Category: Political Science

What should I ask Michele Gelfand?

I am doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, here is her home page.  She is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland and has a new book coming out: Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Out World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary:

Why are clocks in Germany so accurate while those in Brazil are frequently wrong? Why do New Zealand’s women have the highest number of sexual partners? Why are “Red” and “Blue” States really so divided? Why was the Daimler-Chrysler merger ill-fated from the start? Why is the driver of a Jaguar more likely to run a red light than the driver of a plumber’s van? Why does one spouse prize running a “tight ship” while the other refuses to “sweat the small stuff?”

In search of a common answer, Gelfand has spent two decades conducting research in more than fifty countries. Across all age groups, family variations, social classes, businesses, states and nationalities, she’s identified a primal pattern that can trigger cooperation or conflict. Her fascinating conclusion: behavior is highly influenced by the perception of threat.

She also is well-known for her analyses of how negotiations vary across organizations and cultures. Here is Gelfand on scholar.google.com.  Here is her Wikipedia page.

So what should I ask?

What went wrong in the West and with liberalism?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and the core of my answer is that liberalism and cooperativeness declined in the West, as WWI and the Cold War receded into historical distance (I am indebted to a much earlier conversation with Daniel Klein on these matters).  But I wish to excerpt from another point of the piece:

There is another explanation for the rise in anti-liberal sentiment: immigration. Through a series of historical accidents, it was kept off the table as a major issue for many decades. The U.S. had choked off immigration in 1920, and at first the liberalization of the 1960s did not have much of a visible impact on the American population. In those early decades after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, many poor nations were so poor and unfree that it wasn’t easy to leave them.

As for Europe, in-migration was too small to make much of a political impact. For a while in the 1960s and 1970s, the bigger story was emigration, due to high taxes, from countries such as the U.K. and Sweden. The presence of the Iron Curtain also blocked some of the routes and sources that enable some migration to Western Europe today.

In a democratic society where there simply isn’t much immigration, it is much harder for nationalists and populists to use it as an issue. But today much of the West has seen high immigration for 20 years or more, giving nationalist and populist forces a major talking point. Even if most of the population is broadly pro-immigration, perhaps a core of 15 to 20 percent will not be. With that base, a movement of counterreaction can have real political impact.

Do read the whole thing.

Is Facebook causing anti-refugee attacks in Germany?

Here is the key result, as summarized by the NYT:

Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

Here is the underlying Müller and Schwarz paper.  They consider 3,335 attacks over a two-year period in Germany.  But I say no, their conclusion has not been demonstrated.  Where to start?

Here is one picture showing a key correlation:

It is difficult to see if there is causation in the correlationThat looks pretty strong, doesn’t it?  Nein!  That is not how propaganda works, as an extensive literature in sociology and political psychology will indicate.  That is how it looks when you measure what is essentially the same variable — or its effects — two different ways.  For instance, that very big spike in the middle of the distribution?  As Ben Thompson has pointed out, it represents the New Year’s harassment attacks in Cologne.  Maybe that caused both Facebook activity and other attacks to spike at the same time?  Will you mock me if I resort to the “blog comment cliche” that correlation does not show causation?

To continue with the excellent Ben Thompson (he is worth paying for!), the identification method used in the paper is suspect, and he focuses on this quotation from the authors:

In our setting, the share of a municipality’s population that use the AfD Facebook page is an intuitive proxy for right-wing social media use; however, it is also correlated with differences in a host of observable municipality characteristics — most importantly the prevalence of right-wing ideology. We thus attempt to isolate the local component of social media usage that is uncorrelated with right-wing ideology by drawing on the number of users on the “Nutella Germany” page. With over 32 million likes, Nutella has one of the most popular Facebook pages in Germany and therefore provides a measure of general Facebook media use at the municipality level. While municipalities with high Nutella usage are more exposed to social media, they are not more likely to harbor right-wing attitudes.

The whole result rests on assumptions about Nutella?  What if you used likes for Zwetschgenkuchen?  Has a robustness test been done?  Was a simple correlation not good or not illustrative enough?  I’ll stick with the simple hypothesis that some municipalities have both more Facebook usage, due to high AfD membership, and also more attacks on refugees, and furthermore both of those variables rise in tense times.  AfD is the German party with the strongest presence on Facebook, I am sorry to say.

You will note by the way that within Germany the Nutella page has only verifiable 21,915 individual interactions, including likes (32 million is the global number of Nutella likes…die Deutschen are not that nutty), and that is distributed across 4,466 municipal areas.  (If you are confused, see p.12 in the paper, which I find difficult to follow and I suspect that represents the confusion of the authors.)  That should make you more worried yet about the Nutella identification strategy.  They never tell us what they would have without Nutella, a better tasting sandwich I would say.

I also would note the broader literature on propaganda once again.  Consider the research of Markus Prior: “…evidence for a causal link between more partisan messages and changing attitudes or behaviors is mixed at best.”  These Facebook results are simply far outside of what we normally suppose to be true about human responsiveness — so maybe the company is undercharging for its ads!

Ben adds:

I am bothered by the paper’s robustness section in two ways: first, every single robustness test confirmed the results. To me that does not suggest that the initial result must be correct; it suggests that the researchers didn’t push their data hard enough. There is always a test that fails, and that is a good thing: it shows the boundaries of what you have learned. Second, there were no robustness tests applied to one of the more compelling pieces of evidence, that Internet and Facebook outages were correlated with a reduction in violence against refugees. This is particularly unfortunate because in some ways this evidence works against the filter bubble narrative: after all, the idea is the filter bubbles change your reality over time, not that they suddenly inspire you to action out of the blue.

The authors do present natural experiments from Facebook and internet outages.  They find that “…for a given level of anti-refugee sentiment, there are fewer attacks in municipalities with high Facebook usage during an internet outage than in municipalities with low Facebook usage without an outage.” (p.28).  Again I find that confusing, but I note also that “internet outages themselves…do not have a consistent negative effect on the number of anti-refugee sentiments.”  That is the simple story, and it appears to exonerate Facebook.  pp.28-30 then present a number of interaction effects and variable multiplications, but I am not sure what to conclude from the whole mess.  I’m still expecting internet outages to lower the number of attacks, but they don’t.

Even if internet or Facebook outages do have a predictive effect on attacks in some manner, it likely shows that Facebook is a communications medium used to organize gatherings and attacks (as the telephone once might have been), not, as the authors repeatedly suggest, that Facebook is somehow generating and whipping up and controlling racist sentiment over time.  Again, compare such a possibility to the broader literature.  There is good evidence that anti-semitic violence across German regions is fairly persistent, with pogroms during the Black Death predicting synagogue attacks during the Nazi time.  And we are supposed to believe that racist feelings dwindle into passivity simply because the thugs cannot access Facebook for a few days or maybe a week?  By the way, in their approach if there is an internet outrage, mobile devices do not in Germany pick up the slack.

I’d also like to revisit the NYT sentence, cited above, and repeated many times on Twitter:

Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.

That sounds horrible, but it is actually a claim about variation across municipalities, not a claim about the absolute importance of the internet.  The authors also reported a very different and perhaps more relevant claim to the Times:

…this effect drove one-tenth of all anti-refugee violence.

I would have started the paper with that sentence, and then tried to estimate its robustness, without relying on Nutella.

As it stands right now, you shouldn’t be latching on to the reported results from this paper.

Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?

That is a 2011 AFPS paper by Sarah F Anzia and Christopher R Berry, here is the abstract:

If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates. We argue that when either or both forms of sex‐based selection are present, the women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterparts. We test this central implication of our theory by studying the relative success of men and women in delivering federal spending to their districts and in sponsoring legislation. Analyzing changes within districts over time, we find that congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. Women also sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than their male colleagues.

I also would consider the alternative hypothesis that the women legislators are simply more conscientious and less wrapped up in themselves.  Nonetheless this result is one possible equilibrium relevant to the recent MR discussions on statistical discrimination.

Here is a paper showing female mayors have higher political skills,  This paper shows that women do better in a minority party than in a polarized majority party setting.

For the pointer I thank Michelangelo L.

Has the space of possible political outcomes opened up?

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

Every now and then, one party will control all branches of government, and then the rhetoric and the expectations will be in place for some pretty big changes. Not long ago, I thought that even a 5-to-4 conservative Republican majority on the Supreme Court would essentially leave Roe v. Wade in place, for fear of taking this Republican-friendly issue off the national agenda. Now I’m not so sure. All of a sudden, Americans are getting used to the idea that extreme political change is possible, for better or worse, and that means many of them will demand it. In the Trump Era, if I may call it that, it is harder to tell your base that big changes just don’t happen that easily.

And:

There are also plenty of good ideas that don’t have a partisan tinge one way or the other. Five years ago, I thought the Federal Reserve was far away from adopting “nominal GDP targeting,” an idea supported by many economists on both the right and the left. Today it seems entirely possible that the Fed will move much further in that direction, if only because it wouldn’t be seen as such a big, radical change compared to so many other developments. Trump is probably going to tweet criticism at the Fed no matter what it does, so it might as well just go ahead and do some things it wants to do.

Do read the whole thing.

What should I ask Bruno Maçães?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  Bruno is the author of Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order, published earlier in the United Kingdom but just now in the United States.  It is one of the essential reads of the last few years and was last year a tied favorite for my “Book of the Year.”

On the book:

Well, it turns out there is a book explaining all the recent, strange events in China, Russia, Turkey and the European Union

Here is his excellent recent piece on what the West is becoming, and why.  I also have read he is currently writing a book on China’s “One Belt, One Road.”

On Bruno, here is one bit from Wikipedia:

Bruno Maçães is a Portuguese politician, political scientist, business strategist, and author. He studied at the University of Lisbon and Harvard University, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation under Harvey Mansfield. He is currently a Nonresident Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute in Washington.

My Conversation with Bruno is in fact one reason why I took my August trip to Kiev and Baku — what better and indeed necessary way to prepare for a discussion of Eurasia?

So what should I ask him?

The decline of private ownership in America

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column,.  After a discussion of Spotify, Netflix, Kindle, and Uber, I move to the more general point:

Each of these changes is beneficial, yet I worry that Americans are, slowly but surely, losing their connection to the idea of private ownership. The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children pets or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?

We’re hardly at a point where American property has been abolished, but I am still nervous that we are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative.

And as software continues to “eat the world,” we often have fewer ownership rights when it comes to revisions, upgrades, and repairs.  The piece closes with this:

Does that sound like something our largely agrarian Founding Fathers might have been happy about? The libertarian political theorist might tell you that arrangement is simply freedom of contract in action. But the more commonsensical, broad libertarian intuitions of the American public encapsulate a more brutish and direct sense that some things we simply own and hold the rights to.

Those are intuitions which are growing increasingly disconnected from reality, and no one knows what lies on the other side of this social experiment.

Do read the whole thing.

YIMBY-NIMBY sentences to ponder

Sadly, these sentences help NIMBY:

….we find that buying a home leads individuals to participate substantially more in local elections, on average. We also collect data on local ballot initiatives, and we find that the homeowner turnout boost is almost twice as large in times and places where zoning issues are on the ballot. Additionally, the effect of homeownership increases with the price of the home purchase, suggesting that asset investment may be an important mechanism for the participatory effects.

That is from a new paper by Andrew B Hall and Jesse Yoder (pdf).

*Stubborn Attachments* is being published by Stripe Press

The full title is Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.  I have been working on this book for about twenty years, and I recommend it to you all.

Here is the Amazon link, you can pre-order for October 16.  Here is the Kindle link.  I will get you the Barnes and Noble link as soon as it is available.  The Stripe Press people have done a fantastic job with the cover and also with the production more generally, my commendations to them!

That was then, this is now

Politicians were not shy about discussing sexual pleasure, even as a matter of state business.  During Jefferson’s second term, when the ambassador from Tunis arrived in Washington, he requested that the secretary of state make his stay complete by providing him and his entourage with concubines.  Madison (generally portrayed as prim and proper) charged the ambassador’s pleasure to the government, listing “Georgia a Greek,” as one of the expenses among “appropriations for foreign intercourse”  He made light of the incident in a letter to Jefferson, noting the double meaning of “foreign intercourse.”

That is from Nancy Isenberg’s excellent Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr.  I also learned that Burr was the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and that late in his life Burr spent time with Bentham, was intrigued by the Panopticon idea, and he may have influenced Bentham on suffrage

The microfoundations of intersectionality

Here is the introduction to the Wikipedia page on intersectionality:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does tech have so many political problems?

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

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

Are there more spies than you think?

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

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

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

And:

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

Do read the whole thing.

Envy and status in politics

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

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

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

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

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

How partisan is local law enforcement for immigration?

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

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

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