Category: Political Science

Democracy for our Mars colony?

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

The Yale proposal is about how to make a Mars settlement democratic, as is an earlier proposal published in Space Legal Issues. But I fear a harsher question needs to be addressed first: Should a Mars settlement allow for contractual servitude?

When the New World was settled, it was common practice for workers to sign multiyear contracts, receiving passage across the ocean but giving up a share of their earnings and some of their freedom.

Contractual servitude is distinct from slavery in the sense that it is chosen voluntarily. But once the contract is signed, the worker is in an uncomfortable position, in both an economic and democratic sense. And once these individuals land in the New World — or, as the case may be, on Mars — their protection by mainstream legal institutions cannot be assumed.

It is easy to inveigh against contractual servitude, but it has one valuable function: It creates incentives for someone to finance the voyage in the first place. If I had to finance my own passage to Mars, and then sustain myself when I got there, and pay off the travel costs, I would never go. But if a company can send a few thousand people, keep half the profits, and remain in charge, the voyage might stand a chance, at least decades from now when the technology is further along…

The tension is that most people have well-developed moralities for wealthy, democratic societies in which most citizens can earn their keep or be provided for by a well-funded social welfare state. Neither of those assumptions holds for Mars, which at least at the beginning will be a kind of pre-subsistence economy.

The upshot is that feasible Mars constitutions will probably offend the educated classes dearly.


Blockchains: A Promise Enforcement Engine

Anthony Lee Zhang on blockchains

How do blockchains change the state of things? Blockchains are an alternative system for promise enforcement, fundamentally different from any system human history has seen before. Promises in blockchain systems are enforced by miners, who — in reasonably competitive mining markets — have limited ability, and weak incentives, to do anything other than execute others’ promises roughly according to the gas fees they pay. In other words, the blockchain can be thought of as a universal, extremely low-discretion promise enforcement engine.

Consider, for example, automated market maker (AMM) protocols, such as Uniswap. An automated market maker allows anyone to become a liquidity provider, that is, to contribute capital, to make markets in a pair of tokens. Fees are collected from anyone trading with the market maker, and can be programmatically redistributed to liquidity providers. These “terms” are promises in the same way classic financial contracts are — but, rather than promises stated in English enforced in courts of law, they are written in Solidity and “enforced” by Ethereum miners.

Lending protocols, such as Aave, allow agents to borrow if they pledge their risky assets to the system as collateral. Aave values the collateral automatically using price oracles, and automatically seizes and liquidates collateral when the amount borrowed is worth too much compared to the collateral staked. MakerDAO similarly functions like a virtual “pawn shop”, taking risky assets and printing tokens whose value derives from the fact that they are overcollateralized by risky collateral, automatically valued using collateral price feeds. Aave and Maker function similarly to margin lending systems in traditional finance, except that the lenders are bots instead of banks. A nontrivially large fraction of the useful promises that are traded in financial systems, it seems, can be approximately as easily expressed in Solidity as they can in English, and thus can be enforced by miners rather than by courts.

The consequences of the existence of blockchains are thus that, for the first time in human history, we have a real alternative to governments and legal systems for the enforcement of promises. What are the effects this will have on the world?

Governments in developed economies are imperfect but they are adequate promise enforcers and they have reasons to suppress their competitor, blockchains. Hence Zhang argues:

…The future of finance will not be built on Wall Street, by a handful of privileged graduates from a handful of top colleges in a handful of high-income countries. The future of finance will be built on blockchains, in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, through the combined efforts of many billions of people, who for the first time in human history will be able to participate on an equal footing in the market for promises.

This is similar to what Tyler and I write in cryptoeconomics:

Traditional finance relies on legal documents like contracts, titles, and personal identification and thus it ultimately relies on a legal system that can enforce those contracts quickly, reliably, and at low cost. Relatively few countries in the world have all the required abilities, which is why traditional finance clusters in a handful of places like New York, London, Singapore, and Zurich.

Decentralized finance, in contrast, relies on smart contracts and cryptographic identification that work exactly the same way everywhere. Decentralized finance, therefore, could be broader based and more open than traditional finance. Indeed, decentralized finance could prosper in precisely those regions of the world that do not have reliable legal systems or governments with the power to regulate heavily.

Regulatory quality is declining

One example of such evidence-free regulation in recent years comes from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In 2021, HHS repealed a rule enacted by the Trump administration that would have required the agency to periodically review its regulations for their impact on small businesses. The measure was known as the SUNSET rule because it would attach sunset provisions, or expiration dates, to department rules. If the agency failed to conduct a review, the regulation expired.

Ironically, in proposing to rescind the SUNSET rule, HHS argued that it would be too time consuming and burdensome for the agency to review all of its regulations. Citing almost no academic work in support of its proposed repeal — a reflection of the anti-consequentialism that animates so much contemporary regulatory policy — the agency effectively asserted that assessing the real-world consequences of its existing rules was far less pressing an issue than addressing the perceived problems of the day (by, of course, issuing more regulations).

Through its actions, HHS has rejected the very notion of having to review its own rules and assess whether they work. In fact, the suggestion that agencies review their regulations is an almost inexplicably divisive issue in Washington today. “Retrospective review” has become a dirty term, while cost-benefit analysis has morphed into a tool to judge intentions rather than predict real-world consequences. The shift highlights how far the modern administrative state has drifted from the rational, evidence-based system envisioned by the law-and-economics movement just a few decades ago.

Here is more from James Broughel at Mercatus.

How unhappy should we be about the current economy?

I consider that question in my latest Bloomberg column:

When it comes to the economy, Republicans tend to focus on the negative and Democrats on the positive. If the parties were intellectually consistent, it would be the opposite.

Think back to the presidency of George W. Bush. Republicans offered a consistent (albeit debatable) vision of economic success: an “ownership society” where net worth was relatively high, savings were high, and people relied on their own resources to deal with the vicissitudes of the marketplace. With secure property rights and high savings, momentary disturbances could be offset by individual economization. People could manage temporarily higher prices by consuming less or by seeking appropriate substitutes. The initial problem, to the extent there was one, was that not enough households had enough ownership and material resources.

The Bush administration never succeeded into turning the ownership society vision into reality. But fast forward to the present: Quite unintentionally, the pandemic has brought about the ownership society — a distorted and somewhat dystopian version. Household balance sheets have been remarkably strong and liquidity is high, in part because the pandemic reduced spending and in part because of the federal government’s fiscal policy response.

And from the other side:

At the risk of oversimplification, it can be said that the Democratic [economic policy] ideal is one of low prices, with government helping to block or blunt large price increases for household products. Under this ideal, robust household balance sheets are not a priority, as many of the preferred policies would lower savings rates.

You might then think that Democrats would view the current mix of high savings with high and volatile prices as pretty disastrous. Yet the apologists for the current economic situation are more frequently Democrats. Paul Krugman, for instance, has argued repeatedly that there is a huge disconnect between how people portray the economy and how they actually are doing. In essence, he thinks there is too much complaining.

As usual, consistency is hard to come by…

Should the U.S. have a monarchy?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, riffing on Curtis Yarvin and others.  Here is one bit:

The engineer and entrepreneur Curtis Yarvin, who also has written under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, has called for a new American monarchy, more like Elizabeth I than Elizabeth II. The usual instant American reaction, of course, is to dismiss absolute monarchy as unjust, old-fashioned and unworkable. And in fact that remains the correct reaction — yet it’s worth thinking through what the desire for monarchy says about the current state of America’s intellectual right.

And in response:

Many monarchist critics focus on the anti-democratic nature of the proposal. They may not realize how much parts of the New Right see the status quo as promoting a stifling conformity in academia, the media and corporate America (Yarvin’s “Cathedral”), rather than a truly pluralistic discourse.

I see far more intellectual diversity in today’s America than Yarvin does. Still, I wish that the “Cathedral” (am I allowed to call it that too?) would be a little more self-aware of its own limitations rather than just shouting down the anti-democratic thinkers as fascists. It’s also possible to think of absolute monarchy as a desperate way to restore diversity of thought, by creating a post whose holder is not accountable to the Cathedral.

The most telling criticism of absolute monarchy is a historical one. In the UK above all, the so-called “absolute” monarchs faced severe fiscal demands, which they met only by granting increasing powers to Parliament or the local nobles. And that was the case when government was a very small percentage of GDP. How would things work today? Would a king have as much power as, say, Tim Cook does? If the executive branch and legislature were to renegotiate old bargains today, the results might be so messy that each would end up with less power and coherence than what Yarvin sees now.

There are other interesting points at the link.

When should rhetoric be racially salient?

Utilizing a correlational design (N = 498), we found that those who perceived COVID-19 racial disparities to be greater reported reduced fear of COVID-19, which predicted reduced support for COVID-19 safety precautions. In Study 2, we manipulated exposure to information about COVID-19 racial disparities (N = 1,505). Reading about the persistent inequalities that produced COVID-19 racial disparities reduced fear of COVID-19, empathy for those vulnerable to COVID-19, and support for safety precautions. These findings suggest that publicizing racial health disparities has the potential to create a vicious cycle wherein raising awareness reduces support for the very policies that could protect public health and reduce disparities.

Here is more from Skinner-Dorkenoo  Via D.  There may be broader lessons as well.

How the heritability of politics works?

Estimates from the Minnesota Twin Study show that sociopolitical conservatism is extraordinarily heritable (74%) for the most informed fifth of the public – much more so than population-level results (57%) – but with much lower heritability (29%) for the public’s bottom half.

Here is the research article by Nathan P. Kalmoe and Martin Johnson.  The reference is from Matt Yglesias, and one possibility is that you are born with inherited values, but you need to be educated to learn where those values ought to put you on the political spectrum.

Data on IR scholars and their views on Russia/Ukraine

MR reader Edmund Levin sent me this very useful piece, based around a poll of IR scholars, with the poll opened on December 16 and if I understand correctly continuing through some point in January 2022.

Here is one question “In the next year, will Russia use military force against Ukrainian military forces or additional parts of the territory of Ukraine where it is not currently operating?”  The responses:

Yes 203 56.08%
No 73 20.17%
Do not know 86 23.76%

You will note that the question could simply be referring to some additional police action, which is in fact what many people were predicting at the time.  I find it striking that the researchers don’t ask about a full-scale invasion.  What percentage would have predicted a full-scale attack?

Here is the same question posed to the regional specialists, namely: “In the next year, will Russia use military force against Ukrainian military forces or additional parts of the territory of Ukraine where it is not currently operating?”  The responses are barely different, though slightly better:

Yes 36 (60.0%)

No 12 (20.0%)

Don’t know 12 (20.0%)

I take those results to be 60-40 that a modest majority of the specialists respondents expected further Russian military action in the next year, again noting that additional police action would suffice to generate a “yes” response.

Is that a good or bad performance relative to a full-scale invasion date of February 24, with the massing of Russian troops well underway?

If I turn to the December 3 Washington Post, I see a major article by journalists Shane Harris and Paul Sonne, titled “Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns.”  The piece offers plenty of detail, including photos, maps, and good sourcing.  Of course it turned out to be correct, and I am only one of many people who realized this at the time.  Furthermore, if you saw such a piece, you might have inquired with your network at the time (as I did), including sources in multiple relevant countries, and learned in response that the predictions of this article were no joke, no media excess, and in fact likely to happen.  Furthermore the rhetoric, demand, and logistics investments of Russia at the time strongly suggested “attack and blame Ukraine” as the equilibrium, rather than some kind of knife-edge bargaining strategy of “attack with p = 0.6” — that one can learn by reading Thomas Schelling.

So in my view the regional IR specialists were well behind the understanding of two Washington Post reporters, or for that matter well-connected newspaper readers. A lot of the experts don’t seem to have tracked the issue very closely.  Here is my previous (lengthy) post on the topic.

Addendum: Levin also points out to me that Sam Charap of Rand got it right as early as fall of 2021.

My Conversation with Jamal Greene

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Jamal and Tyler discuss what he’d change about America’s legal education system, the utility of having non-judges or even non-lawyers on the Supreme Court, how America’s racial history influences our conception of rights, the potential unintended consequences of implementing his vision of rights for America, how the law should view economic liberty, the ideal moral framework for adjudicating conflicts, whether social media companies should consider interdependencies when moderating content on their platforms, how growing up in different parts of New York City shaped his views on pluralism, the qualities that make some law students stand out, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: There is a crude view in popular American society — even possibly correct — that, simply, American society is too legalistic. There’s that book, Three Felonies a Day. If you have expired prescription medicine in your cabinet, you’re committing a felony. People who are very smart will just tell me, “Never talk to a cop. Never talk to an FBI agent.” I’m an upper-class White guy who’s literally never smoked marijuana once, and they’re telling me, “Don’t ever speak with the law.”

Isn’t something wrong there? Is the common intuition that we’re too legalistic correct?

GREENE: I think that we are too apt to submit political disputes to legal resolution. I think that for sure. What your friends are telling you about police officers is slightly different, insofar as one can have a deeply non-legalistic culture in which the correct advice is to not talk to police officers if those people are corrupt, if those people are abusive.

When I hear that advice — and I might be differently situated than you — that’s what people are saying is, someone might be out to trick you. And that might be a mistrust of state power, as you mentioned before. Maybe it’s a rational mistrust of state power, but I don’t know that that’s about legalism, which again, is a separate potential problem.

We tend to formulate our problems in legal terms, as if the right way to solve them is to decide how they are to be resolved by a court, or how they are to be resolved by some adjudicative official, as opposed to thinking about our problems in terms of just inherent in, again, pluralism, which has to be solved through politics, has to be solved through conversation.

COWEN: But we still have whatever is upstream of the American law, the steep historical and cultural background, so anything we do is going to be flavored by that. We’re not ever going to get to a system where the policemen are like the policemen in Germany, for instance, or that the courts are like the courts in Germany.

Given that cultural upstream, again, isn’t the intuition basically correct? Just be suspicious of the law. We should have fewer laws, rely less on the legal process, in essence, deregulate as many different things as we can. Why isn’t that the correct conclusion, rather than building in more rights?

Interesting throughout.

How did the IR community get Russia/Ukraine so wrong?

In proper Tetlockian fashion, I thought I would look back and consider how well IR experts did in the time leading up to the current war in Ukraine.  In particular, how many of them saw in advance that a war was coming?  And I don’t mean a day or two before the war started, though there were still many commentators in denial at such a late point.

Where to start?  One might look at the mid-2021 words of the very smart Daniel Drezner:

Wertheim thinks that Ukraine could trigger a great-power war. Meh. In 2021 we have already had one round of Putin brandishing the sword on Ukraine, Biden standing firm, and the situation de-escalating. NATO’s deterrent power seems important to the region. To be honest I would be more worried about flash points in the Pacific Rim.

Drezner lived in the Donbas region for some while in the 1990s, so he is hardly a stranger to the relevant issues.

More recently Chris Blattman, who is also very able and very smart, wrote in February that Putin probably was not going to attack.  Chris has just published a very well-received major book titled Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Path to Peace.  Chris does not pretend he is a Ukraine/Russia expert (“I know very little about Ukraine or Russia”), but he does command the literature on war and violent conflict with very real authority.

John Mearsheimer is one who foresaw the very real possibility of a war against Ukraine.  I think he is quite wrong about NATO as the provocation, but if you are grading him on predictions alone obviously he wins some serious kudos.

See also this Scott Alexander post, though mainly I am looking for somewhat earlier predictions.  By December 2021 a lot of us knew because it was pretty obvious (as for Scott’s puzzlement over me, due to the information flows I am sometimes in, I am not always in a position to make all my predictions fully public).

Garry Kasparov is another one who was right about the motives and the willingness of Putin to engage in further violent conquest, and I will return to him later.  Garry knows a lot of IR, but of course he is not an IR scholar in the academic sense of that term.

Who were the other voices speaking up with urgency?  IR voices?  Comments are open and I hope you can guide me to the very best commentators who got this one right.

When I google “who predicted Russia war against Ukraine” I get Mearsheimer, a retired Russian general, and a blind psychic, but no bevy of IR scholars.

You might argue that IR scholarship is not about prediction, just as some macroeconomic theories themselves imply  that recessions cannot be generally predicted.  Still, if IR scholars understand this region reasonably well, many more of them should have been raising red flags, no pun intended.  There is no analog of the efficient markets hypothesis here, so IR work should not be so far from some degree of predictive accuracy.  Not so many scholars (of various kinds) predicted the collapse of the USSR, and I think it is absolutely correct to conclude they did not understand the late 1980s USSR very well.  The same can be said of the earlier Iranian revolution, which also was not widely predicted.

As for further instances of getting it wrong, how about Obama’s famous gaffe in the 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, mocking Romney for his fear of Russia and cold war mentality? While Obama was a President and not an IR scholar, this was toward the end of his first-term and his was a “presidency of expertise” like few others have been.  Obama was not irresponsibly “winging it” with his sarcastic take on Russian danger, rather it was a common point of view, especially among Democrats and Democratic political science experts at that time.

Or consider this more recently:

During Burns’ Senate confirmation hearing in February, he said that, as CIA director, he would have “four crucial and inter-related priorities.” They were: “China, technology, people and partnerships.” Russia was not on that priorities list.

Again, he is not an IR scholar but still:

To be fair, few people in Washington were bothered by that at the time. The city was far more obsessed, on a bipartisan basis, with China and its ambitions.

Overall, on a scale of one to ten, how would we grade the performance of IR scholars on the Russia-Ukraine war?  2?  2.5?

What are some possible reasons for those individuals so consistently missing the boat on this issue?  I see a few options:

1. The IR community is mostly Democrats, and they were unprepared for the narrative that Putin might invade under Biden but not Trump.  They too much had mental models where the evil of Putin works through Trump.

2. Perhaps the IR community doesn’t put enough emphasis on historical continuity and persistence.  Russia has been messing around in Ukraine since at least Catherine the Great during the 18th century.  Since that time, how many of those years has Ukraine been a semi-free, autonomous nation?  Hardly any.

3. The IR community is risk-averse, and preserving of its academic reputations, and thus its members are less willing to make bold predictions than say pundits are.  You might even think that is good, all things considered, but it will help explain the missed predictions here.

4. Perhaps partly for ideological reasons, it is hard for much of the IR community to internalize how much Putin (correctly?) thinks of the Western Europeans as cowards who will not defend themselves.  The Western European nations are supposed to represent reasonable ways of running a polity, committed to social democracy above all else, and that is what so many academics believe as well.  It might be hard for them to see that Western Europe has been full of folly, including with respect to nuclear energy and also collective defense.

5. Amongst academic and many of the scholars outside of academia but on the fringes, thoughts about evil are channeled into domestic directions, such as Trump, guns, “the right wing,” and so on.  Maybe there isn’t enough mental energy to stay sufficiently alert about possible evils elsewhere.  Along related lines, we don’t always have the background in the humanities, and history, to recognize that a certain kind of destructive evil still is possible in today’s world.

What else?

Listing those five points returns my attention to Kasparov, who has been banging the drum about Putin for quite a few years now and telling us Putin is going to do something like this.  Garry is often considered an “extremist” by academics, or “not one of the club,” but it seems to me he has been entirely right and most of them entirely wrong.  I know Garry, and can report that he really is able to pierce the veil on 1-5 very clearly.  Perhaps that helped him see what was coming.  For instance, Garry is strongly anti-Trump, but he doesn’t let that distract him from other issues of relevance.  He also knows Russian history and the humanities very well, and his understanding of evil is well-calibrated to yield good predictions in situations like this.

I’ve also found that many individuals from the Baltic states, with real skin in the game, have had an appropriate level of suspicion about Russia for a long time.  Anecdotally might this broadly Baltic view be more correct than the weaker suspicions held by the IR scholars?

Addendum: I’ve heard a few people claim that Putin is just an irrational madman and that he lies outside the sphere of prediction altogether.  Well, the action in Ukraine had very definite and very direct precursors, including other invasions of Ukraine!  It hardly seems like a pure black swan.  Furthermore, a lot of the Russian public supports or at least tolerates the invasion.  “Putin’s propaganda,” some cry, but all that same machinery of censorship and propaganda was not enough to get the Russian public to trust the Sputnik vaccine, which very likely would have saved many of their lives.  So these events are not just about Putin by any means.

Also, if you are curious as to where I think things stand now, here is a good and interesting thread on the current state of the war and where it might be headed.

The magnitude of depolicing

Using a time regression discontinuity design, we estimate a 72.7 percent decrease in lower-level “quality of life” arrests, and a 69 percent decrease in non-index crime arrests in Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death. Our results also show that the decrease in arrests is driven by a 69 percent decrease in police-initiated calls for service. Using the same approach, we find a much smaller decrease of 2.7 percent in arrests and a 1.5 percent decrease in police calls following police-involved shootings. Our results, thus, suggest that the Ferguson Effect exists, and it is much larger following highly publicized events of police violence such as George Floyd’s death.

That is from the new AER, by Maya Mikdash and Reem Zaiour, “Does (All) Police Violence Cause De-policing? Evidence from George Floyd and Police Shootings in Minneapolis.”  The title I find slightly Straussian, I hope not outright naive.

“A political football” takes on new meaning (MIE)

The concept and governance of name, image, and likeness has always been highly politicized. But the deals themselves have largely stayed out of politics — until now.

Dresser Winn, a quarterback at the University of Tennessee at Martin, has signed a partnership to support the candidacy of Colin Johnson, who is running for District Attorney General for Tennessee’s 27th Judicial District.

The deal is considered to be the first to support a political candidate. It’s also an example of how athletes who may not have major followings or a Power 5 platform can ink partnerships in their community, as one of Winn’s agents, Dale Hutcherson, pointed out on Twitter.

The deal was born when both of Winn’s agents, Dale and Sam Hutcherson, came up with the idea and presented it to him, he told Front Office Sports.

“I’ve been lifelong friends with Colin. He’s always supported me,” he said. From there, it was an easy decision to sign with the candidate.

As part of the partnership, Winn said he wore a campaign shirt during a football camp that he ran last weekend. On Monday, his announcement on Twitter included photos of himself and Johnson — both of whom were wearing campaign apparel — spending time on a football field. The tweet encouraged voters to ensure they were registered for the August election.

As for future promotions, Winn said they’re going to “see how things go from here.”

Winn declined to disclose financial terms of the deal.

America!  Here is the full story, via Daniel Lippman.

That is now, this was then, Taiwan edition

Words matter, in diplomacy and in law.

Last week President Bush was asked if the United States had an obligation to defend Taiwan if it was attacked by China. He replied, “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.”

The interviewer asked, “With the full force of the American military?”

President Bush replied, “Whatever it took” to help Taiwan defend itself.

A few hours later, the president appeared to back off this startling new commitment, stressing that he would continue to abide by the “one China” policy followed by each of the past five administrations.

Where once the United States had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” — under which we reserved the right to use force to defend Taiwan but kept mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait — we now appear to have a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity. It is not an improvement.

Here is the full 2001 Wapo Op-Ed — can you guess who the author was?  Hint: a prominent Senator at the time.  Via tekl.