Friday, February 13, 2009

Arguing about arguing

Lately, I've surfed across several blog posts about political debate, some more closely connected than others. In particular, this article by John Judis was relayed and amplified by Glenn Greenwald and Matt Yglesias; it argues that the stimulus bill wasn't more progressive because "there is not a popular left movement that is agitating for him to go well beyond where he would even ideally like to go."

This is the technique, common at flea markets, of taking an insincere position, with the idea that after the haggling, the settled-on price will be near the midpoint of the initial offers. So (thanks to our insincere starting bid) we end up at a price closer to what we wanted to pay. The natural consequence is polarization -- following this approach, the Republicans would offer some crazy massive tax-cut, no stimulus bill as their starting position. Preposterous, I know.

Contrast this with Dr. Strangelove's exhortation to keep up the bipartisan tone. These are not, strictly speaking, opposing arguments, but they aim to produce opposite consequences.

More bloviating about metadebate, along with links that I (and possibly only I) think are also relevant at the link below.

More directly opposing Judis's argument is this one from Nate Silver, although it's referring more to the banking problems than the stimulus. He's not explicitly opposing the insincere position idea, but rather arguing that the debate should be (at least temporarily) left to experts who actually understand enough to have an informed sincere position. The consequence -- starting from an expert consensus -- theoretically precludes an insincere starting position.

A further corollary to the insincere position strategy is to hide the insincerity, of course. This means insisting that a position you know is irrational is the position you choose to take. Are Rush, O'Reilly, and Jack Thompson (Who's he? Scroll down here) really crazy like foxes?

Now, maybe I'm just a bit priggish, but this tactical lying thing doesn't seem right to me. So I'll try to argue against it.

There's a number of assumptions to justify this insincere starting position:


  • the hassle of haggling costs you less than the gain it provides.
  • the end result will shift toward your desired result, because of the shift in your initial position.
  • adopting an irrational position won't cause a breakdown in dealmaking, or the risk of a breakdown is not costlier than the advantage provided.
  • the opposition won't adopt the same strategy, or at least can't be as irrationally extreme as yourself.
  • the negotiation is essentially one-dimensional and zero-sum: there are a spectrum of possible final results, in some sense "between" the two starting positions, and final results that are closer to some ideal value are better.


Clearly a lot of these assumptions depend very much on the situation being talked about. For Dr. S's hopes for depolarization to work across a broad range of issues, the incentives favoring polarization have to be changed in general. Changes that apply to any situation include making haggling cost more, and the related point that extremism has to be made less effective at shifting the final result.

Which is not to say that the crazy ideologues aren't insincere, just that it might not work as well as they think.

I would be very keen to know, for example, if Jack Thompson's extremism:

  • shifted the final result toward more regulation of videogames by moving the "center of mass" of the argument,
  • rallied otherwise uninterested people to the cause of videogame regulation, producing a more pro-regulation result more indirectly,
  • provoked opposing extremism from anti-regulation parties, resulting in little shift of the final result, or
  • failed to have any impact.

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5 comments:

Dr. Strangelove said...

California's full legislature twice passed a bill to allow gay marriage. (It was twice vetoed by the Governator and did not become law.) The bill passed because openly gay and lesbian members of the legislature made deeply personal appeals. I read one particular angry right-wing blog which complained that the only reason the bill passed was that their colleagues just could not bring themselves to vote "no" when it was such a personal thing.

Along these same lines, I believe it is fairly well established that the negotiators for Palestinians and Israelis at Oslo in the early 1990s got to know each other personally over the course of more than a year, and thereby built up trust--that may well be the only reason that the peace process began. (And one might argue the lack of such relationships and trust is why no subsequent agreement has been able to add anything.)

Continuing along these lines, my brother (a Russophile) once remarked that Americans and Russians see business relationships very differently. In America, the conventional wisdom is that you should not try to work business deals and contracts with your family. In Russia, the wisdom is the opposite: only deal with family. This is because in the US it is considered acceptable to "look out for number one" and breach relationships of trust because "it ain't personal, it's just business."

Americans also misunderstand haggling, because they see it as a means to a deal rather than the start of a relationship. In a lot of places where haggling is common, the same customers and sellers meet and haggle again and again. So there are incentives to be more rational and honest, because a fruitful relationship will guarantee sales--and bargains--for years to come. It's not about getting all you can right now, but about ensuring more for the future. It's an infinitely repeated Prisoner's Dilemma, not a one-shot deal.

I think one big problem with politics in Washington, perhaps, is that--despite the yelling and grandstanding--it is too much about business and too little about relationships. I'd like to see Obama help the people from both parties, including but not limited to Representatives and Senators, to get to know each other and start building some relationships of trust. To be clear: this will not change Republican priorities nor win votes on "landmark" bills like the stimulus package. But it will help in a hundred little ways down the line.

OK, and now I've surely digressed and rambled more than enough, so I'll stop. I presume this was a line of thinking well-understood to the author of the post anyway. I'm just a big fan of it, so I had to get on my soapbox again :-)

Bob said...

I completely agree with Dr. S here. In trying to amalgamate our points, I would describe his examples as cases where the players realized they weren't contending in a zero-sum game.

In fact, most political disagreements aren't competitive games at all, but that we make them so. Tax cuts, gay marriage, videogames -- none of these are "I win more if you lose more" issues. But if all sides are trapped in an "us vs them" mentality, they won't see any alternative to adversarial negotiations.

If you've got reason to believe that the other side recognizes their own interests, and will act rationally to further them, then taking an insincere position may be adding needless haggling costs, and risk breakdown of negotiations.

"Trust" isn't based on sensing the fundamental goodness of the people you're dealing with; it's this understanding that they, like you, want to get what they want and are able to pursue those goals rationally. So with careful examination of everyone's goals, maybe positions can be found that advance everyone's interests. This is one of Obama's speaking themes -- everyone wants to reduce teen pregnancy, so let's do that, rather than quarrel about abortion.

Dr. S is saying more, I think -- the gay marriage debates reminds me of the idea behind the nonviolent civil disobedience movements of Gandhi and King. Namely, if you confront your oppressor with the inhumane consequences of his policies, the policies will lose support.

In my list of bullet points, this is also recognizing that you aren't playing a zero-sum game, but I think that trivializes the significance of our shared humanity. There's more there than that.

David said...

Here's a quick two-cents. I actually agree with John Judis's article, specifically about the need for a populist Left movement that would shift the terms of debate. I'll tell you why I like this in a second. But what I don't like is this idea of a spectrum that could potentially categorize every political claim as "left" or "right" (or "moderate" or "extreme"). I'll get to that towards the end.

So first of all, I found Judis's argument interesting because it resonates with recent political theory, especially Ernesto Laclau's recent work on populism (_On Populist Reason_ and a short essay that sums up his argument which can be found on the University of Essex "Centre for Theoretical Studies" site: "Populism: What's in a name?"). Laclau convincingly argues that the paradigmatic gesture of populism (us vs. them) is central not only for populist politics, but for politics in general. The idea is this: if there is no social division, if we do not have a kind of "underdog" movement that _radically_ opposes a given institutional order, then we only have administration. Administration, of course, is not politics; rather, it works by dissolving each individual claim so that it may be "answered" by an "expert." At that point, it's the expert or the team of experts that _decides_ what is best for the country. And at that point we are not only far from politics, but also very far from democracy. For that reason Laclau suggests that this radical disjunction between an institutional order and an antagonistic _other_ is necessary, not only for politics to take place, but also democracy. Social division is therefore not something to bemoan, but actually the conditions of politics.

The point here is that a populist Left would be crucial for intervening in the terms of the debate, especially in a debate that is still weighted down by myths about the inherent goodness of de-regulation. However, I don't believe that a populist "Left" is what we need, if only because "Left" or "liberal" are terms that have been appropriated by Republicans. For a Republican, a "liberal" is at best evil, at worst a joke. Obama might have won the election, but the Republicans are still in control of our political language. So what we need is not a populist "Left," but rather a populist movement that can mobilize itself around a specific claim (e.g., reclaiming trust) that would appeal to many different groups, including Democrats and Republicans. In other words, some sort of radically different proposal needs to be put on the table, not merely as a bargaining chip, but rather to rearticulate the terms of the debate, to make the political present speak in a different way.

My point is only this: if bipartisanship means erasing differences and coming to a middle-of-the-road consensus, no thank you: that, to me, is the end of politics. But if bipartisanship means the steady undermining of the traditional party system in the US (Democrats versus Republicans, conservatives versus liberals) and, at the same time, a re-mobilization of groups around different claims, then I'm all for it. It seems to me that we can only get Republicans voting with Democrats if the language controlling these divisions is thoroughly rethought. Of course, this renegotiation of the political landscape might mean that some Democrats (for instance, those Detroit auto Democrats) might begin voting with anti-de-regulating Republicans, but that's the risk of politics.

Bob said...

That is HEAVY! And in a good way.

I _think_ that one element I get from David's comment is this: bargaining public policy with tactics like flea market haggling is playing the game, negotiating within the system, and that politics and democracy demand opposition that rejects the system, that questions the rules of the game.

And so, I think, David's saying that the populist movement Judis is calling for isn't about staking out a position on the axis so that Obama can claim the midpoint position. Instead, the populist movement David desires is one that rejects the axis.

I like this. I am all for renegotiating the political landscape. I am struck by how this seemed to be happening in the 90's, with Perot and Ventura and Nader seeming to erode the stranglehold of the "Republicrats". But that seemed to be driven more by theater than by need. Garrison Keillor wrote something along the lines of "Electing Jesse Ventura could only happen in flush times", meaning no one thought there was anything for him to screw up, no decisions he would face that could really affect their lives.

Now, everyone recognizes that the government is wrestling with problems that affect all of us, and we are hoping that their decisions will have an overwhelming (positive) impact. In this atmosphere, will people retreat to the comfort of the parties they know, the game they're used to?

I think that to undermine the traditional party system in these circumstances, what is needed is not intellectuals like me talking about Condorcet voting methods. Instead, the driving force will come, if it comes, from a populist movement that is not just radical but threatening to the conventional order. I don't know if such a movement can actually be threatening. But the calcifications of our political system -- from filibuster rules to ballot qualifications -- are going to be eroded only in an attempt to co-opt a movement that can't be otherwise controlled. The ruling class will think they've defanged a dangerous element, and the radicals will think they've broken the machine. And they'll both be partly right.

Where my imaginings break down is in coming up with the threat a radical movement could pose. "Reclaiming trust" seems like a good claim that transcends the current party divisions, but how can it have teeth? Perhaps a new era of unforgiveness, rebuking corruption from any quarter? Are there other popular movements that could actually strike at the foundations of business as usual?

Dr. Strangelove said...

"Are there other popular movements that could actually strike at the foundations of business as usual?"

I would argue that last year we witnessed the established political order overturned: The unprecedented, vast amounts of money raised by (largely liberal) candidates in small donations by secure (mostly) internet transactions has changed the whole calculus of political campaigns. Money no longer needs to be concentrated to have power: a few million people chipping in a hundred dollars a piece really does give you a few hundred million dollars. Big business and lobbyists were relegated to the back of the bus in last year's election. In the years to come I believe we are going to see the middle class start to dictate policy like never before.

But the internet was not a force of nature. It did not inevitable and it did not just happen. There were many commercial competitors early on, and many attempts to commercialize it and segment the internet. But a cadre of dedicated intellectuals worked very hard to build a single network, universal, free to all, with open standards, where the little guy and the big guy have the same rights to bandwidth--a network that would empower rather than enslave. Bob tacitly assumes that "intellectuals" like him cannot be the "driving force" behind a "populist" movement--and while I appreciate Bob's humility, I wonder if he is casting his net wide enough, or whether he is thinking only of the romanticized notions of what a revolution is supposed to look like.

There are a lot of quiet and personal revolutions going on (and oh, how the conservatives hate them!). The sexual revolution and the feminist revolution in the 1960s and 1970s had some prominent standard bearers (more like lightning rods), but the real heavy lifting was done at the dinner table and in the workplace, by people who did not think of themselves as revolutionaries at all. The gay rights movement similarly rests on the willingness of millions to come out of the closet. (And intellectuals have led many great legal battles too.)

I think *honesty* and the *expectation* of honesty are the next great political revolution to come. (And I see Obama's attempts at "bipartisanship" as part of this growing tide.) There is a clash between corporate culture and (for lack of a better term) "science culture" in this country. CEOs believe it is their duty to lie about their company and say everything is going great--they don't see it as lying at all, actually. Corporate culture values advocacy over honesty, whereas science culture is the opposite. The triumph of technology has given strong voice to the science culture, and it is spreading. In this way, I think mathematicians are perhaps more revolutionary than they realize :-)