Newsletter #2

Thanks for coming back for week 2! I appreciated your encouragement last week and had some nice chats in the replies. If you’re new, this newsletter contains stuff I learned or thought about in the past week.  If you think a friend would enjoy this newsletter, please go ahead and forward or share this link.


1. I’ve been looking for creative takes on what’s wrong with American democracy and how to fix it. Trump is just one symptom of something broader involving a loss of faith in government, especially (and justifiably) in Congress. One compelling take comes from Terry Moe, who in his new book Relic argues that because of bargaining among interest groups, Congress will always dilute legislation into an incoherent, contradictory mess. His solution is a supercharged presidency with the power to propose legislation to Congress and require a yes-or-no vote within a certain timeframe, no amendments allowed. I’m a big fan of this idea because I agree that presidents have better incentive to address national problems than Congress. I don’t think it’s a slippery slope to tyranny, as separation of powers enthusiasts might claim, because Congress can still propose its own bills, and can always vote no on the president’s.

2. If you thought the above solution was radical, try this incredibly original work of political theory by Jeffrey Edward Green: The Eyes of the People. This book was a great example of why we need academic political theory: to think not just outside the Overton window (the range of acceptable mainstream ideas) but outside our basic conceptions of the point of our democracy. Green observes that all democratic theorists, no matter their disagreements, converge on a vocal metaphor for democracy: democracy is about channelling the voice of the People. We see this in opinion polling, in voting, and in representative government. But can the People’s voice really be heard in a mass democracy? Green argues that most people’s lack of knowledge and interest in politics, the impossibility of communicating your views simply by voting on a two-party slate, the inequality in resources for amplifying your voice, and the theatricality of politics in a mass media age give lie to the vocal metaphor. I suspect I’m not alone in often struggling to reconcile this intuition–that politics doesn’t really reflect the People’s voice–with a belief that democracy is important, and shouldn’t be sacrificed to rule by enlightened technocrats. This book is one of the first times I’ve seen a proposal that honors both those views.

Green thinks a more realistic metaphor on which to base democracy is ocular: the People as spectators, watching over the leaders. In the vocal metaphor, the highest value is deliberation. In the ocular metaphor, the highest value is candor, which he defines as a requirement that leaders not be in control of their own publicity. To be concrete, there would be lots of debates and hearings and investigations, all unscripted, where politicians would cross-examine each other and expose wrongdoing–corruption, sure, but also just bad decisions–to the public. The People’s role, then, is not so much to supply a policy mandate as to discipline leaders of whom they disapprove. They do this through voting, which doesn’t disappear, but moreover through the very act of watching: a disciplinary gaze (inspired by, among other things, Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon). The weakness of the argument was in not saying enough about exactly how the people’s gaze would compel politicians to behave in the public interest; I think a deeper engagement with media studies, i.e. people who study images and mass communication, would have helped here. Still, I think the argument plays to the strengths of modern citizens, who don’t have coherent or good policy views but are very good consumers of media, appreciate a spectacle, and have decent judgment of trustworthiness.

An interesting side note is that, put in Green’s terms, Trump has subjected himself to way more candor than has Clinton. He frequently puts himself in unstructured situations where he’s forced to answer hard questions, and comes off looking uninformed in the process. That’s one reason why Trump is easier to judge than Clinton.

3. From Joe, a paper about the scant history of running randomized control trials to study the American legal system–and an argument that there should be much more of this. Part of the paper discusses how lawyers think highly of their own expertise and scoff at the notion that they might learn better ways of doing things. But surely doctors have the same ego problem, and RCTs are widely accepted and appreciated in medicine–so what’s the difference? The author suggests that medicine benefits from a “norm of acknowledging uncertainty” thanks to its roots in the physical sciences. “Within wide boundaries, the stereotypical lawyer’s diagnostic process is not a search for answers. Answers come from the client. The stereotypical lawyer’s diagnostic process is a search for arguments.” I am excited about this effort (and others) to turn law into a more empirical discipline in the sense of caring about outcomes as much (or more) than processes.

4. 6,700 people are homeless in San Francisco. Someone took some good notes at a community meeting with the city’s point person, and left “[F]eeling nervous. The session did not highlight innovative ways to deliver the 6,700 units.” Ok, so as you’ve probably heard, the most successful effort at combating homelessness has been in Utah, where the government has been giving apartments to the chronically homeless for a nominal (way below market rent) fee. I’ve seen some chinks in the armor of the Utah story, but nothing yet to convince me that this “Housing First” model isn’t the most effective (not to mention humane) solution available. Ok, but where do you find vacant apartments in San Francisco? The most innovative solution might be to place modular units on vacant lots or parcels–“infill housing,” as this excellent presentation calls it. This particular proposal imagines stacking 160 square foot shipping container-shaped on narrow plots, possibly between current buildings. They can be assembled in mere weeks and cost less on a nightly basis than shelters, jails, or hospitals.

This might sound too out-there, but actually this proposal has made major headway among city officials! The mayor and the homelessness office support it, but don’t worry, there is still a villain in this story. Enter the building unions. They oppose the plan because the modular units under consideration are made in China, and they believe the building code requirements for those units aren’t good enough. This last bit is particularly infuriating because however imperfect the units might be, the alternative is living on the street (p.s. lots of student dorm units are modular). This kind of failure to think comparatively reminds me of a Marginal Revolutionpost about an international body trying to ban the sale of low-end cars that lack airbags in India. Seems reasonable, until you consider that at the price point people are choosing between cheap cars and motorcycles, which are way more dangerous. “Safety is relative so cars judged unsafe by global standards could save lives in India. The bigger lesson is that it’s always dangerous to impose global standards without taking into account the differing circumstances of time and place.”

5. On EconTalk, John Cochrane (free market-y Chicago economist) said something great. He was extolling that classic economist’s dream of simplifying the tax code, and making the point that the structure of the tax code and its progressivity are entirely separate matters. When people argue about taxes, though, they get conflated. When you hear a conservative talk about simplifying the tax code, you know that’s code for lowering rates and removing taxed categories. But there is a compromise position–one that I happen to see as the best of both worlds–where you limit the number of taxed entities. tax brackets, and tax deductions, and you choose progressive rates. Cochrane put it this way: “Let me and Russ design the structure of the tax code, and let Bernie Sanders fill in the rates.” I’m in!

6. A review essay of several books about Putin. One big thing I took away from this is the importance of the long sweep of Russian history. For those of who grew up after the Cold War, it’s tempting to wonder why can’t Russia just enter modernity. But the 90s and the good Putin years were an aberration; Russia has had a strong, autocratic state for a very long time, and “empires do not go quietly.” “The current political generation was born and raised in imperial times.” And what will our generation of Russians have been raised in?

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