Books by Arthur

Social Networks
Article Index [A-Z]

Arthur S. ReberI’ve spent over fifty years living two parallel lives. In one I am a semi-degenerate gambler, a poker junkie, horse player, and blackjack maven; in the other, a scientist specializing in cognitive psychology and related topics in the neurosciences, the origins of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. For the most part, I’ve kept these tracks separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and the just full-bore fun in the other.

But over time these two avenues of my life have meshed. There’s a lot that we know about human psychology that can give us insight into gambling, especially poker and, of course, there’s a lot that poker can teach us about human psychology. It is quite astonishing how richly these topics interlock. I’ll also introduce you to some engaging characters I’ve known – bookies, con artists, hustlers, professional poker players and perhaps an occasional famous scientist.

This site will wander about in both worlds with new columns and articles along with links to scores of previously published ones. Now that I’ve retired I’ve become something of a political junkies and will go on rants on politics and economics,  When the mood strikes I’ll share views on food, restaurants and cooking. Any and all feedback is welcome.


Rural v. Urban America: It's Mainly Cultural

There was a most interesting article today in the Washington Post. It reported on a recent poll taken by WaPo and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The poll interviewed 1700 adults living in rural, suburban and urban settings and focused on a host of what are easiest to call “cultural” differences. In particular, they looked at attitudes toward immigrants, beliefs about welfare programs and who benefits from them, opinions about income levels and unemployment, growth or lack thereof in the economy, and, of course, support for one or another presidential candidate. The main focus was exploration of the divide between rural and urban America. They found some things that go against common wisdom. There’s a lot in the study and much of it is covered in the WaPo article which can be found here:

But we can distill the data down to several essential features. The main one that jumps off the page is the disconnect between belief and reality. Those who live in rural settings believe that unemployment in their areas is higher than in the cities — it is, but only by a tiny amount, less than 1%. They think that poverty levels are higher — they’re not, they are virtually identical. The believe that government support programs favor groups that they feel are unworthy including racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, immigrant groups — the data show otherwise. When asked about overall income levels rural groups think they are worse off than city-dwellers — the numbers belie them. They also reveal more racist beliefs and anti-immigrant opinions especially about jobs, who takes them and taxes, who pays them.

The authors don’t touch on why these differences are there. I think one of the wedges that drives the divide is that rural folks are more likely to watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh. The demographics of Fox News watchers reveals a higher proportion of those who live in rural counties. Several studies have shown that those who get their news from Fox are significantly less well informed than virtually everyone else — including those who don’t watch the news on a regular basis. 

Rural communities also tend to be more homogenous so residents are less likely to encounter minorities and immigrants leaving them open to cultural memes about them. The lack of exposure means that they are less likely to have the first-hand experience of most suburban and city-dwellers. They also tend to have higher levels of religiosity, particularly Evangelical Christian which, again, tends to keep them within communities of the like-minded which fosters prejudice and dispenses misinformation.

But, interestingly, what also came from the study was that many of the factors that most pundits and political analysts thought were the keys to whether particular areas supported Trump or Clinton didn’t show up. Rural communities voted overwhelmingly for Trump but the income distributions of the two didn’t differ. Similarly, city-dwellers voted strongly for Clinton and, again, independent of family income. Poor rural areas voted for Trump; poor urban areas for Clinton. Well-off rural areas went for Trump; well-off suburban and urban ones backed Clinton.

What we’re seeing develop in America is a cultural divide that’s based largely on myth. Rural people believe they’re being screwed by the government, the cities, the coastal elitists — but they’re not. They think people of color or who worship differently are being granted special considerations — but they’re not. It’s not a pretty picture and it doesn’t auger well for the future.

I’d be curious to see the outcome of a similar study done in Canada. The original immigrants in America and Canada came from the same European stock. In the centuries since then both countries expanded their policies and in similar ways. The overall ethnic and economic demographics are pretty much the same with regard to urban versus rural populations. Both countries also dealt with their indigenous peoples rather poorly.

Canada didn’t have slavery — our original sin. They are more likely to embrace communitarian ideals and more comfortable with multi-culturalism. Importantly, several decades ago Canada embarked on a shift in educational programs incorporating civic lessons that emphasized tolerance and acceptance. The government also moved toward mitigating some of the socio-cultural damage that still lingers from the abusive treatment of the Aboriginal tribes. And they don’t have Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or any Canadian equivalents — and those who live close enough to the border to pick them up typically don’t bother.

I’d expect the rural-urban divide in cultural beliefs to be much weaker there — if exhibited at all. If so, there are lessons to be learned.


Trump's Successful Assaults on the Pillars of Democracy

Beginning back in the early days of Trump’s campaign he hit on a strategy that, frankly, I don’t think anyone anticipated and if anyone did they likely would have thought it a dead-end. Attack the media. I don’t think it was a conscious decision on Trump’s part — just a spontaneous reaction against some bad press and, when his fans responded lustily, it became a central theme of his rallies and marches. Generally, politicians want to have good relations with the press, nurture contacts with influential reporters — after all, they’re the ones who get messages out. Trump, of course, also found another way to get his messages out: Twitter. A couple of tweet-storms and who needs CBS?
The ensuing war on the media has been surprisingly successful. Despite the rocky first few months of his presidency, his supporters still approve of the job he’s doing. In fact, a recent poll found that fully 85% of Trump voters give him top grades and approve wholeheartedly of his actions. The way they’re handling the tsunami of bad news is by concluding that much of it is fake news, that what is true is trivial and overblown by a biased press, and that if it weren’t for the lies and distortions of the hated media (read WaPo, NYT, HuffPo) his presidency would be flying along doing great things. Those supporters who do acknowledge that things have been a bit dicey say that’s just fine. He said he was going to upset Washington and do things differently and he is.

In the first few months in office Trump also ran into conflicts with other elements of government and, in a very Trumpish fashion, he employed the same tactic, attack. First we went after the various intelligence agencies and, as with the anti-media assault, the parallel smearing of the US intelligence agencies has had a similar impact. The narrative from the pro-Trump right is that the rank and file in the FBI and the CIA hate the president and are constantly undermining him and leaking untruths designed to compromise his efforts. The drumbeat is they should be investigating Hillary’s emails and tracking down who in the government is leaking information rather than chasing after Flynn or pursuing Trump’s links with the Russians. Comey has become their new bête noir who deserved to be sacked. The veracity of those “memos” that Comey has are doubted because he wrote them and he is just a bitter and disloyal man. The leak of top-secret intel to the Russians is viewed as a “ho-hummer” that has only been made to look serious because the biased press and untrustworthy intelligence agencies are making a mountain out of a molehill.

The third line of attack has been on the courts and seems to have stemmed from the same impulsiveness of Trump and, perhaps no longer surprisingly, has had a similar impact. His supporters no longer trust the courts and see the Federal judiciary as just another arm of the liberal hegemony that is as biased in their views of Trump as the media and the CIA. The several injunctions issued against Trump’s Executive Orders are critiqued as the actions of left-wing activist judges not as serious deliberations by an unbiased judiciary. They also view Nunes’ and Session’s recusals as the result of media pressure, not because of anything they did wrong.

The end product is predictable. Trump’s base now views everyone not with them as against them. And not simply against in some principled manner but viciously against as part of a wide-spread, leftist, coastal, pseudo-intellectual plot to undermine the person they see as the only one who can, indeed, make American great again.

This stance, once taken, is remarkably resistant to argument. Any effort to set the record straight or to persuade supporters that something is amiss in the White House is treated as just more more fake-news, more displays of Trump-hatred and continued anger and frustration over having lost the election.

To see this in all its glory wander around sites like Drudge, Breitbart, Fox News, or Infowars — or, as I’ve discovered to my surprise and dismay, post some anti-Trump material on Facebook and watch what comes back.

Trump's Narcissim Revisited

There’s been a resurgence of psychiatric “diagnoses” of Trump, most of them focusing on his obvious narcissism. A question that’s been bouncing around is how, if it’s so bloody obvious that he suffers from an easily diagnosed clinical syndrome, can he have been so successful? He is, after all, a very wealthy man and … last time I checked was the POTUS and the single most influential, powerful person on the freakin’ planet.

The answer is simple. Narcissists function extremely well if they are smart and in a supportive environment. And, yes, despite all the weirdness, he is smart . He’s ignorant and astonishingly uncurious but those traits are orthogonal to intelligence. In his private life, before he ventured down this crumbling highway to the presidency he was in a completely supportive setting. He had his company, his very famous name, a staff of loyal people, strong legal supports and critically, an unflinching loyalty from family and a very few friends.

When a narcissist is immersed in this kind of a world they can do great things. In fact, an awful lot of very successful people were/are profoundly narcissistic (think Steve Jobs for one). But in the political arena, as a president surrounded by hostile forces, competing visions, a strong opposition party, organizations that do not bend to his will, narcissism reveals its pathology. In the normal course of events, when a narcissist is merely a boss or a spouse or a friend, things may get testy from time to time but the daily struggles work themselves out. But if you are the freaking president of the freaking United States of freaking America all hell is bound to break loose.

Most narcissists run things on a “hang with me or else” strategy where “or else” is simply, go away, get off my planet or “you’re fired.” They will not only cut you off, they will devalue you in their minds so that your opinions no longer have any impact. It’s a very effective strategy. It protects them and diminishes the role of those who do not pledge and display loyalty. We saw this with his asking Comey to promise to be loyal. Comey said “no” and he was gone.

Trump is smart. Don’t let his tangled syntax or frequent 180’s fool you. You don’t run a company the size of his without a lot of IQ points. You don’t graduate from Penn’s Wharton School without them (FWIW, my BA is from Penn). He is ignorant and astonishingly uncurious but these traits have nothing to do with being smart.

A lot of the weirdness we’re seeing comes from him being challenged by forces he cannot control, ones where he cannot devalue them or tell them to “get off my planet.” It is a profoundly distressing situation for a narcissist which is why he sometimes gives off that “I really don’t want this job” aura.

And friends … we now are where we are and we will be where we will be which is almost certainly at a swearing ceremony for President Pence. And if you think that makes me happy … well, it doesn’t.


The First 100

Good day folks. I’ve been away… Sorry about that. Other things commandeering my time and it’s good news. Oxford University Press has agreed to publish my new book. The working title is “Caterpillars, Consciousness, and the Origins of Mind.” It’s based on a pretty radical notion: that consciousness begins with the first emergence of life, that it isn’t and shouldn’t be treated as something that only appeared in our species. If anyone’s curious, a preliminary overview of the model appeared here, in the new journal Animal Sentience.

But back to politics: Today is a “special” day, the 100th of the Trump presidency — the specialness is, of course, based on a arbitrary standard. We could make the 101th the cut-off (like with Dalmatians), or 76 (from 1776) or any other that might be cooked up.  The 100-day thing began, apparently, back in FDR’s day when things were rather bleak and everyone was looking, hoping and needing quick fixes to the vast array of critical issues that the Great Depression had brought on. And it stuck cause “100” is a nice, round number.

So, we hit the magic number today which is usually the honeymoon period where the newly elected POTUS gets to do, or at least present the framework for doing, the many things promised. In an article in The New Yorker, David Remnick presented his overview of this period. One of the things he noted was that normally the rest of us folks go about living our lives. We enjoy this period by not worrying about politics because the new administration is doing what it’s supposed to do. Alas, nothing is normal with Trump. As Remnick put it, this time we’re here:

“His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite.”

Why? Here’s why: The economy grew at a mere 0.7%, not the 4% growth Trump claimed he would bring (it’d been averaging some 2.2% under Obama). He’s refused to release his tax returns, divest from his business interests, is in violation of the Emoluments clause, has ignored standard protocol with regards to nepotism, handing over administrative and regulatory responsibilities to his daughter and son-in-law. He vacations constantly on the taxpayers’ dime (each weekend trip costs the taxpayers over $3 million) and plays more golf than any president in history.

As for all those campaign promises: Well, there’s not going be any funding for that ridculous border wall and Mexico won’t pay for it. All efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare have foundered. Two shots at his promised Muslim ban got slapped down by the courts which, just in passing, recently ruled that he cannot defund sanctuary cities. NAFTA will stay. The US will not pull out of NATO, which suddenly became a really important alliance. The Iran treaty will not be torn up. China is no longer a currency manipulator but an important ally and trading partner. The proposed budget framework is a, to use his favorite word, “disaster.” Just the first quick look makes clear that it favors the rich and big corporations, fucks over everyone else and will blow a Bush-sized hole in the economy — the initial analyses project the debt to rise by roughly $7 trillion if a full budget along these lines passes. It won’t.

Then there’s been a whole bunch of really bizarre blunders, ill-conceived phone calls to world leaders, paranoid-infused tweets, a brewing Russia-linked scandal, and the current insane bout of saber-rattling over North Korea. Much of these crazy and dangerous adventures of his are designed to deflect attention from the three investigations into the Russian tampering with the election and Trump’s role in it. That gambit has actually worked but it has also had another, far more serious impact. World leaders are freaking out. They don’t know what the US is up to, what our aims are, what the priorities are, who’s a friend this week, who’s on the Trump shit-list…. Even if they can settle on some apparently stable position, Trump has another tweet-storm and shifts gears. The “Trump Doctrine” seems to be “promote chaos.”

Amusingly, I’ve seen some of his truly desperate supporters claim that this is deliberate and he’s playing a crafty game of international politics where he’s always on top of the situation and manipulating all others. Yeah. Right. I’m a scientist. We all learned early on to cling to Occam’s Razor — do not invoke complicated explanations for situations that can be accounted for by simple ones. The simple one is simple: Trump is totally unqualified to be president.

At the heart of it is the obvious: Trump has no grasp of … well, virtually everything. He discovered that health care complicated (and seems to think no one ever realized this!); never even looked at the details of NAFTA or NATO before claiming he’d pull out of both; didn’t have a clue about the long and complex history of relations between China and the Korean peninsula; failed to recognize that China stopped manipulating its currency in 2014, that Erdogan is moving Turkey toward a dictatorship, that imposing border tariffs will drive up costs of goods, that … and that and … that..

He seems to think Frederick Douglas is still alive and doing great things for “the Blacks.” Then there’s the lies, the duplicity, the deception and those off-the-freaking-wall interviews that keep coming, each one hot on the heels of the previous. They are all done with friendly news outlets and reporters which has had an unintended outcome. Because they just let him ramble on he manages to drown himself in his own, truly blistering ignorance. The transcript of the one with the AP is here. Read it and cringe.

And the weirdest part of all, almost beyond grasping, is that he still has support among some 40% of the electorate and over 90% of those who voted for him. I guess they’re pleased about that new deregulation that allows the mentally ill to purchase guns and the thousands of families of long-term, law-abiding, tax-paying residents broken up.

I, frankly, can’t wait to see the train-wreck the next 100 days will bring, especially since now he’s finally discovered what we all knew from the beginning: he’s profoundly ill-equipped for this job and hasn’t a fucking clue what being president is all about. He never reads anything and that included the job description for the position. The only good thing that’s come out of these 100 days is the endless fodder for comedians.

Donald J. never wanted to be president. He wanted to be called president. No training, background or experience needed for that. It’s like having “TRUMP” on buildings someone else put up.


Trump/Bannon Immigration Policy: Tomorrow's Looming Disaster

A thought or three on the the immigration policy that Trump (and his Mephistophelian sidekick, Steve Bannon) are pushing. The first thing to grasp is that they are acting in what is easily seen as a classically childish fashion. Their vision is warped by narrow thinking and their decisions are driven by tiny, ego-centric, close-minded fears. There is, so far as I can tell, not a shred of interest in the long-range implications of their efforts, not a nod toward economic theory.

To see this we need to take a few simple principles of demographic analysis into account. These principles are, indeed, simple but they do call for a modicum of decency, a dollop of empathy and a willingness to acknowledge that cultures evolve and change over time. So:

I. When countries become economically stable the birth rate declines. None of the Western democracies are replacing the population through birth. This principle is as rock-solid as any. Children, in poor societies are more than objects to be cherished and nurtured, they are a source of economic growth. As a society become economically viable this benefit becomes a liabilitly and, consequently, the birth rate drops.

II. The elderly in a society are costly. Medical expenses, pensions, Social Security and a host of other support systems for the geriatric set need to be in place. Their costs are covered by the economic engines the younger generations provide. With declining birth rate that engine looses its steam. 

III. When birth rates drop, the well-being of the society is threatened by this economic disruption. The only place to find the younger “replacements” is through immigration — an obvious conclusion.

IV. Long-term demographic analyses project that the current rush of immigrants into Europe will provide strong positive economic gain in the decades to come — along with diversity in dress, food and the arts, further enriching the culture. How this plays out will be governed in large measure by the degree to which Europeans shed their fears and suspicion of cultural differences. If they marginalize the immigrants there will be fewer benefits of their presence.

V. These long-range projections also reveal which countries, based on current policy, are likely to blossom over the next several decades and which will not. Canada, for one, is projected to benefit significantly because of its relatively open immigration laws. Countries with xenophobic traditions and relatively closed doors will fare poorly. Amond developed countries, Japan has the worst economic prognosis because of their reluctance to absorb foreigners.

VI. Current analyses show that the US, because of policies in place before the Trump presidency, has a good, long-term economic picture. But if Trump/Bannon prevail, not so much.Their anti-immigration policies will have significant downward impact on the US economy. In addition to being a policy that is driven by fear, nurtures and encourages nativism and xenophobia, it is poor, long-term economic policy.

How much damage can the Trump administration do? This is far from clear. It will depend in large measure on how the courts treat things like the Muslim ban, the planned wall along the Mexican border and other proposed changes in immigration policy. So far the courts have not treated the Executive Orders banning Mulims kindly. It looks like Congress will balk at funding the wall and we have yet to see what specific changes in immigration policy will be proposed.

I’m hopeful…. Not something I often experience since the ugly people took over the government.