Should the Left Fear (Or Hate) Its Wonks?

Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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107 Responses

  1. Forgive me the title for this post. Couldn’t come up with anything better. Suggestions welcome. Report

  2. zic says:

    Left-of-center institutions could copy their conservative brethren and invest more time and resources into building more compelling narratives. The conservative Republicans’ push from Goldwater to Reagan wasn’t a coincidence—it was a concerted push with backing from institutions with political agendas. The same thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Various right-wing think tanks beefed up their messaging by investing in ideas (and their history). They told the American story in a way that permitted them to frame future debates in conservative terms.

    Well, the right became so focused on narratives that the policy didn’t matter; they luntzed themselves into a slow, painful political decline; what they said had nothing to do with what they did. Pro-family yet their policies are anti-family. They blather on and on about the deficit, but it’s only Democratic deficits that matter.

    I’m all for building some good narrative. But it’s actually got to be rooted in policy. And facts. In fact, there’s been a tremendous amount of potentially good policy; but we live in the delta of change. Turning ship of state and takes time, steady the course and all that; but I think that part of the narrative is understood with Obama’s second turn.

    But otherwise, yeah.Report

    • Murali in reply to zic says:

      Well, the right became so focused on narratives that the policy didn’t matter; they luntzed themselves into a slow, painful political decline; what they said had nothing to do with what they did.

      You said this better than I did.Report

    • david in reply to zic says:

      If that use of “luntzed” was not a typo, I reward you one internet cookie.Report

      • zic in reply to david says:

        Thank you. He makes such a nice verb.

        To Luntz: Constructing narratives, marketing slogans, and government policy names on issues of concern to the public based on feedback from focus-groups rather then the actual content of the policies sough by political actors. Lunting that make people feel good about a political policy but actually obscures the desired goals of the policy. An example is the Clear Skies Initiative, a policy introduced by President George W. Bush’s administration in 2002 that was luntzed to suggest it would improve air quality, but in reality simply allowed electric utilities that improved emissions to sell their right to pollute to other electric utilities, allowing them to avoid Clean Air Act requirements for mitigating emissions during plant upgrades. See also No Child Left Behind, Healthy Forests Initiative, Global War on Terror, Compassionate Conservatism, Enhanced Interrogation,Report

    • Conor P. Williams in reply to zic says:

      Well, right…but it seems to me like this complaint requires you to take only a small part of the piece and ignore the rest…i.e.:

      The wonks aren’t really the problem. After all, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with fact-based policies. They beat the hell out of the alternative. Sophisticated policy analysis is fine, even necessary, once we’ve (politically) hashed out the relevant value-laden objectives that we’re after. Snazzy charts alone can’t settle whether or not the United States should pursue educational equity or stratification. That’s a moral and political question. Wonky analysis can help us get a better sense of which policies might encourage one or the other (only when it’s done right, though). Wonks can be useful, so long as we remember the appropriate contours of their expertise.Report

      • zic in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

        You invited this comment:

        Left-of-center institutions could copy their conservative brethren and invest more time and resources into building more compelling narratives. The conservative Republicans’ push from Goldwater to Reagan wasn’t a coincidence—it was a concerted push with backing from institutions with political agendas.

        If the right’s building of narrative to reinforce their political agendas is something to be emulated, it’s also something to learn from in a ‘don’t be that guy’ kinda way. Personally, I don’t find the narrative of “America: babies, guns, god, gold, and world-wide cop” that persuasive.Report

        • Conor P. Williams in reply to zic says:

          I don’t think that “building a more compelling narrative” = “building an egregiously fact-distorting narrative.”Report

          • zic in reply to Conor P. Williams says:

            When you suggest copying the right when it comes to narrative, then the problems of the right are the obvious consideration: narrative divorced from reality and facts, loss of political power, etc.

            Personally, I agree with much of what you wrote, hence my original end, ‘but otherwise, yeah.’ I also have a concern with the importance of narrative and fact sticking together, I’m a reformed journalist. Too often, narrative overwhelms facts, takes on a life of its own, facts be damned. So we get the same crime story cable-news looped, and people freak out about 20 kids getting shot, but don’t bother with the 1,047+/- shot since Sandyhook. My elderly mother-in-law cowers behind closed doors, fearing crime, when she’s amongst the safest of folk in the world.

            Writing a good narrative is hard, if it were easy, we’d have had one for ACA, etc. It gets easier when you divorce it from reality and get to make up your own facts.

            But I’m mostly sorry you somehow took offense. It’s a whole lot more difficult to construct the narratives you’re wanting then to complain about their lack. Write one to fill the void; you’ve got the chops to give a worthy try. Then we’ld actually have something to discuss instead of discussing a void held to be filled based on a failure.Report

            • Conor P. Williams in reply to zic says:

              No offense taken! I disagree with your read of my work, but that kind of interpretive collision happens a lot on the Internet. It is probably the blogosphere’s .

              And yeah, actually writing the damn things (narratives) is hard. I’ve tried to do so in other posts, and I’ve kicked around writing a book along those lines, but, um, this is a side gig for me still.Report

        • Tel in reply to zic says:

          Personally, I don’t find the narrative of “America: babies, guns, god, gold, and world-wide cop” that persuasive.

          You may not like those ideas, but don’t pretend they represent some conservative narrative. The idea of “babies and god” is a pretty simple concept: the church claims the right to give social approval to human reproduction on a case by case basis while offering the pesudo-guarantee that every man will get one and only one woman, while every woman will get one and only one man. This idea is many thousands of years old, the Republicans didn’t invent it. It’s a very simple and proven method to reduce conflict over sexual partners, and to discourage Genghis Kahn style situations where one man has millions of offspring. Think of it as an early form of government-regulated market if that makes you feel better.

          Guns, god and trade in precious metal coins were the very foundation of the USA, right back to when Europeans first pushed back the native tribes. For that matter, they were the foundation of European colonialists the world over. Every bit of land you see every day, got the way it is because of a consequence of guns and of trade. Gold and silver go further back than all of the above, back to the beginning of civilization.

          Conservatives didn’t invent that stuff, they picked up what was already around, that’s the heart of conservatism — go with what worked in the past. The only narrative they need is reluctance to change.

          Now the “world wide cop” thingy, that was Roosevelt… and he was absolutely no conservative, but modern conservatives just accept it as done and finished with.Report

  3. Murali says:

    I wonder how to square this admiration for the way the republicans went ahead with their damn-the-facts-lets-play-politics way of doing things with Tod Kelly’s post mortem of the implosion of the republican party and their capture by their most right wing faction.

    i.e. it seems that this prioritisation of politics over policy has bitten the republicans in the ass. People like Christy who would ordinarily be sympathetic to their policies have grown disgusted with their politics. If this is the long term result of prioritising politics over policy, it does not seem to be a wise move to adopt.

    As a libertarian who naturally looks on the leftier wing of the democratic party with suspicion, calls by left wingers to sacrifice reasonable policy* for political support strike me as an anti intellectual backlash very similar to the conservative wing of the republican party calling their moderate counterparts RINOs. But whereas the public face of the republicans is its arch-conservatives (and the party is the worse for it) I think the socialist** wing just cannot stand that the public and respectable face of the democrat party is its neoliberals.***

    *I may prefer CATO institute’s policies over Yglesias’ but I can still live with Yglesias’ policy presecriptions. And there may not be that much room between the two.

    ** I don’t mean the term as a slur. (Even though in an american context and over the intertubes it tends to be used as one). By this, I mean those who see the tax rates returning to clinton levels as not going far enough.

    ***From my casual observation, the halls of academia are a battle ground between socialists and neoliberals. With the former tneding to aggregate at the sociology department and the latter at the economics department.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

      Please. All the Republicans are socialists. When it comes to their own districts, they love pork as much or more than any Democrat. They certainly bring home more than their share. I can’t find one Red State which contributes more to the federal coffers than it takes out.Report

      • Murali in reply to BlaiseP says:

        They’re cheap opportunists playing politics. I’m talking about people whose sincere ideological commitments put them closer to a kind of left wing communitarianism than an individualist liberalism.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

          False dichotomy. The world has no more place for the Individual Libertarian than the tyrannosaurs. The world is too full of people and too closely intertwined, politically and economically, for any of their facile, flat-earth idiocy.Report

          • Murali in reply to BlaiseP says:

            The world has no more place for the Individual Libertarian than the tyrannosaurs. The world is too full of people and too closely intertwined, politically and economically, for any of their facile, flat-earth idiocy.

            You mistake what I mean by individualism and communitarianism. I’m talking about accounting, not about relations. Communitarians, to put it crudely, think that there are cases when the community as a whole benefits even if no particular individual benefits. Or to put it more charitably, communitarians assign benefits to groups without necessarily assigning any portion of that benefit to members of that group.

            Individualists suppose that groups are no more than the sum of the individuals so any benefit to a group is merely the sum of various benefits to the various individuals in that group.

            One or the other may strike you as more or less plausible and there are certainly strong and weak versions of each thesis, but there is neither a false dichotomy here nor is is individualism obviously wrong.

            a) The strong communitarian basically says that the common good is over-riding
            b) The weak communitarian says that it is one factor among others
            c) The weak individualist says that there may be a common good which is not accounted for by individuals’ good, but it has little relevance vis a vis coercive political institutions
            d) The strong individualist says that there is no such good and that such a conception of the good is incoherent.

            There is nothing about individualism in this sense which precludes a welfare state. Even utilitarianism is an individualist philosophy because the total good is a simple aggregation of each individual’s good.Report

            • Major Zed in reply to Murali says:

              I look at it this way. Say a majority of us agree that behavior X (which might consist of “do not do behavior Y”) is good from a moral perspective. When are we justified, as a democratic society, to mandate through legislation, i.e. to “aim society’s guns at people’s heads” to force them to do X? What characteristics of X, other than X being morally good, are necessary? Are there any conditions? Or is it morally justified when 51% of us force our wills upon the other 49% pretty much whenever we think it is right to do so?

              Various political philosophies provide different answers. Conservative and liberal philosophies disagree significantly on what characteristics make X good in the first place, but IMHO, they agree that there is a wide scope where enforcing the good is the right thing to do. Relative to them, libertarian philosophy tends to restrict that scope.

              Perhaps the cognitive dissonance arising from “X is good, but it’s not right to enforce it” is too much for some people.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Major Zed says:

                “Perhaps the cognitive dissonance arising from “X is good, but it’s not right to enforce it” is too much for some people.”

                Sadly, that might be the case for a number of people. I am increasingly of the mindset that government should not only not require X, but shouldn’t even actively encourage it. I doubt government’s ability to properly identify that which is “good” and, furthermore, don’t think that that is its function. I do think there is a place for the government to provide that which is necessary and require of its citizens support in doing so. So, I’m okay with taxing folks to pay for police and fire departments because I think those are pretty necessary for a functioning society. I’d also go so far as to say that food is necessary for people to live, so I support programs like SNAP (perhaps not in their present form but the idea behind them). Where exactly to draw the line becomes tricky: education? health care? cell phones?!?!?!

                Largely, I think the government’s role is to protect us from harm that is unwillingly inflicted by others. I don’t think it is to make us into “good” people.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Murali says:

              We can have Sincerity Ideological Commitments — or we can have Politics. Not both. To unwrap the worthy Jaybird’s amusing snark below, those who tend to phrase their arguments in moral terms are the folks most likely to bandy about words such as Evil to describe their opponents.

              The GOP has snookered the soi-disant Rugged Individualists with cheap rhetoric but their pork-barrel actions belie that rhetoric. You’re correct: the spectrum of communitarian individualist thinking is often orthogonal to the welfare state total good spectrum. But that’s not my point. Those who strut about, posturing and roaring about Libertarian Principles, cases in point, Rand Paul and the Tea Partiers, are usually lying to themselves. They are donkeys wrapped in mangy old lion skins, fooling only those who want to be similarly deluded.

              The No True Scotsman fallacy only arises when there’s no definition of Scotland’s citizenship rights. Adjectives such as Strong and Weak applied to Individualism and Communitarianism only serve to obfuscate the problem and set up arguments about how Scotsmen ought and ought not to eat porridge or pass pork-barrel legislation.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The problem that I see is that the moral arguments tend (tend!) to be used by the side that isn’t in power and the pragmatic arguments tend (tend!) to be used by the people who have the reins.

                When one is not in power it’s all “we ought to do this!” and “it’s only right to do that!” but when one is in power it becomes “well, you have to understand the realities of the situation when it comes to using targetted drones on people who might look like civilians but, seriously, why would anyone be having a wedding party outside of town?” and pretty much go on to explain that moral arguments appeal to adolescents but the nitty gritty of getting stuff done requires Open Eyes.

                And this might irritate me less if the folks making these arguments didn’t tend (tend!) to change them mid-sentence the moment they gain/lose power.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                Hmm. I see the party in opposition most inclined to retreat to the Moral High Ground. Cases in point: for all the GOP’s talk of cutting spending, where are the details? We both know how the Sacred Cow Ranch is run.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I see myself more as a coelacanth.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

              O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
              To see oursels as ithers see us!
              It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
              An’ foolish notion:
              What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
              An’ ev’n devotion!

      • Michael Cain in reply to BlaiseP says:

        In the Economist’s summary for the period 1990-2009, Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, and Nebraska. In the Tax Foundation’s 2004 figures — which are probably the most often quoted on the subject — Texas, Georgia, and Indiana. The two in common on those lists, Texas and Georgia, both have had rapidly growing populations mostly in their metro areas. The Atlanta metro area is 54% of the population of Georgia. The DFW-Houston-San Antonio metro areas are 58% of the population of Texas. Broadly, tax donor status follows urban concentration (Arizona is an interesting exception). As states become dominated by their metro population, it gets harder to stay red; there are any number of analysts who suggest that if current red/blue voting trends continue, Texas and Georgia will be blue states in another 20 years.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I’ve seen those numbers, too. Military spending across the South, especially in Texas (Fort Hood) and Georgia (Fort Stewart and Fort Benning), is enormous. It’s also not included in those numbers.Report

          • Will Truman in reply to BlaiseP says:

            The numbers are from the Census Bureau, which do include (domestic) military spending.Report

            • (Actually, wait, I am still trying to sort through the report.)Report

              • The (now discontinued) Census Bureau consolidated federal funds report, which has always included defense spending. I might argue that at least some of that spending shouldn’t be included in the comparison; I’m pretty sure Massachusetts and New Jersey would rather “pay” New Mexico than have the 3,200 square mile White Sands missile range located in either of their states. Colorado has been fighting US Army proposals to expand the Pinyon Canyon Maneuver Site by an amount bigger than the entire state of Massachusetts for the last decade.Report

              • trumwill mobile in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Michael, while some of the military and capital expenditures are pork and such, a lot of them are simply good placesttohave them. Easier and better for all to have air force planes take up Utah or Montana airspace than Boston airspace. It’s also cheaper to put a base in Texas than in California. And, as you pointed out, some of the spending is unwelcome when it’s nuclear waste facilities or PILTs on land the States would generally prefer the federal government not control in the first place. But it’s hard to make these distinctions and control for everything because everybody has a different idea of what should count.Report

              • Having tracked down the complete CFFR report for 2010, I can verify that defense spending is included. (I couldn’t find it before because the report I was looking at only included federal aid and grants to state and local governments.)Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

                You’re probably right. I might be operating under false assumptions on this. I still see the Red State rhetoric about no cuts to DoD expenditures as indicative of their dependence on those dollars, but I’m quite willing to be wrong about that conclusion.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

              These numbers are based on IRS filings. Therefore, they could not possibly include the DoD non-payroll related expenditures. Even the IRS filings are a bit wonky: most troops pay taxes using the addresses of their homes of record, not their current base assignments. To further complicate things, deployed troops don’t pay any taxes.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The IRS is the source for the collections side. The Census Bureau is the source for the expenditures side. It includes capital investments in addition to payments to individuals. The TPM map looks specifically at payments to individuals.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

                So stipulated. But I’m not convinced we’ve got the total revenue-expense picture. We also need to factor in some weirdities such as how West Virginia got the FBI headquarters porkopolis, or how Utah got that skeevy NSA Ministry of Snooping.Report

              • trumwill mobile in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Utah and snooping are a natural fit. Have you seen the LDS’s intelligence gathering apparatus at work 🙂Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to trumwill mobile says:

                I steer clear of LDS. Though, curiously, I’ve always respected Orrin Hatch. Something about him always impressed me, though maybe I’m just projecting. Don’t agree with him on much of anything and I think he’s in the pocket of Big Pharma, but I sure wish we had more Orrin Hatches and fewer John Cornyns.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Will Truman says:

              To cast yet another spanner into the gears, consider the components for big-ticket items such as helicopters are manufactured in separate plants all over the country, indeed the world. A bit of Googling says the Apache Longbow has a fuselage manufactured in Korea and components from afar afield as the UK and Italy.Report

              • Michael Cain in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Still, you’re the one who made the statement, “I can’t find one Red State which contributes more to the federal coffers than it takes out.” Will and I have pointed at data sets that show a couple of exceptions to that (but yes, it’s a generally true statement). You’ve taken exception to them. As far as I’m concerned, ball’s in your court now: point at someplace else that one could “find” or not a red state that contributes more. The original piece is about wonkery; you’ve either got numbers, or you’re just waving your hands.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Michael Cain says:

                Have it your way, Michael. Fact is, both Texas and Georgia feature military and other massive government expenditures which haven’t been factored into your numbers and won’t even appear on CBO numbers. The handwaving around here amounts to comparing apples and oranges and calling them all fruit.Report

    • Please note that I’ve not advocated “sacrificing reasonable policy.” I’ve argued that the left needs to have people who can take their wonks’ technical analysis and weave it into narratives.Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    Oh I don’t know that Liberals lack a compelling moral narrative. You’re not old enough to remember when we pushed back against the polluters and won. Or when we took on racism and won. Or when we took on equal rights for LGBT and we’re just now winning that debate.

    Our wonks might seem a bit abstruse, obsessed with parsing through the data, working through our arguments on a technical basis. Conor, we know how to win battles. We win on the facts. We’ve always won on the facts. Political realities — that which passes, passes like clouds. You’re not paying attention to how we win. We win like Michelangelo carved sculptures, by freeing the statue from its surrounding matrix of marble, one precise chip at a time.Report

  5. Mort says:

    I agree that if there’s a problem with the wonkery is that it’s taken as complete when normative arguments need to be coupled with technical solutions. But I don’t even see the wonks themselves as being incomplete. Rather, I think the political understanding of their approach is incomplete.

    Which is to say, to them (us, if I were to include myself) the underlying morality is obvious. Take a consequentialist ethics, some variation on secular humanism, and a dash of understanding re: the pervasive challenge of externalities to a full-throated conception of liberty/autonomy and you have what I take to be the typical underpinnings to the wonkist ideology. (It’s no wonder that they tend left-libertarian.) But to the wonk, that stuff is obvious. Or at least settled. I mean, it’s not like someone like Yglesias (Harvard philosophy major) hasn’t thought about this it. The wonk just finds the technical details more interesting than the rhetoric. Which is fair–Apple doesn’t need its engineers to do design nor its designers to do engineering so long as they understand each other.

    I think there’s two problems. One is the one you like to focus on so much, that compelling narratives haven’t been built for the technocratic solutions that are developed. And that’s the job of the politician, really. Something like Elizabeth Warren’s “you didn’t build that” strikes me as an example of the right way forward in that regard.

    The second, though, is that there is still a tension in the left between the technocrats and the socialist and unionist forefathers of 20th century left movements. It’s hard to pair the rhetoric of Marx, or even Rawls*, with technocratic solutions when those solutions are steeped in a market-driven and market-privileged conception of the world.

    Maybe you can point to Dewey as your way out. You know more about him than I do. I don’t know. And I’m sure that a strong rhetorical sheen can bridge the gap, at least for a few decades (see: the marriage of God, Business, and Objectivism on the right. I suppose Calvin did some of the rhetorical lifting there.) But I think that tension is there and I think its valid and I think it can’t be ignored as narratives are crafted, if that’s even how narratives work.

    The long and short is that I think you’re right. Narrative and moral argument change hearts and minds. But building those narratives is complicated when not everyone agrees to the ground rules.Report

    • Mort in reply to Mort says:

      Heh, I sort of forgot that this website had a bit of a wider audience than the Conor Williams blogs of yore. Oh well. I’ll let my comment stand, even if it probably doesn’t mesh well with the other more topical, less navel-gazing commentary here…Report

    • Murali in reply to Mort says:

      There is an asterisk on Rawls that you didn’t follow up on. what did you mean to say there?Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Mort says:

      One does not need to be an absolutely unrepentant Marxist to be able to use moral rhetoric.

      The truth is that Matt Y is a neo-liberal and in my mind this often makes him a likely candidate for future apostates of America. The right loves nothing more than a former liberal to tell them why liberal is wrong. I can see Matt Y filling that view.

      Ghandi was more right than wrong when he said you can’t separate commerce/economics from morality. I don’t think he meant this as a full-on anti-Capitalist argument but to say that pure economics is wrong. Everything needs to be tempered with whether it is wrong or will cause suffering, you can’t just do something because it makes economic sense.

      After Hurricane Sandy, Matt Y wrote two posts about how the gas crisis could have been solved by allowing price gouging. This is a highly privileged argument that ignored a lot of reality. The gas shortage was not caused by a lack of product but by a lack of electricity because downed power lines meant that the electronic pumps could not work well or at all. There was also the issue about getting stuff into areas. And as Felix Salmon pointed out, Matt Y comes from a very wealthy background and married into a wealthier family. It simply bristles to hear him make an argument about price gouging. Most of these arguments often come from people who can afford the extra hit:

      There is also the fact that price-gouging might not be in the long-term best interest of someone because people tend to punish merchants for taking advantage of an unfair situation. We see it as fundamentally wrong to jack up the prices of essentials:

      All this again proves is that the world does not work like pure economics says it should because people are complex creatures. Psychology and philosophy should trump all, not economics. You will still learn more about humans from reading Freud, Aristotle, Milton, and Dante than you can from Smith, Ricardo, and Hayek.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to NewDealer says:

        Ghandi was more right than wrong when he said you can’t separate commerce/economics from morality.

        The converse is true as well.Report

      • Mort in reply to NewDealer says:

        Philosophy trumps everything in some sense, sure. Yes, you may learn more about Truth and God and The Good and the nature of human foible from Milton, Aristotle, and Dante. (You might learn a good dick joke from Freud.) But if you want to explain day-to-day human decision-making, I’d rather a behavioral economist.

        And while Privledge is a (the?) Achilles heel of much libertarianism, you’re not going to convince me on price gouging.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Mort says:

          I’m with Mort. Freud, Aristotle, Milton, and Dante give us interesting interpretations about what it means to be human, but they’re all individual–idiosyncratic and non-replicable–interpretations. Behavioral economists, however, explain what it is humans actually do, not what we think they do or hope they will do.

          Humans are animals. If you want to understand them, you have to study them as we study other animals. At least that’s my opinion as someone who went from reading political philosophy to reading the evolutionary behavior literature. Your mileage may vary.Report

        • NewDealer in reply to Mort says:

          I have no problem with behavioral economics because it uses and incorporates psychology.

          Matt Y is not a behavioral economics guy. He is also not an economist period. He tries to be an old-school economist who believes people will always behave in their rational self-interest. Everything he writes is merely a textbook example of what an old-school economist thinks would happen. Can you give me an example where price gouging worked for an essential good? It seems to me that for price-gouging to work, everything would need to happen quickly. Prices would go far up and a lot of outsiders would need to be able to get their products to the area immediately. This would eventually bring the price down because the market is flooded with the necessary good.

          It seems to me that it would take outsiders too long to notice and get the price down in a way that helps the most people.

          This is my why of saying that no libertarian, neo-liberal, or economist will convince me that price gouging is good or works.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to NewDealer says:

            ND, I don’t think you have the full picture on price gouging. It’s not about outsiders noticing right away and shipping in more stuff to get the price down.* It’s also about keeping people from hoarding, or taking more than they need.

            After a hurricane you’ll need plywood, but probably there’s not enough plywood on hand in the local lumber stores to go around. Do you want one guy going in and buying up dozens of sheets, leaving less behind for other people, or do you want him to say, “damn, I can’t afford that many, I’ll go with the minimum I can bet by with,” so that other folks have a better chance of getting the minimum they need as well?

            This is the problem when we look at things in moralistic terms–by focusing on the apparent morality of the action we forget to look at the secondary and tertiary effects.
            *Although it is worth noting that in today’s well-connected world outsiders are not only likely to notice price increases right away, they are likely to anticipate them. We can all watch the Weather Channel (obviously this doesn’t apply to earthquakes), and there are people whose job it is to know in great detail what people need after particular events. Wal Mart’s logistics data is so sophisticated they know what type of snack foods people in different regions of the country prefer in times of crisis.Report

            • NewDealer in reply to James Hanley says:

              You can also combat hoarding by instituting rationing and I have no problem doing this during times of emergency. We had ration books during WWII. I don’t see why something like Sandy can’t also come with limited rationing.

              Also it still seems like if you are worried about hoarding, it is still going to be people of moderate means or less that suffer and get less product especially in an area with vast income differences like NYC-Metro. If someone has a net worth of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more than they are going to be able to hoard anyway. What kind of prices would dissuade a wealthy person from hoarding while also allowing people of moderate or poor means enough access to necessary goods?Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to James Hanley says:

              Heh. (as Sgt. Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes) This has nothing, NO-THING to do with free market competition breaking down. The ensuing price gouging is just the Invisible Hand at work, supply and demand, you know.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to NewDealer says:

        Gandhi failed because he could never find his Muslim counterpart. Though he was a shining star in the firmament of heaven, one of the greatest human beings who ever lived, his star was like all stars, beyond our reach. Like all prophets and wise men, Gandhi’s message was largely lost on his followers: Indian independence would also lead to the creation of Pakistan and the most chaotic migration of human beings in history. We still do not know how many people died during the Partition of India.

        That’s the problem with Morality Based Arguments, especially when they’re applied to This Mortal Coil. The saint does not connect us to eternity. He connects eternity to we mere mortals in present times. We’re better-served to frame the argument in terms of attenuating the evil of present times — Equal Justice Under Law — for we will never eliminate it.Report

    • Conor P. Williams in reply to Mort says:

      Well, yeah, Dewey is:

      1) a consequentialist
      2) a secular humanist (à la Common Faith, and
      3) attentive to the difficulties of harmonizing individualism with troubling externalities.

      So he IS an answer.

      But I guess I’d love to see the wonks periodically lay their justificatory principles out there. “That stuff is obvious” isn’t a rhetorical strategy—not a winning one, anyway.Report

  6. DRS says:

    See, the left—unlike the right—doesn’t seem interested in building strong moral arguments to go with their wonks.

    Yes, and thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for it. Don’t you think Americans are getting just a bit fed up with all the angsty moral arguments about universe-transforming policies in a wide variety of areas? Maybe it might be a good idea to concentrate on – wait for it, you might want to sit down – more modest policies that actually might affect a moderate change that will make major change a little more doable? And build an argument based on effectiveness?

    Politics is the art of the possible – start concentrating on the possible and spend less time debating the art. Drop the labels: liberaltarian, libertarian, communitarian, progressive, left-wing, right-wing, etc. They’re seriously meaningless and succeed in derailing the search for real solutions into a sidetrack of verbal fluff.

    Americans will take politics seriously again when politics takes itself seriously. It’s a partisan conceit that all policies have to dovetail neatly into some kind of internally consistent manner. Real life circumstances mean more than just using some philosophical yardstick to measure everything.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to DRS says:

      Real life circumstances mean more than just using some philosophical yardstick to measure everything.

      This. Sometimes actual yards yardsticks and — dare I say it? — calculations are required before setting forth on some Moral Crusade?

      Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.
      The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.
      Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat:
      how much more no calculation at all!
      It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

    • NewDealer in reply to DRS says:

      I dissent rhetoric has a place and is necessary.

      The problem with people like Rhee and Matt Y is that they are so convinced that their solution is right, they develop a Sun King complex. They simply cannot comprehend that not everyone agrees with them on their solution. A technocrat is someone who thinks “if it was not for these pesky voters and democracy, things would be really great.”Report

    • NewDealer in reply to DRS says:

      More thoughts:

      We live in a Democratic Republic. This means that you need to convince voters that your party and causes are the right ones. Perhaps the wonk-class does have some of the best policy arguments, if you cannot get elected the policies will never be enacted.

      This means needing to learn to talk to voters who might not want to read a white paper, be lectured at in charts and graphs, but might want a story, a narrative. They might need and want an argument based on concepts of fairness, morality, and ethics, not economics.

      Humans are emotional and social creatures. We are not Data or Spock. We care about ethics and morality even if it goes against wonky policy. See above.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to NewDealer says:

        I would argue we don’t give a rip about either ethics or morality. We’re the most self-centred society in the history of the world. We don’t want a narrative, either.

        We want a leader, a human being who embodies our hopes and fears and dreams. This has always been the case. Data and Spock were loyal to Captain Kirk. The Wily Odysseus-es of this world don’t build the Trojan Horses which win long sieges. But they do think them up and inspire others to build them.Report

  7. Kolohe says:

    You would think from the post that someone other than Barrack Obama is going to be President of the United States in a little under 3 hours.

    And it certainly seems to me that the gun control proponents are casting their arguments in moral terms (for the children, natch) , as much as statistical ones. Ditto for advocates of various individual programs that comprise non-defense government spending (or all of them).Report

    • DRS in reply to Kolohe says:

      And it certainly seems to me that the gun control proponents are casting their arguments in moral terms (for the children, natch) , as much as statistical ones.

      Just like the anti-gun control proponents do, in fact. Funny how that works. Mote, beam and all that.Report

  8. Kolohe says:

    The other mini-lol is that the guy who’s lecturing about persuasive politics founded a magazine named after the dudes that were so persuasive and hip to practical politics, they all got thrown out (some a few inches shorter) and Napoleon came in.Report

  9. Miguel says:

    A few things:

    1) This misidentifies the source of much of the right’s successes. On many of the major issues–guns, abortion, school choice, regulations–success came, not from grand moral narratives, but small, directed ones that tapped into pre-existing constituencies. Other notable successes–lower taxes most especially–didn’t require any grand moral narrative because, all things being equal, its not hard to convince a public that lower taxes are great.

    2) The left has been very successful, too. As several of your wonks rightly noted in 2010, the social democratic welfare state is now basically accomplished, and not going to go away. That’s largely been from a moral vision that’s been successfully communicated.

    3) Most importantly: what’s been the cost to the right for routinely caring more about messaging & ideology than policy? Very stupid policy, and shoddy electoral success. Yes, Bush II was elected 2wice, but his presidency was hardly a conservative champions league. He lowered taxes (always easy to d0)….and passed a major permanent expansion of medicare. As for the War in Iraq: that hardly was the result of a great moral story, but instead one of institutional prowess by its major advocates (Cheney, Wolfowitz, Kristol, etc). By the time the great story for its justification was rolled out to the public the course had already been set. Poing being: if that’s success, it’s not something we should envy.

    4) The only policy issue that really seems to fit your gripe is climate change. Maybe we should just acknowledge that this is an odd issue, and not an appropriate example for modeling how the right and left are doing more generally.Report

  10. NewDealer says:

    Good post.

    I think Robert Reich once complained about how the right seems to produce politicians and the left produces bloggers you can take to cocktail parties.

    I dislike the Matt Y and Michelle Rhee wing of the Democratic Party. They are not liberals, nor are they data driven. Matt Y is not even an economist. He simply reads articles about white papers and somehow convinced Slate to let him write two paragraphs on the findings with a musing or two. He is a privileged Dalton-boy and a prime candidate for saying “L’etat ces’t moi” with full sincerity.Report

  11. LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

    A moral vision is a prerequisite of conuring up an image of what we want to accomplish; its the answer to “why?”

    We always seem to cast arguments in terms of what “works”.
    Everything works.
    The question is, works to do what?
    An efficient allocation of resources?
    Justice? Liberty?
    Domestic tranquility?

    In order to come to some agreement on what we want to create, we have to argue for why it should be so.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to LWA (Liberal With Attitude) says:

      A plus.

      Hence why I still believe in Hubert Humphry’s liberal mantra. Even though Bush and Ryan tried to co-opt it or perhaps because they did. It is the universal goal.

      There need to be more Hubert Humphry’s in the world. One wonders what the world would have been like if he was elected in 1968 instead of Nixon.Report

  12. Damon says:


    I generally agree. My only real criticism is you think Matthew Yglesias is a wonk? The dude’s and idiot. Trillion dollar coin. Really. No concept of economics.

    Blasise is entirely correct that the most Republicans are nothing but socialists too, his disparaging remarks against Libertarians notwishstanding. 🙂Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Damon says:

      How did old WFBuckley put it? A Conservative is a Liberal who hasn’t been mugged yet. –to which I added my own corollary: A Liberal is a Conservative who hasn’t been arrested yet.

      But I may have to write up another corollary: a Libertarian is a Liberal who hasn’t been in the hospital for food poisoning yet. Boy howdy, nothing like a case of dysentery to convince anyone of the need for food inspectors.Report

      • Damon in reply to BlaiseP says:

        I narrowly missed the hospital when I ate some under cooked chicken at a wedding. My Sister in Law didn’t and was hospitalized for dehydration. I was able to avoid the same fate-and she’s a socialist! 🙂Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Damon says:

          I once got into some rotten chicken. In the immortal words of Dave Barry your bowels travel into the future and start eliminating food that you have not even eaten yet.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

            A friend of mine was travelling in a country where Americans need many prior immunizations, and ate something that disagreed with him violently, leading to many hours of eliminating all kinds of stuff. He says that at one point he heard a loud plop, saw something pinkish floating around, and thought “God, I hope that’s not a part I need.”Report

          • Mark Thompson in reply to BlaiseP says:

            So, I once had some undercooked chicken wings at this place that had just opened up around the corner from my apartment when I lived in Virginia. It was such a promising-sounding place, too, purporting to specialize in the food of Philadelphia and Buffalo, which by happenstance are the cities of The Wife’s birth and my birth. We discovered this place literally two days before we were supposed to board a plane for our wedding (a small affair in the islands), and thought it was kismet.

            As I said, the wings were apparently undercooked. As I discovered, Dave Barry’s description is disturbingly accurate – our wedding pictures make it appear as though The Wife married a wire hanger, even though by the day of the ceremony had been eating again for a solid 48 hours- I had lost at least 20-25 pounds in the previous 4 days. The four hour flight just hours after the worst had passed wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, either.

            Shockingly, the Buffalo-Philly restaurant was no longer in business just a month or two later.Report

            • Mike Schilling in reply to Mark Thompson says:

              You weren’t clued in by “Food worthy of the Eagles and Bills”?Report

              • Hey – it was the height of the McNabb/Reid era, and the Bills were only just starting to become embarrassing to root for. Hell, Bruce Smith was still on an NFL roster.

                Besides, Philly and Buffalo food are about the best cheap-ass regional cuisine you’ll find in this country outside of the South.Report

              • Mike Schilling in reply to Mark Thompson says:

                We were in Orlando once, to take the kids to Disney World, when we stumbled upon a “country style’ Korean restaurant. It had more vegetables and more savory sauces than the usual Korean style, sort of a cross between a stew and a stir-fry. It was awesomely delicious. Afterward, when I complimented them on how good everything was, they said it was their last day serving Korean food, which had never found a market. Starting tomorrow, buffalo wings!Report

          • Damon in reply to BlaiseP says:

            My food poison was not as bad as Montazuma’s (sp) Revenge from drinking the water in Mexico. I think I puked for 6 straight hours. That was the worst…..Report

    • Chris in reply to Damon says:

      I won’t comment on the actual effectiveness of the trillion dollar coin, but I have been impressed by the fact that virtually every single person I’ve seen argue against it on economic grounds has been ignorant of its actual purpose.Report

  13. Plinko says:

    I’m not a big fan of how you got to the conclusion, but I generally agree with where you’ve ended up.
    The initial mistake, it seems to me, is mistaking the purpose of wonkery as prescription rather than description. It’s about figuring out if means will achieve ends – not about determining which ends we desire.

    The kind of work the wonks do is important and necessary and has always been with us.
    The ‘new’ thing about all this is that today there’s a public audience for this kind of analysis. One that, at the moment, seems to heavily favor the Left. I’d suggest that’s because there’s considerably more openness to solving practical problems among the Left at the moment.

    I’m continually confused by the vitriol a lot of folks will spew onto a court in which their side is currently winning, ND’s comments being prime examples.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Plinko says:

      “The ‘new’ thing about all this is that today there’s a public audience for this kind of analysis.”

      The fusion between populist politics and ‘scientific’* wonkery (aimed at the newly emerging middle classes) is what defined the Progressive Era and New Deal coalitions (and Herbert Hoover, and to a lesser extent, Ike for that matter)

      *scare quotes around scientific because some was, and some was not. (and some that was, was simply incomplete or straight up wrong)Report

      • Plinko in reply to Kolohe says:

        Good point on the Progressive Era, though today’s popular wonkery seems to aim an awful lower than the Progressives did.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Plinko says:

          I kinda disagree with the premise*, but if I were to accept it, I would imagine that much of it was that the idea that certain people were superior and certain people not so much permeated the thinking of the time. (and it went beyond race). So wonkery was much more aimed their peers vice the populace.

          *but that said, I like to point to this review of Origin of the Species (though it predates the Progressive Era by quite a bit) and wonder if today’s NYT could review, say, a publication on the Higgs Boson as capably.Report

    • Peg in reply to Plinko says:

      I can’t agree. You have to know the facts first, and then determine the goals. Otherwise you’re out there in la-la land. Wonks first–observation first. Then discuss goals and ideals. Then go in for another round of wonkery to determine how best to reach those goals given that desired outcome. Only then do you figure out how to sell your nice, wonky policy.

      But it absolutely has to begin with observation of facts: they’re the anchor on which all the other stuff depends.Report

  14. Barry says:

    “The wonks’ focus on policy details blinds them to political realities. This is why Klein can float blithely from “about as close to a democratic socialist as you’ll come in America” to “just the facts, not really a liberal” to “Paul Ryan’s budget is serious and fiscally sound.” Or, put pithily: better chart blogging isn’t about to secure Florida’s electoral votes. It’s not going to win the gun control argument. Those are political battles that depend on compelling rhetorical narratives and corresponding mobilization efforts.”

    The behavior by Klein mentioned here (“Paul Ryan’s budget is serious and fiscally sound.”) is not fact-based, and it’s not wonky (Paul Ryan is not a wonk; he just play one). It’s a piece of bullsh*t favored by the elites.

    In the post linked from this post, somebody points out that Ezra hasn’t noticed the massive the failures of the school ‘reform’ movement. This isn’t empirical or fact-based behavior, except so far as Ezra perhaps noticing which ‘facts’ the Washington Post (Kaplan) wants to have publicized.Report