What is music; Pythagoras Gives Us a Clue

Musical entertainment was once provided primarily by amateurs; ordinary people with musical knowledge and ability.  But the invention of recorded performances by professional musicians changed everything.  Prerecorded professional performances were suddenly available to everyone.  People just listened and no longer performed or needed to learn about music. In addition, music training in public schools  discontinued and together left a generation lacking the ability to read or in any way understand music.

While recent popular TV shows like American Idol rekindled interest in singing and musical theater seems to be enjoying a renaissance,  knowledge of American music or its roots is in short supply.   We are left incapable of evaluating music beyond its commercial popularity.  We’ve become captive to the whims of those who make fortunes in the music industry peddling whatever they believe will sell regardless of its quality or content.    And there is little appreciation for the immense struggle throughout history to produce quality music.

Music is paramount in our lives.  It is central to important functions in society: funerals, athletic and military events, swearing-in ceremonies, religious gatherings, marriages, and what would a movie or play be like without music to stir our emotions.  We spend billions in the music industry and hours listening to the radio and recordings.  Musical styles define our cultures and musicians serve as icons.  Yet, what do we know about this seemingly unique human creation?

Earliest History 

There is no written history of the origins of music.  But it is astonishing to learn that the earliest musical instrument, a sort of flute, was discovered to exist roughly 30 to 40 thousand years ago!  This early date corresponds to the findings of cave drawings from the Chauvet Cave in southern France documented by the German director Warner Herzog in the film Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  The cave drawings are the oldest human-painted images yet discovered, crafted as much as 32,000 years ago. They have a hauntingly evocative three dimensional quality sorely at odds with our notion of “primitive art.”   These discoveries lead us to conclude that the esthetic nature of the earliest humans was complex and capable of producing and enjoying art and music to an extent not previously imagined. (1)

1 (Thomas Higham, et al, (2012).  Testing models for the beginning of Aurignacian and the advent of figurative art and music: The radiocarbon chronology of Geibenklosterie.  Journal of Human Evolution Vol. 62, Issue 6, Pg 664-676.)

2   (Levitin, D. J. 2006.  This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.  Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York)

Why Do Humans Create Music

 Did music serve some special evolutionary function?  The American cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker asserts that music is merely an evolutionary by-product piggybacking on language.   Music, Pinker explains “…is simply a pleasure-seeking behavior that exploits one or more existing pleasure channels that evolved to reinforce an adaptive behavior, presumably linguistic communication.”  (2)

But, Darwin himself wrote in The Descent of Man “I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by male and female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.”  Thus, music may serve as the feathers for a peacock, the function of which seems to aid in the attraction of a mate.  Anecdotally, one can point to the presumed sexual attraction of rock stars or the historical sexual icons Franz Liszt and Niccolo Paganini as due to the seductive power of their music.  Music and dance can arouse passion and energize the weary and fearful soldier or hunter to action thus, indirectly exerting selection pressure for survival and mating.  If music serves to “set the mood” for romance, why not also for earlier people?  But if music has no effect on sexual selection should it have lasted for low these thousands of years?  Why do we find it so pleasurable and necessary?

While the precursors contributing to music can be debated there is no debate as to the importance of music today.  Do we listen to music seemingly for the pure joy of it.  If its beginnings were determined by its effect on selection pressure so be it, but today its purpose may have evolved beyond the practical.  Shouldn’t something so relevant be better understood?  Why should music, its creation and performance, be relegated to so few?

2 (Thomas Higham, et al, (2012).  Testing models for the beginning of Aurignacian and the advent of figurative art and music: The radiocarbon chronology of Geibenklosterie.  Journal of Human Evolution Vol. 62, Issue 6, Pg 664-676.)

2   (Levitin, D. J. 2006.  This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.  Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York)

What are the Critical Components of Music?


Pinker is surely right in saying that music is pleasurable.  Music can be thought of as being composed of pleasing tones or sounds produced rhythmically.  Perhaps rhythm is the basic element with the pleasing tones the icing on the cake.  We can speculate that early humans eased the burden of pounding grain by doing so in a pleasing rhythm and additionally finding joy in dancing to such rhythms.   Pounding a drum in a certain way is “infectious” and drums are the heart of the music of most cultures.  What is that “certain way?”  This is critical, because the drum itself may sound unpleasant if struck once or twice or not “in rhythm.”  But even the pounding of a hammer on a nail can be pleasant if struck “in rhythm.”  There are good attempts to define rhythm such as found in How Music Works by John Powell but simply put: rhythm is the accented production of sound in repetitious patterns.

Everyone in western culture knows the waltz and its identifying repeated pattern “ONE two three, ONE two, three, ONE, two, three…etc.’ we imagine the twirling couples in exquisite costumes dancing to Viennese waltzes by the Straus brothers.  The accent is on the first count of the repeat three beat patterns.   For another famous pattern, think of Beethoven’s opening four notes of his famous fifth symphony;

The opening triplets leading to their root note resolution in the key of E-flat is unmistakable to almost everyone born in Western culture – ‘la-ta-da DA, la-ta-da DA’.  The Gestalt psychologists at the turn of the last century demonstrated that humans commonly group events into repeating patterns.  We see patterns everywhere and in everything.  Perhaps this grouping is innate, a way to bring meaning to the otherwise chaotic.  It is no accident that rhythmic tapping forms information patterns in everything from Morse code to communication exchanges by isolated prisoners of war.

Poetry enchants us by its rhythm and even Shakespeare has his characters utter their timeless words in rhythm.  Though Western classical music often eschews the drum it never-the-less contains strong rhythmic patterns.

Rhythms can get complicated as in the music from South America or the Afro-Cuban genre.  Rhythm can be cleverly distorted by leaving out “beats” in the pattern or accenting the pattern in unusual and surprising ways such as in Ragtime or swing music.  Go to Google and find a song by Scot Joplin, the American composer who composed catchy ragtime tunes at the turn of the last century, and hear samples of rhythmic distortion.  Or check out a lively version of Cole Porter’s American standard “Anything Goes.”  This distortion, called syncopation, does not confuse us because of our ability to perceive patterns, and it makes the music interesting and surprising.  Surprise captures our attention and enriches musical experience.

Catch part II of What is Music on my next blog

Trump’s Middle Class Tax Cut: Really?

“The Main Purpose Of The Trump Tax Cut Is For The Middle Class”  Paul Ryan

In today’s political landscape is this statement reality or pure spin?

  • House Speaker Paul Ryan  on CBS Morning News in response to a question from host Charlie Rose.

Pythagoras urges objectivity and to examine  evidence before drawing conclusions.  The backdrop for  Ryan’s statement involves two constituencies.  The first is the so called Trump Base.  These are  people who put Trump in office and who steadfastly support him.  The make up of the Trump base is a topic for another blog but  the majority is from the middle class.  Pythagoras speculates this base to be larger than thought.  According to a June Gallop poll of this year, 62% of Americans identify as “middle class.”   Therefore, the Trump Administration and the Republican party must consider them in any tax cut proposal.

The second are the wealthy investors who bankroll the Republican party and the campaigns of its elected members, and who make up Wall Street and the financial sector.  They are salivating over the prospects of a hefty tax cut.  The Trump bump in the stalk market and its continuing rise seems primarily due  to the anticipation of a tax cut.  The trick is to appeal to both sectors of the population when their separate interests and goals are often antagonistic.

One strategy is to quietly give the wealthy investors what they want while  loudly proclaiming a tax plan whose raison-detre is to benefit the middle class (see above).   Using the political strategy of bait and switch, the middle class actually would get very little benefit while the top 1%  the lion’s share.  This must be done under cover of heavy bombardment by mystifying jargon and misleading mumbo-jumbo that the middle class simply won’t understand or  feel in their pocketbook until too late when the blame will be spread everywhere.   Let’s see how this will all play out, Ryan style.

Who Are the Define Middle Class?

First let’s define Middle Class.  Clearly “middle” is a definition up for grabs.  Statistical middle is the median, that point at which 50% fall above and below it.  So, this could mean the middle quintile, the middle 20th percentile.  Pew Research Center a reliable source  defines middle class using income. For a family of three middle class income extends from two thirds to two times the median income of $55,775 in 2016, i.e., $48,960 – $140,000.

Work by Leslie Shapiro of the Washington Post considers the median income as a function of the number of family members.  For a single-member household the median income is $30,367; for a two-member household it is $65,627; for a three-person household it is $76,986; and for a four-person household it is $91036.  Shapiro then defines middle class income as ranging from the 30th percentile to the 80th, incorporating the middle 50%.  If you are in the 30th percentile essentially 30% of the population has an annual income below yours.  By Shapiro’s calculations middle class income ranges from $35,000 to $122,500 using, a statistical, 2.5 house members.  For the hypothetical household with 2.5 members the median income is $59,039.  This number seems to contrast with what Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic advisor, calls the “typical middle class family” making $100,000 who will benefit greatly from the proposed tax plan!

Another middle class economic definition is wealth, your total assets which can go from being in debt to extreme assets.  Many place middle class within a range defined as being without debt but having no real assets up to assert of $401,000.

A third definition involves annual consumption in the middle fifth (quintile) of spending which extends from $38,200 to $49,000.  An Obama White House Task force on the Middle Class (2009) thought the Middle Class could be better defined by their aspirations.  This might include such things as owning a home, taking family vacations, health insurance and retirement security, and affording a college education for their children.  But using aspirations is quite variable depending on demographics such as where one lives, one’s age, ethnic background, education level, and so on.  For example, if you live in Beattyville, Ky the median income is $16,000.    In Palo Alto, Ca. it is a whopping $136,000.  There are sone complicated formulas combining these demographics but Pythagoras prefers to fall back on using  annual income to define middle class.

The Present Tax Scheme.   The All Important Seven Tax Brackets: Circa 2016

Tax rate   Taxable income bracket          Tax owed

10%          $0 to $9,325                          10% of taxable income

15%           $9,326 to $37,950                $932.50 plus 15% of the amount over $9,325 to $37950

25%           $37,950 to $91,900               $5,226.25 plus, 25% of the amount over $37,950

28%           $91,900 to $191,650             $18,713.75 plus 28% of the amount over $91,9000

33%           $191,650 to $416,700          $46,643.75 plus 33% of the amount over $416,700

35%           $416,7000 to $418,400         $120,910.25 plus 33% of the amount over $416,700

39.6%        $418,400 or more                 $121,505.25 plus 39.6% of the amount over $418,400

There are seven Federal tax income brackets seen in the left column above.  If you are in the 25% bracket it does not mean you pay 25% of all of your income.  It is graduated so you pay 10% on income up to $9,325 plus 15% of income up to $37,950 and then 25% of the rest of your income.  So, lets say you made $80,000.  You would pay $5,226.25 plus 25% of $80,000 – $37,950 = $42,050 which would be 0.25 times $42,050 or $10,512.5.  You would then owe $15,738.75 in Federal taxes.  This Federal tax is 20% of your total income.  But this is if you are filing as an individual.  If you file as “married filing jointly” this gets reduced to $11,477.25 or 14% of your income. If you file separately you can take what is called a “standard deduction” on your income of  $6350.  Or if you are married and file jointly you can deduct  $12,700.

You can also deduct $4,150 per household family member called the “personal exemption.”  For a family of four this is a hefty $16,600.  There is also the “child tax credit” (CTC) of $1,000 per child which is subtracted at the end from your final tax bill.  This brings your adjusted gross income down to $50,700. From this figure you figure as above to determine the final tax bill from which you can then deduct the CTC of $1,000 per child.  If a household earns the median of $59,000 with two children then the final tax bill would be $1,458.

You may have multiple income sources.  Some of these may be taxed at different rates than others.  If you own stock the interest and dividends earned may be taxed at a different rate than your salary.   All of this gets boiled down to what is called your gross adjusted income.  This figure can be affected by what are known as itemized deductions.  Under the right circumstances these can reduce your gross adjusted income considerably.  For example, you can deduct the interest you pay on your mortgage, moving expenses getting to your new job destination, student loans interest, and if beyond a certain limit, your medical expenses.  You can also surprisingly deduct your state and local taxes in states where state income is collected.

These itemized deductions generally are modest adjustments to the gross adjusted income for most middle income families. Since you can deduct $6350 or $12,700 filing as single member household or filing jointly as married, most people don’t bother itemizing.  But for multinational corporations, big domestic businesses, and very wealthy individuals the deductions can be astonishingly large.  Clever lawyers or accountants can often get the gross adjusted income  down to where they end up paying little in Federal tax.  Most of these esoteric deductions are known by their rightful name as loopholes.  These are specially worded deductions that are included into the tax code as the result of high dollar lobbying and quid pro quo backroom deals to which the average taxpayer is oblivious.

There are currently three main sources of revenue for the Federal government: individual income tax, payroll tax, and so called corporate tax.  Corporate tax is levied on the adjusted profit of a business.  The tax rate for most businesses is 35%.  It doesn’t take a genius to imaging the esoteric nature of corporate tax.  Fortunes are made by corporate tax lawyers finding ways to save their corporations money.

While the tax rate for businesses in America is nominally 35%, most businesses are now “pass through” businesses.  This means, to site one example,  that a limited partnership financial firm takes their earnings and passes them to the partners according to some agreed upon formula.  While these earnings are ostensibly now taxed at a higher rate if they exceeds $418,400, at 39.6%, in reality the individual pays far less when all of the deductions are factored in.   Moreover, a large share of the income of many limited partnerships is portfolio income—long term capital gains—which is taxed only at a top rate of 23.8 percent. While much of the capital gain income flowing through partnerships is simply a return on capital investments, some portion for various financial institutions may represent  ‘carried interest’ that general partners receive in compensation for so-called “investment services.”  “Carried interest,”  based on 20 percent on the profits above a baseline of 8%,  means the partners receive a 20 percent commission in addition to any profit on other assets of the limited partnership. Both the profits on personal assets and carried interest are taxed at a  capital gains rate, which for high-income earners is 20 percent.

Read more: Carried Interest: A Loophole in America’s Tax Code | Investopedia http://www.investopedia.com/articles/investing/102515/carried-interest-loophole-americas-tax-code.asp#ixzz4wosbCKGc

I think you are beginning to get the point that the tax laws in the United States are arbitrarily slanted in favor of the wealthy at the expense of the hapless middle class worker who can afford neither lobbyists or tax lawyers.

Payroll taxes come out of your paycheck for things like social security and medicare.  Look at your paycheck and you can see that payroll taxes take a real bit out of your income.

But the rich  are always looking to get richer and one way this can happen is to pay less in taxes.  They can do this is several ways.  One way is to continue the process outlined above by simply gaming the current system which they have the resources to do.  It’s expensive enough for the average middle class working person to pay a tax preparer like a CPA or H. and R. Block to fill out their forms.  Or to purchase an expensive computer assisted tax preparation program

Another recourse for the wealthy is to get tax laws passed that mandate lower tax rates for themselves.  This is accompanied by proposing some rationale that seems reasonable and  beneficial to all.  In Pythagoras’ next blog he will outline how the Republicans are proposing to cut taxes.  It is a fascinating story in deception.  But given the high financial stakes imposed by the wealthy, Pythagoras predicts despite initial difficulties it will pass.










Why Democracy Fails to Pursue Sensible Gun Policy?

The Statistics Are Stacked Against Democracy: Urban vs. Rural Votes

The 2016 presidential election was decided by the electoral college in favor of Donald J. Trump.  But, despite his denial,  he lost the popular vote.  How can this happen?  First, let’s review civics 101.

Structure of Electoral College Provides Answers

The electoral college was created by the Continental Convention in 1787 to elect the president.  They rejected a “popular” vote.  There was scarce widespread information available in those early days among  only 4 million people spread thinly up and down the eastern United States.   Wouldn’t people  naturally vote for someone from their own State or region. Perhaps no candidate would emerge with a popular majority.   Also, populous states like Virginia would have an advantage in determining the winner.

There were two versions of the college.  The first lasted for four presidential elections.  The first version  was made up of by the “Committee of 11;” knowledgeable and hopefully impartial representatives from each state.  Each member of the Committee of 11 cast two votes, one for their first choice and one for their second, whom they wished to be vice-president.  One vote must be for someone outside the state in which the member resided.  It was presumed that the favorite vote would be for someone from each member’s home state so the eventual presidential winner would come from everyone’s second choice, the vice president’s pool – a reasonable compromise.

But with the advent and growth of political parties the first system became cumbersome.  In the election of 1800 Arron Burr and Thomas Jefferson, both of the same party, ended up in a tie and the winner was chosen by the House of Representatives after 36 tries.  So the 12th amendment to the Constitution was enacted mandating a second procedure.

Current Procedure for the Electoral College

If a candidate wins a majority of votes in a state then that state contributes all of its electoral votes to the winner.  Each state contributes two electoral votes, one for each senator, plus, each congressional district contributes one.  The total number of electoral votes per state can vary from three, for the seven least populous states with only one congressional district, to 55 for California with the most.  Maine and Nebraska are exceptions where two electoral votes are apportioned to the winning state candidate but the rest of the votes are apportioned to the  particular winner in each congressional district – Maine has two and Nebraska has three congressional districts.

There are a total of 538 electoral votes and to get a majority the winner must receive 270.  Hillary Clinton won 21 states for a total of 232 electoral votes.  Donald Trump won all other states for a total of 304 (2 delegates rebelled and changed their vote).  Despite this, Hillary Clinton won approximately 2.9 million more individual votes (“popular votes”) than Donald Trump, ( 65,853,515 vs 62,984,825 or 48.2% vs 46.1%).  How is this possible?

The Consequences

Today, the population of the US clusters in urban areas.   But congressional districts are not necessarily apportioned by population density.  So in  a state with some heavily populated urban  congressional districts, they may be outnumber by less populated  rural congressional districts.  Generally,  urban areas vote Democratic and rural areas vote Republican. (Why this is true is the subject of a future Pythagoras blog).   Nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in Texas where every one of the major cities — Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio — voted Democratic in 2012 while the rest of the state voted Republican.  This same general pattern holds throughout the United States. Despite Clinton victories in populous urban cities, Texas sent all of its electoral votes to Donald Trump in 2017:  winner takes all.  Even though the urban areas account for the largest percentage of the state’s  total population.

This situation is mirrored in many other so-called red states.  Thus, it becomes quite possible for the popular vote to favor one candidate while the electoral college favors the other.  This is why in 2017 certain states were labeled “swing states,” such as Wisconsin, even though they do not have a particularly large total population.   The founding fathers never envisioned this bifurcation of rural vs urban where rural districts outnumber urban but contain less of a state’s population.

This same pattern described above holds true for states across the US.  There are more rural states but they account for a smaller  percentage of the total US population.  Thus, it could be said that democracy in the US is reversed: the minority rules.  This same dynamic holds in Congress, especially pronounced in the Senate.  Kentucky has two votes in the Senate, California also has just two votes despite a huge population disparity:  Kentucky’s population is 4,436,974 vs California’s population of  39,250,017 – over 9 times greater.  In the house things get muddied due to how the congressional districts are drawn up.   The party in power draws up districts favoring candidates in their party, a practice called gerrymandering.  Look at a congressional district map of almost any state and it defies any semblance of unbiased construction.

Rural Versus Urban Cultures

The rural-urban divide is not economic but cultural. Recent polling results by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation from a stratified random sample of 1700 rural and  urban residents mirror  most other polls.

(Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpoast.com)

Rural residents believe their way of life is under siege by the “elites.”  Elites are generally educated and the ones thought to be in control, especially via the Federal Government.  The Federal Government is believed to unfairly cater to the needs of  undeserving people who are lazy and don’t pull their fair load but who must be funded by public money.  This feeling extends to immigrants where 42 percent of the respondents said immigrants are a burden on the country.  Sadly, this feeling also extends to racial minorities who they believe receive unfair privileges.

The poll indicated that rural residents feel their religious beliefs and expressions are being infringed upon.  Some claim that they are being persecuted for their religious beliefs.  Nearly 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those living in big cities.  Interestingly, this difference is felt by less that half of urban residents.  The major dividing issue for rural residents was lack of “fairness.”

Mostly White

The fairness issue for rural residents is relative to themselves vs “others.”  Rural residents make up a minority proportion of the US population, maybe even as low as 25% and are mostly white.   Only 1 in 5  rural residents is someone of color and  stay relatively separated geographically.  Whites believe they are unfairly treated, that racial bias has turned against them.  Not surprisingly, those of color living in a rural area do not share this view.

Economic Issues

The most recent unemployment data shows surprisingly little difference between rural and urban populations: 5.3% vs 4.8%.  But polling data  indicates that job opportunity is rather grim in rural areas especially when looking at average wages, even counting for cheaper living expenses.  One of the big problems faced by rural areas in the loss of the work force as the population shrinks.  Young people are moving to urban areas.  Thus, even when a company or industry moves to a rural area they can’t find a suitable work force.  The number of respondents expressing severe economic hardship is roughly equal in urban and rural America: about 1 in 5 say they couldn’t pay their bills and the same 1 in 5 report relying on the government to get by.  Ironically, rural residents express their dislike and distrust of the federal government while receiving considerable financial support.

Gun Ownership

According to recent polls by the Pew Research Center

( retrieved from http://www.Pew Research.org) 

46% of Americans who live in rural parts of the country own a gun compared with 19% in urban areas.  This leaves the grey middle termed the “suburbs” where 28% report owning a gun.  Polling  reports 67% own a gun for protection with hunting second at 38%.  The rest fall into the category of sport and target shooting and gun collection.  Far more Republicans own gun (41%) as compared to Democrats (16%) though with independents at (36%).  But the statistics get somewhat muddled when looking at individual states.  For example, consider Texas.  A high gun totun’ state right?  Not really – 35.9% report owning a gun ranking it 30th. out of 51 states.  Or Arizona, gun happy right?  Only 31.1% report owning a gun ranking it 38th. out of 51.  Well, how about fairly liberal leaning Minnesota ?  Gun ownership 38.4% , 29th. out of 51 – higher than Texas!  Finally, Montana;  gun ownership is at 57.7% with a ranking of 3rd. out of 51.  These statistics are misleading since the majority of the states’ population live in the urban cities where citizens are less likely to own a gun.

An Example of Minority Rules

From their new book “One Nation After Trump” E. J Dionne Jr., Norman Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann cite an example of how the arithmetic works in favor or the minority when it comes to reasonable regulations on indiscriminate gun ownership.

Dione, E. J. Jr., Ornstein, Norman, & Mann, Thomas.  (20017).  “One Nation After Trump” (St. Martin’s Press/St. Martin’s Press).

Following the terrible slaughter of small children at Sandy Hook elementary school, the Senate voted 54 to 46 in favor of a background check before being able to purchase a lethal firearm.  Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) sponsored  a bill requiring a thorough background check with the purpose of detecting those egregiously unfit, e.g., having a history of mental illness.  The 54 votes were insufficient to overcome a filibuster by Senators from rural states representing just 37% of the population.  Dione et al note that if all 50 Senators from the 25 smallest  states  voted for a bill and vice-president Pence voted with them, those representing just 16% of Americans could overrule those Senators representing 84.%

The second Amendment and the National Rifle Association

Polling data collected by the Pew Research Center

( retrieved from http://www.Pew Research.org) 

suggests gun ownership is tied to identity, especially among rural gun owners.  The gun apparently symbolizes freedom and independence conferred to the owner.  Then comes the specter of the second amendment to the US Constitution.

“A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”  

These words make up the second amendment of the Constitution.  Probably no sentence from the Constitution has caused more consternation.  Gun owners, urged on by the NRA and various members of Congress, use the second amendment as the basis for their right to own guns. Unfortunately, a careful reading of it exposes ambiguity and confusion, obfuscating its meaning.

It seems to Pythagoras that of its two clauses, the second is dependent on the first.  People have the right to bear arms (own guns?) in order to insure the security of a free State by means of a state Militia.  It is important to note a critical historical fact here.  During the Revolutionary War there was a desperate shortage of firearms for the Militia fighting the British.  It has been estimated that over half of the soldiers in George Washington’s Militia lacked reliable firearms.  Guns were created one at a time by gunsmiths.  Some were little more than decent blacksmiths who crafted guns; each one different than the next.  There were no interchangeable parts, if a part failed, the gun essentially was useless.  Eli Whitney had yet to develop the beginnings of mass production with interchangeable parts.  So, the point was to encourage individual gun ownership to assure sufficient reliable firepower for the Militia.  Nothing should be done to impede the sufficiency of guns for the individual State Militias.  These were dangerous times and the Militias, made up of civilians from the general population, needed to provide their own firearms.

The dependency of the two clauses is clearly not a settled dispute.  It seems that the NRA focuses on the second clause as completely independent of the first to  justify unimpeded individual gun ownership.  Moreover, this ownership shall not be infringed.  This has broad meeting for rural gun owners spurred on by the NRA – clearly speaking for the gun industry and gun retail.  It is interpreted to mean that Congress shall not pass any law what-so-ever that would impede the gun owner.  So, taken to this extent we have unlimited access to guns.  There are approximately 50,271 more gun stores than McDonald’s (as of December 2016 there are 14,146 McDonald’s and 64,417 firearm dealers nationwide)  The gun industry is expected to gain $13 billion in sales this year. Mass shootings and any talk of gun controls always cause a spike in gun sales.

Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com

The interpretation of infringement extends especially to semi-automatic weapons. There is confusion with the definition of an assault rifle.  An assault rifle is for military use and fires an intermediate cartridge, either a 7.62 x 39mm or 5.56 x 45mm round, repeatedly and continuously with the trigger  held.  Cartridges are dispensed from a detachable magazine that can carry up to 70 rounds.  This continuous firing action defines the weapon as a military automatic rifle.  The automatic rifle, the most famous being the Russian made AK-47 or its American counterpart M-16, is illegal in the US.  These weapons have an effective range of 300 yards.  They are not especially accurate  beyond that.  In contrast, one of the sniper rifles used by Chris Kyle was the Lapua .338 which fires an 8.58 mm  by 70mm cartridge and is accurate beyond 1000 yards.  Kyle is recorded as making a kill at over 2000 yards a truly remarkable shot.

The automatic rifle was invented by gen. John Thompson in 1916.  His invention, the “Tommy Gun” forever changed warfare.  It had a 30 cartridge magazine and fired 600 rounds per minute.  No longer was accuracy particularly important.  This weapon simply spewed out deadly force at the press of the trigger.  Its reputation was so awesome that it was banned for sale to the public in 1934 and remains so today.  But the civilian replica modeled after the military assault rifle, such as the AR-15 is not illegal.  The AR-15 is semi-automatic, meaning you must pull the trigger each time you fire off a cartridge.  Having said that, the AR-15 can hold magazines of up to 70 rounds and will fire as fast as you can pull the trigger.  But they are not especially accurate particularly as compared to a hunting rifle say the Savage M220.

So why purchase the semi-automatic rifle?  Though not terribly expensive as rifles go, the ammo is, as its semi-automatic firing uses ammo up quickly.  Not especially accurate and it would shred a deer at close range, it’s not terribly practical for hunting.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s cool, it’s manly.  And the NRA tells us it makes us safe.  From what Pythagoras wonders?  If your house is rushed by a battalion of intruders it might come in handy but otherwise not.  Really at close quarters a shotgun or a handgun is more practical.  But practicality is a non-issue for the NRA and gun owners.

Currently before Congress is a bill, H. R. 367 – named “Hearing Protection Act”  to remove gun noise suppressors (silencers) from items regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934.  Ironically, passage was interrupted by first the shooting at Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game and then the mass killing in Las Vegas.  Police departments and organizations across the country oppose this bill.  The claim is that it will make identifying gun fire and its location difficult putting officers at risk.

Following the Las Vegas shooting massacre where the killer utilized a “bump stalk” to convert his AR-15 into an automatic firing rifle, controversy arose after finding the bump stalk could be purchased legally over the Internet.  The bump stalk simply allows the kick back from the firing to bump the trigger finger speeding up firing  simulating automatic firing.  Even this device, anemically opposed by the NRA, has slipped out of serious discussion.  The NRA coyly argued that rather than having Congress address the matter, let the NTSB “review” the matter thereby keeping the issue out of the spotlight.  Sales of the bump stalk have skyrocketed and isn’t much good without a semi-automatic rifle – ring up that cash register please.


If you like to shoot targets or hunt game or really feel you need a gun for protecting your home purchase a gun.  Keep it locked and unloaded and be a responsible owner.  Seek out legitimate sources for gun safety and training.  But don’t be duped by the NRA into believing that “the only protection against a bad guy with a gun is a GOOD guy with a gun.”  Unless you are a trained SWAT team member or have extensive military training you best avoid “gun play!”  Such a situation is violently emotional and confusing.  The average “GOOD guy with a gun” in a confrontation with a real gunman in a real situation would impose a serious danger to everyone.  No one thinks clearly under these conditions and in the chaos and confusion no amount of target shooting will do anyone a bit of good.  Consider the unfortunate shootings by police officers of unarmed persons due to insufficient training under such duress.  Leave dangerous situations to the authorities and leave your guns at home where they belong, safely locked away.

Some argue that the second amendment is there to guard against an overreaching federal government.  Come gently into the 21st. century please.  If the 18th century State militia thought it was outgunned you might want to consider how foolish it might be to think your little AK-15 compares to what a federal army might bring to bear.  A real .50 cal machine gun would riddle your house into splinters.  Gun fantasies are left to the movies; the second amendment won’t help you.

The second amendment does not address reasonable restrictions on guns such as background checks, reducing the size of gun magazines, or limiting the lethality of the rifle.  The second amendment does not address the great potential benefit research could bring to bear on gun violence now foolishly disallowed by congress.  The most serious victimization in gun violence is suicide, the most common death due to guns.  Domestic violence turns deadly if guns are in the house.  And the most common killings using guns are family members or close associates.  What about gang violence and guns?  We need research here and evidence based approaches to gang violence about which we know very little.  The abundance of firearms would seem to make gang violence worse.

Can we stop gun violence – no.  Can we reduce it – most likely yes if we approach things reasonably by keeping the second amendment in tact but pursue reasonable and sensible laws about guns and who owns them.  But to achieve any progress in a democracy everyone must vote in state and federal elections.  Otherwise if a fringe minority wins and dictates policies you don’t like you will have only yourself  to blame.




An Unflattering Picture Develops?

The Development of the Trump Voter

Much of what follows is influenced by a recent book: “The Broken Ladder”  by Keith Payne.

Payne, Keith, (2017) Broken Ladder – How Inequality Affects the Way We   Think, Live, and Die.  New York, New York 10014.  Viking Press

President Trump opened his campaign with a speech containing a blistering attack of Mexican immigrants.  His savage attack of a particular group of people was characterized as  bigoted and xenophobic.  Why would Trump open his campaign attacking immigrant Mexicans?

The attacks didn’t end.  Trump, throughout his campaign, continued what many characterized as bigoted rhetoric against not only Mexicans but Muslims and sundry other minorities.  Years earlier he championed the birther movement claiming that president Barak Obama was born in Africa and was Muslim.  Without a shred of supporting evidence many enthusiastically backed Trump’s conspiracy.  While Trump viciously went after everyone he believed an opponent, women with particular vitriol, his most disturbing attacks seemed blatantly racist and xenophobic.

Years earlier in 1968 presidential candidate George Wallace, former segregationist governor of Alabama , displayed open bigotry.   His avid supporters were a fringe minority  unrepresentative of  the feelings and beliefs of most Americans. But Trump won a majority of votes  and is now president of the United States!  This despite the crude bigotry of his campaign.  Why did this happen?  Surely, his supporters don’t accept or want to be a part of bigotry, yet, they voted him into office.  Why do they ignore this bigotry?

When questioned, Trump voters strongly deny any bigotry.  Rather they point to other reasons for their strong support: the  incompetence and indifference of Congress ; the deteriorating economic future for the (white) non-college educated, exacerbated by unfavorable trade deals and competition from immigrants; the fears generated by terrorism; the dissolution of social mores aided and abetted by the ruling elite liberals; and finally the extreme negative feelings toward Hillary Clinton.

If the above were the true reasons for backing Trump then their support required complete denial of the reality of his bigotry.  The majority of Trump supporters report getting most of their political information from news sources favorable to Trump,  but the hateful words are there for all to hear and be accepted or denied.

The Emerging Discontented Voter

Pythagoras reviewed the scientific evidence in a previous blog that human  judgments are determined  relative to the context in which they are made.  What is heavy, bright, or valuable is determined by context.  A candle looks far brighter in a dark as compared to a lighted room.  We value a raise of $500 depending  on our previous salary.  An increase of $500 is huge if we made $1200 a month, not so much for $5000.  Moreover, value is assessed differently for gains vs. losses.  Within limits we fear loss more than we appreciate gain.  If two individuals hold the same winning lottery number, they must split the prize of $1000.  This is less desirable than if one individual holds the winning number and wins $500.  The former experiences a loss the latter does not.  This is captured in a choice scenario: choose either a) a 50% chance of winning $1000 or b) 100% chance of winning $500.  In both cases the mathematically expected value is $500 but in case a) there is potential catastrophic loss and most people choose b) the sure gain absent any possibility of a loss.

We have known since the 1950’s from the work of Olds and Milner that there are “reward centers” in the brain located at the hypothalamus.  Neurons of the hypothalamus in rats increase their firing in close association with “reward’ events such as receiving food for pressing a lever.   The hypothalamus “lights up” for other rewards such as sex, money, or drugs.  Olds and Milner directly “stimulated” these neurons with mild current and the animals soon came to respond solely for this outside hypothalamus stimulation.  Events that “light up” the hypothalamus can be referred to as motivators of behavior.

Olds J. & Milner P. (1954).  Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of septal area and other regions of rat brain.  Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 47 419-27

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that people judge the success of their lives based on comparisons to others.  We often refer to this sort of social comparison as “status.”  High status puts us as richer and more well off than others.  While a low status places us below most others in terms of wealth and power.   The researcher Klaus Fliessbach had pairs of volunteers play a simple game to win points.  As the players accumulated points their brain activity was monitored by fMRI scans.  As in the Olds and Milner studies, Fliessbach found that as players accumulated points neurons associated with the hypothalamus increased firing rates.  But the interesting part was that this reward firing increased even more in a player if they were accumulating more points than their peer pair regardless of the absolute number of points. People  “crave” status as they would sex, money, or drugs.  Status can serve to motivate behavior.

Fliessbach, K. (2012).  Neural responses to advantageous and disadvantageous inequuity.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 1-9.

Research has also shown that we are quite adept at sizing up relative status in terms of what might be termed “social class.”  For example, a study by Michael Kraus and Dacher Keltner had 53 pairs of college students rate the relative status of their peers in terms of social class.  Thirteen randomly selected pairs were video recorded talking to each other.  The other  students were asked to rate each conversation on a “status ladder.”  The status ladder has 10 rungs.  The top rung represents the “best off”, i.e. with the most money, best education, and the highest paying jobs.  The lowest rung represents the “worst off” i.e., with the least money, lowest levels of education and the most menial jobs.  Results showed that these ratings reliably matched objectively determined criteria such as actual family income, etc., for placement on the status ladder.

Kraus, M. W. & Keltner, D. (2009).  Signs of socioeconomic status: A thin slicing approach.  Psychological Science, 20 99-106

But there is a complicated dynamic involved.  Evidence points to a “Lake Wobegon” effect; we all think we are “above average.”  Studies of drivers at fault in automobile accidents none-the-less report that they are above average drivers.  Interviews of inmates in Federal Prisons report being “successful” and more capable than most people.  Interviews of students having taken the SAT college entrance exam all feel they are above average students.  Clearly, this Lake Wobegon effect can’t be universally true; it is impossible that everyone is above average.

Alicke, M. D. & Govorun, O. (2005).  “The Better Than Average Effect,” in The Self in Social Judgment, M. D. Alicke, D. A. Dunning and J. I Kreuger (eds) Neew Yordk: Psychology Press 2005.

It becomes painfully evident that the Lake Wobegon effect runs smack into the reality of “inequality.”  Nowhere is this more evident than in financial worth.  Particularly in the United States, income inequality is huge.

The figure above is extremely informative.  It is from the US Census Bureau showing the average annual income for each income quintile from the lowest 20% to the highest 20% for each year since 1967.  The wealthiest one-fifth of the US population accounts for 84% of the nation’s wealth.  The top 2 quintiles continue to rise sharply each year while the bottom three remain essentially stagnant.  The psychological effect of this  is the sense that your income is decreasing.  This effect is compounded by annual inflation.  The inequality looks far worse when you include the top 1% into the picture.

The old saying that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer seems to be true.  The figure directly above shows the proportion of households in the US in 2014 at each income level.  Note how fewer and fewer households get included as income increases above $100,000.   It is an inescapable fact that there is an enormous economic inequality gap in the United States.  Studies have shown that where people place themselves on the status ladder is not necessarily correlated with their absolute wealth but how they believe they compare with others.  The economists Andrew Clark and Andrew Oswald discovered in their research that how happy workers were with their jobs depended not on their absolute annual salaries but whether or not they made more or less than their peers in similar jobs.

Surprisingly, where people place themselves on the status ladder is strongly correlated with future well-being in terms of psychological and physical health and even life span.  Examine the following figures that correlate a measure of income inequality called Gini with several indices of health and well being.

The Gini coefficient is a measure of income inequality.  The lower the coefficient the less inequality. Notice the negative correlation in the figure above.  The countries with high income inequality show shorter life expectancy.  Note the US with its high Gini coefficient and a life expectancy surprisingly low as compared to other countries.

Happiness is also negatively correlated with the size of income inequality as expressed by the income share of the top 1%.  The higher the inequality the lower is the reported happiness.  Again, note the relative place of the US.

Finally, there is even a negative correlation between the size of Gini and life expectancy for each state of the Union.  You live longer if you live in a state with less income inequality (Gini) such as Vermont or Minnesota.  The state of New York is a striking exception.

There is pretty clear evidence that income inequality contributes to significant negative outcomes.  And from the chain of logic developed above this is hypothesized to spring from the negative comparisons people make with others when they perceive themselves lower on the status ladder as a result of the wide inequality in income/status.

There are even more consequence to negative status comparisons.  People judging themselves low on the status ladder believe external factors have conspired against them.   They feel a loss of control.  They see the world as chaotic and seek anything that will help bring order.  Social mores and codes of conduct they grew up with that gave stability and meaning to their lives seem to be slipping away.

How Do Low Status People Attempt to Establish Order and Power?

Social science research  shows that wide income inequality contributes to negatively perceived status and  an increase in the belief of conspiracy theories and a greater reliance on a “just” and personal God to make the world “fair.”  Low perceived status increases feelings of being  powerless.  To establish  order and meaning such people turn to conspiracy theories and supernatural powers.

Psychologists Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky made participants in their study temporarily feel powerless by asking them to recall a situation in which they felt a complete lack of control.  You might not think this would work but try it yourself and see if you don’t begin to feel anxious.  Another group was told to recall a time when they felt in complete control.  They discovered two interesting differences in the two groups.  Shown pictures of “noise”, the fuzzy static of random black and white dots, the group made to feel powerless displayed “pareidolia.”  The tendency to “see” meaningful forms in the purely random visual presentations.  They also gave both groups paranoid, conspiracy-based explanations for certain world events.  Though fabricated the group made to feel powerless found these madeup conspiracies far more believable than the control group.

Whitson, J. A. & Galinsky, A. d. (2008).  Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception.  Science, 322 115-117

Another study by Mel Lerner, done earlier at a time when such studies were allowed, arranged a female confederate to simulate being shocked in what was called an experiment in “learning.”  Upon making an error in the  so called study, she was supposedly shocked and she cried out.  Participants in Lerner’s study viewed this scene through a one-way mirror.  Half of this group was told that there would be a 10-minute break after which the woman was to resume her “learning” process and continue being shocked for errors.  The other half were told that the study was over and the woman would be compensated with money for her participation and pain.

Lerner, M. J. & Simons, C. H. (1966).  Observer’s reaction to the innocent victum Compassion or rejection?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4 203-10

Both groups were then asked various questions and in passing to give their impression of the woman.  If the woman was to be reimbursed for her trouble this was “fair” and made the world seem a just place.  They were happy for her and felt the remuneration evened the score.  But for the group who thought the poor woman was going back to being painfully shocked, they denigrated her, believing her to be immature and unlikable!

Lerner explained these astonishing findings as follows: it was a way of making an unjust and unpredictable world just and reasonable.  The poor woman  “deserved” what she was getting, she was silly and a foolish victim.  We often try to make sense of the world even though the solution is purely fabricated “in our minds.”  Lerner again had participants watch two people compete in a puzzle-solving game.  The experimenter told the participants that  only one player would actually be paid by the luck of the draw, the other player would get nothing.

The participants were again asked to evaluate the players.  Even though they witnessed the “winner”  was drawn at random, they were described  as more creative and harder working than the “loser.”  They proposed a resolution that we “get what we deserve.”  Such a faux resolution makes the world seem fair and reasonable.  In a similar study by the economist Jeffery Butler participants competed a test of logical reasoning.  Half of the participants were randomly paid $4 and the other half $2.  Those paid $4 dollars did no better on the test but rated themselves as much better at logical reasoning than those paid $2.  Astonishingly, those paid the lower $2 rated themselves as less proficient!  In such a contorted way, we even construct imaginary reasons to account for an unreasonable world against ourselves.

The psychologist Aaron Kay found that when subject participants were made to feel powerless or when certain events in the world make it seem chaotic and unpredictable, they expressed stronger beliefs in a powerful deity who controls the universe than control subjects in the study.  When the Gini Index of income inequality is applied to the 50 states, there is a strong positive correlation between high income inequality and religious conviction; especially of the evangelical-conservative variety.  This is at first counter-intuitive; why would negative feelings about one’s self lead to stronger religious convictions?  Because, negative feelings of low status leads to feelings of powerlessness in a chaotic world that can only be resolved by faith in an all-powerful and just God.  Of course the perennial question arises as to why a “just” Deity would allow good people to suffer if the Deity indeed, had the power to make it cease.

Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Napier J. L., Callan, M. J., & Laurin, K.  (2008).  God and government: Testing a compensatory control mechanism for the support of external systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 18-35.

Are Trump Supporters Racists and Bigots?

 In the wake of  mostly white police officers shooting and killing black men, comes some thought provoking evidence.  Scientific research has shown beyond reasonable doubt that we all show implicit racial bias!

In making a legal decision of guilt or innocence in such cases  the follow general rubric is followed:  what would  a reasonable person do in such circumstances?  Psychologist Keith Payne decided to explore  the reasonable person test.  He designed a study that presented photos of either a black man or a white man.  Following the photos a picture of either a gun or a hand tool about the same size and color would be presented.  The subject in the study, upon seeing the object was given one-half second to press the key corresponding to “its a gun” or one corresponding “its a tool.”  The point of the study was that the response became one of split-second decision making.  Time after time white subjects pressed the “its a gun key” following a picture of a black man more than they did following that of a white man.  Even when verbally warned that this might happen, the same results persisted.   Payne himself who wrote the code for the study and designed the methodology displayed the same implicit bias.

Payne, K. B.  (2001).  Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81: 181-92

These results have been replicated so often that science can say with certainty that  implicit racial bias is a part of our behavior as adults.  Our culture  has primed us to make the unfortunate association with black men and guns.  As an example of priming finish the first word that comes to mind after:

Dog   Scottish   Jack   Russell  Ter___________

Now do the same for

Mohammed   Mosque   Islamic   Ter_______________

In the first case you were “primed” to say “terrier” and in the second “terrorist.”  We live in a culture that links Islam with terrorism and unconsciously our brain makes that association.  We live in a society polarized into tribal identifies.  The various tribes are defined by external features – black vs white.  Or they are defined by belief systems such as religious  or political views. Another tribal identity is economic – the haves vs have nots.

Pythagoras has argued that the growing income inequality helps contribute to feelings of helplessness while the world seems to be devolving into chaos.  Does this dynamic affect the extent of racial bigotry or bias?  In a study by Amy Krosch and David Amodio, subjects were given ten dollars to play a game.  Some were told that they would only get $10 from a possible $100 while others were told that they received the maximum of $10.  The point was to make the first group feel disadvantaged.

Krosch, A. R. & Amodio, D. M.  (2014).  Economic scarcity alters the perception of race,  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 9079-84

Both groups were then shown pictures of biracial individuals and asked to describe and classify them as black or white.  The disadvantaged group saw more of the pictures as stereotypically black persons compared to the groups not made to feel disadvantaged.  Presumably feeling disadvantaged magnified the tribal differences of us “white” vs them “black.”

A study by political scientist Martin Gilens found a typical pattern of attitudes toward “welfare spending.”  Racial prejudice is correlated with a belief that welfare spending is too high (this includes the hotly contested issue of Medicaid as well) because it is unfair.  Especially, so for people who believe black Americans are lazy and undeserving.  It is the feeling of unfairness that is key.  Remember, all judgments are relative and feelings of unfairness are magnified for those who lack adequate status.  Gilens analyzed media depiction since 1960 of welfare recipients and discovered that “deserving” recipients were mostly white while those portrayed as lazy and dishonest were overwhelmingly black.  This association of welfare with lazy people in general and black people in particular makes discussion of welfare policy difficult.  As an aside, at the writing of this blog, the relief efforts for Porto Rico are being criticized as moving much slower and less well organized compared to that for Texas and Florida.  The population of Porto Rico is mostly Hispanic and the country is being criticized for its poor infrastructure and delinquent economic debt.  Might the citizens of Porto Rico be undeserving of aid?

Gilens, M.  (2009).  WhyAmericans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. (Chicago University Press).

A disturbing set of results come again from a series of studies by Keith Payne.  Payne and his associates morphed together facial features from: a black man, a black woman, a white man, and a white woman.  Then they slightly blurred these.  From this large selection of morphed pictures, subjects were asked to select those they felt received welfare.  From these two sets of morphed pictures labeled welfare and non-welfare recipients, Payne then created two pictures morphed out of the two labeled groups.  Another group of subjects were then asked to describe the two pictures.  The  picture morphed from the group labeled as welfare recipients, was described as portraying a lazy, irresponsible, hostile, and unintelligent person.  Not so for the morphed picture of those previously labeled as non-welfare recipients.  Finally, another group of subjects were shown the two morphed pictures and asked which should be provided food stamps and financial assistance.  The morphed picture from previously labeled welfare recipients  was rejected for such assistance while that from the other group was not.  As Payne states: “The very qualities that people envision about welfare recipients are the qualities that lead them to oppose giving them benefits.”



So, in the context of widespread inequality with  feelings of lost status and power, and widespread unfairness, develops a cohort primed to receive the strident message of Donald Trump.  It is said metaphorically that “nature abhors a vacuum.”  To that can be added that humans cannot abide a world that is unfair and too complicated to understand.  The world must somehow make sense.   For some, lacking the means to directly change things, imagination intervenes.

Thus, conspiracies are believed and parts of reality denied.   A “just” and all-powerful creator must exist who controls the world and looks after me personally.  This feeling of powerless in an unjust world creates hostility and  fertile ground for media sources that foment hostility.  These agitators are not new but their influence is.  They offer no concrete solutions but that is not  their point.  They seek audience ratings; they are mostly entertainers.  But they are reaching an increasingly hostile audience.  The hate mongers of the media were united to engender hate for Hillary Clinton following eight years of hate toward the black president Barack Obama.The darker side of this is is the trolling  in the slime pits of sections of social media.

In addition to media sources that spew hate and hostility, there has now appeared even more sinister sources.  These sources for various reasons wish to divide our society for nefarious purposes.  These new outlets include Bightbart  a far-right media source headed by Steven Bannon, Trump’s  former White House advisor.  Within this circle may be added our old cold war adversary Russia who according to claims by US intelligence sources, has infiltrated social media to sow division within the US.  More in another blog about all of this.

Donald Trump is a brilliant manipulator and out-sized personality.  Those who’ve met him attest to his quality of mercurial charm and bombast.  He also has experience in television having starred in “The Apprentice” tailored to his style.  He addresses his audience in reality TV-speak: simple, direct, and lacking what he terms “political correctness.”  Such an authority figure, claiming to be able to change the disfunction in the federal government and “make America great again” was irresistible to what was to become his unwavering “base.”  This base, whose roots are developed above was there for the taking.  How much he actually anticipated them or was due to simple blind luck doesn’t matter – they were pre-made for him.  His seeming bigotry, sexism, disregard for civility, and simple message were not a barrier rather stepping stones to the ultimate presidential victory.

No matter what he does or if he actually succeeds as a president  matters not to his base.  To change now would shatter the world image they’ve so carefully crafted.  They rationalize incessantly about him and it becomes useless to find meaning in what they say.  Will this base ever change or get disillusioned?  Probably not for the most part, even when the economic miracle he promised for them never appears.  Trump seems to understand this and  continually appeases them.  How much Trump believes in the doctrine of populism, and all that it stands for,  as his goal is unclear.  Perhaps  simply being the ultimate TV reality star is sufficient.  Or believing he is running the worlds largest business.  Or just maybe he is truly a believer in the frightening cacophony of chaos coming from his former advisor Steven Bannon.  But his base does seem at some perhaps unconscious level to under stand that “make America great again” is truly the dog whistle for a white America and its accompanying bigotry.


WHY TRUMP? Social Science Research and Voter Behavior?

 WHY TRUMP: Social Science Research and Voter Behavior

Does social science, especially psychology, help explain the surprise victory of Donald Trump?    Public opinion polls and anecdotal data point to various conclusions.   But these, and the endless opinions from “experts” on TV panels, do not provide any scientific models from which to form reliable conclusions.

The combined work of scientists studying human decision making, from Daniel Bernoulli and Gustav Fechner to Prospect Theory of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, provide clues for a reasonable picture of the 2017 presidential election.

Though maligned seemingly by everyone, pollsters and the news media portrayed an electorate radically divided.  The big picture revealed a seismic divide between those satisfied with the status quo and those adamantly seeking to change it.  The two candidates  represented these two views  perfectly: Hillary Clinton personified the status quo and Donald Trump that of change.

What follows is a quick review leading up to Prospect Theory and  how this theory considers the prospects of the two defined voter groups.  These prospects provide a rationale for why the voters voted as they did.  In future blogs Pythagoras will analyze additional research and what has happened since the fateful election.   Why are divisions wider and opinions even more firmly held?

Some of the earliest scientific work  describing human judgment was  that of two men: the physicist Gustav Fechner (1801-18871) and  the MD Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795-1878).

You sit at a table are are asked to  lift little cylinders each heavier by one gram and report whenever one feels just noticeably heavier.  The first one that feels just noticeably heavier or different (JND) is at 8 grams.  Subsequently,  ones at 16, 32, and 64 grams also feel just noticeably different.

Your experience  demonstrates two things: 1)  our psychological experience of heaviness does not mirror the physical weights, and 2) weights that seem just noticeably different (JND) are in a constant ratio.  In your case the ratio is one-half: 8/16, 16/32, 32/64, etc.  Unless the weights get either too light or too heavy, each new JND occurs whenever the physical weights are at a constant ratio

Fechner formulated the Weber-Fechner law, intended to mathematically relate the physical world with our experience of it:”psychophysics.”  Our  experience of the magnitude of a physical event, measured in just noticeable differences (JNDs), is equal to a constant times the logarithm of the physical measurement.   The law is illustrated below with subjective experience plotted against the  log of the measurable physical property; the x-axis is left unspecified to include all measurable physical events.

The dashed lines cordon off each JND; that point at which a weight feels just noticeably different.  Each JND is psychologically equal as seen by the spacing on the vertical y-axis.  But the increases in weight necessary to produce them get progressively greater, i.e., a logarithmic progression on the horizontal x-axis: the delta I.  The heavier the previously lifted weights the heavier a weight must be to feel “just noticeably different.”

Earlier, the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli understood the significance of the Weber-Fechner Law.  If you only had 1000 ducats and got a bonus of 500 ducats you’d be very happy since this increases your account by 50%.  But if you already had 10,000 ducats and you received 500 more you would be less happy since this amounts to only a 5% increase.  The value of the 500 ducats is relative to your present wealth, its context.

Now, to the 20th century and the psychologist Allen Parducci.  Growing up in the Great Depression of the 1930’s he envied  children who possessed a bicycle that he didn’t have.  His father told him not to be envious;

“the more one has, the more it takes to be satisfied.  No matter what you have or what happens to you, your pleasures and pains must balance each other out.  In the long run, no one is happier than anyone else.”

   Parducci’s research sought the rules for a happy life.  His answer mirrors the work of Fechner and earlier Bernoulli; happiness depends on context – a comparison of the frequency of pleasant to unpleasant events in life.  More happy experiences relative to unhappy ones lead to a better average assessment of life and to your overall level of happiness.  This conclusion contradicts Allen’s father.   Good and bad events in life don’t balance out equally for everyone at some common average value.

The point so far: science tells us that humans make only relative judgments about the world around them.  Judgments of weight, value, and happiness depend upon what they are compared against.    Our psychological experience of the world is determined by context and as such is not  absolute.  How we feel about ourselves depends on context.   Whether we feel rich or poor, in charge of our lives or helplessly taken advantage of depends completely upon how we perceive ourselves compared to others.

Let’s now turn to the work of  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who developed Prospect Theory. Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in 2002. Their work led to the development of Behavioral Economics which is based on Prospect Theory  The following choice about wealth and value is based on one byTversky and Kahneman .

  • See “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman

Anthony currently has $1 million and Betty  $4 million.  They must make the following choice:

a)  50% chance of owning  1 million or a 50% chance of owning 4 million


b) 100% chance of owning 2 million dollars.

Anthony and Betty have the same expected value outcomes for either choice a) or b):  a)  0.5 x 1 million + 0.5 x 4 million = 2.5 million,  or b)  2 million for sure.  The resulting expected amount of money, its utility, will be the same either way for Anthony and Betty.   Bernoulli and later economists therefore, predicted the option chosen should not different for Anthony and Betty.  But does this really make sense?

What are the reference points, what comparisons are they making to arrive at their choices?  Anthony’s reference is $1 million.  His options are both good: a) no loss or large gain, OR b) a gain.     Anthony will chose option b), the safe bet.  Betty’s reference is $4 million.   She faces a) a big loss or no gain OR b) a loss.  Betty will adopt the risky choice a) her only hope to avoid loss.   Anthony is risk averse while Betty takes risk to avoid loss.

Bernoulli left out a key element according to Prospect Theory: loss or gain determines value not the final amount of money.  It’s loss vs gain  that drives decisions.  This principle is nicely illustrated in the figure below.  The figure depicts value, y-axis, as it relates to gain or loss.  The reference point is where the y-axis of value intersect with the x-axis of outcome.  Run your finger over the S-curve from the reference point going right; value increases in the same manner as seen in the Weber-Fechner function pictured above.  Now, do the same thing going from the reference left.  Value decreases, but it decreases more rapidly – the slope of the line is greater.  This depicts loss and it decreases twice as fast as gain increases.  Look at the red dotted lines: C is twice as negative as B is positive for the same difference in outcome.

In developing Prospect Theory Kahneman and Tversky found that in certain cases, people overestimate the likelihood  of low probability events.  They term this the possibility effect;  the likelihood of winning the lottery is very low but it is possible for a big gain.   The minuscule chance of actually winning is overestimated and folks play the lottery.  But not everyone plays – see below.

Prospect Theory proposes what Kahneman and Tversky call the four-fold possibility shown in diagram form below.

There are two main features for the above diagram: High or Low possibility of outcome and resulting Gains or Losses.  The four interior cells show how these interact to determine behavior.

Who generally plays the lottery?  It costs  to play with a very low likelihood of paying off.  If you are poor or feel you are getting nowhere in life you are in the lower left quadrant in the diagram.  You could chose not to play and avoid any risk of losing money but with no chance of financial gain.  OR you can take a risk and pay to play with the chance of greatly improving your  financial situation.  You overestimate the likelihood of winning (“you’ll never win if you don’t play”, “someone has to win,” etc,) and regard as a gain your fee as a possible way out of a bad situation not as a foolish loss.

Who buys insurance?   You spend some money but avoid the risk of a catastrophic medical cost.  Buying insurance is considered  a gain; you avoid the worry of financial disaster.  You are in the lower right quadrant and are risk averse.

Now Let’s Look at Voting

Up to this point, Pythagoras has reviewed  some social science literature that leads to the  rationale for a Trump vote.   Voters were faced with the choice of Clinton or Trump.  The statistical evidence divided voters into two groups: those wanting change and  not wanting change.  Clinton represented  no change: she was a Democrat following 8 years of a previous Democrat in the White House.  Trump represented change – big change.

Those wanting to maintain the status quo were satisfied with life – polling supports this.  Pejoratively,  referred to as elites they were educated, had decent to excellent jobs, and were favorable to the social changes taking place such as gay marriage, liberal immigration, affirmative action, and government assistance to the poor and sick, to mention just a few.  Their lives relative to others was good.

Those seeking change were generally white, non-college educated, either without work or whose job seemed tenuous, low paying and regarded as threatened by minorities or foreigners.  They feared and detested the social changes they saw taking place that they felt marginalized white/traditional society.    They generally blamed a big government that unfairly favored minorities.  They were more traditionally religious, evangelical Christians, and felt society was discriminating against their religious freedom.  Unlike the “elites” they mostly got their news from conservative media.  The result was that these two groups got very different pictures of the world.

Oddly, polls indicated that neither  group  initially wildly favorable to either candidate.  So, we pose a choice framed  by the theories above.

  • Choice a) 100% Clinton representing  status quo; the risk averse choice of no change; b) Trump = 50% good change, 50% bad change.  Clearly, these last likelihoods are guesses and would  depend on the individual voter.  The point  is that Trump was the risk vote – he could turn out to be good or bad each with some likelihood.  But he was the only choice for possible change for the better.

Trump supporters generally detested Clinton;  similar to Betty, they saw a) the Clinton choice as a sure loss.  They perceived themselves floundering under the status quo and she represented more of the same.  A vote for Trump  b) was a risky choice, but Prospect Theory tells us that this risk would be considered minimal, i.e., the probability of a poor outcome as president would be perceived to be small.  A vote for Trump contained the possibility of making the overall prospects favorable: so, avoid Clinton vote Trump and achieve positive change with only a small chance of a negative outcome.  Recall the critical point from Prospect Theory: for the  Trump voter the loss experienced by a Clinton victory would be far worse than the gain experienced by the Clinton voter.  A feature that perhaps produced more enthusiastic Trump supporters.

Those voting for Clinton avoided risk.  Many may not have wildly favored her but she was the safer choice.  Trump was a risk to be avoided.  Remember, if in a good position as the elites were, you seek to avoid risk and Clinton was the risk-averse choice.  Her choice was looked upon as a gain even if couched as a way of avoiding loss.

In Pythagoras’ next blog look for more rationale for a Trump vote based on work from the social sciences.  The key is income inequality as the comparison.  Also in the net blog:  why are Trump supporters so adamant in their support in the face of what others believe are his serious shortcomings?