Category: Political Science

Don’t mention the fake news

Even exposure to the ill-defined term “fake news” and claims about its prevalence can be harmful. In an experimental study among respondents from Mechanical Turk, Van Duyn, and Collier (2019) find that when people are exposed to tweets containing the term “fake news,” they become less able to discern real from fraudulent news stories. Similarly, Clayton et al. (2019) find that participants from Mechanical Turk who are exposed to a general warning about the prevalence of misleading information on social media then tend to rate headlines from both legitimate and untrustworthy news sources as less accurate, suggesting that the warning causes an indiscriminate form of skepticism.

That is from Brendah Nyhan’s good new JEP survey article on how misperceptions come about and persist.

*Missing: The Need for Closure after the Great War*

That is the new and excellent book by Richard Van Emden, and it covers how the British bureaucracy handled the reporting and identification of soldier corpses during and after the First World War.  Here is the author’s summary:

Here is the story of the army’s hunt for legions of missing men.  How were they sought?  How many were found and identified and what were the implications for families when that search was wound down?  tens of thousands of British people felt compelled to visit France and Belgium to see where their loved ones died; here we will explore what happened to the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium in the immediate post-war years…In telling the story of Britain’s military cemeteries on the western Front, this book will look at their design and horticulture, and examine the extraordinary lengths to which the gardeners of the Imperial War Graves Commission went to create an Eden for their dead comrades.

It turns out the British Army searched for remains for about three years, and after that the efforts pretty much dwindled to zero.  I also enjoyed reading about how these efforts, and the building of on-the-site graveyards, intersected with French and Belgium law and property rights.  And this:

An important question had been posed: to whom did the dead belong?  Did families own them?  Or did the bodies of servicemen and women remain in passive, eternal servitude to the army and, by extension, the government?  They were, after all, in military service and under military law when they died.  Did death release a body from continued service only to be automatically re-enlisted into the ritual of state-organised and state-controlled remembrance?

Among its other virtues, this book is also an interesting look at some of the efficiency properties of the earlier 20th bureaucracies.  The fact that they didn’t have the ability to make things too complicated often was a great virtue.

Recommended, you can order the book here.

That was then, this is now, micro-states and empires edition

Monaco was granted sovereignty in the 1860s by Emperor Napoleon III of France, deposed a few years later. San Marino received its independence from the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, while Andorra was split off from the long forgotten Kingdom of Aragon in the 13th century. None of these great potentates would ever have imagined that the tiny stubs of countries they took pity on would have legacies much longer than their own. Yet today, San Marino competes in Eurovision and the Roman Empire does not.

Here is more on Monaco by Ned Donovan, via Ben Southwood.

My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

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

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.

And:

COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.

And:

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

How Swiss politics works

And now it’s becoming clear why almost all popular initiatives are rejected. If the initiative had a obvious chance of being approved, the parliament would introduce the necessary legislation on its own. From this point of view the small number of successful initiatives is not a sign of a system malfunction, but rather a proof that the system is functioning the way it is expected to.

And:

Another safety measure is that Swiss referenda are, in their essence, not polarizing. In referendum you are never asked to decide between two extremes, between, say, pro-life and pro-choice, but rather between the initiative proposal and the status quo. Voting against is always a safe and neutral option. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not sympathetic to the spirit of the initiative. You may just think it’s going too far, or maybe you like some aspects of it but don’t like some other.

Here is more from Martin Sustrik, via The Browser (always excellent).  I’ll say it again: there should be far more books and articles asking the basic question of why Switzerland seems to work so well — Progress Studies!

Why does America have such old leaders?

Since 1950, the average age of heads of government in the three dozen member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has steadily declined, from above 60 years old to around 54 today. The average O.E.C.D. national leader is now two decades younger than Mr. Trump — and almost a quarter century younger than Mr. Biden…

And it isn’t just the American presidency that’s gone gray. The average age of Congress has trended upward for decades. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is 80; Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is 78. The Supreme Court’s nine justices average above 67. Mr. Trump’s cabinet averages over 60, among the oldest in the O.E.C.D.

Here is one (not the only) explanation:

The way countries select their leaders offers a third possibility. In most O.E.C.D. countries, the head of government is a prime minister chosen by fellow lawmakers in the national legislature. Because party members pick their leaders, and can recall them at will, parliamentary systems give political parties significant control over whom to elevate, said Kaare Strom, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. And parties often have strategic reasons to pick younger leaders: to appeal to particular constituencies or to brand themselves behind more telegenic faces.

Presidential systems, by contrast, give parties less control over who from their ranks will run — and which candidate voters will prefer. “The process is more driven by who’s out there, who’s interested, and what kind of resources they have,” said Professor Strom. “There’s not the same kind of institutional control and vetting of those candidates that you have in the European parliamentary systems.”

Accumulated wealth and fundraising connections may matter more too in the American system, also favoring seniority.  Here is the full NYT story by Ian Prasad Philbrick.

George Mason’s critique of the American Constitution

Not long ago someone tweeted this part:

The President of the United States has the unrestrained Power of granting Pardons for Treason; which may be sometimes exercised to screen from Punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the Crime, & thereby prevent a Discovery of his own Guilt.

And that led me to wish to read the whole thing.  Mason of course was an anti-Federalist, and in his short piece he lays out why he opposes the proposed new constitution.  Here is what I found striking:

1. He feared that the President would become a tool of the Senate or of his own cabinet.

2. He feared the Senate would not be directly accountable to the people.  Of course, in due time we changed that through constitutional amendment.

3. He feared the federal judiciary would end up taking over state and local judiciaries.

4. The Senate can excessively legislate through the use of treaties — quite a contemporary objection by the way.

5. The individual states won’t be able to levy tariffs on trade across state borders.

6. Federal and state legislatures won’t be able to pass enough ex post facto laws (the strangest worry to me).

7. He made various claims that ended up being made obsolete by the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

8. The southern states would end up systematically outvoted.

9. The Vice President could end up becoming too powerful through his role in the Senate.

It is striking to me in these early writings how much people worry about the evolution of the Senate, and how little attention they pay to the Supreme Court, which at the time was viewed as not slated to be so powerful.

The problem of “Congress will toss away its legislative and war-making roles, and give up a lot of effective control of the budget” was also nowhere to be found in the words of the early critics, as far as I can tell.  Nor did they have much of a notion of the rise of the administrative state.

Mason was a forceful writer, but the broad lesson is simply that the future is very difficult to predict.

My Conversation with Melissa Dell

Interesting throughout, here is the transcript and video and audio, here is part of the summary:

From the impact of the Mexican Revolution to the different development paths of northern and southern Vietnam, her work exploits what are often accidents of history — whether a Peruvian village was just inside or outside a mine’s catchment area, for example — to explain persistent differences in outcomes. Her work has earned numerous plaudits, including the John Bates Clark Medal earlier this year.

On the 100th episode of Conversations with Tyler, Melissa joined Tyler to discuss what’s behind Vietnam’s economic performance, why persistence isn’t predictive, the benefits and drawbacks of state capacity, the differing economic legacies of forced labor in Indonesia and Peru, whether people like her should still be called a Rhodes scholar, if SATs are useful, the joys of long-distance running, why higher temps are bad for economic growth, how her grandmother cultivated her curiosity, her next project looking to unlock huge historical datasets, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

DELL: Yeah, I’ve done some work looking at the persistence of economic development in Vietnam. The work I did, actually, was limited to what was South Vietnam because there’s also been huge events, obviously, that have happened in the past hundred years in North Vietnam, with a war that destroyed much of the country and was fought over an extended period of time.

But when you look, in general, at places in Vietnam that have a similar recent history, but going back in time, one of them was part of a much stronger, more centralized state. The other one was part of what is today Cambodia, a much weaker state, generally ruled by local lords instead of by a strong centralized state.

You see the towns that were part of the stronger, centralized state going back before colonialism, so several hundred years ago. More recently, they have better-functioning local governments. They’re richer. They’re better off, which shows that places that have a long history of governance seem better able to do that more recently.

So places going back a long time ago — they were part of the central state. They had to collect taxes locally to send up to the central state. They had to organize military conscripts. The central state mandated that they had certain laws.

More recently, those places also have more functional local governments and are also better off economically, whereas the places that never had that structure that comes from a state — it was, essentially, if you were living in that area, there’d be a warlord that you sent tribute to. But there was never any regular taxation, never any organized local government under a central state. Those places much more recently — when there were constitutional reforms in Vietnam that gave them a degree of self-government — they weren’t able to do that very effectively.

They weren’t able to keep the positions on their local city council filled. They weren’t able to provide, as effectively, local public goods, like education or health services. So really, having this long history of governance makes places more able to do that today. That’s relevant because there’s been a big push to have local governments provide an important role in providing public goods, et cetera.

If places don’t have a history of doing that, perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to have a much harder time. When the World Bank says, “Well, we want to give local autonomy to let local governments decide how to provide schools in the way that works best for them,” that’s going to work in places that have a long history of providing education. In places that don’t, they’re more likely to have a hard time.

COWEN: But if you select your cases on the basis of having similar histories, aren’t you selecting for persistence because the locales that have reversals of fortune — a big war in North Vietnam, Communism coming to North Vietnam — that’s a kind of mean reversion. It deliberately gives them a not-similar history. Do you then not overrate the degree of persistence in the dataset by just taking the sliver that is indeed continuous with its own history?

DELL: I think that you could imagine writing papers about different things. Our motivation was, we wanted to think about if the historical state could have a role at all. In order to do that, you don’t really want to compare South Korea to the Philippines — which is what most of the historical literature on this does — because they’re different in so many ways. We know that South Korea looks really different from the Philippines, but there’s so many ways that they can be different.

By looking within South Vietnam, we wanted to say, “Okay, these are places that had a much more recent modern history. Can their past history still matter?” But we’re not saying that that begins to explain everything. There’s other forces that happened more recently that we think are also important.

Certainly, there can be mean reversions, and the argument is not that things are always persistent. I think part of the literature is about understanding why sometimes things persist and sometimes they don’t. Certainly, more recent events can matter, and we’re not claiming that there’s an R-squared of one that a place’s history is its destiny, but that there are these forces.

Next up will be Nathan Nunn, and I asked him a series of related questions about persistence…

The Bari Weiss letter

Here is one part of it:

But the truth is that intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times. Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.

What rules that remain at The Times are applied with extreme selectivity. If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.

Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.

Do read the whole thing.  And Andrew Sullivan is stepping down at New York magazine.

What should I ask Matt Yglesias?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, based in part on his new forthcoming book One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger.  While I have not yet read it, I strongly expect it will be excellent.

And to be clear, this will be the conversation with Matt I want to have, not the one that you might think you wish to hear.

So what should I ask?

What is the future of the intellectual right?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  I suggest it will take three major forms, namely anti-China, pro-internet as a communications medium (as an offset to left-wing media), and dislike of the Left, most of all the latter.  Note these are predictions rather than normative claims about what should happen.  Here is one excerpt:

Last and perhaps most significant, the intellectual right will dislike the left. It pretty much does already, but the antagonism will grow. Opposition to political correctness and cancel culture, at least in their left-wing versions, will become the most important defining view. As my colleague Bryan Caplan succinctly put it four years ago: “Leftists are anti-market. … Rightists are anti-leftist.”

The intensity of this dislike will mean that, within right-wing circles, free speech will prosper. As long as you take care to signal your dislike of the left, you will be allowed to hold many other heterodox views without being purged or penalized.

If you are on the Left, note that it does not suffice to dislike the Right, you have to dislike most parts of the Left as well (why is that? Can you model this?).

I also consider social conservatism, libertarianism, communitarianism, and Sam’s Club Republicanism as possible alternative directions for the intellectual Right.  The entire column repays careful study.

The Harpers free speech letter and controversy

Many of you have been asking for a more detailed account of what I think.  Here is an NYT summary of the debate, in case you have been living under a rock.  Of course I side with those who signed the letter, but I would add a few points.

First, I don’t think the letter itself quite pinpoints what has gone wrong, nor do I think that such a collective project is likely to do so.  Most of us would agree there is nothing wrong per se with voluntary standards of affiliation, or voluntary speech regulations in private institutions, nor should the NYT feel obliged to turn its platforms over to tyrants such as…say…Vladimir Putin.

The actual problem is that we have a new bunch of “speech regulators” (not in the legal sense, not usually at least) who are especially humorless and obnoxious and I would say neurotic — in the personality psychology sense of that word.  I say let’s complain about the real problem, namely the moral fiber, emotional temperaments, and factual worldviews of the individuals who have arrogated the new speech censorship functions to themselves.  I am free to raise that charge, a collective letter signed by 153 diverse intellectuals and artists really is not, and is strongly constrained toward the more “positive” and “constructive” approaches to the problem, or at least what might appear to be such.

The letter is descriptively accurate in blaming lack of “toleration” and increased “censoriousness” for our problems, but those words only make sense if you have a much deeper mental model of what is actually going on.  There is ultimately something question-begging about words that do not pin down the proper margin of objection, or what might be a correct worldview, or what might be a worldview we should in fact not tolerate in our affiliations.  In other words, a non-question-begging answer has to take sides to some extent, and that is especially hard for a collective or grand coalition to do.

That is fine!  No complaint from these quarters, and I am very glad they took the trouble to move forward with this project.  I know many of the signers, and those individuals I like, admire, and respect, to a person.  But in reality, the letter itself, de facto, decided to elevate consensus and reputational oomph over actual free speech about the real truths in our world.

So in the Straussian sense it is actually a letter about the limits and impotence of true free speech, and the need to be constrained by social consensus.

How about the signers and non-signers?  Here is from the NYT piece:

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability.  Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign?  Or how about such a letter signed only by white males?  More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse.  The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine!  I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest.  To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.

Fortunately, most people will read the Harper’s letter straight up rather than in Straussian terms.  The Straussian reading is far more depressing than the pleasure you might feel at seeing this missive take center stage, if only for a day.

Signaling virtuous victimhood as indicators of Dark Triad personalities

We investigate the consequences and predictors of emitting signals of victimhood and virtue. In our first three studies, we show that the virtuous victim signal can facilitate nonreciprocal resource transfer from others to the signaler. Next, we develop and validate a victim signaling scale that we combine with an established measure of virtue signaling to operationalize the virtuous victim construct. We show that individuals with Dark Triad traits—Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Psychopathy—more frequently signal virtuous victimhood, controlling for demographic and socioeconomic variables that are commonly associated with victimization in Western societies. In Study 5, we show that a specific dimension of Machiavellianism—amoral manipulation—and a form of narcissism that reflects a person’s belief in their superior prosociality predict more frequent virtuous victim signaling. Studies 3, 4, and 6 test our hypothesis that the frequency of emitting virtuous victim signal predicts a person’s willingness to engage in and endorse ethically questionable behaviors, such as lying to earn a bonus, intention to purchase counterfeit products and moral judgments of counterfeiters, and making exaggerated claims about being harmed in an organizational context.

That is a new paper by E. Ok, et.al, via a loyal MR reader.  Here are various versions of the paper.

My Conversation with Annie Duke

Here is the transcript and audio, here is the opening summary:

Annie joined Tyler to explore how payoffs aren’t always monetary, the benefits and costs of probabilistic thinking, the “magical thinking” behind why people buy fire insurance but usually don’t get prenups, the psychology behind betting on shark migrations, how her most famous linguistics paper took on Steven Pinker, how public policy would change if only the top 500 poker players voted, why she wasn’t surprised to lose Celebrity Apprentice to Joan Rivers, whether Trump has a tell, the number one trait of top poker players, and more.

Here is one bit from Annie:

DUKE: So when I went on my first date with my husband, my brother and brother-in-law immediately decided to make a market, and it was whether we were going to get married. Now to be fair, my husband and I — before we went on our first date, we’d been friends. Both my brother and my brother-in-law knew my eventual husband, but this is when we’re going on our first date. They make a market. I think that my brother-in-law ended up bidding 23.

My brother then called me up, cracking up, that my brother-in-law had bid 23 when we hadn’t been on a first date yet. And I then started laughing at my brother, said, “Well, that means you had to bid 22. Why are you laughing at him? You somehow bid 22. It’s our first date.” Now, that’s because we’re all people who sort of think this way. And so this sort of becomes the fun of the friendship, but there are other people . . .

And this from Annie:

DUKE: My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases — where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?” I feel like the top 500 players would definitely be thinking in that way more.

You will have to read or hear the dialogue to take in my many good questions.