Category: Political Science

My take on the Statue of Liberty

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home, or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon, a homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor, a hearkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization, and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi), and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

And that does not even get us to the main argument.  In the meantime, I would stress what a wonderful and splendid book is Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.  It is entirely gripping, and one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.

Stripe Press

Stripe partners with hundreds of thousands of the world’s most innovative businesses—organizations that will shape the world of tomorrow. These businesses are the result of many different inputs. Perhaps the most important ingredient is “ideas.”

Stripe Press highlights ideas that we think can be broadly useful. Some books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today.

Link here.

*Kolyma Stories*, by Varlam Shalamov

It is difficult to express just how good these Gulag short stories are.  I would very literally second the blurb by David Bezmozgis:

“As a record of the Gulag and human nature laid bare, Varlam Shalamov is the equal of Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam, while the artistry of his stories recalls Chekhov. This is literature of the first rank, to be read as much for pleasure as a caution against the perils of totalitarianism.”

That is not blurb inflation.  Note that the book is long (734 pp. of stories), and the reading is slow, mostly because the narratives lack redundant information, not because they are clumsy or awkwardly written.  It also takes perhaps a few stories to get into the swing of things and figure out how the fictional yet not fictional universe works here.  But the content is entirely gripping, and full of social science.  You can buy it here.   A second volume from this translator will appear in 2019, completing the series.

An earlier version of the work, with a different translation and less complete, was published in 1995.  By the way, here is the author’s Wikipedia page.

Have you ever wondered how the contemporary world would react if a masterpiece were dropped into its midst?  If your guess was “with a fair amount of indifference unless it was Elena Ferrante and even then it wouldn’t really change anything except give rise to probably what will be a mediocre television series”…well, you were right.  For Shalamov, I don’t yet see an Amazon review.

Here is my earlier post on what Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag.

Epp and Borghetto have solved for the equilibrium…

And most of you won’t like it:

This article investigates the effects of economic inequality on legislative agendas. It considers two competing hypotheses: (1) that policymakers will act to counter rising inequality by renewing their focus on redistributive social policies, and (2) that rising inequality makes legislative agendas especially vulnerable to the influence of economic elites, and that these elites will attempt to keep redistributive social policies off the agenda. Empirical tests, which are designed to arbitrate between these hypotheses, use data on public laws and parliamentary bills introduced in the legislatures of nine European countries between 1941 and 2014. The evidence is supportive of the second hypothesis: as inequality becomes more acute, European legislative agendas become systematically less diverse and this narrowing of attention is driven by a migration away from social safety-net issues toward issues relating to law enforcement, immigration, and national defense.

Here is the paper, via the excellent Matt Grossman.

Corruption and sensitive soccer games

We utilize data from sensitive soccer games in 75 countries between the years 2001 and 2013. In these games one team was in immediate danger of relegation to a lower division (Team A) and another team was not affected by the result (Team B). Using within-country variation, our difference-in-difference analysis reveals that the more corrupt the country, according to Corruption Perceptions Index, the higher is the probability that Team A would achieve the desired result in the sensitive games relative to achieving this result in other, non-sensitive games against the same team. We also find that in the later stages of the following year, the probability that Team A would lose against Team B compared to losing against a similar team (usually better than Team B) is significantly higher in more corrupt countries than in less corrupt countries. This result serves as evidence of quid pro quo behavior.

That is a recently published paper by Guy Elaad, Alex Krumer, and Jeffrey Kantor.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Trump’s gender gap also concerns intensity of preference

Among self-identified Republicans, Trump’s approval is 91 percent among men and 82 percent among women. But the gap in intensity of support is what is particularly telling. While 68 percent of male Republicans say they strongly approve of the way Trump is handling his job, just 31 percent of female Republicans say the same — a whopping 37-point difference.

There is a double-digit difference between all men and women in their evaluation of Trump’s handling of immigration, and likewise among Republican men and women. On trade, Republican men and women are in general agreement in giving positive marks, but they are widely separated in whether they feel strongly about that support.

On his handling of the economy, the gap is even larger. Across the entire population, more than 6 in 10 men give him positive marks for the economy, but fewer than 4 in 10 women say the same. Among Republicans, there is a 27-point difference between men and women in the level of strong approval expressed for the way the president is dealing with the economy.

Here is the full story by Dan Balz.

Theo asks, and I intersperse my answers

Dear Tyler,

Due to the asymmetry of fame I feel that I know you quite well so I am just going to bombard you with random questions and hope that you see fit to answer some of them.

You seem to value journalism very highly. Is it just out of necessity as a generalist, or does popular writing on a topic have important information that can’t be learned from the academic/scholarly side?

Journalists have to try to explain things that actually happened to other human beings, often educated ones but not specialists either.  It is hard to overrate the importance of that process to developing one’s thoughts and self, no matter what you may think of particular journalists in today’s MSM.

Related: Which elite profession or slice of society is most opaque to journalists and “book-learning” in general? (Oddly some of the categories that come to mind are those which are some of the most written-about – food, sex, friends, law, politics. But it’s probably maths.)

Making things.  Archaeology.  These days, tech.  Maths.  Journalism.

How much less interesting would it be to read Shakespeare if no-one else ever had? Does the answer differ much across top-tier “great” artists?

It would not be less interesting at all, maybe more interesting, because the shock of discovery would be all the greater.  Admittedly, many artists require lots of discussion with other people, maybe rock and roll most of all?  But not Shakespeare.

Overrated vs underrated: The New Yorker. How about Samin Nosrat?

The New Yorker has had a consistent voice and remarkable brand for more decades than I can remember (I recall Patrick Collison making a similar point, perhaps in a podcast?).  Since I am now above the median age for the United States, that makes them underrated.  The literariness of the historical New York and Northeast and the integration of American and European culture also have become underrated topic areas, and The New Yorker still does them, so that too makes the magazine underrated.

And who is Samin Nosrat?  She must therefore be underrated.

Does the world have too many writers, or not enough? What about comparative literature professors? How should we think about the future of literary culture when the written word is becoming so much more culturally dominant at the same time as books and journalism are falling apart?

What variable are we changing at the margin?  If people watch less TV and write more, that is probably a plus.  I also would favor fewer photographs and more writing.  But I wouldn’t cut back on charity to increase the quantity of writing.  If only comparative literature professors were people who simply loved books — at the margin a bit more like used book store owners and somewhat less like professors — and would compare them to each other…then I would want more of them.  Until then, I don’t know how to keep the extra ones busy.

Why does the USA not have open borders with Canada?

I believe America should have open borders with any nation that has a more generous welfare state than we do.  That covers Canada, even though Canadian insurance coverage for mental health and dentistry isn’t nearly as good as you might think.  As to why we don’t have open borders with Canada, I don’t think American voters would see that as solving any concrete problem (can’t we get many of the best Canadians anyway?), and it would feel a bit like giving up control, so why do it?

To what extent are Trump, Brexit, Orban, Erdogan, rising murder rates and stalling trade growth worldwide part of the same phenomenon? If they aren’t completely separate, which way does the contagion run?

Yes, no, and maybe so, get back to me in a few years’ time.

Have a great day…

You too!

Informational autocrats

That is a new and important paper by Sergei M. Guriev and Daniel Treisman, here is the abstract:

In recent decades, dictatorships based on mass repression have largely given way to a new model based on the manipulation of information. Instead of terrorizing citizens into submission, “informational autocrats” artificially boost their popularity by convincing the public they are competent. To do so, they use propaganda and silence informed members of the elite by co-optation or censorship. Using several sources–including a newly created dataset of authoritarian control techniques–we document a range of trends in recent autocracies that fit the theory: a decline in violence, efforts to conceal state repression, rejection of official ideologies, imitation of democracy, a perceptions gap between masses and elite, and the adoption by leaders of a rhetoric of performance rather than one aimed at inspiring fear.

Again, here is my related Bloomberg column from June 18.

How well is Germany dealing with the migration crisis?

Anna Sauerbrey offers an optimistic perspective on the actual outcomes (NYT):

For all its shortcomings, Europe has actually managed the crisis quite well, in practice. Its external borders are stronger, and better policed and managed. Cooperation with Libya’s border-patrol militias, however ethically suspect, has brought down the numbers crossing from that country to Italy. So has the agreement with Turkey to host migrants in return for financial aid. In 2015, more than 450,000 pleas for asylum were filed; in 2016, about 745,000. So far this year, there have been only 68,000.

According to figures by the German Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees, only about a quarter of those applying for asylum in Germany in 2018 are already registered in another European country. This means that the C.S.U. risked blowing up the government to push through a regulation that applies to about 100 individuals a day, scattered over all of Germany’s points of entry.

But she is pessimistic about the politics:

Whatever respite Germany may have gained this week is offset, and then some, by the arrival of a new and frightening political dynamic. Mr. Seehofer succeeded by going nuclear; chances are, he won’t be the last. The politics of fear and menace may be here to stay, undermining the foundations of democracy. In sound democracies, policies are the results of compromise between parties representing a majority of the voters. Through the politics of artificial crisis, minorities take the system hostage. They create policies redeeming fictional problems for fictional majorities.

Recommended, this is one of the better takes on the problem I have seen.

45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Here are the first four:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

Here is the longer list, via Adam.  You can order the book here.

Pay more attention to Congress

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one excerpt:

Americans’ growing preoccupation with the culture wars has meant a greater focus on the two branches of government where these often symbolic battles are most fought and noticed: the presidency and the Supreme Court. A byproduct is the relative neglect of the third branch, Congress.

This has led to poor governance. Not long ago, the Republicans passed a tax reform bill, in part because they thought voters would like it. Six months later, the bill is losing popularity. The benefits of the bill are not generally transparent, the economy is doing fine anyway, and even diehard Republicans don’t seem so excited.

If you think that exercising the “power of the purse” is one of the most fundamental roles of Congress, this reflects relative voter indifference toward the legislative branch. The incentives are weak for either party to try again to improve the U.S. tax system, and so it will remain distortive and overly complex.

…I would prefer to see the electorate give up some of its current fascination with the Supreme Court and the presidency and take a stronger interest in Congress. For one thing, a change of focus might encourage Congress to check the powers of the president when it comes to trade, foreign policy and immigration.

There is much more at the link.  And Peter Suderman covers related themes (NYT).

My Conversation with Juan Pablo Villarino

Juan is sometimes considered the world’s greatest hitchhiker, and this was one of my favorite installments in the series.  We talked about “the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next…” and which country has the most beautiful women (and men).  And why Colombia and Transnistria are two of his favorite places to visit.

Here is the transcript and audio.

Here is one excerpt:

VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.

It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do…

For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.

For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.

Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .


COWEN: In your six slowest, you have in that worst six Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark with slow times [for being picked up hitchhiking].

VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.

COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?

VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.

I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”


COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?

VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.

Juan had the very best answer I thought as to why the New World is more violent than the Old World, overall.  It starts with this:

VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.

Strongly recommended, and I hope to read and see more of Juan in the future.

Trump understands this, perhaps you do not

Given the very negative baseline views that respondents have of immigrants, simply making them think about immigration in a randomized manner makes them support less redistribution, including actual donations to charities.

That is from research by Alesina, Miano, and Stantcheva.  And don’t forget this:

We also experimentally show respondents information about the true i) number, ii) origin, and iii) “hard work” of immigrants in their country. On its own, information on the “hard work” of immigrants generates more support for redistribution. However, if people are also prompted to think in detail about immigrants’ characteristics, then none of these favorable information treatments manages to counteract their negative priors that generate lower support for redistribution.

The still-coherent culture that is the United States

From Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica at NBER:

The results overall refute the hypothesis of growing cultural divides.  With few exceptions, the extent of cultural distance has been broadly constant over time.

The data also show that:

1. From to 1995, the time use behavior of women and men converged a good deal, but not since then.

2. Differences in social attitudes by political ideology and income have increased since the 1970s.  The rich and the poor have diverged the most in terms of their attitudes toward law enforcement.

3. Whites and non-whites “have converged somewhat on social attitudes but have diverged in consumer behavior.”

4. “Nevertheless, our headline result is that for all other demographic divisions and cultural dimensions, cultural distance has been broadly constant over time.”  For instance, the media consumption gap between rich and poor has not been growing.

5. “The brand most predictive of top income in 1992 is Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. By 2004, the brand most indicative of the rich is Land O’Lakes butter, followed by Kikkoman soy sauce. By the end of the sample, ownership of Apple products (iPhone and iPad) tops the list. Knowing whether someone owns an iPad in 2016 allows us to guess correctly whether the person is in the top or bottom income quartile 69 percent of the time. Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high-income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016.”

6. Voting and “trusting people” are among the “social attitudes” that best predict being rich.

7. Education is matched about as tightly to social attitudes now as it was in 1976.

8. “By 2016, watching Love It or List It and Property Brothers, both HGTV shows, were the most indicative of being educated.” [TC: yikes!]

9. Since the 1990s, there has been no divergence in the TV shows watched by liberals and conservatives.  Note that in 2001, the three TV shows that best predicted ideology were The Academy Awards, Will and Grace, and Friends, all liberal.  Nowadays it’s Fox shows, all conservative.

10. Liberals are more likely to drink alcohol, conservatives are more likely to go fishing.

11. Maybe this is the most important result: since 1976 there has not been much divergence between liberal and conservative attitudes toward civil liberties or law enforcement.  The divergence on government spending is noticeable but not enormous (see p.39).  the divergence on “Marriage, Sex, Abortion” is quite large.  In another words, the true polarization is happening across gender issues, as I’ve argued numerous times in the past.

12. Here are related important results on the cultural divide.  When will MSM articles catch up to the data?

The culture that will be Danish Plato’s Republic show them Babette’s Feast?

When Rokhaia Naassan gives birth in the coming days, she and her baby boy will enter a new category in the eyes of Danish law. Because she lives in a low-income immigrant neighborhood described by the government as a “ghetto,” Rokhaia will be what the Danish newspapers call a “ghetto parent” and he will be a “ghetto child.”

Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Noncompliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six.

Denmark’s government is introducing a new set of laws to regulate life in 25 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves, saying that if families there do not willingly merge into the country’s mainstream, they should be compelled.

That is from Ellen Barry and Martin Selsoe Sorensen at the NYT, interesting throughout.  It seems pretty clear that “culture wars” — in various forms — are the big political issue for some time to come.