Category: Political Science

Do not expect a civil war in America

Here is Chris Blattman on that topic, read the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:

  • Talk of a US breakup is nonsense
  • But there are real risks of regularized, serious political violence
  • Even so, I personally put those risks much lower than most of the people I just mentioned
  • Especially the risk of an organized right-wing insurgency—my own view is that risk is minute
  • That’s important, because a different risk level and a different diagnosis implies different solutions and priorities—because you don’t avert the next pandemic by prepping for the zombie apocalypse
  • Meanwhile, the backstory on things like the democracy downgrade should make you worry that the only thing that has degraded is the credibility of the rating organizations
  • For America, the greater risk (in my mind) is not violent insurrection, it is the quiet erosion of democratic norms (an actual degrading of American democracy) that never becomes violent, because it almost never makes sense to rebel
  • Even then the big story to me is the recent robustness of our institutions
  • Those of us who fear the specter of right-wing machinations—be it violence or state capture—should be vigilant, but also try to be suspicious of ourselves and our worst fears, for humans are perennially biased judges of our rivals

And from Musa al-Gharbi’s recent excellent piece:

We are not living in a “post-truth” world. We are not on the brink of a civil war. The perception that we are is almost purely an artifact of people taking poll and survey data at face value despite overwhelming evidence that we probably shouldn’t…

In fact, rather than January 6 serving as a prelude to a civil war, the US saw lower levels of death from political violence in 2021 than in any other year since the turn of the century. Even as violent crime approached record highs across much of the country, fatalities from political violence dropped. This is not an outcome that seems consistent with large and growing shares of the population supposedly leaning towards settling the culture wars with bullets instead of ballots. This turn of events does not seem consistent with the notion that tens of millions of Americans – including large numbers of military, law enforcement and militia members – literally believe the presidency was stolen, elections can no longer be trusted, and the fate of the country is on the line.

Indeed, far from giving up on elections, Republican voters are reveling in the prospect of taking back one or both chambers of Congress at the end of this year; they are eagerly awaiting the midterms (likely for good reason).

In truth, most Republican voters likely don’t believe in the big lie. But many would nonetheless profess to believe it in polls and surveys – just as they’d support politicians who make similar professions (according to one estimate, Republican candidates who embrace the big lie enjoy a 6 percentage point electoral boost as compared to Republicans who publicly affirm the 2020 electoral results).

They are both right.

Update on the Sri Lanka Organic Farming Disaster

In Organic Disaster I wrote:

Sri Lanka’s President abruptly banned chemical fertilizers earlier this year in a bid to become 100% organic. The ban has resulted in reduced production and soaring prices that, together with declining tourism and the pandemic, have created an economic crisis.

Here is the latest update:

Sri Lanka has announced compensation for more than a million rice farmers whose crops failed under a botched scheme to establish the world’s first 100-percent organic farming nation.

…The government will pay 40,000 million rupees ($200m) to farmers whose harvests were affected by the chemical fertiliser ban, agriculture minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage said on Tuesday.

“We are providing compensation to rice farmers whose crops were destroyed,” he told reporters. “We will also compensate those whose yields suffered without proper fertiliser.”

The government will spend another $149m on a price subsidy for rice farmers, he added.

About a third of Sri Lanka’s agricultural land was left dormant last year because of the import ban.

A good example of central planning in action.

The Great Wall

APNews: For the thousands of athletes, journalists and others descending on Beijing for the Winter Olympics, China’s strict pandemic measures are creating a surreal and at times anxious experience.

China is isolating everyone coming from abroad from any contact with the general public for the duration of the Games, which open next week. That means being taken from the Beijing airport in special vehicles to a hotel surrounded by temporary barricades that keep participants in and the public out.

“I know the only experience of Beijing I’m going to experience is the Beijing I will see out of my bus window and my hotel window,” said Associated Press photo editor Yirmiyan Arthur, who arrived this week. “I’m not really going to experience China, I’m just going to experience the Olympics within the bubble.”

At the same time China has yet to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine despite having a Chinese firm, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, distributing it in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Sad.

Who will fight?

Even setting aside the geography of the country, there is no instance I’m aware of in which a country or region with a total fertility rate below replacement has fought a serious insurgency. Once you’re the kind of people who can’t inconvenience yourselves enough to have kids, you are not going to risk your lives for a political ideal. When the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, their total fertility rates were 7.4 and 4.7, respectively…Ukraine is at 1.2. We see numbers like this and don’t stop to appreciate the wide chasm that separates the spiritual lives of nations where the average person has 1 kid from those with 3 or more, much less 6 or 7, each. On fertility, Russia isn’t that much better than Ukraine, but it’s got the tanks and a powerful air force, and the side that wants to fight a guerrilla war has to be the one that is willing to take a much larger number of casualties. There’s a consistent pattern of history where there’s a connection between making life and being willing to sacrifice it. This, by the way, is also why Hong Kong was easily pacified when China started clamping down, and why Taiwan will fold and not fight an insurgency if it ever comes down to it.

That is by Richard Hanania, via Zach Valenta.

Overcome your recency bias

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

For all the talk about how political and media bias distort people’s perceptions of current events, another kind of bias may have an even greater impact: recency bias. Put simply, recency bias is the practice of giving disproportionate weight to the events of the recent past when formulating expectations and plans.

And:

I fear we are committing a form of recency bias by not focusing more on nuclear weapons and the policies surrounding nuclear proliferation and nuclear-weapons use. Atomic bombs have not been used against humans since 1945, and so for many people they are not a major concern, having been supplanted by fears of climate change. But a broader lesson of human history is that, if a weapon is available, sooner or later someone will use it.

The plan for overcoming recency bias is pretty straightforward. Spend less time scrolling through news sites and more time reading books and non-news sites about how your issues of concern have played out in the distant past. If you are young, spend more time talking to older people about what things were like when they were growing up. If you had applied those techniques, Russia’s interest in taking over more parts of Ukraine would not be very surprising.

Recommended.

China’s Private Cities

In Rising private city operators in contemporary China, Jiao and Yu report that China’s private cities are growing.

…the last decade has witnessed a large growth in private city operators (PCOs) who plan, finance, build, operate and manage the infrastructure and public amenities of a new city as a whole. Different from previous PPPs, PCOs are a big breakthrough…they manage urban planning, industry development, investment attraction, and public goods and services. In other words, the traditional core functions of municipal governments are contracted out, and consequently, a significant neoliberal urban governance structure has become more prominent in China.

In the new business model, the China Fortune Land Development Co., Ltd. (CFLD) was undoubtedly the earliest and most successful. It manages 125 new cities or towns with a total area of over 4000 km2. Founded in 1998, the enterprise group has grown into a business giant with an annual income of CNY 83.8 billion in 2018. The company’s financial statements demonstrate that the annual return rate of net assets has grown as much as 30% annually from 2011 to 2018, which is the highest among the Chinese Fortune 500 companies.

As Rajagopalan and I argued in Lessons from Gurgaon, India’s Private City the key development has been to scale large enough so that the private operator internalizes the externalities. Quoting Jiao and Yu again:

The key to solving this problem is to internalize positive externality so that costs and benefits mainly affect the parties who choose to incur them. The solution of the new model is to outsource Gu’An New Industry City as a whole to CFLD, which becomes involved in the life cycle including planning, infrastructure and amenity construction, investment attraction, operations and maintenance, and enterprise services. In this way, a city is regarded as a special product or a spatial cluster of public goods and services that can be produced by the coalition of the public and private sectors. The large-scale comprehensive development by a single private developer internalizes the externality of non-exclusive public amenities successfully and achieves a closed-loop return on investment.

As a result private firms are willing to make large investments. In Gu’An, an early CFLD city, for example:

CFLD has invested CNY 35 billion to build infrastructure and public amenities, including 181 roads with a length of 204 km, underground pipelines of 627 km, four thermal power plants, six water supply factories, a wastewater treatment plant, three sewage pumping stations, and 30 heat exchange stations. The 2018 Statistical Yearbook of Langfang City illustrates that the annual fiscal revenue increased to CNY 9 billion, and the fixed asset investment was approximately CNY 20 billion, and Gu’An achieved great success in terms of economic growth and urban development strongly promoted by the collaboration with CFLD.

By the way, The Journal of Special Jurisdictions, is looking for papers on these cities:

Although a relatively recent phenomenon in urban development, Chinese Contract Cities already cover 66,000 square kilometers and house tens of millions of residents. They host a wide range of businesses and have attracted huge amounts of investment. In cooperation, local government entities, private or public firms plan, build and operate Chinese contract cities.  Developers obtain land via contracts with local government or long-term leases with village collectives and enjoy revenues generated from economic activity in the planned and developed community. Residents contract a management firm for housing and other municipal services. In that way, Chinese contract cities offer innovative solutions to urban finance, planning, and management challenges.

The Chinese Contract Cities Conference will offer the world’s first international gathering of experts on this important new phenomenon.

…The proceedings of the Chinese Contract Cities Conference will appear in the Journal of Special Jurisdictions.

See also my previous post on Jialong, China’s Private City.

Your Presidential Picks

Conor Friedersdorf asks:

“You can appoint any American citizen to one term as president,” I wrote earlier this week, “so long as your choice has never run for president before. Who do you appoint to the White House and why?”

and gets some interesting answers including these two:

“Austin makes a case for the public-radio host Kai Ryssdal, highlighting parts of his résumé I’d never known about:

Born in the U.S., but grew up partially overseas. MA in national security studies from Georgetown. [Flew] airplanes off of aircraft carriers in the US Navy. Pentagon staff officer. U.S. Foreign Service. Great communication skills, as heard on his hit radio show Marketplace, where he breaks down economics and markets both foreign and domestic. After he left the Navy he would ride his bike to work at a Borders for $7 an hour. He’s got an unbelievably impressive résumé with real world experience in National Security, International Relations, China Policy, US Military policy, economics, and the markets. Plus he knows what it’s like to work a real job like the rest of us. And he speaks Chinese! That’s huge. I would get behind him any day of the week.

Russell picked one of my favorite public intellectuals:

I’d like to appoint Tyler Cowen as president—besides being an uber-rationalist, we should give him a chance to put his state capacity libertarianism idea into practice. He is also one of the best identifiers of talent possibly on Earth, so we know we would get a dream team administration, likely composed of heterodox thinkers of diverse and opposing views who could shake everyone out of complacency. Finally, he has studiously managed to avoid being labeled as particularly associated with either party, so it’s possible that popular opinion wouldn’t know what to make of it all, giving the Cowen administration a chance to chart some new path, independent of pre-established partisan biases. Magical thinking? Maybe, but no less than we’ve got permeating our politics now.”

Good picks. I’d imagine that Cowen would appoint a pretty good FDA commissioner, or at least try.

Institute for Progress

That is a new institution founded by Alec Stapp and Caleb Watney, here is the opening of their manifesto:

We’re excited to announce that today we are launching the Institute for Progress, a new think tank in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to accelerate scientific, technological, and industrial progress while safeguarding humanity’s future.

Despite exhortations that the future is sprinting towards us at an ever-increasing pace, productivity growth has been in long-term decline since the 1970s. This is supposed to be the age of ambitious at the infrastructure investments in the battle to fight climate change, but we can’t even build new solar plants without being vetoed by conservation groups. Hyperloops and supersonic airplanes promise to revolutionize transportation, but building a simple subway extension in NYC costs up to 15 times more per kilometer than it does in other cities around the world.

There is much more at the link, substantive throughout.  Science policy, high-skilled immigration, and pandemic preparation will be some of their major issues.  Recommended!  And supported by Emergent Ventures.

Are artificial wombs a left-wing or right-wing proposal?

On one hand, it is pro-natalist, so that makes it right-wing.

On the other hand it is (ostensibly?) feminist, relieving a burden on women, so that makes it left-wing.

It also could be construed as trying to “equalize family,” which would be left-wing or even communist.

Under another reading, it is about “corporate babies,” which pushes it a back into the right-wing camp.

From yet another perspective, no one really thinks it will happen, at least not soon.  So the symbolic message for the world of today is “Women are not that important and they could be replaced by machines.”  Maybe neither the right-wing nor the left-wing like that message (albeit for different reasons), but it has a tinge of “someday this differential burden will be gone and then you left-wing feminists will need to stop whining.”

Which puts it back a bit into the right-wing camp.

So which is it?

Modeling Vladimir Putin

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

Economists typically define rationality as the effective use of means to achieve ends — spending your money for maximum enjoyment, for example. That is fine for some purposes, but it fails when it comes to understanding those political leaders, Putin included, who are obsessed with power.

The economic framework doesn’t work well when power is the end itself. While no one can truly know what’s in the mind of Putin, he has ruled Russia for 22 years, a pretty good sign that he cares about power. Putin also grew up in an era — as a KGB agent behind the Iron Curtain — when power was the currency of status.

So how does the quest for power make Putin difficult to deter?

Deterrence, by its nature, attempts to limit the power of the deterred person. If a person cares about many things, not just power, they will respond to deterrence by seeking less power and spending more on other things, such as quiet contemplation or time with family. If a person cares mainly about power, however, the induced response to deterrence is to try to seize back more power.

In other words, trying to make power “more expensive” for Putin is not guaranteed to work. The price of enjoying power might go up — say, because of threatened sanctions — but the thirst for renewed power goes up too, precisely because some power has been taken away.

Deterrence does not always work in international affairs, or in other situations with power-mad individuals. Napoleon and Hitler faced high costs from their blunders, but still they proceeded with ambitious and ultimately foolish military plans. Many revolutionaries try to seize power and die doing so.

…It is a common economic trope to insist that “incentives matter.” While true, it does not necessarily follow that deterrence therefore works. Putin isn’t looking to retire and spend more time on one of his luxurious yachts. The full consequences of that fact are just now becoming clear.

Note that as a powerful leader crosses the “will be allowed to retire peacefully” line, as Putin certainly has, he has to become obsessed with power all the more, even if the demand for traditional goods and services does not fade away.  Without ongoing power, the life of that leader simply will end and all consumption will fall to zero, therefore cementing in a kind of power addiction all the more.

My Israel-only Conversation with the excellent Russ Roberts

Here is the audio, video, and transcript, here is the CWT summary:

In this special crossover special with EconTalk, Tyler interviews Russ Roberts about his new life in Israel as president of Shalem College. They discuss why there are so few new universities, managing teams in the face of linguistic and cultural barriers, how Israeli society could adapt to the loss of universal military service, why Israeli TV is so good, what American Jews don’t understand about life in Israel, what his next leadership challenge will be, and much more.

We didn’t shy away from the tough stuff, here is one question:

COWEN: Let me ask you another super easy question. Let’s say we think that under current circumstances, a two-state solution would not lead to security either for Israel or for the resulting Palestinian state. Many people believe that. Let’s say also, as I think you believe, that a one-state solution where everyone votes would not lead to security for a current version of Israel or even a modified version of it.

Let’s say also that the current reliance of the Palestinian territories on the state of Israel for protection, security, intelligence, water — many important features of life — prevent those governing bodies from ever attaining sufficient autonomy to be a credible peace partner, guaranteer of its own security, and so on. From that point of view, what do we do? We’re not utilitarians. We’re thinking about what’s right and wrong. What’s the right thing to do?

Do read Russ’s answer!  (Too long to excerpt.)  And:

COWEN: Now, the United States has about 330 million people, yet there are more Israeli TV shows I want to watch than American TV shows. There’s Srugim, there’s Shtisel, there’s Prisoners of War, there’s In Judgment, there’s Tehran. There’s more. Why is Israeli TV so good?

ROBERTS: I’m glad you mentioned Prisoners of War, which doesn’t get enough — Prisoners of War is in my top five. If I had to list my top five, I’d pick Shtisel, Prisoners of WarThe Americans, probably The Wire, and The Crown. Do you have a top five that you could reel off?

COWEN: The Sopranos would be my number one. Srugim and Prisoners of War plausibly would be in my top five.

We then consider the Israeli topic at hand.  Interesting throughout, a very good dialogue.

When is a prediction right or wrong?

When I lived in Germany in the mid-1980s, it seemed obvious to me that the chances of a pending German reunification were pretty high.  West Germany seemed obsessed with its status as a separated twin.  That seemed everywhere in the serious literature and film of the time.  Yet all my German friends insisted that my expectations were nonsense and that they absolutely had moved on and did not care one whit about East Germany.  Still, to me the yearnings were obvious.

At that time I was expecting an overture from the Soviet Union, bringing the two Germanies together and cementing a status somewhere between Finlandization and outright Soviet sympathies.  Neutral de jure, but never much upsetting the larger neighbor to the east.  The United States wouldn’t much like that arrangement, and would be preparing to pull out its troops, but what could it do?

I simply could not imagine that the USSR would give up its East Germany prize and so 1989-1992 came as a major shock to me.  I traveled to the new, free East Germany as soon as I could, not long after the Wall came down, because I wanted to witness what was happening.

For many years, while I was pleased by the unfolding of events, and pleased to have seen an inkling of reunification, I felt my prediction was absolutely, totally wrong.

But these days!?  My prediction was maybe not so wrong after all.  There are even reports — not yet confirmed — that Germany will not allow the UK to use its airspace to ship arms to Ukraine.

Model this and who are the real liberals anyway?

– Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Democratic voters would favor a government policy requiring that citizens remain confined to their homes at all times, except for emergencies, if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Such a proposal is opposed by 61% of all likely voters, including 79% of Republicans and 71% of unaffiliated voters.

– Nearly half (48%) of Democratic voters think federal and state governments should be able to fine or imprison individuals who publicly question the efficacy of the existing COVID-19 vaccines on social media, television, radio, or in online or digital publications. Only 27% of all voters – including just 14% of Republicans and 18% of unaffiliated voters – favor criminal punishment of vaccine critics.

– Forty-five percent (45%) of Democrats would favor governments requiring citizens to temporarily live in designated facilities or locations if they refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Such a policy would be opposed by a strong majority (71%) of all voters, with 78% of Republicans and 64% of unaffiliated voters saying they would Strongly Oppose putting the unvaccinated in “designated facilities.”

That is from a Rasmussen poll.  You might consider Rasmussen a right-leaning institution, but these kinds of results should not be possible even in somewhat slanted polls (methodology here).  Furthermore, this poll came out January 13, and it hasn’t exactly received a ton of attention from mainstream media, can you model that too?  Wouldn’t it be awful even if this poll were off by 2x?

One lesson is that it is not always good for your party if it is on the winning side of the culture wars.

The prisoner’s dilemma for prisoners and Mafia men

We develop experimental evidence on cooperation and response to sanctions by running prisoner’s dilemma and third party punishment games on three different pools of subjects; students, ordinary criminals and Camorristi (Neapolitan ‘Mafiosi’). The latter two groups were recruited from within prisons. Camorra prisoners show a high degree of cooperativeness and a strong tendency to punish defectors, as well as a clear rejection of the imposition of external rules even at significant cost to themselves. The subsequent econometric analysis further enriches our understanding demonstrating inter alia that individuals’ locus of control and reciprocity are associated with quite different and opposing behaviours amongst different participant types; a strong sense of self-determination and reciprocity both imply a higher propensity to punish for Camorra inmates, but quite the opposite for ordinary criminals, further reinforcing the contrast between the behaviour of ordinary criminals and the strong internal mores of Camorra clans.

Here is the paper by Annamarie Nese, et.al., via Ethan Mollick and Ilya Novak.