Category: Political Science

What are the best novels about politics?

Queried here, I will simplify and make it books, period, but restrict it to fiction, not counting philosophy.  My list of five:

1. Shakespeare’s Henriad, a no-brainer at #1, if you count it as more than one book it still should take up as many slots as it needs.  Psychology is primary and stands above politics, and libertinism is by no means unrelated to power.

2. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, vanity, pride, and self-deception are the keys to understanding political behavior, plus Swift shows an understanding of "the rules of the game."

3. Montesquieu, Persian Letters, yikes, have you ever seen that Monty Python skit "Summarize Proust"?

4. Sophocles, Antigone, the claims of the family vs. the claims of the state continue to plague Iraq and many other places.

5. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, the former is not just a good tale but also a profound comparative study of regimes, the latter is the brutal truths of war.

Interestingly none of these are proper novels.  I read Kafka’s The Trial as more about theology than worldly affairs.  As for politics as a profession, the source from The Economist recommends "Primary Colors", C.P. Snow’s "The Corridors of Power", and "All the King’s Men".

It is less fruitful and less fun to guess at the best novels about business and economics, perhaps because the relevant truths seem banal in a fictional context.

Markets in everything, deficit spending edition

The Illinois lottery may be up for sale.  The current status is discussed in yesterday’s NYT.  The state hopes to get $10 billion.  The lottery had $630 million in profits last year on sales of $2 billion.  The buyer would get all profit for 75 years.

Here is the source.  Larry Ribstein remarks: "Yet more evidence that a hedge fund is no match for a politician when it comes to short-term thinking."

Swing voters

Mr. Mancuso also put Mr. Uribe [the president of Colombia] in the spotlight by saying that militias
pressured people to vote for the president in 2002, when Mr. Uribe was
first elected…a document rumored to exist in recent weeks was published in the daily
newspaper El Tiempo on Friday.  It describes a secret pact in 2001
between Mr. Mancuso, other paramilitary leaders and 11 congressmen, two
governors and five mayors, in which those present agreed to work
together to forge “a new social contract,” largely in order to protect
private property rights.

Here is the full story, which further explains why this nation does not have peace.  The paramilitaries are interest groups and traders, not just guys with guns.  I believe we are seeing just the beginning of these revelations…

William F. Buckley is a smart guy

Buckley was the first person I ever read on politics.  Now he is writing:

A geographical division of Iraq is inevitable.  The major players are obvious.  It isn’t plain how America, as an outside party, could play an effective role, let alone one that was decisive, in that national redefinition.

I take it he means other than for the Kurds, whom we can continue to protect.  Jane Galt offers her mea culpa on Iraq, and questions who was really the smarty-pants.  I wrote in her comments:

While I too was "tricked" about WMDs, that was not my key mistake.  My key mistake was to think that if we could lead a regime change in a country as messed-up as Haiti without touching off a civil war, that we could do the same in Iraq.  These power transitions seemed to have worked OK numerous times in the past (though Haiti hasn’t gotten better it would have gotten worse), but of course it didn’t go very well this time.

Dan Drezner surveys his own mistakes.  Matt Yglesias gives perhaps the best ongoing coverage of the U.S. political situation.

Regardless of what Victor Davis Hanson tells us we should do, it seems obvious what we will do, namely a near-complete pull-out with a buffer reserved for the Kurds and some bases and perhaps the selective use of air power.  The next question is this: if the new Iraq really is a breeding ground for terrorists who will strike abroad, as many anti-war critics have suggested, under what conditions would we later re-up our military involvement, and for how long?  I don’t have a good answer, and perhaps I "don’t deserve to be listened to" on this, but I would like to hear what the superior predictors have to say.

When is democracy an equilibrium?

…democracy may only be stable when one group is dominant.  We provide a test of a key aspect of our model using data from "La Violencia", a political conflict in Colombia during the years 1946-1950 between the Liberal and Conservative parties.  Consistent with our results, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, we show that fighting between the parties was more intense in municipalities where the support of the parties was more evenly balanced.

Here is the paper, here is a non-gated version.

Whither conservatism?

Take that word in the broad rather than narrow sense.  Jim Kalb writes:

As time went on the movement followed the usual shift in emphasis from
quality to quantity: from the traditionalist, libertarian and
anti-totalitarian ideas that got it started to the forces that gave it
the means to exercise power: politic and well-connected
neoconservatives, spokesmen and operatives who could influence and
mobilize masses of religious and populist voters, and those simply
interested in power as such.  GWB’s big government borderless
“conservatism” brought that process to a conclusion: no conservative
principle at all, just power, political management, and scraps of
liberal and conservative ideology made up into banners.  At this point,
with the failure of the Bush administration, the whole thing seems to
have come to an end.  It seems that those who want to resist the reign
of quantity and the managerial state, and work toward a better way of
life, need to start again from basics.  We are back in 1945.

There is much truth to this.  As to the future, Brad Thompson offers an Objectivist viewpoint.  Here is my take on reviving classical liberalism.

Does politics reflect personality?

A new article in Psychology Today suggests the following:

†¢    Liberals are messier than conservatives. Their rooms have more clutter, more color.  Conservatives’ rooms are better organized, more brightly lit, and more conventional.  Liberals have more books and their books are on a greater variety of topics.
†¢    Compared to liberals, conservatives are less tolerant of ambiguity, a trait researchers say is exemplified when George Bush says things like, "Look, my job isn’t to try to nuance. My job is to tell people what I think," and "I’m the decider."
†¢    Conservatives have a greater fear of death.
†¢    Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.
†¢    Conservatives are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, rule-following, duty, and orderliness.
†¢    Conservatives have a greater need to reach a decision quickly and stick to it.
†¢    When people are prompted to think about death–a state of mind  psychologists call mortality salience–they actually become more conservative.
†¢    Conservatives are more likely to have been insecure as kids, whereas liberals are more likely to have been confident as kids.

I can assure you my room is messy, and I wonder if more finely grained categories would have been useful.

Are we predisposed to be excessively hawkish?

Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon argue we are too quick to pick a fight:

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks.  Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics.  For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths:  About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average.  In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war.  Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.

In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found:  All the biases in our list favor hawks.  These psychological impulses–only a few of which we discuss here–incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations.  In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

Since the first-best, optimal number of wars is zero, this is correct.  The more difficult and also more important question is whether "the good guys" fight too many or too few wars, given this strong martial propensity of "the bad guys," and treating the bad guys as the first movers.  Another bias is that some "just wars" (but can they succeed?) remain unfought, usually when we do not care much about the slaughter of "out-group innocents," as evidenced by Timor, Rwanda, Darfur, etc.  The U.S. entered World War II too late rather than too early, and did too little to limit the Holocaust.

Of course we need to adjust any estimate by the probability that we are sometimes "the bad guys" rather than "the good guys."

Here is one critical comment, here is Matt Yglesias.  Dan Drezner offers commentary.

Comments are open, but the discussion will be better if we consider the biases rather than debating the merits of particular wars.

Can we just scale up Denmark?

The ever-inquisitive Matt Yglesias asks why the successful social welfare policies of smaller countries cannot be scaled up to a larger level.  I don’t know of serious work on this question (there are papers on whether smallness is an advantage for economic growth, but that is not the same issue), so we should not jump to hasty conclusions.  Nonetheless I can think of a few factors:

1. Perhaps homogeneity is the advantage, not smallness per se.  So a Denmark of 150 million people might work quite well, if only there were 150 million Danes.  There aren’t, and if we imagine the Danish population growing they might not stay so homogeneous in nature.  Peer effects dissipate or perhaps turn negative at some scale.

2. Perhaps the ability to dispense with federalism helps government efficiency in small countries.  I favor federalism for larger units, such as the United States, but I think of it as a necessary evil.  Singapore and New Zealand don’t have much federalism, nor should they.

3. Concentration of power in a major city may account for some of the special properties of small countries.  It is often striking how many of the small-country elites went to the same high school, and they can strike efficient political bargains relatively easily; postwar Austria has been cited as an example.  Larger size makes these Coasian bargains impossible.  Note that Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, and Oslo are all far more important than the second cities in those countries. 

4. Feelings of social solidarity are limited across space and across numbers, and this simply won’t change.

5. Orderly countries aren’t very interested in larger political units.  The Nordic countries have in the past existed in larger political confederations, but somebody always was persnickety enough to break away.  Many of the Nordic countries, even today, are relatively skeptical about the EU.

Addendum: Comments on this post seem to be working now…

Brazil fact of the day, federalism edition

In today’s Brazil, federalism and decentralisation have become a question of uncontrolled flows of money from the central state to the provinces.  10 per cent of the municipalities of Brazil do not raise any tax at all.  At the same time, 89 per cent of them derive 95 per cent or more of their income from transfer payments from Brasilia, or from the government of their federal state.

Here is the link, which argues, correctly, that Brazil has too much dysfunctional federalism.  I might add that infrastructure here is another (related) problem, read the post above this one.  For a country of Brazil’s importance, the quality of the roads, airports, and so on is abysmal.  Did I mention that only about fifteen million of the voters pay income taxes?

American Political Science Review

Just as the Review and the political science profession in general failed to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Review before
1914 conveyed little sense that a cataclysmic world war was imminent.  The
journal did publish an article on the Balkans (Harris 1913), but it did
not focus on the larger power transitions taking place in Europe until
publication of a rather realist analysis of “The Causes of the Great
War” after World War I had begun (Turner 1915).  In this same time
period, the Review was filled with articles putting a favorable
emphasis on international law as a means toward peace.

So what are we economists missing now?  Hat tip to Dan Drezner.

Got Milk?

The Washington Post has a great front-page article on the milk cartel and how they crushed a competitor.  Titled "Dairy Industry Crushed Innovator who Bested Price-Control System," it lays everything out from the law and its history to how the system really works e.g. campaign contributions, Innovator: $172,900, Dairy Industry: $7,577,409.

In the summer of 2003, shoppers in Southern California began getting a break on the price of milk.

maverick dairyman named Hein Hettinga started bottling his own milk and
selling it for as much as 20 cents a gallon less than the competition,
exercising his right to work outside the rigid system that has
controlled U.S. milk production for almost 70 years. Soon the effects
were rippling through the state, helping to hold down retail prices at
supermarkets and warehouse stores.

That was when a coalition of giant milk companies and dairies, along
with their congressional allies, decided to crush Hettinga’s
initiative. For three years, the milk lobby spent millions of dollars
on lobbying and campaign contributions and made deals with lawmakers,
including incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

March, Congress passed a law reshaping the Western milk market and
essentially ending Hettinga’s experiment — all without a single
congressional hearing.

Read the whole thing.