Category: Political Science

Why the coronavirus might boost Trump’s reelection prospects

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

The first and perhaps most important effect will be to make Trump’s nationalism seem ordinary, even understated. Hundreds of flights to China have already been canceled, countries are refusing to receive (or deciding to quarantine) Chinese nationals or visitors from China, and China itself is severely limiting travel within the country. Whether or not these prove effective measures, the idea of travel bans and restrictions no longer seems extreme or unconstitutional. Even if voters are confusing normal times with times of pandemic, on this issue Trump’s instincts now seem almost prescient.

When the flight of Americans returning from Wuhan was sent to Alaska last week instead of San Francisco, and subject to quarantine, very few political complaints were heard, including from leading Democrats. There might still be arguments about whether that was a justified violation of civil liberties, but the notion that a pandemic requires the federal government to take such measures, without a congressional vote, is not seriously contested.

That is going to help any incumbent president who believes in the strong exercise of executive power, as does Trump.

There is much more at the link.

*A Treatise on Northern Ireland*, by Brendan O’Leary

This three-volume set is quite the remarkable achievement, and it would have made my best books of 2019 list (add-ons here) had I known about it earlier.  It starts with “An audit of violence after 1966,” and then goes back to the seventeenth century to begin to dig out what happened.  It has more detail than almost anyone needs to know, yet at the same time it remains unfailingly conceptual and relies on theoretical social science as well, rather than merely reciting names and dates. How about this?:

The breakdown of hegemonic control in Northern Ireland [mid- to late 1960s] exemplifies Tocqueville’s thesis that, when a bad government seeks to reform itself, it is in its greatest danger.

Here is an excerpt from volume II:

The thesis advanced here is that hegemonic control was established between 1920 and 1925 by the UUP, and, aside from a few exceptional moments, exercised successfully until 1966.  After 1925 opportunities for effective opposition, dissent, disobedience, or usurpation of power were minimal.  The major possibilities of disruption came from the outside, from independent Ireland or from Great Britain, from geopolitics, or the world economy.  Eventually, when external forces of disruption combined with major endogenous changes, hegemonic control would be contested, and would shatter.  But at no juncture did Northern nationalists or Irish Catholics in the North internalize the UUP’s rhetoric, or become significantly British by cultural designation.  When the civil-rights movement learned to exploit the claim to be British citizens entitled to British rights, the regime’s days were numbered.

I will continue to spend time with these volumes, which will not be surpassed anytime soon.  Unlike in so many history books, O’Leary is always trying to explain what happened, or what did not.  You can order them here.

As a side note, I find it shocking (and I suppose deplorable) that no American major media outlet has reviewed these books, or put them on its best of the year list, as far as I can tell.  We are failing at something, though I suppose you can debate what.  And I apologize to O’Leary for missing them the first time around.

Do elections make you sick?

Yes basically, at least in Taiwan:

Anecdotal reports and small-scale studies suggest that elections are stressful, and might lead to a deterioration in voters’ mental well-being. Nonetheless, researchers have yet to establish whether elections actually make people sick, and if so, why. By applying a regression discontinuity design to administrative health care claims from Taiwan, we determine that elections increased health care use and expense only during legally specified campaign periods by as much as 19%. Overall, the treatment cost of illness caused by elections exceeded publicly reported levels of campaign expenditure, and accounted for 2% of total national health care costs during the campaign period.

That is from a new paper by Hung-Hao Chang and Chad Meyerhoefer.

Gabriel Tarde’s *On Communication and Social Influence*

This 19th century French sociologist is worth reading, as he is somehow the way station between Pascal and Rene Girard, with an influence on Bruno Latour as well.  Tarde focuses on how copying helps to explain social order and also how it drives innovation.  For Tarde, copying, innovation, and ethos are all part of an integrated vision.  He covers polarization and globalization as well and at times it feels like he has spent time on Twitter.

It is hard to pull his sentences out of their broader context but here is one:

We have seen that the true, basic sources of power are propagated discoveries or inventions.


The role of impulse and chance in the direction of inventive activity will cease to amaze us if we recall that such genius almost always begins in the service of a game or is dependent on a religious idea or superstition.


…contrary to the normal state of affairs, images in the inventor’s hallucinatory reverie tend to become strong states while sensations become weak states.

…When the self is absorbed in a goal for a long time, it is rare that the sub-self, incorrectly called the unconscious, does not participate in this obsession, conspiring with our consciousness and collaborating in our mental effort.  This conspiracy, this collaboration whose service is faithful yet hidden, is inspiration

He argues that societies in their uninventive phase are also largely uncritical, and for that reason.  (Doesn’t that sound like a point from a Peter Thiel talk?)

He explicitly considers the possibility that the rate of scientific innovation may decline, in part because the austere and moral mentality of semi-rural family life, which is most favorable for creativity in his view, may be replaced by the whirlpool of distractions associated with the urban lifestyles of the modern age.


Attentive crowds are those who crowd around the pulpit of a preacher or lecturer, a lectern, a platform, or in front of the stage where a moving drama is being performed.  Their attention — and inattention — is always stronger and more constant than would be that of the individual in the group if he were alone.

Tarde argues that desires are intrinsically heterogeneous, and economics makes the mistake of reducing them to a near-tautologous “desire for wealth.”

Not all of it hangs together, but I would rather read Tarde than Durkheim or Comte, the other two renowned French sociologists of the 19th century.

You can buy the book here, here is Wikipedia on Tarde.

Model this East German crime

Following the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, the number of births halved in East Germany. These cohorts became markedly more likely to be arrested as they grew up in reunified Germany. This is observed for both genders and all offence types.

Here is the full article by Arnauld Chevalier and Olivier Marie, the authors seem to think the reunification event selects for risky parents, are there other possible explanations?

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Evidence for State Capacity Libertarianism

The plots do not support the hypothesis that small government produces either greater prosperity or greater freedom. (In reading the charts, remember that the SGOV index is constructed so that 0 indicates the largest government and 10 the smallest government.) Instead, smaller government tends to be associated with less prosperity and less freedom. Both relationships are statistically significant, with correlations of 0.43 for prosperity and 0.35 for freedom.

Using SoG, the Cato measure of size of government, instead of SGOV, the IMF measure, does not help. The correlations turn out still to be negative and statistically significant, although slightly weaker.

Let’s turn now to the alternative hypothesis that quality of government, rather than size, is what counts for prosperity and freedom. Here are those scatterplots:

This time, both relationships are positive. High quality of government is strongly associated both with greater human prosperity and greater human freedom. Furthermore, the correlations are much stronger than those for the size of government.

That is all by Ed Dolan, recommended, and by the way smaller governments are not correlated with higher quality governments.

Countering The Narrative

A surprising fact about the 2016 election is that Trump received fewer votes from whites with the highest levels of racial resentment than Romney did in 2012…Trump’s vote totals improved the most among swing voters: low-socioeconomic status whites who are political moderates.

That is from recent research by Justin Grimmer and William Marble, hat tip anonymous.

Assessing State Capacity Libertarianism

Ryan Murphy and Colin O’Reilly suddenly have a 33 pp. (yes substantive) paper on my January 1 blog post on State Capacity Libertarianism (on speed, perhaps they have learned from a master).  Here is the abstract:

Cowen (2020) argues for a redirection of effort towards “State Capacity Libertarianism,” which keeps the core of policy proposals from libertarianism intact while emphasizing a select set of policies aimed at furthering economic growth. These policies center on the ability of the state to accomplish that which it sets out to accomplish, i.e. state capacity. This paper interprets Cowen’s proposal in terms of an interaction between economic freedom and state capacity. Using four measures of state capacity, it finds that state capacity and economic freedom are neither additive nor complementary. Rather, they are substitutes for one another. These results are uncomfortable for conventional libertarianism, for the advocates of state capacity, and for State Capacity Libertarianism itself. One measure of state capacity we use is a novel measure using data from the Varieties of Democracy dataset, which may be useful for researchers in other contexts.

I am very pleased (and flattered) they undertook this investigation.  In terms of response on the particulars, I would say that State Capacity Libertarianism is about living standard levels, not marginal growth rates holding per capita income constant (as they do), which tends to drain off the benefits of state capacity.  You can run into similar misspecification problems by regressing against growth rates for the particular American states, whereas again the levels ought to be central to the analysis.  I readily admit the levels are not easy to handle econometrically, mostly because (outside of some oil principalities) “all good things go together,” and the correct causal model is not well understood.

In any case, the debate will go on.

U.S. military fact of the day

In 2016, Politico reported that the total number of trombone, trumpet, keyboard and other instrument players [in the U.S. military] stands at about 6,500.

That’s a lot of Souza marches, but the State Department fields a bigger squad of diplomats. There are 8,106 Foreign Service officers, according to a State Department report. (The State Department has about another 5,700 people to support the diplomats, but they don’t do direct diplomatic work.) Still, there are a good 1,600 more diplomats than musicians.

Here is further information.  Here is another relevant source.  Via Andrew Goldman.

Damir Marusic and Aaron Sibarium interview me for *The American Interest*

It was far-ranging, here is the opening bit:

Damir Marusic for TAI: Tyler, thanks so much for joining us today. One of the themes we’re trying to grapple with here at the magazine is the perception that liberal democratic capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Is there a crisis?

TC: Crisis, what does that word mean? There’s been a crisis my whole lifetime.


TC: I think addiction is an underrated issue. It’s stressed in Homer’s Odyssey and in Plato, it’s one of the classic problems of public order—yet we’ve been treating it like some little tiny annoyance, when in fact it’s a central problem for the liberal order.


AS: What about co-determination?

TC: There are too many people with the right to say no in America as it is. We need to get things done speedier, with fewer obstacles that create veto points. So no, I don’t favor that.


AS: John Maynard Keynes.

TC: I suppose underrated. He was a polymath. Polymaths tend to be underrated, and Keynes was a phenomenal writer. I’m not a Keynesian on macroeconomics, but when you read him, it’s so fresh and startling and just fantastic. So I’d say underrated.


AS: Slavoj Zizek, the quirky communist philosopher you debated recently.

TC: Way underrated. I had breakfast with Zizek before my dialogue with him, and he’s one of the 10 people I’ve met who knows the most and can command it. Now that said, he speaks in code and he’s kind of “crazy,” and his style irritates many people because he never answers any question directly. You get his Hegelian whatever. He has his partisans who are awful, but ordinary intellectuals don’t notice him and he’s pretty phenomenal actually. So I’d say very underrated.

Here is the full interview, a podcast version is coming too.

My Conversation with the excellent Reid Hoffman

This one is better than the other available conversations with Reid, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Reid joined Tyler to talk about all these leverage points and more, including the Silicon Valley cultural meme he most disagrees with, how Wittgenstein influenced the design of LinkedIn, mystical atheism, what it was like being on Firing Line, why he’s never said anything outrageous, how he and Peter Thiel interpret The Tempest differently, the most misunderstood thing about friendship, how to improve talent certification, what’s needed from science fiction, and his three new ideas for board games.


COWEN: If we think of Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, they could arguably, by the standards of many people, be called weird. I’ve reviewed all the books you’ve written and a lot of your public talks. I can’t recall you saying a single thing that’s outrageous in any way whatsoever. Why aren’t you weirder?

HOFFMAN: [laughs] Maybe I mask it better. That’s my Straussian element, that I hide my weirdness. I would say that a little bit of it comes down to a theory about what is the right way of evolving discourse.

I think I probably do have a variety of views that people would think is weird. I, for example, think of myself as a mystical atheist, which is neither the full atheist category nor any religious category, but some blend in the middle. Or the fact that I actually think that the notion of capitalism is one of the world’s leading interesting technologies, but it’s not a particularly good philosophy, and you’d think that’s odd for an entrepreneur or an investor, and so forth.

So I have areas where I would say groups of people would think I’m weird. I may not highlight it because I tend to always speak in a way to, how do I think I help us make the most progress? And I would only say the weird things if I thought that was the thing that would result from that.

COWEN: So there are weird things that are in your mind?

HOFFMAN: Yes, yeah.


COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

COWEN: What else from philosophy influenced the construction and design of LinkedIn?

Recommended.  For help in arranging this Conversation I am very much indebted to Ben Casnocha.

Gangs really matter

We study the effects that two of the largest gangs in Latin America, MS-13 and 18th Street, have on economic development in El Salvador. We exploit the fact that the emergence of gangs in El Salvador was in part the consequence of an exogenous shift in US immigration policy that led to the deportation of gang leaders from the United States to El Salvador. Using the exogenous variation in the timing of the deportations and the boundaries of the territories controlled by the gangs, we perform a spatial regression discontinuity design and a difference-in-differences analysis to estimate the causal effect that living under the rule of gangs has on development outcomes. Our results show that individuals living under gang control have significantly worse education, wealth, and less income than individuals living only 50 meters away in areas not controlled by gangs. None of these discontinuities existed before the arrival of gangs from the US. The results are not determined by exposure to violence, lower provision of public goods, or selective migration away from gang locations. We argue that our findings are mostly driven by gangs restricting residents’ mobility and labor choices. We find that individuals living under the rule of gangs have less freedom of movement and end up working in smaller firms. The results are relevant for many developing countries where non-state actors control parts of the country.

That is from a new paper by Nikita Melnikov, Carlos Schmidt-Padilla, and Maria Micaela Sviatschi.  Via the excellent Samir Varma.

The culture that is Buckingham: what is the underlying structural model?

The Duke of Cambridge has spoken of his “sadness” at the broken bond with his brother and voiced sorrow that the royal family is no longer a “team”.

As the Queen called emergency peace talks tomorrow at Sandringham to end the Windsors’ civil war, The Sunday Times can reveal that Prince William has said he feels sorrow that he and Prince Harry are now “separate entities” and expressed hope that they might pull together again in future.

“I’ve put my arm around my brother all our lives and I can’t do that any more; we’re separate entities,” he told a friend.

…Tom Bradby, who did the recent ITV interview in which Harry and Meghan confessed their sense of isolation, warned failure to keep the pair on side could lead the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to do a “no-holds-barred” interview that could damage the monarchy further.

…Harry and Meghan may have their security downgraded, with protection squad officers armed only with Tasers rather than guns.

Here is the full piece from the London TimesSome reports say Meghan now has a deal with Disney, maybe she will do voice-over for a princess…

Africa Luxembourg Ethiopia Congo state capacity facts of the day

Government revenues average about 17% of gdp in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. Nigeria has more than 300 times as many people as Luxembourg, but collects less tax. If Ethiopia shared out its tax revenues equally, each citizen would get around $80 a year. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is so penurious that its annual health spending per person could not buy a copy of this newspaper.

That is from The Economist.

Facts about deaths of Roman emperors

Of the 69 rulers of the unified Roman Empire, from Augustus (d. 14 CE) to Theodosius (d. 395 CE), 62% suffered violent death. This has been known for a while, if not quantitatively at least qualitatively. What is not known, however, and has never been examined is the time-to-violent-death of Roman emperors…

Nonparametric and parametric results show that: (i) emperors faced a significantly high risk of violent death in the first year of their rule, which is reminiscent of infant mortality in reliability engineering; (ii) their risk of violent death further increased after 12 years, which is reminiscent of wear-out period in reliability engineering; (iii) their failure rate displayed a bathtub-like curve, similar to that of a host of mechanical engineering items and electronic components. Results also showed that the stochastic process underlying the violent deaths of emperors is remarkably well captured by a (mixture) Weibull distribution.

That is from a new paper by Joseph Homer Saleh, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.