30 October, 2018

Observations from Washington

Bri Buckley, Washington Dc Skyline (2015) 

"People, ideas, thingsIn that order!"

Attributed to Col. John Boyd (1927-1997)

As announced earlier, I spent the last two weeks or so traveling about. Most of that was in Washington and its environs. While in DC I had the opportunity to brunch, coffee break, and do all those DC things with a fair number of interesting people. This included the expected bevy of writers and reporters, but also some folks involved in developing or implementing policy for various federal agencies and departments. Included were individuals on both sides of the legislative/executive divide. From these discussions I gleaned an unexpected lesson: the overwhelming importance of people. I submit that misunderstanding on this point has led to a lot of flawed commentary on President Trump and his administration.

American political commentary trends towards one of three modes. The first, and these days the most common, is the politics of the circus race. Circus racers are spectators. They reduce politics to the stadium chant. What matters to them is victory. But they, like all spectators, have so little control over who wins and loses. In the end, their political expression is less about managing power than affirming identity. Rare is the analyst who can separate the facts of the circus race from the feelings they have for its players. Wonkery is the natural opposite of these stadium chants. If race-ground spectators cannot divorce policy from their own sense of self worth, the wonk yearns to abstract policy away from politics altogether. Wonks see the world in terms of ideas. Politics is the battle between policies (preferably policies they helped devise), not people. Lost on them is the lesson of this post: the best ideas matter far less than the best people.  Good people can develop new ideas to match the situation at hand; ideas disconnected from a network of people that can realize them are useless.

This is not an original observation, but it goes a long way towards explaining why things are the way they are in Washington right now. Some parts of the US government have been far more effective at realizing Trump's vision than others. Likewise, some individuals have been far more successful at getting Trump to match his vision with their own than others have. The rare commentator that attempts to explain why this is so usually adopts the third mode in contemporary political analysis: the court chronicle. Court chroniclers tend to describe Trump in Byzantine terms. Like all aged, mad emperors, Trump stands sequestered off from the real world, his actions mediated by the close coterie of advisors planted about him. Policy success is mostly a matter of personality. Those whom the President favors find their policies favored. Policy swings track the rise and fall of individual cabinet members in the eyes of the President.

There is something compelling about this sort of narrative, but I now think this is fundamentally wrong way to understand what is happening. Let me sketch out an alternative viewone which focuses less on cabinet personalities and more on the personnel one to two rungs below them.

Donald Trump came to power with a problem: he was not of Washington, knew few in Washington, but now suddenly was charged with filling hundreds of empty positions in Washington. In contrast to Team Hillary, who had been quietly building a shadow government months before the election was decided, Trump's election caught Trump's transition team flat-footed. The Trump campaign team was marked by its instability. Expecting a loss and not eager to associate themselves with a doomed and tainted movement, few potential appointees had worked with Trump or his team in the lead up to his election. The NeverTrumpers run a lot of the think tank patronage machinery in DC; neither they nor their recommendations were welcome.  Trump had few close relationships in congress; Senator Sessions was the only man or woman there he really trusted, and a single senator's staff is not large enough to fill an entire administration.

So Trump adopted expedients. As several sources described to me, what happened next went more or less like this: Trump or a deputy would call up a senator or congressman to exact his tax. They all had full staffscould they not sacrifice one man to help the administration out? Of course their help in this matter would be remembered. And so the congressional staffs were raided, with one man from this office and another woman from that one sent to the White House. There they were joined with the remnants of the old Trump campaign and the occasional insert from DoD that McMaster or Kelly was able to stick in. These were the folks that were called upon to make Trump's vague and often contradictory campaign pronouncements into a concrete policy program.

They have had a difficult time doing this.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider why this may be so. Part of the problem was the deep-seated hostility of the career bureaucracy to Trump and Trumpism. No administration has leaked like this one has. This has created intense distrust at all levels of almost every department. But the distrust is not just between the political appointees and the old hands. The political appointees themselves have very little trust for each other. And why would they? Few had met before they were all squished inside their chosen agency. They had no experience working together and often had widely different motivations for accepting their role. It was difficult to work or conceive of themselves as a team. Likewise, very few of these appointees knew or had previous connections with the top career personnel now working for them. They also tended to have a rather poor understanding of the bureaucracies they had been tasked with managing. The more wonkish among them might even have had crisp policies in mind, but unfamiliar with the morass of laws and possible bureaucratic maneuvers governing their new home, it was easy for rivals or underlings to frustrate their aims. The less wonkish among them had a even harder time of it, despised as Trump toadies in over their heads. Finally, many of them, especially those who had worked for the last decade as part of the congressional staff, simply do not have much experience actually producing things. "They spent the last eight years saying 'No!'," one person told me. "They are very good at producing arguments and stopping a bill in its tracks. But when it comes time to make their own policy, they are lost."

This is a general, stylized picture. It describes what has happened in several executive agencies. For the sake of my sources I won't say which, though I don't think it will be too hard to guess which ones I am referring to. I describe all this as necessary background for my next example—the example of the department that has done it right: the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

 USTR's meteoric rise over the last two years is miraculous. Compared to what has happened with most executive agencies and departments, it seems almost magical. USTR's staff does not leak. They are far and away the most productive member of the executive branch. Trump and his kind have talked for years about overturning the old order. In their sphere, USTR has not only managed to actually do that; they also maneuvered America's trading partners into going along with them. In contrast to just about everyone else, they regularly produce tangibles for the President to trumpet about. They do this without any of the indecencies that other agencies and their leaders embarrass the President with. Their influence is now immense. Robert Lighthizer is probably the single most important person in the U.S.-Chinese relationship (NSC's Matt Pottinger likely comes in at second), and is clearly the most important voice in setting the terms of America's economic engagement with the broader world. Since its creation USTR has played second fiddle to Treasury and State. Now it leads them. For the first time in the post-war world, American trade policy is leading foreign policy instead of the other way around.

 How did this happen?

Part of the reason is that Trump likes all of this. Trump is happy to see foreign policy take backseat to trade policy. Part of the reason is the character and intelligence of Ligthizer himself, something that outsiders recognized set him apart from many administration picks even before he was confirmed. But Lightizer is more than just one manhe is the leader of a small network of men and women who think like he does. Lightizer does not just have policy ideas. He has the people he needs to make turn those ideas into realities.

If you spend time looking at the biographies of the USTR appointees, a few things stand out: a large number are veterans of Skadden Arps, an international law firm who represents U.S. companies in trade fracas. This is the firm Lightizer himself worked at before he took on his current role. The remaining appointees are either from other international law firms that Lightizer had a close relationship with or are from within USTR itself. Consider why this background matters: as trade lawyers, Lightizer and his team are experts in the details of international law and international trade. They know as much about the topic as their own bureaucrats. If they are being pedaled crap by their subordinates, they would know it. Working in Washington on the cases that they did, Lightizer and his team already had a personal relationship with many of the career USTR subordinates they now rely on (and will surely maintain those relationships once they leave). They know both the players and the game as well as any bureaucrat. However, they are not bureaucrats. They come straight from the private sector and are thus used to working with private sector time pressures. They know how to produce

Most important of all, however, is that Lightizer and his team are a team. His top staff all know each other and have past experiencing working with each other. None of the distrust that has plagued other agencies is to be found in their office. Lightizer built the network he needed to upend decades of American policy long before he was in a political position that let him do so. This is what makes his Office so much more successful than the rest of the administration. The victory or defeat of a political programs is less about the policies employed than the people you find to employ them.

09 October, 2018

Notes From All Over (9/10/18): Constitutional Cycles, Cognitive Gadgets, and the Uses of Repression


"The Recent Unpleasantness: Understanding the Cycles of Constitutional Time"
Jack M. Balkin, Public Law Research Paper No. 648. 8 August 2018. (Indiana Law Journal, 2018 Forthcoming).
Our present condition is a little like an eclipse, although much less enjoyable. To understand what is going on today in America, we have to think in terms of political cycles that interact with each other and create remarkable—and dark—times... What are the three cycles at work in American politics? The first is the cycle of the rise and fall of political regimes in American history. The second is the cycle of polarization and depolarization. And the third is the decay and renewal of republican government, which I call the cycle of constitutional rot and constitutional renewal. Each of these cycles operates on a different time scale. I will introduce each of them in turn, and explain how they interact. Together, the interaction of the se three cycles—of the rise and fall of regimes, of polarization and depolarization, and of rot and renewal—generate constitutional time. Think of this lecture like a chronometer that tells you where we are in constitutional time...
See also: Jack M. Balkin, "Constitutional Rot Reaches the Supreme Court," Balkinization (6 October 2018).

"Précis of Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking."
Cecilia Heyes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-57. September 2018.

I have hailed Cecilia Heyes' new book Cognitive Gadgets as the most important work in the human sciences published this year. Behavioral and Brain Sciences also believes her work breaks new ground. You can read a 60~ page precis of the book for free on their website, where it is up for 'public comment.'

"Repression Works (Just not in Moderation)"
Yuri Zhukov, personal working paper. 29 September, 2017.

This paper is long. It also explains why I am so pessimistic about the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang.


"Here’s how much Americans trust 38 major news organizations (hint: not all that much!)"
Joshua Benton. Nieman Lab. 5 October 2018.

I personally would switch around the place of The Washington Post and The Guardian. (Find the original research here.)

"The Meritocracy Against Itself"
Ross Douthat. The New York Times. 2 October 2018.
...if you read this and then go look me up on Wikipedia (actually, please don’t) you’ll see that I also attended something that could be reasonably described as a prep school — so who am I, exactly, to declare that there was some huge distance between myself and the Kavanaugh types, or any other preppy clique?

And with that question you’ve struck to the heart of the whole meritocratic game, which depends on a reproduction of privilege that pretends to be something else, something fair and open and all about hard work and just deserts.

...Also, note the parenthetical disclosure in the story, where Miller explains how she got in touch with Kavanaugh’s freshman roommate Kit Winter and a friend of his, Itamar Kubovy, who visited their unhappy dorm room: “Editor’s note: Winter, Kubovy, and I went to high school together in New Haven, and Winter’s family and mine were friends.” That “high school” was Hopkins, currently ranked as the second-best private high school in Connecticut (fullest-possible disclosure: mine is ranked No. 14). So the story Miller is telling is about how a jock from the No. 5 private high school in Maryland was a jerk to his roommate who went to the No. 2 private high school in Connecticut, and who years later communicated the story to a reporter who also went to that same No. 2 private high school, who then wrote it up as a tale of social stratification for our times.
...A great many of the people who populate those schools, a great many of the people who complain about preppy creeps and rich jocks even as they try to imitate them, a great many of the people whose essays on What Kavanaugh Represents are populating elite-media websites these days, are much more like the “elites and legacies” than their self-image permits them to admit.
"Online Harassment Report: 2017"
Maeve Duggan. Pew Internet. 7 November 2017.
"Men and women experience and respond to online harassment in different ways. Overall, men are somewhat more likely to experience any form of harassing behavior online: 44% of men and 37% of women have experienced at least one of the six behaviors this study uses to define online harassment. In terms of specific experiences, men (30%) are modestly more likely than women (23%) to have been called offensive names online or to have received physical threats (12% vs. 8%).

By contrast, women – and especially young women – encounter sexualized forms of abuse at much higher rates than men. Some 21% of women ages 18 to 29 report being sexually harassed online, a figure that is more than double the share among men in the same age group (9%). In addition, roughly half (53%) of young women ages 18 to 29 say that someone has sent them explicit images they did not ask for. For many women, online harassment leaves a strong impression: 35% of women who have experienced any type of online harassment describe their most recent incident as either extremely or very upsetting, about twice the share among men (16%).

More broadly, men and women differ sharply in their attitudes toward the relative importance of online harassment as an issue. For instance, women (63%) are much more likely than men (43%) to say people should be able to feel welcome and safe in online spaces, while men are much more likely than women to say that people should be able to speak their minds freely online (56% of men vs. 36% of women). Similarly, half of women say offensive content online is too often excused as not being a big deal, whereas 64% of men – and 73% of young men ages 18 to 29 – say that many people take offensive content online too seriously. Further, 70% of women – and 83% of young women ages 18 to 29 – view online harassment as a major problem, while 54% of men and 55% of young men share this concern."


"The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies"
Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley. Bloomberg Businessweek. 8 October 2018

If true, this story is the scoop of the year. But the veracity of the story is up to question. Read a few entries in the dispute here, here, here, and here.

 "If Horses Had Wings : The Political Demands of Mainland New Confucians in Recent Years
Ge Zhaoguang (Introduction and translation by David Ownby). Reading the Chinese Dream. September 2018.

This essay is a good reminder of how complicated political opinion in China actually is. Many folks assume that Chinese liberals hate the Party most of all. But reality is more complicated. In my experience, the group they really can't stand is the political tribe targeted in this essay: the "New Confucians"

"How tensions with the West are putting the future of China’s Skynet mass surveillance system at stake."
Stephen Chen. South China Morning Post. 23 September 2018.

2018 Purdue Survey of Chinese Students and Scholars in the United States: A General Report
Center on Religion and Chinese Society. September 2018.

Eric Fish has a good twitter thread that summarizes the report, for those who don't want to read the full thing.


"Why most narrative history is wrong"
Alex Rosenberg. Salon. 7 October 2018.

Mark my words: this is going to the next academic crap-storm. You will see.

"Geopolitics and Asia’s little divergence: State building in China and Japan after 1850"
Mark Koyama, Chiaki Moriguchi, and Tuan-HweeSung. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. September 2018.

"China Is What You Get If Your Civilization Never Gets Amnesia"
Razib Khan. Gene Expression. 29 September 2018.

Thoughtful review of Li Feng's Early China: A Social and Cultural History.


"The Rutherford Atom of Culture"
Lawrence A. Hirschfeld. Journal of Cognition and Culture (Vol 18, Iss 4), pp. 231– 261. 2018.

A compelling but flawed attack on cross-cultural psychology. See my longer take (and it is pretty long) in this tweet stream. My response is strongly informed by the logic of Cecilia Heyes' Cultural Gadget, mentioned above.

"Why your brain is hardwired to be bad at economics – and how to fix it."
Pascal Boyer. New Scientist. September 2018.

See also: Pascal Boyer and Michael Bang Peterson, "Folk-economic beliefs: An evolutionary cognitive model," Behavioral and Brain Sciences (October 2017) and the 32 commentaries on it.

“Can I Have My Amygdala Removed?”
'Neuroskeptic.' Discover Magazine. 7 October 2018.

"Empirical assessment of published effect sizes and power in the recent cognitive neuroscience and psychology literature."
Denes Szucs and John PA Ioannidis. PLOS Biology. March 2017.

This suggests that neuroscience and brain-imaging studies are ripe for their own replication crisis.

"Was Science Wrong About Being Right?"
Gemma Tarlach. Discover Magazine. June 2018.


The big academic news this week is the 'Sokal Squared' set of hoax papers that got through a series of critical theory oriented journals. I have written up two twitter threads summarizing my thoughts on the hoaxes:

Sokal Squared Thread I
Sokal Squared Thread II

"Hunter-Gatherers Maintain Assortativity in Cooperation despite High Levels of Residential Change and Mixing"
Kristopher M. Smith, Tomás Larroucau, Ibrahim A. Mabulla, and Coren L. Apicella. Cell (vol 28, iss 19). October 2018.

"The origins of human prosociality: Cultural group selection in the workplace and the laboratory"
Patrick Francois, Thomas Fujiwara, and Tanguy van Ypersele. Science Advances (Vol. 4, no. 9). 19 September 2018.

Very interesting attempt to apply cultural evolution theory to modern firms. A short critique of mine can be found here.


"Hired to Drain the Swamp, Fired in Less Than a Year"
Mark Perry, The American Conservative. 26 September 2018.

"How WhatsApp Destroyed A Village"
 Pranav Dixit and Ryan Mac. Buzzfeed News. 9 September 2018.


"Lessons From Bar Fight Litigation"
Burt Likko. Ordinary Times. 21 January 2014. 

"Why and How to Protect Your Garbage from Snoopers and Thieves"
Joshua Sheets. Radical Personal Finance Podcast (episode 578). 7 September 2018.


See also: Hiroshige Seko,  Robert E. Lighthizer, and Cecilia Malmström, "Joint Statement on Trilateral Meeting of the Trade Ministers of the United States, Japan, and the European Union" Press Release, 25 September 2018.

06 October, 2018

Travels and Other Announcements

Folks, I am going to be in the Washington DC area for most of next week. After that I will be in Northern Utah for at least a month or so. If you are a reader of the blog and would like to meet in person in either of these two locations, send an e-mail to the blog's e-mail address (you can find it on the right side bar) and we will see if we can make it work out. (Note: if you are not a regular commentator please introduce yourself so I have a better idea of who you are.)

I cannot give any guarantee that I will be able to meet, but there are a few holes in my schedule left to fill so it is worth a shot.

Also, I have two posts ready that will be published over the course of the next week. Both of these are set to auto-publish. I won't have time to log on and do it manually. What that means for you: I will not be checking comment moderation until at least the 17th. You are free to leave a comment before then, but none of them will be published until after I am out of DC. So there is no use sending me irate e-mails accusing me of censoring you.