There is a type of person who I find more irritating than most. You will understand why as I go along. It's good to have a name for such people and a description of them, so I invented The Compliant Personality. Commenting on my recent post Dismantling Dodd-Frank — How Crazy Is This?, a reader (Jim) referred to an article by Matthew Yglesias called Why Lobbyists Write Bills and Why You Shouldn't Worry Too Much About It. The title alone tells you what I'm getting at.
A quick review of personality types reveals that there is no comparable category in the literature. There may be, but I didn't find it. Let me define the kind of person I'm talking about. Specifically, I am talking about a certain kind of writer about contemporary society.
- Everything the compliant person writes is intended, albeit unconsciously, to uphold the status quo, regardless of how fucked up the current order is, relative to some baseline we could define.
We note right away that the compliant person is an optimist, but he is not the same as the generic optimist, for some optimists may understand how fucked up things are, and still be hopeful about future outcomes, whereas The Compliant Personality believes things are fine just as they are (the status quo), although some minor tweaks may be required to make the current system work better.
Here are examples of compliant people.
- Ezra Klein of the Washington Post
- James Surowiecki of The New Yorker
- Derek Thompson of The Atlantic
- Matthew Yglesias of Slate
The alert reader has already noticed that these mainstream publications are also committed to the current political and socio-economic arrangements, so naturally they are also wedded in a deep sense to the status quo. However, the publications listed may also include optimistic reformers who realize that some substantive changes need to be made, as described above. It is a matter of degree. Therefore these publications are not simply dedicated to upholding the status quo regardless of what it is, as the writers listed above are. Nevertheless, there is no inherent conflict, for all of these people swim in the same water. Thus we are not surprised that The Compliant Personality finds a happy home at places like The Atlantic or Slate.
How does the compliant personality operate? He operates, albeit unconsciously, by following these simple rules—
To make his points, the compliant writer leaves out all parts of the Big Picture which are unpalatable to him, i.e. all the parts which indicate that the status quo is fucked up. See my post The Optimist's Brain to get a sense of how this works.
The compliant writer changes the reader's focus to get the reader to think about what's right with the current arrangement. This also goes by the name reframing, or simply spin.
Having successfully edited Reality, and having reframed the issue to redirect our focus, the compliant writer concludes that everything is basically fine, although a few minor tweaks may be required to make the current arrangement perfect.
Thus we find for the compliant personality that, even if we are not living in the Best of All Possible Worlds, we soon will be if only a few minor changes are implemented.
This description probably explains why I find this personality type among the most irritating in the Human Zoo. For example, imagine it is 10 years from now and the United States is in dire straits. Imagine that American society is literally falling apart—things are much worse than they were in 2013! In this case, which seems likely given the way things are going, The Compliant Personality would write (in 2023) that, even if we are not living in the Best of All Possible Worlds, we're damn close to living in that world.
The primary source in my post on dismantling the Dodd-Frank financial "reform" was the Dealbook post Banks' Lobbyists Help In Drafting Financial Bills (from the New York Times). The primary focus of that post was entrenched corruption in American governance. Re-read the original to get the gist of it. I also made a few small but telling changes to that post.
The Dealbook post is also the primary source for Matthew Yglesias' Why Lobbyists Write Bills, and Why You Shouldn't Worry Too Much About It.
I am trying to encourage more reader participation on DOTE, so I will leave deconstructing Yglesias as an exercise for the reader rather than doing it myself. How does Yglesias exemplify The Compliant Personality? How does his article use the three rules I described above?
I'll get you started with this quote and some questions, and you can take it from there.
Now in the particular story the Times is talking about, the lobbyists are writing the legislation to make bank regulation laxer. That sounds terrible to me. But it sounds terrible not because the lobbyists are writing the laws, but because in general I don't think regulation should be more favorable to the financial services industry. But I do think legislation should be more favorable to the solar industry, and to the intercity bus industry, and to nurse practitioners, and to urban infill real estate developers, and to food truck operators.
So while of course I don't think legislators should simply give a blank check to the lobbyists working for those sectors or professional associations, I do think it's entirely appropriate for legislators to avail themselves of the expertise of lobbyists when crafting the details of legislative language. A House member has a limited staff budget, and his team is not going to be expert in every issue under the sun. A politician needs to know, broadly speaking, whom he stands with and work cooperatively with those groups.
When you think about it, this is basically the most benign function a lobbyist could be performing...
What hasn't Yglesias mentioned here? What is he leaving out? How has he reframed the problem of bankers writing the regulations which govern them?
Once you've learned to spot The Compliant Personality, you will see them frequently in mainstream publications. I thought about various other names, for example, The Oblivious Personality, or The Complacent Personalilty, or The Incognizant Personality.
But simply saying that the person in question is blissfully unaware of what's going on didn't quite capture the spirit of this severe psychological disorder, although you won't find The Compliant Personality in the DSM-IV because such people are not considered mentally ill by society-at-large—naturally!
Importantly, the compliant person will literally say anything to comply with (defend) the status quo, a fact which goes far beyond mere unawareness or complacency.