Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New Right-Leaning Hacks Needed: Must Have Life Experience

There is a term for a family that pretends away terrible and self-destructive behavior, and it's not "healthy." It's time to confront some hard truths about our own, even if we often agree with them, especially if we do.

The Right's political chattering class is exactly as useless as that on the Left and the ... well, the rest of the Left.

Now, I need to clarify what I mean by "useless." I'm sure they're largely capable of tying their own shoes, and most of them can tie their one-to-two children's shoes quite well. I'm reasonably positive they can operate microwaves without emptying the utensil basket from the dishwasher inside first. Many of them show fluency with English somewhere between recent monolingual arrivals from Mongolia and people who graduated with journalism degrees; some are even functionally literate. At least a quarter have read the Constitution in toto. Some have met elected officials in a situation other than a very, very large dinner party, and a handful have met a range of successful and unsuccessful politicians during the candidate stage.

In fact, because most political coverage is not hard, as the subject is not hard, they are capable of writing more-or-less sensical things about politics with some regularity. In the sense that one uses their commentary to inform oneself about whether continued quantitative easing is a good idea or bad idea (without getting into the channels by which the liquidity enters the system), whether certain kinds of stem cell research are good or bad (without discussing at length the science that goes into this), and whether Harry Reid is a vicious partisan, they are generally useful.

In specialized situations, that is, when politics becomes hard, they are basically useless.

This is because they are essentially English or journalism or political science or sociology or psychology or some equally useless kind of major who have never worked a political campaign, run a business, done hard policy in an elected office, handled any sort of negotiations more complicated than demanding a raise from their parents, or indeed, had life experience of any significant sort other than bill-paying on compensation not quite as low as they'd have you believe.

If that sounds like Barack Obama's resume, you said it, not I.

Unfortunately for them and for us, right now, national politics is hard because there are no clear lines.

To frame this from a certain perspective:

We have been in a situation in which the House was refusing to fund the government because the majority has decided not to without certain conditions; a majority in the Senate wouldn't agree to any spending plan put forward by the House unless they meet yet more conditions; the White House wouldn't agree to anything unless its own conditions (similar to but not identical to the Senate's conditions) are met; and none of these groups have (quite) yet found a compromise.

So the object of these events is the funding of the government. It is the largest part of the leverage each side has with the other (because each side is, in the aggregate, seeing a negative reaction from the voters). However, what each side is negotiating over is not the government's re-opening, but rather over the terms on which the government will-reopen (or more accurately, the 17% of the government plus property under the control of the Park Service will re-open).

It is of course more complicated than that.

John Boehner was expected by his caucus to take a hard stand with a Senate Majority Leader who hates Boehner's caucus (and Boehner) and who does not want to negotiate and a President who hates Boehner's caucus (and Boehner) and who does not want to negotiate, while also trying to pacify or at least serve his caucus (who mistrust him and almost tossed him from his position earlier this year), while in turn not wanting to take a hard stand at all, but rather preferring to pretend to take a hard stand in an impossible position so he could yield quickly and claim the stakes were too high.

Basically, he was a man in an impossible position from which he cannot easily escape and who wanted nothing to do with this fight at all, yet has no choice but to be in it.

Yet Boehner is not the only actor on his side. He has a caucus of over two hundred individual Congressmen who do not particularly care about generic ballots, and indeed, really only care about the ones with their names on it. A huge portion came into office in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012; which is to say, they either swam against Democratic tides or came in response to anger at Democrats in general and Obamacare in particular. Many if not most of them either believe they were sent to defeat Obamacare, believe they will be primaried out of office if they don't make the attempt, or both.

Now, you'll note that I did not mention Ted Cruz here. That is because Ted Cruz has very little to do with this except in the sense that he is very popular with the people who could toss them in primaries.

You'll also note that I did not say these men and women are idiots, though many of them are. That's because their intelligence is not actually at issue in the way national pundits assume, because national pundits come from a group of people who are not only likely to have an IQ slightly higher than 100, but they assume everyone outside of their class and Nobel laureates is kinda stupid. What matters is whether these men and women have an instinct for political survival, and by and large, the evidence suggests they do.

From this complicated morass of conflicting interests and negotiating figures, someone with experience closing hard deals, mediating or negotiating between principals who hate each other and with conflicting desires, or indeed, someone who did something more complicated than writing a really kick-ass paper on political choice theory after college can understand that statements like "the Republicans are being stupid" or "the GOP is being stubborn" or "this is all Ted Cruz's fault" or even "Boehner is making the best of a bad situation" are remarkably simplistic and, let us not thread the needle too carefully, dumb.

Let me take an easy example here: Ross Douthat. (An easier example would be Conor Friedersdorf, but it's not fair to single out people suffering from actual mental retardation.) Not to pick on him; Douthat is an incredibly sharp fellow, and I don't say this just because he once worked somewhere besides the New York Times. But he rather clearly never worked anywhere in which negotiations happen before, because, as we see here, he apparently believes that Boehner agreeing to re-open the government would be a concession in terms by itself.

(Ignore Joseph Weisenthal. The Left is allowed to be stupid. They and their fellow-travelers in the media excuse each other all the time, so when they say dumb things, they get away with it. We have to be smart, or at least not stupid.)

Now, as I've laid out above, this is exactly wrong. By Douthat's reasoning, the plaintiff mediating in a lawsuit is conceding on the lawsuit itself, when really, he's conceding on how much money he will accept and the terms of the release in order to dismiss the lawsuit.

The concession will be over what terms Boehner accepts and includes in a spending bill (and in turn that his caucus accepts). Boehner is absolutely horrible at this sort of thing, as the 2011 debt ceiling showed, and as this year's tax hike also showed, and only part of his being awful at it is because he contrives to place himself in situations where he will lose by design.

It is the terms Boehner extracted during the debt ceiling fight in 2011 that so rankled his caucus, not the fact that he agreed to extend the debt ceiling per se. (Assuredly, some of his caucus were upset about that, but they're a minority of a minority and not wholly relevant here.) The terms he accepted -- and that his leadership team backed -- are part of why his caucus (and Ted Cruz!) and more importantly, his caucus's primary voters, don't trust him to make hard decisions and to take hard stands. This is because the terms were themselves concessions that satisfied virtually no one in his caucus.

It's why it's entirely reasonable to expect Boehner to try to sell something weak that by its nature would be a concession in terms to his caucus as the condition for funding the 17 percent of the government currently not technically funded. (This is, apparently, what happened.)

Again, I'm not picking on Douthat. He really is a very bright and persuasive fellow, and he has a knack for constructing conservative arguments in a way that is very hard for men and women of good faith to treat as ridiculous regardless of their place in the political spectrum. His last few years of work in particular have been incredibly good.

But he, and so many others like him, walked into punditry without understanding from their own life experience how hard things in human interaction work. This means they're very, very good (or sometimes terrible or mediocre) at making the philosophical argument for this policy or that policy; but they don't understand what really motivates most political actors, they don't understand so much of what those actors do, and so they fall back on easy, cheap, and ultimately stupid simplifications that do a disservice to their readership.

What this means is that right-of-center readers (and people who read right-of-center writers to understand the motivations and cross-currents in the conservative movement and Republican party) are being profoundly cheated.

The problem is that most of the people with life experience to explain these things have other things to do with their lives. Hell, this took two billable hours from my day, and I've only done the working-a-campaign part briefly and I do the negotiating-with-people-who-hate part every day of my life. The group of people who have all of the qualifications, or most, needed to do this have better things to do with their lives.

So here's my quick and easy solution: Every, single pundit on the right who draws a paycheck for these things needs to actually get some political experience first. Lefties get to do it, you should too. A state-level campaign is fine, but really, anything will do. Try to spend a term or so in office with real demands and real negotiations and real fights.

Then come out and tell us how the GOP is being stupid. You'll be right both on the substance, and on the particulars.


Cary said...

So apparently intelligent a commentator (to judge by his opinion of others) with experience at least in one aspect pertaining to this expensive debacle, castigating those with lesser experience and skills, and yet able only, at best, to provide this (plus emphatic use of the concept terms) - "but they don't understand what really motivates most political actors, they don't understand so much of what those actors do, and so they fall back on easy, cheap, and ultimately stupid simplifications that do a disservice to their readership.

What this means is that right-of-center readers (and people who read right-of-center writers to understand the motivations and cross-currents in the conservative movement and Republican party) are being profoundly cheated."

The problem is that most of the people with life experience to explain these things have other things to do with their lives. Hell, this took two billable hours from my day, and I've only done the working-a-campaign part briefly and I do the negotiating-with-people-who-hate part every day of my life. The group of people who have all of the qualifications, or most, needed to do this have better things to do with their lives."

Presumably those "two billable hours" might have been used to give your informed sense of how the "negotiating-with-people-who-hate" might actually have been done. Far more useful than complaining that people commenting about the problem itself are inadequate for the task.

Thomas H. Crown said...

I infer from the artful use of the language in your opening that you arrived via the New York Times. Welcome.

Having attempted to untangle your challenge in toto, I believe what you're saying can be boiled down thus: Hey, smart guy, you think it's easy? Do it yourself?

Please tell me if that's wrong.

I should note that your full challenge is orthagonal to my post, i.e., you want me to tell you how to negotiate with someone who hates you, when my post was about not even understanding how negotiation works mechanically. While I'm inclined to tell you to hire me (current rates available on request) if you want my work product, I'll instead answer generally and hope that hits the point.

In any negotiation in which you are expected to negotiate on behalf of others, especially on behalf of diverse others, you have three jobs to do before you even begin.

First, you must have your principals' trust. Boehner squandered this repeatedly, so it would have been hard to do, but he volunteered for the job, so you know, that's what he had to do. You need it in this sort of situation because otherwise steps two and especially three will become impossible.

Second, you must find out what your principals want. In this case, the answer ranged from "EVERYTHING ON EARTH" to "more than what we're getting now" to "please don't hurt me."

That leads to your third task: You must forge a realistic, doable consensus among your principals. This means they must trust you to tell them what they can get, they must trust you to try to get it, and they must understand their leverage and their options. You must also counsel them on how and when they can walk, and how and when they must fold. I cannot stress strongly enough how much this relies on the first step, or how badly Boehner blew it.

Now, you're ready to negotiate.

Boehner was not. He had neither gained his caucus's trust, learned what they wanted, guided a consensus, or prepared them for hard negotiations. He had done exactly none of the things needed here. This is part of why the whole thing blew up, that and the fact that he had a Senate much more interested in other things and so therefore a poor ally at best.

Now, your real demand is that I tell you how to analyze these things. I've just spent .2 on this, so I won't add anything more explicit; but if you read the post and this comment, you may start to infer some of the outlines here.

Adam said...

You really shouldn't make fun of other people's writing skills. So pundits lack "understanding from their own life experience how hard things in human interaction work." Goodness! Human interaction is especially hard when you can't write an intelligible sentence. Or were you trying to say that certain things (people?) work hard at human interaction? Maybe more italics would help clarify. Or perhaps you should include a remedial English class in your busy schedule as a Man of Action.

Thomas H. Crown said...

Another Times commenter, I see. If you're incapable of understanding how things might be hard, and how that may be involved in human interaction, or how your proposed changes completely alter the meaning of the sentence and indeed the entire post, then I can disregard the substance of your...

Oh, right. None of that either. Never mind, then.

Adam said...

Well, you aren't helping yourself. Things might be hard (rocks, for instance). But you wrote that hard. In ordinary English, that means things are working with a great deal of effort. "Things work hard" does not mean things are difficult. But the grammatical error is the least of it. Everything about that sentence is stupid. We all have our clumsy slip-ups. But anyone who doesn't have enough sense to be ashamed of a sentence like that is hopeless.

Thomas H. Crown said...

I've found, over the course of years of dealing with people on the internet, that it's actually a good idea to remember that written words are surprisingly good at hiding tone, inflection, and other markers of meaning.

I mention this because when I first read your comment, I thought, O Lord, why did you see fit to grace me with an idiot who cannot even put my original words in the correct order when attempting to condescend to me?

But then I thought, Perhaps I'm not being charitable. After examining the sentence in question and what appeared to be your continued travails in nonsense, it occurred to me that you simply misunderstood the sense of what I was saying because you only read it one way, thought it looked dumb because it didn't fit that way, and then mouthed off.

Let me help.

Now, I confess that what I wrote employed what I took (after years of travel across this great land) to be common idiom, i.e., "how things work." So if I am mistaken about the dissemination of that phrase, that may be the first clue as to why we're not communicating. But let me spell it out more clearly.

The relevant phrase on which you've fastened is this:

how hard things in human interaction work

It took me a moment, but I see now that you think I was talking about things doing hard work, that is, thus (I can't use the HTML for sentence diagrams, I tried, bear with me).

{how hard} [things] (in human interaction) {work}

Thus, on your first scan, you thought I was saying something about things working hard and something to do with human interaction.

Fair enough.

Thomas H. Crown said...

But read a different way, using the idiom I identified above, you'll see it's actually

(how) {[hard] things [in human interaction]} (work)

This is in other words an inartful (more on this below) way to use the idiom how things work. What it is saying is that (opinion columnists do not understand) how the difficult things/situations/issues/events/problems one experiences in day-to-day human relationships work/develop/play out.

Now, my use of "things" was in the generic, American sense where I use it in place of a host of other concepts. It has the virtue of ease of reading (and for most people, comprehension), but it does indeed lend itself to ambiguity.

So when I realized what you'd said, I felt ashamed. I was prepared to call you an idiot when what we had was instead bad manners and an honest (if bizarre) misreading.

But then I thought about it for a moment, and I realized something. (I'm going to continue to use italics as you're such a fan.) You know, a person of ordinary intelligence would, when reading something that makes no sense, pause and re-read and try to find a way that the sentence makes sense before making an unmitigated ass of himself and prattling on about it in public. By gosh and by golly, this Adam person is an idiot after all! I reached the right conclusion for the wrong reasons, but I'm all better now!

Thomas H. Crown said...

This leads us to an unfortunate--

Ok, no, I'm not going to lie. This leads us to a very fortunate moment. I love this stuff. When I remember the fun I used to have doing this, I grin like a lunatic, or like some idiot who thinks he's being clever and snarky about grammar on someone else's blog but is instead offering proof of a brain injury.

On the evidence before me, however scant, it appears that you are an idiot who cannot offer a value-added comment to save his life. I have other things to do with my existence than trying to explain English to idiots, so right now, your comments are presumptively going to be spam-marked.

Your road here has branched, and there are many ways forward. From years of comment moderation that made me a much-hated figure for some of the Right and for a while a good bit of the Left, I've learned that there are, roughly, four different types of people based on how they will respond to this.

Type 1 will laugh, take a shot at me, and admit some errors on their own part as a sort of ice breaker to having a real conversation. (The order of this is not terribly important.) They'll offer substantive commentary and maybe even a tentative apology.

I like these people. I talk to them. I don't treat them like idiots. I learn from them and admit my errors.

Type 2 will decide I'm a stupid ass and walk away.

I don't particularly like these people, but as they do what I would do in their shoes, I respect their maturity.

Type 3 will leave one massive cluster-bleep of a comment that will, again in no particular order, insult my parentage, call me a Fundamentalist (showing an ignorance of Fundamentalism), imply or openly state I hate blacks/women/Hispanics/gays/puppies/someone(s) else, and pick on a typo here to show how dumb I am, all while leaving more than their own share of fossilized reminders of their incompetence with English.

In my younger days, I gloried in these people. Now I simply spam-mark their comments and never hear from them again.

Type 4 -- and these are overwhelmingly Ronulans -- comment ceaselessly until adequately medicated, taunting me for failing to post their comments, accuse me of being a Fundamentalist/big government lover/Jew lover/something else that really itches their craw, and then start signing me up for restaurants and fetish sites (and, somewhat distressingly, link their rewards points to the accounts they create for me).

These people, I simply block.

My money says you're a 2. The only way you'll ever get another words from me is by showing you're a 1. I honestly couldn't care less and I suspect you couldn't either (hence the 2).

But I'm cool either way.