At least five interesting things for the middle of your week (#27)
Chaos Climbers, gender wars, union wars, social media toxicity, a good spending bill, and urban agglomeration
We’re in the middle of what’s shaping up to be yet another bitter and terrifying U.S. election season. And beyond America’s borders, people in Eurasia and Africa are fighting and dying in a series of proliferating wars. But even as the world grows darker, I continue to sense a few green shoots starting to poke their heads above ground in American society. The ruptures of the 2010s haven’t yet been mended, but people are starting to try to fix things.
Just one tiny example: Last year the country music singer Luke Combs released a cover of Tracy Chapman’s 1988 song “Fast Car”. A few writers and social media shouters attempted to problematize Combs’ cover. But Chapman, who almost never performs in public in recent years, made a point to come out of semi-retirement and sing a duet of “Fast Car” with Combs at the Grammys. You can watch a video of the performance here. It was one very small sign that Americans might be starting to push back against the knee-jerk divisive thinking of the 2010s.
So anyway, the theme of today’s roundup is “small signs of social healing”. But first, podcasts! Here’s an episode of Econ 102, with Erik Torenberg and special guest Eli Dourado. Eli and I debate whether we should be optimistic about the future of technology, and it turns out that I’m more optimistic than he is!
I also appeared on Dan Schulz’s podcast, “Undertone”. We talked about a very wide variety of topics:
Anyway, on to this week’s list of interesting things:
1. Make America normal again
Shortly after the start of the Ukraine war, I wrote a post about how radicals on both the left and right in America supported Russia’s cause, because they hoped that a destabilization of the U.S.-led world order would help them gain power within the U.S.:
It turns out that a Reddit user named Adam Nicholas beat me to the punch by two months. “Political compass” memes, dividing the world into quadrants based on social and economic axes, are pretty common on the internet. But Nicholas’ meme showed radicals from all four quadrants dreaming the same foolish dream: that their ideology would be the one to benefit from chaos and decline.
I think about this meme a lot these days. I think about it in the context of leftist Palestine activism, which continues to dominate TikTok and roil some college campuses, despite Palestine being a fringe concern among the electorate. Embarrassing examples of Palestine protesters harassing random Jews on the street, and bellowing their intent to destroy America, continue to pop up.
But I think about the meme a lot more in the context of the Right. Palestine activists are a fringe, but Tucker Carlson, who was recently the number one voice in conservative media, just went to Russia to give a puff-piece interview to Vladimir Putin (who has tossed more critical foreign journalists in prison). Republicans in Congress, apparently doing the bidding of Donald Trump, forced Biden to agree to a draconian border crackdown bill, and then voted against the bill.
Meanwhile, right-wing online media has been exploding with hatred and conspiracy theories against Taylor Swift and her boyfriend Travis Kelce. Rich Lowry, the editor-in-chief of the conservative National Review, can only gape in horror at what his movement is becoming:
As you might have heard, an element of the online right has decided that the pop star’s famous romance with Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce is a plot to get President Joe Biden re-elected…Most of this discussion is on social media and much of it doesn’t matter very much, but there is a risk that the conservative movement will appear weird and alienated from the American mainstream — and turn off voters in the real world…In this regard, the Taylor Swift obsession is particularly stupid and perverse.
As Lowry points out, it’s kind of mind-boggling that a blonde country singer and her football player boyfriend have become the Right’s idea of everything that’s wrong with America. I mean, if you kick out country singers and football players, who do you really have left? Sadly, the right-wing magazine The Blaze has an answer:
“Catturd” refers to Catturd2, a pro-Trump Twitter influencer who’s fond of conspiracy theories.
Really? That’s who you’ve got? “Catturd”? When I was a kid, the right wing was about Jesus, America, country music, and football. Now it’s about “Catturd”? I can’t even type that sentence without laughing out loud. I’m sorry, it’s over. You’re done. Go home.
Fortunately, some conservatives seem to be tiring of the endless march to ridiculousness. In addition to Lowry, there’s candidate Nikki Haley, who also can’t help laughing at the anti-Swift Right, and who declares that we need to “Make America normal again”.
2. Is politics being taken over by gender wars? Not so fast…
It’s time for another episode of Viral Charts! The excellent John Burn-Murdoch recently shared a chart that went mega-viral. It shows a recent dramatic divergence between the political leanings of young men and women in developed countries:
This is, indeed, a disturbing trend. However, it also might not exist. Burn-Murdoch’s data comes from various reliable data sources. However, there are other data sources on this question, and they don’t seem to show the same divergence. Allen Downey looks at a U.S.-only data source, the General Social Survey, and finds only a very modest divergence:
He then smooths the data and modifies it in a couple other standard ways, and finds much the same thing.
Meanwhile, Ryan Burge looks at the Cooperative Election Study, and also fails to find the dramatic divergence that Burn-Murdoch documents:
Burge also looks at political affiliation, as opposed to ideology, and also finds no divergence.
Burn-Murdoch responded that Gallup has a bigger survey sample than the GSS — about 10,000 to 2,000. But the Cooperative Election Study has a sample size of 50,000. This isn’t a clear case of one data set being much more comprehensive than another.
(Burn-Murdoch also shifts from the GSS to Gallup in 1998 for the U.S. data, but doesn’t indicate this on the graph; this is a no-no in data presentation, since surveys aren’t generally exactly comparable, and people reading the graph need to be able to know which data source each data point comes from.)
Anyway, these alternative data sources are all just for the U.S. But the fact that they don’t agree with each other suggests that asking questions about political ideology to slightly different samples of people, with slightly different wording, can lead to dramatically different results. That, in turn, suggests that political ideology is not something that survey respondents — or at least, survey respondents younger than 30 — have a very clear or consistent idea about.
Which means we should be wary of treating this divergence as a real and important trend.
3. Unions and semiconductor companies are learning to get along
Back in August, I wrote a post about disputes between unions and chip companies. The example of TSMC, which had to delay its planned U.S. fab by a year, was especially worrying. Kevin Xu made the case that unions are a roadblock to industrial policy:
[The reliance on foreign direct investment for the chip and battery industry implies that] American workers are, by and large, ill-equipped to productionize these foreign know-hows and need to learn new skills to be able to do so. This critique may sound jarring, even personal, but everyone loses the skills they don’t practice…However, many union leaders don’t seem to recognize this truth. This is evident in…the way Arizona Building and Construction Trades is advocating for local pipefitters, plumbers, and welders against TSMC…
[T]he Arizona Building and Construction Trades (ABCT) union is lobbying lawmakers to not grant visas to some 500 workers that TSMC wants to send from Taiwan to Phoenix to speed up the Arizona fabs’ construction progress. (It is already delayed.) ABCT’s members felt entitled to those jobs, and made a website to express their wounded feelings to Arizona politicians…[The website] refers to these incoming Taiwanese workers as “cheap shortcuts”, when TSMC is more than doubling the salary to incentivize its Taiwan-based workers to uproot their life to salvage the delays in the Arizona desert…
In some ways, these labor unions' “delusion” is not entirely their own fault. It is hard to know how much you are really worth, when the President tells you that “American union workers are the best”, when you are really…not.And until someone is honest and bold enough to tell these union workers that they are not the best, but they can be if they stay humble, soak up all the know-hows and skills from workers elsewhere, and just work more than 32 hours a week (or more like 50), labor unions will continue to rain on America’s industrial policy parade[.]
But Robert Reich argued that the delays were management’s fault, due to a management culture that didn’t translate well to America’s contracting environment and safety rules:
A former supervisor at the [TSMC] site…blamed delays on disorganization from management and a lack of knowledge by bosses from Taiwan on adhering to safety codes and regulations in the US…They said when they started working at the site, all workers went through a safety training program, but out in the field, they never saw the people who ran that program or safety protocols enforced.
“There were multiple general contractors all in the same little areas, all of them saying different things. Nobody ever coordinated anything; everybody was always in each other’s way, people were storing material everywhere, and it was constantly holding up little projects,”…
In June, the American Prospect reported the site had been dogged by mistakes, injuries, [and] safety issues…Another former worker at the site…told the Guardian they experienced numerous issues working on the site, from not being paid for hours worked to health issues from chemical exposure on the site.
“The guys were spraying fireproof chemicals on the I-beams. It didn’t matter if you were having lunch, they’d just spray right above you. Everyone out there had the same cough. I’m sure it was because of that. I left the job and my cough cleared up a month later,” the worker said.
And so on.
The dispute really sounded intractable. And yet a really determined program of industrial policy has a way of making things work and finding ways around even the toughest roadblocks. This December, TSMC and the local unions reached an agreement that will allow work to proceed:
The feud between TSMC and the local Arizona workforce, backed by a group of labor unions, is finally coming to an end as the two reach an agreement concerning the construction of Fab 21 in Arizona, Bloomberg reports. The agreement commits TSMC to rely much more heavily on local laborers and to invest in training programs and workplace safety…TSMC has agreed to only send foreign workers with "specialized experience" if it's necessary, and would otherwise rely on the local workforce…
The agreement also includes the institution of training programs and increased transparency on workplace safety. A new committee will be responsible for overseeing that these measures are enacted effectively…
In the days leading up to this agreement, TSMC chairman Mark Liu discussed how he and his company were learning how to get along with not just workers from Arizona, but America more generally. He noted that TSMC as one of Taiwan's most prestigious companies isn't really used to criticism…
Liu however has come to embrace this criticism, saying "not being criticized is the biggest enemy of engineers." His conciliatory attitude presumably helped smooth things over with the unions. Of course, ensuring that his company would get CHIPS Act funding was probably a key reason why Liu was so open to compromise. TSMC's budget for Fab 21 is in the tens of billions of dollars, and offsetting that with a slice of the $100 billion funds from the CHIPS Act is definitely in TSMC's interest.
Huh! Funny how when there’s a giant pile of money involved, management and unions can learn to get along.
Of course, the key ingredient in this sudden burst of reconciliation and concord was likely the U.S. government itself. None of the news sources are reporting that the civil servants tasked with disbursing CHIPS Act funding called up both TSMC and the unions and strongarmed them into reaching an agreement. But I have zero doubt that this is what happened. A powerful and competent bureaucracy is absolutely invaluable for identifying and overwhelming bottlenecks.
Anyway, this whole episode reminds me of the conflicts between unions and management that exploded during America’s World War 2 production effort. Those conflicts were severe and even occasionally turned bloody, but in the end, it was the strong bureaucrats of the New Deal administration that managed to force them into cooperating. The results, of course, are in the history books.
4. Humanity is learning to push back against social media
I don’t blame smartphone-enabled social media for everything that ails our society, nor do I think it would have been better had the confluence of these two technologies never been invented. But I certainly do think it’s been a big challenge for us to deal with. Like the printing press, social media has caused an explosion of social chaos, as relations of power and status in society are disrupted. Like TV and radio, it’s put us in contact with many more anonymous strangers than our preexisting social institutions were designed to deal with. And like all new media technologies, it has encouraged bad actors to take advantage of the chaos.
But mobile social media has only existed for a decade and a half. That’s really not very long. And it was always inevitable that humankind would put our collective minds toward figuring out the problems with the new technology, and designing new social institutions to cope with those problems.
There are signs that this is happening now. The first place to look is in the world of academia.
A 2023 paper by Petersen, Osmundsen, and Arceneaux makes some progress in identifying the kind of bad actors that haunt social media:
Why are some people motivated to circulate hostile political information? While prior studies have focused on partisan motivations, we demonstrate that some individuals circulate hostile rumors because they wish to unleash chaos to “burn down” the entire political order in the hope they gain status in the process. To understand this psychology, we theorize and measure a novel psychological state, the Need for Chaos…Across eight studies of individuals living in the United States, we show that this need is a strong predictor of motivations to share hostile political rumors, even after accounting for partisan motivations[.] (emphasis mine)
This fits pretty much exactly with the meme I posted above.
This paper helps make us more aware of who the troublemakers on social media are. They are not necessarily crusading ideologues or staunch partisans. Instead, they are trolls — people who get a feeling of power from stirring up fights, and who dream of doing this on a society-wide scale. In other words, social media needs to focus on the problem of stopping exactly this kind of person from doing exactly this kind of thing.
One way to do this is to build anti-troll features directly into platforms. One seemingly successful example is Community Notes, a feature that allows the community to correct misinformation. A 2022 paper by Wojcik et al. explains the somewhat ingenious implementation:
We present an approach for selecting objectively informative and subjectively helpful annotations to social media posts. We draw on data from on an online environment where contributors annotate misinformation and simultaneously rate the contributions of others. Our algorithm uses a matrix-factorization (MF) based approach to identify annotations that appeal broadly across heterogeneous user groups - sometimes referred to as "bridging-based ranking." We pair these data with a survey experiment in which individuals are randomly assigned to see annotations to posts. We find that annotations selected by the algorithm improve key indicators compared with overall average and crowd-generated baselines. Further, when deployed on Twitter, people who saw annotations selected through this bridging-based approach were significantly less likely to reshare social media posts than those who did not see the annotations.
In other words, Community Notes works by finding corrections that appeal to people across partisan and ideological divides. That’s important, because trolls sow division by convincing each side that the other side believes some insane rumor. By finding corrections that appeal to people across the spectrum, Community Notes basically proves to everyone that even their political opponents realize that a specific piece of misinformation is B.S.
More institutions like this are needed. And I doubt that all of them can be built into the platforms themselves. In particular, I doubt that clever algorithms can foil determined attempts by state actors to propagandize democratic societies. We can deal with the little trolls, but I suspect the bigger trolls will require sterner countermeasures.
5. The House passed a good bill
If you’ve been watching the political news over last few days, you might be tearing your hair out in frustration over the antics in the House of Representatives:
But unless you were paying close attention, you might have missed that that very same House of Representatives, just a week earlier, passed a bipartisan bill that gives money to poor families and fixes problems with the corporate tax code:
The bill passed the House by a vote of 357 to 70. It would expand eligibility for the child tax credit among the lowest-income families and adjust payments for inflation for the 2024 and 2025 filing years…It would also bolster certain business tax credits — including deductions for research and development, interest expenses and investments in equipment — that were limited in an effort to cap the total costs of President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cut law.
The child tax credit is one of the most effective, simplest, and best-targeted anti-poverty programs we have. It’s also a way of easing the burden on working parents, which encourages people to have more kids. The fact that it passed with so many GOP votes is very encouraging. It reinforces the idea that when Congress is allowed to operate out of the political limelight, it can actually get a lot done.
Unfortunately, the bill might not pass the Senate. Concerns about deficits are one reason (and we should expect to see more of those concerns in the coming years). But a big reason was simply that some Senate Republicans don’t want to do anything to improve the situation of the country when their guy isn’t in the White House:
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) criticized the measure, which nonpartisan estimates say could lift 400,000 children out of poverty, because it could help Biden’s reelection campaign. He said he would evaluate the bill after the House vote.
“I think passing a tax bill that makes the president look good — may allow checks before the election — means that he can be reelected and then we won’t extend the 2017 tax cuts,” Grassley said.
Obviously, this kind of thinking is poison for any democracy. If the opposition party always thinks it can unseat the incumbent by making people worse off, it will be the citizenry who suffers. In order to prevent this kind of malfeasance, voters have to consistently blame people who block good policies for reasons of political gamesmanship.
But the fact that the House Republicans didn’t think this way should be encouraging. They were willing to pass a good policy, regardless of whether it would help Biden or not. That gives me a small glimmer of hope that our democracy might see some less dysfunctional days ahead — especially if and when Donald Trump exits the political scene for good.