Political Science

The subtitle is A History of U.S. Federal Entitlement Programs, and the author of this new and excellent book is John F. Cogan of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution.  It is the single best history of what it covers, and thus one of the best books to read on the history of U.S. government or for that matter American economic history more generally.

How did the American entitlement state get built?  In multiple, discrete pieces:

The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a modified version of President Truman’s Social Security proposals in June 1950.  The Social Security Amendments provided a mammoth across-the-board increase in monthly benefits.  The law’s sliding scale of benefits…averaged 77 percent per recipient…The 1950 Act also rewrote Social Security’s eligibility rules to enable hundreds of thousands of workers with little history of contributing payroll taxes to begin collecting benefits.


…from 1969 to 1975, inflation-adjusted federal entitlements pending grew annually at a remarkable 10 percent, registering an 86 percent increase in six years…Total annual inflation-adjusted entitlement expenditures grew 20 percent faster under President Nixon than they had under President Johnson.


The eligibility liberalizations from 1997 to 2008 produced sharp increases in the food stamp and Medicaid rolls.  From 1998 to 2008, the food stamp rolls increased to 28 million people from 20 million and the Medicaid rolls increased to 59 million from 40 million people.  The liberalizations enacted during the Great Recession have lasted well beyond the recession’s end in 2010.  In 2016, the number of food stamp recipients ballooned to 44 million, and the number of Medicaid recipients rose to 73 million in 2016.

Here is a good sentence:

In 2015, 41 percent of the nation’s nonelderly-headed households received entitlement benefits.

This book is well-written and has useful and important information on virtually every page.

That is the topic, here is the abstract:

Many rumors convey information about potential danger, even when these dangers are very unlikely. In four studies, we examine whether micro-processes of cultural transmission explain the spread of threat-related information. Three studies using transmission chain protocols suggest a) that there is indeed a preference for the deliberate transmission of threat-related information over other material, b) that it is not caused by a general negativity or emotionality bias, and c) that it is not eliminated when threats are presented as very unlikely. A forced-choice study on similar material shows the same preference when participants have to select information to acquire rather than transmit. So the cultural success of threat-related material may be explained by transmission biases, rooted in evolved threat-detection and error-management systems, that affect both supply and demand of information.

The piece is by Timothy Blaine and Pascal Boyer.  Of course this is one of the very best tips to know to understand what is actually happening on an Op-Ed page or your Twitter feed.  See through it, yes you can.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

From Emma Harris:

But the Seasteading Institute and the new for-profit spin-off, Blue Frontiers, have racked up some real-world achievements in the past year. They signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia in January that lays the groundwork for the construction of their prototype. And they gained momentum from a conference of interested parties in Tahiti in May, which hundreds of people attended. The project’s focus has shifted from building a libertarian oasis to hosting experiments in governance styles and showcasing a smorgasbord of sustainable technologies for, among other things, desalination, renewable energy and floating food-production. The shift has brought some gravitas to the undertaking, and some ecologists have taken interest in the possibilities of full-time floating laboratories.

…The next step in making the island a reality will be the passage of a law defining the ‘special economic zone’ that will cover the synthetic island. Blue Frontiers isn’t asking French Polynesia for any subsidies to build the island, but it is asking for a 0% tax rate, among other regulatory exceptions. It has hired French firm GB2A, based in Paris, to prepare legal research and a set of requests, which Blue Frontiers presented to the government at the end of September. The team hopes to see a bill emerge before the end of the year.

In the meantime, the Seasteading Institute is building excitement and courting potential investors with a series of gatherings. In May, it held talks, networking events and tours in Tahiti. Speakers included Fritch; Tony Hsieh, chief executive of online retailer Zappos in Las Vegas, Nevada; Tua Pittman, a master canoe navigator from the Cook Islands; and engineers, nanotechnologists and a ‘blockchain strategist’, a specialist in the distributed information systems behind cryptocurrencies. The seasteaders hope to use such systems to handle their financials, as well as any scientific data that they generate. But the event wasn’t all work. An announcement for a party on outrigger canoes cheerfully suggested: “Do not wear heels. Bring a swimsuit for an optional moonlight swim.”

On 22–29 October, Blue Frontiers will hold an Insiders Access Week for supporters and potential investors, a mix of tours, discussion and morning yoga with Hencken. Always ambitious, the team hopes to have draft legislation from the Polynesian government by then, and some detailed architectural plans. The goal is to break ground — or rather, sea — in 2018.

In the Nature article there is much, much more.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

The influx of cash from Trump’s base is helping the GOP amass a major advantage as the parties prepare to battle for control of Congress in the 2018 elections, with the Republican National Committee pulling in nearly twice as much money overall as its Democratic counterpart this year.

That is from Matea Gold at WaPo.

I will be having a Conversation with them, in part connected to their very important forthcoming book The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality.  But not only.  What should I ask these two leading lights?

By the way, here is an abstract for the book:

The relentless increase of inequality in twenty-first century America has confounded analysts from both ends of the political spectrum. While many can point to particular contributing causes, so far none of the policies that have been enacted-not just in the United States but in other advanced countries-have been able to lessen the wealth and income gaps between the top decile and the rest. Critics on the left are more forceful critics of rising inequality, and they tend to blame capitalism and the private sector. Predictably, they see solutions in government action. Many on the right worry about the issue, too, but they come from a position that is more sanguine about corporations and more suspicious of government. But as the libertarian Brink Lindsey and the liberal Steve Teles argue in The Captured Economy, perhaps all of us-left, right, and center-are looking in the wrong places for culprits and solutions. They hone in on the government-corporate sector nexus, apportioning blame not only to both forces but also to the distorted form of governance that this partnership has created. Through armies of lobbyists, corporations and the wealthy have become remarkably adept at shaping policy-even ostensibly progressive policies-so that the field is tilted in their favor. Corporations have become classic ‘rentiers,’ using their monopoly power of influence over highly complicated legislative and regulatory processes to shift resources in their direction. FCC policy, health care regulation, banking regulation, labor policy, defense spending, and much more: in all of these arenas, well-resourced corporate rentiers have combined to ensure that the government favors them over everyone else. The perverse result is a state that shifts more and more wealth to the already-rich-even if that was never the initial intent of Congress, the President, or the electorate itself. Transforming this misshapen alliance will be difficult, and Lindsey and Teles are realistic about the chances for reform. To that end, they close with a set of reasonable policy proposals that can help to reduce corporate rentiers’ scope and power to extract excessive rents via government policy. A powerful, original, and genuinely counterintuitive interpretation of the forces driving the increase in inequality, The Captured Economy will be necessary reading for anyone concerned about the rising social and economic divisions in contemporary America.

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

We do not live under political normalcy, so traditional standards are not enough to guide this choice. In an age of consensus, it might be wise to nominate the candidate who knows the most about monetary policy, or who commands the most respect on Wall Street. Those remain significant factors, but the most important job of the next candidate is to prevent a polarization of opinion within the Fed itself.

I do consider some specific names at the link.

The European Commission backed Madrid in describing the vote as illegal and said an independent Catalonia would not be part of the union. President Trump also rejected the independence movement; the Catalan nationalists’ only backers are separatist-ruled Scotland, the pariah government of Venezuela and Russia’s intelligence and propaganda apparatus, which mobilized its media outlets and social media bots in support of the separatists. Moscow evidently perceives the Catalan movement as another vehicle for dividing and weakening the democratic West.

That is from the Washington Post editorial board.  Hat tip goes to AC.

Gross domestic product for the country grew by 5.1 per cent in the second quarter, slightly below expectations but still far exceeding growth rates in developed countries.

The government’s consumer confidence index showed an improvement from 63.4 at the end of 2016 to above 70 for much of the year, though it dipped again in September to below 70.

That is from Javier Espinosa at the FT.

Compared to 2015, the Turkish stock market is up about 20 percent.  I recall being pilloried when I wrote my very first Bloomberg column in July 2016: “Turkey’s economy isn’t likely to be affected much by the military uprising.”

Macro phenomena can be difficult to understand, but at least along this dimension Turkey has yet to see its comeuppance.

She is the author of the new and superb Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.  I will be interviewing her later in the month, with a podcast and transcript forthcoming, no public event.  Here is her Macmillan bio:

Sujatha Gidla was born an untouchable in Andhra Pradesh, India. She studied physics at the Regional Engineering College, Warangal. The author of Ants Among the Elephants, her writing has appeared in The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing. She lives in New York and works as a conductor on the subway.

Here is BBC coverage of her work.  Here is the NYT review of her book.  Here are further links about herThe Economist wrote: “Ants Among Elephants is an arresting, affecting and ultimately enlightening memoir. It is quite possibly the most striking work of non-fiction set in India since Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, and heralds the arrival of a formidable new writer.”

So what should I ask her?

There are many issues to this Catalan predicament

Bob has been providing arguments to a more nuanced view. He has said that “Spanish is not all that far from being banned from public schools” in Catalonia. That is true, but to put it into context provides additional knowledge. The reality is much worse. 60% of Catalan children has the Spanish language as mother tongue (30%, Catalan language) All primary and secondary schools use Catalan as vehicular teaching language (with an hour a week of Spanish… or nothing) Basically, in practice, you are not allowed to decide in which language do you want your children to be taught. I am sure most of you will think that this cannot be true in a democratic country.

As the United Nations recognizes (21st of February, day of the mother tongue) children should be schooled in the mother tongue whenever possible. But 60% of Catalan children are denied this right by successive Catalan regional governments… 30 years and counting. This has produced a situation in which two generations of Catalan children with Spanish as mother tongue have systematically been denied the possibility to develop his potential mental abilities to the upmost, with the consequences that Tyler, in other contests, has commented regularly. They will forever occupy the lowest range of jobs in the Catalan economy. This is cultural supremacy to the core. You will not find this in any other democratic country… nor by a mile. I will leave for other time, perhaps, which characteristics the teachers and principals of the schools share.

The Spanish Constitutional Court has ruled several times against this discrimination, instructing the Catalan government to remedy the situation. To no avail. The regional government pays not attention, neither the central government or the civil society doing much. Civil society movements, very prominent in Catalonia, are basically arms of separatist parties. Still, the threat of the Constitutional Court is there, so better to get rid of this nuisance declaring independence.

That is from a guy named Felix.  Here are data from the government of Catalonia (pdf).

Hoping for a peaceful democratic process in Catalonia tomorrow. When democracy fails there’s only repression. Thinking of my Catalan friends

That is a tweet from Pete Wishart, Scottish MP; I ‘ve seen dozens more like it.  But is it the democratic process behind the Catalonian referendum?  Or is it rather a form of electoral terrorism?  Here are a few points:

1. Most countries we consider to be democracies have rather stringent restrictions on when referenda may be held and what they may be used to decide.

2. According to extant reports, only 40 percent or so of the people in Catalonia favor independence.  It’s not like Kurdistan where independence won almost 100 percent of the vote and not only because of selective participation.

3. Aren’t non-official referendum results always going to be slanted in favor of intense minority opinion?  That hardly seems democratic.  See #2.  Arguably the same is true for official referenda as well, though then at least turnout is more representative.  Nonetheless referenda on such big questions may under-represent the interests of the young or the interests of business (and in turn real wages), or they may favor expressive voting too much.

4. Isn’t the truly democratic procedure to let all of Spain vote on Catalonian independence?  Maybe you don’t think so, but that begs the question.

5. Is it a fundamental democratic principle that any geographic region can demand a binding separatist referendum?  Well, maybe, but it sounds closer to John C. Calhoun than the notions of democracy I am familiar with or would favor.

Overall, I don’t see any positive news in how this is developing.  Arguably the situation remains in flux, but still the word is that a unilateral declaration of independence will be forthcoming.

I’m not by any means convinced that conflict [between China and America] is inevitable. I don’t believe in the Thucidydes Trap, and here’s why not. North Korea so far has been China’s thorn in our side. I feel that’s flipped. Chinese public opinion has flipped. Opinion within the Chinese government is in the middle, but has been changing a lot. China would like to undo the current North Korea situation but they don’t know how to do it in a way that doesn’t harm their national interests. North Korea will become our thorn in China’s side over time, pretty quickly. And so if there’s North Korea and a rearming and maybe eventually someday nuclear Japan, and also India, the first line of China containment is India, North Korea (oddly enough) and Japan. I don’t know how that will go, but it’s a kind of buffer between China and us, it can be a force that pulls us into conflict, it could be a kind of buffer that allows us to stay somewhat removed from it.

That is from my dialogue with Bill Kristol, the transcription (with commentary) is from Sam Roggeveen.  He also transcribes this bit:

…for the first time in my life time, in a way the first time ever, America finally has a peer country. The Soviet Union was a peer with its nuclear weapons but not in general. But in terms of human talent, GDP, China right now is in most ways a peer country to the United States. We’re not ready for that, mentally or emotionally.

That is the new, excellent, and detailed book by Eric Schliesser, a political scientist at Amsterdam.  I would say that Schliesser is a very learned “left Smithian,” and that you should take the subtitle very very seriously.  Here is one excerpt:

1. I argue that while Smith certainly took experience and empirical science seriously, he should not be understood as a empiricist in epistemology and his moral epistemology; he relies crucially on innate ideas and innate mental structure.

2. This book gives the first extensive (albeit not exhaustive) study and taxonomy of Smith’s theory of the passions, which I treat as elements of his system (cf. Hume’s treatise  In fact, I argue that the content of a social passion is inherently normative in Smith’s approach.

3. I argue that Smith is decidedly reserved about deploying mathematics within his political economy.

4. I argue that Smith’s account of liberty should not be identified with the so-called liberty of the moderns, or freedom of contract.  While Smith certainly was a defender of freedom of contract, his account of liberty is more expansive (and more attractive).

Sometimes I draw a distinction between “branching” books, whose arguments spread out in many different directions and draw many distinctions, and “channeling” books, which try to put the material into a narrower, common framework.  (Reading each requires quite distinct sets of skills!)  This is a branching book.  You can order it here.

I thank my colleague David Levy for the pointer to this work.

Via Alex — the Alex — here is the story.  Excerpt:

It turns out that from 2011-2014, the Department of Defense spent $5.4 million in contracts with 14 NFL teams for flag ceremonies. The National Guard got in on the action too, and gave $6.7 million to the NFL for the same kind of thing from 2013 to 2015.

…Before 2009, football players standing for the national anthem wasn’t even a thing. The teams stayed in the locker room until after “and the hoooome of the braaaave,” and then ran onto the field. No one was offended, and no one was on cable news eliciting tears from disrespected military families. But then, the Department of Defense and the National Guard got involved. They began to pay the NFL millions of dollars to have ostentatious flag ceremonies before games.

There is even a whole Senate report objecting to this entire practice, with John McCain as one of the most vocal critics.  As I’ve suggested lately, maybe the ceremony really isn’t so patriotic after all.