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Posts Tagged ‘political science

“Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness…. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”*…

Mental models can be helpful, but they can also obscure as much as they reveal…

“The era of big government is over,” then-US President Bill Clinton proclaimed in 1996. But President Joe Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar spending plans are suggesting precisely the opposite. Behind the politicians stand the policy gurus, eager to put their names on – as the fashionable phrase goes – a new “policy paradigm.”

Paradigm-peddlers have not yet settled on a single label for the post-pandemic era, but frothy ideas abound. Countries should “build back better,” but only after a “great reset.” Economic growth used to be a pretty good thing on its own; these days, it is unmentionable in polite company unless it is “inclusive, equitable, and sustainable.” (I can see why, but must all three adjectives always be strung together?)

Harvard University’s Dani Rodrik was right to argue recently that we should beware of economists bearing policy paradigms. Such frameworks are supposed to organize thinking, but more often than not they substitute for it.

Consider a paradigm that the pandemic is supposed to have killed: neoliberalism. Neoliberal once meant a particular approach to free-market economics. Applying the description to leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan made some sense. But in current parlance, the term also applies to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and the social democrats who have governed Chile for 24 of the last 30 years – in fact, to anyone who thinks markets have some role to play in human affairs.

Through repeated, careless use, neoliberal has now become one of those words that, as George Orwell said, “are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.”

But meaningless is not the same as useless. If a speaker at an academic seminar, policy conference, or cocktail party tars someone as a neoliberal, two messages are immediately clear: the speaker is good, and the target is bad, unconcerned with the plight of the downtrodden. Tarring someone with this particular epithet is virtue-signaling par excellence. It marks the speaker as a member of a progressive tribe concerned about the world’s poor.

The right has its own ideological identity markers. In the debate about Obamacare and health insurance in the United States, or about vouchers for school funding anywhere, anyone claiming to support “freedom of choice” is not just making a point, but also sending a signal.

Both freedom and choice have multiple meanings that philosophers have been debating at least since classical Greek times: freedom to or freedom from? Choice to do what? Is someone with little money or education really “free to choose,” as the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman used to say? In fact, today’s freedom-of-choice advocates probably do not want to pursue those ancient and endless debates; they are simply signaling their membership in the ideological free-market tribe.

As the world seeks to ensure recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, simplistic political and economic ideologies will not lead to effective policymaking. Rodrik rightly pines for economic thinking that is unbeholden to cliché or to narrow identity politics. As he says, “The right answer to any policy question in economics is, ‘It depends.’” Circumstances matter, and the devil is in the details. 

I want the same thing as Rodrik, but you can’t always get what you want. Because nowadays (at least outside Trumpian circles) identities based on race or religion are unacceptable, ideologies have become the last refuge of the identity-seeking and politically savvy scoundrel, and new economic paradigms the weapon of choice…

In the old joke, a man walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, “Doctor, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken.” The doctor says, “Why don’t you bring him to me?” And the man replies, “I would, but I need the eggs.” 

Political ideologies can be crazy, and those who peddle them often behave like chickens. But how we crave those eggs…

Simplistic political and economic ideologies that serve as identity markers will not lead to effective policymaking; but something in human psychology makes many crave them anyway: “The Perils of Paradigm Economics,” from Andrés Velasco (@AndresVelasco).

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* George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

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As we acknowledge nuance, we might send qualified birthday greetings to Sidney James Webb; he was born on this date in 1859. An economist, he was an early member of the Fabian Society (joining, like George Bernard Shaw, three months after its founding). He co-founded the London School of Economics (where Andrés Velasco is currently Dean of the School of Public Policy), and wrote the original, pro-nationalisation Clause IV for the British Labour Party.

A committed socialist, Webb and his wife Beatrice were staunch supporters of the Soviet Union and its communist program. Ignoring the mounting evidence of atrocities in the USSR in favor of their commitment to the concept of collectivism, they wrote Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935) and The Truth About Soviet Russia (1942), both positive assessments of Stalin’s regime. The Trotskyist historian Al Richardson later described Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? as “pure Soviet propaganda at its most mendacious.”

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“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do”*…

A logistical note to those readers who subscribe by email: Google is discontinuing the Feedburner email service that (Roughly) Daily has used since its inception; so email will now be going via Mailchimp. That should be relatively seamless– no re-subscription required– but there may be a day or two of duplicate emails, as I’m not sure how quickly changes take effect at Feedburner. If so, my apologies. For those who don’t get (Roughly) Daily in their inboxes but would like to, the sign-up box is to the right… it’s quick, painless, and can, if you change your mind, be terminated with a click. And now, to today’s business…

Historians across the country are criticizing Texas House Bill 2497—which, after Gov. Greg Abbott signed it on Monday, establishes the “Texas 1836 Project”—as yet another rhetorical volley in the culture wars, aimed at inflaming already-high tensions and asserting partisan political power. And they’re not wrong.

But as a historian, a Texas history professor, and a proud born-and-raised Texan, I applaud the new law’s call to “promote awareness” of the founders and founding documents of Texas. For teachers, this is an opportunity to read and analyze history with students. And speaking from my own experience, there’s one thing I can tell you: It’s not going to turn out how the politicians who applauded at the signing ceremony think it will.

H.B. 2497 mandates only two things. First, it calls for the creation of a nine-member advisory committee “to promote patriotic education” and Texas values. Second, it requires the committee to provide a pamphlet to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which will give an overview of Texas history and explain state policies that “promote liberty and freedom.” The DPS must distribute this pamphlet to everyone who receives a new Texas driver’s license. Another bill, H.B. 3979, which bars teachers from linking slavery or racism to the “true founding” or “authentic principles” of the United States, is now on Abbott’s desk.

The text of H.B. 2497 is itself relatively tame. It wants to promote history education—a cause that every history teacher would champion. But the context of the bill is much more troublesome. Abbott and much of the Republican-led Texas Legislature have joined a battalion of state leaders across the country who have declared war on ideas they believe aim to destroy society. They’ve identified two scapegoats: the New York Times’ 1619 Project and critical race theory, or CRT, a set of ideas coming from legal academia that is rarely directly taught in K–12 and college classrooms but has become a favorite dog whistle for the right. (If you’ve lost track of the many anti-CRT/1619 bills in play across the country, the situation is outlined in this New York Times piece from earlier this month.)

Enter the 1836 Project, and Greg Abbott’s rallying cry as he signed the bill: “Foundational principles” and “founding documents”! As a history professor, I say we take Abbott up on that challenge, especially the “documents” part. Time to start reading!

Let’s read Texas’ single most foundational document, the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas. We will find several values familiar to present-day Texans: divided government, religious freedom, and the right to bear arms. But we will also find some “values” that don’t track very well in 2021. That it was illegal for either Congress or an individual to simply emancipate a slave. That even free Black people could not live in Texas without specific permission from the state. That “Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians” had no rights as citizens.

I know these historical documents are opportunities for education because I teach them all the time. Every semester that I teach Texas history at Southern Methodist University, we read these documents (and many more). And every semester, without fail, I have students respond in two ways: frustration and enlightenment. After reading the 1836 Texas Constitution’s enshrinement of racialized citizenship, they’re exasperated: “Why didn’t anyone teach us this before? I thought the Alamo was all about freedom.” When we read Texas’ reasons for secession in 1861, some can hardly believe it. They’ve always been taught Texans joined the Confederacy to defend their family or states’ rights, not because of an explicit devotion to maintaining a society based on racial subjugation.

I’m not an award-winning teacher. I don’t have any elaborate tricks up my sleeve, and I’ve never asked students to read any academic writing on CRT. And yet it’s my great joy every semester to watch students leave the class more aware of injustices, past and present. They’ve read for themselves. They’ve learned. They’ve changed.

So thank you, Greg Abbott. I know that you mean for the 1836 Project to manufacture a certain kind of citizen, one who joins you in the fight against the dark forces of CRT, 1619, and the very idea of “systemic racism.” But I can assure you—by insisting on a strategy that encourages teachers to read and discuss Texas primary sources, you have made a fatal error. You’ve charted a course to lead students of history to one destination, but the map will bring them straight to the places you’re trying to hide. Everything is right there in the documents, for everyone to see…

The “Texas 1836 Project” is a state-mandated effort to promote “Texas exceptionalism”– and counter CRT. But it may not work out as its Republican sponsors plan… A chance to teach Texas’ “founding documents”? This historian says, “Yes, please!” SMU professor Brian Franklin (@brfranklin4) explains why “The 1836 Project Is an Opportunity.”

For more background: “Texas’ 1836 Project aims to promote “patriotic education,” but critics worry it will gloss over state’s history of racism.”

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Margaret MacMillan 

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As we listen for the backfire, we might recall that it was on this date in 1215 that King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta…  an early example of unintended consequences:  the “Great Charter” was meant as a fundamentally reactionary treaty between the king and his barons, guaranteeing nobles’ feudal rights and assuring that the King would respect the Church and national law.  But over succeeding centuries, at the expense of royal and noble hegemony, it became a cornerstone of English democracy– and indeed, democracy as we know it in the West.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 15, 2021 at 1:01 am

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”*…

You could fill a small library with books on right-wing populism. Some authors argue that these movements emerged in reaction to relatively recent events, such as the financial crisis of 2007-09 or the advent of social media. Others look to longer-lasting regional trends, like European integration or racial politics in America.

Thomas Piketty, an economist, became famous for a book that analysed 200 years of data on wealth inequality in a wide range of countries. This month he published a paper, co-written by Amory Gethin and Clara Martínez-Toledano, which applies a similar approach to the relationship between demography and ideology. Its findings imply that the electoral victories of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign in 2016 were not an abrupt departure from precedent, but rather the consequence of a 60-year-old international trend.

In a paper in 2018 Mr Piketty noted that elites in Britain, France and America were split between intellectuals who backed left-of-centre parties—he dubbed them the “Brahmin left”—and businesspeople who preferred right-wing ones (the “merchant right”). His new work expands this study from three Western democracies to 21. It combines data on parties’ policy positions with surveys that show how vote choices varied between demographic groups.

The paper finds that income and education began diverging as predictors of ideology long ago. In 1955 both the richest and the most educated voters tended to support conservative parties. Conversely, both poorer and less-educated people mostly chose labour or social-democratic ones.

Today, wealthy people still lean to the right. In contrast, the relationship between education and ideology began to reverse as early as the 1960s. Every year, the 10% of voters with the most years of schooling gravitated towards left-wing parties, while the remaining 90% slid the other way. By 2000, this had gone on for so long that, as a group, the most educated voters became more left-wing than their less-educated peers. The gap has only grown since then.

This trend is strikingly consistent. It developed just as fast in the 20th century as in the 21st, and appears in almost every Western democracy studied. This includes both two-party systems and proportional ones, in which green parties now lure educated voters, and nativist parties attract the less educated. Such breadth and regularity make the rise of right-wing populists like Mr Trump—and of left-of-centre technocrats like Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau—look like a historical inevitability.

Although the authors do not identify a cause for this trend, the simplest explanation is that it stems from growing educational attainment. In 1950 less than 10% of eligible voters in America and Europe had graduated from college. Any party relying on this group for support would have had scant hope of winning elections. In contrast, more than a third of Western adults today have degrees, which is enough to anchor a victorious coalition. And once candidates and parties began catering to educated voters—who often put living in a liberal society above lowering their tax bills—rival politicians could start winning elections by taking the opposite position.

From the always-illuminating Economist Graphic Detail, a new paper by Thomas Piketty makes the rise of right-wing populism and a progressive left look like a historical inevitability: “Educated voters’ leftward shift is surprisingly old and international.”

* Upton Sinclair

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As we ruminate on representation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that city authorities in the California beach town of Santa Cruz announced a total ban on the public performance or playing of rock and roll music, calling it “detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.”

It may seem obvious now that Santa Cruz’s ban on “Rock-and-roll and other forms of frenzied music” was doomed to fail, but it was hardly the only such attempt. Just two weeks later in its June 18, 1956 issue, Time magazine reported on similar bans recently enacted in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and in San Antonio, Texas, where the city council’s fear of “undesirable elements” echoed the not-so-thinly-veiled concerns of Santa Cruz authorities over the racially integrated nature of the event that prompted the rock-and-roll ban… (source)

rock ban

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 3, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, lies in its members’ loyalty to each other”*…

Here’s an exchange on Twitter that illustrates the new schism in politics, from May 2020:

– Michael Gove, UK government minister: Caring for your wife and child is not a crime. (On the topic of an advisor breaking the law on lockdown.)

Commentary from John Holbo, philosophy professor: It really is astonishing how true it is. Conservatism says the law protects in-group members without binding them; while binding out-group members, not protecting them. Mafia logic all the way up and down.

Is it ok to put your family, or your tribe, above the law?

Unlike Holbo, I don’t believe that answering “yes” to that question is a particular conservative or right wing trait. It’s a question that different people will answer differently; it’s a new axis on the political map. Perhaps it’s the new axis.

The Political Compass has been a pretty good model as long as I’ve been politically aware.

(Caveats: I’ve only been paying attention to politics since the early 1990s. And when I look back to say, the 1960s, before the free market ideology took hold, the right seemed way happier to promote state intervention. So I don’t know how it felt back then.)

There are two axes, and you can take a test and end up somewhere on this grid:

Social: authoritarian vs libertarian

Economic: left vs right

But this implies that there’s a kind of universality to policy: it presupposes that everyone is treated the same.

What if that no longer holds true?

The term oikos has framed my thinking for a while. A few years back I read Benjamin Peter’s How Not to Network a Nation which is a great look at why there was never a successful Soviet internet, despite many attempts between 1959 and 1989. From the blurb on the back, the book argues that the American ARPANET took shape thanks to well-managed state subsidies and collaborative research environments, while the Soviet network projects stumbled because of unregulated competition among self-interested institutions, bureaucrats, and others.

Here’s the passage that grabbed my attention (p194 of my edition)

Consider the language of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition – a landmark work of political theory that introduces its disenchantment with normative liberal values with a discussion of Sputnik and the nuclear age, the two ingredients that, once combined, could spell instantaneous planetary annihilation. For Arendt, the distinction between the public and the private is not the liberal economic opposition of the public state and the private market but a classical (Aristotelian) distinction between the public as an expression of the polis (where actors gather “to speak and act together”) and the private as an expression of the oikos (Greek for household and the root of the word economy) (where actors inhabit a domain of animal necessity and are compelled to pursue their own interests for their survival).

So this stuck in my head, and here’s my crude, way-over-simplified way of thinking about it as a framework:

– an oikos view is: it’s morally preferable to favour “people like me”

– a polis view is: it’s morally preferable to treat everyone equally

I was initially baffled when, in 2019, the Brexit Party announced its only non-Brexit political policy: the abolition of inheritance tax. (See the announcement on Twitter.)

Why should this be sole additional policy? Why not remain silent? The oikos vs polis framework helped me. “Brexit” is a classic oikos preference: this country matters more than this bigger union, it says. And if Brexit is the macro, then removing inheritance tax is the micro: tribe over state.

But I want to be clear: oikos is not bad. Like any political preference, it can be wielded for good and ill.

Community is an oikos value! Neighbourhood is an oikos value! Closing the streets to city traffic so kids can play, that’s an oikos value! Mutuality and cooperative organisations… traditionally left wing, but elements of oikos there. EastEnders, the long-running British TV soap about fierce family loyalties: oikos.

The old English aristocracy: that’s oikos all over. As The Institutional Revolution points out… the aristocracy was an economic adaption to a world without reliable communications or measurement. To function, that world required high trust relationships and ways to bind people into high trust relationships. The aristocracy met that challenge for 300 years – and its values of loyalty, honour, family, and so on are oikos values: trust and defend my group over any other allegiance.

Now the right wing ruling class of the UK is closely connected with those old aristocratic families. Is it any wonder they continue to display oikos culture?

Anyway, my conclusion was that oikos is independent of left vs right; independent of owner class vs labour class; independent of being socially liberal or authoritarian…

Self-interest: oikos. Solidarity: polis. (Though it strikes me that fighting the climate crisis will require framing the solution in terms of self-interest too.)

For me, this helps explain the recent election results (where the Tory party was not punished for Johnson’s self-interest) and also the coalition of wealthy elite and working class that carried the “Leave” vote for Brexit…

Perhaps the value of the polis needs to be shored up. Solidarity, equality in the eyes of the law, utilitarianism: these are ideas that need to be re-established.

The right has claimed oikos for its own. That makes sense: it’s a natural fit for neoliberalism (free market economics), and also for small government (because you should look after your own). But I don’t believe this necessarily has to be the case. What should the left fight for in an oikos world? A vital question.

Matt Webb (@intrcnnctd) with a provocative reframing of the political landscape: “Oikos vs polis: a new (but old) axis on the political map.”

See also Cory Doctorow in a similar vein: “Mafia Logic.”

[image above: source]

* Mario Puzo

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As we remind ourselves that the human race is a family, we might recall that it was on this date in 1527 that Florentines expelled the Medici (for the second time) and (re-)established a republic. But, with the siupport of both Emperor Charles V and Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici), the Medici in 1532 became hereditary dukes of Florence, and in 1569 Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and ruled Florence (and much surrounding territory) for two more centuries. 

View of Florence by Hartmann Schedel, published in 1493

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 16, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Society gives legitimacy and society can take it away”*…

Yesterday’s post featured an argument that attention (which social, economic, and commercial discourse increasingly treat as a limited resource) is not in fact scarce at all, and indeed, that it is dehumanizing to think of it in that way.

Today’s offering nominates a different kind of scarcity as worthy of our thought…

Legitimacy is a pattern of higher-order acceptance. An outcome in some social context is legitimate if the people in that social context broadly accept and play their part in enacting that outcome, and each individual person does so because they expect everyone else to do the same.

Legitimacy is a phenomenon that arises naturally in coordination games. If you’re not in a coordination game, there’s no reason to act according to your expectation of how other people will act, and so legitimacy is not important. But as we have seen, coordination games are everywhere in society, and so legitimacy turns out to be quite important indeed. In almost any environment with coordination games that exists for long enough, there inevitably emerge some mechanisms that can choose which decision to take. These mechanisms are powered by an established culture that everyone pays attention to these mechanisms and (usually) does what they say. Each person reasons that because everyone else follows these mechanisms, if they do something different they will only create conflict and suffer, or at least be left in a lonely forked ecosystem all by themselves. If a mechanism successfully has the ability to make these choices, then that mechanism has legitimacy.

There are many different ways in which legitimacy can come about. In general, legitimacy arises because the thing that gains legitimacy is psychologically appealing to most people. But of course, people’s psychological intuitions can be quite complex. It is impossible to make a full listing of theories of legitimacy, but we can start with a few:

Legitimacy by brute force: someone convinces everyone that they are powerful enough to impose their will and resisting them will be very hard. This drives most people to submit because each person expects that everyone elsewill be too scared to resist as well.

Legitimacy by continuity: if something was legitimate at time T, it is by default legitimate at time T+1.

Legitimacy by fairness: something can become legitimate because it satisfies an intuitive notion of fairness. See also: my post on credible neutrality, though note that this is not the only kind of fairness.

Legitimacy by process: if a process is legitimate, the outputs of that process gain legitimacy (eg. laws passed by democracies are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by performance: if the outputs of a process lead to results that satisfy people, then that process can gain legitimacy (eg. successful dictatorships are sometimes described in this way).

Legitimacy by participation: if people participate in choosing an outcome, they are more likely to consider it legitimate. This is similar to fairness, but not quite: it rests on a psychological desire to be consistent with your previous actions.

Note that legitimacy is a descriptive concept; something can be legitimate even if you personally think that it is horrible. That said, if enough people think that an outcome is horrible, there is a higher chance that some event will happen in the future that will cause that legitimacy to go away, often at first gradually, then suddenly…

The co-founder of Etherium, Vitalik Butarin (@VitalikButerin) on why “The Most Important Scarce Resource is Legitimacy.” Whatever one’s feeling about cryptocurrency, it’s eminently worthy of reading in full… and of submitting to the same sort of questioning that L.M. Sarcasas mustered yesterday,

* Willis Harman

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As we channel John Locke, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1933 that the the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer (after 14 years of Prohibition), came into force. Americans celebrated by consuming 1.5 million barrels of beer that day.

The Cullen-Harrison Act was not the official end of prohibition in the U.S., but it did redefine an “intoxicating beverage” under the Volstead Act (which was created in 1919 to carry out the intent of the 18th Amendment– and was fully repealed later in 1933).

During Prohibition, while alcohol consumption fell initially, it pretty briskly returned to 60-70% of its pre-Volstead Act levels. Indeed, it was in 1923 that the invented word “scofflaw” was introduced to the American vocabulary. Created to mean “a lawless drinker of illegally made or illegally obtained liquor,” it gained wide usage through Prohibition, and survives to day, referring to those who ignore/break minor laws that are infrequently enforced… which is to say, laws that rely on legitimacy for their effectiveness.

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