profile. That means I have to know what a pundit is. So.

It’s not just a highly opinionated person, or a person who’s opinionated on multiple topics. I like following opinionated people. I value following opinionated people who challenge the ways I interact with the world.

No, to me a pundit is defined by two things.

1. They treat news and persuasion as “content”. They’re filling space (columns, timelines) because that’s what they do rather than because they had something substantive (knowledge, perspective, solutions) to add. And their purpose usually stops at “engagement”. There’s nothing *wrong* with engagement, but it’s a perverse incentive on its own.

2. Because their content is meaningless except as content, they don’t engage with its effects. Were they wrong? Did they make life worse for other people? [shrug] You can’t win them all. Time to create more content.

I didn’t boost pundits on Twitter, but I also didn’t hide them and deny them access to my cortisol pump. That hasn’t helped me recover from activist burnout. So I’m muting them here. No more demands that I look *for the sake of looking*. No more free-floating opinions from people unfussed by being repeatedly wrong.

It won’t eliminate disturbing knowledge or SIWOTI, but it will mean they come from people I respect, who I know aren’t poking at my stress for mere fun or profit.

When a Pundit Is a Pundit (and a Scourge)

Understanding Stock Markets

This post is not going to help you get rich off the stock market. If that’s what you’re looking for, the best advice I have for you is to understand your desire makes you a mark and study up on scams of various sorts. That’s fun to do anyway, and I don’t understand why cons aren’t a bigger part of true-crime publishing, and you’ve probably moved on already because you think I just insulted you.

Photo of a graph in a newspaper. Graph shows a year of Dow Jones Industrial Index values.
Photo by Markus Spiske

This post exists because most financial education in the U.S. is a sales pitch, either directly or for a particular school of economics. I came at the stock market as a pension analyst whose job it was to understand the assumptions inherent in funding pensions. Also as someone who finds the history of fraud fascinating, but you may have picked that up. I did this work in the post-Enron regulatory environment in the U.S. and through the collapse of housing bubble plus a few years. This is where I ended up on funding retirement.

This post exists to give you a basic framework for understanding investing events and scandals. Consider it a skeptical but not cynical high-level guide to (mostly U.S.) stock markets. Continue reading “Understanding Stock Markets”

Understanding Stock Markets

Reasons to Not Despair

This is what the title says, friends. If you’re not feeling tempted toward despair by the close election results, this may not be what you need to read today. If, however, you’re disheartened by the vote being this close, this is for you.

I’m not here to tell you the United States isn’t racist, sexist, classist, homo- and transphobic. It is. Many of these are founding principles of the U.S., written into our constitution. And it’s good that we’ve spent much of the last four years refusing to let the well-meaning people around us deny that fact. It’s good that more of us are refusing to allow people to duck the social and political consequences of that. It’s good that we’re tearing the wallpaper off these cracks, because we can’t fix them until we do.

It’s less good that we’ve allowed the outcome of this election to stand for America’s willingness to address these problems. This particular election is critical because it determines whether voters still have any power to address them. It isn’t the last word on our thoughts or feelings. There’s far more going on here.

This election reflects:

  • The Electoral College
  • Voter registration purges
  • Voter registration restrictions
  • Disenfranchisement through the criminal justice system
  • Insufficient resources dedicated to voting
  • Changing election rules due to the pandemic
  • Changing election rules due to court challenges, some of them last-minute
  • Real and threatened violence aimed at voter suppression
  • Disinformation campaigns aimed at voter suppression
  • A well-funded disinformation industry, including a top news channel
  • Foreign interference
  • A news media unprepared to cope with lies on our current presidential scale
  • A news media unaccustomed to naming bigotry
  • A news media scared of being called liberal
  • A shrinking, increasingly centralized news media
  • Political identities at odds with voters’ support for policy
  • Panic and exhaustion
  • Poor public political education
  • A long cultural trend saying nihilism and cynicism = cool

I’m missing things. I’m tired. But the point is that this is a huge system with a lot of moving parts that chews up public opinion to eventually spit out a result having more or less to do with that opinion. The result is not public opinion itself.

Many of the parts of that system are racist, sexist, classist, homo- and transphobic because they were set up to be. We know this. We talk about this. We don’t so much acknowledge that this means they’re going to produce results more bigoted than we are as a group of individuals. They’re ours, and we bear responsibility for them, but they are not us.

We’ve made some progress on them over the last four years. We’ve also lost ground on some of them, like the courts. We have so much work to do. This election isn’t about whether we’ve done that work. This election is about whether we’ve done enough to be able to continue. That’s the part to focus on today.

Reasons to Not Despair

Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess

Let me declare my biases up front. I voted for Elizabeth Warren yesterday in Minnesota. She was my first choice among the huge field of Democratic contenders. Like hers, my main priority is seeing as many of her plans as possible enacted. My next four choices dropped out before I got to vote. If I have to choose between Sanders and Biden (I don’t), my choice is Sanders, but the margin is very narrow, based mostly on candidate negatives on both sides, and easily shifted by things like VP choice.

I also spent nearly a decade doing actuarial (pension) math for a living. I’m not a trained actuary, but I have a lot of experience in determining probable outcomes in situations with a lot of variables. More importantly for this post, I’ve spent an awful lot of time identifying and making explicit the assumptions that go into these calculations.

Yes, I’m writing this (or compiling it from various places I’ve talked about the question over the last few days) because of the pressure for Warren to drop out of the race. At best, it’s based on assumptions about what would happen to her votes that don’t match the best information we have. At worst, it’s counter-productive to seeing progressive issues move forward.

Let’s start with the assumptions being made about what will happen if Warren drops out. The two big assumptions are:

  • People who are prepared to vote for Warren will switch predominantly to Sanders.
  • Those votes will roll up to enough of a gain in Sanders delegates to prevent a brokered convention.

There’s also a third assumption I’m seeing in my social media that Warren really wants delegates so she can throw them to Biden specifically to prevent Sanders from becoming the nominee. I’ll talk about what can happen at the convention later, but I’m not going to address this assumption directly because:

  • It’s coming from a small minority even of Sanders supporters.
  • Those are the same people who think snake emojis are solid politics.
  • Their reaction to this post will be the same no matter what I say.

On to the main assumptions.

Second Choices

Would Warren supporters move primarily to Sanders if she dropped out? Not according to them. Continue reading “Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess”

Second Choices and Delegate Allocations: Why Primary “Electability” Is a Wild Guess

Why I Am Not a Socialist

I have a piece in The Humanist this month. I’d originally written this for an anthology on political humanism, which has since been cancelled. It’s titled “Why I’m Not a Socialist”.

Photo of a bas relief in limestone depicting four postal workers in a frame. Three workers wear caps and aprons, holding bags. The fourth, behind them, wears a suit and holds up a package tied with string.
Edit of “WPA Berkeley Post Office” by Hitchster, CC BY 2.0, more information about the relief here

When talking about economic systems at the level of capitalism versus socialism, we’re talking about balancing the power of competing interests. Failure means consolidating power in one set of interests. Currently in the US we’re seeing the failure mode of capitalism, as we did in the 1920s. I refuse to call it “late-stage capitalism” because the steps taken to hobble capitalism during and after the Great Depression demonstrate this is a matter of political power and will, not timing. But today’s United States is an extreme form of capitalism, in which capital is assigned virtues it hasn’t demonstrated, then granted nearly exclusive access to political power based on those virtues.

This is bad. I shouldn’t have to say that, but sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious.

That doesn’t mean socialism is better, however. When it’s running well, socialism is better than failing capitalism. Of course, capitalism running well is better than failing capitalism as well. Honest comparisons of the two ideologies involve contrasting them best to best and worst to worst.

Truth be told, the differences between them aren’t huge.

You can read the whole thing here. I’m sure it won’t be at all controversial.

This essay was paid for by patrons on my Patreon. If you’d like to see more work like this, you can help support it too.

Why I Am Not a Socialist

The Town Hero

This is another post pulled from Facebook while I wasn’t blogging much. It took me a bit of time to figure out it was related to an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It could apply to so many things.

Once upon a time, there was a town dealing with a hungry dragon. It had all the usual elements of such a town, with scheduled sacrifices, princesses who were somehow exempt from the sacrifice, chaos among the town council, and a hero with a sword.

The dragon didn’t demand sacrifice terribly often. (Honestly, it probably would have preferred goats over village maidens, but no one had figured out how to ask. And after all, they were only maidens.) The timing was regular and long enough that the town eventually stopped panicking and started thinking. They built a fireproof shelter, losing only five maidens during construction. They built weapons (two more maidens, but who was counting).

During this period, the town hero made many rousing speeches. In fact, he spent so much time speechifying that he simply couldn’t help with any of the construction. Opinion is divided on whether the final maiden was lost for lack of labor, but debate is muted and sometimes condemned as helping the dragon.

Finally, everything was ready. The princesses, who had also been exempt from hard labor, of course, helped to provision the shelter. They trained on the weapons. (They understood that the supply of maidens was not unending.)

The hero showed up at the last minute. The walls of the shelter protected him from dragonfire as well as they did everyone else. As the weapons fired, he stepped outside. His sword landed hard on one claw of the harpoon-riddled beast.

“It is slain!”, he cried. Then the town boosted him into the air, carried him back to the square, and made him senator.

The end

The Town Hero

Let Them Complain

I saw someone on social media yesterday or today say that they agreed with a positive humanist sentiment but weren’t going to post a similar statement on their wall because people would complain. I get it. Sometimes it’s too much or the wrong people to muck with or behavior that goes beyond mere complaints. I’ve been there.

On the other hand, there can be value in staking out territory and letting those people complain about it. I’m not talking about being “edgy” in hopes you‘ll offend people. I’m talking about claiming a space for your values and allowing others to try to make you move.

I think by now everyone’s seen the status quo warriors charging about to combat the great scourge of “complainers”. “You’re always looking for something to complain about. You’re no fun. You’re so negative. Why can’t you just let people be and be happy?” You’ve also seen that this can undercut even the most sound of complaints.

One of the things I hate most about our current positivity culture is the way it lumps all types of complaints and complainers under the heading of “bad things”. If it’s negative, it must be bad, yeah? But complaining about someone’s else private choice of music is a very different thing than complaining that you can’t sleep at night because your neighbors play their music so loudly. There’s an important difference between spoiling someone’s fun because they “shouldn’t” have fun and standing up for yourself that positivity culture obscures.

Unfortunately, I can’t just make positivity culture go away. But while I chip away at it, I can subvert it, and I do. Where I might phrase something as a complaint, I can instead say, “This is what I believe. This is what I value. This is what I want for the world.”

“I want our events to be accessible to all the people we say we want to help.”

“I want to see the work of women in this movement rewarded on par with men’s work, with recognition, power, accountability, and a safe, welcoming environment.”

“I want us to demonstrate the appreciation of expertise that we espouse, particularly in discussions of important matters like human rights.”

When I do that, yes, some people still complain. That’s not going to stop anytime soon for reasons that are a whole other discussion. But by complaining, these people take up the role they try to assign to me. They become the killjoys. They become the people who can’t just let others be (and it’s all the more obvious when I’m stating values they say they share).

I’ve spent enough time on the defensive. I mean, I’ll complain when I can do some good by complaining, but I prefer doing this when I can. I’m happy to throw them off kilter instead.

Try it yourself. Talk about the world you want, the world you’ve trying to build, even when you know people will complain. Let them complain. See what good it does them.

Let Them Complain

The Limits of the Office

This was originally posted on Facebook in the wake of Trump’s at best awkward visit to England. It isn’t terribly profound, but I remain struck by the way Trump’s term in office makes us revisit what we know about governance because he’s so terrible at it.

What struck me yesterday, seeing Trump with Elizabeth, wasn’t that he didn’t know how to behave with royalty. I don’t either, though I’d study up if that were the job I’d signed up to do.

It struck me that Elizabeth is the embodiment of this bizarre, archaic institution of hereditary governance, that she sits on a throne that’s held rulers so bad they’ve prompted shifts in European philosophies of power, that her blood is the symbol of a country that has literally tried to take over the world.

What has she done with that? Mostly she’s embraced the small-c conservatism of the position, remained a symbol as a monarch. That leaves governance to the elected bodies and protects their claim to legitimacy of power. It isn’t a radical use of her power for good by any means, and she’s been very well compensated for it, partly through imperial (colonial) holdings. Still, that long period of stability has produced a real possibility that the British monarchy will end peacefully in another generation.

Oh, and then there was that time WWII happened and she badgered her da (the king) until he let her serve in an official military capacity along with her state duties. This too was largely symbolism, but her country recognized the power of that symbol.

Contrast that with Trump. The United States’ Constitution was written to be a radical change from and challenge to British imperial power. That we recognize many of its failures of imagination and courage now doesn’t change that it was meant to be a manifestation of the ideals of freedom and representative democracy.

Trump, on the other hand, acts as though his power is a divine right, as though any check on it were a personal affront. Anyone who challenges or criticizes him is a terrible person or illegitimate institution. The people who didn’t vote for him must not be real citizens, and he’ll see to it that they’re treated that way. His position is for personal enrichment, and if he sends the people of our country to war, well, so what? He and his won’t be fighting.

I’m not a fan of the queen. It says something about the direness of our situation that simply putting Trump next to her makes me admire her for being more than her position would allow her to be because he is so much less than his demands.

The Limits of the Office

Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics

I was on the Embrace the Void podcast earlier this month to talk about the state of the secular movement. As I discussed the concept of “mission drift”, I realized a problem with the idea. Rather, I realized another problem with the idea. It came up again this weekend, which means it’s time to write about it.

If you’re not familiar with arguments about “mission drift” in the secular movement, it’s a term often invoked by the same people who complain about identity politics. The basic idea is that U.S. secular groups who organize around or work on social and economic justice-related political issues are moving away from the core mission of the movement: maintaining and increasing the separation of church and state.

Those of us who do this activism have spoken at length about why it’s absurd to consider something like good education in science and critical thinking part of the core mission of the secular movement but to leave out feminism and anti-racism. Greta Christina ran an excellent series taking the arguments apart and drilling down to people’s actual objections. However, we haven’t talked in any depth about how ahistorical the argument is.

Organized religious interference in U.S. politics has always been about economic and social justice. That is its entire point. The story of building the religious right is a story that starts with religion being offered as a solution when more honest politicking had failed. Continue reading “Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics”

Secular “Mission Drift” and the Faith-Washing of Conservative Politics

A Humanist Imperative Against Fear

I wrote this in 2015 for my patrons. I didn’t publish it then for several reasons. I wanted to let emotions settle so people might be able to hear this better, but there were other reasons I barely remember too. But watching the news of the Amber Guyger trial is making it all too relevant again.

One of the things that disturbed me most in the discussions that followed the terrorist murders of Charlie Hebdo staff early this year was the invocation by atheist activists of fear. It reminded me all too much of the days after thousands lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

I recognize a degree of strangeness to that. The point of a terrorist attack is to create fear in a group of people. It’s unsurprising when this works.

Nor is it surprising that activists would seize on this fear. Fear is an effective motivator, and inertia and indifference are the bane of activists. On top of that, the Charlie Hebdo attack targeted a group of activists who (among other things and using means that we should examine and question, as with any other activists) worked against the political power of Islamists. While not every atheist activist proclaimed, “Je suis Charlie“, it was entirely predictable that many would identify with the targets of the attack.

Still, I was uncomfortable. While I wasn’t as much embedded in the community of the fearful in 2001, it was impossible to miss the consequences of our national fear. In mere weeks and without analysis, we saw law passed that dramatically reduced protections against government surveillance. We were rushed into the Iraq War based on mischaracterized intelligence, a war which arguably increased the danger of radical Islamism rather than decreased it.

In our fear, we made the world a worse place–for ourselves and others. We may even have increased the likelihood of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. It wasn’t our goal, but that doesn’t change what happened.

We’re bad at sitting with fear. When we have any choice, our priority is to “fix” our fear, to make it go away. That may mean avoiding a situation that needs our attention. It may mean acting even when we have only poor-quality choices. What acting out of fear usually doesn’t mean is making good, evidence-based decisions that take the humanity and dignity of other people fully into account. Continue reading “A Humanist Imperative Against Fear”

A Humanist Imperative Against Fear