The politics of Game of Thrones

I tried to read the Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin and couldn't get through much more than one book. The prose is rough, functional at best. 

The TV series, though, I love. The first book ended up reading like an adaptation of the first season of the series, so closely did the two hew to each other back then. It made sense to me to find out Martin had worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for much of the 80's and part of the 90's.

What Martin does do well, and what makes Game of Thrones more fascinating than much of the fantasy series out there, is delve deeply into realpolitik. Characters win or lose not so much based on whether they are good or bad in character as whether they're the smartest player in the political arena, the so-called "game of thrones." Thus we see many characters killed off in defiance of audience expectations. That's the part of the series that I love the most, beyond the high and increasing production values (a noticeable increase in quality after season one), beautiful locations (refreshing in this day and age of cartoonish digital backdrops to see the real world serve as the backdrop for so much of the series), and fun performances (there are some weak links, like Danaerys, but most of the lead performances are strong).

Martin also manages to challenge the audience's desire for clean moral judgments (with the exception of characters like Joffrey who seem horrific through and through).

Much of this comes out in a really good interview of Martin in Rolling Stone.

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly. 

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren't gone – they're in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I've tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don't have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn't make you a wise king.

...

Early on, one critic described the TV series as bleak and embodying a nihilistic worldview, another bemoaned its "lack of moral signposts." Have you ever worried that there's some validity to that criticism? 

No. That particular criticism is completely invalid. Actually, I think it's moronic. My worldview is anything but nihilistic.

Some of your most contemptible characters are also among the story's greatest truth-tellers. One of the most riveting moments in the TV series took place in the Battle of Blackwater episode, which you wrote the script for, when Sandor says to Sansa, "The world was built by killers, so you'd better get used to looking at them." 

Truth is sometimes hard to hear. Two of the central phrases are true, but they are not truths that most human beings like to contemplate. Winter is coming and Valar morghulis – all men must die. Mortality is the inescapable truth of all life . . . and of all stories, too.

Make it harder to cross the street

It turns out some of the key FCC people working to determine the future of net neutrality used to work at Comcast. The same path is also traveled in reverse quite frequently.

But overall, the FCC is one of many agencies that have fallen victim to regulatory capture. Beyond campaign contributions and other more visible aspects of the influence trade in Washington, moneyed special interest groups control the regulatory process by placing their representatives into public office, while dangling lucrative salaries to those in office who are considering retirement. The incentives, with pay often rising to seven and eight figure salaries on K Street, are enough to give large corporations effective control over the rule-making process.

...

The revolving door, however, provides a clear and semi-legal way for businesses to directly give unlimited cash and gifts to officials who act in their favor. One of the most famous examples of this dynamic is the case of Meredith Attwell Baker, an FCC Commissioner who left her job right after voting in favor of the Comcast merger with NBC. Her next career move? She became a high-level lobbyist for Comcast, the company she had just blessed. Earlier this week, she announced her next gig, as president of CTIA, the primary wireless industry trade group. She’ll have her work cut out for her in lobbying her former colleagues. CTIA has already warned the FCC from taking up any new net neutrality regulations.
 

In a democracy, if you don't want the money of corporations completely taking over policy-making, you can't allow people leaving office to immediately cross the street to a corner office on K-Street with a huge salary, and you also shouldn't allow those public officials to go work for a company in an industry they were regulating before. It's much too simple a way to essentially offer a deferred bribe.

Liberals versus conservatives? Nope

Types A and B map reasonably well onto today’s culture wars, with A the modern/liberal and B the traditional/conservative. It maps well to the rich-poor axis from the World Value Survey.  But in fact, type A vs. B are actually foragers vs. farmers. [The above summarizes many books and articles I've read over the last year.]  Which is my point: I think a lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. We live a farmer lifestyle when poor, but prefer to buy a forager lifestyle when rich.

From a 2010 post by Robin Hanson. Click through to read the descriptions of Type A and Type B people.

From a later post by Hanson on the same topic:

Farming required huge behavior changes, mostly unnatural to foragers. A key enabler seems to have been increased self-control to follow social norms. But what allowed this increased self-control?

One source was moving from vague spirituality to religions with powerful and morally-outraged gods who punish norm violators. In addition (as I’ll explain tomorrow), high densities and larger social networks made stronger credible threats to ostracize folks for specific deviant acts.  Yes both these mechanisms require the fear that norm violations could lead to great harm, even death. But for poor farmers living on edge, such threats were easy to come by.

Interestingly, this death-threat pressure could work even without farmers being conscious of the relevant threats or fears. In fact, farming society probably worked better with homo hypocritus farmers, consciously denying that strong social pressures pushed them to do what would otherwise feel unnatural.

A large robust literature makes it clear that inducing people to unconsciously think about death pushes them to more strongly obey and defend cultural norms, especially norms framed as disgust at animal-like behavior.  Today, fear of death encourages folks to obey authorities, and be more loyal to their communities and spouses, all strong farmer norms.

Count me among the foragers, though until reading these posts I'd never call it that. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me the chance to live like a forager, I am blessed.

The farmer-forager dichotomy is like some variant of the Myers Briggs personality test.

Nate Silver and Sam Wang on impact of shutdown

Sam Wang penned an article on the impact of the government shutdown on Republicans and their House seats. It's titled "Republicans could lose their House majority because of the shutdown":

Since the election is over a year away, it is hard to predict how this will translate to future seat gain/loss. If the election were held today, Democrats would pick up around 30 seats, giving them control of the chamber. I do not expect this to happen. Many things will happen in the coming 12 months, and the current crisis might be a distant memory. But at this point I do expect Democrats to pick up seats next year, an exception to the midterm rule.

Nate Silver was the more famous of the election prediction pundits from the last Presidential election, but among people who followed that space closely Sam Wang's Princeton Election Consortium was just as much a must-follow. Silver's relaunch of FiveThirtyEight.com hasn't arrived yet, but in the meantime he penned a quick piece over at Grantland, his temporary home.

1. The media is probably overstating the magnitude of the shutdown's political impact.

Remember Syria? The fiscal cliff? Benghazi? The IRS scandal? The collapse of immigration reform? All of these were hyped as game-changing political moments by the news media, just as so many stories were during the election last year. In each case, the public's interest quickly waned once the news cycle turned over to another story. Most political stories have a fairly short half-life and won't turn out to be as consequential as they seem at the time.

Some took these two pieces as an opportunity to pit the two pundits against each other, but as Wang notes, the two are not as far apart as provocative headlines might make it seem. Wang does think this time could be different, though.

Multiple polls, including detailed onerom NBC/WSJ, show that public sentiment has turned against the GOP. Under the radar, gerrymandered districts are swinging much harder than I was expecting. If the election were today, Democrats would control the House by about 50 seats. That will fade, but by how much?

Silver lists other events that didn’t move opinion: Benghazi, and the IRS business, and Syria. But the shutdown has, bigtime. I agree with him that most pundits emit bulls**t, which is why I am working on a prediction model. Right now, the model is saying: as long as the GOP stays on its current path, where the House goes next fall is an even-money bet.

How this impacts the next election will be a fascinating test of whether this gambit by the extremists in the Republican Party really boomerangs on them. Any system that divorces costs from actions really kills the feedback loop that's needed for continuous improvement. 

Lobbying: a great (the greatest?) investment

In a striking infographic, the United Republic shows why lobbying is so pervasive: it's an unbelievably effective form of spending (for now I'm linking to the NYTimes hosted version of the infographic as most of United Republic's pages, including the infographic, are 404'ing on me).

As the NYTimes article notes, the ROI on lobbying dwarfs that of any investment an ordinary citizen might hope to capture.

According to statistics United Republic assembled, the prescription drug industry spent $116 million lobbying for legislation to prevent Medicare from bargaining down drug prices — legislation that enabled drug companies to make an additional $90 billion annually. That amounts to an extraordinary 77,500 percent return on investment. Oil companies, in turn, had a return on investment of 5,900 percent, and multinational companies, 22,000 percent.

You're not feeling as hot about those shares of Apple or Google you've held for a few years now, are you?

In fact, the ROI on lobbying is so astronomically high that Tyler Cowen wonders why politician's don't demand larger bribes from lobbyists, or why companies don't spend more on lobbying. This disparity between the cost of lobbying and its returns is known as Tullock paradox. It's ironic, isn't it, to ask why government isn't more corrupt than it already is?

In Government's End, Jonathan Rauch predicted this would be the logical wall any democratic government would run into: demosclerosis, or the inability of a democratic government to deal with our deep problems because motivated lobbyists spend billions fighting for and maintaining the status quo. In such a situation, only marginal incremental change is possible.

If you've ever worked in a large corporation you may also recognize that inertia that comes from entrenched groups defending their turf.

It would be wonderful if we could simplify our tax code, but the prevalence of lobbying makes it unlikely. So many of the odd tax loopholes and shelters and rules are there specifically because some narrow interest group fought to get them into the tax code.

In fact, my variant of the Tullock paradox is why corporations like Apple still have to shelter foreign income from domestic taxes at all. You'd think they'd have lobbied their way to ways to get that income back home without the IRS laying their hands on much of it at all.

WHCD

I admire [CNN's] commitment to covering all sides of a story...just in case one of them happens to be accurate.

When Obama leaves office, one of the things I'll miss the most are his comedy routines at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. The one he gave last night was one of the best yet.

I recognize that the Press and I have different jobs. My job is to be President, your job is to keep me humble. Frankly I think I'm doing my job better.

Seriously, he has some serious comedic timing, that's a gift. He also has some great joke writers, and they deserve some recognition. Who are they? Conan O'Brien could've used them last night.

Some interests more special than others

Some of the senators who voted against the background-check amendments have met with grieving parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook, in Newtown. Some of the senators who voted no have also looked into my eyes as I talked about my experience being shot in the head at point-blank range in suburban Tucson two years ago, and expressed sympathy for the 18 other people shot besides me, 6 of whom died. These senators have heard from their constituents — who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks. And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them.

I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.

Gabrielle Giffords on the Senate's failure to pass any of the three gun control legislation measures today. When something like the Toomey-Manchin bill which would extend background checks and which 90 percent of the country supports gets rejected by the Senate, it's clear who the Senate represents. It's not the majority.

You can peruse the list of Senators who voted for and against the measure. All but four Republicans voted against the measure, and four Democrats defected and voted against the measure.

Even if the Senate had passed the measure, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives would have ended its hopes.

If there is any consolation in this effort, it's that the Senators who voted against the measure were acting not as representatives of the people but as self-interested politicians. It means that there is a clear path to defeating the NRA: deliver more money and more votes.

Obama summed up the situation clearly:

They are better organized, they are better financed, they’ve been at it longer and they make sure to stay focused on this one issue during election time. That’s the reason why you can have something that 90 percent of Americans support and you can't get it through the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Your Senator will represent you, but it's going to cost you.

Entitlements

When it comes to Washington’s current (and to all appearances permanent) fiscal fracas, the semantic weeds are as high as an elephant’s eye and higher than a donkey’s. In the battles over debt limits, fiscal cliffs, continuing resolutions, and the budget, the clashing sides deploy duelling vocabularies. The Democrats’ revenue enhancements, public investments, and “the one per cent” are the Republicans’ tax hikes, reckless government spending, and “the job creators.” Reading from left to right, the inheritance tax is the estate tax is the death tax. The Dems prevail in a few of these skirmishes, the Reps in a few more. Most are stalemated. But in one of them the conservative side long ago won a decisive victory, a victory at once famous and infamous: “entitlements.”

Hendrik Hertzberg on the Republican rhetorical victory over programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Too bad Google's Ngram viewer doesn't go beyond 2008 now, but even up to then the Google Ngram for entitlements shows a steady rise through the late 1990's, and it's still far above what it was in the 1970's.

Books aren't the ideal or most complete corpus for measuring the use of this term in political discourse, but it does seem to support Hertzberg's thesis.