Mailbag Mailbag Mailbag
Reparations, collective action, and my theory of Assholes on the Internet
I have now seen both “RRR” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies”, and I look forward to every future movie title using this format.
Wigan: Is there a version of reparations that you would support? If there is, would its logic apply to Native Americans / Indigenous peoples? Also, why isn't there a bigger push for reparations for Native / Indigenous peoples like there is for American descendants of slavery.
I wish more prestige publications would publish Native American perspectives on reparations.
Back when Ta-Nehisi Coates put this topic on the agenda and the discourse was flying, that was the response piece I most wanted the Atlantic to commission. All things considered, I think the vision laid out by Olúfemi O. Táíwò in his book “Reconsidering Reparations” from earlier this year is pretty compelling. But my guess is that the people who are excited about reparations mostly wouldn’t think his ideas count as fulfilling their demand.
But this loops back to the Native American question. At the end of the day, I think the main reason the U.S. government paid reparations to the victims of Japanese internment is that the bill was pretty low. It was materially meaningful to those who got compensation, symbolically important to the whole community, and just didn’t involve that many people or that much money. But then you look at something like the time the United States stole California and much of the southwest from Mexico in an unjust war — you don’t really get 1619 Project-style controversies about this one. It’s uncontroversially considered an unprovoked war of aggression, and mainstream American politicians like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant have acknowledged it as such for over a century.
At the same time, nobody is advocating giving California back to Mexico.
And by the same token, it’s just obviously the case that the American Republic is built on a foundation of expropriating Native American land. It’s not even an interesting argument. The only thing that’s changed in our historiography is the expropriators used to be cast as the uncomplicated heroes of the story of “how the west was won,” while nowadays we generally acknowledge that it’s in fact morally wrong to kill people and steal their land. But the land is also not, realistically, going to be returned. The crime is too big.
Marie Kennedy: You mentioned in todays piece that an experiment showed people we (on average) significantly happier if they quit Facebook for a week. Many of your readers express that Twitter makes them miserable or grumpy. I know you’ve explained that your liberal use of the block and mute functions makes Twitter a far more enjoyable place for you. But have you ever tried a “Twitter fast” of a week or two? Did it change how you thought of the platform?
I can quit any time, I swear…
No, the answer is that I’m a hopeless Twitter addict. But for me, personally, I would say I get a lot of joy from Twitter. If Twitter is making you unhappy, I think you should try stepping away. If for some reason you can’t, I think you should block more people.
James B: There's an idea, that the party in power needs to deliver on its campaign promises to its “base” or they might stay home / vote third party in the next election out of protest, that has become conventional wisdom in a lot of partisan circles. This idea falls under the broader “mobilization vs. persuasion” umbrella, but I view it as distinct from the original mobilization hypothesis, which is that you can mobilize infrequent or non-voters by campaigning on bold progressive policies. That hypothesis has been pretty well debunked by you and others. This sister idea is more about not angering people who are already your regular voters. Do you view this idea as distinct from the other “mobilization” stuff you've written about, and do you think it has any merit? Has there been any political science to test this idea specifically?
I think the idea that it’s important to deliver on promises mixes together a few different propositions, some of which are true and some of which are not:
Having made a promise, it is ceteris paribus better to keep it than to be seen as the kind of person who breaks promises.
Incumbents are judged at least as much on results as on position-taking.
The whole purpose of a political coalition is to deliver wins to its component members, so you can’t just do nothing.
A good way to win re-election and be popular is to enact sweeping policy changes that are strongly favored by your base.
On this list, I think the first three are true, but the inference that (4) follows from them is false.
There is, in fact, pretty overwhelming evidence that the public tends to react negatively to the impression of sweeping policy change.
Point (1) is clearly correct in that it’s bad to have a reputation as a liar, but that just means it’s smart for politicians to be somewhat vague in their promises. On student debt relief, for example, I think Biden kind of boxed himself in with a promise that he made under completely different economic conditions.
On (2), the point is that things political activists mostly don’t care about — concrete short-term economic conditions — are very important, and savvy politicians need to remember that. Biden messed up early in his term by not thinking about how to promote a gasoline production recovery in tandem with demand growth because “make sure oil companies are investing enough” is not an ideological goal of the Democratic Party. This ended up creating a huge political problem for him that he eventually pivoted to address, and the White House is now enjoying a decline in gas prices (from a high level). But the whole problem here was paying too much attention to his promises to the base.
Point (3) is describing a problem: your coalition members want you to do stuff for them, but exactly the thing swing voters fear is that you’re giving away the store to your side’s interest groups. Politicians get more popular when the public sees them as having some distance from their coalition (think Trump suggesting he’d take on the pharmaceutical companies). It’s of course also true that you can’t just be constantly knifing your core supporters. But the tension here is to make restrained promises and try to deliver quiet-but-important wins while maintaining a public posture as an independent thinker.
The whole case for (4) is based on highly selective readings of the 1936 and 1984 elections. But it’s important to understand that both of those elections took place in the context of booming economic recoveries. It’s also important not to get the causation backwards — conservatives faced plenty of disappointments during Reagan’s first term and liberals plenty of disappointments during Roosevelt’s. FDR and Reagan became iconic figures beloved by their bases in part because they secured reelection so handily and ultimately delivered the very rare three-peat.
brg: Reading your article about Meta, I thought that some of the reasoning disputing the validity of “revealed preferences” could also apply to Amazon, where I think you have been generally favorable of their business model. Like with Meta, do you think in the Amazon context that our true preference is that we'd rather have a connection with our local merchants and a more vibrant main street and just clicking the button to buy cheap fast products is actually the self-deception? If not, why is Amazon different?
There’s a level on which I think it’s totally banal to say that retailers are trying to take advantage of weakness of will to get us to buy things that, in our considered opinion, we shouldn’t buy. Famously that’s why the snacks are sitting there by the checkout aisle at the supermarket. Amazon honestly probably does less of this than traditional retailers (one reason why their margins are so low), but I do think they dupe people with stuff like Subscribe & Save that theoretically offers efficiency but in practice leads to overconsumption.
But as to the question, I’m skeptical it’s even true that Amazon has been bad for “Main Street”-type companies. I think Amazon is mostly bad for big box stores, and big box stores are the ones who dragged down Main Street.
Still, we can ask the same question about big box stores. Here I don’t think it’s a question of weakness of the will so much as collective action. Tom Slee wrote a good book on exactly this subject, “No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice.” He frames it in a more leftist way than I would, so I’m going to rephrase a little bit. Walmart comes to town and charges a bit less for stuff than the smaller stores downtown. You like the small store experience, but most of the time you don’t like the small store experience enough to pay the extra money they charge. That said, if the Retail Fairy told you “if you switch to Walmart then all the downtown businesses will close but if you don’t switch they’ll stay open,” then the existence of the entire downtown retail sector really might be something you’d be willing to pay extra for. But in the real world, your individual choice isn’t going to make the difference, so you’re going to go to Walmart. And so will everyone else in town. And so Main Street will die.
I think this makes perfect sense as a hypothetical. But the appropriate policy remedy would be an explicit subsidy for Main Street businesses as a collective action.
In practice, though, I actually think a large minority of people do place a lot of value on living near a traditional walkable retail corridor — that’s why houses on my block are so expensive — and the main problem is really that we make it illegal to build more of them.
WC: Given the backlash to the Dobbs ruling, do you think Obama made a prudent choice in nominating Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court? If Democrats had gotten someone more liberal than Garland confirmed, what kind of unpopular decisions do you think the Court would have made? I know we’re deep into hypothetical-land, but do you believe that the substantive benefits of such a liberal court would be worth the political costs?
It’s always been pretty unclear to me what exactly the progressive judicial agenda was in the event that Justice Scalia had been replaced by Garland or someone more progressive. So under the circumstances I’m not sure what would have generated backlash. I suppose one likely possibility would be a decision that the death penalty violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, which would have landed right in the middle of a national surge in murders and probably created problems for Democrats.
Eli: What’s your view on public figures’ ethical responsibility for their fans’ behavior? It’s remarkable how many public figures will accuse each other of sending followers to mob them on social media, but then act like the same accusation leveled at them is absurd. And followers of specific politicians, like Bernie Sanders (as well as non-political groups like some TV show fandoms) often get accused of being uniquely toxic. Donald Trump seems like a special case because he would *explicitly* encourage his followers to be jerks. Short of doing that, are there some fan clubs that are more toxic than others, or is that impression always motivated reasoning? And if someone has a uniquely toxic following, to what extent is it their fault?
Here’s a chart people use to explain why relatively small shifts in average global temperature can lead to huge increases in catastrophic weather anomalies.
By the same token, I think online fandoms that are pretty similar on average can generate very large differences in the quantity of people who are three standard deviations above the mean in terms of asshole behavior. And not to paint with too broad a brush, but I think in practice when you have a lot of young men in your fanbase, you get the Asshole Shift. And I think that was basically the deal with Bernie. In terms of culpability, you should blame people for what they actually say and do. I’m not sure this had anything to do with online harassment, but the thing that has always bothered me most about Bernie is his tendency to attribute all disagreement with him to corruption in a way that calls into question the legitimacy of processes that don’t happen to go his way. In reality, he is asking for very large changes in the policy status quo, which is just something you would expect a lot of people to disagree with.
Ryan M: You've mentioned on twitter a few times that public higher-ed funding advocates need to accept that public funding will make higher-ed more subject to conservative opinions. This is obviously true to some degree, but it seems like there's a lot of examples (liberals in the EPA, conservatives in ICE), that show that there's a lot of power in having the actual employees on your side. Do you think conservatives actual could make a fundamentally conservative higher-ed, or are they just limited to defunding and depowering?
For the reasons you cite, I think academia is going to be a primarily left/liberal space no matter what happens.
But I’m really just trying to make a more boring point: to have college be fully subsidized on a durable basis, you’d need free college to be something conservatives like enough to not scrap whenever they hold power. And that means reaching some kind of détente with elements of the right regarding the nature and purpose of higher education. There’s an op-ed in Insider Higher Education this week asking “Could racial equity be expanded by requiring all applicants to have taken an ethnic studies class or by requiring students to include in their application a statement on their commitments to racial justice? Though universities may soon be denied the ability to consider race in admissions, they can consider a commitment to racial justice as part of a holistic admissions process.”
In a highly privatized higher education system, maybe that works. But if you’re trying to build a bipartisan consensus around college funding, there’s no way you can incorporate ideological litmus tests into the admissions process. You’d need to do the reverse — ask conservative elites what they wish more people knew about and then take steps to make sure that a larger share of your students are learning more of those things.
Matt Cowgill: For a while there Matt was learning R. He hasn't referred to it for a while, so I assume he's stopped. Why'd he stop?
Weakness of will! It’s hard to push through this kind of thing unless you need to master it for some concrete reason and/or have a formal instructor looking over your shoulder.
Mindtools Sharpener: You mentioned that you thought the fact that Rawls never addresses racism is just this big error on his part. Can you elaborate on this? Why should A Theory Of Justice specifically address this specific form of injustice?
Everyone is free to write about whatever they want. But Rawls published “Justice as Fairness” in Philosophical Review in 1958, and “The Sense of Justice” and “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice” both came out in 1963. Those three papers are the basis for the book, which was published in 1971. Which is just to say that the work is happening concurrently with the high tide of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and was being done by an American philosopher who was born in 1921 in Baltimore at a time when Maryland was a Jim Crow state.
Which is just to say that it’s not like Rawls never noticed that racism and civil rights were big topics of discussion in American politics. He nevertheless chose to develop a political philosophy that’s grounded in ideal theory in a way that kind of assumes the whole problem away. And I think that’s telling about the limits of that style of work.
Daniel: Will you watch Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Ring series?
More generally, how do you feel about the idea of “expanded world” content where either new authors or moviemakers, etc, create new content that goes beyond “canon”, particularly with no input from the original creator? Any examples you like? Any you dislike?
I’m not a big Tolkien guy, so I’ll probably skip it.
In terms of the general phenomenon, I’m not sure I have an entirely principled argument against it, but in practice, I think it tends not to end well. The basic issue is that when you make a sequel, the financial downside of failure is bounded while the potential upside is limitless. That creates incentives to make too many sequels and eventually run the concept totally into the ground. But a creator adapting his own work has a certain non-pecuniary stake in not wrecking his own legacy.
Bryan: I just got elected to my local city commission last Tuesday. You had a big impact on that, I was just out of college when I read “The Rent is Too Damn High” and it got me thinking about municipal policy and it’s impacts in a real way for the first time. Now I’ve run and won and I’m wondering what municipal issues you think would be important things to tackle for local leaders besides zoning reform and parking requirements (two things you’ve talked about a lot). Anything that a non-coastal, medium sized city should really be looking into more that we aren’t?
Congratulations! I don’t know what city you’re in or even what powers your commission has, so it’s a little bit hard to answer.
I’m going to assume you have an independently elected school board and can’t address things related to education. In that case, I think the answer is that a YIMBY city should also be a city that is reinvesting some of its growing tax base in constantly improving the basic club goods available to residents. More and better parks. Longer library hours. An annual town festival with cool rides. Make people feel like growth is empowering and beneficial!
Nathan Johnson: Your work differs from that of many journalists in that you never quote anyone who you relied on as a source (do you?). Obviously you are not breaking news here, but I assume you do nevertheless talk to people whose views and expertise you find valuable even though their names never appear in Slow Boring. Does the fact that you are not in the quotes-printing business affect who you talk to, who is willing to talk to you, and the genesis and nature of your conversations? Are you a critic of the prevailing journalistic practice regarding source cultivation and quote-gathering, if there is such a thing? Is my premise here even valid, or do you consider your practices similar to those of others who write news-informed but non-immediate commentary?
I’d say there are two fairly distinct categories of quotes that you see in works of journalism — newsmaker quotes and expert quotes.
I mostly don’t do newsmaker quotes, because I’m mostly not trying to break news; sometimes I get invited to briefings and things, and then I do sometimes quote the people I’m talking to. But by and large, when I talk to members of Congress, congressional staff, and executive branch figures, I like to talk off the record. And as you say, I think this lets me play a valuable role in the ecosystem as someone people know they can talk to with an unusual degree of candor. At the same time, the work of getting scoops and getting people on the record is also valuable.
The “quotes from experts” convention in journalism, by contrast, isn’t something that I really understand. Experts normally have published work in their field of expertise, and it’s more efficient to read it, quote it, and link to it. I of course communicate with experts to get recommendations from them about what to read or to check my own understanding before I paraphrase something. But the idea that you should construct an analytic piece as if it’s a news piece, full of verbal quotes from experts, just strikes me as a weird pre-internet convention. It used to be that you might not be able to actually get your hands on an academic paper (and you certainly couldn’t link to it), so phoning up a relevant expert and asking her to describe her work was maybe the best you could do. But in 2022… I dunno.
I hope Noah will write a reply. For myself, this has mostly served as a reminder of how thin-skinned academics are! All disciplines and professions have their foibles, and I both genuinely think historians are wrong in their attitude toward explicit counterfactuals and also don’t mean that as a nuclear-strength diss of the field.
I said above that I don’t like the journalistic habit of doing oral quotes from experts, I think the conventional wisdom among economists about inflation targeting is wrong, and I think practitioners of the U.S. politics subfield of political science unduly neglect comparative issues. But I don’t think journalism, economics, or political science are worthless as disciplines, and I don’t think that about history either. Let’s all move on.
avalancheGenesis: You've used a lot of chips-based analogies recently. Would you consider chips to be the ultimate snack food?
There’s nothing better than a really good tortilla chip.
David: If you have a budget of 1 hour per day and $50 per month for news consumption, what would your “diet” consist of? Slow Boring excluded. Goal is to be an informed citizen, with exposure to views across the political spectrum. How would the answer change if the budget doubled to 2 hours and $100 per month.
This is a boring answer, but in addition to Slow Boring, you should probably just read the New York Times. That’s a really good newspaper. And one of the virtues of newspapers is you can actually glean a lot from scanning the headlines without diving into very many stories. The only thing I’d say is that if for some reason the NYT was literally your only source of information, you’d need to make a rule to always pay attention to the Douthat and Brooks columns for the sake of some balance.