What will Trump play while America burns?


No doubt many of us would consider an election and its attendant politics to be the paragon of an adversarial institution or process. Naturally, we expect a certain degree of hardball from candidates and parties when it comes to a competition for power. However, it’s one thing to raise hell about partisan gerrymandering – the nefarious scheme politicians employ in order to ensure electoral domination by their party and its other candidates – but isn’t it a whole other ball game to claim that an entire election will be rigged and stolen? (Not even that it was fraudulently won, but that it will be. Fear > Facts.)

Donald Trump’s latest, and arguably most concerning, comments regarding the upcoming presidential election have thrown many reasonable citizens into whirlwinds of confusion, anxiety, and outright fear. (If somehow you haven’t yet heard about any of this, this should bring you up to speed.) Those same flippant, yet consequential, remarks have primed his supporters for what may prove to be the least peaceful transfer of power that this nation has ever seen.

When it comes down to it, especially given the salience and perceived importance of the presidency in the minds of many Americans, the United States really only survives due to the gracious and peaceful quadrennial transfer of power from one chief steward to the next after a free and fair election.

While Donald Trump’s warning that such an American rite may be subverted may suggest negative prospects for his ascension to the presidency, giving at least some of us superficial comfort, the fact remains that he seems to have convinced a not insignificant number of ignorant, confused, obtuse, disillusioned, angry, and armed people to prepare for what we can only imagine would be a literal uprising.

Many Americans consider “the election” to be the fundamental institution of democracy, and to spoil our common trust in its practical efficacy and salutary potency disrespects the rules of the game from a procedural perspective – this is a process which he willingly joined and the rules of which he agreed to follow – and threatens the actual security and stability of the United States as a sovereign state. He has stepped beyond his hateful and ignorant remarks to take aim at the very mechanism through which American democracy is able to exist at all.

Sometimes sports fans burn cars or businesses in their own cities when their teams lose, but should a politician burn a whole country when he loses an election?


Unwritten rules in baseball and business

Here’s another on the unwritten rules in competitive institutions, by sometime contributor to this blog, Chris MacDonald.

Capitalism, like baseball, has both written and unwritten rules

no rule against slobber balls

Ted Cruz and Zinedine Zidane on partisanship, team solidarity, and family honor

landscape-1469106134-cruz zidanematerazziphoto1a

Ted Cruz gave a press conference the day after his keynote speech at the RNC, which had ended with a ringing non-endorsement of the party’s nominee, Donald Trump. Some in the audience were upset that he wasn’t being a good “team player,” and was acting like a “sore loser.” Others noted that he had signed a pledge, earlier in his Primary campaign against Trump, to support the party’s nominee in the general election. (See the reporting in Politico.) His response:

“This isn’t just a team sport, we don’t just put on red jerseys, blue jerseys, and yay! This is about principles, ideas, standing for what we believe in.”

And what are the “principles” that justify nullification of his earlier commitment? It is possible that they are the political principles that he takes to be sacred for the Republican party:

“the standard I intend to apply [when he casts his ballot] is which candidate I trust to defend our freedom, be faithful to the Constitution.”

But he seems clearly more emphatic when he cites not political principles but a chivalrous code from everyday morality: you defend your family’s honor!

“I am not in the habit of supporting people who attack my wife and attack my father. And that pledge was not a blanket commitment that if you slander and attack Heidi I’m going to nonetheless go like a servile puppy dog” and stick to the pledge anyway.

“You gotta get over it!” one man in the audience yelled.

“This is not a game … right and wrong matter,” Cruz shot back, as he also argued, “I would note, sir, you might have a similar view if someone was attacking your wife. I hope you would.”

The question of whether defending his family’s honor was reason enough to stay on the sidelines for now was a matter of heated debate in the hallways of the over-air conditioned Marriott outside the ballroom where Cruz spoke.

If “defending family honor” is indeed Cruz’s justification for a bold move that undermines his “team’s” chances of winning an important contest, it is not obvious that this helps distinguish politics from team sports. Who can forget Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt, 10 years ago this month?

This is the biggest Football World Cup controversy ever. It was 19 minutes into the extra time of the final match of the 2006 world cup when Zinedine Zidane, one of the best soccer players of all time, left the whole world in awe. In one sudden move, the French head-butted Marco Materazzi of Italy for allegedly hurling spiteful words at him.

Materazzi admitted to have said, “I prefer the whore that is your sister”. He goes further to note there are more harsh words exchanged between players in the field and Zidane had heard worse of them before. Well, the fatigue felt way into the second half of the extra time was the ultimate trigger for him.

Zidane said the words were too hurting and Materazzi kept repeating them causing him to lose his cool. In that split moment of anger, Zidane turned back, leaned forward and rammed his head into the chest of the player.

Zidane was shown the red card. Without their best player on the pitch when the match ended in a draw, France lost to Italy in the ensuing penalty shoot-out. At the time of posting, the implications of Cruz’s head-butt on the general election result for his party are unknown.


Shredding the unwritten rulebook on the Tour de France


“Sticky bottle”

Here’s a great case study on the phenomenon of “gentlemanly” unwritten rules in a sport. Several different examples; justified or criticized on different grounds; enforced in different ways; threatened for different reasons. H/t Chris MacDonald



Who makes the rules for selecting the rulers?

escher hands

Our major adversarial institutions are not free-for-all, war-of-all-against-all, slugfests. They are highly regulated competitions, with specific rules in place to encourage desirable outcomes: convicting the guilty but not the innocent (law), creating prices and promoting efficiency (markets), electing competent governments (politics), entertaining fans (spectator sports). The “players” are invited to play to win; but the competitions are not in place primarily for their benefit, but mostly for the benefit of those outside the competition.

This, in a nutshell, is why it always matters who gets to write or amend the rules of these competitions. And why we worry when the “players” get to write their own rules. Especially when a subset of the players — the ones who happened to win the last round — get to write the rules for the next round.

As Arash Abizadeh writes in Toronto’s Globe and Mail,

Here’s the problem: letting politicians who won the last election decide future election rules is like letting the team who won the last playoff game decide rules for the next game. There’s an obvious conflict of interest. Electoral rules determine who forms government, and different rules favour different parties.

After surveying the options for a better process of electoral reform, Abizadeh recommends something novel:

how could electoral reform be legitimized? We need a manifestly fair procedure – a neutral body, unbeholden to politicians, that will reasonably evaluate the alternatives.

Fortunately, political scientists have a solution that fits the bill – a randomly selected citizen assembly. The idea is this: randomly select a few thousand Canadians, ask if they are willing to serve, and, from those saying yes, randomly select 100 to 200 to serve on an assembly empowered to determine federal election rules.

Putting regular citizens in charge may initially seem crazy. Wouldn’t citizens with no special experience or expertise make incompetent decisions? But that’s who decides referenda, too. In fact, Canada is a pioneer in using citizen assemblies to make decisions about voting systems.

We’ve done it twice before, in B.C. and Ontario. Political scientists havestudied both cases, and both were in many respects a great success. Once our fellow citizens received expert advice (about voting systems) and consulted the public, they became well informed, and their deliberations and decision-making were extremely competent and reasonable.

No surprise here: it’s well known to social scientists that under the right conditions, there is intelligence in numbers. The decisions of an assembly of regular but diverse individuals are often more intelligent than decisions by a lone genius or expert.

As they used to say in 1960s sitcoms, that is so crazy it just.. might.. work! It is also not beyond the realm of conceivability that the current Trudeau government in Canada, which promised electoral reform in its last campaign, would consider such a thing.

The probability that anything like this will happen south of 49th parallel, where two parties have successfully colluded to secure a political duopoly for generations, is approximately 0.0. Why think outside the box when the box is just fine the way it is? Why not just hire a consultant…

new yorker escher construction


Worth more than 1000 words

I discovered this cartoon a few weeks ago, posted it on Facebook, and within days my post had garnered more than a thousand “likes” and more than 2500 shares. Why all the love? Because it is a Perfect Cartoon. Caption unnecessary.

screwdriver pol

For more wordy reflections on a wider range of ethical issues in political campaigning, see numerous posts on this blog in recent weeks by Isak, below.

Rules of engagement for academic adversaries

Academics argue. That’s what they do. They argue against each other’s theories and results; they propose alternatives they believe are superior; and those theories, in turn, become the subject of critique by their colleagues. Yada, yada, yada, we all get closer to the truth.

Read between the lines and academic argument often sounds pretty passive-aggressive. As if we’re often not sure which kind of argument we are trying to have. The distinction between the two sense of the English word “argument” is, of course, most perfectly explained by those Cambridge philosophers, Monty Python’s Flying Circus:


So how ought we to argue in academia? Politely. Why? Because it works.

I recently came across some advice from the great American philosopher Daniel Dennett on how to write a scholarly critique. (I haven’t yet tracked down the citation, or the larger context in which it was written, but the advice given here is perfect all on its own.)


1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If I may, I would add a fifth point:

5. Once you have presented a rebuttal or criticism, search the text in question to see if the author has already considered and responded to your criticism; and if he or she hasn’t then it is up to you to formulate the best possible responses to this criticism, given the author’s other commitments. Either way, voice this actual or potential replies to your critique explicitly, and respond to them. Repeat….

So what kind of friendly advice is this? Is it academic etiquette? Academic ethics? Or the key to academic effectiveness?

If the academic community you are in has a sufficient degree of intellectual integrity, then its widely recognized leaders will have convinced a good many of their colleagues that they have discovered flaws with previous theories and findings in the field, and they will have demonstrated this critique, its implications, and possibly a new-improved theory in its place, with a reasoned argument involving clear concepts, evidence, and inferences. (In an academic community without a sufficient degree of integrity, institutional and political power will be the main tools for achieving local, if fleeting, fame.)

In any case, if your chosen field has integrity, then Dennett’s advice unites those three E’s: etiquette, ethics, and effectiveness. If you want to have an impact on the debates in your field (and if not, why are you doing this?), you need to get your critique published. Editors will invite the authors you are engaging with, or others known to be sympathetic with their views, to “referee” your critique. If they think you have simply not understood the ideas you are criticizing; or worse, if they think you have deliberately misrepresented them, then they are highly unlikely to be persuaded by your arguments — assuming they even read all the way to the end of your MS.

On the other hand, if you play nice and follow Dennett’s rules, the Journal editor may well read in the referee’s report not only “I wish I’d put it that way myself,” but also “OMG, I never noticed that gap in my argument/ that ambiguous concept/ that invalid inference/ that inconsistency….! I hope I can fix that, but this critic may be onto something original and important!” As a former editor, I can assure you, we do get those kinds of referees’ reports on papers that are criticizing their own theories. And when when we do, those submissions are usually fast-tracked for publication.

I should underscore that Dennett’s advice runs deeper than mere professional decorum or publishing tactics. If you are not successfully mastering Dennett’s first step, then you are probably not grasping why the theory you are criticizing has been taken seriously. Why it might be smarter than you realize. Similarly, if you don’t consider how an intelligent interlocutor would reply to your critique, then are likely to be ignoring the most obvious objections to your critique — the one’s the referees will not fail to point out.

But if you really are onto something, then bending over backwards to demonstrate the inescapability of your critique in a spirit of intellectual fairplay will only make the critique itself that much harder for your academic community to ignore. You “win” in the nicest possible way.