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Posts Tagged ‘political science

“If you want to know what an institution does, watch it when it’s doing nothing”*…

 

Depression

 

Realizing an institution is near failure is a difficult epistemic problem. There are many outwardly visible pieces of institutions that do not reflect their actual health.

Before the collapse of financial institutions starting in 1929, naive observers were optimistic on the basis of soaring stock prices. Even after the Black Tuesday stock market crash, most observers expected a normal depression and recovery. Instead, the system continued to deteriorate, bank failures wiped out savings, the gold standard was abandoned internationally, and the Great Depression ensued.

Particularly in mature organizations, many automated systems handle tasks. Such systems can persist and even fulfill their function, while the institution as a whole is failing.The default is decay, maintenance of old abilities is difficult, and growth of new abilities is rare. One must look at what features of an institution indicate the current health of the core organization itself, while carefully distinguishing these from features reflective of past health and support from outside institutions.

From these signs, it’s possible to discover whether an institution has the ability to face new threats or is merely trudging through a slow process of decay. If an institution is unable to adapt to meet new challenges, it will lose again and again. Enduring defeat can only last for so long, no matter how large or well established the retreating organization. Eventually the inability to win dooms all institutions…

Samo Burja (@SamoBurja), from whom we’ve learned before, on the future of the social, political, commercial, and cultural organizations on which we depend: “Institutional Failure as Surprise.”

See also: “How Do You Know If You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire?” (Spoiler alert: it’s the little things…)

* P.J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1912 that the RMS Titanic, a state-of-the-art steamship, set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage, bound for New York City.  Four days later, after calls at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, the “unsinkable” Titanic collided with the iceberg that sent it under in the North Atlantic, 375 miles south of Newfoundland.

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RMS Titanic leaving Southampton

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Written by LW

April 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“God has no religion”*…

 

Ghostly figure leaving the interior of Sanahin Monastery, Debed Canyon, Armenia

 

The idea of American exceptionalism has become so dubious that much of its modern usage is merely sarcastic. But when it comes to religion, Americans really are exceptional. No rich country prays nearly as much as the U.S, and no country that prays as much as the U.S. is nearly as rich.

America’s unique synthesis of wealth and worship has puzzled international observers and foiled their grandest theories of a global secular takeover. In the late 19th century, an array of celebrity philosophers—the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud—proclaimed the death of God, and predicted that atheism would follow scientific discovery and modernity in the West, sure as smoke follows fire.

Stubbornly pious Americans threw a wrench in the secularization thesis. Deep into the 20th century, more than nine in 10 Americans said they believed in God and belonged to an organized religion, with the great majority of them calling themselves Christian. That number held steady—through the sexual-revolution ’60s, through the rootless and anxious ’70s, and through the “greed is good” ’80s.

But in the early 1990s, the historical tether between American identity and faith snapped. Religious non-affiliation in the U.S. started to rise—and rise, and rise. By the early 2000s, the share of Americans who said they didn’t associate with any established religion (also known as “nones”) had doubled. By the 2010s, this grab bag of atheists, agnostics, and spiritual dabblers had tripled in size.

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History does not often give the satisfaction of a sudden and lasting turning point. History tends to unfold in messy cycles—actions and reactions, revolutions and counterrevolutions—and even semipermanent changes are subtle and glacial. But the rise of religious non-affiliation in America looks like one of those rare historical moments that is neither slow, nor subtle, nor cyclical. You might call it exceptional.

The obvious question for anybody who spends at least two seconds looking at the graph above is: What the hell happened around 1990?

One theory, compellingly explained, at “Three Decades Ago, America Lost Its Religion. Why?

* Mahatma Gandhi

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As we contemplate creeds, we might recall that it was on this date in 1959 (one year to the day after the debut of The Huckleberry Hound Show) that The Twilight Zone premiered on CBS.  An anthology series created (and hosted and frequently written) by the remarkable Rod Serling, it features near the top of the “best series” lists of TV Guide, Rolling Stone, and others, and was ranked (in 2013) by the Writers’ Guild as the third best-written show ever.

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Written by LW

October 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”*…

 

gerontacracy

 

Hate crime is rising, the Arctic is burning, and the Dow is bobbing like a cork on an angry sea. If the nation seems intolerant, reckless and more than a little cranky, perhaps that’s because the American republic is showing its age. Somewhere along the way, a once-new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (not men and women; that came later) became a wheezy gerontocracy. Our leaders, our electorate and our hallowed system of government itself are extremely old.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I harbor no prejudice toward the elderly. As a sexagenarian myself, not to mention as POLITICO’s labor policy editor, I’m fully mindful of the scourge of ageism. (I’ve had the misfortune on occasion to experience it firsthand.) But to affirm that America must work harder to include the elderly within its vibrant multicultural quilt is not to say it must be governed almost entirely by duffers. The cause of greater diversity would be advanced, not thwarted, if a few more younger people penetrated the ranks of American voters and American political leaders.

Let’s start with the leaders.

Remember the Soviet Politburo? In the waning years of the Cold War, a frequent criticism of the USSR was that its ruling body was preposterously old and out of touch. Every May Day these geezers would show up on a Moscow reviewing stand, looking stuffed, and fix their rheumy gaze on a procession of jackbooted Red Army troops, missiles and tanks. For Americans, the sight was always good for a horselaugh. In 1982, when Leonid Brezhnev, the last of that generation to hold power for any significant length of time, went to his reward, the median age of a Politburo member was 71. No wonder the Evil Empire was crumbling!

You see where this is going. The U.S. doesn’t have a Politburo, but if you calculate the median age of the president, the speaker of the House, the majority leader of the Senate, and the three Democrats leading in the presidential polls for 2020, the median age is … uh … 77.

It doesn’t stop there. We heard a lot last November about the fresh new blood entering Congress, but when the current session began in January, the average ages of House and Senate members were 58 and 63, respectively. That’s slightly older than the previous Congress (58 and 62), which was already among the oldest in history. The average age in Congress declined through the 1970s but it’s mostly increased since the 1980s…

Timothy Noah (@TimothyNoah1) points out that our leaders, our electorate, and our hallowed system of government itself are aging. And it shows: “America, the Gerontocracy.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

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As we ponder progression, we might recall that it was on this date in 1796 that George Washington, having decided to decline a run for a third term as president, “delivered” (via a long letter published in the the American Daily Advertiser) his Farewell Address.  Characterizing it as advice from a “parting friend,” he celebrated the Constitutional logic of separation of powers and warned against permanent alliances with foreign powers, large public debts, a large military establishment, and “the devices of any small, artful, enterprising minority” to control or change the government– among many other topics.  His letter became the foundation of the Federalist Party’s political doctrine, and is considered one of the most important documents in American history. 

Starting in 1862, the Farewell Address was read, first in the House of Representatives, then from 1899 in the Senate as well on Washington’s birthday.  The House abandoned the practice in 1984, but the Senate continues the tradition.  A member of the Senate, alternating between political parties each year since 1896, reads the address aloud on the Senate floor, then upon finishing, makes an entry into a black, leather-bound journal maintained by the Secretary of the Senate .

250px-Washington's_Farewell_Address source

 

Written by LW

September 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is”*…

 

Government

 

In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.

In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen ⁠— and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.

While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.

Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?…

More (including explanations of the methodology and categories used) at “Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government.” (For perspectives on the caution at the end of the quoted passage above, see here and here.)

* Thomas Jefferson’s harsh verdict, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson

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As we organize our thoughts about social organization, we might recall that it was on this date that President Millard Fillmore signed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One of the most controversial elements of the Compromise of 1850, it heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy” by required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law”, for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership.  In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave.  Since a suspected slave had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery. (The film 12 Years a Slave was based on one such abduction– the kidnapping and bondage of Solomon Northrup.)

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An 1851 poster warned the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers

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Written by LW

September 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all”*…

 

Voting2

 

In a simple democratic election with two candidates, every voter has the same probability of affecting the result of the election. In the United States, the electoral college ensures that this is not the case. Instead, the chance that your vote matters is dependent on which state you live in, and the political composition of voters who happen to live within that state’s borders.

Although Republican presidential candidates have benefited from the electoral college in recent years—2 of their last 3 election winners lost the popular vote—there is nothing about the electoral college that specifically favors Republicans. Its effects are largely random, and can be expected to change over time. One illustration of how arbitrary these effects are is that a state’s status as a swing state can often be eliminated by moving a few counties into a bordering state, instantly devaluing the value of its residents’ votes. It would only take a couple of these changes to shift the advantage of the electoral college to the Democratic party…

David Waldron’s eye-opening analysis: “Who benefits from the electoral college?

* John F. Kennedy

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As we exercise our franchise, we might recall that it was on this date in 1882 that nearly 10,000 workers gathered for a parade in New York City to celebrate the first Labor Day in the U.S.

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Written by LW

September 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

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