Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tactics, Schmactics -- why I don't buy the latest trope on the government shut down

[I haven't seen anyone frame the discussion in the following way, but a lot of the points I want to make in this thread have been made recently by Josh Marshall and Jonathan Chait. Both are on my fairly short list of daily reads and both have a rare gift for, to paraphrase Orwell, seeing what's in front of their noses.]

You've been hearing it everywhere from Paul Krugman to the National Review: the growing rift in the Republican Party is strictly over tactics -- everyone on the right agrees on what they want; they're just fighting over how to get there -- but having looked carefully at this (and I've stared into this abyss longer than I should have), I'm convinced that it's not just wrong but wrong on multiple levels. I don't think it fits the facts but, more importantly, I don't even think it answers a meaningful question.

Here's a rough analogy. Let's say you're standing in a subway station and a man next to you has a seizure, falls to ground and rolls off of the platform. In that situation, "Why would he want to do that?" is not a meaningful question. The idea of explaining actions through desires only make sense if we make certain assumptions about rationality, vantage and control.

When we're talking about groups, particularly groups large enough not to be able to form fully connected graphs, checking similar assumptions becomes even more important. We have a tendency to anthropomorphize institutions. "The business community wants this." "The Tea Party is trying to do that."   Of course, we know this isn't true. The most you can say is that there's a strong consensus or that the group is following the lead of an individual. This doesn't mean that it can't be useful to analyze groups as if they were individual actors; it can often be the best approach, but only if certain conditions are met. The first of these is that the groups have to be, for lack of a better word, functional.

To be functional, the group has to have certain mechanisms in place and working reasonably well:

Mechanisms to bring information into the system, analyze it and make appropriate decisions based on it;

Mechanisms to disseminate instructions for implementing these decisions, and gathering feedback from members to allow adjustments in strategy;

Mechanisms to check those personal agendas when they threaten the overall goals of the group.

My take is that for quite a while now, the Republican party and the conservative movement have not been functional by these standards. I'm not saying that conservatives are stupid or unbalanced or are acting in an irrational or erratic manner. I am saying that the mechanisms needed for functional operation have broken down and, furthermore, they have broken down in entirely predictable ways, as long as you apply the right principles (game theory, social and individual psychology, voting "paradoxes," collective action and principal agent problem, organizational theory, etc.).

For example, the Romney campaign's inability to process poll information clearly indicates a breakdown in the way that information is suppose to flow through a system. More recently, many of the statements being made by prominent conservatives are clearly cathartic; They can only be seen as the actions of people seeking emotional release without regard to the larger strategic goals of the group.

I've got some suggestions as to why this is happening that I will try to flesh out more later (with the caveat that I have no special expertise in any of these areas and I will invariably get in over my head). I've got first drafts of the next couple of posts, but just to restate the underlying thesis, when it comes to recent developments in the GOP, I think that we are less likely to find useful analogies in the Art of War and more likely to find them in When Prophecy Fails.

1 comment:

  1. You might enjoy today's Jon Chait column:


    I think that both of you are moving towards the same overall underlying theory of what is happening in that regards.