Category: Political Science

Why is welfare losing political popularity?

I mean welfare programs in the narrower sense of targeted redistribution to the poor, not transfer programs per se.  Robert Moffitt, editor of the American Economic Review, offers some hypotheses in a recent interview:

…increased labor force participation of middle-class women was part of the cause [of falling popularity]. That transformation really changed the attitude of voters. Once a large percentage of middle-class women were working and putting their children into day care, the public began to question why we shouldn’t expect the same thing from poor women. There was no longer the support for paying women to stay at home with their children, which was the goal of the original legislation in 1935.

Another turn against welfare, I think, has to do with the changing composition of the welfare caseload. In the 1960s, the caseload was largely composed of divorced women. One could imagine that members of the middle class, while not looking favorably upon divorce, understood it because many of them were getting divorced too. But by the 1980s, the caseload started to become composed largely of young women who had never been married and were having children out of wedlock. That is a completely different group, and the middle class had a great deal less sympathy toward those women.

A final factor is that I think the attitudes among women receiving welfare changed. If you look at attitudinal studies from the early 1990s, many welfare recipients said that they didn’t like welfare, that they thought other women were gaming the system to stay on welfare, and were not really trying to improve their lives. Welfare recipients had incorporated the social norms of the middle class. And once the legislation led some recipients to move off welfare, it had a snowball effect. They began to exert social pressure on other women to find work. I think that increased stigma within poor populations made it easier to overhaul the welfare system. But it took a major shock; incremental reform would not have done it.

Here is the full interview, which is interesting throughout, from the Richmond Fed’s Region Focus.

Europe Central

A generation before, the Iron Chancellor had observed: I’ve always found the word Europe on the lips of those statesmen who want something from a foreign power which they would never venture to ask for in their own name.

That is from William Vollman’s Europe Central, which just won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction [correction: Fiction].  The Amazon reviews make it sound daunting, but so far (p.32) it is great fun.  If you’re reading it, add your opinion in the comments.

Could I ever become a Democrat?

Here is a symposium on whether progressives can believe in economic growth as a primary value.  The impetus is Gene Sperling’s new and intelligent book The Pro-Growth Progressive.  Here is a summary of the book.  Here is a recent Sperling article.  Scroll down MaxSpeak for left-wing criticism of Sperling.

Sperling pushes for markets and trade, but gives government a greater role in insuring against risk.  This includes "wage insurance," more job training, and managed forms of free trade and globalization.  On net his influence will be positive, but I have the following problems with his arguments:

1. He assumes that spending more on education will result in a better educated and more productive populace.  The U.S. data do not support this view, although he does adduce some good evidence on the benefits of preschool. 

2. He assumes that government-sponsored job training — including "pre-emptive" training (i.e., before you lose your job) — is effective.

3. He never puts on his right-wing public choice hat to consider what his proposed policies would end up looking like in the real world.  He feels no shame in postulating dozens of finely honed micro-interventions, all implemented by ugly and brutish politicians and interest groups.

4. We are never told what we must forego to do all this.

5. He ties himself in emotional knots anytime his preferred policies are not unanimous pure Pareto improvements.  He has to get over the fact that Democrats hurt people too.

6. When arguing against the Bush budget deficits, he ignores Cowen’s Third Law: "All propositions about real interest rates are wrong."

He does nail market-oriented views on the issue of risk; we don’t have a good explanation of why private insurance markets do not function better.  But since single-payer national health insurance violates every economic law known to mankind, I am again unsure how I could leap on the Democratic bandwagon.

By the way, here is Reihan Salam on where the Republicans should go (Matt Yglesias comments here).  He is another smart guy, but I just don’t believe that any political party can be mass-captured by the intelligent and brought around to sanity.  Parties exist, in part, to enforce feelings of interpersonal solidarity and to make people forget about critical thinking.  We cannot avoid parties in a democracy, but there is already too much interest in parties as a vehicle for ideas.   

The Political Business Cycle

I am supposed to be voting for governor of Virginia today, no?  I just read the following promise from a presidential candidate in Asia:

Every Sri Lankan home will be gifted with a high milk-yielding cow from
Kerala which could be expected to yield 10 liters to 16 liters of milk
every day. Even families who live in flats, who could make suitable
arrangements to look after a cow, will receive a gift of cow.

The post from IndiaUncut also lists their "previous posts on cows."

Thomas Schelling on Iranian nukes

It is important for the Iranians to understand – and have access to – technology like we have in the U.S. that disables bombs if they get into the wrong hands. U.S. weapons, for example, have “permissive action links”– a radio signal code that arms weapons but that will also automatically disarm them it if launched at an unauthorized target.

This will be a big dilemma for the U.S. If the Iranians get weapons, will we be willing to share the technology to ensure the security of their use? That is where the debate is heading.

Read more here, he does not much fear a nuke from al Qaeda either.  Thanks to the ever-essential www.politicaltheory.info for the pointer.

What is left for libertarians?

Democrat Matt Yglesias writes:

If you did have a progressive president, there’s no longer a particularly large amount of popular resistance to expanding the activist state. Even most Republicans don’t especially care about small government.

Republican David Brooks (see Sunday’s NYT, no free link anymore, but read this good summary, or try this) tells us that George Bush and activist government have saved the Republican Party from irrelevance.

Libertarian Albert Jay Nock titled his book Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.

But not so fast: I have a simple theory: in any period of time, government grows as large as it can, given available technology and a few cultural constraints.  For better or worse, voters support this growth.  The railroad and electricity were the most significant agents for big government in the twentieth century, toss in the radio for good measure.  Short of technological retrogression and negative economic growth, we should not expect government to ever get smaller.  Just look at the size of welfare states in oil-rich countries. 

But neither does this spell the end of libertarianism.  Some people realize that this process can go too far, as it has in the growth-stunted Western Europe.  In more extreme cases, government can grow so large as to endanger the foundations of civilization. 

The complainers are the libertarians.  They will always lose, and they will always be intellectually important. 

Terrorists with nuclear weapons

Tom Schelling writes in today’s WSJ:

[Terrorists] will discover, over weeks of arguing that the most effective use of the bomb, from a terrorist perspective, will be for influence.  Possessing a nuclear device, if they can demonstrate possession — and I believe they can, if they have it, without detonating it — will give them something of the status of a nation.  Threatening to use it against military targets, and keeping it intact if the threat is successful, may appeal to them more than expending it in a destructive act.  Even terrorists may consider destroying large numbers of people and structures less satisfying than keeping a major nation at bay.

No permalink is currently available, although it may pop up on the on-line edition.  Also pick up the paper copy for the front-page story about Caroline Hoxby and the recent disputes over her work on educational competition.

Addendum: Here is a link.

The Idea Trap lasts a long time

Here is the latest by Alberto Alesina and Nicola Scheundeln:

Preferences for redistribution, as well as the generosities of welfare
states, differ significantly across countries. In this paper, we test
whether there exists a feedback process of the economic regime on
individual preferences. We exploit the "experiment" of German
separation and reunification to establish exogeneity of the economic
system. From 1945 to 1990, East Germans lived under a Communist regime
with heavy state intervention and extensive redistribution. We find
that, after German reunification, East Germans are more in favor of
redistribution and state intervention than West Germans, even after
controlling for economic incentives. This effect is especially strong
for older cohorts, who lived under Communism for a longer time period.
We further find that East Germans’ preferences converge towards those
of West Germans. We calculate that it will take one to two generations
for preferences to converge completely.

Here is Bryan Caplan on The Idea Trap, one of his best pieces.

Recipes for social change

I think the smart thing for the US state department to do today is build a game about Islam but make it a democracy. And set it up so that every 16-year-old from Morocco to Pakistan can go into that world when they get a computer. Not say anything overt about democracy but have them play — have them vote, for example.

I saw this quotation on the ever-excellent kottke.org.  Here is his source, on video game economics.  Here is the source interview, worth a read.  Here is Edward Castronova’s forthcoming book on video game economics.

Addendum: Speaking of kottke.org, they offer a good link on what makes shy people shy, and can they change?

Second addendum: A reader draws my attention to this rather grisly video game.