Are Values Stickier Than Prices?

Interestingly, Republicans seem to be more supportive of bombing Syria than Democrats, though both are on balance opposed.  This is unsurprising – Democrats are less supportive of bombing places in general but often line up behind the President, while Republicans are more supportive in general but don’t care for this Obama fellow.

But it brings up an interesting question – when and where does party consensus actually matter?  For example, in 2002-2008 the urgency of global warming was generally accepted by the Republican Party, leading to sights like the infamous Gingrich-Pelosi “couch” ad.  But upon Obama’s election, the opposition to any action has become completely hardened.  Or during the Bush Administration, Democrats were generally highly critical of expansive executive powers, while the Obama Administration has exploited the “imperial presidency” to its limits with barely a whisper of protest from Democrats.  However, other issues remain remarkably stable in partisan valence over decades – for example, the Democratic push for centralizing healthcare regulation and Republican opposition.

Obviously, different issues and belief sets have different values of “stickiness”.  Keynesians talk about “sticky” prices, which can’t be adjusted in response to changing economic conditions and ultimately drive firms into bankruptcy and economies into recession.  Well, some political values are similarly sticky, whereas others aren’t.  Republicans’ belief in lower taxes for the rich, and Democrats’ beliefs in higher taxes for the rich, are incredibly sticky.  Other beliefs like executive power, civil rights, and regulation are much less sticky and both the parties flip back and forth a lot – Nixon created the EPA and Clinton unleashed Wall Street, after all.

It could be worthwhile to look at how to measure the “inertia” of beliefs and values.  These seems like it should be possible, through historic public opinion polling and rates of change.  I would guess that the high-“salience” issues, things people care about a lot like taxes, are stable.  Other more peripheral issues like civil rights* bounce around a lot since peoples’ opinions are less well-developed.  Since they have lower inertia, they are much more responsive to changes in political leadership, convenience, and changes in circumstance.

More interestingly, do different parties over time have different total levels of inertia?  This could truly go either way, and I don’t have any real hypotheses.  It is certainly plausible that parties become much more flexible or less flexible over time based on their voting base composition.  Or perhaps parties in opposition are always more flexible.  Or perhaps their level of inertia is roughly constant – their core beliefs become that much more tightly held in response to tactical flexibility.  The Republican Party has flipped positions on many practical issues since Obama took office – but at the same time, Republicans seem to be taking much more seriously their core commitments to a low-tax, low-spending government.

Learning to recognize which value are sticky could be a boon to governance, as majorities could know what is worthwhile to bargain with minorities over instead of wasting time where no bargains are possible.

*: Describing them as “peripheral” is sad, but when was the last time you voted based solely on a civil rights concern?

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