When does campaigning matter?

So a retired New York municipal official got a little burst of news coverage recently by trenchantly analyzing Obama’s Presidency thusly:

I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

Kevin Drum suggests that this is an excellent opportunity for Jeb Bush.  By repudiating this sort of talk, he can force his opponents (Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, primarily) to defend it.  Bush will look reasonable and presidential, while his opponents will look like loons.  While political scientists generally disdain the idea that this sort of too-clever-by-half maneuvering matters, Drum is probably half-right.

There is one time when small details of campaigning matters a lot: the primary election. In general elections, voters are generally uninformed and mostly vote on party cues.  In primaries voters cannot use party cues, and by definition primary voters are more politically active and usually sophisticated than general-election voters.  And as Larry Bartels tells us, media coverage can really move the dial.  So campaigning matters, and anything a candidate can do to get positive media coverage can be very important.  Pushing back on this sort of talk is the sort of bold truth-telling that the DC media will just eat right up, and that can well translate to better positioning in the primary.

Drum is half-right because it’s just too early; better for Bush to save this tactic until closer to the primary season.  Bumps are short-lived, and this is far from the last time a prominent Republican will say President Obama hates America.

Citizenship and Welfare

Is welfare something citizens are entitled to?  Perhaps it is – there is a reason we call it an entitlement.  The right to a measure of support in a time of hardship is your entitlement as an American citizen.  At least that’s the view we generally hold today, but it wasn’t always the case.

The British Poor Law reform of 1834 did not provide welfare as a right of citizenship – it provided a trade of citizenship for welfare.  It provided a system for central government support for the destitute: food and housing paid for by the state.  In exchange for this support, the destitute were required to move into a workhouse where they labored for the state.  They were denied freedom of movement and most importantly, were disenfranchised.  The intent of the Poor Law reform was in part to prevent Englishmen from starving to death – but in part to ensure that the welfare system was unpleasant enough that no one would choose it over working.  The denial of the franchise, and the enforced alienation from civil society, was intended to ensure the poor would not vote themselves more and more benefits. Later scholars of the welfare state, such as Karl Polanyi, referred to this approach as “pauperization”.

The common modern-day refrain of “a safety net, not a hammock” echoes the pauperization strategy of Victorian England; this is not a criticism so much as a description.  Pauperization is the impulse that underlies modern-day policy experiments such as endless invasive drug-testing of welfare recipients (recently struck down by an appeals court). The intent is not to save money but to discourage welfare seeking by making it terrible; not just unpleasant, but a loss of basic civil rights.  Modern proposals have not included disenfranchisement but it is not so difficult to imagine.  Perhaps it is a good idea to demand a sacrifice of civil rights in exchange for subsistence – perhaps it is really more effective at getting people to stay off welfare, and leads to a net healthier and better society.

But the idea of “a safety net, not a hammock” is not new or innovative policy – it’s in fact shocking how old it is.  And it entails a vision of citizenship very different than the ideas most of us generally claim to endorse.

How to Argue About Politics: Just Ask Questions

Turns out that you can convince people to moderate their positions by asking them to explain the issue. This paper isn’t quite “new”, but it’s new to me – published only in 2013 by Fernbach, Rogers, Fox, and Sloman.  The trick is not to ask people to give reasons for their policy preferences, but instead to ask them to mechanistically explain the underlying problem and how their preferred policy would work.  The authors’ interpretation, which makes perfect sense to me, is that extremism in ordinary citizens is often rooted in a high degree of false confidence that the speaker understands the issue.  Asking them to explain it in depth causes the speaker to rethink exactly how well they understand the issue, and accordingly moderate their opinions.

Some caveats: the treatment effect is not very large and it’s not clear how generalizable it is.  The study relied on asking participants to actually write out their beliefs.  In the context of a discussion, especially one where the participants might be devoting less attention or coming in with a more adversarial attitude, this might not work.

However, this is an interesting idea with positive consequences for democracy that deserves more study.  It does suggest that there is a real moderating role for discussion, and that argument does not simply push people into more extreme positions.  Instead, by asking people to explain their ideas and treating them non-confrontationally, you can cause them to believe and act more moderately. It’s nice when instrumental interests – getting people to change minds – line up nicely with our normative beliefs about how discussions ought to be conducted. Next time you have a political argument, perhaps give this a try.  Rather than engaging, or pushing your agenda, just ask questions about what he think is going on.  Probe your counterpart’s understanding of the issue.  It will not only lead to a less heated and more congenial discussion, but just might make a dent in their opinions.

Updating Priors on the Chinese Economy

Christopher Balding has a an interesting piece on Chinese statistics on growth, GDP, and consumption.  As you might expect if you have even a cursory knowledge of China, the stats are highly suspicious.  But as Balding reveals, they’re suspicious in an interesting way.  In the course of looking at rural consumption figures, he comes up against the revelation that due to changes in methodology the statistics are not really comparable from year to year.  Even more importantly, even basic figures like national GDP have frequent but unannounced methodological changes such that they are not comparable over time.

How should this alter your views on China?  First and foremost, we know much less about its recent economic history than we think.  If it is altering the methodology from year to year, then statistics both on levels and growth have huge unacknowledged error bars around them.  Secondly, it should worry people about future growth levels.  There are two possible scenarios.  One is that the Chinese government does not think it worthwhile to keep reliable economic statistics.  The second is that the “real” statistics are secret and the public statistics are manipulated to serve political interests. Neither has particularly positive implications for the quality of economic governance in China and its future trajectory.

The Coming Democratic Campaign for Universal Childcare?

Are childcare and family policies the next policy priorities of the Democratic party, the way that healthcare was for roughly 20 years?  Jonathan Chait says yes, and I’m inclined to agree.  The passage of Obamacare took one major issue “off the table” – it hasn’t been “fixed”, but an infrastructure is now in place that will allow for incremental changes to the national healthcare system.  Which is great, but incrementalism doesn’t get people to the polls.  The party needs a galvanizing issue -particularly one that a political entrepreneur could use during the 2016 primary campaign.

Childcare and family policies have a great deal to recommend them – first and most obvious the policy benefits.  Economically, it can be aimed at removing much of the penalty that women face in the workplace by socializing many of the costs that are currently borne solely by mothers.  As a matter of social justice, it will remove the inequity in childcare that places disproportionate burdens on low-income mothers, children, and families.

Solely to focus on the naked politics: childcare and family policies seem like a great weapon for the Democrats.  It plays to their advantages; voters trust Democrats much more on these sorts of policies.  Tactically, while the Democrats are doing legendarily well with unmarried women, married women are actually somewhat Republican.  A platform putting the interests of married women first and foremost could appeal to both unmarried and married women (more so than focusing on divisive interests like abortion), and poorly handled Republican opposition could lead to a backlash.  Childcare policy – unlike many policies that harm the wealthy or particular industries – wouldn’t divide the Democratic coalition.

Furthermore, unlike virtually all other Democratic policy priorities, this mostly wouldn’t involve taking on incumbent interests. Healthcare was such a rough fight largely because it was fought by Big Health.  Cap-and-trade failed against the bitter opposition of the business community.  The Democrats have made limited success in taxing the rich.  But there’s no Big Childcare that would be threatened.  Large segments of the business community might be mildly to somewhat supportive (unless it was paid for by taxing them).  In short, policy pledges to improve childcare without specifying pay-fors have the opportunity to be broadly useful in electioneering and face little organized opposition when actually passing policy.

It is for these political virtues, even more so than the policy virtues, that I expect childcare and family policy to be the next Democratic policy priority and possibly the ground on which 2016 is fought.

The Future of Marijuana Legalization Efforts

I suspect that marijuana will be a pretty major issue in the 2016 campaign.  Looking at this map, it is clear that the legalization movement is only now gathering steam.  Three liberal states have already legalized recreational use, with several blue (and not-so-blue!) states planning legalization referendums for 2016 or the next few years after.  Marijuana might be fully legalized under state law along the entire West Coast and all of New England by 2020.

Predictions from ArcView Market Research

It will be a salient 2016 election issue because it will have become a massively salient policy issue.  With the lack of a Presidential election in 2014, and the Obama administration effectively downplaying the question, it wasn’t really on the agenda.  But whoever wins in 2016 will have a massive mess on their hands in 2017, particularly if California votes for legalization.  The status quo, of a gray market in Colorado and Washington with no federal recognition of the growing industry, is unsustainable and cannot be sustained.  It certainly cannot be extended from those states to the much larger populations of California and the Eastern Seaboard.  The next administration simply will be forced to make a decision about whether to crack down on it or tolerate it to a much greater degree than Obama has (e.g., allowing pot retailers to file taxes and access banks).

It is hard to know what this debate will look like, simply because it is difficult to gauge how public opinion will look in two years time.  If opinion continues to consolidate in favor of legalization, the tenor of the debate is likely to be much different than if it stagnates or reverses.  But here’s my expectation: opinion will continue to move in favor of legalization.  It will be a wedge issue in the Democratic primary – a political entrepreneur will seize on it and attempt to force policy concessions on the issue from Hillary Clinton.  In the general, she will attempt to downplay the issue and avoid presenting a definite policy, as opposed to a Republican candidate who will be very very anti-marijuana and will push the issue hard.  If marijuana legalization does not increase much in popularity by 2016, both candidates will be attempting to seize the anti-marijuana high ground even though roughly half the population favors legalization.  That half will disproportionately vote for Clinton anyway, and for legalization if they have the opportunity.

A Republican win would mean a high-intensity, high-profile crackdown and basically going to war on state governments who tolerate marijuana.  If Clinton wins, she will attempt to delay action as long as possible but will eventually opt for a crackdown.  In short: marijuana activists should be cheered that their legalization campaigns are making so much progress…but shouldn’t count their chickens just yet.  Passing these laws are just the opening shot of a campaign that will take a long, long time before either side can claim victory.

Significant Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Andrew Gelman seizes on what bothers me about so much current political science, particularly studies that focus on attitudes.

This becomes particularly clear when we look at work along these lines in political science. If, for example, subliminal smiley faces have big effects on political attitudes, then this should cause us to think twice about how seriously to take such attitudes, no? Or if men’s views on economic redistribution are in large part determined by physical strength, or if women’s vote preferences are in large part determined by what time of the month it is, or if both sexes’ choice to associate with co-partisans is in large part determined by how they smell, then this calls into question a traditional civics-class view of the will of the people.

Luckily (or, perhaps, depending on your view, unluckily), the evidence for the empirical claims in the above paragraphs ranges from weak to nonexistent.

But my point is that there is a wave of research, coming from different directions, but all basically saying that our political attitudes are shallow and easily manipulated and thus, implicitly, not to be trusted. I don’t find this evidence convincing and, beyond this, I’m troubled by the eagerness some people seem to show to grab on to such claims, with their ultimately anti-democratic implications.

There’s this idea – a powerful one – that people have attitudes, but they also have “non-attitudes”.  When forced to answer questions on a survey, very often people are asked questions about which they have little or no opinions.  For example, I simply don’t have an opinion on the prospects of the Boston Red Sox next year.  But people don’t like saying “no opinion”, and so will often just answer something.  These are the opinions that are most changeable, because they are less “opinions” than randomly produced responses.  And so when surveys show strong effects from treatments like smiley faces, most of the movement is coming out of those most-weakly-held opinions.  Almost definitionally, the stronger the treatment effect these studies show the less important the thing they are measuring.

The proliferation of these types of studies produce an awful lot of papers with a well-designed experiment, a counterintuitive result, and the nagging question, “So…did we actually learn anything important?”


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