Category Archives: Politics

Larry Summers wants to know: are you an insider or an outsider?

Larry Summers really likes to ask people whether they want to be outsiders, who can speak the truth but can’t have power, or insiders who can have power as long as they don’t say anything that’s unacceptable to the oligarchy. Who knows how many people he’s asked that question. We only know about the ones that have answered “outsider” so firmly that they then tell the world about the question being asked.

In her book released [2014], Sen. Elizabeth Warren recounted a dinner she had with President Obama’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, in April 2009, when Warren was the outspoken chairman of a congressionally appointed panel probing the government’s response to the financial crisis.

Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. … He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule. They don’t criticize other insiders.

I had been warned.

Warren ignored the warning.”


“[Varoufakis] dramatises his intent throughout the crisis with a telling anecdote. He’s in Washington for a meeting with Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary and Obama confidant. Summers asks him point blank: do you want to be on the inside or the outside? “Outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions,” Summers warns.

Elected politicians have little power; Wall Street and a network of hedge funds, billionaires and media owners have the real power, and the art of being in politics is to recognise this as a fact of life and achieve what you can without disrupting the system. That was the offer. Varoufakis not only rejected it – by describing it in frank detail now, he is arming us against the stupidity of the left’s occasional fantasies that the system built by neoliberalism can somehow bend or compromise to our desire for social justice.”



Summers is right to ask that question; it’s an important one. But where he’s wrong is that he implies that “insider” is a morally acceptable answer. If you’re an insider in the sense he means you’re an ally of the oligarchy and thus an enemy of everyone else. And as Warren has demonstrated, you don’t have to be an insider to succeed in politics anymore. The insiders are a lot richer and better organized, but there are a lot more outsiders. We’re coming.


Mainstream Worldviews

Everyone has a worldview. It’s the framework through which you understand the world, and into which you assimilate new knowledge. One worldview can be more accurate than another (modern scientific rationality versus all previous worldviews for example), but it’s also common for two worldviews to each get different things right and wrong (classical Mayans knowing more about astronomy but less about metallurgy than Europeans for example). If everyone you hang around with has a basically similar worldview to yours, it doesn’t really even seem like a worldview at all; it’s just the way the world works.

That’s what has happened to the mainstream media and to the people who get their news exclusively from it. The mainstream media (Network news, CNN, NBC, New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) all reflect the same basic liberal corporate centrist worldview (left neoliberalism). The last few decades have seen the rise of another popular media worldview: the conservative corporate hard-right worldview (right neoliberalism) pushed by Fox News and the rest of the Murdoch media empire. And more recently we have seen the rise of the internet creating opportunities for a lot more media worldviews, primarily the too-racist-for-Fox alt-right worldview and the whole gamut of possibilities to the left of the mainstream that had previously been shut out of the conversation.

To people who still exist purely within the mainstream media worldview this looks like everybody who is exiting that worldview is just going crazy. They’re starting to have beliefs that the mainstream media worldview says are incorrect. It leads them to talk about a “post-truth” world and fret about how we can’t agree on facts anymore. What they’re missing is that there was never an agreement on the facts, just a situation where the media was united around one interpretation. Meanwhile the people exiting that worldview to the new alternatives feel like they’re waking up to the mainstream media’s lies and have now found the truth. To be fair to the exiters, the mainstream media worldview is very flawed. To be fair to the mainstream media, most of the alternative worldviews people are leaving for are at least as flawed, often way more.

We’re going to have to get used to a world where people choose media sources based on agreement with their worldview. Other sources feel like they’re lying to you by reporting based on assumptions you don’t share. People who agree with the mainstream media worldview are bummed that everyone’s no longer forced to hear reporting from their perspective, but the rest of us will be able to hear reporting from a perspective we share.  And that’s not so bad.

New Ecosystem

We’re undergoing a transition in how we get information. It’s going from a world in which it’s possible for elite gatekeepers to directly shape what content people see, with the limitation of ratings and light government regulation, to a world where there’s an information ecosystem where different information sources can rapidly climb to prominence and particular stories can ‘go viral’ based purely on their memetic fitness rather than any particular human effort.

On minus side, this mean’s a lot more misinformation can get out there, both deliberately and accidentally. When there are no gatekeepers all sorts of stuff gets through the gates. On the plus side, true information that the gatekeepers were keeping out also has a much easier time getting out there. So we have a surge in people getting woke and understanding the true situation we find ourselves in, with our society dominated by a political and economic oligarchy that is looking out for their own interests ahead of everyone else’s. And that’s great! But on the other hand we have a surge in all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories and the kinds of intolerance deemed sufficiently extreme for the gatekeepers to not allow it in.

The old world is dying and the new struggles to be born. But once the process is complete and ‘old media’ is just one set of content producers in the information ecosystem, I think we’ll be better off. The traditional media sucks! They’re owned by big corporations or random rich people. Those owners are not going to fund institutions that work against their own interests. That would be crazy. It doesn’t take a conspiracy or anything, you just have to assume they’re not idiots. Sometimes they’ll go as far left as NBC or the New York Times, supporting mainstream Democratic policies, but that’s it. Whatever money is to be made with a TV station catering to an audience farther left than that has so far been left on the table. In contrast, under the information ecology model, something will inevitably emerge to fill that void. If you go to the /r/socialism subreddit, something is going to be posted there, even if it’s just blog posts. Once this all stabilize it should mean that everyone pretty much has access to information sources that come at thing from that person’s same worldview. And that’s fantastic, because it means that we won’t have the massive ideological distortions created by having an all-capitalist owned media. There won’t be any general direction in media bias, since the media directed at people with each viewpoint would just be biasing people towards itself, and they’d all be pointing in different directions depending on what viewpoints there’s demand for.

There are worries about this causing people to end up in information bubbles, only aware of their own viewpoint, but even without such bubbles people change viewpoints so rarely that I’m not sure what harm it could do. And at least this way you’ll presumably be at least aware that you are in just one of many information sub-cultures and that other ones that also think their views are just as valid are out there, rather than living in the mainstream consensus universe as determined by the media gatekeepers. And I think the “information bubble” is a little simplistic anyway. It’s more like we’re all at various points on a landscape and can see the viewpoint of people some distance around us on that landscape. You encounter the views of your friends on social media, the denizens of whatever internet comment boards you frequent, and of course the actual media content you choose to consume. Those will present a range of views that statistically you’ll probably be roughly in the center of, since they’re all from people similar to you at least in that you both ended up at online location X. And of course you’re made aware of the viewpoints of people at more distant parts of the landscape by within group discussion and investigation of those subcultures, obviously with the ability to go look at their content and engage with them directly if desired. Each group bleeds into the other at the edges. We’d all be discussing the same real world events. The ‘bubbles’ would be restrained from diverging too far. And in exchange we get a far more egalitarian and democratic method of information sharing that might let people resist their oppressors. That’s a trade I’m willing to make.

Monetary Policy Thoughts

Monetary policy is supposed to be a balance between unemployment and inflation rates. The higher interest rates are, the lower inflation and the higher unemployment. The lower interest rates are, the higher inflation and the lower unemployment. Central bankers then are supposed to find a nice middle ground. Farther left ones like the idea of targeting full employment and accepting whatever inflation it takes to produce that. Farther right ones like the idea of targeting some inflation rate (sometimes 0 for the dumber ones) and accepting whatever unemployment it takes to hit that inflation rate.

However, this isn’t what modern monetary policy debates look like. Currently we have moderate unemployment and low inflation. The response by the Fed has been to raise rates – theoretically increasing unemployment in order to drive inflation even lower. It seems crazy. But it’s less so when you remember one crucial additional factor: Central banks are run by bankers, and the higher interest rates are, the better it is for bank profitability. So there is always a major interest group within a central bank pushing for higher interest rates no matter what the macroeconomic situation, just because that’s good for their former/current/future employers, and all their friends and colleagues who work in the financial industry.

(There’s also a point to be made about how the tradeoff is really more between economic growth and inflation rather than between unemployment and inflation, with reduced unemployment just being a factor of improved growth, but that’s less relevant to this discussion.)

So all over the world we have central banks that are desperate to raise interest rates whenever it is remotely economically justifiable to do so. This gives us a significant bias in favor of tight money (high interest rate producing) policies. Anyone who thinks economic growth is a good idea should get angry about monetary policy and demand changes in the Fed’s governing structure. Rather than having the Fed’s leadership be composed of bankers, people who have ever worked at a bank should be banned from working at the Fed. A non-partisan council of academics and bureaucrats tasked with setting interest rates to maximize overall economic growth could do MUCH better than the current setup.

Minimum wage

Don’t think of the minimum wage as a price floor, think of it as a way to create a labor cartel.

If all oil companies get together and agree not to charge more than a certain price for a barrel of oil, they can increase the overall profits of the oil industry at the expense of the rest of society. The danger is that one of them will defect and sell the oil for less, thus forcing a race to the bottom that leaves all the companies worse off. So really what they would like is a way to enforce cooperation, like for example a government enforced minimum price on a barrel of oil.

The situation is precisely the same for workers. We all have labor to sell and would like to get as much for it as possible. If we all compete freely there will be a race to the bottom and wages will be low. If we could all get together and agree that nobody is going to sell their labor for less than a certain amount, we’d all be better off.

The bad thing about this sort of tactic in most situations is that it’s a way of capturing more value for one group at the expense of all other groups – oil companies getting rich at everyone else’s expense. When the category we are talking about is workers though, the situation is different because we are almost all workers or supported by workers. Allowing workers as a whole to seize more value just means that the overall share of income going to workers goes up at the expense of the share going to employers / the people who own those employers.

A theory of political dimensionality

I believe in moral progress. I think smarter and more sophisticated people are able to make better moral judgements than their dumber and less sophisticated brethren. I believe that as understand more about the world, we understand better what kind of policies effectively promote human flourishing. An important caveat to this is that it’s totally possible to be dumb and still have progressive beliefs by accident / not as a result of having really weighed the issues for yourself.

On the other hand, I also believe in selfishness. I believe that people’s beliefs are strongly, if unconsciously, influenced by what is good for them personally.

I believe that progressive policies are objectively correct in terms of being better solutions for promoting human flourishing.

Thus, I believe that the smarter and more sophisticated someone is, the more likely they are to support progressive policies. However, there is one big confounder here: the more money someone has the more incentive they have to support right-wing economic policies that will harm the country overall but benefit them personally. And there is also at least some correlation between being smart and sophisticated and having more money.

So that’s how we get to our two-dimensional breakdown of the political spectrum: “social issues” are those that you support more the smarter and more sophisticated you are and which having more money doesn’t cause you to turn against. “Economic issues” are those for which having more money turns you around on and makes you support inferior policies out of self-interest.

Everyone is of course on a spectrum between rich and poor and smart and dumb. But let’s simplify a bit and divide people into four categories:

1) Rich and smart

First let me say this is a dope category to be in. This is a libertarian sort of group, in favor of progressive social policies, but not the sort of progressive economic policies that would be good for the country but would entail raising taxes on the rich.

2) Rich and dumb

These are the rich people you don’t hear about as much because they tend to have less interesting stories, and make less of an effort to be involved in politics. This is a hyper-conservative group, with backwards social views and ultra-right economics untampered by any qualms the smart rich people might have about the effects of those policies on the country.

3) Poor and smart

Socialists! These are the people who are smart enough to be progressive across the board, and poor enough that their self-interest lines up with that of the majority, rather than leading them towards the selfish policies of the rich.

4) Poor and dumb

Trump supporters! Or more broadly, the Republican base. These folks have regressive social views, and tend towards conservatism economically, though are nowhere near as conservative as their rich and dumb counterparts. They are the people who are always manipulated into voting against their economic interests for the Republican Party out of concern for the social issues that they’re on the wrong side of.

I don’t know what this post is

An interesting aspect of the online conversation about the Bernie Sanders campaign is that everyone who is involved in that conversation is in this weird outlier subgroup of people who go online and talk about politics.

The biggest way I’ve seen this manifest itself is in the conversation about what black Americans think about Bernie Sanders. Based on the survey data available, it seems that black American support Sanders at significantly lower rates compared to other races, and that they are also significantly less well informed about Sanders. There also seems to be a correlation between increased information about Sanders and increased favorability and poll numbers among black American voters, just as there is with all other categories of voters. So this can end up being phrased as “black voters just need to learn about Sanders and they’ll support him”. And you know who that really, really makes mad? Well informed black Clinton-supporting internet goers. Consider what it is like to be such a person. Every day you go online and hear people saying that the only reason people like you support Clinton is that they don’t know about Bernie Sanders. You know all about Bernie Sanders, and against statistical likelihood, you support Hillary Clinton anyway. So this feels a lot like an insult to you. And it feels a lot like you are being told that your real reasons for believing what you believe, and those of everyone of your race, are nonexistent, and in fact your beliefs are based on ignorance and stupidity. So that’s not great for the conversation.