Using evolution to rescue Economics

To a large extent Economics may be considered a victim of its success. No other branch of the social sciences has such marketability. No one takes their PhD in Sociology or Paleoanthropology to a six-figure job at Chase. Unfortunately, firms might fare just as well hiring sociologists, or for that matter astrologers, to build predictive economic models. In short, Economics doesn’t work.

New ways of viewing economic activity are beginning to make an impact on Economics, but they are not really new, nor are they based on Economics. The assumptions that underlie the rest of the biological world are beginning to seep into our understanding of both economic and political activity. Whether Economists will be able to incorporate these insights before the discipline implodes is an open question with a lot of money at stake.

We’ve generally understood since the ‘50’s that Economics doesn’t work as a method for predicting outcomes. It’s a problem that Milton Friedman wrestled with to an infamous conclusion. The problem is this – the assumptions traditionally necessary to reduce the complexity of human interaction into a manageable predictive model are so absurdly reductive that the model itself will always be flawed.

Friedman confronted and recognized this problem. By then, economists were coming to understand that the discipline was useful as a general social science or philosophy, but lacked the capacity for precision necessary for it to be treated like engineering or physics. Then, in the manner of a man born for politics, Friedman waved a rhetorical hand over the problem and declared that the flaws in the models didn’t matter.

Why don’t the flawed assumptions that lay at the foundations of our economic models necessarily invalidate any calculations based on them? Because they don’t, so shut up.

He used more words than that, and then added some equations on top, but that’s about what it amounted to. Here’s the relevant quote, “Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions.” So, yea, all my conclusions are based on assumptions I dreamed up in order in to reach those conclusions, but look how cool those conclusions are!

It took a very long time for this approach to take hold in academia, but over time the gullibility of many business executives helped tip the scales. By pouring money into economic modelling without much concern for the quality of the predictions that emerged, business helped build an Economics establishment that embraced Friedman’s assumptions.

Corporations provided a unique breeding ground for this kind of chicanery. It was (is) an atmosphere in which rewards are highly concentrated and failures are diffused. Whatever guesses looked prescient brought stupendous rewards while the penalties of dumb bets were spread so widely as to slow accountability to a crawl. Even at a crawl, accountability will arrive in time. The longer it takes the more pain it tends to deliver.

As businesses have begun looking outside Economics for more reliable economic insights, Economics is increasingly being exposed to the rigor, standards, and methods of the hard sciences. Scientists from outside the discipline are increasingly looking to evolutionary theory to explain market processes.

We are beginning to discover that building better economic models is not merely a matter of introducing a few lessons learned from biology. Introducing the dynamics of natural selection into Economics does not merely disrupt the mathematical models. Nor does it stop at disrupting the theoretical models. To incorporate evolutionary mechanics into Economics potentially changes our assumptions of what Economics is.

An example can be found in an old MIT talk from Paul Krugman. His wrestling with evolutionary theory, taken from 1996, lays out this problem perfectly. Economics, according to Krugman, is “about what individuals do, not classes, not correlations of forces, but individual actors.” This was the crux of Krugman’s concern at the time with introducing evolutionary mechanics into economic models. The two disciplines simply did not deal with the same subject matter.

Economics treats economies as the sum total of all the decisions made by self-interested individuals engaged in transactions with each other. Evolution on the other hand deals with complex processes that operate at levels ranging from the molecular to the cultural and technological, of which the decisions of a rational self-interested individual are merely a component, and a rather tiny one.

More to the point, one might argue in evolutionary terms that the actions of a self-interested individual are not merely a small factor in understanding an economy, but a resultant factor. Intelligent, considered, self-interested individual decisions may not deserve anything approaching the level of importance economists assign them. Individuals may not be driving an economy, but riding on one. This is not Economics, but it might be what replaces Economics.

Where Economics starts from a set of reductive assumptions drawn from a philosophy – individual human decisions are what matters – then sets a complex series of tottering conclusions on top, sciences that deal with evolutionary processes start from complexity and retain their respect for complexity, building less ambitious predictive models with more fidelity to reality. What they leave out which is essential for Economics as it currently exists is deference to a set of precious philosophical notions about the role and importance of individual autonomy in complex biological processes.

Evolutionary Economics has potential to break the tension between the invisible hand and the regulatory state, looking to more complex models for organization and regulation that can protect us from some of the failures of raw capitalism while preserving our autonomy. By examining what works in the natural world it seeks to build more sophisticated social models that could help us evolve around the obstacles we are creating for ourselves. Getting there will require some philosophical leaps and a lot more scientific work.

Can Economics evolve? Maybe, though so far it remains deeply resistant to the process. Money may once again be the deciding factor. Fifty years of unreliable models are slowly taking their toll. The lure of money that once brought people into the department may be weakening as Wall Street seeks to hire physicists and even biologists.

The uncomfortable philosophical demands of more reliable modeling may require researchers to move the entire subject matter out of the Economics department and into some new field. That transformation may one day relegate what’s left of the Economics department to a windowless space in the basement where they’ll share cramped quarters with that weirdo who teaches Latin. Caveat emptor.

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Posted in Economics

Poverty and network effects

Ran across a really interesting that I want to share. No time to comment on it at length, but the approach it describes to poverty is really important. It’s from Claire Melamed at Aeon. Here’s a quick summary:

“Look at that seesaw again. It’s tempting to picture the people on it as atomised individuals, randomly distributed between the two sides. But in fact they aren’t like that at all. People don’t end up among the very rich, or languish on the side of the very poor, by chance. Rather, their position depends to a remarkable degree on the groups that they belong to. Where do they live? What is their ethnic group or religion? Do they have a mental illness or a physical disability? What family do they come from?”

There are some really important insights in this piece, but perhaps most important is her emphasis on network effects as related to poverty and inequality. In American culture we imagine wealth and poverty, like nearly everything else, as almost exclusively a matter of individual qualities. We are quite deliberately and ideologically blind to the wider effects of region, race, culture, and other network factors that influence success.

This blindness may have something to do with the ways that the New Deal led to the Civil Rights movement, or the Great Society seems to have actually exacerbated poverty in African American communities. Many of our efforts to relieve poverty are built in a way that impacts different networks in different ways. Our blindness to that dynamic creates strange distortions.

The anti-poverty campaigns of the 30’s and 60’s were actually radically successful in mainstream white and urban communities. They have been less successful in minority urban communities and white rural areas like the Appalachians. In fact, the structure of some of these efforts and their localized successes, may have actually contributed to inequality in some strange ways. My conclusions, not the author’s.

More to come. Complete article here.

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Posted in Welfare State

What Kansas says about our political future

Democrats got a huge boost this month in their campaign to maintain control of the Senate when their candidate in Kansas dropped out of the race. That’s pretty much everything you need to know about the declining influence of both political parties in a nutshell.

Independent candidate Greg Orman has carved out a space for himself in the policy gaps left by the two parties, but his appeal has little to do with his platform. He’s popular mainly for what he’s not. Orman describes himself as “business-friendly and socially tolerant,” in other words a Republican time-traveler from an age when the party didn’t scare people. Orman represents all the things people admire in a traditional Republican without the crazy.

Kansas is experiencing a fascinating political moment. The religious right seized power decisively over the past two elections and has pushed through a comprehensive conservative fantasy agenda. Rigid new abortion restrictions, draconian tax and budget cuts, new limits on voting rights, the Tea Party fringe got everything they could ask for short of a gold standard. The results have been as depressing as they were predictable.

The extremists who hijacked the GOP in Kansas have discovered, to their utter surprise, that drastic tax cuts do not produce budget surpluses. Exempting whole sectors of the economy from taxation has not spurred job growth or economic activity. The whole agenda has accomplished nothing but fiscal catastrophe. Their response so far has been to stick to the script and blame the font of all evil – Obama.

What makes Kansas interesting is that it is not Texas or Alabama. The outcome of this policy template in Texas for example has been far more catastrophic than in Kansas, resulting in massive budget cuts to key government services and a growing unease over fundamentalist religious regulations. The difference is that there are still pragmatic Republicans in Kansas and they have launched a revolt.

In one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, the Republican Governor is on his heels and the Republican Senator is trailing an independent. Why isn’t this good news for the Democrats?

In the short term maybe it is. Thanks to a growing wave of not-Republican voting Democrats appear likely to hold on to the Senate. Prospects for Republicans nationally in 2016 are extremely grim, with a strong likelihood of losing the ability to exercise any legislative influence at all nationally.

For Democrats the problem is that few people like them much either. All over the country Democrats are running on their singular strength – the fact that they are not as batshit crazy as their Republican opponents. That may win an election, but it is not a mandate for policy. Their biggest mistake of the past ten years was imagining that their victories in ’06 and ’08 were anything other than a protest vote. They are likely to make the same mistake again.

Orman would join two other officially independent Senators, Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus King (ME). That is more independent Senators than we have ever had before before. Unofficially, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who won in 2010 by defeating the Republican Party’s nominee should probably be added to that roster. Rhode Island is being governed by an Independent. Charlie Crist who is running a close race for Governor in Florida is a de facto independent who has run for office in both parties and with no party backing.

Kansas is often regarded as a bellwether. What the state’s voters seem to be telling us right now is that they will vote for a Democrat when a Republican candidate is too dangerously bizarre to be tolerated, but they would much prefer an independent. That’s bad news for both parties, but it may open some promising possibilities for the emergence of a new Republican model.

A younger crop of Republicans in places less dominated by religious extremists is beginning to mature. In states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Orman would be a Republican. Bruce Rauner is running a very strong Republican campaign for Governor in Illinois that looks very much like Orman. Deep in the red state fortress, Republican bomb-thrower Doug Ducey is trapped in a tie with his Democratic challenger for Arizona Governor. Far right Republican candidates are facing surprisingly tight challenges in Georgia and South Carolina. Tea Party darlings in Maine and Pennsylvania are all but doomed.

Disappointments that loom over the GOP in the next few years could be the forge of a new vision for the party. Tone down the paranoid rhetoric, drop the religious authoritarianism, allow reality to once again influence our vision of fiscal responsibility and you could have a powerful, nationally competitive platform. Robbed of blubbering, terrifying Republicans to run against, a Democratic Party still chained to the anchor of 20th century union machine politics might finally drown.

That policy platform isn’t going to emerge from the red state fortress, but Republicans winning elections in the north and west could point the way forward. Both parties may be unpopular, but thanks to the disruptive power of defeat it may be easier for Republicans than for Democrats to pivot to adopt a winning platform.

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Posted in Election 2014, Republican Party

Giving up on the Redskins

Native American communities have been battling for decades for the right to influence how their culture and history are used by others. They have enjoyed some success in recent years curbing the use of “Indian” imagery in sports. Now they are closing in on a big prize – a name change for the NFL’s Washington Redskins.

The campaign has prompted a heated backlash. Fox News and conservative talk radio have been particularly fierce in condemning the “political correctness” supposedly undermining our respect for free expression and the sanctity of cherished cultural symbols.

If we are ever going to tap into the massive potential of a truly inclusive American identity we will have to outgrow a culture in which the only broadly respected values are those which are either shared by the white community, or do not bother them. Getting there will require white Americans to come to terms with cultural preferences that favor them in ways so nearly universal that they hardly even notice them.

Because the Redskins brand, like the use of “Indian” imagery in so many major league baseball settings is not deliberately racist or demeaning, it may offer a chance to see the meaning of white privilege in some of its less pernicious and far more pervasive manifestations. There may be an opportunity in this controversy for everyone to better understand the power and implications of a white cultural monopoly that must necessarily come to an end.

To get a better sense what upsets Native Americans about the Redskins, picture an NFL franchise in a decidedly northern city, maybe Boston, called the Texans. So far so good. After all, having a sports team named after you can be a sign of respect and admiration, right?

Boston’s mascot is a cartoonish stereotypical Texan, Nigel, who for some inexplicable reason is a goatherd. He wears a hat just like an authentic Texan, except it’s a small white bowler instead of a Stetson. Like all good Texans he loves to sit around the campfire and enjoy songs. That’s why he always keeps his flute nearby, the instrument that appears with Nigel on the team’s helmet.

Every home-game halftime show includes a routine designed to get Nigel and his Texans energized for the second half. A fan selected from the audience is dressed up in the uniform of a Massachusetts Civil War infantry regiment and forcibly frees Nigel’s slaves, sending him into a rage.

A volunteer chorus of men dressed up as Pentecostal women called “The Holy Rollers” keeps the crowd entertained. When the team needs a fourth-quarter rally, they get the crowd on their feet until the whole stadium joins them speaking in tongues.

Needless to say, this would not be tolerated and any attempt to play a road game in Dallas would not likely end well. More to the point, this would never happen in the first place. No one would be amused by such an explicit abuse of a white culture.

There is nothing explicitly or intentionally insulting in this depiction of a Texan, yet you can be confident that neither Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, nor any of the other folks who have so courageously stepped up to defend the Redskins brand would be defending these fans’ free speech rights.

The really signal detail is that we do in fact have an NFL team called the Texans and no one is complaining. That team is based in Houston where the local community is able to influence how that brand is depicted. Similarly, we have major sports teams called the Fighting Irish, Vikings, Yankees, Rebels, Celtics, Cowboys, Sooners, Steelers, and 49ers. In each instance these identity-oriented teams have roots in the communities that lay claim to those identities. Switch the Yankees and the Rebels and you might get ugly caricatures that look a lot like the Washington Redskins.

We generally assume that mainstream white communities will own their distinct identities while minority communities, like Native Americans, have been on their own. Depictions of minority cultures, no matter how ignorant, exploitative, or just plain dumb are supposed to be tolerated to a very large degree.

Sports mascots are the tip of the iceberg. From Speedy Gonzales, to Tonto, to Long Duk Dong, through an endless parade of cartoonish, dark-skinned terrorist and criminal villains, and on to the use of the “n-word,” minority attempts to exercise some ownership of their culture and image are condemned as censorship while white communities expect and receive the deference that everyone’s culture deserves.

The message is unmistakable and it reads like this: America is a white country that is so big-heartedly inclusive that it mostly tolerates other cultures when it’s not inconvenient. Complaining about crude, boorish, or stupid depictions of minority communities is an infringement on a white majority’s rights to use your cultural symbols in whatever way suits us. Consider it a compliment that we even know you exist.

The argument over the Redskins brand, and the wider conflict over so-called ‘political correctness,’ is not about free expression. Central to this debate is a question of empathy that must be resolved if America is going to thrive as a diverse nation. To finally become what we have always promised to be, a free country in which everyone is born equal, we have to abandon the assumption that some are more equal than others.

Our failure to recognize the offensive and exploitative abuse of Native American culture is not an example of free speech, but an emblem of how reluctant we have been to extend basic human empathy and respect beyond the boundaries of the white community. Respect for racial diversity is not just about who sits where on the bus. It’s about the scope of cultural legitimacy.

Pluralism isn’t easy but it builds a powerfully cohesive, resilient and prosperous nation. Giving up a crudely insulting football mascot should not be considered a high price to pay for that reward, but nonetheless losing the Redskins will have broad implications that some will resent. Making pluralism work means giving up something some Americans cherish very deeply – the idea that America exists for one set of its cultures to which all of the others must defer. Our willingness to embrace a nation in which white cultural assumptions are merely some among many is the price of entry to a freer, more prosperous American future.

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Posted in Civil Rights, Race

All Presidents have the same foreign policy – eventually

In July of 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order authorizing Operation Cyclone, a covert campaign to fund, train, and arm Islamist militias opposed to the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan. The operation is generally credited with precipitating the Soviet invasion of the country later that year.

Ronald Reagan authorized US troops to participate in a multinational operation in Beirut in 1982. Suicide bombings killed hundreds of US soldiers. Fighting there quickly escalated, putting US and allied troops in combat against Soviet-backed Syrian forces. Faced with risk of being drawn into direct conflict with the Soviets, Reagan withdrew the American presence in early 1984. By his final years in office, Reagan the anti-Communist crusader came within a breath of offering to give up our nuclear arsenal in negotiations with the Soviets.

Given enough time, all US Presidents eventually belong to the same political party when it comes to foreign policy. They may differ in terms of tactics and methods, but they eventually reach the same general conclusions about the nature, extent, and reach of US military and diplomatic power. Hawkish Presidents become pragmatists. Idealistic dreamers become pragmatists. They all become pragmatists when they are forced to do the job and face its inevitable outcomes.

The measure of a President’s foreign policy success is not how well they performed against their promises, but how much time, pressure, and blood were required to force them to abandon their illusions and come to terms with real constraints. Think of it as the resource-to-reality quotient – a measure of how much blood, treasure, and national humiliation it takes to force a President to face facts.

Measured against this quotient certain Presidents stand out. Guys like George HW Bush (Bush I) and Richard Nixon stand out for having a score near zero. They brought almost no illusions to the job and navigated maddeningly complex foreign scenarios almost flawlessly from day one.

Bush II and Lyndon Johnson rank near the bottom. Drinking from an endless well of denial and gifted with an impenetrable lack of curiosity about the wider world, they resisted pragmatism to the bitter end. Both Presidents left the country with miserable damage that would take multiple Administrations to mitigate. Their persistent delusions would limit American options in dealing with the world for years after they were gone.

Even in these worst cases, the demands of the job began to operate in time. By Johnson’s end he had recognized the need to apply more direct military pressure on North Vietnam though he never saw the potential for an opening with China that might end the war. Bush II achieved some minimal realization of the disaster he had spawned and began to at least try to apply some patches before he was ushered into an inglorious retirement.

Obama so far ranks somewhere in the middle. He came to office with a heavy burden of high-minded ambitions, like his goal of engaging in direct talks with Iran and his plans to being a swift end to the Iraq and Afghan wars. Despite lofty goals he started moving toward pragmatism almost immediately, incurring relatively few casualties and little long-term damage along the way.

His plans for dealing with Islamist militias in Iraq and Syria seem to mark Obama’s Bush I moment, the point at which his various hopes and goals are brought into line with realistic constraints and the demands of long term national security. Obama seems to have joined the Presidential party, embracing the complex, frustrating, and morally ambiguous foreign policy that all of our leaders are driven to in time.

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Posted in Foreign Policy

Bruce Rauner: The next blue state Republican Governor

Illinois is poised to send a new Governor to Springfield. He’s a native Chicagoan, closely allied to Rahm Emanuel, who is pro-choice, completely disinterested in social issues, and deeply tied into Chicago’s political class. And he is a Republican.

Bruce Rauner is a Republican from a bygone era, a pragmatist whose primary goal is to make state government function effectively again in a place where it has nearly collapsed. Democrats have found nothing so far to criticize beyond the fact that he’s wealthy. He’s held a solid polling lead from the very beginning and with no vulnerability to Akin-esque gaffes there is little chance he’ll blow his advantage.

As Republicans nationally are bogged down by the outsized influence of a small but aggressive extremist base, the Rauner era in Illinois might signal a turning point. The election will only be the beginning. Blue state Republicans have attempted this move before, with more disappointment than success. The question is whether Rauner will resemble Christie, or will he fall into the trap that swallowed Scott Walker, Rick Scott and Tom Corbett? In other words, can Rauner govern in the same way he has campaigned?

Regardless of Rauner’s own tendencies, there is one important fact that might keep him solidly in bi-partisan territory after November. Like Christie and unlike Walker, Scott and Corbett, Rauner will be presiding over a solidly Democratic legislature. He will accomplish nothing without compromise and coalition building. There is much to accomplish and he has ample opportunity to establish support among Democratic lawmakers.

There are two relatively un-ideological problems that sit at the heart of Illinois’ ills. Decades of corrupt political deals between public employee unions and the Democratic machine have saddled the state with unfunded obligations it can never meet. A recent 66% personal income tax hike, accompanied by massive corporate tax hikes briefly pasted over the problem, just enough to keep schools open and government functioning. Meanwhile the state’s hostile business culture dampens the potential of an economy that should be surging.

The second problem is the father of the first one. The entire state government is beholden to a very small junta in Springfield that governs with almost no outside input. Block grants are their signature tactic. The House and Senate leadership maintains almost dictatorial control over an increasingly restive legislature. In state that quite literally cannot pay its bills, funds keep flowing to politically favored recipients through unaccountable ‘grants’ doled out by the leadership.

Members on either side of the political aisle struggle to get bills paid to school districts and other government entities while money continues to flow to well-connected interests. A pragmatic Republican Governor unburdened by an unpopular culture-war agenda would be perfectly positioned to drive a wedge between the legislative leadership and back-benchers in both parties. If Rauner governs with the same discipline he’s shown on the campaign trail, he could blow apart the awkward Cullerton-Madigan alliance that controls the State Assembly and change the long term direction of the state politically and economically.

Along the way, Rauner could outline a new, post-culture war path to victory for Republicans at the national level. A political appeal premised on religion and white cultural fears no longer fits the realities on the ground. As the country grows more urban, secular, and culturally diverse, older Republican themes of pragmatic, fiscally accountable government are squarely at the center of public concern.

Freed from the constraints of a rabid, Tea Party base, Rauner will have a unique opportunity to govern in ways that make sense. What happens in Illinois over the next few years may be the best weather vane for the future direction of the country and the Republican Party.

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Posted in Illinois, Republican Party

Republicans after white supremacy

“We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham

Inside today’s GOP, racism is like global warming. It’s an inescapable reality with powerful implications for our daily lives that is too ideologically upsetting for Republicans to even acknowledge, much less address. Like climate denial, the party’s grimly determined attachment to the remnants of white supremacy is going to cease to be viable soon. The demographics are relentless.

So what comes next? If reason wins out, Republicans will soon begin to build, or perhaps it’s better to say remember, a governing agenda independent of white racial paranoia. Reality-focused policies aimed at strengthening commerce, making government more authentically accountable, and fostering peace and stability through strength and wise alliances are sitting in the neglected back rooms of the Republican enterprise waiting to be dusted off and updated.

No one can promise that reason will win. Lincoln’s appeal to the better angels of our nature is 150 years old and we are still waiting on those angels. Today’s Republican Party might not pivot back toward reason, retreating instead into a Southern and rural regional fortress. What happens to the GOP in the 2016 and 2018 elections will likely determine whether the party recovers its sanity or retreats for the long term into a purely regional, obstructionist role.

Restoring a governing agenda that can win nationally will not be easy. The raw materials are there, but institutional forces inside the party are hard-wired to resist it.

Since the late Sixties conservative politicians have been busy retrofitting older Republican themes to make them fit into an increasingly sophisticated racist agenda. Every traditional element of the party has been reshaped by the demands of the Southern Strategy. Whatever cannot be fashioned around white cultural appeals, like the party’s old urban agenda and its appeal to women, has simply been jettisoned.

Fiscal responsibility has morphed into endless tax cuts. Commercial priorities have been entirely reduced to a program aimed at crippling federal authority. The Republican “traditional values” agenda has been re-imagined as an alternative explanation for the economic suffering of oppressed minorities.

Under the friendly green skies of the conservative alternate universe, racism ceased to exist one afternoon in 1964 when President Johnson signed a certain (ill-advised, according to some) law. Since that afternoon all subsequent inequality between whites and minority groups can conveniently be traced to their own sexual immorality, government dependence, and impiety. As a consequence, any and every reference to continuing racism is itself racism.

The process of grafting Southern racist fears onto the Republican agenda has gone unchallenged for so long that few people can even remember a Republican big-city mayor. Many voters in the prime of life cannot recall the days when Republicans dominated politics in New York, Connecticut, California, and Illinois. If a new generation of blue state Republican figures can quickly rise to prominence at the national level, it may be possible to start righting the party in time. That outcome is not assured.

Reason might not win. The collapse of the party’s influence at the national level might not be enough to change the party’s trajectory. Dog-whistle racist politics as perfected by Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Mike Lee might prevail over the older Hamiltonian commercial values represented by figures like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani.

For the moment at least, we must recognize that the Perry wing of the party is winning. Across Dixie and the rural west they have mastered the art of white racial solidarity, racking up well over seventy percent of the white vote while Republicans slowly disappear from urban and northern landscapes.

A strategy aimed at consolidating national power by appealing to the racial fears of Southern whites has reached the end of its effectiveness. That does not mean we will stop using it.

It is entirely possible that a perverse new version of the Republican Party, the mirror image of its anti-slavery, Hamiltonian heritage may control its brand going forward. Political outcomes over the next four years may determine whether the Republican Party regains its national footing or retreats into a strategy of regional resistance with dangerous consequences for the country.

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Posted in Civil Rights, Election 2016, Neo-Confederate, Tea Party, Uncategorized

Tree of Knowledge

Admit it, when someone you know sends you a copy of their self-published novel, or for that matter their demo tape, or a gallery of their paintings, you cringe a little. You may be genuinely interested in what they’ve done, but you also feel a touch of dread. This is a work of art, a deeply personal expression of their thoughts and feelings. If it sucks, well…that’s gonna be awkward.

Imagine how great it feels when you get three pages in and you can’t put it down. That’s what it was like reading Tree of Knowledge from Scott Bonasso. Sorry for doubting, man. That’s reason #542 that I’m a jerk.

Tree of Knowledge is a science fiction mystery presented as an investigation. After his brother’s apparent suicide, HG Pruitt found a collection of documents and recordings related to his life. Tree of Knowledge is Pruitt’s edited compilation of his brother’s materials along with commentary on his discoveries.

Constructing a story about the mind-bendingly weird world of theoretical physics atop the fragmented, dubiously reliable basis of a collection of found materials is a stroke of genius. The story is a layer cake of mysteries. There’s no sure footing in this tale. Reading it is like dancing on a stack of balls, with the tension building from page to page as you question the veracity and even the sanity of the sources.

The physics on which the story is premised is well-researched, entirely real, and utterly impossible to reconcile with our expectations of reality. Bonasso manages to weave his characters though this increasingly strange account without losing any of the story’s complex threads, finally landing them all in an ending that still sticks with me.

Tree of Knowledge is a plot-driven thriller. The story is lean, fast, and exciting with openings for a sequel. Typical for the style, character development is perhaps not what it could be. The plot and the science beneath it were enough to keep me turning pages. It isn’t poetry, but I was sad to see it end.

That Bonasso self-published this work is a reminder of how much quality fiction is being produced now through unconventional channels. His story would make a fantastic screenplay, or even the basis of a series. You can get your own copy here.


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Posted in Art

Why Sorenson will go to jail and Perry won’t

Iowa State Senator Kent Sorenson pled guilty this week to Federal charges that are likely to send him to prison. The influential Tea Party Senator accepted $73,000 from the Ron Paul campaign in 2012 to shift his endorsement from Michele Bachmann to Paul in the Iowa Caucus.

Meanwhile, Rick Perry has been indicted on flimsy charges of “abuse of office” for scheming to cut off an investigation into one of his numerous shady political deals. It is unlikely that Perry will ever even see the inside of a courtroom, much less a jail cell.

There is one very important reason why Iowa Sen. Sorenson is looking at a prison stint and Texas Gov. Rick Perry is still planning to run for President. Bribery is legal in Texas.

Both cases are complex, but each of them turns on details of their respective state laws. Iowa’s laws on public corruption provide an effective means of prosecuting those who try to buy official favors. Texas’ law does not. Though Sorenson was charged and pled under Federal indictments, those indictments related to Sorenson’s illegal efforts to protect himself from a state-level prosecution in Iowa.

Perry is operating in a state with almost non-existent laws on official corruption. With no need to conceal his actions, he doesn’t risk tripping over Federal fraud and campaign reporting requirements like Sorenson did. Rick Perry can accept millions of dollars from contributors like the late Bob Perry in return for setting up entire regulatory schemes in their favor. He can dole out millions of dollars in state “venture capital” funds to friends and donors without hiding. It’s all legal.

Bribery is effectively legal in Texas because of the carefully worded provisions of the state’s laws. First, for comparison, let’s look at how Iowa defines the offense of bribery:

[Bribery is a] benefit to a person who is serving or has been elected, selected, appointed, employed, or otherwise engaged to serve in a public
capacity, including a public officer or employee, a referee, juror, or jury panel member, or a witness in a judicial or arbitration
hearing or any official inquiry, or a member of a board of arbitration, pursuant to an agreement or arrangement or with the
understanding that the promise or thing of value or benefit will influence the act, vote, opinion, judgment, decision, or exercise of
discretion of the person with respect to the person’s services in that capacity commits a class “D” felony. In addition, a person
convicted under this section is disqualified from holding public office under the laws of this state.

Iowa retains a fairly standard definition of bribery. Here’s how Texas defines bribery:

BRIBERY. (a) A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly offers, confers, or agrees to confer on another, or solicits, accepts, or agrees to accept from another:

(1) any benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision, opinion, recommendation, vote, or other exercise of discretion as a public servant, party official, or voter;

(2) any benefit as consideration for the recipient’s decision, vote, recommendation, or other exercise of official discretion in a judicial or administrative proceeding;

(3) any benefit as consideration for a violation of a duty imposed by law on a public servant or party official; or

(4) any benefit that is a political contribution as defined by Title 15, Election Code, or that is an expenditure made and reported in accordance with Chapter 305, Government Code, if the benefit was offered, conferred, solicited, accepted, or agreed to pursuant to an express agreement (emphasis added) to take or withhold a specific exercise of official discretion if such exercise of official discretion would not have been taken or withheld but for the benefit; notwithstanding any rule of evidence or jury instruction allowing factual inferences in the absence of certain evidence, direct evidence of the express agreement shall be required in any prosecution under this subdivision.(emphasis added)
(d) It is an exception to the application of Subdivisions (1), (2), and (3) of Subsection (a) that the benefit is a political contribution as defined by Title 15, Election Code, or an expenditure made and reported in accordance with Chapter 305, Government Code.

In Texas, as long as your bribe is reported as an official campaign contribution and you do not record the terms of the bribe in some “express agreement” anything goes. Bribery is legal in the absence of a contract.

Let’s be clear about what this means. Unlike in Iowa and other states, in Texas your campaign contributions can buy a politician’s vote so long as you do not reduce the agreement to a contract. Bribery via campaign contribution is solid, officially protected political speech in Texas.

Looking at the ethics rules for the Texas House and Senate presents an even uglier picture. Part of the trap Sorenson walked into was set by the strict ethics rules of the Iowa Senate. Texas legislators face no such obstacles.

In Texas, legislators are allowed to live off of their campaign contributions, vote on matters affecting businesses they own, and use money from donors to pay for vaguely defined “out of pocket expenses.” Texas State Senators are strictly prohibited from using campaign contributions to pay for laundry expenses. I’m not making this up. Apart from the laundry taboo, the Legislature is pretty much open for business.

Gov. Perry likes to travel the country encouraging people to relocate to Texas, touting its enviable freedom from regulation. Sen. Sorenson should have heard Perry’s call. Sorenson could have accepted that bribe from the Ron Paul campaign in Texas without going to jail. He could have used the method perfected by former Rep. Tom DeLay.

In Texas Sorenson could have accepted the money in the form of campaign contributions, used the money to pay living expenses, vacations, and other important items, and never needed to hide his activities. This is the method DeLay was using to fund his campaign to get Texas legislators to write a redistricting plan for him.

DeLay was only indicted because he was laundering corporate contributions, and doing it in a laughably sloppy manner. Bribery was never at issue because, as explained above, it isn’t illegal in Texas. DeLay ultimately walked free because a Texas Appellate Court ruled that his money laundering operation wasn’t illegal either. God bless Texas.

The lesson for Iowa Sen. Kent Sorenson is that Rick Perry is right. Life is better, at least for the well-connected and the wealthy, in Texas. Sure, you can’t use campaign contributions to pay your laundry bill, but who needs that when you can launder money instead? Paying for your own dry cleaning is a small price to pay to avoid getting a taxpayer-funded orange jumpsuit.

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Posted in Election 2016, Texas

Someone should remake ‘Four Lions’

lionsWe learned this week that two Americans were killed fighting for ISIS in Syria. There are likely to be many more as the Arab world’s long, awkward transition away from authoritarian government breeds more violence. It might be helpful for Americans to develop a better understanding of what’s driving violent fundamentalism, but we have little to work with.

The best film ever made about the lure of armed jihad among Western-raised Muslims is Four Lions from 2010. It’s tragic, dark, and in a way only the British can master, guiltily, gut-bustingly hilarious. The film was a minor success in Britain and on the international film festival circuit.

Four Lions earned a brief burst of attention in 2013 for its eerily prescient portrayal of a scenario nearly identical to the Boston Marathon bombing. From the details of the attack itself to the bumbling, awkward cast of characters, the film may be the first example of Westerners beginning to grasp the forces behind Islamic terrorism.

Unfortunately, even with the additional attention Four Lions did not get a lot of play. Audiences unfamiliar with Britain found the film utterly impenetrable.

Some form of translation might have helped around the margins. The characters spoke in what could perhaps be better described as a dialect rather than an accent. A working-class Birmingham accent is pretty far removed from global English. Add to it the nuances, idioms, and additional layers of accent common to the South Asian community there and you get an intricacy that can only be interpreted through commentary. Imagine trying to translate Pulp Fiction into Middle English and you get a sense for the challenge.

That said, Americans are starved for authentic, credible portrayals that might help them wrap their heads around the phenomenon of modern terrorism. In the absence of something that makes sense, we have portrayed foreign terrorism in comic book terms, conjuring images of bizarre, savage super-villains beyond the range of human feeling.

A distorted and frankly paranoid misunderstanding of foreign terrorism is breeding poor policy and blinding us to the growing dangers of domestic extremism. This film could help, but only if it was remade. Four Lions, as originally produced, is simply too authentically local to translate to a more global audience.

Despite the challenges, if you’re reasonably comfortable with British entertainment Four Lions is a must-see. Hopefully someone in Hollywood will pick it up and find a way to translate it without destroying its impact.

Four aspiring Jihadis on their way into London for a mass suicide bombing:

Posted in Art, Foreign Policy

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