Friday, August 19, 2016

Is Voter Ignorance a Reason to Shrink Government? Ilya Somin and "Voting with your Feet"

Vote and Fight, or Leave?
Democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In our republican form of government we delegate governance to elected representatives whose performance we periodically review. In order to do a proper job of reviewing the performance of elected politicians, therefore, we should have political knowledge. But we have a problem. Most voters are deficient in their political knowledge. Therefore it is difficult for us to meaningfully hold our elected representatives accountable for their performance. How do we manage this problem?

The Optimists

Consider the optimism of John F. Kennedy speaking in 1963:
"The educated citizen knows that .... knowledge is power, that only an educated and informed people will be a free people; that the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all; and that if we can, as Jefferson put it, enlighten the people generally, tyranny and the oppression of mind and body will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day; and, therefore, the educated citizen has a special obligation to encourage the pursuit of learning, promote exploration of the unknown, to preserve the freedom of inquiry, to support the advancement of research, and to assist, at every level of government, the improvement of education for all Americans." 
                                                        --John F. Kennedy, May 18, 1963.

We live in a less optimistic time. President Kennedy in 1963 was aspirational and inspirational. He reflected a hopeful attitude that we can have an enlightened and engaged citizenry, that progress is possible, and that our democracy can work. Today, after 20 years of Fox News and its imitators, we have our doubts.

Yet Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi and their cognitive democracy project (the subject of my last post) are keeping the faith. They start off with the realization that the biggest problems democracies face are complex and technical; they acknowledge the vagaries of human nature--that we are subject to confirmation bias and prone to motivated reasoning; they acknowledge that many voters are sorely lacking in knowledge: yet Farrell and Shalizi remain hopeful that the best way to find solutions to society's difficult problems remains through maximizing the diversity of perspectives, through education, social media, and other communication tools, and that despite the flaws and limitations of individual voters, democracy remains our best hope for coming up with good solutions to our complex societal problems (achieving full employment with low inflation, providing security, safety, and stability, protecting the environment, educating the population, making sure everyone has healthcare, a dignified retirement, stimulating culture and scientific development, and resolving competing views on such things as abortion, gay marriage, gun control, etc.)

Nobody said it would be easy! Nobody promised us a rose garden. But I'm on board with optimism and hope. I think we have no choice.

The Pessimism (or is it just motivated reasoning) of Ilya Somin

Ilya Somin, professor of law at George Mason University, and a libertarian since high school, looks at the challenges and throws up his hands. Voter ignorance is rational, he says, and therefore the citizens of democracy will never be able to provide effective government oversight. Because people do a poor job with government oversight, the solution is.... we should eliminate government!

O.K., not quite. Somin's proposal is to shrink government and to keep it small. He is as pessimistic about the democratic process as Kennedy was optimistic. On the other hand, being a libertarian, Somin has great confidence in individual action and the power of markets for solving complex social problems. Let them vote with their feet, he says.

Somin has outlined his arguments in a book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, which has just been reissued as an expanded second edition. For a succinct statement of his position, take a look at his article in Cato Unbound (October 2013). He has also advocated his position in many other articles in the popular press.

There is the suspicion, of course, that since Somin's small government conclusions are in line with his libertarian principles held since high school, what we have here is book length motivated reasoning. On the other hand, just because reasoning is motivated doesn't make it wrong. So let's take a closer look.

There is the point that when we look about at the deplorably inane level of our political discourse across the spectrum, when we behold Trump and the fact that 40 million people appear ready to cast their vote for him as president of the United States, when we take stock of the level of voter ignorance about basic political facts (see e.g. Ilya Somin), many of us wonder: how can an uninformed electorate subjected to demagogic misinformation possibly act as an effective check on our political leaders and their performance?

There is also the fact that we lack political knowledge despite attaining higher educational levels across society than in the past. We may even have higher IQ levels than our great-great-great grandparents. Yet we lack political knowledge, says Somin, because we don't spend the time required to become sufficiently knowledgeable. We spend more time considering the purchase of a new television than we do considering our vote for president, senator, member of Congress, or local government representatives. Moreover, we are more likely to be objective in our evaluations when we buy a new television than when we vote for presidential candidates. We take consumer decisions more seriously than voting decisions. This should not be a surprise, says Somin. It's rational to spend more time on purchasing a television than casting a vote for president because our TV purchase will affect our lives in a tangible direct way, whereas our individual vote will never (for all statistical purposes) make any difference.

In San Francisco this November we will vote on 25 local ballot measures. A conscientious review of these measures will take 50 hours of my time. Why should I spend this time when my individual vote will never be determinative of the outcome? It's irrational, says Somin, so we should not expect it. And so we don't. But rather than worry about this problem, Somin embraces it as a rallying cry for shrinking the size of government.

It's true that in our modern world government has become ever more complex. Government expenditures constitute a larger share of the world economy than 50 years ago. According to World Bank statistics, the average government share of GDP world-wide has increased from 13 percent in 1960 to nearly 18 percent in 2015.  In developed countries this number is considerably higher: the range for OECD countries is 33 percent (Switzerland) to 58 percent (Finland); the United States is 38 percent (2014 figures). Increased complexity and increased size of government, says Somin, makes the citizen's task of understanding, evaluating, and voting meaningfully ever more complicated.

Forget it, implies Somin: voters will never be able to properly evaluate government performance, or the performance of individual elected politicians in a world where government comprises 38 percent of GDP. The solution, he says, is to diversify and shrink government, leaving private actors to solve complex social problems through civic groups and by voting with their feet.

What is voting with your feet, and why should we favor it over elections?  Here's Somin in the Cato article:
There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. But we can significantly mitigate it by making more of our decisions by “voting with our feet” and fewer at the ballot box. Two types of foot voting have important informational advantages over ballot box voting. The first is when we vote with our feet in the private sector, by choosing which products to buy or which civil society organizations to join. The other is choosing what state or local government to live under in a federal system - a decision often influenced by the quality of those jurisdictions’ public policy.... 
[F]oot voters don’t have the same incentive to be rationally ignorant as ballot box voters do. In fact, they have strong incentives to seek out useful information. They also have much better incentives to objectively evaluate what they do learn. ... [F]oot voters know they will pay a real price if they do a poor job of evaluating the information they get....
The informational advantages of foot voting over ballot box voting strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government. The more decentralized government is, the more issues can be decided through foot voting. It is usually much easier to vote with your feet against a local government than a state government, and much easier to do it against a state than against the federal government.
It is also usually easier to foot vote in the private sector than the public. A given region is likely to have far more private planned communities and other private sector organizations than local governments. Choosing among the former usually requires far less in the way of moving costs than choosing among the latter. 
Reducing the size of government could also alleviate the problem of ignorance by making it easier for rationally ignorant voters to monitor its activities. A smaller, less complicated government is easier to keep track of.
Shareholders engage in foot-voting. If a stock ceases to perform, they sell and move on...., they don't get involved in evaluating leadership and making efforts to replace it with better leadership. Somin suggests we should approach politics the same way. In his Cato article Somin provides the example of southern Blacks moving north for a better life during the Jim Crow era.

But it is not at all clear how Blacks leaving the Jim Crow South for a better life in the North has any relationship to the size of government. Or that it has any relationship to voter ignorance. The problem faced by the woman protesting in the photo at the top of this post is not voter ignorance. She is painfully aware of the problem.

The proper size of government is itself a political question. As a libertarian Somin wants to shrink government. But the democratic consensus over the last half century has not been that government should be smaller. It's been a Republican talking point, but they don't mean it. Government has grown under all administrations since the 1950's.

In order to shrink government, we would need to make value choices. Should we reduce military expenditures? Prisons? Social security? Education? Infrastructure? Environmental regulation? Regulations monitoring a safe food supply? Police? National security? School lunches? Head start? The Space program? How much?

All of these are political questions.  Voting with your feet won't help us resolve any of these questions.

The argument Somin is making--that we should reduce the size of government in order to make it easier for a disengaged electorate to provide oversight--appeals to our democratic process. He is providing reasons why we should vote for elected officials who will bring this about. But that is not different than arguments that voters should vote for representatives who will protect the environment, or increase social security, maintain the TSA, or vote for the earned income tax credit. And in the process we'll have to evaluate which candidates would likely follow through with what we want.

Does Somin have in mind some magic size of government where voter ignorance ceases to be a problem? He's not telling. But it seems unlikely. Any country with a $16 trillion economy must have a sizable government to operate smoothly.  Whether our government spending is 20 percent of GDP  or 38 percent, it won't solve the problem of voter ignorance.

Somin is sympathetic to efforts to improve voter knowledge. A week ago in the Washington Post he favorably reviewed some advice to voters in Scientific American: don't just go with your gut,  don't get all your news from social media, watch the next debate with your eyes, closed, and abstain from voting when you really haven't had the chance to engage at all. These are positive voter virtues, he says, but in the long term "the most effective solution is to reduce the size and complexity of government." I don't think the size of government has anything to do with it.

In the long run I think we'll do better if we harken back to the optimism president Kennedy expressed in 1963. I think we'll do well if, on November 8, the Electoral College map approximates the results of the 1964 election as much as possible.  And I think we'll do well if we adhere to some of that idealism expressed by Kennedy in his speech (above). We'll do well if we remember that citizenship is not just an exercise in rational self-interest because we think our vote will make a difference; if we remember that citizenship is a value;  that taking an interest in political affairs matters; that if we model proper engagement it will influence our children, our friends, our peers.... and that our vote will not just be our vote but the vote of our children, friends, and peers, and their friends and peers, and that we are ultimately all connected in this great venture that is America. We'll do well if we remember that democracy does not consist of making individual market decisions.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Democracy and the Wisdom of Crowds

Oxford Union Debating Hall
Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi have collaborated thinking about how human communities have organized themselves, and why democracy based on equality, may be (and will continue to be) the best thing going.

Back in 2012 they published An Outline of Cognitive Democracy. There they note that there have been three enduring political institutions: markets, hierarchies, and democracies.

Markets, they said, work best to solve individual problems rather than collective problems. Governments might meddle in markets through the imposition of Pegovian taxes in order to address collective problems, such as achieving a goal of reducing total carbon emissions through the imposition of taxes in conjunction with a cap and trade program; but, at heart markets are not about collective goals. Markets solve individual problems through price and exchange mechanisms.

A feature of markets, say Farrell and Shalizi, is that they eliminate rational and reasoned discourse, and limit the useful exchange of views. People communicate only through prices and advertising.  Because markets are impersonal, markets homogenize what is provided, they reduce diversity, and they reduce the exchange of ideas. Because information is in the hand of sellers and their advertisers, markets tend to suppress the free flow of ideas. Farrell and Shalizi suggest that markets may provide stability and order, but in the long term markets alone are not sufficient to solve our complex social problems.  [More on this tomorrow]

Similarly, hierarchies have deficiencies. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein speak about libertarian paternalism and "choice architects." Choice architects are leaders who have responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions. Their job is to design institutions to spur better choices. We might think of Plato's philosopher king.

The problem with hierarchies, say Farrell and Shalizi, whether our philosopher king is enlightening or not, is that that any hierarchy requires power asymmetries in order to work. Power asymmetries are set up to push orders down; hierarchies are not so good at filtering useful information up. Hierarchies require bureaucracies, and bureaucracies systematically encourage a culture of conformity in order to increase predictability and static efficiency.

Thaler and Sunstein, report Farrell and Shalizi, criticize the market model by giving numerous examples of how individuals make poor choices and decisions. But, they say, how do philosopher kings--much less Saudi princes, or Russian presidents--make better decisions on individuals's behalf? Such hierarchies, even absent any corruption, treat individual citizens as passive consumers whose choices need to be guided to the desired outcome. Citizens are not participants in politics. Libertarian paternalism (the philosopher king model) is flawed not because it restricts people's choices, say Farrell and Shalizi, but because it makes heroic assumptions about the choice architect's (philosopher king's) abilities to figure out what the choices should be.

Figuring out what the right choices should be, and how to price these choices, turned out to be a central problem in the collapse of the centrally planned state as envisioned by the Soviet Empire. For a great description of this--in a history of an idea novelistic format--read Francis Spufford's Red Plenty. For a great read on how life in Plato's Republic might turn out, we should all be reading Jo Walton's The Just City.

We get better results in solving our complex problems if we all muddle through our politics without submission to philosopher kings or choice architects.

Democracy is the best model to solve complex social problems, argue Farrell and Shalizi, because it can best harness diversity in order to generate useful knowledge. In order for this to work best, we need equality among citizens, fewer power asymmetries, and an actual debate. Democracy and equal rights, that's the key.

Farrell and Shalizi point to social research over the past few decades which has shown that our reasoning becomes much better if we are challenged in an argumentative setting. Democracy with minimal power asymmetries--i.e. Democracy and equality--enables debates and the exchange of ideas. Groups with persistent dissenting minorities, research has shown, are able to come up with more creative and better solutions to problems. Groups that debate and argue tend to be smarter and wiser than the elite members in the group.

Karl Popper noted this about the scientific process: the reliability of science is an emergent property of scientific institutions, not of scientists. Likewise, Democracies in conditions of low power asymmetries--high levels of equality--can reliably come up with better solutions to complex social problems than either market based systems or hierarchically based systems.

Some of this, of course, is faith and a profession of values. Democracy does not come with a guarantee that complex social problems will be solved optimally, or well. Democracies can go far off the rails. Complex problem solving requires, at minimum agreement among diverse groups as to what the problems are that should be solved. When debating, there must be a modicum of good faith, and a minimal level of empirical standards--a willingness to change one's mind based on new and different information. Some would say those conditions are lacking in the current U.S. Congress.

It is human nature, of course, that we consider arguments through the filter of a strong confirmation bias. That is we all have a tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs, and we look with a jaundiced eye on any facts and argument that contradict our preexisting beliefs. However, say Farrell and Shalizi, research shows that groups can make this work. When we argue in diverse groups in favor of our pet solutions to complex social problems, our reasoning is intended not so much to reach a right answer, but to expose and evaluate weaknesses in the arguments of others. It is an argumentative account of reasoning. The benefit to a group, a demos, that challenges opposing views--and nurtures minimal power asymmetries--is that everybody is forced to improve their reasoning process and their arguments, and to come up with better evidence.  Better decision making can emerge from this process, just like scientific truth can emerge from the scientific process--and not from the impartial objectivity of individual scientists. 

The next post will look at the problem of the uninformed voter. Ilya Somin has written a book,  Democracy and Political Ignorancein which he argues that political ignorance is a fly in this ointment of political discourse, that it is an unsurmountable problem because it's rational for citizens to be politically ignorant, and that the solution is to have limited government so people can vote with their feet.  Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, let me know what you think of Farrell and Shalizi's optimistic take on Democracy with conditions of low power asymmetries. 
You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Warning Bells of Civilized Society Unraveling are Ringing Loudly

Eva Illouz/SRF 
In June 1995 Umberto Eco (1932-2016) published an essay in the New York Review of books about the timeless aspects of fascism. The magazine saw fit to bring his article back to readers' attention yesterday, because Trump.  The day before, Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, published a subtle and fine essay in Haaretz  which focuses on the unraveling of civil society in an Israeli context. Israel is considerably farther down this road than we are in the United States, but taking note of and being able to identify the symptoms of civilization's unraveling is, indeed, of great importance for all defenders of civil society. As we look around, many have the feeling that alarm bells are ringing. These essays explain why this perception is correct.
Umberto Eco/AP

Enlightenment Values Civilization

Civilization, noted Norbert Elias, is a historical process by which states progressively monopolized violence, forbade members of the community to use violence against each other, and by which states appropriated and symbolized law that was universally applied. The state in a civilized society acts as a pacifying force in relations amongst its members. Through participation in civilized society, different groups learn to restrain their aggressiveness and to pay attention to others through codes of civility, and through respect for the rule of law.

In a healthy civilization, collective solidarity and strength are built inclusively, not exclusively. By mixing different humanity, civilized multi-cultural societies yield hybrid forms of intelligence that allow a society to adapt and move forward, says Illouz.

This idea of a civilized society, of course, arose from the Enlightenment. Above all, the Enlightenment championed reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Through reason, we can improve the world, or at least our society, for the benefit of everyone. Through reason we can continue to make progress and improve governance, the economy, the lot of mankind, including that of the least among us.

The Enlightenment idea of civilized society gave us the American declaration of independence, the American constitution, and the American ideals that have allowed us to make progress on the road of civilization, with hiccups, faults, and backsliding along the way, but progress all the same. Progress for 240 years and counting. It brought us the French constitution and equality, liberty, and fraternity. It kept the British Raj more decent than it might have been and set the stage for Indian democracy. It inspired the United Nations and formed the basis for the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after World War II.

The Breakdown of Civilized Society

Civilized society suffered tragic breakdowns in the 20th century. The result was war, genocides, and other mass killings. In Europe this breakdown came in the guise of fascism. But the label is incidental.

Civilization breaks down, says Illouz in her essay, when one group inside the collective body starts over-emphasizing its own cohesiveness and unity, and moves to exclude other groups, isolating them spatially and symbolically. Civilization unravels when a cohesive group becomes ready to expropriate the property, dignity, and freedom of others, not because they are ordered to do so, but because they have a sense of being unique and great, and because they have a sense of moral entitlement and moral mission. From a strong group cohesion among a majority group there follows the ability to dis-identify other (minority) groups; to draw rigid boundaries between us and them. Separateness is fostered through the daily and routine exclusion of others in deeds, laws, and ideology.

The Nazi party in Germany in the 1930's adopted a racial view of themselves, which they proceeded to institutionalize through the mechanism of the state. They distinguished between genuine Germans, and those racially impure. The Nazi notion of race divided humanity into un-mixable human groups, making mixing itself a crime and the sign of a degenerate humanity.

This process of separation, which starts the disintegration of civilization, is evil at heart, says Illouz. A distinctive characteristic of evil regimes is their belief in the need to preserve the racial or ethnic or religious purity of a dominant group.  It's what leads to a sense of moral entitlement and moral mission to dominate others. This process of separation is necessary on the way to a state committing collective horrors.

A Problem of Recognition

Civilizations do not unravel overnight. Society is not polarized overnight, reports Illouz. How do we recognize the early signs? How do we guard against the unraveling of civilization?

The capacity to divide sharply between us and them, and to view "them" as a foreign element in our midst, is a historical process that always requires new modes of thought, suggests Illouz. In Nazi Germany the defeat of World War I, harsh economic reparations, economic depression, the demonization of Jews, the mentally ill, degenerate liberals, and other enemies within all played a role in progressively weakening the liberal democratic forces. Slowly, by degrees, the Nazis managed to enact racist laws unhindered. Over time, the Nazi world view became acceptable and a wide variety of Germans adjusted to the gradual changes in norms in light of daily violence--physical and verbal--which was justified, tolerated, and gradually unnoticed. 

Societies in which violence against another specific group is routinized and tolerated are societies in which the mechanisms of civilization have broken down, says Illouz. 

Eco in his article lists several markers of fascism, including: a cult of tradition, a rejection of modernity and the embracing of irrationalism, a glorification of action for action's sake (including violence), a fear of difference, and an embracing of the need for heroic struggle in order to overcome differences. 

A hyper-nationalist policy that is inherent in the unraveling of civilization creates a war of all against all, says Illouz. In such an environment no group is spared hatred. Strongly defined groups, said Reinhold Niebuhr (per Illouz), are inherently selfish and uncaring. Groups have a tendency to close up and to fetishize themselves, and when they crowd too densely around common beliefs about themselves, they undo the delicate normative fabric that holds diverse human beings together. Such rending of the social fabric leads strongly defined groups to legitimize their own violence with a sense of moral entitlement and moral mission.

A Time to Worry

The Illouz article is written in a way that invites any reader reflecting on these warning signals in the context of Israeli society to say: check, check, check .... Indeed, Gideon Levy has drawn all the inferences and reached his conclusions in a follow up article in Haaretz, Stop Living in Denial: Israel is an Evil State. It's not so important what we call it, but it's clear that Enlightenment Civilization is in mortal danger of unraveling in Israel, if it has not done so yet. 

What about the United States? As we look about we see that it's not just Donald Trump. The GOP has been making a concerted effort to overemphasize the cohesiveness, identity, and moral prerogative of White European America for 35 years.  From Willie Horton to "Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers,"  from "welfare queens" to "Make America Great Again," from voter suppression laws to slogans like "keep out all Muslims," from Joe the Plumber to Sarah Palin, from fighting affirmative action, to enacting criminal drug laws that have resulted in 1/3 of the country's black youth being imprisoned in their lifetime, the GOP has been working on the identity and cohesiveness of white America as a distinct group, and working to segregate and stigmatize minority Americans. 

In Congress, the almost all white GOP has worked hard to delegitimize the Democrats. After the 2008 election, the announced top priority of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell was not to work with Democrats for the good of the country, but to do everything in his power to deny any success to President Obama so as to make Obama a one term president. The whole "birther movement"  served to delegitimize and make Obama--and by extension black America--"other." Through its emphasis on culture wars, through its appropriation of the flag, the GOP has sought to stigmatize liberal America as "other." Some of the third parties have contributed to this separation with their rhetoric.

From its policies on tax reduction, to shrinking government to the point it can be "drowned in a bathtub," to climate change denial, to touting the gold standard, and debt phobia--all the while running up debts by cutting taxes, and initiating unpaid for wars--the GOP has embraced irrationality. The GOP has embraced the need for heroic action, never mind what action, "to make America great again." 

On the campaign trail Trump engages in daily verbal violence, and he whips up verbal and physical violence among his followers. Through innuendo he is urging his followers to take the law into their own hands. He rejects the role of government in calming the aggressiveness of groups and to foster civility and respect for the rule of law. To the contrary he whips up incivility and encourages aggression. By spreading conspiracy theories about "rigged elections" in case he were to lose, by urging his followers to take their 2nd amendment rights into their own hands, by dividing society into "us" and "them," Trump is undermining the very foundations of civilized society. 

The greatest catastrophe's occur, said James Waller, when the distinctions between war and crime fades away, when there is dissolution of the boundaries between military and criminal conduct. Here, too, there are danger signs. The entire war on terror serves to blur the boundaries between war and crime. We react to terrorist acts with acts of war, and war is extended to the domestic realm through the expansion of the social security state and the erosion of civil rights. 

We may well prefer abstention, or choose to vote for some third party, but warning bells are ringing loudly, and this is no time to sit idly by--or to waste a vote. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Sunday, August 7, 2016

My Brush with the Olympics....

Pierre (Fredy) de Coubertin, the French educator, historian, and founder of the modern Olympic movement saw sport as an integral part of education. Sport keeps the mind and body in balance, he thought: it builds moral character, social strength, and prevents time wasted on more trivial things. Coubertin was a dreamer. But it has mostly worked for me.

The Tokyo Olympics in '64 passed me by. I was nine years old, still in Switzerland.  My family did not yet have a television and I read no newspapers. I had started skiing, albeit badly and without instruction. I climbed trees, explored the forests and ruins on the hill behind our house, palled around with incipient gangs, and got bad grades in school. It landed me in boarding school for some much needed supervision.

In my Swiss all-boys boarding school they subscribed to de Coubertin's philosophy. But sports was encouraged in a strictly informal manner. There were no school teams with competitions against other schools. No coaching. But every recess and lunch hour, and after school period we played soccer. It was a passion. I gravitated to goal keeper. An independent position, solitary, proud, with no  competing claimants. I read juvenile novels about goal keepers. Nationalism and sport caught our fancy during the 1966 Soccer World Cup. We listened raptured in the lunch hall that summer as Switzerland played Germany, Spain, and Argentina and went home with three losses. England captured our hearts as they beat Germany in the final 4-2. I've been rooting for England every cup since.  But sine Brexit, England is losing to Iceland! It may be time to move on.

In 1967 my family emigrated half way round the globe to the wilds of central British Columbia. Out in the northern pine forests, far from organized sport, my family moved into a trailer and proceeded to build a house, two barns, and an outhouse. There were tractors, trucks, a D-3 Cat, building fences, corn crops, and squirrel hunting; but I also kept a soccer ball. That ball and a goal marked on the side of a barn kept fantasies alive.

A flickering image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos's black fisted salute, a gesture beyond my understanding at the time, was all I recall of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. The remarkable leap of Viktor Saneyev did not loom large for me until half a decade later.

Viktor Saneyev World Record in Triple Jump (17.39m), Mexico City 1968

By the time the Olympics dawned in my consciousness I was channelling de Coubertin and taking my sports at least as seriously as my studies.

By ninth grade my family drifted south from Prince George to the Okanagan town of Kamloops. There I found basketball and made my way onto the starting squads of my Junior High and High school teams. I continued to play goal in soccer. I discovered track and field and the Western roll. I read a book about running in the school library and fancied to take up the mile. I recall the lightheadedness, fear, and anxiety at the starting line of my four 1500m races. Without coaching,  training, or a requisite base, it never amounted to much.

By my senior year in High School, my family had moved to Vancouver.  The big city. I continued with soccer. I started as a forward on the basketball team. I tried volleyball and found I did not have the hands for it. The same problem placed limits on how far I might go as a soccer goalie in University. I ran cross-country. And in the spring I stumbled onto a group of jumpers--high jump, long jump, triple jump--with coaches who were dedicated. It turned out I had a knack for the triple jump.

I won the British Columbia High School championship in triple jump that year (1973), and I was hooked. I learned about Viktor Saneyev.  I found a loving and supportive community of athletes and coaches. I attended the University of British Columbia and received support from the University, the Province, and the Country to pursue my passion of triple jumping. It was nurturing support. It was support designed to further student athletes--it was not support to further the glory of the University, the Province, or the Country. It was sport in the image of Pierre de Coubertin.

The Munich Olympics of 1972 were an inspiration to me. The great Viktor Saneyev won the second of his three triple jump gold medals (17.35m).  The event had progressed a lot since Naoto Tajima set a world record at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 with a 16.00m leap. There was the tragedy of the Israeli team and terrorism. But above all there was Steve Roland Prefontaine, the great runner from Oregon who finished fourth behind Lasse Viren in the 5,000 meter run.

Sports did not make me a better student. But it did celebrate life, and it instilled in me a confidence and love of movement that has lasted through the decades. The love of sport, and the desire to make me a better person, is also what motivated my coaches through the years. It has made me respect their efforts, it has made me love them. And the love of sports and admiration of effort, and progress however grudging, is what makes me admire and respect individual athletes in every sport, whether they are gold medalists at the Olympics, or friends picking up skiing and working at it at age 30.

There was a generosity and love of sport in Steve Prefontaine when I met him at Brockton Oval in Stanley Park in May of 1975. It was our practice track in Vancouver. Prefontaine was visiting and had finished a training run. He was vivacious and warm hearted in his encouragement. An ambassador for track and field. A week later he was dead, killed in a car crash. He was 24 years old. He did not get his rematch with Viren in Montreal. He never received an Olympic gold medal. And it did not matter. The lack of an Olympic medal diminished nothing about his running, about his life.

And the Montreal Olympics passed me by too. At the Canadian Olympic trials in Laval, Quebec, I jumped 15.15m, a personal best. It would have been good enough for 5th place at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, 3rd place in London in 1948, and fifth place in Helsinki in 1952. Even in Rome (1960) it would have sufficed for 14th place.  By 1976 the best I could do was no longer world class. Viktor Saneyev won his third gold medal in Montreal with a leap that was two meters beyond where I could have landed in the sand (17.29m).  This was 1.29 meters farther than Naoto Tajima managed when he set a world record in the event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

And time has caught up with Viktor Saneyev as well.  Today, his Mexico City world record does not rank among the 100 best jumps of all time.  The current mark is Jonathan Edward's now 21 year old world record of 18.29m.

Jonathan Edwards 2 world records, August 7, 1995

The man who will be chasing that record in Rio next week is the American Christian Taylor, who set a personal best mark of 18.21m last summer.  These are remarkable distances: hop 20 feet, step 20 feet, and jump 20 feet into the pit! And this event takes place largely out of the limelight of nationalist expectations. Fans will be following the medal counts by country more closely than they will be following the results of the triple jump event.

De Coubertin also thought the modern Olympic movement could be instrumental in preventing wars, and in bringing out the best in nations. The mega-marketing and branding organization known as the IOC perpetuates this fantasy. But since Berlin '36, the Olympics has become a hyper nationalist propaganda festival. When we review the opening ceremonies of the Bejing Olympics and its thousands of robotic drummers, we are reminded of the Nazi sponsored Berlin Olympics. Over the years individual athletes and entire countries have engaged in systematic cheating with the use of performance enhancing drugs.  I think of the East German programs, I think of the Russian program that came to light in the last couple of years; I think of Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter, and Marion Jones, the American sprinter. The list is very long.

The Olympic program today is a huge marketing brand. It's a great show complete with soft pornography. It revels in nationalism and money and spectacle.  Medals and winning and records seem outshine sport.

Yet through it all, sport persists. Athletes remain real, and their efforts, de Coubertin would say, are there to appreciated from the lowliest heats to the finals. If we keep our eye on the ball, on the Olympic ideal envisioned by de Coubertin, on the stories and athletes who are there to compete--out of the medals--out of the finals, sport remains true.

I'll be keeping my eye on the triple jump event on August 15-16. And I'll be rooting for Christian Taylor. And I won't give a hoot about the medal count.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Brad DeLong and Tyler Cowan on Trumpism as a Cyclical Phenomenon

The New York Times has a video (above) of Trump's crowds. They are crazies, to use a term of art. Crazies, says Brad DeLong, have always been part of our political culture. They have always hovered around the 20 percent mark of the American population.  In that sense the Trump phenomenon is nothing new.  The problem is that the crazies, by and large are concentrated in the Republican party, so that they make up 40% of the GOP. And because they are highly motivated, they make up 60% of the GOP primary electorate--hence Trump.

DeLong lays out the argument in an interview with David Beckworth on Macro Musings, speaking in fluent paragraphs as few can.

Here's DeLong on the connection between Trump and the crazies in the NYT video above (starting at 20:30):
The way Tyler Cowan  puts it: it was always the case that 20% of America was crazy. But it used to be that 20% was divided between the two political parties. There were Western and Northern types of people who were fairly crazy, and who were ensconced in the Republican Party because they feared immigrants and the immigrant Democratic machines of the cities, and crime, and so forth. And there were people on the Southern side, but they were not in the Republican party, they were in the Democratic party because Lincoln had freed the slaves and they weren't going to forget that. 
And so you had the elements of Trumpism. 
The elements of Trumpism were always there, but they were marginalized because they were split between the two great coalitions of American politics: the right of center and the mostly left of center coalition. Or, if you want to put it another way, as Truman's secretary of state Dean Acheson did, the party of enterprise and the party of those who feared that enterprise is not going to give them their fair share.... 
And then we have this great partisan realignment, starting in 1964 when Goldwater decides that there is a political opportunity to throw overboard the Republican party's historic commitment to the African American population. And now we have everyone sorted so that the Trumpists are still 20% of of America, but  they are 40% of the Republican party; and because they are highly energized, they are 60% of the Republican primary electorate. 
That's Tyler's view, and I think there is a very strong case that that's a correct view.
That's a big problem and it's a serious problem. Not just for the Republican party, but for America as a whole. In some ways it reflects the problem of America and of the Democratic party back in the 1850's when the Southern slave power was a minority in the country as a whole, and was a minority even in the South, but because they were energized and activist, and concentrated in the Democratic party, effectively the Southern slave power elite controlled the Democratic party and they were able to win more than their fair share of national elections.
But it is not a big change in terms of the underlying economic interests and views of the people, or even of the underlying sociological interests and view of the American people. It's just a concentration at a weak point of our political system. And I think that's by and large likely to be correct.  
Overall, if it weren't for the small detail of the Civil War, I'd say this is an optimistic take. But that small detail should scare the hell out of us.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Swiss Independence Day

Schloss Thun, Switzerland

It's not much to boast of, Schloss Thun, but it has a special place in my heart because Thun was home for the first twelve years of my life. The Zaeringer's built it in 1190 and today it still stands proudly astride the entrance to the Alps as ever.  The Zaeringers, together with the Savoys, the Habsburgs, and the Kyburgs--old feudal families--controlled the plateau and access to the mountain passes on the north side of the Alps. That was before Switzerland. But the mountains, the lake, and the Aare were the same then as now.

Yesterday, the first of August, Switzerland celebrated its national holiday. The bonfires, fireworks, flags, lanterns, cowbells, and traditional dresses mark the initial confederation of three small mountain provinces: Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden in 1291, when Schloss Thun was already a century old. These small mountain provinces managed to obtain letters of Imperial Immediacy--granting limited political autonomy--from the Holy Roman Empire.

According to the Wilhelm Tell story immortalized by Schiller, the nascent Swiss confederation entered into a more robust defense agreement in order to assert their independence on the Ruetli meadow overlooking Lake Luzern.
Wir wollen sein ein einzig Volk von Brüdern,
in keiner Not uns trennen und Gefahr.
Wir wollen frei sein, wie die Väter waren,
eher den Tod, als in der Knechtschaft leben.
Wir wollen trauen auf den höchsten Gott
und uns nicht fürchten vor der Macht der Menschen.
We want to be a band of brothers, free like our fathers; give us death before enslavement; we wish to trust in God and fear no man. So said Schiller's Tell. Some historians date this event to 1307.

In 1314--the start of that most miserable of centuries-- there was a political crisis in the Holy Roman Empire. Duke Louis IV of Bavaria (who would become Louis IV, Holy Roman Emperor) and Frederick the Handsome, a Habsburg prince, made competing claims on the crown of Holy Roman Empire. The Swiss Confederates supported Louis IV. When a dispute over access to pasture lands resulted in a raid on the Habsburg-protected Einsiedeln Abbey, the result was war with the House of Habsburg.

The battle of Morgarten (1315) from Wiki:
Leopold of Austria, led a large army, including a small number of knights, to crush the rebellious Confederates. He planned a surprise attack from the south via Ägerisee and the Morgarten Pass, counting on complete victory. ...The Confederates of Schwyz, supported by the Confederates of Uri, .... prepared a road-block and an ambush at a point between Lake Ägerisee and Morgarten Pass, where a small path led between a steep slope and a swamp..... The Confederates attacked from above with rocks, logs and halberds, (and) the Austrian knights had no room to defend themselves and suffered a crushing defeat. 
Flush with their victory at Morgarten, the nascent Swiss confederation was renewed. By 1353 Bern, Glarus, Zug, Zurich, and Luzern joined to form the original 8 state confederation. The independence of this confederation was further consolidated in the Battle of Sempach in 1386.

From Wiki:
The Battle of Sempach was fought on 9 July 1386, between Leopold III, Duke of Austria and the Old Swiss Confederacy. The battle was a decisive Swiss victory in which Duke Leopold and numerous Austrian nobles died. The victory helped turn the loosely allied Swiss Confederation into a more unified nation and is seen as a turning point in the growth of Switzerland.
Switzerland's de facto independenc, earned at the battle of Sempbach,  and the later Swabian wars,  (1499) was formalized into full sovereignty by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

Here is Jessica Mathews, writing in the New York Review of Books:

"From the mass of overlapping rulers--emperors, kings, dukes, popes, bishops, guilds, cities--the Peace of Westphalia produced a solution of dazzling simplicity and longevity. From henceforth the governing unit would be the state. Borders would be clearly defined and what went on inside those borders (especially the choice of religion) would be decided by its rulers and a matter of noone else's business. In modern terms the delegates invented and codified modern state sovereignty,a single authority governing each territory and representing it outside its borders, no authority above states and no outside interferance in states' domestic affairs." 
But it would take another two hundred years, including occupation by Napoleon and a mini, half-hearted civil war, for Switzerland to emerge as a truly modern democracy with its own constitution.

The first Swiss Federal Constitution was enacted on September 12, 1848. It was modeled after the U.S. Constitution and incorporated ideas emerging from the French revolution. The constitution was partly revised in 1866, and wholly revised in 1874. Among the changes made was the introduction of the federal referendum. The constitution assures the right of initiative, providing for Switzerland's direct model of democracy.

I think the builders of Schloss Thun would approve if they dropped by for a visit.

Ruetli meadow, August 1, 2016/NZZ

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Evolutionary Biology and the Free Marketplace of Ideas

Joel Mokyr @ Stanford 5/20/15

Brad DeLong at Equitablog points us to a lecture by Joel Mokyr, professor of economic history at Northwestern University. For me, the talk raises the question how do current political ideas change, and what persuasive tools can we bring to bear on behalf of better ideas, or against destructive ideas?

Mokyr spoke about his new book The Culture of Growth: the Origins of the Modern Economy wherein he argues that the Industrial Revolution emerged in Europe in the late 18th Century (and nowhere else) because,  across Europe between 1500 and 1700, there flourished a free market place of ideas supported by highly diversified and decentralized political institutions. The development of reliable and speedy postal delivery services and the patronage (and protection) given to elite scholars--who had the freedom to move about between jurisdictions--enabled the emergence of a Republic of Letters that served as fertile ground for the development of new and better ideas. 

Chief among the useful ideas coming from this period is what Mokyr calls the Industrial Enlightenment: the shared idea that inquiry into natural philosophy (science and technology) should be geared towards practical purposes, i.e. things that might improve the state of well being of people and the world, and a fundamental belief in the possibility (and desirability) of human progress together with a conviction that intellectuals can help bring about such progress. 

The period 1500-1700 brought about tremendous cultural change, including: Protestantism, heliocentrism, iatrochemical medicine, Cartesian dualism, blood circulation, Galilean mechanics, infinitesimal mathematics, the presence of an atmosphere, the possibility of a vacuum, Newtonian astrophysics, and the validity of experimental investigations. And this raises the question of how such cultural changes come about? How do we become persuaded by new ideas? How do we assure that better ideas come out on top? 

In thinking about cultural change in ideas, Mokyr uses a metaphor of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary biologists speak of phenotypes. A phenotype is the composite of an organism's observable traits or characteristics. It results from an organism's genes as well as environmental factors.  In terms of cultural beliefs, therefore, Mokyr suggests we can think of each individual as a unique cultural phenotype: we inherit specific cultural ideas, but we are also influenced by our environments, and we are able to pass these cultural beliefs on to others. 


What Mokyr says about the emergence of Enlightenment ideas, it seems, applies equally to our everyday politics. We inherit cultural ideas (e.g. our views on homosexuality, guns, abortion, the death penalty, global warming, the role of government, global trade, immigration, the deficit, and taxes) from our parents, and from the sub-culture we are born into. In that sense, political ideas are inheritable--subject to inter-generational transmission. All things being equal, we'll think like our parents. But in the realm of cultural ideas we are also subject to horizontal influences from teachers, peers, and things we hear and read. And, of course, we are influenced by what we think upon reflection. 

As we are confronted by a great variety of cultural ideas, we must choose among these competing cultural ideas. We are none of us exactly like our parents. So how do we make choices in the political realm?  Perceived economic self-interest is surely a factor, suggests Mokyr, but it's not determinative. People don't always form their beliefs or act in a way that is consistent with their perceived economic self-interest. Is free choice involved, or is it a deterministic model? It seems the answer to this question is up for grabs. It's one of the big questions of the 21st century.

Biases that Affect our Cultural Beliefs

Mokyr points out that most of us make cultural choices (change our minds) infrequently or never. This seems correct. We tend to stick with our acculturated views. And Mokyr identifies eight types of biases that both support our tendency not to abandon cultural ideas, and that can be instrumental in effecting cultural change: 
  1. Content bias. We are persuaded by evidence and logic. This is one way, of course, for us to change our minds, but as Michal Gazzaniga points out, our left brain explainer function is expert at marshaling evidence and logic in support of our existing cultural ideas. 
  2. Direct bias. We look to and are influenced by people in authority. If Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman say significantly increased infrastructure spending (and increased debt) are good for an economy that is underperforming, while consumer spending is depressed, and while interest rates are at the zero percent lower bound, well I'm likely to accept that.  But there's also judgment (and culture bias) involved in trusting these experts over others. 
  3. Model based bias. We tend to adopt and imitate the cultural views that are modeled for us. 
  4. Frequency dependent bias. We tend to conform our cultural views to views that everybody around us holds. [Not that there aren't contrarians!]
  5. Rhetorical bias. We respond to how issues are framed, and we are good at framing issues consistent with our pre-existing cultural views.  
  6. Rationalization bias. The story-teller function of our left brain that Gazzaniga speaks of is expert at coming up with rationalizations to fit new facts into our previously held cultural beliefs.
  7. Coercion bias. Strong social pressures, politics, and changes in law can influence our cultural views. The rapid change in our cultural views on same sex marriage seems like a good recent example. 
  8. Salient event bias. This one was added to the literature by Mokyr. He points to the Black Death, the Holocaust, and the events of 9/11/01 as salient events that effectively changed cultural ideas. 
The evolution metaphor is interesting. It suggests that, even if our individual ability to freely change our cultural views through a dispassionate evaluation of facts, logic and argument is limited (or non-existent as we might suspect from reading Gazzaniga) cultural ideas can nevertheless change over time. And they can clearly change in the direction of progress, as the Enlightenment examples above make clear. 

Of course, highly destructive cultural ideas can arise and become dominant as well.  See, e.g. National Socialism, Stalinism. In the market place of cultural ideas reflected in our current political campaign, which ideas will emerge on top? And what are the processes of persuasion involved? 

Listen to Mokyr's Stanford lecture above.  Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles