“Progressivism for Whites Only,” Revisited.

Trump’s appointments so far seem increasingly a rehash of old timey Republican cadres. Some “hope and change.”  (yes, I realize that’s the motto from the other guy–but Trump pulled a whitewashed version of the same act.)  Trump could easily be the second coming of old Southern Populist leaders like Tom Watson or Pitchfork Ben Tillman.  Southern Populism was ultimately destroyed by a betrayal of its leaders, who were mostly drawn from the upper crust of the Southern society interested mainly in taking advantage of the angry poor folk for their own political careers.  The early success of the Southern populism was built on cooperation across the color lines, with the ex-Confederates and former slaves willing to join hands, in interest of shared economic interests, but the seeds of its eventual failure were planted in the unease behind their cooperation.  In the end, the poisoned deal that people like Watson (who was, as a Populist leader, was willing to cooperate with the freedman) and Tillman (who was at least honest enough to never hide his racism) got for their followers was something derisively called “Progressivism for Whites Only,” or not a whole lot of “progressivism,” but plenty of Jim Crow.  (Indeed, Jim Crow era began in earnest when the Populist movement, and with it, a serious opportunity for African-American influence on politics in the South, was defeated.)

In a diabolical fashion, “Progressivism for Whites Only” was exactly the kind of heresthetic strategy that could defeat the coalition of ex-confederates and freedmen.  The racist tendencies of the former made them willing to accept a deal just for themselves that offered quite little while abandoning their uneasy allies.  But deprived of the political leverage that their alliance with the former slaves provided, they could not secure even the comparatively little that they were offered.  Once Jim Crow became the prevailing norm in the South, re-creating a political alliance of poor whites and blacks was no longer possible for at least a generation or so, even assuming the latter could vote in most cases.  Normally, the job of the leaders is to anticipate traps like that and refuse them strategically, but Southern Populists had few leaders who were drawn from the poor or even genuinely cared for their interests, only the political opportunists who saw an angry rabble on whose backs they could ride to elective offices–like Watson and Tillman.  Those who don’t hang together wind up hanging separately indeed.

The temptation for the Democrats today, when faced with “Progressivism for Whites Only,” seems to be focusing on the “whites only” part.  I think that’s a mistake.  The working class whites don’t feel too much “white guilt,” if any at all.  This is not to say that they are “racist” (although, to confuse matter, the lack of white guilt itself seems to qualify them as racists in the eyes of many on the left–a big mistake, I think.  Why should people in difficult circumstances feel guilty that there are others in even more difficult circumstances?  Let people who are comfortable feel guilt, they’d say, and they are right.)  They simply need and want “progressivism,” and as long as they qualify to benefit from it, they don’t mind that others are kept out.  (If anything, if their benefits are endangered in attempt to provide for those who are “more deserving” according to people whom they don’t trust, they will fight back–which is why means testing is a dangerous political bomb, and why Obamacare ran into such problems as, deservingly or not, it was seen as a threat to the existing services, or why “keep government out of my Medicare” became such a powerful slogan.)

The best way to fight back against “Progressivism for Whites Only” is to point out that it’s not much of Progressivism at all.  In the end, this is how the politics evolved in the South, especially how the New Deal Progressivism arrived there in 1930s–the real deal, not the old fakery.  Of course, it came at a heavy cost:  many Southern New Dealers played the same racist politics as their rivals.  But in the land of Jim Crow, you need to play the long game–you need political power before you can challenge the Jim Crow.  It was, after all, a young Southern New Dealer who cut his teeth on (somewhat) racist politics of rural Texas that signed the Voting Rights Act (only “somewhat” racist in the sense that the young LBJ was not nearly as much of a race-baiter as others).

I don’t think the Democratic resistance to Trumpism needs to be that long in scope.  He has not yet “won.”  Jim Crow is not written into the laws of the land, so to speak, yet.  Rather, the fight is in the early stages, where the promise of “Progressivism for Whites Only” is being offered to the masses.  That promise needs to be called out for being not much of Progressivism.  The “whites only part,” while odious it may seem to the Democrats, is a trap.  My suggestion isn’t so much that the Democrats can only win when they accept the “whites only” premise but that socio-cultural concerns are orthogonal to the economic fight, irrelevant for many voters who can be won over by better Progressivism on the economic matters.  Better political leaders than Watson and Tillman would have bargained for a better Progressivism while maintaining the alliance between poor whites and blacks.  This is the goal that Democrats should pursue today, if they wish to fight Trump seriously.

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Even Tom Friedman Can be on to Something.

Matt Taibbi has been mocking a graph that supposedly shows up in Tom Friedman’s new book.

The graph is shown below.  friedman-graph

Several people have been commenting that, intuitively, the basic idea makes a lot of sense.  There are times when the state of technology is such that humans can’t make sense of what’s going.  Of course, it doesn’t have to be technology and the organisms don’t have to be “humans.”  It’s really the idea behind the concept of punctuated equilibrium, or perhaps, in a sense, a state where an existing equilibrium is being knocked off the course. The bottom line, really, is that technology has outpaced humans in some sense, and that we are a bit lost.  I think that is a perfectly legitimate point to make.

The real problem with the graph is that we have no idea whether the rest of the graph represents anything that’s even close to reality.  We don’t know if “technology” is either one dimensional or always changing at an increasing pace as time passes.  We don’t know what exactly “human adaptability” is, whether it is unidimensional, or if it is always moving unidirectionally.  As a historical example, one might look at the way humans adapted to the crossbow or gunpowder, technological inventions that revolutionized warfare by making use of mechanical (for crossbow) or chemical (for gunpowder) means to strike at adversaries instead of physical strength and skill.  The adaptation came in more in form of tactics and organization, rather than how one fights one on one.  Technological changes often force adaptation at societal scale and that can be completely unpredictable and hugely disruptive, and in many cases, things can and do move backwards.  (with the decline of the longbow, the people with immense upper body strength, required for drawing a powerful bow, are less in demand, and as such, the number of potential trainees as bowmen are smaller–when the Duke of Wellington wanted to raise a force of archers to fight Napoleon (muskets are, in some ways, much inferior to bows in the hands of good bowmen), the scheme came to naught because there were so few prospective bowmen because the English peasantry had declined in their physical attributes–at least when it came to qualifying as archers.

So in a sense, this is the real lesson.  It’s not that Friedman has a ridiculous idea.  The problem is that Friedman puts idea in a context that makes no sense, a fantasy world of his making that adds more than there is to the story.  This is something that wonks, incidentally, are very commonly guilty of:  when complex concepts are being distilled to pictures and other simple presentations, new ideas and insinuations not part of the original concepts can slip in, often willingly but sometimes unconsciously, reflecting the bias of the presenter.  Rationality, in game theory, for example, simply meant that preferences had to obey certain mathematical properties–so that one could use math to analyze strategies and stabilities properties of equilibria.  But “rationality,” meaning something rather different, slipped in in popular discourses of game theory.  Patterns that do not make easy mathematical sense but not illogical in their own terms are declared “irrational” by commentators ignorant of the underpinnings of game theory.  The word “evolution” has the connotation of a unidirectional movement, towards things getting “better” (whatever that means) so “evolution” has been used by political social ideologues to justify “progress” as they saw it, sometimes with horrifying results.

Sometimes, a single word provides far more information that is actually valuable than a thousand pictures by virtue of their simplicity.  We think the opposite all too often, and are sold a bill of goods that we don’t care for because we were sold misleading, irrelevant, and deceptive information that has nothing to do with the big point, i.e. we saw too many damn pictures.

Hacks, Wonks, Journalists, Scientists, and Conspiracy Stories.

Matt Taibbi has a thoughtful, if predictable and cynical, article on The Rolling Stone.  

There are two passages that capture the essence of the argument, as I see it.  First,, that people of all political stripes are liable to fall into seemingly crazy yarns of conspiracy, now unfolding on all manner of fronts now that the seemingly unthinkable election of Donald Trump has taken place.

Yet the Post thought otherwise, and its report was uncritically picked up by other outlets like USA Today and the Daily Beast. The “Russians did it” story was greedily devoured by a growing segment of blue-state America that is beginning to fall victim to the same conspiracist tendencies that became epidemic on the political right in the last few years.

Second, as (putative) seekers of truth, journalists are alone in their enterprise, at least when it comes to politics.  Politicians have no need for truth, only advantages.  If they can find advantages in untruths, conspiracy stories, and other nonsense, they are happy to have them, whichever way they can.

These journalists seemed totally indifferent to the Pandora’s box they were opening. They didn’t understand that most politicians have no use for critical media. Many of them don’t see alternative points of view as healthy or even legitimate. If you polled a hundred politicians about the profession, 99 would say that all reporters are obstructionist scum whose removal from the planet would be a boon to society.
The only time politicians like the media is when we’re helping them get elected or push through certain policies, like for instance helping spread dubious stories about Iraq’s WMD capability. Otherwise, they despise us. So news outlets that get into bed with politicians are usually making a devil’s bargain they don’t fully understand.

One might say that this sentiment echoes my perspective on “wonkism” versus “science.”  Truth, in service of political agenda is no truth.  Economists, so to speak, are useful as economists only if they come with multiple arms, to weigh all possibilities and offer nuanced advice.  Once they lose all arms except that which politicians want, they are no economists but wonks.  One might make the same distinction between “hacks” and “journalists.”  The former engage in “journalism” in service of a political agenda.  Their interest in advancing “politics” outweigh their interest in the “truth.”  But in so doing, it subverts the truth itself.

There is a long tradition of research in political science about “shortcuts” and “heuristics”–simple labels from which people can draw inferences about things that they may not know about.  Almost all the research that is out there point to how people read more into the shortcuts than they should–for example, they think their senators are more partisan than they really are because of their party affiliation, and this is more the case for the people who (think they) know more about politics.  I have a hunch that this approach suffers a bit from too narrow a perspective:  we think that heuristics are powerful, so we want to show the evidence of the heuristics being so powerful as to mislead.  But the converse, when are heuristics NOT so powerful, with whom?  I’d been calling this variously as “are you a liberal or a Democrat” problem or “Groucho Marx” problem–the latter, on the account of the famous joke by the comedian, “Who you gonna believe?  Me or your lying eyes?”  The catch, of course, is that you do know that your eyes do lie, at least sometimes.  Sometimes, you should trust Groucho Marx more than your eyes.  But when?  Who?

To illustrate this with a semi-real life example, one might say the following:  Many people distrusted Red China because Richard Nixon said so.  These people knew more about Nixon than they did about China and their choice was based on how much they trusted Nixon–based on their considerable knowledge of Nixon, relative to their scant knowledge about China.  Others, fewer in number, however, knew little about Nixon but knew China intimately well–and hated the Chinese communists for “good” reasons.  So they trusted Nixon because he was against the Red Chinese.  Now, Nixon goes to China and says that people should now trust Red China.  How will these folks react?  For those whose dislike of Red China was dependent on their trust of Nixon, the choice is easy.  They still trust Nixon.  They never had “good” reasons to distrust China other than Nixon, and that reason is now removed.  So they now trust China, because they know their eyes are no good about China and Groucho Nixon is a better guide, as far as they know.  For the latter, however, even if they are small in number, their distrust of China was never about Nixon.  If anything, they trusted their own eyes far more than Richard Marx.  Now, Richard Marx is just comedian, an evil one at that, who can no longer be trusted for he lies like a commie.

This is a potentially important problem in real life politics.  The theory of heuristics, naively interpreted, would suggest that Nixon could go to China because he enjoyed a great deal of “heursitical” advantage for being Nixon.  If you honestly believe that, you’d have to be a stupid Vulcan who knows nothing about Earth’s history.  Being Nixon does not automatically grant the heuristical advantage:  it was combination of long and highly publicized anti-communist career of Nixon preceding his presidency and general American ignorance about international affairs that gave Nixon that heursitical advantage. Far more people indeed knew and trusted Nixon far more than knew than they knew anything about China–a two dimensional, rather than a single dimensional problem.  This set up a situation where Nixon could indeed go to China, since he had very little to lose (only from the people who knew China more than they knew Nixon, conditional that, prior to going to China, they trusted Nixon).

How replicable is this condition now?  Many people know next nothing of politics, other than “positions.”  They know they don’t like Trump or they don’t like Clinton.  Everything else is derived from this “positional distrust.”  In a sense, then, the power of Nixon has skyrocketed.  People would far more trust Groucho Marx because they are all blind–and they “know” they are blind–we don’t know China any more than what Richard Nixon tells us.  The paradox this can lead to, however, is that, if Nixon lacks sufficient trust of his own, not even Nixon himself can challenge this view.  The Big Brother is always right, even if the Big Brother says he is not, so to speak, because we don’t really know Big Brother beyond the mythical version, and the mythical Big Brother did not say he is wrong this time.  In other words, we are suffering from a collective crisis of faith and trust:  we don’t know what to believe, because our “knowledge” is built on a web of “so they said,” without a substantive basis.  (One might say that this recaptures the Stiglitz-Grossman problem:  the price is what “the market” says, not what the product does, and if you don’t use the product, just sell it, the market matters more than what it actually is or does.)  Unless Nixon has a large enough base that trusts him for “good” reasons, he can maintain his credibility only by appealing to his mythical self, and the mythical Nixon does not go to China.

Data on this type of phenomenon is, unsurprisingly, difficult to come by in real life, because Nixon does not go to China, usually, or Donald Trump does not get elected.  So once the possibility is raised, the typical response is that empirically, the question does not exist.  (Somewhat exaggerated, but this is actually my experience from real life.)  Of course, the point is that, in equilibrium, Nixon does not go to China.  If we cannot observe Nixon going to China, we can only theorize about the contingencies, with the appropriate provisos attached. That way, we would be prepared for how to respond when Nixon does go to China, or when Trump does get elected, or when there is a need to engage in limited war in the Balkans.  On the other hand, why bother wasting time thinking about Nixon in China when it never happens?  Or fighting a limited war against only Russia and Serbia, rather than a general war against all the Entente powers?  It is easy to look back on the monumental events where the improbables shaped the outcome and ignore all the disasters that did not happen:  nuclear war did not break out over Korea or Vietnam, there was no general war between Russia and Britain over Dogger Bank Incident, no colonial war over Fashoda, and so on.  The market is usually right, on average, after all.  It just so happens, as per Stiglitz-Grossman, the more people trust the market, the wronger it will be and the more catastrophic the consequences will be as well.

Institutions and Demanding “Results”

The Atlantic has yet another article on education in Finland and U.S.:  this time, the point is that the education system in Finland does not translate to US.  Too many restrictions, too much bureaucracy, too much paperwork.  The teachers with experience in Finland can’t exercise the kind of discretion and freedom that made their work effective in Finland and get burned out.  It’s a reminder of the old Jesuit joke:

At a conference about religious obedience, the Jesuit representative is asked, “Your Order places great emphasis on the vow of obedience. How do you ensure that Jesuits remain faithful to this vow?” He replies, “It’s simple. Our superiors first ask us what we want to do, and then they mission us to do it. Thus, we never have any problems with obedience.”

Another conference participant then asks the Jesuit, “But aren’t there some members of your Order who don’t know what they want to do? What do you do with them?” The Jesuit replies, “We make them the superiors!”

There is much truth in this joke.  Jesuits don’t do what they do for better pay or resources.  After all, they all have taken the vow of chastity and poverty when they became priests.  But what they do have is a sense of purpose, the calling to their mission, backed up by the socialist institution that is the Catholic Church that provides for their sustenance.

One great paradox about United States that I keep encountering is that a lot of very high quality work is being done for free:  some game companies practically rely on the modders to finish their games, which, in their “official” form, are often shoddy; a lot of fan fiction is of excellent quality; volunteer work keeps a lot of worthwhile institutions going; many writers, even in high profile publications, do so for no compensation.  In fact, a strange irony emerges:  many people need jobs to sustain their “real” work.  The jobs give them the means to do what they want to do, where they can be actually productive at and produce meaningful value, but they are not the “real” work.  What is more, when the work becomes a job, given the way jobs are structured in US., even the work that you love become “jobs,” things that you do to make money, not because you particularly enjoy it.

The problem is that most jobs in United States, even those that are nominally professional work where the person performing it should be allowed to exercise discretion and independence, are usually treated as a form of assembly line line.  Work needs to be done by rote, follow the patterns, and check the checklists, and hours need to be filled out.  On the other hand, however, this is demanded precisely because the people who are on the other end usually don’t have the time or the state of mind to engage either.  This is especially problematic in education:  the students don’t have time, as they have so many things thrust on them, not only by the demands of education, but by their livelihood, too.  K-12 students who come from underserved households have to deal with enough stressers in their lives, family, neighborhoods, various social problems, and so forth, that dealing with anything less than neatly packaged pieces of “education” will be difficult to handle.  Even at a state university, I was shocked at the number of students who had multiple jobs and literally did not have time to do more thinking than read the textbooks, and were downright angry when I told them that the textbooks do not contain the answers, but just the background so that we can start thinking about the answers.  The liberal arts education of the kind that teachers love is nice, but most students really don’t have time for it.

People point out that teachers in Finland are not especially paid well.  They are doubtlessly correct, but the same applies to the doctors, lawyers, academics, and corporate executives too.  It’s not just that the Finns have a system of values in which money is less important, but simply that money is less important in a society that provides adequate enough floors for its citizens–thus the analogue to the Jesuit order, which, likewise runs a similar form of socialism that guarantees adequate standard of living for all its people.  Once the floors are provided for, you can be selective:  not only would people want to get into the professions, they would be motivated by the love of the professions.  They can make the ends meet by choosing anything–but they can be happy doing it doing what they can do well, what they want to do, and what they feel valuable doing.

This is a peculiar, rosy picture of socialism, of the kind popularized by Star Trek.  If such a society can be made to exist (and even Nordic countries aren’t quite there yet), I imagine vast majority of the population does little or nothing.  (One could easily imagine doing a sitcom set in the Star Trek universe–the couch potatoes of Epsilon Gamma or something, where the loafers are desperately finding something useful and/or entertaining to do with their time, limited skills, and whatever equivalent of universal basic income they get from the Federation Government.  But this would not be very funny because those will be first world problems and we are not exactly the first world now.)  But it is also true that the productivity gains through technology has made a lot of labor redundant.  The choice is increasingly between whether the plutocrats of immense wealth can waste their money on crazy stunts like setting the world record in jumping from a helium balloon, or improve lives of many.  While many might balk at whether the “loafers” deserve stuff, it is worth remembering that many scientists, artists, and writers that we look back upon fondly were basically ne’er do wells:  Kepler, van Gogh, Schubert, etc.  Add on to them people who were essentially supported by the Church and/or rich friends while they did their odd things: Galileo, Copernicus, Mendel, de Maitre (ironically, we’d have neither evolution or Big Bang Theory without the Church paying for these fellas!).  How do you know if the “loafers” of today are not producing something worthwhile?  If, moreover, by being freed from overseers, the society can have more creative teachers, bolder scholars, and innovative artists, even for the present, will this added uncertainty be such a bad thing?

Data Availability and the Newspeak of the 21st Century.

George Orwell described the invention of the fictitious newspeak in the novel 1984 as an attempt by the state to curtail the breadth of thought by limiting the scope of what is thinkable.  While I’m skeptical that the limitations in linguistic structure necessarily limits the scope of thoughts themselves, I think it is definitely true that limiting the language does curtail the ability of the thought to spread, by making it difficult to succinctly and easily describe unorthodox thoughts that don’t fit neatly into a language that only the select few are privy to.

The idea of secret lingo among conspirators is hardly new to Orwell.  Secret societies (or societies that pretend to be such) have their secret codes, handshakes, and other allegedly covert means of communication.  The crew of the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea speak in a secret language that is impenetrable to the outsiders that prompts this reaction from Ned Land.

“Don’t you see, these people have a language all to themselves, a language they’ve invented just to cause despair in decent people who ask for a little dinner!”

The more complex, nuanced, and subtle a language is, the more impenetrable it is to the outsiders, and as such, can conceal “conspiracies” among its speakers, whether they are conspiracies of thoughts or action.  Not surprisingly, many states, as part of political consolidation, sought to standardize the language.  Much is made of the attempts by the Germans and the Russians, say, to suppress the Polish language or the English the Welsh. But they were contemporaneous with the standardization of the French and German languages that led to dominance of the capital dialects over their linguistic relatives.  Of course, they have a precedence in the standaridization of the written Chinese language by the First Emperor.

The penetrability to the outsiders and inability to express subtle, complex, and nuanced thoughts, of course, are also the characteristics that make a language easier for Google Translate and its relatives.  Here, the infiltrator is not the language police from Moscow or Berlin, or even the agents of INGSOC, but something that is literally not even human and does not care to think like a human does, but abides only by a massively complex but quite simple-minded at the same time pattern recognition algorithm.  Yet, it is also becoming the standard tool of the international business, politics, and other formal transactions.  Documents will have to be generated increasingly in a manner that makes subtleties and complexities difficult.  At least in the legal-diplomatic-business realms, the public sphere, if you will, words and concepts will have to be defined in a manner that purges such complexities as well.  Even if “true” thoughts, taking places inside people’s minds, may remain complex, nuanced, and subtle, they cannot be in the open.  This is reminiscent, if less complete, of the world of newspeak, as it achieves essentially the same aim.  “Subversive” thoughts, not for its contents per se, but for their complexity and “difficulties” are to be stamped out.  Without a language suitable for their expression, they will be reduced to the status of a boutique dead language among bitter enders, like Sorbian or Ligurian, incomprehensible beyond a handful of specialists.

Perhaps this is a bit of an extreme example:  for all its influence, Google Translate is not the ultimate arbiter of human language, for far too many linguistic transactions still take place without intermediaries.  But the analogue is that, once “data analysis” becomes the language of transactions–and Google Translate is an applied form of simple-minded (conceptually) even if massively complex (in terms of moving parts) “data analysis”–the underlying assumptions, especially when they are not properly understood, becomes part of commonly accepted “obvious common sense” taken for grounded without a second thought, even if they are ultimately wrong, misguided, or incomplete.  If you will, the users of the lingo are initiated into the cargo cult by partaking in its initiation rituals through the (implied) profession of faith in its assumptions.

One example that I became intimately familiar with is the exploding use of (simple) unidimensional models for everything in politics that accompanied the increasing popularity of DW-Nominate and its relatives that allegedly measure “ideology.”  The short answer is that, DW-Nominate has nothing direct to do with “ideology.”  They identify patterns in recorded votes that take place in a legislature.  All the talk about polarization in Congress, captured by DW-Nominate, is that the votes are predictable–most taking place along the party line, and those who “defect” between them, if there are any–rare nowadays–are readily identifiable.  Could this say something about ideology, inside people’s minds?  Probably, since some people vote their “ideology” some of the time.  But it is hardly the only thing:  many subtle politics go into shaping votes in Congress, and all instances of subtle politics are different.  So we don’t know what exactly they are simply by glancing quickly at the data, other than they exist and they account for, collectively, whatever percentage of the observed voting behavior.

But “lack of explanation” is not an explanation to many audiences.  When presented with the data that shows “not explained,” they can respond, correctly, “so you don’t know?”  (and I speak to this from actual experience).  We have to focus on what it is that we CAN explain, and that is the obvious pattern, the whole “polarization” angle:  where the Democrats vote like Democrats and Republicans vote like Republicans.  It used to be that the “moderates” who switched back and forth between them were relatively numerous and somewhat predictable (this is where a lot of nuance and details help with the explanation, but not with the “final answer.”), the main result of polarization is driven by most Democrats voting like Democrats most of the time and vice versa for the Republicans, with very few exceptions.  To the degree that we have accepted the assumption behind DW-Nominate, willingly or otherwise, by using these measures, we are naturally drawn to the explanation that legislators today are more “ideological” than they were before.

It is not necessarily a bad answer:  that the legislators are voting party mostly means that the old “subtle” politics, at least of the variety that ran counter to simple party-line voting, are increasingly going by the wayside.  We might not know what “ideology” is exactly, it is becoming the big deal.  But does this mean that the subtle politics are insignificant?  That I think is a dangerous oversight–after all, in 2016 election, most voters probably did vote party, but an electorally significant minority that happened to be concentrated geographically did not and, for all their sparseness, that made all the difference.  By drawing focus on the obvious and the more easily quantifiable, the focus on the “data analysis” blinds us to the subtleties, whether in politics, markets, or the language.  On average, it probably would not matter–in the short term.  But there will be times when it blows up in our faces.

Furthermore, the lack of attention to the not-so-easily quantifiable also shapes the strategies of the political (and other) actors.  I don’t think the heresthetic style of Trump (and Sanders) in 2016 were necessarily by chance.  We had seen this before, in the world of baseball, in form of the 2014 and 2015 Royals.  A number of commentators pointed out that, contra the apparent disdain for “moneyball” type strategy by the Royals, they were in fact taking a “moneyball,” strategy, by focusing on the characteristics that were being underinvested and underinvestigated.  I think that is a bit misleading as a characterization.  Stats like OBP are easy to calculate with great reliability.  Defense, base-running, and even pitching effectiveness are harder to quantify reliably.  Precisely because the latter are not easily quantifiable, quantitative analysis of baseball tend to be a bit more careful about them.  (I realize that saber people will have an issue with this–but I think I can say with confidence that anyone who thinks that defense stats should be taken multiple grains of salt are nuts).  The argument is right that the more obvious and more reliable stats will be more quickly monetized and the opportunity for arbitrage wiped out speedily.  Utilizing the less reliable, harder to quantify stats require both heavier reliance on old fashioned baseball know-how and not inconsiderable risk-taking, which I think fairly characterizes the Royals’ strategy last few years, which paid off in 2014 and 2015, but not so much in 2016.  (This is, of course, what lay behind Michael Milken’s junk bond strategy too, in a sense–not-so-easily quantifiable are inherently uncertain and thus risky, you can mitigate the risk somewhat by a bit of specific knowledge, and you can make it big by taking on bigger risk.)  Like the Royals, Trump had a bit of old fashioned political sense that has come to be dismissed by the new political quants (it is telling that an old fashioned Midwestern politician, Bob Dole, should have been the only former Republican presidential candidate to formally endorse Trump, for old fashioned political reasons.) and took on a big risk, even if of calculated variety.

In this sense, perhaps the real risk is not that we will be unable to think subversive thoughts at all, with the rise of the modern newspeak, but that we will be trapped increasingly in our linguistic bubble, our version of the fictional Nautilus, captained by a madman for reasons that make sense only to ourselves, without becoming aware of the world

PS.  I thought about what I wrote earlier about what DW-Nominate does not predict and the “subtle” politics and thought about how this might be captured.  Generally, presidential voteshare in a house district and the DW-Nominate score of the incumbent representing it are reasonably correlated.  One can capture the “presidential votes” that “should” take place by regressing the actual presidential voteshare and DW-Nominate scores (signs suitably changed to reflect left and right) and predicting the y-value, the creating a measure of surplus by examining the difference between this predicted value and the actual votes for incumbent House members running for reelection.  (this is a bit silly and crude–but hey, I’m doing this on the fly).  Comparing these “surpluses” to the standard errors on first dimensional DW-Nominate scores (as a measure of what is not captured by the scores), yields the following graphs.

For the entire period between 1946 and 2010 (the data I have immediately available cuts off at 2010):

inc-surplus-votes-and-dwnom-errors

It is worth noting that the errors yield more votes in more recent years, when party labels actually become more meaningful:

Contrast the period after 1995 (a semi-arbitary cutoff, admittedly).

inc-surplus-votes-and-dwnom-errors-post-1995

and the period before.

inc-surplus-votes-and-dwnom-errors-pre-1995

Of course, being “weird” stands more when everyone else is alike.  When everyone is already different in their own ways, the congressman/woman is being just like “everyone” when he/she is “different.”  So the KC Royals strategy is already paying more dividends now than before.

 

 

 

The Trouble with Political Science?

I was not aware of the paper/polemic on the state of macroeconomics by Paul Romer or the controversy about “science” thereof that has been going on for last year plus, other than vaguely that there was such a controversy without knowing the details.  To be completely honest, the battle lines are not necessarily new–most of it has been known before.  The particulars of the debate, the centrality of the identification problems and that it is often difficult, if at all possible, to evaluate the moving parts of the theory with the live data, are hardly new either.  The significant development, I suppose, is that the parties involved have finally decided that there is something seriously rotten where the parties involved in the debate are simply trolling each other without changing their mind and that this is no science, but “politics.”

Romer rightly points out that the problem is that the language and tone of the debate changes from that of science to that of “politics.”    The goal of politics is to score points and to win, to advance your agenda and to shoot down the other side’s agenda.  This is the trouble with what I’d been calling “wonkism” and “data science mentality.”  (It is amusing to note that Romer is startled to discover that a lot of “data science” runs on the kind of models that caused such challenges in macroeconomics, or, for that matter, for heliocentric models of the solar system.  I happen to think he is right to be startled and disturbed:  data science is NOT science.  It is the opposite of science, in that it operates on recognizing patterns in large scale data without theorizing or rigorous hypothesis testing–exactly like “calibration” in macroeconomics.  As such, it is liable to fall into the same sort of cargo cultish traps that Feynman talked out.)

The trouble with political science echoes that of macroeconomics.  In the end, what prompted macroeconomists to take the stances they did was that their decisions did not exist in a universe sealed off from policymaking.  They knew that ideas shaped policy:  what prompted Robert Solow to react as he did, as Romer sees it, was the implication on monetary policy from the argument being put forward by Lucas and Sargent.  Lucas and Sargent certainly couched their argument in terms of potential policy implications.  And the surest way to draw attention from a large audience is to claim that a new, half-baked theory has serious implications on the “real life,” not the abstracted, theoretical life of academics.   In the end, political scientists have even worse problem than macroeconomics.  Macroeconomics and politics are simply difficult to disentangle so that it is just difficult to think about the former without the latter.  Political science IS about politics.  It is IMPOSSIBLE to think about political science without linking it to politics.  And most people, political scientists included, are too interested in politics to regard their studies as a purely theoretical exercise independent of real life.  Even if they might be, and they might try to maintain it as such, their audiences, university administrators, and their colleagues who do like politics insist that you do.  Personally, I found it difficult to maintain what Romer calls “Feynman integrity” if the topic of discussion in classroom comes too close to home:  the “Arab spring” made it difficult to talk “seriously” without prejudice about elections and democracy in comparative context and every election year makes it difficult to talk about elections in U.S.  My personal recourse had always been to pretend the election is not taking place and draw examples from far enough in the past that students have no preconception about what I’m talking about.  This is one of the factors that led me out of academia–the powers-that-be did not like it.  In fact, they were fairly insistent that I bring in current politics, with all the associated with problems–namely, “politicizing” the classroom and research.

Why should anyone outside academia care about purely theoretical endeavors anyways? Macroeconomists get the reputation that they do with the mass public because they are public intellectuals.  Nobody not in economics business know the technical lingo.  They do have political agendas, however, and there is a value to having famous academics on their side as props.  Academics as policy advisors are there because they have only one hand–the hand that supports the agenda of the political actors whom they happen to be allied with.  Truman had no use for multiarmed economists, but scientific integrity requires multiple arms.  Political science has the same problem:  even in 2016, they are brought in to say something about whether Trump’s voters are racists, a bunch of dumb hicks, or are genuinely driven by economic agenda.  Data is ambivalent enough (and possibly, all of them are true enough) that evidence of support can be found for all of them.  But in the end, it is not the academics who are saying these, but various political actors.  Academics are called in simply to add flavor to arguments not of their making, just like macroeconomic theories of various schools are invoked and the credentials of their advocates recited to feed political arguments behind various policies.  And this is what gets academics invited to fancy parties, important meetings, and TV shows.  Nobody wants to be the theorist who discovers something that could lead to cure for cancer–because nobody will know about them, at least in the present day environment.  Everyone wants to be the clinician who does cure cancer and bask in the accolades, even if they know nothing about actual practical medicine.

In some sense, it is remarkable that theoretical physicists got the fame that they did:  Albert Einstein did not invent the atomic bomb.  He merely made theoretical contributions that made it possible.  How did he get to be famous, not, say, Edward Teller? In this sense, Lee Smolin’s issue with theoretical physics is exactly the opposite that of macroeconomics or political science.  There is no “politics” there.  People are not interested in the string theory because they need props to support their political agendas.  They simply think string theorists are extremely smart people who have fascinating things to say about the universe that are beyond comprehension.  And they are exactly right–even if it may not be really”science,” consisting of fragile theories resting on empirical bases.  This is an example of a science that enjoys such credibility that it can literally spin half-baked fantastic yarns that may or may not be true–but sound cool and amazing–and still be trusted.  But, for the most part, quantum mechanics, relativity, and the nature of universe have no obvious implications on policy or everyday lives of normal people.  They are simply a wonderful intellectual diversion, like some sort of new age religion (and enough people are making money off of exploiting that, including, apparently, some people with legitimate physics degrees). Economics and political science, social sciences in general, indeed, do not enjoy that kind of luxury:  they deal with subject matter too close to home, if you will, for policymakers and normal people like.  They are welcome as long as they provide support for the policy and other political agenda.  They are useless eggheads if they do not.  They need to become wonks, not scientists, in order to be relevant at all.

I used to be much more naive and optimistic about the prospect of a “social science,” where society can be studied in a manner that is actually “scientific,” completely detached from agenda, values, and anything normative and reliant only on logic, data, and, most importantly, finding where the data contradicts the logic and forces new thinking.  I am increasingly convinced that this is not possible.  Real world needs social science as trophies and props for politics, not for understanding, for this role, it offers too enticing a set of rewards.  Feynman integrity is not an easy commodity to come by, especially when people are interested in the outcomes too much.

PS.  Comment on another blog offers this definition of Feynman’s caution about “cargo cult science:

“Try hard to understand, what you are doing. Do not rely on formalities.”

I think this is fundamentally right:  you “believe” in a cult.  You trust that the ceremonies, the people, the formalities, or the institutions somehow “work” even if you don’t know how.  You set up a model with 100 different moving parts that literally cannot be wrong because 50-60 of the moving parts will be doing something right at any one time.  So Google Translate is always right, and it is designed and tweaked with, to be “always” right. After all, millions of people depend on it to translate their documents.  Asking how and where Google Translate gets things wrong is likely to be met with the response, “don’t worry, the Google Team will make sure that it will be right even in those contexts too.”  I suspect that they will, some day, but that’s not what the question is asking.  The question is asking really about how Google Translate approaches language may not fit how people write poetry or love letters.  Maybe computers can be made smart enough that they can recognize patterns in poetry or love letters even better than humans…or not.  But we want to know about the patterns and the logic behind it, perhaps even more than translate Evgenii Onegin.  Who cares if the computer can recognize the patterns?

PPS.  This is a great article on Romer and his argument.  The problem with human foresight goes back to the fundamental problem shaping all of social sciences, though:  the problem of omniscience goes back to the logical problems posed by Divine omniscience, omnipotence, and beneficence.  Science fiction writers took on this too–this is the central problem in both Foundations series by Asimov and Dune series by Herbert.  The answer, offered by Nietzche and Kierkegaard, and in more formal terms by people like Leonard Savage, is that truth is subjective and the full truth unknowable (and this, of course, is captured by the parable of the blind men and the elephant, which, again, is many centuries old.)  I think the clinician-lab scientist analogue is good:  clinicians know what works and what doesn’t, even if the theoretical underpinnings may not be fully worked out; they want to know what works better or why what doesn’t work doesn’t work–fairly limited questions, not grand questions about the universe.  Focused theoretical studies can help address these problems.  Still, this is no panacea when the whole edifice might be wrong, in which case an intellectual revolution is needed that can take centuries to clear out–and that’s when theorists are treating each other decorously and not making political fights out of them:  Thomas Kuhn taught us this, about physics.  I wonder if the reason Einstein gets reverence he does for purely theoretical work is that physics underwent the great intellectual tumult in the form of the Copernican revolution that went on for centuries that taught them both humility and patience, that physics, at least as practiced by humans, cannot grasp much of the universe at all, and that such advances may come at a very slow pace.  As Amartya Sen said, people are more complex than the physical universe (paraphrased).  Yet, we in social sciences arrogate to explain far more of humanity than physics does with the universe with far simpler models and propose to use them as basis for serious policymaking.  So who is going to be the social science’s Copernicus?  Where’s (the old institutions of) Catholic Church when you need them?

Of course, that presupposes that we have come to the crisis of epicycles, or calibration, or data mining or whatever, already.  The critics of the Romer piece are not wrong to say that their approach does do some pretty impressive things, or, in other words, Google Translate does do wonderful job for translating most standard workaday prose between common languages.  Romer, in a sense, is making fuss over how Google Translate has issues with Pushkin, so to speak.  Google Translate Team, perhaps like Sargent, might retort, “is Pushkin important”?  That’s a good question, actually.  For the aficionados of Russian literature, yes, but there aren’t that many aficionados of Russian literature, at least among users of Google Translate who’d actually use the service to translate things from Russian.  And one might say, in order to truly appreciate poetry, you need to learn the language anyways, precisely because poetry does not translate so well.

I don’t think this is necessarily “wrong” on its face, but the line of thinking sounds eerily like the principles of newspeak from Orwell:  how to reduce the language to its “functional” parts, with the definition of “functional” based on too crude a utilitarian criterion, with the consequence that the thought is reduced to similarly crude utilitarian conceptions.  This sounds like groupthink to me, exactly the kind Romer describes:  when I was in grad macro class, for example, I was bothered, amused, and distressed that what they called “microfoundations” either looked nothing like microeconomics I recognized or were predicated on too narrow and restrictive set of assumptions that were driving their results.  The macro people were right to point out that they were just toy models, for representing certain ideas and their implications.  But I knew that people were unwilling or even unable to break out of these thought patterns even in context of describing and understanding the real world as they became too accustomed to seeing the world in terms of their toy models.  Of course, this is also the problem that shows up in spatial models in conjunction with DW-Nominate scores (and related techniques).  Before there were DW-Nominate scores, people were usually willing to chuckle and say that spatial models are a bit wobbly.  Now that there are “hard” numbers (never mind where they came from, and the fundamental identification problems they pose–the numbers come from how legislators voted, but who knows if they voted for ideology, for constituents, for deals, or what?), people are not only taking spatial models as gospel truth, they are not even willing to think outside the unidimensional models–because 95% or whatever of the votes nowadays are “explainable” by the model, so yeah, Pushkin doesn’t matter in Russian language, while technical manuals and business documents do–because they are reliably Google Translable.  Newspeak breeding newthink indeed.

Towards Real Science…or Not.

There is an excellent essay by Lyell Asher, of Lewis and Clark College, about the value added by “real liberal arts education” in The American Scholar.  The crux of the argument is captured by the following passage.

A college ought to be the ideal place to help students learn to resist such simplifications—to resist them not just inside the classroom, in the books they read, but outside in the lives they lead. Rightly understood, the campus beyond the classroom is the laboratory component of college itself. It’s where ideas and experience should meet and refine one another, where things should get more complicated, not less.

Of course, this is exactly the relationship between “theories” and “science.”  As I keep repeating, all of “science” is just a set of theories, and by definition, all theories are wrong, or at least incomplete.  They are all deliberate oversimplifications so that we can keep our heads reasonably organized, for the time being.  Learning science, really, is the process where we learn the old theories, figure out all the different ways in which they are wrong, and try to develop new theories that are hopefully less wrong, but in full knowledge that we will never actually get to the truth.

I used to be extremely proud that I used to follow this path when I was still in academia, but also, that this proved my undoing both in the publication business and in teaching business.  Papers need to be “on point,” which often amount to being in favor of some theory or another, not pointing to complexities in the reality that fit no theory very obviously.  Ironically, it is much easier to be published in top journals, provided that you have findings that are significant enough, but without the disclaimer “I’m with theory A” or “I’m with theory B,” publications in low tiered journals is difficult, and a lot of findings, while potentially thought-provoking if you think through their implications carefully, are not “obvious” or “big” enough for publication in top journals.  A common complaint from students I had was that they felt that I was making things more complicated than “they needed to be.”  (partly true–although I dispute that I was going beyond “where they needed to be.”) and that what “the right answers” were was not always clear.  (This perversely echoes Asher’s observation, “But what happens when the administrators who supervise this lab—sometimes in tandem with professors who teach the courses—pretend to have so mastered the difficult questions of race, of social justice, of meaning and intention, that they feel entitled to dictate to others?”  In order to clearly define the answers as being “right” or “wrong,” we do have to dictate to others, and for that, we have to pretend that we have an absolute mastery of the “science,” when it is, by definition, ridiculous as noted above.)  One of my friends from graduate school–ironically, a Lewis and Clark grad–wondered incredulously if I am trying to make my students more confused, which, in a way, is actually true, by challenging their assumptions, by showing that the world is complicated, and the topics on hand demand clearer, deeper thoughts.  Alas, these make for very polarizing classrooms.

To be honest, I have to empathize with the students:  they are not really in classrooms to think, realistically speaking.  They are attending college because they need a degree, and they are, in a sense, right to feel that they should go through a clearly-defined process en route to that goal, not get waylaid by having to think about things that are of little interest or concern to them.  They have a lot of demands on their lives–often, very serious ones, as the students who have multiple full time jobs while attending school are not unheard of in state colleges.  Being forced to think endlessly about questions without good answers is, to be honest, a waste of time.  So complicated questions wind up being dismissed with simplistic answers that are, in their core, quite insulting, if you think about them.  I call them “flying spaghetti monsters.”  I don’t know if I really believe in a religion (I call my uncertainty about belief or unbelief my Judas sin, if you read my earlier posts), but I take religion seriously as I know that many people do, and that religion, as a shaper of collective action, is a vehicle for tremendous good and evil.  The significance of religion in society is something that cannot be overstated, whether one believes it or not or likes it or not.  But the “flying spaghetti monster” kicks away all these questions as undeserving of further thought in a flippant and dismissive manner.  Most canned answers rooted in “morality” and “normative bases” wind up falling in such traps, but are welcomed by the students who just need the right answers to get their A on the transcript.  There were speculations that, when MOOC comes to replace classrooms, famous actors might be better suited to teach them than academics.  I don’t see why not:  they don’t need to know, they don’t need to think things through, they just need to offer canned answers with nothing more than an appearance of conviction.  Academics already do this, for most part, and are doing them badly.  Professional actors can at least deliver their lines with a better show of conviction than not.

I keep coming back to the debate between Ken Hamm and Bill Nye, and what made me truly respect Nye–that he basically said that he does not “believe in” evolution, that, if presented with incontestable evidence of creation, he will change his beliefs.  Science is not about “righteousness.”  It is about understanding and getting the facts “right.”  If our previous understanding is wrong in face of facts, we have to change our understanding to be “right.”  This, however, makes science bad at shouting matches.  We don’t ultimately believe, not even our own arguments beyond what the evidence suggests.  We are prepared to change our mind when things change.  We have, in principle, no conviction other than our knowledge is imperfect and we need to learn constantly in order to repair the gaps.  (I joke that the idea of “God of the gaps” is both true and false–true because we need a God because our understanding is full of gaps, and will never fill them up completely, but false in that God does not consist of the specific gaps.  That we know more now has opened up even more questions–filling in specific gaps open up new gaps that we did not know about, and the process will continue as long as there is still science.)  If Nye’s statement has prompted some young creationists to search for the credible evidence that will convince scientists to believe in evolution, not phoney evidence to score PR points with the mass public, that actually is a real victory for science, far more than a moralizing sermon that creationists for going to hell for not believing in evolution god as their personal savior, or something like that.  Very few students got the point of a lecture I gave about this, in context of political persuasion.  But I was extremely proud of the students who did.  (NB:  In an odd way, I am actually deeply respectful of the creationists who have come up with creative approaches to reconcile fruits of modern science that arise directly from evolutionary process-e.g. flu vaccines.  One of my friends ridiculed them as a sign that they are not “true believers” in what they are saying…but science should have no “true believers.”  In the end, though, I think all forms of “scientific creationism” is doomed to failure because, in order to be a “science,” God has to be a theory, and every theory is fallible.  I’m reminded that, as fond as I am of saying this, this was actually argued by Fr. Georges LeMaitre, the father of the Big Bang Theory and yes, a Catholic priest on top of an MIT PhD in physics.).

Of course, it was Nietzsche who said “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”  Education should demolish all convictions so that the truth may thrive.  Alas, more education seems to lead more conviction, not less–as evidenced by the reactions to the 2016 elections.  Our higher education system may be to blame for this.

PS.  This passage, near the end of the essay, is worth chewing over.

This ought to be, but seldom is, what’s implied by all the talk about diversity in higher education. It’s not that the talk about diversity goes too far, but that it never goes far enough. It’s long on the differences between groups, but short on the differences within them, and within each one of us. Yet these last differences—the “multitudes” and contradictions that Whitman found within himself—provide the surest route to human connection and regard, because only when we recognize and admit just how mysterious we are even to ourselves, can we begin to relate to one another with open attitudes of humility and uncertainty, rather than closed attitudes of judgment and fear.

The same statement could be reexpressed in statistical terms, via my favorite example that confounds many students.  It may be that the average Belgian is taller than the average Hungarian, but the overlap between the distributions their heights is enormous. Large sample size can only tell us about the means and cannot make tall Hungarians or short Belgians disappear.  The variance within the populations, how fat the distributions are, and how much they overlap, for some questions, are far more important than the misleading differences between the means.  Higher education should teach students what the right questions are, for different circumstances, not look for simple and easy “right answers” which probably do not even exist.

Failure of Political Science–the Real Failure

It appears that, in the aftermath of Brexit and the 2016 presidential election, political science as a field is polarizing in opposite directions.  I just came across this post by Will Jennings and Martin Lodge, a pair of UK-based political scientists, who claim that political science has become too much of a bubble by itself, cut off from the wider world.  They claim that the sin of political science is that it tries too hard to be a “science” with too little concern for the wider environment.  They think that political science should pursue more normative concerns, such as “promoting normative foundations of liberal democracy”

With all due respect, I think this is ridiculous.  Not only ridiculous, but outright dangerous and delusional.  The problem with political science, as I see it, is that it already does far too much shilling for the normative values.  Political scientists teaching in policy schools are not peddling “pure science.”  They are peddling in “how-to’s,” and all “how to’s” are grounded on normative foundations–how do you promote markets?  how do you promote democracy?  how do you promote peace?  how do you promote civility?  Indeed, the rise of all the unconventional political movements that have shocked the academia, media, conventional politics watchers, and the public alike–Brexit and Trump election the foremost among them–came about precisely because these possibilities were systematically understudied by those who felt that these things should not take place.  Political science, if anything, should be a real science.  It should be stripped completely bare of any pretense of normative values and focus on how people organize themselves, how they coordinate themselves for collective action, whether they are “good” or “evil,” how institutions of different varieties can bring stability, peace, and order or instability, violence, and chaos, or some combination of all these, under different conditions, for whom, and why.  It is not the job of a biologist to declare that evolution is moral or immorality.  Why should it be the duty of a political scientist to make pronouncements on the moral value of “liberal democracy,” whatever that really means anyways?

If one were to truly value “liberal democracy,” the goal should be to understand what makes it work, what strengthens it, what subverts it.  The first step should be to define the moving parts as precisely as possible and to devise and evaluate theories of what they work–and, far more importantly, how they might fail.  Only with such understanding can the contributors to increased stability of democratic governance be reinforced and the potential threats kept away, coupled with appropriate humility that our understanding is imperfect and we need to keep learning.  That is science.  That is not how political science has been operating.  It has been throwing about facts, figures, and theories as if they are final pronouncements on truth so as to influence policymaking and draw attention to ourselves.  That sort of approach breeds scientism, better known as cargo cultism, where theories are gods that cannot fail, only be failed by the data.  That must be avoided.

Jennings and Lodge are right on one respect.  The bubble that the political science academia has been surrounding itself with limits the perspective.  Academics cannot see the possibilities in which their wondrous theories can fail.  Taking a closer look at the reality is an absolute necessity, and if that requires closer engagement with the real world, that must be done.  But engage in “normative thinking”?  What the heck does that mean?  Are Brexit and Trump election somehow “immoral” developments that must be lectured against?  If academics lecture at the Trump supporters, will they see the error of their ways, put on sackcloth and repent?  If Jennings and Lodge really believe that, they are deluded beyond redemption.  What is needed is a cold acknolwedgement and analysis of the reality, and that requires a clinical and dispassionate approach to reality.  The reality is that millions, constituting a plurality in case of Brexit, and a “political plurality” in case of Trump, made the decision they did willingly, given the choices that they were offered.  No So who are these people, why did they do it, and what other choices would they have chosen, had more alternatives been available, and, if the goal is to have them find “better” choices than they did, what could have been done to fix the institutions of politics so that they could have been presented with better choices that they’d have chosen willingly?  All these require moralizing or normative thinking.  Just cold, dispassionate, and “scientific” look devoid of any shilling.

I think arguments like this is exactly how we wind up throwing out baby with bathwater. The importation of economic and other modelling techniques into political science has taken place too uncritically, with too much naivete about what gets lost in the assumptions.  Critical and creative re-examination of the assumptions and good hard thinking into the possibilities that might arise if they are loosened is in order, not mushy thinking about so-called normative values and shilling for “liberal democracy.”  We need political science to be a real science, not wishy washy prop for wonkish policy advocates.

How to Tell if Graft is Honest? Does it Matter?

Yoni Appelbaum offers an interesting article speculating whether Donald Trump is seeking to bring back “honest graft.”

A few disclaimers.  I’m a big fan of the idea, at least, of “honest graft” and, in fact, I don’t think it is possible to conduct politics without some form of graft.  However, what exactly it means for graft to be “honest,” I might have some issues with.

George Washington Plunkitt, who is usually credited with inventing the term “honest graft” described it as, in effect, the politician taking a cut while serving the public interest. In other words, the machine boss might ensure that the working class people get decent wages by pulling the appropriate strings.  For his endeavor, he gets to enrich himself by taking kickbacks.

But all politics features some form of redistribution and “kickbacks”:  those who have power naturally accumulate wealth, either for themselves or for their allies, through the conduct of politics.  Accumulation of wealth motivates people.  Even if it is not the final goal, rewarding people via wealth provides an excellent means to incentivize them to take certain actions or to keep them content, at minimum.  This is true regardless of the polity, regime type, or whatever.  Meritocracy is no exception to this generalization:  Andrew Gelman, in one of his many insightful and perceptive moments, described “meritocracy” as a system where the people with “merits” (whatever they are) have the right to give stuff to their friends and family.  Or, in other words, all politics are systems where the power to engage in graft is distributed according to some set of rules.  We might accept meritocracy if only we believe that the access to “merit” is somehow equitably and sufficiently randomly distributed so that almost anyone has a chance to benefit from it, i.e. if it is sufficiently “open and honest.”  If “merit” becomes a codeword to keep the rabble out and redistribute the goodies only among a select cabal who know the secret handshake, it becomes “dishonest.”

In other words, what makes graft “honest” is not whether the actions are noble or not–who knows what that means–but rather, the breadth of the beneficiaries.  Meritocracy may or may not be “honest,” regardless of how qualified and deserving the beneficiaries (think they) are.  If only a tiny fraction of the people get benefits and they get to keep the benefits only among themselves, no matter the nature of their “merits,” this is not exactly an honest graft.  Often, the way the “meritorious” justify their own merits furthermore ensures that their graft is, indeed, dishonest:  I need to only remind the reader of the strange evolution of “evolutionism,” exhaustively documented by Stephen Jay Gould, as a self-justifying semimythological propaganda that deviated quite far from its scientific roots for the benefit of the self-claimed “meritorious” grabbing all they could for themselves and keeping the “undeserving” out.  A lot of Panglossian wonkism, by serving to justify the status quo in the rose-colored interpretation of the data and myopic and uncritical reliance on theories (that decided take little or no interest in seeking how the truth is actually different from the theories) serves much the same role.

In a sense, this is as much a crisis of “science” as for politics–as the two must merge when “science” becomes a servant of politics.  By becoming exclusivist and elitist, “science” itself has become undemocratic and “dishonest.”  While people generally trust “science,” the same does not appear to be true with regards the politicized aspects of science–“social sciences” in general, climate sciences, and for a significant number of people, evolutionary biology.  It is not a function of “ignorance vs. knowledge,” but the consequence of politicization:  they serve what their critics see, rightly, as “dishonest” form s of graft justified by a bunch of gobbledygook that may or may not be factually accurate…but whether they are true or not is irrelevant.

What made G. W. Plunkitt’s graft “honest” was that the benefits his regime dispensed were obvious and understandable.  He gave his supporters good wages, clean streets, and whatever it is that they valued and he made sure that he and his machine were responsible for them.  What is it that the wonks offer that the voters actually can understand and value?  They cover themselves in data and theories of many colors whose relevant is completely lost.  They demand real and significant sacrifice for goals whose aim is not readily understood by their audiences who see little or no benefits for them.  To paraphrase Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character from Jerry Maguire, they don’t need explanation.  They need to be shown what’s in it for them, in an honest and easily understandable fashion.  This is what makes a graft honest.  If you cannot, then offer them something else that they CAN understand.  If you don’t want to do that, then you’re a liar, crook, and a thief, however noble and “honorable” if your true intentions are–perhaps a stupid liar, crook, and thief, if you don’t even enrich yourself with the loot you’re effectively stealing through your dishonest graft.

Honest graft is what made American democracy work.  Politicians delivered goods that their supporters understood and appreciated in every corner of the country, whether they were mere side payments for larger projects or ends in themselves.  This is how the coalition behind the New Deal, the Great Society, the Cold War foreign policy, and the Reagan tax reform was created and maintained.  However, this made “great ideas” expensive.  In a sense, Matt Stoller’s recent excellent article in The Atlantic was  how exactly the honest graft became unfashionable in American politics last few decades.  If the goal of politics is to make great policy in the abstract, why do you need to pay off a bunch of farmers who have nothing to do with that policy?  Side payments to the farmers become a waste.  The institutions that allow farmers to collect payments become a waste.  The farmers themselves become a waste.  Thus the stage is set up for rigging the institutions, to allow the minimum winning coalitions, in every possible sense, to maximize the gains for themselves.  Of course, the farmers won’t stand for it, and they will try to fight back.  This is how society destabilizes itself.

This is also how the Soviet society unraveled when its economy fell apart, in a sense:  every economic enterprise in USSR ran, in addition to their economic functions like building truck engines, all manner of basic services that sustained the lives of their workers that had nothing to do with their primary function–including their apartments, heating, schools, food, clothing.  This was not exactly unique to USSR–“company towns” were pioneered in 19th century Britain and were relatively common in United States as well during the early Industrial Revolution.  The reason factory towns largely disappeared in the West was that it made little sense for private enterprises to take on so many extra responsibilities at a great cost:  either they were abandoned, leaving the workers to find what they could on their own, which, generally was not a bad thing; or they became extremely exploitive and abusive–which, thankfully, did not need to be permanent in many cases when the workers could pick up and leave for better opportunities, as long as free movement of labor was not restricted and the opportunities existed (this, in turn, was why the Great Depression came to be such a crisis:  the opportunities that could serve the needs of the many have-nots no longer existed).  In the Soviet Union, neither free movement of labor nor profit motive existed so that a less abusive even if highly inefficient (and certainly not profitable) form of factory towns.  But once the planned economy fell, all the services, which, over the decades or even centuries of Russian history (since the Czarist era was also highly communitarian–Russia never had a capitalist society, as they say), became all the more essential for livelihood of its citizens, could no longer be maintained. As the Russian saying supposedly goes, “hungry people are evil people.”

Hungry people, literal or proverbial, don’t need “dishonest” lectures.  They want “honest” food, again, literal or proverbial.  Decrying them for being evil, without addressing the hunger, misses the point.  Making the “food” dependent on “dishonest” wonkism, which many of the establishment politics seem eager for, whether of the left or the right, is exactly how society will unravel.  Trump got in to White House because he promises to be “honest,” which is to say he will enact policy that will provide obvious benefits for the masses without wrapping them up in “dishonest” gobbledygook.  Will he deliver?  Who knows.  People who did successfully deliver “honest” benefits often did so in too brutally “honest” a manner–I’m thinking about the five-year plans of Stalin and Park, and they left their societies utterly divided for decades after their deaths–but nobody can dispute that they produced amazing results.  We will not see something quite drastic from Trump, but, even if he is honest–especially if he is honest–it will have its moments of dismaying brutality.

The Smug Style Strikes Back, sort of.

Emmett Rensin wrote an extremely insightful article that struck a raw nerve and cost him his job at Vox some months ago.  Since then, an electoral earthquake shook up the country (and the world) and it now has become fashionable for those claiming to be speaking for the “have nots” to lecture to those who are presumably smug.

Without dismissing the smugness of the originals, this attitude of “have-not-splaining” is itself becoming a bit smug.  This is not the first time that I’ve seen this.  I’d seen this in context of South Korean politics, when left wing demagogue Roh Moo Hyun unexpectedly rose to presidency using much the same tactic as Trump later on–by relying on the support from underappreciated and marginalized segments of the society, especially undermployed young to young-ish people who were resentful of the rigged economic and political institutions, combined with thuggish, outlandish, and often very colorful use of political rhetoric that bordered on incitement for violence and chaos (“war on press,” including arrest and harassment of opposition journalists on flimsy technicalities, violence and intimidation of both opposition legislators AND his presumed political allies, mobs on streets encouraged by the Blue House, etc), and use of unrefined, crass, and even “ignorant” patterns of speech.  On the other hand, he broke up the regional basis of the South Korean politics and actually drew in many working class voters from the regions historically friendly to the allegedly “right wing” parties while retaining traditionally pro “left wing” voters in other regions.  (“left” and the “right” in old South Korean politics were largely meaningless, other than their self-identification as “left” or “right.”  In a sense, Roh was indeed the first bona fide “left winger” in South Korean politics)  What exactly his program was not very obvious:  amidst a lot of chaos, some very ideological extremists with peculiar agendas–that may or may not have worked if they were seriously implemented–became prominent in his administration and sought to force through their schemes through the same sort of bullyboy tactics that Roh so loved.  It goes without saying that the status quo bit back, most programs, good and bad, were lost in cracks, the leftist parties that tried to ally with Roh were discredited and left in chaos, and while a significant minority remain enamored with Roh-ism, most of the rest of South Korea got sick and tired of such crazy antics, while the actual social and economic problems that gave rise to Roh-ism remain unresolved.  Indeed, it has become essentially impossible to seriously and credibly deal with these issues without stepping on many wrong toes precisely because of the divisive and chaotic effect of Roh-ism.

Other than Roh’s alleged leftism, all these characteristics show up again in Trump’s path to presidency in 2016.  As such, it provides a dangerous clue as what is likely to happen in the Trump administration.  The anger of the discontented masses will be largely unaddressed, while some non-mainstream ideologues will find platform for yelling aloud, without actually going anywhere, if only for the lack of political skills and willingness to engage in dealmkaing and compromise.  The root cause for the discontent among the average supporter–of Roh or Trump–will be left unaddressed as they would be conflated with the nutty demands by the ideologues who presume that all their supporters share their worldviews.

Of course, this is not necessarily new in recent American politics.  We’ve seen this before, and I had specifically mentioned the phenomenon earlier–the Tea Party and its sub-tribes.   Too much political science, I think, was wasted on trying to figure out the “ideological” underpinnings of the Tea Party phenomenon, and that much of the Tea Party was fueled by somewhat directionless, certainly ideologyless, discontented people.  The people whom Tom Frank identified in What Is the Matter with Kansas.   The ideology-less supporters of the Tea Party movement, precisely because they were lacking in a direction, even if full of discontent, could be co-opted by the more coherent, even if rather non-mainstream, ideologues as fodder for their agenda, by creating a somewhat fictitious front that many millions of people wanted to cut government supported health care for themselves, get rid of Social Security and Medicare, etc.  Certainly, there was an upswell of discontent at particular forms of health care reform put forward by Obama administration, but more due to the widespread distrust of those implementing the reforms, not necessarily the basic idea itself:  the oft-ridiculed statement “get government out of my Medicare” captures this sentiment perfectly.  The idea that government should be involved in health care is a good thing, at its core, for many casual Tea Partiers–contrary to the fiction spun by the Tea Party “leaders”–the guys who had a political agenda.  But the grassroots Tea Partiers did not trust the government controlled by a man in whom they had little trust to keep their interests in mind.  In other words, the grass roots Tea Party was fundamentally a different creature from the Tea Party “leaders.”  The Democrats and Republicans alike erred by conflating the two, sometimes to the point of self-delusion, as Eric Cantor found out when he was defeated in the primaries.

In a sense, this is the sentiment that Trump tapped into:  that many in the electorate that supported the Tea Party movement (or, indeed, even the Obama candidacy) were skeptical of the institutions that they had voted for, that they felt that they were duped, used as props to support ideologues’ agenda, only to be cast aside when they were no longer necessary.  (Doubtlessly, a sentiment shared by many erstwhile supporters of Roh in South Korea, and possibly, of Chavez in Venezuela too).  But a crowd that is discontented but lacks a clear sense of direction is the toughest crowd to manage.  The leaders themselves have to gauge what it is that will satisfy their supporters without an input from the latter, for the discontented masses themselves do not know what exactly it is that they want.  As the saying might go, we all want to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise, but none of know how to get there, and asking them the specifics of what they want beyond the somewhat vaguely defined goals is absurd.  Even more absurd, perhaps, would be being frustrated that the discontented are still discontented, even after they were given television and eyes of blue, complete with plans for everyone.  For this, you cannot survey people.  You need an understanding.  Does anyone actually have the necessary understanding?  The critics of smugness seem as short of the necessary understanding as the people whose smugness they attacked and continue to attack.  We are facing interesting times.