The rules of the game

I came across this interesting piece at the Economist – essentially, arguing that Obama should respond to the Republican hostage taking over the debt ceiling by doing exactly the same thing. Taking his own hostages.

The author lays it out as a logical argument, and at some level it feels as though it is. If your opponent is refusing to moderate their demands and is making extreme threats, perhaps your only option, or an optimal response, is to respond in extremes.

But at the same time I think this train of thought elides a larger point, which has been picked up by various commentators, on how crazy this Republican strategy is. [I should add at this point that although I do think the Republicans are on the wrong side of the argument, my point here isn’t primarily about the politics of that two-party system as such]. I’ve been mulling it over for some time, and I don’t think I’ve seen it clearly articulated anywhere, although I’d love to hear of sources that I’ve missed.

Essentially, there’s a ground set of rules in any negotiation/game/system like this, and to ignore them, to abuse them, to exploit them can mean winning in the short term, but ultimately it destroys the game. Because the Republicans may win politically out of this (even if it seems unlikely at the moment), and it may give them an advantage. But in the next round, they may face an opponent who’s also willing to destroy the game for the sake of winning. After all, if they don’t they simply won’t get a look in. I have no idea what the political situation in Australia will be like for the next three years, but there’s some possibility that it’ll feature an opposition that’s as negative as the last one, focusing more heavily on simply throwing sand in the gears – for whom bipartisanship is, by definition, a bad thing.

I think it’s easy, in the confines of a structured political framework that’s existed for centuries, to take that framework for granted. To see it as a set of constraints that will always be there, that will always exist, regardless of how you abuse them. But the reality is that if government stops working, there are real world consequences.

The cloture/filibuster issue in the US is one that I don’t want to get into, but it strikes me that even though the level if filibuster deployment in the current Senate is exceptional, it’s been going on for a while. And there’s a lot of context there, and perhaps that is the wrong example, but it strikes me that fundamentally, once you have played with the filibuster once, and used it to block your opponent, it’s an obvious move for your opponent to use it equally as much, and a little more. And from there you descend into gridlock.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that fundamentally, for the system to work, to be sustainable over generations, I think people working in, using the system, on both sides, have to think that the system, and its preservation by adhering to the rules, is more important than their own issues. It’s something like the concepts that Jonathan Rowe was getting at in Our Common Wealth, however much I was disappointed by the actual book. If you want the system to work, you have to play by the system – and sometimes, that means walking away from wins that you could have by damaging the system a little bit.

I know there are counter arguments, and I suspect if I were in a position where it was relevant I’d want to deploy the same tactics, to win at all costs. And there are a whole set of questions about how people buy into a system, and how the rules of the game are agreed. But I just think in this winner takes all political focus, we’re losing sight of the larger issue, which is how we make our systems work.

UPDATE: On the topic of what is and isn’t inside the rules of the game, I liked this post by James Fallows.

UPDATE: And, again from James Fallows – this excellent quote from one of his readers.

The functioning of our country depends upon consensus as to its institutions and underlying processes; and that there are boundaries that you do not cross, because to do so would harm the foundations of the institutions. 


The Turing Test (not really, but kind of)

So I know, I know – it’s not the real Turing test. But reading the comments in an article on the Atlantic, I thought that it’s not that surprising that they’re figuring out the very basic tricks for the spam bots. 

Copied from the thread: 

Trythemiddle: The economic structure of our country has changed as well. 80 Years ago, the kid from the lower class school could graduate and move right into a factory job, work there 40 years and retire with a pension, or work on the family farm, or in a mine, and the same pension was there waiting for them. The low skill, moderate wage jobs are gone for the most part, but the kids are still there.

HAling7692: The difference appears to be the lack of discipline and parental involvement today. During my school years, hardly any students misbehaved or talked back. If one did, he was punished at school and then later at home. Most of us would have been terrified to be reprimanded for our behavior.

мy coυѕιɴ ιѕ мαĸιɴɢ $51/нoυr oɴlιɴe. υɴeмployed ғor α coυple oғ yeαrѕ αɴd prevιoυѕ yeαr ѕнe ɢoт α $1З619cнecĸ wιтн oɴlιɴe joв ғor α coυple oғ dαyѕ. ѕee мore αт… [the linkspam]. 

trythemiddle: I think that may be a part of it, but that is more among my, and it sounds like your cohort. We did the same crap as kids today do, if not more, we were just more secretive about it. I remember the “poor” kids acting out and not really fearing the teacher, because they were going to work in the mine and didn’t really need school anyway. Many of them would walk out the door after graduation and down into the mine and make twice what the teachers were making.

 Ron Brown: That comment is spam. They copy and paste part of someone else’s comment to make it confusing, then post their spam stuff.

trythemiddle: Huh, that’s how that works. Thanks.

I am reminded of this excellent webcomic.

[Edit: Obviously, I’m not endorsing any of the arguments in the thread]. 


Power and Politics

I’m just finishing the Epilogue of Richard Ben Cramer’s What it takes, which is truly an excellent piece of reporting. It’s an in-depth piece of journalistic piece of work, covering the US Republican and Democratic primaries for the 1988 election.

The strength of Cramer’s work is in the depth, in the fastidious attention to every detail. As he writes in the introduction, he interviewed not only the people running, but their family, their staff, people at second remove in every direction. And it shows. He brings to the stories he tells a level of nuance, and detail, that’s truly impressive.

The book itself

The questions Cramer sets out to answer are what kind of man (or woman, although in that election it was all men) can run for President? What does it take, and is there something special inside them? The answers that I found in his stories were respectively ‘everything’, and ‘no’.

The beauty of Cramer’s style (that travels back to when the candidates were very young; when they were children. He interviews neighbours, school teachers, friends, pulls together stories from when they were in their formative years) is that it gives some perspective. Most of the characters he writes about (Dukakis, Gary Hart, Dick Gephardt, Bob Dole, George Bush) are hard working. Driven, busy, strong. But his writing dispels the air of inevitability, that can be conveyed by some accounts of politics. I think it’s easy, when you’re trying to tell a story, when a journalist is writing about the latest politician, to give a sense of inevitability – in the search for causes, it’s perhaps possible to forget the fact that things weren’t always necessary, inevitable. For Bob Dole and George Bush he recounts moments of deep struggle before they even entered politics, when the very possibility of continuing seemed unlikely. And yes, both of those people had a sense of drive, of persistence, of grit, that’s truly remarkable. But not as exception as to dictate that they’d become President, or even a candidate (although both did, eventually, stand for President). Cramer shows how not only does the individual have to be driven, but sometimes, it’s not clear at all where they’ll go, or if they’ll succeed.

The other question he begins to answer is ‘why do people do it’, and for each potential candidate he makes a genuine effort. I have no way of knowing if he’s right, but it’s a plausible story.

As to ‘what it takes’ – he hints at that, in his recounting. It’s in the Epilogue that he truly speaks his mind. He describes the political machine, the political process that elects leaders, as a way for the public to demand everything – everything – of their political leaders. Those who fall by the wayside are those who won’t sacrifice (family, principles, a sense of self) to the process, for the cause of power. That’s a strong interpretation, perhaps, but he shows how the process shreds people, tears their lives apart, rips them to pieces.

Cramer’s narrative is primarily about people; about their experiences, their motivations, their ways of seeing the world, and how that fits into the process of running for Presidential candidate. But even through that lens, other things are apparent. The role of the media, of money, is inescapable. He has only derision for the media, for the way there needs to be a story, a consensus between the major reporters, a way of seeing the candidate’s story, and for the supposedly explicatory narratives they create. It’s a fair critique, although he doesn’t extend it (as I think it should be) to the audience that consumes horse-race journalism. The other thing that’s evident (even if only from a distance) is the impact of money. Money stops candidates from campaigning, money funds advertisements that change results, money drives the engine. There’s another book in that topic (several are already out there), and it’s okay that it wasn’t obvious in this one.

There are downsides to Cramer’s approach. His tone for every candidate is somewhat … joking, supportive, on-side. Which, when he clearly struggles with some candidates (like Bush’s privileged background and worldview), can feel frustratingly like reading one of those terribly obvious pieces of sarcasm that goes for pages and pages. It becomes tiring, and you wish that Cramer would just out and say it – Bush is a privileged git who takes for granted his blessings and looks down on others. That’s one example, but throughout the piece, there’s a sense that Cramer isn’t willing to quite come out and own his opinions, but hides a little behind the narrator’s voice, framing his story but never quite willing to own it.

He also elides his own role; mentions at most once or twice ‘the writer’, or ‘the journalist’. A more honest telling might have had a little more about his own role, his own part in the conversations, how he experienced the nightmare that is a perpetual campaign. For a different take on that, try Desperately Seeking Mitt, by Wells Tower.

But for all that, What it takes is an exceptional book. It’s in depth reporting of the kind we need more of (in Australia, I’d think of the Quarterly Essays done on Turnbull, Rudd and Abbott as good examples). And reading it while our latest Australia election was underway was an excellent reminder of why horse-race journalism isn’t the most useful thing to be reading.