My Politics Part 1: Background and Biases

I think everyone is a product of their life experiences, so before I go into what I think politically, I want to expose some of my intellectual background, and the life events that have significantly impacted my political views. I don't normally focus on this stuff, because there are tons of political and personal blogs out there, and I wanted to fill a void. While there are some economics and finance blogs, there are not many bloggers focusing on companies, their executives and their strategies. My intent has been to have a blog that people who are in management can read to get some good ideas, or people who have an interest in business can read for a few good articles rather than scouring 50 different business web sites to see if there is anything interesting. So, since I am going to delve into political and religious matters here (because my conversion to and subsequent deconversion from Christianity had a profound effect on me), I don't want any flack about all this. I know there are various books proving this or that (you can find one to "prove" nearly anything). I have read them and dozens more, and have debated these issues for years. This is not the place for that. Comments will be turned off and deleted if that happens here. Send me an email if you want to discuss that type of thing.

Ok. Now, I have always been fascinated with how things work – including economies. I remember my dad getting very frustrated with me when I was about 5 because I asked him "if the government prints the money, and there are so many poor people, why can't they just print money and give it to the poor people?" He tried to explain supply and demand and inflation to me, but it was years before I reflected on that day and understood what he was saying.

My first real political decision came in the 7th or 8th grade. We had to give a speech on a controversial topic, and I chose "raising the minimum wage." I calculated what minimum wage would pay for a 40 hour week, and was horrified that some people would have to raise a family on that. So, I set out to explain why the minimum wage should be higher. The teacher required us, though, to have three rebuttal sources, and in searching for these sources I changed my mind. I learned about price floors and how they can cause inflation, and that nearly everyone in a minimum wage job is a student, retiree, or part-timer. My teacher announced that my speech was on why the minimum wage should be raised, and was shocked when I got up there and made the opposite argument. (Yes I agree there is a time for raising it, but it can't be a willy-nilly-feel-good thing). After that I became much more interested in political matters.

My family is pretty conservative, and as I got older we talked about politics a lot at the dinner table. I went to a "magnet" high school, just across the street from a major state university, so I took some classes at the college while I was still in high school (these were actually on the campus, not dual-credit high school classes). The first one I took was intro to Poly Sci, and my teacher was conservative, which just increased my confidence that my politics were correct.

My first job was at a hamburger place that next summer, and it was an eye-opening experience. For the first time in my life, I met people who really didn't give a damn about anything. Tons of people moved through the restaurant, making enough pay to get some booze or drugs, getting fired for not showing up, and moving across the street to the next place. Sure there were a few people who came through that worked a year or two until they went off to college, and a few that could have gone to college but had kids early and now needed the money, but by and large I worked with losers. It had never even occurred to me not to go to college, so this was the first time I realized I was VERY different from the average person (I think this is easy for us to forget, since we typically run in social circles with those of similar education, etc.). Many employees would say things like "if they only pay me $X.XX per hour, then that's all the harder I'm gonna work." My attitude was that if I could learn more (which I did by coming in an hour early some days and working for free to learn a new "position") I would be worth more. After 18 months, I made 40% more than nearly everyone else who worked there. This was the beginning of my belief that people get what they deserve in life. I know we all think we are worth more money or a higher position, but my experience has been that most of the time we are about where we deserve to be. (The exceptions are usually at the highest levels, CEO, President, etc., but I'll go into that another post)

I became fascinated with philosophy when I took a college course in it my last year of high school. I only took the course because it met during 5th and 6th period, so I could go home early two days a week. I became fascinated with Descartes and Nietzsche, but I really didn't understand most of what I read. I wanted to, though, and I started to read a lot of philosophy during my spare time. After a while it started to make sense. This was the beginning of a confusing time for me. To think that smart people could debate over topics, both make good arguments, and both seem right, caused me to develop an ambivalent attitude toward many issues. I became unsure that my conservative politics were correct.

I went to church growing up, but was never very religious. A friend invited me to a very fun and lively campus worship service during my sophomore year of college, and I loved it. I had been reading Pascal's "Thoughts" at the time, and I thought God was trying to send me a sign. I got very involved over the next 4 years, and was one of those Jesus freaks who went around telling everyone how they should think and what they should believe. I even wrote an article for the school paper about the absurdity of evolution. My political views became much more conservative, as I became anti-gay, pro-christian morality, pro-life, etc. This is about as far to the right as I ever was.

I got heavily into apologetics, and christian philosophers – and I started to debate with people on the internet. I quoted all these creationist facts I had read to online evolutionists, and they kept telling me I didn't know what I was talking about. So, I told them to name some good evolution books, and over the summer I would read them and refute them page for page (okay, so I have always been a little cocky about my intelligence). As I began to read them, I realized that I didn't understand evolution properly, and that everything I knew about evolution came from creationist books. So, I changed my views. Now this was very significant. For me, an outspoken critic, to have to admit to my church friends (which was most of my friends) that I accepted the theory of evolution, was rough. This was the first time I really came to understand how people's biases and thought processes taint their beliefs, and even their interpretation of facts. I began to wonder what other things I might be wrong about. My political views were still solid Republican, but I held them with less conviction than before.

Since then, I have studied evolution thoroughly, and have since become fascinated by the ability of an algorithmic process to generate order out of randomness. The concepts learned from things like Conway's Game of Life are, in my mind, applied to all things I think about. I still see economies and personalities in this way – as very chaotic entities that can't be summed up in the quaint little rules we often see in the media. I don't believe video games cause violence or guns cause crime or even that lower taxes always stimulate the economy because none of these things exist in a vacuum. They are all products of complex interactions of many many variables, and cases to support or undermine each argument can easily be found.

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So this was the beginning of my questioning phase. I proceeded to read the entire Bible, along with books on atheism, pagan christs, other religions, and still the occasional apologetics work. I eventually became a very liberal christian, and some of my politics became a bit more liberal as well.

By now I was working on my MBA, so I had some graduate level economics and finance courses. My incessant reading during my "searching" phase really got me into reading more than I had ever been. And now I was reading tons of non-fiction, which I still do to this day. I love business, popular science, and biographies. I read about 30-50 books a year depending on how long they are and what other things I get into. Because of my changing religious ideas, I began to seek out conflicting ideas in everything, to make sure I was getting both sides of the story. I read Rush Limbaugh and James Carville, I read about Reagan and I read about Kennedy.

As part of the MBA program, I spent a summer in Denmark, living with a Danish family and taking courses in International Business. Denmark has high taxes and a large social safety net, so it was quite a change from the US. I saw first hand how people in Denmark don�t have the drive that Americans do � in part because they don�t feel that individual achievement is rewarded. The talk and the focus was on leisure, more than work. It was a nice change and there are many things I love about that country, but I missed America. In Denmark, there are no free refills, you pay for each Coke. Everyone is unionized (and proud of it) so McDonald�s employees earn a good salary, but a value meal costs $8. I really saw the benefits of liberalism (modern usage of the word) for the first time. It was nice to see a country without so much income inequality. It was nice to have universal healthcare. But what the Danes gave up was choice. I began to lean to the left just a bit, but the longer I was over there the more I missed my 24-hour WalMart, $3.99 all you can eat buffett, big truck, fast car (only the wealthy have cars in Copenhagen, and most had never seen a Corvette or a pick up truck), low price, plethora of options homeland. Do you realize in this country you can incorporate in most states for less that $200 bucks in less than a week? Did you know you can order car insurance 24/7? Are you aware that you can buy an 84oz drink at a gas station for 99 cents? That is freedom. The Danish life was nice, but choice is better.

As a side note, my Danish family came to visit two years ago. There were amazed, and loved the shopping, restaurants and entertainment options here in Florida. They plan to move here when they retire, and are trying to get their teenage son to come to college here. However, they still don�t want WalMart to come to Denmark.

Back at school , I came across Ayn Rand. I flirted with objectivism because it was a relief to have some solid ground to stand on after all the conflict in the things I read. I still admire much of her work, but my objectivist days didn't last long. After reading Bart Kosko's Fuzzy Thinking, I rejected bivalent logic and a perceivable objective reality, which are axioms on which Rand's philosophy are based. But, my political and economic thoughts were shaped tremendously by Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness, and I still hold onto much of that today.

So now we come to just a few years ago, when I got into Artificial Intelligence. My BS was in Electrical Engineering, so it was sort of an offshoot of that. I started to read about neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, and human nature since it all ties in to AI and what it takes to build a conscious machine. I read many of the authors found at the Edge, like Pinker, Dennett, Penrose, Gould, etc. I can now say that learning about the brain has had a more profound effect on my thinking than any other thing in my life.

I have come to believe that the way any two people perceive something is drastically different. It makes sense that different life experiences lead to different paradigms, but I mean on a neurobiological level, people perceive things differently. We can't fully trust our experiences or perceptions about the world. I am not saying we "make our own reality" in some postmodern sense, but rather, we just don't perceive things as they actually are. As a result of all this two things happened. First, I finally rejected my religious feelings and experiences as trustworthy measures of what is real. So I became an agnostic, which liberalized my stances on homosexuality, abortion, gambling, and other moral issues. This also caused me to feel that I don't fit in well with the powerful Religious Right sect of the Republican party.

At the same time, my studies of the brain led me to reject liberalism in modern form. Partly because I think liberals inhabit an idealistic world where everyone really wants to work hard and succeed, where people are inherently good, where people can be changed to good citizens simply by changing government and institutions. But I don't believe they can. You have to change the memes. You have to change the culture. You have to change the way people perceive the world, or it doesn't matter how much help you give them. Some people who have bad enough genes or have been in a bad lifestyle for a very long time are beyond helping (not that it hurts to try, but occasionally you have to accept that they won�t change).

Now I have moved towards a very pragmatic stance on social issues, while becoming more liberal (in the classic sense) on economic issues. I have been pretty consistent in my beliefs for several years now, which is nice for a change (but I am always looking for things that may shake them up). I tend to be ambivalent about a large number of things, only because I understand both sides, and I think sometimes there are no good answers. It may seem like I am swayed by every little thing I read or hear, but that is not the case. I have only included those things that have been powerful enough to sway my views some, and anyway I think it shows I am sincerely searching for correct answers. This weekend, I will go into some detail about my thoughts on some specific issues, and why I have stayed with the Republican party, so far. I am sorry this post was so long, but it could have been much longer. I left out a good deal, but these are the key ideas, books, and experiences that have shaped my political views. Before you comment, please remember what I wrote at the top of this post.