The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

The Disruptiveness of Political Amateurs

Our society is all about disruption. I am writing this from Reno, Nevada, a city heavily influenced by San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture. Today number of Silicon Valley firms are spilling into Northern Nevada to take advantage of our great weather, beautiful outdoors, and minimal traffic. Along with theses firms comes the mindset of disruption. New technology and companies upending the way we drive, the way we access healthcare, and the way we communicate. Even our current president, and the Democrats main primary challenger in 2016, was cry for disruption, and opportunity to shake up politics and bring about a new way of doing business from the Oval Office.

 

Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch is skeptical of this disruption, at least in the world of politics, and looks at why government exists and how good governance can be promoted in his book Political Realism. What Rauch finds is that the spirit of disruption in politics is actually nothing new. We have always had candidates who focused on a single issue that they wanted to change. We have always had activists who fought for a particular idea of what was good, often excluding concerns of other issues and areas. And ultimately, we have always had a political establishment to rail against and charge with fraud, corruption, lack of interest, and complain about as a out of touch with the will of the people.

 

What Rauch describes in his book however, is that politics is a long-term game. It extends beyond the current moment and exists in the future and in the past. Our decisions are shaped by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future. What is important is not necessarily winning right now or introducing entirely new programs to completely tackle a problem today, but rather the importance lies in stability and positioning ourselves to constantly be able to improve and move forward. Our traditional system has done this with professional politicians who must please large and diverse groups of constituents. We have done this with compromise and a willingness to bend on principles to allow legislation to move through. As Charles Lindblom would describe it, we opt for incrementalism, slowly changing existing programs and policies because they already exist and have already been debated and implemented rather than spend all our time debating and fighting over new programs.

 

Contrasting this stable yet slow, lumbering, and apparently corrupting system is today’s vision of disruption. We want ideologically strong candidates who represent something greater than their own self-interest who will not bend on principles and will push for a great new society. This is a terrific vision, but it focuses on short term wins for the here and now at the expense of stability and long-term functionality. The system is composed of political amateurs, “Activists,” described by Rauch in his book as, “very different animals. They are less interested in extrinsic rewards than in advancing a public purpose, fighting for justice, experiencing the intrinsic satisfactions of participation. For them, issues are the essence of politics.” When the system is overwhelmed by the amateurs and activists, activity stops. Compromise is not possible and we cannot move forward with anything because we are all fighting for different ends. From time to time it may be necessary to flood a legislature with activists who represent a shift in the zeitgeist and will fight for things like racial justice, or a reduction in unnecessarily high taxes coupled with inefficient spending, or for a better healthcare system, but when this activist mindset becomes the norm, when every representative must be willing to die for their cause on every vote, the system cannot function and we cannot govern ourselves.

 

Sometimes the boring, the candidates who want office for the glory and not for the issue, and sometimes the flexible compromises are what we need for good governance. I would argue, and I think Rauch would agree, that most of the time these are the political leaders we need. They do not inspire great visions of a world where our political tribe dominates and where everything is about us and our priorities, but  they do work with others who are not like us and position the government to slowly move forward perhaps interrupted on occasion by groups that arise with strong preferences for a noble cause. Too many of these boring officials and we fail to meet the will of the people, but too few, and the system breaks and is open for demagoguery and encourages between-group meanness rather than between-group compromise.

What Are We Trying To Accomplish?

Sometimes I find that we can’t really define what outcomes we actually want, what goals we are actually working toward, and what purpose is actually driving our behaviors. For much of my life I see this in what I do, and where it really worries me is in the policy world. I focused on public administration and public policy for my masters degree. I think a lot about the thing that is lying at the heart of our political arguments and debates, and I think frequently about what it is that any one group is trying to accomplish when they frame an issue a certain way, respond to a crisis, or try to get a specific item on the agenda. Looking at the purpose behind the messaging and behind the actions is incredibly revealing and helpful for understanding where we are, and I think it is crucial to understand to develop effective policy.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright hits on the importance of understanding the why behind our actions and work. He writes, “The question of what we’re actually trying to accomplish with our actions is important because it demands we question our existing habits, biases, and goals.” We can move through life without examining what we are doing and why we are doing it, but autopilot by itself is not actually that good of a pilot. Someone has to set the course, determine the direction, and make sure things are pointed down the right runway before autopilot can take over. In the world of policy, this is all done behind the scenes and out of the way of the public. Not because someone is trying to be shady (most of the time) but because it is really boring detail oriented work. At the heart of all of it, its never really one person but a collective ethos in society that says things like, “people should be working if they expect to get help from the government” or “people have been discriminated against and can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps because the system is rigged.” We take these broad sentiments, develop boring policies that try to address problems, and the public responds. However, the underlying goals of these sentiments are often unclear and hard to decipher. Policy seems to branch forward unsure of what the real goal is and unsure of what should be accomplished. When we then enter into political discussions without offering real objectives and clear goals, policy meanders and doesn’t really solve anything.

 

Our lives are a lot more like the policy scenario I described above than what we likely realize. We have vague thoughts and intuitions about how our lives should be. We have a sense of what we need to do to impress others, make people proud of us, and to accomplish things we want. What we don’t always do, however, is sit down and truly think about what our goals should be and why we want those goals to be the things we work toward. Doing this and being more intentional about our objectives and motivations can help us build a life that doesn’t just branch forward and bumble along, but that creates measurable milestones that we can work toward. This allows us to align our life with things that are meaningful and allows us to build habits and routines that an be meaningful and developmental.

Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.

Hostility Toward Blacks

In the 1970s Richard Nixon began using crime and the need to control crime as an excuse for policing and incarceration practices that had disparate impacts on black people. Through the 1980s Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior continued to push the “tough on crime” narrative, hinting at race while appearing neutral in their approach to policy and problems in the United States. In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander examines the evolution of these racialized messages and policies and describes the ways that anti-black sentiment spilled into the language that is still used to discuss politics and culture. I read Alexander’s book during the summer of 2016, before Candidate Trump had emerged as the Republican front runner, when racial attitudes in the United States felt like they could still take a major step forward.

 

Instead, what I believe we have seen in our country is backlash against President Obama and a return to the negative racial discussions that arose with President Nixon. Regarding Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., Alexander wrote the following:

 

“Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for “get tough on crime” and anti-welfare measures. Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims. The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.”

 

We have fallen back to the same dangerous rhetoric today. President Trump has taken us to a place where the racial underpinnings of our politics are possibly more obvious. Lacking any policy understanding, he thrives on culture wars, and denounces black athletes, black protesters, and black politicians at any opportunity. He has used the NFL and NBA as targets for white resentment, especially rural white resentment.

 

I do not believe that facts like the ones presented by Alexander above will change the situation. I do not believe that demonstrating how white privilege has helped the core of the republican party will make a difference in where we are today. And I don’t believe that even the future (hopeful) election of another black president like Cory Booker will make a difference in where our country exists on race.

 

What will make a difference is for reasonable people to become more connected with racial minorities in our communities. Particularly within schools and youth groups, we must reach out and connect with those who have been disadvantaged. We must not flaunt our support for things like Black Lives Matter, though our support is crucial. We must not tell those opposed to racial equality that they are the bigots that they are, but we must quietly and rationally express our support for movements and policies that support diversity and individuals who have been victimized by race. Sharing these feelings with those closest to us will create a space where others can be more comfortable with movements supporting rights and policies that benefit minority populations. Demonstrating to our friend and family that people like them can also support diversity and minority populations will help them be more reasonable and less racially tribal in their decision making.

Our Experiences of the World are Unique to Us

I often find myself extending my own experiences and feelings to other people, and assuming that other people have the same thoughts, reactions, and expectations about the world that I have. I know that this is not the case since I don’t enjoy watching much television, I am really interested in politics from a policy side, and get really excited about exercising and running (three traits of mine that I know set me apart from most people). Nevertheless, it is hard for me to remember that everyone is experiencing the world differently, and thinking about and interpreting what goes on around them in a different lens. Michelle Alexander looks at this reality in her book The New Jim Crow, specifically when she addresses economic changes and the way that people experience disruptive technology and market changes.

In her book, Alexander looks at the impact that policies and decisions have had on different races throughout our nation’s history and she specifically looks at the disparate impact that policies have had for black people relative to white people. What is important to consider when thinking about what we can learn from her writing is that our subjective experiences are just that, subjective. Other people will experience and have different reactions to the same economic and cultural realities. We must consider what this means from an equity and racial perspective, especially if we want everyone in our society to participate and have a chance to be socially and economically successful.

When our economy shifted in the 1970s and we implemented policies to help people adapt, we did so from a single point of view with a single group of people in mind. Changes in our economy had different implications for black people who had already been left out of societal progress. Alexander writes,

“As described by William Julius Wilson, in his book When Work Disappears, the overwhelming majority of African Americans in the 1970s lacked college educations and had attended racially segregated, underfunded schools lacking basic resources. Those residing in ghetto communities were particularly ill equipped to adapt to the seismic changes taking place in the U.S. economy; they were left isolated and jobless.”

I don’t have advice for how to best help those who are vulnerable to economic change and disruptive technology as it is not something I have ever looked into or studied. Technological change and advancement in many ways seems inevitable and while many individuals can potentially be left behind, many more have a chance to better themselves and their lives with the adoption and inclusion of new technologies. What we should do better, at least what I know I must do better, is understand that my perspective is limited and does not encompass the experiences and realities other people. At the end of the day we, and our politicians, must make decisions, and we must do the best with the information we have. What I feel challenged by, and what I think we should all challenge ourselves with, is incorporating more views than our own thoughts and reactions when making decisions. We must be careful and recognize when we are generalizing our thoughts and experiences to the larger population. Becoming more considerate means recognizing when we are thinking from only one perspective and making broad assumptions about other people. We do eventually need to make a decision and come to a conclusion, but we must make sure that decisions is based on more than just our own subjective experiences.

How We View Welfare

In my last post I wrote about the Republican party’s shift in the 1970s to be more focused on race, and to draw a line between white people and black people in terms of identity politics. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow explains that this was done to create a political coalition of white voters across the socioeconomic spectrum and to break apart potential alliances with low income black and white people.  Alexander continues in her book to show how specific policies became racialize and how stereotypes of black people became attached to policy.

Alexander writes, “During this period, conservatives gave lip service to the goal of racial equality but actively resisted desegregation, busing, and civil rights enforcement. They repeatedly raised the issue of welfare, subtly framing it as a contest between hardworking, blue-collar whites and poor blacks who refused to work. The not-so-subtle message to working-class whites was that their tax dollars were going to support special programs for blacks who most certainly did not deserve them.”

Alexander shows that policies which should have been neutral in terms of race and policies which would have helped both poor whites and poor blacks were used against black people. Higher income white people who had an interest in keeping more of their money and not directing their money toward low-income black and white people were able to frame welfare as a negative and stigmatize it as a program for lazy black people and not as a program for individuals who have been exploited, who have had bad luck, or for people who lacked the opportunities of more affluent individuals. I have written in the past about the randomness of material and fiscal wealth and success, but the racialized framework from the 1970s is so powerful because it played into beliefs that our actions drive our success and that only lazy (minority) individuals will need assistance. The rhetoric developed by the republican party ultimately worked to drive a wedge between white people and black people all while claiming to be race neutral.

Racial Discrimination Today

“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow. Alexander focuses on our nation’s criminal justice system, its shortfalls, and how racial disparities exist within a system that is supposed to be colorblind. Early on in the book she writes about discrimination against criminals and compares todays discrimination against criminals to historical discrimination against black people. She writes,

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices e supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”

Alexander’s quote shows the challenges we face today in a time with less explicit racism and fewer individually racist people. People themselves may make racist jokes in the company of friends, but outward displays of racism are rare. This gives us all the sense that racism is no longer a major factor in our lives and it allows us to feel that we have overcome a great challenge in treating people more equally in this country. What we miss when we focus only on explicit racism and individual level actions are the factors that comprise larger parts of our institutions and norms.

Our criminal justice system disproportionally impacts the lives of hispanic and black people. We arrest minorities at a far greater level than we arrest white people, even though levels of drug use and crime are similar among white, black, and latino people. The result of disproportionate arresting is that white people are allowed to move beyond their mistakes and crimes and can build wealth, while people of color are haunted by their crimes and face discrimination in areas like employment, housing, and financial investing. Pretending that the system is equal because we don’t outwardly express racism hides the fact that our system is entrenched in racism and hides the structural and institutional ways in which racism has shaped our society and created disparate outcomes for people based on race. Because these issues go beyond individuals, we must work to change entire systems and policies to move beyond the current outputs of the system. Changing who we arrest is one step, but we must also shift housing and development policies, and changing housing and development requires that we take a new look at those we label as criminals. Ultimately, it requires that we look at those around us as human beings first, and look at criminal history in a new light. Moving to a point where outward displays of racism are not acceptable is good start, but we need to move forward to a point where we acknowledge the disparate impacts our society has accepted.

Creating Our Own Realities

“An August 2009 poll by The Economist/YouGov, for example, revealed that 37 percent of whites and 65 percent of Republicans thought Obama’s policies favored blacks over whites. That is a three-fold increase in from responses to similarly worded questions in October 2008 by both CBS/New York Times and NBC/The Wall Street Journal.”

Yesterday I wrote about the ways in which President Obama lead to greater polarization in our country simply by being black and being perceived as helping black people more than white people. The idea I shared yesterday is backed up by more research done my Michael Tesler and David Sears in their book Obama’s Race. The quote above shows how views of many white people and many individuals within the Republican party in particular, shifted over the first year of President Obama’s first term. The authors continue to write,

“These results seem to be more consistent with Moskowitz and Stoh’s (1994) finding that many whites effectively “alter reality” in order to rendered a black candidate’s message consistent with their prior expectations and racial beliefs than with the unbiased information processing in Hinjal’s model. Despite not broaching any race-specific policies during his first year in office, the majority of Republicans thought Obama favored African American’s.”

Many American’s allowed biases to shape their opinion of President Obama and his actions. I believe this was spurred on by conservative media and a republican party that made great use of identity politics during President Obama’s time in office. Policy truly did not matter, and ideology (liberal or conservative) did not actually matter in the opinions that people formed. What mattered is who President Obama represented. As a black man with a multicultural background, having grown up and spent a lot of time outside the United States, President Obama did not embody a tradition of white identity. This allowed latent biases about identity, race, and Americanism to shape people’s perception of who President Obama was, what he stood for, and what direction people felt the nation was headed.

Last year I did a lot of research about medical marijuana and opioids and one of the interesting things that I found, which should not have been as surprising as I found it, is that people do not judge policy based on a cost benefit analysis or in terms of how many lives a policy will improve. Instead, as Gollust, Lantz and Ubel write, “Public policy opinions are shaped by people’s attitudes toward the targets of policies, particularly whether the targets are perceived to be deserving of help.” President Obama was not perceived as being a mainstream American, and his identity as a black man meant that his policies and opinions were understood to be representative of only black people’s interests. As a result, white people, particularly within the Republican party which overtly used identity politics to drum up support, began to interpret his policies as helping only black people and minorities, who were seen as less deserving of help. Identity politics and racial predispositions were brought to the front of people’s perceptions of the Federal Government, and President Obama was not judged by his policies or political actions, but by his lack of whiteness and perceived status as an outsider.

Automatic Polarization

I am a Masters in Public Administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and I am constantly thinking about politics in terms of how systems operate and what forces shape the decisions being made. I am interested in the decisions themselves, but I find the forces and factors that shape how we arrive at those decisions interesting and equally important. Being able to take a deeper look beyond the headlines and beyond the reactions to policy helps us see something important about how we as a society have come together as a group to attempt to solve complex and challenging problems.

 

In their book, Obama’s Race, Michael Tesler and David Sears examine the ways in which racial attitudes and biases impacted the decisions our country made during the 2008 election and in the first few years following President Obama’s election. Their argument throughout their book is that the election split the nation along racial lines, with forces that operated below the surface and beyond many people’s conscious thought, driving behaviors. In the time following the election, Tesler and Sears write, “any issue Obama takes a public stance on might soon become polarized according to racial predispositions.” What the authors found from the data they reviewed is that the issues that President Obama openly endorsed or opposed became split along party lines in public opinion across the country. What we were split over however, was not the policy or the particular approach that the President took, but rather who the President was. During the eight years that President Obama served, one of the key drivers of this split was his race, operating in a way that had not been seen in our politics for quite some time.

 

When people openly embraced a strategy of non-cooperation and a public image of fighting against President Obama at every step, an atmosphere developed that was toxic and dangerous for our country. Policy and analysis fell behind tribalism, and our country’s problem with political polarization worsened, becoming a problem not just between conservative and liberal,  but a problem between races. Until the 2016 election the racial dynamics were shrouded behind phrases and ideas that appeared race neutral. Tesler and Sears do a great job cutting behind the veil to see the influence of race on public opinion by studying changes in public opinion with demographic date following the election of President Obama.

 

What worries me today is that we elected President Trump after he openly embraced racist stances and created an atmosphere that fostered racial divisions. He embodied a reaction more than a policy or party. What many have said, I think very correctly, is that President Trump is more of a backlash against a black president than anything else. In this sense, the polarization over race that began under President Obama has been heightened and maintained after his term. We have continued to see a split where anything publicly stated by President Trump is vehemently opposed by the Democrats who have come to stand for racial equality and the Republicans who have come to embrace ideas of whiteness. To move beyond this stage in politics requires a recognition of how our innate senses of tribalism have split us in our thoughts of otherness. We must recognize when we are acting on tribalism and when we are truly thinking more deeply about our policy stances.

 

Most people do not think deeply about a specific policy, but fall back on a few generalizations that I believe are easily opened to hidden motives that allow for tribal influence. Personal responsibility, work ethic, and deservingness are vague and hard to pin down, which allows for tribalism and implicit bias to shape our opinions. Understanding how those factors can be hijacked and controlled by racial predispositions is key if we want to think more deeply and move beyond our current polarization.