Category: Political Science

A simple word in defense of David Cameron

I remain a supporter of Remain, for reasons I will not recap here, but I am also a realist and I recognize that a commitment to the European Union requires a substantial commitment from the population, more than a mere fifty percent and in the United Kingdom we do not see that close to that.  You probably know that the Tories seem to have won a smashing victory in today’s election, and by campaigning on Brexit as their main issue.  And you can’t just blame Corbyn — his ascendancy and leadership were endogenous to the broader process, and getting rid of him to reverse Brexit it turned out was not the priority.

So do you know who looks much better in retrospect?  Yes, David Cameron.  After the initial referendum I heard from the usual elites the notion that Cameron committed some kind of inexplicable, aberrant error by allowing the referendum in the first place.  That notion is much harder to entertain after today.  Even if you are pro-Remain, we should now see that either the referendum, or something like it, was indeed a necessary step in British politics.  Cameron himself saw this, and thought that a later referendum, run by an EU-hostile Tory government, could in fact go much worse than what he chanced.  So it seems with hindsight that Cameron was pretty prescient, even if he did not get what he wanted.

Martin Gurri on the current Age of Revolt

The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure.  After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale.  Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation.  From the euphoria and subsequent horrors of the Arab Spring in 2011, through the improbable electoral victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, to last year’s violence by the Yellow Vests of France, we ought to have learned, by this late hour, to anticipate instability and uncertainty.  We should expect to be surprised…

This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis.  It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system:  the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration.  Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality.  A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart.  This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.

For systems that are dynamic and complex, like human societies, outcomes are a lot more mysterious.  A failure cascade of revolts (the hypothesis) will knock the institutions of modern government ever further from equilibrium, until the entire structure topples into what Alicia Juarrero calls “phase change”:  a “qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints” that gave the failed system its peculiar character.  In plain language, the old regime is overthrown – but at this stage randomness takes charge, and what emerges on the far side is, in principle, impossible to predict.  I can imagine a twenty-first century Congress of Vienna of the elites, in which Chinese methods of information control are adopted globally, and harsh punishment is meted out, for the best of reasons, to those who speak out of turn.  But I can also envision a savage and chaotic Time of Troubles, caused by a public whose expectations have grown impossibly utopian.  The way Juarrero tells it, “[T]here is no guarantee that any complex system will reorganize.”

Do read the whole thing.

Claims about polarization

…when it comes to moral issues, the prominent change is a partisan secular trend, in which both Democrats and Republicans are adopting more progressive views on moral issues, although at a different rate. While Democrats are early adopters of progressive views, Republicans adopt the same views at a slower pace. This secular change can be easily (mis)interpreted as a sign of polarization because, at the onset of the process, the gap between party supporters broadens due to faster pace at which Democrats adopt progressive views, and only toward the end, the gap between partisan supporters decreases.

That is from a new paper by Baldassari and Park, via Gaurav Sood.

My debate with Žižek

It was quite something, the proceedings did not disappoint, here is the YouTube:

I can’t fully access video from this airport location, but I believe the actual debate starts at around 1:06.  After the debate proper, a particular highlight is the four video questions that were taped and sent in from humanities academics.

The Holberg people put on a great event.

Germany fact of the day

Germany owns no nuclear weapons. It renounced the very idea when it reunified in 1990. But if war were to break out in Europe today, German pilots could clamber into German planes, take off from Büchel Air Base in Rhineland-Palatinate and drop nuclear bombs on Russian troops.

The Luftwaffe can do that thanks to Nato’s nuclear-sharing scheme, under which America quietly stations nuclear bombs across five countries in Europe.

Here is more from The Economist, mostly covering Turkey and the tactical nuclear weapons stored there.

My Conversation with Daron Acemoglu

Self-recommending of course, most of all we talked about economic growth and development, and the history of liberty, with a bit on Turkey and Turkish culture (Turkish pizza!) as well.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is one excerpt, from the very opening:

COWEN: I have so many questions about economic growth. First, how much of the data on per capita income is explained just simply by one variable: distance from the equator? And how good a theory of the wealth of nations is that?

ACEMOGLU: I think it’s not a particularly good theory. If you look at the map of the world and color different countries according to their income per capita, you’ll see that a lot of low-income-per-capita countries are around the equator, and some of the richest countries are pretty far from the equator, in the temperate areas. So many people have jumped to conclusion that there must be a causal link.

But actually, I think geographic factors are not a great explanatory framework for understanding prosperity and poverty.

COWEN: But why does it have such a high R-squared? By one measure, the most antipodal 21 percent of the population produces 69 percent of the GDP, which is striking, right? Is that just an accident?

ACEMOGLU: Yeah, it’s a bit of an accident. Essentially, if you think of which are the countries around the equator that have such low income per capita, they are all former European colonies that have been colonized in a particular way.

And:

COWEN: If we think about the USSR, which has terrible institutions for more than 70 years, an awful form of communism — it falls; there’s a bit of a collapse. Today, they seem to have a higher per capita income than you would expect a priori, if you, just as an economist, write about communism. Isn’t that mostly just because of what is now Russian, or Soviet, human capital?

ACEMOGLU: That’s an interesting question. I think the Russian story is complicated, and I think part of Russian income per capita today is because of natural resources. It’s always a problem for us to know exactly how natural resources should be handled because you can do a lot of things wrong and still get quite a lot of income per capita via natural resources.

COWEN: But if Russians come here, they almost immediately move into North American per capita income levels as immigrants, right? They’re not bringing any resources. They’re bringing their human capital. If people from Gabon come here, it takes them quite a while to get to the —

ACEMOGLU: No, absolutely, absolutely. There’s no doubt that Russians are bringing more human capital. If you look at the Russian educational system, especially during the Soviet time, there was a lot of emphasis on math and physics and some foundational areas.

And there’s a lot of selection among the Russians who come here…

The Conversation is Acemoglu throughout, you also get to hear me channeling Garett Jones.  Again, here is Daron’s new book The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.

Emmanuel Todd, *Lineages of Modernity*

Sadly I had to read this book on Kindle, so my usual method of saving passages and ideas by the folded page is failing me.  I can tell you this is one of the most interesting (but also flawed) books I read this year, with “family structure is sticky and it determines the fate of your nation” as the basic takeaway.

Todd suggests that the United States actually has a fairly “backward” and un-evolved family structure — exogamy and individualism — not too different from that of hunter-gatherer societies.  That makes us very flexible and also well-suited to handle the changing conditions of modernity.  Much of the Arab world, in contrast, has a highly complex and evolved and in some ways “more advanced” family structure, involving multiple alliances, overlapping networks, and often cousin marriages.  The mistake is to think of those structures as under-evolved outcomes that simply can advance a bit, “loosen up with prosperity,” and allow their respective countries to enter modernity.  Rather those structures are stuck in place, and they will interact with the more physical features of globalization and liberalization in interesting and not always pleasant ways.  Many of those societies will end up in untenable corners with no full liberalization anywhere in sight.  Much of Todd’s book works through what the various options are here, and how they might apply to different parts of the world.

To be clear, half of this book is unsupported, or sometimes just trivial.  There were several times I was tempted to just stop reading, but then it became interesting again.  Todd covers a great deal of ground (the subtitle is A History of Humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus), not all of it convincingly.  But when he makes you think, you really feel he might be on to something.

Todd describes Germany as having a complex, multi-tiered, somewhat authoritarian family structure, and one that does not mesh well with the norms of feminism and individualism that have been entering the country.  That family structure is also part of why Germany was, relative to its size, militarily so strong in the earlier part of the twentieth century.  He also argues that the countries that stayed communist longer have some common features to their family structure, Cuba being the Latin American outlier in this regard.

Todd makes the strongest bullish case for Russia I have seen.  He reports that TFR is back up to 1.8 after an enormous post-communist plunge, migration into the country is strongly positive, and Russia is very good at producing strong, productive women (again due to family structure).  If you think human capital matters, the positives here are significant indeed.

Here is some related work by my colleagues Jonathan Schulz and Jonathan Beauchamp on cousin marriage.

You can order Todd’s book here.  Recommended, though with significant caveats, mainly for lack of evidence on some of the key propositions.

An American Thanksgiving story without any heroes

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

But as Thanksgiving 2019 approaches, I am struck by another lesson: America’s need to come to terms with a history that, as it relates to the treatment of Native Americans, has remarkably few heroes on the side of the white settlers.

And:

Nor is there any major American political ideology that can sit comfortably with the historical treatment of Native Americans, which has been multipartisan in its awfulness. Many libertarians fail to decry the government coercion involved, since they also wish to invoke the growth of the American republic as a major event in the history of freedom. Even if most libertarians are embarrassed by how much of America’s glory is rooted in land theft and massacres, they do not emphasize land reparations as a solution.

And:

This lack of heroes should also make Americans more reluctant to judge their political opponents so harshly. All of us are part of a system built on longstanding historical crimes, and thus we have more in common with those opponents than we might like to think.

Recommended.

Wealth by Generation and Age

Kurt Andersen made the following arresting tweet

Fraction of all US wealth owned by Boomers & Gen-Xers when the average member of each was age 35:

Boomers, 1989 21%
GenX, 2008 8%
The average Millennial turns 35 in 2023. Right now they own 3%.

There will surely be political implications.

Definitions: Baby Boomer=born 1946-1964, Gen X=born 1965-1980, and Millennial=born 1981-1996.

You can’t take it with you, so this will change eventually but perhaps too late. Think of this as the Prince Charles effect. Prince Charles hasn’t offed his mother and led a revolution yet but in an earlier age he probably would have and surely he has thought about it. Similarly, perhaps the demand among some Gen-Xers and Millennials for wealth redistribution can be understood as a demand to get their share of the pot before they are old and tired.

The data, which are from the Federal Reserve are here.

My Conversation with Mark Zuckerberg and Patrick Collison

Facebook tweets:.

@patrickc, CEO of Stripe, and @tylercowen, economist at George Mason University, sit down with our CEO, Mark Zuckerberg to discuss how to accelerate progress.

Video, audio, and transcript here, part of Mark’s personal challenge for the year, an excellent event all around.  This will also end up as part of CWT.

Do social media drive the rise in right-wing populism?

Abstract: Many observers are concerned that echo chamber effects in digital media are contributing to the polarization of publics and in some places to the rise of right-wing populism. This study employs survey data collected in France, the United Kingdom, and United States (1500 respondents in each country) from April to May 2017. Overall, we do not find evidence that online/social media explain support for right-wing populist candidates and parties. Instead, in the USA, use of online media decreases support for right-wing populism. Looking specifically at echo chambers measures, we find offline discussion with those who are similar in race, ethnicity, and class positively correlates with support for populist candidates and parties in the UK and France. The findings challenge claims about the role of social media and the rise of populism.

That is from a new paper by Shelley Boulianne, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Bruce Bimber, via somebody on Twitter.

Garett Jones on open borders

I am very pleased that the new Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith open borders graphic novel has hit #1 on The Washington Post non-fiction bestseller list.  I am also pleased to see Garett Jones examine the idea in a new short paper, here is part of his critique:

I use the same constant returns to scale framework as Caplan, in which the migration of every human being to the United States would increase global output per capita by about 80%. I then estimate that in the benchmark model, where IQ’s social return is much larger than its private return, the per-capita income of current U.S.residents would permanently fall by about 40%. This is not an arithmetic fallacy: this is the average causal effect of Open Borders on the incomes of ex-ante Americans. This income decline occurs because cognitive skills matter mostly through externalities: because your nation’s IQ matters so much more than your own, as I claim in 2015’s Hive Mind. Therefore, a decline in a nation’s set of average cognitive skills will tend to reduce the productivity of the nation’s ex-ante citizens.

I will be sure to link to Bryan’s reply when it comes.

The racial integration of the Korean War

The racial integration of the US Army during the Korean War (1950-1953) is one of the largest and swiftest desegregation episodes in American history. This paper argues that racial integration improved white survival rates at the expense of blacks, and resulted in less anti-black prejudice among white veterans decades after the war. Using a novel military casualty file, I construct a wartime similarity index to measure the extent of racial integration across military units and time. Using exogenous changes in racial integration, I show that integrated whites were 3% more likely to survive their injuries than segregated whites, whereas integrated blacks were 2% were less likely to survive their injuries than segregated blacks. Given that blacks were initially confined to noncombat support roles, the results reflect a convergence in hazardous combat assignments. To explore the long-term effects of racial integration, I link individual soldiers to post-war social security and cemetery data using an unsupervised learning algorithm. With these matched samples, I show that a standard deviation change in the wartime racial integration caused white veterans to live in more racially diverse neighborhoods and marry non-white spouses. In aggregate, these results are some of the first and only examples of large-scale interracial contact reducing prejudice on a long-term basis.

That is from the job market paper from Daniel Indacochea of the University of Toronto.

Don’t put the state capital too far away sorry Albany but Austin is fine

In this paper I exploit a novel and rich data-set with biographical information of US state legislators to investigate their sorting based on remoteness and attractiveness of the state capital. The main finding of the chapter is that in more remote US state capitals the legislators are on average less educated and experienced. The results are robust to using different measures of remoteness, based on the spatial distribution of the population, and controlling for other characteristics of the legislatures. To identify the causal effect of capitals’ remoteness, I use instrumental variables relying on proximity of capitals to the state centroids. Finally, I also find that legislators’ education affects public good provision and corruption.

That is the abstract of the job market paper of Giuseppe Rossitti from the London School of Economics.