Outrage, On the Internet and Off

I’ve developed a bad habit in the past few days that I think you’ll identify with. This habit leaves me with a knot in my stomach. I end up chewing on my cuticles and the sides of my cheek to relieve the anxiety I experience from it, because one bad habit deserves another, right?

I’ve been reading the comments on the public posts in my Facebook feed.

I read a long thread (posted to a funny dog picture) in which one man argued that dogs are the result of inter-species mating of white women and wolves, and many, many more people told him that he is a moron.

I saw an ACLU announcement about a case they’re involved with – a woman was fired for being on her period at work. I didn’t read the details of the article that they included. Instead, I read a comment thread where a man spoke about not understanding why she couldn’t hold it in or control herself and where a few women said that their period was regular, so this fired woman probably should’ve been able to anticipate her period. And of course, many, many more people told these folks that they are morons.

Another comment thread on the ACLU announcement was about the image that they used, a picture of two unused tampons against a solid color. A woman commented that she would no longer support the ACLU because she felt it was inappropriate to use this picture, and – surprise, surprise – many, many more people replied that she is a moron.

I clicked on announcement of the movie, “It,” and was treated to a slew of people saying that Stephen King is crap and also his politics are crap. For each person talking about King’s opinion of Trump, there was an equal and opposite person calling the original poster a moron.

I have a few thoughts about this.

The first thought is that there is no such thing as catharsis, not as we understand it usually. You won’t feel better if you write that angry post. And neither will the recipient! Why are we doing this to ourselves and to strangers who we just disagree with?

The second thought is that it’s possible that commenting is intended as a signal to a third party, someone like me who has just dropped into the conversation. I’ve commented on posts with this intent before – someone wrote a pretty hateful comment about Muslims on one of my college’s posts, and I wanted anyone who saw it to know that our school was better than his comment. (Fortunately, my alma mater stepped in and deleted the comment thread soon after, because it quickly devolved into name-calling. And even though I still think it was right to push back against him, I hated getting into an argument with a random web stranger! It didn’t make my life better to get into this Internet grudge match.)

The third thought is about the free speech issue on colleges. There’s been a plethora of think pieces about the fragility of Millennials, plenty of hand-wringing about where our parenting went wrong. We can’t stand opinions that we don’t like! We won’t suffer dissent! We are little tyrants! But I have an alternative theory.

What if, “the medium is the message”-style, our new social media has amped up our outrage capacities, in general? What if all of us who use social media on a regular basis are just a bit quicker to tell people that their opinions are shit and maybe they are too? Then, my theory is that the college is a pretty unique environment in U.S. culture. We’re exposed to people who disagree with us more than at other points in life – we talk politics and religion obsessively. At college, you’re encouraged to develop your own stance and act on it. And what’s more, the dissenting opinions that end up on the news – think Charles Murray at Middlebury – are presented in a public forum where you could be making a statement to a third party by being there to protest.

This all to say: I think the “Millennials are a bunch of snowflakes” narrative isn’t fully supported by looking at protests at colleges. Suppose we gave 5,000 Baby Boomers a residential community where their day job was to talk politics – usually in an echo chamber kind of situation – and then occasionally tossed someone in who disagreed with them. How might these new college students behave at the appearance of this dissenter? We can’t just look at how Baby Boomers used to behave when they were in college because the media environment has shifted dramatically since then, and that shift might affect how they’ll react.

We don’t know for sure how Boomers might behave in this situation, but I have a guess about what might happen.

Many, many people are going to tell the dissenter that they are a moron.


Work As Identity and the Social Safety Net

This week, I’m reading Jody Heymann’s The Widening Gap. This book makes a pretty compelling argument that if you’re a working mother in the United States and you aren’t especially well-off, you’re often forced to choose between providing adequate care for your kids and working. This is the same idea that Arlie Russell Hochschild finds in The Time Bind – she follows the workers at a firm in Middle America and sees that while flex hours are nominally an option for parents, it’s usually the moms who are expected to take them and they can’t take them without being perceived as less dedicated than other workers.

My personal philosophy of work, still nascent, is that we spend around half of our waking time in our adult lives doing work – that makes it inherently tied to our identity, no matter how we might like to say that it’s “just a job.” Then, the best world I can imagine is one in which everyone is perfectly fit to their work. In such a world, work is a meaning-making activity. It pays, but it also gives purpose to each person’s life.

I think in the current world, some people get work that gives their life a purpose. Some people get their purpose from elsewhere – maybe religion or service to their community or to their family. But I think the vast majority of people probably don’t see their lives as having much of a purpose at all. It took some noodling around the Gallup page on Well-Being, but I found this statistic: as of 2014, 44% of non-entrepreneurs surveyed did not feel a “strong sense of purpose.” For the entrepreneurs, that jumps to 51%.

So, here’s the issue I’m bumping up against: I believe that our work has the potential to give purpose to our lives. But so long as there isn’t an appropriate social safety net to provide care for our kids, our siblings, our spouse, our parents, or our grandparents, somebody in the family has to do that job. In practice, the lack of a social safety net keeps women at home and prevents them from realizing their purpose.

(Note: I’m not trying to denigrate people who choose to stay at home here – I think if you choose it, you’re probably deriving meaning from it. All I’m saying is that there is some non-zero proportion of women who are forced to stay at home when they might find another profession more meaningful.)

There are a few policy changes we could make, a few adjustments that might ease this:

  1. Year-round schooling with hours that make it possible to drop your kid off before work and pick them up directly after work.
  2. Shorter workdays – do we really need to be working for eight hours? Could we make a six-hour workday work? (I guess another question is: how many hours must we work per day to have purposeful work?)
  3. Laws that make you less likely to lose your job if you need time off to care for someone else – I think this should include anyone you’re caring for, even friends and weird cousins. After all, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 says that it’s fine if this leave is unpaid, as long as it’s job-protected. Given that you aren’t being paid, you’re just sure that you’ll have something to return to, I don’t think it should matter who it is you’re leaving work to care for.
  4. Expansion of benefits we already have – The FMLA is pretty nitpicky about who is eligible. You need to be at a firm that employs more than 50 people, you must be employed there for a year before applying for leave, and you have to have worked more than 25 hour per week in that year. More than expanding the FMLA though, there should be more flexibility for small, sudden illnesses – kid comes down with the flu or husband gets a stomach bug.

I have a dumb idea to solve the “but who’s going to do the job?” problem for firms: substitute workers. People who know that they’re going to be temporary and just filling in a slot. I think I’d be happy to serve as a waitress for an afternoon if I knew that I wasn’t going to have to go back the next day. I think if you wanted to pull this off, as a firm, you’d need to have a pool of semi-trained substitutes, or you’d need to assign that substitute to a task that makes trained employees’ life easier so that they can take over the tricky tasks. In waitressing, I’m thinking of fulfilling beverage orders, doing side work, and cleaning. You would need to be able to communicate via email and phone – when I’ve held service jobs in the past, they’ve only communicated via phone, and I usually don’t see that there’s been a call until it’s too late.


I have a slurry of thoughts about Charlottesville, VA.

First Thought: I’ve seen a few tweets from Alt-Right accounts saying that the hate of the Left is just as dangerous and worthy of condemnation as the hate of the Alt-Right. A few posts from liberals quoting religious figures who say that we can’t fight hate with hate. There’s an MLK Jr. quote: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

If we’re defining “hate” as “hostile actions motivated by intense dislike or prejudice” (from Google), then I’m inclined to agree with this idea. The decisive losers of a violent conflict don’t automatically start agreeing with the winners – if they did, we would never have put Confederate statues up in the first place.

But what if we think about “hate” as just meaning “intense or passionate dislike”?

It seems to me that we cannot get anywhere without this. We need the capacity to label ideas as morally repugnant. You can’t say “Being a white nationalist means that you aren’t a good person” without this kind of hate. (I mean, maybe you’re able to make moral judgments without attaching emotion to them? That’s probably a pretty rare ability to have…)

To say “I am entitled to my beliefs – if you judge me for them, you’re being hateful” is sort of an appeal to moral relativism. Which is weird, since usually liberals are thought of as being the moral relativists, the “anything goes” gang.

Second Thought: I’ve seen quite a few tweets about publicizing the names of the White Supremacists in pictures. If you search “ruin his life” on Twitter, you’ll get a bit of a taste of this.

Eichenwald tweet
One example of a “ruin his life” tweet.

I’m of several minds. The first mind is that if you attend a Nazi rally and you’re photographed, you are an automatic liability to your workplace – they’re completely justified in firing you.

The second mind is that this explanation looks at whether the firm is justified in firing you, but it doesn’t really make a claim about whether you deserve to lose your job. Suppose you attended a Nazi rally and you wore a hood, and your supervisor somehow found out that you’d attended, but no one else knew and there was no chance that anyone would find out. You might still be a liability – your supervisor knows that you have beliefs that make equal treatment of your coworkers and customers unlikely.

What if, in talking to your supervisor, you disavowed your beliefs, promised never to attend a rally again, and generally swore to not be a dick either at work or out. Would your supervisor still be justified in firing you?

I guess the question I’m trying ask is: where does the punishment of “deserving to lose your job” come from? Does it come from a company’s profit maximizing choice, or does it exist outside of that? Do we care about the consequences of you losing your job? We probably don’t care about the consequences to you, since you attended a Nazi rally, so we’re not feeling super charitable, but do we care about the consequences to your family, your firm, etc?

Would we think it was “okay” to keep an avowed Nazi on-board at the company if that company could show that firing him would sink an entire division, leading to more job loss? Would we think a firm was justified in keeping him employed if he was the sole provider to three kids?

And if these kinds of circumstances matter, aren’t we just kind of doing a “maximize the general welfare,” utilitarian calculation? Seems like we should be able to reach a more uniform judgment than this.

Third Thought: “Ruin his life.” Okay, yes, he loses his job. But then when should he be able to get a job again? Should he never be able to get a job again?

I think this isn’t so different from “Ban the Box”. If it is right that someone convicted of second-degree murder who has served their time should be able to get a job, then it must also be right that someone convicted (in the court of public opinion) of bigotry after some time should be able to get a job. Maybe we have different standards for the convict because they actually went to jail and so we can be certain that “justice was served,” whereas the Nazi may or may not have suffered by his association?

I’ll have to think about this one more – I don’t think you can favor banning the box and favor ruining someone’s life for his involvement in a Nazi rally and still be logically consistent, but maybe I’m missing something.

Competing Obligations

I’ve just finished reading Justice by Michael Sandel.

Near the end of the book, Sandel talks about reparations. In a Rawlsian framework of justice, which allows for universal obligations and particular obligations created by consent, reparations cannot be justified. As far as I understand it (and this is the first time I’ve encountered all of the political theories that Sandel is covering, so I may very well be misunderstanding), a system is just if all participants would have chosen it, if they’d been in a contracting situation where no one knew their role in society, what talents they were endowed with, etc. People probably wouldn’t agree to reparations in this kind of society, since they’d know that there’s some chance they’d end up paying for something their parents did, and so reparations cannot be part of a just system.

Sandel’s response to this is that it points out a flaw in Rawls’ political philosophy – we do think that there’s a third category of obligation – we think there’s universal obligation, obligation because you consented or made some contract, and then there’s a type of particular obligation that’s situational. Like, I’m obligated to vote, because I’m a citizen. Or I should call my mother, because I’m her daughter – not because I need to call everyone in the world, and not because I made some kind of contract with her to call her, but simply by virtue of our relationship.

I might be obligated to pay reparations or to make apologies for the sins of my ancestors because I recognize that I’m a member of this society. I recognize that the government from which I now benefit was built on the backs of slaves, and I recognize that many of the prejudices from that time are still held, making it difficult for black Americans to receive equal treatment in society.

So, let’s talk about taking statues honoring Confederate generals down. Sometimes people make the argument that we need to keep these sorts of monuments up in order to remember history. These are clearly people who don’t understand the basic purpose of Wikipedia. Or a public library. Or a museum.

But what about the folks who are more open about keeping such monuments? These are the ones who will tell you that they are proud of legacy of their ancestors. They want to keep these monuments up to honor them. [Peek on a Facebook comment thread about monument removal if you don’t believe that this opinion exists.]

However, I will bet anyone $500 that I don’t have that the very same people who want to honor and preserve the legacy of their ancestors are the ones who would not want the United States government to issue an official apology for enslaving Africans and their descendants. And I’ll bet you another $500 that if you asked one of those people why the government doesn’t owe black Americans an apology for slavery, they would say, “I didn’t own slaves.”

Look – I haven’t fully worked out this screed yet, so I’m not 100% sure that this is entirely logically consistent, but it seems to me: You Can’t Have It Both Ways. You cannot say that you are honoring the legacy of your region and your ancestors without accepting some modicum of responsibility for their actions. What, then, are you honoring? If you completely disavow their actions, then you wouldn’t want to preserve their statues. If you do not completely disavow their actions, then you probably do owe an apology to black Americans, because you’re actively contributing to a prejudiced society.

Now, I think you might be able to get around this conundrum if you were super specific about what it was that you wanted to honor. If you said, I want to honor my great-great-grandfather’s commitment to his children, then it’d be acceptable to have a statue of him, even if he was a slave-holder. But Confederate monuments aren’t honoring some aspect of men unrelated to slavery – they are honoring this man’s willingness to die in defense of slavery. So either you support that or you don’t.

When to Talk to Professors?

After looking at Enos’s replication files, it kind of looks like I would have to ask him for the property record data if I wanted to redo his analysis on only people who’d recently moved in, so that is, for today at least, a hard pass. Although, it probably would be easy enough to check out, if we did have the data?

This is something that I’ve struggled with throughout graduate school – when do you have enough information to meet with or talk to a professor? Is it sufficient that you have an idea about another analysis that could be run on data that you suspect they have, or that you just like a paper that they wrote? Or is it the other side of the spectrum, where you should only talk to them if you’ve completed the lit review and theory section of your paper and all you need is their expert advice and their data?

I’ve always tended towards the “never, ever speak to a professor”-side of things, but if I were to write down top five reasons I’m considering dropping out of graduate school, “Lack of Sufficient Support from Professors” would probably be number four. It isn’t a far stretch to guess that there might be some relation between these things.

I took to Google to see what The Internet had to say about when it’s appropriate to schedule meetings with professors, as a graduate student, but The Internet was disappointingly quiet on the matter. The closest I got to an answer was this:

Manage Your Advisors.

Keep your advisors aware of what you are doing, but do not bother them. Be an interesting presence, not a pest.

Stephen C. Stearns, Ph.D.

So, that’s not super encouraging. Being an “interesting presence” seems like an especially large ask.

The nice thing about being overly shy about visiting professors is that I end up catching at least some “thought gaps” before running them by someone. For instance, I just realized that I would really need to be able to compare a person’s voting record from before their move to their voting record after their move to assess whether turnout stayed the same.

We also would have to consider that people who move to a new place are just less likely to vote in that new place, in the first election (I don’t know whether this is empirically true, but it certainly sounds like it). So, we might think that we’re observing reduced turnout because someone has stopped feeling racial threat, but we might actually be observing it because they’re new in the neighborhood and haven’t really gotten their bearings.

I’m not really sure where that leaves me on this. Perhaps back at the original conclusion of my post, “On the Move”: we need a natural experiment where some people, kind of randomly picked, are forced to move, and others are not.

Maybe looking at urban renewal is the right tack, and we’re just focusing on the wrong residents?

Racial Threat and Behavior

I was thinking about the potential impact of changing communities on party identification as I was walking home last night, and I realized that we might be able to settle for exposure to a different community, rather than reaching for a complete change. Immediately, I thought of Ryan Enos’s work on racial threat and political behavior.

The basic idea of “racial threat” is that white voters respond negatively to people of a different race from them, and that negative reaction informs their political behavior – turnout and vote choice.

In a 2014 experiment, Enos placed pairs of native Spanish speakers on the same Boston commuter rail platforms at the same time for ten days in a row. He paid the unsuspecting commuters, who were predominantly white, to take a web survey before the experiment started, and then after they’d had a few days of exposure to the Spanish speakers, and in those surveys, he asked for their preferences on immigration policies.

Cover of Enos Article
A photo of the experiment as it occurred. This seal thinks that English should be the official language of the United States.

Enos finds that people who waited on the platform – and thus were “treated” with exposure to Spanish speakers – are more likely to favor decreasing the number of immigrants from Mexico and to favor deportation for employed, non-criminal immigrants who are in the US illegally. However, he also finds that commuters who were exposed to Spanish speakers more times answer these questions less conservatively.

In more recent work, Enos looks at an as-if-random demographic change that resulted when Chicago demolished housing projects. The demolition of these projects made the population in those neighborhoods significantly whiter.

In this article, Enos finds that white residents living near the projects are 13.4 percentage points less likely to vote than white residents living further away, after the projects are demolished. In contrast, there is no difference in voting between black residents close to the projects and those that are further away. This is consistent with a story where white voters are no longer motivated by racial threat to get out the vote.

When we compare the vote choice of precincts near demolished projects to those near nondemolished projects, there’s even more evidence of voting in accordance to racial threat: precincts that next to demolished projects slowly become less likely to vote for Republicans, while there’s no such change in precincts next to nondemolished projects.

So, these are some pretty depressing findings. But I’m not yet convinced that they perfectly capture what I was thinking about yesterday. I completely buy racial threat, but I wonder whether everyone is equally susceptible to it. Is it possible that people with a less fixed sense of who their community includes aren’t as threatened by the addition of new people?

To pin that question down a little: in the Enos train study, the commuters seemed to know each other before these new Spanish-speakers were added. Then, part of the negative reaction must be “Hey, who are these guys? Never seen them before.” If you’re in a situation where you only rarely see people you recognize, it seems like this element of racial threat would be less pronounced.

I have an idea about how we could get at this in Enos’s data from the 2016 study of Chicago – he matches voter records with property records for everyone in Chicago. If we have the property records, we could subset to the voters who’ve only recently moved into their neighborhoods. My guess is that their turnout and vote choice doesn’t differ much from voters who aren’t next to demolished projects.

On the Move

I am 27 years old, and I have lived in eight states, only counting places where I’ve stayed for more than three months. If you count places I’ve stayed for at least one month, I’ve lived in ten states and two countries. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2008, I’ve lived in more states than 98% of people in the United States.

Not counting moves that were intentionally limited in time – internships and the like – I’ve moved 12 times in my life so far. The average American moves 11.4 times in their lifetime.

Now, I was thinking about this the other day as part of a larger package of “life assessment” style thoughts, and I found myself wondering whether moving this often makes a person more liberal. At a glance, that jives with our intuition, right? Social conservatism, at its core, honors tradition and sees inherent value in processes that are time-tested. Social liberalism, at its limit, doesn’t include the age of a practice in its consideration of that practice’s value. Why would it matter if a practice is “traditional” if it is unjust?

It seems likely that a person who moves around a lot during their life is exposed to more traditions and ways of being than a person who stays in their hometown. It’s possible that they could react by ossifying, bunkering into their traditions. But I guess I think it’s more likely that they would react by becoming a little more agnostic about the “right” way to do things.

This intuition seems to hold up to a superficial analysis – the cross-tabulation below shows that liberals are over-represented in the group of people who’ve lived in multiple places, and conservatives are over-represented in the group of people who’ve lived in the same place for their entire life. (This data is from the 2008 Pew Research Center survey.)

Crosstabs of moving and ideology

However, this is where it gets a bit complicated. Because there are plenty of characteristics that are predictive of moving around that are also predictive of being liberal. Poorer families are more likely to move in search of economic opportunities – this was my family’s experience. Married people are less likely to switch states, and they’re more conservative than single people. Higher education levels are correlated with moving more often and being less conservative.

On top of all of these confounders, we’re also faced with a reverse causality issue. If you value tradition less, you’re probably more willing to move around than a person who gets a lot of utility from stability.

It’s pretty thorny. My gut tells me that there’s probably some causal impact here – maybe not a large one, and certainly contingent on whether you move somewhere with a similar culture to your hometown’s, but some kind of liberalizing effect. We’ve just got to find a natural experiment. I think I’m going to check the data for Moving to Opportunity – it should be that folks awarded housing vouchers for low-poverty neighborhoods are moving to different enough cultures that we might see some liberalization.