Harnessing Polarization

Human status competition can be wasteful. For example, often many athletes all work hard to win a contest, yet if they had all worked only half as hard, the best one could still have won. Many human societies, however, have found ways to channel status efforts into more useful directions, by awarding high status for types of effort of which there might otherwise be too little. For example, societies have given status to successful peace-makers, explorers, and innovators.

Relative to history and the world, the US today has unusual high levels of political polarization. A great deal of effort is going into people showing loyalty to their side and dissing the opposing side. Which leads me to wonder: could we harness all this political energy for something more useful?

Traditionally in a two party system, each party competes for the endorsement of marginal undecided voters, and so partisans can be enticed to work to produce better outcomes when their party is in power. But random variation in context makes it harder to see partisan quality from outcomes. And in a hyper partisan world, there aren’t many undecided voters left to impress.

Perhaps we could create more clear and direct contests, where the two political sides could compete to do something good. For example, divide Detroit or Puerto Rico into two dozen regions, give each side the same financial budget, political power, and a random half of the regions to manage. Then let us see which side creates better regions.

Political decision markets might also create more clear and direct contests. It is hard to control for local random factors in making statistical comparisons of polities governed by different sides. But market estimates of polity outcomes conditional on who is elected should correct for most local context, leaving a clearer signal of who is better.

These are just two ideas off the top of my head; who can find more ways that we might harness political polarization energy?

Added 28Sep: Notice that these contests don’t have to actually be fair. They just have to induce high efforts to win them. For that, merely believing that others may see them as fair could be enough.

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  • davidmanheim

    “For example, divide Detroit or Puerto Rico into two dozen regions, give each side the same financial budget, political power, and a random half of the regions to manage. Then let us see which side creates better regions.”
    This is a good idea if it were do-able, but I suspect it isn’t. Specific places where each side shows off how well their system works sounds like a huge incentive to cheat. If works, it would need to be because the participants cooperated (ha!) or there were some enforcement mechanism for the rules.

    (Now trying to be constructive as well.) If this worked as a showcase for ideas, it would be because voters realized that one or the other side did a better job. This doesn’t already happen when people look at different states, so perhaps the lesson is that you need more local control everywhere, to allow more variance to be observed.
    (Also politically a nonstarter. This is hard.)

    • J

      Obscuration is a perpetual problem in politics that’s mostly separate from polarization. The great thing about Robin’s proposal is that you can make winning the contest intrinsically valuable. So even if shadow donors pour millions into making their team’s policies look better than they should, the end result is that Detroit or Puerto Rico get improved.

      • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

        Be careful. Winning (i.e. doing better than the other guy) isn’t intrinsically valuable. Improving your part of the city/territory is valuable winning is just doing better than the other guy and its always cheaper to screw things up than to fix them.

        Why pour in millions in shadow donations when you can instead shovel your poor, homeless and gang members off onto the territory next door? Sure, it might not be that overt but its always easy for partisans to come up with a reason why its really the other guys fault or to shift harm more subtly.

        I mean look at the number of states who ALREADY legalize firework sales but only to individuals from out of state even knowing that possession of fireworks is illegal in those states. This is despite the lack of real partisanship toward our states.

        Also there are any number of tragedy of the commons issues like the incentive to be harsher to the homeless in your part of the city so they go sleep in the other side’s part. Or not busting gang members provided their gang doesn’t commit crimes in your area.

      • lump1

        I bet that’s how Republicans would win every time: “Hey look at that Democrat patch! They’re giving away free money and meds!” Then they offer sweet deals for people who already have money to move in – probably in the form of tax cuts. But this wouldn’t settle much. We don’t need more evidence for the claim that if you settle a district with rich people, it will turn out to be a pretty safe/healthy/successful place.

  • J

    I think history can teach us a lot about how to harness polarization. I think there’s been a pretty recent and pretty huge swing away from tribal affiliation, especially for blue team: team sports, fraternal organizations, churches, patriotism et al have gone by the wayside. That makes me think that the polarization in politics is coming from ungrounded tribal energy getting poured into politics as the last place where it can go.

    Anyway, to answer your question more directly using historical approaches:

    – Team sports use tribal energy to promote exercise, fair play, technical ability, and coordinated action

    – Fraternal orders did things like mutual aid and regular service projects

    – Churches direct a lot of attention to the poor and unfortunate

    – Ethnic identity groups preserve historical wisdom

    More specifically about political tribalism, what if we embraced the polarization and let the political teams become proper tribes?

    – What if companies became explicitly politically affiliated? Say iPhone became Blue Team and Android was Red. Then employees might be more motivated to make the best phones to vindicate their politics. Bring back the IBM Songbook but mash it up with Woody Guthrie protest songs! Some companies are big enough to work as testbeds for experimental political science — let’s restructure GM as an explicitly Marxist organization and see what happens.

    – Let government bifurcate; why should there only be one Department of Education? Let states or individuals pick which regime they want to live under. Every decade you could have open enrollment and pick between a strong-safety-net or lassiez-faire offering with the attending tax policies. States could pick between the Red or Blue EPA and FDA. Track crime rates and have separate prisons based on which criminal justice regime you (or your local government) picked.

    • J

      Also, I suspect those historical institutions formed because they realized that unharnessed tribalism leads to violence. Clearly the historical institutions died because they were unfit. Given the flavor of tribal energy we currently see, and the ways that people are succeeding in expressing it, what kind of new institutions should we be trying to create?

    • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

      Not sure it was really better when we directed more of this energy toward churches. Even in the early US, which was very tolerant by the standards of the times, the animosities between the various Christian faiths made the modern left/right distinction positively mild.

      I think that channeling tribal energy into a context where one gets harangued for an hour each week about how morally superior your tribe is, tribal affiliation is highly hereditary and is tied up with issues we know people are willing to be bother particularly irrational and particularly inclined toward violence about is a really really bad idea.

      If you are correct the better response is almost surely to direct that tribal energy into an are which is particularly low impact, non-hereditary and doesn’t track other existing fault lines. Some kind of aesthetic dispute or something reminiscent of the mac/PC divide…I dunno but we worked REALLY REALLY hard to detribalize religion so lets not undo that

    • JW Ogden

      Let government bifurcate; why should there only be one Department of Education?

      Even more important why have one US currency and central bank big enough to bring down the world economy. Why not have 5 regional backs each with their own currency.

  • https://llordoftherealm.wordpress.com/ Lord

    Isn’t that what the states already are, while the marginal voter is only undecided about whether to vote, not whom to vote for, and the distinction of better outcomes is entirely dependent what voters consider better and having differing values?

    The only way to address it may to show how counterproductive and despicable it is as having no redeeming value.

  • zenmanvolcano

    Who decides what the contests will be?

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    Interesting idea. I doubt the suggestion you offer will work simply because such areas are highly intertwined and as such offer too many opportunities to either blame neighboring areas, free ride off them or simply screw them over.

    I mean if your part of the city includes a theater and night life area adjacent to my part of the city the benefit you get to effective policing in and around that area is much more than I do. Indeed, if I’m some partisan red and you’re a blue maybe I even reduce my police presence there to either force you to be the one being blamed for police brutality in the region or simply to get you to pay for my police.

    Absent the partisan competition one could presumably just rely on Coursean (sp?) bargains to deal with these kind of issues but once people have substantial investments in outperforming the other parts its a no go.

    The critical feature we need for such a channel is that the societal interests from cooperative interaction between the sides is small relative to the competitive benefits. Managing an interconnected city is probably not such a case.

    Maybe something more like running scientific research. Say put NASA under the red team and NIH under blue …maybe not that specifically but something of that form.

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  • JW Ogden

    I like your idea.

    Another way about it would be to say our old system was not designed for a government that does as much as ours does and so we should divide government by function. So elect a guy who would run Medicare and Medicaid and collect a tax for that and another guy to run transportation and collect a tax to cover it etc. the powers that the Federal Government had under the Constitution like war would stay with the POTUS.

  • Swami

    “…who can find more ways….”

    I strongly agree. Here are some variations on the theme..,

    1). For issues such as health care, or retirement safety nets, we could ask the left, the right and libertarians, Marxists or whatever to each come up with their recommended institutional solution. We could then allow the states to choose among the three or four or whatever number of plans. The incentive here is that each side gets to have its national program albeit on a (multi?) state basis. This would allow regional preferences to get the type of institutions they want (potentially improving utilitarian value), and also allow benchmarking and competition. Later states can learn from the better experiments, adapting and possibly converting to proven superior programs.

    2). We could allow individual opt outs or options for national institutions. The obvious existing example is retirement age today for SS. The same option can be introduced for retirement age vs. tax rate. For example, we could allow individuals to choose between current retirement and higher FICA, or later retirement and current FICA rate. Obviously those near retirement would choose the former. Underfunding would be solved immediately in a way either party could approve.

    3). For immigration, we could create open immigrant cities or territories where immigrants were allowed to come and go under the institutions of the sponsoring nation state. It can be in an unpopulated border area, in a volunteer area or a neutral place like a charter city. This resolves the classical liberal arguments for potentially expanded or even unlimited immigration, with the concerns of extreme immigration undermining current institutions and norms. The immigrant areas can operate under various experimental institutions.

    There are countless other possibilities here. The point is that it allows the Blue states to get Blue state programs, but to get them they must also give Red States their chance to try their ideas as well. We go beyond endless rhetoric and into actual benchmarking comparisons. We effectively convert a win/lose negative sum dynamic into a potentially win/win, constructive cooperation learning system.

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