Category: Political Science

Our next President

…I hate candidate blogging, but here is my neck on the line.  Obama faces too high a chance of self-destruction through scandal, meltdowns, and lack of testing at the national level.  Hillary has too many people who won’t change their mind about her, is too unpopular with suburban Cincinnati housewives, and looks shrill and ugly on TV.  Americans are tired of family dynasties in the White House.  Edwards has the best chance of any Democrat but won’t get the nomination.  Democrats do well when voters’ main concern is the economy, not foreign policy; that won’t be the case.  No matter how badly Iraq goes it helps the Republicans, who benefit from an emphasis on foreign policy, an area where Democrats are never trusted.  It is the Democrats who will tear themselves apart over Iraq, not the Republicans.  The evangelicals hate a Mormon candidate more than an immoral candidate; the latter allows them to stay unified.  McCain looks too old these days, and he peaked too early, so I’ll predict Giuliani as our next President.  Speeding up the primaries will make it harder for the Christian Right to sabotage him.  Rudy has many political negatives, including his name, his home state, and his flamboyant personal history, but all will be neutralized when his opponent is Hillary Clinton.

Don’t expect to hear about this topic again.

Tyrone says it is easy to stop global warming

Tyrone, like many other people, enjoys reading Instapundit.  Today he sent me the following by IM, or was it Google Talk?:

Global warming is easy to stop.  Is a carbon tax costly?  No way.  Didn’t we already agree that stopping global warming is wealth-maximizing for the world as a whole?  Then we just have to work out the right set of transfers.  As a first-order oversimplification, global warming benefits North Dakota but harms Bangladesh by a greater amount.  North Dakota cuts a deal with Bangladesh.  The two state Senators will support a carbon tax in return for FREE CALL CENTRES FOR FIFTY YEARS.  Or whatever is needed.  After all, a bargain is there.  We might even use the UN, or a revamped Kyoto agreement, to support and organize the deal.

You can see this agreement is self-enforcing, right?  If payment is not made, we can always take the carbon tax away.  Or do something even nastier with those silos up there in the Peace Garden State.  Obviously America could turn a profit on this whole carbon tax deal.  This might sound unfair, but surely it is less unfair than ignoring the problem altogether…

Sadly, Tyrone is still waiting for a response from Tyler.  Tyler thinks Tyrone is a nasty, nasty man, who has grasped only the worst of Edgeworth and understood none of the best…

Susan Sontag on America

It is the genius of the United States, a profoundly conservative country in ways that Europeans find difficult to fathom, to have elaborated a form of conservative thinking that celebrates the new rather than the old.

That is from Susan Sontag’s new At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches.  This volume is not her best work, but it is still better than what almost anyone else comes up with.

The Paradox of Libertarianism

Here is my response to Brian Doherty’s CatoUnbound essay, and here is opening bit:

Brian Doherty asks: "Did this libertarian movement . . . actually accomplish anything of unquestionable significance?"

Yes: Bigger government.

Or try this:

The old formulas were “big government was bad” and “liberty is
good,” but these are not exactly equal in their implications.  The
second motto – “liberty is good” – is the more important.  And the older
story of “big government crushes liberty” is being superseded by
“advances in liberty bring bigger government.”

Libertarians
aren’t used to reacting to that second story, because it goes against
the “liberty vs. power” paradigm burned into our brains.  That’s why
libertarianism is in an intellectual crisis today.

Why are Latin American politicians so bad?

A loyal MR reader asks:

[Please discuss] Latin American politics. Why do our politicians ****?

A few points:

1. I’m not convinced they are worse than average, once you adjust for per capita income.  If East Asia looks better, perhaps the quality of the bureaucracy is more important than the relative quality of the elites.

2. Combining parliamentary, proportional, and presidential systems, as much of Latin America has done, is a recipe for disaster.  Read Ljiphart and others on this topic.  It is too easy to block reforms, there is too little accountability, and there is no coherent ruling coalition.  If you are going to have a strong presidential role, try to restrict the number of major parties to two.  Or if you want many parties, make the president directly accountable to a coalition. 

3. The charismatic traditions in these cultures do not make for responsible politicians.  Visit Eva Peron’s grave in Buenos Aires if you need to be convinced.

4. It is difficult to rule a country with significant ethnic divisions.  This covers many Latin countries, though not Argentina or Chile or Uruguay.

5. Latin tax systems are underdeveloped, so distortionary policies are needed to collect sufficient revenue.  Citizens then become cynical about government, and consider it illegitimate.  Tax evasion is rampant.  The spiral worsens and again no one can govern well.

The bottom line: If they put me in charge of a Latin country, I don’t think I could deliver superior growth performance.  At best I would avoid some of the really stupid mistakes, but I couldn’t turn the country around.

This post is #02 in a series of 50 (?).

Addendum: Bryan Caplan adds comment, but I think he is just proving my point.

Game theory and the American-Israel relationship

Here are a few views:

1. Economizing hand motions is the key, so just leave it "as is" when done.  It might be needed in that same position again.

2. Such matters should be arranged to please your wife.  It is signaling and a symbolic recognition of her value.  The only question is what you get in return, but if you get anything at all it is worth it.

3. Avoiding midnight surprises is the key, which means always leave it down.

4. Many women don’t like the idea that guests could show up and see the insides of their toilet bowls. 

#2-4 all point in the same direction, and I don’t give a damn about #1.  But somehow I, like many other men, fail to optimize on this question.  The more interesting question is why this remains a issue.  Here goes:

1. Women keep it an issue, rather than delivering decisive argumentation, to test their men and their sense of commitment.

2. Men cannot help but rebel against the female ethic of caring, especially when it concerns something so infantile as a toilet seat.

3. Existential freedom.  I once had a European roommate, and it drove me crazy that he closed all the doors around the apartment. Perhaps an occasional open seat is a quixotic demand that our universe show true randomness and openness.

4. Men prefer to focus more intensely on a smaller number of issues and this isn’t one of them.  But obviously that explanation can no longer apply to me.

Addendum: Mikhail directs my attention to this paper.

Are Parliamentary systems better?

Matt Yglesias writes:

As a general matter, I tend to think parliamentary systems as seen in Britain or Canada are superior to our method of government.  A system like that puts less formal restraint on the head of government in terms of his ability to act, but also makes it much easier to dump a head of government whose policies have failed and whose leadership is widely considered inept.

Totally maybe.  Parliamentary systems do work better for small countries with well-educated populations.  Accountability is higher, and voters enforce some discipline upon government.  The openness of the economy imposes other constraints.  See this paper.

But when the country is large and diverse, I see more reason to favor the American Constitution or in general a more pluralistic system.  Why trust voters as the major source of constraint, and what do "the voters" want in any case?  Furthermore the American system offers a decent chance of divided government and thus greater limits on the executive.  Parliamentary systems often allow the Prime Minister and cabinet to manipulate the legislature by offering intra-party perks and promotions.  There is plenty of gerrymandering, and bringing down a government is an extreme option which is not very easy to exercise in political equilibrium.  If nothing else the rebelling party faces the danger of many of its members — including the rebels — being kicked out in a new election.  Elections can be called at strategic times, and so on.  The Prime Minister is hardly a captive of the voters or the legislature.

Federalism is another issue.  If so much of policy is decided in decentralized fashion, as it must be in a large nation, maybe the federal/national part of those policies should be decided on grounds in rough concordance with a federalistic system.  That will mean a division of powers.  I also worry that as the nation becomes big enough, and states matter more, that there is not enough party unity to sustain a Parliamentary system.

When the executive and legislature are unified, as under a Parliamentary system, the Supreme Court, or its equivalent, will be weaker.  No one will trust a hand-picked court, with no major obstacles to confirmation, with so much power.  Yet weakening judicial review in America would worry me; it also also one step toward eliminating a written constitution altogether.

A final question is whether the USA — the country most likely to use nuclear weapons — needs a President with a certain amount of autonomy and secrecy for a fixed time period.  In general I favor a constrained executive, but that one is harder to call.  Can you imagine a Parliament debating nuclear strategy?

Behavioral public choice: the next subfield in economics

Jane Galt writes:

The post below also applies to behavioural economics, which the left
seems to believe is a magical proof of the benevolence of government
intervention, because after all, people are stupid, so they need the
government to protect them from themselves.  My take is a little subtler
than that:

1)  People are often stupid
2)  Bureaucrats are the same stupid people, with bad incentives.

There are few subfields in economics that have not been fleshed out with every possible combination of mechanisms, but this is one of them.  Yes, it is hard to come up with generalizable results about the psychological and behavioral biases of bureaucrats, but that hasn’t stopped many other areas in economics (like, um…behavioral economics) from taking off.  In fifteen years someone will write a JEL survey on Behavioral Public Choice, and you will regret not having written at least one of the early papers in the field.

I might add that Behavioral Public Choice gives us a better sense of when government programs actually work.  When morale is high, many people in government will "feel they matter," even if they do not, and do a very good job.  So Behavioral Public Choice is not just government-bashing, although there is a place for that too.  Behavioral factors also help account for why corruption becomes the norm in some settings but not others; psychological propensities are one way to narrow the set of possible equilibria.

Is it a good idea to have such a cute President?

Royal

Was it Megan Non-McArdle who said that women are judged by their looks from day one to the grave?  Royal would make a good character on Lost, so I see a few possible political effects:

1. French men will swoon, roll over, and play dead while she passes further protectionist measures.

2. Other women will never trust her.

3. Men, at the meta-level, know that beautiful women trick them all the time, so they will never trust their trust in her.

4. She needs to prove she is tough, and that implies hawkish, nationalistic behavior.  She will be especially constrained.

5. She provides a national and global public good, but the Modigliani-Miller theorem holds and each part of her persona is evaluated separately, and accurately.

6. She will be an especially effective diplomat on the world stage.

7. No one cares, or is influenced by looks.

8. If the median voter model were true, the President would be so beautiful every election.  Some other model must hold.

We haven’t had many beautiful top female leaders, so most of the data is for attractive male leaders; I doubt if the two cases are symmetric.  Overall I opt for #8, with a dose of #4 and a bit of #3 and #2.

Wikipedia notes: "For the recent campaign for the Presidential nomination she changed
from wearing dull clothing to stylish suits and reportedly had work
done on her teeth."

The Regulatory Process

I am always disappointed by public meetings.  We hold public meetings for people to give us comment, and we never get the kind of comment I hope for.  I keep hoping some guy will stop in and say “Why, that problem looks like one we solved for a tricky transportation issue!  You might not think so, but I think the underlying structure is the same.  Have you thought about this algorithm, which worked for us?” And then I would say, “That just might work!  Maybe you could show me how you derived it over dinner tonight.”  And he would say “Only if I can take you out for dessert after, so we can talk about other potential applications.  But it will have to be in Midtown, because I rode my bike here.”  And then I would start blushing and fanning myself, because I would be thinking impure thoughts.

That is from Megan Non-McArdle.  Her politics are not mine, but if you scroll down her blog for the last few days, you’ll find some of the best posts on regulation in all of Blog Land; here is her post on how regulation can go wrong. 

From my angle:

1. Government regulations have a very large aggregate net benefit relative to their costs; rules for clean gas, taken alone, might be more valuable than all the other regulatory costs we bear.  If you don’t believe me, try visiting Mexico City in November.  I’ve also been to Delhi.

2. Many government regulations are simply unnecessary.

3. No one has come up with a good algorithm for weeding out the bad regulations from the good ones.  Nonetheless cost-benefit analysis, for all its philosophic flaws, can serve this function.  You don’t have to take CBA very seriously for this to be true.  It will reject towing in icebergs from the Arctic to supply water in New Zealand, and for the right reasons.  A deeper question is whether throwing darts at the Federal Register, as a means of eliminating new excess regulation, will bring a positive expected return.

4. In many areas the difference between "government regulation" and "government protecting property rights" is not well-defined.  Reread #3.

5. The costs of regulation sometimes involve intransitivities.  Many small regulations, examined individually, might be said to bring zero net harm, but taken collectively they tax innovation.  It is simply very hard to run a business and deal with extensive regulation; attention and effort are scarce.  More people on the left should take seriously the political conversion of George McGovern to a pro-business stance, after he tried running a business himself. 

6. In Megan’s area — water policy — property rights are especially likely to be poorly defined and the scope for regulation (or is that "enforcement of property rights"?) is especially likely to be strong.

Stories you won’t often hear

I believe we are programmed to favor political stories with relatively clear moral lessons, and stories which suggest we can improve the world as we might like to.  As a result, you won’t hear the following claims too many times:

1. We already have wrecked our environment with global warming; the truth is, it is simply too late to do anything about it.

2. The U.S. economy is being riveted by forces which will increase inequality dramatically.  These forces are so strong we had better surrender to them and learn how to live with that inequality.  This may involve less political power for the downtrodden.

3. A polity wracked with inequality can’t last very long as a free society.  Philosophic worries about inequality are mostly bunk, but we need to move toward greater equality to appease the masses and even to appease some of the elites.

Please note (all you blogs which quote selectively and out of context), none of those are my views.  But they are not less plausible than many of the other opinions thrown around in these debates.  Yet they remain, for obvious reasons I think, quite unpopular.

Can you think of other (plausible) stories which you don’t hear too often?