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and on top of everything else you get a sticker, everyone loves stickers

The other day I tweeted that “‘voting is irrational’ is the worst argument smart and reasonable people routinely make” after seeing smart and reasonable Matt Dickinson reference it as an aside when making what I think is a different-but-also-bad argument about why people in certain positions should abstain from voting, and got at least one request to flesh out why I think the argument is in fact so bad. Rather than cite to all the people who make the argument (though also not to single out Matt per se, his was just the reference that led to the tweet that led to this post) , since I think it’s fairly well-established both in terms of its contours (that the odds of any individual vote affecting the outcome of an election is tiny ) and that it’s widely made, but here in only some order is a laundry list of all the reasons this argument is bad and I hate it.

Derek Parfit’s “Harmless Torturers” argument – In “Reasons and Persons” Parfit creates a thought experiment summarizes as succinctly as possible as so – if you have 1,000 people each controlling a single machine that each tortures a single person (say with electric shocks), it is clear that electing to activate the machine is wrong. But if each of those persons controls 1/1000th of a single machine that distributes 1/1000th of that torturous shock to each of 1,000 people connected to the single machine, would we still consider the choice of each to flip their switch wrong even if the marginal torture being distributed is at most barely perceptible? The intuitive, and also correct, answer, is “yes” and this is a very potent argument in the context of many cultural problems as well as climate change. It is similarly potent here as well; so long as we accept that collectively high participating in voting is good, it follows that each individual decision to vote is good. I leave it to the reader to note that, in the absence of substantial counter-forces, that doing good is rational.

Anthropology and sociology hugely militate against the narrow economic view of adjudicating individual actions on a narrow benefit-cost of marginal action – Human societies are vastly complex networks bound together as much as or more by norms and custom than formal rules, and rather than seeing collective action as the sum of individual action it often makes more sense to see individual action as a note in a multidimensional matrix of complex social, economic, familial, and communal networks. This, BTW, is why the whole quest to “microfound” macroeconomics is fundamentally dumb but that’s another blog post.

There’s no reason not to vote – the costs to voting are extremely small, and declining as time in transit or in queue can be spent in communication with others or playing Hoplite which I just discovered and is super fun. It can obviously be irrational to do the ethical thing in a context where that leaves one likely to be harmed or exploited; this is related, in some ways, to the theoretical finding that won George Akerlof a Nobel Prize, as well as just being obvious. If nobody’s paying taxes don’t pay taxes, etc. But in a general equilibrium that is either positive or near a tipping point, especially given the prior point, if the costs of doing the socially beneficial and ethically sound thing are low or negligible, it is absolutely rational to do it. Plus, the time-money equivalence isn’t purely scalar on the margins, most people distribute their time in lumpy ways that don’t make marginal time-use decisions, especially on the scale of “an hour every two years” costly in a way that can be easily quantified.

Voting is fun – I like voting! It is rational to do things one likes to do!

Voting is empowering on an individual and communal level – making one’s voice heard in the formal political process has a two-way legitimation effect, legitimizing one’s own equal right to be a part of the civic process as well as legitimating that civic process as the correct channel for making one’s voice heard. It is rational to pursue this, which also leads into the next argument…

This argument mitigates against all public and civic participation – if voting is irrational, so is signing a petition, joining a protest, donating to a candidate, or even voicing one’s opinion. Unless one takes actions so drastic that purely in isolation they affect political outcomes – and, without getting too much into it, one can clearly extrapolate that most such actions are violent or otherwise bad – this argument mitigates in favor of total non-participation in anything civic or even communal.

This argument is particular to first-past-the-post elections on a very large scale – in a proportional voting system, or in elections for mayor, city council, or even Congress it can be clear that much smaller numbers of votes can affect substantial political outcomes. A ~36,000-28,000 vote in suburban Virginia deposed the second-most-powerful House Republican. But if you’re going to vote for everything, the marginal cost of voting for everything on the ballot is so vanishingly small that even the narrow, economic argument against voting is thin as straw.

Making this argument is immoral from a consequentialist standpoint – even if you think individual voting decisions are irrational, so long as you think high participation in voting generally is good then by making this argument you are helping to damage that. Maybe you think that making the argument is damaging it so slightly it barely matters, but then why are you bothering to make the argument at all? It is clearly irrational to do so since it’s not having any impact.

Making this argument is immoral from an anthropological standpoint – of course, I do think it has an impact, especially as more people make it, and I think it corrodes the necessary normative construct of individual obligation to the collective and civic well-being that makes our society and similar societies function well. Promoting cynicism and non-participating is bad.

Making this argument makes you look like a smug, dislikeable cynic – this is self-explanatory. Seriously, doing this just makes you look like a narrow-minded pedant who wants to prove their intellectual superiority by making an obnoxious debator’s point at the expense of, like, you know, democracy, and people will dislike you for doing it.

And all that without referencing Florida c. 2000, and without referencing the many counter-arguments for voting that play somewhat more on the turf of the original argument for irrationality; for those see Andrew Gelman who is good on this issue (paper here, posts here here and here).

All that being said we should vote less, for less, and on the weekend, and maybe it should even be mandatory, but that’s a different story.

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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