(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘governance

“The functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e. time), causes the condition of its own possibility”*…

Meet the new boss, painfully similar to the old boss…

While people in and around the tech industry debate whether algorithms are political at all, social scientists take the politics as a given, asking instead how this politics unfolds: how algorithms concretely govern. What we call “high-tech modernism”—the application of machine learning algorithms to organize our social, economic, and political life—has a dual logic. On the one hand, like traditional bureaucracy, it is an engine of classification, even if it categorizes people and things very differently. On the other, like the market, it provides a means of self-adjusting allocation, though its feedback loops work differently from the price system. Perhaps the most important consequence of high-tech modernism for the contemporary moral political economy is how it weaves hierarchy and data-gathering into the warp and woof of everyday life, replacing visible feedback loops with invisible ones, and suggesting that highly mediated outcomes are in fact the unmediated expression of people’s own true wishes…

From Henry Farrell and Marion Fourcade, a reminder that’s what’s old is new again: “The Moral Economy of High-Tech Modernism,” in an issue of Daedalus, edited by Farrell and Margaret Levi (@margaretlevi).

See also: “The Algorithm Society and Its Discontents” (or here) by Brad DeLong (@delong).

Apposite: “What Greek myths can teach us about the dangers of AI.”

(Image above: source)

* “The functionalist organization, by privileging progress (i.e. time), causes the condition of its own possibility–space itself–to be forgotten: space thus becomes the blind spot in a scientific and political technology. This is the way in which the Concept-city functions: a place of transformations and appropriations, the object of various kinds of interference but also a subject that is constantly enriched by new attributes, it is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity.” – Michel de Certeau


As we ponder platforms, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955 that the first computer operating system was demonstrated…

Computer pioneer Doug Ross demonstrates the Director tape for MIT’s Whirlwind machine. It’s a new idea: a permanent set of instructions on how the computer should operate.

Six years in the making, MIT’s Whirlwind computer was the first digital computer that could display real-time text and graphics on a video terminal, which was then just a large oscilloscope screen. Whirlwind used 4,500 vacuum tubes to process data…

Another one of its contributions was Director, a set of programming instructions…

March 8, 1955: The Mother of All Operating Systems

The first permanent set of instructions for a computer, it was in essence the first operating system. Loaded by paper tape, Director allowed operators to load multiple problems in Whirlwind by taking advantage of newer, faster photoelectric tape reader technology, eliminating the need for manual human intervention in changing tapes on older mechanical tape readers.

Ross explaining the system (source)

“A republic, if you can keep it”*…

Democracy’s meaning has always been contested. The problem with substantive definitions of democracy, Michael Ignatieff argues, is that there’s no agreement on what democracy is nor what it should be. Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be. Yet letting that struggle become a battle between existential foes risks upending the whole democratic project…

The problem with substantive definitions is that democrats with plenty of substantive commitment to democracy do not agree what it is or what it should be. When conservatives talk about democracy, they often express the desire to use democratic institutions to contain and control change. When liberals and progressives talk about democracy, they turn it into a vessel of aspiration into which they pour longings for civility, community, and justice.

What gets missed, in either side’s definitions, is that actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Those who think of democracy as a way of life risk framing partisanship as an abnormal rupture in democratic practice, when in fact partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition. When we theorize civility as the norm and competitive partisanship as a threatening exception, liberals and conservatives alike risk being hypocrites about their own partisanship or being helplessly nostalgic, bemoaning the breakdown of a comity that may have been a fantasy in the first place. It is thus a mistake, with large practical consequences, to confuse what we wish democracy could be with what it actually is.

This elision between what democracy is and what we wish it to be occurs, in part, because the democratic theory we teach, and the civics lessons we imbibe in school, lift democracy into an abstract realm of ideal types and pious ideals that is indifferent to historical context. There is no such thing as democracy in a pure state. All actual democracies bear the contours of the historic struggles that gave them shape. While there is a family resemblance in democracy’s basic form—majority rule as the source of legitimate authority—this feature is enacted in and through institutions specific to the societies that created them. Democracy displays crucial historical variations over time and from one society to another.

One salient feature that makes democracies differ from one another is the way each democracy has been shaped by its encounter with violence. Some democracies were born in the violence of revolution. Others that have replaced authoritarian or colonial rule with free elections have struggled to contain the violence unleashed once democracy was achieved. Encounters with violence are recurrent even in successful democracies. Violence cannot be understood as an exceptional irruption overturning democracy’s natural resting state. Many a democracy owes its birth to violence, and violent challenges to democratic order continue to defend themselves as necessary last resorts to save democracy itself.

The modern version of democracy created by the American and French revolutions began its life… with the task of converting violence into politics. In our own time, national-liberation struggles in Africa and Asia have faced the same challenge. This has remained democracy’s core purpose ever since. When democracy achieves this, it realizes what defines it as a form of government. The prohibition of violence—whether as an instrument of politics or as an instrument of rule over citizens—and the related commitment that all coercive measures must be justified to citizens and receive their consent, are the core principles that separate democracy from all forms of authoritarian rule…

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European liberals, faced with working-class and feminist demands for the right to vote, reluctantly agreed that inclusion was the best way to maintain democratic order in the face of revolutionary challenge. These classic liberals accepted as a basic premise that societies are not natural equilibria, but sites of constant social, cultural, and economic struggle, with a potential to boil over into violence. Democracy’s function was to keep conflict political and to prevent the war of all against all.

Today, in democracies that are more diverse and pluralistic than anything nineteenth-century liberals could have imagined, the priority they placed on democracy’s role in preventing political conflict spilling over into violence is more relevant than ever. In this perspective, democracy’s ultimate purpose is peace rather than justice, or rather, sufficient justice to secure peace, defined as a minimal, constantly tested and renegotiated willingness by competing groups, factions, and parties, to obey the rules of the democratic game. When competitors accept democratic outcomes as legitimate, they accept closure, at least until the next contest starts. If they win, they do not seek to crush their opponents. If they lose, they do not seek to take revenge or seize power. Legitimacy is thus contingent and performative and always conditional on the willingness of political competitors to abide by the same rules.

The saving grace of democracy is the possibility that losers get to become winners. Whenever a group, faction, or party believes that victory was stolen from them or that they are fated to be permanent losers, violence becomes a possibility in the democratic game. Successfully managing peaceful democratic transitions between competing elites is the sine qua non of democratic legitimacy.

Democratic assemblies and elections have regulatory codes that restrain extremist speech, but such codes will always be vulnerable to being gamed and manipulated by scheming opportunists. Democratic systems are built to moderate political competition, but moderation sometimes surrenders to hatred. As Tocqueville warned us more than a century and a half ago, more social justice need not make us more civil.

Neither is it the case that virtue and courage can always hold the line when institutions fail. Men and women of both parties did their duty during the insurrection at the Capitol, while others betrayed their oath of office. The result, as the Duke of Wellington famously said about the Battle of Waterloo, was the “nearest run thing you ever saw.” The most effective measures taken since the insurrection have been the holding of Congressional hearings to establish exactly what happened, so there is a true record for the future, and also the prosecution of leaders. This should discourage others from a similar course.

Even so, it is America’s very revolutionary traditions that will continue to provide justifications for the use of violence in the defense of liberty. These traditions, whether we like it or not, will continue to give desperate and misguided citizens the belief that they must take the law into their own hands.

Democracy is fragile, because it is a sacred thing vital to our liberty, easily lost, easily damaged, and like all such sacred things dependent for its survival on prosaic, daily acts of faith and sacrifice that are made in its defense.

In the end, there are simply no guarantees of democratic order. There is only the inherited belief—transmitted across generations among citizens and politicians alike, reproduced election after election, vote after vote, year after year, in speeches, classrooms, media outlets, civics courses, and all the various fora that a free society uses to figure out what it is doing—that violence can kill democracy and that violence endangers everyone, especially those who would use it to defend democracy itself…

“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil Society” – George Washington, in a 1790 letter to Catherine Sawbridge Macauley.

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Politics of Enemies,” from @M_Ignatieff in @JoDemocracy.

See also: “America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both” (gift article from the New York Times— no pay wall).

* Benjamin Franklin, in response to a question from Elizabeth Willing Powel as he walked out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787


As we cope with conflict, we might recall that on this day in 2000, the U.S. presidential election ended in a statistical tie between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, only to be settled on December 12 by the U.S. Supreme Court after a bitter legal dispute.

As the Supreme Court debated, protesters gathered.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Two and two makes five”*…

Boots are stamping on faces, but the trains are not running on time. The estimable Noah Smith brings the receipts…

The selling point of authoritarian rule has always been that dictators, oligarchs, and strongmen are competent and purposeful — that democracies dither while authoritarians act. When people tell you that “Mussolini made the trains run on time”, this is what they mean.

I’m not prepared to render a verdict on whether and when democracies or autocracies are more effective at governance (there is a very long academic literature on this, but few solid conclusions). I would certainly never claim that only democracies can govern effectively — Park Chung-hee, Deng Xiaoping, and Lee Kuan Yew certainly put that notion to rest. But I want to push back on the notion of authoritarian effectiveness in two concrete ways…

The authoritarians of the world are making a pretty good case for liberal democracy simply by being incredibly incompetent: “Authoritarians are not governing effectively,” from @Noahpinion.

* George Orwell, 1984


As we contemplate competency, we might recall that it was on this date in 1970 that Richard Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, gave in to the Nattering Nabobs of Negativism (and to charges of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy) and resigned.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 10, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under”*…

The majority of countries are democracies, but how many people enjoy what we think of as democratic rights? A nifty interactive map from Our World In Data charts the changes in political regimes across the globe, country by country, over the last 200 years. By way of explaining its categories:

• In closed autocracies, citizens do not have the right to choose either the chief executive of the government or the legislature through multi-party elections.

• In electoral autocracies, citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression, that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.

• In electoral democracies, citizens have the right to participate in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections.

• In liberal democracies, citizens have further individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts.

As Visual Capitalist observes…

Do civilians get a representative say in how the government is run where you live?

While it might seem like living with a basic level of democratic rights is the status quo, this is only true for 93 countries or territories today—the majority of the world does not enjoy these rights.

It also might surprise you that much of the progress towards democracy came as late as the mid-20th century

An interactive look at the state of democracy around the world, and how it has evolved. From @OurWorldInData, via @VisualCap.

* H. L. Mencken


As we ruminate on representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933, the day after an arsonist ignited the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament in Berlin (and four weeks after Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of German), that Adolf Hitler attributed the fire to a conspiracy of Communist agitators.

Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch “council communist”, was the apparent culprit; but Hitler insisted on a wider network of villains. He used it as a pretext to claim that Communists were plotting against the German government, and induced President Paul von Hindenburg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending civil liberties, and to pursue a “ruthless confrontation” with the Communists. A court later found that van der Lubbe had in fact acted alone. But Hitler’s orchestrated reaction to the Reichstag Fire began the effective rule of the Nazi Party and the establishment of Nazi Germany.


“Suffrage is the pivotal right”*…

… but how we vote matters. We tend to take the electoral system in which we exercise our franchise for granted. Perhaps we should think more broadly. Why Is This Interesting? explains how Venice selected its Doges, and ponders the questions that raises for our own elections…

The way societies make decisions is important. There is a growing understanding that different systems can lead to quite different outcomes. Ireland rejected the British first-past-the-post system after independence and adopted the single transferable vote in 1921. New York City started using ranked-choice voting this summer, with some hiccups. Other countries have moved to full proportional representation where seats are allocated to parties more or less based on national vote share.

There’s also the question of the best level of representation. Should city councils be elected at-large for the whole city (like in Cambridge, Mass.) or in single-member districts, and how would that affect outcomes such as diversity and zoning? Perhaps some decisions should be taken away from the city council, and either moved down to the neighborhood level or up to the regional level? And should some decisions, such as monetary policy, be taken out of democratic control altogether and left to technocrats?

Using sortition to choose government officials, as Venice and Ancient Athens did, is a niche idea these days, but in common-law countries, juries deciding legal cases are (supposed to be) chosen randomly from the population. Nobel laureate Daniel McFadden wants to use “economic juries” of randomly selected people to decide on big public projects, arguing that this can better reflect public opinion than a referendum.

Since these political design choices affect policy outcomes, it would be naive to think this is only about high-minded notions of the “quality” of decisions. But that doesn’t make the question of how societies should make decisions any less interesting.

What’s the best way to hold elections? On Venice, decisions, and policy outcomes: “The Dogal Elections Edition,” from Why is This Interesting? (@WhyInteresting) Eminently worth reading in full.

[Image above: source]

* Susan B. Anthony


As we ponder the practice of polling, we we might recall that it was on this date in 1620 that 41 adult male colonists recently arrived in what we now call Massachusetts, including two indentured servants, signed the Mayflower Compact (although it wasn’t called that at the time). Though they intended to reach the Colony of Virginia, storms had forced The Mayflower and its pilgrim passengers to anchor at the hook of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It was unwise to continue with provisions running short. This inspired some of the non-Puritan passengers (whom the Puritans referred to as ‘Strangers’) to proclaim that they “would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them” since they would not be settling in the agreed-upon Virginia territory. To prevent this, the Pilgrims determined to establish their own government, while still affirming their allegiance to the Crown of England. Thus, the Mayflower Compact was based simultaneously upon a majoritarian model and the settlers’ allegiance to the king. It was in essence a social contract in which the settlers consented to follow the community’s rules and regulations for the sake of order and survival– the first (colonial) document to establish self-government in the New World.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899


%d bloggers like this: