Category: Political Science

Voting Rights, Deindustrialization, and Republican Ascendancy in the South

Here is a new paper from Gavin Wright:

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 revolutionized politics in the American South. These changes also had economic consequences, generating gains for white as well as Black southerners. Contrary to the widespread belief that the region turned Republican in direct response to the Civil Rights Revolution, expanded voting rights led to twenty-five years of competitive two-party politics, featuring strong biracial coalitions in the Democratic Party. These coalitions remained competitive in most states until the Republican Revolution of the 1990s. This abrupt rightward shift had many causes, but critical for southern voters were the trade liberalization measures of 1994, specifically NAFTA and the phase-out of the Multi-Fiber Arrangement which had protected the textiles and apparel industries for decades. The consequences of Republican state regimes have been severe, including intensified racial polarization, loss of support for public schools and higher education, and harsh policies toward low-income populations.

The last sentence strikes me as misleading and inappropriate (in multiple ways), but still the research is of very real interest. Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Misaligned incentives for incarceration in the United States

The incarceration rate has increased substantially in the United States between the 1980s and the 2000s. In this paper, I explore an institutional explanation for this growth: the fact that costs of incarceration are not fully internalized. Typically, prison is paid for at the state level, but county employees (such as judges, prosecutors or probation officers) determine time spent in custody. I exploit a natural experiment that shifted the cost burden of juvenile incarceration from state to counties, keeping overall costs and responsibilities unchanged. This resulted in a stark drop in incarceration, and no increase in arrests, suggesting an over-use of prison when costs are not internalized. The large magnitude of the change suggests that misaligned incentives in criminal justice may be a significant contributor to the current levels of incarceration in the United States.

That is from the opening of a new JPubEc piece by Aurélie Ouss, via the excellent Samir Varma.

Radio and riots

Although the 1960s race riots have gone down in history as America’s most violent and destructive ethnic civil disturbances, a single common factor able to explain their insurgence is yet to be found. Using a novel data set on the universe of radio stations airing black-appeal programming, the effect of media on riots is found to be sizable and statistically significant. A marginal increase in the signal reception from these stations is estimated to lead to a 7% and 15% rise in the mean levels of the likelihood and intensity of riots, respectively. Several mechanisms behind this result are considered, with the quantity, quality, and the length of exposure to radio programming all being decisive factors.

That is from a recent paper by Andrea Bernini, a job market candidate from Oxford University.  We forget sometimes that arguably the internet is a more peace-inducing institution than was radio.

The political economy of Swine flu vaccine allocation

Previous research has isolated the effect of “congressional dominance” in explaining bureaucracy-related outcomes. This analysis extends the concept of congressional dominance to the allocation of H1N1, or swine flu, vaccine doses. States with Democratic United States Representatives on the relevant House oversight committee received roughly 60,000 additional doses per legislator during the initial allocation period, though this political advantage dissipated after the first 3 weeks of vaccine distribution. As a result political factors played a role in determining vaccine allocation only when the vaccine was in particularly short supply. At-risk groups identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), such as younger age groups and first responders, do not receive more vaccine doses, and in fact receive slightly fewer units of vaccine.

That is from an Economic Inquiry paper by Matt E. Ryan.  Via Henry Thompson.

Why conspiracy theories are on the rise

There are certain ideas that are highly seductive, so much so that even “WEIRDOS” occasionally dabble in conspiracy theories. So why weren’t conspiracy theories a bigger part of life in the late 20th century? I believe this is because the media was almost completely controlled by WEIRD people. The news desks at ABC/NBC/CBS stuck to the mainstream version of events, unless they had clear evidence that the official were lying (say after the Ellsberg Papers came out.) So there was no major institution to form and disseminate conspiracy theories. These theories did exist back then, but never gained enough traction to have a big impact on society.

The internet changed everything. More specifically, it democratized information sharing all over the world. There are no more “gatekeepers”. Because less that 10% of the world’s population is truly WEIRD, the internet has made conspiracy theories the dominant epistemic style of the 21st century. Just as the 21st century will be a low interest rate/high asset price century (as I predicted years ago), it will also be a century of widespread conspiracy theories. I doubt whether I’ll live along enough to see another president who is generally accepted as legitimate.

That is from Scott Sumner, there is more at the link.

Post-Covid, is the U.S. falling behind China?

I don’t think so, as I argue in my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

If you are wondering whether China or the U.S. with its allies is more likely to make a big breakthrough, in, say, quantum computing, ask yourself a simple question: Which network will better attract talented immigrants? The more that talent and innovation are found around the world, the more that helps the U.S.

And:

Perhaps most important, the European Union has evolved from seeing China primarily as a customer to seeing China primarily as a rival. Even Germany, a longstanding advocate for closer ties with China, has become more skeptical. Furthermore, most European nations have ended up agreeing with the U.S. that Chinese telecom giant Huawei be kept out of the critical parts of their communications infrastructure.

It is also worth noting that GPT-3 came out of the Anglosphere, not China, even though we have been hearing for years that China may be ahead in AI.

Asking for a friend

What is the current take on foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election?  I hardly hear anyone mentioning this.  Was there much?  And if not, why not?  Our sagest minds were warning of this for years, and I heard several nat sec experts warn me of this but a few weeks ago.  There have been hundreds of media articles about the topic.  So what is up?  I see a few options:

1. There was lots of foreign interference (again), but things turned out OK so it is not a major issue.  “Never mind.”

2. President Donald Trump ensured election integrity through vigilance, good policy, and cooperation with Vladimir Putin.

3. Local election authorities were alert this time around, and they choked off each and every instance of foreign election interference.

4. The major tech companies were alert this time around, and they choked off each and every instance of foreign election interference.  They didn’t even let the Russkies spend 60k on Facebook ads.  Those are such great companies.

5. Foreign election interference was never much of a significant issue to begin with.  “Never mind.

6. Foreign powers are now all, in each and every country, committed to free and fair American elections, and they acted accordingly.

To be clear, I am not asking which is true.  I am asking which one I am supposed to believe.

Right-thinking Henry Olsen on Trump voter fraud

Mass voter fraud should be relatively easy to detect, even if it might be difficult to prove. Since we elect presidents through the electoral college, political operatives trying to nefariously produce a victory would focus on states critical to an electoral college majority. Thus, if fraud were behind President-elect Joe Biden’s win, we should expect to see significantly higher turnout increases in key states when compared to the nation as a whole. Furthermore, we should expect to see higher turnout increases within those states in Democratic areas than in Republican areas, since those regions are places where Democrats are more likely to be able to hide any stolen votes. Finally, we should expect to see significantly larger shifts in voter margins toward the Democrats from other, previous elections as the fraud alters the area’s normal voting patterns.

None of these early warning signs of fraud appear in the results.

There is much more detail and argument at the link.  Via Ross Douthat.

The first global election?

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

What kind of bargain is it for the country for the U.S. election to be the object of such global interest? We Americans may be flattered by the attention, but it is not clear that it is such a good thing. For one thing, it gives foreigners a greater incentive to try to manipulate U.S. elections.

Another possible problem is that political coalitions will, over time, be defined globally rather than nationally and locally. Is your presidential candidate attracting support from the wrong factions in France, Germany or South Sudan? On one hand that could be useful information, but it could also prove misleading. Foreigners support U.S. presidential candidates for their own reasons, and it could be distorting to have so many outside parties involved. That’s what happened in the Brexit debates, in which a pro-Brexit position was (and remains) all too quickly identified with populism, anti-globalization and support for Trump. The Brexit debate might have been more sane if it had been more local.

What if, come the next U.S. presidential election, most of the social media debate is among non-Americans? What if much of the world ends up with a common, one-dimensional political spectrum, rather than each country having its own (mostly) independent politics? We may be about to find out.

I’ll say it again: American soft power is rising, not falling.

This election’s winners and losers

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and no I do not mean the politicians.  Here is one excerpt:

…the political-science hypothesis of “retrospective voting” took a whacking. Retrospective voting suggests that the electorate evaluates incumbents by recent economic performance and votes accordingly, regardless of whether the incumbents are actually at fault. Yet Trump presided over about 320,000 excess deaths related to Covid-19, as well as huge contractions in GDP and employment. Even if he loses, as now seems likely, those failures didn’t knock him out of the race. A lot of his supporters still seem to have felt he would cope better with matters moving forward.

And to close:

American democracy: Maybe this one is premature, but so far the U.S. has held a closely contested election under pandemic conditions. Turnout was much higher than usual, and so far there hasn’t been much election-related violence. Could it be that the system really works?

And when will the “money in politics” people admit they were wrong?

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

Vaccine politics will soon replace electoral politics

That is the title and theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

And who should get the vaccine first? The elderly are more vulnerable, but the young are more likely to spread Covid-19. Some recent results suggest it would be better to vaccinate the young first, but that is less politically likely. Again, it is easy to see potential conflicts over this question, cutting across traditional party lines.

An even more complex problem would arise if one good vaccine is available but other, possibly better, vaccines are imminent. Does everyone get the “good enough” vaccine, disrupting the ability to conduct clinical trials to see if the other vaccines are better? How much patience do Americans have, really?

Americans would probably resent having to wait. But if they end up choosing a lesser quality vaccine, over the long run they might be unhappier yet. It is not clear the U.S. public health bureaucracy is up to the task of approving one vaccine and restructuring the other trials (possibly by paying participants more to stay in, or by shifting to other countries for data) so they can continue.

Be prepared for a mess, with almost everybody unhappy.

The best argument against the Electoral College

Contrary to conventional intellectual wisdom there are not many good ones, but this packs some real force:

Starting from probabilistic simulations of likely presidential election outcomes that are similar to the output from election forecasting models, we calculate the likelihood of disputable, narrow outcomes under the Electoral College. The probability that the Electoral College is decided by 20,000 ballots or fewer in a single, pivotal state is greater than 1-in-10. Although it is possible in principle for either system to generate more risk of a disputable election outcome, in practice the Electoral College today is about 40 times as likely as a National Popular Vote to generate scenarios in which a small number of ballots in a pivotal voting unit determines the Presidency.

And note this, which explains a good deal of the debate and rationalizations — on both sides:

This disputed-election risk is asymmetric across political parties. It is about twice as likely that a Democrat’s (rather than Republican’s) Electoral College victory in a close election could be overturned by a judicial decision affecting less than 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 ballots in a single, pivotal state.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Michael Geruso and Dean Spears.

My Conversation with Michael Kremer

Self-recommending, here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Michael joined Tyler to discuss the intellectual challenge of founding organizations, applying methods from behavioral economics to design better programs, how advanced market commitments could lower pharmaceutical costs for consumers while still incentivizing R&D, the ongoing cycle of experimentation every innovator understands, the political economy of public health initiatives, the importance of designing institutions to increase technological change, the production function of new technologies, incentivizing educational achievement, The Odyssey as a tale of comparative development, why he recently transitioned to University of Chicago, what researchers can learn from venture capitalists, his current work addressing COVID-19, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I’ve seen estimates — they’re actually from one of the groups you founded — that a deworming pill could cost as little as 50 cents a year per person in many parts of Africa. So why isn’t deworming done much more?

KREMER: You could say the glass is half empty, you can say it’s half full, or you can say it’s almost three-quarters full. I think it’s about three-quarters full. When I first got involved in deworming, it was testing a small NGO program. We found phenomenal effects of that. The original work found health gains and education gains. Now we’ve tracked people over 20 years, and we’re seeing people have a better standard of living or earning more.

Following the early results, we presented the results of the government of Kenya to the World Bank. Kenya scaled this up nationally, in part with assistance from the World Bank, primarily just in conveying some of that information.

Indian states started doing that, and then the national government of India took this on. They’re reaching — a little bit harder to know the exact numbers — but probably 150 million people a year. Many other countries are doing this as well, so it’s actually quite widely adopted.

COWEN: But there’s still a massive residual, right?

KREMER: That is for sure.

COWEN: What’s your best explanatory theory of why the residual isn’t smaller? It would seem to be a vote winner. African countries, fiscally, are in much better shape than they used to be. They’re more democratic. Public health looks much better. The response to COVID-19 has probably been better than many people expected, say, in Senegal, possibly in Kenya. So why not do deworming more?

KREMER: The people who have worms are pretty poor people. The richer people are less likely to have worms within a given society. Richer people are probably more politically influential.

There’s also something about worms — they gradually build up in your body, and one worm is not going to do that much damage. The problem is when you’ve got lots of worms in your body, and even there, it’s going to take time.

I’ve had malaria. I don’t think I’ve had worms. I hope I haven’t. When you have malaria, you feel terrible. You go from feeling fine to feeling terrible, and then you take the medicine. You feel great afterwards. With worms, it’s much more like a chronic thing, and when you expel the worms from your body, that’s sort of gross. I don’t think, even at the individual level, do you have quite the demand that would be commensurate with the scale of the problem. That’s a behavioral economics explanation.

I think there are political issues and then there are behavioral issues. I would actually say that a huge, huge issue . . . This sounds very boring, but this falls between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, and each one of them has different priorities. The Ministry of Health is going to be worried about delivering things through clinics. They’re worried about HIV and malaria, tuberculosis, as it should be.

The Ministry of Education — they’re worried about teacher strikes. It’s very easy for something to either fall between the cracks or be the victim of turf wars. It sounds too small to be, “How can that really get in the way?” But anybody who’s spent time working in governments understands those things can very easily get in the way. In some ways, it’s surprising how much progress has been made.

Here’s one way the political economy works in favor. You mentioned democracy — I think that’s a factor. I actually find — and I don’t want to be necessarily a big fan of politicians — but in some ways, politicians hear how much this costs, and they think they can affect that many people for that small amount of money, and they’re like, “Hey, I want to get on that. Maybe this is something I can claim as an achievement.” We saw that in Kenya. We saw that in India.

And:

COWEN: Let’s say the current Michael Kremer sets up another high school in Kenya. What is it that you would do that the current high schools in Kenya are not doing? What would you change? You’re in charge.

KREMER: Right. We’ve learned a lot in education research in recent years. One thing that we saw in Kenya, but was also seen in India and many other places, is that it’s very easy for kids to fall behind the curriculum. Curricula, in particular in developing countries, tend to be set at a fairly high level, similar to what you would see in developed countries.

However, kids are facing all sorts of disadvantages, and there are all sorts of problems in the way the system works. There’s often high teacher absence. Kids are sick. Kids don’t have the preparation at home, often. So kids can fall behind the curriculum.

Whereas we’ve had the slogan in the US, “No Child Left Behind,” in developing countries, education system is focused on kids at the top of the distribution. What’s been found is, if you can set up — and there are a whole variety of different ways to do this — either remedial education systems or some technology-aided systems that are adaptive, that go to where the kid is . . . I’ve seen huge gains from this in India, and we’re starting to see adoption of this in Africa as well, and that can have a very big impact at quite low cost.

Intelligent throughout.

How much does it matter who dies from Covid-19?

In this latest Bloomberg column, I am referring in particular to the ages of the victims.  The subtext of course is that many of the herd immunity theorists repeat (again and again) that most of the victims are quite old, which is indeed correct.  Here is one excerpt:

By contrast [to 9/11], about 3,500 Americans die each year in fires. To repeat: That is each year. Yet Americans have not responded to deaths by fire as they did to 9/11, nor has a major public discussion ensued.

To be clear, the U.S. probably should do more to limit the number of fire deaths. But they do not threaten the nation and constitutional order in the way that terrorist attacks do. How people die is crucial in helping a nation and society scale its response and frame the debate over what to do.

Covid-19 is obviously more like 9/11 than it is like the annual toll of fire deaths. It commands the headlines every day, has created a global economic depression, is reshaping global politics and the balance of power, causes extreme stress for millions and has significantly harmed America’s global reputation. Yes, there have been some anxiety-driven overreactions, but it is inevitable that humans will respond dramatically to a major worldwide pandemic.

To be sure, the number of U.S. victims is high — 220,000 and counting, plus some number of excess deaths from broader causes. But the event itself is so cataclysmic that “downgrading” those deaths by saying many of the victims were elderly doesn’t make a big difference in terms of formulating an optimal response.

And to close:

Pandemics have been civilization-altering events since the beginning of human history, and they still are — especially if we do not respond properly. The need to get the response right, not the relative worth of the young to that of the old, is the main thing that we should be obsessing about.

Recommended.