Category: Political Science

My Conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Here is the audio and transcript.  We covered Ghana, Africa more generally, cosmopolitanism and the resurgence of nationalism, philosophy and Karl Popper, Lee Kuan Yew, the repatriation of cultural objects, Paul Simon, the smarts of Jodie Foster, sheep farming in New Jersey, and the value of giving personal advice.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Take Pan-Africanism. Do you think, in the broader course of history, this will go down as merely a 20th-century idea? Or is Pan-Africanism alive and well today?

APPIAH: Pan-Africanism involves two different big strands. One is the diasporic strand. The word Pan-Africanism and the Pan-African Congresses were invented in the diaspora by people like Sylvester Williams in Jamaica and W. E. B. Du Bois from the United States and Padmore.

That idea of a diasporic African identity seems pretty lively in the world today, though it doesn’t produce much actual politics or policy, but the sense of solidarity of people of African descent, of the African diaspora seems pretty strong to me.

COWEN: But strongest outside of Africa in a way, right?

APPIAH: Yes, where it began. In Africa, I think, on the one hand, that most contemporary sub-Saharan Africans do have a sense of themselves as belonging to a kind of Black African world. But if you ask them to do something practical about it, like take down borders or do more political integration, I don’t know that that is going to go anywhere anytime soon, which I regret because I think, for lots of reasons, it would be . . .

My sister and her husband live in Lagos. If they want to go to Accra by road, they have to cross the border between Nigeria and Benin, the border between Benin and Togo, the border between Togo and Ghana. And at each of those borders, they probably have to interact with people who are going to try and extract an illegal tax on them.

COWEN: Easier to fly to London, right?

APPIAH: Much easier to fly to London and back to Accra. That’s crazy. And we’ve had these weird things. On the one hand, there’s probably a million Ghanaians in Nigeria, living Ghanaian citizens.


COWEN: Is cosmopolitanism not only compatible with nationalism, but in a way quite parasitic upon it? And in a sense, the parasite is being ejected a bit? Think back to your boyhood in Kumasi. You have all these different groups, and you’re trading with them. You see them every day, and that works great, but there’s some central coherence to Ghana underlying that.

You go to Lebanon today — that central coherence seems to have been gone for some time. You could call Lebanon a cosmopolitan place, but it’s not really an advertisement for Lebanon the way it’s worked out. Are we just moving to a new equilibrium, where the parasitism of cosmopolitanism is now being recognized for what it really is?

APPIAH: I don’t like the metaphor of the parasite.


APPIAH: But yes, I do want to insist that cosmopolitanism . . . Look, cosmopolitanism, as I said, does not only require, or the right kind of cosmopolitan requires a kind of rootedness, but its point, precisely, is that we are celebrating connections among different places, each of which is rooted in its own something, each of which has its distinctive virtues and interest, each of which has its own history. And we’re making connections with people for whom that place is their first place, just as I am in a place which is my first place.

So yes, cosmopolitanism requires, I think, a national sense of solidarities that are not global. That’s why, as I say, you can be a cosmopolitan patriot. Now, if the nationalist says, “Okay, but why do we need anything beyond national citizenship?” The answer is, we have a world to manage. The economy works better if we integrate.

There is much, much more at the link, self-recommending…

Rational discourse about the federal budget has become virtually impossible

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

The conservative and fiscal conservative response has been no more coherent. On one hand, conservatives like to boast of the power of economic growth. But if, as they often assume, the economy is going to keep growing strongly, a widening budget deficit may well prove manageable. Interest rates have been low, and even falling over the past year, while economic growth has been running over 2%. If it continues to exceed the government’s inflation-adjusted borrowing rate (currently negative for T-Bills and close to zero for longer maturities), the U.S. will be able to grow out of its debt. Under this scenario Trump will look like a genius, and the fiscal conservatives will continue their slide into irrelevance.

You might argue that the problem is government spending, rather than budget deficits per se. But the U.S. can in essence pull in more resources from abroad, finance greater spending and consumption with additional borrowing, and still pay off its bills in orderly fashion without bankrupting the future. Our grandchildren can inherit both the debt and the government bonds.

In my experience, fiscal conservatives hate this argument. But through the term structure of interest rates, markets are forecasting low rates for at least the next 10 years, and conservatives tend to respect market prices. To be against the budget deal is also to go against the markets’ current message that debt service costs will remain low.

There are twists and turns in the piece, and just about everyone gets whacked, so don’t judge the final message by that excerpt alone.

A test of Marginal Revolution political bias

Here is an email from Daniel Stone at Bowdoin, I am not imposing a double-formatting on it for ease of reading and formatting:

“Dear Tyler (if I may),

I’m a big fan of your work in general, and MR in particular, and think that you do as good a job as anyone at exploring a variety of political perspectives, and sharing related (diverse) research.

Still, you’re human after all J. I’ve always been curious if there are systematic patterns in your writing or links you post.

It occurred to me a couple weeks ago that you sometimes describe research as speculative or imply this by adding a question mark to the end of the link (the example that made me notice this was: “Minimum wage effects and monopsony?” At other times your link simply states the main research finding or directly quotes from the paper or its title.

So, while it might be hard to identify a general bias in your links – even if the majority were, say, “pro-liberal”, this wouldn’t necessarily mean *you* were biased, since the majority of good research out there could be pro-liberal, using the added “?”s provides an identification strategy: if you were more likely to add a ? for research that leans one political direction or the other, that would suggest a bias on your part.

As a fun side project, that I thought might also have some value given the importance of MR and understanding bias more generally, I had my RA (Maggie Hanson, cc’d) grab all your links from Assorted Links posts to social science research this year (as of a few days ago). Together we coded the ‘slant’ of each as L, R or N (neutral) – depending on whether the research supports regulation, indicates market failure, etc (admittedly our process here was not extremely scientific). She also recorded whether your link text is phrased as a question (or notes that the finding is speculative, which you did a couple times and seems similar). In addition, for link text phrased as a question, we also noted whether this text is a direct reference to the research paper’s title, as this means you didn’t actually add the “?”.

We did a bit of very basic analysis, here are results:

The distribution of slant across links is quite balanced, but leans left:

. tab sla

Slant |

(L/N/R) |      Freq.     Percent        Cum.


L |         35       29.17       29.17

N |         58       48.33       77.50

R |         27       22.50      100.00


Total |        120      100.00


But you were slightly more likely to phrase your link as a question for “L” links vs for Rs (9/35 for Ls vs 5/27 for Rs):

.   tab slant endswith

Slant |      Ends with ?

(L/N/R) |         n          y |     Total


L |        26          9 |        35

N |        48         10 |        58

R |        22          5 |        27


Total |        96         24 |       120


And you were a bit more likely to do this for links that were not direct quotes of article titles that were questions (7/33 = 0.21 for Ls vs 2/24=0.083 for Rs):

tab slant endswith if linktex==”n”

Slant |      Ends with ?

(L/N/R) |         n          y |     Total


L |        26          7 |        33

N |        48          8 |        56

R |        22          2 |        24


Total |        96         17 |       113


But the magnitude of this difference is not large (and I bet not statistically significant), and the large majority of both L and R links were presented by you without questions marks.

Bottom line: you do present a quite balanced set of research findings, the general distribution leans left but it is hard to interpret this (without knowing the slants of research in general or the slant of research you post elsewhere, aside from Assorted Links). And there is suggestive evidence of a small tendency for you to be more questioning of research supportive of liberal/leftist policies.

Here’s a link to the data:

This includes a sheet with all the links that end in ?, that aren’t quotes of article titles, and their slants.

I wanted to share this with you before sharing with others. Please feel free to let me know any questions or comments!

Thanks, and thanks again for all your work. All the best – Dan”

Jacob Rees-Mogg issues style guide to staff

1. Organizations are SINGULAR

2. All non-titled males — Esq.

3. There is no . after Miss or Ms

4. M.P.s — There is no need to write M.P. after their name in body of text

5. Male M.P.s (non-privy councillors) — in the address they should have Esq. before M.P. (e.g., Tobias Ellwood, Esq., M.P.)

6. Double space after fullstops

7. No comma after ‘and’

8. CHECK your work

9. Use imperial measurements


Among the list of bizarre rules, he asks staff not to use the words “got”, “very” or “equal”.

Here is the full story, don’t even ask about “Hopefully,” and for the pointer I thank Esq. Kevin Lewis.

*Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century*

By George Packer, I thought this book would be dull, but in fact it is interesting throughout.  Holbrooke, if you don’t already know, was a lifetime American diplomat, but much more than that too.  Here is one excerpt:

After the evacuation of dependents and the arrival of ground troops in 1965, South Vietnam became a vast brothel.  But even before there were half a million Americans, sex was an elemental part of the war.  “I have the theory that if the women of Vietnam had big copper spoons through their noses and looked like Ubangis,” a reporter once said, “this war wouldn’t have lasted half as long, and maybe wouldn’t have even started.”  The whole scene repelled the Boston Puritan Henry Cabot Lodge.  “I not only don’t wanna,” he said, “I don’t wanna wanna.”

A vivid passage to be sure, but two points.  First, why call the one sensible guy a “Puritan”?  (Yes, the Puritans in fact were great, but I don’t think the remark is to be taken in that spirit.)  Second, it seems to me that many Ubangi women are likely quite beautiful, and probably I saw some of them while in Ethiopia.  Furthermore, at least these days, it is optional whether they wish to take on the famed “lip plate.”

In any case, I would describe the book as “rollicking.”  You can order it here.

For the recommendation I thank Mr. C. Weber.

Street-by-street zoning

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, think of it as a new way to push for YIMBY.  Here is one excerpt:

I call this idea “street by street zoning,” and it has been outlined in a recent paper by John Myers, co-founder of London YIMBY. The basic idea is simple: Let each street decide on its own how it wants to zone commercial activity, including construction. Of course, in some contexts the deciding entity won’t be a street but rather a block or some other very small neighborhood area.

That might sound a little crazy, like a 1960s hippie commune dream. Yet the idea has hidden potential. If streets chose their own zoning, city-level zoning rules could be quite general and open-ended, opening up the possibilities for more construction and also for more mixed-use neighborhoods. With that liberalizing backdrop, residents on any given street always have the option of more restrictive zoning.

The upside is that street-by-street zoning would allow so much room for experimentation. Some zoning reforms might increase home values; a street might decide to allow for multiple dwellings on a lot (an in-law apartment in a backyard barn?), or make it easier to “upzone” by making it easier to rebuild. And what about allowing, say, a small Sichuan restaurant on each residential street — would that boost home values? Maybe not, but at least there’d be a way to find out.


Some of these problems may be a feature rather than a bug. If outside developers find local communities easier to manipulate than a city-wide board, it may actually result in more new construction. If neighbors on some streets really are not sure what they want, maybe it’s not a bad thing if they are nudged toward approving more new construction.

Imagine dealing with the developers on Coasean terms.  There is much more analysis at the link.

Age-Weighted Voting?

The young will experience the effects of policies passed today for the greatest length of time but this is not reflected in their voting power. Put differently, the time-horizon of (self-interested) older voters is short so perhaps this biases the political system towards short time-horizon policies such as deficit spending or kicking the can down the road on global warming. Philosopher William MacAskill offers an alternative, age-weighted voting.

…one way of extending political time horizons and increasing is to age-weight votes. The idea is that younger people would get more heavily weighted votes than older people, very roughly in proportion with life expectancy. A natural first pass system (though I think it could be improved upon) would be:

  • 18–27yr olds: 6x voting weight
  • 28–37yr olds: 5x voting weight
  • 38–47yr olds: 4x voting weight
  • 48–57yr olds: 3x voting weight
  • 58–67yr olds: 2x voting weight
  • 68+yr olds: 1x voting weight

Note that, even with such heavy weights as these, the (effective) median voter age (in the US) would go from 55 to 40. (H/T Zach Groff for these numbers). Assuming that the median voter theorem approximately captures political dynamics of voting, weighting by (approximate) life-expectancy would therefore lengthen political horizons somewhat, but wouldn’t result in young people having all the power.

… In this scenario, all citizens get equal voting weight, it’s just that this voting power is unequally distributed throughout someone’s life.

MacAskill asks the right questions:

  • Do younger people actually have more future-oriented views?
  • Does extending political horizons by 20 years provide benefits from the perspective of much longer timescales?
  • Are younger people less well-informed, and so apt to make worse decisions?
  • Is this just a way of pushing particular (left-wing) political views?
  • What would actually happen if this were put in place, and how good or bad would those effects be?
  • What’s the best mechanism for implementing age-weighting voting?
  • What would be the best plan for making age-weighting voting happen in the real world?

See the whole thing for some brief suggestions on answers.

I don’t have a major objection to the proposal, I just don’t think it would improve politics very much. Rational ignorance means that voters don’t know much and rational irrationality means that they don’t care to know more. The problem is collective decision making per se rather than the time-horizon of the non-existent median voter. Still the space of possible governance designs is far larger than the space that we have investigated, let alone used, so I applaud exploration in the design space.

*Me the People: How Populism Transforms Democracy*

By Nadia Urbinati, I think of this book as the next step after Martin Gurri.  Here is one bit:

…the massive usage of the internet — which is an affordable and revolutionary means of interaction and information sharing by ordinary citizens — has supercharged the horizontal transformation of the audience and made the public into the only existing political actor outside institutions born from civil society.

But more significantly, populism is so diverse and the word is so often misused, how should we best understand it?  First, by breaking down parties, the new internet populism raises the status of personalized individual leaders, such as Trump and also AOC.  Thus:

…populism in power is actually a new form of mixed government in which one part of the population achieves a preeminent power over the other(s).  As such, populism competes with (and, if possible, modifies) constitutional democracy in putting forth a specific and distinctive representation of the people and the sovereignty of the people.

Populism also has a hard time giving up power, because the rhetoric is purifying, and the pretense is that the current government does in fact represent a more or less unitary “will of the people,” enemies of the people aside of course.  Elections are about revealing a majority opinion that (supposedly) already exists, and thus populism does not fit entirely easy into standard democratic practice.

Here is more:

As such, populism is more than merely a movement of contestation or mobilization, and it should not be confused with social movements in civil society.  Populism is a movement of contestation against the existing political establishment, but one that seeks a majority that would rule with unchecked ambitions and plan to remain power for as long as possible, though without revoking political liberty or eliminating adversaries.  The “benign” aspects of populism in power include its dwarfing of the opposition and minorities by humiliating them and creating an overwhelming propaganda campaign that endlessly reinforces the power of majority opinion.

Populism is not just a style of politics, so you can’t expect a successful and truly left-wing populism, nor will populists end up as a successful vehicle for “right-wing” ideas either.  Beware!

There is too much political science jargon in this book, and many of the paragraphs are too long or too circuitous, and furthermore much of the best content is difficult to summarize.  Nonetheless this book makes more sense to me than the treatments of populism I read in the mainstream press or in “intelligent” magazines, and I found it genuinely insightful throughout.  Recommended, at least if you are up for a particular kind of read.  You can pre-order the book here.

*Escape from Rome*

The author is Walter Scheidel and the subtitle is The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity.  Imagine a whole book on what he calls “the second Great Divergence,” namely that China developed a large, relatively unified hegemonic state early on, while Europe remained (mostly) politically fragmented.

Have you ever wondered why the Roman empire did not, in some manner, re-form in the Western part of Europe?  And how did it matter that China had a tradition of having to defend against the steppe while Europe did not?  Here is one brief excerpt:

…East Asia was characterized by a unipolar or hegemonic political system for 68 percent of the years between 220 BCE and 1875.  This pattern presents a stark contrast to the prevalence of a balanced system in Europe for 98 percent of the years from 1500 to 2000, or indeed at any time after the demise of the mature Roman empire.


Remoteness from the bulk of the Eurasian steppe was a constant, invariant across Europen history.  Just as it did not matter if Latin Europe’s states were weak, it also did not matter if a large empire was in place.  Unlike Chinese dynasties, the Roman empire did not bring forth a nomadic “shadow empire”: there was no ecological potential for it.  The Pontic steppe, where Sarmatian tribes might have coalesced in response to the inducements of Roman wealth, was too detached from the Roman heartlands that lay behind the Carpathians, the Alps, and the Adriatic.  To the west of the plains of Eastern Europe, both components of the “steppe effect” were conspicuous by their absence: and so — at least after Rome — was empire-building on a large scale.

If you wish to read a book to ponder the second Great Divergence, this is the one.  You can pre-order it here.

EU markets in everything?

I had never heard about this before:

The controversial practice of picking corporate sponsors for the European Union‘s rotating presidency is to continue, despite an outcry from MEPs.

EU countries have been raising eyebrows by doing deals with increasingly controversial multinational corporations during their stints overseeing debates at the EU council.

Romania’s presidency in the first half of 2019 was sponsored by Coca-Cola, with the US drinks giant’s logo plastered over banners and signs at meetings. One council summit in Bucharest featured Coca-Cola branded bean bag chairs, and a fridge of free drinks plastered with statistics about the company’s contribution to the economy.

Other sponsors of the council presidency have included car manufacturers, software companies, and other firms with vested interests in influencing EU policy.

But hopes that the incoming Finnish presidency, which took the helm this summer, might end the practice, were dashed after it picked German car manufacturer BMW as a sponsor – despite the firm being hit with a fine over its cars’ diesel emissions earlier this year.

Here is the full story, via Jon Stone.

My Conversation with Neal Stephenson

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

If you want to speculate on the development of tech, no one has a better brain to pick than Neal Stephenson. Across more than a dozen books, he’s created vast story worlds driven by futuristic technologies that have both prophesied and even provoked real-world progress in crypto, social networks, and the creation of the web itself. Though Stephenson insists he’s more often wrong than right, his technical sharpness has even led to a half-joking suggestion that he might be Satoshi Nakamoto, the shadowy creator of bitcoin. His latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, involves a more literal sort of brain-picking, exploring what might happen when digitized brains can find a second existence in a virtual afterlife.

So what’s the implicit theology of a simulated world? Might we be living in one, and does it even matter? Stephenson joins Tyler to discuss the book and more, including the future of physical surveillance, how clothing will evolve, the kind of freedom you could expect on a Mars colony, whether today’s media fragmentation is trending us towards dystopia, why the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest triumph, whether we’re in a permanent secular innovation starvation, Leibniz as a philosopher, Dickens and Heinlein as writers, and what storytelling has to do with giving good driving directions.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If we had a Mars colony, how politically free do you think it would be? Or would it just be like perpetual martial law? Like living on a nuclear submarine?

STEPHENSON: I think it would be a lot like living on a nuclear submarine because you can’t — being in space is almost like being in an intensive care unit in a hospital, in the sense that you’re completely dependent on a whole bunch of machines working in order to keep you alive. A lot of what we associate with freedom, with personal freedom, becomes too dangerous to contemplate in that kind of environment.

COWEN: Is there any Heinlein-esque-like scenario — Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where there’s a rebellion? People break free from the constraints of planet Earth. They chart their own institutions. It becomes like the settlements in the New World were.

STEPHENSON: Well, the settlements in the New World, I don’t think are a very good analogy because there it was possible — if you’re a white person in the New World and you have some basic skills, you can go anywhere you want.

An unheralded part of what happened there is that, when those people got into trouble, a lot of times, they were helped out by the indigenous peoples who were already there and who knew how to do stuff. None of those things are true in a space colony kind of environment. You don’t have indigenous people who know how to get food and how to get shelter. You don’t have that ability to just freely pick up stakes and move about.


COWEN: What will people wear in the future? Say a hundred years from now, will clothing evolve at all?

STEPHENSON: I think clothing is pretty highly evolved, right? If you look at, yeah, at any garment, say, a shirt — I was ironing a shirt today in my hotel room, and it is a frickin’ complicated object. We take it for granted, but you think about the fabric, the way the seams are laid out.

That’s just one example, of course, but you take any — shirts, shoes, any kind of specific item of clothing you want to talk about — once you take it apart and look at all the little decisions and innovations that have gone into it, it’s obvious that people have been optimizing this thing for hundreds or thousands of years.

New materials come along that enable people to do new kinds of things with clothing, but overall, I don’t think that a lot is going to change.

COWEN: Is there anything you would want smart clothing to do for you that, say, a better iPad could not?

STEPHENSON: The thing about clothing is that you change your clothes all the time. So if you become dependent on a particular technology that’s built into your shirt, that’s great as long as you’re wearing that shirt, but then as soon as you change to a different shirt, you don’t have it.

So what are you going to do? Are you going to make sure that every single one of your shirts has that same technology built into it? It seems easier to have it separate from the clothing that you wear, so that you don’t have to think about all those complications.

There is much more at the link, including discussions of some of his best-known novels…

That was then, this is now

The data came from Facebook:

During Obama’s initial 2008 bid for office, his team had already embraced technology in a greater capacity than any before it, assembling massive email lists and other targeted initiatives that earned Obama historic fundraising tallies. But for 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina wanted to take things even further.

To get there, his staff needed to link what had previously been disjointed databases of voter information (collected by volunteers, pollsters, and other campaign workers) into a single, comprehensive pool unrivaled in detail and scope. Whereas most voter logs used by campaigns often list only names and telephone numbers, Obama’s advanced tool dove into specifics like age, race, district, and voting history: it allowed field workers to rank voters intelligently and not waste time chasing unlikely votes.

Here is the article from The Verge, via the excellent Ben Thompson.  I recall similarly glowing coverage from The New York Times.

What is the America-China trade war all about?

That is the subject of my latest Bloomberg column, and here are the closing bits:

So that means the trade war is really all about Huawei and Taiwan. If the U.S. persists in trying to eliminate Huawei as a major company, by cutting off its American-supplied inputs and intimidating foreign customers and suppliers for Huawei equipment, it will be difficult for the Chinese to accept. In this case, the reluctance to make a deal will be on the Chinese side, and the structure and relative power of the various American interest groups are not essential to understanding the outcome.

The question, then, is whether the U.S. national security establishment, and in turn Congress (which has been heavily influenced on this question), will accept a compromise on Huawei. Maybe that means no Huawei communications technologies for the U.S. and its closest intelligence-sharing allies, but otherwise no war against the company. That is the first critical question to watch in the unfolding of this trade war. The answer is not yet known, though it seems Trump is willing to deal.

The second major question, equally important but less commented upon, is Taiwan. China has long professed a desire to reunite Taiwan with the mainland, using force if necessary. If you belong to the U.S. national security establishment, and you think a confrontation with China is necessary sooner or later, if only because of Taiwan, you would prefer sooner, before China gains in relative strength. And that militates in favor of the trade war continuing and possibly even escalating, as the U.S. continues to push against China and there is simply no bargain to be had.

It is far from clear what a U.S.-China deal over the status of Taiwan could look like. How much Americans actually care about Taiwan is debatable, but the U.S. is unlikely to abandon a commitment that would weaken its value as an ally around the world. And unlike with Huawei, it is difficult to see what a de-escalation of this issue might look like.

So: If the Huawei and Taiwan questions can be resolved, then the trade war should be eminently manageable. Now, does that make you optimistic or pessimistic?

There is much more at the link.

The health care public option in Washington state

This excellent Sarah Kliff NYT article is from a few weeks ago, but I missed it the first time around.  Here is the clincher:

“The whole debate was about the rate mechanism,” said Mr. Frockt, the state senator. “With the original bill, with Medicare rates [for the state’s public option], there was strong opposition from all quarters. The insurers, the hospitals, the doctors, everybody.”

Mr. Frockt and his colleagues ultimately raised the fees for the public option up to 160 percent of Medicare rates.

“I don’t think the bill would have passed at Medicare rates,” Mr. Frockt said. “I think having the Medicare-plus rates was crucial to getting the final few votes.”

Nonetheless the piece is interesting throughout, and illustrates some basic dilemmas with health care reform and public options in particular, especially when a sector is controlled by powerful lobbies.