Contra-Populism: IV

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The third and arguably most compelling reason to refute populism is that it creates division. As observed by Pierre Lemieux:

“..populist regimes crave enemies and scapegoats this feature is sometimes included in the definition of populism. Foreigners are convenient scapegoats, as can be observed in both late-nineteenth-century populism in America and Donald Trump’s recent version..”

“To counter the people’s disenchantment, populist leaders blame internal enemies: experts, elites, domestic minorities, even opposition parties, who are said to work against “the common people..” (P.21).

It is no surprise that populism capitalizes on the social friction between various groups. The emphasis of this divisive rhetoric varies depending upon the strain of populism. Populism mirrors the varieties of socialism; frequently, both are the same. Since populism; assumes the preferences of all average constituents, there is a collectivistic nature of this category of political philosophy. In his master treatise, Human Action (1949),  Ludwig Von Mises describes this phenomenon of collectivism in the concept of polylogism. Polylogism assumes that:

“.. Marxian polylogism asserts that the logical structure of mind is different with {the members of various social classes. Racial polylogism differs from Marxian polylogism only in so far as it ascribes to each race a peculiar logical structure of mind and maintains that all members of a definite race, no matter what their class affiliation may be, are endowed with this peculiar logical structure… (p.75).

Essentially, both right-wing and left-wing variations on collectivistic rhetoric heavily lean on the differences between various subsets of the population. Populist political leaders feed up these differences to sow disconnect and political antagonism. Bernie Sanders capitalizes upon longstanding class envy; Donald Trump weaponized concerns about Mexican immigration to pander to the political demands of everyday voters. These tensions are exacerbated through the “us against them” (p.29) irresponsible framing of public policy by opportunistic politicians. Much of this political bluster from populist candidates has little regard for facts or truth; making it a potentially false narrative to persuade naïve voters that these candidates are working for the good of the people.

The irony is that many pundits complain about political tribalism, but many of the political influences throwing fuel on the fire are prominent movers and shakers in public discourse. Considering both rights and left collectivism gain followers through sowing social discord or on the lines of race or economic status, it should not be a shock when we see more friction between various political factions.

Prisoner’s Dilemmas- XVII- Media Coverage of Mass Shootings (Columbine to Uvalde) 

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 In the immediate aftermath of any tragedy, we often struggle to make sense of the situation. The senseless loss of life following a mass shooting is no exception. Various experts and media talking heads list all the potential antecedents that pushed a mentally unstable person to commit such an atrocity. The frequently cited causes of domestic mass murder include bellicose political rhetoricviolent song lyricspsychiatric drugsvideo games, disenfranchisement, mental health issues, and access to firearms (although the effect of gun control on preventing such events is inconclusive).

It would be rash to assume that any one of these purported preconditions for molding a mass murder is the sole reason for these tragedies. It is more likely that various environmental, genetic, and social factors drive a person to perpetrate such heinous acts. One potential cause of violence that often gets overlooked; is media coverage of such incidents [1].

Even when we take a cursory view of the incentives of media outlets, they are not going to take any responsibility for inspiring new school shooters and other varieties of a deranged shooter. After all, they are the mouthpiece for all the experts touting the evils of Marilyn Manson (I apologize for the dated reference), political extremism, and guns. Fixating on these gruesome stories and participating in conspiratorial conjecture about the impetus was for a demented young man to kill innocent people. Sadly, negativity sells, making it lucrative for business. Human beings are plagued by what is known as the negativity bias; we are more apt to engage with articles or news programming that has a negative tone. News outlets lay into this bias by exaggerating the severity of negative news. Validated by the fact that fifty percent (p.5) of news coverage features stories on crime. Media companies have a lot to gain from obsessively presenting all the gory updates on the Uvalde massacre. Business is good when you have audience captivity by the horror and depravity of a madman.

At its core, the dynamics of how media outlets cover mass shootings is a Prisoner’s Dilemma. The media companies act in their self-interest by bombarding us with all the horrific details of these mass killing events. This is done so with little consideration for the ethical consequence of how the story is framed. Typically, there is more coverage of the perpetrator than on the heroes who intervened and stopped the killing spree or even the victims (p.22). The tight focus on the gunman aggrandizes the image of the killer. In the mind of narcissistic (p.16) or otherwise mentally unstable people, they become the protagonist in the story of a folk anti-hero. The previous mass shooter serves as a template for how to quickly gain notoriety. In the canonical literature, there is a model known as the contagion effect, where essentially publicized shootings beget more publicized shootings. We begin to see copycat shooters. A 1999 study found that “.. of 83 would-be mass killers or assassins, who noted that evidence in their belongings or writings indicated that 38% of them emulated previous killers…”(p.24). A 2013 study, found a positive correlation between tweets about mass shootings and the likelihood of another one occurring (p.27). The shooters end up “defecting” by orchestrating and executing a shooting event, believing they are acting in their self-interest by indulging their angst and narcissism.

The suboptimal results in this situation would be the victims of the shooting. They are merely collateral damage in the pursuits of media outlets and mass shooters. Truly this mutual defection is the story of excesses. Whether it be improperly channeled rage, vanity, and narcissism or profit and callous political opportunism [2], innocent people had to die to achieve these ends.  

Footnotes

1.) The suggestion that the media companies bare some responsibility for mass shootings is not an indictment of capitalism or freedom of the press. This presents an ironic fact; news outlets blame many distal factors for shootings; it never occurs to them to look in the mirror. Especially considering that most mass murders have proclivities towards narcissism. 

2.) The incentives structure of media outlets may extend beyond the profit-loss mechanism, as they are generally ideologically driven. Many of the news channels and publications of esteem are politically left-wing, meaning they may also have anti-gun agenda. In effect; driving the obsessive coverage of gun violence.

Bootleggers and Baptists: XLIX- Keynesianism, Stimulus, and Political Manipulation

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Frequently in economics, the views of a specific theorist are exploited for the interests of various political factions. The most salient examples are economic theorists are labeled as “free market” economists. Conservatives generally celebrate Adam Smith as a defender of unfettered commerce but conveniently ignore his concern for the blight of the poor. Smith was too multidimensional to be distilled to a simplistic bumper sticker slogan. The great F.A, Hayek suffered from a similar syndrome as many Conservative and Libertarian pundits disregard the nuances of his work and paint him as radical. However, there are also instances of the intellectual advances of various theorists being embellished by their opponents for partisan purposes. For example, the moderate and subtle rationalizations of James M. Buchanan are characterized as extreme libertarianism. Nancy Maclean is unacquainted[1] with the work of Murray Rothbard!

The inaccurate framing of economic theory for political interests is not limited to right-of-center economists. Many left-wingers exaggerate the beliefs and postulations of their favored economists, the most conspicuous example being the abuse of John Maynard Keynes [2]. Yes, in the eyes of most Conservatives and Libertarians, Keynes had a flawed perception of market processes. Although, he was not communist. Keynes still had some semblance of a pragmatic filter, which placed constraints on his sanguine view of consumption. Keynes did believe that after the end of an economic downturn, deficits should be eliminated. Therefore, Keynes did not advocate for a policy of perpetual deficit spending, most likely would take issue with the massive debts amassed by the United States over the past couple of decades.

It wouldn’t be outlandish to examine the embellishment of Keynesian economics for political gain from the precepts of Bruce Yandle’s Bootleggers and Baptists (1983) coalition paradigm. A political relationship between various factions of policy advocates where some supports sincerely believe in the normative intention of the policy (the Baptists). In contrast, the tacit beneficiaries (the Bootleggers) merely ride the coattails of the moralistic advocates (either silently or vocally alongside the Baptists). The support for various stimulus policies would have its share of Bootleggers and Baptists to defend “stimulus spending”. The most recent examples are the Obama-era stimulus programs (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) and multiple rounds of COVID stimulus allocations. Often, Keynesianism is justified when it becomes politically suitable to do so. The most recent examples of economic stimulus initiatives exemplify this point quite well. This observation becomes more striking when you consider that the convergence of our monetary and fiscal policy has amounted to a hand-selected bastard-breed mutation [3] of Keynesian economics and Monetarism. The conception of this flawed system is being spurred by policymakers trying to select the most politically advantageous characteristics of both economic philosophies.

We could consider the founder of Keynesian economics the Baptist of stimulus spending policies. As Keynes envisioned stimulus spending as being a temporary remedy amid an economic downturn. Despite his good intentions, Keynes failed to recognize the political incentives to politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, activists, and even ordinary voters; factors that only serve to reinforce one of Milton Friedman’s most enduring dictums “There is nothing more permanent than a government program”. While stimulus initiatives come and go, policymakers still keep implementing them as a remedy to soothe economic turmoil. Stimulus policies were adopted with little regard for the implied discipline advocated for by Keynes. After all, he was still an economist and was not ignorant of the discipline’s conceptual pillars. Stimulus spending is an unsound policy, but he never intended for it to be at the regular disposal of politicians and lawmakers. Dating back to the observations of Niccolò Machiavelli, politics is a game of perception, not one of technical proficiency. Conversely, economics is ideally a positive social science unconcerned with popular opinion.

Moral values always enter the equation whenever we enter the realm of actual decision-making, even in economic decision-making. Unfortunately, the line between economic science and public perception is often blurred, especially by the adroit manipulation of politically savvy elected officials, activists, lawmakers, and activists. Promising ever-larger transfer of “free” goods and services to the voting public. Applying the principles of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, voters believe they have made out like bandits. Thereby, forming a mutually beneficial feedback loop of voters believing they have won and political actors presented in a positive light; as being defenders of the common man. Elected officials portrayed as advocates for the “little guy” helps establish social currency with the voting public. Social currency dovetails nicely with a politician’s incentive to remain in their position of political power.

Foot Notes:

  1. Maclean is aware of Rothbard’s work to a superficial extent, but if she sincerely understood his work, she would not be portraying Buchanan as a radical.
  2. The author is not an exponent of Keynesian economics.
  3. Despite the intense debate between Keynesians and Monetarists, both have their commonalities.

Bootleggers & Baptists: XVI: Terrorism and Prediction Markets

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The program was derided by Democrats and Republicans in Congress, some of whom called it “bizarre,” “unbelievably stupid” and “offensive.” Rumsfeld himself said he canceled the program “an hour after I read about it.” ( Wired ,July 2003)

Commonly, government programs engender partisanship and opportunism. Political actors are more successful to capitalize on such initiatives are controversial. This effect is only magnified when the program is headed by a polarizing figure. One prevalent example of this was DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) used Prediction Markets to gather intelligence on future geopolitical events. Once more contentious questions such as terrorist attacks and assassination attempts ended up being addressed, the program began to be publicly criticized.

 PAM (Policy Analysis Market) implemented by the Information Awareness Office, a counter-terrorism project ran by DARPA. PAM operated like a future exchanges market for predicting the likelihood of geopolitical events. Including but not limited to terrorist attacks. At various phases of the program, participants (consultation firms, colleges, think tanks) were provided a sum of money to “wager” on the likelihood of certain political events happening (p.77). Those with accurate answers were awarded a larger sum of money.

Figure 1

E.g.) Phase I: Participants were provided $100,000 by the IAO to wager and awarded $750,000 for accurate predictions (p.77).

Mirroring the model used in both past and future prediction markets. Dating back to Robin Hanson first pioneering prediction markets while consulting on project Xanadu in the late-1980s, these markets have always been an incentive-driven phenomenon. It is one thing to claim certainty, but it is another to be willing to die on that hill. Especially when money is on the line. Effectively aligning incentives towards accuracy and rigorous research versus armchair speculation. The objective being the firm, organization, or government department hosting the market with aggregate a large cache of quality information (p.76).In the field of counter-terrorism having averaging consensus from a variety of sources is crucial to avoid engaging the wrong target. Such mistakes will incur costs much greater than monetary losses.

As groundbreaking and innovative as PAM was invariably the program garnered some criticism that eventually devolved into outright censure. Academics and bureaucrats “betting” on the aptitude of terrorist activities and political revolts transpiring may be unsettling from a prima facie standpoint. Particularly if taken at face value with no further analysis. Arguably the criticism of PAM intensified due to the IAO’s controversial director, John Poindexter. Poindexter rose to infamy from his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal of the Regan administration. Even though all of the insiders of the project acknowledged that Poindexter had little involvement in PAM (P. 6, footnote 7), most of the backlash was directed at him. The fury of pundits, media outlets, and the general public caused Poindexter to resign in the summer of 2003. Leaving the PAM project permanently defunct.

The advocacy and opposition to the implementation of PAM as a means of aggregating intelligence on sensitive matters is no doubt a complex maze of ethical and pragmatic arguments. The use of prediction markets for gathering information for defense planning is just like another government policy, the impact is not neutral. Meaning that keeping or eliminating the program will create disparate consequences. Typically favoring one subset of economic agents over another. Individuals will bear the “expected costs (p.38) imposed by the impact of the policy. For example, a government program may create jobs for individuals that are politically connected. However, this is generally at the expense of the taxpayer. Vice versa, abolishing a program will eliminate jobs for the clerks and managers operating the department. The impact of policy always affects some individuals positively and others negatively. All political policies involve the transfer of benefits from one party to another.

Considering the non-neutral nature of policy, it would be justifiable to apply Bruce Yandle’s concept of Bootleggers and Baptists to the political pressure to abandon the PAM program. Yes, there were some ethical concerns regarding the prospect of having people “wager” on terrorist attacks. It would be naïve to believe that all the opprobrium was motivated by morality. Much how skilled consultants can profit from participating in a Prediction Market, many actors can also do so by dismantling such a program. Beneficiaries ranging from media outlets to opportunistic politicians. The political opportunism was multilayered including enemies of the Bush administration, the Republican Party, and even direct adversaries of John Poindexter. Proving an opportunity for democrats to temporarily shed their anti-patriotic veneer, to admonish these “conservatives” for making light of national security threats. Yet, the credulous public seldomly questions this moral browbeating. On the surface, these criticisms sound valid. Since when have politicians previously disinterested in national security matters are suddenly deeply invested in the integrity of defense intelligence? As Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince appearances are more important than actual principles in politics (p.42).

The Baptists

It is exceedingly difficult to designate one side of the coalition as a pure Baptist in the public outrage campaign surrounding PAM. The self-interest of the media, politicians, resident experts within the government is glaringly obvious. The potential for Dual-Role Actors (economic agents that benefit materially, but simultaneously sincerely believe the moral argument) in this coalition dynamic exists. However, is muddied by the perverse incentives to use strawman, ad hominem, and other logical fallacies to denigrate the program. The adversaries of PAM had a lot to gain through defaming the program. Not a whole lot of utility to extract from testing the validity of the results. Since the average constituent is not going to care too much about the granular details of the program. Rather be fixated on their visceral reaction to the ethical considerations of “betting” terrorist attacks.

Regardless, of whether moral advocacy is misguided or ill-informed, nevertheless, it is still a normative position. The average citizen happens to be the proverbial Baptist in this coalition dynamic. Any expression of disgust or moral indignation was sincere with little to no observable benefit from ending the program (dispersed costs, concentrated benefits). Even if the public’s concern was stoked by the slanted framing of the program, it still does not lessen make their concerns any less earnest. In the absence of further context, a group of contractors and academics participating in a gambling pool predicting terrorist attacks does sound grotesque. Since gambling is considered a form of entertainment appears to trivialize the severity of contentious situations that could result in the loss of lives. For the honest concern for these moral considerations, the average voter is our Baptist.

One great irony was that one of the academics deeply involved in the project narrowed down the reasonable ethical concerns in a peer-reviewed paper years after PAM had been dismantled. It was none other than prediction markets pioneer Robin Hanson. Hanson citing the following as prevalent concerns of the program:

  • “…The first concern expressed—that of replacing professionals with amateurs..” (p.82)
  • “…The second fear expressed was that bad guys would be willing to make losing

trades to mislead us..” (p.82).

  • “..The third main fear expressed was that bad guys might be rewarded for doing bad things..” (p.83). E.g.) Al-Qaeda’s meddling with airline stocks in the 9/11 attacks.

Hanson tactfully addresses all these concerns explaining how much of these concerns are the result of misconception. Like how the media coverage of the program generated several misconceptions regarding the function and purpose of PAM.

The Bootleggers

Several various individuals and groups stand to benefit from a sensationalized portrayal of the PAM program. One of the more salient examples would be the media. Media outlets are a business much like another, the incentive is to maximize profits. Logically this premise is cogent to anyone with even a small amount of exposure to economics. This controversy emerged in the primordial era of social media (Myspace being founded in 2003). The internet did exist but did not present any true competition to televised and print news media. For media outlets to have a story as jarring as the government funding a macabre gambling bracket trivializing serious events, instant goldmine. That is the type of story that sells publications. It has all the elements of a good conspiratorial techno-thriller. One only needs to consider the success of Tom Clancy to know how stories of geopolitical/government intrigue are lucrative. It could be argued that the media is merely the messenger, if they happen to profit from the event, it is a natural consequence of the event. How the information is presented and sways public opinion. If news reports are worded in a manner that is hostile towards the program, this will influence public opinion. Creating a feedback loop, inciting the ire of the Baptists while concurrently profiting. This would be an excellent example of the Bootleggers tacitly inciting the indignation of the Baptists.

Another subset of Bootleggers would be the politicians who spoke out against PAM. A book could be written about the political motives guiding the strategy condemnation of the program by various politicians. As previously mentioned, the layers of political opposition operate on a continuum of scale. Varying from individual grudges, contention between political factions, and even opposition to the sitting president at the time (George W. Bush). Despite the complexities of various political considerations, speaking out publicly about a controversial government program fosters a positive public image. Especially for politicians who were affiliated with the Democratic party. During the Bush administration, Democrats were perceived as being soft on terrorism. At a time where terrorism was a hot-button issue, speaking out against counter-terrorism measures was tantamount to political suicide. The whole PAM debacle presented an opportunity for a clean slate. An opportunity to capitalize on a misstep made by the Bush administration and to feed into the fears of the public. Paralleling the Bootlegger –Baptist feedback mechanism generated by the media. See below for a shining example of such sanctimonious posturing:

For instance,” Mr. Wyden said, ”you may think early on that Prime Minister X is going to be assassinated. So you buy the futures contracts for 5 cents each. As more people begin to think the person’s going to be assassinated, the cost of the contract could go up, to 50 cents.

‘The payoff, if he’s assassinated, is $1 per future. So if it comes to pass, and those who bought at 5 cents make 95 cents. Those who bought at 50 cents make 50 cents.’ (Senator Ron Wyden (D), NYT July 2003).