Category: Political Science

Claims my Russian wife laughs at (a continuing series)

Start with the idea that the United States can no longer really be regarded as a "new nation."  There is no doubt that America is singularly lacking in ancient chateaux and schlossen…But this scarcely constitutes evidence of youth.  The first settlers arrived when James I was on the throne and England was not yet Britain.  Galileo was offered a chair at Harvard University, which was founded in 1636, before Charles I had his head cut off.  The Declaration of Independence was signed a century before the unification of both German and Italy…Many of the traditions which define Britain as an old country in the minds of admiring Americans — the pomp and circumstance of empire, the rituals of Charles Dickens’s Christmas, Sherlock Holmes’s deer-stalker hat – were invented a century after the American constitution.  "The youth of America is their oldest tradition," Oscar Wilde quipped more than a century ago.

At least I think it is true.  That is from The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.  This book is the best introduction to the history of the so-called "American Right."  It is a worthy successor to George Nash’s earlier tome.

Electing a Pope

After the Athenians, Catholic scholars were among the first to analyze problems of voting (what is today called social choice theory).  The potential for chaotic elections was certainly familar to the Cardinals who after many disputes over who should be Pope settled on the current two-thirds rule for election in 1179.  And while I wouldn’t go so far as  Pope Pius II  who in 1458 said (after his own election (of course!) "What is done by two thirds of the sacred college, that is surely of the Holy Ghost, which may not be resisted," it is interesting to note that 2/3rds does have a number of special stability properties (see the difficult paper of Saari here and the earlier link).

For more on the history and practice of Papal elections you can listen to two free historical lectures from The Teaching Company.   

Why did so many Germans support Hitler?

A well-respected German historian has a radical new theory to explain a nagging question: Why did average Germans so heartily support the Nazis and Third Reich? Hitler, says Goetz Aly, was a "feel good dictator," a leader who not only made Germans feel important, but also made sure they were well cared-for by the state.

To do so, he gave them huge tax breaks and introduced social benefits that even today anchor the society. He also ensured that even in the last days of the war not a single German went hungry. Despite near-constant warfare, never once during his 12 years in power did Hitler raise taxes for working class people. He also — in great contrast to World War I — particularly pampered soldiers and their families, offering them more than double the salaries and benefits that American and British families received. As such, most Germans saw Nazism as a "warm-hearted" protector, says Aly, author of the new book "Hitler’s People’s State: Robbery, Racial War and National Socialism" [TC: I cannot find it on U.S. Amazon, try this German link] and currently a guest lecturer at the University of Frankfurt. They were only too happy to overlook the Third Reich’s unsavory, murderous side.

Financing such home front "happiness" was not simple and Hitler essentially achieved it by robbing and murdering others, Aly claims. Jews. Slave laborers. Conquered lands. All offered tremendous opportunities for plunder, and the Nazis exploited it fully, he says.

Read more here.  I am a believer in studying the extremes.  Hitler’s Germany (extreme oppression and persecution), modern Haiti (a complete mess), and Yugoslavia in the 1990s (relapse from tolerance into murder) have a special hold on my attention in this regard. 

And might you think that the German soldiers always followed orders?  How about this:

In Auschwitz…there is not one case in the records of an SS man being prosecuted for refusing to take part in the killings, while there is plenty of material showing that the real discipline problem in the camp — from the point of view of the SS leadership — was theft [from arriving Jews and others].  The ordinary members of the SS thus appear to have agreed with the Nazi leadership that it was right to kill the Jews, but disagreed with Himmler’s policy of not letting them individually profit from the crime.  And the penalties for an SS man caught stealing could be draconian — almost certainly worse than for simply refusing to take an active part in the killing.

That is from the new and noteworthy Auschwitz: A New History, by Laurence Rees.

The evolution of protectionism

To get the industrial Midwest with its 140,000 steel workers to vote Republican in congressional elections, President Bush slapped a prohibitive tariff on imports of steel from Europe and Japan in 2001. He got what he wanted: a (bare) Republican majority in the Congress. But while the large steel users (such as automobile makers, railroads and building contractors) were forced by the tariff to buy domestic, they immediately set about cutting their use of steel so as not to spend more on it than they would have had to spend had they been able to buy the imports. Bush’s tariff action thus only accelerated the long-term decline of the traditional midwestern steel producers and the jobs they generate. Tariffs, in other words, can still force users to buy domestic, but they are no longer capable of protecting the domestic producers’ prices. Those are set through information and on the world-market level.

This development underlies the steady shift in protectionism: from tariffs–the traditional way–to protection through rules, regulations and especially export subsidies. World trade has grown spectacularly in the last fifty years. The largest growth has been in subsidized farm exports from the developed world: western and central Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. Farm subsidies are now the only net income of French farmers, as their crops produce nothing but net losses and are grown only as the entitlement for the subsidies. These subsidies are in fact a major–perhaps the major–cement of the Franco-German alliance [TC: touche’, und Autsch!], and with it, of the European Union.

That is Peter Drucker, read more here.

Will a wealthier China democratize?

Maybe not.  Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, Pierre Robinson, and Pierre Yared report:

We revisit one of the central empirical findings of the political economy literature that higher income per capita causes democracy. Existing studies establish a strong cross-country correlation between income and democracy, but do not typically control for factors that simultaneously affect both variables. We show that controlling for such factors by including country fixed effects removes the statistical association between income per capita and various measures of democracy. We also present instrumental-variables using two different strategies. These estimates also show no causal effect of income on democracy. Furthermore, we reconcile the positive cross-country correlation between income and democracy with the absence of a causal effect of income on democracy by showing that the long-run evolution of income and democracy is related to historical factors. Consistent with this, the positive correlation between income and democracy disappears, even without fixed effects, when we control for the historical determinants of economic and political development in a sample of former European colonies.

Here is the full paper for $5.  Here is a version for free.

Is blackmail coercive?

On some level, I do believe blackmail is a kind of coercion, but I fear my structuralist explanations for this view would be deeply upsetting to the average libertarian Joe, so I will keep my dirty little Foucault-inspired secrets to myself.

Here is more from Alina Stefanescu.

And how about the economics of blackmail?  If blackmail victims are bad guys, why not allow a horde of potential bounty hunters to profit from uncovering their wrongdoing?  We can keep "false blackmail" illegal, while allowing blackmail based on truth, no?  We likely underinvest in the gathering of such information, and the profit incentives of blackmail would help correct (and overshoot?) this institutional failure.

Yet I remain convinced there is, somewhere, a sound economic and utilitarian case against blackmail.  But what is that case?

My favorite exotic explanation (it is not quite sound) is that legal blackmail would lead to inefficient blackmail.  Perhaps the ones who should blackmail you are your family and close friends.  That is when transaction costs are low and both parties strike a good deal, often based on an implicit rather than explicit blackmail.  ("If you run off with that floozy…")  The wrongdoer pays a penalty, and the would-be wrongdoer remains deterred.  Nothing gets too messy.  But if you open up this business to outsiders, well…trust breaks down.  Blackmailers fabricate stories, they send weird threatening letters, and they cause extreme anxiety.  Outsiders don’t even know when they should believe the word of a blackmailer, which limits blackmail possibilities from those in the know.  Under this hypothesis, we keep blackmail illegal to keep blackmailers we can trust.

Addendum: I have turned on the comments function, in case you have good ideas on this topic.

Do people have cultural rights?

Culture talk is not so very far from the race talk that it would supplant in liberal discourse…

No, that is not Larry Summers.  Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton professor, argues that culture is too often used as a not totally legitimate means of separating in-groups from out-groups.  In his view we should sooner reform cultural identities — encourage more tolerance and polyglot interests — than respect current cultures and cultural views as a matter of legal or moral right.

That is from his new The Ethics of Identity, highly recommended.

Here is an interview with Appiah.  This is one good bit:

Look, farming as a way of life is dying in the United States, but it’s not dying because people are shooting the children of farmers, or abusing them, or denying them food or loans or anything–in fact, we massively subsidize them. It’s just that people don’t want to be farmers. Do I think that it would be a great tragedy if the form of life of a Midwestern farmer disappeared? Well, I don’t want to sound un-American, but no, I don’t.

And the guy isn’t even an economist.

The culture of spending

The political scientist James Payne argued that there is a culture of spending in Congress.  Even people elected on a platform of cutting government become enured to higher spending as week after week they hear witnesses saying how much more money is needed and how many more problems could be solved if only you, the great Congressperson, would use your power to spend.

    Here is a great illustrative graphic (click to expand) from The New York Times.  It shows proposed spending in 1995-96 and 2004-05 from the 30 of the 75 freshmen Republicans elected to the House in the Gingrich revolution of 1994 who remain in the house.  Almost all proposed big spending cuts in 1995 but today only 1 (Sue Myrick of NC) continues to propose big cuts.  (Yeah Sue!).  Almost all of the rest are now big spenders.

    It’s somewhat unclear whether Payne’s hypothesis of a culture of spending explains the pattern.  It could be that more senior members spend more and thus as the freshmen gain power they increase their spending (thus term limits, for example, would not solve this problem).  It could also be a selection effect, perhaps only those who become big spenders are reelected.  I tend to favor the latter explanation.  We get the government we deserve, unfortunately.


Black markets in red

[In Saudi Arabia] Every heart, every rose and every item that’s red or that suggests
love and romance descends underground, to the black market, where its
price triples and quadruples. Red flowers are hidden in back rooms.

Ibrahim al-Ghaith, chief of the 5,000-man religious police, told
Al-Hayat newspaper his men were "acting upon instructions to confiscate
manifestations" of Valentine’s Day, birthdays and other celebrations.

"The feast of love is based on love and passion and things that are not proper for a Muslim to respond to," he told the paper.

Salesmen and waiters avoid wearing red; entrepreneurs whose stores maintain a red hue risk days in jail.

religious lectures at schools, teachers and administrators warn
students against marking the occasion, noting Saint Valentine was a
Christian priest, according to an educational supervisor, who spoke on
condition of anonymity.

Saint Valentine is believed to have been a 3rd-century martyred Roman priest or bishop.

Here is the story.

A Swiss Miss Doesn’t Miss Much

Switzerland continues to have more guns and less crime.  Here is a charming portrait by Stephen Halbrook of a Swiss shooting competition for boys and girls.

The greatest shooting festival in the world
for youngsters takes place every year in Zurich, Switzerland. Imagine
thousands of boys and girls shooting military service rifle over three
days amid an enormous fair with ferris wheels and wild rides of all
kinds. You’re at the Knabenschiessen (boys’ shooting contest).

This girl, one of 1,585 who competed, being coached in sharpshooting with the Assault Rifle 90, the Swiss service rifle.

Held since the year 1657, the competition traditionally has been both a
sport and a way of encouraging marksmanship in a country where every
male serves in the militia army. Today, girls compete along side the
boys. In fact, girls are now winning the competition.

September 13, 2004. In the U.S. on this date, the Clinton fake “assault
weapon” ban sunsets. In Zurich, some 5,631 teens – 4,046 boys and 1,585
girls, aged 13-17 – have finished firing the Swiss service rifle, and
it’s time for the shootoff.

rifle is the SIG Strumgeweher (assault rifle) model 1990 (Stgw 90), a
selective fire, 5.6 mm rifle with folding skeleton stock, bayonet lug,
bipod, and grenade launcher. The Stgw 90 is a real assault rifle in
that it is fully automatic, although that feature is disabled during
the competition. Every Swiss man, on reaching age 20, is issued one to
keep at home. Imagine all those teenagers firing this real assault
rifle while their moms and dads look on with approval, anxiously
awaiting the scores.

Do state pension funds meddle in corporate affairs?

Over the last 20 years, public pension funds have grown nearly sevenfold – to more than $2 trillion nationwide, outpacing private-sector fund growth by more than one-third and making them tremendously powerful in boardrooms across the country.

Why do they want to meddle? Because they can. Although private-sector fund managers focus on picking lucrative investments – because that’s how they get paid – public fund trustees have different incentives. Sure, they want funds to perform well. But if they don’t, they know that taxpayers will make up the shortfall. So they’re free to pursue political objectives.

Public funds first discovered their political strength in the mid-1980s, when they successfully pressured companies with business in South Africa to lobby against apartheid or to withdraw from that nation. For years, activist pension funds focused on broad-brush issues like apartheid. They didn’t meddle with corporate management.

But the public funds have taken the corporate scandals of the Enron era as a license to step up their interference with corporate boards. "The age of investor complacency must be replaced by a new era of investor democracy," said Phil Angelides, California treasurer and a member of the board of CalPERS, the state’s main pension fund.

Read more here.  Tomorrow I will consider the more general question of whether we should trust our federal government to invest social security funds in private equities.