Friday, October 27, 2006

Yeah, but can he hit?

We've already noted that, by virtue of being a culture that rewards risk taking, we're blessed with risk management tools and sensibilities that, to a great degree, inoculate us against totalitarian ideologies.

So what went wrong? How did the anti-globalization movement of a decade or two ago, which may have been reactionary but was at least rooted in a healthy skepticism about the nature of huge and opaque institutions, become today's paranoid anti-americanism? How do the good instincts that freedom tends to breed become confused?

The answer, or at least part of it, can be discussed with the help of something called the Sharpe ratio. I'm sticking with financial and risk management terms because they're so good at capturing social as well as market processes.

The Sharpe ratio is a ratio that measures the volatility of a series. I won't get into the math, but what it tells us in general is how well a series adheres to its own internal trend. If you have an economy that is being managed to yield 3% growth, you want that number, not 4% and not 2%. The Sharpe ratio, by measuring the stability of the series, is therefore also a measure of the refinement of the processes by which your goals are sought.

The problem, however, is that more highly refined and stable processes are more fragile when they do break down. They are less robust. In this way, refinement can be self defeating, and that is something that western societies are currently experiencing.

Just as the fed stands at the sidelines of the economy, tinkering with the few tools at its disposal in a constant effort to manage its way toward stable growth, there are similar processes that unfold in political and social arenas. Political managers, like money managers, want stability and predictability, the more the better. As a consequence they do their best to control themselves as well as us, so that everybody is always on point and on message. We do the same to them by applying normative pressures.

The polarization in national politics today is a natural result of an increasingly sophisticated political environment, filled with managed expectations and talking points. These tools were supposed to produce a more stable politics, but they really only create an illusion of stability within a narrow range.

Just beyond that range, there's nothing but a sheer cliff. The political horizon is amazingly close by, since to function politically today all you have to do is be able to stick your finger in either one nostril or the other. Once you've done that, the rest of us know what side you're on, and that's all we want to know about you anyway. As a result, everybody can pitch but nobody can hit. Everybody is a well practiced critic of the other side, but real thought is scarce. Outside the comfort zone of political identity, there's an abyss of fear and uncertainty. This helps to explain why raw emotions, hate and hero worship, are such a common feature of the political landscape now. People feel lost and helpless and they want to know who is going to save them, or at least who to blame.

The left is especially vulnerable. The key goals of the progressive movement have long ago been achieved and adopted universally. As a result, they're caught in a freefall of process and form without substance. The political tools that govern the relationship between politicians and their constituents are operating at full strength, but there's no real life purpose to guide the process and provide a reality check.

But everybody is vulnerable to some degree. To the ears of the young, in particular, a haunting moan and clatter is all they hear of political debate in America. Real debate has been managed into such oblivion that politicians themselves act surprised when it occasionally crops up. By comparison, a voice like that of Islam is clear and strong. Even if your place in the Islamic story is death or dhimmitude, at least there is a story. And behind that story, a mesmerizing and terrifying presence. You bet they have our kids attention.

These are the dangers of refinement, efficiency and overcooked risk management. They lead to stability and predictability, which are desired, but at the cost of narrowness and fragility.

So let's re-ask the opening question. How do the good instincts that freedom tends to breed become confused?


Anonymous TalkinKamel said...

Hmmm. . . well, you know what they say; the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

As for the Left, I believe there's always been something warped, twisted, divorced from humanity,about it. Reading the writings of even a fairly good man, like Randolph Bourne, you get the impression that, at heart, he really dislikes and despises the great mass of humanity (certainly the ones he actually came into contact with) despite his professed compassion for them.

I've often wondered if it isn't, in the long run, more harmful to meddle with society in order to improve it, and the people inhabiting it (and who decides what's an improvement?) than it is to ignore abuses? (The best thing, of course is to reform evils, but keep these reforms limited, and focused on specific iniquities---but that's another topic).

Human beings, whether rich or poor, peasant or aristocratic, are ends, not means; they have their own special needs, wants, desires, flaws and gifts. A government, a pack of social workers or bureaucrats, teachers, reformers, etc. shouldn't have the power to tell them what really want, or what they should be, no matter how idealistic they are.

Reformers, even well-intentioned ones, tend to lump all of humanity into one, and see it more as something to be achieved in the future: i.e., New Soviet Man, The Aryan Superman, The Greening of America, than they do as individuals, to be helped in the here and now.

Good article. Raises a lot of ideas. I will think about this some more.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Abu Nopal said...

> Randolph Bourne

I'd never heard of him, so I got a chance tonight to read something new, to me. thanks.

your argument above about meddling sounds like an argument for emphasizing first principles over outcomes.

I agree that doing that tends to nurture the development of good instincts, so I don't think it was off topic.

3:05 AM  
Anonymous Shoulung said...

Your analysis is straight on. It is the choosing of sides that polarizes the electorate, yet the two "sides" do not have well-developed and distinct messages for themselves. Factions (if you will) on each side disagree on fundamental questions, i.e., the pro-Iraq war Democrats vs. the anti-Iraq war Democrats; likewise pro-Life Republicans and pro-Choice Republicans. One would think that the categories need to be narrowed, in the sense that voters on opposite sides of central issues do not really belong in the same party.

4:17 AM  
Anonymous TalkinKamel said...


Yes, you are right; the catergories do need to be narrowed, so people can know where they really stand on certain issues.

It's also a problem that the Left has become so radicalized, and polarized at this moment in time.

8:11 AM  
Blogger shieldwall said...

GOOD STUFF,a worthy cause and a great idea,I shall check out the 910 group again soon,KEEP FIGHTING EVERYONE!.

2:28 AM  
Anonymous Shoulung said...

Meddling with Society indeed. Look at this post at

Imagine you are sitting in class and you lean over to your friend and say “Wow, that guy looks weird... Weird enough to bomb the school.” And your friend says “You should tell someone about that guy?” and you reply “It’s a joke dude, he just looked weird”. Perhaps a teacher overhears part of the conversation, takes it seriously enough to call the police and make a big deal. Should you be suspended from school? Should you be arrested for initiating of a false bomb threat? Who is at fault? Does blame need to actually be placed?

6:21 PM  

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