Successive Approximations

Yuval Levin on EconTalk

Yuval Levin on EconTalk

I'm not familiar with Yuval Levin (I don't even remember his previous appearance on EconTalk, which I must have heard), but he was on EconTalk recently talking about his new book.

The book sounds interesting enough, and if I had room on my to-read shelf for it, I'd probably add it, but I don't so I won't. But the bits of conversation that emerged centered around three things that really stuck with me.

First was the idea of formative institutions. One view of people is that children know what's best for them and that parents should listen to their children, and this idea is being extended all the way up to colleges, where now the college is marketing itself to applicants by conforming to their needs. (This is a downstream consequence of the fact that colleges are essentially playing Hungry Hungry Hippos with the pool of student loan money sloshing around and trying to capture more of it by both charging individual students more each year and trying to increase the number of students they can stuff into lecture halls.) This seems pretty self-evident to me.

Levin's point that I found novel is that this is an inversion of the role universities have played for centuries. The old model was that the university was the formative institution. You as the student conformed to its shape and expectations, paying a price of doing what you wanted to comply with the rigors of the system. But instead, in the last few decades, the roles have reversed and now the universities form themselves (someone cynical might say "pander") to the students. Instead of the university being the hard mold that the student poured himself into, now the university is the cushion that reforms itself to cause the student the least discomfort (at least until their student loans run out).

This raises the interesting question of what other institutions that were formerly formative are now conformative to meet demand, at society's peril.

Second, was the idea of politics as becoming increasingly a performative discipline. I avoid social media politics as much as possible, but even I have noticed a somewhat strange rise in legislators at the state and federal level trying to, for lack of a better word, go viral. They aren't trying to reach their constituents, or even explicitly ask for money, but seemingly to raise their personal brand. Given that the great majority of people who might see a video or post with this in mind don't live in that person's district, why the emphasis on spreading a message?

Levin puts forward the idea that it's essentially a form of performative politics. The goal of these things is fundamentally not about reaching out to the other people in the legislature that this person will have to parley with. It is about burnishing their personal brand in the eyes of the masses. The fact that the internet fame doesn't actually improve their ability to do their job of debating, bargaining, and compromising, doesn't matter. (This also implies that, getting things done – via compromise almost always – is no longer a key re-election metric. If someone is impotent but signals their ideological purity to the voters enough, they can be re-elected. So they can spend another term getting nothing done?)

Part of the reason compromise seems not to matter was the third point that really stuck with me, which is the idea that wrapped up in the increasing political polarization is that people increasingly seem forget that the game will not be iterated. The Democrats needs not fear using the "Nuclear Option" because they can't bring themselves to imagine a  future where they will be on the receiving end of it. It also seems to a greater degree that compromising and bipartisanship in general is not part of the game theory anymore, so why bother making moves that enable it?

So it's some combination of short-sightedness and wishful thinking, but the traditional Washington ideas that the wheel is always turning seem to be suspended.

Ultimately, these ideas don't really change my choices going forward (thus not bumping the book in front of the other things I've queued up to read), but they do help to make a little more sense of the strange things I've been seeing out in the world.

Ben Berry

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