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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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What this means for America’s future, I will leave to you, with this message:
So Ashok and I sparred a bit on Twitter re: the meaning and effect of taxation and spending (and probably pestered the heck out of James Pethokoukis and Joe Weisenthal in the process). I’m not sure how to embed Twitter conversations (if anyone knows how, I’m all ears), but the long-and-short of it is that the actualities of taxes and spending are weirdly different from the optics.
The trick is to remember that every policy change is a change from some baseline. So, from whatever the baseline currently is, there is no fundamental or economic difference between:
1) Cutting taxes by X on some activity, and
2) Spending X subsidizing that activity
assuming that they are both funded identically (though identical tax hikes, spending cuts, or debt incursions).
Now, in practice, there will be differences. Scott Sumner’s thought experiment about the society that taxes 100% of GDP by taxing 100% of income then writing welfare checks equal to taxed income demonstrates that, since we would expect that society really would look different than the one that taxed nothing at all (if only because such a program would have some overhead). But those differences would be based in behavioral economics, not classical or neoclassical economics.
And the same in real-world examples. There would definitely be differences between these two alternative scenarios:
1) A 2% payroll tax cut (debt-funded).
2) A check mailed to every American for the exact same amount (debt-funded).
But those differences would be instutional, not economics (the check-cashing industry, for example, would obviously prefer the second policy to the first). But there’s no reaosn to think they would "crowd out" (or for that matter, "crowd in") different activities.
The real point is, as Matt Yglesias says, the tax share of GDP is a very poor to think about the “size of government.”