Category: Political Science

A short recent history of FEMA

Courtesy of Kevin Drum, read the whole thing.  Hindsight is easy, but what should FEMA be doing?

My view is the following.  Many levees are genuine public goods, and should receive government support, from the federal government (e.g., Army Corp; here is a brief history of their involvement) if need be although perhaps not ideally.  FEMA should not be in the business of flood insurance, nor should FEMA reimburse local governments for snow plowing.  Here is a Cato critique of FEMA.  Here is a libertarian article on why a limited governmental response to the Chicago fire was best.  Here is another libertarian critique.  Here is an AEI article that FEMA invests too much in earthquake safety.  Here is an argument that FEMA should not have been made part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Here is a recent piece on cuts to levee subsidies; the news will hurt the Republicans.  Here is a short piece on how revenue from airport privatization could have been used to shore up New Orleans levees.

Libertarian readers, do you care to argue the levee should not have been subsidized?  Do you favor real privatization, not as a Port Authority or Federal Reserve may be private, but in the true market sense?  (Here is a short history of the Louisiana levee authorities; their status has evolved over time.)  If you take that position, you have a few alternatives:

1. We rely too much on unreliable levees, and privatization/non-subsidization would reveal their true social costs and induce people to move elsewhere.

2. A privatized, non-subsidized levee would engage in a successful long-term contract with city residents; see the Demsetz-Williamson debate.  The government still would have to force residents to make the relevant tax payments, for free rider reasons.

3. A levee contract could be written without use of coercive taxation; see this piece on assurance contracts.

4. A private levee authority would invest in water safety out of fear of being sued.  Furthermore these ex post legal incentives would be reliable and would not involve more government intervention than ex ante regulatory incentives.

5. A private levee authority would be forced by its insurance company to build good protection and also hold huge capital reserves.  Their cost of capital and costs of production would remain lower than the government’s.  You can hold this position in conjunction with #3, or believe that coercive taxation would remain necessary.  But in any case it probably requires reliance on #4.

I am not willing to defend any of these five positions, but what do you say readers?  The current government system, obviously, does not have a sterling record.  Comments are open.

Whither right-wing thought?

Original thinking often
flourishes under conditions of intellectual marginality. Unfortunately,
the conservative movement, having discovered a mass audience, risks
squandering the intellectual marginality that once made it so
interesting and daring. 

In future years, it may take a smaller, elite group of right-wingers to animate conservative ideas once more.

Read the whole thing, and prepare to be offended if you are conservative or libertarian. 

No Prisoner’s Dilemma on the Western Front

Robert Axelrod’s story of how cooperation developed between British and German soldiers in the trench warfare of World War I is so elegant few people have questioned it.  Yet in a single sentence, Andrew Gelman says the emperor has no clothes and looky, looky, he’s right!

The crux of Axelrod’s story is that the soldiers were trapped in a prisoner’s dilemma: individual incentives were to shoot the enemy while the socially optimal outcome was cooperation.  Axelrod then introduces his famous ideas of tit for tat etc. etc. to explain how cooperation could evolve even under these most hostile of conditions.

But Gelman asks why should we think that shooting the enemy was in a soldier’s best interest?  Indeed,

…it seems more reasonable to
suppose that, as a soldier in the trenches, you would do better to avoid firing: shooting
your weapon exposes yourself as a possible target, and the enemy soldiers might
very well shoot back at where your shot came from.

I believe that on this point Gelman is totally correct [insert dope slap here].  But, as he continues, "If you have no
short-term motivation to fire, then cooperation is completely natural and
requires no special explanation."

Axelrod’s story and the large literature following it sometimes suggest that cooperation is always the thing to be explained.  Cooperation is what happens when the natural order is overcome.  Gelman reminds us that sometimes cooperation is the norm, it’s conflict that needs to be explained.  In this case, we need to explain why the soldiers fought. 

Comments are open.

Lee Kuan Yew is usually worth reading

He is not afraid to be blunt, and for a politician he is surprisingly analytical.  Here is the interview.  Here is Lee on Singapore and China:

Mr. Lee: …So it is a very
serious challenge for us to move aside and not collide with them [the Chinese]. We have
to move to areas where they cannot move.
SPIEGEL: Such as?

Mr. Lee: Such as where the rule of law, intellectual property and
security of production systems are required, because for them to establish that, it will
take 20 to 30 years. We are concentrating on bio medicine,
pharmaceuticals and all products requiring protection of intellectual
property rights. No pharmaceutical company is going to go have its
precious patents disclosed. So that is why they are here in Singapore and
not in China.

Will New Zealand reform any further?

The core outlines of the New Zealand story are well-known: in 1980 the country was arguably the most socialized OECD country and stood on the verge of bankruptcy.  By the early 1990s New Zealand was one of the freest economies and had produced a solid if not spectacular economic performance.  The reforms included near free trade, substantial privatization, elimination of agricultural subsidies, free labor markets based on contract, free capital markets, 0-2 percent inflation as a formal regime, a relatively flat tax, and greater transparency in policymaking.  But the New Zealand economy has not seen major reforms in over a decade and in a few areas, such as labor markets, there has been backsliding.  Will reforms return?  I see a few hypotheses:

1. New Zealand reformed everything short of social welfare spending, education, and health care, which few voters wish or wished to reform.  In fact the point of previous reforms was to preserve (and perhaps extend) previous levels of social welfare spending.

2. Further reforms were thwarted by a move to proportional representation in the early 1990s, which gave minority parties undue influence and weakened threads of accountability.

3. Asset privatizations in particular were oversold — remember the Auckland blackout? — and New Zealanders lost their appetite for further changes.

4. New Zealand policymakers were well ahead of public attitudes, and managed so many reforms only because the country’s (previous) Parliamentary system had few checks and balances.  It is taking public opinion an entire generation to catch up to where policy stands.  Only then might current reforms continue.

5. New Zealanders can once again sit content, since they are no longer in danger of being blown out of the water by Australia.  If they start falling behind again, reforms will resume.

6. Donald Brash will be elected Prime Minister in September, and reforms will resume then.

I’ll give the greatest weight to #1 and #4, and say no to #6, comments are open, Kiwi commentators are especially welcome.

Cutting government spending in Colorado?

The stricter Colorado [spending] cap does three things: it imposes firm spending caps (which grow only to reflect population and inflation), returns any excess revenues to taxpayers and allows only voters, not legislators, to override the caps.

Both sides agree that the measure reined in the budget. The growth in per capita spending fell to 31 percent in the decade after the cap from 72 percent in the decade before..

But even as the Colorado measure galvanizes antispending groups elsewhere, it is dividing them at home, prompting a right-on-right fight that is luring outside combatants and drawing blood.

On one side is Gov. Bill Owens, the two-term Republican once promoted by National Review as a conservative of presidential timber. Arguing that the strict provision has forced a fiscal crisis, Mr. Owens is championing a ballot measure that would suspend the limit for five years, allowing the state to spend an additional $3.7 billion. Otherwise, he warns, the cap may be repealed.

On the other side are former allies who call the governor a tax-raising apostate discrediting the law he claims to protect. In addition to Mr. Norquist, they include the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and the former House majority leader, Dick Armey, a leader of an antitax group called FreedomWorks.

Stay tuned…I would be surprised if this kind of initiative proved to be a long-run political equilibrium in many states.  Voters could simply cut spending by voting for anti-spending politiicians, if they were truly convinced of the merits of that position.  In part this is voters wanting to feel they want to cut spending, without actually having the desire to do so, a kind of expressive politics of the right.  Here is the full story.  Here is one account of failures at the federal level, courtesy of Cato and Reason.

Remembering Who Was Right

We spend endless hours arguing who is right in current controversies, but minutes or less remembering who was right before.  Oh we sometimes brag about selected cases, but we rarely collect systematic statistics.  (Rare exceptions include weathermen, business analysts, and sports punters.)

Yet such track records are just what we need to figure out who is right today.  You might think it enough to know which side is smarter or better informed.  But a janitor can consistently beat his arrogant CEO, if the janitor is careful to only disagree on topics where he clearly knows more.  When disputants are aware of each others’ opinions, it is those who better know when to defer and when to stand their ground that should be right more often.

Yes it would be hard to track and score everything everyone says, but we could do a lot more than we now do.  Widespread idea futures or David Brin’s prediction registries could help us estimate which individuals tend to be right more often.  And it should be even easier to evaluate standard demographic categories.

When a husband and wife disagree, who tends to be right?  How about a parent and child, a student and teacher, a boss and employee, a liberal and conservative?  For a few thousand dollars, we could bring dozens of such pairs into the lab, ask them various questions together, and see who is right when they disagree.  Perhaps lab disputes differ from field disputes in unknown systematic ways, but it would be a great first step.

Perhaps even more useful, we could take a sample of real media disputes and see both who tends to take which side, and which side seemed more right in the end.  I have just finished one such analysis, on the dispute over the policy analysis market (PAM), a.k.a. terrorism futures.  Four readers rated 555 media articles on which gave favorable or unfavorable impressions of PAM, and these ratings were regressed on sixteen features of articles, publications, and authors.

The result?  Since five strong indicators of more informed articles agreed on a more favorable rating, the favorable position looks like the “right” one here.  In the case of PAM, these groups were right more often: men, conservatives, web or broadcast media over print and books, and those who talked to people with firsthand knowledge, wrote longer articles, wrote news as opposed to editorials, and wrote for specialty publications with larger circulations and more awards.

Of course we need to look at more disputes to see which of these indicators holds more generally.  But a few tens of thousands of dollars should pay for that.  And with good indicators in hand, we could in real time predict which sides are probably right in current disputes.  Wouldn’t that be something?

Tantrums as Status Symbols

Once upon a time one’s social status was clearly signaled by so many things: fragile expensive clothes, skin not worn from work, accent, vocabulary, and so on.  As many of these signal have weakened, one remains strong: tantrums.

CEOs throw more tantrums than mailboys.  Similarly movie stars, sports stars, and politicians throw more tantrums than ordinary people  in those industries.  Also famous for their tantrums: spoiled young wives, bigshot patriarchs, elite travelers, and toddlers.

These patterns make sense: after all, beautiful young women and successful older men are at their peak of desirability to the opposite sex.  If you are surprised that toddlers make the list, perhaps you should pay closer attention to the toddler-parent relation.  Parents mostly serve toddlers, not the other way around.

Of course, like a swagger, the signal is not so much the tantum itself as the fact that someone can get away with it.

Addendum: Todd Kendall has a data paper on this for NBA players.

Diet Pork

The Washington Post reports a record pork feast today

President Bush signed into law a massive $286.4 billion transportation
bill Wednesday that includes more than 6,000 pet projects of lawmakers
across the country that range from a crucial parkway linking two
interstates in Illinois to a snowmobile trail in Vermont. … Keith Ashdown … said the distribution of the money “is based far more on political clout than on transportation need.”

Such waste may seem inevitable; how else can congressfolk claim credit for “bringing home the bacon” to their district? But consider this alternative:

Allow federal tax rates to vary by congressional district.  Given this, taxes would suddenly become a concentrated benefit.  Incumbents could brag about how much lower taxes were in their district, and challengers could complain how high they were.  Incumbents would have clear incentives to trade votes to get taxes lowered in their district.

With “diet pork” on the menu, politicians would have a healthier way to feed their need for concentrated benefits.    (I’m leaving comments on for a change.)

Perceptive Plato

My colleague Bryan Caplan has emphasized for years that people treat politics differently from other topics.  This has seemed to me a deep insight, and I’ve long puzzled over it.  Wouldn’t you know it, Plato noticed the same thing (Protagoras, translated by Benjamin Jowet):

Now I observe that when we are met together in the assembly, and the matter in hand relates to building, the builders are summoned as advisers; …  And if some person offers to give them advice who is not supposed by them to have any skill in the art, even though he be good-looking, and rich, and noble, they will not listen to him, but laugh … But when the question is an affair of state, then everybody is free to have a say–carpenter, tinker, … and no one reproaches him, as in the former case, with not having learned, and having no teacher, and yet giving advice; evidently because they are under the impression that this sort of knowledge cannot be taught….

Our human willingness to have confident opinions on topics where we are poorly informed seems to me a key problem in politics.

You are happier when your party wins

The unjustly-banned-in UAE Will Wilkinson directs our attention to an interesting paper:

We include in our partisan happiness equations a variable that measures
the ideological position of the government in power. It indicates that
when the government leans more to the right ideologically, right-wing
individuals tick up their happiness scores. In the same periods,
left-wing individuals declare themselves to be more dissatisfied with
their lives. The size of the coefficient is large and highly

Will comments:

My favorite hypothesis is that coalitional success enters directly into
the welfare function. Now, this is fascinating for all sorts of
reasons. For instance, it would seem, then, that the need to maintain a
distinct and coherent coalitional identity will limit median-voter
convergence…The general application of this kind of thinking is that partisans will
try to convince their side that being out of power is really
depressing, with the result that no matter who is in power, half the
population is really depressed.

My take: Government funding of the arts is one example.  In many countries the mere existence of government arts programs does more for citizen utility than the results of those programs.  People enjoy being affiliated with a government that has artistic or aesthetic aspirations.  I don’t intend this as a reductio ad absurdum.  It could well be that arts spending is a relatively cheap way of "buying off" these feelings.  For instance, the relevant alternative might be an obnoxious form of patriotism, or perhaps higher levels of government spending on more costly (i.e., universal) areas.

That being said, I am not convinced by the result more generally.  You are supposed to pretend you care about your candidate, but this might be a framing effect.  You adopt a happy or unhappy stance, partly to signal group loyalties, but your daily happiness is fairly robust to who delivers the State of the Union addresss (policy effects aside, of course).

Look at me, I am happy, and the U.S. does not have Donald Brash running for Prime Minister.

Iraq and consequentialism: what is the marginal product of war?

Many anti-war criticisms cite the badness of current events without asking how much of that badness was due to happen anyway.  To clarify, let us consider three arguments against the war:

1. U.S. behavior was wrong on deontological grounds, namely we should not kill innocents (and tax others to pay for this killing), even when the long-run consequences are good.  Of course if this is true, the arguments stops there.  Furthermore it would be irrelevant — at least for judging rightness — whether the war/reconstruction was going well or not.  So I doubt if this is all of the anti-war critique; let us move on to the rest.

2. It is not worth killing innocents to overthrow a tyranny.  This will also stop the argument, but most anti-war critics don’t hold this view.  It would be hard to defend the rise of the West, or Allied participation in World War II, for instance.

Now consider #3:

3. The war is going badly.

The correct marginal question, however, compares the current badness to the badness which would have resulted after the reign of Saddam (or his sons? grandsons?) ended, however that might have happened.  Today we see many signals that things are going badly.  But most of those signals also imply that things would have gone very badly under the alternative scenario for Saddam’s fall.  A civil war, for instance, may well have happened anyway, albeit later.

One might argue that U.S. participation makes an Iraqi civil war much worse than otherwise (perhaps the presence of U.S. forces motivates insurgents).  But I don’t find this convincing.  First, a civil war could be much worse without the U.S. presence (keep in mind the alternative scenario also involves many years of continued sanctions, or what Saddam would have done without sanctions, plus further suffering under Saddam).  Second, the correct cost of the war — at least to the Iraqis — would be this difference in outcomes, not the current absolute level of badness.

The pro-war right seems keen to argue that much of the insurgency is foreign fighters.  This in reality weakens their case, as it opens the possibility that the U.S. role drew in these forces.  Insofar as the insurgents are Sunnis, fighting for domestic control, it is more likely they would have been fighting anyway, with or without the U.S. involved.  That would strengthen a consequentialist case for the war.

It also might be argued there is intrinsic value in postponing a civil war, although this I would dispute.

Relying only on #1 is not so popular among anti-war forces, even if it is a good argument.  It feels anti-patriotic to many people.  Thus a huge burden gets put on #3.  But citing #3 has less oomph than is commonly supposed.  The worse things get, the more we can conclude they would have been very bad — sooner or later — in any case.  And I’ve yet to be convinced that an Iraqi civil war — without the U.S. involved — would turn out so much better for the Iraqis. 

There is of course the separate question of what is good for the U.S. and for other countries besides Iraq.  If you think Iraq will go badly no matter what, those considerations may well be decisive.  But it sounds selfish and defeatist to cite those arguments alone, so we are again left with anti-war cases which do not make complete sense.

Addendum: Jane Galt recently surveyed some recent blogosphere arguments about Iraq and consequentialism.

The “Failed States” index

I am surprised to see Ivory Coast as the very worst, my pick, the "Democratic" Republic of the Congo only manages to take second place.  And Guatemala, for all its problems, should not be five places "more failed" than Lebanon.  Still this is an interesting data source, click the colored box links at the top of the main page to see maps and the like.

A critic on Critical Mass

I recently finished Philip Ball’s Critical Mass.
The bad news: it’s twice as long as it needs to be and his criticisms
of economics are rather odd (no, ability to forecast share prices is not the
test of the subject’s validity). The good news: it’s packed full of fun
stuff about the relevance of various physical and agent-based modelling
techniques to the social sciences. Even better, you can read Ball’s own
summary and find out whether you like it.

Thomas Schelling was there first again with
his chessboard model of racial segregation. The bottom line: racial
preferences which would seem to accommodate mixed neighbourhoods turn
out to lead to extreme segregation, as shown in (b) below.


Robert Axtell, one of the founders of the Sugarscape agent-based modelling system, predicts that within a few years we will be able to run models with billions of agents, rather than Schelling’s 50 or so. Artificial worlds beckon.

Peru Facts of the Day

It’s easy to rent a motorcycle in Peru, unlike in the United States where liability fears have made this almost impossible.  On the other hand, I would not want to drive a car let alone a motorcycle in Peru. These two facts may well be related – I will let you work out the model.

It would have suited my biases to report that the only Che Guevara T-shirts I have seen were on tourists.  But while this may be true in the cities it is not true in the countryside where it is easy to spot El Comandante.  Guevara spoke to the people and they are still listening.

My tour guide, an Andean, had nothing good to say about the Spanish.  Combine this with the last fact and we see that Peru continues to be deeply divided along racial lines, regardless of how much one hears about mestizo.