Category: Political Science

Paul Romer’s advice for the World Bank

First, outsource the bank’s research upon which it depends for identifying problems and proposing solutions. Diplomacy and science cannot both thrive under the same roof. One consequence of the bank’s commitment to diplomacy is its necessary embrace of the helpful ambiguity that makes it possible for multilateral institutions to allow “Chinese Taipei” compete in the Olympic Games without “Taiwan, China” having a seat in the UN. Dispassionate examination makes clear that what the bank does to maintain conformity on the diplomatic front is not compatible with scientific research.

All that matter in science are the facts. When complex political sensitivities are allowed to influence research by stifling open disagreement, it ceases to be scientific. For good reasons, the bank’s shareholders have chosen to protect its diplomatic function, at the expense of its research.

Outsourcing research would be a better, more efficient way for the bank to establish the facts needed to do its job. This would also be an investment in the universities that make the discoveries that drive human progress.

Here is the full piece.  What do you all think?

Sentences to ponder — *Who Wants to Run?*

Incumbent polarization is also consistently below that of new candidate polarization.

That is from the forthcoming interesting book by Andrew B. Hall.  He also argues that while voters can elect moderates, they cannot force more extreme candidates to govern as moderates.  Furthermore, devaluing office leads to more extreme candidates being interested in running for office.

The book’s argument is that who runs for office helps determine the level of ideological polarization in the legislature.

The wealth tax and privacy — from the comments

Despite the unnecessary duplication (FATCA etc), I’m actually in favor of requiring banks to disclose how much income US taxpayers earn on ther accounts in the US and abroad. Unfortunately, if you are going to have an income tax system, you can’t simply rely on everyone voluntarily reporting. But, this also raises serious privacy concerns that need to be balanced. The wealth tax on all or most all assets would significantly alter the current balance between disclosure and privacy. As noted in the article, *everything* would need to be disclosed to the IRS *every year* much like an annual estate tax return. Expect substantial additional reporting requirements on all assets. Think that won’t apply to you? How else are they going to know you don’t have $50 million hidden somewhere? How are *taxpayers* going to know they don’t meet that (or some other) threshold ? Trust me, lawyers and accountants, (legitimately) worrying about their own potential liability, will insist that far more people undergo these audits internally just to make sure they are not above the limit.

These privacy issues also have potentially serious political implications. I suppose Bill and Hillary and Barrack and Michelle (add your own list) would be subject to these annual wealth tax returns. Annual audit by the IRS on everything? Do they really want the Trump administration (or some other) having access to all that? This sounds like a potential special prosecutor on steroids and one that is not always going to be politically neutral. I see the potential here for a lot of political abuse and not just from one side or the other.

That is from Vivian Darkbloom on MR and in the LOC, with other good points in the comment too.

The politics of a wealth tax

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the end sequence:

Besides which — a fact that is getting too little notice — the U.S. already has what is in essence a wealth tax: Tax rates on capital gains are not indexed for inflation. With this nominal-based tax system in effect, it is harder to accumulate wealth over time, and the nominal-based tax erodes the real value of the asset base.

Whether or not you think this capital-gains policy is a good idea (I do not), it is striking how few Americans understand that it serves as a wealth tax. It is not marketed or proclaimed as such. And I don’t expect Republicans or Democrats to counter Warren by saying, “Don’t worry, we already have a wealth tax.” Isn’t this a sign that voters simply are not yearning for a wealth tax?

The other major form of wealth taxation in the U.S. is of course the property tax, which is paid by large numbers of Americans and used to finance local services, rather than being primarily directed against the wealthy. It is seen as a way of making local government accountable to those who vote and pay for it, not as an engine of wealth redistribution. If anything, by maintaining the quality of school districts in wealthy communities, its net distributive effects are anti-egalitarian. That system seems to be a permanent part of the American political landscape.

Finally, think about politics in the broadest possible terms. What Americans really want is for their lives, their jobs, and society in general to get better — an admittedly ill-defined but nonetheless instantly familiar concept. Americans also want their leaders to deliver such outcomes with the considerable resources already at their disposal. Is that so unreasonable?

Anyone promoting a wealth tax is in essence saying that there aren’t many ways of improving society within current resource constraints. That is a brand of pessimism which Americans voters have not often rewarded.

File under: the Twitter reactions are self-refuting.  But if you would like the opposing point of view, here is Eric Levitz.

Me on wealth taxes from 2013

I don’t usually like to rerun material, but every now and then it seems appropriate.  Here is the opening paragraph from my NYT column from six years ago:

If you’d like to know where American political debates are headed, the data suggest a simple answer. The next major struggle — in economic terms at least — will be over whether taxes on personal wealth should rise — and by how much.

There is much more at the link.

Does “putting yourself in the shoes of others” reduce attitude change?

From Rhia Catapano, Zakary L. Tormala, and Derek D. Rucker:

Counterattitudinal-argument generation is a powerful tool for opening people up to alternative views. On the basis of decades of research, it should be especially effective when people adopt the perspective of individuals who hold alternative views. In the current research, however, we found the opposite: In three preregistered experiments (total N = 2,734), we found that taking the perspective of someone who endorses a counterattitudinal view lowers receptiveness to that view and reduces attitude change following a counterattitudinal-argument-generation task. This ironic effect can be understood through value congruence: Individuals who take the opposition’s perspective generate arguments that are incongruent with their own values, which diminishes receptiveness and attitude change. Thus, trying to “put yourself in their shoes” can ultimately undermine self-persuasion. Consistent with a value-congruence account, this backfire effect is attenuated when people take the perspective of someone who holds the counterattitudinal view yet has similar overall values.

Yes, yes the replication crisis.  Still, this may be a useful countertonic against the notion that trying to understand other people always yields high returns.  Perhaps the better approach is simply to drain yourself of values when considering the perspectives of other people.

My Conversation with Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama

Lots of economic history in this one, with the underlying themes of persecution and tolerance, here is the audio and video.

We talk about the evolution of anti-Semitism, how the Black Death influenced Europe, the economics and politics of volcanic eruptions, how much prejudice will come back, amateur astronomy,  Jared Diamond, cousin marriage and the origins of the West, why England was a coherent nation-state so early, the origins of the Industrial Revolution, Schindler’s List, and more.  I split the time between the two, here is one excerpt:

JOHNSON: Mark and I have done a lot of work on building datasets of Jewish persecution and Jewish expulsions at the city level and the country level in Europe over a very long period of time. And a question that I, for one, don’t fully understand is, you don’t need to actually kill all the Jews or expel them in order to extract resources from them. In fact, in some way, this is off the equilibrium path. You’re no longer in some optimal equilibrium for both the ruler and for the Jewish community.

Oftentimes, these Jewish communities would be expelled from a city, they would be invited to come back, and they would come back — in 5, 10, 15 years, sometimes even shorter. But that’s a little bit easier to understand.

In the case I gave you in England in 1290s, I think I understand a little bit about why it might have happened that way. I think it was signaling credibility in some political compact between the king and the nobles, but I’m not sure. But that’s an example of top down.

Other times, clearly, people are . . . You have, say, guilds moving against these Jewish communities. An example of this would be in 1614, when the most well-known Jewish persecution was in Frankfurt am Main. It was called the Fettmilch Massacre. Fettmilch was a baker. He was in guild, and he was upset about the terms of the political deal between the city rulers — the city council — and what the guilds were getting. One of the things that the guilds wanted were the Jews to be expelled. This was competition in some sense.

There was this bit from me:

COWEN: If the Black Death raised wages, does that mean that immigration today lowers wages?

And:

COWEN: Large volcanic eruptions earlier in history. From an economic point of view, what’s the single most interesting thing we know about them?

JOHNSON: I think what’s very interesting about the volcanic eruptions is that we are discovering more and more that they may have played a large role in political change that occurred. Joe Manning at Yale, and I believe his graduate student (Bruce M.S. Campbell) have been doing work on . . . They looked at a series of volcanic eruptions that led to the end of the pharaonic empire. That ended around 30 or 60 BC, I forget. Right around that time.

That was an empire that lasted for 300 years, but they experienced all these crop failures. And then once you look at it, you see that in Indonesia, all these major volcanic eruptions were happening in perfect timing with these crop failures that were taking place. Actually, they can tell from looking at the Nile and how much it’s flooding and things.

COWEN: Politics becomes nastier when the volcano goes off?

And from Mark Koyama:

COWEN: Why was China, as a nation or territory, so large so early in world history?

KOYAMA: Yeah, that’s a great question. There are several potential explanations, one of which is geographic. Another one would be an argument from the writing system. But I think the geography story is quite important. Jared Diamond, building on people like Eric Jones, argued that China’s geography . . .

Essentially there are two core geographic regions in China around the Yellow and Yangtze river deltas, which produced a huge amount of grain or rice. If you control those core regions, you can raise large armies. You can have a large population and dominate the subsequent regions.

Whereas, the argument is for Europe that these core regions are, perhaps, arguably more separated by geographical boundaries. The limitation of that argument on its own is that geography is static, so it doesn’t really tell you anything about the timing.

The interesting thing about China, in my view, is not just that it was once unified, or unified early. But it’s persistently unified. It reunifies. Interestingly enough, the periods of de-unification get consistently smaller. So there are always periods where it’s fragmented, like the warlord period in the early 20th century, but over time may become smaller.

Europe doesn’t seem to have that centrifugal force, so a lot of Europe is unified by the Romans, but it’s not able to come back together along those lines later.

And the argument that I put forward in an article with Tuan-Hwee Sng and Chiu Yu Ko of National University of Singapore is that it’s not just the core geographical reason. That’s part of it. But actually, the periodic threat from a nomadic steppe is another key factor.

This is geographic because China has a very sharp slope from really productive agricultural land to land which is only fit for horses, for Eurasian steppe. China could be invaded very easily from the north by these steppe nomads, whereas Europe — it was much less vulnerable to this. And that helps to explain why the Chinese state is often a northern state.

So if I can add, if you think about China today, or even China in the past, the really productive land — a lot of it’s in the quite far south, in Shanghai, Yangtze delta. But the political center of China is near Beijing, or it’s in the north. And that’s due to this political economy threat from the steppe. And it’s these periodic steppe invasions which we argue are responsible for the centralization, an almost militarized character of the Chinese state through history.

And:

COWEN: Max Weber. Overrated or underrated?

KOYAMA: Underrated.

COWEN: Why?

KOYAMA: Because most people just know the Protestant theory, and they misreport it. Whereas, actually, his most interesting stuff is on Chinese religion and ancient Judaism. And the role of —

COWEN: The history of music, right?

There is much more at the link.  I am very happy to recommend their forthcoming book Persecution and Tolerance: The Long Road to Religious Freedom.

Eric Kaufmann’s *Whiteshift*

The subtitle is Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, and might this be the must-read book of the year?  It is “to the right” of my views on immigration policy, but still I found it informative, fascinating, and relevant on just about every page.  Here is the author’s opening framing:

First, why are right-wing populists doing better than left-wing ones?  Second, why did the migration crisis boost populist-right numbers sharply while the economic crisis had no overall effect?  If we stick to data, the answer is crystal clear.  Demography and culture, not economic and political developments, hold the key to understanding the populist moment.

Kaufmann, by the way, is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck in London, but hails from Canada.  As for the basics, there is this in addition:

Much of this book is concerned with the clash between a rising white tribalism and an ideology I term ‘left-modernism.’

If you wish to understand “all the stuff that is going on today,” maybe Whiteshift is the best place to start?  Kaufmann, by the way, is not a mega-pessimist and he seems to think that “broadening the category of white” will lead to a “good enough” solution for many of the Western democracies.  Still, much of this book is disturbing, especially for readers who might consider themselves to be on the left.  Most of all, he sees “whiteness” as a legitimate cultural interest, and one which, if we deny, will lead to more overt racism rather than less.

Here is Kaufmann on Brexit, brutal but I think largely correct:

…many analysts bring a political lens to their analysis which inclines them to want to tell a story about wealth and power.  Over half the country voted Leave and we can’t condemn such a large group.  So we pretend populist voters are motivated by the same things we are: economic stagnation (for fiscal conservatives) or, for left-liberals, inequality and resentment of the establishment.

Kaufmann also has strong evidence for the “immigration backlash” hypothesis, for instance:

…a higher immigrant share is a consistent predictor of higher opposition to immigration over time…in Western Europe there is a .63 correlation between projected 2030 Muslim share and the highest poll or vote share a populist-right party has achieved.

On top of all of its other virtues, Whiteshift provides the best intellectual history of the immigration debates I have seen.  It also has the best discussion of why Canada seems to be different when it comes to immigration, and I may cover that in another blog post.

Kaufmann does very much argue that the left-wing values of diversity and solidarity stand very much in conflict.  How is this for an “ouch” sentence?:

Casual observation would suggest that being black in diverse San Francisco is not necessarily better than being black in white-majority Fargo [North Dakota].

By no means am I convinced by everything in this book.  I don’t think European politics can handle systematized refugee camps in Europe itself (rather than Turkey and Lebanon), and most of all I am not sure that recognizing whiteness as a legitimate cultural concern will diminish rather than boost racism.  I wish he had said much more about gender, and how immigration and gender issues interact.

Nonetheless this book has more points of interest yet, including an original and persuasive take on residential clustering, a good analysis of racial intermarriage, and a sustained argument that avoiding the “no dominant ethnic group” approach of Guyana and Mauritius is imperative.

Strongly recommended, it is out next week, you can pre-order here.

Cable TV really does matter for political outcomes

This is only one estimate, from Gregory J. Martin and Ali Yurukoglu, but nonetheless it is backed by a plausible identification stragegy and this is very interesting research:

We find that in a hypothetical world without Fox News but with no other changes, the Republican vote share in the 2000 election would have been about half a percentage point lower. By 2008, the effect of there being no Fox News rises to more than six percentage points – a result of the channel’s increasing viewership and increasingly conservative slant over this period.

Unfortunately, that is followed by a real clunker of a paragraph:

All of these results suggest that citizens and regulators have reason to be concerned about media consolidation and the non-market objectives of media owners. A hypothetical monopolist controlling all three channels and interested in electoral influence would have enormous power over election outcomes.

How many things are wrong in those two sentences?  How can a profession supposedly devoted to rigor allow such sloppy thought to continue?  Here are a few of my objections:

1. The real story in this paper is about Fox News, and Fox — whether you like it or not — is very much an alternative to the mainstream media approach.  If you don’t like Fox, you might have preferred the “bad old days” of three dominant and pretty similar networks.

2. Do the authors have any argument that “the non-market objectives of media owners” are bad?  No.  In fact, there is a longstanding literature that “the market objectives of media owners” are bad, whether you agree or not.  Do they really just mean to say “I don’t like Fox News”?  Just say it.  Don’t worry, I don’t think most authors, especially of media studies, are objective to begin with.

3. Don’t the results suggest we should perhaps be worried about polarized news rather than consolidated news ownership?

4. Is it possible to consolidate news ownership in a world with so many cable channels and so many news alternatives to cable?  I strongly doubt this, but in any case it is not something the authors have shown.  Instead, they have shown that a renegade news channel can rise to a position of great political influence.

5. Might it have been better simply to have written?: “I am really worried that Rupert Murdoch, in the absence of regulation, could buy up all the news channels and implement political outcomes I do not like.”  That is an entirely coherent argument, and I wonder if it isn’t what the authors were getting at but couldn’t bring themselves to write it and thus were forced into the most illogical two sentences I have read this week.

6. By the way, Murdoch owns a lot of media properties and most of them have political stances, and most of all tones, fairly different from that of Fox News.  Worth a ponder.

For the pointer I thank the excellent Samir Varma.

Addendum: Andrew Gelman is skeptical of the basic result.

In India Everyone Gets Affirmative Action

India has long affirmative-action-like programs for members of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes (yes, that is the official name). The programs typically reserve a certain number of political seats, government jobs, and educational placements for members of historically disadvantaged and discriminated against groups, hence the the term reservations. Over time, the number of reservations has been increased and the category expanded to more and more groups. In fact, under a new reservation program just announced, virtually everyone will be covered by one reservation or another!

The new program will cover household income of less than 8 lakhs which is $11,000, far above India’s GDP per capita! The new program is meant to benefit middle and upper castes who have chafed under reservations for the historically discriminated against. The fact that the program is open to so many people, however, means that it’s really not much of a benefit at all.

Moreover, ultimately reservations mean very little if there aren’t private-sector, wealth-creating jobs which is India’s primary challenge.

I don’t actually favor the “citizen dividend” side of a carbon tax

The carbon tax idea makes perfect sense to me, and I have endorsed the proposal for some time, but why return the revenue to citizens in the form of dividends?  It strikes me as economists thinking they know what makes good politics, something which economists are rarely good at.  Arguably it makes the policy seem less important, and mainly about the dividend, in a slightly cynical, Chavez-like sort of way.  Furthermore, it tries to make a carbon tax a free lunch, which it is not, no matter how great the longer-term gains.  I don’t believe in economists tricking people, even though I will admit tricking people can be useful.  The tricking is somebody else’s job!  Finally, if the carbon tax is revenue-neutral, just sending money to everyone (in what proportions?) doesn’t give them anything in return as measured by real resources.  Maybe it would give Jay Powell a slight headache, however, since he and others at the Fed would have to decide whether and how to do an offset, or not.

We economists are in any case not in charge, so let’s push for what is actually best.  I would suggest using the revenue to either help solve the problem at hand (climate change, or whatever connected problems might be relevant), or simply to pay down the debt.

Who again has the power to end the government shutdown?

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

The real power here is held by government employees, especially those in critical jobs. Let’s say that more TSA screeners decided to walk off the job. It’s already the case that the TSA absentee rate has gone up to 7.6 percent, from 3.2 percent a year ago. It is possible to imagine screeners staying home in much greater numbers, thus crippling the entire nation. That could either force President Donald Trump’s hand or lead to a congressional override of a potential presidential veto.

Yet:

As a rationale for showing up to work, “I’m helping both the TSA and my colleagues” can work for a while, because of both cooperative norms and peer pressure. But I don’t think it can hold things together for more than a few months. They may not have the right to strike, but federal employees can still gum up the works with high absenteeism and poor performance.

I really don’t expect anything good to come of this entire episode.