Author Archives: Wayne Norman

“Reasonable disagreement” v. “beyond the pale”

niqab4 no text

Isak has begun a series of posts on this blog under the rubric “Upon Further Review.” He explains this project of gathering and analyzing the allegations of “fouls” on the campaign trail this winter and spring on the Presidential campaign trail here, and he continues here (and elsewhere “above” this post in the near future, no doubt). His rubric borrows the language of video-replay officials in American football, and other sports, who take a slow-motion second look at calls they used to be able to make only on the fly.

Canada went through its own federal election in the fall of 2015, and in later stages of that election the then-governing Conservative Party was accused of “playing the race card” — albeit in coded language that might appear almost quaint when compared to the game played by the current frontrunner in the Republican primaries. (I say almost, because it would not have appeared quaint to those whom these Conservative tactics were attempting to stigmatize.) And when they did play the card, Canada’s leading political philosopher, Joe Heath (University of Toronto), called them on it in this post on his blog In Due Course.

Those tracking the US campaign these days should find plenty of useful analysis in Heath’s post: from an excellent summary on why democracies thrive on “reasonable disagreements,” to how we decide when certain tactics that exploit unreasonable disagreements must be considered “beyond the pale.” The cartoon below captures some of Heath’s argument for why certain ways of playing the game of politics fall short of our minimal standards of “political sportsmanship.” (For those unfamiliar, a “niqab” is what the hockey player in the cartoon at the head of this post is wearing.)

niqab2

Heath begins like this:

One of the most important concepts in modern democratic politics is that of “reasonable disagreement.” There are a number of different principles or values that most of us subscribe to, at some level, but in cases where they conflict, it is not entirely obvious how they should be ordered. When should public welfare be assigned priority over personal freedom? How much loss of welfare should be accepted in order to promote greater equality? These are the sorts of questions that define the zone of reasonable disagreement in modern politics. The central distinguishing feature of the right-to-left spectrum of political parties is that they propose different answers to these questions, with the right putting more emphasis on personal freedom, the left more emphasis on equality, and the centre focusing on maximizing welfare. This naturally translates into different views about the role of government in society.

The disagreement is “reasonable” because the underlying principles are ones that are very broadly accepted – they are in fact foundational for a liberal democratic society – the disagreement is more one of emphasis.

And ends like this:

…after Friday’s press conference, I can no longer regard it as morally acceptable for anyone to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada. A week ago, I could still persuade myself that reasonable people could disagree over how to vote in this election, but no longer.

As they say on the sites that troll followers with clickbait: you won’t believe what those mild-mannered Canadian Conservative politicians said during that press conference last fall. But seriously: if you’re looking for guidance on how a committed Republican should vote if Donald Trump is the GOP’s nominee, click into Heath’s post.

“Kasich — are you still here?”

thumbs_car-train-crash

Presidential Primaries are a game. So here’s some more elementary game theory — on the game known technically as “chicken” — to predict the Rubio-v.-Kasich endgame. This is brought to you by the brilliant graphics editor at The New York Times, Kevin Quealy. Here’s the conclusion:

The chance to be your party’s nominee for president comes along only every four or eight years, even for the very luckiest candidates. If the candidates lived in a universe in which they could run for president hundreds of times, they might agree that, on average, their shared interests were better served by cooperating. Once in a while, Mr. Kasich might try to win the contest outright against long odds, but, on average, he would probably agree that cooperating, including alternating victories, was the best way to serve his and Mr. Rubio’s shared interests. Game theory shows that initerated dilemmas, played many hundreds or thousands of times, cooperation is a very stable strategy — one reason it is so common in nature.

But this is not an iterated dilemma. It’s a one-time-only dilemma with a tremendous payoff for the winner. As much as Mr. Kasich might think about his legacy, the good of the party or even his own chances in 2020 or 2024, the future is very far away.

Ultimately, they risk an outcome neither he nor Mr. Rubio wants. As Daniel Diermeier, the dean of the public policy school at the University of Chicago, notes, “A very important lesson of game theory is that sometimes the world is a grim place.”

Then again, the Presidential Primaries aren’t just a game….

Mr Corbyn and parliamentary bloodsports

corbyn kinder

We count democratic politics on this blog as one of the Big Archetypical deliberately adversarial institutions. Power in the state is not given to a person or group who is carefully determined to be able to use it to run the most just government. It is given to the winners of a highly regulated — and also ritualized — contest; otherwise known as an election.

It is easy for us to see and feel the “game” of politics during elections. In America right now we are consumed by it, and it is covered by the news media in almost exactly the same way the sports media covers professional and college sports leagues. But elections are only part of the game of democratic politics. The next most visible political competition happens openly in legislative assemblies, and then in the maneuverings — partly public, but often in “back rooms” — that precede the debates and votes that take place in the legislatures.

One of the principal complaints about the legislative game, from the point of view of adversarial ethics, is that it has become in the US a so-called “permanent campaign” — legislators between elections are primarily concerned about what they can do (or avoid doing) in the legislature in order to win the next election. If they ever care the slightest about the design and justice of policies, bills, and laws, it is only insofar as public perceptions about these things will influence the next election. (See the criticisms of Mitch McConnell discussed here a few days ago.) This is the heart of the satire in the greatest just-slightly-fictional political comedy ever, the BBC’s Yes Minister (and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister), not to mention the now-sharked House of Cards.

This post, however, is less about the “permanent campaign” than about a much more visible manifestation of politics-as-sport (even bloodsport, on occasion). Every legislature has its own written and unwritten rule, conventions, and rituals of debate. And no legislature has had more time to develop these than the British House of Commons, where the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition debate face-t0-face on an almost weekly basis. It you were designing from scratch the rules by which a deliberative body would be most likely to develop and enact sensible legislation (what political philosophers do when they theorize about “deliberative democracy“) you would not end up with something like the House of Commons. To say nothing of the House of Lords or the Monarchy.

That said, in the UK, it is what it is. All MPs know the rules, written and unwritten. For example, they never address each other directly, but carry on the debate as if everyone were trying to convince the Speaker. Although outsiders may be aghast at the seemingly buffoonish behavior of British MPs in the House, the MPs themselves are expected to know how to deal with it if they are to have any chance of “winning” the day during Question Period.

Which brings us to the clip-of-the-day in my Facebook newsfeed. Comments on Facebook and Twitter from many of my American friends and friends-of-friends suggests they don’t really know how British politicians, especially the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, are expected to play this game. What is obvious, however, is that virtually every MP on both sides of the isle knows who won and who lost this round.

I see that many British commentators (well, some of my British Facebook friends, at any rate) have all sorts of sinister explanations for the irrepressible smiles of Jeremy Corbyn‘s colleague Andy Burnham, the Shadow Home Secretary, seated behind Corbyn, on his left. I am too ignorant of Labour Party intrigue to psychoanalyze him from this clip alone. It seems to me that Burnham knows the rules of the game, knows that his leader has just been blown up by his own pompously lobbed petard, and done so because of the kind of quick wit one usually sees only on scripted shows like Jon Stewart’s old Daily Show. Burnham seems to be tipping his hat for a move well played by his opponents. Normally, that is one of the hallmarks of good sportsmanship. Corbyn’s inability to do the same, and to immediately change course and attempt to seize rhetorical advantage in a way he had not planned, is also a sign that he either does not understand the game he is playing during Prime Minister’s Questions or, more likely, that his game as a parliamentarian is just not that good.

 

Democracy for a race of Mitch McConnells

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)Immanuel Kant famously believed that “the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent.” These rational devils will realize that they need well designed and enforced laws for their own self-preservation, even though each “is secretly inclined to exempt himself from them.” So they need “to establish a constitution in such a way that, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such evil intentions.”

In short, in this essay Perpetual Peace, published about 30 years after Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Kant was optimistic that with a well designed constitution, something like an Invisible Hand (and sometimes, surely, a visible foot) could turn opportunistic political behavior into responsible, statesmanlike, governance.

Of course, this is all probably irrelevant for those following the current election cycle in the US. Kant thought that cleverly designed rules for the game could handle greed. But all bets are off if either the devils running for office, or those whose votes they are courting, lack intelligence, understanding, or rationality. So, well, all bets are off then.

A time-traveling Kant would nonetheless be intrigued by the political biography of the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. At least, if the account developed by Alec MacGillis, author of The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell, tracks the truth. In his recent attempt in The New York Times to explain McConnell’s tactics for the game of selecting and approving the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court, MacGillis portrays the Senate majority leader as exactly the kind of intelligent devil Kant had in mind.

The best way to understand Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. has been to recognize that he is not a conservative ideologue, but rather the epitome of the permanent campaign of Washington: What matters most isn’t so much what you do in office, but if you can win again.

As an aspiring young Republican — first, a Senate and Ford administration staff member and then county executive in Louisville — Mr. McConnell leaned to the moderate wing of his party on abortion rights, civil rights and many other issues. It was only when he ran for statewide office, for the Senate in 1984, that he began to really tack right. Mr. McConnell won by a razor-thin margin in a year when Ronald Reagan handily won Kentucky. The lesson was clear: He needed to move closer to Reagan, which he promptly did upon arriving in Washington.

From that point on, the priority was winning every six years and, once he’d made his way up the ranks of leadership, holding a Republican majority. In 1996, that meant voting for a minimum-wage increase to defuse a potential Democratic talking point in his re-election campaign. In 2006, as George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, it meant asking the president if he could start withdrawing troops from Iraq to improve the Republicans’ chance of keeping the Senate that fall, when Mr. McConnell was set to become its leader.

A year later, it meant ducking out of the intense debate on the Senate floor about immigration reform to avoid making himself vulnerable on the issue. It is no accident that the legislative issue Mr. McConnell has become most identified with, weakening campaign finance regulations, is one that pertains directly to elections.

This is also the best way to understand Mr. McConnell’s staunch opposition to the president: It is less about blocking liberal policy goals than about boosting Republican chances.

MacGillis concedes that McConnell’s tactical obstructionism has been successful on its own terms:

The resistance from Mr. McConnell has had an enormous influence on the shape of Obama’s presidency. It has limited the president’s accomplishments and denied him the mantle of the postpartisan unifier he sought back in 2008.

But the game isn’t over yet, and McGillis wonders whether McConnell has overplayed his hand in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

This blog does not really have a dog in that fight. We’re interested more in the concepts and categories we use to think through issues than we are (at least within this blog) in the political conclusions they lead to. My interest in McGillis’s portrait of McConnell is about the viability of Kant’s constitutional optimism. Some deliberately adversarial institutions — like Wimbledon tennis matches, courtroom law, markets without dangerously exploitable market failures — can licence the players to pursue their own interests in a contest with well designed rules and close monitoring for compliance. In these cases those outside “the game” will benefit even if the “players” care only about their own interests.

But can we possibly expect a modern democracy to work well, and justly, if the players vying for, and holding, office are all rational devils? Do the US Constitution and other defining features of the political infrastructure (such as the Federal Election Commission and the 50 different states’ laws for drawing up federal constituencies and voter-eligibility rules) constitute the kinds of rules that will, as Kant put it, convert selfish or evil private intentions into virtuous public conduct?

Even Mitch McConnell (thought not perhaps Francis Underwood) would surely agree that the answer to these questions is No. When this blog ponders politics, it will generally be to explore  “why not?” or “where, then, from here?”

spacey

 

 

 

Are student athletes more successful in life?

gallup coverAccording to a huge recent survey conducted by Gallup, student athletes beat their non-athletic former classmates at the game of life-after-college.

Former student-athletes who received a bachelor’s degree between 1970 and 2014 are leading other college graduates in four out of five elements of well-being that Gallup studied. These former student athletes are more likely than non-student-athletes to be thriving in purpose, social, community and physical well-being. In the element of financial well-being, former student-athletes are just as likely to be thriving as their non-student-athlete peers

For those interested in methodology — and who isn’t? — the survey and the correlations it finds, are pretty credible, as far as these things go:

Results for the Gallup-Purdue Index, which the study used for comparison purposes, are based on Web surveys conducted Feb. 4-March 7, 2014, with a random sample of 29,560 respondents with a bachelor’s degree, aged 18 and older, with Internet access, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. These respondents included 1,670 former NCAA student-athletes. The Gallup-Purdue Index sample was compiled from two sources: the Gallup Panel and the Gallup Daily tracking survey.

Of course, these results are merely correlations. We cannot infer from correlations alone the direction of causation: did participation in athletics improve students’ life skills and well-being, or do the kinds of students who go in for athletics already have those skills to a greater degree than other students? Or is it, as NCAA researcher Tom Paskus argues, a little bit of both?

This kind of data may be relevant nonetheless for deeper philosophical debates about the nature of the good life. Some find competitiveness, and the need or desire to express oneself in zero-sum competitions where your winning means someone else loses, as an inherently less desirable character trait, disposition, or way of living. At the very least, this survey suggests that a very intense period of competition in sports during a person’s formative years (a college athlete will have had sports as their major non-scholastic activity from their pre-teen years until their early 20s) does not make them a worse, less happy, or less successful person afterward.

Check out the more detailed results by asking for the report in pdf form from Gallup at the link above. Or check out the summary in this article Money magazine.

 

 

Gaming the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice

This blog is about to wake up big-time: there’s a new seminar on Adversarial Ethics at Duke full of eager bloggers — and it’s election season in the US. The neverending Presidential-election season provides us not only with a hyperactive example of one of the classic “deliberately adversarial institutions,” namely electoral politics. But it has a tendency to suck almost every other institution, including many that are not supposed to be adversarial or partisan, into its flames.

Exhibit A: the selection of a new justice to sit on the putative non-partisan Supreme Court.

There is not a single political commentator or politician who has not already weighed in on what the President and the members of the Senate ought to do now that Antonin Scalia’s sudden death has opened up a new seat on the bench. Richard Lempert‘s post over at The Brooking Institution’s Fixgov blog does a nice job of mapping out the likely scenarios in the language of game theory.

Assuming — kind of big assumption, no doubt — that the President (who is constitutionally required to nominate a new justice when there is a vacancy) and all of the Senators (who must confirm the nomination) are all rational, well informed, and intelligent, game theory should help us to predict what they are likely to do, given their divergent interests and options. I won’t rehearse them here. Lempert’s post is here.

The Supreme Court is a striking example of a kind of paradox or contradiction we see in many quintessentially non-adversarial institutions. The Court itself, and the role the justices have, is supposed to be strictly non-partisan. When they vote on a decision or opinion, the justices are supposed to interpret the law. They are not supposed to be supporting a cause or political movement they sympathize with, nor are they to base their votes and arguments on their own principles. And yet swirling around the Court are tornadoes of partisanship:

  • we know — because psychology — that each justice’s attempts to provide “strictly legal” interpretations of law and the Constitution are influenced in conscious and unconscious ways by values that are hotly contested in the political sphere;
  • for this reason, the nomination process we are seeing now involves high political stakes for the elected politicians who get a say;
  • many of the Court’s decisions have huge implications for the actors in other deliberately adversarial institutions — from those involved in electoral politics to corporations and their stakeholders in the marketplace, and even for sports leagues and athletes;
  • and last but not least, as a Court atop the adversarial legal system, the justices preside over a contest played out between lawyers who are committed to making any argument that will help their client’s interests in the cases at hand.

new yorker scotus ping pong

 

But the Court and the justices themselves are supposed to have the role of a neutral umpire, with no personal interests in any given case, calling strikes and balls as she sees them.

In principle.

Lempert finishes his post with the following reflections of this intriguing “game” we are now watching:

It is interesting to treat the contest between Obama and the Republicans as a game, and to think about the best strategies for each, and how the moves of one might affect the choices of the other. Yet we are not talking about a game. We are talking about consequential political choices that could change the direction of the law in this country for a generation. Voting rights, money in politics, access to abortion providers, environmental regulation, and much more could turn in the short run on the choice of Scalia’s replacement, although in the longer run there are enough aging Justices that the next presidential election is likely to be more consequential. Now it appears the long and short term outcomes may turn out to be intertwined, for the fate of Obama’s nominee may influence what happens in the election. The “game” being played by Obama and the Republican Senate is, however, one that we, the people, can only watch, though we are permitted to root for our favorite team.

It doesn’t hurt that Justice Scalia’s death set the contest in motion during that lull in the American sporting calendar between the Super Bowl and March Madness….

Pst! This blog is about to wake up again

(stay tuned)