Monday, July 30, 2018

A variety of formats

"Large numbers are written in a variety of formats: In English, numbers may be represented as numerals (5,000), as numbers words (5,000), or in what we might call the hybrid system (5,000)."

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn Landy, Silbert, and Goldin -- victims of a tyrannical copy editor ruthlessly enforcing journal style.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Saving American democracy with Secretaries of State

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring. Trump will appoint his replacement. This leaves American electoral democracy at risk of being turned into racial aristocracy in the next decade through extreme vote suppression and gerrymandering.

Today I've done the most effective thing I know of to prevent this. After laying out the grim situation facing us, I'll tell you what that is.

I'm over 90% confident that Trump will succeed in appointing a replacement who votes like Gorsuch and Alito. Mitch McConnell, who delayed the last nomination until after elections to steal it from Obama, controls the process. Expect him to speed this nomination through -- effective legislative leaders usually have to be hypocrites, and nobody does hypocrisy better than McConnell.

The 49 Senate Democrats have no power over the process unless two Republicans defect. I'd love to see Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski rise to save Roe v Wade, or some kind of McCain surprise. But every current Senate Republican voted to eliminate the filibuster to confirm Gorsuch. I don't expect them to depart from that path now.

Where does this lead? Republican politicians will continue with gerrymandering and vote suppression. Republican judges will reject Democrats' challenges to these abuses. With every election won, Republicans appoint more judges who in turn entrench their power. This cycle could coexist despite majority popular support for progressive policies, which can't be translated into election victories or legislative action because the courts make sure Republicans stay in power.

This general kind of political/electoral oppression was the story of the South from the end of Reconstruction to the civil rights movement. It's the ancient evil that slaveowners entrenched by setting up the three-fifths compromise. Because slaves counted towards state electoral votes at a 3/5 rate but couldn't vote themselves, the Electoral College transferred their political power to pro-slavery whites around them. This ensured the preservation of slavery even if there was a slight white majority against it. And that's the kind of self-perpetuating political structure that racists throughout American history have instituted.

I don't know how far into hell today's Republicans want to take us, or how far tomorrow's will. But neither do I know where the limits on their power will be. I expect all the horrors of the Trump Administration -- gratuitous cruelty to immigrants and indifference to climate change, for example -- to find newer and more vicious expressions as their power is entrenched. Vote suppression is the perfect way for Republicans to hurt minorities while making themselves unbeatable in general elections.

The decisive moment for saving American democracy will be the 2020 election -- and only in part because we can remove Trump. It's a redistricting election, so the winner gets to draw district maps that last ten years. Give Republicans that power, and we descend into hell.

Give Democrats that power, and things could take a much better direction. If it's accompanied by a big Democratic victory at all levels, perhaps brought to us by Trump scandals or economic mismanagement, you could see President Elizabeth Warren passing Medicare for All and setting up an immigration system that's about helping foreigners do useful things in America rather than pointless cruelty. Controlling redistricting will entrench whatever we pass and get us in position to pass more. What I'm thinking about most of all today are voting reforms to set Republicans back a few decades in instituting racial aristocracy at the ballot box.

What do we do in 2018 to win 2020? The absolute best thing I know of is to donate to 2018 state-level Secretary of State candidates who will control voting in 2020 battleground states. This link lets you spread your donations among five Democratic SecState candidates, in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. (All are women.) I'll tell you how much I donated today at the end of this post. Together with my donations to Senators it brought me up to over $13K in contributions to Democrats this year.

If I had to guess (this is very hard to estimate), I'd guess that winning these races would swing 1-2% of the vote in each state. That's 1-2% across each election on the ballot, which turns lots of heartbreaking losses into exciting wins. I don't know any better source of leverage on the 2020 elections than this. And it's not something you can donate to in 2020 -- you have to win this year.

Consider Ohio, where the Secretary of State controls early voting hours and other election procedures. Republican Jon Husted tried to eliminate Sunday voting so that black churches couldn't operate their "Souls to the Polls" voting drives. After a great deal of litigation, polls were kept open only four hours on Sunday. Additionally, the uncertainty of back-and-forth litigation seems to have impaired planning and made the voting drives less effective.

Ohio also has purged 2 million voters since 2011 -- more than any state. Under Husted the state was refusing to reinstate voters that courts said were illegally purged. State Representative Kathleen Clyde called this "shameless behavior that endangers our democratic process." She's now running to replace Husted in Ohio. I want her controlling voting for offices from the President to all the way down to the state legislature in 2020.

I'd donated before to the campaigns of Kathleen Clyde (OH), Jena Griswold (CO), and the apparently superhuman Jocelyn Benson (MI). (At age 40, Benson has been Dean of Wayne State Law School, worked for the SPLC in Alabama, written a book on the role of Secretaries of State in voting, and run 22 marathons, including the Boston Marathon while 8 months pregnant.) Matt Singer, who puts together the ActBlue page, has now added Katie Hobbs in AZ and Deirdre DeJear in IA.

How much did I donate today to help these five Democrats save the 2020 elections? The answer is $2020! (You can donate however much you want.) I'm an old Buffy fan, and I like to make puns when preventing the apocalypse.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Humean Nature symposium in RiFP

Thanks to my book symposium contributors, Humean Nature hasn't fallen dead-born from the press! Carla Bagnoli presents classic rationalist objections, Nevia Dolcini explores my account of moral judgment, Kengo Miyazono offers a detailed discussion of how vividness affects desire, and Alex King maps out the options for a Humean account of reasoning. It was wonderful to have people engage so deeply with my work.

The symposium appears in a new Italian open-access journal that brings together philosophical and psychological research, the Rivista internazionale di Filosofia e Psicologia. All the symposium contributions are in English, so you don't have to learn Italian to read them. You can see them by clicking the 'pdf' buttons on the right-hand side of the page. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Introducing foof: if or only if

I hereby introduce an unimportant new logical connective: if or only if!

 It's like if and only if, but with a disjunction of material conditionals instead of a conjunction. Since we already have iff, I suggest calling it "foof", for iF Or Only iF. So "p foof q" is true if p→q or q→p.

Those of you who are quick with logic will notice the thing that makes foof so unimportant. No matter what the truth-values of p and q are, p foof q is true! If either p or q is false, at least one material conditional is trivially true because of a false antecedent. If neither is false, both conditionals are true.

Since foof claims always come out true, I don't think anything significant depends on them. But maybe someone can show me otherwise, or make a cool point about foof with kinds of logic I'm not good at. Then I'll be happy to give up my claim about the unimportance of foof. Maybe foof is useful for conditionals other than the material conditional, since some of them won't guarantee trivial truth.

Even with the material conditional, I suppose you might like foof if you have a weird and intense love of truth. Whenever you see a claim of the form "p foof q", you know it's true! The other connectives you learned in introductory logic could never guarantee you that.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Radcliffe on Humean Nature in AJP

Elizabeth Radcliffe refers to Humean Nature as “Neil Sinhababu’s brilliant book” and says that it “manages to rebut a remarkable number of critics.” (The book note is behind the AJP paywall.) She describes the structure and strategy of the book just as I conceived of it, and as I hoped readers would understand it. She concludes:

“Humean Nature is written in a clear and personable style. Its ingenious arguments will prove invaluable for scholars and students and—given the range of literature that it covers—for those simply seeking an overview of the current state of discussion in action theory.”

The Humean psychological story is broader and more interesting than people have thought over the past couple decades. I wanted to tell that story in a clear and engaging way. It didn’t occur to me that I was writing a good overview at the time, but I see how my pursuit of other goals might’ve had that result.

It’s very fulfilling to have an eminent Hume scholar tell me that Humean Nature is what I hoped it would be, and maybe even more.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Oprah for Democratic Primary Interviewer / Moderator!

People are talking about an Oprah Winfrey presidential candidacy after her speech at the Golden Globes. It’s probably a good time to say some general things about X-for-President conversations as they relate to 2020.

1. The Democratic field is going to be packed. I’d guess that at least half of the following are going to offer themselves as options, at least in the early stages: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. There will be many others too. I remember Jeff Merkley telling me that every Republican Senator looks at Trump and thinks: “I could do so much better!” and every Democratic Senator thinks “I could totally beat him!”

We’re going to have way more choices than we did in 2016 when everybody got out of Hillary’s way, except for Bernie who probably was just running to bring left-wing issues into the conversation… until a movement formed up behind him. So if 2016 has led you to think we'll have a shortage of options, we’ll have a lot more options in 2020, and it’s worth looking into them.

2. Given that we’re going to have a densely packed field, I’m just going to let candidates bid for my support by coming out with innovative policy proposals. This primary needs to be policy-dense, with candidates pledging support for things like Medicare for All, defense cuts, opening up immigration, marijuana legalization, and foreign policy ideas that prevent the collapse of the world into feuding illiberal ethnic nationalist regimes. I expect to vote for a candidate with a good package of all that stuff, plus good favorability ratings when early 2020 rolls around and the polling isn’t all name-recognition effects.

There’s a decent chance of unified Democratic control of Congress in 2020, and we need to hit the ground running and pass big stuff fast. If Oprah comes out with the best policy ideas on stuff like this, I could see voting for her, but since she hasn’t been in the business of doing that before it’s a bit hard to expect.

3. Oprah is uniquely well-positioned to make a big impact on the 2020 race, as a power broker rather than a candidate. She could start a show sometime in 2019 where she interviews the leading primary candidates, asks them questions, and presses them to sign onto her favored policies. This is broadly like the role that Al Gore played in the 2008 primary – instead of running, he let the candidates compete for his support with good climate-change policies. Everybody came out in favor of cap-and-trade, and there was enough of a party consensus behind the policy that Nancy Pelosi got it through the House. If not for the filibuster, we’d have passed major climate change legislation in 2010.

Oprah’s media profile gives her the ability to galvanize support behind a favored policy in a much bigger way than Gore did. Moderating Democratic primary debates would also be a natural extension of her core skills. If I were a person Oprah listened to, I'd say: do that!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Veronese's Last Supper

In 1573, Veronese painted a Last Supper, and it "...led to an investigation by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Veronese was called to answer for irreverence and indecorum, and the serious offence of heresy was mentioned. He was asked to explain why the painting contained "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities" as well as extravagant costumes and settings, in what is indeed a fantasy version of a Venetian patrician feast."

Q. In this Supper which you painted for San Giovanni e Paolo, what signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding?

A. He is a servant who has a nose-bleed from some accident.

Q. What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?

A. It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.

Q. Say them.

A. We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.

Q. And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?

A. He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Obamacare wins again, repealers can't deliver garbage

This is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) hugging Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the last Republican Senator whose opposition sealed the defeat of Graham-Cassidy. Obamacare repeal efforts now hit the Sept. 30 deadline for passing the bill with 50 votes.

It's worth saying a little about how we got here. Many Republicans claimed that Obamacare cost too much, while Trump promised more generous coverage that would cost more. Some attacks on Obamacare (death panels!) didn't point at anything it was actually doing.

After winning elections with incoherent policy proposals and straw-man arguments, Republicans were committed to passing incoherent legislation that eliminated nonexistent policies. They tried to introduce repeal-branded legislation that their base could be misled into thinking of as doing everything, but they could never get 50 of their 52 Senators behind a bill.

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan now find themselves in a trap of their own making. Instead of compromising with Obama, they made really bad arguments against his policies. Now they have to follow through with really bad legislation that can't actually make it through Congress. And it only gets worse from here. Since the base has seen that they can't deliver, their people are losing primaries (Luther Strange) or retiring for fear of losing primaries (Bob Corker).

The runup to passing Obamacare was very different. Democrats had spent the 2008 primary achieving consensus about a basic structure for the plan (insurance regulations + individual mandate + subsidies). Yale's Jacob Hacker wrote it up for a labor-union think tank, Edwards introduced it in early 2007, Clinton copied it that August, and the party as a whole adopted it as a model after Obama won. As a moderately high-profile John Edwards volunteer, I spent a lot of 2007 arguing for the plan on the internet and face-to-face with other Democrats. An entire caucus of 60 eventually lined up to get a version of the plan through the Senate, breaking a Republican filibuster.

I know it often doesn't seem this way in politics, but there are advantages to not saying total garbage. Then you don't have to promise garbage and write garbage legislation that Susan Collins can't bring herself to support. Your base doesn't ask, "You promised me garbage, now I want it, where is my garbage?" and get furious because you didn't deliver the garbage.

Monday, September 18, 2017


Primaries are very important. They also make people a little crazy.

People who prefer a candidate fall into like-minded communities where everyone says the best about their candidate and the worst about the other. These communities give them an exaggerated sense of the differences between the candidates, at least relative to the spectrum of national opinion and the spectrum of outcomes they'd create relative to the opponent.

(Personally, I wouldn't say that Hillary-Bernie in 2016 was especially fiery by historical standards. Seriously, contested presidential primaries are always that way. I'd rate 2004 with Howard Dean a bit higher. The Iraq War was going into its worst period. The Dean people were rightly furious at the other Democrats who had let that happen.)

This dynamic has continued post-primary. Except since there isn't a primary anymore and we aren't focused on the policy outcomes, it's more purely about lauding your hero and hating the enemy.

Social media sharing after Hillary's book came out has been an example. People who were in one social media environment or the other during the primary should probably reflect a little on how they might be seeing the best or the worst stuff related to a 512-page book. Content is more likely to go viral if it's more intense, so you might be seeing some especially slanted material.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Halloween costume: Russia

If you want to dress up as Russia this Halloween, all you need is a bear costume and a Donald Trump hand puppet.