Friday, January 13, 2017

An unseen preference cascade?

This is surprising news to me. From Silicon Valley Takes a Right Turn by Thomas B. Edsall.

His overall point is that Silicon Valley is much more balanced politically than one might guess simply by the moral preening and the virtue signaling that goes on. I have been working out here for a year and have met only a single gun owner and only one self-avowed Trump supporter. My impression from on-the-ground and from various news sources was that Silicon Valley overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton.

Edsall has three counterpoints: 1) Follow the money of the PACs, 2) Follow the money of the employees, and 3) Look at the policy interests of the companies and compare them with the party platforms. One key point that Edsall and others have made is that the wild card is that much of Silicon Valley has more an ethos of libertarianism, distinct from either conservatism or progressivism. In the US at large, most (but not all) libertarians find their closest (but still uncomfortable) fit with Republicans whereas in the Valley they have generally aligned with Democrats. There is also G.K. Chesterton's observation to keep in mind in this land of the absurdly wealthy:
The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
Edsall's point about the interests of the tech company PACs trending towards Republicans is borne out by the numbers:
In 2016, the corporate PACs associated with Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon broke ranks with the traditional allegiance of the broad tech sector to the Democratic Party. All four donated more money to Republican Congressional candidates than they did to their Democratic opponents.

As these technology firms have become corporate behemoths, their concerns over government regulatory policy have intensified — on issues including privacy, taxation, automation and antitrust. These are questions on which they appear to view Republicans as stronger allies than Democrats.

In 2016, the PACs of these four firms gave a total of $3.6 million to House and Senate candidates. Of that, $2.1 million went to Republicans, and $1.5 million went to Democrats. These PACs did not contribute to presidential candidates.
But they are PACs and the dollar numbers are in the very low millions. Indicative but not significantly consequential. It is the employees and where they send their money who are consequential. It looks bad for the Republicans at first glance.
The PACs stand apart from donations by employees in the technology and internet sectors. According to OpenSecrets, these employees gave $42.4 million to Democrats and $24.2 million to Republicans.

In the presidential race, tech employees (as opposed to corporate PACs) overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Workers for internet firms, for example, gave her $6.3 million, and gave $59,622 to Trump. Employees of electronic manufacturing firms donated $12.6 million to Clinton and $534,228 to Trump.
But . . .
In terms of political contributions, Microsoft has led the rightward charge. In 2008, the Microsoft PAC decisively favored Democrats, 60-40, according to data compiled by the indispensable Center for Responsive Politics. By 2012, Republican candidates and committees had taken the lead, 54-46; and by 2016, the Microsoft PAC had become decisively Republican, 65-35.


Microsoft employees’ contributions followed a comparable pattern. In 2008 and 2012, Microsoft workers were solidly pro-Democratic, with 71 percent and 65 percent of their contributions going to party members. By 2016, the company’s work force had shifted gears. Democrats got 47 percent of their donations.

This was not small change. In 2016 Microsoft employees gave a total of $6.47 million.
Microsoft is not some lone exception.
A similar pattern is visible at Facebook.

The firm first became a noticeable player in the world of campaign finance in 2012 when employees and the company PAC together made contributions of $910,000. That year, Facebook employees backed Democrats over Republicans 64-35, while the company’s PAC tilted Republican, 53-46.

By 2016, when total Facebook contributions reached $3.8 million, the Democratic advantage in employee donations shrank to 51-47, while the PAC continued to favor Republicans, 56-44.
The PACs favor Republicans. Employees have been in the Democratic camp but in two of the five biggest firms, they are trending definitively towards Republicans. How long before the others follow?
In addition to tech companies’ concern about government policy on taxation, regulation and antitrust, there are other sources of conflict between tech firms and the Democratic Party. Gregory Ferenstein, a blogger who covers the tech industry, conducted a survey of 116 tech company founders for Fast Company in 2015. Using data from a poll conducted by the firm SurveyMonkey, Ferenstein compared the views of tech founders with those of Democrats, in some cases, and the views of the general public, in others.

Among Ferenstein’s findings: a minority, 29 percent, of tech company founders described labor unions as “good,” compared to 73 percent of Democrats. Asked “is meritocracy naturally unequal?” tech founders overwhelmingly agreed.
Ferenstein reveals a reasonably long list of other policy issues such as inequality and global trade where Silicon Valley leaders are markedly divergent from the Democratic base.

All very interesting and in marked contrast to the easy stereotype of Silicon Valley as a Democratic bastion.

Based on the work of Cass Sunstein and Timur Kuran in regard to Availability Cascades, Glenn Reynolds in 2002 articulated the idea of Preference Cascades:
Everyone seems to be amazed that the flags are still up, six months after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Have Americans suddenly become more patriotic?

Probably not. More likely, they always have been - they just didn't realize that it was okay to show it.

The muting of open patriotism after the Vietnam era may have been a case of what social scientists call "preference falsification": One in which social pressures cause people to express sentiments that differ from those they really feel. As social scientist Timur Kuran noted in his 1995 book Private Truths, Public Lies, there are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, that lead people not to show how they truly feel. People tend to read social signals about what is approved and what is disapproved behavior and, in general, to modify their conduct accordingly. Others then rely on this behavior to draw wrong conclusions about what people think, and allow those conclusions to shape their own actions.

Oh, not always - and there are always rebels (though often social "rebels" are really just conforming to a different standard). But when patriotism began to be treated as uncool, people who wanted to be cool, or at least to seem cool, stopped demonstrating patriotism, even if they felt it.

When this happened, other people were influenced by the example. In what's known as a "preference cascade," the vanishing of flags and other signs of patriotism from the homes, cars and businesses of the style-setters caused a lot of other people to go along with the trend, perhaps without even fully realizing it, a trend that only strengthened with the politicization of flag displays in several 1980s political campaigns.

The result was a situation in which a lot of people's behavior didn't really match their beliefs, but merely their beliefs about what was considered acceptable. Such situations are unstable, since a variety of shocks can cause people to realize the difference and to suddenly feel comfortable about closing the gap.
The idea of preference cascades is related to that of the Overton Window:
The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept. ... According to Overton's description, his window includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.
The most recent election of 2016 has been characterized as the rejection election, the rejection of the establishment by the populace. I suspect there is a degree of truth to that.

I wonder, though, whether it might actually be better characterized as a preference cascade election. The hypothesis would be that the voting population might always have been in opposition to identity politics, to repackaged affirmative action (diversity programs), to attacks on free speech and due process, to accelerating global trade, to accelerating immigration (both legal and illegal), to rising crime, etc. For fear of being attacked as misogynist, xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, etc. they kept quiet and went along to get along.

Or at least they did until a candidate threw open the Overton Window, let the sun shine in and people saw that there were others with similar policy reservations and suddenly what was an imposed but disliked consensus crumbled away in a preference cascade.

Democrats and their affiliated institutions (academia, entertainment, and the mainstream media) were blindsided by the election. Not just the election result but by the fact that it was beyond contestable. This wasn't close.

Since the election, there has been wild speculation, projection, near-hysteria in trying to come to grips with the inexplicable. But I wonder if the polling didn't miss the outcome because of the fact that a preference cascade was under way. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition and nobody was thinking about the Overton Window having been opened or the possibility of a preference cascade. But that seems like a not unreasonable explanation.

On a whole range of issues, the views of the populace might have been suppressed through intimidation but, given the opportunity with an unconventional candidate with dozens of rallies in the tens of thousands of people, they realized that their views were not out of the mainstream and in the privacy of the voting booth gave a message to the establishment that it was unwilling to hear.

Silicon Valley as a bastion of Democrats, given Edsall's numbers, might be in its own preference cascade.

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