Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘democracy’

The Deep State election

Maybe in 2020 we can clarify matters by dropping the Republican/Democratic mask and just let the FBI and CIA field their own candidates.

Land of the frei

Trends in rejecting democracy

This plot from the Financial Times has been getting a lot of attention online. The data come from the World Values Survey (slightly incorrectly cited in the plot).

I don’t know what to make of it exactly, except to say that it supports my gut belief that Germany, more than any other country, understood after the Second World War, what it takes to cultivate a spirit of freedom and democracy. It was a long struggle, and they didn’t shy away from it. Education, the legal system, journalism: It’s the famous German thoroughness, applied to the problem of creating free citizens. The British, the Americans, and the French, each in their own way, considered democracy to be their inevitable birthright, and so have allowed relevant institutional arrangements and, even more importantly, the democratic spirit, to decay.

Maybe the Americans are just being more honest — in a Trumpian anti-PC way. Taboos are important. One important lessons that the Nazis understood was: Before you can commit unspeakable horrors, you need to find a way to make them speakable.

Good scandals

The US is just getting used to the idea of a president who will be running an international business marketing his name out of the Oval Office. Political journalists are fooling themselves in supposing that they’re going to have an easy time publicising scandals in the Trump administration. What’s a scandal, when the rulers are shameless? What could you find that would be worse than what has already come out during the campaign? And the mainstream will be pushing their carefully researched and reported evidence of malfeasance at the highest levels against social-network-distributed scandals on the other side, scandals about left-wing figures manufactured by Kremlin operatives or Macedonian teenagers. Of course, the made-up stories will be more piquant than the real ones. They are socially engineered to push every hot button, and so raise the public’s general shock threshold.

It seemed like a good time to repeat a post I wrote last year, about the importance for a healthy democracy to maintain its ability to be shocked: (more…)

All the president’s businesses

Trump is behaving like a central Asian autocrat, blending his family business with national politics, alternatively threatening and pardoning the opposition according to his whim. One tends to think that it can’t go well for him, but then, we thought that a year ago. Who can call him to account?

My usual baseline emotional reaction to Republican presidents’ scandals and abuses is: Bring ’em on. The more the better, since in the long run they mainly serve to embarrass and distract the administration from carrying out policies that I generally oppose.

My reaction to Trump is very different, which just shows how genuinely different he is from a “normal” Republican. Part of this is his shamelessness and limited attention span. One typically reasons about a leader, “He can’t possibly do X, because the consequences would be Y, and that would be hugely unpopular.” That doesn’t work for Trump. Partly it’s his unshakeable bond to his core supporters — the I-could-shoot-someone-on-Fifth-Avenue phenomenon. But mainly it’s the impression that he is literally incapable of understanding or anticipating any consequences over a time horizon measured in minutes. Maybe this impression is inaccurate, maybe it’s just a bluff. If so, it’s effective, and he’s won this game of Chicken. No rational person would challenge him now under the assumption that he would be dissuaded by the prospect of long-term damage, to himself, to the country, or to the world. This gives him a madman’s freedom, whether or not he is actually mad.

I am existentially frightened of the effect of his administration, which means that I am hoping, not for his success, but for limits to his failure. I am hoping that someone will get his gritting under control before he comes into office, because I worry about him systemically corrupting the US federal government. I am hoping that some sensible people — even extreme right-wingers — will take control of his administration’s foreign policy because I worry that his impulsive leadership will lead to nuclear war or the collapse of peaceful order in Europe.

It’s been two weeks since the election, and the shock has worn off. The fear has, if anything, grown. Before the election, I eagerly awaited the puncturing of the vast Trump ego balloon. (I kind of assumed he was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, being propped up by foreign banks and individuals who would lose interest after the election.) Now, I’d gladly accept him and his family looting hundreds of billions from the US treasury if he’ll leave us in peace.

Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy

Something I’ve been thinking about since the Brexit vote: There was a prevailing sentiment at the time that the British people are inherently conservative, and so would never vote to upend the international order. In fact, they did, by a small but decisive margin. But how was this “conservatism” imagined to act? The difference between 52-48 for Leave and 48-52 is happening in the minds of 4% of the population who might have decided the other way. Except that there’s nothing to tell them that they are on the margin. If you are negotiating over a policy, even if you start with some strategically maximum demand, you can look at where you are and step back if it appears you’ve crossed a dangerous line.

A referendum offers two alternatives, and one of them has to win. (Of course, a weird thing about the Brexit vote is that only one side — Remain — had a clear proposal. Every Leave voter was voting for the Leave in his mind. In retrospect, the Leave campaign is trying to stretch the mantle of democratic legitimation over their maximal demands.) There is no feedback mechanism that tells an individual “conservative” voter that the line is being crossed. (more…)

Rehabilitating the single-factor models

Lots of people — myself included — have mocked the penchant of a certain kind of political scientist who like to say that all the superficial busyness of election campaigns is just a distraction, it matters not at all, nor do the candidates really. Presidential elections are decided by the “fundamentals” — usually one or two economic variables. Except that the models work much better for the past than they do for the present or future, and so end up with lots of corrections: So much for an ongoing war, so much for incumbency, or for a party having been in office too long, and so on. They seem kind of ridiculous. Obviously people care who the candidates were. And, of course, these experts agreed that those things weren’t irrelevant, they just tended to cancel each other out, because both major parties choose reasonably competent candidates who run competent campaigns.

And last year they said the fundamentals mildly favoured the Republican to win a modest victory. But the Republicans chose a ridiculous candidate who ran a flagrantly incompetent campaign. So of course this couldn’t be a test of the “fundamentals” theory. But after all that, the Republican won a modest victory. Kind of makes you think…

Bullet not dodged

I thought I should post an email that I wrote yesterday morning, expressing my despair before the election, when I thought we might “dodge the bullet” of Trumpism, but still held out little hope for a political system that put us in front of the gun in the first place: (more…)

Democratic antinomianism

One thing that the US and UK have in common is a sort of democratic antinomianism — a pervading sense that to the holy all things are holy, and to the inherently democratic all things are democratic. Thus they can spy on their populace, torture prisoners held indefinitely without trial, hold embarrassingly badly organised elections, and still be offended at the notion that anyone might have anything to lecture them about democracy. They can elect, or come close to electing, a comically unfit would-be ethnic-nationalist authoritarian strongman and still celebrate their constitutional order.

This is a reason why I feel particularly comfortable in Germany. Germans can be arrogant, on a personal and national level, but they have learned deep in their bones distrust of colourful demagogues.

Moving the goalposts

Reactions to the high court’s ruling that Brexit requires approval of parliament can only be understood in the context of the fundamental unseriousness of British politics. It’s all sport, and they won, so you can’t take away their victory.
But “their victory” involves taking away people’s rights, so there’s a parliamentary procedure. That’s how politics differs from sport. If you win the championship, as the cliché goes, they can never take that away from you. In politics every victory is immediately followed by a struggle over what the victory means.

The Daily Mail calls the judges “Enemies of the People” who “defied 17.4 million Brexit voters.” The Sun’s headline attacked the lead plaintiff for being foreign-born. The Daily Express said that three judges have “blocked Brexit”.

How odd, as many have pointed out, that the Brexit supporters suddenly object to parliamentary sovereignty.

Less than zero

All this discussion of Donald Trump’s nearly-billion-dollar losses and multiple bankruptcies reminded me of my own intellectual debt to Mr Trump. I remember reading about his bankruptcies back in the 1990s, and being genuinely confused and shocked. A mathematician inclines to think of wealth as a number, in a well-ordered place on a number-line. Positive numbers represent assets and negative numbers debts, and total wealth is the sum of all of them. A person with a million dollars has a lot more than a person with nothing, but the person with nothing — I thought — has much more than the million-dollar debtor.

That was wrong, and the Trump bankruptcy first made me realise this.

Wealth isn’t a line, it is a circle, with the large positive and large negative numbers much closer to each other than they are to zero. The person with nothing cannot get to a million or minus a million (except by fluke chances, like winning a lottery). The mogul is used to talking in units of millions, and everyone around him takes it for granted. When Trump found himself unable to meet his obligations in 1990, the banks didn’t just seize his assets. They loaned him more money, on the condition that the banks name someone to actually run his business, and he constrain his personal spending to a $450,000 a month allowance.

Imagine that: A formerly rich man finds himself with less than nothing, and the banks give him the money with which to keep paying them their interest, and himself a monthly stipend of $450,000. The condition is that he stop doing any work. And then he managed to flee his creditors into bankruptcy five years later anyway, while cheating a load of equity investors.

It’s like Napoleon being allowed to take a retinue with him to become ruler of Elba. Just because he had been a sort-of king, you couldn’t leave him with nothing. It would be too cruel, even though there are millions of people who never had anything, and didn’t have the guilt of having plunged the Continent into chaos.

And you can’t expect a rich man to suddenly get a cashier job at the supermarket. Even while you recognise that his contribution to his companies and the wider world has been purely negative. It would be too cruel. He’s one of “us”.

I suppose, as with Napoleon, they worry about the danger of a scorched-earth defense if they try to take what is owed to them in a frontal assault. The person with millions in debts (or better, hundreds of millions) can move his assets and debts around so that the positive never collides with the larger negative. And the creditors, afraid that they’ll end up with nothing, will be eager to make a deal that lets most of the negative disappear.

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