Initial thoughts on a Trump presidency

These are some of my initial thoughts because I’m still digesting the many different narratives going off in my head.

Firstly, this is not the time for hubris and self-pity. People lamenting ‘what have we become’ reveal a deep ignorance of some of the biggest issues facing America. Likewise, they have also lost touch with a great part of their country. The ‘America-is-the-best country’ mentality has also played its part in this ignorance and discourages any critical reflection on what is actually happening. People who are claiming they will decant to Canada are not only ignorant of these problems but refuse to engage or deal with them in any way. There has been a loss of American solidarity.

Claiming that these people are stupid, racist, homophobic and sexist also drives a deeper wedge between that part of America that is educated, employed and urban and that part which is poor, rural and left behind by globalisation. It obscures the problem of why these people voted the way they did, and consequently the problem will continue to be ignored.

These attitudes and flash judgments are also no better than racial and sexist prejudices. Clinton supporters bemoan that racists have taken over politics, but many people voting for Trump aren’t primarily doing it because they hate gay and black people, but because they don’t trust the establishment and because no one has done anything about their impoverished, rural community.

Secondly, I am incredibly sad about the result. I recognise that Trump is a misogynist etc. and I realise that to an extent, his presidency will legitimise these attitudes and is a big step backwards. That’s why it’s even more concerning that the people voting for him were willing to overlook this. Some have quoted him as an imperfect deliverer of change in America. Desperate, these people will take Trump as he is, as long as America really does become great again. The silver lining is that maybe this will be a big wake-up call to those who live in areas more like Wall Street and Silicon Valley and less like Middletown, Ohio. It could, conversely, just further divide the country, and that will be a sign that America has not learned its lesson.

Thirdly, (this can be a major player and I’m not just offering it out of consolation) the GOP now controls the Senate and House and having spent the entire campaign distancing themselves from Trump, it’s hard to see how Trump will get many of his promises through Congress.


Hillbilly Elegy

I just finished J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy and have three thoughts to offer.

1. There is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility

Social mobility is an equaliser. If it’s easy to move from one social class to another then we might conclude that a society is fairly equal and meritocratic.

However, there is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility, and I mean all kinds of privilege: wealth, educated parents, a loving and stable family and a safe neighbourhood. I identify with Vance on some level because I’m also a child of poor migrants. But I’m incredibly luckier because the statistics were on my side. My parents, though poor migrants initially, are both tertiary educated. They value education and provided a caring and secure family home. Vance on the  other hand is the first person in his family to go to college; his father gave him up for adoption and his mother is a drug addict. He attributes much of his success to the love of his sister and grandmother and the fact that his grandmother (and when she was sober, his mother) cared about his education.

He admits that this is probably the only thing that changed his life’s trajectory. Otherwise he went to the same school, grew up in the same neighbourhood, witnessed the same fights and crises that other kids in his town saw.

Parents should love their kids, but I’m beginning to see that a loving and caring family is almost a privilege in those areas, because when everyone’s parents are poor and uneducated, kids with parents who are still willing to invest in them the only way they can (i.e. by providing a loving family home) will probably go furthest.

The problem is this: can you provide a stable home for your child when you’re a single-teenage parent? Will you love your kids if you’ve never known love from your own parents? Poverty is like a disease in these families; it gets passed down through generations.

2. Pessimism among poor, working class whites results from a complicated mix of poor life choices and factors outside of their control

Vance is still figuring out whether the balance is in favour of the individual or forces outside of their control. He blames his mother for not being able to quit drugs but at the same time he admits that she grew up in a violent household. A lot of people he knew who failed did so because of their own choices, and he cites a guy he used to work with in a tile factory who eventually lost his job because he was always late to work and would take 1 hr toilet breaks. When he lost the job he turned against the boss and said he couldn’t be fired because he had a pregnant girlfriend to look after.

Yet at the same time Vance recognises that there are rarely any examples of happy families to look up to, and rarely anyone in the community to show a kid that if you study hard you will get somewhere. People are disillusioned with hard work because they don’t see the rewards, and they don’t feel like they can control their own lives. This leads to a high level of pessimism among working class whites. For example, working class whites are more likely to believe that their children will do worse than them, compared to African-American and Hispanic parents.

In the end, Vance says that a community can either empower people with a sense that they can control their own destiny or encourage them to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond their control.

3. Politicians have capitalised on this resentment

Politicians like Trump, Farage and Le Pen tap into this resentment and blame the white-working-class-plight on immigration, globalisation and a corrupt political establishment. People are call this the rise of populism, perhaps best defined as a type of politics that

scorns elites and experts. It supposes that the purpose of politics is to act on the will of the people, and it proposes simple solutions to complex problems that require serious and effective policy responses

In the end, these simple solutions are not going to help poor working class whites. We need to communicate that, instead of ignoring their problems because we disagree with its political manifestation. Schemes like vote trading undermine democracy and further belittles the political voice of what is already one of the most disempowered groups in America. We label them stupid, racist, sexist and homophobic. But we don’t recognise that they are just very poor, and no one has done anything about it for too long.

Revisiting gender

This is a postscript on two articles that I previously wrote – gender issues are complex and my understanding of them is ever-evolving.

Where’s the gap?

In Where’s the gap?, I said this:

I think it’s unproductive to focus on the overall statistic that on average, women earn less than men, because that puts too much focus on the gender, and I don’t think gender is the real cause of the gap (though I stand to be corrected), the real cause are factors such as career choice, parental leave and so forth. These issues need to be solved by policies targeting the specific factors.

However, I’ve come to realise that gender can factor into our career choice – I would go so far as to say that in most cases, it does. When a person is exposed to gender norms/social cues over a long period of time, it can affect what job they choose. When society continuously suggests to a young girl that maths is very hard, she is probably less likely to study maths in the future.

This means that to tackle pay inequality we will probably have to:

  • encourage girls to join fields they are traditionally discouraged from joining
  • remove gender-based expectations on what boys and girls should study
  • make sure all industries are gender-inclusive

Unfortunately they basically come down to one thing – shifting our norms.

Why do we have gender?

Many females feel trapped by the female stereotype that their families and society has imposed on them. And there are other drawbacks to being female – you are more likely to be paid less men; you are more likely than men to experience sexual or domestic violence or abuse. This is why transgender people presented a challenge to Germain Greer’s feminism. A man claims they feel female. But what does it really mean to be female? How can they claim that they feel female when they would never have been exposed to the sort of social conditioning that females receive all the time?

I wrote this partly because, as a male, society gives you certain privileges that it doesn’t afford females (and vice versa – although because female voices feature more in the gender debate, we don’t hear as much on the privileges afforded to women that are not afforded to men). However, I recently watched an episode of ABC’s ‘You can’t ask that’ where they spoke to transexuals. Their responses both challenge and support my view:

  • A trans-female who had not received any hormone therapy or surgery said that as a male, she had never received any male privilege anyway. People picked on her because of the way she dressed and looked.
  • A trans-female who had undergone surgery said that as a female people take you a lot less seriously and sometimes you are immediately shut out from a conversation.
  • A trans-male who had undergone surgery and hormone therapy said that his facial expressions were no longer a commodity, ‘you can be as frowny and loud as you like’, others said that assertiveness was rewarded and you were generally given more room to speak.

Chisholm Polling Booths

Screen Shot 2018-03-30 at 12.41.19 amA while ago, I saw this blog post about the Bell St divide (a.k.a. the ‘Wall of Gentrification’) in the seat of Batman in Victoria, where the Labor and Greens vote was very close.

I thought it’d be cool to have a look at my own seat, Chisholm, which at one stage had 66 votes between the two major party candidates, although I think it ultimately widened to 2000+ votes.

Anna Burke, the previous member, only just won the seat in the last election. Perhaps she kept her seat because the community knew her (she’s been around since the late 90s and signed my primary school graduation certificate!). However, with her retirement announced, it was hard to see how Labor would retain the seat amidst growing Liberal support.

Anyway, a friend of mine who’s a data analyst was keen to practice his visualisation skills, so if you want to see how voters voted by booth in the Chisholm electorate here it is. The size of the bubbles represent the % margin.

Who are the Brexit and Trump voters?

Brexit and Trump represent the increasing destabilisation of mainstream politics. What’s going on?

The underlying issue: no wage growth

In public discourse, the Leave and Remain side largely battled it out over immigration policy, but the real underlying issue of Brexit is the poor economy.

The leave vote expresses the frustration of low-income earners. Britain’s productivity has dropped relative to other developed countries, leading to stagnant wages and living standards. Income gains have accrued to the top one percent and unemployment is concentrated amongst the less skilled. These demographics appear to match those who voted for leave.

Solving these issues require costly, long-term investments in education, training and research. It is much easier to blame immigrants and EU policy, and politicians have capitalised on this accordingly to curry favour with voters.

In fact, immigrants tend to increase workers’ wages. The UK’s disillusioned blue-collar working class are actually losers of globalisation. Globalisation has meant that their job has been outsourced to other countries that can do it cheaper. Goods might be cheaper to consume as a result, but this can hardly make up for not having a job. Transition to new jobs has also been slow due to lack of training and education. Furthermore, unlike Australia, which has a strong union movement, labour markets in the UK are much more deregulated – a remnant of the Thatcher era.

Branko Milanovic’s work elegantly summarises this phenomenon. When we plot change in real income against global income distribution we get a clear view of which people in which countries are the most disenfranchised:


The vertical axis shows the percentage change in real income over the years 1988-2008. The 50th percentile of global income distribution represents the middle class in developing countries like China and India, they have experienced the greatest growth in real income. At around the 80th percentile is the working class in rich, developed nations like the US and UK. These people have not experienced any real wage growth at all.

Rise of the new Right

No major political party represents these people. The conventional Right (i.e. the Conservatives in the UK and the GOP in the US) represent the socially conservative and economically elite. The major left parties are increasingly differentiating themselves by being socially progressive. Protectionist policies, from either side of the spectrum, are no longer politically feasible given the amount of wealth that globalisation has generated, and the tendency for such policies (such as the Brexit leave campaign, and Trump’s ‘make America great again’ campaign) to align with racist and anti-immigration agendas.

The established Right is now juggling between rich people who want liberal markets and small government and working class people who want to feel middle class again. Trump, who represents a ‘new Right’ speaks to the latter, while his Republican colleagues speak to the former.

Similarly, the Left is also juggling between the blue-collar working class (now abandoning leftist parties for the new Right), and urban-dwelling, socially progressive university graduates with well-paid jobs. Jeremy Corbyn represents the interests of the latter, who have flocked to join the Labour party, but fails to gain traction with those struggling to survive in rural towns and villages – Labour’s traditional voter base, and the very people the party was set up to support. It’s telling that Jeremy Corbyn advocated to remain in the EU, yet a third of Labour voters voted to leave – perhaps enough disaffected voters to strip Labour of its major party status come the next UK election.

There is a lot of focus on the supposed stupidity of Leave voters and their support of new extreme right-wing parties, but the real question we should be asking is why are these people voting this way, and how can we make sure they aren’t left behind by globalisation?

An act of economic self-harm

David Cameron called the Brexit result an act of economic self-harm before promptly abandoning the sinking ship. The irony is that by voting to leave the EU, struggling working-class people have only made their lives harder. The fault lies with politicians who have ignored their needs, failed to explain their policies, and yet still capitalise on their struggles to gain political popularity. An unsympathetic and angry Remain constituency can only lead to further ugliness and division, while the real issues at heart remain unsolved.

Economic liberalisation is not to blame. Globalisation and neoliberal economics has led to greater wealth, a bigger pie, if you will. We shouldn’t be shrinking the pie, we just need to divide it more evenly.