Republicans screwing over grad students

For those of you who are in grad school, you’ve likely already heard that the Republicans’ proposed tax plan hurts grad students. Specifically, grad students would be taxed on their tuition waivers. On top of being bad for grad students, it simply doesn’t make sense to me. As far as I’m concerned the tuition waiver is just an exchange of money between the grant providers and my university. I never see the money. So why should I be taxed on it?

I intend to graduate before any of this could possibly affect me personally. But I went ahead and estimated how much additional tax I would have to pay. In 2016 I earned about $33k, and paid $3k in federal taxes. I had a tuition waiver of $13k, so the proposed tax plan would treat my total income as $46k. My marginal tax rate was 15%, so if I paid taxes on the tuition waiver, my taxes would go up from $3k to $5k. Now, I’m omitting some details, as the tax proposal also shuffles around tax brackets and deductions. But some students at UC Berkeley made a calculator, and it comes out the same.

For some grad students it can be even worse. For example, the calculator estimates that for a typical MIT student, taxes would go up by 240%, amounting to more than a third of their true income. The reason is that MIT has a higher tuition than my own public university.

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What is identity politics? An empirical investigation

Every time I see people making disparaging remarks about “identity politics”, I wonder what that means. It sounds like a meaningless buzzterm, like “political correctness”. It sounds like an attack on any minority groups that dare to politically advocate for themselves.

But where did the term originate? How did it become popular? Which minority groups is it directed at? Has its use changed over time? Here I perform an empirical investigation using Google.

A line plot of the popularity of search terms over time.

Source: Google trends. This tracks the popularity of search terms over time.

As can be seen from above, the term “identity politics” has been around for a long time. I looked as far back as Google trends allows (back to 2004), and it’s still there. However, there was a big spike in popularity in November 2016–the month that Trump was elected. There’s also a broad hump around January-February 2017, and a more recent spike in August 2017. I will investigate each of these time periods by sampling from time-constrained google searches.

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Nazi punchers don’t need permission

Ever since some guy was recorded punching Richard Spencer in the face, there’s been a public conversation about whether it’s appropriate to punch Nazis.  From the start, what seemed odd to me about this conversation is how abstract it is.  The vast majority of people who are in favor of punching Nazis are not literally going out there and punching Nazis.  And now that we’re seeing literal Nazi demonstrations, I believe we will discover that it’s not for lack of opportunity.  I’m left wondering what exactly the argument is about.

If I said I advocated punching Nazis, I would feel disingenuous, given that I’m not actually doing it.  There is an alt-right rally in Berkeley tomorrow, just a few blocks from here, and I did not have any plans to punch anyone.  As for other people, they’re going to punch Nazis or not punch Nazis regardless of what I say about it.  They don’t need my permission.

I think the argument is basically about whether we should offer moral support for Nazi punchers.  So here are my thoughts on that.

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Not all activism must be top priority

In many varieties of activism, there’s a drive to argue that our cause is the most important thing in the world, or at least somewhere up there among the top priorities.

For example, in atheism, there has long been the notion that religion is the “root of all evil” or that it “poisons everything”. I think most people who say that are being hyperbolic, although it’s hard to say to what degree. Certainly, there is a conscious attempt to assign religion more blame for the evils of the world.

In some socialist/communist/Marxist circles, it is argued that class struggle is the root of all oppression, including the oppression of women and ethnic minorities. And sometimes it is argued that much of feminism is pointless because all it fights for is for more women to become part of the ruling class.

There are also some feminists who have tried to interpret everything through the lens of feminism, for instance blaming homophobia and transphobia on the patriarchy. Gender critical feminists (aka TERFs) demonstrate an extreme version of this thinking; they argue that trans people’s problems will go away once we abolish gender.

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Random Charlottesville stuff

I am not a news reporter, and I am assuming readers are already familiar with the general course of events.

You may have heard that Donald Trump failed to condemn Nazis in his speech on Saturday. I saw on Last Week Tonight that it was worse than that.

Reporters were actively shouting at him to make a statement condemning White supremacists. He goes to the podium as if to respond, but then says something unrelated.

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Disagreeing with HJ here

HJ Hornbeck has a post titled Watch Your Language, criticizing Laci Green for a series of tweets on Trump’s ban on trans people in the military.  I have numerous disagreements with HJ’s post, and it feels too long to leave as a comment.  On the other hand, this is a bit arcane, so I don’t actually recommend people read this unless they’re especially interested in the topic.

TL;DR: It is reasonable to call trans discrimination gender discrimination (as opposed to gender identity discrimination).

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Trump’s past light cone

When Trump was elected, and for many months following, people kept on talking about why he was elected. What caused it? This conversation irritates me deeply, because people lack a base-level understanding of what causation is. But I’ve waited to say anything because I thought it might be too crass to insert a philosophical discussion into a political one, at least while it was still hot.

Cause and effect is often thought to be a fundamental part of the way the world works, but I and other physicists understand that it is not. For a brief explanation, I recommend this video by Sean Carroll. It is better to think of causality as an emergent property, more in the realm of philosophy than physics.

What does physics have to say about the cause of Trump’s election? It’s everything in Trump’s past lightcone! It was the DNC, it was Clinton, it was Comey, it was Russia, it was neoliberalism, it was identity politics, it was ancient supernovae. This answer is rather naive, but what did you expect from us? Physics can’t provide all the answers.

When we talk about causes, we’re typically just selecting a few things from the past lightcone, and highlighting those things as important. In philosophy, this is known as causal selection. Sean Carroll talks a little bit about causal selection. He says that one way of thinking about it is that a cause is something that has great leverage over the future. But that’s just one way we might think about it.

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