The major parties and their extreme wings

This is an interesting election year for a number of reasons. Here’s one of today’s headlines: “New York’s strict voter registration rules frustrate Sanders supporters”. The story is that some voters showed up to vote in the primaries only to find out the deadline for registering with a party, and hence for being able to vote in that party’s primary, was October 9.

One of the people quoted:

“I voted in 2008 [in the general election] with just my driver’s license and assumed it would be fine again,” said Tania Staykova, a 40-year-old Sanders supporter in Tribeca, who is head of production at an advertising agency.

“I was at the polling station at 9am, second in line, and it was only after I spoke to the fourth guy that he explained I needed to register as Democrat when I renewed my license. At no point before that was there any warning.”

“When I was at the DMV renewing my license last year, I just didn’t want to affiliate with the Democrats at that point,” added Staykova. “It doesn’t feel at all democratic to me.”

One imagines this affects the vote totals for all of the major-party candidates, but the article frames it, probably correctly, as especially a concern for Sanders supporters who were nominally independents. This is one of the reasons the Sanders campaign seems hopeless by the conventional metric, i.e. winning the nomination. Hillary Clinton has the support of the party leadership, its superdelegates, and its core bloc of voters. Sanders gets a lot of support from left-wing independents; indeed, he himself was an independent from 1979 until late 2015. I understand the frustration of Sanders supporters but this is how the game is played. Whether it should be this way is a worthy but separate question.

The larger narrative is how both parties have left room open for large parts of their prospective voter bases to be filled by outsider candidates. What’s confusing is how we are supposed to live in an era of unprecedented partisanship between the rank and file of both parties—with ample data to support this hypothesis—while “extreme” candidates are polling very well. If the parties are so widely separated from each other along the left-right spectrum, why are the outsiders viewed as even farther out? Is there no center remaining?

A lesson in unintended consequences, European labor law edition

This morning Alex Tabarrok wrote about a subject I wrote about last November after the Paris attacks: possible ways that European labor laws may contribute unintentionally to terrorism. The connection would not be direct, of course, that would be too easy, but failure to find work contributes to failure to integrate. On the margin failure to integrate increases the odds of getting involved in terrorism; in a sufficiently large population, as in Europe, it needn’t be a large increase to end up with the attacks we’ve seen.

Rubio prediction: incorrect

Three years ago I predicted Marco Rubio would be on the 2016 Republican presidential ticket. Last week he ended his campaign after losing the Republican primary in his home state of Florida. In simple yes-or-no terms I predicted incorrectly, but how close was it?

I thought this would be the result of heavy support from Republican Party strategists and insiders. It turns out they did support him quite a bit, but only after it was too late, and more for his willingness to play ball than for other factors. I thought offering the first major-party Latino candidate would be too much to resist given the near certainty Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic Party’s nominee. (As of this writing the Bernie Sanders campaign is all over but the cryin’—unless she’s indicted soon.) Shortly after Obama’s second term began the Republican Party’s lack of engagement with Latinos was a significant theme but it’s been dropped from public discourse in the meantime. This is partly because American culture keeps evolving, partly because all political topics are ephemeral, and perhaps because Ted Cruz is another Republican candidate and Rubio didn’t seem special on account of his ethnicity anymore. Not to ignore the elephant in the room, the Trump campaign is the major reason, which nobody saw coming, and which was dealt with in an earlier post.

The Republican Party ran into a bigger problem than how to court (or at least how not to ignore) Latino voters: how to appease the base it already had. Their failure to do so, for whatever reasons, paved the way for what appears now to be the unstoppable Trump campaign. I expect Rubio to stay somewhat near the national stage for now; a Trump administration would have little use for him but as he’s not really a Republican most of them will be on the sidelines this round, gathering their strength.

Just why the issue of Republican engagement with Latinos went away as a major topic I don’t know yet, but it would surprise me if it stayed dormant more than a few years.

The Bigger Bully hypothesis

Warning: contains discussion of current political matters. I know, I’m not happy about it either.

Just like most Americans I’ve been watching the Donald Trump campaign with stupefied curiosity. Surely this is a joke, right? It’s going to end soon? And it keeps not ending. There’s a very real chance he could be the next president. What is happening?

While I was still trying to make sense of it all I came across a Daily Beast article that I thought was the best take I’d seen: How the P.C. Police Propelled Donald Trump. Excerpt:

It’s pointless to try to explain Trump in terms of political platforms because Trump himself is too stupid and too incoherent to have any kind of consistent political views about anything beyond hating minorities and immigrants. Nuclear weapons? “With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Drugs? “That whole heroin thing, I tell you what, we gotta get that whole thing under control.” A random word generation program could do better.

To understand Trump’s seemingly effortless seizure of the public spotlight, forget about programs, and instead zero in on the one complaint that seems to unite all of the disparate angry factions gravitating to him: political correctness. This, more than anything, is how the left created Trump.

The extremist adherents of this new political correctness have essentially taken a flamethrower to the public space and annihilated its center. Topics in American life that once were the legitimate subjects of debate between liberals and conservative are now off-limits and lead to immediate attack by the cultural establishment if raised at all. Any incorrect position, any expression of the constitutional right to a different opinion, or even just a slip of the tongue can lead to public ostracism and the loss of a job. (Just ask Brendan Eich.) There is a huge vacuum left by this leftist attack on speech, and Trump is filling it.

There’s more, and it’s worth reading, but I’ll cut it off there. I admit it’s an oversimplification, I don’t endorse it 100%, but it was the first thing I read that made any sense of the campaign’s success, and it was one of the first from a decent-sized media outlet that didn’t try to condescend as much as possible to its subjects—that would have been satisfying, perhaps, but not very useful. It led me to my current working hypothesis: Trump supporters feel bullied, so they rally around a bigger bully.

People will disagree with the statement that they are actually bullied. As with any social phenomenon it’s complicated: I think their belief is justified on some margins and unjustified on others. But that’s not even the relevant point. The point is they feel bullied. I can already see the reaction “Good, they should feel bullied.” That, too, is orthogonal to this discussion.

Let’s use an example that in news cycle time is ancient, but happened less than a year ago: the episode with the Indiana pizzeria whose owner’s daughter said it would refuse to cater a gay wedding. Remember that?

Kevin O’Connor, who owns Memories Pizzeria in Walkerton, Ind., with his two children, spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, shortly after his daughter’s comments to a local television reporter went viral and made his restaurant the latest battleground in the national dispute over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Critics have denounced the legislation, calling it an invitation for business owners in the conservative state to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Although he supports the legislation, O’Connor told The Times he did not make a public decree that he would not serve same-sex couples, nor did anyone ask him that question.

But in the television interview, which led thousands to attack his business on Facebook and on Yelp, his daughter Crystal said she would flat-out refuse service to a gay couple who asked to have their wedding catered.

You might remember the storm of criticism, calls for boycott, and threats made against the place. You’re less likely to remember the flood of donations the place got in response to the criticism. I bet Trump is picking up support from a lot of these donors who felt that a very common belief about the traditional Christian faith of their country was now under attack.* Again, I know a lot of people think this belief should be under attack, that religion is no cover for discrimination, etc. The trouble with governance is you have to work with the people you have, not the people you wish you had. Sometimes they need a push, but be careful lest they push back.

Moreover, opposition to gay marriage was very recently the Democratic Party’s position as well, and hardly any member of the left argued that President Obama early in his term deserved to be excommunicated from polite society for it. It’s like the mass of the cultural left thinks the cultural right doesn’t remember anything.

It’s not just gay marriage. I doubt Trump ever had strong feelings about it either way, though as a wealthy New Yorker who was at least nominally a Democrat he probably wasn’t dead-set against it. (Thankfully that’s a settled issue now anyway. Also, a surprisingly large percentage of its opponents several years ago supported civil unions, for what it’s worth.) It’s many things, but really it’s a feeling. That’s why the Trump campaign is so light on substance, even lighter than the usual fare for national political campaigns: they know substance isn’t the issue. The attitude that the candidate will speak his mind, no matter how stupid the rest of the world thinks it is, no matter what the actual question was, that’s the appeal. It’s why media takedowns of his ridiculous rhetoric don’t hurt his poll numbers. Of course the media would say that, his supporters think.

I can already imagine a reader responding that some things are bad and should be driven out of society. I agree. But the process matters. I’m sure if Georges Clemenceau could have seen the future he would have pushed for a less punitive settlement after World War I than he did. Fiat justitia ruat caelum is for the very, very exceptional case, not a recipe for ordinary governance.

I know this isn’t the complete explanation but the more I think about it the more sense it makes. Hopefully I won’t have to keep developing it for too much longer.

* Whether that belief about the Christian faith, that having said faith obligates one to oppose gay marriage, is true or not is a separate issue, although it certainly didn’t help that many non-Christians were at their condescending best explaining to Christians what their own faith really meant.

Insider art trading?

There’s a lot I don’t understand about the art world, but I’m very sympathetic to the critique that it’s more about status than about art per se. Add in some financial concerns and you’ve got a decent explanation. Here’s some interesting commentary from Robert Hughes in a piece published November 21, 1988 (emphasis mine):

But now we have a gush of posthumous Basquiat hype—a codicil, as it were, to the media overkill that surrounded the auction of his mentor Warhol’s chairs and cookie jars last spring. There are so many Basquiats floating out there that the only possible strategy for maintaining their value is to romanticize their author, loudly claiming him as a potentially “major” artist, a genius cut off in his first flower.

The New York Times, as one might expect, festooned his bier in column inches. “Martyr Without a Cause,” ran Peter Schjeldahl’s headline in 7 Days, treating Basquiat as a veritable St. Sebastian, bristling with syringes flung cruelly by the Zeitgeist. Comparing him to “a soft young African prince, imperious and wistful,” Schjeldahl invoked Cy Twombly and Franz Kline, claimed that Basquiat, like them, “seemed incapable of moving his hand in a way that was uninteresting.” Schjeldahl called for “a proper retrospective of his work.” Doubtless he will get his wish, given the Whitney Museum’s helpless commitment to the trendy and the number of its financial supporters who have been left holding Basquiats whose price needs to be sustained by that “proper retrospective.” Then the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles could do it too, because its trustees own lots of Basquiats as well. This is known as Postmodernist Museum Ethics. It’s how art history gets made, bub.

Here’s the rest.

Bookmakers in European and US sports

As an American I always get a kick out of bookmakers being involved with professional sports in Europe. Here in the US the major sports leagues want nothing to do with gambling ventures, but in Europe bookmakers can advertise and even sponsor teams. Why the difference?

Off the top of my head I can think of two alternate explanations. The first is that US sports consumers have a lower tolerance for (perceived) corruption. Italy has often been in the news for corruption in its association football system and I’m sure there are other instances. However, Europe has too many different people and cultures for this explanation to cover them all. It might sound appealing (to Americans) at first but I don’t think it’s very strong.

The other explanation is that gambling is legal in much of Europe. It was run by reputable organizations long before organized crime had a chance to get involved. There is no suggestion that these outfits compromise the integrity of the game (read: product). Because 1) gambling has traditionally been illegal in most places in the US and 2) people still want to do it, the void has often been filled by organized crime. With no reputation at stake and little else to lose at the organization level, the mob is free to (attempt to) influence the outcomes of games. Thus the major US leagues shy away from it.

Assuming gambling laws liberalize in the future this aversion to gambling sponsorship will probably pass too. Interestingly, there have recently developed ways to stake and win money based on the outcomes of sporting events that comply with gambling laws. As these are run by reputable companies the probability of fast-forwarding the process is high. From the position that gambling should always have been legal in the first place this is good news.

The decline of private detective fiction

“Get this, and get it straight: crime is a sucker’s road and those who travel it wind up in the gutter, the prison, or the grave. There’s no other end…but they never learn!”

So began each episode of my favorite old time radio show, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. Except for a couple episodes, the stories were radio originals not based on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. The complexities of Chandler’s stories were far too much for a 30-minute radio show. Still, the writers did an admirable job and occasionally penned some characters and turns of phrase Chandler would have been proud of. Gerald Mohr’s portrayal of Marlowe was outstanding. I’ve been a fan for years but still have plenty of episodes left to enjoy. But when I finish?

It’s a shame the era of the great fictional private detective is over. Private detectives still exist, probably still have interesting adventures, and are still written about, but it’s clear the winds have changed. Why not? Maybe tastes changed, sure, but that could be said about anything. Some possible reasons:

1. Law enforcement technology is better now; police can do more at lower cost. The relatively limited capabilities of the police back then left more room for private detectives than exists now. Greater law enforcement capability also makes second opinions less valuable. The first ones get it right more often e.g. in forensic analysis. This helps to explain why fiction involving official law enforcement is still thriving.

1a. The scope of law enforcement has changed as well. A lot of crime is related to illegal drugs. From the point of view of the aggrieved parties there’s less uncertainty about the culprits, less interest in using third parties to handle them, and of course more official police interest.

2. A lot of old detective stories had some element of blackmail and shameful secrets that the clients don’t want made known. These still exist, but the circle of things that can be successfully covered up or that people are willing to bear great costs to cover up is smaller. Example 1: a criminal past one is making a clean break from is a matter of public record, and communication technology makes it easier to transmit. Employers, fiancé(e)s, prospective fathers-in-law, et al. are much more likely to find out, so blackmailers don’t have special leverage. (This example ties in with point 1.) Example 2: sexual mores are much less restrictive, making blackmail based on violations of sexual mores decline.

2a. A lot of the clients come from Old Money. The greater development of the market makes Old Money families less prominent. People may look askance at you if your cousin or nephew is a ne’er-do-well but you aren’t risking the family honor as much as you once did, and Rich Uncle Moneybags is less likely to shell out.

3. There are more and more ways to display/broadcast high status, so people have less incentive (read: motive) to fight over any single one. Stolen art objects or jewelry feature often in detective fiction. Today’s lowbrow would-be thieves can peacock in less risky ways. Today’s highbrow would-be thieves can indulge in the greater supply of modern art or tribal art instead of taking the risk to steal a Ming vase, or make a public commitment to a trendy political cause.

4. The Cold War. Cold War fiction must have been a partial substitute for detective fiction, and the characters there are mainly state agents who need access to special information, gadgets, and budgets beyond the reach of private eyes. There were detective stories about Communist spies but they were not the bread and butter of the genre, and subjectively they didn’t hold up as well as the other kinds.

5. Urban population as a percentage of total US population was 56.5% in 1940 vs. 80.7% in 2010. Increasing urbanization led to more audience familiarity with the kinds of things in detective fiction, making the stories less exotic and more like fleshed-out versions of the newspaper crime section.

1 and 2 each probably have a decently high R2, and the rest are plausible but probably don’t cover as much ground. I’m sure there are more. In any event old episodes of the Sam Spade radio show are still out there.

Liverpool 77

In the 77th minute of today’s Liverpool-Sunderland match, thousands of fans got up to leave the stadium to protest the recent increase of ticket prices to £77. It just so happened to coincide with a defensive meltdown, and Liverpool’s 2-0 lead was erased to a 2-2 draw. Liverpool slipped from eighth place to ninth, while Sunderland remained steady at nineteenth—out of twenty. It was very illustrative of the gulf between American and British sports culture. No US fan likes a ticket price increase, but during the week Liverpool FC media were livid about them, using terms like “betrayal”. US fans often leave games en masse but usually because the score is too lopsided and there’s no realistic hope of victory for their team.

I’d like to be able to think it through but there are so many differences (beyond the game) that I could only fail at making sense of it.

Housing supply and demand in New Zealand

Via the Radio New Zealand podcast, I just heard a story about the “catastrophic” condition of New Zealand’s housing market. The piece referred to a report claiming New Zealand’s housing market is the least affordable of the 22 countries it analyzed. My attention: you have it. This article is a shorter version of the radio piece.

The presenter maintained neutrality about the cause, but thankfully Property Countil chief executive Connal Townsend spelled it out for listeners:

It’s a catastrophic regulatory failure.

Decisions were made years ago to artificially constrain the availability of land and it’s the golden law of economics that when you, through regulation, constrain the supply of a commodity it drives the price up.

Prices are signals about resource allocation. In rising they signal to producers to increase production. If they don’t respond, there must be a reason.

I can’t remember the name of the Green Party spokesman who presented the other point, and it’s not included in the web version, but he suggested the problem was…wait for it…a lack of government action.

If I can be forgiven for using Thomas Sowell’s phrase “a conflict of visions” for my own purposes, it’s the perfect phrase here. The rational choice worldview that considers incentives has a very elegant and empirically-supported answer. The social creationist worldview imagines the whole thing to be the result of society’s inability to adjust itself, for mysterious reasons, which planners must counteract by conscious effort.

New Zealand readers may object that I know nothing about the specifics of the situation. They’d be right. I’m not from New Zealand, have never been there, and mainly listen to the podcast for the great accents while I do Saturday morning chores. But there are constants in human behavior. People in New Zealand, like people everywhere, respond to incentives unless prevented from doing so.

It may be that land use restrictions intended to minimize the impact of humans on New Zealand’s famous natural beauty are at the same time 1) the culprit in the housing price situation and 2) justified anyway for other reasons. That’s a reasonable position to hold—as long as you acknowledge the cost.

Bonus question: which segments of New Zealand society are worst off in this situation?

Lessons from Making a Murderer

[Warning: contains spoilers.]

The documentary series Making a Murderer is making the rounds in the media right now after being released in mid-December. I watched it all over just a few days and recommend it highly. Here are some thoughts about its implications.

[Warning: contains spoilers.]

1. Part of the show’s message is that Avery is probably innocent. Another part is that he was not given a fair trial, nor was his nephew. In the nephew’s case it seems very clear that his confession was manipulated and should be thrown out. As far as Avery goes, the series presents him as innocent but a quick search around the internet will give some reasons to think he was not. I don’t know, but police and prosecutors didn’t appear to act fairly. On balance it seems to me the reasonable doubt criterion was satisfied.

More broadly, beyond this case, police and prosecutors have powers—both de jure and de facto—that would blow the average citizen’s mind to find out. Regardless of Avery’s guilt or innocence I’m glad to see the presentation of what the state’s side of the legal system is capable of. The public may think it’s a good thing on net, but they need to know what kind of tool it is. It can be used for good purposes, yes, but there’s no guarantee of that. People know this abstractly, but the concrete portrayal in the series does the Lord’s work. (Regrettably, the Annie Dookhan case had very little impact.)

How often are situations like this happening all over the country? Probably every day. One of the things I thought as I watched was how taxing being a good judge must be. As a judge you inevitably preside over and influence false positives and false negatives, and beyond knowing these are possible there is really no way to know which is which in any case. My subjective impression is that most judges tend to side with the state more or less automatically, sacrificing quality for comfort.

2. What the purpose of law enforcement? Really the question is what are the purposes of law enforcement? (Here I take the broadest view of law enforcement systems, including those in societies that don’t/didn’t have dedicated state apparatus for it e.g. medieval Iceland, pre-contact American Indian groups, etc.) One of the purposes is to keep order. Societies that are too disordered don’t allow for human flourishing. Another purpose is to set the public’s mind at ease. In general, people will tolerate quite a few questionable cases if they think the system overall is working (from their perspective; if you’re on the receiving end of a questionable case you don’t feel that way). While I don’t like it I can see why police and prosecutors would zero in on suspects they think they can convict at the expense of exploring other less certain investigative paths. This is why protections for the accused are so important and why Brendan Dassey’s manipulated confession was so heinous.1 If people can be punished for crimes they didn’t commit, i.e. if their choices and their life outcomes are severely disconnected by non-random events, we are back to the disordered society.

3. Imagine the details of this case being substantially the same, only in Mississippi and with the accused being black. Now go back to the case as it happened. What are the essential components of both stories? So I’m not misunderstood, I don’t doubt racism influences the legal system. What I’m saying is there is more than one troubling factor at play. There is only so much social attention to devote to the list of social problems, and society may prefer to focus on racism inside and outside of the legal system more than other problems within the legal system, but tradeoffs always exist.

1. How many of the people who are outraged about this case also think lower evidentiary standards for college rape tribunals are a good idea?


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