Accountability, For Good or Ill

Featured image is the Execution of Admiral Byng – anonymous

It is the nature of elites that they cannot be eliminated, but only replaced and contained. Elites compete with each other for power and influence in their sphere, and whomever has the most influence is the most elite. Those who opt not to struggle quickly find themselves on the outside looking in, as other hungrier competitors overtake them. Politics is the art of determining the rules that the competition will follow.

To the left, the triumph of the common man over distant elites, to the right distant elites trampling the common man.  In the centre – everything good and right and just. h/t Paul Fairie @paulisci

This is something we mostly grasp intuitively in the world of commerce. Businesses compete amoungst themselves for profits and market share, identifying or creating needs and filling them. When the customers care mostly about price we get business elites competing to cut costs and wring out efficiencies. When customers care mostly about quality and reliability we get competitions around warranties and MTBF. When customers care about novelty or function we get competitions around product development and research. Mostly we get competitions involving trade-offs between all three and more besides. The world is full of stories of firms who let themselves get flabby and were overtaken by lower cost competitors, or became sloppy and lost business to more careful enemies, or made bad bets about what customers really wanted and found themselves cut down by more responsive firms.

When the system works well we get benefits for everyone, as some of the smartest hardest working people in the world turn all their brainpower and organisational know-how into shaving 3% off the cost of widget by reorganising the work floor, or the best algorithm builders in the world compete with each other to fine tune music recommendations for the masses. But not all the competitions are socially beneficial, and so we have developed rules which ensure that the competitions are contained within socially beneficial channels. You can’t shave costs by dumping your untreated waste into rivers or water basins, or by not paying your workers, or refusing to make reasonable changes to improve their safety.

An executive at an pipeline firm wants to be environmentally responsible and build his pipelines in a manner that keeps product from leaching into groundwater, but the cost of upgrading is higher than the cost of lost product and the resulting price increase in transport fees will drive business to his less scrupulous neighbour who runs an even leakier operation, and so the executive does nothing. His leakier neighbour also wants to run a leaner operation, but he has activist shareholders who won’t let him make such a large capital expenditure with no prospect of return. A tax on leaked petroleum or a rules about maximum leakage means that though they will still compete on price, that competition won’t be in the form of indifference to the environment, which neither of them really want to compete on anyway.

The danger is that there’s lots of things the executives don’t really want to compete on, many of which are actually socially beneficial. The market forces them to compete on cost, but they would much rather keep prices relatively high. The market forces them to compete on quality, but they would much rather force their customers to buy a replacement regularly. Absent some accountability, rules quickly come to serve the elites instead of the customers.

Now this is a very familiar story to a largely libertarian audience, but of course governance is largely the same. One function of democracy is to tie the game of power to the interests, goals and expectations of the body politic. An electorate that cares mostly about inequality, and which votes accordingly, will produce a politic class obsessed with inequality. An electorate that cares about the state of the economy, or crime, or protecting the culture against outside influence will result in a political class obsessed with being seen to do the same, or again a mix of all those and more.

Ultimately however, many of these competitions will not be socially beneficial. Two politicians, both fully aware of the costs of tariffs will none-the-less be forced to campaign for high tariffs by an electorate that falsely believes helping incumbent firms is the same as helping the economy. Despite knowing the electorate is giving in to dark impulses they would do better to avoid, they none-the-less are forced by the logic of zero sum competition to try to out do each other in denouncing an unpopular ethnic minority, or people with disfavoured religious beliefs. Perhaps fully aware that the public does not possess the expertise to assess the technical aspects of monetary policy, they are none-the-less forced to campaign for crank gold bug schemes, or below (or above) socially optimum interest rates. The solution, from the perspective of the elites, is, by norm or law to effectively prohibit certain kinds of competition that they would rather not be doing in any case.

Instead of setting tariffs in congress or parliament on a country by country basis they sign treaties that bind themselves to the level they wanted anyway. Instead of seeking to crush faiths that their constituents find unsettling, they invent a right to worship, enforced by a third a party, which effectively allows them to ignore faith in practice. Instead of setting monetary policy amoung themselves they give a mandate to an independent third party, which again allows them to compete along axes they find more amenable. Once again of course, it is often the case that elites will bind themselves in ways that serve themselves and not any greater social purpose. The practical effect is that elites can launder their preferences, good and bad, through a judicial and legislative system which insulates them from accountability for the decisions made.

This is the key, to the extent possible to ensure that competition happens on issues where elites should be competing, with enough democracy (and intra-elite accountability mechanisms) to hold elites accountable for the outcomes of their decisions. The problem is that, above a low baseline, calls for more democracy almost always have the opposite effect. A politician who runs and is elected on a platform cannot be held accountable for implementing the contents of the platform, no matter how poorly thought out – it is after all the will of the voters, whether the voters voted the way they did because of or in spite of or indifference to that particular plank. Trump, being elected directly by the primary voters, cannot be held accountable by official party organs for his performance. Jeremy Corbyn, being directly elected by the party members, and so owing nothing to his caucus, cannot be held accountable by them for his failures of leadership. Rather than risk the direct fallout of a decision to leave the EU, or the continued damage of a refusal to do so, David Cameron calls a referendum so that he cannot be held directly responsible for the decision to stay or leave. It is this shirking of responsibility for the governance of the nation that leads to an elite culture devoid of consequence for failure, and complete disconnect between the governors and the governed.

Jean-Claude Juncker
I assure you the people responsible are over there, I had nothing at all to do with the disintegration of my political union

Acceptance as Accepting Responsibility

Featured image is In Love, by Marcus Stone.

Last year, while struggling to come to terms with some ugliness close to home, I wrote about acceptance.

Of its opposite, rejection, I said this:

Rejection is to deny either the existence or the legitimacy of what is rejected. The idealist rejects the argument of the economist that the optimal number of murders, rapes, thefts, and traffic accidents is greater than zero. He denies the existence of fundamentally ineradicable problems.

And on acceptance:

Let us say that we are human beings who strive for order, but also for justice, for generosity, but also for prudence. Acceptance means recognizing that there are fundamental gaps in what we can accomplish in this striving, and that those gaps are often enormous—but having a heart that is at peace, nevertheless.

Recently I came across a discussion by Charles Taylor of Dostoyevsky on this very topic, in the former’s terrific book Sources of the Self. I find I’m unable to get it out of my head.

Dostoyevsky’s vision of rejection is something that people who have the highest moral sensibilities are the most vulnerable to, precisely because they are most sensitive to the ugliness in the world.

Rejecting the world seals one’s sense of its loathsomeness and of one’s own, insofar as one is part of it. And from this can only come acts of hate and destruction. Moreover, these radiate out from one in a chain, a kind of negative apostolic succession, as one inspires others through this loathing to loathe in their turn.

He continues:

Dostoyevsky’s rejectors arc “schismatics” (raskolniki), cut off from the world and hence grace. They cannot but wreak destruction. The noblest wreak it only on themselves. The most base destroy others. Although powered by the noblest sense of the injustice of things, this schism is ultimately also the fruit of pride, Dostoyevsky holds. We separate because we don’t want to see ourselves as part of the evil; we want to raise ourselves above it, away from the blame for it. The outward projection of the terrorist is the most violent manifestation of this common motive.

But acceptance is the only way to heal from the wounds inflicted by an ugly world:

What will transform us is an ability to love the world and ourselves, to see it as good in spite of the wrong. But this will only come to us if we can accept being part of it, and that means accepting responsibility. Just as ‘no one is to blame’ is the slogan of the materialist revolutionaries, so ‘we are all to blame’ is of Dostoyevsky’s healing figures. Loving the world and ourselves is in a sense a miracle, in face of all the evil and degradation that it and we contain. But the miracle comes on us if we accept being part of it. Involved in this is our acceptance of love from others. We become capable of love through being loved; and over against the perverse apostolic succession is a grace-dispensing one[.]

Acceptance means accepting responsibility.

The idea that greater transparency will make the world a better place is pretty popular these days. And yet it seems that massively expanded access to information has largely turned public discourse more vitriolic, and less forgiving.

Rather than shining a light on the darkness, it seems to me instead that we have closed ourselves off, afraid of allowing the darkness in. Yet there is already darkness within, and to close ourselves off is to leave ourselves alone with it.

To be exposed to so much of the ugliness of the world would be challenging in any time. But I think our current situation makes us particularly vulnerable. We are ideologically inclined to let “failure set the agenda,” and we lack a shared framework to justify wholeheartedly loving the world.

Growing up is a process of moving from earnest naiveté to accepting responsibility for being a part of the world. Few of us get to the wholehearted loving of the world, ugliness and all, that Dostoyevsky’s most saintly characters manage to achieve. And all of us feel the pull of rejection when we are faced by the world’s ugliness.

But each of us is capable of accepting the world, with its wonders and its horrors.

Scott Adams and the Anti-If-By-Whiskey

If-By-Whiskey is a beloved rhetorical device dating from the decline of the prohibition era in 1950s Mississippi. It was a strange, transitional time when whiskey was still officially banned, and yet widely consumed, sold and even taxed. As the saying went at the time, people staggered to the polls to vote dry.

Thus when Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr. delivered his famous speech in the state legislature he could not simply come out and call for an end to prohibition. That would have been political suicide. Instead, he recited what has come to represents a quintessential example of the double doctrine; of saying two seemingly contradictory things at once to appease multiple audiences.

“If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty …” he began, pausing for applause from the temperate in the audience, “then certainly I am against it. But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes … then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

As a blog in large part about persuasion and rhetoric, Sweet Talk has published versions of If-By-Whiskey on contemporary subjects of controversy, including If-By-Feminism, If-By-Child-Labor, and If-By-Open-Borders.

Overtime, I have come to think of it less as an act of deception, and, on the contrary, more of an exercise in good faith discourse. A well constructed If-By-Whiskey ought to pass the Ideological Turing Test by demonstrating that one can articulate his or her opponent’s view as forcefully and convincingly as they could. That encapsulates the persuasive method, and reveals persuasion’s direct connection to empathy, sympathy, and perspective taking.

If-By-Whiskey is therefore in a sense an anti-troll. Trolls are good at perspective taking, too, but use it to know the precise things to say that make partisans the most angry. Why? Because vitriol in the face of someone who doesn’t give a damn can be quite amusing. Whereas irony is a bridge between absurdism and righteousness, trolling is purely nihilistic, the act of bashing the absurd over the righteous’s head and laughing all the way.

Scott-AdamsEnter Scott Adams. He is the man best known for the absurdist office cartoon Dilbert, but has made a new name for himself through his blog as an internet troll extraordinaire. Behind the guise of quixotic psychoanalysis, Adams has essentially perfected the Anti-If-By-Whiskey: esoteric posts which somehow manage to piss off everyone who reads them.

Take his recent post, “Why Gun Control Can’t Be Solved in the USA.” At its heart is a fairly valid and almost banal point: The groups that either support or oppose gun control generally belong to different demographics with different relationships to the risk of being shot. As he puts it, “Our situation in the United States is that people with different risk profiles are voting for their self-interests as they see it.”

But that’s not how he begins his piece. No, he begins it in the most hilariously incendiary way possible:

On average, Democrats (that’s my team*) use guns for shooting the innocent. We call that crime.

On average, Republicans use guns for sporting purposes and self-defense.

If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics on the Internet that don’t exist.

Democrats use guns to shoot the innocent? Wow.

Of course, he’s referring to the fact that, comparatively speaking, inner city gun violence is committed by a demo who tend to vote for Democrats, while the archetypical Republican gun owner sits peacefully in his castle, gun loaded. There’s just a lot nicer ways to say that. Ways that don’t end up pissing off Republicans and Democrats alike.

And whereas the classic If-By-Whiskey is conciliation bookended by proclamations of embracing controversy (“I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be”), a typical Scott Adams post is outrageous bridge burning bookended by claims to being totally noncommittal and disinterested in anything but the science of persuasion.

As a self-described persuasion expert himself, Adams surely knows the story behind If-By-Whiskey. So what then is the goal behind his trololololing?

The lulz, for one: Adams clearly has fun at the expense of the righteous.

Selling books, for another: Not a post goes by that doesn’t include a link to his Amazon page. Stoking controversy with a veneer of plausible deniability is just expert #content marketing.

Third, and more speculatively, I also think Adams wants to impart real opinions to a knowing audience by using a trick pioneered by Nigerian email scammers.

Ever wonder why that email from the Nigerian Prince is so full of basic spelling errors, and so obviously suspicious on its face? Far from a sign of incompetence, it’s in effect a gullibility sorting mechanism. If you make a scam obvious the only people dumb enough to respond are also likely the same cohort who will be wiling to hit send on a money transfer down the line.

Who remains on the other side of Adams’ troll-sensitivity filter? Sociopaths, rationalists, nihilists, comedians, individualists, neuro-atypicals, and fellow trolls. All of which overlap to a degree. And each of which is an important and underrated audience, insofar as the least partisan and most discerning thinkers represent a swing vote, both literally and in the larger battle of ideas.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Democracy


There are a lot of ways to tell people to shut up. A good one, in the wake of a large vote is to say “democracy” loudly and repeated, and to accuse your opponents of anti-democratic tendencies. This is a shitty rhetorical trick.

Democracy is not a process designed to arrive at the “right” decision. Like any political process, it’s both far more and far less than that. Mostly, it’s a mechanism for delivering legitimacy to the instruments of state that wield power over our lives. (And notwithstanding the totalizing power of “democracy” in our discourse, it’s hardly the only one.[1]) Democracy seeks to deliver, in both the classic and modern senses, authority. To assume that it is some kind of mathematical formula by which we arrive at a correct solution is to miss the point so completely, so thoroughly, and so obviously, that it smacks of sophistry.

If you need a reductio to help drive this point home, just imagine racist or sexist measures—say, the internment of Japanese Americans—passed by referendum. Such measures do not by dint of majority support suddenly become right.

So, if democratic decisions aren’t simply “right”, what then?

What about “respecting the decision”? There’s a thin sense in which this is legitimate. Refusing to act on the will of the people is both a practical and political problem. While this is neither legal nor ethical advice, you should not start forming a militia in the woods of Wimbledon Common.

However, it’s something else entirely to suggest that young, educated, metropolitan voters should calmly nod while their futures are set ablaze. Respecting the decision is allowing it to proceed; it is not disengaging your mental faculties. Democracy is not a pact of silence for the minority, as the Leave campaign well knew.

What then, about “respecting the voters”? Calls for civility have a long and checkered history. (The American left—particularly the feminist left—likes to call it “tone policing”.) Surrounding the Brexit vote, there’s been much hand-wringing about the tendency of the “elites” to talk down to the working classes. In Britain, there’s an overlay of class consciousness that is worth keeping in mind, but there’s still something perverse about this.

First, Leave voters are not children to be coddled. The assumption that one must play nice with them is a symptom of the very phenomenon that’s the subject of criticism. The public can handle some cut and thrust, and they do plenty of it on their own. There’s just as much punching up going on as punching down. In fact, as you may have noticed, the elites are losing.

Second, sometimes people are wrong. Voters are entitled to their own opinions (and hence their own vote), but they are not entitled to their own facts. Pointing out factual errors is entirely legitimate. In fact, it’s probably a core function of a healthy democracy. This is true even if some of those people are offended by the suggestion they have their facts wrong.

Third, sometimes people are awful. People often make choices for the wrong reasons, and some of those reasons—like racism—are genuinely reprehensible. There’s as little reason to assume the best of people as to assume the worst. Sure, some people may be responding to the concentrated losses and diffuse benefits of globalization. Others may just be racists.[2] Assuming either without evidence is no way to proceed. Asking others to temper their arguments based on your assumptions is a layer cake of wrong.[3]

If you wish to kvetch on Facebook about Brexit—or any other democratic decision for that matter—have at it. Despite what others might tell you, you have not transformed into a totalitarian.

This much is fairly straightforward, so let’s ask one more question about democracy: is the rise of anti-elite sentiment a democratic triumph or a democratic failure? There’s been some interesting, almost prophetic, analyses of recent events – the Twilight of the Elites and the The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium both come to mind.[4] Sometimes, there’s an almost triumphal, sticking-it-to-the-man quality when discussing this phenomenon. Finally, we hear, the zombie elites will get their comeuppance for failure to provide any vision of the future.

This is all well and good, but it’s only half a story. The failings of the status quo are not an argument for radical change, in whatever form it might present itself. To imagine that things can’t get worse is the most self-indulgent of political failings. Things can absolutely get worse. And when spiting the elites means little more than the public harming itself, there are no winners. That is no triumph.

[1] At the risk of triggering flashbacks to Political Science 101, I’d remind readers that most Western democracies are actually fusions of liberalism and democracy, which are in tension. Constitutionalism, which has a particular grip on the American imagination, is also far from democratic.

[2] The motivations of Trump voters, for example, seem to be far more than just economic malaise.

[3] Caveat: this is not intended a license to be an asshole. Do not be an asshole.

[4] I have only read about these books, not actually read them, so have your salt shaker on hand.

Discourse of Free Cities

Every political change must be accepted by the populace, either tacitly or explicitly. On a more granular level, different types of political change require different levels of acceptance from different networks of people. Therefore, types of political change can be categorized by the intensity with which they affect networks of people. Given my interest in free cities, cities with a degree of legal autonomy, I thought I would take Adam Gurri’s kind invitation to discuss the discourse on free cities.

My interest in free cities stems largely from my understanding of political change. Politics is highly path dependent. Free cities offer a way to break that, potentially accelerating institutional improvements. However, there remains a great deal of hostility to free cities.

First, there are three groups with interest in free cities, libertarians, Silicon Valley, and developers. Libertarians largely have the ideas right. Some focus on outlandish Rothbardian ideas of property rights unlikely to work. However, a strand of libertarians has focused on best practices for institutions and how to recreate them in the developing world. Paul Romer largely fits this description, though I expect he would deny the association with libertarians. Unfortunately, while libertarians have the ideas, they lack the influence and money to build free cities. Hopefully Honduras can break this generalization.

The second group is Silicon Valley. They have some overlap with libertarians, but are distinct enough to justify a second category. Initially led by Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, Silicon Valley focuses more on achieving the best institutions, rather than improving those in the developing world. Y Combinator is a welcome recent addition to Silicon Valley discussions about cities. Silicon Valley largely has the ideas, as well as some of the money, but lacks the influence to implement free cities.

Much of the difficulty that libertarians and Silicon Valley have faced in their quest to build free cities is their aversion to politics. A free city is seen as opting out of politics, rather than an inherently political act. They want a blank slate on which to build a city, but don’t fully understand how to achieve the autonomy required for a blank slate. Luckily, they have also been realizing this over the past several years, and will hopefully have more luck in the future.

The third group is international developers, a group which should be interested in free cities, but isn’t yet. The New Cities Foundation has an annual forum, Cityquest, which brings together developers building new cities. These are multi-billion dollar projects, but they, by and large, conceive of cities as construction projects, not realizing the value of legal institutions. Luckily, again, based on conversations with development groups, they are slowly realizing the value of legal institutions.

The last relevant question is, what prevents the emergence of free cities? Of course, countries are still reluctant to allow such high levels of autonomy, but what are the particulars? My current understanding is that the primary barriers are McKinsey and World Bank types. They are often presidential advisors in countries that could host free cities. However, they are unimaginative and risk averse. When presented with free cities, their response is to suggest a special economic zone with slightly lower taxes.

Building free cities means changing the mind of McKinsey and World Bank types. Free cities have to be normalized. As such they can no longer be fevered dreams to create a libertarian utopia or a techno-futurist city. Instead, free cities must be seen as adopting the best practices of governance, as an addition to the existing world order, not an attempt to opt out from it. Institutional change requires the ruling elite. Advocates of free cities should heed that lesson.

Roles of Authority

Why are people in authority allowed to do things that the average person is not? What exactly is authority, apart from the use of organized force to pursue some agenda?

We have trouble forming a clear picture of concepts like these because we are trapped by inwardness. The modern turn toward the inner life as the center of human experience has been, as Charles Taylor puts it, a real epistemic gain. But it exacted a price, often in the form of impoverished theory.

Continue reading “Roles of Authority”

Lessons from Daddy: There’s Nothing Shameful About Trying to Get Above Your Raising

“It’s hard to be brilliant and stunning and still feel lower class – even when you aren’t really.”

Those words knocked the wind out of me. I was gchatting about Eve Peyser’s essay on Daddies with my, well, my Daddy.

Our current conception of “daddy” is, in part, derived from “daddy issues,” a pejorative way to categorize a certain type of unmanageable woman, as in, “She’s a crazy slut because she has daddy issues.” The concept of “daddy issues” stems from from Jung’s Electra complex, a feminized Oedipus complex. The trope appears again and again in pop culture, used to identify the root of psycho-bitch promiscuity. By the mid-aughts, it became ubiquitous, frequently referenced on the bro-beloved sitcom How I Met Your Mother by its most misogynist character, pickup artist BarneyStinson.

If you grew up with an absent father like I did, hearing boys and bros describe daddy issues as the cause of any bad girl’s slutty or unhinged behavior — and malign her for said issues — always stung deep.

“I do not sense that our particular kink together comes much from actual things about your father,” he said to me.

Yes, and no.

My father (and mother) gave me the world all the most important ways. The thing they could not give me, however, was a comfortable sense of place. I grew up between two worlds, one I rejected, and the other I felt rejected me.

People don’t like it when people try to claw outside their place. It makes them uncomfortable.

We like to pump up people who’ve done it, who’ve made something of themselves, who’ve overcome the odds through hard work and sheer determination. Because once someone is there, it’s clear they belong. But we don’t like it when someone who probably doesn’t belong tries to elbow their way in.

Watch someone’s face when they see the elbowing happening in real-time. When someone with less power asks the powerful for a favor, an introduction, a contact. If you manage to get there, you’re a hero. But it’s all so distasteful when it’s happening. While you’re clawing your way up, you’re a wannabe. Striving isn’t a good look on anyone.

It’s not like the people at your level are necessarily any more supportive. “Who does she think she is?” “You think you’re better than me?” Even now I struggle with this. I feel two conflicting things.

It’s hard to admit that yes, I do think, all else equal, richer is better than poorer, more influence is better than less. But at the same time, I believe that preference is entirely subjective. Who the fuck am I to judge?

I am not better than the people I grew up with. But they are not the people I aspire to be.

Continue reading “Lessons from Daddy: There’s Nothing Shameful About Trying to Get Above Your Raising”