Information, Uncertainty, Incentives, and Trust.

Sandeep Baliga at the Cheap Talk blog has an outstanding summary of the contributions by Bengt Holstrom and Oliver Hart, the latest winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The Holstrom-Hart Nobel is a bit personal to me, albeit through an indirect route, via one of my former teachers Paul Milgrom.  Paul liked to talk about how he came to graduate school not for PhD, but for MBA because he wanted to be an actuary, and how he found ways to apply actuarial thinking to economic theory.  Given the contributions by Holstrom and Milgrom that I found most enlightening brought together statistics and epistemology to a theory of incentives, this is an apt starting point for my reflection on their work.

The example by Baliga is an excellent illustration of the basic problem:  a worker at a burger joint does two things, one easily observable (the number of burgers), the other not so observable (the work in the kitchen).  By tying the incentives only to the number of burgers sold, the principal winds up discouraging kitchen work, and in so doing, subverting his own interests.  The solution is to create a low-powered set of incentives that depend comparatively little on burger sales.

But this opens up a whole slew of other questions.  Two questions pop into my mind immediately because these concern my eventual work in political science, especially with regards the relationship between voters and elected officials.  First, does the principal really know where the unseen parts of the business is?  Second, how does the principal know if the kitchen is being genuinely looked after?

In the legislative arena, the functional equivalent of burger sales come from the public record of legislative accomplishments and actions:  the number of bills, the voting record, etc.   Yet, these constitute comparatively little (and often, easily “faked”) aspects of the legislative work. Fenno and Mayhew, back in 1960s and 1970s, had written about how valued the “gnomes” (to borrow Mayhew’s terminology) who slave away at the unseen aspects of legislative and policymaking work without public accolades are by the legislative insiders, who reward them with currency that are particularly valuable intralegislatively.  Yet, this understanding is not shared by the members of the voting public, nor, apparently, by political scientists lately.  Very few regular voters appreciate how complicated the inner workings of the legislative process is, the kind of hidden negotiations and compromises that are needed to put workable bills and coalitions together–especially bipartisan coalitions.  Still, there is an implicit understanding that, without legislative outcomes, something isn’t being done right, that their agents are shirking somewhat and somehow that prevents their production–perhaps they are right in their suspicion.

The more problematic might be the obsession of the political science in putting data in place of theory (notwithstading the immortal Charlie Chan quote, “Theory, like fog on eyeglass, obscures facts.”–because “data” is not same as “facts.”)  The visible part of the legislative accomplishments, often padded by “faked” votes designed only to put votes on records (for example, the increasingly innumerable but meaningless “procedural” votes in the Senate designed only to publicly show who’s on which side, more  or less), are used to generate various statistics that purport to measure things like “ideology,” which, in turn, are assumed to be homologous to Euclidean space, and are fitted into models.  Since the measures are derived from the observed facts, they describe what goes on fairly accurately–but with significant exceptions that change over time, which are usually dismissed with the claim that they are mere “errors” and “nuisance.”

Fenno and Mayhew thought things differently.  Granted, they didn’t have the kind of legislative data or the tools for analyzing them that their more modern counterparts do (this is literally true:  the changes in Congressional rules around 1975 immediately tripled the number of recorded votes in the House, for example–coinciding neatly with the changes in House organization that followed the ouster of Speaker McCormick, engineered by the liberal Democrats.)  They saw the paucity of data that prevented data intensive analysis on their part as a normal part of the political process, where the seen and the unseen coexist and the importance of the unseen aspects of politics is deemed as important, even by those who did not know the specifics–e.g. the voters.  That brings the question back to what prompted to Holstrom to wonder, why so few contracts are written based on the “sufficient statistic” criterion, and as such, echoes the argument by Weber 100 years into the past (to be fair, there’s a paper by Oliver Williamson on this very point–if I could find it.)  Weber’s argument was twofold.  First, the compensation for the “professional” (“bureaucrat” in his terminology) should be low-powered, set without much regard for the visible indicators of performance because how exactly the professional “performs” is too noisy and complicated to measure with precision.  In turn, the professional should develop a code of ethics and honor–“professional conduct,” literally–whereby their work is carried out dutifully and faithfully without regard for the incentives in the contracts.  If you will, the mail will be delivered with utmost effort, as a point of honor, through rain, snow, or sleet, because that’s what mailmen do, so to speak. Most important, both must be part of the common knowledge:  the professionals “know” that they will be paid no matter what, while the principals “know” that the professionals are doing their utmost, even though the results are not necessarily obvious.  In other words, I don’t know what exactly they are doing, but whatever it is, I know it’s important, dang it.

This is a difficult equilibrium to sustain, with a LOT depending on the players’ beliefs, and potentially open to a lot of abuse and suspicion.  Mike Chwe might say that these beliefs, in turn, would require a lot of cultural trapping to sustain, various rituals carried out to show that the “professionals” indeed are being “professional.”  The “home style” by the legislators whereby they return home and engage in various ritualistic interactions with their voters to show their tribal solidarity might be seen in the same regard.  One might say that a lot of seemingly irrational socio-cultural activities, such as belief in creationism, are exactly that as well.  Of course, this is the kind of equilibrium that IS being subverted by the tilt towards visible data:  as we can see below, the correlation between Democratic shares of House votes and the DW-Nominate scores of the incumbents (with signs adjusted):


What the graph is showing is that, if you know the voting records of a House member in the preceding session of Congress, you can predict his vote share with increasing accuracy as 20th century progressed.  It does mean that the voters were becoming more “policy-minded,” in the sense of measuring their evaluation of the politicians more on the basis of visible record, but does it mean that the voters were becoming more “rational”?  To claim that would presuppose that the performance of the burger joint depends only on the burger sales and that kitchen is irrelevant to its success. Holstrom (and Max Weber before him) would say in no uncertain terms that that’s stupid.  But what does this mean for the trends in politics today?  I’ve been making a series of argument (and was halfway through a book manuscript) on this very point, but shockingly few people seemed to care, even if, I strongly suspect, the mess of the 2016 elections is a sharp reminder of this problem.

This is an illustration of the potential danger that the data-intensive environment of today is posing us:  because we have so much data, we become contemptuous of the unquantifiable and unaware of the potential limitations of the data that we are using.  If the data is always right, so to speak, i.e. has zero error, there can be no statistics that can be done with it, so to speak.  Then we’d know THE answer.  We do statistics to be less wrong, not necessarily to be “right” (I’m paraphrasing my old stats prof.)  If we insist on mistaking statistics (or indeed “science”) for the “right answer,” woe be upon us.

PS.  One great irony is that, while, intellectually, Paul was one of major influences on my way of thinking, I had precious little interaction with him when I was actually at Stanford. By the time he was teaching his “module,” (Stanford econ reorganized its graduate courses  when I was there so that we had 4 “modules” instead of 3 quarters.  Go figure) I was fairly deep in my occasional depressive spirals and was unable to do practically anything, let alone prepare for prelims.  In a sense, studying for econ prelims is easy–you literally have to study the textbooks and know the formulas, so to speak–just the answers you are supposed to know, even though, admittedly, the questions will be hard.  But depressed people have the hardest time doing routine chores when locked up, figuratively speaking, without anyone talking to them.  It is easy, in a sense, for people who have no stakes to think that depressed people ought to be locked up by themselves until they are better.  In practice, what almost always happens is that, after being locked up for a few months, they will be far more damaged than when they began.  But talking to depressed people requires way too much commitment for people without stakes of their own, too much to be asked of “strangers.”


Baseball, Information, and the Brain

This fangraphs article is possibly the most fascinating thing that I had read about neuroscience behind (quick) decision-making, ever.

The problem with seeing the ball out of a pitcher’s hand, obtaining some information, and translating it into reaction is that the information is usually too complex, too wrapped in uncertainty, and the amount of time available is too small.  The article is probably being fair saying that how most batters cannot really describe or explain what it is that they see or how they process the information–it is not really a deliberate “analytical” process, but it is still a reaction that is both learned and “analytical” if in a slightly different sense–of having a fairly small set number of probable reactions, learned through both experience, analysis, and “intinct,” into which a batter can switch into rapidly–a set of mental shortcuts if you will.  A useful analogue might be parties in politics:  there are just two bins, or 4, depending on how one conceptualizes the universe:  there are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.  Most politics fit into these categories (or the combination thereof).  If it’s not any of these, the brain will be confused in the short term, and without an obsessive interest in figuring things out–and this kind of interest is rare in politics, especially this requires leaving opinions behind–it is not worth delving into such things too deeply.  So most people operate through two step process:  does it fit the usual boxes of politics, and if it doesn’t, do I care, with the answer to the latter question usually being a big “no.”

The same is true with hitting a baseball, and presumably, with most other activities requiring a quick reaction:  nobody who is any good is probably so simple minded to have just one box, so to speak.  But most people will have just a few boxes, which, thankfully for them, would account for most of the universe.  (The same applies to sabermetrics:  most of these usual boxes will yield predictable results–i.e. high frequency of fly balls probably means the pitcher is not as good as his ERA indicates, for example–the idea behind FIPS)  But if the expectations can somehow be subverted, you can fool the hitters.  While a strange politicians who is not exactly liberal or conservative nor a Democrat or a Republican will confuse the voters and lose elections–becaused confused voters don’t vote–getting batters confused is a useful skill, if you are a pitcher, and all the better if you can confuse the sabermetricians along the way, because, that way, your methods might be so complex that the batters won’t be able to adjust to you easily either.

State of the Economy and Trump

A friend of mine wanted to know the correlation between Trump’s primary performance and the state of the economy, in light of the recent report from the Census Bureau that the median income in country has gone up sharply between 2014 and 2015.  The report itself notes that the growth was uneven, though, with rural areas being left out of the growth spurt, as per Nate Cohn’s tweet.  If so, could those left out of the economic growth be voting for Trump?

Some problems arose:  while the report has been released, the official data has not been. But, even as the magnitudes might differ, the patterns of who is gaining and who is losing would not have been too different from 2013 and 2014, for which county by county data was available.  Secondarily, however, Trump was winning everywhere after he became the obvious winner, making the results effectively useless after some time.  So we needed to impose some semi-arbitrary cutpoint based on the primary calendar, for which we settled on two–keeping only the Super Tuesday numbers and keeping only the data through Ohio primaries.

The first, the Super Tuesday primaries, yields the following plot:


The unit of analysis is county.  The X-axis is the change in median household income between 2013 and 2014.  The Y-axis is the percentage of votes won by a candidate on Super Tuesday, among the Republicans.  The dark blue line is Trump:  he is the only candidate who did worse in the counties where the median income increased.  Cruz, indicated by the green line, did much better in the counties where median income increased.  Rubio, indicated by the light blue line, just didn’t do well anywhere.

Expanding the sample to all primaries through Ohio, but keeping the same candidates, changes the pattern slightly, but only slightly:


Trump is still doing better in counties had worsened between 2013 and 2014, as measured by median household income.  There is no discernible pattern for either Cruz or Rubio, however.

When all the primaries are included, no discernible pattern remains (Rubio is dropped from this graph).  trump-vs-gopers-all

Trump could be doing better in counties where income dipped, or not–with confidence intervals like these, who can tell?  The story conveyed by these graphs, then, is that Trump’s early supporters indeed did come disproportionately from the counties that suffered economic downturn recently (whether these voters individually did suffer an economic downturn), but were increasingly joined by more economically fortunate Republicans as he became increasingly likely Republican nominee.

Certainly, these are based on limited data and constitute only highly tentative suggestions.  But it is worth noting that, even in times of prosperity, there are those who lose out economically, while even in times of economic privations, some people do make out like bandits–the whole point of focusing on the variances, rather than means, indeed!  In an era of economic polarization, a positive change in the mean (or even the median), even a large positive change, does not necessarily mean that all boats are rising equally. Many may be sinking and they are discontented enough to seek and demand redress, and this may well be a significant chunk of the force behind the Trump phenomenon (Interestingly, this pattern is not replicated among the Democrats, where the pattern is messier.  It does seem that Sanders generally drew better among the higher income voters, or at least in the counties where they reside, ironically.)

The evolving pattern of the Trump coalition over the primary season should worry the Clinton camp:  even as the Trump coalition was built on the economically precarious from the beginning, he did draw in a lot of affluent Republicans eventually.  The MWV’s, the economically precarious lot among the electorate who are not minorities plus the affluent, more customary Republican voters do equal a majority, albeit a small one, in both electoral and actual sense.  As I keep noting, Trump seems weak because he has trouble with the Republican voters, especially women.  If, as I suspect, that Clinton will not be able to draw many of them to actually voting for her, or even sitting this election out, and cannot inspire the turnout rates among the minorities as Barack Obama did in 2012, it is not too improbable that she’d lose this election.

But this is more than just about this election.  An inequitable distribution of economic fruits begets social and political instability, if only in form of voter revolts rather than peasant or worker revolts.  As Bismarck would have said, he had been given to more humor (and writing in English!), what use are money and power if you are constantly in danger of losing it to the chaos you are creating by grabbing more of either?  In politics (and political economy, as all matters of economy must be eventually) stability comes first.  Disruptions may make you money for now…but will take everything away soon enough if you are too reckless.


Democrats and Republicans….Different?

I’m deeply ambivalent about the new book by Grossman and Hopkins and the associated arguments in general.  (Admittedly, this is not a new point from me)

On the one hand, Grossman and Hopkins are the first in decades, since the pioneering work by Mayhew back in 1960s, to recognize that there is something asymmetric about the Democrats and Republicans, and how they organize themselves.  I think this is critical:  we theorize too much about “the party” in the abstract and expect the same from them, implicitly, or even explicitly presuming that there is only one way for a party to organize.  This is a mistake.  A useful point of comparison, indeed, might be various theories of oligarchy from Marx onward, discussed in this article.  (from an admittedly “political source,” but a very well-informed discourse nevertheless). The significant point is that, as circumstances change, the nature of those who wield power, their motivations, and their strategies change, and with these changes comes a divergence in what takes place.

But a decade after the work exploring the differences between the parties, Mayhew seemingly changed his tune completely, authoring a book that seemingly dismissed parties.  Did he change his mind?  He did not, I think.  He simply reached the logical extension of his original argument, abstracting beyond the politics of 1950s and 60s.  The key difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in 1950s and 60s was that the Democrats depended on a much less oligarchical organization that emphasized uniform distribution of the benefits from party rule:  everyone who made up the Democratic coalition got a piece of the pie, and as consequence, everyone was expected to cooperate.  The distribution scheme extended not only to the tangible, divisible benefits like pork barrel projects, but also to matters of policy and associated collective reputation:  too controversial policy may promote reputation for some, but not for others, and as such, they were to be avoided as much as possible.  For the sake of coalitional unity, even the oddballs who made up a relative minority within the party were to be given veto power over party policy, even when the majority of the party might desire a change.  Thus, the significant but still relatively small conservative wing of the Democratic Party was able to frustrate the larger liberal wing for decades.  Mayhew notes this wryly in the conclusion of his 1966 work:  even if the Democrats may be the “dominant” party in Congress, its ability to articulate and accomplish what it “wants” is constrained.  I suppose the same argument is repeated by Rohde and Aldrich, but with a wholly different connotation.  For Mayhew, the absence of a clear party policy is by design, brought about by a deliberate attempt to reconcile the the internal divisions and maintain the party cohesion.  For the latter, it is simply a sign of weakness.  These interpretations imply a different interpretations (that are not logically different in essence) of what took place next:  when the internal balance began to shift in the Democratic Party, the liberals saw their conservative copartisans as a stumbling block who were frustrating their policy goals who had to be gotten rid of, and the so-called party reforms accomplished exactly that.  In a sense, assuming that parties are naturally coalitions for making policy (which Mayhew, and a long tradition in political research preceding him, did not accept, incidentally) this was a manifestration of party “strength,” the coalition becoming what it should be.  If a party is to be viewed as a coalition to win elections everywhere, means that the Democrats decided to commit a partial suicide by losing elections in 1/3 to 1/4 of their districts.  Of course, a party can be both:  the choice by the liberal Democrats in 1970s and beyond was that they would rather have policy than win elections.  In order to bring this change about, of course, the leadership had to change:  the party reforms came about after a successful coup against Speaker McCormack and his hostility to the liberal “troublemakers” who interfered his wish to deal “fairly” with all factions.

This inclusive coalitional strategy captures the the change in Mayhew’s perspective:  by 1974, there was only one party left in Congress that encompassed all as its sub-factions.  The Democrats were so dominant that the Congressional Republicans were really just another faction.  This was unacceptable to the liberals who, for the sake of “fair dealing,” had to make concessions not only to the Democratic conservatives, but to the “Republicans” as well.  This broad cooperation was unnecessary and was getting in the way of policymaking.  Thus the reform, to kick the dissenters out of the Democratic coalition.

Incidentally, this was the difference between the 1960s Democrats and Republicans.  People like Rayburn and McCormack built and maintained the Democratic coalition by treating all Democrats fairly, as long as they played nice with other Democrats, without imposing ideological requirements:  liberals and conservatives, segregationists and civil rightsmen, union busters and union men, reform politicians and machine hacks were all welcome–as long as they didn’t fight each other.  They would all get something, but not so much that they would cut into others’ “fair share.”  This was, of course, why the “liberals” in the Democratic Party were getting frustrated by 1970s.  Republicans, at least by mid 1950s, no longer bothered with coalition building (They may have adopted a broader coalition building strategy, however, in 1920s, Mayhew speculates, when their de facto ranks included people like Robert LaFollett, and when the formal power of the leadership was effectively ruined in the aftermath of the revolt against Speaker Cannon in 1910).  At least by 1950s, Republican were defined by a certain set of collective policy positions on which they mostly agreed on and the belief that any power that their leaders wielded should be used to advance them.  Those who did not share these views had no business signing on with the Republicans, since they would get no opportunity to influence policy and would have trouble dispelling the Republican reputation vis-a-vis voters anyways.  This, of course, according to Mayhew, was why the Republicans of 1950s could not be, at least in Congressional context, the “dominant” party–the narrow but focused worldview could not win elections in a diverse array of settings.

Fast forward to 2016, neither party looks much like the diverse Democratic Party of 1950s and 60s.  The Democrats cannot compete in rural Midwest or the South, for example–even in House elections.  While gerrymandering has played a role, that is not the only factor.  The very “diversity” in the Democratic Party is misleading:  it is the diversity of “multiculturalism,” associated with a single end of the political spectrum.  Let us not forget that, in 1960, Democratic candidates won votes from African Americans in Harlem and the Klansmen in Mississippi alike.  That’s the real political diversity, the one that counts for elections.  In other words, parties today look essentially like the Republicans of 1960–they are both exclusive coalitions, that systematically kick out dissidents who interfere with the collective pursuit of policy.  In order to achieve this, they are organized at a top down level, where the ability of the factions to systematically veto the collective policy goals (the key component of the old Democratic Party–and what frustrated the liberals so mightily) is nearly nonexistent.  Since the power is so concentrated at the center, the intraparty struggle for capturing this power, fight by factions within each party to dominate other factions, occupies the center stage of politics.

The last point is the significant dimension of what sets modern politics in Congress apart from that of the past, I think.  It is taken for granted, by all factions involved, that “Democrats” and “Republicans,” and the associated factions thereof, will never cooperate.  So as long as one faction can dominate the machinery of one party, and that one party controls the majority of the seats in a chamber of Congress, the winning faction in the majority party, however small, will have the whole power of the chamber to itself.  But this works as long as the interparty disagreement and non-cooperation can be taken for granted.  Congressional politics of 1880s through 1910 seemed to be such:  enough that David Brady called it, when he was writing about Congress in 1970s, “the partisan era.”  The era came to a sudden halt in 1910 when the Republican insurgents of the Progressive wing, who got  fed up with their own leaders, decided to remove their powers and reorganize Congress by enlisting help from the Democrats.  How significant was this change, though?  That is less obvious:  parties themselves did not reorganize–the interparty divisions were such that the Republican insurgents did not want to be Democrats, and the Democrats did not want them.  While the power of Congressional leadership was severely cut down, the Republican party machinery remained powerful enough that the insurgents were essentially hunted down and driven out of Congress in the next election.  While this cost the Republicans Congress for the next decade, they were back by 1920 or so. On the other hand, as Mayhew observed, the Republicans of 1920s was a very different coalition from that in 1910, run in a far less centralized manner with little care for developing a clear collective reputation, at least at the Congressional level.

I don’t think, if a comparable change is to take place today, the locus will be in Congress:  it is unlikely that enough potential “rebels” for either party would be elected given the nature of elections today.  That such a rebel coalition might form at the popular electoral level, rallying behind an outsider who might take advantage, is and, in a sense, has always been a distinct possibility:  the election of 1912 being the closest real life case, where the same coalition that broke the Republican leaders’ power in the House also rallied behind Theodore Roosevelt’s third party bid.  (I don’t think the other third party runs, from Henry Wallace to Ross Perot, are quite comparable–they did not emerge from the fundamental scleroticization of the party politics as did the Bull Moosers).  In this sense, it is significant that the 2016 rebels, Trump and Sanders, sought to fight it out on the partisan stage, rather than the usual third party route:  they were cognizant of the problems arising from the way both parties operate today, that the similarly centralized organization was leaving great many latent party supporters alienated and frustrated by their exclusivist operations.  This contrasts with the usual third party run where the candidate seeks to draw in the voters who are alienated by the parties, rather than alienated partisans.  This applies more to Trump than Sanders:  Trump drew a rather significant chunk of his support from the voters who claimed to be “Repbulicans,” notwithstanding his claim to be drawing from moderates and Democrats (not that this necessarily makes his claim “untrue,” in the sense that many of these voters were not typical Republicans who actually vote, indicating a high degree of dissatisfaction with the status quo–but most of them did identify themselves as Republicans nevertheless), while roughly half of Sanders’ support came from independents (still, this signifies far larger discontent within the Democratic coalition than what Grossman and Hopkins might acknowledge).  Basically, it’s the Republicans in the electorate (or a large proportion thereof) that don’t like their party.  (although, by the same token, it’s also the other Republicans who don’t care much for Trump.)

The implication of this, of course, is that while the parties might be increasingly dysfunctional, with the “insiders” (whoever that might be–since the insiders will only be just one smallish faction taking over the whole centralized power of the entire party) and the rest growing, the electoral arena, at the present at least, may not be a good venue for the frustrated partisans to let their dissatisfaction known.  The prospects for a party reform of the kind that took place after the revolt against Cannon in 1910, in which a more inclusive coalition might be built instead of an exclusivist one, are dwindling, for the reform, necessarily, will have to be carried out by the insiders themselves.  It will take a coalition of “outsiders” who may not agree among themselves much, but none of which singly has prospect at taking the power all for itself.  They might each accept half a glass, with some form of vetoes for all, rather than a full glass that they control unilaterally.  Such outsiders are hard to find because becoming the insiders has become too easy, even for small factions.  Ironically, nominally powerful though the party leadership might be, it is also disturbingly easy to capture, seeing as that it is backed up only by a tiny faction itself usually–something analogous to a lot of third world dictatorships:  a few dozen mercenaries–or some hoodlums meeting at a beer hall–in the capital are enough to overthrow the government and capture the dictatorial powers.  (This may be yet another difference between the Democrats and Republicans–Democratic leadership tends to rest on a broader, more stable coalition, while Republican leaderships are weak, unstable, and rest on flimsy coalitions.)

The bottom line is that both parties are in similar institutional trouble, arising from analogous factors, although things do seem far worse for the Republicans, if only because they were committed to a narrower but deeper coalition much earlier on.  The paradoxes of party government are crushing them both.  Prospects for reforms to reverse the trend seem difficult.


PS.  Somewhat simpler way of summing up my argument is to invoke what someone (whose argument those who know me in real life would recognize) called “dictator’s paradox.”  Every ruler needs allies to govern, and each ally places constraints on the ability of the ruler to do as he or she pleases.  Thus, in a sense, a dictator with the fewest allies has the greatest freedom of action–and in this sense, is the most powerful.  But, the ability of the ruler to both actually obtain compliance from the subjects and to survive over a long time is also a function of how many allies he or she can call upon.  A ruler with many allies will be able to actually accomplish more and survive for longer, even if he or she will face more constraints in coming up with a program that the allies will find acceptable.  This general idea is applicable to any political system, of course, and allows for multiple equilibria, depending on how much risk the “ruler” is willing to take on, while trading off with respect to the “program.”  For those to whom the risk of losing power, or not having any access to it, is serious, sacrificing the program for more allies is not a great loss.

The Republicans in 1970s were happy to be Demcorats’ subordinates because defeating Democrats in Congressional elections seemed impossible.  The Democrats built an inclusive coalition in mid 20th century because losing either the South or the unions was incompatible with their continued hold on power.  By mid 1980s and certainly by 1990s, things changed:  many Democrats were willing to cast off members of their old coalition both because they were less necessary electorally and many Democrats needed policy accomplishments for their electoral credibility; because of the changes in the Democrats’ internal organization, they became more vulnerable, opening up opportunity for the Republicans to take the whole enchilada, rather than play a subordinate role–or, play a “tax collector for the welfare state,” to quote Newt Gingrich, who, to his credit, recognized the self-inflicted Democratic vulnerability.

The trouble, of course, is that, now that both parties began to exclusivize, can they reform an inclusivist coalition?  Both have incentives:  both are oddly internally contradictory lot, with the affluent and well-educated lot playing a pivotal role (in the political science sense), and the less well-to-do divided along the cultural lines:  many whites on the Republican side and the minorities on the Democratic side.  Let’s be honest:  both rely on cultural appeals that are largely exclusivist in character, while, at the same time, playing the same economic tune, to compete for the affluent.  A large number of voters who don’t care for the “culture wars” but are not affluent are left out of the loop (also largely whites, if only for the fact that more than 2/3 of the US population is made up of whites still).  (I think many of these voters were Sanders voters.)  The trouble, I think, is that, as the political conflict continues on the premise of consensus on the economy (or race for the alleged median) and divisions on the culture, these voters will be forced to make a cultural choice and potentially legitimize the sort of divisive politics that we might want to avoid.  That’s my two cents.

PPS.  What makes the present multicultural coalition of the Democrats and the old Democratic coalition different?  Right now, if the Klansmen and the Civil Rightmen were both in the Democratic coalition somehow, it will always be the Klansmen who will have to make concessions, because their side is “obviously wrong”  by the modern standards of “inclusiveness” (which itself becomes paradoxical.)  The Democratic Party of 1950s would not have seen things that way:  the party will not stand behind the Klansmen if they want to hurt the interests of the Civil Rightsmen beyond the status quo, but they will not allow the Civil Rightsmen to hurt the Klan beyond the status quo either.  So the Jim Crow stays in the South, but it will be protected in the South.  Cynical political ploy, perhaps?  But it allowed the Democrats to keep them both.  If this logic seems wrong, or perhaps even incomprehensible to the modern audience, that will be precisely why the old Democratic-type coalition might be gone for good in today’s politics.

In a sense, of course, this is why states’ rights was so critical in 1850s, then again in 1950s:  it was the device that indicated the commitment of the national political actors to let the constituent factions maintain the status quo.  But in 1850s and earlier, things became worse because of the Southern willingness to bend this commitment to their own advantage–the Mexican-American War, attempts at pro-slavery foreign policy, fugitive slave laws that intruded on Northern states’ rights, and Dred Scott, among others.  These came about because of their belief that slave was property and property was “right.”   (both “a” right and “right,” in a sense.)  Or, in other words, uncritical association of moral righteousness to a political position.

Morality should never be allowed to enter politics if the goal is to maintain a pacted, contractural coalition, if only for complications of this sort.  This, of course, is not easy.  For most people, morality, rather than the contractural fine prints, take precedence:  Corporations are not people, and all that.  Not surprising that successful coalitions are not so easy to maintain and are invariably “corrupt,” at least as people see them.

Politics and Curiosity.

Dan Kahan, whose work I like a lot, has a fascinating new paper out.

The great advance that Kahan and his coauthors make is to attempt systematically defining and quantifying “curiosity.”  I am not sure if what they are doing is quite right:  enjoying science documentaries, for example, does not mean one is or is not “curious.”  (I’d found some science documentaries to be so pedantic that and assertive of the filmmakers’ own views that they were nearly unwatchable, but good science documentaries point to the facts, then raise questions that follow from them without overtly giving answers, for example).  But a more useful perspective on curiosity comes from how one reacts to an unexpected observation:  a curious person reacts by wondering where the oddity came from and investigating the background thereof; an incurious person starts dismissing the oddity as irrelevant.  The third component of their instrument, the so-called “Information Search Experiment,” however, gets at this angle more directly.

Observe that curiosity is, potentially, at odds with simple scientific knowledge.  On surface of the Earth, the gravitational acceleration is approximately 9.8m/s^2.  There was a physicist  wtih web page dedicated to scientific literacy (that I cannot find!) who had a story about how his lab assistant “discovered” that, under some conditions, the measured gravitational acceleration is much smaller.  While this finding was undoubtedly wrong, there are different approaches with which this could have been dealt with:  the incurious approach is to dismiss it by saying that this simply cannot be, because the right answer is 9.8m/s^2.  The curious approach is to conjecture the consequences that would emerge were the different value of the gravitational acceleration true and investigate whether any one of them also materializes.  The usual approach taken, even by scientifically literate persons, is the former, especially since they know, with very little variance, that the gravitational acceleration has to be 9.8m/s^2.  It is rare to find people who react by taking the latter path, and to the degree that “scientific literacy” means “knowing” that the variance of 9.8m/s^2 being the correct answer is small, it is unsurprising that “scientific literacy” is often actually correlated with closed-mindedness and politically motivated reasoning.  (which Kahan had found in earlier studies)

This does make for an interesting question:  I had mused about why creationism can be a focal point, but the proposition that 1+1 = 3 cannot.  Quite simply, 1+1 = 3 is too settled a question (or rather, ruled out by too-settled consensus) to serve as a focal point, while, for many, evolution is not yet sufficiently settled a question.  To the degree that, on average, social consensus tends to converge to the truth (even if not always the case), overtly false “truisms” cannot serve as focal points indefinitely–even if they might persist far longer than one might expect, precisely because they are so useful as focal points.  But the more accepted truisms are, the more likely that contrary findings–even true ones–are to be dismissed without further question as simply being “abnormal.”  In the example above, the probability that a lab assistant simply made a mistake that led to abnormal finding is simply too high compared to there being an actual discovery.  As such, this is not worth wasting time investigating further, beyond berating the hapless  lab assistant for not knowing what he is supposed to be doing.  However, to the extent that “knowledge” is simply an awareness of the conventions, it systematically underestimates the variance in the reality and discourages curiosity as a waste of time.  This, furthermore, is not without justification as the conventions reflect “established truths” that are very nearly certainly true (i.e. with very little variance.)  When people become too sure of the received wisdom where the true variance is actually quite high, a lot more legitimate discoveries are bound to be tossed out with dismissiveness.(Underestimating variance in the name of the received wisdom is exactly how the great financial meltdowns happen:  to borrow the line from the movie The Big Short, those who defy the conventional wisdom will be ridiculed by being badgered with “are you saying you know more than Alan Greenspan?  Hank Paulson?”  Well, physics progressed because, on some things, some insignificant young man named Albert Einstein knew more than Isaac Newton–before he became the Albert Einstein.  Physicists took the chance that Einstein might actually know more than Newton, rather than dismissing him for his pretensions.  The rest is history.  (NB:  one might say that the structure of physics as a way of thinking probably made this easier:  Einstein was able to show that he might be smarter than Newton because he showed what he did without any obvious mistake using all the proper methodology of physics.  But then, physics established that it is about the right methodology and logic, not about the “results.”  This is, in turn, what bedeviled Galileo:  he might have gotten the answer more right than the contemporary conventional wisdom, in retrospect, in terms of approximating the reality–although he was still more wrong than right overall–but he could not precisely trace the steps that he took to get to his answers because the methodology to do so, quite frankly, did not yet exist–they would be invented by Newton centuries later.)

The real scientific literacy, one might say, should consist of a blend between scientific literacy and curiosity:  knowing where the lack of variance is real and where the lack of variance only reflects the reflected consensus, so to speak.  Is 1+1 =2 really true, or does it seem true because everyone says it is?  I have to confess that I do now know what the best answer to this question is.  On simple questions like 1+1, demonstrating the moving parts may be easy enough.  On more complex questions, it is far easier to simply tell people, “trust us:  X is true because that is true, and we should be trusted because of our fancy credentials that say that we know the truth.”  Perhaps, beyond some level, truth becomes so complex that a clear demonstration of the moving parts may no longer be possible.  If so, this is the only path for even partial “scientific literacy,” especially since simple broad awareness of the social conventions that are approximately right (i.e. right mean, wrong variance) might be more desirable socially than everyone wandering about looking for real answers without finding them.

Unfortunately, this turns “science” back to a question of religion and faith.  Rather than product of scientific investigation doused with suitable amount of skeptical curiosity, “science facts” simply become truisms that are true because “high priests” say so, with the real moving parts consigned to “mysteries of the faith,” with the potential for a great deal of abuse, including the persecution of the heretics, literal or figurative, most of whom may be cranks, but may also include some real insights that happen to deviate from the received wisdom more than it is expected to.  This is, of course, politically motivated reasoning revisited, with the sober implication that we may not be able to separate “politics” and “religion” from “science” easily.


Whither Parties?

I think Corey Robin is drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid.

The problem with the Republican Party is a fundamental problem affecting the root of party politics, especially the way it has evolved in the past few decades in United States, not anything related to “conservatism” or any other ideology.  It is rooted in institutions and the same problem, albeit of less extreme variety for now, is bedeviling the Democratic Party.

The so-called Tea Party in the Republican Party actually consists of two distinct movements that have gotten conflated, both by their own politics and by the outside observers.  They are, in context of 2016 elections, the Ted Cruz Tea Party and the Donald Trump Tea Party.  They share the same trait:  they are outsiders to the traditional Republican machinery.  The crucial distinction is that the Ted Cruz Tea Party has a fairly clearly defined political agenda and is interested in capturing the machinery to use it (and abuse it) to advance their own agenda, regardless of the medium to long term effect on their party or the rest of the political landscape, while the Trump Tea Party is a heterogeneous lot without a clear political aim but is characterized by deep distrust of the existing political institutions.  On the Democratic side, the history of this conflict is rather different and the conflict has been taking place much longer, but is of similar nature.

In the abstract, the power of party institutions comes in two flavors.  First, the formal powers of the institutions allow those who wield it to block adoption of the alternatives they disapprove of while accelerating and otherwise favoring the adoption of those that they do–negative and positive agenda powers, as the political science lingo labels them.  However, this power is fragile:  it can be deprived if an opposing coalition emerges with both sufficient numbers and sufficiently clearly defined aims to the contrary.  No democratic institution (and the same logic applies even to most non-democratic institutions) can force through outcomes that are actively opposed by a very large number of people, especially those with whom they share the institution–such as other members of the same party, other members of the legislature, and so forth.  The more important power of the institutions, then, is the ability of those who control it to define the conventional wisdom, or the narrative, that can serve as the focal point, to convince other participants in the political process who do not have clearly defined goals, preferences, and beliefs that they should want X, even without clear knowledge thereof, because X is the preferred alternative of “the party” or whoever.  In the much ballyhooed and now increasingly discredited (undeservingly so, in both cases) book, The Party Decides, both forces are present:  the party’s choice serves as the focal point for the many, many voters who don’t know and don’t care much, while the formal powers can be used to slap down the handfuls of troublemakers with actual dissenting agendas.

The problem for the party is that while the former, the more formal set of powers, has grown, the latter, the informal foundations on which they are built upon, has been badly degraded.  Mayhew, in 1974, already foresaw the impending crisis for the party:   rival power centers to Congress, like the president, can pursue their agenda without respect for the kind of consensus sought by the Congressional party leaders; ideological and other factions with their own agendas can publicize their aims and mobilize support for them through extralegislative/extrapolitical means; and the changes in technology was making it easier for these rivals to the traditional party politics to intrude on the leaders.  (The entire second half of the classic 1974 Mayhew book is on this topic–but no one seems to remember any of these!)

The considerable formal power of the party leadership is a draw for the factions that are not so much interested in maintaining institutions and the associated powers stable, but in using them to actively pursue their agenda.  The first serious civil war over this in the Republican Party took place in 1990s already, that pitted Newt Gingrich, who, despite the reputation he acquired as the Speaker, was actually interested in building a long term power base for the Republican Party on broad consensus (every one of the Contract with America items drew support from a majority, or at least, a very large minority, among the Democratic members of Congress, after much wheeling and dealing behind the scenes) against Tom DeLay, whose attitude towards the power might be summed by paraphrasing the quote attributed to Madeline Albright, “what’s the use of all the power of the party leaders if we don’t use it to aggressively advance our ideological agenda?”  Needless to say that DeLay won and this set the pattern for the rest of the GOP:  the ideological faction should actively seek to capture power, use it to advance their agenda aggressively as well as to beat down their intraparty rivals who get in their way.  The Ted Cruz Tea Party is the natural progression of this attitude:  the Republican Party is useful for them only so far as it can be used as a tool to implement their ideological view as policy.  Among the Democrats, the same civil war took place much farther into the past, in the guise of “House reforms,” where the liberal wing took power and purged the Old Guard who were interested more in maintaining internal balance within the Democratic Party.   The conventional wisdom holds that this “strengthened” the Democratic Party.  This would only be true if parties were to be viewed solely as the vehicle for making policy, in much the same manner as DeLay and, later, the Ted Cruz Tea Party conceive parties to be, with the most minimum of winning coalitions.  If the parties are to be viewed as a vehicle for maintaining balance and stability, this was a crippling blow that contributed to the poor electoral fortunes of the Democrats later.

The other Tea Party, the Donald Trump Tea Party, exists on a completely different plane.  It is not made up of ideologues who are particularly interested in implementing a particular program, assuming that they are at all interested in the program.  It consists of those who are justifiably suspicious of those who control the machinery of power, who feel that their interests, even if they cannot articulate them clearly, are not being taken into account by the powerful who are too busy with their own agendas and shutting out all their rivals by using and abusing the formal powers that they control.  Ultimately, it is a matter of trust–we don’t know what exactly we want, we don’t know what exactly they should be doing that they are not, but we know that these guys are not our friends and are looking to cheat us at every opportunity.  And they are right, for the ideologues have no interest in wasting time on those who cannot help them achieve their policy goals.  To the degree that the Ted Cruz Tea Party was mainly organized to topple the power of the incumbent leadership of the Republican Party, both “Tea Parties” made for natural allies–they shared a common enemy.  Once the Ted Cruz Tea Party, or at least its fellow travelers became powerful in Washington, they became the enemy of the Trump Tea Party, as much as the older Republican leaders.  In a sense, the increasingly narrow policy pursuits by the Ted Cruz Tea Party, made it even more blind to the discontent of the Trump Tea Party and may well have earned enmity faster.  The defeat of Eric Cantor, if not an actual member of the Ted Cruz Tea Party then certainly a close ally, by a “Tea Party-aligned” insurgent movement in the Republican primaries in 2014–supposedly a good Republican year–should have drawn everyone’s attention to the peculiar divisions within the Republican Party.   As an analogue, imagine what might happen if Anheuser Busch decided to get rid of all cheap beer in favor of expensive beer that “you want.”  Some people might pay extra for Bud Light because they like its taste, but vast majority of Bud Light drinkers who do so because it is cheap or for any number of reasons other than taste will be outraged and may never buy another A-B product again.

In a sense, Democrats already had their own version of Eric Cantor, already, in the person of Bill Clinton and the DLC.  However, unlike Cantor, the first Clinton moved the Democrats in a different direction.  By 1980s, the Democrats already had a leadership that was interested in using the Democratic Party as the means to advance a liberal agenda, and that was losing them elections–Mike Downey, a congressman from 1980s, supposedly said, “If we wanted to pass a bill that suited the tastes of the average person, we have to pass the Republican bill.”  Bill Clinton and DLC did not argue that the party should deemphasize the policy orientation in favor of maintaining stability, but that it should use its powers to pursue a different set of policy, those that, by the standards of 1980s and early 1990s, may not be so polarizing.  Or, in other words, the Republican bill that Downey was complaining about.  And, as the president, Clinton did exactly that.  For all the apparent animosity between Gingrich and the Clintons, they actually made an excellent team:  Gingrich, in his desire to build a governing party that was stable and enjoyed a broad base of support, was willing to pass legislation that suited many Democrats.  Clinton, of course, wanted to pass bills that met the taste of the average man, which Gingrich supplied.

Notwithstanding the difference in the direction of the policy, the Democratic Party today is, no less than the Republicans, a tool subservient to the pursuit of policy:  for many, the Democratic Party and the direction of the policy that it pursues are indistinguishable.  The internal struggle within the party, then, is not over whether it should be policy oriented or stability-oriented, but simply over what direction the party should pursue in terms of policy.  The folly of DLC and its legacy, for many, is that it focused on the policy that suited the taste of the “average man,” which, in 1990s, was in accord with Gingrich, not that the Democratic Party was reduced to a policymaking tool, in any direction.  The answer by the liberal critics of the current leadership is that it should pursue more liberal policy–not so much that it should stop focusing on particulars of policy questions and start listening and rethinking about how to address the unmet needs.

The catch, then, is that the direction of the policy does not matter much.  The more narrowly a party might be focused on the policy pursuits, the more likely it is to leave many of its supporters behind.  The leftward orientation of the Democratic Party in 1970s and 1980s led to the abandonment of the white working class who backed Reagan, not necessarily because these voters were “conservative” but because they could no longer trust the Democrats to be concerned over their interests.  (It is noteworthy that, vindicating Mayhew, the presidential tide turned far earlier and more decisively than the Congressional.)   The rightward turn by Bill Clinton and continued by Hillary Clinton does not change the fundamental dynamic–they simply alienate a different group of voters.  If the Democrats turn left again, the same scenario would repeat itself.  The trouble with the Democrats, then,  is exactly the same problem as that divides the Cruz Tea Party and Trump Tea Party, at least in institutional terms.  It is a divide between policy-seekers and insurance-seekers, those who want to do things and change the world in their image vs. those who need protection from the changes, including those that the former want to bring upon the world.

The Hillary Clinton wing of the Democratic Party is primarily interested in the party machinery and its associated powers as tools for making policy.  They want to know what policy they should pursue because, other than making policy and the details thereof, they have no sense of what a party is supposed to do.  Their opponents–the rank and file Democratic supporters who were unsatisfied with the party leaders, much more than the liberal critics thereof–who found their voice in the person of Bernie Sanders in 2016, do not have a clear idea of what specific policy they want to see pursued–at least going beyond some popular ideas that do not collectively make up a coherent”ideology.”  However, like the Trump Tea Party, they also know that the single-minded pursuit of policy by the party insiders is drawing them away from paying attention to their needs and interests, even if they cannot precisely spell them out in terms that can be translated to bills.  Once again, the problem is ultimately that of trust–which has been showing up in the polls repeatedly.

However institutionally analogous they might be, the discontented Democrats do not overlap much with the Trump Tea Party.  This needs to be made clear, as it is critical in shaping the electoral landscape today.  The former are, after all, Democrats, or at least, Democratic sympathizers, while the latter are Republicans or Republican sympathizers.  The relatively few real independents in the electorate might swing between the two camps, but, again, they are relatively few.  The average Sanders voter, for all the disappointment, is a Democratic-sympathizer and he will not turn.  Who might, had things been progressing differently, is a sizable minority composed of the true independents, but the prospects that Trump might lure away many of the independents who supported Sanders seem to be dimming daily, due to his own wackiness.  If the choice is ultimately that of “trust,” Trump has not exactly shown himself to be a trustworthy person for many beyond his relatively narrow band of fans.

The likely failure of Trump, however, does not obviate the inherent problems facing the parties, both of them.  The second face of power, the trust and the associated ability to act as the focal point for the uncertain partisans, is ultimately what sustains the first power.  The overreliance on the first face of power has effectively broken the latter.  When the narrative breaks, it is not easy to put it back together, without some great big myth and a larger than life founding father–an FDR, a Reagan, or a Lincoln.  All the institutional rigging to shore up the first face will not be enough–indeed, it may even exacerbate the erosion of trust and subvert the second face of power even more.  This is the real danger that faces the American party system today that goes far beyond the problems of “ideology.”

PS.  I think a simple way of describing the problem (which, incidentally describes the variance-centric thinking vs. the means-based thinking) is that the dissenting voices in both parties want someone who listens, who recognize that the answers are still problematic, not someone who has answers, even better answers.  Answers, like the means, may be right on average, but often wrong–perhaps, even wrong for everyone (e.g. the mean prediction for the number of heads of a fair coin will ALWAYS be wrong for any single coin toss.)  The important thing, rather than getting the mean right, might be to recognize the variances exist–ie. how wrong the answers are for different peoples.  This is all the more important because, when “the answers” become a narrative, like the standards of “cuteness,” the variance is significantly underestimated.  The correct answer may be .5, rather than .6, but it will still be wrong on the next coin toss.  Blaming the coin for not producing just half a head, rather than one full head or zero head will not resolve the problem.

PPS.  The great insight that Bill Clinton and DLC had was to ask, as the Democratic Party was committed to becoming a vehicle for policy, whether pursuing the policy that was against the wishes of the average man was a good idea.  Now, three decades later, his wife faces an altogether different challenge, where the average man does not know what exactly he should want any more, but does not trust the people who are running Washington to be interested in him.  The attitude taken by both parties was to exploit the average man’s uncertainty and ignorance to their advantage, further subverting his trust.  So, now what?

On Polling Outliers

This article on NYT Upshot used to be titled “A favorable poll for Donald Trump has a problem,” I think.  Whatever the case is, it is now retitled “may have a problem,” which I think is wise.

This addresses something that’s been bugging me, albeit more generally than the USC polls: what do you do with polling outliers?

To be entirely honest, I think USC polls are doing something innovative and insightful:  the point raised by Gelman et al in this article is that accounting for party affiliation of the voters, which pollsters seem very averse to doing, is in fact a quite sound thing to do, given the stability of the party affiliation and the vote choice in today’s electoral environment.  Indeed, the way USC folk have constructed their panel essentially achieves through the research design what Gelman et al did in their study by post stratification–creating a sample that incorporates a reasonable mix of Republican partisans and Democratic partisans.

I am not so sure if the problem where people overreport in favor of the winner is as big a problem as the NYT folk make it out to be:  in the end, the past vote choice is itself a proxy, for party affiliation of the voter.  As it were, past vote choice ought to have been closely correlated with the party affiliation today, with the Republicans recalling (probably correctly) voting for Romney and Democrats recalling voting for Obama.  Unless an unexpected number of Republicans remembering voting for Obama were found in course of sampling–which would be a dead giveaway sign of the kind of overreporting in favor of the winner that could cause problems–I would not be so quick to dismiss the possible bias from overreporting–at least not too much.

Now, the problem that could arise from the type of weighing that USC folk have done is that, if the support for Obama were overrepresented in the sample to begin with, weighing them down to reflect the overall partisan balance would underrepresent them even more than they should be.  It is in this sense where the USC poll might be overrepresenting the support for Trump–by undersampling, in effect, the latent Democratic voters and, relatively speaking, oversampling Republican voters.  But this is not necessarily a fatal flaw once you have the full data:  if someone does say that he or she voted for Obama in 2012–whether it is true or not–that is a valuable piece of information.  This, in turn, can be used to identify other interesting questions, which, although somewhat indirectly, provide an understanding of what’s going on in this election.  Just what kind of voters say that they voted for Obama but would support Trump, for example?  How does this square with the actual electorate that Obama did have in 2012?  Assuming that their answers are actually honest, what implication does this have for potential “swingability” of a given slice of the electorate?

People do not change their partisan stripes readily–at least, not in today’s environment. Whether it is honest or not, that a respondent should say that they were an Obama supporter is significant, as an indicator of their political inclination–and note that USC constructed its panel before the Trump (and Sanders) phenomenon hit.

In a sense, I may not impressed by this critique by NYT because of my own bias:  I don’t care much for aggregate predictions from any poll, but am deeply interested in tracking how different demographics are moving–how their “swingability” (or “variability” in their choice) evolves over time.  When the variability is high, the predictions become inherently hard to make.  The composition of the electorate will be slightly different this time from 2012, to say the least.  We should want to know how it will be different and how different components of the electorate will behave–will they behave as they did in 2012, or will they do something else?  The way USC has been conducting its polls is potentially much better at gauging the variability, even if it may be poor–perhaps!–in predicting the outcome.

PS.  A better way of describing my view towards use of statistics is that, as long as the data itself is true–that is, not made up out of whole cloth–every analysis reveals some aspect of the real world.  The “prediction” is not so much important as the revelation of the real variability in the data, conditional on the approach.  But, the catch is that, in order to learn what a given approach to data has to teach us, we need to pay attention to how they got to their conclusions, rather than their “conclusions.”  It may be highly improbable that Trump is doing as well as the USC polls suggest that he might be.  If he is indeed not doing so well, what is it about the technique used by the USC team that biases the result?  If he is indeed doing so well–and all others are missing it–what are they catching that others have missed.  And, even if Trump is not doing so well, as long as the data is true and the methodology is sound–and both of these seem to be the case–they are still capturing something about the “truth” that others are not, even if the “prediction” might be off.  At this stage, even if we might be quite sure that USC polls are “inaccurate” as the predictor of the results, they are using a novel technique that, quite frankly, makes a good deal of logical sense.  It is in the deconstruction of what they have done that we will learn, not in trashtalking over whether they got the conclusion right or wrong.

Elections, Risk, and Strategery…Again.

NYT Upshot has an interesting article that reiterates the point I was raising earlier:  that, for the Republicans, Trump represents an interesting risk that has a chance of paying off, albeit at a huge risk.

Andrew Gelman and his students had shown some years ago that the intersection between the geography and political economy of elections is a bit more intricate than people think.  In the Republican dominated states, the wealth is an accurate predictor of party choice:  the poor vote Democrat, the rich vote Republican.  It also follows that the more educated the voters are, the more likely they are to vote Republican.  In the Democratic dominated states, however, this relationship breaks down.  The rich are no more likely to vote Republican than the poor are in these states–or, in other words, the Republican electorate, in terms of the wealth, make for a more heterogeneous coalition.  In a sense, the idea of the Democrats as the party of the richer might even be somewhat justified in these states–although not necessarily convincingly so.

The trends noted by NYT’s Nate Cohn is exactly what one would expect if the Reupblicans were to accentuate the trend found in the blue states:  attempt to gain votes among the poorer and the undereducated at the expense of risking losing the support of the richer and the better educated:  Republican edge in the South thins out while they gain in the North, especially in the Midwest.  In terms of raw numbers, this is not a bad risk to take:  Democratic edge in the Midwest is not huge, while that of the Republicans in the South is.  If the Republicans hold on to the states Romney won in 2012 and add a few Midwestern states, that can be enough to capture a majority.

But is this a realistic goal?  Midwestern states (or borderline Midwestern states, like Pennsylvania) do contain many conventional Republicans as well as many working class voters.  I’m told that Chuck Todd of NBC was analyzing patterns in Pennsylvania county by county, noting that the Democrats have opened up a huge lead in suburban Philadelphia, for example.  Will the added turnout among the poorer voters be enough to compensate?  In a way, in Red and Blue states alike, there is a reason that the party that captures the vote of the wealthier voters wins elections.

Coalitions and Inclusiveness

The very insightful Carl Beijer, who seems to understand the underpinnings of rational choice political science far better than many self-claimed rational choicers, has three brief but excellent posts that are worth a bit of discussion.

The first concerns seemingly an old debate, whether Clinton is any more electable than Sanders.  To those accustomed to thinking in spatial model terms, it is fairly “obvious” that Clinton is more “moderate” than Sanders, as is the average Clinton voter, compared to the average Sanders voter.  Thus, it is intuitive, by the “median voter” logic, that Clinton should have an edge.  The fallacy of this argument is that the spatial underpinnings of alleged “ideology” is itself built on shaky foundations.  Given the Hotelling logic, spatial “distance” is simply a stand-in for preference.  The median is represented, in the spatial logic because she is not committed to one side or the other.  As Beijer points out, in order for Clinton to be more electable versus Trump, that must mean that the Sanders voter would not vote for a Trump but a Clinton voter might.  In practice, this is exactly the opposite:  Sanders represents a diverse coalition that included a large minority of discontented working class whites.  Even if they may not be the “average” Sanders voter, these are the voters who might under some conditions, be lost to Trump.  The core Clinton voters, on the other hand, are committed Democrats who would not vote for any Republican, Trump or anyone else.  Sans this “swingability,” they are not exactly “moderate.”  What does wind up depicting them is the mistaken use of DW Nominate type scores:  Clinton’s allies in Congress are moderate because they are voting with the Republicans on some issues:  most notably, free trade and foreign affairs in recent years.  Their willingness to defect to the Republicans on these issues does not imply that they are “moderate” on other issues, especially those concerning socio-cultural matters.  That they are willing to side with the Republicans in support of interventions abroad and promoting free trade, rather than making them “moderate” vis-a-vis Trump, actually makes them far more stridently anti-Trump.

Of course, this reveals an important sense that Clinton and her backers are “moderate”:  they can draw the support of the regular Republicans (or, at least they hope they do) which, realistically, Sanders would not be able to.  But, taken together with the greater “swingability” of the Sanders voters, or, at least, a large minority thereof, this sets the stage for another point that Beijer raises:  is there such a thing as a Democratic coalition?  Clinton and her allies do not care to retain the support of the Sanders supporters.  They are too busy courting the regular Republicans whose support they are (too) eager to capture.  While “rigged” may not be the most accurate description, DNC emails do illustrate what every “institutions” person in political science should be (too) familiar with:  that most institutions are rigged because their keepers put their hand firmly on the scale, tilting them to their advantage.  The problem that Beijer raises, though, is the corollary to this problem that is rarely raised:  yes, on average, the institutions are rigged, but, if so, and if every outcome is tilted in favor of the institutional insiders, why should the outside faction cooperate by playing through them?  I would not go so far as to say that the institutions and the process need to be “fair,” as Beijer does, but that there needs to be high enough probability that the outsiders would win, even if, on average they might lose.  This uncertainty, deliberately inserted into the game and maintained assiduously, is essential for keeping the institutions stable (if you talked to me about correlated equilibria in game theory, you would have come across a variation on this theme before).   Take away this uncertainty and make the game both rigged AND low variance, you are asking for trouble.

This sets up Beijer’s third point:  does it make sense for the voters to vote strategically, for the lesser of two evils?  It does not, but perhaps not necessarily for the reason Beijer brings up.  Clinton represents a low variance candidate whose mean is not very satisfictory.  Trump represents a high variance candidate whose mean is farther than Clinton’s.  Yet, both are sufficiently far from the voters away from the “middle” that the difference in their means may not mean much, and with sufficiently high variance, the conditional probably of getting a “better” outcome at a given point from a “worse” mean, but bigger variance distribution is greater than one from a “better” mean, but a lower variance.  Now, a spatial modeller would say that this would be washed out by the higher probability of even worse outcomes, but not necessarily if the utility for far away outcomes are discounted–while I can’t work out the math at the moment, for the suitably large variance, as long as the differences are small enough, the voter is actually better off choosing a high variance candidate whose mean is far away.  So, somewhat ironically, it is possible that voting for the seemingly greater evil (but with high variance) might be fully rational!

When Parties Can’t Decide…

Michael Barone has an excellent if inconclusive summary of the big picture concerning the present political situation that goes beyond who’s winning and who’s losing.  Ultimately, the point is simple:  in the present day politics, parties are not position to “decide” much of anything by force of insider consensus imposing its will on the outsiders.  This begs the question, though:  why not, especially if it has been able to do so for decades?

There are two dimensions that undergird the power of the party insiders:  one is subtle, but much more important, the other is rather more obvious, but relatively inconsequential.  The obvious but relatively inconsequential is their control over the institutions and their ability to set the agenda through them.  The trouble with the institutional control is that, while it allows the insiders to exclude from the “menu,” if you will, the potentially popular alternatives that they do not want, its continuation depends on the willingness of the masses to continue playing within the framework of the institutions that they dominate.  If you will, the attitude of the insiders would be:  “they may not like our food, but if they want to eat out, they have no choice.”  But the reason that the voters, most of whom are political outsiders, are willing to play along is a combination of ignorance, disinterest, and trust, which together comprise the more important even if subtle reason why parties get to decide.  The masses don’t know what other possibilities exist off the menu, they are not sufficiently dissatisfied with what is on the menu so as to actively seek outside options, and they are sufficiently trusting of the restaurateurs to believe that they are being given reasonable, even if less than ideal options.  If they can be sure that what the restaurateurs offer is indeed bad for them, and that a better alternative exists outside somehow, they will jump the ship not only with certainty but with alacrity.

The second aspect of how parties can maintain power explains the paradox of parties that Keith Krehbiel has kept raising for almost two decades now:   under a majority rule and a unidimensional policy space, there is nothing that stops the floor median from becoming the winning alternative.  Why doesn’t the floor median always win?  The answer is that the spatial model is a poor depiction of the real life politics.  (yes, if you know me in real life, you’d also know that I’d been saying a version of this for a decade also)  Within the spatial framework, all voters know exactly what they want, relative to each and every policy alternative.  There is a clear majority consensus that they want the floor median, relative to every possible alternative, and no institutional manipulation (in a unidimensional space, at least) can steer them away from what they know that they want.  In other words, if a restaurant refuses to offer what a majority of its customers actually want and if the latter know where to find it, there is no good reason to expect that the restaurant would be able to keep those customers.

Now, there is no guarantee that these customers would necessarily be lost to a competitor, but there is no requirement that they should keep eating out.  This has, of course, happened before–when the turnout was in decline between mid-1970s and 1990s, when all attention was focused on what’s wrong with the customers who stopped eating out.  Perhaps the problem was the restaurants that changed their recipes, rather than the customers?  In a sense, this offers a slightly different explanation of why and how politics polarized over that exact time period (although with a bit of the chicken and the egg causality in play):  the restaurants polarized, because they decided to offer sharply contrasting recipes.  The customers who did not like the new combination dropped out, while those who did began to pay more.  This has a perfect analogue in the evolution of the beer industry since 1990s (which I had blogged about in the past, but can’t seem to find), where the industry began to shift towards craft beer that can be sold to s relatively small set of consumers at a high markup and began to de-emphasize mass produced swill that may be hated by no one but not especially beloved by many and could only be sold at low markup if to large audiences, like Bud Lights.  Unlike the politics industry, the beer producers are not constrained to offering just one brand:  Bud Light remains, despite its shrinking market size, remains the best selling beer in United States.  Anheuser-Busch recognizes that not everyone will pay a premium for a beer that they like–either because they don’t really like a certain taste, they don’t care for spending too much money on beer, they had an odd taste, or because they don’t know (or any other reason).  They need an outlet and A-B can money off of that outlet.

In principle, there is no good reason that a political party cannot offer a craft beer and Bud Light at the same time.  Anheuser-Busch is not a “beer” company.  It is a profit-making company, and beer is simply how it makes money.  E.E. Schattschneider said, and I paraphrase, that the Democratic Party is not a “liberal” party.  It is a coalition that seeks to win elections.  “Liberalism” is simply how the Democrats win elections, much the way Anheuser-Busch makes money through the selection of craft beers that it offers.  But the idea of a “craft beer” being sold by Anheuser-Busch, the seller of the Bud Light, generates backlash.  The idea of “liberalism” (or any other concretely defined set of policy or a collective reputation, narrative, or such) being brought by the party of Jim Crow generates a far bigger backlash.  Popular control, or more accurately, disproportionate influence from the more active parts of the elecrotate, exerted through the primary process, multiplies the impact of this backlash.  A homogeneous, exclusionary menu for the entire chain is necessarily the result, with the due consequences in less competitive markets.

The bigger consequences of the polarization are felt among the consumers/voters, however.  With the Bud Light taken off the market, a large segment of the consumers who may not necessarily fit neatly into the resulting spectrum of beer tastes (i.e. who have “no taste”), who may be cheap and underinformed, but are nevertheless justifiably discontented, is the consequence.  One might even say that, without meaning to be contemptuous, that these are alcoholics, who ARE in fact dependent beer to survive.  (This is meant in all due seriousness:  beer may be a luxury good that people might be able to do without.  Government policy is not.  For all libertarian wet dream, huge segments of society are crucially dependent on a set of functioning government policy that appropriately meets their needs at the reasonable price, and this is literally a matter of life and death for the needy populations, as many of these political Bud Light drinkers are.)  In the end, both Republicans and Democrats alike are shrugging their collectively shoulders saying “let them drink craft brew,” when they cannot afford either of their brands.  (I note with some irony that the localities that gave rise to Trump voters were also the hotbed of the Whiskey Rebellion, back in the days of the Washington administration.  Some things don’t change.)

The real problem for the parties is not simply that the Bud Light drinkers are not merely rejecting the beers that they offer, however.  They may not necessarily know what their taste in beer “really” is, but they do not, with justification, trust that the beer companies would even try to meet their needs.  When the consumers trust the corporation, they might be willing to be led, to gamble on what the corporation offers, even at a price.  Thus the insiders can set the agenda and profit on the margins because the masses, even if not perfectly happy, will not rise against them:  hey, let’s try this slightly expensive new beer from A-B, instead of Bud Light.  Without this trust, the customers are lost–they will not tolerate your agenda-setting:  the bastards at A-B got rid of Bud Light!  I’ll never drink their crap again, even if they bring back Bud Light.

Does this change signal a fundamental transformation of the beer industry, eh, parties?  I don’t know.  It may be true that having the Bud-Light consumers provides the big breweries with a bit of fallback position, a cash cow:  there are many, if heterogeneous Bud Light drinkers who will drink their swill as long as it is cheap, which will generate revenue with which A-B can buy out craft breweries, one at a time.  But there seems no logical reason that there cannot be a coalition of craft breweries that don’t cater to the Bud Light consumers, who can even garner additional profit from their lack of association with the cheap swill (which seems to underlie the present HRC campaign’s strategy of assembling only “respectable” voters, while abandoning the working class whites, including many of the Sanders voters.)  Indeed, if true, this direction of the Democratic Party would imply a simple continuation of the present trend, not a transformation.  Trump as the Republican nominee is indeed representing a change, but not necessarily a profitable one:  there is a good reason why A-B is de-emphasizing Bud Lights–because it is not as profitable.  Working class whites, like Bud Light drinkers, are “cheap.”  They don’t vote too often, and as such, don’t yield profit the way “ideological” voters do.  Like Bud Light ads with bikini-clad women, Trump might generate a bit of PR magic, but it can only go so far.  If the price of this shift, as it seems at the moment, is a backlash against the craft brews currently offered by the GOP, it can only demolish its electoral profits.