Category: Political Science

The best argument against the Electoral College

Contrary to conventional intellectual wisdom there are not many good ones, but this packs some real force:

Starting from probabilistic simulations of likely presidential election outcomes that are similar to the output from election forecasting models, we calculate the likelihood of disputable, narrow outcomes under the Electoral College. The probability that the Electoral College is decided by 20,000 ballots or fewer in a single, pivotal state is greater than 1-in-10. Although it is possible in principle for either system to generate more risk of a disputable election outcome, in practice the Electoral College today is about 40 times as likely as a National Popular Vote to generate scenarios in which a small number of ballots in a pivotal voting unit determines the Presidency.

And note this, which explains a good deal of the debate and rationalizations — on both sides:

This disputed-election risk is asymmetric across political parties. It is about twice as likely that a Democrat’s (rather than Republican’s) Electoral College victory in a close election could be overturned by a judicial decision affecting less than 1,000, 5,000, or 10,000 ballots in a single, pivotal state.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Michael Geruso and Dean Spears.

My Conversation with Michael Kremer

Self-recommending, here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Michael joined Tyler to discuss the intellectual challenge of founding organizations, applying methods from behavioral economics to design better programs, how advanced market commitments could lower pharmaceutical costs for consumers while still incentivizing R&D, the ongoing cycle of experimentation every innovator understands, the political economy of public health initiatives, the importance of designing institutions to increase technological change, the production function of new technologies, incentivizing educational achievement, The Odyssey as a tale of comparative development, why he recently transitioned to University of Chicago, what researchers can learn from venture capitalists, his current work addressing COVID-19, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I’ve seen estimates — they’re actually from one of the groups you founded — that a deworming pill could cost as little as 50 cents a year per person in many parts of Africa. So why isn’t deworming done much more?

KREMER: You could say the glass is half empty, you can say it’s half full, or you can say it’s almost three-quarters full. I think it’s about three-quarters full. When I first got involved in deworming, it was testing a small NGO program. We found phenomenal effects of that. The original work found health gains and education gains. Now we’ve tracked people over 20 years, and we’re seeing people have a better standard of living or earning more.

Following the early results, we presented the results of the government of Kenya to the World Bank. Kenya scaled this up nationally, in part with assistance from the World Bank, primarily just in conveying some of that information.

Indian states started doing that, and then the national government of India took this on. They’re reaching — a little bit harder to know the exact numbers — but probably 150 million people a year. Many other countries are doing this as well, so it’s actually quite widely adopted.

COWEN: But there’s still a massive residual, right?

KREMER: That is for sure.

COWEN: What’s your best explanatory theory of why the residual isn’t smaller? It would seem to be a vote winner. African countries, fiscally, are in much better shape than they used to be. They’re more democratic. Public health looks much better. The response to COVID-19 has probably been better than many people expected, say, in Senegal, possibly in Kenya. So why not do deworming more?

KREMER: The people who have worms are pretty poor people. The richer people are less likely to have worms within a given society. Richer people are probably more politically influential.

There’s also something about worms — they gradually build up in your body, and one worm is not going to do that much damage. The problem is when you’ve got lots of worms in your body, and even there, it’s going to take time.

I’ve had malaria. I don’t think I’ve had worms. I hope I haven’t. When you have malaria, you feel terrible. You go from feeling fine to feeling terrible, and then you take the medicine. You feel great afterwards. With worms, it’s much more like a chronic thing, and when you expel the worms from your body, that’s sort of gross. I don’t think, even at the individual level, do you have quite the demand that would be commensurate with the scale of the problem. That’s a behavioral economics explanation.

I think there are political issues and then there are behavioral issues. I would actually say that a huge, huge issue . . . This sounds very boring, but this falls between the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, and each one of them has different priorities. The Ministry of Health is going to be worried about delivering things through clinics. They’re worried about HIV and malaria, tuberculosis, as it should be.

The Ministry of Education — they’re worried about teacher strikes. It’s very easy for something to either fall between the cracks or be the victim of turf wars. It sounds too small to be, “How can that really get in the way?” But anybody who’s spent time working in governments understands those things can very easily get in the way. In some ways, it’s surprising how much progress has been made.

Here’s one way the political economy works in favor. You mentioned democracy — I think that’s a factor. I actually find — and I don’t want to be necessarily a big fan of politicians — but in some ways, politicians hear how much this costs, and they think they can affect that many people for that small amount of money, and they’re like, “Hey, I want to get on that. Maybe this is something I can claim as an achievement.” We saw that in Kenya. We saw that in India.


COWEN: Let’s say the current Michael Kremer sets up another high school in Kenya. What is it that you would do that the current high schools in Kenya are not doing? What would you change? You’re in charge.

KREMER: Right. We’ve learned a lot in education research in recent years. One thing that we saw in Kenya, but was also seen in India and many other places, is that it’s very easy for kids to fall behind the curriculum. Curricula, in particular in developing countries, tend to be set at a fairly high level, similar to what you would see in developed countries.

However, kids are facing all sorts of disadvantages, and there are all sorts of problems in the way the system works. There’s often high teacher absence. Kids are sick. Kids don’t have the preparation at home, often. So kids can fall behind the curriculum.

Whereas we’ve had the slogan in the US, “No Child Left Behind,” in developing countries, education system is focused on kids at the top of the distribution. What’s been found is, if you can set up — and there are a whole variety of different ways to do this — either remedial education systems or some technology-aided systems that are adaptive, that go to where the kid is . . . I’ve seen huge gains from this in India, and we’re starting to see adoption of this in Africa as well, and that can have a very big impact at quite low cost.

Intelligent throughout.

How much does it matter who dies from Covid-19?

In this latest Bloomberg column, I am referring in particular to the ages of the victims.  The subtext of course is that many of the herd immunity theorists repeat (again and again) that most of the victims are quite old, which is indeed correct.  Here is one excerpt:

By contrast [to 9/11], about 3,500 Americans die each year in fires. To repeat: That is each year. Yet Americans have not responded to deaths by fire as they did to 9/11, nor has a major public discussion ensued.

To be clear, the U.S. probably should do more to limit the number of fire deaths. But they do not threaten the nation and constitutional order in the way that terrorist attacks do. How people die is crucial in helping a nation and society scale its response and frame the debate over what to do.

Covid-19 is obviously more like 9/11 than it is like the annual toll of fire deaths. It commands the headlines every day, has created a global economic depression, is reshaping global politics and the balance of power, causes extreme stress for millions and has significantly harmed America’s global reputation. Yes, there have been some anxiety-driven overreactions, but it is inevitable that humans will respond dramatically to a major worldwide pandemic.

To be sure, the number of U.S. victims is high — 220,000 and counting, plus some number of excess deaths from broader causes. But the event itself is so cataclysmic that “downgrading” those deaths by saying many of the victims were elderly doesn’t make a big difference in terms of formulating an optimal response.

And to close:

Pandemics have been civilization-altering events since the beginning of human history, and they still are — especially if we do not respond properly. The need to get the response right, not the relative worth of the young to that of the old, is the main thing that we should be obsessing about.


*Poet of Revolution: The Making of John Milton*

That is the new book by Nicholas McDowell, and it is one of my favorite non-fiction works this year.  Milton is today more relevant than he has been in a long time, excerpt:

Milton’s political development is shaped by his evolving understanding of the ways in which ‘tyranny’ — defined initially in ecclesiastical and clerical terms but which grows to encompass political organization — retards the intellectual and cultural progress of a nation.  This understanding was shaped not only by historical experience of the unprecedented political turbulence of mid-seventeenth-century Britain, but by the interaction between that experience and his intellectula life.  Milton’s period of intensive and almost entirely orthodox reading in political and religious history in the mid-1630s, the record of some of which survives in the notebook that was rediscovered in 1874, revealed to him how clerical censorship and heresy-hunting had suppressed intellectual and literary life in other countries.  Milton regarded the cultural decline of Italy under the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition from the glory days of Dante and Petrarch, two of his pre-eminent post-classical models of the poetic career, as the starkest instance of this process.  His tour of Italy in 1638-9 confirmed the lessons of his reading: that in nations where ‘this kind of inquisition tyrannizes,’ as he put it in Areopagitica, learning is brought into a ‘servil condition’ and the ‘glory ‘ of ‘wits’ is ‘dampt.’

Recommended!  Every page is enjoyable, and you can profit from this book no matter your prior knowledge of Milton may be.  A sure thing for the year end’s “best of” list.

You can pre-order here.

Keynes on what is required to make a great economist

The study of economics does not seem to require any specialized gifts of an unusually high order. Is it not, intellectually regarded, a very easy subject compared with the higher branches of philosophy and pure science? Yet good, or even competent, economists are the rarest of birds. An easy subject, at which very few excel! The paradox finds its explanation, perhaps, in that the master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts. He must reach a high standard in several different directions and must combine talents not often found together.  He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher – in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man’s nature of his institutions must lie entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood; as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near the earth as a politician.

That is from Keynes’s 1924 essay on Marshall, reprinted in Essays in Biography. Most of all, it is Keynes describing himself!

Why I reject the Great Barrington Declaration

Here is my 2x normal length Bloomberg column on that topic, as had been requested by Daniel Klein.  The argument has numerous twists and turns, do read the whole thing but here is one bit (I will indent only their words):

“Here are the key words of the Great Barrington Declaration on herd immunity:

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

What exactly does the word “allow” mean in this context? Again the passivity is evident, as if humans should just line up in the proper order of virus exposure and submit to nature’s will. How about instead we channel our inner Ayn Rand and stress the role of human agency? Something like: “Herd immunity will come from a combination of exposure to the virus through natural infection and the widespread use of vaccines. Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process.”

And the close:

“In most parts of the Western world, normal openings for restaurants, sporting events and workplaces are likely to lead to spiraling caseloads and overloaded hospitals, as is already a risk in some of the harder-hit parts of Europe. Reopenings, to the extent they work, rely on a government that so scares people that attendance remains low even with reopening.

In that sense, as things stand, there is no “normal” to be found. An attempt to pursue it would most likely lead to panic over the numbers of cases and hospitalizations, and would almost certainly make a second lockdown more likely. There is no ideal of liberty at the end of the tunnel here.

Don’t get me wrong: The Great Barrington strategy is a tempting one. Coming out of a libertarian think tank, it tries to procure maximum liberty for commerce and daily life. It is a seductive idea. Yet consistency of message is not an unalloyed good, even when the subject is liberty…

My worldview is both more hopeful and more tragic. There is no normal here, but we can do better — with vigorous actions to combat Covid-19, including government actions. The conception of human nature evident in the Great Barrington Declaration is so passive, it raises the question of whether it even qualifies as a defense of natural liberty.”

MR Tyler again: You will note I do not make the emotional, question-begging argument that herd immunity strategies will kill millions (though I do think more people die under that scenario).  If you argue, as many herd immunity critics do, that the elderly cannot be isolated, it seems you also should not be entirely confident that the currently non-infected can be isolated.  The brutal truth is simply that a Great Barrington strategy put into practice would lead to rapidly spiraling cases and a rather quick and oppressive second lockdown, worse than what the status quo or some improved version of it is likely to bring.  Total deaths are likely higher, along with more social trauma, due to the more extreme whipsaw effects, but no not by millions.

Let’s accelerate those biomedicals, people!

*American Purpose*

…a new magazine, media project, and intellectual community called American Purpose is launching at, and can also be found on Twitter at @americanpurpose.

American Purpose, through digital publishing, conversation and convening, and podcasts, will offer a spirited examination of politics and culture. Our aim is to support the revitalization of liberal democracy at home, while addressing the authoritarian challenges to liberal democracy abroad. And we will offer lively and engrossing discussion of history and biography, arts and culture, science and technology.

“American Purpose is committed to building an intellectual community and a space for much-needed dialogue about the United States’ role as the vanguard of classically liberal ideas and institutions around the world,” said Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the American Purpose editorial board.

Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 vote

This study evaluates evidence pertaining to popular narratives explaining the American public’s support for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election. First, using unique representative probability samples of the American public, tracking the same individuals from 2012 to 2016, I examine the “left behind” thesis (that is, the theory that those who lost jobs or experienced stagnant wages due to the loss of manufacturing jobs punished the incumbent party for their economic misfortunes). Second, I consider the possibility that status threat felt by the dwindling proportion of traditionally high-status Americans (i.e., whites, Christians, and men) as well as by those who perceive America’s global dominance as threatened combined to increase support for the candidate who emphasized reestablishing status hierarchies of the past. Results do not support an interpretation of the election based on pocketbook economic concerns. Instead, the shorter relative distance of people’s own views from the Republican candidate on trade and China corresponded to greater mass support for Trump in 2016 relative to Mitt Romney in 2012. Candidate preferences in 2016 reflected increasing anxiety among high-status groups rather than complaints about past treatment among low-status groups. Both growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change.

Here is the article, by Diana C. Mutz, via someone on Twitter whom I have forgotten!

*Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime*

That is the new book by Lt. General David Barno and Nora Bensahel, here is one excerpt;

This emphasis on decentralized, independent battlefield actions, long a part of German military thinking, once again became a central tenet of German army doctrine in the modest force of the post-Versailles period.  Mission orders were regularly emphasized and practiced during peacetime training exercises.  moreover, the German army relentlessly critiqued the performance of its leaders and units in exercises and war games.  Commanders and staff officers at all levels were expected to do so candidly and objectively, without regard to personal embarrassment or potential career damage.  This candor extended to critiquing the performance of senior officers and higher headquarters as well.  These principles made German doctrine inherently adaptable in the face of battle.

And then a few pages later:

In stark contrast to the Germans, in the French army there was “no large-scale examination of the lessons of the last war by a significant portion of the officers corps.”  Partly as a result, the lessons that the French army drew from world War I led to a warfighting doctrine that was nearly the polar opposite of that developed by the Germans.  The French army assumed that the next war in Europe would largely resemble the last.  The staggering number of French casualties during World War I led French leaders to conclude that an offensive doctrine would prove both indecisive and prohibitively costly.  They reasoned that a defensive doctrine would best preserve their fighting power and prevent the enemy from winning another major war through an offensive strike.  As a result, nearly all French interwar thinking focused on leveraging defensive operations to prevail in any future war.

Overall, it is striking to me just how much substance there is in this book per page — a rarity to be treasured!  You can order it here.

Claims about politics (speculative)

First, I don’t think “liberals” is exactly the right word here, but I’m not going to relitigate that one now. Second, as I’ve argued in my The Age of the Infovore (and in some forthcoming writings you haven’t seen yet), I don’t think “mental health condition” is appropriate in this context.  Furthermore, what are called “mental health conditions” often are sources of insight and can be positively correlated with talent.

That all said, I don’t think you can understand modern American discourse, most of all social media, without recognizing that “the intellectual Left” has higher neuroticism — as defined by Five-Factor personality theory — than say centrists.  The Right of course has its own correlations, but that is a topic for another time.

My Conversation with Audrey Tang

For me one of the most fun episodes, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  And here is the longer than ever before summary, befitting the chat itself:

Audrey Tang began reading classical works like the Shūjīng and Tao Te Ching at the age of 5 and learned the programming language Perl at the age of 12. Now, the autodidact and self-described “conservative anarchist” is a software engineer and the first non-binary digital minister of Taiwan. Their work focuses on how social and digital technologies can foster empathy, democracy, and human progress.

Audrey joined Tyler to discuss how Taiwan approached regulating Chinese tech companies, the inherent extraterritoriality of data norms, how Finnegans Wake has influenced their approach to technology, the benefits of radical transparency in communication, why they appreciate the laziness of Perl, using “humor over rumor” to combat online disinformation, why Taiwan views democracy as a set of social technologies, how their politics have been influenced by Taiwan’s indigenous communities and their oral culture, what Chinese literature teaches about change, how they view Confucianism as a Daoist, how they would improve Taiwanese education, why they view mistakes in the American experiment as inevitable — but not insurmountable, the role of civic tech in Taiwan’s pandemic response, the most important remnants of Japanese influence remaining in Taiwan, why they love Magic: The Gathering, the transculturalism that makes Taiwan particularly open and accepting of LGBT lifestyles, growing up with parents who were journalists, how being transgender makes them more empathetic, the ways American values still underpin the internet, what he learned from previous Occupy movements, why translation, rotation, and scaling are important skills for becoming a better thinker, and more.

This bit could have come from GPT-3:

COWEN: How useful a way is it of conceptualizing your politics to think of it as a mix of some Taiwanese Aboriginal traditions mixed in with Daoism, experience in programming, and then your own theory of humor and fun? And if you put all of that together, the result is Audrey Tang’s politics. Correct or not?

TANG: Well as of now, of course. But of course, I’m also growing, like a distributed ledger.

And this:

COWEN: You’re working, of course, in Taiwanese government. What’s the biggest thing wrong with economists?

TANG: You mean the magazine?

COWEN: No, no, the people, economists as thinkers. What’s their biggest defect or flaw?

TANG: I don’t know. I haven’t met an economist that I didn’t like, so I don’t think there’s any particular personality flaws there.


COWEN: Now, my country, the United States, has made many, many mistakes at an almost metaphysical level. What is it in the United States that those mistakes have come from? What’s our deeper failing behind all those mistakes?

TANG: I don’t know. Isn’t America this grand experiment to keep making mistakes and correcting them in the open and share it with the world? That’s the American experiment.

COWEN: Have we started correcting them yet?

TANG: I’m sure that you have.

Definitely recommended.

Why are North and South India so different on gender?

From Alice Evans:

Region is a strong predictor of female survival, literacy, autonomy, employment, and independent mobility. A woman with the exact same household wealth/ caste/ religion will likely have more autonomy if she lives in the South.

It does not seem to be a function of wealth, nor was colonialism a major factor.  And cousin marriage, which is more prevalent in the south?  Alice notes:

Southern women may have gained autonomy despite cousin marriage, not because of it.

Islam, however, is one factor:

In sum, gender segregation became more widespread under Islamic rule. Men continue [to] dominate public life, while women are more rooted in their families, seldom gathering to resist structural inequalities.

But perhaps most significantly:

Female labour force participation is higher in states with traditions of labour-intensive cultivation…

Wheat has been grown for centuries on the fertile, alluvial Indo-Gangetic plain. Cultivation is not terribly labour-intensive, though cereals must still be processed, shelled and ground. This lowers demand for female labour in the field, and heightens its importance at home.

Rice-cultivation is much more labour intensive. It requires the construction of tanks and irrigation channels, planting, transplanting, and harvesting. Women are needed in the fields. Rice is the staple crop in the South.

And this:

Pastoralism may have also influenced India’s caste-system. Brahmins dominate business, public service, politics, the judiciary, and universities. Upper caste purity and prestige has been preserved through female seclusion, prohibiting polluting sexual access. These patriarchal norms may be rooted in ancient livelihoods. Brahmins share genetic data with ancient Iranians and steppe pastoralists. Brahmins also comprise a larger share of the population in North India and only 3% in Tamil Nadu.

Over the centuries, male superiority may have become entrenched.


Northern parents increasingly support their daughters’ education, but this is primarily to improve their marriage prospects, not work outside the home.

There is much, much more at the link, including some excellent maps, visuals, and photos.

Fifty Shades of QE: Conflicts of Interest in Economic Research

Ho hum, nothing to see here…

Central banks sometimes evaluate their own policies. To assess the inherent conflict of interest, we compare the research findings of central bank researchers and academic economists regarding the macroeconomic effects of quantitative easing (QE). We find that central bank papers report larger effects of QE on output and inflation. Central bankers are also more likely to report significant effects of QE on output and to use more positive language in the abstract. Central bankers who report larger QE effects on output experience more favorable career outcomes. A survey of central banks reveals substantial involvement of bank management in research production.

That is a new NBER working paper by Brian Fabo, Martina Jančoková, Elisabeth Kempf, and Ľuboš Pástor.  Here is very good commentary and analysis from John Cochrane.

The Elite Quality Index

Here are the top ten, by Tomas Casas and Guido Cozzi:

1. Singapore

2. Switzerland

3. Germany

4. United Kingdom

5. United States

China comes in #12, Mexico wins for Latin America, Poland overperforms and France (!) underperforms.  Botswana is #23, and Argentina…uh-oh.  I don’t quite understand how the index is constructed, but how much a given elite focuses on Value Creation and avoids rent-seeking seems to be a key consideration.  The degree of Regulatory Capture counts as a negative.  Overall, the U.S. does very, very well on many metrics, but does poorly on Value Extraction.

Here is the underlying paper.  Here is the sponsoring organization.  Here is a lengthy treatment of the methodology.  For the pointer I thank Chandran.

European paintings show a rise in trustworthiness

Building on recent advances in social cognition, we design an algorithm to automatically generate trustworthiness evaluations for the facial action units (smile, eye brows, etc.) of European portraits in large historical databases. Our results show that trustworthiness in portraits increased over the period 1500–2000 paralleling the decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe. Further analyses suggest that this rise of trustworthiness displays is associated with increased living standards.

That is from a new paper by Lou Safra, in Nature.  Scroll down a few pages for some good photos, basically the people in the paintings look less pissed off over time.  Via Lionel Page.