The Widening Gyre


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Inferno, Giovanni da Modena (1410)

The widening gyre is eating America alive.

And it’s not just our country. It’s our families and friendships, too. Ourselves, even, as the widening gyre rips our internal identities to shreds.

What is the widening gyre? It’s the instrument of the Beast, working across the centuries in every civilization to lay humanity low.

Yeats saw it clearly in 1919, putting a name to the blasted heath of Europe after the Great War, the enormity of the Russian Revolution, and the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion in his native Ireland.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

We are the falcon, and the falconer is … God, if you’re religious, the Old Songs of reason and empathy and reciprocity if (like me and like Yeats) you’re not.

In the widening gyre, we are deafened by Big Media and its New Songs of schadenfreude and I-got-mine-Jack, unable to hear the precepts of our better natures or the lessons of the past.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

The widening gyre is political polarization, where a mad rush to more and more extreme positions is the dominant political strategy, presided over by the institutionalized, unquestioned power of Big Politics.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

There’s no escape from the widening gyre! Big Tech brings mere anarchy – quotidian, ordinary, boring anarchy – to every aspect of our daily lives, so that all of our social ceremonies of association and friendship – all of them – are drowned in a relentless, implacable tsunami of “news” and “social media”.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The widening gyre is Gresham’s Law, not for money but for people and ideas.

The widening gyre is a profound social equilibrium where bad people and bad ideas drive good people and good ideas out of circulation. It is the triumph of Fiat World, where fiat news and fiat ideas and fiat people are presented as reality by proclamation, not lived experience.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Our rough Beast of the widening gyre is a hydra, a three-headed hydra of Big Politics, Big Media and Big Tech, slouching towards Bethlehem in an unholy, inhuman, secular perversion of the Second Coming.

The three-headed hydra of Big Politics, Big Media and Big Tech is our true, common enemy, and to save America from the widening gyre, we must slay it.

Hercules and the Lernean Hydra, Gustave Moreau (1876)

But today, this is impossible.

Why? Because common knowledge.

Because everyone knows that everyone knows that the enemy of America is not the Beast of the widening gyre, but the Other Party.


A significant majority of Americans today (72% of registered Democrats, 70% of registered Republicans) believe that the Other Party poses a clear and present danger to the survival of American democracy.

An even larger majority of Americans (80% of Biden voters, 77% of Trump voters) believe that the Other Party fails to understand the meaning of America, that supporters of the Other Guy are not good Americans.

Most Americans today believe that their belief about the Other Party is self-evident. They honestly do not understand how anyone in the Other Party does not see the world as they do. They believe that Their Party is the sole bulwark against the collapse of the American experiment, against the forces that would destroy American democracy. Sure, mistakes have been made by Their Party, but in an existential struggle against an existential threat, these mistakes are not just forgivable but must be dismissed.

And here’s the kicker: They’re not wrong.

If there’s one thing you get from Epsilon Theory, get this: when common knowledge is established – when everyone knows that everyone knows that something is “true” – then the only rational behavior, even if you do NOT believe that the thing is true, is to act AS IF the thing is true.

What does it mean to act AS IF the Other Party will destroy American democracy, even if you don’t really believe that’s true?

It means that you will reject as “corrupt” and “illegitimate” any electoral or judicial outcome that favors the Other Party. It means that you will not accept the possibility that a policy disagreement can be had in good faith.

It means that you will justify whatever crappy actions you take – no matter how much you treat other people as expendable pawns in your little game – on the basis that the Other Party has done and will do much worse.

It means that you will have no shame.

It means that everyone knows that everyone knows that the Other Party would stop at nothing to achieve their nefarious aims, so your stopping at nothing is just self-defense. Political common knowledge is always a perversion of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as they would do unto you. But do it first.

It means that you will take extra-electoral and extra-judicial steps to prevent the Other Party from achieving electoral success. It means you will gerrymander. It means you will challenge electors. It means you will systematically suppress certain voter demographics. It means you will systematically augment certain voter demographics. It means you will investigate and indict your political opponents. It means you will lie and nudge like there’s no tomorrow, because if you don’t you believe there won’t be a tomorrow.

I mean, how could you not? What would you not do to prevent Hitler from coming to power in 1934? What would you not do to prevent Lenin from coming to power in 1917?

It’s not that you want to take these extra-electoral and extra-judicial steps to prevent the Other Party from coming to power. It’s that you convince yourself that all of these lies and nudges, all of this treatment of human beings as pawns, are a necessary evil in service to a Greater Truth and in opposition to a Greater Evil.

It’s the entirely rational thing to do if you believe in the Greater Truth and the Greater Evil, and with the establishment of common knowledge it’s the entirely rational thing to do even if you don’t. Because you must assume that the people in the Other Party do.

This will get much worse before it gets any better.

With the establishment of common knowledge that the Other Party is the enemy of American democracy, we have changed the fundamental structure of American politics from a coordination game (Stag Hunt), where both cooperative and non-cooperative equilibria are possible, to a competition game (Prisoner’s Dilemma) with an enormous sucker’s pay-off, where mutual defection and conflict is an extremely stable and solitary equilibrium.

I wrote this SIX YEARS ago, in September 2016, when I said that I thought Trump could beat Clinton.

Trump, on the other hand … I think he breaks us. Maybe he already has. He breaks us because he transforms every game we play as a country — from our domestic social games to our international security games — from a Coordination Game to a Competition Game.

The hallmark of a Coordination Game is that there are two equilibrium outcomes possible, two balancing points where the game is stable. Yes, one of those stable outcomes is mutual defection, where everyone pursues their individual goals and everyone is worse off. But a stable outcome of mutual cooperation is at least possible in a Coordination Game, and that’s worth a lot. Here’s a graphical representation of a Coordination Game, using Rousseau’s famous example of “the stag hunt”.

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-hunt-together-alone-chart
Fig. 1 Coordination Game (Stag Hunt)

The basic idea here is that each player can choose to either cooperate (hunt together for a stag, in Rousseau’s example) or defect (hunt independently for a rabbit, in Rousseau’s example), but neither player knows what the other player is going to choose. If you defect, you’re guaranteed to bag a rabbit (so, for example, if the Row Player chooses Defect, he gets 1 point regardless of Column Player’s choice), but if you cooperate, you get a big deer if the other player also cooperates (worth 2 points to both players) and nothing if the other player defects. There are two Nash equilibria for the Coordination Game, marked by the blue ovals in the figure above. A Nash equilibrium is a stable equilibrium because once both players get to that outcome, neither player has any incentive to change his strategy. If both players are defecting, both will get rabbits (bottom right quadrant), and neither player will change to a Cooperate strategy. But if both players are cooperating, both will share a stag (top left quadrant), and neither player will change to a Defect strategy, as you’d be worse off by only getting a rabbit instead of sharing a stag (the other player would be even more worse off if you switched to Defect, but you don’t care about that).

The point of the Coordination Game is that mutual cooperation is a stable outcome based solely on self-interest, so long as the payoffs from defecting are always less than the payoff of mutual cooperation. If that happens, however, you get a game like this:

epsilon-theory-virtue-signaling-september-30-2016-prisoner-cooperation-defection-chart
Fig. 2 Competition Game (Prisoner’s Dilemma)

Here, the payoff from defecting while everyone else continues to cooperate is no longer a mere 1 point rabbit, but is a truly extraordinary payoff where you get the “free rider” benefits of everyone else’s deer hunting AND you go out to get a rabbit on your own. This extraordinary payoff is what Trump is saying is possible when he talks about America “winning” again. But it’s not possible. Not for more than a nanosecond, at least, because there’s no equilibrium there, no stability in either the upper right or bottom left quadrant. You want to pass a modern version of the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act to “win” a trade deal? Knock yourself out. As in 1930, you’ll enjoy those benefits for about two months before every other country does the same thing against you. And in about 12 months, as in 1931, every bank that’s levered to global trade finance goes bust. Whee! There’s one and only one equilibrium in a competition game — the “everyone defect” outcome of the bottom right quadrant — meaning that once you get to this point (and you will) you can’t get out. The stability of the Competition Game is the stability of permanent conflict.

More importantly than what happens in any of these international games, however, is what happens in our domestic games. Blowing up our international trade and security games with Europe, Japan, and China for the sheer hell of it, turning them into full-blown Competition Games … that’s really stupid. But we have a nasty recession and maybe a nasty war. Maybe it would have happened anyway. We get over it.

Blowing up our American political game with citizens, institutions, and identities for the sheer hell of it, turning it into a full-blown Competition Game … that’s a historic tragedy.

We don’t get over that.

But that’s exactly where we are.

Here’s another way of showing the same thing.

The Pew Research Center does consistently excellent work on U.S. voting patterns. In this long-running research series, they tend to focus on the distance between the median Democrat voter and the median Republican voter, and that’s all well and good. What I’m focused on however, is the shape of the Democrat and Republican electorate distributions, such that the overall distribution in 2017 is no longer a single-peaked something-akin-to-a-bell-curve as it was in 2004, but is instead a double-peaked or (to use a $10 word) bimodal distribution.

The bimodal distribution began to take shape in 2014, well before Trump came on the scene, but it’s just gotten more and more pronounced since his 2016 election. There’s a time-lapse animation of these charts that’s cool to watch, and I’ve put a solo shot of the 2017 results below.

So what’s the problem with a bimodal distribution? The easiest way to think about it is to compare the size of the purple area (where both the Republican and the Democrat electorate overlap) with the pure blue area (Democrat with zero Republican overlap) and the pure red area (Republican with zero Democrat overlap). When the purple area is smaller than both the blue area AND the red area, a centrist politician (someone between the median Democrat and the median Republican) can win neither a national nomination nor a national election in a two-party system. For any centrist candidate or policy, there exists a winning majority of voters on both the left AND the right who will favor a competing candidate or policy on both the left AND the right. This is what it means to say that the center cannot hold.

If you’re an incumbent centrist politician, somewhere to the left of your median voter if you’re a Republican and somewhere to the right of your median voter if you’re a Democrat, you have exactly two choices.

1) You remain silent and just go with the party flow, clinging on for dear life against primary challengers, holding your nose at the party excesses, apologizing to your donors and your spouse in private, and hoping that one day the party comes back to you. You tell yourself “apres moi, le deluge.” Or in English, “sweet Jesus, have you seen the racist moron / lunatic communist who would take my place if I quit?”, and you’ve got a big enough ego to believe that sort of excuse as you slowly sell your soul.

2) You quit.

That’s it. Those are your options.

This is what I mean by a Gresham’s Law of people and ideas. This is what I mean when I say that the widening gyre is a profoundly stable social equilibrium where bad people and bad ideas drive good people and good ideas out of circulation.

Let me be really clear about something. This is not an exercise in assigning blame for how we got to this sad state of affairs, of widening-gyre-as-stable-equilibrium. My personal belief is that Trump broke us, that he was almost singlehandedly responsible for first transforming internal Republican party politics from a coordination game into a competition game, and then went about transforming national electoral politics in the same way. My personal belief is that Trump was slouching towards an outright coup on January 6. My personal belief is also that Biden’s Philadelphia speech a few weeks ago cemented the transformation of national electoral politics from a coordination game into a competition game.

Now you may have personal beliefs about Trump and Biden and how we got here that are very different from mine. You may believe that it’s decades of Democratic elitist policies that got us here, that that’s what is to “blame”, and that if it weren’t Trump as a “catalyst” it would have been someone else. Okay. You may believe that I am being way too harsh on Biden, and that Trump and the Republican party leadership are the sole locus of evil in the modern world. Okay.

My answer to both of you is the same: So what, now what?

I don’t know which side in World War I was the first to introduce mustard gas. I don’t know who to blame for that. What I do know is that once one side started lobbing mustard gas shells, it was entirely rational for the other side to do the same. In fact, it would have been entirely irrational not to. Yes, the equilibrium of the Prisoners Dilemma is awful. But it’s better than the sucker’s payoff where you just sit there and take it. I don’t blame Biden for escalating the competition game of American electoral politics and taking a missionary position of declaring “Trump Republicans” an enemy of American democracy. Frankly, my only surprise is that it took him so long. But that IS what Biden did in his Philly speech, and now THIS is our world:

The leader of the Republican Party – former President Donald Trump – has declared that Biden Democrats are an enemy of American democracy. A significant majority of Republicans believe that this is true.

The leader of the Democratic Party – current President Joe Biden – has declared that Trump Republicans are an enemy of American democracy. A significant majority of Democrats believe that this is true.

If you don’t see where this is going, then you’re not paying attention.


This is the widening gyre.


Okay, Ben, so what do we do about it?

I know what you want to hear. You want to hear that there are enough centrist voters to support a winning coalition of centrist candidates, perhaps within a new, third political party. You want to hear that we can DO something from the top-down, through a national campaign to reclaim our political sanity. Hey, it’s what I want to hear, too!

But it’s just not true.

I think the same thing about a third political party as I do about Bitcoin. I am enormously supportive of the energy, smarts and civic spirit of the people behind third party efforts and Bitcoin. I am entirely supportive of their goals. I am an ally in every sense of the word.

But in the same way that Bitcoin has been corrupted and absorbed by Wall Street, securitized into a Bitcoin! TM that serves the interests of the institutions it was intended to subvert, so is a third party that participates on the national stage corrupted and absorbed by Big Politics, autotuned into a Third Party! TM that serves the interests of the institutions it was intended to subvert. Specifically, Big Politics wants a Third Party! TM to serve as a fall guy for whatever the 2024 outcome might be. Whoever wins in 2024, Third Party! TM will be blamed by the loser and sneered at by the winner. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, if you stand in the middle of the road, you get hit by traffic from both sides. Third Party! TM is the designated patsy.

The problem for both Bitcoin and a third political party is that they seek to fight in an arena that was built by their opponents. It’s not just that Wall Street and Big Politics have a home field advantage in their efforts, but much more so that they wrote the rules of the game! Worse, their allies – Big Media and Big Tech – control every aspect of the narrative presentation of the fight. The rules are stacked, the referees are paid off, and the commentators are intensely biased. Other than that, what’s not to like about your chances?

Can a third political party have meaning without being co-opted into Third Party! TM? By which I mean, can a third political party make a meaningful difference in reducing the stranglehold that our two-party system of Big Politics has on our country?

Actually … yes, I think it can!

But only if it completely avoids the Presidential election, and probably Senate elections or any high profile statewide election, too.

To explain, let’s go back to my fundamental premise. Our true, common enemy and the structural source of the widening gyre that is killing our country is the three-headed hydra of Big Politics, Big Media and Big Tech. How do you kill a hydra? Well, if you remember your mythology, just cutting off a head isn’t enough. Hercules could whack at the hydra all day long, but for every head he bashed to a pulp, two more would just grow back in its place. It wasn’t until he had his nephew cauterize the neck stump with fire that he finally got on top of the situation.

Hercules and the Hydra, Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1475)

To kill a hydra you must prevent it from regenerating itself.

Cutting off a head – by which I mean winning an election, even a major election, or breaking up a media or tech company, even a major media or tech company – is useless.

Instead, you must burn away the tissue which regrows the heads – by which I mean shifting the common knowledge regarding politics, media and technology. If a third political party could do THAT … if a third political party could change what everyone knows that everyone knows is possible when it comes to politics, media and technology … well, now that is very interesting to me!

Specifically – and this is why my advice to any third political party is to avoid high profile elections like the plague – my goal for a third political party would be to spearhead a Constitutional amendment process that changes the rules of electoral competition, such that it was no longer a foregone conclusion that either a Democratic or Republican head would grow back whenever they – mirabile dictu – lost an election to an insurgent candidate.

You, uh, know that eleven states have already ratified exactly this sort of Constitutional amendment, right?

Here’s how Rusty put it in the most important Epsilon Theory note you’ve never read:

We start from the outside.

We start from the bottom-up.

We start with a movement focused on engaging and influencing our state legislatures, one by one, to ratify the Congressional Apportionment Amendment as proposed to the states in 1789.

No, I am not kidding.

The only amendment that would have been part of the initial package that was approved by Congress but never ratified by a sufficient number of states, the Congressional Apportionment Amendment remains open for ratification. Indeed, eleven states have already ratified it (New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Vermont and Kentucky…and depending on whom you ask, Connecticut). To blow open the doors of the U.S. Congress and begin the process of returning it to the people, we need 27 more states to ratify the amendment. Twenty-seven more state legislatures, closer to the people, less dependent on national party and fundraising engines, supported by 2020’s vastly weaker state party infrastructure, to convince, pressure and influence with as much time as we need to do it.

A focused national movement, executed state-by-state. One at a time. Not a movement of national protests or strikes that can be waited out. Not a voter initiative that can be blunted by the siren call of “the most important election of our lifetimes” and “wasted votes.”

And when we succeed – what happens? The US House of Representatives opens its doors to some 6,600 representatives, a veritable flash mob of just-out-of-college know-it-alls, communists, business leaders, theocrats, weirdos, libertarian bloggers, Vermont hippies, black community organizers, retired scientists, pipefitters union leaders, well-funded private equity managing partners, and probably a cultist or two, along with a well-coiffed and irritated looking Nancy Pelosi and an equally well-coiffed and irritated looking Kevin McCarthy.

You know. People. In the People’s House. Imagine that.

What else happens? The change in the size of the House immediately dilutes the disproportionate power of the electoral college in small states (i.e. 100 electoral votes in a sea of 6,700) in complete concord with the integrity and original intent of our constitution.

What else? If we do it right, if the people are invested in seizing the People’s House, and if the McCarthys and Pelosis of the world want to build a coalition to retain a shred of their former influence? In exchange for the cooperation of the (I think) 10-25% of non-partied participants now necessary to make any legislation work, those participants demand in solidarity that the first law be a transition of our electoral model to a system for proportional representation in the House of Representatives.

Haha! Borrrringgg! No national campaign. No trial balloons for potential billionaire candidates (hey, I hear Mark Cuban is seriously considering this! and don’t forget, Mike Bloomberg is only 80 years old!). No wrangling to get a podium on a Presidential debate stage. No ego trip. Just a slog through one state legislature after another, talking with state reps as the natural candidates for a massively expanded House of Representatives, an expansion that would change … everything that we all know that we all know is possible in American politics. True local representation on a national stage. An enormous step towards proportional representation and the structural end of the two-party system.

The Constitutional Apportionment Amendment.

Seriously. Just look it up. Just think about it.

To slay the hydra of Big Politics, Big Media and Big Tech, we can’t play their game. We have to change the game. We have to change the rules. We have to amend the Constitution.

And we have to do it while we still have a Constitution to amend.

So that’s my challenge to Andrew Yang and the Forward Party (or any other third party effort in American politics) – use this opportunity to work for structural change in the rules of the game, so we can focus on our real enemy. It’s not sexy. It’s not an ego trip for whatever billionaire candidates think the nation is secretly clamoring for them. But do this and I’ll be more than an ally, I’ll be your tireless partner. A lot of others will be, too, I bet.

Otherwise … well, time to figure out who we want in the foxhole with us for the domestic political conflict to come. And where to find a mask for the mustard gas.



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Comments

  1. Thanks Ben - I needed to see that. In the U.S., what can an individual do to facilitate change on the scale this country needs when opposed by the Big 3? Nothing… but the states can. My concern was that this massive divide would end in succession. Thanks for the new direction, and for confirming what Buckminster Fuller wrote:
    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing models obsolete.” ~ Buckminster Fuller, 1895 - 1983
    You and Rusty continue to inspire the pack.

  2. Avatar for rjfjk rjfjk says:

    Ben, I usually agree with you, but the people’s amendment has been tried and failed miserably, I live in a city where we went from citywide city council seats to single districts. Once that occurred, the common good went out the door, lobbyists easily funded smaller campaigns and the city became obsessed with pork to district indicatives and lost focus on real issues that the city faced.
    It’s now firmly in control of a few high powered local titans, entrenched district politicians… and zero cooperation for the real issues facing the city…

    When voters have a ballot issue, they uniformity voted over the city council to override the district led decisions… but, then the titans and their proxies just recreated new laws like a tax loss strategy to restart the process and overrule the vote of the people…

    I don’t think a real democracy over a republic will be the answer.
    Keep up the good work,

  3. This post by BH is so interesting. Thank you! But there is something disquieting about the (apparent) assumption that the lower-right quadrant of the competition game [defect, defect] = [1,1] is a negative outcome. Doesn’t that mean that no deer are harvested and so may multiply into the future? As a Nash newbie (despite my Princeton Math BA), I would welcome being schooled on this; maybe more examples would help. Meanwhile, as BH has emphasized, we’re in the Widening Gyre for sure. Personally, I’m not in favor of diluting the Electoral College with originalist proportional representation because the coastal population will prevail over the productive (food and energy) population in the interior.

  4. I don’t believe it would work this way. The changes are all relative, so Ohio would go from having 20 EC votes (18 House, 2 Senate) to 237 EC votes.

    17 / 535 = 3.1% of the EC

    New math is one seat per 50,000 residents. So 11,780,000 / 50,000 = 235
    235 House, 2 Senate = 237

    237 / 6,260 (6,160 House, 100 Senate) = 3.7% of EC votes

    You’d need 3,159 EC votes to win a Presidential election if you just took the existing formula of 270 to win and applied it to the newest absolute number of representatives. Ohio’s 237 EC votes would be 7.5% of what you’d need to win. Today Ohio’s 17 EC votes are…6.3% of what you’d need to win.

    Edit to add: I started with the incorrect number of EC votes for Ohio. My mistake. I have changed the numbers to reflect the 2024 presidential election.

  5. I certainly hope you are right!

  6. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    It changes the EC dynamics for the tiny population Western states.

  7. Hmm. So Idaho and Montana both have 4 EC votes as of today. Half of those votes come from having the same number of Senators as every other state, so by expanding the House the influence of their Senate seats goes down in both absolute and relative terms. Is that what you’re getting at or am I making up a different problem?

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    That is what I am getting at!

  9. Great article and an interesting proposal. But check my math: It takes 38 states to ratify an amendment. Idaho is the 38th least-populated state with 1,893,000. Dividing by 50,000 results in 38 house electors and 2 senate electors for a total of 40. 40/6700 = 0.597%. Currently, Idaho has 4 electoral votes out of 538 = 0.74%. Why would the state legislature vote to dilute their influence in the EC?

  10. Yes, big picture based on the numbers in DY’s example. Senate seats go from 100/538 in the EC to 100/6260. Huge dilution for states with very small populations that punch above their weight due to 2 Senate seats.

  11. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Because there will be 38 US House seats up for grabs in Idaho in the next election cycle, and most of those seats will be taken by Idaho state legislature reps.

  12. ID’s state legislators currently only have 4 options (House & Senate) to get into national politics and increase their visibility, wealth and power. They make about $19k (includes an allowance) plus expenses as a state legislator (its a part time gig). Under an expanded house of reps, they now have 38 house seats to fill, with the potential salary of about $174k (full time gig). There are currently 35 ID state senators and 70 state representatives. That’s a pretty good step up for a state legislator, even if they do lose some power in the EC - which to be fair, the presidential candidates don’t currently spend much time or money worrying about trying to win ID. And in a world in which the CAA passes, I’m pretty sure the Senate decides to increase their number as well to address the imbalance in the EC.

  13. I think the answer is ranked choice open primaries instead of 3rd party. Ranked choice open primaries will draw the candidates to the middle and tend to reduce the extreme crazies from either left or right. Want proof? look at the recent Alaska special election or look at the majority of the primary crazies that start moving towards the middle, at least moderating extreme views once they have won their respective primary and need votes outside their echo chamber.

    Of course the 2 major parties have a vested interest in maintaining closed primaries so they can work and talk in their own echo chamber. The only way ranked choice happens is if people force it thru over the objections of the institutional parties.

  14. I’m really trying hard not to be a jaded cynic here, I really -really- am. I think you’re completely right in that Apportionment is an answer. I also think term limits would be another answer. The problem is the people required to vote on this stuff are the same people whos’ oxes get gored if it passes. Even Apportionment. The state legislatures have to vote. There’s not a single state elected official that doesn’t hope that one day they can “go up the ladder”.
    As a society we’re on train tracks, not a highway. Direction is a constant, and speed is the only variable. Society can’t exit anymore. Only individuals can, but with the path we’re on that’ll dissapear eventually too. At that point all that’s left are foxholes. God help us all.

  15. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    The secret sauce to the CAA is that it does NOT have to be voted on by Congress. It only has to be approved by state legislatures, and the CAA would open up thousands of “promotions” to those state legislators.

  16. Who all rely on their federal counterparts to get elected via riding on their coattails at rallies and press events, and bringing home the federal bacon. The defacto patronage system akin to ancient Rome is the hidden problem in the calculus. CAA is yeoman’s work and I applaud the effort. But I’m too involved in local and state politics to be optimistic here. Neither party wants anything to do with this.
    If I’m looking to solve for the patronage problem in order to enact a CAA reform, then your earlier point about 3rd party is The Answer. If you can elect 3rd parties in statewide races to vote for CAA you might have a chance. The cost on this option is making an election an up or down vote on CAA as a movement. Another option would be to elect 3rd parties to municipal and local elections then you have a chance at a much larger structural reform down the road. The cost on that option is time obviously and risk of failure probably grows as time goes on (what is the half-life on corruptibility of a politician?).

  17. Avatar for KCP KCP says:

    Appreciate you providing your thoughts on this broad, very important topic.

    My view is that Big Media/Tech are tools in the game of Big Politics. We (taxpayers) pay for this game of Big Politics; it really doesn’t matter who you are rooting for - your tax $ pay for either side to attempt to bring the other team down. This game is played every 2 years.

    Americans have simply become numb and dumb - no one seems to care about the amount of Federal receipts (or debt) that is spent, let alone the opportunity costs across multiple resources, in totality by both sides during the Game. They just want a W.

    The taxbase in this country pays admission to the Game every day in the hopes that their side wins a cycle - just to play the same game over again.

    In the meantime, nothing really gets done on the federal level outside of the courts. Congress will champion its bi-partisan abilities when it is able to pass an emergency spending bill AT THE OUTSET OF A PANDEMIC! I’m sure getting all constituents in line to spend our dough is a great accomplishment at the height of an 100 year uncertainty event…what courage.

    We are dumb and numb - it’s like playing this Game of Big Politics fills some unmet need/void in our lives. We ask for solutions to problems, but we don’t hold Big Politics to account when they don’t deliver. We glom to large sweeping themes whether its MAGA or Build Back Better, while some simple fundamentals (healthcare spend vs, outcome per capita, lack of immigration policy) get lip service or are left to the courts. Are we tired of fentanyl deaths in this country? Has anyone seen one change in criminal laws or even a discussion to change the risk/reward equation for dealing/distributing that makes the penalties so severe that the spread of this killer slows down significantly?

    IMHO the only way this game of Big Politics changes is when the taxpayers stop paying, the world markets stop allowing us to indebt ourselves or we encounter such a gripping crisis that we have to stop allowing ourselves to get distracted by the tools of the game - Big Media/Tech.

    I agree with Ben, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. We just witnessed on side demonstrate with violence to protest an outcome - in the previous game the other side abused federal departments, laws and courts to create a “passive” coup de’tat - packaged and sold to the watchers of the Game as “indisputable evidence”.

    Most Americans pay for the Game to be played out, sadly, both willingly and unknowingly. Others up the ante for a side by funding them.

    Its time for more Americans to wake up - demand some progress towards better and hope, not expect the leap to great. Screaming, protesting won’t change the equation, but money flows will.

  18. An issue with our political system that I think the CAA helps address is the intraparty, behind the scenes dealing prior to a candidate coming into the public eye. I think that in many, if not most situations, a candidate running for a national office has had to fall in line with the party ideology to be put up to run. By that time, the party allegiances are set and are unlikely to change while the candidate is “made.”

    With more seats should come more opportunities for unbacked candidates to take office, which should mean more representatives focused on the good of the people, not the party. Also, if an elected representative decides to align with a vote aggregator for the “bigs,” that alignment will happen in public, not in private.

    Thanks Ben - I like it.

  19. Avatar for bpatno bpatno says:

    The Civil war has started. Asking to amend the constitution, will give the left or right the ability to hijack your idea and change to their ideas. However, I believe the left has no morals and is more dangerous since they will crush anyone not with them including the Epilson Pack. The Epilson pack will need to work with other Groups (party) in the same way the European Country parties work together in shared goals. This process of many small groups trying to work together usually gets crushed from a small centralized party. Russia in 1920s, when the communists took over is a great example. Today the Democrats are emulating this process and Communist control… Democrat Party does not allow dissent and is run by a centralized top down organization.

  20. Avatar for Laura Laura says:

    It’s always interesting to see those distributions. I’ll have to look into the background data as I’m curious what overall percentage of voters they capture. I believe the percentage of independent (small ‘i’) voters has steadily increased over that time as well.

    A couple other things that I think are relevant to consider:

    • It would be interesting to look at the dark money political funding in that same time frame; Citizens United changed things in Big Politics, and if Jane Mayer is accurate in her perspective shared in her book Dark Money, since that time the Republican party in particular has become less relevant as a fundraiser than the billionaires that increasingly directly fund candidates, or even self-fund their own campaigns (Trump and Bloomberg e.g.)

    • Dark money freed to influence Big Politics is amplified by Big [Corporate] Media and Big Tech because they are the same interests in many cases; I think it’s important to bear in mind enabling legislation like the Telecommunications Modernization Act that allows for the rise of Big Media in the first place – we must repudiate the stories embedded in our legislation that dictates low prices = consumer friendly, or more generally consumer = citizen. I also think it’s helpful to remember that web businesses got an enormous subsidization in the beginning of the Internet era by not being subject to certain taxes. That was a policy choice, not a technological inevitability of “zero marginal cost scaling” as it’s often portrayed in the stories of Big Tech. Beware narratives of inevitability! (or infallibility for that matter)

    • The existence of Big Tech has changed things as has the reality of tech-enabled exponential growth in our economy/society. I think it’s an interesting thought exercise to consider the embedded structures of the vote in light of tech innovation and the change it’s brought to people’s lives. We now have a class of “digital nomads” that are not necessarily rooted in one place. What if those low population states became voter homes to mobile populations? That is something that individuals could take up on their own and potentially flip the dynamics with a relatively small number of people. Places like Wyoming, where I grew up and left due to lack of opportunity, are home to policies that favor ease and opacity when it comes to setting up businesses. The LLC was invented there after all. What if the same welcoming spirit was extended to, or seized by, digital nomads and remote workers who vote?

  21. One of the best part of Epsilon Theory is how it makes me ,no forces me to deal with and confront my own inherent biases and first instincts
    ( my System 1 in Kahneman’s terminology) .
    It makes me more “aware”, and as that happens hopefully I become a better person, more tolerant of other views, more hesitant in my first reactions to narrative influence.
    The Widening Gyre has been a great read. Please continue this series Ben !

    In terms of solving this growing problem, I think bottom up ( individual resistance) is the best way, but an unlikely and difficult way to vanquish before something bad happens ( Ken Burns “Holocaust “ is a scary, frightening potential forerunner)

    I’m in favor of major, outside the box change, so the Constitutional Apportionment idea works for me. I’m also from PA which has passed it, so is there anything that I can do for this movement?

  22. Avatar for A_Lee A_Lee says:

    Thanks for the article (and follow on tweets), I liked the idea when I read Rusty’s article and like it even more now, but for me I think the part about how people now view each other sunk in the most.

    In my life, like most others I assume, neighbors/friends/family are or have become “the other side” that are “irredeemable” and “the enemy of democracy”, though I know them as good and well intentioned people and treat them as such. I remember previous articles that this is a bottom up approach and how to welcome back people once they realize what has been going on (don’t rub their face in it essentially). I guess it’s the middle part, between the beginning and welcoming back I have a foggy view of, but would like to see.

    Also, random thoughts from an exhausted father while trying to get a 2 year old to sleep……

    • Sounds like a DD0S attack against Big Politics.

    • 6,600 representatives @ $174,000 = ~$1.15 Billion a year in salary (not including benefits) vs 435 @ 174,000 =~$75.7 Million, big increase, but drop in bucket of $5.35 Trillion total budget

    • Maybe this gets more people involved in politics/voting with hyper local federal representation. I remember another previous article talking about how if more people voted, but not for the ridiculous candidates, that could be the most powerful method of changing the mindset of political parties.

  23. I know this wasn’t written out like an attack or a reason against the CAA but I have heard plenty of individuals make this same statement as a negative for the CAA. “It’s too expensive” or “it’s too expansive” is usually the refrain . To which I usually argue as you did-

    However, I also usually point out the following from the report below as well.

    Each member of the House is allowed to hire up to 18 full time employees and an additional 4 part time employees (pg 9). Their $ allocation for employees is $994,671 (pg. 7). The maximum they can pay any employee is $199,300 (pg. 13). (But if they do, then they reduce their total compensation pool of $994,671 to pay the rest of their staff).
    Assuming that they utilize the total amount of the money allocated to each member for staff (and logically they should), then the house rep salary ($174,000) + staff expenses ($994,671) is actually around $1,168,671 for each house member, for a total of about $508 million. It’s still an increase from $508M to $1.15B but not that crazy of a jump.
    While Ben argues that the first bill and order of business for the newly elected Congress after the CAA should be proportional voting. IMO-it should be the elimination (or mass reduction if you want to compromise) of house staffers.
    Assuming that each member has a staff of about 10, another way to look at the House is that we have 4,350 unelected representatives and 435 elected representatives. Combined, you have 4,785 people in the House, a ratio of about 69,000 constituents per person in the house (using a 330 million US total population.
    If the average house member has 15 staff members (and they are allowed 18 + 4 part timers) then we are at 6,525 unelected representatives plus the 435 elected officials for 6,960 total and a ratio of about 47,400 constituents per person in the house.
    I think it a fair trade to replace unelected staffers with elected representatives for an extra $640M.

    https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL30064#:~:text=The%20compensation%20for%20most%20Senators,from%20Puerto%20Rico%20is%20%24174%2C000.&text=The%20House-passed%20FY2022%20legislative,continue%20the%20freeze%20in%202022.

  24. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    Reposting this for anyone who hasn’t watched it yet:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09maaUaRT4M

    Agree with comments that Ben defines this problem better than just about anyone. Taibbi equally called it, from a slightly different perspective, in Hate Inc a few years back. The rise of politics as pro wrestling has been ongoing since the 90s. Jeff Zucker/CNN, NY Times, and other Big Media are complicit in the popularization of politics as zero-sum game, because it makes them more money in the end.

    Agree with Ben that CAA is a long shot and a dice roll even if it passes. Like PA, my state has already passed it, so locally seems I can’t do much even if I was invested in the ideas.

    I am invested in the ideas in the above video, much more so than voting even. My vote is one of hundreds of millions. Statistically, it does not matter, even assuming fair elections.

    The people I know, my friends and neighbors and family, who are divided just like yours, do matter to me, and I matter to them. We can learn the concepts in this video and apply them to the people we know. And we must assume we will not change the outcome, whatever it may be, because this evil is bigger than us. But at least we tried, and we might find more allies along the way. And then this position of strength through true tolerance and diversity of opinion and respect despite important differences will not vanish. These are the true core American values, I think, the things that will keep me here and not running away to somewhere else[where?], like my grandparents did from Europe during the last conflagration.

    And we can preserve them to ourselves if nothing else, and we can try to teach them.

    Softly teach them. Otherwise (1) we are nothing but rhinos with slightly different horns, and (2) as we are without obvious allies, our types (Heinlein’s “loud-mouthed pacifists”) tended to be first up against the wall during the Russian Revolution and other conflagrations.

    On the ground, three main points from that video:

    • as @A_lee points out, don’t rub their face in it
    • normalize difference; don’t be afraid to note important differences, but also don’t dwell on them
    • whenever possible, develop parallel structures of inclusivity and tolerance that are independent of Big Politics/Media/Tech; eg localism
  25. Please re-post, for those newer to the Pack, Rusty’s awesome note on his ancestors joining a cult in 19th century Texas. I can’t find it in the search function! But, it has old-time religion, the narrow mindedness of a monoculture society, human frailty, and most importantly -forgiveness! With all of this malevolence for the other side the humanity of everyone has to be kept front of mind. If my great grandparents could forgive in this instance, it can inspire hope today.

  26. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    If you’re curious, I found it by going to ET Forum Advanced Search and then searching for this:

    “cult” @rguinn

  27. I was in the right ballpark - MERCY more than forgiveness. The note has aged well!

  28. Avatar for A_Lee A_Lee says:

    I didn’t pull the thread completely (like a good engineer should) on the increased salary cost, and didn’t think through the staffer part of it. Worst case if each ~6,600 House rep got the 18+4 and utilized all $994,671 then your looking at (6,600 * (174,000 + 994,671)) = ~7.7 Billion a year vs. ~1.15 Billion…still a drop in the bucket of 5 trillion.

    I do like the idea of reducing staffers. Less un-elected personnel is something I personally agree with.

    If the average house member has 15 staff members (and they are allowed 18 + 4 part timers) then we are at 6,525 unelected representatives plus the 435 elected officials for 6,960 total and a ratio of about 47,400 constituents per person in the house.

    It’s almost as if the writers of the CAA knew a thing or two, funny how numbers work sometimes.

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