PTP Podcast 12 – US Election Debate Special Edition

Alex Weldon : September 30th, 2016


We’ve asked our listeners in the past what sort of content they’d like to hear on the podcast. We didn’t get a whole lot of responses, but one thing we did hear was “anything except politics.” So, naturally, here is a two-hour episode for your enjoyment, which is entirely about politics and nothing to do with poker whatsoever, save for the people involved: hosts Alex Weldon and Andrew Barber, and their guest, the online tournament wizard Bryan Paris.

If you don’t have time to listen to the full two hours, the synopsis below gives the nine questions asked, the nutshell version of each debater’s answer, plus the myriad digressions most questions sparked. You can use the timestamps to jump ahead to whichever questions are most interesting to you.

You can also watch the debate with video on YouTube, but note that the timestamps are for the edited, audio version, and the equivalent moments in the video version will come at slightly later times than are given below.

Introductions (0:00-2:48)

The two debaters and their moderator introduce themselves briefly. Andrew and Alex are no doubt familiar to most listeners already, but Bryan explains his poker background. More importantly, both Andrew and Bryan go into their respective political history: Coincidentally, it turns out that Bryan – who advocates voting for Trump – is generally a Democrat voter and a liberal on social issues, while Andrew, who is now an outspoken though moderate leftist, admits to having held strongly conservative views in his youth. That sort of non-partisan, definition-resistant camp-switching proves to be a running theme in the debate, as both parties and the moderator frequently find themselves surprised at the stance the other takes on a question.

Note: Although most of the broadcast is presented unedited, Bryan’s introduction has been abridged by necessity; an audio-recording glitch garbled him temporarily in the middle. The incomprehensible bits have been cut, but every effort was made to ensure the gist of his self-described politics remains true to the original intent. One thing that did unfortunately had to get cut was Bryan’s plug for his Twitch channel. You can find that at We’ll give him a mention in the next episode to make up for it.

Ground Rules (2:48-3:13)

Alex briefly lays out the ground rules for the debate – time per question and so forth – although these don’t get adhered to very strictly.

Here too, some audio was cut, this time for reasons of irrelevancy, mostly just the flipping of a coin to decide who would be the first to respond to question one.

Question 1 – The Obama Administration (3:13-12:33)

One theme that’s come out in this election is that many Americans, from all over the political spectrum, are unhappy with the status quo. Ignoring the current candidates for a moment, what do you think America would look like in 2024 if the Obama administration could simply go on doing as it has been for another eight years?

Bryan says his biggest concerns with the current administration are the various Middle Eastern quagmires the US military have become stuck in, and the explosion of the national debt, both of which he believes would continue. Andrew opines that he finds it shocking that conservatives criticize Obama’s military policies, as he sees Obama as fairly hawkish and thinks that, if anything, is what right-wingers should approve of.

Andrew sees the biggest problem currently facing the government is obstructionism by Republicans in congress. Bryan agrees that the Republicans shoulder much of the blame for the inefficacy of the current government, but doesn’t see Trump or the current Republican Party as the same entity as the Republicans of four years ago.

Andrew asks Bryan whether he thinks Obama has done any good things. Bryan says that he approves of the decision not to go into Syria. He also appreciates the progress that has been made in moving social views leftwards, though he has concerns about Obama and the judicial system overstepping the limits of their powers.

Question 2 – Race Relations (12:33-20:43)

How have race relations changed in the past eight years, and why do you think that is?

Andrew starts by bringing up Colin Kaepernick and says that he sees a society that has become extremely polarized over where people think race relations are at and where the blame falls. He thinks society is at a critical point where there are finally enough black people in prominent positions for discussion of systemic racism to become mainstream, but that for white people, being constantly confronted with these messages can start to feel like a race war.

Bryan feels the black-vs.-white issue is less important than that of disadvantaged citizens versus police, and that the police along with many facets of government have an archaic structure that has to be updated and made more transparent in order to solve such problems. He also supports Kaepernick and stresses that free speech is the pinnacle value of American society.

At this point, Andrew starts playing the role of moderator himself, and asking Bryan questions directly, such as whether the overt racism of some of Trump’s supports bothers him. Bryan feels the responses to Kaepernick specifically are more about perceived anti-Americanism than racism, but Andrew wonders why Trump’s negative comments about the country are met with approval by his supporters and Kaepernick is condemned.

Question 3 – Civil Disobedience (20:43-39:44)

Whether we’re talking about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, open carry marches, or the Bundy standoff in Oregon, we see people of various stripes adopting all sorts of different tactics in response to perceived social or systemic injustices. Pretty often, people’s opinion on the acceptability of tactics seems to depend heavily on the perceived validity of the cause. Do you feel the standards should be the same regardless of the cause in question, and if so, where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest or civil disobedience?

Bryan repeats that free speech is hugely important to him and says that he sees civil disobedience serves a crucial role. He draws the line at violence and property damage, however, and agrees with the decision to bring the National Guard into Charlotte.

Andrew brings up open carry laws and points out the inconsistencies in their enforcement, and that the police killed a black man during the protests in Charlotte, justifying it by the fact that he was armed, despite North Carolina being an open carry state. He contrasts this with the government’s response to the Bundy family in Oregon, or even mass murderers like Dylan Roof, who end up being taken alive, while there are so many cases in the news of comparatively non-threatening black men being killed by police. He feels this hypocrisy should not even be a partisan issue but that Republicans and Democrats alike should be upset about it.

Alex brings the subject back to the original question and asks Bryan how he feels it should be dealt with when a mostly-peaceful protest contains a few individuals using it as an opportunity for theft, vandalism or violence. Bryan grants that there’s a spectrum of violence in protests and it’s not a clear-cut issue, but that he thinks police and protesters just need to work out together what it is reasonable to expect from one another. Andrew points out that the problem with that view is the power imbalance between police and protesters and the range of actions they’re capable of and permitted to take against the other. Both agree that the strength and monolithic nature of the police union is a substantial problem.

Bryan then asks Andrew what he thinks can be done about it, and Andrew says that Occupy Wall Street is a good example to learn from, in that it fell apart due to a lack of planning, but that Black Lives Matter is doing much better in that regard, and mentions CampaignZero, which includes a list of clear demands for police reform. He thinks that intervention has to come from the federal level and that everyone should support that even if they are generally in the small-government camp. He finishes by saying that one common sense partial solution would be to mandate that the police officers working in a community must come from that community, since officers coming in to work from elsewhere face less social accountability for their actions. Bryan mostly agrees, but feels that communities need more control over the rules and regulations for their police at the local level, not the federal government.

Question 4 – The Presidential Candidates (39:44-50:12)

The subject of temperament came up in the debate on Monday. What personality traits do you see as most desirable in a world leader and which if any would you see as disqualifying?

Andrew answers first and says he’s shocked that people are willing to vote for Trump, when he will never admit to being wrong about anything and is hugely overconfident. By contrast, he describes Hillary Clinton as intelligent and politically savvy, and that if she’s “too establishment,” that’s simply the way one has to be to get things done in Washington, and that even Bernie Sanders would have had trouble with that. He says that changing one’s mind and admitting to being wrong is a key sign of intelligence and a necessary qualification for a leader. He finishes by saying that a propensity for putting people down should be seen as disqualifying.

Bryan takes the stance that all politicians are immoral “to some degree,” as anyone who isn’t could not make it to the top of the system. He also feels that the current system has become incapable of producing good outcomes.

In terms of leadership qualities, Bryan feels that Trump is good at game theory and at persuasion tactics, and admires his ability to “cynically manipulate” others. Morality doesn’t enter into it, for Bryan, because he does not think it’s something that it’s reasonable to expect from any politician. He describes Trump as a “formidable adversary,” and thinks that’s what’s needed to destroy the current system as the first step in building a new one.

Andrew is not convinced. He sees the logic in “burning the government down,” but doesn’t see Trump as particularly qualified to do so or particularly good at getting himself elected. The conclusion they reach is that Bryan believes that the politics game amounts to telling the biggest lies possible, and that Trump is doing a great job of that.

Question 5 – Trump as President (50:12-1:03:27)

What do you envision as the best and worst case scenarios under a Trump presidency?

Bryan feels that the best case scenario is a complete restructuring of both parties, a press that is highly hostile towards President Trump, and a reinvigorated leftist opposition. This would constitute a shock to the system, which Bryan sees as needed and forms the reason he will be voting for Trump.

In terms of worst-case scenario, Bryan grants that a Trump presidency would create a lot of uncertainties, but sees fears of nuclear war as unfounded and lazy. At worst, he feels, Trump’s inexperience in politics could lead to him crossing certain boundaries and destabilizing the geopolitical situation, but that anything could happen under the status quo as well, so it is an acceptable risk.

Andrew, on the other hand, does see the possibility of Trump using nuclear weapons as real, if remote. He brings up poker and “EV” calculations and says that even a tiny possibility of something that bad has such an impact on the bottom line that it has to be considered. Bryan counters by pointing out Clinton’s antagonism of Russia and history of pushing for escalation of conflicts.

Going back to the question, Andrew says that the best-case scenario in his mind is that if Trump is as strategic a thinker as Bryan believes, and returns to some of the more centrist stances he’s had in the past, that a Trump presidency could in many ways just be a continuation of the Obama years.
Digressing once again, the two discuss the media situation under the two. Andrew finds Trump’s hostility towards the press worrisome, and fears he would limit freedom of the press, while what Bryan finds more worrisome is what he says is preferential treatment Clinton receives from the mainstream media. Further Clinton vs. Trump comparisons ensue.

Question 6 – The Media (1:03:27- 1:15:55)

The internet and the rise of social media have drastically changed the way people consume and share information and opinions. What impact do you see that having on politics, and is the change more positive or negative?

Andrew feels that the internet has created a media culture in which sound bytes and other bite-sized pieces of information do really well, and the availability bias is stronger than ever before. He sees this as problematic in terms of policy, because every possible subject is seen as a matter of public debate by minimally-informed people on the internet. Although everyone is entitled to their opinion, Andrew feels that the idea that all opinions are equally valid is inherently dangerous. He cites misplaced concerns over the national debt as an example.

Bryan agrees that the internet has impeded the ability of the media to act as the gatekeepers who determine the validity or invalidity of information, but sees this as positive an necessary, as the mainstream media, like many of “last century’s” institutions has, in his mind, run into its own problems of legitimacy. He sees traditional media as having a serious problem with groupthink, and considers the current election as a “referendum on the elite.” He acknowledges that internet users can turn it into their own personal propaganda machine and avoid all dissenting opinion, but points out that it can equally be used by people to do their own fact-checking and seek out a wide range of points of view.

Another lengthy digression follows, spurred by Andrew’s mention of the national debt and the TPP. The two end up debating macroeconomics and investments in infrastructure, until Alex interrupts and points out that this is in fact the subject of a later question.

Question 7 – The Electoral System (1:15:55-1:28:00)

Many people are dissatisfied with what is effectively a two-party system in the US. If you could be king for a day and replace the current electoral system with a new one, what would that look like?

Bryan admits hasn’t thought a lot about this, but does say that he recognizes that any possible system would have unintended consequences, and that just has to be accepted as a reality of democracy. Overall, he supports devolution of powers to the states because it allows many different policies to be experimented with simultaneously, and ideally, the most successful policies then to be adopted by other states. He also sees coalition systems such as exist in many European countries as preferable to the US system.

On these points, Andrew is in almost full agreement. However, he does think that the federal government needs to retain power of authority over the local ones, in order to ensure that they do a good job. He also sees many systemic wrongs inherent in the current system, and feels they can only be addressed at the federal level, but that once the playing field is leveled, the federal government should step back into a smaller role. Bryan thinks this is a nice idea, but feels that once given the sort of powers Andrew imagines, the federal government would never relinquish them.

Things then digress once again, into a discussion of the works of Karl Marx, and how the increased automation of labor will soon create a need for guaranteed basic or minimum income, as there will be many people for whom jobs simply don’t exist. Both Andrew and Bryan are in agreement on these points.

Andrew then gets onto the subject of immigration and advocates for open borders, but Alex interjects to say this is a topic that will be covered by the final question, and it’s time to move on.

Question 8 – Government Spending (1:28:00-1:49:51)

When it comes to taxation and government spending, the point of contention usually comes down to differences of opinion on what constitutes an individual responsibility and what constitutes a collective one. What heuristics do you apply to separate the one from the other?

Andrew begins by making the point that personal effort is only one of many factors that contributes to success, that those who make a lot of money owe some of that to good luck and some of that to society and the government for providing an environment in which success is possible. That, he says, is the compelling argument for why the richest segment of society should be taxed at an extremely high rate. His ideal for how that money should be spent is on reducing the inequalities of opportunity that contributes to those very rich (and very poor) people existing in the first place.

Bryan agrees with the ideal, but feels the issue with high taxation and government spending is that much of the money ends up getting spend not on public goods but on bureaucracy. He feels that if a high degree of taxation is in place, the best use of the money is direct wealth transfers to people with lower incomes.

The two have fairly similar views on wealth inequality, but Bryan is, as usual, more cynical and thinks that any attempt to fix it through taxation will be thwarted by the ultra-rich exploiting loopholes.

Alex doesn’t feel the actual question has been answered, so he restates the question. Bryan feels there aren’t really any communal responsibilities, except to ensure that everyone has the financial means to take care of the rest of their needs on an individual basis. Once again, the topic of universal basic income comes up, which everyone is in favor of but agrees is likely decades away. Bryan feels current institutions need to be destroyed in order to accelerate progress towards a better system.

Andrew thinks the answer is to look economically at various societal needs, and separate those where a private sector, capital-driven solution produces the desired results, and those where competitive behaviors work to the detriment rather than benefit of the society as a whole. Public vs. private health insurance becomes the example that the two debate over. Both agree that Obamacare in its current form is suboptimal, but Bryan sees it as Obama’s failing, whereas Andrew contends that any better system wouldn’t have been passed in the first place due to ideological opposition.

Question 9 – Foreign Policy (1:49:51-2:14:19)

I would guess that we’re all in agreement that the government of a major world power has an obligation both to its own citizens and to the rest of the world, but that the first takes higher priority. The extent to which that’s the case is a philosophical issue underlying many debates on things such as trade, immigration and foreign policy. In your opinion, how heavily should the US government weight the lives, finances and well-being of its own citizens relative to those of people elsewhere in the world?

Ryan feels that the nation-state system is unfortunate, but that it’s what we’ve inherited from history and we’re stuck with it for the time being. In his view, that means that governments do have to consider the wellbeing of their own citizens first and foremost. He sees the principle obligation of a nation-state to the rest of the world is simply to do no harm, and that a lot of world problems are the result of well-intentioned meddling. He feels that the United States has a responsibility to fix its own problems first and re-become a society that the rest of the world looks up to and seeks to emulate.

Andrew questions whether Bryan feels that Trump’s views align with this attitude. Bryan thinks it does mostly line up, but Andrew feels that Trump’s stated desire to eradicate ISIS clashes with Ryan’s desire for non-intervention and doing no harm.

The two clash strongly over the issue of Syrian refugees; Andrew feels it’s a moral obligation for every country to take as many refugees as possible, regardless of the consequences. Bryan feels that this amounts to asking the regular citizens of those countries to shoulder the burden of a problem that was created not by them, but by the global elite. Andrew asks him to propose a better solution, and although Bryan doesn’t have a full answer, he states that it’s more cost-efficient to resettle refugees in neighboring countries than abroad.

This leads to the subject of the statistical value of a human life ($2.5 million according to the US government). Alex takes the opportunity to point out that Andrew hasn’t answered the original question yet himself, and asks Andrew to say what he thinks ratio the government should apply in weighting the value of a citizen’s life versus a non-citizen’s.

Andrew feels that morally, it should be 1-to-1, and brings up the effective altruism movement. Bryan disagrees, on the basis that if one government treats all humans as equal while other governments do not, its own citizens will suffer a disadvantage as a result. This brings up the famous “prisoner’s dilemma” scenario, and another digression occurs as Andrew asks whether Bryan would give the same justification for police shooting civilians on the basis that if they give due consideration to suspects’ lives, they can be “exploited” by those who don’t give the same consideration for theirs. The topic becomes contentious, and as the debate has already run well over-time, Alex eventually steps in to put an end to it.

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I’d love to help you out, but apparently moderators aren’t supposed to fact-check political debates. It’s just you and Google this time around!

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