Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Top Posts for 2013

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Here they are–the top posts, based on views, for 2013.

1. Blaming Consumers is a Cop Out

This is the no contest the most read piece this year, also the most comments for a post.  It included a shout out to John Kenneth Galbraith, and a link to Albert Hirschman. (Mental note, talk about more good economists.)

“our willingness” to buy products produced under these conditions is an odd way to talk about it. Businesses spend a lot of energy obscuring these working conditions, to tell those who are concerned about it that they have improved them, will work to improve them, or that they aren’t that bad or that they are inevitable.  Beyond that, it’s not clear what consumers are supposed to do. If all products were clearly labeled to give us a full sense of the conditions in which they were made, it’s not as if it would be possible to simply avoid such products. Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to do this knows while you can occasionally find something made in fair conditions, it’s next to impossible to do it consistently.  Despite the myth that markets always provide broad choice, this is simply not the case.

2. What is Democratic Efficiency?

I’ve been talking about this idea for a while, often in posts about other things.  Alex Sparrow encouraged me to flesh it out. In short–the idea that political outcomes must be (or typically are, absent some distortion) a straightforward result of public opinion. While few people would make that claim outright, it is implicit in a great deal of political writing (including but not limited to political science) and it should be foregrounded and then rejected. (Bonus mention of Veblen and Galbraith).

Aside from the problematic market metaphor, I also think this belief suffers from a common problem in social science of trying to use legitimations as explanations.  Democracy is a claim made by those who wish to justify political positions and, more broadly, governance or rule.  It is also a normative rhetoric, used to assess the morality of regimes, governing structures, or particular course of action.  But I’ve argued that these things are fundamentally at odds with the goal of empirical explanation. Now, there are times when we might use the same term for all three of these enterprises – for example, I find it unavoidable to do so with the word ‘politics.’  At the very least, if we’re going to do the same with ‘democracy’ it requires a great deal of care. But since the idea that ‘democracy’ provides an all-purpose explanation for American politics, and since our implicit concept of democracy is so impoverished, this gets us into a great deal of trouble.

3. Inequality is a Problem: There is Too Little?

Give the people what they want–angry snark. But also part of my continuing effort to get more people to pay attention to the idea of a fair contracting order. Why must we simultaneously claim that the GOP will block all legislation and the legislation is the only path forward? More importantly, why do we accept it when leaders peddle it?

The president is right that inequality is a serious problem. It’s good to see how these arguments, which have been pushed by unions, the Occupy movement, and most importantly the service worker strikers and protestors, are getting traction. There are major changes that need to be made to reduce it. But there are small things that could help. The president could act right now to reduce inequality if he chose. Instead, he’s acting to make sure CEOs get a bigger slice of the pie. This would make sense, if the problem with inequality is that there was too little of it.

4. Targeting the Right to Vote

I’m glad this piece, discussing an article by my friend Erin O’Brien and her co-author Keith Bentele, made the list, because it initially dropped like a stone, but I think the research discussed is very important, not only in detailing what is driving vote suppression but also contextualizing it. But it also let me make my plea for a real right to vote.

In a democracy, there is no justification for limiting that right or making it difficult to exercise. The alternative position to the GOP one cannot be that prior levels of voting barriers were the right level. Everyone should have the right to vote.

5. Why Won’t You Rubes Get Excited About Cory Booker

This might have been the post that was the most fun to write. It was done after Booker had captured the nomination but before his inevitable victory against his weak Republican opponent. You might like Booker, but for many progressives, I argued there was plenty of reason to be less than enthusiastic beyond style or emotion. It was as much about his liberal defenders are Booker himself.

Of course, this is how campaigns work. People don’t make decisions about who to support on the basis of policy papers (“the first policy paper he released during the current campaign was about child poverty, hardly a political winner.”) And why should they? Campaign documents are written to win campaigns, and are generally forgotten when the campaigns end.  Anyone who chose a presidential candidate on the basis of say, who supported an individual mandate, learned quickly that this mattered not at all. (Besides, being against child poverty is the polite way of saying you are ok with poverty.) That is, even if it were true, it’s not clear that it would be unusual.

In essence, Ball demands that Booker’s critics judge Booker on his own representations about what he believes, while ignoring things he said he believes (as long as he backs off in the face of criticism), and on the representations of his supporters about his motives which, if anything, are less provable from his worldview.

Honorable Mentions. Entitlement Means Right and Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful than Individualism

I wrote quite a bit about Social Security and Medicare. I struggled with which one to put here, which may be why I chose this pair of posts, on how to argue about these issues. I talk about framing a lot too, but here tried to connect the framing discussion with my general ideas about how politics works. The move of turning your opponents words against them before shifting to your own terms is one that has a lot of potential, in my opinion.
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Written by David Kaib

December 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

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