Category: Political Science

Did the medieval church make us WEIRD?

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions and that populations characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual. People from these societies tend to be more individualistic, independent, and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting of strangers) while revealing less conformity and in-group loyalty. Although these patterns are now well documented, few efforts have sought to explain them. Here, we propose that the Western Church (i.e., the branch of Christianity that evolved into the Roman Catholic Church) transformed European kinship structures during the Middle Ages and that this transformation was a key factor behind a shift towards a WEIRDer psychology.

That is a new piece in Science by Jonathan F. Schulz, Duman Bahrani-Rad, Jonathan P. Beauchamp, and Joe Henrich, try this link tooThis one works for sure.  Here is Harvard magazine coverage of the piece.  Here is a relevant Twitter thread.

The two Jonathan co-authors are new colleagues of mine at GMU economics, so I am especially excited this work is seeing the light of day in such a good venue.

Revisiting NSA Spying

In 2013 in light of the Snowden revelations about NSA spying I wrote, Did Obama Spy on Mitt Romney?

Did Obama spy on Mitt Romney? As recently as a few weeks ago if anyone had asked me that question I would have consigned them to a right (or left) wing loony bin. Today, the only loonies are those who think the question unreasonable. Indeed, in one sense the answer is clearly yes. Do I think Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain? No. Some people claim that President Obama didn’t even know about the full extent of NSA spying. Indeed, I imagine that President Obama was almost as surprised as the rest of us when he first discovered that we live in a mass surveillance state in which billions of emails, phone calls, facebook metadata and other data are being collected.

The answer is yes, however, if we mean did the NSA spy on political candidates like Mitt Romney. Did Mitt Romney ever speak with Angela Merkel, whose phone the NSA bugged, or any one of the dozens of her advisers that the NSA was also bugging? Did Romney exchange emails with Mexican President Felipe Calderon? Were any of Romney’s emails, photos, texts or other metadata hoovered up by the NSA’s break-in to the Google and Yahoo communications links? Almost certainly the answer is yes.

As I read the situation, mass government surveillance has now become accepted in America, as in China. This bit remains relevant:

Did the NSA use the information they gathered on Mitt Romney and other political candidates for political purposes? Probably not. Will the next president or the one after that be so virtuous so as to not use this kind of power? I have grave doubts. Men are not angels.

Learning is Caring: An Agrarian Origin of American Individualism

I am looking forward to reading this one, from Itzchak Tzachi Raz, who is on the job market from Harvard this year:

This study examines the historical origins of American individualism. I test the hypothesis that local heterogeneity of the physical environment limited the ability of farmers on the American frontier to learn from their successful neighbors, turning them into self-reliant and individualistic people. Consistent with this hypothesis, I find that current residents of counties with higher agrarian heterogeneity are more culturally individualistic, less religious, and have weaker family ties. They are also more likely to support economically progressive policies, to have positive attitudes toward immigrants, and to identify with the Democratic Party. Similarly, counties with higher environmental heterogeneity had higher taxes and a higher provision of public institutions during the 19th century. This pattern is consistent with the substitutability of formal and informal institutions as means to solve collective action problems, and with the association between “communal” values and conservative policies. These findings also suggest that, while understudied, social learning is an important determinant of individualism.

Here is the home page, the paper is not yet available.  Here is his actual job market paper, on adverse possession.  I do hope the author lets me know once this paper is ready, I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Public employee pension and municipal insolvency

This paper studies how governments manage public employee pensions and how this affects insolvency risk. I propose a quantitative model of governments that choose their savings and risk exposure by borrowing/saving in defaultable bonds, borrowing in non-defaultable pension benefits, and saving in a pension fund that earns a risk premium. In insolvency, the government can receive transfers from households who may differ from the government in their preferences for public services and private consumption. I match the model to a panel of CA cities and a hand-collected record of fiscal emergencies. The model predicts that governments are highly vulnerable to another stock market bust. A hypothetical shock to pension funds in 2015 produces twice as many fiscal emergencies as the original 2008-10 shock. In the quantified model, the government undersaves and take excess risk relative to what households would choose. Savings requirements that limit spending to essential services plus 0.3% of cash-on-hand produce large welfare gains for households. Requiring the pension fund to invest more in safe assets decreases household welfare because the lower average return discourages the government from saving.

That is from the job market paper by Sean Myers of Stanford University.

You silly, silly people…

Using difference-in-difference and regression discontinuity techniques, we find that US states governed by Democrats and those by Republicans perform equally well on economic, education, crime, family, social, environmental, and health outcomes on the timeline introduced by elections (2-4 years downstream).

That is from a new paper by Adam Dynes and John B. Holbein, forthcoming in APSR.

How to think about the Chilean (and other) protests

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

Second, a protest against poor conditions is not the same as a protest against inequality. Many Chilean complaints revolve around the pension system, health care, water rights, public transportation, schools and corruption. Are Chileans upset that their transport options aren’t better? That’s a complaint in absolute terms. Or are they upset that they are riding the subway while many of the wealthy have private cars with drivers? That’s a relative complaint.

The answer will depend on the protester, and in virtually all protests around the world there will be those with both motives. But some North American commentators try to equate these two grudges and subsume them all under the heading of inequality. That just won’t wash.

And don’t forget this:

In the case of Chile, it has the highest real wages in Latin America, income inequality has mostly been falling, and life expectancy is above average for the region. By Latin American standards Chile has a low rate of crime and a high degree of public order. Chile has had open and honest elections, and peaceful transfers of power, since 1990.

So high expectations may be more relevant than either “inequality” or “neo-liberalism” per se, at least for many of the protestors.  There is much more of interest at the link, including some speculations as to why Chile may be different:

Another observation: Income inequality is often more galling when different economic classes encounter each other on a regular basis. So much Chilean economic and social activity is concentrated in Santiago, just as in South Korea it is in Seoul and in Singapore it is in … Singapore. In all three countries, I believe, feelings of inequality and envy are worse for that reason. By contrast, if you are a lower-middle-class person in, say, Mississippi, you may view the mansion and private plane of Bill Gates as if from a different universe.

I’ve also found Chile to have a relatively tough set of social expectations in terms of class, dress and educational background, and a relatively narrow set of expectations for women. These pressures for conformity may contribute to discontent.

Recommended.

The Mexican drug war and its intensification

Event study estimates suggest that cartel presence increases substantially after 2010 in municipalities well suited to grow opium poppy. Homicide rates increase along with the number of active cartels per municipality, with higher increases when a second, third, fourth and fifth cartel become active in the territory. These results suggest that some of the increase in violence that Mexico experienced in the last fifteen years could be attribute to criminal groups fighting for market shares of heroin and not only to changes in government enforcement.

That is from a recent job market paper by Fernanda Sobrino of Princeton University.

The McConnell-Trump impeachment game

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

A second factor, however, pushes in the opposite direction. If Trump is viewed as too corrupt, too poisonous or too unreliable by swing voters, some of these senators also run the risk of losing their jobs. These senators therefore wish to rein in Trump, if only for selfish reasons. Trump and his policies are not very popular, as illustrated by numerous polls. And some senators might decide that loyalty to country, and to the future of the world, also argues for constraining Trump.

Reining in Trump does not have to mean forcing the leopard to change its spots, which is probably impossible anyway. But it could mean nudging Trump to be less outrageous: Don’t respond to the Ukraine accusations by encouraging China to investigate Joe Biden’s son, for example. Be more careful in your dealings with Turkey and the Kurds. Refrain from calling Never Trump Republicans “human scum.”

OK, so now to take the next step: How can these senators possibly check Trump? The threat of impeachment is their most potent weapon…

The upshot is that McConnell’s power over the president is growing. These are exactly the kinds of wrist slaps Trump notices.

The question, of course, is how Trump will respond to critical signals from Republican senators. My guess is that he will not play a cooperative “tit for tat” strategy, trading signals in a rational manner to keep senators in line and proceeding toward an orderly resolution of the impeachment judgment from the House. Rather, the signals sent his way might enrage him or raise his stress level to the point where he behaves less rationally than usual. Then the Senate will have to work all the harder to constrain Trump, thereby upping the stakes — and the stress — once again.

We will see.

Facts about YouTube

From a new and very important paper by Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips from Penn State:

The most extreme branches of the AIN (the Alt-Right and Alt-Lite) have been in decline since mid-2017.

However, the Alt-Right’s remaining audience is more engaged than any other audience, in terms of likes and comments per view on their videos.

The bulk of the growth in terms of both video production and viewership over the past two years has come from the entry of mainstream conservatives into the YouTube marketplace.

…despite considerable energy, Ribeiro et al. (2019) fail to demonstrate that the algorithm has a noteworthy effect on the audience for Alt-Right content.  A random walk algorithm beginning at an Alt-Lite video and taking 5 steps randomly selecting one of the ten recommended videos will only be recommended a video from the Alt-Right approximately one out every 1,700 trips.  For a random walker beginning at a “control” video from the mainstream media, the probability is so small that it is difficult to see on the graph, but it is certainly no more common than one out of every 10,000 trips.

That authors suggest (p.24) that if anything the data suggest deradicalization as a more plausible baseline hypothesis.

Of course this is not the final word, but in the meantime so much of what you are reading about YouTube would appear to be wrong or at least off-base.

Simple truths about power

These are all people who are connected to the power of government.

Either physically, i.e. economically, or emotionally—power. The dream of sharing power. The gender studies professor not only gets her money eventually from government, but she dreams of being part of a world-transforming enterprise.

Here, I agree with you. There is a dream that unites progressives and bureaucrats and wealthy technologists. And where does that dream come from?

It’s a dream peculiar to this class. Other classes have been united by different dreams.

Is it a substitute for religion?

Yes.

Is that its primary emotional charge?

Well, I don’t know about primary. Look, the primary element is, as we Christians were taught, pride. That is the sin of sins. There is nothing that moves human beings quite so much as the desire to be on top of other human beings.

That is from an interview with Angelo Codevilla.

Who’s a Russian Asset?

Mark Zuckerberg was once again pilloried in Congress. How many companies in the Libra association are headed by LGBTQ people? Isn’t it true that Libra is a project of white men? What are you doing for African Americans whose lives you have ruined? Do you discuss white supremacy at your far right dinner parties? And, of course, overlaying all of this was the idea of Russian interference.

Ironically, one of the goals of the Russians was to enhance US grievances and elevate identity politics. Most notably, some of the most successful Black Lives Matter memes and tweets were created by the Russians. As the NYTimes wrote:

“The most prolific I.R.A. efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets,” the report says.…The report says that while “other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the black community was targeted extensively with dozens.” In some cases, Facebook ads were targeted at users who had shown interest in particular topics, including black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers.

The Internet Research Agency also created a dozen websites disguised as African-American in origin, with names like blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us. On YouTube, the largest share of Russian material covered the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality, with channels called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.”

…Of 81 Facebook pages created by the Internet Research Agency in the Senate’s data, 30 targeted African-American audiences, amassing 1.2 million followers.

The fact that Black Lives Matter was promoted by the Russians doesn’t detract from their legitimate goals. Nevertheless, one can imagine the Russians chortling at how successful their attacks have been. Mark Zuckerberg is one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs, the creator of Facebook, a world-dominant firm, a firm that the Russians and Chinese fear and instead of rejoicing in America’s success, America’s political class are seeking to take Facebook and its CEO down through the petty politics of identity.

Who’s a Russian asset?

My Conversation with Henry Farrell

An excellent episode, here is the audio and transcript.  We ranged far and wide, starting with Huawei and weaponized interdependence, moving later to the Facebook supreme court, Karl Polanyi, Ireland, and Gene Wolfe and Philip K. Dick.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Arguably, dominant firms are easier to regulate. And since you seem to favor some kinds of additional regulation on the major tech companies, does this mean we’re too worried about monopoly, that we actually want to keep around a few dominant firms, and that if we split them up into many small parts, there would be more chaos or more fake news or more privacy violations?

If some parts of what they do are bad, and you get more competition in the bad, don’t we just want to put in GDPR barriers to entry, not quite public utilities, but keep them big and fat and happy and somewhat not so dynamic, yes or no?

FARRELL: It depends on what you value.

COWEN: But what you value.

FARRELL: Yeah. Let me put the tradeoff to you this way. If you value security, if the highlight is on security, then the answer is, you probably want to keep big companies around because you’re going to want to impose broad standards. You’re going to want to create collective security goods, and the only actors that can really do that in a substantial way are big businesses of one sort or another.

If, alternatively, you value things like privacy and other kinds of rights, then you probably want to move towards an equilibrium in which there are far, far fewer big firms. So that’s where I see the fight being played out. I see the fight being played out between people who value security and people who value privacy. I think they point in somewhat different directions.

COWEN: And where are you on that spectrum?

FARRELL: Well, it depends on the time of the day, and I find myself —

COWEN: It is 2:22 p.m.

And:

FARRELL: Well, I guess the question for me is — and again, this is a wide open question because we simply don’t have enough good empirical research — but what is the relationship and the broader ecology between companies like 8chan and companies like Facebook? I suspect that companies like 8chan will be far, far less successful if there weren’t much bigger platforms like Facebook that they could effectively grow upon.

So here are the arguments, something as follows. If you think about 8chan, and if you think about 4chan before it, they were basically meme factories. They were basically these places where these bored individuals hung out. You also created these memes in a kind of process of frenzied Darwinian evolution, where you desperately want to make sure that whatever you had said was on the front page because otherwise it would disappear forever. So you’ve got this survival-of-the-fittest thing, where incredibly valuable or incredibly effective memes go out and begin to populate the entire space.

But you need two things for that to work. First of all, you need a process of generation, and secondly, you need some kind of process of dissemination. You need other platforms which have far greater reach, which can then allow for these memes to propagate through the atmosphere.

I suspect that if we were in a world in which everything was at the scale of 8chan, rather than having a mixture of companies at the scale of 8chan and companies at the scale of Facebook, that the likelihood of this stuff spreading and becoming epidemic across the entire community of internet users would be far, far less. Obviously, we would have other problems then. But I think that the problems that we would face would be a very, very different set of problems from the problems that we face in the current environment.

Finally:

FARRELL: Yes. [Gene] Wolfe misleads us systematically, and clearly Severian is not a reliable narrator, but then neither is Proust’s narrator either. I think that if you really want to understand where Wolfe comes from, it really is Proust. His writing style is Proustian. His concern with time, with how it is that time works, is quintessentially Proustian.

And you don’t look to Wolfe any more than you look to other science fiction for characterization. I don’t think that’s the particular strength. What you do look for is a kind of a sense of the world. And in Wolfe, in particular, he provides this real understanding of how it is that the workings of society, and interestingly, conservative understanding of the workings of society.

I think of him almost as being Proust in reverse. Proust is describing a world in which the modern world is overtaking aristocracy. And that clearly is one of the great problems of Proust, what is happening on the social level. You have all of these aristocratic understandings: the Merovingian, all of these histories, all of these castles, all of this wonderful art, and they are being replaced by the modern world with its telephones, with its electric lighting, and so on.

And how do you think about this? How would you try to preserve what was happening in the past? What Wolfe does, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting thing, which would be impossible for anybody who is not a science fiction writer, is to take that and to reverse this and to imagine a world in which modernity has disappeared.

Recommended!

What is behind the spread of so many mass protests?

One frequent theme is people objecting to a price increase. In Ecuador,  a focal point of the protests has been a demand for restoration of fuel subsidies. Petroleum price subsidies also have been central to the Haitian protests. In Lebanon, citizens have been upset at a new tax levied on the use of WhatsApp, with a social media tax also having been an issue in Uganda. In Sudan cuts to food and fuel subsidies have been a major complaint. In Chile they are protesting subway fare hikes.

The trend is that price increases may continue to become less popular. And, crucially, the internet will help people organize against such changes.

Consider that an old-style labor-oriented protest can be organized through the workplace or plant itself, through on-the-ground techniques that long predate the internet. There is a common locale and set of social networks in place, including perhaps a union. Those who suffer from a price increase, in contrast, typically do not know each other or have common social ties. Just about everyone buys gasoline, either directly or indirectly. The internet, however, makes it possible to mobilize these people into protests with prices as the common theme.

In other words: Protests of workers seem to be becoming less important, and protests of consumers are becoming more important.

You may recall that one of the original demands of the “gilets jaunes” protests in France was for free parking in Disneyland Paris. If you think that sounds a little crazy, you haven’t yet internalized the nature of the new millennium.

In the future, efficiency-enhancing or austerity-induced changes in prices may be much harder to accomplish politically. The new trend is neither central planning nor market liberal reforms, but rather frozen prices, especially when those prices are set in the political realm.

Here is the rest of my latest Bloomberg column on that topic.  Two further points: my global warming point I pulled from Noah Smith, though I could no longer find his tweet to cite. Furthermore, many of the recent protests, such as in Spain, fit a more political and ethnic model, I am not saying price increases are always the major factor.

Marriage is underrated for its social and political benefits

The more freedom we have, the more there will be very feminine and masculine subcultures too, and this might explain a great deal of recent political developments — in particular the campus identity politics movement and the alt-right. The former is heavily female, while the latter is overwhelmingly male — in fact, not just male, but populated by men who seem to have difficulties with women…

Single women tend to be politically very liberal, voting for the Democrats in huge numbers, while in Britain Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has overwhelming support among young women, the vast majority of whom are unmarried. Generally speaking, the culture wars are far more intense between women because women have to make more sacrifices — whether children or career — and this inevitably influences their worldview. Political liberalism, with its strong relationship between the state and the individual, favors single women, while conservatism, with its emphasis on monogamy and support for the nuclear family, speaks to their married equivalents. And while married men with children are also more conservative than single ones, the difference is not as pronounced.

So what happens when fewer people get married and, indeed, spend time with the opposite sex? Gender-segregated politics it seems.

That is from Ed West, via Ilya Novak.

Ranking states by their degree of regulation

Now Mercatus has completed an analysis of state-level regulation. State RegData 1.0 analyzes the administrative codes of 46 states plus the District of Columbia, and the results are informative. The average state has 131,000 restrictive terms and about 9 million words in its code, which would require roughly twelve work weeks to read at a normal reading pace.

But there is huge variation. The least regulated state is South Dakota, with about 44,000 regulatory restrictions, while the most regulated state is California, with 395,000. All told, the least regulated states are South Dakota, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota, while the most regulated states are California, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Texas.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to include Vermont, New Jersey, Arkansas, and Hawaii. Arkansas is the easiest to explain: It has no administrative code, at least not yet. Its state agencies produce regulations, but until this year no one had ever bothered to compile them in one place. Fortunately — perhaps partly in response to RegData — legislation was passed this year to create an official Code of Arkansas Rules by January 2023, so Arkansas’s regulatory landscape will eventually come to light.

That is from James Broughel and Patrick A. McLaughlin, there is more at the link.