Category: Political Science

The microfoundations of intersectionality

Here is the introduction to the Wikipedia page on intersectionality:

Intersectionality is an analytic framework which attempts to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalized in society.[ Intersectionality considers that various forms of social stratification, such as class, race, sexual orientation, age, disability and gender, do not exist separately from each other but are interwoven together. While the theory began as an exploration of the oppression of women of color within society, today the analysis is potentially applied to all social categories (including social identities usually seen as dominant when considered independently).

So why might intersectionality matter?  I can think of a few reasons:

1. Perhaps the signal extraction problem becomes more difficult in a non-linear fashion, when you are trying to peer through discrimination and identify underused talent for those with “multiple non-conformities.”  You might have a good sense of what an undervalued black student will look like, but find it harder — indeed much harder — to identify an undervalued Surinamese Haitian trans female student in a wheelchair.

2. Multiple non-conformities are like tolls on a river.  When there are multiple tolls, it doesn’t help commerce much to remove any one of them.  Similarly, you might fix one dent in your car, but it may not be worthwhile to fix fifteen dents or indeed any one of them.  No, I am not saying that individuals with multiple non-conformities are, in a quality sense, like dents in a car.  Rather there is a common logic involving threshold effects.  If you will come across as highly unusual in any case, perhaps you will not spend money to buy a nice suit.  Or perhaps outside parties are more likely to help a person who has only one main “disability” or non-conformity to overcome, perceiving a much higher chance of success with the aid.  Non-linear effects can discourage effort in a wide variety of cases.

3. Marginalized or minority communities may themselves exhibit prejudice against other non-conformities (for instance, some parts of the Jamaican community seem to be especially biased against gay individuals).  That can make it harder for persons with multiple non-conformities to find allies.

4. Note that intersectionality may operate in a favor of a person rather than always operating against a person’s interests.  For instance, black women arguably face less labor marker discrimination than do black men.

Overall, I believe the intersectionality concept is underrated by many people in the mainstream and on the political Right.  It suffers from some of the problems that would be predicted by…the intersectionality concept.

Why does tech have so many political problems?

These are originally derived from written notes, a basis for comments by somebody else, from a closed session on tech.  I have added my own edits:

  1. Most tech leaders aren’t especially personable. Instead, they’re quirky introverts. Or worse.
  2. Most tech leaders don’t care much about the usual policy issues. They care about AI, self-driving cars, and space travel, none of which translate into positive political influence.
  3. Tech leaders are idealistic and don’t intuitively understand the grubby workings of WDC.
  4. People who could be “managers” in tech policy areas (for instance, they understand tech, are good at coalition building, etc.) will probably be pulled into a more lucrative area of tech. Therefore ther is an acute talent shortage in tech policy areas.
  5. The Robespierrean social justice terror blowing through Silicon Valley occupies most of tech leaders’ “political” mental energy. It is hard to find time to focus on more concrete policy issues.
  6. Of the policy issues that people in tech do care about—climate, gay/trans rights, abortion, Trump—they’re misaligned with Republican Party, to say the least. This same Republican party currently rules.
  7. While accusations of deliberate bias against Republicans are overstated, the tech rank-and-file is quite anti-Republican, and increasingly so. This limits the political degrees of freedom of tech leaders. (See the responses to Elon Musk’s Republican donation.)
  8. Several of the big tech companies are de facto monopolies or semi-monopolies. They must spend a lot of their political capital denying this or otherwise minimizing its import.
  9. The media increasingly hates tech. (In part because tech is such a threat, in part because of a deeper C.P. Snow-style cultural mismatch.)
  10. Not only does tech hate Trump… but Trump hates tech.
  11. By nature, tech leaders are disagreeable iconoclasts (with individualistic and believe it or not sometimes megalomaniacal tendencies). That makes them bad at uniting as a coalition.
  12. Major tech companies have meaningful presences in just a few states, which undermines their political influence. Of states where they have a presence — CA, WA, MA, NY — Democrats usually take them for granted, Republicans write them off.  Might Austin, TX someday help here?
  13. US tech companies are increasingly unpopular among governments around the world. For instance, Facebook/WhatsApp struggles in India. Or Google and the EU. Or Visa and Russia. This distracts the companies from focusing on US and that makes them more isolated.
  14. The issues that are challenging for tech companies aren’t arcane questions directly in and of the tech industry (such as copyright mechanics for the music industry or procurement rules for defense). They’re broader and they also encounter very large coalitions coming from other directions: immigration laws, free speech issues on platforms, data privacy questions, and worker classification on marketplaces.
  15. Blockchain may well make the world “crazier” in the next five years. So tech will be seen as driving even more disruption.
  16. The industry is so successful that it’s not very popular among the rest of U.S. companies and it lacks allies. (90%+ of S&P 500 market cap appreciation this year has been driven by tech.) Many other parts of corporate America see tech as a major threat.
  17. Maybe it is hard to find prominent examples of the great good that big tech is doing. Instagram TV. iPhone X. Amazon Echo Dot. Microsoft Surface Pro. Are you impressed? Are these companies golden geese or have they simply appropriated all the gold?

Are there more spies than you think?

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

We tend to focus on the cloak and dagger side of the KGB and successor institutions, but they’re also just government agencies trying to boost their budgets and achieve higher status in their home country. In other words, spy agencies play the typical bureaucratic games.

To maintain their status and privileged perch, spy agencies may try to take credit for as many activities as possible. This emphasis of quantity over quality is a typical bureaucratic response to a political system based on imperfect information. It is hard for national leaders to judge how effective their spy agencies are, so the spy agencies want to pass along good numbers, much as a corporation might try to slant its quarterly earnings report.


John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence, admitted in 2006 that the U.S. was deploying about 100,000 spies around the world. Given that the U.S. is the world’s technology and military leader, and yet has a relatively small share of global population, is it so crazy to think the number of people spying on us is larger than that?

Do read the whole thing.

Envy and status in politics

2. People will oppose policies that benefit themselves and their community if they think it will lower their within-group status. 

McClendon uses survey data from South Africa and the United States to show that status motivations change the way that people think about redistributive economic policies. This is even true within ethnic groups, including marginalized ethnic groups like African Americans. As McClendon notes:

“The worse off people are than their coethnic neighbors, the more supportive they are of greater redistribution (regardless of how personally costly this support is); the better off people are than their coethnic neighbors, the less supportive they are of redistribution.”

In other words, even when a policy might make someone materially better off (by, say, improving their housing conditions), they are likely to oppose it if the government doing so for everyone in their community would harm their relative status position.

That is from Laura Seay at The Washington Post, drawing on work from the new Envy in Politics, by Gwyneth H. McClendon.  I have just ordered that book.

How partisan is local law enforcement for immigration?

That is the topic of a new paper from Daniel M. Thompson, political science at Stanford.  The answer is “not very”:

Is local law enforcement conducted differently based on the party in power? I offer an answer to this question by focusing on a case in which law enforcement is elected and has meaningful independent discretion: sheriff compliance with federal requests to detain unauthorized immigrants. Using a regression discontinuity design in a new dataset of over 3,200 partisan sheriff elections and administrative data on sheriff behavior, I find that Democrats and Republicans comply at nearly the same rate. These results contribute to ongoing research into the role that partisanship plays in local policymaking, indicating that law enforcement officers make similar choices across party lines even when they have broad authority. I also present evidence that sheriffs hold more similar immigration enforcement views across party than the general public, highlighting the role of candidate entry in determining the level of partisan polarization.

For the pointer I thank Andrew Hall.  And here is Daniel Thompson on Twitter.

Noah Smith and I debate the future of immigration into America

Over at Bloomberg:

Noah Smith: …Your conclusion was that although most Americans might have warm feelings toward immigrants in the abstract, the minority who are intensely anti-immigrant will prevail.

I think there are reasons to doubt this conclusion. The first reason is that illegal immigration and low-skilled immigration — the types that people tend to feel most negatively about — are both way down from a decade ago. Because these unpopular inflows are simply less of an issue, the pressure for restriction might abate quickly. Meanwhile, with U.S. fertility rates low, the U.S. needs skilled immigrants to come in and pay taxes to support the comfortable retirements of the elderly native-born. We might be seeing a situation similar to the mid-1800s, in which the needs of the U.S. economy override a brief bout of nativism.

Tyler Cowen: I still don’t see a renewed dose of immigration increases in America’s immediate or even midterm future. Immigration has become a major issue all around Europe, and pretty uniformly it is helping right-wing parties, not the left. Democrats fear this scenario for the U.S., even if immigration is polling pretty well at the moment. And so Democrats will keep some distance from the issue, more than one might have thought a few years ago.

Democrats also have begun to rethink the demographic-dividend strategy, based on the premise that immigrants will continue to vote for the Democrats in disproportionate numbers. According to one estimate, in 2016 perhaps as many as 28 percent of Latinos voted Republican, more than many observers had been expecting. The very successes of assimilation mean that many immigrants will end up voting Republican. Furthermore, a lot of recent legal arrivals are among the strongest opponents of illegal immigration into this country. I increasingly doubt that Democrats will be willing to bet the farm on a political strategy to boost immigration.

There is much more at the link.

Chinese sentences of the day another view of Trump

I have just spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals, many of whom are awed by his skill as a strategist and tactician…He [Yafei] worries that strategic competition has become the new normal and says that “trade wars are just the tip of the iceberg”.

…In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favourable to Washington. Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong…

My interlocutors say that Mr Trump is the US first president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skillful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.

That is highly speculative, to say the least.  And perhaps you should not be happy if China sees your strategy as strong, since China itself generally does a poor job cultivating allies and also undervalues them.  In any case, that is from Mark Leonard at the FT.

For Epistocracy

Vox’s Sean Illing has an excellent interview with Jason Brennan about his book Against Democracy:

…Illing: Let’s return to the “competence principle.” Why does the right to competent government trump other fundamental rights, like the right to participate in the democratic process?

Brennan: I think the real question is why should we assume there’s a right to participate in democratic process? It’s actually quite weird and different from a lot of other rights we seem to have.

We have the right to choose our partner, to choose our religion, to choose what we’re going to eat, where we live, what job we’ll do, etc. While some of these things do impose costs on others, they’re primarily about carving out a sphere of autonomy for the individual, and about preventing other people from having control over you.

A right to participate in politics seems fundamentally different because it involves imposing your will upon other people. So I’m not sure that any of us should have that kind of right, at least not without any responsibilities.

So how do we create an epistocracy?

Brennan:…Here’s what I propose we do: Everyone can vote, even children. No one gets excluded. But when you vote, you do three things.

First, you tell us what you want. You cast your vote for a politician, or for a party, or you take a position on a referendum, whatever it might be. Second, you tell us who you are. We get your demographic information, which is anonymously coded, because that stuff affects how you vote and what you support.

And the third thing you do is take a quiz of very basic political knowledge. When we have those three bits of information, we can then statistically estimate what the public would have wanted if it was fully informed.

Under this system, it’s not really the case that you have more power than I do. We can’t really point to any individual and say you were excluded, or your vote counted for more. The idea is to gauge what the public would actually want if it had all the information it needed.

Lots to think about. Read the whole thing.


I was surprised by the consistent level of quality in the production.  It runs for about 2 hours, 20 minutes, with hardly any slow musical moments — how many pop or rap albums can say the same?

I do not agree with those who see it as too authoritarian or too glorifying of raw ambition and war.  In my read of the piece, it is “crazy” King George III who speaks the truth about politics.  The main plot of course has non-white characters in the roles of Founding Fathers.  I view this as an imaginary history, to be compared against what actually happened, to illustrate just how far America is from having an actual emancipatory history.  At the same time, America is the country where people tell such imaginary stories about emancipatory histories, a sign that we are not entirely hopeless.  Yet when it comes to “who is in the room,” and “who gets to tell the story” — two recurring themes — the outcomes have been less than ideal.  I saw Hamilton as a piece about shattered dreams and yet picking up the pieces yet again.

It is striking how good a job Hamilton does at appealing to viewers of all different levels of education and information.

Here is a review from David Brooks (NYT).

Steve Teles on the Federalist Society and the Left

Here is one bit from what is an excellent story with good material in every paragraph:

Mr. Teles makes sure to emphasize that his sympathy with the conservative legal movement here grows out of not his policy preferences, which lean left, but his belief in the importance of a “powerfully structured” constitutional system. “I don’t think the purpose of the Constitution is to get a government so small you can drown in a bathtub,” he says. Rather, it is to ensure the government “is democratically responsible.”

Mr. Teles believes that one of the most salient projects for the newly conservative Roberts Court will be to roll back administrative-state prerogatives. That could revitalize Congress and restore the constitutional structure, vindicating two longtime goals of the conservative legal movement. But he thinks this could also end up serving certain policy ends of progressives.

For the past several decades, Mr. Teles says, many progressive victories in the economic realm have been achieved through “administrative jujitsu”—difficult-to-understand maneuvers involving taxes, fees, mandates, regulations, and administrative directives. If courts start to block technocratic liberal plans for social reform because they violate the separation of powers, the left may find it easier to mobilize for pure redistribution as an alternative. Think of postal banking instead of CFPB regulation, or a carbon tax instead of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, or a reduction in the Medicare eligibility age instead of ObamaCare subsidies and exchanges.

That might be good for democratic discourse, Mr. Teles suggests. “In some ways liberalism has been deformed” by relying on administrative agencies, “as opposed to making big arguments for big, encompassing social programs.” In the short term, though, conservative courts will probably prove “radicalizing for the left.” Democrats may fully jettison Clintonism and say: “We’re going straight for socialism.” Steeply redistributive programs enacted by legislatures would be “easier to defend in court,” even a conservative court, than unaccountable bureaucratic diktats.

That is from Jason Willick at the WSJ.  I am a big fan of Steve Teles, and in fact here is my Conversation with him (and Brink Lindsey).

How should the Fed respond to Trump’s comments?

The president tempered his criticism by saying that Chairman Jerome Powell — his own appointee — is a “very good man.” He also stopped short of directly calling on the Fed to stop raising interest rates.

“I’m not thrilled,” he said. “Because we go up and every time you go up they want to raise rates again. I don’t really — I am not happy about it. But at the same time, I’m letting them do what they feel is best.”

Here is the story.

It is probably best for the Fed to simply pretend he did not say this.  Trying to respond simply escalates the dispute and risks a repeat comment.  That said, the Fed may make its future plans concerning interest rates hazier, thereby offering less forward guidance.  That will give Trump less of a target in the short run, and furthermore “the market,” with fuzzier expectations to begin with, won’t be able to estimate whether the Fed was swayed by Trump or not.

In any case, the end result will be a modest increase in economic uncertainty.

I would stress, however, that we do not have a politically independent Fed to begin with.  Such an arrangement is impossible in a democracy, given that current institutional protections for the Fed always can be taken away by Congress and the president.  What we do have is bounds for independence, and those bounds just narrowed, and not for the better.  If I were going to narrow the political independence of the Fed (and I am not advocating this), interest rates are not even the correct variable to choose.  Why not some measure of how much the Fed is aiding the economy in a downturn?  Interest rates may or may not be the most powerful tool there.

The White House itself is trying to pretend the event didn’t happen:

Shortly afterward, the White House issued a statement saying Trump’s comments were merely a “reiteration” of his “long-held positions,” and that his “views on interest rates are well known.”

“Of course the President respects the independence of the Fed,” it said. “He is not interfering with Fed policy decisions.“

And here is another recent remark by Trump, or was it?

Is Trump a Russian plant?

Here is my Bloomberg column on that topic.  Excerpt:

“But if Trump were in Putin’s pocket, why would he be so nice to him in public? Wouldn’t a real KGB pawn keep a proper distance and play a subtler game?”

…Then there is the “hiding in plain sight” theory. If you know you did something wrong, and people are searching everywhere for evidence of it, then you also know they will eventually find it. So you might as well put it somewhere obvious. For one thing, it might take them longer to look in the middle of the room, so to speak. And when they do find the incriminating evidence, you can argue that it can’t be that bad because you never tried to hide it.

But that hypothesis doesn’t work either. Trump’s embrace of Putin hasn’t exactly put people off the scent, for one. And if Robert Mueller’s team does present serious evidence of Trump-Russia collusion, an “I was open about our friendship at that press conference” probably won’t serve as a workable defense.

p.s. probably not.

My Conversation with Vitalik Buterin

Obviously his talents in crypto and programming are well-known, but he is also a first-rate thinker on both economics and what you broadly might call sociology.  You could take away the crypto contributions altogether, and he still would be one of the very smartest people I have met.  Here is the audio and transcript.  The CWT team summarized it as follows:

Tyler sat down with Vitalik to discuss the many things he’s thinking about and working on, including the nascent field of cryptoeconomics, the best analogy for understanding the blockchain, his desire for more social science fiction, why belief in progress is our most useful delusion, best places to visit in time and space, how he picks up languages, why centralization’s not all bad, the best ways to value crypto assets, whether P = NP, and much more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you could go back into the distant past for a year, a time and place of your choosing, you have the linguistic skills and immunity against disease to the extent you need it, maybe some money in your pocket, where would you pick to satisfy your own curiosity?

BUTERIN: Where would I pick? To do what? To spend a year there, or . . . ?

COWEN: Spend a year as a “tourist.” You could pick ancient Athens or preconquest Mexico or medieval Russia. It’s a kind of social science fiction, right?

BUTERIN: Yeah, totally. Let’s see. Possibly first year of World War II — obviously, one of those areas that’s close to it but still reasonably safe from it…

Basically, experience more of what human behavior and what collective human behavior would look like once you pushed humans further into extremes, and people aren’t as comfortable as they are today.

I started the whole dialogue with this:

I went back and I reread all of the papers on your home page. I found it quite striking that there were two very important economics results, one based on menu costs associated with the name of Greg Mankiw. Another is a paper on the indeterminacy of monetary equilibrium associated with Fischer Black.

These are famous papers. On your own, you appear to rediscover these results without knowing about the papers at all. So how would you describe how you teach yourself economics?

Highly recommended, whether or not you understand blockchain.  Oh, and there is this:

COWEN: If you had to explain blockchain to a very smart person from 40 years ago, who knew computers but had no idea of crypto, what would be the best short explanation you could give them, basically, for what you do?

BUTERIN: Sure. One of the analogies I keep going back to is this idea of a “world computer.” The idea, basically, is that a blockchain, as a whole, functions like a computer. It has a hard drive, and on that hard drive, it stores what all the accounts are.

It stores what the code of all the smart contracts is, what the memory of all these smart contracts is. It accepts incoming instructions — and these incoming instructions are signed transactions sent by a bunch of different users — and processes them according to a set of rules.

My take on the Statue of Liberty

That is my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

Cleveland described the statue as “keeping watch and ward before the gates of America.” This is not exactly warm rhetoric — the plaque with Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming the “huddled masses” to America was not added until 1903 — and although Cleveland supported free trade, he opposed Chinese immigrants, as he regarded them as unable to assimilate. The statue was never about fully open borders.

We Americans tend to think of the statue as reflecting the glories of our national ideals, but that’s not necessarily the case. In her forthcoming “Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty,” Francesca Lidia Viano points out that you might take the torch and aggressive stance of the statue as a warning to people to go back home, or as a declaration that the U.S. itself needs more light. Her valuable book (on which I am relying for much of the history in this column) also notes that the statue represented an expected “spiritual initiation to liberty” before crossing the border, and was seen as such at the time. The ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians all regarded border crossing as an important ritual act, associated with “great spiritual changes.” The Statue of Liberty promoted a transformational and indeed partially mystical interpretation of assimilation.

There are other interpretations of the statue’s purported message based on the details of its design. You plausibly can read the statue as a Masonic icon, a homage to the family coat of arms of Bartholdi the sculptor, a hearkening back to the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a celebration of Orientalism, Orpheus and Samothracian civilization, and as a monument to the dead of the Revolutionary War. The statue also contained design clues celebrating the now-French city of Colmar (home base for Bartholdi), and threatening revenge against the Germans for taking Colmar in 1871 from the Franco-Prussian war.

And that does not even get us to the main argument.  In the meantime, I would stress what a wonderful and splendid book is Francesca Lidia Viano’s Sentinel: The Unlikely Origins of the Statue of Liberty.  It is entirely gripping, and one of the must-read non-fiction books of this year.

Stripe Press

Stripe partners with hundreds of thousands of the world’s most innovative businesses—organizations that will shape the world of tomorrow. These businesses are the result of many different inputs. Perhaps the most important ingredient is “ideas.”

Stripe Press highlights ideas that we think can be broadly useful. Some books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today.

Link here.