Pur Autre Vie

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

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Paul Ryan's Trade Policy

Paul Ryan is refusing to advance legislation that would curtail Trump's unilateral control over U.S. trade policy. His stated reason is that he's not going to push for legislation that Trump wouldn't sign anyway. Of course overriding a presidential veto is hardly unprecedented in U.S. politics, and Ryan might even have the votes for it, but in truth I am sympathetic to Ryan here. (To be clear, I despise him, but on this particular issue I can see why he is taking this stance.)

First, I just don't think trade is a very big deal. It's important to distinguish between the theoretical stakes and the actual stakes. The theoretical case for trade is very strong, and it is especially strong when it comes to rich, democratic allies like Canada. (I think it is also very strong for countries like China and Indonesia, but it is certainly more complicated in those cases.)

But the practical import of Trump's actions so far is negligible from a macroeconomic perspective. And that would be true even if the "trade war" escalated to several times its current magnitude. I am sympathetic to the people whose livelihoods are being ruined, but people's livelihoods are ruined every day by any number of government policies (and by random chance). Also, there is at least some possibility the status quo ante will be restored, in which case the soybean farmers will return to normal (though a few may have been wiped out in the meantime, and again, I really do feel bad for these people).

Now there is another consequence of the trade war, which is that it is a boon for lobbyists and the people within the administration who stand to benefit from their attention. When fortunes are made and lost on the president's whim, it becomes highly profitable to have influence within the administration. So for instance, after the steel tariffs went into effect, the manufacturers of beer kegs requested protection (they are squeezed because their foreign competitors are paying a low price for steel while they pay the new, elevated domestic price). The same story will unfold across hundreds of industries, and fortunes can be made by Trump's advisers.

But that's no concern of Ryan's. And frankly Trump's advisers were already profiting handsomely from his erratic administration.

Second, and more importantly, Paul Ryan's job at this point is to get as many Republicans elected to Congress as possible in November. He would not advance that goal by creating what amounts to a wedge issue in favor of the Democrats. (Technically it's not quite a wedge issue, because I assume quite a few Democrats would vote against the legislation, but they would do so to their own electoral advantage, whereas Republicans would generally be trapped between their ideology and Trump's popularity within their electorate.)

This gets to an important point that I think is underappreciated. Paul Ryan is not a popular man, and within the Republican Party's base Trump is hugely popular. In those circumstances blaming Ryan for failing to override Trump's veto is like blaming someone for the laws of physics.

Now I realize there's a complication here, which is that the Republican Party has cultivated a base of horrible people. This is part of why I despise Paul Ryan! So my defense of him is meant to be very narrow. At this juncture, I don't really think it would make any sense for him to oppose Trump on trade, and I think trade doesn't even make the top 100 list of Trump's threat to the U.S. To that extent, and that extent only, I think Ryan is exculpated.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Stein, Milgram, and Comity

There is a long-running vituperative fight between "liberals" and "leftists" about the Democratic agenda. Painting in broad strokes, leftists want to push the Democrats as far left as possible across the board, while liberals tend to be more idiosyncratic and more pro-market (for instance, some want to push the Democrats to the right on housing policy). However, I think it's a mistake to view the groups in ideological terms. The policy distance between them is not large and it is almost entirely irrelevant to today's national politics. (As I mentioned, on a local level there may be relevant differences.) Instead the fight comes down to disputes over tactics and, far more importantly, resentments over specific races, in particular the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primaries.

This is all very unfortunate inasmuch as it tends to get Democrats upset at each other and causes people to turn off their brains. (I'm using the term "Democrats" to refer to people who, broadly speaking, tend to vote for Democratic candidates or at least to support their policies. In fact many on the left despise the Democratic Party.) So for instance, I'm convinced that if he were fully briefed on the issue, Bernie Sanders might very well support congestion taxes to reduce car traffic and provide funding for the MTA. But in practice his "team" is part of a political coalition that opposes congestion taxes, and so when he came to New York he criticized congestion taxes because of the negative effect they would have on "working families and working people." My perhaps over-optimistic view is that if Democratic politics were less tribal, and if Sanders had a better command of the facts, he might be persuadable on this issue. (In truth, though, I'm not sure de Blasio would be any less of a schmuck if Democratic politics were more functional, and Sanders was weighing in on New York City transit policy at de Blasio's behest.)

Anyway one of the recent dustups has centered on how much blame people bear for voting for Jill Stein, or for not voting or whatever, in 2016. The way this sometimes comes up is that Trump will do something terrible like tearing babies from their mothers, and then someone will tweet something like, "Wow, thanks Jill Stein," and then a fight erupts. What should we make of this?

I have two answers. The first answer is that I'm not sure why Stein voters (or willful non-voters) are significantly less blameworthy than Trump voters. I want to emphasize some nuance here—maybe your view is that Trump voters are not very culpable. If that's your view, then you should probably conclude that Stein voters are also not very culpable, if at all. I don't see why it would be more blameworthy to vote for Stein than for Trump.

But my own view is that Trump voters are in fact quite culpable. This is not because they necessarily had a subjective desire to see families split apart or whatever. In fact, you'll sometimes see a story where a Trump voter will have her husband deported and she'll say something like, "Well I thought he was only going to go after the bad ones!" The reason I don't think people's subjective expectations are very exculpatory is that Trump made practically no effort to hide his animus against immigrants, black people, women, and so forth. If you concluded that you would not be personally affected, or you convinced yourself that Trump has a good heart or whatever, you are either engaged in "ethical localism" or you are culpably gullible.

Anyway that's my view. And I basically apply similar logic to Stein voters. They knew (or should have known) the stakes. They were basically placed into a real-life Milgram experiment and told to pull the lever to unleash hell on minorities. And they pulled the lever. I don't care if subjectively they thought they were preserving their moral purity by not voting for a Democrat or whatever. They shouldn't have pulled the lever.

My second answer is that part of being a grownup is not saying everything you believe. In particular, given how helpful the intra-left fights are to Trump and conservatives generally, I think it's generally best to be conciliatory. The problem, of course, is that a fair amount of the fight is carried out on social media, where the impulse to respond sharply is nearly irresistible. (And in fact I have generally not resisted it.) This is particularly so because Stein voters are often to this day convinced that pulling the Milgram lever was the right thing to do. This is very hard to take.

But anyway my view is simply that Stein voters are morally complicit in Trump's crimes, and for the sake of political cohesion we must not say so publicly. (This blog is sufficiently non-public that I don't see any problem being frank.) Maybe I will write something about the way this two-faced approach is subjectively unpleasant, but maybe that's obvious.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Can the Democrats Win Kansas By Moving Left?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an inspiring politician whose success has catapulted her to the front pages and sparked a conversation about how the Democratic Party should frame its agenda. In particular, some have suggested that the Democrats should openly embrace socialism in all of their races, while others have expressed skepticism that Ocasio-Cortez's messaging would work in districts that are further to the right than the (very safely Democratic) 14th congressional district of New York.

Ocasio-Cortez has weighed in on this debate with a beguiling argument.:

What is intriguing about this is the suggestion that if Sanders won the Democratic primary in a state, it means that the state is ripe for a Democratic general election victory, so long as the Democratic candidate openly embraces a left-wing economic message. And the logic seems pretty bulletproof. If a state isn't ready to embrace socialism in its general election, then how could a socialist candidate win its Democratic primary? That would seem to be a contradiction in terms, as absurd as the prospect of a conservative candidate winning the Republican nomination in a reliably Democratic state.

And it's hard to overstate how startling the 2016 Democratic primary map is when you look at it in this light. You can see a map of the 2016 primary results here. If Ocasio-Cortez is correct, Democrats could pick up essentially the entire northwest quadrant of the country by embracing socialism. Assuming they keep their losses elsewhere to a minimum, Democrats could run up a truly stunning margin in the Electoral College. (Also, Clinton won the primaries in Missouri and Kentucky by razor-thin margins. If you add those states to the Democratic tally, we're talking about an epic landslide in November.)

I only see one slight problem with the argument: I'm not 100% sure that it's true that a Sanders win in a Democratic primary necessarily implies that a socialist would win the general election. To cite one example, in West Virginia Sanders trounced Clinton, which according to our theory would indicate a strong taste for socialism in West Virginia. But according to NBC (link via Wikipedia), 39% of the Democrats pulling the lever for Sanders would vote for Trump in a Trump vs. Sanders general election. This might indicate that there is some missing nuance in argument implicit in Ocasio-Cortez's tweet. (In this case, part of the nuance is that a lot of conservative voters in West Virginia are registered Democrats for vestigial reasons, and they seem to have voted for Sanders out of antipathy toward Clinton, not out of support for socialism.)

The other point I would make, and I'm a little surprised Ocasio-Cortez didn't notice this, is that in many states the Democratic primary is not a surefire indicator of general election success for the simple reason that Republicans greatly outnumber Democrats. To put it another way, there will always be a Democratic primary winner in every state, even though there are states where Democrats stand no chance in the general election. The victory of the further-left candidate in those primaries might not constitute good evidence for the party's prospects in the general election.

To take an example cited by Ocasio-Cortez, in the Kansas Democratic caucuses, Bernie Sanders won 26,637 votes to Clinton's 12,593. Even if this indicates that Kansas contains 26,637 voters who will gladly pull the lever for socialism, that may not be quite enough to win a general election—in the 2016 general election, Trump got about 671,000 votes and Clinton got about 427,0000. Given those numbers, the ability of a self-avowed socialist to attract 26,637 votes in a partisan caucus may not indicate a path to victory.

So as much as I like Ocasio-Cortez, I feel she may have made an elementary mathematical error when she published the tweet I've embedded above. I look forward to the left wing of the party dropping this argument as its flaws become apparent.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

The Customer Protection Rule and Too Big to Fail

I wrote a long post about the Customer Protection Rule (formally, Rule 15c3-3 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934), and I realized no one would want to read it, so here's a slightly shorter post.

The key thing to recognize is that the Customer Protection Rule, which applies to U.S. broker-dealers, prevents the broker-dealers from using customer funds to finance themselves. To oversimplify a little, when a customer holds cash in a brokerage account, the broker-dealer can only do two things with it: (A) make margin loans to other customers, or (B) hold the cash in segregation. By "hold the cash in segregation" I mean hold it in a special account that is reserved for customer property and that can't be subject to a security interest in favor of the bank maintaining the account. (The broker-dealer can also invest the cash in U.S. Treasury securities, which must also be held in segregation.) The broker-dealer can't use the cash for any other purpose, and certainly it can't use the cash to pay its own creditors.

The purpose of the rule is to prevent broker-dealers from putting their customers at risk. A broker-dealer that is in compliance with the Customer Protection Rule should always be able to return customer cash and securities reasonably quickly without risk of loss. Of course nothing is perfect, and I don't want to exaggerate the degree of protection, but it's pretty good. (As an added layer of protection, insurance provided by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation automatically protects the first $500,000 of customer assets, except that it only protects up to $250,000 of cash.)

Two observations here. First, hedge funds generally want to borrow money to finance their trading activity. Some funds operate without leverage, but that's pretty rare. So typically a hedge fund, far from having cash in its brokerage account, will actually have a large debit in its account (that is, it will have a large margin loan payable to the broker).

Second, a broker-dealer should be largely indifferent to customer withdrawals, at least in terms of its own liquidity. Since the cash is segregated anyway, it's not as though it was ever available to the broker-dealer in a meaningful way. Sure, it can be a cheap way to finance margin loans, and it earns a modicum of interest in the special reserve account (or, if it is invested in Treasuries, it earns a small return that way), but to a close approximation a broker-dealer shouldn't care about customer withdrawals as such. (One little nuance here is that the broker-dealer generally run their computations for segregation once a week, so when customers withdraw cash it briefly reduces the broker-dealer's liquidity. But within a week its liquidity is restored as it draws a corresponding amount out of segregation, and I'm pretty sure a broker-dealer could always run the computation more frequently if it wanted. Not 100% sure about that.) Of course customer withdrawals of cash might signal a loss of confidence, which is quite serious, but by themselves they are not a big deal.

That's why I found the following passage from Too Big to Fail puzzling:

Apart from the new anxiety about money market funds and general nervousness about investment banks, he [John Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley] was facing a more serious problem than anyone on the outside realized: At the beginning of the week, Morgan Stanley had had $178 billion in the tank—money available to fund operations and to lend to their major hedge fund clients. But in the past twenty-four hours, more than $20 billion of it had been withdrawn, as hedge fund clients demanded it back, in some cases closing their prime brokerage accounts entirely.
"The money's walking out the door," Chammah [co-president of Morgan Stanley] told Mack.
"Nobody gives a shit about loyalty," Mack railed. He had wanted to cut off the flow of funds, but up until now had been persuaded by Chammah to keep wiring the balances.
"To put the gates up," Chammah warned, "would be a sign of weakness."
The question was, how much more could they afford to let go? "We can't do this forever," Chammah said.
I really can't tell what's going on here. "Money available to fund operations and to lend to their major hedge fund clients" is only half right. Sure, you can use customer cash to fund margin loans, but you emphatically cannot use it to fund operations. That would be grossly illegal.

Also, hedge funds really shouldn't be holding that much cash at their brokerage. It's weird. Hedge funds usually want leverage, and sitting on cash is the last thing they want to do. (Admittedly the markets were weird at that point, and if you're net short you might be holding cash in your account as collateral for your short positions.)

But the big point here is the one I made earlier. This is presented as a loss of liquidity for Morgan Stanley. But the money was coming out of segregation, it was never a source of liquidity to begin with. Don't get me wrong, you never want to lose customers, but the last thing to worry about is returning their cash.

Also, it's true that Morgan Stanley can use customer cash to fund margin loans, but (A) at the margin most broker-dealers have lots of cash sitting in segregation, so they don't need to reduce their margin lending, and (B) anyway when a broker-dealer has to use alternative funding to finance a margin loan, it can take the borrower's securities out of segregation to obtain the financing on a secured basis.

As I said, it's puzzling. Maybe its customer reserve account was empty somehow and so a dollar of customer withdrawals meant a dollar of financing that it had to obtain in the market? And maybe Morgan Stanley was having trouble obtaining financing even on a secured basis? But that all seems very unlikely. I don't really get it.

[Oh, also, you can't refuse to give customers their cash! I guess you can slow-walk them, maybe, but the regulators would flip their shit if they knew you were intentionally holding on to customer cash when customers were trying to get it out.]

[Updated slightly for clarity.]

Sunday, July 01, 2018

FAQ on Nancy Pelosi

Q: Isn't Nancy Pelosi Bad? For instance:

A: That quotation is taken out of context. Here's the full video:

And here's the specific question and answer referred to in the tweet:

If you can't hear the question, it appears to be, "Republicans say that one of the things this [inaudible] shows is that democratic socialism is ascendant in your party. Are they right about that?"

Q: So why doesn't she just admit that democratic socialism is what the party stands for now?

A: First of all, that's not true. Democratic socialism is commonly understood to involve a much larger public sector than many Democrats support. Also, the term has been adopted by a faction of the left wing, and that faction is by no means representative of the Democratic caucus generally.

Q: I'm suspicious. Why would Republicans say it if it isn't true?

A: Republicans believe that if they frame the November elections as a referendum on socialism, it will improve their expected outcome. They do not feel beholden to the truth and haven't for a long time.

Q: What if they're wrong? What if the only thing preventing the Democrats from taking a huge majority is its refusal to embrace socialism?

A: That's certainly a theory put forward by the far left of the party. But it seems likely that left-wing policies (such as expanded access to health care and education) are more popular than the label "socialist," at least in the swing districts Pelosi is trying to win. Bear in mind also that "socialism" is a classic wedge issue, in the sense that the Republicans are united in opposition to it while Democrats are divided. And in general, it doesn't make a lot of sense to frame your ideas in the most provocative way possible, unless your goal is to win intra-party debates. But Pelosi is trying to beat the Republicans, and to that end she is wisely fending off maximalist rhetoric.

Actually, though, based on where things stand today, it appears it is to the Republicans' benefit to force high-stakes gambles. When you're behind, you want to increase randomness as much as possible. So for instance, imagine you are behind in a football game by 20 points. That's a large margin. If the rules permitted, you might propose a coin flip to the other team, with the winner getting 50 points. At that point your odds would go from very long to about 50/50. Of course there is no reason for the team that is up by 20 points to agree to such a proposal, and that is exactly what Pelosi is doing here—shooting down a proposed coin flip.

Q: Shouldn't Pelosi push socialism to shift the Overton window?

A: You're referring to the theory that by proposing an extreme policy, a political actor can reframe the discussion in a way that makes his original position seem moderate. Again, this is a theory that some would certainly embrace. But even if you accept that viewpoint (and it is far from obvious that it works that way in this context), Pelosi is ill-positioned to be the one saying these things, because her words can be pinned to Democrats in swing districts in a way that Ocasio-Cortez's words cannot. (Unless, that is, Pelosi takes the bait and admits that Ocasio-Cortez represents the party. Of course her refusal to do this is exactly why Ashley Feinberg called her "bad.")

Q: All right. But isn't it Bad to shit all over Ocasio-Cortez?

A: Pelosi didn't do that.

Q: Well, she said nice things about Joe Crowley. What the fuck?

A: Sure. She and Crowley are friendly. So what?

Q: You shouldn't say nice things about Republicans, even after they lose special elections.

A: Crowley is a Democrat. This was a primary, not a special election. And once the results were in he promptly endorsed Ocasio-Cortez and promised to campaign for her. He even sang "Born to Run" in her honor at what was supposed to be his victory party. He's served in Congress for nearly two decades, so it was quite a disappointing night for him, and yet he was very gracious in defeat.

Q: Okay, but he's still a conservative Democrat.

A: Try again.

Q: A moderate Democrat.

A: Try again.

Q: Well, maybe you shouldn't waste your interview time saying nice things about Democrats, no matter how liberal they are, when you could be praising Ocasio-Cortez.

A: Ocasio-Cortez doesn't need (or likely even want) Pelosi's praise. Actually it doesn't matter, since Ocasio-Cortez is guaranteed to win her election by dozens of points, but if anything Pelosi is doing her a favor by not praising her. Pelosi is unpopular with voters outside of her own district, and most Democrats would like the voters in their districts to forget all about her.

Ocasio-Cortez has been attacked by conservatives on Twitter for the reasons I outlined above. This raises people's ire and pushes them toward tribal, with-us-or-against-us feelings. Since Pelosi is not in a position where getting involved would be prudent, it can rub people the wrong way, but this is a function of her role within the party.

Q: Yeah, but also I just have really warm feelings about Ocasio-Cortez right now, and in her public statements Pelosi isn't making a big show of sharing those warm feelings. Out of context, her words would seem to indicate that she is trying to rain on my parade.

A: Yes, I suspect that is what is going on here.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Total War

Part of social media's effect on our lives is that the struggle is constant. Houellebecq called one of his books The Extension of the Domain of the Struggle. He was talking about how the collapse of monogamy means that we are now in lifelong sexual competition with each other, but the concept certainly applies to modern politics.

In both cases the result is exhausting. A major aspect of modern life is simply figuring out how much of it you can stand. Personally I'm pretty burned out, and I'm not even that politically active.

I don't really know what to say about it except that traditional political activism is probably a lot less psychologically wearying. Unfortunately it's demanding in other ways. I don't know. We've built a hell of a world for ourselves, it's a wonder anyone finds any joy in anything.


I might mention that my previous two posts maybe shed a little light on what philosophical pragmatists are getting at. (To be clear what follows is just an analogy.) Imagine two true facts about the world. One of them, if publicized, will tend to increase the public's perception of the frequency of police brutality, the other will tend to reduce it. Depending on the public's existing perceptions, one of these facts is going to make the public better-informed and the other will make the public worse-informed, and yet by traditional measures both facts are true.

This might motivate a search for a richer conception of truth, one that takes into account the actual effect of believing the statement in question. Of course you don't want to go overboard and start reporting falsehoods "in service of a higher truth" or anything like that, I am simply observing that assessing the truth of statements in terms of their effect on the accuracy of your understanding of the world is not the craziest idea that has ever occurred to someone.

(Again, this is really by way of analogy only, pragmatism is to my knowledge not about overall social awareness of things but rather operates on an individual level.)

More On Sensationalism

In my last post I discussed the use of vivid, often viral stories to change public opinion. The idea is that you have to break through people's apathy and expose them to realities in order to persuade them that those realities are common (and, typically, need to be addressed). To be concrete about this, if you have a video of a police officer harassing a young black man who has done nothing wrong, you promote it on social media and hope that people will increase their estimate of how common it is for the police to harass young black men.

Of course this is an arms race. Fox News wants people to believe that it is the blacks who are dangerous, while police officers are heroic. BLM types want roughly the opposite.

On some level this comes down to a gruesomely cynical exercise in which each ideological faction relentlessly promotes stories that advance its particular agenda. The net effect is hard to estimate, but it certainly puts people under a lot of stress as they process all the distressing stories promoted by whatever faction they belong to. It also probably polarizes people, or heightens the effects of polarization, because we all end up living in different factual worlds. (Also, people tend to be very gullible about within-faction claims, so for instance it was self-evident to Republicans in 2012 that BENGHAZI would destroy Obama's campaign if only the media would report on it.)

There's something really horrible about this modern reality! But of course it's been going on forever, it's just that the fight is being conducted in a different way now that we have social media. Conservatives have long had talk radio, and Fox News started in the mid-90s. So old white people have been eating this garbage for years. By contrast, leftists using it on large scale is a relatively recent phenomenon, as far as I can tell.

An important aspect of all of this is that the information spread this way often has very little value. What I mean by this is that someone practicing some informal version of Bayesian reasoning should attach very little weight to most of these stories. That's because in a world as big as ours, there will seldom be any scarcity of disturbing stories that promote a particular ideology. If you encountered these stories at random, they would inform you about the world. If you encounter stories that have been curated by an activist, you have learned practically nothing new about the world. (To give an example, if your sister tells you a particular brand of ice cream sucks, that's probably valuable information. But the existence of a single negative review for that brand of ice cream, among thousands, tells you very little, particularly if someone is only bringing that review to your attention because he hates the brand.)

This isn't always the case. If a woman reports a negative experience and a bunch of trustworthy women respond, "That's happened to me too!" you can increase your estimate of how often it happens.

What should a reasonable person do? I guess I think the right reaction is to be a skeptical consumer of this stuff, and to avoid it for the most part. Look for reliable information that is actually informative in a Bayesian sense.

But... I'm not going to deny that my views on race, gender, and sexual identity in this country have probably been moved more by random stories of questionable statistical value than they have by statistics. So I don't know.


I had an interesting back-and-forth with Alon Levy on Twitter... it's a long-ass thread but it starts here:

I largely agree with Levy about this. Where I disagree is whether people should unilaterally disarm in the face of this tactic, or use it themselves. But I'll come to that in a minute.

First I want to explain my view of what's going on here. People have two salient characteristics: they don't put much effort into learning about anything unless they are motivated to do so (another way to put this is that public attention for almost any issue is going to be suboptimal), and they don't really use statistics to understand the world, preferring to rely on personal observation (the "availability heuristic").

The consequence is that people are easy to mislead even if you don't lie to them. You simply have to slant the coverage in a way that induces them to believe things that aren't true. (In the degraded parlance of our times, people are easy to "hack.")

The extreme example of this is the racist website that Dylann Roof spent a lot of time reading. The game here was simply to compile every violent black-on-white crime in the news. I have no idea if the website ever broke the truth, but the point is it certainly didn't have to. In a country of 320 million people, there will be plenty of horrific examples of black people raping and killing white people. All you have to do is report them factually to give your reader the impression that white people are facing an existential threat.

Of course no reasonable person would spend time on a website like that. But less extreme examples are everywhere. This is the game that Fox News plays, for instance. It makes itself highly entertaining to certain people (overcoming their general apathy about learning things), and then it feeds them a steady diet of alarmist bullshit about minority groups, left-wing college students/professors, etc. This in turn convinces them that white people can't get a fair shake in this country, you should fear black people, and so on. It is extremely effective propaganda.

Now of course this is regrettable. But the problem is that you can't just snap your fingers and make people pay attention to important matters, or make them learn and apply statistics to their understanding of the world. I suppose formal education probably helps along these dimensions, but obviously not enough. So it can be effective to mimic the tactics used by Fox News. (Something like the Daily Show fits this model. It provides entertainment while alerting people to all of the ridiculousness going on in the world of conservatism.)

Anyway whatever you think of the Daily Show, there are certainly responsible ways to get people to pay attention to issues you care about. The question Levy was addressing was whether it is ever good to sensationalize relatively minor events to promote a narrative. The most common way this occurs on the left (in my experience at least) is through viral content on social media. One example that Levy cited was a white person calling the cops in response to innocuous behavior on the part of black kids or something like that. Lately these have been going viral, bringing a lot of stigma to the individuals calling the cops. When I brought up the example of sensationalizing incidents in which bicyclists are hit by cars, he agreed that those are an example of what he means.

My view is that this kind of thing has to be done judiciously, and ideally activists would confine themselves to cases where an individual won't be targeted or where something serious has happened. (The nature of viral social media posts is that the level of stigma is related to virality and not to the gravity of the underlying harm. If, like, 20 people shame a woman for calling the cops too readily, that might be okay. But for 200,000 to do so is probably overkill.)

But you can't just unilaterally disarm. You can say that ideally everyone would cite statistics rather than vivid examples, and would be equally (un)entertaining, so that people's information would be unbiased. But that's not the world we live in, and activists don't have the luxury of pretending it is. If you want safe streets for bicyclists, you have to break through people's natural apathy with vivid examples. And you (probably) aren't going to publicize cases where cyclists injure or kill pedestrians, because that's not the information you want the public to have heightened awareness of. (You might do it to encourage good behavior on the part of cyclists, acting as a kind of cop. It's just a question of what your priorities are.)

And the same goes for the overuse, misuse, and abuse of police power. Or everyday incidents of sexual harassment. Or bigotry. Or whatever. When these things go viral, it helps educate people and it increases their sense of how common they are. Of course that kind of thing can be bad (as when it leads people to believe black-on-white crime is much more prevalent than it is), but it can also be good (as when it gives people a more realistic sense of what it's like to be a woman or person of color in this country).

So in short, while there are definitely pathologies to this way of spreading ideas, I don't think it makes sense to shun the tactic. It simply has to be used responsibly.

Friday, June 29, 2018

National Identity

It occurs to me that every nation tries to define itself in terms of the things about itself that it is most proud of. I imagine Britain likes to think of itself as the country of Hume, Darwin, Newton, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Battle of Britain, stiff upper lip, and also things like religious tolerance, chicken tikka masala, the Kindertransport, as well as Freddie Mercury, Monty Python, and the English language as a whole, even when used by non-British people.

On a more prosaic level, Britain undoubtedly likes to think of itself in terms of its well-educated, well-behaved, witty residents, tolerant and sober (in manner at least), cosmopolitan even if they live in the countryside, and so forth. But this is a class thing. Not really class in an economic sense, but class in the sense that Britain does not want to think of itself as a nation of chavs and hooligans, bigots, or idiots.

Now I think Britain would also not like to conceive of itself as a nation of toffee-nosed snobs, the sort of Oxbridge pieces of shit who get their degrees in like PPE or something. So it cuts both ways in terms of class. But predominantly I would imagine it is lower class behavior that Britain would rather not be known for.

Similarly when you think of Italians, or Germans, or Australians, there are various stereotypes that are probably not how those nations would care to think of themselves (it's complicated in the case of Australia because I get the sense they've somewhat embraced a certain kind of Australianness that you might not have expected them to, but it makes sense when you think about it).

Anyway I wonder, idly, whether Trump voters sense that they are the people the U.S. doesn't want to be known for, and they resent it, and they basically thrust themselves onto center stage, send Ted Nugent to the White House as an emissary of their shitty culture, and generally wreck the world for the sake of their bruised egos.

[updated to fix a typo]


I'm trying to work out in what sense Canadians might be subjects of Queen Elizabeth II. Edit: Fuck it, who cares.


It's just a nice life, a gentle life, up there in Ontario. Certain patterns of life are viable, certain assumptions about other people are borne out, it's an Alice Munro kind of place. People's minds are mostly free of turmoil, the libraries are good, if there is any crime the Royal Canadian Mounted Police can handle it. Life can still end in disappointment, of course, and in illness and infirmity, you will surely lose everything that you hold dear, but in the meantime there is some chance at happiness and dignity for a brief time.

Updated to add: I guess a good way to put it is that it's a good life if you don't weaken.

A Special Treat

When you unpack your suitcase, you find something that you splurged on for the trip, and you excitedly show it to your assembled family and friends: a bag or two of high-end east African coffee beans, lightly roasted, which you will prepare each morning in batches as people drift into the kitchen in ones and twos, rubbing sleep from their eyes, and maybe some steel-cut oats with dried fruit for breakfast. The coffee will be one of the best parts of each day, as it is every day.


Maybe it's the wholesomeness of the Canadians vacationing up in the Great Lakes. It's the kind of thing you do with your family, if there's any hanky panky it's with your wife, if there's any drug use it's responsible and under control. Not for the Canadians any very late nights, any loud dance music, any socialites, any cocaine, any DUIs or racism or ugly scenes of confrontation. Do you consume a little too much wine and a little too much maple syrup? Maybe. But your vacation is safe and dignified and ever so slightly boring, and this is its virtue.

Summer Vacation

I suppose New Yorkers can go to the Hamptons or Montauk or whatever, and Bostonians can go to the Cape or to Maine. I don't know why, but those don't seem quite as evocative to me as a proper Canadian Great Lakes type summer vacation. Maybe it's because I imagine the Great Lakes to be less expensive, less crowded, less fancy, less exclusive. Whereas going to the Hamptons is a thing, and renting a house in the Hamptons is especially a thing, going to the Great Lakes is something you do for its own sake. Or maybe I attribute a certain virtue to the Canadian way of life that I don't see in the United States, rightly or wrongly.

What Could Have Been

I sometimes imagine myself as a kind of quasi-affluent Toronto 50-something, bald and running to fat, living a kind of soft hedonistic liberal life, kind of a chaste Stiva Oblonsky. A typical southern Ontario attorney (or solicitor or whatever they call them), voting Liberal, trying to encourage my children to be intellectual, trying to protect them from being bullied, but ultimately helpless to steer them into a better life than I've had.

The Good Life

I bet all those upper middle class to upper class Toronto people who go out to summer houses on islands in the Great Lakes have a really good time up there. I bet there's something almost magical about those long days spent swimming, boating, grilling some food, then at night maybe relaxing with some wine, some cards, stories, jokes, then reading a good book, then waking up early to walk solitary on the beach and maybe watch the birds, watch the sun rise.

How the Sausage Is Made

(The reason for my last post is that libertarian ideas are often dismissed as business-friendly, but intelligent libertarians actually espouse policies that would often be very bad for incumbent businesses. The tricky thing is that when a politician wants to do favors for incumbent businesses, he will often invoke libertarian rhetoric. It would be nice to have a coherent, narrow version of libertarianism that could not be misused in this way. Sadly I don't think it can be done.)

Libertarians and Populists

Just a quick thought. This is admittedly almost entirely terminological in the end, but I think terminology matters.

I think it's pretty well understood that populism is a rhetorical style and not an ideological stance. On the other hand libertarianism, for all its faults, at least aspires to policy substance.

But in practice, libertarianism tends toward mere rhetoric because it is too ill-defined to resist being misused. By way of example, if you want to deregulate the financial system, it's easy to use libertarian rhetoric to advance your goals, and a "true libertarian" might argue with you but generally won't be able to deny you the libertarian label. (The same goes for populism, and that's exactly my point. In practice libertarianism, like populism, functions as a kind of rhetorical tactic rather than a substantive agenda.)

This is too bad because within the thing that we call libertarianism is a respectable policy agenda that deserves to be taken seriously. It's just saddled with (A) a bunch of ridiculous bullshit, and (B) a bunch of opportunists who selectively invoke libertarian principles to advance their hard-right agenda. (Oh, and (C) a bunch of Ron Paul racist assholes. As a demographic, self-identified libertarians are scary as hell.)

As a side note, I think you could make the case that the reasonable parts of libertarianism should really be called liberalism, and to the extent libertarians seek to distinguish themselves from liberals they tend to veer into ridiculous territory. And that's fine, I don't really care about the lines at this point. I would just like to see the Julian Sanchez's of the world shake off the opportunists and racists and formulate a policy vision that can't be dismissed by association. To some extent this has already happened, as a lot of the smartest and most eloquent libertarians have essentially shifted into the nebulous liberal/Democratic/anti-Trump camp. (Meanwhile a lot of the Ron Paul types have given up any pretense of libertarianism and are full-on white nationalist.) But anyway the term "libertarian" continues to be too broad and poorly defined as a way to describe this ideology, and I wonder what might usefully replace it. Maybe "libertarian Democrats"?

(And yes I'm well aware of the abortive attempt to launch a "liberaltarian" movement about a decade ago. I guess in retrospect I have more admiration for the project than I did at the time.)