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Xavier Marquez – and if you’re not reading his blog, why the heck are you reading mine? – wrote an amazing and deeply insightful post about Francisco Franco earlier this month. Analogizing to Padgett and Ansell’s theory of Cosimo Medici, Marquez posits that Franco was so successful at retaining power in Spain for so long, not through bold, decisive, clearly-directed leadership, but instead by being the indecipherable cipher at the center of a diverse and incoherent coalition, a coalition whose individual components were dependent on Franco, and all of whom Franco indulged and foiled in equal measure, never committing.

i'll get right on that

This focus on “robust action,” action that more about an inability to be countered than expeditiously or effectively accomplishing a single goal, is rooted in the “multi-vocality” of one’s coalition. Essentially, Franco had the Church, the fascists, the monarchists, and the military all in his camp, and basically the only thing they had in common was anti-socialism; otherwise, their projects were contradictory. Yet by being the ambiguous lynchpin, Franco ensured that none of these sub-networks could break off and succeed in achieving more power without him, thus binding them all to him without committing to any of them, ensuring his longevity. His words and actions, when they came, could be interpreted by many different factions in different ways; his inaction and silence – he was “‘the man who keeps quiet best in all Spain” – allowed him to defer potentially fractious commitment, retain strategic flexibility, and maintain centralized control. (He also cannily use non-ideological means to enforce loyalty and control while also ensuring the incoherence of his own coalition). Talking about Medici now, Padgett and Ansell and then Marquez say:

…“[t]he result was an awesomely centralized patrimonial machine, capable of great discipline and “top down” control because the Medici themselves were the only bridge holding this contradictory agglomeration together” (p. 1307). By contrast, the coalition of Medici opponents was both far more “coherent” and narrow in terms of the interests it represented (and hence more predictable in its actions) and less susceptible to centralized control (and hence less effective and disciplined).

***

A few days later, Tyler Cowen cited the abstract of this paper from Jang, Lee, and Park; the key finding for this discussion:

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that users who have a large number of Facebook friends are less likely to talk about politics and gay rights issues on Facebook despite having access to increasing human and information resources.

Cowen calls this finding “depressing,” and speculates:

…one possibility is that popular people do not want to endanger their popularity with controversial discussions.  Another is that non-controversial people are simply more popular to begin with.

a small profile with a big shadow, liking in the midst of it all

from orgtheory

I’d posit a different hypothesis – sufficiently large and diverse networks and/or coalitions require hubs. A popular person might have liberal and conservative friends, religious and secular friends; were they to strongly express political views, some of those friends might be alienated. Some people do in fact express their opinions strongly, and have a louder voice within a smaller, more coherent subnetwork/subcoalition. But all these smaller, narrower groups are linked/bound at the hub points of people who can maintain pleasing ambiguity to a wide diversity of people, and this increases the maximum size, reach, and potential of networks. These people can be friends with everybody by being firm allies of nobody; what they can offer is non-ideological but nonetheless vital.

***

Josh Inglett is a college student in Wisconsin. He is a smart, amiable, pleasant-looking achiever. He is a Republican. And  he was publicly appointed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also a Republican, to sit on the state Board of Regents, the public university oversight committee – until it was revealed that he signed the recall petition to support a vote to remove Walker from office. Inglett’s nomination was spiked, and indeed, across Wisconsin intra-Republican purges are taking place based solely on whether someone signed the petition. A quarter of Wisconsin’s registered voters signed it.

sure i'll sign, what's the worst that could happen?

***

Galaxy Trucker is a deliriously fun board game. In it, you have to build a spaceship very quickly, then send it off to face absurd obstacles and hope it doesn’t explode. A key challenge to Galaxy Trucker is connecting your ship – often times, a single central “hub” piece will be holding the whole ship together, and if that hub is destroyed, the ship will fly apart into multiple segments.

made the Kessel Run in less than twelve hundred parsecs

***

Mistermix, riffing off House of Cards, wrote the following a few days ago – I think it accurately captures both the facts and the spirit of the state of the Republican caucus:

Without giving away spoilers, perhaps the most unreal aspect of this piece of fiction, other than Frank’s electoral status, is the notion that the House Whip has power over his caucus. The centerpiece of Frank’s office is a whip count board that has color-coded magnetic pieces representing each member of his caucus. If Kevin McCarthy’s version of this board isn’t already in storage, can you imagine the layer of dust that has collected on each of his member’s names?

In a world where a functioning party has factions amenable to compromises that are brokered by party leadership, being the Majority Whip can be a seat of power and an interesting job. But what’s the point of being the Republican whip in the current Congress? I imagine it has all the job satisfaction of being the manager of the worst chain restaurant in the country, except that even a Red Lobster manager can comp a dessert. The Republican Whip is just a impotent spectator to Boehner’s excuse making, Cantor’s comically transparent scheming, and Ted Cruz’ Bieber-like hold over a bunch of white middle-aged dimwits.

bold effective leadership

***

If it’s not yet obvious, the dynamics identified above seem to capture quite aptly the differing natures of America’s two political parties today. The Democrats are a diverse and perhaps incoherent coalition – public sector employees, labor unions, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, (recently) Asian-Americans, gays, women, urban-dwellers, youth, and other creative sector and socially liberal types – all of whom have different and perhaps contradictory interests or beliefs in many fields but none of whom can act except through the Democratic party. Conversely, the Republican party is ideologically, demographically, and spiritually unified – while there are some differences, especially between the small elite of the party and the vast grassroots base, the party is much more unified than it was even a decade or so ago, with opposition to the President catalyzing the wholesale adoption of social conservatism by economic conservatives and vice-versa.

And thus, you’ve seen a Republican party that is constantly auto-purging, purifying its ranks but unable to be led or act coherently; conversely, the Democratic party has become very able to act centrally, but succeeds politically best when it can defer action. On immigration reform, where Republican obstruction is arguably superior politically to passage; on Keystone XL, where the decision to approve or reject the pipeline has been endlessly deferred; on gay marriage, where the President was “evolving” for years until his cover was blown by Biden – in many cases, at least, it seems as though the Democratic party binds its coalition via inaction as often as action, and no faction can act except through the party’s center, in this case Obama, Reid, and Pelosi.

you'll be running that proposal through us

What this means for America’s future, I will leave to you, with this message:

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Freddie deBoer’s post on Rand Paul’s filibuster has inspired three thoughts – one about why he’s mostly right, one about where he goes wrong, and one about how this all implicates our national institutional design.

Firstly, Freddie is generally speaking on-the-nose – there is nothing about Rand Paul’s positions on other issues or political ambitions that should prevent anyone who cares about restraining executive power and preserving civil rights and rule of law from cheerfully supporting his endeavors. Anything that brings more attention to these issues is good, anything that puts more pressure on the executive branch is good. This filibuster is a distinct act (though not wholly separable) from his other political stances, and thus can and should be supported in good faith and conscience.

However, I think Freddie has somewhat blinkered himself in not broadening his view. Forget about Rand Paul’s mostly-despicable views on almost every other class of public policy issues; on this particular issue, Paul is definitively in the minority amongst his own party. That, though, is what made this filibuster so politically clever for him. The Republican Party is split between those who are (mostly) consistent in favoring reduced government power and those who simply support low taxes on rich people and bombing undesireables, and the weight is largely towards the latter. However, the GOP is very much unified on the subject of hating Barack Obama. So by spontaneously creating a dynamic by which a question that leaves Paul in an intra-party minority into a referendum on spiting the President, he managed to frame himself as a leader on the issue and bring along most of his party with him since they were motivated by not wanting to look weak on the key GOP issue of sandbagging Obama. Especially when you look at the list of key GOP contenders for 2016 – in addition to Paul, you have Rubio, Christie, Jindal, Bush, Ryan, Hunstman, Santorum, McDonnell, Walker, Daniels, Portman, Cruz…any big ones I might be forgetting? – almost every other candidate is either explicitly or implicitly on the other side of this issue. What Paul did yesterday gained him a lot of exposure while simultaneously turning a weakness that isolated him into an instance of combative, Capra-esque leadership.

This is not to say that Paul’s motivations (or his internal ranking of those motivations) are the key factors for us as citizens – to the extend Rand Paul made supporting unchecked state power to do violence more costly, it was unambiguously a Good Thing. But the dynamics also expose a serious flaw in our Constitutional institutions. Namely, it really does seem as though many of the Framers bought their own hype and believed the major points of conflict in the state they designed would be a) inter-state and b) intra-federal-governmental. But political partisanship, as in retrospect seems inevtable, ended up playing a major role in political organization in the United States and totally threw a wrench into those dynamics, especially b). The expectation that "Congress," as a body, would check "the Executive" is perhaps-fatally compromised during high periods of partisan polarization, when the Executive is unified but Congress is deeply divided, and members of Congress may prioritize supporting their party over their institutional prerogatives. So you could have a dynamic whereby, say, one party is more inclined than the other to oppose state violence, but when that party has control of the executive branch they suddenly find state violence is really useful and their co-partisans in Congress prioritize winning partisan battles. This, of course, means that these kinds of issues can quickly become corrosive to the body politic and result in the kind of self-perpetuating cynicism that further empowers state violence. I’m not sure what to do about that, per se, but I am certain that this is the correct way to understand yesterday’s events and why I am cheered but still quite wary by the Paul filibuster.

In response to an email from my father-in-law re: the "six strikes and you’re still in but slightly less in" system of attacking the Dread Pirate Bay, I wrote this:

I think there are some major weaknesses in this approach:

Firstly, small business will be in a bad position:

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2011/07/content-industry-and-isps-announce-common

Secondly, file-sharing follows a power-law distribution – roughly 20% of file-sharers are reponsible for roughly 80% of file-sharing, and they know how to beat the system.

Thirdly, this is still a mostly-bogus problem:

http://business.time.com/2012/01/06/digital-music-sales-finally-surpassed-physical-sales-in-2011/

Digital music sales are up and growing, and for the most part if there was no file-sharing almost none of those downloads would be replaced by sales. In fact, artists themselves benefit from file-sharing, especially those outside the top tier, since it gives them broader exposure (and leaves more money in the pockets of their fan for concert tickets and merchandise, of which a larger share of proceeds end up in the artists pockets compared to record sales, from which many artists never see a penny).

And lastly, ISPs really don’t care at all about this and consider the RIAA, MPAA, etc, to be giant nuisances. So to the extent this ever becomes truly annoying to internet customers ISPs will quit this completely voluntary program because the content providers aren’t their customers.

So I expect this new enforcement mechanism to quietly fizzle out within the year.

I should have also said:

Now, this is how you kill a pirate:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/world/africa/us-raid-frees-2-hostages-from-somali-pirates.html?pagewanted=all

cleardot.gif

The Wizard:

Just a quick observation: for the past couple of days I’ve been seeing in a lot of places, including comments on this blog, the assertion that federal spending has risen 37 percent under Obama — that specific number. Does anyone know where it’s coming from? Because if I look at the actual data, I see federal spending rising from $3.475 trillion in fourth-quarter 2008 to $3.917 trillion in fourth-quarter 2012 — a rise of 12.7 percent.

Obviously this is coming from somewhere, and being broadcast by Rush or somebody. But it’s still kind of amazing how a totally wrong number can become part of what everyone on the right just knows to be true.

Not only that – look at this:

20130212-095947.jpg

That’s the natural log of federal spending per-capita. As you can see, it grows slowly, then a little more quickly, then back to slowly, then aaaaaalmost flatlines during the Clinton administration, then takes off during the Bush administration. When the recession hits it accelerates before hitting a total wall. That’s what austerity looks like.

You can also see this as a percentage change:

20130212-100053.jpg

That’s the first instance of federal spending per-capita shrinking in…well, how long?

20130212-100044.jpg

Looks like the answer is “since Eisenhower got us out of Korea.”

Nixon says, "let's not add fractions with different denominators"

I always enjoy going to zerohedge for the most intelligent, compelling, and engaging iteration of the sociopathic perspective on events. I was disappointed, however, to see Tyler Durden submit this guest post from Bill Buckler, who is apparently of this publication. Anyway, in the course of writing some positive things about Ron Paul, Buckler writes:

The root of the problem is perfectly illustrated in the fact that since August 1971, the funded debt of the US government has risen from $US 400 Billion to $US 15,236 Billion. The severity of the problem is illustrated by the fact that with Mr Obama having yet to complete his third full year as President, he has presided over $US 4,600 Billion (or almost one-third) of that increase. The root of the problem is the abandonment of money – the final legal connection between Gold and the US Dollar was ended in August 1971. The severity of the problem is the grotesque expansion of what has taken its place.

Of course this is a giant stink bomb of the “correlation equals causation” fallacy. But beyond that this is a comparison equivalent to comparing apples to zebras. This may be painfully obvious to most people, but let’s examine some other things that happened between 1971 and the present.

Firstly, we went from having 200mm people to 300mm. Secondly, NGDP went from $1.1 trillion to $14.6 trillion. And lest hard-money types wave that all away as ruinous inflation, the Inflation Calculator says that $1 in 1971 is equivalent to $5.32 today, which if you take it purely at face leaves today’s RGDP relative to 1971 at $2.7 trillion, a nearly three-old increase even though population increased 50%, leaving per-capita GDP much higher, which can be confirmed by looking at all kinds of measurements of quality of life in the United States over the last 40 years and seeing them all rise. So we are a much wealthier country now than we have been, and we have experienced a decent amount of inflation, so it makes no sense whatsoever to just throw up the nominal gross national debt numbers from 1971 and today and call it “the root of the problem.”

And look – the debt-to-GDP ratio, which is a very useful measurement since it complete controls for any nominal growth that isn’t reflected in real standards, has tripled! In 1971 it was below 40%, now it’s over 100%! If you wanted to push the idea that we are dangerously indebted (we aren’t, but if you did), that’s all you have to say. You don’t have to make grossly misleading comparisons to prove that point.

FWIW, I’m not even mentioning how deeply unfair this is specifically to the President, who was handed a $500b structural deficit and an economic implosion worthy of the Great Depression by his successor. I’m not sure it’s really possible to stabilize debt-to-GDP in those conditions unless you unilaterally abolish most government functions.

chris-christie-.jpg

I can understand why Republicans are not terribly thrilled with their current options in this whole nomination contest buisness, but I am mystified that the latest attempt at recruitment is focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. When it was focused on Paul Ryan at least it made a snake-oil sort of sense – he was young, banally easy on the eyes, and had a notable plan to address a key issue (albeit a massively unpopular one). But speculation on Chris Christie is bizarre. He’s an arrogant lout most known for bullying his constituents in attempts to promote himself via YouTube. He has no record of note as governor, he has baggage from his previous position as US Attorney, and he was elected mostly as an expression of monumental loathing for his predecessor. His approval rating has rebounded from "bad" to "good," but there’s no reason to think he even has a good shot of carrying his own state against Barack Obama. I fail to see what, if any, problem a Christie candidacy solves for the GOP.

Taking The Bait

the gopfish has trouble resisting the allure of tax cuts

Brian Beutler’s piece over at Talking Points Memo aggregating GOP outrage over the President’s speech today is a clear sign the President did the right thing. As I mentioned above, the President has been dealt the better cards here – his position is more popular, he is more popular, he is an incumbent president running for re-election during a recovering economy, and the status quo – repeal of the Bush tax cuts – is an outcome far more favorable to him. Today’s speech was a display of strength, and a hostile reaction from Republicans was totally predictable.

Hopefully this, my first substantive post, will add some clarity to my perspective on things.

As the President prepares to make a big statement on the issue of the national debt this evening, it’s worth taking a look back to review where we’ve come on this issue. I want to put aside a lot of the more substantive issues here and focus specifically on the politics of where we are.

The first half of the President’s term in office was primarily consumed by a single major legislative item, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which after a hard-fought year-long battle was finally voted into law. As scored by the CBO, the bill would reduce the deficit, by a moderate amount in the first ten years following its enactment and by an enormous amount in the decade after. These estimates were challenged by Republicans as well as deemed too conservative by Democrats, but the CBO is a neutral and trusted entity and therefore I think it’s fair to take their estimate of a baseline.

And how does ACA reduce the deficit? Primarily by focusing on health care costs, and a big part of that was reducing Medicare expenditures. Mostly this was targeted as spending identified as wasteful and ineffective, not at actual reductions in benefits, but all the same it added up to a large amount of money not being spend on Medicaire. And how did this play out politically? The administration and Congressional supporters were brutally savaged over these cuts in the midterm elections, where ads like this were common:

And Republican “wonks” like Paul Ryan (R-WI) claimed those cuts were unsustainable and damaging, and therefore would never really be enacted. And it seems in retrospect that those Medicare cuts were a major issue that Republicans were able leverage into their major gains in the 2010 elections.

So now that they have reclaimed the House and have the chance to set the conversation on the budget, are they restoring those cuts as well as protecting Medicare from any further cuts? Far from it – the Republican Budget Chairman, the very same Paul Ryan, released a plan that not only retains every dollar of those cuts but proposes further cuts in Medicare that are far more drastic and draconian. In fact, his proposal amounts to essentially abolishing Medicare and replacing it with a new program that would allot government spending on health care purely on the basis of a fixed cost – exactly the type of rationing Republicans campaigned against.

On the broader issue of the deficit, have the Republicans proven themselves any more credible as negotiating partners? Well, no. Certainly their dogmatic allergy to even the most minor or benign of tax increases is well documented. But even beyond that Republicans have proven that their approach to negotiations consists of repeated hostage taking, first on the tax cuts for the middle class the President wanted to preserve, then on continued funding for FY 2011, and now again as we approach the debate on the debt ceiling. The Republicans seem quite willing to play with fire and risk catastrophic consequences in order to see their priorities enacted, and those priorities don’t seem to be “lowering the deficit” as much as it is doing away with spending items they disfavor, mostly, it seems, social safety net programs, environmental protections, public health regulation, and infrastructure investment.

So forget all the substantive issues – whether we truly face a debt crisis, whether it needs to be addressed in immediate spending cuts, whether debt-fueled spending is necessary to sustain economic recovery, and even whether Paul Ryan’s budget plan is credible or just snake-oil – and look at the politics: the Republicans have repeatedly proven themselves to lack any credibility as partners in governance. If this were tit-for-tat the game would have been abandoned long ago.

During the first two years of his Presidency, the President seemed less focus on engaging in overt politics – the constituent and strategic applying of pressure to powerful actors – in order to avoid polarization of Congress. He avoided criticizing Republicans in strong terms, and even protected some supposedly-moderate Republican Senators by appointing their strongest challengers into his administration. With strong majorities in both houses this strategy seems to have paid off – the President was able to secure landmark legislation such as ARRA, ACA, Dodd-Frank, and a host of other progressive legislation, even as the dysfunctional nature of the Senate left a lot of good bills passed by the House (most notably ACES) untouched.

But the President is now in a very different situation, and has yet to demonstrate that he fully understands this shift and adjusted to it. He will be able to accomplish very little over the next two years in terms of passing good legislation through Congress. But what he can do is successfully engage in politics – he can define the terms of the public debate, use the veto threat, and take strong negotiating positions. This seems uncomfortable for the President, who seems naturally inclined towards compromise and conciliatory behavior. However, this approach may very well backfire against a polarized and radical opposition that seems to have as their primary aim the political destruction of the President.

And so my advice for tonight is this – start a fight. The Democratic Party’s biggest weakness over my lifetime has been their studied unwillingness to pick a fight and stick it out and win it. The Republicans are very successful at winning the framing debate in the elite media, which Democratic officeholders have unfortunately confused with public opinion (a confusion the Obama Campaign notably did not suffer from). But if the President is to not merely be re-elected but to accomplish substantive, positive change, he needs to show that he can engage in a political fight and win. And the natural advantage is on his side – public opinion is not inclined to support Republican proposals, and the President is trusted and well-liked.

There is an iron law of politics – change means movement; movement means friction; friction means heat; heat means controversy. For the last six months the President appears to have been trapped in an unwinnable game of endless compromising with hostage-takers. The way to win this game is not to play. Tonight the President should stake out a strong position, and justify it not with numbers but with principles. And he should make clear that certain things are non-negotiable. For that’s how negotiations are won.

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