Politics, Ideology, and Journalism

Conor Friedersdorf has a very smart piece at The Atlantic calling out The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein for characterizing himself as data-driven and Paul Ryan as ideological. It’s impossible to disagree with the central claim of the piece:

I’ll never demand that Klein self-identify as a movement liberal or progressive. But he is deeply mistaken when he avers that policy can be grounded in no more than currents of data, or that his writerly output is divorced from disputed value judgments and philosophical foundations. As Will Wilkinson once told him, “There’s no avoiding the fact that, if you’re doing anything with policy at all, you’re trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that’s worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that’s the end that we ought to be aiming at.” Following facts where they lead is smart and necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Yep. And frankly I’d love to read a post by Ezra outlining for his readers his moral philosophy. But I still think there’s a very real sense in which Klein’s manner of analysis is in fact pragmatic and Ryan’s is, at least arguably, more ideological.

That sense is one I’ve thought about a lot in the context of similar debates about Obama, who loves to claim that he’s just a pragmatist. Conservatives happily point out essentially just what Friedersdorf did here: that it’s impossible to advance policies without some ideology pointing the way.

But in the context of today’s American politics, I consider “pragmatism” to mean, simply, that one’s ideology is agnostic on the proper role of government. Take the example of the utilitarian. Her ideology seeks to maximize happiness. She’s certainly not valueless, she holds an ideology, yet her ideology says nothing specific about one of the biggest questions in U.S. politics. When asked what the proper role of government is, she looks to the evidence to see which policies optimize happiness.

Even a Rawlsian, for whom justice is specifically about the role of social institutions, consults the evidence to determine whether government should be bigger, smaller, more or less active.

Contrast that to small government conservatism, in which a central value is that, all else equal, less government is better. Sure, the most sophisticated conservatives, particularly those who work in think tanks and the like, aren’t likely to hold such a principled view. They’d rather couch their support of small government relative to values like liberty, self-reliance, or welfare. But it’s hard to deny that the principle that less government is better plays a serious role in conservative politics.

It’s in this sense that I think Klein is in fact data driven in a way that Ryan probably is not. Sure, Klein’s not a blank slate when he considers the proper role of government in the healthcare system, but nor does he place moral weight on one side of the scales. I doubt the same can be said of Ryan; it certainly can’t be said of many conservatives.

None of this detracts from Friedersdorf’s point. It’s possible to take the ‘driven by data’ perspective so far as to fall into the same traps as the ‘view from nowhere.’ But once all the ideological disclosures are on the table, I suspect the difference outlined above would still remain. Political pragmatism, to me, does mean something. Everyone has values, but some of us hold values that directly answer the policy questions we’re asking, before evidence is ever brought to bear.


How I’d Moderate a Presidential Debate on Economic Policy

Just a quick political vent here. I’ve got fairly strong views about economic policy, but even those with whom I don’t agree recognize a lot of our contemporary political debate on the subject is detached from reality. Here’s a quick outline of how I’d structure a sane debate on economic policy.

1) Remind everyone in the room what the federal government spends money on. I’d give anything to have the image on the right flashed on screen during the presidential debates. The bulk of what the federal government spends on is defense + transferring money from future to current retirees + pay for the health insurance of the elderly and the poor.

2) Unemployment: Differentiate short term vs. long term. Next up would be a discussion of our most pressing economic problem today: high unemployment. What is the candidate going to do to address our short term problems?

3) How would you lower healthcare costs? Future deficits are driven by rising healthcare costs. What’s your plan to lower healthcare costs across the system?

4) What’s Your Plan for Economic Growth? Ok, now we can talk long term. What’s your plan to stimulate economic growth? This is where we’d talk about tax policy, to the extent the candidates believed it was a key growth driver. This is also where candidates would address climate change.

5) Making the Economy Work for Everyone. For the last 30 years, the economic growth we’ve seen has mostly lined the pockets of the most wealthy among us. Yes, life has gotten better for most people, but gains have been highly unequal. Does your long term growth plan address this? Would the benefits of that growth be shared broadly? If not, what other policies would you introduce to create a shared prosperity?



Workaholics and redistribution: Some people like working more than others

Via Reihan Salam, here’s a bit from Greg Mankiw:

one reason that people differ in their incomes is that some people care more about having a high income than others…

Bryan [Caplan] goes on to suggest that to the extent this is true, it weakens the case for income redistribution.

He is absolutely right.  Most of the literature on optimal taxation and redistribution, following Mirrlees, assumes homogeneous preferences.  But Matthew Weinzierl has a recent paper on preference heterogeneity, which shows “ to the extent that variation in income is due to preference differences rather than productivity differences, the optimal extent of redistribution is lower, and the neglect of preference heterogeneity biases the results of conventional optimal tax analyses in favor of redistribution of income.”

Sure, but what about the flip side? Call it the striver phenomenon. Preferences for working aren’t homogeneous either. To the extent that some people get more utility out of working at a given task than others that should recommend relatively more redistribution, no?


How inequality harms

I try to avoid politics here on the blog, even though it’s something I read about and talk about quite a bit. But there’s a point about inequality that I’ve been startled to see conservatives either missing or ignoring. In the clip above, Rich Lowry makes what I believe is a very misguided statement, arguing that inequality doesn’t cause harm per se. His exact words: “It’s just not true that [the bottom fifth of the population are] not getting ahead because of inequality… That Peter Orszag goes to Citigroup and makes two or three million dollars and merrily joins the 1% has zero effect on people who may be stuck at the bottom fifth in the Bronx, for instance.”

Woven in here is a point about poverty in America but I’m going to treat this as an example more broadly of the claim that the rich getting richer doesn’t make anyone else worse off. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting Lowry; perhaps he was very narrowly talking about the “stickiness” of serious poverty in the U.S. But the more general argument is something I’ve seen pop up elsewhere.

As for the broader claim that inequality isn’t hurting anyone… There is a logic to it, as I’ll explain, but it ultimately doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. Before I get started, let me say this: even if everything I say here is correct, it doesn’t necessarily imply any particular policy responses to inequality. My aim here is to get past some faulty reasoning so that we can focus on the difficult questions around inequality that ultimately will determine what policies we do or don’t favor. So if you’re a conservative, try to keep an open mind as I go through this. Nothing here implies that you have to change your policy views.

A Simple Economy

To think about this, let’s consider inequality just between you and I. And even though we’ll eventually want to think about incomes, to keep it simple let’s start off just talking about wealth. I have $100 and you have $100. Now you come into some money and suddenly your wealth increases by $1000. You’re now quite a bit richer than I am, at $1100 net wealth to my $100. But am I worse off in any sense? Seemingly, no. This is the point I believe Lowry was trying to make.

Considering Alternatives

But here’s the problem with that line of reasoning: in saying I’m not any worse off, we’re comparing my current state only to my previous state, rather than to any other alternatives. Back when we each were worth $100 there weren’t many interesting alternatives to consider. I couldn’t become any richer without you becoming poorer (in our simplified, static model). Doing so would be unfair – or to stick to the language of harm, if you assume diminishing marginal utility, transferring money from you to me would lead to a loss in overall welfare.

But now that there is so much more wealth in the system, the alternatives get more interesting. What would happen if you gave me $100? I’d have $200 and you’d have $1000. Again, assuming diminishing marginal utility, that’d be a net welfare improvement. To take it even further, you could give me $500 so that we each had $600 of the full $1200 in the pot.

If at this point you’re thinking something along the lines of “It’s my money; I have no obligation to share it with you” try to put that to the side for now. It’s a legitimate feeling and I will return to it later. My point now is that from the perspective of welfare/utility/harm, the new unequal situation – while not worse for me than my previous situation – is worse than some other alternatives we can suddenly imagine.

What We Can And Can’t Afford

I want to consider one more super simplified scenario before trying to map some of this to anything approaching the real world. Imagine the same scenario where we each had $100 and then you got a sudden windfall of $1000. But now imagine that we jointly owe $100 in debt (which we inherited) to some third party. Now the Lowry’s of the world are basically saying 1) that I’m not any worse off than I was before you got that windfall AND 2) I had better cut back on my spending because I simply can’t afford to live the same lifestyle I’ve been living, given the fact that we’re jointly in debt.

As in the previous example, it’s clear that while I’m not worse off relative to my state prior to your windfall, I am worse off than I would be in various alternative distributions of the $1200 in the economy. The additional point to be made is this: I’m now being told that we can’t afford for me to maintain my lifestyle.

This is where I want to draw my first parallel to reality. Conservatives maintain that the top 1% getting filthy rich doesn’t make anyone else worse off. And then they turn around and claim that the economy simply can’t afford to maintain the social safety net (Social Security + Medicare + Medicaid) that the middle class has come to depend on. But as my examples have hopefully made clear, the 99% – while not worse off than they would have been had no one gotten richer – are much worse off than they would be if that wealth were more equally distributed. And it is in this context that claims of “we can’t afford it” become downright perverse. A world in which wealth were equally distributed would be a world in which we could afford it, at least in part.

Considering Objections

A quick recap: I’ve argued that while the rich getting richer doesn’t make the rest of us worse off relative to status quo, it does leave us worse off than we would be if that new wealth were more equally distributed. I’ve further argued that this argument has particular salience at a time when the 99% are being asked to make major sacrifices in the form of a reduced social safety net in order to reduce the deficit and pay down the debt. Claims that we can’t afford it rightly trigger consideration of alternative distribution schemes more than might be the case in less austere times.

But as I said at the outset, none of this implies that we must act to mitigate inequality (if we even could agree on how to do that). I want to mention the two most obvious objections to doing so, even if one accepts everything I’ve laid out here:

1) Property rights. If you were thinking “It’s my money; I have no obligation to share it with you” then fair enough. This is essentially an ethical question, so I won’t bother arguing about it here. If you believe that this is more a question of rights, that could be grounds for being ok with inequality. But don’t claim that it’s not hurting anyone. Relative to more equal distributions of wealth it is.

2) Economic growth. I’ve ignored the role of growth in all these little examples, but a common complaint about economic redistribution is that it tempers growth. That, one can argue, hurts even the worst off over time. That may or may not be true, but it’s at least a legitimate point to raise.

My hope is that we can move on to debating #1 and #2. They are both tough questions, but to me they’re where the action is. Claims that inequality isn’t harming anyone make little sense once alternatives are considered. I’d like to see conservatives abandon that argument so we can focus on the ethical question of property rights and the empirical question of economic growth.

UPDATE: A great graph via Mother Jones puts some numbers to this:


Politics and future pain

Both our brains and our political system tend to overly focus on short term pain/gain and ignore long term pain/gain. We put off going to the gym to instead have a burger; we postpone deficit reduction because legislators’ incentives aren’t aligned with the long term. This makes it hard to tackle issues like healthcare costs or Social Security. But could it be advantageous for just the same reason?

Social security’s fiscal troubles are years off, so legislators have less incentive to risk political pain to tackle them. But could the reverse be true? Couldn’t legislators tackle the program’s imbalance by slashing benefits far enough out in the future that the dynamic was reversed?* If you cut my future social security benefits, shouldn’t that long term pain be just the sort of thing I’m psychologically inclined not to care about? And if so, does our shortsightedness make it harder or easier overall to address Social Security?

*I’m not saying this is at all a good idea. I’m just theorizing about the politics involved.

[Quick disclaimer: Social Security has some budget issues. They’re not that big. It’s not in crisis. As a policy issue this is quite easy. Only the politics are hard. And when someone starts talking about “entitlements” you should insist they differentiate between Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.]


Markets and Networks

Several weeks ago Steven Johnson took to the op-ed page of The New York Times to defend his excellent new book on innovation and to declare “I am not a Communist.”  The question of possible communist sympathies was raised, apparently, on a World Network imagebook tour, in reference to his support of what he dubs “fourth quadrant” innovation.  The “fourth quadrant” refers to innovations produced by networked non-market actors, a category including open-source software, among other things, which Johnson argues has an unparalleled track record in fostering breakthroughs.

Does that make him a communist?  He doesn’t think so:

the problem is that we don’t have a word that does justice to those of us who believe in the generative power of the fourth quadrant… The choice shouldn’t be between decentralized markets and command-and-control states.

And he’s right.  The rise of the web has exposed the market-state dichotomy as transparently inadequate.  Projects like Linux and Wikipedia hint at the emergence existence of a very different model of economic organization that seemingly fits neither category.

It is a model we are only beginning to understand, and yet in many ways it challenges some of our core beliefs about how to organize a society.  In the contest between markets and central planning, the market has been largely (and largely justifiably) ascendant.  Yet the lessons of its ascendancy are subtly and not-so-subtly contradicted by the ways in which we organize, communicate and produce information online.

To understand how, we have to temporarily return to the battle between market and state.  In The Future of Ideas Lawrence Lessig writes:

Over the past hundred years, much of the heat in political argument has been about which system for controlling resources – the state or the market – works best.  That war is over.  For most resources, most of the time, the market trumps the state.  There are exceptions, of course, and dissenters still.  But if the twentieth century taught us one lesson, it is the dominance of private over state ordering.*

Why?  That is, of course, a question fit for a lifetime of inquiry.  But let me take a stab at summing it up: because humans are selfish and stupid.


Markets motivate us by aligning incentives.  We are more likely to exert effort when doing so directly benefits us.  A considerable portion of social science revolves around this tenet, which might be expressed short-hand as Most of us are self-interested most of the time.  We often tend to simplify even further by treating selfishness as profit maximization.  As Harvard’s Yochai Benkler explains it in his masterpiece The Wealth of Networks:

Much of economics achieves analytic tractability by adopting a very simple model of human motivation… Adding more of something people want, like money, to any given interaction will, all things considered, make that interaction more desirable to rational people.  While simplistic, this highly tractable model of human motivation has enabled policy prescriptions that have proven far more productive than prescriptions that depended on other models of human motivation — such as assuming that benign administrators will be motivated to serve their people, or that individuals will undertake self-sacrifice for the good of the nation or the commune. (pg. 92)


Markets prevail over central planning in large part due to the stupidity cognitive constraints of central planners.  We can only gather and process so much information.  Which means our actions have unforeseen consequences, the future is hard to predict, etc.  Here I’ll lean on Cass Sunstein channelling Hayek in his book Infotopia:

Hayek claims that the great advantage of prices is that they aggregate both the information and the tastes of numerous people, incorporating far more material than could possibly be assembled by any central planner or board… For Hayek, the key economics question is how to incorporate that unorganized and dispersed knowledge.  That problem cannot possibly be solved by any particular person or board.  Central planners cannot have access to all of the knowledge held by particular people.  Taken as a whole, the knowledge held by those people is far greater than that held by even the most well-chosen experts. (pg. 119)

Similarly, in his 1977 book “Politics and Markets”, political scientist Charles Lindblom describes the “key difference” between markets and central planning as “the role of intellect in social organization” with “on the one side, a confident distinctive view of man using his intelligence in social organization [central planning]; on the other side, a skeptical view of his capacity [markets].” (pg. 248)

The Networked Information Economy

At the macro level markets continue to maintain these advantages over planning.  But is there another game in town?  What we see on the web challenges us to at least reconsider the unassailability of markets, both with respect to motivation and information.  Asks Benkler:

Why can fifty thousand volunteers successfully coauthor Wikipedia… and then turn around and give it away for free?  Why do 4.5 million volunteers contribute their leftover computer cycles to create the most powerful supercomputer on Earth, SETI@Home?

Econ 101 has a hard time answering.  The high profile success of these and other projects forces us to remember that the simplistic model of human motivation, central as it is to our faith in markets, was never universally true.  Further, they invite us to revisit the usefulness of such an assumption, and to strive for a more complete model of human motivation.  We create and produce for any number of reasons beyond profit, including altruism, status, or even – in a world of low transaction costs – boredom.

Just as the market’s claim to dominance in motivating us is starting to be challenged, some are revisiting its dominance in aggregating information.  Sunstein explores the subject in Infotopia and highlights increasing efforts to aggregate human preferences online, including Amazon and Netflix.  If it’s obvious that we are doing better and better at aggregating information thanks to the Net, it’s less obvious how this might challenge the role of the market.

Imagine that Netflix has a small, set number of a rare movie to rent, and that it’s in high demand.  Who should get it first?  Auction the privilege off to the highest bidder, responds the free market advocate.  And, particularly in a scenario where customers have equal wealth at their disposal, this method has a lot to recommend it.  The market is incredibly efficient at allocating resources under ideal settings.  Tremendous gains in human welfare have been predicated on this fact.  But Netflix is developing sophisticated algorithms to use your preferences for movies you’ve seen to predict what movies you’ll like.  Is it so hard to believe that some day in the future an algorithm could – given the aim of maximizing viewer enjoyment – “beat the market” in determining how to distribute the movie?

We are undoubtedly in the early stages of understanding what motivates us to collaborate online (and off), and probably even less far along in our efforts to manage and make useful the wealth of information online, including identifying and aggregating our preferences.  I’ve been purposefully vague here in describing the new model I’m discussing.  Better defining that model will be the topic of a future post.

My argument here is simply that our increasingly connected world – what Benkler calls the “networked information economy” – invites us to question some of the most basic premises that have led us to organize our society around the market.  It would be foolish to let those premises, and the new models that challenge them, go unexamined.

*Lessig is explicit that he is talking about consumption, not production.  It’s a useful distinction, however the two are more related than he seems to admit in this instance.
**In borrowing Lessig’s words here I don’t mean to subscribe to any aggressively free-market worldview.  The choice between a centrally planned economy and a mostly privately organized one may be settled.  The battle over where to draw the lines in the mixed economy rages on.

Population and the Senate

Admittedly, this has nothing to do with media or the web – the usual topics of this blog… but the U.S. Senate has been on my mind recently for many reasons, including this excellent New Yorker piece by George Packer.

Since each state has two senators regardless of population I started to wonder what the least representative possible Senate majority would look like.  In other words: what percentage of the U.S. population lives in the 26 least populated states (since the senators of these states, acting together, could technically form a majority)?

It turns out that a Senate majority could be reached that represented only 16% of the country. A filibuster could be broken (60 votes, 30 states) by a coalition representing 22% of the country.

(To reach these figures I used the Census Bureau’s 2009 state population estimates.)

I don’t want to make any normative claim here.  The Senate wasn’t designed to reflect state population and when the nation was founded senators weren’t even directly elected.  I don’t have firm opinions about how I’d reform the Senate so my purpose here is merely descriptive.

That hypothetical majority – 52 Senators from the 26 least populous states – would be comprised of 23 Republicans, 27 Democrats and 2 Independents.

The map below shows the 26 least populous states in DARK GRAY, the next 4 least populous (needed to reach a 60 vote coalition) in LIGHT GRAY, and the 20 most populous in WHITE.

Least representative possible Senate majority

Of course in the 60-vote Senate blocking legislation is significantly easier than passing it.  As David Roberts of Grist notes, senators representing a mere 8.3% of the population could successfully filibuster legislation.