2014 Midterms: Something about nothing

The 2014 midterm elections were boring. They fit into a long historical trend of midterms going against the president’s party, and one only needs to look at the distorted ratio of Democratic seats in the Senate that needed defending to Republican ones. Gerrymandering makes the House increasingly predictable and dull- any interesting results occur months earlier in primaries.

Something was learned. Something about nothing. Because nothing was the Democratic Party’s platform going into the elections.

Their economic policy plankĀ was insubstantial. Little effort was dedicated to big-picture ideas, the sort that might override voter cynicism and record-low approval ratings for Congress. Broadly speaking, the Democrats had a reactionary campaign. Rather than defending the president’s agenda or the liberalism that will always be tied to the party, they ran away and tried to find shelter, either with local issues or populist conservatism.

In the end, moving yet further to the right is not going to win elections. If people wish to vote for a conservative candidate, that’s what the Republican Party is there for. Polls show that the public wants economic justice and ending elite privilege. But that’s ignored, so the plan instead is to ignore empirical evidence and go with pundit wisdom. 2014 shouldn’t be thought of as the voters choosing R’s over D’s, but rather a mass of people that saw nothing worth voting for.

As someone outside the two-party mindset, I have no anticipation that the Democratic Party will see the error of its ways and become some great progressive engine worth supporting. But even in the limited spectrum in the United States, it’s clear that there’s no winning scenario at the end of all this. The Republican Party has coalesced around a selection of bold, simple, and terrible ideas. They have an agenda worth hating. There is substance. Democratic Senate candidates fled substance, and often latched onto GOP ideas in the absence of anything else.

Personally I’m glad that Proposition 47 passed in my home state of California. It is a great step towards ending prison overcrowding and the mass incarceration culture. It’s also the sort of sensible policy that isn’t getting passed in Congress anytime soon. A bit of direct democracy is the only respite from gridlock.

There is no normal

It’s common to hear those living with a mental illness to refer to normalcy. They may even wish to be normal. In my teens I was part of that camp; bipolar disorder was isolating, isolation being the common denominator of all mental conditions.

But then, the thought drums at the back of your skull. It grows until you have to face it – what on earth is ‘normal’? What are its characteristics, and why have I aspired to be it?

Really, when people have some kind of isolating characteristic, they aspire towards a statistical concept. Normal is the mean, or the median. It’s not a real, tangible thing. It’s like the all-American family with their 2.4 children. The 2.4 can’t be applied to a single, ‘normal’ family. And all these normal, average metrics are just a combination of variation, and include extremes. 2.4 is averaged from many zeroes, along with reality-show families with two dozen kids.

In the end, I am normal. I’m a part of the average, with a lot of people like me and a bunch that are totally different. Dysfunction and function exist in a complicated relationship – what is weird or immoral varies over space and time. Ask the next ten people you talk to if they can define what ‘normal’ is to them. You’ll get >1 ideas from that sample.

Part of ending the pain of isolation is to end self-isolation- in which people define themselves as outside certain boundaries and barriers. These barriers can be real and tangible, but they are also self-assigned. Even if certain legal and economic obstacles are removed in the struggle for racial equality, people must emerge from those feelings of inferiority or superiority that came with those policies. Just because those with mental illnesses don’t get locked up for decades at a time that often doesn’t mean the separation ceases to exist.

Changing the world with pocket change

Ever since I saw his talk at TED 2009, I’ve come to like the perspective of marketing executive Rory Sutherland. His major thesis is that value is more subjective than we tend to think, and thus we can increase value and happiness through ways that don’t cost all that much money or labor. In this talk he applies the thesis to the environmental movement- with enough understanding of what humans value and what makes them happy, you can keep a high level of happiness with fewer material goods. Fewer trees cut down, less plastic in the ocean, a more sustainable energy system.

A later talk, called “sweat the small stuff” talks about how effect and cost are too often assumed to be correlated. The idea that big change could be ingenious and cheap is not in the contemporary vocabulary. In fact, he ends with this graph and asks the audience to name the grey quadrant.


This is not to state that massive social problems do not at some level require a large amount of money and labor. But the point is that if the big parts of a process are a train- the capital, the manpower, and overall goal; then the small stuff are the rails- language, cultural understanding, small-level behavior. If you’re part of the WHO, and you’re trying to eradicate a disease in Pakistan, it’s not just the vaccines and workers. How do you get the population to vaccinate their children? How do you make it universal? How do you avoid clashes with local authorities? This isn’t just a question of money, it’s about understanding other people and encouraging cooperation.

Government programs need comprehensible forms and processes, corporate products need packaging and instructions. If you give machinery to a developing country, it’s not just teaching locals to use it, but also how they will continue to use it and not sell it for scrap. What divides a billion dollars of foreign aid money from being useless (except for a few lucky government officials) or incredibly powerful are small details.

What’s the cost of expanding landfill and increasing cleanup efforts? In contrast, think of how much money was spent changing “garbage” on kiosks in restaurants and airports to “landfill.” Changing human decisions in the small scale may seem trivial at first glance, but in the aggregate it’s key to improving the Earth.