Magnus Imperium: Clash of the Titans
A Cynic's State of the Union
The political tension in America has only intensified as of late, with ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ becoming ever more hostile and vitriolic toward one another. While that is of course awful, it’s also grimly amusing given that neither party would be recognizable by the values those monikers imply to a novice observer.
No — we have changed the game in America. There are still two parties, but the structure of today’s political landscape requires that they be macabre oligarchical factions masquerading as representatives of the populace, for we have over the years built ourselves a construct which requires competing with dollars. There’s a kind of sad logic to this: we have long been a nation that worships at the altar of money and economics, and so perhaps it was inevitable that we wander our way toward a political system that mirrors these values.
The situation might be expressed most simply as follows:
We have two parties who want to win.
Winning requires significant capital.
Wealth is increasingly concentrated.
—— therefore ——
Winning increasingly requires catering to the interests of the wealthy.
It is increasingly only the wealthy who have representation.
So if we accept this logic, then we are left to ask about the character of the two modern parties. Who are they, and how do they think about their constituency?
Faction_1 is the party of the ultra-rich; a class of people who have no practical limitations on their access to capital. The founders of this faction were the likes of the Koch Brothers and families that trace their lines back to the robber barons of old. But as of late, a new breed of robber baron has arrived on the scene in the form of the technologist. These hyper-rich now count amongst their number the likes of Thiel, Musk, Zuckerberg, and Andreessen, and the party has become a sort of fusion of old-guard industrialists and modern technocrats.
These are… well, nerds. They grew up in the 80s and 90s in an era where intelligence was all too often something one was bullied for, and then software hit the scene and the chip on their shoulder turned them into giants. In their midst gestates a new breed of ideas; longtermism and effective altruism and visions of a world sculpted by their superior ideas. People who are bullied as children experience something terrible: a loss of agency. And like all those who are victims of violence, they grow up seeking the cathartic release of inflicting the same damage on others.
“Why should the smart not rule?” they wonder aloud on podcasts as the Siren’s song of the tyrant plays in their heads, “wouldn’t it be ideal to have a society run by the smartest amongst us?” And hearing these musings, the old money industrialists saw that the new arrivals could be an ally, for they are fundamentally aligned on what matters to both: the desire to rule.
To whip the vote of the populace at large, they sell ideologically-aligned caricatures like the ‘sovereign individual’ — the mythical Hank Rearden-esque hero who cannot possibly ever be bullied because they are so personally free; a sort of digital freedom fighter equipped with the new toolkit of cryptocurrencies and truth oracles and trappings that will allow them to thrive without ever needing anything at all from society. These cartoons are a perfect fusion of the Randian libertarianism of the faction founders and the cyberpunk nerd fantasies of the new entrants.
The second faction defines its identity in opposition to the first, yet it is an opposition that is as ironic as it is feckless. These are the actors, the tech workers, the high-earning and highly-educated members of our society that are each pulling down annual compensation a full order of magnitude above the median household income in America.
Because they work for these heady sums, they think of themselves as ‘workers’ and the Faction_2 politicians lean into this bias, whispering sweet nothings about how they’re all allied to the cause of labor in order to secure the donation dollars. But of course neither these highly paid workers nor the politicians have any strong incentive to change the status quo since it’s more or less working for them. That unavoidable truth eats at them, and assuaging the resulting guilt is the source of many of Faction_2’s policy stances — quixotic and self-oppositional attempts to reduce the pain caused by the status quo without overly changing things too much.
It is deeply inaccurate to critique the media as being ‘left-leaning’ for there is no longer any left or right, but like many persistent myths there is a kernel of truth embedded in this observation. Those who work in media are party members of the second faction: high earners who find the overall situation vaguely distressing, but also in a way that’s kind of working for them. So they wring their hands alongside the Faction_2 politicians and we group them together and accuse them of a bias that, while not at all left, is still accurate from a set theory lens.
Here we have a group of people who ‘doth protest’ but also never ‘too much.’ Because these protestations are never all that motivated, the faction as a whole presents to the world as complainers or pedantic theorists or academics, locked in their ivory towers, but the truth is somewhat more sinister — this faction, too, has no real vested interest in seeing things change.
Each election cycle this group competes for votes by trying to gin up feelings of injustice and outrage at the status quo, relying on that to drive people to the polls. They promise a better quality of life and a focus on rights but of course never really anything that would net out to a bigger slice of the pie. No, the pie is still for those at the top. But perhaps we could have more bread available for everyone or something like that. Seems practical. Seems unobjectionable.
This is where we find ourselves: with two parties, each of which represent a tiny fraction of the country. The median American has no representation. Do you wonder why SBF is getting the kid gloves? Why, it’s obvious: he is offensive to neither of these factions, and useful to both. What party has the political will (e.g. mandate from their core constituency) to prosecute him?
Historically, this sort of thing has not ended all that well so it might be a good idea to figure out how we’re going to sort this. Casting blame on individual politicians for playing the game this way won’t do the trick — what are they going to do, raise less money and simply lose? No, here we must hate the game not the player.
People will, in aggregate, follow the incentives laid in front of them.
Different outcomes will require different incentives.