Parergon on winning and accountability

(My posts are often unduly long. It may appear that I am simply abandoning myself to the flow of a disjointed collection of neighboring thoughts.  I wish I were, but I’m not; I put real effort into making my writing lean and agile.  Sometimes the disjointedness is a carefully crafted façade, a strategic déshabillée to draw attention away from an idea’s underlying coherence.  Sometimes: which is to say, not never.  Most frequently what you are seeing is just… well, I don’t want to explain or apologize any further.  What seems interminable and flabby to you is often the end result of triage, trimming, condensing, amputation!  Occasionally the bloody limb on the floor of the operating room is sufficiently intact to be rinsed off and… — This is a tangent that was excised from yesterday’s post.  Toy model of accountability: first the leader makes promises, then after winning he keeps them or breaks them.  I started to sketch out ways to extend the toy, but got carried away.  You should read this in the unlikely event that you really enjoyed reading the previous post but felt that it was missing a lengthy elaboration on how winning coalitions suffer from being held accountable.)

In any sort of power-struggle, one of the main determinants of the strength of each side is how each side promises it would use the disputed power, and who flocks to which banner on the strength of those promises.  If you’ve seen The Producers, you know most of what you need to know about accountability: it’s easier to succeed if you promise your supporters more than you can deliver, and you only need to worry about delivering if you succeed.

When a coalition is held together by out-and-fraud, the implosion of the victorious alliance is easy to understand; the leader has $X to distribute, he would need $Y to give each of his followers what he promised that follower, X < Y, and so when each follower tries to seize his promised reward, a total of $(Y-X) of the spoils are claimed by more than one party.  Incompatible claims lead to conflict, people take sides, and someone winds up feeling betrayed.  But not all accountability problems are as simple as overfunding a musical.  For one thing, leaders typically make promises about the quantity of benefits they will generate with the power they hope to obtain.  This means a large, unstable coalition may end up losing faith in their leader not because they think he’s a dishonest or cynical leader who knew he had promised more than he could deliver, but because he’s a bad leader who wasn’t effective enough to generate what he had promised to distribute.  In fact, there is an element of the winner’s curse in coalition-building: if the winners won because they were stronger they were likely stronger because they assembled a bigger coalition, and had a bigger coalition because they made bigger promises, and made bigger promises because they had more extravagant ideas about what their leader could accomplish, and had more extravagant ideas simple because they overestimated.

Followers may have hedged their expectations about what the leader can actually deliver; the leader, in turn, may amplify his promises to bring them in line with the conventional level of exaggeration.  This creates a hazy uncertainty about what can actually be delivered, and a distribution of expectations across multiple possible outcomes; but the bottom line is, the winner is accountable for satisfying his followers’ expectations, and the leader of the losers is not.

Not only can the size of the pie the leader can bake (so to speak) be left uncertain, but the precise size of the slices can be as well.  This imprecision is always implicit in any conflict which culminates in a negotiated surrender.  Because the victorious coalition can’t give away what it had to let the losers keep, plans for the distribution of spoils which are superficially about who gets what are built around assumptions about how big the victory will be.  Promises that are conditional on victory are obviously null and void in case of defeat, but a partial victory is a defeat with respect to concessions made to the loser.  This imprecision is even more explicit in certain aspects of political elections: when a candidate promises to fight unemployment, that is not a binding promise of a job for each person who supports him, but rather a promise that many people will be hired which, in the normal course of events, is likely to include the candidates’ unemployed supporters.  In fact, it is characteristic of political campaigns that candidates rarely promise their voters anything at all.  A candidate might promise to bring manufacturing back to the Rust Belt, hoping that creating this expectation will buy him the support of Rust Belt voters in particular, but in the end his Rust Belt voters compete not only against each other, but against neighbors who voted against him (or didn’t vote at all) to seize whatever economic opportunities open up as a result of new policies.  The dynamics of hidden-ballots are just an extreme illustration of a common coalition-building tactic: instead of directly promising each follower a specific reward after the victory, promise to provide a pool of potential benefits, which the followers then can compete for with limited supervision from the leaders.  This indirect reward scheme has many benefits, but for purposes note that it keeps the followers’ expectations more flexible from the very beginning.  A member of the coalition knows that he might be overestimating his own ability to compete or underestimating his competitors, and that the final outcome of the competition will be affect by all sorts of haphazard pieces of good and bad luck.  If his expectations are disappointed, it may be his fault, it may be no one’s fault — and even if it were the leader’s fault, he has failed to create a sufficiently large pool of benefits, which is a mark of incompetence rather than treachery. 

This is all to say, accountability is not always as simple as members of the winning coalition checking to make sure the actual outcome matches the outcome they were promised.  Winning coalitions will take account of: the genius of the coalition’s strategists; the integrity with which leaders observe their agreements; the moral principles that come into play when honoring and arbitrating tacit agreements; the coherence and accuracy of the coalition’s worldview; the intelligence and energy with which the coalition husbands its resources; and much else besides.  Nonetheless, the greater the extent to which the coalition generally fails to meet its members’ expectations, the more harshly the members will judge the coalition; and this judgment determines how the members interact with the coalition going forward.


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