Stability and Revolutions

This post is inspired by the exchange between Chris Arnade and Adam Ozimek.

Arnade argues that Trump voters are not irrational for supporting his disruptive program. They are playing for the high variance outcomes, gambling on the “unknown.”  The “stable” continuity offered by Clinton and the status quo political regime is that they have to stay along their downward trajectory, with little chance of escape.  Trump offers the chance to shake things up, and maybe, just maybe, they might be able to escape the path that they are trapped in.

Ozimek’s point is,, in the end, that this is illusory.  Disruption strikes hardest on those who lack insurance, and the dispossessed, by necessity, lack the insurances to ward against things going wrong.  People who know about politics of the developing world should remind themselves that revolutions and social disruptions are not so bad for the elite, who do have stocks of money and such stowed away abroad.  Many well-endowed Venezuelans who oppose Chavez and his movement have done relatively well, by moving to Miami instead of staying in Caracas, for example.  The social and economic disruptions that accompanied the Chavez movement hit those who remained in Venezuela very hard, including most of the impoverished Chavez supporters.

For all the grandiose rhetoric, it is hardly clear Chavez was really a champion of the common folk in Venezuela, at least any more than Trump is today.  In the end, Chavez was an ambitious, unscrupulous, and self-absorbed politician who wanted power and got it whichever way he could, whether a coup (that he tried at and failed) or at the ballot box (that he succeeded).  Most importantly, he succeeded because his opponents were weak, lacking the support of the broad populace without political connections whom they left behind, or in the lingo of political science, “agendaed out of relevance.”  This is the real lesson of why democracies (or indeed, any government) fail:  it is not because many people actively oppose democratic rule, but they grow weary, indifferent, and cynical, and refuse to play the game that they regard, usually rightly, as rigged.  As a Greek peasant allegedly said during the decline of the Byzantine Empire (paraphrased from R. Lopez’s Birth of Europe), “Of course we know there is an emperor.  But to us, it doesn’t matter who or what he is:  he might as well Agamemnon, son of Atreus.” (or something like that).  The point is simply that, to the peasants, the bloody of politics of Constantinople or even the bloody fights against the Muslims and Crusaders, were none of their business, nothing worth getting excited about, and certainly not worth sticking their necks out, regardless of how they panned out.

In other words, governments fall not because they are hated, but because the populace is indifferent.  The fall of Peter II and the Brazilian Empire, where no one, even the emperor himself, did not care much for preservation of the government, even if a moderate and relatively enlightened one, should remind us of this.  And people are indifferent because they are left out, not just in economic terms, but in social and psychological terms.  No one dares ask “ask what you can do for your country,” because the answer is too likely to be a deafening silence.  Without citizens willing to defend their country, it is not unusual for a third world government to fall to a coup involving mere dozens of foreign mercenaries, or a few hundred troopers at most.  Somewhat the same logic, even if less forceful, would apply to democratic politics as well:  As much as I’d nitpick, Taleb is right:  it is easy for a loud minority to take over a democratic polity, as a century of political science research, until it has been recently pushed aside, has noted.  Madison might have said without virtue, democratic rule is doomed–but virtue is a normal good, too:  people without money, without sense of purpose, without identity, without self-respect, can’t afford virtue.

Riker’s argument, with regards “minimum winning coalition,”  was that all (non-essential) players should be squeezed until they are barely better off than under the alternative.  This is why minimum winning coalitions always fall:  people whom they leave behind won’t fight to protect them.  So they are barely strong enough to get by, on average–and when things fall below average, they are toppled by someone else with minimal support needed to topple them, because no one else thinks it their business to protect the status quo.   That Riker-esque thinking is the conventional wisdom in today’s politics, for all sides, knowingly or not, is a serious problem.




Rationalizability and Uncommon Knowledge

I never really understood the idea of “rationalizability” in game theory.  I don’t mean the technical definition, which consists of two parts:   1) players never knowingly choose what they believe to be the bad choice; 2) there is a common knowledge of “rationality.”  The first part is obvious enough, but the second part is an extremely restrictive belief.  It effectively presupposes that everyone shares the same knowledge of the universe and everyone knows that they do.  This seems rather problematic.

The truth is that “knowledge” is rarely common.  My pet example is that of evolutionary biology, which, at the level of the technical nitty gritty, is both quite complex and not really complete.  As  a “science,” that’s perfectly fine–but it is not something one should “believe” in (not that “science” is something anyone should ever “believe  in,” ever–that would run counter to the whole idea of “science” at its core.)  Quite frankly, nobody, except people who are specialists, really knows these well, nor, really, does anyone else need to know these things.  But, for the rest, belief in “evolution” or “creation,” stripped of most of its scientific content, winds up acting as the focal points–the “common knowledge,” but only for the members of a particular “tribe.”

The latest McClatchy poll provides a much more “relevant” divergence in the not-so-common knowledge these days:  65% of Clinton supporters think the country is on the “right” track, while only 5% of the Trump supporters do the same.  There is little common ground on the state of the economy and society among these tribes.  This is not grounded on a sort of “false consciousness,” in all likelihood, but very much on a solid “data”-based foundation, even if based on biased data.  Nobody really is capable of evaluating the state of the entire economy:  we might know the mean, perhaps the (mean) variance, and extrapolate, but those summary measures are limited.  Polarization ensures that the informativeness of the mean is limited (if the outcome is binary, the mean is effectively useless for predicting individual outcomes–i.e. totally useless unless you can draw multiple observations, and the number of observations you can draw is itself a form of normal good, an insurance, which would, somewhat ironically, contribute to the polarization.)  Without the shared notion of what is rational, grounded on the common perception of what is “real,” the underpinnings of “rationalizability” get taken out.  The “opponents” are reduced to the “irrational,” who are beyond understanding and “deplorable.”

This is not just a problem between supporters of Clinton and Trump, isolated in 2016.  This is a problem that afflicts everyone everywhere today.  Technology might have broken down the problem of physical and geographic barriers, but it also has facilitated raising barriers of will, interest, and inclination.  In the past, we could only deal with those whom we could “physically” interact with, i.e. those who were nearby.  We had to talk to our neighbors, because we had no choice, even if we didn’t necessarily like them–unless we didn’t want to talk, period, with its own implication.  Now, we don’t have to talk to our neighbors and still avoid the social isolation, by finding people whom we agree with–if not on  the specifics, at least on the topics of interest, i.e. those who agree on the liberal-conservative dimensionality of politics–online.  We become unaware of alternate “rationalities,” for we rarely encounter them.  Those who do not think as we do, who do not perceive the same “problems,” become alien to us, with whom we cannot even disagree with, for we do not even know what it is that they are saying.

This is problematic, in epistemological terms.  Hayek and Keynes were prescient in conceptualizing the problems of knowledge as the core question in understanding how people decide.  Many market fetishists, on the other hand, trashed their insights in the subsequent years by blithely assuming that people know what they want and decide accordingly.  Nowadays, people consign themselves to one ideology or the other only because they don’t like “the other guys.”  (Pew studies suggest that “leaners” are particularly motivated by the hostility to the other side.  They don’t especially know much of “their own side,” and to the degree that they do, they don’t like them much–but they sure do hate “the other guys.”)  Is this based on actual knowledge?  People do react much more reasonably (and “honestly”) when they are given delabeled choices.

I think this is the problem of knowledge in a technological society:  people know a lot of “labels,” and how to read them.  They know very little of what goes into the labels, and more important, the “variance” of the labels themselves–i.e. how wrong these labels are, on average.  In a sense, people know more, but conditional on what people think they “know,” they know much less.  (i.e. people “know” “evolution” is “right”–but not the science that goes into how evolution is supposed to work, and more important, the presently unanswered questions thereof.)  People know X are the bad guys in some conflict, not the particular details of that conflict beyond the Disney World version.  Given that these summaries are crude snapshots of just one aspect of the “whole truth,” it is entirely possible that they are all true, but diverge wildly–because they are not even measuring the same thing.  So to many HRC supporters, the economy is great, for the Trump supporters, the economy is horrible.  The truth is somewhere in between, with huge variances (i.e. a highly polarized and unequal economy)–i.e. the “mean” is useless.  Without a shared basis of knowledge, they cannot even disagree with each other on policy matters, beyond accusing each other of being out of touch or being deceitful or being irrational.

I don’t know if a shared set of “rituals” is necessary, but we do need some shared basic understanding of what and where we are, so that we can start talking, even if we wind up disagreeing, in the same dimension.  Let us agree, at least, if we are playing football or baseball, and make sure that everyone is on the same page.  (In this sense, I suppose the extreme libertarian-multiculturalism is a genuine danger, as it presupposes that everyone is entitled to their own knowledge, so that Peter Thiel can crosscheck the second baseman or whatever.)

Hayek, the Epistemologist.

I did not know about the controversial article that Corey Robin had written about Nietzsche and Hayek until now.  In one sense, this is brilliant.  In another sense, I think this tries to read too much between the lines and misplaces Hayek in history of economic epistemology–I am not going to argue anything about the morality of the latter.

Robin’s article is one of few pieces that avoids the ridiculously grotesque caricature that so-called Libertarians reduces Hayek to be.  Above all else, Hayek was concerned about epistemology, how we know what we think we know.  Assignment of “values” was, in this context, subsidiary question to this larger quest for Hayek.  This was no trivial task for Hayek, unlike the way the modern day “libertarians” treat the problem:  Hayek did not trust the omniscience of the markets.  He was keenly aware that markets are full of people who do not know what they really want, who turn to “others” and various “signs” for guidance for clues to how they should decide, and often get trapped in informational bubbles of their own making.  This, however, is not necessarily uniquely Hayek’s:  the pioneering work along these lines came from America, through Thorstein Veblen and his understanding of the “leisure class” and “conspicuous consumption,” as taught by the Gilded Age.  Hayek’s contemporaries, John von Neumann and John Maynard Keynes, were coming up with their own theories heading in similar direction but with much more probability theory and rather less philosophy–indeed, Keynes’ famous description of the “beauty contest” game makes an argument analogous to Hayek’s, minus the paean to aristorcracy.  Intellectual descendants of Hayeks’ insights include Arrow, and his argument about inherent instability of political markets without a “mathematical dictator” empowered to override the majroity–often mistaken as an argument that “democracy” is doomed to failure, rather than democracy without some instability is impossible, a truer characterization of his argument, Schelling and his ideas about focal points as a stabilizing force in a chaotic society,  and Stiglitz, who similarly pointed out that a fully informative price system coexisting with a stable free market is impossible.

I tend to think Robin makes too much of Hayek’s aristocracy fetish.  He was a von, after all, and an Austrian by birth.  I don’t think it should be a surprise that he thought, if the inherent instability in society needs to be contained by a set of focal points, it should be the aristocracy and the wealthy that should be providing it.  In the end, the “aristocracy” defined broadly, are naturally more visible.  They can create a hype better than the nameless masses.  The modern day “aristocracy” are not necessarily the well-born or even the wealthy–although they may be well-born and wealthy–but the celebrities, who, for whatever reason, can command wide attention:  the Donald Trumps and Barack Obama’s of the world, although, there may be a long hierarchy of these focal points/shortcuts for smaller audiences any and everywhere.  The nature of modern technology transformed who counts as the “superstars” (as per the pioneering article by Sherwin Rosen form 1981) , but the underlying logic is not different from that theorized by Hayek, Keynes, Schelling, and Stiglitz.

Is this reactionary?  I don’t think so.  The alternative is that the common people–including the participants in the marketplace–necessarily always know what they want.  There is no point in campaigns, advertising, persuasion, and advocacy.  People will decide as they want in full knowledge, and the markets, political and economic, will reflect it.  The perfect knowledge rules the day, like the god-emperor of Dune.  Everyone will be trapped in the knowledge and the consequent all-knowing, all-powerful markets, political and economic.  This  counterargument to Hayek actually sounds downright reactionary.

I think, as a political theorist with too much political opinion, Robin just gets carried away by his hostility to the elitism inherent in Hayek’s argument.  But, notwithstanding Hayek’s personal favoritism towards the wealthy and aristocratic, the logic of the argument is not predicated on either aristocracy or the wealth, but a sober recognition that institutions that presuppose perfect knowledge are doomed to failure without some “guidance” by the few clear-minded.  It is petty to attack the argument for thinking that the moneyed aristocracy should be providing this guidance.

PS. “The clear minded” people might be a misleading and perhaps erroneous use of words.  Often, it is more valuable that all players, on the same side, are on the same page, not necessarily that they are on the “right” page.  But who shall define these pages are likely to be those from the more “prominent” people, whoever they might be.

Social Networks and Bubbles

538 has a thought provoking post that is rather badly unsupported by data (the way thought provokers should be) that could be really horribly (mis)interpreted.

The bottom line from the data is not all that new:  the predictor for Clinton and Trump support are “college” vs. “church.”  “Church” implies support for Trump while “college” does not.  This, unfortunately, has the potential to feed the unfortunate stereotype for both:  the church goers will rant about liberal indoctrination in colleges and the college types will rant about churches being bastions of ignorance.  It sets up a false narrative that church and college are somehow mutually exclusive.  Their table actually does illustrate how politics is a function of church attendance/college while holding the other constant, but it is tilted in a way that is a bit hard to follow easily.  If I were setting up the graph, I’d want to emphasize the following relationship:

Education Level Religion Gap
No College 29%
Some College 38%
College Degree 40%

In other words, the more educated someone gets, the greater the gap between people who don’t go to church and those who attend church regularly.  Interacted with educated, the gap widens, not narrow.  If people support Trump because they are “undereducated,” more education should narrow the gap.  This is actually a powerful support for the Theory #3, that “education” and “churches” are building separate bubbles.

This should not come as surprise for those examining the relationship between formation of ideology and social interactions:  a well-known, but never actually published paper by Danielle Shani, originally presented at Midwest Political Science Association meeting 2006 pointed out that more educated conservatives are more (consistently) conservative than the less conservative, contra the usual belief that more education is correlated with liberalness.  (Unfortunately, MPSA archives seem inaccessible to public these days)   In the end, knowing “liberal” and “conservative” is not so much a function of “knowledge” as much as signalling of which camp one belongs to, to those whom one interacts with:  one can be a subscriber to “evolutionism” while being a complete ignoramus of the biology, while reasonably well-informed creationists don’t have problems being engineers and doctors.  Of course, the latter would not be able to function as credible evolutionary biologists, but there are only so many of them.

I think, as a society, we need to talk, beyond our bubbles.  Throwing epithets at godless liberals and ignorant believers can only further the divide without enlightenment.

Defining Problems vs. Providing Answers

Mike Konczal has an intriguing essay superficially about the 2016 campaign, but actually much deeper.

The point Konczal raises is that Trump is not running a “policy-free” campaign, but rather a “solution-free” campaign.  What Trump is doing is to define problems that the country is facing that his competitors are not addressing, or even acknowledging that they exist.  It is certainly true that Trump is not offering “serious” solutions to those problems, but what really matters is that the many people are more receptive to the problems as Trump defines them, even if he offers no “solutions” while the problems as defined by Clinton do not generate the reception as his do, even if Clinton and her army of wonks come up with the most masterful solutions to them.

This is a fundamental problem with agenda setting:  if everyone agrees on the problems, as defined by the first mover, then the agenda-setting advantage is absolute.  If the agenda setter comes up with the uncontestably best solutions to the agreed-upon problems, what the agenda setter does will carry the day, provided that the agenda setter is provided with an army of wonks to come up with the bestest solutions to them.  If the problems are NOT a common knowledge, however, the “solutions” (and the policy positions associated with them) are irrelevant.

One might say that the “problems” undergird the dimensions of politics.  Trying to measure how liberal/conservative/negative/positive on this scale is relevant when people occupy the same space.  They do not.  When people do not have the same definition of what “liberal” is, it is pointless to argue over the quantitative differences in measurements.  People prefer someone who has found the right neighborhood, even if they don’t know the address, to someone who knows all the addresses in the wrong neighborhood.  In a sense, this is opposite that of the Drunkard’s Search problem–where the drunkard is looking for lost keys under the light, rather than where he lost the keys, because he can see better.  People would rather, I wonder, that you look where they lost the key rather than where you can see.  Not necessarily incompatible with Drunkard’s Search story, in a sense–voters may be drunkards who don’t actually expect to find the key, whereas they expect policymakers to find the key with some reasonable probability.  The wonks in the wrong neighborhood will never find the key–they know that.

This will be the fundamental problem of wonkism:  where there is a consensus, being a wonk is great.  If the problems are not cleanly defined, being a wonk is worse than useless.  This is why the gap between the Beltway and the Main Street is so great, in their view of “experts.”  To the main street, wonks merely justify avoiding the problems that are too obvious to them.  Better to avoid the wonkery in favor of those who can at least point to the problems that they can see and understand.  Like Konczal says, the counter to this is not to bring up more wonkery, but try and talk to the people about the problems–why the problems you are paying attention to are the important problems for them as well, at minimum, and, most likely, try to credibly address the problems that THEY are interested in having dealt with.  (This is, incidentally, why Sanders also mattered:  he at least addressed, earnestly and honestly–far more than Trump, really–the problems that people worried about, not engaging in denial.)

Details and Progress….

More ponderables from Nathan Robinson.

But these points are frequently brushed away with appeals to historical progress. Old ideas are bad ideas, they are stale and therefore need replacing. But the fact that a broad consensus has developed against a notion is not proof that it’s false or worthless. At the very least, the claim needs to be justified with something beyond “the debate is settled, you’re discredited, the end.” If there have been recent advances in the field, you must say what they are, and whether they were any good.

Admiral Hyman Rickover said, “the Devil may be in the details, but so is Salvation.”  Science is often a tedious, fundamentally conservative chore where all the burden is on the bringer of new ideas to convince the conventional wisdom that he is ultimately right–which, incidentally, is why Galileo’s adversaries were, in a sense, better scientists than Galileo was, even if they were, ultimately, more wrong than Galileo.  But these are often brushed aside:  we only want to know the “big picture,” and the details and complexities that complicate the narrative are unwelcome.  The bottom line is that we are right, and the new ideas that are better than the old say that we are right–so there, you’re wrong.  This is, of course, a profoundly anti-intellectual position that is likely to lead to problems and nuclear reactors blowing up.



The Tyranny of “We” and “Common Narratives”

Nathan Robinson has an insightful post worth linking to.

The problem with “we,” I think, goes beyond just a cheap rhetorical trick to subtly coerce agreement on the interlocutor.  It is a signal, that, both “you” and “I,” subscribe to the creed X:  you believe X, I believe X, we all believe X, in other words.  A reminder that these are the things that define “our tribe.”  It CAN be a cheap rhetorical trick to subtly coerce agreement:  you are a respectable person, right?  so you must believe X, too.  But this is not necessarily always the case.  In a sense, it is like an exchange of passwords and secret handshakes:  if I say “Lord be with you,” you should know to say “also be with you.”  (If you don’t know what these mean, or worse, if you think they are out of date, that’d be the point–knowledge of these things indicate both membership in a given tribe and the timing thereof.  In other words, they are reminders that all participants in the conversation subscribe to the same shared narratives–where the sharedness, and the implicit trust that accompanies it, is more significant than their factual accuracy.  (Indeed, one might say that a willingness to subscribe to things that aren’t actually true indicates a greater trustworthiness–costly by credible signals and all that.)

Of course, the reaction to the “we” can easily be “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”  (to quote from the Lone Ranger.)   This is the reaction from the people who don’t share the common narrative.  Without the implicit agreement, you and I ain’t “we.”  So the rhetorical use of “we,” counterintuitively, divides:  there are many “we’s,” without shared focal points among them.  We, in a manner of speaking, cannot climb over the barriers between the many “we’s” without trying very hard to understand beyond our “we,” and this is increasingly getting harder as technology makes it easier to retreat into the company of our “we’s” alone.

Public Sphere and Politics of the Respectables

Ross Douthat has a new column that I think is a mixture of the insightful and the foolish–as most political columns are, I suppose.

First, one must take out the “dumb” parts:  I don’t think there’s much insight to be had by talking much about Bee, Oliver, or even Clinton and Trump.  Maybe Bee and liberal comics like her are indicative of Clinton’s problems, or not.  I think the interesting point lies beyond just current events and liberal politics.

The insightful part comes when Douthat brings up the comics of yesteryear, Leno and Letterman, and how they spoke to a broader audience.  Indeed, rather than stick to the audiences that they already agreed with, they actively sought to come up with humor that could speak to a broader audience without rejection.  In so doing, they created “common rituals and focal points” that were uniting rather than segregating.  Even more could be said about Johnny Carson–if anybody remembers Johnny Carson still.  In a sense, Emmett Rensin, a much more insightful person than Douthat, had this to say:

TV isn’t why liberals keep losing. It’s where liberals go to tell themselves why that’s fine b/c poor reactionaries deserve poverty.

Of course, the audiences of the liberal comics already believe that the poor reactionaries deserve poverty, so they laugh.  The poor reactionaries do not find it funny, but they are not the audience.  However, the shared attitudes of the liberal comics and their audiences ensure that the poor reactionaries and the liberal professionals will not be found in the common audience for the same shows.  The poor reactionaries have their own comics and they laugh at the expense of the liberal elites–whose humor the liberal elites will not find very funny.  The audience segregates.  Common rituals and focal points are subverted.

In that sense, the kind of coalition (not necessarily in terms of just supporters, but also the kind of enemies engendered) that Sanders built is astonishing:   Sanders drew in support widely, without creating enemies on the opposite side.  If you will, Sanders socialized with the Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, alike, with both the respectable and the deplorable.  To those who consider themselves, respectable, this would have seemed unthinkable and, indeed, downright morally wrong.  That places this post by Nathan Robinson in context.

The truth is that, quite simply, many Sanders voters do not share the common narrative of the Democratic elites.  They do not subscribe to the neat liberal-conservative divide.  They supported Sanders for the reasons that are, quite frankly, their own that do not match up neatly with that of mainstream Democrats.  However, the significant thing is that, when given a choice, they opted to vote in the Democratic primary for a (nominal) Democrat.  In other words, for the Democrats, they are potential converts, even if they do not share the Bee-like view of orthodoxy.  The reaction by the Democratic elites, of berating them for insufficient orthodoxy is foolish and counterproductive:  this reminds of the line from the old movie El Cid.  When don Rodrigo brings several Muslim emirs who were willing to ally with the Castillians against Almoravid invaders from Morocco, infanta Urraca throws a hissy fit, insisting that Castille is a Christian nation and that they will traffic only with other Christians even if they are facing utter defeat–ironic, since the movie earlier shows the Castillians nearly going to war with the Christian Aragonese over something petty.

I had written about this several times before:  the “inclusive coalition,” once the characteristic of the Democrats, is dead.  Maybe the Democrats today are more diverse than the Republicans, or not.  It doesn’t matter.  The bottom line is that the Democrats just don’t have the institutional means (or the credibility) to build a broad coalition that actually pays out broadly.  It pursues the agenda set by and for the interests of a narrow set of elites, no less than the Republicans.  Those who do not subscribe to this narrowly defined orthodoxy are proscribed mercilessly.  But this is not just an institutional phenomenon–it is sustained from bottom up by the web of information disseminating technologies that reinforce interconnected bubbles that sustain one another (yes, the incongruous juxtaposition is intentional).  We may be more “informed” than ever, we may be more interconnected than ever, but the sheer amount of information available means that the information we get increasingly consists of shallow “means”  if only because we lack the time or the wherewithal to dig deeper, while the ease of cutting off connections means that we are increasingly connected only to those with whom we share common narratives.  In finance terms, one might say that we are building vast portfolios with highly correlated risk–exactly the wrong way to build portfolios, if the aim is to reduce risk.  It is all bubbly–all the assets will be jumping up in value simultaneously.  But when the day of reckoning comes, all will tumble down at the same time, with this practice of portfolio building sustained by the enforced conventions of bubble-building.  (Like they hadn’t already, multiple times, in the past, I suppose.)

Glenn Loury Interview on Vox

A few points of note:  Glenn Loury is one of my heroes, a fellow game theorist-cum-social philosopher, although he is obviously far more successful than I am.  One of the really careful thinkers about problems of society who doesn’t get the credit that he deserves, I think.

This interview is probably worth reading without comments by me, but a few things, I think are worth paying attention to.

  1.  What are most alleged “debates” about?  Loury points out that most of them are not about substance, but about labels–what he calls “meta argumentation.”  When I was still teaching I’ve had to work hard to keep students from getting carried away over what “real liberals” and “real conservatives” are supposed to be.  It got bad enough that I had to ban talking about current politics–which gets problematic when the class is supposedly about politics of elections.  People are so hung up on the superficial that talking about substance is difficult, if at all possible, and this goes well beyond the question of “political correctness.”  My hunch is that this is a problem of “signalling”:  people say things to show that they are on the right side, whether or not what they say is true.  One of the court political factions in medieval/early modern Korea supposedly made a certain interpretation of some Chinese classical poetry their focal point.  Who knows what the details of the real poems said–the bottom line is that these guys were smart, in the sense measured by medieval Korea since they studied Chinese classics–and they also knew which side their bread was buttered, so to speak–what they were supposed to believe about some poems about God-knows-what in a foreign country.  Much the same thing, I’d often insisted, is true about creationism-vs-evolution.  “Evolutionists” without much education have terrible understanding of how evolution works.  Educated creationists, even if they don’t “believe” it, have very good and subtle understanding of science–and in fact, the really well-informed ones can point to genuine problems in the current theories.  The latter isn’t a problem–science isn’t supposed to explain everything anyways–we don’t know how gravity works either, for example.  But for the “politics,” labels matter, not the substance.
  2. I suspect that Loury is being too iffy about “structural” racism.  The starting point should always be Akerlof’s argument–Loury is a game theorist, after all.  This argument, again, goes beyond problems of race, and in fact, is an extension of the problem of labels.  On average, labels tend to be more right than not–at least in equilibrium, although hardly unbreakable.  Often, however, the exceptions are common enough–at least in nature, so to speak.  But, like with the beauty contest game with limitedly strategic actors, the variance is suppressed as players rely on the mean as the focal point, creating and cementing its own reality.  Breaking this equilibrium is HARD!  And it is extremely difficult for the average African-American to break the mindset born of Jim crow.  WEB Du Bois was right to demand a quota system for the brightest 10% of African Americans–up to a point.  But people like Loury or Stephen Carter, at least when the latter was still a serious thinker, recognized that the really bright African-Americans, who did not need this extra help, were both disincentivized and hamstrung by this–they didn’t need to work as hard, or be as innovative, but, at the same time, they would be discounted as another “affirmative action baby” by those who do not know their work–which further disincentivized them from working hard, since their work would be subject to dismissal on superficial criteria by those without the wherewithal to evaluate them properly.  I don’t know what “structural racism” is, if this is not it.  But, at the same time, simply crying racism and condemning institutions will not be enough–indeed counterproductive.  And I’ll be honest about being clueless how to break the cycle.  I imagine the best step indeed might be his suggestion:  let’s quit the blame game and try to figure problems out, one by one.
  3. Ultimately, Loury’s proposed answer strikes me as rather close to what Chris Arnade brought up in his tweetstream:  we need some kind of guiding symbols and rituals, that somehow provide us with a meaning beyond the material, and get people coordinated on doing stuff–provide the center that can hold, so to speak, to paraphrase WB Yeats.  I don’t think it’s really a call for moralistic “rugged individualism” that clueless conservatives like to crow about, but long term community building that could take decades.


Anti-Spatial Politics

The following, apparently based on YouGov/Economist poll data, that had I found on Matt Karp’s Twitter feed, is a remarkable graph.


The implication of spatial politics is that, the electoral game is necessarily zero sum in nature:  you gain from one side, but you lose from the other, and you gain the most from those whom you are closest to, while losing the most from those whom you are farthest from.  In the usual spatial models, the very idea of variance is rarely acknowledged, except as a nuisance.

Seen through the lens of the spatial models, Clinton appears to be the most “liberal” politician of the three:  she is supported by strong Democrats, less so by weaker Democrats, and even less by leaners.  Independents don’t like her much, but the reaction that she engenders among the Republicans is confusing.  Maybe that just means that all Republicans are the same?  (Certainly, this is claimed by a lot of spatial modeling types who study polarization–all Republicans bunch up with similar DW-Nominate scores, and all that).

Things get stranger with Barack Obama–beloved by both strong Democrats and leaners, but less so by weak Democrats.  Perhaps it doesn’t really mean that much–maybe all the Democrats are the same, too, not unlike the Republicans.

Then there’s Bernie Sanders:  who is actually more popular among the leaners and not especially disliked by most Republicans.  And this is the guy who is supposed to be the flaming extreme liberal, while Obama and Clinton are, respectively, more centrist?

The problem, I think, is that the idea of spatial models is fundamentally wrong even if convenient and simple.  While the idea that people have political viewpoints that correspond to a number line is neat, it is a terrible way to conceptualize how real people see politics.  For many, geometric ideology is not all that relevant–it is obscured by huge error terms, which are not errors, as it were, but substantial uncertainty.  With large enough uncertainty, politics ain’t so spatial any more, and that ain’t a bad thing.

The trouble with Clinton, indicated above, isn’t so much that she is more or less liberal.  She is what the market says she is:  i.e. people who are responding to the surveys think she is “liberal,” meaning that she should be supported by people who call themselves “liberals” and hated by those who call themselves “conservatives.”  Without knowing what “liberal” or “conservative” really means, we just buy into the market’s designation and stick that on the politicians.  But the dirty secret, of course, is that, even if markets might be right on average, they are not only wrong, they are also often stupid.  Conventional wisdom often beats out real insights just because people believe them.  This is where things become problematic.