Category: Political Science

Why the U.S.-Saudi relationship has proven so enduring

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, note I am continuing to see a larger backlash on the Saudi issue than one might have expected. The bigger underlying question is this: given all that has happened, so why is the United States still such an ally of the Saudis?  It’s longstanding and thus not just about Trump’s possible business dealings.  It’s also not just about the oil, here is one excerpt:

One feature of the geography of Saudi Arabia is that its major oil fields stand apart and can be taken over without controlling the major Saudi cities. That is one reason why the Saudis were so wary of Saddam Hussein.

That risk means the Saudis are especially dependent on American military protection. In turn, the U.S. knows it has a lot of leverage over the Saudis, and therefore making deals with the Saudis involves easier enforcement and lower transaction costs. The same cannot be said of deals with Iran. So in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, the U.S. ends up siding with the Saudis.

Historically, Iran has been a very difficult country to capture or control, and the population has fought fiercely to defend Iranian territorial integrity. Iran doesn’t need American protection to the same degree as do the Saudis, and so Iran is more willing to be prickly or openly hostile to the U.S.

Iran shared a border with the former Soviet Union (though not Russia) and shares Caspian Sea rights with Russia, and the two countries often have had close and cordial relations. Iran also is easier than Saudi Arabia for China to reach with its One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to build close ties with the countries to its west. In sum, Iran is going to diversify its geopolitical bets, which pulls it away from the U.S., even if the issues surrounding nuclear weapons and support for terrorism somehow were resolved.

And this:

Of course, the Saudis have abused their position. They are dependent on the U.S., but they also know America has few other potential regional partners for cooperation on such a large scale. And so the Saudis have engaged in human-rights abuses over the decades, figuring it may harm but will not irrevocably damage relations with America.

There is more at the link, analytical throughout.

A new “ideal” proposal for immigration reform

The IDEAL policy creates a long-term visa program in which 3mm immigrants are selected to live in the U.S. per year.

The IDEAL policy is simple and includes the following details:

  • Immigrants pay $30,000 for a five-year live/work visa renewable for an additional five years at no additional cost contingent upon each IDEAL immigrant proving to be a net asset to the U.S. economy.
  • At the end of ten years, immigrants whose impact to the U.S. is net positive are eligible for citizenship. Immigrants with a net negative impact will be asked to leave the U.S. Acceptance and impact will be determined by a pre-determined scoring system.
  • IDEAL visa-holders are ineligible for any government benefits until attaining full citizenship and IDEAL visa-holders will be required to secure health insurance through an employer or through other means during those ten years.

Each applicant is given an acceptance score and ranking based on the following criteria:

  • Age;
  • Education level;
  • English language proficiency;
  • Existing job offers from one or more U.S. companies;
  • Previous successful U.S. work history; and
  • Willingness to live in a IWC (Immigrant Welcoming Community).

An Immigrant Welcoming Community meets all of the following criteria:

  • An urban or rural community in the bottom 25% of U.S. income;
  • A community that has suffered population losses over the preceding decade; and
  • A community that opts-in to the IDEAL program via local government consent.

Here is the full website.

Is “political correctness” the ultimate hack of the Left?

Yes says I, in my latest Bloomberg column.  Here is one bit:

To put it simply, the American left has been hacked, and it is now running in a circle of its own choosing, rather than focusing on electoral victories or policy effectiveness. Too many segments of the Democratic Party are self-righteously talking about identity politics, and they are letting other priorities slip.

Of course there is a lot of racism out there, which makes political correctness all the more tempting. Yet polling data suggests that up to 80 percent of Americans are opposed to politically correct thinking in its current manifestations. Latinos and Asian-Americans are among the groups most opposed, and even 61 percent of self-professed liberals do not like political correctness.

I give some examples (Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard lawsuit) of how these issues can harm the fortunes of the Left.  Here is the basic model:

I now wonder if, in the internet era, every political movement is hackable. Political involvement requires a certain kind of ideological motivation, and ideologies are imperfectly rational. So a smart hacker can redirect the attention of groups in other, less productive directions. Just put some inflammatory words or video on the internet and you can induce the left to talk more about identity politics.

Consider that political action is a public good (bad) of sorts, motivated in part by private expressive concerns.  Pursuing expressive action can lead to results-oriented value (disvalue).  So find the people who are acting that way, and put a “expressive value only” version of the dog bone before them, to compete with what they have been chasing.

The correct “hacking” words, memes, and images are found by trial and error, but once the fervently expressive left-wing responses are observed, the techniques are honed and refined pretty quickly.

And what about the hacking of the Right?

Has the right-wing been hacked? I suspect so. The president himself is part of the hack, and the core motivation is the desire to “own the libs,” a phrase I didn’t hear much five years ago. We’ve now entered an era in which too many are self-obsessed and too few are effective.

Of course a few questions come to mind:

1. Are all views hackable in this manner?

No, but views which appeal to moral superiority are usually hackable, because displays of the resulting preening are often counterproductive.

2. Once a hack occurs, can you reverse it or defend against it?

Knowledge is not always as useful as you might think.

3. Has libertarianism been hacked?

Yes, it was hacked into an ill-conceived alliance with Republicans on too many issues, under the promise of some policy victories.

4. Do the hacks on each side interact?

Well, if conservatives feel they “own the libs” by irritating their sense of political correctness, the polarization can explode pretty quickly.

Addendum: There is also this paragraph in the piece:

The biggest day-to-day losers from the political correctness movement are other left-of-center people, most of all white moderate Democrats, especially those in universities. If you really believe that “the PC stuff” is irrational and out of control and making institutions dysfunctional, and that universities are full of left-of-center people, well who is going to suffer most of the costs? It will be people in the universities, and in unjust and indiscriminate fashion. That means more liberals than conservatives, if only because the latter are relatively scarce on the ground.


That was then, this is now

A Cincinnati newspaper printed a malevolent editorial proclaiming that [Andrew] Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers.  thereupon she married a mulatto man with whom she had several children, among them Andrew Jackson.  Apprised of this far-fetched, scandalous tale, [John Quincy] Adams thought it absurd, but cynically went on to comment that even if proved true it would probably not hurt Jackson.  The course of the campaign seemed to substantiate all Adams’s apprehensions that fervent partisanship was demolishing reasonableness, a slugfest of calumny and lies replacing political civility.  Vice was triumphing over virtue.  And the cynicism expressed in his reaction to the malignant piece regarding Jackson’s mother and his birth signaled that he had begun to doubt the probity of the republic and its citizens.

That is from the very good book by William J. Cooper, The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics.

Robert Wiblin’s Conversation with Tyler Cowen

This was two and a half hours (!), and it is a special bonus episode in Conversations in Tyler, here is the text and audio.  The starting base of the discussion was my new, just today published book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision of a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but of course we ranged far and wide.  Here are a few excerpts:

WIBLIN: Speaking of Tetlock, are there any really important questions in economics or social science that . . . What would be your top three questions that you’d love to see get more attention?

COWEN: Well, what’s the single question is hard to say. But in general, the role of what is sometimes called culture. What is culture? How does environment matter? I’m sure you know the twin studies where you have identical twins separated at birth, and they grow up in two separate environments and they seem to turn out more or less the same. That’s suggesting some kinds of environmental differences don’t matter.

But then if you simply look at different countries, people who grow up, say, in Croatia compared to people who grow up in Sweden — they have quite different norms, attitudes, practices. So when you’re controlling the environment that much, surrounding culture matters a great deal. So what are the margins where it matters and doesn’t? What are the mechanisms? That, to me, is one important question.

A question that will become increasingly important is why do face-to-face interactions matter? Why don’t we only interact with people online? Teach them online, have them work for us online. Seems that doesn’t work. You need to meet people.

But what is it? Is it the ability to kind of look them square in the eye in meet space? Is it that you have your peripheral vision picking up other things they do? Is it that subconsciously somehow you’re smelling them or taking in some other kind of input?

What’s really special about face-to-face? How can we measure it? How can we try to recreate that through AR or VR? I think that’s a big frontier question right now. It’d help us boost productivity a lot.

Those would be two examples of issues I think about.

And this:

COWEN: I think most people are actually pretty good at knowing their weaknesses. They’re often not very good at knowing their talents and strengths. And I include highly successful people. You ask them to account for their success, and they’ll resort to a bunch of cliches, which are probably true, but not really getting at exactly what they are good at.

If I ask you, “Robert Wiblin, what exactly are you good at?” I suspect your answer isn’t good enough. So just figuring that out and investing more in friends, support network, peers who can help you realize that vision, people still don’t do enough of that.


COWEN: But you might be more robust. So the old story is two polarities of power versus many, and then the two looks pretty stable, right? Deterrents. USA, USSR.

But if it’s three compared to a world with many centers of power, I don’t know that three is very stable. Didn’t Sartre say, “Three people is hell”? Or seven — is seven a stable number? We don’t know very much. So it could just be once you get out of two-party stability, you want a certain flattening.

And maybe some parts of the world will have conflicts that are undesirable. But nonetheless, by having the major powers keep their distance, that’s better, maybe.


Is innovation democracy’s unique advantage?

I say yes, though I don’t think it is easy to prove.  Here is part of the abstract, from Rui Tang and Shiping Tang:

We contend that the channel of liberty‐to‐innovation is the most critical channel in which democracy holds a unique advantage over autocracy in promoting growth, especially during the stage of growth via innovation. Our theory thus predicts that democracy holds a positive but indirect effect upon growth via the channel of liberty‐to‐innovation, conditioned by the level of economic development. We then present quantitative evidence for our theory.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Who is a conservative?

From Maxim Gorky’s My Universities:

And I remembered Ibsen’s lines:

“Am I a conservative? Oh, no?

I am still the same as I have been all my life,

I don’t like moving the pieces from one square to another,

I would like to move the whole game.

I can remember only one revolution

It was more clever than those that came after

And it could have destroyed everything

— I mean, of course, the Flood”

Solve for the candidate quality polarized equilibrium

Consistent with the predictions of this model, we also show that, in more conservative states, low quality conservative candidates do better relative to high quality conservatives, and vice versa.

And this:

We also show that voter beliefs about the candidates harden over the course of the primary…

That is from George Deltas and Matthias Polborn on SSRN.  Via Kevin Lewis.

The Effect of Communism on People’s Attitudes Toward Immigration

Does living in a communist regime make a person more concerned about immigration? This paper argues conceptually and demonstrates empirically that people’s attitudes toward immigration are affected by their country’s politico-economic legacy. Exploiting a quasi-natural experiment arising from the historic division of Germany into East and West, I show that former East Germans, because of their exposure to communism, are notably more likely to be very concerned about immigration than former West Germans. Opposite of what existing literature finds, higher educational attainment in East Germany actually increases concerns. Further, I find that the effect of living in East Germany is driven by former East Germans who were born during, and not before, the communist rule and that differences in attitudes persist even after Germany’s reunification. People’s trust in strangers and contact with foreigners represent two salient channels through which communism affects people’s preferences toward immigration.

That is from Matthew Karl at the Board of Governors, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Civil War boosted Northern support for immigration

Here we arrive at one of the least appreciated factors in the equation that led to the Union victory: the military service of immigrants.  Foreign-born recruits provided the Union army with the advantage it needed over its Confederate rival.  An estimated 25 percent of the soldiers in the Union army (some 543,000) and more than 40 percent of the seamen in the navy (84,000) were foreign-born.  If one includes soldiers with at least one immigrant parent, the overall figure climbs to 43 percent of the Union army…

The demands of war meant that Union officials needed to appeal to immigrants.  Military recruitment placards were printed in foreign languages; Union officials presented the war as part of a transnational struggle for republican government, thereby decoupling the idea of the nation from Anglo-Saxon Protestantism…

The military service of the foreign-born did more than enhance the Union’s advantage in the field.  It also transformed the politics of nativism in the United States.  From the nativism of the 1850s, exemplified by Know-Nothingism and bigoted anti-Catholicism, the Union now moved in the direction of welcoming — indeed, encouraging — foreign arrivals.

That is all from the new book by Jay Sexton, A Nation Forged by Crisis: A New American History.

Brazil fact of the day

Just 8 percent of Brazilians told the Pew Research Center in 2017 that representative democracy is a “very good” form of government – the lowest of all 38 countries surveyed.

Most of the article is about what we can expect from Jair Bolsonaro, sometimes called “the Brazilian Trump,” who is very likely to be Brazil’s next president, recommended and interesting throughout.

My Conversation with Paul Krugman

Here is the audio and transcript, here is part of the summary:

Tyler sat down with Krugman at his office in New York to discuss what’s grabbing him at the moment, including antitrust, Supreme Court term limits, the best ways to fight inequality, why he’s a YIMBY, inflation targets, congestion taxes, trade (both global and interstellar), his favorite living science fiction writer, immigration policy, how to write well for a smart audience, new directions for economic research, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your view, how well run is New York City as an entity?

KRUGMAN: Not very. Compared to what? Actually, I like de Blasio. I actually think he’s done some really good things. What he’s done on education, and even on affordable housing, is actually quite substantial. But the city is so big and the problems are so large that people may not get it.

I will say, it is crazy that you have a city that is so dependent on public transportation, and yet the public transportation is not actually under the city’s control and has clearly been massively neglected. I don’t suffer the full woes of the subway, but I suffer some of them, even myself.

The city could be run better than it is, but it’s certainly not among the worst-managed political entities in the United States, let alone in the world.


COWEN: Will there ever be interstellar trade in intellectual property? You send your technology to a planet far away. It arrives much later, of course. Or you trade Beethoven to the aliens in return for a transporter beam? Can this work? You’ve written a paper that seems to indicate it can work.

KRUGMAN: I wrote a paper on the theory of interstellar trade when I was an unhappy assistant professor. Are there any happy assistant professors? [laughs] I was just blowing off steam. But it’s an interesting question.

COWEN: It could become your most important paper, right? [laughs]

KRUGMAN: We could imagine that there would be some way. We’d have to find somebody to trade with, although it’s the kind of thing — if you try to imagine interstellar trade for real in intellectual property — it’s probably the kind of thing that would be more like government-to-government exchanges.

It sounds like it would be really, really hard, although some science fiction writers are imagining that something like Bitcoin would make it possible to do these long-range . . . I don’t think something like Bitcoin is even going to work here.

Krugman also gives his opinions on Star Wars and Star Trek and Big Tech and many other matters.  Interesting throughout…