B-minus Politics Are Best
B-minus politics is the recognition that: (1) there is no such thing as perfect or A+ politics, and (2) the field of politics and government will never be finished. If you find yourself reaching for a person or ideology that promises you an A+, run. Abundance politics is produced by individuals, acting in concert, who cherish the steely, calloused B-minus.
The political theory of the second best
In economics, there is the economic theory of the second best1, which says (in my words): if one condition for optimal economic performance can’t be met, the option that is second-best is potentially one where you violate multiple conditions for optimal performance, and let them cancel each other out in whole or part.
This idea is true outside of economics as well. Imagine if you break your leg—a condition for optimal ambulation has been violated, and cannot be immediately fixed. The second best option is to further violate the conditions for optimal ambulation by introducing surgery, a cast, crutches, and/or wheelchair. Any of these by themselves would inhibit proper walking, but the correct combination of them will allow you to move better than if you’d just done nothing about the broken leg.
The theory of the second best also appears in politics, although people often don’t accept it as readily or as sensibly as in the example above.
Sometimes (always) a condition for optimal political function will be violated, without immediate remedy. The best response to this is often doing a variety of things that you wouldn’t do if it were possible to reach an optimal state. This means market fundamentalists will (properly!) wind up advocating for government/public options, and statists will (properly!) wind up advocating for market-based options.
An example: in places with severely constrained housing supplies, like NYC, we have already violated a condition for optimal housing (in both politics and economics)—ample supply. That will not change quickly no matter what we do. This means we need to embrace both market/private and public/government solutions at the same time to correct for the supply shortage, in the same way that we reach for surgery, casts, and a wheelchair to correct a bone. Until the supply shortage is corrected, or the bone is set, you would be a fool to ignore useful tools to speed a return to better conditions. Once housing supplies are ample, or the bone is healed, then you can reevaluate.
Recognizing the political theory of the second best is freeing, because it allows you to make smooth compromises with others, knowing that you’re achieving a second-best outcome. In fact, that’s what you should do. Going for the B-minus is correct. Of course, knowing which options to select in those realms is still a difficult task, but knowing that you should dip into both saves you the huge mess that you’d otherwise encounter by trying to conform to one ideological menu.
Government isn’t about solutions
Government isn’t about finding solutions, it’s about replacing worse and less interesting problems with easier and more tractable ones.
Most people use the rhetoric of solutions when discussing proper policy, but this is more often a harmful lens than not. The word “solutions” connotes that no further work needs to be done, that a problem is solved with some finality, or, more basically, that a solution can be known in the first place! In politics, it’s often the case that several of the latter aren’t true.
But all government policy creates winners and losers, and these always have to be weighed. The question isn’t whether there will be losers. There will be. The question is whether there are fewer of them, and in better conditions, than before. The solutions lens often elides the messy reality that all government policy still leaves problems to be solved, and blinds people to the idea of trade-offs.
A+ politics is the demand for policy without trade-offs, which does not exist. Go for the glorious B-minus that does the hard work facing its trade-offs head-on. Shun the politician that cannot tell you the trade-offs in their own policy.
Government is an unfinished field
In the same way that there is no A+ politics, there is no completed form of government or politics. Like any science, there is always more to be done. If you get deep enough into most fields, you will see that even the experts are doing their best to navigate an uncertain terrain in an evolving domain.
“Once markets are perfectly free” and “once we destroy capitalism” are two sides of the same coin. They imply some kind of end. There will never be an end. The evolving nature of human technology and culture will always demand new things from government and politicians, and both should always be striving to achieve the second best given constraints, the B-minus, the best set of trade-offs.
Politics is too hard for there to be an end state, and if you take it seriously you should see that.
A-plus is abstract, B-minus is real
The hallmark of the A+ politician is that they prefer a perfect abstraction to a decent reality.2 With regard to housing in NYC, that means politicians, especially city councilors, do things like block housing that doesn’t conform perfectly to their vision, but do allow a truck depot.3 The upshot of our A+ politicians is that we get no new housing at all, despite their almost universally professed preference for more of it.
We need a B-minus city council, a B-minus mayor, and a B-minus administrative apparatus. Go for the silver, friends. Gold is the highest honor in pursuits of individual virtue, silver is the highest in politics.
See the Wikipedia page here. You can also find the original paper that outlined the theory in 1956 here. ↩
A+ politicians are generally consumed and ruled by, among other things, the anti-concreteness meme. In fact, the notion that there can be A+ politics is powered by the anti-concreteness meme. Once you get a clear picture of reality, you see all the trade-offs and second best options (that are the best available options). ↩
See this Streetsblog article. The city councilor in question, Kristin Richardson Jordan, says “I am sad to hear that the zoning done under previous local leadership even allows for this in our community which already has such high asthma rates.” The A+ politician does not consider trade-offs, and clearly did not even look at the zoning of the area a real estate developer wanted to turn into housing—it’s zoned for “automotive and other heavy commercial services,” and has been since 1961. What did she think was going to happen if she vehemently opposed a B-minus housing solution?
Or see this tweet. Another councilmember opposes a 2,800-housing-unit development because 2,000 of them are market-rate. You can see how A+ politicians can quickly pile up tens of thousands of blocked housing units a year, claiming that their 0 permitted units are somehow better. ↩