On the importance of symbolic victories in politics

Harold Meyerson writes:

The Democratic Party’s romance with Wall Street may finally be breaking up. In the past 10 days, a diverse group of Democratic senators scuttled Larry Summers’s candidacy for Federal Reserve chair and New York Democrats voted for the mayoral candidate whose campaign was an attack on Michael Bloomberg’s care and feeding of the super-rich at the expense of the rest of the city. Former commerce secretary (and JP Morgan Chase executive) William Daley’s surprise withdrawal from the Illinois Democratic gubernatorial primary is one more indication of Wall Street’s diminished sway.

There is more at the link.

Yet I view it differently.  As I observe the new equilibrium, the Left won a big symbolic victory by striking down the Summers nomination.  But it was precisely that — a symbolic victory.  When it comes to banking regulation, there is not much reason to believe that “Summers plus current political forces” would have been very different from say “Yellen plus current political forces” or for that matter Donald Kohn.

Symbolic victories are a relatively cheap way to buy off or appease interest groups, and arguably you can view this as part of a broader portfolio — from the Democrats too — to continue catering to Wall Street, for better or worse.  After all, share prices did rise on the Summers withdrawal (which by the way does not have to mean he was a bad pick, perhaps Wall Street simply did not like the uncertainty of a highly politicized confirmation battle), so that is hardly a slap in the face to the Street.

One might also expect that, as political polarization increases, political agents will allow more such symbolic fights to arise, or perhaps even manufacture them deliberately.  These symbolic fights make it easier to trade with the more extreme or dissident elements in a political party or movement.

The problem with the current budget negotiations is that the Republicans have not yet seized upon what would be the suitable symbolic victory to take home to some of their supporters.  Yet likely such a symbolic “victory” (also known as “defeat”) exists and it will be found, and that is one reason why stock markets are up and interest rates remain low.


The Larry Summers thing never struck me as having anything to do with Wall St. But what do I know.

It is absurd to think that because share prices went up after the announcement that the announcement is good for "Wall Street". Shares may be traded on Wall Street, but share prices reflect expectations of earnings, and the companies that make up the stock indices (with the exception of a few that happen to be investment banks) make all of their money everywhere but on Wall Street. Conversely, a rising S&P500 isn't necessarily good news for Wall Street, nor a falling index bad news because, as it turns out, investment banks don't make their money by buying and holding portfolios of shares.


I want to know how it gets to be Yellen or nobody. And yes, I always thought Yellen or Summers or nobody was Yellen or nobody. That's not saying I have opinions either way on those two, in fact I hold no such opinion quite violently.

For example, was Summers always a stalking horse? Or did it just end up that way purely by accident?

For Obama it has never been the either-or of Summers v Yellen, but when everyone writing politics always demand black-white, Obama is painted as incompetent because he does not do black-white.

For some, Summers is the only person responsible for all the sexism in the world, and the deregulation which caused the massive bad lending - the only person - Clinton had no choice but to sign the laws because he was Summers puppet, and Congress was not involved at all, and Summers was the only economist in the world who wanted deregulation.

I have no clue what Obama is thinking, but one thing I wonder is how Yellen would stand up to constant attacks on Fed policy that become ad hominems, especially in a crisis situation, which might well happen in the next five years given the desperation of conservatives to defeat Obama. And let's say Obama nominated Yellen today, but in the next month Congress can't do what it has done about a hundred times when a Republican was president - hike the debt ceiling - and the Treasury defaults on T-bills, with it not clear when Congress will act - in 2 days or 2 weeks. Obama needs Bernanke to be the one who everyone looks to with the full backing of Obama, announcing, for example, the Fed buying all the T-bills that are due as part of QE3 emergency action. Bernanke will be the spokesman, he will take the heat even tho the board acted without dissent. He will be "bailing out Wall Street" by making sure a money market fund doesn't break the buck and trigger a run on the shadow banks. If Yellen is the nominee, she will be doomed because she will be considered the one making the decisions. But the unspoken well known alternative is Yellen's predecessor (vice chair) who will be tarred with bailing out the banks if Yellen is driven to withdraw for "bailing out Wall Street."

My guess is Obama would love to nominate Paul Volcker retrieved by time machine from 1983 when he has youth and confidence.

So, Summers won a symbolic victory then?

Or was it just a matter of Summers just being too average to leverage the latest algorithmic techniques to make the opposition realize the errors of their ways, for not only their own good, but for the greater good of all of us?

Larry Summer did not have a Wall Street problem. He had an HBD problem. Some sins can never be truly forgiven. As far as the Democrats and Wall Street, the implication here is they have been sucking up to Wall Street all these years and are now reconsidering it. I guess all those ads and speeches about the GOP being the party of Wall Street were just a mistake. Or, maybe this is just agit-prop from a notorious tool bag in preparation for the coming campaign season. After all, taqiyya is as much a part of the liberal cult as it is Islam.

Wall Street favored Yellen over Summers because she was seen as likely as being less tight and likely to preside over a very prolonged taper.

It's pretty delusional to think that financial elites are still crying about Summers comments on female math ability, but I guess if tilting at windmills and crying about the "Cathedral" gets you off, then more power to you.

Financial elites are not upset with Summers over it. Lunatics on the Left are still ululating about it. Skipping out on a few prayer sessions to hang out with the President is one thing. Questioning one of the central beliefs of the faith is quite another.

The markets rallied over Summers withdrawing from consideration. The left didn't like him for sure, but Wall Street didn't want him either. The good news is that Summers can talk all he wants about your HBD hobby horse now that he's put to pasture at the ripe age of 58.

The hive mind is never more evident than when under assault. I have no interest in HBD, but you make that assumption simply because you and your coreligionists see the world as "us" versus "them". I mention the heresy for which Summers has been excommunicated and you immediately declare I am one of the bogeymen from that heretical group. Your enthusiasm for his demise, of course, is dictated by the hive. As an melittologist, I am not making moral judgments, just observations. But, I expect to get stung a few times regardless.

As an melittologist, I am not making moral judgments, just observations.

As an ornithologist, I see an unkindness in your ravens.

It is very difficult for the Republicans to have "symbolic" victories when all most people hear are the interpretations of current events offered by the partisan Democrats in the media.

Just look at this to see how thoroughly the liberals dominate one part of the media news world in August 2013 -

'Fox News remained on top of the cable news leaderboard in August, marking 140 months at #1 in total viewers and drawing more viewers than MSNBC, CNN and HLN combined in both total day and primetime. But the network declined across the board year-over-year and posted its lowest ratings in the A25-54 demographic since August 2001 in both total day and primetime.' - http://www.mediabistro.com/tvnewser/august-2013-ratings-fox-news-far-out-front-posts-lowest-demo-ratings-since-2001_b193608

But the demographics are slipping, resulting this conclusion - 'Despite the year-over-year losses, Fox News notched the top 13 programs in total viewers and the top 11 programs in the demo in all of cable news this month.'

Talk about media influence - someone needs to get Roger Ailes on the phone, and let him know that we are all mad as hell, and won't take his liberal media influence anymore.

Have you ever heard the phrase "the exception that proves the rule"? Had the media been dominated by conservatives leaving liberals with nowhere to go, creating an enormous business opportunity Rupert Murdoch would have created MSNBC.

All you have to do is listen to 15 seconds of NPR. N. P. fricking R. PLEASE stop making us work so hard just to describe the nose on your face.

Even were I to buy your argument that it's not fair to look at FNC's overwhelming ratings because they're one station compared to the rest of the stations which are "liberal," there's still PriorApproval's point that FNC is "drawing more viewers than MSNBC, CNN and HLN *combined* in both total day and primetime"

No. If you buy my argument you have to add ETV, ABC, NBC, etc. If you are seriously going to argue this point there's nothing to discuss.

MSNBC is a red herring. It is based on the false belief that "well, since FOX is far right we need a far left niche station." That's illogical. It's illogical in the business sense as well as for your argument. FOX is not far right wing, they could be described as statist neocon if anything but occupy what has been left out of the media market. The ratings for FOX serve my point, not Prior Approval's.

So why are the rest of the media so relentlessly liberal, then? Seriously, if Fox has achieved such dominance by not being liberal, why are all the OTHER news outlets so determined to stick with their partisan formula? If they were rational businesspeople they'd shift to a more centrist view. The fact that they maintain their Obama-worshipping tone AND constantly attack Fox suggests that they are biased and are scared because someone's undermining their monopoly.

They simply don't realize it.

By the way, I don't have a dong in this retarded slap fight.

So why are the rest of the media so relentlessly liberal, then? ... If they were rational businesspeople they’d shift to a more centrist view.

Because they are not rational business people. Almost every time you see a major media business bought, you see a public proclamation from the buyer not to interfere with the news room or editorial process. There are "firewalls" between the business side and the news side that isolates the news side from market forces.

FOX News IS the market response to a liberal media who doesn't know they are biassed.

The Pew Research Center for The People & The Press found five times more journalists described themselves as “liberal” as said they were “conservative.” A 2005 survey conducted for the American Journalism Review found nearly two-thirds of the public disagreed with the statement, “The news media try to report the news without bias,” and 42 percent of adults disagreed strongly.

Or, just start with journalism schools are liberal. Or does everyone now agree with me that college is all signaling and they don't learn any liberalism there? I also have a feeling that journalism is bit intrinsically liberal as a job for any number of reasons.

Everyone can have their own opinions, but are we really going to argue about the political persuasion of the media?

Kuypers found that the mainstream print press in America operate within a narrow range of liberal beliefs. Those who expressed points of view further to the left were generally ignored, whereas those who expressed moderate or conservative points of view were often actively denigrated or labeled as holding a minority point of view. In short, if a political leader, regardless of party, spoke within the press-supported range of acceptable discourse, he or she would receive positive press coverage. If a politician, again regardless of party, were to speak outside of this range, he or she would receive negative press or be ignored. Kuypers also found that the liberal points of view expressed in editorial and opinion pages were found in hard news coverage of the same issues. Although focusing primarily on the issues of race and homosexuality, Kuypers found that the press injected opinion into its news coverage of other issues such as welfare reform, environmental protection, and gun control; in all cases favoring a liberal point of view.[5]"

And right on cue we have the shotgun (Biden recommended and Biden approved) that was morphed into the AR15 underpowered assault rifle.

I could be wrong. Journalists could KNOW they have a biased agenda.

Andrew are you aware of the breakdown of Sunday morning political talk show guests? It's slanted heavily towards Republicans.

Evening news ratings (week of September 9th):

NBC 8.3 million; ABC 7.9 million; CBS 6.1 million; FoxNews 1.5 million

It's also very hard when the "troublemakers" don't want symbolic victories, but real victories such as declining deficits. The problem is that these voters tend to be the most informed; it is much easier to hoodwink the Democratic base or Republican insiders, than it is to get the grassroots crazies who have people watching CSPAN all day.

Interesting argument in that the deficit has been declining but we still hear plenty of hysteria (including in the 'liberal' media!) about it.

"One might also expect that, as political polarization increases, political agents will allow more such symbolic fights to arise, or perhaps even manufacture them deliberately"

Most of the republican party over the past 4-5 years has pretty much been doing nothing but symbolic activities. Perhaps, they would like to start governing sometime this decade.



Then vote 'em in, see what they can do.

[shudder] Can't we just vote all of them out and see how that goes for a while?

You mean like how the Democrats added the largest entitlement in decades in the depth of a balance sheet depression in a highly fractious intervention into healthcare?

I'll take symbolism, thanks.

Or like how they are taking a butt plug to legal loopholes to stretch the Constitution on things like assassinating citizens with Terminator robots and NSA violations of the 4th amendment in ways that would make George W. Bush blush and Bill Clinton wince (at least Bush had the mistaken excuse that terrorism seemed scarier after it just happened) while lying bold-faced to the people about everything and ONLY prosecuting whistleblowers and not a single bureaucrat or financial fraud?

Symbolism! Give me symbolism! Maybe not by getting all the race-baiting issues exactly wrong, but I'd even accept that.

Hey, by the way, Biden called to see if you got your shotgun?

Hate to break it to ya bud, but this has been happening long before Obama or democrats took over power in 2009.

You sure seem like a very closed minded individual. Enjoy living in your bubble. ;)

What EXACTLY do you think you are better informed on than I am, Joe?

"Obama or democrats took over power in 2009."

Stop being such a clown. Bring a take that doesn't make you look ridiculous or feel free not to reply to me.

Bush never assassinated citizens and their children. You can pretend that the 3rd Bush term would have seen it done, but only Obama holds that distinction, not to mention legally wrangling for the power, not to mention the extension of Bush policies Obama specifically promised to walk back.

So, even on your retarded scale Obama is far worse. Please provide any
scale, preferably one less retarded, where Obama scores better.

Let's take the lying cocksucker scale:

“It’s important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash,” Obama said last January, adding that his administration does not conduct "a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.”


So, nearly doubling up the death rate of 9/11. So nope. Fail on the lying cocksucker scale. Try again...

Take your meds, Andrew.

"Well...that only means Obama is only as bad as Lindsey Graham!"

You dumbasses.

Does this remind you of anyone? Anyone at all?

""...an insurgent outlier -- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition"

Yes, you.

Romney didn't win, so I can't impeach HIM for this:

But we can impeach Obama. That's how it works. Maybe he is just taking us further down this retarded road, but it's his responsiblity because he has the job. He doesn't like responsibility, but that shouldn't be my problem.

For the record, I'm dismissive of the opinion that "Obama is better than Republicans because he's only as bad as Republicans."

I make the same deal with everyone, stop being dumbasses and I stop saying they are dumbasses.

"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:

He has taken a butt plug to legal loopholes."

You mad bro? Lol

I'm not mad. At least not how you mean.

You didn't hear me the last 3 weeks when my refrain was "it's the 2 party system's fault"?

So, which is it? Can we criticize Obama, or can we criticize this retarded version of Democracy?

Actually, I'm mis-underestimating. I've had the "why do Presidents always get worse?" hypothesis for almost 20 years and have provided evidence and ideas. So, I don't lay all the blame on Obama personally, but what we need is a President who will come in and stop the charge toward oblivion. Last time that was Ron Paul. Exactly what we don't need are Presidents with their own cockamamie boondoggles followed by letting the government get away with murder. That's what we have.

The Republicans are allowed to have an alternative plan. The only problem is, the Democrats plan that passed, was the Republican plan from 1989. Unless you preferred the status quo, in which case, you're not very serious about fixing this countries long term problems.

Also, do you not remember Medicare Part D? How do you say "added the largest entitlement in decades" and not include that massive entitlement? It only happened like 10 years ago. So maybe decade, as opposed to decade(s) is more appropriate.

You think Bush is a conservative. Can't help ya'.

Seriously, your defense of Obama is that he's doing the same universally criticized things Bush did?

What is the matter with you people?

By the way, Medicare part D "worked" by the way in that it fixed the asinine disparity between funding for expensive and ineffective surgeries as opposed to more effective and cheaper pharmaceuticals. Personally, I'd rather we walked back the government overfunding of other stuff rather than expand drug funding to parity, but that would be a conservative position and Bush wasn't really a conservative. Yes it was unfunded, yes it was a giveaway to drug companies, and yes to all the other SECONDARY criticisms. I don't actually care that much about statists bankrupting the government, but Obamacare has all the bad parts without the good parts.

Then there is the part where Obamacare will cost 3-4 times more than the roundly criticized Med Part D

I'm defending the fact having an effective, functioning government is better policy than grandstanding and fighting fights from 4 years ago.

Why don't you and the rest of Teahadists join us?

You think I'm defending Obama. I'm pointing that when you have a 2 party dominated political system and one of those parties refuse to govern, that makes everyone worse off.

Enjoy your grandstanding and symbolism. I'll be holding out for something more meaningful.

You realize, Obamacare will make the fiscal position of governemnt stronger by bending the overall cost curve of the healthcare spending, right?

Your argument makes no sense.

I didn't mention Bush in any of my posts. Simmer down.

No, Obamacare isn't going to do any of the things promised, just like Obama.

Did I say you mentioned Bush by name?

Simmer down?

I just got another Mountain Dew and started a new pot of coffee.

Bring something other than weak sauce. This stuff doesn't get to me. Now, if someone could actually win an argument or even just present an interesting point then I might get aroused.

Obama leaves no crisis and no wedge issue unexploited, except he does take time out to make bone-headed ultimatums to put himself in a pickle and lower the standing of the country.

This is a bed largely of his own making. If you want compromise, how 'bout do something other than a healthcare takeover followed by constant partisan hackiness. Just try it. Then look over your shoulder and if the Lindsey Graham is the only Republican right behind you, you'll know you are still doing it wrong.

The lie that Obamacare is a Republican plan doesn't count as the one time Obama tried to be bi-partisan.

Your idea of winning is calling people dumbasses and cocksuckers? Usually that's a sign of losing, unless you are in the Andrew bubble.

You must have been great on the debate team before you dropped out of high school. :)

Bah, nevermind. It's over. Obama is simply incapable of being bi-partisan and accomplishing anything that way. Barring another major security failure providing him the ability to ride the coattails of patriotism where both parties jump onto the stupid train following a terrorist attack he'll astonishingly and remarkably end up in the conversation of worst president ever right alongside Dubya. I could keep wasting words trying to convince you (and I would enjoy it!), but I just convinced myself. He's done.

This was ironically timely and humorous
"Just yesterday, we were reminded of the unwavering support for the Medicare prescription drug program, which nine out of 10 seniors favor according to new survey data released by the Healthcare Leadership Council. The survey also found that more than six in 10 wouldn’t be able to fill all prescriptions without the program, a telling sign that seniors rely on it. For policymakers focused on fiscal responsibility, the CBO estimates that Part D will cost $348 billion less between 2004 and 2013 than what was initially projected."

Read this and shut up.


Joe:" bending the overall cost curve of the healthcare "
Made me chuckle. I haven't seen anyone use that phrase without being sarcastic in months.

This is, in some ways, exactly backwards.

If there is a fight about the funding levels of a program that is now infused with polarized political energy, it is extremely easy to compromise - simply haggle your way to a number between the two negotiation positions.

But once a conflict or issue becomes the focus of a tremendous amount of heat and light and becomes a referendum for power, prestige, or ownership of an ideal, then it can become nearly impossible to resolve equitably.


If the issues between Israel and Palestine (not to mention its neighbors) were resolvable through material concessions then it would have already been resolved.

If you locked left- and right-wing policy experts in a room to propose a joint list of PPACA reforms they could do so in a jif; yet, the act has become a referendum on the very nature of American society so we are about to blow up the government and/or global financial markets over it.

Medieval Christian theological debates were notoriously unsusceptible to compromise measures, and often lead to warfare and persecutions in which the "heretical" side (Arians, Monophysites, Iconoclasts) were all but wiped out.

In the case of Summers, there was no obvious compromise available - either nominate Summers and the narrative is "left loses" or nominate anyone but Summers and "left wins."

Why don't you have a Nobel Prize already?

I ask myself that every day.

Let's give him a Peace Prize, since they don't cost anything.

Your key assumption is that the important end result is that differences are "resolved equitably." But, as this post is very much in the Robin Hanson "politics is not about policy" mode, that assumption doesn't have to hold. Instead, we can think that what's important is that everyone gets to feel good about coming away with something--kind of like spending $75 at the amusement park and leaving with a stuffed animal worth $10. I agree with Tyler: given the intransigence of far-partisans right now, finding suitable stuffed animals to give out is probably the path forward rather than splitting the difference equitably.

Right; but polarized, symbolic debates can be those in which compensating losers is the most difficult. What "stuffed animal" can make anyone "feel good" by permanently ceding the holiest city on Earth? Or acceding to health care "socialism?" If the debate is "yeah, we'll accept your overall defense cuts as long as we get to keep funding for our pet program" that stuffed animal works fine. But not everything is compensable in that way.

I'm not sure I agree with your distinction between symbolism and substance. Seems like Israel-Palestine stuff is so hard because there are deep, genuine commitments that are substantively irreconcilable. I agree, little side payments or symbolic gestures don't go far there. The issues are so important to people because of complex webs of symbolic ideals, sure, but in the end they cash out into uncompromising substantive demands. (And that leads to a situation in which the prospects for enduring compromise really are just horribly depressing.)

At least arguably, the debate over Obamacare is not like that; instead the current clash is about words and labels as much as substance. "Repeal" and "stop socialism" have the sound of big substantive demands, but in practice they're pretty hollow slogans. Because the R commitments are largely rhetorical, rhetorical victories of some kind may suffice--maybe even just the chance to make the other guy accept the preferred rhetorical framing, the better to construct a "gotcha" story in the future.

I also think that lots of the most extreme pronouncements have to be taken with shakers full of salt, as they are moves in a complicated game of posturing and negotiation.

Only two Tylers in my life: Tyler Durden and Tyler Cowan

The Bawbawian.

Cowen. Damnit

"Michael Bloomberg’s care and feeding of the super-rich at the expense of the rest of the city"

This is patently false.

Well, he certainly has defended the systematic assault on young black males known as stop and frisk. One could argue that he made the white elites feel comfortable with these polices. Maybe the better way to phrase it is "care and feeding of the super-white."

Symbolic victories can matter a lot if your side controls whether something is remembered or not.

"....to continue catering to Wall Street, for better or worse"

God help us all.

I'm surprised an economist would write "After all, share prices did rise on the Summers withdrawal".

Really, one annoucement drove share prices up? We can come up with causality that simply? Journalists do this all the time as if there's no complexity in the system but I'd assume an "expert" would be cautious as to not attribute rises and falls to an individual event, especially one that he claims will have no impact on the market anyway.

Talk about cognitive dissonance...

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