Three Types of Politics: Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

The political system in a democratic society allows a diverse group of people to make collective decisions. Here I define politics as the content of deliberations and decisions within such a system, rather than institutions and mechanisms used to bring about decisions. Of course, institutions do affect the content of politics, but that won’t be my focus here. Rather I will focus on different types of political content.

The content of our political discussions, arguments, and bargaining can be categorized into a number of incompatible types. They are about different subjects. These types of politics are all utilized by the major political parties, but we are often unaware of how their incompatibility thwarts political compromise and decisions. And they each leads to unique problems when any one begins to dominate the politics of a country or political party.

One of the basic problems we are seeing with politics today is a transition from a politics of ideas and interests to one primarily of grievance. Although the politics of grievance is perhaps best exemplified by Donald Trump and his followers, grievance is also becoming a dominant political theme on the left.

There is nothing particularly wrong with the inclusion of grievances within our politics. Many grievances are valid and must be addressed by any successful political system. However, when grievance dominates politics, much as when it dominates personal relationships and other social relations, it fosters a bitterness and anger that makes compromise and cooperation difficult.

I do not think that the answer to this problem is a politics dominated by either interests or ideas. A politics dominated by interests lacks any direction or justice and will tend to promote the narrow interests of whatever groups are in the best bargaining position. Likewise a politics dominated by ideas, where we attempt to transform government and society according to some coherent ideology, leads society to ignore the interests of various groups. History also tells us that a politics guided by ideology often justifies dispossession of property and violence in order to bring about the radical social change in line with that ideology.

My primary purpose here is to describe these three types of politics. However, I think that such a discussion provides reason to prefer a politics that mixes interests and ideas, and attempts to limit the inclusion of grievances.

Interests

A view traditionally held by political scientists (for instance, see Dahl’s Democracy and Its Critics) states that democratic politics allow the interests of the public to be expressed in political decisions. Voters will tend to vote according to their interests, and so a widespread franchise that weighs voters roughly equally will tend to create politics that reflect the interests of voters equally as well. Modern western thinkers tend to reduce “interests” to economic interests, though we probably shouldn’t do this. People also have an interest in living within an environment that allows the to act according to their non-economic values as well.

The politics of interests is a politics of negotiation. When people are guided by their interests, they tend to support tax codes in which they pay the least and budgets in which they gain the most. They expect their political representatives to act similarly. The rich, who benefit more from lower taxes more than generous social welfare programs will advocate for lower taxes, whereas the poor will advocate for higher taxes on the wealthy and more generous social welfare programs. Communities will pursue funds for their own roads and infrastructure projects, even when it puts other communities at a disadvantage. Farmers pursue farm subsidies, corporations that need large numbers of workers pursue free trade and open boarders, and labor unions pursue tariffs and closed borders.

Politics from interests tend to be both stable and, given a universal franchise, serve the interests of the most people. There are also ways of creating institutions so that political decisions take into account the interests of minority groups that might be largely ignored within large societies. One of the more powerful tools is the promotion of political localism in which many decisions are left to community governments. This has the effect of allowing national minorities with shared interests to possess majorities or significant minorities within local governments. It also allows for a safety valve, so to speak, so that minorities who believe that their interests are not being respected by local politics can move to a place where they are respected. For all of these reasons politics from interests serve as the stabilizing backbone of a thriving political system.

However, politics from interests are also shallow and myopic. They lack any vision or wider direction that can guide a state or community to become better, and will often promote outcomes that seem unjust. We feel a strong need for political decisions to tend toward some notion of fairness, even when it may disadvantage certain groups that have historically had various advantages. For this reason systems that are dominated by interests will also tend to be unstable in their own way, as people are unwilling to accept immediate personal and regional costs that promote the greater good. Therefore, it is important that political systems are also guided by ideas about what a good society looks like and what is just. They allow people to see how certain political policies will promote larger social goals that they support. A politics of ideas also allows politics to promote a sense of justice, something that binds people together within the society.

Ideas

When politics is too focused on individual and group interests it is very difficult for us to provide arguments for our favored policies that can be accepted as valid by others. Discussions about politics of interests begin and end with the bargaining power of the various groups. Good arguments show others how the result will benefit them and why they couldn’t hope to get a better result. These are politics in the mud.

Arguments about political ideas, on the other hand, allow us to discuss the merits of various political policies abstracted away from the particular bargaining context. Ideas allow us to paint a picture for others about a possible ideal society and describe how various policies might get us there. If politics of interests is fought in the mud, politics from ideas soars through the air.

The libertarian reformation of American economic policy during the 1980s (whatever we may think of it) would have been impossible without a clear vision of its ideals and goals. Free-market advocates did not just argue that their preferred policies would advantage the interests of voters (although they did do this), they also argued that they would create a system in which people were better able to get what they deserved. When taxes were redistributed, in the form of social welfare programs, some people were given things by the government that they had not earned and so did not deserve. Under this view, eliminating redistributive policies makes the system more just. Of course, they also offered an argument from interests (the high taxation required for redistribution is inefficient and so makes us all poorer), but the libertarian ideas were crucial for gaining widespread support even among those who benefited from redistributive policies.

The politics of ideas is important for understanding why people often vote against their interests. Some have wondered “what is wrong with Kanasas” where scores of people of modest means vote against the very redistributive policies that would likely benefit them. One could similarly wonder “what is wrong with California” where scores of rich people vote for redistributive policies and higher taxes that are unlikely to benefit them. They do so because of their political ideals, based upon ideas of what a just and good society is like. They believe that certain types of policies are just, even though those policies don’t benefit them.

It is the very ability of political ideas to support policies not in people’s direct interests that also make them dangerous. Although the politics from interests tend to by myopic, they also keep people grounded. It is rarely in anyone’s direct interests to commit acts of violence, disturb the peace of society, or radically alter important government programs. On the other hand, politics from ideas often call for radical actions and radical shifts in policy. If we are concerned about justice, and we see that a certain group of people are supporting an unjust system, then we may be able to justify violence against them.

Not only do ideas more easily justify radical actions, but they are also more susceptible to manipulation. The ideas that we have are more malleable than our own interests, and few people are any good at examining their own ideas or those provided by others. It was shocking to many how easily a large portion of the Republican party was made to believe that Trump rightly won the 2020 election. I don’t think that this should come as too much of a surprise. Political elites can easily manipulate the political ideas of those who already follow them – it is much more difficult for those leaders to alter the interests of their followers.

Grievance

Politics of interests and ideas are both forward-looking. When people are guided by them they seek the best possible future outcome. The past and present are only relevant in what they say about those future outcomes. However, people also often demand responses to their grievances over what they view as past wrongs. Many grievances are able to be resolved within the judicial system. If someone causes you a demonstrable harm, then in many cases you can file a lawsuit that is meant to resolve that grievance. However, many perceived harms are not subject to intervention by the judicial system; this is the role of a politics of grievance.

Politics of grievance is concerned with those grievances that are not in the purview of the existing judicial system. Those with grievances seek to use the political system to obtain restitution for the harms done to them, sometimes directly from the people who they believe harmed them and other times from society at large. Often times these grievances are valid and the target is indeed responsible, but other times grievances are largely invented (there was never a corresponding harm) or the target is incorrect. Ultimately the burden of differentiating valid and invalid grievances is placed on the political system.

Western political systems are generally good at handling both politics of interests (through bargaining) and politics of ideas (through deliberation), but have more difficulty handling grievances without creating conflict. Conflict is inherent to grievances, because they typically make demands on others without offering them anything in exchange. This is because grievances are backward looking; the perceived harm has already occurred and only compensation for that harm can resolve the grievance.

Grievances can still be worth pursuing, but these politics often require that the aggrieved group (or its allies) are in a position to coerce the group that supposedly committed the harm. For instance, after the Civil War, the north was in a position to resolve grievances of enslaved people in the south only by first destroying the ability of southern whites to resist. And of course, coercing groups who do not believe that they have done anything wrong will often cause them to create grievances of their own. This sets up a bitter cycle of grievance, and if coercion is not continually applied (just as it was ended after Reconstruction) the originally harmed group can find itself once again the subject of the perpetrators’ violence. Alternatively, the perpetrating group can be convinced of the wrongness of the harm they caused (as with Germans after WW2). However, this often requires a dramatic social change that is beyond the immediate coercive abilities of a state.

Interests, Ideas, and Grievances

A healthy political system will support both politics of interests and ideas. Interests ground political decisions in a concrete world of actual people, whereas ideas allow a political society to develop into something better and more coherent. A politics of grievances is important in providing recourse to those who were harmed when there is no recourse to be had through current law. However, this form of politics can quickly grow contentious and bitter. A political system that is characterized by grievance will tend to devolve as conflict interferes with a society’s ability to come to reasonable political agreements. After observing the events of the past year, it is hard not to conclude that American society may be devolving in just this way. Grievances are crowding out interests and ideas.

Covid Diary: and now, the entire logistic growth curve

One interesting and horrifying feature of the current phase of the Covid-19 epidemic in the US (“the end of the beginning”) is how our ability to track infections has surpassed our ability to control them.   Unlike in March, people are now able to get tested essentially on demand, without first meeting some restrictive set of  criteria meant to conserve testing facilities and materials.  Although testing has once again become scarce in places like Florida, Texas, and Arizona (where long lines at testing sites are certainly preventing many from being tested), outbreak surveillance is just about the only bright-spot in the American response to Covid.

When New York City was the center of the epidemic in the U.S. most people were only tested when they were very sick and in the hospital.  This meant that reported infections were among people far older, sicker, and more likely to die than the entire infected population.  This tendency of under-reporting (an understatement) was worsened by the overcrowding experienced in some NYC hospitals.  Many patients (even among the very ill) were told not to come to the hospital, and were likely never tested.  As a result, infection numbers in NYC did not come close to estimating the true number of infections.

We also missed the beginning of the growth curve.  It turns out that infections in NYC began around early February at the latest, and they were growing quite rapidly by the end of the month.  However, because we were not testing for community transmission at that time (only testing those with a very specific profile of international travel or contact with someone who did), infection counts trailed the beginning of the outbreak by weeks.

This may give us some insight into our current experience.  We are seeing dramatic increases in infections across the country, and especially in Texas and Florida.  Luckily, infections are currently dominated by younger people and death rates have only recently started to increase (and not dramatically).  We probably shouldn’t expect this trend to continue.

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that the most socially active population is infected first.  Given the messaging about risk-factors for Covid, the gap between older and younger people in frequency of social interactions is likely even larger than normal.  However, given enough community spread the coronavirus will come into contact with older community members, and death rates will once again increase.  However, this time the infection is spread across a far larger region of the country and there will be no complete shutdown on the scale of what was seen in March to stop the outbreak.  We should expect to see death counts that surpass what was seen in NYC.

 

 

Covid Diary: A trip to the grocery store, a trip to the future

Like a lot of people these days, I only go to the grocery store about every week and a half.  It is really the only thing I have been doing in public since all of this began around mid-March.  It has been interesting to see the changes that have occurred between trips.  The last time I went to the store, in early April, things had dramatically changed.  I had to wait in a short line to get in (limiting the store to 30 customers), there were lines 6 feet apart at the check-out to keep people socially distanced, and there was a large plastic barrier that had been erected between myself and the person checking me out.  It was a bit shocking, although I assumed I would eventually get used to it.

I went again yesterday.  Everything I mentioned above was the same.  The store was the same.  However, the changes this time were all in the people.  Nearly everyone was wearing a face covering of some sort.  They were also acting very conscious of their distance from others.  I had worried going in that I would feel out of place with my ridiculous bandana-covered face, but I shouldn’t have worried about that at all.  In fact, I would have felt like a social pariah if I hadn’t been wearing a mask.

This scene will be with us for a while: masked people efficiently grabbing their greens, spaghetti, and milk while warily moving around the 6ft bubbles of others.  At the time, I thought of it as a bit of a glimpse into my future.  Although right now it is quite striking in its novelty, it will eventually become quite mundane.

Though this isn’t quite right.  This is the scene from the early pandemic: the slight nervousness, the varied rag-tag materials of the face-masks.  This is a scene from a society caught off-guard, one that is trying to do whatever it can with the crap it found in the closet.  It is the scene from the Summer of 2020, when people are just happy that they can go buy clothing again.  It’s also a society still living off of the materials of pre-pandemic culture; the advertisements might remind us that something is wrong but the sitcoms don’t.  That, of course, will change.  Eventually we will have to figure out how to live our lives in the presence of the virus.  This will leak into the products of our culture, much like the War did in the ’40s.  There will also be a part of the culture devoted to trying to forget about the virus.  Not every story can be about the war.

The scene from the middle of the pandemic will be a bit different.  Those sexy n95s will make their debut at Macy’s in the Fall of 2020 (if it’s still in business).  Everyone will have their favorite.  Many will have a closets full, one for every outfit!  After all, you have to have something to wear when you go out to that fancy restaurant.  You won’t really care anymore that the host now takes a temperature measurement of your forehead before leading you to your seat, or that the server is garbed in a mask and gloves.  You will start to settle into the environment and practices that at one time seemed dystopian.  It’s like the heat in Arizona — it never gets any better, but you stop talking about it after a while.

Covid Diary: Denial

I’ve been struck recently by how those who should know better seem to be in denial about our current situation.  I’m not talking about Trump.  He has become a non-entity at this point, like a child hopelessly wishing everything would just get better.  However many serious people seem to be talking about “starting up the economy” without any clear sense that the world we knew before has been lost to us.  Our way of living has been likely lost for years and we will likely never see the world we knew before. There is not likely to be a cure coming soon, or even a very successful treatment for that matter.  There might be a successful vaccine developed, but don’t expect widespread availability until the fall of 2021.  Of course, hundreds of thousands of Americans will die of this disease before then.  Most estimates of deaths from the disease provided by the administration only go up to the end of summer, but this will be with us for far longer.

We have lost our way of life, because we cannot accept an outcome in which millions of Americans die instead of thousands.  In fact, even if we chose the deaths we would still lose our way of life.  One does not simply go about one’s life while so many people die and the healthcare system collapses.  And so we choose to stay away from one another.  We internalize new norms that make the physical presence of strangers (or even our family and friends) mentally painful for us.  That changes us and our society.

I’ll give a somewhat trite example of this change, but one that I think is rather instructive.  Just down the street from my house there is a neighborhood bar, a jazz club, and a breakfast place.  They are all small — you might even say cramped.  I love these places, and they are the soul of the neighborhood.  But their profitability is incompatible with social distancing.  In fact most bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues around the country are not likely profitable in a wold of social distancing, even if we assume that people can once again go to these places.  There will almost certainly be new occupancy rules that require restaurants to cut seating at least in half.  Of course, fancy takeout will be more common but so far demand for this has not come near to replacing sit-down restaurants.  People aren’t willing to spend $50 per person on takeout, and they certainly will not buy alcohol as they do it (which is where many profits come from).

Any innovations to accommodate social distancing in restaurants does not address the basic incompatibility between bars and social distancing.  In bars people socialize with strangers; they have to get close.  In other words bars cannot succeed until Covid has been brought under control.  But this will take a long time.  Even antibody “certificates” would only allow a small portion of the population to go about their business, and only in places that have already been hit hard by the disease.  This means that we will probably lose all of these businesses, as their owners realize that they simply cannot make a living by owning a restaurant or bar.  This will also devastate the commercial real-estate market along with the service industry, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of recession.

That is just one example of how we will lose so much from our communities that make them worth living in.  I don’t think disaster is inevitable, but it will require dramatic changes in public expenditures and laws.  We will need widespread  randomized testing, even of people who are not showing symptoms.  It goes without saying that people who have flu-like symptoms should all be tested and tracked.  However, given how widespread the disease is this is probably not technically possible.  We have certainly shown no ability to do any large-scale well-organized testing.

Additionally, local governments must allow businesses to spread out.  Bars and restaurants should be allowed to spill out into the streets, so that they can maintain distance between patrons while also making a profit.  Open container laws should largely be eliminated.  There are numerous other examples of creative legislation that might help.  We must be willing to be flexible in abandoning some norms and ways of doing business in order to preserve those things that we value.

I don’t expect any of the solutions above to actually be implemented.  And even then they may not be effective.  Our situation is far worse than most of us imagine.

 

Why not President Sanders?

One important result of the Iowa Democratic Caucus is that Sanders appears to have a real possibility of winning the Democratic candidacy.  This has left some breathless.  Not only do many Democrats not think that Sanders could beat Trump, they also find Sanders’ vision of a Democratic-socialist state horrifying.  Those with excellent health insurance would like to keep it, and more importantly keep the rabble out of our waiting rooms!  (Isn’t that what it is really about?)  But I think this focus on policy visions misses the primary role of the President in government and party politics.

Presidents certainly matter for the political, legislative, managerial, and popular leadership they provide.  In crises this is most visible, but they are even more important for the leadership they provide in federal bureaucracy.  This is perhaps the most corrosive feature of the Trump administration; it seems interested in actively destroying the ability of the federal government to provide the vital regulation and other services that are needed in modern states.  I suspect that Trump has done this because of his history of fraudulent acts, and his plans to commit more of them.  Without a well-managed federal state, rich people are often able avoid following the law.  That is music to Trump’s ears.

Presidents also have discretion in how they manage the government in accordance with law, but the effects of these decisions are both temporary and limited compared to the effects of laws.  One need only see the differences between the transformative Affordable Care Act and Obama’s various executive actions (like that to protect “Dreamers”).  Laws have lasting effects on American life and norms, whereas the impacts of executive actions often do not last longer than the President who made them.

The American system is deeply conservative (in the broad sense).  Large social changes typically happen slowly and only after a significant portion of the electorate approves of them.  The Affordable Care Act, as limited as it was compared to the a socialized system, occurred only after a blockbuster victory by Obama that also brought huge majorities in the Senate and House.  And even then the reform worked within the current system.  It was relatively conservative.  Reformers and radicals may lament this, but it is a feature of our system that distributes authority across three branches of governments, as well as within the states.

The basic point I am getting at is that the election of Sanders would not bring us socialized medicine or socialized education, or socialized anything for that matter.  There is little popular support for any of these radical transformations, and no possible Congress would go along with them.  His presidency would likely bring us nominally higher taxes on the rich (and probably corporations), but likely within the current system of taxation.  And even there, nothing too radical would ever pass Congress.  It is striking to see that although Trump has transformed the moral character of the Republican party (they are essentially a criminal set these days) he has done little to change the policy positions of Congress.

What a Sanders presidency would provide us is a vision (whatever its merits) of where our system should be headed in the long-term.  Sanders, essentially, wants us to move toward a European-style system in which the government provides for much but also controls much.  That is a worthy vision, though one that is problematic.  One need only look at Europe to see how a group of states of unequal wealth and living standards can struggle to stay within a shared economy with an expansive welfare and regulatory state.  There is also evidence that, because of racist attitudes and resentment, generous welfare states may be less sustainable alongside high rates of immigration.  Given how important immigration is to the sustainability of American population and economic growth, that is concerning.  In any case, there should be a debate about Sanders’ vision, and a Sanders presidency would give our country just such an opportunity.

Of course there are questions about how effective of an executive manager and legislative leader Sanders would be.  He has spent his career taking rather uncompromising positions outside of the party mainstream (in fact he isn’t a Democrat!), and so one wonders how well he would lead effective legislative fights.  And I don’t think we know much about how well he would lead the executive bureaucracy.  I make no claims about any of this here.  Nor do I think we have a good idea of how competitive he would be against Trump.  However, I don’t think his immediate policy “plans” should be taken as serious visions of how he would change the U.S. in four (or even eight) years.  He would advocate an ideal that would frame our debates.  But it is up to Congress to decide what to do with that.

I probably won’t be voting for Sanders in the primaries, but I don’t think his radical policy views should prevent anyone from doing so.

Coffee Review Group 2

It is quite striking that among the 1st group that I mentioned above, only Bradbury’s existed when I reviewed cappuccinos in 2008.  However this second group will contain more repeats.  I have reason to believe that many of these shops have upped their game in the past decade.

  • Mother Fools (they made the 2nd best cappuccino after Bradbury’s in my previous reviews.)
  • Indie Coffee
  • Michelangelo’s Coffee House (on State)
  • Espresso Royal (the one closest to campus on State)
  • Starbucks on the square (It will be an instructive comparison…)

And then there are some newer places that will also certainly be on my list:

  • Cafe Domestique (this is a relatively new shop on Willy St.)
  • Colectivo on State
  • Cargo Coffee (I have never actually been here)

How do you review a cappuccino?

I’ve come across the criteria I used back in the day to review cappuccinos.  These will have to be revised a bit.

2008: Smoothness, Presentation, Strength, Complexity, Foam

I think I will use the following criteria in my new reviews, though these might eventually change.

2019: Art & milk surface, Espresso flavor & complexity, Espresso – milk integration, Texture

So much spam

There are currently 1,213 comments waiting in my cue for the various posts in this blog.  I probably need to install some sort of spam-blocking system….

I have noticed a couple of things about this spam over the past few years.  Most importantly, they have gotten significantly better.  A couple years ago when I would get spam comments they would basically consist in nonsense.  However, now they are more varied and elaborate, with attached names and email addresses that would look roughly legitimate to any sort of spam blocker.  They have also become more frequent.  Several years ago I would get only several spam messages a month, but  now I get several in a day.  And it isn’t as if this blog has gained any more exposure.  One still must essentially google me to find it.

All this is unfortunate and sometimes prevents me from noticing comments that are from real people.  Because I usually get no real comments but many spam ones in a day, I tend to ignore or forget about comments entirely.  This is a symptom of the broader problem of the pollution of the internet.  There are far more people with unscrupulous motives, along with their bots, prowling the internet.

Certainly the internet used to be far more wild in other respects.  As the internet has become more exposed to the public there is less expectation of anonymity.  Many people (myself included) used to have entirely public blogs and internet sites in which we disclosed much and did little to hide our identities.  However, those sites were largely hidden from the wider world; they were hard to find and only strangers and our friends (when told about them) ever stumbled upon them.  It was difficult to connect the internet site to a particular person in the real world even when there might be personal details in the writing.  And there was less risk of an employer looking a person up on the internet and being able to find all kinds of private musings.  Now most people are much more careful.

The privacy of the old wild internet has been replaced by something a bit trashier and nefarious.  Though 15 years ago the internet was far less controlled by corporations and governments than it is today this has not prevented criminals and others who wish to do us harm from moving in.  Something has certainly been lost.

So much is half-written…

I’m surprised at how many unpublished posts I have hidden away in the dark reaches of this blog.  Most are half (or 1/10th!) written — more basic ideas than anything else.  However, often I have a problem of not possessing the energy to fill in the details of my thoughts.  This is in part a personal failure.  Some people are able to bash out sensical thoughts of depth and truth with one pass.  I don’t work that way.  I have to go over a piece of writing several times before I think the ideas are correct and correctly expressed (and I’m not even talking about whether it is good writing!)

Over the next few weeks I’m going to try to finish a few of these incomplete posts.  Here at least are a couple of titles:

“Don’t forget that Socialism actually sucks”

“Justifying the college lending system…and why it is so messed up”

The everlasting desktop computer

Last night I ordered all of the parts to create a new, and very fast, desktop computer.  My current machine is about 8 years old, though it still plays many games just fine.  Certainly it does most computing tasks with ease.  Although it was a pretty fast machine when I built, it is remarkable that the vast majority of things people use a computer for have not changed much in the past 8 years.  In fact, I am going to move my existing computer into a new and smaller case so that I can use it for office-type tasks.  I might still get another 5 years out of it.

This experience differs substantially from the life of a laptop computer.  All kinds of compromises must be made when constructing a very small computer that runs on a battery and fits on one’s lap.  Desktop computers, on the other hand, are cheap and fast.  Additionally, they aren’t susceptible to being “totaled” due to wear and mishap.  For instance keyboard problems often mean the end of life for a laptop but only a $15 replacement for a desktop.  If you can’t afford a new fancy laptop, you should probably consider a cheapo desktop; it will be just as fast as some shiny macbook pro and last about three times as long.