Category: Political Science

Who again has the power to end the government shutdown?

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

The real power here is held by government employees, especially those in critical jobs. Let’s say that more TSA screeners decided to walk off the job. It’s already the case that the TSA absentee rate has gone up to 7.6 percent, from 3.2 percent a year ago. It is possible to imagine screeners staying home in much greater numbers, thus crippling the entire nation. That could either force President Donald Trump’s hand or lead to a congressional override of a potential presidential veto.


As a rationale for showing up to work, “I’m helping both the TSA and my colleagues” can work for a while, because of both cooperative norms and peer pressure. But I don’t think it can hold things together for more than a few months. They may not have the right to strike, but federal employees can still gum up the works with high absenteeism and poor performance.

I really don’t expect anything good to come of this entire episode.

My Conversation with Larissa MacFarquhar

This was a really good one, here is the text and audio.  The opening:

TYLER COWEN: I’m here today with the great Larissa MacFarquhar. She is a staff writer for the New Yorker, considered by many to write the very best and most interesting profiles of anyone in the business. She has a very well-known book called Strangers Drowning. The subtitle is Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help. It’s about extreme altruists. And she’s now working on a book on people’s decisions whether or not to leave their hometown.

Here is one excerpt proper:

COWEN: If you’re an extreme altruist, are you too subject to manipulation by others? If you care so much about so many other people, and those people actually can be harmed pretty easily at low cost, does this mean that you, the extreme altruist, you just go through life being manipulated?

MACFARQUHAR It’s funny you say that because one thing that I have noticed about the extreme altruist . . . You know what? I don’t want to call them extreme altruists. I think they’re people with a very strong sense of duty.

The people I met were very, very different from each other, but one thing they had in common is they really, really barely cared about what other people thought. They had to feel that way because almost everyone they met thought they were at best weirdos, and at worst dangerous megalomaniacs. So they were unconventional in their degree of duty but also in many other ways.

COWEN: They didn’t care at all what people thought about anything they did like how they dressed or . . . ?

MACFARQUHAR: Things like that. I don’t mean they didn’t care about anything about what people thought because obviously —

COWEN: In this context they didn’t care.

MACFARQUHAR: Obviously they cared about making other people’s lives better. But yes, in terms of opinions of themselves, they were much less sensitive to that than most of us.


COWEN: Your view on how much you should be lied to if you have dementia — is that the same as what you would propose for a sibling or a child, someone you loved and knew?

MACFARQUHAR: With dementia?

COWEN: Right. Would you be consistent and apply the same standard to them that you would want for yourself?

MACFARQUHAR: Ohhh, I don’t know.

COWEN: I would say don’t lie to me, but, in fact, for others, I would be more willing to lie to them than I would wish to be lied to myself.

Try this part too:

COWEN: If during a profile, when you describe people’s looks, are you worried that you are reinforcing stereotypes?

MACFARQUHAR: No. But I have —

COWEN: But isn’t there a thing, looksism?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, of course.

COWEN: There’s sexism, there’s racism, and looksism — people who look a certain way, you should make certain inferences. Is there any way we can describe people’s looks that doesn’t run that danger?

MACFARQUHAR: Probably not. But I’ll say two things about this.

First is, I think there is far too much emphasis on describing people’s looks. Because the thing about humans is that their faces are unique, so you can describe somebody, but you’re never going to be able to call up an exact picture in a reader’s mind about what the person looks like. So what you’re doing is not really describing what they look like — what you’re doing is evoking something which, I guess, the malign form of that is looksism.

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And also, from me:

COWEN: Could the same person be both, say, a Rwandan killer in the 1990s and an extreme altruist? Or is that a contradiction?

Definitely recommended.

*The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis*

That is the new and highly comprehensive book by Sheilagh Ogilvie, and it is likely to stand as one of the more important works of economic history from the last decade.  Here is one opening summary bit:

…my own reading of the evidence is that a common theme underlies guilds’ activities: guilds tended to do what is best for guild members.  In some cases, what guilds did brought certain benefits for the broader public.  But overall, the actions guilds took mainly had the effect of protecting and enriching their members at the expense of consumers and non-members; reducing threats from innovators, competitors, and audacious upstarts; and generating sufficient rents to pay off the political elites that enforced guilds’ privileges and might otherwise have interfered with them.

And yes she really does show this, with a remarkable assemblage of data.  For instance:

…the 14 guilds in Table 2.4 devoted an average of 28 per cent of their expenditures to lobbying.  However, the average was 45 per cent across the five poor guilds and just 14 per cent across the eight rich ones.


Guild mastership fees could not be paid off in a couple of weeks of work.  Across these 1,102 observations, the average mastership fee consumed 276 days’ wages for a labourer, 215 days for a journeyman, and 1543 days for a guild master.

Operating licenses were expensive too (pp.125-126).  There are more “Ands”:

Guild entry barriers pushed people into illicit production, as emerges from 14 per cent of observations in Table 3.15.


Guild members whose trades stagnated could not legally diversify to other guilded work…

On top of that, guilds typically restricted the training of women and would not let them enter the relevant sectors.  And:

The amount of attention guilds devoted to product quality in their ordinances does not suggest they regarded it as a major concern.

Ouch!  Ogilivie also concludes, and demonstrates using data, that guilds did not promote human capital accumulation or innovation.  The various revisionist defenses of guilds, as produced over the years, basically seem to be wrong.

You can pre-order the book here.

What should I ask Mark Koyama and Noel Johnson

They are my colleagues, and both are economic historians, and they have an important forthcoming book Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom.  I will be doing a Conversation with them.

More generally they have worked on state capacity, nation building, why China evolved into such a large political unit, the Black Death, scapegoating, usury prohibitions in history, the economic impact of volcanic eruptions, and more.  I am always happy to see them.

Their home pages are here and here.  So what should I ask them?

When State-Building Hinders Growth: The Legacy of China’s Confucian Bureaucracy

That is the title of a new paper by Daniel Mattingly:

Do countries with a long history of state-building fare better in the long run? Recent work has shown that earlier state-building may lead to higher levels of present-day growth. By contrast, I use a natural experiment to show that the regions of China with over a thousand years of sustained exposure to state-building are significantly poorer today. The mechanism of persistence, I argue, was the introduction of a civil service exam based on knowledge of Confucian classics, which strengthened the social prestige of the civil service and weakened the prestige of commerce. A thousand years later, the regions of China where the Confucian bureaucracy was first introduced have a more educated population and more Confucian temples, but lower levels of wealth. The paper contributes to an important debate on the Great Divergence, highlighting how political institutions interact with culture to cause long-run patterns of growth.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The new committee to re-elect Donald Trump

It has some surprising members:

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been promoting the idea of a 70 percent top marginal tax rate, and Paul Krugman has been defending it. Matthew Yglesias of Vox has written that 70 percent might be too low.

Here is my full Bloomberg column on the topic.  You will note by the way that if you only apply the tax on say $10 million and up, it will all be converted into capital income and the tax will distort without raising much revenue.  And here is a sentence toward the end of the piece, part of my advice for Democrats:

Recognize that you’ll never be that popular on the tax issue.

I see this as a kind of catnip issue, one where the Democratic Left is so, so tempted to make redistribution the central idea of the party, a disastrous urge in my view.

Non-martial legislation passed during The Civil War

The Homestead Act of 1862, providing (nearly) free land for settlers in designated parts of the West

The Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862

The National Banking Act of 1863, creating a national banking system and currency

Several transcontinental railroad bills

The first federal income tax

Created the National Academy of Sciences

Establishment of the Department of Agriculture (which had a significant R&D component), the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Office of Immigration.

Love it or hate it or both, that’s a lot.  Not only do the pressures of war lead to “things getting done,” but of course the Southern states and their representatives had dropped out of Congress.

That is all from Walter Licht, Industrializing America: The Nineteenth Century.

Do consumer interests shape trade policy?

Alas, it seems not, or so it is reported by Timm Betz and Amy Pond:

Why are some countries more open to trade than others? Prominent explanations emphasize differences in the influence of voters as consumers. Consumers benefit from lower prices. Because governments in democracies are more responsive to voters, they should implement lower tariffs. We develop and evaluate an implication of this line of argument. If lower tariffs are a response to consumer interests, lower tariffs should be concentrated on products most relevant to consumers. Using data on consumption shares across product categories, we report evidence that consumer interests do not account for lower tariffs. Governments place higher tariffs on goods with higher consumption shares, and we find no evidence that this relationship attenuates under more democratic institutions. There may be a variety of reasons why more democratic states are engaged in higher levels of international trade. A larger concern for consumer interests, however, is likely not among them.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Does Exposure to the Refugee Crisis Make Natives More Hostile?

Although Europe has experienced unprecedented numbers of refugee arrivals in recent years, there exists almost no causal evidence regarding the impact of the refugee crisis on natives’ attitudes, policy preferences, and political engagement. We exploit a natural experiment in the Aegean Sea, where Greek islands close to the Turkish coast experienced a sudden and massive increase in refugee arrivals, while similar islands slightly farther away did not. Leveraging a targeted survey of 2,070 island residents and distance to Turkey as an instrument, we find that direct exposure to refugee arrivals induces sizable and lasting increases in natives’ hostility toward refugees, immigrants, and Muslim minorities; support for restrictive asylum and immigration policies; and political engagement to effect such exclusionary policies. Since refugees only passed through these islands, our findings challenge both standard economic and cultural explanations of anti-immigrant sentiment and show that mere exposure suffices in generating lasting increases in hostility.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Dominik Hangartner, Elias Dinas, Moritz Marbach, and Konstantinos Matakos, via the excellent Kevin Lewis

Do longer sentences reduce crime?

I find that Republican prosecutorial offices sentence defendants to longer incarceration spells as compared to their Democratic and Independent counterparts. This increase in incarceration length is driven by longer sentences for both violent and prop- erty offenses, and translates into a persistent increase in incarceration. These sentencing and incarceration enhancements do not lower crime at the county level, indicating that, in terms of public safety, the marginal return to the tough-on-crime stance may be close to zero.

That is from a new AEA paper by Ashna Arora.

The new economics of complaining

Barbara Deckert has a new weapon in the war against airplane noise — and she’s not afraid to use it.

Every time a plane flies over her suburban Maryland home, rattling her windows and setting her teeth on edge, she presses a small white button and feels a tiny sense of triumph.

That’s because with one click, Deckert has done what could have taken her hours to do a few months ago — she has filed a noise complaint with officials at the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Thanks to the ingenuity of a software engineer from Southern California, Deckert and hundreds of others with similar beefs, and the Airnoise button, have an easy way to register their annoyance with the jets that fly over their homes.

“It’s a fabulous tool,” Deckert said. “Clicking that button is really psychologically satisfying.”

Officials at airports from Seattle to Baltimore said Airnoise has led to a dramatic spike in complaints. At Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, officials are almost certain Airnoise is the reason complaints surged to 17,228 in August from 2,692 the previous month. In San Diego, more than 90 percent of the complaints came through third-party apps like Airnoise.

That is from Lori Aratani at WaPo, via Eric J.  And there is this, a metaphor for our times:

The button has clearly gotten a lot of use: The plastic coating is partially peeled off. A few weeks ago, the battery gave out. So for now, she’s using her iPad to file complaints.

“People can try to discredit me, but I don’t worry about that,” she said. She paused and remembered the day she filed her first complaint with the Airnoise button.

“It felt so good,” she said. “It’s highly, highly therapeutic. It makes you feel like you can make a difference.”

My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?


KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit

I am tempted to call this long piece on a boring subject the best I have read in 2019, but you know I think that might remain true by the end of the year.  Here is an excerpt from the Belgium section:

I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades.

Or Denmark:

The leftish Information provides the most useful articles. One has a headline in English, though anchored in the land of Elsinore: ‘To Be or Not to Be, That Is Not the Question’. The real ‘question’ doesn’t concern the merits of Leave or Remain, but the complexities of a twin crisis, in both the UK and the EU. Another piece, published shortly after the referendum, describes the division of a nation into Leavers and Remainers as afgrundsdyb. Meaning ‘abyssal’, the term, I am told, hints at the unfathomable as well as the unbridgeable, while evoking something that is certainly dangerous to approach.

I enjoyed this line:

Croatia has more experience than most of entering and exiting alliances.

From the Germany section:

‘Brexit shows that the Brussels bureaucracy, that alleged monster that employs no more civil servants than a central German city administration, has done a great job. The extent of interconnectedness at all levels has to be renegotiated: supply chains, industry standards, food and pharmaceutical standards, security architectures, rural and air transport structures, fishing rights, research collaborations, student exchanges, a vast frictionlessness system is now in jeopardy’ (Gustav Seibt, Süddeutsche Zeitung).

This I had not known:

…in Norway the conservative right is overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EU.

And finally:

Being a Brit in Sweden can be embarrassing just now. We’re one of the Swedes’ favourite peoples, admired for our history and culture, and loved for Engelskt humor. Shocked they may be; but a diet of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers means that Swedes are not altogether surprised.

The authors are numerous, the whole piece was published in The London Review of Books, definitely recommended.  I would note that “what group X really thinks of Y” remains an under-exploited genre in journalism, and elsewhere, and it is one of the best ways of learning about a topic.

That was then, this is now

[Andrew] Jackson imagined his role as that of a Roman tribune or dictator, summoned to executive power for a season for defend the plebeians against corrupt patricians.  That meant, among other things, slashing federal expenses and retiring the national debt.

Jackson in fact worked hard to strike down “internal improvements” in only a single state, as he was convinced that such legislation was unconstitutional, and that a corrupt Congress was working to enrich itself.

That is all from Walter A. McDougall, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829-1877, p.60.