...Archive for August 2022

What is not separable from how

Like most of what I write (when it is not satire), this should be an obvious point. Nevertheless. In social affairs, what should be done cannot be separated from how we choose to do it. A policy that would succeed and be widely lauded if chosen in one manner might crash and burn if chosen in a different way. This is a problem for technocracy, for the notion that academics and think-tankers can work out the best policy, persuade politicians via white papers and working groups to implement it, then watch the public enjoy virtuous outcomes. Even when (much more rarely than proponents claim) research is good and reliable, social affairs just do not work this way.

For identifiable policy choices that are high-stakes in terms of values or outcomes, it’s pretty obvious why this approach often fails. It is a old joke in politics that whatever choice you make will be wrong. After the fact, the sun will set, the sun will rise, and stuff will happen. Humans being humans, the good stuff will seem normal, what ought to happen, what might have happened anyway, who knows?. The bad stuff will seem like something somebody did wrong and should be held accountable for. And your political opponents will be driving that home and blaming you for the choice.

There will be corruption. There is no human enterprise of significant scale in which people do not or do not appear to sometimes place self-interest above the broader mission to which they are ostensibly engaged. This is as true in the private sector as in the public. But in the private sector people are supposed to be pursuing their self-interest. “Agency problems” are ubiquitous, and understood to be a cost of doing business. If excessive, they reflect error by management or shareholders who should have arranged incentives more cleverly or built a more cohesive culture. However, in the public sector, the same behavior is corruption, sin, contagion. Even a drop potentially rots the foundations of our institutions. Every public enterprise is corrupt, while private enterprises are just well or poorly managed.

Identifiable, consequential policy choices must be resilient to the likelihood that salient bad outcomes will be linked, in good faith or bad, to the policy, while positive effects will be vigorously contested. Absent either strong ideological “buy in” from the mass public or concrete, material benefits to a politically influential constituency, opponents will often succeed at undoing or undermining the policy, however successful your honest research suggests the nascent outcomes to be. Of course opponents will have their own disingenuous research. In the public mind and most history books, your policy will have failed.

Durable policy requires either populism ex ante or payoff ex post (or effective use of institutions like a judiciary that can remove issues from political contestation, for better and for worse).

Among liberals and technocrats “populism” has become a bad word, a synonym for a kind of vicious, collective id that demagogues like Donald Trump destructively conjure. (Thomas Frank usefully demurs.) It's much better to understand that populations are subject to systematic passions. Models that treat human groupings as mere aggregates of agents with isolated preferences and interests are badly incomplete. We must design institutions that productively accommodate what we might bloodlessly call correlation. Markets civilize greed, marriage civilizes lust. Democratic institutions are supposed to civilize populism.

Marriage is not a chastity belt, and markets do not demand vows of poverty. It is not enough to blunt or “check” the passions of the masses, as the US Senate is ostensibly designed to do. Good democratic institutions encourage a productive populism, give it effect through intelligent action then succeed in part because of the legitimacy and durability and adaptability enabled by the public’s enthusiasm. There must be traction, some channel of transmission, between public passions and the actions of governing institutions (state and parastatal). And vice versa! “Burn it all down" populism results from a loss of this traction, from a sense that governing institutions are alien, imposed, that rather than mechanisms of cautious transmission there are bales of insulation thrust between public passions and political outcomes.

Governance is a whole-of-society enterprise. It’s not enough for the metaphorical head to be smart. (That the metaphorical head tries so often to outsmart its own metaphorical body suggests that it is not really very smart at all.) Policy choices that will succeed when there is legitimacy—a sense of collective agency, widespread “buy-in”—will not when there is not. Under the institutions of contemporary liberal democracy, it is political parties and their coalitional choices that reify and render legible the passions of the public, that bind those passions to choices by government, and also reshape them as a consequence of their choices. It’s symptomatic of a failure of our institutions that more than 40% of Americans have no political party to which they are willing to make the (bidirectional!) link of identification. And no, a “none of the above” party will not solve this problem.

Technocrats do the best they can and we are where we are. Sure, we’d be better off with a multiparty democracy designed to engender four-to-six medium-tent parties. That’s not the country we live in. But your research is so promising! If it’s true that salient, controversial policy choices are unlikely to be durable without popular passion or ex post payoffs, maybe the way to go is the "submerged state”? Kludgeocracy may not be so bad after all?

You can take heart, I suppose, in my defense above of the public sector from unfair double standards surrounding “corruption”. But in a kludgeocracy you’d at least expect a lot of mismanagement. Looking at the existing submerged state, there do seem to be patterns of stakeholder payoffs that might not accord well with most of of our understandings of the mission of the state. Last year, liberals invested a lot of hope in “secret congress” (which, unfortunately, did not refer to the sort of thing that needs to be civilized by marriage). In this moment's fallen world, when you want to get some particular smart thing done, quiet may indeed be the way to go.

But there is an accountability problem. We’ve been doing the submerged state a lot, and it’s brought us to the crisis of democracy that we're in. In aggregate our skein of tax expenditures form a misshapen blob from which the broad public feels excluded and alienated, but each one was somebody's idea of smart policy. The best lobbyists have a talent for persuading themselves that the interests of their employers and those of the public are happily aligned. If only the public could be made to understand. Of course you are different.

There is no alternative to an effective state, which both makes good choices and makes them via institutions that recruit broad legitimacy for those choices, within which members of the public feel a sense of collective agency.

If you are about getting policy right, good on you. (Really!) But it isn’t enough. We need a better state.

Effective Life Loving

Suppose that you Love Life, but you live in a world where a mysterious Hunter is felling the beasts. This saddens you. You Love Life. So you embark on a program of Effective Life Loving, and try to work out interventions that would Maximize Life as Efficiently as possible with the resources you personally have at your disposal.

There is, you realize, a sad opportunity in all of those corpses the mysterious Hunter generates. Corpses themselves can be the source of much Life! You are smart, creative. You have a scientific background. You realize that if you were to genetically engineer certain flies and fungi you could dramatically improve the efficiency with which old life—those dead beasts—are converted to new. You toil in your laboratory, and the improvement in production of biomass over time is dramatic and satisfyingly measurable. You devote yourself to collecting corpses left behind by the Hunter, wandering far and wide, so that you can site them and seed them to maximize production of new Life. You encourage other smart, creative people—most of whom also Love Life!—to join your project. Many don’t, but some do, and you take some satisfaction in this secondary Effectiveness you can attribute to your efforts. You are well and truly an Effective Life Lover.

A thought, an irritation of the mind, fails to gnaw at you. Wouldnt it be much better, you mercifully fail to think, if the Mystery of the Hunter could be solved, so that rather than seeding new Life on the corpses, Life could just continue without so much need of heroic remedy? Yes. But here is the world. It is what it is. Rationality—it has somehow seeped from graduate economics programs into your very bones—consists of optimizing subject to constraints. The Hunter hunts. You optimize subject to that constraint. You cannot be accused of having caused the Hunter. But as you earn accolades, in your own mind, among the community of Life Lovers you have fostered, does it trouble you that your Success—no no you are much too modest to be successful, it was important that you grow rich to build the laboratories you needed of course but this isn't about you this is about Life—nevertheless does it trouble you that your entire project is framed by the existence of the Hunter? That if the Hunter somehow were stopped, that your work would become obsolete, superfluous, worthless? Are you and the Hunter in some sense collaborators?

No, of course you don’t think these things, because these things are absurd! You didn’t make the Hunter. You would be delighted—sincerely, absolutely delighted—if somehow the Hunter could be tamed. It’s a big, diverse world! Let solving the mystery of the Hunter, reigning them in, be the project of other people. You wouldn’t know where to start. You could not weigh biomass to measure progress. How would you know whether your approach to Life Loving was even Effective? No, that is a project for other people. You—but not just you, also the people you’ve persuaded, and they have made themselves quite unusually rich and well resourced because of course they must be well resourced to be Effective—will work on maximizing biomass in this world as it is.

It occurs to you that the Hunter must be pretty rich too, to do what he does. Perhaps you or some of your peers know them? Perhaps they are somehow among you?

No. Preposterous. You are Lovers of Life.

And of course, though it will not be your thing, you will do what you can to help other people tame the Hunter. Your thing, of course, is rigor. Although you shied away from making Hunter hunting your thing, precisely because it could not be rigorously pursued, you can contribute to others’ work by calling out ways in which the approaches they are taking cannot be rigorously supported and so might fail to be Effective. They will be grateful for the critique, as your faculties of critcism are perspicacious and capable. Well, they would be grateful, if only they were rational and data-driven and open-minded like we are. If it is true that nothing they are pursuing can withstand the rigors of rigor, why should they be so prickly about it? If their lack of rigor, relative to the presence of ours, causes resources to flow disproportionately in our direction, isn’t that only Rational? Give well, right?

Some of them even accuse us of protecting the Hunter. They succumb to weird conspiracy theories that we are the Hunter! What sane person would devote resources to people like that?

Our biomass grows and grows. It may not be as pretty as the beasts who were killed. It is a shame the beasts were killed. But we are restoring a great deal of biomass.

Update History:

  • 16-Aug-2022, 11:55 a.m. EDT: “…you live in a world where a mysterious Hunter is shoouting felling the beasts.”
  • 16-Aug-2022, 12:05 p.m. EDT: “no no you are much to too modest to be successful”
  • 16-Aug-2022, 4:50 p.m. EDT: “they would be grateful, if only they like you were rational and data-driven and open-minded like we are.”; “…consists of optimizaton optimizing subject to constraints…”