Politics is more than economics

Eliana Johnson and Eli Stokols write:

Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the best-selling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.

It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keep institutions and people healthy. “As with neurotically overprotective parents, those who are trying to help us are hurting us the most,” he writes. Taleb also offers a withering critique of global elites, whom he describes as a corrupt class of risk-averse insiders immune to the consequences of their actions: “We are witnessing the rise of a new class of inverse heroes, that is, bureaucrats, bankers, Davos-attending members of the I.A.N.D (International Association of Name Droppers), and academics with too much power and no real downside and/or accountability. They game the system while citizens pay the price.”

Chris Arnade on why Trump voters are not, as Jonathan Chait suggests, ‘complete idiots:’

Trump voters may not vote the way I want them to, but after having spent the last five years working in (and having grown up in) parts of the US few visit, they are not dumb. They are doing whatever any other voter does: Trying to use their vote to better their particular situation (however they define that).

Labeling them dumb is simply a way of not trying to understand their situation, or what they value.

In choosing a candidate, a voter is buying into that candidate. It is, in an oversimplified way, like buying a stock. In that sense, it is helpful to use some basic analysis from finance, to look at how/why voters make the choices they do.

This is entirely conventional political insight. Insight that nonetheless seems alien and unconventional in today’s political climate. In any event, what are Trump voters try to do? Arnade explains:

Frustrated with broken promises, they gave up on the knowable and went with the unknowable. They chose Trump, because he comes with a very high distribution. A high volatility. (He also signals in ugly ways, that he might just move them, and only them and their friends, higher with his stated policies). As any trader will tell you, if you are stuck lower, you want volatility, uncertainty. No matter how it comes. Put another way. Your downside is flat, your upside isn’t. Break the system.

The elites loathe volatility. Because, the upside is limited, but the downside isn’t. In option language, they are in the money.

To put it in very non-geeky language: A two-tiered system has one set of people who want to keep the system, and another that doesn’t. Each one is voting for their own best interests.

Again, this is conventional and obvious. In past election cycles, the press covered candidates like John Edwards who spoke frequently of the emergence of “two Americas.” (These divisions that have been developing are complex and not easily reduced to the usual storylines of race or engineered social inequality.) Yet years later, the election of Trump should prove that the “two Americas” are a reality. That’s a social problem on a new scale, isn’t it? One that, by its existence, hasn’t been addressed by past administrations. Arnade suggests it’s because our politics has become obsessed with a single dimension of social progress at the expense of others:

Where do most of the press and elites get it wrong? They don’t believe that we live in a two-tiered system. They don’t believe, or know they are in, the top tier. They also don’t understand what people view as value.

When the Democrats under Clinton in the early ‘90s shifted towards a pro market agenda, they made a dramatic shift towards accepting the Republicans definition of value as being about the economic.

Now elites in both major parties see their broad political goal as increasing the GDP, regardless of how it is done.

This has failed most Americans, other than the elite, in two ways. It has failed to provide an economic boost (incomes are broadly flat), and it has forgotten that many people see value as being not just economic, but social. It has been a one-two punch that has completely left behind many people.

The common good. A “worst case”, profane candidate to break a complacent system in the most peaceful way possible with an eye toward the broadest upside.

We’re living through a time when all that’s old is new: politics was once more than economics.

Christian citizenship

Dale M. Coulter on gifts and debts:

The original sin was in moving too fast from the language of gift to the language of right, and missing entirely the language of debt. Bernard claims that ignorance makes beasts of humans, because they begin “to use gifts as if they belonged to one by natural right.” The ignorance in question is not simply a lack of awareness of the creator, but a fundamental failure to know oneself as a creature. And so, Bernard asks that each person know two facts: what you are, and that you are not that by your own hand. With the acknowledgement of these two facets of human existence come the moral obligations that should shape human freedom. In short, humans owe their existence to something beyond themselves, and they should live in light of that debt. Before claiming their rights, individuals need to acknowledge their debts and order the discharge of those debts accordingly, as first to God and then to neighbor.

Anselm of Canterbury would build his understanding of the atonement on these premises. The gift of human nature entails the obligation to pursue justice as the vehicle by which humans fulfill their debt to God and realize their potential. They fulfill the appetite for happiness through the pursuit of justice. When humans turn this debt into a “natural right,” they turn away from the origin of the gifts of nature and forfeit justice in the process. Anselm’s use of the language of debt in relation to sin is part of an overarching moral framework in which humans come into this world with gifts and a purpose that entail obligations. All obligations to other humans, including political communities, stem from the recognition of the more fundamental debt one owes to God for capacities one possesses.

This is the medieval underpinning to Kennedy’s words of 1961 [—ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country]. It is also the Christian basis for citizenship in any nation, and for the particular gratitude Christians should have for living out their earthly existence in the United States. Too many people today have skipped over debts and gone straight to rights.


Super Bowl 51

Incredible game last night. I wanted the Patriots to win, and boy was I surprised when they did. After the Patriots scored their first touchdown late in the third quarter and then failed on their extra point attempt, I wrote them off as a loser for the night. Tom Brady and the team hung together: record Super Bowl passing yards, a comeback from a record deficit scoring 31 unanswered points, first Super Bowl overtime. As a very casual NFL fan, it’s fun to see the Patriots secure their place as one of America’s great football dynasties.

Les Carpenter writes:

Before the Super Bowl winning drive Tom Brady stood on the Houston stadium’s field and said to his team-mates: “Let’s go.” And later, after the New England Patriots had won on the game’s final play and confetti tumbled over them their right tackle gushed: “He thrives on those moments.”

That was 13 years ago, on the night the Patriots won their second Super Bowl,which came in the same stadium, in a similar high-scoring game, won at the end by the Patriots on a drive led by Brady, who would be named MVP. Back then Brady was the 26-year-old quarterback who had won two titles in three years but wasn’t judged as the greatest at his position that the game had seen. That legacy would take more winning, more touchdowns and ultimately three more championships.

Now that he has won five Super Bowls, the most remarkable thing is how time has failed to take its toll on Brady. No quarterback at 39 makes storming through the final minutes of the Super Bowl look as easy as he did at 26. No quarterback has been as remarkably-consistent and dominant for two decades while players swirl in and out of the league around him.

A few days ago, Damon Huard – Brady’s backup on those first two championship teams – talked about returning to New England last fall for a celebration of that initial 2002 Super Bowl win and realizing that all but one of those Patriots had long retired. It was a jarring sensation for Huard, watching Brady that afternoon while assessing his own full post-football life.

“It’s just so hard in this job and profession to win,” Huard told the Guardian. “How they are still doing it is amazing. I was looking out there and I said to myself: ‘That’s No12 out there and it’s still [coach] Bill [Belichick] in the hoodie and they still have the drive and work ethic to make this happen.” …

But the 39-year-old Brady was not the carefree 26-year-old Brady. He fell to his knees after Sunday’s championship in a rare public expression of sensitivity. He talked around rumors that his mother has been seriously ill. He even struggled to remember what had happened in the game’s frantic last minutes, admitting: “There was a lot of shit that happened.”

Thirteen years after he took the Patriots to a championship on the same field, he became the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls. He also became the first to win four Super Bowl MVP awards. He gets older and nothing changes. He keeps winning. New England keeps winning.

It’s as if this all can go on forever.

What markets are for

Kevin D. Williamson wrote a few years ago about the true function of markets, which is not “competition,” but something else:

Complex though it is, the iPhone is also a remarkably egalitarian device: The president of the United States uses one, as does the young Bengali immigrant who sold me my coffee this morning. But you can bet that her children do not attend schools as good as those that instruct the Obama daughters. The reason for that is politics: not liberal politics, not conservative politics, not bad politics, but politics per se. …

The problem of politics is the problem of knowledge. The superiority of market processes to political processes is not in origin moral but technical. The useful knowledge in any modern society is distributed rather than centralized — and, as Read intuited and as modern scholars of complexity studies confirm, there is no way to centralize it. Ludwig von Mises applied that insight specifically to the defects of planned economies — the famous “socialist calculation problem” — but it applies in varying degrees to all organizations and all bureaucracies, whether political, educational, religious, or corporate. Markets work for the same reason that the Internet works: They are not organizations, but disorganizations. More precisely, they are composed of countless (literally countless, blinking into and out of existence like subatomic particles) pockets of organization, their internal structures and relationships to one another in a constant state of flux. Market propositions are experimental propositions. Some, such as the iPhone and the No. 2 pencil, are wildly successful; others, such as New Coke or Clairol’s Touch of Yogurt Shampoo, are not. Products come and go, executives come and go, firms come and go.

Politics isn’t dynamic in the way that markets are. Politics is both centralized and nostalgic, which means a few people who claim to act on expert knowledge work to impose what are promised as systemic solutions. When other enterprises become too rigid or ineffective, they fade away. Yet:

A political establishment is a near-deathless thing: Even after the bitter campaign of 2012, voters returned essentially the same cast of characters to Washington, virtually ensuring the continuation of the policies with which some 90 percent of voters pronounced themselves dissatisfied. No death, no evolution. Outside of politics, human action is characterized by evolution and by learning. And what are we learning? How to take care of one another, which is the point of what we sometimes call capitalism. (Don’t tell Ayn Rand.)

As a civilization we evolve, but not all constituencies or groups within a culture evolve at the same rate. Some never do. Politics by its nature must be slow and deliberate and considered to be good at its function; the opposite of markets. Even the roots of positive change are misunderstood, especially what we call “free market capitalism:”

It is remarkable that we speak and think about commerce as though competitiveness were its most important feature. There is, as noted, a certain Darwinian aspect to economic competition — and of course we humans do compete over scarce resources. But what is remarkable about human action is not its competitiveness but its almost limitless cooperativeness. Competition is one of the ways in which we learn how best to cooperate with one another and thereby deal with the problem of complexity — it is a means to the end of social cooperation. Cooperation exists elsewhere in the animal kingdom, but human beings cooperate on a species-wide, planetary level, which is a relatively new development in our evolution, the consequences of which we have not yet fully appreciated.

So distribution is preferable over centralization, which is another way of saying that it would be better to have fifty different state governments with wide latitude over state-level decision making than one central government deciding vast national policy.

We want a culture closer to the people not only to make it more participatory, but also to avoid the political equivalents of “Touch of Yogurt” shampoo becoming our only nationally-approved haircare product.

Johnson Amendment

About a month ago I was in Washington where I heard a congressman talk about whether a Trump administration might really push the senate to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. What does the Johnson Amendment do? It restricts any 501(c)3 nonprofit from engaging in meaningful political activity. The IRS explains:

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.

Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances.  For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.

On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

The first thing to understand is that the Johnson Amendment isn’t a law. It’s a senate-committee amendment to the federal tax code. It’s just a tax policy; easily changed.

The second thing to understand about the Johnson policy is that Lyndon Johnson pushed this through his senate committee in 1954 after narrowly winning re-election in Texas after he faced serious, nearly career-ending attacks from 501(c)3 nonprofits. This was created by a singular politician and very much motivated by his own self-interest.

The third thing to understand about the Johnson policy is that it’s a simple and straightforward violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression that applies to some (but not others!) simply based on their tax status. A nonprofit corporation is a still a corporation—a coming together of people to engage in public life and ultimately to influence its development in a certain direction. Like any other corporate or human activity. If Trump had the senate create a tax policy restricting the speech rights of Medicaid-eligible citizens, or granting speech rights (rights to libel or defame) to hedge fund managers, it would be immediately recognized for the obvious farce that it is. This farce exists today for every nonprofit from charity:water to United Way to your local church. A young Pell grant recipient in college doesn’t lose his right to give to a political candidate or publicly speak on behalf of a candidate. Neither should a corporation, regardless of tax status.

The fourth thing to understand about the Johnson policy (as Mark Kellner points out) is that it’s contrary to 165+ years of American experience that understood freedom of expression in a much simpler and less compromised way.

This anti-speech tax policy was created by a politician whose self-interest required muzzling nonprofits to ensure easier re-election. I’m hopeful it will be eliminated by a politician who now finds it in his self-interest to restore these simple speech rights.

Clarence Thomas on silence

Clarence Thomas abstained for something like a decade from asking any questions during oral arguments. At the University of Kentucky a while ago he explained why:

“I don’t see where that advances anything,” he said of the justices’ questions, according to the Associated Press. “Maybe it’s the Southerner in me. Maybe it’s the introvert in me, I don’t know. I think that when somebody’s talking, somebody ought to listen.” …

We have a lifetime to go back in chambers and to argue with each other,” he said. “They have 30, 40 minutes per side for cases that are important to them and to the country. They should argue. That’s a part of the process….I don’t like to badger people. These are not children. The court traditionally did not do that. I have been there 20 years. I see no need for all of that. Most of that is in the briefs, and there are a few questions around the edges.”

It’s Thomas’s perspective here that reassures my sense of why bringing cameras into the Supreme Court would be harmful to the functioning of the court. Too much temptation for justices to talk simply to be seen talking and to appear wise, rather than listening to those making their case, referring to the briefs, and judging their best.

We live in a very loud culture. Anyone or anything observing silence as a means to combat (useless) loudness, is worth applauding.


Diversity and multiculturalism

This interview with First Things’s R.R. Reno contains something worth thinking about:

R.R. Reno: We have to have a welcoming, pro-immigration society that is capable of maintaining social unity. I would argue that you can’t have multi-cultural democracy—there are no multi-cultural democracies. They’re all in states of civil war or parts of empires.

Green: Well, but the United States is a multi-cultural democracy.

Reno: No, it’s not. It’s very homogeneous. When foreigners come to the United States, they’re always shocked by how homogeneous we are. We just do a very good job of assimilating people and making them into Americans.

Green: So if by “multi-cultural” you don’t mean a diversity of religions, a diversity of ethnic backgrounds, a diversity of national origins, and a diversity of individual political ideologies—all of which the U.S. has—what do you mean?

Reno: Shared heritage, common identity. When you’re traveling abroad and you meet another American, it doesn’t matter if they’re Asian, African American, or whatever—you hang out with them, because you have shared habits of mind and sensibilities.

Green: So you’re pointing to a cohesive sense of national identity.

A culture is a holistic, comprehensive force that binds a people (a diverse people) together. I think it’s telling that the interviewer considers “multiculturalism” and “diversity” to be interchangeable.