Saturday, September 26, 2015

Towards a general theory of crankification, part 2

I promised a post on why conservatism has become a "cause."  An immediate factor is opposition to President Obama.  Some people would say that's because he's black, but I think that's no more than a secondary factor.  The primary factor is that a lot of people were excited about him, and he seemed to have some kind of vision.  That's pretty unusual--the last nominee who it was true of was probably Reagan, and before him I guess McGovern, who didn't come close to winning.  I believe that in a debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama referred to Reagan as a "transformative" president, in contrast to Bill Clinton, and said that he wanted to be more like Reagan in that respect.  I also recall that Hillary seemed puzzled, not quite sure what he meant.  But conservatives knew what he meant, or thought they did:  he wanted to be the anti-Reagan.  (I think that that was a misreading and he actually had something more like a "beyond left and right" aspiration).

But there's also a long-term component:  this is something that's been developing over decades.  If conservatism is basically defense of the status quo, you'd expect it to have the central institutions of society on its side.  Historically, that's usually been the case.  But in the 1960s-70s, prevailing political views at universities (especially elite ones) went from being mostly moderate or slightly conservative to being overwhelmingly on the left.  A similar development happened with newspapers and magazines, especially "quality" ones, although it didn't go as far.  That's one reason that conservatives feel embattled--they have a sense a sense that an important part of the "establishment" is against them.  Universities are especially important, since young adulthood is when many people start getting interested in politics.

The limitation of this explanation it doesn't explain why contemporary American conservatism is particularly ideological by international standards.  Although I don't have good data, I think the shift of higher education to the left is a widespread phenomenon, and in many countries universities have traditionally been centers of radical politics.  I think that the answer may be that, compared to other nations, Americans are conservative on a lot of "moral" beliefs.  For example, although the United States has a high divorce rate, Americans are less likely to approve of divorce than people in almost all other affluent nations (which reminds me that I should have a post on that subject).   The social changes of the 1960s and 1970s haven't been rolled back, and in some ways have continued to go on with no signs of stopping:  for example, growing acceptance of gays and lesbians.  I think this is why American conservatives continue to feel embattled even though the last 30 years have been a fairly conservative period in other ways.

Being embattled means that people are going to stick together, and work harder to justify their views.  The left was traditionally sustained by a sense that elites were against them, but the common people were (at least potentially) on their side; now that feeling is also found on the right.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Towards a general theory of crankification

In the Republican primary, almost all of the candidates are presenting themselves as committed conservatives.  The one clear exception is the one who's surprised everyone by jumping into first place and staying there. Under those circumstances, you'd expect some of the others to emulate him, not by taking exactly the same positions, but by deviating from orthodoxy on some things and cultivating an image of someone who says what he thinks and doesn't care about labels.  But there's no sign that anyone's doing that.

Paul Krugman notices the same phenomenon, which he calls "crankification."   The term is a bit unfair--it might be more accurate to call it something like "convergence on extreme positions."  It's not surprising that a Republican would want to cut income taxes on high incomes, as Jeb Bush's plan does, but the scale of the cuts proposed is at the margins of credibility.  Other non-Trump candidates are offering even more fanciful proposals for enormous tax cuts.  I haven't heard anyone proposing any moderate changes like taking the top rate back to 35%, where it was under GW Bush.

Krugman offers an explanation for the positions on taxes:  the candidates are doing what rich people (ie, big donors) want.  I think there are several things wrong with this explanation.  This first is that according to a paper by Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels, and Jason Seawright on the policy preferences of the wealthy, people with high incomes are not demanding big tax cuts.  The mean preferred top marginal rate is 34%, lower than we have today but higher than Bush is proposing.  The mean preferred estate tax is about what it is today for estates of ten million, and probably somewhat lower than it is today for estates of $100 million--but Bush is proposing to eliminate the estate tax.  Also, 65% if the sample said they'd be willing to pay more in taxes to reduce the budget deficit.  In general, the picture was that the average rich person was what used to be a mainstream conservative, along the lines of someone like Bob Dole.  Their sample was just from the Chicago area, and I'm sure that rich people in some parts of the country tend to be more conservative, but I also expect that rich people in the Northeast and West coast are less conservative.  The second, and the one I'll focus on in this post, is that "crankification" is present even among Republican opinion leaders who aren't running for office.

I'll take Ross Douthat as my example, since he's a conservative reformer who holds that the Republicans should be trying to help the middle and working classes.  In an analysis of the Rubio-Lee tax proposal, he says that it doesn't "get within even distant hailing distance of being revenue neutral" and offers some ideas about what Republicans should do.   His primary goal is to reduce "the tax burden on people struggling to stay in the middle."  Since he's realistic, he says that means increasing taxes on someone else.  Specifically, his ideal tax reform "would end up raising taxes on some of Thomas Piketty’s petits rentiers (the upper middle class, that is) while probably cutting them somewhat for the super rich."   Piketty defines petits rentiers as people who get "substantial and even fairly large inheritances:  200,000 ... or even 2,000,000 euros." The obvious way to increase their taxes would be to radically reduce the estate tax exemption, which I'm pretty sure is not what Douthat wants to do. I think what happened was that he interpreted the term as "rent-seeking," or using political power to get special treatment or protection from competition.  There's a long tradition, going back to Adam Smith, holding that a lot of inequality is the result of rent-seeking rather than the workings of the free market.  That's what Douthat means by the "on the tax code’s pro-rentier bias":  not that the tax code is biased in favor of people with savings, but that it's filled with breaks for "special interests."  The obvious problem with his proposal, which he doesn't even address, is the assumption that the upper middle class benefits more from rent-seeking than the super-rich do.   Who is more likely to succeed if he calls up his Senator to ask for a favor, me or Donald Trump?

So coming round to my theory of crankification, I think the cause is that conservatives, even conservative reformers, are concerned with proving that they are conservative.  Douthat could have said that we couldn't pay for government programs entirely by taxing the rich, that we would have to raise taxes on the upper middle class too. Or he could have said that we should reduce rates but eliminate most deductions, and if that turns out to mean that the rich paid more in taxes, then so be it.  Or he could even have said that we should use the anti-trust laws to promote competition.  All of those would have made more sense than what he did say, but they could be seen as concessions to the center or the left.

When he dropped out of the race, Rick Perry said that "I step aside knowing our party is in good hands, as long as we listen to the grassroots, listen to the cause of conservatism."  That last bit is telling:  rather than saying we should listen to "Republicans" or "Americans," he said we should listen to the "cause of conservatism."  That raises the question of how conservatism became a cause.  Traditionally, conservatism was seen as a collection of prejudices or practical wisdom (depending on who you asked):  "causes" were for the left.  I hope to have a post on that within the next few weeks.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


It's generally agreed that, compared to people in most other nations, Americans are less favorable to government aid to the poor.  For example, a 2002 Pew survey of 42 nations asked people if they agreed or disagreed that "it is the responsibility of the state/government to take care of very poor people who can't take care of themselves."  Americans were 40th.

One popular explanation for this is that Americans are "anti-government" in some way:  we don't trust the government, or are afraid of it getting too powerful.  The same survey offered several statements on that general issue:  "the state/government controls too much of our daily lives," "when something is run by the state/government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful," and "generally, the state/government is run for the benefit of all the people."  Americans ranked in the middle on the second and third of those, but were inclined to agree that "the government controls too much," ranking ninth.  So maybe that helps to explain our lack of support for the government taking care of the poor?  This figure shows the average opinions on government responsibility and government controlling too much (low numbers indicate agreement).

To the extent there's a relationship, people in countries where people think the government controls too much of their lives are more likely to agree that it's the government's responsibility to take care of the poor.  Countries in which people think that the government controls too much are also more likely to agree that the government is run for the benefit of the people.  Beliefs about the government being wasteful and inefficient seem unconnected to all of the other items.

It's hard to say what the lesson is, if any.  But just showing cases in which there's a nice clear pattern gives a distorted picture of reality.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Thursday, September 10, 2015

High and low points

This blog just celebrated its fifth anniversary, so in honor of that I'll revisit some past posts.

 According to the statistics given by Blogger, the most popular are:
1.  Racial Resentment (2/10/13)
2.  Less than meets the eye (1/5/15):  Thanks to a mention in Andrew Gelman's blog.  The funny thing is that this post was sort of a filler.  Paul Krugman claimed that a simple scatterplot clearly showed that cuts in government spending hurt economic growth.  I did a quick analysis which suggested that the apparent relationship was spurious.  I did some more analysis hoping to come up with something more positive to say, but without success, so I left it at the negative comment.  I'd done two similar posts in 2012, in response to a claim by Arthur Laffer that a simple scatterplot clearly showed that cuts in spending helped economic growth.  On these, one analysis suggested no clear relationship, and the other suggested that spending helped.  
3.  Even more racial resentment (6/19/13)
4.  Freedom (11/16/13):  This was about national differences in responses to a question about " how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out."  I'm not sure if the post really belongs here.  As I recall, almost all of the views came in waves on two widely separated days, so maybe they were just some automated search thing that wandered by.  But I hope that some actual people saw it--I think this is an interesting issue, but I've never seen any research on it.  I've thought about doing something myself, but it never seems to become a top priority.

Turning to the least popular, the competition is stiff, and many of them deserve to continue in obscurity.  So I'll just pick a few which got a small number of page views, but which I like for one reason or another.

1.  Profit (7/3/2012):  A repeated question on a basic issue of economic philosophy (should government limit the amount of profits that businesses can make) over a period of 40 years (1946-86).  How often do you find something like that?
2.  The life of the mind (3/12/12):  in 1978 and 1997, CBS/New York Times surveys asked people if it was more important for someone in college to get "a well-rounded education" or "training for a well-paying job."  There was a substantial shift towards "a well-rounded education."  Did that represent a trend or just a reaction to the immediate economic conditions?  Someone should ask this question again.
3.  When did everyone start liking Hillary Clinton? (1/21/12):  As I write this, there are a lot of stories about how Hillary Clinton is struggling as a candidate because she can't connect with ordinary voters.  Things were different in early 2012:  there were stories about how the struggling Obama campaign needed her political skills to help it connect with ordinary voters.  This post looked at her popularity ratings over the years.  I think it stands up pretty well.
4.  What's an entitlement?  (8/10/11):  Makes a  simple point, but one that's often overlooked.
5.  They do things differently there (11/23/10):  Early surveys (through the 1950s) usually gave examples of the coding of open-ended questions and of "other" responses, which often make interesting reading.  This post was about a French survey from the 1950s concerning youthful experiences with alcohol.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Not guilty

Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, had a piece in the New York Times that referred to an international Gallup survey whch "found that almost 90 percent of workers were either 'not engaged' with or 'actively disengaged' from their jobs."  The survey can be found here (oddly, the article doesn't have a link to it).

The Gallup measure is based on answers to twelve questions.  They don't say exactly how they converted them into the 'engaged,' 'not engaged,' and 'actively disengaged' categories, but my guess is that they just added up the "yes" answers and then had some cutoffs-- more than X yes answers counts as "engaged," less than Y counts as "actively disengaged."  The questions seemed pretty straightforward:  for example, "I know what is expected of me at work" and "this last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow."

What is to blame for the low level of engagement?  Schwartz's answer is basically capitalism:  "[Adam] Smith and his descendants . . . were creating a fact about human nature."  Although almost all nations in the world are capitalist in a general sense, there are differences of degree:  companies in the United States have more freedom to maximize profits and fewer legal obligations to their employees than those in Western Europe.  So Schwartz's account implies that the United States should have particularly low engagement, and a number of the top-rated comments clearly came to this conclusion.   Actually, the United States has 30% engaged and 18% disengaged, which is the second highest level of engagement, trailing only Costa Rica (33-14).  Turning to a few European welfare states, the numbers are 9% engaged and 26% disengaged in France, 15 and 24 in Germany, and 9 and 11 in the Netherlands.

So does relatively unrestrained capitalism lead to high engagement?  Not really:  Singapore, which is even farther towards the laissez-faire end than the United States by most rankings, has only 9% engaged (and 15% disengaged).  Gallup suggests that richer countries have higher levels of engagement, which seems reasonable, since they have fewer unskilled jobs.  But the relationship doesn't seem to be that strong.  The biggest differences involve what you could vaguely call "culture":  most of Asia is low and the Americas are high, with Europe in the middle, although there are some substantial differences between apparently similar countries.

You can criticize American-style capitalism for a lot of things, but low levels of worker engagement isn't one of them.