Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Political Tectonics

A few thoughts on the Republican Party.

I'm going to start by observing that I've taken, like, one class in political science and one class in game theory.  Both were undergraduate classes.  So take this post with a grain of salt.

Let's start with game theory.  Imagine that three people are splitting up $10.  A player proposes a division of the money, and it takes a majority (two votes) to win.  It should immediately be obvious that the allocation of the money is going to depend on exactly how the proposals are made and the votes conducted.  If only one proposal can ever be made, then it boils down to something similar to the "ultimatum game" in which one player can take almost all of the money.  In other words, Player A would say, "I'll take $9, Player B gets $1, and Player C gets nothing."  (Let's assume everything is done in dollar increments.)  Player B will (probably) vote for this proposal, because otherwise he would get nothing.  Player C can vote against it, but can't prevent it from being enacted.

However, imagine that any player can interrupt the proceedings at any moment with a new proposal.  In that case, the outcome of the game is radically uncertain.  Any two of the players can gang up on the third player and split the money between them, but which two will it be?  A key insight here is that the excluded player can always make a better offer to one of the two colluders.  So for instance, let's say Player A and Player B are splitting the money evenly, with Player C getting nothing.  Player C could approach Player B and suggest a different split:  $7 for Player B and $3 for Player C.  Player B should take this offer, because he will get more than he would under his deal with Player A.

But Player A could then make Player C an offer:  Player A gets $6 and Player C gets $4.  This would make Player A and Player C better off at the expense of Player B.

You can play this game forever.  This game has an "empty core," to use a term from game theory.  We just don't know in the abstract how the money will be allocated.  And in fact, if we set up a game like this, we might observe frenetic activity as the players try to cement together a stable alliance in the face of inherent instability built into the rules.

Now consider political parties and coalitions.  If voters care about multiple issues, and are heterogeneous, then there are various ways you can draw the dividing lines between political parties or coalitions.  The lines that divide these parties are called "cleavages."  Right now, obviously, by far the biggest cleavage in U.S. politics is between the Democrats and the Republicans.  But there are smaller cleavages that have emerged between various factions in both parties, and in some cases the cleavages extend across parties (for instance, each party includes a protectionist bloc).

Anyway where I am going with this is that cleavages aren't natural phenomena, they are caused by the choices that political actors make.  Right now a variety of conservative players, dissatisfied with the status quo, are working to fracture the Republican coalition in a way that they believe will improve their standing once the dust settles.  They believe that the new cleavages will elevate them personally or will promote their ideological vision.  They don't necessarily agree with each other about anything in particular—what they have in common is the expectation that they will be better off in a different equilibrium.  They are like Player B and Player C striking a deal to cut Player A out of the picture.

But the new cleavages may be very bad for the Republican Party as an institution.  For a variety of reasons, the Democrats have built a coalition that for the moment is holding together fairly well.  Meanwhile the Republicans are in open warfare with each other.

I'll write more about this, as I keep promising.  For now I just want to observe that part of what is going on is the attempt to force a realignment within the GOP and across the parties to elevate the values and careers of the people doing the disrupting.  And while the equilibrium has been stable for a long time, indicating that it probably isn't quite so radically unstable as my example above, I believe it is quite susceptible to the parasitic attack it is currently undergoing.  The Republican Party has been sick for a long time, and now its immune system is rapidly collapsing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Solomonic Wisdom or Solomonic Threat?

I think it was in Cartoon History of the Universe, by Larry Gonick, that I read this interesting idea:  the Solomon "split the baby" parable is political in nature.  It was essentially a warning that he (Solomon) would split the baby (Israel) rather than allow one of his rivals to take the throne.

I've forgotten the details and I could easily have misremembered the whole thing.  But anyway I think this is an important part of the dynamic going on right now in the Republican Party.  Donald Trump, more than any other prominent Republican I can think of, can credibly threaten to damage the party if it displeases him.  This helps explain the dynamic where several Republican candidates unendorsed Trump, or called for him to step down as the nominee, only to re-endorse him a few days later.  Basically Trump's response to the wave of unendorsements was:  you're all traitors and I hope you lose!  This is...  abnormal.  Obama understood that red state Democrats had to run against him, and he didn't take it personally.  In fact he tried to help them (though of course he couldn't do it overtly).  Trump doesn't give a shit about the Republican Party and so he uses intimidation and threats to keep everyone in line.  A normal candidate would be like the baby's true mother, who would rather lose it than see it split in half.  Trump is the fake mother who is happy to split the baby in half.

It's hard to overstate how bad this dynamic is for the Republican Party.  Trump has all the leverage, and he will use it to bend the party to his will.  And it seems to me that the party lacks the institutional capacity to fight back.  A lot of the conservative movement's messaging comes from outside the party, and it is decentralized enough that Trump will always find plenty of outlets willing to amplify his message and/or take his side.  And the Republican Party can't win elections without Trump's voters.  (I am assuming many Trump voters will abandon him after his loss.  It seems clear, though, that he will retain enough support to be a spoiler for years to come.)

So while the party needs to disavow Trump, I'm not sure it can.  And any attempt to engage in damage control will be met with further sabotage.  In a fight between someone who cares about the baby and someone who doesn't, the advantage goes to the one who is willing to see the baby torn apart.

[Edited to add:

Of course this dynamic was on full display during the primaries, when Trump used the threat of a third-party campaign to cow the party.  You can't imagine someone like Mitt Romney doing that.]

[Edited AGAIN to add:

There's also a little bit of this going on with the general election.  If Clinton loses, she will concede and we will move on.  If Trump loses, he threatens to unleash a wave of anger and rejection of the results.  Unfortunately for him, it is pretty obvious that a Trump presidency would be worse than anything he can do when he loses, so it won't work.]

Quick Thoughts on the Aftermath

I've been writing some fairly lengthy posts about the presidential race, but I can't quite bring them across the finish line.  In the meantime, some quick thoughts/questions (a side note:  I'm assuming throughout this post that Trump will lose, but in real life, I'm taking nothing for granted, and have been campaigning for Clinton in Pennsylvania):

1.  From 2017-2020, assuming Trump loses, isn't it inevitable that he will at the very least call in to Fox & Friends all the time to share his latest thoughts on how Clinton is fucking everything up?  Isn't it inevitable that he will keep up his running commentary on his Twitter feed?  There are different ways he might "go away" but it's hard to imagine him truly shutting the fuck up.

2.  A lot of Republicans will presumably be disillusioned with Trump if/when he loses.  But won't a substantial fraction continue to revere him?  Won't it be dangerous for most elected Republicans to criticize him (beyond maybe some banal griping about how he could have run a better race)?  And therefore won't Trump's role in public discourse become a partisan issue, with only a few Republicans joining Democrats to repudiate him?

3.  Won't Trump continue to spout conspiracy theories and amplify vile racial propaganda?  Why would he stop?

These sound like rhetorical questions, and in a sense I guess they are.  But I'm genuinely curious about the answers.  Is there any plausible future in which Donald Trump isn't one of the most prominent and influential voices in the Republican Party?

Maybe this helps explain the fights he is picking with Paul Ryan.  After the election they will wrestle for control of the Republican Party.  Trump will be greatly discredited by his loss, but probably not discredited enough to lose the support of a substantial number of Republican voters—enough to decide the party's course, quite possibly.

I once dismissed the "hostile takeover of the Republican Party" idea because so much of the party establishment clearly despises Trump.  But now I am taking it much more seriously.  The party's leadership can change very quickly, and people like Paul Ryan can prove to be paper tigers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


There are two related problems with political polling that have emerged over the last 8 years.  They both stem from what is otherwise a positive development:  the widespread use of polling averages to assess the state of political races.  The first problem is that pollsters have a strong incentive to bias their poll results toward the current average.  The counterintuitive result is that this makes each individual poll more accurate but makes the average of polls less accurate (and probably slower to react to real changes in the underlying data).

The second problem is that the rewards for conducting polls (which are expensive and are often paid for by news organizations) have declined significantly.  Again, I want to emphasize, this is partly for good reason:  individual polls were previously given too much attention, and it is healthy for them to be deemphasized.  But the downside is that it makes less and less sense to invest resources in high-quality polls.  In a sense, Nate Silver's work in 2008 may have been "out of equilibrium"—news organizations were still conducting lots of high-quality polls out of habit/inertia, giving Silver plenty to work with.  Over time, Silver's approach may become less powerful as it becomes starved of raw materials.

By the way, a related point is that news organizations are often criticized for hyping their own polls:  why are you reporting candidate X is up by 4 (as your poll indicates) when it is probably more accurate to report that candidate X is up by 7 (as the polling average indicates)?  There's some logic to this criticism, but it has the bizarre implication that after shelling out $50,000 (or whatever) you can't even report your own poll as straight news!  You can see why news organizations would start having second thoughts about how often to poll the field, and at what level of quality.

(You may be wondering if I have any evidence that news organizations are cutting back on the resources going into polling.  The answer is, a little.  Here's Nate Silver in 2014 saying "there are fewer high-quality polls than there used to be."  And there is Pew's shift away from horse-race polling, which Harry Enten of 538 called "unfortunate."  I am not sophisticated enough about polling to understand whether this is related to the issues I'm writing about, but it seems as though it might be.  In any case my worry is about where things are headed—the current level of polling seems adequate, though it is not everything we might wish for.)

[Update:  this piece by Nate Cohn describes the relative scarcity of polls in the 2016 race.]

Here's my (admittedly imperfect) solution.  News organizations that conduct high-quality polls could form a consortium and hire someone to create an average of their polls, all of which would meet some specified quality threshold.  When a new poll comes out, it is fed into the average before it is published, and then the organization that paid for the poll is allowed to be the first to publish both the poll results and the new, updated polling average (which is what everyone really wants to see).  The other media organizations need not wait long to post stories about the new average (I'm thinking minutes or hours at most), but the organization that actually shelled out the money for the poll would get some advantage for its money.  The organizations would have to stagger the release of their poll data for this to work, but not by much.

It's pretty clear how this would encourage media organizations to spend more on high-quality polling.  I also think it would discourage "herding" (the tendency to skew polls toward the pre-existing average) because the headline is less the new poll number and more the new, updated polling average.  If anything there might be reason to worry that the pollster would skew away from the existing average in order to make a more dramatic announcement.

I suppose there are some anti-trust type concerns.  Who gets to be in the consortium?  However, I'd observe that a monopolist might have better incentives than players in a competitive market.  We could use a high-quality poll of Missouri more than we could use the 20th poll of Ohio, right?  The consortium could make resource-allocation decisions in a more rational way for the collective good of the model.

Anyway look it's not a great idea but it seems as though it might work.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Be of Good Cheer

My previous post was a little pessimistic, so I want to put things in perspective.  Hillary Clinton is going to crush Donald Trump on election day.  Nothing about last night's debate changed that.  Trump threw his followers some red meat and shored up his support among the right-wing assholes who form the base of the Republican Party.  In doing so, he might have stopped some congressional Republicans from withdrawing their support.  (Whether that turns out well for them or not is unclear at this point—I might write more on that point later.)  But that's all he accomplished.  He didn't change the underlying dynamic of the race, which is that his campaign is floundering and it is jeopardizing the entire Republican Party.

The title of this post is taken from Lincoln's advise to General Rosecrans after his defeat at Chickamauga.  Rosecrans was in fact relieved of command not long after, never regaining his composure after the devastating loss.  But in a broader sense, the advice was right.  By that point, it was clear to almost everyone that the Union was going to win.  Chickamauga was a setback, but it was only a matter of time before Union troops would march into Richmond.

And this debate wasn't even a Chickamauga!  Clinton won!  So be of good cheer.  We are winning the war.

The Debate

I want to make a point about last night's debate.  Hillary Clinton just withstood the most visceral, brutal attack I've ever seen in American politics.  Donald Trump assembled a group of women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, did a tawdry press conference with them, and invited them to the debate.  (He tried to get them into the area reserved for the candidates' families, but the commission refused.)

Then during the debate he threatened to jail Hillary Clinton if he is elected.  I'm going to say that again:  he threatened to jail Hillary Clinton if he is elected.

For those who don't remember, I want to remind you that in the 1990s there was an entire industry devoted to smearing the Clintons.  You might think I'm exaggerating.  I'm not.  You can see a little bit about how it operated here.  The goal was to destroy the Clintons by hook or by crook.  It was nasty, relentless, and totally unconcerned with the truth.  Donald Trump is reaching back to that playbook, replicating the tactics the Republicans used to try to humiliate the Clintons.

To repeat myself:  as far as I know, no one in American politics has ever been put through this kind of ordeal.  Donald Trump is conducting himself like a thug, and it is disgraceful.

I say all of this because I think in many ways our institutions aren't built to handle a menace like Trump.  After the debate people immediately started talking about who won, and because Trump didn't take as many hits as he did in the first debate, people were saying he beat expectations and/or won outright.  (I'll note that polls showed him losing, in some cases by a lot.)  This is the natural way to think about a presidential debate 99% of the time, and that is exactly what Trump is counting on.  Trump is counting on voters not to understand how far out of bounds his behavior was, and he's counting on the media not to tell them.  He's counting on things like this:
This is important because to be completely honest many voters have trouble putting things in context and so they take their cues from journalists and political leaders.  This is why a lot of people are worried about "normalizing" Trump.  That is certainly scary—the reaction to his behavior should be utter revulsion—but I want to make a different point at the moment.  I think many Democrats are disappointed that Clinton didn't thrash Trump the way she did in the first debate.  Certainly that would have been nice.  But consider that she just walked into a debate where her current opponent had made common cause with her old tormentors and brought her husband's accusers into the room (and, if they had been allowed, would have brought them into the family box).  Consider that she had to share a stage with a man who promised to put her in jail if he wins.  Threatened to make an Aung San Suu Kyi out of her.  Hillary Clinton just withstood something that would break almost anyone else, and she kept fighting.

We must rededicate ourselves to defeating this fascist, misogynist thug.  There are fights that she can't fight and things she can't say—we must say them.  The fact that Clinton is still standing and still fighting after a despicable effort to take her down should give you heart.  Don't be discouraged by the fact that the debate doesn't seem to have been a blowout.  Make the election a blowout.

Thursday, October 06, 2016


Just laying down a marker that I might return to in the future.  After World War II, the Allies obviously punished Germany for its crimes.  But Austria was largely given a pass, despite the fact that Austrian elites were generally at least as complicit as German elites in the various crimes of the Third Reich.  (In fact I seem to remember reading that German elites on the whole acquitted themselves better than their Austrian counterparts, but this is not the sort of conclusion I would have much confidence in.  The broader point is that Austrians were hardly passive victims of Hitler's plans.)

So why was Austria largely spared?  My understanding is that it is because Austria was crucial to cold war politics.  This also helps explain Germany's relatively light punishment, but Germany on some level couldn't deny its central role.  By contrast, the Allies essentially invited the Austrians to play the role of victim, and the Austrians eagerly complied.

Now consider Trump's various enablers and supporters.  Which of these will get the Austrian treatment?  I honestly have no idea.  But one interesting and somewhat disturbing possibility is that some of his white working-class supporters from swing states will be considered "up for grabs" and (here's the disturbing part) as a result it will be difficult for Democrats to condemn Trump and Trumpism.

I'll have a lot more post-election predictions to write about, but right now I'm wondering how strong the Austria Effect will be and who will take shelter in it.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Campaign Donations and Happiness

This year I have made a donation to the Democratic Presidential campaign, as I did in 2012 and 2008.  I also gave a modest sum to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (which campaigns for House seats) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.  I've also signed up to volunteer for the Clinton campaign in my neighboring state of Pennsylvania.  Finally, I bought and make a point of wearing several pro-Clinton t-shirts.

The Democrats have my phone number and email address.  And they use them vigorously to try to get more money out of me.  I get emails basically accusing me of wanting the Republicans to win because I haven't given any money in the last few months.  (Note:  I make a point of giving the money fairly early because it is more valuable to the campaign that way.)  So in other words, I don't think there's any amount of money I could give that would prevent me from being subjected to these insinuations that I'm terrible.

In a way I don't blame them.  They need to raise money, and to do so they need to motivate people like me to dig deeper.  They don't have the luxury of adopting a perspective like:  "James has already given a lot, let's not play mind games with him at this point."  They know I'm committed to the cause and so they have to squeeze me.  It would be malpractice not to.  (For what it's worth, they also send nice thank-you letters from time to time.)

Anyway that's life.  But it got me thinking about the way our brains reward us for doing various things.  Imagine an index showing how much effort an individual has put into promoting the survival of his/her genes, and also an index of pleasure/satisfaction (let's put this on a scale from 1 to 10).  The trick that the brain has to pull off is that it has to convince the individual that there will be big happiness gains from making reproductive efforts or whatever (this could take many forms, from acquiring wealth to exercising to simply having sex).  So in other words, if you are currently at a 5 on the happiness/satisfaction index, the brain might suggest to you that you will be at a 7 if you make some big effort to make yourself more attractive.

But your brain runs into the same problem that political campaigns do:  pretty soon it's run out of space to offer rewards (or in the case of a campaign, it needs to start pretending you are "behind" on your efforts), and it has to dial you back down the happiness/satisfaction scale in order to give it some room to promise increases.  This is a variation of the "sunk cost" fallacy:  in both cases, the point is to affect my behavior going forward, and it would be unproductive to give me big rewards simply because of past behavior.  Or to put it another way:  those big rewards are necessary, but they must also be sharply time-limited, or they eliminate all possibility of further gains on a forward-looking basis.

Of course it's more complicated than that - if the abuse from the campaigns really bothered me, I might stop giving and unsubscribe from their emails.  There has to be some amount of reward for my past behavior.  When it comes to brain chemistry, it's also a question of how good my memory is.  The brain, of course, has tricks up its sleeves that political campaigns don't.  It can make me accept promises of future happiness that a rational actor wouldn't believe (since a rational actor would take into account the dynamic I've described above).  The brain can make me forget how things have played out in the past.

Anyway just an observation about how our internal reward systems are complicated and sometimes perverse.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Knowledge About Knowledge

There is a way of thinking about innocence, in which it is a kind of ignorance.  To lose your innocence is to know something about the world that changes your relation to it.  This happens when you have sex, or go to war.

So certain kinds of knowledge have an eerie capacity to change us, and it feels like a violation of natural laws.  Information shouldn't have so much power, being unreal and insubstantial.  If all that has changed is your awareness of something, and the knowledge has made you worse off, then surely you can just forget it?  It is a matter of rearranging a few molecules.  But of course it isn't possible, and so we have aphorisms about rung bells and scrambled eggs, to express the irreversibility of things such as knowledge.

There are the germs of many good novels here (and a pretty good movie), but anyway what I want to say now is that the 2016 presidential election is perhaps dangerous as much for what it is teaching us about our country and our fellow countrymen as it is for its results (which, as I write, seem likely to be non-disastrous).  We have always known a certain number of people to be cretinous, and others to be racist, and we are aware that the territory of overlap is especially well-populated.  But the sheer volume of new evidence is disarming, and I have the feeling that bells are being rung all over that can never be unrung even when all the dust has settled.  We don't only know that we are surrounded by these people, but that everyone knows, that we know it and they know it and they know that we know it, and so we are establishing common facts that will be very uncomfortable for a long time to come.  The Republicans are desperately trying to retain as much ambiguity as possible, but the party's choices are out there for everyone to see.

I append a discussion that may be of interest to some of my readers.

There is a well-known thought experiment in game theory to illustrate the importance of common knowledge.  Three people (who are all commonly known to be completely rational) sit facing each other, all of their faces visibly dirty, but each of them unable to see his own face.  At the stroke of each hour, if a person stands up and states the number of people with dirty faces, he will either receive a reward (if he is correct) or a punishment (if he is wrong).  Lacking a credible way to communicate information to each other, the three find themselves in a deadlock.

A fourth person enters the room, announces (with complete credibility) that at least one of the three has a dirty face, and exits.  At this point, you may wish to predict what will happen before you read further.

To use up space between the puzzle and the answer, I will observe that these highly stylized puzzles are sometimes taken too literally.  The point is not to be clever but to establish a conceptual possibility, and it is that conceptual possibility that should be the focus of the student's attention.  To that end, I'll add a somewhat realistic example (in fairness to my own educators, I believe it is an example we discussed in the game theory class that I took).

And now the answer:  As the clock strikes the hour for the third time after the announcement, all three stand up and declare that there are three dirty faces.

The logic is this:  initially, each player must be agnostic about the status of his own face.  Each player doesn't stand up initially because he is uncertain whether there are two dirty faces or three.  But once everyone has learned that there is at least one dirty face, things proceed as follows.  If only one player had a dirty face, he would stand up at the stroke of the first hour.  This would be an easy win, because he would possess two pieces of information that, together, compel the conclusion that there is one dirty face:  (1) there is at least one dirty face (as per the announcement), and (2) there are at least two clean faces (as per the evidence of his own eyes).

But no one stands up at the stroke of the first hour, because everyone can see two dirty faces.  So after the first hour, everyone knows that everyone knows that there are at least two dirty faces.  If a player could see one dirty face and one clean face, at the next opportunity he could stand up and confidently announce that there were two dirty faces.  But no one can, because no one sees a clean face, and so no one can tell whether there are two dirty faces or three.

But since no one stands up, everyone knows that there are three dirty faces, and so at the third hour they all stand up.

The punchline here is that the fourth person announced a fact that was already known to all of the players.  After all, each of them could see two dirty faces, so no one was surprised by the revelation.  And in fact, not only did each player know that there was at least one dirty face, each player knew that every other player knew of at least one dirty face.  (Again, this is a consequence of the fact that each player could see two dirty faces, and so at most any other player would see one clean face.)

You have to push back one more level before any new information was revealed.  Let's call the players A, B, and C.  A knew that there was at least one dirty face.  A knew that B knew that there was at least one dirty face.  But A didn't know that B knew that C knew that there was at least one dirty face.  (From A's perspective, A might have a clean face.  And if so, then from B's perspective, both A and B might have clean faces.  And so A had no way of knowing that B knew that C knew that there was at least one dirty face.)  Once the announcement was made, then of course every player knew that every other player knew, to any number of degrees you like.

I'm sorry if I've lost you.  Here is a more concrete example.  A man has cheated on his wife.  She knows it (either because he confessed or because she found other evidence).  The community also knows it.  Moreover, the community knows that the wife knows.  (Let us assume it is a traditional, backward, sex-negative society in which adultery is considered morally wrong.  Moreover, it is considered humiliating for both spouses, including the wronged spouse.)  Also, the wife knows that the community knows.  So basically everyone knows everything, right?

Well, no.  Let's walk through it.  You are an acquaintance of the wife.  You don't know whether she knows that you know about the adultery, and so you must pretend not to know.  If in fact the wife doesn't know that you know, then maybe she won't feel ashamed.  In fact, even if you know that she knows that you know about the adultery, you should pretend not to know unless you know that she knows that you know that she knows about the adultery.  But anyway, the point is that outwardly everyone can pretend that nothing has happened, and her pain can remain a private affair.

This may explain the phenomenon in which a woman who has long known about her husband's adultery suddenly must divorce him when it becomes public, even if it was already widely known.  Suddenly, something that was already known by everyone has become known to be known, and while it can still technically be ignored in public (as can almost anything), there is no avoiding the mutual awareness of the falseness of this stance.

Mandatory Maximums

By far the strangest trend I've seen in the West's approach to Islam is the idea that it should be illegal for Muslim women to wear modest clothing (recall the French teacher who sent a student home for wearing a skirt that didn't reveal enough of her legs), or that if they do wear modest clothing, they are under a special obligation to confront misogyny in their societies.  Under no circumstances are they to be permitted to live their lives as they see fit.

This is basically a parody of Islamophobia, a reductio that is too absurd to be plausible in a novel.  In New York, toplessness is considered to be legally protected (unless it is commercial in nature), and so women cannot be arrested for taking their shirts off.  How long, though, until women can be arrested for not taking their shirts off?

Irish Evil

I sometimes wonder if American drinks were designed to piss off the Irish.  "Irish car bombs" are the most obvious example (Guinness with a shot of whiskey and Irish cream—never order one of these).  But another example is the "black and tan," Guinness and Bass.  (Other stouts and ales can be substituted.)  Never order one of these either, not because it is a bad drink, but because the black and tans were vicious paramilitaries from Britain (it is always paramilitaries who are the most vicious, isn't it?) who fought in the Irish War of Independence and whose brutality has lived on in Irish memory.