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The Jehoshua Novels


The Open Left

Matt Stoller, Chris Bowers and Mike Lux have formed a new blog, called “The Open Left”. Matt’s got up a good post on what it means to be part of the “open left”; a post which also discusses the other major blocks on the left, when they were formed, and how they operate. Here’s a little on what the open left is:

Politics today works much differently than it did only ten years ago. In 1997, the politics of siloed special interests reigned supremeMoveon, the first Open Left group, does not have the same relationship with its members that Common Cause does, or that the United Autoworkers does. The UAW is central to the economic welfare of its members, and Common Cause has a Federated mass membership structure dependent on regular direct mail fundraising. Moveon’s credibility, by contrast, comes from the willingness of 3 million people to open and read their email, and to sometimes take actions based on the recommendation of Moveon’s leadership. This makes Moveon much more responsive to their members, much lower cost and much more flexible, but also less of a clear and direct presence in their members’ lives.

This isn’t just true of Moveon, of course. Blogs, Drinking Liberally, Step it Up, Freepress – in fact all mass political organizations built in the last ten years share these characteristics. Political power is more and more situated in far-flung networks that can be activated and deactivated quickly, and the new millennial generation that will be the political backbone for the new progressive America likes it this way.

At OpenLeft.com, we are going to explore these new dynamics. We don’t believe the internet changes everything, or that older institutions are irrelevant. Far from it. We think that any institution can succeed in building the new America we see unfolding in sketches on the internet. We see the internet and the Open Left as a sort of operating system for a new political system, where groups can plug in and form coalitions more easily and effective on the left, and we see a strong set of dynamics pulling us into this new coalition-focused direction. We hope to host many of these groups, serving as a forum for strategic discussion of goals and tactics.

Matt was one of the first people I ever blogged with, over at the late Blogging of the President. I’ve watched his evolution as a thinker – as he’s carefully learned the linaments of political power and has traced how the various power centers on both the right and left came to power; in what ways they succeeded and in what ways they’ve failed. He’s one of the smartest people around when it comes to undertanding what power is and how to use it – and unlike many people who think a lot on power, he’s also spent a lot of time thinking about when and how it’s moral to use power. It’s been a fascinating journey to follow and it’s one I intend to keep watching closely. Agonist readers could do a lot worse than to do the same.

Chris Bowers, of course, is the numbers guy. If you want electoral politics done wonk-style, he’s your man. And Mike’s an insider who also understand the blogs. I haven’t read much of his stuff, but I’d be surprised if I don’t learn a lot from him.

15 comments to The Open Left

  • dasht

    The internet and modern IT generally have left a particular pattern of systemic problems in their wake: distortive optimization.

    By “distortive optimization” I mean this: IT is applied, first and very aggressively, to wherever it can, at the moment, be most easily applied. Thus, in a complex social or economic system, IT optimizations are perpetually being concentrated on just one part of the system — one node in the network. Non-linear gains in efficiency at one node change that’s node’s demands on its neighbors in the network — they need to become more efficient as well. But if no IT (nor any substitute) is on hand to help those neighbors optimize to keep pace, the shape of the network changes as nodes seek out new neighbors.

    That might otherwise be just “disruptive economics” at work: that’s how the system as a whole improves, right? Competition is good and if some nodes become very efficient well, then, Modern Macro Econ. 101 tells us to shrug and say “a rising tide lifts all boats,” right? No, the new efficiences become distorting because they operate too quickly for markets to absorb the new information rationally. The nodes being optimized are quickly left with no choice but to keep optimizing or else they’ll loose to their optimizing competitors. Yet, to satisfy the optimized demands of those nodes, we have to toss overboard strategic assets found in the unoptimized neighbor nodes.

    Walmart and Amazon are cases in point. Both are retailers. Both are retailers whose dominant characteristic has been intensive and skillfull application of IT and the Internet to optimize their efficiencies. Both, aggressively making the IT optimizations that were easiest at the time, radically reshaped demand in adjacent markets — both helping to collapse (short term, for no good reason) demand for retail commercial property and (Walmart especially) finding its adjacent efficiencies by giving a huge boost to third-world, polluting, labor-abusive, energy-irrational manufacturing.

    There was (and, I guess remains) a lot of enthusiasm about both companies’ ability to demand and receive JIT supply chains, to accurately measure shifts in demand at a fine scale and, especially in the case of Amazon, to partition the market of buyer’s into unprecedently accurate, cheap-to-access-and-address demographic groups. Yet, on balance, perhaps the sacrifices of living urban retail markets and domestic manufacturing should make us wonder if there’s actually been a net gain of value to the economy here.

    The open left, whose thought leaders very much turn to Amazon for a model, is indeed optimizing the heck out of accurately partitioning, into demographic groups, “activatable” populations — the “long tail” of political *business*. Populism and pandering have never been so efficient before — we may even be seeing a Moore’s law kind of growth in their effectiveness (pun perhaps intended with the name “Moore”).

    The technological underpinnings of all of this open marketing left are very popular with investors these days and even the hobbiest kids who write free software are often spotted cutting their teeth by making amateur implementations of the latest breakthroughs. We’re building out ever-more-efficient “megaphones”.

    Yet, all of those improvements in retailing political ideas do nothing to improve the quality or rate of the invention of those ideas and, indeed, when one traces back the politics of the open left blogs one seems most often to find it coming from the same old cliques of elites it ever has. And, like Amazon, retail demand in political ideas is distorted as well as more and more people become more deeply entrenched in the erroneous view that meaningful political improvements are mainly something that comes about from people spending some time in a dark room, in front of a glowing screen, in a bathrobe, venting through their keyboard and every so often taking out a credit card or forwarding an email to their senator.

    There may be a “new America” being built by the activities of the open left but I’m not sure how enthusiastic we should be about it. Especially when it starts celebrating itself in pretty much the same terms by which Madison Avenue firms recommend themselves.

    -t

  • GordonMcMillan

    I’m impressed, though, that you would write so many words to try to convince people they’re being led down the milk path by a couple of money hungry elitists. That foray into distortive optimization was quite something, even if it didn’t go anywhere. The “bathrobe” thing was jarring in its incompleteness, though. Either bring in the fritos and ding-dongs, or leave it out completely.

    But seriously, my compliments. You said exactly what NRO would say, but far more creatively.

  • Bolo

    and even the hobbiest kids who write free software are often spotted cutting their teeth by making amateur implementations of the latest breakthroughs.

    Where else would they cut their teeth? You can’t just pick up a violin and produce good music that no one has ever played before. You have to start with something just to learn.

    Edit: Oh, and the people at Open Left actually have a fairly involved post addressing your concerns about node efficienices and distortion of the network…

  • dasht

    and even the hobbiest kids who write free software are often spotted cutting their teeth by making amateur implementations of the latest breakthroughs.

    Where else would they cut their teeth? You can’t just pick up a violin and produce good music that no one has ever played before. You have to start with something just to learn.

    Where else would they cut their teeth? Hacking technologies in design spaces aimed at empowering individuals rather than gathering long-tail populations. They could be writing programs for their local networks, thinking of the audience as being those people who physically surround them rather than as being some remote, globally disbursed demographic. The emphasis could be much more on programs that people pass along saying “Hey, we use this over here, you might want to try it over there” and much less on programs that people announce saying “Hey, everybody c’mon over here to http://mydomain.com“.

    The big kids at one of the nearest advanced CS research centers around here is hacking up local networks for various innovative forms of environmental monitoring (e.g., what if we put CO and other chemical monitors on the cell phone’s of a bunch of people?) [Intel research center in Berkeley]. Advance that line of thinking a few years and you have the potential for a very vibrant, very regionally relevant kind of IT — maybe City Council gets that data, maybe local businesses do, etc. Kids, then, will be better off practicing by trying to improve *that* build-out, not trying to prove that they, too, are qualified to implement MySpace or Wikipedia.

    -t

  • dasht

    NRO?

    I thought it was a bit too derivitive of Nicholas Carr although I did add the innovation of applying the analysis to politics rather than (nominally) apolitical information aggregation projects (e.g., Google or Wikipedia).

    Sorry you got lost at a few points. It is brisk, dense, and presumptive of the reader’s background. There are unfamiliar and almost jargony usages there (such as the intransitive “incite”) that can make it hard to track.

    Perhaps to clarify: the connection between distortive optimization in commerce to the open left in politics relies on recognize that in both commerce and politics we have manifest, trade-based (in the broad but still tangible sense), networks and “pipelines” of production. Major party platforms, for example, are the end product of a series of applications of labor to materials: there are meetings, email exchanges, polls, data mining, etc. Similarly, political activities like fundraising campaigns or letter-writing campaigns. Those things are businesses — it’s ordinary production — it’s a bunch of nodes with inputs and outputs and a theoretical MBA at each node managing the assets of that node to match inputs and outputs. You get your toothpaste through the same kind of process. And while talking about process in that way is very abstract, it also happens to be exactly the way that IT talks about what it does — IT goes in and optimizes nodes in that abstract graph. So, when IT has a huge impact in the political graph, it is just vanity that leads people to think “ah, we are getting closer to political Truth” — the only objective is the political business models are changing, in this case to gain a greater emphasis on the recent theory of long-tail marketing.

    Don’t worry, you’ll get and embrace it eventually. It’s a point of view that does what you are, I think, aspiring to do — only much more efficiently.

    -t

  • Mark

    And, like Amazon, retail demand in political ideas is distorted as well as more and more people become more deeply entrenched in the erroneous view that meaningful political improvements are mainly something that comes about from people spending some time in a dark room, in front of a glowing screen, in a bathrobe, venting through their keyboard and every so often taking out a credit card or forwarding an email to their senator.

    And thanks for using the “bathrobe”, pajamas is getting really hackneyed. Either way, the image is most often used, in my exerience, as code in the context of dismissing bloggers’ points of view on account of the fact that they generally do not get paid in any traditional sense for their work product. An elitist viewpoint, if there ever was one, no? Regardless, if we are actually sending e-mail and political donations to our existing and potential political representatives via the internet as opposed to some other medium, how is that bad? Political activity whether via the internet or otherwise has to be better than none and if the internet has opened a new and vigorous channel for that activity, bravo for it!


    “I despise idealogues masquerading as objective journalists.” – Bill O’Reilly, March 30, 2007

  • Mark

    In taking those actions you have intentions and those actions have effects but presumbably you are frustrated to the extent intentions and effects misalign, right? The answer to your question is in that direction.

    Wrong. In the 2006 congressional election I knew my local NJ dem guy was a shoo-in so I adopted a candidate in the district I grew up in, NY-20. I sent money (via internet) and made phone calls (numbers suppiled via internet) and my candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand, won in a district where republicans outnumber democrats 3/2. I like to think my little bit helped. No misalignment there. As to your comment on fascism, I am baffled.


    “I despise idealogues masquerading as objective journalists.” – Bill O’Reilly, March 30, 2007

  • dasht

    I hope that your political intentions are beyond
    simply having a particular person in office and
    much more in the direction of progressive change
    in our economic, legal, and societal arrangements.

    So, you enjoyed a success in getting your candidate
    elected but the proof is in the pudding of what he
    does, right?

    I think the problems most progressives fret about
    are things that require deep changes in the degrees
    of freedom that elected politicians enjoy, as well
    as deep changes in our economic arrangements.
    Progressive goals will be frustrated as long as those
    points aren’t addressed and those points can’t be
    addressed simply by electing candidate A over candidate
    B or by weakly biasing the selection of bills put before
    congress, etc.

    -t

  • Mark

    The issue, in my mind, is whether the internet is a viable and effective tool for political change. The answer seems to be, obviously, “yes”. BTW, Kirsten is a she.

  • dasht

    Kirsten is a she.

    She is also a “he” depending on linguistic context. One of the things I liked about some part of the Star Trek franchise was when they started having subordinates address superior female-sex officers as “sir”. You know, as if pronouns were just syntactically gendered….

    The issue, in my mind, is whether the internet is a viable and effective tool for political change.

    All is change. It would be surprising if the internet were an exception.

    -t

  • GordonMcMillan

    You didn’t work Soros into this blather. Though maybe that was coded into your “political Truth”.

    Point stands. Your message is that this is all money hungry elites suckering bathrobe clad minions into pounding out ideologies crafted from above. Despite your protestations, nothing else you said adds to that conclusion, however clever it might be.

  • GordonMcMillan

    he posts a long a highly distracting comment (see Ian’s health care posts for examples). It is meant to derail the discussion. In Ian’s health care post, he commented with a long list of questions. Here he leads with a completely adhoc and fabulous diversion where he tries to cast politics as a branch of ecomonics.

    Look for the loaded words. “Marketing”, “amatuer”, “megaphones”, “cliques”, “elites”, “bathrobes”. That’s where his message is. It’s really pretty elementary communications / rhetoric.

  • Ian Welsh

    I know Matt, and I know Chris. I don’t know Mike Lux except for the occasionally bit of e-mail. Matt went to Harvard, he’s not some hoi polloi, but both Chris and Matt are poor and driven. Neither of them have been corrupted yet, neither of them has been inside enough, long enough, to have become bubblized. Both of them are sincere – they mean what they say. How things will work out remains to be seen, but at this point in thier lives they are, in my opinion, the real deal.

    Cynicism can be useful, but cynicism and those who sell it are also deadly to the health of societies and to the people who want to make societies better. Too much cynicism leads to not trying to fix things, and thus is a self-fulfilling policy if writ large. Sometimes ya gotta believe, and in my opinion, you could do a hell of a lot worse than to believe in Matt and Chris.

  • Jeff Wegerson

    PrairieStateBlue

    I’m glad the topic is important to him as I did get sucked into his thoughts and they seemed to make sense so for him not to be taking it seriously would have been disheartening to me after the effort I put in to buying into them. I help run a local IT/Internet node. But then in his reply I see that as an amateur it is all right to be engaged in distorting nodism at the local level where there are real live bodies close enough at hand to temper the distortions.

  • dasht

    But then in his reply I see that as an amateur it is all right to be engaged in distorting nodism at the local level where there are real live bodies close enough at hand to temper the distortions.

    There’s nothing wrong with technological progress — we want as much as we can get, in some sense. But: to the extent the engineers behind that process are thinking holistically, they do a better job. Being physically near and face-to-face engaged with trading partners and adjacent markets is a good way to maintain that holistic view (e.g., would you put the small shop next door out of business just because you can or just because you don’t feel like taking steps to avoid doing so? It really depends, doesn’t it, on the structure of your local community.)

    The Walmart and Amazon trap has a proximate cause: capital markets, especially venture capital.

    Venture capital funds, by their structure (a small number of partners managing a large pot of high-risk money), can only make investments at a quite course grain — so the expected payout has to be very high and fast. These investors are constantly chasing the largest apparent opportunities to create the most massive distortions because its the only way they can see to make money on the deals. It’s like a game to see who can light the biggest fire in the woods. They are biased to hear only short-term upsides of proposed build-outs (e.g., look at the concentration of effort consumer-oriented biotech) because that’s where the investment horizon ends.

    The only smaller sources of investment capital are friends and family and small business loans. That’s a huge gap in the scale of funds available and in the openness of the markets (VC capital being, in spite of the rumors, a very open and competitive market — small business capital being lots of little, narrow, highly constrained markets). That “in between space” gets neglected, a lot.

    -t

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