Category: Political Science

Voters are not fiscal conservatives

In all three states where TABOR-style spending caps [Taxpayer Bill of Rights] were placed on the ballot, they were defeated…voters in recent years have repealed TABORs across the country, notably
in Colorado, where the first one was enacted in 1992.  Yesterday, the
three new attempts to institute the rules were flatly rejected.

That is from a very happy Ezra Klein.

Daniel Ortega is back

The ever-invigorating Leiter Reports [addendum: in this case Professor Hellie] writes:

Excellent!  Daniel Ortega, a true peoples’ hero, appears poised to make his comeback.  Caveat: he used to be a Good Guy, overthrowing one of the more vicious Central American caudillos, and valiantly stood up for years against a ruinous US proxy war, dunno what he’s been up to these days.

Here is what Daniel Ortega has been up to.  His defenders may wish to note he was cleared.

Bryan Caplan is irrational

That’s how he knows so much about the American voter, this week at Cato Unbound.  His research (likely to be one of the top books for next year) outlines the claim that voter irrationality is the fundamental force behind bad policy.  Unlike the well-known theories of "rational ignorance," Bryan stresses that the irrationality is willful rather than the result of simple misinformation.  That makes the problem harder to dislodge.

So what are Bryan’s remedies?

Above all, relying less on democracy and more on private choice and free markets.  By and large, we don’t even ask voters whether we should allow unpopular speech or religion, and this "elitist" practice has saved us a world of trouble.  Why not take more issues off the agenda?  Even if the free market does a mediocre job, the relevant question is not whether smart, well-meaning regulation would be better.  The relevant question is whether the kind of regulation that appeals to the majority would be better.

Another way to deal with voter irrationality is institutional reform.  Imagine, for example, if the Council of Economic Advisors, in the spirit of the Supreme Court, had the power to invalidate legislation as "uneconomical."  Similarly, since the data show that well-educated voters hold more sensible policy views, we could emulate pre-1949 Great Britain by giving college graduates an extra vote.

I don’t think those reforms would work, if only because voter irrationality has to be given enough free play so that it doesn’t explode or boil over into a more fundamental revolt.  (Matt Y notes: "Voting and legislatures aren’t a very good mechanism for generating knowledge, but they at least serve as peaceful mechanisms for resolving coflicts of interest, which are simply endemic in the policy arena.")  In addition Bryan is legislating policy or procedural outcomes by fiat, rather than explaining how they might come about through the (irrational) status quo.

My idea?  Voter irrationality often makes American policy, especially foreign policy, more magnanimous than it otherwise would be.  And truly rational voters simply would not show up at the polls, thereby ruining democracy. 

So we need voter irrationality, although we should seek to improve its content. (Note also that many good policies are based on irrational voter views, such as the belief in meritocracy.)  Irrationality is what keeps us going, and that is why Bryan Caplan, like American democracy, is so extremely productive. 

Addendum: Greg Mankiw wants fewer people to vote.  Here is my previous post on whether or not you should vote.

A loyal MR reader asks…

What do you think the world would look like if everyone knew as much about Economics as you do?

I imagine many facets of the world would remain the same.  For example, demand curves would still slope downward and to the right.  But what of politics?  Would politics change?  Would libertarianism remain a defensible political position?  It seems to me that much of what makes libertarianism so desirable is the public choice problem.  We’re rationally ignorant, and probably somewhat irrational as well.  Would a moderate left-leaning position such as Matt Yglesias’s suddenly become much more tenable?

With all due respect to myself, I doubt if politics would improve much.  To flesh out the scenario a bit, it can’t be that everyone is a clone of me.  Sex aside, who would fix my computer, leave comments on this blog, or do all the talking at cocktail parties? 

Once a reasonable degree of human diversity is introduced, coalitions need to be built.  Building coalitions requires politics.  That includes compromises, horse-trading, shading the truth, and so on.  "Me as politician" is not an especially wonderful vision.  If I acted like Tyler the blogger, I would lose power very quickly.  Even if I stayed in office.  Having some "me’s" in the voting booth wouldn’t much change this.

We might avoid a few total bonehead policies, if only by shifting the bargaining point.  But government wouldn’t become much more efficient, at least not as long as coalitions need to be built.

The costs of building coalitions are also a neglected element in the theory of organizations.  Even in the private sector, once we consider cohesion and morale, businesses have many fewer degrees of freedom than we might think.  That is why merit pay and prediction markets are not as common as an economist might expect.  Too often those institutions put people at odds with each other.

So don’t even think of voting for me, for Alex, or for whomever you might think of as smart.  Vote instead for someone who shares one or two core values with you, and is a good coalition builder.  And then make sure that their coalition doesn’t violate those core values.

Addendum: Matt Yglesias chips in.


In 2004 in my post on the reorganization of the intelligence services, Decentral Intelligence Agency, I wrote:

The implicit model of the 9/11 Commission is command and control –
move all the information from the roots of the tree to the top of tree
and then one all-encompassing-mind will evaluate it and make the right
decision. Does that model sound familiar? Sure it does, that’s the
model of economic planning that is currently lying on the ash-heap of
history. It’s the model that Mises and Hayek subjected to withering criticism in the socialist calculation debate of the 1930s…

An intelligence-Czar faces exactly the same problems. So what can be
done? The intelligence agencies need tools that can spread information
rapidly and widely and that are open to anyone with information whether
they are at the bottom or the top of the hierarchy…Sound familiar?
Yes, blogs and wikis are the right idea. And no I am not being flip.

Today, I am delighted to learn of the creation of Intellipedia.

The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have created a new computer
system that uses software from a popular Internet encyclopedia site to gather
input on sensitive topics from analysts across the spy community, part of an
effort to fix problems that plagued prewar estimates on Iraq.

The new system, called "Intellipedia" because it is built on open-source
software from the Wikipedia Web site, was launched earlier this year. It is
already being used to assemble intelligence reports on Nigeria and other
subjects, according to U.S. intelligence officials who discussed the initiative
in detail for the first time Tuesday….

The system allows analysts from all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies to weigh
in on debates on North Korea’s nuclear program and other sensitive topics,
creating internal Web sites that are constantly updated with new information
and analysis, officials said.

…[Officials] stressed that disseminating material to the widest possible
audience of analysts is key to avoiding mistakes like those that contributed to
erroneous assessments that Iraq possessed stockpiles of banned weapons and was
pursuing a nuclear arsenal.

Thanks to Carl Close for the pointer.

Markets in everything: African dictator edition

Hmm…I had just been thinking about related ideas:

Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim (of Celtel fame) has created a $5 million dollar cash prize for Africa’s most effective head of state.

year the winning leader will, at the end of his term, get $5m (£2.7m)
over 10 years and $200,000 (£107,000) each year for life thereafter.
"We need to remove corruption and improve governance," Mr Ibrahim said.

…The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership will
be launched in London on Thursday… It will be available only to a
president who democratically transfers power to his successor.  Harvard
University will do the measuring to see just how well the president has
served his or her people during their term in office.

Here is more, and thanks to Pablo for the pointer.  The prize sounds too small, relative to the lure of corruption, but I see no reason not to try this idea.


Left-wing bloggers, such as CrookedTimber, Brad DeLong, and Tim Lambert, are supporting the claim of about 600,000 extra deaths in Iraq.  Jane Galt (scroll down for a few posts) and Steve Sailer raise some concerns.

I am a bit skeptical, but in any case the sheer number of deaths is being overdebated.  Steve Sailer notes: "The violent death toll in the third year of the
war is more than triple what it was in the first year."  That to me is
the more telling estimate.   

A very high deaths total, taken alone, suggests (but does not prove) that the Iraqis were ready to start killing each other in great numbers the minute Saddam went away.  The stronger that propensity, the less contingent it was upon the U.S. invasion, and the more likely it would have happened anyway, sooner or later.  In that scenario the war greatly accelerated deaths.  But short of giving Iraq an eternal dictator, that genie was already in the bottle.

If the deaths are low at first but rising over time, it is more likely that a peaceful transition might have been possible, either through better postwar planning or by leaving Saddam in power and letting Iraqi events take some other course.  That could make Bush policies look worse, not better.  Tim Lambert, in one post, hints that the rate of change of deaths is an important variable but he does not develop this idea.

We all know that the political world judges Iraq by the absolute badness of what is going on (which means Bush critics find a higher number to fit their priors), but that is an incorrect standard.  We should judge the marginal product of U.S. action, relative to what else could have happened.  (North Korea, and the UN response, will give us one data point from another setting.)  In that latter and more accurate notion of a cost-benefit test, U.S. actions probably appear worst when deaths are rising over time, and hitting very high levels in the future. 

Of course the rate of change of deaths is not exactly the proper variable.  Ideally we would like some measure of the contingency of eventual total deaths, relative to policy.  I am not sure what other proxies for that we might have.

Addendum: Let me put my comment up here on the front page: "Many of you are misreading the post by focusing only on the first case
of "bottled up killing," which is presented as only one of two
scenarios.  Reread that if deaths are rising over time and possibly
contingent — and yes I do say this is the relevant and uncontroversial
fact — this suggests a very negative evaluation of Bush policies." 

I don’t want to take the bait on why I am skeptical, the whole argument is that possible skepticism doesn’t have that much import once we consider the broader context of rising deaths and the possible contingency of those deaths. 

A simple theory of elections

Will the Foley scandal costs the Republicans votes, as is often suggested?  In my view, not so much.  When foreign policy, terrorism, and social issues are the questions of the day, the Republicans tend to do well.  It doesn’t matter so much if the Republicans have botched those very issues, provided those issues make the headlines.  Those are the issues which make the Republicans seen important.  Voters punish Republicans for bad governing "in the polls" but not always "in the booth."

The North Korean crisis helps the Republicans.  Even the botched war in Iraq helps the Republicans.  No matter how badly the Republicans do, people (rightly or wrongly) trust the Democrats with national security even less.  Along related lines, the Republicans will never get much credit for the rather high levels of discretionary spending pushed by the Bush Administration.  Even bringing up such spending gets voters in a "Democrat frame of mind."

The Democrats have their best chance when voters are focused on the economy.  It is neuroeconomics at work; the very topic activates the part of the brain that leads people to vote on way or the other.

It was safe to vote for Clinton once the Cold War ended.  More generally, Republican competence in foreign affairs is the greatest friend the Democrats have right now.

Think about it.

Race and Culture

The NYTimes reports that in Queens the median income for blacks is above the median income for whites, the only large county in the nation for which that is true.  The median income for blacks in Queens, $51,836, is also well above the national median income ($46,000).

What makes the statistics especially interesting is that many of the blacks in Queens are recent immigrants from the West Indies.  Malcolm Gladwell, whose own genealogy traces to the West Indies, recognizes the implication:

The implication of West Indian success is that racism does not really
exist at all–at least, not in the form that we have assumed it does.
The implication is that the key factor in understanding racial
prejudice is not the behavior and attitudes of whites but the behavior
and attitudes of blacks–not white discrimination but black culture. It
implies that when the conservatives in Congress say the responsibility
for ending urban poverty lies not with collective action but with the
poor themselves they are right.

but ultimately he can’t accept the implication and offers instead a strained interpretation.  West Indian blacks are successful only because, according to Gladwell, they provide a convenient way for whites to distinguish "good" and "bad" blacks allowing themselves to pat themselves on the back for not being racist while at the same time continuing to practice racism against the majority black class.

Gladwell offers scant evidence for his hypothesis, the most interesting point being his claim that Jamaican blacks are perceived as bad citizens in Toronto where they are dominant but as good in New York where they can define themselves in opposition to American blacks.  Gladwell’s argument is weak, however, because West Indian blacks distinguish themselves not just in dress or accent but in just those behaviors that also increase income for whites and other successful minorities: they get married and stay married, pursue education, work hard and are entrepreneurial.  Gladwell himself notes:

When the first wave of Caribbean immigrants came to New York and
Boston, in the early nineteen-hundreds, other blacks dubbed them
Jewmaicans, in derisive reference to the emphasis they placed on hard
work and education.

The title of the post refers of course to Thomas Sowell’s classic.

Live as a conservative?

  • Charlie Daniels Band—Essential Super Hits of Charlie Daniels Band
  • Clint Black—Greatest Hits II
  • Craig Morgan—Craig Morgan
  • Daryl Worley—Have You Forgotten?
  • Kid Rock—Devil Without a Cause
  • Lee Greenwood—American Patriot
  • Michael W. Smith—Healing Rain
  • Toby Keith—Unleashed


  • The link is from Jason Kottke.

    Europe at the Crossroads

    In face of these issues, it is difficult to understand why half the EU budget is still devoted to subsidizing agriculture…

    That is from Europe at the Crossroads, by Guillermo de la Dehesa.  Contrary to what the above excerpt may indicate to some, this is not a "Europe-bashing" book.  It is perhaps the best short, comprehensive overview of the European economies, their strengths, and their problems.  Matt Yglesias makes good points about Scandinavia and competitiveness, but I cannot agree that the main problems of France and Germany are macroeconomic in nature.