Category: Political Science

Meet me in Mongolia? (North Korea fact of the day)

As officials scramble to convene the hastily announced and once-unthinkable meeting in the coming weeks, the site itself remains an open question. It is unclear whether Mr. Kim’s fleet of Soviet-era planes can fly him more than a few thousand miles from North Korea.

“We know he has a plane, but it’s an old plane,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former C.I.A. analyst and National Security Council aide who worked on Korea issues. “No one really knows if it works.”

Since taking power in 2011, Mr. Kim is not known to have flown outside his country, and the question of his transportation adds a layer of political complications to a fraught and uncertain summit meeting…

With the expected range of Mr. Kim’s planes, a trip to Hawaii or Guam, the closest United States territory to North Korea, would almost certainly require a refueling stop or a borrowed plane. Korea experts call that an indignity that Mr. Kim would not accept.

That is from Ali Watkins of the NYT.

How do people respond to shared trauma?

Studies of the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19th, 1995, indicate that the traumatic event resulted in people seeking to strengthen their bonds with loved ones: Divorce rates went down, and birth rates went up.

While tragic, the Oklahoma City bombing provided a fortuitous case study. When domestic terrorists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols carried out the truck bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, a total of 168 people died and more than 700 were injured. At the time it was the most calamitous terrorist attack in American history. Sixty-two percent of people in the city reported that they were personally affected by the events of that day. Forty percent said they knew someone who was injured or killed. The death of nineteen young children in the bombing was particularly traumatic.

Researchers have since studied the ripple effect the attack had on both divorce rates and birth rates. Family researchers Paul A. Nakonezny, Rebecca Reddick, and Joseph Lee Rodgers note that after the bombing, survivors were statistically less likely than the general population to divorce. Divorce rates, compared to the previous 10 years, declined in the Oklahoma City region in the months after the blast. Researchers thought that the impact would be felt most acutely by those closest to the bomb site, and indeed, the impact was highest among those who lived in counties most directly affected by the bombing, and lessened in Oklahoma counties located further away from downtown Oklahoma City.

In a separate study, Joseph Lee Rodgers, Craig A. St. John, and Ronnie Coleman discovered that Oklahoma City metropolitan area underwent a baby boom nine months after the bombing. In seventy-seven Oklahoma counties, both factors—marriage longevity and increased procreation—declined the further away the counties were from ground zero.

That is from Daily JStor.

What can we plausibly hope for with North Korea?

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

First: The North Korean regime has never been bureaucratized in the modern sense of that term. While we don’t have comprehensive information, it seems that until recently Kim as leader had not been going abroad, nor had he been receiving many visits from other heads of state. His position and perhaps his mood has been one of extreme isolation, and he is not surrounded by anything resembling the U.S. State Department or even the old-style Soviet bureaucracies that managed foreign policy for the USSR. The rest of his regime is probably poorly informed about the extent of American military superiority, should a conflict come to pass.

By meeting with other foreign leaders, the North Korean regime would be forced to build up its basic processes for dealing with the rest of the world. That in turn creates interest groups and flows of information (some of which invariably leak out). The North Korean populace responds by thinking more about the outside world, making it harder to control by propaganda. In turn the North Korean leadership may decide to continue economic liberalization.

One need not count on an “End of History” story culminating in liberalism and democratization. The more modest hope would be for the North Korean leadership to become more decentralized, more bureaucratic, better informed and harder to marshal behind crazy military measures.

The unspoken goal of engagement would be to encourage North Korea to evolve into a more banal and more predictable form. That is the natural flow of most bureaucratic organizations, so in this regard American negotiators actually have time on their side. The North Koreans are going to change a lot more than the U.S. is likely to.

And the concluding sentence:

Think of any diplomatic talks with North Korea as a big act of theater — designed not to fool him, but to teach him that theater itself can be fun.

Do read the whole thing.

Which is the most ideologically diverse American city?

When I requested requests, Jimmy wrote back:

(1) Conversations with Tyler featuring an actual Straussian.

(2) What is the most ideologically / politically diverse city? Which most moderate in that regard? Where in America am I least likely to be in a bubble and why?

I have several nominations for #2:

1. Houston. It still has plenty of Texas conservatives, but enough non-conservatives to elect a lesbian mayor.  Mexicans fit along a political spectrum of their own.

2. Washington, D.C. and environs. The intellectual class in this city is about half conservative/Republican/libertarian and always will be — just don’t think too hard about who actually lives here!  Most of all, everyone is used to the fact that there are oodles and oodles of forces on the other side of the debate.  No one flips out over this.  Even the media types have a reasonable amount of non-left representation.

3. Chicago. Its presence in the Midwest moderates its left flank, there is a diverse mix of ethnic groups, and the city has lots of Midwestern civic virtue.  Real estate prices have stayed relatively low, so not all blue collar and working class types have been driven out.  “Old Chicago” is still up and running to some extent.

That’s the national capital, plus two of the five largest cities.  And I’ve already argued that, in a Straussian sense, Los Angeles is the most right wing city in the United States.  Orange County is ideologically diverse as well.  In other words, urban American is doing pretty well on intellectual diversity once you get out of (parts of) Manhattan and San Francisco and Seattle.

San Antonio measures as quite moderate, but is neither typical nor extremely diverse.  Here are some basic data, Nashville, Wichita, and Las Vegas also measure in the middle, and of those Las Vegas seems most diverse to me rather than simply dull.

Which place in the country is the least likely to leave you trapped in an intellectual bubble?  Somewhere in Ohio?  Columbus or Cincinnati?  Knoxville, Tennessee?  Louisville?  Kansas City, MO?  In those locales you truly are confronted with the everyday problems of regular American life and you are not obsessing over either crypto or what just passed through the subcommittee.

The proper conclusion may be that intellectual bubbles are a useful means of moving forward.

The Middle East and Syria right now

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

Some historical events are relatively easy to model with game theory: the Cuban Missile crisis, many of the Cold War proxy wars, the crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons. In those conflicts, the number of relevant parties is small and each typically has some degree of internal cohesion.

To find a situation comparable to the Middle East today, with so many involved countries, and so many interrelationships between internal and external political issues, one has to go back to the First World War, not an entirely comforting thought.

The situation right before that war had many distinct yet related moving parts, including the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialist scramble for colonies, the prior Balkan Wars, a rising Germany seeking parity or superiority with Great Britain, an unstable alliance system, an unworkable Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the complex internal politics of Russia, which eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution.

What do we learn from the history of that time? Well, even if the chance of war was high by early 1914, it was far from obvious that the Central Powers attack on France, Belgium and Russia would be set off by a political assassination in the Balkans.

Nonetheless, in sufficiently complex situations, chain reactions can cause small events to cascade into big changes. In World War I, one goal behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to break off parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a new Yugoslavia. The empire responded by making some demands on Serbia, which were not heeded, a declaration of war followed, and the alliance system activated broader conflicts across Europe.

If you don’t quite follow how a single assassination, which was not even seen as so important the day it occurred, triggered the death of so many millions, and the destruction of so much of Europe, that is exactly the point. When there is no clear way for observers to model the situation, a single bad event can take on a very large significance and for reasons that are not entirely explicable.

Do read the whole thing.

*Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism*

That is the new book by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall:

 

Their main point is that social tactics used in interventions abroad tend to come back and haunt us at home.  I am not nearly as non-interventionist in foreign policy questions as they are, but still I wish their perspective would receive a much broader hearing.  You can buy the book here.  Here is the book’s home page.  Here is a video related to the book.

The fox

Sen. Leahy has a Facebook pixel, invisible to users, that gathers user data of Facebook users who visit the site. (For a quick primer on what “pixels” do, visit Facebook’s resource guide on the data-gathering tool.)

That’s right, if you visit Senator Leahy’s campaign website, it’s likely your data, including your demographics and what pages you looked at on the site, have been placed into a custom data targeting audience by Leahy’s team.

Here is more, via @tedfrank.  You will note that Leahy was one of the interlocutors who confronted Zuckerberg over the privacy issue.

The Peltzman Model of Regulation and the Facebook Hearings

If you want understand the Facebook hearings it’s useful to think not about privacy or  technology but about what politicians want. In the Peltzman model of regulation, politicians use regulation to tradeoff profits (wanted by firms) and lower prices (wanted by constituents) to maximize what politicians want, reelection. The key is that there are diminishing returns to politicians in both profits and lower prices. Consider a competitive industry. A competitive industry doesn’t do much for politicians so they might want to regulate the industry to raise prices and increase firm profits. The now-profitable firms will reward the hand that feeds them with campaign funds and by diverting some of the industry’s profits to subsidize a politician’s most important constituents. Consumers will be upset by the higher price but if the price isn’t raised too much above competitive levels the net gain to the politician will be positive.

Now consider an unregulated monopoly. A profit-maximized monopolist doesn’t do much for politicians. Politicians will regulate the monopolist to lower prices and to encourage the monopolist to divert some of its profits to subsidize a politician’s most important constituents. Monopolists will be upset by the lower price but if the price isn’t lowered too much below monopoly levels the net gain to the politician will be positive. (Moreover, a monopolist won’t object too much to reducing prices a little since they can do that without a big loss–the top of the profit hill is flat).

With that as background, the Facebook hearings are easily understood. Facebook is a very profitable monopoly that doesn’t benefit politicians very much. Although consumers aren’t upset by high prices (since Facebook is free), they can be made to be upset about loss of privacy or other such scandal. That’s enough to threaten regulation. The regulatory outcome will be that Facebook diverts some of its profits to campaign funds and to subsidize important political constituents.

Who will be subsidized? Be sure to watch the key players as there is plenty to go around and the money has only begun to flow but aside from campaign funds look for rules, especially in the political sphere, that will raise the costs of advertising to challengers relative to incumbents. Incumbents love incumbency advantage. Also watch out for a deal where the government limits profit regulation in return for greater government access to Facebook data including by the NSA, ICE, local and even foreign police. Keep in mind that politicians don’t really want privacy–remember that in 2016 Congress also held hearings on privacy and technology. Only those hearings were about how technology companies kept their user data too private.

The value of a statistical human life under Stalin

We examine the value of a statistical life (VSL) in interwar Soviet Union. Our approach requires to address the preferences of Stalin. We model these on the basis of the policy of statistical repression, which was an integral part of the Great Terror. We use regional variation in the victims generated by this policy to structurally estimate the value that Stalin would have been willing to accept for a reduction in citizens’ fatality risk. Our estimate of this value is $43,151, roughly 6% of the VSL estimate in 1940’s US and 29% of the VSL estimate in modern India.

That is from a new paper by Paul Castañeda Dower, Andrei Markevich, and Shlomo Weber.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Is Economic Research Biased by Partisanship?

The Washington Monthly, a magazine of ideas from the liberal-left, has a profile of me and my paper with Nathan Goldschlag, Is regulation to blame for the decline in American entrepreneurship? The profile ups the “libertarian says regulation not responsible for bad thing!” angle. My earlier paper, finding that more guns leads to more suicides, was also given the “even a libertarian says” angle. In both cases, I was treated fairly and well and since I wrote the papers to be read, I am happy for the publicity. But I am uncomfortable with these takes.

After all, I am not surprised that my research is not biased by partisanship. Why should other people be? Should I not be insulted? Moreover, I don’t think that I am special in this regard. I think that most academic research in economics is not biased by partisanship. Thus, while it’s nice to receive plaudits on twitter for honesty and bravery, they are undeserved. This is normal. Normal for me and normal for other economists. The public perception to the contrary likely comes from two failures–a failure to distinguish partisan commentary from academic research and a failure to consider that ideology influences topic more than findings.

Economic commentary in the media often does come from political partisans but that is a completely different role than publishing peer-reviewed research. Papers published in mainstream economics journals have passed a high bar and are much less likely to be infused with partisan bias–this is true even when the research leads to a blog post or op-ed that may be of partisan interest.

An economist’s ideology probably does influence the topics they choose to research. I’ve written on bounty hunters, privateers, and the private provision of public goods, topics surely influenced by my interest in how markets solve problems usually thought solvable only by governments. Choice of topic, however, does not necessarily determine the outcome. In the aforementioned three cases, my research can be read as broadly supportive of private solutions. The topics of dynamism and regulation, firearms and suicides, and private cities in India were probably also influenced by ideology but in these cases the research can be read as somewhat less supportive of private solutions.1 Let the chips fall where they may. I’ve learnt something in both sets of cases. My academic ideology, “a demand to know the truth,” trumps any narrow political ideology.

There’s another problem with praising a “libertarian”, or any researcher with strong beliefs, for honesty when their research conclusions don’t fit narrow priors. It puts their research that does fit narrow priors under a cloud. But only people with strong beliefs are put to this test. No one gets suspicious when a moderate democrat produces lots of research that fits moderate democrat priors. Why not? Do you assume reality is moderate?

I also wonder whether the people lauding me for my honest research–for which I thank them–will draw the correct conclusion. Namely, they should now be more receptive to my work on bounty hunters, privateers, and the private provision of public goods. Fingers crossed.

Let me conclude on a lighter note. There are many reasons why regulation could be costly outside of its effects on dynamism. Thus, for my friends who think that I have gone all-squishy, n.b.:

Not that Tabarrok himself has become a booster for regulation. He doesn’t think much of government’s ability to spark innovation through setting standards; the first thing he did when he last bought a new shower head, he said, was remove its federally mandated flow restrictor.

Read the whole thing.

Addendum 1: I have also written many papers like Would the Borda Count have Avoided the Civil War? and Patent Theory versus Patent Law where the topic was driven out of some non-ideological interest or simply because I had an idea. Publish or perish!

Which companies are likely to be good or bad at public relations?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, the community banks are likely to be good, here is one excerpt:

I think of community banks as enjoying relatively high levels of trust. Millions of Americans have walked through the doors of their local banks and dealt with the loan officers, tellers and account managers, giving the business a human face. A community bank cannot serve a region without sending out a fair number of foot soldiers. Banks tend to have longstanding roots in their communities, and a large stock of connections and accumulated social capital.

In turn, community banks have converted this personal trust into political clout. There are community banks in virtually every congressional district, and these banks have developed the art of speaking for many different segments of American society, not just a narrow coastal elite. When these banks mobilize on behalf of a political cause, they are powerful, as illustrated by the likelihood that they will get regulatory relief from the Dodd-Frank Act, probably with bipartisan support. They have such influence that one member of the Federal Reserve Board must be a community banker, even though few economists see much rationale for this provision.

Given their usefulness, it would be wrong to describe community bankers as a stagnant sector of our economy. Still, the same features that make them trusted and politically powerful also make them unlikely to be major sector disruptors.

Already you can see a problem shaping up, as perhaps the faster-growing, higher productivity gain companies will have less experience.  And indeed often the very dynamic, big tech companies are not so good at public relations:

Alternatively, let’s say you were designing a business that, whatever its other virtues might be, would not be very good at public relations.

First, you would make sure the business had come of age fairly recently. That would ensure the company didn’t have a long history of managing public relations, learning how the news media work, figuring out what it will or will not be blamed for, and rooting itself in local communities.

The next thing you might do is to concentrate the company’s broader business sector in one particular part of the country. That would ensure that the companies’ culture didn’t reflect the broadest possible swath of public opinion. Better yet, don’t choose a swing state such as Pennsylvania or Ohio, but rather opt for a region that is overwhelmingly of a single political orientation and viewed by many Americans as a bit crazy or out of touch. How about Northern California?

There is much more at the link.  The clincher of course is this:

And we have been building a political system that favors the time-honored company rather than the radical innovator.

How gender relations define American politics

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

I view the national-level Republican Party, at least in its current incarnation, as putting forward a vision of strong sexual dimorphism. That is, the underlying presumption is that men and women are very different, and there’s a belief that in terms of norms, behavior and the law, men and women should be very different.

The symbols emanating from the White House reflect this vision. The Trump cabinet and advisory teams have been well-stocked with traditional white men in business suits. There doesn’t appear to have been much deliberate attempt to pursue gender balance. Trump’s manner projects an older American vision of masculinity; he even married a fashion model. His broader patterns of behavior with women are well-known, and very far away from being gender egalitarian.

And the conclusion?:

So how will this turn out? There is a tendency on the progressive left to think that enlightenment eventually arrives, and that egalitarian visions will outcompete the attempts to ramp up gender dimorphism. I’m not so sure. I’m struck by recent research that in wealthier economies men and women tend to show greater personality differences, and that women are less likely to pursue STEM degrees. If we wished to give this story a Shakespearean close, it could be said that politics and sex are two topics that usually surprise us.

Do read the whole thing.

Are Washington, D.C. and the Bay Area superseding New York City?

In terms of influence, absolutely:

Traditionally, Americans have thought of New York City as the country’s cultural and intellectual center. That’s no longer the case. New York dominates in many areas, most of all the arts, but those are no longer the most influential or innovative parts of the American Zeitgeist.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that NYC feels higher status or is so diverse or has some of the coolest people.  Right now it is not the place with the generative ideas — sorry!

Here is my bit on D.C.:

The D.C. area is the center of legalistic thinking, which is increasingly important with the growth of government and the regulatory state. Lawyers and policy-makers are our engineers for incentives, so to speak, even if they don’t always get it right. Their efforts are backed by an array of economic, legal, political, public opinion and bureaucratic expertise that is without parallel in history. If, for instance, you talk to the specialist at the Treasury Department on accelerated tax depreciation, that individual will be impressive, even though his or her final output may be filtered through some very unimpressive political constraints.

D.C. has also become an increasingly important media center, where so many rhetorical battles over the future of the country are started. President Donald Trump maximized his influence by moving to the nation’s capital, though augmented by Twitter, a San Francisco product.

I’m not saying you have to like this, in fact it may end in the overregulation of tech and the Bay Area — America’s other generative center — to the detriment of economic dynamism:

But the Bay Area and the D.C. area are built on such different principles, and they don’t understand each other very well. It’s more likely that we see a rude awakening, as the U.S. realizes its two most influential centers have been pulling the country in opposite directions.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column, recommended.

Interview with MbS

There are many excellent bits in this Jeffrey Goldberg exchange, here is one:

MbS: Saudi Arabia is a network of thousands of absolute monarchies, and then has a large absolute monarchy. We have tribal monarchies, town monarchies. Moving against this structure would create huge problems in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think.

Jean Bodin would be proud.  And this:

Goldberg: Do you believe in women’s equality?

MbS: I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women.

MbS does seek to do away with Saudi guardianship laws, and he also seems to fully support Israel’s right to exist.  This is one of the best interviews you will read this year.

Could John McCain have been elected president?

If the supply of mortgage credit had not contracted from 2004 to 2008, McCain would have received half the votes needed in nine crucial swing states to reverse the outcome of the election. The effect on voting in these swing states from local contractions in mortgage credit supply was five times as important as the increase in the unemployment rate; if unemployment had not increased from 2004 to 2008, that improvement in local labor markets would only have given McCain only 9% of the votes needed to win the nine crucial swing states.

Here is more from Alexis Antoniades and Charles W. Calomiris.