Asking the Right Questions about the US in the Middle East.

I’ve noticed that this blog devotes an disproportionate amount of time to political issues. Of my posts so far, about 60% are about political topics. Although this is honestly less than I thought it would be, it is still more than all of my other blogging topics combined (namely “movie reviews”, “religion and philosophy” and “other random stuff”).

This wasn’t exactly my intention when I started the blog and, in fairness, is partially due to a dramatic increase in political writing in the last year. But at the same time, I’m not not, in the meat world, a terribly politically engaged person.

The reason I think my blog turns political is because I’m most often motivated to write by frustration, specifically with arguments that I take to be overly simplistic or could use reframing. In politics, this frustration is very common. The stakes of feel very high, but the quality of the actual arguments is really, really low. In this respect, political topics feel like low hanging fruit.

I’m reacting here to a marginal revolution post, discussing current events unfolding in the middle east.

Turkey prepares to send troops to Qatar

Hmm…Meanwhile Qatar is engaging in talks with Turkey and Iran for emergency food and water supplies.

I don’t know what to expect from the Qatar situation, but I will say this.  If America really is withdrawing from its global role, “crude economism” predicts that small, hard to defend, oil-rich states are the first places where you would expect fighting to break out.  So Qatar is a bellwether for how global world order is likely to evolve.

I found this pretty insightful, although he is simply basing his prediction on “crude economism”

I might quibble a bit with Cohen’s language, which makes it seems like the Turkish troop deployment is a startling new development, when, in actuality, the agreement allowing Turkey to establish a military base in Qatar is over a year old.

(The noteworthy development is that Turkey is accelerating the timeline for troop deployment, with a not-so-subtle insinuation that their goal is to send a message to Saudi Arabia. The history of the tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a little complicated)

But broadly, I think Cohen is right to connect this to the American changing foreign policy stance. If you take a step back, the moral and strategic justification for having the US be the single most powerful military force on the planet is that we prevent open conflict between regional powers in various parts of the world. Our reward for doing this is getting to make sure that large reserves of natural resources are controlled by people who meet at least a base level of friendliness. They get to do their own thing, so long as they don’t do anything blatantly opposed to US interests or commit human rights abuses too grisly for us to ignore.

It’s not exactly a utopian status quo, but compared to a costly war between some combination of Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, we’ll take it.

But let’s follow this thread. There are hints that America’s place in maintaining this status quo could change. Whether or not you think this is a good thing ought to depend on the answer to two questions: 1) what are the costs (in lives and dollars) associated with maintaining this status quo and 2) are there any less costly alternatives?

Cohen here is outlining the costs of the alternative, which is the potential for a regional power struggle in the middle east, which yes, could be devastating (recall that Turkey has nukes).

Of course, I don’t really have the expertise to critically evaluate Cohen’s argument. There might be ways to build a lasting peace that don’t use the threat of US or UN military intervention a keystone, which would certainly be worth pursuing, if possible.

But what’s really striking to me how rarely you see these questions even articulated clearly. As I said, it’s low hanging fruit.


Russia Hacked the Election!

Well, no, not really.

The story, as far as I can tell, is that unnamed sources in the CIA believe that Russian agents hacked the emails of prominent Democrats and made their contents public in order to influence the election.

Even if 100% true, to call this “hacking the election” is profoundly misleading, and would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that basically every major news outlet has picked up on that phrasing.

It’s not that I think it’s good that private communications are being hacked and publicized by foreign nations in order to influence our political process. I’m just saying that when somebody does actually hack the election (i.e. actually interfere with the actual casting or counting of actual ballots), I don’t want to have to say “they nuked Washington DC” to communicate the gravity of what actually happened.

Plus, remember how we were worried about how, when Trump inevitably lost the election, he would undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process by saying that it was all rigged?

Yeah… Is it too much to ask for a credible opposition party right now?

I don’t want to downplay the significance of cyber espionage and is ramifications for politics. We live in a world where communications stored on hackable devices have a not-insignificant chance of being made public and used against political candidates. But that’s the reality we live in, regardless of whether the hackers in this particular instance were ex-KGB, Iranian secret service, or random guys in their basement.

More to the point, this isn’t really about Trump either. If email hacks are having an undue impact on political process, the solution is better cyber security protocols and more robust political strategies that won’t be upset by a few leaked emails. It’s a problem to be worked around in the next national election, but not a cause to panic.

Of course, there is a larger argument, which goes that Russia wanted Trump to be elected because they believed that Trump’s administration would weaken the United States and diminish our prestige and influence on the world stage. This might well be true. But the relevant story is that Trump’s administration would weaken the United States and diminish our prestige and influence on the world stage, not that Putin thinks this.

Of course, the real reason this is getting so much play is because the Clinton campaign had already been pushing a narrative about Trump’s connections with Vladimir Putin. I have never thought there was much to this. At one point on the campaign, Trump said something off the cuff about Putin being a stronger leader than Obama (which, while bad, is hardly the worst thing Trump has said off the cuff), and then someone on the Clinton campaign decided that the specter of our cold war adversary loomed large enough in the American psyche that alleging connections with Putin was the most damaging thing you could say about Trump (maybe it did well in focus groups).

And now we see this message has evolved into a full-blown conspiracy theory.

I think Freddie DeBoer’s take on this is pretty spot on. Even if the CIA has it right, there are plenty of more prescient reasons to oppose a Trump administration. I don’t want to see the opposition party spin itself into irrelevance by focusing on conspiracy theories.

One hopes that this is just an excuse to produce content about Trump, despite the fact that he’s not yet in the position to do anything newsworthy. Hopefully once he takes office and starts actually doing things, our news media will have enough interesting things to write about that conspiracies and rumors will drop off the map.

Hopefully we can get to work…

Ambiguity and Politics: Part 1

Although it is often called an optical illusion, this well-known image of a rabbit/duck technically isn’t. Optical illusions are images designed to trick your visual systems into perceiving something that isn’t there, such as motion in a static image. By contrast, the rabbit-duck is an ambiguous image. It plays with your head because it can be interpreted in multiple different and contradictory ways.



Why do I bring this up? Because I think the rabbit-duck, along with other ambiguous images, illustrate one of the reasons why people disagree about politics, due to the fact that multiple high- level narratives can be used to make sense of the same collection of experiences.

Take another ambiguous image:


This image can be interpreted either as the silhouette of a vase, or the silhouette of two faces, depending on which features of image are interpreted as the foreground and which are in the background. The idea of the foreground/background concerns is extremely helpful for understanding political disagreements. Take this excerpt form Scott Alexander:

Some people think of government as another name for the things we do together, like providing food to the hungry, or ensuring that old people have the health care they need. These people know that some politicians are corrupt, and sometimes the money actually goes to whoever’s best at demanding pork, and the regulations sometimes favor whichever giant corporation has the best lobbyists. But this is viewed as a weird disease of the body politic, something that can be abstracted away as noise in the system.

And then there are other people who think of government as a giant pork-distribution system, where obviously representatives and bureaucrats, incentivized in every way to support the forces that provide them with campaign funding and personal prestige, will take those incentives. Obviously they’ll use the government to crush their enemies. Sometimes this system also involves the hungry getting food and the elderly getting medical care, as an epiphenomenon of its pork-distribution role, but this isn’t particularly important and can be abstracted away as noise.

I think I can go back and forth between these two models when I need to, but it’s a weird switch of perspective, where the parts you view as noise in one model resolve into the essence of the other and vice versa.

The key insight here is that the reason for the disagreement is not really about matters of fact. In this example, anti-government partisans are perfectly able to acknowledge that government does provide some valuable social services, just as the pro-government partisans able to acknowledge that governments are sometimes corrupt. Their disagreement is more about which concerns are central and which are peripheral.

Or you can take another issue, like whether or not we provide asylum to Syrian refuges, and notice that there are very strong opinions on both sides of this debate, despite the fact that everybody involved mostly agrees that 1) a large majority of refugees won’t pose any security risk whatsoever, and 2) Muslims are over represented among perpetrators of mass shootings and other acts of domestic terrorism (jihadists were responsible for about 1/3 of the mass shooting deaths in the past 10 years in the united states, despite the fact that Muslims make up about 1/100th of the US population).

This is certainly not a new observation about political debates, but its illuminates a reason that they can be very frustrating. If you assume that both you and your debate opponent are intelligent enough to avoid buying into any outright falsehoods (a la the fake news), it’s actually quite difficult to articulate a reasons why one set of concerns should be viewed as central, while other concerns should be viewed as peripheral.

It’s so difficult, in fact, that most of the time, partisans don’t even try to acknowledge the ambiguity at all. Instead, they will try to talk loudly about the issues that are broadly consistent with their preferred narrative, and change the subject when issues come up that contradict it. The result is that most political debates feel a lot like acrimonious disagreement over whether it’s a picture of a duck or a rabbit.

This isn’t necessarily to say that political issues are ambiguous, and that all positions are equally valid. For example, on the issue of Syrian refugees, I do actually think that the risk of terrorism is negligible compared to humanitarian benefits. But making a principled argument as to why is very tricky without, misspeaking, being misunderstood, or exposing myself to dirty debating tactics.

There’s a saying that an accusation against a political opponent need not be true in order to be damaging. It simply needs to be harder to refute than it is to sate. If you hear that and think “wow, that’s a really low bar”, you’re absolutely right. This is a large part of the reason why negative rhetoric is so common in politics. It’s easier to say “that policy is a disaster” than it is to explain why a policy X was a good idea.

The affordable care act has problems. It also has benefits. However, if your goal is to defend the affordable care act, it’s a lot easier to talk only about the benefits (and pivot whenever someone brings up problems) than it is to actually assess the problems and make the case that the benefits outweigh them.

This is true about politics in general. Even if your argument is sound, if it’s not simple, it’s not worth making. Negotiating ambiguity isn’t simple, and as a result practically nobody does it.


Looking back on the election

On election day, I flipped to facebook, and saw an event: “Laugh at Trump tower on November 9th”. A couple thousand people were going. I smiled to myself and tabbed over to 538. Nate Silver’s model gave Trump somewhere between 25% and 30% chance of victory.

Roughly the odds of two coin flips coming up heads, I thought. Not great, but not unthinkable either.  I knew that this was tempting fate– in fact, I said as much in a comment– but part of me didn’t want to feel left out.

I feel like I had been more prepared than most for Donald Trump winning. The day before the election, I read this piece by Scott Alexander, which I think brought home how small the margins of error were for both candidates. Just 1-2% would swing the election one way or another;. The day after the election, Nate Silver himself made basically he same point about how silly it is to radically change one’s thinking about the United States based on how 1-2% of the electorate cast their ballots. Basically, whatever could be said about a country where Trump won by a 1-2 point margin could also be said about a country where Clinton won by a 1-2 point margin. Either way, we would be a 45% pro-Trump country, give or take.

Of course, no matter how slight the victory, the spoils go to the victor, although the impact of the democratic loss was more resounding than any of us anticipated. Not only was the presidency lost; so were most of the tools the democrats could have used to restrain him.

The following morning, “Laugh at Trump Tower” had become “Protest at the Trump tower”. My thought at the time was something along the lines of well, it’ not like we have many other options. At 5:00 in the afternoon, it became clear that these protests weren’t only happening in Chicago; it was happening in most large cities.

I didn’t actually get to the protest until 9:00 in the evening, as things were winding down. At this point, people had been gathered since 5:00 in the afternoon, although still, several hundred remained assembled around the tower, milling about, waving signs. Some had climbed onto the cement platforms of the street lights. I heard that there had been counter-protesters there earlier in the day, but they had given up and gone home before I got there.

I was disappointed by that. I wanted a chance to see Trump’s more enthusiastic supporters first hand, get a sense of who they were, how they talked to each other…

I knew the Trump/Pence message was appealing in ways that most of my peers didn’t appreciate. I even said so on this blog after watching the vice-presidential debate, where I thought Mike Pence put on a much better show than Kaine, largely because he managed to look calm and sensible, while Kaine, “harped relentlessly on Trump’s gaffes (with a giant smirk on his face and obviously pre-prepared zingers), making himself look like the archetypal sanctimonious progressive.” All talk, no substance.

But of course, I had still concluded that the man’s campaign was doomed when, a few days later, the recording of Trump talking about grabbing women by the pussy came out and a quarter of his own party was calling for him leave the race.

I was also far from the only person to point out that many of the messages that liberals were selling absolutely stank of elitism. I read the Smug Style in american politics. I read Fredric DeBoer. I read Nixonland, which extensively catalogs the liberal consensus simply not getting it (Trump has even invoked Nixon’s “silent majority” in speeches). I grocked the backlash against the left’s overriding focus on the rhetoric of identity politics. I was surprised that the Trump campaign managed to pull it together, but I wasn’t shocked.

Of course, this isn’t saying much- it simply means that I have a slightly better intuition about the worldview of 47% of the electorate than some of my liberal peers. Sometime soon, I’ll write up a more detailed picture of what I think Trump represents…

In the past week, an enormous amount of virtual ink has been spilled talking about not only why the Democrats lost, but how they could have been so thoroughly blindsided by the loss, so thoroughly unable to stand upright as the ground moved beneath their feet.

At the protest, I was struck by how things seemed to happen on their own accord. Periodically, chants would emerge, fill the air for a few minutes, and re-emerge in a different form after they died down. At one point, a wave of sitting swept across the crowd. I sat with them, not sure exactly why. We may have been resisting an order to disperse from the police, which we were resisting, but it was hard to tell. After a few minutes of this, the crowd decided that it was going to disperse after all and began to walk en-masse down State Street.

The slogans kept coming.

“Fuck Trump! (What?) Fuck Trump! (What?)”

“We! Re-ject! The president elect!”

“No Trump! No KKK! No Racist USA!”

Sometimes I chanted along, but it was half-hearted. It seemed like more of the same. The same tired talking points, the same rage, the same push to frame everything in the terms of a narrative that had just been rejected, that had just failed in a spectacular way to unite the country.

But there was one chant that I found myself repeating with conviction. It went:

“No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!”

It was something that we could fight for, not against, captured in a couple of rhyming couplets.

There’s a vision of America, where the human spirit can flourish without the threat of persecution or violence, supported by the wise allocation of public resources. I do think a Donald Trump administration stands in the way of this vision, and could do more than any administration in recent history to prevent it from happening. And it’s in the service of the vision that he should be opposed.

The Heroes we Need

You know the scene in the Dark Knight, where the Joker has rigged up two boats with explosives and gave the people on each the detonator for the other boat? One boat was filled with convicts, the other with civilians. They are given an ultimatum: blow up the other boat, or in 30 minutes the Joker will blow up both.

In the movie, the people on the boats manage to resist blowing each other up  while Batman and  the Gotham PD take out the Joker, and prove that there is still good in the people of Gotham, or something like that.

But what if things had gone the other way? What if, 30 seconds after they were offered this ultimatum, one of the boats had blown the other sky high? So much for goodness at the heart of Gotham.

This is probably the more realistic scenario. As people, we often have opportunities to rise to the occasion and do the good thing, but we have a less-than-sterling track record of doing so.

The question is, if this happens, does the Batman hang up his cloak? Does he decide that Gotham isn’t worth saving?

I’d like to imagine that he doesn’t.

There’s something powerful about a love that can see a person, a city, or a country, with all of its faults laid bare, and still love it and fight for it. This love seems to me to be more admirable than love that idealizes or glosses over flaws. It’s easy to fight for something when you’ve convinced yourself it’s perfect. It’s harder, and therefore much more remarkable, when you haven’t.

So here we are, with the election of Donald Trump as the leader of the United States. I suppose you could say our faults have been laid bare. And yet, I still love my country. Let’s hunker down and get to work; America will need champions in the coming years.

The Cynical Case for Democracy

The latest New Yorker contains a review-essay of Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance, and Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter. This essay is described by  of the Marginal Revolution as “fair, knowledgeable, and informative”.

I agree with Tabarrok; the review provides an excellent outline of the avenues one can use to criticize our cherished form of government. Many of these criticism predate the American government, were explored in depth in classical political thought, and loomed large in the minds of America’s founders. Political thought since then has elaborated criticisms. There are many policy domains where democracy at least seems uniquely bad.

For example, take foreign policy. This piece, by T. Greer, is good enough that I will quote it at length.

Strategists and analysts often wish American policies were grounded in a sophisticated strategic vision implemented by a cadre of disinterested statesmen who have a nuanced understanding of the world and its doings. This is a fantasy. America is a democracy. Its statesmen must justify their actions to the masses on a set electoral time table. Top level bureaucrats are mostly chosen for partisan reasons. Important foreign policy decisions usually have more to do with value signalling on the domestic stage than a sober assessment of American interests on the international one. Leaders in both the executive and the legislative branches surround themselves with aids and hanger-ons with no special expertise or experience in foreign affairs. For basic economic reasons (which I have explained before), few Americans learn foreign languages. The American media do not care very much about foreign affairs, and the issues they do care about are given attention disproportionate to their import. These journalists, like almost all Americans, are appallingly ignorant of the history, religious traditions, and cultural quirks of foreign peoples. Policy must be filtered through layers of unresponsive bureaucracy, and the various agencies that implement these policies are poorly coordinated. To top if off, senior policy officials do not read books.

To these enduring elements of American politics we must add the distinctive features of the present moment: a divided, hyper-partisan federal government so severely gridlocked that long term planning is not possible; falling budgets that sharply constrain American activity abroad; and a wild upsurge in populist fervor that focuses political attention inward and demands simplicity from all candidates who wish to win over the masses.

We may lament these realities, but they are realities. They will not change in the short-term. Some may never change at all. Any successful strategy for America must be a strategy that can be created, sustained, and implemented in this system.

Note that this was written in October of 2015, many months before it would be vindicated tenfold by a particular orange man with a platform of “build the wall”, “take the oil”, and “bomb them into the stone age”.

I don’t think anybody can deny that democracy has really profound weaknesses, so I won’t to argue the point.

Rather, I wanted to briefly offer a minimal justification for democracy. It is cynical, but then, most “minimal” justifications are. Simply, I think democracy is the only form of government where the people who could conceivably lead a popular uprising, with all of the violence and pain these things entail, do not have an incentive to do so.

The logic is roughly this: winning an election and leading a popular uprising require a similar skill sets- charisma, resources, political talent. The difference is that it’s a lot easier to convince people to check your name in a box on election day than it is to convince them to take up arms, march into battle, and risk death and dishonor to overthrow the government on your behalf.

There may have been figures in American politics who had the wherewithal to accomplish the latter. But they had no incentive to try, because their skill, charisma, and resources- the very things that would give them a credible shot at overthrowing the government- would also make it incredibly easy for them to achieve power through electoral politics. Put another way, if a figure with presidential aspirations couldn’t handily win a somewhat fair election, it would not bode well for their ability to lead a popular revolt.

All of this hinges on the fact that self-interested, ambitious, power-craving plotters in the United States look at the world and decide that their best interests are served by playing the game by the rules that are set up- and all this requires is that our institutions aren’t obviously rigging elections, and that spoils of elections are real enough to be coveted.

Democracy gives the ambitious and the powerful a battlefield where blood is spilled very rarely, and in small quantities. It may also give us other things, but this alone is enough reason to defend it. To bring it back to the review in the New Yorker,

Maybe voting is neither commons nor market. Perhaps, instead, it’s combat. Relatively gentle, of course. Rather than rifles and bayonets, essentially there’s just a show of hands. But the nature of the duty may be similar, because what Brennan’s model omits is that sometimes, in an election, democracy itself is in danger.

Nixonland, and a hot take on the VP debate

In the tumult of our current political climate, I’ve taken some comfort in reading history, specifically Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

One thing I’ve noticed is that reading a history book– an actual, honest to god, thousand-page book– has made it a lot easier for me to weather the ups and downs of the social media news cycle. I realize that complaining about the effect of social media on public discourse has become old hat, but I think it’s worth pointing out just how much faster news cycles can go, now that news can be published and distributed so quickly. On social media, you are always being shown a new crisis, a new event, a new outrage, non-stop, each before you’ve had time to process the one before.

Reading the book is nice because it lets you slow down the news cycle, allowing history unfold over the course of months and years, rather than days or hours. I didn’t realize quite how much I missed this until I actually picked up the book and began reading.

Of course, it helps that Nixonland is a very timely book. The book covers Nixon’s political career, from high school through his presidency (for a more complete review of the book, I recommend this article). Perlstein’s thesis is that Richard Nixon was responsible for cementing, if not creating, the cultural divisions that frame all American political debates, even to this day.

Although initial reactions to this thesis were somewhat skeptical when Nixonland was published in 2008, the emergence of Donald Trump has vindicated it (to the point where Perlstein himself is telling his readers not to read too deeply into the parallels between 1968 and today).

A central motif of this history is Nixon’s exploitation of a cultural divide between the liberal  elite and the average, hard-working Americans. This conflict is brilliantly represented by the social politics of Nixon’s high school. Representing the American cultural elite, you have the Franklins: a club of well-bred, well-spoken, athletic, wealthy students, destined to be a part of the highest circles of American society. Think the Kennedys.

Opposing them was the student group that Nixon himself founded: the Orthogonians (literally meaning people who stand straight and upright), who stand in for those whose backgrounds are unremarkable, but who distinguish themselves through their honesty, humility, hard work, and commitment basic American values.

In high school, Nixon rode Orthogonian resentment of the Franklins to become president of the student body. Later in his political career, he would ride it to become president of the United States.

This resentment has been an essential part of the republican political identity for the past 50 years, and can be seen in the framing of most of their policy planks. Free market conservatism, for example, is driven largely by hatred of the progressive: the archetypal a self righteous, pampered Harvard graduate who will presume to know how to run the economy, or who will presume to decide, without having done a hard day’s work in his life, that the money you earned with the sweat off your back ought to be given to some deadbeat welfare queen*.

Donald Trump’s presidential bid seems to be a pure distillation of this resentment, and proof that you can make a credible bid for the presidency with very little else.

What’s remarkable about the comparison between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon is how different they are. Nixon’s campaign was one of the most tightly run in history, with practically nothing, no public appearance, no message, nothing left to chance. Donald Trump’s freewheeling, madcap campaign couldn’t be more different.

Additionally, despite the anti-elite resentment that he cultivated, Nixon was actually extremely good at conventional political rhetoric when he wanted to be. If you read sections of his 1968 inaugural address, you’ll see arguments that wouldn’t seem out of place in a current New York Times editorial (or, indeed, on my own blog).

Compare this to Scott Aaronson’s description of the Trump:

“I think people support Trump for the same reason why second-graders support the class clown who calls the teacher a fart-brain to her face.  It’s not that the class literally agrees that the teacher’s cranium is filled with intestinal gases, or considers that an important question to raise.  It’s simply that the clown had the guts to stand up to this scolding authority figure who presumes to tell the class every day what they are and aren’t allowed to think.”

Similarly, Scott Alexander sums it up like this:

“[The Trump phenomenon] is about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them. And Trump is both uniquely separate from these elites and uniquely repugnant to them – which makes him look pretty good to everyone else.”

With that in mind, I’m going to switch to talking about the VP debate.

Here’s the thing: viscerally, what drives people away from Trump is the perception that he’s an unprincipled, egomaniacal con-man. What drives people away from the Clinton campaign is that she can look and sound like one of the sanctimonious, insincere cultural elites.

I think Kaine lost the debate tonight.

I say this because Pence somehow managed to make the Trump ticket look composed and principled. Kaine, meanwhile, in harping relentlessly on Trump’s gaffes (with a giant smirk on his face and obviously pre-prepared zingers), made himself look like the archetypal sanctimonious politician. Pence managed to cover for the weaknesses of his ticket. Kaine, if anything, exacerbated the weaknesses of his.

To make my point in another way, basically everybody already knows about Trump’s gaffes; we have a social media news cycle that reports slavishly on each and every one. The people who care are already firmly in the Clinton camp. One fears that the Clinton campaign sees this and thinks that Trump is in the process of self destructing. They don’t seem to understand the trends that he’s riding– trends that last longer than a single news cycle.

Perhaps if they had, Kaine would have brought something new to the debate, something that would have made his performance noteworthy when (or if) historians tell the story of a Clinton victory.

* And I’m not even going to touch the other resentments here