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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:


Daniel Kuehn writes elegantly about the inability of libertarianism to hide behind public choice economics. I personally think that the net value added of public choice to our understanding of political economy is sort of scattershot at best but nonetheless I want to bounce off Kuehn’s post to sort of summarize and extend his challenge to libertarianism this way:

“Assuming the following statements are true – 1) public choice economics is, generally speaking, on the money; and 2) that’s why we can’t have nice things, defined here as libertarian…if not utopia, then whatever is a notch or two down from utopia (goodtopia?) – then what is the actual political project of libertarianism?”

This, I think, is a question most libertarians can’t answer or won’t answer, and with good reason. A lot of people, using some sort of parallel but functionally-equivalent axiom in place of the first statement above, use that question to essentially reason themselves to progressivism/liberalism/social democracy. This is what can be really frustrating about engaging with libertarians, because they tend to presume that progressives have some sort of axiomatic or intrinsic preference for state action as a form of problem-solving. There is a more complex discussion to have about this, of course, but the short version is that that if you genuinely convince most progressive people that, in the actual real world, you adopted more libertarian-ish solutions to public policy problems then outcomes would improve then you would find progressives adopt those libertarian-ish solutions. And in fact you see that all the time, everywhere.

The doubly-frustrating thing about this is that, if more libertarians genuinely asked themselves that question you’d have vastly more room for compromise (at least in an cross-ideological sense as opposed to actual political solutions which don’t necessarily follow) that everyone would probably agree would increase utility. The principle of the second-best suggests that libertarians who think that libertarianism for whatever reason, public choice-y or otherwise, is ideal but unstable/unsustainable should be willing to make pretty substantial trade-offs in some areas of public policy to state intervention in order to secure more libertarianism in others. For example, libertarians could genuinely support universal health insurance as the price to be paid for more libertarian labor markets, and I’m sure there are a lot of progressives just waiting to sign that deal. This is the impetus that led to Denmark’s “flexicurity” which hasn’t been perfect – what is? – but which works pretty darn well as a compromise in which stronger tax-and-transfer programs, from a libertarian perspective, are traded for much less regulated labor markets then you tend to see in other European countries.

As a concluding note, it’s worth observing that almost every country with developed-world levels of GDP/capita tends to have political and economic systems that are pretty similar to each other and remarkably so given the diversity of systems of political and economic organization humans have devised over time and still persist to this day. There are some chicken/egg issues but largely it’s probably some of both and people who propose radical changes to the political and economic order should probably spend more time considering why it is the way it is right now.

So I already commented on Ashok Rao’s blog re: the content of Ryan Enos’ op-ed in The Washington Postre: racial polarization and partisan preferences, but after more careful examination following Noah Smith’s call for Richard Florida to refute it, I realized that a substantial part of the op-ed is not only wrong-headed but dishonest as well. He writes:

In that same year, I examined the voting of Latinos in Los Angeles and found that those who lived near predominantly African American neighborhoods were far less likely to vote for Obama than Latinos who lived farther away — suggesting that contact with their African American neighbors may have prompted them to vote against an African American candidate.

The link is to a paper authored by Enos, which, if you read, is about the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Putting aside (very real) questions about the paper’s internal validity, by citing it in the article without mentioning that it is about the primary and not general election vote in the context of an op-ed warning of partisan polarization, Enos can only be said to be deliberately misleading readers into believing that Latinos who live nearer to African-American neighborhoods were more likely to vote for McCain or Romney as opposed to Hillary Clinton. In fact, the same precints his paper cites as the best examples of polarization in the Democratic primary are precints that went 9-to-1 for Obama in 2012.

At the very least this calls for a substantial correction to the article.

Inline image 1

Really, really, really not in the mood to discuss that thing re: Israel that everyone wants to talk about when they talk about Israel but want to note this comment by Bibi:

“Don’t adopt Israel’s system of government,” he implored the laughing crowd.

I disagree! The main difference between Israel’s government and ours in terms of the issue at hand – coalition formation and structure – is whether the majority coalition is built pre- or post-election. In Israel it is formed post-election by smaller, more homogenous parties, whereas in the US we are essentially forced to form two heterogenous parties and one wins and one loses. Israel’s system is better! This is largely because in a first-past-the-post system the transactions costs of coalition reshuffling are just too high so you get very arbitrary yet very rigid permanent coalitions in the US that periodically explode in a punctuated equilibrium kind of mess. Israel, on the other hand, forms coalitions suited to the needs of the moment based on issue salience and relative position support. That’s a way better idea!

Frankly, I just really like imagining the US Congress with at least a dozen ideological, regional, religious, and socio-ethnic parties embroiled in coalition negotiations.

Inline image 1

Unrelated to anything newsworthy, but a thought:

If you were a potential candidate running for office in one of two districts, and District A had a middle-class incumbent and District B had a rich incumbent, you might be more inclined to run in District A. And I think you’d be right. But probably for the wrong reasons.

You might not want to run against the rich incumbent because they have lots of money. I think this isn’t correct. A middle-class candidate will still have incumbency power and party and interest-group networks that will allow them to raise a lot of money, so in terms to resources aligned against you, I doubt it makes a very big difference. In fact, donors may be less willing to give to a self-funded candidate so probably a wash.

But look at the incentives facing each incumbent. District A’s incumbent has, say, a house and two cars and 2.5 kids and a spouse and the kids need to go to college and the second car is broken and the spouse got sick and the house is broken. If they lose, that will suck; but there are many a comfy sinecure waiting for former office-holders, so they may end up getting a raise if they lose. The revolving door is their golden parachute.

District B’s incumbent, on the other hand, is rich. They retired as CEO of their Fortune 500 company and have enough money to set half on fire and still buy a small country. If they lose…well, they’ll find something to do, but there’s no upside in it. They’re in politics strictly for the game. And because all their upside is on staying in office, they might fight a lot harder and a lot nastier to stay in office.

Not sure this is borne out empirically, but a thought.

Let’s model a kingdom. In this model, the kingdom is a closed economy, and (very importantly) it is “well-normed” – it has strong norms relating to governance and society that tend to be widely honored and respected.

This kingdom is governed by two individuals: the king, and the wizard. Most formal power, as well as the titles of head of state and head of government, is vested with the king. The king has formally unlimited powers to tax and spend, raise armies, and adjudicate disputes, but in practice is limited by norms, sense of duty (symbolized in a sworn oath to serve in the interest of the whole kingdom and its subjects), and the patience of subjects; therefore, the king tends to maintain inherited intuitions to which their power has been delegated, like courts and military bureaucracy. The crown is hereditary – the first-born child of the king (this is a gender-progressive kingdom) inherits the crown, and in the past, though there have been occasional hiccups, most transfers of power have been peaceful and orderly.

The king must retain a wizard, who is charged in vague terms with independently securing the safety, security, and prosperity of the kingdom. The wizard bears a hat that grants them vast yet mysterious magical powers. Unlike the crown, which is symbolic, the wizard’s hat is in fact where the magical powers are vested, and is not hereditary. When the existing wizard dies, the king selects the next wizard, who receives a lifetime appointment. Extremely strong norms dictate that the king select whomever is widely acclaimed the wisest scholar in the kingdom, regardless of their personal feelings towards that individual or inclination to select an ally as wizard. Often the wizard will survive the king.

As stated above, the wizard has vast powers, but they are mysterious and to some extent ill-defined. There is no user manual for the wizard’s hat, and often throughout history wizards have surprised themselves with the consequences of exercising their powers. Therefore, norms have developed that the wizards exhibit strong restraint in exercising their powers, even in times of emergency. Extremely strong norms have also developed against the king making formal or open requests of the wizard, as well as against the wizard interfering in the quotidian or terrestrial business of the king. In the past, there have been some violations of this norm in both direction, but for the most part it tends to persist. Consequentially, the wizard tends to be reclusive, speak carefully and opaquely, and avoid commitments to use their powers. There is much dispute among the subjects of the kingdom to exactly what the wizard is doing or could be doing, and when the wizard ought to exercise their powers.

Your assignment: model the governance and economy of this kingdom.

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