Sanders Supporters Don’t Support Sanders’s Policies: A Short Note on Yet Another Reason why “Deliberative Democracy” is a Myth

In the previous part of my democracy series, I took note how the notion of democracy as a “deliberative” means of policymaking is a myth. Contrary to John Dewey, Sidney Hook, and Joshua Cohen, who characterize democracy as an application of the scientific method to political problems and as deliberative “intelligence” directing society, democracy is really the rule of the irrational and ignorant, as public choice theory teaches. Deliberative reasoning does not determine policy in democracies, but rather whoever can cater the best to systemically biased and rationally ignorant voters. Voters don’t give deliberative reasons for their policies, and if they do they, contra Cohen, clearly do not have an equal say in the formation of policies as, according to public choice theory, special interests have the most control over it.

However, I neglected one important other reason why actual political democracies are anything but “deliberative:” voters rarely chose their candidates based off of careful deliberation of issues; they instead chose candidates based off of cultural associations with the candidates. Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels recently took note of this in the New York Times:

The notion that elections are decided by voters’ carefully weighing competing candidates’ stands on major issues reflects a strong faith in American political culture that citizens can control their government from the voting booth. We call it the “folk theory” of democracy.

…But wishing so does not make it so. Decades of social-scientific evidence show that voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.

That last note is very reminiscent of another point made in my last article on democracy about how evidence from moral psychology, specifically Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, shows that voters do not use reason to determine their political or moral views, but rather reason serves as a servant to the passions. In this case, far from deliberatively and intelligently choosing policy preferences, it seems voters are letting their deliberation serve passions that are influenced by social and cultural affiliations rather than actually informed policy stances.

Achen and Bartels show how this is in action specifically in the recent Democratic Primary:

…It is very hard to point to differences between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders’s proposed policies that could plausibly reflect account for such substantial cleavages [in polls]. They are reflections of social identities, plausible commitments and partisan loyalties.

Yet commentators who have been ready and willing to attribute Donald Trump’s success to anger, authoritarianism, or racism rather than policy issues have taken little note of the extent to which Mr. Sanders’s support [sic]is concentrated not among liberal ideologues but among disaffected white men.

More evidence casts further doubt on the notion that support for Mr. Sanders reflects a shift to the left in the policy preferences of Democrats. In a survey conducted for the American National Election Studies in January, supporters of Mr. Sanders were more pessimistic than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters about “opportunity in America today for the average person to get ahead” and more likely to say that economic inequality had increased.

However, they were less likely than Mrs. Clinton’s supporters to favor concrete policies that Mr. Sanders has offered such as remedies for these ills, including a higher minimum wage, increasing government on health care and an expansion of government services financed by higher taxes. It is quite a stretch to view these people as the vanguard of a new, social-democratic-trending Democratic Party.

Achen and Bartels further note that, despite the enthusiastic support from young Democrats, these younger voters actually disagree more with Sanders on specific policy issues than older democratic voters, noting that “even on specific issues championed by Mr. Sanders” such as “increased government funding of healthcare,” “a higher minimum wage,” and “expanding government services,” younger Democrats tend to disagree with Sanders’ more than older ones. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most of Sanders’ voters that Achen and Bartels write about are completely rationally ignorant of their disagreements with their favorite candidate in the first place. I also would add these cultural influences on voting at the expense of policy deliberation to Caplan’s theory of “irrational rationality;” cultural associations and symbolic commitments decrease the costs of holding an irrational political belief.

It is clear, then, that this “folk theory of democracy” in which voters deliberately consider policy alternatives and make reasoned, rational decisions for why they prefer one candidates’ policies to another is a myth. If it is the case that voters are not only rationally ignorant and irrational, that democracy is more controlled by concentrated interests at the expense of the public good, and that voters make their electoral decisions based off of cultural associations rather than deliberations about policy, what can be said about political democracy’s aim at philosophical democracy? What can be said of the existence, or possibility, of intelligent, deliberately directed democratic institutions? It seems that democratic institutions in reality completely undermine democratic aspirations in theory.

PS: No, this is not the fourth part of the democracy series, should be up this weekend.
[H/T Jason Brennan]

Was Murphy Foolish to Take Caplan’s Bet?

A few days ago, Bryan Caplan posted on his bet with Robert Murphy regarding inflation. Murphy predicted 10% inflation. He lost … big time. However, was he crazy to make that bet?  In other words, what could explain Caplan’s victory?

Murphy was not alone in predicting this, I distinctly remember a podcast between Russ Roberts and Joshua Angrist on this where Roberts tells Angrist he expected high inflation back in 2008. Their claims were not indefensible. Central banks were engaging in quantitative easing and there was an important increase of the state money supply. There was a case to be made that inflation could surge.

It did not. Why?

In a tweet, Caplan tells me that monetary transmission channels are much more complex than they used to be and that the TIPS market knew this. Although I agree with both these points, it does not really explain why it did not materialize. I am going to propose two possibilities of which I am not fully convinced myself but whose possibility I cannot dismiss out of hand.

Imagine an AS-AD graph. If Murphy had been right, we should have seen aggregate demand stimulated to a point well above that of long-run equilibrium. Yet, its hard to see how quantitative easing did not somehow stimulate aggregate demand.  Now, if aggregate demand was falling and that quantitative easing merely prevented it from falling, this is what would prove Murphy wrong. However, all of this assumes no movement of supply curves.

While AD falls and before monetary policy kicks in, imagine that policies are adopted that reduce the potential for growth and productivity improvement. In a way, this would be the argument brought forward by people like Casey Mulligan in work on labor supply and the “redistribution recession” and Edward Prescott and Ellen McGrattan who argue that, once you account for intangible capital, the real business cycle model is still in play (there was a TFP shock somehow). This case would mean that as AD fell, AS fell with it. I would find it hard to imagine that AS shifted left faster than AD. However, a relatively smaller fall of AS would lead to a strong recession without much deflation (which is what we have seen in this recession). Personally, I think there is some evidence for that. After all, we keep reducing the estimate for potential GDP everywhere while the policy uncertainty index proposed by Baker, Bloom and Davids shows a level change around 2008.  Furthermore, there has been a wave – in my opinion of very harmful regulations – which would have created a maze of administrative costs to deal with (and whose burden is heavy according to Dawson and Seater in the Journal of Economic Growth). That could be one possibility that would explain why Murphy lost.

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There is a second possibility worth considering (and one which I find more appealing): the role of financial regulations. Now, I may have been trained mostly by Real Business Cycle guys, but I do have a strong monetarist bent. I have always been convinced by the arguments of Steve Hanke and Tim Congdon (I especially link Congdon) and others that what you should care about is not M1 or M2, but “broad money”. As Hanke keeps pointing out, only a share of everything that we could qualify broadly as “money” is actually “state money”. The rest is “private money”. If a wave of financial regulations discourages banks to lend or incite them to keep greater reserves, this would be the equivalent of a drop of the money multiplier. If those regulations are enacted at the same time as monetary authorities are trying to offset a fall in aggregate demand, then the result depends on the relative impact of the regulations. The data for “broad money” (Hanke defines it as M4) shows convincingly that this is a potent contender. In that case, Murphy’s only error would have been to assume that the Federal Reserve’s policy took place with everything else being equal (which was not the case since everything seemed to be moving in confusing directions).

globr-asia-nov-2014-1bg

In the end, I think all of these explanations have value (a real shock, a banking regulation shock, an aggregate demand shock). In 25 years when economic historians such as myself will study the “Great Recession”, they will be forced to do like they do with Great Depression: tell a multifaceted story of intermingled causes and counter-effects for which no single statistical test can be designed. When cases like these emerge, it’s hard to tell what is happening and those who are willing to bet are daredevils.

P.S. I have seen the blog posts by Scott Sumner and Marcus Nunes regarding my NGO /NGDP claims. They make very valid points and I want to take decent time to address them, especially since I am using the blogging conversation as a tool to shape a working paper.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. The Two Asian Americas
  2. Is Hawai’i an occupied nation?
  3. A federal system for Britain
  4. Capitalists from Outer Space
  5. The Physics of Extraterrestrial Civilizations
  6. Humane Canada

A response to a student

Each week I assign some reading or video. Recently I assigned a series of videos where Bryan Caplan discusses common biases, including the anti-foreign bias

One student questioned the benefits of expanded immigration, wondering if the costs to American workers might be too great. Below is my response:

My understanding of the evidence is that immigrants to the US are almost always complementary to US labor (e.g. Indian doctors that keep American designers healthy, or Salvadorian cooks who feed American engineers). The area where your suspicion is true (again, based on my limited understanding of the data) is with high school dropouts.

High school dropouts face competition from immigrants (who are often unable to apply their skills due to regulations or attempts to avoid being caught by immigration authorities) because relatively low-skilled immigrants face similar disadvantages in labor markets (i.e. they have a similar comparative advantage but their alternative options are even worse).

From the Comments: The Troubling Philistinism of American Libertarians

Dr Khawaja, back from his summer escapades in the West Bank, the Pine Ridge Reservation, and Ohio, takes some time to riff off of my complaints about libertarian criticism of the arts and humanities:

I think you’re being much, much too kind to Caplan. The connection between the Morson essay and the Caplan post is actually pretty clear: Caplan is explicitly defending the sort of philistinism that Morson is worried about. I know that Caplan comes out and insists that he’s not a philistine. But he’s actually the walking paradigm of one.

“The fact that most of the books failed to minimally pique even my interest reflects poorly on them.” Uh, not really. Maybe he should walk over to the psychology section and read up on “projection” and “attribution error.” It doesn’t even occur to him to ask whether his reaction is just an idiosyncratic response to this particular library.

“Could the problem be my lack of expertise?” Gee, there’s a toughie. I looked up the Fenwick collection. Here’s one item at random from their electronic databases:

Kotobarabia Arabic eLibrary Campus Faculty, Staff and Students only Some full text available
This Arabic-only database contains a wide range of Arabic content ranging from contemporary novels to national heritage scientific treatises.
[East View Information Services]

What are the chances that Bryan Caplan could read even the first sentence of the first ten items of any search of this database? Are Tayeb Salih, Ghassan Kanafani, Neguib Mahfouz, or Abderahman Munif embarrassing? Is the secondary literature on them embarrassing (whether in Arabic, English, French, or any other langauge)? Or is Caplan’s ignorant, off-hand dismissal of the contents of his university library what’s really embarrassing?

I looked up the works of Charles Issawi, Albert Hourani, George Hourani, Clifford Geertz, Edward Said, Annemarie Schimmel, Michael Cook, Patricia Crone, Fouad Ajami, and for that matter, Mansour Ajami–all there. These are just random names I remembered off the top of my head from my undergraduate study of Near East Studies. (Mansour Ajami was my Arabic teacher. His name came up randomly because I searched for Fouad Ajami. I had no idea he’s written three books, but he has. Should I be embarrassed by that discovery?) My degrees are in Politics and Philosophy, so NES is way outside of my official areas of expertise. But you’d have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of such work in a library, and it’s all there. You’d also have to be a moron to be embarrassed by the presence of more contemporary work in NES (or Geography, or Anthropology….), especially if, like Caplan, you knew nothing about it.

Just for fun, I did a search on my own last name, not because I expected anything of mine to show up, but just because that’s as random a search as you can imagine. The first hit is a guy named Mahboub Khawaja who’s written a book “Muslims and the West.” I don’t have the book here, but wouldn’t a person of average curiosity be tempted to take a look?

I did a search on my first name, too. Suroosh Irfani’s book on the Iranian revolution looked interesting.

I then clicked one of the Subject Headings underneath, “Europe-Relations-Islamic Countries.” You’d have to be brain dead not to be intrigued by half of what comes up. You could spend a lifetime reading that stuff. Oh wait. That’s kind of what scholars of the field do.

That’s just one casual set of micro-searches of one sub-field by one amateur follower of that field. Imagine multiplying searches of this kind simply for comparative politics and area studies. As you did, you’d multiply counter-examples to Caplan’s ridiculous claims. Then imagine you branched out to other fields. Same result.

Doing all that would be a waste of time, but don’t assume that because I’ve restricted my searches to one field or sub-field, my results are idiosyncratic. I probably could have done the same for Romantic poetry, the history of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Beethoven, Hannah Arendt’s views on Zionism, the luminist school of American landscape painting, American Indian law, Thomism, or literary studies of the works of the Bronte sisters–to name a totally random set of topics. My ex-wife Carrie-Ann Biondi is an indexer (actually the French language indexer) for The Philosopher’s Index. Every month or so, TPI would ship a box of philosophy journal articles to our house for her to index, and I’d spend part of an hour looking through them. Some of it was crap, but most of it was not. I NEVER had Caplan’s response to it. I was awestruck at how much good stuff was being produced. I’ve organized the Felician Ethics Conference for seven years in a row, and have probably read over 200 papers for it. I’ve mostly had the same reaction–curiosity, gratification, sometimes admiration, sometimes even awe.

The bottom line is that Caplan has no idea WTF he’s talking about. The interesting questions are not the ones he ignorantly poses, but rather: Why have libertarians so adamantly and resolutely come to valorize the all-out philistinism and ignorance of people with views like his? Why are we expected to take views like his seriously? If there is a “waste of paper” involved here, why doesn’t that phrase apply to what he’s written on this subject?

Back to prepping for class. The semester begins tomorrow.

I can only add that Irfan is right when he says I am “much, much too kind.” If only more people would come to realize this…

Also, I don’t think this philistinism is limited to Dr Caplan. There is a troubling trend within American libertarianism that is leading towards a kind of cultural chauvinism. Luckily, we live in a polycentric community here in the States and thus have lots of access to other ways of thinking about the world. I want my federal government to be much more libertarian, and I want more polities participating in my more libertarian federal government, and I want Washington to be more like my type of libertarianism. But that doesn’t mean I think those that disagree with me in matters of taste are a waste (of paper, of space, or of anything else).

If anything, those that disagree with me make my life that much more fulfilling, as I am an argumentative son of a bitch. My tolerance is not an endorsement of the status quo, either; any money going from Washington to the arts and humanities (and the sciences) should stop flowing immediately. I still think, despite Dr Khawaja’s excellent point, that libertarians like Caplan and Brennan are subtly attacking this latter notion, that government funding of the arts and sciences is not that bad. They’re just doing a bad job.

Or maybe they’re just philistines.

The Importance of Literature

I’ve got two long-form posts in my queue that are not quite finished. One is on how individuals rent-seek identity, and the other is on political labels and dialogue. In the mean time, here is an excerpt from an insightful essay on the (supposed, in my opinion) decline of arts and the humanities in American universities:

Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie. It is a short step, John Stuart Mill argues, from the view that one’s opponents are necessarily guided by evil intentions to the rule of what we have come to call a one-party state or what Putin today calls “managed democracy.” If universities embody the future, then we are about to take that step. Literature, by teaching us to imagine the other’s perspective, teaches the habits of mind that prevent that from happening. That is one reason the Soviets took such enormous efforts to censor it and control its interpretation.

This is from Gary Saul Morson, who teaches literature at Northwestern, writing in Commentary. This essay, for reasons I cannot fathom, reminded me of two recent posts by two prominent libertarians, economist Bryan Caplan and philosopher Jason Brennan, that deride the arts and humanities. Here is Caplan:

I’m an academic.  A university library is supposed to be a warehouse of great thoughts.  But the vast majority of the books seemed literally indefensible.  Lame topics, vague theses, and godawful writing abounded.

Brennan’s post is more tongue-in-cheek but still worth reading.

Just replace ‘evil’ with ‘stupid’ or ‘lame’ or ‘useless’ and…voila.

Now, I’ve been around libertarian circles long enough to know that these critiques, of the arts and humanities, put forth by libertarian academics are more about debunking Leftist narratives (“you can, and should, do what you want because you, simply by being alive, have a right to whatever you want, including access to the arts and humanities”) than they are about trashing the arts and humanities, but I am a bit worried that the newest readers to old libertarian arguments are not as familiar with the subcontext of Caplan’s and Brennan’s arguments. These newer readers might not be as familiar with the old Leftist arguments about the arts and humanities being something that everybody should have access to, and as a result these newer libertarians might become anti-education, or worse: anti-democratic, though not anti-democratic as in being critical of the democratic process as it stands today, but anti-democratic as in becoming intolerant to views that are shown to be less superior in some way to our own.

I wish the more prominent libertarians among us would remember to include reminders that the ultimate target of their attacks are Leftist narratives that ignore reality, and not education.

Around the Web

  1. Olivier Roy on Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of ‘National Identity’ and Racism in the French Republic
  2. Prague ’68 and the End of Time
  3. How To Spot And Critique Censorship Tropes In The Media’s Coverage Of Free Speech Controversies
  4. The Swamping that Wasn’t: The Diaspora Dynamics of the Puerto Rican Open Borders Experiment
  5. A Voice Still Heard: Irving Howe
  6. Borders and Bobbing Heads: Postcoloniality and Algeria’s Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence (so close, and yet so far…)
  7. The New Yorker on the recent scientific fraud, with its epicenter at my alma mater. (Delacroix remains startlingly relevant because of it.)