Basic Principles of Politics, Economics, and Zealotry

Three items today.

  • How the Republican strategy has changed;
  • Zero-sum thinking (by conservatives) vs. division of labor and our modern complex society;
  • And fringe items about God-believers and how God made Trump.

There’s a commonly understood explanation for the long-time strategies of the Republican Party that even some current Republicans seem unaware of, according to Paul Krugman. It’s an explanation we’ve seen many times.

Paul Krugman, NY Times, 4 Jan 2024: Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Politically Obtuse Plutocrats


All Wall Street wants is a good hypocrite — someone who can convince the Republican base that he or she shares its extremism, but whose real priority is to enrich the 1 percent. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, yes.

He goes on to discuss Nikki Haley and the support she’s gotten from “big money.” In light of her Civil War misstatements.

But there is a logic behind this drama. What we’re witnessing are the death throes of a political strategy that served America’s plutocrats well for several decades but stopped working during the Obama years.

That political strategy was famously described by Thomas Frank… Wealthy political donors wanted policies, especially low taxes on high incomes, that were generally unpopular; but they could get these policies enacted by supporting politicians who won over working-class white voters by appealing to their social conservatism, then devoted their actual energy to right-wing economics.

It worked, says Krugman, until the base “wanted genuine extremists, not business-friendly politicians who just played extremists on TV.” And how DeSantis and Haley have both failed to satisfy that base. Krugman concludes,

What’s so striking to me is the political obtuseness of big money. Any moderately well-informed observer could have told big bankers that a MAGAfied Republican Party isn’t going to nominate anyone who might make them comfortable. Someday, perhaps, reasonable people will once again have a role to play within the G.O.P. But that day is at least several election cycles away.

For now, rationality has a well-known Democratic bias. And throwing money at Nikki Haley won’t change that.


Biden aside, this piece is about an even more fundamental view of society and politics and the difference between simplex (zero-sum games) and complex (non-zero-sum games). Conservatives and progressives.

David Brooks, NY Times, 4 Jan 2024: What Biden Needs to Tell Us

First, he invokes the idea from Adam Smith and others of the “division of labor.”

It’s a simple notion. If I specialize in doing what I’m good at, and you specialize in what you’re good at, and we exchange what we’ve each made, then we’ll both be more productive and better off than if we tried to be self-sufficient.

A very basic principle that has made our modern, complex culture possible.

(And, incidentally, it counters a widely cited passage by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein about how specialization is for insects. He may have had a point about American frontiersmen on the prairie in the 18th or 19th century, or about many people before the modern era of technology, but these days it’s absurd, even impossible, for everyone to know everything about how to maintain their lives and their devices. In today’s society we are all specialists, and depend on each other to know about the things we cannot personally know.)

Brooks goes on:

It seems banal, but division of labor was part of a constellation of ideas that liberated our civilization from the savage grip of zero-sum thinking. For millenniums before that, economic growth had been basically stagnant. Many people simply assumed that the supply of wealth was finite. If I’m going to get more of it, it will be the result of conquering you and stealing what you have. In a zero-sum mind-set, the basic logic of life is dog-eat-dog, conquer or be conquered. Property is theft. Predators win.

Division of labor, on the other hand, and the other principles that underlie modern capitalism, encouraged a positive-sum mind-set. According to this way of thinking, the good of others multiplies my own good. Steve Jobs got to enjoy a fortune, but I get to enjoy the Mac I’m now typing on and tens of thousands get to enjoy the jobs he helped create.

In this kind of society, life is not about conquest and domination but regulated competition and voluntary exchange. Not about antagonism but interdependence. In this kind of marketplace, Walter Lippmann wrote in the late 1930s, “the vista was opened at the end of which men could see the possibility of the Good Society on this earth.”

And then here we are. There’s an interesting point here about how Trump did, in fact, grow up in a zero-sum world.

Populism thrives on a zero-sum mind-set. The central story that populists tell is: They are out to destroy us. Populist leaders invariably inflame ethnic bigotry to mobilize their own supporters.

America’s populist in chief, Donald Trump, exemplifies this mentality. Trump grew up in a zero-sum world. In the world of New York real estate, there’s a fixed amount of land. Trump didn’t have to invent a new concept, just screw the other side. In 2017, the Vox writer Dylan Matthews and his colleagues read all of Trump’s books on business and politics, and concluded that zero-sum thinking is the core of his mind-set. “You hear lots of people say that a great deal is when both sides win,” Trump and his co-author wrote in “Think Big and Kick Ass.” “That is a bunch of crap. In a great deal you win — not the other side. You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”

MAGA is the zero-sum concept in political form. What’s good for immigrants is bad for the American-born. What’s good for Black people is bad for whites. Trade deals are exploitation. Our NATO allies are out to screw us. Every day for Trump is an Us/Them dominance game.

And a deeply primitive, cynical worldview. Brooks points out such thinking on the left, too: the whole cancel culture “dogma that life is a contest between groups — oppressor versus oppressed, colonizers versus colonized” which has, again, has led to the demonization or resignations of numerous university professors and presidents for the supposed sins of offending people who are anxious to be offended.

And then Brooks has some recommendations for Biden, inspired by, of all people, Ronald Reagan.

Team Biden is not going to go all Reaganite, but it could promote a liberal version of two of his themes — law and order and the spirit of enterprise.

Law and order. We are in the middle of a multifront conflict that pits the forces of civilization against the forces of barbarism. In a civilized world, people create rules and norms to make competition fair, whether it’s economic, intellectual or political competition. Barbarians seek to tear down those rules so thuggery can prevail. Biden needs to position himself as the candidate for law and order — in Ukraine, against Hamas, at the ballot box, on America’s streets and, yes, on the southern border. He has to stand for the rule of law against growing chaos.

The spirit of enterprise. One of the great achievements of Biden’s first term is that America is once again a nation that builds things. Manufacturing employment is up. More broadly, the American economy is surging, with fast growth, plummeting inflation, real wage increases. Far from being in decline, the U.S. economy is driving the world.

Biden needs to paint a portrait of America’s future not with statistics but with a vision of a way of life. Liberal capitalism involves a set of concrete social actions: starting a business; building better schools; working together with people in companies; rising from poverty to buy a house; raising children not to be culture warriors but workers and innovators.

This liberal dream is still ingrained in the nation’s bones. It’s been covered over by several years of bitterness, disillusion and pessimism. Maybe Biden can reach something deep in every American and revive the optimism that used to be our defining national trait.


Here’s a fringe item, included because it again illustrates a basic principle, in this case one of primitive morality. (See item #1 in this post.)

Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, 4 Jan 2024: GOP congresswoman: God-believers “are the best people” to serve in elected office


…I want to encourage people to run for office… We need people that fear God, that believe they can’t hide from God, and ultimately they’re going to give account to God; those are the best people to hold positions, whether it’s local or in the federal government.

But of course she counts only of those of her religion to have such scruples. Mehta expands on this in considerable detail.


Boing Boing, 5 Jan 2024: False prophet Donald Trump posts insane new video: “GOD MADE TRUMP”

Also noted here:

The Messenger, 5 Jan 2024: Trump Shares New Ad: ‘God Made Trump’, subtitled “The ad, which has a run-time of two minutes and 44 seconds, alleges that God created the former president for the purpose of leading the nation”

Who are the people who believe this? I could comment on many points, but I’ll refrain.

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