The Game [Theory] is Rigged
January 2, 2011

Jimmy McNulty, The Wire
Image via Wikipedia

Thus story thus far: Andrew Sprung criticizes political scientist/political science blogger Jonathan Bernstein‘s “joyous cynicism” regarding the political process. Or to put it another way:

No one, I’m sure, would quarrel with Bernstein for highlighting the possibility that a party leader in McConnell’s position might enhance his party’s interest by putting up resistance to ratification of  this treaty even if he personally believed the treaty to advance U.S. interests — at least, if he knew that the resistance would ultimately fail.

Where Bernstein (judging from his blog’s Comments section) does disturb many readers — me included — is in his suggestion that it is politicians’ right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians’ words and actions.

Fellow political scientist/political science blogger Seth Masket replies:

I don’t want to speak for Jon here (I’m sure he’ll have a good post along these lines up shortly), but my response to this is as follows: I don’t celebrate this system. But to complain that politicians will be guided by political calculation is like complaining that businesspeople will be guided by profit maximization or that athletes are too obsessed with winning. It’s not a character flaw; it’s their line of work. Indeed, hoping for politicians who are untethered from political calculations is not only naïve, but sometimes quite dangerous.

But of course, Sprung never once wishes aloud for “politicians who are untethered from political calculations.” His disagreement with Bernstein (and by extension, Masket) is not over whether politicians should make political calculations, but over how they should determine the ends to which those calculations are directed. Is a good legislator one who makes his political calculations based primarily on (A) moral concerns, or (B) rational self-interest? Bernstein and Masket seem to prefer Option B, and this is exactly what Sprung finds so cynical.

Maybe the features of Option B that so disturb Sprung would be more apparent to Bernstein and Masket if we looked at how other sectors of society function on Planet Option B. You guys know what that means: it’s super happy fun thought experiment imagination time!

Consider the policeman. Not just any policeman. I’m talking about Policeman McNulty. What is Policeman McNulty’s job? Most people would argue that it is to maintain order, uphold the law, and keep the innocent residents of his jurisdiction (the sleepy little hamlet of New Hamsterdam) safe. As long as the NHPD rewards officers based solely on how well they fulfill those responsibilities, and does so with perfect efficiency, all is well.

But one day, mean old Commissioner Burrell decides to institute an arrest quota. Policeman McNulty now needs to bust a certain number of people per week in order to keep his job. McNulty realizes that unless he dramatically steps up his weekly arrest rate, his job is in grave danger.

Now, McNulty wants to be good po-lice. But what does that mean, exactly? In the New Hamsterdam of Planet B, it would mean responding to the incentives provided by Burrell, and boosting his arrest rate by any means necessary. This, Option B tells us, is not just part of what it means to be good po-lice: it supersedes the traditional role of the police officer, because rational self-interest dictates that it would.

But if McNulty starts cuffing jaywalkers and planting crack on people who deserve little more than speeding tickets, are we really going to argue that he is good po-lice? Or would we instead argue that he should ignore rational self-interest and fight for principles above the network of punishments and incentives built into New Hamsterdam’s law enforcement bureaucracy?

When it comes to the NHPD, Worldview B seems not just wrong, but deeply, deeply cynical. Furthermore, we have little reason to believe any different when it comes to the real world of politics.

That said, I don’t think Bernstein and Masket accept the premises of Worldview B out of conscious cynicism. Rather, I think career political scientists are likely predisposed to see a certain beauty and elegance in the system they observe that can all too easily be conflated with a sort of ethical purity. Just as Einstein saw God in physics, the biologist sees it in biology, the economist sees it in economics, and the political scientist sees it in political science. To not find some kind of magic in the subject to which one dedicates a lifetime of scholarship — that would be cynical.

But a little bit of perspective shows us that beauty in game theory is not the same thing as moral worth. We need to hold our elected officials to a higher standard than mere responsiveness to incentives. The fact that they might rarely meet that standard does not make us naïve, so long as we acknowledge those failures and their causes.

Enhanced by Zemanta

IR School
November 19, 2010

So as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been taking a deeper interest in international relations lately. It’s something I’ve always tried to keep an eye on, and I’d say I have a rudimentary grasp of it, but I’m looking to dig deeper. Basically, having missed out on IR in college, I’m trying to do a post-collegiate extra-curricular IR major.

That’s going to involve a lot of reading. I’m already reading Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and a bunch of blogs committed to the subject, so what I need now are book recommendations. Sergio, we can check off the list. Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy is another one I intend to read.* What else?

*OBVIOUS BUT NONETHELESS WORTH REPEATING DISCLAIMER: Reading and trying to learn from the words of a war criminal does not equal an endorsement of his actions or world view.

Down the DC Rabbit Hole
September 13, 2010

Thanks to this latest contribution to the ongoing online discussion on what political journalism could learn from political science, I spent some of my train ride back from DC (where I spent the weekend looking at apartments) reading this fantastic essay on the 1988 campaign by Joan Didion. I’ve been meaning to dig into Didion’s work for a while now, and it turns out that this was a particularly good place to start.

Didion wrote this essay from the perspective of a political outsider immersing herself in the life of The Process. She renders politics as an insular, arcane observance with its own set of rituals, carefully observed conventions and hierarchies that are both chillingly alien and wholly irrelevant to those standing outside it. While much has changed in the 22 years since she penned “Insider Baseball,” I think the basic substance of that criticism has not.

In about two weeks, I will be living in that world. I’ve been preparing myself for that possibility since high school, and it’s true that in some ways I’m already a part of it—or, at the very least, a compulsive observer of it. But soon I will be living in America’s (indeed, the world’s) political capital, working full-time in political research and communications, socializing in my free time with political journalists, operatives, Hill staffers and other people who have devoted their careers to The Process.

I don’t know if the sensation of strangeness that comes with that knowledge will ever wear off, but I hope it doesn’t. It clearly does for a lot of people—and these are the ones who think The Process consists of unyielding physical law. Didion rightfully argues that the opposite is true: these laws and tribal codes are really deeply idiosyncratic ideological propositions. You can’t engage with them without having them warp your perspective to some degree. Of course, no one’s perspective is more ideologically warped than he who takes his position to be fundamentally non-ideological.

I don’t write this as an endorsement of the “Real America” fallacy—the idea that political outsiders alone are uniquely qualified to evaluate what occurs in the political process because they stand apart from it and are therefore objective. I’m not a fan, by any means, of newspaper columnists who think the best way to address complex policy problems is through interviewing random cab drivers named Joe. Rather, I think the lesson here is that human subjectivity is ubiquitous and overwhelming. This is hardest to see when you’re embedded in a world like DC, with its robust and convoluted internal logic and mythology; but losing sight of it means failing to meet some of the fundamental ethical obligations of the career I’ve chosen. My ability to grow as a political commentator and observer depends largely on how well I can engage and participate in this culture while recognizing both its subjectivity and its oddness.

Stephen Walt on Political Science
July 2, 2010

I’ll pose the question to my friends who were/are actual political science majors: is the trend Walt identifies here, in which caution defeats ambition and compels scholars to focus on drab, esoteric questions over bold new models, for real?

It sounds plausible to me, and certainly tracks with my one deeply dissatisfying semester in NYU’s Politics department, but that’s not enough to base an argument on. And to be fare, I don’t think this is somehow unique to political science; the same sort of institutional pressures could affect many different departments, and I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t.

Enhanced by Zemanta

%d bloggers like this: