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Why Do “Our” Elected Officials Do So Many Obviously Stupid Things?

It seems to be widely accepted now that our politicians can’t do much of anything other than signal, perform, and otherwise try to control the narrative, with all those terms being used in a pejorative sense.  But the greatest weakness at all levels in modern political culture is one that I’ve touched on several times in these columns: the modern preference for performative acts and speech in place of actual practical activity, and the tendency to confuse the one with the other.

The purpose of this week’s column is to look at the analytical value of signaling and related concepts, and to think about how the terms came to be used pejoratively to describe the failure to act.

Members of the political in-group must signal their loyalty to the group at all costs. It is more important for them to signal adherence to the group than it is for them to do something useful or say something true. These people recognise each other by their declaratory vocabulary and performative acts. Doing something useful or saying something true can actually harm your career if it makes the members of your political group and your oligarchs in the “civic community” suspect you of disloyalty..

Signaling theory is not new. One particularly annoying current example of signaling is attention to people’s preferred pronouns, (I don’t participate in that absurd ritual.) You see, rituals have a unique power to signal acceptance of a conventional social order. Ritual performance is public acceptance of the conventional order, and this is important because the very existence of a conventional order is contingent on acceptance.

The occurrence or non-occurrence of a signaling reduces ambiguity about acceptance of the conventional order. The public ritual of signaling denotes acceptance, not necessarily internal belief. Certain servile advantages accrue to signaled acceptance because acceptance is easier to achieve and demonstrate than subjective belief.  ― Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.”

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Requiring people to signal acceptance of six impossible things before breakfast is less costly to society than requiring people to actually believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Members of political in-groups watch each other closely for quick, instinctive responses to ensure that conventional values have been internalized. Apparently, our political in-groups require more than just a few pro-forma signals to demonstrate loyalty to the cause.

The government is like any other moral maze. If you want to succeed, you modify yourself to be someone who instinctively plays the political game of success, seeks power, and forms an implicit coalition with others who seek power. You implicitly reward power seekers and those with power, and punish those without power and who do not seek power, without thinking about it. If you didn’t, the others in the game would notice you thinking about it, or worse notice you failing to act on it, and punish you accordingly.

You instinctively know that you must continuously demonstrate your commitment to power seeking, and to rewarding your allies and being with the program, or else you won’t be a reliable person who can be trusted to do what is required. You must avoid motive ambiguity, and make it clear that you are not going to sacrifice considerations of power to improve physical world outcomes or otherwise do the ‘right thing,’ or to assert the true answer to a question simply because it is true.

Ritual adherence to belief systems that strain credulity may be useful for strengthening internal cohesion in relatively unified tribes of people. Kansas City is not now – nor has it ever been – a “relatively unified tribe of people.” I don’t think it can be considered a positive development when a fractured municipality like ours reaches a stage where its elected political leadership and its civic community demand such an extreme level of internal loyalty that they need to distinguish their cliques by how divorced from reality these cliques have become.

In my experience signaling explanations are rarely the only thing going on in a complex situation, but remembering to look for signaling behavior often adds something to an analysis, particularly when humans are acting in groups.  For example:

  1. Why are people doing a thing that appears counterproductive or unreasonably costly?
  2. How do groups maintain internal loyalty?
  3. How do groups maintain external boundaries?
  4. How do groups appear to act together without an explicit plan being put into words?

https://nextdoor.com/p/Qb7TF6jSXwGD?utm_source=share&extras=MzEwOTIwMg%3D%3D

 

A Post on Nextdoor perfectly encapsulates some of what I mentioned above. As you can see this post was an intentional lightning-rod intended to draw out the many and sundry divided factions currently arguing with one another about the root cause of the decline and fall of the Country Club Plaza.

While I’m very quick to hold Mayor Lucas accountable for wreaking economic havoc on many Kansas City businesses with his misinformed, authoritarian, and utterly ineffectual covid lockdowns – he “and his crew” are not to blame for the decline and fall of the Country Club Plaza.

I find his administration’s endless self-promotion and capering across multiple social media platforms to be a source of neverending annoyance. The amount of effort squandered on false positivity and ritual signaling would better serve this community if it was channeled into truth-telling and concrete action by a city motivated to do everything in its power to improve public infrastructure, services, and safety. 

What has instead inevitably brought about the decline and fall of the Plaza is neverending financialization. The latest in a series of unimaginative but relentlessly rent-seeking parasites overpaid for this expanse of commercial real estate and then set rents at unsustainably high-levels, driving out all the local flavor and diversity that once made the Plaza such an attractive retail and entertainment district. 

I’ll never forget my first accidental encounter with the Independence Center several years ago, just before its anchor tenants began withering and going away. I was astonished that a vintage mid-1970’s indoor shopping center still existed anywhere in America in anything approaching the mint condition of the Independence Center at that time. I thought to myself, “self, did the original developers of this shopping center amortize all their debts, now owning this center free and clear, and are they therefore able to charge sustainable rents and handle maintenance and mall security in a way that still yields respectable profits?” The answer was no of course. The Independence Center is exactly like the Country Club Plaza, a financialized doorknob and everybody has had a turn. Like the Plaza, the Independence Center is a dying shell of its former self. 

The Country Club Plaza’s owner defaulted on nearly $300 million in debt, a setback that could put the iconic retail center in position for an ownership shakeup.

The Plaza’s ownership, a 50-50 joint venture between Taubman Centers and The Macerich Co., defaulted on the $295.2 million balance of its acquisition loan, effective May 9. The owners are in negotiations with lender Nuveen on the debt’s terms, Macerich reported this month in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We are in discussions with our lender, Nuveen, and are actively working toward a mutually acceptable outcome,” a Plaza spokesperson said Thursday.

“In the meantime, we remain committed to the success of the Plaza and will continue to hold the Plaza’s beloved events, including the Art Fair and the Plaza Lights, while actively engaging with potential tenants to ensure the success of the district.” https://fox4kc.com/business/country-club-plaza-defaults-on-nearly-300-million-in-debt/

While Mayor Lucas is clearly not to blame for the Plaza’s demise, he is surely doing less than nothing to help improve the situation for anyone except himself. 

Mayor Backs Push for a ‘Pedestrianized’ Country Club Plaza

A new group with the mayor’s ear is pushing to convert some Country Club Plaza streets to pedestrian use, the latest expression of public concern over the direction of the venerable civic landmark.

The loose-knit group of civic-minded, mostly younger adults call themselves Urban Lab KC. A conceptual rendering it posted on social media earlier this month showing pedestrians replacing cars on Plaza streets caught the attention of Mayor Quinton Lucas.

This week, the mayor joined several Urban Lab members at a meeting at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza branch to discuss their idea. The hour-long session attracted more than 100 people.

“We (Urban Lab) don’t have any capacity to advance the project forward by any means, but all of us involved in the team are incredibly passionate about Kansas City and are incredibly passionate about his idea,” said Anthony Hugo.

With the Plaza celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Urban Lab KC joins the newly founded Plaza District Council in addressing what many observers believe has been a decline at the Kansas City civic centerpiece in recent years. https://flatlandkc.org/news-issues/mayor-backs-push-for-a-pedestrianized-country-club-plaza/

From the same article: 

Notably absent from the pedestrian discussion was a representative of the Country Club Plaza ownership. It was purchased in 2016 by a consortium comprised of Simon Property Group of Indianapolis, Macerich of Santa Monica and Taubman Centers of suburban Detroit.

A spokesperson for the Plaza declined to comment about the Urban Lab KC event.

While the Plaza streets are publicly owned and controlled, Lucas said it was very doubtful the city would alter them without support from the Plaza’s private ownership.

“I believe the best way to do these things is through some level of cooperation,” he said. “I don’t think the city has any interest in forcing this solution onto the Plaza.”

It seems to be widely accepted now that our politicians can’t do much of anything other than signal, perform, and otherwise try to control the narrative, with all those terms being used in a pejorative sense.  But the greatest weakness at all levels in modern political culture is one that I’ve touched on several times in these columns: the modern preference for performative acts and speech in place of actual practical activity, and the tendency to confuse the one with the other.  Mayor Lucas knew full-well that this Plaza pedestrianization pipe-dream is a non-starter without the backing of the Plaza’s private ownership. Why not seek out a representative from the Plaza’s private ownership and have them actively participate at all stages of the pedestrianization discussion?

So, why do you suppose Kansas City’s mayor would go out of his way to avoid engaging with the diverse opinions expressed in the Nextdoor discussion thread – which run a gamut of citizen concerns placed at his doorstep – by instead pretending that there is a viable conversation to be had about pedestrianizing the Plaza minus the participation of the Plaza’s private owners?

Because today, Friday September 22, 2023 is a day for personal political self-promotion at Kansas City taxpayer expense – and on a more national political stage. 

https://allevents.in/austin/lbj-urban-lab-presents-meet-the-mayors/10000682347779577

https://lbj.utexas.edu/meet-mayors-kansas-citys-quinton-lucas

There is important skinning and grinning to do within the larger political in-group. Members of the political in-group must signal their loyalty to the group at all costs. It is more important for them to signal adherence to the group than it is for them to do something useful or say something true. These people recognise each other by their declaratory vocabulary and performative acts. Doing something useful or saying something true can actually harm your career if it makes the members of your political group and your oligarchs in the “civic community” suspect you of disloyalty.

 

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Craig Nulan

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