Alternative Is Here To Stay: Ideologies As Tribes

“The name of the sound: Alternative
And that’s the way I want to live
Alternative, if you’ll turn it on
We’ll alternate all night long
Let’s dance to an alternative song
And alternate all night long”

For my money, Arnold Kling of Econlog (along with myself, of course, as well as the TimeCube guy) is on any short list of best bloggers on the internet. The perfect blog post is not too long, pithy, says a lot, and makes a good, original case for something, while seeming effortless. Nobody could possibly do that all the time, probably not even a majority of the time. But Kling accomplishes it with a mind-bogglingly high frequency compared to everyone else. An example worth highlighting is this post on some peoples’ reaction to/treatment of “tea-baggers”:

…I am fed up with the psychoanalysis of the tea party movement. When people say that they do not like big deficits and government activism, why not take them at their word? Why say that what they really believe are wild conspiracy theories?

It would not surprise me to learn that many tea partiers believe strange things. But it would not surprise me to learn that many people of all political stripes believe strange things. If you are willing to filter out the strange beliefs of ordinary Democrats and Republicans in order to provide a narrative of a coherent ideology, then you should do the same with the tea partiers.

This is a useful explanation not just of how anti-“teabagging” operates, but how bias (self-centered bias, ultimately) operates in general. The groups we like and identify with are treated straightforwardly, at face value, even charitably. The groups we dislike and identify as our antagonists, on the other hand, are treated as uncharitably as possible, their motives questioned, any inconsistency or bad/weird subset instantly seized upon as being representative of the group as a whole. This is just how people seem to play the game of political combat, learned and honed in battles between the “cool”, “nerdy” and other cliques since school days.

“Some people like to rock
Some people like to roll
And that was cool in days of old
But all the kids where the action is
Got to have alternative”

As Kling goes on to describe,

I think that a lot of pundits would be comfortable describing the 2008 election as the a rational, focused statement in favor of the progressive agenda, rather than an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances. Yet those same pundits would feel comfortable describing the tea party movement and the election of Scott Brown as an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances, rather than a rational, focused statement in opposition to the progressive agenda.

This is a perfectly fair and obvious observation but it’s also easy to dismiss it as identifying mere hypocrisy. I think that misses the point. What’s really going on is a kind of analytical blindness.

Because let’s face it, while I’m sure Kling is right, it’s not as if the media know they’re doing this, or scheme and plot in secret to tilt and slant all news analysis and interpretation in the favor of ideologies they prefer, while giggling “heh heh heh that’ll show ’em”. This behavior is not a conspiracy, and probably not even intentional. It just seems to be what humans do. Since the humans who populate the news media are disproportionately on the left, it’s the right that gets it. But this is not an exclusive property of left or right.

“I’m in love with an alternative girl
She’s not like the other alternative girls
She’s pierced and dyed and scarified
She hates Tom Cruise, She loves Anne Rice
We’re gonna be an alternative sight
When I take her out on Saturday night”

If you’re on the left, you are constantly on the lookout to find something wrong with, say, the group of people “those who desire lower taxes”. So (people being what they are – imperfect) you inevitably can, and will. You’ll find and link to a Youtube clip of some hick who showed up to a tea party protest saying something stupid, or racist, or whatever. You’ll point, and say looky, and it will make you feel better about yourself and your beliefs. If you’re on the right, you’re on the lookout to find something wrong with the group of people “those who desire single-payer health care”. The Youtube clip you find and link to will be much different of course – say, some overweight lesbian saying government should pay for her hypothetical abortions. Or whatever. But you’ll find one won’t you?

The point is, in any (reasonably sizable) group of humans you’ll find some weird, imperfect, or bad ones. What ideologues do is ignore the bad apples on their side while citing any bad apples on the other side as evidence of the other side’s inherent, intrinsic, foundational inferiority.

This sort of one-sided analytical blindness helps people nurture their ideologies. It’s what feeds and keeps ideologies alive and coherent. Because ideologies can’t, or don’t usually, survive merely by being a good and appealing set of ideas. The way they survive and flower in human populations is through group identification: by adopting an ideology, you’re not just getting some ideas into your head, you’re simultaneously signing yourself up for this or that sort of group membership. And it may be the latter not the former that appeals to people the most.

This is true of lefty socialists, for whom advertising themselves as ‘smart, nice people’ so often seems more important to them than the actual tangible results of the policies they favor. But it is true of righty “tea-baggers” as well; watching this interview of Andrew Breitbart by Glenn Reynolds, one thing that struck me in Breitbart’s laudatory comments about the tea partiers was that he didn’t merely, or even primarily, cite their ideas as appealing – he cited them as appealing. To him, they were good and decent and nice people, and it almost seemed as if that (not the ideas themselves) was, for him, the tea party’s biggest selling point.

In both cases, if these ideologies were just ideas, they would be much less appealing, or at least salient, to people. But really what they are is cliques. Tribes. Maybe the modern world doesn’t quite have enough ‘standard’ tribes to satisfy peoples’ need for them. Maybe nation-states are just too big, religions too weak, neighborhoods too fragmented. So, starved of that tribal craving, like a recovering junkie reaching for a cigarette, people need a substitute – in this case, some canned political ideology. “I’m a leftist”, “I’m green”, “I’m a conservative”.

This organic, consumer-driven splintering and antagonistic ingroup/outgroup bias even happens in relatively unimportant walks of life – note the rise of ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ rock in the past 30 years or so. Until sometime in the ’80s, there was Rock. Sometimes there were distinguishable offshoots, like Punk. But then we were told there was (supposedly) something called ‘Alternative Rock’. Which, as far as I could tell, was just a subset of rock (guitars, bass, drums, 4/4..) played and listened to by people who had decided that the other subsets of rock weren’t ‘cool’ enough for them. I mean, it was never as if ‘Alternative Rock’ was a distinguishable form of music from ‘Rock’. You can’t listen to a song and tell whether it is ‘Rock’ or ‘Alternative’, because they are not different types of music. They’re different types of people, and different ways of marketing those people. ‘Alternative’ was essentially a marketing niche created to appeal to people who felt a need to distinguish themselves from ‘regular’ Rock listeners. And it worked. Virtually all rock listeners, millions of them, distinguished themselves as ‘special’ rock listeners, not like those dumb regular rock listeners.

Of course, at some point it worked too well, because your local Tower Records at some point inserted an ‘Alternative’ section, and there were ‘Alternative’ radio stations, and you could see characters on Beverly Hills 90210 talking about ‘alternative’, to the point where the idea that there was anything truly alternative about ‘Alternative’ was almost – actually, scratch that: literally – laughable. Hence the inevitable rebranding, sometime in the ’90s: suddenly there was ‘Indie’. Same thing, new name. What the heck’s so indie about ‘Indie’? Beats me. Still seems like rock musicians playing rock songs and trying to sell them to us. Is ‘Indie’ a style of music that one can aurally distinguish from ‘Rock’? Again: no. Again: it’s a type of person. It’s a tribe.

People just like and want to be part of tribes, it seems. They all want smaller, not bigger ones – although (somewhat paradoxically) the more people who join their ‘small’ tribe, up to a point, the happier they are. Similarly, they want to be in ‘special’ tribes, tribes that make them ‘special’ just by being a member – even if the tribe has zillions of such ‘special’ people. And when in tribes, people behave in predictably ‘hypocritical’ ways towards the enemy tribes. This is just the way people are.

Back to Kling’s post, I think it just happens that one tribe had, until the past decade or so, dominated the media; in a real sense, it was the tribe that was better at ‘media’, and still is. So they have used it shamelessly, perhaps subconsciously so, for their tribal ends. But that tribe lacks the same overpowering advantage on the internet, which the enemy tribe is now able to use to regularly and skillfully point out their (almost embarrassingly obvious) hypocrisy and bias. There has now arisen a sort of uneasy balance of power and I think perhaps that’s the best that can be hoped for.

“Alternative is something more
Than number 1,2,3, and 4
It’s 5,6,7,8,8,9
Alternative is doing fine
Alternative is how we live
We believe in alternative
And I think it’s safe to say
Alternative is here to stay
Alternative is here to stay
Alternative is here to stay”

(Sincerest apologies to The Mr. T Experience)

Ideologies As Sex Fantasies
January 6, 2009, 3:36 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,

Not sure if I’ve posted it here yet, but the following is my pet theory about what the big three socio-political ideologies boil down to, sexually:

  • Islam/Theocratic Fascism:  Make sure any chicks I have sex with only have sex with me.  Except the prostitutes of course.
  • Socialism/Communism:  Make sure there’s always a large pool of chicks out there willing to have sex with whoever.  Except my daughter(s) of course.
  • Conservatism/(Classical) Liberalism:  Make sure people who have too much sex, suffer, and that meanwhile I don’t have to think about other peoples’ sex that much.

Notice that the first two can actually coexist side by side, as long as society is divided into the chaste and the promiscuous.  The third, by contrast, has trouble with each of the first two.  And using my it-all-boils-down-to-sex theory, it’s pretty easy to see why.

Financial Socialism: Yes We Can

The recent financial troubles have opened debates in certain quarters about something called “capitalism”. Do the bailouts mean the end of “capitalism”? Did the “free market” fail? Does this prove socialism is better?

I have some problems with the terms of this debate. For one thing, I think I agree with a point often made by James Bowman that there’s really no such thing as “capitalism”. There’s no “ism” about “capital” that embodies a philosophy or ideology that anyone seriously subscribes to. Bowman suggests that the term “capitalism” was an invention of early socialists, a label they could slap on what they opposed (primarily, private property) so they could oppose it more effectively. I suspect he is right.

If you think about it, what gets called “capitalism”, in most discussions, is really just freedom. Am I free to give you X in exchange for Y? Are you free to give me Y in return? All most “capitalists” really want is for the answer to be yes. That is not any kind all-pervading ideology about “capital” that justifies glorifying it with a separate “ism”; all that “capitalists” (such as myself) are saying is that people should be free to exchange their stuff with each other if they wanna. Don’t call me a fricking “capitalist” just for that, for crissakes. If anything, I’m a freedomist. If person 1 has X and wants Y more, and person 2 has Y and wants X more, and they decide to swap X and Y, then freaking LET THEM for crying out loud.

The people who espouse this supposedly antiquated and hard-to-defend concept (let them!) get called “capitalists” and are often painted as somehow evil and uncaring. The people who postulate that person 1 and person 2 sometimes shouldn’t be allowed to swap X and Y even if they wanna, well they get called enlightened or “liberal” or “progressive”. It’s truly bizarre, this inversion of language that has taken place. Somehow a person who wants to butt in and say “you guys, NO, you CAN’T swap X and Y, because I don’t want you to!!” is called a “liberal”.

Anyway, I’ve gotten sidetracked. My point is just that I find these debates to be loaded, misleading, and irritating from the get-go.

But a more specific issue came up in private email discussions with a friend recently. The subject was the bailout of (we thought, at the time) the securities market, and what that meant for the free market. Were banks now being socialized? Was this national socialism? Was this the end of the free market?

In answering, I came up with a crazy hypothesis about the mortgage market that I’m afraid may actually be more correct than not: the mortgage market already was socialist, and had been for several decades.

Here’s the way that mortgage bonds seem to work, based on the on-the-job crash course I’ve had the past year. (This is not particularly original and I believe Arnold Kling regularly makes many of the same points.) Anyway, Local Bank makes a loan to a borrower who meets criteria XYZ (these criteria have to do with FICO and loan-to-value and such; details aren’t that important except to note in passing that they are numerical and, obviously, can be – and are – gamed). Is this because Local Bank thought making a loan to the borrower was a great idea and they objectively liked the cash flows they’d be getting from the borrower? And, did Local Bank create criteria XYZ themselves, as a guideline for loans they’d be willing to take on balance sheet?

In a truly free market, the answers would seem to have to be yes and yes. In reality, the answers are no and no. Criteria XYZ are actually specified by a quasi-private corporation, really an off-balance-sheet (but of course, now on balance-sheet) government agency, called FNMA or “Fannie Mae”, which says to Local Bank and all Local Banks like it: “If you make loans satisfying criteria XYZ, we’ll automatically buy them, sight unseen.” And of course, that’s why the Local Bank did it; because a government agency “government-sponsored enterprise” has been standing there, since the 1930s, ready to reimburse the Local Bank for making that loan, while letting the Local Bank keep a fee for their trouble. Free market!? So far, looks more like a funding subsidy. As a side note, yes Fannie was created during the New Deal. And if you ask Wall Street mortgage types why it should exist at all, you’ll likely hear something mumbled about ‘affordable housing’.

Yeah, housing sure has been ‘affordable’ these past 20 years has it not?

Anyway, it gets better.

Once the loan is delivered into a “qualifying” pool (i.e. meeting criteria XYZ) of loans, all bought by Fannie Mae (or possibly Freddie Mac, created later in the ’70s to “compete” with Fannie), it gets “securitized” and wrapped. In English this just means that investors can buy a stake in the cash flows of the loan pool, and Fannie guarantees against losses. If the borrowers in the loan pool start welching on their mortgages, Fannie – i.e., taxpayers – will make up the difference out of pocket. So this is actually more like a direct subsidy to cash-strapped homeowners from the government, funneled through banks. Free market!??

Now wait though. Why would investors want to buy a mortgage bond rather than just the loans themselves? Why would banks want to package and sell their loans this way? The texts all talk about leverage and being able to spread risk and participate in a more-predictable cash flow, but two things here are key: 1. the need to create “AAA”-rated securities because many investor types are only allowed to buy “AAA”. This is often a regulation at the government level, e.g. for state pension funds. (Free market?) 2. more importantly: because of capital requirements. Keeping a loan on your balance sheet causes the fedgov to charge you more “capital” than if you are able to securitize that loan and put it into a “vehicle”. These are insidery terms that I do not understand fully myself but the jist is: the federal government has regulations that, intentionally or not, give banks an incentive to turn loans into ‘securities’. (Much credit for making me aware of this to Arnold Kling.) So banks are just gaming the labyrinth of regulations that currently exist, best they can. They intentionally do X instead of Y not because X is inherently more profitable, but because a government regulation penalizes them and their ability to do business if they do Y. This is a free market?!?

Anyway, whatever the motive/incentives, once securitized, the loan pool becomes a bond and is traded on Wall Street. Here it becomes slice and diced, repackaged and resold, etc etc. Sexy! This is the part everyone seems to focus on when they talk about a “free market”, and this is the part whose failure is supposedly the death knell of same. Yes, there seems to be a “free market” in trading these products of huge amounts of government subsidy and regulation, in which those investment banks and hedge funds that are able to have better trading strategies (and of course more tricky slice ‘n dice strategies) are able to pocket profits from these government-subsidized products.

So my point was this. Suppose none of any of this existed and you wanted to set up a socialist program from scratch to fund housing in America. In the old-style USSR type system this might mean setting up a big government agency, with a giant budget, and then having the agency’s employees spend their days figuring out how to directly distribute the money/capital for people to buy homes. Or for builders to build them. Writing regulations and such, rules about who gets (qualifies for?) what homes where. Moving housing allocation from one district to another as overbuilding or underbuilding became evident. And so on. In the process they would surely amass a large amount of statistics, build models of income and employment and housing values, make projections of defaults and moves, reallocate funds/attention/capital/diktats from here to there, etc.

What many of those people would be doing with their days wouldn’t be all that different from what, say, mortgage-bond researchers at investment banks do with their days. And the net effect of their diktats would be similar to the net effect of what traders accomplish by selling bond A (say, a bond backed by too many Florida loans) and buying bond B (a bond backed by more diversified loans..). So if you wanted to build up this socialist program, and were creative and not too dogmatic about the egalitarian part of socialism, you might just wind up creating something like… what we have. Researchers, model-builders, and traders, all given personal incentives to allocate socialist distribution of housing more efficiently.

This led to my crazy hypothesis: our system for housing is, and has been for a long long time, a socialist one. There’s one key difference. Socialism has, notoriously, a “calculation problem” – under socialism the market is not free and so price discovery doesn’t take place. This is why you get bread lines on the one hand and overfilled warehouses full of shoes nobody wants on the other; the socialist bureaucrats, being so centralized, have an inherent difficulty in figuring out how and where to allocate resources.

So in the “capitalist” West, we’ve solved the socialist calculation problem, by letting Wall Street traders do it. And pocket a cut of the take. My theory, in short, is that the mortgage-bond market functions as the distribution/allocation system for what is an inherently socialist housing system.

Of course, we haven’t really solved the calculation problem, because as we have seen, Wall Street has done a notoriously bad job at pricing housing in the U.S. – overvaluing it by a huge amount in the past 20 years. That is after all why we now see the correction as a crash. But this gets to the heart of the matter; this bubble and crash, was it a failure of “capitalism” and the “free market”?

Or was it, instead, a failure of a socialist system piggybacking onto Wall Street (and the shadow financial system) as its distribution method? Because that, and not a “capitalist” “free market” is what we actually seem to have in practice. In some regards we have a socialism that is administered not by commissars who take bribes under the table but by financiers who take a huge cut out in the open; we have financial socialism.

This possibility is worth keeping in mind in the near future, because with the new administration taking office and a strengthened (D) majority, we are likely to be bombarded with political proposals for what will amount to yet more financial socialist proposals – proposals to achieve some socialist distribution, or end, by means of piggybacking off of (and in the process, enriching) the financial sector. “Cap and trade” proposals, e.g. capping ‘carbon’ output and then issuing tradeable ‘credits’, are the perfect example of this synergy between socialists and financiers; the latter are only too happy to have a new thing to trade (and pay themselves huge bonuses for trading) if only the former will write the onerous regulations that will make the creation of the artificially-spawned ‘assets’ necessary. There is no end to the pyramid schemes one can imagine by repeating this game over and over again – as long as enough people with capital to burn in the world are willing to play along. China was the mark when it came to U.S. housing bonds, now all we need to figure out is who’s got the spare cash to buy up ‘carbon credits’?

Meanwhile, don’t look now, but Obama won among the rich. Who’s the real party of the rich? Why are the rich so socialist nowadays anyway?

Because socialism pays. At least, it does the way we do it.

Where am I going with all this? Like I said: it’s just a crazy theory. I only half-believe it at the moment. But maybe the West won the Cold War not by resisting, fighting, and arguing against socialism; maybe we won it by figuring out a way to do it better and (for some of us, i.e. (D)s and (D)-supporters) to get rich in the process.

UPDATE: Good related post here.

Uninvited Comment VI: The Two Tribes
October 5, 2008, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , ,

My comment way down the thread here would not be noteworthy other than the metaphor I came up with for it, which I kinda like: It is based on the observation that Islam is universal, theistic tribalism, which Socialism is universal, atheistic/humanistic tribalism.

Or: Islam is ‘Daddy Tribalism’ and Socialism is ‘Mommy Tribalism’.

Following this metaphor, we can say:

People attracted to Islam = people who wish to be Daddy, or think they need one.

People attracted to Socialism = people who wish to be Mommy, or think they need one.

The way this plays out in the sexual realm:

The ‘Daddies’ and would-be Daddies of Islam concern themselves primarily with obtaining women and obsessing over whether they are cuckolded by them. (A huge fraction of the tenets of Islam seems to be all about preventing women from cheating.) Those who are women focus on finding the right ‘Daddy’ to attach themselves to, and on seeking out and denouncing sluts. This leads naturally to polygamy at the top (for the high status/monied) and stunted, juvenile sexuality at the bottom (for all the guys who are thus left with no hope of finding a wife – the perpetual ‘Sons’ who will never be ‘Daddies’ and therefore have to settle for at least finding the right ‘Daddy’ to provide for them, and hoping that ‘Daddy’ wins against challengers).

Meanwhile, under Socialism, the main concern is maximizing the potential for finding multiple sexual partners with no obligations or consequences. (A huge fraction of the principles of socialism seems pointed towards minimizing the obligations and consequences of sex.) ‘Daddy’ is of course a barrier to free, consequenceless sex (because Daddies protect the honor of their daughters; they wield the shotgun if need be), so he must recede into the background; but ‘Mommy’ is but a sympathetic confidante to her sexually-promiscuous daughter, and will provide her with the potions and support and childcare she needs (so that her sex partners don’t have to), receiving in return a comfortable and respected advisory position within the ‘family’. Socialism thus is a coalition of ‘Mommies’ or would-be Mommies at the top, and perpetual libidinous adolescents at the bottom.

These are the two main tribes we have at the moment that ascribe to universality. No other tribe even comes close. The only real alternative is to reject tribalism.


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