Duplicity and the Ordinary Work of the Politician

Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.

Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”

In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.

Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:

I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.

I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.

What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.

If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.

Jacob Levy’s Liberalism of Tragedy

Featured image is A Club of Gentlemen, by Joseph Highmore

Against a liberalism of pre-political foundations and historical destiny,  Jacob Levy has been working hard to recover a vision of liberalism that appreciates the complex patchwork of social life, is historically contingent, and accepts the existence of irresolvable tensions. Though he has been influenced by Judith Shklar’s “Liberalism of Fear,” the character of his work could better be described as a Liberalism of Tragedy. After a year in which liberalism has taken a beating globally, Levy’s work provides an excellent starting point for a revitalization.

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Assimilation vs Integration

Each generation has its own idyll year. For my great-grandparents, 1927 was a good one: Lucky Lindy crossed the Atlantic, and his baby hadn’t yet been abducted in the dark of the night by nefarious German immigrant Richard Hauptmann (who insisted on his innocence until his execution by electric chair in 1936). My grandparents reveled in the post-war boom of the Truman years, probably getting the most out of 1947’s interbellum with idk, sock hops and soda fountains or whatever. For my parents’ generation, the Summer of Love in ’67 was the apotheosis by which the nadir of the entire decade of the 1970s was contrasted. For me though, the best year of my youth was 1985.  Continue reading “Assimilation vs Integration”

The Repulsive American

Not long after the needle dropped on the new Wilco record, Schmilco, I heard the pejorative lyric “Always afraid of those normal American kids.” It’s a good song, for those of us alt-rock, alt-country, noise-rock fans (which I think has now become “Dad-rock”), but I immediately reacted negatively: do we have to have another cultural critique? Jeff Tweedy is a little older than I am, a GenXer in his 40s (he’s 49), so I know he’s heard how bad America is his whole life. When it comes to American culture, I have never seen or heard anything but criticism. What cultural or popular fad, meme, or trend has there ever been, in my lifetime, that praises normal American kids? Still, it’s a great song, very appropriate, reflecting my own experiences, yada yada yada…

When I was 21, I visited my uncle, who lives in Munich, a large city in Bavaria which has its own nefarious near history. In fact, at the time, he lived in a large house, even by American standards, on the Starnberger See, very close to the Schloss Neuschwanstein, Crazy King Luey’s swan song, before he kinda sorta drowned/was drowned before he could drain all the money from all the pockets in Bavaria to build it, and which inspired Walt Disney. Before both my feet had crossed the threshold to his home, my uncle declared, in his very best broken English, “George Bush is evil.” Those were his first words to me; I’d never met him before. Here is my nephew, the son of my beloved sister. I shall greet him, I the son of two Nazis, by deeming his head of state evil. 

This is the milquetoast George H. W. Bush, by the way.

Eventually, I shrugged it off, the offense redeemed by some grilled weisswurst and enormous pretzels. Oh, and beer.

It is my great fortune to work in Canada three days a week, but Canadian cuisine is not quite enough to redeem the same offenses, which are given on a weekly basis, especially now that Trump is threatening to take over the nuclear codes, surely damning the world to a nuclear winter. But even twelve years ago, long before Trump was a national political figure, the greeting was tinged with America is evil.

A student of mine this fall, even, a gentleman from Punjab, an immigrant to Canada, one of those fellows who really is smarter than the professor (and by a long shot), but who is kind enough not to shame me, said, when I first introduced myself to him, without any context nor any provocation, “America can’t be number one. No way, not with seventeen percent literacy. American can’t be number one.” Perhaps he said seventy-six percent; I don’t remember. I shrugged, being a guest in a very nice country Nevertheless, this unprovoked outburst against America was telling, and it did fertilize a few thoughts.

Why did he instantly refer to America’s literacy rate? That was interesting. His rhetorical move, there, was reminiscent of that notorious clip from The Newsroom, in which Jeff Daniels lists off all the things that demonstrably takes America down a few pegs. How long ago was that? Five years ago? Who was expressing pride in America five years ago? When was the last time you heard anyone of any intellectual or cultural capacity uttering the jingoistic “We’re number one!”? Donald Trump’s campaign slogan assumes the exact opposite! Jeff Daniels’ speech, of course, is an American Left wet dream, filled with metrics. America can’t possibly be number one. I mean, you’ve got to watch out for those normal American kids.

I was visiting other family over there, in Germany, which put me in the working and middle class neighborhoods throughout the region of Baden-Wurttemberg, you know, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Baden-Baden. Traveling back and forth to see grandparents (divorced), uncles, and cousins put me on the mass transit system many afternoons, where I could witness the behavior of normal German kids, just released from their literacy-building centers. Lookit, you’ve got to believe me when I tell you: German culture has never actually forsworn pagan culture. After seeing that unceasing cacophony day after day, I honestly don’t know how Western Civilization is going to survive, guided by those normal German kids.

Why literacy? Why did he glom onto that metric? How is literacy associated with greatness? When was America ever first in literacy? Was America ever great?

It must be discomfiting for the many non-Americans who must answer to this great nation, the United States of America, observing that it is truly ruled by stupid and superstitious people. And I know, for example, that my Punjab student, like so many who were given just a tiny advantage in birth, who took care of that advantage so that he might by careful living and hard work emigrate from a crowded, impoverished, violent hellhole to a great nation of peace and freedom like Canada, must be infuriated to see Americans laze about, scratching their full bellies, living like kings, and squealing about the unfairness of a little state redistribution, the hypocrites. There’s no way America can be number one, no way, not ruled by people like that. My God, they might even elect Donald Trump!

Is America great? It can’t be, can it? Not now, not run by those whose names appear on the first page of the Boston area phone book. It should be run by those whose names appear atop the Dean’s List at Harvard and MIT; then America would be great. In that day and at that time (may it hasten unto us!), policy would align with carefully investigated and researched university and foundation policy papers, and America could truly take its place in the pantheon of all the other run-of-the-mill social democracies, without error and with social justice. That would be greatness, greatness which can be measured according to so many delightful metrics.

As for me, I far prefer pursuing happiness, over against just about anything else. To me, true national greatness is a nation whose domestic policy is less policy, more distrust of government implementation, whose justice is worked out as locally as possible. I suppose the vestiges of that ideal are being cleaned up and swept away, regardless of whichever evil we choose this November. I think it is true now, as it was true then: “Always afraid of those normal American kids.”

velvetelvisjesus

 

Simple Greed

As I’m certainly the least-popular and least-educated Sweet Talker, my ideas aren’t formed from a deep dive into the academic literature, they’re based on experience and observation. I won’t deny having read my fair share academic tomes, and like any good nerd I do read journal articles for pleasure. But that’s just my evening gig; by day, I’m a regular old beer-chugging Joe Sixpack who finds himself caught up in a volatile world, and who has occasionally been known to articulate his thoughts well. For my money, one won’t find real explanatory pay-dirt shoveling through the literature. Instead, we’ll find it in a person’s ability to fuse a workable and ever-updating narrative out of the details of his or her life. The more consistently one’s narrative anticipates and produces good real-world results, the more accurate it is.

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New York, New York is a Conservative Town

When I rose from Penn Station into Manhattan late this July, I expected to be greeted by a horrible smell. With my two older boys in tow (Thomas, 13, and Jack, 10), I entered Manhattan for the first time in my life. Indeed, within seconds I did see one of the notorious mountains of garbage, a filthy homeless person, and the persistent grime all along the gutters and walks, but there was virtually no smell. Well, that’s not entirely true: the fragrance of halal food trucks wafted pleasantly, satisfying my desire for an exotic experience for myself and the boys. With the help of Airbnb and Adam Gurri, we had a blast. What a great city.

As for me, I was raised in the Southeast during the 70s and 80s, and I did my schooling in the Midwest during the 90s. All our previous family excursions, therefore, have been west of Buffalo (where I live now), and south. Moreover, I have been given an enormous prejudice against all things New York, which was, during my childhood, a toilet. And more than a toilet: New York City is the home of Woody Allen, that smarmy, condescending urbanite, the epitome of the intellectual counter-culture which expressed open disdain for American Exceptionalism. It turns out those of us who were offended by his ilk were exactly right.

New York City is also the home of National Review, still standing athwart history, gleefully yelling “Stop!”, to the disdain of liberals, leftists, and now, also Trumpists (whatever that is). My father, who, living in Springfield, Illinois at the time, danced a jig on Abraham Lincoln’s grave to celebrate my birth, had us read National Review throughout childhood, a habit I took with me to college and beyond. Therefore, I was daily formed by the founder of National Review, a snobbish Stamford denizen and Yale man who inherited enormous wealth from his father, an oil speculator and fomenter of revolution in Mexico, not quite the exemplar for Southern Gentility. Perhaps, then, my prejudices against Manhattan were due for a revisitation.

My wife and I were both raised in tourist towns, so we have learned how to enjoy tourist traps for what they are and also how to wander away from them. And wander we did. We boys hoofed it through huge chunks of Midtown and Lower Manhattan over the course of three days, exploring what we could, absorbing the sights, buying into the attractions. I was in particular attracted to the people. I wanted to lay eyes on exactly who it is that makes New York City the center of the universe, and thus proclaims it.

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw them: “These people are conservatives. This is a conservative town.” Capitalism lay naked throughout the city, one gigantic open market, freely flowing, constantly innovating. There was even a business which stored our luggage, for a fee, while we spent the day touring. I was especially dumbfounded by the women of the city. The women were wearing skirts and blouses, dresses, feminine frocks, with hairstyles evoking evolutionary responses commended by secondary sexual traits, not primary. Why, the women were almost as lovely to look at as the architecture and the high rises!

“Whence leftism?” I asked. Men and women alike are more conservatively attired than in any city I’ve ever visited or lived in, certainly more conservatively than Chicago, and I won’t do more than mention my little Buffalo. How is it that these conservatively-driven people are so bloody Marxist, a worldview which makes their lives (and mine) more difficult?

I did notice a weariness in the countenances of all these young people who were hustling for personal interest, pursuing happiness, so I asked Adam about it. He said, “We moved away from Manhattan to Brooklyn because even when we were inside, we felt like we had to be ‘on top of it.’ Even though we still work in Manhattan, we feel we have escaped for the evening when we come home.” I think Adam has expressed what is palpable: in Manhattan one must be diligently “on top of it;” otherwise, Manhattan lands on top of you. Indeed, of the millions who work in Manhattan every day, how many do not have a boss? And even those bosses, along with the many who are thoughtful enough to think it through, have shareholders as bosses, always demanding more profit, and, I can imagine from the Manhattanite perspective, those shareholders are fat, hayseed, ignorant do-nothings who weaseled their way into make-work union jobs somewhere in middle America, that vast wasteland between the Hudson River and LAX.

In other words, the pursuit of happiness is hard, and no other people experience the difficulties of achieving the American Dream within a well-regulated (such as it is) open market like those who labor and toil in Manhattan. To me, these people spearhead the American Dream with their tenacity and employ of personal talent. That much is readily apparent. The promise of Marxism (or Leftism, or Progressivism, or whatever you want to call redistributionist ideology) is seductive: this system can make your life a little easier; the unfairness of the open market–this system can equalize things; this system can ease the pain of the pursuit of happiness.

When a religious fundamentalist powers down the window of his gigantic house on wheels, idling with the air-conditioner running in some Wal-mart parking lot, to scream epithets about the clutching squeeze put on them by East Coast Liberalism (you communists!), I can imagine that roughly zero inhabitants of Manhattan are persuaded to see the error of their ways. I would never have thought that any other class of American could have been perceived as more arrogant or rude than a Manhattanite, but my mind has been dramatically changed: the experience was almost entirely civil, with the exception of rambunctious guided tour barkers and shouting Pentecostals. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the caricature: the constant need to be “on top of it” with respect to the very tiny island of Manhattan creates a framework for dealing with the rest of the country, and with the power Manhattan wields, it’s easy to see how resentment waxes against the Big Apple. Leave us alone with your socio-economic impositions, whydoncha? What you think makes life easier for you I know impoverishes me, and not just of money, but also of institutions which you may not have ever had, and of freedoms.

All in all, though, New York City is a thoroughly American city, and I am proud of New York City, an earnestly nationalistic pride of which I am not ashamed. “Yes, New York City is the greatest city in the world,” I’ll say, “an American city, the template of the American experience, warts and all, the most beautiful city in the world, inside and out.” I don’t want to live there, but I can see why eight million people do.

manhattannewark

Take Note of the Value of Your Vote

HenryTunnelCrop

The irrationally vocal proponents of the notion that ‘voting is instrumentally irrational’ have become perceptibly more vocal as it has become sure that there is a large difference between the two major-party nominees for President this year—which is unfortunate, since a large candidate differential weakens their claim.

What’s the basis for the notion that voting is an ‘instrumentally irrational’ activity? It’s that the expected benefit of a single vote to the voter herself is not substantial. That conclusion comes about from studying this equation:

Expected social benefit of a vote = (Probability of casting deciding vote)(Candidate differential)

There is no definitive method for estimating either of the values on the right-hand side, but the size of the probability value is less in doubt. Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin (2012) review the credible literature and persuasively peg the probability of deciding a contemporary U.S. Presidential election at one in 60 million for the typical voter.

How to estimate the candidate differential? Form your own. Do you think, say, that U.S. GDP would be one tenth of one percentage point higher, each year under a Clinton administration, than under a Trump administration? Well, U.S. GDP is $18 trillion a year, so over four years that difference amounts to over 70 billion dollars. GDP is far from everything that matters, but in a quantitative exercise, it gives one a starting point, from which one can make whatever adjustments one likes. Take your own estimate of candidate differential and divide it by 60 million to get the expected social benefit of a vote. Seventy billion divided by 60 million, for example, is over one thousand dollars.

The tension comes in with the recognition that the social benefit of a single vote is not paid directly to the individual voter. The voter bears the cost of making the decision and taking an hour to cast a ballot, but the benefits of each single vote are spread over the nation and world. One thousand dollars divided by 320 million persons is a quarter of an eighth of a hundredth of a cent, and so if the voter ‘acts alone,’ uncoordinated to others, she personally gains almost nothing. But all this is to say only that the voters face an ordinary free-rider problem—little different from any problem of providing public goods—and so voters can benefit personally from the overcoming of the problem.

Imagine that 20 million persons who had planned not to vote become otherwise coordinated, perhaps by a compelling meme that convinces them to vote for Clinton. The election swings from, say, roughly a tossup, to a sure Clinton victory, at the cost of, say, an hour for each of the 20 million voters. Counting that as a $50 cost for each voter, that’s a total social cost of $1 billion—but the increased certainty of Clinton’s election equates to an increase in expected GDP over four years of $35 billion, using the GDP-based hypothetical above. If the sixteenth part of that gain accrues evenly to the 20 million marginal voters, they will each eventually have about $100 in extra income—twice the $50 cost incurred in one’s casting a vote. In other words, 20 million fractions of a cent do add up.

I don’t much endorse this Downsian framework for purposes of understanding why 125 million Americans vote, but it is a worthy exercise in service of one’s own decisionmaking process. The kind of person who is enough engaged in political talk to be reading this blog post should be aware of the size of the expected social gain that one declines to confer, in return for an opportunity to ‘express’ one’s idealism through an also-ran candidate, or alternately for an hour of free time.