I recently gave an interview on Economics Detective Radio with Garrett Petersen to talk about my forthcoming article in Economics & Human Biology (with Vadim Kufenko and Alex Arsenault Morin). In the interview, I explain why anthropometric history is important to our understanding of living standards, their evolution and short-term trade-offs in economic history. The interview is below, but you should subscribe to Garrett’s podcast as he is well on his way to becoming a serious competitor to EconTalk with the bonus that he does lots of economic history.
When I began dipping my toes into game theory and rational choice theory, like many others, I learned about the Median Voter Theorem (MVT). This theory is essentially the Hotelling’s Law of voting, in which two competing politicians, on any given issue, will adopt views similar to the median on a spectrum of views of that issue, in order to maximize the number of votes they receive. Any movement toward either extreme, so the theory goes, would allow the opponent to gain the votes of centrists by moving in the same direction, but not as far, effectively gaining all voters on the other extreme AND the centrists. According to MVT, the most successful politicians should, if rational choice theory can be said to apply to elections, represent (if not hold) the views closest to those of the median voter, who should be relatively “centrist” even if extremist voters outnumber centrists.
This is, rather dramatically, not the case. History and current events offer a plethora of examples: a brief look at the makeup of the US government implies that centrist voices (and especially centrist voters) are outnumbered and drowned out. If MVT has any effect at all, why is increasing political polarization such a hot topic?
What are the possible explanations for this? Is MVT fundamentally wrong in its core idea, and is voting in fact not possible to model in rational choice theory? I do not think so, so here are several ideas, some old and one novel, about why the application of MVT does not lead to centrist politicians winning most elections in practice:
- Voter preferences are polarized. If voter opinions are not only not normally distributed, but are in fact gathered at two poles with no centrist voters, MVT may actually function, but it would predict that centrists would lose a lot (because the median voter would be at one pole or the other). The idea that voters resemble a barbell graph more than a normal distribution may be very salient, because many issues are dominated by extreme views. However, the voting population is demonstrably more centrist on some issues, so this cannot fully explain the difference between reality and MVT.
- Third parties spoil things. This hearkens back not only to Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, but also to the influence of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader on presidential elections. Third party participation does not spoil MVT, because it still fundamentally follows the idea of rational choice theory about elections, but it complicates two-candidate models.
- Further note: multi-party systems are vulnerable to extremists. The possibility of invasion by extreme views is higher in multi-party systems, because if multiple centrist parties compete for median voters, extreme groups gain power disproportionate to their constituency.
- Primaries spoil things. This is an old idea in US politics: in primaries, you have to run to the extremes, and then in the general election, run to the center. The very logic behind this idea, and any empirical evidence of it, proves the viability of MVT, but it does introduce complications to any model of it that fails to account for the two different elections many politicians must win. Also, we must remember to factor in the fact that politicians have a negative utility in abandoning past positions (especially recent decisions) of seeming inauthentic or losing their base.
- The Electoral College spoils things. Outside of US presidential elections, “swing states” may not have the same power, but in the US, candidates would be “rational” to pursue votes in swing states much more assiduously than they do in states that are nearly sure bets. This is only narrowly applicable, but the campaign focus on swing states indicates that candidates do at least campaign rationally (see academic studies or news reports), in that they seek votes strategically and not indiscriminately.
- Voter turnout skews MVT. In elections without mandatory voting, those who are less committed to the issues at stake—who are more likely to be centrists—tend to vote less than those who care greatly one way or another. Therefore, voting may be more about mobilizing one’s base than appealing to centrists. (Note: this is not an endorsement of mandatory voting, which can allow more zero-sum games in politics and the enforcement of which seems worse than the problem).
- People do not vote based on rational weighing of stances. This would be a troubling conclusion, and suggests that people may align with parties and candidates based on motives other than matching candidate views to their own. While this is certainly true to some extent, MVT can still predict the overall “centrism” of politicians. Also, just because many people have an irrational method of weighing stances does not mean that the aggregate result does not mean that the utility of favoring centrist positions would not be positive.
- Voting is multidimensional. Since single candidates represent dozens if not hundreds of salient issues in a single election, voters are forced to compromise on some issues in order to win others. This multidimensionality is not a counterargument to MVT, but an extreme complication, because “median” politicians could lose based on voter preference not within an issue, but between issues. That is, a politician can gain voters by recognizing weighting each voter’s stance by how likely that issue is to change their vote. This can be observed in the fact that referenda tend to follow MVT in a more straightforward fashion than elections. It is also a possible explanation for the rise of certain coalitions: no matter if constituents have deep disagreements on many issues, they end up aligned behind the same candidate based on inter-issue preferences. This may have been a major motivation for federalization and separation of power: different decisions are constrained to certain elections, allowing voters to communicate on each individual issue more clearly because of the reduced multidimensionality. The game theory on multidimensional voting is well developed, but still has some complications that have not been specifically argued:
- Complication: Special interest compared to general interest. Multidimensional voting allows politicians to promise concentrated special interest to voters on certain issues in order to gain votes rather than appeal to general interest across many issues. The implications of this have been shown in game form, especially in special interest influence on enforcement. In this, public choice theory proves the idea that governments tend to favor dispersed costs and concentrated gains.
- Complication: Singe issue voters. This is a subset of the above, or at least related to it. In multidimensional elections, voters obviously have to weigh issue preferencing. However, if a voter decides that they would choose a candidate so long as he agrees with the voter on a single issue, then on that issue, the single-issue voter has a hugely disproportionate influence on the candidate’s opinion on that issue. The reason: if the candidate runs to the center on that single issue, he risks his opponent capturing the vote of all single-issue voters on that side by running slightly more to the extreme. The Nash Equilibrium of such a situation would depend on how many single-issue voters there are at either extreme (I assume here that single-issue voters are not centrists, based on examples shown below, but I am open to argument) and how much of the non-single-issue constituency is ceded by focusing on single-issue voters, but it is distinctly possible that issue preferencing, especially the power of the ultimatum implied in single-issue voting, makes it rational for politicians to run to the extremes. Interesting examples of this phenomenon include background checks for guns, defense spending, and possibly marijuana legalization. (Please note that this does not constitute an endorsement of these ideas—whether the majority is correct is a different question from whether the majority idea is enacted by politicians).
- The single-issue voter idea continues to fascinate me. Most of all, it fascinates me how little (apart from some basic preferencing models in the literature) I can find that either theorizes or empirically examines the specific influence of single-issue voters and voter preferencing. I hope it is out there, and I just can’t find it (so send it to me if you have found one!). But if not, is anyone out there a public choice theorist who wants to help me figure this out?
Thanks for sticking with a long read, and please give me feedback if you have any examples of this phenomenon or another angle on MVT!
I went in the field of economic history after I discovered how much it was to properly measure living standards. The issue that always interested me was how to “capture” the multidimensional nature of living standards. After all, what weight should we give to an extra year of life relative to the quality of that extra year (see all my stuff on Cuba)?
However, I never tried to create “a composite” measure of living standards. I thought that it was necessary, first, to get the measurements right. However, I had been aware of the work of Leandro Prados de la Escosura who has been doing considerable work on this in order to create composite measures (Leandro also influenced me on my Cuba reasoning – see this article).
A year ago, I discovered the work of Daniel Gallardo Albarrán from the University of Groningen at the meeting of the Economic History Society (EHS). Daniel’s work is particularly interesting because he is trying to generate a composite measure of well-being at one of the most important moment in history: the start of the British industrial revolution.
Because of its importance and some pieces of contradicting evidence (inequality, stature, amplitude of real wage increases, amplitude of income increases, urban pollution leading to increased mortality risks etc), the period has been begging for some form of composite measure to come along (at least a serious attempt at generating it). Drawing on some pretty straightforward microeconomic theory (the Beckerian in me likes this), Daniel generates this rich graph (see the paper here).
The idea is very neat and I hope it will inspire some economic historians to attempt an expansion upon Daniel’s work. I have already drawn outlines for my own stuff on Canada since I study an era when (from the early 1800s to the mid-1850s) real wages and incomes seem to be going up but stature and mortality are either deteriorating or remaining stable while inequality is clearly increasing.
The fondest memories of my childhood center on the time I spent with my father watching Star Trek. At the time, I simply enjoyed science fiction. However, as an adult I have often revisited Star Trek (on multiple occasions) and I realized that I had incorporated subconsciously many elements of the show into my own political reasoning.
Not to give too much away about my age, my passion with Star Trek started largely with the Voyager installments. As a result, I ended up seeing Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway. And that’s what she was: the captain. I never saw the relevance that she was a woman. A few years ago, I saw her speak at the Montreal Comic-Con (yes, I am that kind of Trekkie) and she mentioned how crucial she thought her role to be for the advancement of women. By that time, I had already started to consider Star Trek as one of the most libertarian-friendly shows ever to have existed. While its economics were strange, its emphasis on tolerance, non-intervention and equality of rights make it hard to argue that it is not favorable to broadly-defined liberal mindset. However, I had not realized how much so until I heard Mulgrew speak about her vision of the role. After all, I had somehow forgotten that Mulgrew was a woman and how novel her role was.
One person who understands how important was this point is Shannon Mizzi who wrote a piece for Wilson Quarterly which I ended up reading while I was still a PhD student. Her core point was that in Star Trek, women were simply professionals. They were rarely seen doing other things than their work. While she argues that this meant that Star Trek played an underappreciated role in the history of women’s advancement, I am willing to go a step further. That step is to assert that the cause of the cultural advancement of women has been better served by Star Trek than by governments. (Please note that I am only considering cultural advancement)
The pre-1900 economic and social history of women would be sufficient in itself to make this point of mine. After all, women were given a lesser legal status by governments. This is both a necessary and sufficient element to assert that, overall, governments have been noxious to women’s advancement over many centuries. One century of legal emancipation would still leave Star Trek as a net positive force. But that would be a lazy argument on my part and I should simply focus on the present day. In fact, thanks to a wealth of data on wage gaps, gender norms and measures of legal institutions, I can more easily back up the claim.
My friend Rosemarie Fike of Texas Christian University is the first person that comes to mind in that regard. Her own doctoral dissertation, Economic Freedom and the Lives of Women, introduced me to a wide literature on the role of economic freedom in the advancement of women. To be sure, Rosemarie was not the first to try to measure the role of economic freedom (which we should understand as how small and non-interventionist a government is). There had already been some research showing that higher levels of economic freedom were associated with smaller hourly wage gaps between genders and how liberalizing reforms were associated with wage convergence between genders. However, some economists have been arguing that there are other “soft sides” to economic freedom – like in the promotion of cultural equality and norms that promote certain types of attitudes. This is where Rosemarie’s work is most crucial. In a section of her dissertation, she essentially builds up on the work of (my favorite Nobel laureate) Gary Becker regarding preferences and discrimination. Basically, the idea is that free markets will penalize people who willingly discriminate. After all, if an employer refuses to hire redheads for some strange reason, I can compete by hiring the shunned redheads at a lower wage rate and out-compete him. In order to stay in business, the ginger-hating fool has to change his behavior and hire redheads which will push wages up. Its hard to be a racist or misogynist when it costs you a lot of money.
However, if you prevent this mechanism from operating (by intervening in markets), you are making it easier to be bigoted-chauvinistic-male-pigs. As a result, laws that prevent market operations (like the Jim Crow laws did for blacks) enshrine discriminatory practices. Individuals growing up in such environment may accept this as normal and acceptable behavior and strange beliefs about gender equality may cement themselves in the popular imagination. When markets are allowed to operate, beliefs will morph to reflect the actions taken by individuals (see Jennifer Roback’s great story of tramways in the US South as an example of how strong markets can be in changing behavior and see her article on how racism is basically rent-seeking). As a result, Rosemarie’s point is that societies with high levels of economic freedom will be associated with beliefs favorable to gender equality.
But the mirror of that argument is that government policies, even if their spirits have no relation to gender issues, may protect illiberal beliefs. Case in point, women are more responsive to tax rates than men – much more. In short, if you reduce taxes, women will adjust their labor supply more importantly at the extensive and intensive margin than men will. This little, commonly accepted, fact in labor economics is pregnant with implications. Basically, it means that women will work less in high tax environments and will acquire less experience than men will. Since it is also known that differences in the unmeasured effects of experience weigh heavily in explaining the remaining portion of the gender pay gap, this means that high tax rates contribute indirectly to maintaining the small gender pay gap that remains. Now, imagine what would be the beliefs of employers towards women if they did not believe that women are more likely to work fewer hours or drop out of the workforce for some time? Would you honestly believe that they would be the same? When Claudia Goldin argues that changes in labor market structures could help close the gap, can you honestly say that the uneven effect of high tax rates on the labor supply decisions of the different genders are not having an effect in delaying experimentation with new structures? This only one example meant to show that governments may, even when it is not their intent, delay changes that would be favorable to gender equality. There are mountains of other examples going the larger effects of the minimum wage on female employment to the effects of occupational licencing falling heavily on professions where women are predominant.
With such a viewpoint in mind, it is hard to say how much governments helped the cultural advancement of women (on net) over the 20th and 21st centuries . However, Star Trek clearly had a positive net effect on that cultural advancement. That is why I am willing to say it here: Star Trek did more for the cultural advancement of women than governments did.
The author points out that our culture teaches girls to be afraid. Girls are warned to be careful at the playground while boys are expected… to be boys. Over time we’re left with a huge plurality of our population hobbled.
It’s clear that this is a costly feature of our culture. So why do we teach girls to be scared? Is there an alternative? This cultural meme may have made sense long ago, but society wouldn’t collapse if it were to disappear.
Culture is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation. It’s not as precise as science (another way of passing on knowledge), but it’s indispensable. Over time a cultural repertoire changes and develops in response to the conditions of the people in that group. Routines, including attitudes, that help the group succeed and that are incentive-compatible with those people will persist. When groups are competing for resources, these routines may turn out to be very important.
It’s plausible that in early societies tribes had to worry about neighboring tribes stealing their women. For the tribe to persist, there needs to be enough people, and there needs to be fertile women and men. The narrower window for women’s productivity mean that men are more replaceable in such a setting. So tribes that are protective of women (and particularly young women and girls) would have an cultural-evolutionary advantage. Maybe Brandon can tell us something about the archaeological record to shed some light on this particular hypothesis.
But culture will be slower to get rid of wasteful routines, once they catch on. For this story to work, people can’t be on the razor’s edge of survival; they have to be wealthy enough that they can afford to waste small amounts of resources on the off-chance that it actually helped. Without the ability to run randomized control trials (with many permutations of the variables at hand) we can never be truly sure which routines are productive and which aren’t. The best we can do is to try bundles of them all together and try to figure out which ones are especially good or bad.
So culture, an inherently persistent thing, will pick up all sorts of good and bad habits, but it will gradually plod on, adapting to an ever-changing, ever evolving ecosystem of competing and cooperating cultures.
So should we still teach our girls to be scared? I’d argue no.* Economics tells us that being awesome is great, but in a free society** it’s also great when other people are awesome. Those awesome people cure diseases and make art. They give you life and make life worth living.
Bringing women and minorities into the workplace has been a boon for productivity and therefore wealth (not without problems, but that’s how it goes). Empowering women in particular, will be a boon for the frontiers of economic, scientific, technical, and cultural evolution to the extent women are able to share new view points and different ways of thinking.
And therein lies the rub… treating girls like boys empowers them, but also changes them. So how do we navigate this tension? The only tool the universe has given us to explore a range of possibilities we cannot comprehend in its entirety: trial and error.
We can’t run controlled experiments, so we need to run uncontrolled experiments. And we need to try many things quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of things and few trials will be done “right.” But with a broader context of freedom and a culture of inquiry, our knowledge can grow while our culture is enriched. I think it’s worth making the bet that brave women will make that reality better.
* But also, besides what I think, if I told parents how to act… if I made all of them follow my sensible advice, I’d be denying diversity of thought to future generations. That diversity is an essential ingredient, both because it allows greater differences in comparative advantage, but also because it allows more novel combinations of ideas for greater potential innovation in the future.
** And here’s the real big question: “What does it mean for a society to be free?” In the case of culture it’s pretty easy to say we want free speech, but it runs up against boundaries when you start exploring the issue. And with billions of people and hundreds (hopefully thousands) of years we’re looking at a thousand-monkey’s scenario on steroids… and that pill from Flowers for Algernon.
There’s copyright which makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of giants, but might be justified if it helps make free speech an economically sustainable reality. There’s the issue of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and the question of how far that restriction can be stretched before political dissent is being restricted. We might not know where the line should be drawn, but given enough time we know that someone will cross it.
And the issue goes into due process and business regulation, and any area of governance at all. We can’t be free to harm others, but some harms are weird and counter-intuitive. If businesses can’t harm one another through competition then our economy would have a hard time growing at all. Efficiency would grow only slowly tying up resources and preventing innovation. Just as there’s an inherent tension in the idea of freedom between permissiveness and protection, there’s a similar tension in the interdependence of cooperation and competition for any but the very smallest groups.
I have recently finished reading Famine and Finance by Tyler Beck Goodspeed. While short, it should have a prominent place on the shelves of economic historians interested (obviously) in Irish history and (less obviously) in Malthusian theory.
Famine and Finance is a study of the response of Irish farmers to the potato blight. As it is known to many, many individuals simply left Ireland. However, where micro-credit was available, Goodspeed finds that farmers adapted by shifting to different types of activities – notably livestock. These areas experienced a smaller decline in population. Basically, where the institution of micro-credit was present, the demographic shock was much less severe. If only for this nuance, the book makes a sizeable contribution to the historiography of Ireland. The methods used are also elegantly simple and provide an interesting road map for anyone interested in studying the responses of local population to environmental shocks.
However, the deeper point comes from it tells us about institutions. In Goodspeed’s story, the amplitude of the collapse of the Irish population in the 19th century depends on the presence of the institution of micro-credit. Basically, the institution determined the amplitude of the shock. Since Ireland’s potato blight is often presented as the textbook case of Malthusian pressures, Goodspeed’s results are particularly interesting. In his chatper titled”Was Malthus Right?”, he shows that when controls for the institution of micro-credit is present, the typical Malthusian variables fail to explain population changes. In other words (i.e. my words) , Malthusian pressures (the change in population) are in fact institutional failures.
A few days ago, it was confirmed that my article with Vadim Kufenko and Alex Arsenault Morin on the heights of French-Canadians between 1780 and 1830 was accepted for publication in Economics and Human Biology. In that paper, we try to introduce French-Canadians before 1850 to the anthropometric history literature by using the records of the prison of Quebec City. Stature is an important measure of living standards. As it is heavily related to other aspects of health outcomes, it is a strong measure of biological living standards. More importantly, there are moments in history when material living standards and biological living standards move in opposite directions (in the long-run, this is not the case).
We find three key results. The first is that the French-Canadians grew shorter throughout the era when living standards did not increase importantly (and were very volatile). This puts them at odds from other places in North America where increases in stature were experienced up until the 1820s. Furthermore, stature stops falling around 1820 when economic growth picked up. This places the French-Canadians in a unique category in North America since it seems unlikely that they experienced a strong version of the antebellum puzzle (decline in stature with increases in material living standards which is what the US experienced). The second key result is that the French-Canadians are the shortest in North America, shorter even than Black Americans in slavery. However, they are considerably taller than most (save Argentinians) Latin Americans. More importantly, they are considerably taller than their counterparts in France. The third key result is related to the second key result. Today, French-Canadians are noticeably shorter than other Canadians. However, the gap was more important in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Pegged as a “striking exception” within Canada, we do not know when it actually started. Thanks to our work, we know that this was true as far back at the early 19th century.
The working paper (dramatically different than the accepted version) is here and I am posting key results in tables and figures below. Moreover, I will be talking about anthropometric history and economic history with Garrett Petersen of Economics Detective Radio this Tuesday (I do not know when the podcast will be made available, but you should subscribe to that show anyways).