Category: Political Science

What should I ask Tom Tugendhat?

Tom is a member of British Parliament, now in Cabinet with the security portfolio, and from Wikipedia:

Before entering politics, he worked as a journalist and as a public relations consultant in the Middle East. He also had a part-time role as an officer in the British Army reserves, the Territorial Army; he served in the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War.

So what should I ask him?

The polity that is German

Yes the expenditures had prior approval, but that does not always lead to productive results:

Nine months ago, in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Olaf Scholz declared a Zeitenwende — a turning point — for Germany’s military and its place in the world. But since then, barely any of the €100bn in extra funding the German chancellor pledged has made its way to the armed forces.

The parliamentary body set up in the spring to allocate money to modernisation and reform programmes has met once. The defence ministry had no procurement proposals to submit to it. Its next sitting will not be until February.

Now opposition lawmakers, and some of the country’s leading security experts, are beginning to ask whether Germany’s commitment to a leading role in European defence is anything more than rhetoric.

“Mr Chancellor — I can’t call it anything else, you are breaking your promise to the parliament and especially to the Bundeswehr [federal army],” opposition leader Friedrich Merz said in an attack on Scholz in the Bundestag on Wednesday morning.

Far from rising, the 2023 defence budget, Merz noted, was set to shrink by €300mn based on current government plans. The lack of German action was “[giving] rise to considerable distrust” at Nato and in allied capitals, he claimed. Germany has long fallen short of its Nato-set obligation of spending the equivalent of 2 per cent of GDP on defence.

Here is the full FT story.  Via a loyal MR reader.

AI Conquers Diplomacy

Diplomacy is a 7-player game in which players must persuade, cajole, coordinate, strategize, bluff and lie to one another in order to take over the world. For the first time, an AI has achieved success in Diplomacy:

Over 40 Diplomacy games with 82 human players involving 5,277 messages over 72 hours of gameplay, CICERO achieved more than double the average score of the other players and ranked in the top 10% of players!

Note that this AI isn’t just a large language model, it’s a strategic engine connected to a language model–thus it figures out what it wants to do and then it convinces others, including gaining sympathy, bluffing and lying, to get others to do what it wants to do.

Here’s some correspondence from one game. Can you tell which is the AI?

CaptainMeme, a professional Diplomacy player, runs through an entire blitz game here. What’s interesting is that he hardly comments on the AI aspect and just treats it as a game with 6 other very good players.

Paper and more discussion here. Keep in mind that since the game is zero-sum to do well the AI must convince humans to do what is NOT in their interest. We really do need to invest more in the alignment problem.

Addendum: Austria and France were the AI.

How to fix the administrative state

An MR reader request:

You are appointed to the 24 DeSantis cabinet with the task of “fixing the administrative state”. Republicans have a very large Congressional majority. What do you try to do?

I will outsource this one to James Broughel, who works with me at Mercatus:

My main recommendation to a DeSantis cabinet would be a revival of the regulatory budget idea, which began under Trump but has been put on hold by Biden. The Harvard Journal of Public Policy put out a symposium recently on regulatory budgets. It appeared in their online edition and I was a contributor. You can find the link here.

Personally, I’d like to see an expanded reg budget, with more economic analysis and a reduction goal of some kind, like Virginia and Ohio have recently set. My paper in the series goes into a lot of detail on those state reforms.

I will meta-rationally agree.

Why is the New World so dangerous?

I’ve been asking people that question for years, here is the best answer I have found so far:

We argue that cross-national variability in homicide rates is strongly influenced by state history. Populations living within a state are habituated, over time, to settling conflicts through regularized, institutional channels rather than personal violence. Because these are gradual and long-term processes, present-day countries composed of citizens whose ancestors experienced a degree of “state-ness” in previous centuries should experience fewer homicides today. To test this proposition, we adopt an ancestry-adjusted measure of state history that extends back to 0 CE. Cross-country analyses show a sizeable and robust relationship between this index and lower homicide rates. The result holds when using various measures of state history and homicide rates, sets of controls, samples, and estimators. We also find indicative evidence that state history relates to present levels of other forms of personal violence. Tests of plausible mechanisms suggest state history is linked to homicide rates via the law-abidingness of citizens. We find less support for alternative channels such as economic development or current state capacity.

That is from a new paper by John Gerring and Carl Henrik Knutsen.  It is also consistent with so much of East Asia having very low murder rates.  Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Who are the best Ukraine predictors?

Here is a new reader request:

– Which kinds of people are likely to be best able to predict how events in Ukraine will unfold? Ukrainians? Political scientists? Superforecasters?

I have to go with the superforecasters, but that said, I wish for them to have the following training:

1. Have visited Ukraine and Russia, as many times as possible.

2. Have Ukrainian and Russian friends.

3. Well-read in Russian literature, and a sense of how imperialistic so many of the Russian intellectuals and writers have been.

4. Some understanding of how the KGB perspective in Russia differs from the views of the military, all as it might reflect upon Putin and his decisions.

5. Well-read in the general history of war, in addition to the history of the region.

I am not sure you want actual Ukrainians or Russians, who tend to be insightful but highly biased.  It is noteworthy to me that Kamil Galeev, who has had a good predictive record, is from Russia but is a Tatar rather than an ethnic Russian or Ukrainian.  I would downgrade anyone, as a forecaster, who took “too much” interest in the Russia/Trump issue.  They might be too skewed toward understanding events in terms of U.S. domestic politics.  Overall, would you do better taking Estonians or professional political scientists on this one?  I am not so sure.

The finite pool of worry

These rents are more than exhausted:

According to Weber’s psychological theory of the finite pool of worry, people avoid dealing with multiple negative events at the same time. Consistent with this theory, as people worry more about the COVID-19 pandemic, they tend to neglect the problem of climate change. Here, we examine the number and content of climate change discussions on Twitter from 2019 through 2021. We show that as COVID-19 cases and deaths increase, climate change tweets have a less negative sentiment. There is also less content associated with fear and anger, the emotions related to worry and anxiety. These results support the finite pool of worry hypothesis and imply that the pandemic redirects public attention from the important problem of climate change mitigation.

Here is the full article, via tekl.  Perhaps I could induce you to worry about the finite pool of worry?

Interrupting Janet Yellen

How prevalent is gender bias among U.S. politicians? We analyze the transcripts of every congressional hearing attended by the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve from 2001 to 2020 to provide a carefully identified effect of sexism, using Janet Yellen as a bundled treatment. We find that legislators who interacted with both Yellen and at least one other male Fed chair over this period interrupt Yellen more, and interact with her using more aggressive tones. Furthermore, we show that the increase in hostility experienced by Yellen relative to her immediate predecessor and successor are absent among those legislators with daughters. Our results point to the important role of societal biases bleeding into seemingly unrelated policy domains, underscoring the vulnerability of democratic accountability and oversight mechanisms to existing gender norms and societal biases.

That is from a new paper by James Bisbee, Nicolò Fraccaroli, and Andreas Kern.  The recurring strength of the daughter effect remains under-discussed in the social sciences!

All via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*A Man of Iron*

The author is Troy Senik and the subtitle is The Turbulent Life and Improbably Presidency of Grover Cleveland.  Here is one excerpt:

At the age of forty-four, the only elected office Grover Cleveland had ever held was sheriff of Eric County, New York — a role he had relinquished nearly a decade earlier, returning to a rather uneventful life as a whorkaholic bachelor lawyer.  In the next four years, he would become, in rapid succession, the mayor Buffalo, the governor of New York, and the twenty-second president of the United States.  Four years later, he would win the popular vote but nevertheless lose the presidency.  And in another four, he’s become the first — and to date, only — president to be returned to office after having been previously turned out.

His normal work hours were from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. (p.31).  And he was broadly libertarian:

He would be the final Democratic president to embrace the classical liberal principles of the party’s founder, Thomas Jefferson.  Cleveland believed in a narrow interpretation of the Constitution, a limited role for the federal government, and a light touch on economic affairs.  To casual observers, such an approach is often mistaken for do-nothing passivity…that epithet, however, represents a fundamental misunderstanding of his presidency.

…Over the course of his two terms, this led to an astonishing 584 vetoes, more than any other president save Franklin Roosevelt…In his first term alone, Cleveland vetoed more bills than all twenty-one of his predecessors combined.

I am happy to recommend this book, you can buy it here.  I am also happy to recommend the new book by Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, New Yorker coverage here.

Model Oath Keepers

They did:

The Oath Keepers’ national organization is unusual among groups conducting political violence in that they seem to behave as a business. Using leaked membership data, internal chat forums and publicly available articles posted to their website, I show that, unlike other far-right organizations, such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers do not organize as a club. Rather, its behavior is better explained as a firm that adjusts the price of membership over time to maximize profit. I then estimate the Oath Keepers’ price elasticity of demand for new membership using five membership sales between 2014 and 2018. I find the organization’s demand is highly sensitive to changes in price. These results imply that political violence can be motivated by nonideological entrepreneurs maximizing profits under current legal institutions — a chilling conclusion.

That is from a new paper by Danny Klinenberg, from a loyal MR reader.

My Conversation with Reza Aslan

On a bunch of normal issues, I disagree with him rather vehemently, but overall I thought this Conversation worked out quite well.  Here is the audio and video and transcript.  Here is part of the episode summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss Shi’a and Christian notions of martyrdom, the heroism of Howard Baskerville, the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, esoteric vs. exoteric expressions of religion, how mystical movements arise more organically than religion, the conflicts over Imams in the Islamic world, how his upbringing as an Iranian immigrant shaped his view of religion, his roundabout spiritual journey, the synthesis of Spinoza and Sufism, the origins of Wahhabism, the relationship (or lackthereof) between religion and political philosophy, the sad repetition of history in Iran, his favorite Iranian movie, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: In your understanding, can Sufism stand alongside the prophetic structure of Islam as something separate? Or is it synthesized with it into one consistent picture?

ASLAN: That’s a hardcore, brilliant theological question because it’s been debated for generations. What I will say is this: that Sufism is, like all mystical traditions, incredibly eclectic. It comes in thousands of different forms.

There are some Sufis that are very traditionalist, very hard to even, sometimes, tell the difference between them and your basic Sunni. And there are some Sufis that take part in the spectacular displays, sometimes displays that involve putting swords through their bodies, taking part in painful acts, ways of trying to deny the self and the body in a way that most Muslims would look at and say, “That looks nothing like Islam.” Sufism is what a Sufi says it is, basically.

COWEN: If I go to Albania and I chat with the Bektashi, how is their version of Sufism different?

ASLAN: Then say the Naqshbandi? Absolutely. What’s great about Sufism — and again, this is a standard description of all mystical movements — is that they absorb themselves into local cultures and local practices. When you have these kinds of deeply spiritual, mystical movements, they most often arise from the culture. They’re not so often brought in from the outside.

Religion, in its most orthodox sense, is usually introduced to a culture or to a people. Somebody shows up and says, “This is Islam, this is Christianity, this is Buddhism.” Sufism, like much of mystical movements, is something that comes out of the ground itself and then starts to marry itself to that dominant religion.

We see Christian mysticism all around the world that in some places looks like paganism, and in some places looks like traditional nature worship. It uses some of the symbols and metaphors of Christianity, and it becomes an indigenous version of Christianity. That’s exactly the same thing with Sufism and Islam. It depends on where you go —

Interesting throughout.

A simple explainer on global warming positions

Here is Chris Hayes calling for lower gas prices, here is the White House.  I do understand the median voter theorem!

But let me explain how a lot of the Right wing sees this issue.  They believe the Left was never entirely serious about the climate change crusade in the first place, but wanted to use it to achieve certain political goals.  “Why go along with this charade if the Left is going to pull the plug on the effort anyway?”  A lot of the Right is less naive about climate change than you might think.  They won’t come out and say all this, but they also think the Left is at least as dishonest about the issue, albeit in a more self-deceiving, ostensibly more sincere fashion.  The Right sees messages like this and then they feel “Ah, we were right!”.

To be clear, I believe that economists should present good policies to internalize externalities in simple, straightforward non-Straussian fashion.  Someone has to!  So we ought to stay the course.

But if you are trying to understand the debate, and why it is not as morally one-sided as you might think, I find this a useful framework.

Classical liberalism vs. The New Right

It has become increasingly clear that the political Right in America is not what it used to be. In particular, my own preferred slant of classical liberalism is being replaced. In its stead are rising alternatives that don’t yet have a common name. Some are called “national conservatism,” and some (by no means all) strands are pro-Trump, but I will refer to the New Right.  My use of the term covers a broad range of sources, from Curtis Yarvin to J.D. Vance to Adrian Vermeule to Sohrab Ahmari to Rod Dreher to Tucker Carlson, and also a lot of anonymous internet discourse. Most of all I am thinking of the smart young people I meet who in the 1980s might have become libertarians, but these days absorb some mix of these other influences.

I would like to consider where the older classical liberal view differs from these more recent innovations. I don’t so much intend a cataloguing of policy positions as a quest to find the most fundamental difference, at a conceptual level, between the classical liberal views and their New Right competitors. That main difference – to cut to the chase — is how much faith each group puts in the possibility of trustworthy, well-functioning elites.

A common version of the standard classical liberal view stresses the benefits of capitalism, democracy, civil liberties, free trade (with national security exceptions), and a generally cosmopolitan outlook, which in turn brings sympathy for immigration. The role of government is to provide basic public goods, such as national defense, a non-exorbitant safety net, and protection against pandemics.

In the classical liberal view, elites usually fall short of what we would like. They end up captured by some mix of special interest groups and poorly informed voters. There is thus a certain disillusionment with democratic government, while recognizing it is the best of available alternatives and far superior to autocracy for basic civil liberties.

That said, classical liberals do not consider the elites to be totally hopeless. After all, someone has to steer the ship and to this day we do indeed have a ship to steer. Most elites are intelligent and also they are as well-meaning as the rest of us, even if the bureaucratic nature of politics hinders their performance. We can entrust them with supplying basic public goods, and indeed we have little choice. Those truths hold even if the DMV will never be as efficient as Amazon, and even if sometimes our elites commit grave errors, for instance when the Johnson administration escalated the Vietnam War, to cite one example of many.

In the classical liberal view, the great failing of elites is that they do not keep society as free as it ought to be.

The New Right thinkers are far more skeptical of elites. They are more likely to see elites as evil and pernicious, and sometimes they (implicitly) see these evil elites as competent enough to actually wreck society. The classical liberals see checks and balances as strong enough to limit the worst outcomes, whereas the New Right sees ideological conformity and indeed collusion within the Establishment. Checks and balances are a paper tiger.

Once you start seeing elites as so bad and also so collusive, many other changes in your views might follow. You might become more skeptical about free speech, because you view it as a recipe for putting a lot of power in the hands of (often Democratic-led) major tech companies. And is there de facto free speech if a conservative sociologist cannot get hired at Yale? You also might become more skeptical about immigration, not because you are racist (though of course there are racists), but because you see it as a plot of the Democratic Party to remake America in a new image and with a new set of voters (“you will not replace us!”). Free trade becomes seen as a line peddled by the elite, and that is an elite unconcerned with the social and national security costs of a deindustrialized America. Globalization more generally becomes a failed project of the previous elite.

The New Right doesn’t entirely reject the basic principles of free market economics, but it does try to transcend libertarian views with a deeper understanding of the current power structure. In each case there are sociological forces operating that are seen as more important than “mere” free market economics. In this regard the New Right has a more interdisciplinary worldview than do many of the classical liberals. The New Right thinkers regard most power as cultural in nature, rather than rooted in coercive government alone.

Using this kind of contrast, just about every classical liberal view can be redone along New Right lines. The policy emphasis then becomes learning how to use the government to constrain the Left and its cultural agenda, rather than ensuring basic liberties for everyone. The New Right view is that this obsession with basic liberties leads, in reality, to the hegemony of a statist Left, and a Left that will use its power centers of government, media and academia to crush and cancel the New Right.

There is also a self-validating structure to New Right arguments over time. You can’t easily persuade New Right advocates by pointing to mainstream media reports that contradict their main narrative. Mainstream media is one of the least trusted sources. Academic research also has fallen under increasing mistrust, as the academy predominantly hires individuals who support the Democratic Party.

Most classical liberals are uncomfortable with the New Right approaches, and seek to disavow them. I share those concerns, and yet I also recognize that hard and fast lines are not so easy to draw. The New Right is in essence accepting the original classical liberal critique of the state and pushing it a few steps further, adding further skepticism of elites, a greater emphasis on culture, and a belief in elite collusion rather than checks and balances. You may or may not agree with those intellectual moves, but many common premises still are shared between the classical liberals and the New Right, even if neither side is fully comfortable admitting this.

The New Right also tends to see the classical liberals as naïve about power (the same charge classical liberals fling at the establishment), and as standing on the losing side of history. Those aren’t the easiest arguments to refute. Furthermore, the last twenty years have seen 9/11, a failed Iraq War, a major financial crisis and recession, and a major pandemic, mishandled in some critical regards. It doesn’t seem that wrong to become additionally skeptical about American elites, and the New Right wields these points effectively.

While I try my best to understand the New Right, I am far from being persuaded. One worry I have is about how it initially negative emphasis feeds upon itself. Successful societies are based on trust, including trust in leaders, and the New Right doesn’t offer resources for forming that trust or any kind of comparable substitute. As a nation-building project it seems like a dead end. If anything, it may hasten the Brazilianification of the United States rather than avoiding it, Brazil being a paradigmatic example of a low trust society and government.

I also do not see how the New Right stance avoids the risks from an extremely corrupt and self-seeking power elite. Let’s say the New Right description of the rottenness of elites were true – would we really solve that problem by electing more New Right-oriented individuals to government? Under a New Right worldview, there is all the more reason to be cynical about New Right leaders, no matter which ideological side they start on. If elites are so corrupt right now, the force corrupting elites are likely to be truly fundamental.

The New Right also overrates the collusive nature of mainstream elites. Many New Right adherents see a world ever more dominated by “The Woke.” In contrast, I see an America where Virginia elected a Republican governor, Louis C.K. won a 2022 Grammy award on a secret ballot and some trans issues are falling in popularity. Wokism likely has peaked. Similarly, the New Right places great stress on corruption and groupthink in American universities. I don’t like the status quo either, but I also see a world where the most left-wing majors – humanities majors – are losing enrollments and influence. Furthermore, the internet is gaining in intellectual influence, relative to university professors.

The New Right also seems bad at coalition building, most of all because it is so polarizing about the elites on the other side. Many of the most beneficial changes in American history have come about through broad coalitions, not just from one political side or the other. Libertarians such as William Lloyd Garrison played a key role an anti-slavery debates, but they would not have gotten very far without support from the more statist Republicans, including Abraham Lincoln. If you so demonize the elites that do not belong to your side, it is more likely we will end up in situations where all elites have to preside over a morally unacceptable status quo.

The New Right (and the classical liberals I might add) also seem to neglect the many cases where American governance has improved over time. My DMV really is many times better than it was thirty years ago. New York City is currently seeing some trying times, due to the pandemic aftermath, but the city is significant better run today than it was in the 1970s. Social Security, for all of its flaws, remains one of the world’s better-functioning retirement systems. The weapons the U.S. military is supplying to Ukraine seem remarkably effective. The Fed and Treasury, for all their initial oversights, did forestall a great depression in 2008-2009. Operation Warp Speed was a major success and saved millions of lives.

It is missing the point to provide a counter-narrative of all of our government’s major and numerous screw-ups. The point is that good or at least satisfactory elite performance is by no means entirely out of our reach. We then have to ask the question – which philosophy of governance is most likely to get us there next time around? I can see that some New Right ideas might contribute to useful reform, but it is not my number one wish to have New Right leaders firmly in charge or to have New Right ideology primary in our nation’s youth.

Finally, I worry about excess negativism in New Right thinking. Negative thoughts tend to breed further negative thoughts. If the choice is a bit of naivete and excess optimism, or excess pessimism, I for one will opt for the former.

Perhaps most of all, it is dangerous when “how much can we trust elites?” becomes a major dividing line in society. We’ve already seen the unfairness and cascading negativism of cancel culture. To apply cancel culture to our own elites, as in essence the New Right is proposing to do, is not likely to lead to higher trust and better reputations for those in power, even for those who deserve decent reputations.

Very recently we have seen low trust lead to easily induced skepticism about the 2020 election results, and also easily induced skepticism about vaccines. The best New Right thinkers will avoid those mistakes, but still every political philosophy has to be willing to live with “the stupider version” of its core tenets. I fear that the stupider version of some of the New Right views are very hard to make compatible with political stability or for that matter with public health.

I would readily grant that my opinion of our mainstream elites has fallen over the last five to ten years, and in part from consuming intellectual outputs from the New Right. But I don’t long for tearing down the entire edifice as quickly as possible. That would break the remaining bonds of trust and competence we do have, and lead to reconstituted governments, bureaucracies, and media elites with lower competence yet and even less worthy of trust. If you yank out a tooth, you cannot automatically expect a new and better tooth to grow back.

The polarizing nature of much of New Right thought means it is often derided rather than taken seriously. That is a mistake, as the New Right has been at least partially correct about many of the failings of the modern world. But it is an even bigger mistake to think New Right ideology is ready to step into the space long occupied by classical liberal ideals.