Category: Political Science

Trump’s NAFTA renegotiation

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, the deal will be “good enough,” but the method costly.  Here is one excerpt:

At what price? Canadians and Canadian politicians now feel slighted, and it will be harder for Canada to support U.S. initiatives, especially those led by Trump, in the future. It may be a long time before Canada feels like an even vaguely equal partner again. In the meantime, the U.S. and Canada have ongoing dealings and negotiations concerning water rights, border and migration issues, intelligence sharing, terror prevention, and presenting a (relatively) united front against other foreign powers, including Russia in the Arctic. The marginal gains in trade just don’t seem worth the deterioration in the relationship.

And should Mexico really feel elevated by getting the first crack at the deal? Surely it must know that it might not be the favored party the next time around.

Do read the whole thing.  The best extraction of rent policy, of course, is simply to let Canada keep its gains from trade right now, but later demand larger concessions when it comes to Arctic policy, which will really matter.  That’s assuming nationalism, of course, as a kind of second best rejoinder.  I am more comfortable with the alternative position that the citizens in the other NAFTA member countries count for just as much as Americans.

Are Americans learning to love free trade?

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has completed its 2018 survey on American attitudes toward trade (full disclosure: I serve on board of advisers for the Chicago Council survey), and a funny thing happened to U.S. opinions on the subject. As Dina Smeltz and Craig Kafura write in their latest policy brief, Americans love trade way more than they love Trump…

The survey itself reports:

The highest percentages ever registered in this survey (since 2004) say that trade is good for the US economy (82%), good for consumers like you (85%), and good for creating jobs in the US (67%).

That is from Daniel Drezner.  I would raise the cautionary note that perhaps these newfound positions will not survive the removal of Trump from office, most of all among Democrats.

Religion matters for Senators

Does a senator’s personal religion influence their legislative behavior in the Senate? To date, empirical research has answered this question only using senators’ religious traditions, while more concurrent work implies that religion should be measured as a multifaceted phenomenon. This study tests this proposition by compiling a unique data set of senators’ religion, conceptualized and measured by three different elements—belonging, beliefs, and behavior. The study estimates the association between these three religious facets and senators’ legislative behavior on economic, social, and foreign policy issues, while controlling for their constituencies’ political and religious preferences. It finds that religious beliefs are a strong predictor of senators’ legislative behavior, while religious tradition and behavior are mostly not. Furthermore, it finds that religious beliefs are associated with legislative behavior across a wide array of policy areas and are not confined to sociocultural issues.

That is from Daniel Arnon, via Matt Grossman.

Would a multi-planet humanity be freer?

Kevin P. emails me:

Suppose humanity becomes a multi-planet species. Does the percentage of people living in autocratic societies decrease or increase relative to what we see on our planet today? How do the time and resources required to travel between inhabited planets affect this?

Do some people on “free” planets work to help the non-free? More or less than such countries today? Is there some scale that is reached so a free Federation comes to guaranty freedom everywhere? Or maybe a tyrant or tyrants, once they have a couple wealthy planets under their belt are unstoppable because of cooperation difficulties of the individual free planets?

When I think of settling other planets, my base case is one of extreme scarcity and fragility, at least at first and possibly for a long time.  Those are not the conditions that breed liberty, whether it is “the private sector” or “the public sector” in charge.

Maybe corporations will settle space for some economic reason.  Then you might expect space living to have the liberties of an oil platform in the sea, or perhaps a cruise ship.  Except there would be more of a “we are in this all together” attitude, which I think would favor a kind of corporate autocracy.

Another scenario involves a military settling space, possibly for military reasons, and that too is not much of a liberal or democratic scenario.

You might also have religiously-motivated settlements, which presumably would be governed by the laws and principles of the religion.  Over time, however, this scenario might give the greatest chance for subsequent liberalization.

America developed to be as free as it did (at least for some people) mostly there was so much free land.  Living standards were relatively high, and moving further westward was always an option.  It is hard for me to think of an interplanetary version of the same condition.  Easy exit and free resources don’t seem to go well together with the concept of space settlement.

Space stations and settlement will give the power to those who control the infrastructure, a bit like Wittvogel’s Oriental Despotism hypothesis, except with both air and water being scarce.

I thus expect that interplanetary settlements, whatever their other virtues, will not do much for liberalism or liberty.  Here is my earlier post on The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

What should I ask Michele Gelfand?

I am doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, here is her home page.  She is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland and has a new book coming out: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Out World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary:

Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why do New Zealand’s women have the highest number of sexual partners? Why are “Red” and “Blue” States really so divided? Why was the Daimler-Chrysler merger ill-fated from the start? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Why does one spouse prize running a “tight ship” while the other refuses to “sweat the small stuff?”

In search of a common answer, Gelfand has spent two decades conducting research in more than fifty countries. Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict. Her fascinating conclusion: behavior is highly influenced by the perception of threat.

She also is well-known for her analyses of how negotiations vary across organizations and cultures. Here is Gelfand on  Here is her Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask?

What went wrong in the West and with liberalism?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and the core of my answer is that liberalism and cooperativeness declined in the West, as WWI and the Cold War receded into historical distance (I am indebted to a much earlier conversation with Daniel Klein on these matters).  But I wish to excerpt from another point of the piece:

There is another explanation for the rise in anti-liberal sentiment: immigration. Through a series of historical accidents, it was kept off the table as a major issue for many decades. The U.S. had choked off immigration in 1920, and at first the liberalization of the 1960s did not have much of a visible impact on the American population. In those early decades after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, many poor nations were so poor and unfree that it wasn’t easy to leave them.

As for Europe, in-migration was too small to make much of a political impact. For a while in the 1960s and 1970s, the bigger story was emigration, due to high taxes, from countries such as the U.K. and Sweden. The presence of the Iron Curtain also blocked some of the routes and sources that enable some migration to Western Europe today.

In a democratic society where there simply isn’t much immigration, it is much harder for nationalists and populists to use it as an issue. But today much of the West has seen high immigration for 20 years or more, giving nationalist and populist forces a major talking point. Even if most of the population is broadly pro-immigration, perhaps a core of 15 to 20 percent will not be. With that base, a movement of counterreaction can have real political impact.

Do read the whole thing.

Is Facebook causing anti-refugee attacks in Germany?

Here is the key result, as summarized by the NYT:

Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

Here is the underlying Müller and Schwarz paper.  They consider 3,335 attacks over a two-year period in Germany.  But I say no, their conclusion has not been demonstrated.  Where to start?

Here is one picture showing a key correlation:

It is difficult to see if there is causation in the correlationThat looks pretty strong, doesn’t it?  Nein!  That is not how propaganda works, as an extensive literature in sociology and political psychology will indicate.  That is how it looks when you measure what is essentially the same variable — or its effects — two different ways.  For instance, that very big spike in the middle of the distribution?  As Ben Thompson has pointed out, it represents the New Year’s harassment attacks in Cologne.  Maybe that caused both Facebook activity and other attacks to spike at the same time?  Will you mock me if I resort to the “blog comment cliche” that correlation does not show causation?

To continue with the excellent Ben Thompson (he is worth paying for!), the identification method used in the paper is suspect, and he focuses on this quotation from the authors:

In our setting, the share of a municipality’s population that use the AfD Facebook page is an intuitive proxy for right-wing social media use; however, it is also correlated with differences in a host of observable municipality characteristics — most importantly the prevalence of right-wing ideology. We thus attempt to isolate the local component of social media usage that is uncorrelated with right-wing ideology by drawing on the number of users on the “Nutella Germany” page. With over 32 million likes, Nutella has one of the most popular Facebook pages in Germany and therefore provides a measure of general Facebook media use at the municipality level. While municipalities with high Nutella usage are more exposed to social media, they are not more likely to harbor right-wing attitudes.

The whole result rests on assumptions about Nutella?  What if you used likes for Zwetschgenkuchen?  Has a robustness test been done?  Was a simple correlation not good or not illustrative enough?  I’ll stick with the simple hypothesis that some municipalities have both more Facebook usage, due to high AfD membership, and also more attacks on refugees, and furthermore both of those variables rise in tense times.  AfD is the German party with the strongest presence on Facebook, I am sorry to say.

You will note by the way that within Germany the Nutella page has only verifiable 21,915 individual interactions, including likes (32 million is the global number of Nutella likes…die Deutschen are not that nutty), and that is distributed across 4,466 municipal areas.  (If you are confused, see p.12 in the paper, which I find difficult to follow and I suspect that represents the confusion of the authors.)  That should make you more worried yet about the Nutella identification strategy.  They never tell us what they would have without Nutella, a better tasting sandwich I would say.

I also would note the broader literature on propaganda once again.  Consider the research of Markus Prior: “…evidence for a causal link between more partisan messages and changing attitudes or behaviors is mixed at best.”  These Facebook results are simply far outside of what we normally suppose to be true about human responsiveness — so maybe the company is undercharging for its ads!

Ben adds:

I am bothered by the paper’s robustness section in two ways: first, every single robustness test confirmed the results. To me that does not suggest that the initial result must be correct; it suggests that the researchers didn’t push their data hard enough. There is always a test that fails, and that is a good thing: it shows the boundaries of what you have learned. Second, there were no robustness tests applied to one of the more compelling pieces of evidence, that Internet and Facebook outages were correlated with a reduction in violence against refugees. This is particularly unfortunate because in some ways this evidence works against the filter bubble narrative: after all, the idea is the filter bubbles change your reality over time, not that they suddenly inspire you to action out of the blue.

The authors do present natural experiments from Facebook and internet outages.  They find that “…for a given level of anti-refugee sentiment, there are fewer attacks in municipalities with high Facebook usage during an internet outage than in municipalities with low Facebook usage without an outage.” (p.28).  Again I find that confusing, but I note also that “internet outages themselves…do not have a consistent negative effect on the number of anti-refugee sentiments.”  That is the simple story, and it appears to exonerate Facebook.  pp.28-30 then present a number of interaction effects and variable multiplications, but I am not sure what to conclude from the whole mess.  I’m still expecting internet outages to lower the number of attacks, but they don’t.

Even if internet or Facebook outages do have a predictive effect on attacks in some manner, it likely shows that Facebook is a communications medium used to organize gatherings and attacks (as the telephone once might have been), not, as the authors repeatedly suggest, that Facebook is somehow generating and whipping up and controlling racist sentiment over time.  Again, compare such a possibility to the broader literature.  There is good evidence that anti-semitic violence across German regions is fairly persistent, with pogroms during the Black Death predicting synagogue attacks during the Nazi time.  And we are supposed to believe that racist feelings dwindle into passivity simply because the thugs cannot access Facebook for a few days or maybe a week?  By the way, in their approach if there is an internet outrage, mobile devices do not in Germany pick up the slack.

I’d also like to revisit the NYT sentence, cited above, and repeated many times on Twitter:

Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

That sounds horrible, but it is actually a claim about variation across municipalities, not a claim about the absolute importance of the internet.  The authors also reported a very different and perhaps more relevant claim to the Times:

…this effect drove one-tenth of all anti-refugee violence.

I would have started the paper with that sentence, and then tried to estimate its robustness, without relying on Nutella.

As it stands right now, you shouldn’t be latching on to the reported results from this paper.

Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?

That is a 2011 AFPS paper by Sarah F Anzia and Christopher R Berry, here is the abstract:

If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates. We argue that when either or both forms of sex‐based selection are present, the women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterparts. We test this central implication of our theory by studying the relative success of men and women in delivering federal spending to their districts and in sponsoring legislation. Analyzing changes within districts over time, we find that congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. Women also sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than their male colleagues.

I also would consider the alternative hypothesis that the women legislators are simply more conscientious and less wrapped up in themselves.  Nonetheless this result is one possible equilibrium relevant to the recent MR discussions on statistical discrimination.

Here is a paper showing female mayors have higher political skills,  This paper shows that women do better in a minority party than in a polarized majority party setting.

For the pointer I thank Michelangelo L.

Has the space of possible political outcomes opened up?

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

Every now and then, one party will control all branches of government, and then the rhetoric and the expectations will be in place for some pretty big changes. Not long ago, I thought that even a 5-to-4 conservative Republican majority on the Supreme Court would essentially leave Roe v. Wade in place, for fear of taking this Republican-friendly issue off the national agenda. Now I’m not so sure. All of a sudden, Americans are getting used to the idea that extreme political change is possible, for better or worse, and that means many of them will demand it. In the Trump Era, if I may call it that, it is harder to tell your base that big changes just don’t happen that easily.


There are also plenty of good ideas that don’t have a partisan tinge one way or the other. Five years ago, I thought the Federal Reserve was far away from adopting “nominal GDP targeting,” an idea supported by many economists on both the right and the left. Today it seems entirely possible that the Fed will move much further in that direction, if only because it wouldn’t be seen as such a big, radical change compared to so many other developments. Trump is probably going to tweet criticism at the Fed no matter what it does, so it might as well just go ahead and do some things it wants to do.

Do read the whole thing.

What should I ask Bruno Maçães?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States.  It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”

On the book:

Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union

Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why.  I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”

On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.

My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?

So what should I ask him?

The decline of private ownership in America

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column,.  After a discussion of Spotify, Netflix, Kindle, and Uber, I move to the more general point:

Each of these changes is beneficial, yet I worry that Americans are, slowly but surely, losing their connection to the idea of private ownership. The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children pets or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?

We’re hardly at a point where American property has been abolished, but I am still nervous that we are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative.

And as software continues to “eat the world,” we often have fewer ownership rights when it comes to revisions, upgrades, and repairs.  The piece closes with this:

Does that sound like something our largely agrarian Founding Fathers might have been happy about? The libertarian political theorist might tell you that arrangement is simply freedom of contract in action. But the more commonsensical, broad libertarian intuitions of the American public encapsulate a more brutish and direct sense that some things we simply own and hold the rights to.

Those are intuitions which are growing increasingly disconnected from reality, and no one knows what lies on the other side of this social experiment.

Do read the whole thing.

YIMBY-NIMBY sentences to ponder

Sadly, these sentences help NIMBY:

….we find that buying a home leads individuals to participate substantially more in local elections, on average. We also collect data on local ballot initiatives, and we find that the homeowner turnout boost is almost twice as large in times and places where zoning issues are on the ballot. Additionally, the effect of homeownership increases with the price of the home purchase, suggesting that asset investment may be an important mechanism for the participatory effects.

That is from a new paper by Andrew B Hall and Jesse Yoder (pdf).

*Stubborn Attachments* is being published by Stripe Press

The full title is Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  I have been working on this book for about twenty years, and I recommend it to you all.

Here is the Amazon link, you can pre-order for October 16.  Here is the Kindle link.  I will get you the Barnes and Noble link as soon as it is available.  The Stripe Press people have done a fantastic job with the cover and also with the production more generally, my commendations to them!

That was then, this is now

Politicians were not shy about discussing sexual pleasure, even as a matter of state business.  During Jefferson’s second term, when the ambassador from Tunis arrived in Washington, he requested that the secretary of state make his stay complete by providing him and his entourage with concubines.  Madison (generally portrayed as prim and proper) charged the ambassador’s pleasure to the government, listing “Georgia a Greek,” as one of the expenses among “appropriations for foreign intercourse”  He made light of the incident in a letter to Jefferson, noting the double meaning of “foreign intercourse.”

That is from Nancy Isenberg’s excellent Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.  I also learned that Burr was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and that late in his life Burr spent time with Bentham, was intrigued by the Panopticon idea, and he may have influenced Bentham on suffrage