Duplicity and the Ordinary Work of the Politician

Consider the butcher. He spends a lot of time killing animals. Do those who find this morally questionable tend to call butchers personally to account? I’ve not heard of that—though it may happen—but I do know that many direct their energy to education of those who demand meat.

Consider, say, a fireman on an old train. His job involved setting fire to a bunch of coal, thus soiling the skies. Did people blame him for this air pollution? Or did they think: “Hey, that’s just his job. It’s the result of the choices of many people that we have trains.”

In these examples and others I can think of, we tend to hold individuals less accountable for actions that are inextricably bound up with the successful completion of job-related tasks. A classic example is that of the soldier following orders; yes, we often tend to think a soldier should listen to his conscience, but we also often leave way for the explanation that the soldier accepts the moral authority of his superiors.

Sometimes, commentators inveigh against politicians—against practically all of them, as a class—on moral grounds, as in this example from several years back:

I challenge anyone to argue that the behavior of any of the major candidates…is admirable. Everyone knows that each serious candidate trims, waffles, is duplicitous, has his or her finger in the winds blown by polls, and wants to be President not because of any burning itch to help fellow human beings but because the job comes with all the trappings, and much of the power, of royalty.

I see two distinct complaints there: that politicians play games with words, and that politicians act from self-interest. Economists and wise liberals in general should dismiss the latter complaint out of hand; there’s often nothing wrong with acting largely out of self-interest. That would leave us with the first complaint, that politicians are tricksters.

What if it’s the case that we live in a world where there are some serious interpersonal conflicts that cannot be resolved via honest back-and-forth discussion to mutual agreement? For the means to bring about the necessary resolutions, then, we would have second-best choices such as violence and duplicity. I venture to guess that many of us would choose duplicity over violence as a means of resolving a dispute.

If those sorts of conflicts sometimes crop up, and if “politician” is the occupation of one who resolves such conflicts under a division of labor, then, well, it’s just a job, not a mark of moral inferiority. Can a commentator rightly challenge politicians to avoid duplicity when it seems needless or counterproductive? Sure, without a doubt. But one should also recognize that it’s intrinsic to much of their work.

Take Note of the Value of Your Vote


The irrationally vocal proponents of the notion that ‘voting is instrumentally irrational’ have become perceptibly more vocal as it has become sure that there is a large difference between the two major-party nominees for President this year—which is unfortunate, since a large candidate differential weakens their claim.

What’s the basis for the notion that voting is an ‘instrumentally irrational’ activity? It’s that the expected benefit of a single vote to the voter herself is not substantial. That conclusion comes about from studying this equation:

Expected social benefit of a vote = (Probability of casting deciding vote)(Candidate differential)

There is no definitive method for estimating either of the values on the right-hand side, but the size of the probability value is less in doubt. Andrew Gelman, Nate Silver, and Aaron Edlin (2012) review the credible literature and persuasively peg the probability of deciding a contemporary U.S. Presidential election at one in 60 million for the typical voter.

How to estimate the candidate differential? Form your own. Do you think, say, that U.S. GDP would be one tenth of one percentage point higher, each year under a Clinton administration, than under a Trump administration? Well, U.S. GDP is $18 trillion a year, so over four years that difference amounts to over 70 billion dollars. GDP is far from everything that matters, but in a quantitative exercise, it gives one a starting point, from which one can make whatever adjustments one likes. Take your own estimate of candidate differential and divide it by 60 million to get the expected social benefit of a vote. Seventy billion divided by 60 million, for example, is over one thousand dollars.

The tension comes in with the recognition that the social benefit of a single vote is not paid directly to the individual voter. The voter bears the cost of making the decision and taking an hour to cast a ballot, but the benefits of each single vote are spread over the nation and world. One thousand dollars divided by 320 million persons is a quarter of an eighth of a hundredth of a cent, and so if the voter ‘acts alone,’ uncoordinated to others, she personally gains almost nothing. But all this is to say only that the voters face an ordinary free-rider problem—little different from any problem of providing public goods—and so voters can benefit personally from the overcoming of the problem.

Imagine that 20 million persons who had planned not to vote become otherwise coordinated, perhaps by a compelling meme that convinces them to vote for Clinton. The election swings from, say, roughly a tossup, to a sure Clinton victory, at the cost of, say, an hour for each of the 20 million voters. Counting that as a $50 cost for each voter, that’s a total social cost of $1 billion—but the increased certainty of Clinton’s election equates to an increase in expected GDP over four years of $35 billion, using the GDP-based hypothetical above. If the sixteenth part of that gain accrues evenly to the 20 million marginal voters, they will each eventually have about $100 in extra income—twice the $50 cost incurred in one’s casting a vote. In other words, 20 million fractions of a cent do add up.

I don’t much endorse this Downsian framework for purposes of understanding why 125 million Americans vote, but it is a worthy exercise in service of one’s own decisionmaking process. The kind of person who is enough engaged in political talk to be reading this blog post should be aware of the size of the expected social gain that one declines to confer, in return for an opportunity to ‘express’ one’s idealism through an also-ran candidate, or alternately for an hour of free time.

Minding the Overton Door

It’s often said that public advocacy of radical reform, such as that of ‘open borders’, is good because it can create space for public advocacy of less radical reform. In smartypants terms, the advocate for radical reform is thought to serve the purpose of opening wider the “Overton window,” which contains the range of policy ideas deemed currently reasonable or acceptable.

I’m not aware, though, that any hip jargon exists for conveying the following possible downside of advocating radical reform: When one steps out to advocate a very radical reform, any ensuing public debate will necessarily pit many supporters of incremental reform against the advocates of radical reform. And it seems very plausible that such a debate, in which the radical reform is soundly rejected, might displace a debate over an incremental reform. And what if the would-have-been debate over incremental reform could have been won by the pro-reform side? The initial advocacy of radical reform might then be interpreted as a counterproductive distraction.

Certainly, whatever it is that is displaced by radical advocacy in a given situation might not be a healthy and winnable debate over incremental reform. The point here is not to dispute that radical advocacy can sometimes valuably open a window, but to say it ideally would be wielded carefully enough so that shifting air pressure ‘in the room’ does not cause a good door to shut.



Keynesianism in Democracy

Two years ago, semiconservative pundit Josh Barro declared that “Conservatives Have No Idea What to Do About Recessions.” The eminent progressive economist Paul Krugman agreed, then tweaked crotchety Josh by saying this idea-less condition afflicts not only “anti-intellectual and doctrinaire” Republican policymakers but also “prestigious conservative economists” such as, um, Barro’s father Robert.

Conservative intellectuals like Robert Barro, Krugman suggested, have rejected the economists’ notion of aggregate demand, and in so doing they have rejected not only Keynesian economics but also the wrong-yet-acceptable monetarist alternative and its very great avatar Milton Friedman. Why? Because politics: Krugman sees Barro père as having “the sense that acknowledging that markets fail, ever, would be the thin edge of the wedge for liberal policies.”

With apologies to Alex Pareene’s version of Malcolm Gladwell: Say that Krugman is right about Robert Barro’s motivations. Could Barro still be right in rejecting Keynesian economics? What if Keynesian economics contains a lot of truth, though? Surely then Barro would be wrong in refusing to advance those true Keynesian ideas.

Or would he?

In 1977, the classical liberal economists James Buchanan and Richard E. Wagner argued that the advancement of Keynesian economic ideas is counterproductive in a mass democracy. Buchanan and Wagner allowed that there could be some ‘truth’ in Keynesianism but said that intellectual economists—few in number and limited in influence—can no longer assert the consistent level of control over economic policy that would be necessary to deliver results. Why not?

John Maynard Keynes, as evidenced in material cited by Buchanan and Wagner, tended to think of policy in his Britain as being handed down by an intellectual aristocracy that would not soon be displaced. Keynes believed that sway over the economic levers could and would be maintained by smart folks, whatever else may transpire. But in America now, as Paul Krugman and Josh Barro both know, that ain’t so. The columns and tweets of today’s smarties, whoever they are, are just an input into the roiling democratic processes that determine policy.

So what should that input be? Krugman’s answer is twofold: Keynesian economics and Democratic Party politics. We are fortunately blessed to have with us a party of politicians who take their cues from sensible people. The Democrats are smartly Keynesian, and so if they remain in power then countercyclical policy is guaranteed. Stimulate the economy when it busts, then use boom times to control inflation and reduce debts.

But Buchanan and Wagner pointed out that since the boom-time Keynesian policies of tighter money, lower spending, and higher taxes are never popular with voters, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to bet on continuous Democratic victories. An opportunistic opposition party could put forward pseudo-Keynesian ideas designed to win elections: Say, if tax cuts are stimulating during recessions, then shouldn’t they be stimulating all the time? A voter who really understands Keynesianism, who learned what she was taught in intermediate macro, wouldn’t be suckered by such an opposition. But in a mass polity dominated by noneconomists, vague notions about the benefits of ever-lower taxes can sink in. Sometimes the Republicans win, and who knows what they end up doing.

So Buchanan and Wagner’s answer was this: Mass democracy requires a wiser brand of economist, one who understands Keynesian economics but refrains from offering the Keynesian policy prescription. Economics professors shouldn’t, in their classrooms, push their smart kids to advocate for strongly countercyclical budgeting. Teach them about the idea, yes, but teach them too about the politics that are likely to frustrate its successful implementation, and remind Timmy in the front row that he’ll never chair Ways and Means.

Buchanan and Wagner thought a better result would obtain if the economists and their sharp students hold that politicians should consider the government to be broadly constrained by its budget. Then less nuttiness gets around. The idea of ever-lower taxes, dumb on its face, is affirmed as dumb. And some of the less defensible Gladwellism in politics is stymied. A crotchety man or two might be happy about that much.

They would be, right?


On Bullshit in Economics Textbooks

“This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not, he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description of the way she feels. He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. …

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

—Harry Frankfurt

Imagine an economist sitting down to write a textbook. The task requires the economist to write about many matters on which he is not expert. If the economist drafted the entire book in an initial sitting, we who have been edified by Harry Frankfurt would imagine that the chapters on matters outside the economist’s expertise will be relatively suffused with bullshit. With effort—research, correspondence with colleagues, and so forth—the author should in subsequent drafts be able to reduce the proportion of bullshit in those chapters. But it could hardly ever be possible to eliminate the bullshit. Often it may be the case that no one is sufficiently expert in the matters at hand to give an authoritative account. The author may be in the position of a politician who must address a difficult issue and has only the input of divided experts and a divided electorate to go on, and so bullshit ensues.

Presuming this model of authoring to be correct, what does it tell us when we come across big amounts of bullshit in a textbook chapter? It might be that economists at large have no experts on the matters discussed. It might be that the textbook author did not exert much effort in writing the chapter. It might be that the matters at hand are controversial.

Econ 101 has in some quarters a reputation for consisting of dry theoretical propositions. But the opening chapter of an introductory economics textbook is really a prime place to find bullshit. This could be the case because economic science itself does not tell us exactly how to begin speaking about economics. Adam Smith gave us an exemplar when he started The Wealth of Nations with a discussion “Of the Division of Labor,” but there is no definitive reason to follow Smith in this regard and in the succeeding centuries economists have gone about the task in various ways.

One principles text I had the chance to use in recent years doesn’t even contain the phrase “division of labor,” let alone near its outset. The first two words of its Chapter 1 are in fact “Barack Obama.” Its third sentence describes Obama as “the Economist in Chief.” In the sixth paragraph it emphasizes that “President Obama has to decide how best to use the nation’s limited resources.” The second paragraph reports that prior to his inauguration Obama “asked [his economic advisers] whether the economy would recover from recession without further government intervention.” Come on, man. That conversation did not happen.

That there’s this bullshit doesn’t make the textbook’s introduction to economics unworthy. Pointing up shared American identity to connect with students might be okay. The overall impressions students take from the chapter may be useful and correct in the main. But you’d be right to say the author doesn’t care a lot whether every sentence written is true or not. And you have to think bright students notice that. I suspect a number find it alienating.

If bullshit in textbooks is a problem, it’d be good to measure its volume. Possibly one could take the first 50 sentences from several textbooks, mix them up, then present them to economics graduate students as a 50-question test a la Politifact: “Rate each sentence True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire.” And is our bullshit skewed? The subjects could also rate each sentence in terms of whether it conjures a centralized or decentralized view of economic affairs, a command or market economy, a national or world system. I doubt any will be surprised if economists’ prior commitments primarily manifest themselves amidst bullshit.


The Paradox of Commenting

There is a literature, or at least a batch of memes, holding that voting is not an ‘instrumentally rational’ activity, since casting a ballot is costly and one’s vote is unlikely to decide an election. The expected ‘instrumental value’ of voting is thus held to be low, very low, surely less than the value of a free half an hour. The supposed implication is that a sane person should vote only if it’s fun, like Candy Crush is.

The other day I saw a philosophy professor berating a professed voter in a Facebook thread. The philosopher banged on at length, making comment after comment, editing some of them, over the course of an hour. “If you view voting as a consumption good, like eating a candy bar or wave a flag for fun [sic], then it might not be a waste of time,” said the good prof, appropriately citing “the entire ‘paradox of voting’ literature.”

Say I were to add my two cents, as it were, to this established thicket of ideas. My slice of discourse might be, say, the 10,000th piece of writing that has appeared in the greater literature area.

Probably there is a conventionally diminishing marginal product of additional takes on the matter. While it’s remotely possible my piece will discourage a lot of voting, odds are it will affect no one and deter zero votes. Perhaps it will affect a few folks, though it’s not even certain what effect it would have on them. (Possibly my argument would be so facile and my style so repulsive that readers resolve to vote more often out of spite.)

What is the expected instrumental value of me making my argument? With some probability it causes a few votes not to be cast, saving a few half-hours, though losing the supposedly very low instrumental value of the votes.

The probability that my argument converts a few votes to non-votes might be higher than the probability that a vote swings an election, but that would have to be established. The value of a few half-hours saved is a great deal lower than the value of deciding an election. Also, the half-hour spent casting a ballot entails voting in several contested elections, not just one.

If sane voters can only be getting themselves off, what are sane contributors to the “paradox of voting” literature, as it carries forward in isolated corners of social media, doing? Their refinements, it would seem, are not helping society in an appreciable way. Nor is it likely that one’s latest comment, sentence, correctly spelled word, or well-chosen punctuation mark noticeably furthers one’s career. It’s also not clear that the world is any better off if the careers of “paradox of voting” aficionados do advance.

May it all be irrationality, or a ploy to sell books, or clawing for status. Hopefully no one views the hurling of insults as a consumption good.