The facts of life, political edition

The New York Times has a great piece by political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels about how support for a candidate and support for the candidate’s policy preferences don’t necessarily align. It’s specifically about Bernie Sanders, but the principles are universal. Sample:

Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.

That is one key reason contemporary American politics is so polarized: The electoral penalty for candidates taking extreme positions is quite modest because voters in the political center do not reliably support the candidates closest to them on the issues. (Mitt Romney is just the most recent presidential candidate to lose despite being perceived by most voters as closer to their ideological views than his opponent on a spectrum running from “extremely liberal” to “extremely conservative.”)

People who study public choice and political science (or at least take them seriously) often seem glum or snarky to others, if personal experiences on social media are any indication, but facts are facts. From the inside it seems incredibly important for anybody who cares about good governance to acknowledge these basic points about the system we have.


Oberlin, the canary in the coal mine?

The Atlantic has a fascinating piece I wish I’d seen before writing the previous post. It describes the dissatisfaction of left-wing student activists with Oberlin College and the confusion of their faculty members in response. The irony, of course, is that Oberlin is probably the most left-wing higher education setting in the country. Reading this piece one gets the impression that Ayn Rand was pulling punches in her caricatures. It’s hard to get the essence of the piece from any small excerpt. You should read the whole thing.

For our purposes we can jump ahead to a provisional diagnosis:

In “The Old Regime and the Revolution,” a study of political ferment in late-eighteenth-century France, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that, in the decades leading up to the Revolution, France had been notably prosperous and progressive. We hear a lot about the hunger and the song of angry men, and yet the truth is that, objectively, the French at the start of the seventeen-eighties had less cause for anger than they’d had in years. Tocqueville thought it wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

The second wave campus activist phase of history is still relatively new and hasn’t been subject to much real sociological investigation and explanation. (In another bit of irony the people who should be first in line to do so would be part of the subject of study, so don’t hold your breath.) But anybody who is interested in the academy should be paying very close attention. Oberlin is ahead of the curve, but not very far ahead. The trend towards letting activists dictate terms to professors, deans, and fellow students has been discouraging. If Oberlin is representative, it gets even worse.


Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, pt. 2: useful conversation

There’s a lot to like in Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit”. Briefly, for background, a lie depends on the truth, as the speaker of a lie intends to misrepresent something that is not true as something that is. In contrast, bullshit isn’t the misrepresentation of something false as something true. Truth and falsity don’t really enter into the equation. We usually, probably correctly, think of bullshit as an overall bad thing, but it isn’t necessarily always so. Frankfurt writes about a related phenomenon, the “bull session”:

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life—for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.

Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretense that this connection is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth. …

He later writes about a “fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false.”

Not all speech outside of the truth-falsity spectrum is undesirable, as the passage makes clear. Things get figured out that way in a low-pressure way, and even if they don’t it’s a fun way to pass the time. There’s something to be said for social cohesion, too.

Extending this, quite a lot of undergraduate life outside of the classroom is an extended bull session. I recall many speakers, films, flyers, protests, etc. competing for my attention and how these stimuli were important in helping me and my friends flesh out what we thought about the world and why. The current push to sanitize all aspects of campus life shuts people off from viewpoints they haven’t heard and should grapple with because it paints everything as part of a grand cultural battle. When every thought is part of a battle for the soul of humanity, the future of the planet, etc., we get a lot of stunted intellectual development. Often the ones who take the struggle most seriously suffer activist burnout. (Also, see The Onion’s take.)

Remember Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld giving up on performing for college audiences? From The Atlantic:

Two of the most respected American comedians, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, have discussed the unique problems that comics face on college campuses. In November, Rock told Frank Rich in an interview for New York magazine that he no longer plays colleges, because they’re “too conservative.” He didn’t necessarily mean that the students were Republican; he meant that they were far too eager “not to offend anybody.” In college gigs, he said, “you can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Then, in June, Seinfeld reopened the debate—and set off a frenzied round of op-eds—when he said in a radio interview that comics warn him not to “go near colleges—they’re so PC.”

Comedy works because it’s obvious you’re not supposed to take everything so seriously; stand-up comedy is essentially a bull monologue. It’s no surprise colleges are the specific audiences Rock and Seinfeld avoid now. It’s not just colleges, of course, that’s just what most of the discussion in this vein focuses on. Our broader cultural conversation doesn’t let anybody try out a thought without having to be bound to it. (In politics this is desirable, but not elsewhere.)

What would make this post complete if it existed, counterfactually, is the actionable takeaway. But I see the problem more clearly now.


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.


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