Category: Political Science

Why Didn’t the 2009 Recovery Act Improve the Nation’s Highways and Bridges?

Kevin Lewis has been on such a roll lately, I am pleased to bring you all more content that he has sent my way:

Although the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the Recovery Act) provided nearly $28 billion to state governments for improving U.S. highways, the highway system saw no significant improvement. For example, relative to the years before the act, the number of structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges was nearly unchanged, the number of workers on highway and bridge construction did not significantly increase, and the annual value of construction put in place for public highways barely budged. The author shows that as states spent Recovery Act highway grants, many simultaneously slashed their own contributions to highway infrastructure, freeing up state dollars for other uses. Next, using a cross-sectional analysis of state highway spending, the author shows that a state’s receipt of Recovery Act highway dollars had no statistically significant causal impact on that state’s total highway spending. Thus, the amount of actual highway infrastructure investment following the act’s passage was likely very similar to that under a no-stimulus counterfactual.

The paper is by Bill Dupor, of the St. Louis Fed.  Kevin is a shy, unassuming man, a family man at that, and still deeply underrated!

Is Africa losing its growth window?

The macro side of the story here is underreported, alas:

One of the saddest stories of the year has gone largely unreported: the slowdown of political and economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no longer a clear path to be seen, or a simple story to be told, about how the world’s poorest continent might claw its way up to middle-income status. Africa has amazing human talent and brilliant cultural heritages, but its major political centers are, to put it bluntly, falling apart.

Three countries are more geopolitically central than the others. Ethiopia, with a population of 118 million, is sub-Saharan Africa’s second-most populous nation and the most significant node in East Africa. Nigeria has the most people (212 million) and the largest GDP on the continent. South Africa, population 60 million, is the region’s wealthiest nation, and it is the central economic and political presence in the southern part of the continent.

Within the last two years, all three of these nations have fallen into very serious trouble.

And:

Based on size and historical and cultural import, Democratic Republic of the Congo ought to be another contender as an influential African nation. But the country has been wracked by conflict for decades. It is not in a position to fill the void created by the failings of Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.

The last few decades have been a relatively propitious time for Africa. There have been a minimum of major wars in the world, and a dearth of major new pandemics (until recently). China was interested in building up African infrastructure, and across the continent countries made great advances in public health.

Could it be that this window has shut, and the time for major gains has passed? And that is not even reckoning with the likelihood of additional damage from Covid on a continent with a very low level of vaccination.

These sub-Saharan political regressions might just be a coincidence in their timing. But another disturbing possibility is that the technologies and ideologies of our time are not favorable for underdeveloped nation-states with weak governments and many inharmonious ethnic groups. In that case, all this bad luck could be a precursor of even worse times ahead.

Here is the link to the full Bloomberg column.

How did China end up with so many people?

I cannot judge this hypothesis, but I have always wondered about the question:

We hypothesize that besides technology and resource expansion, risk-mitigation improvements pushed the Malthusian limits to population growth in pre-industrial societies. During 976-1850 CE, China’s population increased by elevenfold while the Confucian clan emerged as the key risk-sharing institution for members. To test our hypothesis using historical data from 269 prefectures, we measure each region’s clan strength by its number of genealogy books compiled. Our results show that prefectures with stronger clans had significantly higher population density due to better resilience during natural disasters and fewer premature deaths of children. Confucian clans enabled pre-industrial China to sustain explosive population growth.

That is from a new paper by Zhiwu Chen and Chicheng Ma.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My Conversation with Andrew Sullivan

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the overview:

Andrew joined Tyler to discuss the role of the AIDs epidemic in achieving marriage equality, the difficulty of devoutness in everyday life, why public intellectuals often lack courage, how being a gay man helps him access perspectives he otherwise wouldn’t, how drugs influence his ideas, the reasons why he’s a passionate defender of SATs and IQ tests, what Niall Ferguson and Boris Johnson were like as fellow undergraduates, what Americans get wrong about British politics, why so few people share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, why Bowie was so special, why Airplane! is his favorite movie, what Oakeshottian conservatism offers us today, whether wokeism has a positive influence globally, why he someday hopes to glower at the sea from in the west of Ireland, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

SULLIVAN: Well, and so you get used to real conversations about people, and you don’t mistake credentials for intelligence. You realize that people outside of the system may be more perceptive about what’s going wrong with it than people buried within it. I honestly find life more interesting the more variety of people you get to know and meet. And that means from all sorts of different ways of life.

The good thing about being gay, I will tell you, is that that happens more often than if you’re straight — because it’s a great equalizer. You are more likely to come across someone who really is from a totally different socioeconomic group than you are through sexual and romantic attraction, and indeed the existence of this subterranean world that is taken from every other particular class and structure, than you would if you just grew up in a straight world where you didn’t have to question these things and where your social life was bound up with your work or with your professional peers.

The idea for me of dating someone in my office would be absolutely bizarre, for example. I can’t believe all these straight people that just look around them and say, “Oh, let’s get married.” Whereas gay people have this immense social system that can throw up anybody from any way of life into your social circle.

Interesting throughout.  And again, here is Andrew’s new book Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021.

Immigration encouragement as the new form of hybrid warfare?

Baltic officials say his [Lukashenko’s] latest tactic is to offer migrants from Iraq, Syria or several African countries a package that includes passage to the Lithuanian border. More than 4,000 migrants have crossed into Lithuania this year alone, more than 50 times the number that entered last year.

Rinkevics said this was “a very clear case of hybrid warfare” by deliberately using migration to target the EU and Lithuania. “The migrants are actually being used as the weapon. The longer we live in this 21st century, the scarier it becomes. Things that we couldn’t imagine that could be used, they are being used,” he said.

Here is the full FT piece, unsettling throughout.

Words of wisdom (from Ross Douthat)

Which is part of how a figure like Orban becomes appealing to American conservatives. It’s not just his anti-immigration stance or his moral traditionalism. It’s that his interventions in Hungarian cultural life, the attacks on liberal academic centers and the spending on conservative ideological projects, are seen as examples of how political power might curb progressivism’s influence.

Some version of this impulse is actually correct. It would be a good thing if American conservatives had more of a sense of how to weaken the influence of Silicon Valley or the Ivy League, and more cultural projects in which they wanted to invest both private energy and public money.

But the way this impulse has swiftly led conservatives to tolerate corruption, whether in their long-distance Hungarian romance or their marriage to Donald Trump, suggests a fundamental danger for cultural outsiders. When you have demand for an alternative to an oppressive-seeming ideological establishment, but relatively little capacity to build one, the easiest path often leads not toward renaissance, but grift.

Here is more from the NYT, mostly about Hungary.  I think the same is true for Covid policy, by the way.  It is hard for people — of any persuasion — to admit they have utterly lost ideological battles, whether they are right or wrong.  So if Covid fraudsters “hold out straws to clutch,” there will be a fair numbers of takers, most of all from those who have been losing the debates.  (“Ah, but now we will fight on the ivermectin front…”)  But it is better to be more realistic.  Unfortunately, “We’ve lost this one, we need to go back to the drawing board and start over” is one of the hardest things for people to say to themselves.

David Beckworth on Powell and the Fed

My colleague David Beckworth has a new NYT piece, here is one bit from it:

Jerome Powell’s political skills also helped bring about a truly historic change at the Federal Reserve in 2020. Under his guidance, the Fed became the first central bank to adopt a “makeup” policy, which requires it to correct for past misses in its inflation target. Central banks actually see a mild amount of inflation as a sign of a healthy, growing modern economy. Inflation, for example, typically runs below its target during recessions and therefore needs to temporarily run above 2 percent afterward to make up for the shortfall. This, in fact, is what the Fed has been attempting over the past year by maintaining its low interest rate target and large-scale asset purchases. This new framework allows the economy to run hot after a recession and make up for lost ground. It means a quicker return to full employment and a more rapid restoration of incomes.

There is much more at the link.

That was then…

Here is an excerpt from Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, the guy who coined the term “The Third Reich” (hint: he wasn’t against it):

The Left has reason.  The Right has wisdom…Masculinity is the essence of wisdom.  It takes character not to succumb to self-delusion.  The conservative man possesses this character as well as the physical prowess and moral determination to act in accordance with this character…He has the innate ability to pass judgement, and to make deductions, to recognize reality…Conservatism is based on an understanding of human nature.

That is from the new and excellent book Nazis and Nobles: The History of a Misalliance, by Stephan Malinowski.  This book builds on themes from Arno Mayer’s old and excellent The Persistence of the Old Regime.

It is an interesting question why these sentiments — some of which are cliched rather than offensive per se — are as correlated with fascism as they are.  In my oversimplified model, feminization is the key variable.  Van den Bruck saw the feminization of society coming, and opposed it, but I believe he was more interested in Nazism and fascism per se.  Many current commentators also oppose that feminization virulently, and that leads them to take up with strange and rather unfortunate bedfellows, namely fascists, as fascists do in fact have modes of discourse for opposing or criticizing feminization.  Often fascism per se is not the main interest of today’s right-wing thinkers, and if you started lecturing them on Speer’s building plans for Berlin, or earlier German cartel policy, their eyes would glaze over.  They are more interested in the current cultural wars, but they don’t always have the intellectual equipment to fight them, and so they look to fascists, a badly mistaken choice.

I say feminization is here to stay, we need to find workable versions of that — how’s that for a challenging intellectual project?  Those of us looking backwards to “the nasty people” are going to find themselves staring down a dead end, intellectually and otherwise.  Hungary and Salazar are not the future, people.  You should be jumping on better bandwagons, or if need be building them yourselves.

The Political-Economic Causes of the Soviet Great Famine, 1932–33

This study constructs a large new dataset to investigate whether state policy led to ethnic Ukrainians experiencing higher mortality during the 1932–33 Soviet Great Famine. All else equal, famine (excess) mortality rates were positively associated with ethnic Ukrainian population share across provinces, as well as across districts within provinces. Ukrainian ethnicity, rather than the administrative boundaries of the Ukrainian republic, mattered for famine mortality. These and many additional results provide strong evidence that higher Ukrainian famine mortality was an outcome of policy, and suggestive evidence on the political-economic drivers of repression. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that bias against Ukrainians explains up to 77% of famine deaths in the three republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and up to 92% in Ukraine.

That is a new NBER working paper by Andrei Markevich, Natalya Naumenko (my colleague at GMU), and Nancy Qian.  The paper represents a significant advance in terms of basic data, and the core hypothesis of ethnic favoritism is strongly validated.

The median voter theorem is underrated

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

More broadly, it is striking how many policies of the Biden administration reflect ideas or proposals from the Trump administration. Biden’s “Buy America” plan could be a Trump administration protectionist initiative. The Trump administration spent $2 trillion on coronavirus relief; the Biden administration proposed and spent $1.9 trillion. Trump wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan; Biden actually did. Biden has left many of Trump’s anti-China policies, such as the tariffs, in place. Biden also has continued rapid deportation programs for immigrants.

All of these policies are broadly aimed at the center. It is no accident that Biden, even though his “honeymoon” period is ending, has remained broadly popular in the polls.

There are still areas in which Republicans and Democrats differ greatly, of course. On Covid-19, they have divergent attitudes and safety practices. Still, the Biden administration has not seriously considered either a nationwide vaccination mandate or governmental vaccine passports, as neither would be especially popular with voters.

Then there are cultural issues, where the median voter theorem most definitely does not hold. What seems to have happened is that Americans have picked one area in which they can let off steam and express their mutual mistrust — and in turn that has allowed a kind of consensus to form around many actual government policies. Perhaps what the median voter theorem misses is that individuals have a deeply irrational side and need to treat some political debates more like a mixed martial arts competition than as a forum for getting things done.

The median voter theorem tends to be unpopular in an increasingly left-leaning academic environment. It has a decidedly anti-utopian quality, as it insists that policy is not going to deviate too far from the views of the ordinary American. It implies that many projects of left-wing progressives are pipe dreams, at least until major shifts in public opinion set in. It dismisses the common progressive attitude that current voters would welcome major left-wing reforms and are only waiting for a heroic politician to stare down the special interest groups that oppose them.

To be clear, there is no presumption that the median voter actually wants the right thing. As an economist, I am particularly frustrated by how frequently American voters fail to appreciate the benefits of international trade and migration, or how they tend to believe that government programs financed by borrowing represent a free lunch. They also put disproportionate weight on low gasoline prices, to cite yet another example from a long list of mistaken views.

Still, as a practical matter, the median voter probably represents a kind of protection against the worst excesses and arrogances of the human spirit. Failed politicians do tend to get voted out of office. Crazy views, regardless of how popular they may be, tend to get sanded down by the political process.

The upshot, for the U.S. at least, is that the reality of American life is very different from the one that pundits regularly describe.

True.

My excellent Conversation with Niall Ferguson

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Niall joined Tyler to discuss the difference between English and Scottish pessimism, his surprise encounter with Sean Connery, what James Bond and Doctor Who have in common, how religion fosters the cultural imagination to produce doomsday scenarios, which side of the Glorious Revolution he would have been on, the extraordinary historical trajectory of Scotland from the 17th century through the 18th century, why historians seem to have an excessive occupation with leadership, what he learned from R.G. Collingwood and A.J.P. Taylor, why American bands could never quite get punk music right, Tocqueville’s insights on liberalism, the unfortunate iconoclasm of John Maynard Keynes, the dystopian novel he finds most plausible, what he learned about right and left populism on his latest trip to Latin America, the importance of intellectual succession and building institutions, what he’ll do next, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you had been alive at the time and the Glorious Revolution were going on, which side would you have been rooting for and why? Speaking of counterfactuals.

FERGUSON: I think everybody should ask themselves that question each morning. Whig or Tory? Are you a Jacobite?

COWEN: Do you want Dutch people coming over to run your country? That’s another part of it, right? I would have been quite worried. Nothing against Dutch people, but you might think, “Well, they don’t have a stable ruling coalition, so they’re going to be all the more tyrannical.”

FERGUSON: Yes. I wrote about the Dutch takeover in Empire. It’s bizarre that the British Isles just get taken over by a Dutch monarch at the behest of a faction mainly motivated by religious prejudice and hostility to Roman Catholicism. At the time, I would have been a Whig on religious grounds. I’m from the ardently Protestant Lowlands of Scotland. I’m like all people from that part of the world, drawn to the romanticism of the Jacobites but also repelled by what it would have been like in practice.

If you want to understand all this, by the way, you have to read Walter Scott, which I hadn’t done for years and years. I’d never really read Scott because I was told he was boring. Then during the pandemic, I started reading the Waverley novels, and it’s all there: all the fundamental dilemmas that were raised, not just by the Glorious Revolution, but prior to that by the Civil War of the 17th century, and that were raised again in the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Scott’s brilliant at explaining something that I don’t think is properly understood, and that is that Scotland had the most extraordinary historical trajectory. It went from being Afghanistan in the 17th century — it was basically Afghanistan. You had violent warring clans in the north, in the mountainous parts of the country, and a theocracy of extreme Calvinist zealots in the Lowlands. This was a deeply dysfunctional, very violent place with much higher levels of homicide than England. Really, it was a barbaric place.

And something very strange happened. That was that in the course of — beginning really from the late 17th century — in the course of the 18th century, Scotland became the most dynamic tiger economy in the world. Also, it became the cradle of the enlightenment, had really all the best ideas of Western civilization, all at once in a really short space of time with a really small number of people, all sitting around in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I still don’t think a book has been written that properly explains that. You certainly wouldn’t have put a bet on Scotland behaving that way by the late 18th century, if all you knew about it was Scotland in the mid-17th century. If you look at it that way, then you kind of have to be a Whig. You have to recognize that the institutions that came from England, including the Dutch institutions that were imported in the Glorious Revolution, really helped Scotland get out of its Afghan predicament.

Recommended, interesting throughout.  And again, here is Niall’s new book Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.

Donald Trump and partisan fertility

You people are weird:

Changes in political leadership drive large changes in economic optimism. We exploit the surprise 2016 election of Trump to identify the effects of a shift in political power on one of the most consequential household decisions: whether to have a child. Republican-leaning counties experience a sharp and persistent increase in fertility relative to Democratic counties: a 1.1 to 2.6 percentage point difference in annual births, depending on the intensity of partisanship. Hispanics, a group targeted by Trump, see fertility fall relative to non-Hispanics, especially compared to rural or evangelical whites. Further, following Trump pre-election campaign visits, relative Hispanic fertility declines.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Gordon Dahl, Runjing Lu, and William Mullins.  An optimism effect perhaps?  Or is it just about the sex?

Why current American politics is less screwed up than you think

There is no better way to show this point than to look at Germany, which has highly reasonable political dialogue and at least in the center German politics is not so ideological.  And there is indeed a center!  Furthermore, politicians address their voters like adults and offer reasonable reasons for the policies they are proposing.

But in terms of discovery and resolution there is a significant downside:

What’s more, coalitions that used to be unthinkable, such as between the Christian Democrats and the Greens, are now the norm in many states — and may well be the only option after September’s elections. Parties, understandably, are reluctant to forcefully campaign against one another. Why make an enemy of a future friend?

Here is the full piece by Anna Sauerbrey.  For all its reasonableness, German politics has been a major failure point over the last twenty (?) years.  The country has a mediocre infrastructure, mediocre primary education system, it is far behind the curve on tech, it is unwilling to pay to defend itself and meet NATO standards, its foreign policy is partly captured by Russia, it is moving away from nuclear power, it responded poorly to the recent floods, it was slow to line up vaccines and relied on awful EU procurement policies, among numerous other failings.  It has enough wealth and accumulated cultural and social capital to withstand these failings, but it has consistently underperformed for some while now.  Matters rarely get settled in an innovative direction and they are masters of complacency and can-kicking.  But at least the major parties do not criticize each other too much.

I would in fact much prefer the policy landscape of the United States, where the two parties are hardly afraid to attack each other, often in the most ridiculous of terms.  Just keep this comparison in mind the next time you despair over the course — and aesthetics — of U.S. politics.

When a bathroom towel restored an Indian bureaucrat’s pride

From the new memoir of Kaushik Basu:

The use of the word, sir, is very common in Indian officialdom.

During a government meeting, Prof Basu recounts, he decided to keep a tab on how many times the word was said.

A senior official, he counted, was saying sir, “on average 16 times every minute (there was a minister present)”.

Assuming it took her half a second to say the word, Prof Basu calculated that 13% of the official’s speaking time was spent saying sir.

And:

Professor Basu found it is “impolite to knock” in officialdom. “Either you have the right to enter a person’s office or you don’t.”

So if you have the right, the “norm is go right in”.

“It has taken me a while to adjust to this custom, it being such a strict norm in the West to knock before entering,” he writes.

And:

But he faced a small problem, adjusting to the new norm.

“What made the adjustment harder is that, given the high humidity in India, many doors are swollen and jammed, and so one needs to push against them for them to open,” he writes.

“The upshot is that not only do you not knock when entering someone’s office, but you often end up entering the room like a cannon ball, as the door suddenly gives way.”

Here is the full story, via Malinga Fernando.

China fact of the day

By 1978, Han constituted 42 percent of Xinjiang’s population, up from a mere 6 percent in 1949.  The flow was reversed in the reform era, as many Han who had been forcibly relocated to the province returned to China proper.  In 1990, the Han share of the population was down to 37.5 percent, and official estimates of the time projected a decline to 25.0 percent by 2030.

That is from Adeeb Khalid’s excellent Central Asia: A New History from the Imperial Conquests to the Present.