Category: Political Science

The bureaucratization of U.S. foreign policy

The NSC [National Security Council] was established in the 1947 National Security Act, which named the members of the council: president, vice president and secretaries of state and defense. The function of the council “shall be to advise the president with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to the national security.” The law required regular meetings…

Mr. Kissinger grew the council to include one deputy, 32 policy professionals and 60 administrators. By my count, alumni of his NSC include two secretaries of state, four national security advisers, a director of national intelligence, a secretary of the Navy, and numerous high-ranking officials in the State, Defense and Treasury departments as well as the Central Intelligence Agency.

But the NSC has only continued to expand. By the end of the Obama administration, 34 policy professionals supported by 60 administrators had exploded to three deputies, more than 400 policy professionals and 1,300 administrators.

The council lost the ability to make fast decisions informed by the best intelligence.

Here is more from John Lehman (WSJ).

Does political polarization limit corruption?

Using panel data from the US states, we document a robust negative relationship between state-level government corruption and ideological polarization. This finding is sustained when state polarization is instrumented using lagged state neighbor ideology. We argue that polarization increases the expected costs of engaging in corruption, especially deterring marginal low-level corruption. Consistent with this thesis federal prosecutorial effort falls and case quality increases with polarization. Tangible anti-corruption measures including the stringency of state ethics’ laws and independent commissions for redistricting are also associated with increased state polarization.

That is from a new paper by Michael Melki and Andrew Pickering.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Tim Harford

Here is the transcript and audio, here is part of the summary:

Tim joined Tyler to discuss the role of popular economics in a politicized world, the puzzling polarization behind Brexit, why good feedback is necessary (and rare), the limits of fact-checking, the “tremendously British” encouragement he received from Prince Charles, playing poker with Steve Levitt, messiness in music, the underrated aspect of formal debate, whether introverts are better at public speaking, the three things he can’t live without, and more.

Here is one bit near the opening:

COWEN: These are all easy questions. Let’s think about public speaking, which you’ve done quite a bit of. On average, do you think extroverts or introverts are better public speakers?

HARFORD: I am an introvert. I’ve never seen any research into this, so it should be something that one could test empirically. But as an introvert, I love public speaking because I like being alone, and you’re never more alone than when you’re on the stage. No one is going to bother you when you’re up there. I find it a great way to interact with people because they don’t talk back.

COWEN: What other non-obvious traits do you think predict being good at public speaking?

HARFORD: Hmmm. You need to be willing to rehearse and also willing to improvise and make stuff up as you go along. And I think it’s hard for somebody to be willing to do both. I think the people who like to rehearse end up rehearsing too much and being too stiff and not being willing to adapt to circumstances, whereas the people who are happy to improvise don’t rehearse enough, and so their comments are ill formed and ill considered. You need that capacity to do both.

And another segment:

HARFORD: …Brian Eno actually asked me a slightly different question, which I found interesting, which was, “If you were transported back in time to the year 700, what piece of technology would you take — or knowledge or whatever — what would you take with you from the present day that would lead people to think that you were useful, but would also not cause you to be burned as a witch?”

COWEN: A hat, perhaps.

HARFORD: A hat?

COWEN: If it’s the British Isles.

HARFORD: Well, a hat is useful. I suggested the Langstroth beehive. The Langstroth beehive was invented in about 1850. It’s an enormously important technology in the domestication of bees. It’s a vast improvement on pre-Langstroth beehives, vast improvement on medieval beehives. Yet, it’s fairly straightforward to make and to explain to people how it works and why it works. I think people would appreciate it, and everybody likes honey, and people have valued bees for a long time. So that would have been my answer.

And:

COWEN: I’ve read all of your books. I’ve read close to all of your columns, maybe all of them in fact, and I’m going to ask you a question I also asked Reid Hoffman. You know the truths of economics, plenty of empirical papers. Why aren’t you weirder? I’ve read things by you that I disagreed with, but I’ve never once read anything by you that I thought was outrageous. Why aren’t you weirder?

The conversation has many fine segments, definitely recommended, Tim was in top form.  I very much enjoyed our “Brexit debate” as well, too long to reproduce here, but I made what I thought was the best case for Brexit possible and Tim responded.

Might the coronavirus bring freer speech to China?

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

Chinese citizens are currently upset and panicked, and their online communication might exceed the ability of the censors to control it. Some censorship is done algorithmically, but much of it is performed by humans, if only because the algorithms are far from perfect and cannot pick up on the rapidly changing allusions and code words people use.

What happens if there are too many subversive messages to censor? The system might break down, and speech might become more free. Reimposing censorship might be difficult, politically and logistically.

There is yet another reason censorship might prove difficult. If you feel desperate and fear for your health, the penalties for speaking out online might not seem so bad by comparison. You might not care so much about that promotion at work or your standing in the party. Moreover, the stress of the situation may lower your inhibitions. And if public criticism becomes more common, it may seem safe to join the growing crowd. The eventual result of all this would be a partial collapse of censorship.

The link also considers the entirely possible scenario that Chinese liberties could instead decrease.

Why does the Indian state both fail and succeed?

From the Journal of Economic Perspectives by Devesh Kapur:

The Indian state’s performance spans the spectrum from woefully inadequate, especially in core public goods provision, to surprisingly impressive in successfully managing complex tasks and on a massive scale. It has delivered better on macroeconomic rather than microeconomic outcomes, where delivery is episodic with inbuilt exit than where delivery and accountability are quotidian and more reliant on state capacity at local levels, and on those goods and services where societal norms on hierarchy and status matter less than where they are resilient. The paper highlights three reasons for these outcomes: under-resourced local governments, the long-term effects of India’s “precocious” democracy, and the persistence of social cleavage. However, claims that India’s state is bloated in size and submerged in patronage have weak basis. The paper concludes by highlighting a reversal of past trends in that state capacity is improving at the micro level even as India’s macro performance has become more worrisome.

The downside is well-known, here is the sometimes underappreciated upside:

But on the other side, the Indian state has a strong record in successfully managing complex tasks and on a massive scale. It has repeatedly conducted elections for hundreds of millions of voters—nearly 900 million in the 2019 general elections—without national disputes. In this decade, it has scaled up large programs such as Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric ID program (which crossed one billion people enrolled within seven years of its launch). Most recently, it has implemented the integrated Goods and Services Tax (GST), one of the most ambitious tax reforms anywhere in recent times. India ranks low on its ability to enforce contracts, but its homicide rate has dropped markedly from 5.1 in 1990 to 3.2 (per 100,000) in 2016 (UNODC 2019).

And this:

Public health services in India leave much to be desired. Yet India achieved a remarkable public health milestone when it completed a full five years as a “ polio-free nation” on January 13, 2016. Even into the 1980s, tens of thousands of children were contacting polio each year. As late as 2009, India reported 741 polio cases, more than any other country in the world. It faced daunting challenges in eradicating polio: high population density and birth rate, poor sanitation, widespread diarrhea, inaccessible terrain, and the reluctance of a section of the population to accept the polio vaccine. The sheer scale of the effort, requiring 172 million children to be vaccinated twice each year, all within a day or two, with the assistance of about 2.5 million volunteers and 150,000 vaccine administration Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed? 39supervisors, required substantial state capacity in logistics and coordination. Again, the Indian state performed well in a “mission mode” activity that was highly temporally concentrated

Recommended.

What did Ireland just vote for?

Sinn Féin promises rent freezes and an expansion of public housing. It will tax corporations, particularly multinational companies. It offers a typical, left-of-centre shopping list, financed by borrowing and higher taxes on the rich.

And what about the IRA? In the past days, the connection between the IRA and Sinn Féin in the North has dominated headlines, but most voters in the Republic are weary of the past. One in four are prepared to give Sinn Féin a chance. It would be completely wrong to equate Sinn Féin’s votes with support for the IRA.

Here is more from the FT.  There is close to a three-way tie at the top, but31.8% of 18-24s voted Sinn Féin – more than FF and FG combined in that age group.”  And: “According to the exit poll, Sinn Féin now the most popular party in every age group under 65.”

And that is from Ireland, one of the biggest neoliberal success stories.  Martin Gurri something or other, yes, etc. yup, that’s right, Martin Gurri, etc.

Pollution in India and the World

I spoke on the negative effects of air pollution on health and GDP at Brookings India in Delhi. The talk was covered by Indian media. The Print had a good overview:

The long-held belief that pollution is the cost a country has to pay for development is no longer true as bad air quality has a measurable detrimental impact on human productivity that could in turn reduce GDP, Canadian-American economist Alex Tabarrok said.

…“There is this old story that pollution is bad, but it increases GDP… When the United States and Japan were developing, they were polluted. So India and China also have to go through that stage of pollution — so that they get rich, and then they can afford to reduce pollution,” Tabarrok said.

“I want to say that that story is wrong. What I want to argue is that a lot of the new research indicates that we may be in a situation where we could be both healthier and wealthier at the same time by reducing pollution,” he said.

…At the seminar, Tabarrok pointed out that expecting people to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is not a politically fruitful way to deal with pollution.

Citing the issue of crop burning in India, he said farmers are not going to be inclined to change their behaviour if they are told to stop stubble burning for the sake of Delhi residents.

“However, if these farmers are made aware of how the crop burning harms them and their families and affects their soil quality, they are more likely to participate in mitigation measures,” he said.

I was pretty tough on government policy as Business Today India reported:

More than half of India’s population lives in highly polluted areas. Research by Greenstone et al (2015) proves that 660 million people live in areas that exceed the Indian Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for fine particulate pollution. In this context, having measures such as banning e-cigarettes and having odd-even days for vehicles to solve the problem of air pollution seems ridiculous, says Alex Tabarrok, Professor of Economics at the George Mason University and Research Fellow with the Mercatus Centre. “These are not appropriate solutions to the scale and the dimensions of the problem,” he says.

A simple argument for state capacity libertarianism

Again and again—and in countries all over the world—declines in trust of government correlate strongly with calls for more government regulation in more parts of our lives. “Individuals in low-trust countries want more government intervention even though they know the government is corrupt,” explain the authors of a 2010 Quarterly Journal of Economics paper. That’s certainly the case in the United States, where the size, scope, and spending of government has vastly increased over exactly the same period in which trust and confidence in the government has cratered. In 2018, I talked with one of the paper’s authors, Andrei Shleifer, a Harvard economist who grew up in the Soviet Union before coming to America. Why do citizens ask a government they don’t believe in to bring order? “They want regulation,” he said. “They want a dictator who will bring back order.”

Counterintuitively, the relative size and spending of government in the United States actually flattened or dipped during periods when trust and confidence in government picked up…

That is Nick Gillespie, via Arnold Kling.

Martin Gurri, philosopher and social scientist

I am pleased to announce that Martin Gurri is joining Mercatus as an affiliated scholar.  As you probably may know, Martin is the author of The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, one of the more important and more prophetic social science books of our time.

Here is Martin’s recent short piece for Mercatus on revolt, populism, and reaction.  Here is a 21-minute podcast with Martin.

Why the coronavirus might boost Trump’s reelection prospects

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

The first and perhaps most important effect will be to make Trump’s nationalism seem ordinary, even understated. Hundreds of flights to China have already been canceled, countries are refusing to receive (or deciding to quarantine) Chinese nationals or visitors from China, and China itself is severely limiting travel within the country. Whether or not these prove effective measures, the idea of travel bans and restrictions no longer seems extreme or unconstitutional. Even if voters are confusing normal times with times of pandemic, on this issue Trump’s instincts now seem almost prescient.

When the flight of Americans returning from Wuhan was sent to Alaska last week instead of San Francisco, and subject to quarantine, very few political complaints were heard, including from leading Democrats. There might still be arguments about whether that was a justified violation of civil liberties, but the notion that a pandemic requires the federal government to take such measures, without a congressional vote, is not seriously contested.

That is going to help any incumbent president who believes in the strong exercise of executive power, as does Trump.

There is much more at the link.

*A Treatise on Northern Ireland*, by Brendan O’Leary

This three-volume set is quite the remarkable achievement, and it would have made my best books of 2019 list (add-ons here) had I known about it earlier.  It starts with “An audit of violence after 1966,” and then goes back to the seventeenth century to begin to dig out what happened.  It has more detail than almost anyone needs to know, yet at the same time it remains unfailingly conceptual and relies on theoretical social science as well, rather than merely reciting names and dates. How about this?:

The breakdown of hegemonic control in Northern Ireland [mid- to late 1960s] exemplifies Tocqueville’s thesis that, when a bad government seeks to reform itself, it is in its greatest danger.

Here is an excerpt from volume II:

The thesis advanced here is that hegemonic control was established between 1920 and 1925 by the UUP, and, aside from a few exceptional moments, exercised successfully until 1966.  After 1925 opportunities for effective opposition, dissent, disobedience, or usurpation of power were minimal.  The major possibilities of disruption came from the outside, from independent Ireland or from Great Britain, from geopolitics, or the world economy.  Eventually, when external forces of disruption combined with major endogenous changes, hegemonic control would be contested, and would shatter.  But at no juncture did Northern nationalists or Irish Catholics in the North internalize the UUP’s rhetoric, or become significantly British by cultural designation.  When the civil-rights movement learned to exploit the claim to be British citizens entitled to British rights, the regime’s days were numbered.

I will continue to spend time with these volumes, which will not be surpassed anytime soon.  Unlike in so many history books, O’Leary is always trying to explain what happened, or what did not.  You can order them here.

As a side note, I find it shocking (and I suppose deplorable) that no American major media outlet has reviewed these books, or put them on its best of the year list, as far as I can tell.  We are failing at something, though I suppose you can debate what.  And I apologize to O’Leary for missing them the first time around.

Do elections make you sick?

Yes basically, at least in Taiwan:

Anecdotal reports and small-scale studies suggest that elections are stressful, and might lead to a deterioration in voters’ mental well-being. Nonetheless, researchers have yet to establish whether elections actually make people sick, and if so, why. By applying a regression discontinuity design to administrative health care claims from Taiwan, we determine that elections increased health care use and expense only during legally specified campaign periods by as much as 19%. Overall, the treatment cost of illness caused by elections exceeded publicly reported levels of campaign expenditure, and accounted for 2% of total national health care costs during the campaign period.

That is from a new paper by Hung-Hao Chang and Chad Meyerhoefer.

Gabriel Tarde’s *On Communication and Social Influence*

This 19th century French sociologist is worth reading, as he is somehow the way station between Pascal and Rene Girard, with an influence on Bruno Latour as well.  Tarde focuses on how copying helps to explain social order and also how it drives innovation.  For Tarde, copying, innovation, and ethos are all part of an integrated vision.  He covers polarization and globalization as well and at times it feels like he has spent time on Twitter.

It is hard to pull his sentences out of their broader context but here is one:

We have seen that the true, basic sources of power are propagated discoveries or inventions.

And:

The role of impulse and chance in the direction of inventive activity will cease to amaze us if we recall that such genius almost always begins in the service of a game or is dependent on a religious idea or superstition.

Or:

…contrary to the normal state of affairs, images in the inventor’s hallucinatory reverie tend to become strong states while sensations become weak states.

…When the self is absorbed in a goal for a long time, it is rare that the sub-self, incorrectly called the unconscious, does not participate in this obsession, conspiring with our consciousness and collaborating in our mental effort.  This conspiracy, this collaboration whose service is faithful yet hidden, is inspiration

He argues that societies in their uninventive phase are also largely uncritical, and for that reason.  (Doesn’t that sound like a point from a Peter Thiel talk?)

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.

And:

Attentive crowds are those who crowd around the pulpit of a preacher or lecturer, a lectern, a platform, or in front of the stage where a moving drama is being performed.  Their attention — and inattention — is always stronger and more constant than would be that of the individual in the group if he were alone.

Tarde argues that desires are intrinsically heterogeneous, and economics makes the mistake of reducing them to a near-tautologous “desire for wealth.”

Not all of it hangs together, but I would rather read Tarde than Durkheim or Comte, the other two renowned French sociologists of the 19th century.

You can buy the book here, here is Wikipedia on Tarde.

Model this East German crime

Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, the number of births halved in East Germany. These cohorts became markedly more likely to be arrested as they grew up in reunified Germany. This is observed for both genders and all offence types.

Here is the full article by Arnauld Chevalier and Olivier Marie, the authors seem to think the reunification event selects for risky parents, are there other possible explanations?

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Evidence for State Capacity Libertarianism

The plots do not support the hypothesis that small government produces either greater prosperity or greater freedom. (In reading the charts, remember that the SGOV index is constructed so that 0 indicates the largest government and 10 the smallest government.) Instead, smaller government tends to be associated with less prosperity and less freedom. Both relationships are statistically significant, with correlations of 0.43 for prosperity and 0.35 for freedom.

Using SoG, the Cato measure of size of government, instead of SGOV, the IMF measure, does not help. The correlations turn out still to be negative and statistically significant, although slightly weaker.

Let’s turn now to the alternative hypothesis that quality of government, rather than size, is what counts for prosperity and freedom. Here are those scatterplots:

This time, both relationships are positive. High quality of government is strongly associated both with greater human prosperity and greater human freedom. Furthermore, the correlations are much stronger than those for the size of government.

That is all by Ed Dolan, recommended, and by the way smaller governments are not correlated with higher quality governments.