Category: Political Science

Global warming reversal?

Rumor has it that George Bush will shift course on global warming and support limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

I suspect that the United States is far more likely to take unilateral action on this issue than to engage in a multilateral treaty.  Americans enjoy feeling like magnanimous leaders, plus they believe that foreigners take advantage of them in treaties.  In contrast, the standard "international public goods" analysis suggests that each country will refuse to restrict emissions unless other major countries do the same.  This analysis neglects expressive voting, whereby voters choose policies to make themselves feel good, rather than to maximize their incomes.  After all, no single voter is decisive over the final outcome, so why not vote your conscience?  This suggests, by the way, that the global warming hold-outs will be the non-democracies.

Comments are open, but don’t debate the science of global warming per se, you already had a chance to do that.

Use foreign aid to prevent catastrophe?

Our research find that a 5% drop in per capita income due to drought increases the likelihod of a civil conflict [in African countries] in the following year by nearly one half.  That’s a very large effect.

…Currently, most foreign aid focuses on long-term investments in infrastructure of education but does little to deal with such short-term triggers of violence as drought or falling export commodity prices.  But our research suggests a larger share of aid should aim to dampen the sharp falls in income that actually generate recruits for rebel movements.

That is from Edward Miguel, p.14 of Business Week, edition of 18 September.  My main worry is that these are the societies where foreign aid is least likely to find its way into the hands of the poor.  In fact the distribution of the aid might, at the margin, make the plum of political power all the more appealing to would-be rebels.  Keep in mind that many of these civil wars are led by elites, not the starving poor.  (So what is the mechanism linking drought and conflict?  Focality?)  Nonetheless I am sympathetic with the basic idea that simply preventing catastrophe is often the best that aid can do.

Here are links to the guy’s working papers and the data set for this paper.

Here is Bill Easterly on what the World Bank should be doing, namely focusing on modest and measurable projects, in the name of accountability.  Michael Kremer argues the World Bank should support global public goods.  Here are other views, courtesy of New Economist blog.

Matt Yglesias could be the Gilbert Arenas of libertarianism

If only he wanted to.  Matt writes:

I actually think I am pretty cynical about government.  I’ve learned a lot from my various libertarian friends, from my seminar with Robert Nozick, from libertarian blogs, etc. and I think public choice economics is a very important perspective.  The upshot of this is that, as a general matter, I’m considerably less enthusiastic about regulatory solutions to policy problems than are most liberals.

Sadly, though, the upshot of my libertarian-infused cynicism has mostly been to push me left of where I used to be on domestic policy issues.  It’s cynicism about government and the political process that, for example, has made me much more enthusiastic about labor unions and much more hostile to means-testing entitlements than I used to be.  If I believed that the deliberative democracy people weren’t naive fools, I’d be much more sanguine about various "third way" approaches to things.

Matt is probably the closest I will ever get to thinking I could be a Democrat.  But I am not sure what he is favoring in his post

One view is that a once-and-for-all change favoring labor unions would produce a stream of ongoing benefits greater than we could achieve through smaller piecemeal government interventions.  On empirical grounds I am skeptical of our ability to manipulate the union participation variable in a very useful way, and that is assuming I were to like labor unions more than I do (I do like them somewhat; I am not a union-basher, but I am not nearly as keen on unions as Matt.)  Union participation varies largely with whether "unionizable" sectors of the economy expand and contract.  Clearly we are headed away from labor unions as manufacturing shrinks as a percentage of gdp.

Another view, not excluding the first, is that Matt has abandoned Rawls’s "publicity condition."  That is, he is willing to advocate policies he knows to be bad, out of fear that they prevent a political tidal wave.  Means-testing Medicare, for instance, might lead the whole system to lose favor and collapse.  Therefore we shouldn’t means-test, even if the idea taken on its own terms has merit.  I don’t dismiss this possibility.

If Matt is willing to admit I am right about unions (I am pretty sure about that one), I am willing to call the other question a draw.  Deal?

Addendum: Here is Matt’s new book-to-be.

Sachs for President?

In my Inbox this morning:

Today the Sachs for President Draft Committee formally issued a call for Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University to run for president of the United States of America…

Victoria Zyp, a member of the board of directors of the Draft Committee, said…"We are confident that as more Americans learn about Professor Sachs’  work and qualifications, they are going to agree that he should be our next president.  People are tired of politics as usual, and Professor Sachs is the kind of brilliant and dedicated individual that could put America back on a track," stated campaign volunteer Reema Hijazi….

The Sachs for President Draft Committee is a registered not-for-profit corporation dedicated to drafting Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs to run for President in 2008.  The organization maintains no affiliation with Professor Sachs, nor is it aligned with any political party or organization.  More information… at

We could will do a lot worse.

Contagious capitalism?

From the distant reaches of West Virginia, Peter Leeson and Russ Sobel report:

Is capitalism contagious?  Since WWI, global foreign policy has treated economic freedom/repression like a virus that spreads between countries.  Most recently, the domino theory of freedom has played prominently in U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean during the Cold War, and the Middle East during the War on Terror.  This paper investigates the spread of economic freedom between nations.  Our analysis considers two potential channels of this spread: geography and trade.  We estimate two models of spatial dependence using panel data that cover more than 100 countries between 1985 and 2000. We find that capitalism is in fact contagious.  Countries consistently catch about 20 percent of their average geographic neighbors’ and trading partners’ levels and changes in economic freedom.  We also explore American foreign military intervention’s ability to spread economic freedom abroad.  We find that although intervention may increase freedom in U.S.-occupied countries, this freedom is not contagious.  Using our estimates of freedom’s spread when it is contagious, we simulate the impact of successful Iraqi occupation on Middle Eastern freedom.  Even under the most favorable assumptions, we find that U.S. occupation would minimally improve freedom in this region.

I asked Peter what kind of lag specification was reasonable in this context.  Five years, ten years, or two hundred years?  It should make a big difference for the results.  Is Denmark still "free-riding" off England’s relative economic freedom from the 12th and 13th centuries?  Maybe yes.  I don’t like their train system, or for that matter their little gardens, but every time I am in England I kiss the ground of The Mother Lode of Liberty.

Why do libertarians love science fiction?

The ever-so-loyal Jessica Pickett asks:

A few of your posts – taken together with other econobloggers – would seem to suggest a correlation between being a libertarian economist and being a die-hard sci-fi/fantasy geek.  Does your experience support this anecdotal observation, and if so, can you elaborate on the possible causation?

I see the connection, and I can think of a few possible answers:

1. The rude: Because both groups live in a fantasy world.  But even if that is true, many other ideologues live in a fantasy world but fail to have the same attachment to science fiction.

2. The trivial: Both loves are correlated with "young upper middle class nerdy white male," but otherwise the connection has no significance.

3. The proud: Libertarian economists like to imagine how things otherwise might be.  This spills over into a love for science fiction.

4. The Freudian: Libertarians feel an infantile need to rearrange the pieces of the moral universe, due to thwarted childhood desires and ongoing sexual frustrations

5. The sociological: Character development is notoriously weak in science fiction and libertarians are prone to see societies in terms of abstract laws rather than very definite individual human beings.

5. Denial or minimization of the fact: I doubt if the connection holds outside the USA.  Plus bloggers are a very, um… "select" sample.  Is Milton Friedman out there reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter?  Much recommended, by the way.

My question: If you discover that your personality can be explained by a smaller rather than a larger number of dimensions, should this make you happy or sad?  More or less trusting of your intuitions?

Claims I dare not make at home

Mexico…is a dynamic, one trillion dollar economy and along with Canada, our largest trading partner.  Its per capita income is $10,000, which puts it at the upper tier of middle income countries, not far behind Russia’s per capita income of $11,000.  Compared with Russia, however, Mexico has a much better developed infrastructure of highways, ports, railroads, telecommunications, and social services that give it a poverty rate of 18% rather than 40%, as well as a male life expectancy of 73 years rather than 61 years (U.S. figures are 12% and 75 years, respectively).  Unlike Russia, moreover, Mexico is a functioning democracy with open and competitive elections, a separation of powers, and a well-defined party system.

Here is much more, mostly on Mexican immigration, and thanks to Will Wilkinson for the pointer.  I cannot, however, agree with all of the claims and rhetoric in the article.  I would not, for instance, have denied that Mexico is "impoverished."  Even this non-egalitarian feels compelled to point out that Mexico has one of the least equal income distributions in the world…

Who is Stirling Newberry?


His insight brings me to new peaks of excitement:

No movement in the
history of mankind has produced more words for free than the
libertarian movement.  And yet, its fundamental ideology is that people
do everything for money, that being how markets send signals about what
makes people happy – giving money to the people who do them.  One could
understand communists or Christian missionaries – but free marketeers?
Either they must believe that there is so much prosperity waiting for
them on the other side of the revolution that years of unpaid labor is
worth it, or they don’t really believe what they say they believe.

For a clear argument, try this:

To generate a Reactionary movement, all one needed to do is create a
demon, a nomos and a boundary that separated the two.  Rhetoric falls
out of this almost immediately, since it is all about either
emphasizing the evils of the demon, the self-justifying good of the
nomos, and the importance of having an absolute and simplistic boundary
between the two.  This means that not even a speck of evil can be
tolerated, not a single example.  It also means that whatever is inside
the tank, once all corrupting influences are removed, must be pure
good, and therefore even questioning it is evil.

Extreme economic literacy:

The essential insanity of the last decade has been this – by creating a
vast dollar glut, the United States has managed to create an
inflationary rev up of the world economy.  By moving much farther up the
curve of diminishing returns of oil production, it has manged to create
a small amount of extra growth, and a great deal of extra profit and
ownership for those involved in the oil production.

He blogs "economics" on TPM Cafe.  You can peruse this post for more.  He is also a composer.  I thank an avid reader of Stirling for the pointer.

As Robin Ficker used to say: "Josh Marshall, telephone…!"

Addendum: Here is another dose of Stirling

The conservative vice

Having covered the libertarian and liberal vices, this one seems only fair.  Of course these vices change with the times, but the current conservative vice I would describe as follows:

Using meritocratic arguments to reassign marginal products

It is best explained by example.  An anti-war liberal will say "Our occupation of Iraq has gone badly.  Things are worse than under Saddam."  In addition to contesting this comparison, many conservatives will respond: "But if the Iraqis weren’t so intent on killing each other, they could have a decent society, just like the Kurds do."  The claim is true, but it represents an attempt to reassign marginal products away from one policy and toward some other infra-marginal fact.

Or consider domestic policy.  Policy X does not make a dent in the poverty rate, and this is pointed out by a critic.  A conservative might respond: "But if those people would live by Confucian or Korean family values, they would do just fine."

The conservative vice is not intrinsic to conservatism, but I see it to an increasing degree.  Perhaps it is a response to the combination of a nominal conservative majority in goverment yet a growing inability to control events.

This intellectual move is not in every case false.  If we are considering the relative obligations of citizen and state, for instance, it must be recognized that a state can do only so much for self-destructive citizens.  But when the vice is "applied" to situations where a more consequences-oriented approach is warranted, well, then it becomes a vice.

Albert Hirschman

Henry at CrookedTimber asks:

What do libertarians think about Hirschman’s arguments? Do they read him? Do they have a sophisticated response?

My take: Albert Hirschman deserves a Nobel Prize in economics.  His early work on the unbalanced nature of economic development was pathbreaking.  The Rhetoric of Reaction is a brilliant study in intellectual self-deception.  As a historian of thought he integrates wonderfully, such as in his study of how commerce shapes mores

But he would win the Prize for focusing the attention of economists and political scientists on the phenomenon of voice: the ability of consumer or voter complaints to induce improvements in supply.  Hirschman was the first modern social scientist to think about this mechanism systematically.

Hirschman first suggested voice gets stronger and more effective when exit is limited.  In his (earlier) vision, if you can leave you won’t complain.  Fidel Castro understood this and let many Cubans go, although of course they complained from Florida.  It is sometimes suggested that in a world of school vouchers fewer parents would show up at the school board meeting.  Don’t yap, just yank your kid.

In reality voice often works best when competitive pressures are strong.  HBO is more responsive than was East Germany.  You are not wasting your time to complain at Wegman’s, or for that matter at this blog.  Competition and voice are more likely complements than substitutes.  Hirschman admitted and indeed emphasized this point in his later writings.

As far as I know, no one has solved for the proper conditions for when voice is effective.  Here is one recent model.  The general problem is that the motives for voice are poorly understood.

Here is Paul Krugman on Hirschman.  Here is a paper on Hirschman and evolution.  Here is a book on Hirschman.

Addendum: Here is Alex on the topic of voice.  Sadly he and I will not be having a little spat over this one…

The Libertarian Vice

Analytical vice, that is.

The libertarian vice is to assume that the quality of government is fixed.  The libertarian also argues that the quality of government is typically low, and this is usually the bone of contention, but that is not the point I wish to consider.  Often that dispute is a red herring.

If the quality of government is fixed, the battle is then "government vs. market."  Not everyone will agree with libertarian views, but libertarians are comfortable on this terrain.

But sometimes governments do a pretty good job, even if you like me are generally skeptical of government.  The Finnish government has supported superb architecture.  The Swedes have made a good go at a welfare state.  The Interstate Highway System in the U.S. was a high-return investment.  In the area of foreign policy, we have done a good job juggling the China-Taiwan relationship.  Or how about the Aswan Dam for Egypt?  You might contest these particular examples but I assure you there are many others.

The libertarian approach treats government vs. market as the central question.  Another approach, promoted by many liberals, tries to improve the quality of government.  This endeavor does not seem more utopian than most libertarian proposals.  The libertarian cannot reject it on the grounds of excess utopianism, even though much government will remain wasteful, stupid, and venal.  More parts of government could in fact be much better, and to significant human benefit and yes that includes more human liberty in the libertarian sense of the word. 

Libertarians will admit this.  But it does not play a significant role in their emotional framing of the world or in their allocation of emotional energies.  They will insist, correctly, that we do not always wish to make government more efficient.  Then they retreat to a mental model where the quality of government is fixed and we compare government to market.

It is possible to agree with the positive claims of libertarians about the virtues of markets but still think that improving the quality of government is the central task before us.  One could love markets yet be some version of a modern liberal rather than a classical liberal.  This possibility makes libertarians nervous, thus their desire to fix the quality of government in advance of making an argument.  (For one example of this, see Glen Whitman’s commentary.)

Libertarianism and modern liberalism differ in many regards, and usually I am closer to the libertarian point of view.  But I am also a contrarian by nature.  If you want to make me feel more like a modern liberal, just go ahead and commit The Libertarian Vice. 

To be fair, here is my post on the modern liberal vice.

Addendum: Here is a look at drug policy from both libertarian and liberal points of view.

Where you vote matters

…the polling places used by voters may influence their choices. One study showed voters in Arizona in 2000 were more likely to support a measure to increase the state sales tax, with the proceeds going to public education, if they voted in a school. Following up, the authors showed subjects images of a church, a school, or a generic building and asked them to “vote” on certain measures. Not only were the respondents more likely to support education measures if they had been shown pictures of schools, but they were also more likely to vote against stem-cell research if they had been shown pictures of churches. American polling places have usually been assigned by state officials on the basis of convenience; this research suggests they could become political battlegrounds in a whole new manner.

Here is more.  So if you are a libertarian, where do you want people to vote?  In front of H&R Block?

Strategies of silence and retreat

For a political leader, not appearing in public can mean:

1. You hate attention.  You are a recluse, like Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger.

2. You are countersignalling.  Your political position (or health) is so secure that you don’t need to show your face.  Was Reagan at times an example?

3. Sheer random noise.  Maybe you are playing chess and haven’t given it much thought.

4. You are dead or dying.

5. Someone else is in charge, and they have yet to figure out the correct message.  Or groups of agents are fighting for control and no one is staging the appearances one way or the other.

6. No one is in charge, and everyone is afraid to appear to be in charge, for fear that the sick guy will recover and come back and squash them.

7. One guy used to run PR, and until he gets better everyone else is clueless and paralyzed.

We can rule out #1, #2, and #3.  Right now I will bet on some mix of #6 and #7.  But is there any point at which the sheer passage of time should push us to believe in #4 and #5?  Note that Raul has not shown his face either.  Are there alternative hypotheses?  The desire for a grand reentrance?  After all, a growing number of Cuban officials are talking of Castro’s return

Who is to blame for the Doha collapse?

"Almost everyone" is not a bad answer.  But perhaps you would like something more precise.  Christian Bjørnskov has developed an index of blame, based on the degree of protectionism in a country’s negotiating position.   He writes:

In total, a number of countries must share responsibility for the breakdown. Brazil and other Third World food exporters probably were too ambitious on behalf of the developed countries, India refused to accept more competition in its comparatively weak industries, and the US position remained opaque while the country for too long hid behind the protectionist positions of other member states. However, the bottom line is that the main culprit – the member bearing most of the responsibility – is the European Union. The problem continues to be that the official policy of the union is controlled by Southern European countries with strong agricultural lobbies – and the policy is therefore rather clearly dictated by Paris. French top politicians have throughout the negotiations ‘protected’ French farmers against cuts in tariffs or support measures – Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin both went on air in national media to ensure their voters that France would veto any liberalization – which makes the country the Global Public Enemy Number One. Yet, another part of the story that needs to be told is that other EU members also made an indirect effort. The EU as a whole and traditionally liberalist countries such as the UK and Denmark in particular are all accomplices.

Colombia, a country with virtually no influence, had the highest pro-trade score.  Bjørnskov does discuss the fact that the U.S. took an "easy" pro-trade position (it knew other countries would never agree), but I am not sure how this influenced his calculation of the index scores.

Thanks to Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard for the pointer.

Google Pork

Sometimes an idea comes along that is so neat you wonder why no one
thought of it before. In that vein, Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma
Republican and chair of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Federal
Financial Management, has introduced a bipartisan bill to create a
Google-like online searchable database of all federal spending.
Currently, said Coburn, there is no way for taxpayers to find out what
the government is paying individuals, groups, localities, and
contractors. "This bill will empower citizen investigators to root out
waste, fraud, and abuse," said Coburn, a leading opponent of pork. The
bill has some heavyweight sponsors, including Republican Sens. John
McCain and Rick Santorum and Democrat Barack Obama.

From  Thanks to Carl Close for the pointer.