Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Every inch won should lead us to demand more

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One of the most important concepts for understanding politics is quiescence. The great political scientist Murray Edelman placed the production of quiescence and arousal at the center of his approach to politics.

Government affects behavior chiefly by shaping the cognitions of large numbers of people in ambiguous situations. It helps create their beliefs about what is proper; their perceptions about what is fact; and their expectations of what is to come. In the shaping of expectations of the future the cues from government often encounter few qualifying or competing cues from other sources; and this function of political activity is therefore an especially potent influence upon behavior.

To make this point is to deny or seriously qualify what may be the most widely held assumption about political interactions: that political arousal and quiescence depend upon how much of that they want from government people get. Political actions chiefly arouse of satisfy people not by granting or withholding their stable demands, but rather by changing the demands and the expectations. (Emphasis in the original. Politics as Symbolic Action.)

For Edelman, the key to understanding politics is the ways the demands made by the public are managed, not how they are fulfilled. Often this is done through the use of symbols.For example, think about how in response to the Fight for 15 protests, Democrats have embraced a $10.10 minimum wage, including voting on it in the Senate, even though it has zero chance of making it even through that body. This has included the president imposing it on federal contractors, with the caveat that it would only apply to new contracts (making his earlier feet dragging consequential). Similarly we see states like Maryland enact $10.10 but limit its scope and extend the timeline for when the full new minimum should be imposed. The long timeline will make pushing for additional raises more difficult, although not impossible. In Seattle, where activists have successfully pushed the 15 dollar number onto the agenda, the mayor’s proposal has all sorts of loop holes, even as he claims to be leading the 15 dollar cause. The top number is the symbol, while the details are used to limit its impact.

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Written by David Kaib

May 23, 2014 at 9:09 am

The Most Basic Fact About Politics is Slack

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What’s the most important thing you should understand if you want to make sense of American politics? Ask most well-informed people, and then answer will be Polarization. The parties–both party-in-government and party-in-the-electorate–have gotten more ideological, less willing to compromise, leading to gridlock. Some will rightly note that this has been largely asymmetrical, a product of changes in the Republican Party not the Democrats. But the rest of the story remains the same. Less often it is noted that polarization isn’t really an issue among the public, only among the elites–especially members of Congress.

The polarization story often treats this as some sort of natural phenomena, or a tendency that was always there with fragile efforts to stop it failing to do so. Or it is chalked up to the power of money, or even of the Koch brothers themselves. Rarely is it treated as something about which something can be done. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

November 29, 2016 at 8:26 pm

Hypocrisy Arguments are Bad

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Hypocrisy arguments are bad and you should stop making them. I want to distinguish here between an hypocrisy argument–one where hypocrisy is pointed out to delegitimate  person or position without more–and a hypocrisy claim. By a hypocrisy claim, I mean an accusation of hypocrisy embedded within a larger argument. My argument here applies to the former, not the latter.

Hypocrisy arguments are overrated. In life in general, and in politics in particular, consistency is the exception not the rule. I am favor of striving for consistency, but skeptical of anyone who claims their own group in uniformly consistent while their opponents are not. If hypocrisy were rare, it might pack more of a punch. But it not and it doesn’t. I’m unconvinced they have ever convinced anyone of anything.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

September 15, 2016 at 11:58 am

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Not Everyone Must Work

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Everyone must work. So they say.

Here’s André Gorz, in Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society:

The imperative need for a sufficient, regular income is one thing. The need to act, to strive, to test oneself against others and be appreciated by others is quite another. Capitalism systemically links the two, conflates them, and upon that conflation establishes capital’s power and its ideological hold on people’s minds. It admits no activity which is not ‘work’, done to order and paid for by those ordering it. It admits no regular income that is not earned from ‘work’. The imperative need for a regular income is used to persuade people of their ‘imperative need to work’. The need to act, to strive, to be appreciated is used to persuade people that they need to be paid for whatever they do.

And here is Kathi Weeks, in The Problem With Work: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 26, 2016 at 10:01 pm

Disciplining the poor through the market

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Anonymous Guest Post

One of the most striking features about the way the poor are disciplined in the United States is the total banality of it all. For an example, let’s take a look at the 2014 Farm Bill and regulations proposed in February 2016 by the USDA for the implementation thereof.

Prior to the 2014 Farm Bill, in order to qualify as a SNAP retailer, a merchant needed to carry three varieties of each of four categories of staple foods: meat, fish, and poultry; bread and cereals; fruits and vegetables; and dairy products. The February regulations define these as “foods used primarily for home preparation and consumption that provide the main sources of nutrition intake for households.” Retailers also needed to carry perishable foodstuffs in two of these categories.

The 2014 Farm Bill amended these requirements to from three to seven varieties of each type of staple food, as well as increasing the categories where perishables were required from two to three. The rules further require a minimum stock of six of each variety. This amendment was presented as making a larger stock of fresh food, particularly fruits and vegetables, a requirement for a store to accept SNAP benefits.

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Written by David Kaib

April 8, 2016 at 1:36 pm

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Searching for Political Morality in All the Wrong Places

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Guest post by Jonathan Cohn

Politics and morality are never far apart. As such, one key difference between liberals and conservatives is how they derive morality. And both derivations are flawed.

For the liberal, morality is a derivative of intellect, understood in terms of smartness (the assimilation and application of facts) and sophistication. For the liberal, then, immorality is a result of a lack of education. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.—often treated more as individual failings than systemic injustices—can be cured through better education. (The problem, of course, is that the social structures that perpetuate these forms of prejudice and enact them in policy are usually quite well-educated, but also quite immoral.)

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Written by David Kaib

March 28, 2016 at 8:05 am

How are the political effects of “terrorism” produced?

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1. Everyone will know about it as media will continually harp on it, while other significant things are barely mentioned. Indeed, if something that otherwise would garner attention happens in the wake of such an event, it will largely be ignored. Note that this does not mean all things that could be labeled terrorism will get this attention or even be labeled as such.

2. That said, it is important to see that  the media is less a conduit for information than of interpretations.

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Written by David Kaib

March 22, 2016 at 6:08 pm

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