Circus Maximus MMXVI: Just a little bit longer

8 09 2016

I may wax and wane in my enthusiasm for voting for Hillary Clinton, but I am firm that I’ll vote for her.

And whatever waning there is, doesn’t mean I think I’m voting for “the lesser evil”.

Greater and lesser evils in politics: such horseshit.

Bernard Crick argued that politics requires pluralism, which in turn creates the conditions in which politics may flourish: that there are differences requires some mechanism for negotiating amongst those differences, and politics (as opposed to technocracy or totalitarianism) provides an open, inclusive, and non-violent way for a citizenry to deal with itself.

Politics is more than this, of course, but that notion of conciliation and compromise are key: if factions are only ever maximalist, only ever all-or-nothing, only ever my-way-or-else, then politics will be ground out of existence.

Which is where my evilism-is-horseshit stance comes from: someone is decried as a lesser evil because she isn’t perfect, is compromised, is too willing to compromise, adheres too closely or not closely enough to the party line, will disappoint, will likely fail.

All politicians fail. Good politicians fail well, bad politicians fail badly, but if politics is about advancing an agenda against competing agendas, then the old cliché sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you means that even the greatest advances will contain losses.

It also means that to advance your position, you’re likely to have to settle, to give something to get something. To compromise.

Yeah, sometimes you can hold the line, and those hard-liners do have a place (tho’ not in leadership) in politics, but if your political adversaries are present in enough numbers to get in your way (which is almost always the case, if not at any one moment then certainly over a relatively short period of time), you’re going to have to pay attention to them. You’re going to have to deal.

As with failing, you can be a good (moves you closer to your goals)  or bad (moves you further from your goals) dealer, but if you don’t deal at all you’re not much of a politician, much less a political leader.

To deal is to be political, not to be evil, so any assessment of a politician should not be Does she deal or not but Is she a good dealer or bad dealer?

Again, none of this means candidates, even ones one is waxingly enthusiastic about, are above criticism—criticize away! But criticize them on their politics, not on the fact of their imperfections.

~~~

*It’s not that evil doesn’t exist at all in politics—if you’re a genocidal dictator you pretty much fit the definition of an evil leader—but that in ordinary or functioning politics, the evil quotient is going to be pretty low. (I could go full Crick and state that genocidal dictators are anti-politics by definition, and thus fob off evil on the upside-down, but that’s a little too convenient.)

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This land is your land, 1

13 03 2016

Man, are we Americans bad at politics.

I don’t know if we’re uniquely bad, but we do seem to have some difficulty with the notion that disagreement (and expressions thereof) is normal.

I’m not just talking about the violence at Trump rallies, but also to violence at protests generally as well as meltdowns about campus politics. Disagreement over whether the best way to accomplish x is achieved by y or z is still acceptable, but disagreement over the fundamental means by which we prioritize x over p or decide that only y or z are worthy options is considered uncivil.

The very heart of politics—uncivil!

Granted, there are many plausible ways of understanding politics, and not everyone would go along with my Arendtian/Crickian view which places distinctiveness and pluralism at the center of political life. But if one accepts that a complex society will necessitate substantive differences amongst the members of that society, then the management of those differences will in turn be required to maintain both its complexity and functioning.

There are, as Crick notes, any number of ways for societies to deal with complexity, among them attempts to bring its various pieces into line and/or to suppress expressions of difference. It is only in politics, Crick argues, that the freedom which arises from and allows further complexity may be found and strengthened.

Or, as Madison somewhat more pessimistically put it,

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. …

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.

So, what Madison is resigned to and what Arendt and Crick celebrate is the endurance of difference and disagreement—and of politics to allow and make use of its expression.

Some leftists have argued that an open politics (of the sort often found in democracies) is merely reformist or bourgeois (as did the Communists in the Weimar republic), and thus fail to take seriously the radical possibilities contained within politics. Madison may indeed have been a conservative of a sort in wanting to limit what politics could accomplish in the new American system, but it was precisely because he saw that politics could be transformative that he sought to limit it.

And there is something to his conservatism, as well. As Crick noted, the first requirement of any system, political or otherwise, is to maintain order and thus provide security to its citizens or subjects. This is Hobbes’s basic insight: absent a leviathan, life is but a ‘war of all against all’, ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’. Fear matters, as does security.

But even as they matter, they are not all that matters, and the promise of politics is, pace Arendt, the promise of something more.

cont.





Hang the rich

17 06 2013

Economists should just butt the fuck out of politics. Jesus.

I know, I know: As a good social scientist I’m supposed to say nice things about econometrics and all of the EXCITING! PROVOCATIVE! insights they have to offer the study of politics, but, y’know, I’m not a particularly good social scientist so why not go with that?

Er. . . anyway. Gregory Mankiw, late of the Bush administration, has made publicly and freely available (good for him) a paper entitled ‘Defending the One Percent‘.

Yeah, I know. Still, inequality is a political issue and as such, may be debated on all sides. After a brief (worthless) fable about perfect equality and iPods and Harry Potter, Mankiw goes on to note that his following discussion of inequality is inescapably political:

At the outset, it is worth noting that addressing the issue of rising inequality necessarily involves not just economics but also a healthy dose of political philosophy. We economists must recognize not only the limits of what we know about inequality’s causes, but also the limits on the ability of our discipline to prescribe policy responses. Economists who discuss policy responses to increasing inequality are often playing the role of amateur political philosopher (and, admittedly, I will do so in this essay). Given the topic, that is perhaps inevitable. But it is useful to keep in mind when we are writing as economists and when we are venturing beyond the boundaries of our professional expertise. (pp. 2-3)

Yes, yes you should, Professor Mankiw. And yet you went ahead anyway.

So onward he goes, into familiar tales about efficiency and utility and disutility and productivity and consumption, and, unfortunately, into the increasingly-familiar tales about genetics and intelligence (and productivity, natch) and then, oops, he gets confused and in the end says it doesn’t much matter after all, so, okay.

And then we get the charming personal anecdote:

By contrast, the educational and career opportunities available to children of the top 1 percent are, I believe, not very different from those available to the middle class. My view here is shaped by personal experience. I was raised in a middle-class family; neither of my parents were college graduates. My own children are being raised by parents with both more money and more education. Yet I do not see my children as having significantly better opportunities than I had at their age. (pp. 8-9)

Yes, because everything was great back then and is exactly the same now.

Then Okun and Mirrlees and utilitarianism, a feint toward neuroscience, a jab at redistributionists (‘if you’re not willing to do it globally, you shouldn’t do it nationally’), and then a discussion of the role of factors such as height in compensation—tall folks earn more—but that totally doesn’t mean anything ha ha forget it.

Then he gets into the left critique of inequality. After noting that, “It is, I believe, hard to square the rhetoric of the left with the economist’s standard framework”, he suggests that

Someone favoring greater redistribution along the lines of Okun and Mirrlees would argue as follows. “The rich earn higher incomes because they contribute more to society than others do. However, because of diminishing marginal utility, they don’t get much value from their last few dollars of consumption. So we should take some of their income away and give it to less productive members of society. While this policy would cause the most productive members to work less, shrinking the size of the economic pie, that is a cost we should bear, to some degree, to increase utility for society’s less productive citizens.” (p. 15)

Mankiw then admits this would “surely not animate the Occupy crowd!”  But instead of dealing with the political arguments of ‘the Occupy crowd’, he detours into tax policy.

Now, tax policy is clearly political, and it clearly has economic effects, so you might think I should cut Mankiw a break and say, Hey, this is an area in which his economic expertise is relevant.

I will not so cut, because by detouring into tax policy he is eliding the central political claims of said Occupy crowd and sundry other leftists. They—we—are less concerned with tax policy per se than with basic claims of fairness and representation. Economics in general and tax experts in particular can offer useful models and information about how best to achieve this or that goal of fairness (not so much about representation), but in terms of adjudicating fairness itself, that is a political matter.

(n.b. I’m all hepped up on this stuff because I’ve been teaching Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics, wherein he notes, among other things, that treating citizens as if they were simply so many productive cogs in a socioeconomic machine is to erase politics altogether. Which is bad. Very bad.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah, another personal observation from Mankiw:

The key issue is the extent to which the high incomes of the top 1 percent reflect high productivity rather than some market imperfection. This question is one of positive economics, but unfortunately not one that is easily answered. My own reading of the evidence is that most of the very wealthy get that way by making substantial economic contributions, not by gaming the system or taking advantage of some market failure or the political process. (p. 17)

Uh huh, well that settles it then.

Then on to President Obama’s you-didn’t-make-it-on-your-own claim—again, one which could be taken as an economic claim but which, in context, is clearly political—and we’re off to a discussion on infrastructure and margins and transfer payments and ta da:

In the end, the left’s arguments for increased redistribution are valid in principle but dubious in practice. (p. 19)

Now, sorry for shouting, but: THIS IS A POLITICAL ARGUMENT MASQUERADING AS AN ECONOMIC ONE.

I happen not to groove to this particular political argument, but I accept that it is a political argument and thus may claim a role in the political arena. What I do not accept is that this is some kind of neutral economic argument which by nature of it neutral economic-ness ought trump in the political arena.

I’m going to spare all of us his discussion of the veil of ignorance and a market in kidneys (Christ!) and his notion of ‘just desserts’ fiscal policy (another political argument) to get to this beaut:

My disagreement with the left lies not in the nature of their arguments, but rather in the factual basis of their conclusions. (p. 21)

Well, I guess the first part of that statement is true, insofar as he didn’t truly engage those arguments.

And then he comes to a conclusion with which (cue angelic music) I can agree:

Economists can turn to empirical methods to estimate key parameters, but no amount of applied econometrics can bridge this philosophical divide. (p. 22)

That’s called politics, baby, and no amount of econometric hand-waving can wave away those basic disputes about fairness, representation, and the purpose and worth of government.

Economics has its place, even in politics, but it is no substitute for politics: If you want to make a political argument, then make the political argument, and don’t pretend otherwise.

h/t Mark Gongloff, HuffPo