Political Kayfabe: St. Nick Edition.

Link to a bloggingheads video on Santa Claus

PEG: Santa is a lie with no upside. Ban Santa
AG: Santa is a lie with no downside. Leave him alone.

SW: Santa is early childhood prep for the inevitable panopticon that will harry and vex citizens their entire lives. Get used to the surveillance state today to save yourself severe discomfort tomorrow. Conform.

Of all the secular Christmas songs in regular rotations, one stands head and shoulders above all others for its celebration of submission to the popular will. John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie first released “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November of 1934, which you should recall was in FDR’s first term. NIRA, along with all of its price controls and suchlike came complete with propaganda like this hot on its heels:

Consider the possibility that “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and its themes of supernatural surveillance might have been part of the NIRA & al propaganda push. This version of an all-powerful, omniscient Santa is merely an artifact of a greater socialization movement. Monitor your own behavior, conform, obey, and enjoy the rewards (bestowed by benevolent government).

The modern Santa Claus is a sandbox metaphor for progressive era political kayfabe: a great shared lie in which a supernatural elite sprinkles magically-created wealth o’er the land. The fault isn’t in the story; it’s in folks’ unwillingness to take the greater lesson to heart. Both Gobry and Gurri, each brilliant in their own right, failed to acknowledge the obvious and elementary parable that modern Santa represents. Why?

I think Gobry got snagged on the edge of it when he made the nude emperor allegory. Santa is far too crass, too obvious, too ubiquitous to be a good candidate for hermeneutics. Right? Well, that’s why it’s so vital we preserve the myth.

In the future, parents will turn to their disillusioned children and say “remember when you found out that Santa Claus was a lie? Hold on to that feeling, because politicians will do that to every four years or so.”

Santa is the perfect parable for electoral politics. Why would you want to either discard that or reduce it to mere frippery and fun around the garland-decked evergreen?


Of Faith

Faith is one of the Christian trio of primary virtues. Along with hope and love, it adds a temporal dimension to the Classical four (courage, temperance, prudence, and justice). Faith is backwards-looking, it is retrospective, empirical. We demonstrate faith through constancy. We keep our word, we fulfill our promises. Think of the appending language: we keep or preserve the faith. We maintain faith in adversity. It is a durable thing, preserved through diligent practice.

If you’re on Twitter, and your feed is anything like mine, two stories have dominated your feed today. One is the sordid tale of MIT economist Jon Gruber, who has been executing his role as disgraced (to the tune of, what is it, six million bucks in all) scapegoat-cum-sage in front of a sanguine Congress. The other is the lurid tale of CIA operatives torturing detainees. With few exceptions, most of the chatter I’ve read decries either one of these stories or the other, with a rare few decrying both.

What I find interesting is that any adult American could be surprised by either of these revelations. Shocked? Okay. Dismayed? Perhaps. But not surprised. It defies belief that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the history of this civilized earth could be surprised when political elites behave precisely as their incentives predict, subject to the constraints of their institutions in which they operate. I cannot endeavor to lay my finger upon the historical period in which the political elite ruled the constituency bathed in the milk of human kindness. It isn’t part of the job description, it never has been. That anyone could rouse themselves to believe otherwise is testament to the power of indoctrinating rhetoric.

I have faith in American political institutions. I have faith that men and women in power will have a natural propensity to behave knavishly. If you find that you have faith of another type, perhaps this is a good time to revisit some of your beliefs and adjust them accordingly. The violence and the lies are not part of the system. The violence and the lies ARE the system.

Tagging in

This is a guest post by @FlairEcon. All editorial comments are in square brackets.

Professional Jabroni [additional expletives deleted] David Duke  asks if you can borrow power. Read it here. Let me tell you a little something about what it takes TO BE THE BEST.

Hard work. Commitment. Courage. Some people work their whole lives to be great. Other people are naturals. Me? There’s a reason they call me THE NATURE BOY. WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! To be the best, you gotta beat the best. And I’m still undeafeated in the ring. That’s right: 16-time World Champion over here.

The question we’ve got here is: is the Commander in Chief a Nature Boy of the White House or is he a sniveling Jabroni that needs to be put in his place?

You see, to “borrow power”, you have to earn credibility. How are you going to pay that power back, son? How is your [expletive deleted] going to pay interest on that loan? Are you a man or a [there is a long string of very colorful curses here that wouldn’t be appropriate for broadcast television, so I omit the entire rant out of consideration for our audience. My apologies to Dr. Flair]? Remember what it was like in Merry Olde England before the Orange Revolution? The crown had a hard time borrowing for wars since the king couldn’t be sued. When the purse reverted to Parliament, against whom lenders could bring suit, the British coffers got SWOLE, son.

Where’s the equivalent here, Nancy? IT DOESN’T EXIST. SIT YOUR HAPPY [deleted] DOWN, BOY. 


“Borrowing power” is something I like: it’s theater. It’s just like what we used to do back on the old circuit in the old days. It’s meaningless unless backed with the proper incentives and political institutions to repay. Otherwise, it’s just a heel move, a simple political taking.

And if you think you’re going to see a face in the Oval Office any time soon, I have some bad news for you, son.


Kayfabe is Sacred, Truth is Profane

“Kayfabe” is an old carny term, expropriated famously by the pro wrestling circuit. It’s a specific kind of play-acting, in which rivalries, feuds, rancor, and animosity are contrived by players and presented to the audience as if real. In turn, the audience gladly suspends disbelief, ignoring or shunning loud apostates

My good friend and professor Robin Hanson argues convincingly that much of the human brain is optimized in favor of hypocrisy. We, particularly those of us endowed with high social intelligence, are finely tuned kayfabe machines. We lie, cheat, grandilocute, backstab, obsequiate, and connive with zeal and panache. But throughout, we pay diligent tribute to a suite of social norms that include fairness, honor, decency, honesty, and charity. We humblebrag to raise our relative status under a thin fig leaf of modesty. And should you break kayfabe, prepare for trouble (make it double).

The punishment of heretics and apostates should be your biggest hint that kayfabe is sacred. You’re meant to display faith in the obviously absurd to signal conformity to common purpose or shared identity. If you can playact as if meaningless, junk affiliation has merit, surely you can be trusted to participate in more important institutions. It’s the sneaky outsider, the non-believer that can’t be trusted.

Would you let your daughter marry someone who broke kayfabe?

Capital-T Truth, contrarily, does not depend on allegiance to theater, to ceremony. Political sentiments are elevated by theme music—not so academic findings.Truth’s profanity is unsentimental when splatched bare. Storytelling, rhetoric, metaphor, allegory: these are the nougat and caramel that hide the hard nut of truth inside. The chore of the alert citizen is to check those political candy bars for razor blades before eating. The task of the social scientist is to lighten the burden of this chore. 

Kayfabe can be great fun, so long as everyone’s in on the act. Excessive dominion arises when the farce gets elevated enough that constituents forget it’s all a big joke. When that happens, it is Truth that punctures the ambitions of the sovereign. The pleasures of sacred kayfabe are surely to be savored, but prudence demands precautions against excessive leavening. 

The Ecstasy of Garett Jones

From the always-excellent Garett Jones:


To which I cheekily reply


Geej pretends to believe that Justice is a destination, possibly to goad me.


I call him on it.


And then…


Professor Jones and I have had brief hallway/lunch conversations about why he left the Mormon faith before. But this is the first time I’ve read this piece from a young (25!) Garett. It’s a tiny bit of private apostasy that highlights a curious sort of tension that Adam alluded to in his puzzlement about how many philosophers should be dancing in the streets. Our first viral post wrestles with this, noting that moral intuition reigns o’er all. Adam (mostly) agrees with other-Sam and Chris.

Me? I’m with Jones. The art of enjoying professional wrestling is reveling in the kayfabe. You know it’s scripted and fake in a gaudy sense, but you also know that there’s a legitimate kernel of genuine drama, and that the real masters of the medium blend the art and the artifice seamlessly. You also know that the audience is in on it and they give themselves wholly to the wink-wink, nudge-nudge self-aware pageant with Dionysian abandon. It’s all part of the act, the performers as much as the audience. And it’s brilliant, so long as the audience remains in on it. If the audience breaks kayfabe, or worse if they fail to recognize that it is kayfabe, you’re left in the uncomfortable position of being the only kid at the parade willing to acknowledge that the emperor has no clothes.

We tell stories about how that kid is courageous, but let’s face facts here folks: whistleblowers are treated like garbage. It’s no fun to be the lone apostate, to be the guy who says, “hey, he didn’t really hit him with that chair.” The most savage bit of political kayfabe we’ve got is that America loves the little guy who stands up to the entrenched interest. The incentives suggest otherwise.

Do we need philosophers? Well, we need men and women of virtue, that’s for sure. The world of political, of religious, of business kayfabe would be a lot more entertaining if we’d all stop treating it so earnestly. We don’t have to break kayfabe, but we should all, as reasonable, responsible, respectable adults recognize it for what it all is: show.

In the immortal words of Ric Flair: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.