Category: Political Science

Street-Level Responsiveness of City Governments in China, Germany, and the United States

This paper presents evidence from parallel field experiments in China, Germany, and the United States. We contacted the mayor’s office in over 6,000 cities asking for information about procedures for starting a new business. Chinese and German cities responded to 36-37 percent requests; American cities responded to only 22 percent of requests. We randomly varied the text of the request to identify factors that affect the likelihood of receiving a response. American and German cities were more responsive to requests from citizens than foreigners; Chinese cities did not discriminate on this basis. Chinese cities were more responsive to requests from men than women; German cities did not discriminate on this basis and American cities had a slight bias in favor of women. Cities in all three countries were more responsive to requests associated with starting a construction business than a green business, but especially Chinese cities. Chinese cities were more responsive when the mayor was being considered for promotion than after a promotion decision, suggesting the importance of promotion incentives in China, but low responsiveness to green investment suggests limited incentives for environmental improvement. We argue that the response patterns are consistent with simple political economy theories of democracy and autocracy.

That is by Ekkehard A. Köhler, John G. Matsusaka, and Yanhui Wu.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Ed Glaeser

I did David Cutler and Ed sequentially, based on their new co-authored book, here is the joint episode but there is also a separate link concerning Cutler.  Here is one excerpt from the general summary:

They joined Tyler for a special joint episode to discuss why healthcare outcomes are so correlated with education, whether the health value of Google is positive or negative, why hospital price transparency is so difficult to achieve, how insurance coding systems reimburse sickness over health improvement, why the U.S. quit smoking before Europe, the best place in America to get sick, the risks that come from over-treatment, the possible upsides of more businesses moving out of cities, whether productivity gains from remote work will remain high, why the older parts of cities always seem to be more beautiful, whether urban schools will ever improve, why we shouldn’t view Rio de Janeiro’s favelas as a failure, how 19th century fights to deal with contagious diseases became a turning point for governance, Miami’s prospects as the next tech hub, what David and Ed disagree on, and more.

And from my exchange with Ed:

COWEN: Let’s start with a simple question. All this enthusiasm about cities and agglomeration benefits — the pandemic comes along. A lot of people transition to work from a distance, and then we see big measured productivity gains. What has gone on there?

GLAESER: It reminds us that for many jobs, in a static sense, you can do this long-distance. You can make things work. I think many of us found this. We wrote this book in eight months over the pandemic year, distinctly away from each other, partially because there were no distractions, and all that was good.

However, you also need to recognize the limits of long-distance living. The most important of those limits is just it’s much less fun. It’s much less joyful, but while it seems as if it’s fine for static productivity, it seems distinctly more problematic for people learning and for onboarding new talent.

Let me just give you two types of studies, one of which is we have the call center studies. The father of that was the Nick Bloom paper, which was a randomized control trial in China. A more modern version is done by our students, Natalia Emanuel and Emma Harrington, which looks into American call centers.

Both of them find the same thing in terms of static productivity. If anything, it goes up, but the workers who go remote are much less likely to be promoted in both studies. One interpretation of this is that promotion in the call center work means that you actually are given the job of handling more difficult calls.

How would your boss know that you are good at handling difficult calls if they weren’t in the same room with you? How would you learn how to do those difficult calls if you weren’t around other people? So while the static productivity remains, you lose the dynamic benefits of being around other people.

Second piece of evidence it comes from Burning Glass Technologies and new hires. Even though Microsoft tells us that its programmers were just as productive, overall, new hires for programmers were down 42 percent between November 2019 and November 2020. Firms were clearly unwilling to take the same kind of risks of hiring new workers that they couldn’t inculcate in their corporate culture or screen them properly, or do any of those other things.

Even though measured productivity did well during the pandemic, there were still lots of disruptions. In particular, many younger workers who came of age really lost out as a result of this.

COWEN: If work from a distance goes fine in the short run, what’s the cross-sectional prediction about where it will persist in the future? Is it firms facing bankruptcy, firms with immediate projects now, possibly start-ups who will then later transition to all being together in one big happy family, but they’re afraid they’re going to fail before then? What should we expect?

GLAESER: I think we should expect young workers to be more likely to be brought together. Young firms, as well, because you’re very much at this learning, creative phase. I think the optimal work-from-home strategy is a couple of partners who are in an accounting practice and have decided they know each other perfectly well and are delighted to Zoom it in from wherever they are.

I think, unquestionably, working from home will remain a part of the economy. It may well be many workers end up spending 20 percent of their time working from home, even if they’re part of a generally full-time job. But for younger workers, for firms that are just getting started, I think being live is likely to continue being a major part of the work environment.

It also depends a lot on what your home environment is like. If you’re like us —  if you are a middle-aged professor who’s likely to have a comfortable home office, and maybe even not having kids at home anymore, certainly not kids who are crying all the time at home anymore — working at home is a lot more pleasant than if you’re a 23-year-old and live in a studio apartment in Somerville or New York or London.

Recommended!

China campaign of the day

The Chinese government has ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities as it escalates a fight against what it sees as a cultural import that threatens China’s national strength.

In a directive issued on Thursday, China’s TV watchdog said entertainment programs should firmly reject the “deformed aesthetics” of niangpao, a derogatory term that refers to effeminate men.

The order came as Beijing tightens control over the country’s entertainment industry, taking aim at an explosion of TV and streaming shows that hold increasing sway over pop culture and the youth.

Young, delicate-looking men who display gentle personalities and act in boys’ love dramas have amassed large fan bases mostly comprising women. Many of them, like Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, are China’s top-earning celebrities.

They came in sharp contrast with the older generation of male stars, who were expected to sing revolutionary songs and play intrepid, aggressive soldiers defending the country from foreign enemies.

But the more gender-neutral aesthetics have come under criticism from conservative voices in society. Some officials and parents fear the less macho men on TV would cause young men to lose their masculinity and therefore threaten the country’s development.

Here is the full story, and I thank B. for the pointer.  As I said yesterday, I do get the point but such campaigns are not for me…

Ezra Klein making the case for Gavin Newsom

“If Gavin were recalled, that’d be disastrous for housing policy in this state,” Brian Hanlon, the president of California YIMBY, a pro-housing group, told me. “The Legislature, I believe, could override Larry Elder’s vetoes on key bills. But all of these hard-fought housing bills that we are not passing with a supermajority cannot survive an Elder veto. All that would die.”

“I also think that if the recall succeeds, in part due to housing, the overall situation in Sacramento would just be chaotic,” Hanlon added later. “It’ll be a lost year as Democrats and the Legislature work to retake the governor’s office in 2022.”

Metcalf, the former head of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, has moved from dismayed to impressed by Newsom’s record on housing. “We’re beginning to see Newsom find the levers to pull,” he said. “We’re seeing him figure out how to get the Legislature to do what he wants. We’re just getting there with Newsom, which would make it very painful to lose him now.”

There is much more at the NYT link.

My dialogue with Lipton Matthews

I appeared on his podcast, and we discussed trust, Jamaica and Trinidad, what you can learn from visiting funerals for five years, what I want for my non-funeral and why, social media and outreach, neurodiversity and autism, the importance of Kant and Hegel, and more.

Here is Lipton’s broader podcast series, many good guests.  Here is Lipton on Twitter.

A simple illustration of the benefits of feminization

Fox’s Tucker Carlson, the most important nationalist voice in America, seemed to sympathize with the gender politics of Taliban-supporting Afghans. “They don’t hate their own masculinity,” he said shortly after the fall of Kabul. “They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.” (By “neoliberalism” he seems to mean social liberalism, not austerity economics.)

From Michelle Goldberg (NYT), that in a nutshell is the case for the feminization of society, which I see as bringing strongly positive net benefits for both men and women, in most but by no means all cases.

Do note that if you ever see me describing this feminization in not entirely glowing terms, that is part of my desire to give you the entire unvarnished picture, as I would with most other topics.  (The most common reading mistake you can make in these parts is to over-infer an entire mood affiliation from a single post.)

When it comes to feminization, I also think sometimes of my grade and junior high school gym teacher, Mr. O (I will omit his full name, but in fact we also called him “Mr. O”).  He acted like a tough guy, but in fact was just a…grade school gym teacher.  Nonetheless he acted as if he was auditioning for the role of Patton in a Hollywood movie.

He smoked his cigarillos (?) in that kind of plastic thing-y, like the Penguin did on the original Batman show.

If a smaller or less athletic kid took a tough spill, or was picked on by the others, he would say “Suck it up, kid!”, with little sympathy.  (If you are wondering, the worst he ever said to me was “That was a stupid foul, kid,” in a fifth-grade basketball contest.  So I didn’t bear a personal grudge against him.)

He seemed to love the game of Bombardment, as in fact I did too.  (I still remember being one of the last two men standing, but losing to Jimmy Gravelis, who caught my too-weak toss.)

He was a Roman Catholic and a veteran of the Korean War.  He seemed to stare too long at the boys entering and leaving the shower, after the exercise period of gym.  But no one really questioned this.

Even as a kid, I thought he was a bit…sick and also over the top.  In some ways though he was a good teacher and he definitely maintained discipline.  Kids were afraid of him.  And he toughened them up for the world to come.

Still, at the end of the day I am not wishing to return to the cultural ascent of Mr. O.

I would rather live in a more feminized world, even if I still miss Bombardment.  But if you are not a fan of this new arrangement…hey, “Suck it up kid!”

Addendum: You might argue that I had the best of both worlds, namely to grow up in the “tougher” society, but live most of my life in the more feminized society — maybe so!

Gordon S. Wood’s *Power and Liberty*

The subtitle is Constitutionalism in the American Revolution, and of course self-recommending.  Here is one excerpt:

The breadth and depth of popular interest in the Constitution in 1787-1788 was remarkable.  The towns of Massachusetts, for example, elected 370 delegates to the state’s ratifying convention, of whom 364 attended.  Most were eager to meet and discuss the Constitution.  It took six days for the delegates from Bath, Maine (then part of Massachusetts), to make their way south across rivers and through snow to Boston.  The people of Massachusetts believed they were involved, as the little town of Oakham told its delegates, in deciding an issue of “the greatest importance that ever came before any Class of Men on this Earth.”

And this:

Many expected the electoral college to work as a nominating body in which no one normally would get a majority of electoral votes; therefore, most elections would take place in the House of Representatives among the top five candidates, with each state’s congressional delegation voting as a unit.

You can buy it here.

“When did we all become women?”

Here is an essay by Kathryn Robinson, from 2006 (!), via “Chad”, here is the opening excerpt:

Hang around the zeitgeist long enough and a pattern will emerge. You flip on the TV and there’s a young woman announcing that Eagle Hardware is her social life. Change the station and see the newest Nike ad: no more the command to Just Do It, but now a ringing paean to self-esteem: I Can. Maybe another station will be broadcasting OlympicGames human-interest stories; maybe the winning American wrestler will be weeping lavishly.

Or maybe the vice president of the United States will be the one weeping, standing on the dais of the Democratic convention relating the tragedy of his sister’s lung cancer. You open a men’s magazine and read about the Nine Steps to a Toned Derriere. You log on to the Internet where designer Donna Karan reports that the top fashion trends are not wide lapels or sheer skirts, but “Compassion. Caring. Embracing.” You go to church and pray to God the Mother. You flee to a restaurant for a scotch and a steak, but find yourself in a cafe with wine and low-fat beefalo.

You wonder when we all became female.

If you cast a critical eye backward, you will see that it’s happened over the last three decades, in a shift as gradual and inevitable as the changing tide, surging over everything from business, education, and religion to politics, fashion, and interpersonal relations. One of the great cultural revolutions of our time, it’s also been as invisible as the air we breathe, shifting the default position of our behavior to “feminine” as imperceptibly as our evolution toward light eating, self-empowerment, and public intimacy…

The upshot, discovered in that campaign and exploited ever since: men vote for policies, women vote for symbols. Handlers found that where men’s voter turnout is dictated by political attentiveness, women’s voting has increased more rapidly than their interest or knowledge warrant. Therefore, women are more susceptible to campaigns waged through potent emotional symbols. Sick of the mudslinging and soundbiting that have since come to characterize political campaigning? Blame feminization.

Way too much generalization of course, that one is from Seattle Weekly (!…but where else?).  Interesting throughout.

My Conversation with Zeynep Tufekci

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

Zeynep joined Tyler to discuss problems with the media and the scientific establishment, what made the lab-leak hypothesis unacceptable to talk about, how her background in sociology was key to getting so many things right about the pandemic, the pitfalls of academic contrarianism, what Max Weber understood about public health crises, the underrated aspects of Kemel Mustapha’s regime, how Game of Thrones interested her as a sociologist (until the final season), what Americans get wrong about Turkey, why internet-fueled movements like the Gezi protests fizzle out, whether Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in Turkey, how she’d try to persuade a COVID-19 vaccine skeptic, whether public health authorities should ever lie for the greater good, why she thinks America is actually less racist than Europe, how her background as a programmer affects her work as a sociologist, the subject of her next book, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Max Weber — overrated or underrated as a sociologist?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Part of the reason he’s underrated is because he writes in that very hard-to-read early 19th-century writing, but if you read Max Weber, 90 percent of what you want to understand about the current public health crisis is there in his sociology. Not just him, but sociology organizations and how that works. He’s good at that. I would say underrated, partly because it’s very hard to read. It’s like Shakespeare. You need the modern English version, conceptually, for more people to read it.

I would say almost all of sociology is underrated in how dramatically useful it is. Just ask me any time. Early on, I knew we were going to have a pandemic, completely based on sociology of the moment in early January, before I knew anything about the virus because they weren’t telling us, but you could just use sociological concepts to put things together. Max Weber is great at most of them and underrated.

COWEN: Kemal Mustafa — overrated or underrated?

TUFEKCI: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

TUFEKCI: Why? My grandmother — she was 12 or 13 when she was in the Mediterranean region — Central Asia, but Mediterranean region, very close to the Mediterranean. She was born the year the Turkish Republic had been founded, 1923, and she was 13 or so. She was just about to be married off, but the republic was a little over a decade — same age as her. They created a national exam to pick talented girls like her. The ones that won the exam got taken to Istanbul to this elite, one of the very few boarding high schools for girls.

The underrated part isn’t just that such a mechanism existed. The underrated part is that the country changed so much in 13 years that her teacher was able to prevail upon the family to let her go. To have a 13-year-old be sent off to Istanbul, completely opposite side of the country, to a boarding school for education — that kind of flourishing of liberation.

I’m not going to deny it was an authoritarian period, and minorities, like Kurds, during that period were brutally suppressed. I can’t make it sound like there was nothing else going on, but in terms of creating a republic out of the ashes of a crumbling empire — I think it’s one of the very striking stories of national transformation, globally, within one generation, so underrated.

There are numerous interesting segments, on varied topics, to be found throughout the dialog.

Is the scolding equilibrium shifting, and if so why?

As the pandemic evolves, so is the tendency of people to take moral positions they would not normally endorse. Most notably, many left-wing commentators are becoming moral scolds, stressing ideals of individual responsibility.

Consider these words:

“So it’s time to stop being diffident and call out destructive behavior for what it is. Doing so may make some people feel that they’re being looked down on. But you know what? Your feelings don’t give you the right to ruin other people’s lives.”

If I had read that paragraph two years ago, I might have thought it was a conservative columnist lamenting inner-city crime, or perhaps complaining about the behavior of homeless people in San Francisco. But no: It is Paul Krugman discussing those who will not get vaccinated or wear masks. He calls it “the rage of the responsible,” and it is emblematic of a broader set of current left-wing attitudes, most of all toward the red state responses to the pandemic.

To be clear, I agree with Krugman’s point, and I frequently express similar sentiments. All the same, I wonder about the rules here. When exactly are “the responsible” allowed to express their quiet rage, on which issues and on which terms?

The alternative to this rage is the language of victimhood. For example, many on the left tend to portray the homeless as hostages to circumstances largely beyond their control: the high cost of housing, unjust eviction policies, a tattered social welfare state, perhaps mental illness or drug addiction.

There is some truth in all those hypotheses. Still, when it comes to the homeless, am I also allowed to express the quiet rage of the responsible? Or is only the rhetoric of victimhood allowed?

There is no doubt that homeless people suffer very real injustices. But it could be argued that allowing oneself to become homeless is a greater abdication of responsibility than refusing to be vaccinated. It is also worse for your health and bad for the community, as anyone from San Francisco can tell you.

One rejoinder might be that a pandemic is different. Maybe so, but if this were the 1980s, during the peak of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, one could imagine a Moral Majority advocate expressing sentiments similar to Krugman’s about gay men who engage in unsafe sex. Today such a view would be considered uncouth, at least in the mainstream media, and that’s not only because there are now effective treatments against HIV-AIDS. This kind of scolding has mostly gone out of fashion, especially when the recipients have been victims of prior or current social discrimination.

Or consider the question of suicide. There was a time in America when it was common to view suicide as a violation of Christian doctrine. Now there is largely sympathy for those who have killed themselves. Is this change for the better? Maybe, but it’s not clear that this issue has been given serious evidence-based consideration. Scolding sometimes helps to limit the number of wrong deeds, and everyone does it to some degree, even when it is sometimes not appropriate.

Then there are alcohol and drug abuse, which have some features of epidemics in that they exhibit social contagion. Your drunkenness, for example, on average encourages some of your friends to experiment with the same. But scolding alcoholics also is out of fashion, even though the social costs of alcohol abuse are extremely high, especially when considered cumulatively. As a teetotaler, I sometimes express my own quiet rage of the responsible, and my reaction is mostly considered a strange curiosity.

It is not only left-wing thinkers who have ended up in strange ideological positions. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, a conservative Republican and one of America’s leading right-wing politicians, has essentially expanded public health-care coverage in his state by setting up mobile units to administer monoclonal antibodies to Covid-19 sufferers. I’m all for that. At the same time, I notice he continues to oppose Medicaid expansion in Florida.

What explains the attitudinal shifts we are seeing? One possibility is that left-wing thinkers are getting more puritanical and are more comfortable in their new role as scolds, including with respect to sex and vaccination and mask-wearing. That would leave Trumpist Republicans as the defenders of medical choice and the sexual libertinism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Another possibility, not mutually exclusive, is that few of us are intellectually consistent, and so our scolding is increasingly shaped by affective political polarization. The left will scold the practices of Trump supporters, while the right will scold the woke, and views on any particular issue will be adjusted to fit into this broader pattern. If an issue is not very partisan, such as alcohol abuse or suicide, scolding simply will decline.

Here is an article on the movement to treat vaccinated patients first. Fine by me! But what exactly are the egalitarians supposed to say? Is meritocracy now allowed to rear its ugly head?  Or do no other social outcomes have anything to do with your merit? Only this one? Really?

A temporary equilibrium only?

“The Tax Policy Center estimates that last year nearly 107 million households, or about 61 percent, owed no income tax or even received tax credits from the government,” Howard Gleckman, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, noted last week. “The spike is likely to be temporary, however. The share of non-payers will decline to about 102 million or 57 percent this year.”

n recent pre-pandemic years, the percentage of tax returns with no income tax liability has been closer to 44 percent in Tax Policy Center’s figures, though it has trended upward over time.

“The percentage of filers with no income liability has generally increased from where it was nearly 40 years ago,” the National Taxpayers Union Foundation reported in 2018. “This trend is indicative of a progressive income tax code under which higher-income earners pay a larger share of taxes while low-income earners are generally shielded from significant income tax liabilities.”

Here is more from Reason, via Ray Lopez.  In so many other areas, the pandemic has accelerated trends that already were present…

How sad that our regulatory state is still failing us

When Pfizer representatives met with senior U.S. government health officials on July 12, they laid out why they thought booster shots would soon be necessary in the United States. Data from Israel showed the vaccine’s effectiveness waned over time, especially in older and immunocompromised people.

But officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagreed, saying their own data showed something quite different, according to four people with direct knowledge of the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Other senior health officials in the meeting were stunned. Why hadn’t the CDC looped other government officials on the data? Could the agency share it — at least with the Food and Drug Administration, which was responsible for deciding whether booster shots were necessary? But CDC officials demurred, saying they planned to publish it soon.

That episode, say senior administration officials and outside experts, illustrates the growing frustration with the CDC’s slow and siloed approach to sharing data, which prevented officials across the government from getting real-time information about how the delta variant was bearing down on the United States and behaving with greater ferocity than earlier variants — an information gap they say stymied the response…

“It’s not acceptable how long it takes for this data to be made available,” said a senior CDC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. “It’s done in a very academic way. Cross every ‘t,’ and dot every ‘i,’ and unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in a global pandemic. There’s going to be a need to have a significant cultural shift in the agency.”

Here is the full Washington Post story by Yasmeen Abutaleb and Lena H. Sun.

Who are the most rational people?

From John A. Doces and Amy Wolaver:

We examine the question of rationality, replicating two core experiments used to establish that people deviate from the rational actor model. Our analysis extends existing research to a developing country context. Based on our theoretical expectations, we test if respondents make decisions consistent with the rational actor framework. Experimental surveys were administered in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, two developing countries in West Africa, focusing on issues of risk aversion and framing. Findings indicate that respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational actor model than has been found in the developed world. Extending our analysis to test if the differences in responses are due to other demographic differences between the African samples and the United States, we replicated these experiments on a nationally representative analysis in the U.S., finding results primarily consistent with the seminal findings of irrationality. In the U.S. and Côte d’Ivoire, highly educated people make decisions that are less consistent with the rational model while low-income respondents make decisions more consistent with the rational model. The degree to which people are irrational thus is contextual, possibly western, and not nearly as universal as has been concluded.

Speculative, and not replicated, but the point remains of definite interest.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Afghanistan thoughts

From my Bloomberg column, here is only one part of the argument, at the close:

The hawks I know, especially those with a politically conservative bent, typically will admit or perhaps even emphasize that the American electorate lacks the stomach for long-term interventions. But rather than consider the practical implications of such an admission, they too quickly flip into moralizing. We hear that the American citizenry is not sufficiently committed, or perhaps that non-conservative politicians are morally bankrupt, or that the Biden administration has made a huge mistake. But those moral claims, even if correct, are a distraction from the main lesson at hand. If your own country is not morally strong enough to see through your preferred hawkish policies, maybe those policies aren’t going to prove sustainable, and thus they need to be scaled back.

I still largely agree with most of the hawk worldview: America can be a great force for good in the world, the notion of evil in global affairs as very real, America’s main rivals on the global stage are up to no good, and there is an immense amount of naivete and wishful thinking in most of those who do not consider themselves hawks. What I do not see is a very convincing recipe for hawk policy success over time.

That all said, I still think the Biden withdrawal from Afghanistan was a policy mistake. The U.S. has allowed a very certain evil to rule about 38 million people, without constraint, and has damaged America’s credibility.

And:

This debate involves a host of untenable views. One camp condemns America’s Afghan interventions but offers few constructive alternatives. Another affiliates with hawkish values, but cannot enforce America’s will. Yet another recognizes the fragility of the current situation, but does not wish to turn over the keys to evil right now and hopes to straggle toward a different set of alternatives.

Very reluctantly, I’ve signed up for the last option.

I don’t by the way agree with Alex’s claim that we got nothing from our involvement in Afghanistan.  We used it to bring down the Soviet empire, at a high benefit to cost ratio, noting that we have subsequently not handled the fallout very well.