Category: Political Science

What is government anyway? A parable from Singapore

Yes Singapore has developed rapidly through the use of market incentives, but there is much government planning here as well.  Every food stall gets a letter grade for its cleanliness, which must be displayed prominently.  More significantly, land planning has been extensive, and yes the government decides where the food stalls (and just about everything else) will go.

But why do we call this government?  Let us say that way back when, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had homesteaded the territory of Singapore in proper Lockean fashion.  He then wrote a contract welcoming people (all subsequent migrants, but not everyone) to live there, provided they agree to various rules and regulations, including of course Singaporean land planning, not to mention the ban on oral sex.  This would then count as "the market," presumably.

Should we then think that such planning is more (or perhaps less) efficient, because it is now "the market" instead of "government"?  But why should our evaluation depend on the murky details of past history?  What is really the difference between market and government anyway?  Can we in any case think of Singapore as a very well planned corporation, albeit with some uptight morals at times?

When we do public choice theory, is it really the government we are criticizing?  Or is our true target something like "excessively large land parcels," regardless of their historical origin?

Aid for Liberia

In the wake of the G8 summit in Gleneagles earlier this month, it seems appropriate to comment on the possible uses of aid to Liberia.  At the very least, it would be nice to be able to examine the use of past official aid to Liberia.  Unfortunately, any efforts in this direction are merely speculation. 

The World Bank’s Africa Quick Query indicates that very little official international aid made its way to Liberia over the last 5 years of the Taylor regime.  From 1999 to 2003, the aid figure ranges from $12 to $32 per capita.  After spending a week in Liberia in each of the past two summers, it seems obvious to me that any aid received by former "President" Charles Taylor was mis-appropriated to his own use of physically and militarily mitigating opposition.  For obvious reasons, this cannot be proved.  Clearly, the funds were not spent on infrastructure.  Electricity has yet to be restored (it has been out since Taylor took over in 1989), and all "roads" are painfully in disrepair.

Dcp_0239_2On the other hand, private aid to Liberia has been and remains a significant source of help to Liberian citizens.  If you are interested in contributing to Liberia, the organization that I have worked with is African Christians Fellowship International (ACFI).  ACFI is an indigenous religious organization that provides orphanages, medical clinics and tuition-free schools to the indigent and physically handicapped.  For example, the only deaf school/orphanage in the entire nation of Liberia is provided by ACFI, as deaf children are social outcasts in Liberia.   

Dollars for Guns

When the UN entered Liberia in September 2003, they instituted a voluntary disarmament program.  The program specified that ex-combatants could turn in their guns for $300 and a free education (completion of high school or a choice between various trade schools).  The $300 alone is a significant figure, as it is more than double the per capita gross national income.  From outside Liberia, this program appeared to be successful.  Kofi Annan ended the voluntary disarmament in June 2005. 

With no official data to support their claims, many Liberians feel that the program was a disaster, and that all of the significant factions still have plenty of arms.  The problems they cite are not surprising to an economist:

  1. Many guns were imported to Liberia to cash in on the $300, a price well above market-clearing.
  2. UN military personnel, enjoying their immense power, actually declined guns in several parts of the country, in order that their assignment in Liberia might last longer.

Will the violence return after the elections in October?  Liberians seem to be split on this.  Given that there are currently 52 candidates for President, most citizens will be disappointed with the outcome.

Indian Forecast Error

India receives 90% of its rain during monsoon season so forecasting monsoons is critical for productive farming.  Fortunately, according to an article in Nature (subs. req.), the Indian Meteorological Department has found a way to make its forecast better than any other available – they have suppresed publication of the other forecasts.  The Indian government says this is necessary to prevent "confusion."

    The main competitor to the government’s statistical model, which has not reduced its forecast error in 70 years, is from an Institute based in Bangalore which uses a climate model.  The Institute and government forecasts can differ dramatically.  The Institute, for example, forecast that rainfall would be 34% below average in June and 12% below average in July while the government forecast "normal or above normal rains."

The rainfall in June?  35% below average.  No confusion about that.

Thanks to Robin Hanson for the pointer.

Class Struggle – Fun for the Whole Family

The goal of Class Struggle is to teach people about how capitalism really works, at least according to Marxist theory. Each player plays a class (Workers, Capitalists, Farmers, etc.) because individuals aren’t the real players in capitalist societies. Each class moves towards the center of the board collecting assets and suffering penalties. The strategy is to accumulate as many assets as you can until the Revolution arrives. If you have the most assets when the Revolution comes, you win the game.

The game isn’t terribly fun to play, as one would expect from a game emphasizing oppression, unfairness and struggle. But much fun can be had reading the rules and the “chance” cards that give you assets. For example, the expanded “Full Rules” for deciding who gets to play the Capitalist class are designed to show players unfairness towards women and ethnic minorities: “Full Rules calls for the following: beginning with the lightest White male and ending with the darkest Black female, everyone takes turns with the Genetic die to see who throws capitalist class first.” I’m proud to say that I’ve won a few games, despite my modest disadvantage as a Latino male.

The chance cards are great fun. These two examples are for the Capitalist class:

  • “You are caught feeling sorry for the Workers. Victory in class struggle comes to people who think about their own class. Miss two turns at the dice.”
  • “Paperback edition of Marx/Engels Collected Writings (100 volumes) sweeps the country. Your days are numbered. 2 debits.”

These are for the Workers:

  • “Workers finally understand that with America’s wealth and democratic traditions, socialism here will be different than what exists in Russia and China. A biggie – worth 5 assets.”
  • “Together with your fellow workers, you have occupied your factory and locked your boss in the toilet. Capitalists miss 2 turns at the dice.”

These two chance cards are counter-Marginal Revolutionary:

  • “All your propaganda says a person is free when the Government lets him alone. But almost everything one wants to do or have costs money, so only Capitalists are really free.”
  • “You publish an ‘educational’ booklet to explain that in capitalism people – as consumers – vote for what they want with their dollars. You neglect to mention that in most industries, a few firms without any effective competition decide what to produce and what to charge, or that Capitalists who have the most dollars have the most votes. Give each class in the game 1 asset so they have money to buy your booklet.”

The game has other fun rules like the nuclear showdown option: if capitalists push the button, no one wins! Bertell Ollman might be interested in knowing copies are selling for about $15 on Ebay.

Unocal and China

Michael Higgins who blogs at Chocolate and Gold Coins but is writing in the comments section of Crooked Timber asks a good question about the CNOOC bid.

If Unocal went out of business, would we have cared? If China had spent $10
billion on new tanks, would we be quaking in our boots? (I’m glad they are not
doing this). But if neither happens but instead one Chinese company buys Unocal
and keeps their employees employed, we should be concerned?

Although I didn’t get into this in my original post, it’s also not clear to me what we gain by "owning" Unocal.  If the assets of Unocal are in America or an ally then CNOOCs bid gives us greater power over China not less.  If the assets are in Asia then in the event of a major conflict we would have to use the military to control the assets whether we own them or not. Steve Carr, also writing in the comments section of Crooked Timber, expresses this point well.

The United States doesn’t own, in any sense, Unocal’s reserves–the vast majority
of which are, by the way, in Asia. So it’s not losing anything, because it
doesn’t have anything. If, in this imaginary future that Krugman is conjuring,
the US wants those reserves, it will have to take them by force–first
nationalizing Unocal (or whatever American company comes along to pick up Unocal
if the CNOOC bid is dropped) and then seizing and
defending the reserves militarily against the Chinese (who, in Krugman’s model,
will presumably be trying to take them). If Unocal is bought by CNOOC, and we want the reserves, we’ll again have to take them
by force from a public company. The second seems mildly more difficult than the
first, but in both cases you’re talking about a massive use of military force to
secure energy resources. If we do end up in that future, I have a hard time
believing that who owns the deed to the natural-gas fields in Indonesia is going
to make much of a difference to anyone.

There is, then, no real downside (in strategic terms) to letting the deal go
through. But there’s a real downside to blocking it: alienating China, making it
clear to them that we perceive them as an enemy, looking like hypocrites in the
eyes of the world, interfering with rights of Unocal shareholders, etc.

Other good comments from Tino at Truck and Barter.

Krugman: Illiberal Demagogue

Paul Krugman used to be a liberal economist; no longer.  His abandonment of economics has long been plain, Krugman’s abandonment of liberalism was announced in yesterday’s commentary on China.

What really upset me about Krugman’s column is not the bizarre economics but the illiberal politics.  In the last twenty years China’s economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and nearly unspeakable deprivation.  China’s abandonment of communism is one of the great humanitarian events of all time.  And what does Krugman have to say about this improvement in well being?  (I paraphrase).

‘Watch out.  Now is the time to panic. Their gain is your loss.’

It’s hard to over-estimate how awful Krugman’s column is.  Consider this:

China, unlike Japan, really does seem to be emerging as America’s strategic rival and a competitor for scarce resources… 

‘Strategic rival’ is the kind of term that would-be Metternichs throw about to impress their girlfriends but what does it mean?  Everyone is a competitor for scarce resources.  Even those nice Canadians compete with Americans for scarce resources.  Are Canadians a strategic rival to be feared? 

The real question is how do rivals compete?  Do they compete with war or by trade?  China is moving from the former to the latter but shockingly Krugman prefers the former.  Exaggeration?  Consider this statement:

…the Chinese government might want to control [Unocal] if it envisions a sort of
"great game" in which major economic powers scramble for access to
far-flung oil and natural gas reserves. (Buying a company is a lot
cheaper, in lives and money, than invading an oil-producing country.

So what does Krugman recommend?  Blocking the bid for Unocal.  In other words, support China’s fear that they may be cut off from oil and encourage the invasion of an oil-producing country.

Nothing can harm the prospects for world peace more than the vicious
idea that we do better when they do worse. The Chinese and Americans people already have enough mercantilists,
imperialists and “national greatness” warriors pushing them towards conflict, what we need on this issue are liberal economists like the wise Brad DeLong who writes:

It is very important for the late-twenty first century national
security of the United States that, fifty years from now,
schoolchildren in India and China be taught that America is their
friend, that it did all it could to help them become rich. It is very
important that they not be taught that America wishes that they were
still barefoot and powerless, and has done all it can to keep them so.

How is it that Brad DeLong and I should agree so completely?  It is because neither of us has forgotten our heritage as economists.  Here then is the enlightened humanity and wisdom of the first liberal economist

Each nation foresees, or imagines it
foresees, its own subjugation in the increasing power and
aggrandisement of any of its neighbours; and the mean principle of
national prejudice is often founded upon the noble one of the love of
our own country. The sentence with which the elder Cato is said to have
concluded every speech which he made in the senate, whatever might be
the subject, ‘It is my opinion likewise that Carthage ought to be destroyed,’
was the natural expression of the savage patriotism of a strong but
coarse mind, enraged almost to madness against a foreign nation from
which his own had suffered so much. The more humane sentence with which
Scipio Nasica is said to have concluded all his speeches, ‘It is my opinion likewise that Carthage ought not to be destroyed,’
was the liberal expression of a more enlarged and enlightened mind, who
felt no aversion to the prosperity even of an old enemy, when reduced
to a state which could no longer be formidable to Rome. France and
England may each of them have some reason to dread the increase of the
naval and military power of the other; but for either of them to envy
the internal happiness and prosperity of the other, the cultivation of
its lands, the advancement of its manufactures, the increase of its
commerce, the security and number of its ports and harbours, its
proficiency in all the liberal arts and sciences, is surely beneath the
dignity of two such great nations. These are all real improvements of
the world we live in. Mankind are benefited, human nature is ennobled
by them.

Subsidy Suckers

Depressing article from the Washington Post on the rise of lobbyists.

The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled
since 2000 to more than 34,750 while the amount that lobbyists charge
their new clients has increased by as much as 100 percent…The lobbying boom has been caused by three factors, experts say: rapid
growth in government, Republican control of both the White House and
Congress, and wide acceptance among corporations that they need to hire
professional lobbyists to secure their share of federal benefits…

Lobbying firms can’t hire people fast enough. Starting salaries have
risen to about $300,000 a year for the best-connected aides eager to
"move downtown" from Capitol Hill or the Bush administration. Once
considered a distasteful post-government vocation, big-bucks lobbying
is luring nearly half of all lawmakers who return to the private sector
when they leave Congress, according to a forthcoming study by Public
Citizen’s Congress Watch.

No doubt this will create more calls for reform but the truth is we will never get the money out of politics until we get the politics out of money.

How much is politics in the genes?

In the study, three political scientists – Dr. John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, Dr. John R. Alford of Rice University and Dr. Carolyn L. Funk of Virginia Commonwealth – combed survey data from two large continuing studies including more than 8,000 sets of twins.

From an extensive battery of surveys on personality traits, religious beliefs and other psychological factors, the researchers selected 28 questions most relevant to political behavior. The questions asked people "to please indicate whether or not you agree with each topic," or are uncertain on issues like property taxes, capitalism, unions and X-rated movies. Most of the twins had a mixture of conservative and progressive views. But over all, they leaned slightly one way or the other.

The researchers then compared dizygotic or fraternal twins, who, like any biological siblings, share 50 percent of their genes, with monozygotic, or identical, twins, who share 100 percent of their genes.

Calculating how often identical twins agree on an issue and subtracting the rate at which fraternal twins agree on the same item provides a rough measure of genes’ influence on that attitude. A shared family environment for twins reared together is assumed.

On school prayer, for example, the identical twins’ opinions correlated at a rate of 0.66, a measure of how often they agreed. The correlation rate for fraternal twins was 0.46. This translated into a 41 percent contribution from inheritance.

As found in previous studies, attitudes about issues like school prayer, property taxes and the draft were among the most influenced by inheritance, the researchers found. Others like modern art and divorce were less so. And in the twins’ overall score, derived from 28 questions, genes accounted for 53 percent of the differences.

But after correcting for the tendency of politically like-minded men and women to marry each other, the researchers also found that the twins’ self-identification as Republican or Democrat was far more dependent on environmental factors like upbringing and life experience than was their social orientation, which the researchers call ideology. Inheritance accounted for 14 percent of the difference in party, the researchers found.

Here is the nasty clincher:

The researchers are not optimistic about the future of bipartisan cooperation or national unity. Because men and women tend to seek mates with a similar ideology, they say, the two gene pools are becoming, if anything, more concentrated, not less.

Here is the full story.

Should only the blind vote?

Psychologist Alexander Todorov of Princeton University
had volunteers look at black-and-white photographs of House and Senate
winners and losers from elections in 2000 and 2002, and the competing
candidates prior to the 2004 contests. The faces had to be unknown to
the participants; images of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., John
McCain, R-Ariz., and John Kerry, D-Mass., for example, were immediately

“It was just on facial appearance, it could not be influenced by any other information,” Todorov said in an interview.

The study (reported here) found that the candidate perceived as more competent was
the winner in 72 percent of the Senate races and 67 percent of the
House races.

The primary distinguishing factor appears to be that voters do not like babyfaced men (a round face, large eyes, small nose, high forehead and small chin).
Competency appears to be associated with facial maturity.  But are the voters correct in their biases?  It would appear not:

In fact, studies by Zebrowitz and others have shown that
babyfaced men are actually more intelligent, better educated, more
assertive and apt to win more military medals than their mature-looking

Research in the area of facial impressions has implications for
political marketing, social decision-making and even the democratic
process, Zebrowitz believes. "The data we have suggest that we’re not
necessarily electing better leaders – people who are actually more
competent, though we are electing people who look the part."

Randall Parker at FuturePundit opines:

Democracy is flawed because humans are shallow and superficial.
Maybe blind voters make better decisions. Anyone up for restricting the
voting franchise to the blind only? Ugly talented candidates would fare
much better. Think about it.

Does the EU still have a core?

"There is no other country in Europe that will be as deeply affected by the ‘No’ as Germany," said Ulrike Guérot, senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. "The French are no longer in a position to lead as part of a tandem… but Germany, because of its history, cannot claim leadership in Europe on its own."

Here is further discussion.  I’ve long thought that a "no" vote would be a very serious event.  Read Timur Kuran on preference falsification, not to mention Malcolm Gladwell on tipping points.

My next question: What does equilibrium look like when you have two major currencies, each of which must fall in value vis-a-vis the other?

The public choice economics of Star Wars: A Straussian reading

The only spoilers in this post concern the non-current Star Wars movies.  Stop reading now if you wish those to remain a surprise.

The core point is that the Jedi are not to be trusted:

1. The Jedi and Jedi-in-training sell out like crazy.  Even the evil Count Dooku was once a Jedi knight.

2. What do the Jedi Council want anyway?  The Anakin critique of the Jedi Council rings somewhat true (this is from the new movie, alas I cannot say more, but the argument could be strengthened by citing the relevant detail).  Aren’t they a kind of out-of-control Supreme Court, not even requiring Senate approval (with or without filibuster), and heavily armed at that?  As I understand it, they vote each other into the office, have license to kill, and seek to control galactic affairs.  Talk about unaccountable power used toward secret and mysterious ends.

3. Obi-Wan told Luke scores of lies, including the big whopper that his dad was dead.

4. The Jedi can’t even keep us safe.

5. The bad guys have sex and do all the procreating.  The Jedi are not supposed to marry, or presumably have children.  Not ESS, if you ask me.  Anakin gets Natalie Portman; Luke spends two episodes with a perverse and distant crush on his sister Leia, leading only to one chaste kiss.

6. The prophecy was that Anakin (Darth) will restore order and balance to the force.  How true this turns out to be.  But none of the Jedi can begin to understand what this means.  Yes, you have to get rid of the bad guys.  But you also have to get rid of the Jedi.  The Jedi are, after all, the primary supply source and training ground for the bad guys.  Anakin/Darth manages to get rid of both, so he really is the hero of the story.  (It is also interesting which group of “Jedi” Darth kills first, but that would be telling.)

7. At the happy ending of “Return of the Jedi”, the Jedi no longer control the galaxy.  The Jedi Council is not reestablished.  Luke, the closest thing to a Jedi representative left, never becomes a formal Jedi.  He shows no desire to train other Jedi, and probably expects to spend the rest of his life doing voices for children’s cartoons.

8. The core message is that power corrupts, but also that good guys have power too.  Our possible safety lies in our humanity, not in our desires to transcend it or wield strange forces to our advantage.

What did Padme say?: “So this is how liberty dies, to thunderous applause.”

Addendum: By the way, did I mention that the Jedi are genetically superior supermen with “enhanced blood”?  That the rebels’ victory party in Episode IV borrows liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”?  And that the much-maligned ewoks make perfect sense as an antidote to Jedi fascism?