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Everything is politics (§)
- Table of contents
- Who you talk to
- What you buy
- What you eat
- Travel and transit
- Technological progress
Note: when I first sat down to write this, I was expecting it to come out a little more structured and coherent. Instead it's more of a wild stream of consciousness and references. Sorry. If I had more time I'd have written a shorter something or other.
I used to tell people that I'm not interested in politics, or that I don't like politics. At the time, I thought of "politics" as elections, presidents, congress, bills, and laws, and I get bored hearing or talking about those things. That part is written in present tense because they still bore me, but the first part was past tense because I've since changed my understanding of what politics even is.
Or at least, it's everything that involves more than one person. Which is almost everything. Even if you live off the grid, totally isolated and self-sufficient, unless you're Tarzan or Nell and have never encountered another human being, you presumably left society to get there, and that decision was political.
Politics is how people interact with each other. Politics is deciding who deserves what, who gets what, and how and when and why they get it. Politics is making your decisions based on how you think other people might react. Politics is game theory. Do you follow someone's orders because they're in charge, or do you do what you believe is right? Do you anticipate that they will praise and congratulate you? How much does their opinion of you matter? Do you rely on resources they provide, do you need to keep them happy so they'll vote for you again next quarter, can you live without them? Politics is deciding how much to rely on others in the first place. Will they hate you, or ban you, or fire you, or torture and kill you? Do you have enough confidence in your decisions that you will preach to others and become a leader, or will you keep them to yourself and hope for the best?
Who you talk to (§)
Who you talk to is politics. Time is one of your most valuable assets, and who you spend it with is a big deal. It's good exercise to examine the relationships in your life and ask yourself what it is you get from them. There is always an answer. There are people you spend time with because they give you happiness and laughter, or physical intimacy. There are people you spend time with because you want to unlock future opportunities like jobs or travel or fame or fortune.
There are others you spend time with because you have a sense of obligation to do so, or a feeling of guilt if you don't. Maybe some family members come to mind. What you're "getting" in this case is a relief from that guilt. You can cut them out of your life if you really want to, but you'll have to power through difficult emotions to get there. Then again, maybe there's nothing wrong with having obligations sometimes. Maybe you have an abusive spouse or partner, whom you should escape from but whom you rely on for food and shelter. Maybe you fear the retaliation that will come if you try to leave them.
People Make Games did a video on a tabletop game called Tank Tactics that demonstrates the politics of interpersonal relationships very well. We already know that politics is big, but politics is also small. The situations that arise from a simple tabletop game with office coworkers are not unlike those that arise between real nations with real commerce and real nukes. PMG describes how some coworkers who used to be friends had stopped talking to each other. We love to scorn the race of people known as politicians, but every interpersonal conflict is going to see someone try to take charge. It's in our nature and it only makes sense to give it a name.
Morals are politics. Few things are inherently good or bad. It is a matter of interpersonal cooperation that theft, murder, and rape are illegal. To punish a stranger who hurt another stranger is straightforwardly logical because it deters others from hurting ourselves. But there are more abstract freedoms and crimes like dissent — illegal in some places because the people in charge are insecure and tyrannical — and pornography — illegal in some places because people like to make sure the world follows their vision of what's clean and correct. You might think it's silly for me to point out examples of laws and crimes and say "see, that's politics", but of course the morals came first and the laws came second. Then there are laws surrounding tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, all caught in a dizzying mix of moral grandstanding, legitimate health concerns, and the fairness of health insurance payouts.
What you buy (§)
What you buy is politics. Products made locally, instead of in China, cost more. Products made without slave labor and animal cruelty cost more. Businesses that manage customer service domestically instead of outsourcing to India cost more. Televisions, computers, and cell phones that don't spy on you cost more. Electronics with removable batteries cost more, at least up front. Boots that last cost more. Every dollar you spend is a statement of your priorities and helps that company grow.
"Voting with your wallet" is a very tough thing that I'd like to write more about. A lot of it comes down to information imbalance and transparency since supply chains are so long and complicated now. It's hard to know where anything is made, and it's hard to know how good something will be before you buy it (the world needs more Project Farms!).
These days, big-budget AAA video games have a reputation for being broken, buggy messes on release day because the studios know that customers will complain but not actually do anything about it. I would love to see the look on a project manager's face if they woke up on release day and saw a big, fat, $0.00 on their sales sheets because the customers finally wised up. If only.
What you eat (§)
What you eat is politics. Folding Ideas has covered this in two great videos: Cooking Food on the Internet and Jamie Oliver's War on Nuggets. The traditional foods of many cultures are the foods that got them through times of poverty . They represent togetherness not just in the geographical sense of eating what's nearby, but in a historical sense, a shared background and understanding. Even two mortal enemies can realize they have something in common when they sit down to eat the same dish. But in the same geographical region and culture, socioeconomic striations can be revealed through food. It is not just a matter of rich people having access to more expensive ingredients like caviar and truffles, it is an active avoidance or even a loathing for the foods associated with the non-rich that gives it away. Jamie Oliver's vendetta against chicken nuggets doesn't make me think he has fine culinary taste, it makes me think he's out of touch.
In America, many agricultural products are subsidized by the government. That is, the customer only pays a fraction of what the food really costs, and the government covers the rest so the farmer can break even. You will not be surprised to learn that some crops earn higher subsidies than others, making them cheaper for the consumer and ultimately influencing the diet of the entire nation.
Tradition is politics. Let's get the obvious out of the way and acknowledge that when countries undergo a major political event, it often becomes a holiday later. See America's Independence Day, France's Bastille Day, Britain's Guy Fawkes Day. But every other kind of tradition is still politics by virtue of gathering people around shared or not-so-shared values. I like what Folding Ideas says here too, so I won't even paraphrase: "Ritual is an outward signifier of stability", "they are things to look forward to, things to look back on", "the dueling desires of the human psyche: the need to be different, the need to be independent, but also welcome and accepted".
Traditions can be the source of controversy when people have conflicting opinions about what's valuable and worthy of preservation. See for example the Netherlands's blackface-wearing Zwarte Piet. Traditions are valuable to us because they keep historical events and ideas alive, but there comes a time when people decide that the value of upholding a tradition is not worth the tension it creates with modern sensibilities. The same can be said about statues and monuments representing immoral figures, propaganda art, and art by immoral people. Even if I personally am not offended by a certain thing, I can recognize when other people are, and make decisions about what I want to share and perpetuate. That's politics. And it's difficult to balance the removal of offensive material — because there's no need to lord statues of murderers over passers-by every day — with the preservation of history and knowledge — because forgetting those murders happened is a tragedy of its own.
Traditions evolve and are replaced as people mingle and migrate. If it's a tradition you don't like, you call this progress; if it's a tradition you do like, you call it erosion. Both Japan and North Korea have isolationism in their history books (and, uh, present day book) at least in part because the leaders got sick of foreign cultures interfering with their own. I was interested to learn that Korea took deliberate steps to remove Japanese loanwords from their vocabulary after the Japanese occupation ended. On the other hand, the number of English loanwords into pretty much every other language is actively growing. Mainland China does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, due in part to the fact that Taiwan preserved many artifacts and cultural elements that the CCP tried to destroy during the Cultural Revolution. It might be fair to say that Taiwan represents what China would have been, and the CCP hates having that reminder.
My family has some friends who own an alpaca farm. Some of their clientele are rich celebrities, who pay for the alpaca but leave it on the farm to be taken care of. Why would someone buy an alpaca in name only? Because the government allows the buyer to write that money off on their taxes. This incentivizes the flow of cash into the agricultural sector and helps preserve the tradition of raising a more diverse set of animals which otherwise might be displaced by pigs and cows. Tradition is political in the sense that it takes active, ongoing effort to maintain, and we as a culture decide how to carry that cost.
Travel and transit (§)
Travel and transit is politics. Whether you choose to walk, bike, ride, or drive is a decision soaked in your local politics. The kinds of infrastructure that exist, and to what extent they are developed, depend on the priorities of who's in charge. Since the 1950s, the U.S. federal government has provided subsidies of up to 90%  for the development of automobile freeways, allowing states to launch enormous road-paving projects for a tenth of the true price. San Francisco fought and won against a freeway development plan to protect their local identity and scenery. Paris, France is working to quickly beef up their bicycling network and get cars off the road. Countries tax the sale of gasoline in order to help pay for road infrastructure, which is about to become a problem as we switch to electric cars which use the road but not the gas. Even in a car-dependent area, you can decide to walk or bike as a way of making a statement of your values to your neighbors, but this statement will be costly in terms of your time and potentially your safety. Some of you will be willing to pay those costs, others will not. It is a catch-22 because cities usually won't develop alternative transit infrastructure if there is no demand, but there is no demand because the current state of non-car transit is bad. If you build it...? Lobbying is also a big issue with regards to the paradoxical state of car dependence.
Taxi medallions are government-regulated licenses for operating taxi cars. You can view them as a sign of authenticity and trustworthiness for the passenger, giving them confidence that they won't be axe-murdered by the driver; or as a form of artificial scarcity propping up a market segment that might collapse if exposed to the realities of supply and demand. It's probably both, although I've heard lots of stories about vile taxi drivers so maybe it's just the one.
Technological progress (§)
Technological progress is politics. A lot of horses lost their jobs when the automobile was invented. I'm sure they had foals to feed. Upheaving the status quo and affecting peoples' current livelihoods in exchange for maybe improving the future is a politically hot move. When a robot takes a factory assembly line worker's place, should we celebrate because they've been liberated from a repetitive, boring, dangerous, or mindless job that squanders their potential as a human being; or fear because they might now go homeless? What if we, as customers and consumers, had voted with our wallets from the very beginning and never allowed a factory that puts people in assembly lines to become successful in the first place ?
The human mind is weird when it comes to progress. We have strong attractions to the first form of something that we encountered, even though our initial encounter was totally arbitrary . If you gather up all the people who are against robotic automation of factory work, you'll find that very, very few of them are actually interested in going backwards in areas that have already been automated. There are no movements to reinstate employment of switchboard operators. To be honest, even my example of the assembly line is out of date since automation there is now so mainstream. Farm automation is a growing territory thanks to improvements in computer vision and automatic crop / weed differentiation.
Politicians love to run campaigns based on the idea of creating more jobs. If the notion of 'having more jobs' is noble in and of itself, we should be dismantling everything and turning them into jobs. The only reason this all matters so much is because the increased profits of automation are centralized amongst a few, and the pain and fear of being replaced are spread across the many. In a utopian society, these advancements would be uncontroversially celebrated as all of humanity would benefit from the awesome inventions we as a species can come up with.
Employment is politics. The employer wants to pay as little as possible, the employee wants to earn as much as possible. The employer gains an advantage when the employees do not know each others' salaries and will encourage a culture that is ashamed of talking about income. The power dynamics of employment are similar to large-scale economies: both parties rely on each other for something, but when the relationship is severed one party will fare better than the other, and they both know that. People love to hate their bosses; USA loves to hate China; people don't leave their bosses because they need the paycheck; USA doesn't leave China because we need the manufacturing. Employers can defend themselves from uppity employees by spreading out responsibilities and having new applicants on hand. Employees can defend themselves from uppity employers by keeping feelers out for new opportunities. It is a battle for leverage, for negotiating power. More primitively, employment is a sale of your time for the employer's money, but in every transaction there is the chance that one party will find a better deal elsewhere.
Most people don't like to change jobs very often, since that comes with its own set of headaches (paperwork, training, rebuilding personal rapport with coworkers, the desire to feel like you belong in just one place), but if your employer knows you won't leave them, they'll become more and more dominant in the relationship. Much like an abusive spouse who knows their partner is afraid to leave them, and for all the same reasons: food on table, roof over head.
Investments are politics. It's good to own a home because the value of homes always goes up. It's good to own stocks because on the whole stocks always go up. Anything that threatens the upward trend of housing prices is an existential threat to the owner — it might be the entire basis of their retirement plan and their only means of eating next month. I'm not even moaning about property speculators or prolific landlords — ordinary people rely on the cost of their homes through reverse mortgages. Value comes from scarcity, so it's existentially necessary for the homeowner to block the development of nearby affordable housing. Value comes from beauty, so it's existentially necessary to block power plants, wind farms, high-rises, and other infrastructure. See NIMBYism. Value comes from class and dignity, so it's existentially necessary to block the poor and the homeless and the racial minorities. See gentrification.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, the Fed propped up the stock market by buying bonds and securities with essentially unlimited funds. We expect unlimited growth and return on investment. We rely on the status quo and existentially panic when it doesn't hold up. There is the notion that all young people are liberal and all old people are conservative. We forget that investments are a form of gambling. We normalize this gambling and teach it to our children as the right way to live and to retire. According to the rules we've laid out for ourselves, these gamblers deserve to die of starvation and homelessness. But when push comes to shove, we realize we need to change those rules. Landlords were forbidden by the government from evicting tenants during the heights of covid. Stimulus checks went out to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. But we'll swear up and down we're not damn commies and this federal interference was just temporary. See also social security.
Everything is politics. I've covered all of the major topics that have been on my mind. As I proofread this page I feel that I have spent too much time on the negative kinds of politics and not enough on the positive. After all, if everything is politics, and some things are good, ∴ politics is sometimes good. But so far the words have been flowing easily, and going back to add positive thoughts is like pulling teeth, so, alas.
I want to end this article by condensing a thought that has been diffused throughout each of these sections. When we look at "politics", the global, legal, macroeconomic kind of politics that normally comes to mind at the word politics, we usually feel that it is too big and too separate of a thing to have anything to do with ourselves. There are politicians running my country, but I'm not one of them so I don't deal with politics. There are trade deals and manufacturing contracts and banking agreements, but I'm down here so I don't deal with politics. I can't change the world because the world is big and I am small.
But politics is present in even the smallest of interactions. Global politics is not fundamentally distinct from politics at any other level. It is the collection of every individual's small decisions, which has been growing for as long as humanity has grown. We see international leaders acting like immature school children, and for good reason: we're all actually doing the same thing. Every purchase you make, every idea you support, every employer you work for, all add up to this massive tiny thing we call politics. If you follow what you believe in, and do what you think is right, and encourage everyone you know to do the same, that changes the world by definition.
"I hear a million voices crying what can one man do?"
If you can carry this idea with you throughout your day, and remind yourself that you are thoroughly engaging in true, meaningful politics on an hourly basis all the time, maybe you'll feel a little less overwhelmed when you think about changing the world. You'll be used to it by then.
This article, like the others here, is moreso a compendium of thoughts than a statement of truth. I'm saying that so I can be off the hook for correctness. It's that easy! Maybe you have thoughts similar to mine and I've helped you think about things in a new way. Maybe your thoughts are opposed to mine, but at least now you know what kind of crazies you coexist with.
Boy, now I need to watch more Connections!
 Even if the food's reputation has since improved, e.g. lobster.
 "Until the 1950s, each federal dollar had to be matched by an identical amount of state and local money. The federal share is now 80% for non-Interstate System road projects and 90% for Interstate System projects. Generally, federal money can be spent only on designated federal-aid highways, which make up roughly a quarter of U.S. public roads."
 And don't tell me that it's impossible! It might be impossible while maintaining our current expectations of consumer comforts, but it's not impossible outright.
 I say "was arbitrary" and not "might have been arbitrary" because the deciding factor in all situations is when and where you were born, over which I don't think you had any control.
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