Seven answers: Final thoughts

9 minute read

tl;dr: I present some final post-election thoughts on the issues covered in my “Seven Answers” series.

I’ve now completed my series of posts addressing the questions put forth by Jason Booms in his article “Seven Questions”. In going back and looking at prior posts I had some additional thoughts, which I present here as my final take on these issues (at least for now).

But first, a meta-comment: Jason didn’t create his questions to motivate me to write about my political beliefs. He did it as a way to evaluate the positions of candidates for Howard County political offices. But did candidates’ positions on this set of issues really make any difference in the election? I don’t know the answer, but I’d certainly be interested in hearing Jason’s thoughts on this.

Wealth inequality

I had two thoughts after writing my post on wealth inequality:

First, a commenter on a libertarian site once made the argument to me that what people objected to was not differences in economic circumstances, i.e., income and wealth inequality, but differences in political power, i.e., being politically dominated by others. It’s an argument that comes naturally to libertarians, of course, but I agree that it seems plausible.

For example, most people likely think of Warren Buffett as a folksy grandfather-like figure, not as someone whose personal wealth is equal to that of a substantial fraction of the U.S. population. The billionaires who excite popular resentment are instead those like George Soros and the Koch brothers who are very active in and identified with particular political causes and parties.

Why this should this be so? I have my own ideas, but for now I’ll simply say that I’m skeptical of narratives around economic inequality that see politics on the issue as driven primarily by resentment of the wealthy for their wealth itself.

Second, I suspect one corrosive aspect of wealth inequality relates to the incentives it provides to engage in corruption and general bad behavior. Consider a game played by 100 people, a game whose outcome is generally due to relative luck and skill, but which can also be influenced by underhanded tactics and outright cheating.

Suppose the prize for the bottom 90 finishers is $50,000, for the next 9 finishers is $250,000, and for the overall winner is $1.25 million. Now increase the second prize from $250,000 to $500,000, and the top prize from $1.25 million to $5 million.

It seems fairly self-evident that the incentives for cheating would be higher in the second scenario than the first. Those whose personalities already predispose them to cheat will receive significantly greater rewards but presumably suffer no greater chance of getting punished for cheating.

I think the same dynamic operates in human societies at large as wealth inequality increases. In fact, the motivation to cheat and engage in corrupt activities is probably even greater, since winners can use their rewards to greatly lessen their chances of punishment, either by buying off those in power or by acquiring political power themselves.

I don’t believe that these consequences of wealth inequality are fatal to a society, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many countries with very high Gini coefficients (e.g., Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, etc.) are also marked by relatively high levels of political instability and corrupt authoritarianism.1

Social democracy

Regarding my post about social democracy, events continue to prove my point that in American discourse the word “socialism” is used primarily to score political points, without any real understanding of what it means in practice.

I think this will ultimately be to the detriment of those using “socialism” as a slur: If people’s understanding of “capitalism” is that you can’t afford health care and experience ongoing job insecurity, stagnant wages, and unemployment then I think it will erode support for the free market and even liberal democracy in general. It may then take another Roosevelt to save capitalism from itself.

I’ll also note that after last Tuesday’s 2018 gubernatorial election a Republican will still be governor of Maryland, and hark back to my speculation about Maryland legislators making a deal to increase social insurance programs in return for reducing excessive regulations on businesses and individuals. I don’t think this will actually happen, but I still think it would be a justifiable bargain. (I may blog later about what I consider one particular bit of Maryland regulatory overreach.)

Racial equality

I don’t have much to add to my post on racial equality. This election showed the importance of voting and of working against vote suppression, and the experience of Baltimore shows the importance of policing and crime in shaping the prospects for a city and its people.

Liberty and equality

I think one thing lacking in my liberty and equality post was talking more about immigration, the distinctions we make between those who are our fellow citizens and those who are not (or at least are not yet), and what it means to be an American.

Immigration is one of those topics where the heart rules the head. Think tanks and academics can issue all the pronouncements they wish regarding whether immigrants are a net benefit to the economy, whether they harm employment prospects for some already-resident Americans, or whether they are associated with increased crime and terrorism.2

However in the end the emotional aspects of immigration hold greater sway: On the right we have the belief that immigrants (especially unauthorized ones) are invaders taking our jobs, threatening our safety, and (in more extreme imaginings) aiding “white genocide”. On the left we have a vision of immigration of all kinds (authorized or not) as a way to rescue the oppressed, build a vibrant multicultural society and (again, in more extreme visions) overthrow “white hegemony”.

Here’s where I stand on all that: First, I believe that national identity is both real and important to most people. (It certainly is to me.) National identity in the sense I mean is driven by

  • shared life experiences both small (e.g., school life) and large (e.g., wars, political upheavals, cultural touchstones, etc.);
  • national narratives (“stories nations tell themselves”) and one’s participation in them;
  • national stereotypes that serve as examplars by which people model their behavior;3 and
  • in-group markers like language and accent, religion, style of dress, food preferences, etc.

Except for the last none of these is necessarily associated with membership in a particular ethnic group, and even there the “Americanization” process turns many ethnic markers into the common property of all Americans. (For example, consider pizza, hot dogs, and sushi.) In short, although America as a nation originated from the experiences of particular ethnic groups (primarily the English), it by no means is—or should be—an “ethno-state”.

Why is having a coherent shared national identity important? Because it forms a critical component of self-identity, co-existing with and to some extent subsuming more particular personal identities formed around ethnicity, religion, ideologies, etc. As such one’s national identity creates a sense of “fictive kinship” that helps foster both small- and large-scale social, economic, and political cooperation.

Coming back to immigration, it seems to me that the proper approach is one that is proactive rather than reactive (i.e., is deliberately and consciously designed in service to agreed-upon goals) and that maintains and strengthens national identity in the sense outlined above, while still providing us with the cultural and economic benefits that immigrants can bring as new Americans. I don’t have space or energy here to comment further, but I don’t think either ethnonationalism or multiculturalism (at least in its more extreme forms) are up to this task.

Class warfare

Regarding my class warfare post, after the run-up to and aftermath of the recent elections I have to say that Peter Turchin’s ideas about elite competition are looking more relevant every day.

I follow a relatively small number of people on Twitter, but they cover a fairly wide range of political views and include both local people I know and people active in national politics and media. What they tweet and retweet is a window into the political preoccupations of elites in conflict and how ordinary people get caught up in them. Even why I agree with the sentiments expressed, it’s apparent that the topics tweeted about—and the anger and outrage associated with them—are just as much calculated to secure one elite faction or another a political advantage as to address genuine problems.

But enough cynicism: I conclude by linking to two proposals intended to address the problem of elite overproduction and elite political conflict: Lee Drutman’s articles on greatly increasing the size of the U.S. House of Representatives and reducing the effects of gerrymandering through multimember legislative districts. Both are good ideas to keep in mind for that future time when competing elites have fought each other to the point of exhaustion and are willing to consider fundamental changes to political institutions.

Gender equality

Having exhausted myself writing comments for other sections, I have nothing further to add to my post on gender equality.

LGBTQIA equality

I don’t have much more to say on LGBTQIA equality at this point other than to highlight the outcome of the Massachusetts Question 3 referendum.

The final vote in favor of Question 3 (that is, for retaining gender identity in non-discrimination legislation) was 67.8%, versus 32.2% opposed. To my knowledge this is the first state-wide election focused on gender identity issues, and the supermajority win is a good omen—especially compared with the results of early referendums on marriage-related questions.

On the flip side, the not-quite-68% support compares to the 71-73% support for Question 3 in pre-election polls and (especially) the estimated 80% of Massachusetts adults favoring LGBT non-discrimination laws in the 2017 PRRI American Values Atlas survey. It looks as if support in terms of votes was slightly softer than support in polls, possibly due to lower turnout among young voters. It also appears that of those people polled who described themselves as undecided or refused to answer, pretty much all of them ultimately voted against Question 3.

This has implications for other states: It may be that the 12-13% difference between the Massachusetts PRRI estimate and the ballot result means that the PRRI-estimated support for LGBT non-discrimination laws needs to be at least 63% or higher in a given state in order for LGBTQIA activists to have a reasonable chance of winning a state-wide referendum on including gender identity in those laws.

(States at or just above that threshold include Arkansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. States just below it include Lousiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia.)

That’s all I have to say on these issues for now. I now know better than to pre-announce what I’m planning to write about next, or to give any sort of timeframe for when I’ll do so. But if you’re interested in the sorts of things I write about please check back here every month or two, or follow me on Twitter at @hecker to see announcements of new posts.


  1. For more on the Gini coefficient and how to compute it, see my previous articles on income inequality in Howard County. For comparison, the Gini coefficient in scenario 1 is about 0.35, comparable to that for Canada, while the Gini coefficient for scenario 2 is about 0.61, comparable to Haiti’s. I chose the prize for the bottom 90% to be comparable to the median U.S. household income. 

  2. If you’re interested in the opinions of think tanks and academics about immigration, the consensus answers to these questions seem to be yes, maybe, and no respectively. 

  3. For example, the average American probably has a personality type very close to the average Canadian, but the popular conceptions of what it means to “act like an American” versus “act like a Canadian” are quite different.