Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Four Sonnets (Recited) for Valentine's

Recently, Dan Schneider and others have started adding poetry readings (among other things) to Cosmoetica’s new YouTube channel. For Valentine’s Day, I’m following suit and sharing a handful of sonnet readings.


A few months ago, I went on a date with someone very nice, and during the date one of Shakespeare’s sonnets came into conversation. We managed to piece together about a third of the sonnet from memory, so I read it the next day to remember how the rest went. It didn’t work out, but here’s to you:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare.

By William Shakespeare


The next sonnet comes from Gwendolyn Brooks’s second published book, Annie Allen. It’s the thirteenth poem in a series called “The Womanhood” and describes a summer fling. In her earlier days, Brooks was an excellent sonneteer (“Gay Chaps at the Bar” is a great sonnet series about war). This sonnet is actually the 1st of three sections within section XIII of the series, but for today I think it’s reasonable to enjoy it as a standalone piece. Thanks to my friend Sarah Hohstadt for recording this sonnet!

By all things planetary, sweet, I swear
Those hands may not possess these hands again
Until I get me gloves of ice to wear.
Because you are the headiest of men!
Your speech is whiskey, and your grin is gin.
I am well drunken. Is there water near?
I’ve need of wintry air to crisp me in.
—But come here—let me put this in your ear:
I would not want them now! You gave me this
Wildness to gulp. Now water is too pale.
And now I know deep summer is a bliss
I have no wish for weathering the gale.
So when I beg for gloves of ice to wear,
Laugh at me. I am lying, sweet, I swear!

By Gwendolyn Brooks


I started reading poetry and criticism on Cosmoetica when I was 15, and distinctly remember reading this sonnet. (For you psych folks, it kind of invokes Maslow’s Hierarchy.) Here you go:

My needs, they fall away from me. (Dull flesh‑
can it convince itself?) They are: oxygen‑
to flame each breath; sources of food and water‑
to quell the instinctual ravening
brought by you; sources of clothing and shelter‑
to protect my body from the world's duress.

My needs, they fall away from me. Not you,
my love, for you are verging on somethingness,
like the full beats of my growing heart, which falls
likewise itself, in infinite crashes
into conflagrations which are only all
that keeps my sonnetry in this small purview 
which falls from me to you. Should you inquire:
   You are not a need. You are all desire.

By Dan Schneider


I’ll end by sharing one of my own. Writing about someone (or something) can be a good way to work through your thoughts or find closure, but sometimes you just get hung up on the subject instead:

This sonnet for you might be a mistake,
like that second cup of coffee in the afternoon,
which calms and quenches for a bit, but soon
leaves us shaking and promising not to slake
our thirst with thirst, till the next day lands
in another cup of coffee, which you touch with your lips
as my promise of not writing suddenly slips
and falls, like the coffee I held in my  hands
(the fourth today) as I listened to you
and absorbed all the feeling you suddenly held
not for me—a rag on the floor, swelled
with all that bitterness and heat, and blackened through,
so unlike the cup, which was firm, until it found
itself, lying next to me, shattered on the ground.


Take care,


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Ferguson and the Myth of a Post-Racial America

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you,” he said. “I help people. That’s my job.”

In the wake of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision to acquit Officer Darren Wilson, who faced a charge of police brutality for the killing of Michael Brown, reporters have debated the particulars of the trial, reporting factors that led to the jury’s decision, suggesting possible mistakes in the handling of evidence, and explaining the use of deadly force while in fear of death. It's difficult to understand exactly what happened in the trial itself, but more important is exactly how we, as a nation, watch and react. In the coming years, we will hardly remember these details, as Michael Brown joins a lineage of black people who symbolize something larger, whose names resonate even as we may not remember exactly what happened to them—Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, and, most recently, Trayvon Martin.

And then there are other, more violent names—Laurence Powell, Edward McMellon, and George Zimmermann—that fade into obscurity. These people do not, themselves, take on symbolic proportions. Their declared innocence, however, does: it not only represents the notion of a “tradition in this country to be able to kill innocent black people,” but also, ironically, reaffirms the idea that we inhabit a post-racial America, in which a law enforcement officer can insist in his own trial that racial tensions do not exist in a city with stark racial disparity, even as his description of the deceased reflects the mythical “Negro Beast” that southern presses described a century ago.

The outcome of the trial, in the eyes of some, shows that he is innocent; that they are innocent; that prejudice which leads to death is not something that we need to talk about above-ground, regardless of what poisonous attitudes lie beneath. Some people have used this opportunity to blame the victim, focusing on black-on-black violence and condemning the riots as “not really about injustice,” but rather an excuse to have “a free-for-all of looting, vandalism, and fun.” These criticisms do not just downplay the current focus on race; they actively promote the idea that black people are the problem. (And, keep in mind that black-on-black violence is irrelevant to the issue of police discrimination, and that the rioting, while understandably criticized by both sides, is a historically legitimate tool for achieving social change.)

Distinct from the explicit pushback from conservative commentators is the indifference that characterizes a large portion of the white population; white (and Hispanic) people are less likely to report interest in the Ferguson case. This apathy is at least partly an outcome of the self-segregation observed in white social networks, and another related contributor is the skewed perception of equality in the criminal justice system: after the Michael Brown shooting, 48% of white Americans responded that Blacks and minorities receive equal treatment in the justice system, compared to just 16% of non-white respondents. The same survey also notes one promising shift: in 2014, an additional 20% of young adults recognize that the legal system treats minorities unfairly, compared to 2013.

Things do change, and we have made progress, but now is not the time to stop caring or fighting. We have a responsibility to acknowledge the history of racism that pervades our country, understand that we are still far from achieving equality, and appreciate that our actions and attitudes influence future generations. In Ferguson, shortly after the verdict, a group of residents painted a mural that includes a quote from The Lorax:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Essentialism, Psychology, and Homo Sapiens

For today, I’d like to feature a couple articles from Edge Magazine that talk about essentialism: the idea that something’s existence is preceded by some “essence” that defines it. First, an article by Richard Dawkins, our lovable (hateable?) neighborhood biologist and secularist:

Essentialism (“the tyranny of the discontinuous mind”)

More about the categories by which doctors, government officials, and censorians alike ask us to describe our race—some recent work by Danielle Young, Diana Sanchez, and Leigh Wilton suggests that adopting this kind of monoracial classification reinforces the idea that race is essential, a belief that has negative consequences for stereotyping and group dynamics. One interesting example is from data presented by Tonia Kang at last week’s Conference for the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, which suggested that biracial targets face especially negative evaluations from those who believe in the low genetic overlap between people of different racial backgrounds. (Genetically, we’re all quite similar: we share ~99% of our genetic makeup with other humans. But, many people don’t think this is true.)

(I had one friend in junior high who was, like me, half Filipino and half Caucasian. We colorfully referred to ourselves as the “Half Vanilla Thrilla Killas from Manila.” Even then, we clearly knew that racial essentialism was no good.)

And, here’s the second article, written by my graduate advisor, Kurt Gray. This article more specifically addresses essentialism in psychology and the insistence to taxonomize the species of the mental world (e.g., 27 discrete mental illnesses; 5 moral domains; 7 basic emotions).

Numbering Nature

What’s important to keep in mind through all this is that labels *are* good for communication; without them, how would you tell someone that you saw a lion, decide that you feel guilty, or split an apple in two equal halves and share it with someone you love? (It probably wasn’t quite 50/50, but hey, it’s the thought that counts!) Even when we say that we are Homo sapiens, we refer not to a discrete category of being, but rather humankind’s broad (and shifting) occupation of a small area on a continuous spectrum of evolving life. Essentialism and evolution don’t mix—like Dawkins mentions in his article, “there never was an Australopithecus mother who gave birth to a Homo child”.

Though, when you try, you do get some odd results:


We Are Homo Sapiens

But when did we become? I feel that I am,
as were the Romans, and the Nazis too
(precisely no more and no less than any Jew).
But is it true? Is the man that is as Adam,
or Moses, or Cain? Surely, some of the same remains,
but we grow, and become even wiser still—
ever-more sapient, if you will—
and begin to believe the soul is in the brain.
Perhaps our humanness exceeds the old nations,
who far surpassed Australopithecus.
Were they essentially un-human, or just compared to us?

(Believing both are true begets a weird consideration:
if some of us become a Being not Homo sapiens,
will those who live in Paris still all be Parisians?)


Take care,

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Game of Go

In the last month or so, I’ve adopted an interest in the board game Go (Igo in Japanese, Weiqi in Chinese). The game is often compared to chess, since it is a game that is culturally revered and seen as a pinnacle of strategic competition. The first written reference to the game dates back to around 400 BC, and the game has persisted ever since. Essentially, if The Seventh Seal were made by some Japanese or Chinese director, rather than Ingmar Bergman, Antonius Block would have played Go with death, rather than chess.

In Go, you start with an empty 19 x 19 grid. Each player has a set of stones (either black or white), and they alternate placing stones on the board to try to claim territory and attack the other player’s territory by creating groups of stones. The black player goes first, but the white player receives a handful of points as compensation for going second (komi; number of points depends on which country’s rules you use). If one player’s group of stones is completely surrounded by enemy stones (or cannot escape), then it is “dead”. However, by creating two or more “eyes” of stones, players can create groups that are “alive” and cannot be captured.

Part of the beauty of the game originates from the development of a few smaller battles into a larger conflict: smaller battles around the edges of the board run into each other, and the form of these battles dictates the nature of the conflict over the center of the board, as well as later conflicts around the edges. You have to see very, very far ahead when you play your stones, and even though there is a strong technical element to the game, there’s also some element of creativity and “feeling” the board.

I’m in no position to comment on the technical aspects of Go, since I’m a beginner (and probably won’t progress too far; it’s tough to learn and I’m not motivated enough to regularly study the game). However, the game is fun to play, and has a certain elegance. Here are a few links if anyone is interested in trying it out.

An excellent starting tutorial

A wiki/forum about Go with lots of interesting material

A solid online Go program


In the few decades prior to the 2000s, interest in Go among Japan's youth was in steady decline. A manga and anime series, Hikaru no Go, actually changed that substantially and caused a resurgence in the game. The anime series is quite good overall; it's a coming-of-age story with a wide range of characters that experience many of the ills associated with professional game-playing, such as jealousy, rivalry, falling in to slumps, having to compete with your friends, etc.

Another interesting bit about the game: right now, the strongest Go program in the world can’t beat higher-level professional Go players. In the 1990s, IBM started working on creating a computer than could beat professional chess players. Kasparov won the first showdown with Deep Blue in 1996, but lost the rematch the following year, in 1997. Now, computers don’t play chess in the same way that humans do; at least in part, they use brute force by running thousands of different simulations, then choosing the move that yielded the best outcomes. Not exactly an elegant approach (Mikhail Tal, it ain't). Some programmers in the early 2000s estimated that using the same kind of algorithms to conquer Go will require around 1000 times more computing power, because of the longer game length and larger board. There are other problems, too, as described in this article:


[A]ccording to David Stern of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, who is working on a doctorate on computer Go with the team at Microsoft, it is very hard to determine, for each move, what its effects will be. Although the stones do not move, their presence affects the value and "strength" of the others; adjacent stones of the same colour form "groups" which are harder to capture. That's unlike chess, where it is comparatively easy to determine the "static value" of all the pieces at any time, because there are only 32 at most, where a Go board constantly fills with new pieces. "It is very difficult to produce an efficient 'static evaluation' function to compute the value of board positions in Go for a particular player," notes Stern. "The reason is that the stones on the Go board influence each other's value in complex ways. The value of a particular stone to a player is derived from its relationships with the surrounding stones, not from itself."

The effect is that in Go there are many non-ideal moves at any point, but because games last longer - typically about 200 moves (100 stones placed by each side) rather than 70 (35 by both sides) in chess - it's harder to look far ahead enough to see a non-ideal move's defects show up. David Fotland - author of the Go-playing program Many Faces of Go, still ranked one of the strongest available - reckons that for humans, reading ahead is actually easier in Go than in chess. "People are visual, and the board configuration and relationships change less from move to move than they do in chess," he told the Intelligent Go website (

It's the visual element of the game that nobody can quite put into code. Go has a visual element; a high-good level player will reject a potential move because its "shape" - that is, the position of a stone move being considered in relation to the stones already there - "looks bad". They're not intuitively obvious. Equally, good players also talk of stones and groups having "influence" on other parts of the board, or being "heavy" or "light" or "overextended". More simply, "urgent" moves are those that will bolster the player's position; good players consistently choose the most urgent moves.


However, this article was written in 2006. Things have moved quickly since then; last year, a top professional lost against a computer program, Zen, that received only a 4-stone handicap.  Now, that’s a fairly large handicap, but we might see a Go program beat a top-level Go player in the next decade or two, far less time than many estimated about 10 years ago (I believe that new, more efficient algorithms are the reason, not just computing power; see this article for more details, plus some interesting statistics). The last bastion of human dominance in board games may soon fall. Maybe it’ll be something like this:


A Game of Igo: Honinbo and the Machine
    ~Thirty years after Kasparov vs. Deep Blue

Stones on a kaya sky—Honinbo guards the ego
of a game, whose disciples only years ago
asserted their soulful dominance of Igo,
which, as the elegant sky-shape Virgo,
is pure, and alive, and beyond. But now, Deep Indigo
solidly sits at the board, to undergo
a thousand million calculations, and forgo
the grace of constellations. It is strong, ergo,
but only brutishly skilled, like an imposter Van Gogh
who knows where—but not why—all the stars go.


Take care,

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Writing Spontaneously

An off-the-cuff poem:


A Riff on That Pulchritudinous Chick

Yours is the pulchritude that lands me in the madhouse,
untousled and easy to commit to, like a jump
from a two-foot stump, which is safe, till you surmise
for a bit, and realize that two feet is really ten—
what then? when you figure that the stump is a tree,
and obliviously, you climbed and just couldn’t find
the other eight feet, left behind in that daze
that amazes us, when later we look up from below
after the painful, fast-slow leap from above—
call it love, if you want—and cannot believe
that we committed to all that heaving and hunger,
and sung all those ballads from way up there,
grinning with our own share of happiness and headiness,
till loneliness emboldened, collapsed, and subdued.


Let's start by just talking about the poem. Okay—so it's silly, especially at the start. But that's not a bad thing; poetry can get too bogged down and serious, especially when talking about topics like love and loss of love, which have been beaten down by super-serious suitors for centuries. And, it doesn't stay completely silly—in the last few lines (and last couple lines, especially), it veers to a more serious tone, which actually gives the end some extra punch because of the contrast. Also, the stumbling, off-kilter pacing is maintained throughout, partly by the poem's breathless, one-sentence structure, and partly by sudden transitions in tense and subject: the poem starts with the narrator making a specific statement about someone, shifts into a general sense of "you", then broadens further into the general "we", including everyone in a reflection on the odd and sometimes unbelievable hindsight we have after falling out of love.

More broadly, let's talk about methods of improving (or at least diversifying) writing. A lot of writers are almost always deliberate, carefully weighing all their choices—and of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach. However, quick and spontaneous writing can have interesting results, especially if your usual modus operandi is slow, serious and detail-oriented. Sometimes you get phrases you would never get otherwise—stuff like "Yours in the pulchritude that lands me in the madhouse", which is, y'know, crazy and would be stupid, if not for the off-kilter, spiraling feel of the whole poem. If you tend to always go with serious—and especially if you feel like your writing often ends up being a slog—try going with silly for a change, if only to explore and possibly find a happy medium. But, also remember that writing a free-wheeling first draft isn't an excuse to forgo revision: fine-tuning things like music and cohesion is always important and rarely comes off perfectly the first go 'round.

For good measure, here's another example of this kind of approach:


This Sonnet Is About Love

LOVE—what if I told you, my little persimmon, to
exist as a mixture of sexiness and danger? Would you
oblige, or just kick me? Ah, but to kick would be
to oblige my request, and increase your love for me
(You may not realize it right away, but—trust me, my dearest
artichoke—love is not of a simpleness that garnishes the nest
of easy consciousness, and we do not always understand
why we wake up with such a fondness for summerland
papayas. Sometimes, I wake up in a fruit basket and wonder
why, myself!)!           
                          So go ahead and kick me (or not!), dammit! I’m sure
that for all that show and twirling of hair and soft demure
you’ll oblige me in the end, though (sad to say?) I finally know
there’s a difference (a la Gershwin) ‘tween tomayto and tomahto.


Sure, it's not the heaviest or most complex subject matter—love is complicated, sometimes we don't know why we love who we love, and at some point we all realize that unrequited love isn't the same as shared love—but if you're going to talk about this stuff at all, why not have a little fun while doing it?

And again, the Willy Wonka quote goes: "A little silliness now and then is relished by the wisest men."

Take care,

(P.S. Using "pulchritude" started as a joke from an e-mail exchange with my grad school advisor, but it actually does some good, 'cause a) it's unabashedly silly, just like most of the poem, and b) it sticks in memory strongly enough to pull off the "pulchritude/subdued" rhyme that has 13 lines of separation and pulls the rhyme scheme of ab/bc/cd/de full circle.)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Zimmerman, and Other Bits on Race (and Gender)

If you’ve watched or read any news in the last couple weeks, you’ve probably caught wind of the recent Zimmerman trial for the alleged killing of Trayvon Martin: the trial (blown by the prosecutors, but still, c’mon), the verdict (not guilty of 2nd degree murder or manslaughter), the aftermath (protesting of both peaceful and violent varieties), and the conversation about race throughout. As far as I can tell, this verdict basically reaffirms, in a microcosm—seriously, this shit happens pretty often, but sometimes one story latches on to everyone’s empathy-feelers—that young black males are hugely mistreated in our legal system. One of the major culprits is the “Stand Your Ground” or “Shoot First” laws that almost half of US states have. These laws essentially create the possibility of a “guilty until proven innocent” situation, as this article clearly illustrates, with the point summarized in this quote:


“Sanford Police Chief Billy Lee initially said there is no evidence to dispute self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman's assertion that he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense.

‘Until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don't have the grounds to arrest him,’ Lee said.”


Now that the trial is over and the technicalities have fallen away in favor of more general discussion, the public conversation is mostly about race—but, I don’t think that it hurts to also point out gender in this case. Since the conversation on discrimination is in full swing right now, I figured I would share a couple other interesting videos about racial attitudes in America, with a few comments on gender as well.


First, we have an interesting micro-documentary about stop-and-frisk policies in New York City. Here’s a summary of some of the stats cited in the video: cops in NYC stopped 685,724 people in 2011, and these people were disproportionately black or Hispanic. Gender is not mentioned in this segment, save for one quote from by Tyquan’s teacher, Drew: “Young men of color are targeted, period. End of story.” The  gender stats are not typically highlighted, including at the New York Civil Liberties Union website, which gives a more detailed race breakdown. But, if you dig into the data files provided on the website (which has data for all 685,724 people), you’ll find that 93.1% of those randomly stopped are male, excluding those with no gender recorded. For black people only, this percentage basically holds, at 93.3%. Ain’t that a treat? If you want to talk about men's problems in the media, you must, must, must tread carefully, and oftentimes it’s just not worth it—so, you gloss over the point instead.


This entry has been a downer so far, so let’s move on to something more uplifting. Watch this commercial. You can probably guess why a storm of hateful comments descended on this poor video, posted just a couple months ago on YouTube. Now, the story about this commercial is, again, nothing new: YouTube comment sections, like most online comment sections, are stomping grounds for trolls and bigots cloaked in anonymity. But the reaction to this commercial caught on, and the Fine Bros, who have a long-running series of reaction videos on YouTube, took this opportunity to ask some kids what they think about commercial.

Lots and lots of confused looks from kids, color-indifferent attitudes, and a general focus on nice things like love and happiness. One of the girls made an especially cute comment—“But, some people just fall in love like that”—while shrugging her shoulders. Sure, there’s probably some selection bias because of the kids that the Fine brothers interviewed, but there is a decrease in racist tendencies as the generations pass, on the whole.As a side note, part of the reaction to this video might have had to do with the specific pairing of a white woman with a black man (no data, but work with me here). White men can more or less date, bang, and marry whatever kind of women they’d like without worrying about too much backlash toward either party: the white guy can bring the gal up to his social level. But, if a black man marries a white chick, then both face some judgment because the black man is somehow “corrupting” or bringing down the white woman.

A few points are embedded in all this (I’m going to roll with “black” and “white” here, so forgive me for oversimplifying): one, the man’s standing shouldn’t determine the dynamic of the relationship more than the woman’s standing; two, black men get a sore deal if they happen to love white women; and three, white women also get a sore deal if they love black men. From these points, we can take a couple general ideas: one, it’s important not to oversimplify discrimination; and two, it’s possible for men to suffer consequences within a patriarchal system, though not nearly to the extent that women suffer.


Take care,

Friday, March 22, 2013

Wealth Disparity in the US

Take a moment to think: how is wealth distributed in the US? How much wealth do the poorest 20% of people control? The richest 20%? The richest 1%?

Now answer another question: How would you like for wealth in the US to be distributed (that is, what is your ideal)? Would you keep things the same? Shift some money from the rich to the poor? Set every population quintile at a solid 20% each (you damn Marxist!)?

A couple Fridays ago, I led a discussion with the Texas Tech Honors College to discuss wealth disparity in America. I started by collecting data from all of the people in the room by asking them to fill out this survey.

The idea was to do an in-house, 10-minute replication of a study conducted by Mike Norton and Dan Ariely (2011). Here are the results from our in-house surveying. Perceived distribution first, followed by ideal distribution:

(Note: My numbers this time are a little cleaner than they were during the discussion, since I knocked out a couple people who didn’t follow directions. There were still a couple people who didn’t add properly, though, which throws the numbers just a bit. Also, keep in mind that none of the data collected for this discussion were subjected to significance tests; they are for demonstration only.)

Perceived Distribution of Wealth in the US by Quintile (in percentage), Richest to Poorest

Top 20%:            57.50
2nd 20%:            19.56
Middle 20%:        12.21
4th 20%:             6.74
Bottom 20%:       4.00

Ideal Distribution of Wealth in the US by Quintile (in percentage), Richest to Poorest

Top 20%:            35.44
2nd 20%:            22.22
Middle 20%:        18.31
4th 20%:             13.83
Bottom 20%:       10.75


Y’know, the perceived wealth distribution looks pretty good, actually: sure, the rich people are really rich, but 4% of the wealth in the US is still enough for people to live comfortably. The ideal distribution reflects a desires to lower the wealth of the top 20% and boost everyone else’s wealth.

Even with a super-small sample size (20’ish people, compared to the thousands used in the model study), our data are roughly similar to Norton and Ariely’s data, and certainly reflect the same basic points: people perceive some notable, but not egregious, differences in wealth, and they would prefer a more even distribution of wealth. But, what of the actual distribution of wealth?

Watch this video (it’s worth it, promise!).


Ouch. In case you missed it (or skipped the video—shame on you), here’s the number breakdown of the actual wealth distribution in America (roughly):

Actual Distribution of Wealth in the US by Quintile (in percentage), Richest to Poorest

Top 20%:            84.5
2nd 20%:            10.7
Middle 20%:        4.5
4th 20%:             0.2
Bottom 20%:       0.1


So why the massive inaccuracy in judgment? Our discussion group pinpointed some solid possibilities:

~*We mostly hang out with people in our own socio-economic group, so we don’t have useful points of comparison
~*If you see that someone has a car and a house, just like you do, you don’t think about whether or not they had to take on major debt to afford these things
~*Equality is just a nicer thought!

Furthermore, for perceived and ideal distributions of wealth, Norton and Ariely found no significant differences between conservatives and liberals, poor people and rich people. You might think, Hey, wait a sec! If that’s true, then maybe everyone can agree for a change and work toward new policies!

...Not really. Finding out about this consensus on wealth distribution leads to almost no change in conversatives’ and liberals’ opinions on policy (they agree more on increasing educational opportunities and funding for kiddos, but that’s about it). Liberals want more government redistribution of wealth; conservatives want more opportunities for social mobility (changing your wealth by working hard). So, even if the what is the same between parties, the how stays quite different.


Let’s review the things we’ve learned so far:
  1. Rich people are really rich
  2. Poor people are really poor (some people at the discussion didn’t have a sense of the extent to which some people in the US lack food, shelter, clothes, etc.)
  3. Across political and socio-economic bounds, people generally agree on perceived and ideal wealth distributions 
  4. Most people have massively inaccurate perceptions of wealth distribution
Now, let’s zone in on this last point for a bit. Norton and Ariely asked participants to report their perceived and ideal wealth distributions in percentage values. Erikkson and Simpson (2012) wrote a response to Norton and Ariely, demonstrating that asking for people to report using percentages leads to anchoring effects and exaggerates the extent to which people mis-estimate the actual wealth distribution. To illustrate this point during the discussion, I had half of the people at the discussion use a percent measure and the other half use an average measure, in which they reported how much money (in dollars) the average household in each quintile earned. After converting these dollar values to percentages, I came up with these results (using another 20’ish responses):

Perceived Distribution of Wealth in the US by Quintile (in percentage), Richest to Poorest:

Top 20%:            65.88 (compare to 57.50 with the percent measure)
2nd 20%:            17.58 (compare to 19.56)
Middle 20%:        8.86 (compare to 12.21)
4th 20%:             5.06 (compare to 6.74)
Bottom 20%:       2.62 (compare to 4.00)

Ideal Distribution of Wealth in the US by Quintile (in percentage), Richest to Poorest: Average Measure

Top 20%:            48.05
2nd 20%:            19.67
Middle 20%:        14.13
4th 20%:             10.09
Bottom 20%:       8.05

These numbers are a nice demonstration of Erikkson and Simpson’s argument that using an average measure leads to more significantly different (and seemingly more valid) findings than using a percentage measure, but the basic points of Norton and Ariely seem to remain; people’s reports are just less inaccurate using an average measure.


So, where do we go from here? I’m not really sure, but here are a few questions for you all:
  1. Why else are people’s estimations of wealth distribution so inaccurate?
  2. Are there any good ways to reframe these findings to promote cooperation across political party lines?
  3. The bottom 40% think they possess a greater percentage of the country’s wealth than they actually do: is this a good or a bad thing?
Finally, a quick shout-out to everyone who helped me test my data collection procedure for the discussion—thanks for the help!

Take care,

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Super Bowl Poetry, Kinda

Another Super Bowl there and gone, and another fun spectacle. I was rooting for the 49ers on the minor grounds that I want to see Michael Crabtree (TTU alum) succeed and that I enjoy watching Kaepernick scramble, but regardless, the game was entertaining.

I didn't pay great attention to the commercials this time around, but there was a RAM commercial that I enjoyed quite a lot. This quiet commercial stands out immensely against a background of cheap gimmicks (seriously, a Gangnam Style pistachio commercial?) and cheaper gimmicks (supermodel making out with computer nerd, with lots of lovely up-close shots). Great delivery, and many excellent still shots. On the other hand, the presentation of the farmer is politically off in a couple ways: who knows, maybe some non-Christian farmers will find the commercial offensive, and there's a definite overrepresentation of white people. Still, I'm more interested in the commercial's presentation than its political undercurrents: I watched it, and I enjoyed it. I've definitely seen better commercials before (this gem that Alex Sheremet posted comes to mind, and Dos Equis commercials, as a whole, are some of the best in the last few years), but this one's my pick for the Super Bowl, though I did miss some of them.

Super Bowl commercials might make (read: definitely make) a silly segue into a light sonnet about one of psychology's biggest contributions to advertising, the mere exposure effect, but hey, let's go for it:

(Note: "Zajonc" is pronounced "zai-yonce".)


The Mere Exposure Effect

            “The balance of the experimental results reviewed and reported in this paper is in favor of the hypothesis that mere repeated exposure of an individual to a stimulus object enhances his attitude toward it.” ~Robert Zajonc, 1968

Zajonc, my friend, Zajonc, Zajonc,
I’m very fond of you, my friend—
I’m very fond of you, ablazon
as a god on the worshipping wall
of those who might sell anything at all
by repeating, Zajonc, an image sunk
with(out) reason well-deep into the spacious mind
that might feel a small feeling, and respond in kind.
And kindly I thank you, my friend, Zajonc:
His goods are better than others, they think
as they try to make sense of a hundred things.
Zajonc, my friend, intuition sings
and reason follows (and profits, too),
and for that (and that) I’m very fond of you.


Take care,

Friday, December 28, 2012

Souvenir from Boston

The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. If a sonnet is worth a thousand pictures, then what happens if I write one thousand words' worth of sonnets?


Boston Overlooks

From the stories rising only as high
as the sun would take them, the city
overhung and shadowed the city sky.
I saw from my window the drapery
of light hung over the waking afternoon,
and hints of what stirred beneath.

—Bright-eyed again, the evening croons
its intimate song with wine-sanguine breath
that stains the smoke-shrouded glass
of my highrise window. I see the city
undressed, her lights no longer overcast
by light. Her hair falls lavishly,

and I as well. Tonight, we pull
at her locks—a wish something wonderful.


Take care,

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Taxing by Fortune

In most general addresses to the American people, Romney and the Republican party justify the preservation of current tax rates for the rich by stating that “overtaxing” the rich actually hurts the poor and the middle class, since rich people create jobs and opportunities for everyone else. This justification is a direct appeal to non-rich voters, but also an indirect appeal to rich voters whose enthusiasm for lower taxes does not stem from their increased power to expand the economy, but rather their indignation at the fact that their hard-earned money might be siphoned away by a government that “punishes success”. Look up any article about why higher taxes for the wealthy is bad, and you’ll probably find a statement like this:

“Of course, one might ask in general what is fair about taking wealth away from those who have earned it through their own industriousness and hard work and spreading it around to others who didn’t earn it.” (Michael Tanner, National Review)

If the “You didn’t build that” fiasco a few months ago is any indication of the common Republican attitude about success, many Republicans largely attribute their success to hard work and individual drive—things that anyone can conjure up to achieve similar results.  To some extent, most people, regardless of political affiliation, tend to claim credit when good things happen and blame everyone and everything else when bad things happen—in psychology, this tendency is called self-serving bias (claimin’ and blamin’). These mistakes can help keep people’s self-esteem and motivation high, but they can also be problematic: self-serving bias can overgrow people’s egos or keep them from taking responsibility for failing. The negative effect of this bias is also apparent when wealthy people object to higher taxes that essentially punish them for being self-made catalysts of success.

Self-made catalysts of success? Not so, unless we buy the proposition that “all men are created equal” not only in regard to rights, but also in regard to luck and opportunity. People vary, beyond their will, in lots of important ways: intelligence, looks, health, upbringing, specific instances of good luck, specific instances of bad luck, so on, so forth. We all have a responsibility to be as productive as possible with the hand we’re dealt—and in this sense, merit must be rewarded, lest we embrace a communist ideal—but someone with a pair of threes is not going to outplay someone else holding a straight flush. Not all people possess the tools needed to reach the upper echelons of wealth, no matter how hard they try.

Progressive taxes with particular emphasis on taxing the rich should not be thought of as “punishing success”—rather, they should be thought of as “equalizing luck”. If everyone lived a million lives, everyone would get (more or less) their fair share of luck. But, we live one life, and people vary widely in their potential for success and suffering. “Taxing by fortune” shouldn’t refer to how much money someone has, but rather how much luck someone has. Sure, such a tax isn’t perfect—some people really do work harder for their wealth than others—but it’s certainly more fair than not.

(Note: I do believe that taxes can be *too* progressive, but in the U.S., I doubt we’ll face that problem for some time).

We can also consider the fairness of progressive taxes from another angle. Progressive income taxes help us achieve a flatter “standard of living” tax. Money has diminishing marginal utility, such that a 25% income tax affects poor families and rich families differently. Poor families could use the extra money to buy healthier food, better clothing, and other things that significantly influence their standard of living. Rich families could use the extra money to increase their access to luxuries, which also influence their standard of living—but, a lot more money is needed for the same increase. Plus, standard of living is related to happiness (happiness is important, right?), and research suggests that money doesn’t make you much happier, once you have enough to feel secure. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert notes that “Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year.” (Newsweek, “Why Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness”)

Money is more tangible and measurable than variables like luck, standard of living, and happiness; however, this does not mean that it is more important when constructing government policy. Raising taxes on wealthy U.S. citizens may seem unfair from a surface perspective, but in a deeper sense, it is a movement toward essential and meaningful fairness.