Category: Politics

Tuesday’s Results Don’t Matter*

donkey and elephant with voting hatsObviously there is a lot of uncertainty in the polling numbers coming out of the election. Most articles on can be reduced to “we’re pretty sure what’s going on, but also absolutely anything could happen.” Regardless, if we take even the worst numbers for Trump, he’s somewhere around 40% of the popular vote. Taking the 2012 voter turnout as our benchmark (which may be optimistic), 40% of 129,000,000 is 51,600,000. This means there are at least 50 MILLION PEOPLE in our country who are so scared for their jobs, their culture and their identity that they would rather see a Trump presidency than any alternative.

And on Wednesday morning, no matter who wins, these 50 million people will still feel the same. They will still be scared that their way of life is slowly disappearing, and that any (real or imagined) former sense of security is gone. While I  disagree with that notion, as well as the larger sentiment, we also must acknowledge that this is a very real contingent of the US population.

When I go to lectures, classes and meetings, I use real-time captioning to understand what’s being said. Sometimes I joke with my captioners about how my Natural Language Processing classes are teaching me how to automate their job, replacing manual captioning with automatic speech understanding. We laugh and move on, but really this is a microcosm of a larger reality: Technology is steadily and unflinchingly mowing down the forest that is many long-standing, safe and high-skill occupations. The people I work with and the people in Silicon Valley are giddy about all of this.

In William Hertling’s amazing series of novels about AI, the final book takes us to 2043, where humans and AI live in a precarious balance with AI doing most jobs, and most people free to do what they’d like, be it taking classes, painting or traveling. But the people still rise up in revolt against the machines, because they can’t stand a life without purpose. (Interestingly, the Dalai Lama expressed a very similar sentiment in the New York Times 2 days ago.)

So what’s the takeaway?

I don’t think we should slow down the pace of innovation, or compromise our progress in some way. Further, I don’t think the takeaway is some cliched parable about how no development has only an upside, without leaving people behind.

Rather, I think that this presents a unique opportunity for those working in tech, Silicon Valley, NLP, AI, etc. The 50 million people voting for Trump are a sign of a huge untapped market. They are a sign that technological benefits have only been targeting a specific segment of our society.

On November 9th, we need to decide how we’re going to interact with the 50 million people who voted for Trump, regardless of the outcome. Should we be kind and understanding? Sure, because it’s the right thing to do. But at the same time, let’s also acknowledge our own blindspots that they are forcefully drawing attention to, and work to reduce these. I don’t see how we can move forward as a society without both.

* The results do matter; they matter quite a bit. If you’d still like to help make a difference, help fund rides to the polls or send out some text messages. You can still make a real impact.  

How CUNY Made Me a Trump Supporter

make cuny great again hatDisclaimer: I am not a Trump supporter.

Early in the primary season, when Trump was just starting to gain significant votes, I said to a friend, “I genuinely don’t understand the appeal of Trump.” He replied, quoting one of our favorite movies, “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” I remembered the line from The Dark Knight but didn’t really have an appreciation of how this relates to politics, until a few months later.

As any member of the CUNY community knows, the university has problems. Lots of problems. From its wildly bloated CUNYfirst, to its recent fiasco over its budget and handling of anti-Semitism on campus, the 24-school, 500,000+ student system is in trouble. Big changes are clearly necessary. When CUNY sent the students information about organized protests over tuition increases and professor contract disputes, my initial reaction was that maybe CUNY needs some tough love. In other words, rather than fighting for every nickel and dime, maybe we should “Let CUNY Burn.” In the same way that a healthy forrest ecosystem needs occasional forrest fires to allow for new growth, maybe CUNY needed the same medicine.

But after the fire, then what?

And that’s when I finally understood the enormous (yuuuuge) disconnect between Donald Trump’s appeal and the reality of the grown-up world. For Americans who perceive their situation as hopeless, with their jobs and their culture “disappearing” without any control, a cleansing forrest fire is appealing. Unlike a forrest ecosystem, though, a government or an educational institution does not naturally regrow once the fire has abated.

Does CUNY have problems? Yes. Does it have big problems? Yes. But in the real-world, problems do get solved by fighting for every nickel and dime, and then making incremental changes along the way. It’s not sexy, and it’s not exciting. It doesn’t make for good campaign slogans.

When The West Wing was still a well-written show (Make Bartlet Great Again?), there was a perfect moment when President Bartlet was debating his opponent. The opponent had a quick, canned answer to why he would reduce taxes. President Bartlet retorts about this “10 word answer”:

What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now…”

The CUNY system is large and complex. It encompasses everything from The Graduate Center, granting top-tier PhDs, to open-admission community colleges that have to accept literally anyone with a high school diploma. There are no ten words in the English language that can fix a system that complex.

Solving a problem has two components: 0.1% is naming the problem, and 99.9% is fixing the problem. The latter is frustrating and inelegant and often without immediate rewards. But this is how businesses, colleges and governments are built.

It’s not easy for a politician to get elected for being pragmatic. But as tough as it is, we have to try, bit by bit.

America, v2.0

There are two big problems in American politics: gerrymandering and lobbying influence. Gerrymandering has caused us to elect more and more polarizing politicians, as seen in this great visualization from the Pew Center. And lobbying has created politicians who support bat-shit crazy policies that aren’t in the short- or long-term interests of anyone except the lobbying corporation.

So how do we cure these ills? Politicians have no incentive: Getting rid of gerrymandering and lobbying is like saying to a 6-year-old “I need you to voluntarily stop taking your weekly allowance from your parents, and also invite these new kids onto your jungle gym, who probably don’t like you.”

For a solution, we can look to incentive programs of start-ups and some large corporations. How do start-ups motivate employees and prevent them from jumping ship? Stock options that don’t vest for a certain period of time. And in large corporations (at least, in my experience), year-end bonuses, which often constitute the bulk of an employee’s earnings, and are tied to how the company performed that year.

So, what if a politician’s salary, similarly, was incentive-based? This might sound good, but we still have the issue of how you get a spoiled 6-year-old to change his/her mind, right? How do we get a congressperson to reject a comfy, guaranteed salary, and take on a risky idea? Well, we can make the risk really, really, really appealing.

Currently, a member of Congress, dependent upon positions held, earns a salary of between $174,000 and about $225,000. Obviously, they also take home a lot more in the form of gifts, kickbacks, etc. But what if we make the top possible salary for a Congressperson something like $10,000,000? I don’t know the details on how much a politician earns from “outside income,” but I’m guessing it’s usually less than this. So, as a result, we’re not asking politicians just to take sort of self-sacrificing penalty. We’re providing a real, and realistic, upside.

Of course, the tricky part is, how do we determine the bonus for a given year? We could tie it to GDP, but then this might only make corporations even more influential. We could also tie it to average household income, but again, this doesn’t necessarily reflect the success of the entire country, as a CEO earning 300x more than an employee can drag up the average.

Rather, I propose tying it to median household income. By taking the median, rather than mean, then the outlying salaries, e.g. the CEOs’ salaries, get discarded from the calculation. The important number becomes only what the truly mid-50% earn. And we then set some multiple, maybe something enormous, like 100x, and say, a Congressperson will get paid 100x the median household income.

In this scenario, politicians have a very real incentive to lift up the entire country, and further, this can be even more lucrative for the politician than current lobbying incentives.

The idea of start-up and corporate pay structure is, “If the company does well, the employee does well.” Let’s bring that idea into politics, as a version of the Gekko-esque philosophy, “Greed can be good.”