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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:


The estimable Keith Humphreys has made what I believe to be a misguided attack, at least in the general case, on the critics of Jim Messina’s Tory turn. I think he is being a too credulous of Messina and a little naïve about politics.

Great Britain is largely ruled by 2.5 (2.25?) political parties, the primary two of which are the Tories on the right and Labour on the left. Now, Humphreys is correct to argue that, were the American Republican Party to adopt wholesale the Tory platform, they would on many major issues find themselves in agreement or even to the left of the Democratic party and the center American politics would shift very far to the left.

But that’s not what Messina is doing or trying to accomplish. What he is trying to accomplish is doing his level best to ensure that Tories, rather than Labour, governs the United Kingdom. This suggests that, if you model politics purely as a hyper-rational act of selecting a set of optimal policies and supporting the political coalition that most closely reflects that set, that Messina’s policy set is delicately balanced to the left of the GOP but to the right of Labour. This is entirely possible! But I’m going to venture that it’s quite unlikely, and it’s more likely that Messina doesn’t have policy views this well-developed.

There is another way to look at politics – as a struggle between groups over rights, privileges, wealth, and power in society. In this view, for example, you could look at politics everywhere as a struggle between “workers/labor” and “business/capital” and believe that direction takes precedence over position and therefore endorse the pro-worker/labor party in general with substantial (if not total) disregard for whether workers in one country are better or worse off than those in another.

Now, I’ll admit to not being terribly well-versed on what, at this very moment, are the key differences between Labour and the Tories going into the next UK election. But what I do know is if you asked me this question:

“Will British workers be better off 50 years from now if Labour wins the majority of elections between now and then or if the Tories win the majority of elections between now and then?”

I could rather confidently answer that question with “Labour.” There are indeed certain situations where the leftist party in certain countries is endorsing foul or noxious platforms, is corrupt or has engaged in substantial misconduct, or is simply nomination odious leaders, that one might considering wavering from this heuristic (let’s call it “solidarity” for old-times sake) but these are still exceptions. In this case, it is entirely possible that Messina has strong personal feelings about David Cameron or Ed Milliband or some item in Labour’s platform or simply believes in maintaining a certain balance-of-power between labor and capital but I’m going to go ahead and say that the Tories wrote him a big check and he’s cashing it with little regard for the substance of the politics, and lacking a clear reason to the contrary it is perfectly acceptable for American progressives to reflexively support Labour and question a Democratic Party figure who would support the Tories.

doesn't anyone know how to play this game?

So Wal-Mart is threatening to cancel its plans to open three stores in DC if the Council goes forward and passes the “Large Retailer Accountability Act,” which raises the minimum wage from $8.25 to $12.50 only for businesses that occupy more than 75,000 square feet. This showdown has no good potential outcome, is a large embarrassment, was completely predictable, and yet still has a very simple solution.

DC needs work, and it needs groceries and other goods and services easily available to lower-class residents at affordable prices. This is why District officials were wooing Wal-Mart for so long in the first place.

But Wal-Mart is a terribly and notoriously nasty employer and a fiercely spiteful institutional player, one that prizes itself on its willingness to abuse, fire, and sabotage the careers and sanity of its workforce, and its willingness to play chicken and act the bully with political officials. So it’s no surprise that Wal-Mart is reacting to legislation that is all but a bill of attainder with bluster and threats.

So what is a DC Council to do? If they vote for this bill (which they already passed once, 8-5), Wal-Mart may in fact leave, which would be both a short-term setback for living conditions among the District’s worst-off but also a longer-term setback that could prove some of the worst stereotypes about the DC Council true – why would any other non-Wal-Mart business invest in DC if they thought they would wooed until the point of no return, then have the rules changed on them? On the other hand, if the Council fails the bill, it will prove itself powerless in the face of Wal-Mart’s tantrum, leaving itself nakedly toothless for the world to see.

But it’s not quiiiite a no-win situation – the Council does have a winning play, the same play they should have played all along – raise the minimum wage for everybody. Frankly, there is no policy or moral justification for why Wal-Mart and other large retailers should have to pay higher wages than any other business, and the obviousness of this attempt to target Wal-Mart is doubly embarrassing for all the years the District spent wooing the Bully of Bentonville in the first place. Raise the minimum wage for everyone, and the playing field is even, and Wal-Mart suddenly loses either way – if they pull out, they’ve proved their problem is with paying living wages and not with being singled out, and it also shows that all the businesses small and large that will continue to thrive (and they will) prove that Wal-Mart’s protestations of inability to pay living wages are spurious; if they stay, then they’re creating lots of jobs that pay $12.50/hr! And even better, every other minimum wage employee in DC gets a raise.

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.

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.

The other day I wrote two post on the same day, one that went like this:

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…[rich pols are] 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.

And one that went like this:

Unsurprisingly, many GOP governors have chosen the latter path, especially those who might be running for re-election, even those who were conservative darlings before hand. So instead of just one big Dolchstoss from Roberts, we now have a running clown car of conservative Dolchstosses across America and a big juicy political target for Democrats.

Yet I did not sum one and one to compute the mythical “two” until Dave Weigel wrote this:

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott buckled and said he’d support Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, I urged caution, because the GOP-run state legislature would get a say on this. It could always reject the expansion “and make Scott seem—for the first time in recorded history—like a centrist” as he faces a 2014 re-election campaign…Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also preside over reasonably-safe Republican legislatures, which might have blocked expansion anyway.

Tom Corbett and Scott Walker come from not-uncomfortable middle-to-upper-middle-class-itude; but Rick Scott has a personal net worth in the nine figures and that’s after he blew eight figures seizing Florida. So think about it this way – if Corbett and Walker get re-elected they’re Presidential candidates; if not they’re sitting pretty on wingnut welfare or corporate boards and getting rich. Rick Scott is already rich, and probably doesn’t care about running for President. He wants to stay in the statehouse and is willing to buck his own party strategically to do it.

Obviously this isn’t a deterministic or even primary factor, but I think we forget too often that politicians are people and are looking forward to their own possibility trees.


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.

So everybody seems to have noticed that John Boehner let the Violence Against Women Act pass through the house with mostly Democratic votes, depsite this being an egregious violation of the Hastert rule (not to mention the Hastert rule’s corrolary Boehner rule). And people seem to be noticing that, since Jan 2011, things have only gotten done legislatively in America when the Hastert rule has been, how to say this nicely…temporarily placed in abeyance. My guess is we’ll start to see more, not less, of this, and this will actually move us towards a political equilibrium.

Essentially, the Hastert rule was an attempt to increase the leverage of the party controlling the House. But in practice, what it does is empower the furthest-from-center faction of the party in power (in this case, the far right-wing faction of the GOP). And Boehner trying to stick to it has been agonizing to watch, as he tries to find compromises on major issues that both Barack Obama and the median House GOP legislator can agree to (hint: there aren’t very many). So on big issues – three in the last few months, in fact – the Hastert rule has been chucked and we’ll probably see it chucked more.

Not only is this unambigiously Good For America ™, but it is actually more politically stable than inflexible cartelling. The reason is simple – the Hastert/Boehner rule equilibrium is one where the most idelogically extreme members of the Republican Party are forced to either a) vote for something the dread pirate Obama favors or b) [insert dire consequence to the nation here]. That’s basically Sophie’s choice for them, and forcing them to play that game repeatedly can’t end well.

However, if Boehner throws the floor open to bills that have majority support in the house, even if they don’t have majority support in his own party, he can get the best of both worlds – a House where bills pass, and one where his conservative members can safely vote "HELL NO" on whatever they feel like. And by controlling what comes to the floor, he still has leverage to force compromise.

The best part about this for Boehner is that it makes him more, not less, secure in his job. If a rump faction of right-wing Reps decided to try a coup, they would find that they have made their life worse, not better: it takes a majority, not of the majority party, but the whole House both to remove a Speaker and install a new one (which is why Boehner’s own coup against Newt failed). The likeliest outcome of an attempted right-wing coup against Boehner’s Vichy regime would be one in which every Democrat gleefully voted with a minority of GOPers to toss Boehner, resulting in a situation where either a) almost every Republican would have to agree on a new Speaker who would face the exact same conundrum Boehner faces or b) you’d get the inverse-House-of-Cards scenario where the Dems peel off 20 swing-district GOPers and make one of them a weak Speaker who was forced to allow votes on whatever Dems and moderate GOPers wanted, a shaky equilibrium to the left of the status quo.

So, basically, as long as Boehner is willing to continue transition the Hastert rule towards something that is honored mostly in the breach, the future of America gets brighter.


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