Author: Jordan Zino

Jordan Zino works in investment research in Boston. His undergraduate studies were in finance and economics. He is a believer in the power of markets, ideas, and coffee.

Liberalism’s race to the bottom

The defense of the less fortunate and the harmed is one of the most unifying threads running through the liberal political spectrum.  It serves as a shared mandate for everything that could conceivably fall under the leftist umbrella.  From revolutionary Marxist class warfare, to modern progressive tax schemes in the capitalist West, it’s there. Liberal support for collective bargaining, minimum wages, transfer programs, universal health care, redefining gender roles, anti-discrimination laws, etc… is largely rooted in this moral imperative.

In his influential political psychology book The Righteous Mind, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt confirms this.  He outlines five potential “moral foundations” that underlie our ethics and politics: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity.  While conservatives tend to pull political inspiration from all five foundations, liberals hyper-focus on Care and Fairness and mostly dismiss the others.  Here’s Haidt:

But when we look at the Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity foundations, the story is quite different. Liberals largely reject these considerations.  They show such a large gap between these foundations versus the Care and Fairness foundations that we might say, as shorthand, that liberals have a two-foundation morality.

The concepts of Care and Fairness as moral foundations (capitalized from here out to avoid confusion) are not always clearly distinguishable.  Care is bestowed on those who are less fortunate or are harmed in some way.  Think compassion, sympathy, and empathy. Meanwhile, Fairness is lacking where some equal right is being denied or distributed disproportionately.  For an example where the two do not overlap, imagine birth defects or pre-existing conditions.  While “unfair” in a grander sense, no one is directly gaining from the misfortune; there is no “cheating” or “rigging of the system” involved.  No one has appropriated an unfair share of what should be an equal right, so only the Care foundation applies.  To see where they overlap, imagine poverty generated via true exploitation of labor.  Fairness is invoked in addition to Care due to the nature of the wrong committed.

Care and Fairness are largely about equality and inequality and therefore liberal politics are largely the politics of equality and inequality.  Those less fortunate are less fortunate because they have less of something.  Those being treated unfairly are being treated unfairly because they are given less than their full due.

The subjects of said inequality varies depending on the variant of liberalism and can even contradict.  A partial list would include opportunity, income, wealth, talent, education, representation, respect, and dignity.

What inequalities contemporary liberals often tolerate they tolerate in the name of equality.  If you’re confused, let us turn to the massively influential liberal philosophers John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin to clear things up.

Rawls lays out two main principles in his Theory of Justice, the second of which states:

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged…and attached to….conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Dworkin, in A Matter of Principle, makes a similar exception in the pursuit of his own conception of equality:

In either case, he chooses a mixed economic system – either redistributive capitalism or limited socialism – not in order to compromise antagonistic ideals of efficiency and equality, but to achieve the best practical realization of the demands of equality itself

Equality is the goal; inequality the enemy.  Inequality is allowable only insofar as it extends overall equality.  An example might be wealthy capitalists who take on risk and uncertainty in entrepreneurial activities that reduce the gap in living standards for the working class on the whole.

Inequality is the basis for grievances in the liberal political order, a sort of currency that can be traded for the redistribution and empowerment served up to make amends.  The more inequality that can be claimed, the higher the grievance sits in the hierarchy and the larger the redress.  If liberals mostly are concerned with cases of Care or Fairness, it stands to reason they must be more concerned with cases of Care and Fairness, that is, overlapping cases.  Adding a Fairness claim on top of a Care claim strictly increases the priority of the grievance.  It’s generally a bad thing that someone is in an unenviable position but it’s really bad if someone else put them there unfairly.  Worse still if they got away with it…or profited from it.

The nexus of Care and Fairness is victimhood and the tenants of that overlapping sphere are victims.  More specifically, they are victims deserving of liberal compassion (the left doesn’t much care if the uber rich is harmed these days).  These groups and individuals check both the boxes in the two-foundation morality.  Therefore, all else equal, victimhood moves grievances up the ladder.  If inequality more generally serves as the currency of the system, then inequality at the hands of injustice represents the largest bills circulating.

Grievances require an additional Fairness claim to invoke victimhood, and that typically requires counterparties.  The left is up to the task of finding the purported assailants.  For a variety of reasons, liberals are more likely to see injustice embedded in suboptimal outcomes, more likely to detect conscious intent in social processes, and more likely to see power as a key concern in social interaction.

Here is multidisciplinary academic Thomas Sowell on what he terms the “unconstrained vision”, which maps closely to modern American liberalism:

The role of power in social decision-making has tended to be much greater in the tradition of the unconstrained vision than among those with the constrained vision.  That is, much more of what happens in society is explained by the deliberate exertion of power – whether political, military, or economic – when the wold is conceived in the terms of the unconstrained vision.  As a result, unhappy social circumstances are more readily condemned morally.

As Lord Acton reminded us, power corrupts.  So when your worldview detects power at every turn your worldview likely detects victims at every turn as well.  Moreover, this is a self-reinforcing process.  The liberal vision, due to its beliefs and assumptions on human nature and the power of reason (again, see Sowell for more), is prone to overemphasize power as a causal force in society.  It therefore detects it much more frequently.  The presence of power and its inevitable abuse spawns unequal victims.  The existence and relative position of victims in the grievance hierarchy reinforces the relevance and accuracy of the model and provides a sense of urgency to the cause.

It is for this reason that economist Arnold Kling’s pigeonholing of liberalism into the oppressor/oppressed axis in his three-axis model (liberalism/conservatism/libertarianism) is fairly accurate and quite helpful.  The power-holders are the oppressors, the victims the oppressed, and it’s everywhere you look.

The self-reinforcing process of the liberal vision and the hierarchical nature of grievances provide incentives for both the afflicted and their rescuers to detect not only new victims, but ever deeper levels of victimhood.  Those requiring assistance maximize their attention and reparations by maximizing their grievances.  Those providing the assistance maximize the effectiveness of the liberal order, the accuracy of the worldview, and their own cognitive comfort by rectifying the largest grievances.  Even bystanders or dissidents have strong incentives to join rank and begin finding victims to console.  If they resist, their views are silenced and pushed aside.  Those higher in the grievance hierarchy can speak louder; those who refuse to join aren’t even allowed to speak.

It should come as no surprise then that liberal students on liberal campuses taught by liberal professors are finding new, previously undetected layers of oppression and injustice.  They campaign to kill off microaggressions, expand trigger warnings, build “safe spaces,” and win a dozen other battles.  Writing on this very topic recently in The Atlantic, Jon Haidt and Greg Lukianoff describe what they dub the “offendedness sweepstakes”, where contestants see who can claim or detect the most offense.  The larger victim is heard; the lesser is silenced.  This sweepstakes is a particular manifestation of a broader “victimhood sweepstakes” that results from liberalism’s focus on inequality.  In a clamor to reach the top of the grievance hierarchy, the leading edge of political liberalism is in a race to the bottom.

Now this system, along with its worldview, its self-reinforcing loops, its oversensitivities, its race to the bottom…it’s all not so bad while large, objective grievances exist.  If those on the bottom are in dire, justifiable need of lifting up, then it should be a race to get there, and not a leisurely stroll.  Slavery was cut from the cruelest cloth imaginable.  Denying suffrage to half of the population is unthinkable today.  Etc…

But we’re past that now, and that makes modern liberal principles less relevant as pertains to future political action. Here is Patri Friedman (go read the whole thing) on the topic:

If only certain limited differences were targeted – like suffrage not being universal – this crusade could well be beneficial. Yet what we see is progressively increasing outrage over progressively smaller differences. It looks much less like a force for actual justice than like an anti-difference paperclipper – eternally dedicated to a single instrumental value which it has mistaken for the only terminal value.

Now, it must be said, that until this point I have unfairly characterized the entire liberal spectrum, and the American one specifically, as falling into this hole headfirst.  But this was by design, for two reasons.  1) The worst offenders are the future of political liberalism.  They are, by and large, younger.  But beyond that, their voices are heard, their demands are met, and their witch hunts prove fruitful.  They are winning the race.  It’s not clear who, on the left, is losing.  Which leads me to 2) What large swathes of liberals should I exclude from the characterization?  The opposition to even the most egregious ideas is pretty scant so far.

So the race goes on.  In the most absurd corners, we find a manufacturing and inflation of victimhood where less and less exists.  The logic that had much to offer in shaping Western political values is at risk of trampling them underfoot.  Arbitrary labor and discrimination laws will threaten to reduce standards of living by ignoring basic economic theory.  The infighting continues.  Expressing an opinion on the treatment of women in Islam is a good way to invoke passionate liberal debate these days.  So is bringing up the relative attention and support transgender women receive in feminist circles.

Germaine Greer, the 76-year-old author of “The Female Eunich,” is making waves by lambasting the idea that Caitlyn Jenner may be honored by Glamour Magazine as “Woman of the Year.” Jenner isn’t a woman, says Greer. He’s just attention-starved and seeking to steal the limelight from the women in the Kardashian family.

The victimhood sweepstakes lens has much to offer by way of insight here.  Women may face certain oppression in the Muslim world but so do Muslims at large.  Thus, a conflict is born…a jockeying for position.  Greer is a woman, but Jenner is a transgender woman, and therefore a victim of multiple inequalities that sum to an injustice larger than any Greer could possibly endure.  Jenner is higher on the grievance hierarchy, and criticism from the lower levels is not allowed from the leading liberal edge, let alone condoned.  From the same New York Post article:

As Kaite Welsh wrote: “Isn’t it often the way? You fight your way from the trenches to the throne, overthrow the corrupt regime and set about remaking the world in your own image, only to realize that you have become the thing you most despised.”

Greer’s gone from “revolutionary to oppressor,” she said.

Oppressor.  Paging Arnold Kling, come in Arnold.

This race is not sustainable.  The reduction of inequality per se has no logical end, given that various forms of its existence are facts of life.  Moreover, with increasing layers of victimhood being discovered, a larger and larger portion of the populace falls into the oppressor camp.  Previous victims become the oppressors as the circle grows perpetually wider.  At some point, the most victimized group or individual in the system is the only one left; they take first place in the race.  How long will a material and growing share of adherents to a political view tolerate finger-pointing directed their way?  Their views will be increasingly marginalized and dismissed the longer they wait, that’s how the hierarchy works.

In the end, it seems obvious that there are lower benefits and higher costs to stamping out increasingly transitory or minor inequalities.  But where is the tipping point, where will the left draw the line?   The answer will be critical, as the lack of an endgame to the eradication of inequality has arguably left modern liberalism without any steady-state to aim at up until this point.  An agreed upon line would provide that endgame; it’d be breaking new ground.  Yet few seem willing to dig their heel in the dirt and drag it at this stage.  Meanwhile the race to the bottom is doing more than enough digging to go around.

Predicting the (Virtual) Future

Writing at his Forbes blog Modeled Behavior, Adam Ozimek offers a few speculative thoughts on what the year 2045 might look like.  While his piece is brief and interesting throughout, and should therefore be read in full, his prediction concerning virtual reality caught my attention.

My second prediction is we will spend a disturbing (to us) amount of time in virtual reality. Right now humans spend a tremendous amount of time staring at screens that basically amount to a moving flat picture. Perhaps eventually brains will adapt and learn to not trust virtual reality, but the early reports are suggesting the coming VR is very good at tricking us into feeling strong emotional and even physical responses. What will happen to the demand for the virtual world when it goes from flat moving pictures to immersive experiences capable of inducing emotional responses that closely mimic real life? I believe it will explode, for good and for bad. Importantly, our sphere of empathy will expand as we have the opportunity to “walk in other people’s shoes” in a very realistic way.

This is dead-on in my view.  The answer to his question “what will happen to demand?” is that it will explode, of course. We can probably shave fifteen years off the predictive timeframe as well and find virtual reality use to be not only common in wealthier nations but quite consuming as well, especially among the younger demographics.

Widespread use of virtual reality matters…a lot…and for a variety of reasons.   The most important is that, a lot of sticky and tough questions notwithstanding, certain VR experiences could amount to a referendum on actual reality.  About a year ago, on this blog, I made the case that even early versions of VR technology were likely to meet the minimum hurdles to become just that.  Effectively, they’d be real-life incarnations of low-level experience machines, famed philosopher Robert Nozick’s term for his made-up contraptions that can trick you into believing you are actually experiencing any thing you can imagine happening in reality, all while your physical body floats, lifeless, in the machine.  His point was that most people would not choose to live in the machine the rest of their lives, but rather, people value something beyond just felt experiences alone; most people aren’t hedonists.  Here’s the gist of why VR might actually qualify as an experience machine sometime soon:

More interesting for the philosophical ramifications of early VR however, is that it does not have to match Nozick’s experience inventory to claim the title of “an” experience machine. Once the realism requirement is met in a single experience, any experience, then we have a limited version of the full-blown thing.

Unraveling Nozick’s selection criterion revealed that those who choose not to plug into a prototype machine could be doing so for multiple reasons, which spoils the thought experiment. The flip side is that, by logical extension, those who do in fact choose to plug into a crude, work-in-progress machine have answered Nozick’s fundamental question. If your benchmark for plugging in is already met with the options of experiences A, B, and C, then the additional options of experiences D or E won’t cause you to change your mind. This simple point allows for virtual reality to provide hard data on the thought experiment in the (very?) near future. If there is even one experience that today’s VR can clear the realism hurdle on, then I submit that we are already beyond the hypothetical.

As Adam correctly points out, virtual reality will deliver both benefits and costs to humankind.  Since his only example (increasing empathy) lands on the benefit side of the equation, allow me to offer an opposing one to balance the scales:  Widespread use of certain VR experiences in 2045 will represent hard evidence that, contra Nozick, many people are merely closet hedonists, and the fundamental value of acting in reality will be, directionally, devalued and marginalized relative to today.

Of course, this prediction doesn’t merely balance the scales, it sends one end crashing down under tremendous weight.  Any benefits introduced by VR in the “real” world will implicitly be marginalized as well since they occur in actual reality.  If, on average, members of global society determine reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, whether they realize they are saying so or not, then those benefits are undermined to some extent.

In the end, the thorny philosophical issues that VR raises require more investigation, and soon, in my opinion.  In the meantime, if we are slouching towards hidden referendums on reality, then that should be discussed in detail as well.  And if others aren’t quite as concerned about the consequences, then shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

(Image source)

Historical reasoning and ideological bias

One of the great myths often invoked in debate, political or otherwise, is the objective, undisputed truth of so-called “history.”  In reality, history is the result of a certain competition in interpretation of events, where interpretations themselves are impacted by biases and ideological underpinnings.

Here are a few paragraphs from Expert Political Judgment, University of Pennsylvania political science professor Phil Tetlock’s book on political forecasting, that take this skeptical approach to historical learning farther than most.

P. 145

Learning from the past is hard, in part, because history is a terrible teacher.  By the generous standards of the laboratory sciences, Clio is stingy in her feedback: she never gives us the exact comparison cases we need to determine causality (those are cordoned off in the what-iffy realm of counterfactuals), and she often begrudges us even the roughly comparable real-world cases that we need to make educated guesses.  The control groups “exist” – if that is the right word – only in the imaginations of observers, who must guess how history would have unfolded if, say, Churchill rather than Chamberlain had been prime minister during the Munich crisis of 1938 (could we have averted World War II?) or if, say, the United States had moved more aggressively against the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (could we have triggered World War III?).

But we, the pupils, should not escape all blame.  A warehouse of experimental evidence now attests to our cognitive shortcomings: our willingness to jump the inferential gun, to be too quick to draw strong conclusions from ambiguous evidence, and to be too slow to change our minds as disconfirming observations trickle in.  A balanced apportionment of blame should acknowledge that learning is hard because even seasoned professionals are ill-equipped to cope with the complexity, ambiguity, and dissonance inherent in assessing causation in history.  Life throws up a lot of puzzling events that thoughtful observers feel impelled to explain because the policy stakes are so high.  However, just because we want an explanation does not mean that one is within reach.  To achieve explanatory closure in history, observers must fill in the missing counterfactual comparison scenarios with elaborate stories grounded in their deepest assumptions about how the world works.

& P. 161

This chapter underscores the power of our preconceptions to shape our view of reality.  To the previous list of judgmental shortcomings — overconfidence, hindsight bias, belief underadjustment — we could add fresh failings: a) the alacrity with which we fill in the missing control conditions of history with agreeable scenarios and with which we reject dissonant scenarios; (b) the sluggishness with which we reconsider these judgments in light of fresh evidence.  It is easy, even for sophisticated professionals, to slip into tautological patterns of historical reasoning: “I know x caused y because, if there had been no x, there would have been no y.  And I know that, ‘if no x, no y’ because I know x caused y.”  Given the ontological inadequacies of history as a teacher and our psychological inadequacies as pupils, it begins to look impossible to learn anything that we were not previously predisposed to learn.

Secession lagniappe

Grab-bag of pieces on the Civil War and reasons for Southern secession.

How the South skews America

Buchanan on civil disobedience in polarized times

Brief and nothing new here, but linking anyway:  The United States of Secession

Amidst all the recent pieces on American cultural fault lines (see last lagniappe as well), I’m linking to an interesting one from back in 2013.  Here’s the full version, the abbreviated one via WaPo, and the book. The gist of the project:

Colin Woodard, a reporter at the Portland Press Herald and author of several books, says North America can be broken neatly into 11 separate nation-states, where dominant cultures explain our voting behaviors and attitudes toward everything from social issues to the role of government.

Excerpt from Randy Barnett’s forthcoming book on the real meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

S.C. Senate votes 37-3 to take down the Confederate flag. The House followed suit, and down it went.  Makes me think of this.

Small Mississippi towns removing state flag

Trinity county in upstate CA will consider a State of Jefferson vote.


The Kurdish HDP took 13% of the vote in Turkey’s parliamentary elections in June, landing seats in the legislature for the first time ever.  Meanwhile in Syria, the Kurdish YPG and YPJ continue to consolidate territory in their battle against ISIS. Recent gains are highlighted below in red.  This control is helping form a contiguous strip of Kurdish-run territory along the northern border of Syria.

Recent territorial shifts in Syria and Iraq, via Foreign Policy

Recent territorial shifts in Syria and Iraq, via Foreign Policy

Both the election results and the Kurdish Syrian “statelet” have irked Turkish President Erdogan, who had this to say about the latter:

“I am saying this to the whole world: We will never allow the establishment of a state on our southern border in the north of Syria.  We will continue our fight in this regard no matter what it costs

A particularly helpful Foreign Affairs summary of the Kurdish momentum concludes:

In Turkey, the PKK-sympathetic HDP will be an increasingly powerful advocate for granting the Kurds some semblance of autonomy within the nation. As the cease-fire between the PKK and Ankara continues, it is becoming more and more possible that the Kurds can achieve their dream of autonomy through democratic means. Whether the PKK’s ambition to establish autonomous Kurdish regions on both sides of the Turkey-Syria border is ever realized, the progress it is making toward that goal has already altered the political maps of Turkey and the Middle East.

Countering some of the above enthusiasm is a good Q&A on how battling ISIS is actually delaying Iraqi Kurdistan’s progress.  Fair enough in the short term, but the opposite is quite possible down the road if Kurdish sacrifices are recognized with greater international support for statehood.  Make no mistake, the Kurds are doing the globe a huge solid, which has already been enough in the eyes of some influential Western lawmakers.

Important news on numerous fronts:  Turkey just bombed ISIS as well as PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Where are all the moderate Syrian rebels?

The Vatican signed its first treaty with Palestine, which it will not show to an angry Israel.  Related: The Death and Life of the Two-State Solution.

Tibet’s Tough Road Ahead

More violence in East Turkestan.  Turkish protests form against Chinese treatment of Uighurs.

Pushing for statehood in Delhi

Sarawak independence celebrated, despite the Inspector General of police trying to squash it for fear of secessionist motives.  Local government downplays secession.

Quebec’s separatism as a lesson for the SNP, who is again causing ripples with talk of another referendum

Greece voted “no” a few Sundays ago, presumably to current austerity terms, by a healthy margin.  Interestingly the polls were way off beforehand.  For all the antics and high-stakes jockeying, it looks as though the Greek people may get a package very similar to what they already had, and thought they were rejecting.  Greek 10 year govt bond yields are back down in the 10-12% range.  Difficult to see how this whole episode doesn’t put Syriza down in history as one of the worst governments ever in modern Europe.

Catalan leaders on same page: will push for independence if parliament’s election goes their way.

The Brexit Ramp

Russia taking a second look at the legality of Baltic independence from the Soviet Union.  Yikes.

“Surging” Siberian nationalism

Ukranian Right Sector nationalists, Putin, and Transcarpathia

Activists for a Romania-Moldova unification

Serbian PM pelted with stones at commemoration of Srebrenica massacre

Republika Srpska will hold a referendum on the authority of Bosnia’s national court.  That is big news.  Surprise, surprise: the E.U. and the U.S. disapprove and Russia, well, doesn’t.

ISIS is recruiting in Bosnia.

Hargeisa: Inside Somaliland’s Would-Be Capital City

Burundi remains on the brink as a controversial vote for a third term for Nkurunziza is a go


Is nationalism on the rise more generally?

It turns out that “globalization” hasn’t doused, let alone put out, the embers of nationalism. It has inflamed them. Global and regional frameworks — from the EU to the UN to seemingly stable balance-of-power standoffs –– are under assault amid a renewed obsession with national identity.

Patri Friedman on NRx and anti-entryism

Defining exit

Fascinating piece on Cold War era Russian mapmaking

Soviet map of San Francisco circa 1980

Soviet map of San Francisco circa 1980

More city-states please

Sanctuary cities?

Against marriage privatization

Evaluating the charter school movement 25 years later

(Image sources 1 & 2)

Secession lagniappe

A long overdue lagniappe = a long lagniappe.  Continued apologies for gated links, but they are good, so I include them!  Commence!  & Happy 4th!

The Greek referendum vote is on Sunday and it’s apparently legal.  A lot has happened in the last month.  Tsipras announced the plea to the Greek citizenry last weekend in a surprise move, building yet more tensions with the creditors.  The European Central Bank decided not to increase the amount of liquidity it was providing to Greek banks experiencing deposit flight.  Capital controls were imposed, by necessity, in the face of that decision.  The drama built from there, as Greece missed its payment due to the IMF, becoming the first “developed” country to default to the institution.  The creditors in general, and Germany in particular, refused to really consider last-minute proposals and pleas for extension from Syriza.

Now the referendum approaches, with the supposed interpretation being “yes” or “no” to more austerity-imposing terms and the more realistic, pragmatic interpretation being “yes” or “no” to the Euro and exit.  Both the prime minister and the finance minister have effectively said they would resign in the face of a “yes” vote, raising the stakes significantly.  Greece is much closer to exit than ever before while the costs of exit are also arguably lower than they’ve ever been, mainly because the banking system is back on its knees.

Here’s Anders Aslund’s take on Syriza’s job:

Link blast:  Pretty comprehensive, live-blog of the situation from The Guardian.  Here is a multi-page primer on the Greek situation for those starting from square one.  Lefty economist darlings are viewing exit favorably at this point: StiglitzKrugman.  246 Greek economists argue against leaving the Euro.  Also see Sachs and Rogoff‘s takes.   Beckworth on Grexit through a monetary policy lens.  And who could forget, Bitcoin tends to be helpful in times of capital controls.

The age factor in the referendum vote & betting markets continue to think the “yes” vote will prevail:


Leading on Politico: These Disunited States

An Atlantic long read on American culture

How Americans interpret the Confederate flag.

Why do some Europeans and foreigners fly the Confederate flag?

Would a State of Jefferson really increase freedoms?

“To secede from a town is a long process.” – Caribou, ME keeps churning ahead.

The standard urban-rural legislative tension, as applied to Oregon

Here’s a strange title for you:  Putin’s Plot to Get Texas to Secede

Texas Set to ‘Repatriate” Its Gold to New Texas Fort Knox

Flashback: Staten Island to secede from NYC? (1989)

New Orleans neighborhood trying to go its own way

Is the U.S. partially at fault for Puerto Rican default?  Should it be absorbed into the Union?


Scotland, nationalism, and religion

The SNP dominated U.K. parliamentary elections back in May

SNP clamoring for full Scottish fiscal autonomy

Catalonia’s pro-independence coalition is splintering.  Latest poll shows anti-independence vote ahead 50-42.

Southern Italy is lagging way behind the north.

Russian village prints its own currency.

Moscow not a fan of Ukrainian decentralization

300,000 Dominican Haitians may be forced into statelessness

Hong Kong officials veto China’s electoral reform package

Faces of the Somali Remittance Crisis

Kurdistan is trying to sell its own bonds

Secession top priority in Iraqi Kurdistan post-ISIS

Welcome to Basrastan:  Iraq frays further.


Are there a few key prerequisites for minority groups achieving statehood?  The Economist weighs in with an interesting piece:

The most important factor, says Eugene Rogan, a historian at the University of Oxford, is “critical mass”—whereby, despite being a minority in a larger polity, a group forms a majority in a particular, separable bit of it. That is the case for the Kurds in northern Iraq; it is nowhere true of the Assyrians, whose greatest concentration, in north-east Syria, has been dispersed by the civil war. Nor is it true, for example, of the Crimean Tatars, resident for centuries in the Crimean peninsula until their entire population was banished in one of Stalin’s monstrous relocations (see article).

It is useful if the minority have a long-standing, fairly legitimate claim to the territory they inhabit. Physical geography can play a role: some Iraqi Kurds speculate that their mountainous domain helped them both to resist invaders and to safeguard their culture. How such places were first subsumed by a bigger power matters, too.

& the conclusion:

Critical mass; plausible borders; sympathy abroad; a story; a diaspora; fragile overlords: where might these conditions next be met? Russia, itself an internal empire, could yet disintegrate. So, under the strain of democratisation, might China, perhaps opening a path to statehood for Tibet and the Uighurs, persecuted Muslims. Another realignment of the Middle East seems inevitable. If Syria falls apart, speculates Mr Ishak, the Assyrian, some of his scattered brethren might come back. In the very long term, there is always hope.

Chris Roth reports on more potential micronations.  Here is a general interview he did as well.

Another micronations round-up.

A summary of the Voice & Exit conference

The Tyranny of Majoritarianism

Google launches Sidewalk Labs, an incubator for urban technologies

(Image source)

Gordon Tullock: The Vote Motive

I recently read The Vote Motive, Tullock’s basic introduction to public choice, the field he and James Buchanan helped pioneer as the economic analysis of government.  The volume is very slim, yet very insightful.  Many of Tullock’s observations challenge deeply held assumptions about the way politics works.  Why do people ascribe a different morality to public, as opposed to private actors?  Do individual votes “matter” from a results perspective?  Why is majority rule so coveted among modern democracies?

I have personally found the questioning of widely believed truths, regardless of the subject matter, to be particularly stimulating and often rewarding as well.  Four or five years ago I dropped the view that it was important for a citizen to exercise their right to vote in a society with institutions shaped, at least somewhat, by democracy.  I didn’t need a ton of persuading and it was Tullock who did most of the legwork to get me there.  The truth was I had never sat down and really thought about why voting was so crucial or attempted to reason my way to a conclusion.  It was simply ingrained in societal norms and taught in school starting very early.  Woe be unto those who don’t believe voting is all it’s cracked up to be.  There is very little room for heretics among the voting fanatics.

Well I can tell you it felt really good to throw off that political dogma and to embrace the fact that your individual vote means almost precisely nothing when it comes to changing political outcomes.  The only way your vote “means” anything, the vast vast majority of the time, is to the extent it makes you feel good.  That’s it.  And so I can’t help but smirk when I see the confused faces of people churning through that startlingly new and scary mental calculus – the same one I churned through a handful of years ago – the first time someone questions what they presumed was a given.

The median reader of this site is perhaps more likely to already doubt or disown the assumptions Tullock attacks in the following quotes, yet I still think they are worth reproducing here.

Excerpts from The Vote Motive.

On politicians’ motives (p. 59):

The analysis of the politician’s tactics indicates simply that he is attempting to be re-elected to office, not that he is attempting to maximise the public interest.  We think this situation is realistic, and, in particular, that politicians trying to be re-elected are more likely to be re-elected than those who are not.

There is no reason why we should be disturbed by this phenomenon.  The market operates by providing a structure in which individuals who simply want to make money end up producing motor-cars that people want.  Similarly, democracy operates so that politicians who simply want to hold public office end up by doing things the people want.

On bureaucracy (p. 61):

Bureaucrats are like other men.  This proposition sounds very simple and straightforward, but the consequences are a radical departure from simple orthodox economic theory.  If bureaucrats are ordinary men, they will make most of (not all) their decisions in terms of what benefits them, not society as a whole.  Like other men, they may occasionally sacrifice their own well-being for the wider good, but we should expect this to be exceptional behaviour.

Most of the existing literature on the machinery of government assumes that, when an activity is delegated to a bureaucrat, he will either carry out the rules and regulations or will make decisions in the public interest regardless of whether it benefits him or not.  We do not make this assumption about businessmen.  We do not make it about consumers in the market.  I see no reason why we should make it about bureaucrats.

On logrolling, or the “the practice of exchanging favors, especially in politics by reciprocal voting for each other’s proposed legislation” (p. 79):

All of this is perfectly normal, not only for British politics but for democratic politics in general.  Indeed it is also normal for non-democratic politics, although we know less about them, and hence it is not so clear there.  In all democracies that I know of there is both public criticism of logrolling as immoral, as well as the widespread use of it in making government decisions.

and p. 86:

We should not be unhappy about these very common democratic practices, although normal discussion of them is condemnatory.  There is no reason why minorities should not be served by democracies.

On majority voting (p. 92):

The total cost inflicted upon society by various rules is calculated by simply summing these two cost lines, as in the total cost line.  The low point on this line is the optimal voting rule for the society.  Only by coincidence would it be the simple majority.   For important matters, I think in general it would be well above the majority and, indeed, most formal constitutions require more than a majority for at least some matters.

Majority voting is thus generally not optimal.  For important matters we would require something more.  This conclusion is in general accord with constitutional processes throughout the world.  But my opinion is that ‘reinforced majorities’, say two-thirds majority, should be used much more widely than they now are.  Indeed, I have on occasion recommended that the President of the United States always veto all bills in order to compel a two-thirds vote for everything in both houses of Congress.  Startling though this proposal is, the analysis which leads to it is fairly orthodox political economy.

(Image source)