Political Science

That is my new piece in The American Interest, here is one excerpt:

When I ponder why the American electorate turned to such an unorthodox President as Donald Trump, I think first of the idea of control.

…To date, the commentary on Trump has focused on perceived losses of control, such as 9/11 or diminishing global influence on the foreign policy side, and the loss of manufacturing jobs, real wage stagnation, and rising use of opioids on the domestic side. Those events all did raise the background level of anxiety, but the bigger picture is that the rise of Trump actually coincides with America righting its ship, at least to some extent, especially in economic matters.


In other words, Trump’s main policy is his rhetoric, and his very act of promising to restore control to the “deplorables” is a significant signal of control itself. In essence, Trump supporters are diagnosing America’s problems in terms of deficient discourse in the public sphere, as if they had read George Orwell and the Frankfurt School philosophers on the general topic but are drawing more on alt-right inspirations for the specifics of their critique.


I was struck when one of my friends (a Trump supporter) described Trump’s policy positions as not so different from Dwight Eisenhower’s. At first the assertion shocked me, because I typically think of Trump as so erratic and Eisenhower as so extremely reliable. On reflection it occurred to me that the world Trump actually wants does bear a lot of resemblance to what Eisenhower loved and fought for, even if most Americans have moved on and accepted or embraced most of the social changes the nation has accumulated since that time. Consider how much the world of Eisenhower looks like the dream of Trump: There were hardly any Muslims living in America under Eisenhower’s presidency, he deported significant numbers of illegal Mexican immigrants, tariffs (but also taxes) were higher, and there was no NAFTA or TPP.

We are used to conceptualizing political positions in relative terms, in part to help us judge people’s social status. So if someone (say Ike) was a “moderate” back in the 1950s, we instinctively think of that person as in some way similar to today’s moderates. But an alternative perspective, bracing at times, is to simply to compare positions in absolute terms, and that makes a lot of Trump’s views resolutely ordinary in the broader sweep of American history.

Do read the whole thing.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Take the famed Selma civil-rights marchers of 1965, when the protesters had obtained the legal right, through petition, to conduct a 52-mile, five-day march down an interstate highway. Of course, that blocked the highway and inconvenienced many motorists and truckers. America’s NIMBY mentality would most likely prevent a comparable event today.

Starting in the 1970s, the federal courts began to assert that public spaces are not automatically fair game for marches and demonstrations, and so local governments have sought to please the users of such facilities rather than marchers and protesters. For instance, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, numerous would-be demonstrators ended up being confined to a “demonstration zone,” which one federal judge described as analogous to Piranesi’s etchings of a prison. The zone was ringed by barricades, fences and coiled razor wire.

Here is the closer:

Could we not have kept public demonstrations and protests more alive as a vital and nonbureaucratized tradition?

For a long time, most people ignored this issue, but I wonder if it won’t start to seem urgent once again.

Do read the whole thing.

That is a paper of mine from long ago, started in the late 1990s if I recall correctly.  It still seems relevant today, all the more so.  It ended up published in Public Choice, but here is an ungated on-line version, here is the abstract:

I consider models of political failure based on self-deception. Individuals discard free information when that information damages their self-image and thus lowers their utility. More specifically, individuals prefer to feel good about their previously chosen affiliations and shape their worldviews accordingly. This model helps explain the relative robustness of political failure in light of extensive free information, and it helps to explain the rarity of truth-seeking behavior in political debate. The comparative statics predictions differ from models of either Downsian or expressive voting. For instance, an increased probability of voter decisiveness does not necessarily yield a better result. I also consider political parties as institutions and whether political errors cancel in the aggregate. I find that political failure based on self-deception is very difficult to eliminate.

What I find strange is people who think this has only recently become relevant.

  1. What, then, is the one “must-know fact” about “Big Government” in America today?

It is that “Big Government” in America today is both debt-financed and proxy-administered.

The first half of that essential fact is well known, much discussed, and much debated.  For all but five post-1960 years, the federal government has run deficits, and the national debt is now bordering on $20 trillion.  But the latter half of that essential fact—rampant proxy administration—is little known, poorly understood, and, except in certain moments of crisis, ignored.

…Congress, the keystone of the Washington establishment, has spent half a century promising us that, so to speak, we can all go to heaven without needing to die first.  The American way of “Big Government” has produced massive deficits, both financial and administrative.

That is from John J. Dilulio, Jr., recommended throughout.

Pension spending is already the equivalent of 12% of GDP, half as much again as the average among members of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries that have many more senior citizens (see chart). The combined annual shortfall of the pension schemes is 4.8% of GDP, equivalent to more than half the government budget deficit. The state of Rio supports more public-sector pensioners than working civil servants; for every police colonel on active duty five are retired. The state is nearly bankrupt.

…Its citizens collect pensions when they are 58 on average; Mexicans toil into their 70s. Brazilians on average incomes get pensions worth four-fifths of their pre-retirement earnings, which is generous by most countries’ standards. Widows and widowers inherit the full pensions of their deceased spouses, which they can combine with their own.

…Inflated by big increases in the minimum wage, pensions now account for more than half of the government’s non-interest spending.

Here is the full story in The Economist.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

But I would say that the Articles, for all their formal flaws, are badly underrated. They are a brilliant construction for a power vacuum, given that the relevant parties in the 1780s couldn’t agree on very much, but nonetheless needed some path forward.

In other words, think of the Articles as an early business plan or charter for a startup. The point isn’t to get everyone’s roles and responsibilities right on first crack, but rather to make sure that the institution survives and that continued growth is possible.

By this metric, the Articles were an unprecedented success. Keep in mind that many European thinkers of the time thought that America was hopelessly disunited and that its system of government was due to collapse. The Articles proved them wrong by serving as a bridge from the Revolution to the later development of America as a fully fledged nation.

It is sometimes forgotten just how fruitful the Articles period was for laying the foundations for the further growth of the country. A system of relatively egalitarian and transferable property rights was codified for the settlement of external lands. Most importantly, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 determined that future settlements could be incorporated into the country as states rather than subordinate territories or colonies. The independence and sovereignty of the initial founding states allowed them to support such policies, without fearing much dilution of their power or influence.

Alas I did not have the space to consider either Native Americans or slavery in the column.  National expansion was of course in general bad for Native Americans.  Slavery is a trickier matter, however.  Since the Articles gave states stronger rights, it may seem like they must have been bad for slaves.  But is that true?  Under the Articles, precisely because states’ rights were stronger, it might have been easier to create more free states on the rest of the continent.  I would judge the comparison as uncertain, plus we know the history with the Constitution involved an extremely bloody civil war.

The column has much more, including a discussion of the EU and also the emoluments clause in the Articles, do read the whole thing.

That is the subject of a new paper by Joel Waldfogel and Paul M. Vaaler, here is the abstract:

While product differentiation is generally benign, it can be employed to discriminate against customer groups, either to enhance profitability by appealing to discriminatory customers or in unprofitable ways that indulge owners’ tastes for discrimination. We explore discriminatory product differentiation in the airline market through airlines’ depiction of Israel on their online route maps and whether their online menus include kosher meal options. We first show that several international airlines omit Israel from their online route maps. Three of these airlines are members of the major international airline alliances. With data on over 100 airlines, we then document that Israel map denial is more likely for airlines with passengers from countries exhibiting greater anti-Semitism. Owner tastes also matter: denial is more likely for state-owned airlines in countries that do not recognize Israel. Kosher meal options on online menus follow similar patterns, suggesting anti-Semitic rather than anti-Zionist motivations. Israel denial does not reduce the probability of alliance membership with alliance leaders having few airline alternatives to choose from in the Middle East.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Much of the immigration debate has focused on assimilation rates for second and third generation Latinos.  But put that aside and consider the rest of the arrivals.  It is striking to me how very rapidly they assimilate, and I don’t just mean the Canadians (on a given day, could you tell which of the writers of this blog is from north of the border?).  I mean the Russians, the Iranians, the Chinese, the Indians, and many others, including most of the Muslim immigrants.  They don’t become culturally identical to the native-born, but in terms of economic and social indicators, you couldn’t ask for a much better performance.

The assimilation problem in fact comes from the longstanding native-born Americans, often of more traditional stock.  The country around them has changed rapidly, and they do not assimilate so well to the new realities.  And since they are not self-selected migrants who know they will face hardship, they are not always so inclined to internalize a “suck it up” kind of attitude.  Many complain, others settle into niches of failure or mediocre careers.

In this regard, encouraging the actual arriving immigrants to assimilate better or faster can make the actual assimilation problem worse, because it will change the home culture more rapidly too.

Often, the real impact of immigration is not on wages or electoral outcomes, but it is the assimilation burdens placed on some of the longer-standing traditional natives of the home country.  And the more productive and successful the immigrants are, the more serious these problems may become.

I am grateful to the Cato liberaltarian group for a discussion of this issue; I have drawn on remarks from that dialogue, including from Will.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the argument:

Sometimes governments trade leaked information to reporters, to curry favor. Other times leaks are used to hurt rivals within the public sphere, or a leak can serve as a trial balloon to test the popularity of an idea. Leaks also may help a president’s Cabinet members build up their own internal empires, which can boost a president’s agenda.

Or the American government may want to inform its people about, say, drone operations in Yemen, but without having to answer questions about the details. In this regard, leaks may substitute for more direct congressional oversight, to the benefit of the executive.

In other words, leaks are part of how the government manages the press and maintains its own popularity. A leak can get a story onto the front page, or if the first leak did not create the right impression, the information flow can be massaged by yet another leak.

Leaks are also a way of threatening other governments, yet without the president putting all of his credibility on the line. For instance, it can be leaked that the national security establishment would be especially unhappy with a further expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements. That sends a message, yet without committing the American government to any particular response if the settlements proceed. Or leaks can signal to foreign terrorists or governments that we know what they are up to.

Of course, many leaks are unwelcome, such as when national security confidences are disclosed. Given that reality, why haven’t American governments worked harder to prosecute unwelcome leaks and leakers?

Well, if that policy were pursued successfully, the only leaks that would occur would be “approved” or government-intended leaks, and everyone would figure this out. The government could no longer use leaks as a way of providing information or making threats in a distanced manner with plausible deniability.

Leak-receiving media outlets would feel more like pawns, and they would distance themselves from the leaking administration. Leaks would end up not being so different from announcements, which would counter the very purpose of leaks. And so whistle-blowing leaks and also security-diminishing leaks get pulled into the mix and tolerated to some degree.

Much of the rest of the column considers how matters have been changing under both Obama and Trump, and not generally for the better.

Here is the latest, which is in the media but not being plastered all over my Twitter feed:

Just two days after President Trump provoked widespread consternation by seeming to imply, incorrectly, that immigrants had perpetrated a recent spate of violence in Sweden, riots broke out in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood in the northern suburbs of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm.

The neighborhood, Rinkeby, was the scene of riots in 2010 and 2013, too. And in most ways, what happened late Monday night was reminiscent of those earlier bouts of anger. Swedish police apparently made an arrest around 8 p.m. near the Rinkeby station. For reasons not yet disclosed by the police, word of the arrest prompted a crowd of youths to gather.

Over four hours, the crowd burned about half a dozen cars, vandalized several shopfronts and threw rocks at police. Police spokesman Lars Bystrom confirmed to Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter newspaper that an officer fired shots with intention to hit a rioter, but did not strike his target. A photographer for the newspaper was attacked by more than a dozen men and his camera was stolen, but ultimately no one was hurt or even arrested.

It remains correct that an American city such as Orlando typically will have more murders than all of Sweden in a year.  But it is also important to process the distinction between objective and subjective metrics of disorder.  A jaywalker in Germany disrupts public order and flouts norms more than is the case for a single jaywalker in New Jersey, for instance.  Sweden is relatively orderly, in part, because the public and psychological reactions to acts of disorder are relatively severe and traumatic, even if those same acts might be perceived as less significant in other contexts.  It is quite possible that Swedish norms are being threatened by the level of disorder currently in the country, even if to a Nigerian it all might seem absurdly neat and tidy.

There is also reasonable evidence that immigrants to Sweden are a major reason for the decline in the average quality of Swedish schooling and also Swedish PISA scores.  In other contexts, we will be told that such variables are incredibly significant, but in this context the result ends up  largely ignored.

The simplest metric, however, would simply be to poll citizens of Nordic and European countries who are familiar with Sweden, but don’t have direct self-interest at stake, and ask them if they want the immigration history of their country to go the Swedish route.  I haven’t seen the data, but I believe the rate of “yes” on that one would be quite low.  You could not say the same about Canada or Australia, I suspect, or for that matter the United States.

On this whole matter, I would not say that Trump’s remarks have been correct and for sure they have been irresponsible on the diplomatic front.  Still, the overall presentation of his critics arguably has been further yet from the reality, and that is part of the reason why Trump finds such an audience.

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and here is the opening bit of the summary:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains were designed not just to gather and hunt, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means. The problem is that we like to pretend otherwise; we’re afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. And this makes it hard for us to think clearly about ourselves and our behavior.

The Elephant in the Brain aims to fix this introspective blind spot by blasting floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. Only when everything is out in the open can we really begin to understand ourselves: Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

Acknowledging these hidden motives has the potential to upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

Due out January 1, 2018, of course this is essential reading.

Here is one bit from an excellent longer piece by Michael Kofman:

Russia’s gradual approach is inherently vulnerable, since it is based around fielding the bare minimum amount number of troops in the battlespace to achieve desired political ends.  In order to deter and dissuade peer adversaries Russia  will often introduce high-end conventional capabilities, such as long range air defense, anti-ship missiles, and conventional ballistic missile systems.  These weapons are not meant for the actual fight. Instead, they are intended to make an impression on the United States. The first goal of the Russian leadership is to make the combat zone its own sandbox, sharply reducing the options for peer adversaries to intervene via direct means.  America does this in its campaigns by attaining air superiority. Russia’s method is cheaper: area denial from the ground.

…Beyond its political objectives, Russia places strong emphasis on having an exit strategy.  In fact, a viable exit strategy seems just as important than whatever they are trying to achieve.  It is perhaps one key point where Russia’s leaders would agree with Weinberger and Colin Powell. But unlike the United States, they actually practice it.

The pointer is from the always-astonishing The Browser.

That is in the FT, here is the closing paragraph:

In most other ways, Cowen’s thesis is deeply troubling. Democracy requires growth to survive. It must also give space to society’s eccentrics and misfits. When Alexis de Tocqueville warned about the tyranny of the majority, it was not kingly despotism that he feared but conformism. America would turn into a place where people “wear themselves out in trivial, lonely, futile activity”, the Frenchman predicted. This modern tyranny would “degrade men rather than torment them”. Cowen does a marvellous job of turning his Tocquevillian eye to today’s America. His book is captivating precisely because it roves beyond the confines of his discipline. In Cowen’s world, the future is not what it used to be. Let us hope he is wrong. The less complacent we are, the likelier we are to disprove him.

The review very well captures the spirit and content of the book.  Here is Barnes&Noble, here is Amazon.  Here are signed first editions, here is Apple.

Senior state department officials who would normally be called to the White House for their views on key policy issues, are not being asked their opinion. They have resorted to asking foreign diplomats, who now have better access to President Trump’s immediate circle of advisers, what new decisions are imminent.

…“My nagging suspicion is that the White House is very happy to have a vacuum in the under-secretary and assistant secretary levels, not only at state but across government agencies, because it relieves them of even feeling an obligation to consult with experts before they take a new direction.”

Here is the article, solve for the equilibrium…

There’s two versions of this.

1. One or a small group of entrepreneurs owns the robots.

2. The government owns the robots.

I see how we get from where we are now to 1. How would we get to 2, and is 2 better than 1?

That is a comment and request from Mark Thorson.  It’s embedded in a longer thread, but I suspect you can guess the context.

I would focus on a prior question: what is government in a world where everything is done by the robots?  Say that most government jobs are performed by robots, except for a few leaders (NB: Isaac Asimov had even the President as a robot).  It no longer makes sense to define government in terms of “the people who work for government” or even as a set of political norms (my preferred definition).  In this setting, government is almost entirely people-empty.  Yes, there is the Weberian definition of government as having a monopoly on force, but then it seems the robots are the government.  I’ll come back to that.

You might ask who are the residual claimants on output.  Say there are fifty people in the government, and they allocate the federal budget subject to electoral constraints.  Even a very small percentage of skim makes them fantastically wealthy, and gives them all sorts of screwy incentives to hold on to power.  If they can, they’ will manipulate robot software toward that end.  That said, I am torn between thinking this group has too much power — such small numbers can coordinate and tyrannize without checks and balances — and thinking they don’t have enough power, because if one man can’t make a pencil fifty together might not do better than a few crayons.

Alternatively, say that ten different private companies own varying shares of various robots, with each company having a small number of employees, and millions of shareholders just as there are millions of voters.  The government also regulates these companies, so in essence the companies produce the robots that then regulate them (what current law does that remind you of?).  That’s a funny and unaccustomed set of incentives too, but at least you have more distinct points of human interaction/control/manipulation with respect to the robots.

I feel better about the latter scenario, as it’s closer to a polycentric order and I suspect it reduces risk for that reason.  Nonetheless it still seems people don’t have much direct influence over robots.  Most of the decisions are in effect made “outside of government” by software, and the humans are just trying to run in place and in some manner pretend they are in charge.  Perhaps either way, the robots themselves have become the government and in effect they own themselves.

Or is this how it already is, albeit with much of the “software” being a set of social norms?

Replacing social norms by self-modifying software –how big of a difference will it make for how many things?