Federal Vacancies & Senate Dysfunction

“Biden is hardly the first incoming president to struggle with filling key positions. Any new administration faces hundreds of openings at the same time it’s grappling with other urgent challenges. Biden’s pace of nominations is faster than Donald Trump’s, slower than Barack Obama’s and about the same as George W. Bush’s — though unlike any of those three, Biden has decades of Washington contacts to draw on.”

-Tyler Pager, Ann E. Marimow and Laurie McGinley. “Vacancies remain in key Biden administration positions.” The Washington Post. July 10, 2021.
 

It’s interesting that the story The Washington Post ran with is that Biden is not filling positions. But, if you look at this graphic, it’s clear that he’s on track with previous administrations. The real story is why are the numbers of Senate confirmations so low? For Trump, I’d assume they were low because he nominated patently unqualified people more than any other reason. But, for Biden? It points to Senate dysfunction, which The Washington Post mentions as a Democratic talking point, but it doesn’t want to make the point itself.

Also, only one of these guys took office in the middle of a pandemic. You don’t have to like Biden to think this narrative is ridiculous.

Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption

“A nontrivial 15% of Americans agree with the sweeping QAnon allegation that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation,” while the vast majority of Americans (82%) disagree with this statement. Republicans (23%) are significantly more likely than independents (14%) and Democrats (8%) to agree that the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.

Similarly, one in five Americans (20%) agree with the statement “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders,” while a majority (77%) disagree. Nearly three in ten Republicans (28%), compared to 18% of independents and 14% of Democrats, agree with this secondary QAnon conspiracy theory. Trends among demographic groups are similar to those of the core QAnon conspiracy theory.

Fifteen percent of Americans agree that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” while the vast majority (85%) disagree. Republicans (28%) are twice as likely as independents (13%) and four times as likely as Democrats (7%) to agree that because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence.”

-PRRI Staff, “Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption.” prri.org. May 27, 2021.

I think the most interesting thing about this polling information is in Table 1, Factors Contributing to QAnon Beliefs:

  • being a White/Hispanic who subscribes to evangelical/Catholic religion
  • being a person of color
  • young, less than 30 years of age
  • no college
  • being Republican/Conservative
  • a media diet of Fox News, far-right networks, and not much else
  • lower income
  • resides in a rural area

When you read the quote above, it’s pretty tempting to just leap to the conclusion that 20% of Americans are morons. But, when you look at the list of factors contributing to QAnon beliefs, it’s pretty clear that these beliefs are partly a reaction to limited opportunity. If you look around and notice that you don’t have any prospects, the political and religious belief systems you subscribe to are waning, and there’s media offering the perspective that it is not your fault, but the fault of evil actors that will soon be overthrown, then it’s an attractive belief system. It gives you hope that your circumstances will change and that you’ll be returned to a better, your rightful, place. It’s certainly easier than looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking: “Perhaps, I’ll have to do something to change my environment or myself.”

On one hand, systemic exploitation is a problem. If you are poor, a person of color and/or live in rural area, your environment acts as a serious constraint on your opportunities. And, if you are struggling to make ends meet in a rural community, is it really possible to just move to a urban area that is more expensive and where you don’t have social connections? So, aspects of this are immutable and are a function of historical trends, systems of exploitation and other factors. If these can be changed, it can only be changed on the timescale of decades or longer.

And, there’s a social dimension. People go to churches, subscribe to political ideologies, and so forth because they want to be accepted as part of a group. A shared belief system binds together groups. One of the most common beliefs people have is that the problems they have are caused by someone else, The Other. It’s evident in every kind of X-ism. You can see it in commonly expressed ideas like:

  • Women: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
  • Poor people are poor because they don’t like to work.
  • Stereotypical views of ethnic groups, e.g., Shylock as an archetype for Jewish people.
  • Rural people are hillbillies.

And, the funny thing is there is truth to the belief. If someone thinks you are a hillbilly, they tacitly don’t think you are as good as they are or their circle of friends and might exclude you from opportunities. So, you are being oppressed. But, at the same time, there’s also some truth to the stereotypes. If you haven’t had the same educational opportunities, then it is likely you don’t have the same kind of skill sets either.

But, what is to be done? Adopting a belief like QAnon is to hope for a savior. Sadly, this savior is never going to come, but perhaps, the hope for one is enough to get through today, which, for some, might just be enough. It is certainly easier than changing our social milieu, our friends, our church and our sense of self. But, as is frequently the case, the harder path is probably the better path. When what you stand for is dead, there’s no choice but to resurrect yourself as someone different.

Sifting the Internet for Gold

“…which of my beliefs remain unchanged? What assumptions will remain in place? What trends will be accelerated, which delayed, and which stopped entirely? What do I care about that has become newly relevant, and what no longer matters?

-Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Edouard Urcades, “Premonition.” subpixel.space. March 25, 2021.

Something about the phrase “lifestyle performance and participation” bugs me, but I agree with the thrust of the commentary, i.e.:

  • More culture is shifting online
  • It will continue moving away from giant aggregators like Facebook
  • Much of it will not be generally accessible, moving away from clear net to more private modes
  • Smaller communities, by definition, introduce more variance in behavior, that is, they are weirder
  • The death of retail will open up spaces for small culture and these small communities formed online will reconstitute themselves in meatspace, making meatspace downstream of online life
  • There will be a general flight from most cities as work-from-home becomes a legitimate option. This will give birth to a new suburban culture

However, there are obvious places where they are wrong too. For example, retail is going to be devastated, but it isn’t because of a recession, it will be because they have been made redundant by online stores and to your door delivery that is already impacting general retail, pharmacy, restaurants and practically every other area of retail you can think of.

“More self-organizing friend groups and professional networks are using video calls and enterprise chat as a way to socialize. As a result, many individuals will suddenly begin to experience their interactions as content that can be public and monetized, and will feel more pressure to externalize their communications for an audience.”

Specialist physicians, for example, can create “journal clubs” and presentations for little cost for Continuing Medical Education credit, which will probably will help in the cross-pollination of practices and lead to better health care.

“We are still exiting an era of defunct political parties that are failing and fragmenting, and making our way into an era of discovery and realignment.”

Possible, but I think the existing political parties in the United States are a Coke/Pepsi duopoly that serves elite interests. It’s possible these new movements will be captured, but if it goes off in a truly new direction, you can be sure that the old guard will protect their lunch.

“The culture war between the East Coast and West Coast, which has been going on for some time, is now all but over. It has self-evidently been lost by the East Coast.”

About as right as saying the United States is declining and China is replacing it, which is to say there’s a surface truth here that falls apart if you think about it for five minutes.

Some of the ideas here are truly horrible. A digital graveyard? Want to imagine what your digital grave is going to look in a century in a culture like the U.S. that doesn’t believe in filial piety or worshiping ancestors? One is the loneliest number, indeed. There is something deeply sad about wanting desperately to be remembered and the reality that very few of us will be. Personally, I think it is better to think about this moment, this life as “tears in the rain”, lost forever once it is over. The transience of it, of the moment, is what is valuable about it. We are thinking about this issue all wrong.

“Breathe. Read the air. We are all going online in a new way, and we will never entirely leave again. In this new era, cultural literacy is a baseline requirement for making technology, for making policy, for living and for dying. Squad up. The real knowledge work begins now.

Let me say, with all sincerity, “Fuck that.” I’m going to stick in my own little weird subculture of one, and while I take an interest in the broader culture, since it is fascinating, let’s also understand Sturgeon’s Law applies, i.e., 90% of it is crap. The real knowledge work isn’t cultural literacy, it is taste making. In the deluge of terrible that comprises much of the Internet, who can distill all of that dross and find the nuggets, the pearls? No one can find them all, obviously, but there’s gold in them there hills! Well, reader, it’s probably as good of a description of what I’m up to with the site as any.

New sites I learned about from the article:

  • Figma helps teams create, test, and ship better designs from start to finish.
  • Notion: One tool for your whole team. Write, plan, and get organized. So, maybe a Slack/Roam?

Our Cults Become Our Culture

“A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits no matter what we think, but culture becomes what we believe it is. Conditioned by the prophets of data and nostalgia to imagine no further than the evidence of the past, we forget that people are self-aware and their actions shaped by a self-aware culture. Our explanations are not independent of our behavior but constitutive of it. As such, our cults of thinking become our culture.”

—Greg Jackson, “Sources of Life.” The Point. March 24, 2021.

This essay is so good, and this quote is probably not the best excerpt. Worth reading in its entirety.

You Don’t Need (To Complain About) Substack

“Our timing was nearly perfect—a mere two weeks after we wrote our joint essay, Substack had a huge controversy, and is now facing a backlash. Writers are thinking of jumping ship and looking for ideas for what to do next. I’ve been doing this without a net for a while, and I have a few thoughts on how it can be done.”

—Ernie Smith, “Newsletter, Untethered.” Tedium.co. March 19, 2021.

Basically, Ernie explains how to roll your own newsletter. If you don’t like Substack, Medium, or these other publishing platforms, you don’t have to use them. There are options, but many require technical expertise, which is what you are paying them not to learn so you can focus on writing.

Let me take a moment to comment, with the full understanding that no one cares what I think: The Substack “controversy” is nonsense. What they are doing is figuring out who could make money on their platform and removing the risk for these writers to try it out. I haven’t read up on who they made offers to, but is the world a more interesting place with Scott Alexander publishing Astral Codex Ten and Freddie deBoer being given a one year guarantee to build an audience on the platform and concentrate on writing? Probably. I don’t agree with the politics of either of these individuals. But, I do know that the modern media landscape doesn’t give them a platform, and it should. When we support a media landscape of diverse voices, it means you’re going to hear a lot of viewpoints you’re not going to like. That’s the price of a diverse landscape.

Of course, capitalism comes with incentives, and the incentives encourage extreme viewpoints. That’s what people will pay for.

If you want to promote conventional opinion, write mediocre poetry, share your hot tips on making money (or living your best life, nutrition advice or what not), then you get on a free tier of an online publishing platform. Or, if you are slightly more serious, you pay for the privilege and get a WordPress personal site or equivalent. And, if you are very good, relatable, extreme and/or lucky, Substack might approach you in a decade too. Good luck to you, if that’s what you want.

But, complaining how some company runs its business? Is Substack Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft? Do we want to talk about the relative harms here and why quitting Substack for some other online publishing or newsletter platform is a relatively cost-free form of virtue signaling? Want to guess how many people will read and heed Ernie’s advice rather than join the platform of the moment? Fractions of a percent. In other words, the objections about Substack and the migrating to another service with the same incentives is the kind of nonsense that characterizes left activism and is why so much of it has very little impact on the real world beyond soothing a few consciences and signaling we are good people at very little cost.

Rolling your own has a serious cost, in time and effort. Giving up Facebook, or one of the other feudal internet companies, also has a significant cost. But, leaving Substack to go to Buttondown? Who you fooling?

For a better argument, see Ben Thompson.

Thanks to Ernie for suggesting a few editorial changes to make it clear that rolling your own is not cost-free nor is it virtual signaling. It is a great way to control your creative output and foster independence. The challenge for publishing ecosystems is getting the tools to the point that non-technical writers can take advantage of them.

The Road Map Back From Authoritarianism

“Experts in authoritarianism advise keeping a list of things changing, subtly, around you, so you’ll remember. Days after the 2016 presidential election, I started a list. Each week, I chronicle the ways Donald Trump has changed our country. This selection, adapted from more than 34,000 entries — or about 1 percent of the total — focuses on the norms he and his administration have broken. The List offers us a road map back to normalcy and democracy.”

-Amy Siskind, “This is not normal:
A guide to what the next president will have to unwind.
The Washington Post. October 16, 2020.

Doom scrolling, at its very best.

Conversations on Political Economy

Capitalist: Capitalism provides for the most efficient allocation of resources, wealth creation and individual choice. It’s the best economic system we’ve got.

State Socialist: There are other values than efficiency, prosperity and choice. Capitalism tends toward oligarchy and monopoly. As industries concentrate and gain economies of scale, wealth creation is concentrated for the benefit of society’s elite, and non-elite individual choice declines, and over a long enough time period, with limited or no competition, resources are not allocated efficiently. State socialism solves these problems.

Capitalist: State socialism is inefficient. There are few incentives and options to create wealth, and it limits individual choice. State socialism tends toward dictatorships and state monopolies. When the state takes over an industry, it benefits elite government officials rather than society as a whole. Bureaucracy and corruption lead to a squandering of resources, and kills individual initiative.

Small Socialist: Small socialist enterprises — such as employee ownership, cooperatives, and collective ownership — solve both the problems of Capitalism and State Socialism at the cost of economies of scale. Decision-making is distributed across the industry or enterprise. Employees and/or customers are also owners and have incentives aligned with the business. What’s not to like?

Capitalist: Without economies of scale, small socialists remain small. Some industries cannot exist without economies of scale. In others, it is impossible to compete with capitalist or state enterprises without them. Small socialists will stay small, with all the poverty that entails. Capitalism solves this problem.

State Socialist: Small socialists also have the problem of capitalists, except it concentrates power into decision-makers hands. They, in-turn, have incentives to collude to extract benefits for themselves or for their industry at the expense of the enterprise or society as a whole. Good stewards and state ownership solves this problem.

[Continue, ad infinitum and adding in small capitalist, communist, anarchist, fascist, etc.]

Discussions of political economy are ultimately discussions of what you value and which system you believe is most likely to give it to you. See also: Revolution for One.