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Inspired by the Ryan nomination: Call for notation to represent recursive bullshit in posts and comments

"You're very clever, young man, but it's no use -- it's turtles all the way down." -- Apocryphal story cited by Stephen Hawking

I'm a bit overwhelmed by the great peristaltic waves of bullshit coming from all sides over the Ryan nomination; it's like Palin back in 2008, except that the career "progressives" can't hate on women this time round.

Basically, I don't understand what the fuss is about. Here's Obama totally legitimating Ryan's Medicare proposals at the Republican Issues Conference on January 29, 2010. I quote a huge slab of it because Obama is so thoughtful prolix and nuanced obfuscatory. From the White House transcript; I've underlined the parts that are more fun, and added some annotation:

[OBAMA:] Now, going forward, here's the deal. I think, Paul [Ryan], for example, head of the budget committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal. I've read it. I can tell you what's in it. And there are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about because I don't agree with them.

The major driver of our long-term liabilities, everybody here knows [even though it's not so [and bullshit because country doesn't have "liabilities" as a business r a household would]], is Medicare and Medicaid and our health care spending [and not the empire or bankster bailouts]. Nothing comes close [dittoez]. Social Security we could probably fix the same way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan sat down together and they could figure something [bullshit] out. That is manageable. Medicare and Medicaid -- massive problem down the road. That's where -- that's going to be what our children [think of the childrenz bullshit!] have to worry about.

Now, Paul [Ryan]'s approach -- and I want to be careful not simplifying this, because I know you've got a lot of detail in your plan -- but if I understand it correctly, would say we're going to provide vouchers of some sort for current Medicare recipients at the current level --



CONGRESSMAN RYAN: People 55 and above --

THE PRESIDENT: Fifty-five and -- well, no, I understand. I mean, there's a grandfathering in, but just for future beneficiaries, right? That's why I said I didn't want to -- I want to make sure that I'm not being unfair to your proposal, but I just want to point out that I've read it. And the basic idea would be that at some point we hold Medicare cost per recipient constant as a way of making sure that that doesn't go way out of whack, and I'm sure there are some details that --

CONGRESSMAN RYAN: We drew it as a blend of inflation and health inflation, the point of our plan is -- because Medicare, as you know, is a $38 trillion unfunded liability -- it has to be reform for younger generations because it won't exist because it's going bankrupt [bullshit that Obama cannot challenge because he agrees with it]. And the premise of our idea is, look, why not give people the same kind of health care plan we here have in Congress? That's the kind of reform we're proposing for Medicare. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: No, I understand. Right, right. Well, look, as I said before, this is an entirely legitimate proposal. The problem is twofold: One is that depending on how it's structured, if recipients are suddenly getting a plan that has their reimbursement rates going like this, but health care costs are still going up like that, then over time the way we're saving money is essentially by capping what they're getting relative to their costs [which apparently Obama doesn't disagree with, since he doesn't criticize it].

Now, I just want to point out -- and this brings me to the second problem -- when we made a very modest proposal as part of our package, our health care reform package, to eliminate the subsidies going to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage, we were attacked across the board, by many on your aisle, for slashing Medicare. You remember? We're going to start cutting benefits for seniors. That was the story that was perpetrated out there -- scared the dickens out of a lot of seniors [bullshit because were right to be scared since that was what was going to be done, if not for this year's cohort, then for the next].

No, no, but here's my point. If the main question is going to be what do we do about Medicare costs, any proposal that Paul makes will be painted, factually, from the perspective of those who disagree with it, as cutting benefits over the long term. Paul, I don't think you disagree with that, that there is a political vulnerability to doing anything that tinkers with Medicare. And that's probably the biggest savings that are obtained through Paul's plan.

And I raise that not because we shouldn't have a series [sic] discussion about it. I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that's -- the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens; that the other party is doing X, Y, Z.

Shorter: Obama's only real problem with cutting Medicare (and Social Security, since that's what "figure something out" means) is that the Rs won't give him political cover to do it. There it is, right in a White House transcript.

Meanwhile, legacy partisans are engaged in a collective circle jerk about the new importance of "issues" in the campaign, as well as their own tribal circle jerks about the excellence or perfidy of the proponent of policies that Obama characterizes as "legitimate." Fine word, legitimate!*

* * *

Anyhow... Which I seem to be saying a lot these days... The discourse around the Ryan nomination makes me feel like I'm being beaten about the head and ears with bags of wet sand. I just want to lie down until it all goes away. And one reason the discourse is so tiring is that there are so many layers of bullshit to it. Scrape off one layer, there's another layer beneath it, and then another layer, and on and on and on. The layers are, in fact, a recursive** structure -- like peeling an infinite onion -- and in theory the layers of bullshit could go on forever. It feels exhausting because it is exhausting. How could a potentially infinite regress not feel exhausting? Also too an onion: I'm crying!

Of course, recursive bullshit has been a feature of our discourse for some time, but in a campaign we're trying to decode and filter freshly dumped recursive bullshit in real time, which is much more stressful and unpleasant, not least because the bullshit is carefully engineered by professionals to make us think and react in very precise ways (which is what campaign strategy is all about, after all). I wish I had a waldo to handle it!

Here's a definition of recursion, and, readers, if anybody is a true geek, instead of playing one on a blog, like me, please feel free to improve this.

Recursion. n. [T]he application of a function to its own values to generate an infinite sequence of values.

Examples may help. If we think of the function "onion peeling," the value is the onion, and we apply that function to the onion by peeling it. We then apply that function again to the same onion, removing another layer. We then apply function again to the same onion, removing another layer. And so on. This same function works over and over again because the onion is "self similar": it has the same structure no matter how many layers are removed. In the mathematical world, an onion can have infinitely many layers; in the real world, at some point, we run out of onion. A notation might represent the peeling process like this, with each layer inside another, where the parentheses happily look an onion:

(layer (layer (layer (...))).

Another example might be making sourdough bread, where we take a pinch of dough from the previous batch to make a new batch, having previously taken a punch of dough from the previous batch to make a new batch. Again, this works because the sourdough is self-similar; dough is dough. And so on:

(dough (dough (dough (...)))

A third example might be a growing a tree, where we take a stem and grow two (or x) branches from the tip, take the newly branched stem and grow two (or x) branches from each tip, take the newly branched stem and grow two (or x) branches from each tip, until what started as a single twig has become a whole tree. Again, this works because tree branches are self-similar; large or small, they have the same shape. As you know by looking at them:

(branch(branch(branch (...), branch (...)), branch(branch (...), branch (...))))

Bringing me to an exchange I had with Hugh, inspired by letsgetitdone's post, that I want to return to. Slightly edited:

Yes, the bullshit really is this layered. Hugh writes:

Ryan is a distraction of a distraction (Romney) of a distraction (the election) of a distraction (the two parties). The real action is and remains the looting of the country and our failure to do anything about it.

Notice how the "distraction of a distraction of a distraction" is a recursive structure. Each layer of bullshit calls the next layer of bullshit, exactly like peeling an onion. So:

Using this notation [for multiple layers of bullshit:

1. (Ryan (Romney (the election (the legacy parties ( the press (looting))))).

And of course another path to the same root (where we "run out of onion"):

2. (Obama (the election (the legacy parties ( the press (looting)))).

A legacy party notation for Ryan's nomination might be something like this; we might label it "the logic of tribalism":

Obama > Ryan***

This notation implies directly that: (1) there are only two sides, (2) one of which is better than each other, and implying indirectly, via the absence of recursion, that (3) Obama and Ryan are not "self similar" in any way (and how could that be? Can good be self-similar to evil?! Etc.). The discourse stops, as it is meant to stop, at a single binary opposition.

By contrast, let's lay our two examples above alongside each other. We might label this "the logic of emergence":

1. (Ryan (Romney (the election (the legacy parties ( the press (looting))))).

2. (Obama (the election (the legacy parties ( the press (looting))))

Implying directly that: (1) both fragments of discourse have the same "root"; if you peel the onion enough, you end at looting****, and that therefore (2) the differences between the two candidates aren't a function of their respective essences (if any) but of their position in the the "tree" (that is, which candidate is closest to the looting at the root), and that (3) it's difficult to express a binary opposition, since everything goes back to the root, in this case, looting, which is a reasonable approximation of our current political economy, yes?

* * *

I know this is a wildly eccentric take on the Ryan nomination, but I feel my capacity to call bullshit being overwhelmed -- and as a blogger, if I can't call bullshit, what can I do? The production and deployment of bullshit when the story broke was so instantaneous, and so massive, that I feel the need to abstract from it in some way, even if only as a prophylactic for my own mental protection.

That is, for protection, I'm going meta. I feel the need to contextualize and dismiss the bullshit by categorizing it efficiently, without resort to ad hominem attacks or snark (also efficient), rather than by dealing with each chunk of bullshit as if deserved individual, unique treatment; a machine gun instead of a rifle (to revert, sigh, to metaphors of violence; gardening metaphors welcome).

A notation provides a way to say to a commenter or poster deploying bullshit that "What you're really saying is..." and the reframing should make the dismissal more efficient and, one hopes, effective. Further, the abstraction removes subliminal triggers that make the bullshit function.

I chose the notation for recursive bullshit -- the parenthetical structure used in the examples -- because it's easy to type into comments (unlike other representations of recursive structures that require images). Of course, the notation may not be persuasive to people; tribalism is easy, and emergence is hard. Perhaps there is another notation or representation would be more appropriate; people's eyes do tend to glaze over if there are too many parentheses.

And then again, this post could just be bullshit. Readers? Thoughts?

NOTE * No policy that cuts a penny from Medicare or from Social Security is "legitimate." It's fine of Obama somehow manages to make the actual delivery of health care more efficient, which he won't; all that should mean is that the same budget will deliver more coverage to more people who need it, not that the budget should be cut.

NOTE ** Others have noticed, but since it's new to me: The Intertubes seem to be full of "Recursion. See recursion" jokes; here, here, and, of course, here. The last one might take a minute.

NOTE *** Or, conversely, Obama < Ryan, depending on which tribe you belong it.

NOTE **** Kleptocracy.

NOTE It's been awhile since I wrote a "theory of everything" post!

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NWLuna's picture
Submitted by NWLuna on

on Election Choices 2012.

"as a blogger, if I can't call bullshit, what can I do?"

Hope that before 2016 enough people will be so disgusted with the current process that we will have something better.

jest's picture
Submitted by jest on

Combining fractals, bovine manure, and onions into one nice little coherent package to describe Tweedledum and Tweedledee was quite the accomplishment.

I wish Nassim Taleb would give his thoughts on this.

Luckily, I haven't been bombarded with the waves of stupidity since the announcement. At this point, I've pretty much decided to crawl into a ball and lie in a corner with the TV off and HuffPo banned from my computer. You are much stronger than I.


letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

It's all true, and looting is at the end of it for both Obama/Biden and Romney/Ryan.

Submitted by lambert on

Especially coming from a subject matter expert in the field.

I'd stlll like to really use the notation, though, as a polemic device.