Some of what’s wrong in The Atlantic’s cover story

I was going to title this Everything that’s wrong in the Atlantic’s cover story. But I have limited time and patience, so I’ll start with something smaller scale, which is to say this – I think the article uses flawed logics and a poor metaphor to reach an incorrect conclusion.

Bad metaphors

Rauch argues that:

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.

I think if you start off with the metaphor that a particular party system is an immune system, and reforms to improve it are attacks, then you are likely to conclude that reform was bad. For what it’s worth, I think there are plenty of meaningful, structural factors that we can identify that have brought us to the current situation. I don’t think efforts to reform the political system are central, or even necessarily causal, to the current situation (whatever you think of it).

Flawed logic

Where to start on this, really? Maybe here:

When a party raised a soft-money donation from a millionaire and used it to support a candidate’s campaign (a common practice until the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned it in federal elections), the exchange of favors tied a knot of mutual accountability that linked candidate, party, and donor together and forced each to think about the interests of the others. Such transactions may not have comported with the Platonic ideal of democracy, but in the real world they did much to stabilize the system and discourage selfish behavior.

I think an argument that says that un-transparent donations from a millionaire to an elected representative discourage selfishness and are in the interests of the people represented by the elected member is displaying extremely poor logic.

Rauch talks about changes to the Congressional committee system as though reforms to remove the focus on seniority, and cuts to Congressional staffing, are one and the same thing, or are movements in the same direction. It’s not clear to me that they are – they likely sprung from different views, and could very conceivably have had very different impacts.

For what it’s worth, the idea he puts forward (farther down in the piece) that somehow the failure to pass an appropriations bill is linked to the lack of pork-barrelling is laughable. There’s something much more fundamental at stake.

Poor assumptions

Underlying much of Rauch’s ideas seems to be a sense of fatalism about the possibility of electoral reform:

Starting in the 1970s, large-dollar donations to candidates and parties were subject to a tightening web of regulations. The idea was to reduce corruption (or its appearance) and curtail the power of special interests—certainly laudable goals. Campaign-finance rules did stop some egregious transactions, but at a cost: Instead of eliminating money from politics (which is impossible), the rules diverted much of it to private channels.

There’s a quote from GB Shaw that comes to mind on this front: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

A defensible position? 

Farther down in the piece, Rauch tries to walk back some of his critiques:

Party-dominated nominating processes, soft money, congressional seniority, closed-door negotiations, pork-barrel spending—put each practice under a microscope in isolation, and it seems an unsavory way of doing political business. But sweep them all away, and one finds that business is not getting done at all. The political reforms of the past 40 or so years have pushed toward disintermediation—by favoring amateurs and outsiders over professionals and insiders; by privileging populism and self-expression over mediation and mutual restraint; by stripping middlemen of tools they need to organize the political system. All of the reforms promote an individualistic, atomized model of politics in which there are candidates and there are voters, but there is nothing in between. Other, larger trends, to be sure, have also contributed to political disorganization, but the war on middlemen has amplified and accelerated them.

That paragraph was as close as Rauch seems to come to a reasonable conclusion. It just seems incredibly short-sighted to me to focus on something that I think is an outcome (a collapse in political structures) rather than a driver (major economic, social and demographic shifts).

Rauch has done that most disappointing thing, which is to pick an incredibly interesting topic (the current state of American politics), and write something profoundly lacking in insight.

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Weekend reading

This weekend has been delightfully quiet, and I’ve had a chance to read a few things while I’ve been doing errands, and at the gym. In no particular order:

The Big Hack is a great article on what it would look for an entire city to be immobilised through a cyber attack. I haven’t clicked through all the notes, but it looks well researched. What’s particularly impressive is it takes something that’s already happening, but that we don’t have a mental scenario for; and then by telling a new story, it helps us imagine a possible (bleak) future, or better understand something that’s very close to the present. Worth reading.

The Dark Side of Longform Journalism doesn’t have any answers, but it has questions that send a ripple through you.

… was there a real difference between my wanting to get to the village or hospital where people were dying terrible deaths, and my wanting people to be dying terrible deaths in whatever village or hospital I happened to be going to?

… A truly candid disclaimer would require me to inform the subject that not one of my articles has resulted in a policy change or improved in any meaningful way the lives of the people whom it was about. It would require me to reveal that the Afghan commander I profiled never received the weapons he needed and was killed while on patrol a couple of years later—or that the Honduran man, having failed to get a visa, tried to return to the U.S. illegally and was again arrested and deported before he could reunite with his wife and children. But more importantly, a truly candid disclaimer would require me to inform the subject that helping him is not even my objective to start with. Influencing policy is not my objective. Making any real difference of any sort isn’t my objective, can’t be my objective, because if it were, I would have switched to a different line of work by now.

… By my own standards, if my article has succeeded, if I’ve done what I set out to do, I have to some degree “humanized” a situation—a conflict, a crisis—for the reader. But of course the subject doesn’t feel any more human for the experience; the subject, in most cases, doesn’t even realize he’s been made more human in the eyes of the subscribers to the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. Which is fine. Because, believe me, if he did know, he wouldn’t care. If given the choice, he would much prefer to have, say, a hundred dollars, or fifty, or five. (Unfortunately, that would be unethical.)

So why keep doing it? Why do I still feel, instinctively, that this work is urgent and necessary? I think it has to do with the notion of a record. I think I believe that there is some essential purpose and value to adding the lives of individual people to the record, even if the people themselves understand the purpose and value of my work to be something different.

Cheering Le Bron in Jalula is a thoughtful meditation on basketball, Le Bron James, and what it meant for a marine in Iraq:

While deployed, soldiers often spend their long hours on patrol making wishes and plans to fulfill when they get back to the States. One friend made lists of places where he was going to eat; others looked online for the car or motorcycle they hoped to buy. One thing I wanted was to be able to sit on a couch in front of a television and watch LeBron play in the NBA. This daydream — there are so many while being a soldier — was about more than just watching basketball. It was the idea, the promise, to return home to Ohio and to have those things that epitomized the comforts of American domestic life: the couch, the television, sports. I knew returning would be much more complicated than how I envisioned it, but having this simple and achievable goal provided me with some form of solace, something tangible to look forward to. In Iraq, following LeBron helped me keep those parts of myself — athlete, civilian, Ohioan — alive as I lived this other, temporary life as a soldier.

Think Gender is performance? You have Judith Butler to thank for that is a good primer for someone who is aware of the zeitgeist, but not the theory behind it.

 

How people make decisions

I was reading a 538 article and came across this sentence:

Rubio, who many believe wants to run for president again, judged the terrain and apparently decided the best way to compete in a future presidential primary was to remain a member of the Senate.

There’s nothing in the article to indicate that the author has inside knowledge from Rubio. Which suggests it’s speculation.

In turn, I would argue, it’s unwise speculation. Simply because humans are inevitably messy. I have no idea about Rubio’s decision making process, but I would guess that it is messy, involves his own feelings on particular issues and talking with people close to him. And a whole lot of other random factors that are hard to pin down.

Sure, the article sets out logical reasoning why he may have made his decision. But it doesn’t point to any new information; all of the factors are ones that Rubio would have logically known when he realised he wasn’t going to get the nomination. So, presumably something else had to have changed?

Black Panther, Cleverman, and 1832

Life’s been a little busy recently, but I’ve been sneaking some time to read things here and there. Here’s some of the stuff I’ve really enjoyed recently.

Black Panther

I’m a huge fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s a great writer, and an insightful mind. So I was excited to start reading the run of Black Panther that he’s writing. It’s a fun read. I haven’t read much by way of comic books, although I’ve enjoyed to varying extents adaptations like Watchmen and DeadpoolSo I don’t have a lot of context for Black Panther. Based on what I’ve read so far, there’s definitely potential. Worth checking out if you like TNC, or comics, or both.

Cleverman

Cleverman is a new TV show by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with a really exciting premise.

I’m still only halfway through the second episode, but it’s quite good. I don’t know if it’ll be brilliant, and sure, it could be a little tighter in the narrative arcs, but it crackles with energy. I’m keen to see the rest of it; you might enjoy it too.

Perilous question: Reform or revolution? Britain on the brink, 1832

In 1830, the pressing question of democracy wasn’t a hanging chad or different types of voting. It wasn’t even whether women should be allowed to vote, or all men. It was simply whether in a population of about fourteen million, Britain’s House of Commons should be reformed to enable 650,000 people to vote, rather than 400,000.

That was the broader, social question – it reflected discontent on the continent, shifting social classes and movements within Britain, and a country still adjusting after the Catholic Emancipation.

Antonia Fraser’s excellent book focuses in on a closer question- can the Whigs pass the bill through Parliament? The radicals outside Parliament are broadly supportive, but restless. Inside the Parliament, the Tories will stop the bill in the House of Lords if they can.

Fraser writes a little like a political reporter. There’s some light discussion of context and procedure. But for the most part the story follows the back and forth of Parliamentary process over the two years. Which if you find that kind of thing interesting, is fascinating. Negotiations between the King and Cabinet over creating more peers (one alternative to force the House of Lords into submission), an attempted amendment that almost scuppered the Bill, the confusion of an election called after the Bill was rejected – it’s all in there.

At times there’s a little of that common journalistic flaw, false equivalence. Because she doesn’t venture outside Parliament, Fraser can’t give a sense of the social context, and because of that it’s hard to evaluate the Tory fears that the country will be overrun if the Reform Bill is passed.

For all that, it’s an excellent read. If you find Parliamentary procedure and political debate interesting, this one’s worth it.

Inventing the future

I’d had a few people recommend Inventing the future to me, so I was interested to read it. It’s an intriguing piece.

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek are both ‘accelerationists‘ – to this uninformed reader, it seems an interesting mixture of determinism and a focus on how agency can influence the future.

Their book starts with a critique of what they call ‘folk politics’. Their exact definition is in the book, but it’s associated with the small, the local, the unstrategic. Instead they argue that political movements should be strategic at a macro scale, thinking in terms of the drivers of political debate, and how to shift them at multiple levels.

They then set out their plans for what a major political project could look like, including a focus on universal automation and universal basic income, as tools to restructure society.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a part of it. If you find politics interesting, this is worth a read.

It’s a disaster – but a lot of fun

I’ve always found apocalyptic scenarios fascinating. The Road and On the Beach are both fascinating explorations, from very different perspectives, of the end of society.

It’s a Disaster is similarly a take on the end of society, or the world, but with a different theme. It starts with a couple’s brunch, riddled with the usual internal tensions and fraught histories, and then lets a nuclear disaster simmer and bring all the internal contradictions and disasters to the top.

It’s beautifully played, with a manic intensity that veers perfectly between hilarity and a sense of the tragic. Intricately plotted, and a delight to watch.

Reading ‘Australia’s second chance’ and ‘The end of eternity’

I’ve been reading a bit lately, including surprise books courtesy of the ever excellent MK.

Australia’s second chance

I’ve heard a lot of things about George Megalogenis, as an excellent journalist, and someone who tells Australian history well. It’s true, he does.

His latest book, Australia’s second chance, is a fly-over of Australian history, used to argue the thesis that Australia flourishes when it has an open immigration policy. The first aspect, Megalogenis handles well. He gives an exceptionally readable overview of Australian history. It’s exciting to read about the early colonies, and the anxieties and prejudices they had about immigration.

The second part, though, I found disappointing. His argument is essentially an empirical one: that higher immigration and more open borders lead to greater economic growth. That’s a very testable one; there may be confounding variables, but a cross-country analysis would shed some insight. If he wanted to look at the Australian context specifically, using data would have been more persuasive – details on who immigrated when, what education levels they had, how they were employed in Australia. Instead, though, he ends up with a very vague appeal to a correlation – that in periods of high immigration, there has been high economic growth.

Which is in itself a flawed and superficial analysis. GDP figures measure something, but they don’t by any means measure the crucial pieces of a society. He writes:

The simplest measure of Australia’s success is its winning streak. At the time of writing, the economy has been growing for twenty-four years without the interruption of a deep recession. 

I would argue that fundamentally, Australia’s economic growth has to do with much more than migration policy. And more importantly, there is much more to measures of ‘success’ than whether a country’s GDP has grown. Over the same period, Australia failed on other measures.

For what it’s worth, I’m not saying that immigration is bad. I think there are strong arguments for a high level of immigration, and good policy reasons. I just don’t think Megalogenis presents them, or makes his case well.

The End of Eternity

I came across The End of Eternity a few months ago, in a second hand book store. It’d been years since I read I, Robot or the Foundation series, but I’d enjoyed them.

Reading something now that was originally published in 1955, it’s telling to spot how masculine a viewpoint Asimov takes. The story follows Andrew, a privileged member of a unique society that moves in and out of different realities and through time, managing them to bring about better outcomes for humanity.

He falls in love with someone from within a time period, one of the lesser humans who isn’t privy to the secret of the eternals. But when I say he ‘falls in love with her’, what I really mean is that Asimov describes him wanting to have sex with her. There’s a little dialogue, a little shading in of her character, but not much more. It’s disconcerting, as it wasn’t something I thought of when I was reading Asimov as a teenager; it’s like discovering that Orwell wrote in a manic pixie dream girl.

Apart from that failure, the book shows many of Asimov’s strengths. There’s a fascinating set of conceptual ideas, played out intricately in a complex set of plot twists. You can skip through the science-oriented sections, or half-skim them, and the plot will still flow. But it’s fascinating to think about a reality that can move between realities; and particularly intriguing as he describes how shifts in reality occur because of decisions being made. So that a person may not be aware when they’ve reached a decision, but they can spot it in the reality changing around them, because their future decision will lead to a forking in the different paths through reality. Intriguing stuff.

It’s not brilliant, but worth a read if you’re after some good sci-fi.