Peak Binary Thinking: Political “Dialogue” on Facebook, and Is Your “Team” Really on Your Side?

 

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My Visualization of a Most Unproductive Process

Off Topic for the Fourth of July (Back to PowerPivot Tomorrow)

NOTE:  this may look like a political post, but actually it’s about the way we think, and how analytical approaches deserve a much bigger place in politics.  I promise you three things:

  1. It will be thought-provoking.  Or at least, as thought-provoking as I can be.
  2. It’s sympathetic to number crunchers and nerds everywhere.  People who like to figure things out are fundamentally similar, no matter where you live.
  3. No candidates or political parties will be endorsed.  Not even in a sneaky way.  No implications or hints.  (I honestly don’t care which one of these chuckleheads wins in November.)

Stick with me and I will try to make it worth your while.

It’s a Presidential election year in the US.  And not just any election of course – this promises to be the most emotionally charged election of my lifetime.  Obama versus Romney in a true cage match brawl.

It’s also, of course, the Facebook Election.  At the time of the last US election, Facebook had about 100 Million users worldwide.  It now has more than that just in the US, with about 160 Million active users as of February 2012.  That’s more than half the population!

Ah, Facebook, You Arrived Just in Time to Broadcast our Indignant Rage!

imageAnd boy, those Facebook users, they love themselves some political updates lately.  Have you noticed?  My timeline is chock-full of political chaff – witty soundbites, clever cartoons, “factual” analysis that shows why any clear-thinking individual should praise/condemn the latest Supreme Court decision, and also some good old-fashioned snark.

Even though it comes from both sides of the political spectrum, it’s nothing but one-sided.  The thoughts of people who cannot begin to fathom where the other side is coming from.  That’s in fact often an explicit theme – “how anyone can not see this is beyond me” or similar words accompany many such updates.

Of course, no one can begin to make any progress in this environment – Team A is just cheerleading for their own “players” while irritating the hell out of Team B and reinforcing its stereotypes about Team A.

Jon Stewart railed against this, famously and hilariously, when he was invited to Crossfire.  That show is gone but we’re keeping the spirit alive and well every day.  That’s the bad news.

The Good News:  Both Sides are Often Simultaneously Correct!

It’s understandable, though, why we can’t comprehend the other side – both sides are often correct! 

Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

imageRight-winger:  “Don’t make excuses for criminals, society cannot function w/out harsh consequences.”
Left-winger:  “We can’t punish our way to utopia, we must address underlying causes.”

Right-winger: “Do we really want government bureaucrats controlling something as critical as our healthcare?”
Left-winger: “Do we really want insurance companies controlling something as critical as our healthcare?”

Right-winger: “Like it or not, unchecked governments always botch things up horribly.  The free market involves tradeoffs, but no centralization of power and decisionmaking can ever match its capabilities.”
Left-winger: “Like it or not, unchecked free enterprise always ends up committing horrible abuses against the common good.  Government intervention involves tradeoffs, but purely profit-driven decisionmaking never regulates itself properly.”

Right-winger:  “The government shouldn’t have control over what a woman does with her own body.”
Left-winger:  “Killing babies is wrong.”

(Wait, did I reverse those last two?  I think I did.  And the parties seem to have reversed their usual stances too.)

Yes I have deliberately left some of the parties’ more egregious stances out of these examples.  Let’s focus on the positives shall we?

This is what I mean by Binary Thinking

imageNone of us will ever spend any “quality time” with any of our leading politicians – we only see them in glimpses, from afar, and when they have their cloaking devices at full power.

And we are all very busy, saturated with noise, and cut off from deep understanding of complex issues.  How do we know which economists are making sense and which ones are outright dangerous?  We don’t.  It would take years of study to be on even footing just with their jargon.

Overwhelmed but needing to make a Left/Right vote, we pick a team.  We latch onto certain core truths and make those our answer to virtually everything we cannot directly absorb and comprehend on our own. 

When we are picking our team, we are primarily choosing between two distinct sets of mostly undeniable truths.  I say “mostly” because, well, there are some beliefs that are very much deniable.  Hate, for one.  Let’s just focus on rational, non-hateful people – there are plenty of those in each camp.  If we could bridge the gulf between them (the majority), we could safely ignore and marginalize the hateful folks (the loud exceptions).

And this brings us back to the diagram from the top:

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There’s nothing wrong with the core truths.  It’s just that, in order to keep our sanity, we over-extend those truths.  Naturally, we end up in conflict with the other side when things get complex.

And when it becomes time to “debate” an issue, we quickly revert to repeating fundamental truths – truths that are absolutely compatible, but are not when you extend them to extremes.  When both sides start saying things that are fundamentally true, but aren’t slam-dunks in complex issues, the debate goes nowhere.  Your “opponent” can either try to deny your fundamental truth (which makes them look like a total idiot – “oh you WANT a bureaucrat controlling your health”) or simply talking past you with their own core truth.  Stalemate, but a very divisive stalemate.

Why Limit Ourselves?  Let’s Mix and Match!

I’ve been joking with my wife for awhile now that I want to put bumper stickers on our car that seem completely in conflict with each other.  Pairings like these:

image  image

Why do we never see both of those on the same car?  They are completely compatible!  Let’s try another pair for fun, and this time pick a REALLY inflammatory pair:

image image

You like that?  I don’t belong to either of those organizations, but I can imagine joining both.  My reasoning is that they both represent and defend aspects of the Bill of Rights, a document written by folks who had first hand experience with tyranny, and were trying to prevent its return.  What other organizations in the US do that?  No one really thinks of BOTH of these organizations like that though.  How many people support both?  (Buehler…  Buehler…)  Plenty of people hate one or the other though.  The ACLU hates god and the NRA likes to kill people.  Right?

(Incidentally, when I was googling for bumper stickers for each organization, the first result for EACH was a sticker ATTACKING that organization, not supporting it.)

I am not saying I agree with every single stance of both organizations.  Remember, we’re trying to break the binary thinking habit here.  The ability to pick and choose extends deeper than selecting seemingly-contradictory “teams” to join.  We can disagree with people who we otherwise agree with 90% of the time, and agree with people we disagree with 90% of the time.  I am just using this bumper sticker thing as a “starter” idea.

Forging your own belief system from scratch is VERY difficult work however.  The reasons why we landed in binary-land are real, and they aren’t going away.  It’s daunting to start from scratch, and even when you dive in, you find yourself drawn to simply joining a new team.

I don’t think it’s realistic to expect most people to tackle the vast swaths of political complexity.  But I don’t think it’s necessary.  It’s a reasonable step to simply stop classifying ourselves (and others) as members of a defined team, and just return to thinking of ourselves as people.  We can start small.

Many Important Issues Do NOT Have to Be Partisan!

image“They distract us with the emotional issues, and while we are distracted, the most important issues just walk right by.”

-The Former Dennis Miller

(I say “Former” because at the time of that quote, Dennis was identified primarily as a left-winger.  He did support Ross Perot, though, which made him a non-binary guy in my eyes.  Then September 11, 2001 came and went, and now Dennis Miller is about as rabidly right-wing as they get.  I liked the old Dennis a lot better.)

We spend so much time fighting over the issues that are “programmed” as the “big ones” that we ignore issues that are often more critical, and on which we’d have broad consensus.

Examples:

1) Getting money out of politics – A 2010 Supreme Court decision ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to funding political candidates.  In other words, Big Business can dump as much money as it wants, buying candidates.  And if they don’t support you, you have no hope of winning, because your opponent will be rolling in cash. 

Neither party objected to this development.  And yet clearly it hurts us, the people.  And not just the 99%.  I mean the 99.999%.

We should unite on this don’t you think?

2) Criminal Prosecution of Massive Fraud and Theft – this one is less obvious because it’s been better-hidden.  But the examples are everywhere once you look, especially in the last few years.  Here are two.

MF Global, run by a former Goldman Sachs CEO, stole $1.6 Billion in customer money and transferred it to other banks in 2011, right as the firm was secretly going broke.  In short, they stole normal people’s money, gave it to their buddies, then folded up shop.  That money has not been recovered.  No one has been charged with a crime.

And when no one is charged, that merely encourages future theft.  Steal $100 from a gas station and you go to prison, steal $1.6 Billion and nothing happens.  Does that sound like a divisive partisan issue?

Goldman Sachs.  Wow, where to begin.  Basically, they break the law repeatedly, make billions doing it, and then IF they get caught, they pay miniscule fines.  For instance, they conducted an organized internal insider trading operation for 6 years, something that is massively profitable and illegal (it steals from clients, and other market participants, in order to enrich GS itself as well as a few elite clients) and just settled the case for $22 Million.  GS said it was happy to have resolved the matter.

I bet.

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“You can always hire one half of the working class
voting public to kill shout down the other half.”

Maybe we should start with issues like these.

How to Know When a Leader is Just a Politician

We should remind ourselves that politicians and leaders are not necessarily the same thing.  And in fact, I think most of them are not.  Here are some warning signs:

  1. They never say uncomfortable things to their own teams.  Paying lip service to vague sacrifice doesn’t count.  Telling their own supporters, directly, what their sacrifices must be – that’s what I mean.  And any decent leader would have to do this from time to time, given the inherent tradeoffs involved in problem solving.
  2. They never speak analytically.  Imagine hearing someone say “there are some things governments are good at and some things the market is good at, and we should be careful about keeping each one responsible for the right things.”  Wow.  Imagine a government influenced by Freakonomics.
  3. They never mix and match beliefs.  But these people never make it out of the primaries.  That is OUR fault, folks.
  4. They never call out the unifying issues and make real trouble for Big Business, the hand that feeds them.  The first candidate who openly digs into the issues in the previous section, gets my vote.  I’m waiting.

Personal Theory:  Do Left-Brainers Lean Right in Politics and Vice Versa?

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(You can stop reading now if you haven’t already, what follows is me indulging in a topic I think is fun.)

In recent years I’ve been wondering whether your political party of choice is influenced by which hemisphere of your brain is dominant.  Step back and look at the stances above with this in mind.  The right-wing stances seem to be the more detached, the more focused on downstream consequences, while the left-wing stances seem much more focused on the human side of the equation.  One is more heavily influenced by “IQ” thinking, the other by “EQ” thinking.

This matches my own personal development as well.  Growing up I was all left-brain, and all right-wing.  Today however I score precisely on the left/right brain boundary on personality tests.  And I am positively sick to death of both US political parties.  Is this just my own personal experience or is it something bigger?

Have you ever met a rabidly Republican ballet dancer?  Or painter?  Sculptor?  Cellist?  Yeah me neither.

On the flip side, you CAN find all kinds of scientists (and data nerds!) who are Democrats.  Does this wreck my theory?  I don’t think so, or at least not completely.  The fact is that most US jobs are left-brain jobs.  Do we have a bunch of latent right-brain thinkers toiling in left-brain jobs?  Statistically it seems likely.  My harebrained theory lives on :)

I also tend to think that in most conflicts, left brain organizations hold an unfair advantage.  A cold, calculating approach tends to be pretty lethal.  Left-brain thought is what builds atomic weapons, it’s what executes, even if Einstein’s inspirations came from storms in his right-brain.

In that vein, here’s my all-time favorite comic strip, and no, I’m not a regular reader of Doonesbury.  (Some of you keep trying to guess my political affiliation don’t you?  I truly don’t have one!)

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July 13, 2003 Doonesbury – The Best Comic Ever
(Click for Larger Version)

That strip captures what I find to be an important truth – yes there’s an advantage, but it has nothing to do with correctness.  Again, the difference between leaders and politicians. 

Hey wait isn’t that too binary?

Yes, broad characterization of people as right or left-brained is pretty heavy.  An individual uses both kinds of thought all the time.

I’m just talking about styles of thought.

And besides, it’s just a pet theory :)

11 Responses to Peak Binary Thinking: Political “Dialogue” on Facebook, and Is Your “Team” Really on Your Side?

  1. Jeff Wilson says:

    Rob:

    I found this quite interesting on how the political discourse disintegrates down to a binary level. It makes one clearly yearn for the days of a Firing Line with Bill Buckley, Meet the Press with Tim Russert and thoughtful conversation from A David Susskind and David Brinkley. The bias is so apparent by both sides thru the use of persuasive language.

    Certain word phrases that are so charged like what comes after millionaires- billionaires even those there is a factor of 1000 difference between someone worth 1 of each, they just belong together. The right wing counters with something like patriotic American. where RIGHT minded individuals cloaked in God and apple pie think one way and the other side couldnt have a cogent thought.

    Both sides seem to agree that derivatives are like the bubonic plague and we must be inoculated against them. This might be the biggest lie and fraud of them all. Something neither side understands one iota becomes the whipping boy and the mother of all distractions and distortions. Evil derivatives on a stealth mission in the middle of the night made the wealth of this country evaporate. Pinheaded politicians and their lackeys in the media begin a propaganda campaign from both sides of the aisle.

    A derivative simply derives from some underlying – stock,oil,wheat,gold,milk,stock index, thousands including one of my favorites pork bellies (bacon). Politicians ought to be experts in that one. There are as many ways to construct an option strategy as their are options. Southwest Airlines uses futures and options on futures to lock in a price on jet fuel.

    Lets use your old company as an example. MSFT. Lets say you owned 10,000 shares and it was trading at 100. I know fantasy land. You have $1 million in stock and $1 million at risk. What if you bought 100 contracts of the 100 puts for say 6 months giving you the right to sell the stock at 100. You are buullish but to the casual observer you must be bearish because of the derivative. Say the option costs 8. you have an INSURANCE policy against a long stock limiting your risk to 8. making the floor at 92 and the breakeven at 108. stock goes bankrupt you sell the option at 100 and recover 92 to cost. There are so many alternatives from this point forward. I thought your post about right and left and binary thinking touched a nerve cause to the uninformed an option instead of supplying a choice is reduced to the binary good versus evil. very interesting thought provoking article Rob. much like the best columnist I ever read one Mike Royko of the Chicago Daily News,Sun Times and Tribune. You did not always agree with Mike but he sure made you think.

    Jeff

    • powerpivotpro says:

      I *really* like your observation on the millionaires/billionaires thing Jeff! GREAT example.

      You understand derivatives a lot better than I do – I’ve been reading on that stuff since 2008 and yet, I still can’t explain “put” versus “call” – I think that’s at least partly because I haven’t cared to straighten it out though. It’s enough for me to know that these are hedge and/or leverage techniques.

      But fundamentally I agree with you. Derivatives are not the problem. Suspended consequences ARE a big problem, and derivatives happen to be a great way to achieve that. You make a huge bet that’s very profitable should it pan out, and if it doesn’t work, you pass the costs off to someone else.

      Make home loans to folks you know can never pay them back? No worries, securitize the loans and sell them off to investors. Reap all the profit now, pass the ticking time bomb to someone else. The ratings agencies slap AAA on them too, because the more they rate AAA, the more they get paid to rate the NEXT batch of securities. And besides, it’s not like the ratings agencies THEMSELVES were taking on the securities. Some other sucker is on the hook, they were just providing “expert advice.”

      The other place to dump negative consequences, of course, is on the US government. The taxpayer is buying all sorts of awful securities from these banks, at face value, when they are worth pennies on the dollar at best. It’s hard for most people to even HEAR about this, but every taxpayer is being robbed to pay banker bonuses.

      What’s that you say? Your taxes aren’t going up? Well, first of all, not YET is the better way to say it. But even better, there are many other ways to rob taxpayers. Sinister ways. Most people have no idea what inflation really is, or what causes it. That knowledge was commonplace 90 years ago, but we’ve been lulled to sleep. And even fewer know what a “reserve currency” is, that the dollar is currently IT, that the US benefits tremendously (unfairly) from it, and that these bailout policies are going to be the end of that privilege.

      There are so many ways to steal from the people it’s ridiculous. Your Social Security, your 401k, your bank account savings – all are subject to large, stealthy, and ongoing embezzlement. Even if the number on your account is going up, the purchasing power can be falling dramatically. The people on the other side of this game are geniuses, and they are organized. I don’t think our politicians understand much better than the citizens do, to be honest. But the real problem is that the politicians don’t care – they just want to win the election. Helping the citizens is just a good appearance to give. If we could drain the profit out of these embezzlement schemes, some of the world’s brightest minds would be diverted into other enterprises that actually advance the cause of humanity. But as long as the most profitable game is Wall Street, can we blame them for playing?

      It’s taken me years to learn the small amount that I know. I don’t think the answer is for us all to become Wall Street experts, it’s too hard, and they can always invent confusing mechanisms faster than we can understand them.

      The better hope here, I think, is that we all start focusing on the more unifying issues, and stop declaring our allegiance to any team other than team humanity.

      • Jeff Wilson says:

        Excellent response. Nice use of the reserve currency ( fiat Money) looked like right out of Ron Paul’s End the Fed

    • Niraj Krishna says:

      You are correct about derivatives deriving their value from an underlying asset. The problem was the Credit Default Swaps who “derive” their value/liability when the underlying asset (mortgage backed securities) default on their obligation. If you sell insurance by issuing CDS’s in a manner that you can never dream of repaying then you have a slight problem. Ask AIG and the world’s banking system.

  2. Stacia Misner says:

    Interesting theory, but I can think of folks that don’t fit your theory. But I suppose the absence of outliers would be suspicious, wouldn’t it? Anyway – read this twice “The right-wing stances seem to be the more detached, the more focused on downstream consequences, while the right-wing stances seem much more focused on the human side of the equation.” Typo or purposeful? :)

    • powerpivotpro says:

      Thanks Stacia! For length reasons I edited out entire paragraphs about my own personal experience, which includes some exceptions. I now “score” precisely on the boundary between right/left brain thinking on personality tests, after being a pure left-brainer in my youth. I don’t think I have really changed so much, as allowed my right brain side to be heard, to leverage it (and cherish it) whereas before I suppressed it.

      Of course, I was also a Young Republican type in my youth, and now both parties make me sick, so I fit my own theory in that regard.

      Typo fixed. It was pointed out to me (on Facebook, naturally!) five mins before I saw your comment.

  3. Jeff Wilson says:

    Rob here is a thought – Will we ever see a brilliant mind on the Supreme Court ever again or has the political process made that impossible. If you write something enlightening are you too controversial for the Court. Pick any of the current 9 and compare them to William O Douglas, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Thurgood Marshall, Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, William Rehnquist, Earl Warren, both John Harlan’s, John Marshall ( author of Marbury v Madison in 1803). All we have in judges and politicians is vanilla ice cream, sugar free at that. Clarence Thomas is so mediorce, he hasnt asked a question at oral argument in 6 years.

    I enjoy your blog posts because they inspire ideas and thoughts. They make me think of doors yet unopened for me personally. When I read things from you, Bill Jelen and Bob Umlas I feel as though its both journey on Robert Frost’s a road less traveled and the Grateful Dead’s line What a long strange trip its been. Most of the fun is anticipating the next fork in the road. Thanks Rob

    • powerpivotpro says:

      It’s very hard to tell whether someone qualifies as brilliant isn’t it? Our most recently appointed justice never argued a case in court. Not once!

      She has strong political ties. The whole appointment smells of political favors. And her prior work reflects a VERY strong preference for making political stances seem legal. A lot like the Bush administration and their concept of “lawfare.”

      Then again, her two brothers are both public school teachers! That hardly seems elitist. Who knows, she may surprise us.

      Thanks for the nice compliment – that’s good company! Isn’t it cool that Excel (and PowerPivot) gives us such a broad canvas on which to paint? Look at today’s post – how many features did I use in concert? And none of them were *intended* to be used that way, nor to produce an end result resembling what I did.

      I call it “composability” and it’s worth a post of its own.

  4. The_DJ_Monkey says:

    I think you can make reasonable arguments for who leans politcally right vs left based on quite a few factors (rich vs poor, older vs younger, resistant to change vs highly adaptable, left vs right brained). All kinda interesting.

    But this whole “binary thinking” fiasco… I think may be rooted in our voting system. Or at least, this video recommending Instant Runoff Elections certainly rings true to me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqblOq8BmgM

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