Considering the Median Centrist Voter

This morning I was listening to a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show and Klein said something interesting in how we think about our politics. Our institutions have their own memories, which are formed and created often by the memories and available histories of the institutions members. In politics today, we have an institutional memory of a time roughly after World War II where a lot seemed to be accomplished and we seemed to be less polarized. This view is our baseline for evaluating political function (or dysfunction) and it includes an idea of a rational moderate voter with both parties trying to adjust their platforms to capture a greater marginal share of this undecided moderate electorate.

 

This institutional memory (whether it is correct/accurate or not) is not what we see in our political system today. We act as if it should be the norm, but it is long gone and we are left with complaints about the loss of this ideal system. Tyler Cowen writes the following about our electorate and perceptions of our electoral system in his book The Complacent Class,

 

“Core government programs are still backed by most voters, but political change at the margins seems to result from complex battles among lobbies, interest groups, financiers, political maneuvering, and who can win public relations campaigns fought in the media. The ideal of the perfectly centrist voter as the ultimate adjudicating force just doesn’t appear that relevant for thinking about a lot of those changes we do observe.”

 

I’m not sure why we still live in a world where we believe that politics should operate in the way we believe it operated almost 70 years ago. Popular media and civics classes present government as ideally functioning in a way that compromises and attempts to sway marginal centrist voters who have not made up their mind. These votes don’t exist, and likely never existed. Better models should be presented and discussed so that we can better evaluate our government and what is or is not taking place within our institutions. By having more honest and open conversations, we can better address the role that identity and policy play in politics (hint: identity is all there is, policy is just a rationalization). Median and moderate voters who have not made up their mind don’t exist in the way we think they used to. They might exist, but more as individuals with identities pulling them in different directions, not as rational voters who are trying to make a decision based on policy outcomes and preferences.

On Redistribution

In the United States people hate the idea of redistribution. I was remarking the other day while reading a political science journal article that American culture operates with a background sense that using public policy to improve ones economic fortunes is illegitimate. The only legitimate way, in American culture, to improve ones economic standing is through hard work in the traditional labor market.

 

This is one contributing factor to why redistribution is viewed so negatively in our country. To be seen as deserving, one has to be seen as hardworking, and hardworking and economically successful are tied in the way we think about people in our country. We use a heuristic to tell ourselves that rich people are hard working and that poor people are lazy because it is easier than considering the alternative, and it also confirms to how we want the world to work, at least if we are relatively well off or see ourselves as becoming more financially successful in the future. We want to believe that our good economic standing and future earnings potential reflect our own industriousness and not just a set of favorable circumstances beyond our control.

 

In their book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at our behavior around redistribution and consider how it fits with the framework for local action that they develop. Redistribution is an area where they find an interesting split between the role of federal and local governments.

 

“Major redistributive policies, such as the earned income tax credit, are best pursued at the federal level. Federal redistribution is more effective than more local efforts because the federal government has a larger pool of income from which to draw and there is less capacity to opt out. Federal redistribution is largely people based. State redistribution is generally linked to providing support for public goods in jurisdictions with taxing capacity disadvantages.”

 

I find it really interesting to think that the federal government’s redistribution programs are more people-based than local programs, but I think I understand why that might be. At the local level, we become upset when we see a person in our community who is accepting some form of assistance from the government while simultaneously driving a new car or leaving a nail salon. In some way, when we see an actual person who is benefiting from a redistributive program and using their resources in a way we find inappropriate given what we judge their priorities to be, we feel cheated. We feel that the economic assistance provided to them should have been spent on other local pressing problems rather than on supporting someone who using the financial aid unwisely. This makes local adoption of redistributive programs for individuals more challenging. At a national level, the quote from Katz and Nowak seems to suggest, we likely won’t recall as many of these hyper-local context examples, or just won’t be as aware of the aid, and won’t be as keen to notice the effects of a redistributive policy.

 

Another local level wrinkle that influences the policy appraoches from Katz and Nowak’s quote is that we don’t want to live in a city or region that is known for its slums. Those of us who are affluent enough will likely make efforts to avoid local trailer home regions and find ways around the lower socioeconomic parts of town. We won’t want to acknowledge these regions because they make our entire community look worse, especially from the outside or when commented on by national media. These pressures may make us more willing to have government take action to “clean-up” these economically depressed regions. We see a personal benefit to ourselves in having our city invest more in economically weak regions. We don’t see the same personal benefit from redistributive programs that help other individuals.

Making Global Local

The first time I heard about globalism was in an English class as a freshman in college. Since that time, globalization has gotten a lot more attention and has come to represent people’s fears about automation and job loss, but also people’s ambitions as new markets across the world become more accessible to trade and innovation. Whether we like globalization or not, we must acknowledge the way that markets and societies are changing so that in our own minds globalization doesn’t remain the mysterious boogeyman that it so often is today.

 

In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss globalization and how our cities and metropolitan regions, as opposed to our states or federal institutions, are the most well poised to adapt to an increasingly globalized market and supply chain. The also ask what it means for civil institutions to adapt and change to globalization writing, “The connection between globalization and localism as an arena of enhanced civic action has not been as well explored as the general theme of global economic change and populism.”

 

Since 2016, we have been asking ourselves why a global wave of populism seems to have overtaken normal political processes in the US and UK. Why authoritarian leaders have seemingly become so well entrenched in Turkey and Russia, and why so many people across the globe are willing to protest traditional and seemingly rational governments. What we have not looked at as closely, is how local level leaders can make a huge difference on a global scale and how cities and metropolitan areas can shape policy that influences people’s lives at a greater scale than what we see with movements by populists and authoritarians.

 

Individual states in the US are reversing marijuana policy against the will of the Federal Government. Individual cities are designing their own immigration policy contrary to the demands of the Federal Government. And industries clustered in metropolitan areas are not waiting for new laws and regulations to make decisions that will impact people living within the US and across the globe. The scale of action is local, and that means that cities are the ones who set the agenda for globalization, rather than the larger state governments or federal institutions. How this will ultimately change those larger civil institutions is still a mystery, but in my opinion, local action can dismantle the energy and grievances of populists and authoritarians. Local action can drive economic performance and growth, pacifying the unrest we see at national levels. Globalization might be a phenomenon that connects networks and places all over the Earth, but its effects are felt locally, and good local management and innovation can help make globalization a positive and constructive force.

New Ideas and Diversity

One reason why innovative problem solving and action on our nation’s most pressing problems has moved from the Federal government to local governments is because of the incredible diversity of our nation. Each state has its own unique flavor of any given national problem, making a one-size-fits-all approach to national politics incredibly challenging. Within every state we have a variety of cities and regions. Some areas are densely packed and populated, some areas are incredibly rural, some areas have access to natural resources that help with trade and politics, and some areas have incredible universities that attract global talent for education and possible careers.

 

Managing the diversity of our nation, our states, and the cities and regions that power our country is crucial in a new age of globalization. In The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write, “New Localism is the locus of problem solving that must by necessity be open to new ideas and a diversity of constituencies.”

 

We have diverse populations across our diverse landscape. Not just the issues that matter most to people, but the acceptable approaches to those problems will also vary across individuals and regions. When we start building our solutions at the local level to match our diverse population, we have to be open to new possibilities that align with that diversity. We must find ways to be inclusive if we are going to manage diversity well, and that will necessitate taking a fresh look at problems we have seen in the past.

 

By incorporating our diverse perspectives, and understanding that seeing the problem and the solution as they have always existed will lead to a shortcoming, we can find the new solutions required by New Localism. Standard approaches will break down because they won’t be able to account for diverse views and beliefs, and they will ultimately leave people out. That will cause friction which will ultimately lead to breakdowns in policies and programs. Incorporating local people who understand local conditions is key to developing new programs, new policies, and new approaches to governance to help our cities, metropolitan regions, states, and ultimately our nation thrive in the future.

A Thought on Populism & Localism

Populism has been in the news since 2016, but like any political “ism” it doesn’t have a super clear definition and meaning.  Most people, in my estimation, probably understand populism as some type of anti-elitist politics, where policies for “the people” are the focus as opposed to policies introduced by “the elites” or by “bureaucrats.” The essence of populism is an anti-top down approach to policy solutions, pushing back against an elite that tells the masses how they should live. Populism seems to be a form of governance where the people on the bottom demand their views both hold prominence and dictate the direction of public policy.

 

Governance by populism can be dangerous, however. It can have the feel of a mob mentality and while it can represent substantial and important concerns among the public, it can also be a driver of poorly constructed reactionary politics. It can give power and energy to groups that want policies that infringe upon the rights of others.

 

In The New Localism, authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write the following about the populism we see in the United States and in the United Kingdom today:

 

“Populism has re-energized a politics-most prominently represented by Donald Trump in America and the Brexit coalition in the United Kingdom-that is nostalgic in focus, nationalistic in tone, and nativist in orientation. The rhetoric of this populist politics seeks to create walls, literal and figurative, that inhibit the flow of people, goods, capital, and ideas across borders; the essence of the modern economy.”

 

I don’t want to simply say that populism is wrong and criticize those who support populist policies. Instead I want to focus on understanding what is taking place in the brand of populism we see today, and how this cuts against the new grain of local governance and economic development we see in dynamic thriving cities in the United States (and across the globe) today.

 

Our populism represents a feeling of isolation and marginalization by those who do not benefit from a globalized world economy. Those who stand to lose status and lose economic means of participation feel as though they are simply being told that there is a new system in the world that doesn’t have a purpose for them. With declining social institutions and social capital in the Untied States (fewer people attending church, more people leaving rural areas, and lengthy commutes draining the life out of people) citizens see limited avenues to engage in the world in a way that feels meaningful. When work dries up or shifts from a craft to a retail job, people understandably feel threatened and vulnerable. Their intuition to pull back, isolate and protect themselves, and draw boundaries between who is and is not allowed to continue to engage in their desired economy is understandable even if it is harmful in the long run. I don’t think it is a healthy reaction, but we can understand where some of these populist pressures originate.

 

A new localism, in terms of governance and economic development, has to think about these pressures and reactions as it encourages a greater networking of innovative ideas, of fluid participation from varying individuals, and shifting rewards for creative and unique work. Somehow this complex system has to be made more understandable to more people, and also has to retain elements that improve the lives of people in more ways than simply making the cost of t-shirts and flashlights a bit cheaper. Localism won’t succeed and will be consumed by populist reactions if it cannot find a way to be inclusive and provide real value and a sense of meaning to “the people.”

 

The advantage that Localism has over traditional calcified forms of governance and over populism is its ability to cut through identity politics and focus on solutions to problems that people feel in their day to day lives. Localism aligns the efforts of the elites and the masses, encouraging development that makes cities and metro regions better places to live and work in, and helps encourage more social engagements, activities, and connections. Bringing people together and unifying interests and strengths is the only way to counter a populism which seeks to do the opposite.

Elevating Reason

This blog is a place for me to return to specific quotes and thoughts that stood out to me in books that interested me. The blog, on its face, is mostly about me trying to remember key insights from books, to formulate my thoughts, and share them with others. Another goal of the blog, if I am honest, is to attempt to elevate reason in our lives. I believe that we must live in a way that attempts to look at the world as clearly and objectively as possible, all while understanding that our brains didn’t evolve to see the world in this way.

 

By highlighting the benefits of rational thought, I hope to raise the status of those who try to be rational and encourage more people to think deeply about their world. It is no surprise then, that a sentence I highlighted in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson reads, “People who are able to acknowledge uncomfortable truths and discuss them dispassionately can show a combination of honesty, intellectual ability, and perhaps even courage (or at least a thick skin).”

 

That quote is from a short section that focuses on why someone might want to acknowledge the elephant in the brain. Which is to say, why anyone would want to acknowledge that much of their behavior is likely driven by selfish self-interested motives and not by the high-minded reasons we like to project? Our brains seem to be very good at deceiving even ourselves about our behaviors and choices (so that we can better lie to others), and our high minded reasons for doing things make us feel good about who we are. Why would we want to look past that into less pretty parts of our inner workings?

 

I believe that acknowledging our true motives will help us better understand humanity, develop better institutions, and in the long run function better together. One way to make that happen is to prop up the social status of people who think rationally about the universe and their existence within the universe. By acknowledging truths that tear down the stories we tell about how amazing and special we are, and by being able to look at issues dispassionately and as objectively as we can get ourselves to look at an issue, we can hopefully start to pursue better policy and better general debates and discussions. Making rational thinking interesting and helpful in our daily lives will encourage more people to be honest about the world and will hopefully lead to more rewarding lives for those who cultivate these important yet undervalued intellectual abilities.

The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

The Disruptiveness of Political Amateurs

Our society is all about disruption. I am writing this from Reno, Nevada, a city heavily influenced by San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture. Today number of Silicon Valley firms are spilling into Northern Nevada to take advantage of our great weather, beautiful outdoors, and minimal traffic. Along with theses firms comes the mindset of disruption. New technology and companies upending the way we drive, the way we access healthcare, and the way we communicate. Even our current president, and the Democrats main primary challenger in 2016, was cry for disruption, and opportunity to shake up politics and bring about a new way of doing business from the Oval Office.

 

Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch is skeptical of this disruption, at least in the world of politics, and looks at why government exists and how good governance can be promoted in his book Political Realism. What Rauch finds is that the spirit of disruption in politics is actually nothing new. We have always had candidates who focused on a single issue that they wanted to change. We have always had activists who fought for a particular idea of what was good, often excluding concerns of other issues and areas. And ultimately, we have always had a political establishment to rail against and charge with fraud, corruption, lack of interest, and complain about as a out of touch with the will of the people.

 

What Rauch describes in his book however, is that politics is a long-term game. It extends beyond the current moment and exists in the future and in the past. Our decisions are shaped by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future. What is important is not necessarily winning right now or introducing entirely new programs to completely tackle a problem today, but rather the importance lies in stability and positioning ourselves to constantly be able to improve and move forward. Our traditional system has done this with professional politicians who must please large and diverse groups of constituents. We have done this with compromise and a willingness to bend on principles to allow legislation to move through. As Charles Lindblom would describe it, we opt for incrementalism, slowly changing existing programs and policies because they already exist and have already been debated and implemented rather than spend all our time debating and fighting over new programs.

 

Contrasting this stable yet slow, lumbering, and apparently corrupting system is today’s vision of disruption. We want ideologically strong candidates who represent something greater than their own self-interest who will not bend on principles and will push for a great new society. This is a terrific vision, but it focuses on short term wins for the here and now at the expense of stability and long-term functionality. The system is composed of political amateurs, “Activists,” described by Rauch in his book as, “very different animals. They are less interested in extrinsic rewards than in advancing a public purpose, fighting for justice, experiencing the intrinsic satisfactions of participation. For them, issues are the essence of politics.” When the system is overwhelmed by the amateurs and activists, activity stops. Compromise is not possible and we cannot move forward with anything because we are all fighting for different ends. From time to time it may be necessary to flood a legislature with activists who represent a shift in the zeitgeist and will fight for things like racial justice, or a reduction in unnecessarily high taxes coupled with inefficient spending, or for a better healthcare system, but when this activist mindset becomes the norm, when every representative must be willing to die for their cause on every vote, the system cannot function and we cannot govern ourselves.

 

Sometimes the boring, the candidates who want office for the glory and not for the issue, and sometimes the flexible compromises are what we need for good governance. I would argue, and I think Rauch would agree, that most of the time these are the political leaders we need. They do not inspire great visions of a world where our political tribe dominates and where everything is about us and our priorities, but  they do work with others who are not like us and position the government to slowly move forward perhaps interrupted on occasion by groups that arise with strong preferences for a noble cause. Too many of these boring officials and we fail to meet the will of the people, but too few, and the system breaks and is open for demagoguery and encourages between-group meanness rather than between-group compromise.

What Are We Trying To Accomplish?

Sometimes I find that we can’t really define what outcomes we actually want, what goals we are actually working toward, and what purpose is actually driving our behaviors. For much of my life I see this in what I do, and where it really worries me is in the policy world. I focused on public administration and public policy for my masters degree. I think a lot about the thing that is lying at the heart of our political arguments and debates, and I think frequently about what it is that any one group is trying to accomplish when they frame an issue a certain way, respond to a crisis, or try to get a specific item on the agenda. Looking at the purpose behind the messaging and behind the actions is incredibly revealing and helpful for understanding where we are, and I think it is crucial to understand to develop effective policy.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright hits on the importance of understanding the why behind our actions and work. He writes, “The question of what we’re actually trying to accomplish with our actions is important because it demands we question our existing habits, biases, and goals.” We can move through life without examining what we are doing and why we are doing it, but autopilot by itself is not actually that good of a pilot. Someone has to set the course, determine the direction, and make sure things are pointed down the right runway before autopilot can take over. In the world of policy, this is all done behind the scenes and out of the way of the public. Not because someone is trying to be shady (most of the time) but because it is really boring detail oriented work. At the heart of all of it, its never really one person but a collective ethos in society that says things like, “people should be working if they expect to get help from the government” or “people have been discriminated against and can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps because the system is rigged.” We take these broad sentiments, develop boring policies that try to address problems, and the public responds. However, the underlying goals of these sentiments are often unclear and hard to decipher. Policy seems to branch forward unsure of what the real goal is and unsure of what should be accomplished. When we then enter into political discussions without offering real objectives and clear goals, policy meanders and doesn’t really solve anything.

 

Our lives are a lot more like the policy scenario I described above than what we likely realize. We have vague thoughts and intuitions about how our lives should be. We have a sense of what we need to do to impress others, make people proud of us, and to accomplish things we want. What we don’t always do, however, is sit down and truly think about what our goals should be and why we want those goals to be the things we work toward. Doing this and being more intentional about our objectives and motivations can help us build a life that doesn’t just branch forward and bumble along, but that creates measurable milestones that we can work toward. This allows us to align our life with things that are meaningful and allows us to build habits and routines that an be meaningful and developmental.

Design Matters

One of my favorite podcasts is Debbie Millman’s Design Matters. She interviews architects, artists, marketers, designers, and other creative people about their work and their place in the world. It is an excellent show to learn about people who see the world differently and to see what people did to reach success, often without following a traditional path. A common theme running throughout Millman’s show is that design matters. It matters a lot when we look at the built world around us and ask questions about why things operate the way they do, about why people behave the way they do, and about why society is designed the way it is. Design matters because the built environment and the societal structures we adopt or inherit shape who we are as people. Everything hinges on the design we give the world around us: our futures, our possibilities, our idea of what is possible, and our understanding of what is reality.

it is incredibly important that we think about design as a society because poor design leads to inequality and bad outcomes for individuals and for society as a whole. I thought about this when I returned to a sentence I highlighted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander writes, “The unfortunate reality we must face is that racism manifests itself not only in individual attitudes and stereotypes, but also in the basic structure of society.” When we think about design we can begin to connect the inequalities, the disparate impacts, and the problems with society today to the attitudes and behaviors of the past. In his podcast series, Seeing White, on his show Scene on Radio, host John Biewen reflects on the structural elements of racism in our society as opposed to the individual elements. Individual racism is easy to see, easy to condemn, and easy to change, but structural and institutional racism is hard to see, hard to understand, and very difficult to change. However, just because it is hard to see and understand does not mean that structural racism is any less of a threat to society or any less real for the people impacted.

We should be honest with ourselves and accept the idea that structures and systems designed by people who were openly racist can still impact the lives of people today. System and procedures were designed with the interests of white people and white culture in mind, and part of the decisions that were made involved the oppression, the limitation, and the containment of black people. We still must deal with many of these systems, even if their design has been slightly changed, because the original design was effective in allowing some to prosper while others were limited. These designs mattered, and they still matter today. A system that deplores individual racism while supporting hidden and structural racism can influence and shape the lives of individuals and the direction of society arguably more effectively than a system that encourages individual and open racism. To move forward, our nation needs leaders who can be honest about systems and structures and understand that design matters when thinking about government, society, services, communities, and neighborhoods. By becoming more aware, all of us can recognize the way that systems which are currently in place can shape our quality of life and the perceptions we all share, and we can push for new systems that compel us to interact more with our fellow citizens, and encourage us to see each other as people as opposed to enemies.