Department of Useful Concepts: The Corner Solution

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Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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  1. Avatar Koz says:

    It’s difficult to talk about immigration issues without reference to sovereignty. I think it was Mickey Kaus who pointed out that the insistence of Congress/liberals/pro-immigration establishment of bundling border enforcement with some kind of quasi-amnesty is worse than the cable company. There’s no reason to be forced into accepting a tradeoff if in reality there is no tradeoff to be made.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Koz says:

      I don’t find it difficult at all to talk about sovereignty and borders, even from an open-borders perspective: If you enter our territory, you accept that the American people are sovereign. Of course, you aren’t necessarily one of them.Report

      • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki,

        Right, but one point of the corner solutions is to reassert sovereignty of the people over the political class and ensure that there’s less room for obfuscation and passive-aggressive refusal to fulfill responsibilities.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Koz says:

          @Koz,

          I guess I’m presupposing that (a) voters aren’t fully rational and (b) there are a lot of hidden costs to most of these corner solutions. This doesn’t necessarily imply that the technocrats are any better at managing anything, and I wouldn’t agree with that conclusion on other grounds either.Report

          • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            @Jason Kuznicki,

            It doesn’t make any difference whether the voters are rational, they are (supposed to be) sovereign.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Koz says:

              @Koz,

              Being sovereign doesn’t mean that you’ve made a wise decision, even according to your own declared values. I am simply raising a possibility. As a U.S. citizen, it’s both a right and a responsibility to do so.

              What are we arguing about again?Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                @Jason Kuznicki,

                It doesn’t matter if it’s a wise decision or not, if we are going to have a republic, it’s the one that counts.

                We’re arguing about corner solutions. I think that there’s good things to say about them in particular wrt immigration because they are a useful vehicle for the people to enforce their will over the political establishment.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                @Koz,

                I understand very well that in a democracy, the sovereign people are free to do whatever they want. This includes implementing corner solutions. I am suggesting that they have over-weighted the corner solution here because of its simplicity, and that they want it for a reason (it’s easy to understand!) that isn’t one of sound policy.

                Do you disagree?Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Yes, I disagree. Corner solutions (or bright lines like it’s called in law school) are a great way (maybe the only way) to end obfuscation and passive-aggressive resistance from the political establishment and parts of the civil service. That’s especially the case wrt issues like immigration where various parties of the establishment are trying to play hide-the-ball against the citizens.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Koz says:

                So let me see if I understand this correctly. When an issue has many variables, we should disregard all but one of them? Because all that other stuff is probably just made up anyway?

                What a discerning mind you have.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                We can. The geek word for that is orthogonal.

                Perfect orthogonality is a rare bird, but close enough is pretty common. Such is the case with immigration. The American people do not have to choose amnesty or quasi-amnesty as the price for border security or other enforcement of current immigration law, and it’s deeply cynical and deceptive to say they do.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                @Koz,

                All I am saying is that I don’t think you have sufficiently considered the costs of your preferred policies. These costs exist and are not merely academic. If instead you answered “no, we really can afford it” or “it won’t be as bad as you think, and here’s why,” then I would at least think you were being rational.

                Instead your answer is, “I don’t like the people who bring up these concerns, so I can ignore them.” This more or less confirms what I’ve been saying all along, so I guess I should thank you. You’ve given a great example of what I was trying to say, and made my case much stronger.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                “All I am saying is that I don’t think you have sufficiently considered the costs of your preferred policies.”

                Forgive me, but this is the typical self-delusion of a paternalist passive-aggressive bureau-tyrant, something a libertarian ought to be able to see. No, speaking in the voice of the immigration-enforcement majority, “we” understand the costs perfectly well enough. It’s not that we don’t like “you”, (the personification of the recalcitrant political establishment/civil service) it’s that we don’t trust you and we’re are giving you as little room for discretion as is humanly possible (again something a libertarian ought to be able to see).Report

              • @Koz, There was a time when the American Right was able to say with a straight face that it stood for reason and facts and the Left stood for policy based on “feelings.” A time when they could steadfastly lambast the Left for refusing to concern themselves with unintended consequences while being willing to consider the unintended consequences of their own preferred policies.

                Your position here is proof that those times have long past.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                @Koz,

                So favoring open borders is the UN-libertarian position? And wanting to build a giant fence and shoot people who climb it is libertarian?

                So glad you cleared that up for me.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                “So favoring open borders is the UN-libertarian position? “

                Uhhh, no. Libertarians tend to favor liberalized immigration policies. But, they should also be able to see the petty tyranny of unaccountable arms of government, and such is the case here.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                “There was a time when the American Right was able to say with a straight face that it stood for reason and facts and the Left stood for policy based on “feelings.””

                There are feeling involved, but it’s a little surprising that you can’t or won’t consider that the compliance of the political class or the civil servants to the instructions of the citizens not to be a legitimate policy objective in itself. Because for me, wrt to immigration and a few other issues, it’s the solitary most important one.

                If certain circumstances arise, I would favor an increase in legalized immigration or even amnesty. But before we get the immigration policy that I want, I want us to get the immigration policy that the American people want. And the policy that they want is to increase enforcement of current law, specifically relating to Mexican border security, independent of any other considerations.

                And the idea that they have to accept amnesty or quasi-amnesty as the price of increased offensive is deeply cynical, deceptive and offensive. I just can’t think of any other way to describe it.

                I’m actually glad you wrote this. Among other things, I want to emphasize that as far as I’m concerned, the American people get what they want. That’s actually my bottom line for many or most of the big-ticket political-cultural issues. In particular, it motivates most of what I wrote in the other thread.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                @Jason Kuznicki,

                I genuinely don’t get it. If you’re saying that we will get more petty tyranny if we let in more immigrants, I understand that there’s a case to be made here. But it seems like what you’re saying is that my thoughts on immigration are inauthentic — the product of petty tyrants’ getting into my head. This thread’s gone on long enough, and it’s an ad hominem argument anyway, so let’s just drop it.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                “But it seems like what you’re saying is that my thoughts on immigration are inauthentic — the product of petty tyrants’ getting into my head.”

                No, I’m saying that instead of supporting or acquiescing to the wish of the American people wrt border security which are plain enough, you are trying to backdoor your own policy preferences by empowering the petty tyranny of lawyers and grievance-based interest groups through obfuscations like corner solutions.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                @Koz,

                you are trying to backdoor your own policy preferences

                Far from it. I’m trying to convince people of my policy preferences rationally and openly. Which is, you know, what we actually do in a democracy.

                Of course, I may have failed, but that’s a different question.Report

              • Avatar Koz in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                @Jason Kuznicki,

                Ok, except that to a substantial extent we can take that as a settled issue, for the American people, in the Arizona legislature and elsewhere. Certainly most of the controversy over this issue has been after the Legislature voted for it rather than before.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to Koz says:

      @Koz, OK, so Mickey BS Kaus said something – so what?Report

  2. It’s also easier to seem “purer than thou” if you advocate for a simple “slogan-based” position that most of your base can get behind. This is especially true if you trust that you won’t be asked how much it will cost, or what other strategies would work better. I heard a phrase recently that said a Republican will get elected if he only has to talk for 20 seconds. He *won’t* be elected if you make him talk for 20 minutes.Report

  3. Avatar ScottinAL says:

    Koz,

    Your constant talk of what “the American People” want reminded me of Stewart’s segment on the Daily show the other night. Here is it:

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-may-5-2010/american-apparently

    Just so you understand, I am interpreting your words “The American People” to mean “me, koz”. You see, I am an American and I think your argument that we need to do this one thing and this one thing only without regards to its affects or the extenuating circumstances that has led to the problem is REALLY moronic.

    Jason,

    You’re right. Corner solutions make for nice sound bites, but they are rarely actual solutions. And dealing with the immigration problem is going to require many thoughtful changes in policy that apparently Koz and his ilk are unable to conceive of.Report

    • Avatar Koz in reply to ScottinAL says:

      @ScottinAL,

      “Just so you understand, I am interpreting your words “The American People” to mean “me, koz”.”

      I’m sure you do but it’s just not so. I’m actually more comfortable with some liberalized immigration policies than others on my side of the equation. But like I wrote before, before we get to the immigration policy that I want, I want to get to the immigration policy the American people want, which is not necessarily the same thing.Report

  4. Avatar Pedant says:

    It’s probably far too late to correct this mis-use of “corner solution,” which really means that you hit the corner on the way to the optimum you can’t reach because of some constraint. Getting a corner solution doesn’t mean you are ignoring costs, it just means that the “corner” is where the best reachable value is for your particular utility function.Report

  5. Avatar JamieMc says:

    Is the choice of terminology a joke about the National Review? Cause if so, I’m on board,Report

  6. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    I like your idea of the “corner solution.” Applying economic concepts to politics “obtains clarity,” but in a good way.

    Having low mathematico-graphico abilities, I still don’t get why it’s called a “corner” solution. Where’s the “corner?” Does this have to do with the shape of the graph when one maps things out?

    One doubt: you’re clear that the “secure the borders” solution ignores “other factors” in pursuit of political advantage. You’re very clear that these “other factors” may outweigh the benefit of securing the borders in the first place.

    But then, could you explain why the “open borders” solution is not a “corner solution” as well? Doesn’t it ignore “other factors” as well, factors that in the end could render the open borders solution worse than the original problem itself, as the “secure the borders” solution does?

    In short, why are you singling out the “secure the borders” faction? If the “corner solution” applies to them, then it must apply to “open borders” as well. “Open borders” is only the counterbalance to “secure the borders.” These two “solutions” only support one another as the flyint butress supports the wall, and vice-versa. Both are equally short-sighted and both are demogogic. Neither faces up to the problem as it exists. Both are just examples of “divide and govern” style politics.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Roque Nuevo says:

      @Roque Nuevo,

      If you want to visualize the corner, picture an ordinary cartesian plane. X and Y represent quantities of goods that we can buy with a limited budget, and thus the quantity of one must fall to some degree as the other rises. If X and Y cost the same per unit, we get an arc that’s 1/4 of a circle, and the corner solutions sit on the X and Y axes — where we buy zero of the other good.

      As to why “open borders” or other libertarian policies don’t constitute a corner solution, this is an excellent question. My answer would be that something like it maximizes not only individual liberty (which is certainly a value) but also economic output. So there are at least two things we’ve managed to maximize at once.

      I would not, however, have a purely open border. I see nothing wrong with a border control that catches the low-hanging fruit among the wanted criminals, at regular and high-traffic border crossing points. This approach will not represent maximal individual liberty at the border — because there will be lines you have to wait in — but perhaps it will conduce to both better conditions for business and less of a law-enforcement presence in the interior, on the margin.Report

  7. Avatar Roque Nuevo says:

    As to why “open borders” or other libertarian policies don’t constitute a corner solution, this is an excellent question. My answer would be that something like it maximizes not only individual liberty (which is certainly a value) but also economic output. So there are at least two things we’ve managed to maximize at once.

    Yes, but I thought you said the “corner solution” was known for willfully ignoring factors that would make it untenable otherwise. One can always find “other factors” that would maximize its effects. Any advocate of “secure the borders” could play the same game.

    The obvious problem with your “low hanging fruit” fix is that most of the criminals crossing the border today–let alone the ones who would be crossing under “open borders”–are not wanted criminals. They have managed their criminal careers so far so as to have avoided a police record. Furthermore, many are not criminals at all when they cross but become ones in the States.

    Aside form this, you’re ignoring the chronic ineptness of such lists, like the no fly list.

    Thus, so far, you have done nothing to refute my charge that “open borders” is another “corner solution,” to be explained in the contxt of political factionism rather than any serrious attempt at addressing the immigration problem.Report

  8. Avatar Chris says:

    Another corner solution is maximizing standardized test scores, no matter what the cost.

    Corner solutions are a particularly bad idea when they are based on reductive numerical measures — when Campbell’s Law clicks in.Report

  9. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    And here’s a radical proposal to end a current corner solution: treat military spending as only one facet of the overall budget.Report

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