Friday, June 27, 2008

Race And The Race For The White House: One Perspective

The topic of this post arose from a response to my asking people to submit things for me to write about. It came in two forms. One, from an anonymous poster, asks if I thought the US was ready for a black president and if Europe was ready for black political leadership. It also came from Frema, who asked a similar question but without mentioning Europe.

I will deal with the US first and then give my thoughts on this topic as it relates to Europe generally and European countries individually.

My short answer to this question is that we are more ready now than at any time in 0ur history. My long answer is more complex, naturally.

Looking back at the primary season, about seventeen and a half million people seemed perfectly willing to vote for a black man's nomination as the candidate of the Democratic Party. Those people, I am sure, had all manner of reasons for voting for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton or John McCain (or any of the other candidates, remember them?) This, naturally, raises the question of why people vote (or not). That is a discussion for another time, but I may in future write a piece on rational ignorance, strategic voting and irrational voters. Let's just assume that people had their reasons and voted (or not) accordingly.

What does this say about our "readiness" for a president of color? To me, it says that, for a lot of people, this notion has made timely intersection with a candidate that is viable. The way I stated this may seem like two sides of the same coin, but I see some difference in the issues. This difference leads me to some general conclusions about a possible black president and specific conclusions about Barack Obama himself.

First, general conclusions. The timing for "something different" in Washington could not have been better. The outgoing administration has suffered defeat after embarassment after blunder (seemingly) since sometime in 2002. The popularity of President Bush among the American people is dismal and has been on a precipitous slide for some time. The latest reading of the president's approval rating puts him at 23%. To give you some historical perspective, that is the same approval rating that Richard Nixon had on the day he resigned in 1974. Then there is everything else that people lump into their perception that the country is headed in the wrong direction (a nebulous term, but one that pollsters use a lot). That percentage stands currently at 78%.

So, it seems, that people are ready for a president who is not like the one we have now. If you consider that over thirty-five million people voted for either Obama or Clinton in their states' primaries, you must also consider that all of these people were ready and willing to support a candidate who was not a white man.

It seems to me, therefore, that people would willingly support a non-white president. Does this mean that racism is no longer an issue in politics, that we have entered a post-racial age in America?

No, sadly, race is still an issue in our society and politics and will be for some time to come. The gravestone of racial politics will not be erected by Barack Obama if he wins the election.

What has changed, however, is also something that I think is encouraging. Now, as you all know, I am naturally a cynic when it comes to most things, and none moreso than politics. I am tempted to say that people's support for Obama comes not from their affinity for him and his policies, but for hatred of the Republicans; that white people supporting Obama are doing it as a sop to their over-burdened consciences so they can stand up and truthfully say they voted for a black man for president; that black people will vote for Obama regardless of where he stands on the issues. There may be (some) truth to a lot of this.

On the other hand, it does seem that, at least among Democrats, there seems to be less and less people who would respond to any rhetoric that would even hint at racial intolerance. Actually, I think this is more and more true of American politics in general. It seems that playing the race card leads increasingly to a busted flush come election day.

So, to review, it seems that in general, the US is ready for a black president because of long-term changes in our political culture. Race is still an issue in American political life (currently there is one black senator and forty-one black members of the House), but it seems that right now, people are willing to accept the fact that a black man could be our next president.

I said earlier that I would make some specific points about Barack Obama. This is mainly in the form of a disclaimer:


Or, for that matter, an endorsement of John McCain.

If you want to know who I support, I will either go third party (as I have since the mid-term elections in 1998) or I may not vote at all (more on this when I write about all that rational ignorance seems to make a lot of sense).

Looking at his stands on the issues, I don't think I agree on much with Obama. I won't go through point-by-point, but it seems to me that his ideas smack of the sort of big government, tax-laden, misplaced altruism and failure to understand individual liberty that has become (in one way or another) entrenched in American politics from all perspectives. Personally, well, I've never met him, so I don't know, do I?

In summation, therefore, while I think that the US is perfectly ready for a black president, I personally don't think Obama is the man. Remember, though, the former are general conclusions that apply to the system broadly; the latter, differently, is based on my personal political ideology compared to that of a presidential candidate. Don't confuse the two.

I would be interested to hear your comments on this issue. This debate can (and should) go on.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More Rant Aversion And Why Madison Isn't Taken Seriously

I hope to have a long and detailed discussion of issues raised by an anonymous commenter and Frema about race, politics and our society for you by the end of the week. These are critical issues in our times and I wanted to give them my full attention.

In the meantime, two quick items (which will explain the title of the post)
  1. I was planning a full-on rant about oil prices and why blaming speculators is wrong and shows how ignorant of economics and finance most people are. I was going to throw in the sub-prime morgage situation as further proof of this. Fortunately, souls greater and more eloquent and more even-headed than I have taken these issues on. Read this post from Marginal Revolution and be sure to read the linked items there by Paul Krugman and Arnold Kling. Marginal Revolution, as far as I am concerned, is one of the best blogs going, and certainly the best economics/social science/finance blog.
  2. Why does the old saw that "Madison is seventy-seven square miles surrounded by reality" annoy people here with its longevity? Because of things like this. Honestly, the people in public service in this city are the pits. It seriously leads me to wonder "how hard could it be?" Oh, and read this story for more political posturing nonsense. No fried food at the Democratic Convention? Well, the delegation from Wisconsin isn't coming now. Happy?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Well, He Gone And Did It Again

I must apologize for my (now recurring) disappearance in the midst of spring semester.

I had a lot on my plate, but we all do, so that is a shitty excuse at best.

I promise to be more alert over the summer and try to post once a week, if not (dare I dream) more.

Read the post below about a revelatory moment I had today. It has crosswalks, game theory, mathematicians played by Russell Crowe, garbage trucks and cool phrases like "optimal strategy."

It's really got it all.

Oh, and if there is anything that you, dear readers, would like to hear me kvetch about, you have only to ask.

The Intricate Strategy Of Crossing The Street

This news item caught my eye today. At first, it seemed like another way for the Chicago Police Department to rack up easy tickets and kill time. According to the article, it was not the first time that the CPD did a "crosswalk sting," and they claim since more people stopped this time, people were learning.

Well, I'm not so sure about that. I was also not so sure of why this particular news item stuck with me. Was it because the news of recent weeks was so unmemorable (floods throughout the Midwest, Tiger Woods pulling it out, the presidential juggernaut rolling ever onward)? That might have been it; in a way, all three of these things are newsworthy yet irrelevant except for those involved (isn't most news like this?)

No, what happened was one of those small moments when you finally "get" something that has puzzled you for some time. This time, it has to do with the problem of crossing the street, the laws that relate to it and how people choose to obey or ignore them.

Flashback to last August. I wrote this post about my consternation concerning trying to cross the street in Madison. I came to the conclusion then that laws governing crossing the road (whatever they might be, and they usually give pedestrians the right-of-way) only work when everyone follows them or no-one follows them. When some do and some don't that's where the problems happen.

Then it hit me (like that garbage truck almost did last year). I was looking at the living, breathing, motorized playing out of a Nash equilibrium.

For those of you who are not familiar with the basics of game theory, or who didn't see that movie with Russell Crowe, a Nash equilibrium is a set of strategies, one for each actor in a situation, where none of these actors has the incentive to unilaterally change their strategy. In most cases, figured Nash, any one actor doing this does so at great cost to themselves, thus not maximizing their payoffs (which is just game theory jargon for outcomes).

So, applied to the traffic situation, I have my optimal set of strategies and desired payoffs and the drivers do as well. My optimal strategy is to cross the street without being killed or injured. I surmise that the drivers of the vehicles have a similar strategy: to get to their destination without any traffic mishap or vehicular manslaughter happening.

The problem here is the word "surmise," as you might imagine. Here enters another problem in game theory, that of complete information. I don't have full knowledge of the drivers and their preferences and strategies, so all I can do is guess. In the case of a place like Chicago, where virtually no-one follows the pedestrian right of way except at traffic lights and in the presence of law enforcement (moreso recently apparently), I can be more certain of my opponents and their strategies and payoffs. I cannot be so sure in a place like Madison, where some people want to get where they are going without incident and others feel the need to deviate from this strategy to let someone cross the street.

It is in this decision to let someone cross the street that the Nash equilibrium in this situation is broken. The drivers, in the estimation of the other actors (other drivers and pedestrians) changed their strategy and therefore could incur great cost to themselves and others.

Death by incomplete information? You'd better believe it happens every day.

With this new analysis, do I back away from my estimation of misplaced altruism? No. In fact, it complements it. If people kept the payoff of doing something nice (or legal) out of the equation, problems would be avoided at crosswalks all over town. Unfortunately they don't and nothing short of a reverse of the CPD's crosswalk sting would change this.

Why, you ask with furrowed brow, did you go into such detail about a revelation you had about crossing the street a year ago? As I said above, it was one of those moments of understanding and "getting it" that make these years of education, observation and analysis worthwhile.

Without these, it would seem that I was going no-where. Except perhaps into another busy intersection without my payoffs in line and my strategy thought out.

At that point, the garbage truck would be doing more than restabilizing a Nash equilibrium. It would be destabilizing my limbs.

Friends don't let friends enter a non-cooperative game without an optimal strategy.

Hey, feel free to put that on your bumper stickers and write it in greeting cards. The kids'll love it, no?


Further Reading
  • For more on John Nash, click here.
  • For more on game theory, click here.
  • For a scene from A Beautiful Mind that illustrates the Nash equilibrium, click here.
  • For more on pedestrian crossings around the world, click here. C'mon, you know you want to.