Does Populism Reduce Economic Inequality?

The above comes from a recent study of The New Populism project. This reduction in economic inequality may lead some populist supporters to feel vindicated. However, the study continues by pointing out that “the fiscal policies of populists are less progressive than non-populists. This is what we might have expected; they are not reducing inequality as a result of government taxation or welfare structures.” The mechanism remains unknown, “maybe minimum wage policies, maybe moves towards formalization of the labour force, or limits on income generation of the very wealthy (or even possibly in the case of Venezuela, the very wealthy leaving, thereby reducing overall levels of market inequality). But they do reduce overall levels of market inequality” (pg. 5).

However, this isn’t the only effect of populists:

  • Populist leaders increase indirect (regressive) taxation.
  • Populism has no real impact on corruption, despite corruption often bringing populists to power.
  • “[P]opulist chief executives are more likely to infringe on the freedom and fairness of the electoral process than their non-populist counterparts” (pg. 14).
  • “[B]oth right and left populist chief executives seem more likely to embark on a mission to cut back on civil liberties” (pg. 15).
  • “We confirm a strong, negative effect of populism on press freedom. Not every decline can be attributed to populists, but almost every strong or moderate populist registers some decline” (pg. 17).
  • “Finally, populism in government is often associated with the centralization of power under the chief executive” and the erosion of executive constraints (pg. 18-19).


So giving power over to populist authoritarians who undermine democratic institutions and civil liberties is one successful avenue to economic equality. The others, according to historian Walter Scheidel, are “mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.”

What Was the Cost of Trump’s Trade War in 2018?

A new working paper confirms what economists have been saying about tariffs all along:

Economists have long argued that there are real income losses from import protection. Using the evidence to date from the 2018 trade war, we find empirical support for these arguments. We estimate the cumulative deadweight welfare cost (reduction in real income) from the U.S. tariffs to be around $6.9 billion during the first 11 months of 2018, with an additional cost of $12.3 billion to domestic consumers and importers in the form of tariff revenue transferred to the government. The deadweight welfare costs alone reached $1.4 billion per month by November of 2018. The trade war also caused dramatic adjustments in international supply chains, as approximately $165 billion dollars of trade ($136 billion of imports and $29 billion of exports) is lost or redirected in order to avoid the tariffs. We find that the U.S. tariffs were almost completely passed through into U.S. domestic prices, so that the entire incidence of the tariffs fell on domestic consumers and importers up to now, with no impact so far on the prices received by foreign exporters. We also find that U.S. producers responded to reduced import competition by raising their prices.

Our estimates, while concerning, omit other potentially large costs such as policy uncertainty as emphasized by Handley and Limão (2017) and Pierce and Schott (2016). While these effects of greater trade policy uncertainty are beyond the scope of this study, they are likely to be considerable, and may be reflected in the substantial falls in U.S. and Chinese equity markets around the time of some of the most important trade policy announcements (pg. 22-23).

What Drives Racial and Ethnic Inequality Today?

A brand new study offers some interesting insights into the question. Kay Hymowitz summarizes,

Using Census and ACS data, [John Iceland] shows that whites were the least likely of all groups to be poor throughout the decades studied (though, notably, their poverty rates inched up after 1980.) Although blacks and American Indians have become markedly less poor since 1959, they remain the groups with the highest— and fairly similar—odds of living in poverty. Hispanics never had poverty rates as high as those for American Indians and Blacks in the years studied, but their rates today, at 22.5%, are only marginally lower than those poorer groups (26.1 and 25%, respectively).

Iceland’s calculations also confirm that we are a much richer nation than we were in 1959. Affluence, defined as family income-to-poverty ratios five times the poverty threshold (or $120,180 as of 2015), has grown for all demographic categories, though at a faster pace for whites and Asians than others. (This “affluence” may strike New Yorkers and renters in other expensive cities as dubious, though the author checked his findings against alternative measures of poverty and affluence; they all showed the same basic trends.) 


Despite the massive declines in poverty, what are the main factors behind continuing inequality?

Taking the groups as a whole, he finds immigrant status to be the characteristic that best correlates with poverty, and education the trait most associated with affluence. However, the features most closely related to poverty and affluence differ among groups in fascinating ways. At a time of renewed concerns about racial inequality, the most striking story is for blacks. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be poor than whites without controls. With controls, the gap declines considerably—to 1.71.  Iceland estimates that female-headed households can now explain about one-third of the black-white poverty difference, age comes in second at 16%, and education at 15%; all-in-all, the three characteristics can explain two-thirds of the poverty gap between blacks and whites. 

Iceland’s findings on trends in minority poverty and affluence are consistent with a narrative of progress in racial relations. In 1959, family structure, education, and age explained less than half of the poverty and affluence gap between blacks and whites, for example; most of the divide was due to “unobservables” like discrimination, neighborhood, and social networks. Iceland confirms earlier research showing black and American Indian poverty plummeting in the 1960s; 57% of African-Americans and 60.3% of Indians started that decade poor. By the 1970s the number was 35.5% and 35.5%. Because the strong economy of the 1960’s lifted all ethnic and racial boats during the 1960s, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, and white, however, the decade ended with inequality between the various groups more or less unchanged. In sum, between civil rights laws and economic growth, minority groups were able to make substantial economic progress in the 1960s, though not enough to catch up with whites.

But as discriminatory barriers fell, individual and family characteristics became more crucial for economic mobility. The author shows that “observables,” including family structure, age, and education, have considerably more explanatory power for poverty and affluence gaps today than they did in 1959, while unobservable factors, like discrimination, though still significant for blacks and American Indians, have nevertheless become less so.

What about other groups?

Education differences have the largest effect on the Hispanic and white poverty gap and that effect has grown over time; age and immigrant status play strong supporting roles. Education has been the prime mover for affluent Hispanics and American Indians; intact families, fewer children, and relocation to metropolitan areas also helped the latter group improve their outcomes.

Asians are the most educated of any group as well as the most stably married. These traits help explain the 35.8% of Asians who are affluent (vs. 32.9% of second-place whites) as well as why, though they have higher poverty rates than whites mostly due to immigration, they are still somewhat “protected” against poverty.

Some limitations and cautions:

It could be that family structure itself is partly a proxy for discrimination. If black men have trouble finding jobs because of prejudice, they are inevitably less “marriageable.” He notes as well that the data available has serious limitations. “Asian” was not a Census category until 1980; before that, people checked the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or Hawaiian box. It’s worth noting that Asian remains an awkward grouping, encompassing people of very different histories and cultures; in measuring affluence, Iceland shows, the Vietnamese don’t look at all like other Asians. “Hispanic” is similarly problematic. With controls, Cubans are as likely as whites to be affluent; that’s far from the case with other Hispanic subgroups.

Management Still Matters

I’ve said it before: management matters. I even published a paper on it. Harvard’s Raffaella Sadun lays out the case once more:

What we found was quite consistent across sectors and countries, namely a large and significant correlation between management and organizational performance. Figure 1 (Source), for example, shows the relationship between management and a variety of metrics for firm performance—including productivity, profitability, growth, and survival—among US manufacturing plants.

The correlation between management and performance appears to be similar across countries and (to our surprise) even in “public” sectors such as health care and education. For example, well-run hospitals appear to have lower mortality rates from Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI, i.e heart attacks), and well-run schools enjoy better test scores among their pupils.

In subsequent research, my colleague Nick Bloom and colleagues set up a management “experiment,” in which a random set of Indian manufacturing firms were provided with a “dose” of management consultancy and compared to a control group. Their experiment showed that the relationship between management and firm performance appears to be causal.

Other researches have argued that the role of management may extend well beyond the performance of individual firms, and extend to whole economies. For example, Pellegrino and Zingales argue that people management gaps among Italian firms may be responsible for the weak productivity performance experience by the country since the early 90s by delaying the adoption of complementary and productivity enhancing technologies. In a recent paper, Schivardi and Schmitz extend this argument to Southern Europe more generally.

She identifies four major mechanisms for why management practices are so diverse across different countries:

1. There seem to be large informational barriers. Those prevent managers from having a clear understanding of the quality of their own practices, as well as the potential benefit that modern management practices could accrue to their organization. For example, when we asked managers to self-evaluate the quality of their own practices on a scale between 1 and 10, most managers rated themselves an 8. Their own scores were typically uncorrelated with our arguably more objective management score. 

2. Management adoption is strongly related to the education of the workforce, which, in turn, is shaped by differences in skill supply. This is not surprising, given the fact that many “best-practices” require significant numeracy and literacy skills.

3. Even when well-informed and with plenty skills available, managers may not be motivated to invest in new management practices, as the adjustment may be costly to the firm or to them personally (for example, relying on management practices may require less of their direct and personalized control, references). Research has shown the presence of a correlation between competitive pressure and management quality, which is in line with the classic idea in economics that competition reduces organizational slack.

4. Introducing new management practices in a firm requires a substantial buy-in from the employees, as its adoption rests on significant co-investments (i.e. learning new behavioral routines) that are hard to monitor and incentivize through standard contracting solutions. However, organizational frictions may prevent such co-investments from happening. For example, Susan Helper and Rebecca Henderson attribute GM’s decline and inability to fully implement productivity-enhancing managerial practices such as lean management to a fundamental lack of trust between managers and employees (employees suspected that the productivity improvements generated by lean would result in layoffs rather than generalized gains). This latter category points to the importance of softer aspects of organizations, such as corporate culture and leadership behavior, which may be able to overcome this type of resistance to change.

She concludes,

While much remains to be done, the evidence so far suggest that variations in this key factor of production may have large implications for performance, at both the firm and country level. Understanding why management quality varies across organizations will help us advance the field and develop better policies for improving management and productivity.

Stuff I Say at School – Part V: Tocqueville and Social Capital

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

Alexis de Tocqueville argues that the active involvement of American citizens in civil society distinguishes America from Europe and helps to prevent American government from becoming over centralized.  In fact, civil society not only prevents Big Government from taking over, but enlarges each citizen’s life, helping them overcome the natural tendency of democratic citizens to isolate from each other.  Contemporary social observers, like Robert Putnam and Marc Dunkelman, have seen trends of disengagement from civil society in their recent studies (and more engagement in virtual communities via technology).   Discuss the significance of civil society from Tocqueville’s perspective and whether these recent trends of disengagement should be viewed as a cause of some alarm.

The Stuff I Said

Tocqueville’s view of civil society is very organic; a kind of pre-state network guided by cultural norms and both individual  and communal pursuits. The bottom-up, arguably emergent nature of Tocqueville’s perception is likely why many classical liberal writers quote him so favorably. The ability of private individuals to organize to advance societal goals rather than relying on the coercion of the state appears to be deeply encouraged by Tocqueville. This makes public engagement a necessity to avoid “despotism.” This makes the decline in social capital potentially problematic. 

However, there are a few points worth noting about the claims of social capital decline and the march toward despotism:

First and foremost, government has grown significantly since the mid 1800s. Democracy in America was written 20-30 years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. My own state of Texas had not even been annexed yet. For all we know, Tocqueville might think we’ve been in the era of Big Government for over a century.

Next, economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn find that declines in social capital (i.e., volunteering and organization membership, entertainment of friends and relatives at home) between 1952 and 1998 were largely among women due to their increased participation in the labor force. Other contributors were income inequality and increasing ethnic heterogeneity. While income inequality can be a problem (it tends to erode trust), increasing diversity and female labor participation are, in my view, not negative developments.

Parents also appear to be spending more time with their children. For example, a 2016 study of 11 Western countries found that “the mean time the average mother in the 11 countries spent daily on child care in 1965 was calculated to be about 54 minutes, it increased to a predicted 104 minutes by 2012. For fathers, the estimates increased from a scant 16 minutes daily in 1965 to 59 minutes in 2012” (pg. 1090). Engaged parenting results in better child outcomes. So while parents may not be entertaining friends or bowling with buddies as much, they are giving their kids more attention. Considering Tocqueville’s focus on family, I think he would find this a plus (especially in the midst of the family fragmentation that has occurred over the last few decades).

But even with these declines, a majority of Americans still participate in various organizations. Drawing on the 2007 Baylor National Religious Survey, sociologist Rodney Stark finds that while 41% of Americans have no membership in non-church organizations, 48% had 1-3 memberships and 11% had 4-5 memberships. “About six Americans out of ten belong to at least one voluntary organization. Add in church organizations and the number rises to more than seven out of ten, and the median becomes two memberships” (pg. 122-123).

Finally, the labor market was dominated by agriculture (76.2% in 1800; 53.6% in 1850) during the period that Tocqueville wrote. By the turn of the 20th century, however, most of the labor force could be found in manufacturing (35.8%) and service sectors (23.6%). By the 21st century, service had come to dominate the labor market (73% in 1999). While social capital in the form of organizational participation may have declined over the last half century, the kind of work we do has changed drastically. This includes our workplace experience. We actually have co-workers that we spend hours each day cooperating with and customers that we are obligated to respect day in and day out. The relationships (and social capital) we establish through the workplace are very different from 19th-century farms or even industrial-era factories. The late Peter Drucker believed that today’s business institutions “are increasingly the means through which individual human beings find their livelihood, find their access to social status, to community and to individual achievement and satisfaction” (pg. 16). I don’t think we should underestimate the long-run impact of commerce on social capital. Numerous studies find that markets foster socially-desirable traits like trust, cooperation, and tolerance.

In short, I think Tocqueville might find some of our over-reliance on government distasteful, but overall would be impressed with how incredibly adaptive the American people have been over the course of nearly two centuries of rapid change and development. This latter point would confirm many of the observations he made about the underlying mores of American civil society.

Stuff I Say at School – Part IV: The Rise and Fall of the 6th Party System

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series

The Assignment

Although scholars generally agree on the timing of of the first few critical elections/realignments, consensus breaks down on the timing of the 6th and 7th party systems. Do you think the 6th party system began in 1968, 1980, or sometime later? What about the 7th party system?  Please think critically and resist giving the answer you hope to be true.

The Stuff I Said

Political psychologist Lilliana Mason argues that over the last 50 years or so, parties have become “more homogeneous in ideology, race, class, geography, and religion,” causing “partisans on both sides [to feel] increasingly connected to the groups that [divide] them” (pg. 40). In other words, political partisanship has become associated with other forms of social identity and therefore has itself become an identity. For example, “party identity is strongly predicted by racial identity, not racial-policy positions (Mangum 2013). The parties have grown so divided by race that simple racial identity, without policy content, is enough to predict party identity. The policy division that began the process of racial sorting is no longer necessary for Democrats and Republicans to be divided by race. Their partisan identities have become firmly aligned with their racial identities, and decoupled from their racial-policy positions” (pg. 33, italics mine). It is this fusion of social and political identity that leads me to lean in favor of those scholars that identify the 1980s with the emergence of the 6th party system. I lean this way largely due to the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s (I’d add the rise of “neoliberal” ideology associated with Reagan and Thatcher and solidified by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the ending of the Cold War). While Jimmy Carter was popular among religious conservatives, many of his policy stances alienated these same voters, paving the way for Reagan and the Republican identification with conservative Christians. By 1992, the religious divide between Democrats and Republicans had, in Mason’s words, “cracked open…The difference between the parties on the percentage of weekly churchgoers had increased to an 11 percentage point gap, with Republicans more churchgoing than Democrats. Connected to this new divide, Democrats in 1992 were only 2 percent more Catholic than Republicans. Twenty years earlier the difference had been 13 percentage points. The conservative religious were moving toward the Republican Party” (pg. 36). By 2012, “parties differed by 14 percentage points in how many attend religious services each week” (pg. 37). 

I’m unsure if a firm 7th political system has arisen. However, I think we’re beginning to see the crumbling of the 6th party system. The identity politics mentioned above will likely increase in the era of globalization and social media. The election of Trump may be the first inklings of an identity politics party system, along with the recent uptick in student activism and fragility on college campuses. What’s worse, having more extreme political views actually increases one’s happiness. From a recent study:

Results show that congruence of political affiliations of national politicians, especially the president, with individual party affiliation has an effect on reported happiness while there is no effect of state, gubernatorial or legislative, party congruence. Individuals report being happier when the president is a member of their own party. Throughout all specifications, republicans and those holding conservative political values report higher happiness. Shockingly, regardless of liberal or conservative political values, those who hold extreme political values report higher levels of happiness. The large effect of partisanship and extreme views on reported happiness support the view that partisanship is a result of social identity and provides a psychological need for certainty and structure (pg. 10).

Economist Arthur Brooks, current president of the American Enterprise Institute, made this point years ago in his book Gross National Happiness:

Americans who describe themselves as holding extreme political views–somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population–are among the happiest people in America. All of those angry protesters who denounce Dick Cheney as a murderer; all of the professional political pundits who use the rhetoric of rage and misery to get on cable television–it turns out they’re not miserable at all. On the contrary, they’re enjoying themselves rather a lot. 

In 2004, 35 percent of people who said they were extremely liberal were very happy (versus 22 percent of people who were just liberal). At the same time, a whopping 48 percent of people who were extremely conservative gave this response (compared with 43 percent of nonextreme conservatives). Indeed, the gusto with which Bill Clinton’s attackers in 1998 went after him was really a clue that they were having a grand old time. George W. Bush’s harshest critics–those who have felt the predations of the Bush administration to the very depths of their soul–are quite likely to be a great deal happier than more moderate liberals. 

Why are ideologues so happy? The most plausible reason is religion–not real religion, but rather, a secular substitute in which they believe with perfect certainty in the correctness of their political dogmas. People want to hold the truth; questioning is uncomfortable. It is easy to live by the creed that our nation’s ills are because of George W. Bush; it is much harder to acknowledge that no administration is perfect–or perfectly awful. True political believers are martyrs after a fashion willing to shout slogans in public for causes they are sure are good, or against causes they are convinced are evil. They are happy because–unlike you, probably–they are positive they are right. No data could change their minds (pgs. 33-34).

In other words, being a political hooligan feels really good, which makes change unlikely once you’ve discovered the One True Party. Unfortunately, as Brooks points out,

the happiness of political extremists is an unhappy fact for America. They may themselves be happy, but they make others unhappy–that is, they actually lower our gross national happiness. In many cases, extremists actually intend to upset people–it is part of their strategy…Extremists are happy to stir up their own ranks, but they are even happier when they cause misery for their political opponents. For people on the far left and right, people who do not share their views are not just mistaken, but bad people, who are also stupid and selfish. They deserve to be unhappy…Extremists thrive on dehumanizing their opponents (pgs. 34-35).

Economists’ Statement on How to Fight Climate Change

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This is an impressive statement. It features 3333 economists, 4 former chairs of the Federal Reserve, 27 Nobel laureates, 15 former chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers, and 2 former Secretaries of the U.S. Treasury Department.

Their recommendations:

I.  A carbon tax offers the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary. By correcting a well-known market failure, a carbon tax will send a powerful price signal that harnesses the invisible hand of the marketplace to steer economic actors towards a low-carbon future.

II.  A carbon tax should increase every year until emissions reductions goals are met and be revenue neutral to avoid debates over the size of government. A consistently rising carbon price will encourage technological innovation and large-scale infrastructure development. It will also accelerate the diffusion of carbon-efficient goods and services.

III.  A sufficiently robust and gradually rising carbon tax will replace the need for various carbon regulations that are less efficient. Substituting a price signal for cumbersome regulations will promote economic growth and provide the regulatory certainty companies need for long- term investment in clean-energy alternatives.

IV.  To prevent carbon leakage and to protect U.S. competitiveness, a border carbon adjustment system should be established. This system would enhance the competitiveness of American firms that are more energy-efficient than their global competitors. It would also create an incentive for other nations to adopt similar carbon pricing.

V.   To maximize the fairness and political viability of a rising carbon tax, all the revenue should be returned directly to U.S. citizens through equal lump-sum rebates. The majority of American families, including the most vulnerable, will benefit financially by receiving more in “carbon dividends” than they pay in increased energy prices.

Stuff I Say at School Series

Image result for hermione granger gif raising hand

In January 2019, I started my MA program in Government at John Hopkins University. With homework taking up a more significant amount of my time, my blog-related research is certainly going to suffer. Instead of admitting defeat, I’ve decided to share excerpts from various assignments in this series. I was inspired by the Twitter feed “Sh*t My Dad Says.” While “Sh*t I Say at School” is a funnier title, I’ll go the less vulgar route and name it “Stuff I Say at School.” Some of this material will be familiar to DR readers, but presenting it in a new context will hopefully keep it fresh.

Below you’ll find links to all posts in the series.

Stuff I Say at School – Part III: Rodrik on China and Development

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

Group Report on Dani Rodrik’s article “What’s So Special About China’s Exports?

The Stuff I Said

I’m going to bring in some resources that push back against Rodrik. 

2008 paper finds that Rodrik’s “analysis does not adequately address a significant factor that is important in accounting for China’s superior export performance. This factor is the regional trade and production integration mediated by foreign direct investment (FDI) in East and Southeast Asian economies. A close look at the role of FDI in connecting China with other Asian countries to form a regional trading network would improve the understanding of the characteristics of China’s trade structure and the challenges China faces in international trade” (pg. 100). In my view, Liang’s paper actually highlights the importance of trade and integration contra Rodrik’s somewhat dismissive attitude toward it. Yet, this may still be overestimating the “specialness” of China’s exports. A 2010 paper also points out that Rodrik relies on China’s average per capita GDP (PCGDP) to determine the “specialness” of its exports, yet “China’s coastal provinces, which account for over 90% of China’s exports, have an average PCGDP level 1.5 to 2 times that of China’s overall PCGDP. Without taking this into account, one would underestimate the export capability against which the relative export sophistication is evaluated.” What’s more, “although many of China’s exported goods belong to sophisticated categories, they may well be the low-quality varieties” (pg. 483). When these factors are controlled for, the “specialness” of China’s exports declines.

Rodrik is right to point out that China’s growth has largely been under what many call “state capitalism.” Yuen Yuen Ang’s work has traced the co-evolutionary development between markets and institutions within China. But as one of her book’s reviewers notes, the bureaucratic corruption that played a role in spurring market-oriented growth may end up holding it back. (The good thing is that recent evidence suggests that market reforms and anti-corruption reforms create a virtuous cycle.) However, what I find so odd about Dani Rodrik’s somewhat heterodox position on globalization is that he seems to think that because China has experience incredible growth in the midst of its government’s heavy-handedness, the answer for development is state intervention. He basically watches communist China grow once it begins to liberalize its markets and his response is, “Developing countries need more state intervention.”

Economists like Acemoglu and Robinson don’t deny that economic growth can occur under extractive institutions. It’s just that it can’t last in the long run. This is why openness is so important. As David Weil demonstrates,

Our first approach is to see how growth rates compare in open and closed countries…First, the average growth rate of income in the closed group, 1.5% per year, was significantly lower than in the open group, 3.1% per year. Second, among the economies that were closed some or all of the time, there is no observable relationship between the initial level of a country’s GDP and its subsequent rate of growth. Among the countries open to trade, by contrast, we find strong evidence of convergence:Poorer countries that are open tend to grow faster than richer countries. Putting the results in the two figures together, we can see that poor countries that are open to trade grow faster than rich countries, and poor countries that are closed to trade grow more slowly than rich countries. Our second approach to exploring the effect of openness on growth is to consider how changes in a country’s degree of openness affect growth rates. If within a particular country, a change in trade policy (a trade liberalization or the imposition of new trade restrictions) is followed by a change in the growth rate of output, this pattern can supply us with evidence about the way trade affects income.One of the most sweeping examples of trade liberalization comes from 19th-century Japan. In the 12 years after Japan ended its self-imposed economic isolation in 1858, the value of Japanese trade with the rest of the world rose by a factor of 70. The opening to trade is estimated to have raised Japanese real income by 65% over two decades, and put the country on a path of growth that would eventually cause it to catch up to European levels of income…This same effect of trade liberalization has occurred in the 20th century as well. In South Korea, following a sweeping liberalization of trade in 1964–1965, income grew rapidly, doubling in the next 11 years. Similarly, Uganda and Vietnam experienced rapid growth in the 1990s, following their integration into the world economy.In all these examples, increased openness led to higher growth. Conversely,when we look at cases in which openness decreased, we see evidence that lower growth followed. For example, the trade embargo instituted by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807–1809 spawned widespread unemployment and bankruptcy in the United States. Similarly, the wave of tariff increases throughout the world in 1930, including the U.S. Smoot-Hawley tariff, contributed to the severity of the Great Depression of the 1930s (pg. 327-329).

Weil, 2013, pg. 307.

Given the evidence above, I think China and other developing countries would do well to open their economies more.

Stuff I Say at School – Part II: Self-Interested Politicians

This is part of the Stuff I Say at School series.

The Assignment

After listening to [Benjamin] Ginsberg‘s lecture, do you agree with his assessment that politics is all about interests and power?

The Stuff I Said

Image result for the elephant in the brain

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s recent book The Elephant in the Brain demonstrates that these underlying desires for power and status inform many of our decisions and behaviors in everyday life. Politicians certainly do not transcend these selfish motives by virtue of their office. I would actually add a subcategory to “status”: moral grandstanding. We want to paint ourselves as “good people” by signaling to others our superior moral quality. This allows us to enjoy the social capital that comes along with the improved reputation. We not only gain status, but we can also think of ourselves as do-gooders; crusaders who fight the good fight. Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that we have inflated views  of our own moral character and that acts of moral outrage are largely self-serving. What’s unfortunate is that social media may be exacerbating moral outrage by making signaling both easier and less costly to the individual.

I think the rise of populism in both America and Europe is a timely example of interests at play. While various elements contribute to the populist mindset, economic insecurity is the water it swims in. And this insecurity has been exploited by politicians of more extreme ideologies across multiple countries. For example, the Great Recession eroded European trust in mainstream political parties: a one percentage point increase in unemployment was associated with a 2 to 4 percentage point increase in the populist vote. A 2016 study looked at the political results of financial crises in Europe from 1870 to 2014 and found that far-right parties were the typical outcome. In America, President Trump made “Make America Great Again” his rallying cry, feeding off the public’s distrust of “the Establishment” during the post-crisis years. In doing so, he advocated protectionism and tighter borders. Oddly enough, you find comparable populist sentiments on the Left: Bernie Sanders has been very anti-trade and iffy on liberalized immigration (open borders is “a Koch Brothers proposal“), all in the name of helping the American worker. One of his former campaign organizers–the newly-elected Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez–has also expressed similar concerns over trade deals (especially NAFTA). This is why The Economist sees less of a left/right divide today and more of an open/close divide. Skepticism of trade and immigration wrapped in “power to the people” sentiments may be invigorating in rhetoric, but it’s asinine in practice. And it’s doing nothing more than riding the wave of voter anxiety. What’s worse, it’s hiding these politicians’ accumulation of power, attainment of status, and moral self-aggrandizement behind what Ginsberg so aptly calls “the veneer of public spiritedness.”

More Stuff

A classmate asked if I believed that politicians always acted in self-interest or if there were moral lines that some would not cross. In response, I pointed out that Simler and Hanson are largely arguing against what they see as the tendency for people to tiptoe around hidden motives and self-deception. It’s not that we’re only motivated by selfish motives. We just tend to gloss over them. But they are deeply embedded. Failing to acknowledge them not only has personal consequences, but public ones as well (their chapter on medicine is especially on point). I think we should consider moral motivations through all possible means available, including life experience and behavior. However, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary. It can certainly help protect us against intentional deception. But perhaps more importantly, it helps protect us against unintentional deception. It’s easy to give more weight to life experience, moral principles, and the like when it’s a politician on “our side,” all while harshly judging those on “the other side” as unscrupulous. Political skepticism or cynicism can aid in keeping our own selfish motives and emotional highs in check. And it can lead us to seek out more information, improve our understanding, and refine our beliefs. Otherwise, we end up being consumed by our own good intentions and moral principles without actually learning how to implement these principles.

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My classmate also put forth a hypothetical to get a feel for my position: if legislative districts were redrawn so that legislators now represented districts with a different ideological makeup, how many would change their positions on issues just to stay in power? Personally, I think we would see a fair number of politicians shift their position because it is more advantageous. However, there is considerable evidence that political deliberation with ideological opposites actually backfires. Political philosopher Jason Brennan reviews the evidence in chapter 3 of his book Against Democracy and finds that political deliberation:

  • Undermines cooperation
  • Exacerbates conflict when groups are different sizes
  • Avoids debates about facts and is instead driven by status-seeking and positions of influence
  • Uses language in biased and manipulative ways, usually by painting the opposition as intrinsically bad
  • Avoids controversial topics and sticks to safe subjects
  • Amplifies intellectual biases

There’s more, but that should make my point. So even if some politicians did not flip flop in their newly-drawn districts, the above list should give us pause before we conclude that their doubling down is proof of disinterest in status or moral grandstanding.

I certainly believe that people have moral limits and lines they will not cross. My skepticism (which I prefer to the word cynicism, but I’m fine with interchanging them) is largely about honest self-examination and the examination of others. For example, consider something that is generally of no consequence: Facebook status updates. My Facebook feed is often full of political rants, social commentaries, and cultural critiques. Why do we do that? Why post a political tract as a status? It can’t be because of utility. A single Facebook status isn’t going to fix Washington or shift the course of society. It’s unlikely to persuade the unsaved among your Facebook friends. In fact, it’s probably counterproductive given our tendency for motivated reasoning. When we finally rid ourselves of the high-minded rationales that make next to zero sense, we find that it boils down to signaling: we are signaling our tribe. And that feels good. We get “Likes.” We get our worldview confirmed by others. We gain more social capital as a member of the group. We even get to moral grandstand in the face of that friend or two who hold (obviously) wrong, immoral beliefs. Sure, some of it may be about moral conviction and taking a stand. That certainly sounds and feels better. But I think we will all be better off if we realize that’s really what those behaviors are about: sounding and feeling good. And I think our politics will be better off if we apply a similar lens to it. 

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A classmate drew on Dan Ariely’s work to argue that people–including politicians–have a “personal fudge factor“: most people will cheat a little bit without feeling they’ve compromised their sense that they are a “good person.” When people are reminded of moral values (in the case of the experiments, the honor code or 10 commandments), they don’t cheat, including atheists. So while politicians may compromise their values here and there, they still have a moral sense of self that they are unlikely to violate.

In response, I pointed out that a registered replication report last year was unable to reproduce Ariely’s results. That doesn’t mean his results were wrong, just that we need to be cautious in drawing any strong conclusions from them.

When discussing his priming with the 10 Commandments on pg. 635, Ariely references Shariff and Norenzayan’s well-known 2007 study. This found that people behave more prosocially (in this case, generosity in experimental economic games) when primed with religious concepts. They offered a couple explanations for this. One hypothesis suggested that “the religious prime aroused an imagined presence of supernatural watchers…Generosity in cooperative games has been shown to be sensitive to even minor changes that compromise anonymity and activate reputational concerns” (pg. 807). They then cite studies (which later studies confirm) that found people behaving more prosocially in the presence of eye images. “In sum,” the authors write, “we are suggesting that activation of God concepts, even outside of reflective awareness, matches the input conditions of an agency detector and, as a result, triggers this hyperactive tendency to infer the presence of an intentional watcher. This sense of being watched then activates reputational concerns, undermines the anonymity of the situation, and, as a result, curbs selfish behavior” (pg. 807-808). In short, religious priming makes us think someone upstairs is watching us. This has more to do with being seen as good.

However, religious priming obviously doesn’t work for the honor code portion. Yet, Shariff and Norenzayan’s other explanation is actually quite helpful in this regard: “the activation of perceptual conceptual representations increases the likelihood of goals, plans, and motor behavior consistent with those representations…Irrespective of any attempt to manage their reputations, subjects may have automatically behaved more generously when these concepts were activated, much as subjects are more likely to interrupt a conversation when the trait construct ‘‘rude’’ is primed, or much as university students walk more slowly when the ‘‘elderly’’ stereotype is activated (Bargh et al., 1996)” (pg. 807). Being primed with the “honorable student” stereotype, students were more likely to behave honorably (or honestly). 

In short, Ariely’s study I think shows a mix of motivations when it comes to behaving morally: (1) maintaining our self-concept as a good person, (2) fear of being caught and having our reputation (and the benefits that come with along with it) damaged, and (3) our susceptibility to outside influence.

My point about moral grandstanding is not that we should interpret all behaviors by politicians through the lens of self-delusion and status seeking. But being aware of it can help us cut through a lot of nonsense and avoid being swept up in a collective self-congratulation. To quote Tosi and Warmke, “thinking about grandstanding is a cause for self-reflection, not a call to arms. An argument against grandstanding shouldn’t be used as a cudgel to attack people who say things we dislike. Rather, it’s an encouragement to reassess why and how we speak to one another about moral and political issues. Are we doing good with our moral talk? Or are we trying to convince others that we are good?” And as philosopher David Schmidtz is said to have quipped, if your main goal is to show that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is not in the right place.