Tribal truth

Expanding upon my last post, we’re heading ever deeper into a period of “tribal truth”. All that matters is what people I trust – my tribe – say is true.

Thing is – this is our natural state. We are built to believe this way. We believe what people we trust tell us even more than what we see with our own eyes. The pull is that strong.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Going high brow for a second, this was the revolution of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution – that we could, through rational processes and an open mindset, reach true conclusions based on commonly accepted standards of evidence. Yes, it appeared in pockets in human history at different times, but this system of thought and truth-seeking finally took solid root only recently – and produced astounding results in expanding human well being and freedom.

But it is not natural.

And let’s be honest, the scientific process is not exempt from tribal truth. Why do you believe scientists or research results? Probably mostly because you trust scientists or researchers. And probably just your tribe’s scientists and researchers.

And we must realize how much this pull toward tribal truth is emotional – having nothing to do with reason. It simply feels better to be part of a tribe and to know that you are an upstanding member of it. Getting exiled is one of the worst feelings of all. There’s a reason it was one of the most serious punishments back in the day.

I have witnessed highly rational people change their minds, but only really comfortably accept the change once it was confirmed by a fellow tribe member.

Just to note a couple of additional influences to this process of tribal truth – First, the influence of news media silos, which I mentioned in my previous post. Those go a long way toward validating tribal truth. A second is how power – either money or political – can distort truth-seeking. But that’s a topic for a different day.

For now, the biggest danger is tribal truth. And I don’t see us getting out of that any time soon.

P.S. Just to be clear – no one is immune from this, including myself. The best you can do is try to be aware of the many biases that we can be subject to and constantly check yourself against them.

But, that said, sorry, the hottest action and deepest depths in tribal truth are on the “right” at this point. Hasn’t always been so, but it is right now.

With truth fracturing, the republic is at stake

Read these poll results. I imagine they’re fairly representative. We’re in for a rough decade. And it all hinges upon a disagreement over how to ascertain reality and truth.

There simply will be no persuading most Republicans that Joe Biden won fairly. That’s despite traditional methods of settling electoral truth – recounts, audits, law enforcement investigations, lawsuits – all pointing in that direction. No, all that matters is what Trump and his enablers say is truth. No disconfirming evidence is to be believed. That’s the case *even if* they were Republicans, voted for Trump, were appointed by Trump, etc.

Now, it’s quite possible many Republicans have never really heard the disconfirming evidence or who exactly is delivering it. News media silos on social media, TV, online, etc. – driven by commercial imperatives – largely prevent it.

But either way, I’m genuinely frightened for the future of the republic. Because without shared reality, you can’t debate, compromise, etc. People won’t accept election results.

Two basic tenets of democratic process are on life support – compromise and elections. Democratic processes and culture are the last lines of defense against the ultimate politics – warfare.

Violence has already arrived with an attack on our Capitol and Congress. And yet, even now, two realities are being forged around that event.

Dark days ahead.

And I desperately hope I’m wrong.

Welcome to Grinding the Lens

Hello! This is my blog on all things that strike me, which you’ll find tends to be politics and economics. The object of this blog for me, personally, is to help refine my thinking about topics of the day. Through words, I’m looking to grind the lens through which I see the world, so that it can be clearer and better understood.

As of July 2021, I’ve decided to start publishing on Substack. Please go check it out, subscribe, and enjoy!

The Non-Stop Nordics

Image of Nordic flags by miguelb

This week, the advocacy organization Reporters Without Borders released its 2020 World Press Freedoms Index. The index ranks the world’s nations and some territories on the freedom journalists have to report on what is happening in their countries and to challenge power. At the top of list: Norway, Finland, and Denmark, and Sweden.

The Netherlands rounds out the top five. The largest European countries fall between 11 and 35. The United States is at 45. The world’s largest democracy, India, is at 142. Singapore, where I live, is at 158. China is fourth from the bottom at 177.

Seriously, is there anything these Nordic countries can’t do right? Here’s what I’m talking about.

Start with just how rich these countries are, using data from the World Bank. In terms of GDP per capita, Norway is at number 7.

Norway is that high, though, mainly because it is an oil state. On the other hand, it’s only that low because it’s sandwiched in with a lot of known tax shelter countries and territories, which cater to the global wealthy. Let’s look further down the list to more “normal” countries.

There they are – Denmark, Sweden, and Finland – right in the pack of the world’s richest economies.

And they’re among the countries with the least amount of inequality, as well. Here is a chart from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

But, you might object, what about freedom? All kinds – individual, civil, and economic? After all, that’s what the western world prides itself on. The libertarian Cato Institute compiles an index. Three of the four Nordic countries appear in the top 11. The United States comes in at number 15 (tied with Estonia). Norway is just below the US at number 17.

(A special shoutout to the Netherlands, by the way, which is always high in all of these rankings, as well, and tied for 11th in freedom, just after Sweden.)

Suppose you want to dial in on just economic freedom, defined as the ease of doing business and whether the government is “big” or not. The conservative Heritage Foundation has you covered. Despite the Nordic governments famously collecting a lot in taxes (which get turned into services, like universal health care, etc.), Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway are right in there with the “mostly free” countries.

Maybe your focus is productivity. After all, it’s been humankind’s ability to become more and more productive over the last couple of centuries that has freed it from millennia of poverty and subsistence. Let’s turn to the World Economic Forum and its Global Competitiveness Report. There the Nordic countries are again.

Getting back again to those “big” governments of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. Surely “big” government is a prescription for disaster due to the possibility of corruption, correct? Well, let’s turn to Transparency International and its measure of how corrupt the world’s governments are perceived to be, from least to most. The Nordics are in the top ten for least corrupt. The United States, by the way, doesn’t show up until number 23, just above France.

What about health care? How do the Scandinavian countries stack up? This one is harder to summarize in one simple chart because of the number of variables. Is everyone covered by health insurance? Is it affordable for individuals and the countries? How does the system perform on various life outcomes, like life expectancy, maternal mortality, infant and child mortality, etc? I found one ranking by the World Health Organization, but it was from 2000. Many changes have occurred in global health care systems since then, especially in the US with the introduction of the Affordable Care Act.

Even so, many organizations and media outlets have pressed ahead to rank systems. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation focuses on how the US spends far more money on health care than other countries, yet gets far worse outcomes. Note that two of the Nordic countries, Finland and Norway, are on the left as “best”.

The Commonwealth Fund also has a set of charts showing how non-US systems cost far less and produce comparable to better outcomes. Notice in the report how the Nordic countries are nestled comfortably in with the other countries with better outcomes. Let’s focus on one in particular – life expectancy. Norway and Sweden are in the pack, while life expectancy for the US actually declined in recent years.

To wrap up, what about the future for the citizens of the Nordic countries? After all, anyone with kids hopes their lot will be better than their own.

Let’s look at education first, because it is key to so many parts of a modern country’s success. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests are a globally accepted standard for comparing educational outcomes. Finland has long had a globally recognized education system. Sweden ranks highly, and Denmark and Norway are comparable or rank more highly than the US.

And finally, let’s finish with social mobility – that is, the chances that a person can do better economically than their parents did. The World Economic Forum has you covered.

Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Sweden are the top four for future prospects, just like they were the top four for press freedom, where all of this began. Non-stop Nordics, indeed.

Unlocking coronavirus – Moving beyond testing

Much of the focus in recent US debate regarding the response to the covid-19 coronavirus has been on expanding our testing and tracing efforts. Other countries have used this model more or less successfully. Quickly identify sick people, find out everyone they came into contact with, and get them all into quarantine to head off the spread.

But I’ve all but given up on testing as a strategy for many countries, especially the US. I think the focus has to be mostly on increasing medical system capacity – more equipment, more supplies, more quickly-trained personnel who can perform some tasks (and get paid a lot to do them).

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) - United States Department of ...
US Department of State,

We cannot stay closed for the many months and possibly years required to identify safe and effective treatments and/or vaccines. Social distancing of some kind will still be necessary, of course. The peaks should still be shaved off the caseload. And of course, some people who are especially vulnerable should take extra precautions.

But bottom line, it’s about keeping the death rate from SARS-Cov-2 as low as possible. With proper medical care, it seems likely that we can keep the fatality rate down where it seems to be settling in globally – 1% of cases. That is still ten times deadlier than the flu, so there’s no reason to relax. But it is not the first SARS (10%), MERS (30%+), or Ebola (50%). And most cases still seem to be mild, maybe to the point of people not feeling any symptoms at all.

As the expert in this NPR interview points out, we should definitely have testing for the people on the front lines – medical personnel, people working in the manufacturing and delivery of essential products and services (from food to transport to energy to water), security workers of all kinds (firefighters, police, military), etc.

But, at least in the US, I’m convinced we simply won’t ever pull it together to have widespread enough testing – either for covid-19 directly or serological to look for antibodies (and therefore potentially immune people). Better to put our resources into what we already know how to do – provide medical services.

A Rush Job to “Re-Open” the Economy

It appears from his USA TODAY op-ed that Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is comfortable with doubling down on his previous statements that addressing the covid-19 pandemic in the US is not worth the economic damage caused by the various lockdowns being put in place.

It’s easy to dismiss him as yet another conservative ghoul. (Sorry, but just about every take that’s either directly or indirectly okay with higher death rates comes from Republicans and/or libertarians).

However, I happen to agree that a balance will eventually have to be struck between coronavirus mitigation and economic activity.

(And to be honest, I don’t mind a stark reminder of our mortality, though he has a particularly brutal way of saying it. “Death is an unavoidable part of life.” Is he a religious man?)


We have no effective, widespread testing regime in place in the US, either to detect live cases or to identify people who have recovered. This second group of tests – blood, or serological, tests – can identify people who could be immune and might be able to work safely with sick patients. They can also donate their serum for the virus-killing antibodies it contains, which can be used in research and possibly treatments.

We have not adequately ramped up our medical resources. He makes yet another bogus comparison to known dangers, like the seasonal flu, which our health systems are geared up to address. One of the biggest dangers from this “novel” (as in new) coronavirus, as it was originally called, has been that it appears to be ridiculously infectious – in part, because no human has encountered it before – which creates an enormous number of cases all at once. Current data show about 15% of all cases require hospitalization – often for weeks – which our system is simply not scaled up to handle. Also, while case and mortality data continue to come in, it does appear that covid-19 is some multiple more deadly than the seasonal flu. Even Pres. Trump has now said that 100- to 200-thousand US deaths would be a “very good” outcome, compared to a potential two million deaths.

We have no effective tracing and isolation regime in place. Johnson throws a bone to the need for the current set of social distancing/lockdown orders in place in many states. (“Social distancing should continue until this outbreak is under control.” However, the only way to refine social distancing, and therefore re-start portions of the economy, is to set up a way to identify the sick people, find out who they had close contact with, and get them all out of the public. Otherwise, it just becomes the Wild West for the virus all over again.

In short, how about we fix the public health problem FIRST, then get busy worrying about which parts of the economy to return to normal? I’d take these calls much more seriously then.

Three other things to address.

First, there’s been a lot of focus on whether Trump believes or doesn’t believe in extending these lockdowns. (This isn’t addressed specifically by Johnson.) But why? Trump has no authority to do that. (Or maybe limited? Where are those strict constitutionalist conservative scholars when you need them?) These lockdowns are imposed by the states. Count ourselves lucky that, under our federal system, governors who realized the true extent of the danger were empowered to act without the blessing of the central government. (Unlike China.) The Trump administration’s recommendations are just that – recommendations.

Second, Johnson does say that he wants to flip our policy from identifying “essential” economic activity to instead identifying “non-essential” economic activity. Look, the fact is that a lot of the mass social activities that have been targeted by the lockdown orders are non-essential. Commuting to offices might prove to have been a luxury, or maybe just plain silly. Also with eating out, live entertainment, travel, etc. Our economy existed before these were mass products and services and, while I miss them, too, life does goes on. (A worldview the senator would seem to be comfortable with.) The problem is, instead, how to employ people in this new world. Some are already re-deploying to delivery services and logistics. How about we incentivize and/or aid transitions into medical care, medical support, in-home visits, etc.? We need people in light manufacturing (of masks, etc.) This transition is painful, so let’s find ever more ways to smooth it. And of course, make it absolutely safe for people to perform these roles.

Finally, along that line, should the good senator not be comfortable with addressing any of these public health considerations first, then he should be first in line to volunteer at a restaurant serving out-of-work folks or in a hospital or elderly care setting. Put yourself, Sen. Johnson, on the front lines of the coronavirus economy. Otherwise, kiss off.

Singapore covid-19 covonavirus life update for 19 March 2020

Occasionally on Facebook, I’ve written open letters mainly for family and friends back in the US about how the covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is progressing in Singapore. Here’s the latest.

Hi, everyone. Since I started giving periodic updates out of Singapore, I figured I’d post another. And what a week it’s been. 

Where to start? I suppose with the numbers. After having pretty good control of the covid-19 coronavirus for a while now, the number of new cases increased dramatically just this week. The highest jump came just yesterday – 47 more cases – bringing the total since January to 313. (Just below two thirds of those are still hospitalized, while the rest have been discharged. Fifteen are in critical care.) 

Globally speaking, these are still excellent numbers. And why we saw a jump matters a lot. Most of the cases have been imported from the rest of the world. Many Singaporeans and foreigners who live here are rushing in. The caseload in Europe and elsewhere is surging; business travelers are finally getting the message and cutting trips short; a local school holiday during which some people traveled is ending; cases from Singapore’s neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, have landed here; and students whose colleges have closed are returning. Sadly, a friend of mine is one of these cases, having picked up covid-19 in the UK. He and his spouse are doing well as of right now. (Sadly, the work colleague of another friend has died.)

This surge of confirmed and potential cases has led to a lot of dramatic changes. Singapore is now requiring all travelers to serve a two-week stay-at-home period to see if they develop symptoms. Travelers from some countries, like China and places in Europe, aren’t allowed to come or pass through here at all. While not a full lockdown from the outside world, it inches closer. Meanwhile, aggressive testing and tracing of people who might have been exposed continues. People serving stay-at-home notices and quarantines are carefully monitored (with penalties for disobeying.) Temperature checks and filling out travel declaration forms (with penalties for lying) are commonplace.

Besides the clamping down on outside travelers, the other big news of the week was Malaysia finally getting serious about the virus. (Singapore is an island just off the southern tip of Malaysia.) After a growing number of cases, Malaysia decided to block its citizens from leaving the country, presumably to prevent them from coming back infected. For Singapore, this potentially dealt a huge blow to its labor force and, most disturbing, its food supply. 

Between 250k and 300k people travel from Malaysia *each day* to work (and study) in Singapore. Losing these workers could deal a huge blow to a lot of industries. Ahead of the deadline, many Malaysians rushed to get into Singapore, and many Singaporean employers rushed to find places to house them – not always successfully. There are stories of Malaysian workers sleeping in exposed conditions at this time. (Not so bad from a weather perspective – it’s warm here all year long – but the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, like dengue fever, is always high.) These workers are essentially separated from their homes until the end of the month.

As I mentioned, the food supply was also at risk. Many fresh vegetables and meats in Singapore come from Malaysia. (Singapore is basically a city-island. While it tries to grow some food for emergencies, most of it is imported.) Soon after Malaysia’s announcement that it was closing its borders, we had another run on the groceries. We had long lines and many empty shelves (including – yet again – toilet paper. 🙄) The government quickly moved to reassure Singaporeans that there was enough supply by saying it had emergency stocks spread around the island, that it was finding alternative supplier countries for things like eggs, and that it would negotiate some sort of understanding with Malaysia. (Singapore and Malaysia have historically not liked one another, so that’s always tricky.) Meanwhile, one grocery instituted buying limits on some items, and the grocery delivery services are stretched to near breaking. But by yesterday afternoon and today, some shelves were being restocked. This might be resolving itself, but the supply of food and other necessities remains a huge worry.

At this point, a natural question might be, why not leave? After all, we’re foreigners here. Unlike Singaporeans, supposedly we have the option of exit. Well, first off, logistically that’s not so easy. Flights are getting canceled left and right and at short notice. And what do you do with all of your stuff? Just leave it? It’s not like an army is invading. Second, what kind of reception is waiting back in the US? Countries are closing off and turning more xenophobic by the day and might not even welcome back their own citizens. At the very least a mandatory quarantine of some kind seems highly likely. Finally, and maybe most importantly, this is our home. No one becomes a refugee until there’s truly no choice left.

Meanwhile, life goes on, with plenty of disruptions but fewer than elsewhere. 

Most importantly, the medical system seems to be handling the caseload. 
As for education, local schools have been on break, but the government has announced they will re-open on schedule next week. That said, things haven’t been so calm at the kids’ school. While not explicitly stated, after a parent returned from Europe and tested positive, the school clearly began exploring its options should school be forced to close. (Another parent returning from the US has also since tested positive.) So, as a controlled dry run, in-person school was canceled from Wednesday through Friday this week, and Thursday and Friday are being spent doing distance learning. So far, so good. The kids are sitting at computers all day. Pretty good training for a life of office work, I guess. Next week is spring break. (Absolutely no one is traveling. Or at least they shouldn’t be.) And with any luck, just like the Singaporean schools, they’ll be back in class and with their friends soon enough.

People are still going to work in many cases, but not always. Just today, my wife’s US employer announced that everyone worldwide who can work from home should do so until the end of the month. This mirrors what I’m seeing in many other parts of the world. Since I already mostly work from home, all four of us will be here tomorrow, staring at our own screens

Finally, most social activities are canceled – certainly big events, but many smaller ones, as well. That said, we do not have the blanket closure of all restaurants and venues. Fewer people seem to be going out. (With no tourists, crowds in many places are way down.) Usually people are in small groups and spaced out (even if I did see one packed bar the other evening with a live band playing). But all of this is voluntary, with most people seeming to follow the recommendations of health experts. I know I’ve completely eliminated handshakes and even fist bumps from my social gestures. I’ve definitely given up licking flat surfaces… 😉

To wrap up, I’ve tried to present this fairly calmly, but if I take a moment to reflect on the last week, I start seething. The spike in cases that we’ve seen has largely been caused by stupidity and/or denial. Some countries have been ridiculously slow to respond. For example, in Malaysia, a giant religious event was allowed to go forward, and many people became infected, some of whom landed back here. (Another similar event wisely just got canceled in Indonesia.) Some people have taken business or personal trips, when – to my mind – it was clear that they shouldn’t have. Or if the trip was truly necessary, it was certainly clear that you should separate yourself and those close to you voluntarily when you get back. (I feel the infections at our school fall into this category.) There have been big private parties in the community, and as I said, some people still go to crowded venues. In my more charitable moments I try to remember that this is a fast-moving situation. Maybe people feel they were acting reasonably at the time. But nah, the writing has been on the wall long enough. Some people are just being outrageously irresponsible. And we’ll all potentially going to pay the price.

So that’s the view from sunny Singapore – for now. While it’s been nice to see many people praising the country for its response to covid-19, it’s important to remember that it’s a constant battle to keep ahead of the coronavirus, and there are other forms of instability that can come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, keep flattening that curve by practicing appropriate social distancing and give our modern medical system time to get the drop on this bug. Stay safe, remember to be nice to one another, and 🤛🙏👋 or even 🖖, but certainly do not 🤝. 


Make or Break for the Sanders Campaign

Tuesday, the Midwestern delegate-rich heavy hitter states in the Democratic primary begin to vote – first Michigan, then Ohio and Illinois next week (and can’t fail to mention Florida coming up, as well). As a Bernie Sanders supporter, it’s a big deal. A lot is riding on his success in these states. Michigan especially kept Sanders competitive in 2016, and it could again this time.

I’ll admit the polls don’t look good, though they were spectacularly wrong in 2016 (in Michigan specifically, not just nationally). Centrists in the party have found their candidate in Joe Biden and are going all in.


For me, this is largely make or break for the Sanders campaign. The post-industrial areas of the country should be a source of strength for his campaign. If they’re not, then that speaks to the nature of the race this time around. It is possible for Sanders to justify staying in the race until the end of April, though, when Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have had a chance to vote.

Should Biden ultimately prove to be the nominee, I would strongly encourage Sanders to work hard to build bridges to centrist Democrats. He’s had tremendous success in shifting the conversation within the party. He should consolidate that.

At the same time, centrist Democrats have their own work to do. I worry they will make two big mistakes:

One, ignore or, even worse, dismiss the issues and energy Sanders has identified. The bad blood between the two factions of the party could lead centrists to believe too strongly in the electoral power of disaffected Republicans. They made this mistake in 2016. Republican-lite failed with Hillary Clinton, and I believe it’s likely to fail again. They should actively court the left, with tangible, credible offers.

Two, I worry centrists will dismiss the obvious weaknesses of Biden as a candidate, again, much like they seemed to with Hillary Clinton. I get that you have to believe in order to campaign hard. But someone better be working late to think through how his faltering performances in many public appearances could affect the campaign and his eventual presidency. Plus, you know Republicans aren’t going to drop questions around Hunter Biden any time soon.

Coronavirus and Trump Supporters – Please Step Up

This is a really hard post to write because I’m trying to reach people who won’t be receptive to my message: Trump supporters.

Pres. Trump is failing to lead the nation with his response to the coronavirus. Specifically, calling the outbreak a “hoax”, being clearly uninformed in several different public appearances, and now this, which I fully expected, overruling the advice of the specific government agencies with expertise in this area.

Of course I’m not a Trump supporter, overall. But I do try to be fair. (I’ve said many times that he isn’t wrong about everything.)

But his usual playbook will not work this time. Viruses don’t care about political bullshit.

Now, it could be that state and local health officials are able to fill in the gap. But without the power of the federal government to manage and coordinate the response, I’m not hopeful.

Spoken like an anti-Trumpie, right? Don’t want to hear biased, never-Trump lies! It’s all about the Dems and the media and the election!

Well, in the end, I don’t know what to say to this sort of willful denial. You might find it impossible to believe, but I’m trying to avoid making the virus response an election issue. After all, it shouldn’t be. It’s similar to rooting for a recession just because it might undermine Trump. That’s asinine.

What I’m trying to say to Trump supporters is that we need you to demand better leadership from Trump. He’ll listen to you. Call or email the White House. Get on the phone or email your representatives in Congress. Call or email Fox News.

This might all prove overblown. I sure hope so. Other outbreaks have been contained with proper social health measures.

But this coronavirus appears to be ridiculously infectious. And the death rate seems to be holding steady at roughly 3.5 percent. It’s real; it’s serious; and we need a forceful, apolitical response.

We saw in Wuhan, China what happens to a medical system and a people when a government tries to coverup or ignore this disease. We don’t want that for the US. He needs to step up. And hell, a good response might even improve his election challenges, if that’s what really concerns you. What do you have to lose?