Implications of IRS Scandal


BHO’s approval ratings have not gone down in the wake of the IRS scandal (and other scandals).  It seems people don’t hold him responsible for the failure of government under his watch.  Government failure under Bush led people to blame Bush, and indeed coincided in a seeming increase in people’s trust and expectations for government as an idea (if Bush is dumb, maybe we can get someone smart in and make government do great things.)  Now that government has failed even under Obama, it begins to look like there are inherent limits to how much we can trust and expect from it.

Progressive Peter Beinart is concerned about this perception taking hold.  While it’s in Obama’s interest to throw the IRS under the bus, Beinart believes, he should instead come to its defense for the sake of progressive ideology. 

For Beinart, America’s problem isn’t a powerful government abusing citizens, but a powerful private sector overwhelming the government.  For Beinart, the IRS case illustrates this.  An understaffed IRS faced a deluge of 501(c)4 applications, resulting from the Citizens United decision.  There’s too many civil society groups, and not enough government officials to monitor them all.  (He does not say there was a deluge of illegitimate 501(c)4s, who had electioneering as their primary purpose, in violation of 501(c)4 rules.  Just a deluge of applicants, period.)  A government thus victimized had to find a shortcut, and it was common sense to target political-seeming organizations like Tea Party groups or Constitutional education groups.

Beinart is playing with fire here.  To the extent that a practice that is abusive on its face (targeting groups based on politics) stems naturally from the task we give the IRS (decide where the line is for having electioneering as a “primary purpose,” and stop people from crossing it), to that very extent we are no longer dealing with a problem isolated to rogue actors.  We are dealing with a systemic problem resulting from assigning the IRS inappropriate discretion. 

Beinart’s out is that understaffing and poor training are the problem, but is the answer for the IRS to have enough staff to harass every garden club or volunteer firefighter group with highly intrusive information requests?  Just how much more staff would the IRS need to handle the full inundation?  The problem is not that we give the government insufficient resources to fully monitor civil society.  The problem is that we task it with doing so.

In considering whether government is too powerful in relation to the private sector, it will not do to consider only its resources.  These amount to a meager $3.5 trillion or so, and we have, let’s say, a $10 trillion GDP, so the private sector has the government beat 6.5 to 3.5 in a contest of resources.  But who cares?  The government still has more than enough to harass people, to impose a chilling effect on speech and action, to do any number of things to you without legal accountability.

Let’s consider in another light Beinart’s thesis that our problem is not a government that overpowers citizens, but a private sector that overpowers government.  There’s no reason private power and abusive government are mutually exclusive, but he only really defends the second part of his thesis; he doesn’t demonstrate that we ought to trust government.  Indeed, he acknowledges that government is generally abusive in the national security realm, but it isn’t obvious why we should bracket off that realm.  So how should the IRS scandal affect our trust in government?

Tyler Cowen noted: “What’s remarkable about the IRS tax scandal is that it was admitted, keep that in mind when revising your Bayesian priors.”  In other words, we don’t really know what the government is doing, but have assumptions about how likely it is to abuse power.  Empirical evidence should influence these assumptions (I know the IRS abused its power in dealing with 501(c)3s, so now there’s a 10% chance instead of 5% that it gets FISA warrants for no real reason.)  But abuse like what the IRS did is hard to detect and get the government to admit to.  There’s maybe a 1% chance that government will admit to something like this, which suggests we need to revise our expectations about government more radically than would otherwise be the case.

Market for Wins in Baseball

This article on the art of pitch framing, and its subjection to statistical measurement, is excellent, and you should read it. 

In it the author says that wins go for $5 million on the free agent market.  But it isn’t the case that an average, 81-81 team has a $405 million payroll, nor is such a team made entirely or mostly of players who have not yet hit free agency.  What he means is that wins above replacement run at $5 million a piece.  If a player brings you two wins per year above what you would get if you replaced him with a replacement-level player (basically, minimum major league quality players- a backup or a top minor-leaguer), he costs you $10 million per year. 

You could go, let’s say, 50-112 with a team of 25 MLB-minimum, $300 thousand replacement players.  That’s $7.5 million in salary, or $500,000 per win.  Teams have good players who haven’t hit free agency yet, and are playing for cheap, not the minimum (and some sign their players in free agency at an equilibrium price that accounts for but is less than the $5 million per win free-market rate), so you could actually build a team that’s better than replacement level without spending much money, if that were your goal. 

I conclude that wins take on increasing marginal utility.  Going from 59 to 60 wins is of little value; going from 69 to 70 doesn’t much matter.  Moving from 92 wins to 93, or 93 to 94 is frantically, desperately necessary.  Wins at that margin are in dire demand.  Past the point at which you’ve secured a playoff spot, extra wins are a proxy for likely post-season success, and as such continue to be desperately needed.

(I don’t care if you show me some kind of chart that says regular season win totals are weakly correlated to post-season success, not at all correlated, inversely correlated, or correlated in terms of imaginary numbers.  Nobody is ever going to say “let’s make sure we’re good enough for the post-season and stop spending at that point.  Let our competitors have better players, because the playoffs is a crapshoot anyway.”  Obviously, teams do limit their payrolls; some teams value that extra win more than others, but it isn’t the case that the randomness of short makes teams less intense about getting better at a certain margin.  Anyway, I said wins are a proxy.  Maybe teams try to build themselves specifically to win in the playoffs.  That won’t really change the analysis.  It’s not like you can time things precisely and say “we’ve bought 88 wins, we’re in the playoffs,” anyway.  As the knight on Monty Python says of Camelot, “it’s only a model.”)

So at the highest level, teams are intensely competing over that extra half-percentage-point chance of winning the World Series.  At a certain point, of course, extra spending takes on diminishing marginal utilities in terms of percentage chance of winning the World Series, but those extra percentage points themselves probably take on increased marginal utility.  Baseball people, fans and culture have assigned enormous subjective value to winning the World Series, as opposed to just winning a high quantity of games, and their actions reflect that value system.  They also of course value the process of trying to win, as they have to in order to avoid insanity in a random business, but that does not affect the question.

ObamaCare and Perceived Legitimacy

If House Republicans’ 37th vote to repeal ObamaCare is irrelevant, why does it upset ObamaCare supporters so much?  “Because they’re wasting time!”  Yes, but why really?  (And if Obama and Senate Democrats are worried about the House wasting time with repeal votes, they can approve the repeal and put an end to it just as easily as the House can stop voting to repeal.)

ObamaCare came into law and survived as law in unusual circumstances that stretched the concept of legitimacy at least to its breaking point, in both the “consent of the governed” sense and the Constitutional sense- the only sources of legitimacy that matter in America.  Because Democrats had complete control of government, they could pass even an intensely unpopular law as long as they were sufficiently united.  They went ahead and did so based on the lesson of 1994: the public was likely to be equally angry with them if they did not pass anything.  After all, people badly wanted to fix a broken health care system, had given Democrats power and assigned them to do so, and Democrats had devoted all their energy to crafting and promoting a bill.  What if, after all that, they failed?  Would that be any better for them then forcing on the people an unpopular law? 

As Hector said,

No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell you–
it’s born with us the day that we are born

So one might as well go ahead and be brave.  You can lose and pass the law, or lose and not pass the law.  Of course, our system was designed to rely on politicians’ self-interest, understood in somewhat different terms from such Homeric heroism (and ordinarily this works). 

Yes, Democrats had the power to pass a bill they believed in over the objections of the governed, and the people were going to punish them regardless of what they did.* But in disregarding self-interest, the Democrats also cast aside a deeper kind of prudence.  The theory behind government-driven cost cutting, and thus behind ObamaCare, was that people would accept denial of care from a democratically legitimate government when they would not accept it from greedy, profit-driven HMOs.  Public buy-in, consent of the governed and all that are key to the whole theory. 

At a deeper level, Democrats’ idealistic voting was in tension with the whole moral basis for our government, or at least for progressive government.  “Consent of the governed” can only ever be expressed imperfectly, and ultimately only by some of the governed, so it’s really best if we contain this problem by confining government to a limited role.  Progressives tend to go beyond saying government is a thing to which we send representatives, or even a thing that represents us.  They take representation quite literally and suggest that the government actually IS us, embodying something they call “the Will of the People.”  Yet obviously, the people in no important sense consented to ObamaCare.

If I go to an engineer and ask him to present plans for a structure, and he comes back a year later with something that wasn’t at all what I had in mind, obviously I am going to fire him.  Similarly, the public would have fired Congressional Democrats had they presented their plan and simply accepted the public’s verdict on it.  The difference is that the engineer doesn’t get to build his building anyway, on the theory that we don’t know what’s best for us.**

Some Democrats seemed to sense all this.  Recall Anthony Weiner’s “pigs fly out my ass” analysis after Scott Brown’s victory: “when you have large numbers of citizens, in the United States of America, who believe this is going in the wrong direction, there’s a limit to what you can keep saying that, Okay, they just don’t get it.  That if we just pass the bill, then they’ll get it.  I don’t know.  I think that we should maybe internalize that we’re not doing things entirely correctly.”  But Nancy Pelosi locked her caucus in a room and read them Homer, or Ezra Klein, or something, until they promised to pass the bill.

As for perceived Constitutional legitimacy, the bill took a long trip through the Court system, winning some and losing some, but more important was the process of its being called into Constitutional question throughout.  This culminated at the Supreme Court, where the bill took a brutal beat down during oral arguments to the point where Obama had to hint at a war on the Court’s own legitimacy should it overturn the law.  It squeaked by, 5-4, on rather tortured reasoning, and only because the mandate fine was small enough that it could allegedly be construed as a tax, not a fine.  The assumption behind the bill was that the post-1936 unwritten Constitution meant that the government could claim any power under the Commerce Clause, and neither the Court nor almost anyone else would raise serious questions.  The outcome was ultimately what they thought, but the process was not; they stretched their interpretation of the post-1936 settlement beyond the point at which it was settled, at least in today’s world.

In short, what Democrats did just wasn’t in line with unwritten norms surrounding what is and isn’t done.  Yet the bill, in some ways, counted on these norms to continue operating.  It left a lot of implementation to the states, under the assumption that the states would cooperate.  It imposed a minimal fine in its mandate, on the assumption that people would treat the mandate as legitimate and morally binding, not as a tax subject to their amoral cost-benefit analysis. 

Most importantly, ObamaCare was passed on the assumption that passage would settle the issue.  Our usual political process is brief but intense debate, followed by an issue’s being settled one way or the other and everyone becoming calm, going about life as if nothing had ever happened.  But that’s only because passage of legislation, and legislation’s survival of legal challenges, tends to be a process that produces strong perceptual legitimacy, even broad consensus.  In this case, again, it wasn’t.  Hence the 37 votes to repeal, which go against what we ordinarily expect.

At the Daily Beast, one Michelle Cottle raises the typical objection to ObamaCare repeal efforts: they are futile political gestures, given that BHO would never sign them into law.  Yet a norm against political gestures and in favor of passing only bills that are likely to become law insures that all real debate takes place inside the Beltway.  Such a norm rejects politicians’ appeals to the people and forcing each other into tough votes, and favors collusion between politicians to deny people real choice.  If everything substantive is settled behind the scenes, the only source of political competition will come from genuinely empty gestures. 

Cottle also raises the usual excuses for ObamaCare’s unpopularity: people like some particular provisions (true and unimportant for questions of legitimacy.)  They don’t know the details of the bill.  I’ll deal with this in depth below, but in the course of noting this ignorance she mentions that 40% of people don’t even think the bill is still law.  This is very revealing of the perceptual legitimacy problem of which I speak.  People apparently have the general impression that the Court struck the law down, or that Congress succeeded in repealing it.  They haven’t internalized it as law.  Republicans’ continued repeals both reflect and perpetuate its lack of perceptual legitimacy.  This, I suspect, is really what ObamaCare supporters don’t like.  But I say all’s fair in love and war.


But as to the objection that people don’t know the details of the law- well, who could possibly learn the details of legislation?  A norm holding people should only object to laws whose details they know would give politicians every incentive to create as much legislation as possible and make it as complex as possible, and take advantage of the resulting information asymmetry.  This is already a danger inherent in representative government; why should we do away with the means we have of mitigating it?

The health care debate in fact illustrated the way our system mitigates information asymmetry between voters and politicians.  Neither party could of course explain the bill’s provisions in detail to the public.  Democrats made promises in general terms (we’ll deliver universal health care and cut costs) during election season.  Obama promised he would not impose a health insurance mandate, which he suggested was un-American, and excoriated John McCain’s plan to tax highly generous health plans.  Democrats came up with a bill imposing a health insurance mandate and a tax on highly generous health plans. 

Besides highlighting these specific unpopular provisions, Republicans highlighted specific consequences of the legislation, such as the likelihood that people would lose their private insurance.  This would not have been obvious to John Q. Public as he answered pollsters’ questions about whether he liked this or that specific provision of the bill.  Yet Republicans presented the argument in summarized form and it stuck, partly because neutral media called out Obama’s claim that people wouldn’t lose private insurance if they liked it. 

So John Q. Public came to associate “ObamaCare” with “loss of private insurance,” and more generally with risky disruption to the status quo- even if he did not much care for the status quo.  This didn’t mean he could remember the arguments in detail, or indeed remember anything about the bill in detail.  But it did mean he was better informed than the John Q. Public asked by pollsters about specific provisions in ObamaCare.

Republicans also raised general objections of their own, to counter Democratic generalities about universal health insurance and cost-cutting goals.  They called the bill a government takeover of health care.  This didn’t involve line-by-line analysis of the bill, but it went deeper than just listing selective provisions and asking if people liked them.  The charge stuck enough to hurt, despite Democrats’ furious denials.  The fact that they felt compelled to deny the charge so vehemently should have raised doubt about whether people trusted government enough to make them accept top-down cost controls.  Republicans even raised the bill’s complexity itself as a general objection, which is a tidy, straightforward way of solving information asymmetry.

Aside from the above arguments, the glaringly obvious objection to progressives’ citing the favorable polling on specific ObamaCare provisions is that they only count the popular provisions.  The clueless counter-argument (usually treated as if it were completely dispositive) is invariably that the unpopular provisions are necessary to make the popular ones work, and that people answering poll questions just don’t get this; for instance, the mandate is necessary to make the pre-existing conditions provision work.  But I need to spend $100,000 to make “owning a Rolls Royce” work, and the costs may not be worth the benefits, yet if a pollster asked me “would you like to own a Rolls Royce,” I would nevertheless say “yes.”  Moreover, who’s to say ObamaCare will work even with the mandate?  If we just assume workability questions are beyond the public, we’re really just asking them “do you want good stuff to happen,” and how meaningful is that?

ObamaCare purported to be a comprehensive solution.  What’s needed, therefore, is not just a look at individual provisions in isolation, but an overarching argument for the bill as a whole.  Why, for instance, do cuts in insurance costs make the individual mandate worth it?  Do we want a health care industry dominated by insurance companies and the government?  Progressives turn to thematic arguments to justify individually unpopular provisions.  Yet Republicans basically won the thematic argument, and they don’t think this is legitimate because people don’t know the details of the law and like some of the provisions.  They’ve got you coming and going.

* Besides, the economy they’d spent $800 billion trying to fix had gone nowhere, while deficits started with the new and scary letter “T.”  Obviously, Democrats were going to be perceived as failures no matter what they did with health care, so, again, why not plunge ahead heroically?  Their very failure in other respects thus became a license to impose as ambitious an agenda as they wanted.  This wasn’t quite how pundits making the argument usually put it.  They would say something like, “the unpopularity of Obama and the Democratic Congress is explicable in terms of economic models, therefore we don’t have to turn to health care to explain it.”  But it amounts to the same thing.

** And yet, representatives do sometimes have to do things that are unpopular.  The bank bailouts, for instance, were a policy that was bound to be intensely unpopular, but which a majority of elected officials believed was completely necessary, and so they were willing to accept possible electoral defeat, and the strain on legitimacy in a number of senses, in order to prevent what they saw as imminent total collapse.  A government that routinely strains legitimacy in this way is obviously inviting trouble.  Yet the relevant political actors, in the wake of this bank bailout, AND the largest economic stimulus in decades (a reasonably popular action at the time, but still overloaded the system a bit), decided this would be a good time to pass a bill designed to permanently transform health care without the public’s consent.  In fact, to the extent the growing anger was going to sweep away Democrats anyway, that was all the more reason to do more while they could.  Note that for all this, the progressive response to recent years has been that American institutions constrained them to an unhealthy extent.

The Bell Curve and its Enemies


Some guy at the Center for American Progress, Zack Beauchamp, writes about “Why Conservatives Love to Link Race And IQ.”  One of the central confusions of the piece is his application of his question to all conservatives, rather than two specific people, namely, Charles Murray and now Jason Richwine; the wording of the question presupposes that the answer is political.  Most prominent conservatives have no real interest in the matter and in any case would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. 

Murray is the only person anyone has heard of who has publicly and systematically considered the question, or was until Richwine came along.  I’m talking public intellectuals here, not scientists writing in journals nobody reads who can say whatever they want.  In the public arena, everything since Murray has basically been commentary on Murray, with progressives denouncing him as a Nazi and some conservatives defending his writings. 

The claims Murray (and late co-author Herrnstein) made were that IQ is real, that it is in significant part genetic, and that it has recently become the basis for class structure in American life.  I think he had one chapter on race and IQ.  This was probably because the first two claims, that IQ is real and that it is partly genetic, are sensitive in light of racial gaps in IQ, for obvious reasons.  It would have been one heck of an elephant in the living room hanging over the book to avoid taking the issue on, but race was tangential to the point Murray was trying to make.  It appears to be more central for Richwine, who opposes Latino immigration because he thinks Latinos are likely to have low average IQs.  I haven’t read his work, but probably he worries that they will drive down wages for low-IQ Americans (white, black or Latino), or that they will disproportionately contribute to social problems.

So, to rephrase the question, what motivates Murray and some others to write about IQ and genetics?  Beauchamp, the CAP guy, admits it isn’t the political popularity of the idea: “These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move.”  Lots of progressives seem to think America’s latent racism explains otherwise baffling conservative success; as I understand their argument, the Southern strategy won Nixon 49 states in 1972 and Reagan another 49 in 1984, and the American public disliked Willie Horton primarily because he was black.  But Beauchamp doesn’t make such an argument.  So, again, what’s the motive for genes-and-IQ writers?

It could be that they think what they are saying is true.  Stranger things have happened.  One of Beauchamp’s two explanations, though, is writing these things allows Murray, et al “to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.”  Well, okay, maybe that’s it.  Maybe people embrace taboo ideas out of a love of truth, maybe they do it because they love looking like they love the truth, maybe it’s a mixture of these motives. 

Anyway, for Beauchamp, pretending to seek truth allows Murray, et al to support their policy preferences with “the mantle of objective scientists persecuted for telling ‘hard truths.’”  “One of the founding myths of modern conservatism,” he explains, “is that conservatives are hard-headed rationalists, while liberals let their soft-minded care for the downtrodden get in the way of rational public policy.”  This is a pretty accurate description for how conservatives see themselves, or did once.  That was the first conservative self-image I was aware of, probably the dominant one in Rush Limbaugh’s heyday of the 1990s.  In the 2000s, conservatives’ self-image, personified by Bush, involved the idea that liberals were effete intellectuals crippled by their own nuance, while red-state America embraced intuitive, simple truths and supported a President who went with his gut, even if he wasn’t all that bright (perhaps he had a kind of emotional intelligence?)  This of course is the attitude famously caricatured by Colbert, and helped bring about a reaction: alarming increases in confidence in government by a huge portion of the country, based on the idea that if only we could get old, white trash (and, ahem, low-IQ) America out of power, scientific, educated (ahem, high-IQ) people could use the government to achieve great, transformational things.  No wonder that Andrew Sullivan, Murray’s greatest conservative supporter when his book came out, now embraces today’s technocratic progressivism so thoroughly.


So are Murray and his supporters correct that opponents attempt to drive their ideas out of acceptable discourse more than meeting their arguments?  Beauchamp doesn’t explicitly dispute this.  His token, blippy attempt to argue that the science they point to is wrong consists of links to two articles. 

The first (almost exactly the same objections I will make apply equally to the second) is a Foreign Policy piece attacking genetics-intelligence arguments in development economics.  The piece that itself blippily links to two articles to support the assertion that genetic factors in racial intelligence (what about genetic factors in intelligence, period?) have been debunked, along with the idea of IQ (if you can’t measure intelligence, how can a genetic link be disproven?)  It then goes onto the much more comfortable territory of politics, noting the intellectual legacy of imperialism.  This emphasis seems to support Murray supporters’ self-image that they tackling a forbidden topic.  So does his effort to link politically incorrect development economists with John Derbyshire’s offensive writings on black people, which got him fired from National Review: “Derbyshire’s deserved disgrace is a needed reminder to throw brickbats at his partners in malodor who work in global development.”

When the FP writer does get around to making arguments, he challenges the claims of the authors of a book called IQ and the Wealth of Nations, that average IQ in Africa is around 70, pointing to small and unrepresentative samples.  He then criticizes the logic (but not the empirics) behind one other work.  And from that, and a lot of emotionalism, we are supposed to conclude that all of genetics-based development economics is flawed. 

How Beauchamp thinks any of this damns Murray’s book, which considerably predates the works criticized in Foreign Policy and thus could not have very well drawn on them, is unclear.  In fact, though, it actually turns rather dramatically against Beauchamp’s claim.  The FP writer points to education, health care, and nutritional differences as environmental factors explaining the IQ differences between countries, and argues that rapid improvements in IQ by some countries lends support to environmental explanations, but that those will go away and IQs will converge as countries get better in these regards.  He responds to the claim of a consensus that “general intelligence is largely hereditary” by saying “that consensus — to the very limited extent it is one — is based on studies within populations born to mothers who enjoyed health and good diets.” 

So to recap, environmental explanations explain intelligence differences between the U.S. and Congo.  (And can we then say those intelligence difference explain economic gaps?)  But the better you get at government and institutions, the more those environmental factors go away, and the more you’re left with genetic factors as the only source of remaining differences.  That sounds awfully like the thesis of a book by…Charles Murray.  Murray’s next step was to note that, as we extend equality of opportunity, people with better genes are likely to make it to the top, stratify, intermarry, etc.

This brings us to Beauchamp’s second explanation for conservatives’ writing about genetics and IQ: “a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty.”  Despite the reference to race, Murray’s arguments and Beauchamp’s attempts at arguments apply to all discussions of genetics and intelligence, not just those related to race. 

How does linking genetics and intelligence moot the moral imperative for fighting poverty?  According to Beauchamp, Murray opposes “essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality,” because “if some people are less intelligent than others…creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again.”  Actually, you should take out the “again”; a more level playing field will cause the most talented to rise to the top. 

Beauchamp conflates equal results (“policies aimed at reducing economic inequality”) with equal opportunities (“creating an economically more level playing field”) because, for him, everyone is equal in intelligence and in every other way, and so a true meritocracy would yield equal results.  Liberals and conservatives disagree about the nature of their economic disagreements, with conservatives taking the position that they favor equal opportunity whereas liberals favor equal results, and liberals heatedly denying this, saying that their favored policies are necessary to bring true equality of opportunity.  Yet the way liberals measure whether we have achieved justice is to see how much inequality there is- so that differences, between races or between individuals, are presented as evidence of inequality of opportunity.  Liberal notions of equal opportunity are thus difficult to distinguish in practice from equality of results.

If Murray believes there is a genetic component to IQ, that means he thinks equalizing environments will by definition increase the genetic basis for remaining IQ differences, and equalizing opportunities in other ways will insure that high-IQ people rise to the top.  Why would that be an argument against equalizing opportunity?  If making sure people have decent nutrition, health care and education won’t lead to equal outcomes, is that a reason not to do it?  If Murray is supposed to be writing on behalf of high-IQ people, then he should love equal opportunity and be a hard-core meritocrat?  If he is supposed to be arguing on behalf of privilege, why would he argue that the best rise to the top more as we take away privilege? 

Let’s look in more detail at Beauchamp’s claim that Murray uses race, genetics and IQ to oppose policies aimed at equalizing opportunity, and see just how dishonest Beauchamp is.  “Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Ameicans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar.  Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality.”  The Murray article he links to has nothing to do with race.  It is long, but the relevant bit is the final paragraph, dealing with policy implications.  There is nothing in it that supports Beauchamp’s interpretation, unless you come in with some twisted ideas about what conservatives must be arguing.  Indeed Murray recognizes, unlike Beauchamp, that his arguments on their face do not automatically yield conservative policy conclusions.  Quite the opposite: “People of different political viewpoints may legitimately respond to this presentation with policy prescriptions that are in polar opposition.  In many ways, the Left has the easier task.  These data are tailor-made for the conclusion that a Rawlsian redistributive state is the only answer.” 

At least Beauchamp isn’t trying to pose as a disinterested truth-seeker.

Jane Austen and Game Theory

An academic named Michael Chwe has argued that Jane Austen is the founder of game theory.  His claim is ambitious, according to the New York Times: “Mr. Chwe argues that Austen isn’t merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself.”  But if we’re going to date game theory to some time before it became a formal discipline, why stop with Austen?  Why not turn to Shakespeare, or Homer, or Hobbes, or Machiavelli, or Moses, or…The Times article at least doesn’t make clear Chwe’s criteria for distinguishing game theory from not-game-theory.

Chwe finds in Austen a concept of “cluelessness,” which he thinks should be part of game theory.  Rather than treating players as equally rational, cluelessness analysis allows one player to make strategic mistakes because, from a position of social dominance, one party “may not realize it even needs to think strategically.”  He uses as an example the Lade Catherine de Bourgh’s demand that Elizabeth promise not to marry Darcy.  “Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence – not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested.”  Catherine’s strategic blunder is obvious, and certainly results from overconfidence due to her social position, but there is also a lot that she can only guess at (how thoroughly has Elizabeth rejected Darcy up to this point, for instance.)

And I don’t know that I see any strategic brilliance on Elizabeth’s part here that forced the error.  Obviously she wasn’t going to, when asked, promise not to marry Darcy, but as far as I can tell her only goal with Lady Catherine is to win the conversation….

In Northanger Abbey I see some more interesting game theory action.  Spoiler Alert!!! Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland meet at a dance, but Henry initially has no particular interest in her.  He therefore has nothing to lose and can be his incomparable self, rather than going with a conventional approach.  Though most girls would not have taken a fancy to him, Catherine does.  Seeing that she likes him makes him like her, probably much more than he would a girl who liked him when he used a more risk-averse approach. 

Catherine and Henry both deploy Henry’s sister Eleanor effectively.  Catherine, an unsophisticated girl, sensibly strikes up a friendship with Eleanor in hopes of getting closer to Henry.  She does not, however, set out signal feelings of affection for Henry for her to relay.  Nevertheless she naively conveys her feelings through the things she says and the questions she asks.*  Acting like she loves him and trying to act like she loves him communicate the same essential point.  Henry uses Eleanor as a kind of active chaperone, or rather Eleanor causes herself to be used as such- she is a supporting character but by nature an independent actor.  They form a kind of cooperative partnership; really, together with Catherine they make a three-person partnership more or less consciously devoted to deepening Catherine’s and Henry’s relationship.  Having Eleanor there to interpret for him allows Henry to continue taking risks he might otherwise hesitate to take with his unconventional wit.  Henry also reads Catherine well, and so is able to recognize what will make her happy.

John Thorpe employs strategies in his pursuit of Catherine and efforts to divide her from Henry, so does not fit Chwe’s definition of cluelessness.  The source of his overconfidence is instead in his belief that this very strategic ability, and superiority over Catherine in social knowledge, will allow him to manipulate her.  Her very artlessness enables her not to worry about certain conventions and thus remove obstacles, in the process further demonstrating attractive qualities to Henry.  When Henry’s father turns against Catherine, this greatly speeds the engagement, a more straightforward form of cluelessness. 

John’s sister Isabella plays the game with seeming skill, but her schemes also backfire.  She ensnares Catherine’s brother James in an engagement but then finds out he isn’t as rich as she thought.  She dumps him for Henry and Eleanor’s unprincipled older brother, whose name I forget, but he in turn dumps her.  For all her skills, she has overreached- Henry had supposed she was too crafty to dump James until she had credible commitments from his brother, but this was not so.  She assumed she could fall back on James, using as bridges Catherine (whom she befriended early) and her own brother John, James’s best friend.  Her letter to Catherine is a masterpiece of deception, but her strategy cluelessly underestimated Catherine, who is not taken in for an instant.  John tries to persuade James, but they have cluelessly underestimated him, too.


* She does seem to want Catherine to convey that she didn’t try to snub Henry at the second dance they were both at, that she really was previously engaged.  She does not realize that the fact that she wants this information conveyed gives Eleanor further information.

Thoughts on a Recent Defense of Kissinger


Robert Kaplan in the Atlantic has a defense of Henry Kissinger’s legacy.  He likens him to the nineteenth-century statesmen he modeled himself after, such as Britain’s Castlereagh and Palmerston, who worked to promote peace through a preservation of the balance of power, and promoted their own countries’ interests while expecting others to do the same. 

Those who disagree with this approach and favor conducting foreign policy to promote ideals are guilty of confusing “foreign policy with their own private theology.”  “Judeo-Christian morality” is inapplicable to “affairs of state.”  This only begs the question* of what is public and what is private.  The hope behind realism is that if decision-makers regard theology and ideology as private, subjective matters, and interests as the only thing solid, they will be more likely to pursue interests rather than fighting religious or ideological wars.  Interests are subject to compromise; religion and ideology less so.  So if countries can learn to pursue their own interests, and can understand and predict how other countries will do so, we can have relative international peace.  Similarly, relative domestic peace will be achieved by similar means, with institutions designed to channel self-interest and insuring that dominant thinking treats religion and ideology as private. 

Yet the moral goals behind realism have to compete against others; to assume their superiority is dogmatic.  For Kaplan, Palmerston “had only one immutable principle in foreign policy: British self-interest, synonymous with the preservation of the worldwide balance of power.”  He was committed to one moral goal above all others, just as his opponents are accused of being.

In defending Kissinger, though, Kaplan bends ever so slightly on this principle, attempting to justify realism on liberal idealist terms and making its wisdom dependent on circumstances.  “Like Palmerston, Henry Kissinger believes that in difficult, uncertain times—times like the 1960s and ‘70s in America, when the nation’s vulnerabilities appeared to outweigh its opportunities—the preservation of the status quo should constitute the highest morality.  Other, luckier political leaders might later discover opportunities to encourage liberalism where before there had been none.  The trick is to maintain one’s power undiminished until that moment.” 

This is an argument I’ve encountered at times: Nixon and Kissinger’s realpolitik allowed the U.S. to maintain a decent position at a difficult time, paving the way for liberal idealist Reagan to disrupt the status quo by pursuing Cold War victory.  It’s a bit silly as Kaplan states it; when aren’t the times difficult and uncertain?  Did things stop being difficult and uncertain in Reagan’s time?  Didn’t the Cold War status quo entrench certain dangers and uncertainties?

Kaplan argues that intellectuals can afford to be sensitive to suffering that actions cause, but statesmen, as men of action, cannot do so if they are to “save civilization from its enemies.”  The statesman, he suggests, is blind to the suffering his actions cause, while the intellectual is blind to the necessity for these actions to achieve other goals.  He uncritically assumes that the statesman’s perspective and bias is superior, and that the goals he pursues are more important than the ones the intellectual pursues.  Additionally, his argument moves away from the realist idea of competing nations with competing interests and toward a version of Wilsonian or Reaganite liberal idealism, saving civilization from evildoers.

This is the central confusion in his piece.  Is Kaplan arguing against idealism that says “don’t take an action that violates this particular moral ideal, even if it’s in your state’s interest?”  Or is he arguing against the sort of idealism that says “we should consistently support the spread of liberalism and oppose illiberal ideologies?”  In the first case, he has to make end-justifies-the-means arguments, and his realism be the kind that says “there’s evil in the world, and we must fight it!”  But this is precisely the sort of thing that Wilsonian and Reaganite idealists are wont to say in arguing for supporting democracy.  That’s why they rejected Kissinger’s willingness to accept a perpetual sphere of communist power rather than pursuing Cold War victory.  In the second case, his realism will be of a kind that says “nation states should just pursue and balance their interests.  What is this talk of good and evil?  That’s private morality and makes compromise impossible.”  From such a perspective, the danger of an ideological foreign policy is precisely that it leads states to believe that their ideological end justifies any means, while the virtue of realism is that it promotes stability and peace.

Kaplan points to the nature of communist regimes, the horrors they impose, in arguing for the necessity of American power, backed by nuclear threat, to prevent their spread.  He notes that the murders by North Vietnamese Communists of tens of thousands of their citizens before American involvement produced “an idealistic sense of mission that helped draw us into that conflict.”  Well, exactly.

The nineteenth century realism of the settlement of the Napoleonic Wars that Kissinger admired was based on sovereign powers working together to preserve peace and the balance of power.  It wasn’t about good (liberal) versus evil (totalitarian) struggles, it was about a largely illiberal, authoritarian order that preserved peace and stayed out of the way of evolutionary political and revolutionary economic progress could take place.  Not such a bad thing, but how realistic would it have been to expect such cooperation between the U.S., China and the USSR, and could legitimizing the Soviet Union and Mao’s China really be as morally justified as the post-Napoleon order?  Kissinger was a brilliant guy and undoubtedly recognized at least the first problem, and he did not try to simply impose nineteenth century concepts on the twentieth.  But Kaplan’s defense of Kissinger suffers from not recognizing these tensions.


Kaplan argues that the nature of communist regimes made it necessary for the U.S. to maintain power, including mutually assured destruction threats, to preserve the status quo and prevent Communist expansion (pointing to the horrors of life under communism); this argument combines realism and idealism.  Anti-communist idealists, arguing from the same premise of the evils of communism, argued against accepting the status quo and in favor of attempting to win the Cold War, seeing permanent MAD/Cold War and the permanent existence of the Iron Curtain as dangerous and illegitimate.  We might have to live with these things for a time, but it was neither necessary nor right to accept them as permanent realities.

The Iron Curtain was an ongoing violation of the sovereignty of Eastern European countries, and sovereignty is a basic premise of realpolitik.  The U.S. engaged in its own version of Soviet suppressions of Hungarian and Czech uprisings in Nixon-Kissinger’s actions toward Chile in supporting Pinochet’s coup.  Again, the “order” realism seeks to make permanent becomes pretty disordered.

When it comes to Chile, even Kaplan isn’t quite comfortable arguing that the end justifies the means.  “[Nixon/Kissinger’s] cold moral logic was that a right-wing regime of any kind would ultimately be better for Chile and for Latin America than a leftist regime of any kind—and would also be in the best interests of the United States.  They were right—though at a perhaps intolerable cost.”  So there’s confusion over whether the coup was justified (it was “better for Chile” to have Pinochet, who tortured, killed and repressed people but oversaw economic progress, reduced poverty and drastically reduced infant mortality; but on the other hand these costs were “perhaps intolerable,” and after all “no amount of economic and social gain” justifies these things.)  In addition, we have the return of the confusion not only what realism really is, but what its ultimate moral justification is.  Is the national interest alone enough, or is the coup justified because it helps the people of Chile?


So much for the definitional and philosophical confusions of Kaplan’s larger moral claims.  Let’s consider his more limited political claims.  Here he scores solid points in many areas.  It really was impressive to improve relations with the USSR while playing it off against China.  It really is true that thawing relations with China while it was still totalitarian under Mao set the stage for its peaceful economic rise, and its transformation into something closer to nineteenth century authoritarian regimes that leave room for evolutionary progress.  Here Kissinger really did help impose nineteenth century framework on the twentieth.

“[Nixon/Kissinger] manage[d] a historic reconciliation with China, which helped provide the requisite leverage for a landmark strategic arms pact with the Soviet Union—even as, in 1970, Nixon and Kissinger’s threats to Moscow helped stop Syrian tanks from crossing farther into Jordan and toppling King Hussein,” Kaplan writes.  He points to America’s role under Nixon and Kissinger in saving Israel during the Yom Kippur War, paving the way for eventual Israeli-Egypt peace. 

His defense of Kissinger’s legacy on the Vietnam War, which is a large part of his piece, relies on the idea that maintaining U.S. credibility was necessary to prevent the collapse of its position.  But if the U.S. abandoned a war that was not crucial to its national interests, would it really lose credibility in its promises to protect what was crucial?  If it scaled back its ambitions, would it really be thought to be abandoning any role in the world?  Isn’t realism all about the idea that nations can identify their own and each other’s vital interests, and predict each other’s actions on that basis? 

Kaplan has the tricky task of defending, against conservatives, Kissinger’s scaling back of American ambitions, and defending against liberals the continuation of a war based on earlier, excessive ambitions.  Kaplan’s defense would be that a humiliating U.S. defeat would be a shock to the status quo, would be misinterpreted, and what was needed was a gradual, orderly retreat to a defensible position.  But continuing Vietnam also had a cost of both objective and subjective varieties.  And Kaplan’s argument that our eventual loss was humiliating but not that humiliating, that it preserved some shred of credibility, is just unconvincing. 

It is true that dominoes fell after Vietnam, but they were not strategically crucial dominoes.  The USSR expanded its ambitions in the 1970s; conservatives blame this on détente and surrender in Vietnam.  Kaplan has to blame 70s Soviet ambitions only on surrender in Vietnam, yet at the same time has to claim that Kissinger prevented Vietnam from being even worse and thus saved America’s position for the endgame under Reagan.  Yet the Soviets’ overreach was part of their undoing, so when liberals look at history, they don’t see that anyone has to be blamed for the late 70s expansion of Soviet ambitions.  Rather, we should have simply sat back and watched the Soviets’ inevitable implosion.

This liberal view, too, is problematic.  Liberals went from ridiculing Reagan’s idea that the Soviets were vulnerable, and opposing his policies that were based on that assumption, to agreeing that the Soviets were vulnerable, and therefore arguing that we need not have done anything to exploit these vulnerabilities.

* In the actual, logical meaning of that phrase